Mar 28, 2006

"Sudden Climate Change" pt. 4: Media Tipping Point

First "60 Minutes," now Time magazine. The mainstream media are suddenly waking up to the grim reality of global warming and its gathering danger.

Never mind what you've heard about global warming as a slow-motion emergency that would take decades to play out. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the crisis is upon us.

It certainly looked that way last week as the atmospheric bomb that was Cyclone Larry -- a Category 5 storm with wind bursts that reached 180 m.p.h. -- exploded through northeastern Australia. It certainly looked that way last year as curtains of fire and dust turned the skies of Indonesia orange, thanks to drought-fueled blazes sweeping the island nation. It certainly looks that way as sections of ice the size of small states calve from the disintegrating Arctic and Antarctic. And it certainly looks that way as the sodden wreckage of New Orleans continues to molder, while the waters of the Atlantic gather themselves for a new hurricane season just two months away. Disasters have always been with us and surely always will be. But when they hit this hard and come this fast -- when the emergency becomes commonplace -- something has gone grievously wrong. That something is global warming.

Time's Jeffrey Klugar does a very capable job of describing some of the tipping points and feedback loops that are leading to escalated warming and escalating concern amongst climatologists.

What few people reckoned on was that global climate systems are booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback loops, thresholds past which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way to sudden and self-perpetuating collapse. Pump enough CO2 into the sky, and that last part per million of greenhouse gas behaves like the 212th degree Fahrenheit that turns a pot of hot water into a plume of billowing steam. Melt enough Greenland ice, and you reach the point at which you're not simply dripping meltwater into the sea but dumping whole glaciers. By one recent measure, several Greenland ice sheets have doubled their rate of slide, and just last week the journal Science published a study suggesting that by the end of the century, the world could be locked in to an eventual rise in sea levels of as much as 20 ft....

One of the reasons the loss of the planet's ice cover is accelerating is that as the poles' bright white surface shrinks, it changes the relationship of Earth and the sun. Polar ice is so reflective that 90% of the sunlight that strikes it simply bounces back into space, taking much of its energy with it. Ocean water does just the opposite, absorbing 90% of the energy it receives. The more energy it retains, the warmer it gets, with the result that each mile of ice that melts vanishes faster than the mile that preceded it.

That is what scientists call a feedback loop, and it's a nasty one, since once you uncap the Arctic Ocean, you unleash another beast: the comparatively warm layer of water about 600 ft. deep that circulates in and out of the Atlantic. "Remove the ice," says Woods Hole's Curry, "and the water starts talking to the atmosphere, releasing its heat. This is not a good thing."

A similar feedback loop is melting permafrost, usually defined as land that has been continuously frozen for two years or more. There's a lot of earthly real estate that qualifies, and much of it has been frozen much longer than two years--since the end of the last ice age, or at least 8,000 years ago. Sealed inside that cryonic time capsule are layers of partially decayed organic matter, rich in carbon. In high-altitude regions of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, the soil is warming and decomposing, releasing gases that will turn into methane and CO2. That, in turn, could lead to more warming and permafrost thaw, says research scientist David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. And how much carbon is socked away in Arctic soils? Lawrence puts the figure at 200 gigatons to 800 gigatons. The total human carbon output is only 7 gigatons a year.

Only time will tell if this marks a tipping point in the public consciousness and will result in the drastic reform needed. But it appears time is the one thing we don't have.

Mar 21, 2006

"Rewriting the Science"

If you missed this Sunday's "60 Minutes" you can read a recap here. As I wrote a few weeks ago, only in the US is global warming still being debated. For most of the world it's settled science. Now comes further insight into how our current Administration has been keeping the jury out all this time -- by silencing the prosecution.

As a government scientist, James Hansen is taking a risk. He says there are things the White House doesn't want you to hear but he's going to say them anyway.

Hansen is arguably the world's leading researcher on global warming. He's the head of NASA's top institute studying the climate. But this imminent [sic] scientist tells correspondent Scott Pelley that the Bush administration is restricting who he can talk to and editing what he can say. Politicians, he says, are rewriting the science.

What the science actually says, according to Hansen is that global warming is real, accelorating, and caused largely by human activity. This is the message that an Administration with strong ties to the energy industry has suppressed with tactics Stalin might have envied.

"In my more than three decades in the government I've never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public," says Hansen.

Restrictions like this e-mail Hansen's institute received from NASA in 2004. "… there is a new review process … ," the e-mail read. "The White House (is) now reviewing all climate related press releases," it continued.

Veteran of both the Clinton and Bush Administrations Rick Piltz explains the anatomy of that vetting process.

"It comes back with a large number of edits, handwritten on the hard copy by the chief-of-staff of the Council on Environmental Quality."

Asked who the chief of staff is, Piltz says, "Phil Cooney."

Piltz says Cooney is not a scientist. "He's a lawyer. He was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, before going into the White House," he says.

Cooney, the former oil industry lobbyist, became chief-of-staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Piltz says Cooney edited climate reports in his own hand. In one report, a line that said earth is undergoing rapid change becomes “may be undergoing change.” “Uncertainty” becomes “significant remaining uncertainty.” One line that says energy production contributes to warming was just crossed out.

"He was obviously passing it through a political screen," says Piltz. "He would put in the word potential or may or weaken or delete text that had to do with the likely consequence of climate change, pump up uncertainty language throughout."

In a report, Piltz says Cooney added this line “… the uncertainties remain so great as to preclude meaningfully informed decision making. …” References to human health are marked out. 60 Minutes obtained the drafts from the Government Accountability Project. This edit made it into the final report: the phrase “earth may be” undergoing change made it into the report to Congress. Piltz says there wasn’t room at the White House for those who disagreed, so he resigned.

"Even to raise issues internally is immediately career limiting," says Piltz. "That’s why you will find not too many people in the federal agencies who will speak freely about all the things they know, unless they’re retired or unless they’re ready to resign."

As for Mr. Cooney:

For months, 60 Minutes had been trying to talk with the president’s science advisor. 60 Minutes was finally told he would never be available. Phil Cooney, the editor at the Council on Environmental Quality didn’t return 60 Minutes' calls. In June, he left the White House and went to work for Exxon Mobil.

Mar 17, 2006

"Sudden Climate Change" Pt. 3: Tipping Point

As I said in my previous entries on this topic, the climate is in far worse shape than most Americans know or our current governmental agencies will acknowledge. Now comes news that we have passed a key tipping point in global warming. The warming has become self-reinforcing so that even if we were to cease our production of greenhouse gases, the planet would continue to heat. As per Reuters:

"It would keep on warming even though we have stopped the cause, which is greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels," David Jhirad of the Washington-based World Resources Institute said on Wednesday.

The rate of warming would be slower, Jhirad said in a telephone interview, but a kind of thermal inertia would ensure that global temperatures continue their upward trend.

He referred to a report released by the nonprofit institute this week that analyzed research reports on climate change for 2005.

"Taken collectively, they suggest that the world may well have moved past a key physical tipping point," the institute wrote.

Jhirad said there were actually two tipping points. The first is that there is no doubt human activities cause global warming; a more physical tipping point is that the effects of global warming are evident now.

The report, based on research published in journals including Science and Nature, also found the effects of climate change were so severe they should spur urgent action to prevent more damage and to combat damage that has already occurred.

"We can't assume this change is so far in the future that we can afford to delay," Jhirad said.

The World Resources Institute, founded in 1982, is a nonpartisan environmental think tank that works with industry and other ecological groups around the world.

In other news the increased planetary temperatures are producing stronger hurricanes, according to a new study.

Rising ocean surface temperatures are the primary factor fueling a 35-year trend of stronger, more intense hurricanes, scientists report in a new study.

The finding backs up the results of two controversial papers published last year that linked increasing hurricane intensity to rising sea-surface temperatures, said Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

"Global warming is sending sea-surface temperatures up, so we're looking at an increase in hurricane intensity globally," Curry said.

She added that in the North Atlantic Ocean basin—where hurricanes that affect the U.S. form—the number of hurricanes may also increase.

"Other ocean basins don't show an increase in [the] number [of hurricanes], but the North Atlantic does," she said.

Curry is a co-author of the new study, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

She also co-authored a study published last September in Science, that found the yearly number of hurricanes that reach Category Four and Five—the strongest storms on the hurricane intensity scale—has doubled since 1970.

This finding coincides with a 1°F (0.5°C) rise in global sea-surface temperature over the same time period.

Mar 5, 2006

Eye of God

This photo, dubbed the "Eye of God," has been circling the web, and recently found its way into my inbox.

The photo is from the NASA website and depicts the Helix Nebula. According to Snopes the nebula is not that colorful in real life. The photo is actually a composit of 9 different photographs of the nebula. Here's another photo of the same nebula, also from the NASA website.

This is NASA's description of what is occurring:

One day our Sun may look like this. The Helix Nebula is the closest example of a planetary nebula created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies 450 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans 1.5 light-years. The above image was taken with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) located atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii, USA. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows unusual gas knots of unknown origin.

So the real explanation may not be as "feel-good" as the urban legend floating around the web. Sorry, no matter what you've read, sending the photo to seven people on your email list won't bring you luck. But if you're willing to contemplate the wonder of a planetary star in entropy, it's truly magnificent.

I was struck by this image for another reason. It is an example of replicated geometries. It is not accidental that certain cardinal shapes recur throughout our reflective reality. "Sacred geometry," which pertains to the architecture of matter, ascribes significance to certain forms. This is why we see them in so many sacred symbols. The shapes themselves demonstrate the geometric requirements of manifest form.

The eye shape is sacred to many cultures. The variously attributed "Eye of Ra" or "Eye of Horus" in ancient Egypt is one example.

Legends and images of eyes permeate both mythology and superstition and with all manner of magical attributions. The evil eye is common to the folklore which has been disseminated outward from Mediterranean cultures. I've known many Greek and Italian Americans who wore a single disembodied eye in jewelry and on key chains; protection from the evil eye.

Every US dollar bears the "Eye of Providence." In the orignal sketches for the Great Seal, it was a single disembodied eye floating over a truncated pyramid, surrounded by a "glory." In its final form it was encapsulated in a triangle, reminiscent of the Egyptian benben; an icon of manifestation.

The "eye," then, captures our imagination in a way that few forms do. The geometry of the eye, with its alternations of spherical and vesica pisces shapes, tells the story of manifest creation. In sacred geometry the sphere represents the unity from which all manifestation springs. The vesica pisces, or almond shape, occurs when spheres overlap sheres. It is the shape of cell division, when one becomes two. That duality and oppostion makes possible the wave form out of which all things generate. Robert Lawlor explains in his book Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and practice.

The idea of the unknowable Unity at the beginning has been the basis of many philosphies and mythological systems. While Shakhara, with the Buddhism of a certain period, posited the void as a fundamental assumption, the main stream of Hinduism has always rested on the notion of the One, the Divine, who divided himself within himself to form his own self-created opposite, the manifested universe. Within the divine self-regard, three qualities of himself became distininguished: Sat (immobile being), Chit (consciousness-force) and Ananda (bliss). The original unity, represented by a circle, is then restated in the concept of the Real-Idea, the thought of God, which the Hindus called the bindu or seed, what we call the geometrical point. The point, according to the Shiva Sutra Vimarshini Commentaries, forms the limit between the manifest and non-manifest, between the spatial and the non-spatial. The bindu corresponds to the 'seed-sound idea' of the Tantras. The Divine transforms himself into sound vibration (nada), and proliferates the universe, which is not different from himself, by giving form or verbal expression to this self-idea. Ramakrishna summarized the scripture by saying, 'the Universe is nothing but the Divine uttering his own name to himself.'

Thus the universe springs forth from the Word. This transcendent Word is only a vibration (a materialization) of the Divine thought which gives rise to the fractioning of unity which is creation. The Word (
saabda in Sanskrit, the logos of the Christians and Gnostics), whose nature is pure vibration, represents the essential nature of all that exists. Concentric vibrational waves span outward from innumerable centres and their overlappings (interference patterns) form nodules of trapped energy which become the whirling, fiery bodies of the heavens. The Real-Idea, the Purusha, the inaudible and invisible point of the sound-idea remains fixed and immutable. Its names, however, can be investigated through geometry and number. This emitted sound, the naming of God's idea, is what the Pythagoreans would call the Music of the Spheres.

Seeing the Eye of God, then, is not a once in a lifetime opportunity, seen through a telescope. We see the Eye of God everytime we look into the eyes of another, or into our own eyes in a mirror. For "God is an infinite sphere whose circumference is everywhere and whose center is nowhere."

Mar 4, 2006

"Sudden Climate Change" cont.

Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster than thought; as much as 26 miles of ice per year. From the Washington Post.

The new findings, which are being published today in the journal Science, suggest that global sea level could rise substantially over the next several centuries.

It is one of a slew of scientific papers in recent weeks that have sought to gauge the impact of climate change on the world's oceans and lakes. Just last month two researchers reported that Greenland's glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, and a separate paper in Science today predicts that by the end of this century lakes and streams on one-fourth of the African continent could be drying up because of higher temperatures.

The new Antarctic measurements, using data from two NASA satellites called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), found that the amount of water pouring annually from the ice sheet into the ocean -- equivalent to the amount of water the United States uses in three months -- is causing global sea level to rise by 0.4 millimeters a year. The continent holds 90 percent of the world's ice, and the disappearance of even its smaller West Antarctic ice sheet could raise worldwide sea levels by an estimated 20 feet.