Huffington post: It seems like every few weeks another scientific study or report comes out about global warming and the political spectrum goes crazy with their own interpretations of the scientific study. This week it is a report discussing that Antarctic ice is increasing. The scientists claim it is a result of changing ocean currents due to global warming in combination with cooling due to the hole in the ozone layer. The opposition claims that it is evidence that global warming is a fraud. Many have their own agendas and it is hard to decipher things.
As a scientist, I side with the data. Although, the study has to be kept in perspective, since the ice growth is not enough to cover the ice loss in the Arctic. This infers that while the local temperature at the Antarctic is cooler, the average global temperature is rising. Global warming studies have predicted for many years that the earth will experience dramatic changes in climate. This means that some places will get cooler and some will get hotter due to changes in the air and ocean currents. It has also been predicted that the earth will have more dramatic shifts in summer heat and winter cold, which have also been noted throughout the past decade. Therefore, it is completely plausible that the ice growth in the Antarctic is as expected within the global warming model.
The existence of global warming is not something that is typically debated in the scientific community, since there is an enormous scientific consensus on the issue. However, the climate is a tricky beast. There are many cycles in competition with each other: Air cycles, ocean cycles, and even solar cycles. Therefore, when discussing climate change, I choose to look at the longer history of temperatures and CO2 concentration as well as looking out the window. One does not have to look at a chart to notice that glaciers are melting and the ocean is rising. The areas that are actually debated by scientists are: the human factor and the earth’s reaction mechanism.
The human factor has been well recorded through studies that show the CO2 concentration has been increasing since the industrial revolution in the late 1800s. Since global temperature and CO2 concentration are closely linked, it is simple to infer that human activity is producing a warming effect.
Through the examination of ice cores, it has been shown that over the last 500,000 years the earth has gone through numerous warming and cooling cycles, where temperature and CO2 rises and falls together. This is famously or infamously shown in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. However, one big difference with this newest warming trend is the order of those variables. Previously, temperature will start rising before the CO2 levels and, as CO2 levels increase, this will add to temperature. However, in this warming trend, CO2 has been greatly increased over the last 100 years due to man-made contributions (industry, power plants, cars, etc.) The extra CO2 has the same effect as before and causes the temperature to increase as energy gets trapped in the earth’s atmosphere via the “greenhouse effect”.
The main reason global warming is such a debated topic is because it is a slow process and takes years of study to get any meaningful data. The main point is it comes down the ocean. It is the Earth’s main temperature regulator, and as it heats up, the average global temperature increases as well. However, based on global heat capacity studies, it takes approximately 100 years for the ocean to warm by 1° C. Therefore, we are just now starting to feel the effects of industrial revolution from the 1800′s. This is a problem, because even if the world stops generating CO2 in the next 5 years, the heat is still going to continue for the next 100 years.
In the end, the question of global warming is very well established, and the point of man-made contributions is very clear. However, does it really matter? Obviously, the earth has cooled itself in previously warming cycles. What is stopping it from cooling down now? Therefore, the main question is, what are the trigger mechanisms for the earth to enter a cooling cycle? It has been suggested that changing air and ocean currents will shift the earth into a cooling cycle, but how does it lower CO2 levels? These are open questions for scientists to answer, because CO2 is at the center of this issue. As I see it, there are two main scenarios, but they have the same outcome based on our current CO2 emissions.
Scenario 1: If the trigger for earth cooling is the temperature of the earth and ocean currents, then from the same ice core data, it can be concluded that the earth still has some warming to do before it hits the critical point; probably another 2-3° C. This means in another 200-300 years. This means that we will have to deal with more dramatic shifts in weather. If the Earth has a cooling mechanism that reduces CO2, then we are in for a bumping 200-300 years, but we will be fine. This assumes that the Earth will be able to reduce the CO2 levels faster than we produce it.
This is an important point, since temperature and CO2 are linked, there is no guarantee that the earth will be able to counter the amount of CO2 produced. Therefore, if we keep pumping out CO2, then the Earth will continue to heat up. To the extreme side, this means the earth will continue to warm until most water is vapor and we essential turn into Venus. This would take many millennia to raise the temperature to that degree; so do not worry too much! This is pretty extreme, but the warming will effect your summer beach vacation.
Scenario 2: If the trigger is the CO2 level, then we may have “broken the gauge”. Since the CO2 level is already much higher than it has been in over half a million years, we may have by passed the trigger mechanism already, and we will just continue heating as described above.
After reading this over, I realize that it is not a pretty picture either way. While we will already have to deal with increasing temperatures for another 100 years, we can lessen our impact over the next 1,000 years by being more carbon-conscious. This is where the whole carbon footprint comes into play. To put it in economic terms, we need to find a way to be carbon balanced or even have a carbon deficit. Right now, we have a surplus of carbon and it is not helping, and the next hundred years are already taken. The only way to reduce carbon is to find a way to remove it from the atmosphere. This is going to take science and engineering to be accomplished. Since we have an energy dependent world, it is highly unlikely that people will be willing to turn off their power and walk to work. This is our main solution.
Overall, this is not the end of the world. The earth has dealt with much worse (asteroids, shifting plate tectonics, and Snooki). Dramatic shifts in climate means we will have to move or adapted to colder winters and hotter summers. Luckily, we can adapt, but there will be casualties along the way. People living on coastal regions will have to deal with more violent storms and higher sea levels. Areas that once flourished may become famished, and it is likely that cities like Amsterdam and New York will have to deal with major flooding due to raising oceans. The main point is there is work to be done and it is important for people to understand the choices we are making, not for ourselves, but for future generations.
By: Jason Haraldsen who is a theoretical physicist; post-doctoral researcher, Los Alamos National Laboratory
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