- Written by Steve Bratteng
- Published: 22 August 2014
Some things are complicated. A quote attributed to Einstein that, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” is an example. It’s difficult even to determine if that notion actually originated with him. But, the sentiment is clear.
However, we often see that we would like explanations for things that are simpler than they have a right to be. One of the main things I see in this category has to do with “global warming.” It seems a simple fact that it is occurring and that it is leading to global climate change. One simple-minded view of this is that the whole notion is an enormous hoax, but this seems so unlikely as to be unworthy of serious consideration.
On the other side our attempts to simplify the evidence for climate change is confounded by the great complexity of trying to figure out exactly why and how things that affect the climate work the way we think they do. For example, apparently there has been a surprising leveling-off of global warming at the Earth’s surface since 1999.
The increases are much less than might be expected given the increased amount of solar heat trapped by greenhouse gases. So, where has the heat gone? A recent article from investigators at the University of Washington published in Science, August 22 explains that it has been carried down below the surface in the northern and southern parts of the Atlantic Ocean. A Science Daily account of this explanation can be found at this link.
It is little oddities like this that allow some of those seeking over-simplifications simply to label global warming as a hoax, but the reality is that climate change is more complicated.
Interestingly, another complexity also popped up recently – one that many might never have imagined: the role of viruses on climate change.
Most of the recent news about viruses has to do with Ebola and the terrifying prospects of its getting loose beyond its historic confinement in West Africa. But this story is about a virus that affects algae. Many algae are diminutive photosynthetic organisms that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they produce their food.
Often the carbon captured is quickly released into the atmosphere again, but then there is also the possibility that death of the algae from viral attack may cause them to sink to the bottom of the ocean and thus sequester the carbon. One way or the other the extremely small viruses may play an enormous role in the overall climate story … and it is no simple matter to determine exactly how. Here is a link to the Science Daily account of the virus and algae interaction. [The photos at the top show, from left to right, cyanobacteria, satellite view of a bloom, diatoms. Cyanobacteria and diatoms are key components of phytoplankton - the term for photosynthetic microbes in the oceans.]
I almost forgot to mention yet another complication in the global warming scenario: carbon sequestered in Arctic permafrost. It turns out that the assumption that thawing would result in microbial action that releases the carbon as carbon dioxide is only part of the story. Sunlight is an even more important agent in this conversion. Here is a story about that.
Sorry, but I cannot make it any simpler.