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Fireballs and exploding oceans: What happens if it keeps getting hotter?

A stomach-churning exploration of what will occur if we don't stop our planet's temperature from rising

Fireballs and exploding oceans: What happens if it keeps getting hotter?
11 October 2018

Here’s a predicament. It’s mid-October, and the weather hasn’t changed sufficiently so our office, which retains heat like a Thermos in an airing cupboard, is still suffocating everyone who chooses to wear clothes to work.

Ideally, we’d remedy this by popping the aircon on, but this feels like a deviant act in October, particularly as it will only serve to create more emissions, which will heat up the planet further, and maybe next year that means we have to put the aircon on in November, which creates even more emissions, and before long it’ll be summer all year, and we’ll permanently have the aircon on. The thing keeping us temporarily cool is actually boiling us to death. We are frogs in a pan of water turning the hob dials the wrong way.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned we have 12 years to curb the planet’s temperature from rising between 1.5°C and 2°C, or the consequences over the next century will be extremely bad indeed. And so I’m here to ask, what if we don’t? What if instead, we keep making it rise? 

If the average temperature rises by 1°C

This by all accounts, has more or less already happened. Keeping the world’s thermostat from rising to 1.5°C is just about ‘achievable’, if there’s a concerted effort on behalf of the entire planet to radically alter the way we’ve been living, but 1°C? Forghedaboudit!

Within the next 40 years, we’re going to have to get used to the famous roasting European summer of 2003, which is believed to have been directly responsible for more than 70,000 deaths around the continent, 2,000 in the UK and near enough 15,000 in France alone - and according to the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, was entirely our fault.

The human body tries to maintain an internal temperature of 37°C, with changes either way of more than 1°C usually only occurring in times of illness or when your body isn’t equipped to deal with the weather conditions it’s being exposed to. In 2003, Faversham in Kent recorded the UK’s hottest ever temperature at 38.5°C since records began, while regions of France and Spain experienced highs between 41 to 45°C. 

“If you were eyeing up property anywhere near a body of water, either make sure it’s on stilts, or spend your money on something else”

At these levels, you’re at risk of a number of gnarly side effects. You may experience swelling in your joints, rashes, cramps brought on by salt imbalances after sweating out your natural sodium, exhaustion brought on from dehydration and sweating, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, numbness in your hands and feet, fainting, or full on heat stroke, which requires immediate medical attention, or else it can turn fatal. “Haha, I don’t mind global warming if the weather’s this good!” you quip. You will when you’re dead, pal.

Fortunately, a lot of these side effects can be avoided if you stay in the cool, cool shade, and keep hydrated - but both of these things might be in jeopardy as we warm up. Many houses in Europe have been built for the purpose of retaining heat during cold winter months, not releasing it during unprecedented heatwaves. It could be an out of the frying pan into the baking oven experience as our homes turn us into popcorn kernels. 

There’s also a dire worry about that sweet, sweet hydrogen-oxygen cocktail we call ‘water.’ The temperature causes mountains to lose their glaciers (in 2003, some of the Alps’ glaciers lost 10% of their mass), which are vital for rivers, which we need for crop irrigation and for drinking. In 2003, European farmers lost around £9 billion worth of crops, and the UK had a 12% shortfall in its wheat harvest. There’s a worry that a third of the world’s fresh water supply could be vanish within the next 80 years, with countries in the Indian subcontinent reliant on the Ganges and the Indus rivers at particular risk.

Even more worrying, stressed plants and soil in Europe stopped their usual process of absorbing carbon dioxide, and instead, started to emit it, pumping half a billion tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere - which would account for a 12th of global fossil fuel emissions.

There is a small silver lining though: the dehydrating and ripening effects of the heatwave on grapes resulted in real great quality wines for the 2003 vintage, and if the New Testament is to be believed, wine is a far better substitute for water.

If the average temperature rises by 1.2°C

Mark Lynas, the author of the cheery environmental catastrophe prophecy book Six Degrees, says that Greenland will “tip into an irreversible melt” at this temperature, and will vanish within 130 years. Visit while you can.

If the average temperature rises by 1.5°C

Right, now we’re at ‘optimistic’ levels.

With all the melting from Greenland and the two poles (40% of the Arctic Sea ice has already disappeared in the last 30 years), we’ll be in a spot of bother. Ice is pretty handy, not just for ensuring the survival of various creatures like polar bears, seals and penguins, but for reflecting heat. Oceans, on the other hand, absorb heat. 

The less ice there is to reflect the increased heat, the more water there is to absorb it. The hotter the ocean, the less likely ice is to reform. Ice will be in dire straits at this point, so if you’ve got any, put it under your mattress for safe keeping.

This is also bad news for sea levels because melting ice, as we know, results in more water. According to CarbonBrief, sea levels will likely rise by 48cm by 2100. This will see up to 69 million people worldwide exposed to flooding. Death by drowning is an obvious concern here but a more immediate worry is that annual flood damage losses are predicted to be in the region of $10.2 trillion. In Britain alone, river flooding will cause an 1,206% increase in economic damage. 

If you were eyeing up property anywhere near a body of water, either make sure it’s on stilts, or spend your money something else. Although get buying ahead of time, because global per capita (GDP) will be down 8% by 2100.

If the average temperature rises by 2°C

This is the ’probable but avoidable if we all act now’ future. It’s bad.

The rise in ocean temperature will cause the coral reefs to bleach and vanish. This will be a disaster for all the species that rely on them as their delicate eco-systems get smashed to pieces. This collapse and ruination of millenia-old hospitable environments will occur across the globe, and it is decidedly bad. Per CarbonBrief’s analysis, expect 16% of plants, 6% of birds and 41% of mammals to lose half their climatic range. In this scenario, more than a third of living species face extinction by 2050.

“War is hell, and it will be everywhere. But also Earth will be a literal hell. The last time temperatures were this high was 55 million years ago”

However it is good news for summer fans, there will be 25% more hot days, and British summers will be 1.1°C hotter at a maximum. Bad news for life fans though.

70% more of the world’s populace will face at least one ‘severe’ heatwave every 20 years, 388 million more people will be exposed to water scarcity (62 million in Europe), 194.5 million more to severe drought, and the average drought length will increase by 4 months. The heat will also increase the suitability of malaria transmission in drylands by 27%. More than 1 million people already die from malaria each year according Unicef and that’s not a stat we should be looking to increase in a hurry.

Paradoxically, despite the drinking water shortages the sea levels will keep rising, which will likely see 30 million more people in coastal areas flooded a year by 2055, and 72 million by 2095. Places like London, New York and the entirety of the Netherlands will be underwater, more than half of humanity will be pushed to higher ground.

Combine this with people displaced by drought and crop failures, and you’re looking at an unprecedented pattern of mass global migration. A real worry in this scenario is that far-right protectionist anti-migrant politics will thrive, particularly in countries with wealth and resources.

If the average temperature rises by 3°C 

At this temperature, frost-free Arctic summers are a 100% certainty. The ice is gone. The mountain glaciers are gone. The rivers are dry. Uh-oh.

There is a 10% decline in grain yield for every degree above 30°C, which is extremely bad news for food production. The harvest in China - which produces 28% of all rice, 24% of maise, 18% of wheat - will be reduced by two-thirds. Meals are now a genuine luxury. I’ve looked up what Huel is made of, and turns out it’s rice and oats. Even meal substitutes are luxuries.

The plants in the Amazon rainforest produce 10% of the world’s cumulative photosynthetic output which helps create the air that we breath, this is worrying, because by the time we hit this temperature increase between 40-80% of it will no longer exist. 

Don’t get too used to breathing, and don’t inhale too greedily, because we’ll need enough air to go round. 

If the average temperature rises by 4°C

If you’ve managed to survive all of that - which is not impossible if you live in Britain (but not in the following areas: the Thames Valley, along the Severn Estuary, the Lancashire and Humber corridor, the Isle of Wight or just the coast, generally) - then you can look forward to British summers of 45°C, which is the sort you’d normally experience in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

This would be palatable if not for the hunger and increase in hurricanes and severe storms. Their likelihood rises with the temperature, and they’ll now become a regularity. This will be catastrophic for cities in the South East Americas, Asia. 

Australia, for the most part, will be an uninhabitable furnace.

“The use of fossil fuels will lead to massive social upheaval”

Remember those ‘green’ energy sources, like hydroelectricity? Forget them, they’ve dried up, meaning we’ll either have to rely on solar and wind farms, or continue burning fossil fuels - the use of which will lead to massive social upheaval. A country could choose to continue using them, which would put them at a massive advantage to the rest of the planet, but would also kill the world. Expect conflict at this stage.

Maybe a crazed dictator will unleash nuclear war upon us and free us from our bleak, mortal coil. 

In the event of that not happening, we’ll start to notice the mountains’ permafrost thawing irreversibly, leading to the release of 500 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by 2100. 

If the average temperature rises by 5°C 

The previously chilly snowscapes of Canada and Siberia will be among the world’s most habitable destinations. A mass-migration will follow, unless they get invaded by global superpowers by the United States or China first, as predicted by the environmental scientist and futurist James Lovelock. 

War is hell, and it will be everywhere. But also Earth will be a literal hell, because the last time temperatures were this high was 55 million years ago

An interesting but nightmarish aspect to consider will be complete societal collapse. With most of the world now unable to produce food, let alone goods and products, what value will money have? If nothing can be sold, nothing can be bought.

The super-rich are already making preparations for the end of civilisation, where they plan to hole up in doomsday bunkers, paying a small army of military guards in supplies to keep them safe from the baying hordes comprised of the ’rest of the world’, who will attempt to lay siege to anyone stockpiling vital resources for survival because that’s what humans do.

If the average temperature rises by 6°C

This world will not be worth surviving in. It was 251 million years since the planet was last this hot, and 95% of species were wiped out, save fungi and this weird pig-like thing called the lystrosaurus.

Super-hurricanes and flash floods are now just a part of every day life, and the likelihood of super-volcanoes erupting and covering us all in scalding-hot extinction-causing magma will be long overdue.

“Fireballs will be shot across the sky with an intensity that’s greater than a nuclear bomb”

The boiling oceans will have killed virtually all marine life. Their sad carcasses will transform into stagnant incubators of hydrogen sulphide. Released into the atmosphere, hydrogen sulphide is poisonous to animals, trees and human beings. Methane hydrate - also occurring in our truly banjaxed oceans - is potentially even worse. Sort of like a deadly fart in a bath, it will shoot methane bubbles out of the ocean with explosive force, and methane is highly flammable, so if any lightning gets involved, fireballs will be shot across the sky with an intensity that’s greater than a nuclear bomb. 

If you somehow get through all that, the ozone layer will be destroyed, and you will be directly exposed to UV radiation, which - on top of being carcinogenic - will boil your skin and eyes off, and you will die.