Global Warnings

In 1970, in my Conservation studies at Berkeley, I learned about the Greenhouse Effect. Now it’s called Global Climate Change. Ever since, I’ve been watching the poles melt and things change very scarily. I wrote stories and books about the warming planet and rising seas, but no one paid much attention. Then I turned to the Goddess Geo-Gaia.

Does all that make me just a tree-hugger? Was I a chicken little running around tweeting that the sky is falling?

When the flood waters rise, everyone’s a tree hugger

Global Weirding, that’s what bestselling futurist Tom Friedman calls it. He makes the comment in the new cable series Years of Living Dangerously, while attributing the current devastating Syrian civil war to a four-year drought in that country. Droughts are getting longer these days, and storms more violent.

I really began to worry in 2000 when I heard on NPR that 300-year old trees in the Palace of Versailles gardens had been toppled in a windstorm, with thousands of trunks snapped off or uprooted. That same wind took out 7 percent (or 300 million!) of France’s standing trees. I thought we’d better visit Europe before climate change did greater damage.

Two millennial windstorms in 24 hours

Two millennial windstorms in 24 hours

When finally we arrived in 2003, Paris was Paradise. The air in July was moist and fragrant, almost like Hawaii in its tropical warmth. We stayed a week in the north seeing the Tour de France, Mont St. Michel, and Bastille Day fireworks against the Eiffel Tower from a bridge across the Seine. Then we motored south for a week and over the Spanish border to Barcelona, visiting friends, museums and historic sites along the way. My toes were blistered by hot sands on the Costa Brava beaches, but that isn’t unheard of.

The sense of enchantment lasted through our return home, until that summer of 2003 turned into Europe’s hottest on record since 1542. A heat wave in August killed 15,000 French citizens, with a total 70,000 deaths in the EU. Typical victims were rural and elderly people who’d never experienced such sustained heat. England and Scotland recorded the highest temperatures ever, while melting glaciers in the Swiss Alps caused flash flooding.

The Weirding of America

France wasn’t my first experience of climate anomaly. On a trip to my favorite High Sierra outback at Pinecrest on the Sonora Pass, I noticed it didn’t smell the same. Instead of fresh piny fragrance, there was a tarry resinous odor that I immediately associated with the summer’s severe heat. A ranger told me that the sap was out in the evergreens, boiling and evaporating in the sun. Normally at 7000 feet, you feel hot on the south side and cool on the north, but this was a muggy heat that enfolds you.

Hiking at 9000 feet, I couldn’t use my binoculars. When I raised them to my face, they immediately fogged up in the freakish humidity. Removing my eyeglasses, I found that my naked eyes had the same effect on the lenses. On the hike, we picked our way across a jumbled avalanche that covers a whole canyon floor, with streams running through the churned-up mud. The landslide was eight miles long, still creeping and being tracked by geologists, years after it began amid El Nino rains.

Atop the Sierra summit, a seasonal butterfly migration was underway, with millions of tiny flyers fluttering across the barren rocks to reach the plant life on the Eastern slope. How would these climate anomalies affect them, I wondered. Would the nectar and pollen-bearing blossoms be ready for their arrival?


When I went to visit my favorite camping spot, a place I’d known 40 years, I was first confused, then desolated. With the trail lost amid stumps and boulders, I could barely find my cherished Pine Valley. Devastated by fire, flood and erosion it was no more, its sandy beach washed away and the stream choked in a logjam of charred trunks. The valley’s quiet, grassy shade with the gently chuckling stream was now damp, blackened desolation under a pitiless sun. With the swimming hole I’d shared with Explorer Scouts and my family having become a threat to life and limb, I felt as if I’d lost my youth.

There used to be an annual measurement called the Sierra Snowpack. It was useful, not just to ski resorts but to Central Valley farms and cities. It told them how much snowmelt they could anticipate to water their crops and populations through the reservoir system, canals and pipelines. Now it’s a distressing article in National Geographic. I, who’ve snowshoed over drifts twenty feet deep, could burn through it these days on a dirt bike. Snow and rain don’t fall, or if they do, they’re immediately followed by warm melting weather and dry, desiccating winds that remove moisture from soil and vegetation. Often at mid-elevations, it’s winter rainfall that melts the snow. Rain squalls in March, severe enough to cause floods and mudslides, haven’t put a dent in California’s worst multi-year drought on record.


Solar energy pours in heavily at the earth’s Equator and, hopefully, radiates out into space from the polar icecaps. Whether by gradual breezes or violent storms, the energy has to move north and south through the temperate zones to the poles. But when solar heat is trapped and retained by excess carbon in the atmosphere, the tropical climate zones expand northward and southward from the equator.

As a result, California and the rest of the US are seeing the Sonoran desert belt of Mexico creep steadily northward. San Francisco is now becoming the Steinbeck Country of Salinas, 90 miles to the south and 90 years past. San Luis Obispo could gradually become the Mojave Desert as vegetation dries out, dies and is consumed by fire. Tonight in mid-May, the most recent wildfires threaten Lompoc, San Diego and Texas, while rain and storm ravage the Northeast, tornadoes hit the Midwest, and heavy snow blankets Colorado. Locally we’re seeing something new: Firenado funnels, similar to the firestorms of Tokyo and Dresden after World War II bombings.


Thank you, Geo-Gaia, for these signs and omens

How many more Perfect Storms will it take?  Philip K. Dick’s vision in Blade Runner of Los Angeles as a rainy tropical city is still decades away.

Santa Barbara, too, has changed. On recent visits there, instead of sultry, seductive summer days, I’ve experienced gusty and blustery winds that rustle the drying palm fronds.

And sea-rise – yesterday two independent scientific teams reported that the West Antarctic ice sheet’s collapse into the sea will inevitably cause Earth’s sea level to rise at least four feet.

Soon we’ll all be tree huggers.

Earth's Basic OS

A computer, your desktop, laptop or even iPhone has a BIOS, a Basic Internal Operating System that allows all the software apps to run. It also happens that our planet has a BIOS that allows living things (our "wetware" apps) to run and multiply. Aptly enough, it's called the Gaia Theory, although it's now generally accepted as a valid scientific principle.

First developed in the 1960s and '70s by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulies as part of NASA research to determine whether life could exist on Mars, the Gaia Principle can be seen as Earth's BIOS.  It states that organisms on the planet's surface have evolved and interacted with atmospheric and chemical forces to support and perpetuate life. This began with primal single-cell organisms in Earth's seas, but continues with land vegetation and animal life to maintain the necessary balance. It doesn't involve teleological thinking about an outside plan or purpose for life. Rather, it divines the internal purpose built inevitably (or luckily, or both) into our system's overall development and continuance.

Gaia's BIOS also reaches into the planet's structure, its Bio-geophysiology. It explains how changes to life systems, through the carbon balance of the atmosphere and possibly volcanic activity, affect Earth's albedo (brightness, i.e. reflectivity to sunlight and heat.) This ties in with global warming and cooling.

Overheating of the biosphere, as in any computer, must be controlled to prevent a system crash or total meltdown. The Gaia approach identifies checks and balances, our planet's natural thermostat to control temperature.

But the fact remains, the massive impact of human activity threatens to overwhelm or override these internal controls. The melting of the poles, for instance, with the loss of their white, reflective snow and ice, dims the albedo. Dark wet tundra absorbs more heat.

The good news: If humans are powerful and clever enough to endanger or corrupt the BIOS, we can help to restore it. But it may require more purposefulness.