Time running out on our ability to preserve a livable world.
Is it just me, or has it been a little warm around here lately? Or warmer earlier? The early and unusually mild spring here in Wisconsin may be nature’s way of reminding us that the clock is ticking on climate change and we need to take action before it’s too late.
While stationed in Kangerlussuac, Greenland, 50 years ago, I noted my airbase was 4 miles west of the Russell Glacier grinding down from the ice cap. Looking at today’s satellite images, this glacier has retreated to the east toward the ice cap, easily noted from the satellite. The retreat averages 1,000 feet per year, producing a torrent of melt water that flows down the fjord and to the sea.
Glacial retreat is one indicator that global warming is taking its toll. Today, in more populated areas of the earth, disappearing glaciers are responsible for drought, loss of irrigation water and less drinking water. As much as 54 cubic miles of ice disappear each year in Antarctica, 24 cubic miles per year in Greenland. As this ice melts, ocean levels rise and coastal regions flood.
Centuries of rising CO2 levels and other greenhouse gases have raised the Earth thermostat. Irish scientist John Tyndall discovered CO2’s threat as a heat trapping greenhouse gas in the mid-19th century. In the 1950s, Dr. Charles Keeling began meticulous measurement of atmospheric CO2 levels at Mt. Muana Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Keeling and his son, Ralph, documented the steady buildup of CO2, which stood at 315 parts per million (ppm) worldwide when they started and is now 392 ppm.
Coupled with Greenland and Antarctica ice cap core drillings spanning 800,000 years, there is growing, irrefutable scientific evidence showing the steady and exponential increase in greenhouse gases.
Exponential means rates of increase are increasing over time. The acceleration can be demons ratably linked to the emergence of the industrial revolution and the increased use of fossil fuels. Graphical plots of this accumulation resemble a hockey stick, with the worst, accellerating emission growth being the most recent.
Greenhouse gases, principally CO2 but also including methane and other gasses, tend to accumulate and don’t like to dissipate. It’s like a great chemical lid to the troposphere (the layer of atmosphere closest to the earth). The presence of this lid, combined with the radiative properties of the earth, produces a huge greenhouse. Solar radiation enters the atmosphere and is absorbed by the land and the oceans. Absorbed radiation is reflected in the form of terrestrial radiation. Terrestrial radiation hits the greenhouse lid and is reflected back to the earth. Heat not dissipated back to space becomes trapped in the atmosphere, hence global warming.
This is proven, unquestioned science. But where is this process taking us?
Respected members of prominent worldwide scientific bodies such as NASA, NOAA, American Meteorological Society, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and many other prominent institutions warn that this heat trapping process is not only exponential but is heading to a point where growth in CO2 levels could become unstoppable or irreversible. This is the infamous “tipping point,” beyond which we lose control over runaway CO2 accumulations.
The accumulation of yesteryear’s greenhouse gases is having an impact. Extreme-weather events are more destructive, more expansive, longer lasting, and more frequent.
A report in the Nov. 18, 2011, issue of Scientific American warns that “Climate Change Will Worsen Extreme Weather.” Extreme weather will only worsen as the world heats up.
Here’s a point to ponder: Six of the 12 worst hurricanes on record occurred in the 152 years before Hurricane Katrina. The other six occurred after 2005, the year of Katrina. In early April of this year, there were 148 tornados in a 72-hour period.
The public can do something about this. First, take the time to learn some basics about climate and weather. Second, ask your congressional representative to support policies that will wean us from fossil fuels and develop alternative energy sources, such as solar, geothermal and wind energy.
Importantly, “further study” or procrastination is not an option. The movement toward the tipping point is under way, but very hard to see.
As we’ve seen from the strange weather we’re having, nature isn’t calling a time out while we sort through the political mess in Washington. Unless we enact a national policy that reduces heat-trapping gases, the world humans have been accustomed to will cease to exist for our children and grandchildren.
— Howard Brown is a Neenah resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org