Climatic cost of our high-carbon diet
GEORGETOWN – Hiking along the Continental Divide north of Georgetown during late summer three years ago, Ed Knapp noticed something awry. Several feet below the lip of a withering field of ice and snow was a skull with down-turning horns. It was, he quickly concluded, the skull of a bison.Bison skulls in the mountains are by no means rare, even if there had never been any found so high, at nearly 13,000 feet in elevation. The surprise was the rapid retreat of ice from which the bison skull emerged. When Knapp, a 60-year-old building contractor from metropolitan Denver, began hiking the Continental Divide near Jones Pass in the 1970s, the permanent snowfield was 200 yards long. A year after it yielded the skull, the snowfield vanished altogether.Make no mistake, the climate is shifting across North America and the world. The 10 warmest years since record-taking began have occurred since 1983. Mountain glaciers have been reduced by about half. Sea levels are up 6 to 10 inches. Severe heat waves have become more frequent.In the mountains, evidence of warming is found at every turn. Winter nights are less frigid. Spring runoff comes earlier. The frost-free season has expanded – in Aspen by more than three weeks, according to recordings kept since 1949 at the town’s water plant. Do not make too much of local or even regional weather, says Susan Salomon, a scientist from Boulder renowned for her pivotal role in research about the ozone hole over Antarctica. “Climate varies in your back yard much more than it does in the global mean,” she says. “We have to be very careful in trying to attribute local variations to global warming.” That said, broader evidence of climatic change is beginning to add up. And nearly all scientists now agree that people – primarily through the burning of coal, petroleum and other fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases – are the main reason. New consensusFifteen years ago, questions about the role of greenhouse gases were at the core of a lively debate. There was no strong consensus among scientists, much less the public.But the huge body of research conducted since then has left few scientists as doubters. Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, rose 20 percent during the 20th century. As the century closed, temperatures spiked dramatically in what many researchers think was a direct result of these gases.”It’s almost impossible to find a scientific researcher who doubts the connection between people and greenhouse warming, and that we’re in for an unprecedented warming during the next 100 years,” says John Harte, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who spends his summers conducting global warming-related experiments near Crested Butte.That’s not to say that scientists know exactly where the climate is headed. They don’t. Climate change is enormously complicated. The mechanics of climate change are poorly understood. Particularly puzzling is the role of carbon, which is continually being redistributed among plants, the ocean and the atmosphere. Clouds are another major mystery.All of this means that scientists are far from figuring out how climates shift naturally. With the joker of increasing heat-trapping gases in the deck of cards, the game is even more difficult to predict.
That makes climate change, as many observers have noted, the paramount issue for the 21st century. Most environmental problems have local causes, with local solutions. But local becomes global very quickly in the atmosphere.Air circumnavigates the globe in about two weeks at the same latitude. In other words, the emissions from your car on Interstate 70 hit Washington, D.C. in a few days, Athens in about a week and Beijing and Tokyo a few days later.And it takes one year for the air on one hemisphere to thoroughly mix. Within two years, the global atmosphere becomes one big punch bowl, making U.S. emissions an issue for Greece, China and Japan.Furthermore, once sent into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide stays there for 100 years or more.Hence, climate change in the year 2030 will be the result of pollution from that year, but also from this year and the year your mother was born.”The problem we are creating has a 10,000-year effect,” says Duane R. Kitzis, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder.A prediction issued last December by two Boulder-based scientists, Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenbert, has the sort of odds you’d like in Las Vegas.They say there is a 90 percent probability that, between the years 1990 and 2100, global temperatures will rise by 3.1 to 8.9 degrees Fahrenheit.Chilly Dillon could become more like Aspen, and Leadville more like Vail. We could see shorter snow seasons and longer gardening seasons – if there’s enough water to garden, that is. Some evidence suggests the Colorado Rockies will receive less precipitation as a result of global warming.Global washing machineOur climate, scientists say, could be compared to a washing machine in its spin cycle. At the rate we’re loading carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the sky, we may throw the climatic machine off balance. What is becoming clear about the past is that the more unstable the Earth’s climate, the more likely it is to change abruptly.One theory is that the Earth could be flung back into an ice age. The more immediate concern is steady increases in temperature. Whether by fire or ice, however, we are forcing change upon the Earth’s climate, and few scientists are optimistic that we can find an easy technological fix. But how we can lessen our reliance upon fossil fuels, the primary source of those gases, even as the world’s population swells?”It’s not an emergency in the sense that if we don’t do anything this year, we die next year,” notes Randy Udall, a Carbondale-based writer who has spent a decade studying climate change. “The cumulative total will control the extent of the warming. “But it is an emergency in the sense of the magnitude of the change in energy systems required. In that sense, there’s no time to waste.”
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