Earth: The “Present” Day

  In the previous posts, we discussed the climatic events that led to the rise of human civilization some 10,000-7,000 years ago. During the times prior to 20,000 years ago (when the last glaciers receded from North America), there have been several major swings in climate, allowing for many regions of life to become extinct. While these changes in climate may not have been a good thing for the living species at the time, they paved the way for a relatively stable climate and diversification of life, which allowed humans to prosper on the land. It is important to keep in mind that, us humans did not begin to have any impact on the climate until around the same time the United States was founded some 250 years ago.  

So, why have I titled today’s post with “Present” Day? That is because, in the eyes of geologic time, 250 years is just the blink of an eye. Therefore, we can consider human actions from 250 years ago as ongoing and continuous to today’s actions, because in fact, we are using some of the same general methods of energy that were produced during the late 1700’s. You should clearly be able to understand what I mean by the end of this blog. The goal of this post is to highlight the role and development of human activities over the last 250 years, while demonstrating without a doubt, that our human activities of today are causing great changes to the stable climate that allowed us to survive some 10,000 years in the first place. Not only are we causing great harm to the natural environment and atmosphere, but we are doing it surprisingly quickly compared to the climate change observed over periods of geologic time (see previous posts). 

The Industrial Revolution: (1760-1850) 

Let’s take it back to where it all started, the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the world is beginning to make big advancements in technology. This period is characterized by the shift to more sophisticated technology, most directly related to the production of energy and machine manufacturing. Most characteristic of the Industrial Revolution was the switch to burning fossil fuels for energy. After these new methods of energy production began in Great Britain, they eventually spread across the world, making its way to the United States around 1820

Smokestacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1890’s)

As the world was steadily becoming more advanced, the unknown effects that burning fuels like coal and natural gas at a large scale would soon come into play. Pretty soon, industry covered the booming cities and changed society forever. If you recall, the coal beds of today were produced over millions of years as organic material gets covered and compacted together. Little did they know, when fossil fuels like coal are burned in any combustion process, they release a plethora of pollutants into the air. In addition to pollutants, they emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.  

An image from the Donora Smog Event of 1948

Let’s fast forward to the mid-1900’s, when industrialization has really taken off. At this time, cities were becoming so dirty from the industrial processes that the air was no longer healthy to breathe and thus, many people died (London and Donora smog events). Eventually, people became concerned about the impacts that fossil fuel combustion could have on human health. Here’s the catch. Not only does fossil fuel combustion pose potential health risks to ourselves, but it can have even more disastrous consequences for the atmosphere and Earth itself. If you can recall, what was the greenhouse gas that caused many of the major swings in climate over Earth’s geologic time? Carbon dioxide, of course!  

Human-induced climate change consequences: loss of ice, increased wildfires, droughts, and storm intensities. (NOAA)

It’s just that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere prior to human existence were completely from natural causes. Those natural mechanisms, including tectonic and volcanic activity, Earth’s orbit, weathering mountains, asteroid collisions and more, have been discussed in previous posts. At this point in the climate history of Earth, humans have substantially increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through the process of extracting carbon-containing materials like coal and natural gas from the ground, which take millions of years to form, and releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. As a result, carbon dioxide concentrations have been on a steady increase since measurements of the greenhouse gas first began around 1960 at the Moana Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The observed effects being forced on the climate by these human activities are not promising, with temperatures expected to continue rising as a result of the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

Measurements from the observatory show increasing carbon dioxide levels since observations began around 1960.

While we will investigate the effects that the increased greenhouse gas emissions, starting at the Industrial Revolution, will continue to have on the climate in the next post, I’d like to use the remainder of this post to demonstrate just how much society has changed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.  

When the United States was founded, US population consisted of 3 million people. World population reached 1 billion in 1804, 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 5 billion in 1987, 7 billion in 2011 and now approaching 8 billion. With each new person on the planet, comes with consumption of additional resources. As the number of humans continues rising, it is likely that emissions and carbon dioxide concentrations will continue rising unless something is done to reduce emissions.  

Each human contributes to the consumption of resources, especially in developed countries.

Electricity was first used to produce light in homes in the 1880’s. One could only imagine the amount of technological change the world has endured since. Nowadays, we use gas and electricity as if there’s no tomorrow. In fact, much of developed society would be doomed without electricity. It’s pretty amazing how human society has managed to switch to a dependence on fossil fuels in such a relatively short amount of time. However, these resources are limited, and will produce extreme changes to the climate and society unless something is done to reduce the associated emissions. It’s a mostly a matter of how we produce electricity, when it comes to the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. 

The energy supply, among others, is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately, the world has gone through dramatic changes which came along with the development of human civilization and modern society. The rate at which humans are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through almost all activities in some way, shape or form, is increasing. As we have noticed with the investigation of past climates, when carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are introduced to the atmosphere at high levels, the result is usually a dramatic change in climate over time. Since humans are increasing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere faster than natural rates, the climate can be expected to change at a faster than natural rate.  

We saw how humans are capable of speeding up Earth’s natural processes. In the next and final post, we will investigate the dramatic effects that these increased concentrations of greenhouse gases will have on our planet Earth.  

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-Andrew Bower

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