Essay: Earth Science and Society

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Earth Science and Society

The Wabash Watershed -- For this analysis, we will be focusing on a specific geographic area, the Wabash Watershed. Chronologically, we will use 1961-1990 as our basal reference, including raw, 5-year average, and 10-year average data. The data sets include temperature, precipitation, evapotranspiration, moisture surplus, moisture deficit, and surface runoff. Our primary research questions surround what this data tells us about the region over this slice of time, and what trends it may indicate. Additionally, taken into the macro analysis, we are concerned with what this data may tell us about global warming theory. The importance of this data set is directly in relation to the idea of what it might tell us about global warming -- a phenomenon that has certainly gleaned more interest over the past few years.

The Wabash River Watershed covers over 33,000 square miles in the west-central area of Central Ohio, parts of Indiana, and the southeastern section of Illinois. Atmospheric and surface water data were calculated in monthly increments, with 10-year averages. The analysis will be conducted keeping in mind that since the end of World War II to 1980 there was a cooling period in the North American climate.

Globalism and Global Warming - One of the key changes of the late 20th century, certainly enhanced in the early 21st, is that of the economic, political, and cultural movements that broadly speaking, move the various countries of the world closer together. This idea, called globalism, refers to a number of theories that see the complexities of modern life such that events and actions are tied together, regardless of the geographic location of a specific country (political unit). The idea of globalism has become popular in economic and cultural terms with the advent of a number of macro-trade agreements combined with the ease of communication brought about with the Internet and cellular communication (Nye, 2002; Novara, 2003).

The rapid growth of the global economy profoundly effects modern economic development and stability, labor, and, most especially, the environment. In combination with the Earth's natural geologic functions, the process of human globalization radically transforms local issues into national and international problems, heightening very serious challenges, such as pollution, global warming, and overpopulation (Levin, 2009). Pollution is not a new global issue, nor is it strictly manmade. Since the Earth's very formation, contaminants were introduced into the atmosphere, water, or soil, having a detrimental effect. From prehistoric fires and trash dumps, to the blatant release of tons of toxic chemicals into the air and water following the Industrial Revolution, the various problems associated with humanity's excess wastes, however, have increased man's negative environmental impact (Markham, 1994).

After World War II, modern factories produced non-biodegradable plastics like PCBs and inorganic pesticides like DDT; these types of materials are not only toxic, but being non-biodegradable, accumulate in the environment. Over time this accumulation causes increased rates of cancers, birth defects, health problems, and a global loss of biodiversity ("History of Pollution," 2007).

Global warming is the gradual increase of the earth's median temperature for surface air and oceans. Although controversial, global warming consistently measured since the mid-20th century has resulted in environmental impacts that may be disastrous to the environment. While scientists generally agree that solar variation and volcanic activity have had an effect on the environment, it was not until the 1950s that the collective effects of greenhouse gases from industry and automobiles began to cause noticeable climactic changes, quantified globally by a community of international scientific organization. Computer models are not yet sophisticated enough to definitively predict actual consequences of global warming, but many scholars believe that there will be rapid and increasing variations in extreme weather patterns (e.g. dramatic changes in rainfall, freezing temperatures, storm systems, heat waves, etc.), possible aggravated melting of the polar glaciers causing a rise in ocean levels, disruption of global agriculture, and adverse health effects resulting from unplanned temperature changes.

Part B -- Essay

Do we see an overall warming of the environment? The data showing average annual maximum temperature 1961-1990, average minimum temperature, and average annual temperature all show slight increases in temperature, or an average warming trend, in the three decades noted. This is based not on the yearly fluctuation average, but on the 5 and 10-year averages, which tend to show elasticity in a 2-4 point increase over 30 years. While this may seem slight, if it were to become a long-term trend, over the course of a century it would have disastrous effects on agriculture and more. Also, we must keep in mind that the late 1970s were associated with some of the coldest and most severe winters in U.S. History. Even then, with the so-called "little ice age" winters, we may be seeing slight indications of global warming.

Some theorists envisioned that we would see a more pronounced warming of minimum temperatures than maximum temperatures. This might result in a reduced range of temperatures. What trends does the data show?

During individual years the maximum temperature ranged from a high of 65 to a low of 60.5, but the 5 and 10-year average dropped slightly to 1981 and then gradually rose. The minimum temperature was flatter, but began to rise in 1981 as well. The minimum ranged from a high of just over 44 to a love of just under 39. The overall shape of the data, though, is similar over time, leading us to posit that viewing temperature on a yearly basis is less valuable than longer trends, also bringing up the thought that even 5 and 10-year averages are too small a time frame to measure a geologic function.

Many theories that look at global warming envisage more drought and less surplus water conditions for inland or continental locations. Therefore, we might see some trends in precipitation amounts and the frequency of certain amounts of precipitation. What do the trends show?

On an individual year basis, there is variation in precipitation. However, again using the 5 and 10-year graph we see a slight rise over the time of 1967 to 1987, from about 39" to 42," but remaining flatter around 41-42" from 1971 onward. There is some data that indicates, though, that these trends were expressed in similar climate areas globally during these years (Weller, 1997).

In reference to actual evapotranspiration, surplus/deficit conditions and runoff/stream flow, what might we expect with a warming climate?

If a climate were trending warmer over time, we would expect to see the available snowpack, which in this area is minimum, reduced and, at the beginning of the cycle, larger runoff and more rapid stream flow. As the climate warmed, we would expect less available precipitation in the middle range of the cycle, with concurrent impact upon agriculture and a change in Spring and Summer weather patterns. Depending on the Arctic currents (which tend to bring colder arctic weather patterns down from Canada); combined with moisture over the Great Lakes, would still likely bring moisture to the area, perhaps allowing a slighter drier climate, but the square miles of the area are too small to allow for a major "trend" to be defined.

Are there clear-cut answers in the trends that we see?

Frankly, we do see micro trends, and we see macro trends based on a single defined period -- roughly three decades. This is reminiscent of the adage about five blind men who are put into a room with an elephant. Each "feels" a certain part of the elephant, and describes the animal differently -- one has the tail, the trunk, and so on. Looking at climate is similar, the timespan and range of climate and weather are so large that looking at smaller chronological time frames (even decades are small) and smaller geographic area (miles instead of regions) are giving too myopic a picture of any real and meaningful data.

What does that tell us about researching environmental issues like global warming?

On one hand we do have scientific studies that model changes in the environment over the past century that do see trends, and many of those trends indicate a gradual warming. Others view climate as being in a far vaster arena, and say that it is impossible to analyze anything smaller than millennia. We are also shown that it is desirous to bring in additional modeling information in order to develop a more holistic view.

Are there other types of data or information that we need to look at to make a worthwhile analysis? If so, what would they be?

Certainly, it would be far more helpful if we had additional climate and weather data for several thousand years. Scientists are studying cores of polar and Antarctic ice, as well as tree rings and other environmental indicators, but that shows typical major trends. In addition, there can never be too much data -- even though the analysis of said data may be problematical. For example, Edward Lorenz, researcher on atmospheric processes, brought the idea of chaos theory into the weather… [END OF PREVIEW]

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