May 29, 2013
BY SOLVEIG TORVIK
It blew right by you, didn’t it? The biggest news of the month, I mean. Arguably the biggest news in millions of years.
But you surely can’t be held responsible for missing it. It was gone from the news cycle in the blink of an eye. Really, it was no contest, what with the riveting disclosure that President Obama had the audacity to ask his U.S. Marine guard to hold an umbrella over him and Turkey’s visiting Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan during a rain-soaked press conference.
Still, on May 10 came startling though briefly noted news confirming that heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere has reached a level that hasn’t existed in 3 million years – before humans came on the scene. Just as those nagging scientists long have foretold.
The recent readings of more than 400 parts per million CO2 came from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory, where rising CO2 levels have been tracked for nearly 50 years. The Hawaii measurement matched levels first recorded in the Arctic in 2012.
There’s general agreement by the polluting nations that 450 ppm is the maximum level of CO2 damage the Earth as we know it can withstand. Yet there’s precious little by way of discernible preventive action by these most guilty of parties in this tiresome, disheartening saga. China et al continue to spew CO2 while President Obama shilly-shallies on fossil fuels and other miscreants such as Norway’s rapacious latter-day Vikings relentlessly sink their drill bits into every curved corner of the globe. Oil rules.
The time is soon coming, scientists warn, when no measurement of ambient air anywhere on Earth in any season will register below 400 ppm. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” said Dr. Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the dreaded 450 ppm.
The unpleasant news about CO2 buildup followed hard on the heels of the sobering March announcement by Oregon State University researchers in the journal Science that annual average global temperatures are higher than they’ve been in 4,000 years.
Wobbles in the Earth’s orbit increased the amount of sunlight reaching the planet about 12,000 years ago, causing the ice sheets to melt, according to the researchers, who reconstructed temperature shifts over the last 11,300 years using evidence from sensitive ocean creatures and other environmental indicators.
By 8,000 years ago, a stabilized warmer climate was allowing human civilizations to develop. If natural forces still controlled the amount of sunlight reaching Earth, eventually we’d be wobbling back to another ice age, scientists say. But the huge send-up of greenhouse gases produced by 200 years of industrialization will prevent that, according to climate experts.
So what’s wrong with that? Who needs another ice age, for pity’s sake? Hello?
It’s the speed of increase in CO2 buildup that should stand your hair on end. It’s unprecedented, say climate scientists. “We and other living things can adapt to slower changes,” said Michael E. Mann, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s the unprecedented speed with which we’re changing the climate that’s so worrisome.”
We are conducting a huge, uncontrolled experiment on the systems that regulate life on Earth. For instance: Arctic seas have absorbed half of the CO2 emissions we’ve spewed out since the Industrial Age began, and they’re 30 percent more acidic than 200 years ago.
But now, rapidly melting ice sheets are pumping ever more fresh water into Arctic seas, making them less able to neutralize the acid attack. By 2100, those seas will be at least 50 percent more acidic, Arctic scientists say. And then what? They don’t know yet. But they do know this:
“We have already passed critical thresholds. Even if emissions stop now, acidification will last tens of thousands of years. It is a big experiment,” says Richard Bellerby, who chaired the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme’s recent Arctic waters study.
So, people, here’s where we are: Our nibbling at the edges of this problem over the last 30 years hasn’t worked. It’s glaringly obvious that there’s an utter absence of appetite for major, meaningful reductions in production of heat-trapping gases by those who can make it happen.
What’s urgently needed, apparently, is to admit defeat and shift our focus to adaptive strategies for sustaining human life on a fossil fuel-fed planet that’s radically, and rapidly, changing.
Unless unforeseen events intrude on our population growth trajectory, when the sand really hits the fan around 2050, nine billion humans – equivalent to two more Chinas – will be demanding water and food.
The Environmental Protection Agency has looked into what all this means for the Pacific Northwest. Over the last century, our average annual temperature already has risen by 1.5 degrees F and as much as 4 degrees in some places. By the end of this century, it will be 3 to 10 degrees F warmer hereabouts.
We’ll have more rain, less snow, the EPA reports. The Cascade snowpack will be diminished by 40 percent by the 2040s and will melt 20 to 40 days sooner. This means more drought, less irrigation water and stress on hydropower supplies from our dams, which supply 70 percent of our electricity. Expect more insect attacks in apple orchards and forests. More forest fires. And happily, some higher crop yields – if temperature extremes don’t kill them. Salmon will lose one-third of their habitat by 2100. And so on.
All manner of species will move northward in our direction; dozens of ocean fish stocks worldwide already have moved to cooler waters. These creatures, at least, have a response strategy to cope with our onrushing global train wreck.
But not us, the apex instigator species, lords of the planet.