September 17, 2010

THE EARTH JUST DOESN'T CARE THAT MUCH ABOUT YOU:

What the Earth Knows: Understanding the concept of geologic time and some basic science can give a new perspective on climate change and the energy future (Robert B. Laughlin, Summer 2010, American Scholar)

Any serious conversation about the planet’s climate and our energy future must begin, paradoxically, with a backward look at geologic time. The reason for this is that the way forward is fogged by misunderstandings about the earth. Experts are little help in the constant struggle in this conversation to separate myth from reality, because they have the same difficulty, and routinely demonstrate it by talking past each other. Respected scientists warn of imminent energy shortages as geologic fuel supplies run out. Wall Street executives dismiss their predictions as myths and call for more drilling. Environmentalists describe the destruction to the earth from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Economists ignore them and describe the danger to the earth of failing to burn coal, oil, and natural gas. Geology researchers report fresh findings about what the earth was like millions of years ago. Creationist researchers report fresh findings that the earth didn’t exist millions of years ago. The only way not to get lost in this awful swamp is to review the basics and decide for yourself what you believe and what you don’t.

Geologic time is such a vast concept that it’s helpful to convert it to something more pedestrian just to get oriented. I like rainfall.

* The total precipitation that falls on the world in one year is about one meter of rain, the height of a golden retriever.
* The total amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the industrial revolution began is about 200 meters, the height of Hoover Dam.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the time of Moses is enough to fill up all the oceans.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the Ice Age ended is enough to fill up all the oceans four times.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the dinosaurs died is enough to fill up all the oceans 20,000 times—or the entire volume of the earth three times.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since coal formed is enough to fill up the earth 15 times.
* The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since oxygen formed is enough to fill the earth 100 times.

Common sense tells us that damaging a thing this old is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish—like invading Russia. The earth has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor. We don’t know exactly how the earth recovered from these devastations, because the rocks don’t say very much about that, but we do know that it did recover—the proof of it being that we are here.

Nonetheless, damaging the earth is precisely what’s concerning a lot of responsible people at the moment. Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This buildup has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets. Governments around the world have become so alarmed at this prospect that they’ve taken significant, although ineffective, steps to slow the warming. These actions include legislating carbon caps, funding carbon sequestration research, subsidizing alternate energy technologies, and initiating at least one serious international treaty process to balance the necessary economic sacrifices across borders.

Unfortunately, this concern isn’t reciprocated. On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn. The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2010 8:15 PM
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