Tuesday, June 26, 2018
GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
I spent most of my childhood here in Southern Missouri, and the kind of rainstorm with heavy downpour that we had this morning was typical of what we called “spring rains” which usually occurred in early April in the 1940s and 50s, not late June. Rain this time of the year was mostly occasional spotty showers from cumulus clouds building up in the afternoon, not the several hours of downpour at any time of day or night that we have experienced for several years now.
I am probably about as qualified to comment on global warming as anyone alive today, for two reasons: First, being more than eighty years old, I have lived through some of the greatest environmental crises in human history, and second, I have a PhD in environmental science and engineering, and my PhD thesis was on the environmental impact of human activity on water resources. I was one of seven charter members of the USGS Department of Interior Systems Analysis Group formed in 1967, and was involved in the modeling of environmental systems for more than 10 years. The Systems Group consisted primarily of PhDs from Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins Universities, and we were involved in state-of-the-art modeling of environmental systems, including the modeling of storm cells developing and moving along cold fronts and cyclonic storm systems, as well as long-term effects of natural and man-made phenomena on the ecosphere of the planet.
I can tell you that there are many environmental trends indicating trhat global warming is happening, including the northward migration of animal species like the armadillo and the brown recluse spider. A study of historical records and physical evidence like tree-rings, polar ice-boring cores and geologic strata indicates that climate changes similar to, and even more dramatic than what we are experiencing now, have occurred many times in the past. That is not to say that human activities have not contributed to this warming trend, but the very real underlying natural cycles will not be denied, in spite of human activities.
I can tell you, from direct experience from the 1930s until the present, and from the study of government data, that the effects of human activities were much greater from the 1920s until the 60s than they are now. I can remember “red mud” rain falling in Southern Missouri from wind-blown dust carried from the “dust-bowl” of Kansas and Oklahoma, caused by over-farming of the land and years of drought. Coal was the major fuel for heat in the Midwest in the 1940s because much of the timber had been clear cut in the 20’s to build cities in the East. A layer of black soot covered everything in cities like St. Louis and Chicago. I remember staying with relatives in St. Louis for a while when I was five, and my father had a construction job in St. Louis County. When I played outside even for a few minutes, I would be covered with the black soot that was everywhere and my mother would have to wash my clothes and I would have to bathe to get rid of the grime. I can still remember the smell of coal smoke. Many people died of tuberculosis from breathing the polluted air.
Less than 100 years ago, people died in droves around the world from air pollution. Because of industrial development in the US and Europe, from the late 1800s until the middle of the 20th century, air and water pollution were rampant. In 1948, industrial air pollution created a deadly smog that asphyxiated 20 people in Donora, Pennsylvania, and made 7,000 more very ill. Smog and soot had many serious health impacts on the residents of the world’s large cities. Only 66 years ago, when I was in high school in 1952, pollutants killed at least 4,000 people in London over the course of several days. Acid rain, first recorded in the 1850s, was another problem resulting from the burning of coal in plants and homes. The release of sulfur and nitrogen compounds into the atmosphere negatively impacted plants, fish, soil, forests and some building materials. Some Eastern US and European rivers were so polluted with industrial waste that almost nothing could live in them, and they were clogged with floating debris.
I worked as an actuarial mathematician in downtown Los Angeles in 1960, when the smog was so thick, you could see it hanging under the efflorescent lights in the office building where I worked. A deep breath was almost always followed by an involuntary cough! Smog alerts were common, during which the elderly and very young were warned to stay indoors.
We’ve come a long way since 1960, and the majority of people alive today have no idea how bad air and water pollution was in those days, and therefore have no idea what tremendous progress has been made over the last 60 years in the cleanup of our environment. Despite the progress, global warming has not only continued, it has accelerated. The data show that human activities don’t have as much effect on global trends as we thought they did in the 1960s. Natural cycles are still dominant. But politicians will magnify or minimize the effect of the contribution of human activities on global climate change, depending on their political agendas.