Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Our oceans: The ultimate sump

Plastic pollution

Today is “World Oceans Day,” a day observed worldwide to raise awareness about the crucial role the oceans play in sustaining life on Earth. It is also a day to appreciate the beauty of the oceans that “brings eternal joy to the soul.”

The oceans are among our biggest resources and also our biggest dumping grounds. Because they are so vast and deep, many of us believe that no matter how much garbage we dump into them, the effects would be negligible. Proponents of dumping even have a mantra: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Really! In case they don’t know, garbage dumped into the oceans is continuously mixed by wind and waves and widely dispersed over huge surface areas.

There is a zone in the Pacific Ocean, called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a gyre of marine garbage twice the size of Texas. The garbage, mainly microplastics, were carried there by strong currents from other parts of the ocean. This is not the only floating garbage in our oceans. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans have their own garbage patches. Worse yet, the sheer size of the patches is making clean-up efforts an extremely difficult task.

Surely, human activities are impacting the oceans in drastic ways. Some of the anthropogenic environmental issues that are affecting the oceans are plastic pollution, oil spills, climate change and noise. One of the most dangerous threats the oceans may face in this century is radioactive pollution.

Each year, we dump nearly eight million tonnes of plastic—mostly grocery bags, water bottles, yogurt cups, drinking straws and plastic utensils—into the oceans. Recently, plastic has been discovered in the deepest part (11 kilometres) of the world’s oceans, Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Extremely elevated concentration of PCBs, an environment-damaging chemical banned in the 1970s, have also been found within the sediment of the trench.

While it takes hundreds of years for plastics to decompose fully, some of them break down much quicker into tiny, easy-to-swallow particles that can easily be ingested by marine species causing choking, starvation and other impairments.

Pollution of the oceans by oil spills has been one of the major concerns for a long time. The primary source of spill is offshore drilling. The process is inherently dangerous and thus, is prone to accidents. When accidents happen, and they do happen without warning, they cause massive damage to the environment—aquatic and shore—that persists for decades to come. Some oil spills happen when tankers transporting petroleum products have accidents.

If the layer of the oil is thick enough, it smothers creatures unable to move out from under it. Besides, swimming and diving birds become covered with oil, which mats their feathers, reducing their buoyancy and preventing flight. The insulative value of feathers is also lost and the birds quickly die of exposure in cold water.

The world’s largest oil spill was not an accident; it was the result of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The second worst disaster was the spill by BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Both incidents killed tens of thousands of birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and fish, among others.

Land and oceans together absorb slightly more than half of all the carbon dioxide emissions, with the oceans taking a greater share. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid. Various studies estimate that if we keep on pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the current rate, then by the year 2100, the water of the oceans could be nearly 150 percent more acidic than they are now. Such a large increase in acidity would upset the productivity and composition of many coastal ecosystems by affecting the key species at the base of the oceanic food webs. It would also reduce calcium carbonate, which is essential for building the shells and skeletons of creatures like mussels, clams, corals and oysters.

Because oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the heat that is added to the climate system, sea level is changing, albeit unevenly. It is changing unevenly as oceans do not warm uniformly across the planet, with the southern oceans warming at a faster rate. In addition, global reef systems are slowly migrating poleward as oceans around the world continue to warm.

The single most significant contribution to rising sea level is from the thermal expansion of water. Melting ice makes the second most important contribution, but only melting of land-based ice—glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets—is significant. Ice that is already floating in the water—iceberg—makes essentially no change in sea level when it melts, because the greater density of water offsets the volume of ice that is not submerged. Other factors that contribute to the rise in sea level include wind and ocean circulations, depth of the oceans, deposition of sediments by river flows and alteration of the hydrologic cycle by humans.

According to some studies, global sea level rose by about 18 cms during the last century. In the worst-case scenario, sea level could rise by two metres by the end of the year 2100. Arguably, rising sea level is among the potentially most catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change.

The oceans are no longer “The Silent World” of the famous oceanic explorer Jacques Cousteau. Today, they are being acoustically bleached by noise from seismic blasts used for offshore oil and gas exploration, marine traffic and military sonar.

Unlike plastic pollution, noise pollution does not have the visual impact that is needed to spark an outcry and force action. It is an invisible menace that is drowning out the sounds of many marine animals, including fish, use for navigation, communicating with each other, finding food, choosing mates and warning others of potential dangers.

Whales and dolphins are particularly vulnerable to noise pollution. The deafening seismic blasts and the ping of sonar are responsible for the loss of their hearing and habitat, and disruption in their mating and other vital behaviours. The disappearance of beaked whales in the Bahamas in recent years have been attributed to testing of US Navy sonar systems in the region.

From 1946 through 1993, nuclear countries used the oceans to dispose of radioactive wastes. The United States alone dumped more than 110,000 containers of nuclear material off its coasts. Russia dumped some 17,000 containers of radioactive wastes and several nuclear reactors, including some containing spent nuclear fuel.

It is highly likely that radioactive wastes would eventually leak out of the containers because of poor insulation, volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement and several other geological factors. Indeed, last month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirmed that a Cold War era concrete “coffin” filled with nuclear waste is leaking radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean. Since radiation from nuclear wastes remains active for hundreds of thousands of years, their dangerous effects will linger for a long time and will have lethal impact on marine life.

Furthermore, six nuclear submarines — 4 Russian and 2 American — lost as a result of accidents are lying at the bottom of the oceans. They represent serious threat of radioactive contamination of the oceans, too.

One of the biggest contaminations due to radiation was caused by a series of nuclear tests conducted by the USA on the sea, in the air and underwater at Bikini Atoll in the North Pacific between 1946 and 1958. The French nuclear tests carried out during 1966-1996 in French Polynesia are responsible for other cases of intense radioactive pollution of marine ecosystems.

Clearly, we are using the oceans as the ultimate sump, partly because their very immensity seems to preclude any long-term effect, and partly because they belong to no one. This cannot continue indefinitely because in order for us to survive, we have to protect the oceans. Lest we forget, life emerged from the oceans and the source of most of the oxygen we breathe are the oceans. They have been an endless source of inspiration to humankind.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Cyclone Fani and global climate change

The temperature of the Earth changes over geologic time. During periods of glaciation, it was about five degrees Celsius cooler and in the interglacial period about five degrees warmer. The last glaciation period was 100,000 years ago. Since then, there have been fluctuations of a few degrees, the period of 1430 to 1850 being one of particularly low temperatures in Europe. Although there were fluctuations from year to year, it seems evident that there has been a steady increase in average global temperature since the Industrial Revolution. According to the World Meteorological Organization, average global temperatures will reach a new milestone this year—one whole degree higher than temperatures before industrialisation.

In the early 1990s, when concern about climate change caused by the rise in temperature became widespread, the “signal” of anthropogenic effects hadn’t unambiguously emerged from the “noise” of natural climate variability. However, we now know that most of the climate-related changes observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. In fact, by burning prodigious amounts of fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide, which is the principal greenhouse gas, we humans have taken Earth’s atmosphere in general and global temperature in particular into a regime that our planet hasn’t seen for millions of years.

Although the interplay between carbon dioxide and temperatures is complex and not necessarily 100 percent predictive, nevertheless, the obvious correlation between the two variables suggests that we might expect a significant adverse climatic response to the industrial-era surge in fossil fuel derived atmospheric carbon dioxide. Undeniably, the effects of this interplay are manifested in the increase in the ferocity of storms, floods of biblical proportions, spike in the number of unusually hot days, melting of the glaciers, drought, desertification and deforestation, polar vortex, uncontrollable forest fires, degradation of the coral reefs, habitat loss and rise in the sea level, to mention a few.

Today, because of global warming, intense storms are occurring in many parts of the world. If they form in the Atlantic or Caribbean, they are known as hurricanes, and in the Pacific or China Sea as typhoons. If they develop off the coast of Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal, we call them cyclones. These storms are one of the most awe-inspiring displays of the raw power of nature. They are also among the deadliest and costliest natural disasters we have to contend with routinely.

After churning through the Bay of Bengal for several days, gathering immense amount of energy along the way, cyclone Fani roared through Bangladesh on May 4, 2019, leaving behind a massive trail of destruction—killing more than a dozen people, knocking out power, shredding roofs and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Classified by meteorologists as the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane, it was one of the most intense cyclones in 20 years in the region.

Cyclones batter Bangladesh at regular intervals, mainly in April/May or October/November, when weather conditions align in a manner most favourable for storm origination and sustenance. As examples, cyclones Aila struck southern Bangladesh on May 27, 2009 and Sidr made landfall on November 14, 2007. The occurrence of these and other cyclones in close succession is a reminder of the country’s extreme vulnerability to the devastating effects of human-induced climate change.

The 1970 cyclone that hit Bangladesh on November 12 and raged the strongest on November 13 was the worst natural disaster we have witnessed so far. The resulting storm surge, more than 20 feet high and topped by huge tidal waves, washed over offshore islands and carried water from the sea many miles inland. The cyclone and flood destroyed the entire infrastructure of the country’s southern coast and killed an estimated half a million people, though some researchers estimate that the death count was close to a million. The failure of the Pakistani government to respond quickly to the crisis, among other things, contributed to the political turmoil that led to an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

Tropical cyclones are influenced by many factors, but the role of warm sea-surface temperatures is the primary source of energy for cyclones. In particular, a cyclone gets most of its energy from the latent heat of condensation and the moisture generated from the sea. Thus, for the genesis of cyclones, temperature of water near the surface of the sea must be higher than 27 degrees to a depth of at least 150 feet. Additionally, heat from the sea and Earth’s counter-clockwise rotation conspire to create the cyclone’s spin and propulsion. Furthermore, rising sea levels mean that surges produced by cyclones are much more powerful, thereby increasing the risk of inland flooding.

Moreover, cyclones need to be at least 300 miles from the equator, where a deflective force known as Coriolis force resulting from Earth’s rotation begins to take effect. When cyclones reach land, or cooler water, they lose energy as the conditions necessary to reinforce them are no longer present.

As a result of global warming, temperature near the surface of the Bay of Bengal varies from 27 degrees in January to more than 31 degrees in May. The unusually warm water, together with geographical and environmental factors, make the Bay of Bengal a hot spot for cyclonic activity.

Can changes in frequency and intensity of cyclones observed so far be attributed solely to anthropogenic global warming as against long-term periodic natural variations? Cyclones are affected by natural fluctuations too, driven by external factors, such as solar variability and volcanic eruptions, natural internal variations of the complex physical, chemical, and biological systems of Earth.

Additionally, research has shown that urbanisation significantly contributes to the amount of rainfall dumped, as evidenced by over 130 centimetres of rain that fell on the Houston region during hurricane Harvey in 2017. This is because the “roughness” of the city—as in the buildings and infrastructure—creates a drag on the storm system, causing it to slow down, resulting in more rain over the city area.

Climate models predict that global warming could spawn more bizarre and violent weather, notably cyclones and severe floods in the future. Indeed, while people are trying to come to grips with the effects of Fani, meteorologists have warned that Bangladesh is likely going to experience another cyclonic storm called Vayu some time later this month.

The models also predict that by the end of this century, global warming effects could increase a cyclone’s intensity by about 20 percent, making them more destructive than ever. The amount of rainfall would also increase substantially. Other estimates predict that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration would result in a 40-50 percent increase in destructive cyclones.

So, what should we do to keep our planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone of the solar system? We have to make a concerted effort to end our dependence on fossil fuels. We have to replace them with non-polluting, renewable sources of energy. We have to develop more carbon-free energy technologies. We have to sequester carbon dioxide emissions using the available technology. More importantly, we have to shun the “business as usual” attitude. In short, we will have to build a sustainable future. Otherwise, climate change will cause our civilisation to collapse.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

The political landscape in Britain is changing

Lib Dems jubilation after their unprecedented success

A new dawn in British politics may have begun on Thursday, the 2nd of May 2019. It arises not only because the Lib Dems have literally risen from the ashes of coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015, but also because the Greens have managed to find space to push through green shoots in the perched landscape devastated by the right-wing elements of the Tories.

The right-wing clique of the Tory party had been agitating for quite sometime to get Britain out of the EU. Their underlying aim was to take Britain out of the EU (and thereby out of the EU regulations) and make Britain into an offshore tax haven to materialise their selfish ends. Realising Tory party’s visceral antipathy towards the EU and to bring together the divided Tory party, David Cameron, the then prime minister, in his ‘Bloomberg Speech in 2013’ agreed to have a In/Out referendum on EU by 2017, if the Tory Party wins the 2015 election. Probably he felt as the prime minister of the coalition government with Lib Dems that there would be little chance of Tory party winning outright in 2015 general election and therefore committing EU referendum was a low risk strategy. 

However, the political landscape changed dramatically since 2015. In the general election, Tory party did manage to win an overall majority of 5 seats by most disingenuous and unscrupulous means by blaming the coalition partner, the Lib Dems, of all shortcomings and failures of the government. The drubbing that the Lib Dems had suffered for being the partner of the Tories was that 57 Lib Dems MPs had been reduced to mere 8 MPs in 2015! That was a disastrous result for the Lib Dems. Since then, Lib Dems had been tarnished by Tory association and the voters kept punishing them for implementing Tory policies in the coalition government.

When in the EU referendum on 23 May 2016, Britain failed to secure ‘Remain’, the right-wing Tory fanatics as well as xenophobic nationalist bigots were simply ecstatic. Boris Johnson, arch Brexiteer, declared on the morning on 24 May that this was ‘the day of independence’ for Britain.  

It is blatantly obvious that the British politics, particularly the national politics, is now truly and utterly broken and dysfunctional. This process of political erosion and corrosion did not start with the present regime, although this regime bears the brunt of total delusion of the Tory extremists. The erosion of morality among the top politicians had been going on for quite a while now – at least from the dying days of Thatcher administration – sex scandals of Cecil Parkinson, perjury of Jeffrey Archer and others are the vivid examples. However, the end of Thatcher regime did not bring to an end of sex scandals; it only metamorphosed into more sophisticated form. The media then coined a new term ‘sleaze’ to cover everything from political to sex to parliamentary expense scandals. Subsequently, the term ‘spin’ came into the media vocabulary to cover misrepresentation of facts, misleading statements, soft lies, innuendos etc.

However, spin gradually became the norm in political circles. It became a sort of sophisticated political public relations tool during Tony Blair’s regime. But then during and after the tumultuous 2016 EU referendum, all forms of political spins and massaging of facts had become rather mundane and more aggressive form of lies, deception, bigotry became the preferred political tools. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, David Davis, IDS and so forth had been at the forefront of such aggressive use of lies. In the EU referendum campaign, they showed in writing in a double decker bus that £350 million per week extra to NHS would be available if Britain leaves the EU, they also claimed that agricultural subsidy, university research grants from the EU, regeneration of depressed areas etc would be available from the savings of British contribution to the EU. They also shouted out loud that 80 million Turks and endless queues of migrant workers from Africa, Asia and Middle East that were lurking outside the British borders must be stopped by leaving the EU. These are all preposterous scare-mongering lies and deception to achieve their aim.

Honesty, decency, political correctness etc had been thrown out of the window. When the national and international economic bodies such as the London School of Economics, the Bank of England, various Think Tanks, the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF had all been saying that leaving the EU would be disastrous for the UK, opportunistic politicians like Michael Gove, IDS, Priti Patel, John Redwood etc had been saying that these organisations had been wrong before and they are wrong again! When car manufacturers like Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Range Rovers were saying that leaving the EU would harm their business tremendously, Tory politicians dismissed them all as scare mongering.

Three years down the line, chickens are coming home to roost. Honda factory in Swindon is closing in two years’ time, Toyota is not planning to have new model built in the UK. Multinational companies in the finance sector are transferring their operations from London to various other countries. Workers are being laid off here and there – not in torrents yet, but in dribs and drabs.

The general public are now seeing what they have been sold in the name of ‘take back control’, ‘we hold all the cards’, ‘bring back sovereignty’, ‘the day of independence’, ‘the future is bright’ etc. When they see and hear on TV and radios that the British prime minister had to go to Brussels early in the morning to seek an additional concession from the EU and she had been told at the end of the day to wait in a side room while the leaders of 27 EU Member States would have dinner and discuss the British request for concession, that was not ‘take back control’ or ‘bring back sovereignty’; that was utter ‘submission of sovereignty’. That was because of some delusional Tory imperialist bigots had been hankering after colonial dreams outside the EU!

Smaller parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens had always sought to ‘Remain’ within the EU and in the aftermath of the corrupt EU referendum, they asked for a new referendum to gauge the view of the public based on facts, not Tory fantasies. The de-facto verdict of the people came in the recent local election in England and Northern Ireland on 2nd May. The Tories lost 1330 councillors (nearly 30%) and Labour lost 84 councillors (nearly 5%). (It should be pointed out that normally opposition party gains a lot of seats from the ruling party in mid-term elections). On the other hand, the Lib Dems gained 704 councillors (nearly 110%) and the Greens gained 194 councillors (nearly 270%). Another striking feature was that independent candidates won 661 seats (nearly 130%).  

Anti Brexit march in London on 23 March 2019

The conclusions that can be drawn from this seismic shift in politics are twofold. The first one is that people have lost confidence in and patience with the traditional self-serving opportunistic politicians – be it Tory or Labour. The politicians have forfeited all moral authority, as they lied and cheated in the EU referendum to achieve their goal. The trust in politicians in general is in short supply, although there are lots of very good, honest and sincere politicians in British politics. The second lesson is that despite what the crooked politicians claimed to hammer in their partisan view that ‘the people have spoken’ in the referendum, the people have realised now that they had been given a short shrift by the fraudulent politicians.

Now the opportunistic politicians are throwing up a smokescreen to spread their egregious message that people voted against the established two parties because they disliked the failure of the politicians to deliver Brexit in time. It is like a fraudster deliberately misdiagnosed the illness of the patient and gave a wrong medicine and when the patient was nearly dead, told others that enough dose had not been administered.

The sooner the enemies of the people are exposed and thrown out of their self-serving cocoons, the better it is for the country. However, the big question now is, will this change in political landscape be a permanent one or is it going to be just a flash in the pan?

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist


Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Who will pull us out of the climate change conundrum?

Every year since 1995, our leaders or their representatives met at the so-called Conference of Parties, debating climate change, global warming in particular. Over time, the conferences’ goal has become what is politically possible, not what is environmentally desirable. Hence, the emphasis has shifted from reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to helping nations adapt to whatever the future climate might look like. While adaptation is necessary for survival on a planet ravaged by the vagaries of global warming, it also means throwing in the towel against the fight to tackle climate change effectively.

The outcomes of these conferences clearly indicate that we are backing away from a disaster of our own making by surrendering to the whims of powerful people beholden to lobbyists, special interest groups and climate change deniers. Who will, therefore, pull us out of the climate change conundrum, so that our future generations can stay in a climate-safe planet? How can we remain hopeful while facing the growing, irrefutable evidence of devastating climate-induced changes around us?

On March 15, 2019, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren all over the world, from the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic Circle, answered the above questions, loud and clear. They skipped classes to protest what they see as the failures of their governments to take tough actions against global warming. Although most of the protesters are under the voting age, they nevertheless want to have a say in the politics of climate change. Hence, they are boldly challenging the stewards of “their” planet who have the ability to make the real differences needed right now with regard to climate change.

The protest was inspired by a 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg, to express children’s frustration with older generations’ laissez-faire attitude towards climate change. She kicked off a global movement after last summer’s record heat wave in northern Europe and forest fires that ravaged swathes of her country up to the Arctic. Since August 10, 2018, she has been sitting outside the Swedish parliament every Friday, now known as Fridays for Future, protesting inaction by adults. She recently gave a speech to climate negotiators in Switzerland and told them, “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Fridays for Future was also observed in New York City, where students at dozens of schools across the five boroughs stayed away from their classroom and took to the streets. They hosted multiple rallies in front of the City Hall, Columbus Circle, Bronx High School for Science, Columbia University, American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere. All of them chanted, “Money won’t matter when we’re dead.” “Sea levels are rising and so are we.” “I’m not showing up for school because adults aren’t showing up for climate.”

They spoke about the importance of schools teaching students about climate change from a young age. “If we don’t learn about it, we might believe the things that are lies, that it’s a hoax… They can’t just leave a falling apart planet to us. We only have so much time to fix it, and we have to fix it while we still can, because by the time we’re in power we can’t fix it,” said the 13-year old Rachel Entin-Bell, who was protesting at the Washington Square Park.

The star of the protest was a 9-year-old kid, Zayne Cowie, who sat in front of the City Hall with his little sister on his lap holding a sign that says “Climate Strike”. “Climate change is happening faster than we can react. Well, we could react fast enough but nobody cares,” he said. Sadly, we are living at a time when a 9-year-old is more knowledgeable about climate science than the current occupant of the White House!

Starting in December 2018, following in the footsteps of Greta, Zayne opted out of attending Friday classes at his school and instead sit in front of the City Hall—rain, snow or shine—reading from the children’s book of verse “Goodbye, Earth.” The first two stanzas are:

The World is big and I am small.

One day I wish to see it all.

Pacific islands, northern Lights,

Himalayas, desert nights.

The World is big and I am small.

The Earth’s in trouble, hear her call.

Me and my nine-year-old peers

Have now lived through its hottest years.

Indeed, when children come out on the streets to protest climate change, we know that it is high time for adults to wake up and act decisively. Unfortunately, adults are caught up in their egotistic needs of power, accumulation of wealth, comfort and socio-economic status, leaving very little time to care about future generations.

Ironically, children like Zayne, Greta, Rachel and others are the first generation who are least responsible for the 410 parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, but will face most of the catastrophic consequences from it. They are coming of age when the window to ward off this nightmare scenario is rapidly shrinking.

Many older adults have been warning for decades that our future generations will suffer for our greed, selfishness and inertia from continued inaction. Now, those future victims are raising their voice to try and shape the agenda. They are the bastions of hope emerging around the world. Their message: No more business as usual. We need to act as though our future and the future of all life on this planet depends on what we do, because it does.

How did adults react to the protests? In New York City, 16 protesters have been arrested for blocking traffic in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They were charged for disorderly conduct. Shame on us, who are doing very little at addressing climate change, leaving the consequences to be dealt with by younger generations, yet arresting them for raising their voices against climate change.


The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Political, Technical

Welcome to the age of climate change

Our planet is under tremendous stress now. During the last week of January, major cities in the US Midwest and Northeast were colder than some regions in Antarctica. Temperature in Minneapolis dipped as low as negative 32 degrees Celsius, with the wind chill reaching negative 47. Grand Forks in North Dakota has seen the lowest wind chill at negative 54 degrees. As many as 21 cold-related deaths have been reported so far.

Temperatures during the first week of February rose on average by a whopping 40-50 degrees. However, the reprieve is going to be short-lived as the frigid temperatures are expected to return later this month.

Although the scientifically challenged US president wants global warming to “come back fast”, someone should whisper into his ears that extreme cold spells in the Northern Hemisphere are caused, at least in part, by global warming. Under normal circumstances, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. Emerging research suggests that a warming Arctic distorts the vortex in the North Pole, so that instead of staying where it belongs in winter, closer to the Arctic Circle, the air moves down south into continental United States. Hence, the brutal cold spells. With the rapid warming of the Arctic, the effects of the polar vortex could become more frequent and severe, bringing about more intense periods of cold snaps and storms.

While we are trying to stay warm, down under, Australians are getting baked by record-breaking heat. Over two days in November, temperatures exceeding 40 degrees in Australia’s north wiped out almost one-third of the nation’s fruit bats, also known as spectacled flying foxes. Scores of brumbies—Australian wild horses—in the Northern Territory have fallen victim to the January heatwave, which soared to a high of 47 degrees. They died from starvation and dehydration. More than a million fish have perished in a river in New South Wales as the water temperature surpassed their tolerance limit.

Last summer, many nuclear power plants in Europe halted operation because overheated river water could no longer cool down the reactors. And like many Asian megalopolises, Bangkok is choking on air pollution. Water cannons are used to alleviate the smog that has shrouded the city for weeks.

A series of droughts with little recovery time in the intervals has pushed millions to the edge of survival in the Horn of Africa. Bangladesh is staring at an unprecedented migration problem as hundreds of thousands face a stark choice between inundated coastal areas and urban slums.

California saw its most ruinous wildfires ever in 2018, claiming more than 100 lives and burning down nearly 1.6 million acres. There have even been freak blazes in Lapland and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle. There is ample data to suggest that climate change is the biggest driver of out-of-control wildfires. In colder regions, an unusually warmer climate leads to earlier snowmelt and, consequently, spring arrives earlier. An early spring causes soils to be drier for a longer period of time. Drier conditions and higher temperatures increase not only the likelihood of a wildfire to occur, but also affect its severity and duration.

Typhoon Mangkhut with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour roared across the Philippines and China in September 2018, triggering landslides, extensive flooding and killing some 100 people. The ferocity of the typhoon matched that of Hurricane Florence on the other side of the globe that pummelled the Mid-Atlantic Coast of the United States just four days earlier. The wind speed was 130 miles per hour and the hurricane claimed 36 lives.

Cutting-edge research by climate scientists indicates that the intensity of hurricanes and typhoons is closely connected to global warming. Higher sea levels due to melting of glaciers and Greenland’s ice sheets and warm water give coastal storm surges a higher starting point. Additionally, because hurricanes and tropical storms gain energy from water, their destructive power intensifies. Moreover, as the Earth has warmed, the probability of a storm with high precipitation levels is much higher than it was at the end of the twentieth century.

Besides raising the sea level, climate change is also modifying oceans in different ways. According to a study published in Nature Communications in January 2019, as climate change gradually heats oceans around the globe, it is also making the ocean waves stronger and more deadly.

Climate change is ravaging the natural laboratory in the Galápagos Islands, one of the most pristine and isolated places in the world, where Charles Darwin saw a blueprint for the origin and natural selection of every species, including humans. Today, because of the more frequent El Niño events that have come with warming of the seas, the inhabitants of the islands are trying to cope with the whims of natural selection.

Welcome to the age of climate change! These are just a few examples of multiple weather-related extremes occurring all over the world. They beg the question: Can human beings survive the climate crisis? The answer depends on what we do in the next 10-20 years. It will determine whether our planet will remain hospitable to human life or slide down an irreversible path towards becoming uninhabitable.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “If what we agreed in Paris would be materialised, the temperature would rise more than three degrees.” He is finally seeing eye-to-eye with the mainstream scientists and essentially declared the 2015 Paris Accord a dead deal.

If global temperature indeed increases by more than three degrees, summer heat would become unbearable. In particular, temperatures and humidity levels in cities that are already scorching hot would rise to levels that the human body simply cannot tolerate, researchers warn. More importantly, it would trigger a positive greenhouse effect feedback that would eventually push our planet, according to Guterres, “dramatically into a runaway climate change….” Once the runaway greenhouse effect starts, then Paris-like accords, conferences of parties, rulebooks for adaptation to climate change, or going cold turkey with fossil fuels won’t be able to reverse the situation.

Runaway greenhouse effect is not a “Chinese hoax.” Several billion years ago, Venus was cooler than what it is now and had an abundance of water in oceans overlain by an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The current hellish condition on Venus where the surface temperature is a blistering 460 degrees Celsius was caused by runaway greenhouse effect.

Thus, without a significant adjustment to how we conduct our lives, the possibility of Venus syndrome is quite high. In this scenario, our planet would still keep on spinning, but as the fourth dead ball of rock devoid of life.


Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.