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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Wide World Web

It is not just philosophical and metaphorical that everything is connected to everything else. Some influences are stronger than others while other influences are nearly impossible to detect of measure. Physicists know that each body of mass in the universe exerts a gravitational force on every other body of mass in the universe. The relationship is the "inverse of the distance" separating the two bodies and that creates a tiny effect indeed. The same relationship exists between two magnets with their magnetism.

Meteorologists understand the flow of the wind as being an air mass that blows from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone. High pressure zones are typically colder than the lows so the wind blows cold air and may cause the precipitation of rain. Water flows downhill to the sea after it lands on the ground at higher elevations. It may take days or even years or decades for a particular molecule of water to reach the sea depending on the temperature where it may languish as snow or ice on a mountain. It may seep into the ground and become part of a great aquifer. It may become part of a complex food network in an ear of corn that is eaten by a cow and the cow eaten by a person who retains that molecule for a lifetime.

The entire engine of the Earth is fueled and controlled by the flow of heat from one temperature to a lower one. As the heat flows, the origin area becomes cooler and the destination area becomes warmer. The moving air moves huge quantities of heat as does the water that is evaporated, becomes clouds and ultimately falls a rain. The water flows over land to the rivers, lakes and ultimately the sea. It picks up additional heat and transports it to the vast oceans. Oceanic currents move that heat around too.

Each physical process moves heat around to the benefit or detriment of the conditions that we mere humans want to have. Until the advent of the Nuclear Age, all heat gain on this planet was driven by the sun. Even the heat released by the burning of fossil fuels coal, gas and oil was originally chemically sequestered in the earth by the life processes of solar driven plant metabolism. It is only that that heat was removed millions of years ago over a period of millions of years.

Energy on this planet is stored in various places. Some of those places are better and more stable than others, but nonetheless that energy can be highly destructive if its release is not well managed.

Water energy is stored in the glaciers and snow pack in high mountain slopes. When it melts it races down the mountains and into the lakes and rivers. Some of the water is used to grow food (a method of storing energy), some of it is pumped into the ground to fracture the rocks and release gas and oil deposits that are an ancient deposit of heat energy that has been converted into carbon chain molecules. We drink a bit of it and let the remainder reach the oceans. Many of the world's rivers depend on glacier melt to keep them flowing. A too fast discharge of water, wastes the future supply and does flood damage to everything in its path.

Ice (water with a deficit of heat) is one of nature's means of storing energy at high elevations. Humans long ago learned how to derive work out of the change of water's elevation. Hydro-electric station are the latest method. That was preceded by floating boats and barges on rivers and canals. Even earlier humans figured out how to make a water wheel mill from water flowing down stream. All of this mechanism is initiated by the sun putting heat in the water to make clouds rise up then precipitate on the land.

The sun imparts energy to the plants of the land and oceans of the globe. Photosynthesis makes food molecules called amino acids and proteins that plant make out of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide (among a few other elements). They sequester carbon and a huge amount of energy. Each plant cell either on land or in the ocean makes the earth an infinitesimal reduction in the ambient heat of the planet. Left alone for millennia, the plants will do the job of storing that heat for a later release. If humans find it, they will burn it and return that heat to their environment within a century or two without considering that it took many millions of years to take it out. The result is a rapid temperature rise and an acceleration of all processes that has previously reached an equilibrium.

The composition of the atmosphere is a complex mixture of gases and fluids that churn and boil while doing things we humans like and do not like. We like it when it rains enough and don't like it when the skies make too much or too little rain or drops it in the "wrong" places on the "wrong" schedule. We like it when the rain falls but do not like the violence that may come with it. The violence comes along with the level of heat in the atmosphere.

Everything effects everything else in our mostly closed system of physical parameters. One thing might increase a factor while another may reduce it. For example, we burn fossil fuels and dump the heat into the atmosphere along with tons of carbon dioxide. The CO2 traps solar heat, but stimulates plant growth in the forests and in the oceans. On land the plant growth is good, but in the oceans it causes phytoplankton blooms that choke out the oxygen for fish. High CO2 levels in the air make high CO2 level in seawater. CO2 in seawater makes it acidic and dissolves corals and kill them. Less corals leaves poorer habitats for fish that either we want to eat or the fish we want to eat want to eat. It is all a web of interconnected factors and vectors of change.

Higher atmospheric temperatures also protect single-cell live like amoebas and lake bacteria by not having extended freezes of the surface water layers. Those organisms in small quantities are not particularly dangerous, but when their populations run wild, we are in their sights.

Warmer winters allow deer and rabbits and other wildlife to not be killed off by the cold and lack of food. They in turn eat more forest vegetation and ornamental yard plants in MY YARD. The over abundance of prey wildlife will create a spike in predator wildlife such as fox, coyote and wolves. The predator populations will follow the prey population into MY YARD and act out the ages old theater of life and death. More deer means more deer ticks. More deer ticks means an uptick (no pun intended) in Lyme disease in humans.

While the heat content of the atmosphere upsets the dynamic equilibrium of our global climate, we will get exceeding hot spots and place where the weather is cooler than usual. It will rain too much where rain used to be Normal Rainfall and other regions will experience drought or at least a rainfall deficit. Too much rain makes the ground soggy and long standing trees fall over in a light wind. Mosquitoes flourish in rain water puddles and on the opposite side of the equation, hybrid Bermuda grass that used to feed cattle begins to off-gas cyanide compounds that silently kills entire herds when stressed by drought.

Yes, it is all an equation (or better described, a set of equations) that we do not understand at all. We go blithely tripping from one endeavor to another without measuring the baseline conditions so that we are not even capable of noticing the impact of our human civilization on the only biosphere we have. Hubris of the marketers of new untested technologies will be our foe for many decades into the future even if they are stopped from making and new contributions at our peril.

Even our most powerful supercomputers cannot model the weather for more than a day or two into the future with any confidence. Our climatic models are far more reliable due to the fact that the projected outcome is months, years or decades in the future rather than days. Still the uncertainty remains because we cannot gauge the input of a completely new variable to the model. If a massive asteroid should enter our atmosphere, the entire climatic model might need to be re-calibrated to account for it. Meanwhile, we must develop a plan and solution for whatever come our way, for whatever we do and for the policies to do something or not do something, or even anything.

There are highly educated thinkers in our science community who do not have a vested interest in what we do to damage or repair our planet. They , like myself, hope that we are doing enough and soon enough to allow for long term comfort on this Planet A of ours.