Monday, February 27, 2006

World Weather Report

Are we faced with an emergency or is it all hype?

Today’s weather report put the chance of rain in Bloemfontein at 80-100%, and indeed, it’s rained the whole day. The rainfall for February, so far is 94.6mm, and the average, measured over 30 years, is 111mm. I ‘m guessing after today’s rain, it’s pretty close to that 30 year average. This being the case, what ought we to think about climate change, global warming, tipping points and trigger effects related to melting ice sheets and what not?

For one thing, the weather is being monitored more closely now than ever before. The level of detail is so thorough, that supercomputers are able to run models, predicting, sometimes very accurately, from the mundane (daily temperatures in Upington), to the vital (Hurricane tracking in the oil rich Gulf of Mexico).
In South Korea, as the days to an Ironman triathlon were counting down, race organizers and many athletes followed the track of a Typhoon (a Hurricane in the western Pacific is called a Typhoon, and a Cyclone in the southern hemisphere.) Where it went would have a direct impact on the race. In the end, the swim was cancelled due to high waves, but the Typhoon was seen, online, to be drifting away based on real time updates of satellite photographs. So the organizers were able to confidently permit the other two legs of the event to go ahead as scheduled.

Both the tracks of Hurricanes in the Gulf and Typhoons in the South China Sea appear to have changed the very landscape they move through. The same way that water in a lagoon changes the position of sandbanks, it appears that these systems, over millennia, have carved at the landmasses. Both Japan and the peninsula area of Florida lie on a parallel path to most storms, thereby funneling them, guiding them on what is usually a predictable path. It’s interesting, but what does it mean?

Patterns and Exceptions

Meteorology pertaining specifically to the analysis of storm systems provides a useful point of departure. Firstly, storms originate in a predicated area, and then follow, with some variation, similar tracks. Obviously other systems can have an impact, but in a National Geographic article*, which plots these tracks, the pattern is fairly clear. Storms originate off the tropical west coast of Africa, develop strength as they track westward, and then swing north and northeast, exhausting themselves over the North American landmass or along its Eastern Seaboard. Typically the typhoons approaching Korea swing westward at the last minute, along or parallel to the Japanese islands before wasting away at higher latitudes, also moving towards the northeast, and dying near the Russian landmass (near Vladivostok). Secondly, there are exceptions to the pattern. This should provide an indication of what is an appropriate basic assumption regarding world weather patterns. Obvious patterns, sometimes broken by aberrant systems.

The question being asked now, is: Have we reached a point, or might we soon reach a point, where there are more aberrations than patterns? In other words, Weather Chaos.
This is a difficult question. It can be approached from two angles:

The Acute Angle

Hurricanes in the gulf from 1985-1994 were borne from lower sea temperatures (1-2 degrees Fahrenheit lower) than of the subsequent decade. This change in sea temperatures led to the doubling of the number of storms, and it is well known that 2005 had the warmest Gulf waters, and broke all time records for Hurricanes and Tropical storms. After the alphabetized list of names had been exhausted (an exceptional occurrence), new storms were given Greek names, Alpha, Beta and so on. The Gulf example provides clear evidence of the link between warming and extreme weather phenomena, particularly highly destructive events. This cannot be overstated. Hurricane Katrina was responsible for the wrecking of a modern city, New Orleans, in our time. Hurricane Rita was on a direct line towards Dallas, and then veered off (North) at the last moment. The wrecking of New Orleans can be compared to the destruction of other cities throughout history, through natural disasters, such as Pompeii and others.

The Oblique Angle

Perspective is useful. The atmosphere of our planet has changed a great deal over vast periods of time**. We started off with a helium atmosphere, and then it became an atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Living things produced a waste product, through respiration: a poisonous gas called oxygen. Then oxygen supplanted carbon dioxide, and new life forms flourished that breathed oxygen alongside more ancient organisms (conifers, ferns etc). Oxygen causes oxidation: it’s a fancy word for corrosion or rust. Oxygen is what destroys an apple core, turning its flesh brown in seconds. Oxygen is harmful to some extent to our bodies too, which is why we need to take antioxidants, vitamins D and E. We need oxygen to live and breathe, but it can also harm our bodies. The point of the above is to represent change and paradox as both intentional and chaotic processes.

Each year about 6 billion tons of CO2 is poured into the atmosphere. Studies show that the measured level is only 3 billion tons. About half the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere is being absorbed by the planet. The rest produces warming. Experiments in the canopies of the Amazon rainforest have shown that massive amounts (an average of 5 tons of Carbon, per hectare, per year or 6000 litres of petrol) of CO2 are being absorbed here, pushing the forest from a mature system into a growing system once more. Thus the Amazon functions as a carbon sink for the planet. CO2 is absorbed by the forest, and manifested as plant tissues. When these tissues die, decay allows the release of CO2 back into the atmosphere. So too, does burning. A small variation in both rainfall and warming can prohibit forests from being able to generate or sustain themselves. Measurements in the Amazon do show both of these anomalies. The threat is obviously that the Amazon can quickly change from being a carbon sink, to a carbon emitter. This represents the threat of a tipping point effect.

A recent documentary aired on the National Geographic channel (Climate Change: The Day The Oceans Boiled) points out that warming can bring about the destabilizing of hydrates, particularly in the arctic. Hydrates are locked into ice or held inert by cold and pressure under permafrost or the ocean floor. Hydrates contain fantastic amounts of CO2. The documentary goes on to show that the danger of these hydrates being released is not probable, it’s already happening. Satellite photos show massive chimneys of the stuff bubbling off the ocean floor, like subterranean gas field fires, like the one’s we saw during the first Gulf War in Kuwait.
Some models predict a rise of 8 degrees Celsius (of Arctic Ocean water) by the end of this century.
The documentary goes on to show that 55 million years ago, spontaneous releases (of hydrate) took global temperatures to 15 degrees Celsius higher than ‘human beings have ever experienced’. If this recurred, worldwide weather in large parts of the world would be extreme and unendurable.

Two Contrasting Views

The first view assumes that we can be certain about Climate Change. It is a fact that currently CO2 levels are 3 times higher than they have ever been measured (including the 400 000 year old ice core and mud measurements). There is a direct correlation between CO2 levels and air temperature. Changing CO2 levels coincide with Ice Ages, natural events that occur in cycles of both 100 000 years, and smaller events every 20 000 years. We are due for an Ice Age at present, and the Earth appears to have entered this phase since 1850. An Ice Age is preceded by a period of warming.
During the last 105 years (oil was discovered in 1901) the planet has recycled approximately half its entire liquefied fossil fuel (oil) reservoirs, converting them into heat and gas through combustion in furnaces and automobiles. The cause of CO2 increases is manmade, but these escalations may be eclipsed by a trigger point (once warming reaches a critical level) that releases hydrates (these natural reservoirs have very high concentrations of CO2)and produces a catastrophic runaway effect., which. This massive exchange represents an unprecedented event, and how can we expect anything less than violent weather reactions of increasing intensity.

The second view is a humble one. Our knowledge of the environment is tiny. The information we have has been collected over an incredibly short period of time vis a vis the planet’s history. Carbon dioxide only represents a tiny proportion (less than 1%) of the atmosphere. The planet is in a natural warming period, and no one knows how much of that is natural, and how much is manmade.

What are we to make of these warnings and predictions? Assumptions are not inevitable, and research can guide change.
Perhaps human beings need to avoid the above distinction (between natural and manmade), and see themselves as ‘natural’, and thus part of the forces of nature. We are likely to see some remarkable and chilling changes in our lifetimes. We have a choice: to be consumers or custodians, but either way connected to this blue planet we call home.

*National Geographic: In Hot Water, by Chris Carroll, August 2005, p78-79
** Dox Productions, The Day The Oceans Boiled, narrated by Matthew Zajac, directed and produced by David Sington

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