In my last post, I discussed my increasing conviction that we’re heading for a sudden, catastrophic climatic event. By “sudden”, I mean just that: not a gradual change over centuries or decades — something to which we might, if we’re lucky, be able to adapt — but an event that will overwhelm us over a matter of a few years or even a single year or season. This is not something that’s often discussed (unless you’re a follower of Whitley Strieber’s Superstorm theory); climate change, while generally accepted these days as being real and clearly very dangerous, is usually discussed in terms of it being a gradual process.
Now a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal suggests that many of Earth’s climate systems will undergo a series of sudden shifts this century as a result of human-induced climate change.
While not specifically mentioning superstorms, the report’s authors highlight several areas of concern, some of which are linked to the conditions required to set off a chain of events that could lead to a superstorm. Professor Tim Lenton from the University of East Anglia, the lead researcher on the study, told the BBC: “Our findings suggest that a variety of tipping elements could reach their critical point within this century under human-induced climate change. The greatest threats are tipping of the Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland ice sheet, and at least five other elements could surprise us by exhibiting a nearby tipping point.”
A “tipping point” is a point beyond which, once a process has started, it will not stop, or reverse, but continue — and most likely accelerate in pace — until the imbalance of energy driving the process reaches a new state of equilibrium. These are the elements they’ve ranked in their order of importance, and the time they would take to undergo a major transition once their tipping points are crossed:
Melting of Arctic sea-ice (about 10 years) Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (about 300 years) Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (about 300 years) Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (including the Gulf Stream) (about 100 years) Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (about 100 years) Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (about 1 year) Greening of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (about 10 years) Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (about 50 years) Dieback of the Boreal Forest (about 50 years)
Apart from the collapse of the Indian monsoon season, there’s no other mention of climatic collapse within a single year, or a single season — but still, considering how many people on the Indian sub-continent rely on the annual monsoon, that’s reason enough for the world to be concerned. Usually occurring from June through to September, some areas of the sub-continent receive up to 10,000mm of precipitation during the south-west summer monsoon — that’s around 393 inches, or an incredible 33 feet of rain. There are other branches of this monsoon too: there’s the Arabian Sea Branch and the Bay of Bengal Branch and, after September, the Retreating Monsoon also provides further rainfall. A sustained collapse of the Indian monsoon season would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions that would threaten many, many millions of lives throughout some of the world’s poorest and most densely-packed countries.
The annual melting of the Arctic sea ice is something I covered in my post The Maya And The Arctic Meltdown — where scientists confirmed that the pace of the melt is such that Arctic waters could be ice-free each summer (with ice returning each winter) by 2012, confirming the PNAS research team’s findings. This event is one of the indicators that conditions conducive to superstorm formation could be intensifying.
Another superstorm formation indicator, the collapse of the Gulf Stream, part of the Thermohaline Circulation, was covered in Superstorm Authors Vindicated — where a previous collapse of the Gulf Stream 8,000 years ago, caused by a massive and sudden influx of fresh water into the north Atlantic from the north American continent, shut down the Gulf Stream within a decade or so and caused a drop in the region’s temperature of about 8°C. The Thermohaline Circulation, of which the Gulf Stream is an integral part, is a worldwide oceanic circulation pattern and, as such, it may well be that it would take 100 years to shut down. Research suggests that it has completely collapsed in the past, causing oceanic anoxic events (lack of oxygen in the water) which in turn led to global mass extinction events. My immediate concern, however, is that the Gulf Stream section of the circulation could be disrupted far more quickly by a localised influx of fresh water from the Arctic meltdown. This could cause a sudden and dramatic lowering of temperature in the northern hemisphere. Many years of freezing conditions could follow — made worse still by a superstorm, triggered as the energy imbalance seeks to redistribute itself.
The researchers warn that these systems that influence the Earth’s weather patterns could begin to collapse suddenly if there’s even a slight increase in global temperatures. They also argue that society should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the idea that climate change will be a gradual process. On a more positive note, they demonstrate how, in principle, early warning systems could be established using real-time monitoring and modelling to detect the proximity of certain tipping points.
Such a system of monitoring will require considerable financial investment from governments and other agencies, as well as time to set up and put in place. It’s to be hoped they don’t dither for too long, otherwise the opportunity for adaptation will be lost and, without sufficient warning, we might find ourselves overwhelmed by catastrophic events.
When The Coming Global Superstorm was first published in 2000, co-authors Art Bell and Whitley Strieber were ridiculed by climatologists and sceptics alike for talking arrant nonsense — which makes New Scientist magazine’s cautious reappraisal of their theory all the more significant
This book was the inspiration behind the 2004 blockbuster movie The Day After Tomorrow. Directed by Roland Emmerich, it was a box-office success, much to the annoyance of the climatological community, who complained that it was based on pseudo science — a phrase used to describe theories they don’t like from people they distrust, which is usually anyone outside their own ranks. The two authors behind this book, who had no formal qualifications as climate experts, were easy targets.
Look at their past track records (as the scientific community would describe them): Art Bell — a paranormalist talk show radio host (now semi-retired), and Whitley Strieber, an author obsessed with aliens and UFOs. Cranks, obviously. And in it for the money, no doubt — after all, just look how successful the film’s been.
Bell and Strieber say that the processes culminating in a superstorm will be triggered in part by a dramatic weakening, or even cessation, of the Gulf Stream, the oceanic current that conveys warm water from the equatorial regions of the Atlantic to the cooler regions of the northern hemisphere. The weakening would be caused by a massively accelerated melt of the northern ice sheets owing to sharply rising temperatures, exacerbated by unusually warm air flowing across the north polar region. The atmosphere above the arctic could become very unstable and if a certain tipping-point is reached, fierce supercell storms could suddenly form, bringing extremely difficult conditions to Europe and North America. The gravest scenario has the supercells merging into one huge, devastating superstorm that might last for weeks until the pent-up atmospheric energy is dissipated and equilibrium is restored. Such a storm could dump billions of tons of snow upon much of the northern hemisphere with devastating climatic consequences that might have to be endured for hundreds of years. (Other theories are available — see Climate Change: Competing Theories and Climate Change: Sunspots? Or Us?)
Rubbish, said the climatologists. It’s all based on bad science — pseudo science. Especially the atmospheric stuff. Nothing like this could happen in a few weeks, or even a few decades. These events would take much longer to play out, even if the science was good. The ice cap won’t even start to seriously melt for another hundred years at least.
The sceptics got in on the act too. As a typical example, take this vitriolic piece — a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) review of the movie published online in May 2004, just before the film’s worldwide release. A few quotes will serve to highlight what I mean:
The Day After Tomorrow presents climate change cataclysms that no respected scientist considers realistic … the science depicted in the film is generally agreed, by all knowledgeable commentators, to be pretty much loony … the origins of the film’s plot apparently involves a sudden collapse of the Gulf Stream that unleashes a devastating new Ice Age. The conceit seems based on a book by UFO enthusiasts Whitley Strieber and Art Bell entitled The Coming Global Superstorm … “ Insulting Bell and Strieber by describing them as bozos, the article adds that climatologists have stated clearly that the scenarios depicted in the film are absurd.
On 6th December 2007, in an item called Ancient Flood Brought Gulf Stream To A Halt, the journal reported on research describing an event that was the biggest climate event of the last 10,000 years and which caused the most dramatic change in the weather since humans began farming.
It was just over 8,000 years ago when Lake Agassiz, a huge glacial lake in Canada, burst its banks and dumped an estimated 100,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water into the North Atlantic. Researchers are now certain that this catastrophic event shut down the Gulf Stream and cooled parts of the northern hemisphere by several degrees for more than a hundred years.
The findings, say the scientists, show that modelling studies are correct in suggesting that something similar could happen with equal abruptness as the planet warms under human influence.
The report adds that the film The Day After Tomorrow, which portrays such a scenario, may have exaggerated — but not by much.
Climate historians have long known about the sudden collapse of Lake Agassiz, which they’ve established emptied down the Hudson Strait and into the Labrador Sea west of Greenland, very close to a key point in the global ocean circulation system where Atlantic water brought north on the Gulf Stream freezes, and dense, saline, leftover water plunges to the ocean floor.
Investigators now think that the huge volume of water from the draining lake refreshed the ocean water so much that this plunging ceased, shutting down the circulation, including the Gulf Stream, which keeps countries around the North Atlantic warm. That would explain why Greenland ice cores show temperatures in the area plummeting by up to 8°C.
Helga Kleiven and colleagues at the University of Bergen, Norway have found proof that this is exactly what happened. They carried out a detailed study of sediments on the floor of the Labrador Sea and found clear signs of major changes exactly when the lake emptied and the temperatures dropped.
The research also shows that the changes were abrupt, happening within a decade or so, in warm climate conditions not unlike those of today.
Bell and Strieber may not hold professional climatological qualifications. But despite their unusual backgrounds — in fact, because of their unusual backgrounds — they’re certainly not bozos and they don’t deserve to be insulted in such a derogatory fashion. Using what they’ve learnt over the years, they carefully researched the subject and filtered their findings through the prism of this experience, applying an attribute they each hold in spades to make sense of what they uncovered: they used their imaginations to put together the pieces of a complex jigsaw and came up with a striking theory, aspects of which are being verified with each passing year. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Einstein. Events are demonstrating how true that is.
I’ve no doubt Art and Whitley are familiar with another axiom, from Schopenhauer, who observed that all truth passes through three stages: first, it’s ridiculed; second, it’s violently opposed; and third, it’s accepted as self-evident. Well, it’s good that we seem to have cleared the first two stages with this theory and, if the New Scientist item is any indication, we’re moving into the third. Good job too. There’s no time to spare.
My dear reader — please note that this post includes some quite hefty animated GIFs which might take a little extra time to download. Your patience is appreciated. Most graphics and photos can be clicked to see larger versions, my photo collections at Flickr, or to access other web sites.
Never having been to Cornwall, I was full of anticipation when Marcy and I set off (in our brand new car) for one of Britain’s most ancient and mystical counties on Monday 24th September for a four-night stay. Its beautiful, varied landscape of fields and moorland, its rugged, spectacular coastline dotted with sandy coves and its mild, kind — though sometimes fickle — climate make it a popular tourist destination, bringing many financial benefits to its population of some 513,000 residents. Despite the tourist trade, it’s said to be one of the poorer areas of Britain — its principal source of income, the tin mines, closed long ago — and for all I know it is, in financial terms at least. To many, though, it’s rich in so many other ways.
People of great character, mettle and vision have helped forge Cornwall’s history and landscape. We’ll meet a few along the way, both in this and the next Cornwall post, as well as visit some astonishing achievements in construction, both old and new, blending into Kernow’s landscape and looking as though they might have been hewn out of the very rock or grown from seed, enhancing the area’s already attractive, unique natural attributes — its big country and open skies.
And of course there’s the coast — cliffs of high, hard granite that have resisted the Atlantic Ocean’s winds and currents for millennia and are still standing, still resisting. They’re Kernow’s indomitable line of defence against both the capricious elements and erstwhile invaders, providing some safe havens for ships sheltering against the battering storms as well as harbours for the trawlermen who fish the deep — but these same implacable cliffs can also be the cause of great maritime tragedies, as we’ll discover …
Some who come here appreciate its light, some its sense of spirituality, others its walks, beaches, views and hospitality; we came to soak up just a little of Cornwall’s magical atmosphere for ourselves and take some of it home with us in photos, videos and memories.
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We were booked into a chalet at Carnon Downs Caravan Park, a little south of Cornwall’s only city, Truro. The weather was kind — though a little chilly and showery at times, we nonetheless enjoyed plenty of late September sunshine on our southbound journey. The new Hyundai made easy work of the 180 or so miles from door to door.
Marcy had been to Cornwall several times in the past, so late Monday afternoon, after we’d settled in, we set off to find a local eatery she remembered from a previous visit. It wasn’t far, but my lack of knowledge concerning Cornwall’s geography, despite having studied the road map at length both before we left and during the trip, soon got us into trouble down the narrow, winding lanes, coming across places with unfamiliar names like Bissoe and Twelveheads, Cusgarn, Creegbrawse, Goon Gumpas and Little Sinns — names that soon had my desultory sense of direction spinning. My prime concern was the i30. The roads were so narrow at times, with some really tight blind bends, that any approaching traffic had me cringing in case I scraped the doors on the hedgerows! Locals drove the roads with the assured confidence that locals do everywhere, while we crept along for the most part at a stately 20 or 30mph or so. We never found our intended destination that evening; instead we tried another pub in somewhere like — Penweathers? Or Sparnock? — and were rewarded with an excellent meal.
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On Tuesday, with the weather offering a day of sunny spells and scattered, blustery showers, we decided on Land’s End. (Click this Google Earth image to view a larger image — and click here for the GE placemarker to load the location into your own installation of Google Earth so you can explore it in more detail.) The 40-mile journey from Carnon Downs was conducted on main roads for the most part, until they narrowed for the last few miles to the coast — which seemed to be a feature of all the smaller coastal destinations we visited on this holiday (making driving a brand new vehicle a rather nerve-wracking experience!). It’s the furthest west you can travel, they say, on southern mainland Britain.
When you get there, you realise why: from the lofty vantage point high on the cliffs, you really appreciate the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, stretching off in all directions before you (mind your ears — the wind is loud) …
After the last few remaining teeth of jagged granite disappear under the restless waves, it’s nothing but wind and water for three thousand and some miles to New York — water that’s come all the way from the tropics. It’s the North Atlantic Conveyor, part of the mighty Gulf Stream, and is the driving force behind our climate. Much of it’s travelled north from the equator, past America’s eastern seaboard, then it’s been driven across the north Atlantic by the prevailing westerly winds and prevented from going too far north by the cooler waters surrounding the arctic. It arrives here and warms us by giving up its heat to the moist winds that help drive it onto our coast.
Standing on the cliffs and looking out, I try to imagine it diverted further south — to my left, as it were — by ever more cold water flowing down from the accelerating polar ice melt over there on my right. What would happen? How much will our weather change if the climatologists’ predictions are accurate? Constant gusts of chilly, hard-edged, buffeting wind take my breath away, try to push me off my feet. If the warm water goes, these winds would be fiercely cold all the time. Squalls pass every quarter-hour or so now, throwing inconvenient rain in my face. But more likely by then they’d be carrying sleet, and freezing snow … running for cover, seeking shelter, I bet it’s one of those places where it’s windy even on calm days.
Land’s End is privately owned — Peter de Savary purchased it in 1987 and to the best of my knowledge still owns it. He bought it from another businessman, David Goldstone, who had previously outbid The National Trust for it and then fell into dispute with locals when he started charging an admission fee in 1983. Mr. de Savary paid almost £7m to buy it and invested a further £2m to develop it into a larger tourist attraction with exhibitions, some small souvenir and craft shops and safer pathways. He also pledged not to charge an admission fee — so we only had to pay for the car park, though of course if we wanted to we could have paid to see the Dr. Who exhibition, the Return To The Last Labyrinth and The End To End Story. As it was, we enjoyed a genuine Cornish pasty (so hot it could have melted steel) and a cup of coffee in a little café.
People love to have their photo taken under the famous Land’s End signpost. We were a little taken aback, however, to discover that the sign is privately managed by a man whose family has, apparently, been in charge of it for several decades and charges £9.50 per picture! We decided to save our money and take a quick snap of it from a distance in between the showers …
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Next stop: a few miles east around the coast — the extraordinary Minack Theatre. In this Google Earth image, you can see the marker for Land’s End in the distance. Click the picture for a larger image — and here’s your GE placemarker so you can explore the area for yourself.
When Marcy described it to me, I thought we were about to visit an old Roman construction of an amphitheatre. In a sense, I wasn’t far wrong — I was just out by about 2,000 years. For the Minack Theatre was planned, built and financed by one determined woman: Rowena Cade, who began the project in the 1930s and continued to work on it until her death in 1983.
Rowena was born in Derbyshire in 1893. As a youngster, she always had an interest in the stage. Her family moved to Cheltenham in 1906. After World War 1, Rowena’s mother — who’d lost her husband to the war — moved the family to Cornwall, eventually settling in a rented house at Lamorna. Rowena discovered the nearby Minack headland, purchased it for £100, and built Minack House there using granite from a St. Levan quarry. She staged some plays in her garden, but being short of seating space, she looked around for somewhere more appropriate and hit upon the idea of using the gully above the Minack Rock. The natural slope, she thought, would be ideal for some terraced seating …
During the winter of 1931-32, Rowena — already 38 years old — and two Cornish craftsmen laboured to build a simple stage and some rough seating in time for the first performance there, “The Tempest”. For lighting they used batteries, some car headlights and electricity fed from Minack House.
Amazingly, the nearest Rowena had come to manual work before then was sewing and mucking out horses. She laboured as “apprentice” to her gardener Billy Rawlings and Thomas Angove. The two men cut granite by hand from piles of tumbled boulders, and Rowena helped them carefully inch the stones into place. They in-filled the terraces with earth and smaller stones shovelled down from the higher ledges. And all this work took place on the slope above the sheer drop into the Atlantic! Fortuitously, the only “men overboard” were a few stones and one wheelbarrow …
Rowena worked on each winter, in all weathers, adding to the seating, the performers’ dressing-rooms and the other facilities, until she reached her mid-eighties. This incredible woman died just short of her ninetieth birthday, still thinking about the future. She left behind elaborate sketches suggesting how she thought the theatre might be covered to protect it from the elements, but as yet no-one’s had the cash to put those plans into action.
It’s an astonishing place that’s been the venue for hundreds of open-air performances down through the years. Marcy was lucky enough to watch one in the 1980s and the trustees, the Friends of the Minack Theatre, still put on plays several times a year. You might be surprised to learn that they only lose about two shows a year to inclement weather!
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Our final destination on this first day travelling around Cornwall was Mousehole — pronounced, as near as I can write it phonetically, mahwl’zll, to rhyme with “cows’ll”.
This tiny hamlet suffered a tragic event in 1981 when, on December 19th, the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne and her crew of eight — all from Mousehole — answered a distress call coming from the Union Star, which had got into severe difficulties on its maiden voyage in a hurricane force 12 storm. Winds were gusting up to 90 knots, creating waves of 60 feet in height. The lifeboat’s entire crew — as well as the eight people aboard the Union Star — were lost.
Eye witnesses later reported that despite the appalling conditions, the Solomon Browne‘s incredibly courageous crew — all volunteers — kept moving her alongside the stricken vessel, and at least twice she was thrown right on to the coaster’s deck. On another occasion, she slammed into its side. She appeared to move away under control and her last message confirmed four people had been rescued. A helicopter crew then saw the Solomon Browne, by then only 50 yards offshore, apparently turn back — perhaps in another rescue bid. Radio contact with the lifeboat was lost soon after, and her lights disappeared ten minutes later.
The Solomon Browne
Posthumous awards of gallantry were made to the coxswain, crew and station, and the Queen sent a message of sympathy to the bereaved families of William Trevelyan Richards, aged 56, the Coxswain; James Stephen Madron, 35, Second Coxswain/Mechanic; Nigel Brockman, 43, Assistant Mechanic, a fisherman; John Blewett, 43, Emergency Mechanic, a telephone engineer; Kevin Smith, 23; Barrie Torrie, 33, a fisherman; Charles Greenhaugh, 46, landlord of the Ship Inn in Mousehole, and Gary Wallis, 23.
This was one of the trickiest places to negotiate in a car that I’ve ever been to — the roads in the village, and those leading down to it, are extremely narrow!
A beautiful scene greets you when you eventually crawl down through the steep, winding country lanes and negotiate the tricky turns into one of the few small car parks. We were lucky — the winds had died down and late afternoon sunshine warmed us as we wandered around the quiet little harbour, browsing the sleepy shops, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, listening to the poignant cries of the seagulls and taking in the stunning views. Some elderly men sat on seats by the harbour wall, watching the world go by; we joined them for a while, reflecting quietly on what it must have been like for this close-knit community on that terrible day just before Christmas 1981, when they received the heartbreaking news that eight of their bravest souls had succumbed to the cruel sea whilst trying to save the lives of others …
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Soon it was time for us to journey back to our chalet, play some Scrabble — and prepare ourselves for Wednesday’s destination, the highlight of our holiday: The Eden Project.
To read Cornwall: Part 2 – The Eden Project, click here.