Erasmus :I’d like to see humanity gain some measure of control over its environment. In short, I’d like to see us planning to make changes in the climate.
Humans are responsible for widespread changes in the environment already. It’s just that the changes are unplanned consequences of our short term situation focused actions. I’ve heard some people claim that there is virtually no natural weather in the entire planet. Almost every aspect of weather and climate on the planet has been altered by short-term human decisions about food or water or shelter, with little thought of the consequences for the long-term sustainability for our planet.
I think there is very little doubt today, that human beings are responsible for climate change. We focus a lot on the trapping of carbon emissions from human activities. We talk about carbon dioxide emissions as well as pollutants and even halocarbons remaining within the atmosphere and changing the climate through greenhouse effects.
The Earth is a dynamic system. Temperature changes in parts of the globe will initiate changes to how air currents and water currents circulate, resulting in climate change. This effect is expected to be very uneven. Australia is expected to become increasingly arid. Increasing water temperature and small changes in water levels may well cause damage to natural structures such as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. With increased energy within the hydrosphere/atmosphere, storms will increase in frequency and severity.
Even a small rise in ocean levels of say 20 cm, would substantially endanger areas such as Kakadu National Park within Australia, due to changes in water table salinity.
Kinkajou : I can see what we need to do.
Erasmus :What do you mean?
Kinkajou : Well, if we all learn to sit in the dark little bit more, use blankets instead of air-conditioners and stop using coal-fired electricity, the world will be a different place.
Erasmus :I think the sort of people who believe that turning off the electricity is a valid solution probably deserve admission to a psychiatric hospital. People in the process of living their lives feeding themselves, seeking entertainment, running their workplaces, shopping, educating their children and doing many daily activities must have electricity / power.
It becomes a valid debate to discuss the benefits of solar or wind power versus coal-fired electric power. However, I have heard some of the chief climate change gurus state that no country has been able to reduce its goals of reduction of usage of fossil fuel for energy generation, without the consideration of some sort of nuclear option. And I don’t think that will go down well with the green crowd.
Kinkajou : I heard you mention alternatives to the use of uranium in nuclear power.
Erasmus: Yes I think thorium is considered cleaner and greener as a fissionable fuel, compared to uranium. The technology still needs to grow somewhat for it to become mainstream.
Kinkajou : So, let’s go back to what you are saying about how humans’ short-term decisions are impacting on the climate of the planet. Everyone knows about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. But I think you want to tell us that there is actually more to it than just that.
Erasmus :Yes. What are the climactic consequences of building cities full of asphalt and of replacing trees with buildings? Cities create an aura of light pollution visible in the night sky outside a city, for up to 50 km. Just standing in the dark in the countryside outside Brisbane, you can see the glow and know that there is a city that way.
A city is an environmental phenomenon that changes how the environment works on a basic level, over geographic distances. You can see a city for miles by its’ light at night. A city would affect the climate of an entire geographical region, due to its’ alteration of the structure of the landscape. The presence of buildings, roofs and roads are the new building blocks for climate change. Yet, we’ve never really considered the effect of building a city on the environment or the weather / climate. How incredibly short sighted people are.
Let’s say we decided to build barrier along the coastline for several hundred kilometres. Something with effects that could well reach up hundreds of metres into the air. People would say, “You’re crazy. Don’t you realise what you’re doing to the environment? Why are you doing this? Building this barrier will affect rainfall and the climate along the entire coastline for many kilometres inland.”
Kinkajou : I think you call this urban sprawl. The building of coastal cities effectively alters natural airflows and creates heating effects for hundreds of km of coastline. And in Australia near Brisbane, we call this the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast.
I see what you’re saying. We build cities and cities grow but how they affect climate is the last thing we worry about.
Erasmus :Yes certainly my lifetime, I think Brisbane has become a drier place, and I would blame this dryness on the increasing urbanisation of the region around Brisbane, (we call it the south-east corner).
Hot cities on the eastern seaboard must alter airflow across the entire continent. To what extent have they altered precipitation across the coast? Cities are geographic environmental phenomena.
Cities Affect Environment
Humans have reached the level where their activities have major environmental impacts. Apart from worrying about how use of groundwater or surface water for irrigation affects downstream water flows, there is not a lot of consideration of the long term climactic impacts of humans on the climate.
Climate Control : the CFC Example
Kinkajou : Humans have been involved in saving the ozone layer haven’t they?
Erasmus: We have successfully limited CFC production to save the Ozone layer. This is a proposal that seems to be generating some success. We had become concerned that depletion of the ozone layer would expose increasing amounts of the planet to increasing amounts of harmful UV radiation. We have also considered that perhaps the CFCs may have some greenhouse effects as well. Humanity seems to have pulled together quite well on this issue across many nations. We have achieved significant reductions in CFC usage. We have substituted less harmful CFCs for more harmful ones in essential applications. But what we have achieved, in the long-term, is yet to be measured.
Kinkajou: True. The jury’s still not in on that one. Yes, we have reduced halocarbon emissions, but what does this mean for climate change or global warming?
World CFC Production Climate Change
Kinkajou : So what is the consensus about climate change in the world today?
Erasmus: By outpouring greenhouse gases humankind has launched an experiment of geologic proportions. Will this experiment, cause serious consequences during the next century, if we do nothing to change our behaviour in the future? There is no answer to this question. The vagaries of weather and climate in the long-term effects of rising greenhouse gas levels are only partially understood.
Best bet. The longer the greenhouse gas emissions go uncurbed, the greater the extent of atmospheric changes, the higher the probability of a significant event, hopefully not a bad event.
Climate Change: Why & What : Defining It
Erasmus :Lots of scientists still can’t agree as to:
- Whether there really is a global warming event?
- Whether these climate changes are more related to sunspot activity?
- Or even reduced volcanic activity?
- To what extent is human CO2 production buffered by the world ocean algae?
- Will the world ocean levels really rise? How much?
Erasmus :On a lighter note, I calculated that if the world icecaps melt, my home will become a beachfront property and I can go fishing down the road. Not all changes are bad.
Kinkajou : There will be a lot of homes and livelihoods swallowed by rising world ocean levels, so let’s hope that this never happens.
Erasmus :True. Apart from the beach bit. I wouldn’t mind having a beach just down the road, and all the old demolished houses would probably serve as great artificial reefs. I imagine the fishing would be awesome.
Kinkajou : You worry me sometimes, old man! Desert Jungle Jurassic Climate Change
Erasmus :Humans have had a huge impact on the Australian environment. A case in point is the introduction of rabbits in Australia. The rabbit plagues ate all the low trees for thousands of km across the southern expanses of the continent in the space of a generation. There were hordes of rabbits marching across the country, 20 km wide by one km deep, eating everything in their path. Witnesses said that they thought the hills had changed colour (to grey) in the distance. More destructive than locusts. This had to create an effect on climate, since the thermal characteristics and humidity characteristics of the landscape have been markedly altered.
Kinkajou : Introducing rabbits to Australia was well meaning.
Erasmus :True, but it created an ecological disaster that many are not even aware of, today.
Once upon a time a few hundred million years ago, Australia lay much further south closer to Antarctica. While the bulk if the Australian mainland lay in the temperate zone, Australia was a relatively wet place. The huge coal deposits in inland Queensland are testament to the wet conditions with episodic inundations that must have existed ages ago. As Australia has moved further north into the more humid tropics, inland wetness and precipitation has reduced and Australia has become dessertified, (a lot more arid).
This impacts substantially on the ability of the country to sustain plant and animal life. There are deserts in Australia larger than many of the world’s countries. They cover huge expanses of ground. Yet not even most Australians would know the names of these deserts. Does the Tanami desert, the Great Sandy Desert or the Great Victoria Desert sound familiar? (Together they cover about 893 000 km2).
The world needs more space for more people but an arid country like Australia would have trouble sustaining more population. Changing the climate could make a huge difference to the capacity of a country like Australia to support human population. But what changes are necessary?
Erasmus :Let’s get back to what we were talking about. The issue is that we really have never even considered how to collect an appropriate data set to allow us to predict climate. Currently, the weather bureau collects data largely from surface measurements at ground level. By comparing current data against historical data we can produce a likely report on the weather, based on what happened at some time in the past. Currently the weather bureau collects data across a region and matches this to previous maps of data. When a match is found, it can be predicted that the next 24 hours of weather will be similar to past weather. However this sort of data collection is inappropriate for climate engineering.
Kinkajou : The issue then is to what extent the climate can be modelled better to predict the effects of human activities on weather or climate. We need a much improved data set to let us even consider planning changes. Satellite technology is well placed to supplement ground data in measuring airflow, temperature, humidity, and, cloud structure and formation.
Nanotech in the form of sprites also beckons a solution to issues of climate measurement / quantitation.
The payoff is that if humans begin to consider themselves as agents of the environment, they can plan activities that make changes in the environment favourable to human habitation.
Goo : But there are many agencies already collecting data on climate. Also every weather bureau on the planet collects data to enable the prediction of weather in cities, and the areas they serve.
Kinkajou: True but the issue is about what data is collected.
Erasmus: The problem is that to understand the weather, you need to understand why it happens.
- What is the effect of day and night time on airflow or pressure or precipitation?
- What is happening above ground level to impact on weather?
- To what extent do different events at different heights above ground level affect weather? For example extra cold temperatures in the jet stream air at 10km above ground level, are likely to be important in the creation of the weather. But how?
- How do ground structures (i.e. city structures), alter airflow and precipitation? Can the mechanism be computer modelled?
- Do we even have enough data to allow weather modelling on a three dimensional basis?
Kinkajou : True number crunching is not of much use unless it actually means something. That means the model has to be developed applied tested and changed. Continuing cycles over greater geographical regions need to be “computer modelled” until the model can more than explain what is happening. The model needs to be able to predict what will happen.
Automatic Weather Station :
Climate Change Measurement
Erasmus : I agree. Current Common dataset collections include satellite animations of rainfall. There is also collection of rain gauge observations, cloud cover, temperatures, and wind speed. These are currently used, but perhaps variants of these datasets may be needed in the future.
Other datasets currently used include sea surface temperature, some ocean current information, wind speed and air pressure data. There are many agencies on a world basis supplying information (see is readily available on the Internet), on weather worldwide. However I think climate engineering requires a much different dataset.
Data that I see as being important would be day night temperature-pressure variations, air speed and currents at different heights e.g. 10,000 m 5000 m 1000 m ground level, humidity and cloud cover, cloud types, light reflectance, local variables such as wind eddies or tunnels, energy input from the sun or pollution extent and type, air particle counts, and of course human factors, (if everyone in a city turns on the air-conditioners there will be a huge change in the heat sink characteristics of the entire city region).
Erasmus :Marine factors are critical .We need to collect data as comprehensively below the surface as we do above. We wrestle with understanding El Nino and La Nina events in Australia. Yet these events cover oceans larger than the continents they border. I suspect it is our dataset that lets us down in trying to understand these phenomena.
Ocean factors include: Currents, temperatures at different depths, salinity, gas generation by oceanic biomass, and particle counts generated by wind turbulence. These are important factors in climate modelling, but not commonly collected data. We tend to only care about events that occur where people are living, and not about many other places.
How much heat stored in the oceans deeper layers? How effectively do currents shift heat or carbon? What exchange processes are occurring between the surface and deeper layers of the ocean? These questions can be answered in a much more comprehensive dataset is the starting point for understanding.
So the problem of understanding the climate really becomes just what data do we really need to collect to enable us to understand the energy flows and cycles driving weather and climate.
Weather Station Antarctic Climate Change Measurement
Erasmus :The next decision is then to decide how to collect this data.
The problem is I see it is we need to be able to understand how weather works. When we understand how weather on a small regional basis works we can begin looking at how climate works across a country. The next step is then engineering climate.
Erasmus : In short, first collect data, then understand what is happening, then predict, then attempt to make changes and finally readjust the model and start all over again. This is the climate engineering process. Unless we attempt this cycle, it is unlikely that we will realise what deficiencies we have in our data gathering that are impacting our understanding of weather and climate.
Kinkajou: Yet, all this is possible. Where I think the problem will be is in the political will to sustain the long term effort / meet long term costs needed to achieve an understanding of even how to engineer the climate. It all starts well, then budgets start to drop, crises appear, staff wages drop, funding gaps appear and one day you wake up with all the key technical staff and expertise long gone, with no money to meet strategic budget targets and unable to afford the effort needed to even employ new people.
Erasmus : Insightful, but depressing, yet all too true in what I’ve seen over the years. We have defined climate engineering as the deliberate and large-scale intervention into the Earth’s weather and climate systems. Currently, we have some concerns about many of our proposals to change climate. The reality is human beings have already changed the climate extensively and comprehensively in many parts of the globe. The problem is that we have very little understanding of the impact on weather and climate of many of our commercial and industrial activities. Even the act of living, as for example in a city, changes the climate of an entire region.
Kinkajou : Hang on there I thought we were doing a lot of climate engineering already?
Erasmus: “Yes, but I think most people would describe what we are doing as a “practical, cost-effective global warming strategy.” This is probably not what we’re really trying to achieve.
Erasmus :Currently we have just a few major foci for our concerns about climate change. We worry about removing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as a way of reducing greenhouse effects on the planet. And as an advanced strategy, we concern ourselves about considering methods of altering solar radiation inputs into our climatic energy systems.
Proposals to reduce carbon dioxide/greenhouse gases in the atmosphere include:
- Tree planting or reforestation, peat land restoration,
- Creating biochar or bio charcoal mixes to create Terra preta. This is a mixture of carbon: generally charcoal as well as other organic waste products. Its presence in the Amazonian basin substantially improves the fertility of the Amazonian soil. It is surprisingly stable for thousands of years.
- Cool roof projects
- Iron fertilisation of oceanic regions (whether inducing phytoplankton blooms is a safe ecological strategy remains to be seen. We may reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, at the cost of ecosystem damage).
- Emissions control of halocarbons, petrochemicals and methane.
- Mad proposals to reinject carbon dioxide emissions deep into the surface of the planet.
- Adsorption of waste CO2 to mined magnesium, creating magnesium bicarbonate which can be relatively easily sequestered.
Windmill Power Climate Change
Erasmus :The Cost of benefits and the costs of risks of many of these approaches to climate change are also not well understood.
We don’t have the right data, so we don’t really have a model that can make predictions. So we cannot predict the consequences of our actions.
Proposals to reduce solar radiation entering the atmosphere include:
- Methods to either deflect sunlight away from the planet or to increase the reflection of sunlight from the Earth’s atmosphere or Earth’s surface. (Albedo). Space mirrors or space sunshades have been suggested.
- Preserving Ice. Ice especially with snow on top of it, has a high albedo: most sunlight hitting the surface bounces back towards space.
- Cool roofing materials: using pale coloured material to increase reflectivity
- Cloud whitening: using high pressure superfine seawater sprays into the high atmosphere to generate white clouds
- Creating reflective aerosols such as sulphates or aluminium oxide particles in the high atmosphere
- Asteroid dust shades
- Natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions generating huge regional dust clouds.
Kinkajou : the use of sulphates as an atmospheric aerosol just leaves me feeling a little bit queasy. I remember that the Earth used to have a very high sulphate balance millennia ago. I think sulphates reduce the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere as well.
Erasmus :True. The Earth used to be a pink planet, not a blue planet. This was due to the acidification of water across the globe. Bacteria living this environment created the pink tinge. Many species became extinct in this hostile world environment.
It remains to be seen if ocean acidification engendered by excess CO2 in the environment triggers a similar environmental cascade to that which the Earth experienced millions of years ago. Hopefully we won’t be seeing extinctions of species on a pink acid planet.
Kinkajou : So tell us about clouds.
Erasmus :We don’t understand the net effects of clouds on environmental temperature. The effects of clouds on regional temperature can be very complex.
Low clouds tend to cool, high clouds tend to warm. High clouds tend to have lower albedo and reflect less sunlight back to space than low clouds. Clouds are generally good absorbers of infrared, but high clouds have colder tops than low clouds, so they emit less infrared back into space.
Human made aerosols may alter the temperature retaining characteristics of clouds as well as altering cloud coverage (via precipitation). Depending on how cloud cover changes, the cloud feedback could almost halve or almost double the warming effects generated by increasing CO2 levels.
Kinkajou : I have heard someone suggest that we can actually make clouds.
Clouds From Space- Climate
Erasmus :Cloud generation is an obvious strategy to change incident solar radiation on the planet. Some authors have proposed that particles can be delivered to the stratosphere by pumping up either seawater, particulate slurry, or just plain water; to be dispersed at altitude. Proposals have been made suggesting that a high-pressure pipe is tethered to a balloon suspended at an altitude of about 20 km. The pumping system would need to cope with thigh water column pressure estimated at about 4000 bar and tensions of up to 500 tonnes. A 20km column of seawater, even a thin one would not be light, so it would need an awfully big balloon to provide enough lift for this enterprise.
Kinkajou: if we can build a Skyhook or a space elevator or even think about coming close to this type of construction, I’m sure we can build a little 20 km pipe with pump attached. This is a much smaller and much more achievable engineering feat.
Erasmus :More complexity rises from the complex dynamic behaviour of oddly aerodynamic objects such a balloons in low-pressure environments but with very high wind speeds and very cold temperatures.
Kinkajou : I have heard that many materials do not cope with low temperatures.
Weather Balloon Climate Change Measurement
Erasmus :True. I remember reading an article about a man who visited Siberia. As he walked off the plane, the nylon in his jacket contracted and all his buttons popped off. His camera proceeded to essentially freeze and stop working. So it’s unlikely will be using many of our ordinary balloon materials at very high altitude.
Kinkajou: This type of problem needs simple technology, time and research. I’m sure humanity can cope with finding a material that is very light, able to contain buoyant gases, and able to withstand temperatures of up to -80°C.
Kinkajou: Any other aspects of climate change you think are worth a mention?
Erasmus :Well yes. Ocean acidification due to atmospheric CO2 is one of the forgotten aspects of climate change. Again the buffering effects of phytoplankton, partitioning of dead plankton to ocean depths, buffering effects of currents in the context of a absolutely massive carbon sink inherent in the ocean structure, means it will be difficult to predict what pH change will occur as atmospheric CO2 rises.
Climate : Tipping points and positive feedback
Kinkajou : The concept of tipping points and positive feedback is something you don’t hear mentioned very often.
Erasmus :The concept has been bandied around considerably. Probably the first time I was exposed to the concept was in the video which was promoting the concern in the late 70s, that human civilisation on planet Earth was facing a catastrophic end. The mechanism: global cooling.
The concern was that as the earth cooled, ice caps would expand and cause an increased perturbation of the Earth’s rotation. This could result in a catastrophic change in magnetic poles of the planet and the physical location of the poles of the planet. Tidal waves would sweep the earth and humanity would be facing extinction. The expansion of polar ice was proposed as a critical “tipping point” for climate change.
The reality is that we have been losing polar ice cap area since the 70s. Excess cooling is not occurring and the polar ice sheets are not expanding. There are graphs showing significant reduction in ice volume in the Arctic Ocean in the range between 1979 and 2007 years.
Erasmus :Over time, I’ve given up worrying about global cooling. Now, the new evil in the world is global warming.
Glacier - Climate Change Affected
Kinkajou : Any other examples of tipping points?
Erasmus :Probably the most commonly described apocalyptic end for humanity involves the arrival of a Bug Zapper or Dinosaur Zapper on the planet. The immense kinetic energy of the collision between a large asteroid and the earth would result in the formation of dense cloud cover over the entire planet: melting of substantial portions of the global ice, tidal waves criss-crossing the planet , dropping of global temperatures and initiation of a global (nuclear like) winter.
We believe this has happened when the dinosaurs became extinct on the planet.
Erasmus :We also believe a warming an event may have occurred approximately 65 million years ago, prior to the asteroid hit. We can label the time as The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). We believe there was a rapid warming up leading to the PETM. What has been proposed is a chain of causation arising from the collapse of the Arctic sea ice causing subsequent release of encapsulated methane, leading to runaway global warming. Perhaps such an event resulted in the warming of the planet before the bug zapper event.
There is considerable disagreement on whether ecosystems are capable of “tipping “and the point at which such “tipping” may occur. Once a tipping point is crossed, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will not be able to reverse the change. Multiple strategies such as Conservation of resources and reduction of greenhouse emissions, used in conjunction with geo-engineering, are therefore considered safer options to prevent a “tipping” event from occurring.