What Is Happening to Carbon Dioxide Worldwide?
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. Do we want polluted cities and tropical rain forests? Or fresh air, vibrant forests, and livable cities?
Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse Effect
As we have seen in examining the burning of stars and in viewing prehistoric Earth, carbon as the fourth most abundant element in the universe. It is part of the atmosphere, inanimate objects (diamonds) and all living organisms, and makes life possible, better living through organic chemistry. In its purest form, carbon is non-toxic to humans and animals.
Climate change based on human activity such as burning fossil fuels, agriculture’s development, and reckless industrialization within the last two centuries is real. Methane, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide are the harvest we reap from this activity. The end products are air contamination, ozone belt destruction, and acid rains, as well as an excess of carbon dioxide. We see a steady rise of 316 parts per million (ppm) in the air in 1958 to 400 ppm in 2013, an increase of 27 percent in 55 years.
Stations in Alaska, Greenland, Hawaii, Britain, Russia, India record 400 ppm. The safe amount of CO2 is 350 ppm according to global consensus. What is 400 ppm, and what does it mean? Except for the prehistoric and pre-Homo Sapiens era, until the recent period between 1958–2013, the concentrations of CO2 were at 280 in the industrial period — 350 is the safe limit. 400 may be the difference between record temperatures, the Canadian Arctic being completely green (as it was 2.5 million years ago for the Ice Age), and having glaciers worldwide. However, we are hitting 400 again within a short span, even if it is just a moment in geologic time.
Tropical forests are razed to make way for pastures where cattle can graze and buying tropical wood products such as furniture made from mahogany and African okoumé. Even pencils and toilet plungers that contain rainforest wood contributes to the lack of oxygen-producing trees.
The gases given off by burning fossil fuels allow the atmosphere to retain more infrared heat rays that warm or ‘microwave’ the Earth gradually. Today the CO2 concentrations are off-the-charts higher than at any period in the past three million years.
CO2: West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Greenland, Alaska
Glaciers all over the world are shrinking, from the Perto Moreno Glacier in Argentina to the Tibetan Glacier, from the Glacier National Park in Montana to the most prominent ice shelf in the Arctic, the Wharton Ice Shelf that cracked in half in 2003. The most striking example is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).
“Take a look at that beautiful sheet of ice, folks. Historic and pristine,” Galacti says. “Unfortunately, it’s also cracking. It’s disintegrating. Definitely signs of wear and tear as we like to say in the real estate biz.”
A team of scientists and activists travel underneath the polar ice shelf in a nuclear submarine, wanting to see the disintegration of these majestic glaciers up close.
Land-based ice has crumbled at rapid rates, cascading like a tower of ice. The loss of ice in the stunning, pristine West Antarctic sheet is measurable: a 40 percent reduction in 40 years. Our team of scientists has mapped 54 ice shelves around Antarctica and discovered twenty of them that are melting because of predominantly West Antarctic warm ocean currents.
When we debate ‘climate change’ and whether it is occurring, whether the world is warming, we can talk about cooling temperatures as some have, but the shrinking of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is a fact. We have all the data from the main ice cores (cylinders of ice nearly half a foot in diameter collected from the depths of the ice sheet) to show the history of carbon dioxide. Four hundred thirty thousand years worth of data — to put this in perspective, 430,000 years ago, beings were first learning to make pigments by hand.
What does CO2 have to do with the WAIS, dubbed the most unstable glacier in the world? Some people argue that changes in the WAIS don’t amount to much as evidence of man affecting climate or anthropogenic climate change. There is increased heat in the ice and in the deepwater that is directly linked to the steady increase in CO2 shown by the ice cores. It is causation, not correlation.
Physics and the very act of measuring the ice cores and calculating the human-made CO2, which is double the normal atmospheric CO2, are objective, real ways of determining what we know: that increased levels of carbon dioxide also increase the optimum temperature of the Earth’s surface.
OK, we get it, we know that CO2 plays a role in what we are seeing. What exactly does the West Antarctic Ice Sheet do for the world? To put it another way: Why should we travelers and readers of The Explanation care? Is it essential to have vast sheets of ice, and not just for aesthetic reasons? Is this truly a world problem? Aren’t glaciers somewhat smaller and less numerous than in the past?
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is the vastest single mass of ice on Earth and is the only remaining ice sheet from the last glacial period that ended 12,500 years ago. Its impact is much more than that, as we will see when we examine the state of water in the world in the next chapter of Audit of the Universe.
The melting of 98 percent of Greenland’s surface ice is possibly explained by a change in the jet stream that trapped warmer high-pressure systems over colder areas. Greenhouse gas levels in Alaska and Greenland, as everywhere, have registered at 400 ppm.
Do we need glaciers, or are warm days in June in Alaska or a hotter summer at the WAIS a severe problem? The short answer is that ice sheets act as reflectors of the sun’s heat away from Earth. They are, in effect, a vital part of Earth’s temperature control system. The more ice sheets you have, the more reflection you get with a resultant lower overall atmospheric temperature.
The counterpart is the fewer ice sheets you have, the more the heat is absorbed both by the water and the land exposed by the disappearing ice sheets. This extra heat accelerates the melting of the ice sheets causing the irreversible conditions that scientists are now pointing to the point of no return.
This article is chapter 2.2 from the second book in The Explanation series, Audit of the Universe