Thursday, January 19, 2006

It's not rocket science

The bad thing about global warming is that the window of opportunity to avoid it is now shut. It's happening, and all we can do anymore is prepare for it, try to limit or ameliorate its effects (we still have time to do that) and adapt to the new reality.

The good thing is that at least it is easy to explain to those who have questions. The effects are already obviously at a glance, and unlike many scientific theories, global warming is working in a way that requires little explanation and which ordinary people even without a scientific background can understand.

The main areas where the predictions made by models in the seventies, which are now being borne out, have to do with 1) rising sea levels, 2) more and bigger hurricanes, and 3) shifting weather patterns. In the southwest, where I live, the models have predicted a drier climate.

Here is why all those things are occurring.

1. Rising sea levels. This is due to the melting of the polar ice caps (see the picture). In fact, while the pictures are dramatic, the reduction in Arctic sea ice, and the breaking apart of Antarctic ice shelves, are by themselves a relatively small contributor to rising sea levels (mainly because Arctic ice is relatively thin, and it is already on an ocean.) The major contribution comes from the melting of polar icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica. For example, with the breakup of the Larsen B and beginning breakup of the Ross ice shelf which act as barriers to ice sheet collapse, the West Antarctic ice sheet (which contains 11% of that continent's ice) is beginning to collapse (a process that in itself will take centuries, but even the effects on a yearly basis are significant). The EPA estimates that sea levels could rise 2-7 feet in the next century. This could completely submerge a number of island nations like Tonga and the Maldives, literally wiping them off the map (for example, the highest point in the Maldives is 3 feet above sea level) while causing major flooding in coastal areas of continents.

2. More and bigger hurricanes. After the disastrous 2004 Atlantic hurricane season (almost seems like ancient history now, but in 2004, Charlie, Frances Ivan and Jeanne turned Florida into a living hell all summer), global warming apologists were quick to say that we are headed into a natural cycle that corresponds to more hurricanes. Fair enough. But in 2005, we saw three of the seven most powerful Atlantic storms on record (including the most powerful, Wilma, which at its most powerful measured 882 mb of central pressure), set (and in fact shattered) the records for most named storms, most hurricanes, most major hurricanes (cat 3 or larger) and most storms hitting land. This was a freakishly powerful season, and there is nothing 'natural' about it. If we are in a 'naturally' more active hurricane cycle, that could be a part of why we saw so many, but there is obviously something more superimposed on top of that. And, here is why global warming causes more large hurricanes. Surface temperatures of water in the tropics are key. The warmer the water, the more energy a hurricane can draw from it. And, it turns out that water temperatures are now higher than they ever have been (for example, water temperatures in the northern Gulf of Mexico approach 90 degrees on the hottest days of the summer. And you need look no farther than the Guiness book of world records from just about a deacade ago to read about how the Persian Gulf (then at 85 degree surface temperature) had the warmest seawater in the world. So, sea surface temperatures have increased. Ergo, stronger hurricanes.

3. Drought in the southwest and other unusual weather. In fact there is nothing unusual about it. Storms travel in a storm track, following the jet stream. The jet stream forms (in fact is driven by) the boundary between warm tropical air and cold polar air. With relatively more warm air and less cold air (global warming again) that boundary moves north. So do the storms. So the southwestern U.S. (including Arizona, where I live), which used to get our fair share of jet stream borne storms, is now generally out of the loop. Most of our snow is going to Utah and Colorado (while conversely the northwest is getting wetter especially in winter, as the jet now is more likely to dump more snow than usual in Washington and the northern Rockies.

None of this requires a degree in climatology to understand. Just explain it simply, and people get it.


Anonymous said...

No Eli- I beg to differ. This is all the work of the creator that is smiting humanity.
When the rapture comes, I won't care about your 'explanation".

:) Great post Eli. I tried to do a 'user friendly' peak oil post full of links and graphs a few weeks back, but-sadly, nobody cared.

Eli Blake said...

Lily, I must have missed it.

Sorry. I will get over to your blog more often.

As for the Creator, all I have to say about that (and I am a religious person), is that I believe that He made us stewards over this planet, and what we are stewards over, we must account for. And considering what we were blessed with, my guess is that our account is 'in the red,' right now.

Anonymous said...

Two points:

1. Are you trying to "blame" global warming on human activity? Or are you just stating the facts about it's occurrence? Because there is no evidence that we are causing the planet to warm now. Just like we did not cause the planet to warm following any of the "Ice Ages".

2. There is lots of evidence that our air and water are cleaner now that in the late 70's.

Sara said...

Do you mind if I post this entry in my blog? I love it because it is so true! And (coming from an environmental sciences major) yes, global warming is largely (though not 100%) attributable to human activity. CO2 emissions increased dramatically within the last 150 years. Most CO2 emissions are anthropogenic.

Eli Blake said...


First, from a scientific standpoint, people predicted that due to greenhouse gases, which humans were emitting (there is no natural source such as animals that suddenly started emitting more CO2 than they had been), would trap heat and raise surface temperatures. Call that a hypothesis. The proof is that what they predicted decades ago, is now here. Scientifically, if you want to offer a competing reason for why there is more CO2 in the atmosphere and why the earth is heating up, then you have to say what it is (where else might CO2 suddenly be coming from) and then show that it is. Our side, though not by choice-- remember we wanted to repair this years ago but you stopped us-- has in fact shown our hypothesis to be supported now by facts.

If you want to do so, then go ahead. Science loves honest research. But if not, then you become like I.D. proponents-- people who have a hypothesis and want it accepted as a valid theory without doing the science to back it up.

Eli Blake said...


Of course you can use it. Deep Thought is an 'open source' blog and anyone can use anything here.

Eli Blake said...

Oh, and also eddie,

In some ways our air is cleaner. For example, we have cleaner burning technology now, so that you don't produce as much soot (particulates) and carbon monoxide anymore. That is good in that those pollutants caused by incomplete burning of fossil fuels are more immediately harmful to humans. Soot accumulates in your lungs and causes diseases like asthma and emphysema, and carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin in your blood preventing you from getting enough oxygen no matter how much is around.

In contrast, you could be in a room with elevated levels of carbon dioxide (caused by complete burning of organic material) and as long as you also had enough oxygen to breathe the CO2 wouldn't affect you.

In that sense, we have cleaned up the air, since we now create CO2 from the more complete burning of fossil fuels.

However, the problem with CO2 is that it has a chemical property that it is transparent in the visible light range but opaque to frequencies of radiation in the infrared range (hence trapping heat). Glass has the same property, so that is why your automobile heats up on a sunny day-- visible light comes in, is absorbed by the interior of the car, is radiated back as heat, and the glass won't let most of it out. The best example of greenhouse effect due to CO2 is the planet Venus. It is closer to the sun than the earth is, so if it had the same atmosphere as we have, it would likely be significantly warmer, say like our tropics around the poles, hotter than that (about 150-200 degrees) near the equator. However, it actually has a surface temperature of 900 degrees, making it even much hotter than Mercury, the closest planet to the sun ever gets. The reason is that it has a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere, which traps a great deal of heat in.

So you are correct that we have made the air 'cleaner' in terms of traditional types of pollution, but in doing this, we have, if anything, actually increased CO2 emissions.

The solution is to look at ways to get away from burning fossil fuels altogether, and lacking that, to look at ways to reduce the amount we burn (such as more fuel efficient vehicles, mass transit and electric vehicles).

Anonymous said...

Eli and Sara, you are absolutely correct that we humans are surely contributing, and not just here in America, but also by the increases in pollution in other parts of the world where countries are becoming more industrialized.

Come on over to my house and I'll scrape off the spew -- from the fossil fuel burning power plants, steel plants, auto plants and some of that residue from the chemical plants -- from my patio and let you inhale, Eddie81. Even the Vatican has declared I-D is not *real* science. You really ought to read up some more. On the real world. Your progeny may even thank you for it.