Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sisyphean climate battles--Can we just move along?

A few letters to editors in recent weeks recalled for us Sisyphus, and long-ago battles that need continually to be refought.

Sisyphus, you'll recall, was the Greek mythical figure who shoved a giant boulder to the near the top of a hill each day, only to see if roll back down. For all eternity he was forced daily to push it back up.

The letters, all angry, assert that climate change is not happening, that it's a fraud.

From my perspective, that's a little like the guy who stands up to his knees in water, claiming it's not even a little wet.

Set aside the issue of human involvement in warming. If you choose to believe it's about cosmic radiation, about solar activity or some other natural cycle, fine. There is indeed a class of narrowly focused papers that suggest a role for such things--and even then, the authors mostly say it's a limited role. But most reputable scientists, and most nations, agree that human activity—like fossil fuel consumption and forest clearing—are the primary culprits.

Warming itself is well established. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that 95 percent of glaciers are melting. Plants in temperate zones around the world are blooming earlier in the spring. Animals are migrating earlier. Snow melt in California Sierras is occurring two weeks earlier over the past century.

It's even affecting our beer. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute, in the Journal of Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, reported recently on a decline in the quality of Saaz hops, a delicate variety used to make the finest pilsner beer. They blame rising temperatures.

A friend of mine who denies warming says he's a gauge-reader and mistrusts calculated evidence and computer models. Well, sea levels are measurably rising. Oceans are measurably warming. These are not theories. They don't rely on computer models or guesswork. These are things we can measure directly.

The conservative columnist George Will recently and loudly discovered that in February, there was as much ice in the Arctic Ocean as there was in February 20 years ago. What he either ignored or intentionally failed to report is that that ice was dramatically thinner than it was 20 years ago; or that in summer, there was far, far less ice than there was in summers 20 years ago. Less than at any time since we've been able to measure it.

Whether George Will is embarrassed or mule-headed or just plain doesn't care, I don't know. But to my knowledge, he has not fessed up that he mistook ice coverage for ice volume.

If we want some interesting observations, let's set aside both the journalists and the scientists. Who really knows what's going on up there in the icy north?

Business does. The oil companies, mining companies and the nations that border the Arctic know the ice is melting. They're actively arguing about access to the oil and minerals that are under where the ice used to be.

Captain Cook discovered Hawai'i for Europe while he was on his way to find the Northwest Passage. It was not there to be found in the 1770s. It was iced in, as it has been for most of the time since.

But in 2007, the Northwest Passage was clear for the first time in memory—and shipping companies are looking at it as an alternative to the clogged Panama Canal for getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Shipping companies are already taking advantage of the reduced ice cover over the northern side of Asia and Europe. This fall, two German cargo ships became the first commercial vessels ever to cross from east to west, NORTH of Russia, through the Arctic Ocean. These German ships, which were accompanied by an ice breaker just in case, were headed from South Korea to Rotterdam, in Holland.

China Daily columnist Liu Shinan decried the event, not because he doesn't believe it, but because shipping in the Arctic Ocean could threaten the health of Arctic ecosystems.

The point is that climate change is not something we need to worry about in the future. It's here, now. The folks at this maple syrup farm are worried. They're tapping their trees two weeks earlier each year than they did forty years ago. And it's affecting maple sugar production.

The prospect of no maple syrup on your hotcakes not enough to worry you? How about losing that glass of wine before dinner. Stanford researchers say warming weather has already increased temperatures in the West Coast wine growing regions by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit from 1948 to 2002, and that the continued warming will make many current wine areas unsuitable for commercial vineyards.

Now that's serious.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

maybe the snow is melting and necessary because the ocean needs more fresh water for the fish. if the water is not added with more fresh water the water will be too polluted.

the snow will fall more in the middle section the earth is a bit tilted towards the sun...then earth will cool down again...I HOPE