CO2: The Slow Fuse of Abrupt Climate Change
In a way, I am not surprised by the divisiveness of the global warming issue. Proponents of the concept of human-accelerated climate change, such as myself, have a hard time understanding how deniers can ignore the consequences of society spewing billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the fragile envelope of atmosphere that clings to the planet. Certainly the earth's climate has varied over eons of time from ice ages to planet-wide tropical conditions. Where a mile-thick sheet of ice once covered the planet, in another epoch, lush rain forests once grew.
But these were naturally-occurring variations, the precise causes of which are still uncertain, but since man wasn't around at the time, we can't lay the blame on coal-burning power plants and gas-guzzling SUVs.
What we do know from ice core samples is that the concentration of carbon dioxide, one of the key by-products of fossil fuel combustion, is higher now than it's been in the last 400,000 years, which is how far back the samples go. What we also know is that the concentration suddenly began to spike as the industrial revolution got underway. Prior to that, mankind lived mainly off of the Earth's annual solar budget,relying on biomass for fuel and food.
In my layman's view, it is a matter of simple logic to link the relatively sudden exhumation hundreds of billions of barrels of oil, trillions of tons of coal and unimaginable cubic miles of methane (natural gas) with global-scale climatic changes, not to mention the local impact of those fuels on the environment from mercury poisoning to acid rain to air pollution.
So, when Nature reported the results of the Climate Prediction Project, I took a personal interest in the story because I was one of the 90,000 volunteers who downloaded the screen saver program. While my home computer sat idle during the work day, the Climate Prediction Project program was using its CPU; I recall it working on projections for the early 1800's. Other computers in 140 countries were running similar calculations for other years.
What the project learned was that global warming could be much worse that earlier computer models forecast, perhaps as much as an 11 degrees Celsius rise over the entire planet. That's hot folks! And the window of opportunity for dealing with the problem is very rapidly closing; we have, perhaps, just ten years before we reach the tipping point.
Okay, so the Arctic warms up and few polar bears go extinct. What's the big deal? Think of all the new seaside resorts that someday flourish along the rim of the Arctic Ocean. Remote parts of Canada and Siberia will open up to development, especially with all the shale oil and natural gas found there in abundance. And hey, didn't dinosaurs once roam the 'Great White North'?
Sure they did, but they didn't have to compete with 10 billion human beings and they too lived off of the Earth's solar income. Besides, they had hundreds of millions of years to adapt, though it wasn't without hardship and mass die-offs, as recent theory now suggests.
The ugly truth is, we don't know what will be the exact consequences to the climate and the planet once the tipping point is reached. Locked up in the millions of square miles of gradually thawing Arctic tundra is an estimated 700,000 trillion cubic feet of frozen methane, a greenhouse gas with 20 times the heat absorbing properties of carbon dioxide. CO2 is the slow fuse to the methane hydrate powder keg.
The real question is, how long will we continue to watch the fuse burn before we decide to pinch it off before the magazine explodes?
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