Okay, everybody loves to express an opinion about global warming, right? Some people are certain that it’s the reason behind the severe hurricanes this season. It’s never been this bad before, after all. And there are some people who pretty much deny that the planet is warming up, in spite of the fact that the planet is warming up. What? Well, a couple of years ago somebody actually sailed the Northwest Passage. Henrik Hudson couldn’t pull that off; in fact it took a nuclear submarine (the Nautilis) to make the trip, and that was in the 1950s. Now, during the high summer, you can do it in your yacht. Kilimanjaro is running out of snows. Glaciers are receding all over Alaska. And, most telling of all, the average temperature on this planet is up half a degree (celsius) in the past century. So, the globe is definitely warming. But . . .
The globe has been warming and cooling for millennia. Tens of millenia. Eons, even. There is a very good question as to whether it’s us causing this round of heating. Maybe, because after all we are dumping a lot of carbon into the air. Carbon in gasseous form (carbon dioxice mainly) tends to hold heat in, which is why you hear of a “greenhouse effect.” That’s bad. Of course, a good volcanic eruption will dump more carbon into the air in a month than we can manage to dump in a year, but still, we do add to the total. Given the frequency of volcanic eruptions (all the darned time, in point of fact) our contribution might not be all we’d like to think. So, maybe we can cut down greenhouse gas emissions to virtually zero, but not make a whit of noticeable difference to global warming. That’s actually the truth, in spite of the fact that W. Bush says it. Surprisingly, there’s no real evidence that global warming is behind the current spate of large hurricanes in the Atlantic, either.
Actually, this isn’t the worst season ever. About eighty to sixty years ago the hurricanes were truly awsomely bad. One cut across the keys and wiped out a railroad. One virtually destroyed Galveston, Texas. There were more, all terribly destructive. There is, it seems, a pattern to really strong hurricanes, and we are moving into a stretch where the strong ones are the norm. The pattern is caused by a pattern in the surface temperature of the Atlantic ocean, which varies by a degree or so over a long cycle. When it’s warm, we get severe storms. When it cools a bit, the storms ease up a bit. This current cycle of large cyclones was predicted almost a decade ago, in fact, without any reference to global warming. That’s not doomsday or otherwise exciting, but it is the truth. In about ten to twenty years they’ll become the more mild storms we were used to in the last half of the twentieth century. Hope that’s okay.
Some of the dire predictions of global warming are not really happening. For example, if the North Atlantic becomes sufficiently de-salinized, by the addition of enough fresh water, the gulf stream will stop sinking down and becoming an undersea current that heads on south and around the world. That will stop the massive transfer of heat from the tropics to the arctic, resulting in hurricanes that make this year’s storms seem like April showers, and ushering in a new ice age. It’s happened in the past, when an ice dam broke in what is now Canada and the entire contents of a giant freshwater lake emptied into the North Atlantic in a matter of months. This, say some, is what awaits if the polar ice melts. Well, actually, the North Atlantic is somewhat less salty than it was fifty years ago, but the rate of desalinization is so low that even if all the ice in the arctic melts, which it appears will happen sometime this century, it won’t lose enough salinity to stop the gulf stream. That dire prediction is simply not in the cards, apparently. I hope that’s okay, too.
In fact, if all the ice at the poles melts the sea level will rise two to three feet, and the climate will change, in some places for the worse and in some places for the better. It will change life, to be sure, but then so do births, deaths, relocations, wars, pandemics, reality TV, new inventions and the inexorable increase in entropy in the universe. Change is inevitable. Some coastal areas are going to be in trouble. Miami is at an elevation of just about three feet, for example. That’s going to make Miami a salt marsh, unless something is done like the dikes in Holland or (if they’d only been high enough) Louisiana. New York City is, for the most part, higher than three feet. It will seemingly inconvenience the Port Authority to relocate docs and such, but when you consider that the process will take about eighty years, you can see that there will be plenty of time to get it done. Which is one big difference between the real effects of global warming and what you see in movies and on TV.
That is, it won’t just happen one day (there is no ice dam holding back more than half of the world’s fresh water anywhere.) It will happen over decades. Most ice ages have taken centuries or more to get started, except for that one caused by the ice dam failure. They also have taken many centuries to go away, and in between ice ages have been clear periods when things have been, well, considerably warmer. Again, it’s a change, but it’s not a disaster. The thing is, humans (that would be us) became human due to the pressures of climate change. We’re used to that sort of thing; we’re even experienced in adapting and thriving in varying conditions. We will, in short, no doubt swim right through the effects of global warming, getting bigger and fatter just as we have for the past half millenium. Hey, it’s what we do. And for added entertainment, we can find out what it takes to live on another planet or two, because after all, that’s just a change in climate if you think about it.
As for the doomsayers, well, as my dad used to say, the world ends for somebody every single day. So buck up: your day will come.