22.04.2020 • 6 min.

MELTDOWN • Johno Du Plessis


One of the most alarming surprises of the late-20th century has been the discovery of the frailty of our world – not just that we are polluting the air and water, poisoning our land and food, eradicating our ozone protection, hacking down our primary forests and overheating our atmosphere, but that these actions are all inextricably connected and, collectively, are poised to wreak havoc on the world and on our very existence.

Back in the 1960s, the mathematician Edward Lorenz had already posited a theory about the beating of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the globe eventually causing a hurricane on the other. If this “chaos theory” is true (and we’d better suppose it is) then consider the connection between driving your car and submerging the Sphinx or between eating a hamburger and flooding Florida.

This is a tale of ice versus heat.

Over one-tenth of the earth’s surface – about six million square miles – is permanently covered with ice. In fact a simultaneous (though theoretically impossible) winter in both hemispheres would increase that to ten million.

Bodies of ice develop through the accumulation of snow at the poles and high-altitude mountains, where the summer’s warmth is insufficient to melt the snowfall from a winter just passed. Through the eons, the increasing pressure of each seasonal fall compresses the layers that lie buried beneath, eventually transforming them into ice sheets or glacier ice.

Today, Antarctica is covered by a fresh-water icecap that rises to an average of over 2½ miles above sea level and blankets some 4,8 million square miles of land. Add to these astounding figures the seawater locked into ice shelves and pack ice and we’re beginning to talk a lot of liquid. Antarctica is rimmed with ice shelves, some, like the Ross and Ronne Ice Shelves, so huge they could easily cover France from Marseilles to Dunkerque . The Arctic, too, is permanently frozen and, in winter, is jammed solid with sea ice that spreads over 4,6 million square miles, affectively joining Greenland to the Queen Elizabeth islands of Canada.

There’s even a drop or two more water frozen throughout the world’s scattered glaciers, either in the form of outlet glaciers that extend from the ice sheets, or as alpine or cirque glaciers, confined to mountainous valleys or rock basins.

That’s the story of ice. The other side of this equation is carbon-dioxide and a scenario of overheating that brings new meaning to the word meltdown

The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon-dioxide, the major contributor to greenhouse gasses. The gas is released into the atmosphere where it accumulates, trapping heat that would normally escape into space and the inescapable result is the gradual warming of the planet. Since most power stations are coal- or oil-fired, switching on a light, watching television, washing laundry – anything that requires electricity – is directly responsible for carbon-dioxide emission. Driving in a car, flying in an aeroplane… all require the burning of fossil fuels.

In the good old days, an abundance of trees in our temperate and tropical forests, and the plentiful algae in our unpolluted oceans, was a sure-fire way of mopping up any excess carbon-dioxide that may have been hanging about. Now, with rampant deforestation making way for extensive cattle ranching, farming and industry, coupled by the continued dumping of waste into the seas, the reduced vegetation can no longer cope with photosynthesising the escalating gasses and the build-up in the atmosphere is increasing.

So: the earth grows warmer and warmer and, if you know anything about ice, this means water. Not a drop or a glassful, nor a pond’s- or even a lake’s-worth, but billions and billions of gallons of the stuff. Were every scrap of ice to melt, the ocean levels would be raised by almost 180 feet.

The ramifications of an increase of only six feet, predicted for the year 2050, still would be catastrophic. Threatened areas would need to take drastic and costly measures to remain dry, actions most affected regions would likely not be able to afford. Littoral metropolises, farmlands and settlements would be inundated; estuaries and rivers would swell to flood the inland equivalents.

The Greenhouse Effect is not an isolated little drama – a concern for the scientists and environmentalist to solve – but an issue imperatively embroiled in each of our everyday lives. It will happen… it is already happening and, unless we are able to curb our excesses and cease our squandering, the consequences will soon be lapping at our toes.

Caveat: this article was written 30 years ago in 1990, suffice it so say that updated predictions and more recent events are beginning to paint a picture even more dire than that described here.

This article was published in The Manipulator Magazine by Wilhelm Moser and David Colby.

Text: Johno Du Plessis

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