If you’ve lived in the Southern United States for a while, you’ve probably seen something like this.
For some folks, there’s really no limit to what can be put in the back of a pickup truck, whose carrying capacity may seem infinite.
For some folks, there’s no limit on the stress humans can put on Earth. For some people Earth’s carrying capacity—the size of the population and their waste that Earth can sustain—may seem infinite.
How many people? Science doesn’t have a solid answer. There are too many unknowns. Estimates seldom exceed nine billion. (Since “billion” has different definitions in different countries, that’s 9,000,000,000.) The population today is more than seven billion and the United Nations estimates it will reach nine billion in 2037.
I don’t expect to be around in 2037… I would be 93 years old. But I expect my niece, grand-niece, and nephew, first-cousins-once-removed and their children to be part of that nine billion. And I fear for them, for while Earth might be able to support nine billion people, it will almost certainly not be in the manner we live, today.
Population pressures plus global climate change have already led to war. There is a direct link between climate-change-driven drought, migration into already crowded cities, and the war in Syria and the so-called Arab Spring. There is a direct link between climate-change-driven drought in Africa and the deaths of hundreds of children attempting to flee Libya and other countries across the Mediterranean. There is a direct link from climate-change-driven drought and over-population to famines in Africa that will kill millions. More people, more drought, and more war, famine, disease, and death. Those are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse dreamed of by John of Patmos. They’re also real forces created by human beings.
What can we do? We can tell ourselves that the problem is too big, and simply wring our hands in despair. Or, we can make a small difference. If enough of us make enough small differences, perhaps we can keep the scales from tipping toward disaster.
First, please recycle. No matter what you’ve heard, recycling does save energy most of the time and it reduces the volume of trash in landfills all the time. (Trash such as paper, put in landfills, decays without oxygen… an unnatural process that produces methane, a greenhouse gas.)
2016 is likely to be the first year in the past five million years that CO2 in the atmosphere will routinely and regularly exceed 400 parts per million (ppm). That record was broken in 2015, the first time in human history the level of CO2 has exceeded 400 ppm.
This record-setting performance can be credited in part to a strong El Niño condition in 2015. The El Niño worsened drought in some tropical regions. The stressed vegetation was less able to absorb CO2. This says a lot about the delicate balance of the natural carbon cycle.
Does this mean that the increase in CO2 was a natural phenomenon? Does it mean that we should ignore it, that we cannot do anything about it? No. Some of the responsibility for the drought can be laid at the feet of anthropogenic global warming. How much anthropogenic global warming contributes to modern extremes of weather, including the El Niño/La Niña cycle, is still being studied.
On the other hand we have a very good understanding of how CO2—a greenhouse gas (GHG)—contributes to global warming and subsequent climate change. We have a good understanding of the contribution of anthropogenic (human-caused) activities such as burning fossil fuels contribute to higher levels of CO2.
Both CO2 and average global temperatures are likely to be higher in 2016 than in the past century or more. We understand that “correlation does not always mean causation,” however in this case, direct causation can be drawn from CO2 and the “greehouse effect,” and from the burning of fossil fuels and the increase in CO2. All this will be discussed in future posts.
Do not forget that Trump labeled climate change a "con job," a "hoax" and "bull ---t." Do not forget that Trump said he would support “clean coal,” when there is no such thing as clean coal: coal produces between 200 and 250 pounds of CO2 per million Btu, more than any other fossil fuel*. Do not forget that the official position of the Republican Party Platform rejects both the Kyoto Protocol and the more recent Paris Agreement to control carbon emissions. And do not underestimate the harm that could be caused by a “climate change denier” and a “shill for the energy industry” as the head of the EPA.
And remember, it’s all about the children.
[References will be provided in future blog entries.]
*Petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refining, produces about 225 pounds of CO2 per million Btu, However, the amount of “pet coke” burned is very small compared to the amount of coal burned.
In my last blog, I said that the only thing that heats Earth is the sun. That is not quite true. In the spirit of full disclosure, residual radioactivity in Earth’s core does supply some heat, mostly to hydrothermal vents and volcanoes. A lot of additional energy is provided by the hot air of politicians’ speeches. Still, “It’s the sun.”
Why, then, might Earth be warming? Is the energy we get from the sun changing? Is Earth doing something different with that energy? Answer: yes, to both.
Again, this isn’t rocket science or nuclear physics. But it does require that you pay attention and think a little bit.
Earth’s North Pole points toward a star we have cleverly named the North Star or the Pole Star. At some point, we may become more clever and name it the North Pole Star.
Earth’s axis is tilted (about 23.44 degrees at present) with respect to its orbital plane, so that part of the year the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (summer) and part of the year the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun (winter). The southern hemisphere, not to be outdone, has the same seasons, but reversed.
Because the North Pole Star is so far away, it seems that the North Pole always points toward it. But while this is going on, Earth acts like a child’s gyroscope. In its travels about the sun, the place in the sky toward which the North Pole points rotates in a circle that takes about 26,000 years to complete. The North Pole Star will be a different star in not so many years. In fact, that’s happened several times in recorded history. This movement is (gyroscopic) precession.
In addition to precession, the axis of Earth “wobbles” in about an 18-year cycle (“nutation”) meaning that every 18 years or so the tilt toward the sun in summer is a tiny bit greater, and the tilt away from the sun in winter is a tiny bit less. Nine years afterwards, the tilt toward the sun in summer is a tiny bit less, and so on.
The orbit of Earth is an ellipse—a slightly squeezed circle. The amount of squeeze is measured as the eccentricity of the orbit. And that changes slightly in a 413,000 years-or-so cycle. Other aspects of the orbit with different periods combine to produce a cycle of about 100,000 years.
The combination of precession and orbital eccentricity then combine to create a roughly 21,000-year cycle. What this boils down to is that different hemispheres (northern, southern) get different amounts of light and heat from the sun and that amount changes in a 21,000 year cycle.
Because there is more land in the northern hemisphere than the southern, and because land absorbs sunlight better than water, today Earth absorbs more heat from the sun than it did about 10,500 years ago, and more than it will in 10,500 years.
In about 10,500 years, the “summer” and “winter” tilt will be reversed, and June and July will be winter months in the northern hemisphere, and December and January will be summer months. Australia may see a White Christmas—if we haven’t destroyed Earth before that.
Around 1920, an astronomer/geophysicist, Milutin Milanković merged these cycles mathematically and plotted them on graph paper. His hypothesis was that these cycles affected the amount of energy reaching and being absorbed by Earth, and therefore, affected global temperatures. A study of ice cores has validated this hypothesis, although there remain some questions that have yet to be answered. Milanković’s cycles are important, but are not the entire answer.
It’s still the sun, but it’s also sunspots.
We’ll look at those in the next post.
Gyroscopic precession: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty9QSiVC2g0 [accessed 2016-11-18]
For an understandable explanation of Milanković cycles, and some excellent images, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milankovitch_cycles
In something of an irony, in May 2016, Donald Trump, who has labeled climate change a "con job," a "hoax" and "bull ---t," applied to build a wall along a luxury golf course that he owns in Ireland that is threatened by rising seas caused by climate change.
The Republican Party Platform reads, in part, “Climate change… is the triumph of extremism over common sense… We support the development of all forms of energy… including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydroelectric… we support [fracking].” The platform’s support for renewable energy would be limited to private capital. Later, the platform reads, “The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC} is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution… We reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement… We demand an immediate halt to U.S. funding for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change…”
And we put these people in control of our government, to the ultimate detriment of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of my generation.
Earth’s climate achieved a balance shortly after the last ice age. How this happened is not rocket science. It’s basic chemistry, biology, and geology.
For eons, microscopic sea creatures busily absorbed Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the ocean when creating their tiny shells of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which settled to the ocean bottom, were compressed, and became limestone. Meanwhile, termites in tropical regions were busily creating CO2. Volcanoes were occasionally spewing CO2, Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and particulates into the atmosphere. Subduction of tectonic plates (slowly, to be sure) was sliding limestone on the ocean floor under continental plates where some was eventually spewed back into the atmosphere from volcanoes as CO2. The orogenies that built mountains (also slowly) occasionally exposed limestone to erosion, returning some CO2 to the air. Trees absorb CO2 from the air, die, rot, and return that CO2 to the air, unless they are buried for millennia and turn into peat and coal.
There are many natural sources of CO2. There are many natural sinks for CO2 and Earth had achieved something of a balance before we (humankind) began burning, in a century-and-a-half, fossil fuels that had been laid down (thereby capturing carbon) for millennia.
We have measured the amount of CO2 in the air, and have seen it increase steadily. We have measured this directly on top of a mountain in Hawaii since about 1958. There has been a steady rise from less than 320 parts per million to over 400 parts per million.
We have measurements from Antarctic and Greenland ice cores of CO2 in the atmosphere going back to at least 425,000 B.C.E.
We know the CO2 that comes from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas/methane) is demonstrably different from CO2 from current, natural sources. The simplest way to determine this is to look at the amount of Carbon 14 in the CO2. “Younger” CO2 has a large amount of Carbon 14. Carbon 14 has a half-life of 5,700 years, and does not exist in fossil fuels that are millions of years old… such as coal, laid down during the Carboniferous Period (c. 359—299 million years B.C.E.)
The correlation between rising atmospheric CO2 and rising temperatures has been measured and plotted since about 425,000 B.C.E. It’s a fact.
Earth is warming. That too, is a fact.
What is the source of the heat? The sun, only the sun, and nothing but the sun. And that will be the topic of the next post.
“Republican Party Platform 2016” downloaded 2016-08-07
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/donald-trump-12-outrageous-moments-article-1.2714391 [Accessed 2016-11-16]
I have been a student of weather and climate ever since I became a private pilot and realized that my ability to predict weather was a life-and-death matter on cross-country flights. I have read and studied many references since before “global warming” and “climate change” became issues.
The good news is that two-thirds of Americans are confident that climate change is real and well-supported by evidence and science, while only fifteen percent of Americans deny climate change*.
The bad news is that the climate is changing. The changes have created more severe droughts, floods, and storms. That’s still a hypothesis. Although it is based on evidence, it is subject to testing and more data collection and analysis. What is known is that climate change has devastated coral reefs around the world. What is suspected (another hypothesis) is that climate change has adversely affected the biodiversity of Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world.
Worse news is that climate change is a significant contributing factor to the wars in the Middle East and Africa.
Drought has devastated farmland; rural peoples have migrated to cities looking for opportunity. The crowded cities and lack of those opportunities have created tinder boxes ripe for the flames of radical Islam. The crowded cities and lack of opportunities have been an excellent recruiting poster for Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), Boko Haram, and their ilk. Droughts led to war; war has led to the current migrant crises in Europe and Africa.
It’s another lesson that everything that happens has a cause. Not necessarily a reason, but a cause. Yes, there is a difference. Climate change and weather are not the result of divine retribution or favor. They are the result of the physics of the atmosphere, of wind and waves, of oceanic carbon sequestration, of solar heating and human-created greenhouse gasses, among other things.
Worse news is that Donald Trump’s history of denying climate change, to the point of calling it a hoax, has apparently affected his mindless followers. The number of republicans who doubt climate change rose from 26% to 34% in only six months*.
It’s not enough to “believe” climate change is real. It’s critical that we do something about it. More on that, later.
* National Survey on Energy and Environment, University of Michigan and Muhlenbert College.
Registered Curmudgeon, scientist, skeptic, humanist, and writer.