Friday, January 15, 2010

Is Haiti a microcosm of humanity's future?

The uniformly awful scenes of devastation in Haiti, redolent in their embodiment of sheer hopelessness, unfathomable loss and the inability to move aid to help - because of the collapsed infrastructure- are almost beyond human comprehension. But is it possible the images we are seeing are a portent of our planet's future? That Haiti is a microcosm of what will be befall humanity, possibly as soon as 2070?

It may very well be.

Right now the machinery for the planet's future devastation is up and running. No, not a planet-wide earthquake, nor the 2012 nonsense. I am talking about the runaway greenhouse effect. Right now the only thing abating it are some factor to do with the current sunpot cycle (keeping the total irradiance somewhat lower than expected) and global dimming - based on the presence of particulates in the atmosphere.

Once those two factors abate, and they will, we will be hurtling toward a hellhole world. Most climate specialists in the know believe we're already in the first stages of a positive feedback, non-linear effect that is leading right into the maw of the runaway greenhouse. (Though most will not own up to it publicly for fear of raising alarm. )

The basis has already been described by Sagan and others: Melting of ice caps (already occurring) results in diminished albedo (reflection of solar radiation back into space), a darker Earth surface - with more IR absorbed - reinforcing the closure while enhancing global warming. At the same time global warming is accelerated in the oceans, and both El Nino and La Nina are ramped up in the unfolding panorama of global warming (cf. S. George Philander in Eos, March 31, 1998, ‘Who is El Nino?’)

As more ice melts from the polar regions, entropy increases - and positive feedback proceeds faster. The overall (mean) ocean temperature continues to rise - ultimately becoming too hot for any marine life- and reaching equilibrium temperature somewhere in the next 500 years.

A general diagram for positive feedback of a type that can achieve this is well known. One just assumes some gain 'g' - in this case driven by population increase. A rough diagram for some such mechanism can be given as:

(Direct stress)---

[Direct Mechanism]------>
Gain = g..................................{closed}
!---------[Feedback Mechanism]---!

By 'total effect' - we mean the CO2 accumulation arising from population growth and its inevitable increased output, from consumption, wastes, fuel use (burning etc.) Where Total effect =

Direct Effect x (1 + g + g^2 + ........) = (Direct effect)/ ((1- g)

If gain g is proportional to population size then:

g = k (const.) x population

For example at a population of 6 billion (6 x 10^9) let the gain factor for increase in CO2 concentration per century be 0.7 (By way of illustration, if the CO2 concentration reaches 550 ppm by 2100, from 380 ppm today, the increase or gain g = (550 - 380)/ 380 = 270/ 380 = 0.71 Now, g (6 x 10^9) = 0.7 .

But: 1/ (1- g) = 1/ (1- 0.7) = 1/0.3 = 3.33

Thus, total effect = 3.33 x (direct effect)

Now, let the population grow to 10 billion, or a 40% increase - which linear relation implies 0.7 will increase by 40% or to 0.98. Then: g(10 x 10^9) = 0.98 and 1/(1 - g) = 1 /[1- 0.98] = 1/ (0.02)= 50

So the total effect via carbon deposition in the atmosphere is now 50 times greater. In other words, a 40% population increase precipitates a 50-factor or 50/ 3.33 or 1500% increase in response. Of course, if the gain g is nonlinearly related to population increase, the situation would be drastically worse - in any case- we'd be well ensconced in the runaway greenhouse effect, with perhaps 3-4 centuries before the oceans begin vaporizing. (And all life on Earth rendered extinct, of course!) Another 4 to reach conditions close to Venus: 460C or temperatures high enough to melt lead.

The preliminary effects will be felt long before - possibly by 2019.

One begins with the global mean air temperature increasing to an average of 120F to 130F daily for places like NYC, Chicago, London, Paris. (David Suzuki, in his It’s a Matter Of Survival , Harvard, 1990, predicts the first ‘year of no seasons’ by 2030.) People saw what happened with 11,400 dead from the heat waves in Paris. Now multiply that thousands of times for thousands of cities.

We now project forward to a 125 -day heat wave in 2020, lasting from March 1 through September 1, affecting most of the northern hemisphere- with temperatures reaching 130-140F each day and barely 100 F at night. For the first few days people can manage as they keep fans and/or ac going. By the fifth day or so, however, most power grids will no longer be able to sustain capacity and will overload. Now people must face the full brunt of the heat. Next to go down, along with the power grids, will be the water pumping systems which depend on electricity - and wouldn't be able to run past another few days even with generators.

People will now be not only subjected to infernal heat, but will not be able to slake their thirst with water. As they desperately drink from toilet bowls or go to streams and lakes - cryptosporidium outbreaks will become rampant. This is the same parasite that sickened more than 490,000 in an outbreak in Milwaukee in 1994. It affects the body like cholera, producing nearly 20 liters per day of watery diarrhea.

By twenty days into the mammoth heat wave -the first of the runaway era- more than 100 million people will be sickened or suffering from heat stroke in the U.S. alone. More than one fourth will suffer from cryptosporidium, amoebic dysentery (already working its way into the U.S. via warming), and possibly cholera as enormous algal blooms flood the Mississippi delta all the way up to Minneapolis.

With no water systems working, of course, the diarrhetic output will have to be anywhere people can find - so polluting more watersheds and spreading the illnesses. As they spread, dehydration increases and even more die - 33 million will likely be dead after just the first month of the heat wave.

Transport systems will be unable to ferry people to their jobs, because subway and rail lines will all be distorted from the heat, via expansion. Highways themselves will buckle and literally fold from the sustained heat - making the earthquake ruined roads in Port-au-Prince look tame by comparison.

With no water, and diseases spreading - and few medical centers able to even do triage- more than 150 million in the U.S. alone is possible by the time the heat wave ends. In Europe and China, etc. likely more than 300 million dead. Perhaps 500 million worldwide.

As it is, we will be at the cusp of extinction with the death of 70% of all phyto-plankton in the oceans, and the collapse of food chains world wide – not to mention the literal cremation of most food crops, etc.

Even if humanity survives this first sustained heat wave of the runaway greenhouse era- it will be in a much rationed environment. Food stocks will be meager, prices sky high - think of the images from the movie 'Soylent Green' and how the two main characters (played by Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson) just savored a meager cut of beef and some potato. Food will be that scarce by the end of the first prolonged heat wave.

As you watch the continued scenes unfolding in Haiti, look very carefully. For within them are also the first glimpses of what humanity as a whole will confront in the not too distant future. If you are an elderly person, than your lucky stars your further days are numbered. If you are young....well, ......good luck!

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