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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Global Warming

Global warming is always in the news, but it's not something everyone understands well. So let's break this down. Next time someone from Greenpeace attacks you for global warming you can hand them some hard evidence that is not our species' fault (not entirely at least).

Anyone familiar with weather patterns knows there are cycles: El Nino and La Nina, flood cycles, seasons... Not only are these patterns natural, they are predictable to a certain extent, and they are healthy. Believe it or not, change is good for the environment!

One of the hardest lessons we've learned as a species is that not every natural event can or should be controlled. Fire fires are horrific, they burn land, they kill animals and people, they destroy property. For centuries people worked to find ways to control the fires, only to find we were mucking about with the natural order of things and the lack of fire was actually detrimental to some habits and species.

There's a whole field of FIRE ECOLOGY that I highly recommend you look into if you aren't familiar with it yet.

So, this is step one. Understand that the weather changes from year to year and that there is a natural cycle of heating and cooling. One of the most common fallacies is that the weather is constant.

Remember the portraits from the 1500s when everyone is buried in layers of fur? Can you imagine going out today dressed like Hans here? Not only would PETA be speechless with rage but you would swelter to death. Go back in time 500 years though, and you'll find all those layers made sense. There was no central heating, and they were in the middle of a mini ice age.

How do we know this? Ice cores.

Ice cores are amazing things. They're a little like tree rings for the air quality of the planet. By counting a tree's rings you can tell how old it is, and by looking at the spacing you can tell how much the tree grew in any given year.

An ice core is a frozen timeline of the Earth's climate. When it's all laid out we get this:
Take a look at the blue line. On the far left we have the present day. On the far right we have 400 thousand years ago. Notice the peaks? The tops of those peaks are what we as humans call "liveable temperature" that is, above freezing. All those long troughs? Those are ice ages.

At a glance, what have we had more of?

Mmm, hmm. Ice ages. Long periods of freezing cold where the ice covers most the planet followed by rapid heating, short periods of above freezing temperatures, and rapid cooling periods. Those are called Glacial Periods.

The peaks are Interglacial Maximums (IGM).

This is step two, recognize that global warming and cooling is a pattern. Another great fallacy of the global warming debate is that all of this has never happened before and that it is all the fault of your greedy, gas-guzzling car.

I promise, there were no cars during the last IGM. What's more, the last IGM was still averaging nine degrees hotter than it is today, and water levels were 21ft (6.5m) higher than they are today.

This is the place where most people get a little confused. We've established that global warming is natural, that is has happened before, and that it probably isn't your fault. Now people want to throw their trash in the ocean and go party guilt-free.

It's not that easy.

You see, global warming is a misnomer. Scientists aren't worried about the warming trends, they are worried that the warming trend won't stop.

The current theories for what causes global warming are varied, but one of the more solid theories that is supported by the evidence is the Milankovitch theory. The theory states "that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth's orbit determined climatic patterns on Earth through orbital forcing."

In other words, the Earth wobbles and the climate changes. Our orbit around the sun isn't a perfect circle. Every few thousand years we wobble in the wrong direction and the northern hemisphere fries. Then we wobble backwards and we freeze. Really, 21 degrees of wobble and spring break means wearing five layers of rabbit fur over six layers of muslin.

And this involves your cute car, fast food habits, and lifestyle how? Good question.

What scientists have no way of proving is that the temperature will drop again. Theoretically, it should. If everything follows the established pattern we will probably get a littler warmer (each IGM has been warmer than the previous) and then drop into a rapid cooling phase (several thousand years of cooling) down into an ice age.

The concern is that we have damaged the environment to the point that the temperatures will never drop.

There are even some debates over whether we have proof that this isn't going to happen. There is the hockey-stick debate (has the temperature shot through the roof or no?) and several scientists have submitted research saying they have no evidence that the temperatures have increased in the past five years, some say as far back as 1998.

Which is always nice to point out when someone says you shouldn't have that child, eat that food, drive that car, or wear those clothes because you have destroyed the balance of the planet in doing so.

But, personally, I think that concern is short-sighted. The temperatures are pretty much out of our control, what we need to do is worry about having the resources to survive temperature fluctuations. Higher temperatures mean an increase in storms, hurricane activity, flooding, rising sea levels... Dropping temperatures mean croplands covered in ice.

Step three is being prepared. There is more to green living, or sustainable living, than giving up a gas-guzzler or riding a bike to work. That's a short-term plan that will have a limited impact on the environment. You'll be healthier and save money, but it isn't going to save the polar bears. They need to evolve like the rest of the universe or they will die out. That's evolution in action. Blame Darwin if you're angry.

We do have enough resources to feed everyone on the planet. We have the money. We have the food. We have the water. All the shortages you hear about are artificial or localized. No, Somalia doesn't have enough rain. But if we got our collective rear-ends I know several places who would love to share their flood waters. It's just a matter of collecting the rain and shipping it - bottled water anyone?

Global warming exists, but it is not the great dramatic tragedy that it's made out to be in the media. Any questions? If you need something clarified or explained hit the comment box, or my in box, I'll be happy to give you an answer. And if I don't know it, I know how to find out.

Image of Han Holbein found HERE. Image of climate chart found HERE. All works copyright and courtesy of the original owners. Used with thanks under Fair Use laws.


  1. a great post, that will hopefully open some people's eyes.

  2. We can hope, but I doubt it will help. Most people hear the catch phrases, repeat the party line, and really have no clue what they're talking about.