Global warming was predicted in1895 by Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) the Swedish chemist who was the father of physical chemistry. His insight about climate change occurred incidental to studies of the infra-red (heat rays) absorption spectra of common gases. Carbon dioxide absorbed much more (by orders of magnitude) of the infra-red than any other atmospheric gas—so much more that its absorption dominates the total absorption of infra-red by all the other gases of air combined, and it was present in air at less than the present 1/25 of 1% (0.04%)!
It was already known that the carbon dioxide content of air had been increasing since the industrial revolution with its increased use of fossil fuel. Hence the prediction of climate change. Arrhenius received a Nobel Prize in 1908 for working out the mathematics of changes in the speed of chemical reactions with variations in the concentrations of the reactants and their temperature. Now that there is expert consensus that global warming is occurring, what does the public need to know about it? Most of us have already heard that we need to conserve energy to reduce extra carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere and to plant more trees to remove it. The concept of “tipping points” in climate change is more complicated.
A tipping point means a change that becomes self-perpetuating so that a large rather permanent change continues even if the initial causes can be removed completely. An example is the melting of ice caps; take Greenland for instance. Greenland is the world’s largest island with a ring of mountains around the coast. Much of the internal land surface is below sea level, but most of the central ice is at about 10,000 feet in elevation—higher than the summits of the coastal mountains. Currently the warming glaciers are increasing their iceberg production by discharge through valleys in the mountains, but the same climate change is increasing the snowfall on the higher elevations almost as much. When these higher elevations can no longer be sustained because of the net loss of ice, more of the precipitation now falling as snow will fall as rain; the surface of the central ice will recede in altitude causing progressive warming there (a good hiker can climb through several climate zones in a day). This warming will be in addition to the worldwide global warming. The tipping point will come when even sudden total cessation of general warming could not stop the progressive warming of central Greenland that would be caused by the receding elevation of the ice surface. Further warming by the lower altitude would continue until all the ice would be gone each summer, and it would take a new glacial ice age to bring the mass of it back—not very soon. There is enough ice in Greenland now to raise sea level 5 or 10 feet. This would make many islands uninhabitable and make some coastal cities unwilling “Venices” with canals instead of streets, and the raised sea level would persist for millennia even if our present climate were restored. Once a “tipping point” is passed, progression to a very different state of affairs becomes inevitable and will persist for a very long time. As already mentioned, a new glacial age would have to intervene.
The foregoing is only one example of a tipping point. Another one might stall or greatly weaken the Gulf Stream and actually make Northern Europe colder even while the rest of the world is getting warmer. Is this why Germany is installing wind turbines faster than any other country? I think the Germans are smart enough that might actually be the case. For another tipping point see “Runaway Global Warming” (sometimes called the clathrate gun hypothesis) on www.frantzmd.info
While deciding your personal opinion about global warming, please use more fluorescent lights (a 75% energy saving), buy more fuel efficient vehicles, and swim or hike instead of buying jet skis or all-terrain vehicles for recreation—bicycling is OK too. All of these suggestions cost less than nothing.
John A. Frantz, MD
January 6, 2007