Global warming is in the news and national conversation these days. Some are fervent believers that it's virtually "The End," and should be the number one priority of the UN and the US. To them it's "Global Warming Warning." Others are climate change and warming deniers and feel we can ignore it altogether as a left-wing plot.
Advances in technology allow us to know a great deal of history about our planet. A million years ago, the Earth's temperature was much warmer, five to seven degrees Fahrenheit or about 3.5 degrees Celsius. Back then, before mankind existed, we are told that there was no ice at either pole! The seas were 50-80 feet higher than today ... some data project they were as much as 260 feet higher. Then, for reasons still not understood, a long cooling period ensued. Several hundred thousand years ago, a severe glacial period existed, with extensive ice build-ups on Greenland to the north as well as Antarctica at the south pole. Greenland, with an area three times the size of Texas, held an ice sheet of 650,000 square miles, and up to 10,000 feet thick in places. In Antarctica, the ice fields were even more vast, covering 5.4 million square miles.
Yet another long warming trend occurred and by 130,000-115,000 years ago, the planet was in what is called the "Eemian Interglacial Period," which resulted in temperatures "only" about one degree Celsius higher than today, however ice melt from both Greenland and Antarctica raised the sea levels by 20-30 feet higher than today.
The sea levels are quite variable, even though they seem "fixed" to us in our blink-of-an-eye perspective. During the most recent Ice Age, which ended some 12,000 years ago, and well within the existence of modern man, glaciers existed down into what is now the USA's Midwestern states. Sea levels at the time were lower due to fresh water being tied up in the ice, and land bridges existed between Asia and North America as well as in Europe between the present UK and the mainland. These land bridges allowed early humans to migrate into the Americas and Britain. The sea rose 400 feet from those levels following that ice age, and has been relatively steady since.
Let's turn to the present. Even though the sea levels seem relatively constant, they are changing, and ice is melting in Greenland and Antarctica. Today, the sea levels are increasing by 3.3 mm a year, or about a tenth of an inch. Of course if that continues, this "minuscule" amount becomes nearly a foot over a century. That would be felt in many ways. The recent two years are but a blip in time, but they are the two warmest years since mankind has been keeping records. 2014 had been the hottest year on record until 2015, which superseded it. In fact, September 2015 was the hottest month on record. Glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at a very fast rate.
The reasons for that are not completely understood. The main driving force is felt by many to be carbon dioxide, which forms a sort of "heat blanket" in the atmosphere keeping the sun's heat trapped and unable to escape into space. Carbon dioxide is produced by decaying organic matter, most of which is natural as trees decompose and other organic matter rots. This production, or emission of CO2, has been equalized by the absorption into the sea, and by the photosynthesis process of plants as they convert sunlight into organic matter. The two mega-effects have been in balance for long periods of time. In addition, mankind now is producing copious amounts of CO2 as well, and although the man-made amount is quite low in comparison with the natural effects, it's important because the new "industrial" CO2 skews the historical balance and the impact seems to be increasing. This article:
explains that the recent increases in CO2 (starting around 1900) are due to man-made emissions, primarily because they tip the delicate generation/absorption balance that has been in place for many years. As in any debate these days, people can find a report that supports their position, but this article rings true to me. The CO2 levels rose from 300 parts per million (ppm), where they had been for a thousand years or more, to 380 ppm in 2008, and are projected to increase wildly to well over 500 ppm by 2100. By that year, according to many computer models, a sea-level increase of 1.5-3 feet is likely. A few are even more dire, and show 20-30 feet. Some of those assume that a large chuck of ice literally breaks off of the Antarctic land shelf and "plops" into the sea; in that case, a precipitous rise, a catastrophe.
Back to the present, there are plenty of things happening now that ought to worry even the most strident of the deniers. Warming sea waters are ravaging the coral reefs in general and the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's NE Coast. This one-thousand four-hundred mile coral miracle now is imperiled and large portions are dying. In addition, fresh-water lakes are stressed. Two hundred and thirty-five lakes are monitored and these are averaging six-tenths of a degree Celsius (one degree Fahrenheit) warmer temperatures over the last decade. This results in algae blooms, less oxygen (the algae feeds on oxygen) and fish-kills. The water supply of Toledo, Ohio, Lake Erie, was contaminated this way in 2014.
The changing weather patterns affect humans in other ways. In Syria, four years of almost no rain resulted in lost wheat crops from 2007-2011, resulting in significant human migration from rural areas to Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. The civil war currently underway no doubt has some of its origins in those stresses. In general, studies of agriculture indicate that the current warming trend could result in a hundred million people falling into "extreme poverty" within 20-50 years. Traditionally, this results in mass emigration and resulting civil resentment and stress in receiving areas. This also calls into question the mass hysteria about "GMO" foods, when genetically modified foods can result in drought-resistant grains and pest-resistant crops that could alleviate this problem to some extent.
Let me go back to glacial melts for a moment. Just to drop a shocker into the article, if all of the ice sheets on Greenland and Antartica were to melt completely, the sea levels would increase by 200 feet! In addition, it should be noted that 75% of the world's fresh water is stored in this ice, or it was in 1900. Sea levels increase due to three main reasons:
- Water expands with temperature. So the bulk volume of sea water increases as it warms.
- Mountain ice and glaciers melt.
- Ice Sheets in Greenland and Antactica are melting and "calving" ice-bergs.
There are two massive marine glaciers in Antarctica: Pine Island, and Thwaites. These are melting and disintegrating slowly by calving off huge chunks as ice-bergs as the ice slides toward the open water. The existential future of hundreds of major cities on Earth depends on this process, and whether if will be tens or hundreds of years before the cities are nearly uninhabitable. (Think about the immigration problems if that occurs.) However if the rise in sea levels continues at or about the present rate, we will see the following (in this order):
- Water in basements, street gutters, and subways.
- Streets will flood in storms
- The top two will occur more and more
- Brine will infiltrate drinking water supplies and sewage plants
- Electrical generating plants will go offline with shorts and complications
- No flood insurance will be available
- Home values will plummet in major areas
- Seaside homes and businesses will be abandoned
- Large-scale evacuations will be imperative
Can you say "mass migration" again? Think of the social disruptions. The following major coastal cities are in the bulls-eye, at least in part:
- New York City
- Hong Kong
- Most of the Netherlands
- New Orleans
In addition to major cities, some of the most painful effects will be on places that don't get the headlines, and in which long-standing small populations live. These include native villages in Greenland, the Pacific country of Kiribati, and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. In the latter two island republics, much of the dry land area is five to eight feet about sea level. The entire countries are threatened.
Given the nature of both human suffering on a personal level as well as the threat of mass migration and competition for scarce resources, the threat of conflict is real. We have only to look at migration patterns from Mexico and Central America into the US, as well as the current Middle East wars and the hysteria to get out of that horror into Europe or Turkey or Jordan and it's easy to pick out the effects politically. Already, populists are campaigning to secure borders and build barriers and walls; to ban certain religious and cultural immigrant groups; and it's a short leap to the worst side of humanity. In fact, I'd think that more people would be considering the down-side to global warming and it would inspire more science and more constructive discussion on how do we, humanity, take preventive measures that are intelligent. The dark side is threatening and scary. To be a "climate change denier" seems dangerously "head-in-the-sand-ish" to me.
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