What’s going on in the atmosphere? | OPINION

It’s been a warm winter but not comfortably warm. Call it less cold. Record keepers tell us that average temperatures hereabouts have ranged well above normal and the Farmers’ Almanac and  back them up on this. Thermometers don’t lie.

It’s been a pretty good year for skiers. Though snow still lingers deep in the Cascades, nighttime freeze and daytime thaw mess up the surface to keep all but hard-core skiers away. If the ski season had a down-side, it would be that most of the snow blew in at temperatures near the freezing level, making it heavy and moist—which is typical of the Cascades. We’re used to dealing with western-slope powder, better described as mashed potatoes.

The temperature below the snow was remarkable. Where mountain temperatures at ground level are normally cold enough to stop all flow of water, creeks at Stevens Pass ran below the snowpack all winter. I know because I fell through into some inches of running water. And spent the next twenty minutes being dug out.

We see signs of climate change all around. New bugs have moved in. Critters once foreign to the PNW because they couldn’t survive past winters now thrive here. Area bird watchers log sightings of the rare snowy owl, Atlantic puffin, Arctic gull, yellow-billed cuckoo, little blue heron and whooper swan. If that doesn’t impress, when Oregon’s bird watchers weren’t logging rare bird sightings they posted an all time peak in UFO sightings. Weird.

I tend to think that, aside from UFOs, all things are connected. For instance, the return of bobcats might have something to do with a recent population surge in wild turkeys, a bobcat favorite. I also believe that wildlife seizes opportunities to move on when conditions are right. Ranges of species shift when climate change adds or subtracts areas where they might thrive.

Call this the Adjustment Model for explaining how life forms change their ranges. Adjustment in numbers and adjustment in range. The Adjustment Model suggests that nature gives and takes by degrees and that natural adjustments keeps nature in balance.

That works if nature is left to solve natural problems. Trouble is, a rogue species is upsetting nature’s apple cart. Us. We’ve logged off enough forests to change the amount of solar radiation the earth absorbs or reflects. We’ve polluted waters. We’ve so focused on combustion for energy and transportation that we’ve overloaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. We fished out Grand Banks cod decades ago and despite enforced closure, it stands today at only 21 percent of what’s necessary for a sustained fishery. And so on.

Besides the Adjustment Model, there’s another useful model for describing change in the natural world. Call it the Jenga Model. Jenga is a game that uses fifty-four rectangular blocks stacked in a tower of eighteen layers. Players extract a block at a time from the tower, hoping not to collapse it. Then they balance the extracted blocks on top to add new layers. The tower becomes taller and less stable at each play, eventually collapsing.

Just so, humans extract species from nature’s structure by driving them into extinction. At the same time we stack the system with airborne, waterborne and soil pollutants—much like Jenga. The questions we’re reluctant to face up to are, at what point does the system collapse? Or how much change is necessary to force earth’s systems past tipping-points? When warmer years are usually identified by tenths of degrees, the East Coast just posted an increase of 8.6 degrees over the year before. This appears more like Jenga than the Adjustment Model.

Ultra-conservatives back the Adjustment Model while calling predictions for catastrophic climate change, junk science. They must, because if the Democrats win another term, fossil fuel industries could lose certain advantages. It’s not that coal and oil per se are bad. In fact, it’s time to stop demonizing coal and petroleum. The true culprit is combustion. With practical alternatives available, there’s no sense in continuing to burn our way through the 21st Century.

We burn too much stuff with the result that the atmosphere has begun to work against us, not for us. Greenhouse gases, higher levels of damaging solar radiation, global warming—these threats to our well-being are more serious than terrorists.

On the up-side, Germany is facing up to the safe-energy problem by spending 200 billion Euros to replace nuclear plants with alternative energy. On the down-side, Germany is building a number of new coal-fired electricity generators plus supplying some users with natural gas. Even with these trade-offs, 80 percent of that nation’s total energy needs will be met with alternative or renewable sources.

It takes fully 8 percent of Germany’s Gross Domestic Product to cover the bill. To put that into perspective, the U.S. spends three times that percentage on defense and only 0.4 percent on energy. At election time, remember that conservatives blocked every one of President Obama’s renewable energy proposals, then charged him with having no energy policy. The nation’s energy future depends on your votes.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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