To combat the problem of human-induced climate change, we must understand its causes and effects and therefore the science behind it. Seeing the effects, as well as the causes first hand, can be startling and humbling in the face of how influential our civilization has become on the planet. Seeing these effects, whether through scientific data or in person, should remove all doubt and uncertainty as to what the root of the problem is... us.
Understanding this data, accumulated from decades of research, field observations, and experimenting from agencies like NASA (National Aeronautics and space administration) and NOAA (national oceanic and atmospheric administration), and accepting it to be true does not make us liberal, conservative, republican, democratic, or any other political party affiliation or stereotype, it just makes us scientifically literate. we must have an understanding of how our world works if we are to live in it sustainably so that future generations can have a world as well. doubt and polarization fill our society now and that is dangerous. we would not be able to have the lives we live, and so often take for granted, if we did not have an acceptance and understanding of science, math, and engineering. There would be no smartphones, no satellite communications, GPS, no modern medicine that keep so many of us healthy, no stable food supply, no clean drinking water, no transportation, no televisions, no electricity, and no basic comforts like air conditioning. you would not even be able to read what you are reading now.
When one sees the results of an MRI machine clearly in front of them being described by a doctor, and see that there is a problem to be addressed, do they doubt or do they act? Do they even dare take the chance of ignoring the image? Our technology, sensing equipment, satellites, sampling methods, and observations are our planets MRI machine and our scientists are its doctors. Both aren't just saying there is a problem, both are screaming it. Do we doubt or do we act?
“Believing in science doesn’t make you a liberal; it makes you literate.”
- Republican Rev. Mitch Hescox, a former coal industry engineer
- Why is the climate currently changing?
climate change being observed today is primarily due to the excess release of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is naturally occurring. It helps to trap heat from the sun in Earth's atmosphere, providing us with a livable planet that has a temperature range humans, and more importantly organized society, can tolerate. The molecule acts as a radiating blanket, insulating our world. since the industrial revolution, however, through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, agriculture, and other industrial practices, the amount of co2 in our atmosphere has risen, thickening this blanket and thus its insulating abilities.
Atmospheric levels of co2 were around 280 parts per million (PPM) at the start of the industrial revolution. this means that for every million molecules of air, 280 of them were co2 molecules. today, atmospheric levels are 415 ppm, the highest concentrations seen for hundreds of thousands of years. This is known because of samples taken from ice cores that trap ancient air bubbles showing what the atmosphere was like at the time the bubbles were frozen in place. According to the world meteorological organization, humans have emitted 413 billion tons of co2 into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. This has upset the planet's natural carbon balance, as most of the co2 we have emitted is still in the atmosphere due to the molecules long residence time (the amount of time a molecule stays in the atmosphere before it naturally breaks down). This skewed Carbon balance is clearly being manifested in the fact that concentrations are going up, meaning plants and other natural methods of removal are being overwhelmed. temperature trends have matched this rise. since 1880 global temperatures have risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius).
Solar activity, which can cause a change in the earth's climate, has shown a slight cooling over the past thirty years, diverging from current temperature trends. Volcanoes also do not release enough co2 compared to human activities to account for the warming. Earth's volcanic activity is generally steady in its co2 output from year to year, with an average co2 release of about 220 million tons per year. for some perspective, humans emitted 38.4 billion tons of co2 in 2012 alone.
Diagram of how the greenhouse effect works on earth.
Image Credit: Environet
CO2 concentrations from 1850 to 2017 as depicted by ed Hawkins, a climate scientist from the University of reading in the united kingdom.
NASA product depicting Global temperature increases as seen from the 1800s through to the 2010s.
Image Credit: NASA
Arctic sea ice volume from 1979 to 2017 as depicted by ed Hawkins, a climate scientist from the University of reading in the united kingdom.
NASA video showing GRACE satellite observations of ice loss in Greenland.
Image Credit: NASA
NASA video showing GRACE satellite observations of ice loss in Antarctica.
Image Credit: NASA
High tide flooding in Miami Beach, Florida.
Image Credit: The Miami Herald
A diver observes Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 2016.
Image Credit: The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey
This figure shows the Gulf of Mexico dead zone as it was in the summer of 2015. This image was developed by NOAA.
Image Credit: NOAA
- How do we know co2 is coming from us?
the co2 humans are currently emitting is predominantly through the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas, animal agriculture, and deforestation. no natural source of co2 so far observed by scientists can account for the increase in concentrations. But our industrial actions can, especially the burning of fossil fuel reserves as these reserves have a literal geological fingerprint to prove it.
Oil, coal, and gas are collections of decaying organic material from millions of years ago. Carbon fourteen, an elemental isotope of the carbon atom with two extra neutrons, is found naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere where it is produced through collisions between nitrogen atoms and cosmic rays from the Sun. It is also found within the Earth’s crust, in fossil fuel reserves, having been absorbed by plants from the atmosphere. Carbon fourteen is radioactive and decays relatively quickly until no trace of it remains. The ratio of carbon fourteen to CO2 in the atmosphere is decreasing. Fossil fuel stores are so old, on the order of millions of years; they no longer have carbon fourteen isotopes within them as they once did because of its quick decay rate. So, when these fossil fuels are burned, CO2 is being released into the atmosphere with no carbon fourteen, verifying the ratio that is being observed across the globe.
A simple way to visualize this is to Imagine you have an empty room that has only two things in it, one apple and one orange. Pretend the orange is a carbon fourteen atom and the apple is a CO2 molecule. Suddenly, someone starts throwing in more apples, adding more CO2. the one orange remains constant. The ratio of oranges to apples decreases. This proves the increase in apples - CO2 - is coming from the burning of fossil fuels because fossil fuels are the only source of such massive carbon stores that are old enough to add so much CO2 and not carbon fourteen.
changes in earth's environment due to this co2 increase are accelerating as the plant's natural systems are affected, mainly through the increase in surface temperatures. NASA and NOAA both confirmed that 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded since temperature recordings began in 1880, breaking the previous recording hold year of 2015. by 2100, earth's average temperature could climb anywhere between three and eight degrees Fahrenheit depending on how quickly humanity curtails its emissions.
- where are we seeing the effects of climate change?
the effects of climate change are being seen right now and in dramatic fashion. one of the most evident effects is the rapid decline in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Both areas are losing ice at a staggering rate because of increased air and ocean temperatures.
the Arctic is warming twice as fast as any other area on the planet. between the years of 2011 and 2014, Greenland lost 1 trillion tons of land ice, as observed by the European space agency's Cyrosat-2 satellite. this can also be seen in the form of regional gravity loss. launched in 2002, NASA's twin Grace satellites measure the amount of gravity over the surface of the earth. gravity can fluctuate over the surface based on the amount of mass a region contains. a region of mountains that have more mass than an area of plains, will exert more gravity. ice sheets (which are massive) are losing gravity, hence, they are losing mass. this loss of mass is because they are melting. the same phenomenon can also be seen across the Antarctic ice sheets, especially on the continent's western coast. between the years of 2002 and 2016, the Antarctic lost an average of 125 gigatons of ice a year.
warming ocean temperatures, in response to climate change, are literally eating away at the underside of glaciers, breaking them apart and making them lighter in weight. this weight reduction lifts them off the ground below them, allowing warm seawater to flood further under and erode them further inland. this is leading to sea level rise.
Oceans have risen eight inches since 1880 and will continue to rise as the poles continue to melt. by 2100, sea levels are expected to rise anywhere from two to seven feet, placing huge coastal population centers at risk. but the flood is already here for some locations.
Cities like Miami, Florida are already seeing increased sunny day flooding that is simply the result of higher tides. the city is embarking on a $400 million anti-flooding project meant to raise streets and add new pumping stations. Tybee Island, the easternmost point of the state of Georgia, has repeatedly seen its main access road be washed over and has recently drafted one of state's first climate action plans to address the problem. “I’m a Republican, but I also realize, by any objective analysis, the sea level is rising,” said Jason Buelterman, the mayor of the Island. New York, New Orleans, Boston, London, Jakarta, Charleston, Venice, and Bangkok are all cities that have begun making adaptation plans and infrastructure changes, costing billions of dollars in response to sea level rise, but doing nothing will cost much more.
Sea level rise is also occurring because of thermal expansion of the world's oceans. Water, like anything else that heats up, expands, raising sea levels just as melting glaciers do. the average temperature of the world's oceans has risen 0.18 degrees Fahrenheit (0.1 degrees Celsius) since the industrial revolution. this warming has been observed from the surface all the way down to 2,300 feet (700 meters) in some areas, and further down in others. in fact, most of the heat that has been building up in the atmosphere has been absorbed by the oceans, around ninety percent. Global warming would be much worse already if not for this heat sink. this is having an impact on numerous aquatic ecosystem, one of the most discussed being coral reefs.
coral all over the world is being bleached due to warming ocean temperatures, killing reefs. The Great barrier reef in Australia had its second mass bleaching event in two years in early 2017. the destruction of coral can lead to beach erosion and the collapse of aquatic ecosystems that help to sustain fisheries.
Oceans, due to an increased intake of co2, are also becoming more acidic, further stressing coral ecosystems and creating dead zones in some areas. In the United States, this is being seen in the Gulf of Mexico where acidification, combined with nutrient pollution runoff from the Mississippi River and oil spills, is creating an annual dead zone that threatens $10 billion in fisheries.
From the famed documentary "Chasing Ice", this clip showcases an example of glacial calving.
Graph depicting global glacial loss from 1980 to 2017. Melting of their mass is accelerating.
Image Credit: NOAA Climate.gov
A freight train sits idle in Nebraska floodwaters in March 2019 after a quick snowmelt.
Image Credit: Nati Harnik/AP
The lake Orville reservoir in California in July 2014 at the height of one of the states recent droughts. beginning in 2011, this particular drought was officially declared over on April 7, 2017, by California governor Jerry Brown.
Image Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
firefighters struggle to contain the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California.
Image Credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES
The City of Venice is at the forefront of sea level rise as not only is its surrounding waters rising but it is geologically sinking.
Image Credit: ANDREA PATTARO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Kansai Airport, one of the busiest in Japan, was inundated by Typhoon Jebi in September 2018. Sea level rise will only make storm surge from tropical cyclones worse.
Image Credit: Kentaro Ikushima/Mainichi Newspaper, via Associated Press
Path of 2005's Hurricane Katrina and its strengthening in respect to sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. this image was developed by NOAA.
President George W. Bush tours the devastation of New Orleans left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina two weeks after the storm.
Image Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Hurricane Maria making landfall on the island of Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm in 2017.
Image Credit: NOAA
An animation depicting the path of the polar jet stream over North America. The redder the coloring, the stronger the wind speeds within the jet.
Image Credit: NASA
Storm surge destruction from Hurricane Jeanne in 2004.
Image Credit: Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post
Sinkholes scattered across Northern Canada from underlying permafrost melting, creating ground subsidence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia
Coastal erosion due to melting permafrost in Alaska.
Image Credit: USGS
NASA's DC-8 prepares for takeoff to partake in the agency's annual Operation Icebridge, a mission that studies changes in the polar icecaps.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
A rise in ocean temperatures will also enhance the strength and frequency of tropical cyclones (hurricanes). an example of what warm sea surface temperatures can do to a hurricane is 2005's hurricane Katrina that devastated areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Hurricane Katrina strengthened from a weak category one hurricane to an enormous category five storm with winds of 175 miles per hour in less than a day. it crossed above-average sea surface temperatures around ninety degrees Fahrenheit (around thirty-two degrees Celsius).
Storms will also be amplified in the sense that a warmer atmosphere will allow them to hold more precipitation. the basic science behind this can be observed in ones day to day life. Cold days are generally dry. Warm days are generally more humid. in warmer air, molecules in the atmosphere are further apart from each other (expansion), allowing for the space in between them to be filled with more water vapor. cold air holds molecules that are close together (contraction), leaving no extra room for water vapor. so, in a warmer world, air will be able to hold more moisture. this moisture will fall out of the atmosphere as precipitation, both rain, and snow, in a much heavier and more rapid burst in the coming decades leading to more damaging flooding events.
also compounding this problem will be stiffing jet streams. jet streams are fast-moving currents of air found at high altitudes (between 30,000 and 50,000 feet generally) that separate warm and cold air masses. they are found in the northern and southern hemispheres. in the northern hemisphere, they move from west to east and east to west in the southern hemisphere. this is why over north America weather systems always tend to move from the west coast to the east coast. they meander and arc across the surface of the earth, creating cold fronts, moving weather systems, and influencing overall weather patterns. temperature increases are however lessening the temperature differences in the air masses jet streams divide, causing them to become locked. when a jet stream becomes locked in its motion, it can bring the same weather patterns over the same areas for long periods of time. this can cause extreme flooding situations.
if jet streams continue to become locked, droughts will also become worse and more prevalent. the recent drought in the state of California is an example of a drought that had climate change's signature. in 2012 an amazing eighty-one percent of the contagious united states was considered to be in abnormally dry conditions, leading to $30 billion in damages. it was considered the most extensive drought in the united states since the 1930s.
droughts can also lead to wildfires. dry conditions can allow a major wildfire to begin within hours. since the mid-1980s, research has found that wildfires in the western united states are occurring four times more often, burning six times the amount of land, and lasting nearly five times longer. massive fires have also been seen recently in Russia, Alaska, Indonesia, and the Amazon rainforest.
one last bit of proof that something is wrong, that our MRI is showing an anomaly, are the rapidly appearing sinkholes in the Arctic. much of the ground in the Arctic is made up of permafrost, which is basically frozen soil that forms over very long periods of time when air temperatures are below freezing annually. warming arctic temperatures is melting this permafrost, softening the soil and leading to erosion. deformities and sinkholes can form in areas of melting. methane, another potent greenhouse gas, can also be released in large quantities when permafrost melts (as well as more CO2), leading to more warming in a reinforcing feedback loop. the more warming, the more permafrost melts, the more methane is released, initiating more warming, leading to more permafrost melting and so on and so forth.
- how does this relate?
the end of the beginning uses real climate data and observations, including much of what is written about above, to show through a fictional story what might happen if we decide to act too late. climate science is hard and encompasses a multitude of subjects because climate change impacts almost everything on the planet. it can be difficult to understand, but this difficulty does not make it myth, hoax, or an alternative fact; it just makes it good science.
communicating this science can be a challenge, which is why I believe it is time we begin to rethink our approaches. discussing this subject through the medium of a story that anyone can read, especially those of a younger generation, could be the difference because people can latch onto a story and remember it better. stories can bring about emotions and feelings that linger on in someone's mind. often times, people will easily remember the movie they just watched or the novel they just read but struggle to remember the topic they learned about in class or discussed in a meeting. they say there is always a little bit of truth behind every story. in the case of the end of the beginning, there is quite a bit more...