At The End Of Our Weather
The Observer - UK

On an epic, sometimes hazardous, personal mission, Mark Lynas travelled the world for three years in search of climate change. In this powerful journal, he describes a planet where global warming is not a distant prospect - it is here and now
It was Christmas time, three years ago. I was with my parents on their small farm in Llangybi, north Wales. As is customary in my family, the slide projector had been set up and complex negotiations over the choice of slides had begun. We settled on Peru, as is also customary, and all sat down to relive memories from 1979, when my father's overseas geological posting took us all to Lima for three years. I was only five back then, but I still remember every moment.
It was probably on my insistence that the slideshow began with my father's photos from Jacabamba, a lonely and remote Andean valley where his expedition had pitched up for a month or so in 1980 to study the rocks. I'm not too interested in rocks: it was the glaciers that caught my eye - the pristine, shimmering snowfields that topped Jacabamba Valley where the Cordillera Blanca, Peru's highest mountain range, marked the very spine of South America.
The projector whirred and up came my favourite photo. A huge, fan-shaped glacier loomed over a small lake. Icebergs were floating in the slate-grey water, having tumbled from the glacier above. It was spectacular. My father kept up a commentary. He had loved the place and had never forgotten it.
'It might not be the same now,' I cautioned. On a climbing visit to the Alps the previous year, I'd been struck by the obvious rapidity of glacial retreat and become fascinated by global warming, a profound process which our civilisation seemed powerless - or extremely unwilling - to prevent.
My father was unconvinced. 'Perhaps,' he answered, 'but that was a pretty big glacier. There were avalanches coming down all the time.' Once a calving iceberg had fallen into the lake, causing huge waves that washed away half the expedition's equipment. 'Still,' he mused, 'I wonder what it does look like now. Maybe it has changed.' I looked at the screen and said nothing; I'd just had an idea.
That moment marked the beginning of a three-year journey that would take me across five continents in an often dangerous search for signs of global warming. I was stunned by what I found. The changes were everywhere and people were desperate to talk and to bring attention to their plight in a world that seemed to be unravelling. And, of course, I also retraced my father's steps in Peru, in order to one day come back with my own slides and answer his question.
Tuvalu, south Pacific I had been in Tuvalu for only two days when the first puddle of water appeared at the side of the small airstrip; more puddles soon joined it. The sea had welled up suddenly through thousands of tiny holes in this atoll's bedrock of coral. People gathered to watch the water flow down paths, around palm trees and into back gardens. Within an hour, it was knee-deep in some places. One of Tuvalu's increasingly regular submergences had begun.
A similar thing occurs most winters in Venice, but Venice has £1.6 billion to spend on a system of protective floodgates. Tuvalu is one of the world's smallest and most obscure nations: 10,000 people, scattered across nine tiny coral atolls. Sea-level rise here is a crisis of national survival: very little of Tuvalu is much more than 20 inches above the Pacific and its coral bedrock is so porous that no amount of coastal protection can save it.
According to Professor Patrick Nunn, an ocean geoscientist at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, atoll nations such as Tuvalu will become uninhabitable within two or three decades, and may disappear altogether by the end of the century. Pleas by a succession of Tuvalu's Prime Ministers (and those of other atoll nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives) for dramatic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions have been ignored by other, more powerful states. Tuvaluans will have to move.
The first batch of evacuees, 75 of them, is scheduled to migrate this year to New Zealand, 2,000 miles to the south. But many of the older people say they will refuse to leave. Toaripi Lauti, the first Prime Minister of Tuvalu when it became an independent country (it was a British colony until 1978), said: 'I want my children to be safe. I tell them: you leave so that Tuvaluans will still be living somewhere. But I want to stay on this island. I will go down with Tuvalu.'
Government officials are angry at the international community's lack of response, and particularly with the Bush administration in Washington. Paani Laupepa, a senior official in the environment ministry, told me as we sat on a white-sanded beach: 'We are on the front line of climate change through no fault of our own. The industrialised countries caused the problem, but we are suffering the consequences. America's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol will affect the entire security and freedom of future generations of Tuvaluans.'
Tuvalu has recently embarked on legal action to try to win compensation from the countries emitting most greenhouse gases. 'But how do you put a price on a whole nation being relocated?' Laupepa asked. 'How do you value a culture that is being wiped out?'
London Anyone wanting to experience climate change in Britain this summer didn't have to go far. I found myself stuck in London at the height of the heatwave, plodding down the Strand in as much shade as I could find as a slightly cooler alternative to taking the Tube. When the record was broken, and the mercury hit 38C in Gravesend on 10 August, it was almost a relief: 'Now maybe they'll believe,' I thought. But, again, the familiar faces were paraded on television and familiar lines repeated - 'It's just a cycle'; 'The world's been warm before'; 'The jury's still out'; and so on.
But things were changing: Britain baked for weeks and the ritual denials rang ever more hollow. Meanwhile, on mainland Europe, crops were dying in the fields, forests were reduced to ashes in firestorms and the death toll in France eventually topped 13,000 (it was 'only' 900 or so in cooler Britain). I marvelled at the paradox; having travelled all around the world in search of the impacts of global warming, the hottest, most searing temperatures I'd experienced were back in Britain. Yes, it was hotter than Tuvalu, than Peru, even the Gobi Desert.
It's worth pointing out that the gainsayers of climate change are notable by the absence of reputable scientists from within their ranks. All the latest computer models show that a hotter, more Mediterranean-style climate in northern Europe is absolutely consistent with what science expects in a globally warmed future. It just seems to be happening rather earlier than anyone had predicted.
It's the same with floods. Winter flooding has become ever more common throughout the UK and, again, changes in climate are largely to blame. Research by climatologist Dr Tim Osborn at the University of East Anglia shows an increasing trend of wintertime heavy rainfall over recent decades. It was summed up for me by restaurant owner Paul Hayes in the Gloucestershire riverside village of Lower Lydbrook. 'We don't have a winter any more, we have a wet season,' he said.
Look outside your window. Your garden is moving south by 20 metres a day. It sounds extreme until you work it out: the 1990s in central England were 0.5C warmer than the 1960-90 average, equivalent to a shift north in the previous climatic zone of 75 kilometres in 10 years. Termites have invaded the south of the country. New diseases threaten. Horse chestnut trees leaf two weeks early. Crocuses flower in mid-January, when they should remain dormant until March.
Winter floods and summer droughts (and heatwaves) mean extinction for many familiar suburban and countryside species. Water-stressed beech woods on the Chilterns could be the first to follow elms into the history books. Oaks will also be losers. Winners will be invasive, adaptable species like sycamore and Japanese knotweed.
And this winter, in our nostalgic, muddle-headed way, we will probably still send each other cards of people singing carols in the snow. That's history, too. I haven't seen a truly snowy winter since I moved to Oxford seven years ago. According to the official records, six out of the past 10 winters have been snowless, and the last major fall was in 1985. In 1963, there was snow on the ground in Oxford for two months. I'd be surprised to see that happen again.
Fairbanks, Alaska Gamblers as well as scientists take a close interest in Alaskan temperature records. Each winter, the people of Nenana, a small town just south east of Fairbanks, place bets on the exact day, hour and minute that the spring ice 'break-up' will begin on the town's river. The tradition began when railroad engineers put down a wager of $800 in 1917; by 2000, the sum at stake had grown to $335,000, attracting punters from all over Alaska and assuring round-the-clock vigilance of the river from Nenana citizens. The average date of the spring thaw is eight days earlier than it was in the 1920s; Alaska has a week less winter.
Alaskan scientists have little doubt they are witnessing a rapid acceleration of global warming in the Earth's high latitudes. Most of the state's interior, including Fairbanks, used to see winter temperatures drop 40 or even 50 degrees below zero. In recent years, even 20C below has become a rarity. Professor Gunter Weller, a climatologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, remembered a New Year's Eve party in 1968, at the end of his first year in the state. 'I put a shot of very good Scotch in an ice-cube tray and left it outside; it was frozen within half an hour. You wouldn't see that now, no way.' On average, he said, Alaskan winter temperatures have shot up by 6C in the past 30 years; similar rates of warming have also been recorded in much of the Canadian and Siberian Arctic.
The effects of the thawing permafrost are striking, even when seen from a taxi in urban Fairbanks. Roads have new undulations and sometimes wide cracks; crash barriers are contorted and buckled; houses tilt. Alaska spends $35 million on repairing permafrost damage every year.
In one way, Alaska has only itself to blame. Its oil wells produce nearly a million barrels of crude a day to help feed America's 200 million cars, whose exhausts then pump out the greenhouse gases which are causing the problem in the first place.
The Inuit residents of Kaktovik, a village on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, personify this conflict between cause and effect. On the one hand, they regret thinning sea ice, new patterns of weather and fewer animals to hunt. On the other, they enthusiastically support the oil industry for the jobs and money it provides. In Kaktovik, when I asked people about this contradiction, they could only shrug. One woman sighed: 'All I can say is God bless us all.'
Great Barrier Reef The clichÈ is true. Coral reefs are the 'rainforests of the oceans'. The most biologically diverse of all marine ecosystems, tropical reefs hold nine million different kinds of plants and animals, including a quarter of all known sea fish. When I walked along the beach at Heron Island, at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, turtle hatchlings were emerging from the white sand and enormous shoals of pilchards turned the shallows dark brown. Heron Island seemed to be as thrillingly alive as the books suggested, but its coral told a different story.
Large sections had turned bone-white, losing the gentle greens and browns that are the marks of a healthy reef. I went snorkelling with Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, one of the world's most distinguished marine biologists, who pointed out which corals had died, and which might yet manage to survive. Once we were out of the water, he explained that coral dies when sea-water temperatures pass the tolerance levels of the coral polyps, which then eject the algae that normally live deep within their bodies and provide food. For a few days, the corals can cope, but if the water stays too warm for too long, then they die in massive numbers.
Hoegh-Guldberg has begun to move beyond the nuanced language of science; he feels the crisis is too urgent. In his view, the dead and dying coral is probably 'the most serious human impact on an ecosystem ever, certainly for at least the last 2,000 years'. 1998 was the most disastrous so far, with great bleaching and death of tropical reefs from the Caribbean to the Maldives, and 90 per cent mortality rates in some areas. Hoegh-Guldberg estimates that, overall, a sixth of tropical corals had been destroyed. 'If we lost that proportion of the rainforests in a single year, people would be screaming,' he told me.
Some of the corals which died on the Barrier Reef were 700 years old, evidence that what is happening is unprecedented within at least several centuries. And with disasters on this scale likely to become annual events within 20 to 30 years, perhaps people were right in Fiji when they told me that they were teaching their children to snorkel the reefs now because future generations will no longer have the chance.
Gansu province, China 'We have a saying,' Dr Zhang was telling me, as we stood on a dried-up river bed near the city of Wuwei, 'that in this region nine out of 10 years bring drought.' He looked around at the pebbles and sand in the shadow of a now superfluous bridge. 'Now it's 10 out of 10 years.'
All six rivers around Wuwei have stopped flowing. Even China's grandest rivers are not what they were: the Yellow River, the second biggest after the Yangtze, fails to reach the sea for more than half the year.
Not far from Wuwei, two deserts are spreading towards each other. Zhang, an official with the regional water bureau, pointed them out as we drove east, over the route of the old Silk Road, to the ancient oasis town of Minqin. The left-hand side of the road was already mostly sand. On the right, beyond a narrow strip of greenery, the dunes of the second desert were shimmering through the heat haze. Once they joined up, Minqin, formerly one of the most productive agricultural areas in China, would be cut off.
According to government figures, more than 2,500 square kilometres of land in China turns into desert every year, providing fuel for the increasingly strong dust storms which roar down off the inner Mongolian plains every spring, into Beijing and the south. Chinese dust-storms can be killers; one 'black wind' in May 1993 left 85 people dead, and the corrosive action of the wind was enough to strip the tops off tarmacked roads.
We were discussing all this in an academic kind of way when Zhang suddenly wound up the car window. A dust storm, the fifth so far this year, he said, was about to hit. We could see peasants hurrying from the field towards their houses, coats wrapped around their heads.
Workers from a road crew took shelter behind a wall, their shirts around their faces. Then the world around us took on an eerie red glow as the roaring wind swirled China's topsoil high into the air.
Huaraz, Peru I kept my father's photographs to hand as I climbed up Jacabamba valley, along the same rough path that his geological expedition had taken in 1980.
Peru's glaciers have a vital role in the country's hydrology, keeping the coastal rivers running right through the highland dry season. Lima, which after Cairo is the world's largest desert city, depends entirely on the water that comes down from these cordilleras.
The problem is that the glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate: according to scientific measurements, glacial retreat is now happening three times faster than before 1980. In the past 30 years, 811 million cubic metres of water (about three times the volume of Lake Windermere, England's largest water body) has been lost from the natural reservoirs of ice above Lima.
Once these glaciers are gone, the rivers they feed will run dry, and the tens of millions of people who inhabit Peru's parched coastal strip will be left without water. Nor is this a problem singular to Peru: on the Indian subcontinent, half a billion people are facing the same plight as Himalayan glaciers begin an accelerated retreat.
So I knew there would be change, and that the glaciers in my father's pictures would almost certainly be smaller. But it was the scale of it that was shocking. When I rounded a hill of moraine and saw the same place he had recorded on his slide two decades earlier, I could hardly believe there hadn't been some mistake. The big, fan-shaped glacier had vanished completely. The edge of the lake was now marked with bare rock walls, and the lake itself was swollen with extra meltwater. The area was barely recognisable.
It was with a heavy heart that I loaded my new slides into the projector after my return to Wales. As the image came up, my father leaned forwards with a stricken expression. 'Good God, I can't believe it. That was the whole character of the place. It's so sad.' He paused, as if to take it in. 'It's so sad,' he said again.
- Mark Lynas's book, High Tide: News from a Warming World, will be published by Flamingo in March 2004.
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