Warming Trends: Chief Heat Officers, Disappearing Cave Art and a Game of Climate Survival

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A climate protester holds up a placard in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

A climate protester holds up a placard in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

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CULTURE

Climate Save or Climate Disaster? You Decide

The actions taken in this century will either save the planet from the dire effects of global warming or spin the world into a downward spiral of catastrophe and disaster. 

A new online game lets you decide which.

“Survive the Century” is a branching, choose-your-own-adventure game where users assume the role of an influential news editor making decisions, decade by decade, about what news to cover between 2021 and 2100. Each decision leads to effects on human health, the global economy and the balance between ecosystems and society. At the end of each decade, users can read fictional news articles describing either the planet’s recovery or descent into disaster.

The game does not try to predict the future, said Chris Trisos, an ecologist and co-creator of the game, but is rather intended to show the players that our world is not yet committed to any specific trajectory. 

“You have a lot of choices to get off the climate change superhighway to dystopia,” said Trisos. “It’s good to think about what kind of choices we can make to get us off continued warming.”

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Although the scenarios players encounter in the game are fictional—developed by a group of science-fiction writers—the creators collaborated with scientists to ensure the trajectories were possible within the bounds of time and warming.

Co-creator and sci-fi writer Sam Beckbessinger, who often writes for a teenage audience, said she witnesses young people losing hope in their future and falling into climate nihilism, where they feel as if nothing matters because the Earth is doomed. 

“I wanted to write against that and create an experience where people who are feeling confused and hopeless can have an experience of agency,” Beckbessinger said. “What would it feel like if you could make decisions on behalf of the world, but also sort of playfully explore the fact that there are so many potential futures that are still plausible across a huge range of very bad to very good?”

SCIENCE

Warming May Be Behind Disappearing Cave Art 

Climate change may be causing ancient cave art in Indonesia to disappear, a new study has  found.

Indonesian and Australian archaeologists investigated 11 cave art sites in the Maros-Pangkept karst region of southern Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Paintings of things like large mammals unique to the island and outlines of human hands have been documented at over 300 sites in these limestone caves, some dating back nearly 40,000 years, to the Pleistocene era. 

“The art is stunningly beautiful and because it’s in limestone, it’s so well-preserved, relatively speaking,” said Jillian Huntley, a research fellow at the Griffith Center in Gold Coast, Australia, and a co-author on the study. “Everything looks like it was made yesterday.”

In recent decades, these paintings have been degrading more rapidly, as the rock face flakes off because of increased chemical weathering induced by salt crystallization.

The monsoon climate of Indonesia, combined with agricultural practices like aquaculture and flooding fields to grow rice, lead water to soak into the limestone, where it dissolves salts. The water evaporates off the limestone surface—a process accelerated during droughts—leaving the salts behind and weakening the rock face. This causes the rock to flake off and the paintings disappear. 

“We’re getting these higher temperatures more in a row, more severe droughts, and getting more monsoonal rains and severe flooding events and severe storm events,” Huntley said. “All these are a perfect storm for these salts to grow.”

CULTURE

Propelling Climate Action

A Los Angeles-based company is turning climate change action into concert tickets, custom bicycles and even meet-and-greets with artists, musicians and other influencers.

Part of a new campaign launched last month, the digital marketing platform Propeller provides incentives for fans to participate in activism, for example by signing the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate pledge or writing letters to the editor and sharing climate action messages on their own social media channels. Each action leads to points that fans can redeem to enter into sweepstakes where they can win prizes and experiences from their favorite artists. 

Since the campaign’s launch on Earth Day, it has “propelled” more than 100,000 actions, said Ben Kroetz, Propeller’s director of campaigns and operations.

“We really are focused on inspiring activism with people who may not have been engaged previously in building movements for change,” said Kroetz. “It’s not just about people donating money.”

Rappers like Lil Dicky, DJs like A-Trak and bands like The National and Of Monsters and Men are contributing prizes, including branded bicycles, a trip to a location stricken by climate change and virtual studio tours.

Kroetz said providing motivation to act through prizes and celebrity meet-ups helps get people involved in activism who might otherwise not be reached by organizations leading these efforts.

“A lot of [environmental] organizations just talk to people who are already aware of the issues  and agree with them. It can get really insular,” Kroetz said. “This broadens the tent a little bit.”

SOLUTIONS

In a Climate Crisis, Appoint a Chief Heat Officer

In the late 1900s, Miami-Dade County experienced about seven days a year with a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit. By the middle of this century, if global emissions aren’t reduced, that number could be 88 days a year. 

“That’s from a week to three months,” said Jane Gilbert, the newly appointed chief heat officer for the county. “We need to anticipate that that’s going to overload our utility systems, people’s budgets and will be dangerous to outdoor laborers.”

Gilbert, a former chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, was named to the new position this week. Her work will include increasing tree cover in the county to reduce the urban heat island effect and improving data collection on the number of hospitalizations and heat-related deaths. Right now, those numbers are gravely underestimated, Gilbert said. 

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Although the job will be largely localized, she will also collaborate with chief heat officers in other countries that face climate challenges similar to those in Miami-Dade County. Athens, Greece and Freetown, Sierra Leone are two cities that have commited to this collaboration so far, through a foundation working to increase global resilience. 

One of Gilbert’s first projects will be to assemble a task force of local experts to create a comprehensive plan on how the county can prepare for the rising temperatures, especially in the most vulnerable communities.

“There is public housing or substandard housing where people don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford AC because their buildings are so inefficient,” Gilbert said. “And we need to address the energy redundancy for facilities particularly serving our most vulnerable populations and make sure they have generators or solar with battery backup, and we need to make sure we have neighborhood cooling centers.”

SCIENCE

As Oceans Warm, Cooler Waters Attract More Biodiversity

In past geological eras when ocean temperatures rose, the concentration of biodiversity in marine life moved away from the equator, a new study has found. That means, the study authors wrote, that climate change could lead to a drop in diversity in low latitudes as ocean life migrates to colder waters. 

The research, conducted by Ph.D. students at Stanford University and published May 6 in the journal Current Biology, looked at the fossil record of marine mollusks dating back 145 million years and examined how diversity shifted during warmer and colder periods. 

During cold periods, like the current era, when ice covers Earth’s poles, marine diversity was highest in the warm waters of the equator. But during warm periods, like the early Cretaceous period when equatorial waters reached nearly 40 degrees Celsius, diversity was highest in the mid-latitudes, especially for cold-blooded animals like mollusks.

The body temperature of cold-blooded animals, or “ectotherms,” matches the temperature of the environment they’re in. But there is a limit to how much heat these animals can tolerate before their oxygen intake can’t maintain their metabolism, the researchers found, and with atmospheric temperature rising, that point, about 27 degrees Celsius, is nearly here.

“We are in this sweet spot where the temperature at the equator today is kind of at that peak where you get the most diversity occurring,” said co-author Will Gearty. “If you look at a much warmer period you see the most diversity at 20 or 30 degrees latitude north and south.”

As climate change drives equatorial ocean temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, the researchers said, they expect animals that are mobile to migrate to cooler waters, while those that can’t move will die. Gearty said the drop in diversity at the equator could reach 50 percent. 

The consequences won’t just be felt in marine ecosystems, but in human communities, too, said lead author Tom Boag.

“A lot of countries in the mid-latitudes rely on protein from fish and other invertebrates, so it’s going to have strict latitudinal winners and losers,” Boag said. “Some countries in mid-latitudes might see an increase in catch, some in low-latitudes might see a drop.”