Climate Crisis: Coming Trends in CO2

Pollution over Mexico CityGood news everybody! Okay, not exactly good, but it is news, and on a rather important subject. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the Manua Loa observatory in Hawaii had recorded atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide which exceeded 400 parts per million. This represented a major milestone, one which climatological researchers and scientists have feared for some time.

However, they have since amended that statement, saying that the readings were a fraction of a point lower at 399.89 ppm. Not exactly a reason to celebrate, and not that surprising either, since individual readings at any of NOAA’s observation stations are subject to revision on a regular basis. And regardless of whether or not the 400 ppm milestone has been passed, scientists are still adamant that this reading is cause for concern.

keeling_curveAs has been stated repeatedly, when it comes to the buildup of human created greenhouse gases, it is the rate of increase which is most important. That rate, which is measured by the Keeling Curve, shows that atmospheric CO2 levels are rising at unprecedented rates, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries.

Originally pioneered by scientist Charles D. Keeling in 1958 , this curve is the longest-running tally of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and is maintained by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. The saw-tooth pattern of the incline reflects small seasonal variations within the long-term upward trend, which peak annually around the month of May.

Combining this studies conducted on glacial melting patterns, pollination patterns, geological and oceanographic surveys, a long-term picture emerges. For the past 800,000 years, CO2 levels have never exceeded 300 ppm, and there is no known geologic period in which rates increased as sharply as they are now. That level was at about 280 ppm at the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the period when the burning of fossil fuels began to soar.

trafficScripps geochemist Ralph Keeling, who has taken over the Keeling curve measurement from his late father, had this to say about the news:

I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400-ppm level without losing a beat. At this pace we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.

Tim Lueker, an oceanographer and carbon cycle researcher who is a longtime member of the Scripps CO2 Group, also weighed in on the significance of these latest readings:

The 400-ppm threshold is a sobering milestone and should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to support clean-energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases before it’s too late for our children and grandchildren.

What’s especially frightening about a rating of 400 ppm is the fact that planet Earth has not experienced that kind of CO2 concentration for over 3 million years, during the Pliocene Era. At that time, sea levels were between 60 and 80 feet higher than their current levels. If sea levels rise by this much in the coming decades, roughly 1 billion of the Earths inhabitants will be left homeless.

climate_changetideAdd to this the widespread droughts, wildfires and flooding taking place in inland communities, where unpredictable weather will cause rivers to overflow erode river banks and turn millions more into refugees. And as crops fail due to increased heat and depleted topsoil, the ability to feed the world’s population will also begin to plummet.

Of course, these are the most dire predictions and are often used to remind us just how important it is to clean up our act before its too late. Researching and developing cleaner methods is one approach, as is finding ways to capture the carbon emissions we are generating on a daily basis. But in the end, the greatest weapon in our arsenal is and always will be public awareness.

Consider yourselves informed. Now go spread the word!

In the meantime, enjoy this animated “Carbon Tracker” graph that shows us the time history of atmospheric carbon dioxide – courtesy of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.


Source:
articles.latimes.com
, esrl.noaa.gov, keelingcurve.ucsd.edu

Climate Crisis: Rising Tides and Sinking Cities

climate_changetideWith all the population, urban sprawl, and consumption that we as a species are imposing on the planet, there are those who argue that we’ve entered a new geological era – known as the Anthropocene. It’s an age we’ve lived in since the neolithic revolution and the advent of farming, one where the human race is the dominant force shaping our planet. Since the industrial revolution, this era has been accelerating and escalating, and things are not likely to get better anytime soon.

It is because of this that we need to contemplate what the near future will look like. Consider the recent floods in the Canadian Prairies, or last year’s wildfires which raged across the American midwest. Consider the famines and shortages that led to a world food price crisis in 2007-8 which had serious political consequences, especially in the Middle East (i.e. the Arab Spring).

climate_changesandyWhen you add to this the fact that rising tides and the increased risk of storms are already effecting coastal communities in severe ways, you begin to understand just how turbulent the next few decades are likely to be. Already, incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, which rocked the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard in just the past decade, have shown just how extensive the damage can be.

Historically speaking, cities have been built in fertile river valleys and at river mouths to take advantage of fertile conditions, maritime resources and trade. Agricultural run-offs of sediment, water and nutrients created rich coastal deltas that could support greater food production. This and the good maritime and river connections for trade and transport made these ideal places to live.

Population_curve.svgBut as populations grew, rivers were tapped and diverted for irrigation, industry and canal transport. They were also trapped behind dams and reservoirs for energy and water storage, and depleted by droughts and other extractions. Meanwhile groundwater is increasingly being extracted from beneath cities, and sea levels are rising because of the run-off from the melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans.

As a result of these changes, many major cities are slowly sinking into the oceans. Our rapid industrialization over the past century has sped these processes, so that now, many urban centers face inundation by storm surges, and we stand to lose many of the most economically important parts of our planet. The loss of these cities will mean a terrible loss of life, economic fallout, and a massive refugee crisis.

Population_densityCities from Bangkok to New York have already experienced emergency flood conditions, and many more are to follow. Those most at risk include Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans. More than 3 billion people currently live in coastal areas at risk of global warming impacts such as rising sea levels – a number expected to rise to 6 billion by 2025.

And as was recently learned, the carbon levels in the upper atmosphere have surpassed 400 ppm (parts per million). The last time the atmosphere boasted this concentration of greenhouse gases was the Pliocene Era, a time when sea levels were as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than they current are. If sea levels rise to that level again, we can say goodbye to all these major cities, as well as any that sit on major waterways.

climate_changeshanghaiIt’s not just a matter of water rising up to swallow the coastlines, you see. As the flooding in southern Alberta and the Canadian Prairies demonstrated this week, there’s also the threat of flooding due to increased precipitation and of sewage systems backing up from increased storms and rainfall. These threats make shoring up river deltas and waterways effectively useless, since its not simply a matter of blocking the tides and rivers.

In terms of solutions, a number of major cities are investing in new sea walls, dykes and polders, or high-tide gates – like London’s Thames Barrier – to hold back high waters. In poorer places, people simply endure the problem until they are forced to abandon their homes. As the problem gets worse though, coordinated efforts to rescue people caught in flood zones will need to be mounted.

climate_changedykesAnd there are those who speculate that underwriting the damage will be a waste of time, since no government will be able to afford to compensate its citizens for the untold billions in property damage. In reality, many of these place will simply have to be abandoned as they become unlivable, and those forced out resettled to higher ground or protected communities.

At this point in any lecture on the fate of our planet, people are about ready to abandon hope and hang themselves. Hence, I should take this opportunity to point out that plans for dealing with the problem at the root – cutting our carbon footprint – are well underway. In addition to clean energy becoming more and more feasible commercially, there are also some very viable concepts for carbon capture.

These include inventions like artificial trees and ecoengineering, which will no doubt become absolutely essential in coming years. At the same time though, urban planning and architecture are beginning to embrace a number of alternative and clean technology concepts as part of their design. Not only will future buildings be designed to provide for the needs of their residents – food, water, electricity – in sustainable ways, they will also incorporate devices that can trap smog and turn it into biofuels and other useful products.

Of this, I will be saying more in the next post “Thinking, Breathing Cities of the Future”. Stay tuned!

Source: bbc.com

Environment Alert: Atmospheric CO2 Reaches Record High

airpollutionIt’s no secret that humanity, like all terrestrial organisms, has a symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s environment. And whereas the fortunes of entire civilizations and species once depended upon the natural warming and cooling cycle, for the past few centuries, human agency has an increasingly deterministic effect on this cycle. In fact, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, just 250 years ago, human industry increased the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent.

And now, it seems that humanity has reached a rather ignominious and worrisome milestone. Working at the Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric research facility, scientists announced Friday that for the first time in millions of years, the level of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million on average over the course of a full 24-hour day. The last time there were these kinds of CO2 levels was approximately 3 million years ago, and that has many worried.

co2_levelsFor some time now, climatological scientists have warned of the dangers of reaching this limit, mainly because of the ecological effects it would have. The Kyoto Protocol, an attempt during the late-90s to curb fossil fuel emissions on behalf of the industrialized nations of world, specifically set this concentration as a target that was not to be surpassed. However, with nations such as Canada, the US and China expressing criticism or pulling out entirely, it was clear for some time that this target would not be met.

And as mentioned already, the planet has not seen these kind of CO2 levels since the Pliocene Era, a time of warmer temperatures, less polar ice, and sea levels as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than current levels. If conditions of this nature are permitted to return, the human race could be looking at some very serious problems in the near future.

trafficFor starters, much of the world’s population and heavy industry is built along coastlines. With sea levels reaching an additional 60-80 feet, several million people will be displaced over the course of the next few decades. What’s worse, inland areas that have river systems connected to the sea are likely to experience severe flooding, leading to more displacement and property damage.

Those areas that find themselves far from the coast are likely to experience the opposite effects, increased heat and dryness due to increased temperatures and the loss of cloud cover and precipitation. This in turn will result in widespread drought, wildfires, and a downturn in food production. And let’s not forget that rising temperatures also mean the spread of disease and parasites, ones that are typically confined to the tropical areas of the world.

china smog 2013 TV bldgIf any of this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because that is precisely what has been happening for the past few decades, and with increasing frequency. Record hot summers, food shortages in several parts of the world, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, the West Nile Virus, Avian Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, rising sea levels – these are all symptoms of a world where increasing output of Greenhouse Gases mean increasing temperatures and ecological effects.

But of course, before anyone feels like the situation is hopeless, this news does come with a silver lining. For one, the confirmation that we have now reached 400 ppm is likely to spur governments into greater action. Clearly, our current means are not working for us, and cannot be counted on to see us into the future. What’s more, a number of clean energy concerns are well under way, providing us with viable and cost effective alternatives.

solar_array1

The growth in solar energy in just the last few years has been staggering, and carbon capture technology has been growing by leaps and bounds. What’s more, upstarts and clean energy labs no longer need government support, though public pressure has yeilded several positive returns in that area. Even so, crowd-funding is ensuring that growth and innovation that would not be possible a few years ago is now happening, so we can expect the current rate of progress to continue here as well.

And of course, geoengineering remains a viable possibility for buying our planet some time. In addition to clean energy (putting less CO2 in the air), and carbon capture (removing the CO2 there), there are also a number of possibilities for Global Dimming – the opposite of Global Warming – to slow down the process of transformation until we can get our act together. These include evaporating oceanic water to lower sea levels and ensure more cloud cover, triggering algae blooms to metabolize more CO2, and dumping sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the air to combat the warming effect.

But in the end, nothing short of serious and immediate changes will ensure that decades and centuries from now, the ecological balance – upon which all species depend – is maintained. Regardless of whether you think of humanity as the masters or the children of this planet, it’s clear we’ve done a pretty shitty job in both capacities! It’s time for a change, or the greatest natural resource in our corner of the universe, Earth itself, is likely to die out!

Source: fastcoexist.com