7 min read

The Vicious Cycle of Climate Change

Photo of a small, jagged iceberg.
Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash

Today I’m going to veer dangerously close to “just science, not prepping” territory, but I promise it has bearing on preparedness, in that it will make you want to go buy some water and beans when you’re done reading. I also promise that it won’t be entirely dire, like my last climate letter.

There are a couple things about climate change that make it uniquely foreboding when it comes to doomsday scenarios for humanity. The first one is, it’s real, and it's happening now.

The second is that, after a certain point, climate change creates more climate change without human interference. You may have heard of the domino effect or tipping points in regards to this subject—that’s what we’ll be talking about today.

Climate change is caused by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which rise into the atmosphere and insulate it, creating a hotter planet. But CO2, and methane, can be found in nature in addition to man-made sources, and there is a lot of it out there. Massive amounts of CO2 and methane are stored, for example, in the Arctic permafrost and across Siberia. Do you see where this is going? Once that permafrost thaws, the CO2 and methane trapped there are released into the atmosphere, where they warm the planet and thaw more permafrost. That’s bad. Ghostbusters Twinkie bad.

The Tipping Points

Arctic Permafrost is only one of many, many tipping points. A short list of others are below. The thing to remember about each of these is that tipping points are vicious cycles—whether it’s melting permafrost creating more melting permafrost or forest loss destroying more forests, each only gets worse, and each ultimately can reach out and tip the other dominoes.

Ice Sheets: There are two main ice sheets that get discussed under this umbrella: the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Despite their being essentially the same thing—they’re not. The Greenland Ice Sheet is relatively stable, and its ice loss should be gradual, while the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is poised to collapse in dramatic fashion (though that may not happen for decades). While the mechanics of their collapses are unique, both hinge on man-made warming conditions that cause initial melt, which then becomes self-perpetuating. These ice sheets can contribute a tremendous amount of water to sea-level rise, effectively reshaping the map of the world for thousands of years to come.

The Amazon Rainforest: The Amazon is an interesting tipping point because it’s such a marvel; almost the size of the contiguous United States, the Amazon rainforest actually produces some of its own rainfall. Agricultural, ranching, and timber interests are, unfortunately, burning and cutting down tremendous amounts of the rainforest. There is a threshold at which point the Amazon will cease to be large enough to create its own climate, and it will then begin to dry out all on its own, destroying an enormous CO2 sink, and, obviously, perpetuating its own demise.

Arctic Sea Ice: This one is fairly straightforward. You’ve probably heard that the Arctic Ocean has seen a dramatic reduction in ice, yes? That ice loss creates more ice loss, as an icy ocean is an ocean with a high albedo—high reflectivity, which bounces heat away—while an ocean without ice has a lower albedo, and thus absorbs much more thermal energy.

Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC): Made somewhat infamous by the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, AMOC refers to the massive current that churns warm water over from South to North in the Atlantic. AMOC is immensely beneficial, warming northern climates and circulating deep ocean waters so that they are adequately oxygenated. Climate change, however, has increased the temperature of the ocean across the board, and melting ice from Greenland (remember that ice sheet?) has freshened northern waters, weakening the mechanism that turns the water over. AMOC’s mechanism is an off-switch, meaning the feedback loop here simply kills off AMOC rather than perpetuating a hotter and hotter environment. AMOC is my “favorite” tipping point because it can create a nightmarish scenario called a Canfield Ocean, which I’m going to describe to you just to make you consider an ecologically-motivated revolution.

Canfield Oceans

If AMOC fails, which is not likely to be anytime soon, to be clear, the Atlantic will become increasingly stagnant. A stagnant ocean can reach a point at which it essentially dies, along with most conventional life held within it. Without AMOC, the waters will become anoxic—oxygenless—and it’s in this deadly environment that the Canfield Ocean develops. Bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide thrive in warm, anoxic environments, and hydrogen sulfide is poison. The bacteria proliferate, creating a deadlier and deadlier zone in the already deadly water, until the bacteria is all that’s left.

Picture this: you arrive at the beach. You choke to death because you forgot your gas mask. Someone else arrives at the beach, with a gas mask. The beach is slimy, frothing, and covered in bones. Beyond lies the Atlantic, smooth and waveless, unbroken except for the occasional belching forth of toxic gas from its depths. It is a thick, milky purple, like a child’s ooze. Even through the mask, the visitor can tell the air is noxious and still. There are no seagulls, no birds at all. No little crustaceans scurry about through the sand. There is no seagrass. There is no seaweed washed ashore. Above the placid miles, the sky is unmistakably tinged with green.

Cutting the Vicious Cycle

There is some decent news, believe it or not. Recently, scientists determined that once we level off our carbon emissions, the Indiana Jones-style boulder of increasing heat that we (me and other climate folks) expected to keep rolling will actually dissipate relatively quickly—within a couple decades. Up until now, it was believed that boulder would go on and on for hundreds of years, and that the heat built up from our CO2 emissions in our present was “locked in” for a long time to come. Without this juggernaut of heat over our heads, action today is far more potent. This fact alone has the potential to roll back a lot of the doom and gloom I feel about climate*.

Recently, the most infamous climate doom-sayer, David Wallace-Wells, expressed some optimism. Basically, we’re better positioned globally than anyone expected to be once Trump was elected. Despite his interference, fossil fuels continued their path to obsolescence, and renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper (recently deemed to be the cheapest energy on the planet). Components for batteries, and the chemicals that power them, like lithium, are plentiful and cheap as well**. The clock hasn’t run out on action yet, and as the smoke of the Trump administration clears, we’re in a good place to leap forward. Whether we will or not is the question. So, you know, call up Resistbot and tell your representatives you don’t want to burn the planet alive. Then maybe consider taking real action, too.

*That fact is dependent upon present day cutting of emissions—basically, if we fix climate change, it’s fixed, which hasn’t exactly been true up until this study. Stopping emissions meant we’d simply stop growing the boulder of heat, but if this study bears out, it means we eventually stop the boulder from rolling over us almost entirely.
**This has its own problems, as exploitative mining is a huge possibility. Lithium stores abound in South America, particularly in Chile and Bolivia, and we, and the world, have a history of abusing the global south for their riches.

Prepping for Hope

What does a prepper do with good news? Make hay while the sun is shining.

While we are, momentarily, not under threat of death by fascists and a climate disaster (we definitely still are, but for the sake of this exercise let's say we have a minute) the best use of our time is building a buffer between ourselves and the next unspeakable horror. This buffer can be almost anything; what matters is that you're gaining ground.

For our purposes today, let's do some plotting for a garden. Gardening is a fantastic prep, because it builds food independence and can be a morale booster. It is also, naturally, a very green prep, in that you will cut down on the CO2 created to grow, transport, and store the food you would normally buy from the grocery. What's more, if your tomato plants are anything like mine were last year, you'll have produce to give away to neighbors, friends, whomever, thus building community.

I will have a dedicated gardening post next week or soon after. For now, this stopgap is the perfect prep for someone starting out. It is important that you get on this if you intend to have a garden this year, because supplies are running low and they take time to set up.

  1. Plot the size of your garden: Whether you've just got a sunlit window or room in the backyard, you'll want to gauge the right size for your garden based on your available time and local conditions. Now is the time to budget as well. For instance, a raised bed and soil will set you back over $100, but a bag of potting soil and some pots for herbs won't be such a burden.
  2. Pick your plants: Think about what you eat, and what you cook. Does it make sense to raise a crop of corn if you'll hardly eat it, or should you stick to a few indoor bell pepper plants?

Buy seeds: With everyone stuck indoors still, seeds are this year's flour and yeast. The sooner you nail down what you want, the better your odds of finding the seeds. If you have a hard time tracking down everything you want in person (like I did) here are a few sites you can order from:

  • Johnny’s Seeds: So popular you can only order on Tuesdays and Wednesdays?
  • Native Seeds: “Seeks to find, protect, and preserve the seeds of the people of the Greater Southwest so that these arid adapted crops may benefit all peoples and nourish a changing world.” A good selection and a great cause.
  • Burpee: The oldest seed supplier in the US.

I’ve got a bit of a yard, so I'll be building a total of three 4x8 raised beds. One dedicated to tomatoes, one beans, and the last a mix of herbs and…more beans? We’ll see.

In Closing: Contra Hope

Hope is a very rich food, and while a bite is great, too much will make you sick. There are, if you’re closer to liberal than leftist, several reasons to be hopeful these days—I even included a couple here. And while I don’t want the newsletter to parade a banner of doom, I don’t want it to paint an unrealistic picture of the world. We’ve got some real problems to face in this country, and on this planet. My hope is that we can strike a balance between acting toward the good possibilities while we prepare for the bad. There has been some good news, lately. The bad news hasn’t gone away. Take the good when you can, let it energize you, and try to get the jump on the bad.