Tag Archives: global warming

Seeing is believing: GHGs

My husband will tell you I’m a verbal processor. I need to say things out loud, or keep rambling, until I figure out what I mean. But that’s not important today. Today what’s important is that I’m also a visual learner. I love to climb cooling towers to see what those giant fans look like, see the reverse osmosis water filtration system in action at a paper plant, and see for myself where the compost goes in San Francisco.

One thing that’s tough to see: Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). Quick science lesson to make sure we all actually know what those are (because I guarantee you’ve said GHG but might still be a bit fuzzy). We’re talking gas in the atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation in the thermal infrared range. Basically these fuckers trap in the sun’s heat and greatly affect the temperature on Earth. They don’t however prevent the solar heat from coming IN.  Solar radiation comes towards the earth and: a small portion is reflected back to space by the clouds (~20%), a large portion portion is absorbed into the earth (~50%), and the remaining bit hits the earth and bounces back towards space. GHGs then capture this heat as it bounces back towards space. The good news is, without them, it’d be super cold so we need them.


You may be saying I already knew that, BUT did you know that water vapor (yes good ol H2O) was the most abundant? I know right! The ones we typically focus on (because they’re the ones that we put into the atmosphere in droves) are carbon dioxide and methane (cow farts!). Which brings me to the bad news. Since the Industrial Revolution burning of our beloved fossil fuels has contributed to a 40% increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 to 397 parts-per-million (ppm) today- and it’s the concentration that screws us because it means more molecules out there to trap more heat in. Check out 350.org to learn more about why the Earth should only be at 350ppm/why we’re screwed.

Just so we’re all on the same page – global warming isn’t up for debate (scientific fact). GHGs contributing to global warming isn’t up for debate (scientific fact). What is still debated (scientist consensus is ‘very likely’ but not fact) is whether humans are causing climate change (anthropogenic climate change if you want to be fancy). Decide for yourself. Here’s a graph from NASA (you’ve heard of them right?) that shows global temp going way way back. My feelings align with the scientific community: we’re definitely causing it and need to cut the shit.


So back to visual learning (told you, verbal processor). I came across this great visual that shows us what GHGs would look like if we could see them on the street. In 2010 New York City added 54 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent) into the atmosphere. The team at Carbon Visuals made a two minute video of what this would look like (1 ton of CO2 would fill a sphere 33 feet across). Click on the first image to watch the 2 minute film or check out these pics:

What the amount of GHG emissions produced in NYC in ONE DAY looks like:

1 days of NYC emissions

What the amount of GHG emissions produced in NYC in ONE YEAR looks like:

1 year GHG NYC emissions1 year of NYC emissions - 54mil metric tons

Of course we can see the effects of the GHGs we’re releasing (like woah) into the air – increased number and severeness of forest fires, hurricanes, tornados, tropical storms, floods; breathing anywhere in China/India; and the Maldives disappearing just to name a few…

Everyday sustainability

Everyone, from the president to the local foods movement to the Poland springs bottle commercial, is talking about sustainability. You can now get a masters (of science) in sustainability, as I have just done. You are most likely aware that we are at some point going to run out of oil, that the planet is getting warmer, and that those polar bears are becoming extinct because the ice sheets are melting. What I’m not sure is being talked about is how to do really simple things in your every day life to change any of this.

First you need to know the real facts. The Earth will run out of oil, but best guesses put it about 50-80 years away (depending on population growth and if we open up the Arctic and dig deeper into the ocean). The real thing to think about though is that we have thousands of years of coal and natural gas left in the U.S. alone…so it’s a bit more likely to switch to one of these sources for fuel (they can actually all be liquified and turned into fuel for cars – that’s the interesting part of fossil fuels, in fact in South Africa during apartheid, they used coal to make oil). As the most tree-hugging, bicycle-riding, hippie I know, I will still tell you that it is important to understand the complete picture. What we should definitely be doing now though is getting ourselves off a total dependency of oil and cutting back on our fossil fuel emissions which are doing nasty things to the air. Knowing that our energy future most likely includes fossil fuels, mitigation and changing our consumption patterns are more important – and every bit counts!

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