It’s been a pretty wild few weeks, hasn’t it? It started off with some extreme winter weather causing temperatures across the country to plummet and gridlock on the roads as commuters battled heavy snow. Then there was the strange ‘starfish Armageddon’ that struck the coast of Kent last week; hundreds of thousands of starfish and other sea creatures washed ashore in Ramsgate before presumably drying out and dying a horrible death.
And to top it all off, Russian president Vladimir Putin showed off a video simulating a nuclear attack on the state of Florida - and that’s without even mentioning the constant threat of a ‘Trump vs Kim’ nuclear pissing match.
To help you make sense of all this apocalyptic madness, we’ve spoken to some experts who’ve spent years studying this stuff. Some of their comments make for slightly uncomfortable reading.
Here is what they told us…
1. Starfish Armageddon
Dr Emma Sheehan, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth and star fish supremo, spoke to ShortList about the weird ‘starfish Armageddon’.
So, what caused this weird starfish apocalypse?
We’re still not entirely sure about all the factors that may have contributed to this, though the driving force was clearly Storm Emma (which I had nothing to do with by the way!) and the Spring tide, which proved a lethal combination for this stranded marine life.
And why did it affect such a freakishly large number of starfish?
Well, the east coast of the UK is surrounded by an area of sea that has been fished for years using destructive methods that reduce our reefs and oyster and mussel beds to mobile sediments. When huge storms and large tides happen at the same time, we think that these sediments are blown around at such forces that some marine life are scoured and displaced. We have also seen marine debris including fishing line, balloons, tights etc being wrapped around species that are attached to the seabed, so when extra strong forces occur, this marine debris could rip them from the seabed.
However, we think that something different might be happening with the starfish. The common starfish is a scavenging resilient organism that can regrow arms if lost or damaged. Until recently we thought that they only travelled very slowly until we saw them ‘starballing’ - bouncing along the seabed, with their arms curled making them into a ball shape. When strong wind and tide co-occur, we think that perhaps the starfish are ‘starballing,’ but get caught out and stranded on the beach.
And do you reckon climate change is making these events more common and more dangerous?
The UK’s marine environment is probably more endangered by bottom-towed fishing gear which leaves vast areas in a disturbed state and so storms are just another thing for these systems to cope with. It’s a concern that with one of the predicted effects of climate change is increased storminess (frequency and magnitude). If we can manage the things like destructive fishing activity, and allow large areas of our seabed to recover, this may reduce the impact that future storms will have.
Finally, on a scale of 1-10, how seriously you would rate this incident?
In the context of starfish strandings, this is the worst one that I have ever seen. So 8/10. The starfish involved might argue that is a 10/10, though, for marine conservation issues in general it’s probably, a 2 or 3!
2. Russian and North Korean nukes
Paul Ingram, Executive Director of the nuclear disarmament think tank the British American Security Information Council, spoke to ShortList about Vladimir Putin’s bone-chilling video flaunting his country’s nuclear weapons and the chances of nuclear conflict with North Korea.
What did you think when you saw Putin’s scary video showing weapons hitting the U.S.?
The video formed part of an announcement aimed at the Russian public (“we’re strong, we’re ahead, vote Putin”) and the US Administration (“you can’t push us around, and look, this is what you get when you only think of yourselves when you leave treaties”). But Putin followed his performance with a later statement that seemed to suggest they had a posture of massive retaliation, and would not fire first.
What are the chances of there being some devastating nuclear confrontation with either Russia or North Korea?
When states depend upon massive nuclear threats to establish their security and status, there is always the risk of things getting out of control. Recent events are very worrying because political leaders currently seem intent on using their nuclear arsenals to establish their credibility on the world stage. But nuclear weapons are not that great for this purpose, unless you are transparently ready to use them, which would be irrational. So nuclear weapons reduce trust and cooperation, qualities necessary to tackle global challenges.
Do Russia and North Korea have weapons capable of reaching the UK?
Russia has had nuclear weapons that can reach the UK for over half a century, delivered by missile or aircraft, just as the UK has nuclear-armed submarines on constant patrol capable of hitting Russia. North Korea can probably reach the UK with a missile, though whether its missiles have the reach when they have a nuclear warhead on them is still open to question.
What sort of damage could these weapons do if they were unleased on a city in the UK?
Russia has a variety of nuclear weapons that could devastate most cities in the UK. The situation with North Korea is far more uncertain.
What keeps a nuclear weapons expert like you awake at night?
I tend to worry about the exchange of nuclear weapons caused by leaders incapable of realising the severity of the situation and of managing complexity with nuclear weapons. Many of the lessons from the Cold War appear to have been forgotten, if they were ever learned properly.
What does the world need to do to get a handle on the dangerous nuclear situation?
Ultimately, to recognise that attempts to achieve security by actively threatening others with mass annihilation is counter-productive, and deeply harms everyone’s security in the end. Global security depends upon cooperation between governments, a recognition of mutual interest, mutual assurance.
Finally, on a scale of 1-10, how dangerous is the world’s nuclear situation?
3. Freak storms and climate change
Joanna D. Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and former president of the Royal Meteorological Society, and Clare Shakya, Director of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development, spoke to ShortList about freak storms and climate change.
Do you reckon the extreme winter weather in the UK the other day was in any way linked to climate change?
CS: It is definitely consistent with what we can expect with climate change – the exceptionally high temperatures in the Arctic having driven the cold weather down into Europe this winter. Extreme weather is increasingly common around the world.
Do you think the British weather has already been affected by climate change?
JH: Overall we can see temperatures have risen over the past 150 years, summers are hotter, winters are milder and we have had less snowfall. Spring starts earlier and growing seasons for crops have extended. However, this is not to say that every year is warmer than the previous one because, on top of the ongoing trend, is the (lovely!) innate variability in our weather.
What are the most terrifying consequences of climate change that we can see in the world right now?
JH: I think the most frightening impacts are the droughts and water shortages increasingly occurring in north Africa, the middle east and across central Asia. In these places, where agriculture is at the margins of what is possible, these impacts are already causing disease and death.
CS: Climate change is already having a huge effect on people and their livelihoods and the ecosystems they rely on around the world. It is causing ocean temperatures to rise damaging fish stocks and ocean acidification, which is killing corals, including the Great Barrier Reef. The floods, hurricanes and wildfires that devastated millions of people’s lives from Bangladesh to Puerto Rico, Barbuda to Texas last year demonstrate the destructive force of climate change.
What are some of the nightmare scenarios that could occur if climate change is not properly tackled?
JH: The water and food shortages resulting from the droughts mentioned above will drive people to move away from their homelands and so all the stresses associated with refugees. Inundation of coastal cities and low-lying islands due to sea level rise will also mean that people, even in the developed world, have to move.
CS: As the waters rise, communities will be displaced and have to move to higher ground or move areas altogether. The West isn’t immune. London, for example, is already preparing for sea level rise with plans to supplement the defence provided by the Thames Barrier by rehabilitating flood plains and when needed, raising the wall between the embankment and the river. And in Manhattan, there are plans to build a ‘big U’ of flood defences to protect the city from big storm surges. But poorer countries are particularly at risk.
On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate the severity of the world’s climate change problems?
JH: If we don’t find alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and essentially stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere within the next few decades, then the severity will rapidly go off the top of the scale.
CS: For the people who have already lost their homes and have had to migrate to different areas, many would already put the number at 10.