January 12th EarthTalk

The January 12 EarthTalk article did a good job of painting a broad picture of global warming, but here are some badly needed specifics.

Greenhouse gasses are like a layer of insulation high above the earth. Most of the sun’s radiation, especially high energy forms like visible and UV light, can punch their way through. High energy radiation, if it falls on snow or ice, is  largely reflected back into space, but when it falls on land or water, it warms the surface, which emits low energy, infrared radiation, much of which is blocked from returning to space by greenhouse gases.  And the more greenhouse gasses we add to that thickening layer, the more quickly our planet will warm. Ice caps will melt, and coastal cities will be destroyed.  

There are many greenhouse gases, including water vapor. If we assign a value of 1 to water vapors, CO2 is 5 times as effective as a greenhouse gas, and methane is 20 times more “opaque”.  Already, huge amounts of methane are being released from melting permafrost all across the arctic, and several of the gases generated by coal burning power plants are more than twice as bad as methane. 

 Thanks to ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica that go back 500,000 years, we know that CO2 levels during that period never exceeded 280 parts per million, but they have been rising at an accelerating pace since about 1750 - the start of the Industrial Revolution - and now exceed 390 ppm.  

 The ice cover at the poles is shrinking, and the phytoplankton that are the basis of the oceanic food chain need ice cold water to efficiently reproduce. As a result, oceanic phytoplankton levels have dropped 40% since 1950, and the world fishery is already in decline.

 Because global warming is, at first, most apparent near the poles, we should be alarmed that average temperatures have already risen 5 degrees in Alaska, 10 degrees in the arctic islands, and the Greenland icecap is shrinking 10 times faster than expected. 

70% of our fresh fruits and vegetables get 3/4 of their water from water stored in snowpack in, for example, the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As the climate warms, and winter precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, there will be no snow pack to replenish reservoirs emptied during the summer by cities and farms. Lake Meade is already down 170 feet, the huge Ogallala aquifer that irrigates the Great Plains is being pumped out faster than nature can resupply it, and Lake Superior set a record high temperature in 2010.

Tinkering with what we have been doing will not suffice. We need a change in lifestyle - a change that includes conservation,  a reduction in world population, a drastic expansion of alternative energy sources like the hugely better, cheaper, safer, liquid fluoride thorium reactor, and acceptance of a stable economy rather than one of endless consumption and expansionism that Aldo Leopold deplored as Boosterism. 

As Bill McKibben wrote in The End of Nature, “It’s like we’ve gone on a one-night fling and contracted a horrible disease.” Examine the environmental record and promises of candidates - and remember them when you vote! 

George Erickson, 
Eveleth, MN