2012 in Review: Nature Bats Last

However much humankind may injure and maim the planet, we don’t control nature. Nature bats last. WC continues a category of year end reviews introduced last year, noting instances in this calendar year when we’ve had to be reminded of that lesson once again.

One of WC’s all-time favorite books is John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (Amazon link). McPhee examines three instances of man’s interactions with nature: the massive volcanic eruption at Vestmannaeyjar, near Iceland, and the efforts to protect the harbor there from advancing lava flows; the efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the Mississippi River from changing its course at the Atchafalaya Channel; and the City of Los Angeles’s efforts control the massive mudflows coming down out of the San Gabriel Mountains. McPhee’s message is that mankind may have short-term successes, but can’t win in the long haul. Nature bats last.

Each year, mankind gets a fresh set of reminders that for all out vaunted science, engineering and technology, we’re here at sufferance. Here are some of the lessons for 2012.

This year, the list could begin and end with Superstorm Sandy.

But despite the incredible damage wrought by Sandy, it wasn’t even the worst storm of 2012. That honor goes to Typhoon Bolaven. As ocean temperatures rise from climate change, the consensus is that the severity of tropical storms will worsen. As ocean levels rise, the consequence will be more and worse flooding.

But there were other reminders in 2012 beyond hurricanes and typhoons that nature bats last. The worst disaster in 2011, the March 11, 2011 Tohoku ML9.0 earthquake and 40-foot high tsunami, spread massive amounts of debris in the pacific, and that debris is starting to wash up on the shores of North America. That debris is starting to wash up on the north and east shores of the Pacific, including amazing quantities of junk on Kayak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.

Tsunami Debris Cleanup, Yakutat, Alaska

Tsunami Debris Cleanup, Yakutat, Alaska

In the Midwest, in a band from South Dakota to Texas, drought conditions are expected to continue, with the drought particularly acute in Nebraska. Georgia and Alabama, too, remain in severely dry condition. Episodes of extreme weather are one the feature of global climate change that essentially all of the climate models agree upon. Senator Inhofe (R, OK) continues to deny the existence of climate change, calling it a “hoax.”

The world set a new record for minimum arctic sea ice. Only 24% of the Arctic Ocean was covered by ice by mid-September, shattering the record of 29% set in 2007. The absence of ice increases the amount of heat absorbed by the water; white ice reflects far more light than deep blue open water. So the rate of warming is expected continue to accelerate. The Northern Hemisphere is losing its air conditioner.

We continue to run a series of uncontrolled experiments on the habitability of the only habitable planet we know. And remember, nature bats last.