A History Lesson

I apologize for my lack of posts this week--I have been insanely busy with other projects. I wanted to jump in and give you a brief but informative history lesson on global warming. Enjoy!

The warming effect of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was first recognized in 1827 by the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Fourier, best known for his contributions to mathematics. He also pointed out the similarity between what happens in the atmosphere and in the glass of a greenhouse, which led to the name "greenhouse effect". The next step was taken by a British scientist, John Tyndall, who around 1860, measured the absorption of infrared radiation by carbon dioxide and water vapor; he also suggested that a cause of the ice ages might be a decrease in the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. It was a Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, in 1896, who calculated the effect of an increasing concentration of greenhouse gases; he estimated that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide would increase the global average temperature by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius, an estimate not too far from our present understanding. Nearly fifty years later, around 1940, G.S. Callendar, working in England, was the first to calculate the warming due to the increasing carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

The first expression of concern about the climate change which might be brought about by increasing greenhouse gases was in 1957, when Roger Revelie and Hans Suess of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California published a paper which pointed out that in the build- up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, human beings are carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment in the same year, routine measurements of carbon dioxide were started from the observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels since then, together with the growing interest in the environment, has led to the topic of global warming moving up the political agenda through the 1980's, and eventually to the Climate Convention signed in 1992.




Anonymous said...

I hope you don't take this amiss, I don't mean to offend. I am an unconventional environmentalist. I am not yet convinced global warming is real. I am also not convince it is not.

I have noticed that instead of global warming, traditional environmentalists are now referring to climate change more and more. The problem with this, is there has never, ever been a period of time in the history of the world when climate has been static and non-changing. Climate is cycles in cycles.

The reason I am skeptical, is due to the fact that they system of the oceans is not yet fully understood. It is a complicated combination of sources and sinks of carbon dioxide (and many other chemicals to be truthful) and the interaction of all of these are not yet fully understood.

We are starting to learn that ocean CO2 concentration is driven by temperature, not the other way around as Al Gore indicated in his documentary. As ocean water gets colder it traps CO2 more tightly, holding higher and higher concentrations of CO2. As it warms up, the water does not hold the CO2 as strongly and it begins to work its way out of the ocean.

Also CO2 is not the only green house gas. Water and methane are both much stronger green house gases. We are not freaking out about them because there is really no way to control them.

There are ways to change CO2 sequestered in the ocean. Phytoplankton absorbs CO2 and through photo synthesis converts it to sugar and O2. Most of the phytoplankton is eaten and subsequently some of the CO2 is rereleased into the ocean. But a fraction of it becomes trapped in the skeletons of diatoms that rain down on the ocean everywhere. This is the original source of all limestone on the planet.

We are learning that phytoplankton require iron to live. Most of the oceans of the world are iron poor. Regions of phytoplankton blooms occur where ever there is a new source of iron into the ocean, from an iron rich river, from sand storms, from volcanic activity. Anywhere iron enters the oceans, phytoplankton populations explode, which occasionally leads to red tides.

The reason this is important is that scientists have discovered that 1 atom of iron added to the ocean can cause 106,000 atoms of carbon to be bound, at least temporarily. The research has been going on for well over a decade and some are ready to begin widespread use of this technology to see if we can begin reversing the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Traditional environmentalists STRONGLY oppose this. Why? Some of their reasons are valid, but I believe the core reason is a huge number of climatologists are employed under the auspices of the CO2 threat to our environment. Such a simple solution to this problem would effectively put them out of work. Perhaps widespread use of iron fertilizers to remove hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere is not warranted yet, but it is surely worth further study.

Also, there are some controls on worldwide climate and temperature that are forever out of our control. Volcanic eruptions can cause massive global cooling. A single large eruption is enough to affect weather world wide for more than a year. Also, the amount of sun light hitting the earth is not constant. Throughout the suns 11 year sun spot cycle sun radiation increases and decreases. Even the sun spot cycle isn't a perfect rhythm, it has variations. The mini ice age a few hundred years ago is attributable to a period of low sun spot activity that lasted for hundreds of years. Even the precession of the Earth's orbit around the sun causes small changes to the amount of solar radiation we absorb.

I am not saying we should not try to be better custodians of the planet. We can and should do more. But when people like Al Gore say we are approaching an irreversible tipping point in world wide climate, I have to say something. Nothing is ever irreversible. Climate changes all the time. We will never stop climate change, nor should we.

I do believe we should begin to wean our selves off of fossil fuels. This is because they are running out, and continuing to use them is funding people around the world who hate us. We need a much better energy infrastructure that isn't tied to fossil fuels. In the extreme short term (20 to 30 years) fission based nuclear power is probably where we should move. In the longer term we may be able to make better use of photovoltaic solar power. It will probably be at least 40 years before we know if fusion based nuclear power is viable.

But as far as global warming is concerned, we are engaged in a great experiment right now to determine if it is real or not. According to some published reports, in the next 100 years, Greenland's trapped ice will melt, as will the the arctic and antarctic ice. The total amount of water added to the oceans if this happens will cause sea levels worldwide to rise 220 feet or so. This means that in about 20 years, the coast line of Florida will be not far from my home in East Orange County.

From an uncle that likes to explore complex issues in detail, but doesn't want to anger you if we disagree on issues :)