Greenhouse gases were first recognized by “Joseph Fourier in 1824, first reliably experimented on by John Tyndall in 1858, and first reported quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896.” What makes these gases significant is that they function like a thermostat that modifies the Earth’s temperature. Not enough and the planet is far enough from the sun to be a frozen ball. Too much, and the planet warms – potentially far more than our life forms can tolerate. They set Earth’s temperature by forming an insulating blanket shrouding the Earth. But unlike having too many blankets and choosing to remove one or two during the night, these molecular blankets can not be easily removed if it gets too hot.
This concept left the realm of abstract theory during the 1950s as the US Air Force developed heat seeking missiles and learned there were frequencies that were absorbed by something in the air.
So far, not too far beyond what I was learning in grade school, but it does get interesting as we see this next bit of detail.
NASA scientists provide a stunning new look at how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere travels around the globe. Plumes of carbon dioxide in the simulation swirl and shift as winds disperse the greenhouse gas away from its sources. The simulation illustrates differences in carbon dioxide levels in the northern and southern hemispheres and distinct swings in global carbon dioxide concentrations as the growth cycle of plants and trees changes with the seasons. ~ The carbon dioxide visualization was produced by a computer model called GEOS-5, created by scientists at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. The visualization is a product of a simulation called a “Nature Run,” which ingests real data on atmospheric conditions and the emission of greenhouse gases and both natural and man-made particulates. The model is then left to run on its own and simulate the natural behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere. This Nature Run simulates January 2006 through December 2006.
Seeing that new NASA video inspired me to make this my first blog post. (admittedly a little strange for a site on leadership and peace building – but it is what I’ve most researched since retiring, and it will certainly be the back story for much of what conflict lies ahead. Besides, maybe you are like me when I was working long days – too busy to dig through the many many pieces and try to assemble a coherent picture. If so, your welcome to ride along and experience what I’ve found.)
Tracking the CO2 concentrations by satellite, then converting those myriads of readings into a color code animation is a massive amount of data manipulation. The result though demonstrates how concentrations are varying across the planet – by latitude and by season. Importantly, previous climate predictions on the effect of:
- less ice cover allowing more energy to reach into the Arctic waters,
- overall warmer oceans leaking more warmth into the Arctic,
- deposits of coal soot from China landing upon and reducing the reflectivity of energy off the ice there…
These already projected that the Arctic would be the region to first see significant warming. The NASA video graphically shows that during the Winter months the CO2 over the region will be a better thermal blanket than otherwise… heat that gets to the arctic will not radiate off as easily… so CO2 is now explicitly shown to be among the key factors that amplifies warming in the Arctic. Our thermostat is too high in the Arctic, and those consequences are showing.
What human activities add to greenhouse gases?
By what amounts?
The image shows relative percentages. CO2 is the leading change maker, the thermostat that sets the trends, but just how much CO2 is represented by that 77 percent? Looking ONLY at Crude Oil, the US oil use alone generates 2.31 Billion tons of CO2/yr.
Global petroleum is consumed at 90 Million barrels of oil per day => translating to 11.27 Gigatons (Billion tons) of CO2/yr. That is a huge amount, released continuously, and totaling far more than volcanic activity. Can we be sure? Are Humans indeed the major cause of change to Atmospheric Carbon?
YES! and the proof of that is based upon an understanding of the sourcing and ratios of the 3 isotopic varieties of Carbon (C12 / C13 / C14) where C14 is most present in plants that have recently been doing photosynthesis. Long term C14 decays to standard C12 such as happens to fossilized plant material buried in the Earths’ crust. Lastly, C13 appears in carbon that has been in the thermal core of the planet, exposed to radiation there. The relative mix of these isotopic varieties have been shifting this century towards C12, not C13 or C14, meaning the added CO2 is primarily from burning fossil fuels.
This short video explains it more visually: “It’s Us”
Look next at where it all goes. We find that about half this net increase goes into the atmosphere and raises the CO2 ppm. Another 24% of the added CO2 released each year is absorbed into the oceans. Adding CO2 to water is a 2-way process. As a gas, it both evaporates off and dissolves back into the water. The 2-way process is written as
CO2 + H2O H2CO3. Some carbonic acid is always present, but as CO2 concentrations rise in the air, there is more carbonic acid. At much higher concentrations you have carbonated soda water. Even the shifts so far are showing the acid is corrosive to shells, coral skeleton. and plankton.
The remaining 26% annually is absorbed over land, primarily through photosynthesis. IF that carbon becomes part of large trees, later as furniture and timber, then the carbon stays sequestered out of the atmosphere. Most carbon cycles through various land organisms until it is released as animal respiration or as the lifeless remains decay. In the Arctic, while the lands remained brutally cold, dead plants didn’t decay, they just got frozen and buried. Now as those regions warm, the decay will begin in earnest. If underwater, the thawing Permafrost releases Methane, while if exposed to air as the warmed tundra begins decay, it releases CO2. Once the tundra begins to thaw, it thus adds to the blanket effect and accelerate further warming. Humans are on the verge of starting / maybe have already started processes that we will not be able to contain.
Normal Climate Change
Up until the industrial revolution dug out and burned the buried fossil fuel remains of photosynthesis long ago, the planet was in a stable balance for which CO2 vacillated between a thin 180 ppm (Ice Age) and a thick blanket of 280 ppm (warm and comfy for life as we know it.) Yes, Ice Ages seem extreme, but they advance and retreat at a pace linked to changes in the Earth’s periodic, regular shifts in the axial tilt and elliptical pattern of its orbit.
What does 800, 000 years of history for CO2 look like? This short (1½ min) animation is interesting for starting recently, moving to the present, then extending backwards. Pay particular attention to how the past decades compare to the total range of experience during our ice ages. What would a person expect to happen with so much added insulation? Cranking the thermostat so high?
In the above, I summarized what I see as key evidence that CO2 acts as a Greenhouse Gas, that it is the Greenhouse Gas that is most rapidly changing in concentration, that where we already are (400 ppm CO2) has not been experienced in the past 800,000+ years, and that humans are the cause of the thickening of Earth’s blanket, the dialing up of our thermostat.
Does this appear in actual records? Look at the image to the right and see how models that do not include changes in CO2 concentrations began failing to agree with reality back in the 60s, and yet models tracking against, accounting for CO2 changes are proving to be more accurate forecasters of climate trends.
Looking Ahead – Human Induced Climate Change
So far the logical conclusions are that change is happening. What temperature is our thermostat now set for, and in how many generations – these questions deserve another blog post all for themselves. The truth will be playing out for all of us all too soon, but just exactly how soon? Are the IPCC and similar reports real, extreme, or playing it cautions?
Please let me know if this was helpful, and which portions / formats you liked or not. Which threads of the story would yo like to see expanded?