My oh Mayan: No apocalypse, but what’s next?

“They had neither spirit nor wisdom, and no recollection of their constructors, of their creators. ... They remembered nothing of the spirits of the sky; and that is why they came to nothing.” – Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation myth

If you can read this, the prophecies were false. Doomsday, ostensibly predicted by the Mayan calendar to occur on the 2012 winter’s solstice, passed unnoticed. Life goes on – for a while, at least.

Of course, only a few people seriously believed that the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” would coincide with the end of the 5,126-year Mayan calendar cycle. I was not one of them.

And neither were the Mayans, say most of the professional Meso-American anthropologists who study their ancient culture. They claim that the Mayans believed that their calendar cycle would end, perhaps with some disturbance in the cosmic order, but then a new cycle would begin, bringing joyous renewal to the world.

Thus I wrote in my Jan. 1, 2012, column, “No apocalypse, no drama – it’s unlikely that a single cataclysmic event will instantly change history. You, and the world, will probably still be here on New Year’s Day, 2013.”

However, I went on to say, environmental degradation would continue apace in 2012, but its effects would probably be hidden from us – at least in the developed world where living is relatively easy – as they continued to degrade the environment upon which civilization rests. The real effects would be felt in the coming decades.

Perhaps I spoke too soon, for 2012 has been packed with one dramatic climate event after another, many of them rare or even unprecedented, and many beating their anticipated arrival by decades. Cumulatively, these events can be seen as a consistent pattern of climate destabilization. Indeed, 2012 may well be remembered as the year that marked the beginning of the end of the relatively stable climate humans have enjoyed since the dawn of civilization.

A chronological list of the dozens of major events in North America alone – starting with massive tornado outbreaks and thunderstorm fronts in the spring; wending through this summer’s droughts, wildfires and record heat waves; and ending with Hurricane Sandy and December’s ongoing drought – would take far more space than is allotted for this column.

Such a list could also belie the significance of each event in the overall climate destabilization picture. So here’s my take on some of the year’s major events in order of relative importance:

The great Arctic meltdown. A mass of Arctic sea ice the size of the continental U.S. melted into the ocean this summer. As that event transpired a cyclone the size of the entire Arctic Ocean struck the region, the entire surface of Greenland’s vast ice sheet melted briefly, and Greenland’s Petermann glacier calved an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan.

The extensive sea ice loss was predicted to occur around 2070, and the ice is not expected to recover; in fact many scientists now think the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by the end of this decade. Arctic ice acts as the planet’s “air conditioner,” and its loss will affect the climate throughout the Northern Hemisphere by raising temperatures and possibly slowing the jet stream, exacerbating droughts and flooding everywhere.

Record heat waves and droughts. Thousands of temperature records were set around the world, notably in the U.S. interior where a sudden-onset drought ruined billions of dollars’ worth of corn and soy crops. Long predicted by climate scientists as an effect of global warming, the drought has led to record federal crop insurance payments and affected food prices worldwide.

Storms and floods. Third place in the “weather from hell” contest goes to drought’s evil twin, unprecedented flooding resulting from severe, unpredictable hurricanes, tornados and rainstorms. As well as damaging cities, immense storms and floods, like droughts, can also destroy crops.

Wildfires. The worst forest fire in Colorado’s history and the second-worst wildfire season in American history darkened Western skies. Along with destroying forests and homes, fires turn carbon sinks – forests – into atmospheric carbon sources.

So maybe it wasn’t the full Mayan apocalypse, but we’ve certainly had a year of climate drama. Unfortunately, it was probably just a foretaste of things to come. Could be, 2012 will go down as the year we passed the point of no return – or the year nature sent us a message we can’t afford to ignore at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him at www.your-ecological-house.com.