“2C: Beyond the Limit” was a Washington Post series that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. By analyzing global datasets and tracking nearly 170 years of temperature records, the series mapped every place that has already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s the threshold that international climate negotiators say the Earth collectively must never reach.
The series determined that extreme climate change is already a life-altering reality across 10% of the Earth’s surface. The work contained within the stories was scientifically grounded but presented in relevant ways that made the data comprehensible.
The idea for the “2C: Beyond The Limit” series was inspired by studies that showed how insects and birds in Puerto Rico and the Mojave Desert were situated where temperatures were heating up much faster than the global average. Working with data from Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit climate research group, and that of other researchers, the team mapped temperature change across a century.
“2C: Beyond The Limit” — Stories that Teach about Temperature Rises
Here are glimpses into the various stories from the series, which the Washington Post says both “relied on and demystified the science of climate change.”
“Extreme climate change has arrived in America”
In New Jersey eras past, ice fishers held winter competitions, and workers harvested ice from ponds and lakes. No longer is that the case, as the average New Jersey temperature from December through February now exceeds 0 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which water freezes. It took 3 decades to reach that threshold, which means “lakes don’t freeze as often, snow melts more quickly, and insects and pests don’t die as they once did in the harsher cold.”
“Dangerous new hot zones are spreading around the world”
A childhood spent digging up thin-shelled, cold-water clams is now a memory. The clams, which burrow a foot deep into the sand along a 13-mile stretch of beach just south of the Brazilian border, have been lost since 1994, when the beach became covered in dead clams. Scientists 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 climate chain reaction that threatens the heart of the Pacific”
That autumn fishing season was unusual in northern Japan. Fishers hauled a heavy net up from swelling waves, finding jellyfish, plastic, and lots and lots of net. Not until the very bottom of the harvest did they find a small amount of salmon. The salmon collapse is indicated by about a 70% drop in the past 15 years, coinciding with “the loss of a unique blanket of sea ice that dips far below the Arctic to reach this shore.” The area has heated up in some places by as much as 3 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, making it one of the fastest-warming spots in the world.
“On land, Australia’s rising heat is ‘apocalyptic.’ In the ocean, it’s worse.”
Rodney Dillon was diving in a wet suit several years ago in Trumpeter Bay, Tasmania to catch a big sea snail called abalone. As he swam, he noticed a towering kelp forest that had “gone slimy.” More than 95% of the giant kelp — “a living high-rise of 30-foot stalks that served as a habitat for some of the rarest marine creatures in the world” — died. Over recent decades, the rate of ocean warming off Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state and a gateway to the South Pole, has climbed to nearly 4 times the global average, oceanographers say.
“Facing unbearable heat, Qatar has begun to air-condition the outdoors.”
In the new Al Janoub open-air soccer stadium in Qatar, a cool breeze blows. Small grates decorated with Arabic-style patterns blow cool air at ankle level below each of the 40,000 seats. In turn, that sinking cool air rolls down to the grassy playing field, and soccer ball-sized vents blow more cold air onto the field. Outside, air-conditioning expert Saud Ghani describes the 116 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade temperature as if God had pointed “a giant hair dryer” at Qatar.
“Radical warming in Siberia leaves millions on unstable ground.”
A putrid odor filled the air of the gravel riverbank where the bones of a woolly mammoth lay scattered on the beach. The stench rose from decomposition of ancient plants and animals after millennia of being frozen in time. Permafrost that once sustained farming and human habitats in Siberia is quickly thawing, and the result is now a region of swamps, lakes, and bubbles of earth that render the land virtually useless. The town of Zyryanka in eastern Siberia has warmed by more than 3 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times — roughly triple the global average.
“Fires, floods and free parking: California’s unending fight against climate change.”
Plumes of smoke from the Real Fire appeared above the canyon walls of a camping resort. The manager and her staff hurried the guests into emergency evacuation mode, fearing a repeat of the fire that has followed heavy rains, resulting in a wall of mud that rampaged through El Capitan Canyon and the loss of 2 camp buildings and a car into the Pacific Ocean. “We just kind of shifted into action, we were so used to it,” said Terri Bowman, resigned to the new realities in the canyon where she has done business for nearly 2 decades. “Relatively nothing happened here until 2016. Since then, it has been an annual event.”
“‘The ice used to protect them. Now their island is crumbling into the sea.’”
A bluff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence used to be a place for Adele Chiasson to savor the 70-foot-tall, red sandstone cliffs behind her home. Now she’s afraid to step outside there, as the sea is claiming the ground. The creep gets closer with each passing year. “You never know when a section will fall off.” The Magdalen Islands have warmed 2.3 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, twice the global average.
“Facing catastrophic climate change, they still can’t quit Big Oil.”
Before Martha Itta could bury her 89-year-old grandmother in their hometown of Nuiqsut, Alaska, a friend had to siphon off water that had crept into the grave. Wooden crosses and grave markers lean with the ground beneath them sinking. Rising temperatures are thawing the once-frozen earth, forming pools of water that run through the graveyard. Oil drilling brought great prosperity to the region, but oil’s fundamental role in the global economy is no longer certain — nor is the future. Decisions are pressing to preserve people’s heritage, their environment, and the animals they depend on, while figuring out how to slow fossil fuel extraction that has brought both money and a melting tundra.
‘How we know global warming is real.’
Sonnblick Observatory in the Alps opened and began recording the weather in 1886. With the exception of 4 days during WWI, it has been a constant source of measurements for wind, barometric pressure, and temperatures at upper altitudes and during storms. For all the ice and snow blanketing the observatory, it used to be much colder there. The station’s temperature records show a warming of 2.1 degrees Celsius since it opened, double the global average.
“2C: Beyond The Limit” allowed readers to interact with a spinning globe that highlighted the areas of greatest warming. Readers could view graphics and animations that displayed how severe climate change has affected their own counties and countries. The research added to understandings of the erosion of winter and rapidly changing ocean currents — many of the latter not previously reported.
Understanding and predicting what the coming winter might bring, or predicting how climate will change over the next century, is of vital importance for our daily lives and the ability to sustain our economies. A series like “2C: Beyond The Limit” helped to address many fundamental questions about our climate through easy-to-understand scientific data. Scientists know that carbon emissions are causing the world to warm, even with controls to limit emissions. Instead of denying the inevitable, we need more stories like “2C: Beyond The Limit” to make the climate crisis personal and real.
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