Mike Nelson has served as Chief Meteorologist for 7News since 2004.
As we enter the New Year, I will continue to write essays about the threat of our warming world. Even at the coldest time of the year, we are seeing ominous signs that the climate is not only changing, but these changes are coming fast in some areas of the world.
The Arctic is warming faster than the mid-latitudes or Equatorial regions, something that many of the climate models have long predicted. We are seeing record low amounts of sea ice in the Arctic and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet continues.
This is not new science. In 1825, a French mathematician named Joseph Fourier calculated that given the distance from the Sun, the Earth should be much colder. He theorized that it was the atmosphere that trapped enough heat from the Sun to make our planet habitable.
John Tyndall predicted in 1863 that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would warm the earth’s surface.
Svante Arrhenius predicted in 1895 that the Arctic would warm by 15°F if carbon dioxide increased by two or three times. At that time, the carbon dioxide level in our atmosphere was 295 parts per million; today, that number is over 400 ppm — the highest it has been in at least 2 million years.
I have written several articles about the science behind global warming and you can read my most recent here.
While most of the comments I have received have been positive, there have been negative comments, some rather harsh, but that is to be expected. The physical science of global warming is pretty straight-forward; the political science of creating policies to deal with the problem are much more difficult.
With respect, I do not intend to rebut the pseudo-science that a variety of lobby groups have created. I am quite familiar with it. Frankly, most of it is techno-babble that tries to obfuscate the straight-forward thermodynamics that are not only well known, but accepted for over a century. I attempted to explain this at length in my essay, so I will not repeat it. Please read my earlier article at the link above.
The argument that 30,000 people signed a petition disagreeing with the science of climate change has long been debunked. Here is a good article that uncovers several of these “scientific-looking” claims.
Whether it is 97 percent, 80 percent, etc. of scientists who agree that the world is warming does not truly matter to me. If eight out of 10 oncologists said I had cancer, and two people with doctorates in economics said I was fine, I know who I would trust.
When asked how I would rank global warming as a threat on a scale of 1 to 10, that is not the right question.
For my 87-year-old mother-in-law, it is pretty much a zero. For me, with 25 years (hopefully) to go, I would say a 5. For my grandsons, an 8 and for their children, 10 plus! If the ice sheet in Greenland continues to melt into the sea and in 100 years the oceans rise by 7 to 10 feet, the world will be a very different and scary place. Sea level rise over the past century is already the greatest it has been over the past 2,000 years.
If you think we have a refugee problem now, imagine what it will be like in a century.
The world is getting warmer, so rather than go back and forth about whether the world is warming and humans are the cause – it is, and we are. How do we move forward with energy and environmental policies to deal with the changes and perhaps slow the warming in the decades ahead?
One new idea that is being suggested could not only help lower the emissions of carbon dioxide, but also better safeguard our electric grid from the dangers of a terror attack.
Wind and solar energy continue to increase in efficiency and the decrease in cost — a dramatic change in the past decade. The use of these two renewable energy sources is growing quickly in the United States and in countries around the world. In the Third World, putting solar power into a remote village can be life changing and lifesaving as a small amount of power can allow people to read at night or to keep vaccines cold.
Adding the traditional infrastructure of distant power generation delivered via transmission lines is not cost effective or practical. Distributed power generation enables the electricity to be created on site and used where it is generated.
Renewable energy technology will continue to evolve, but we cannot back away from the research – when the funding at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colo., is cut, those scientists have to find another way to make a living and their research comes to an end. The way to nurture future breakthroughs is to have the vision to continue to fund projects.
Battery technology continues to improve and electric vehicles will compete with gasoline powered cars and trucks in the near term. My Chevy Volt goes about 40 miles on a charge and that gets me to work at Denver7 and home again. If I need to travel farther to visit a school, the small gasoline engine kicks in when the battery is exhausted. A tenfold increase in battery storage would mean that I would rarely need to use any gasoline. Such improvements will be coming in the next few years. By the way, I charge my car with the solar panels on my roof at home.
Natural gas has become cheap and plentiful as hydraulic fracturing technology has opened up vast new reserves. There are concerns about the potential contamination of groundwater, the vast amounts of water needed and the leaking of methane from the wells, but it appears that fracking will be here for a long time. Burning natural gas to produce electricity still releases carbon dioxide, but it is far cleaner than coal.
Carbon sequestration is truly the only way to produce “clean coal” energy. We have made great strides in reducing many of the pollution problems from burning coal – namely fine ash, particulates and acid rain – so technology can make coal a less environmentally damaging fuel.
The biggest obstacle in sequestering (capture and burial of the carbon dioxide) is the amount of energy required. In short, you need to build a really big power plant as a big chunk of the electricity produced is needed to capture the carbon – not very efficient. (Here are a few links to more information: carbon capture technical challenges may be too big and carbon capture and storage may just be a mirage; here is another view.)
Nuclear energy is expensive, but does not produce carbon dioxide. Most of the current fission reactors are decades old and we have had three major incidents that have been extremely serious – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The potential for using nuclear fission for large scale power generation is also complicated by the potential for terrorism.
Nuclear fission also produces some dangerous, long lasting waste products that need to be stored – not something many folks want close to their backyards. Despite these concerns, there are plans for many new fission reactors on the drawing board for many parts of the world.
Nuclear fusion would provide limitless energy without the problems of long lasting nuclear waste – the only bi-product is helium. At present, the only way we can produce a nuclear fusion reaction is by exploding a thermo-nuclear bomb – not exactly a great way to make power.
In another 100 to 200 years, we will likely solve the puzzle of producing controlled, sustainable fusion reactions that produce much more energy than they consume. For now, the common joke is that “fusion is just another 30 years away.” Nonetheless, research is being done.
Energy conservation remains the low hanging fruit of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. While the amount of carbon dioxide released annually will continue to increase in the short term, we all can do our part to reduce, reuse and recycle. It may sound trite, but we are not powerless to make a difference.
Changing your diet can not only improve your health, but help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. (In full disclosure, my daughter is vegan. I am not that virtuous.) There is some disagreement, though, on the total global impact of eating meat.
This has been a long read and I appreciate your taking the time to consider some of my thoughts and the articles I have linked. We have many challenges in the years ahead, but as a species, humans can do great things when we rise to a challenge.
I am optimistic. Whenever I speak to a group of children, I am reminded that many of the wonderful technologies we take for granted today did not exist a generation ago. The smart phones we cannot live without have more power than a supercomputer from 30 years ago. Who knows what amazing discoveries await us in the next few decades. The young students of today will be the scientists and engineers of the future.
Scientists need to be rock stars. When I grew up during the Space Race, the rapid pace of discovery and engineering marvels was the catalyst for me to want to study science and weather.
Too often the scientists and researchers of today are criticized as having ulterior motives because their message is not something convenient to hear. The science is real, the vast majority of scientists are honest, sincere and concerned. We need to heed their message and inspire more people to follow in their footsteps.