Our world witnessed a few extreme climatic patterns in the last few years. Climate change became a slogan, when Greta Thunberg and other youngsters came to the scene, organising school strikes, and speaking at the UN, thus intensifying the awareness of the global climate crisis and the urgent need to tackle it.
Several reasons, like the Earth’s orbital variation, volcanic eruptions, and solar activity were pointed out earlier for climate change. How much orbital variation would be required to destroy all life on this planet? That’s a pretty tough question. A small change in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit can either freeze things or raise the global temperature, making it unbearable for life. This change in the Earth’s orbit will have a great consequence on our climate patterns and may wipe out all the living beings from the planet. But we have to brush the above-mentioned matters aside, as long as we have enough evidence of the increase in the number of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
The recent movement led by the youth, along with scientific examinations, has converged upon greenhouse gas emissions as a primary reason for global warming, and extreme climatic patterns. Let us see in brief, what a greenhouse is, and how the atmosphere acts as a greenhouse. We shall also examine the various areas of human dependency on non-renewable fossil fuel. It will be interesting to know about the devices that record these emissions, as well as the latest efforts that are taken to save the planet.
A greenhouse is a structure with a roof and mostly glass walls on four sides, transparent, built to enclose plants that need a required amount of warmth. Sunlight heats the glass exterior and warms the inside air. Heat is trapped inside and cannot escape outwards giving the greenhouse warmth, for a long time. This is helpful for those plants that can’t thrive when it is cold outside. And so is the case with the sunlight reaching the Earth.
Some of this sunlight is reflected back to space and some is absorbed by land, oceans and the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere trap the heat reflected back towards space. Carbon dioxide, Methane, Nitrous oxide, Fluorinated gases, Ozone etc. are greenhouse gases. These gases are released during the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gases. An increase in the amount of these gases will increase the global temperature.
The industrial revolution has created a tremendous increase in the consumption of fossil fuels. Beginning with the consumption of coal, these non-renewable sources of energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) make up about 85% of the energy used worldwide. Renewable sources of energy include hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal and waste. Burning of fossil fuels produces around 21.3 billion tones (21.3 gigatonnes) of CO2 per year. It is estimated that natural process can only absorb about half of that amount of these gases.
Deforestation in the name of development adds to the problem of the increase in Carbon Dioxide around us. The electricity sector is unique among industrial sectors in its large contribution to emissions. Transportation, Industry, Commercial and Residential, and Agriculture are other sectors that emit these gases. Man’s dependence on his existence is totally based on these sectors. Barriers to renewable sources of technology could be a reason for the over-dependency on non-renewable sources. Renewable energy harnessing technology is a solution to many of the problems but expensive to build.
Another interesting topic is about the data regarding emissions, and a few changes happening on the surface, as well as inside the earth. NASA’s TES instrument and GRACE satellites have been helpful in observing these changes and collecting data.
Regarding the climate crisis, it is quite natural for our concern to shift to the condition of the atmosphere; whether it is fragile or robust, and also if it is stable or volatile. NASA’s Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer ( 2004 to 2018), an instrument installed on Aura satellite, studied the emission, presence, and chemical reaction of various gases in the lowest layer of atmosphere.
The team behind TES has found the presence of hydroxyl radical (OH), a chemical that gives stability to the earth’s atmosphere, by cleansing the pollutants, mainly at the lower layer.
Considered as a global detergent, it checks concentrations of Carbon Monoxide, Sulphur dioxide, Hydrogen Sulphide, Methane and higher hydrocarbons. A lot of methane will consume OH, deteriorating the air quality. Another contribution of TES is in advancing scientists’ knowledge about ozone(O3) in the troposphere. It was quite useful to understand how ozone affects human health, the climate and how it is transported to other parts of the world. The instrument was also helpful in quantifying ozone in the upper troposphere, that serves as a greenhouse gas warming the atmosphere.
As to GRACE and GRACE-FO, (Gravity Recovery And Climatic Experiment – Follow On) which was a joint mission of NASA and German Aerospace Centre, GRACE mission began orbiting the earth on March 17, 2002 and was decommissioned after 15 years far exceeding its 5-year design life span. Its successor GRACE-FO was successfully launched on 22 May 2018. The original GRACE mission provided unprecedented insights into how our planet is changing. GRACE-FO, the twin satellites will track the movement of water around the earth, thereby monitoring changes in ice sheets and glaciers, monitoring changes in underground water storage, monitoring changes in large lakes and rivers, monitoring changes in soil moisture, and monitoring changes in sea level and so on.
As long as we have enough data with verified instruments regarding greenhouse gas emission, global warming and climate change, the question naturally arises as to why our environmentalists are not being heard by the government and MNCs?
The complexity of the modern world and speedy developments have been cited by a global leader as an impediment to the fruitful solution. Delhi air pollution is a typical example, where this complexity is greatly involved. Diwali celebrations, stubble burning, construction work, vehicular emission etc., have been cited as major reasons for Delhi air pollution index increasing rapidly.
Even though schools were shut down for a while and odd-even system was introduced, all these did not bring an immediate drop in pollution. As it is the region utmost important to the nation with almost all the headquarters located there, construction work goes on and vehicular emission keeps going up. As with schools, the government cannot declare leave to various other offices. And as long as the offices are in function, people depend on their own vehicles, instead of public transport, as a part of ease of work life. The construction industry has contributed a lot to particulate matter in the atmosphere. It is the government’s duty to find a solution to this complexity as they are in control of almost all resources.
The youngsters all around are not to be blamed. When the kids study about greenhouse and greenhouse effect, photosynthesis and respiration, biodiversity and monoculture, renewable and non-renewable resources, freezing point and melting point of ice, the different types pollution and its impact, and various other topics, their rationale works. They understand their existence is at stake. To exemplify, let us consider what we studied about the freezing point of water and melting point of ice. It takes place at zero degrees celsius. A slight change in temperature creates variation. If a one-degree rise in temperature can melt ice, a one-degree rise in average global temperature can melt the vast amount of ice sheets at the poles, which in turn can lead to an increase in sea-level rise.
As we all know, Carbon Dioxide is the major contributor to global warming. It reacts with ocean water, forming carbonic acid, which does not cause immediate acidification, but will reduce the alkaline nature of the ocean, thereby impacting marine life. As the development is on a geometric proportion, Carbon Dioxide content is rapidly increasing around us. Deforestation aggravates the situation.
As long as we have substitutes for non-renewable sources, which can fulfil the basic necessities of modern-day lifestyle, governments and MNC’s will be at a distance from the environmentalists. Certain activities cannot be reversed and we don’t know the impact in the upcoming years. Kerala flood is a typical example of such irreversible activity.
The destruction of western ghats for development purpose has led to a series of disasters in 2018 and 2019 in Kerala. Precipitation too has been high and led to the opening of dams, which created floods. Quarrying of hills, destruction of agricultural lands, reduction of biodiverse forests, waste disposal, use of chemical farming, increase in the number of vehicles etc., are modern-day problems. Air and surface of the Earth are degraded as a result, and both of them combine to create catastrophes like floods, hurricanes, droughts and acid rain.
Regarding hurricanes in the United States, between June and November, it is observed that the intensity has been increasing making it catastrophic. These hurricanes are formed in the ocean when the ocean surface gets heated up at 26.5 degree Celsius.
‘Harvesting Energy From Hurricanes’, a documentary by Mark Arstin and the Pleiades Group of Seven considers hurricanes as an energy source that does not consume any natural resources, nor produces any pollution or carbon dioxide emissions. So far, the energy of hurricanes has not been harvested because it is spread over a large area of land.
Technical built up to harvest hurricane energy can be really complex and expensive too. It requires deep-sea floating platforms that are transportable and can withstand the intensity of the hurricane. It is time for the scientists to research on the possibility of trapping this energy during its formation and in its less intense stage. If drones can pick this energy on a regular basis during its formation, it can reduce the intensity of hurricanes, and at the same time, this energy can replace fossil fuel energy to a great extent.
According to the scientists, 24 platforms, each having 4800 turbines at 10% efficiency in a category 3 tropical cyclone, can produce from 14,640MW/h to 20,239 MW/h of energy. Another initiative to trap a renewable source of energy is the initiative by California based Makani, a self-flying energy kite to trap wind power. The world should come up with innovative ideas though it may be expensive in the beginning. Research and development wing of companies should work on it as soon as possible. Nothing valuable comes easy of cost.
Another point to be noted during climate chaos is the necessity of the shift to be made from industrial agriculture towards agroecology and organic farming. Fossil fuel-based chemical industrial agriculture drains the nutrients from the soil, impact food and nutritional security, and deprives the plants of their water-holding capacity, thereby aggravating the impact of drought.
A noteworthy initiative to make the dry land green again, by capturing rainwater, and introducing sustainable agriculture, is done by an international non-profit organisation, Justdiggit. It invites the world to pick up the shovel and help combat climate change. Their approach to restoring dry land is called the Hydrologic Corridor. In dry areas, the soil is degraded and rainwater can no longer infiltrate into the ground. It evaporates or causes erosion and flooding, and washes away the remaining fertile soil. By opening the soil, the rainwater can infiltrate and is available for vegetation again. Seeds will sprout, plants and trees will start growing and wildlife will return to these areas.
We need harmony with nature for our survival and well being. We need the developments which keep the world going, but at the same time, we need to step back a little, enjoy nature, understand how it protects its living beings in a natural setting. We need trees, shrubs and herbs as well for survival in the long run. We need the balance of nature that has enabled species sustenance possible from a very long time. Let us not shed our optimism, so long as we don’t see much improvements taking place in a quick manner.
Projects like Justdiggit and Self-flying kites can be pioneers in this field of change. As little drops of water make the mighty ocean, these positive steps can steer a new way of life that mitigate environmental damage and climate crisis. As to climate crisis what has been not done is the reduction in the usage of fossil fuel consumption and scientific planning of environmental policy, that can be accepted by every global player involved.
Montreal Protocol, a treaty designed to protect the ozone layer, is a wonderful example of success in unity in diversity. What has been done are a countable number of projects that make use of renewable resources, and a few efforts to rejuvenate the planet. What has been not done outweighs what has been done.