Melomys: The Little Brown Rat Has Left The Coal Mine*

Melomys is the First Mammal Extinction Directly Attributed To Anthropomorphic Global Warming.

One of the characteristics of a certain type of climate denier is a tendency to spout ignorant quips in the face of climate facts. For example, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind a little more warmer weather”or “who cares what goes on at the North Pole, I don’t live there.”

So we may expect a similar reaction from this unique population segment when they hear of the ultimate extinction of a little brown Australian rat known as the Bramble Cay Melomys. 

“Hey one less rat in the world. I hate rats.”

Australia’s “little brown rat” is not a particularly aesthetic creature, but it does have the distinction of being the first mammal to permanently exit the planet due to anthropogenic climate change. It was native to the Great Barrier Reef and lived on a small island in the Torres Straits.

But not a single melomys has been spotted since 2009 and the species was finally declared officially extinct this week. The cause was the rapid sea level rise driven by warming oceans, accompanied by devastating storm surges that wiped out habitat and food supply. Since these are burrowing mammals, many likely drowned in their homes.

While humans tend to focus on designer species such as whales, elephants and big cats, there is a very long list of other species that have recently disappeared, or are under extreme threat of extinction. As most people are aware, the loss of any species in the food chain changes everything.

Over the ages, species have always gone extinct and been replaced. But has more and more humans swarm the planet, things have changed. The current extinction rate – sometimes known as the Sixth Great Extinction – is approximately 100 extinctions per million species per year. This rate is 1,000 times higher than historic background rates. That rate is expected to climb as global warming accelerates.

In most geological ages of the past, species have adjusted to changing climate conditions by moving. Whether flora or fauna, species that live in alpine environments move up. Species that live in warming regions move toward the poles if they can. But in the Anthropocene, the rate of change is hundreds of time faster than in eras past. Species have barely started packing before they are gone.

Humans, the most mobile of species, has always adjusted through migration, voluntary or involuntary. The current global refugee crisis is due in large part to collapsing ecosystems on every continent.

Ultimately, Australia’s little brown rat met an untimely end because it was unable to migrate. It ran out of island.

Humans will also continue to relocate on a mass scale…unless they run out of planet.


RECENTLY EXTINCT

Although the melomys is the first mammal to be declared extinct specifically due to global warming, it is only the latest in a growing list of mammals (and birds and planets) declared extinct in the past few decades. Generally speaking, cause for extinction are complex and virtually always incorporate some combination of human activity and climate change.

  • Vaquita Porpoise  2017
  • Javan Rhino 2011
  • Aloatra Grebe 2010
  • Baiaji Dolphin 2006
  • West African Rhino 2001
  • Dusky Seaside Sparrow 1989
  • Golden Toad 1989

Departing soon

  • Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Down to 3)
  • Most amphibians are threatened with extinction

You may also be aware on the margins of your consciousness that the global insect population is in steep decline. If your reaction is “Good, I hate insects,” well, you are probably having the wrong reaction.

* Understood to be a mixed metaphor.

The Third Pole and Global Glacier Collapse

Rapid Glacier Melt In the Himalayan Plateau Threatens Water Supply for Billions | Abridged Ecosystem Transformation

With perhaps hundreds of feet of sea level rise contained in the rapidly melting land ice of Greenland and Antarctica, the situation at the poles is enough of a planetary climate crisis for anyone. But the catastrophe at the Third Pole may be more destructive in it’s short term effects.

The “Third Pole” is a term coined to describe the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau. These extensive ice fields hold the planet’s largest reserve of fresh water outside of the Greenland and Antarctica. Up to 1.3 billion people depend on the ten river systems that originate here for drinking water, irrigation and power in eight countries in South Asia. Among the rivers with sources in the glaciers are the Ganges, Indus, Yellow and Yangtze. If the people downstream from the sources are factored in, the number climbs to 2 billion humans (about 25% of the global population).

Warming temperatures are liquefying glaciers across the vast Himalayan region. By one count, 509 glaciers have disappeared over the past 50 years.

Before global warming kicked in, winter snowfall replenished the glaciers. Now, as temperatures climb, snow falls when temperatures are fairly high, so much of the water flows directly into rivers. The decay of the glaciers is visible from year to year. What is happening across the Third Pole is the most prominent example of this slow mo global climate phenomenon as alpine glaciers in South America, Europe and Alaska recede.

As quoted in The Big Thaw, a February 2019 National Graphic article by Daniel Glick, Daniel Fagre of the U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Program said, “Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime. It’s like watching the Statue of Liberty melt.” As the article goes on to point out, the iconic snows of Kilimanjaro have receded more than 80% since 1912. In the Andes, an artist is painting the bare rocks white in honor of the glaciers that used to provide water for the villages.

Link to full article

COMPLEX CAUSE AND EFFECT
In places where glaciers have disappeared completely, the impact on the water supply is devastating. However, where glaciers still exist, they melting more rapidly: the local effect may actually be more fresh water collecting in new lakes. So more water in the short term, followed by no water.

This gives rise to a frightening event at the opposite end of the spectrum: a phenomenon called Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), in which an ice dam holding back meltwater suddenly collapses, releasing a wall of water into the valley. This is not a new type of event, but as glaciers recede it is becoming more common.

In the Third Pole Region, smaller spring-fed forest rivers are also drying up, due to climate change, deforestation, migration and unenlightened hydro projects. Rainfall and snowfall have decreased significantly over the past three decades and groundwater has been depleted by indiscriminate drilling (see Ogallala Aquifer depletion).

Monsoons also feed the large rivers, so the receding glaciers are only part of the overall scenario. But the monsoons have also become unreliable.

The impending drinking water crisis is not the only change looming in the Hindu-Kush. Agriculture and herding lifestyles have already been severely compromised as yet another regional migration gathers steam. Less grass grows and it does not grow as high. Herds are depleted remnants of their former selves. Local herbs are disappearing.

As temperatures continue to warm, biodiversity is beginning to crash. The term “biodiversity” sounds scientific and vaguely liberal, but what it refers to is the death of species across the spectrum of life. Whether in the mountains, the oceans or prairies, the consequences of the sixth great extinction are just beginning to manifest themselves across the food chain.

Most species that inhabits an alpine ecosystem have nowhere to go but up. And out.

Humans are different. The pastoralists can leave the alpine valleys and find work in the towns and cities for now. But their herds can’t come with them.

FUN WITH GLOBAL WARMING STATISTICS

We are inundated by statistics all day long. It can be difficult to assess what they really mean. For example, does the fact that 2018 was only the 4th hottest year on record mean global warming is slowing? Not hardly, in fact, quite the opposite: Please read on.

NOAA, NASA, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and Berkeley Earth have all confirmed that 2018 was the 4th hottest in terms of global surface air temperatures. Average Mean Annual Land Surface Air Temperatures were 14.7° Celsius (58.4°F in 2018, just 0.2C (.3°F) off the record year 2016.

According to Berkeley Earth, in 2018 about 4.3% of the planet set new local records for the warmest annual average, including significant areas in Europe and the Middle East.

The five warmest years have been 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 (not in that order). The ten hottest years have occurred since 1998. While there are variations in the details, other agencies from around the planet report remarkably consistent overall results.

2018 was a La Niña year, a natural oceanic temperature cycle that alternates with El Niño. La Niña years are virtually always cooler than El Niño years. The fact that 2018 made it into the top five is all the more alarming for that reason. BTW, an El Niño appears to be forming, although prediction is not 100% accurate.

The next statistic is more troubling:

2018 was the warmest year on record for global ocean temperatures. 

Polar Ice Primer

Over past two decades, the ocean has been warming about 40% faster than previously understood. To a large degree, that is because the oceans have been acting as a buffer, storing the heat trapped by greenhouse gases and temporarily delaying the onslaught of global warming. As the planet has warmed, the oceans have provided a sort of climate change cushion.

For the past 20 years, the waters of the Earth have been absorbing and storing massive amounts of heat energy as polar sea ice disappears. See the page on polar ice classifications. (Incidentally, the oceans have also been sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere as well.)

Unlike the atmosphere, ocean temperatures fluctuates over decades. When the ocean stores heat, it is slowly released back into the atmosphere, another feedback that may well be irreversible.

Global atmospheric temperatures will continue to set records over the next five years, according to the British Weather Service (MET).

Antarctic sea ice extent is at a record low and in the Arctic, temperatures are climbing about twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Global wind patterns are being disrupted, causing extreme weather events around the planet. This is the origin of the polar vortex, but that is only one manifestation.

The ecosystems of both polar regions are changing so profoundly and so fast that scientists are hard pressed to keep up. And of course, the permafrost is not so perma any more. That is a separate topic.

The final statistic: Atmospheric CO₂ crossed the 414 PPM for the first time at the Mona Loa, HI recording station for the first time last month. Pledges and world conferences aside, the growth of CO₂ in the atmosphere is accelerating, not decreasing. Prior to the industrial revolution, the average CO₂ measurement would have been 280 PPM. The Earth broke the 400 PPM measurement in 2016. Continued CO₂ growth is forecast for 2019 as emissions continue to rise and ecosystems absorb CO₂. If the predicted El Niño takes hold, the results will be magnified.

The greenhouse effect of CO₂ peak about ten years after it is emitted. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

The chart curves up logarithmically and yes, this looks just like Al Gore’s hockey stick chart. (Actually it’s Michael Mann’s hockey stick and the original was for temperature, but they are most definitely related). But whether you like Al Gore or not has nothing to do with whether or not he has his facts straight.

Albert Einstein could also be a bit of an jerk, they say, and yet, you know: pretty smart guy.

The Disappearing Ogallala Aquifer

The Ogallala Aquifer Crisis Is Uniquely American, With Global Consequences

The Ogallala Aquifer is a huge table of groundwater that covers portions of eight Western States. The system contains as much water as Lake Huron and is one of the planet’s largest sources of fresh water. Unlike “actual” lakes, the water lies just beneath the surface, visible in a few locations as wetlands or ponds. Most people have never heard of the Ogallala (also known as the High Plains Aquifer) to some degree because it is rarely visible as surface water..

Yet the Ogallala is the water supply that keeps a large component of western American industrial agriculture in business, the heartland’s wheat fields, also the source of corn, sorghum, soybeans, wheat and cotton. This is where the irrigation circles (otherwise known as pivot irrigation) get their water. About $25 billion of annual agricultural output depends on this vast reservoir.

But the Ogallala is on the verge getting tapped out.

What farmers thought was inexhaustible 25 years ago has been depleted many times faster than it can be replenished. If it runs dry, it will take about 6,000 years to fill back up. Whe

As one scientist put it: there are too many straws in the resource. Wells are now 300+ feet deep and the aquifer simply can’t replenish itself as fast as the crops drink it up. Not even close.

At this point in time, water is being pumped that has been deep underground for hundreds of thousands of years.  Water levels in Kansas have dropped up to 14ft since 1996, about a foot a year. BUT in 2011, level drop rates more than doubled, to 2.2 ft. per year. In some places in southern Kansas, water level has declined 150 feet and wells have been abandoned.

In some parts of the region, it takes one year to recharge the aquifer 1 inch through natural percolation.

Do the math.

There is more bad news: the region – already rated as semi-arid – has been in the throes of severe drought since 2011. The condition has vacillates from severe to extreme to exceptional drought, the two worst categories.

Climate scientists expect this state of affairs to persist and worsen. This is a long term event that will increase demand on the aquifer while reducing the ability of the aquifer to recharge.

Unless major changes are made.

Western states are generally Red states, led by hands off Republicans inclined to let the farmers handle it themselves. It’s not that they don’t know there is a crisis looming, it’s that they lack the political courage to do anything about it. Some farmers and institutions are taking steps, but the future is unclear. Humans sometimes do amazing things when threatened. Some of the amazing things are good. Sometimes they are the opposite of good, like electing strong men they think will save them.

Sometimes they wait until it’s too late.

Since we seem to get stuck on economic arguments, consider the economic price of losing the Ogallala: a slow moving economic and cultural catastrophe that will change the face of America.

Kind of like global warming.