Global Warming For Real?
of climatologists' worst nightmares about global warming is that it might
possibly have begun to feed on itself, leading to runaway global warming. The
searing hell that is Venus is mute testimony to what a runaway greenhouse effect
can be like.
I know about climatology could fit on the back of an envelope, with room left
over for a long grocery list, but armed with my trusty pocket calculation and
unbearable chutzpah, watch, as I rush in where angels fear to tread.
The Total Weight of the Earth's Atmosphere Is About 5 Quadrillion Tonnes
The Earth has a radius of about 4,000 miles or about 6,400
kilometers, giving it a 4pr2 total surface area of approximately 500
million square kilometers. The pressure at the Earth's surface is about 14.7
pounds per square inch or about one kilogram per square centimeter. This is the
weight of the column of air that lies over each square inch/centimeter on the
Earth's surface-- roughly 10 metric tons (tonnes) per square meter, or 10
million tonnes (metric tons) per square kilometer. Multiplying this by 500
million square kilometers yields 5 quadrillion tonnes for the total weight of
the Earth's atmosphere.
The Total Weight of the Earth's Atmospheric Carbon Is About 750 Billion Tonnes
2005 atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 380 parts per million by
volume, or about 550 parts per million by weight. Multiplying 0.55 X 10-3
by 5 quadrillion tonnes leads to 2.75 trillion tonnes for the total weight of
the carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere.... and this happens to be the
number officially quoted for the weight of the Earth's atmospheric carbon
dioxide. Since the carbon in carbon dioxide weighs 3/11ths much as the carbon
dioxide, the total current weight of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere is roughly
750 billion metric tons, corresponding to the above-mentioned 380
parts-per-million (ppm) concentration.
The Increase in Atmospheric Carbon Over the Past 250 Years Has Been About 264 Billion Tonnes
estimated that about 264 billion metric tons of carbon has been added to
the Earth's atmosphere since 1751 (http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob.htm).
Three-Fourths of the Carbon Added to the Earth's Atmosphere Since 1751 is Still There
pre-industrial-age concentration of CO2 was about 280 ppm (through
1750), corresponding to a total atmospheric carbon level of about 550 gigatonnes
of atmospheric carbon. In other words, since 1751, about 264 gigatonnes of
carbon has been added to the atmosphere, and it's raised the atmospheric carbon
inventory by 200 gigatonnes... about ¾ths of the carbon added over the past 250
years is still in the air, and about ¼ has been removed.
Outgassing of Methane from the World's Frozen Tundras
climatological survey of the frozen wastes of western Siberia over the last few
years has revealed that they have warmed about 5º Fahrenheit since 1965 (http://www.newscientist.com/channel/earth/mg18725124.500).
They are thawing, and are now dotted with thousands of summer lakes. These lakes
are outgassing methane, which is about 20 times as effective in promoting global
warming as is carbon dioxide. Similar outgassing may be found in eastern
Siberia, where methane is bubbling up out of the ground summer and winter....
outgassing sufficiently rapidly that it's keeping the ground from freezing. A
similar situation exists in Alaska, and presumably, across northern Canada. The
total amount of methane that's locked up in permafrost in western Siberia is
estimated at 70 billion tonnes (one metric ton = 2,200 lbs.), with a worldwide
total of about 280 billion tonnes of methane stored in frozen soil. Since
methane is 20 times as effective as carbon dioxide in trapping heat, that 280
billion tonnes would be equivalent to about 5.6 trillion tonnes of carbon
dioxide, or a little over twice as much as the atmosphere's current store.
there a silver lining to this dark cloud? If these peat bogs dry out, then their
methane will oxidize in situ and will be released in the form of carbon
dioxide. Only if they remain wet will they deliver their methane to the
isn't the only massive source of planetary methane. Some studies suggest that
there might be 10 trillion tonnes (http://www.sciencenews.org/pages/sn_arch/11_9_96/bob1.htm)
of methane trapped in seafloor ice clathrates (equivalent in heat-trapping
effects to 2,000 trillion tonnes of CO2), or nearly 750 times the CO2
presently found in the atmosphere. Professor James P. Kennett has suggested that
slight warming of ocean waters may have triggered clathrate releases that may
have further exacerbated global warming several times over the last 70,000
years. Obviously, if this is so, it didn't lead to runaway global warming,
though it may have contributed to mass extinctions in the past.
This morning while writing this article, I came upon a just-published news
release, "Past gives clue to climate impact" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4582872.stm),
on the BBC website reporting the results of a just-completed study of the mass
extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic Age. This
reason why temperatures shot up during the Pleistocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum
(55,000,000 years ago, when the dinosaurs died out) are unclear; but carbon
dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere appear to have been extremely high,
about a thousand times higher than currently. The suspicion is that some kind of
feedback mechanism may have been involved. One theory is that an initial warming
changed the distribution of heat in the oceans so that deposits of gas hydrates
on the sea floor were released, with carbon dioxide and methane rising to the
surface and entering the atmosphere, causing further greenhouse warming.".
55,000,000 years ago, clathrates were released from their undersea storage bins,
raising the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to something like
38%. Happily, this didn't cause runaway global warming, and mammals survived to
repopulate the Earth.
Is the Temperature of the Earth's Atmosphere Actually Rising?
of the major arguments against global warming was negated in August, 2005.
Radiosonde measurements of atmospheric temperatures made during the 1970's had
shown temperatures that were as high as those measured today. Then, last
August, two independent reviews found that weather balloons in the 1970's
employed temperature gauges mounted on the outside of the balloons where
sunlight could warm them, giving rise to spurious temperature readings that were
a degree or two higher on sunny days. Once this was corrected, though, the
rise in atmospheric temperature matched those of land and water.
Are CO2 Levels Actually Rising?
this there can be no doubt. Recently reported analyses of Antarctic ice cores
have revealed that present-day CO2 levels are much higher than at any
other time during at least the past 600,000 years, in keeping with measurements
made using ice cores from other locations.
evidence of global warming are the melting of glaciers and snow caps around the
world, together with the melting of polar ice caps. The snows will be gone from
Kilimanjaro within twenty years. Spring is arriving earlier and fall is showing
up later in most parts of the world. Also, the animal kingdom is responding with
migrations toward the poles.
Skeptics and Scoffers
is probably a Gaussian distribution of opinions about any given topic. This was
certainly the case with the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, and
the relationship between diet and coronary artery disease. Personality factors
enter into peoples' opinions, and often steer their arguments and opinions
of the arguments is that global warming is a natural phenomenon that just
happens to coincide with our wholesale burning of fossil, with a warming profile
that just happens to match the rate of rise of global carbon dioxide and global
scenario has been that global warming is attributable to volcanic effluences,
arguing that human activities couldn't affect the global environment on such a
perceptible scale. But human activities have caused acid rain, threats to
wildlife, and the partial destruction of the ozone layer. Volcanic emission of
CO2 is blamed for a few percent of the CO2 released each
year, but there's been no long-term increase in volcanism over the past two
centuries, nor have there been changes that would match the observed profile of
third notion is that the Sun's output has increased over the past century, or
that the Earth has been exiting an interstellar dust cloud over the past
Occam's Razor and Pascal's Wager
some point, we have to withdraw to the most probable interpretation rather than
honor equally all possible interpretations. We also have to inquire after the
risk/reward ratios of different responses.
If climatologists are correct about the thesis that the burning of fossil fuels drives global warming, we'll be well-advised to speed up our transition to renewable power sources... solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels... or to nuclear power. In other words, we'll be encouraged to do what we need to do anyway, only sooner. It really comes down to cost. (I've read a forecast that by 2010, solar-electric power will be cost-competitive in many markets with grid-derived power.)
we assume that the burning of fossil fuels isn't causing global warming when it
is, then humanity and most of the animal kingdom may be wiped out. I can't
think of a single good reason to burn up all our fossil fuel so that a few
ultra-rich people and corporations can get richer (even though I own stock in
some of those corporations) when we have, or can rapidly develop and install,
renewable energy equipment. And the cost of assuming it isn't happening if it
is, is horrific.
factor in this equation is petro-politics. The next source of U. S. oil is apt
to be Africa, with all the political vulnerabilities that this implies.
of President Bush' first official acts in the spring of 2001 was to cut the
federal solar energy budget in half almost halfway through the fiscal year!
As anyone who has dealt with the federal government is aware, part of an
agency's budget has already been spent by February. The effect on the federal
solar energy program must have been devastating. (I didn't know then that our
President, our Vice-President, and our current Secretary of State were
oil-company executives before they took office.)
Bush has argued that it's too costly to U. S.-based corporations (in the richest
country on Earth) to embrace alternative energy solutions. I should think that
the alternative is costlier ("Lead, follow, or get out of the way"),
and a number of U. S.-based corporations are trying to compete as global
purveyors of alternative power equipment. General Electric, Evergreen Solar, and
Daystar Technologies are among the U. S.-based companies that are marketing
state-of-the-art alternative-energy equipment. The alternative is to be left
waiting at the switch as the world stampedes toward alternate energy purchases.
Other Warming Influences
alarming? It gets worse. Ice and snow have a high albedo (are highly
reflective). As ice and snow are replaced with bare soil or open water, more of
the sun's heat may be absorbed, thereby increasing the rate of global warming.
are strong indications that the Gulf Stream is beginning to shut down (declining
30% in the past 12 years), making cold regions colder and hot regions hotter (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/story/0,3605,1654803,00.html?gusrc=rss).
A complete shutdown would lead to a 4º C to 6º C (7º F to 11º F) decline in
UK temperatures within 20 years. This, in turn, would greatly increase the
incidence of snow and ice in Europe.
Compensating Effects That Might Brake Global Warming
only agency that keeps the Earth's atmosphere from reverting to carbon dioxide
like Mars and Venus is the fact that we have plant life that is very effective
at converting carbon dioxide back into oxygen. The argument has been made that
higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will stimulate plants
to remove carbon dioxide faster, and to produce more oxygen. But that applies
only if plant fecundity is limited by the amount of atmospheric CO2.
Plants also need water, fertile soil, and sunlight. (The presence or absence of
wind might be as important in altering local carbon dioxide levels as the
concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.)
might be argued that global warming will increase the Earth's cloud cover,
thereby increasing the Earth's albedo, but an increase in cloud cover would also
lead to a reduction in photosynthesis.
sectors that have sagged are Financials and Housing, because of rising interest
rates, and energy for the past few weeks because of falling oil prices.
However, if interest rates stabilize early next year, these sectors might
take off again as post-hurricane rebuilding occurs. Also, long-term, industrial
materials and energy are expected to rebound as China and India continue to
Can We Do About This?
we can boost solar energy research into organic photovoltaic materials to try to
boost their efficiencies and lifetimes. We can also explore cheaper ways of
constructing existing solar cells and their ancillary equipment and mountings.
U. S. industry can outsource solar cell production to Asia to avail themselves
(if they haven't already done so) of lower labor costs, as well as
encouraging their own installations of alternative power generation systems.
we can fund research into battery improvements. There is the prospect of upping
lithium ion battery performance from its current 50 watt-hours per pound to the
point (100- to 150-watt-hours per pound) where it might become a serious
contender for transportation, as well as storing energy generated by solar power
and wind power generators. Chromium-based batteries (affording 200- to
300-watt-hours per pound), if they can ever be realized in a cost-effective
manner, would have the potential to replace internal combustion engines.
the government could purchase and install alternative energy equipment on
government buildings, thereby boosting production levels and lowering costs of
alternative energy generation subsystems.
the government could tighten fuel economy standards for automotive
the government could emphasize energy conservation. We could probably meet the
energy savings goals set forth in the Kyoto Treaty virtually immediately by
simply replacing our incandescent lamps with fluorescents, adding insulation to
our houses, and replacing our appliances with more energy-efficient models.
last president to lead us toward energy independence was Jimmy Carter... a
nuclear engineer with a 170 IQ. Restoring the kinds of energy-independence tax
incentives that his administration provided would be, I should think, a step in
the right direction.
current 2006 choke point for solar power expansion lies in the world's
industrial capacity to produce polycrystalline silicon.
Aren't We Hearing More About This in the Media?
would suggest two possibilities: either I'm wrong about the dire significance of
the out gassing of the Siberian and Alaskan peat bogs, or the
meteorological doyens who must endorse these claims aren't yet ready to stake
their reputations on presenting such a doomsday scenario to the public. I
certainly wouldn't fault them for being cautious about such a claim. (I
have every confidence that by the time any doomsday news reaches the general
public, those companies that will benefit from global warming will already have
that favorable news factored into their stock prices. The smart money will
already have been placed.)