Friday, March 31, 2017

Trends, Curves and Accelerations

Last weekend’s cold snap notwithstanding, I really, really expected this winter would be colder than last. The world had wound down from an El Nino of historic proportions, which helped drive global temperatures to record levels in 2015 and 2016.

But it really wasn’t. Instead, the red wing blackbirds were back the third week of the February and the spring peepers were happily chirping away in the swamps near my home on the 28th.  February 2017 was warmer than February 2016 and it was 15 degrees warmer than the February 2015 (which was an awfully cold winter).

Saying a warm day in February is absolute proof of global warming is as ridiculous as Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma standing in the well of the Senate with a snowball saying it is absolute proof that global warming is a hoax. Indeed, you can say the same thing about a warm February. We’ve had them before. In fact, February 2017 was only the 9th warmest on record in Massachusetts. The warmest was in 1984.

What scientists look for are trends. The trend is that an average Massachusetts February in the early 21st century is about 4 degrees warmer than it was at the end of the 19th century, based on records from the Blue Hill Observatory. From a climate perspective, that’s a lot. Our climate is shifting.

As an aside, the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton has the longest continuous record of weather data in the United States, and recordings are still made with the same 19th century equipment.

OK, a warm winter isn’t so bad. Anyone want to tell me that last summer’s heat waves were fun?

In physics, the term acceleration is defined as the rate of change of velocity per unit of time. If you step on the gas pedal in your car, you increase your speed and you keep increasing it until you take your foot off the pedal.

If you want to know why the issue of climate change is a big deal now when it wasn’t 25 or 30 years ago. The answer is acceleration.

I recently looked at the “Keeling Curve”. It is so significant that the American Chemical Society designated it a “National Historic Chemical Landmark,” something only a data geek could love.

The Keeling curve is a graph displaying very careful daily measurements of CO2 collected from the summit of Mauna Loa on Hawaii since the early 1960s, started by Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institute in California. The graph is an upward trending curve with time, a classic example of acceleration.

Humans have been changing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the mid-1960s, the rate of increase was about 0.4 parts per million (ppm) per year, then 1.4 ppm/year until the late 1990s and thereafter, over 5 ppm/year. During each of those time intervals we accelerated the rate of concentration increase by a factor of three.

It’s as if we tapped on the gas pedal during the early 20th century, pushed on it in the 1960s and stomped on it starting in the 1990s. 

Most of the CO2 we have added to the atmosphere has been added since the 1960s.

I will grant you that five parts per million doesn’t seem like a very big number. Even 400 ppm, the current concentration in our air, is a small number. It’s just 1 part in 2,500.

Funny thing about chemistry is that the relative quantity of something can have nothing to do with It’s the absolute effect.

400 ppm of carbon monoxide from a leaky furnace will kill you in a matter of hours. 0.04 ppm of Fentanyl can kill an adult in minutes.

When C02 was at 180 ppm 25,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere looked like Antarctica.  When CO2 last was at 400 ppm, about 3 million years ago, sea level was over 20 feet higher than now.

This is why the projected impacts of climate change have become a very real, imminent, and potentially society-altering issue now when it wasn’t a generation ago.

According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration wants to cut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget by 17%. The biggest single cut proposed is the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Ironic, isn’t it? Black birds and small frogs seem to know what’s going on, but the administration in DC seems hell bent on not wanting to know.

Published in the Westborough News March 10, 2017

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