The "Day After Tomorrow" is Sooner than You Think

Did you think the recent film "The Day After Tomorrow" was a fictional account of global warming consequences, or that things like ten or twenty foot rises in sea level and the rapid onset of a new ice age would never happen in your lifetime? Well, think again.

You can now expect rapid, drastic, and even cataclysmic climate change in the next few years, even as early as next year, given the facts revealed in several recent reports. The conditions depicted as a tipping point or trigger in the popular movie "The Day After Tomorrow" are now all but fait accompli.

Here's why. If the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland gets flooded all at one time with too much fresh water from melting glaciers, it will stall the normal mechanism that drives the Gulf Stream. For centuries, salty artic ocean water which has been chilled by the Greenland ice sheet has sunken and then flowed south deep in the Atlantic ocean. In response to the cold water sinking and moving south in the depths, warm water has moved north on the surface to take its place. This flow is the Gulf Stream. The sinking cold, salty water off Greenland is the engine that drives it. But now, due to global warming,1 great quantities of freshwater melt are flowing into the North Atlantic from rapidly melting Artic ice2 and rapidly melting glaciers on top of Greenland.3 The freshwater melt is diluting or displacing the salty artic water whose sinking drives the Gulf Stream. If the Gulf Stream stops, the world is in for really big trouble as depicted in “The Day After Tomorrow.”

I do not know how quickly the current rapid acceleration of ice melt will reach the critical point of stalling the Gulf Stream. But it seems pretty clear that the faster the ice melts, the greater the chances of this catastrophe occurring. The Geological record has shown that it did occur once before, 8200 years ago. At that time "huge North American glacial melt-water lakes flooded down the St. Lawrence River into the North Atlantic when the ice dams restraining the lakes broke."4 This fresh water pooled off of Greenland, causing the engine that drives the Gulf Stream to stop and resulting in turn in the "little ice age," which lasted for about 1100 years. But the precipitating event took as few as 1-10 years.5

I wish this weren't true, but right now it very much appears that we could have as little as one year or a few to ten years before another such event - a "little" ice age - is upon us. Given this alarming scenario, there is definitely reason to question the presently exclusive focus on abating greenhouse gas emissions as the proper response to threats of global warming. Equally or more importantly, we should be planning how we will try to continue our lives while Michigan gets buried under a new set of glaciers. Pretty clearly many of our present practices won't hold up very well under such conditions. Things such as the electric grid and automotive surface transport, with or without gasoline engines, are going to be pretty darn difficult to maintain. Not to mention our present agriculture. . . .

The scenario of the Gulf Stream shutting down will, no doubt, seem fanciful to many, even though it is unfolding before our eyes. The process, it seems, is just too slow for our short term, consumerist imaginations to take seriously. After all, it is unfolding over dozens of months, while our lives are filled with hours and days, weeks at most.

To bring home the urgent need to plan for global warming disasters, and the excruciating ethical dilemmas they will thrust upon us, let us take a different example that is also unfolding before our eyes, even though we have shut them ever so tightly to the obvious questions and implications. Take the recent extreme drought that has gripped the Southeast region of the United States, particularly Atlanta, GA. Recent reports have claimed that Atlanta has as little as 80 days of water supply left.6 Yet, amazingly, as Tom Englehart points out, almost no one seems willing to ask the obvious question, "Then what?"7 (Certainly not anyone in the Bush administration or FEMA). What if the drought continues and the city (and everywhere nearby) does run out of water?

The situation of no water in Atlanta is not removed from the present by years or decades. It could be part of our present next year, even early next year! Or if not then, then the year after or the year after that. And what are we doing to prepare? It should be obvious that once not only the livelihoods, but the very lives of hundreds of thousands, even millions of Atlantans are threatened, one or both of two things will happen. Either some other watersheds (Michigan?) will be forced to export large stocks of fresh water en masse to Atlanta (cost be damned), or very large numbers of Atlantans will be forced to migrate to other locations (Michigan?) that at least hold the promise of access to water.

When people are dying of thirst, environmental arguments over the viability for sports fish of fresh water streams and lakes won't, if you will pardon the expression, hold much water. Other fresh water resources will be taxed heavily, and by people outside of those watersheds (or recently so). But what are we doing to prepare? How will we manage the human dimensions of the problem? How ameliorate the worst impacts of the rapid draw downs? How prevent commercial exploitation of the situation with the result that a very few get filthy rich while the great many die of thirst a little more slowly? And what will we do when the expanded set of watersheds dry up? What then?

These, I submit, are not fanciful questions. They are urgent problems very nearly present right now and oh so very imminent! Such is the real truth of global warming. The larger part of what we will face and what we must come to grips with is not the business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, urgent as that is. The larger problems are to adapt to and ameliorate the disastrous consequences of the warming we have already induced and don't have a prayer of stopping no matter how fast we shut off the causes at our end of the process.

It is long past time to wake up and face the grim prospects of the future we have made for ourselves. It is time to get out of the posture of the proverbial Ostrich (who as a matter of fact is quite smart enough in the face of danger to run like hell), take a good hard look at what's coming, and then act accordingly!

Phil Shepard
Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University

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1. Associated Press, "Scientists: Greenhouse Gas Levels Grave" truthout 10.09.07
http://www.truthout.org/issues_06/101007ED.shtml
2. Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts, By Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, Tuesday 02 October 2007
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/science/earth/02arct.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
3. Paul Brown, "Say Goodbye to the Big Apple" Alternet.org 10.10.07
http://www.alternet.org/environment/64735/
4 The Science of Abrupt Climate Change: Should we be worried?
http://www.wunderground.com/education/abruptclimate.asp
5. Little Ice Age: Big Chill (History Channel's "Inconvenient Truth" About Global Cooling), History Channel | August 31, 2006
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1693453/posts
6.“Dry—And Getting Drier: The severe drought has Georgians praying for rain—and battling with their neighbors.” By Lynn Waddell and Arian Campo-Flores | Newsweek Web Exclusive Nov 16, 2007 
http://www.newsweek.com/id/70681
7. "As the World Burns," Tom Englehart, truthout 11.15.07
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/111607E.shtml

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