01 August 2018

Some rambling musing on Deep Time and Carbon Dioxide

I have been thinking lately that along with history and some degree of exposure to literature, art, and music, every kid in Middle or High school should have to take a fairly exacting, albeit age-appropriate course in Earth History and Paleontology. Maybe incorporate a basic overview of astronomy and cosmology, which are actually fairly closely related disciplines when you're talking about general education. Every human being should have a basic understanding of "deep time", and should have some concept of the extent of space and time, not as abstractions but as they actually are, in the universe we live in. Along with that would come an appreciation of the fact that the Earth is far, far older than we can imagine, and that human existence occupies but a tiny fraction of the time the Earth has existed, while the Earth itself is just one planet in a universe so vast and varied that it quite literally beggars the imagination. These insights, commonplace among the scientifically educated, are almost entirely absent in the population at large, and it creates a chasm in the ability of most people to truly appreciate what's at stake in issues involving science and scientifically-based understanding.

Principal among such issues is Climate Change, which can't really be fully understood without understanding what fossil fuels are, and why burning all of them is like releasing the environmental impact of pent up sunlight and the chemical storage of that energy over millions of years, all at once. If you don't really understand that, you can't truly appreciate why burning through all that fossil fuel is so dangerous. Or that it's not actually the first time in Earth's history that this has happened (!). One of the reasons past volcanic events, like the vast, continental lava flows that caused and/or contributed to the End -Triassic, End -Permian, and likely even End -Cretaceous Extinctions,* actually resulted in release of vast quantities of fossil carbon, from literal incineration of fossil fuel deposits. And that was one of the main "kill" factors in those extinctions. Let that sink in, and you'll realize we are quite literally playing with fire. But my point is that if the education to acquire this kind of awareness were more universal, our people would more easily grasp these vital issues. And the time has come when we cannot afford to ignore reality any longer.

The difference between full on ice age and peak interglacial (like now...a swing that occurred about 20 times in the last 2.6 million years) is only about six to seven degrees Celsius.

So when climate scientists speak of a 4° shift by 2100, they are talking about totally unprecedented climate change in so short a period of time. Again, never in the almost 4 billion year history of the Earth's atmosphere has there been such a rapid spike in CO-2. And what effect that will have on the Earth's climate systems is just not well understood. If that doesn't scare you, at least a little, you aren't paying attention.

When people are told that every single human being on average produces tons of extra CO-2 each year, they simply can't conceive of that... but it's true.

I sometimes hesitate to get into the sort of counterintuitive facts  about CO-2 long term, though. Few people realize that the current epoch of Ice Ages actually reflects a very long term deficit in CO-2, which promises to become a very serious problem in the more distant future. At 150 ppm at the glacial maximums, we were at the lowest levels of CO-2 in the atmosphere in many tens of millions of years, and there is some indication that the CO-2 cycle is actually failing, so that it would eventually drop to the lowest levels since the Cambrian era, and threaten the ability of plants on land to even survive. (See Oxygen, a Four Billion Year History, by Canfield, highly recommended).

Our current brief episode of radical global warming may have short circuited that. But you don't really want to just plunge into wild swings and unknown territory without making sure you understand what's happening and can control it, and reverse it if necessary.

The fact that human activity is  the principal agent of geological change in the present epoch needs to be drilled into the head of every single person living on the Earth, because it's a genuinely awesome responsibility. The fact that we are stewards of the Earth is not poetry. It is literal truth.

* The role of the Chicxulub Asteroid is coming to be regarded as both proximal and distal as a cause of the End-Cretaceous Extinction. The Deccan Trap lava flows in India (then atop the Réunion Hot Spot in the Indian Ocean) were already underway when the asteroid, the largest in the 500 million year history of complex life on Earth, hit Yucatan, about 66 million years ago, triggering a 12 Richter Scale earthquake. (An earthquake that massive can only be caused by an extraterrestrial impact event). An earthquake of that magnitude will necessarily trigger global volcanic events, and it did, with a vengenace, turning a Oregon/Idaho lava flow like event into a mass extinction level event, where the earth's interior just flowed out onto the surface in miles deep magma flows the size of half of Europe. And all the coal and oil in the crust over that entire area was destroyed and its carbon released into the atmosphere. But even so, and this is hard to grasp but true, it was still slower than the spike in CO-2 since 1850.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Gyromantic Informicon. Comments are not moderated. If you encounter a problem, please go to home page and follow directions to send me an e-mail.