Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Climate of Man

I recently read a three-prt article by Elizabeth Kolbert in New Yorker, called The Climate of Man. It is an extremely well written article that tries to make it manifest for the rest of us that we are dangerously close to a state of global warming that may be irreversible, and may result in very drastic effects on civilization in a very short time -- if not in our times, defintiely in the next generation's.

Here is an excerpt from the last part of the article, that highlights how the greenhouse effect has worsened considerably in the recent years.

In the seventeen-eighties, ice-core records show, carbon-dioxide levels stood at about two hundred and eighty parts per million. Give or take ten parts per million, this was the same level that they had been at two thousand years earlier, in the era of Julius Caesar, and two thousand years before that, at the time of Stonehenge, and two thousand years before that, at the founding of the first cities. When, subsequently, industrialization began to drive up CO2 levels, they rose gradually at first—it took more than a hundred and fifty years to get to three hundred and fifteen parts per million—and then much more rapidly. By the mid-nineteen-seventies, they had reached three hundred and thirty parts per million, and, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, three hundred and sixty parts per million. Just in the past decade, they have risen by as much—twenty parts per million—as they did during the previous ten thousand years of the Holocene.

The article also talks about two feedback effects in the warming of the earth that make it even worse. Here is another excerpt that explains the first of the two:

At one point, Perovich asked me to imagine that we were looking down at the earth from a spaceship above the North Pole. “It’s springtime, and the ice is covered with snow, and it’s really bright and white,” he said. “It reflects over eighty per cent of the incident sunlight. The albedo’s around 0.8, 0.9. Now, let’s suppose that we melt that ice away and we’re left with the ocean. The albedo of the ocean is less than 0.1; it’s like 0.07.

“Not only is the albedo of the snow-covered ice high; it’s the highest of anything we find on earth,” he went on. “And not only is the albedo of water low; it’s pretty much as low as anything you can find on earth. So what you’re doing is you’re replacing the best reflector with the worst reflector.” The more open water that’s exposed, the more solar energy goes into heating the ocean. The result is a positive feedback, similar to the one between thawing permafrost and carbon releases, only more direct. This so-called ice-albedo feedback is believed to be a major reason that the Arctic is warming so rapidly.

“As we melt that ice back, we can put more heat into the system, which means we can melt the ice back even more, which means we can put more heat into it, and, you see, it just kind of builds on itself,” Perovich said. “It takes a small nudge to the climate system and amplifies it into a big change.”

In the last part of the article, the author talks about the attitude of two different countries towards this issue. Both are developed nations, and their attitudes are the pola opposites of each other. Netherlands government, activists and people are concerned and are taking actions (such as "room for the river" project). The Bush government, on the other hand, refused to even join hands with the rest of the world on the Kyoto agreement and has its head buried in the sand. And this despite the fact that the US is the biggest contributor of the greenhouse gases.

I live in Bangalore, and I cannot ignore the pollution that envelops this city all the time. While it is easy to point to the US, I think it behooves the Indian government to be still more concerned about it. It is heartening to see the improvements in Delhi over the last three years. It is, today, a much cleaner, nicer city than what it was some years ago. It is apalling to see the attitude of people and government alike in Bangalore. I almost have nightmares imagining the continuous increase of people and traffic in this city, dreading a day when everything will come to a standstill.

1 comment:

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