I’ve been wanting to write about climate change for a long time but it’s been too hot.
Utahns have an unusually good perspective on climate change. Just look out the window. The glaciated valleys of the Wasatch Mountains demonstrate how rapidly things can change.
When the Paleo-Indians arrived in the Salt Lake Valley around 12,000 years ago, there were glaciers in the mountains, mammoths roaming the banks of Lake Bonneville and the lot where my house sits in Sandy was under 100 feet of water. That’s climate change.
Today climatologists agree that the Earth is getting warmer faster than ever before and they have the statistics to prove it. It’s not rocket science. It involves balloons and thermometers.
The key work was done by Benjamin Santer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the mid 1990s. Since the 1960s there has been no doubt that the Earth was warming up and that the atmosphere was becoming more polluted, but a direct link had not been made between man-made pollution and climate change.
The key to making this connection was the vertical structure of the atmosphere. If warming is caused by the sun, you would expect the whole atmosphere to warm up. If climate change is caused by volcanic activity, you would expect dust from these eruptions to absorb sunlight and cause cooling in the lower atmosphere.
But greenhouse gases are trapped in the lower atmosphere. If they are the culprit, the lower half of the atmosphere will warm up and the upper half will cool down. Santer’s research, replicated by many others, documents a telltale warming of the lower atmosphere and cooling of the upper atmosphere. End of story.
That’s the balloons and thermometers part. Here’s the effect. Nearly all glaciers in the world are receding, and the summer Arctic polar ice cap is almost gone. The Northwest Passage over North America and the Northeast Passage over Asia are now realities. That’s not subtle.
That’s the ice story; consider our forests in the West. Years of drought have allowed bark beetles to infest billions of trees. In some parts of the northern Uinta Mountains, the forest is dead. The development of pitch is the trees only defense against these beetles and in drought years they cannot repel the invaders. That’s the beetles story. There are many more.
Ignoring mankind’s effect on climate change is irresponsible. Whether it’s rapidly receding glaciers, bark beetle infestations, increases in carbon dioxide, superstorms, killer tornadoes, rising sea levels and ocean temperatures or smog in the Salt Lake Valley, it hits you right between the eyes.
Earth’s climate is always changing, but we are the first species to inhabit the place that can actually do something about it. In Utah this represents an enormous opportunity.
In the West desert we have the wind, the sun and the space to harness an enormous power source. The new wind farm near Milford and the massive solar farm planned near Delta are windows into out future and show what we can do if we invest and innovate.
The sooner we make the transition from carbon fuels to renewable energy, the sooner the atmosphere will begin to heal, the sooner we will begin to reverse the contamination of 250 years of industrialization and the sooner we can start to breathe easier.
In the meantime, the enormous opportunity in Utah lies in the power of the wind and the sun and the luxury of space. How will we respond? What was the mammoth’s response?
Brian K. Jones is a consulting economic geologist, ski instructor and farmer. He spends his winters teaching skiing and his summers in Alaska and the Andes.
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