I’m only in my early thirties but already within my lifetime I’ve seen marked changes in the climate. I grew up in a little village called Wormit (and then latterly in a slightly bigger village next door called Newport) on the river Tay. At this point the river is just under 2 miles wide. It’s a proper, fast flowing river and many people have been swept to their deaths in it over the years.
And yet, when I was a lad I used to get woken up in the Winter by the noise of huge blocks of ice bashing into each other as they creaked their way down the river. My dad took a photo one Winter morning of the ice flows which you can see below (note the chunks of ice in the middle distance and that Dundee is lost in cloud):
Today a mere 20 years later people would think me crazy if I suggested the river froze in Winter. You’d be lucky to see a flake of snow anywhere near the place. I remember the local schools having to close as a result of heavy snowfall and we’d sit watching the cars spinning off the road at that corner by our house (see above). Nowadays? The Winters are so mild that neither is an option.
Scotland used to have several thriving ski resorts and yet now the season is shorter, some of the resorts don’t open at all and the amount of snow is a fraction of what it was. The Winters just aren’t cold or sustained any longer and it’s happened in only a few years.
When I visited New Zealand in 2003 it was amazing to see pictures of the Franz Josef glacier as it had been just a century earlier and know that the car park a couple of miles from the glacier was covered by the glacier only a few decades earlier. Glaciers the world over are melting and ski resorts across Europe (for example) are seeing shorter seasons year on year. While periods of warm and cold are cyclical over time the years since the 1980s have seen rapid glacial melt well beyond anything predicted by scientists based on historical records.
Whether you believe that global warming is real and exacerbated by humans or whether it’s a government conspiracy used as a stick to beat tax payers with (or are somewhere in between), the fact remains that we’re coming out of an ice age earlier than expected and it’s looking increasingly likely that within my lifetime the polar ice cap may disappear completely in the summer months – consigning polar bears among other animals to history.
We have short lives and therefore a very short-term view of the world in which we live. But in that short time the world’s climate is changing, extinctions are at a level higher than at any time in the past and in geological timescales these changes are happening in an instant instead of a long time.
I often wonder what archaeologists a million years in the future looking at the fossil records would think. I suspect they’d wonder if some global catastrophe occurred in the same way we’ve wondered why the dinosaurs died out. My concern is that they’d be right. And that the catastrophe was us.