Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather - Marq de Villiers (2006)
Chapter 7. An Ill Wind
Ivan's story: By the morning of September 10, Ivan had taken its expected turn from its westerly course to the northwest, and most of the models now had it headed straight for Jamaica. After that, probably western Cuba and then to skim up the west coast of Florida. All day, as Jamaica braced for the storm and battened down as well as it could, the storm's intensity fluctuated. It started the day as a Category 3, but by mid-morning the pressure had risen slightly to 929 millibars and the winds were down to 123 knots or less, dropping the storm back to a 4. The deep pattern on the north side was looking a little ragged, but no one thought the storm was actually weakening, only changing. There was little wind shear to disturb it, and the ocean water remained very warm. That life-saving ridge of high pressure was showing some weakness over the Gulf of Mexico, and Ivan would likely be steered around it to the west.
In the afternoon, as Ivan bore down on Jamaica, two things happened. It reattained Category 3 status with the winds increasing to 163 miles an hour, and the pressure dropped back to gio millibars. This made it the sixth most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. But it also took an unexpected jog back to the west from northwest—the high-pressure ridge again—which meant that it struck only the western tip of Jamaica. The eye and the strongest winds remained south and west of the island, at sea.
Even so … The winds that did strike were the equivalent of Category 3 or slightly above, and the entire island lost its power and public water supply. Communities along the south coast were destroyed in the winds and the twenty-four hours of torrential rains that followed. The village of Portland Cottage and sections of Kingston were devastated. A dozen people were killed. Hospitals had to close, roads were torn up.
Millions of insects and thousands of birds, some of them endemic to Jamaica, were caught up in the violent spiraling winds and flung into the atmosphere. The animals were bruised and torn from their brutal evacuation, and remnants were found in later days across wide swathes of the Caribbean and as far away as Mexico, a graphic illustration of air in long-distance motion.
The storm passed thirty miles south of Grand Cayman. That was not nearly enough for safety. The smaller Cayman islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brae were evacuated to the main island, but Jamaica had been reporting a storm surge of twenty feet or more, and the whole island of Grand Cayman was not much higher than that.
The scuba divers had all gone, flown out days before, sharing the evacuation planes with whatever holders of the Cayman's famous numbered accounts had been there on business, but the residents who remained reported the terrifying scenes—half the island under water, the airport vanished, one out of two of the island's 13,000 houses damaged (and there were no shan-tytowns on Grand Cayman, which has one of the strictest building codes in the Caribbean), roofs torn off, buildings collapsing … The Associated Press quoted banker Justin Uzzell, who was watching from his fifth-floor window before prudently taking refuge lower down, saying that "this is as bad as it can possibly get. It's a horizontal blizzard. The air is just foam." The winds tore the tops off the gigantic waves and drove them clear across the island, reducing visibility to near zero.
The storm was traveling west northwest at 10 miles an hour. The computer models' track estimates were slightly west of their previous day's forecast track, but they all still called for a curve toward the northwest and then north, through the weakness in the subtropical ridge, within forty-eight hours. This new track would take Ivan through west central Cuba, and then up the Gulf of Mexico parallel to the Florida coast, perhaps hitting the Panhandle before exiting through Georgia.
There was no sign the storm was diminishing. On the contrary, the conditions seemed conducive to a further strengthening, with warm surface temperatures and only light vertical shear. Ivan could easily reach Category 3 again before slamming into Cuba.
Its capriciousness began to seem intolerable to those people who were, or could be, in its path.
Cuba had already evacuated more than a million people from the south coast, and now authorities evacuated 300,000 more, moving them from the western tip of the island farther inland.
The Cuban media had taken to calling the storm Ivan the Terrible. The American media—or at least a large segment of the Florida media—insisted on referring to Cuba in their weather news reports as “the communist run island. " Perhaps in retaliation, Cuba boasted of its people-friendly preparations. Indeed, they shut down the electricity grid some hours before the storm arrived, thus preventing hundreds of transformer explosions and other electrical damage. Ivan, which seemed an equal-opportunity destroyer careless of human ideologies, just plowed onward.
We have a narrow boardwalk down to our rocky beach—it is the same one that Hurricane Juan pushed into the forest a few years ago, now rebuilt—and at the beach end we built a small cedar bench. One winter morning I spent an hour on the bench, watching the restless sea and a couple of harbor seals gliding through the swells, their snouts and whiskers glistening in the pale sunlight. A few eider ducks were splashing near the shore. The wind was somewhere, I guessed, between Beaufort 0 and Beaufort 1, really nothing but a gentle onshore breeze coming out of the southeast. With the glasses I could see a small boat out to sea. There, clearly, the winds were more active, because the boat was rising and falling in the swells and the horizon looked lumpy Some kind of a front was coming in from the west, nothing very much, just enough to raise up a sea to our south, and this was the first sign of it. The breezes the front was pushing, which would bring us some rain, were part of a massive rolling wave of slowly tumbling air that stretched from Labrador well down into Pennsylvania, bringing damp but otherwise benign air all down the eastern seaboard. The jet stream was that week making a lazy loop almost down to the Gulf, and this loop was helping to steer the whole system. Behind the front—you could see it on the synoptic weather maps—was a massive plateau of still air all the way past the Great Lakes and almost to the prairies and south to the High Plains. West of that … It was snowing on the Sierras; another front was pushing the damp air out of the deep Pacific eastward, and it was dropping its load on Mammoth, where I have a good friend who even then would be digging out his SUV to get to the skiing trails—snow is a mixed blessing in Mammoth, but the good always outweighs the bad, except in a drought. He'd have another two feet of snow to deal with today, perhaps more. My front was connected to his, with only two lazy whorls of separation. Two whorls and more than three thousand miles. How many for that Pineapple Express that dumped snow on New England after starting somewhere down around Hawaii, and detouring past the Aleutians? Not more than four. Maybe only three.
Earlier, I had spoken to my mother, WLLO was at a little beach community called Pringle Bay, an hour or so from Cape Town— she had gone to ground there with the rest of the family for Christmas, partly to escape the heat in a period of grim water shortages, and partly because, well, that's where the family went for Christmas, sons and daughters and cousins and a dozen children with assorted dogs, tumbled together in a kind of friendly chaos. The weather at Pringle Bay was hot and sunny—it was 36° Celsius, and they were having dinner outdoors. Their winds were southeast onshore breezes, not much stronger than ours, ten thousand miles away on the other side of the earth. I looked up the synoptic map for the southern hemisphere, courtesy of the Australian weather bureau's Web site, and saw a pattern not very different from the one we were experiencing. There were no typhoons in the Pacific, but there were several frowning waves of disturbed air, and the Furious Forties were as furious as ever, the winds scudding eastward in the midlatitudes between the Cape of Good Hope and Antarctica. Gales blew up whitewater just a few hundred miles south of Pringle, but the family had gone to the beach anyway, blissfully oblivious; the wind wasn't even strong enough for the beach sand to sting, as it often did.
How many degrees of separation between me and Cape Town? More than between me and California, perhaps, but surprisingly few, all in all. A picture came into my mind of the world as a big room, drafty, with maybe a window open (the poles) blowing cold air into the center, setting off corner-to-corner eddies and dips and whirls and swirls, with vortexes in the corners and in places where the cold and warm air collided. Were the air a thinly colored mist, you'd be able to see how it was moving about the whole room, and you'd be able to picture how completely the patterns would change if the window were closed and a door opened, say, or a fire was lit in the fireplace … But in the end the very homeliness of the metaphor didn't really work for me, because this was such a very big room with such very big drafts, and the equalizing dance of the winds was so intricate that it demanded a grander metaphor, a "Dance of the Seven Thousand Veils," if you will, the complex pa-vane of the global balancing system, and at that moment I felt that my small breeze, the one that was ruffling the feathers of the mergansers and eiders, was connected to the planetary whole in a way I hadn't really felt before.
This was not as comfortable a feeling as you might expect, because there is a practical downside as well as a philosophical upside to interconnectedness. We're all shut-ins in this great global ballroom. We are locked in without a key, and there are more and more of us all the time, millions upon millions of us, and we are filling the air with our "smoaks" and our industrial defecations … Possibly this sour mood was brought on because I had been thinking about Ivan's recent and apparently malevolent and psychopathic presence in the southern seas, and at the same time had been contemplating the grim matter of air pollution, and had been trying with limited success to sort out fact from propaganda. The evening before I had been dipping into a score of books on the subject, the luminous Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, Donella Meadows' Limits to Growth, Jared Diamond's Collapse, Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress, and a good deal of their gloominess had rubbed off—such a concatenation of woe! so many sins of commission and omission! such a certainty of calamities to come!—and for a moment our planet seemed less like a great global ballroom than it did an enormous ward for the criminally insane, and we the inmates, capering about and setting fires and wondering why the smoke was choking us. The mood didn't last long—my antidote was Richard Fortey's The Earth, a lovely look at the planet from the inside out, but still … As I had come to learn, Ivan was a part of the inherent balance of our planet, and in his violent way an inevitable and even positive force. We didn't create Ivan—he just is. But it is possible that through our "smoaks" we are creating the preconditions that make more and more awful Ivans probable. Pollution is not, after all, something we do in a vacuum, with no precedents and no consequences. What we do to the air can and does and will affect wind and weather and climate. This much seems obvious.
And no one seems to be in charge, much. Not in the world, and not in most of the major polluting countries.
The United States is an egregious case in point. Among the better guardians of American ecological purity is the Worldwatch Institute out of Washington, D.C., and among the rational voices that emerge there is that of Ed Ayres, the former editor of the Worldwatch journal. In a piece written in 2004, Ayres pointed out soberly that in the United States at least, no government agency exists to look after air as such. A multiplicity of agencies concern themselves with minute aspects of air—there are people looking at emissions, for example, and yet other people looking at emission controls, but no one looks after the whole. "The Environmental Protection Agency regulates some aspects of auto pollution, but the Department of Transportation regulates others, and the National Institutes of Health still others. You have to distinguish between people who regulate CO2 , and the people who regulate CO2 emissions. Smog is a different department than global warming. Fuel efficiency is a different department than tailpipe emissions. Every component of the air had an agency responsible for it. But no one was responsible just for the air."1
Of course, Ayres is describing the classic reductionist thinking of the current state of Western science—the notion that by understanding something on the molecular level you can thereby understand its purpose. As he put it, "modern science's trend towards attempting to explain large phenomena as accumulations of tiny atomic or cellular ones misses the effects of the phenomena as whole systems." That is, we try to understand a tree by minutely examining its capillary and circulation systems and the molecular structure of its leaves, but we seem to have no appreciation for it just as a tree.
The people who study wind are doing better, I think, perhaps because wind is the most obvious part of air, and understanding a storm persuades hardly anyone anymore that we can control it. Atmospheric scientists, on the most theoretical level, have broken through some kind of limiting conceptual barrier: They are indeed delving deeper into the molecules, but have also regained a clear view of the whole global nature of wind systems. Perhaps this is because meteorologists, so constantly chastened by getting their forecasts wrong, have come to understand the virtues of humility.
Winds travel. We know this from the global models. Longdistance winds govern the health of our planet, but wind's longdistance travels aren't always benign, and some of the things we humans are doing to them makes their ill effects worse. It's not hard to collect examples. It is harder, in fact, to ignore examples, since so many of them turn up in news reports, most of them in some way "true," though often reported out of context.
In the late summer of 2002 I had been filming a documentary about water in north China, on the fringes of the Gobi, and had noticed that the air overhead seemed curiously opaque, even milky; there was no blue, even on clear days. This was more evidence of China's inexorable desertification and consequent dust storms. Alas, Chinese efforts to correct the problem may be making it worse—in mandating that marginal land must be used for farmland, the government simply encouraged practices that caused the newly plowed soil to blow away. In 2001 NASA had tracked a massive dust storm originating in north China big enough to briefly darken skies and cause hazy sunsets over North America as little as five days later; a month after I left to return home, NASA's satellites once again picked up an immense dust cloud, more than a mile thick, moving eastward over Korea and into the Pacific. Clouds like it seemed to be becoming part of the Chinese calendar. Similarly massive dust clouds had occurred in 1997, 1998, and again in 2000; in fact, the Chinese Meteorological Agency counted twenty-three major dust storms in the 1990s, a substantial increase over previous decades. Chinese dust—heavily tainted by pollutants such as coal-combustion aerosols, ozone, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and heavy metals such as mercury—has inflicted itself on Korea and Japan for decades; in Korea it is sometimes called spring's gatecrasher. Chinese dust may have been the origin of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on Korea's west coast.
The same summer, 2002, a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) study confirmed the existence of another pollution cloud, two miles thick, over much of southern Asia. Klaus Topfer of UNEP said in Vijay Vaitheeswaran's Power to the People: "The haze is the result of forest fires, the burning of agricultural waste, dramatic increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, industries and power stations and emissions from millions of inefficient cookers burning wood, cow dung and other biofuels … There are also global implications—not least because a parcel like this can travel halfway around the globe in a week." Every year in developing countries, at least a million people die from outdoor air pollution. "Disaster is not something for which the poorest have to wait; it is a frequent occurrence," Cambridge University professor Partha Das-gupta is quoted as saying in Power to the People.2
Indian researchers have studied the high concentrations of black carbon (a.k.a. soot) over the Indian Ocean, and traced it back to biofuels, mostly cattle dung, used for cooking fires by millions of people in the subcontinent. Only by changing the way India cooks, the study suggested, could the country help mitigate climate change. They acknowledged that change was less than likely3
Even such mundane human byproducts as dandruff have been found in the pollution clouds. A study in 2005 found that "particles injected directly from the biosphere" are a major component of atmospheric aerosols. Examples given were fur fibers, dandruff, skin fragments, plant fragments, pollen, spores, bacteria, algae, viruses, and protein crystals. All these, the study suggested, have a substantial impact on climate through cloud formation—they attract water and make excellent ice nuclei, which triggers rainfall and removes water from the atmosphere.4
A 2003 UN. study on the North American environment, which tiresomely predicted, as these reports usually do, ever more droughts, floods, and severe storms (predictions based on very thin evidence), also pointed out correctly that total energy use on the continent grew 31 percent from 1971 to 1997; that 5.5 million people have developed asthma and other severe respiratory diseases as a result of air pollution; that the Ontario Medical Association's figures put the air pollution fatalities every year in Ontario alone at 1,900 people, costing the system well over a billion dollars.5
At Tagish in the Canadian Rockies a monitoring station has found elevated levels of pesticides in the winter and spring, attributed to pollution from continental Asia. Similarly deleterious effects have been noticed in focused studies of snow cover in Alaska and British Columbia and on the fecundity of Pacific eagles. A study on the Fraser River watershed in British Columbia concluded that toxic airborne pollutants from Asia have been contaminating lake fish and sediments; high POP concentrations have been found in the snowpack. Farther south, increased nitrates and sulfates have been detected in pristine streams in the Olympic National Forest on the coast of Washington State. Other studies document POPs and mercury in wildlife and human populations in the Arctic, pesticides in bald eagles of the Aleutian Archipelago, and very high polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) concentrations in some Pacific Northwest orca populations.6
Asia is hardly the only villain—villains are to be found wherever winds blow. In late 2004, for example, Arkansas soybean farmers were lamenting the ravages of soybean rust, a fungus that had landed in the United States, blown from South America and carried ashore over the Gulf of Mexico by one or another of the season's hurricanes. The fungus was also attacking another alien import, kudzu, which state governments had been vainly fighting for decades, so many people who were not growing soy could see the bright side.7
And I had seen for myself how strong winds picked up massive clouds of African dust, and carried them out over the Atlantic. This, too, was hardly new: For decades it has been known that pre-Columbian pottery in the Bahamas was made from wind-borne deposits of African clay; orchids and other epiphytes growing in the rain forest canopy of the Amazon depend on African dust for a large share of their nutrients. Charles Darwin's Beagle journals contain an observation he made as he was crossing the Atlantic about the falling of "impalpably fine dust" on the ship at sea.
In the last year of the millennium a reddish brown river of dust, picked up from the deserts and the eroding grazing lands of the Sa-hel, a plume hundreds of miles wide and thousands long, was whipped across the Atlantic by the trade winds. The amount of transported dust has been going up steadily over the past twenty-five years, and at the same time, the mortality rate of creatures like Caribbean coral has risen sharply. Eugene Shinn, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, Florida, has tracked the coral's declining health to fungal spores and bacterial cysts hitching a ride on African sand; in 1998, scientists identified an African soil fungus as the cause of the decimation of sea fans across the entire Caribbean, an object lesson in the interconnectedness of life. The red sunrises in Miami are Saharan-caused; half the particulates landing on Florida are from the Sahara. Dust clouds increase in Caracas when drought in the Sahel occurs—another example of the intimate links that winds make.
The same thing has been happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the coral reefs have been dying for years. Most of the blame had been attributed to overfishing and to direct damage by boats and divers; but in 2000 several studies found that hurricane-carried pathogens from Africa had severely degraded vegetation and had critically damaged once-dominant corals like staghorn and elkhorn, long-spine sea urchins, and sea fans. Carpets of algae now dominate many reefs. The Virgin Islands National Park even paid for a marine ecologist to visit Bamako and Timbuktu on the Niger River in Mali in an effort to understand the organisms that were making their way across the sea. Similarly, another U.S. Geological Survey report in 2001 said that what the researchers called opportunistic pathogens were hitching rides from Africa on the wind—the sand is heavy enough that the dust clouds block the solar radiation that would otherwise damage the bacteria on their journey to the New World. Large dust arrivals from Africa have now been found over 30 percent of the continental United States; although no one has yet estimated its mass, it would be a small fraction of the amount that leaves the Sahara. About half the volume that reaches the United States settles on Florida. On any given day, a third to a half of the dust drifting through Miami comes not from local beaches but from Africa. "It may," the study suggested, "pose a significant public health threat."
This might seem something of an exaggeration, but in the summer of 2001 a NASA-funded study tracked a cloud of Saharan dust to the Gulf of Mexico, where it settled, with unnerving consequences— causing a huge bloom of toxic red tide. The Saharan dust reached the West Florida shelf around July 1, increasing iron concentrations in the surface waters by 300 percent. Through a complex process involving enzymes and plantlike bacteria called Trichodesmium, the iron enriched the nitrogen content of the ocean, and in October an 8,100-square-mile bloom of red algae had formed between Tampa Bay and Fort Myers, Florida. Red tides give off toxins that can cause respiratory disorders in humans, and also poison local shellfish. Anyone eating the contaminated shellfish would suffer paralysis and severe memory problems. This particular red tide also killed millions of fish and hundreds of manatees.
A study at Harvard in 2004 found an increase in dangerous epidemic diseases created by the decrease in global forests and by increasing numbers of devastating storms like hurricanes.8 And it is known that these dust events bring chlordane and DDT traces back across the Atlantic, chemicals invented in, but now banned in, North America.9 There's a nice irony: America is being bombarded with DDT from Africa and chlordane and lindane from Asia, very toxic chickens flying home to roost.
Pollution goes where the winds take it. Researchers from the University of California at Davis were monitoring the air quality on Mauna Loa, a 13,680-foot mountain in Hawaii, and to their dismay found clear traces of industrial pollution from China, including arsenic, copper, and zinc, kicked into the atmosphere five days earlier. "It seems that Hawaii is like a suburb of Beijing," one of them said. On the other hand, for Europeans, it is the United States who are the aggressors, and dirty air from the United States regularly fouls northern European forests. Beltway commuters in Washington, intent only on the politics of the moment, are actually damaging the lungs of hikers in Britain's Lake District. Aerosols including toxic metals, nutrients, viruses, and fungi have been tracked from the Gobi Desert to Beijing, from West Africa to the Caribbean, from Ontario to New England, and from Germany to Sweden.10
Science magazine in April 2000 published a study that attributed a sudden increase of carbon dioxide concentrations in the American Southwest to Canadian forest fires. Episodic spikes in emissions on the central Atlantic Coast of America were caused by forest fires burning thousands of miles away, in the sub-Arctic Northwest Territories. A single fire in this remote region emitted two and a half tons of C02 per hectare (about two acres) of forest burned, and dumped it on the United States—and total emissions from forest fires exceeded all other sources by a factor of two. This is unfair— Kentucky makes enough of its own pollutants without inadvertently importing others from Canada, but turnabout is fair play, I guess, for it is not for nothing that Nova Scotia is sometimes referred to as the tailpipe of North America, since sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide from Illinois and other places in the Midwest tend to drift over—and sometimes onto—our heads.11
In the summer of 2004 the first really massive study of transoceanic pollution was undertaken, fronted by NASA and NOAA, with assists from Environment Canada, the British environment ministry, and scientists from France, Germany, and Portugal. This was the International Consortium for Atmospheric Research on Transport and Transformation, more usefully known as ICARTT. There were some security hiccups related to sensitivities about high-flying foreign aircraft penetrating national airspaces, particularly on the part of the ever-prickly French, but to no one's surprise, the best scientific guesses were amply and miserably confirmed; high-altitude solar radiation was turning pollutants into lung-irritating ozone. Yes, Asian pollution was darkening the prospects for Californians and Washingtonians; but yes, also, U.S. pollution was being sucked into the westerlies and the jet stream, to be deposited in Europe three to five days later—those Beltway commuters were indeed affecting Britain. One of the British scientists involved, Alastair Lewis of the University of York, said gloomily that "we used to think air pollution was a local problem. Now we realize some pollutants, particularly ozone, are global. It is literally arriving here on the wind." Environment Canada's Richard Leaitch, for his part, was concentrating on how clouds process trace gases and particulate matter, but did confirm that pollutants from the United States were tracking northwest to the Maritime Provinces—the tailpipe didn't end in Maritime Canada, but it did leak substantially there.
ICARTT was the largest, but not the only, study of wind-borne pollution being carried out by atmospheric scientists in the early years of the millennium. Alarming data from all around the globe on aerosols' damaging effects on regional and global climate kicked atmospheric scientists into high gear, and by 2004 a bewildering variety of studies with impenetrable acronyms were being conducted. They variously measured ozone concentrations; sodium dioxide, carbon dioxide, and formaldehyde emissions; the worldwide spread of carbon monoxide pollution; and the global distribution of man-made and natural aerosols.
Main conclusions from all this frenetic activity? The good news was that stringent air quality controls in Europe had decreased sulfur pollution substantially. But that was pretty much it for good news, at least as reported. Even sulfur dioxide hadn't decreased globally, because a wash of pollution from Asia was more than compensating for the decrease in Europe. For the rest … global winds carrying ozone and carbon monoxide (CO) were jeopardizing agricultural and natural ecosystems worldwide, and having a strong impact on climate. All the studies recognized what was already obvious, that Asian pollutants were beginning to surpass those from North America, a trend that would only continue and accelerate.12 The increasing concentration of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere worldwide was particularly worrying. The importance of megacities, defined as cities with more than ten million inhabitants, was recognized as a new and critical source of pollutants, especially from burning fuels—by 2001 there were seventeen megacities worldwide. And a final point: Pollution from elsewhere was making local conditions worse, pretty well everywhere.13
Well, they "knew" all this before. But now they know it for sure.
In no aspect of atmospheric sciences, of the study of winds and the air, is the discussion more heated than on the topic of the greenhouse effect and the growing presence in the air of carbon dioxide. On no other topic are the doomsayers more strident, and the doom they foresee more self-evident; and on no other topic is the cheery optimism of the naysayers more chilling. Here are two utterly typical quotes from my notebooks: "If humanity indeed adds another 200 to 600 parts per million to atmospheric carbon [which it is in train to do], all kinds of terrible things could happen, and the universe of terrible things is so large that some of them probably will." This quote is by Steve Pacala, a Princeton University ecologist. The other followed a discussion about the immense reservoirs of organic carbon stored away in the permafrost in Arctic regions—perhaps two hundred billion tons of the stuff, "safely" stored for thousands of years, because frozen. "Now," says Terry Chapin of the University of Alaska, "it's potentially a very large time bomb." If the Arctic thaws, rising sea levels will be the least of our worries, in this view. Instead, we'll be smothered in C02 and in short order the planet will become as steamy as Venus, ending life as we know it, and most important, our own.14
This is bad enough, but perhaps the most depressing thought of all is to contemplate not so much what is happening but how rapidly it might happen. The potential time line is unnervingly short. The global climate, like its component parts, is a chaotic system with its own strange attractors. Theory suggests that there might be at least three such attractors. One is the current climate model, another is a White Earth model (the deep freeze of an ice age), and a third is the Venus model (with dense clouds and surface temperatures high enough to evaporate the oceans). If climate is indeed chaotic, it would tend to hover around one of these three, and have the ability to bounce unpredictably from one to another. If we are close to such a bounce, a very small effort on our part, such as an increase of a few parts per million of C02, might be a sufficient trigger. Unlike conventional global warming theories, these bounces wouldn't happen in a reassuring one hundred or two hundred years. They could be complete within a decade. We would have no time to prepare. Flip! The Venus effect … Or flip! The deep freeze … Fry or freeze. An evil choice.
The greenhouse effect is simple enough to understand, though not quite as simple as in the popular imagination. It is really the tipping point at which the air will become dangerously oversaturated with moisture vapor and carbon dioxide that is causing all the fuss. What concentration of CO2 is too much? Where's the true danger point?
In the present mix of atmospheric gases, a little more than half the sun's energy reaching the outer atmosphere strikes the surface directly The other half is distributed through scattering, "bouncing" off other molecules in the same way odor molecules disperse themselves in the air. Much of the energy that does reach the surface directly is absorbed, but it is then reradiated upward again. The reradiated energy has much longer wavelengths than solar energy, somewhere between i and 30 micrometers. Between them, carbon dioxide and water vapor absorb radiation at these wavelengths efficiently, except for a small window that is transparent to radiation, which lies between 8 and 11 micrometers. It is through this window that some of the reradiated heat is able to escape back into space.
The half of the sun's energy that doesn't reach the surface is absorbed by the same two substances, water vapor and carbon dioxide. The CO molecules become agitated and therefore warmer by the process of absorption, and they then reradiate the energy they took in, some of it down to the surface, some out to space. That energy reaching the surface is treated the same way as the other half—it is absorbed and then reradiated spaceward. Some of it is trapped yet again and sent back down … and so on and so on, setting up an oscillating feedback effect not unlike a game of Ping-Pong.
The net effect of all this is that the atmosphere has been gradually heated to a relatively constant temperature with a relatively constant variation by altitude, somewhere around 6.50 Celsius for every 3,300 feet of altitude. It is this constant feedback effect that makes the proportion of carbon dioxide in the air so important—the more there is, the more absorption there is, and the greater the heat gain in the atmosphere. 15 This is pretty straightforward, complicated only by the fact that other greenhouse gases, like methane produced by cattle, rice fields, and landfills, and chlorofluorocarbons emitted from refrigerators and air conditioners, do the same thing carbon dioxide does.
No one, not even the most vociferous climate-change skeptic, quarrels with this analysis. Nor does anyone disagree that CO2 levels are elevated over historic norms. CO2 levels held pretty steady, around 280 parts per million, for the thousand years before 1800. Since then, as industrialization really got under way, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 began to rise. Today they are around 370 parts per million.16 Some people think this isn't very much—after all, CO2 is only a very small component of air, just a trace gas really, and an increase of 90 parts per million, if visualized as distance, would be less than a third of an inch in a hundred yards. On the other hand, it does represent a 30 percent increase, and most earth scientists believe that with the still-expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, it may be impractical to avoid 440 parts per million, a significant increase from present levels. It also seems to be agreed that each resident of the developed world adds around five tons of carbon to the air every year, most of it coming from exhaust pipes and smokestacks. There is less agreement about whether this increasing CO2 has already led to global warming, and the most commonly cited "hockey stick" shaped chart, which shows a sharp upturn in global temperatures at about the time of the industrial revolution, is still widely disputed as being the result of statistical errors; there is in fact considerable evidence that parts of the world, including Europe, have gotten cooler instead of warmer over the same period. On the other hand—and there always seems to be another hand in this debate—a careful study by James Hansen of NASA's Institute for Space Studies and other scientists has concluded that the earth's "energy imbalance," the net heat gain over heat loss, is almost one watt per square meter of earth surface (enough, the authors say, that if it were maintained for ten thousand years, it would be enough to boil the oceans). Gloomily, they go on to suggest that rapid climate change might take less than a century, while it would take at least a century to change our ways even if we started now, "implying the possibility of a system [already] out of our control."17
Clouding the debate and fuzzying up its conclusions is the role of perfectly natural short-term phenomena such as, well, clouds.
In May 2004 NASA published a study of the earth's albedo, how much light and heat the earth radiates back into space, instead of absorbing, based on differences in observed earthshine on the moon. The data showed a steady decline, or dimming, of the earth's albedo from 1984 to 2000, with a particularly sharp decrease in 1995 and 1996. From 1997 to 2000, the earth continued to dim, albeit more slowly. Less heat going out to space meant more heat on the surface, and this correlated with the observed data—there was an increase in mean global temperatures in the same period. But in the past three years, the trend has apparently reversed, and the earth now appears to be both getting more sunshine and radiating more light back into space. "Though not fully understood," the study said with some understatement, "the shift may indicate [nothing more than] a natural variability of clouds, which can reflect the sun's heat and light away from earth. The apparent change in the amount of sunlight reaching earth in the 1980s and 1990s is comparable to taking the effects of greenhouse gas warming since 1850 and doubling them. Increased reflectance since 2001 suggests change of a similar magnitude in the other direction."18
Which means that natural cycles in cloud cover can account for changing surface temperatures; changing temperatures affect winds and wind patterns; winds create weather; weather in turn affects cloud cover … If taken literally and narrowly, the study's results could also mean that the relatively trivial amount of global warming recorded so far is caused by nothing more than changing cloud cover, and is climatically meaningless. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has basically admitted this might be true: "Clouds represent a significant source of potential error in climate simulations," its 2001 report said. Cloud formation might even have a negative feedback effect on atmospheric warming—that is, it might dampen warming in a way analogous to how the human iris shrinks when the light gets too bright. If true, the net effect would be that the predictions of global warming are highly exaggerated. (The conclusions of this study were disputed in early 2005 by another study, also led by a NASA scientist.)19
The most ardent disagreements among scientists, though, are still about what concentrations of CO2 represent a real danger to life.
One of the main areas of debate is the role of the oceans. Oceanic CO is rising as quickly as atmospheric CO2. An NOAA study estimated that the oceans have absorbed 120 billion tons of carbon in the last century, most of it generated by the burning of coal, oil, and gas. The current rate of absorption is 20 to 25 million tons of CO2 a day—a rate not seen on this planet for twenty million years. The accumulation is one hundred times faster than between the last two ice ages.20 The oceans, then, are acting as carbon sinks—each year humanity pours somewhere around 8 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, but less than half of it stays there. The rest goes into the oceans.
One of the many things complicating the inquiry is the relationship between carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, and sulfur dioxide, a common pollutant. If—a very big if—we act to reduce CO2, this will in theory slow the global warming trend. But because we are concurrently reducing SO?, which will itself have a slight warming effect, the results could be masked. "There are so many similarly fuzzy factors—ranging from aerosol particles to clouds of cosmic radiation—that many parts of the world could endure unfamiliar weather patterns and maybe even freakish storms for years without knowing how it is happening or what to do about it," says Vijay Vaitheeswaran.21
Some of the CO2 in the air and the sea is absorbed naturally Mollusks, for example, take it from the oceans to make their shells, so farming mussels must be a good thing. On land, forests take CO2 from the air to make wood; measurements taken in the air over large forests show that the CO2 concentrations are ten parts per million lower than elsewhere. However, the optimistic theory that increased carbon levels will make forests grow faster seems to be wrong, because trees more quickly run out of other essential nutrients. Ironically, cutting down old-growth forests, a major concern of the Green movement, might actually help—young growing trees need more carbon than older ones.22
In February 2005 a study found that humans are indeed warming the oceans, down to thousands of meters, almost certainly due to increased carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the consequent greenhouse effect. The study's lead author was Tim Barnett of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. "This should wipe out most of the uncertainty about the reality of global warming," he asserted.23
All this connects, of course, directly to winds and to weather, albeit in ways difficult to untangle. If global warming does indeed cause the ocean temperatures to rise, and hurricanes need warm water … does it follow that there will be more, and more severe, hurricanes? It would seem so if you believe the news. In fact, if you follow the news even cursorily, you'll see that it's been a given for some years that global warming will produce more severe weather more often. It's an assumption that seems to have been generally accepted, even by many experts. It may even be true. But it isn't necessarily true.
The IPCC's 2001 report stated that there was no evidence tropical cyclones had increased in intensity or number, although there was evidence that the top one thousand feet of ocean had warmed half a degree, and said that the panel had no way of judging future trends—there simply wasn't enough evidence either way, and certainly not enough to support the popular contention that extreme weather was happening more often. It's fair to say, though, that this conclusion was not at all unanimous. One of the leading authors of the IPCC's next report (scheduled for 2007) was quoted in 2005 as suggesting that warming sea temperatures and rising sea levels caused by global warming were changing conditions for hurricanes, and that the extrabusy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons may well be a harbinger for the future. He was promptly accused of politicizing the science, and a flurry of resignations from the IPCC followed. The author retorted that he hadn't meant there'd be more hurricanes, only bigger ones, but this gloss mollified no one.
Obviously, temperature changes in the oceans have some effect, but what? Some hints can be found, but they are tantalizingly vague. For example, the southern Saharan fringe was unusually damp in the 1950s, and suffered unusually devastating droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2004, as acknowledged in the first chapter, it rained again along the southern Sahara, which includes Darfur. These rainfall data correlate neatly with temperature shifts in the oceans, whether higher than normal temperatures in the southern Atlantic or Indian oceans, or lower than normal temperatures in the North Atlantic, which in turn neatly correlate with the waxing and waning of hurricane cycles. A one-on-one causality is far from proven, but the coincidences are startling.
In 2005, near the end of a uniquely busy hurricane season—the season in which Katrina, Rita, and Wilma all battered the U.S. mainland—Science published a new statistical study that actually showed the number of storm days and the raw number of tropical cyclones decreasing over the past decade, in all ocean basins except the Atlantic. The proportion of severe storms, Category 4 and Category 5, however, increased sharply.24
This still doesn't tell us, though, whether severe weather will increase. Or decrease. El Niiios, as we have seen, can sometimes have a mitigating effect. Similarly, hurricanes affect climate, just as climate affects hurricanes. But the global General Circulation Models (GCMs) aren't consistent. Just as some say the American Great Lakes will dry up as the world warms, and others speculate that they might actually increase in volume, so storm predictions are all over the map, quite literally. Climate change could raise upper-level atmospheric temperatures, or it could lower them, which would increase or decrease the differentials between surface and high-level temperatures, and so change the threshold point for hurricanes. Also, a warmer world might have stronger upper-level winds, which would kill hurricanes as strong upper winds do now. Or it might increase El Ninos, which would increase Pacific typhoons but decease Atlantic hurricanes. Or none of the above. Severe weather might even become less frequent in a warmer world, not more so. If you see a confident prediction about the bad stuff coming because of global warming, treat it with the utmost skepticism. 25
Because ours is a technological age, dozens of high-tech solutions have been proposed for solving the atmospheric carbon problem, to the evident disdain of ecologists, whose solution seems mostly to be to leave the carbon where it is, in coal mines and oil fields, and cut down consumption instead. Some of these solutions might work; others seems reminiscent of the scheme to control hurricanes by flying propeller-driven aircraft into them to unwind their rotation.
An example is the grove of rotating three-hundred-foot synthetic trees proposed by scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The notion was to use giant plastic blades to direct wind onto a filter dusted with sodium hydroxide. The resulting byproduct, sodium carbonate, would be scraped out and heated to free the CO2, which would then be compressed for storage. Jennifer Kahn, who reported on this and other outre storage schemes in a piece for Harper's magazine in May 2004, suggested sardonically that the trees would function like a kind of atmospheric kitty litter. The Los Alamos press release that announced this project claimed that a mere twenty thousand of these ghastly trees would be enough to absorb all the CO2 from all the cars in the United States. Why stop there? "Cover the entire state of Arizona," Kahn suggested, "and there would be theoretically enough for all the cars in the world." Another lunatic scheme she uncovered was proposed by Craig Venter, the man who helped sequence the human genome. His group wants to create a synthetic microbe that will eat CO2 and excrete it as fuel. By 2004 they had already found several natural bacteria that consume C 0 7 and convert it into methane and hydrogen, and were looking to increase their efficiency. As Kahn said, laying on the irony pretty thick, "a policy that promotes the burning of irreplaceable resources at the expense of the climate makes perfect sense [in] a world not of humans but of posthumans, who eat carbon dioxide and shit coal."26
Another scheme would be to boost the oceans' appetite for carbon by sprinkling the sea's surface with billions of iron filings. Millions of acres of marine algae are, in effect, anemic. As National Geographic, which reported on this scheme, put it, what stops them from absorbing much more carbon is lack of iron, hence the "Geri-tol solution."27 Or perhaps we could just take the carbon out of coal. It could be done too: Coal could be induced to react with oxygen and water vapor to make pure hydrogen, plus waste gases including carbon dioxide, which could then be buried underground.
Burial, now given the grander word sequestration, was by 2005 the most popular of all the suggested technological remedies. It's a perverse twist on the ecologists' notion of leaving the carbon where it is—take it out, use it, then put it back.
In September 2004 the Toronto Globe and Mail reported on what it called a major four-year study that suggested something miraculous: The oil industry could squeeze more oil from almost depleted fields and, at the same time, take care of at least some of the carbon problem. That this seemed suspiciously neat, and the fact that a major Canadian oil producer, EnCana, was involved in the study, apparently gave the business writer no pause for thought. In any case the study was presented to an international conference of Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies by Malcolm Wilson, director of energy and environment at the University of Regina. The Globe and Mail quoted him as saying: "This wasn't a small pilot test, or simulated results. We're doing big tests in a real world environment."28
What happens is this: Carbon dioxide gas is injected into an oil well to mix with the remaining oil, making the oil less viscous, enabling it to be drawn more easily to the surface. The carbon dioxide, for its part, stays where it is put. The researchers used the opportunity to test the long-term storage of carbon dioxide. They concluded the gas can safely be stored in old oil reservoirs, "although further work must be done before greater certainty can be attained on a longer-term scale, say over hundreds of years." For its part, En-Cana said the study "is an example of how oil production can be increased while helping the environment." Ironically, EnCana didn't have enough CO2 of its own for the test, and had to import it from North Dakota, although Canada, a signatory to the Kyoto treaty, had seen its carbon dioxide emissions rise 13 percent between 2004 and the time the treaty was mooted, whereas the United States, which refused to sign, increased emissions by only 7 percent in the same period. (U.S. emissions in 2003 were actually below 2000 levels.)29
The United States has allocated some $110 million for sequestration research. But even if it shows good results, the old wells and mines will eventually fill up, so researchers are already contemplating using the ocean to sequester the gas. Jennifer Kahn again: "Some scientists envision running pipes from the flues of seaside refineries pouring CO2 towards the ocean floor like bubbles through colossal straws. Others imagine an even more ambitious scenario, in which CO could be pumped so far down it would emerge as a hydrate, an ice-like solid."30
The British government has already stored millions of tons of CO in depleted oil wells under the North Sea. They have been there for several years. So far, no problems have been reported. But several years, as environmentalists will insist on pointing out, are not the thousands that would be needed.
So the air is getting fouler every year, and the ticking time bomb of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases is set to go off any second? Well, yes, but that's not the only news. Though you would be hard put to hear it over the din of the breast-beating and lamentation, there is also some good news, rather more good news than the plethora of international studies cited earlier has acknowledged. Europe, as we have seen, has so reduced its emissions of sulfur dioxide, one of the worst aspects of coal burning, that even the most rigorous scrutineers among the Greens have declared themselves impressed. In 2004 the European Parliament voted for tougher standards on pollution caused by heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and mercury, and by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a group of over one hundred chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, garbage, or even charbroiled meat or tobacco. In the United States, a national snapshot of air quality shows improvement for almost every kind of pollution—"with particularly dramatic declines in carbon monoxide, sulfur and lead. Between 1976 and 1997 levels of all six major pollutants decreased significantly, sulfur dioxide levels by 58 percent, nitrogen dioxides decreased 27 percent, ozone decreased 30 percent, carbon monoxide decreased 61 percent, and lead by 97 percent."31 But a new report published in 2004 by the National Research Council, while agreeing that significant progress has been made, particularly in the emissions that led to acid rain (mostly various sulfates), and while declaring that the Clean Air Act has actually achieved its purpose, nevertheless warned that "many areas are [still] not in compliance for ozone and particulate matter" and called on the national government to do more to cut emissions from older power plants, diesel trucks, and nonroad diesel engines.32 And the study did warn that more attention should be paid to the long-distance carriage of pollutants on the global winds.
Another interesting indicator of progress was a piece in Science questioning the notion of attempting to move to hydrogen-based fuels for cars, not because they are intrinsically a bad idea, but because "regulation-driven technological innovation has reduced emissions from gasoline-powered cars to the point where they have very low emissions per-unit-energy compared with other sectors and other transportation modes. This trend will continue, reducing the benefit of zero-emission hydrogen vehicles, particularly because many technologies (e.g., electric drive) can be used on both platforms."33 Despite these reservations, Iceland opened the world's first hydrogen filling station for cars in April 2003, and has announced plans to become the first completely hydrogen-based economy, fossil-fuel-free, by midcentury And even the born-again former Hummer driver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed an executive order mandating hydrogen filling stations for every twenty miles along California's network of state-owned freeways.
Big Oil, too, has lumbered cautiously onto the bandwagon. Shell's former boss thinks the Kyoto Protocol is crucial because it forces businesses to put their best and sharpest minds on the task of reducing carbon emissions. Exxon, a notorious scoffer about the "ludicrous junk science" of global warming, is actually investing huge sums in energy efficiency, geological sequestration, and other low-carbon technologies as a way to hedge its bets.34
Then, in Davos in February 2004, eleven very large companies, major polluters all, made a commitment that their activities would be laid open for all to see—they promised to disclose and detail all the greenhouse gases they produce on a new open Web site called the Global Greenhouse Gas Register. The register was launched to considerable media fanfare by the World Economic Forum; the pious declaration that accompanied it hoped that other major companies would follow their worthy lead.35 Together these companies account for some eight hundred million tons of CO a year, fully 5 percent of the total emitted by the thirty-seven industrialized nations governed by the Kyoto Protocol. The companies also promised to prepare corporate-wide inventories of their other major greenhouse gas emissions—methane (CH ), nitrous dioxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF )—and to have had, or be prepared to have, that information independently verified. By year's end the site was still largely empty—only two companies had reported in, and the data available to the public were, to put it mildly, sketchy. Still, the idea was a good start.
The following year, in April 2005, dozens of countries met in Cambridge, England, to set up the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), to coordinate national systems and satellite observations into a single, global, earth-monitoring organization. Sixty countries participated, including all the major polluting countries.
Another curious indicator was the emergence of coal from polluting villainhood. In the year 2000, only two new coal-fired generating plants were planned in the United States; by the year 2004, there were no fewer than a hundred on order. Partly this was because the U.S. administration in 2000 and 2004 was resolutely non-Green, and partly because coal resolutely did not come from the Middle East, but that wasn't all. The technology had changed. Coal producers, stung by their unwashed reputation, have invested large sums in scrubbing technologies, and many of them actually work.
More-modern combustion techniques not only clean the emissions before they start, but they burn less coal too. "A century ago coal plants delivered only 5 percent of the fuel's potential energy; now the number is about 35 percent, and pulverizing it can get that up to 40-45 percent. With high-temperature burns, over 50 percent may be possible." Joint industry-government research efforts in Australia and Canada had come up with a number of innovative ideas. For example, coal can be "fluidized" before combustion—you can burn it on a bed of particles suspended in air, a technique that captures most of the emissions before they begin. Coal can also be burned in oxygen and not in air; it can be gasified, with the gas powering a turbine, the surplus heat used to drive a conventional turbine. Noxious emissions can thereby be greatly reduced, perhaps to zero. As the Economist pointed out, much depended on how national legislation was framed. The Netherlands subsidizes zero-emission electricity; and Norway heavily taxes carbon emissions; both policies encourage the development of clean coal. But British subsidies, for example, are awarded only to renewable-source electricity, which leaves out even the cleanest coal burning.36
Finally, consider the question of the ozone hole over Antarctica, which only a few years ago was a serious cause for concern—legitimately, because while ozone (Q, or oxygen with three atoms) is poisonous to humans at ground level, as it is a major component of smog, at high altitudes it protects the planet from the sun's damaging ultraviolet radiation. With ozone thinning so dramatically, the risks of rampant cancers and plant crop failures seemed very real; the ozone layer around the earth is thinnest at the tropics and thickest at the poles.
The hole in the ozone layer appeared over Antarctica very quickly. Or rather, by the time it was noticed in the early 1980s, the ozone layer had deteriorated so badly that the scientists who found the hole actually thought their instruments must be at fault and sent back to Britain, their home base, for a replacement set.
Ozone depletion was without question human-caused; the chemicals that were destroying it were man-made, mostly containing chlorine and bromine such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and halogen compounds, none of which occur naturally. Natural sulfurous emissions from volcanoes also had an effect—but only by combining with the industrial chemicals already in the air to form chemically active clouds that dangerously accelerated the ozone-depletion process.
But in 1987 a group of industrial countries led, perhaps ironically, by the United States, met in Montreal and signed the Montreal Protocol. This is one of the international community's greater successes: not only is the manufacture of CFCs being phased out (they are banned in most Western countries) but also the hole in the ozone layer is recovering. There was a blip in the story when it was discovered that some of the substitute chemicals—(hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs), and per fluorocarbons (PFCs)—were themselves powerful greenhouse gases, but it was a blip that was swiftly overcome by further substitutions. 37 Among the lessons learned: The rich world caused the problem and must pay for the cleanup. And, secondly, that the poorer world must agree to cooperate (or at least not to make things worse) but is right to insist on both time and access to technology to help it adjust.38
Progress can be made, then.
Whatever we do to "fix" the problems we have caused, Ivan and his grim successors will still be conjured into being by Aristotle's "exhalations from the earth" and by the sun. Nor should we try to prevent that from happening, because success would have unforeseen consequences for the planetary climate. But at least it's possible for us not to make things worse. And we can learn to use what is there, what is, to our own ecological advantage. All we need is the wisdom to know what is advantageous and what isn't.