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Friday, August 29, 2008

WHAT HARM IS GLOBAL WARMING? (Part 5)

The following is largely excerpted from Chapter 5 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth.

Seven environmental groups (Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund) prepared a map on global warming, showing early warning signs (climatehotmap.org), and among the highlights:

o Adelie penguin populations have declined 25% because the Atlantic ice where they live is shrinking.

o In the Andes, mosquitoes that can carry dengue and yellow fever, once limited to altitudes no higher than 3,300 feet (1000 meters) have now appeared at altitudes of 7,200 feet (2,195 m).

o In England, 31% of 65 bird species studied in 1995 laid their eggs 8.8 days earlier than in 1971.

o The length of time Mirror Lake (New Hampshire) is covered with ice has declined about half a day per year during the past 30 years.

o Indicating a rising ocean, in Bermuda, saltwater inundation from the intruding ocean is killing coastal mangrove forests.

o In India, the Ganagotri Glacier is retreating 98 feet (30 M) per year.

o The Qori Kalis glacier in the Andes Mountains is receding about 100 feet (30.5 m) per year, a sevenfold increase in rate now compared to the 60s and 70s.

o In Barrow, Alaska, the average number of snowless days in summer has increased from fewer than 80 in the 1950s to more than 100 in the 1990s.

More, bird populations in the North Sea collapsed in 2004 after the sand eels on which they fed left the area. Already, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society has warned that the rising level of acidity in the world’s oceans from increased GHGs is threatening irreversible damage to the marine environment. Marine scientists are surveying a food-chain collapse along the Pacific Coast as an effect of this warming. For example, as a result of unusually weak winds in 2005, near shore waters are 5 to 7 degrees higher along the Oregon coast, resulting in a 75% drop in phytoplankton production, thus working up the food chain, juvenile salmon is down by 20-30% and rockfish catches have faded away.

Then in 2006, Science featured an article blaming global warming as dooming amphibians to extinction. Species have disappeared across the entire taxonomic group in nearly all parts of the world.

Lakes from Mendota (Wisconsin) to Baikal (Russia), compared to a century and a half ago, are freezing later and thawing earlier, nearly forty total days for the former and 23 days for the latter. Frost days in Switzerland dropped from the high seventies a century ago to less than half that number today. The flycatcher bird from Africa to the Netherlands arrives on time, but the caterpillar they feed to nestlings now goes through a peak two weeks earlier, and this mismatch causes survival problems. The polar bear and monarch butterfly are more and more getting out of sync with the environment. These are typical examples of the inability of species to adapt.

Siberia is thawing for the first time since its formation 11,000 years ago. The situation is an “ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climate warming,” said Sergei Kirpotin of Tomsk State University, Russia.

Then, there is the matter of sea level rise. Certain islands appear to be in serious jeopardy. During the past century, the increase has been between 15-20 centimeters (6 to 8 inches), with perhaps half from melting glaciers and the other half from thermal expansion of the ocean. What about the Arctic? Well, there is no underlying continent. What freezes in the wintertime melts back into the ocean. Alaska? Put it under “all other,” which is very small. But places like the Arctic are heating up at twice the global average, so, as we shall see later, there should be concern about another gas called methane.

More seriously, recent reports indicate that ice is more and more melting, and the Antarctic coast is 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) warmer than 60 years ago. What is the worst case scenario? If all the glaciers melt, Antarctica will add 68 meters (223 feet), Greenland 7.4 meters (24 feet) and all other glaciers 0.5 meters (1.6 feet), or a total of about 92.5 meters (250 feet), but this will take a very long, long time. THIS IS WORTH REPEATING: SEA LEVEL RISE CAUSED BY ALL THE MELTING OF ICE WILL BE ABOUT 250 FEET. To this needs to be added thermal expansion rise. Under these 70 meter hike conditions, maps produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show Florida completely disappearing and most of the Eastern Seaboard under water. This same map is a good indicator of what would happen if a 70 meter (230 feet) tsunami struck the East Coast (see the next chapter on mega-tsunamis).

How long will it take for the seas to rise? A Science paper in 2007 speculated on a sea-level rise in 2100 of 0.5 to 1.4 meters (1.64 to 4.59 feet) from the 1990 level. So, the reality is not catastrophic in your lifetime, unless you happen to live on a Pacific atoll. Why such a range? There are huge uncertainties yet to be better understood.

There are also now reports that the increasing carbon dioxide is lowering the pH level of the seas. While the drop has only been 0.1 of a pH unit since 1800, the expectation is another 0.3 reduction by 2100. What then will happen is that more coral reefs will die out and plankton growth will be affected. In any case, the ocean is getting more and more acidic.

There is then the fear that the melting of Greenland and Arctic ice could shut down the Gulf Stream, or the Atlantic thermohaline circulation. Ironically, were this to occur, and the odds are now pegged at 50:50 in this century, areas such as the UK would actually get colder and the Thames would freeze during winter.

Both William Gray and Max Mayfield, icons in hurricane prediction and observation, have said that there is no link between global warming and hurricanes. However, Environmental Science and Technology reports on two studies in Science and Nature which have found hurricanes growing fiercer. Peter Webster and Judith Curry believe that there is an unambiguous connection between warmer ocean surface temperatures and increase in hurricane intensity. Curry, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, was asked why Gray and Mayfield feel the way they do, and her response was, “these are hurricane scientists who don’t know a lot about global climate warming.” Kerry Emmanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has reported that over the past 30 years hurricanes have become more powerful, where both wind speed and duration have increased by 50%. The blame was squarely placed on global warming. These storms trigger twisters and floods, so the effect multiplies.

Hawaii is in the path of hurricanes. I have not experienced one yet in my life, but during the writing of this section, Daniel was approaching our state as a Category 5 hurricane. Thankfully, it dissipated, but further east, Typhoon Saomai slammed into China in August of 2006 as the strongest storm in 50 years. It was only a Category 4 typhoon (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are the same, and the name depends on where they impact, with the southern hemisphere ones circulating clockwise and northern, counter-clockwise, caused by the rotation of the plane—sort of like how your bathtub water drains), but 1.6 million were evacuated, 50,000 homes were wrecked, and nearly 500 were killed. What was particularly ominous about the 2006 season was that two hurricanes FORMED just south of Hawaii, but thankfully, drifted West, and one of them, Ioke, became a Category 5 hurricane, and the strongest to ever be recorded in the Central Pacific. Maybe time to move to Kansas or the Equator, because—something called the Coriolis force being too weak to induce air to rotate around low pressure cells—hurricanes don’t start nor go there. Delete Kansas. They have twisters there that should also gain in ferocity.

Then, in June of 2007, Cyclone Gonu hit Oman and Iran. This was the strongest storm since record-keeping began in 1945. Even though oil fields were spared, the price of petroleum jumped past $71/barrel. Any excuse works for oil, but, the point is that something is happening to our weather.

Moving on to a different stage of reality, the Pentagon commissioned a “secret” study on the potential global impacts of an abrupt and severe change in the world’s climate, with worst-case scenarios. From all reports, it was completed in 2003, but was surreptitiously made public in early 2004. “The Sky is Falling! Say Hollywood and, Yes, the Pentagon,” blared the New York Times on February 20, 2004. The report said:

o Slow warming of the planet would melt ice and disrupt the ocean currents, and occurred 11,500 and 8,200 years ago.

o Abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies.

o European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a “Siberian” climate by 2020.

The British newspaper, The Observer, was bit more specific, and proclaimed: “The Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us. Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war.” Hey, it was only a $100,000 grant, which does not provide much these days, and was intentionally extreme to force military strategists to “imagine the unthinkable,” said Peter Schwartz, one of the consultants. Schwarz wrote The Long Boom, which painted a rosy picture of the world’s future economy, was a CIA consultant and head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Bob Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was quoted to say, “There are two groups the Bush Administration tends to listen to, the oil lobby and the Pentagon,” alluding to the difficulty that the President will have that “climate change is a threat to national security and the economy.”

But, of course, there are the detractors. So as not to be totally negative about all this, there are several positive effects:

o Ecosystem production could improve. Satellite data shows that the productivity of the Northern Hemisphere has increased since 1982.

o Plants need carbon dioxide. Our atmosphere is nowhere near the upper limit for flora growth.

o Melting ice should open up the Northwest Passage in summer: In fact, the North Pole has been reported to be a mile-wide patch of ocean in the summer.

There are more, but, the negatives dominate.
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Tropical Storm Gustav is still scheduled to slam into New Orleans late on Labor Day. While at this moment only at 65 MPH, after passing over Jamaica, the cyclonic pattern is strengthening, and Gustav is expected to rapidly increase to a Category that could well be frightening, hitting Cuba in about a day and a half, slightly weakening, then re-gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico for landfall in three days. In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Hanna, at 50 MPH, appears to be zigzagging and could well veer south of Florida.
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With all the consternation about Gustav, crude oil dropped today to $115.60/barrel, something to with the industry better prepared for such storms and a prognostication by Nordea Bank of Sweden that prices should drop below $100/barrel next year. The DJI dropped 171 to 11,544.
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