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The Invisible Problem: Understanding how carbon is warming the Earth

The Invisible Problem: Understanding how carbon is warming the Earth
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The destructiveness of extreme weather is one of the biggest stories of our time. When it comes to fire, drought and floods, we spend a lot of time showing you the effects of climate change. But it’s also important to talk about the causes.

That is why CBS is making it a priority to report on climate change with “On the Dot” with David Schechter. In this ongoing reporting project, we will take you on a journey to discover how humans are changing the Earth and how the Earth is changing us. 

First up, carbon 

As each day passes, an invisible problem is creating more danger for people on Earth. That invisible problem is carbon dioxide, and too much of it in the atmosphere is what drives climate change. Carbon dioxide comes from the fossil fuel energy we use, the vehicles we drive and the products we make. And according to NASA, people have raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 50% since the beginning of the 18th century.  

“I think this is our main social environmental challenge for humanity, is how to live on this planet so that not only the benefits that we’ve enjoyed of a stable climate, of access to fresh water, of you know, not having fires in our neighborhood, that our children and our children’s children have those same benefits,” said Dr. Eugene Cordero, a climatologist at San Jose State University. “And I think we should be very, very concerned about this.” 

Is carbon measurable?  

Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano on the planet. Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, it towers more than 13,000 ft. above sea level. If it sounds familiar, it recently got a lot of attention for its eruptions and stunning lava flows. The most recent eruption happened in November, for the first time in almost four decades.

What may be less known is the Mauna Loa Observatory that sits on the volcano up a narrow one-lane road through a lava field. It’s about a 90-minute drive southeast from the city of Kailua-Kona, on the western coast of the island. 

“It’s not the easiest place to get to,” said Aidan Colton, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about the observatory that is quite near the top of the volcano. “It’s 11,000-foot elevation. Every time we take a breath of air, you’re breathing in a third less oxygen.”

Colton said it is the air that makes this remote location so important. At more than two miles high, it is far above any ground-level pollution from communities below. It is also surrounded by 2,000 miles of open ocean. That means by the time air makes its way to Mauna Loa, it has been blended with air from across the globe.

The observatory is where scientists for the last 65 years have relied on the carbon dioxide measurements taken to establish how much humans are altering our planet.


“On the Dot” web extra: Mauna Loa Observatory

02:25

Colton’s job is to take those measurements.

He grabs air samples in two separate ways. The first is by hand, capturing air in pressurized bottles on a weekly basis that are sent to a lab in Colorado for analysis. The second is from a tower that is another 140 feet up. It pulls and analyzes samples on site, 24 hours a day, with hourly findings published online.

“Our job is to present the facts. And the fact is that carbon dioxide is increasing, and it has been increasing since we started monitoring it,” said Colton.

Since 1958, samples taken in Hawaii have shown the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rising year after year. Those measurements make up what is called the Keeling Curve, named after scientist Dr. Charles Keeling who began this research and gave birth to modern climate science.

By going back 800,000 years and studying things like ice core samples, ocean sediment and tree rings, scientists have a good idea how much carbon has historically been in the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels go up and down over time, but they never went higher than 300 parts per million.  

In June, the Keeling Curve hit an all-time high of 421 parts per million.

“The CO2 in the atmosphere has never been seen this high in human history,” said Colton.  

Where is carbon coming from?

Since carbon dioxide is invisible, there wasn’t always a way to “see” where it is coming from. Which is where entrepreneurs come in.

Davida Herzl is the CEO of Aclima. Her company operates a fleet of cars outfitted with tubes and sensors that analyze the air for 14 kinds of pollution. One of them is carbon dioxide, which floats, invisibly, into the atmosphere and can stay up there for hundreds of years.  

“I think what this data shows you is that, you know, with every decision, every action, there’s a direct consequence,” said Herzl. “And now you can actually see it, right? You can look up your address. You can look at what’s happening, you know, at your location. But you can also start to connect with, wow, if I choose to drive an electric vehicle or if I choose to invest in decarbonization in my home, I’m actually helping to reduce these overall levels. This isn’t just an invisible problem. You can see it. It’s visible, it’s measurable.” 


“On the Dot” web extra: Environmental justice

03:51

Businesses and governments use Aclima’s data to identify and reduce sources of pollution. 

“To deal with climate change, to deal with air pollution, you really have to understand where it’s coming from, and you have to take local measurements to do that,” said Herzl. 

The On the Dot team joined Herzl on a drive around the freeways of Oakland, California, in one of her pollution-sensing cars. The car uses GPS to plot pollution levels on a map. 

“We’re moving through the streets,” said Herzl. “That enables us to pinpoint the precise location of those measurements.”  

There are a lot of ways that CO2 gets into the air. But according to the EPA, the number one source of carbon emissions is transportation, at 27% of greenhouse gases. 

Aclima’s pollution map shows that. On the side streets, carbon dioxide levels are mostly low, showing up visually as the low-intensity color of purple. On the freeways, carbon dioxide is shown in a high-intensity yellow. At locations where two highways come together the yellow peaks so high it rises on a 3D map like a skyscraper. 

thumbnail-aclima-pollution-map-auto-x2-toned.jpg
An Aclima pollution map, with yellow spikes indicating the highest levels of carbon dioxide.

Aclima


Herzl said even when people drive to work or school, they are contributing to pollution.

“You’re putting CO2 into the air,” she said. “And so, once we can all understand that and this problem isn’t so abstract and so invisible, you start to really connect your actions to these global consequences.”  

Why is carbon a problem?  

Dr. Eugene Cordero, a climatologist at San Jose State University, is helping people understand how the greenhouse effect is powered by carbon dioxide, with a demonstration that uses a candle and a camera.

“We’re trying to get an idea of how this greenhouse effect works,” said Cordero. “How does CO2 have this power over controlling the Earth’s temperature?”

The greenhouse effect is the way Earth’s heat gets trapped close to the surface.

In the experiment, the candle represents the heat of Earth.

“So, the Earth gets warmed during the day by the sun and then it gives off energy,” he said.

A piece of glass in a picture frame represents carbon dioxide, which Cordero said acts in a similar way.

“It behaves in the same way because it absorbs this particular kind of [energy given off by the candle],” he said.  

When a thermal imaging camera is pointed at the candle, wavelengths of heat show up as white, red and yellow.  

But when a piece of glass is slipped in front of the flame, that color disappears, and the candle cannot be seen anymore.  

“Our natural light from the sun passes through,” said Cordero. “But the infrared radiation on the way out, can’t get out.” 


“On the Dot” web extra: Paleoclimatology

03:21

Cordero said carbon dioxide is a blanket that absorbs and radiates heat and keeps the Earth comfortably warm. When more carbon dioxide is added, the planet gets warmer.

“And so, our planet’s temperature is going to go up,” said Cordero. “It’s a great thermostat.”

As the carbon dioxide rises, the temperature rises. Cordero said scientific research shows that is what is driving extreme events. A warming climate means hotter temperatures that can drive more intense wildfires and drought. Warmer air also carries more moisture which can lead to more precipitation during major storms.

“CO2 and other greenhouse gases is the largest contribution to changing what our planet’s like right now and making it warmer,” said Cordero. “There are other factors, too, but carbon dioxide is the number one contributor.”  

Is there hope?  

Many scientists, like Cordero, remain hopeful that we can adapt and make changes. 

“We have ways to generate energy without burning fossil fuels,” said Cordero. “We have ways to live more sustainably. And some people would say our life might even improve,” he continued. “I tell my students; would you rather be 45 minutes in traffic to go 15 miles, or take a train and be able to finish your homework while you’re on the train and maybe we’re listening to music or chatting with the neighbors?” 

“We have created some changes on our planet,” he continued. “Some good, some not so good. Maybe the balance of it is not so good for long term. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reverse that and make things better. And it doesn’t have to make our life worse. But we have to do something.” 

On future episodes of “On the Dot” we will continue to explore the problem of climate change and what we can do about it, looking at extreme weather, fire, drought and floods.  



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