Katrina and Rita in context.
These most recent storms should encourage U.S. citizens to recognize that we are facing a powerful entity that has only begun to barge into our American way. Look up into that beautiful sky overhead and consider its substance, dynamics and might. Our atmosphere is the product of more than four billion years of ongoing evolution--geological as well as biological. It's a tenuous veil of gases that lays upon the surface of our earth, thin as the finest silk upon your skin. This veil has a most interesting structure, one that's worth thinking about.
Our atmosphere is composed almost totally of nitrogen and oxygen. Interwoven into this medium is a gossamer thin admixture of everything else: thousands of different compounds that can be grouped into almost two hundred distinct families. Combined, these compounds make up less than one percent of our atmosphere's volume. Most of this volume is made up of inert compounds and noble gases, so called because they don't react with their surroundings very much, if at all. Within this matrix of nonreactive molecules is another, yet thinner community of reactive compounds. By volume, these reactive components total less than four hundred parts per million. This is where the action is. These chemicals are always reacting with each other: they combine, split up, mutate, affect neighboring molecules, change characteristics--and they do this at nonstop hypervelocities. This is the scaffolding over which energy, moisture, and heat perform their weather ballet.
What's new is that, over the past two hundred years or so, humanity has been injecting a third category of ingredients: human-made and human-generated. By volume, this new genre consists mainly of substances already present in the atmosphere, only now they are being added to in unfathomable quantities--and they belong to the reactive families. Then there are the "exotics": creations of science and industry, that make up a small but usually highly reactive percentage. Many of these compounds are totally new to our atmosphere. All told, society has been injecting millions upon millions upon millions of tons of these gases and particulates into our atmosphere at ever-increasing rates. So much so that the very composition of our atmosphere--the weave of our atmospheric veil--has been significantly and verifiably altered.
This is cause for concern because out atmosphere is in actuality a heat engine. Its matrix of gaseous and particulate components are the valves and pistons. This engine is powered by the surfs energetic rays and the result is out weather: the global distribution of energy, heat, and moisture. But each compound we've introduced interacts with the surfs energy according to its own unique thermo-hygroscopic-chemical profile. Recent weather fluctuations are little more than a physical reflection of our atmosphere's composition.
Remember all those silly environmentalists whining about pollution, global warming, and all that? Well, it isn't mere delusion. Scientists have been discovering and recording these changes since the end of World War II. For more than forty years now, satellites have been visually recording the stains, rips, and acid burns that we continue to inflict upon the veil of our atmosphere. The increasingly sophisticated information they gather continues to have ominous implications for the future as well as the present.
While the media discusses global changes in terms of global averages, keep this in mind: there is no "average" patch of ground or water on this planet. Pollutants aren't added as amorphous averages. They are injected into the fabric of our atmosphere as ribbons of varying concentrations and volumes. It's true that today scientists have convincing evidence that some global areas are experiencing a warming trend, while others are experiencing a cooling trend. There is nothing reassuring about this.
Think about our atmosphere as the heat engine whose role it is to seek a globally balanced distribution of energy, heat and moisture. This engine has evolved to a delicate state of dynamic equilibrium. Remember, it is the profile of temperature gradients and barometric differentials that provide the throttle behind this engine's drive to maintain its equilibrium. Inject extremes and it will react in kind--it makes no difference to the engine. It does, however, make a difference to humans and the biosphere as we know it.
Science has consistently shown that nature is always vastly more complex, interwoven, and unpredictable than the human intellect is capable of imagining. Why won't we allow this lesson to sink in? Why be surprised when weather continues to become more chaotic? Admittedly, no one can accurately predict how weather will change. But who can deny that it will continue to change, and at an accelerated rate? We can kid ourselves, but we can't fool nature.
A previous version of this article was printed in the November/December 1995 issue of the Humanist.
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|Title Annotation:||UP FRONT: NEWS AND OPINION FROM INDEPENDENT MINDS|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
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