The Sleeping Climate Giant

Starvation, Riots, and War

Scientific evidence is compelling that something big is brewing up north in the Arctic, “the sleeping climate giant.” As follows, when this sleeping giant awakens, life may never be the same. Unfortunately, its long slumber is now coming back to life, and the scientists studying this event are deeply concerned.

The danger involves an Arctic meltdown, and, as this sleeping giant awakens, it will prompt events that will likely cause significant disruption of the global economy, intense political turmoil, and global war as worldwide food production is seriously impaired. Some leading scientists refer to this impending event as a prescription for “starvation.”

A five-year NASA campaign called CARVE (Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment) is currently in its third-year of analyzing the emissions of greenhouse gases in the Arctic, led by Charles Miller, principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, California. This team of researchers includes two-dozen scientists from twelve major institutions, like Langley Research Center.

From a base in Fairbanks, Alaska the team travel in a C-23 Sherpa aircraft up to eight hours daily at an altitude of 500 feet, which is categorized as flying “down in the mud.” By flying dangerously low, they are able to take measurements not previously possible, and they use very sophisticated instruments, as for one example, a very sensitive spectrometer, to “sniff” the atmosphere for greenhouse gases. The samples are shipped to the University of Colorado’s Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research Stable Isotope Laboratory and Radiocarbon Laboratory in Boulder to determine whether the gases are from thawing permafrost.

According to Miller, based upon analyses of the first full year of studies, what they are finding is both amazing and potentially troubling: “Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we’ve measured have been large, and we’re seeing very different patterns from what models suggest.”1 “We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze.”

CARVE hopes to find clues that will indicate whether an irreversible permafrost tipping point may be near at hand. In general, scientists do not believe the Arctic has reached a tipping point just yet, but no one knows for sure. “We hope CARVE may be able to find that ‘smoking gun,’ if one exists,” says Miller.

World Food Production at Risk

In addition to CARVE’s 5-year on-going investigation of the Arctic, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (“AMEG”), a hard-core group of the world’s most esteemed climate scientists, have sounded the alarm about the dangers of an Arctic meltdown. An announcement on their web site claims: “Governments must put two and two together, and pull out all stops to save the Arctic sea ice or we will starve.”

AMEG’s statement begs the crucial question: Why will loss of Arctic sea ice cause starvation?

Here is AMEG’s answer: The retreat of sea ice in the Arctic is causing a disruption of jet stream behavior, which, in turn, produces weather extremes throughout the Northern Hemisphere. According to AMEG, the UK government was warned about, and given evidence, that the weather extremes experienced in the Northern Hemisphere are due to jet stream disruptions because of Arctic warming relative to the tropics.

AMEG goes on to say: “The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.” This blunt statement by AMEG is indicative of their strong conviction.

These dire warnings by our planet’s most accomplished climate scientists should be expected to ring alarm bells, to take immediate corrective action, within the halls of governments all across the globe. Otherwise, the planet may sizzle and extreme weather patterns, i.e., flooding and droughts, may choke off our food resources.

In this regard, AMEG says, “The Arctic is the air conditioner for the entire Northern Hemisphere so the hemispheric climate will change along with further accelerated warming,”

Here is a general description behind the derivation of bad news for Northern Hemispheric agriculture and world food production: Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University presented new research that demonstrates that Arctic sea ice loss impacts upper-level atmospheric circulation such that, “slowing its winds and increasing its tendency to make contorted high-amplitude loops. Such high-amplitude loops in the upper level wind pattern (and associated jet stream) increase the probability of persistent (that is, longer-duration) weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere potentially leading to extreme weather due to longer-duration cold spells, snow events, heat waves, flooding events, and drought conditions.”

The jet stream has moved northwards over 270 miles over the past 22 years. The jet stream is located where the strongest winds are found at the top of the troposphere at 35,000-45,000 feet (7-9 miles) high, 200-300 mb in pressure.

Worldwide Extreme Weather Conditions

In point of fact, Dr. Francis’ explanation of the impact of Arctic sea-ice loss on weather events is exactly what the world has been experiencing these past few years, for example:

In the United States in 2012 a slow-moving jet stream was the culprit behind a “blocking weather pattern” within a massive dome of high pressure across the U.S. that led to remarkable March heat, sending temperatures in the Midwest and the Northeast soaring into the 80s overnight. And, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the subsequent 2012 drought was the worst since 1950.

Syria, a major part of the breadbasket of the Middle East has experienced a series of endless droughts from 2006-2011 with up to 60% of the land subject to severe drought and the most severe set of crop failures in the history of the Fertile Crescent.

India recently experienced is second major drought in four years, and as a result, at times a billion people were without power, experiencing the largest power outage in world history because of low hydropower resources and a strained power grid.

According to Dr. Mannava Sivakumar, Director of the WMO Climate Prediction and Adaptation Branch, India’s severe drought experienced rainfall levels 70% below normal in the Punjab region, India’s breadbasket, Phil Behan, With Drought Intensifying Worldwide, UN Calls for Integrated Climate Policies, UN News Centre, August 21, 2012.

In August 2010 Russian PM Vladimir Putin shocked the world by announcing a ban on exports of grain because of the country’s worst drought in 40 years.

The jet streams over Russia and surrounding areas were locked with the trough of the wave over Pakistan, and the crest over Russia. The jet stream did not budge for 35 days. The trough was low pressure with lots of rain, and as a result, Pakistan flooded, beyond one month. At the time, worldwide television networks sent broadcasts of groups of Pakistanis huddled together on small landmasses surrounded by water. Simultaneously, Moscow was under a high-pressure ridge, experiencing a powerful 35-day heat wave. An estimated 50,000 Russians, over and above the normal mortality rate, died (not mentioned on TV), and the country lost 40% of its wheat crop.

According to People’s Daily online from China: “The drought has also left 6.61 million people and 4.24 million heads of livestock in the above regions short of drinking water.”2

Also, in China: “Four years of droughts in southern and northwest China have resulted in severe desertification, poor harvests, and water shortages, affecting the lives of 400 million people, according to a Chinese NGO,” Li Xia, Drought in China Turns Vast Tracts of Land to Desert, Epoch Times, March 19, 2013. According to the article, the desertification problem in China is the most severe in the world and could seriously hamper the country’s economic development. Alarmingly, China’s drought is its worst in 200 years, affecting more people than the entire population of North America.

As for other extreme weather consequences worldwide, according to meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters: “The recent unrest in the Middle East, which has been attributed, in part, to high food prices, gives us a warning of the type of global unrest that might result in future years if the climate continues to warm as expected. A hotter climate means more severe droughts will occur. We can expect an increasing number of unprecedented heat waves and droughts like the 2010 Russian drought in coming decades. This will significantly increase the odds of a world food emergency far worse than the 2007-2008 global food crises. When we also consider the world’s expanding population and the possibility that peak oil will make fertilizers and agriculture much more expensive, we have the potential for a perfect storm of events aligning in the near future, with droughts made significantly worse by climate change contributing to events that will cause disruption of the global economy, intense political turmoil, and war.”3

And, the Flooding

An influential group of MPs in the UK have expressed concern about UK food security because of flooding “…which is increasing as climate change intensifies downpours….”4 “A run of poor weather since 2011 has led to extensive flooding of properties but has also severely dented the production of many foods, with the UK now being a net importer of wheat.”

In Central Europe, “While rescue teams scrambled to protect cities in Central Europe from some of the worst flooding in years, farm organizations are concerned about damage that could devastate crops for the entire growing season.”5 “The devastation follows a series of extreme weather events that have hit EU farmers in the past year, including a severe drought in southern Europe and extreme flooding in the United Kingdom.”

Floods and droughts are increasingly a worldwide problem as the weather adjusts to anomalous jet streams brought on by a warming Arctic, which is warming 2-3 times faster than the planet overall.

The Food Threat and Food Riots

“… when you see rapidly rising food prices, of course it leads to instability. We’ve seen [this] in the last five years across many countries, and you see rising food prices translate almost directly into street protests.”6

The FAO FOOD PRICE INDEX (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

The FAO Food Price Index (United Nations) over the past 10 years has more than doubled, in nominal terms, and it is up over 50%, in real terms (accounting for inflation.) Ominously, the 23-year FAO Food Price Index graph shows worldwide prices traded in a basic range of 100-125, in real terms, from 1990 to 2006. Since then, it has been in a range of 125 to 175, in real terms. This new higher plateau in worldwide food prices most likely reflects abnormal agricultural conditions as exemplified by droughts and other embedded weather conditions, like floods. The FAO Food Price Index graph has the appearance of a bull market in the making, implying the distinct possibility of much higher food prices.

As it goes, and according to the above-referenced Council on Foreign Relations article, “You’re going to see the continuation of [political] instability driven in part by rapidly rising food prices. In 2008, we had food protests across much of the Middle East… Egypt is already spending about one-third of its subsidies on food, and it is draining the Egyptian foreign exchange reserve to continue those subsidies. This combination of an already mobilized population out on the streets demanding lots of different changes [in Egypt], and rising food prices is going to create a very unstable atmosphere.”

“Nations reliant on food imports, including Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan are especially vulnerable to unrest, according to a report by the National Intelligence Council… More than 60 food riots erupted worldwide from 2007 to 2009.”7

Speaking at the International Food Safety Training Laboratory in York, England, Tim Benton, professor of Ecology at the University of Leeds and head of the UK’s Global Food Partnership said, “The probability of extreme weather to the extent that it will destroy any local agricultural production is increasing very, very rapidly… That is quite frightening because plants and production systems are adapted to produce food under normal circumstances. If the climate continues to change, we will get to the point where this will simply fall apart.”8

The prospect of food production getting to the point where “this will simply fall apart” in various locales of the world is unimaginable, but then again, it was not too many years ago when an ice-free Arctic was unimaginable. Changes in climate have a nasty habit of slowly creeping up on humanity until all of a sudden serious scientists are finally heard to say (after repeated warnings for years): We’ve got an emergency here. Take action now or starve. This is what is being said right now, but it is very difficult for people to absorb and fully appreciate the tenor of these clarion calls.

For inexplicable reasons, it does not seem possible that catastrophe will occur… in large measure, because people do not want to believe it! Also, it is too horrendous to seriously contemplate. Reading an article like this one may be interesting and entertaining, to a degree, but afterwards, people carry on with life, assuming the best.

Nevertheless, the reality is that Arctic ice is melting away at its fastest pace ever, which, in turn, prompts methane, which is 100 times more powerful than CO2, to spew into the atmosphere like gangbusters, all of which spells runaway global warming, and furthermore, as a very nasty prelude, freakish weather patterns threaten the world’s food supply.

What more can people do but carry on with everyday life. No, not true! People make the world go round, and they influence policies that directly cause an ice-free Arctic in the first instance. If people cause it, hopefully, they can fix it, and this is the message preached by AMEG. But, who is listening and who is taking an active role is the single biggest conundrum of the 21st century?

So far, steps to curb the ravages of climate change have been tiny baby steps, not big enough to tame a sleeping giant.

Excerpts of Letter Addressed to World Leaders from the Arctic Methane Emergency Group:

-Emergency intervention to stabilize Arctic sea ice and thereby Arctic methane is today a matter of our survival.
-The latest research expedition to the region… witnessed methane plumes on a ‘fantastic scale’… to equal methane emissions from all the other oceans put together.
-The latest available data indicate there is a 5-10% possibility of the Arctic being ice free in September 2013, more likely 2015, and with 95% confidence by 2018. This, according to the recognized world authorities on Arctic sea ice, Prof. Wadhams and Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski, is the point of no return for summer sea ice. Once past this point, it could prove impossible to reverse the retreat by any kind of intervention.
-The conditions that have long been recognized as potentially causing vast quantities of methane to be released in the Arctic are clearly developing. The calamitous impacts of inaction are well-known – runaway climate change.

On a Positive Note: One Solution

The agricultural problems associated with extreme climate change are substantive; however, on a positive note, human ingenuity may offer a solution – Vertical Farms in cities. The world’s first commercial Vertical Farm is located in Singapore, built by Sky Greens Farms, producing one ton of fresh veggies every other day, which are sold in local supermarkets, and the produce is a hit with consumers! The farm consists of 120 aluminum towers thirty feet tall, like giant greenhouses, jutting into the sky. This is the world’s first low carbon hydraulic water-driven, tropical vegetable urban Vertical Farm, using minimal land, water and energy. Hopefully, ingenuity like this may help solve the world’s food problems in the face of impending extreme climate change, as dictated by a melting Arctic, but it will not resolve the onset of horrendous weather-related events.

Quote from astronaut Mike Collins (Apollo 11): “Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there.”

  1. Alan Buls, Is a Sleeping Climate Giant Stirring in the Arctic? NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, June 10, 2013. []
  2. Drought Affects 7.3 mln China Farmland Hectares,” April 3, 2013. []
  3. China’s Droughts Nears Worst in 200 Years, Adding Pressure to World Food Prices, Climate Progress, February 14, 2011. []
  4. Damian Carrington, Lack of Food Protection Spending Threatening UK Food Security, say MPs, The Guardian, July 4, 2013. []
  5. Farmers Brace for Major Losses from Central European Floods, EurActiv, June 7, 2013. []
  6. Isobel Coleman/Interview, U.S. Drought and Rising Global Food Prices, Council on Foreign Relations, Aug. 2, 2012. []
  7. Tony C. Dreibus & Elizabeth Campbell, Global Food Reserves Falling as Drought Wilts Crops, Bloomberg, August 9, 2012. []
  8. Gary Scattergood, Extreme Weather ‘Likely’ to Wipe Out Food Production, Food Manufacture.co.uk, January 31, 2013. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.