This week I was supposed to be on a long-anticipated mid-year break. After a year of lockdown, I was yearning for a seaside getaway, so I booked an escape to Port Alfred months ago. But in a pandemic, things change frequently and unexpectedly, and July felt as if a perfect storm had been unleashed.
I watched the chances of going away recede with each “family meeting” announcement of stricter lockdown levels.
If leaving Gauteng was prohibited, then the horror of watching an insurrection unfold reinforced the dangers of venturing out on a road trip.
To add insult to injury, Port Alfred is in the throes of a severe drought, so the idea of taking a holiday where there were water restrictions sealed the fate of my great escape.
But water scarcity on one side of the planet while watching flash floods hit other parts of the planet is a surreal experience. Watching devastating floods hit Germany, Belgium and Austria, in tandem with our own live-streamed images of looting and mayhem, made for a depressing week of doom-scrolling.
A week later, it was déjà vu in the city of Zhengzhou, China, where another flash flood occurred – a year’s worth of rain poured down in three days.
Images of people trapped in flooded subway trains, with water levels rising up to their chins, will be hard to erase from my memory.
A few weeks earlier, on the other side of the planet, areas in western North America experienced a heat dome. After the 50°C heat subsided, a stench pervaded Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach. They eventually traced the source of the smell – mussels, clams and other shellfish had literally boiled to death in the extreme heat and were rotting. The area’s water quality was affected because mussels and clams act as filters for the sea.
Then the fires started.
In the US, firefighters were battling 80 large wildfires simultaneously that spread rapidly across 13 states. At one point, the wildfire in the state of Oregon became so intense that it created its own weather system.
Other raging fires flared up in Russia’s vast Siberia region. A climate crisis-driven heat wave not only thawed large tracks of usually cold, wet and icy ground, but dried them sufficiently to spark a rash of wildfires. These fires, in addition to temperatures rising every year, are starting to thaw the permafrost.
Permafrost is the layer of permanently frozen soil that sits under 65% of the Russian landmass and almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere.
Permafrost contains long-frozen microbes, which are now being released. The microbes eat the thawed, decaying matter, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, which in turn add to global heating. There is one and a half times more carbon trapped in permafrost than there currently is in our atmosphere.
Perhaps more worrying is the fact that microbes containing diseases are also being released from thawing permafrost. Since we are in the midst of a pandemic, it is prudent to note that in 2016, an outbreak of anthrax in the region was traced to a 75-year-old reindeer carcass that caused the contamination after it had defrosted – but I will leave that thread for another dystopian column.
Closer to home, there is a famine looming in Madagascar, caused by the worst drought in four decades. As many as 1.4 million people are food insecure and are threatened by famine. Scientists believe that Madagascar is facing the first famine in modern history to be caused solely by the climate crisis.
Port Alfred’s water shortage, also affecting the greater Nelson Mandela Bay area, is a stark reminder of what happened in Cape Town in 2018, when the Mother City became the first global metropolis to pretty much run out of water. These drought-induced shortages are becoming more commonplace.
There is an undeniable pattern occurring. Think back to the close of 2019 – the pandemic has obscured the fact that raging wildfires broke out in California as well as in Australia, all caused by extreme heat. These warm weather systems also contribute to the flooding we are now seeing. Warmer air holds more water vapour, so storms and hurricanes become more intense.
Back in Germany, a woman in the flooded village of Arloff said in a TV interview: “You don’t expect people to die in a flood in Germany. You expect it maybe in poor countries, but you don’t expect it here.”
Besides the gobsmacking myopia behind her statement, the disaster was a climate change wake-up call for that German woman.
Like Covid-19, climate change does not respect geographical borders or differentiate between rich and poor countries. After witnessing these climate crisis-related disasters across the planet in the past month, I think many more people are finally receiving their own wake-up calls.
Let us heed them.
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com