Climate change facts you can use to impress your friends

Published Tuesday, January 5, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

From COP21 in Paris to national emissions targets to weird weather, climate change has dominated the news in recent weeks.  So it will undoubtedly surface in coffee break conversations as we settle back into our daily routines.

When that happens, here are some interesting facts you can use to impress your friends and colleagues.

Fossil fuel consumption: humans first started using fossil fuels during the industrial revolution and our consumption has been increasing ever since.  That increase in consumption has not been linear (like 2 – 3 – 4 – 5), but exponential (like 2 – 4 – 8 – 16).

The result?  Half of all the fossil fuel ever consumed by humanity has been consumed since 1989.

Put another way: if the period from 1750 to today were represented by one hour, half of all the oil, coal and natural gas ever consumed would have been consumed in the last six minutes of that hour.

If you’ve ever wondered why our current generation has it so good, now you have your answer.

Earth’s atmosphere: if you could hop into your car and magically drive straight up into the air at highway speed, how long would it take you to reach where the air is too thin to breathe?

The answer: seven minutes, less than most people’s commute to work.  Earth’s troposphere, the lower layer of our planet’s atmosphere that sustains life, is just 12 kilometers thick.  If Earth were the size of a basketball, our atmosphere would be thinner than a sheet of plastic film wrapped around the ball.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide: prior to the industrial revolution, the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide was relatively stable at 276 parts per million (PPM).  Today, it is at 400 PPM, an increase of nearly 50 per cent.  

Half of that increase has happened since 1979.  In other words, if the period from 1750 to today were represented by one hour, half of that increase would have happened in the last eight minutes of that hour.

Thanks to our continuing use of fossil fuels, atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing by about 2.1 PPM per year, more than double the rate during the 1960s.

Hottest years: NASA, the organization that sent men to the moon, is also one of the world’s leading authorities on climate.  According to NASA’s data, the hottest 15 years on record have been, in order: 2014, 2010, 2005, 2007, 2013 and 2009; then a four-way tie between 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2012; then 2003 and 2011; then a three-way tie between 2001, 2004 and 2008.

Or, put more plainly: the hottest 15 years on record have included the past 14 years. 

And, though final numbers have yet to be tabulated, 2015 will break 2014’s record and be, by far, the new hottest year on record. 

Sea level rise: Sea levels are rising for two reasons.  First, oceans are warming, and water expands in volume as it warms (‘thermal expansion’).

Second, when land-based ice – ice in mountain glaciers plus the enormous masses sitting on top of Antarctica and Greenland – melts or breaks off into the ocean, it causes sea levels to rise, just as the water level in your glass rises when you add an ice cube.  

How much has the sea level risen?  Since 1900, about 20 cm.  

How fast is it rising?  Between 1900-1990, about 1.2 mm per year.  Since 1990, about 3 mm per year.  

How high could it rise?  Antarctica, Greenland and mountain glaciers contain enough water to raise sea levels worldwide about 70 meters.  Even in a worst case scenario, it would take centuries to melt that much ice - but scientists worry that runaway melting would be impossible to stop once started. 

Hopefully, these snippets will help you impress your friends.  But more importantly, hopefully they will help inform and underline the need for lowering our fossil fuel consumption in every way possible, as quickly as possible.