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Before the Deluge

Before the Deluge
Fleet parking at Naval Station Norfolk Flooded During Hurricane Isabel. Photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael Pendergrass/U.S. Navy

‘The Truth is Rarely Pure and Never Simple’

By Andrew Dolby

I rolled out of bed at sunrise to get my first good look at the Sangre de Cristo mountains in 30 years. We had arrived at our vacation rental near Westcliffe, Colorado, my childhood home, too late the previous evening to make out much more than the familiar general shapes of their peaks and ridgelines. It was 2022, and the last time I had visited was 1993. As the sun began to light up the highest 14,000-foot summits and reveal the range’s lower contours, I raised my binoculars to take a deeper look. 

Panning down from the Crestone Needle’s jagged wall of granite, I expected to see the usual healthy Engelmann spruce belt, which forms a swath of deep forest green from timberline to around 9,000 feet. Engelmann spruce are the magnificent, iconic conifers you see cascading down to the water’s edge in scenic photos of Colorado subalpine lakes, or spiking as high as the chairlift towers at Keystone or Winter Park. My heart sank, though, when my eyes met a different, heartbreaking sight: a carpet of white matchsticks. Ghost forests. The Engelmann spruce were dead, nearly all of them, for miles up and down the range. 

Nothing like a long lapse in time to jolt your senses to the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

Two days later, we hiked the trail to Horn Lakes, which lie just above timberline at the foot of Mount Adams and Horn Lakes Wall. To get there, we passed through all the various ecological zones that mark a Rocky Mountain range, from ponderosa pine to aspen to Engelmann spruce. The aspen didn’t look right either, their once elegant white branches now marred by disease and decline, and as we wound our way higher up the trail through the towering skeletal remains of spruce, climbing over their countless fallen trunks, grief settled in. It was the kind of grief you feel when you see old friends who have experienced hard times and are now gaunt shells of their former vigorous selves. 

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Carbon is the proverbial backbone of life. It’s in every biological molecule of every living thing. Carbon atoms rapidly cycle through the air, water, and organisms. Plants extract it from the air and turn it into carbohydrates with the help of sunlight. They use some of these carbohydrates for their own metabolic needs, but produce extra energy and nutrient-packed biomass for the rest of us. We all—plants, animals, fungi, etc.—release carbon dioxide as we burn our food, and the carbon in our bodies is returned to the air when decomposers ultimately use our bodies as their raw fuel. In addition to this ongoing high-turnover cycle, carbon is pulled out for long-term storage in various forms. Some is stored on the order of hundreds (or even a few thousand) years, in the form of trees and other woody vegetation, some is stored for thousands of years in coral reefs, while still more is buried in the ground for millions of years in limestone or fossil fuel deposits. Ecosystems ecologists call these collective processes the carbon cycle, one of Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. 

The problem is that we are causing severe disruption to the carbon cycle by stripping away forests and digging/pumping coal, oil, and natural gas out of the ground in massive quantities that would have otherwise remained in the ground and been released only very gradually over millions more years. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are now accumulating in the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate thanks to all this rampant extraction and use—and trapping more of the sun’s heat like an insulating blanket. Additionally, carbon dioxide combines with water to form carbonic acid. So, as carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere at rates well beyond natural background rates, the oceans are also becoming more acidic as well as becoming warmer. 

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The impacts of anthropogenic global warming are everywhere: From disappearing Himalayan glaciers to the movement of subtropical fish species into the North Sea to mass death of Engelmann spruce in Colorado. And here’s what’s already happening—and is expected to continue at an accelerated pace—in Virginia: 

First, the region around the Chesapeake Bay is especially vulnerable to coastal flooding. Sea levels are rising as the ocean warms, mostly because water expands as it absorbs heat energy. This phenomenon is known simply as thermal expansion. Rapid melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are gradually adding more water to the oceans, though, which is contributing to thermal expansion’s effects. On top of that, the land in our region is naturally subsiding via a geological process called forebulge collapse. While forebulge collapse sounds like a condition best treated with a Viagra prescription, it actually refers to the evening out of magma pushed into a bulge by the massive glaciers that once covered much of North America during the last ice age. As the glaciers advanced, they were so heavy they pushed down on the crust, piling up the magma along their leading edges and thereby lifting up the land. Even though the glaciers retreated thousands of years ago, this bulge is still flattening itself out. 

Think about pressing your hands into some dough and then pushing them forward. A bulge forms in front of your fingers. After your hands are removed, the dough takes some time to resume its original shape. This natural process is adding to the demise of places like Tangier Island and exacerbating flooding in Hampton Roads. We can all envision the impacts of coastal flooding on human lives in the form of displacement, infrastructure damage, and more expensive or nonexistent homeowners’ insurance, with the most vulnerable of us often taking the brunt.

Second, we can expect more intense weather. Global warming magnifies everything. When droughts and heat waves set in, they will be longer and deeper. Although more dramatic natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes easily gain our attention (and make no mistake, we are within their target zones), more people actually die from heat. When it rains, it will pour with increasing intensity. Wet years will be exceedingly wet, and we should anticipate more intense thunderstorms, flash flooding, and riverbank erosion. Heavier rainfall can indirectly cause serious problems for the Chesapeake Bay. More rainfall means more runoff from fertilized agriculture fields and lawns, and on occasion, overwhelmed sewage treatment facilities, which means more nutrient input (mostly phosphorous and nitrogen). Such over-enrichment is called eutrophication, and its immediate effect is the proliferation of algae. The algae then die and are consumed by bacteria. Bacterial growth causes oxygen depletion in the water. The outcome is oxygen depleted dead zones in the Chesapeake, which are exactly what you think they are and pose a serious threat to the Chesapeake’s natural ecosystem and to our fisheries and other seafood industries. Dead zones also regularly form at the mouth of the Mississippi River and other coastal areas around the world. 

Third, we will see more cases of vector-borne diseases, as mild winters expand the times of year when ticks and mosquitoes are active and capable of spreading Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Finally, keep in mind that even distant climate disasters can reach Virginia. Last summer’s smoke from Canadian wildfires was a direct reminder. Climate-related agricultural trouble in America’s breadbasket states hundreds of miles away will also likely hit our grocery bills. Additionally, as the climate destabilizes populations around the world through the inundation of coastal cities and exacerbation of water and food shortages, people will migrate, they will require more humanitarian aid, and they will trigger political and military flashpoints. Much of this is happening now and affecting Virginians already.

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Anthropogenic global warming is a particularly vexing subject for professional scientists and science educators like me. We’ve known about its causes and have been warned about its consequences for decades. As early as the 1890s, climate scientists were already raising the possibility that carbon dioxide release from burning coal could someday increase atmospheric temperatures to a dangerous point. Their initial predictions were that real trouble could begin 300 or 400 years into the future. However, that someday is upon us now. In terms of acting on these warnings, why are we still where we were in the 1980s when I was hearing about it during my own college years? The answers to this question are many and complex. 

An evolutionary psychologist might say that the human mind is just not equipped to tackle problems that require global-scale cooperation, the results of which would likely not be realized until after we are gone. 

An evolutionary economist might say that humans are naturally resistant to making immediate economic sacrifices to help some distant descendants whom they will never meet. 

A political scientist might point to political divisiveness and that global warming belief or denial has become part of people’s political and social identity. Climate denial for some people stems from the perception that they are being told what to do by smug elitists who know nothing about their lives and unsympathetic to their day-to-day challenges. 

I have thought long and hard about why scientists have such a hard time communicating with people about anthropogenic global warming—along with why so many people are still in denial about the reality of climate change—and I think there are four principal reasons: 

1) An inherent lack of certainty in modeling. 

2) Natural variability. 

3) Grain-of-truth fodder for deliberate propaganda campaigns. 

4) Small changes of large effect. 

First, weather (immediate and local conditions) and climate (long-term prevailing patterns) have a built-in chaotic component, and models can only generate probabilities, not certainties. The meteorologist on TV literally cannot be right all the time. Even though they are correct most of the time, weather forecasters are bashed almost as a professional sport by some people who, for example, brought an umbrella for nothing that one time (confirmation bias) because the clueless weatherman said it was going to rain. In reality, the forecast probably called for a 70 percent chance of rain, consistent with the best capability of available models, which still left a 30 percent chance that it wouldn’t. Meanwhile, these armchair meteorologists dismiss the other 95 percent of the time when the weather did align with forecasted best probabilities, and they no doubt neglect to send a thank-you note to the same weatherman who advised them to bring an umbrella on those occasions.

Extend that thought process out to long-range climate forecasting, and you have a recipe for Dunning-Kruger style global warming denial. “Scientists have no idea what they are talking about,” so the attitude goes. Some people go even further and view anything short of absolute certainty as a sign of incompetence and untrustworthiness. Climate scientists are unavoidably going to sometimes get something wrong, and they communicate tentatively with each other about their findings. However, to the extent that they have been wrong so far, they have underestimated the severity and timing of global warming trends and their fallout, not overestimated them. 

Second, weather and climate are naturally variable, which can, again, lead to confirmation bias. Winter will happen even as the climate warms. Global warming is causing some places to be colder and wetter, even while it causes other places to be hotter and drier. For example, Mongolia has recently experienced several especially brutal winters in unusually rapid succession. These cold-weather disasters are abruptly threatening the very existence of ancient nomadic cultures. How can extreme cold be consistent with global warming? Some climate scientists prefer the term “global weirding” to “global warming” to help dispel the notion that unusually cold weather in particular places disproves global warming and to help people focus on average global conditions, not localized anecdotes. In general, the average global temperature will tick down and Arctic sea ice extent will tick up in some years. Climate deniers seize on the years when these don’t occur as evidence that global warming can’t be happening. We need to convince people that the weight of evidence is on decadal trends and collective patterns. 

Moreover, while scientists may not be able to pin one particular heat wave on anthropogenic climate change, that Mongolian cold snap, plus a simultaneous 1,000-year flood in Dubai, plus the sudden reappearance of an ancient lake in Death Valley, plus record low Antarctic sea ice can collectively point toward human fingerprints. This concept is difficult to communicate. And yes, of course the Earth naturally undergoes warming and cooling periods over geologic time scales. However, the current warming trend is happening on a historically rapid timeline, and no natural process is underway that can explain it better than humans’ disruption of the carbon cycle.

What we need to be asking ourselves, with 9 billion people trying to occupy the earth, is if we really want to set up the same atmospheric conditions that caused 95 percent of species to go extinct in mass extinction events millions of years ago? Because that’s what we’re doing.

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Events like the massive mortality of the Sangre de Cristo’s Engelmann spruce feed the grain-of-truth propaganda machine. These tree deaths per se were caused by the Engelmann spruce beetle, which is a naturally occurring pest. Global warming, though, set the stage for this massive outbreak by disrupting historically prevailing seasonal temperature and precipitation patterns. These climate disruptions led to weaker trees and at the same time created conditions that favor the proliferation of beetles. As a result, the beetles got the serious upper hand. Climate change deniers, whose job it is to sow doubt and confusion about global warming science, play up the fact that beetle outbreaks are normal and natural, which supplies the grain of truth to paper over global warming’s contribution to the outbreak’s severity and scope. Again, it’s tough to scientifically explain to broader audiences that events can be natural and also magnified by global warming at the same time—both answers, in fact, can be right—especially if the audience is hostile to the truth of anthropogenic global warming in the first place. 

As another example, one of the grain-of-truth arguments that propagandists often use is that because carbon dioxide is natural (and we even exhale it), it is perfectly fine for us to release it on a mass scale in a geologic blink of an eye. This argument is painfully ignorant and based on absurdly flawed logic. Either they know it and are exploiting their audience’s ignorance, or they truly don’t understand what they are talking about. Neither is a good answer. Water is also natural. We also exhale it. We die within days without it, and life as we know it would not exist if it was gone. However, you can drown in water, you can die from a water overdose, and it’s not so great when it’s filling up your basement. Just like water, carbon dioxide can cause damage of great consequence when there’s too much of it or when it’s in the wrong place, or both. 

Finally, it’s tough to convince people that small changes can have such major effects. How can 1.5 C increase be a big deal? How can a 10-centimeter sea level rise cause much damage? The truth is that living organisms are sensitive. Small temperature changes can cause pest insect populations to explode, a little more rain can allow a formerly innocuous exotic plant to become invasive, and 10 centimeters of extra water depth can compound in a very costly way during a storm surge. Forestry experts explain that while humans caused ignition of some of last summer’s Canadian wildfires, anthropogenic warming—and it didn’t take much—caused the vegetation to become unusually dry, which led to more intense and faster-spreading fires. Just a 1 C water temperature increase over one month can trigger coral bleaching. The earth’s oceans are facing the fourth mass bleaching event on record. Corals can bounce back from a bleaching event, but not if it is prolonged or if bleaching incidents occur in rapid succession. 

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Locals in our corner of Virginia can take a measure of solace in knowing that the East Coast of the United States will not be the worst place in the world to be as global warming—or global weirding—continues to radically reshape the environment. Life will get more difficult and more expensive for our kids, but if they stick around, they will likely be spared from the worst. And we can count ourselves lucky as well to live in a community with some highly effective and impactful organizations such as Fossil Free Fredericksburg, Tree Fredericksburg, and Friends of the Rappahannock. 

I have to have hope, because the currency of my profession is ultimately hope. The hard truth, though, is that while our individual actions may have some positive effect, they will be nowhere near enough without massive civilization-level changes to our agriculture, transportation, construction materials and practices, and energy systems—and sooner rather than a later we may not have. 

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“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

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Andrew Dolby is a biology professor at the University of Mary Washington, where he has been a faculty member since 2000. A self-professed wildlife nut, a young Andrew was studying encyclopedia entries for “okapi” and “cassowary” while the other boys were out playing pickup baseball. He now teaches courses in animal behavior, ornithology, ecology, and evolution, and leads student field trips to Central America and the Galapagos Islands. In his free time, he enjoys running the Fredericksburg trails, drinking locally brewed beer, and plotting his next opportunity to add some new bird, monkey, or carnivorous mammal to his sightings list.