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Welcome to the Anthropocene: a non-linear world

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a non-linear world

By Amy Huva

May 17, 2012

Welcome to the Anthropocene. This is the name of the new geological era that has been defined by scientists at the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program in Sweden. All of human history has taken place so far in the Holocene, which started around 12,000 years ago. Each new geological era is marked by large scale changes in either Earth’s geology or mass extinctions, The Anthropocene has been named for the new largest pressure on Earth’s systems: humans.

Humans are now the dominant force driving change on the Earth. We have changed landscapes and built cities. We have developed technologies and harnessed energy. We have managed and controlled the landscape so much so that we have exploded to a population of 7 billion people in only a few thousand years.

Arctic temperature amplification

We are all much more interconnected that we think, something I was reminded of recently when I suffered an ankle injury while training for a half marathon, an injury that was somehow connected to not only my old knee injury but also to my quads and my calf muscles. Many Earth systems are just as interconnected as my ankle injury; some are even more reliant on a delicate balance of factors that we may not even be aware of.

So far, Earth’s systems have been able to absorb the changes we’ve made to the planet without many problems, but if we take a look at the changes taking place in the Arctic we can see a glimpse of exactly how much cumulative effect human activity is having on the planet and its physical, chemical, biological and ecological systems.

Interconnected systems mean that cumulative effects can reach tipping points and suddenly flip, as opposed to continuing to react in a linear and until now predictable manner. This has been documented in the Arctic as a result of positive feedback loops which amplify processes. “Arctic Amplification” is a positive feedback loop which is contributing to air temperatures in the Arctic being two or more times higher than those observed at lower latitudes.

This means that the Arctic today is a living lab demonstrating what changes in the climate will be in store for the rest of the world with +2⁰ C of global warming. That future looks non-linear. As the NOAA report card press release stated:

‘The amplification of warming in the Arctic reflects a powerful feedback between the region’s ice covers and air temperature: As the air temperature increases, ice melts; as the ice (which is a bright, white, highly reflective surface) melts, it reveals darker ocean and land surfaces that absorb more solar energy during a summer season when the sun never sets; this causes more heating, which causes more melting…and on it goes.’

Here the connections begin to reveal themselves. A reduction in summer sea ice cover leads to increased ocean acidification because a greater area of open water enhances the uptake of CO2 in the water which reduces the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. This subsequently thins the shells of marine organisms, which increases their vulnerability to pollutants and disease, and the connections continue.

The consequences of this level of global warming (which is already locked in from the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere) will require a high degree of adaptation – we already know this. However, it’s the non-linear patterns that caught my attention as that’s something we can’t plan for or anticipate. This will require a shift in how we manage risk on a day to day basis.

Some insurance companies are already talking about the changes that will need to be made to adapt to 2⁰ C of warming, as well as organisations like the National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment, who recently published a report on how businesses will need to adapt to climate change.

This is our new non-linear world, coming to you over the next few decades. The Anthropocene: this will get interesting, and we need to start planning for it.

(Icon photo courtesy of www.anthropocene.info, Arctic graphic courtesy of NOAA)



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