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A dark forecast

Earth and sunlight-dimming clouds
Image courtesy of NASA/Earth Science and Image Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center
The Earth and smoggy, sunlight-dimming cloud cover.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you'll remember that for three days, all American air flights were grounded. You may also remember that the weather was remarkably warm and bright. As it turns out, that may have given us a heads-up about a disaster likely to be far larger in scope than that of September 11, as Nova documents on this evening's "Dimming of the Sun" (PBS, check local listings). It's just an hour, but in case you haven't got time to sit down with the episode, there's some important stuff in here for you.

It turns out that particle-type air pollution -- of which planes make a great deal -- has probably been keeping a significant amount of solar radiation from reaching the planet's surface. This dimming effect has artificially reduced the impact of global warming; when the pollution diminished radically for those few days, the warming became dramatically obvious. Even a three-day pause in contrail emissions, like that after 9/11, showed a two-degree average increase in daily temperature range (hotter days, cooler nights). A jump like that is huge news in climate circles -- such a small change in the system, such a pronounced and rapid effect.

Nova does good work -- this episode's a collaboration between Boston's WGBH and a UK production house -- and I was struck repeatedly during the hour by the excellent computer graphics and gorgeous location photography. (Such a beautiful planet we've got here. Shame how we've wrecked the place.) There are some excellent interviews, including those with Dr. Gerald Stanhill and James Hanson. But what you'll get out of it, and what you should get out of it, is the accumulating data that indicates that we are not just in trouble, but in the kind of trouble that looks worse the more you investigate it.


Further tests indicated that the dimming, which both bounces sunlight back into space and shades the terrain beneath, may block as much of 30 percent of the sunlight that would normally reach the ground in some regions. This dimming offsets the obvious effects of global warming -- creating a tug of war between the two, with the actual climate in the middle. This may sound like excellent news -- system equalizing itself and so forth. Um, no.

Plane contrails aren't the only cause of pollution, of course, and some of the things we've done to combat global warming (catalytic converters, less use of aerosol sprays, end of ultra-polluting factories in certain parts of the world) have decreased our particle-pollution cover without addressing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. In essence, we're losing what turned out to be a protective layer of schmutz -- and since previous studies of global warming factored in that dimming effect as a given, the actual effects of global warning are apt to be bigger than we expected…and they'll arrive sooner than we think.

And no, we can't just decide we're going to keep polluting our way to a "happy" medium. Not only has global dimming masked the worst of the overall warming trend, but it may be wrecking weather patterns, particularly those of monsoon season. Cooler weather means the necessary rains aren't drawn to their accustomed areas of Asia and Africa; the disastrous droughts in Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa were probably early indicators of the phenomenon. Now the monsoon season is coming later each year to India and South Asia. If the monsoon failure becomes chronic, the effect on world food supplies will be incalculable.

It gets worse. That particle-type pollution has been on the decline since about 1990, and scientists have been seeing an increase in the rate of warming since then. If current trends continue -- decreasing particulate pollutions without actually reducing greenhouse-gas emissions -- we get the worst possible mix, warming and no cooling. The runaway warming trend that climatologists have predicted will arrive sooner, with the global ice sheets disappearing within decades.

And remember how all the major impact from global warming was going to start showing, assuming we don't change our ways, by the end of the century? Correcting for global dimming, that tipping point is now the end of the decade. Rapid, again, is the word to take away from all this. Had we recognized the global-dimming phenomenon more rapidly, we might have had more wiggle room (and that's a major "might," considering there are still fringe elements out there claiming that global warming's not real). We didn't. Now we don't.

By the end of the century, unchecked warming could mean an 18-degree temperature rise, which will mean everything from global famine to mass release of the methane frozen at the bottom of our oceans and permafrost… which would kick the temperature up yet further. Mass extinctions and destruction of the rainforest would further worsen the problem, possibly past the point of recovery. Our species wouldn't see the end of it, in any case. (Note to planet: If you recover from this and decide to evolve life again, I'd pass on anything involving opposable thumbs.)


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Absolutley rubbish, alarmism, and self serving. Any hack with an agenda can write this hogwash.

Posted by: Mark Adrian | Apr 18, 2006 10:30:28 PM

Impressive review, sir, considering that based on your timestamp the show hadn't aired yet in your part of the country. Why didn't anyone tell me the Psychic Friends Network had gone broadband?

Posted by: AG | Apr 18, 2006 10:59:31 PM

Mark... don't you find it interesting that BP is one of the major sponsors of Nova? I mean, they aren't really in a business that values environmentalism are they?

Does there have to be the equivalent of another fatal London smog for people to believe that there might be a problem?

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 18, 2006 11:47:41 PM

Matthew, I fear it's not just that we'll need another killer smog, but that we'll need it in every city and town to make the point. The program's producer says that rather baldly in the discussion area of the show's Web site, in fact. He's no more optimistic than I am, alas; can't imagine living with this project on my plate for all the months it must have taken to put it together!

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, in part to keep me from knee-jerk anger at a certain sort of what we'll call Bugblatter reasoning, on which more anon. Never in the history of humankind have we had more access (visuals, audio, firsthand account, scientific analysis, not to mention all the distribution mechanisms) to info that can help us develop a fuller picture of our world. And once upon a time, exposure to that information led to *action*. Vietnam and the 1985 Ethiopian famine are but two examples.

But now here we are, 21st century, confronting what is likely to be the disaster that brings our civilization into... well, if not a screeching halt, then something I don't much like to contemplate. (As one of the blogs I saw today put it, it's that darkness ahead that everyone's feeling and no one's talking about. A dire time.)

TV shows don't do it; the Nova special is fabulous, but I fear many won't watch and many of those who do might well have shut don't midway through in sheer despair. (Please don't ask how many days it took me to cowboy up and deal with the full hour of the screener DVD.) News reports don't seem to be doing it, nor do longform journalism projects like Elizabeth Kolbert's amazing New Yorker series. Scientific documentation, the actual data made available, doesn't seem to be doing it. You can put forward info and analysis from any number of fields, any number of experts with high degrees of credibility in their fields, all the reasoning laid out clearly and the evidence doublechecked, the debates and resolutions thereof transparent and available for perusal, and yet you have people who just grunt and say it ain't so -- not offering anything resembling persuasive arguments, not looking into the matter beyond what they glean from secondhand commentary or a late-night talkshow punchline, just not willing to take responsibility for the prospect and therefore not hearing it.

Douglas Adams, bless him, identified a cousin of the species correctly as the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal: "a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you - daft as a bush, but very ravenous." Ravenous indeed. As Nova showed, they've literally eaten us out of house and home.

Posted by: AG | Apr 19, 2006 1:43:55 AM

Maybe if they let us start burning our leaves in the Fall again, we can correct the problem.

Posted by: chuck | Apr 19, 2006 9:48:13 AM

(polite silence)

Posted by: AG | Apr 19, 2006 11:59:52 AM

Well at least the gas prices will go down and The fighting in the middle east will cease. Focus on the positives here.

Posted by: Will | Apr 19, 2006 12:06:09 PM

A long post sort of demands a long response, so this may take a while. Bear with me on this.

You and I both know that people tend to have a short memory span when it comes to things that happen to other people, and the news cycle exploits that. The media pumps a story full blast until it isn't "compelling" any more and then they switch to something else. The fact that the sustainability of stories is now much shorter, and the fact that in the information society, their is so much information, but so little analysis makes finding a unifying rallying cry much harder than it was in decades past. There is a cacophony of voices now, and very few centers to gather them into something that will carry over a wider audience for a long enough period for people to listen.

After watching the episode of Nova in question, I began about why humans haven’t found a way to mimic the most beneficial (in terms of the issue at hand at least) of natural processes industrially as of yet, which led me to look up information on artificial and industrial photosynthesis, which may be a solution to at least part of the problem in the short term.

There are some scientists in Oceania doing some interesting work on artificial photosynthesis, though again, they could use some more funding. On one hand, they are looking into making solar receivers and other such devises much more energy efficient, and on some other fronts, they are taking a hard look at the actual process of photosynthesis and ways that it can be used better in both an industrial and agricultural way.

The special on the 1906 SF earthquake also demonstrated a fact about politicians that remains with us even to this day… they are generally a shortsighted and self-interested bunch. The fact that brought this to mind was that the day of the earthquake, the Frisco fire chief, was about to testify in front of a federal judge to try to force the mayor of the city to install an expensive but necessary fire fighting system which would prevent the town from virtually burning to the ground, as it had on 6(!) previous occasions in its 60 odd years of its existence. "This town is in an earthquake belt,'' he said in a speech. "One of these fine mornings, we will get a shake that will put this little water system out, and then we'll have a fire. What will we do then? Why, we'll have to fight her with dynamite.''

And that is exactly what happened. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to bring about change. After a tragedy or disaster, people always say they wish they could have stopped it, prevented it, when almost all the signs were there that it was going to happen, but they were ignored. It seems that every time someone in power says “Oh, that couldn’t happen,” it inevitably does.

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 19, 2006 1:04:59 PM

Maybe Al Gore should make a sequal movie on this phenom...

Posted by: Woody Page | Apr 19, 2006 1:07:52 PM

i think the artical was um.. Interesting.

Posted by: Joseph | Apr 19, 2006 1:18:37 PM

Thanks for reminding me to watch this program.

what irks me is that those who don't think global warming exists most likely won't watch this program. why? for fear that all the data presented might convince them otherwise? and those who think the warming is just a "cycle" are willing to just accept it, let it happen. whether or not the global warming "theory" is pure alarmism or a natural cycle, it doesn't hurt to decrease pollution.

Posted by: DT | Apr 19, 2006 1:45:48 PM

The truly sad part is that, for the most part, you're preaching to the choir. I really must find that study that shows how the brain itself ignores inconsitancies in statements if you are already predisposed towards one canidate...

Ther is an ecomonic principle that says people will only delay gratification if they can see enough of a benifit from it in a resonable time. If it costs too much (a hybrid car) if it's "hard" to do (a compost pile) and the only result is that you MIGHT be better off in 30 years assuming everyone else does the same; why bother? Enviromentalism was popular in the early 1990s but just how long did that last? As long as it was 'cool' and 'easy'. "Sure I'll sign a petion you shove in my face to make McDonalds stop using styrofoam. That stuff is, like, bad."

So sadly most people who read your article or watch Nova and take that away as action, are the ones who already know; the ones already doing something.

~proud owner of a Prius and a compost pile.

Posted by: water_moon | Apr 19, 2006 2:13:22 PM

water_moon, you have put your finger on the problem. If I delay gratification (or eliminate it entirely) and you don't, what have I really gained? So it really does take some sort of government action to get anything done. There has to be a short-term reason to do things. Too bad our government is in effect ruled by ex-prosecutors interested only in punishing people and bean-counters interested only in how much black ink they can gather for their CEOs and corporate boards.

I'm with AG on this one. I don't see much hope that anything effective will be done before our deadline runs out.

On the bright side, Chuck, your comment was every bit as good as anything in the "American Voices" section of the satirical journal, The Onion. Heh.

What the heck. The ship's going down anyway. Might as well sing, dance and joke around. While we can. We can all apologize to our grandchildren in our wills.

Posted by: Craig | Apr 19, 2006 3:23:15 PM

Horrifying. I always wonder why all these enviromental orgainzations don't start hammering on the real problem: over-population. The world is loaded to the gills with too many people, let's start managing it now, or nature will manage it later.

Posted by: Ross MacLochness | Apr 19, 2006 3:37:13 PM

Ross, unfortunately, much like the forces at play with global climate(the model discussed by the gentleman from the University of Exeter), population control is also a long term tug of war. As medical standards improve in the developing world, the birth rate stays about the same before also declining to be closer to the Western standard, so it is likely that for about a decade or so, the population in these regions will explode in much the same way temperatures may shoot up dramatically as visible particulate is removed from the air.

Again, it could be bad. Really bad.

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 19, 2006 5:01:48 PM

I just watched a special on Krakatoa, and it put global dimming into perspective. The net temperature loss from the destruction and dispersal of 11 cubic miles of earth over 70% of the world's surface was only 1/2 a degree.... so how much material is in our atmosphere from solid particulate pollution now?

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 20, 2006 2:26:31 AM

There was a major volcanic event 75,000 years ago at Lake Toba in Indonesia that launched 670 cubic miles of material into the atmosphere and nearly wiped out all human life in the process (only a few thousand people were left).

Now I do subscribe to the theory put forth by the great George Carlin: you cannot hurt this planet. We are like little fleas to it and if it strikes up the urge, it may just shake us all off with another caldera explosion (possibly Yellowstone Park). The planet will go on happily for millenia until the sun expands and Earth is the new Mercury.

We aren't hurting or destroying Earth, and it's kind of egotistical of us to think we can. We are basically setting the stage for our own exit, stage right. Earth will just keep on spinning, fairly oblivious of us. The cry of "Save the Planet" misses the mark. It should be "Save the Humans".

Posted by: Beretta | Apr 20, 2006 8:24:47 AM

This is not the worst news. Which is that we have a societal system based on coercion that has not allowed us to solve even ONE of our basic societal problems. Rather, they become ever-more endemic and intractable.

Politicians of the world have spent tens of millions of dollars on conferences merely to define terrorism. And the American ruler is so ignorant of history and the laws of nature that--rather than understanding the cause of terrorism--he attacked the symptom of terrorism. Using terrorism to attack terrorism, thus greatly exacerbating the situtation.

We can not hope to solve the chaos that will ensue from many of the major cities of the world being under water. And perhaps the Nile River disappearing when the rains that feed it stop.

We must first understand and fix the problems with our societal system. Create a rational and durable societal system that MIGHT be able to control the forthcoming, possibly uncrtollable chaos. And also take some meaningful preventive action to reduce current pollution levels.

The changes in play now are irreversible. But we may yet be able to cap them at a survival level for Homo sapiens.

The knowledge for creating a rational durable societal structure is currently available. But no one seems interested. But I believe it may already be too late....

Posted by: William W Morgan | Apr 20, 2006 8:58:09 AM

Saw the 'Dimming' special that Nova produced and it's officially the scariest thing I've seen in a while. Good thing we live in apathetic America where we'll do absolutely nothing while we 'Venus' the world to death.

Posted by: Aaron | Apr 20, 2006 10:19:17 AM

Beretta, how about we redefine this whole thing as our mutual fears that we are destroying an environment that is hospitable to us rather than destroying the world, because by the broadest sense of the word, probably even a fully-fledged nuclear war wouldn't "destroy" the planet, only our(and most higher order animals and plants), leaving room for the process to start all over again.

Thinking about it at a human level, the prospect of rapid epochal change in the climate of this planet is just plain scary, would you not agree?

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 20, 2006 3:56:24 PM

Oh, I agree Matthew. That was my point. It might get people to listen if you shift the focus from Earth to trying to save mankind. People hear global warming and such, their eyes seem to gloss over and they don't pay much attention. When you change it from that to "human extinction", it's the same song, different key. Sure, it's scare tactics, but as far down this hole we're already in, might it just be what we need?

Posted by: Beretta | Apr 20, 2006 4:39:31 PM

Good comments all -- hardest show I've had to review in quite some time, but definitely Best Thread Ever.

Craig, water_moon, William W.M., Aaron and the others falling on the pessimistic side of the line pretty much speak for me at this point. Even though I live in eco-friendly Seattle and see folks at least making attempts at acting responsibly, I'm confronted with the sense that we're spitting into the ocean at this point. And as I prep for a trip back home to Nebraska, where most folks are *incredibly* resistant to and/or oblivious to macro-level changes in matters environmental, I'm feeling that preaching-to-the-choir thing strongly. (Those here familiar with the tension over US emissions vs those of China, India and such have a pretty good idea of how rural America views even trivial attempts to chance those behaviors. I have relatives who take personal pride in pouring used motor oil on the ground for disposal... no gummint law's gonna tell them how to do... *sigh*)

Beretta, you just reminded me of something I've been meaning to post for a few days -- thank you! And yeah, no matter how miserable my attitude gets, there's always Carlin. Amen.

Matthew? You rock. Enough said. Though you're cheerier than I am believe it or not; I think if we really mess this up it's less Permian extinction and more Venusian. Either way, there's a lot of stuff we did right -- lending libraries are good, musical instruments are very cool, there's a lot to be said for sushi and pasta and peppermint -- and I'm sad to think we're not likely to hand those things along to later generations at this rate.

Posted by: AG | Apr 21, 2006 12:55:34 AM

I can believe I am cheerier than you about this subject, it is true, but I think it all comes down to my educational background more than anything else... because when you think about the myriad of disasters and misfortunes that have afflicted some or all of the earth's inhabitants at one time or another and think that through luck, time or the determination of a lot of human beings working in concert together, a way to get through them was found.

Europe survived the loss of 1/3 of its population in a 5 year period, and bounced back stronger than ever after a short period of disruption. Cities have burned to the ground, blown up, destroyed by volcanic/seismic/wind/water, and have been rebuilt in a matter of months and years. Civilizations, bloodlines and nations have been built and fallen many times in the past few millenia, but humanity has continued to survive(even if we have had a tendency to take a few steps back every once in a while).

In all honesty, I don't believe that if the temperature of the earth rises 25 degrees in the next 25-100 years that it will mean the end of humanity. It may take a while, and it will probably not be the most comfortable of times, but we as a species always tend to find a way to at least scrape by. I don't look forward to those times if we don't get our act together to prevent the worst(because that will be ugly), but deep down, I cannot bring myself to believe that our species will die out entirely.

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 21, 2006 2:07:05 AM

I think that this article was very interesting, I am student doing a research paper on the rainforest and what Bretta said about whole thing was just weird. I thought I would just throw that out there. Have a good day, I thought that was a great article by the way. Thanks it helped out alot

Posted by: Luke | Apr 21, 2006 1:17:57 PM

Thanks for that Luke! :D

Posted by: Beretta | Apr 21, 2006 1:38:48 PM

More fodder for discussion:

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 21, 2006 4:48:54 PM

When are we going to stop arguing whether this is real or not. There is plenty of evidence to make a decision to stop the CO2 pollution NOW. I appeal to everyone. can the need to not change by coporations be more important than the climate of our world? Besides, if we really understand economics, we know that when we change how we do things there are new business and new ventures to be gotten rich from. Let our planet be. We know better now... let's do better. Penny

Posted by: Penny | Apr 23, 2006 6:21:18 PM

A more belligerent view of global warming/dimming and the Nova we've been discussing.

The best quote from this mess:

"We can't predict when the next "wobble" in the earth's axis is going to occur, plunging us into the next ice age if the angle increases. We may someday wish we still had all those greenhouse gasses hanging around. Or the wobble may orient the axis more perpendicular to the sun & fry everthing from Chicago to Sydney. The whole notion that we can predict what we need to do now to mitigate effects 100 or 200 (even 50) years from now is stretching things very thin indeed. There is a reason there isn't enough supercomputer time available."

Wow... just wow.

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 24, 2006 2:07:44 PM

(reads, returns) I love people who attempt that kind of debate -- throw in a random contingency and claim that because the model doesn't include it, they "win" the argument. Alas, philosophy courses in college were full of guys like these -- get loaded before class, come in, spew nonsense, expect to be treated like reasonable people. And they tended to think themselves clever with stuff like "Al Bore;" I can practically see them high-fiving in the back of the classroom...

Posted by: AG | Apr 24, 2006 2:37:48 PM

The blogosphere is sometimes a scary place.

Posted by: Matthew | Apr 24, 2006 5:25:12 PM

Has anyone considered that God has a say so in all this??? Ease your minds and simply prepare for the day of reckoning as it will surely come be it tomorrow or ?????? If you aren't ready,---woe is you !!!!!!!

Posted by: Peter Moya | May 1, 2006 3:11:15 PM

My neighbors tuned me in to the "mystery contrails" issue - oh JEEZE give me a BREAK! "Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?"

Posted by: Flabbergasted in Idaho | May 9, 2006 3:50:22 PM