The earliest warning sign was something so small that it was hardly noticed at all.
The National Data Buoy Center's buoy 44011, anchored off Georges Bank 170 miles east of Hyannis, Massachusetts, appeared to be sending a faulty signal. That was the only sign from any scientific instrument anywhere in the world that two billion human lives had just come into mortal jeopardy.
The warning should have come weeks earlier, could have come years earlier. There were climatologists who were concerned enough to have begun studies that would lead to the deployment of a warning system. But there was no budget. Congress, mired in its false debate about whether global warming was even happening, wouldn't pay for any studies of the flow of the North Atlantic Current, even though it is the lifeblood of our world.
What happened off Georges Bank was this: The water temperature reading from this six-meter Nomad buoy fell suddenly from 48.1 degrees Fahrenheit to 36.3 degrees. This is a huge drop in seawater temperature to happen overnight, and it caused the National Data Buoy Center to list the buoy as malfunctioning. The issue was noted, and a bulletin was distributed within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the effect that water temperature readings from this buoy were to be disregarded until after routine maintenance was next performed.
This standard notice never reached anybody who might have been concerned about its true meaning.
A few days later, another buoy appeared to malfunction. This one was part of the Global Ocean Observing System, feeding data to the Australian Oceanographic Data Centre from its station in the Southern Ocean a thousand miles from the Antarctic. Operating under the protocols of the Global Temperature-Salinity Profile Program, AODC transmitted the data to Canada's Marine Environmental Data Service. Again, the failure of a buoy was duly noted, but the maintenance bulletin didn't reach the same people who'd seen the one for the buoy off Georges Bank. Why would it? Maintenance of the Antarctic buoy would be performed by the Australians, not the Americans.
Mankind's greatest civilization now had only a few weeks to live.
Had the scientists working on the Atlantic Climate Change Experiment known what had happened, they would certainly have been alarmed. As it was, their plan to release one hundred subsurface drifting buoys to study the North Atlantic Current was still in the preparation stage, still waiting on funding.
Even though there was no source of data to sound the warning that the world's greatest ocean current had just changed its route, it wasn't long before people from Sydney to Tokyo, from Vladivostok to Dusseldorf, from London to Los Angeles, knew that something had gone terribly wrong with the weather.
New York had been experiencing the warmest February on record. Temperatures were reaching their highest levels ever recorded for the month 91 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once, people would have been laughing. Nobody was laughing now.
Across the whole southern coast of the United States, from Brownsville, Texas, to Cape Fear, North Carolina, an unusual southerly flow of air began. Tender young leaves shuddered on early sprouting trees in south Texas. In Mississippi, ancient oaks tossed and bowed. Along the Carolina coast, the wind hissed through pine forests. In the warm, winter-naked northeast, clattering limbs and moaning eaves made it sound cold. But it was not cold. In fact, temperatures and humidity were rising. As far as the United States was concerned, even though it was the dead of winter, summer had begun.
In Australia and New Zealand, the opposite happened. The austral summer, which had been fairly normal through January, began to show signs of an unexpected change in February, when snow now began falling in the mountains of New Zealand's southern island. Record cold gripped Auckland. Australia, farther north, remained locked in record heat, but it was clear that this would soon change.
At the Russian Federation's Meteorological Data Processing Center at Obninsk, an image was picked up off a high-density data stream from an orbiting ENVISAT satellite that confirmed what ground observers were reporting: an extremely unusual storm had suddenly formed over the Russian Arctic. Weather systems like this had been seen only a few times before. The first one, which had formed over Duplin County, North Carolina, on the night of April 15, 1999, had been dubbed the "tornadocane." It was a massive tornado-producing supercell with the circulation characteristics of a hurricane. Winds in the system had reached 165 miles an hour. It had even formed an eye in an area near the mesocyclone, or tornado-producing region of the storm.
Instantly recognizing how unusual the storm they were seeing was, the Russian scientists reported it to the World Meteorological Organization. China's FY-1 Polar Orbiting Meteorological Satellite Program was also watching the storm's development. They sent the WMO an urgent message: The storm's CAPE, or collective available potential energy, appeared to be rising at a very high rate.
What a storm like that was doing there at this time of year, nobody knew let alone why it was becoming so powerful.
All across southern Europe, from Madrid to Istanbul, a hard, dry wind began roaring up from the south. In New York, low, wet clouds had been swarming northward for two days. In Atlanta, average wind speeds had reached thirty miles an hour. In Houston, the average speed was forty.
All over the world, meteorologists were watching the situation. So far, however, nobody had connected what was happening in different parts of the planet. Thinking was still highly localized, although numerous research facilities were observing the data being transmitted by the Russian and Chinese satellites.
Then a typhoon appeared in the central Pacific. It formed over a matter of hours faster, in fact, than had any typhoon ever previously recorded. Inside of a week, this massive storm was menacing coastlines from the Philippines to Japan. It was graded a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, and declared a supertyphoon. It was called Max.
The U.S. National Severe Storms Laboratory, recognizing the extraordinary power of this storm, began to acquire data on it from all available sources. Close to the center of the system, wind gusts were exceeding two hundred miles an hour. Emergency weather bulletins went out across the whole of the Pacific.
Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology was observing another kind of system on the high seas south and west of Tasmania. This system was moving on a track that had never been seen before.
They also reported this storm to the World Meteorological Organization. Realizing that it was now receiving data on three extremely unusual storms in different parts of the world, the WMO appealed to the U.S. National Severe Storms Laboratory for help in interpreting the situation.
With wind speeds now reaching 200 miles an hour, Max was raised to Category 5. There was a possibility that it would become the strongest storm ever recorded. The "tornadocane" over the Russian Arctic was becoming part of a system of similar storms that appeared to be forming with the North Pole as their rough center.
But in Paris, temperatures were rising toward the nineties. In New York and Toronto, southerly winds in excess of forty miles an hour were being recorded.
A supertanker, the Exxon Invincible, reported that it was taking on water off Cape Race, Newfoundland, and in danger of breaking up. From Newfoundland to North Carolina the alert was sounded: The area was in peril of the greatest oil spill in history.
In Dallas, you could smell the salt tang of the Gulf of Mexico three hundred miles to the south. In London, temperatures, which had been reaching through records, had finally begun dropping. Across Europe, storms began to crash and roar, and the nights of fifty cities were streaked by lightning.
By now, climatologists and meteorologists worldwide were aware that the planet's weather was in upheaval. At the U.S. National Severe Storms Laboratory the crucial question was first asked: Why?
Nineteen ninety-nine was the most violent year in the modern history of weather. So was 1998. So was 1997. And 1996. Anybody who glances at a weather report from time to time can see that something extraordinary is happening. But exactly what that is remains a matter of controversy.
For twenty years, we have been bombarded with warnings that global warming is a real and present danger. Equally, there have been claims that it's all nonsense.
On March 15, 1999, scientists at the University of Arizona and the University of Massachusetts reported on their construction of a thousand-year record of earth's average temperature. The results were shocking. What has happened is that a nine-hundred-year-long cooling trend has been suddenly and decisively reversed in the past fifty years. Due to the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases, ferocious warming is under way. The scientists predicted that the earth will shortly be warmer than it has been in millions of years.
A climatological nightmare is upon us. It is almost certainly the most dangerous thing that has ever happened in our history. However, there is a surprising amount that we can do about it. Some of it involves personal action. Some of it involves the whole society. None of it is particularly difficult or expensive, and none of it will place a cost burden on government, business, or the individual.
How effective will it be? That remains to be seen. So far, the fact that we cannot answer the question of just how dangerous global warming actually is, has meant that nobody is doing anything very decisive. But the situation is getting more and more serious. It has become clear that the deterioration of the atmosphere -- indeed, of the whole biosphere is happening a lot faster than even the most concerned climatologists imagined just a short time ago.
What does this mean? What might happen? We must find a way to understand. We must, because we have to empower ourselves to prevent it. Could it be that the worst climate disaster of all -- an event barely whispered about is actually happening right now? Could we be at the edge of runaway climate change an event so devastating that it could abruptly leave the world unable to feed itself, perhaps even visit it with unimaginable destruction?
To find out, we must take a journey not only through the shocking record of current climate change, but also into the amazing history of the world's weather.
At this point, almost any violent change in climate will batter our civilization because it is so enormous and makes such a massive demand on the environment. Even the unthinkable could happen: our civilization could fall.
Earth's climate works like a rubber band being stretched and suddenly released. For years, eons even, the stresses slowly build as the chemistry of the air changes. And then, in a matter of a few years or even a few months, there is a shift so vast that we can scarcely begin to imagine it.
Earth, it seems, has a powerful regulatory mechanism built into its climate. Heat increases to a certain point, and then the whole system breaks down. Cold air comes roaring down from the north, flooding the previously overheated Northern Hemisphere.
Suddenly, a new era of cold weather begins. We know, generally, how this happens. But not even science has as yet faced the fact that this change must be accompanied by an absolutely massive release of energy, as earth's climate strives to reorganize itself. In other words, this great shift of climate is almost certainly accompanied by a great storm or series of storms, a weather upheaval outside of contemporary human experience. We believe that it has happened before, and that traces of what we are calling the superstorm exist in the fossil record. We believe that it comes on suddenly and that it is so destructive that it has the potential to end our civilization.
These are sensational claims, but we can prove that nature pulls the trigger suddenly and, therefore, that the rebalancing of the climate that follows must also be very sudden and involve titanic energies. This suggests that our present situation may be extremely perilous.
Over the past three million years the earth has been locked in an unusually harsh climate system. During this period, our climate has flipped from warm to cold conditions and back again many times. Again and again, earth has warmed up, getting hotter and hotter until very suddenly the glaciers have come back and entombed a quarter of the planet in ice for upwards of a hundred thousand years. Sometimes, the cooling event has not resulted in a long-term buildup of ice. Sometimes, as happened around 8,000 B.C., sudden cooling has not led to the return of the ice, but has only interrupted the warming process for a short time.
All of the factors that have caused sudden climate change in the past are lining up right now. This change, which we will show is part of a vast natural cycle, has been sped up this time by human activity. When the change comes, it is likely to be much more violent than ever before, and we will offer evidence from recent and unexpected climatological data that indicates why this would be so.
We will look at the last great upheaval through the eyes of the people who were living then. Examining the fossil record, we will identify the season in which it took place. And we will see why that particular event did not result in a new ice age and learn exactly how to tell if the changes the next one brings will cause one or not.
What will this climate change be like for you and your family? This depends on where you live. The farther north your home, the more likely you will have to move quickly south.
When the warm ocean currents that now flow north cease to do so, our whole climate will change. It is our contention that the energy necessary for the superstorm will be created at that time.
Say you live in Dallas or Madrid or Rome. Your first indication that the superstorm is building might be weather reports to the effect that a series of cold fronts are moving down from the Arctic, one after another. This could happen at any time of the year. You would hear that more northern places Toronto, Stockholm, Beijing were receiving extremely heavy weather extraordinary rain in the summer, unprecedented blizzards in the winter. This would continue for a week or more, always building in intensity. Across the northern plains of the world the American High Plains, the central Asian steppe wind gusts of upwards of one hundred miles an hour would start to be recorded. We believe that it would get worse, and we will make our case over the course of this book.
Places like Edmonton and Semipalatinsk, then Minneapolis and Moscow, would cease to communicate with the outside world. Alaska and northern Siberia would have gone silent before.
From Europe to Asia to America, whole populations would be desperately attempting to move south. Because the same changes that affected currents in the North Atlantic would alter the movement of currents in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand would also be affected. There, summer would have turned to winter, or normal winter would have become extremely cold. Heavy seas would devastate the southern coasts of the continent. Typhoons, blowing up suddenly, would smash into the Philippines, Japan, and the Pacific islands.
The farther north you were, the more extreme conditions would be. Day after day, the storms would continue, becoming more complex and organized, larger, taking on forms never observed before.
All over the Northern Hemisphere, massive population movements would be taking place. There would be mass disorganization, and many, many people would be overrun by the superstorm.
After the superstorm was over, it would gradually become clear that a catastrophe of breathtaking proportions had occurred. The only reports from Europe would be coming from Portugal, southern Italy, and southern Spain. The entire American Midwest would be under a sheet of ice, one that would extend across Siberia and northern Europe as well. This ice would reflect vast amounts of sunlight and heat back into space.
If the storm as the last one appears to have done hit in summer, the ice would probably melt. It is possible that this happened the last time and, as we shall see, was recorded in myth all over the world.
If the storm took place in the fall or winter, then the ice could conceivably compress so much in the next few months and reflect back so much heat and light that the next summer simply would not be warm enough to melt it. The winter that followed would be the coldest in history.
The ultimate and ironic effect of global warming would have become clear to the survivors: a new ice age would have begun.
Prologue: The Storm Begins
1 Present Danger
2 Our Mysterious Past
3 Trouble in the South
4 Mankind the Unknown
5 A Lost World
6 The Tokyo Express
7 The Last Disaster
8 The War Hypothesis
9 The Emergency Develops: The United Kingdom
10 Some Answers and a Huge Question
11 The Superstorm Returns
12 Canada: A Cry for Help
14 Beyond Gale Force 10
15 Distant Thunder
16 Panic Stage
17 Storm Signals
18 Does It Happen?
19 Voices from the Storm
20 Paris in the Dark
21 Mechanism of Destiny
22 Hope and the Human Future
23 Why Doesn't Somebody Do Something
Epilogue New York