Melting ice caps, warmer oceans and increasingly hotter seasons. A reality that is becoming more prevalent due to climatic change that affects multiple factors across the world. This week we take a look at what some believe to be an environmental crisis: global warming.
Earth is in a constant cycle of heat regulation. This starts with the heat emitted by the sun towards Earth where approximately 30% is reflected back into space by bright surfaces like clouds and ice. The majority of the sun's heat (about 70%) warms up the planet when it is absorbed by land and oceans. The rocks, air and seas radiate thermal infrared radiation back into the atmosphere, where naturally occurring gaseous chemicals trap the heat; just like in a greenhouse in which heat is trapped for the utmost functionality of plants. This is why this process is referred to as the natural greenhouse effect. The primary gaseous chemicals known as the greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and ozone. When these gases trap heat, they actually enhance it to be warmer than that emitted by the sun. This natural greenhosue effect is all part of Earth's global design to ensure maximum comfortability for its inhabitants by keeping the planet warm to facilitate life on Earth.
But we have a problem: our warm greenhouse is getting too warm.
According to the Earth Observatory, global warming refers to an unusual rise in Earth’s average surface temperature due to the increased presence of greenhouse gases over time. This is primarily due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels (wood, coal etc) and deforestation (the chopping down of trees). As fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which increases the greenhouse effect by trapping more heat. As more trees are removed from the equation, more carbon dioxide is kept in the air which also increases the greenhouse effect. This is because trees and other plants play a vital role in the carbon cycle: they absorb the carbon dioxide from the air for photosynthesis and releases oxygen that we breathe in.
Are humans the sole cause of climatic warming? Arguably, the rise in Earth’s global temperature may not entirely be our fault. By studying the world’s ice pockets of more than 800 000 years, it shows that climatic warming is no stranger to Earth. More recent records explain it be a natural occurrence every few years (Figure 1). This climatic warming was due to volcanoes where its activity contributed about 130-230 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. This may be the reason for people's mixed feelings toward global warming and leading some to consider it a minor issue.
The current concern is the rate at which climatic warming is occurring. Since 2005, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels totalled to 26 billion tonnes. So if we had to play the ‘blame game’ regarding who should take responsibility for global warming, humans may be overwhelmed by the number of pointed fingers in their direction.
However, the case that it's one or the other is not exactly relevant. Human activity and environmental responses feed into each other. As increasing temperatures cause ice caps melt and clouds to reduce, there are fewer bright surfaces from which heat can reflect back into space; hence heat remains trapped inside the atmosphere, asborbed by dark water under the ice and therefore exacerbating the issue. This is climate feedback. In layman’s terms: we are trapped in a vicious cycle.
How do we get out of the slow cooker? The UN Environment Program has created a treaty with the vision to bring the temperature down by .5 degrees celsius by the end of the century. They plan to do this by reducing the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which are found in air conditioners, refrigerators and insulating foams. HFCs do not necessarily damage the ozone layer but their ability to trap radiated heat is far greater than carbon dioxide (even in their smaller quantities). Countries are slowly working towards phasing out these pollutants while also implementing cleaner energy sources like solar energy or wind power and replanting more trees. All of which will aide the fight against global warming.
As daunting as the issue may seem, it’s not too late to make a change. More and more people have started to implement eco-friendly methods of living and production to sustain both their daily lives and more importantly, our planet. As citizens of our global society, let’s have hope and look at a brighter and possibly cooler future somewhere over these dreary greenhouse woes.
Comment below what tips and tricks you use to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle
For more information about climate and the environment:
Solutions to Global Warming, Solar Impulse
The Extent of Global Warming, National Geographic
The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Carbon Brief
By Lela Pea, Editor