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Friday, April 19, 2013

Dangerous dance

Stockman (R-TX) is part of the Republican Tea Party 
caucus in the US House of Representatives
By PAUL BEAUDETTE/special to ecoRI.org News

The natural variability of the planet’s climate is caused by the rotation and angle of the Earth relative to the sun and natural and episodic events such as large volcanic eruptions. Climate changes have been documented and studied using ice core readings in glaciers and Antarctic ice masses. 

Core studies show how the climate has changed for more than 800,000 years — for comparison, the oldest calendars date back about 5,000 years. What we see from these core studies is a correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) and Earth temperatures. I like to think of carbon dioxide and temperature as two tango dancers moving together in close harmony.

We see a critical fact in these studies: for 800,000 years the “dance” between CO2 and temperature never had levels of CO2 above 280 parts per million (ppm) — until society transformed it’s energy, technologic and industrial efforts and entered the Industrial Age. With this came an increase use of fossil fuels — coal primarily, then oil and natural gas. 

In that order they also are the leading sources of CO2 in the atmosphere. That is true regardless of all other ways CO2 gets released. Fact is, we have known the effect that CO2 will have on our climate since Svante Arrhenius discovered the relationship back in 1896. Today many in America are not only in denial of this science but also refuse to believe that people are the major contributors to increasing CO2 levels — some 90 million tons a day — and the resulting global warming.

Climate change is in an “enhancement” to the planet’s natural heating system known as the greenhouse effect. As CO2 forms a layer in the upper stratosphere it allows sunlight to pass through as visible light that warms the continents and oceans. As they warm they radiate heat back in a different, infrared, wavelength. The CO2 layer now traps much of this infrared heat making the planet comfortable for life to exist. This is often referred to as the “Goldilocks’ Effect” — not too warm, not too cold; just right for life to develop and exist. As the stratospheric layer of CO2 thickens it is like adding an extra blanket on your bed to stay warm.

Returning to the dance, how has Earth’s temperature responded? Looking at historic date, one can follow cyclic process of temperature and CO2 levels over the years. You can see over time the interplay/dance of the two elements rising and falling in harmony to natural variations of the planet.

If you look at these data, you see that atmospheric CO2 rarely went above 300 ppm. Today global CO2 concentrations are 394 ppm. We haven’t yet begun to experience the full impact of this change on global temperatures.
Missed opportunities


In 1997, 37 nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol, agreeing to hold the rise in the planet’s temperature to 2 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, this goal may very well have passed us by. Carbon dioxide has a residence time of at least 20 years and can remain for up to 100 years, as it does for almost one-third of today’s emissions. Continued dalliance on addressing the emissions of this critical gas will only add to  dangerous future impacts.

Average air and water temperatures have been rising for decades. Here in Rhode Island, annual Narragansett Bay surface temperature has increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years. How much higher can temperatures rise before we reach a problematic tipping point, if we haven’t done so already? These are issues that the political community, controlling regulations, must begin to address now.

Scientists have predicted through peer-reviewed journals many of the effects heightened CO2 will have on world temperatures, wildfires, droughts and flooding. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its reports to the United Nations presented a variety of scenarios.

Sea-level rise is real. Since 1930, sea level has risen nearly 10 inches at the Newport tide gauge. When one thinks to the time-lag difference in temperature to CO2 increases we are just now seeing the beginnings of this problem.

Most of today’s sea-level rise is from thermal expansion due to the warming of the oceans’ upper layers. Land-based glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica hold enough water to raise ocean levels in the range of 20 feet each, should they totally melt. More than 50 percent of the U.S. population lives within miles of  the coast. Within decades cities such as Miami, Boston and New York will have to deal with the impacts of sea-level rise moving into their streets.

Intensified storms from a warming planet are another IPCC prediction. No single storm can be directly linked to climate impacts, but we are seeing a series of stronger storms and more disastrous events all over the world. With every 1 degree Celsius, there is 4 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere. Super storm Sandy wasn’t a hurricane but it moved further north than any November storm in the North Atlantic.
Parched lands


As contradictory as it may seem, longer and stronger droughts are also part of the impacts of climate change. Just as water evaporates more rapidly from the oceans in a warming world, so too does water leave the soil, resulting in drier lands. In the Southwest, drought conditions are impacting farming, wildlife and major cities — 1,452 counties in 32 states were declared drought disaster areas last year.

Lakes Mead and Powell are barely at 50 percent capacity. Loss of natural soil water means farmers are mining ancient glacial water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a non-renewable resource. Some areas of this aquifer are already experiencing sinkholes and wells running dry.

Lastly, the heat waves in the West during the past several years have been greater in intensity and size than have been the norm before — 4,694 temperature records were broken in 2012, some cities setting a record several times. Western forest fires rise in intensity and number as the West warms to these record temperatures. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the number of fires averaged about 55 annually. Today that number is well over 100 a year, and many are fiercer and more intense than ever recorded.

Paul Beaudette is the eastern vice chairman for the National Wildlife Federation. This article originally was published in the 
Spring 2013 Narragansett Bay Journal.