Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Unearthing the time capsule

It's said that there's no cloud without a silver lining, but sometimes the silver lining just adds to the whole situation's poignancy.

That was my response to the new show (opening in May) at the British Museum called Arctic: Culture and Climate.  The exhibit will contain priceless archaeological finds from the Canadian and Siberian Arctic, including a nine-thousand-year-old woven birch basket, a necklace made of mammoth ivory, a variety of objects carved from walrus teeth, bone needles, headbands, a spirit mask, clothing made of reindeer fur, a bag crafted from salmon skin, and a fantastic array of other artifacts, some of which date back to thirty thousand years ago.

The problem, of course, is why this beautiful exhibit is even possible -- the melting of the Arctic permafrost because of anthropogenic climate change.

"As the Arctic is melting, the permafrost, the frozen ground, is melting as well," said exhibit curator, archaeologist Jago Cooper.  "The things that people were living with in that landscape, which are incredibly well preserved in that frozen ground, are coming out as the ground is melting...  Archaeologists have to find the objects before they disappear on the surface of the earth because they are exposed to the elements.  It’s like the Library of Alexandria being on fire… You’re plucking out these books which are coming out, and yes, it’s a remarkable window into life, all coming out of the ground in one go...  This is a treasure trove, but its story is tragic."

The fact is, the Arctic is the region of the Earth where the climate is changing the fastest; current estimates are that within eighty years, summers in the northern Arctic will be entirely ice and permafrost-free.  Entire communities are disappearing as frozen-solid soil capable of holding up house foundations turns into marsh.  The only place on Earth I can think of that is changing this drastically and this fast is the coast of my home state of Louisiana, where communities on the fringe of coastal marsh, such as Isle de Jean Charles, are being swallowed up as sea levels rise.  But since both the Arctic and coastal Louisiana are occupied by poor and/or marginalized people mostly belonging to ethnic minorities, there has been little if any attention paid to the devastation climate change is wreaking.

The effects on the Arctic are multiple and widespread.  The 2019 Arctic "report card" from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was not so much sobering as outright terrifying.  Its findings include:
  • 2019 was the Arctic's second-warmest year ever recorded.  (The warmest was 2016.)  July 2019 was the warmest month since records started in 1850.
  • Cold-water fish populations are shrinking and retreating north, disrupting the food chain and affecting populations of Arctic predators such as seals, walruses, and polar bears.
  • The amount of ice melted from the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2019 tied for highest volume ever lost (with 2012).
  • The ice at the very north is itself destabilizing.  Only one percent of the marine ice in the Arctic Ocean is over four years old, so the "permanent Arctic ice sheet" is a thing of the past.
  • The loss of ice cover in the summer is causing a feedback loop as darker/more absorptive open ocean retains more of the summer's heat and ramps temperatures up further.  The summers for the past ten years have broken record after record for high temperatures and speed of warm-up.
Horrifying news.  But most countries seem to take the stance of "oh, well, it doesn't affect us," and continue to sit on their hands.  It immediately put me in mind of the old comic strip, one that has shown up in many contexts, from Nazi aggression before World War II to Wall Street speculation to the spread of terrorism, but which seems tragically apt here:

Sometimes I get tired of shouting "WILL YOU PEOPLE PLEASE WAKE UP AND FOR FUCK'S SAKE DO SOMETHING?"  Heaven knows I've hit on this topic enough times here at Skeptophilia, my readers must be getting sick of my ringing the changes over and over.  But given that there are still climate change deniers out there, and people are paying more attention to noted climatologists like Meat Loaf than the actual scientists, we can't afford to let fatigue silence us.

The problem is, the scientific papers and even the heartbreaking exhibits like the one opening soon at the British Museum are almost entirely reaching people who already know that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and simultaneously are unable to change policy.  I can virtually guarantee the politicians aren't reading science journals (in the case of Donald Trump, I seriously doubt he's ever read anything longer than the label on a soup can).  So it's a case where there are two hermetically-sealed groups -- the science community and informed laypeople, who know what's happening but are unable to change it, and the elected leaders, who are able to change it but are either uniformed or else willfully participating in the disinformation campaign.

So I'll keep blogging, and other concerned people will continue working toward getting the truth out there, but until we change things at the ballot box, my guess is that to paraphrase Douglas Adams, nothing will continue to happen.

My only hope is that by the time we are able to act, it won't already be past the tipping point.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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