Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Barry Commoner "Everything is Connected to Everything Else" Dept.

The favorite cry of the fantasy-artists who continue to deny the existence of global warming - or, more properly, global climate change - is "Where's the science?" Of course, the science is there and has been for a time now, but that doesn't matter to those who would either out of ignorance or selfishness (or, perhaps, simply the lazy desire to not have to change the way they live for the sake of future generations) persist in calling it a "myth." But as the information comes in and the effects start to show themselves, there must come a point at which even they are forced to acknowledge reality. We can only hope that it's not too late despite the pessimists who say it already is.

So herewith, a few dispatches from the battle lines:

- From New Scientist magazine, June 29:
Rice yields are crashing as a result of global warming at twice the rate predicted by climate modellers, according to the first "real world" experiment on the impact of rising temperatures.

The detailed study of crop yields and temperatures took place on long-standing research plots at the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos in the Philippines. The results suggest that global rice yields could potentially fall by a catastrophic 50 per cent during this century.

The study found that on the Los Banos plots, "the 0.7°C increase in the mean daily temperature was associated with a rice yield decrease of 10 per cent – substantially greater than previous estimates", says Kenneth Cassman from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and one of the research team. ...

Cassman says the IRRI research site is unique because it has grown the same rice varieties and used the same growing techniques for many years, while also collecting detailed temperature records. That means sunlight and temperature are the only variables to explain changing yields.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) currently predicts that without drastic action to halt emissions of greenhouse gases, there will be a rise of 3.6°C in average global temperatures in the coming century. The new findings suggest that could reduce yields of rice - the world’s most widely eaten food - by half.
Some Pollyannas insist that global climate change, associated with increase carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, would actually improve yields by making photosynthesis more efficient.
Cassman agrees that "the increased CO2 concentration should partly offset the negative effects of higher night-time temperatures." But he points out that the Los Banos research plots have been subjected to both higher temperatures and higher CO2 levels, and the negative effects won.
Nonetheless, it is possible that increased atmospheric CO2 could increase crop yields in the temperate zones. But with those same zones also subject to increased storms and heat waves (see below), that seems at best a vain hope on which to base our future.

- From the BBC for July 12:
Strange things are happening in the North Sea. Cod stocks are slumping faster than over-fishing can account for, and Mediterranean species like red mullet are migrating north.

Several sea birds are also in trouble. Kittiwake numbers are falling fast and guillemots are struggling to breed.

And, earlier this summer, hundreds of fulmar (a relative of the albatross) corpses washed up on the Norfolk coast, having apparently starved to death. ...

Nothing is certain yet, but some believe a dramatic change in North Sea plankton is responsible. And, what is more, they blame global warming.
What's happening is that as temperatures rise, cold water species of plankton are moving out and warm-water species are moving in as the cold water is found further and further north. One result has been a regional decline in a variety of phyto-plankton (tiny plants) that bloom in the early spring. Small animals that depend on that food source are thus dying - as are larger animals that feed on the smaller ones, and so on up the food chain.

In the words of bird expert Sarah Wanless, from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Center for Ecology and Hydrology,
"We speculate these are climate driven changes, which are working their way right through the food chain. And we are seeing signals emerging from the birds.

"In some cases we are finding a whole lot of adult birds dead and in other cases that the birds are abandoning their chicks."

And there might be worse to come. Because sea birds are generally long lived, changes happen rather slowly. So what we are seeing now could be, some fear, the tip of the iceberg.
- From the BBC for July 15:
Since the beginning of the industrial age around 1800, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm.

Although it seems a lot, many scientists were surprised: the extra CO2 that turned up in the atmosphere was only about half of the total amount emitted.

Following an international 10-year survey, researchers found the "missing" CO2 - it had been absorbed into the sea.

"The ocean has removed 48% of the CO2 we have released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and cement manufacturing," said Christopher Sabine, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) in Seattle, US.
Without that ocean absorption, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would have been around 435 ppm, an increase of nearly 15%. That means that some of the effects of climate change due to changes in CO2 levels, primarily from burning fossil fuels, would have been more severe than what we're already seeing.

That's the good news. The bad news is that while this may have slowed global warming,
[a]ccording to Richard Feely, of Noaa, and his colleagues, that might make life pretty hard for some shell-forming marine animals.

Corals, pteropod molluscs and some plankton (single celled organisms) pull carbonate ions from the seawater to produce their calcium carbonate shells.

But, as the CO2 concentrations in the water increase, the carbonate ion concentrations decrease.

This means the animals lack the materials with which to build their shells.

And in areas where CO2 concentrations are particularly high, Professor Feely's team claim, the animal's shells can actually begin to dissolve.
And don't count on the ocean continuing to rescue us from our own follies. Presently, the ocean holds only about 1/3 of the carbon dioxide it could absorb. But most of the unsaturated water is in the deep layers of water - and the layers mix very slowly: We're talking on the orders of thousands of years. Long before that, the upper layers will be thoroughly saturated with the gaseous products of our technology, not only with the attendant ill effects on certain shellfish (with unknown effects on the higher levels of the food chain) but with the result that subsequently, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will rise even faster than they have. Unless, of course, we do something first.

- From the BBC for August 12:
Heat waves in the 21st Century will be more intense, more frequent and longer lasting, US experts report in the journal Science.

Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) used climate modelling to predict geographic patterns of future heat waves. ...

The research shows greenhouse emissions are likely to exacerbate the problem.
The scientists' models focused on Europe and North America because of the death tolls from severe heat waves in France (15,000 killed last August) and Chicago (over 700 killed in 1995).
Over the coming century, the number of heat waves in Paris was expected to increase by 31% and in Chicago by 25%. In both cities, they would also become more intense. ...

These three-day heat waves showed a rise of more than 3C in minimum night-time temperatures in the Mediterranean region and western and southern US.

The model was also able to show that they would increase in duration
by an average of about 3-4 days in Paris and two days in Chicago.

The evidence keeps mounting, bit by bit, study by study, from rice production in the Philippines to fish stocks in the North Sea, from levels of CO2 in the ocean to climate models of heat waves. Yet the professional nay-sayers and the paid obfuscators will continue to dance, dodge, and deny because to them, private greed outweighs public good - and besides, as one of them confessed to me in a rare moment of candor, they didn't care about global climate change because by the time it matters, "I'll be dead." And our children and their children, I guess, will just have to fend for themselves.

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