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Energy & Environment

Rising CO2 Levels Could Change W.Va.

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Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere could potentially lead to more severe rains and flooding followed by longer dry periods.

A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached unprecedented levels. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

Eric Douglas spoke with Tina Cartwright, a Marshall University professor of science education and meteorology, to understand what increased levels of CO2 mean and how they affect us in the Mountain State.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Explain to me what we don't understand about greenhouse gases about how that affects our environment.

Cartwright: One of my established goals when I teach about weather is to try to relay the fact that the greenhouse gases are our friends, and not foes. Without greenhouse gases, there wouldn't be life on Earth. Greenhouse gases act like a blanket on your body at night. Without a blanket, you're feeling kind of chilly.

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Tina Cartwright
Marshall University professor Tina Cartwright conducting climate change field work in Costa Rica.

Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring gases in our atmosphere. Without the greenhouse gases, we'd have huge variations in nighttime and daytime temperatures. We would see 100-degree temperature changes much like they saw on the moon.

When we talk about climate change, we're talking about enhancing the greenhouse effect. You are piling more and more blankets on at night. We are enhancing the greenhouse effect which is causing the temperatures to rise.

Climate is described by two things: temperature and precipitation. And we are 100 percent dependent upon reliable patterns of precipitation. Our food sources need precipitation. The groundwater that our food sources use relies on reliable patterns of precipitation.

Douglas: The mean level CO2 in the atmosphere has reached its highest level (417 parts per million), since they started tracking it 63 years ago. What does that mean to us?

Cartwright: I remember learning about this 20 years ago when I was in college, and at that point they were talking about, we might get to 350 parts per million. So we've seen we've reached this number far sooner than we anticipated 20 to 25 years ago.

When we look at the past climate record, scientists show us that there is a relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As it goes up, the temperature goes up.

The concern is that we cause feedback loops. Places like Alaska, as the temperature warms the permafrost, the frozen ground, thaws, and now you have a release of carbon dioxide as plants decay and die and release more carbon dioxide.

The other thing is changes to albedo. Albedo describes the amount of sunlight that's reflected back. As a place loses ice because it’s warmed, now you're exposing the bare ground that is darker. It absorbs more sunlight, it gets warmer and melts more ice. We're very worried as a scientific community as we increase the amount of carbon dioxide, that we're enhancing those positive feedback loops.

Douglas: Post-coronavirus, we're all kind of opening back up, we're driving again, we're all going places again. Even though there was a reduction in production for a year, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere hasn't dropped.

Cartwright: If anything we might have learned that a single approach to this problem isn't going to be enough. It isn't as simple as not driving our cars. It isn't as simple as not taking as many flights. It's a very complex problem that is going to take all of us doing a lot of different things differently from the top down, from the bottom up, to make to make a true impact and that impact is going to take many, many, years for us to measure it because carbon dioxide is in our atmosphere for such a long time.

Douglas: Because we have a temperate climate here, it is harder for people to grasp what that means to West Virginia. So explain what all of this means for us.

Cartwright: Two weeks ago, we went to Glacier National Park. And that was fabulous. They talked a lot about the lack of snow that they had received, and how that not only impacts the water availability now, but it's going to impact the water availability over their whole coming dry summer season.

What we'll have to start thinking about in West Virginia is that we might have too much rain in a certain time of year, and then drier seasons that can go on for a long time.

We're seeing that the world is so connected. And it's one thing to think about your yard and your neighborhood, but we're seeing an impact on our wallet which we don't ignore. When prices and the availability of things fluctuate we're like, “holy heck, what's happened?”

There will be more of that because of the interconnection of our agriculture. We may experience much more rainfall than normal. That's West Virginia's biggest weather problem — flooding. It might be too wet to raise crops.

And then we have to think about growing something else. It's a complex system, and I'm afraid we're all going to see that and feel that interconnectedness, like we have gotten a taste of, through COVID and through cybersecurity issues.


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