Tag Archives: climate change

Unanchored

Often it’s the natural world that provides us with our first taste of science. As children we are natural explorers and investigators, trying to understand: what is that mountain made from? Why is the sky blue? What are flowers for? What do bees do? What are the stars in the sky?

This curiosity can often carry over into adulthood, even if we aren’t scientists, even if we don’t spend much time outside. I recently went on a hike with a geologist and a botanist, and I must have sounded like a child myself: why are the rocks cracked this way? What’s this flower? How were these mountains formed? And when I was in the Arctic, I noticed there too that the ecologists, the natural scientists were very popular, subject to an endless litany of questions about what we were seeing, about what it meant.

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Initially science is quite exciting, as it seems to have all the answers. But the natural world is complex, full of interconnected cycles and systems, and we are still actively discovering the ways in which weather, animal populations, plant habitats, and so many other things all depend on each other. We can watch ecological cycles, and see how they change, and look back in time to see how they have changed in the past.

And from that, we understand that we are changing our planet irrevocably.

In the Arctic, we could see the glaciers receding and the sea ice which shrinks further and further each year, thanks to the warming that our CO2 emissions have caused. The Arctic is warming faster than any region on the planet, with strong ramifications for global circulation patterns and warming and acidification of the oceans. This warming will also affect ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, triggering sea level rise and more extreme weather like floods, heat waves, and droughts which endanger the global food supply. While climate scientists are still working to understand the full depths of the changes the Anthropocene era of human activity has brought, what is clear is that the planet is warming, the oceans are becoming acidic, and the consequences are likely catastrophic.

For a long time, the natural world has been viewed as an endless bounty. Full of wildlife and vast resources, so much grander than we humans that the idea of changing or depleting nature seemed ridiculous. But humanity has a different perspective now. We have been to space, and seen the pale blue dot that contains all of civilization, floating alone in the void. And we have seen that Earth’s resources are finite, that we cannot extract fuels or minerals indefinitely, that we cannot kill off massive numbers of animals and expect them to magically come back next year.

In the Arctic, we visited an old whaling station, where so many beluga whales had been killed in the 1930s that the beach was littered with bones. Whaling, which was intensive and economically important for a long time, is now heavily controlled after many whale populations were driven nearly to extinction. We saw what we were doing to the planet, and we acted across national boundaries to protect our shared resources. Whaling quotas and bans are now strictly enforced, with the result that many whale populations are beginning to rebound. However, it has taken decades.

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Global action on climate change has not been as straightforward to implement. Different countries have different CO2 emissions profiles, and will be affected to varying degrees by global warming. Economic interests mean that many countries (and industries) are hesitant to take the first step, and even seemingly promising developments like the Paris accord are subject to the whims of unreliable governments who may decide that the next four years are more important than the next four hundred years.

We must fight this. Individual actions, like reducing your carbon footprint by examining how you travel, what you eat, and where you live, are a necessary and important start. However, they will not be sufficient when the economic and political situation still favors carbon emission, subsidizing fossil fuels, and spending toward entrenched lobbying interests rather than the public good of all people on our precious planet. Systemic change is needed, and realistically we are already too late to be able to stop climate change. What we can do now is act to minimize its damage.

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At the northernmost point we reached in the Arctic, nearly 80°N, we anchored our ship to an ice floe. The ice floe was only somewhat larger than the ship, and yet once we were attached to it, it felt like we were completely stationary. The sea stood all around us, the mountains and glaciers in the distance, and it seemed as if we had our feet planted firmly at the top of the world.

And yet, by tracking the ship on a map we could see that we had actually drifted several miles, attached to the ice, without feeling a thing! It is difficult to comprehend sometimes, that disconnect between what you perceive and the reality of things. And yet we know what we are seeing when we look at our warming planet, our melting world, and the science is telling us what it means. Humanity is anchored to this planet, and we too are drifting. We must open our eyes and act, if we hope to have any say in where we end up.

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The Water Cycle and The Future

I’ve always loved water. My favourite sport is swimming, because of how it feels to have water holding you up. And when I was young, any time it rained I’d run outside and just walk for ages in the rain: I loved the smell and the cool of it. Admittedly, rain was a rarity in my childhood, since I grew up in New Mexico in the US, which is all mountains and desert. I can see why here in Ireland, where rain is so much more common, you see fewer people rushing to the streets each time it rains. But in my desert home, one of the things I found fascinating is that water has a story, a history just like us, it has somewhere it came from and somewhere it’s going. When we see the rain fall, it’s evaporated from the ground, from lakes, from the sea. And that same rain will be absorbed by the ground and stay in it before rising again, or freezing into ice caps, or melting and flowing again to the sea. Here in Ireland, the clouds come in off the ocean, so the water in our rain is evaporated sea water.

We can think of the water on the world like the water in our own bodies. We can run and get sweaty, and the water on our skin evaporates away. We can drink in water, filling our insides the same way that aquifers under the surface of the earth are filled with water. And then we can release that water given time, the same way that solid land loses some of its water to the seas. But because the earth is so big, it also has weather on its surface, clouds and rainfall, and as far as I know I’ve never sweated enough to make it rain.

But how quickly water moves through this cycle depends on the weather, the same way it does for our bodies. You sweat more when it’s hot and humid, like now, and less if it’s cold or dry, right? Well water is affected the same way, by how warm the surface of the earth is. In hot conditions, more water will evaporate off the earth’s surface and off of plants, which can stimulate more weather like rain and thunderstorms… unless it’s very dry! So where I grew up, desert plants have to work really hard to hang onto water, because it’s such a precious resource and the heat and dryness cause it to go away really quickly. Plants here don’t have that issue, as there is plenty of water to go around!

We are changing how the water cycles through our world, though. When people build dams, cut down forests, pasture animals, build cities, or burn fuel for energy, that changes where water can flow and how long it stays in the air. All of our activities affect the flow of water through the sky, the sea, and the earth.

In fact, greenhouse gases from our human civilization are causing the atmosphere to trap more heat from the sun, so that our planet is gradually warming up. It’s a slow process, taking decades for the world’s temperature to rise even a degree on average, but it’s been going on for awhile now. So even though we are trying to switch to solar power away from things like coal power, our planet will keep warming up. Sea levels will go up, and we’ll have warmer summers and rainier winters. Here in Ireland, it might be nice, as long as you don’t live right on the sea. But in New Mexico, it’s already difficult to grow food and stay cool during the summer, so the extra heat might make it very hard for people to live there. But the important thing about the future is understanding it so you can plan accordingly… for example, by moving to Ireland!

Physics for Future Presidents

A quick break from the science basics I’ve been laying down!

When I was an undergrad, my university had a pretty amazing course for non-scientists called Physics for Future Presidents. The basic idea was to cover a lot of day-to-day phenomena from a scientific angle, forgoing any unnecessary background, and the professor for the course, Rich Muller, was very charismatic and an excellent lecturer. While I am trying in my posts to build up some scientific concepts so that I can write about some of the interesting phenomena out there, the approach of Physics for Future Presidents was to treat physics as a second language that you learn through total immersion. An interesting approach, and they covered lots of physics from the headlines such as UFOs, nuclear weapons, and solar energy.

I bring this all up to point out that the lectures for the course are available online here, and you can access some of the book chapters online such as those covering radioactivity and climate change. It’s a great resource for improving scientific literacy, which even scientists can benefit from.