Horror movies don’t cut it now that reality has become a nightmare. Spooked by Pennywise the Clown? Try the nuclear arsenal-wielding clown in the White House. Killer dolls? How about killer cops. The living dead? Not as insidious as braindead racists and parasitic corporations.
The Apocalypse? Well, I’m afraid to say, the end of the world as we know it may already be around the corner. Here are five ways that we are entering a horrifying new world.
1. Climate Change
According to a 2018 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human activity has already caused a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1850-1900 (the so-called “pre-industrial” baseline levels), and has increased at a rate of approximately 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. Based on the rate of global warming in the mid-2010s, we’re projected to reach 1.5C (2.7F) of warming by the 2040s.
It’s common knowledge that this year saw hundreds of days of record-breaking heat across the state. Globally, the last four years have been the hottest on record – but the impacts of a warming world go beyond a little personal discomfort.
“Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwaves was estimated to have increased by around 125 million, as the average length of individual heatwaves was 0.37 days longer, compared to the period between 1986 and 2008,” reported the World Meteorological Organization this year.
“In 2015 alone, a record 175 million people were exposed to 627 heatwaves… in Karachi, Pakistan, this same year, 65,000 people were taken to hospital with heat-related symptoms.” In Hawai‘i, we’re especially vulnerable. “[E]xtreme heatwaves are thus projected to emerge earliest in [tropical regions], and they are expected to become widespread already at 1.5 degrees C of global warming,” wrote the IPCC.
While dangerous to human health in itself, the heat will also impact the island’s water supply, weather patterns, agriculture, and marine ecosystem.
Continued global warming will lead to more frequent extreme El Nino events, reported a University of Hawai‘i study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In Hawaiʻi, El Niño (a warm phase of the Pacific Ocean’s natural patterns) causes variations in rainfall, hurricane activity, air and sea-surface temperatures, and even in sea levels. An increase in El Nino’s intensity and frequency could have “profound socioeconomic consequences,” wrote the study’s author, Bin Wang.
“Climate change patterns already being seen in Hawai’i are projected to become increasingly serious before the middle of the 21st century, including (a) declining rainfall, (b) reduced streamflow, (c) increasing temperature, and (d) rising sea level,” states the Draft Maui Island Water Use & Development Plan. “Each poses serious consequences for the replenishment and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources.”
If you think the battles over Maui’s water are explosive now, wait until future development increases water demand and usage, higher temperatures impact streams and agriculture, and rising sea levels contaminate groundwater with salt.
The scariest part of all this is that the Earth is on track to reach 1.5C of temperature change even if all countries meet their goals for the Paris Agreements (the goal of the agreements is to limit climate change to 1.5C). As of a September IPCC report, “Taking Stock of Global Climate Ambition,” nationally determined contributions to greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming “set the world on track for a rise in emissions of about 10.7 percent above 2016 levels by 2030.”
That’s at odds with everything the science says is necessary to curb the impact of climate change. All IPCC models that limit climate change to 1.5C require net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions. Even the most forgiving model allowing a 50-year phase-out of emissions forecasts 1.5C of temperature rise by the 2070s. Instead, the world is on track for 2-3C of global warming – an increase that would be catastrophically worse than 1.5C by magnitudes.
2. Plastic Pollution
As you unwrap your individually packaged, bite-sized Halloween candy from its plastic wrappers, think of this: A recent study found that in a week, you’ll have consumed approximately a credit card’s worth of plastic. The stuff is everywhere – air, water, and food – takes centuries to break down, and is produced globally at a rate of approximately 660 billion pounds per year. Only nine percent of the plastic that’s ever been created has been recycled, and about 80 percent of the billions of tons of plastic ever made lingers in landfills and the natural environment, where it harms marine life and transmits diseases.
That’s only good news if you like the taste of plastic: By 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean could outweigh the fish. The scariest part of it all? Check your Halloween candy – we’re far from kicking the habit of convenient plastic.
3. Species Loss
Insect biomass outweighs that of humans by almost 17 times, but even that’s changing. A study in April’s Biological Conservation found that the mass of the little crawlers is decreasing at a rate of 2.5 percent per year, largely due to ecosystem loss and agro-chemical use.
“The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet,” wrote the authors. “Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades… The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”
Insects are an essential part of ecosystems and recycle nutrients and pollinate plants – and at their current rate of disappearance could be gone by the end of the century.
But they aren’t the only ones at risk. As the authors mention, insect loss is part of a larger “mass extinction” facing planet Earth. A UN report on biodiversity released earlier this year found that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.”
“The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900,” stated the UN. “More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.” The National Audubon Society announced this month that two-thirds of bird species are also threatened
That adds up to another soon-to-be-threatened species: humans.
4. Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise, which accompanies the melting ice of climate change, is a threat to Maui’s infrastructure, the 1.4 million state residents who live near the shore, and our visitor-dependent economy. Some of the effects are already visible in king tides that in recent months have gnawed at sections of Honoapi‘ilani Highway.
Hawaii Business magazine examined this threat in its May 2019 issue, citing research from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). “As seas rise, waves become larger and extend father into land and their impact becomes exponentially greater,” the article read. “Last year’s king tides broke the state’s 112-year record, rising up to 12 inches beyond predicted levels.”
But that’s just a glimpse of the future of sea level rise, which is projected to reach 3.2 feet by the end of this century, possibly as soon as mid-century. Half of the 20 most endangered coastal roads in the state are in Maui County, reported the Associated Press, citing research done by the University of Hawai‘i. Kahului’s wastewater treatment plant, beaches, and beach parks around the island are also at risk.
In addition to costs, damage to essential infrastructure, and risks of natural disaster, local ways of life could also be threatened.
On Tuesday, Oct. 22, the county Planning Commission took part in a workshop on shoreline setbacks. Perhaps the scariest possibility is that sea level rise isn’t taken into account in planning shoreline development, and as the ocean eats up the coast, no sandy beaches are left to the public.
A Maui without beaches? Now that’s a nightmare.
5. Coral Reef Collapse
The Blob is gathering strength. The life-sucking, massive entity from the depths of the Pacific Ocean is forming, and in its wake leaves skeletons and ghostly remains of once-vibrant colonies. For the living that barely survived its last pass through Hawai‘i, the threat is more dangerous than before, and scientists are concerned that even survival will leave life crippled and unprepared for its certain return.
This is not some science fiction monster – the Blob is real. And while it wasn’t cooked up in a lab by overzealous scientists, its origin can indeed be traced back to human activity.
The Blob, a product of an ocean-wide marine heatwave, is an expanse of unusually warm water which first emerged in 2014-2015, when it reached the size of Alaska and caused a major coral reef bleaching event across the Hawaiian Islands that killed 50 percent of live coral cover on Maui. Coral bleaching happens when symbiotic algae, called zooxanthellae, lose their pigment or are ejected from the reef corals. Zooxanthellae give reefs their vibrant colors but also provide more than 90 percent of the coral’s energy. So when the symbiotic algae leave, only the colorless reef skeleton remains with little energy to adapt, reproduce, or survive.
There are many stressors to Hawai‘i’s reefs, including human activity, sediment, changing water chemistry, and nutrient pollution – but according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), “mass bleaching events are usually associated with increased sea surface temperatures.”
“Ocean temperatures are extremely warm right now across the main Hawaiian Islands,” said NOAA scientist Jamison Gove last month. “They’re up to 3.5F warmer than what we typically experience this time of year. If the ocean continues to warm even further as predicted, we are likely to witness a repeat of unprecedented bleaching events in 2014 and 2015.” A mass bleaching is already noted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the organization stated, and numerous coral reefs off Maui have been identified as currently undergoing bleaching.
Bleaching is a phenomenon that’s been long observed in prominent reefs like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, said DLNR aquatic biologist Russell Sparks, but “That’s the scary thing.”
“It’s never really been experienced here,” he told me. “And all of a sudden it happened in 2015 and now four years later in 2019 it’s happening again. If that continues it doesn’t give the corals much time to adapt.”
But according to a recent UN IPCC report on the state of our oceans, more frequent and severe marine heatwaves like the Blob will be a part of our future.
“Human activities and warming have already led to major impacts on shallow water tropical coral reefs… while warming, ocean acidification, and climate hazards will put warm-water corals at very high risk even if global warming can be limited to 1.5C,” it states. “[C]oral reefs are projected to decline by a further 70-90 percent at 1.5C with larger losses (greater than 99 percent) at 2C.”
It goes without saying that the loss of reefs would be catastrophic. Reefs are culturally important, provide recreation benefits, support endemic marine life, and generate about $800 million in gross revenue, researchers at the University of Hawai‘i estimate. Corals absorb up to 97 percent of wave energy, and a recent UC Santa Cruz study found they provide more $376 million in flood protection benefits every year on Maui alone – significant benefits in a world of rising sea levels and flood risks. Additionally, NOAA states, more than 500 million people worldwide depend on coral reefs.
“Hopefully we can address these issues on a site-by-site basis,” Sparks said. “But climate change is everything. It’s not just the oceans warming, it’s the confounding effect that warming waters have on currents and how that changes stuff like the weather. And with that you have more dry periods followed by more intense storms, which increases the sediment stress. Then you have all this CO2 [from emissions] that’s absorbing into the ocean, changing the chemistry, making it more acidic, which is going to affect coral’s abilities to make skeletons, making them a lot more open to erosion.”
“Those things are huge. If we don’t deal with [climate change] meaningfully in the next 20 to 30 years, it’s going to be tough to deal with a lot of these other issues.”
“That said, even with these changes, nature is resilient,” added Sparks, ending on a (semi) optimistic note. “Nature is more resilient than we are, and we might kill ourselves off – probably will – but some corals do persist. They can adapt and adjust.”