Gentle Decline 2/24: Resolutions & Reports
May contain: positive news, the Gulf Stream, internet access, wildfires, or newsletter recommendations
Hello. It’s a new year, we’re four days in, and nothing seems to have exploded yet. But the year began with record high temperatures across Europe, and there were floods in California, so we’re still well on track for climate chaos. This issue is another of the bit-and-piece style, including: some positive things that are happening, the Gulf Stream, a reader question about internet access, wildfires in the Isles, and some newsletter recommendations.
If you’re interested in how Gentle Decline (and my other newsletter, Commonplace) are doing, there’s an annual report on Patreon, which is open to everyone to read.
(December’s cold snap was unusual; there were still leaves on the oaks even as they got a dusting of snow.)
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. All issues are free! You can support the newsletter via Patreon (where there’s often some further discussion about particular points), Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise, including the new Plant More Trees t-shirt.]
Some positive things: from Alex, there’s a steel plant in Sweden that’s not using fossil fuels and new records were set for clean power (I like that term) in the UK at the end of 2022. 80% of cars sold in Norway are now electric. New York Harbour is cleaner than it’s been in decades. These are all useful bits of progress, and I’m happy to see them.
Honestly, I’d like to write - and read! - more about these things, but that’s not where the work needs to be done. If I were a believer in medieval humour theory, I would describe myself as phlegmatic, and part of that is because I have a strong tendency to accept things as they are, and get on with the next thing. But in aid of making this newsletter somewhat less doom-and-gloom, I’m going to try to include a few success stories in each issue, as above. If something comes to your attention, hit reply and let me know.
Someone asked me during the year if the Gulf Stream was still slowing down. At the time, the best I could say was that I hadn’t checked in a while, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would just stop. I’ve since gone and done some looking around (here’s an article that outlines the whole problem with the Gulf Stream, and here’s some writing I’ve done about it before in Issue 1/23). The basic gist is that yes, it’s continuing to slow down. It’s hard to say when that’s going to become critical, beyond “not yet”, but some of the increased strength of hurricanes in the North Atlantic is due to there being more warm water in the tropics, because the currents aren’t carrying as much of it north as they used to. I reckon anyone who has faced down a hurricane in the last few years feels that it’s already critical. It’s also hard to pin down how sudden that change will be, but the measurements available seem to indicate it’s not very far out.
We just don’t, as far as I can tell, have a good scale for the speed of that change. When the time on the graph is labelled “ka BP” (thousand years before the present), it’s difficult to tell whether the change happened over 1, 10, or 50 years. My guess - and this is a guess, back only by some very simple reasoning - is that it will actually be pretty quick. The Gulf Stream (or whatever label you give the current system) is pretty much the only thing rendering Western Europe warmer than other places at its latitude - Dublin sits at 55.35°N, which is not very far south of Moscow, at 55.75°. For comparison, Minneapolis (fairly notoriously chilly in winter) is at 44.98°. Once it’s no longer carrying warm air and water north, I think we’ll have about 2-3 years before we’re experiencing far colder winters, and - due to the warm water staying in the tropics and providing more energy - worse storms. But when that will happen is not clear to anyone - it could be within a decade, or it might not happen for a century.
Nevertheless, it’s a thing to keep in mind when you’re making long term plans - if Ireland suddenly becomes more like Northern Norway is now, will your living situation cope? It’ll be colder (so heating and insulation are affected), stormier (so utilities will be less reliable, and travel could sometimes be dangerous), and agriculture and forestry will have to undergo rapid changes.
A question from a reader (thank you, Charles!), slightly rephrased: do you think internet access will remain as it is through climate chaos?
Broadly, yes. Internet access isn’t badly affected by supply lines, which means that apart from possible issues in replacing equipment over time, it’s pretty stable. However, there are a couple of dependencies that could get interesting. First, and most obvious, is power. Just plain access takes power for the device you’re using, the various devices that connect you to the internet (router, telecoms provider, internet backbone) and the server you’re connecting to for any given purpose. If anything in that chain doesn’t have electricity, you don’t get your connection. Mostly this is fairly straightforward to handle; data centres and other such hosting places tend to have well-supplied power with backup generators and so on. But data centres do use a lot of power - it’s estimated at the moment that about 14% of Ireland’s electricity goes into them. Some of that is for the machines themselves, and some is for cooling. So if there are issues generating sufficient power, then access to some bits of the internet might go down.
Second, there’s the actual physical infrastructure, some of which is at sea level, and thereby vulnerable to flooding and eventually to sea level rise. Undersea cables are how the internet (mostly) connects across oceans, so the places where those cables come up tend to be on seashores, or relatively nearby, and those facilities are going to have to move (or become completely waterproof). Lightning strikes can also do serious damage to anything electrical, and heatwaves can put the air-conditioning data centres use for cooling under serious pressure. These issues - and sea-level rise in particular - have been studied, so sensible companies and organisations will be doing something about them. Whether any given organisation is sensible will remain to be seen, and there’s not a whole lot you can do as an individual about this.
For the most part, satellite internet is a bit harder for climate to affect, so if you’re completely dependent on internet access, it’s something to look into. At the moment, though, it’s slow, expensive, and often comes with a cap.
One of the problems I hadn’t really foreseen here in the Isles is wildfire outbreaks. There were a lot of them in the UK in 2022, and while Ireland has managed to reduce the number by hitting the farmers setting illegal fires in the wallet (withdrawal of grants), some of those that are still happening are pretty huge. A lot of the areas where wildfire is a problem in Ireland could be addressed by reforestation, or even just fencing out sheep and deer. Both animals eat young green plants, and leave bracken and briars - which dry out and become a fire risk - where they are. There are a number of programs underway for reforestation, but so far they don’t seem to be having much impact on our unpleasantly bald mountain landscapes. I’m not aware of any firebreaks being dug or constructed, either.
I haven’t recommended any newsletters in a while. So you might be interested in Rewilding Europe, Heated, or Field Notes, all of which are excellent. If you’re interested in newsletters in general, you might try The Sample, which is basically one issue of a newsletter for you to try, every day. You can subscribe to it or not, and there’ll be another one tomorrow. I’ve found some good stuff this way.