Friday, May 23, 2014

When Will the World End?

I have received episodic queries asking if the world is about to end? Sometimes these correlate with apocalyptic movies being released. Sometimes they are triggered by an uneducated conspiracy theorist (an oxymoron) somewhere with nothing better to do than to look at seismic data freely available on the web. For instance, does the latest seismic activity in Yellowstone portend the end of the world? That one turned out to be an instrumentation issue not understood by the conspiracy theorist. Do the huge earthquakes off the coast of Chile and Japan mean that the End Times are approaching? We’ve all seen trailers for movies like “Volcano” (“The Coast is Toast”), and “2012”, and I have little patience with these attempts to make money.

But when willthe world really end?  Or at least become unrecognizable to us, or even uninhabitable?

Current understanding of the evolution of the Sun suggests that it is about 5 billion years old and will likely continue burning for another 5 billion years. It may start fusing helium to carbon and turn blood red before then, but the time is so distant as to be irrelevant to us.

What about things heading south on somewhat shorter time scales? An article by Wolf and Toon ( suggests that there will first be a “moist greenhouse runaway” event, followed by the loss of all water from the surface of the Earth, followed by a runaway thermal greenhouse situation – like Venus is currently experiencing. The Sun increases its energy output by roughly 1% every 100-110 million years. In other words, it will continue growing slowly hotter on the planet Earth (see an earlier chapter on the Faint Young Sun Paradox here:

As solar output grows, the Earth’s surface temperature should steadily rise. When it does, water vapor concentrations in the lower atmosphere will increase, and this will lead to an increase in water vapor in the Stratosphere. Solar radiation there will break down water molecules, and the Solar Wind will then blow them away into space, leading eventually to a waterless surface.  This may be what happened to Mars billions of years ago, made to happen faster and earlier due to its weaker gravity. 

Some earlier research had suggested, based on computer simulations, that a “moist greenhouse runaway” process would start about 170 million years from now, and that a full thermal runaway (the “Venus Effect”) would start around 650 million years from now. However, Wolf and Toon factor in ocean-atmosphere moderating effects from those same surface waters, and calculate something more like 1.5 billion years before the onset of the “moist greenhouse runaway” event. 

Somehow I find this difficult to worry about.

What about bad things happening on shorter time scales? For instance, what is climate change really leading to? There is no shortage of either Climate Doomsday or Climate Rubbish prophets. A recent article in EOS (Transactions, American Geophysical Union, Vol. 95, No. 18, 6 May 2014, Wuebbles et al, link here: provides several illuminating graphs included here for interested readers. Figure 1 shows the severity of weather in the United States on a decade-by-decade basis starting in the 1950’s. It’s hard to argue with a graph like this: climate change is clearly well underway (see the earlier chapter on Climate Change – is it real? Here:

Figure 1. Extreme weather events in the United States by decade since the 1950's (Wuebbels, et al., 2014).

Figure 2 actually lays out the consequences for climate change: what things will look like for different parts of the country for the 2070-2099 timeframe. A short summary: it all gets hotter (no surprise), and the precipitation generally increases (surprise), except for the southwest, where precipitation will decrease (no surprise). More and greater hurricanes are projected (no surprise), but the numbers of severe tornadoes and severe East Coast winter storms have not increased in six decades and may not with the increasing CO2 and methane in our atmosphere (surprise). The minimum temperature in Alaska will be between 12 and 15 degrees (Celsius) warmer – not bad for people like me who don’t like white stuff on the ground. Perhaps more surprisingly, the northern tier of the Continental United States will get warmest – by about 6-11 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Mean precipitation will stay pretty much the same in the Southwest – but it will be 6-8 degrees Celsius hotter, leading to drier conditions even with that precipitation. This will make those Phoenix afternoons somewhat less survivable as the century develops. 

Figure 2. What we can expect, region by region, from climate change if CO2 and methane continue to be produced by fossil fuel consumption at current rates (Wuebbels et al., 2014). 

What about economic impacts? The American Breadbasket of the central and northern plains will be seriously threatened by increasing drought conditions. Perhaps we should stop wasting 10% of our corn crop for ethanol

What can anyone do on their own? You should consider investing in land in the Canadian Prairie Provinces – but NOT anywhere near a modern coastline. Estimates of seawater rise vary – but they are all on the positive side, and low-lying areas like the Jersey coast, Florida, and New Orleans will be the Big Losers. An attempt to rationalize flood insurance following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy lasted just two years – then appeals to congresspersons for relief from dramatically increased flood insurance rates “won” again. The end result is that people are rebuilding low-lying areas, and the American taxpayer will be expected to bail them out at enormous expense yet again.  Hurricane by hurricane. Science deniers apparently don’t believe in gravity, either.

Ultimately, if the world was going to end in 1,000 years, how would that be different from 1,000,000 years or 1,000,000,000 years? How would you change your life?

If you’re rational, you would not worry about the End of the World too much - unless you live on the Jersey Shore, or Florida, or New Orleans. If you are both rational and responsible, you would consider replacing your gas-guzzling SUV for something that gets better mileage. If you are still bothered, go help at a Sharing House for people who cannot get enough to eat, and you’ll feel quite a bit better afterwards.  

You will have increasing opportunities for this with time.

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