The sun is beating down on all of us excited tourists as we deboard the alpine train. An idyllic scene greets us; layers of tall pines and alpine flowers line the surrounding mountains. Ahead, a thunderous river grinds through the valley floor on the left, while adjacently an even gravel path gently snakes into the distance. The path leads to Morteratsch Glacier, a beautiful white fairytale castle gleaming in the sunshine.
As I kneel down to lace up my dusty boots, I wonder why “1878” is etched in red on a boulder near the start of the trail.
And now, my friends, it is time to tell the tale of climate change.
Once upon a time, many millennia ago, there was a far different planet Earth. It was cold as ice – in fact, all of it was blanketed in ice except the equator. But gradually, its orbit shifted, and it came closer to a benevolent, golden goddess (we’ll call her Sun). Earth grew warmer. As a result, plants thrived, animals abounded, and eventually humans evolved.
Wait, so is this “climate change”?
…Technically, yes. But not the kind to which science traditionally refers.
Here lies an important distinction: The Earth has been warmer in the past. The planet has existed with higher levels of CO2, and in fact, right now, we are in a phase of relatively low CO2 levels (see figure below).
But are we in charge of Earth’s thermostat?
Not quite. There are cyclic factors, to a large extent outside of human control, that contribute to colder periods (glacial periods) and warmer spells (interglacial periods) on the Earth.
For instance, the Milankovitch Cycles describe cyclic changes in Earth’s rotation; the Earth spins on its axis similar to a top. It has a malleable orbit shape (sometimes its path looks like an elliptical, sometimes it spins in a tight circle; called eccentricity), the “tilt” of the top changes (it rotates straight on its point or slanted to the side; axial tilt), and the “wobble” on its axis (precession; the top is wobbling while it rotates). These change regularly over time, and they can explain periods when Earth experiences higher glaciation, such as the Little Ice Age in the eighteenth century. Misleading papers argue that the current warming we are experiencing is a result of this cyclic change in CO2 levels. This is not the case.
The climate throughout history
Over many millennia, human industry grew. Eventually, we traded our hand tools for machinery. The industrial revolution in the eighteenth century brought innovations beyond our wildest dreams, but with these innovations came fossil fuels. This industrialization is what causes climate change.
We are now in a period of intense warming incomparable to anything Earth has heretofore experienced. When I say incomparable, I mean highly accelerated (see graph below for rise from 1880-2010).
As represented on the y-axis, there has been less than a 1℃ total increase (equivalent to 1.8℉). This does not seem like all that much, but the effects are endless.
I dusted off my boots and began the trek to Morteratsch.
The year, “1878,” our guide/my geology professor told us, marked the extent of the glacier (the end of the glacial tongue, or frozen debris pile) in that year. The winding path we would traverse, he added, marked the glacial retreat over the past ~140 years. Today it spans over 3 miles.
The hike felt like a death march, especially when we arrived at the edge of the glacier. A cascading torrent of water flowed from it. Our professor, a native of the area, recounted how in his lifetime alone, he had watched the glacier recede significantly. Call me sentimental, but sitting there on the edge of the ice, I felt as though the sound of the rushing water was the glacier’s lament.
Because the Earth has handled this warming in the past, surely it can handle it again. It has had even higher CO2 levels in the past. In the Eemian Period, for example, global temperatures were ~2°C higher than today, and sea levels were 6-9 meters higher.
So what’s the big deal?
The speed at which the climate is changing constitutes the urgency of the situation. Atmospheric CO2 levels have generally varied between 170-280 ppm over the past ~800,000 years, but they have continuously been on the rise since the Industrial Revolution. In 2016, average levels measured at Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawaii (chosen for its remoteness from major industrial centers), exceeded 400 ppm. This is the highest we have ever seen since the dawn of human existence, and pretty long before then (the last exact date is unknown; Figure 1 shows CO2 levels from millions of years previously). The year 2017 showed an even higher concentration, and today it is still climbing. This CO2 increase translates directly into a temperature increase.
Data has shown that even small temperature increases can have large-scale effects. For example, paleoclimate doctoral student Michael Sandstrom explained that when temperatures rise enough to melt Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ice sheets, a process that has already begun, oceans could rise by 196 ft. Depending on the part of the sheets that melt, this rise could affect coastal cities globally, from New York City, to Shanghai, to Rio de Janeiro, and beyond.
Secondly, as my ecology professor pointed out in our last lecture, “climate change is not about ‘saving the planet.’ The planet will continue existing regardless. It’s really about what we want in our garden.”
“Our garden” and climate change
Human industrial expansion and warming has had major detrimental effects on biodiversity, something we outdoors-people know and love. Even under moderate estimates (0.22% loss per year), 80% of known species will become extinct within the millennium . Why didn’t they go extinct when the CO2 was higher in the past? Because back then they had space. Species can no longer just move inland when sea levels rise, because humans have populated their habitats and turned many into farms or industrial centers.
Habitat fragmentation is another major issue caused by human impact on the environment. Research has proven that species existing in smaller patches and spread further from one another experience less recruitment (survival until adulthood) and gene flow. This means more inbreeding, causing a higher presence of fixed (“permanent”) deteriorations in their genome. This ultimately causes species to go extinct much faster.
This biodiversity loss is occurring globally. It spans…
The oceans: One rapidly shrinking example is coral bleaching in the Great Barrier reef. The coral reacts to thermal stress by losing symbionts, turning completely white, and dying. (If you’re bored, google “hypoxic zones”; one poignant example is the excessive fertilizer runoff that enters the Gulf of Mexico from the Great Plains and starves fish of oxygen).
The mountains: As mountaintops warm, mammals like the ibex move higher in search of suitable habitat. As for the alpine human, as permafrost (permanently frozen soil) thaws, mudslides and avalanches crush homes and villages; last August alone, even a well-prepared city experienced two massive avalanches-turned-to-mudslides within days of each other.
The ice caps: We’ve all heard about ice caps, but you might not know that temperature increases at the poles are more highly accelerated than anywhere else. As this increase takes place, layers and layers of frozen carbon (preserved in permafrost) are released into the atmosphere, causing further warming. AND the ice sheets are melting, which raises sea levels, but also means everything from arctic bunnies to polar bears, among many others, lose their habitat.
And it’s not just biodiversity that’s in jeopardy
With the changes brought about by global warming, everything we outdoor enthusiasts identify with is at risk of extinction. Many ski resorts have already resorted to using man-made snow as temperatures rise (at an accelerated rate in mountainous areas). Climbers faced with hotter summers have to push trips to fall or spring, but that brings the added risk of shorter daylight hours. Erosion rates, which research has shown may increase with higher rainfall intensity in some areas, whittle away at the beautiful rocks we hike to see. Less or earlier spring run-off leaves many rivers impassable to boaters. Bark beetles, which are no longer dying away in the winter, eat away pine trees on gorgeous mountain passes. Fires ravage campsites. With limitations infringing on our favorite activities, we have to ask ourselves, is this a world I can live in?
And they all lived …
And now, friends/readers/(hopefully) believers, I leave it up to you. How will the story end?
Regardless of even the most drastic emission reductions, we are deep in this can of worms. Humans are causing unprecedented alterations to the planet, which will lead to unprecedented consequences. No one is sure what exactly will happen to the planet, to biodiversity, or to us.
If you’re a believer – FANTASTIC!
Tell your friends! Research has shown that people are afraid to talk about global warming because they a) don’t want to appear incompetent and b) think that their peers are more doubtful than they are. Now you know everything about climate change, so you can’t use that as your excuse. And recommit to the little things. Recycle. Reduce your emissions. Support companies with green initiatives. Make a conscious effort to live greener. Now, more than ever, with public policy no longer committed to green initiatives, this stuff matters.
If you still don’t believe – Do some more research.
I promise scientists everywhere aren’t just converging on the same conspiracy theory. Also, ask yourself if you don’t believe or just don’t want to; challenge yourself. For your relatives or friends who don’t particularly care, remind them that this earth is our home. We have to maintain it in a way that supports our human existence, and both flora and fauna.
And for us lucky outdoorswomen-and-men, remember that every rock tower we climb in the afternoon sun, every serene lake we paddle through in the early morning, every breathtaking mountaintop we summit in the waning light, and every creature we stumble upon is affected by our actions. Protecting them is up to us.
Ed. Note: This article was updated on 2/7/2018.