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An Immediate Problem:
Effects of Global Warming and Useful Measures for Survival

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

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The awesome power of water, photography by Elan Sun Star
Photography by Elan Sun Star
 

Some of the problems brought on by global warming are here now, and much greater ones are pending right now. The matter is far more serious — and urgent — than has been let on about in public, even by alarmists. Things we need to be doing right now bear heavily on whether we survive these next few years, individually or as a nation and civilization.

O

Why you haven't heard the main issues:

To function as a scientist, one has to avoid being seen too far outside the limits of professional and public expectation. To be a scientist, one must do science; to do science these heavily capitalized days requires a large and unwavering flow of money and support. For any of our scientists to tell the full story would effectively mean the end of his or her career. Here is an example of what that situation has done to the news you receive:

O

Summary of Greenland ice-melt effects:

The amount of ice still locked up in Greenland's ice cap at this time, if melted, would release enough water to raise ocean levels 23 feet all over the Earth. Yet, what you've heard are predictions of anywhere from three inches to three feet by the end of this century. By when?

The Northern Hemisphere has a geologic history of sudden ice-cap collapses. Greenland's melting has accelerated, and accelerated badly, and could well collapse into the sea within 8-12 years. Greenland's ice cap gone into the sea would raise ocean sea levels 23 feet within that 8-12 years — not by the end of the century but between 2014 and 2018. If this happens, multiply the New Orleans floods of 2005 by some 700 times. A majority of the human race would have to be evacuated.

In the Northern Hemisphere, 15,000 or so years ago the ice cap over the British Isles suddenly collapsed, flooding the Mediterranean Basin.

A little later the ice cap over Scandinavia collapsed, lifting ocean levels another hundred feet or so.

Over central North America, we saw a recurrent situation where the ice cap built up and suddenly collapsed out through what is now the spectacular Columbia Gorge and basin. These were abrupt floods, with little or no warning.

Now it transpires that melting has accelerated in Antarctica as well, not only in Greenland. I don't know what the geological record is in the Southern Hemisphere, especially as regards sudden collapses of ice caps, nor do we know when; but simple measurements tell us that if the ice cap there goes, oceanic sea level will increase by 200 feet.

In the Northern Hemisphere, we have had an impressive geological history of suddenness, not only of warming and ice-cap collapse, but of sudden freezes. The onset of the last Ice Age was so sudden that it caught all those animals across Siberia, including woolly mammoths, so suddenly that they were perfectly preserved all these thousands of years later, even with the food in their stomachs.

I don't know enough to say whether similar suddenness holds in the Southern Hemisphere. So far as I know, geologists thus far can only speculate about the mechanisms which made for such sudden changes in the Northern Hemisphere. But we can see some of it in action with ice caps melting faster and faster, seemingly a runaway cascade.

Even if it were only the Greenland ice cap by 2015 or so, it's not just New York City that would have to move. Three-fourths of our greatest cities are seaside and near sea level; two-thirds of the human race would suddenly have to move (to where other people are now living!), with food supplies badly interrupted, not only the economy disrupted.

From the scale of just these sea-level change effects, you can see why no practicing scientist wants to tell the whole story and lose his job. Three inches in a century! — it would be pitiful or absurd, except that timidification of science has badly misled the public and so further endangered the planet.

O

Storms, droughts, chill and heat where they ought not to be:

You have heard accurately that our planet's increasing warmth is starting to inconvenience the economy and agriculture — not only through the spiraling number of great storms which cost the Gulf Coast so severely in summer 2005, but through a greater incidence of floods and droughts, great wildfires, late frosts, and freezes.

More and more it is becoming the case that people no longer know where, when and how to plant crops or hunt fish. We still have food on the tables and shelves and even some in surplus storage — in what are now the more favored regions of the Earth — but that can change in a year or two. That will change when the changes in climate escalate, as they abruptly will if the Greenland cap goes, unless we take certain steps to anticipate and offset these effects.

When the Greenland cap goes, suddenly the whole basis for global climates will be very different. It will take decades for oceanic currents to settle into their new patterns and, until they do, weather fluctuations will be extreme. At the very time that most of our people and most of our cities abruptly do a New Orleans, our economy will be massively wrecked and our food supply profoundly interrupted. Without key steps taken now, this is not expected to be a very jolly time.

O

There may be still further effects:

One might think this is enough to be concerned about, but Mankind's reckless warming of the planet has pointed us toward new territory for which geology is unable to show us precedents.

What we do know is that even if we stopped adding CO2 and other greenhouse gases to our air today, Earth would continue to warm further over the next century or so.

We also know that in the geologic past, there have been periods when the Earth was as much as eight to ten degrees warmer than it is now. Life survived and continued through those intervals.

What we do not know is the point in temperature where the oceans are warm enough to start releasing CO2 instead of absorbing it and turning it into carboniferous rock deposits safely removed from the atmosphere.

Some night, look up at the beautiful Evening Star or Morning Star, that high point of brightness we call Venus in the deepest blues of the verges of night. It's not so beautiful closer up, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead, an atmosphere of carbon dioxide laced with sulfuric acid. The words "desert" and even "Hades" are inadequate to describe Earth's twin sister.

Venus is even hotter today than Mercury, which is so much closer to the sun. Scientists today believe Venus once had oceans and a temperate climate similar to ours. Many scientists privately express their concern that the Earth may, once the oceans are warm enough to start releasing their carbon dioxide instead of trapping it, be trapped in a runaway heat-build-up trap that can only end the way our "evil twin," Venus, has.

O

Playing with fire:

If we find a way to rein in today what we are doing to cause our one and only home in the cosmos at present to warm up, we probably will stop the warming trend at or just short of the high point that Earth has reached several times in the geological past. That has been short of the point where the oceans would have started giving back their CO2 to our atmosphere. But each day that we let our present emissions continue carries us inexorably toward, through and beyond that point. We don't know how much margin we have left. Each day that we don't correct our emissions problem, we are playing with fire.

The earlier-cited effects can end a civilization. The later effects — after the economic base for any heroic countermeasures has long since collapsed — if allowed to reach that tipping point, will mean the end of our species and the end of life on Earth altogether.

I would much, much rather be writing about positive matters, which usually I am. There are a lot of them. But this has to be dealt with. The people to whom we've given the responsibility over our lives and our well-being have not dealt with this responsibly — rather the reverse. If there are things which you and I can do to head off or even ameliorate these very serious matters, these should have our immediate attention and deliberation.

I should very much like for all the things I have striven for, that you have striven for, the goals we have worked toward, the good things we have managed to do, the stakes we've been trying to build, not only toward our future lives but toward those of our children — I should like for the mistakes learned by and paid for, the great arts, the great scientific discoveries, the great and uplifting ideas that have lit our past and present like flares released over a midnight forest — I should like for all of that to have meaning, and to not have it end in a spatter of sulphuric acid in a 200-mile-an-hour 800-degree-Fahrenheit wind blowing over a semi-molten barrenness.

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