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Climate Change: is it credible?

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People in the United States continue to debate whether climate change is real, whether it’s man-made and whether it’s playing a factor in the extreme weather of the past few years. I find this debate truly fascinating, mainly because in other parts of the world the debate has already been concluded.

In this article I’ll elaborate how climate change works, why there’s still a debate on whether or not it’s real and what the consequences could be for the future.

How does climate change work?

Climate change is also known as “global warming” or the “greenhouse effect”, and for good reason.

Essentially, when sunlight passes through the atmosphere it heats up the air it passes through. It loses most of its energy as heat when it strikes the surface of the earth. The energy that doesn’t get absorbed gets reflected back. However, out atmosphere contains certain gasses that can absorb and reflect sunlight. This means that the ray of sunlight that just got reflected from the surface gets bounced back towards the surface in the atmosphere. This causes far more solar energy to remain within our atmosphere.

Without these gasses our planet would be little more than a ball of ice. They play a vital function in keeping our planet warm and habitable. The most important of these gasses is carbon dioxide (CO2). However, CO2 is also a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels, which are used to power our cars and homes across the world. As we burn fossil fuels it has the unfortunate result of increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the air. This causes more solar energy to be retained in our energy than we need, causing the planet to warm up.

The (Ongoing?) Debate

In the United States in particular there are still many organizations that claim we don’t know for sure if climate change is real. It’s an especially common statement in the political environment in the United States. Many politicians will refuse to back climate initiatives because they’re “too costly” or due to a “lack of evidence.”

Thankfully, when in doubt, we can usually defer to the experts in the given field. When we look at their opinions however, the conversation becomes extremely one-sided. Around 95% of climate experts have concluded that climate change is real. Not just that, but climate change is caused by human activity and that it’s currently influencing the environment.

The 2017 hurricane season concluded with no less than 6 major hurricanes causing devastation all over the world. Now, the fact that there’s hurricanes during hurricane season (even very severe ones) is not unusual. That being said, climate change most certainly played a role in last year’s horrific hurricane season.

The Consequences

Short term

In the short term we’ll see climate change affect our world’s weather patterns in several ways. The most obvious way is that the extra heat will cause more water to evaporate from the ocean’s surface, which ends up in the atmosphere. This water effectively becomes a vehicle for the excess energy greenhouse gasses trap.

At the same time, the world’s icecaps will melt, which causes more water to end up in the oceans. This affects the salinity (salt content) of the oceans. The lower the salinity of the water, the slower the mechanism that powers the ocean’s currents. This directly affects how fast the winds around the worlds blow.

So, not only does more water evaporate, but the mechanism that moves these newborn clouds from the ocean to land also slow down. The combination of these two processes results in far more energy ending up in our atmosphere in the form of evaporated water, which results in more severe weather patterns. At the same time, the slowing down of global currents also makes weather more predictable. If it’s gonna rain in a specific region, it’ll rain for a long time. If it’s going to be sunny, it’ll be sunny for a long time.

All of these will result in natural disasters around the world. Think droughts in some areas, floods in others, more frequent and more severe hurricanes and so on and so forth. If you think 2017’s hurricane season was bad, just imagine it becoming the norm every year.

Long term

Species that adapt well

The long term effects of climate change may be far more dire and far harder to predict. For instance, in Canada the mountain pine beetle is an indigenous species that feeds on pine trees. Historically it has always had a 2-year life cycle. However, as of a decade or two ago the beetle suddenly switched to a 1-year life cycle. This has been blamed on higher temperatures due to climate change. As a result the beetles are far more populous and attack pine trees in far greater numbers. While the trees can handle the damage caused by a small number of beetles, the much larger numbers of today actively kill pine trees. This has resulted in vast swathes of forest in Canada dying off as they’re overrun by the beetles.

All the red pine trees in this picture are dead, the result of the devastation caused by this species of beetle.

Species that adapt poorly

At the same time, winter on the North Pole gets shorter every year due to rising global temperatures. Polar bears need ice sheets to be able to hunt seals. Because every year there’s less ice sheets forming around the North Pole, polar bears struggle to find enough food and many end up starving to death. Climate change has them facing extinction.

We can expect similar situations to unfold across the world. Species that adapt well to higher global temperatures might overrun their environment and destabilize their ecosystem. Species that don’t might go extinct, leaving a permanent hole in their ecosystem.

Worst case scenario

While there’s many examples around the world I can use to talk about the potential ramifications of global warming. However, by far my favorite “worst case scenario” is the story of the Permian Extinction.

The Permian Extinction took place approximately 250 million years ago. One of the largest volcano’s that has ever graced our planet just erupted. By coincidence, the eruption ignited the world’s largest ever coal deposit, starting a fire that would rage for several thousand years. This pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere it raised global temperatures by about 5℃. An enormous difference when we consider that global temperatures have since 1880 increased by only approximately 1.53℃.

However, this wasn’t the end of it. As ocean life dies and sinks to the bottom, decaying matter accumulates on the ocean floor. This will mostly rot away, but in the process methane is formed. Methane is also a greenhouse gas, but about 1000 times stronger than CO2. Thankfully at the bottom of the ocean the pressure is so immense that the methane crystallizes into ice. This is very unstable however, and the temperature swing during the Permian Extinction destabilized all this methane ice and flooded the atmosphere with the gas, causing global temperatures to rise again by another 5.

That total change of 10 must have been disastrous for live across the globe. It’s unlikely many species of animals were able to survive such an immense swing in temperature. Unfortunately, our story gets worse.

The Cascade

One property of water is that it has a limited ability to absorb oxygen. This is based on the temperature of the water. Warm water can retain less oxygen than cold water. Hence, the massive increase in global temperatures also caused the oceans to heat up. This caused oxygen depletion is large areas of ocean, much like today’s dead zones. Imagine miles of hot murky ocean water with dead fish and crustaceans just floating around.

All that decaying matter in the oceans caused the proliferation of bacteria that can survive in the absence of oxygen. These broke down all that dead matter, but in the process produce toxic gasses as a waste product. These gasses are mostly harmless to the bacteria themselves, but to plants and animals it was deadly. This toxic gas built up in the oceans, killing the few creatures that survived the intense heat, before being released from the ocean’s surface into the atmosphere, also killing everything on land.

Due to all the combined factors, the Permian Extinction was by far the worst mass extinction our planet has ever faced. 95% of all species of animals and plants died.

Conclusion

It’s important to note that while it’s possible for us to cause a man-made Permian extinction, we are still far removed from that actually happening. There’s plenty of opportunities left to undo the damage done. There have already been great breakthroughs in the affordability of energy production using solar panels or wind turbines. There has even been an installation of a machine that draws CO2 out of the air.

Truly it’s no longer a question of “if” we can undo the damage that has been done. It has become a question of when we start investing in fixing the problem.

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