Climate Change Notes

By Bryn Glover

One of the serious consequences of a changing global climate is the loss of habitat for many species which have always occupied special small niches, and which do not have the ability to adapt to changes. The World Wild Life Fund has just published a report indicating that the rate of extinction of species is much worse than was previously feared. This is a global phenomenon but, in the UK, a biodiversity plan published in 2018 is already falling seriously behind schedule, with fewer than half of its targets showing any sign of improvement. It is never ‘too late’ to do anything about loss of species, and often quite simple governmental measures can have dramatically beneficial effects. All it takes is the will to act.

David Attenborough has worked tirelessly in recent years to educate humanity on the perils of current lifestyles. His latest offering for television ‘Extinction: The Facts’ is one of his most hard-hitting, and for anyone who missed it and has access to iPlayer, it is certainly worth catching it. There is also a 12-part podcast called ‘So Hot Right Now’ that Attenborough produced with a number of environmental journalists.

Attention has been drawn to the significant reduction in atmospheric CO2 and other pollutants as a direct result of the covid-related grounding of aircraft. The figure quoted for CO2 reduction is 7% over the pandemic period, which happens to be the sort of loss we need year on year in order to meet our targets under the Paris Agreement. If this were not difficult enough to accept, it has to be seen against the background that over the first two decades of the 21st century, the contribution of aviation to global heating has just about doubled. As calls from the industry for more assistance to ‘return to normality’ grow, is it possible they will ever understand that a significant reduction in air travel is vital for our future well-being?

Researchers at the University of Alaska have been studying winter sea ice in the Bering Sea, which separates the United States from Russia. Two years ago, the extent of this ice suddenly halved, and the correlation with rising levels of atmospheric CO2 is undeniable. The work indicates that the Bering Sea may very soon become completely ice-free all year round, and the Arctic itself could follow suit within decades.

On the hottest summer days the bitumen in road surfaces can melt, causing difficulties for motorists. Recent studies have shown that there are more serious problems associated with the organic compounds that melted bitumen can emit. These react in the atmosphere, under increased UV light levels, seriously adding to other forms of pollution. What is now becoming plain is that, as the planet gets hotter, such problems will only get worse.

These Climate Change Notes cannot ignore the ongoing major fires in the Pacific coastal states of the US. The fires are by far the worst they have ever been, yet President Trump goes on insisting that they are the result of bad forest management. No serious commentator would now deny that the hotter and drier summer climates of those states are the single most important factors in this disaster. America urgently needs a head of state who is capable of understanding this.

Everybody knows that it’s theoretically possible to engineer changes that could benefit the acidity of the oceans, but serious questions about collateral damage have yet to be explored. One concept is the spreading of billions of tonnes of powdered rock such as olivine, which will absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and at the same time decrease ocean acidity. Such drastic programmes obviously need extremely careful thought and a full range of small-scale trials. It is therefore concerning to learn of private initiatives by global billionaires to push ahead with their own projects. International maritime law seems to have no powers to prevent these individuals from ‘doing their own thing’, but the consequences need to be examined with great care.

A new study reported by the journal Nature into the ice sheets of Antarctica seems to show that the collapse of the Larsen B iceshelf in 2002 was hastened by the much-increased trickling of meltwater into glacial cracks, and of course, the meltwater is now significantly greater because of global heating. This may seem obvious, but the scale has now been quantified, and its long-term implications for future loss of the ice-shelves and for oceanic levels is clear.

Bryn Glover is a member of the AGS national committee

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