Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” This is the first of a two-story examination of the global threat of climate change – what could happen and solutions.
RALEIGH – The full-scale Climate Catastrophe is now arriving. We can see the early effects popping up in the news more and more frequently.
The terrifying thing about Climate Change is that these early effects are tiny in comparison to what is coming. If humanity sits on its hands and continues dismissing the Climate Change threat, our future looks grim.
How bad will things get? How terrifying can Climate Change be? What sorts of catastrophes are possible as our climate reaches its tipping points and the planet starts visibly degrading all around us? Let’s look at the Top 10 most terrifying things that we will be seeing soon in the world around us…
#10 Severe Heating Events
Watch the headlines about the heatwave underway in India right now. It’s a record-breaking catastrophe of heat, with temperatures going as high as 120 degrees F. Or think back to last summer, June of 2021, when a gigantic heat dome was sitting over western North America. In Canada temperatures got as high as 120 degrees F and the Western U.S. baked. 1,000+ people died. Crops failed. And then there were the wildfires, as we will see in a moment.
Why are these heatwaves happening and increasing? It’s easy to understand. Humanity pumps something like 35 gigatons of new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels. What does this mean? On a personal level, when someone in the U.S. drives their gasoline-powered car, it adds about three or four tons of carbon dioxide per year. A coal-fueled or natural-gas-fueled power plant for a city adds megatons per year. More and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more and more global heating, until we start seeing heatwaves that are killing tens of thousands of people in a single event.
#9 Increasing Wildfires
If you take a forest and you bake it in a heatwave, it dries out. A dry forest, especially if there is wind, is a bonfire waiting to happen. And so we see bigger and bigger wildfires happening more and more often. In 2021 for example, the Dixie fire in California burned nearly a million acres. In 2020, 46 million acres burned in Australia and an estimated 3 billion animals died. In 2021, Russia saw 45 million acres of forests burn.
#8 Rainforest Collapse
What would be the worst possible wildfire? The Amazon Rainforest is more than a billion acres. If it burns to the ground, the effects will be horrific for the planet. But how can a rainforest burn? Doesn’t all the rain put out the fires?
There are three problems. First, the rainforest naturally has a wetter season (November to June) and a drier season (July to October). The drier season is lengthening. Second, during the drier season, farmers intent on converting the rainforest to farm fields light the forest on fire. There were more than 100,000 fires in 2019 alone. Third, the trees pump moisture into the air to make it rain, in a symbiotic cycle. The more trees that farmers burn down, the less rain will fall, until the rain stops. When that happens, the entire rainforest will burn or rot, adding hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and killing billions more animals. This is called rainforest collapse.
The only good thing about the 2019 rainforest fires is that, for a couple of weeks, they made headlines that average people actually noticed. This might have been the first time that a Climate Change event captured international attention amongst the general population. People were horrified. Unfortunately, the attention only lasted a couple of weeks, and the fires continue. See this article for a description of the chain reaction that could unfold due to rainforest collapse.
#7 Sea Level Rise
Would humanity want to lose trillions of dollars in infrastructure when sea levels rise by 10 feet, destroying many of Earth’s major coastal cities and beaches? Of course not. But through inaction, humanity may get to witness this event sooner than expected.
We don’t know the exact timing, but we could see this catastrophe unfold within 10 years. In 2022, humanity watched the collapse of the first major ice shelf in Antarctica. One cause was a heatwave in Antarctica (see #10). This collapse released about 300,000 acres of ice. The problem is that the Thwaites glacier in Western Antarctica is held in place by an ice shelf. If its ice shelf collapses, it may start a chain reaction that causes sea levels to ultimately rise by 10 feet. See this article for a description of how this colossal catastrophe could unfold.
#6 Mass extinctions
Animals periodically go extinct in the natural course of events. This is something scientists can track, and it is known as the background extinction rate (in the absence of human activities). But humans do all kinds of things that are making animals go extinct much faster than normal, like 100X faster. Things like the previously mentioned heating (#10), increased wildfires (#9), habitat destruction (#8), pollution, fencing and roads that fragment habitats, artificial lighting, plastics in the oceans, overfishing, and on and on. Soon humans will have caused the extinction of 1% of the species, then 2% and so on.
A mass extinction event occurs when 75% or more of the species on Earth go extinct because of an event. The asteroid strike 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs was the fifth mass extinction event on Earth. It is widely believed that humanity will cause the sixth mass extinction event unless we change course quickly.
#5 Severe Drought
A side effect of global heating (#10) is drought. The western United States is in the middle of a 20-year drought, which is about to cause huge problems for both cities and farms. See this article for details. Big parts of Africa (especially the horn of Africa, meaning Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea) are now experiencing drought affecting tens of millions of people. Drought means less water to drink, and it also means less water for crops, leading to starvation especially in poorer countries.
#4 Severe flooding
Paradoxically, Climate Change can cause both drought and flooding. The floods happen when weather events like “atmospheric rivers” bring intense, drenching rain to an area. These floods can be completely new phenomena never before seen in a region. A great example is the giant flood that occurred in Germany in 2021. One area received six inches of rain in a day, as seen in this video.
Similar events are happening unexpectedly all over the world.
#3 Massive Hurricanes and Typhoons
Earth has experienced hurricanes and typhoons throughout human history. However, Climate Change increases their intensity. As the oceans heat up, they supply more and more energy to hurricanes, increasing wind speeds and rainfall. These new super hurricanes will cause increasing damage, especially when they hit major coastal cities with full force. This video lets you see how bad the damage from a hurricane can be.
#2 Crop failures
When Climate Change causes heatwaves (#10) and drought (#5), it means that crops fail. A partial failure in India’s wheat crop is happening this year because of India’s heatwave. The wheat seeds were still forming on the plants when India’s heatwave hit, so the seeds shriveled rather than fully forming. This video can help you understand what happened. The heatwave in Canada last year damaged both the wheat crop and the hay crop. Hay prices quadrupled and some animals starved to death over the winter. As heatwaves and droughts and floods and hurricanes and derechos and saltwater intrusions and rising sea levels increase, crop failures are going to increase too until people start starving to death.
#1 Climate Refugees
If we add increasing heatwaves + drought + sea level rise + crop failures together, what we get is large groups of people – millions and millions of people – who can no longer live where they have been living.
- If a coastal city gets flooded by the sea or destroyed by a hurricane, all those people need to move.
- If a persistent drought like the one in the western United States drains the reservoirs so people have no water to drink, millions of people will need to move out of the Southwest.
- If Earth’s equatorial region gets so hot that it becomes uninhabitable, tens of millions of people will have to move somewhere else.
- All of these people are climate refugees.
As the number of climate refugees increase, so will the tension, the riots, the stampedes, the wars. Already there are border security debates roiling the politics of the United States, as described in this video. 200,000+ people approached the United States border from the south just in March of 2022. Imagine what happens when the flow increases by a factor of 10 in a Climate Crisis.
Climate Change is causing all these things to happen today, and they will increase in the future as the planet warms more and more. As we have seen above:
- New and more extreme heatwaves are happening as we speak.
- Crop failures caused by heatwaves are happening right now.
- Droughts are growing and may soon make parts of the American southwest and Africa uninhabitable.
- Sea levels are rising incrementally every year no matter what, and we may soon hit a tipping point in Antarctica where sea levels rise dramatically.
- And so on…
Before we actually hit the tipping points and before we actually see the worst effects of Climate Change emerge, wouldn’t it make sense for humanity to take significant, dramatic action against Climate Change? Wouldn’t it make sense to save the human species and planet Earth from ecosystem destruction? Please see this article for a proposed solution to Climate Change that could start today.