Cause and Effect 101
by Gordon Prather
"breaking news" just in! There has been a continuous reduction over
the past 50 years in the amount of really cold water that has flowed
south along the ocean bottom in the strait between Greenland and
Iceland. The eco-wackos have jumped on that discovery and are claiming
that, because of that reduction in cold water current in that strait
– which they blame on all you SUV-driving American soccer moms –
in a few years, the British Isles will have a climate like that
of Greenland or Siberia.
donning sackcloth and ashes, putting your SUV up on jacks in the
garage, demanding that President Bush immediately implement the
Kyoto Protocols and vowing to vote for Al Gore early and often in
the next election, you might ask yourself, "By what logic did the
eco-wackos conclude that American soccer moms are responsible for
making the already dreadful Brit climate even worse?"
might even wonder why cold water goes rushing from the North Pole
past Greenland towards the equator in the first place. Well, apparently
it has something to do with the seasonal differential heating of
the earth's oceans – which cover about three-quarters of the Earth's
surface. The seasonal differential heating results from the Earth's
axis of rotation being tilted 23.5 degrees away from the vertical
to the plane of the Earth's orbit about the sun. When the North
Pole is titled away from the sun, we have winter in the Northern
Hemisphere, while they have summer in the Southern Hemisphere, where
the South Pole is then tilted towards the sun. And vice versa.
the surface water near the poles is always fairly cold, but when
the axis is tilted away from the sun, it gets really cold up there.
Colder water – which is denser – sinks at the poles and more or
less moves towards the equator of the spinning planet, while the
warmer surface water at the equator – which is less dense – is displaced
by the colder water flowing under it. That is, the warm Gulf Stream
that has been keeping the Brits from freezing their donkeys all
these years is actually a surface 'replacement' current, and if
there is less cold water flowing south along the ocean bottom to
the equator from the pole, then there will be needed less warm water
flowing north to replace it.
is there less cold water flowing to the equator from the North Pole?
We don't know. After all, all the water on the ocean bottom is cold,
only about one degree centigrade on average. And the average temperature
of all the water in the oceans is reported to be only about four
degrees centigrade. What scientists have reported is that – each
year for 50 years – there has been less really cold water flowing
south in the narrow strait between Greenland and Iceland than the
year before. For all we know, the 'missing' cold water may simply
be taking some other path to the equator. Ocean currents don't have
rigid banks and – over time – do change their paths. And when they
do change their paths, the climate on the shore eventually changes
of the reasons the Greenland sea floor current may have changed
its path in the past is that hot spots develop along the Mid-Atlantic
sea floor where lava has bubbled up from undersea volcanoes to make
new sea floor and has heated the nearby water on the ocean floor
to as much as 400 degrees centigrade. The water doesn't boil because
it is under pressure of up to 300 atmospheres. Incredible as it
seems, some bacteria – perhaps the earliest life forms on this planet
– thrive there at those temperatures and under those pressures.
is no sunlight down there, so life can't depend upon photosynthesis
to make the amino acids that both plants and animals need to live.
These so-called chemo-synthetic bacteria are able to oxidize the
hydrogen sulfide – which is toxic to most living things – (produced
by the lava bubbling up) to produce the energy that would otherwise
be provided for photosynthesis by sunlight. Incredibly, these bacteria
produce the same 20 amino acids that all other forms of life depend
upon, so more than 300 new species of animals – including amphipods,
copepods, tubeworms, snails, shrimp, crabs and even octopi – have
been discovered there on the ocean bottom, happily feeding on the
chemo-synthetic bacteria and the amino acids they have produced.
the Greenland current changes its course so as to avoid such a hot
spot on the ocean floor, it is not obvious how soccer moms can possibly
be held responsible.
currents have been shifting course and changing the climate on shore
for hundreds of millions of years, long before mankind began dumping
large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In fact,
there were large quantities of carbon dioxide (and methane and water
vapor) in the atmosphere – mostly from volcano eruptions – long
before there were any living things on this planet, much less soccer
the eco-wackos have seized on carbon dioxide – a so-called "greenhouse
gas" – as the driver of climate change, perhaps because increases
in its emission can be identified with Big Oil and King Coal, as
well as with gasoline guzzling SUVs. Water vapor in the air is much
the more powerful greenhouse gas and SUVs do also emit water vapor.
Carbon dioxide amounts to only about .035 percent of the air by
volume (methane, another greenhouse gas, only amounts to about .0002
percent) whereas water vapor concentrations can be up to four percent
– 10 to 100 times that of carbon dioxide.
water vapor percentage would be even higher, except that as the
hot air containing it rises and cools, the vapor changes state from
gas to liquid (or ice) and forms clouds, and when the clouds turn
to rain, snow or sleet, some of the carbon dioxide in the air is
dissolved and swept out of the atmosphere as well.
finally brings us to the theme of this column. You probably
knew there were two stable Carbon isotopes: Carbon-12 and Carbon-13.
(Carbon-14 is radioactive, and hence not stable.) Isotopes are atoms
that have the same chemical properties but have different physical
properties. About 1.11 percent of the stable carbon atoms are C-13.
The rest are C-12.
you may not have known that there are characteristic measurable
differences in the C-13 to C-12 ratio, between the isotopic concentration
of carbon atoms in the non-organic carbon dioxide that gets belched
out of a volcano, and the carbon atoms in the organic carbon dioxide
you get by burning a tree or a bush.
take nitrogen and carbon dioxide out of the air and – through the
process known as photosynthesis – fixate nitrogen, eventually producing
the amino acids that both plants and animals need to live. The reaction
goes much faster for the C-12 isotope, so there is a C-13 deficiency
in all organisms, plants and animals, living and dead. Hence, there
is a characteristic measurable Carbon-13 deficiency in carbon dioxide
that has been produced by burning something organic, like a tree,
fact, the Carbon-13 deficiency of all trees and most shrubs growing
in cool, temperate climates is about twice that of plants growing
in warm, tropical climates. Hence, measurement of isotopic carbon
content of dead or fossilized plants can provide an indication of
what the climate was at the time the plants lived.
are even distinct differences in the isotopic carbon concentrations
between terrestrial organic matter – which has absorbed carbon dioxide
from the air – and marine organic matter – which has absorbed carbon
dioxide dissolved in the ocean's surface. So, a similar analysis
of the C-13 deficiency of the ocean bottom sediment resulting from
dead marine organic matter can provide an indication of what the
carbon dioxide levels were in the atmosphere at the time the marine
the eco-wackos claim that it is the carbon dioxide – from whatever
source, organic or inorganic – concentrations in the atmosphere
that largely determines climate. But recent analyses of ocean bed
sediment, going back hundreds of millions of years, more than suggest
that it is the other way around. At least for the organic carbon
dioxide levels, it is the climate that determines the carbon dioxide
levels. Once again, it appears that carbon dioxide levels are the
effect, not the cause.
course, the eco-wackos assume that all fossil fuels – coal, oil
and natural gas – are organic in origin, and that is central to
their argument that all you SUV-driving soccer moms are responsible
for the change in ocean currents. You see, they claim that the global
emission and absorption of organic carbon dioxide was in balance
until you came along, and that by digging up all those fossils and
burning them, you are upsetting Mother Nature. But on the basis
of C-13 deficiency analysis of oil and gas found at considerable
depths beneath the earth's surface, we now suspect that fossil fuels
may not be organic in origin after all.
Laureate Sir Robert Robinson, who investigated the chemistry of
natural petroleum in some detail, noted that the deeper one goes
into the earth's crust to find the oil reservoir, the fewer are
the signs of anything biological in the oil one finds. True, there
are signs of organic activity – microbial life – in oil found near
the surface. But as the depth from which the oil is obtained is
increased – to the depths where microbes aren't found – the more
nearly the Carbon-13 deficit disappears. That is, oil and gas near
the surface may have been contaminated by the microbes that live
there, but the isotopic carbon ratios for natural gas obtained from
great depths is indistinguishable from the methane ejected in volcanic
eruptions. It follows that the carbon dioxide produced by burning
natural gas obtained from deep reservoirs is also indistinguishable
from the carbon dioxide ejected in volcanic eruptions.
of the source, there has been a considerable increase in the past
30 or so years not only in the base level of the carbon dioxide
concentrations in the atmosphere, but also about a 20 percent increase
in the amplitude of the seasonal variations. There is an observed
correlation between increased seasonal amplitudes and both the average
surface temperature, and the isotopic carbon ratio. Once again,
correlation does not imply cause and effect.
the carbon dioxide produced by such things as forest fires have
the characteristic organic C-13 deficit. All the carbon dioxide
produced by such things as volcanic eruptions have – by definition
– no C-13 deficit. Growing terrestrial plants and marine organisms
remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and much more is dissolved
in the oceans and in rain. The effective C-13 deficit in the atmosphere
is just the average of the organic and non-organic contributions
that remain in the base level. But the actual measured C-13 deficit
has more or less tracked the total increase in carbon dioxide. That
would make sense only if the net increase to the base level was
organic in origin.
is, the eco-wackos have assumed that the carbon dioxide added
to the atmosphere by Big Oil, King Coal and you soccer moms is organic
in origin and so the C-13 deficit of the atmosphere would increase
slightly, since the C-13 deficit of the atmosphere is just the average
of what was already there plus what gets added. But if oil and natural
gas is not organic in origin, then the carbon dioxide added by Big
Oil and you soccer moms would not increase the C-13 deficit.
where does all this – if proven out for all fossil fuels – leave
the eco-wackos? Well, it throws Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance"
into a cocked hat. If the net increase has to be organic in origin
and you soccer moms haven't started any forest fires lately, you
may – or may not – be changing the climate in jolly old England
by driving your gas-guzzling SUVs. But you're not upsetting Mother
Nature any more than did the eruptions of St. Helens or Pinatubo.
James Gordon Prather [send
him mail] has served as a policy-implementing official for national
security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency,
the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department
of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department
of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for
national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla.
ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the
Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather
had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory
in New Mexico.
© 2001 Gordon Prather