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Will Climate Change Bring About Sudden Death?
[Analysis] New predictions of temperature changes in less than a human lifetime
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-11-04 05:33 (KST)   
Are we faced with an emergency or is it all hype?

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 Iowa or Peru), to the vital (Hurricane tracking in the oil rich Gulf of Mexico).

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In August 2006, as the days to an Ironman triathlon were counting down on the island of Jeju (just south of mainland South Korea), 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 canceled 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?

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(1) 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

It's 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. It셲 possible that we have entered a phase where the most likely weapon of mass destruction cities worldwide will be faced with, are Acute Weather Events (AWE).

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 rain forest have shown that massive amounts (an average of 5 tons of Carbon, per hectare, per year or 6,000 liters 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 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 one셲 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

Despite the data available, two contrasting views have emerged. 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 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 always 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 man-made, 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. This massive exchange represents an unprecedented event, and we can expect nothing 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 one percent) 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 ma-nmade.

What are we to make of these warnings and predictions? Assumptions do not produce inevitable realities, and research can guide changing behavior on a worldwide scale.

Perhaps human beings need to avoid the above distinction (between natural and man-made), 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. Some models predict massive warming from 2050 onwards. We still have a choice: to be consumers or custodians, but either way we remain connected to this one blue planet we call home.
(1)"In Hot Water," National Geographic, August 2005, pp. 78-79.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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