The Fourth Root

Eighty people died in Greece over the last week. The Carr wildfire is consuming northern California—it ain’t just the girls that are warm there now!

Last year, Portugal burned up—sixty-six dead. 0n October 15th, 2017, four hundred and forty fires raged in western Iberia, thirty-three of which were sizable—another fifty victims.

Southern Europe. Australia. Western US. Gaia is speaking to us, and we’re not listening.

A graphic from the Washington Post showing our planet boiling up this summer.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph informs us about the rainfall figures in the southeast UK—in some cases, six percent of the normal June precipitation. But, it hastens to add:

The Met Office said there was no strong evidence linking the warmer and drier Junes of the last two years to the planet’s warming climate.

The Washington Post, however, tells us that scientists disagree—the climate is supercharging the weather. By climate, we’re talking about climate change, and out of the many interesting points made by the authors, this is the most important.

Gone are the days when scientists drew a bright line dividing weather and climate. Now researchers can examine a weather event and estimate how much climate change had to do with causing or exacerbating it.

In other words, climate scientists can tell you how much worse a particular weather event is because of the change in climate.

For wildfires, that’s not surprising—the closer you are to a flashpoint, the more likely the flash. Kevin Trenberth, who works at NCAR, uses the following analogy in his discussion of the consequences of even a modest heat build-up from global warming.

The accumulated energy over one month is equivalent to a small microwave oven at full power for six minutes over every square foot of the planet. No wonder things catch on fire.

The article in the Post discusses the proximal reason for Western Europe’s summer woes—the split jet pattern. Put simply, the jet stream is behaving badly.

Computer model forecast of the jetstream, produced by Netweather (

The split jet pattern creates a barrier, rather than promoting airflow, and leads to prolonged weather system stagnation. The jet stream wind system, which is a balance between the trades and the roaring forties, was the mainstay of Atlantic navigation in the days of sail—it’s because of the jet stream that flying from North America to Europe takes less time than flying back.

The remarkable thing about all this is that citizens and societies are unable or unwilling to apportion blame. Just as in the loss of middle class jobs—the main theme for my forthcoming book, The Hourglass—here too we see corporations reaping the benefits, and governments and people paying the price.

In economics, these are known as negative externalities—someone picks up your shit. I did some math for my new book, and there’s no way that Universal Basic Income will compensate for substantial job losses due to artificial intelligence without a huge increase in government debt, while corporate profits soar. In a similar way, manufacturers who are profligate with greenhouse gas emissions make money while society pays the toll—not just in cash, but in blood.

But climate change needs to be considered as part of a larger problem—one that requires a holistic solution. From E.O. Wilson’s book, Half-Earth, I learned the acronym HIPPO: Habitat, Invasive Species, Pollution, Population, and Overexploitation (overhunting, overfishing…).

The book may prove a difficult vacation read, because Wilson cannot resist an excess of detail on Latin names and other biological esoterica—a shame because it will reduce the readership of this fascinating and terrible story.

Wilson discusses the present age—many call it the Anthropocene, a brave new world where Man manages a garden of species. The controversy rages. Ellis, who works at the University of Maryland, responded to an article in Wired with these words:

Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.

Emma Marris, a US journalist, writes:

Our true role as rulers of the planet is to turn its biodiversity into a global, half-wild rambunctious garden tended by us.

To which I say, “Bollocks!”

Ed Wilson prefers to call the coming age the Eremocene—the Age of Loneliness, where we have destroyed so much of the wondrous biodiversity that exists on the planet that we have very few friends to keep us company.

Ecologists have a rule of thumb for species extinction, based on observations in various ecosystems in different parts of the world. It is a simple rule: if you decrease available habitat, for instance by clear-cutting a tropical forest, you can calculate the corresponding loss in species. It’s done by taking the fourth root of what you have left.

If you destroy ninety percent of a forest, you’re left with about half the species, whereas if you destroy only ten percent, you get to keep ninety-seven percent of the species.

Wilson’s proposes that we leave half the earth unoccupied. If we choose to do so, and calculate the fourth root (sounds complex, but just type =SQRT(SQRT(0.5)) into Excel), the answer is eighty-four percent.

We get to leave the vast majority of other species alone, the ultimate gift for our children and their children, and a way to escape the age of loneliness.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: