Monday, June 15, 2009

Climate Change Research

In the June issue of Chemical Engineering Progress was a most interesting article by Michael J Economides PhD and Xina Xie PhD both professors of engineering. The article titled “Climate Change-What Does the Research Mean?” is a brief review of the scientific literature and research on the some of the postulated impacts that global warming might have on hurricane frequency and intensity, shrinking the ice field of Mount Kilimanjaro, melting the polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Both sides of each argument appear to be documented and supported by specific scientific measurements. Such contradictory conclusions indicate that the modeling of the earth’s climate and environment need to be significantly reexamined and tested before expending significant amounts of the world’s finite resources towards any specific plan of amelioration. Some research suggests that climate change may have some anthropogenic (human) causes. However, the consequences of climate change that have been cited as reasons for government action are not born out by the facts. As the author’s point out “The impacts of these contradictory claims about the effects of climate change are not trivial, and the implication are enormous.” In the real world of finite resources, careful consideration must be given to which major expenditure programs to support. What are we willing to give up in terms of comforts, services, possessions and other goals to accommodate a Copenhagen accord? There is a price to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Make sure we understand the costs and benefits before we act.

NASA satellites data documenting the 30 year history of temperature above the surface of Mt. Kilimanjaro peak show a slight decline in temperature. However, the summit glacier and ice cap on Mt. Kilimanjaro as featured in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is shrinking. Thought the movie uses this fact as evidence of global warming, in fact the ice cap is shrinking while the summit temperature has fallen slightly. According to the University of Innsbruck the mean annual temperature at the summit is below zero degrees Celsius it seems unlikely that there would be melting due to air temperature. Another explanation of the cause of the loss of mass in the glacier has been the deforestation of the mountain’s foothills. Without the humidity from the forests, there was inadequate moisture to replenish the surface ice loss to solar radiation sublimation from the solid to the vapor phase. The dry air kept the moisture released by the glacier’s surface. The deforestation of the earth’s surface reduces the moisture in winds and the increases the CO2 content of the atmosphere. Changes in global temperature do not appear to be as closely connected to changes in glaciers and ice caps. The cause and effect relationships are neither simple nor direct. Most of the actions considered to address these are slow in their implementation and impact, which would give science community the ability to evaluate the impact of any action possibly avoiding unintended consequences.

In today’s Wall Street Journal article “It’s Time to Cool the Planet” the author, Mr. Cascio, a futurist of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies argues for fast acting geo-engineering like releasing sulfate in huge quantities into the atmospheres using jet-aircraft exhaust. (This by the way has always been my husband’s favorite method of fighting global warming. At least my husband knows he’s kidding.) This particular action would be equivalent of several volcanic eruptions each year and while it would probably lower the temperature, what else would it do year after year? It is known that volcanic eruptions damage the ozone layer (remember that thing we spent our childhoods trying to protect) and plant life. We do not have the knowledge to understand the consequences of direct and quick changes to the plant temperature or carbon content. Sudden changes could be far more catastrophic than any consequence imagined by the long term projections of the global warming establishment. The changes we should consider are not massive interruptions in the natural cycles of nature, but conservation, replanting, control of non-point source contamination, point source contamination reduction in emerging economies. Maybe if we can restore a watershed, reforest the jungles of the Amazon or the foothill of Mt. Kilimanjaro we could then consider bolder action.

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