Ice, deserts and the wisdom of the ancients

The vernal equinox has come and the days are getting longer. For those of us in the United Kingdom we can look forward to the weather getting warmer (although you would not think so from the unseasonal snow we have seen over the past few days) and the longer daylight hours mean, amongst other things, that you solar system should be performing better and providing your with more free energy, that the trees will come into leaf soon and the Northern hemisphere will warm.

The southern hemisphere will cool down and theoretically at this time of the year the ice melts will be ceasing in the Antarctic as it moves to a period of virtual night. What seems to be happening at the South Pole is not what we would expect. Part of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is crumbling and a chunk of it – about 120 square kilometers – has broken away from the ice shelf. No one expected this to happen now although they did expect it to happen in the future.

Meanwhile at the North Pole scientists will be observing some interesting phenomena this year. They will be measuring the extent of the polar ice and seeing if it recovers to previous levels or whether ice in the Arctic continues to retreat.

These ice melts are clear evidence of climate change, whatever causes the climate to change the fact of it changing seems undeniable.

If we change our study from the earth’s coldest places to its hottest places, deserts, we see that as the ice has been melting so the deserts have been growing larger. Mainly in semi arid areas which have less than 600mm of rainfall a year productive land is being turned into deserts.

This usually happens because of poor land management; the Sahara desert extended itself 100 kilometres south between 1950 and 1975. This was caused by people but some think that having caused it the extra desert on the planet has an effect on the planet’s climate and that as the climate changes so the semi arid regions will experience more drought and turn into deserts.

It cannot be stated with any degree of certainty that climate change is causing desertification, but that surface to atmosphere temperature interaction and changes in ocean temperatures as the climate changes exacerbates desertification by reducing rainfall over the semi arid regions. The most thorough climate modelling done indicates that although increased rainfall in temperate zones is likely to occur there will be less rainfall in semi arid zones and in Mediterranean climates.

In turn this would lead to places like the Mediterranean Basin and California becoming semi arid places, which in turn might lead them to become deserts with poor land management.

It has happened before; the ancient Greeks used to grow wheat in Attica, but poor land management and the decision to move to cash crops instead of staples created conditions that made wheat production hard. The land found it hard to support wheat without crop rotation which was to the long term detriment of Greece.

Desertification probably does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Land, even semi arid land, contains organic matter which as it turns into desert breaks down and releases carbon dioxide. The United Nations regard this as a reason to combat desertification as well as the social and economic reasons for doing so.

The extremes or are planet do not support much life of any kind and are inhospitable places for humans to live. We have to be on our guard to prevent extremely hot places becoming hotter and dryer and extremely cold places becoming warmer. It demonstrates the magnitude of the task that faces us and future generations.

Some organisations feel it right to provide lists of likely future catastrophic events, such as flooding in Bangladesh, which might kill millions or deprive them of their homes. Greenpeace recently reported that 120 million people in South East Asia may become homeless as a result of climate change by the end of the century. This kind of doom and gloom is not always helpful; it may make us all eco-weary in the end. The end of the century is still four generations away.

It is important first and foremost to concentrate on what we can see happening today and concentrate, as best we can on putting that right. It may be a small step but we will need to take millions of small steps to get to the right place. The Ancient Greeks were a wise and intelligent people, but they failed to rotate crops to preserve the fertility and characteristics of the land that fed them. We are more technologically advanced than the ancient and must avoid their mistakes. The doom and gloom scenarios beloved of many will never happen.  

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