In the summer of 2011, in the remote area of the Arctic Ocean, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard Islands, a huge piece of ice was used as a canvas by John Quigley, an artist form Los Angeles. He and his volunteer assistants traveled to the Fram Strait on board the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise to construct a giant copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing – the “Vitruvian Man.”
The “Melting Vitruvian Man”, as it was called by the artist, half submerged in the warming waters of the Arctic Ocean, resembled a drowning man slowly disappearing into the depths of the ocean. The installation, covering an area the size of four Olympic swimming pools, was created with recycled copper strips, and was on display only for a day. The goal of the project was to deliver an urgent message to the world. “We came here to create the “Melting Vitruvian Man” after Da Vinci’s famous sketch of the human body, because climate change is literally eating into the body of our civilization,” explained Quigley.
Visual images can present a powerful message, which have a strong impact on popular thinking. Most of us probably remember the picture of a polar bear floating on chunks of broken ice in the Arctic, taken by Canadian environmentalists in 2007. In 2010, a huge chunk of ice, twice the size of Manhattan, calved from Greenland’s Petermann glacier. This event was captured on film and set off alarm bells around the world. Scientists blamed it on warmer ocean temperatures.
Al Gore’s book, “An Inconvenient Truth”, Ross Gelbspan’s “Boiling Point“, Mark Lynas’ “Six Degrees,” and James Hansen’s “Storms of My Grandchildren,” describe the accumulating evidence that the globe’s warming is not a natural cycle, but something extraordinary for our planet, and for us as its stewards. Yet, in our new digital world of instant communications, it is those searing images we recall. Film and photography are among the most powerful means to get a message across, and we now have visual evidence that the world as we have known it, like Franz Kafka’s Gregor, is experiencing a metamorphosis. Who knows what new monster threat will emerge as the earth’s intricate and ecologically interdependent communities continue to fracture under the pressure of climate change.
But pictures are a double-edged sword. Images are an oversimplification. In fact, the ones that we see in the newspapers or on the internet usually reveal very little. The media exploits imagery for sensational news, and there are many alarming images which over time, become vapid wallpaper on our computer screens. At a certain point, they are pictures that we associate with turning on the computer, and not much else. This sort of treatment of images, paradoxically, makes it easier for all of us to stop thinking about the threats they represent.
What, then, are the mechanisms that drive climate change and threaten the future of all living things we treasure (or take for granted)? Let’s start with the basics.
The beautiful bluish globe in space that we call our home is wrapped in a transparent life-sustaining blanket called atmosphere. This blanket protects us from the sun’s deadly heat and harmful radiation. The atmosphere (about 300 miles up) is a mixture of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), and other gases (1%). It’s the other gases, called the “greenhouse gases” that keep our planet from freezing at night and boiling during the day. How do they work?
There are four major types of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide. Their molecules have three or more atoms held loosely together. When these atoms absorb heat, they vibrate (oxygen and nitrogen molecules only have two atoms). Eventually, the vibrating molecules of greenhouse gases release radiation. Some heat from radiation is absorbed by other greenhouse gases, some leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and some radiate back to the Earth’s surface. The process that keeps the heat near the Earth’s surface is called the “greenhouse effect”.
The greenhouse effect is a desirable and necessary process for life to thrive. But what happens when we increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and forests? As greenhouse gases become more concentrated, more heat is trapped in the atmosphere. The heat energy is absorbed by the oceans that warm and expand. This causes the loss of ice in Polar Regions which can alter weather patterns elsewhere in the world. As the tundra melts in Canada and Siberia, for example, it releases methane into the atmosphere, which in turn speeds up rates of warming.
A study published in the journal “Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics” in December 2011, found that the Earth absorbed 0.58 watts more energy per square meter than escaped back into space during the study period (2005-2010). The “World Meteorological Organization” revealed in its “Statement on the Status of the Global Climate,” that 2012 was the ninth warmest year since recorded history and the 27th consecutive year that land and ocean temperatures were above the 1961-1990 average globally. The years 2001-2012 were among the top thirteen warmest years on record.
Some climate skeptics point out that the Earth has had many cooling and warming periods. Here is what they don’t know or don’t wish to know. Scientists monitoring atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been able to determine that over the past 650,000 years, until the Industrial revolution emerged, CO2 concentrations varied between 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm). They came to this conclusion by analyzing air bubbles trapped in the ice of Antarctica and Greenland. Since the industrial revolution, which begins in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased and is now close to 400 parts per million.
From analyzing the isotopes of the carbon in the atmosphere, scientists have been able to prove that greenhouse gases are accumulating as a result of human activities, such as burning fossil fuels.
In order to determine whether global warming is authentic, scientists have to look at changes in weather over a long period. By looking at high and low temperature data from the past few decades, we can see that new record highs occur nearly twice as often as new record lows.
As our air warms, the oceans are absorbing more heat. It takes more energy and time to heat up the ocean compared to land. Yet, scientists claim that the deep-waters are warming in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. The Antarctic Peninsula right now is the most rapidly warming part of the Southern Hemisphere, where temperatures have increased by almost 3 degrees Celsius over the last 50 years. The ice in the Arctic Ocean has become smaller in extent and thinner in volume. The extent of summer sea ice is decreasing by a rate of about 13 percent per decade, and much of the ice is thinner, that is first-year ice rather than the thicker multiyear ice.
Greenland contains the second largest ice sheet in the world – but is also loosing mass. Its glaciers and ice streams are discharging more ice into the ocean than they are accumulating. “The Greenland ice sheet is changing rapidly before our eyes,” says Andreas Muenchow, an associate professor of physical ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware: “The big and broader climate change story is what’s happening all around Greenland.” [Reference]
Using satellites and tide gauges, scientists have determined the average increase in global sea levels has been 3.18mm per year since 1993. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared in 2007 that sea levels would rise by almost one meter by the end of the century, which will have profound consequences for island nations and countries with low coastlines such as Bangladesh.
Although weather conditions are subject to natural variability and are short term events, scientists suspect that a changing climate will make certain weather events more likely. A warming ocean will make it more difficult for hurricanes to form, but once they do, they will be much stronger. Weather systems will progress more slowly, making extreme events like droughts, floods, heat waves, and extreme snowfall in winter, last longer.
The global warming effecting is also uneven. Oxfam warns that developing countries will bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate change. According to The Guardian, many African countries are already experiencing longer and deeper droughts, floods and cyclones. Wheat is becoming harder to grow in northern areas of China as the land becomes drier and warmer. In the Middle East, warming will increase forest fires by 30-40%, which will effect soil erosion and increase the probability of floods. Declining yields of up to 30% are expected for rice, about 47% for maze and 20% for wheat.
But the consequences of climate change will be felt all over the globe. The sense of complacency that rich, “developed” countries feel right now, is going to be short lived. In February of this year, the first female prime minister of Australia – Julia Gillard- acknowledged the effect of climate change on her country and imposed a carbon tax on all industries responsible for increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Climate scientist and former director of NASA’s Goddard Center for Space Studies, James Hansen, couldn’t agree more. In his opinion, the only way to cut emissions is through an incrementally increasing carbon tax. “There is no room for compromise,” Hanson says, “This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill. On those kinds of issues you cannot compromise.”
Our decisions today will affect those who will live on our planet tomorrow. Do we want to hang our own albatross around our grandchildren’s necks? Our action (or inaction) has consequences; we are all connected to today, and through our children, to tomorrow. Over 100 years ago, John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and the National Parks System, wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The seventeenth century English poet, John Donne, put it more eloquently in his poem, “No Man Is an Island.”
“Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
Let’s pay heed to these words. They are a profound warning to you, your neighbors, your friends, your children, your family, and your colleagues, as well as to me.