In 1963 while chasing Soviet submarines around the North Atlantic with the Canadian Air Force, I was privileged to see the new volcanic island of Surtsey emerge off the coast of Iceland. By the mid-1980s scientists knew how quickly life appeared. Despite this, they were surprised by how quickly life returned after Mount St Helens erupted. We can allow it takes time for a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumption, to occur. However, the idea that catastrophic human impacts on the environment, such as climate change, would take decades to recover or push them beyond recovery was exploited to exaggerate fear and push an agenda. The phrase “tipping point” became synonymous with this fear.
Uniformitarianism; A False Paradigm
Environmentalists, politicians, and politically biased scientists exploited uniformitarianism. This is the false assumption that change is slow over long periods, which underpins the western scientific view of the world. One example, still believed by most, is that the Earth’s orbit round the Sun is a fixed, small ellipse. Science has known for over 150 years it is constantly changing because of gravitational pull of Jupiter from almost circular to double the current amount. Most believe our Sun is unchanging and meteorology texts talk about the solar constant, however, astronomers label it a small variable star.
This explains why climate change, which is normally and naturally significant, was easily sold as new, unnatural and human induced. Unfortunately, too many scientists were unaware of how much change occurs or how this created false assumptions. This led to claims that when catastrophic events occurred recovery takes a very long time. Mount St Helens was a prime example. Now scientists studying the area are surprised by the recovery.
U.S. Forest Service ecologist Charlie Crisafulli said, “The scientific surprises show that science still has much to learn about the planet’s volcanic cycle of death and rebirth.”
Similar predictions were made for massive forest fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. As one report notes, “The 1988 wildfires were not the ecological disaster many feared at the time.”
Exploitation of slow change and slow recoveries was built into claims of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Most notable was the proposition that human CO2 put into the atmosphere would remain there for over 100 years. It is known as the residency time. IPCC authors were well aware of the significance. In the 2001 Report they wrote, “The latter – the atmospheric residence time of the greenhouse gas – is a highly policy relevant characteristic. Namely, emissions of a greenhouse gas that has a long atmospheric residence time is a quasi-irreversible commitment to sustained radiative forcing over decades, centuries, or millennia, before natural processes can remove the quantities emitted.” Two points were made. Even if we stopped now the problem would persist for a long time and if we continued accumulation would make the problem worse.
In reality the residency time is between 5 and 6 years. The idea also depends on the incorrect claim that CO2 increased from pre-industrial levels due solely to humans, but that’s another story of deceptive science.
Actual Ability of Natural Recovery
Part of the exploitation of emotions and lack of knowledge is the idea that rapid recovery is not natural therefore animals and plants will not cope. In fact, evidence is in the literature in various forms. It’s seen in the boom or bust cycles recognized by anthropologists and ecologists. Many had discussed concepts of ecology, which examines the relationship between animal populations and their relationship to the environment and especially the food supply. Charles Elton created the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford University in 1932 that provided data essential as the first part of scientific understanding. Involvement in three Arctic expeditions led to work with the Hudson’s Bay Company and use of their records to show fluctuations in Lynx populations (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Plot of secondary indication of fluctuations in Lynx population
Those records also provide evidence that plants can keep up with climate change.
Samuel Hearne (1745 – 1792) joined the Company in 1766. In 1769 he set out on the first of three overland journeys to determine the economic potential of copper at the mouth of the Coppermine River on the Arctic coast. Hearne was a talented naturalist who made astute observations of the flora and fauna. His reports on Arctic fox are still considered among the best and provide a base for modern comparison. His map of the third trip from Churchill on Hudson Bay to Coppermine shows the position of the northern tree line that he calls the “tree limit”. It provides a comparison with a modern tree line (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Hearne’s 1772 tree line compared to 1983
Source: Ball. Climatic Change Vol 8, No. 2 / April, 1986, p.127
Hearne failed on two attempts but succeeded on the third with Chipewyan (Northern) Indian guides. His comments show a remarkable awareness of larger conditions. “I have observed during my several journeys in those parts that all the way to the north of Seal River the edge of the wood is faced with old withered stumps, and trees which have been flown (sic) down by the wind….Those blasted trees are found in some parts extend to a distance of twenty miles from the living woods, and detached patches of them are much farther off; which is proof that the cold has been increasing in these parts for some ages. Indeed some of the older Northern Indians have assured me that they have heard their fathers and grandfathers say, they remembered the greatest part of those places where the trees are now blasted and dead, in a flourishing state.” Retreat of the tree line is appropriate for the cooling trend from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age.
After Hearne observed and recorded the tree limit the world warmed and it advanced north again. The pattern of the advance, with greater latitudinal than longitudinal movement, (Figure 2) is coincident with the general airflow. The advance of over 200km is an average of 1km per year between 1772 and 1972, this, in an extremely harsh growing environment. Even if the estimate of the movement is 50 percent wrong it is a rate of movement that until recently science wouldn’t concede.
Constant change to new paradigms is the way scientific knowledge and understanding advance. Questioning, or even initially resisting, the new paradigm is natural and even somewhat necessary. It is encapsulated in the adage not to rush to judgment. However, exploiting the delay between scientific and public understanding is a form of insider trading. In the case of climate change and the paradigm of natural rapid change and rapid adjustment it is done on a global scale.