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The Dawn of a new Climate

The Dawn of a new Climate

Posted on 11 Oct 2022

When Voltaire said, “men argue, nature acts”, he would not have known about the twenty-six global climate summits that have occurred since 1995, or the 20cm rise in sea levels since 1870.

The world’s climate has always been in a state of change, including seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat in the last 650,000 years, with the last ice age ending relatively recently,  a mere 11,700 years ago. These changes are largely attributed to very minor changes in the world’s orbit that affect the levels of solar radiation reaching our planet. 

In 1824, Joseph Fourier released a paper entitled ‘Temperatures of a Terrestrial Sphere’, in which he calculated that a planet the size of the earth, and the same distance from the sun as the earth, should be much cooler. He went on to hypothesize that there was something in the atmosphere that acted as an insulating layer. Later, in 1856, Eunice Foote carried out experiments that demonstrated that it was carbon dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere that trapped escaping infrared (heat) radiation.

During his groundbreaking experiments in 1958, Dave Keeling first started to systematically measure atmospheric C02 levels in Antarctica and the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. In just four years, using simple home-made equipment, he was the first to unequivocally prove the rising C02 concentrations in our atmosphere. Later in 1975, the same year that human populations reached four billion, the scientist Wallace Broecker first used the term ‘global warming’ to describe the effect we are experiencing today. 

Chaunskaya Bay, Siberia Russia, Source: NASA Goddard Photo and Video stream.

Scientific studies have examined ice cores from a diverse range of locations including Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers as well as examining tree ring growth, coral reefs and sedimentary rocks. These studies, including those by the British Antarctic Survey have shown that recent rates of warming are on average ten times higher than the average post ice age global warming rates, and that carbon dioxide levels have increased 250 times faster than from natural sources since the last ice age.

The Effects of Global Warming

Source: NASA

The evidence for global climate change is tantamount. The planet’s surface temperatures have risen an unprecedented 1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century, driven mainly by carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and other human activities. The majority of this warming has occurred in the last 40 years, with the years 2016 and 2020 tieing for being the warmest years on record.

Much of this increased heat has been absorbed by the oceans, with the top 100 meters of ocean warming by an average of 0.3C since 1969.The Earth stores up to 90% of extra energy in the oceans.

The ice sheets of Antarctica have been losing mass at a staggering rate; Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate experiments has shown that they are reducing in size by approximately 148 billion tones of ice per year. This, coupled with glacial retreat, decreased global snow cover, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and rising frequency of extreme weather events have proved beyond reasonable doubt that global warming is here to stay.

Sea of Change

Credit: NASA/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Landsat

Iceland’s beautiful Blue Lagoon, made by humans, and is heralded as an example of sustainable tourism with a no-plastic and zero-carbon policy for all visitors.

Global warming is not just affecting the colder parts of our planet. Australia is home to the largest living organism on the planet - the Great Barrier Reef. This natural wonder is proving to be as susceptible to the effects of climate change as the ice plates of Antarctica.

The reef has suffered from increasing levels of coral bleaching, caused by escaping micro algae revealing the white coral skeleton. Although the corals are not dead, they are at far higher risk of disease. Repeated ocean heat waves have affected almost 50% of some shallow reefs in just five years. Luckily, this is reversible, but only if conditions return to normal. 

Ocean acidification is caused by oceans absorbing up to 30% of all carbon dioxide emitted by human activity, reducing the overall pH levels of the waters. This in turn reduces the ability of corals to build their skeletons, which have a protective effect on coastlines and other marine life that live on the waters. The process of acidification is not reversible, with the Co2 remaining in the oceans for tens of thousands of years.

Increasing water temperatures are also creating an imbalance in marine ecosystems. Marine life is heading south to cooler waters, this creates greater food competition and the reduction in some species. This has a wide range of impacts, including affecting the important tourism industry in the area.

Extreme Weather 

The rising global temperatures are not evenly distributed. Rising global temperatures have seen an increase in ‘heat domes’. This is an effect when rising atmospheric temperatures press down on already warming air, causing the air temperatures to rise even more. Weather systems become static. This year, India and Pakistan have seen their summer heat waves arrive even earlier, with some regions reaching 45 degrees Celsius. The southern hemisphere has also seen dramatic heatwaves, with Onslow in Western Australia reaching 50.7C. 

The heat is also increased by reduced rainfall. As the ground becomes dry, it heats more quickly, worsening the effect of a heatwave.  

Wildfires have become more common. These fierce and destructive fires can be started by humans, but are also a natural phenomenon. The explosive nature of the fires create their own weather system in the form of pyrocumulonimbus clouds that create lightning, adding to the ignition of more fires.

Extreme heat is also joined by extreme rainfall. This year has already seen flooding in Spain and Australia. Sydney has experienced almost its annual rainfall in just three months, and Valencia on Spain’s East coast has been partially submerged.

Weather forecasting into the future

The global requirements for energy has been a major contributor to the warming temperatures and extreme weather events that are becoming increasingly regular. The new form of energy however has a far greater dependence on the fundamental understanding of our environment and weather systems. The balance between energy production and storage, distribution and new installations require data sets that are detailed, accurate and easily accessible.

It is however not just the energy sector that can leverage the knowledge of the weather. Farmers can adapt their land to more suitable forms of agriculture. Local populations can be warned of impending floods and storms. Delivery organizations can take advantage of new forms of urban transport to quickly, efficiently and safely transport their goods to their customers. Financial organizations can decide where to invest, and who to insure.

In our next article in this series, we look into the strategy of sustainability, and how the UK government is planning for a more environmentally friendly future.

There are many uncertainties about the future of our environment, however it is clear that governments, organizations, communities and individuals are starting to question the fundamentals of the way we work and live.

Voltaire also once said “Judge a man by his questions, rather than by his answers”.

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