Year 4, Month 6, Day 12: Abplanalp!

The Salem News (MA) offers some clarity from Brian Watson:

The dangers that we face are hotter, more unstable, and sometimes violent weather and climate patterns. These changes are likely to have adverse effects on agriculture, plant and animal habitats, rainfall distribution and coral reefs. Perhaps the most threatening possibility is a significant rise in sea level.

While none of this is a dead certainty, climate scientists since 1970 or so have increasingly firmed up the hypothesis that adding carbon dioxide and methane (released from melting permafrost and natural gas drilling) to the atmosphere is causing, and will continue to cause, measurable, damaging and unnatural heating of our climates. And despite the fact that the earth has endured warm periods at various points in the past, this is the first time that man’s activities are responsible for the overheating. And this is the first time in history that literally millions of homes and buildings and croplands — in oceanside cities and fields around the world — would be inundated permanently if sea levels rose significantly.

Many people have a hard time believing that human activities could modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere enough to result in the melting of the ice sheets in the Arctic and on Greenland. But at a smaller scale, we’ve already had a demonstration of man’s inordinate power to affect the lower atmosphere.

In 1985 researchers in Antarctica discovered a hole in the ozone layer. This “layer,” most concentrated at roughly 15 miles above the planet’s surface, is a band of molecules each consisting of three atoms of oxygen. Ozone is a very reactive gas, and is formed naturally by the action of ultraviolet radiation (from the sun) on molecules of oxygen. Ozone is also broken down naturally by absorbing ultraviolet radiation that has a longer wavelength than the radiation that initially formed it.

The ozone layer is very important to us. It serves as a protective shield to partially screen us and other organisms from certain harmful wavelengths of solar radiation.

The discovery of the hole surprised and alarmed us. Quickly, scientists realized that the man-made chemicals — called chlorofluorocarbons — in refrigerants and spray-can propellants were wafting up to the stratosphere and reacting with the ozone. The result was a depletion of ozone.

Fortunately, by 1992, governments and corporations agreed to phase out CFCs, and today their use and presence is steadily diminishing. But it was a timely lesson in the “fragility” and sometimes finely tuned balances of the atmosphere, and the ease with which man could inadvertently alter atmospheric conditions. And it is worth remembering that the amount of chlorofluorocarbon in the sky was only 1 part per billion — an incredibly tiny proportion, and a proportion far less than the current amount of CO2 in the air.

Taking everything — including uncertainties — into account, there is a preponderance of evidence to conclude that man is accelerating global warming and altering the climate in dangerous ways. It is time for us — globally — to move much more aggressively toward economies and energy systems that are respectful of nature’s limits and balances.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? On a strictly finite planet, with a thin atmosphere whose healthy cycling is tied closely to ecological equilibriums and processes on the earth, how could we imagine that — globally — infinite consumption, steady removal of vegetation, increasing use of resources, and expanding emissions of pollution could be sustained forever?

True dat. May 29:

1992’s concerted global response to the ozone hole involved rapid phasing-out of CFCs, which critics at the time decried as an oppressive restriction on business. Instead, as the past several decades have shown, business has done just fine using alternative propellants, and the ozone layer has gradually recovered. This is a good reminder for the self-styled conservatives who loudly assert that responsible environmental and energy policies will harm the economy.

But a more important reminder must be repeated again and again. The extraordinary edifice of human civilization was made possible by the stable climate which allowed agriculture to develop, our population to grow, and our culture to flourish. Destroying this essentially benign environment disrupts the food system which brings us our daily bread. Without food, people die; our culture withers. The corporatists and politicians who shriek that addressing the climate crisis will impact quarterly profit margins forget this simple fact.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 8: But The Fossil Fuel Companies Are Always Right In The Beginning!

More on ozone layer destruction, this time from the Christian Science Monitor:

Global warming could open new holes in Earth’s ozone layer at latitudes that until now have seemed immune to the ozone destruction that recurs over Antarctica and the Arctic, a new study warns.

The underappreciated keys to this conundrum: water vapor and temperatures in the lower stratosphere, where the ozone layer appears. Both, the researchers say, reach summertime values over the continental US known to encourage ozone-destroying chemicals that are already aloft to attack ozone.

The team makes no attempt to project when significant erosion might be expected to occur. And researchers have yet to make the measurements that would confirm that the reactions the study describes are occurring. Rather, it points to conditions that are appearing and are known to stimulate stratospheric ozone destruction.

The hippies were right then, and they’re right now. Sent July 28:

Any American over a certain age remembers the discovery some decades ago that flourocarbon emissions were destroying the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. At the time, outraged columnists claimed that changing our spray-can habits was an assault on our traditional values; those who sensibly pointed out the benefits of a life without skin cancer were mocked and derided. Eventually, we changed our spray-can habits (without harming traditional values), and since then, fortunately, that scary hole in the stratosphere has been shrinking.

While we already knew that greenhouse emissions are triggering runaway climate change, the news that water vapor from severe thunderstorms poses a renewed threat to the ozone layer is unpleasantly nostalgic. Transforming our entire culture’s energy economy won’t be easy; it’ll be much harder to give up fossil fuels than it was to shift away from CFCs, but there’s no longer any time to waste. Let’s get started.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 7: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

Two separate stories in the New York Times make for an exceptionally frightening synergy. Read ’em and weep:

Weather Extremes Leave Parts of U.S. Grid Buckling:

WASHINGTON — From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

Excessive warmth and dryness are threatening other parts of the grid as well. In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.

Strong Storms Threaten Ozone Layer Over U.S.:

Strong summer thunderstorms that pump water high into the upper atmosphere pose a threat to the protective ozone layer over the United States, researchers said on Thursday, drawing one of the first links between climate change and ozone loss over populated areas.

In a study published online by the journal Science, Harvard University scientists reported that some storms send water vapor miles into the stratosphere — which is normally drier than a desert — and showed how such events could rapidly set off ozone-destroying reactions with chemicals that remain in the atmosphere from CFCs, refrigerant gases that are now banned.

The risk of ozone damage, scientists said, could increase if global warming leads to more such storms.

I tried to get some Joni Mitchell quotes into the letter itself, but couldn’t make it work. Sent July 27:

Whether it’s a power blackout, a buckled roadbed, a broken water main or a breached levee, infrastructure’s only noticeable at the failure point. As climate change gets faster and more severe, we’re going to discover just how much we’ve taken for granted over the past hundred years of civilizational growth. If America is to prosper in the centuries to come, we’ll need to retool and rebuild for far more stressful conditions.

But there’s another, grander infrastructure that cannot be addressed with a public works bill. The newly established connection between climate change and ozone loss is vivid evidence that many of the environmental mechanisms which have made our species’ efflorescence possible are endangered by the greenhouse effect and its epiphenomena. Genuine sustainability must recognize that such natural systems — oxygen-producing phytoplankton, the processes of photosynthesis, or upper-atmosphere protection against UV rays — are even more essential than sewers and roadways.

Warren Senders