A little more than a decade ago, Margaret Atwood published The Year of the Flood – the second book in her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy.
The flood in question refers to a waterless flood, which turns out to be a human-devised pandemic that wipes out most of world’s population.
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The book makes for sobering reading at a time when Covid-19 is still in full spate across the planet. The title of the book also reminds us, however, that other threats of flooding have not gone away.
As the world’s attention is focused entirely upon the coronavirus and its far-reaching ramifications for society and economy, it is as if global heating has stopped; as if the climate emergency has vanished in a puff of hand sanitizer.
As far our planet’s climate is concerned, however, it is almost as if the pandemic never happened.
True, the massive curtailment of flying and a dramatic reduction in economic activity ought to be reflected in reduced emissions, but the atmosphere continues to accumulate carbon, extreme weather never ceases to take an ever-greater toll on lives and livelihoods, and temperatures are still on the way up.
Furthermore, the results of a new study draw attention to the threat of a very different sort of flood, despite being all but buried beneath an avalanche of coronavirus reports, rumours and rhetoric.
The research harks back to the heady, pre-pandemic days of summer 2019, when blistering weather was shattering temperature records in the UK and across much of Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the north polar region also roasted, with far-reaching implications for the future prospects of coastal communities hoping to stay above water as the planet heats up and the ice sheets crumble.
For us in the UK, serious heat waves typically translate to hosepipe bans, crop failures and a rise in heat-related deaths amongst the old and infirm in urban centres.
At high latitudes, where extreme summer temperatures collide with a landscape of snow and ice, the ramifications are very different and of global concern.
Of course, the snow and ice always come off worst in such encounters, and such was the case last summer when the rate of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet reached staggering proportions.
Over the course of the last couple of decades, the ice sheet has shed an average of 289 billion tonnes a year.
During the summer months of 2019, however, this figures touched an astonishing 600 billion tonnes over the course of just two months – sufficient to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm.
This may sound like small beer, but it translates to an annual rate of well over a centimetre. More worryingly, it provides evidence for how sensitive the ice sheet is to sudden rises in air temperatures and for how quickly it responds.