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Is that a glacier growing in my backyard? Musings of a global warming skeptic

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Snow is piled so deep in the valley behind my house in the Chugach Mountain foothills it looks like the coming of a new Ice Age. The hurricane-force winds of December, and those that followed, have swept the Front Range mountains largely bare of snow, but it all ended up in the valleys below. Some places in our valley, the snow is at least 40 feet deep, maybe more.

How do I know this? Because there are gullies hiked in past summers that have disppeared. I remember their depth. I remember length of the climb needed to get out of them, not to mention the sweat involved. And now it is possible to walk across the tops of these very same gullies. This is, quite literally, walking on water, but the water is trapped in the form of snow. It is deep here. It is deeper elsewhere.

The National Weather Service reports 43 feet of snow fell this winter at Main Bay in Prince William Sound. Glaciers start this way. Snow piles so high the pressure exerted by the snow on top becomes great enough to turn snow at the bottom into ice. Viola, a glacier.

I am confident I will not see a glacier forming in Paradise Valley. The snow in the mountains above the house will eventually melt, or at least most of it. There could be remnants still hanging on by the time it starts snowing next fall, but it takes more than one summer of remnant snow to start a glacier. The winter of record snowfall in Alaska's largest city does, however, lead some to wonder about global warming.

A big debate is raging around this subject once again because some former astronauts and administrators for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had the audacity to challenge that federal agency's strong stand on the subject. As is to be expected, the media hyped this a bit -- "49 former NASA scientists go ballistic over agency's bias over climate change,'' headlined the Financial Post, and in a blink the battle between those who wholeheartedly believe the planet is warming because of man's technology and those who remain even a tiny bit skeptical escalated.

The Holy Church of Climate Change doesn't take kindly to heretics. "NASA Climate Change Letter Belongs to Long Tradition of Fake Expertise'' was the headline on a follow-up story by political writer Lucia Graves at the Huffington Post. It quoted various experts peeing all over the 49 who'd dared to express skepticism.

Call me a skeptic

I admit to being a skeptic on climate change. My skepticism, however, is rooted in scientific reality. And the scientific reality is that there is a lot about how climate works that remains unresolved. The National Weather Service has a hard time predicting the climate a few days out, let alone a few months out, and yet we are all to embrace the idea that someone out there can predict what the weather will be decades into the future?

That's a little hard to buy. I'm not going to take that deal from a scientist any more than from a used-car salesman.

On the other hand, there is one key fact that no one can overlook. So let's forget about climate change or global warming and focus on that fact for a minute. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been steadily on the rise for a century or more. This is well documented for the last 50 years in regular samples taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Much of this carbon dioxide can be linked to human technology -- car, planes, trains, power plants, factories.

Aside from dams and nuclear power plants, most devices man has made to produce power yield carbon dioxide as a byproduct. You could probably even include your bicycle. A body is an engine of sorts, and when revved up, it takes in more oxygen for power and pushes out more carbon dioxide as waste. This is the way of all machines, and we are in the machine age.

There are those who take a simplistic view on this: "Don't worry, be happy; the planet will sort it all out.'' This is the Gaia Theory. I sort of like it. Certainly the planet has done a pretty good job of taking care of us so far, but one has to wonder if it is wise to charge blindly ahead counting solely on fate. I don't think so, although I admit I come to this conclusion backwards, having covered two major oil spills, the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, I was exposed to the constant drone of Chicken Littles going on and on ad infinitum about how the environment would never be the same.

This was and is simply wrong. I was trained as a scientist. One of the realities of chemistry truly is that "the solution to pollution is dilution.'' Any pollutant out there will be rendered benign if you dilute it enough, and nature dilutes everything over time. The planet's climate is more powerful than the people who live on the planet. Sun, wind and water -- in all its forms -- tear things down, break things apart, and push the planet always back toward natural states. If anyone out there has their doubts, I'd invite them along on a tour of Alaska's old "Inland Empire'' between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in the Interior. There is pretty much nothing there now but nothing.

Dilution solution 

The empire is gone. The planet's power of reclamation is astounding, so I worry less about visible pollution than a lot of people I know -- while worrying more about invisible pollution. Invisible pollution is easy to overlook. My concern here goes back to another old scientific cliche: "Johnny was a scientist, but Johnny ain't no more, because what Johnny thought was H20 was H2SO4.''

For those of you without training in chemistry, H2SO4 is the formula for sulfuric acid. It is a clear liquid that looks just like water. If you get it on your skin, it will burn the hell out of you. C02, the formula for carbon dioxide, won't burn the hell out of you. But it shares something in common with sulfuric acid in that it looks like something benign or nearly benign.

Most know that CO2 is a gas that looks like air because it is part of the air we breath. At certain concentrations, it’s vital. Plants need to take in CO2 to survive via photosynthesis, the way plants produce the sugar they need to live. Given that plant are the basis of nearly all life on the planet, most especially human life, a healthy volume of CO2 in the atmosphere is a good thing. But too much of a good thing can be as bad as too little.

Which brings us back to that old saying that "the solution to pollution is dilution.'' This also works sort of in reverse. Anything in a great enough concentration can become a pollutant -- even water. There was a big scare related to this a few years back when it was revealed that at least eight deaths in marathon-style running events could be linked to exercise-induced hyponatremia, which is really nothing more than drinking too much water.

Essentially, to oversimplify this, eight people poisoned themselves to death by drinking too much water, which ought to be enough to make any reasonable person wonder about the CO2 in the atmosphere.

Who knows the future? 

To hell with global warming or climate change. The scientists who think they can see the future might be right, and they might be wrong. Who knows? Scientists haven't really shown themselves to be all that much better than non-scientists at predicting the future. So maybe they should stop the doomsday nonsense about what's over the horizon and focus on the here and now.

Andrew Revkin, the climate reporter for the New York Times, has blogged on this and offered some interesting thoughts from yet another astronaut, Russell Schweickart. Schweickart makes the case that it's only sensible to try to reduce carbon dioxide while preparing to adapt to a warmer world, because the planet – Alaska this year aside -- to be getting warmer.

"But,'' Schweickart adds, "(these) are all very modest thoughts compared with the 'religiously' held beliefs of the pro/anti human-caused-climate-change advocates."

Amen to that.

The name calling is getting a little old. So is the righteousness. The absolute truth is that no human can know with certainty what the future holds, and any scientist who makes the claim he or she can shouldn't be a scientist. Tomorrow is Earth’s new experiment. We can look back through climate record and make some guesses, maybe some really good and scientifically enlightened guesses. But they remain guesses.

None of us "know'' what is going happen. Hell, for all we know some crazy folks in North Korea could ignite a global nuclear war in the decades ahead, and the planet’s inhabitants could be facing "nuclear winter'' instead of "global warming.''

Worrisome ocean acidification

One thing we do know is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going up. Not much is being done about it. And the first signs of a problem serious problem -- ocean acidification -- are appearing. Alaskans, loving their salmon as they do, ought to be concerned about this, but they're not. They're like Americans.

Nobody wants to make the sacrifices necessary to cut CO2 emissions. We're sort of wedded to the way we do things now because, well, it all looks so innocent. The nitrogen oxides that used to spew out of our motor vehicles, leading to that ugly smog over American cities, have been pretty much eliminated thanks to technology. The modern motor vehicle emits mainly a clear, odorless gas -- carbon dioxide. Our home furnaces do the same.

Unlike an oil spill, CO2 doesn't look like a problem. So why do anything?

We could better insulate our homes and slow this seep of CO2 into the atmosphere.  We could drive less, maybe even, God forbid, utilize mass transit. But we don't because it would be troublesome and difficult and, well, who cares about how much carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere when it's so much more fun to argue over climate change.

And, hey, you can look around right now and easily rationalize. Global warming? C'mon, be real. It's the middle of April, and there's still snow everywhere. Global warming is a lot of bunk.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com