In New York City, something is always happening. I well remember my now 20 year old daughter, when she was a little girl, informing the rest of the family, on coming across still another construction site, that the reason for all this construction was that it had become too quiet in the neighborhood. Someone in the city government noticed and ordered the construction.
If the western end of the West Village was too quiet recently, that “problem” was certainly solved by Sandy, which acted to replace our quiet electrical power by the sound of sleep denying all-night-generators and 24 hour a day sirens from every city agency imaginable, and even helicopters hovering over our homes to protect the city from the expected vandalism and crime likely arising from the dark disorder. In addition, there were the noisy pumps taking water out of the basements and some lower floors of buildings as far east from the Hudson River as Washington Street. Strictly speaking, Sandy was an act of nature, not a decision by government or industry to make a mess, the kind of construction noise my daughter was talking about. Is that not correct? Apparently that is not correct according to Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, who left no doubt in his belief that Sandy was an indirect consequence of human activity: global warming http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/15/cuomo-on-climate-change-extreme-weather-new-york-governor-daily-news-op-ed_n_2137559.html?utm_hp_ref=new-york.
I think I should reprint a column published in the July’12 WestView issue, which was itself based on earlier columns on global warming and weather – not because I want to use the hated expression, “I told you so,” but because we should hear this again and again to take the political and constructive action that Cuomo is calling for. Here is the material from these columns, somewhat edited.
On July 10, 2012 I watched a segment of the “News Hour” on the public television station, Channel 13 in New York City, which I highly recommend, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/weather/july-dec12/weather_07-10.html. It was about the extreme weather we have been experiencing in recent years. After a set-up piece, “Extreme Weather Records like a Baseball Player on Steroids,” which was an overview of extreme weather appearing around the world, Judy Woodruff interviewed Thomas R. Karl the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. There has been and continues to be an avalanche of claims of nonsense, junk science and other protests insisting that global warming is not a reality. According to Greenpeace, a great deal of this protest and denial originated in a campaign by a major oil-company started some years ago. An overview of the denial situation can be found on the web: wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_denial. It’s a disgusting scenario to see how lust for profit and fear of the diminishing of a business can lead huge corporations to use their financial power to mislead the public against the public’s own interest. I believe that the facts have to be heard again and again.
About six years ago a column on global warming appeared in this series (http://blogs.poly.edu/markgreen/2006/08/02/global-warming/) showing how carbon dioxide molecules speed up when absorbing light from the sun and how the motion and collisions of these molecules are connected to rising temperatures. Then two years ago another column appeared entitled “Is something happening with the weather? http://blogs.poly.edu/markgreen/2010/11/04/science-from-away-is-something-happening-with-the-weather/ Now we seem to be ready for the title: “Something is definitely happening with the weather.” Feel free to read the material on these web sites but really, the science of global warming is not complicated. There is a great deal of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is far too much to be ascribed to natural sources and is certainly caused by our activities in taking carbon in its various forms, coal, gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, wood, among others and converting the carbon in these fuels to carbon dioxide, CO2. CO2 is a molecule that “loves” the infra-red radiation given off by the sun. The unimaginably tiny CO2 molecules, each one not much larger than 10-8 of a centimeter, absorb this radiation. Imagine that the two oxygen atoms (O) in the molecule, O=C=O, are connected to the central carbon atom (C) by the molecular equivalent of springs. Like springs the bond between the three atoms (=) is not fixed but allows the distances between the three atoms to change constantly. As infra-red light from the sun is absorbed by the CO2 this movement between the three atoms takes place faster and faster at extremely high frequencies – believe it or not, close to 300 trillion cycles in a single second. And while this is going on, the CO2 molecules collide with each other and with other molecules in the air, the nitrogen and oxygen, and these movements of the atoms within each CO2 molecule push the colliding molecules to speed about faster and faster. And the faster the molecules in the air move, the higher the temperature. This is global warming.
However, move aside carbon dioxide for another molecule that loves absorbing infra- red radiation from the sun, methane, CH4. This volatile molecule, which is trapped in solid ice-like cages made of water deep under the oceans and the permafrost (methane hydrate) showed itself to the public in the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for which they were just fined for what were judged to be criminal actions. (http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2012/1116/BP-fined-4.5-billion-in-Gulf-oil-spill.-Is-it-enough) The hydrated methane crystals blocked the pipes that would have led the oil spill to be contained much sooner.
Scientists in the academic world and in the petroleum industry are aware of a far larger unfortunate role for the simplest of the hydrocarbons, methane. Global warming has the potential to release increasing amounts of methane from its ice-like cages causing even more global warming, which will in turn cause the release of more methane in what is called a loop or feedback mechanism that would be unstoppable as the temperature of the earth increases. The amount of methane trapped as hydrates is thought to be in a range as large as all the fossil fuels under the earth and the seas we are now aware of. This is a possible future consequence and accelerator of global warming.
These possible scenarios should be taken seriously. In denying what science is telling us is a perfect example of the disconnection between intelligence and wisdom, a scourge of humanity with an unfortunate and long history. It appears that Governor Cuomo is talking sense and if we want to continue to live in New York City, or other places near the sea, we’d better get busy constructing a city that can withstand the inevitable warming of the planet and the rising seas and storms we can look forward to. It seems doubtful that even if we all agreed to reduce fossil fuel use to moderate the path to global warming, we must still take the protective actions necessary for our coastal population centers.