Monthly Archives: September 2020

Fire and Floods

So far, this is the worst year ever for fires in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The climate type for California lends its self to annual fires but global warming is making it worse because it is hotter and this time of year hotter is drier.

At the same time this is the worst season for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and for the same reason – warmer air means warmer water means more energy to fuel storms. So far this year is bearing out NOAA’s prediction of an extremely active season.

Over four million acres have burned so far this year in the aforementioned states. Scores have died and more missing. Three million acres are on fire now and toxic smoke blankets thousands of square miles.

The result of global warming amplified weather damage here in the United States is annually hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of crop loss and property damage, far negating any minor improvements in a longer growing season and amplified CO2 for plant fertilization. Without serious effort, these costs will become insurmountable.

Of course, the real problem is the name – Global warming. For example, because of an extended heatwave in the northern climes, the ice north pole is melting faster than ever and the nearby tundra is thawing rapidly. At one point it was thought that a warmer tundra would promote moss growth which would form peat bogs. This could moderate the rate of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slowing atmospheric heat accumulation.

Ah. but life is not so simple. In parts of Siberia, the thawed, warmed, tundra is now burning. Fires in the Arctic are now the largest ever in recorded history. The Siberian taiga, what we call the boreal forests in the western hemisphere are burning and north of them the actual peat of the tundra. Underlying the tundra is permafrost of normally frozen organic-rich soil. As it thaws from the fires above it releases methane which may or may not catch fire as it is released. Regardless, methane itself is a greenhouse gas.

The release of the methane and carbon dioxide from the burning peat above the thawing permafrost will act in a vicious cycle known as positive feedback – as more greenhouse gasses are released, more heat is produced which causes the release of even more greenhouse gasses. All this of course increases the rate of climate change.

Global tropical storms, especially in the central and western pacific have had a somewhat average season with the exception of Cyclone Amphan which hit the Bay of Bengal, killing over a hundred and causing the greatest amount of damage, in excess of one hundred billion US dollars worth of damage in Bangladesh.

Obviously most eyes have been on the Covid-19 pandemic but the relentless planetary degradation due to global warming is marching on and cannot or should not be ignored. Heating of land magnifies the number of deadly heat waves and fires just like heating of water can produce more deadly storms.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

The Anthropause

Scientists, especially those who deal with long time scales, tend to demark the passage of time that somehow defines a chunk of time. Eons are the longest time spans. The first is described as the Hadean, the first 600 million years defining the formation of the earth. Eons are divided into Eras, then Periods, Epochs, and Ages.

The Carboniferous Period as just one example is a roughly 60 million year period during which the planet was very warm and resulted in the formation of much of the coal on the planet due to photosynthetic removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

The time of dinosaurs is known as the Jurrasic Period, divided into three different Epochs. Our current Epoch is the Holocene which incorporates the time since the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago. The current Age within this Epoch has come to be called the “Anthropocene” which roughly means the period of human influence.

Now, due to the global pandemic and resultant slowing of human activity, some have described our current time as an “Anthropause. “

Global tourism has been radically reduced not just in cultural centers such as cites but also in parks and natural areas. Locales normally frequented by humans have recently been left to wildlife as shown by both urban cameras and trail cams in rural areas. As a result, many wildlife scientists are scrambling to study the movements and actions of life in the temporary absence of humans.

A number of unique experiments are in progress. In Manitoba, Canada ornithologists are studying birds near now much quieter airports. Also, studies are examining low flying birds near highways to see if behavior is changing, albeit for short periods.

Ecologists at the Galapagos Marine Reserve are studying the movements of shy fish that now can move about in the absence of tourists engaged in diving and snorkeling. In the French Polynesian Islands, the impact of extended darkness near seaside hotels is being examined.

Even the open oceans are ripe for study. Reduced tourism and shipping may have an impact on whales. A research group off the coast of Monterrey, CA is collecting samples of whale blubber via specially designed crossbows. The blubber will reveal among other things the amount of cortisol in the animals, an indicator of stress.

Endangered species such as large mammals; rhinoceros, elephants, etc. may be at greater risk from poaching due to the absence of tourists. Although this research is happening during a time of great expense to both human life and the global economy, it is a once in a lifetime pause or at least hopefully so.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.