Stress, Wildfires and Tipping Points

Imagining a future where every possible thing has been done

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 to 12 minute read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.

My personal ecosystem was under considerable stress when a little push from an extreme event in Mexico put me on my back in an open air medical clinic unable to communicate. 

This is an analogy about climate change stress, extreme heat and wildfires.

Here, briefly then, is my story.

Shivering in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

I flew out freezing cold Toronto in the wee hours and arrived in steamy Cancun, Mexico after three hours of sleep and too much caffeine. About 10 hours before that flight, the Mexican government withdrew their sponsorship of my trip to cover a major conservation conference in Mexico. I scrambled to make my own arrangements late into the night with my stress levels sky high.

About 24 hours later I was hiking with a group in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about two hours south of Cancun. We’d been going a few hours through a thick, wet coastal forest when I noticed our native Mayan guide was constantly wiping the sweat off this face. It was around 30C and extremely humid but I was sweat-free as someone who’d stepped out of one of these over air-conditioned luxury resorts that mar the coastline all the way back to Cancun. 

By the time we camped by a lagoon that evening I was so exhausted I couldn’t even bother to swat the clouds of mosquitos eager to feast on their first human flesh in weeks. I was drinking gallons of water and peeing it all out in pitch black night filled with their hungry buzz. By dawn I was shaking as if freezing to death in the humid heat. A few hours later after a rough ride in an old truck I found myself in a sparsely furnished open air medical clinic with locals staring at me as they walked by. 

The doctor did a pretty through exam after he realized I hadn't been boozing on the beach. An hour after being hooked up to an IV and getting some kind of injection, my lower belly suddenly felt like it was on fire. Unable to communicate with the non-English speaking doctor and nurse, I was convinced my appendix had ruptured as they painfully probed my belly. Not only terrified of the idea of my first surgery ever, it was doubly terrifying it would be emergency surgery while I was alone in a foreign country and with an audience of passers-by.

Turns out I had gas. And soon after a major attack of diarrhea. That’s not uncommon when someone is suffering from heat stroke. 

I’d been in hot and humid countries previously without getting heat stroke. I generally like hot and humid weather. However I was physically and mental exhausted by the time I got to Sian Ka’an. So even an easy hike, in what was extreme heat and humidity coming from frigid Toronto, was too much for my over-stressed body. It’s not much different for stressed ecosystems that experience extreme events.  

California and much of the southwest US have been under drought stress for the last 20 years. This ongoing megadrought is considered as bad as any drought in the region for the past 1200 years. Climate change has pushed what would have been a moderate drought in southwestern North America into megadrought territory concluded a recent study in the journal Science. 

One of the need-to-knows about climate change is that it’s making dry areas drier and wet areas wetter. This drying of the western US is going to continue according to one of the study co-authors.

There’s also been a historic long-heat wave in the region, with Death Valley, California reaching what is likely a world record high of 54.4 degrees C (130 degrees F). Phoenix, Arizona has had a record-smashing 50 days this summer where temps reached 44 degrees C (110 degrees F). The previous record was 33 days. Official temperature measurements are taken at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, but it is often 9 to 12 degrees C (15 to 20 degrees F) hotter in the city itself due to the urban heat island effect. Patricia Solís of Arizona State University told me that outside temperatures in one of the city’s trailer parks averaged 18 degrees C (30 degrees F) higher than the airport.   

California’s wildfires could have burned a strip around the Earth twice

This summer’s extreme heat have lit a match to an ecosystem stressed by two decades of drought. Wildfires in California have burned more than two million acres or 840,000 hectares, a modern day record. The scale of this is difficult to grasp, so here’s an easier way to look at it. Imagine each hectare of burned area (a hectare is 2.47 acres) aligned in a long row. Now picture yourself driving down a road the middle of each scorched hectare. How long do you think it would it take to drive from one end to the other at 100 kph (62 mph)?  

Go ahead and guess

Four hours? 10? 50? Not even close. It would take 840 hours. That’s 35 full days, driving 24 hours a day at 100 kph to get from one end to the other. It’d be like taking a couple laps around the Earth.

Over the recent Labour Day weekend California endured a record-setting heat wave, sparking new fires and forcing evacuations with months yet to go in the state’s wildfire season.

Other western states are also experiencing serious wildfires with Colorado’s Pine Gulch Fire the largest wildfire in the state’s history, burning over 56,200 ha (138,800 acres).

[Update Sept 10: Sadly the California fires have now burned 2.5 million acres and increasing. Combined with wildfires in other western states some 4.2 million acres (1.7 million ha) have been destroyed. So far.

We can no longer ignore the clear stamp of climate change…. Congress must act on climate -- now.”  — Environment America ]

This brings me to a couple of other need-to-knows. The first is that we’re not very good at comprehending the scale of impacts — the stresses— humanity is subjecting ecosystems to. Sure, there’s plenty of scientific reports with big numbers documenting much of this but there’s largely been a failure on our part to comprehend the scale and significance. It’s a bit like flying in a plane and hardly anyone notices the rivets holding it together are popping out. 

The second need-to-know is that ecosystems under stress from climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, pollution, and so on are vulnerable to extreme events. Scientists have identified a number of large-scale ecosystems — the Amazon rainforest, the West Antarctic ice sheet, Arctic permafrost region, etc — as vulnerable systems because they can cross critical thresholds and abruptly and irreversibly change. These sudden shifts are called tipping points. 

So if our plane is only losing a few rivets, it could probably fly for some time. But what if it encounters a storm? That might tigger a tipping point, and our plane may not be able to keep flying.

There’s evidence that tipping points have already been triggered in some large-scale ecosystems such as the Arctic sea ice. One summer, not many years from now, the Arctic sea ice will melt completely away. That’s a fundamental change in one of the key drivers of the global climate system. There will be significant impacts not only in the Arctic but also the Northern Hemisphere. No one knows what all of the knock-on impacts will be.

Another need-to-know is that these ecosystems are deeply interconnected and can have planetary-scale impacts. This risk warranted a declaration of a planetary climate emergency Katherine Richardson, a professor of biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen told me last year.

Richardson said the only way to minimize this existential risk requires keeping global warming as close to 1.5 degrees C as possible by reducing carbon emissions to zero as fast as possible.

COVID-safe and climate friendly

I find living with the pandemic exhausting and stressful. This is mostly self-induced. When I’ve forgotten about the pandemic for a most of a day I’m fine. Striking a balance between needless, paralyzing anxiety and prudent caution is challenging. That make’s it hard to summon any energy or attention for climate change especially when there’s no apparent, immediate risk. And yet it is our immediate, daily activities that can make climate change worse. 

Fortunately many COVID-19 risk-reducing activities like walking, cycling and generally being outside more are good for us and the climate. Global carbon emissions plummeted during the first few months of the pandemic as various sectors shut down. While that proved massive reductions are possible, it wasn’t the best way to go about achieving them. Green economic recoveries could kick start a drive for zero emissions while creating jobs and bringing prosperity. That would be like replacing rivets in our damaged plane with something more durable and sustainable. 

Exercise your imagination through time travel

On an individual level I try to make daily decisions that are COVID-safe and likely to have low or no carbon emissions. And I’m trying to engage my imagination to envision how great everything will be when we’ve sorted all this out. You can’t create something new and better if you can’t imagine it in the first place. And despite this I find it very difficult to do, especially now. So I’m going to start trying Rob Hopkin’s visualization exercise. Rob is a co-founder of Transition Towns — places that are on their way to lower emissions and better living. Here’s how Rob tell’s it:

We’re going to attempt the first act of time travel. 

It’s a historic event so we’re lucky to be here to do it. 

So let’s close our eyes and get ready to travel ten years into the future. 

When we get there we’ll find every possible thing has been done during those ten years. It’s a time of extraordinary social reorganization and a time of cascading positive change. It’s world where we’re at zero carbon and everything is thriving and wonderful as a result.

Now we’re going to turn on the time machine and travel there. 

“Hmmmm” — that’s the sound it makes —and we’re there.

Just spend the next two or three minutes walking around with your imagination. 

Use all of your senses, what does it sound like, smell like, feel like.

As soon as you’re able tell someone about what the future you saw and felt like.

Talking about your time travel trip helps make that imagined future more tangible, more possible. Despite the mess we’re in, it’s important to be optimistic, capable and in control. We can all do things we never thought possible. Being physically active and connected to nature helps regulate mood and boosts confidence. A better, more prosperous future for children and grandchildren is possible.

Until next time, stay safe. 


P.S. Final thought. Resilience.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California is home to ancient redwoods, some 300 feet tall and as old as 2,000 years. While intense wildfires devastated the park and surrounding area, the giants survived.

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