Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, cloud forests are drying, and wildlife is scrambling to keep pace. It’s becoming clear that humans have caused most of the past century’s warming by releasing heat-trapping gases as we power our modern lives. Called greenhouse gases, their levels are higher now than in the last 650,000 years.
Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, cloud forests are drying, and wildlife is scrambling to keep pace. It’s becoming clear that humans have caused most of the past century’s warming by releasing heat-trapping gases as we power our modern lives. Called greenhouse gases, their levels are higher now than in the last 650,000 years. What will we do to slow this warming? How will we cope with the changes we’ve already set into motion? While we struggle to figure it all out, the face of the Earth as we know itâ€”coasts, forests, farms and snow-capped mountainsâ€”hangs in the balance.
Earth has warmed by about 1ÂºF over the past 100 years. But why? And how? Well, scientists are not exactly sure. The Earth could be getting warmer on its own, but many of the world’s leading climate scientists think that things people do are helping to make the Earth warmer.
Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change, and Global Warming
The Greenhouse Effect: Scientists are sure about the greenhouse effect. They know that greenhouse gases make the Earth warmer by trapping energy in the atmosphere.
Climate Change: Climate is the long-term average of a region’s weather events lumped together. For example, it’s possible that a winter day in Buffalo, New York, could be sunny and mild, but the average weather â€“ the climate â€“ tells us that Buffalo’s winters will mainly be cold and include snow and rain. Climate change represents a change in these long-term weather patterns. They can become warmer or colder. Annual amounts of rainfall or snowfall can increase or decrease.
Global Warming: Global warming refers to an average increase in the Earth’s temperature, which in turn causes changes in climate. A warmer Earth may lead to changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level, and a wide range of impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans. When scientists talk about the issue of climate change, their concern is about global warming caused by human activities.
Scientists have determined that a number of human activities are contributing to global warming by adding excessive amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide accummulate in the atmosphere and trap heat that normally would exit into outer space.
Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming
While many greenhouse gases occur naturally and are needed to create the greenhouse effect that keeps the Earth warm enough to support life, human use of fossil fuels is the main source of excess greenhouse gases. By driving cars, using electricity from coal-fired power plants, or heating our homes with oil or natural gas, we release carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Deforestation is another significant source of greenhouse gases, because fewer trees means less carbon dioxide conversion to oxygen.
During the 150 years of the industrial age, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by 31 percent. Over the same period, the level of atmospheric methane has risen by 151 percent, mostly from agricultural activities such as raising cattle and growing rice.
The Consequences of Global Warming
As the concentration of greenhouse gases grows, more heat is trapped in the atmosphere and less escapes back into space. This increase in trapped heat changes the climate and alters weather patterns, which may hasten species extinction, influence the length of seasons, cause coastal flooding, and lead to more frequent and severe storms.
Algae Can Save the World From Global Warming While Producing Biofuel
Scientists at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom are conducting research into ways to use algae to not only remove global warming-causing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also in the synthesis of new biofuels that do not compete with food production.
Algae is being eagerly investigated for its ability to remove vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turning it into oxygen. It was this process that originally led to the creation of the Earth’s current atmospheric composition and allowed for life as we know it. It was also the decomposition of algae on the ocean floor that eventually led to many of today’s existing petroleum deposits.
“So we are harvesting sunshine directly using algae, then we are extracting that stored energy in the form of oil from the alga and then using that to make fuels and other non-petroleum based products,” said Steve Skill of Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
Plymouth scientists are not the only ones working on turning algae into viable fuel. Companies trying to get into the game include Sapphire Energy, Origin Oil, BioCentric Energy and PetroAlgae. Japan Airlines has already test-flown a plane fueled with a combination of biofuels (some derived from algae) and conventional jet fuel.
Part of the appeal of algae biofuel is the same as that of other biofuels — because plants absorb carbon dioxide while they grow, they are thought to make up for the carbon dioxide emissions when fuels derived from them are burned. Algae has the added benefit of growing well in places unsuitable for human food production, this making it less likely to affect food prices as corn-derived ethanol has been accused of doing. It also grows 20-30 times faster than most food crops.
Scientists from Plymouth and elsewhere are also investigating algae for its ability to absorb the carbon dioxide given off by the burning of fossil fuels. Brazilian company MPX Energia is already planning to start using algae to capture emissions from a coal plant as soon as 2011.