The Science of Apocalypse: Climate ‘Flips’ and Global ‘Collapse’ – Two Dire Visions of the 21st Century


It is ironic to me that much recent print and media coverage has been given to very scientific-minded folks dispelling the myth known as the Mayan 2012 Apocalypse (based upon a simplistic and narrow reading of the Maya Astronomical Calendar)…. While, in this same year, we have seen an increase in science-based warnings of impending enviro-catastrophes (‘Armegeddons’) possibly on a global scale.

Learned folk from the world’s leading research institutes all seem to be forecasting their own vision of the pending ‘eco-apocalypse’, or ecopalypse (trademark).

Two of the more newsworthy visions or versions are covered herein.

The Once and Future Environmental ‘Collapse’

As global production (in all sectors) and population (consuming) continues to increase as predicted, it becomes increasingly unsustainable. Many know this, but the massive global production system has too much “inertia” (too much invested interest) to slow itself down, or change its course, to keep from flying off the cliff of no return.

This dire view was first articulated in the famous 1972 book The Limits to Growth. Despite the fact that the global production economy has continued to grow since that time — defying some predictions with just a few shocks to the system along the way — the concern over that approaching economic-environmental ‘cliff’ are mounting.

Based upon scenarios predicted by a 4-decade-old, MIT computer simulation called World3 (produced in collaboration with the Club of Rome), some researchers, despite valid criticisms of the model’s simplifications, are renewing research into this possibility, but predict that things won’t get really bad until after 2050.

Jorgen Randers, author of 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, and member of the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, was one of the original developers of the World3 model, as well as a co-author of The Limits to Growth*). Randers sees an apocalypse later, starting around 2050.

In the coming few decades, Randers asserts, renewable energy and more efficient systems (less wasteful, less polluting) will mitigate the short-term impacts of climate change due to global warming. But after this point, Randers sees rapid decline, as the severe impacts of human-accelerated global warming (already set in motion) will overtake us.

Food production will continue to rise as warming opens up new agricultural land (note: this will deplete nitrogen and impose a limit to this production); growth in wealthy nations will still occur, but more slowly, as more capital is diverted to treating resource declines and mitigating climate change impacts. It will be ‘business as usual’ for the most part.

This continued growth will lead to a population of about 8 billion by 2040, predicts Randers. But shortly after this point, the impacts of flooding, drought, forest fires, and soil degradation will drastically reduced agricultural output (note: 25% of the world’s arable land area is currently “degraded,” according to the UN FAO), and therefore the availability of key foods, such as grains. Whole populations will be forced to migrate, and as a result, conflicts will erupt and spread and grow into regional wars, or even worse.

oil consumption chart, 1980 - 2006
The world increased its daily oil consumption from 63 million barrels (10,000,000 m3) (Mbbl) in 1980 to 85 million barrels (13,500,000 m3) in 2006.

A variation on this scenario that Randers sees as likely is centered on ‘Peak Oil’. Demand for oil is increasing. While we are not “running out” of oil any time soon, we are having to drill deeper and deeper to get it. This adds to the cost, which will continuously grow as older, easier-to-get oil is depleted. This costing factor will accumulate, reaching a peak, then rapidly decline, throwing the system into ‘collapse’.

Another of the original developers of the World3 simulation, Dennis Meadows (now at UNH) has revisited the World3 scenarios twice before (in 1994 and 2004) but now thinks that any possible, sustainable pathway(s) out of our predicament are now unattainable. He believes that it is too late to avoid this global collapse because we failed to take action sooner, when there was still time.

Forty years ago, the World3 model calculated that we were using 85% of the planet’s “regenerative capacity.” Now, that number is at 150 percent — with no serious signs of stopping or us choosing a different course.

*Along with Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and William W. Behrens III.

For more on the ‘Collapse’ Theory, check out this Scientific American source article: Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?

Fifteen moai of Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku, a 15-moai ahu excavated and restored in the 1990s. The islanders believed that these statures of reverance (transported by rolling tree logs) to their gods would gain them future prosperity. But the cause of the collapse of the Rapa Nui civilization were manifold, and included ecological, geographic, and socio-political factors. (Credit: Ian Sewell)

As the Climate ‘Flips’

There was worry – even a touch of mass hysteria — a few years back over ‘pole flips’… the feared sudden reversal of the Earth’s magnetosphere… but a more pressing and plausible ‘flip’ could happen to our climate system; a ‘climate flip’ – or a series of them – could spell climate ‘apocalypse’ for a large portion of living beings.

The potential for these flips are the consequence of the dynamical nature of the climate system, in combination with increased forcing by human activity.

Dynamic Systems Theory (an offshoot of which is known as Chaos Theory) underlies the notion of a ‘tipping point’ in which the stability or equilibrium of the (climate) system is so perturbed that it can not be restored to its proper equilibrium or stable state.

This view of the Earth’s climate is opposed to James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis,” which originally posited the planet as a self-regulating organism (note: Lovelock himself no longer holds strictly to his theory).

A dynamic system is a reactive and complex system (such as the climate) in which multiple interdependent and overlapping forces can produce ‘non-linear’ responses and conditions. A small change could produce sudden, big consequences. Or, many smaller events combine to create occasional, sudden jolts — ones that can ‘destabilize’ the climate system, causing it to ‘flip’ (note: a dynamic system’s behavior is largely determined by its history of reactions to past events, or state changes).

One of the chief advocates of this sudden-climate-instability vision is Tim Lenton at the University of East Anglia in England. Lenton’s preferred example to illustrate the idea of a ‘climate flip’ is the Indian monsoon season or cycle. As the Earth tilts more towards, or away from, the sun seasonally, more or less of the Southern Indian ocean is exposed to the different amounts of sunlight which differentially heat the ocean, increasing or decreasing evaporation, and driving the monsoon cycle.

This fairly rapid and regular heat transfer (from the sun to the ocean to the atmosphere) drives the monsoon cycle that brings heavy rains to thousands of square miles of crop land on the subcontinent. More than a billion people depend on these rains to grow their food and provide economic activity.

But black soot aerosols from biomass burning (most people in the region still burn biomass for heating and cooking) combined with rapidly increasing CO2 emissions from cars and trucks (as India’s and China’s middle class expands by the tens of millions), Lenton asserts, will disrupt the stable heat engine that drives the monsoon cycle. Some aerosol pollutants magnify surface atmospheric temperatures; others reduce incoming heat by reflecting it (short wave radiation) back into space, or, by trapping the heat in the upper atmosphere. Black soot aerosols tend to absorb heat and thus rob the engine of some of its fuel (heat), producing less evaporation and less rainfall over land.

Monsson clouds over Mumbai, India
Monsoon clouds over Mumbai, India

So, one possible outcome here could be that the Indian monsoons become much less frequent, but also more severe. This scenario will have major impact on agriculture and consequences for the entire region, which will also have to adapt somehow to sudden, massive flooding of huge areas of coastal lands. A few years of this type of climate dynamic will be quite disruptive to those societies impacted (economically, culturally, and politically), and enormously costly to offset or protect against.

But that’s not the worst-case scenario here. Lenton speculates that the monsoons cycle could shut down altogether (the ‘flip’ in this scenario), creating a massive catastrophe (80% of India’s rainfall comes from the monsoons) for people, animals, and vegetation — a true ecological apocalypse. This will in turn destabilize the economy and the political structure. Food and water shortages will become too severe. Hundreds of millions of refugees will migrate to other cities/regions/countries, resulting in a humanitarian crisis not seen in modern times. And, again, human conflicts will increase as will the possibility of regional warfare.

Lenton also sees a similar enviro-catastrophe looming with the West African monsoon.

There is also recently uncovered evidence that this type of climate flipping may have caused the collapse (or dispersion) of the nearly forgotten Harappan civilization — as that once flourished (larger even than the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations) four to three thousand years ago.

But there are still more potential tipping points out there… such as the possibility of the North Pole becoming ice-free all year round due to oceanic warming.

This latter scenario already seems to be happening, and setting up the pole for a ‘positive feedback effect’ (one of the driving features of a dynamic system): as more ice melts, less light (and heat) is reflected back into space (loss of albedo) and more is absorbed by the ocean, warming it, causing more ice to melt, more albedo loss, etc., etc., etc.

It is speculated that such a runaway feedback effect would probably melt most of the Greenland ice sheet. This would result in major flooding of  (amongst other regions) the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., causing unprecedented economic and ecological/environmental damage on a scale that may, at last, be too much to repair or mitigate. It could redefine the geography of the U.S. and North America as a whole.

The possibility of these scenarios is not in question amongst the researchers who study the climate; there is only the question of how fast, how sudden these destabilizing changes can occur.

But Wait, There’s More!

Lenton and colleagues have many other ‘tipping points’ and climate ‘flip’ scenarios. To fill your appetite for more eco-doom-and-gloom, read this longer Sci Am article: Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok [Excerpt].

Note: the above-linked article was adapted from The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, by Fred Guterl (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).

Author Comment:

If the main question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ and/or ‘how quickly’, then it seems more than reasonable, imperative, to adopt serious climate mitigation policies and practices sooner rather than later. Any mitigation strategy or suite of strategies — including even some geo-engineering strategies — should at least be tested… going on the argument that even slight or modest climate change mitigation could or might slow the climate system’s approach to a given tipping point (and, where or when this is, is a guessing game) or ‘short-circuit’ a demonstrated positive feedback effect before it becomes runaway (see James Hansen’s  “Venus Effect”).

While it is crucial not to be alarmist (where any failed prediction could cause a backlash and intensify climate change denialism and inertia), it is important to provide nations and governments with continuous data analysis and urge policy changes that recognize growing impacts from climate change. Simultaneously, we in the press must do our best to inform and educate on these important, possibly world-changing, impacts and events. We should all urge our politicians to continue funding of basic atmospheric and climate research (how else to glean the data to inform future policy decisions?), even if that advocacy plays into denialists’ claims of  a profit motive behind climate scientists’ warnings.

Every day, more people become convinced that human activity is at least adding to climate change, if not driving it. Let’s hope that this number will reach its ‘critical mass’ in time to avert the worst of these worst-case scenarios.

And a few last notes about Dynamic & Complex Systems:

Dynamic (or chaotic) systems can typically have more than one equilibrium state (see: Ilya Prigogine, Order Out of Chaos). The instability we see could in fact be a protracted transition phase to that other equilibrium state.

Further, while each new change (of state) in a succession of states (a ‘state cycle’) of a chaotic/dynamic system may be irregular or non-linear, the overall pattern of changes is stable, and even predictable (according to ‘classic’ Chaos theory). And, also according to classic Chaos Theory, once a ‘perturbation’ to the system is removed (example: human aerosol pollution), the system returns to its previous (or similar) stable state.

But there may be situations in which a perturbation (or series of them) is so great that it ‘pushes’ the system too far (the ‘break barrier’) for it to return.

As anthropologist/historian Joseph Tainter observed, the causes of socio-ecological collapse are many and complexly intertwined. Predictive models of collapse often simplify things to the point where they no longer yield useful, accurate information and may lead to bad policy decisions.

The question then is: can we adapt to growing instability (along with enough life-supporting ecosystems) fast enough, and in such a way that the odds of our long-term survival are improved?

Photo/Image Credits:

  • Top Image: A graphic representation of the four phases in emergency management; Neum (no copyright)
  • (Monsoon Burst over Mumbai) Enygmatic-Halycon via wikipedia/Flickr; CC – By – SA 2.0
  • (Easter Island; Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku) Ian Sewell (; CC – By – SA 3.0

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