One benefit of working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that always thrilled me was watching the computer-generated images of the Earth’s atmosphere. The models would “turn on” the sun and the global patterns of our weather would emerge, growing more complex with time.
It required supercomputers to transform zillions of equations into a global map with amoeba-shaped low and high pressure areas moving across continents and vast oceans.
Photos of Earth from space showed everyone that we live on a small blue, mostly water-covered planet. The computer models taught me that we humans dwell at the bottom of an ocean of air.
Earth is encased in layers of gases about 300 miles thick. We live in the densest, lowermost layer, the troposphere. We usually don’t think of our air as densely compressed by the layers of gas above but tend to think of the air growing thinner as we go up.
The troposphere extends up from Earth’s surface only about 10 miles at the equator and five miles at the poles. It expands and contracts, “breathing” with seasons in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
We may notice the clarity of this colorless, odorless mixture of gases when atop a mountain or looking up at a desert night sky.
It’s the stuff carried by the winds that makes air visible: tiny droplets of water condensed into clouds, soot and chemical particles from combustion, gases, lava and particles from volcanoes.
Now the impact of man-made pollution is larger than Mother Nature’s. Each year more carbon dioxide is added to Earth’s atmosphere as staggering quantities of fuel are burned as a burgeoning population strives to modernize. As of 2009, developing countries emit more CO2 than developed countries and China emits more than the U.S., in terms of consumption.
Carbon dioxide released into the air by human activities are implicated in rising global temperatures and increased weather-related disasters. 2011 was the warmest year on record.
In March, NOAA’s research laboratory on Mauna Loa, Hawaii, recorded atmospheric CO2 at 394.45 ppm (parts per million). The upper limit for atmospheric CO2 for maintaining a livable climate is 350 ppm. CO2 levels have stayed above 350 ppm since early 1988.
March 2012 marked the 36th consecutive March and the 325th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th-century average, NOAA reports.
With little intellectual or spiritual connection to the conditions that make human life possible, many people are unconcerned, oblivious or distracted. But not those who live by the traditional values of indigenous cultures.
“We’re part of the hydrological cycle,” said Micah McCarty, speaking at Peninsula College last week. “We have the same water in our bodies as in the ocean.”
Growing up in Neah Bay, McCarty’s roots are in the Makah’s ancient connections with the ocean. Today as Makah tribal chairman, McCarty brings those traditional values to his role as vice chairman of the Governance Coordinating Committee on the president’s National Ocean Council.
His biggest worry is that increasing carbon dioxide in the air is rapidly acidifying the oceans. The largest boundary layer, roughly three-quarters of Earth’s surface, is between the air and the ocean’s surface. The Pacific Ocean, virtually our front yard, is now so acidic that oysters can’t manufacture the shells they need to survive.
“The increase in carbon dioxide is the second-hand smoke that even the polar bears can’t escape,” McCarty said.
Recently, two artists created an online site that offers a mesmerizing look at the delicate tracery of the wind moving across the U.S. Wind map, (http://hint.fm/wind) reveals the steady flows and graceful whorls of our restless, ever-changing ocean of air. Combining scientific information with artistic sensibilities made the invisible visible.
This made me wonder if we can learn to see with our hearts, to know that our lives depend on the delicate dance of temperature and chemistry, land and water, sea and sky. Will we honor our cell-deep connections with the water inside of us and the vaporous clouds and melting glaciers, the flows in the sky above and below us? The fragile cloak of air that makes life possible for us lives in balance with all life on Earth.
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