Friday, 29 November 2013

Upping the tempo

New figures released by two climate research bodies confirm that ‘greenhouse gases’ continue to build in Earth’s atmosphere and that average global temperatures made September 2013 the fourth warmest on record.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) annual greenhouse gas bulletin, published this month, the levels of gases in the atmosphere that are driving climate change increased to a record high in 2012.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) grew more rapidly in the year than its average rise over the past decade - and concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide also broke previous records.

The WMO has produced an annual greenhouse gas bulletin for the past nine years and says the warming effect on our climate as a result of carbon dioxide and other gases has increased by almost a third since 1990.

Carbon dioxide is the most important of the gases WMO tracks but only about half of the CO2 that is emitted by human activities remains in the atmosphere, with the rest being absorbed by the plants, trees, the land and the oceans.

Since the start of the industrial era in 1750,global average levels of atmospheric CO2 have increased by 141 percent.

"The observations highlight yet again how heat-trapping gases from human activities have upset the natural balance of our atmosphere and are a major contribution to climate change," said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud.

"It is a worry - the more we delay action the bigger the risk we cannot stay under the 2C limit that countries have agreed," he added.

While the daily measurement of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded the symbolic 400ppm mark in May this year, the global annual average CO2 concentration will cross this point in 2015 or 2016, says the WMO.

Levels of methane also reached record highs in 2012 maintaining an upward trend since 2007 which has followed a period when they appeared to be levelling off.

Recent research indicates that the rate of increase in emissions might be slowing down - but even so the gases can continue to concentrate in the atmosphere and exert a climate influence for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Scientists suggest that the new data indicates that, after a slowdown in the rate of temperature increases over the past 14 years, global warming is returning with a vengeance.

"For the past decade or so the oceans have been sucking up this extra heat, meaning that surface temperatures have only increased slowly," said Prof Piers Forster of Leeds University.

"Don't expect this state of affairs to continue though - the extra heat will eventually come out and bite us, so there will be strong warming over the coming decades."

Should we be surprised? Not really. In September the UN's climate science panel, the IPCC, said that atmospheric CO2 concentrations were at levels ‘unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years’.

The last time so much greenhouse gas was in the air was several million years ago, when the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert and sea levels were up to 40 metres higher than today.

But, as the WMO points out, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is only half of the picture as much of the CO2 is being absorbed by the oceans.

Annual worldwide emissions from power plants, cars and other human activities are currently several billion tonnes too high to keep global temperature rises below 2C and show no sign of stopping.

Other figures released recently by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center under its ‘State of the Climate: Global Analysis for September 2013' show the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for September 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth highest for September on record - at 0.64C above the 20th century average of 15.0C.

The global land surface temperature was 0.89C above the 20th century average of 12.0C, marking the sixth warmest September on record.

For the ocean, the September global sea surface temperature was 0.54C above the 20th Century average of 16.2C, tying with 2006 as the fourth highest for September on record.

The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for January to September was 0.6C above the 20th century average of 14.1C, tying with 2003 as the sixth warmest such period on record.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Age of Miracles

Karen Walker-Thompson's novel ‘The Age of Miracles’ is not an obvious literary award winner though it is a compulsive read and contains a number of interesting themes and challenging ideas - all introduced as the result of the phenomenon of Earth’s rotation slowing.

My previous blog ‘How fragile we are’ looked at the novel’s apocalyptic catastrophe theme - the dire consequences to all life on Earth as a result of the planet’s rotation gradually slowing and therefore extending both day and night.

But there are more subtle implications also to be considered when looking at the effects exaggerated daylight and dark hours might have on the normal working of our own bodies.

Midway through the book at the beginning of chapter 17, Thompson-Walker writes: "Two thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it is darkness that haunts us most... but dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not darkness that tampered most with our moods - it was light."

The implication, though not the cause, of night turning into day is not a million miles from the theme adopted by The Lighthouse Keeper for two of this autumn’s blog essays - ‘Fear of the dark’ and ‘Blinded by the night’.

It is now well-established by the medical profession that working through the night and the influence of light after dark can affect our circadian rhythms and long-term health and well-being in significant ways.

In his 2012 paper ‘Light Pollution, Nuisance and Planning Laws in the UK’ Martin Morgan-Taylor, principal lecturer in law at Leicester’s De Montfort University, states that artificial lighting is known to cause "some fairly obvious negative effects on human health and well-being" - in as much as floodlighting or illuminated advertising hoardings may disturb sleep by shining in bedroom windows.

"Indeed, it may be thought that sleeplessness may cause only temporary or negligible problems, but medical research is increasingly linking artificial light at night with some serious health effects, such as cancer and depression," he says.

"Other research indicates that artificial light at night may general disrupt human circadian rhythms."

In addressing the question of why this might by the case, Prof Morgan-Taylor pins the likely cause on what is known is that ‘white’ or ‘blue rich’ lighting, which mimics natural daylight and is being increasingly used at night.

"This type of light particularly suppresses the production of a circadian rhythm hormone called Melotin, so disturbing circadian rhythms," he states. Melotin is believed to be a powerful anti-oxidant that helps to ward off some human cancers.

"In other words, an avoidable exposure to ‘white/blue rich’ light at night may increase a person’s susceptibility to some cancers - and we are increasing our use of this form of lighting at night," he adds.

In ‘The Age of Miracles’ the world at large is thrust into ever-lengthening days and nights as Earth slows gradually from its standard 24 hour rotation.

At first the consequences are manageable, more of an inconvenience, but as the daylight hours stretch into periods of 30 and then 40 hours, and likewise the night, the effects on daily life become ever more pronounced and difficult. 

The terminator dividing day from night across Earth as seen
from the International Space Station.

The novel takes the concept of our bodies adapting to unnatural light patterns to a whole new level - but in considering current light pollution levels across the developed world (in England it increased by 24 percent between 1993 and 2000) the extrapolation is valuable.

The first chapter of Genesis in the Bible states that God ‘divided the light from the darkness’, which in Biblical terms can be viewed as both symbolic as well as being a statement about the natural environment. In essence we need them both because light allows us to see and darkness gives us an opportunity to sleep.

By lighting our neighbourhoods, towns and cities to excess and flooding our yards with unnecessary light we are wasting energy and undoubttedly contributing to climate change. In a more subtle way we may also be tampering with the laws of nature - and perhaps even creation itself. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

How fragile we are

The Lighthouse Keeper isn’t an avid reader of modern-day fiction but, determined to unearth a holiday read for a change, succumbed to the much talked about first novel by Karen Thompson-Walker ‘The Age of Miracles’, first published in 2012.

Written from the viewpoint of a woman looking back at her childhood, the ordinary moments of life and adolescence become more profound in the light of an unfolding disaster affecting all life on Earth.

The apocalyptic story is conjured from the idea of a ‘slowing Earth’, the germ of which, according to Thompson-Walker, stems from the powerful Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 which physically affected the rotation of Earth and shortened our days by a fraction of a second.

‘The Age of Miracles’ pursues the concept to its maximum - the rotation of Earth continuing to slow and slow, thus inflicting enormous and ultimately unmanageable changes on our normal daily existence.

Whilst making broad 'scientific' assumptions in parts, it is convincingly unsettling and points ultimately to how fragile society at large really is.

As it happened, I finished reading the novel in the wake of the giant typhoon that devastated the Philippines in November 2013, killing thousands of people and wrecking the lives of many more.

The suggestion that the increasing frequency and potency of such storms, droughts, intensive heat waves and floods around the world are linked to mankind’s increasing consumption of fossil fuels and the resultant global warming is ignored at our peril.

If, as a global population, we continue to release more and more energy into our system we shouldn’t really be surprised that it will have consequences.

Heat a pan of cold water on the stove and what happens? The more energy in the form of heat that transfers into the water the hotter and more agitated it becomes - a previously relatively stable environment is soon transformed.

Thompson-Walker describes ‘The Age of Miracles’ as a novel about a catastrophe that no one was expecting. "We sometimes over-estimate what we know about the world but I think we all live with more uncertainty than we like to think," she says.

Such a point is brought resolutely home when we view pictures on our TV screens of a natural disaster like in the Philippines caused by one of the largest and most aggressive typhoons ever recorded.

Yet distance and the remote nature of such events in relation to our own daily lives logically means we are seldom moved to any kind of action - either direct or indirect, on behalf of those affected or our future selves.

If, as a global population, we continue to rack up the temperature of our planet then we shouldn’t be surprised when stronger and more devastating natural events are unleashed at more frequent intervals.

We are, perhaps incontrovertibly, becoming just like the anecdotal frog that is placed in a pan of gradually warming water and gets so accustomed to the rising temperature that by the time it is too hot it can no longer jump out.

The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to ultimately significant changes that occur gradually.

Today, in respect of climate change, we just about still have a choice. But the point of no return is creeping alarmingly close and there are warning signs all about - not least in the just ended UN Climate talks in Warsaw.

The blog title is taken from the lyric of ‘Fragile', a song composed by English musician, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, activist, actor and philanthropist Sting and first released on his 1987 album ‘Nothing Like the Sun’. Sting (Gordon Sumner, CBE) was also the principal songwriter, lead singer and bassist for the rock band ‘The Police’.