Following the conversation amongst cold-weather athletes of late, more and more people are issuing “calls to arms” on environmental action. Jeremy Jones’ Protect Our Winters is leading the charge in the industry but many others have been making this topic front and center. The Inertia Mountain Contributing Editor Matthew Vanatta published a great piece a couple weeks back on infusing our community with a sense of political and social responsibility, and Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brought some of the best winter athletes in the game to Washington, D.C. for a round-table Twitter discussion last month, available to the public through the hashtag #athletesactonclimate.
When I arrived at college, I was a global warming skeptic. I just couldn’t fathom how little ol’ us could be so heavily influencing something as complex and immense as the Earth’s climate. After more than a few heated debates with my more enlightened peers, my interest was piqued — I declared Environmental Studies as my second major, nicely complementing my studies in Biology. Over the next few years, and since, I’ve done my best to objectively examine and understand what is happening on our planet, how we know this, and how we’re involved.
I’m convinced that preserving the environment is the biggest challenge my generation will face. But I am also convinced that we are entitled to make an immense impact… if we choose to.
Therefore, I’ve been challenging myself to shift my thinking away from dreamy imaginations of the way things could or should be and towards tangible actions that take into account where we are as a society. All too often I see people crying foul and resenting “the Establishment” without showing a true understanding of just how complex this situation is.
I try to tune out thinking that is not solution-oriented; it just doesn’t help. One of the biggest challenges I see confronting us in this cause is undereducation. Daunted by the immensity of the issue, and in an attempt to meet my own challenge to myself, I’ve taken my own tangible action and put together this brief education on climate change.
Our Earth is composed of three discrete layers: the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere.
The lithosphere is formed of the Earth’s solid parts — from the core through the mantle to the crust, this makes up the land masses and the supporting structure of the planet.
The hydrosphere refers to the water on, under, and above the earth’s surface. About 97.5% of this water is saline — the salty ocean, covering 75% of the Earth’s surface. Water is what makes this planet so dynamic, incredible, and alive.
The atmosphere is composed of the layer of gases surrounding the earth, from troposphere at ground level up to the thermosphere, where outer space begins. The atmosphere on Earth is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with the rest of the gases known composing the remaining 1% (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, neon, ozone, and so forth). The atmosphere serves as the buffer between the Earth’s surface and the inhospitality of outer space by blocking intense ultraviolet radiation, burning up meteors, and regulating temperature. Without the atmosphere our rock would be battered, barren, and cold, cratered like the moon.
The water molecule, H2O, has some critically unique properties. In the temperature range found on Earth it is found in all three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas.
Even more exciting, though, are the characteristics of its solid form — ice. Due to electrostatic properties of the water molecule, when it cools to a certain temperature (32 degree Fahrenheit or 0 degree Celsius) the molecules in liquid state lock into a solid “lattice structure” and actually take up more space than the same number of molecules in liquid form; that is to say, is less dense and therefore floats.
Obvious though it may seem, this lucky characteristic has made all life possible — if water behaved like most matter it would increase in density as it cooled and sink. The oceans would fill with ice from the bottom up and we’d probably have a frosty planet where life almost certainly could never have even begun. Musings on this from a mad scientist in Nottingham…
Furthermore, liquid water evaporates into the atmosphere, holding heat in and outer space out.
Water is why life is possible on Earth.
I’d like to make a key distinction here. The Earth’s climate is defined as broad patterns of temperature, precipitation, wind, etc. that take place in the Earth’s atmosphere. This really is an interplay of the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere. The Earth’s weather is defined as the state of the Earth’s atmosphere in a given period, usually shorter.
Another way to think of it: weather is day to day, week to week, month to month; climate is year to year, decade to decade, century to century, and beyond. Weather events include things like hurricanes and blizzards, and by extension mudslides and avalanches. Climate events include things like droughts and ice ages. The climate is in turn affected by non-climatic events like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
Mountains are the result of the most tenuous and energetic confluence of these three “-spheres”. They are typically formed when the lithosphere pushes up, away from the core. Still, the hydrosphere and the atmosphere each play an equal role in how mountains evolve by causing weathering and erosion.
More on gases.
Certain gases have a more pronounced effect on climatic temperature than others — the so-called “greenhouse gases”. The biggies are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These prevent heat (also called energy) from escaping the atmosphere and actually play a critical role in moderating temperature and making the planet hospitable. These molecules of air keep energy from escaping the atmosphere just like glass keeps energy inside a greenhouse. Greater concentrations of these molecules keep more energy in the atmosphere; lesser concentrations allow more energy to escape. This is why many scientists call the effect “global warming”. I prefer the term “climate change” because many people confuse climate with weather. It still gets cold sometimes. Just maybe not as often.
For millions of years the climate has fluctuated in part because of the relative amounts of these molecules found in the atmosphere. We know this by extracting ice cores in Antarctica — ice at the bottom of the Antarctic ice cap formed as many as 800,000 years ago. In 1999 a team led by French paleoclimatologist J. R. Petit published the result of a study analyzing 420,000 years of ice core layers that they extracted at the Vostok Station in Eastern Antarctica.
As this Antarctic ice formed bubbles of air were trapped in the ice, perfectly preserved samples of the composition of the atmosphere at the time of its formation. By extracting and analyzing those samples, scientists can determine characteristics of the atmosphere, including greenhouse gas levels and temperature. (How they determine the average global temperature hundreds of thousands of years in the past is complex but understandable — you can read about it here. It has to do with inferring mean annual temperature by measuring relative levels of oxygen isotopes in the water molecules.)
I am explaining all of this to give background on a key insight: greenhouse gas levels are directly correlated with climatic temperatures. Petit et al’s 1999 ice core research provided scientists with two key sets of paleoclimatic data — greenhouse gas concentrations and mean annual temperature. They found that over the past several hundred thousand years, temperatures would reliably rise very soon after a spike in the greenhouse gas levels. This suggests causation: higher levels of greenhouse gases result in higher temperatures.
And now we know why it makes sense. If more greenhouse gases keep more energy in the atmosphere, average temperatures will be higher. But beyond this, more energy means more frequent and severe weather events (which we’ve been seeing…), melting ice caps and glaciers (James Balog, anyone?), generally more water evaporating into the atmosphere, and many other effects that lil ol’ we couldn’t possibly predict with certainty in a system so complex.
In all of this, mountains act as the canary in the coal mine, so to speak — often mountains are the first biospheres to be affected. In a way, they’re the most vulnerable, the most exposed to the elements, making the weather as much as the weather makes them. Some prominent family members have served as the poster children of the early climate change movement. Will Gadd recently climbed the last shreds of ice on Kilimanjaro .
Photos show a striking change in the past 40 years at the White Chuck Glacier near Mount Baker in Washington.
Your faithful correspondent even did his own summertime snow coverage analysis of the Mont Blanc massif using satellite imagery and came to this striking conclusion — this stuff is happening. The climate is changing. And it’s getting to the point where people are noticing the change happening in their lifetime. Part of it is that the climate is always changing; that’s kind of what makes it the climate. But humans have become involved.
Why does this matter to us? How have humans become involved? In and amongst the hubbub the term “anthropogenic” is used, meaning “caused by human activity.” How have we affected such an immense and complex system?
In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution really started humming. Advancements in science and technology gave rise to machines that could work more efficiently than a human ever could. These machines required a fuel source, though. At the time, one of the most efficient and accessible sources of energy available to humans was coal. Over time we expanded to use petroleum and natural gas as fuel, easily extracted from sources in the Earth’s crust. Technology and industry developed around these fuel sources and we began pulling the energy-rich material out of the ground — and burning it — faster and faster.
Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are all products of the combustion of fossil fuels.
Initially, the impact of this new industrial energy use on the Earth’s climate was negligible — every year massive amounts of greenhouse gases naturally move from their source into the atmosphere (through volcanic emissions, forest fires, the aforementioned decomposition of vegetable matter, and so on). But amplify the effect of burning fossil fuels over a few centuries and across every continent and we start to influence the broader system for longer. Take a look at cities like São Paulo, Mumbai, Los Angeles, or Istanbul and it gets tough to claim that we aren’t influencing the environment.
So we’ve been taking all this carbon sequestered beneath the Earth’s surface, burning it, and releasing the resulting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Around 1958, a climate scientist named Charles Keeling began measuring atmospheric levels of CO2 on top of a mountain in the middle of the ocean: the Mauna Loa Observatory two miles above sea level on the Big Island of Hawaii. His research over the past half-century produced this chart (from Wikipedia):
The annual up-and-down is explained by the fact that most of the Earth’s land mass — and therefore vegetation — is in the northern hemisphere. Every March, April, and May plants convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into plant material, that is, fix CO2 into their leaves. Every September, October, and November that material dies and decomposes, releasing the CO2 back into the atmosphere.
What is most startling and striking about this figure is the mean, or the blue line — the trend we see over the past fifty years. CO2 levels have risen from about 310 parts per million (ppm) to over 400 ppm since Keeling began taking record. In the 400,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 concentrations fluctuated from 260 to 280 ppm and had never exceeded 300 ppm (remember Mr Petit’s ice core research?). In early 2013 CO2 levels measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory surpassed 400 ppm.
And so we begin to see how this is going. The climate fluctuates naturally, and warm periods and cold periods are perfectly normal. The composition of the atmosphere plays an important role in these fluctuations. Humans have been putting a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere “recently” — i.e. the past 200 years — and this is beginning to show on the climatic scale.
If things keep going the way they are (CO2 increasing by about 2 ppm per year) we can’t know what will happen. The last time CO2 levels were this high was 4.5 million years ago. You know, when insects were evolving.
I’ve spent a great deal of my life seeking the wild and natural experiences that can be found on Earth. This place is amazing, and has provided a perfect home for us since life began, really. We need to strike a balance between using the Earth’s resources to develop the depth of the human experience and protecting and preserving the natural world as it is. It’s too beautiful not to.
So far in human development we’ve tended to think that we are the owners of the Earth. I reject this — we are her conscious curators. Yes, we must inevitably use resources to survive and thrive. Now we must learn how to do so responsibly, that we all fit into this together, and that each individual has a responsibility to the rest of us.