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Environmental, Campaign & Website News > Global Warming - The Acceleration Factor by Roger Andrew

Global Warming - The Acceleration Factor by Roger Andrew

Date : 22nd June 2002, Source : GreenPlanet

Around 55 million years ago, the now barren Wyoming desert was a lush, and resplendent tropical forest - not unlike the Amazon as we see it today. All those millions of years ago, scientists tell us that the temperature of the earth was six degrees higher than it is today, and there was no polar ice cap at all. Suddenly - seemingly within a time band of approximately 50 years - the temperature rose by a further eight degrees, and the climate appears to have gone ferociously wild. As a result, life on earth was subjected to cataclysmic change and the oceans literally boiled.

Researchers can determine all this from examining rocks, collecting core samples from under the oceans and drilling into the polar ice cap.

The first question, of course, is 'What caused this cataclysmic change?' - and if we can provide answers, what can they tell us about our own environmental predicament in the early years of the twenty first century?

Carbon Sinks: The Missing Equation

Every living thing is made of 'thin air' and absorbs carbon. Plants, saplings and micro organisms such as plankton are especially well suited to the process of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and they in effect become 'carbon sinks'. When they die, an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere. Coal and fossil fuels represent the storing of carbon dioxide over millions of years, and when we expend those fuels, we are literally going back in time.

We are not creating the future ... we are propelling ourselves back into the past and revisiting the consequences. In so doing, we are opening a Pandora's Box than has unknown, uncharted consequences for our environment and for the future of our world.

Carbon dioxide insulates the Earth from the cold of space, but the future health of Planet Earth is all about facilitating and maintaining a delicate balance. Nature does an excellent job when left to her own devices, but through the interference of Man (especially since the Industrial Revolution with its reliance on energy consumption to create wealth) that balance has become increasingly unstable. We need the warming 'Greenhouse' effect that our atmosphere provides, but too much carbon dioxide is definitely too much of a good thing - and the increasing process of global warming has become a threatening reality.

Eminent scientists estimate that global temperatures will rise by between 2% and 6% by 2100, and in calculating this, it has become clear that there is a missing component in the carbon sink equation. At the present time, approximately six billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere each year, but half of those emissions are unaccounted for - they are apparently disappearing into a hitherto unidentified carbon sink. The resulting search and research for the missing sink has provided a cluster of clues about what happened 55 million years ago, and where we may all be headed in the next 50 to 100 years.

The Amazon Basin

The Amazon - all 500 million hectares of it - is the largest rain forest on Earth. It is considered to be an 'old growth' resource, and in its maturity, there is balance. In other words, decaying matter is matched by the emergence of new plants, and you would expect this vast natural resource to be carbon dioxide neutral. However, recent international research that has sought to measure gas emissions from within the forest, indicates that the Amazon Basin is, despite its maturity, a huge natural sink. It is absorbing carbon at an astonishing rate - at least five tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year - and this has surprised scientists greatly. A reputable theory is that the Amazon has responded to human activity in the Basin, and that this has helped to 'fertilise' the trees.

Scientists are now satisfied that the Amazon Basin is the 'missing sink', and is indeed absorbing 75% of the carbon dioxide released by the whole world. The Amazon is protecting us, but at the same time, it is building up a carbon store that would, if it were to be suddenly released, have catastrophic consequences for Mother Earth.
As we are all aware, there is an ongoing process of hacking down hectares of Amazon forest each day to service the needs of Western society, and to help repay the owning country's national debt. This is an extremely worrying trend in its own right, because with each felled tree, mankind is releasing trapped carbon back into the atmosphere. The forest becomes less efficient, the carbon dioxide helps to warm the Planet, and the cyclical warming process continues unchecked.

Even more disquieting is the knowledge that we are not looking at a graph that shows a gradual rise in temperature over the next 100 years. We are looking at a 'catastrophe theory' graph in action which could be very similar to what happened 55 million years ago - a rise of temperature between six and eight degrees within a very narrow time band of perhaps 25 to 50 years. We are about to reproduce the conditions for cataclysmic climate change, and unlike 55 million years ago when life on Earth was very basic, this time around the habitants will be deliberately and knowingly creating the means of their own destruction.

Is this cataclysmic situation unavoidable? The answer to that is 'possibly' ... and it is also 'possibly not'. We have the answers in our own hands, and next week we look in more detail at what actually happened 55 million years ago because that is highly relevant to our current situation, and we hope to suggest ways in which we can help to save Planet Earth as we know it today.

It is no coincidence that we have been writing about trees, and will continue to write about trees - because this precious resource could be the key to the future.

In reality, the Amazon needs to increase in size each year to continue the job efficiently, but as we all know, commercial interests are steadfastly hacking it down day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year.

Unfortunately, it's rather like a smoker afflicted with emphysema - the lung corrupts, shrivels, and becomes less and less efficient until the victim eventually dies. During the process, a variety of serious symptoms can be witnessed - especially constant coughing, phlegm, listlessness, pallid complexion and shortness of breath. Similarly, as a result of industrialisation and all the attendant pollution that comes with it, the world has become a 'smoker'. Not only are we clogging up our lung in the Amazon Basin, but also we are hacking at it with a scalpel at the same time. Unsurprisingly, there are symptoms of serious disease, and changing climate patterns are just part of this overall process. Have you noticed weather patterns altering in your own part of the world recently and unseasonable conditions?

The key to the future is arguably rainfall - or rather lack of it in strategic areas such as South America and the Amazon Basin.

The Savannah

The Savannah that surrounds the outskirts of the Amazon and occupies huge tracts of South America is an area of dry, relatively barren vegetation. There is evidence to suggest that the Savannah once supported lush tropical rain forest but died back as a result of climate flip, lack of rainfall and consequent fire on a massive scale. In terms of processing carbon, the Savannah has an efficiency of less than 10% compared to the Amazon - and yet it was once just like the Amazon.

Scientists are concerned that if weather patterns continue to inhibit rainfall in the Amazon Basin, then - as in the Savannah - uncontrollable fires will result, vegetation will die, and there will be an immense release of carbon into the atmosphere.

The overriding concern is that this will trigger a 'knock on' effect, release further carbon deposits from the oceans and further accelerate the global warming process with disastrous consequences.

The Methane Factor

By drilling down into the polar ice caps and securing core samples, scientists can study and accurately measure temperature conditions that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. Trapped inside the ice are tiny air bubbles, which reveal that there have been repeated ice ages every 100,000 years. They also reveal carbon dioxide and methane levels throughout pre-history - and interestingly, the graphs for these two gasses are remarkably similar. When carbon dioxide levels rise, there is a following and matching rise in levels of methane.

Further research - this time core samples from the depths of the world's oceans - reveals that 55 million years ago there was a rapid change in sea temperature that killed the tiny species living in the ocean environment. The oceans literally boiled, and as a result, carbon dioxide and methane arising from decomposing matter was rapidly released into the atmosphere. Scientific study of thousands of core samples suggests that the temperature of the earth rose 8 degrees over 100 years in three massive steps - and each one of these steps triggered destruction on an incredible scale.

When methane hydrates trapped in ice or safely contained deep within the ocean floor are released and allowed to mix with water, 170 times the volume is released in the form of methane gas. This is where the dramatic acceleration factor is thought to kick in - the same factor that accounted for massive global change 55 million years ago. Methane is 60 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent, and if the temperature of the oceans continues to rise, if the Amazon continues to be hacked down unchecked, the methane factor will accelerate at an alarming rate.

It is for this reason that some scientists predict that carbon levels in the atmosphere will triple in the next 100 years, and - unless something dramatic is done, the Amazon Rain Forest - and indeed the earth as we know it today - will just exist at best in faded photographs.

What Can We Do?

The Earth needs leaders who are concerned about the future of the Planet, and not just on supporting the current power bases that raised them to power. A greater level of responsibility and awareness is required in developed, highly industrialised countries. Equally, emerging nations should not be allowed to pollute the earth unchecked. We need international leaders who are prepared to promote the concept of 'global community' where neighbours look after each other's interests;

We must - on an urgent basis - tackle the underlying causes surrounding the degradation of the Amazon Rain Forest as well as the other rainforests in South America. We need to find ways of securing the world's lung intact for future generations;

We need to switch to environmentally friendly sources of energy and leave fossil fuels where they belong - trapped in the earth;

We need to be more conscious of the need to recycle - and teach our children to do the same;

We need to plant more trees than we allow to be hacked down. If we can plant more trees on a massive scale, and perhaps - through irrigation - turn the Savannah back into carbon consuming forest, we may be able to give future generations a decent chance of survival;

We need to get involved ourselves. What can we, as individuals and family units, do to impose less of a burden on this fragile earth? Every initiative counts ... so make a start today.

Document last updated on Tuesday 30 August 2011

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