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Thursday, April 3, 2014
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Does it make any sense to talk about an ice age at a time when global warming makes all the headlines? According to the patterns of cold and warm eras over the past million years or so of earth history, we may be due for an new ice age. The general pattern for the past few million years of earth history has been 100,000 years of ice age followed by 12,000 years of temperate climate (an “interglacial” period).

We have been in an “interglacial” now for about that number of years, and thus could be due for the start of a new ice age. There are patterns called “Milankovich cycles” that are thought by some to trigger the warm and cold spells; these cycles involve the overall tilt of the earth relative to the sun (which varies over a 41,000 year period), the shape of the earth’s orbit (which changes over a period of 100,000 years) and the Earth’s ‘spin wobble’ (which varies the direction of the earth’s axis over a period of 26,000 years). Arguably our planet is re-entering a tilt / orbit / wobble combo where cold, dry conditions become the norm; the warm inter-glacial periods that we are used to have been more of an exception to the general rule of an ice-ball planet.

Recall that in the 1970s, the climate change articles were talking about the prospect of global cooling, along with the threats to human existence that it would pose. There were global cooling articles in both Time and Newsweek in the mid-70s. (However, that trend may have been driven by media bias for the more scary possibility, given that there were more scientific papers from that time predicting long-run warming than cooling.) Global cooling seemed to make sense to non-experts at that time, given that from 1940 thru 1970, average world temperatures were falling (before reversing themselves in the early 1970s).

So, are we humans now delaying the return to ice by raising atmosphere CO2 and methane levels, i.e. the anthropogenic global warming process? Can global warming stop the long-term cycle and avoid a return to a cold earth? Or does it just delay the inevitable, and possibly make the crash even worse when it finally comes – like using coffee or cocaine to stay up and avoid sleep, then finally collapsing in exhaustion?

Here are the possibilities, from a logical perspective (without benefit of any scientific analysis as to what is impossible, what is possible but unlikely, and what is possible and more probable):

*** The ice age cycle is irrelevant, and the forces of human-caused global warming will proceed as predicted over the upcoming 100 to 300 years, causing great angst to human civilization.

*** The ice age cycle is happening, but human-caused global warming is much stronger and will overwhelm the ice age trends; again, global warming proceeds and does most of its damage.

*** The ice age cycle is happening, but it will slow down global warming such that for the next century or two, the two trends will cancel each other out (on average; however, there will still be an increase in weather variability as the forces “battle it out”). Perhaps what we have seen over the past 20 years, i.e. a slowing of temperature increases but an increase in weather variability, is thus a taste of what is in store over the next century or so. But, some scientists who agree that another ice age is coming believe that the effect of greenhouse gasses and other human activities could delay the ice age for several thousand years, not just a few hundred.

*** The ice age cycle is starting, and within the next century it will gradually overwhelm the global warming trend such that after 200 or 300 years, humankind will need to start preparing to survive in a long era of cold and dry weather.

*** And the wildcard possibility – that the ice age cycle has started, and for now is being held back by greenhouse gas increases. But at some point, the “dam will break”, and temperatures will drop quite suddenly and quite permanently (and quite unexpectedly – causing a huge threat to the survival of our species, at least on a civilized basis). For example, some geophysical experts say, there is a chance that human-induced warming could shut down the heat-transmitting ocean currents that keep northern latitudes warmer than they otherwise would be. The result could be a faster descent into glacial times instead of a delay.

Well . . . global warming certainly is already happening, and the scientific community seems extraordinarily united in forecasting very strong and disadvantageous effects from its continuation over the next century or two. And yet, we know from our day to day lives that weather is an extremely complex and chaotic phenomenon, something that science can still predict only with limited accuracy despite burgeoning computer power, expansive real-time inputs from ground stations and satellites, and growing knowledge and understanding of what drives the overall daily weather patterns and dynamics of the planet as a whole. This past winter the NY area had several “viral” social-media scares regarding huge blizzards approaching, based on the misinterpretation of computer-model forecasting runs which the experts knew enough not to take seriously.

I now believe that the scientific community’s growing consensus regarding global warming and the effects it may have cannot be ignored (despite some previous reservations on my part). Our leaders should start doing something about it now; and we peons may have to make some sacrifices (gradually higher taxes, temporarily stagnant living standards) to allow realistic preparations to be made. It’s best to be ready for the worst. But we also need to realize that the scientific community can also fall prey to “group-think”, that we still are in the early stages of studying and scientifically understanding complexity and chaotic phenomenon, and that long term weather patterns and processes might not be any better understood right now than the forces driving next month’s weather. The unanswered questions regarding ice age cycles certainly must be thrown into the mix when considering just how sure we are or aren’t about global warming, and just how much should be done about it. Bottom line, in my view: global warming is now a pretty good bet, but not good enough yet to bet the whole farm on. We need to know a little bit more about those tilt, wobble and orbit cycles, among other things (such as strange attractors in the carbon dioxide cycle and ocean current/temperature patterns).

So let the US and other industrial nations start spending more and more on climate and geophysical research aimed at better monitoring, understanding, and forecasting the evolving long-run climate trends. We should take the mainstream science community and its warnings seriously (despite the fact that its scare tactics and snobby, dismissive attitudes toward anyone who dares not agree 100% with them have backfired, as Clive Crook recently pointed out). However, the boffins need to know that the public expects them to double and triple-check all their assumptions, and to find ways and develop options for stopping and for mitigating the damaging things that could happen (and in the most cost-effective manner possible; which may well include “geo-engineering”, despite ecologists’ prejudices against it). And then let the business community have the benefit of the technologies that they will develop in the search for truly actionable answers. Greedy and undeserving people will then get rich as a side-effect, but the economy will grow as a result.

Here’s a side-thought on just how badly we here in the developed world will “suffer” if our governments begin a gradual but focused effort on mitigation and prevention strategies for global warming. In the short run, yes, most of us will need to get by on a bit less, or things won’t be getting better anytime soon. But in the longer run (not really all that long), the new technologies that will be derived from addressing previously unknown climate problems may well return much more in wealth than they cost (if my recommendation that greedy capitalists be given full and free access to all the new technologies being developed on the public’s dime is followed).

Remember that the Cold War spurred the technological productivity and corresponding wealth of the United States after World War 2, especially from the “Space Race” of the 1950s thru 1970s. Sometimes it takes a global crisis to inspire humankind to stop sipping lemonade all day on the hammock and really apply itself. Just trying to find out how real the threat of global warming truly is, in itself, will reap large technological benefits . . . assuming that the search is pursued in the labs and computer-banks of science, and not in the political arena (where too much of the debate is now focused).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:23 pm      

  1. Jim, As I read your post (and reread my comment), I couldn’t help but think that this may be a “harsh” comment; but it’s really not meant to be. I’m just putting things in ordinary words (definitely *not* scientific ones) and wondering about questions that arise in my mind. So, this is meant with respect but with a dose of reality too.

    I remembered seeing Al Gore on David Letterman a year or two ago; he had some statistics which he was showing on a large “black board” type thing proving that global warming was upon us, and telling us we should do about it or be doomed. He was almost frightening when it came to global warming. I don’t mean this in a snide way, but I can’t help but wonder just what Mr. Gore may be thinking about global warming this year.

    Now we have had one winter where groups who usually have mild winters get hit with a “cold” winter (and the mid-West gets hit with one of its usual “cold” winters after being spoiled by a couple of “global warming” winters which it thoroughly enjoyed and said to itself, hey, I could do with a lot of these in a row); and now it’s “global cooling” is upon us?

    I find myself saying that if the “general pattern for the past few million years of earth history” is 100,000 years of cold and 12,000 years of warm, what was the big fuss about “global warming”? If the earth spends most of its time “cold”, people just really better learn how to adjust – and must have in the past or we wouldn’t be here.

    When one gets right down to it, it seems to me that almost everything said about “global warming/cooling” is speculative, which basically means, “I have no clue what might happen; I’m guessing”. When scientists speculate, we are supposed to pay attention and revere what’s said; but when somebody ordinary speculates about some ordinary thing in life, nobody bothers. I find myself wondering just why the scientists should get more attention in their speculation than ordinary people. Speculation is speculation – a guess, and maybe a bad guess at that.

    Often speculation turns out to be something like what we hear meteorologists say (of course, they couch this in words that sound like they don’t actually mean this): Well, there’s a 50% chance it may rain; and a 50% chance it may not rain. Substitute “global warming” and “global cooling” and it seems to me we’ve got the same thing.

    In addition, when one is speaking of taking 100 years for some specific change to take place, wouldn’t such change would come on (relatively?) slowly, allowing for gradual changes on the part of creation that may need to adapt to climate change. Furthermore, depending on how one might count, we are talking about 3 or 4 generations, most of whom may not actually notice the major change that takes 100+ years to take place.

    I know I won’t be around to see what will happen in 50 years or even 25 years. While I guess I should be concerned about those people living when I’m long gone, somehow I just can’t get too worked up about it. People will adjust as they go along. I saw a program on the Sahara Desert last night, including major sand storms that people there take for granted and deal with, going about their daily lives in the midst of them. I tho’t how I would never be able to live thru such a thing; but then. . . As I watched it, I tho’t that it was somewhat like Midwesterners adjusting to some really good cold winter weather, adjusting to it, and getting along with life. I think it’s amazing how human and other creatures over millions of years have, time and time again, managed to adjust to changes in the earth’s temperature – adjusted and thrived. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 4, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

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