The World's Weather Has Gone Haywire, by Gar Smith / The-Edge
The Shadow of Extinction, by George Monbiot / The Guardian (London)
August 22, 2003

The World's Weather Has Gone Haywire
Gar Smith / The-Edge

In July, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released an alarming report that concluded "record extreme [weather] events (high temperatures, low temperatures and high rainfall amounts and droughts)...have been increasing" everywhere around the globe. The WMO compiles weather reports from 158 countries.

The London Independent called the report an "unprecedented warning" that signaled "the world's weather is going haywire."

The WMO noted that summer temperatures in southern France were 7C above normal while Switzerland registered the hottest June in at least 250 years. Heatwaves in India killed thousands, cylcones destroyed farms and homes across Asia and the US was raked by 562 tornadoes in a single month.

Record triple-digit temperatures have descended on Europe, the Middle East and Asia, drying rivers, frying farmlands, and overwhelming cities.

In Europe, the Swiss Alps were melting and railroad traffic was halted as rails twisted and bent in the heat. In Europe's towns and cities, thousands died, smothered beneath a deadly blanket of superheated summer air.

Nuclear powerplants in Germany, France, Croatia and Slovenia were powered down or closed as river water used to cool the reactors ebbed to 160-year lows and became too warm to use.

Nuclear-free Austria was affected by power shortages as its hydroelectric powerplants began to run dry. As the land turned tinder-dry, massive wildfires raged across Europe.

In the Southern Hemisphere, rising temperatures threaten Australia's Great Barrier Reef - the world's most extensive range of living coral. The reef could vanish within the next 50 years. The Australian Institute of Marine Science predicts that ocean surface temperatures could rise a feverish 4.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century. (Concerned over the loss of a $1.3 billion-a-year tourist attraction, Australia plans to increase the extent of the region's protected marine sanctuaries from the current 4.5 percent to 30 percent.)

Animals are also affected. Reuters reports that "eels in the Rhine and chickens in Bosnia and Brittany have succumbed by the thousands. Some 25,000 chickens were stricken in German cuckoos are migrating earlier and butterflies are breeding three times instead of once." In Germany, swifts began their southern migration 10 days earlier than normal.

Storks and birds of prey are in particular peril. Because their nests are exposed to the sun, their chicks may not be able to survive the heat. Birds fly less in hotter, thinner air that reduces their ability to hunt for food. Because the heat has killed many plants, there are fewer insects for the birds and other animals to eat.

The Danube fell to its lowest levels in a century. In Romania, canals dried out and caught fire. Lakes have fallen to half their capacity and oxygen levels declined so precipitously that fishing was banned in many waters.

The surface temperature of the Mediterranean has soared to 88 F (31 Celsius) and sea temperatures south of Barcelona have registered unprecedented highs. While most fish can migrate downward to colder waters, starfish, anemones and plankton (the "building blocks" of the marine food chain) will be trapped in sizzling seas.

Global temperatures rose .7 Celsius in the last ten years of the 20th century and World Wildlife Fund Senior Scientist Lara Hansen warns that "predictions for this century, based on the current rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions, is for an increase of more than that."

While this may all sound like the fulfillment of Biblical Prophesy, it is actually more the fulfillment of Environmental Prophesy. Environmental organizations and scientists have been warning of the consequences of climate change for more than 30 years. There is no pleasure in wearing the mantle of Cassandra as these dire predictions move from the easily forgotten pages of scientific journals and environmental tracts to the front-page headlines of magazines and newspapers around the planet.

The truth remains that extreme weather may prove (short of nuclear war) the most dangerous "weapon of mass destruction."

Now comes word (and geological evidence) that the planet is closer to the environmental brink than we have feared. In the following report, British environmental writer George Monbiot confronts frightening new evidence that suggests the mass extinctions of the Permian period were not caused by external events (the impact of a massive asteroid) but were precipitated -- with alarming speed -- by a run-away escalation of global warming.

The trigger-effect of the Permian extermination was apparently a massive convulsion of volcanic eruptions. Today, a similar assault on the planet's atmosphere is being engineered by human enterprise -- a massive convulsion of industrial pollution may have put life on planet Earth on the fast-track to extinction.

The Shadow of Extinction
George Monbiot / The Guardian

LONDON (July 1, 2003) - It is old news, I admit. Two hundred and fifty-one million years old, to be precise. But the story of what happened then, which has now been told for the first time, demands our urgent attention. Its implications are more profound than anything taking place in Iraq, or Washington, or even (and I am sorry to burst your bubble) Wimbledon.

Unless we understand what happened, and act upon that intelligence, prehistory may very soon repeat itself, not as tragedy, but as catastrophe.

The events that brought the Permian period (between 286 million and 251 million years ago) to an end could not be clearly determined until the mapping of the key geological sequences had been completed. Until recently, palaeontologists had assumed that the changes that took place then were gradual and piecemeal. But three years ago a precise date for the end of the period was established, which enabled geologists to draw direct comparisons between the rocks laid down at that time in different parts of the world.

Having done so, they made a shattering discovery. In China, South Africa, Australia, Greenland, Russia and Svalbard, the rocks record an almost identical sequence of events, taking place not gradually, but relatively instantaneously. They show that a cataclysm caused by natural processes almost brought life on Earth to an end. They also suggest that a set of human activities that threatens to replicate those processes could exert the same effect, within the lifetimes of some of those who are on earth today.

As the professor of paleontology Michael Benton records in his new book, When Life Nearly Died, the marine sediments deposited at the end of the Permian period record two sudden changes. The first is that the red or green or gray rock laid down in the presence of oxygen is suddenly replaced by black muds of the kind deposited when oxygen is absent.

At the same time, an instant shift in the ratio of the isotopes of carbon within the rocks suggests a spectacular change in the concentration of atmospheric gases. On land, another dramatic transition has been dated to precisely the same time. In Russia and South Africa, gently deposited mudstones and limestones suddenly give way to massive dumps of pebbles and boulders.

But the geological changes are minor in comparison with what happened to the animals and plants. The Permian was one of the most biologically diverse periods in the Earth's history. Herbivorous reptiles the size of rhinos were hunted through forests of tree ferns and flowering trees by saber-toothed predators. At sea, massive coral reefs accumulated, among which lived great sharks, fish of all kinds and hundreds of species of shell creatures.

Then suddenly there is almost nothing. The fossil record very nearly stops dead. The reefs die instantly, and do not reappear on earth for 10 million years. All the large and medium-sized sharks disappear, most of the shell species, and even the great majority of the toughest and most numerous organisms in the sea, the plankton. Among many classes of marine animals, the only survivors were those adapted to the near-absence of oxygen.

On land, the shift was even more severe. Plant life was almost eliminated from the earth's surface. The four-footed animals, the category to which humans belong, were nearly exterminated: so far only two fossil reptile species have been found anywhere on earth that survived the end of the Permian. The world's surface came to be dominated by just one of these, an animal a bit like a pig. It became ubiquitous because nothing else was left to compete with it or to prey upon it.

Altogether, Benton shows, some 90 percent of the Earth's species appear to have been wiped out: this represents by far the gravest of the mass extinctions. The world's "productivity" (the total mass of biological matter) collapsed.

Ecosystems recovered very slowly. No coral reefs have been found anywhere on earth in the rocks laid down over the following 10 million years. One hundred and fifty million years elapsed before the world once again became as biodiverse as in the Permian.

Ancient Mass Extinction Caused by Global Warming
So what happened? Some scientists have argued that the mass extinction was caused by a meteorite. But the evidence they put forward has been undermined by further studies. There is a more persuasive case for a different explanation. For many years, geologists have been aware that at some point during or after the Permian there was a series of gigantic volcanic eruptions in Siberia. The lava was dated properly for the first time in the early 1990s.

We now know that the principal explosions took place 251 million years ago, precisely at the point at which life was almost extinguished. The volcanoes produced two gases: sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The sulphur and other effusions caused acid rain, but would have bled from the atmosphere quite quickly.

The carbon dioxide, on the other hand, would have persisted. By enhancing the greenhouse effect, it appears to have warmed the world sufficiently to have destabilized the super concentrated frozen gas called methane hydrate, locked in sediments around the polar seas. The release of methane into the atmosphere explains the sudden shift in carbon isotopes.

Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The result of its release was runaway global warming: a rise in temperature led to changes that raised the temperature further, and so on. The warming appears, alongside the acid rain, to have killed the plants. Starvation then killed the animals.

Global warming also seems to explain the geological changes. If the temperature of the surface waters near the poles increases, the circulation of marine currents slows down, which means that the ocean floor is deprived of oxygen. As the plants on land died, their roots would cease to hold together the soil and loose rock, with the result that erosion rates would have greatly increased.

So how much warming took place? A sharp change in the ratio of the isotopes of oxygen permits us to reply with some precision: 6C. Benton does not make the obvious point, but another author, the climate change specialist Mark Lynas, does. Six degrees is the upper estimate produced by the UN's scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for global warming by 2100.

A conference of some of the world's leading atmospheric scientists in Berlin [in June] concluded that the IPCC's model may have underestimated the problem: the upper limit, they now suggest, should range between 7 and 10 degrees. Neither model takes into account the possibility of a partial melting of the methane hydrate still present in vast quantities around the fringes of the polar seas.

Suddenly, the events of a quarter of a billion years ago begin to look very topical indeed. One of the possible endings of the human story has already been told. Our principal political effort must now be to ensure that it does not become set in stone.

George Monbiot's book The Age of Consent: a Manifesto for a New World Order is published by Flamingo. His website is

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003,

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