Sunday, April 5, 2009

What if it's too late?

An ice bridge linking a shelf of ice the size of Jamaica to two islands in Antarctica has snapped.

A few weeks ago I watched a podcast episode of the PBS show NOW, entitled Sea Change. The show included a science demo that had a middle-school air of simplicity, but demonstrated with profound gravity the devastating consequences of loosing glaciers. Everyone who has taken thermodynamics has had it impressed upon them that water takes a relatively large amount of energy to change phases (and much less energy to change temperature within a given phase).

When we talk about climate change it may be helpful to think about energy rather than temperature. The scale that we happen to measure temperature with makes the anticipated changes seem small, whereas if we consider the change in energy regime, it becomes quite obvious that we are talking about enormous orders of magnitude. Remember that thermo discussion about “heat sinks”? It was one thing to say that the temperature remained relatively unchanged, and quite another to actually calculate the enormous energy dump!

We also speak of ecological ‘adaptation’ in response to global climate change, knowing that evidence of this type of ecological adaptation abounds within our existing perception of experience. Obviously successful evolution requires timescales equivalent to numerous generations of species, but we don’t intuitively consider the entire ecological web: during various stages of life many organisms eat very specific things which are also synchronized through adaptive processes to be available. Furthermore, the ability for species to migrate is inhibited by man-made discontinuities so in addition to the pace there are physical barriers limiting adaptation by geographical shifting. Invasive species also have an advantage when native biotas are stressed. (And recall our reading/discussion for/in last Thursday’s class—rain vs. snow has a significant impact on water availability in many reservoirs….eventual human migration?)

I recently watched a delicious interview (in terms of the lovely linguistic constructions), in which the interviewee was asked to explain a question he had posed: “can Obama see the grand canyon?” He explained that when John Wesley Powell first stumbled upon the grand canyon he could not understand it—there was simply no analogue within his experience with which he could comprehend what he was seeing, and it took “ten years of heroic effort” to fully Grok.

I know that we have gotten serious in the past, and made significant changes to mitigate or undo anthropogenically-induced calamities. But as we become increasingly aware of the complexities and magnitude of our simultaneous crises of climate change and global financial turmoil, I hope that we can dig deep for the courage and creativity to thoroughly react. Even if it seems too late, is there really any other option?


Alex Quintana said...

I just watched the long video titled "Sea Change," and it really opened my eyes. I previously did not see the effects of melting ice, but when it is considered thermodynamically, it really makes the issue more devastating. The ice is currently the buffer for the heat we are creating, but once it is all gone, temperatures will shoot up too quickly for life on earth to withstand.
It seems that we already have made impacts that nature cannot fix, so the next step we should be taking is to figure out a way to reverse these impacts. If the facts are portraying the future correctly, this step may be the most important discovery to continue life here on earth.

Miguel Baca said...

I read your post and I got interested just by the question: What if it is too late?
I recently found this news in the NYTIMES about the OREGONIANS from OREGON, sorry about to be redundant. In this note, they talk about how some families are trying to shrink their per-capita consumption by 80%. This idea might achieve the Swiss project called 2,000 Watt Society.
If it is not too late, there could be an option to save this World and build a greener society for future generations. This 2,000 Watt projects believes that “The emissions of the future rich must eventually equal the emissions of today’s poor” (Bill Chameides).
I have tried to find more about this project and basically it seeks to achieve a level in which” each person in the developed world would cut their over-all rate of energy use to an average of no more than 2,000 watts by the year 2050, without lowering their standard of living.” (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). As Elizabeth Kolbeth mentioned in her column in the New Yorker , this two thousand watts is approximately the current world average rate of total energy use. This compares to averages of around 6,000 watts in western Europe, 12,000 watts in the United States [1], 1500 watts in China, 1000 watts in India, and only 300 watts in Bangladesh.
I think it is an achievable amount but we must understand that the developing countries need to consume more energy than they do today if they ever want to be fully developed. Countries like Brazil or Mexico which today have low greenhouse emissions and per-capita energy consumptions around 1,700 kw, they will increase their energy demands to meet their development. So in this case, governments should encourage the use of cleaner technologies without jeopardizing their development.

Work consulted: