Diary

The Hinky Dinky or TMERLC

The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company. Predecessor or both Wisconsin Energies and the Milwaukee County Transit Authority, it was the brainstorm of early Milwaukeeans and the solution for getting thousands upon thousands of our grand parents and great grandparents to work each morning.

My dad worked for Wisconsin Energies back in the day when it was still called Wisconsin Electric Power. In those days there was a streetcar line that terminated at the Lakeside Power Plant on the Lake Michigan shore. Each month workers in the power plant took turns manning the controls of one circuit of the streetcar and did duty as an early form of car-pooling. The streetcar, which ran down Wells street for part of it’s route, picked up employees three times a day, and dropped them off again three times a day as an employee benefit.

On at least one occasion I left home early on a Sunday morning with dad to join him on the route as driver — though with the tracks the only thing the driver did was start and stop the streetcar, and tap the mechanical warning bell that was linked to a button in the floor at the driver’s feet. I felt like a prince doing that. Sitting on dad’s knee, in the driver’s seat, eager to tap the bell, watching other workers run to the streetcar stop, waiting for them to board, and then meeting my mom at the prearranged stop for me to get off when my tour of duty was over and dad had to get to the “other” part of his job inside the power plant. Fond memories brought back to mind when a friend posted these pictures from the TMRELC recently.

Headquartered in downtown Milwaukee’s Public Service Building, We Energies is Wisconsin’s largest electric and natural gas utility. The publicly-traded company serves eastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A subsidiary of parent company WEC Energy Group, We Energies’ 21st-century portfolio includes coal, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and renewable energies.

The firm dates back to The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company (TMER&L), which focused, as the name suggests, on transportation and illumination infrastructure. Organized under Henry Villard’s North American Company, TMER&L was America’s first integrated power utility, generating energy for lighting, power, and traction. A series of corporate mergers between 1938 and 1941 joined TMER&L with the Wisconsin Electric Power Company and North American Company’s Wisconsin Gas & Electric and Michigan Power Company holdings. However, anti-monopoly legislation soon forced North American Company to dissolve in 1946, rendering Wisconsin Electric independent. Its facilities included the Lakeside Power Plant, the nation’s first to run on pulverized coal, and another plant in Port Washington.

Wisconsin Electric’s capacity grew after World War II. Between 1953 and 1968, the company built eight generators at its Oak Creek Power Plant. Soon after, it began construction on Point Beach Nuclear Plant, ultimately gaining a global reputation for efficiency despite environmentalist concerns about radiological pollution. To reduce capital costs, in 1964 it joined the new Mid-America Interpool Network, a massive power pool that synchronized efforts to share energy region-wide. In 1975, the company announced a strategic plan to shift energy consumption away from peak demand periods, raising subscriber rates seasonally. This decision encouraged legal action from consumer-rights groups. The region’s growing energy demands encouraged Wisconsin Electric to install two new coal-fired units at its Pleasant Prairie Plant during the 1980s. With the addition of real-estate development, investment, and technological equipment holdings, Wisconsin Electric restructured in 1987 as Wisconsin Energy Corporation. In 2015, the company changed structure again, becoming the WEC Energy Group.

In 1996, Wisconsin Energy Corporation’s Wisconsin Electric and Wisconsin Natural Gas holdings combined, eventually rebranding themselves as We Energies in 2002. As We Energies, the company began to develop renewable energy sources and reduce emissions, building wind turbines at its Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Center and Glacier Hills Wind Park and refitting coal plants to comply with Environmental Protection Agency standards. Its OAK CREEK expansion site and its Port Washington Generating Station continue to burn fossil fuels.

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Diary

Lichens

There are upwards of 30,000 species of lichens in the world; some 2000+ can be found in the UK, a statistic easier for me to find than the number of species in the US. I will forever be fascinated by lichens because of a nature walk conducted by a park ranger at Acadia National Park when I was…. goodness… not even 15 years old. These strange non-plant-plants, these “things” that take the first step in turning rock into soil by knocking off the tiniest bits of sand from a giant rock because of the heating and cooling and freezing of water in the organism — I wonder at them every time I see them.


A lichen (/ˈlaɪkən/LY-ken or, sometimes in the UK, /ˈlɪtʃən/, LICH-en) is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.[2][3][4] Lichens have properties different from those of their component organisms. Lichens come in many colors, sizes, and forms and are sometimes plant-like, but lichens are not plants. Lichens may have tiny, leafless branches (fruticose), flat leaf-like structures (foliose), flakes that lie on the surface like peeling paint (crustose), a powder-like appearance (leprose), or other growth forms.


But now, in my 70’s, lichens are a very different kind of inspiration. They speak of longevity and simply being. There’s no grand flower, there’s no massive growth, but there is continued life. Kind of like getting older as a human.

I don’t know about you but there is so much about the world around us that gives meaning to the way we live our lives. So many things we don’t have time to think about when we are younger no matter how thoughtful or into our heads we might be. The world is filled with wonder and we only need look about us to find it.

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A new solution to an old problem is never an easy task. The more times we’ve dealt with a problem in the same old way the harder it is to conceive a novel solution because our explanations of the problem have been molded set by past experience: by names.

To see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.

–Claude Monet

Names and labels are dangerous things. Claude Monet and his Impressionist friends turned the art world upside down by their re-invention of painterly technique. They did so by breaking the rules and ignoring the labels and names of “art,” and in many ways, of life. Sometimes you just have to forget the names of things and look at the world through new eyes, devoid of expectations, willing to accept possibility, unhindered by convention.

We see the world differently today because of artists like Monet, who taught us how to “see” the same things we’ve been looking at for a long while, but to see them through eyes unhampered by the filters we used to apply. A water lily doesn’t have to look like a water lily looked 20 years ago. We can see new aspects of it. We can see it in different light. In fact, each day, each hour, the light changes so that what we “see” in that instant is different from what we will say later in the day, or on another sunnier or more overcast day.

The stories of Monet going out into the field to paint, carting along a dozen partially painted canvasses to that he could continue painting several different views of the same subject at different times of the day. Each canvas was different even though the scene was the “same.”

And by breaking with the convention of how to apply paint to the canvas we had the opportunity to “see” that scene or indeed any scene in a very different way.

How to do that in everyday life is horribly difficult and simultaneously astonishingly easy. But first we have to be willing to let go of pre-conceptions, past-ideas, habit, tradition, experience. We have to metaphorically forget the name of whatever problem lies in our way.

I don’t know about you but I find that the older I get the easier it is to rely upon experience. Often I simply don’t want to be bothered thinking up a new way of doing something when the old one works perfectly well. I have my exceptions, of course. Travel: I almost never return from a place the same way I went out. But that willingness to be challenged in every aspect of life is tiring; one has to actually think about what they are doing instead of letting habit carry us forward like the current of a river.

I don’t know about you but I really do try to think new thoughts every day. It’s a challenge that varies by the day in difficulty; and pandemic has not made it any easier I accept. Still, I try. And that’s all that any of us can do. We aren’t all Monet’s. There were other artists, contemporaries of Monet, who refused his techniques. Some followed along later and aren’t as well known. Some waited still longer and modified his practices and turned Impressionism into quite something else, newer yet. And in the 1960’s, and in the 2000’s other artists who themselves were trying to “forget the name of the things” have reinvented art and seeing again and again and again. It’s not a job that is done once. It is a continual process. In art, in life, in love…

To See

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Diary

Give Blood

I’ve been wanting to get back to donating blood. The pandemic got in the way of doing so and now that I’m vaccinated I’ve been itching to get back.

The other day a friend posted something about being an O positive donor and 38% of the population share their blood type. That got me to thinking, “I wonder how many people are aware of how common their blood type might be.” Being aware of the fact that not just everyone can donate blood, should you need it, has always been a reminder to me to take the opportunities to share something of myself with someone in need. So, as a public service, here you go!

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Easy Mediterranean-Style Shrimp Stew

Shrimp! I don’t need a lobster to feel luxuriously decadent. I don’t need fiddly crab legs to pretend to be vacationing on the coast. Give me a succulent shrimp and I’m happy as a pig in mud! One of the few things I “miss” being back in Wisconsin compared to our 7 years of full-time RV’ing has been easy access to fresh shrimp. Our place in South Texas and the 10 months we spent in Oregon were seafood lovers heaven. We can get great shrimp here — fresh frozen aboard the shrimp boat — but it’s not quite the same as really FRESH, just caught.

Add to shrimp the sumptuous flavors of the mediterranean and it’s hard to improve on the flavors you can pack into a simple meal. Oh, sure, you can get loads of flavor in a long-cooked specialty — like cassoulet, that wants to cook all day long — but for a quick 1/2 hour meal that tastes like it’s been blended by a master chef I’ll take this simple, elegant stew.

Easy, comforting shrimp stew, cooked in a Mediterranean-style rustic chunky tomato sauce! Loads of flavor from fresh garlic, onions, bell peppers and warm spices. You’ll want to make this for close friends and family, adding your favorite bread to sop up all the goodness (and maybe a bottle of your favorite wine.) 

Cozy stews have the ability to warm you up from head to toe. They are really the reason I look forward to cooler weather, when I can pull out my trusted crockpot or Dutch oven to make a hearty Italian beef stew, Moroccan vegetable tagine, or unstuffed cabbage rolls  (all three are so worth trying, by the way!)

But this one, doesn’t need the heavy cookware, or the long cooking time. This one’s ready in a flash!

Ingredients

  • Extra virgin olive oil (I used Private Reserve Greek olive oil)
  • 1 large red onion, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, cored, chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 ½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp sumac
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • ½ tsp ground green cardamom
  • 2 15-oz cans diced tomatoes
  • ½ cup water
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  •  2 ½ lb large shrimp
  • 1 cup parsley leaves, chopped
  • ⅓ cup toasted pine nuts, optional
  • ¼ cup toasted sesame seeds, optional
  • Lemon or lime wedges to serve

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and position an oven rack in the middle
  2. In a large skillet or frying pan, heat 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil until shimmering but not smoking. Add chopped onions, bell peppers, and garlic. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, tossing regularly. Stir in spices and cook another minute or so till fragrant.
  3. Add diced tomatoes and water. Season with kosher salt and pepper. Bring sauce to a boil, then lower heat and let simmer about 10 to 15 minutes.
  4. Transfer sauce to an oven-save dish (unless you are using a large, deep, oven-safe skillet). Stir shrimp well into the sauce. Add parsley, pine nuts, and toasted sesame seeds. Cover with lid (or tightly with foil.)
  5. Transfer to heated oven and bake for about 7 to 9 minutes or so (depending on your oven), then uncover and broil very briefly till shrimp is ready (shrimp is ready when it turns from gray to a translucent pink in the thickest parts.)
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Don’t Label Me

With all the social media around it’s easy to give yourself convenient access to a wider variety of people than would be possible in a lot of traditional living situations. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and such offer the possibility of rubbing virtual shoulders with people just like you, as well as folks hugely divergent from your personal points of view.

I’m sensitive to folks in the gender equality battle. I really don’t think gender ought to be the concern of government, or your neighbors for that matter. So, I have monitored the public conversations of a few folks in that scene. Similarly, I may not be Black or Asian or an Immigrant but the problems of White Privilege in the U.S. have troubled a great many of us over the years and I find it helpful to listen to what my fellow citizens in those battles are saying.

None of that makes me particularly enlightened or enlightening. I am not ‘woke’. I am not a guide or a source of inspiration. Nor am I out to proselytize converts to some idea.

I am not your detractor. Nor am I sitting in judgment. I am me.

The reason I say this is because it seems there is a growing tendency for people to label other people. Whatever their cause is, it’s easy to find people who oppose it and it seems the current “in” thing to do to label your opponents.

The problem is that the label you apply to me is most likely to have more meaning to you than to me. The label you have defined and revises has implications and nuances that the person assigned to that label most likely has no idea about. The pile you toss them on is much more complicated and detailed than they ever know, so that even if they were willing to own the label chances are you are going to have expectations of them that they are completely unaware of.

You may choose to label me. You can put so many labels on me I look like a piece of luggage that’s made ten round the world trips. Do that if you wish, but those are your labels. Not mine. I am me.

Who am I?

I’m me. I’m me in the moment, today, this hour, right now. In five or ten minutes I may be different. If I’m exposed to good ideas I’m not afraid to change, and I often do.

I don’t need your label. I don’t want a label. Your label implies that I I have to conform to the dictates, beliefs and behaviors that are assigned to that label. That’s fine for you but I have no intention of meeting your expectations of me.

Perhaps I fit the restrictions you expect today, this morning. Maybe this afternoon I won’t. I’m me. However I happen to be. I don’t need someone to give me a word or an acronym to tell me who I am. I don’t require your definitions or acceptance to be me. My validation comes from within. I examine myself, I adjudicate for myself when my actions or thoughts don’t match MY standards. I appreciate being acknowledged and appreciated but will not alter who I am simply to receive those things from others. My goal is to be better, and if possible, make my small place in this world better. Unlike Google I mean it when I say it is my mission to do no harm. I am one person. I am me. I cannot fix this world. All I can do is to try to be someone that, while I am here, makes kindness something less rare.


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Climate tipping points may have been reached already, experts say

“Climate Change” — the words are met with such extremes of emotion. On one side utter denial, on the other side paranoid panic. There has to be a way of looking at the topic that strips away emotion and gives us the information we need to decide how best to channel our own — personal — efforts.

Personally, I’m shocked at how little attention the topic is given in U.S. media. Around the world — if you bother to investigate — people — every day people as well as scientists — are much more conversant with the topic and far more activist.

The thing is, nothing happens until people start talking and taking action and in the hopes that the following article first published by CBS News might raise the level of conversation — and perhaps someplace down the line the level of action as well.

I’m lucky. At age 70 I won’t see the worst of what’s to come. But I have grand children and great grandchildren who will and I’d like to think we could do a better job of stewarding this planet for them than what we have done.


Through decades of research, and now lived experience, it has become clear that the impacts of climate change will have drastic and far-reaching consequences on our planet. And while some of those consequences are predictable — like more extreme weather, sea-level rise and loss of biodiversity — the pace at which these unfold and their eventual severity hinge on what happens with key linchpins in the climate system, called tipping points.

A tipping point is a threshold or point of no return in the climate system that once passed can no longer be reversed. Passing a tipping point does not necessarily mean immediate, drastic consequences, but it does mean those consequences become unavoidable, and over time the impacts may be dramatic. 

In a 2019 paper, Professor Timothy Lenton, a global leader on the subject, identified nine climate tipping points, from melting permafrost in the Arctic to the loss of tropical coral reefs. Here we will focus on what he deems the three most critical tipping points: the Amazon rainforest, the West Antarctic ice sheet and the Gulf Stream system.

Lenton highlights these three because the West Antarctic ice sheet may have already passed a tipping point; the Amazon because it is a crucial crucible of biodiversity and for its warehouse of carbon; and the Gulf Stream system because of its potential for profound changes with connected ramifications all around the planet.

CBS News spoke to Lenton and several other scientists about the state of climate tipping points. While they have different areas of expertise, ranging from oceans to atmosphere to biosphere, their message was unanimous: Changes are happening faster than what was expected and the chance of hitting tipping points in the climate system, which just a decade ago appeared remote and far off, now seems much more likely and more immediate.

“This is why I have been raising the alarm,” Lenton said. “In just a decade the risk level has gone up markedly — that should be triggering urgent action.”

The Amazon rainforest

For 55 million years the Amazon rainforest has weathered all of nature’s ups and downs, but just one century of human negligence — a geological blink of an eye — threatens to be the nail in the coffin for this ancient forest. 

The Amazon is huge — almost the size of the contiguous United States. Home to an estimated 3 million species, about 10% of the Earth’s known biodiversity, and half of the planet’s remaining rainforest, the Amazon is among the most diverse places on Earth. But many experts believe the Amazon may have already entered tipping point territory.

Having studied the Amazon for 56 years and visited hundreds of times, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy is one of those experts. 

“We are really right at that tipping point. We see the signs in longer dry seasons, hotter dry seasons, tree species that prefer drier conditions gaining dominance over those that prefer wet conditions,” explains Lovejoy, a professor at George Mason University and founder of the Amazon Biodiversity Center. “So we know that it’s right there at the tipping point right now.”

When Lovejoy started studying the Amazon in the 1960s, 10 million people lived there and the forest was 97% intact. Now there are 30 million people living there and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is at 20% — the critical level at which scientists believe the Amazon starts to tip towards the point of no return, where it no longer survives as a lush wet rainforest and transitions into an arid savanna.

Lovejoy says this transition from rainforest to savanna could happen as fast as a mortgage cycle. “I would say it’s a matter of something that happens on the timescale of decades like 10, 20, 30 years, not centuries. So, a lot of the people alive today would actually get to see that negative consequence.” 

Lenton is less sure. “I wish I knew how close we are to a tipping point,” he said. But he agrees the signs are pointing in that direction.

“We have work submitted showing early warning signs that the whole forest is losing resilience. I’d say that for the drier southeast side of the Amazon it is already under serious risk of fire-amplified loss.” 

A rainforest is only a rainforest because it is a rain-making machine — generating 50% of its own rainfall. That phenomenon is made possible as the leaves that make up the canopy of trees exhale moisture upward (a process called evapotranspiration), condensing in the cooler air above and forming a river of clouds that rains the moisture back down. 

“Just by watching what happens after a rainfall in the Amazon and afterwards you see plumes of moisture coming up out of the canopy of the forest and that all moves westward to become rainfall once again, ” explains Lovejoy. 

But as the trees disappear and the forest becomes fractured, so does the moisture. Lovejoy says this destruction is due to fires and deforestation from small landowners grabbing land and to large corporations engaged in industrial agriculture, mainly growing soybeans and supporting livestock.

In 2020, fires reached their highest number in a decade in the Brazilian Amazon and deforestation in the Amazon surged to its highest point in 12 years. Critics blame Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro for looking the other way on enforcement of environmental regulations and even encouraging agriculture and mining activities, which undermine the health of the forest. 

Since the 1980s, NASA has observed a significant increase in something called the vapor pressure deficit (VPD) over the Amazon rainforest. The VPD is the difference, or gap, between the amount of moisture in the air and the amount it can hold. That gap is widening, which represents a drop in relative humidity, due to an increase in greenhouse warming from human-caused climate change and aerosols from biomass burning.

When the atmosphere is less humid, it has room for more moisture and it becomes more thirsty, pulling that moisture out of the ground and making the vegetation drier. This leads to more drought and is very similar to what is happening in California, which is making wildfires worse. Over the past century temperatures in the Amazon have risen by over 2 degrees Fahrenheit and in the past 50 years the dry season has expanded by a month.

Lovejoy says the impacts of a transition of the Amazon rainforest to a more arid savanna would be devastating both locally and globally. Locally, the 30 million people who live there, many of them Indigenous, depend on the reliable rainfall produced by the rainforest. Significant loss of rain means an escalation of drought that may be devastating to agriculture. A drier Amazon would also mean a significant loss in biodiversity — the extinction of unique creatures which only exist in that one region.

Globally, the Amazon rainforest is a tremendous repository for the planet’s carbon, but if it becomes a savanna much of that carbon will be unleashed, magnifying climate change, “It does matter in a very, very big way in terms of the global carbon cycle and climate change,” says Lovejoy. 

He estimates the forest contains a staggering 100 billion tons of carbon in its lush vegetation and soils — equivalent to about three times the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels each year. If the Amazon crosses the tipping point, “It not only absorbs a lot less, but all the forest that is being replaced by grassland, all that carbon ends up in the atmosphere,” Lovejoy warns.

Lovejoy says there is still hope we could stop this from happening, but the task is urgent. He says the nations which make up this unique ecosystem must cooperate and immediately work to reforest the Amazon. 

“There is a very urgent priority to move to a point where we are actually collectively managing the Amazon as a sustainable system,” he said.

West Antarctic ice sheet

Of all the threats posed by climate change, sea level rise is arguably the biggest. That’s because with billions of people living along the world’s coastlines, rapid sea-level rise will force massive disruption. Given the immense amount of heat already absorbed in the ocean system due to human-caused climate change, there’s no doubt several feet — and likely much more — of sea level rise is already locked in, but the question is how fast will it happen?

The latest research finds that global warming thresholds that would trigger tipping points on both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are not that far away. The authors of a 2018 study find that these tipping points will likely occur between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels — the level at which the Paris Climate Agreement aims to halt warming. The Earth has already warmed by 1.2 degrees, and 1.5 degrees of warming may be less than 15 years away.

Because of the complexity of ice sheet dynamics, it is hard to know exactly when a tipping point will be reached, but Lenton warns we may already be there: “It is plausible we are already past a tipping point.”

With ice more than a mile thick and a size almost double the contiguous United States, the Antarctic landmass holds enough ice to raise sea levels by 200 feet. For decades it was assumed the frigid Antarctic ice sheet was fairly stable, so most glacier headlines were focused on the other massive ice sheet in Greenland

But in just the past few years, researchers have become alarmed at several areas in Antarctica which are showing signs of instability due to a warming climate and shifting ocean and atmosphere currents.   

The most pressing concern appears to be in West Antarctica — namely the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers. A paper published this past fall uncovered the rapid development over just the past decade of damage areas on the ice shelves of these two glaciers causing structural weakening which the authors say “preconditions these ice shelves for disintegration.”

Ice shelves are giant walls of ice floating on the oceans that act as dams on the edge of the glaciers, holding the land ice (ice sheets) behind them in place. If the ice shelves break apart, it’s like pulling the cork out of a wine bottle: the ice behind it flows freely into the sea, raising sea levels.

What makes the situation at Pine Island Glacier, and especially Thwaites Glacier, so precarious is that the ice shelves float far out over the sea. Warm water, about 2 degrees Celsius above the historical average, is now undercutting the marine ice. That is destabilizing the base of the ice shelf where it is propped up on land (called the grounding line) and accelerating its retreat. 

If and when the base of the glacier lifts off the ocean floor, it will no longer be supported by land and thus will become floating ice. Just like adding ice cubes to a glass, this raises the water level. Because Thwaites, also known as the Doomsday Glacier, is below sea-level, that means much more ice is vulnerable to warming seas.  

study published last month found early warning indicators of the onset of marine ice sheet instability, and thus the authors were able to identify distinct tipping points on Thwaites and Pine Island, but they did not give a timeline. If Thwaites Glacier collapses, sea levels would rise by 1.5 feet. If that collapse destabilized its neighbor Pine Island, sea level would rise 4 feet. And if the whole West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed, 10 feet of sea level rise would follow. 

While most scientists agree this is likely to unfold over centuries, not decades, increasingly ice experts are warning that higher-end estimates of sea-level rise are becoming more likely. In 2017, NOAA projected sea levels could rise 5 to 8 feet by 2100

Lenton agrees that if we are indeed in the midst of, or near, a tipping point, “It opens up the possibility that we could get greater than 1 meter (and perhaps up to 2 meters) of sea-level rise from all sources this century which would already have huge impacts.” This kind of sea-level rise, over such a short time span, would threaten or displace hundreds of millions of people who live near rising waters, and the ramifications would ripple through much of human civilization 

“On the longer term it could mean a commitment has already been made to multi-meter sea level rise that will pose major challenges to future generations,” warns Lenton. 

The fact that sea levels will rise dramatically is not a matter of scientific controversy and is all but assured. About 125,000 years ago, before the last Ice Age, sea level was likely at least 20 feet higher than it is today. At that time global temperatures were just a couple of degrees warmer than today. 

Three million years ago sea levels were 75 feet higher than today in a climate that was 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than now. So, over centuries and millennia, these types of sea-level rise are not just possible, they are probable.

Even if humans were able to stop warming in the next few decades, temperatures equivalent to that last interglacial will likely be equaled. That’s why experts say at least 20 feet of sea-level rise is inevitable. The critical question is will it happen gradually over many centuries, or will coastal regions be swallowed up in just decades?

Oceanographer John Englander, author of the new book “Moving to Higher Ground,” says this is a tough question to answer because sudden geophysical events, like the collapse of glaciers, are not accurately predictable — much like an earthquake, mudslide or avalanche. That’s why Englander says we must look to history as a guide for what is possible. 

Since the last Ice Age, sea-level rise has not been linear and predictable. To the contrary, Englander explains, it has occurred in fits and starts, at times stable and at other times rising abruptly. 

“11,000 years ago, the last time that sea-level rise was rising quickly, it rose at about 15 feet per century. That’s amazing, more than a foot a decade of sea level rise,” Englander warns. “Now, there was more ice on the planet back then, but we are warming a lot faster now. So, in terms of looking for real-world historical rates, we could be looking at a foot a decade.”

Right now, sea levels are rising at nowhere near those rates, only at about 2 inches per decade, but rates are doubling every decade. To help illustrate the power of doubling, in his book Englander uses the analogy of how long it would take to fill a soccer stadium with water if you started with a single drop of water and doubled it every minute. The answer is shocking: only 47 minutes! 

Englander says the point is that small changes in sea-level rise today will mount quickly over the decades, and if tipping points are crossed, society should be prepared for abrupt changes. That’s why he says it would be wise for nations to invest in preparation now and not wait for the inevitable water to come.

The Gulf Stream system 

Lenton described a potential tipping point in the Gulf Stream system as “profound.” That’s because the Atlantic Ocean circulation is a linchpin in Earth’s climate system. It is the driving force behind the Global Ocean Conveyor Belt (pictured below) and transports 20% of the excess heat which accumulates at the Equator towards the Northern Hemisphere polar regions. This is how Earth attempts to balance out unequal heating from the sun, and the flux of heat is a big factor controlling weather patterns. 

What concerns scientists is that this current is slowing down. In fact, a new study found it is moving the slowest it has in at least 1,600 years and may decrease speed by up to 45% by 2100, possibly tipping the circulation into collapse. 

Before we go any further, it is worth mentioning that the Gulf Stream system is a newly popularized nickname for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC for short). One look at that name and it’s clear why the Gulf Stream system may be preferable. 

But in that AMOC name there are some clues as to why this current system is so important. “Meridional” means transport in a north-to-south or south-to-north direction. And “overturning” implies that the current moves vertically as well. So this current is the engine that propels ocean heat to the ends of the Earth. 

Being that it takes any one water parcel around 1,000 years to complete a full journey, anything we do today lingers in the system for a great many generations. We have already done a lot. Each year ocean heat content hits a new record high because 93% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the ocean. That’s equivalent to 5 Hiroshima atomic bombs worth of heat per second. This is a big reason why ice melt has already locked in 20 feet or more of future sea-level rise.

But this ice melt poses another problem, because everything is connected. Accelerated meltwater from Greenland ice is rushing into the North Atlantic. That combined with heavier rainfall is likely responsible for a slowdown of the AMOC by 15% since 1950.

Here’s how it works. In the North Atlantic, east of Greenland, water is cold, salty and dense. Therefore it sinks. That vertical movement of the AMOC is the driving force, the momentum which keeps the whole system moving. But the water is changing in this region. That’s because, according to NASA, a warmer climate is melting ice at 6 times the rate of the 1990s. That is pumping a layer of fresh water — which is not as heavy — into the North Atlantic, resulting in a decreased ability to sink, slowing down the overturning.

Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, authored the 2015 paper which found the 15% slowdown in the AMOC, which he calls “unprecedented” in recent history.

“The Greenland ice sheet appears to be disintegrating decades ahead of schedule and so that fresh water, as that ice melts, runs off into the North Atlantic earlier than we expected it to,” Mann explains. 

Mann says some of the evidence for the impact this is having in the North Atlantic is right there in plain sight. While the vast majority of Earth is warming, a big “cold blob” near Greenland sticks out like a sore thumb — as seen in the maps below.

Mann says this colder region is a “fingerprint” for the slowdown of the AMOC. It’s a result of a decrease in heat transfer northbound due to the slowing of the Gulf Stream. And Mann warns this is all happening much faster than projected. 

“The observations tell us we are about 50 years, or more, ahead of where the climate models say we should be at this point,” he said.

The mounting evidence, and the speed at which changes are taking place, lead Mann to believe that a collapse of the current is possible. 

“It’s hard to rule out the scenario of a full on collapse sometime in the next few decades. We have continued to be surprised by how fast some of these processes appear to be playing out.”

Lenton agrees and says while he may not be alive to see it, the next generation could be. “A collapse this century can’t be ruled out (so within my kids lifetimes),” he said. 

Given the major amount of heat displaced by the AMOC, if the current slows dramatically or stops, weather patterns would be thrown off-kilter in the Northern Hemisphere and extreme weather would escalate. In addition, Mann says it would have a direct effect on the Atlantic Ocean, pushing sea level up by a foot along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and impacting fish stocks in the North Atlantic.

Lenton believes the impacts would be profound. “Western Europe would have to try and adapt to a completely different climate. Major monsoons could shift, in a bad way, e.g. in India and West Africa.” 

To put it simply, Lenton says, “It would change the world.” 

While some of these tipping points are now only decades away, or perhaps even upon us, scientists say we can still avert worse disaster if we act now. This argument is bolstered by new research from the University of Exeter which shows the disastrous consequences of climate “tipping points” could be averted if global warming was reversed quickly enough — concluding that thresholds could be “temporarily exceeded” without prompting permanent shifts.

We may still pass some of these tipping points, but the less we warm the Earth, the slower the impacts will unfold, and the more time our children and grandchildren will have to adapt to the changes.  

First published on April 26, 2021 / 10:51 AM

© 2021 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.Jeff Berardelli

Jeff Berardelli is a meteorologist and climate specialist for CBS News.

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Diary

Make Do

My wife is addicted to houses. When we were younger we sometimes when looking at houses on Sundays when real estate agents were having open houses. We looked at dozens of homes when we have been seriously shopping for property. And “looking” is just something we enjoy.

She (actually it’s “we”) like to watch programs about other people purchasing houses, or fixing them up to suit their fancy. We watch U.S. versions, and British versions. If we found them I’m sure we’d watch French, German, or Japanese programs too — it’s not so much about the actual “H-O-U-S-E” as it is about learning about the likes and dislikes of people and how they adjust their reality to their personal financial situation.

It seems increasingly so that young couples in search of new-to-them homes have no concept of the idea of “Make Do.” I suspect it’s an idea that grew in popularity because of the Great Depression of 1929 — so many people were literally penniless, having lost jobs and homes and without a social support network — that they simply had to survive with what they had — whether or not it was what they wanted. In fact, I think for a lot of folks the possibility that things could be different than they are isn’t even a glimmer in their eyes; they have been that poor for that long there’s no sense in dreaming.

It’s both humorous and frustrating to hear young, and not-so-young couples talking about what they absolutely have to have in their new/dream home. Right down to the color of things. Or the finish. As if they aren’t going to be living in that place for a good long while and they could easily change any of those details at some future point in time. They don’t understand that you can simply “make do” rather than spending themselves into poverty to get what they want.

I was a young teenager when my dad came home from work one day a little bit miffed over a new-hire at the plant where he worked. My dad helped make electricity at the local utility; he ran an 8 story boiler that produced steam for a turbine a building away that produced electricity for the city of Milwaukee. They had college fellows — this was before there was much talk about equal rights and it seemed that there weren’t any women who wanted the dirty job of dealing with the ash that the automated system didn’t handle correctly. It was hard, dirty work and even though it paid a decent wage for the time, it didn’t really pay all that much.

One day one of those new-hires came work with a fancy pickup truck. Clearly his dad — who also worked at the same plant — had popped the big bucks to buy the truck — but my dad was quite miffed that this young man just “had to have” a fancier, newer truck than my dad had ever allowed himself to purchase. With a family, my father had a list of priorities that came before a bigger, fancier truck, and he never let his wants overtake his needs.

But it came into focus that we all grow up with certain things, and the things we grow up with we assume are normal. If we grew up with a space heater instead of central heat then having to live in a place without central heat isn’t a big deal. But if all we have known is living with central heating then the idea that one room might be cold and one might need to wear a sweater when in that room seems too much to bear even if most of the world lives with just that situation — if they even have “rooms.”

The escalation of the standard of living creates populations that think they need certain things to live, whereas a great many of the things they think they need are in fact luxury. TV shows us what the rich and the famous have and enjoy and suddenly everyone in the society thinks they too should be able to have those things. Take hotels and motels for example.

A “roadtrip” when I was young often found us at little cottages overnight that weren’t much larger than the bed within them, with tepid water and grimy showers — there weren’t fancy motels like there are now, and there certainly was no standard of luxury as is expected today. Our place near the Wisconsin Dells caters to just the opposite set. City dwellers and rural bumpkins alike arrive on weekends wanting to be pampered and treated like kings and queens for a few hours or days. They’ll spend a weeks wages for a night or two just so they can have a few hours of luxury to feel better about their life. The one they can actually afford. Not that get-away dream.

The thing is, if you can learn to get by, to make do, to live without for a while you come to terms what what your situation is and not what you think it is. Every year we hear stories about how many americans are deep in debt, well a big part of that is because people listen to advertising that tells them to buy, buy, buy, and they haven’t learned that just because someone tells you that you ought to do a thing doesn’t mean you actually have to do it. We don’t have to be lead like sheep into poverty and debt. We can make our own choices, we can do our own thing, we only have to start. Right now. Just because Mr. Smith has something I don’t have to have it and I can find a way of living without if I choose. I can simply Make Do.

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