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Published On: Wed, Oct 22nd, 2014

Mother Nature: As mothers tend to children

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By Ambrose Inusa Sule.

The overriding environmental issue of our time is the warming of the planet. But, I’m not going to bore anybody about the definition or meaning of Climate change. But still, for those who would not have bothered to know what is climate change, it is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years.

It may be a change in average weather conditions, or in the distribution of weather around the average conditions (i.e., more or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change is caused by factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions. Certain human activities have also been identified as significant causes of recent climate change, often referred to as “global warming”. There are skeptics who believe that global warming is one of the biggest frauds of our era, with some even believing that it was

designed to harm the US economy and make the UN more powerful. Others feel it is simpler than that and instead, climate scientists are able to make a lot of money by using fear as a tool to earn more research grants.

Last August, a final report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the world faces “severe, widespread and irreversible” effects of climate change unless it takes urgent action to limit global warming by cutting back on burning fossil fuels.

It warned that extreme weather such as floods, heat waves and droughts are expected to become more common while climate change may even worsen the risk of violent conflicts.

The UN has set a target of limiting global warming to 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels. But the experts said it appears increasingly likely that target will be missed, leading to more severe impacts.

But, be as it may, last week, there seems to be something to cheer, as new researches indicate that global warming may not be damaging the Earth as quickly as feared, that plants can soak up more carbon dioxide than previously thought, thus lessening global warming and providing us with more time to get it under control.

It was originally thought that vegetation on Earth currently removes one quarter of all human emissions. But the new study suggests it is far higher.

The new findings argued that climate models have failed to take into account that when carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, plants thrive, become larger, and are able to absorb more CO2.

As part of the carbon cycle, plants use light to photo-synthesize carbon dioxide, turning it into carbohydrate to grow and releasing oxygen as a waste product.

As reported by new American research, it seems Mother Nature, has again come to our rescue? As mothers tend to be, nature has long been very forgiving. For centuries she took everything humanity threw at her without seriously striking back. In spite of what humanity has done to her, however devastating to existing ecosystems, she kept

protecting and providing.

In an age of global environmental threats, the Earth’s oceans and terrestrial vegetation quietly take up half the carbon dioxide we emit, acting as a massive buffer against climate change.

Before now, there have been disturbing signs that this buffer is weakening, that the seas, as they warm, for example, may be absorbing less of the greenhouse gas, which makes the new findings published in the blue-chip Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, worth the news.

The researchers found that a well-known effect of increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the boosting of plant growth, itself then taking up more of the greenhouse gas, may have been underestimated by 16 per cent, because the gas remains in leaves longer than had been thought.

Assuming that they are right, and scientists regard the research as true, it seems nature is being even more forgiving than we knew. But, scientists also point out that there are limits to Mother Nature’s patience. The fertilising effect of carbon dioxide is unlikely to continue into the long term because trees and vegetation run into other restraints on growth, notably shortages of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and it favours faster-growing species

that then die earlier (on “the live fast, die young” principle), releasing the carbon dioxide they have accumulated.

Also, while the extra growth takes more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, other processes work in the opposite direction. Organisms in the soil, for example, exhale more of the gas as they get warmer, and unfortunately, this seems to increase exponentially even as the fertilising effect wears off.

The basic physics of global warming are undisputed by any serious protagonist, on either side. Sunlight passes through the atmosphere, like glass in a greenhouse, warming the earth. Much of it is reflected back as infrared radiation, and a great deal is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially water vapour and carbon dioxide, heating the world further.

Without this natural process, the earth would be 20C colder, and uninhabitable. Logically, increasing these gases, for instance, by emitting carbon dioxide, raises temperatures further, as if adding a blanket to the duvet.

What makes things interesting is how this plays out in the complex natural systems of the planet, producing both reinforcing and offsetting feedbacks. The role of clouds, for example, is hotly debated.

Broadly speaking, low clouds reflect more heat back into space than they trap while, with higher clouds, it is the other way round. The big question is: which will dominate in a warmer world? In another example of nature’s forgiveness, air pollutants make clouds more reflective, thus lessening warming. But as we rightly clean our skies, this benefit is lost. Meanwhile, rising temperatures increase the amount of warming water vapour in the atmosphere, while melting

ice exposes darker land or water, which absorbs more heat.

All this is wrapped up in a debate over just how much the world will warm from a given increase in carbon dioxide. On balance, it seems that this is less than had been thought, if only because other pollutants such as black carbon (soot) are known to have a much greater effect than had been realized, but not so much so as to remove

the need for urgent action.

For leading scientists, however, this debate is something of a distraction. Instead, we should be focusing on the changes the world already seems to be experiencing from the relatively low levels of warming everyone agrees have already occurred.

We pray that the long-suffering Mother Nature will keep up its motherly role by protecting us despite our prodigal behaviours.


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