Reconsidered: My 1992 Book on Global Warming


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Twenty years ago, I wrote "Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast," the companion book to the first museum exhibition on the greenhouse effect and global warming, at the American Museum of Natural History. Here is a near-final draft of the text (it's too hard to update fully to the final published text). On Dot Earth, I'll be examining (with reader assistance) where the book has -- or has not -- held up, what was missed, and other notions. It's valuable, as a writer or consumer of writing, to track how old output holds up, as a way to avoid mistakes going forward. Related posts on Dot Earth:

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Reconsidered: My 1992 Book on Global Warming

  1. 1. Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast By Andrew Revkin Abbeville Press, 1992 (ISBN 1-55859-310-1) NOTE: The text below is from a late draft and does not fully match the published version. Chapter 1 An Ice Road Across the Bay It is hard to feel affection for something as totally impersonal as the atmosphere, and yet there it is, as much a part and product of life as wine or bread. - Lewis Thomas, physician and author (b. 1913), The Lives of a CellMy parents live on Sally Rock Point, a little wooded spit that juts into a branch of NarragansettBay, the waterway that splits Rhode Island up the middle. I often walk down from their cottage to aflat shield of shale that meets the waves at the points end. Its a quiet spot to sit and think. Gullsand an occasional red-tailed hawk soar overhead, and hermit crabs scuttle across the white field ofbarnacles that paints the rock below the high-tide line. Fishermen buzz by in their skiffs, but notmuch else goes on. The nearest town is on the opposite shore, across more than a mile of water.Before the turn of the century, it was common each winter for coal wagons to take a short cut fromthe far side of the bay to the homes on Sally Rock Point. The wagons were driven across the thickice that formed over the entire expanse of calm salt water. More recently, in every winter Iveknown, there has been no ice road across the bay. Ice still forms along the shores, and sometimes a 1
  2. 2. thin sheet forms briefly over the whole bay, but its never so thick that you could walk on it, letalone drive a truck across it.The warmth that has prevented the bay from freezing recently may simply be a fluke of NewEngland weather, the changeability of which is legend. Then again, the milder winters may be asign that it is not just the weather that is changing this time, but the climate -- the general pattern oftemperature and moisture for the region, and possibly the entire globe.Climate change is nothing new. Evidence of that can be found in the boulders that are strewnaround the cow pastures in Exeter, a few miles inland from my parents home. Those refrigerator-size chunks of granite were deposited by a mile-thick sheet of ice that scraped south across NewEngland 20,000 years ago. At the time, because of a slow, regular variation in Earths orbit andother factors, ice covered vast regions of North America, Europe and Asia. Standing on Sally RockPoint today, it is impossible to comprehend a time when more than 5,000 feet of ice pressed downon the land. And its remarkable to think that since that time the average temperature of the planethas risen just nine degrees Fahrenheit -- that just nine degrees can mean the difference between amile of ice and a wind-dappled bay with a forested shore.The climate change that may be occurring now is disturbingly different from the slow, steady cycleof ice ages and warmings that has sculpted the face of Earth for two million years. It may be thatthe recent lack of sea ice from this arm of Narragansett Bay is one result of the warming of Earthsatmosphere by a growing greenhouse effect. This is the tendency of certain gases in the atmosphereto trap solar energy -- just as the glass panes of a greenhouse roof help make it possible to growtomatoes in winter.The atmosphere has always acted like a greenhouse, with water vapor and a tiny trace of carbondioxide -- just a few hundredths of a percent -- allowing sunlight in but preventing the sun-warmedplanet from radiating all that energy back into space. Indeed, without this insulating blanket, Earthwould more closely resemble its frozen, barren cousin Mars, whose thin atmosphere has almost nosignificant greenhouse properties. What concerns scientists now is that, for the first time, thecomposition of Earths atmosphere is being rapidly altered by human activity.In a way, its not surprising that a species as prolific and industrious as Homo sapiens should havean impact on the dynamics of the entire globe. Since the last time the ice sheets pulled back towardthe poles, some 15,000 years ago, the number of humans on the planet has risen from 5 million to5.3 billion. Even if people only modified the landscape in the simplest ways, say, by choppingdown forests, the effect on the planet would be significant. But the human impact has beenamplified to an extraordinary degree by our unique ability to fashion tools and technologies thatincrease our power to change the world. Here is a species that began its reign by taming fire andhas since moved on to replicate the fusion energy of the sun in a hydrogen bomb.Along the way, humans discovered the vast stores of energy that lay locked up in subterraneanpockets of oil, coal, and natural gas -- the fuels that stoked the boilers of the Industrial Revolutionand still power our productive, but profligate, lifestyle today. Just since World War II, the industrialoutput of the developed world has increased 40 times over. But there has been a hidden cost. All ofthat combustion -- in power plants and automobiles and factories -- has transformed tens of billions 2
  3. 3. of tons of ancient, buried carbon into a great burst of carbon dioxide gas that has significantlychanged the atmosphere. The incineration of tropical forests, by releasing more carbon dioxide, hasadded greatly to the problem.Today, for every one of the 5.3 billion people on Earth, three tons of carbon dioxide is spewed intothe air each year. In the energy-addicted United States, the rate is 18 tons of carbon dioxide a yearper person. Even though Americans comprise just five percent of the worlds population, theyconsume 30 percent of the worlds oil. In a year, a typical commuters car burns so much gasolinethat it releases more than three times its own weight in carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As aresult, in just the past 100 years, the concentration of this heat-trapping gas has risen 25 percent. Bythe latter half of this century, its likely that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere willhave doubled or climbed even higher. Moreover, other gases generated by human agriculture andindustry also trap heat -- gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.(Those same CFCs, used as refrigerants, propellants in some spray cans, and in some foampackaging, also attack the protective shield of ozone in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.)Overall, the warming effect of these other greenhouse gases is expected eventually to equal, if notexceed, that of carbon dioxide.Thus, an era has begun in which humans are no longer simply polluting a particular lake, or cuttingdown a certain forest, but changing the composition and dynamics of one of the essentialcomponents of the planet. Because the atmosphere is intimately linked with Earths othercomponents -- the oceans, the soil, the sheets of ice at the poles, the flow of energy from the sun,and the web of life -- humans have in an instant of geological time taken hold of the reins guidingthis rare blue sphere into the future.Many atmospheric scientists say that the long-heralded climatic "signal" -- clear evidence that all ofthese emissions from human activity have turned up the global thermostat – has been seen. Leavesstill fall in October and snow still falls in February, but the odds of Washington or Dallas having aparticularly steamy summer have already tipped notably toward the hotter; the odds of the GrainBelt having a drought have probably tipped toward the drier.Already, in the decade of the 1980s, Earth experienced the six hottest years on record. The firstyear of the 1990s was hotter still.Computer models that simulate the workings of the atmosphere project that the expected doublingof carbon dioxide levels sometime next century will raise the worlds average temperatureanywhere from three degrees to eight degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, its just possible that theclimate may be jogged by a change nearly as dramatic as the one that melted the mile of ice thatonce lay on Sally Rock Point. And this new change will occur in just a century, not one hundredcenturies. In that instant of geologic time, the planet will become warmer than it has been in severalmillion years.There is a disturbing litany of possible impacts of such a change: warming seas expand and glaciersmelt, adding water to the oceans, which may inundate coastal communities and island nations andcreate millions of eco-refugees; changing climate patterns disrupt agriculture and exterminateecosystems that cannot shift fast enough to keep up; frozen tundra thaws, potentially releasing 3
  4. 4. massive amounts of methane that add to the greenhouse effect. In 1987, the list filled a heavy redbook -- a book as thick as the Manhattan Yellow Pages -- called "Preparing for Climate Change."In the 1990s, heavy tomes are coming thick and fast, focusing on everything from the spread ofinsect-borne diseases to the deterioration of coral reefs.Fortunately, the same intelligence that has allowed humans to dominate and scar the planet in sucha short time also endows them with foresight -- the ability to anticipate the consequences of actions.Hundreds of scientists worldwide have made clear the consequences of our current course. Butanticipation, in itself, is insufficient. Scientists have listed dozens of prudent actions that can betaken now to limit the impending disruption both to civilization and the biosphere -- actionsranging from screwing in a more efficient light bulb to planting a forest. For industrialized nations,this would mean modifying the formula by which they measure progress -- for the first time takinginto account the environmental cost of growth. If evidence for global warming continues to mount,more dramatic measures can be considered, with the eventual result being an early end to the age ofoil and coal, when progress came so cheaply -- mined or pumped from a hole in the ground. For thedeveloping nations, it may mean leapfrogging past the mistakes of the industrialized world.The hard part is that the changes taking place in the composition of the atmosphere, although racingalong at a pace unprecedented in recent planetary history, are imperceptible to human eyes. Eventhough any signal of global warming is still largely hidden in the statistical "noise" produced bynormal fluctuations in weather, that provides little comfort to people such as Jose Lutzenberger. Anoted Brazilian environmentalist, Lutzenberger was appointed that countrys first Secretary of theEnvironment. This was a hopeful development for Brazil, a nation that had incinerated twoCalifornias’ worth of Amazon rain forest in just 10 years. Lutzenberger insists that the lack ofcertainty of greenhouse warming is no reason not to act now.This is how he put it to me one evening, while we sat sipping beers in a town deep in the Amazon,a place where it is rare not to smell wood smoke in the wind -- smoke from thousands of fires setby men clearing the jungle to make cattle pasture. "A complicated system can take a lot of abuse,but you get to a point where suddenly things fall apart," Lutzenberger said. "Its like pushing a longruler toward the edge of a table. Nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens. Then,suddenly, the ruler falls to the floor." That may well be true for climate. By the time the changecaused by all that abuse is obvious -- by the time the ruler clatters to the floor -- it may be too lateto change our fate. ~ ~ ~When I was a college student in London some 30 years ago, I stopped by one day at a little book-sellers fair that convened every lunch hour in the financial district. Among the crumbling leather-bound remains of someones literary estate, piled high on one of the wooden carts, I found a slimvolume called “The Physical Geography of the Sea,” by Matthew Fontaine Maury. It was a seacaptains guide to the basics of oceanography and meteorology, published in 1859 by SampsonLow, Son, and Co. The book sat on my shelf, largely unread, until recently, when I opened it andfound a chapter entitled, "The Atmosphere." Nowhere else have I seen a passage that so effectivelydescribes the workings of the "spherical shell which surrounds our planet," as the author puts it.And the book speaks powerfully of the importance of treating the atmosphere with respect: 4
  5. 5. The atmosphere "warms and cools by turns the earth and the living creatures that inhabit it. It drawsup vapours from the sea and land, retains them dissolved in itself, or suspended in cisterns ofclouds, and throws them down again as rain or dew when they are required.... It affords the gaswhich vivifies and warms our frames, and receives into itself that which has been polluted by use,and is thrown off as noxious...."It is only the girdling encircling air, that flows above and around all, that makes the whole worldkin. The carbonic acid [carbon dioxide] with which to-day our breathing fills the air, to-morrowseeks its way round the world. The date-trees that grow round the falls of the Nile will drink it in bytheir leaves... and the palms and bananas of Japan will change it into flowers. The oxygen we arebreathing was distilled for us ... by the magnolias of the Susquehanna, and the great trees that skirtthe Orinoco and the Amazon.... The rain we see descending was thawed for us out of the icebergswhich have watched the polar star for ages, and the lotus lilies have soaked up from the Nile, andexhaled as vapour, snows that rested on the summits of the Alps."Hence, to the right-minded mariner, and to him who studies the physical relations of earth, sea,and air, the atmosphere is something more than a shoreless ocean, at the bottom of which he creepsalong.... It is an inexhaustible magazine, marvellously adapted for many benign and beneficentpurposes."Upon the proper working of this machine depends the well being of every plant and animal thatinhabits the earth; therefore the management of it, its movements, and the performance of itsoffices, cannot be left to chance."Now we have arrived at a time when, voluntarily or involuntarily, humans are indeed "managing"the atmosphere. We had better manage it well.The importance of changing our ways came to me recently as I sat once again on Sally Rock Point,this time with my six-month-old son on my lap. On that chilly winter day, I found myselfcontemplating the warmer future that will probably confront my son before he reaches old age.As I watched Daniels eyes scan the water, my mind filled with images of this corner of the Earth asit might be transformed by the sudden warming resulting from that blanket of greenhouse gases. Isaw waves inundating the remains of my parents abandoned house and washing over the dying saltmarshes that had no room to retreat. I saw beetles and termites devouring the skeletons of the pineforest that once flourished behind the house, but now had shriveled because of drier, hottersummers.And, strangely, I heard laughter. It was the chuckle of the future residents of Sally Rock Point,laughing incredulously as someone told them a story about an old ice road that once cut across thebay. Chapter 2 A Scene of Changes The world’s a scene of changes, and to be Constant 5
  6. 6. in Nature were inconstancy. -Abraham Crowley, English poet (1618-1667), “Inconstancy”Earth’s atmosphere presents a paradox: It is in constant flux, yet it is also remarkably stable. Theflux is obvious to anyone who has sat in a field on a blustery day and looked up at a scuddingpanorama of clouds, then sun, then a shower, then sun again. From North Atlantic gales to a line ofthunderstorms rumbling across Kansas, from Los Angeless searing Santa Ana winds to a deep-freeze blizzard in Montana, things are on the move. Hour by hour, day by day, season by season,weather patterns sweep across the face of the planet, all ultimately driven by energy from the sun.This great spinning sheath of gases is constantly being heated and cooled, blended and stirred.Warm air rises and cold air falls. Water evaporates and then condenses as clouds, rain, or snow.The patterns range in size from the tiny dust devils that stir up leaves as they dance across a field tothe globe-spanning jet stream and hurricanes with the power of hundreds of hydrogen bombs.The stability and predictability of the atmosphere become apparent at larger scales of space andtime. From a distance it appears almost serene -- that "moist, gleaming membrane of bright bluesky," as Lewis Thomas once described it. When the small gusts and weather fronts and local stormsare averaged out, the system begins to show signs of order. Although it is impossible, for example,to predict when and where a particular tornado will strike, it is clear to meteorologists that becauseof the prevalence of certain conditions, a swathe of the Midwest -- dubbed Tornado Alley -- is mostlikely to be struck. Indeed, tornadoes are almost uniquely an American phenomenon. And, bystudying charts of barometric pressure and other data, forecasters there can issue tornado warningsfor a particular day.Some patterns of atmospheric activity are consistent enough, for instance, that sailors follow trade-wind routes that have existed for thousands of years. In the tropics, each day takes on a predictablerhythm, with humidity and heat and tall cumulus clouds building through the day, until the air canhold no more moisture and sudden downpours bring welcome relief. The parade of the seasons isone of the most fundamental rhythms in nature. In the temperate northern hemisphere, Aprilshowers are usually followed by May flowers. This averaged, smoothed-out, somewhat predictablepicture of conditions around the globe -- of general patterns of temperature, moisture, and wind -- iscalled climate.Even this picture changes, but the changes happen over much longer periods of time: decade bydecade, century by century, millennium by millennium. These changes are caused by factorsranging from slight variations in the orbit of the Earth to shifts in ocean currents; from cycles ofsunspots, which increase the amount of solar energy reaching Earth, to the gradual growth of amountain range, which alters wind and moisture patterns.We all expect weather to change, but we rarely think about changes in the conditions that prevail ina particular place, year in, year out. We all have a sense of what the "normal" climate is for ourhometown, our country, and perhaps places weve visited. But that sense of what is normal is only afunction of our brief experience with weather -- a few decades. Human lives are usually too short toallow an individual to observe a fundamental shift in temperature or moisture for a region. Whenpeople think they have observed such a change -- and surveys have shown that many people feeltheyve noticed "a change in the weather" in their lifetimes -- they tend to be wrong. Statistical 6
  7. 7. studies usually show that such subjective impressions most likely reflect a fluke series of warmsummers or wet winters or the like.Indeed, one of the great impediments to human appreciation of the threat posed by global warmingis our awareness of the obvious day-to-day changeability of the weather. With all the chaotic fluxof weather -- when the temperature outside your home can plummet 20, 30, even 40 degrees in justa few hours -- how are you supposed to get concerned about a nine-degree rise in the globalaverage temperature over 50 or so years? Take the opinion expressed in this letter to the editorpublished in the San Jose Mercury News in January 1991: "Last February I failed to see any storiesabout the infamous greenhouse effect or global warming during a week of record low temperatures.At the time, I thought you might at least express opinions about the money-grubbing scientistswhose defective models had predicted the overheating of our earth." Its only natural to be confusedabout greenhouse warming when youre shivering through a cold spell.It is when humans study records of past conditions -- whether the record is a vineyards century-long log of its harvests, a historians description of climatic conditions from a bygone age,variations in tree rings, or clues trapped in the layers of a glacier or sedimentary rock -- thatpatterns of dramatic changes in climate become apparent. And this is when the strong links betweenclimate and life -- and climate and human affairs -- also become apparent. Examples areeverywhere. Take one of the worlds most inhospitable spots, the Sahara, for example. Just 9,000years ago, the Sahara -- along with much of the Middle East -- was covered with lakes and lushgrassland that supported a rich array of life forms. Regular monsoon rains bathed the region.Beneath todays desert sands, fossilized pollen grains indicate the presence just a short time ago ofthose moisture-loving grasses. In layers of sedimentary rock, formed as dust and eroded soilaccumulated at the bottoms of ancient lakes, the fossilized bones of crocodiles and hippopotamusescan be found. Even the water that is pumped to the surface in the oases scattered through thedeserts of the region tells the story. Radiocarbon dating of sediments in such groundwater depositshas shown that much of the water there was deposited 10,000 or more years ago. At that time, then,"normal" conditions for the Sahara were temperate and moist. Normal is a relative term.If you were to turn the geological clock back another 9,000 years from the time when the MiddleEast was green, you would find much of the planet locked in an Ice Age, with glaciers grindingacross 11,000,000 square miles of the Northern Hemisphere that are today ice-free. All acrossregions where snow falls during winter today, the snow never melted in the summer. Layer uponlayer of snow compacted into great fields of ice. Sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than theyare today because so much water was locked up in ice and snow. The sprawling ice caps at thepoles influenced wind and moisture patterns all the way to the equator. Where the Bonneville SaltFlats are today, there was a huge shallow lake. Where the Amazon rain forest is today, there appearto have been broad stretches of savanna and small pockets of trees.To get the best perspective on where the climate may be heading in years to come, it helps to startat the beginning -- to wind the planetary clock as far back as it goes, to the very origins of Earthmore than four billion years ago. On the newborn planet, volcanoes disgorged billions of tons ofwater vapor, sulfur, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and other materials, creating a shroud ofgases. When the surface of the planet cooled below 212 degrees -- the boiling point of water --water vapor condensed and fell from the skies in a steady rain. There is ample evidence that just 7
  8. 8. 200 million years after Earth formed, it developed one of its two most distinctive features -- greatoceans of water.And it only took another few hundred million years before Earths other distinctive feature -- life --appeared. From the remote moment when a stew of amino acids and other carbon-based moleculeswere somehow organized into strands of replicating material and then into cells, the fate of theplanet was forever changed. Thenceforth, the atmosphere and the oceans and the substance of theplanet itself would be intricately interrelated with colonies of bacteria, then sheets of algae, thencomplex green plants, then multi-celled animals -- and eventually human beings and theirmachines. The connecting factor was a biochemical process that evolved in certain microbes whichallowed them to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into food. The factor wasphotosynthesis. This is the same process that produces todays redwoods, apples, and roses, thatindirectly created the planets reserves of oil and coal -- the same process that produced the stuffcomprising this paper page.The earliest photosynthesizing microbes bloomed in the sea perhaps three billion years ago. At thattime, the atmosphere above the oceans was composed primarily of carbon dioxide -- at levelsperhaps 1,000 times higher than today. In the air and water, oxygen was present in only the tiniesttraces, and was toxic to the first life forms.This is when life exerted its first dramatic influence on the planet. During photosynthesis, abyproduct is released. The byproduct is oxygen, which is left over when the C is taken from and theH from H2O. The first photosynthesizers, like other early life forms, still could not tolerate freeoxygen -- it was truly a toxic waste. But as photosynthesizing life continued to evolve, naturalselection produced organisms that were able to thrive in an oxygen-rich environment. Theseinnovators soon dominated other forms of life. As they spread, the free oxygen that they producedaccumulated in the oceans and diffused into the atmosphere.A minor sideshow took place at the time that would prove to have important consequences later on.Some of the oxygen rose to the highest regions of the planets atmosphere. There, ultravioletradiation from the sun and other stars caused a reaction that formed triplets of oxygen atoms, O3 --a form called ozone. A diaphanous veil of this unstable form of oxygen developed. This ozonelayer effectively absorbed much of the ultraviolet radiation that until then had bathed the surfacebelow in destructive energy. Ultraviolet radiation can easily shatter genetic material and thusprevented life from leaving the sea. If the ozone layer had not evolved, its doubtful that plants, andlater, the first animals, would ever have crept forth onto dry land. (And now that ozone layer isbeing sapped by CFCs produced by one of the lucky species that resulted from lifes first foraysashore.)The end result? Possibly as long as a billion years ago, the atmosphere was dramaticallytransformed by biological processes -- shifting from a primordial envelope of carbon dioxide to anunlikely mixture of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and a trace of carbon dioxide and othergases. Oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen atoms were continually passed from air to organism to earthand water then back again. Take, for example, a carbon atom, C, in a CO2 molecule: That C mightcirculate in the air for years, then dissolve in the ocean, be taken up by a microbe throughphotosynthesis and incorporated into a calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shell. When the organism died, 8
  9. 9. the shell would drop to the ocean bottom, be transformed into limestone, then many millions ofyears later, disgorged back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when that now-ancient rock wasconsumed by geothermal heat and exhaled by a volcano. Thus, the fate of each component of theEarth system became irrevocably tied to the fate of the others. ~ ~ ~For perhaps a billion years, then, this watery, living planet, cloaked in an insulating atmospherecapped by a protective ozone shield, has maintained a remarkably stable climate and atmosphericchemistry. The amounts of the predominant gases, nitrogen and oxygen, have stayed virtuallyconstant. The global mean temperature has never dropped far below freezing and never risen muchabove the hottest readings found in todays deserts.The system has taken some incredible abuse, such as occasional direct hits by massive meteoritesor asteroids -- including one collision that is thought by many scientists to have ended the age ofdinosaurs 65 million years ago. And as continents formed and then drifted together and split apart,resulting changes in ocean currents and ice sheets and wind patterns caused periodic massive die-offs of species. Indeed, the fossil record is punctuated by five such mass extinctions. But thebiosphere has always bounced back, with life forms rapidly colonizing niches vacated by those thatwere extinguished. The disappearance of the dinosaurs, of course, was quickly followed by anexplosion of evolution in mammals. A crisis for one species is an opportunity for another.Interestingly, the dynasty of the dinosaurs, from 220 million years ago to the time of their demise,was one of the last long periods of relatively stable, warm, wet weather in the planets history.There is quite a bit of evidence showing that, 100 million years ago, the world was more uniformlywarm than today, with no significant glaciation, even at the poles. At that time, great masses ofvegetation lived and then died in what is now Antarctica. Because no water was locked up in itsfrozen form, sea levels were nearly 1,000 feet higher than they are today.From the time of the dinosaurs extinction onward, something changed. The global temperaturebegan a slow slide toward cooler conditions. But the most striking changes in the planets climatichistory have occurred in the relatively recent past. For reasons that are not yet adequatelyexplained, some two million years ago the globe gradually descended into an epoch of ice -- aregular cycle of long ice ages and brief respites, called interglacials (were in the latter half of aninterglacial now; don’t worry, the end is probably at least 15,000 years away). In rhythms ofroughly every 100,000 years, 40,000 years, and 20,000 years -- believed to be associated withchanges in the planets orbit -- the ice sheets at the poles have crept toward lower latitudes,depressing the continents hundreds of feet with the weight of mile-thick masses of ice. As much asone third of all the Earths land area has been covered with ice at the peaks of these glacial periods.Ever since the beginning of this epoch, called the Pleistocene, all forms of terrestrial life have hadto shift, adapt, or die in response to the advance and retreat of the ice. And it has been anunrelenting cycle of change, allowing little time for the biosphere to sit idly. Particularly throughthe last 160,000 years -- in which a precise record of climate has been deduced from fossils, thechemistry of ancient ice, and other evidence -- the global temperature has risen and fallen like thetracks of a roller-coaster ride. In North America, for example, studies of fossilized pollen haveshown the rhythmic advance and retreat of maple and oak forests, which need relatively temperate 9
  10. 10. conditions, and a more northerly band of spruce and other coniferous trees, adapted to colderconditions. The impact of the ice ages is felt all the way to the equator and extends into the seas aswell. Ancient layers of coral beneath todays reefs show how sea levels rose and fell hundreds offeet as more or less water was locked up in glaciers.One species that has shown a particular propensity for adaptation and innovation can trace much ofits lineage within this age of rhythmic climate change. That species, of course, is Homo sapiens.Virtually the entire known span of hominid history takes place in the Pleistocene. The firstevidence of hominid use of fire -- some charred bits of antelope bone from a cave near Pretoria,South Africa -- dates from 1.2 million years ago. Much of the great expansion of the human speciesover the face of the globe has taken place in just the past 30,000 years or so -- since onset of the lastice age.All of modern civilization has blossomed in a short respite from the overarching era of cold -- themost recent interglacial, which geologists call the Holocene. Until 10,000 years ago most of theheart of Western Europe, from the British Isles east through Germany, was bleak tundra. Only aftera sustained warming trend for centuries thereafter did European populations grow and agriculturedevelop. The Sumerians flourished in what is now southern Iraq starting only 8,000 years ago. Fivethousand years ago, an especially warm, humid period may have set the stage for the first floweringof Chinese civilization.Even within the relative warmth of the Holocene, little flutters of cold and warmth and droughthave forced human societies to shift. A warming trend in Europe from 900 to 1200 A.D. --sometimes called the Medieval Optimum -- allowed Vikings to colonize previously inhospitablespots such as Iceland and southern Greenland (which never was very green, but was given thatname by Eric the Red to entice more settlers to migrate there). At its peak, the Greenland settlementhad 280 farms and a population of 3,000. Around the same time, dozens of vineyards flourished inBritain -- so many that France wanted to limit imports from its island neighbor.But then the northern hemisphere climate cooled for several centuries. Most of Britains vineyardswere put out of business. Greenland became increasingly locked in sea ice. By 1492, PopeAlexander VI was noting reports that Greenland was almost unreachable. "Shipping is veryinfrequent because of the extensive freezing of the waters -- no ship having put into shore, it isbelieved, for eighty years," he wrote. The settlement eventually died out.Around that time, much of Europe, North America, and other parts of the globe descended intowhat has been called the Little Ice Age, from 1500 to about 1850. Many regions experiencedsharply colder winters, registered in French vineyard records of harvests, Dutch accounts ofdisruptions in canal travel because of thick ice. The cold also affected some major wars of the time-- creating harsh conditions for American troops at Valley Forge and Napoleon on his ill-fatedmarch into Russia. Glaciers advanced dramatically in the Alps and in parts of New Zealand. TheThames River in London began to freeze regularly, resulting in the advent, in the winter of 1607, of"Frost Fairs," in which a small tent city sprung up on the river, offering amusements that includedice bowling. In 1662, the sport of ice skating was introduced from the Netherlands at such a fair.The last Frost Fair was held in 1814. Since then, warmer conditions have kept the river fromfreezing completely. 10
  11. 11. And now human beings and the rest of the inhabitants of planet Earth may have to brace for a newperiod of change. Humans, at least, have proved themselves to be well adapted to a perpetually, butgradually, shifting climate. But this change is predicted to come at a pace perhaps 10 or 15 timesmore rapid than that experienced during the looping cycles of ice and warmth in which almost allof human development -- both evolutionary and cultural -- has taken place. As has been the case fora billion years, the pending change is a function of the links between climate and life. Once, theevolution of photosynthesis forever altered the course of the planets fate by flooding theatmosphere with oxygen. Now, the explosive expansion of human populations and industry isflooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene era for its causative element-- for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene.1 Afterall, it is a geological age of our own making. The challenge now is to find a way to act that willmake geologists of the future look upon this age as a remarkable time, a time in which a speciesbegan to take into account the long-term impact of its actions. The alternative will be to leave alegacy of irresponsibility and neglect that will manifest itself in the fossil record as just one moremass extinction -- like the record of bones and empty footprints left behind by the dinosaurs. Chapter 3 The Global Greenhouse “We are evaporating our coal mines into the air.” - Svante Arrhenius, Swedish chemist (1859-1927), in a 1896 essay2The first winter of the 1990s was a warm one in my town, Brooklyn, New York. Crocuses and evena few tulips popped their green heads up through the garden soil as February began, fooled by1 I used flawed etymology in proposing the word “Anthrocene,” but my notion of a post-Holoceneepoch has gained steam of late, centered now around the more appropriate word Anthropocene.Best reference: “The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?” Jan Zalasiewicz, MarkWilliams, Alan Haywood and Michael Ellis . Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 2011 369, 835-841, doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.03392 Arrhenius never wrote this. This was an error by me, building on earlier errors as described wellby Pilson in 2006 (Ambio. 2006 May;35(3):130-3.) 11
  12. 12. weeks of freak warmth in which New Yorkers donned T-shirts and flocked to parks and beaches.The warm winter followed a year that set a new record for the warmest global mean temperature --59.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- in the 110 years since such figures had been calculated. In setting thatrecord, 1990 continued a trend begun in the decade of the eighties. At the time, the seven warmestyears on record were, in descending order: 1990, 1988, 1981, 1987, 1983, 1980, and 1989. It is thisaccumulation of hot years, capping a 100-year trend of slow warming, that recently caused somenormally circumspect atmospheric scientists to go out on a limb and declare that we are seeing asignal that human activities are exacerbating the greenhouse effect and warming the planet.Keep in mind that atmospheric science is not a field that attracts high-profile types, eager for thespotlight. These are researchers who would much prefer to sit and tinker with their computermodels than address congressional hearings. Nonetheless, out they came -- braving the scorn ofskeptics. Previously, scientific papers on the greenhouse effect had been published with littlefanfare. There had been a few congressional hearings on the subject, but no one took much notice.The obscurity of the issue came to an end as the United States began to wilt during the scorching,endless summer of 1988.No one put it more bluntly than James Hansen, the soft-spoken leader of an ongoing greenhousestudy at NASAs Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who testified before a congressionalsubcommittee on June 23 of that year. On that day temperatures topped 100 degrees in 45 citiesfrom coast to coast (Washington baked at a mere 98 degrees). This was the summer that saw theforests of Yellowstone National Park and the forests of France go up in smoke, the summer thatruined crops from Canada to China. Hansen said that no one could prove that that particular heatwave -- or any single heat wave -- was caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide, but the lengtheninglist of record-hot years in the 1980s was getting harder to ascribe to any other cause. Afterward, hetold a reporter, "It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong thatthe greenhouse effect is here."Since then, he and a growing chorus of atmospheric specialists have not changed their views. Theystress that neither that summers drought nor the mild winter of 1990/91 nor any other singleclimatic anomaly can be linked directly to rising levels of heat-trapping gases. But the increasingfrequency of warm summers and winters -- particularly the rising temperature of the planet as awhole, which is the result of averaging hundreds of separate thermometer readings -- is consistentwith the theory of a man-made greenhouse effect. As Hansen explained, "Seasonal weather is still acrap shoot, but the global warming is loading the dice."Starley Thompson, a climate modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, put it to methis way: "There are always going to be a few hold-outs -- `Flat Earthers. Apart from those,though, I dont think itll be too long before you see broad agreement on this. A clincher will be thiscontinual occurrence of years that are hotter than any other year in the historical record. Right nowits like a plant is peeking up above the weeds. The plant has to get tall enough to grow out of theweeds. If it continues on this way, definitely, within a decade, all reasonable people will have to situp and take notice."Before the current global warm wave, in which the specter of the greenhouse effect has becomesuch a hot topic, environmental problems were only worrisome if they were tangible or visible:Water pollution was an industrial sewer spewing foamy toxins into a greasy lake. Air pollution was 12
  13. 13. the sooty blast from a buss exhaust pipe, the cloud of yellow smoke rising from a power plantsstack. Chemical contamination was the mist spreading from a crop-dusting plane. Now scientistsare talking about a dramatic global crisis brought on by an increase in levels of some of the rarestgases in the atmosphere -- gases measured in parts per million -- all of them invisible to the eye.And at the center of all the fuss is a gas that we all know from grade school as one of the basicsubstances of life. We exhale it and plants inhale it. Dry ice is made of it. It can snuff out a match.It is the bubbles in beer. How can carbon dioxide, such a seemingly innocuous compound -- just acouple of oxygen atoms linked to a carbon atom -- be such a big problem? How can CO2 and theseother gases act like a stifling greenhouse? ~ ~ ~On one of the few frigid afternoons of February 1991, my wife and I walked with our infant over tothe Brooklyn Botanic Garden. To take away the chill, we thought wed head to the forest exhibits,each enclosed in a lofty, dome-like glass greenhouse. Just inside the entrance to the grounds, wepassed a big boulder sitting inconspicuously near some bushes. Id passed it 100 times before, butthis time took a closer look. The boulder, about six feet tall and rounded like a pear, had a smooth,polished spot where countless human rear ends had found a perch. At around eye height above thatseat, there was a little bronze plaque embedded in the stone. It read, “Boulder of diabase.Geological age, Triassic. Transported by continental glacier during the Ice Age from Palisades,between Hoboken and Englewood.”Here was yet another reminder of the dynamic, ever-changing face of Earth. Plucked from a cliff of200-million-year-old rock as a glacier scuffed its way across North America 20,000 years ago, thisboulder was carried along like a pebble caught in the tread of a childs sneaker, then dropped as theice melted back to the north.We made our way to the greenhouses, where we began in the temperate forest, a replica ofMediterranean conditions, with beautifully landscaped slopes covered in silvery shrubs, mostlyhardy varieties evolved to tolerate dryness. Vents in the glass roof kept this chamber cool and dry.Then we opened the doors leading into the tropical rain forest exhibit, leaving Greece behind in aninstant and arriving in the Amazon. Here it was early February in New York, yet suddenly we wereimmersed in a steaming hothouse, rich with the scents of citrus and coffee blossoms, dank earth andfungi. The sun shone as brightly outside the dripping panes of glass as in, but we were sweltering inour parkas, while people outside were thankful for theirs.Just as the glass of that Brooklyn greenhouse prevented the sun-warmed air inside from escaping,so too do carbon dioxide and the other so-called greenhouse gases act as a solar-energy trap. Theatmosphere was first compared to a “glass vessel” in 1827, by the French mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. He recognized that the air circulating around the planet lets in sunlight --as a glass roof does -- but prevents some of the resulting warmth from leaving. In the 1850s, aBritish physicist, James Tyndall, took things further and tried to measure the heat-trappingproperties of various components of the atmosphere. Surprisingly, the two most common gases --nitrogen and oxygen -- had no heat-trapping ability. Ninety-nine percent of the atmosphere had noinsulating properties at all. It was all up to a few trace gases -- carbon dioxide, water vapor,methane, and the rest -- to keep the planet cozy. 13
  14. 14. Since Tyndalls time, the process by which greenhouse gases keep the planet warm has becomeclear. There are still rancorous debates among climatologists over how much, when, and where theplanet may warm as these gases increase, but scientists agree on the basic physics. The processgoes something like this. Most of the suns energy travels to Earth as visible light. The sunlightenters the atmosphere and warms things up -- particularly things that are dark in color and thusabsorb lots of light, things such as plants, soil, and the oceans.Surfaces warmed by the sun then begin to shed that accumulated energy in a different form, as heat,which is simply energy radiating at an invisible part of the spectrum -- called the infrared. Think ofa rock that is tossed into a campfire. It is heated by the flames, then, long after the fire is out, youcan still feel heat radiating from the rock. That “heat” is infrared radiation.If the atmosphere had no heat-trapping gases, the heat from the sun would quickly radiate back tospace, leaving the planet with a surface temperature of nearly 0 degrees Fahrenheit. But the Earthhas a surface temperature that averages a comfortable 59 degrees. The difference lies in thegreenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases act like a heat trap by absorbingsome of the escaping energy. Just as a tuning fork with prongs of a certain length starts to humwhen placed in the presence of sound at just the right pitch, molecules with a certain shape start tovibrate when exposed to energy of a particular type. It just so happens that molecules of carbondioxide, methane, water vapor, and the other greenhouse gases are not tuned to absorb energytraveling as visible light -- it passes right through them, like light through a transparent windowpane -- but these molecules are exquisitely sensitive to infrared energy. They catch it and begin tovibrate, and in so doing send much of the heat back where it came from. The gases comprising 99percent of the atmosphere -- nitrogen and oxygen -- are transparent to both light and heat, and thusdont enter into the greenhouse equation.Even though the greenhouse gases exist as only a trace -- they are measured in parts per million andin some cases parts per trillion -- they exert a powerful influence on the temperature of the planet.If the air did not have those 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the planet would be some 20degrees cooler. Without water vapor, it would be a deep-frozen snowball. And because these potentgases exist in such minute quantities, a tiny change in their concentrations can cause a big changein the way the atmosphere behaves. John Firor, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center forAtmospheric Research, likes to compare the situation to a corporation that is vulnerable to atakeover. A change of a couple of shareholders votes can mean the difference between survival andgetting swallowed up. Its a “highly leveraged situation,” in the parlance of Wall Street.There is no better way to appreciate the importance of greenhouse gases in determining a planetsclimate than to look at three convenient experiments: Venus, the second planet from the sun, Mars,the fourth -- and Earth, in between. Venus has a dense atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide. Asa result, the planet has a runaway greenhouse effect, resulting in a surface temperature of 840degrees, hot enough to melt tin and lead. The atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, aswell, but is very thin. And Mars has no water vapor in its atmosphere to help trap the suns heat.With little greenhouse warming, Mars has a mean temperature colder than that of Antarctica. Thepoles are some 184 degrees below zero. 14
  15. 15. Earth, literally and figuratively, lies between these two extremes. The planet is cloaked insignificant quantities of water vapor and carbon dioxide, both of which hold the heat of the sun.There is something marvelous about the interplay and balance of the biosphere, oceans, rock, air,and ice of Earth -- an equilibrium that has kept conditions equable for more than a billion years.Planetary scientists have referred to the situation of Venus, Mars, and Earth as the Goldilocksphenomenon, in reference to the bowls of porridge left behind by the three bears: one too hot, onetoo cold, and the third “just right.”Many of the feedback loops and connections between the components of Earths atmosphere andclimate are complex and poorly understood. But one linkage is crystal clear, particularly for the last160,000 years: a consistent, linear relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide in the air andthe average temperature of the planet. This pattern has important implications today. Therelationship between carbon dioxide and temperature was detected when Soviet scientists extracteda mile-long cylinder of ice from a hole drilled in the glacier covering east Antarctica. In drillingdown through that glacier, which had formed as layer upon layer of snow accumulated year afteryear, they were drilling back through time.The deepest sections of the core are composed of water that had fallen as snow 160,000 yearsearlier. Sections of that ice core were flown, still frozen, to a laboratory in Grenoble, France, whereinstruments were able to measure the composition of ancient air trapped in bubbles in the ice. Otherinstruments could check the ratio of certain isotopes in the frozen water and get a good idea of theprevailing atmospheric temperature at the time that particular bit of water became locked in theglacier.The result is a remarkable, unbroken record of both temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxidelevels, and they travel through time in lock step. Almost every time the chill of an ice agedescended on the planet, carbon dioxide levels dropped. As temperature dropped 9 degrees, CO2levels dropped to 190 parts per million or so. Every time an ice age ended and the Earth basked in awarm interglacial, carbon dioxide levels rose as high as 280 parts per million. Until the beginningof the Industrial Revolution in the last century, the ice record shows that, for 160,000 years, thelevel of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated between 190 and 280 parts per million, butnever rose higher.There is indirect evidence that the link goes back much farther than the glacial record. Carbondioxide levels may have been much greater than the current concentration during the CarboniferousPeriod, which ended 280 million years ago. Most land surfaces are thought to have been coveredwith lush swamps and bogs. That was the era named for a profusion of plant life whose buriedremains produced a large fraction of the coal deposits that are being brought to the surface andburned today. Coinciding with the high CO2 levels, global temperature was apparently higher backthen, as well -- with no ice caps at the poles.It is still not clear how the two are linked -- to what extent dropping carbon dioxide levels causedthe cooling and to what extent cooling caused the change in carbon dioxide. But the relationship isfirm. That is one reason scientists look at the man-made rise in CO2 today with such concern. For160,000 years -- and perhaps millions of years -- the linkage between CO2 and temperature hasbeen as firm as any pattern in nature. 15
  16. 16. And starting perhaps as early as the mid-1700s -- the time of the American Revolution, a time whenEarth was still feeling the effects of the Little Ice Age -- humanity did indeed begin to fiddle withone of these parameters. It probably began with the clearing and burning of vast tracts of Europeanand North American forests. For the first time, the atmosphere began to feel strong emanations ofcarbon dioxide from the activities of the growing human population. Then came steam engines andinternal combustion engines and a cascade of technological developments resulting in new uses forheat -- new uses for burning fuel and thus new sources of carbon dioxide. As forests fell, new andmore efficient fuels were sought to replace firewood. From then on, most of the fuel would beextracted from the ground -- fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas. Vast buried stores ofcarbon were uncovered, fed into the growing fires of the Industrial Revolution, and released intothe atmosphere as carbon dioxide.As a result, at some point in the nineteenth century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in theatmosphere rose beyond the highest point it had reached in at least 160,000 years. By the 1890s, theconcentration of carbon dioxide was already approaching 300 parts per million and steadily rising.Although no one at the time had any way to measure the change, there was one person, a Swedishchemist named Svante Arrhenius, who theorized that this was occurring. Arrhenius was the firstscientists to see the significance of the greenhouse theories of Fourier and Tyndall in light ofcurrent events of the late nineteenth century. As he looked around at the growing forests ofchimneys and smokestacks, the steam engines, furnaces, foundries, and ovens -- all stoked withcoal, charcoal, and wood -- he calculated that millions of tons of carbon dioxide were beingreleased. He did not know of the historical link between carbon dioxide and warmth that wouldlater be discerned deep in glacial ice. He did know that in theory all that carbon dioxide, by causinga “change in the transparency of the atmosphere,” as he put it, could very likely heat things up. Adoubling of carbon dioxide, he found, might raise the average temperature of the planet ninedegrees.In an essay in the April 1896 issue of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine,he spelled out his theory, and in a nine-word sentence he summed up the hidden consequence of therapid expansion of human industry that was unbalancing the atmosphere. Arrhenius, who wouldlater win one of the first Nobel Prizes in chemistry (for his theory of ionization), wrote: “We areevaporating our coal mines into the atmosphere.”3 Chapter 4 The Hand of Man Im truly sorry Mans dominion Has broken Natures social union.... The best laid schemes o mice an men Gang aft a-gley. - Robert Burns, Scottish poet (1759-96), “To a Mouse”3 Arrhenius never wrote this. This was an error by me, building on earlier errors as described wellby Pilson in 2006 (Ambio. 2006 May;35(3):130-3.) 16
  17. 17. Almost 100 years have passed since Arrhenius first posited that human actions were changing thenature of the natural world. The dizzying pace of change in those 100 years only becomes evidentwhen you look at how much some places have been modified in only a few generations. Justconsider this account of one American wilderness wonderland, as described in the 1875 book“Fishing in American Waters,” by Senio C. Scott: “There is not within any settled portion of theUnited States another piece of territory where the trout streams are so numerous and productive....It is scarcely possible to travel a mile in any direction without crossing a trout stream.” The place?Long Island, New York.“From Coney Island to Southampton,” Scott wrote, there was one clear, trout-laden stream afteranother. Today the only trout on Coney Island are in the smoked-fish sections of the Russiandelicatessens of Brighton Beach.It is now hard to find a place where the human impact is not evident, from the most familiarlandscape to the harshest wilderness. Half a century ago, if you stood on a hilltop on a clear dayjust about anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, you could have seen things 90 miles away. Now,visibility on the clearest days -- even far from cities -- is about 15 miles. Particulates from powerplants and automobiles have created a permanent haze.Even high above the stark, frozen ice fields of Antarctica, satellites and research aircraft nowroutinely detect the seasonal formation of a gaping hole in the thin veneer of ozone that hasshielded terrestrial life from harmful ultraviolet radiation ever since life first spread onto dry landhalf a billion years ago. And scientists have confirmed that the degradation of the ozone layer isbeing caused by man-made chlorofluorocarbons, the same CFCs that also are efficient greenhousegases.As a journalist, Ive been fortunate to travel to some of the more remote corners of the planet, andnowhere have I found a place unaffected by human actions. The scars were freshest in the Amazon.I remember bouncing around in the back of a small pickup truck as it sped along one of the muddyroads that have been cut through that vast river basin, deep in the tropical interior of SouthAmerica. Just 20 years earlier, before a rush of ranchers and landless poor pushed north, the richrain forest there was pristine; in some places leafy branches formed a vaulted gallery over what wasthen a rough dirt trail. Now, along almost the entire stretch of road, the forest had been cut back sofar that it was only a faint green smudge on the horizon. Here and there stood a single giant treetrunk topped by dead branches or thin foliage -- a pathetic vestige of the vanished forest.Worldwide, rain forests are disappearing at the rate of one and a half football fields a second. Just afew centuries ago, Earths equator was girdled by a green belt of 15,000,000 square miles of rainforest, an area five times that of the contiguous United States. Now three Americas worth of forestare gone, with just 6.2 million square miles left. In Brazil alone, the annual emission of carbondioxide from the burning of forests in the late 1980s equaled the amount of this gas spewing fromthe industries of Poland and (former) West Germany combined. Because of the burning, Brazil wasfourth on the list of greenhouse polluters, behind the United States, the Soviet Union, and China.Without it, Brazil wouldnt even be in the top 20 polluters. Alberto Setzer, a Brazilian spacescientist who monitored the fires using satellite photographs -- sometimes counting more than 17
  18. 18. 8,000 fires in a single day -- calculated that emissions from the annual burning season in theAmazon equaled those of a big volcano. But, as Setzer put it, “This is a volcano that erupts everyyear, not just once in a lifetime.”Back in 1980, I was working on a boat that sailed up the Red Sea. We sailed past a maze of oil rigsand pipelines, with natural gas burning off in towering plumes of flame and black smoke. Anendless convoy of ships headed north for Europe, some riding low -- their holds filled with oil --and others riding as high as a 10-story building, stacked with layer upon layer of Japaneseautomobiles. Once at their destination, these two imports -- oil and cars -- would meet, and theresult would be more carbon dioxide and smog.Off the coast of Ethiopia, we passed a string of uninhabited islands that were about as bleak andsterile as any terrain on Earth -- blasted volcanic heaps with hardly a shrub growing in the gray andblack soil. The islands had risen along a great submarine rift where Africa is slowly, inexorablytearing away from the Eurasian continent. Nothing looked odd as we anchored off Zuqar Island.The coral below glimmered and a school of manta rays, each as long and broad as a king-size bed,soared through the clear water. But as we came ashore and explored the beach, we were stunned bywhat we saw.Hundreds of light bulbs had somehow bounced their way above the tide line without shattering.Bulbs littered the shoreline as far as we could see. There were long fluorescent tubes and high-wattage spotlights and old-fashioned screw-in incandescent bulbs. We figured that most wereburned-out bulbs that had been tossed from passing ships. Hundreds of miles from the nearesttown, we were surrounded by one of the crowning symbols of technological progress -- the lightbulb, symbol of the “eureka” moment of invention.Closer to civilization, things were far worse. I lived for a time in Los Angeles, where my job was toreport on the environmental problems plaguing one of Americas fastest growing cities. There Ilived in the hills above Hollywood Boulevard, just high enough to be able to look out across the seaof smog that engulfs that city most days. It has been just four years since I left Los Angeles, but inthat time, the average speed on the freeways at “rush” hour has already fallen from 38 to 35 milesper hour. (It is projected that by the turn of the century, at the current rate of growth, rush hourtraffic will be creeping along at 11 miles per hour.)While in Los Angeles, I reported on some strange events, including a discovery made one day by aconstruction crew. They were excavating a site, preparing to pour the foundation for a parkinggarage. Suddenly gasoline began bubbling up from the earth. They hadnt struck some undergroundpipeline, but instead had simply dug down to the water table. Later, authorities found that the gashad been leaking for years from a storage tank at a service station several hundred yards away.Floating on one of the only big pockets of groundwater in a desiccated city aching for water was aspreading, subterranean, man-made lake of gasoline.All of these scars on the landscape are a disturbing presence, but now it is the invisible impact ofman -- Arrheniuss “change in the transparency” of the air -- that has scientists most concerned. Inthe century that has passed since he wrote about all that “evaporating” coal, the sphere of influenceof the human species has undergone one of the most explosive expansions ever seen in the long 18
  19. 19. history of lifes adventure on Earth. Part of that expansion has been due to population growth -- butonly a part. After all, the human population had been growing rapidly for centuries: In 1 A.D., therewere about 250 million humans -- the current population of the United States spread across aplanet. By 1500, that number had doubled to 500 million. By the 1890s, the population had risenfourfold, to 2 billion. As the twentieth century draws to a close it is well on its way to 6 billion.In this century, it has not just been rising numbers that have increased human dominion of theglobe, but an increase in power. The human hand is a potent force, but put a tool or weapon in itand watch what happens. In this short span, the power of that hand was enormously amplified byextraordinary technological advances -- particularly advances in the technology of combustion. Inhis 1954 essay “Man the Firemaker,” Loren Eiseley correlates human progress with the use of ever-more-potent fuels. First came firewood, which enabled humans to cook meats and thus increasefoods nutritive value. Then came charcoal. The Iron Age would have been meaningless without thehot charcoal fires over which metals become malleable. Mastery of glass, ceramics, and steel was afunction of rising temperatures in kilns, forges and furnaces.As Eiseley put it, “Mans long adventure with knowledge has, to a very marked degree, been aclimb up the heat ladder.... Today the flames grow hotter in the furnaces.... The creature that creptfurred through the glitter of blue glacial nights lives surrounded by the hiss of steam, the roar ofengines, and the bubbling of vats.... And he is himself a flame -- a great, roaring, wasteful furnacedevouring irreplaceable substances of the earth.”It is only in the twentieth century that humanity, in the words of the Russian geochemist VladimirVernadsky, “for the first time becomes a large-scale geological force.” A large fraction of that forcehas come from the burning of fuels. From 1900 to 1988, global energy consumption jumpedfifteen-fold. Consider the following: From 1860 to 1960, human activities added 240 billion tons ofcarbon dioxide to the air. From 1960 to 1990 -- just the past 30 years -- another 240 billion tonswere added, giving some indication of the stunning acceleration of the human impact. Now, everyday another 50,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide spews into the air as humans burn things.Some comes from the exhaust pipe of your car and the 500 million other cars on the planet. (Andby 2025, the automobile population is expected to quadruple -- 2 billion cars!) Some carbondioxide comes from the furnaces of steel mills, cement plants, and power plants. There are stillsome low-technology sources: Some comes from fires set to clear brush and create cattle pasture.Scientists at NASA have calculated that something like five percent of the Earths land surface isset ablaze each year. And part of that human production of carbon dioxide comes from cookingfires -- more than two billion people rely on firewood to cook their daily meals.All in all, then, humans have added a lot of carbon dioxide to the air -- some 480 billion tons in alittle over a century. When you consider that the entire atmosphere weighs some five quadrilliontons, this number seems less disturbing. But, it quickly grows in significance again when you recallthat “highly leveraged situation” -- to repeat the phrase of John Firor -- in which a little carbondioxide accounts for a significant portion of the airs warming effect.The biologist/philosopher Rene Dubos noted the absurdity of our carbon-fueled civilization, inwhich so much growth has been built on “a series of great technological achievements madepossible by the lavish use of cheap fossil fuels.” Today, every person with an automobile has the 19
  20. 20. power of a king, he wrote in “The Wooing of Earth”: “Personal control of a 350-horsepowerautomobile is equivalent in energy terms to the power of an Egyptian pharaoh with 350 horses or3,500 slaves at his command.” Even accounting for those of us who drive more conservativevehicles, with less than 150 horsepower, that still makes us a nation of pharaohs. And now the restof the world wants to catch up.After Arrhenius, there was some continuing interest in the idea that humans were modifying theatmosphere in ways that could warm the planet. In the 1930s, during a period of unusually hotsummers in Europe, George Callendar, a British coal engineer, compiled several decades worth oftemperature readings taken at dozens of weather stations and by sea captains who brought upbuckets of water and measured its warmth. He averaged the readings and published his results in1938. His graphs showed a steady warming trend, which he ascribed to rising carbon dioxidelevels. Callendar optimistically asserted that the addition of carbon dioxide to the air would resultin a warmer, more comfortable world. (Arrhenius had earlier drawn this same conclusion, oncewriting, “[W]e may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates....”)But Callendars theories were forgotten as the northern hemisphere descended quickly thereafterinto a prolonged cold period. Once again, the vagaries of year-to-year variations in weather hadhumbled human efforts to understand the deeper workings of climate. Another reason that the risein carbon dioxide levels was largely ignored was that basic laws of gas exchange showed that theoceans would act as a vast “sink,” or repository, for this gas. Something like 98 percent of anyexcess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be absorbed by the oceans, and the carbon wouldsoon find its way to the sea floor -- locked safely away in sediments for millions of years to come.At least that was the prevailing view until 1957, when Roger Revelle announced his analysis of thequestion. Revelle, then director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California,made some calculations and found that the chemistry of seawater sharply limited the amount ofcarbon dioxide that would dissolve in it.At most, Revelle calculated, only half of the carbon dioxide being introduced to the air by humanactions would end up in the seas. That left an awful lot in the air -- more than enough to influencethe workings of the atmosphere. As Revelle and his coauthor, Hans Suess, put it: “Thus humanbeings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not havehappened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.”“Large scale” was perhaps the underestimate of the century. The test tube in which this experimentwas taking place was the entire planet.Around that time, Revelle was involved in planning the most ambitious coordinated scientificexamination of the workings of the globe in history, the International Geophysical Year. Actuallyrunning over 18 months, the project would employ hundreds of geologists, chemists, climatologists,and other specialists from more than 70 nations. They would be dispatched to the four corners ofthe Earth, where they would measure everything measurable. In a way, they were about to conductEarths first checkup. One of the scientists was a young chemist named Charles David Keeling.Hed spent the last two years running around California collecting flasks full of air. He haddesigned and built an especially sensitive instrument for measuring carbon dioxide concentrations.This was the first device that could measure differences on the order of one part per million. 20
  21. 21. Keeling was finding that his gas samples from around the state contained, on average, 315 parts permillion of CO2 -- a figure about 13 percent higher than the few measurements that were availablefrom before the peak of the Industrial Revolution.As part of the International Geophysical Year, Keeling built two instruments that could takecontinual readings of atmospheric CO2. One was sent to Antarctica, but malfunctioned. The otherwas hauled up the slope of Mauna Kea, a massive dormant volcano that crowns the big island ofHawaii. There, 11,050 feet above sea level -- far from any distorting influences like cities or forests-- the manometer began in March 1958 to take readings of the carbon dioxide level of theatmosphere. In its first year, the instrument produced a remarkable record of the breathing of thebiosphere. A graph of the readings looked like a camels humps. Carbon dioxide was high in thewinter, then dropped in the spring and summer, then rose again in the fall and the following winter.Keeling realized that his meter was reading the annual rhythm of photosynthesis in the NorthernHemisphere. Through the spring and summer, the temperate forests burst into photosyntheticactivity, sparked by the brighter sun. In the process, the trees removed millions of tons of carbonfrom the air and put it into new growth -- roots and stems and blossoms and berries and pine cones.Then the biosphere sank into winter torpor and released much of that carbon as leaves fell anddisintegrated, fruit rotted, and trees consumed some of their stores of energy. The following yearthe pattern was repeated. And the year after that.Keeling had become obsessed with carbon dioxides cycles, and he kept his instruments runninglong after the big research project was over. His first device, and many others like it that weresubsequently deployed to widely dispersed weather stations, have since churned out three decadesof readings of the atmospheres carbon dioxide trace. The result, as all the data have been collatedand assembled in a graph, is a remarkable, sinuous curve that has since been dubbed the KeelingCurve -- and may prove to be something of a central symbol for the Anthrocene Age.The curve for each year has the same camels-hump shape, but as the numbers for successive yearsare strung together, the levels of carbon dioxide have been just a little bit higher each year than theywere the year before. The change pushes the line of the graph steadily up the page -- a snakeclimbing a long hill.Like a watch that gains a few seconds a month, the process is hardly discernible as it is happening,but the end result is significant. Where the atmosphere had 315 parts per million carbon dioxide in1958, by 1990 it was shown to contain 355 parts per million of this heat-trapping gas. And thatmeant that since the 1880s, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had risen some 25percent. And almost every year, the amount of the increase -- the size of the annual hump --increased a little. Whereas in the 1960s, Keeling found that carbon dioxide levels were rising about0.7 parts per million a year, by the 1980s the annual rise had more than doubled, to 1.5 parts permillion a year. This reflected the enormous acceleration of global industry and consequent rise inthe burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. It also reflected the explosive growth of the humanpopulation, which was pushing people to incinerate thousands of square miles of forest.Unluckily, Keeling, like Callendar before him, began his research at a time when globaltemperatures were tending to dip. As a result, his results were widely discussed within the arcaneworld of climatology, but rarely cited as a cause for concern. Indeed, the 1970s saw prolonged 21
  22. 22. periods of wintry weather. Brazils coffee crop failed twice because of frosts. The United States sawfreak blizzards. Snow fell in London in June. The chilly weather had politicians and the pressbuzzing about an imminent ice age.In the 1980s, though, the global average temperature resumed the climb it had begun back in the1930s. Year after year saw a new record set, as readings from around the world were collected andcorrected -- to remove distortions caused by phenomena such as the so-called "heat-island" effectof cities (which hold heat in their masses of stone and asphalt and thus tend to make temperaturereadings higher than they would otherwise be). In 1988, researchers at NASAs Goddard Institutefor Space Studies and at the University of East Anglia in England separately reported that when allsuch distortions were removed, the global mean temperature had risen just about 1 degreeFahrenheit in 100 years. It was an uneven rise, but compared to past global warmings, it washappening at breakneck speed. During the warming that followed the last Ice Age, the globaltemperature had risen 1 degree every 500 years or so.There was no way to prove a link between the rise in carbon dioxide and the rise in temperature.Indeed, the warming was within the range of normal fluctuations of temperature and could havebeen caused by any number of factors -- including the variability of the suns output. But theparallel curves began to generate more and more interest in the scientific community and the worldat large. The distinctive climbing snake of the Keeling Curve began to show up not just in scientificjournals, but also in the pages of the New York Times, Newsweek, and National Geographicmagazine.Moreover, concern about an intensifying greenhouse effect was heightened when it becameapparent that human activities were increasing levels of other trace gases that have much morepotent heat-trapping properties than CO2. Levels of methane, for example, have risen sharply in theatmosphere in the past 150 years. Although there is still less than 2 parts per million of this gas inthe air, that is more than twice the highest level seen for the past 160,000 years. And each methanemolecule is 20 to 30 times more efficient than a carbon dioxide molecule at trapping heat. This gas,also called natural gas or swamp gas, is generated naturally by bacterial decomposition in theabsence of oxygen -- in such places as bogs, rice paddies, landfills, and the guts of cattle andtermites (in which colonies of anaerobic bacteria break down cellulose).As humans have cut down forests, termites and bacteria have flourished in the detritus left behind.And the human population explosion has been accompanied by a livestock explosion -- there aresome 2 billion head of cattle on Earth today. Each cow belches a methane burp twice a minute.Methane also escapes during oil drilling (that is what burns in the flares above oil rigs) and coalmining. Some methane is also emitted by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. All told, abouthalf of the methane in the atmosphere is thought to be the result of human activity.Some scientists theorize that part of the methane increase is the result of the slight global warmingthat has already taken place: methane may be rising from warming soil and thawing permafrost inthe vast stretches of Arctic tundra, and perhaps from the floor of the sea, where vast amounts ofmethane are locked up in cold sediments. If rising temperatures allow a large portion of this hiddenreserve of methane to enter the atmosphere, then the greenhouse effect, in a classic feedback loop,will accelerate itself. 22
  23. 23. Another gas on the rise is nitrous oxide, the same compound that dentists use to dull pain. In nature,nitrous oxide is emitted by soil microbes. When nitrate fertilizers are added to farmland, theyaccelerate the production of the gas. Some is also formed when fossil fuels are burned. Altogether,there has been an eight-percent rise in nitrous oxide levels since the turn of the century.Nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide have all been around, to some extent, for millions ofyears. But there is a fourth important class of greenhouse gases that never existed in nature beforeThomas Midgley, Jr., a remarkably inventive chemist working for General Motors, created them ina laboratory in 1930. Midgley had already made a name for himself by concocting the tetraethyl-lead additive that took the knock out of auto engines. He was asked by GMs Frigidaire division tocome up with an alternative to ammonia and sulfur dioxide, which were then the standardchemicals circulating in the coils of refrigeration units -- but were dangerous or toxic. His solutionwas to add some chlorine and fluorine atoms to a carbon chain, and the result was an inert, nontoxicclass of compounds called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs -- or Freon. These CFCs were hailed asone of the great triumphs of the chemical age -- a purely synthetic substance that lasted forcenturies and had no known adverse effects. Midgley won important chemistry awards for both hislead additive and for CFCs, which quickly found myriad uses in products ranging from plasticfoams to underarm sprays.Ironically, these two substances now occupy the highest levels of environmental hazard lists.Today, lead levels in human tissue and Arctic snows are hundreds of times what they were twocenturies ago. And CFCs are not only a potent, long-lived greenhouse gas, but are the samecompounds that have wafted up to the stratosphere, where they are attacking the planets protectiveshield of ozone. Although CFCs exist in the atmosphere at minute levels, measured in parts pertrillion, each molecule has 16,000 times as much heat-trapping potential as a molecule of carbondioxide. Because they have become so pervasive in industry, in 60 years 16 million tons of CFCshave made their way into the air. Even though the United States banned some uses in the 1970s,and many countries have agreed to eliminate production by the turn of the century, the amount inthe air is still growing at some five percent each year. And each molecule may remain in theatmosphere for many decades. Midgleys chemical creation is certainly a durable one.Overall, it has been calculated that the heat-trapping properties of the rarer gases will equal that ofcarbon dioxide within a few decades. The sudden accumulation of these greenhouse gases is notvisible. You cannot smell it because none of the gases has an odor (the natural gas in a kitchenstove has an odorant added to it to warn of a leak). But this flurry of change is bound to disrupt thebalance of energy flowing to and from the Earth, and, as a consequence, the balance of thebiological world, as well.When you look at graphs of the steadily ascending amounts of these other greenhouse graphs andcompare them with the rising snake of the Keeling Curve and the slow rise in the century-longgraph of global temperature, the effect is akin to what has been shown in countless movie scenes:An ailing patient lies in a hospitals intensive-care unit. Next to the bed, needles scratch across aroll of paper, charting heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and other vital signs, which allbounce along at a steady rhythm -- until they begin to jiggle faster, then suddenly jump off thescale, with alarms buzzing and doctors rushing in. 23
  24. 24. The planets vital signs are beginning to waver. The challenge is that by the time the symptoms areclear, it may be too late to save the patient. Chapter 5 The Cloudy Crystal Ball “How little, mark! that portion of the ball. Where faint at best, the beams of Science fall.” - Alexander Pope, English poet (1688-1744), “The Dunciad”It is July 2029, and an atmospheric catastrophe is in the making. The amount of carbon dioxide inthe air has nearly doubled from pre-industrial levels. Earth is running a raging fever. Over theAmerican Grain Belt and central China, the sun withers wheat and cornfields. Over the southernoceans around Antarctica, air temperatures are far above the typical readings seen 100 years earlier.As a result, Rhode Island-size icebergs are calving from the edges of glaciers at a record rate. Asthe seasons and years roll forward, the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasescontinues to rise. Heat waves and occasional cool snaps swirl around the planet, but by 2050 thecolder pockets are a rarity, and the entire globe is baking in conditions many degrees warmer thanwere typical just a century before.Fortunately this is not yet the real world, but a parallel one, built of a matrix of mathematicalequations, each representing conditions in a small portion of the atmosphere. The fate of this worldis unfolding on a video display terminal in an air-conditioned computer room two floors aboveToms Restaurant, a luncheonette at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street on Manhattans UpperWest Side. That is the unlikely home of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a research center,run by NASA, that has focused for more than a decade on the question of climate change. As timerolls forward in the computer model, swirls of red, orange, yellow, white, and blue are painted onthe screen, where Earths continents are visible in outline. As summer follows summer, theheartland of America pulses cherry red -- a color that represents temperatures nine degrees abovetodays norm. The orange and yellow indicate less intense warming, and the few blue patches showrare regions that remain relatively cool.Even as some researchers are looking back at past climates by boring holes into ancient glacial iceor studying ancient fossilized grains of pollen, others are using computer models to try to divine thefuture. Such global climate models, also called general circulation models, were first developedboth to help forecast the weather on a daily basis and to understand the workings of the atmosphereon various planets in the solar system (hence the NASA connection). The picture they areprojecting of Earth beneath the enhanced greenhouse is not a pretty one.If the planet were a smooth, motionless, monochrome sphere, the task of simulating its climatewould be simple. Youd only need equations for the amount of sunlight hitting the surface and theinfrared radiation escaping into space. There would be no regional variations. There would be nowind or clouds or ocean currents or polar ice caps to stir things up in unpredictable ways. But theplanet is not monochrome and monotonous; it is a variegated, complicated system with a mottled 24
  25. 25. surface of water, earth, ice, and green plant life -- each of which absorbs sunlight and radiates heatin very different ways. As a result, modeling future climates is a daunting challenge.Even so, computer scientists and atmospheric scientists have reached a point where theirmathematical simulations do a remarkably good job of representing the real world. The globalclimate models at research centers such as the Goddard Institute all work in much the same way.The atmosphere is crudely represented by splitting it into layers -- like the outer layers of an onion-- and then dicing each layer into cubes. A typical model divides the atmosphere vertically into adozen or so layers, each a mile or so thick, and horizontally into boxes that are roughly the size ofColorado. The conditions in each box are boiled down to a few basic equations that represent theflow of heat, moisture, sunlight, wind, and the like. Each box in the atmospheric grid interacts withadjacent boxes (allowing a parcel of hot air to rise through the atmosphere, for instance). Theprogram accounts for the passage of the seasons, with the tilt of the Earths axis bringing less andthen more sunlight to boxes in each hemisphere as the planet revolves around the sun once a year.A set of initial conditions is fed into the computer: for example, the conditions that prevailedaround the world in 1958, the first year in which global carbon dioxide levels were measured. Thenthe scientists sit back and let the equations churn away. Scientists can tweak a particular condition-- say, adding carbon dioxide to the air -- simply by changing the appropriate factors in the set ofequations. After all, carbon dioxide behaves in a predictable way, consistent with the basic laws ofphysics. It doesnt directly affect moisture or sunlight, but it does trap heat. So a rise in carbondioxide is represented by changing the equations that indicate how much heat can be trapped in theair.Originally, all of the projections of a greenhouse future were made simply by taking an operatingclimate model and instantaneously doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Morerecently, modelers at Goddard and other centers have been able to add the carbon dioxidegradually, in a way that more closely resembles the inexorable buildup of the gas in the real world.This is a very complex calculation to make. At research centers that are equipped with the latestsupercomputers -- such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado -- the fate ofthe world is determined in a matter of hours or a few days. At Goddard, which uses slow,conventional computers, some "runs" have taken years to complete.There are still many uncertainties that limit the confidence that can be placed in the model results.After all, they remain very crude projections of reality. Each Colorado-size grid box can only be allcloudy or all sunny, for example -- when its obvious to anyone that conditions in Denver at onemoment are likely to be very different from those in Durango.Along with the limits of resolution, there are great uncertainties concerning the role of oceans andclouds in maintaining the current climate and affecting possible changes down the line. Two thirdsof the planets surface is covered by oceans, which are a vast reservoir for heat and also act totransport that heat from the hot tropics to higher, cooler latitudes. The warm Gulf Stream, forexample, is like a fast-flowing river -- with 100 times the volume of the Amazon -- that swingsnorth past Florida and then out across the Atlantic, carrying solar energy absorbed near the equatoras far north as the British isles and northern Europe. As a result, those countries have a winter 25
  26. 26. climate much warmer than it would otherwise be. Keep in mind that London is at the same latitudeas the blustery northern tip of Newfoundland. And the Scilly Isles, off the southwest coast ofEngland, have palm trees. No one has a good idea of how the oceans may accelerate or slow thewarming trend, or how ocean currents may affect the regional impact of global warming.What is known is that changes in the oceans can cause widespread changes in climate. The El Niñowarming of the eastern equatorial Pacific, occurring every few years, can strongly alter rainfall andtemperature patterns across the United States and as far east as Africa and the Indian Ocean.Recently, there have been attempts to link computer models of ocean currents to the global climatemodels, but the work is at an early stage.Clouds are one of the trickiest unknowns in the formula for global warming. They are a prominentfeature of the planet -- covering about 60 percent of Earths surface at any time. But their influenceon climate is hard to add up. These floating blankets of water droplets or ice crystalssimultaneously reflect incoming sunlight back out to space and trap escaping heat -- they both cooland warm the planet. And different types of clouds, at different altitudes, have different effects: Thehigh, wispy mares tails tend to trap more energy than they reflect, while low, thick cumulus cloudsact as an efficient reflector, sending the suns rays back into space before they can warm thesurface. Overall, it is thought that clouds reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the surface by some20 percent.An enhanced greenhouse effect, by warming the seas, is predicted to cause more water to evaporateand thus generate more clouds. Atmospheric scientists caution, though, that this does not mean thatthe planet will cool itself off reflecting more solar energy into space. There is as yet no way topredict what type of clouds will form, where they are most likely to form, where they will droptheir moisture, and whether it will drop as rain or snow. One indicator of the complexity of cloudsis that most of the global climate models agree on a wide range of factors -- ®MDUL¯until® ¯clouds are included in the projections. At that point, the models vary dramatically in their forecasts.Overall, despite the uncertainties, these models have proved their worth by accurately replicatingconditions that occur in the real world -- such phenomena as the change of seasons, the occasionalEl Niño warming in the Pacific, and the periodic droughts that ravage the Sahel region of northernAfrica. The models have also been tested by inserting data from periods in Earths history -- such asthe warming after the last ice age -- for which scientists have a good knowledge of regionalclimates. If the model churns out a world that has warm and cool spots matching the regionalpatterns, say, reflected in fossilized pollen grains of warm-loving and cold-loving plants, thenconfidence in the model is boosted.A detailed assessment and comparison of the most sophisticated climate models was done in 1990by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of several hundred eminent scientistsconvened by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations to provide aframework of knowledge upon which governments can base plans for the future. Although differentmodels disagree sharply on some of the details of Earths greenhouse future -- some show hot spotswhere others have cool spots, for example -- they all agree that a world with doubled carbondioxide levels will be a significantly warmer place. Predictions range from a global meantemperature that is 2.5 degrees hotter than the current norm to 8 degrees. A "most likely" figure is4.5 degrees warmer. 26
  27. 27. The models consistently predict that the temperature rise near the ground will be accompanied by asharp cooling high in the stratosphere. Indeed, as the planet has experienced the warm wave thatstarted in the 1980s, the stratosphere has showed some cooling. They are also quite consistent inpredicting that high-latitude regions, near the poles, will be close to the current norm in thesummer, but perhaps 18 degrees warmer than the current average in winter -- a dramatic changewith unpredictable consequences.There is general agreement that the amount of sea ice near the poles will diminish, as will theamount of land covered by snow in winter. This is expected to have an amplifying effect, orpositive feedback, further warming the globe. Surfaces covered in snow and ice reflect almost 90percent of the sunlight that strikes them; less snow and ice means more absorbed solar energy, andthus an even warmer planet.In addition, several of the leading models, particularly the model running at the Geophysical FluidDynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, predict that the global water cycle -- from oceansto clouds to precipitation to rivers to oceans -- will change dramatically. Because of the warmth,more water will evaporate from the oceans, more clouds will form, and more precipitation will fall.But it wont be evenly distributed. While some regions grow wetter, others will dry out.Most researchers also agree that greenhouse warming will cause a substantial rise in sea level. Awarmer atmosphere is expected to accelerate the melting of ice and snow near the poles, increasingthe runoff of fresh water into the sea. In addition, some of the warmth from the air will betransferred to the oceans. When something gets warmer, the molecules within it jiggle more andtake up more space -- causing that thing to expand slightly. Thats just as true for a warming oceanas it is for a door that sticks in its frame in the heat of the summer. In a greenhouse world, then,seawater is expected to expand a fraction of a tenth of a percent. Altogether, the melting ice andexpanding seawater are projected to raise sea levels by one quarter of an inch per year through thecoming century.Seas have already risen steadily over the past 100 years at the seemingly imperceptible rate ofabout a third of an inch per decade. That doesnt sound like a lot, but the result has already beensubstantial erosion of beaches and salt-water intrusion into such important agricultural regions asthe Sacramento River valley in California. And now the conservative estimate is for the seas to riseat three to six times faster through the coming century, reaching more than a foot and a half abovecurrent levels in the next 80 years. Seas may rise dramatically higher if the warming accelerates themelting of glaciers and calving and melting of icebergs. But some scientists feel that any suchaccelerated melting will be counterbalanced as increased snowfall, particularly over the Antarctic(thanks to all the extra clouds and precipitation) takes more water out of the oceans and stores it infrozen form on dry land.A worst-case scenario, according to some researchers, concerns the West Antarctic Ice Sheet -- anIndia-size slab of ice a mile thick. This mass of ice rests on the sea floor, like a ship aground on asubmerged reef. As the sea rises and warms, it is possible that the ice could become destabilizedand break up, with a resulting rise in sea level of 10 feet or more worldwide. 27