Open Forum: Hot-car analogy

Posted: February 19, 2013

I appreciate Max Totten’s Feb. 5 comments, and he is likely well read, but he does not appear to be reading the scientific literature. Of the 13,950 peer-reviewed articles on Anthropogenic (human-caused) Climate Change (AGW) since 1991, only 24 reject it. To deny AGW is to believe in conspiracies, not only among the thousands of climate scientists around the world, but also among animals and plants that are migrating to higher latitudes and elevations.

I won’t repeat the laundry list of climate records and disasters produced or heightened by AGW described in previous letters. Today’s warmer temperatures mean more moisture and energy in the air, leading to record precipitation events in some areas, but also increased heat leads to more rapid evaporation and drought in others.

That the greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels causes AGW is the scientific consensus. The Met Office Hadley Centre and the Texas State climatologist both predict a high likelihood that 2013 will be the warmest year ever, though NASA’s Gavin Schmidt says it will likely be only one of the five warmest years. That there will be more records to discuss this year is certain. However, this concept of AGW still appears misunderstood, so I will try to make the physics of greenhouse gases as clear as the gases themselves using a car analogy.

Mr. Totten, who does “believe in climate change,” also believes that “atmospheric pollution should cause cooling” and not the warming we are experiencing. He agrees with climate scientists that it was volcanic activity which spewed aerosols into the air, blocking the sun’s rays that then led to the “mini ice age” (beginning with the 1258 Mount Rinjani volcano) and the “year without a summer” (caused by the 1815 Tambora volcano).

These events were due to the properties of sulfate “aerosols (which) increase the Earth’s albedo — its reflection of radiation from the sun back into space — and thus cool the Earth’s lower atmosphere.” These actually did darken the sky, but sulfates are not greenhouse gases.

He defines pollutants as agents which “filter . . . radiation,” but either willfully or out of ignorance, confuses these nontransparent aerosols with greenhouse gases, which are transparent.

Carbon and sulfur oxides have fundamentally different properties. CO2 is a greenhouse gas holding in the heat of the earth, while SO2 absorbs the sun’s rays, cooling and darkening the planet. CO2 is stable in the atmosphere for thousands of years; SO2 is only in the atmosphere for days to months before it decays or precipitates.

The sun’s peak radiation is not filtered by CO2 or other greenhouse gases. They, like car windows, are transparent to the sun’s light which heats up the car’s interior just as it heats up the earth. The energy radiated by the warmed car interior, or earth, is in the infrared spectrum. This heat energy is retained by the cars windows, as it is by the greenhouse gases, warming both the car’s interior and the earth. Because of this well-known effect, no one would leave their pet in a parked car on a sunny day.

Not only is this phenomenon in accordance with the physics of greenhouse gases, but is confirmed by satellite measurements of the earth’s radiation. This greenhouse effect has been known for nearly 200 years. Since the Industrial Revolution, the CO2 concentration has gone from 280 ppm, to nearly 400 ppm, and is increasing by about 2 ppm yearly. Levels this high have not been seen for more than half a million years. It is astounding to realize that this increase in CO2 is adding the extra energy of 400,000 atomic bombs daily to our planet.

Mr. Totten describes a fanciful scenario of instantaneous cooling of mammoths frozen upright with buttercups in their stomach, without providing a reference. This implies that the mammoths were flash frozen. In the lab, we use liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -346 F, to flash freeze cells. It is science fiction to postulate flash freezing a six-ton animal.

In fact, the published scientific literature describes that these animals were, “buried rapidly in liquid or semisolids such as silt, mud, and icy water, which then froze” with, “ingested vegetation (in their mouths and stomachs which) places the time period in autumn rather than in spring when flowers would be expected.”

When I began to study climate change, I thought it would be something I would need to prepare my children and grandchildren for, but we’re experiencing the effects of AGW now. This is the most expensive experiment mankind has performed, but already we’re measuring preliminary results. That we have known AGW will have costs, and not changed our behaviors, is truly chilling. Let’s not leave our descendants in a hot car.

Nick Snow is a resident of Millwood.