WARNING: We get a lot of mail from readers who got very scared after reading the scenario outlined below. Please bear in mind the events described here are still hypothetical. And if you scare easy - perhaps you should consider NOT reading this. - the editor
We’re in for a surprise. A few tens of years more, and our climate might suddenly go totally berserk. For starters, it would turn our planet into a lifeless, super hot oven, much like the planet Venus. Welcome to the ghastly phenomenon dubbed ‘the runaway greenhouse effect’. And the really scary part is: we might be heading straight towards it.
Phew! Aren’t we lucky? In the 1990s, they predicted we would get climate warming. The poles were about to melt, they said. Entire countries would get flooded. Huge hurricanes would sweep across the globe. Millions would die. Well: they had it all wrong. It’s the 21st century now -- and little has happened so far.
But then, suddenly, it all changes. From one month to the next, the climate of the world goes wild. Temperatures jump. The ice caps of the poles crumble, pushing the sea levels up. The snow caps on the mountain tops melt, turning even the tiniest rivulet into a roaring body of water. Cities are flooded, countries washed away. Tornadoes and hurricanes push across the globe. Harvests fail. Economies crumble. Tropical diseases like malaria and dengue push northwards. Forests turn into deserts. And of course, millions of people perish during all the mayhem.
Wet Feet: When we think of global warming, we tend to think of floods. But that's only a minor inconvenience. Chances are the greenhouse effect "unleashes catastrophic and irreversible changes to key planetary processes", as the IPCC puts it.
And if you thought that was bad: you haven’t seen nothing yet. Within a few decades, the situation goes totally out of hand. Temperatures just keep on rising, faster and faster. And as they do, more and more water on Earth begins to evaporate. The sea level begins to drop again. If you’re one of those poor souls who had his country or city flooded when the ice caps melted, you might be glad to find the sea retreating. But don’t put that flag out yet. What you’re witnessing, is the end of the world. Nothing more, nothing less.
Here’s how it goes. As the temperatures rise, more water evaporates. But as more water evaporates, our atmosphere gets thicker -- causing the temperatures to rise even more. And as the temperatures rise even more, even more water evaporates. And as even more water evaporates... You've got it: there’s a chain reaction going on. The dreaded ‘runaway greenhouse effect’ has just kicked in.
Governments and scientists will desperately look for a way to turn the tide. But they won’t find one. There’s just no way you can stop something as mighty as the Earth’s climate. Although our politicians might still mumble some reassuring words to prevent a general panic, deep within they will realize how bad the situation really is. A few years more, and our planet will no longer be habitable. All life is about to vanish from the planet formerly known as Earth. There is no escape, not even a remote possibility things will improve.
The best evidence for that is hovering in the night sky: the planet Venus. For many years, scientists wondered why Venus has an atmosphere so hot that lead and tin actually melt in it. Only in the late 1990s they realized that Venus too has undergone the runaway greenhouse effect. Its atmosphere is so dense, incoming solar heat cannot escape from it.
Exactly that, my friends, is what is happening on our planet. Earth is about to join Venus. We’re about to literally fry to death.
Bad Omen: The planet Venus has an atmosphere over 90 times thicker than Earth's. And it's bloody hot out there: about 750 degrees Celsius. Still, exactly the same could happen to our own planet if the Runaway Greenhouse Effect kicks in.
By now, temperatures on Earth start getting really uncomfortable. Everywhere you look, there’s this dense, watery fog -- it’s water vapor, as you might have guessed. Where there used to be rivers, only dry gullies are left, carving through the barren landscape. And where the oceans used to be, only some lakes remain -- and they get smaller each day.
It’s hard to tell how exactly humanity will die in the end. Perhaps we won’t be able to stand the heat anymore, and literally find ourselves cooked to death by the ever increasing temperatures. Perhaps we’ll suffocate, as our once fresh atmosphere turns into a dense brew of carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane. Perhaps we’ll survive all that, clinging to our gas masks and our airconditioning -- and in the end starve to death because all plants and animals are gone.
One thing is absolutely certain, though: it will be some gruesome, hellish end. After a few years or decades, our planet has become a deserted fog planet, with an atmosphere so hot that lead and tin actually melt in it. Life will be no longer possible -- except perhaps for a handful of soil bacteria that are able to withstand all the nastiness.
The Runaway Greenhouse: The facts
Of course, we could have known what was coming. Ever since the 1990s, there were some climatologists warning for it. But their calculations were laughed away, ill understood by the general public or ignored by the politicians in charge of things. The climatologists were dubbed pessimists. Even though their computer models told otherwise.
As late as 2001, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formally warned that the greenhouse effect could ‘unleash catastrophic and irreversible changes to key planetary processes that make the world habitable.’ In 2005, a British government research council repeated the warning. And added the effect could kick in as soon as 2015.
The runaway greenhouse effect works quite simple, really. First, you should realize why we have an atmosphere in the first place. That’s because there’s a lot of water vapor and carbon dioxide in the air. There’s nothing wrong with that. The carbon dioxide and the water vapor serve as a ‘blanket’: they prevent some of the incoming heat from the sun from flying off again into space.
Killer Fog: The atmosphere will turn the planet into a shadowy fog world, as the atmosphere fills itself with water vapor.
At least, that’s how things went until one day, six billion humans came around. Mankind literally pumps trillions of tons of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
No big deal, so far. Calculations show that this massive amount of extra greenhouse gas will only push up the Earth’s temperatures a few degrees. Besides, about one quarter of all the methane and the carbon dioxide is cleaned up by nature each year.
But around 2015, that could suddenly change. The climate warming could pass a critical threshold. The ice caps of the poles could melt. This would set free billions of tons of extra carbon dioxide: the ice caps are full of tiny bubbles of trapped ancient air with a lot of carbon dioxide in them. This suddenly gives an extra push to the greenhouse effect.
Also, the warming could unleash carbon dioxide that is trapped in sea sediments, in the permafrost of Greenland and in the soil. And worse: the warming could set free the trillions of tons of methane that are stashed away below the ocean's floor and in the permafrost. At the same time, nature could get ‘saturated’ with carbon. Of course, plants and soil organisms will still breathe carbon dioxide. But there will be too much of it.
And in the end, the water vapor kicks in. While it gets hotter, oceans and rivers start to evaporate. This would make the atmosphere denser and hotter, pushing up the evaporation, making it hotter... And so on.
Then you would have it: an environmentalists nightmare. The greenhouse effect will go wild. And wilder still -- until we live on a planet with an atmosphere so hot that lead and tin actually... You can fill in those words yourself by now, right?
So: abandon all hope?
To be honest, of all end of world scenarios outlined on this site, we at Exit Mundi find the one with the runaway greenhouse effect particularly scary. Of course, there’s the problem with meteors, and the risk of robots taking over. But the greenhouse effect is happening today, as we speak. It seems to be only a matter of time before we can begin to melt that lead and tin.
On the other hand: climate is a difficult beast. If we’ve learned one thing over the past few decades, it is that no one can really predict how the climate will change on us. For example: there’s a good chance the greenhouse effect unleashes not a runaway chain reaction -- but an ice age, as reported elsewhere on this site.
Also, Earth survived intense heat before. 50 Million years ago, the North Pole had no ice, but a subtropical climate. And before that, in the era of the dinosaurs, CO2-levels were about four to six times higher than today. Back then, sea temperature was up to 40 degrees Celsius, and many continents were flooded. It was really a greenhouse world - and it didn't went out of hand.
On the other hand, even if there's a remote possibility it DOES go out of hand, there’s plenty of need to worry. We don’t know about you, but we at Exit Mundi prefer neither the ice age, nor the super hot Venus-like atmosphere. We like things the way they are.
So if you read this and you happen to be one of those top dogs in charge of things: hey, it’s only one atmosphere we have here, PLEASE be a little careful with it!
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