TIME Environment

From ‘Gale’ to ‘Inconceivable,’ Ranking Tornado Strength

Ranking tornado strength
Deadly tornadoes devastated the town of Vilonia, Arkansas on Apr. 27 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As tornadoes blast across the southeastern U.S., a look at how officials gauge just how powerful a killer twister is

Tornado season began with a crash in the southeastern U.S. this week, where dozens of twisters ripped across Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. At least 29 people have died in the storms — and with more tornadoes forecast as the weather system moves further east, that number will almost certainly rise.

It’s the suddenness of tornadoes, as much as their power, that accounts for the lives they take. Meteorologists can forecast when and where storms that can produce tornadoes will appear, but they can rarely give residents more than 15 minutes of warning before a twister touches down. Unlike hurricanes, which meteorologists can now track days in advance with increasing precision, tornadoes remain stubbornly unpredictable, although forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working on ways to extend that warning time.

That unpredictability also makes it harder to assess the destructive power of a tornado in real time. Hurricane categories are based on sustained wind speeds in a storm—a Category 1 storm would have sustained winds 74-95 mph (119-153 kph), while a Category 5 storm would have sustained winds of over 157 mph (252 kmh) (“Sustained wind speeds” means the average wind speed in a storm over 10 minutes). The damage a hurricane can cause doesn’t always conform completely to categories. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, wasn’t even a Category 1 hurricane by the time it made landfall in New Jersey, but still caused more than $60 billion in damage, largely due to the size of its storm surge. But more wind generally means more danger—just ask the people of New Orleans, hit by Category 5 Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tornado strength is assessed on a different and slower scale, after the twisters have struck. When tornadoes occur, National Weather Service (NWS) officials are dispatched to survey the damage. They also reconstruct tornadoes’ life cycles, where they touched down—and how strong they were. Tornadoes are ranked on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, developed by a Japanese-American meteorologist who, not coincidentally, got his start studying the damage caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The original Fujita scale was based primarily on the damage a tornado did, with wind speed estimated after the fact. The scale ranked tornadoes from a F0 (Gale) to an F5 (Incredible), with an unofficial F6 category that would require winds in excess of 318 mph and which goes by the name Inconceivable—accurate, since no F6 tornadoes have ever been recorded.

The Enhanced Fujita scale was adopted in 2007. It was designed to more accurately reflect the actual damage a tornado had done on the ground. The EF scale uses 28 different damage indicators, ranging from small barns to hardwood trees to shopping malls—and each of those indicators is assessed based on several different points of possible damage. A shopping mall could range from damage that is just barely visible to complete destruction of some or all of the building. There’s a large database of how strong a tornado needs to be to cause certain kinds of structural damage, so meteorologists are able to use the final damage report to go back and estimate the tornado’s wind speed at the time of touchdown. The categories range from EF0—with three-second wind gusts of 65-85 mph (104-137 kph)—to EF5, with three second gusts over 200 mph (321 kph).

We won’t know the full strength of this week’s multiple tornadoes until NWS surveyors have had a chance to measure the damage on-site. But there has already been a pair of EF3 twisters this year, striking Arkansas and North Carolina on Apr. 27, and those tornadoes may be upgraded as full damage assessments are carried out. 2014 had been shaping up to be a quiet year for tornadoes—Apr. 27 marked the end of a string of 159 days without an EF3 or above tornado, and there had been only 93 tornado reports this year through Apr. 24. That changed this week—there were 87 tornado reports on Apr. 28 alone. And while no tornado that’s hit yet looks to be as strong as the EF5 twister that devastated Moore, Oklahoma last year, the season is far from done.

TIME Environment

It’s Hard Out There for a Honeybee

Honeybees
Honeybees still face a variety of health threats Photographer's Choice RF via Getty Images

Honeybees in Kenya are infested with parasites, but they still thrive — unlike their American cousins. Are there lessons for U.S. beekeepers?

Commercial honeybees might be America’s unluckiest laborers. They’re infested with pests like the Varroa destructor mite and the Nosema ceranae parasite; infected with diseases like the Israeli paralytic virus and the tobacco ringspot virus; dosed with pesticides like clothianidin and imidacloprid; starved of nutrition thanks to crop monocultures; shipped around the country to be worked half to death in almond fields and apple orchards; and victimized by a still mysterious malady called colony-collapse disorder (CCD). It’s little surprise that U.S. beekeepers lost about a third of their colonies over the winter of 2012–13, and if early reports from states like Ohio are any indication, this year could be even worse.

But there’s a place where honeybees are apparently doing much better: East Africa. In a study that came out recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Kenya and the U.S. surveyed honeybee populations at 24 locations throughout the African country. And the scientists found that while honeybees in Kenya suffered from some of the same problems as their Western counterparts, the African bees remained much more robust. “I was amazed by the lack of manifestation of ill health in the bees,” Elliud Muli, lead author on the paper, told National Geographic.

What’s protected the Kenyan honeybees? African honeybees rarely encounter the sorts of pesticides that are in heavy use on American farms — and which pose a clear danger to American bees. The African bees also generally stay in one place, while the biggest honeybee keepers in the U.S. will move their colonies thousands of miles for major events like the California almond-tree pollination, which requires an astounding 60% of all hives in the U.S. Without those additional stressors, the Kenyan honeybees seem capable of thriving even in the presence of dangerous pests.

That doesn’t mean that pesticides alone are causing CCD — but they sure aren’t helping, as even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to realize. Last year the EPA ordered changes in the labeling of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to high rates of honeybee deaths and which have been banned in Europe. American honeybees also suffer from a lack of nutrition, as bee-friendly wild spaces are converted into corn or soybean fields that offer them little forage.

A Department of Agriculture program announced this winter will put $3 million toward encouraging farmers and ranchers in the Midwest to plant bee-friendly plants on the edges of their fields. That will help, but far more must be done. As I wrote in our TIME cover story on the subject last year, it’s as if the modern American environment itself is hostile to the health of honeybees. Even the hardest-working members of the animal kingdom can only take so much.

TIME Food & Drink

This Is How A Chicago Restaurant Went 100% Garbage Free

Every day is Earth Day at this eatery

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Jason Vrany wants to save the planet, one sandwich at a time.

His Chicago restaurant, Sandwich Me In, prides itself on making great food at an affordable price and on the fact that they make almost no garbage.

By focusing on recycling, composting and rethinking the way the typical fast-casual restaurant is run, Sandwich Me In has only produced eight gallons of trash in over two years of business. Many restaurants produce that much waste in a single hour.

Vrany’s restaurant is built on sustainable business practices, including running on renewable energy and sourcing all of its meat and produce sustainably from local farms.

Oh and that eight gallon bag of trash that the restaurant produced? An artist picked it up to re-use in a sculpture meaning that Sandwich Me In has put zero trash into the environment.

Watch the video above to find out how they do it.

MORE: The Green Heroes of the TIME 100

MORE: Want to Heal the Planet? Make Environmental Degrees Free

TIME Environment

An Iceberg Six Times the Size of Manhattan Is On the Loose

Antarctica Iceberg
This combination of Dec. 10, 2013, left, and March 11, 2014 photos provided by NASA shows a large iceberg separating from the Pine Island Glacier and traveling across Pine Island Bay in Antarctica. AP

Heading for the Southern Ocean? You may want to keep an eye out for the ice massif known as B31, which has broken off from the Pine Island glacier that scientists say is “thinning and draining rapidly”

A massive iceberg that broke off from Antarctica’s Pine Island glacier last November is drifting out into the open ocean, according to NASA scientists.

The ice massif, known as B31, will be swept up in the currents of the Southern Ocean soon; however, tracking the iceberg will be difficult as winter descends on Antarctic leaving little daylight for scientists to work with.

According to NASA scientists, iceberg calving is routine, but the breaking off of B31 has raised new questions about the speed at which the process occurs.

“Iceberg calving is a very normal process,” said NASA’s Kelly Brunt, a glaciologist at Goddard Space Flight Center. “However, the detachment rift, or crack, that created this iceberg was well upstream of the 30-year average calving front of Pine Island Glacier (PIG), so this a region that warrants monitoring.”

Scientists are reportedly much more interested in the fate of the Pine Island glacier, which is “thinning and draining rapidly” and could lead to a significant increase in sea levels if the process continues.

TIME States

The Nevada Ranch Rebellion Takes a Racist Turn

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014.
Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014. Jim Urquhart—Reuters

Cliven Bundy became an overnight icon for his refusal to pay the government to graze his cattle herd on public land in Nevada, but that stance lauded by some conservative media is becoming overshadowed by his recent pro-slavery comments

It doesn’t take much to mint an icon in this political climate. Cliven Bundy became one nearly overnight. The story of Bundy’s battle against federal bureaucrats fit neatly into a resonant narrative: the defiant land-owner taking a stand against government overreach.

As word of Bundy’s refusal to pay the federal government to graze his herd on public land spread, more than 1,000 armed sympathizers descended on his Nevada ranch in the desert outside of Las Vegas. When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management abandoned its effort to seize Bundy’s cattle, the rancher, 68, was celebrated as a hero in certain right-wing circles. Supporters compared the Battle of Bunkerville, Nev., to the American Revolution; there was even a hashtag, #AmericanSpring. With his ten-gallon hat and gruff rhetoric, Bundy was an irresistible symbol of a certain frontier ideal.

The reality was much different. Bundy’s herd of cattle has been illegally grazing on federal land for more than 20 years. He owes the government more than $1 million, which he refuses to pay because, he says, he does not recognize federal authority to collect it. While some conservative media outlets rushed to canonize Bundy, the vast majority of elected Republicans steered clear of the standoff, perhaps because the facts suggested Bundy was less a patriot than a deadbeat.

Or worse. Speaking to supporters on Saturday, Bundy digressed into a discussion of race. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said, according to Adam Nagourney of the New York Times:

Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

These remarks will surely dim Bundy’s spotlight. The few national politicians who flocked to his cause have already denounced the remarks. Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who had praised Bundy’s supporters as “patriots,” released a statement Thursday morning calling his views on race “appalling.” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who said Bundy’s case raised a “legitimate constitutional question” about federal authority, called his remarks offensive. “I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” Paul said.

Conservative media and political outfits which had promoted Bundy’s cause fell silent. Fox News ignored the remarks, though journalist Greta Van Susteren, who has featured the story, released a statement condemning Bundy’s remarks. Americans for Prosperity’s Nevada branch, which also latched onto the ranch rebellion, condemned Bundy’s comments in a statement to TIME. “I think most people would agree that spending over a million dollars to chase ‘trespass cattle’ in the Nevada desert is a poor use of tax dollars,” says spokesman Zachary Moyle. “It’s important to note that our opposition to wasteful government spending in no way lends support to offensive remarks made by Mr. Bundy or anyone else.”

Calls to Bundy’s ranch and to a mobile phone belonging to his family went unanswered Thursday. Craig Leff, a spokesman for the BLM, told TIME the agency will “continue to pursue this matter administratively and judicially.” The Battle of Bunkerville is over. Now the backlash has begun.

This story was updated at 5:35 p.m. on April 24 to include comments from Americans for Prosperity

TIME T100

Can a Thermostat Save the Planet?

Tony Fadell and Nest are planning to build a more eco-friendly tomorrow

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Forget your old home appliances, the new home is all about smart tech. From Bluetooth key locks to app-controlled light bulbs, the new home is undergoing a smart-tech revolution. Tony Fadell, designer of the first iPod, threw his hat into the ring of the smart-tech competition in 2010 with his company Nest. In 2011, Nest announced a high-tech remote controlled thermostat that is constantly learning about your energy use. Fadell’s company was recently bought by Google for 3.2 billion dollars.

When I looked at the environment in 2010 people were working on [renewable energy sources and grid changes]. When you looked at the thermostat and it hadn’t changed in 30 years, you were like, ‘wait a second.’ This is ripe for innovation, this is ripe for disruption … lets go fix that problem,” Fadell said.

Nest is slowly sliding to the forefront of green tech. Its smart thermostat is marketed to the average consumer worried about their wallet, but their underlying mission is to reduce the planet’s total energy consumption. Tony Fadell has been chosen as one of TIME’s top 100 most influential people for 2014.

MORE: Nest Protect Smoke Detector

TIME Environment

Lead Didn’t Bring Down Ancient Rome—But It’s Still a Modern Menace

Roman aqueducts led to lead contamination
Aqueducts like this one contaminated Roman tap water with lead Moment via Getty Images

Lead levels were high in ancient Rome's tap water—but not high enough to cause the collapse of its civilization

You could fill a book with theories on why the ancient Roman Empire declined and fell—which, in fact, is what the 18th British historian Edward Gibbon did in his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But if you don’t have time to read the 3,000 or so pages in Gibbon’s full work, here’s one very simple theory: it was lead. Canadian scientist Jerome Nriagu published an influential 1983 paper arguing that high levels of the neurotoxin lead—which contaminated water and other beverages through lead aqueducts and lead cups—caused mental disabilities and erratic behavior among members of Roman high society. Nriagu even reviewed the personalities and habits of Roman emperors between 30 B.C. and 22o A.D.—a list that includes notorious nutjobs like Nero and Caligula—and concluded that two-thirds of them suffered from symptoms of chronic lead poisoning. It’s hard to keep an empire going when your living god of an emperor has been brain-poisoned.

An empire brought down by one of its signature innovations, the aqueduct — it’s a theory that has stuck with the public, although experts have long been skeptical of its merits. It turns out that the theory was half-right: In a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of French and British researchers report that the tap water in ancient Rome was indeed contaminated with lead, with levels up to 100 times higher than those found in local spring water at the time. But while Roman tap water might not have passed modern-day standards, it’s almost certain that the contamination wasn’t extensive enough to be responsible for the collapse of Roman civilization.

As lead author Francis Albarede of Claude Bernard University in Lyon told the Guardian:

Can you really poison an entire civilization with lead? I think it would take more than lead piping in Rome to do that.

Still, any amount of lead can pose a danger to the human brain, especially those of young children, so Rome’s contaminated water couldn’t have helped. In fact, the more researchers learn about lead, the more dangerous it seems—and the more important it becomes to get lead out of the environment. There’s a fascinating body of research, summed up in this excellent piece by Mother Jones‘s Kevin Drumm, that links the drastic drop in violent crime in the U.S. over the past two decades to the phasing out of leaded gasoline in the early 1970s, which greatly reduced lead levels in the environment.

The theory is that children in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were exposed to high levels of lead in leaded gasoline and lead paint. High blood lead levels are directly correlated with a loss of IQ points. But more than that, lead seems to particularly damage the parts of the brain linked to aggression control and executive function. Lead seems to affect boys more—and men, of course, make up the vast majority of violent criminals. When those lead-exposed boys became young adults in the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t surprising that so many of them fell into violent crime. But once they aged out by the 1990s, that cohort was replaced by a generation of children who largely hadn’t been exposed to high levels of lead, and violent crime dropped.

But while most—though not all—American children are no longer exposed to high levels of lead, it’s still a major problem in poorer countries around the world. NGOs like the Blacksmith Institute are working to clean up lead contamination, though far more needs to be done. Lead may not have brought down the Roman Empire—you’ll need to go back to Gibbon for that—but two thousand years later, it’s still a public health menace.

TIME Environment

Mudslide Community Praised by Obama During Visit

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the firehouse in Oso, Washington, April 22, 2014, after touring the devastation left by a recent landslide.
President Obama delivers remarks at the firehouse in Oso, Wash., April 22, 2014, after touring the devastation left by a recent landslide. Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

President Obama tells residents of Oso, Wash., their response to the disaster that killed at least 41 people was an "inspiration"

President Barack Obama paid a visit to the small community of Oso, Wa., on Tuesday, exactly one month after a massive mudslide there claimed at least 41 lives. He promised survivors that the entire country will be on hand to help for “as long as it takes.”

“While very few Americans had heard of Oso before this disaster struck, we’ve all been inspired by the incredible way the community has come together,” he said, noting how villagers had risked their lives volunteering to find their stricken neighbors, and provided meals, chainsaws and rain jackets to those working on the front line.

Even now the death toll may still rise, as search and clearing operations continue. After weeks of efforts, however, water standing six feet deep has been drained, facilitating the navigation of heavy equipment across the still treacherous terrain.

Obama’s visit came as he prepared a tour of Asian countries, two of which have recently been struck by their own disasters — Malaysia in the case of the missing flight MH 370, and South Korea where more than 150 passengers perished when a ferry sunk last week.

In Oso, the President told residents that their spirited response in the face of adversity was what “America is all about.”

“We recover, and we build, and we come back stronger,” he said.

TIME Environment

Spending Earth Day at Ground Zero for Climate Change In America

We’ve all seen the iconic Blue Marble photo of the earth from space, the image that launched a thousand nature essays, but Bill Nelson and Piers Sellers are among the few people who have enjoyed that perspective on the planet in the flesh. Nelson is now a U.S. Senator from Florida, Sellers is a top NASA science official, and this morning, at an Earth Day hearing in my Miami Beach neighborhood, I got to hear the two former astronauts reminisce about the view from 10 million feet.

Senator Nelson recalled the color contrasts in the Amazon that illuminated the growth of deforestation. “The earth looked so beautiful, so alive—and yet so fragile,” he said. “It made me want to be a better steward of what the good Lord gave us—and yet we continue to mess it up.” Dr. Sellers remembered catching a glimpse of the Florida peninsula between his boots during a spacewalk. When you go around the world in ninety minutes, he said, you realize it’s a very small world.

“My take-home impression was that we inhabit a very beautiful but delicate planet,” said Sellers, a meteorologist who is NASA’s deputy director for science and exploration. “And the dynamic engine of planet Earth is the climate system that allows all life here to prosper and grow, including us humans.”

Now that climate is changing, and as Nelson said at the start of the South Florida hearing: “This is Ground Zero.” Scientists have documented that the seas along the Florida coastline have risen five to eight inches over the last fifty years, and Biscayne Bay now floods the streets of my neighborhood just about every month at high tide. “It’s real. It’s happening here,” Nelson said. “Yet some of my colleagues in the Senate continue to deny it.”

It is real, and it’s already a problem in my low-lying part of the world. Saltwater intrusion is increasing in the freshwater Everglades, which is causing problems for farmers in southern Miami-Dade County, and will make the government’s $15 billion Everglades restoration project even more expensive. The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that over the next fifty years, Miami-Dade’s beaches will need about 23 million cubic yards of new sand to deal with erosion. Mayor Philip Levine says Miami Beach alone plans to spend $400 million to upgrade drainage infrastructure to prepare for a warmer world. The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change’s “likely scenario” for 2010 includes seas rising as much as three feet; our county has $38 billion worth of property at three feet elevation or less. And while it’s too early to tie any particular storm to climate change, all the models predict more intense hurricanes coming through the Sunshine State. “The risk posed by coastal flooding is indisputably growing,” testified Megan Linkin, a natural hazards specialist at the reinsurance giant Swiss Re.

That’s incorrect. The risks posed by climate change, while real, are not at all indisputable. Lots of people, including most Republican politicians in Washington, still dispute them. As Senator Nelson said after the hearing, even Republican politicians in coastal areas—he cited Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—rarely acknowledge the danger their constituents face from rising seas. “That would not be a popular topic in a Republican primary,” Nelson said.

But as Dr. Sellers pointed out, the IPCC believes the main cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. And as Senator Nelson pointed out, it will take government action—he mentioned the possibility of a carbon tax—to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. “Otherwise, the planet will continue to heat up,” Nelson said.

Unfortunately, there is no chance of Congress passing a carbon tax anytime in the foreseeable future. President Obama couldn’t even get a cap-and-trade program through Congress when Democrats controlled both houses. Global warming has no juice as a political issue; people don’t think it really affects their lives.

That’s why Nelson held a hearing here at global warming’s Ground Zero, to try to show that global warming is already affecting lives. It was worth a shot, I guess. South Florida isn’t as threatened as those vanishing Pacific islands, but it’s basically America’s canary in the coal mine. Maybe my neighborhood’s outrage over the monthly lake in our Whole Foods parking lot will help spark a broader movement for change.

I doubt it, though. I get the political instinct to boil issues down to How It Can Affect You, but climate change is so urgent and invisible that if Congress has to wait for it to affect most Americans in tangible ways before taking action, Congress will be too late. Burning rivers and disappearing eagles helped build support for laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act; rising temperatures—all of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998—and extreme events like Superstorm Sandy don’t seem to be having much of a political impact. President Obama has helped launch a clean energy revolution, and he will soon propose new regulations on carbon emissions, but the public has shown little interest in the issue.

Ultimately, the local argument against climate change—it might flood your neighborhood—seems a lot less compelling than the global argument, the Blue Marble argument. This is a nice earth. It’s our home. It’s the only planet with ice cream and the Everglades and the NBA playoffs. We should try not to mess it up.

“Spaceflight allows one to stand back, or float, and literally take in the big picture,” Dr. Sellers said in his testimony. It’s a perspective we sometimes overlook back here on Earth. Otherwise, we might decide to stop broiling it.

 

TIME Environment

The Earth Is Changing Rapidly. Can We Change Too?

Antarctica used to be warm
Moment/Getty Images

On Earth Day, we celebrate a planet that has nurtured human life. But it wasn't always so nice—and as the climate changes, it may get worse

I had the chance to see the Grand Canyon last week for the first time, and I can tell you this: it is really big. So big, in fact, that I led my partner on an endless walk along the rim, searching for the entrance a trail that would take us some of the way down the canyon. It turned out that I misread the map scale just a tiny bit. I think she may have forgiven me by now.

Of course, there’s more to the Grand Canyon than its sheer size: Its exposed rock reveals some 2 billion years of Earth’s geologic history, a span of time that is unfathomable by human beings (our species Homo sapiens is about 0.00005% as old as the oldest rock found in the Canyon). And even that time period covers less than half of the Earth’s age. Our planet is ancient, and the only constant over the course of its 4.54 billion-year history has been change—albeit change on a scale that almost always unfolds far too slow for us to realize it. If the Earth seems as solid as the ground beneath our feet, that’s only because we haven’t been around long enough to see just how unstable it really is.

That’s something to keep in mind as we celebrate the 45th Earth Day. Human civilization has flourished over the past ten thousand or so years largely because our species has been fortunate enough to arise during a Goldilocks (not too warm, not too cold) climatic period known as the Holocene. It’s an age that has proven ideal for agriculture and other activities that now support a human population of 7 billion-plus. But it hasn’t always been this way, as a new study that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates.

A team led by Yale University scientists used a new method to determine temperatures in the Earth’s past, measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells found in Antarctica. The researchers found that during the Eocene epoch—about 40 to 50 million years ago—temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 63 F (17 C), with an average of 14 C (57 F). That’s far above the mean annual temperature of Antarctica’s interior today, which registers at a frosty -70 F (-57 C), and closer to the kinds of temperatures you’d see in today’s San Francisco. Seawater around parts of Antarctica was even warmer, a balmy 72 F (22 C)—or about the same temperature as the tropical seas around Florida today.

If there were people living 40 million years ago—there weren’t, FYI—they could have been snorkeling off the coast of Antarctica’s Ross Island.

Why? Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere during the Eocene were much, much higher, perhaps as high as 2,000 ppm or more. Even though human beings have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere by the gigaton for decades, that’s still far higher than current levels, which stand at a little above 400 ppm. But even that increase has helped global temperatures rise by about 1.53 F (0.85 C) since 1880, and despite 45 Earth Days since the first in 1970, global carbon emissions just keep on growing, reaching a record 36 billion metric tons in 2013.

As Brad Plumer puts it over at Vox, our chances of keeping global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C)—a figure governments around the world have adopted as a climate change red line—seem vanishingly small:

If you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re on pace to blow past the 2°C limit by mid-century — and hit 4°C or more by the end. That’s well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we’d have to repeat those cuts for decades.

Needless to say, that’s unlikely. Barring some major political or technological revolution, our Earth will likely change more in the decades to come than it has for the entire lifespan of human civilization—and that change almost certainly won’t be for the better. As the PNAS study shows, the climate we think of as stable—the “long summer” of humanity—has been drastically different over the course of Earth’s deep past. The Earth will change. The question for the Earth Days to come is whether we can change, too.

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