Problem Logic 5: Global Warming Drives Climate Change
The warmer the planet becomes, the more climate change we experience. And with changes to climate come severe weather events, in rising scale and frequency, and a daunting rise in humanitarian catastrophe. The evidence of climate change is already accumulating, and what we have seen so far is just the beginning. Let’s take a sampling of news items that reflect the reality of early stage climate change.
In 2006, Washington Post reporter Doug Struck interviewed Inuit villagers in Pangnirtung, a town on Canada’s Baffin Island, only 330 air miles from Greenland. Recent mid-winter changes at Pangnirtung were astounding. In past winters, they had typically shivered through twenty below zero conditions. By 2006 those February’s temperatures had climbed into the 40s. The ice collapsed beneath the huts of ice fishermen.
In 2007 Struck was sent north again, to visit Daneborg, an ice patrol station on Greenland’s northeast coast. Every year, as winter approaches, ice closes off the harbor. When spring comes, the ice melts and the harbor reopens. Soren Rysgard, a researcher for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources summarized the new reality. “A decade ago, the water was open for 80 days. Now it stays ice-free for 140 days.”[i]
Researcher Don Voigt studies the Jakobshavn Glacier. “Greenland’s ice cap contains 800 trillion gallons of water and its several outlet glaciers act like faucets by which huge rivers of ice flow from the ice cap. These faucets are running faster.” Meltwater from the top of the glacier runs vertically downward through networks of cracks till it reaches the bottom, where it lubricates the underside of the glacier and accelerates the speed with which it flows to the sea.[ii]
In northern France, the Alsatian grape harvest has been affected by rising temperatures. In 1978 the harvest started on October 16 but in 2007, the harvest began almost two months earlier, on August 24.[iii]
ABC reports that the tiny mountain pika that lives in Colorado’s high alpine regions is headed for extinction as high altitude climate zones are getting too warm for the tiny critters.[iv] Cold winters in Colorado used to kill each season’s pine beetle hatch; now the pine beetle survives the winter. Vast stands of Colorado’s lodgepole pine are now dead.[v]
Those who study glaciers on a global basis report that total glacial ice has declined by more than 2200 cubic miles since 1960. From 1960 to 1991, the glacial shrinkage averaged 30 cubic miles per year. Since 1991, the rate has accelerated dramatically, to 85 cubic miles lost each year.[vi]
The ice sheet that covers the Arctic Ocean fluctuates seasonally, thanks to the fact that sea water will freeze once its temperature falls to 24 degrees F. (Freezing forces out the salt. Frozen sea water is salf-free.) In the winter months, therefore, almost all the Arctic Ocean is covered by ice. What startles many is the shrinkage of Arctic Ocean ice in the summer months. One notable graph produced by Cal Tech scientists quantifies the shrinkage by using multi-year ice coverage as its metric. Permanent ice is multi-year ice; single-year ice isn’t permanent. In 2002, multi-year ice covered more than 4 million square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean. In 2008, multi-year ice covered little more than 2 million square kilometers.[vii]
Scientists monitoring trends in Greenland and West Antarctica report changes in the ocean currents that flow past these critical ice sheets. Reporter Ben Wallace-Wells describes the import of these new discoveries: “The unexpected thing about the oceans is that their movements are as regular and fixed as subway lines. The physics of the atmosphere conspire to sort water into giant bands called currents — each hundreds of feet deep and thousands of miles long — which share the same temperature and salinity. Like subway lines, ocean currents may pass over or under one another, but the water inside one seldom mixes with another.” Currents flowing past Greenland that had been a constant 34.7 degrees were now 37.9 degrees. “When a buoy in Greenland detects that the water passing by is slightly saltier and slightly warmer than it has been for decades, it doesn't just mean that some water has sloshed around in the bay. It means that something more fundamental has changed: An entire subway line has moved.” According to Wallace-Wells, scientists monitoring ocean currents in the southern hemisphere find similar warming trends off the coast of Antarctica.[viii]
One of the more striking indicators of climate change is the shift in spring snowmelt dates in the western United States. The US Geological Survey has produced a map that uses color-coded circles to reflect the changes. Red circles reflect earlier snowmelt dates, blue circles reflect later snowmelt dates. Almost the entire American west is dotted with red circles, many of them dark red to indicate snowmelt dates now twenty-plus days earlier than their historical average.[ix]
The University of Washington has quantified trends in April 1 snowpack water equivalents, from 1950 to 2002. The April 1 snowpack loss has been extensive, with snowpack losses of 30%, 45%, and even 60% dotting their regional map of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.[x]
This step in the logic chain is different from all the steps that preceded it. Consumption of fossil fuels is proportionate to the stocks of equipment that require fossil fuels. Emissions of carbon dioxide are directly proportional to consumption. The stock of atmospheric carbon dioxide is a roughly linear function of total emissions over time. And the amount of global warming that occurs bears a somewhat predictable relationship to the amount of greenhouse gases humans add to the atmosphere.
These rough rules of linearity and proportionality break down, though, when one tries to correlate climate change with the amount of global warming that’s occurring. Climate change isn’t necessarily linear at all. Small changes in temperature can create major adjustments in climate behavior. Witness the dramatic change in snowpack behavior in the Pacific Northwest. Witness the sudden jump in ocean current temperature adjoining Greenland. Witness the terrible and apparently permanent drought in Australia that has destroyed an entire agricultural region. When we think about climate change, we must keep in mind that climate change is a matter of tipping points reached, thresholds crossed, a matter of hitting critical mass and altering the dynamics of an entire subsystem.
By What Worldview Will We Understand Our Situation?
“We are entitled to our own opinions,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say, “but we are not entitled to our own facts.” If we are to be a competent public, we shall require a descriptive worldview that gets its facts straight. Our technologies drive our dependence on fossil fuels. Our consumption of coal and oil and natural gas emits vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ongoing emissions produce an ongoing increase in the total stock of carbon dioxide. The greater the total stock of carbon dioxide, the greater the interference with the Earth’s natural infrared-based cooling system, and the higher the overall temperature of the planet. The higher the temperature of the planet, the more climate change we will have.
From a fisherman’s perspective, the situation is just as worrisome. The greater the stock of atmospheric CO2, the greater the stock of CO2 that’s taken up by the surface oceans, some as carbonic acid, some as carbon dioxide gas. The greater the stock of carbonic acid in the ocean, the more precarious the health of the ocean for thousands of marine species.
Shall we embrace a worldview that asks us to run away from these realities? Can we really be a people of good character if we do run away? There is far more zest to being an American if we face our realities honestly, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
Steven Howard Johnson, 7.5 Version 2011-06-27
[ii] Doug Struck, Washington Post, “In Arctic Ice, Lessons on Effects of Warming.” June 7, 2007.
[iii] Molly Moore, “In Northern France, Warming Presses Fall Grape Harvest Into Summertime.” Washington Post. September 2, 2007.
[iv] ABC News Endangered Creature series. December 2009-January 2010.
[v] My wife witnessed mountainsides of dead lodgepole pine on a winter 2011 business trip to Colorado.
[vi] U.S. Global Change Research Program. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. p 18.
[vii] Jet Propulsion Lab, California Institute of Technology. ftp://ftp.dmi.dk/pub/Users/Leif.Toudal/Till/kwok.pdf. p 3.
[viii] Ben Wallace-Wells. “On Thin Ice: The world’s two great ice sheets are melting faster than anyone believed possible.” Rolling Stone. September 30, 2010.
[ix] U.S. Global Change Research Program. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. p 33.
[x] U.S. Global Change Research Program. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. p 135.