Global Climate Change Presentation Recap

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On Monday, April 7, 2014 at 7:00pm, the Orleans Conservation Trust (OCT) hosted the fourth of five  presentations associated with our 2014 Winter & Spring Lecture Series at the Orleans Yacht Club. Dr. Richard (Skee) Houghton, III, Acting President and Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center gave his presentation entitled “Climate Change, the Global Carbon Cycle & the Management of Carbon on Land.”

Dr. Houghton’s father, Richard Houghton, Jr. had a lifelong interest in wildlife, nature, birds and birding, serving both as an OCT Trustee during the mid-1990’s, and on the Town’s Conservation Commission. Richard Houghton, Jr. was also an officer in the American Rhododendron Society, planting about 300 rhododendrons in his own sanctuary, most of them different varieties. After retirement, Richard Houghton, Jr. combined his interests in conservation and engineering by designing and building one of the first solar houses in the area. In May of 2013 when Richard Houghton, Jr. passed away, the family generously directed donations in his Memory to be made to the Orleans Conservation Trust.

Dr. Houghton began his presentation by explaining that global warming is not a scientific controvery anymore. All across the world, there is a natural greenhouse effect when carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gases trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the Earth. Giving a bit of visual history through the use of graphs, Dr. Houghton pointed out that of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, greenhouses gas concentrations have risen 44%, raising the earth’s mean global temperature by 1.4 degrees F.

This increase in mean global temparature means the Earth is warming, our climate is changing, and climate distruption is already here. As seen across the globe, extreme weather events have become more common, from monsoons and flooding in Malaysia and India, record heat and droughts in Australia and New Zealand, to wildfires in Arizona and record storms in the northeastern United States. In fact, in the 1990s there were some 200 weather-related disasters across the globe each year, but during the last decade, that number has increased to 350 per year.

Dr. Houghton reiterated that these severe weather events happened with an average global warming of less than 1.4 degrees F, and the climate changes that are taking place are in fact occuring much more rapidly than scientists predicted. Global warming is caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, nearly 80% of which come from carbon dioxide (CO2). Since 1850, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have increased 60% and were measured at 400 parts per million, higher than ever before, in May of 2013. The dramatic increase in CO2 is caused by burning fossil fuels and will continue to rise until the use of these fuels is decreased dramatically.

Dr. Houghton then went on to explain carbon sinks and the global carbon budget. Carbon sources and sinks on land result from environmental changes and direct human efforts that include reforestation or deforestation for agriculture, grazing, forestry, or other pursuits. Dr. Houghton pointed out that global warming is changing the landscape, but it is still unclear how much these changes will affect the global carbon budget.

The current climate compromise between what is needed to sustain life and what is possible is 3.6 degrees F. As mentioned earlier in his presentation, the earth has already warmed by 1.4 degrees F, and because of a lag in the ocean carbon sink, we are already committed to another 1.4 degrees F. Thus, we are locked into an additional 2.8 degrees F of warming even if CO2 emissions were stopped completely today. The window of opportunity to change the current climate trajectory is closing, and the longer we wait to alter our course, the more colossal the efforts required will be.

But, “There is hope” Dr. Houghton said as he wrapped up his talk. The one way to arrest global warming is to stablize the CO2 concentrations by reducing emissions and increasing the storage of carbon on land and in the oceans. Dr. Houghton estimated that it could take 40 years to develop and implement the technology that will replace fossil fuels as the primary energy source. In the meantime, we can manage our forest capitol and we can cut CO2 emissions by 50% every year for the next 50 years.

Join us on Monday, May 5th, 2014 at 7:00pm at the Orleans Yacht Club for the next lecture entitled, “Close Encounters of the Ocean Kind” given by John King, explorer, photographer, author, and Chatham conservationist. King will share insights into his personal voyage of re-discovery of the coastal and ocean wildlife that spend time each year in the waters off Cape Cod. You’ll hear King’s stories and see photographs of unique encounters with birds, sharks and whales, among other life forms.