Hope For the Best, Prepare For the Worst

This installment of exponology was originally published Oct. 10, 2007.

Lost in a haze of hyperreal distractions and the weakening of our body politic, we forget in fact how our planet came into being: Violent eruptions, long periods of stability, sometimes equilibrium. But its eruptions were serious, and nothing to shrug off. I’m talking extinction events like the Permian-Triassic, romantically known as the “Great Dying”, a climate change nightmare to end all nightmares. The hangover took millions of years to recover from.

So it would stand to reason — ah, those were the days — that were such events heading our way, we’d do something about them faster than Blackwater. We’d fire indiscriminately into the encroaching dangers, run like hell to our Green zones, and wait out the storm. But we’re not.

And things are getting worse. Exponentially worse.

According to a recent reports, the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change was off in its estimates. Way off, as expected if you were a student of exponents, which have a tendency not to accrue in equal chunks but snowball over themselves, growing bigger by the revolution. Speaking of snowballs, the IPCC misread our quickly shrinking sea ice, which has unmoored itself from itself and is now snowballing into the ocean-at-large at increasing rates. It figured the melt would be measurable, which is another way of saying an amount it could lowball to a public too busy with aptly named virtual realities like Survivor, Lost, Second Life and so on. But the IPCC failed to see the replicating threat on the horizon.

In short, the IPCC claimed the melt would tickle global coastlines with 20 to 60 centimetres of water, but it was wrong. The figure has now exponentially grown to two metres and climbing, which is over six feet for those on the inch standard. And if you think that’s Chicken Little talking, take a look at these maps illustrating some of America’s coolest cities, post-deluge. They might change your mind.

The reality is, fittingly, worthy of disaster cinema. Holes have developed in the sea ice through which water as large as Niagara Falls has plummeted back to the ocean, greasing the wheels, so to speak, for an even faster melt. Which in turn, getting back again to exponents, is pushing the ice across the sea even faster, and so on. Speaking of disaster cinema, how about this blockbuster? The glacier at Ilulissat, rumored grandpa of the iceberg that sank the Titantic, is now hurtling three times faster into the sea than it was a decade ago. Other glaciers and ice shelves are doing the same dance of doom.

And they’re coming our way.


Shit Happens. Fast.

This early exploration into exponology was originally published Feb. 21, 2007.

We’ve all seen the shirt and the bumper sticker. Shit happens. Exponology is here to extend that reality. Shit happens fast. Real fast.

In the first piece on my formative science called exponology, I laid out the basic tenets, which were probably too simple for the PhDs and too complex for the new adopters. But again I would like to emphasize that this is not on purpose, as I am putting all the pieces of the puzzle together as I find them. In a way, this is an opensourced project, although it would never have been called that in the past. Back then, I would have just taken the advice and suggestions given to me by others and claimed them as my own.

But knowledge is a social animal, and nothing is ever gained without its collective contract. As such, I’ve since heard and sifted through some quality feedback after posting that initial blast, and all of it makes me feel like I’m on the right track. And the mounting stack of news on global warming, oil consumption, viral media and social upheaval is doing the same job of convincing me that exponents — of the numerical and behavioral variety — are vastly underestimated and poorly understood. In fact, the only certainty I have unearthed in my research into what was once a very weird dream is that the only thing everyone knows about them for sure is not too much at all.

Take this eye-opening talk given by Susan Solomon, senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the co-chair of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example. While the damining yet conservative IPCC report laid bare the role of humanity in both the rise of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels and the fall of Earth’s snowpack, Solomon nevertheless gave global warming doubters a pillow-soft comedown, noting that “It would take centuries, if not millennia, to get a four to six meter rise” in sea levels once the ice shelfs and glaciers of the world gently retired into the good night. But when pressed on the fact that several indicators of global warming over the last few years have accelerated at an alarming rate, and whether or not she foresaw the same mechanism in place for the inevitable melt, Solomon had no love for exponents. In fact, she flat out claimed ignorance. “We just don’t know,” she added.

Let’s remember that this is a co-chair of the IPCC talking, not some boneheaded Bush administration appointee. A scientist who once targeted chlorofluorocarbons as the prime suspect in the depletion of the ozone layer, long before anyone knew or cared what it was. A fellow UC Berkeley grad, the head of the atmospheric chemistry division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, confiding to all that, in the end, she has no idea whether or not we can expect exponential increases in sea levels.

And here is where the other shoe of exponology drops: Is she lying? Is she an exponent of another type, one who champions a dominant ideology? One that believes, as does the Bush administration, that the public’s best interest is served by a continuing ignorance to the changes going on around them? Let us remember that the Bush administration was recently accused by the The Union of Concerned Scientists, a private advocacy group, and the Government Accountability Project, a legal-assistance group that represents whistle-blowers, of roadblocking crucial conclusions and data on global warming, as well as generally interfering to no end in the studies of the scientists across the U.S. government. According to their joint report:

43 percent of respondents reported edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their findings.
46 percent felt administrative requirements that impaired climate-related work.
67 percent said the environment for federal government climate research is worse now than five years ago. ]
And that’s just from the 308 out of the total 1,600 scientists who actually bothered to participate in the survey. Imagine what the numbers would look like if those who weren’t either intimidated or too lazy to participate actually did so. That’s some crunchy data.

But it gets worse. The latest news shows that while exponential increases in sea level may be too hard for top-notch scientists to predict, CO2 levels are anything but. In fact, greenhouse gases have jumped to record highs, and the increase is, you guessed it, accelerating in a hurry. The unexpected jump, according to a Reuters interview with Kim Holmen, research director of the Norwegian Polar Institute whose Arctic archipelago base station in Svalbard measures such things in the North Pole, comes from an expected source: “China is opening coal-fired power plants at the rate of almost one a week.” Nevertheless, Holmen’s description of the average yearly rise in greenhouse gases lays bare an exponological root that some seemed to have missed tripping over.

“When I was young, scientists were talking about 1 ppm rise” every year, Holman said. “Since 2000 it has been a very rapid rate.” The annual rate was 1ppm as recent as 2005, that is until 2006, when it doubled to 2ppm. Add that to the IPCC’s conclusion, cited in the same Reuters report, that “temperature rises were set to accelerate and could gain by between 1.1 and 6.4 Celsius (2.0-11.5 Fahrenheit) by 2100,” and you have all the earmarks of exponology. The onset of floods, droughts and resource wars are enough to scare babies into waking; the thought of that onset occuring exponentially earlier than thought ought to make adults everywhere soil their figurative diapers.

The trick here is to not be fooled by the science or the numbers, because as always the social phenomena urging these upheavals forward are either self-evident, as in the case of China’s emergence as a powersucker and gross polluter, or yet to be found, as in the case of the discovery of fast-moving rivers beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets. Either way, exponology makes room for ignorance by admitting from the outset that things can get worse. In a hurry…