Seawater + Halophyte Crops to ‘Green’ World’s Deserts

byJohn Brian Shannon
Originally published at johnbrianshannon.com

What could be better than creating rich cropland out of the world’s desert regions?

It’s a tempting idea. Some 33% of the world’s landmass is covered with desert landscape and 40,000 miles of it is located near oceans, having both abundant sunshine and unlimited saltwater within reasonable distance. In fact, prototype halophyte farming projects have already shown early signs of success.

NASA - Earth with Global Deserts
NASA – Earth with Global Deserts

Halophytes are those crops which are salt-tolerant and can survive the blistering heat of the world’s deserts. Many of the crops we presently grow have salt-resistant cousins — all they need is trenches or pipelines to deliver the water inland from the sea in order to thrive. Halophyte crops negate the need to remove the high salt content of ocean water, which in itself, is a very costly proposition with the average desalination plant costing many millions of dollars. As halophyte farms become established they can also improve growing conditions for non-halophyte plants.

Unlike blasting with explosives in rocky areas to create water supply trenches or canals (which is expensive and time-consuming) most deserts are sand, which means all that is required to begin creating usable farmland is minor startup funding, an excavator, a field plan, seeds, and labourers familiar with farming techniques.

Creating Wealth out of Sand and Seawater

Some of the poorest places on the planet are also ‘rich’ in deserts and are located near plentiful salt water resources, making them suitable candidates for halophyte farming. Economic benefits for poor countries are stable growth, lower unemployment, better balance-of-trade and less reliance on foreign food aid programmes. If you can grow your own food at low cost, why buy it from other countries?

Some informative (YouTube) halophyte farming videos are available below:

Greening Eritrea Part I (Martin Sheen narrates the early days of Eritrea’s very successful halophyte farming and inland seafood production)

Greening Eritrea Part II

Seawater irrigation agriculture projects for deserts (completely rainless regions)

2012 Yuma, Arizona Salicornia planting

Sahara Forest Project: From vision to reality

University of Phoenix Seawater Farming Overview

Growing Potatoes using Saltwater Farming Techniques in the Netherlands

Other successful examples exist in other coastal regions around the world

Helping to mitigate global sea level rises due to climate change, creating powerful economic zones out of desert, seawater and labour, lowering unemployment in poverty-stricken nations, removing carbon from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil where it belongs helping plants to thrive — while dramatically increasing crop and seafood production are all benefits of using halophyte farming techniques in coastal desert regions of the world.

The first 25,000 miles of coastal desert out of a grand total of 40,000 miles of coastal desert globally can be converted to this kind of farming simply by showing up and using existing and simple halophyte farming methods and seed varieties. The other 15,000 miles of coastal desert regions could be viewed as Stage II of this process after the best candidate areas become fully cultivated, as these secondary regions may require more capital investment for conversion due to their somewhat more inland locations.

Huge opportunity awaits early investors in this rediscovered agricultural market. Cheap land, free ocean water, low cost seeds and local labour, and a reputation as exemplary businesspeople who solve local problems, add value and employment to poverty-stricken regions and lead growing nations forward, are in store for seawater/halophyte farming owner/operators and investors.

Further Reading

Retiring old, leaky, pipelines may be our best environmental bet

by John Brian Shannon
Originally published on JBS News

Which are the most dangerous pipelines?

It’s an easy answer. Old pipelines.

Oil companies don’t advertise the first 15 years as the safest pipeline years. All bets are off after 30 years, and almost every pipeline spill in North America shows a pipeline well past 30 years of age.

One of the biggest problems contributing to leaks and ruptures is pretty simple: pipelines are getting older. More than half of the nation’s pipelines are at least 50 years old. — How Safe are America’s 2.5 Million Miles of Pipelines? published by propbulica.org

The average age of North America’s petroleum pipelines is getting older all the time (as there are few new pipelines are being built) so the existing pipeline network continues to age. But some pipelines built 30+years ago are so fragile from a maintenance perspective that they shouldn’t be allowed to transport toxic crude oil, dilbit, petroleum distillate, bunker fuel, or coal oil.

Forty-one per cent of U.S. oil pipe was built in the 1950s and 1960s; another 15 per cent of the country’s 281,000-kilometre network was built before then. In Alberta, 40 per cent of pipe was built before 1990. — Globe and Mail

How long does it take to ‘pay off’ a pipeline investment?

Depending upon the terrain a pipeline is traversing, pipelines can cost anywhere from thousands of dollars per mile up to millions of dollars per mile, especially when laying them through populated areas or under or above rivers and lakes. It can cost billions of dollars to build one pipeline.

Of course, if you want to move petroleum through a pipeline to your oil refinery, you are going to pay a significant dollar amount to transport that oil across the continent. Each oil refinery can refine up to one million barrels of oil per week. The oil refinery has only so much storage available to it on-site so it usually ships the refined product out ASAP via another pipeline system to a rail network, or direct to the customer via yet another pipeline.

U.S. petroleum pipeline map
U.S pipeline map. Toxic liquids show in red colour, while natural gas shows in blue. Image by propublica.org

After 15 years of operation, pipeline companies finally ‘break-even’ on their original investment

“Now we can finally make some money!”

Pipelines are quite costly to gain approval for from national and local regulators, to buy or lease the land, to design, build and operate. It also is the case that oil companies pay millions of dollars per year to the pipeline companies to move their liquids around. It is an annual business of billions, not millions.

We all need to make money and pass the ‘break-even’ point in our investments

We all want and need to make a return on investment (ROI) which is the reason we start businesses in the first place. But, just at the point that a pipeline has finally broken-even investment wise for its investor group, it is beginning to seep oil at the gaskets (called ‘weeping’) and also leak oil at the pump stations, and at areas where the pipeline has been disturbed by ground movement due to frost, ground settling, or earthquake movements. Some of this weeping can continue on for many years before anyone visits that remote area, which may not have been visited since the construction of the pipeline. Running toxic liquids across a continent safely, but economically, are mutually exclusive matters.

But without oil pipelines, our economy would grind to a halt within 90 days

Without pipelines, only coastal cities would be able to receive gasoline, diesel, kerosene, or other liquids used for transportation fuels, via international shipping lines. Other users of petroleum, such as chemical, plastics, and pharma companies would need to relocate to coastal areas to receive their petroleum ingredients.

It is a case of need vs. greed

  1. “We need the oil, keep it coming,” say consumers.
  2. “We need to keep our environment clean,” say a rapidly growing number of citizens/consumers.
  3. “We need to recoup our pipeline investment and make a profit in order to stay in business and we do it all for groups #1 and #2,” say the pipeline companies.

If ever there were a situation calling out for compromise, this has got to be it.

But the simple fact is, old pipelines weep plenty of oil and eventually burst, releasing tons of toxic liquids into the environment. New pipe does not burst or leak — unless it was to be hit by a derailed train, a transport truck, or an airplane crash — all of which are very unlikely events.

A mechanism for safe petroleum transport that works for all

Add a mile of new pipeline | Remove a mile of old pipeline

There are many pipeline systems that have been transporting petroleum for 30+ years in North America. These old pipes weep oil everyday. You might not see it, some of them are underground, or in wilderness areas where pipelines often traverse, or are just not accessible for viewing by the pubic or inspectors for that matter.

Some pipelines in North America are 45+ years old and they are big leakers — and just like purchasing carbon credits — one pipeline company could sell their RRR credits to another company that is ready to build a new pipeline.

It may seem odd for you to hear this solution from a renewable energy proponent; We should build more new pipelines!

What? Yes, but only if we completely remove 30+ year old pipelines on a mile-per-mile basis and remediate the soil and replant native species of plants along the historic route of the removed pipeline.

If pipeline company “A” wants to build a new pipeline, (such as Keystone II, for example) then government regulators should require that for every mile that they want to install new pipeline, the pipeline company is required to completely remove and remediate the soil and plant life, from whence an old pipeline has been removed.

This would help us to get rid of thousands of miles of old, leaking, and rusting pipelines that even the oil companies have forgotten about. They are environmental catastrophes just waiting to happen.

You can never completely empty a pipeline so they just sit there decade after decade weeping oil into the groundwater. Some old pipelines, although very leaky, are kept in place just in case of emergency so oil can be quickly diverted to the old pipeline for transport to a different junction in the system — and thereby still arrive at the oil refinery (and likely a day late and a few tens of barrels of oil short).

But that isn’t the best solution for the environment.

The best solution is easier approvals for newer and safer pipelines, contingent upon Retiring, Removing and Reclaiming (RRR) the land on the same total mileage of 30+ year old pipeline in the North American petroleum distribution network.

If Keystone II is 3500 miles of shiny new, high-tech, and state-ot-the-art pipeline, that’s great. It’s orders of magnitude less likely to leak, than 3500 miles of old pipeline.

All pipelines over 30 years old should be allowed to qualify for this removal/remediation programme. And the pipeline companies signing up for the Retire, Remove and Remediate (RRR) pipeline plan should receive tax incentives to assist in this regard. And, bonus, they can sell the land, once it is remediated.

Birth of a new industry

With the high prices of metals these days, oil and pipeline companies could find that passing the actual RRR work to another company could be the way to go. Even if the old pipe and pumps and pumphouses, etc, end up being sold for the scrap metal value, millions of tons of 30+ year old pipeline is sitting on the ground or just underground, waiting to be picked up and recycled.

Add in soil and plant remediation, and you have a whole new business model. A business where the workers could feel proud of the work they do!

“What do yo do for a living?”

Wouldn’t it be nice for an petroleum industry employee to be able to reply;

“I remove old, leaky pipelines, remediate the contaminated soil, replant the areas with native plants, and recycle millions of tons of old, leaky, pipeline metal.”

That has got to be the feelgood moment of the year for any oil company employee.

Not your typical oil company employee job description

Yet, with some executive-level decisions and with a common-sense regulatory framework, RRR could finally solve the problem of the many thousands of miles of dormant but still weeping pipelines — and spawn a whole new business model — while helping to protect our North American ecosystems that wildlife depend on.

The United Nations Climate Summit 2014 in video

by United Nations

Presented to world leaders at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York, this short inspirational film shows that climate change is solvable. We have the technology to harness nature sustainably for a clean, prosperous energy future, but only if we act now.

Watch the Video: “What’s Possible”

“Whats Possible” on TakePart.com

“What’s Possible” on YouTube

Narrated by Morgan Freeman

What’s Possible calls on the people of the world to insist leaders get on the path of a livable climate and future for humankind.

What’s Possible was created by director Louie Schwartzberg, writer Scott Z. Burns, Moving Art Studio, and Lyn Davis Lear and the Lear Family Foundation. It features the creative gifts of Freeman and composer Hans Zimmer.

Directed by Louie Schwartzberg Written by Scott Z. Burns Produced by Lyn Davis Lear Narrated by Morgan Freeman Music by Hans Zimmer Editor Craig Thomas Quinlan Additional Editor Alan Wain Post Production Supervisor Courtney Earlywine Assistant Editor Annie Wilkes Line Producer Elease Lui Post Production by Moving Art Visual Effects by 422 South Sound Design by Kent Gibson, Kirk Gaughan Assistant to Director Erin Richardson With footage generously donated by: BlackLight Films, Disneynature, Earth Trust Vision, Extreme Ice Survey, James Balog, Filmthropic, Moving Art, Oceanic Preservation Society, Perkins+Will, Planet Ocean, Courtesy of Hope Production,Momentum for Change, Courtesy of United Nations Other footage provided by: AP Archives, ClipCanvas, Corbis Motion, EarthUncut TV, Footage Search, Getty Images, Pond5, T3 Media Very Special Thanks to: Alan Horn, Dan Thomas, Duane Elgin, Jonathan Klein, RALLY, Scott James, Skoll Foundation, Larry Kopald, Lear Family Foundation, Mark Johnson, Michael Pitiot, Richard Wilson, Yann Arthus-Bertrand


Watch the Sequel: “A World of Solutions”

“A World of Solutions” on TakePart.com

“A World of Solutions” on YouTube

Narrated by Morgan Freeman

Climate News

TakePart has been closely covering climate change ever since our parent company produced An Inconvenient Truth back in 2006.

Learn more about climate change and take action at takepart.com/climate.

Here are the latest videos:

The World Needs U.S. Leadership on Climate Change
The World Needs U.S. Leadership on Climate Change

Meet the New Climate Change Warrior: Your Doctor

Meet the New Climate Change Warrior: Your Doctor

'What's Possible': The U.N. Climate Summit Opening Film

‘What’s Possible’: The U.N. Climate Summit Opening Film

The Carbon Time Bomb Is Set to Go Off in 30 Years—or Less

The Carbon Time Bomb Is Set to Go Off in 30 Years—or Less

The World’s Largest Climate March Aims to ‘Bend the Course of History’ as Leaders Gather in New York

The World’s Largest Climate March Aims to ‘Bend the Course of History’ as Leaders Gather in New York

The U.N. Summit: A Turning Point in the Fight Against Climate Change?

The U.N. Summit: A Turning Point in the Fight Against Climate Change?

Space Lasers Could Help Scientists See the Carbon for the Trees

Space Lasers Could Help Scientists See the Carbon for the Trees

Think Climate Change Is a Problem for the Future? Our Food System May Feel the Heat in a Decade

Think Climate Change Is a Problem for the Future? Our Food System May Feel the Heat in a Decade

Nearly Half the World’s Trash Is Burned, and That’s Worsening Climate Change

Nearly Half the World’s Trash Is Burned, and That’s Worsening Climate Change

Why the World Needs to Shut Down Coal-Fired Power Plants Faster Than Ever

Why the World Needs to Shut Down Coal-Fired Power Plants Faster Than Ever

Vertical Farming with Recycled Shipping Containers

by John Brian Shannon
Originally published at JohnBrianShannon.com

There are hundreds of thousands of used, high-quality metal shipping containers taking up acres of storage land in port cities all over the world.

Platoon, Kunsthalle - Berlin, Germany - 40 Shipping Container Cargotecture Building
Home in a Box constructed an indoor playground and rentable meeting space in Berlin from used shipping containers.

Some enterprising companies have taken to creating domestic living spaces, commercial buildings or storage lots out of the huge surplus of the used containers which tend to accumulate in the developed world as it is too expensive to ship them back to China, empty. (We buy their stuff, they don’t buy ours)

Anyway, there are hundreds of thousands of them scattered around the world and can be had for as little as $1500-$3600. apiece (in ‘as is’ condition)

Shipping containers are the perfect containment architecture for vertical gardens

Shipping containers are engineered to be very strong and can be stacked up to 9-high without any additional supports. Windows can even be cut into the metal panels without weakening the structural integrity (most of the strength is in the corners where they lock together) so that daylight may enter the structure.

“Reusable shipping containers provide a cost effective and sustainable approach to building design.” — Public Sector and Local Government Magazine

OBS Tower project. Container City
The (temporary) OBS Tower was an impressive addition to the Stratford Olympic Park.
Located on a tree lined public plaza within the park, the OBS Tower has created space for ground floor food outlets with their own kitchen, technical rooms and 10 broadcasting studios over two further floors — each one offering the visiting media studios with unobstructed views over the main stadium through the large glass frontage.

Might as well get the roof working for you

Dramatically lower cost solar panels are available on the market today. A couple of decades ago it cost over $100 per watt (installed price) to get your power from solar panels during the daytime and without battery backup. As of 2014, it costs less than $4.00 per watt (installed price in the U.S.A.) and if you live in Europe it costs about $2.00 per watt (installed price in Europe)

If you’re wondering about the difference in price between the U.S.A. and Europe, it’s only the profit margin that makes the difference. All the solar panels are comparably priced, as are the inverter units, wiring, etc. and often come from the same manufacturer in China.

So far, we have super cheap and stackable containment for vertical gardens and we have low-cost daytime electricity

Now what about night-time electricity? We have some choices. We can tap the grid and pay the regular commercial electricity rate to run the grow lights and the heat, we can purchase building scale battery systems from a company like SolarCity or you can run a diesel powered generator (a gen-set) for electrical power.

The good news is that commercial battery systems to complement solar panel installations have fallen in price and are approaching price parity with other grid-alternative power sources

Also, diesel fuel prices have risen dramatically since the invention of the gen-set, but these units (although they do emit copious amounts of pollution and you can’t run them indoors) are very reliable and it is almost impossible that a crop failure could result from a gen-set failure as another unit could quickly be transported to the location and hooked up before much crop damage could occur.

Grid power is fine, but to prevent crop failure in the case of winter-time power outages, a gen-set or battery backup is a necessity.

keetwonen
Shipping container college dorms being assembled in Amsterdam.
shipping-container-student-apartments-keetwonen-1
The massive Keetwonen complex houses 1,000 students.
College dorms in the Netherlands.
College dorms in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Demand for these units is high, as they are soundproof and secure.
College dorms in the Netherlands.
College dorms in the Netherlands house many thousands of students and not just at this location in Amsterdam.

So, it appears that college dorms and BBC broadcasting facilities (for two good examples) can be easily assembled using these massive Lego-like building blocks.

What would we need in order to build vertical gardens?

  1. Land area equal to one city block
  2. A number of stackable, used shipping containers
  3. Solar panel array installed on top of the shipping containers, equal in size to one city block
  4. Backup power via battery or gen-set
  5. Grid connection
  6. Located near any major city
  7. A number of grow lights per unit
  8. Hydroponic or low-soil agriculture
  9. Compost container
  10. A number of staff to perform seeding, care and harvesting of plants
  11. One maintenance person per location
Crou shipping container housing from France.
Cité a Docks is a four-story building assembled out of 100 shipping containers to make student apartments. Cattani Architects equipped each 258 square-foot room with bathrooms, kitchens, free Wi-Fi, and heat and sound insulation.

The great thing about these super-strong building blocks, is that they can be arranged in any number of ways to suit individual site requirements. Standard container lengths start at 10 feet, 20, 40, 48 and 53 feet — but individual units can be welded or bolted together to arrive at any number of lengths.

HIVE-INN CITY FARM NYC
HIVE-INN CITY FARM New York City (proposed)

Interior-wise, any number of efficient-space designs are possible. Growing indoors where there are no drought, flooding, pests, human theft, or other concerns can be hundreds of times more efficient than conventional farming — and growing indoors means year-round crops. Thanks to solar-powered grow lights.

Hive-Inn City Farm design concept
The Hive-Inn City Farm design is only a concept at this point (see the OVA Facebook page)

None of it is rocket science, it’s ‘just’ an opportunity begging for a chance!

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What is Climate Change? [Video]

What Is Climate Change? [Video] | September 16th, 2014
by

Remember the difference between weather and climate? We know what happens when the weather changes—it’s obvious. Climate is another story. Read on.

What is climate change? from WHAT IS CLIMATE? (S. Dechert via vocesverdes.org)
What is climate change? from WHAT IS CLIMATE? (S. Dechert via vocesverdes.org)

When it rains, you put on a raincoat or take your umbrella when you go out. It snows: time for high boots, a heavier coat, scarf, and warm gloves. And sunny days, well, they’re the best for being outdoors, unless it’s noon in the tropics. What’s more difficult for us to perceive, from the relatively short perspective of one human lifetime, is that like weather, climate changes too.

youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYwqHc3Ib7M?feature=oembed

What is climate change? On historic maps, we see climate change in the advance and retreat of glaciers, the transitory nature of coastlines, and the periodic appearance and drowning of islands. Species change in response to it. Scientists have learned to measure these climate fluctuations using treetrunk rings, snow lines, fossil records, and cores of ancient ice or seabed. In the past 50 years, we have even devised sophisticated satellite instruments to reveal changes in earth’s land, air, water, and ice, or in the sun and the energy it puts out.

All these measurements have taught us that Earth’s climate changes naturally. Over the past million years there have been a number of cold stages, or “ice ages”— cooler times when much of earth’s water has frozen into ice caps covering the poles and glaciers extending from them toward the tropics.

Earth's geological timeline (imgarcade.com, economist.com)
Earth’s geological timeline (imgarcade.com, economist.com)

During the interglacial periods, which are shorter than the icy ones, earth’s temperature rises and the snow and ice melt, increasing sea levels.

Around the end of the last ice age (the Weichsel, above), the earth transitioned into the benign interglacial climate of the Holocene epoch. At this time, a land bridge called Beringia existed between Siberia and Alaska. It enabled east Asian migrants to become “native Americans.” Through Dutch fishing boats and recent North Sea oil drilling, we have discovered that around the same time, humans could walk from the current nation of Holland all the way to the Irish Sea. Before the English Channel formed, Great Britain was a peninsula linked to the rest of Europe by a low, ecologically rich plain called Doggerland. Over only ten thousand years or so, a temperature rise of 4 degrees C. and accompanying sea level rise of only a few hundred feet eliminated both of these bridges between continents.

  • Scientists have various theories about what makes climate so fickle over the long run. They’ve found any or all of these factors important to some degree to the question of what is climate change.

    Milankovitch cycles, from What Is Climate? (source: dandebat.dk)
    Milankovitch cycles, from What Is Climate? (source: dandebat.dk)
  • Small changes in earth’s orbit (Milankovitch cycles) caused by the variable tilt of the planet, its slightly eccentric orbit, and its axial (gyroscopic) precession.
  • Variations in the sun’s energy output, measured as changes in the amount of radiation it emits.
  • Orbital dynamics of earth and moon.
  • Motion of earth’s tectonic plates with seismic activity (drifting continents), which changes the relative locations of landforms and affects wind and ocean currents.

    Earth's tectonic plates (public domain)
    Earth’s tectonic plates (public domain)
  • Impact of meteorites—not small phenomena like the recent ones in Russian, but relatively huge masses like the six-mile (10-km) Chicxulub asteroid that smacked into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago. Its impact sent millions of tons of material high into the atmosphere, blacking out the sun for months. It caused the earth’s last great extinction, abruptly and forcefully wiping out all dinosaurs without wings, ending the Cretaceous period of life on the planet, and paving the way for the Cenozoic and the emergence of mammals.
  • Volcanic mega-eruptions, especially from the prehistoric caldera-forming colossi in the American West near Yellowstone, the North Island of New Zealand, subtropical and temperate South America, and potentially from the massive igneous province forming in Iceland. Supervolcanoes like these help determine what is climate change. They send huge amounts of ejecta (ash, gas, and aerosol droplets) into earth’s stratosphere. (Even historic, relatively small eruptions at places like Mauna Loa in Hawaii [33 eruptions in the past 170 years], Indonesia’s Krakatoa [1883], Mount St. Helens, Washington [1980], Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines [1991], and Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull [March 2010] figure into what is climate change because they have disturbed the atmosphere and temporarily cooled the earth.)
  • With meteorites and volcanoes, we can watch earth’s atmosphere in flux, as visible particles crowd the skies. But along with them comes an invisible, and possibly invincible, alteration in the atmosphere—in the gases that comprise it, including its concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. We can see these influences in the deep Vostok ice core samples from Antarctica that record atmospheric composition over the past 800,000 years.
97% global agreement on anthropogenic climate change (gawker.com)
97% global agreement on anthropogenic climate change (gawker.com)
Humans have survived climate changes, from What Is Climate? (source: skepticalscience.com)
Humans have survived climate changes, from What Is Climate? (source: skepticalscience.com)

On this final accompaniment of climate change—atmospheric variation—today’s research is nearly unanimous (97%). What is climate change? A lot of the phenomenon has to do with the effects of increasing certain atmospheric gases. The temperatures on earth’s surface (land and oceans) are directly related to the chemical composition of our planet’s thin atmospheric shell.

Global warming since 1880 (NOAA)
Global warming since 1880 (NOAA)

Climate shapes and alters natural ecosystems. By doing so, it affects the rise and fall of human civilizations. It governs where and how people, plants, and animals live. It juggles the water, food, and health of its inhabitants. Within the brief time of recorded history (last green bar above), our climate has been relatively stable. It has been generous to human life, allowing exploration, trade, development, labor-saving invention, and even space flight and greater awareness of our universe.

But over the past 200 years, as humans industrialized and populations grew rapidly, the formerly placid natural phenomenon of climate change has been occurring at a much faster rate. We know from meteorological records kept since 1880 that the planet’s temperature has risen about one degree Fahrenheit in the last century. The results of this apparently small change have been impressive. We’ve seen more snow and ice melt, a rise in ocean levels, intensifying storms, and changes in crop seasons and animal reproductive and migration schedules.

Rise in energy consumption since industrial revolution, from What Is Climate Change? (source: arctic-news.blogspot.com)
Rise in energy consumption since industrial revolution, from What Is Climate Change? (source: arctic-news.blogspot.com)

In fact, over the past couple of decades, scientists have started saying we have switched over from the Holocene to the Anthropocene (human-centered) epoch, and the polar bear on a shrinking ice floe has become a visual cliche. None of the natural causes discussed earlier can fully explain the climate changes we are seeing today. The accelerating temperature results from a massive new influence shaping world climate—the human factor. Our expanding quest for and use of energy has given people the ability to alter the climate. Our own Promethean activities now alter the balance of gases that trap the sun’s heat within the atmosphere, which until now has been earth’s protective greenhouse. Amounts of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, are rising sharply to a level unmatched in the past 650,000 years, and other potentially harmful gases like methane are increasing, too. What we commonly call “nature” still makes up much of the force behind climate, but almost all the world’s scientists now say that humans can change climate also. Expanding populations produce and cook food. We drive cars. We heat and cool our houses mechanically. We construct and use factories. All our activities consume energy.

Michael Mann's hockey stick world temperature graph, from What Is Climate? (source: desmogblog.com)
Michael Mann’s hockey stick world temperature graph, from What Is Climate? (source: desmogblog.com)

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have obtained energy through the quick fix of mining and burning our limited reserves of coal, oil, and gas. It’s a bit like raiding the kitchen in the middle of the night. Where there’s fire, there’s smoke, though. Look at the “hockey stick” plot of global temperature (right). It shows that instead of continuing the downward trend toward another ice age—which the historical record indicates we should expect—temperatures are rising, and rising very fast.

Burning for energy changes the atmosphere by raising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. And changing the atmosphere changes everything.

The bottom line is that we no longer know what to expect from our climate. Extinction of many species (including our own) is a possibility. We cannot calculate the amounts of greenhouse gases that will enter the atmosphere, how much and how quickly warmer temperatures will lead to other changes, or even what will be going on in our own backyards by 2050.

Climate changes graphic (epa.gov)
Climate changes graphic (epa.gov)

It’s not just nature that’s running the show any more. The rules have changed. The compositions of our air, land, and seas are in metamorphosis. We find ourselves conducting an unplanned and potentially vast experiment as we segue from the Holocene into the Anthropocene. We can no longer use our wisdom from earth’s past to discern what the future will bring.

This is the first time humans have been capable of causing major climate change on our planet. However: this is also the first time we have had the opportunity to alter its course.

 

About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She’s worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm, writes two top-level blogs on Examiner.com, ranked #2 on ONPP’s 2011 Top 50 blogs on Women’s Health, and attributes her modest success to an “indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity.”