Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Climate Change Big Picture Part III (of 4)

by Lawrence Petersen

This is where the topic of climate change really gets disturbing. We keep talking about the climate problems that are coming up now saying that, if we make some changes, then the bad things, melting ice caps, storms, droughts, floods, will stop and the Earth will somehow return to normal.

The fact is that what is happening now is the result of conditions in the atmosphere over forty years ago. Since that time we have increased the amount of greenhouse gases going into the air by almost 500 percent. This means that for the next forty years we will be seeing the result of this escalation in fossil fuel use.

This lag in consequences from early activity is caused by the fact that the ocean takes a long time to heat up, being an almost unimaginably huge volume of water. Once it heats up, it then acts like a thermal battery, storing and slowly releasing all that heat over a period of decades. Climate scientists have found that it takes a mean of about forty years for atmospheric heat to transfer to the ocean.

This means that anything we do now in limiting fossil fuel use will not have any effect whatsoever on the climate over the next forty years. In fact, it might make things worse over a shorter time period because particulate matter and aerosols from the same burning of fossil fuels and from other chemical pollution has been slightly mitigating the heating from the greenhouse gases. If we stop burning fossil fuels, even more heat will make it into the lower atmosphere and ocean. We are already seeing the effect in increased temperatures of banning chlorofluorocarbons that happened in the 1990s.

"Sulfate" refers to aerosols like chlorofluorocarbons that were banned in many countries in the 1990s

On top of all that, we are not simply dealing with a direct linear effect of man-made gases causing heat to be trapped. The heating process the Earth is going through has started many feedback systems releasing more gases and absorbing more heat. Open ocean is darker than ice and does not reflect heat but absorbs it. Thawing permafrost releases vast amounts of methane which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Warming in the abyssal depths of the oceans is also beginning to release frozen methane that has been stored in a stable condition for millions of years. We have started a chain reaction and no one knows where that chain leads because the Earth has never been warmed this quickly before. Ever.

All of what we are learning is creating a pretty bleak picture for the future. What can we do to help the situation? (To Be Continued)

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