Saturday, July 18, 2009

Global Warming

So, I just heard a Radio conversation between a liberal and a conservative. The tone was civil, and the discussion was on a friendly basis. However, the two were disputing the fundamentals. Is there global warming? Yes, no, no, yes...

I have never taken on this issue in my public life or my private life, but I do happen to know a little something, something about this. As I mentioned once, I studied human evolutionary biology at UCLA. I graduated Magna. I was elected to the Golden Key honors society. I graduated with Departmental Honors.

You don't study evolutionary biology without studying ecology. Creatures are shaped by their environments, and their ecological niche within that environment. Selection favors those genes which can best reproduce given the prevailing environmental conditions. It all begins with ecology, and I mean ecology writ scientifically, not politically.

So do I believe their is a phenomenon called global warming? I believe their is phenomenon called climate change which is always running, and there has been some warming of late. By lately I mean the past 500 years, ever since the last mini-ice age ended. With that said Al Gore is clearly a simpleton, and his view is so simplistic that I have to tell you he is just wrong.

Al Gore says the following things:
  1. There is global warming
  2. Global warming is caused by human mass-urban industrial activity
  3. Mass-urban industrialism produces copious quantities of CO2.
  4. Carbon Dioxide is the efficient cause of global warming.
Well, ever since Al published his famous book, the Science Channel HD and other major outlets, have been embarrassed to correct his science. They have been very polite about it. They have never called him out by name. They have never directly pointed out the foibles of his written words. However, they have been on a non-stop campaign to educate people about the broader picture.

The Earth has been warming for the past 500 years

In the year 541 B.C., a giant Indonesian volcano called Krakatoa exploded with a force 15,000 times greater than the force of the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. This super-eruption threw so much smoke and ash into the atmosphere that we experienced a phenomenon very similar to a nuclear winter. The Krakatoa super explosion triggered a mini-ice age that lasted approximately 900 years.

The explosion was so devastating that is shredded what was a contiguous sub-continent into what we see as the Indonesian archipelago today. Quasi-historical sources on the East Coast of India report entire coastal towns being submerged under water by earthquakes. Europe went under ice, and experienced the Dark Ages. Moisture increased, and temperature decreased around the Arab world, setting them up for the golden age of Islam. North Africa and the Middle East was no desert wasteland in this epoch.

The lingering effects of the Krakatoa super explosion cleared by around 1500 AD. Europe began to thaw out. The middle east began to dry out. Not coincidentally, Europe had a little thing called the Renaissance. This happened the moment surplus food began to become available to support unproductive fellows like Galileo, and Columbus. Islam began to stagnate.

Now all this represents a bit of problem for Al Gore. Al says human industrial activity and CO2 production is the efficient cause of global warming. Yet the industrial revolution is only a bit over 200 years old. The planet has been warming for 500 years. This is the biggest single bullet hole in his thesis. It is close to mortal. Copious human production of CO2 has only been happening for the past 200 and yet the planet has been warming for 500 years.

Maybe there are other forces at work in climate change? Yep, there are. But if this is the case, can we say that human CO2 production is the efficient cause of global warming? Well, you could say that, but you would be wrong. It should be noted that the Krakatoa super explosion also released copious quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. We're lucky it did. If it had not, the heavy particulate matter in the upper atmosphere might have caused so much cooling we might have had a mini-snowball Earth.

We should also note that the Krakatoa super explosion was one of the most massive releases of heat energy and CO2 ever seen on the surface of the Earth, yet the end product of that heat and CO2 was a mini-iceage. Is this not ironic and counter-intuitive? Yep, it is. Don't let this be lost on you. Cause and effect is a very complicated thing in the Earth's biosphere.

So what else effects global warming?

There are a number of other contributing factors to climate change which have been warming the Earth:
  1. Solar Cycles. There are seasons in the Sun. Sometimes the Sun burns more violently. Sometimes more passively. Sometimes there are fewer solar flares. Sometimes there is massive solar flare activity. The amount of solar energy throw at our world by our Sun is the biggest single factor in our planet's temperature.
  2. Magnetic reversal. The Earth has a large magnetic field. This protects us from the Solar wind. From time to time, the magnetic core of our Earth flips polarity. One pole becomes positive and the other becomes negative. In the run up to this event, the magnetic shield of our planet weakens and fails. During this period of time, our planet is exposed to much greater quantities of solar radiation. This has many negative consequences for life on Earth. One of them is higher atmospheric temperatures.
  3. The thermal core of our planet. People often forget that we have a molten core at the center of our world. It is hot. The pressure of the weight of our world generates temperates sometimes estimated to be higher than the surface of the sun. The internally generated heat of our world has ended entire epochs in Earth history. Snowball Earth was terminated by a violent period of volcanic eruptions in which internal heat from the core warmed the Earth and destroyed that ice age.
  4. The action of biological lifeforms. Algae have terminated entire epochs in Earth history all by themselves. The advent of green plants on the surface of the Earth caused massive changes to the Oxygen content of our atmosphere.
Point #1 bears the closest examination. It is the point of greatest contention between environmentalists and solar physicists. Solar physicists have told us that the 20th century was period of exceptionally high violence in the solar activity. There were a lot of flares, coronal discharges, sunspots, etc. during the 20th century. It was an active epoch. Lately, the Sun has been calming down. The last few years have shown a marked reduction in activity. This would signify a trend towards cooling. Sure enough, the past few years have shown a marked trend towards cooling.

This is anecdotal, but we just passed through the coolest May-June I have ever seen in Los Angeles. It was similar throughout much of California. This winter, reports from Carl Franklin of .NET Rocks! fame suggested one of the most brutal winters in New England's recorded history. He reported being snowed in for weeks at a time in Connecticut.

Point #2, in particular, demands more attention. Our planet's magnetic field might just be the most vital point in this entire contentious debate. This field is generated by the molten, red-hot, iron core of our planet. It protects us from the solar wind, including deadly gamma radiation. The magnetic core of our planet is dipolar. The positive end sits at the North end or the South end, and visa versa. What do you mean by North or South? From time to time, the magnetic core of the planet shift, and we see a reversal, where the two poles flip. One becomes positive and the other becomes negative. This is a gradual process. We do not know how long it takes to complete this process. The last time it happened, nobody was studying the phenomenon. Over the course of the past 10 million years, there has been a magnetic reversal once every 200-250 thousand years. The process takes 1,000 to 7,000 years according to the limited information we have now. During the peak of the transition, the magnetosphere may drop to 10% of its top strength.

A drop to 10% of magnetosphere strength means more exposure to more radiation. Sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections pose a greater danger during this period. Temperature increases will be felt.

Now for the fun part. During the very brief period of historical time during which we humans have been investigating the magnetism of our planet's poles, we have measured a 10% drop in the strength of our magnetosphere. That is a bit scary. It is thought that a drop in the strength of the magnetosphere precedes a magnetic reversal event, or at least is a part of it all. This happens as the poles begin to "wander" as the geologists say. Ready for the pip? There has not been a magnetic reversal in the past 800,000 years of Earth history. We are long overdue.

In short, we know the following things. First, we went through a mini ice age as a result of the Krakatoa super explosion. This started in 541 AD, and began to terminate sometime around 1500 AD. Earth began to heat up 500 years ago without mass urban idustrial CO2 production. Second, we know the Sun went through a violent epoch during the 20th Century. Third, we know the strength of our magnetosphere has weakend some 10% in the past 100 years. Fourth, we know it has been some 800,000 years since the last polar reversal event.

This is a complex picture. It is a hell of a lot more complex than Al Gore would have you believe. This is because he is politician, not a scientist, and he has a political action agenda to sell. Some poli-ta-ticks have faulted Gore for being too technical, and being to complex for a political audiance. This makes anyone with a background in science laugh like hell and then cry. Gore is a simpleton.

In short, mass production of CO2 is just one factor in a complex picture producing our latest small round of climate change. It may well be the only thing we can control, but it may be a very small lever on the machine, doing little in the end.

How then should we live?

In view of all this information, we are left with the really big question: How then should we live my brothers? Let's talk about this next time. I am a bit tired after all this. Let's talk action a bit later. There is a bit more about the natural history of the Earth that you should know before we can talk honestly and maturely about this subject.