Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Observing Earth

A pair of disheartening reports about the health of the planet arrived today. This report grabbed headlines all over: 2005 Was The Warmest Year In A Century

The year 2005 may have been the warmest year in a century, according to NASA scientists studying temperature data from around the world.

Climatologists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City noted that the highest global annual average surface temperature in more than a century was recorded in their analysis for the 2005 calendar year.

Some other research groups that study climate change rank 2005 as the second warmest year, based on comparisons through November. The primary difference among the analyses, according to the NASA scientists, is the inclusion of the Arctic in the NASA analysis. Although there are few weather stations in the Arctic, the available data indicate that 2005 was unusually warm in the Arctic.
Another one that caught my eye -- but went unnoticed in the news outlets I visited -- was this news about China's purple haze: Are Clouds Darkening China?
China has darkened over the past half-century. Where has all the sunshine gone? The usual suspect, at least to a climatologist, would be cloud cover.

But in the most comprehensive study to date of overcast versus cloud-free days in China, a team led by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, reporting in the current advance online issue of Geophysical Research Letters, has found that cloud cover has been decreasing for the past 50 years.

Eliminating clouds from the dimming equation now leaves little doubt that human activity, in the form of a nine-fold increase in fossil fuel emissions over the same half-century period, has entrenched China in a foggy haze that absorbs and deflects the sun’s rays.
The two stories are more closely linked than you might think. The exponential rise in fossil fuel burning in the developing world, especially China, figures to be a major component in the anthropogenic warming of the earth.

As foreboding as this all sounds, I can't help but think back to earlier gloomy environmental forecasts of the '70s. You'll remember when Earth's population was exploding in a Malthusian singularity? When all indicators pointed to unimaginable population cataclysms as we grew beyond the earth's carrying capacity? Now, unexpectedly, economic development and increased education -- especially among poor women -- curbed population growth and left us with unexpected possibilities.

Worth remembering as we face down the barrel of climate change. We can learn. We can adapt and make good, informed, transformative choices. We can change when our survival is at stake. Malthus could continue to be as wrong as ever.

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