Copyright 2009 (c) Universal Press Syndicate
Growing up here on the west coast of British Columbia, I always felt that the Earth and the ocean were in my blood. That’s not surprising – biologists discovered years ago that the salinity levels of our bodies are approximately the same percentage as the ocean. We are mostly made of water, with iron, calcium, carbon, magnesium, phosphorous, nitrogen, and trace amounts of other elements present in all of us. The late astronomer and astro-physicist Dr. Carl Sagan once said that we are all made of ‘star stuff’ that was created by the exploding stars of the cosmos. We are all innately connected to this planet and the universe. It’s not some vague, ambiguous concept – it’s the truth of our existence.
By the way, the next time you want to blow someone’s mind at a party, ask them what percentage of the known universe is made up of matter. You, me, Earth, the stars, galaxies, everything. The answer is – FIVE PERCENT. You heard me right. That’s all there is, folks. Five lousy percent. The term is ‘baryonic matter’. I think that’s kind of important to know when you’re debating the fragility and uniqueness of life in the universe.
It’s my opinion that the majority of Earth’s seven billion human beings don’t really care about these sorts of big picture things. We’re not interested in our relationship with the cosmos. We’re far more absorbed in the events going on in our own personal everyday universe. I remember being in a bar ten years ago and talking to the bartender about some amazing astronomical discovery, when a drunk older patron sitting across the counter from me, said in a loud voice ‘Who the HELL cares about that? It doesn’t make my life any better!” Let’s be honest here – if you’re starving to death, or simply trying to stay alive in a war torn part of this world, or you’re trapped in a rigidly authoritarian regime, or you’re forced against your will to endure cruel circumstances, you’re absolutely right. I would be more concerned about just trying to survive as well. Contemplating the heavens isn’t going to save you from a famine, or a militia.
In hindsight, I wish I’d thought up some kind of witty response to the drunk old fellow, but I decided not to inflame him. Years later, I realized that what we discover out there has meaning for our existence down here. In the last 48 hours, two very important news articles came out that should be of concern to everyone. In the United States, the highly respected National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the average DAILY level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is now at 400 parts per billion. This level was recorded high atop the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. It’s an ominous milestone. The last time carbon levels in the atmosphere were this high was THREE MILLION YEARS AGO. That was during the Pliocene period of Earth’s geologic history.
How significant is this change? Before the industrial revolution of the 19th century, atmospheric carbon levels were 280 parts per billion. This rise is entirely caused by human beings. Not the sun. Not volcanoes. Not giant swamps. It’s our fault. We tipped the atmospheric scales. Even if we could stop the emissons tomorrow, the estimated time for dissipation of the excess atmospheric carbon would take – I hope you’re sitting down – a thousand years.
That’s right – one thousand years. Not a month, not a year, a decade, or a century. It would take one whole eon of time.
And you know what? It’s only going to get worse. If you think the extreme weather events that happened around the world in the last 12 years were bad, get ready for even nastier, devastating climate events of unimaginable scale. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a tragic situation entirely of our own making. There is no quick fix. No technological solution. When the level of atmospheric carbon reaches 450 parts per billion – which could happen in the next few decades – it’s going to be a climatic runaway freight train at that point. Not if – when.
If we look outwards into space, you can see what atmospheric carbon does to a planet. The dense atmosphere of Venus is 96.5% carbon. The average daily temperature is approximately 462 degrees celsius. The thin atmosphere of Mars is 95% carbon. The average daily temperature is -50 to -60 degrees celsius at mid latitude, but up to -225 degrees celsius at the poles. Mars is much colder than Venus because it’s further away from the Sun. Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, and carbon is 3 1/2 tenths of one percent.
So here’s the deal. Given our proximity to the Sun, the more carbon present in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet gets. A global shift of several degrees in temperature can completely throw off the thermostat that lets us exist on the Earth as we know it. For the last 11,000 years of the Holocene period, that thermostat was relatively stable. Our species Homo Sapiens flourished and evolved civilizations. But once we started pumping carbon into the atmosphere, we were putting our fingertips on the scale.
I haven’t talked about what happens when methane gas gets into the atmosphere. Its impact is much more severe than the presence of carbon. Plenty of it lies frozen deep in the ocean and underneath the permafrost of the Northern hemisphere. As the planet warms, this gas blankets the atmosphere. And there are GIGATONNES of it lying dormant in a frozen state at the moment.
70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by the oceans. They absorb atmospheric carbon and form carbonic acid, which dissolves anything with calcium in it. Like coral reefs. Small creatures with calcium shells known as porifera form the basis of the aquatic food chain. They’re the food for fish here in the North Pacific. As the oceans become more acidic, these tiny organisms that support the existing marine life right now start dying off. The phytoplankton in the ocean that produce most of the world’s lifegiving oxygen die off. No oxygen – and land based creatures die off.
Get the picture?
Toss me another climate change denier on the barbie mate!
The Grumpy Ferret