Groundviews

Restoring Shelter

The World Meteorological Organization, part of the United Nations, have just stated that the warmest 13 years of average global temperatures have all occurred in the 15 years since 1997. That has contributed to extreme weather conditions that increase the intensity of droughts and heavy precipitation across the world, it said.

“Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities,” WMO Deputy Secretary-General Jerry Lengoasa told reporters in Durban. This view, articulated by a responsible organization should be recognized and acted upon by society at all levels.

There are also the disturbing data sets that clearly show a co-relation between temperature and concentrations of greenhouse gasses. While it is an undeniable fact that global temperature and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are interrelated. The question is when was it initiated? Once a change is initiated, that there exists obvious feedback mechanisms that keeps driving the process, until a regulatory mechanism, such as glaciations, intervenes.

Thus the geologic past is marked by a constant pattern of dry regimes with the water locked up as glacial ice alternating with wet regimes awash with unlocked glacial water.  The oscillation from one state to the other involves massive heat transfer processes and accounts for the phenomena of global warming and cooling.

There is debate, certainly on the frequency and amplitude of the changes before us and of the causes that drive such changes.  However, if there is one unifying feature to the debate it is that: ‘There is a change in the climate.’  This change is already affecting both the quality of human life and quantity of glaciers the world over.  A result of melting land glaciers will make the ocean levels will go up.  Models looking at the affect of an 5 – 6 inch rise in sea level over the next thirty years suggests 16 -34 million environmental refugees, depending on the preparedness of the affected regimes.

The global effort on addressing the problems of climate change is also hampered by the fact that the IPCC is consisted only of people who are nominated by their Governments. Commenting on this feature Paul Reiter   of the Pasteur Institute says, “Its Governments who nominate people, you will find in many chapters that there are people who are not scientists at all”.  This has allowed such fundamental scientific and economic realities such as differences between biomass carbon and fossil carbon to become blurred. One obvious result is that, there is no differentiation of value between these two pools in current carbon accounting by the IPCC.  Until this reality is recognized, disjointed markets will prevail.

Carbon dioxide is not the only contributor to warming on the planet; there is Methane, Oxides of Nitrogen, water vapour etc. In the atmosphere water vapour accounts for 60-80% of its natural greenhouse effect.  Water vapour has been the most dominant greenhouse determinant for the atmosphere and has probably been so over the last four billion years.

In terms of water vapour, forests account for some 48% of all terrestrial evapotranspiration. Thus the loss of forests worldwide, through a climate or biological event, could result in initiating changes in the climate system. As Walter Jehne of the CSIRO states, “It follows that the destruction of up to 80% of earth’s primary (old growth) forests by humans during industrialization could have resulted in a marked loss of the natural cooling capacity and therefore increased global warming.” The deforestation of the planet could very well have been the trigger that has pushed us along the current course.

Sri Lanka was no stranger to the process, forests that remained largely inviolate since their time of formation was felled and destroyed within a period of two hundred years. The natural cooling capacity of the Island was reduced by over 80%. This conversion of the massive forests into carbon dioxide would also have been a significant contribution to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations at that time.

Could the massive rates of deforestation and the removal of the cooling factor that initiated the warming trends that were then amplified by the increases in carbon dioxide as a consequence of the industrial revolution? This process being amplified through the burning of fossil fuels. The Vostock Ice core data looking at past atmospheres seems to suggest such a scenario.

The most obvious way is to address the problem is by reducing reliance on fossil carbon as an index of human development, but there may be other ways as well. One interesting possibility requires us to go back to the forests.

Forests produce vast quantities of Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN) that enable the condensation of clouds in the atmosphere. Clouds occur in many states, from the thin haze clouds precipitated by pollution and dust to the thick cumulus clouds precipitated by forests and oceans. Each type provides a certain degree of shading from solar radiation, a phenomenon termed albedo or, “the amount of incoming solar radiation reflected back into space”. The albedo of the planet determines the amount of sunlight reaching the surface, the amount of sunlight reaching the surface in turn determines the heat of the atmosphere. The mean value for reflecting solar radiation back into space by cloud albedo is about 30%.  The cooling effect of this action is so great that a 1-2 % increase in the albedo of the planet would be enough to reduce the warming effect of current CO2 levels back to early-industrial levels. Creating a 1% cooling by albedo can help definitely stabilize the climate.

Restoration of the cloud creating potential of terrestrial ecosystems has to be seen as a critically important activity and the financial instruments designed to mitigate the effect of global warming must recognize this potential. This means designing and implementing long maturing, multi age, and multi species systems that mimic or are analogous to the natural mature ecosystem.

Sri Lanka is ideally poised to do so.