ATMOSPHERIC ROLE OF FORESTS
The buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere is known as the "greenhouse effect." The accumulation of these gases is believed to have altered the earth's radiative balance, meaning more of the sun's heat is absorbed and trapped inside the earth's atmosphere, producing global warming. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are transparent to incoming shortwave solar radiation. This radiation reaches the earth's surface, heats it, and re-radiates it as long-wave radiation. Greenhouse gases are opaque to long-wave radiation and therefore, heat is trapped in the atmosphere. As greenhouse gases build up, this opacity is increased and more heat is trapped in the atmosphere.
The largest anthropogenic contributor to the greenhouse effect is carbon dioxide gas emissions, about 77 percent of which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels and 22 percent of which is attributed to deforestation. The final 1 percent comes primarily from energy-costly production activities like the manufacture of concrete, steel, and aluminum. The preindustrial atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 280 ppm, though today levels have risen to 375 ppm, a 30 percent increase. Climatologists estimate that a level pf 450 ppm—as projected for 2050—may result in an eventual 1.8-3 degrees Celsius (3.2-5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in temperature. Some scientists predict that global warming will produce a sharp upswing in global temperatures followed by a deep plunge into a glacial period several thousands years from now. However, there are still a lot of unknowns about the impact of climate change.
Since 1960 atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels have increased from 313 ppm to 375 ppm (20 percent increase), according to measurements from Mauna Loa observatory, and carbon-dioxide levels are now 27 percent higher than at any point in the last 650,000 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels could reach 450-550 ppm by 2050, possibly resulting in higher temperatures and rising sea levels, along with a myriad of potential impacts ranging from increased storm and hurricane intensity; melting of polar ice, Arctic permafrost, and glaciers; changes in ocean currents including the Gulf Stream; a rise in global sea levels which could inundate low-elevation cities like Cairo, Venice, Lagos, New Orleans, and Amsterdam and cause problems for low-lying nations; increased coral bleaching and mortality of reef ecosystems; changes in ecosystems; species migration and mass extinction, especially among cold climate species; heightened danger from human pollutants like ozone; health impacts including the spread of tropical disease into cooler climates and range expansion of other pathogens; and water shortages.
Rising sea levels
The projected rise in sea level from ocean-water expansion and ice melt varies depending on estimates of global warming (sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking by an average of 14,000 square miles per year and is strongly correlated with greenhouse-gas and aerosol emissions). But there is a good chance that oceans will rise from 10 inches (25 cm) to 20 inches (50 cm) within the next century if greenhouse gas emission rates continue at present levels. Such a rise in sea level does not sound like much, but it would have profound effects on both humankind and natural systems. Any sea-level increase would be magnified during tides, storm surges, and hurricanes and could have a devastating impact as shown by Category 3 Hurricane Katrina in 2005 . Island nations like the Maldives and scattered South Pacific republics face extinction. The sea is a tremendously important resource for man, and some of the world's largest cities lie along the coast for trade and commercial fishing. Any rise in sea level would directly affect these metropolises, causing flooding and the potential disruption of sewage and transit systems, along with inundating neighboring agricultural plots. A change in sea levels will also affect coastal ecosystems like river deltas, wetlands, swamps, and low-lying forests, which play an important role in providing services for mankind, in addition to housing biological diversity. Though sea levels have been higher in the past, today there is less room for species affected by flooding, since buildings and concrete now occupy the areas that were once extensions of their environment. Modern humankind is so dependent on existing conditions, that a change in sea level, even if it is 10-20-inch (25-50 cm) will have a drastic effect on our society. Global warming is as much a social problem as it is an environmental one.
Changes in ecosystems
Scientists expect climate change to cause major shifts in species distribution and ecosystems, though there is still considerable debate over how climate change will affect specific ecosystems. Moderate climate warming simulations show that coral reefs will decline significantly over the next 50 years due to higher water temperatures and increased ocean acidity, and a similar fate will befall many organisms that form the base of the oceanic food chain. On land, permafrost across frozen landscapes may melt and give way to forest vegetation, while agricultural belts may move polewards. In the Amazon, temperatures are expected to climb, resulting in drier forests and expanded savanna. In Africa, climate change may disrupt regular seasonal weather patterns over large regions of the continent, reducing rainfall in some areas while producing more rainfall in the drought-stricken Sahel region.
The good news is that some carbon emissions can be canceled by the planting
of trees which absorb carbon into their vegetation through photosynthesis. Tropical forests have the best potential
for the mitigation of greenhouse gases since have the greatest capacity to store carbon in their tissues as they
grow. Reforestation of 3.9 million square miles (10 million square km) could sequester 100-150 billion metric tons
of carbon dioxide over the next 50-100 years.
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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2005