Insight

The Danger of Arctic Melt and How to Save Our World by Whitley Strieber



The arctic melt this summer is unprecedented. By mid-September, it will be worse even than 2007, which saw the Northwest Passage opened for the first time. On August 27, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the ice pack was a 4.1 million square kilometers, 70,000 square kilometers lower than 2007. There are still about four weeks to go before the ice pack stabilizes and starts to grow, as the days get shorter and the arctic winter sets in.

The reduced size of the ice pack means that more heat enters the water below, raising water temperatures and causing the melt of methane hydrates. This methane is in turn released into the air, causing a further intensification of warming. Already, methane is outgassing from the tundra all across the arctic region. While methane remains in the atmosphere only a few years, it is a powerful greenhouse gas, retaining 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

This, combined with the fact that less ice means that less light and heat is being reflected out into space, means that the collapse of the ice pack could be profound, and it could happen quickly. If this winter does not bring normal temperatures to the arctic, the ice pack's melt will increase even more next summer, and each year it increases, the problem is going to get worse.

Cyclones are now crossing into the arctic, which used to be an extremely rare event, but now is becoming more common. The wave cause a further breakup of the ice. The last of these events took place on August 5. The more broken up the ice, the faster it melts.

So what does this mean? To oil companies, it's a good thing. They have plans to drill in newly accessible arctic waters, as there may be trillions of barrels of oil beneath the arctic ocean. But for the rest of us the news is very bad indeed. This is because the circulation of our atmosphere depends on there being a temperature difference between mid and high latitudes. Without that, the jet streams weaken and water cycles, in the form of our ocean currents, are also degraded. The melt is also flooding the North Atlantic and Baffin Bay with fresh water, which is further slowing ocean currents like the Gulf Stream.

We are going to experience things like 'blocking highs,' which are high pressure areas that remain in the same place for weeks or months. In my book Nature's End, published in 1985, I describe the effects of a blocking high on Denver, which becomes essentially unlivable due to pollution. But that was 1985 and this is now. Fortunately, the efforts of the US Government through the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments, mean that there are no American cities that are now in the type of danger described in the book.

This is not true of the rest of the world, though, and places like India, China, Latin America and the Middle East, where there are essentially no pollution controls at all, are not just at jeopardy in a general sense, they are in growing and immediate danger, and that danger could be very, very serious. Cities like Tehran, Beijing and New Delhi are potentially under serious threat if pollution levels should exceed limits beyond which large numbers of people cannot survive.

The two great northern continental landmasses are haunted by another specter, however, which is the twin threat of drought and heat. There could be extraordinary summer droughts, and possibly droughts that extend from Moscow to New York. At the same time, the 'wobbling' of the weakened jet stream, caused by weakened ocean currents, could cause much colder and wetter summers in the British Isles, as happened this summer, and to a lesser extent in northern continental countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland. Meanwhile, southern European summers will come to be more like those of the North African desert.

The basic reason for all this warming is extremely simple: As of July of 2012, CO2 levels as recorded by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at their Mauna Loa recording station, had reached 394.4 parts per million. This is 30% more than at the beginning of the 20th Century, and a higher level than in at least the past 700,000 years.

Contrary to some of the fake science on the internet, this reading is not distorted because of volcanism in the Hawaiian Islands. The reason that we know this is that the increases have been steady since readings began in 1958. They do not rise and fall or spike when volcanic activity in the islands rises.

Also, the warming we are experiencing is not due to the sun. In fact, infrared radiation from the sun, which gives us our heat, decreased through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, while Earth's temperatures steadily increased.

So the question arises, what can we do? There are two keys to reducing CO2 emissions: the first is that we must reduce the amount of coal we burn. There is no such thing as 'clean coal.' It is a massive CO2 polluter, pure and simple. The second thing is to increase the efficiency of our motor fleet, so that we burn less fuel and expel less CO2 in the process.

Despite the efforts of various industry and political groups to keep the false debate over global warming going, the United States is doing a creditable job of reducing its emissions. Our industries are switching from coal to gas at a rapid pace, largely because it makes good economic sense. And persistent federal regulation over the past 25 years has, along with marketplace pressures from steadily rising gasoline prices, caused our motor fleet to become steadily more efficient.

To a great extent, Europe has also followed this pattern, with the difference that the movement to gas has been slower due to the fact that so much European gas comes from Russia, which is viewed as a politically unreliable supplier. However, the discovery of large quantities of gas in Poland and in some areas of Northern Europe could improve this picture.

The great problem is China. Chinese industry runs on coal, and subsidized gasoline prices mean that there is no marketplace motive for auto makers to increase the efficiency of the Chinese motor fleet. In addition, poor reporting practices mean that Chinese pollution and CO2 emissions are far higher than government statistics show.

There are substantial gas reserves in the Gobi Desert, but, unlike the US and Western Europe, China lacks the transport infrastructure necessary to move gas from the Gobi into its industrial regions.

Nevertheless, the world's danger is so great that it would seem essential to do something to reduce Chinese CO2 output. Maybe the only way to do it is to impose high tariffs on Chinese goods, in order to retard their industrial production until they reduce their CO2 emissions. Hopefully, though, that won't be necessary, and again, the marketplace could be leading the way. This is because a deepening European recession means that fewer Chinese exports are being bought. Already, massive amounts of unsold goods are building up in China, largely because the EU, which is their most important trading partner, is importing less.

Still, the use of coal as a fuel on Planet Earth is no longer a viable large-scale option. The scrubbing of coal smoke can reduce the level of pollutants it emits into the air, but nothing can lower the amount of CO2.

We in the West also need to use our innovative genius, our efficient marketplace and our governments' ability to provide startup funding, to find and deploy ways of absorbing CO2.

We have to do all of these things. It's no longer a choice. The global warming debate, which was never real, is causing inaction that is placing billions of lives in peril, and threatening the very survival of civilization. It is threatening each and every one of us. Because we are debating instead of working right now, for example, food prices are going to rise next spring, and there is immediate danger of shortages even in America if next year is another drought year in the US Midwest. Right now, the stock-to-usage ratio of corn is at a record low. If it goes lower, that means actual shortages.

It is time to get past the nonsense, buckle down, and fix this problem--and you know what, a whole lot of people will make a whole lot of money doing it, because, in the end, the marketplace will be where change starts, grows and flourishes.




Whitley, what are your thoughts about the impact of agriculture on global warming? Both livestock raising and chemical fertilizer runoff?

If the environment goes to critical meltdown, do you believe the visitors will be forced to reveal themselves or will they leave us to our own devices?

I'm not sure natural gas is the answer. Burning coal is certainly a terrible thing for the atmosphere, but we need clean water, as well, which is not something that collectors of natural gas seem to consider a priority.

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/343202/title/The_Facts_Behind...

Also, in response to the first posting here, I'm not sure runoff has a huge deal to do with climate change. I think the big issue with agriculture and global warming is raising cattle, which produce a SUBSTANTIAL amount of methane. A Large percentage of crops are also grown just to feed those cattle, and A LOT of water is used.
Runoff is a serious problem, however. Here in Florida, where I live, it has contaminated many of our rivers, springs and lakes. Nitrate levels, attributed to both fertilizers and animal and human waste, are in some places three times what state agencies say is allowed (10 milligrams per liter). As a result, many areas have seen huge blooms of algae, which do well with high nitrate levels, smother much of the life that once lived there. Yet, the state does nothing.

I think deep down we all know that there is only one course of action. Even the deniers saying their silly things know that there is one of two choices to make. I think there is a very deep timing mechanism within us, integrated in our consciousness and spread out over the entire world (and entire space-time plane for that matter) that will go off at the right time and compel us to mobilize. Our own tipping point. Hopefully, we will not need a hard lesson to learn.

How do we save our planet when we are only making half-hearted attempts at saving our own bodies? If you look at each person as an eco-system, then our outside environment is a direct reflection of ourselves.

You open the newspaper and it is article after article about healthcare 'reform', how overweight we are, our eating habits, lack of exercise, etc. We are totally disconnected from nature. If we began to treat our own bodies as the sacred temples they are, it would be reflected outward towards the earth and other living things. We will never treat the Earth as sacred until we begin to see it within ourselves.

We have to save our planet. I agree that natural gas is not the perfect solution. Far from it. But it is better than the gigantic carbon sink of coal. As I point out in the article, the key is really China. If we are going to get this thing fixed, China needs to follow in the US's footsteps and start using NG and improve the emission and propulsive efficiency of its motor fleet. What they are doing now is building more coal-fired power plants (at the rate of one about every 10 days) and pouring cars out of their factories with essentially no pollution controls and mileage efficiency that is the equivalent of where the EU and the US were 25 years ago. (Instead of mileage efficiency, they subsidize gas prices...with money they have earned from us.) We are way too close to an endgame with this. Way too close. Dramatic action is essential.

Maybe we are headed full steam into a climate crash? If we make a plan for planet earth then how long should we plan for?

The following article from NASA.com explains how an aerial visual phenomena called Noctilucent Clouds observed since the explosion of the volcano on Krakatoa in 1885 is evidence of global climate change involving meteor smoke and increasing methane in the upper atmosphere.

Meteor Smoke Makes Strange Clouds >>> (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/aim/news/meteor-smoke.html)

Anyone who's ever seen a noctilucent cloud or “NLC” would agree: They look alien. The electric-blue ripples and pale tendrils of NLCs reaching across the night sky resemble something from another world.

Researchers say that's not far off. A key ingredient for the mysterious clouds comes from outer space.

"We've detected bits of 'meteor smoke' imbedded in noctilucent clouds," reports James Russell of Hampton University, principal investigator of NASA's AIM mission to study the phenomenon. "This discovery supports the theory that meteor dust is the nucleating agent around which NLCs form."

Noctilucent clouds are a mystery dating back to the late 19th century. Northern sky watchers first noticed them in 1885 about two years after the eruption of Krakatoa. Ash from the Indonesian volcano caused such splendid sunsets that evening sky watching became a worldwide past time. One observer in particular, a German named T.W. Backhouse who is often credited with the discovery of NLCs, noticed something odd. He stayed outside longer than most people, long enough for the twilight to fully darken, and on some nights he saw wispy filaments glowing electric blue against the black sky. Scientists of the day figured they were some manifestation of volcanic dust.

Eventually Krakatoa’s ash settled and the sunsets faded, but strangely the noctilucent clouds didn’t go away. They’re still present today, stronger than ever. Researchers aren’t sure what role Krakatoa’s ash played in those early sightings. One thing is clear, however: The dust behind the clouds we see now is space dust.

Mark Hervig of the company GATS, Inc, led the team that found the extraterrestrial connection. "Using AIM's Solar Occultation for Ice Experiment (SOFIE), we found that about 3% of each ice crystal in a noctilucent cloud is meteoritic," says Hervig.

The inner solar system is littered with meteoroids of all shapes and sizes--from asteroid-sized chunks of rock to microscopic specks of dust. Every day Earth scoops up tons of the material, mostly the small stuff. When meteoroids hit our atmosphere and burn up, they leave behind a haze of tiny particles suspended 70 km to 100 km above Earth's surface.

It's no coincidence that NLCs form 83 km high, squarely inside the meteor smoke zone.

Specks of meteor smoke act as gathering points where water molecules can assemble themselves into ice crystals. The process is called "nucleation."

Nucleation happens all the time in the lower atmosphere. In ordinary clouds, airborne specks of dust and even living microbes can serve as nucleation sites. Tiny ice crystals, drops of water, and snowflakes grow around these particles, falling to Earth if and when they become heavy enough.

Nucleating agents are especially important in the ethereal realm of NLCs. The clouds form at the edge of space where the air pressure is little more than vacuum. The odds of two water molecules meeting is slim, and of sticking together slimmer still.

Meteor smoke helps beat the odds. According AIM data, ice crystals can grow around meteoritic dust to sizes ranging from 20 to 70 nanometers. For comparison, cirrus clouds in the lower atmosphere where water is abundant contain crystals 10 to 100 times larger.

The small size of the ice crystals explains the clouds' blue color. Small particles tend to scatter short wavelengths of light (blue) more strongly than long wavelengths (red). So when a beam of sunlight hits an NLC, blue is the color that gets scattered down to Earth.

Meteor smoke explains much about NLCs, but a key mystery remains: Why are the clouds brightening and spreading?

In the 19th century, NLCs were confined to high latitudes—places like Canada and Scandinavia. In recent times, however, they have been spotted as far south as Colorado, Utah and Nebraska. The reason, Russell believes, is climate change. One of the greenhouse gases that has become more abundant in Earth's atmosphere since the 19th century is methane. It comes from landfills, natural gas and petroleum systems, agricultural activities, and coal mining. It turns out that methane boosts NLCs. Russell explains: "When methane makes its way into the upper atmosphere, it is oxidized by a complex series of reactions to form water vapor. This extra water vapor is then available to grow ice crystals for NLCs."

If this idea is correct, noctilucent clouds are a sort of "canary in a coal mine" for one of the most important greenhouse gases. And that, says Russell, is a great reason to study them. "Noctilucent clouds might look alien, but they're telling us something very important about our own planet."

Sometimes it feels as though my contributions toward environmental change amount to a very tiny part of the over-all work that needs to be done, and I feel discouraged by the bigger picture. Your article Whitley, helped bring to mind the hard work of a dear friend of mine, and that of her many colleagues. After reconsidering my part and the information you share with us, I would like to make another small contribution, to dispel any discouragement on my part. That is to bring information here that some may not be aware of, that could possibly serve as inspiration, even a model perhaps.

There is a stunningly gorgeous place in the world that is considered a world treasure--in Borneo Malaysia called the Coral Triangle. There was a coal plant t slated to be built close to the beautiful shores of a beach that is home to a village of indigenous peoples who have lived and fished there ever since their humble beginnings.

Through the environmental activism of dedicated people who refused to accept being ignored by government officials, they continued to insist that their voices and concerns be heard. They wanted to stop the displacement of the peoples of the fishing village and they wanted their government officials to listen to them and stop the coal plant from being built. They asked their government to work with them to explore new avenues of clean energy for Borneo.

Green Surf, the environmental organization won, with a great deal of collaboration from Cynthia Ong, my dear friend from L.E.A.P. (Land, Environment, Animals, People). Now, the village remains, the waters are clean and protected, there will be no coal plant and the government officials listened well to the many who persisted with all their voices.

Since you spoke about China, I wonder if there might be a grass roots organization there with allies in the U.S. such as Borneo has, or a powerful environmental group such as L.E.A.P. Spiral.org? I wonder how many people in China might be knowing many of the same facts as you've presented for us here? Wouldn't it be great to open a conversation with someone who is equally concerned in China? Thoughts?

Cynthia's open letter can be found by googling Cynthia Ong Sabah; open letter to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak.

There is also a 'Gallery of Photos' to see that are so beautiful you may want to visit there someday. The photos are quite an inspiration and will lift anyone's heart to see this pristine environment that is now protected because those who cared didn't give up. Thank you Whitley!

Thank you too Cosmic Librarian; I agree whole-heartedly and I teach what you have just written about--healing with nature!

Yes, I know we must. Despite being ignored by Democrats and Republicans, the health of this planet is THE most important issue. Even a child can understand that.
Hell, what am I saying, children are often better indicators of what makes sense.
It's just depressing to realize that our best choices still cause so much damage.

The Chinese situation will be more difficult because the government presents a face of environmental concern while, in fact, more-or-less ignoring those concerns. But it is really in a very difficult position, with an immense work force that it wishes to keep employed, and no way to do that except to continue to supply its factories with cheap energy--which, in China, is coal based energy. The interim solution there is potentially natural gas, but no infrastructure exists to transport it from the Gobi where the shales are, and there is the problem of fracking as well. If it is not done with significant care, it releases methane into the atmosphere and gas ends up being no better than coal as a fuel. From a purely economic viewpoint, it is an almost intractable problem. But there is the political issue as well: both India and China are less than compliant. Their attitude is that, when the west was expanding, it was completely indifferent to environmental issues, so why should they be any different? It's a compelling argument, certainly, but perhaps there is a way to convince them of the even more compelling argument that their whole social and economic organization will fail in fundamental and irrecoverable ways if they don't take radical action to reduce emissions. The fantastic summer melt that the arctic has experienced this year might help to convince them, and perhaps some effective advocacy such as was undertaken in Borneo would be a very good idea.
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