Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic Collides With Carbon Dioxide Record

Today I had an opinion piece published in the Trenton Times, a newspaper still afloat despite treacherous economic waters. The piece, entitled "Earth's passengers should learn from the Titanic," offers seven factors that primed the Titanic for disaster, and how those same factors are contributing to the current unfolding calamity of climate change. (Note: As of April 15, the piece is archived at, here.)

Most people are aware that carbon dioxide (CO2) is being pumped into the atmosphere by cars, furnaces, power plants, and myriad other machines, and that the CO2 warms the planet. Some CO2 in the atmosphere is good; too much and the extreme result is Venus, where it's 850 degrees.

The cartoon shows a fictional encounter between two tragedies--the sinking of the Titanic and the unprecedented rise of carbon dioxide levels in earth's atmosphere. The graph is a rendering of how the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has changed over the past 400,000 years on earth. The squiggly red line shows that carbon dioxide levels were fluctuating between about 200 and 300 parts per million until very recently. Each trough, recurring every 100,000 years or so, represents an ice age.

The big departure from that repeating cycle happened 200 years ago with the industrial revolution, at which point we started digging up coal, oil and natural gas and releasing all that stowed carbon into the air. The red line surges upward, with carbon dioxide levels having risen 40% due largely to human activity. What's really important to note here is the unprecedented speed of this rise. Even the sharp increases that occurred naturally took 10,000 years to play out, allowing nature time to adjust. We're now expecting nature to adapt to extraordinary changes wrought over a century or two.

For more info on this kind of graph, google "carbon dioxide record" and then click on "images". Clicking on an image takes you to the associated website. Or take a look at this link.

For Titanic aficionados, note that the last smokestack has no smoke rising out of it. The rear-most smokestack on the Titanic was added just for show, to give the impression of greater power and speed. When we reach the point where machines no longer use fossil fuels, and have exhaust pipes just for show, we'll know we've made progress.

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