Global Weather Modification
© Eric R. Pianka
"Today, we can see with our own eyes what global warming is doing.
In that context it becomes truly irresponsible, if not immoral,
for us not to do something." --Joe Lieberman
Our atmosphere is in a complex quasi equilibrium, but CO2 concentration has risen steadily for the last quarter of a century and continues to rise due to anthropogenic activities, especially deforestation and burning of fossil fuels. Over the past 30 years, consumption of fossil fuels has more than doubled carbon emissions.
This increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide has enhanced atmospheric heat retention and would have produced global warming sooner except for a fortuitous spin-off of atmospheric pollution -- particulate matter increased earth's albedo (reflectance of solar irradiation), so that less solar energy penetrates to the surface (volcanic ash in the atmosphere has the same effect). Until recently these two opposing phenomena more or less balanced one another, but now the balance has clearly shifted and the "greenhouse effect" is leading to rapid global warming. Long-held meteorological records the world over are being broken: the decades since 1990 have included the hottest years recorded, and about a decade ago the lowest low pressure zone ever recorded in late summer was followed in the next winter by the highest high pressure area ever measured.
A very dangerous new man-made greenhouse gas molecule has begun to appear in earth's atmosphere during the past few decades: trifluoromethyl sulfur pentafluoride molecules (Sturges 2000). Each molecule of CF3SF5 is estimated to be equivalent to 18,000 molecules of carbon dioxide in terms of heat retention. Moreover, this new molecule is increasing at 6% per year and it is exceedingly stable (half life = 1,000 years). The source of this dangerous molecule remains unknown -- it is probably an unintentional by product of some manufacturing process.
Desertification has been greatly accelerated during the past century due to above mentioned processes. Arid areas are in a more precarious and perilous position than wetter areas. As our population burgeons, the last remaining natural habitats are rapidly being destroyed. Earth's atmosphere is being altered at an ever-increasing rate, leading to rapid weather modification. Some are concerned that agents of infectious disease, such as malaria and cholera, will spread as a result of climatic change. Lyme disease spreads with mouse epidemics, and these could be more extreme now than they were when millions of passenger pigeons competed with mice for acorns. Moreover, new types of infectious diseases such as ebola, fungi, and hantavirus appear to be emerging and spreading, possibly as a result of habitat destruction and climate change. Global warming is having its impact on virtually all plants and animals, including humans, and its effects will continue to intensify into the foreseeable future. Crop failures would seem to be inevitable.
Empty shelves in supermarkets will eventually awaken people to the dire danger of tampering with earth's atmosphere, but by then it will be much too late to rectify the situation. People will be appalled that scientists cannot restore the atmosphere to its former condition. But there can be no quick "technological fix" for earth's maligned atmosphere. The continuing existence of all the denizens of this poor beleaguered planet, including ourselves, will ultimately depend more on our ecological understanding and wisdom than it will on future technological "advances."
Industrial pollutants cause acid rain, which can kill trees and fish. Recently, toxic levels of pesticides have been found in rain, which has been linked to one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in the western world, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This type of cancer has increased by 73 percent in the last 25 years, probably directly due to several commonly used aerial crop sprays. Researchers suggest that the chemicals suppress immune systems, allowing viruses to trigger cancers (Pearce 1999).
With the advent of human agriculture and city states about 10,000 years ago, humans began large scale deforestation. Human activities, primarily deforestation, began to alter atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels many centuries ago, long before the industrial revolution (Ruddiman 2003, 2007). Oxygen isotopes in air samples from ice cores from the Antarctic and Greenland dating back for more than 400,000 years have allowed inference of temperature changes over most of the last half a million years (see graph below).
Four prolonged ice ages are evident. These changes are caused largely by periodic fluctuations in Earth's orbit and the inclination of its axis known as the Milankovitch cycles. Four spikes in temperature were spaced approximately every 100,000+ years. Earth is presently in a warm interglacial phase, and through burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and loss of soil and peat carbon, carbon dioxide levels have increased to well above any that have occurred over the last 400,000 years. The last thermal spike has been prolonged for considerably longer than the three preceding ones. Earth should now be entering a colder glacial period but has stayed warm for roughly the last 10,000 years ("The Long Summer", Fagan 2004). An ice age seems overdue (Ruddiman 2003, 2007).
This extended 100 century long warm period corresponds to the invention of agriculture and the resulting surge in human population and, based on current evidence, is almost certainly due to anthropogenic activities, especially deforestation and burning of fossil fuels. The rate of global warming is accelerating because long frozen reserves of methane are now being released into the atmosphere (in terms of the greenhouse effect, each molecule of methane is equivalent to about 25 molecules of carbon dioxide). When a molecule of methane burns, it gives off heat and is oxidized into 2 molecules of water and one of carbon dioxide, both of which are powerful greenhouse gases.
We are also deliberately and foolishly extracting methane from frozen ocean clathrates and BURNING it for energy. Both fracking and clathrate mining release a lot of waste heat that cannot be dissipated as well as adding more water vapor and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further enhancing global warming. An international consortium involving Canada, the US, Japan, India, and Germany is already extracting methane from clathrates and burning deep sea methane at a place called Mallik off the north coast of Canada. The US government supports many similar Gas Hydrate projects all over the world. Our voracious appetite for ever more and more energy accelerates the rate of global warming. These ill-fated efforts to use methane as fuel will only hasten climate change. What fools we humans are!
We should be doing everything we can to KEEP the methane locked up in Earth's crust and frozen in the deep oceans for as long as possible. However, people seem to think we can live above the laws of nature and can use all the energy we "need" and want. Fracking cracks deep rocks releasing methane produced by anaerobes much of which vents to the surface and enters the atmosphere (Oreskes and Conway 2014). Many toxic chemicals used in fracking enter human bodies and have been implicated in interfering with immune function and causing cancers (Colburn 2011).
Methanogenic bacteria survive today in anaerobic zones deep in Earth's crust and in the ocean depths. Vast amounts of methane are locked up inside ice-like frozen clathrates in permafrost and the ocean depths. When these clathrates are brought to the surface, methane gas is released. The sudden release of large amounts of gaseous methane from long frozen methane clathrates has been implicated in the major extinction event at the Permian-Triassic boundary 250 mya.
As many as 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates died out then. More than half of the then extant insect families also perished. Coupled with massive volcanic events, sudden release of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere caused drastic climatic changes, anoxia, increasing aridity, and changes in ocean current circulation patterns. Fungi are thought to have flourished during this period, probably because they consumed much of the dead organic matter. Methane is also now being released by widespread fracking, as well as from rapidly thawing permafrost and from the deep oceans at an ever accelerating rate. As temperatures rise, more methane bubbles up to the surface, further raising temperatures in an ever-increasing positive feedback loop. A tipping point has probably already been reached at which climate cannot return to pre-industrial conditions. Eventually, of course, the Milankovitch cycles will generate another ice age (Felix 1999), but that could be many millennia from now.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to produce carbonic acid which acidifies the oceans. Acidification of seawater inhibits formation of calcium carbonate, which interferes with the ability of calcareous oceanic phytoplankton such as foraminiferans to lay down their tests. Ocean temperatures are also warming. Ocean warming and acidification also causes corals to lose their mutualistic endosymbiotic zooanthellae, resulting in the so-called "bleaching" of coral reefs. When ocean acidification and warming are combined with massive overfishing, marine ecosystems worldwide are perilously close to collapse. People simply do not appreciate the extent to which life on land depends upon healthy ocean ecosystems, which are vital drivers of climate.
At present, because of the effects of elevated levels of greenhouse gases, Earth cannot even dissipate the incident solar radiation it receives from the Sun fast enough to stay in thermal balance (Hansen et al. 2005). Climate change includes not only temperature but also has dramatic effects on the amount and periodicity of precipitation, producing both droughts and floods locally. Human activities, especially the enhanced greenhouse effect, but also including burning of fossil fuels and even the waste heat produced by nuclear reactors, have added greatly to our already overheated spaceship. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels have risen by a foot since 1900 and are rising by over 3 mm per year (Kemp 2009). The high specific heat of water has helped to moderate this increased heat load to some extent, resulting in the world's oceans warming by nearly a full degree Celsius over the past half century. The oceans are thus saving us from ourselves. Oceans also absorb methane and carbon dioxide, forming carbonic acid, which threatens all marine ecosystems and leads to acidification and the bleaching of coral reefs (IPSO 2013).
Despite frequent outcries that global warming is some sort of hoax, the vast majority of experts are convinced that it is a real and enduring threat (Oreskes and Conway 2014). If current trends continue, the planet will be at least 1-2 degrees C warmer by 2050 (IPSO, 2013;NOAA, 2012). Moreover, the rate of climate change seems to be ever increasing and appears to be irreversible.
Until the advent of agriculture, humans were hunter gatherers -- many fewer of us existed. Food supplies lead population -- populations tend to increase to the level that foods will allow. Agriculture has been called "the worst mistake in the history of the human race" (Diamond 1987) because it allowed us to increase in population density to current unsustainable levels, ultimately leading to the present day overpopulation crisis (Catton 1982).
We could never have reached 7+ billion without fossil fuels. Just as supplies of bird and bat guano began to be exhausted, the Haber-Bosch process rescued agriculture by using methane to fix atmospheric nitrogen and produce virtually unlimited amounts of ammonium nitrate (Smil 2001), which is an explosive as well as a fertilizer. Without this technological "advance", neither Germany nor Japan could ever have gone to war -- Moreover, humans would have been limited by food supplies at much lower population densities. Basically, humans exploited these one-time fossil energy reserves to demolish many of Earth's natural ecosystems and turn them into arable land and crops to feed increasing numbers of people. We turned the tall grass prairies of North America into fields of corn and wheat and replaced bison herds with cattle, ultimately into masses of humanity.
Last updated 11 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka