Geologic Time vs Human Time
Earlier this week it was reported an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Scientists monitoring the ice shelf cannot definitively attribute the break to climate change, but warming water and air cannot be ruled out either. Most likely the break was naturally occurring, and since the iceberg was already floating, it won’t contribute much to sea-level rise. It’s the same concept of ice melting in a glass of water. Water levels remain the same because the ice cube is displacing an amount of water equal to its own weight.
The most recent break from the Larsen C Ice Shelf isn’t cause for serious alarm now because the size of this iceberg isn’t abnormally large. However, what’s worrisome is the potential collapse of the parent ice shelf decades from now.
To provide some perspective, let’s discuss my favorite disaster film – The Day After Tomorrow.
(Note: If you’ve never seen the movie, you need to get your life together. The level of cataclysmic climate shenanigans is epic.)
Dennis Quaid and his paleoclimatologist bros (no need using character names here) are drilling for ice core samples on the Larsen Ice Shelf when the ice sheet suddenly cracks beneath his feet. Somehow through the power of movie physics, Quaid survives and doesn’t fall to his death.
Quaid goes back to the lab and realizes that all these wild weather patterns may be due to global warming. He flies to a conveniently held United Nations conference so he can warn world leaders of their pending doom. Of course no one listens because death and destruction must happen first before our leaders take action.
Quaid was trying to explain this simple concept to leaders: global climate is controlled by our oceans.
Ocean currents are a conveyor belt transporting warm water and precipitation from the tropics to the poles, and cold water from the poles back to the equator. The ocean acts as a big heat-retaining solar panel, especially in the tropics, and distributes this heat through evaporation. The colder and saltier the ocean water, the denser it is. The greater the density created between cold and warm water, the more mixing and circulation will happen.
So when the newly single Larsen was no longer in a long-term relationship and was ready to hit these streets, its movements would cause a severe drop in ocean temperatures – much like a massive typhoon – and disrupt the entire North Atlantic Current.
In a matter of hours, dozens of tornadoes touch down in Los Angeles tearing up the airport and everybody’s insurance coverage. There’s a blizzard in San Diego, and hail rains down on Tokyo like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Home dude in Scotland dies because Europe freezes over, and a monstrous storm surge floods all of Manhattan, where Quaid’s movie son Jake Gyllenhall is stranded. By the end of the day, the temperature drops to the point where the Northeastern part of the U.S. experiences a severe snow storm.
In the end, Quaid saves Jake, but the government ignored the warning signs and hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. (The movie did not reference how many people died, but I’m estimating numbers based on damage shown throughout the film.)
I know that the depiction of events unfolding in such rapid succession in the film is highly unlikely. But the movie fast-forwards the speed of climate processes so that viewers can understand the magnitude of what’s happening on a timescale that’s relatable.
Climate is part of the geologic time scale. Yet, we are constantly being asked to comprehend the slow rate of geologic processes on a human time scale. We think in minutes, days, months and years.
Humans have difficulty grasping the metric of time in regards to what feels like ancient history compared to the nearness of ‘today.’ We are wired to focus on the near future and short-term consequences.
Even though impacts are already taking place, the most significant impacts of climate change still lie in the future. And because climate change is an extension into the future, there is a distance between what’s happening in our lives now and what will happen down the road. That’s why it’s easier to respond to the aftermath of a hurricane than putting together a 20-year climate preparedness plan for coastal communities.
It’s hard for us to conceptualize that we have the capability to alter the landscape of this planet. But we’ve documented what happens decades after we drain lakes, blow off mountaintops and deforest land. We know that change is happening now.
Since 1963, Lake Chad – a major water resource for Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon – has shrunk 90 percent. As Obama was running for his first term as president in 2007, Syria entered a three-year drought, leading to a civil war and the current refugee crisis. Last year, an entire island community in Louisiana started planning its move to a new region of the U.S. after losing 98 percent of its landmass. It only took 60 years of flooding and storm surges to see their home disappear.
The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. For billions of years, geologic events unfolded without being seen or felt by humans. Tiny changes happening in increments of tens of thousands of years brought us to where we are today with earth’s climate. That’s too long for the mind to truly comprehend.
But not being able to see or feel something shouldn’t erase what evidence is showing what’s happening and what will happen. Climate change will not impact this planet or certain populations of people equally. There must be more long-term thinking and the inclusion of people in the narrative to bridge the distance between geologic time and human time.
Environmental advocate. Communications professional. Sports fan. I love television and press conferences.