My thoughts on a catastrophic bushfire season in Australia, climate change, deep time, evolution and a wish for the future

Hello there.

Australia, the year is 2020.

Bushfires have touched vast amounts of this ancient dry continent in recent months.  Areas of Australia that hadn’t seen fire for centuries – forests normally to moist to suffer fire risk dried to tinder and burnt.  This bushfire season has been remarkable – setting undesirable records on a number of fronts – starting earlier, burning more area, burning more ferociously, the list goes on.  Climate scientists would not have been surprised at the vigor and fury of Australia’s fires.  Climate change is implicated in so much of the new ‘normal’ – as CO2 continues to increase in concentrations in the upper atmosphere, more of our star’s thermal energy is not just paying Earth a visit, but sticking around.

Of course, increased heat and bushfires is not the sole predicted effect of climate change – we’re seeing signs of mass disturbances in climate generally.  For example, whilst freshwater is not in short supply on this planet, the distribution of that freshwater can most definitely be.  There are regions of Earth where freshwater has long been scarce – think the dry valleys of Antarctica, the rain shadows of various mountain ranges and the interiors of the regions of China, Australia and Africa.  Those regions often have established, pre-climate change reasons for being dry.  What I’m referring to is a newer, more dynamic and unpredictable whereby rainfall patterns themselves are being disturbed.  Taking Australia as an example of this, we’re seeing frequent drought periods, bushfires, followed by heavy flooding, sometimes in areas not known for regular floods.  These floods can be overwhelmingly positive in some cases (parched lands do often benefit), but they can also be damaging in their own right – stripping away valuable topsoil (already vulnerable to loss due to erosion from the loss of trees loss in bushfires), muddying waterways, flooding dams, drowning lifestock, etc.  As an article in ABC linked below shows, heavy downpours can wash vast amounts of sediment into waterways, robbing the waterways of dissolved oxygen and leading to fishkills:

ABC Australia article on recent fishkills due to heavy rainfall and sediment

As I see it, Australia faces a number of ecological/environmental threats now and into the near future from climate change and from sustainability issues in general:

  • Loss of breeding populations of wild life (and lack of genetic diversity of the populations in captivity)
  • Loss of soil structure due to erosion and loss of trees to bushfire.  Regions of Earth like Australia could become known for dusky red skies as ever more soil is lost to erosion.
  • Loss of trees full-stop.  Trees in themselves aren’t a panacea for climate change, from what I’ve read, but they photosynthesize like most plants and thus have a role in taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and building it into their tissues.  Mass tree planting is a great thing to do and we should do it, but I understand it won’t be straighforward because any plant seeking to become established will have high demands on soil nutrition and water, something large parts of arid, parched Australia may struggle to provide.
  • Our oceans hitting a ‘limit’ in ability to absorb some of the effects of greater atmospheric CO2 and temperature, leading to a ramping up of climate change effects.
  • Continued melting of sea-ice exposing materials with a low albedo below, i.e. rock or seawater.  (Low albedo, low reflectivity of light, greater absorption of that light, greater heating)
  • Australia (and other regions of Earth) becoming places where physical activity cannot comfortable occur during summer.  I know that many regions of Earth are uncomfortable for humans in the extremes – but again, this will be new.  Thiss would indeed be a new normal, where it may become positively harmful to human (indeed most warm-blooded creatures) life to be outside during such seasons.  We are seeing the early glimpses of this, but I suspect it could get far worse.

Among the many questions I have about the future and climate change is this:

What chance do living organisms on this planet have to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions?

Earth life has endured some vast calamities since it emerged some 3 billion years ago, as the fossil record suggests.  Archaeologists and Geologists will show us rocks and mineral grains and trapped gases of a primordial Earth that surely attest to a deep past where atmospheric conditions had swung violently – ice ages, Snowball Earth, jungle-like temperatures even at the poles, even periods where the planet’s atmosphere was entirely free of oxygen; to name but a few.  The asteroid that is believed to have impacted Earth some 65 million years ago in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula near Mexico stopped the long period of dinosaur dominance of Earth and arguably paved the way for the arrival of mammals and ourselves.

Given all that hellish historical precedent, it is impressive that life on Earth endures to the our moment in time.  Yes, most species are extinct, but their lineages often endure as the subtle effects of evolution by natural selection exert pressures to favour certain adaptations and mutations generation by generation in a constant quest to survive to reproduce.  Clearly, life is tenacious, stubborn.  If life ‘wants’ anything, it wants to make more life.  The question then becomes, to what extent can life forms including ourselves hope to ‘adapt’ in the sort of compressed timescales involved with our current climate change trajectory?  When biologists consider the evolution or adaptation of species, they typically consider timeframes much longer than we are accustomed to – centuries, millenia, typically millions of years.  Are these timeframes condusive to the sorts of changes that some lifeforms might need to incorporate to survive the Earth 2.0 that we’re creating?

Answering that question depends another question – how much will the ‘normal’ of Earth 100 years hence diverge from the Earth of now?

Given that much of the climate change problem is so global, so seemingly intractable and potentially so dire, where’s the antidote to hopelessness?  Where’s the hope?

I am a pessimistic person and sometimes I edge close to being an out and out misanthrope.  I’m both a human aware of our failing planetary stewardship and I’m also party to it personally – my meat consumption, my heavy reliance on fossil-fueled travel, my packaged, shipped goods, my huge usage of oil-derived products, the list goes on.

As for hope, I don’t expect humanity to actually become extinct from climate change.  It’s dire, but not a death knell, although it could severely cap the number of humans our planet can support.  It also might indirectly lead to armed conflicts which have their own potential for disaster and suffering.  No, I think we’re plentiful enough (looking at you, China)  widespread enough and clever enough to find ways to endure.  I sometimes wonder, as a sci-fi buff, just what it would take for the truly, exorbitantly wealthy to put that capital to active use in the service of something vast.  What would it take for billoinaires to build spacecraft capable of carrying large volumes of us to another planetary body or even to keep us alive, off-world for some period of time?  What of our elected officials and our democracies?  Will they respond to absolutely dire, species-risking threats?  Would alternative political systems such as the centralized authority of the Chinese regime respond ‘better’ in terms of servicing the public in the event of a truly dire threat?  Would humanity come together, be truly united in the face of existential threats, or would battlelines be re-drawn as they have so many times in the past?  Such musing may seem dark, but it’s the bread and butter of many a disaster novel/movie/TV show and it seems only sensible to keep some dire scenarios kicking around in our heads lest we become utterly complacent about our species long-term survival risk.

Well, that’s it for this mega-post.

I’ll end with a wish.

I wish that humanity could discover how to teleport matter in a controlled, safe, reliable way. 

Just imagine what we could do as a species if we were able to move stuff, including sentient stuff like ourselves; across the yawning chasms of lightyears, to targeted locations.  Imagine ‘harvesting’ colossal energies produced every second of every hour from extremely energetic cosmic objects like fast-spinning neutron stars or black holes somehow funneling that energy source to where we can utilise it back on Earth.  (If indeed that’s where we chose to stay)  At a stroke, we would have solved all of humanities energy needs essentially forever, or at least for as long as our planet and that cosmic source of energy persisted.  Humanity would instantly be lifted in some cosmic guidebook to some arbitrarily-high level in the sentient creatures ranking, having secured such energy availability)  Business cases for the pillaging of any of Earth’s resources for energy needs would instantly become null and would be thrown out.  We’d close power plants and mines and we’d start to heal and balm the scars and wounds of our rapacious energy needs on this jewel of a planet.  Earth would begin to heal – wildlife would return to areas that we rehabilitate, akin to the inadvertent return to nature of places like Pripyat post Chernobyl.  In short, teleportation would change everything.

An aside for a moment.

One of my favourite films is “The Game”, directed in the late 90s by David Fincher and starring Michael Douglas.  At one point the film, Douglas’ character hits a low point in his life when he is dumped in Mexico seemingly stripped of all his worldly possessions and wealth, wearing only a torned and stained suit and his family heirloom watch on his wrist.  Seeking to return to his native North America at a Mexican consular office, he explains to a bureaucrat his plight – lacking any identification or passport or funds.  The consular official saves the day with some questionable ethics, noting the expensive-looking watch on Douglas’ character’s wrist:

“A man with a watch like that doesn’t necessarily have a passport problem”

And thus, selling the heirloom watch, Douglas’ character is given a route back to his home and perhaps to some sort of absolution.  And so it would be with us and Earth – if only, if only –  we had some magic trick, some high technology (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, as Arthur C Clarke so famously observed) – a Get Out of Jail Free-equivalent – we’d be able to sort out almost all of humanity’s problems.

Just.    Like.    That.

*snaps fingers*

 

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