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Posted on Jul 4, 2013
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By Subhankar Banerjee, Climate Story Tellers

This piece first appeared at Climate Story Tellers.

“Within a few years we are going to have more people off the surface of this planet more often, and we’ll have to determine value in that new environment.”
—Jill Tarter, chairwoman of the SETI Institute, CNN Money, June 27, 2013

Do we write words of mourning? Or, do we write words of resistance? Those two braids have joined and from now on will flow together—in our age of the Anthropocene.

On October 11, 2012 I participated as a panelist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in what was perhaps the first public symposium on the Anthropocene. “A consensus has been reached that the tremendous scope of transformations now occurring on the Earth, with profound effects on plants, animals, and natural habitats, is primarily the result of human activities. Geologists have proposed the term Anthropocene, or the ‘Age of Man,’ for this new period in the history of the planet, which follows the relatively stable Holocene period. On a geological scale the planet has entered a new era,” the Smithsonian press release stated. Climate change and ocean acidification—the evil twins—are the two most destructive forces of this geologic era.

Two recent disasters: one in Uttarakhand, India and the other in Arizona, US show us—that not only ecological devastation but also human casualty—arise from climate change. In both cases, those who tried to save lives—lost their lives. On June 25 an Indian air force helicopter crashed on a steep hillside in Uttarakhand “while on a mission to rescue people stranded in monsoon floods,” the Times of India reported. Twenty people died in that crash. And last Sunday nineteen firefighters died in Arizona “as they were overcome … by the swift, erratic Yarnell Hill Fire,” the USA Today reported.

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According to one estimate the flood in Uttarakhand has claimed more than 10,000 lives. If that indeed were true, then it would be the largest human casualty in a single climate change event. Two recent scientific studies: here and here make the connection between climate change and—erratic monsoon and extreme floods in India. And if you have any doubt about the connection between climate change and—extreme drought and fires in the desert southwest of America, take a look at William deBuys’ remarkable book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford University Press).

I have a personal connection with both places: last November I visited Uttarakhand, and I lived on two separate occasions, a total of eleven years in the desert southwest, in New Mexico. I’m now mourning the deaths in Arizona and Uttarakhand.

For sometime now we have been using the word “extreme” when talking about climate change disasters. We’ve known what it means for ecological loss (see forest death from bark beetles infestation here and coral graveyards here). Now we know what “extreme” in climate changed extreme weather means for human loss also.

I know less about recent floods in India than I do about fires in the American southwest. So I’ll share a few words about the latter.

In 2011 the Las Conchas Fire burned 156,593 acres and became the largest fire in New Mexico history. As the fire started Iwrote an article “New Mexico is burning with potential for nuclear contamination.” I wrote:

I live inside a small old true adobe home. … since Sunday June 26 I’ve had to keep all windows closed to avoid toxic ash from wildfires from entering the breathing space inside the house. The result—I’m hot as hell inside my home and can’t sleep properly.

Large fires send a lot of toxic pollutants in the air. The previous year NASA reported that the “raging forest fires in central Russia, Siberia and western Canada have created an enormous cloud of pollutants covering the northern hemisphere.” Furthermore, many of us were concerned that the smoke from the Las Conchas Fire might contain nuclear material due to previous unregulated dumping of nuclear waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

But our main concern was—the entire southwest could have been nuked. There were some 20,000 55–gallon drums filled with plutonium–contaminated waste that sat on the surface underneath fabric tents in Area G at LANL. The fire was about 3 1/2 miles from Area G when I wrote the piece. Unsurprisingly the government lied: “Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval declined to confirm that there were any such drums now on the property,” the Associated Press reported on June 27. Three days later another lab spokesperson told the same AP writer that there were 10,000 drums stored on the property—belching out a half–truth. New Mexico and the neighboring states got saved from nuclear contamination not because of human ingenuity but Nature came to the rescue—wind started to blow in a north–south direction, away from Area G.

To understand the ecological impact of the fire, I sat down with New Mexico state land commissioner Ray Powell and his team of nearly a dozen staff that included many ecologists. I never wrote about what I learned from that meeting until now. They told me that the Las Conchas Fire was burning so hot and was moving so fast that the firefighters reported to them that they had “never seen a fire like this before.” The heat was so intense that it was burning all the way down to the roots of trees. The sub–surface desert dwellers—gophers, mice and reptiles—surely got burnt alive. And the speed of spread was astonishing—“averaging an acre of forest burned every 1.17 seconds for 14 straight hours.” To give you a linear perspective: say the acre is a square with four equal sides; then each side would be about 209 feet. No animal could ever move 209 feet in 1.17 seconds. I came to realize then what “extreme” means in extreme weather events.


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