This letter was sent to
Rock and Ice's "Letters to the Editor" in
response to Colin Wells' February 2006 story on the effect
that Global Warming is having on mountaineering.
Thank you for publishing Colin Wells' fascinating and informative "Hot
Damned" article. The dramatic photos and accounts of melting
mountains add to the growing body of evidence for human-caused
I've been studying the causes and effects of
global warming since the early '70s, long before it was fashionable
to worry about it. Although most of what Colin concludes in his
story is correct, he is wrong about a couple of crucial points:
that we can reverse the trend by following the recommendations
in the "Think Globally, Act Locally" section, and that
combustion of fossil fuels is the primary factor behind human-caused
William F. Ruddmann's March 2005 Scientific American
article "How Did
Humans First Alter Global Climate?” presents the compelling
case that our ancient agrarian ancestors initiated the increase
in atmospheric greenhouse gases. Recent evidence shows that CO2
levels started rising as a result of agriculture about 8,000
years ago, just when natural trends called for those levels to
fall. About 3,000 years later methane levels also started to
rise. These changes occurred when the Earth was due to enter
the next ice age, which would have devastated budding human civilization.
Instead, the Earth's climate remained relatively warm and stable.
(For the last several million years, ice ages, not the relatively
short warm periods between them, have been the norm.)
Although it is clear that the last 200 years
of industrial society have accelerated the rise of CO2 and CH4,
as far back as the early 80's many scientists realized that we
already passed a crucial "tipping point". The
Earth has warmed enough so that decomposing vegetation in rain
forests and melting arctic peat bogs will release nearly 100
billion metric tons of CO2 and CH4, even if all human activity
on the planet were to cease today.
The millions of tons that we would save by driving less, flying less, turning
off appliances, etc. are tiny compared to the amount that will be released
from decaying vegetation. And that 100 billion tons, in turn, represents
only 1/30th of the 2.7 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Don't get me wrong – wasting energy is moronic; I own a Corolla, which
enables me to afford the 35,000 miles a year that I spend on the road driving
to Hueco and other crags. It's stupid to waste precious hydrocarbons as a
mere energy source – they are far more useful for manufacturing.
I turn off my lights (most of which are fluorescent) when I'm
not using them. I never fly when driving is a feasible alternative.
But, I do those things because they make economic sense, sans
altruistic fantasies that I am saving the planet.
Global warming is a reality and it is here to stay. I'm sad about
the retreating glaciers; I grew up in Anchorage and remember
being able to practice ice climbing on icebergs at the Portage
Glacier parking lot. But, climbers must face reality and do what
humans do best – adapt to changing conditions
and learn to enjoy mountains that will have less and less ice
and snow. Who knows - perhaps younger readers will someday make
shirtsleeve ascents of Denali or the Compressor Route!
Some references, in case anyone is interested:
Roger Revelle, "Carbon Dioxide and World Climate," Scientific
American (August 1982).
P. Cloud, "The Biosphere," Scientific
American, 249:176-189 (1983).
James F. Kasting, Owen B. Toon, James B. Pollack, "How Climate evolved
on terrestrial planets," Scientific American, (February
Richard A Houghton, George M. Woodwell, "Global Climatic Change," Scientific
American (April 1989).
Stephen H. Schneider, "The Changing Climate," Scientific
American (September 1989).
C. Covey, "The Earth's Orbit and the Ice Ages," Scientific
American, 263:58-66 (1990).
W. S. Broecker and G. H. Denton, "What Drives Glacial Cycles?" Scientific
American, 263:49-56 (1990).
J. H. Ausubel, "A Second Look at the Impacts of Climate Change," American
Scientist, 79:210-221 (1991).
W. F. Ruddiman and J. E. Kutzbach, "Plateau Uplift and Climatic Change," Scientific
American, 66-75 (1991).
W. S. Broecker, "Chaotic Climate," Scientific
American, 62-68 (1995).