The Earth's climate has been continuously changing
throughout its history. From ice covering large amounts of the globe to interglacial
periods where there was ice only at the poles - our climate and biosphere has
been in flux for millennia.
This temporary reprieve from the ice we are now
experiencing is called an interglacial period - the respite from the cold
locker began 18,000 years ago as the earth started heating up and warming its
way out of the Pleistocene Ice Age.
Approximately every 100,000 years or so our climate
warms up temporarily.
These interglacial periods usually last somewhere
between 15,000 to 20,000 years before another ice age starts. Presently
we’re at year 18,000 of the current warm spell.
Serbian astrophysicist Milutin
Milankovitch is best known for developing one of
the most significant theories relating to Earths motions and long term
developed a mathematical theory of climate change based on the seasonal and
latitudinal variations in the solar radiation received by the Earth from our
Sun - it was the first truly plausible theory for how minor shifts of
sunlight could make the entire planet's temperature swing back and forth from
cold to warm.
Theory states that as the Earth travels through space around the sun,
cyclical variations in three elements of Earth/sun/geometry combine to
produce variations in the amount of solar energy that reaches us. These three
- Variations in the Earth's orbital eccentricity
- the shape of the orbit around the sun, a 100,000 year cycle
- Changes in obliquity or tilt of the earth’s
axis - changes in the angle that Earth's axis makes with the plane of
Earth's orbit, a 41,000 year cycle
- Precession - the change in the direction of the
Earth's axis of rotation, a 19,000 to 23,000 year cycle
These orbital processes are thought to be the most
significant drivers of ice ages and, when combined, are known as Milankovitch Cycles.
- Changes occurring within the sun affects the intensity of sunlight that reaches
the Earth's surface. These changes in intensity can cause either warming
- stronger solar intensity - or cooling when solar intensity is weaker.
- Volcanoes often affect our climate by emitting
aerosols and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Aerosols block sunlight
and contribute to short term cooling, but do not stay
in the atmosphere long enough to produce long term change. Carbon
dioxide (CO2) has a warming effect. For about two-thirds of the last 400
million years, geologic evidence suggests CO2 levels and temperatures
were considerably higher than present. Each year 186 billion tons of
carbon from CO2 enters the earth's atmosphere - six billion tons are
from human activity, approximately 90 billion tons come from biologic activity in earth's oceans and another
90 billion tons from such sources as volcanoes and decaying land plants
These climate change “drivers” often
trigger additional changes or “feedbacks” within the climate
system that can amplify or dampen the climate's initial response to them:
- The heating or cooling of the Earth's surface
can cause changes in greenhouse gas concentrations - when global
temperatures become warmer, CO2 is released from the oceans and when temperatures
become cooler, CO2 enters the ocean and contributes to additional
During at least the last 650,000 years, CO2 levels
have tracked the glacial cycles - during warm interglacial periods, CO2
levels have been high and during cool glacial periods, CO2 levels have been
- The heating or cooling of the Earth's surface
can cause changes in ocean currents. Ocean currents play a significant
role in distributing heat around the Earth so changes in these currents
can bring about significant changes in climate from region to region
In 1985 the Russian Vostok
Antarctic drill team pulled up cores of ice that stretched through a complete
glacial cycle. During the cold period of the cycle CO2 levels were much lower
than during the warm periods before and after. When plotted on a chart the
curves of CO2 levels and temperature tracked one another very closely –
methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, showed a similar rise and fall
to that of CO2.
Small rises or falls in temperature - more, or less
sunlight - seemed to cause a rise, or fall, in gas levels. Changing
atmospheric CO2 and methane levels physically linked the Northern and
Southern hemispheres, warming or cooling the planet as a whole. In the 1980s
the consensus was that Milankovitch’s Cycles
would bring a steady cooling over the next few thousand years.
As studies of past ice ages continued and climate
models were improved worries about a near term re-entry into the cold locker
died away – the models now said the next ice age would not come within
the next ten thousand years.
It’s obvious that the orbital changes, as
explained by Milankovitch’s Theory, initiate
a powerful feedback loop. The close of a glacial era comes when a shift in
sunlight causes a slight rise in temperature - this raises gas levels over
the next few hundred years and the resultant greenhouse effect drives the
planet's temperature higher, which drives a further rise in the gas levels
and so on.
How Higher Temperatures effect Food Production
The study Climate Trends and Global Crop
Production Since 1980 compared yield figures from the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) with average temperatures and precipitation in
major growing regions.
Results indicated average global yields for several
of the crops studied responded negatively to warmer temperatures. From 1981 -
2002, warming reduced the combined production of wheat, corn, and barley -
cereal grains that form the foundation of much of the world's diet - by 40
million metric tons per year.
The authors said the main value of their study was
that it demonstrated a clear and simple correlation between temperature
increases and crop yields at the global scale.
"Though the impacts are relatively small
compared to the technological yield gains over the same period, the results
demonstrate that negative impacts are already occurring." David Lobell, lead researcher
Other researchers who focused on wheat, rice, corn,
soybeans, barley and sorghum (these crops account for 55 percent of non-meat
calories consumed by humans and contribute more than 70 percent of the
world's animal feed) reported that each had a critical temperature threshold
above which yields started plummeting, for example: 29°C for corn and
30°C for soybeans. At the International Rice Research Institute in the
Philippines scientists have found that the fertilization of rice seeds falls
from 100 per cent at 34 degrees to near zero at 40 degrees.
Crop losses due to plant diseases could
decline by as much as 30 percent with warmer and drier conditions.
By 2050, the world's population is expected to reach
around nine billion - minimum and maximum projections range from 7.4 billion
to 10.6 billion.
Unfortunately the Green Revolutions high yield
growth is tapering off and in some cases declining. So far this is mostly
because of an increase in the price of fertilizers, other chemicals and
fossil fuels, but also because the overuse of chemicals has exhausted the
soil and irrigation has depleted water aquifers.
"Future food-production increases will have
to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going
up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another
matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the
next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will
exceed the worst of everything that has come before". Norman
Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution
If average global temperatures rise just over
one-half degree Centigrade the frost-free growing season in the corn belt
would be lengthened by two weeks. But, as the previously mentioned study
showed, if temperatures increase beyond a specific threshold, fertilization
is effected, thus reducing the plants growing season and reducing yield.
does two things for plants – it is an essential compound in
photosynthesis and it increases water use efficiency in plants – so a
doubling of the pre-industrial carbon-dioxide levels, such as we’ve
seen, should increase crop yields significantly right?
let’s not jump to conclusions – in laboratory tests yields do
increase tremendously, but in real life field conditions other atmospheric
gases surrounding the plant diminish the carbon dioxide's photosynthesis
enhancement and yield levels reached in the lab are cut drastically, as much
as 75 percent.
All of the positive effects of carbon dioxide
increases may be negated by the stress caused by low rainfall and high
temperatures. Increased cloud cover - due to higher global temperatures -
might limit photosynthesis and result in reduced crop production.
Higher levels of carbon dioxide help some
plants tolerate less water and limited amounts of soil nitrogen but does not compensate for reduced levels of phosphorus or
warming raises the temperature just two degrees Centigrade insects
numbers will increase becoming a major nuisance - also some insects will be
able to extend their range as a result of the warming. Farmers in the US,
depending on the crop, can expect a 25 to 100 percent increase in crop
The heating and cooling of the Earth coincides
with the activity of the sun - the sun determines the Earth’s
temperature. Since man-made carbon dioxide emissions started in the
1850’s, the CO2 level has only risen 11 percent – a very small rise
with a nearly negligible effect.
Science says the Earth is going to continue to
warm. The warming is not manmade, to continue to
spend precious resources fighting a battle you cannot win is a fruitless
endeavor. The earth is our home and we need to take care of it best we can,
there is no gain needlessly hurting the planet we live on. But let’s
not be led astray by false prophets and Pied Pipers singing the wrong tune.
We need to spend money on advancing agricultural research, water
infrastructure and supply lines. We need to focus research on growing more
food on less land while using less water and building safe, reliable food and
water supply lines.
The truth regarding climate change, and how it
effects our food production should be on all our radar screens. Is it on yours?
If not, maybe it should be.
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