The Indonesian city of Manokwari is poised to become an unwitting icon for climate change. In about 2020, the coastal location will become one of the first places in recent history to adopt an entirely new climate — one in which its coldest years will be consistently hotter than any of the past 150 years.
That is one finding of a study published today in Nature1, which attempts to create a region-specific index of climate change. Researchers sought to identify the point at which temperature oscillations in each area will exceed the bounds of historical variability. Such ‘climate departures’ are predicted to start in the tropics and then spread to higher latitudes. If carbon dioxide emissions continue unabated, Earth’s mean climate could depart from historical averages in 2047.
“Very soon, extreme events will become the norm,” says lead author Camilo Mora, an environmental researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Because temperatures in the tropics vary little between seasons, even a slight increase in the average temperature could lead to unprecedented conditions — with negative consequences for ecosystems that are home to much of the world's biodiversity. Many tropical nations also have limited economic capacity to adapt or otherwise respond to such threats.
“The rules of the climate game — those governing everything from species interactions to frequency of large storm events — are changing,” says Jack Williams, a palaeoclimatologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who was not involved in the study.
Most climate projections focus on the timing of absolute temperature changes — such as predictions of when to expect Earth to have warmed by an average of 2 ºC compared with pre-industrial times. But little is known about the timing of regional climate shifts.
To establish the historical bounds of climate variability, Mora’s team used 39 climate models to assemble projections on 7 environmental variables, such as near-surface air temperature and precipitation, for the years 1860–2005. The researchers then ran simulations for the next 100 years to identify the years in which climate variables are predicted to exceed historical limits in various locations.
They found that aggressively cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to stabilize the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would delay the timing of Earth's overall ‘climate departure’ by 22 years, until 2069. “Twenty years is not a lot of time, but it could be a window of opportunity to prepare ourselves to adapt to these new climate conditions,” says Mora.The article itself is behind a paywall, but never mind. When you're 72, you finally realize how quickly a century goes by, and 34 years is like a long weekend. (If you can remember 1979, you know what I mean.)
When I try to imagine this model's 2047, I keep thinking about the horrible, grinding misery of southern Sudan as portrayed in reports from Radio Dabanga, and the floods that seem to assail the Philippines so often, with predictable outbreaks of leptospirosis.
I also think about population movements that will make the Hajj look minor; the rats and mosquitoes will doubtless migrate with less effort (and in even greater numbers). I think about governments already dealing with politically explosive local events that will have to decide whether to accept emigrants or not. (To our eternal shame, Canada's policy toward Jews fleeing Hitler was "None is too many.")
Dengue is already returning to Florida. When will we hear that it's now endemic to New York and Illinois? Or Ontario and Quebec?
As neglected tropical diseases move north and south, we'll continue to neglect them; we'll be too busy dealing with malaria and diarrhea, if not cholera.
As La Rochefoucauld cruelly observed, "We always find the strength to bear the misfortunes of others." Those of us not (yet) affected will, with a sociopath's calm, watch millions die as they now do in the Mediterranean, drowning en route to salvation.
And as Niemoller said, "First they came for the communists, but I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist." Our turn will come, whether we like it or not, and we will not be safe in gated communities or behind sealed borders.
Our best hope is not to be among the chosen few who survive, but among the chosen many: all the world's nations, recognizing that more of us will die of viruses and bacteria than of typhoons and droughts, working together to keep everyone alive through 2047 and into the strange new world beyond it.