Something in the Air

This week the federal government released two reports describing the next 25 to 50 years’ expected impacts of climate change on natural resources – land, water, biodiversity – and agriculture in the United States. Led by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Department of Agriculture, National Science and Technology Council, and Climate Change Science Program, and incorporating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change research, the reports state bluntly that increasing temperatures, rising levels of carbon dioxide and resulting altered patterns of precipitation are already affecting ecosystems across the country.

Decreased snowpack, increased forest fires, warming streams, and insect outbreaks prompted by rising air temperatures and altered weather patterns are already taking a toll on biodiversity. Many of these changes are being prompted by excess CO2 already in the atmosphere. But there also are other contributors to these changes, among them changes in land use, the nitrogen cycle, ozone and other pollutants.

Climate scientists have told me that so much excess CO2 is in the atmosphere that even if emissions stopped immediately, we’d be coping with the changes set in motion for years to come. So among what’s being researched are ways in addition to curtailing CO2 that we might be able to slow the warming trend.

In April, I spent two weeks on the USS Knorrin the Norwegian, Greenland and Barents Seas with scientists on an International Polar Year expedition called ICEALOT designed to study non-CO2 pollutants contributing to the disruptive effects of climate change. Sailing from Tromso, Norway to the spring ice edge at 80ºN on the north coast of Svalbard, and south along the Greenland coast to Iceland, scientists took the measure of the short-lived pollutants – particulates, ozone and VOCs affecting the Arctic climate and contributing to increased rates of warming. These pollutants reflect and absorb light, influence cloud formation and air chemistry in ways that can increase atmospheric and surface temperatures. Understanding these pollutants’ behavior and contribution to warming trends should help guide strategies for reducing these impacts by curtailing emissions of nitrogen compounds, VOCs and particulates that set these processes in motion. In other words, while we struggle to turn off the CO2 tap, we may be able to help curtail impacts by shutting off the flow of other pollutants that push the cycle of warming.

What this means to me is that to slow the disturbing changes rolling out across the landscape, we’ve all somehow got to radically – and strategically – reduce all of our air pollutants, which may well mean not only changes in energy consumption but also rethinking how we make all the stuff we use.