Editorial: Lingering leaves

A hint of winter, complete with snow flurries, touched the county this week. For a while, it had seemed that we might not have any wintry weather at all, inasmuch as the colors of fall foliage didn’t seem to reach their peak in intensity until about a week ago.

Here in Rappahannock, as well as apparently up the East Coast into New England, leaf colors indeed seemed to come much later this year than in the past — by as much as six to 10 days. That’s what people who are knowledgeable about such things tell me.

And from my own personal history, I remember the day of my daughter’s birth in mid-October more years ago than I like to acknowledge — looking out the Fairfax hospital window and remarking on the beautiful burst of color. That same burst happens incrementally later each year, it appears to my aging eyesight.

Scientific measurement of something as subjective as leaf color is, of course, impossible. Moreover, the variables involved in the changing of the leaves are many and complex. Phenology, which seeks to understand and control for these variables, is the study of timing in nature — not just changing leaves but also geese heading south.

Already, these scientists have documented an earlier-arriving spring, not just in this part of the United States but in Europe and Japan as well. The budding of plants is predicted almost solely on warming temperatures; but fall foliage is determined by not just temperature but also by light, moisture and other difficult-to-measure variables.

Shrinking on both the start dates and the end dates, winter may soon no longer be worthy of the name.

Does this mean the Earth’s climate is quickly and radically changing? Are we responsible? You tell me.

Walter Nicklin

1 Comment

  1. Well, yes, we are responsible and it’s actually pretty simple to understand why.

    Consider the following data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s website.

    Every gallon of gasoline with 10% ethanol produces about 17.7 pounds of CO2, and every gallon of diesel produces about 22.4 pounds (B10 “biodiesel” drops that to about 20 pounds). During 2012 in the US it’s estimated the consumption of those transportation fuels released something over 1650 million short tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

    CO2 release from the burning of coal is a little less exact to pin down because it varies widely based on the quality and type of coal (from lignite to anthracite), and the method in which it is burned that determines the completeness of its combustion. But, on a gross average burning one short ton of coal releases about 5,700 pounds (2.85 short tons) of CO2. During 2012 slightly more than 890 million short tons of coal were consumed in the US alone; which means we released roughly 2537 million short tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

    That comes out to a total of about 4190 million (that’s about 4.2 billion-with-a-“b”) short tons of CO2 from the US alone, from two sources alone, poured into the atmosphere in one year alone.

    But, 4.2 billion short tons of anything is a hard number to visualize, so a comparative example is needed to illustrate how much CO2 we’re talking about.

    A couple weeks ago we launched the Navy’s newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). In full operating order she will displace about 112,000 short tons; which gives us a handle on how much she weighs. So, if we released about 4.2 billion short tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in one year, from one country, from only two hydrocarbon fuels, consumed for only two purposes, that is equivalent to launching about 37,500 USS Gerald R. Fords… in a single year.

    A single pound of CO2 would inflate a balloon to about two and a half feet in diameter (at normal sea level atmospheric pressure). Averaged out across the US population every American “inflates” about 57 of these “CO2 balloons” every day. And the CO2 in them hangs around in the atmosphere for 50-200 years before being reabsorbed in by microorganisms, plants, animals, and people in the “carbon cycle.”

    The 4.2 billion tons of CO2 released above represents a man made phenomenon over and above the “base load” of CO2 released by natural processes in the environment (e.g., cars, trucks, and coal-fired power plants are not part of God’s created order).

    While the natural environment has some capacity to absorb excess CO2 that capacity isn’t boundless or infinite; meaning that it will be overwhelmed by increasing worldwide CO2 release over time; particularly as that CO2 release is not only increasing, but increasing at an increasing rate.

    The physical properties of CO2 gas are completely understood. Among them are its ability to act as a thermal insulator. Sunlight is reflected back into space as heat energy in the form of infrared radiation, but that process is impeded by the insulating properties of CO2 gas in the atmosphere. And, if that infrared energy can’t escape back into space it has to go somewhere. A substantial proportion of it is absorbed into the large bodies of water which cover about 70 percent of the planet in the form of heat. And those large bodies of water covering this planet are the “heat engines” which are major “manufacturer” of weather, because a given volume of seawater can heat up a much larger volume of air and fill it with water vapor in the process.

    Weather is the very short term atmospheric phenomenon you experience when you walk outside, whereas climate is the very long term context in which very short term weather phenomena take place. And if you dump more energy into a system as complex as climate it will compensate by moving to a new equilibrium, because all systems strive to reach equilibrium that balance inputs and outputs. So if you change the complex climate system you will change the patterns of weather observed at any time and place.

    The fact is that it has been documented well past argument that human consumption of hydrocarbon fuels, most especially over the growth of industrialization during the past ~200 years, are changing the climate over time. And, furthermore, this is a process of consequences that once set in motion will play out for hundreds of years even it we completely stopped CO2 emission cold today. It doesn’t mean everything will be getting warmer, or hotter, everywhere. But it does mean substantial and increasingly disastrous effects on the very subtle climate patterns that have shaped and continue to affect every dimension of the physical existence of humanity on this planet.

    This is not politics; it’s simple physics… and I dearly wish the climate deniers would wake up to that fact.

    If we choose to ignore it just because we’re so wedded to ideology that we can’t recognize objective reality then we will suffer increasingly dire consequences. More importantly our children and succeeding generations to follow will pay an incalculable price for our shortsighted, selfish, and supremely self-serving intransigence. But, if we see this as an opportunity to be seized we could actually reap massive benefits in the future.. but only if we see this as a “millennial investment,” and stop thinking exclusively in terms of short term gain.

    As the cartoon Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

    Cal Hickey
    Warrenton Chapter
    Citizens Climate Lobby

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