04 December 2006

Global Warming is Here

Global Warming is Here, an essay by Montana Tech faculty members Pat Munday*, Butch Gebrandt**, Rick Appleman***, and Andrea Stierle****

A big crowd of Montana Tech students and faculty packed into the Digger Den to watch “the former next president” Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. The film is about the scientific, social, and political dimensions of human-caused global warming—a phenomenon now universally accepted by the scientific community. As the film points out, of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles about global warming in the past 10 years, none (zero) deny that human use of fossil fuels is contributing to global warming. Of articles in the popular press, however, about 53% question the phenomenon. The creation of controversy where little controversy actually exists is a convenient method of mass distraction—a tactic with which the Bush administration is quite comfortable. But the data provided by Gore transcends political ideology and creates a compelling picture of climate trends that should concern all but the most committed optimists.

Think terrorism is the greatest threat to civilization as we know it? Think again. Global warming could lead to widespread crop failures, famines, and the catastrophic flooding of places like New York City and San Francisco.

To appreciate the threat posed by global warming, think how thin and fragile is that boundary layer we call the atmosphere. Earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter, and the portion of the atmosphere in which we can live and breath is only about 5 miles thick. Imagine a model of Earth that is 3-feet in diameter. The thickness of the breathable atmosphere on this model would be only about 0.02 inches—the thickness of just 5 sheets of ordinary paper.

The science of global warming is not new. In the 1860s, British physicist John Tyndall studied the way that gases absorb sunlight and heat up. In 1899, American physicist T. C. Chamberlin studied this effect on the Earth’s atmosphere and predicted that the heavy use of fossil fuel would lead to global warming. The causal link between carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere – much of it from the human use of coal and oil – and global warming was a lively scientific controversy from the 19th century until the 1950s. Since that time, the global warming has become as accepted as Darwin’s Law of Evolution or Newton’s Law of Gravity.

The most significant recent contribution to the science of global warming came with a paper published by Michael Mann and others in 1999. Data was assembled from various sources showing 1,000 years of global temperature fluctuations. This now famous “hockey stick” graph (see Figure 1) shows that recent levels of global warming are unprecedented. Recent global warming has reached a point that is far above any “natural” fluctuation that has occurred in the past millennium. The primary cause of global warming is carbon dioxide, and a graph of carbon dioxide levels shows the same “hockey stick” form (see Figure 2).

The politics surrounding global warming are of great concern. The Bush administration has been very active in suppressing science regarding global warming. Government reports have been “buried,” other agency reports have been rewritten by administration officials, and federal research funding has been pulled. In the near future, expect to see congressional investigations into the Bush censorship of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. Because the Bush administration refuses to acknowledge the reality of global warming, it refuses to act in a politically responsible manner to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or develop a plan for dealing with the consequences. Of course, one can always infer that a political opponent is (at best) irresponsible in dealing with issues of scientific and ethical importance. The Bush administration has made it easy for Gore to make such a claim. For example, Bush hired Philip Cooney, a former energy industry lobbyist, as chief of staff of his Council on Environmental Quality. The New York Times reported in 2005 that it had obtained internal White House documents which proved that Cooney had unilaterally edited the national climate change reports during 2002 and 2003 to water down its conclusions on global warming. While never denying Cooney's editing of the documents, the White House claimed that such changes were part of the “normal adjustments in language” to government documents.

In Montana, any discussion of global warming must include a discussion of coal. Montana has the most coal reserves of any US state—120 billion tons. That is 25% of the country’s reserves. Montana uses around 7 million tons per year and distributes more than 41 million tons of coal per year. This is about 4% of the country’s coal supply. 54% of Montana’s electricity is produced by coal. Montana has 5 coal-fired power plants and 6 proposed new plants. Coal-fired plants are the primary source of carbon dioxide. 98% of carbon dioxide emissions in the US come from burning fossil fuels. Montana emits 35 tons per person per year (8th in the nation). Coal-fired plants report emitting 92% of the mercury in Montana’s air.

Is coal burning in Montana contributing to global warming? Consider the following facts:

1. Since 1999, Montana’s wheat yields have been 15-30% less than the previous 10 years. Models developed by MSU on global warming impacts on Montana agriculture predict a further 20-40 % decrease in yields.
2. Of the 150 glaciers present in Glacier National Park 100 years ago, only 26 remain.
3. In Montana, spring melt-off occurs 15 days earlier than 50 years ago, according to University of Montana Scientist, Steve Running with the Montana Climate Center.
4. Snowfall in the Missoula area has fallen from 55 inches to 40 inches, and the number of frost-free days has increased by 15 in the last 50 years.
5. Flathead Lake reported the highest ever mid-lake temperature on July 22, 2003—76 deg at the deepest point.

While statistics alone do not conclusively prove the extent of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, they certainly don’t indicate global cooling!

Over your lifetime, expect big changes in Montana because of global warming. Farmers, ranchers, anglers, and skiers will suffer—as will all of us who depend upon a plentiful supply of water. The average temperature will become about 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. Rain and snow fall will decline by 5 to 20 percent. Precipitation will come in the form of more intense storms. Winter will begin later, and snow pack will melt off earlier. Global warming exacerbates wild land fire, pine beetle infestations, and disease; so much of our forest will transition to grassland. Montana will come to look a lot like Utah.

Given Montana Tech’s strength in environmental and other engineering programs, global warming is of particular interest for our faculty and students. Engineers are applied scientists that use proven science to solve real world problems, but the science of global warming is not yet well understood. This makes it difficult for engineers to evaluate possible solutions and determine the best course of action. This is not to say that various actions are not obvious. We can get started right now by controlling population growth, reducing the consumption rates of fossil fuels and thereby reducing the sources of carbon dioxide. However, to evaluate more complex solutions, a much better understanding of the sciences behind global warming is needed.

What do engineering students at Tech learn about global warming?

Environmental engineers are general engineers with a broad foundation in math and four basic sciences including chemistry, biology, physics and geology. The global warming problem requires a math background including non-linear differential equations with time-varying coefficients and a powerful understanding of statistics (including non-parametric methods). All of the basic fields of science are required for one to begin to understand global warming. You need more than the basics, though—including atmospheric chemistry, geochemistry, soil biology and the modeling of ecosystems experiencing stress and undergoing rapid changes. In four years it is not possible to cover all of these disciplines at the depth required and that is why the global warming problem requires a vast interdisciplinary team approach.

Tech’s Environmental Engineering degree program includes most of the scientific and engineering pieces necessary to understand the global warming problem, but there is no specific class such as Global Warming 101 where we pull all of the pieces together. Maybe we, as an institution not department, should offer such an interdisciplinary class. It definitely would be timely given the vast global implications, and it would be a wonderful learning experience too!

We can avoid the worst consequences of global warming if we act NOW. Fuel-efficient vehicles, alternatives like solar and wind energy, halting population growth, and carbon sequestration all must be part of the solution. Federal, state, and local government can all help us along this path. The work of engineers will be crucial. Personal choices, too, are important. What are you doing to minimize global warming?

* Pat Munday, PhD, is a professor with the Technical Communication Department and a former engineer. He took his PhD in the history & philosophy of science & technology.

** Butch Gerbrandt, PhD, is a Professional Engineer, and the Department Head of and a professor with the General Engineering Department.

*** Rick Appleman, PhD, is a Professional Engineer, and a professor with the Environmental Engineering Department.

**** Andrea Stierle, PhD, is a Research Chemist with the Chemistry and Geochemistry Department.


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