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Global Warming Poses Abrupt Impact

Polar bear, off Barents Island, in Svalbard ny Arne Naevra was runner-up in the One Earth category. 
Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 Competition.

Polar bear, off Barents Island, in Svalbard ny Arne Naevra was runner-up in the One Earth category. Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 Competition.

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If you are wary of global warming and climate change, then perhaps ignorance is, in fact, bliss.  The horror of what sounds like a familiar movie plot will become a humbling reality.  Though the claims of melting polar caps and heat waves seem like a tedious destiny, consequences are abruptly approaching.

Somewhere between Hawaii and Australia lies the country of Tuvalu.  The small island stretches a timid 10 square miles, engulfed by the ferocious and intimidating Pacific Ocean.  On a modern map, the island is a mere speck; a speck that won’t make it onto maps to come.

The country that has had little impact on the world will ultimately burden us. They will leave us to explain to future generations of what once was.  The island of Tuvalu is sinking and will be entirely devoured by the merciless ocean by 2050.  Though the island is underwhelming and seemingly insignificant to the average person, for roughly 10,000 people, it is called home.

The people of Tuvalu will become refugees—hopeless and desperate—their destiny is a mere reminder to the rest of the world that the human impact on the environment is expediting our demise.

* * * *

Dr. Thomas Henry Culhane, professor of science at Mercy College, has a passion for science and education that is admirable and contagious.  Of his many projects here at Mercy, one of his most prolific is the stardom of Envisaj, a student-based service organization which shares the determination to make a difference.  Culhane’s leadership has encouraged students to travel to countries in dire need for change.  Their impact, though seemingly miniscule, has already bettered lives and begun the much-needed environmental revolution.

Of the many contributors to Envisaj were graduates Shamir Hyman, Martha Perez and senior Mahalia Sealy, all of whom are International Relations and Diplomacy majors at Mercy and are active participants in the Model U.N.  Although these students don’t come from any science background, their contributions in the Model U.N are based off of global issues, which include climate change and global warming.  Their relation to Culhane and the Envisaj organization has inspired their devotion to making the world a better place.

While climate change and global warming pose to be ambiguous and misleading, it is crucial to define such imposing threats.  There are many factors that contribute to climate change, one of which is the greenhouse effect.

“The greenhouse gas effect is how we get energy from the sun which is transferred into the environment.  The gases in the Earths surface, they’re really the buffer zone, they allocate energy to the earth and it bounces back to space,” says Perez.

Though some gas does escape back into space, there is some that remains in the atmosphere.  This natural process, in addition to human influence on the environment, combines to pose an allusive hazard.

“The climate change is not bad, it has been happening forever, but the way humans have impacted it is bad,” stated Sealy.

In addition the natural process of climate change, humans have sped up the process in many ways, one of which is burning fossil fuels, the group says.  Three major fossil fuels that are highly relied upon are coal, natural gas and oil.  The burning of fossil fuels release carbon dioxide, which ultimately results in the emission of heat.  This human source of additional heat is also a contributing factor to global warming.  Burning fossil fuels can also lead to many consequential outcomes—the most threatening perhaps is air pollution.

“Some problems of burning fossil fuels besides climate change are possible health issues and natural disasters,” said Hyman.  The human impact on climate change is irrefutable and continues to threaten the rate at which these changes are happening.

“There are two variables that determine climate change. It happens naturally – the climate has always been changing.  The humans on Earth are the problem. They’re burning more and more fossil fuels, which are harmful greenhouse gases that are making the planet warm and speeding up the natural process,” stated Perez.

The goals for Envisaj are clear—to start minimizing the carbon footprint humans have already left on the environment.  Their first step to reach this goal was enacted this past February when the group traveled to the Dominican Republic to introduce a new technology that is efficient, cheap and environmentally friendly, the bio-digester.

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Solar panels on Mercy College campus.

Environmentalists have debated the benefits of various types of renewable energy sources. Between wind power, solar power, and waterpower, all somewhat viable alternatives for fossil fuels, none are more efficient than bio-digesters, which is a system that creates a natural gas, also known as a biogas, which can be contained and distributed through a bio-digester.

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A Bio-digester on Mercy College campus.

“A biogas is a tank-like structure. You put in food waste and/or manure into it and fill it with water, over time the mixture ferments and gas is created.  The gas is renewable; it’s not extracted from underground.  It is completely natural.  The gas can be used for cooking, electricity or fuel. It can replace fossil fuels. It is also the only renewable energy that can combat waste management,” Perez explained.

Waste management is an issue garnering plenty of attention. There are bodies of water being destroyed by improper waste removal, and bio- digesters are a plausible solution to this problem. By taking food waste and manure and allowing their conversion into gasses, these waste products won’t be met with a body of water, and will provide a productive energy source in turn.

People are under the impression that bio-digesters are difficult to create, and safely maintain, they can easily be constructed with basic household materials and are completely safe.  Though the technology of the bio-digester is extremely effective, its awareness is scarce.  The Envisaj group plans to educate people of this technology and hopes to see it become a household staple.

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A bio-digester made from household materials.

“The bio-digester works and it is the most effective form of natural energy. Bio-digesters are constructible, it is within our reach, it needs to be more accessible for people to buy on a retail market…I think a bio-digester can be compared to an iPod or a computer, people always doubt things that are different and innovative in the beginning, this technology will continue to evolve.  People just sadly aren’t ready for this change yet,” stated Hyman.

Though the impact of Envisaj was profound in the Dominican Republic, it wasn’t the only country they aided.  The group also traveled to Haiti, a country that is not entirely fraught but in areas completely rundown.  These areas are victim to the vast amount of deforestation occurring in the country.

While not the most powerful, carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas, and is therefore the most concerning. In addition to fossil fuel, deforestation is a powerful additive of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As plants conduct photosynthesis, they store carbon dioxide in their tissues. When forests are cleared for land spacing, whether it is for homes, crops, or villages, they release all of the carbon dioxide into the air.  The removal of trees is also the removal of a storage device for the carbon. While their removal adds carbon dioxide, it also removes the primary source for carbon maintenance.

While deforestation is a serious issue for the Haitian natives, the copious amount of garbage and filth has also proven to be an issue in some parts of the country.  “The most eye-opening experience I had in Haiti was noticing the vast amount of trash.  You can smell it, it is overpowering to the point where you can’t breathe.  There are people sitting in the streets, hopeless.  They will do anything to survive,” recalled Hyman.

It became apparent to him and the entire Envisaj group that changes needed to be implemented to help the citizens of Haiti.

The concept of removing trash may seem elementary in America, but in countries around the world it has become an issue that is jeopardizing the environment.

“No one is showing people how to dispose of their trash.  We have gone into some needy parts of the world to show them that they don’t need to further destroy the environment,” exclaimed Sealy.

It is simply humbling to acknowledge some of the privileges we have here in America, yet we are not exempt from the negative impact humans have had on the environment.  This past year, some of the most bizarre weather ever recorded occurred, all resulting from global warming and climate change, says Culhane.

One of the current weather-based issues is taking place in California.  The state is in the midst of one of their worst droughts ever recorded.  This drought has threatened many aspects of the environment and a wrath not only felt in California but throughout the United States.  The water drought has jeopardized the food supply in California, much of which is shipped throughout the country.  Almost one-third of the country’s vegetables are grown in California as well as an approximate two-thirds of its fruit, already having an impact on farmers and consumers around the nation.  The lack of crops will also raise the prices for consumers, as produce will need to be brought in from other locations.

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Chart depicting water scarcity in California.

Another major threat the drought has posed is the increased risk of wildfire.  Though wildfires commonly occur in California, the excessively dry land could potentially heighten the severity and size of wildfires this year.

Saltwater intrusion, the rise of saltwater into fresh water supply, is another risk that can be a result of the drought.  As the water levels in reservoirs, lakes, streams and rivers decrease, the dependence on groundwater has increased. If salt water intrudes into the fresh ground water, it can pose devastating consequences. One of the repercussions of the drought is water scarcity, even in places where it is expected most.  Water is not automatically served at restaurants, only by request.  It is irrefutable that global warming has impacted the drought in California, and how its impact has an effect on all of us.

However, not all areas are experiencing a loss of water. Many areas are experiencing the opposite side of climate change with excessive water being their adversity.

Climate change has increased the Earth’s overall temperature to such a severe degree that on average, the world’s glaciers have lost an approximate mass of 43 feet of vertical thickness that has melted into water. There is a facility called Glacier National Park in Montana. Only 26 of the 150 glaciers that were originally showcased in the museum remain. Some scientists estimate that by 2030, the remaining glaciers will be gone. Glaciers are not the only natural topographic formation of ice that has been influenced by the increasing climate.

Mountains develop layers of snow in the winter that melts in the spring and summer. This water runs down the mountains opening availability to water for those who live at the bottom of mountains. Over one sixth of the world’s population live in regions that are dependent on mountain water runoff. As climate continues to increase, the water will fall at a faster rate than it would be able to replenish itself during the winter seasons. The eventual reduction of water supply will force many residents to move away or find alternative sources for water.

The runoff caused by melting glaciers has begun to fill the oceans and caused sea level to rise. The temperature of the water has already started to increase on its own, and that warm water being in direct contact with the ice has caused further heating. These higher sea levels result directly in beach erosion, coastal flooding, and higher waves that put the lives of those living near bodies of water in danger.

“Sea levels are rising, polar ice caps are melting, heat waves are more present today than any other era in history…We could do something, but I don’t think it is possible to reverse damage that has already been done. Everyone’s mindset is not changing their views about the climate; they are more involved in their own lives than the environment,” says Perez, while discussing how weather has been affected by climate change.

A tropical nation, the Maldives, is a place composed of a series of islands in the Indian Ocean. On December 26, 2004, they experienced a massive tsunami that was naturally brought on by high tides and unnaturally accelerated by the rising sea levels. The fast waves swept away homes and people, leaving 100 civilians dead and 20,000 homeless.

“Being humans, we can adapt to an altered environment, but at what cost? We can have a huge amount of refugees with nowhere for these people to go but I’m optimistic and I think it’s possible, says Hyman, while discussing human durability in times of distress.

Between the destruction of schools, boats, hospitals, and transportation methods, an estimated $470 million became the damage total in the Maldives.

These were the immediate damages. However, the coral reefs in the Maldives are constantly threatened by climate change. The coral reefs are susceptible to coral bleaching and water acidity due to increased carbon dioxide levels. In the Maldives, the coral reefs are a primary source of income, as aquatic animals use them for shelter. This allows some of them to be caught and sold as sources of food. The rising acidity in the water could potentially destroy the remaining living coral reefs over the course of the next 100 years. This kind of destruction would decrease biodiversity in aquatic animals and food sources for humans.

While the drought in California and the melting of the polar icecaps have proven to threaten the environment, they are only the beginning of some of the modern day issues.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, Alaska is at the front lines of climate change. A recent study suggests that Alaska is heating up at twice the rate of the rest of the country; canaries in our climate coal mine. A new report shows that the warming of Alaska, along with the rest of the Arctic, is accelerating as the loss of snow and ice cover begins to set off a feedback loop of further warming. In addition to this, wrming in the wintertime has been the most dramatic– more than six degrees in the past 50 years and this is just a fraction of the warming that’s expected to come over the next few decades.

Yet, the most visible change is still in the shifting habitats of the fish, birds, trees, and animals. Last fall, a skipjack tuna, which is more likely to be found in the Galapagos than near a glacier, was caught about 150 miles southeast of Anchorage City, not far from the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.

The Kenai Peninsula has been practically tropical this winter. Rich Thoman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Alaska said, “I’m dumbfounded. Alaska keeps setting record after record and I keep look at the data like, has the temperature sensor gone out or something?”

Last year was Alaska’s warmest on record and the warm weather seems to have continued right on into 2015. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, February 2015 was the most extreme February on record with temperatures in the lower 48-degree mark. It also marked the first time that the two large sections of territory (more than 30 percent of the country each) experienced both exceptionally cold and warm weather in the same month. In addition to this, all-time records were set for the coldest month in dozens of Eastern cities like New York and Boston. Boston alone racked up more snow than the peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada. A single January snowstorm in Boston produced more snow than the notoriously snowy city of Anchorage has seen all winter.

As of March 9, Anchorage has received less than one-third of its normal amount of snow. So what exactly has taken its place? An abundance of rain. In fact schools in the Anchorage are now more likely to cancel school due to rain and street flooding than cold and snow. A recent study said that Alaska’s rivers and melting glaciers are now outputting more water than the Mississippi River.

The situation in Alaska has gotten so severe that surges of tropical moisture are warming up the water. The warm water is then making its way north into the Arctic Ocean. As of early March, sea ice levels were at their record lowest for the date. Resurgent heating of the pacific is also expected to give a boost to global warming over the next few years by releasing years of pent up oceanic energy into the atmosphere, pushing even more warm water towards the north, essentially melting Alaska from all sides.

On the state’s west coast some native coastal villages are facing an existential threat as sea levels rise in response to the warm water.

Chris Mooney, a Washington Post climate reporter, visited one of the six villages with natives considering relocation due to climate change. “Here, climate change is less a future threat and more a daily force, felt in drastic changes to weather, loss of traditional means of sustenance like whale hunting, and the literal vanishing of land,” wrote Mooney.

A recent shift in warmer offshore ocean temperatures is essentially adding more fuel to the fire, moving the state towards more profound tipping points like the irreversible loss of permafrost and increasingly violent weather patterns. In fact, if the current warm ocean phase (which began in 2014) holds for a decade or so, as is typical, Alaska will quickly become a different place.

While a lack of snow in Alaska is alarming, there has been an abundance of snow in places even more unimaginable.

For scientists who study the climate, it’s pretty easy to see the correlation between the Earth’s warming and snowfall. However, for an average resident of Texas it may not be as easy to spot, as some experts would hope. Most don’t see a contradiction between a warming world and lots of snow. That includes Kevin Trenberth, a prominent climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Trenberth said, “The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago means there’s about on average four percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans than there was, say, in the 1970s.”

In layman’s terms, warmer water means more water vapor rises up into the air, and what goes up must come down regardless of the form it takes.

“One of the consequences of a warming ocean near a coastline like the East Coast and Washington, D.C., for instance, is that you can get dumped on with more snow partly as a consequence of global warming,” said Trenberth.

According to results from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and results from the United Kingdom Hadley Centre’s climate model, a model that accounts for both greenhouse gases and aerosols, by 2100 temperatures in Texas could increase by about 3 °F (~1.7 °C) in spring (with a range of 1-6°F) and about 4 °F (~2.2 °C) in other seasons (with a range of 1-9°F). Precipitation is estimated to decrease by 5-30 percent in winter and increase by about 10 percent in the other seasons. This is alarming because it indicates that Texas’s weather can and will remain extreme during the cold and hot seasons if its residents and politicians don’t do more to reduce their use of non-renewable energy.

In Galveston Texas, sea levels are already rising by 25 inches (640 mm) per century, and it is likely to rise another 38 inches (970 mm) by 2100. Brown shrimp catch in the U.S. Gulf Coast could fall 25 percent with only a 10-inch (250 mm) rise in sea level. This means that for those who have a livelihood that is dependent on fishing and shrimp catching, there could not be much left in that profession. Forcing those fishermen to find a new trade or pick up and move the place they love so much all together.

****

For those who believe in global warning,  the atmosphere is warming due to human influence. They feel it is sad to imagine that in 25 short years, the country of Tuvalu will be wiped off the earth, yet, it may be the rude awakening some need to make more conscious decisions in his or her every day lives and minimize the human impact on the environment.

“People don’t believe in climate change because they don’t see it.  When something catastrophic happens, we will realize that we really have to do something about it,” Hyman proclaims.

“We need to have more people conscious of these threats so we can do something, but right now that is unfortunately not the case,” Perez states.

Mercy College students are fortunate to have such an inexhaustible mind such as Culhane’s. The impact he imposes on the minds of his students is unquestionable and inspiring. He has preached to many students of modern day issues and ways we can better our environment and lives. His disciples feel it is his influence that has birthed the next generation of planet superheroes.

“We’re lucky to have Dr. Culhane, he started the process of what we are doing now,” Hyman said. “We have already been to two different and dire parts of the world, its embedded in our future…we can still make changes.”

 

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Global Warming Poses Abrupt Impact