The Fragile Planet

By Jack Stevenson - Guest columnist
Jack Stevenson -

If you are in open country where there are no city lights and look at the sky on a clear night, you see a magnificent display of stars similar to the sun that illuminates the planet we live on. Some of those stars have planets orbiting around them. Whether any of those systems sustain life is unknown. The nearest star is more than four light years from earth. That means an object traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per second would require more than four years to travel from our planet to the nearest star. By contrast, light from the sun reaches earth in less than eight and a half minutes. To date, planet earth is the only known place in the universe that sustains life. The relationship between the sun and earth that sustains human life and the animal and plant life that feeds humans may be unique.

There is a band of atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide, surrounding our planet. To some extent, those gases regulate the temperature at the surface of the planet where we live. When the sun’s rays strike the earth, some are absorbed and warm the planet and some are reflected back into space. The gas band prevents some of those rays from escaping into space. If the gas band were missing, the surface of the planet would be much colder. Increasing the quantity of carbon dioxide and other gases in the gas band increases the quantity of the sun’s rays that do not escape into space. Those extra trapped sun rays warm the planet. Most of that extra heat is stored in ocean water. The oceans are so vast that the extra heat must be detected and measured by instruments. But the increased ocean temperature does have consequences. Evaporating surface water is the source of rain and snow. Warm water increases the amount of water that evaporates. Atmospheric water vapor blocks heat escape from the planet. Warm ocean water is the energy source for hurricanes. Warmer water provides a greater amount of energy for hurricanes.

Snow fell in June in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. Lakes and rivers froze in Pennsylvania in July. Crops failed. Oats—fuel for horses—increased in price enormously, the equivalent, today, of a $2.50 gallon of gasoline rising in price to $19.00. There was an extensive migration of people from the northeastern U.S. to what was then called the “Northwest Territory,” an area that included Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Europeans also experienced abnormally cold and wet summer weather. A group of friends went to Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in the summer of 1816 intending to enjoy boating on the lake. The persistent cold rain forced them inside where they entertained themselves telling ghost stories. Someone suggested that they each write a scary story, a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

When a tree is cut, examination of the trunk or stump reveals visible and distinguishable rings representing each year of the tree’s life. Often, some rings are narrow and some are wide. The width of the ring indicates the growing conditions for each year. Wide rings indicate that conditions for growth were favorable during that year of the tree’s life. Annual snowfalls in places like the Greenland ice cap also hold a record of chemicals and contaminants deposited by the snow each year. Ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet and elsewhere reveal lead contamination from silver mines in Spain that were operated by Romans two thousand years ago. Ice core samples from the Antarctic reveal a long term history of the concentrations of the atmospheric gases carbon dioxide and methane.

Throughout most of human history, the main energy source for work was human labor. That was supplemented in a minor way by animals, e.g., horses, oxen, and camels. Wind was captured to propel small wooden boats, and gravity was occasionally used. The Romans used gravity and an aqueduct to bring water into Rome. Elsewhere, flowing streams powered a few grist mills.Henry Ford’s automobile made an enormous contribution to the economy. The jobs that were created generated tax revenue that made the United States Treasury the envy of the world. Our economy would collapse if we suddenly lost our automobiles and trucks.

Life on planet earth is the only known life in the universe. Human beings are the only species of more than a million species that have been identified that can build, change, adapt, invent, and evolve on a grand scale. Most of that unique capability emerged only with the exploitation and use of fossil fuels for energy.

It now appears that the carbon fuel that gave us the energy to build our modern world has an unanticipated consequence that could undo our accomplishments.

When carbon burns, i.e., combines with oxygen, carbon dioxide is a by-product. Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere and in the oceans where it becomes carbonic acid. It is not only the burning of fossil fuels that matters, but also the number of people who are burning fossil fuels or benefiting from the use of fossil fuels. One hundred years ago, two billion people lived on planet earth. Now, seven billion people inhabit the planet, and population continues to increase.

Biologists note that temperature sensitive vegetation and animals are migrating north or to higher elevations to remain in their preferred temperature environment.

Scientists who study climate indicate that, if our current carbon dioxide emissions continue, we should expect intense storms, intense heat waves, sea level rise, long term drought, and shortage of fresh water. Sea level rise could cause vast disruption, but the most difficult challenge may be drought because drought threatens food production capabilities. A century ago, American farmers in the Great Plains dug up the deeply rooted native grass and planted cultivated crops. A long drought occurred. Winds picked up the dry soil and formed massive dust clouds giving us the name “dust bowl.” More than two million people abandoned their farms and homes and migrated. Many went to California where they were not especially welcome. They were the “Oakies” in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

A survey of the abstracts from 11,994 climate research papers was published in Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 8, Number 2, on May 15, 2013. Two-thirds of the science papers reported only their research data. But nearly one-third (32.6%) expressed a conclusion regarding the cause of current era climate change. Of those, 97 percent indicated that humans are causing our current climate change.

Jack Stevenson Stevenson

By Jack Stevenson

Guest columnist

Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.

Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.