Save Ourselves

Climate Scientists on the Most Shocking Thing They’ve Seen

“When you walk under a tree in one of these heat waves... You see dead birds on the ground.”
November 30, 2021, 9:15am
the world on fire
Photo: Khanthachai Chaitrakulpiboon / Alamy Stock Photo

Climate change will be fixed, won’t it? That’s what the big-balls-of-humanity have boldly told themselves for the past few decades, when it seemed like climate disasters were at least a hundred years away, a charity would save the polar bears and the politicians would actually get their shit together in time to restore the rainforest and protect the ice caps.

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The stark reality of the climate crisis is that most of our world-saving options are slipping away, especially as the entire world experiences environmental disasters like floods, droughts and large-scale wildfires. Plus, with COP26 largely considered a letdown and reports confirming that we are already on track for a terrible future, it feels like nothing more can shock our disaster-addled brains.

There is still room to be extremely terrified. With reports that fruit is cooking on trees in Australia due to inhumanely hot temperatures and New Yorkers drowning in their basements because of flash-flooding, tangible examples of the climate crisis are becoming more and more frequent. It’s here, and it’s happening now. But what’s shocking those on the front lines the most? VICE spoke to five climate scientists to find out.

‘I never thought I would see what is normally a flooded forest actually be on fire’

“Before COVID, I would spend a few months of the year in the tropics. I was part of a team that mapped the world's largest tropical peatland, which is in the centre of the Congo Basin [in the Congo River]. In February 2020, to get into the peat swamp forests, I had to walk through a swamp forest. But what is normally a flooded forest was actually on fire, because that’s how hot and dry it was. I never thought I would see myself walking through a burning fire to get inside this huge wetland forest area. It was truly shocking.” — Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University College London and University of Leeds

‘There are going to be mass food shortages’

“I'm a conservation scientist and have been one for about 15 years. From 2005 to 2015, I was based in Madagascar, which has been in the news the last few months because of a famine it's suffering in the country’s south. This has been labelled as the world's first climate change famine. As North America and Europe are waking up to massive climate impacts just over this last couple of years, in Madagascar, famines and droughts have been going on a lot longer than that.

“In the south of Madagascar, there's a highly rural population and most people are farmers. As there’s no irrigation infrastructure, farming is dependent on rainfall and when you’re dependent on rainfall, you need to know when it's going to rain so you can sow your seeds at the right time. It used to be really predictable and the rain always arrived in November. But over the [time I spent there], the rainy season has become really unpredictable.

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“Because of this, agriculture is much less reliable as a livelihood than it used to be – and from my research, people abandon farming as a livelihood. This decline of agricultural production is without a doubt the biggest issue facing global society. The vast majority of the world's crops are struggling to grow in areas that will be no longer suitable for them within years or decades. So there are going to be mass food shortages around the world in the near future. 

“There's a growing field of social science called ‘collapse-ology’, which tries to understand and predict the risks of global civilisational collapse. The main trigger for collapse is similar to what they call ‘simultaneous breadbasket failure’. If several of the world's major breadbaskets suffer agricultural failure at the same time, then the civil unrest that will cause will be sufficient to collapse organised human society.” — Dr Charlie Gardner, interdisciplinary researcher, conservationist and activist

‘When you walk under a tree in one of these heatwaves that we've been getting in Los Angeles, you see dead birds on the ground’

“I’m not a field scientist, but in some ways, I am, because I live through these heatwaves. Some of them break 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius). I've got trees that die in my yard because it's too hot. Last year, there was a wildfire a few miles away – it was a really big one and it burned for a long time. We were literally in a smoke cloud for over a month and started getting real health impacts from that. 

“When you walk under a tree in one of these heat waves that we've been getting in Los Angeles, you see dead birds on the ground. It's another level of emotional intensity and realisation of how not normal ‘this’ is and what a deep emergency we're really heading into. That's the kind of visceral bodily stuff that has affected me the most. 

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“I love a part of Sierra Nevada here in California called the John Muir Trail, it's about 200 miles long. We went back for a hike in June 2021 and there was a remarkable number of dead trees that hadn't been dead before. There should have been a lot of snow and streams running that we see in August, but none of that was there in June, which is just shocking.

“People drowning in their basements in New York, because of rainfall in their basement apartments, really struck me. That was one that I hadn't seen coming. It's like this truth is stranger than fiction thing happening, but in a really bad way. That and the 2021 heat dome event – a high-pressure event that just kept the hot weather over this one region for a long time and just cooked it – are really harbingers of the coming years and coming decades. What really struck me about the heat dome event was the aquatic life basically cooking to death in the hot water. We were basically making fish soup.” — Peter Kalmus, data scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and associate project scientist at UCLA's Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering

‘I remember sitting there with a coffee in the morning and being like, “fuck”.’

“On the Greenland ice sheet, which is quite high and really cold, there’s a station on the top of that, which is very fittingly called Summit Station. It started raining there this year, in contrast to the snow fall you would usually expect. We saw rain for the first time on record. It was so surprising that we didn’t really have the right instrumentation to actually measure how much rain there was because it's completely unprecedented. 

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“The melt rates that were observed in Greenland over that year – and also 2012, but particularly in 2019 – are the kind models were predicting for 50 years down the line. The projections for the end of the century are scary enough, let alone if they're happening 50 years earlier.

“A colleague of mine published some research fairly recently that shows the sea level rise projections are tracking with the worst-case scenario. When I read that paper, I remember sitting there with a coffee in the morning and being like, ‘fuck’. We as climate scientists are completely desensitised – it's quite rare that you get an actual piece of scientific literature that hits you right in the feels.” — Dr Ella Gilbert, a University of Reading climate scientist who works on the impact of aviation on climate and polar climate change

‘Corals didn't die slowly of starvation, they died quickly because they were cooked’

“Recently, we’ve seen three coral bleaching events in very quick succession. In 2016, one of the things that surprised us was the amount of coral that died because of bleaching. Across a nine month period, 30 percent of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef died, mostly in the northern third, which stretches out over 700km. 

“The normal narrative is that bleached corals are nutritionally compromised – when they bleach, they don't have the photosynthesis going on with the algae. If the algae doesn’t grow back and repopulate the coral, it will slowly die of starvation. But in 2016, corals didn't die slowly of starvation – they died quickly because they were cooked. We had satellite-based information, which told us which parts of the reef were hot and cold, and for how long.  That year, we saw prolonged rises of sea temperatures of two or three degrees centigrade above the long-standing summer maximum.

“Think about the scale of the Great Barrier: It's 2,300 kilometres long. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the size of Italy – it’s 70 million football fields. To see approximately 50 percent mortality of corals was off the scale. We're used to periodic cyclone damage and when the cyclone crosses the Great Barrier Reef, the path of damage is typically 50 or 100 kilometres wide. The damage in 2016 was 700 kilometres wide. It’s very confronting.” — Prof Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

@thediyora