Climate Science, Climate Change and Our Daily Lives
Updated: Jul 13
Part 1: Up In The Air
The current discussion about climate change seems to stem from a polarized situation: At one end, we have tree-hugging, existential-threat criers, and on the other end deniers who say it’s all a false conspiracy. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between – in this case, not exactly in the middle.
So, before we embark on a discussion of what should be done about our climate, let’s try to establish a factual basis for the current situation and how fast it appears to be changing.
Fact: Resources are Finite
Our Earth is abundant in natural resources: air, water, land, soil, sunlight, atmosphere, underground stuff (minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) and all of us creatures, too. But they are not equally distributed. Unfortunately, since most of these resources are finite and our world’s population is large (7.9B and growing), we often hear them referred to as “scarce.”
Looking at the resources we humans need to survive, we focus on air and water. In this article, we will focus on air.
Clean air is necessary for the existence of life on this planet. Polluted air degrades the environment and can enter our bodies, causing health-related problems. Any of us who have lived in a big city are aware of air quality problems, which drift into rural areas.
We have been attacking the air pollution problem in many ways, with some success. But the newest, biggest problem on today’s scene is the level of greenhouse gases growing in our atmosphere and how the resulting temperature rise is affecting our planet.
Fact: Greenhouse Gases Heat the Air
The main culprit is carbon dioxide (CO2), which traps heat from Earth’s surface that would normally escape into outer space. (Read the long history of CO2 on Earth.) According to NOAA, today’s atmospheric levels of CO2 are considerably higher than before the Industrial Revolution. Over the past 171 years, human activities have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by 48% – from 280 ppm around the year 1850 to about 420 parts per million today.
Compare that to what happened from the last Glacial Maximum to 1850 – during those preceding 20,000 years, CO2 went from 185 ppm to just 280 ppm. Right now, CO2 from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.
Even now, humans continue to add about 40 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. Unfortunately, about 60% of that is not reabsorbed into the normal CO2 lifecycle, so it is building up quickly.
Temperature rises and falls have been a feature of Earth’s past, but nothing like this. The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. Most of this warming occurred in the past 40 years, with the seven most recent years being the warmest. 2020 tied with 2016 for the warmest on record.
According to NASA, the best evidence we have are direct measurements from ice cores and atmospheric air samples. The changes reflected in those measurements are not directly observable to us. However, we can notice the following well-documented changes happening to our world:
Greenland lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year. (NASA)
Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa. (NSIDC)
Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice have declined rapidly over the last several decades. (NSIDC)
The amount of spring snow cover in the northern hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades, and the snow is melting earlier. The decline in snowfall and early melt is one factor causing extreme drought in our western U.S. (NSIDC)
The global sea level has risen about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that – and is accelerating slightly every year. This is putting our coastal communities in jeopardy. (NOAA)
“The number of record high temperature events in the US has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950.” (NASA)
Numerous official sources say that more extreme weather events are occurring all across our nation.
There is no question in my mind that increased levels of greenhouse gases (CO2) are causing Earth to warm. Most greenhouse gas buildup now comes from burning fossil fuels, and that affects air quality and the protective atmospheric shield.
So, climate change in our air is real! Now what do we do?
See the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website for information on tracking local air quality. Certain pollutants are tracked around the major Texas metro areas – looking at ozone, particulates, lead, CO, SO2, NO2 and a few others. More current tracking information may be found at IQAir. Unfortunately, Burnet County air quality is not directly monitored, but the major problems out here are likely particulate matter from the rock/concrete plants, extreme weather events and drought conditions. An approximate tracking of air quality trends in Burnet maybe found at USA.com.