Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Whatever is in store for us, we have to be prepared to survive it

Author's Note: The book cover images in the side margins of this blog are my own publications of eBooks available at both Amazon and B&N. Please take a moment and go to the sites and read about them. Then if you like it, buy one or two.
Let's put Global climate Change in its proper perspective. What ever the causes, whatever the magnitude, we humans need to figure out how we will live in the New Equilibrium.

Humans are only one of the direct causes of atmospheric greenhouse gas buildup. We are also the indirect cause of a lot more than by the mere burning of fossil fuels. In some of the cases listed below, one event creates another and the other feeds back and increases the cause.

We used to learn that there was a "food chain". This was a linear progression from plankton in the sea and ended with humans triumphantly standing at the top. Each animal ate a smaller one and up the chain to us. But then we realized that it wasn't a line but a web, a network of predators and prey. One predator was keeping another predator in check by eating the food the other predator wanted to eat. We kill off the one predator so we can have the salmon or the cod but the other predator takes over and eats even more of the fish we want. This is to say: nothing happens in isolation.

This description won't make sense at first but keep reading. A figure skater starts a slow spin to impress the audience. He or she suddenly accelerates to a very rapid spin, then slows down again and stops with a flourish and wave of the arms held high. We are impressed. It is physics that allowed the skater to accomplish that very rapid spin. The skater starts with arms outstretched and he/she accelerates when the arms are quickly pulled in close. The spinning mass out far has the same energy as the mass close in, so the speed must be faster to compensate. The opposite applies for slowing down again.

This applies to the Earth as well. When the atmosphere gets warmer it expands and the rotation of the Earth slows down a tiny amount. When the water that is at the poles as ice melts it flows to the equator and the Earth gets wider in the middle. This slows the rotation a tiny bit too. This may only be a few microseconds but over time it adds up to longer days.

Now for a list:
  • Heat doesn't ever really go away. It radiates off the planet into space otherwise the sun's heat would melt it. Nuclear reactors liberate a lot of heat into the air. Burning coal, oil and gas also directly heat the air as well as add greenhouse gases.
  • One degree of temperature rise from 60 to 61 or 90 to 91 is a small change. On the other hand a rise from 31 to 32 causes glaciers and snow pack to melt.
  • Tundra and permafrost lands are peat bogs with a lot of dead vegetation that is inactive because they are frozen. When they thaw out, they become biologically active and produce copious amounts of methane. Methane buildup traps more solar heat and further thaws the permafrost areas releasing more methane.
  • There are dozens of deep ocean volcanoes and fissures that are off-gassing carbon dioxide into the water. The depths are so deep that we do not see and bubbles. The gas is there nonetheless. It gets into the atmosphere too.
  • Methane that seeps into deep cold ocean water "freezes" into a solid form called hydrate. Methane hydrate keeps billions of tons of methane out of the air where it would trap solar heat.
  • Hydrates are unstable and can erupt when sufficiently shaken. A deep water earthquake, even a small one, or a volcano can cause the eruption of the methane from the hydrate.
  • People breed livestock in great numbers. Cows, pigs and chickens being the most prevalent are also manure creators and have copious amounts of methane flatulence. We eat the livestock and create our own manure and produce out own methane flatulence. Seven billion people produce those gases, too.
  • People and livestock all breathe. Their respiration includes higher levels of carbon dioxide on the exhale than on the inhale.
  • The sun shines on a field of grain. The grain grows and removes CO2 from the air. Livestock and people eat the grain and we eat the livestock. The carbon is returned to the environment. A lot of the carbon is held in the humans' bodies for many decades. Incidentally, obese people sequester more carbon in their lifetimes than do thin people.
  • Cows are fed grains, pass gas and respire for about 2 years before slaughter. Pigs do it for 4 months to 1 year. And chickens live 30 days to 6 months. While they contribute to GHG loadings they also cycle carbon into the food web and into our bodies where it stays the longest.
  • A field of grain growing takes carbon out of the air during its growing period. If you just burned it, it would immediately return all the carbon to the air. If you eat it some of the carbon will still immediately return to the air while the remaining carbon that stays in our bodies will return when each of us dies.
  • If you grow a field of corn it takes carbon out of the air during the growing cycle. If you distill it into ethanol and burn it in your automobile engine, all that carbon is returned to the air in the same year for a net zero carbon gain. This is the same no matter how efficient or inefficient the distillation process is.
  • If you cut down a twenty year old tree and let it rot on its own or you burn it in your furnace, the same amount of carbon is released as was removed during the twenty year growth of the tree. So on a carbon cycle, 20 year, it is a net zero.
  • Growing grass in your yard removes carbon from the air, but when you mow it, the clipping rot and release the carbon right back into the air for a Net Zero 14 day cycle.
  • Deciduous trees remove carbon from the air during the spring and summer only to release all of it in the fall and winter minus the amount turned into wood. Nearly Carbon Zero – 1 year, definitely carbon zero when the tree dies.
  • Making trees into paper cycles carbon very fast. Making trees into lumber for houses keeps a lot of the carbon out of the air until the house burns down..
There are so many cycles that carbon makes as it is moved around for both the benefit and the detriment of people and the other species on the Earth. Some of these cycles are insignificant while others are disastrously potent. It is up to wise thinkers and planners, and not the people and businesses which prosper by not doing what is right, to make sure we are following a sustainable path.

Four messages to keep in mind:
  1. That which we relied upon to bring us through the last century will not see us through the next.
  2. "Men go and men come. But the Earth abides" ~ Ecclesiastes.
  3. The Earth doesn't care how high or how low sea level is… We do.
  4. Whatever is in store for us, we have to be prepared to survive it.

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