Chapter 11 – Falling

‘In The World at One today: the government announce that planning for expansion at London’s airport has cleared another hurdle…’
The radio clicked off and Rhan sat down at the desk as soon as her laptop screen came to life. She had dabbled for six weeks and needed answers.
She clicked in the Google box, and typed “climate change”. She skipped the UK Met Office site and perused a few items about how any warming was fabricated by climate scientists looking for grant money, and how Arctic ice melt could not be significant if Antarctica was still gaining ice mass. She had seen the arguments by the deniers, but she was not sufficiently convinced by their aggressive assertions to cease her investigations. Besides, since the articles had been written, evidence that Antarctica might be gaining ice mass or that the climate was not warming had tended to dry up.
There were a few articles about the 2015 Paris agreement and international efforts to keep temperature rises below either 1.5°C or well below 2°C by promised actions. Rhan wondered at the obscure threats implied by “dangerous” levels above those temperatures, but could see no discussions or further hints of what that could entail. The dates up to 2050 and beyond for removal of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere seemed a long way off if there was any real danger.
She then clicked on an older newspaper article about warming since the 2015 Paris Accord. Noticing that it was by NOAA, an American group, she expected a sceptical article but instead, she saw a graph that shot upwards to around 1.2°C of post-industrial warming. ‘Not far from 1.5° then!’ she murmured.
Rhan followed other links and was surprised to find that NASA was endorsing similar views. She bit her lip in annoyance that her previous prejudices had stopped her searching those sites before, and that she had been confused by the way different sites were using different starting points. Some sites compared temperatures with pre-industrial temperatures, while others compared temperatures with the 1980s. Most data was based on “anomalies”, which was even more confusing. Checking carefully, she printed off a graph that indicated a temperature rise of around 1.3°C in 2016. Clicking back, she found the links to the UK Met Office, which still had only 0.8°C of warming, and which steadfastly agreed with the latest United Nations’ IPCC report. ‘Half a degree different – what a mess!’ she muttered.
Staying on the Met Office site, she skipped on to the subject that she wanted to reach – the Arctic ice – and read that the director was very confident about the computer predictions. These, along with a straight-line graph, indicated that the ice would not disappear for decades according to all the computer models. She furrowed her brow as she read that this was again in accordance with the latest IPCC view. Rhan felt worried. Something was very wrong; how could a straight line represent the previous steady centuries of ice mass prior to 1980 as ever-increasing, never mind fit the straight line to the recent plunging data? Then they were using that line to predict the future! No school kid in a science class would get away with that, Rhan thought, furrowing her brow.
She changed tack and deliberately searched for Arctic ice loss, and this time started in Wikipedia. George had told her that sea ice was the best indicator. She scanned through an article that described why the sea ice was so important to keeping the earth cooler and how its loss would greatly exacerbate temperature rise, allow faster melting of the tundra permafrost, and encourage decay of the peat bogs to methane. She knew that from school, but not the current timescales. She read with interest how for many millions of years the ice had been a permanent fixture, and felt bemused while looking at images of the Arctic Ocean as the view was from above the North Pole; it was so different to the normal view from above the equator in the Atlantic. She tried to concentrate on the dotted lines indicating the location of ice over the past few decades. The area was shrinking, so there was certainly something to worry about, but she had a feeling that this was not the reason why George had been driven into attack mode with the university.
She then read an interesting item on how the rapidly warming Arctic resulted in a reduced difference in temperature between the equator and the Arctic. This meant that the jet stream, which circled the world in northern latitudes, was changed from a stream to a sluggish river, complete with meanders and oxbow lakes. This left pockets of heat or intense rainfall stranded in places like Russia, Pakistan and even the UK, while other places like Rome suffered from blizzards. So that explained the extraordinary snows that she had played in, even in the coastal town of Sunderland in 2012. She recalled walks with her sister and young cousins along a beach covered in frozen seawater and her uncle’s assurances that such cold was extraordinary, even for England. She shook her head, resetting her focus to the matter in hand.
She clicked on the graph of ice extents. There again was a definite shrinking of the area of the ice. There was much discussion over the age of the ice and she appraised how thin ice could fluctuate rapidly from season to season depending on the weather.
‘Hmm, volume would be more appropriate,’ she mused.
Just as she hoped, scrolling further down the Wikipedia page, she saw the ice mass graph and clicked it; the plunging shape filled the screen. Her focus drifted forward, leaving her gazing vacantly at the keyboard. She was unintentionally holding her breath. ‘What are you doing?’ she demanded of herself. ‘It could mean anything!’
Grabbing a dirty coffee cup, she fetched a drink of water from the washbasin and returned unsteadily to the graph.
It was credited to Washington University but there were no discussions. There were some notes but no attached arguments one way or the other to explain the plummeting graphs. It was based on PIOMAS, whatever that was, and had been constructed by deduction from a range of data as far as she could make out. ‘So, an example of unreliable data from climate experts?’ she said out loud, beginning to calm down. ‘Yet no claims or conclusions about the data?’ Nonetheless, she printed out the graph. While doing so, she noticed that some of the data was claimed to be consistent with Cryosat2, which meant little to her.
With the paper copy on the desk, she used a ruler to extend the timeline and followed the curve down with a pencil to where the volume would be zero. She reported under her breath, ‘2025, give or take. Is that some of your data, George? God, that could be not long after we graduate, yet the risk was not even acknowledged. Something must be wrong.’
In a business-like manner, she tried to contort the curve of the graph to extend it to 2050 or to any other dates in decades to come. Yet any such extension to the curve would only be fantasy and relied on a complete change in long-term direction. There was no way that her A-Level Physics teacher would allow such cheating, so she rejected her attempts to find the optimistic view suggested by the Met Office.
‘So much for the Paris Agreement if our goose is already cooked,’ Rhan muttered crossly.
She found a discussion forum, where climate sceptics were outraged and disgusted by the PIOMAS data, which remained immutable and undefended against the onslaught.
She returned once again to the Met Office and its links to the Hadley Weather Centre. She tracked down Cryosat2 and discovered that it was the European-backed satellite to survey the ice, and particularly the ice depths. It was confusing but she found a discussion which, with controlled dignity and a reassuring lack of alarming information, managed to say little. The news was dry and unexciting. After half an hour, she found an early announcement that the delayed Cryosat2 was functioning as a replacement to the initial Cryosat, which never made it out of the atmosphere. Measurements were surprisingly close to PIOMAS’s deduced data, but the article thought it no great issue because loss of the Arctic ice would not be that significant.
‘You lot used to work in Syria! No one dares say anything that might be controversial.’ Rhan’s loud accusation rang round the empty room. ‘Your so-called “free press” are happy to print lies if they are more convenient than the truth!’ Rhan rehearsed her argument for George later. ‘You have the same situation here – playing politics with billions of other people’s lives!’ Rhan’s anger swelled. It was all so unfair and unjust. She knew exactly who would suffer – the younger generation and the poor.
She lay on the bed, the implications swirling around her head in an uncontrolled tornado. She could only grasp snippets of a horrible future that she could now envisage, with seemingly no one prepared to stop it.