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Standing in the shadows of climate change

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Mark Robinson
Meteorologist

Sunday, April 20, 2014, 6:35 AM -


UNEARTHED: Catch the latest episode of our special series "Unearthed" on The Weather Network on TV, on Sunday at 7 p.m & 10 p.m. Eastern


I stood on the surface of a dead lake and it crumbled away into the tall reeds around me. 

The red dirt of the lake bed was all that was left at the bottom of the old boat ramp, and only a few stains of what had once been the water’s edge were left on the grey concrete.  

The dirt had once been mud but was now nothing but dried, cracked and crumbling bits of dirt that barely supported the wilting stalks of brownish reeds. The area was so dry that even the plants were giving over to scrub and desert. 

This was the kind of drought that killed cities.  

Climate change isn’t just melting glaciers and starving polar bears. I’ve stood on the front line of climate change for many years and the more I travel, the more it becomes clear. 

I would love if there were no problem. If the climatologists were wrong, and our effects on the planet’s atmosphere were no more than the buzz of a mosquito’s wings in a hurricane, I’d be more than a little happy. But real life just isn’t that easy. I’ve done the reading, I’ve been around the world and witnessed the retreat of glaciers, the drying of vast areas of the US, and to me, it’s incontrovertible. 

Our modern civilization is in trouble.

Image: Moyan Brenn / Flickr

Image: Moyan Brenn / Flickr

It’s not the planet that’s in peril. The biosphere can handle pretty much whatever we throw at it. There have been major disasters that far outweigh anything we can create and life has bounced back. Asteroid strikes, total glaciation, a changeover in the composition of the atmosphere itself. All these have happened and the planet, along with life, is still here.

However, each one of those events resulted in a very different world for the surviving inhabitants. Mitigation and adaptation took time. Lots of time. Our civilization, and in fact, our species may not have that kind of time. Given that it took a huge amount of time for the biosphere to bounce back after the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs, our vast and interconnected civilization likely wouldn’t be able to handle such a massive upheaval.

Let’s look at the science for a moment.

Image: Marcela Addurat

Image: Marcela Addurat

The science is well understood and has been so for over 150 years. Basically, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and helps maintain the relatively warm temperature of our planet. Without greenhouse gasses, our planet would sit at a not so comfy -18 C on average. This leads to the conclusion that some carbon dioxide is a good thing, but too much can be a problem.

At the moment, the biosphere has evolved to handle X amount of carbon dioxide as organisms give off and absorb CO2 as well as deal with occasional hiccups like volcanic eruptions. We have a certain baseline concentration of CO2. As humankind has tapped into the vast reserves of fossil carbon we call oil and gas to fuel our civilization, we are releasing C amount of carbon.

Image: Sharron Grotegut

Image: Sharron Grotegut

Here’s where your math classes come in handy, specifically algebra. We now have X (our baseline amount) plus C (the amount of CO2 that we are releasing as we burn coal and oil). Remember, the biosphere has evolved to handle X. 

X+C is what we now find in the atmosphere. So, all that extra carbon is not being absorbed into the biosphere and instead ends up in the atmosphere. Eventually perhaps, the biosphere will evolve to handle X+C, but that’s going to take a long time.

For now, we are dumping C amounts of carbon into the atmosphere without any way for the planetary systems to absorb or deal with the excess. This is not in doubt. Direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere from a variety of locations including high on Mona Loa in Hawaii, show an ever-increasing concentration of the gas. Thus, we are ensuring that as more and more CO2 ends up in the atmosphere, we are increasing the amount of heat that is trapped.

How this trapped heat reacts with the complex environment of Earth is still in question. It’s not a simple 1:1 relationship. Increase the heat and there’s a rise in the amount of rain hitting one area and decrease in another. 

Image: Mark Robinson

Image: Mark Robinson

Ice coverage in some areas may decrease while sea ice in another area suddenly expands. The situation is anything but simple.  

In fact, the situation is so complex that whole fields of study are dedicated to understanding exactly what will happen as the climate shifts. There is some overall thought that wet areas will become wetter as dry areas become drier. 

The lakebed that I stood on was once the bottom of Lake Meredith northeast of the town of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. The lake was once the major source of water for Amarillo, but was now a shriveled remnant of green scum huddled up against a massive concrete damn that dwarfed the remains. 

At its deepest; the depth of the lake exceeded 100 feet but was now no more than just over 20.  

The drought that has seized the southwest of the United States has ensured that the lake no longer supplies any water to anyone. Only a small amount of water is left and where we stood, the sad remains of a boat launch spoke far louder than any scientific paper.  

Climate change is not an abstract theory designed to pay for nice university offices.  It’s happening now to places that we know, people we know, and is more prevalent than we’d like to admit.  

The question we need to ask is: Now what do we do?


UNEARTHED: Catch the latest episode of our special series "Unearthed" on The Weather Network on TV, on Sunday at 7 p.m & 10 p.m. Eastern


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