Shared from the 9/15/2019 The Denver Post eEdition


Dangerous hot zones are spreading around world


Nicolas Larrosa, a chef at Lo de Tere, prepares yellow clams in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Photos by Carolyn Van Houten, The Washington Post


Jose Rocha, 68, naps after gathering yellow clams in the Uruguayan heat. After the decline of the clam population, he started a home bakery, and he wakes at 3 a.m.



WASHING-TON » President Donald Trump gets some of his worst marks from the American people when it comes to his handling of climate change, and majorities believe the planet is warming and support government actions that he sometimes has scoffed at.

While the administration has rolled back regulations to cut emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from power and industrial plants and pushed for more coal use, wide shares of Americans say they want just the opposite, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

About two out of three Americans say corporations have a responsibility to combat climate change, and a similar share also say it’s the job of the U.S. government.

But 64% of Americans say they disapprove of Trump’s policies toward climate change while about half that many say they approve. That 32% approval of his climate policies is the lowest among six issue areas that the poll asked about, including immigration (38%) and health care (37%).

— The Associated Press

LA CORONILLA, URUGUAY» The day the yellow clams turned black is seared in Ramón Agüero’s memory.

It was summer 1994. A few days earlier, he had collected a generous haul, 20 buckets of the thin-shelled, cold-water clams, which burrow a foot deep into the sand along a 13-mile stretch of beach near Barra del Chuy, just south of the Brazilian border. Agüero had been digging up these clams since childhood, a livelihood passed on for generations along these shores.

But on this day, Agüero returned to find a disastrous sight: the beach covered in dead clams.

“Kilometer after kilometer, as far as our eyes could see. All of them dead, rotten, opened up,” remembered Agüero, now 70. “They were all black, and had a fetid odor.”

He wept at the sight.

The clam die-off was an alarming marker of a new climate era, an early sign of this coastline’s transformation. Scientists now suspect the event was linked to a gigantic blob of warm water extending from the Uruguayan coast far into the South Atlantic, a blob that has only gotten warmer in the years since.

The mysterious blob covers 130,000 square miles of ocean, an area nearly twice as big as this small country. And it has been heating extremely rapidly — by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, double the global average. At its center, it’s grown even hotter, warming by as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to one analysis.

The entire global ocean is warming, but some parts are changing much faster than others — and the hot spot off Uruguay is one of the fastest. It was first identified by scientists in 2012, but it is poorly understood and has received virtually no public attention.

What researchers do know is that the hot zone here has driven mass die-offs of clams, dangerous ocean heat waves and algal blooms, and wide-ranging shifts in Uruguay’s fish catch.

The South Atlantic blob is part of a global trend: Around the planet, enormous ocean currents are traveling to new locations. As these currents relocate, waters are growing warmer. Scientists have found similar hot spots along the western stretches of the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Warnings in data

A Washington Post analysis of multiple temperature data sets found numerous locations around the globe that have warmed by at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. That’s a number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. But in regions large and small, that point has been reached already.

A study of data from Berkeley Earth shows how the temperature average of the past five years compares with 1880 to 1899:

• The Post analyzed four data sets, and found: About one-tenth of the globe has warmed by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, when the past five years are compared with the mid- to late 1800s. That’s more than five times the size of the United States.

• About 20% of the planet has warmed by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a point at which scientists say the impacts of climate change grow significantly more intense.

• The fastest-warming zones include the Arctic, much of the Middle East, Europe and northern Asia, and key expanses of ocean. A large part of Canada is at 3.6 degrees or warmer.

Some entire countries, including Switzerland and Kazakhstan, have warmed by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Austria has said the same about its famed Alps.

These hot spots are the scenes of a critical acceleration, places where geophysical processes are amplifying the general warming trend. They unveil which parts of the Earth will suffer the largest changes.

Extreme warming is helping to fuel wildfires in Alaska, shrink glaciers in the Alps and melt permafrost across Canada’s Northwest Territories. It is altering marine ecosystems and upending the lives of fishermen who depend on them, from Africa to South America to Asia.

It is making hot places in the Middle East unbearable for outdoor workers and altering forests, lakes and rivers in the United States. It has thawed the winters of New England and transformed the summers of Siberia.

Punta del Este

For Uruguay, a small country of fewer than 4 million, the key vulnerability is in the oceans.

Uruguay is famous for its laid-back former president, who lived on a humble flower farm rather than at the mansion occupied by his predecessors, as well as its cattle and sheep, which outnumber Uruguayans by a factor of six. But it’s also known for its tourism and beaches.

Nearly half of Uruguayans live in the coastal megacity of Montevideo. Meanwhile, international tourists flock to the beaches of Punta del Este, a resort where a major Trump Organization property, the Trump Tower Punta del Este, is under construction.

But waters have warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in just 20 years in the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, where the vast river spills into the ocean, and in the common offshore fishing area shared by Uruguay and Argentina. That is a very fast change in a very short time.

In 2017, a record-setting ocean heat wave caused mass fish die-offs and a dangerous algal bloom, forcing beach closures in Montevideo. Such events are becoming more common and more severe. What the clammers along the coast near Brazil experienced decades ago is spreading and becoming harder to ignore.

Uruguay is trying to help them, but that effort underscores the possibilities — and the limits — of adapting to extreme climate change.

Significant threshold

In the past five years, Earth has become more than 1.8 degrees warmer than it was in the mid- to late 1800s, before industrialization spread across the world.

Barring some dramatic event like a major volcanic eruption — which can cause temporary global cooling by spewing ash that blocks the sun — scientists expect this to continue and steadily worsen.

“We’re not going to really cool down much in the future, so the last five years are indicative of the new normal,” said Zeke Hausfather, a researcher with Berkeley Earth, which produces one of the data sets The Post analyzed.

While the global data sets do not agree about what is happening to every stretch of the Earth, they show unmistakable patterns.

For instance, an intriguing group of ocean hot spots appears again and again. One cause? The tropics are expanding.

Straddling the equator, the tropics are hot because they receive the most sunlight. As the sun hits the tropics, enormous columns of air rise skyward and then outward. But as greenhouse gases trap more heat, those columns of air are pushed farther toward the north and south poles.

Air that rises in the tropics falls back down over the middle latitudes. With a warming planet, though, the air is falling in different places. One result has been a stunning temperature change off the Uruguayan coast.

Ramón Agüero was about 6 years old when his parents taught him and his younger brother Arturo how to dig for clams. The brothers learned to read the weather and the tides to find the richest lodes, which they collected with shovels and buckets.

Later, as the brothers grew up, it became their work as well — work that disappeared when the government banned clamming after the 1994 die-off.

Arturo Agüero had five children to feed and had to move to Montevideo to find work. “When they shut down the clams, I wanted to die,” he said, “because that is what I knew how to do. I knew how to work the clams. I knew it all.”

Similar upheaval struck some 100 other clammers, many of whose families had worked these beaches for generations.

But then came the huge die-offs, first along the coast of Brazil, then Uruguay and Argentina, wiping out clams along each coastline.

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