A WARM + BRIGHT FUTURE
by Michael Hammerschlag Aug 1998 Maui Time
As we bake towards the millennium with months of over 100° temperatures in Texas, India, Pacific Northwest; even the most retrograde industrialist has to admit that global warming isn't a theory any more. 1998 is the hottest year ever, each month a new record (3.4° above normal in Feb, 1.26° above normal for July); 1997 was previously the hottest year ever; the 10 hottest years in history all happened since 1981, the 5 hottest since 1990. Detailed weather records have only been kept since 1880, but by examining ice cores, tree rings, and coral growth, U Mass scientists have definitively extended that hottest-ever claim by a minimum of 600 years. In the last century the planet has warmed by over 1° F, which doesn't sound like much, but as little as 5 degrees was the difference between us and the ice ages. In the arctic, where 100,000's of cubic miles of water are locked up, the difference is huge: a 2° rise since 1979 in Greenland, which is visibly melting in satellite photos; and a 4.5° rise in the Antarctica peninsula since the 40's, where 1100 sq. miles of the Larson Ice Shelf crumpled in 1995, 75 sq. mi. more broke up in Feb, and 3000 more, an area the size of Connecticut, are expected to disintegrate and melt in the next year. This is serious stuff. Each 2° rise puts 6% more water vapor into the air, fuel for hurricanes and the monster El Nino's we've been having (6 of the last 8 years and currently the biggest ever). A 4° rise would raise hurricane winds 9-16 mph, "doubling the damage from the strongest ones", according to a NOAA hurricane expert.
But it may be worse. Almost all computations have only considered carbon dioxide (8 billion tons of carbon a year, up 1 billion tons in the last decade) but methane (from plowing farmland, animal and human waste, oil drilling) is a 21 times more potent greenhouse gas; as are nitrogen oxides (excreted out of every tail pipe)- the total warming effect of nitrogen oxides may be 3-4 times more than of carbon dioxide. This only was reported recently and disappeared in the constant stream of scare stories. And the water driven into the atmosphere by the added heat (up 10% in the last 20 years) is a potent greenhouse gas itself. So whatever we thought we've been doing to the earth's climate (doubling the CO2 since 1800), we may have underestimated 3-5 fold. All evidence is that radical climate shifts happen fast, in as little as 10-20 years. We may see the melting of the ice caps, the flooding of all port cities and Florida and Louisiana, catastrophic droughts, floods, and storms. Through cooling the lower stratosphere and isolating the poles, global warming could damage the ozone layer and unleash cancer-causing ultraviolet. But the worst possibility, the worst thing that could happen from global warming... might be...... another Ice Age. Do WHAT???
It makes a certain sense. 90% of the last 250,000 years (and more like 2 1/2 mil) have been Ice Age with a 2 mile thick sheet of ice covering Europe and North America down to Chicago and New York City: only about 25,000 years have been warm, habitable- like now. The last warm period lasted only 13,000 years, ours has lasted about 14,000. To accumulate that much ice, very high rates of precipitation are needed, which requires alot of heat. The true arctic will remain cold, and once the ice sheets accumulate and start moving, nothing will stop them. According to several theorists, the root cause of the Big Chill is the interruption of ocean currents (same thing that causes El Nino), specifically the Gulf Stream, which flows 100 Amazons of warm water from the Caribbean to England and Northern Europe. Circling Iceland, the heavy (now, from evaporation) salty water sinks to the bottom and returns south to make a grand loop. Huge amounts of melted fresh water from Greenland's ice cap could dilute the salty Gulf Stream water so much that it isn't heavy enough to sink, interrupting the return mechanism and then the warm flow north, sending Europe (which is in semi-Arctic latitudes and should be 9-18° colder), into a deep freeze. The rest of the temperate world would supposedly follow, causing catastrophic crop failure and world-wide starvation. Interruptions of the worldwide salt-heavy currents cause big problems - supposedly the closing of the Panama Isthmus 3 million years ago prevented the Pacific and Atlantic from mixing their load of salt and caused the chain of ice ages. Another theory is that heavy salt water from the bottom of the Mediterranean flows NW from Gibraltar and upwells off of Ireland. Because of the Aswan dam and the blocking of 90% of the Nile River's water, the salty Med outflow might become great enough to push the Gulf Stream west into the Labrador sea, spawning snowstorms over Canada and freezing Europe.
What can we do? All kinds of things. Force development and penetration of electric cars with big government incentives (the GM EV-1 is great- just needs a better battery- rechargeable electric cars produce 3-5 times less CO2 because huge power plants are so much more efficient); develop massive solar panel industry (which is just becoming competitive with other sources of power); provide free CO2 and NO scrubbers to 2nd and 3rd world power and industrial plants; avoid tilling the soil to small size on farmland (which dumps much CO2 into the air from decomposition); mandate higher mileage standards (cars could now be twice as gas-efficient if the EPA and Congress hadn't chickened out); stop the absolute madness of burning tropical forests and reduce tree harvests by using fast growing plants like hemp for paper products (northern forests absorb more CO2 than tropical forests); insulate homes and water heaters to cut the 6400 lbs of CO2 an American family creates every year; switch all coal plants to natural gas, pump CO2 directly into the ocean (which has 60 times more than the atmosphere anyway) or into deep shale strata; and crank up the hamstrung nuclear power industry (the destruction of which has been "environmentalists" greatest folly- it is, with the exception of a handful of waste, which came out of the ground to begin with, a nonpolluting source). Instead of clean nuclear plants, we've built monsters like the 4-Corners coal plant which fouls the pristine desert vistas for 500 miles. France is +90% nuclear in power generation: they have no acid rain problem. Radiation is natural: potassium is radioactive + decays to the 3rd most common atmospheric gas. Then there are the wackier ideas: seed the tropical ocean with iron, which causes massive plankton blooms; or block the sun by blasting dust or particles into the stratosphere; both of which suffer from a surfeit of arrogance- wasn't heedless tinkering what got us in this mess to begin with?
What will we do? Nothing. The Kyoto environmental conference committed the US to emit 7% less of greenhouse gases in 2012 than we did in 1990, but projections are we will create 1/3 more, and we are well along towards that. There is little political will to take the expensive and painful steps necessary and even if we did- it wouldn't matter. China and India, with massive coal deposits, will start to produce prodigious amounts of CO2 in the next century, and nothing short of a nuclear war will stop them. Meanwhile peasants continue to burn up the millennium-old irreplaceable jungle and Russia strip mines it's Siberian forests to pay for Western goods, removing the CO2 drinking forests forever. The atmosphere likely has a 10-20 year delay before changes manifest themselves, our abuse to this point may have been enough to cause catastrophic change no matter what we do.
Whatever the cause, something's going on and it's accelerating: 3500
killed from 120° heat in India, 126 killed in scorched Texas; 35 ft
waves, torrential rains, mudslides, and floods in Cal.; 150 more tornados than
normal in US, hundreds killed in Peru and Ecuador by floods and slides, hideous
drought and giant fires in Indonesia, Brazil, + Australia (12 mil acres
burned in '97- causing a great kick to the CO2 load); 8 cyclones in the
Pacific- up from 2 the year before, 4.2° warmer than normal in NYC in Jan, while Guadalajara had snow
for the first time in 117 years, immense ice storms in Canada and US that cut
power to 4 million people. There are all kinds of convenient theories
that ascribe the world-wide warming to variations of the sun's output or
sunspot cycle, but what is undeniable is that we've been experimenting on a
huge and unprecedented scale with our planet's precious atmosphere, thinner
in proportion than the skin of an apple. And we've changed it.
Michael Hammerschlag was a chemist and maintained a weather station charting temperature, pressure, winds, and weather for several years. In 1984 he witnessed the aftermath of one of the largest tornados ever recorded (1200 ft wide at base) when it annihilated a town near Madison WI. He's written commentary essays for Providence Journal, Seattle Times, Moscow News + Tribune, Columbia Journalism Review + others. His website is http://hammernews.com e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org