Boomer Bytes #35: Climate Change Reality

Published Friday, September 12, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.


Climate Change Reality

By Steve Canipe

Sept. 12, 2014. Passionate individuals on both sides of the climate change issue rail loud and long supporting their particular points of view. One side keeps bringing up and using the term “global warming,” but this is a red herring to divert attention from what the other side of the debate is saying. After last winter here in Boone, with all the cold temperatures we experienced, the question becomes “What warming?”

Using a term that is inaccurate but grabbing is a problem for people, media outlets, and politicians alike. The better term to use to describe the phenomenon what has grabbed attention would be “climate change.” But change in climate is something that is hard to easily perceive on a human time scale.

Canipe

Canipe

One central point seems to be that both sides are caught up in the same time conundrum of confusing weather with climate. The weather is and always has been highly variable in particular locations. Climate is a long-term effect and changes in it might not be known for decades or maybe even centuries.

Another issue for Americans is that we seem to be pretty egocentric and only focus on things which affect us directly – in other words only things happening in the United States broadly and in our particular locale specifically. Part of this may be due to the way we don’t get international news or we get the filtered versions from Fox, CNN, CBS, etc. How many people look at BBC or Al Jazeera for example? I’m not talking just about the interpretation of the news but the issues about weather. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish – in Australia in 2013 there were major wildfires burning large swaths of the land. The stories were somewhat reported on American television, but do you remember them much? If you are like most folks, you probably don’t remember them at all – you may have even tuned them out because this is so far away. See the main story here.

Unfortunately what happens far away in other parts of the world do have impacts here. Some of the most broad-based occurred after volcanoes erupted and spewed lots of ash and other particulates in the air. In 1816, less than two hundred years ago, we had what was termed a “year without summer.” Wikipedia reports that multiple causes were probably to blame. The article there says “…historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years….”

Dust originating in the Gobi Desert in China and from the Sahara Desert in Africa can travel to the US on wind currents. InfoPlease website described this phenomenon. This transference has always gone on and is not unusual but if changes are happening in one spot on the Earth, we could all be affected by them. Just because we are fairly isolated in the United States is no reason to feel complacent.

Some of the observed effects of weather are that there have been recent wide swings from the historical norms. These include the recent “polar vortex” from the winter of 2013-14. That winter was widely considered to be one of the coldest in a long while. So where was the “warming” that some folks are claiming? Operating with human memories and on human time scales it is hard to remember what happened more than 20 years ago – even for us Boomers who have now been around, in some cases, nearly 7 decades!!

Weather and climatic data have been collected for a number of years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) headquartered in Asheville, NC. The NOAA website has lots of temperature and precipitation data available. In Boone, NC we are lucky to have our own local weather service called RaysWeather.com. Ray’s weather provides not only forecasts (typically more accurate that the Weather Channel or AccuWeather) but also historical weather data are there. It is a great local resource including access to a number of webcams for instantaneous weather views. Looking at these data and looking at trends show weather but not climate changes.

So back to the reality question, are we causing climatic changes – there seems to be little doubt that changes are happening around the globe. The real question is whether humans are having any deleterious effects to enhance perhaps changes already underway because of other causes. Herein lies the question. We do know we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere because of our combustion of fossil fuels. Is this making big differences in the total amount in the atmosphere? Some folks would say yes and others would vehemently disagree. Perhaps a middle ground would be to try to decrease our impact (regardless of the size) by limiting the amount of the carbon dioxide gas we create. On the website Skeptical Science the following information “Although our output of 29 gigatons of CO2 is tiny compared to the 750 gigatons moving through the carbon cycle each year, it adds up because the land and ocean cannot absorb all of the extra CO2. About 40% of this additional CO2 is absorbed. The rest remains in the atmosphere, and as a consequence, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years (Tripati 2009). (A natural change of 100 ppm normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years. The recent increase of 100 ppm has taken just 120 years).” Suffice it to say that the science behind this cycle phenomenon is not easily understood because of the many and varied inputs to the models. This is the same reason that weather reports for more than a day out are often totally unreliable, at least in certain areas. We just don’t know and the sad thing is that we don’t know totally what we don’t know!!

It is not just that our amount of added CO2 is small; it is possible upsetting a delicate natural cycle that has taken millions of years to get into some sort of equilibrium. Scientists talk about “tipping points” where changes proceed so far that they cannot be stopped. This term has been used to describe the polar ice melt, the destruction of the ozone layer especially over the southern oceans, and other environmental conditions. The prime question: are we at or past tipping point?

Americans in particular and humans in general seem to have the “technology will solve the problem” attitude. Always in the past, this has been so…and maybe it will happen in the future. We are an inventive species. There are some innovative ideas being explored to reduce the heat on the earth – some from sequestering the CO2 to putting huge sunshields to reflect the sun’s light from the Earth. From Malthus predicting we would starve and the intervention of the agricultural revolution producing more food, we have been successful in staving off predicted disaster. Will this one be different or will this be the one where technological solutions do not work for us? Maybe the majority of scientists are wrong and we are not going to have the huge climatic shifts they are envisioning – does it make sense to bet on them being wrong? Some folks are good gamblers and others like a more sure bet.

Let me hear from you concerning your experiences with climate change issues. What do you think that scientific data has such a bad rap? Send your thoughts, either via email at [email protected] or post them at the end of the column. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

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