Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Of Polluted Beaches, Niños and Global Warming

Rewrites of Jottings: Of Polluted Beaches, Niños and Global Warming

In a statement issued recently by the World Health Organization warned swimmers that some beaches in Asia are contaminated with sewage. Pathogens in contaminated water can cause diarrhea and fever, and in extreme cases even kidney infection, hemorrhage and death, the WHO warned. The editorial of a national daily expressed elation that the advisory did not mention the Philippines.
But the Philippines does have polluted coastal waters that pose a risk to the health of humans and to marine life. A prime tourist spot, Boracay, was embarrassed by a report of coliform contamination in the 90’s, and a similar report, of Macajalar Bay adjacent to Cagayan de Oro. In a letter to a Congressman (not of our City), I wrote: “The urgency of protecting water supplies and coastal waters cannot be over emphasized. Boracay’s septic crisis some years back was solved only by natural means (tidal currents), but jolted frightened businesses into positive action. Macajalar Bay adjacent to this city was also found heavy with coliform bacteria in the mid-90s, but with only mild tidal currents and unrelenting flow of sewage the bay could by now be one huge cesspool.”
Untreated sewage of CDO still flows to the Bay and, except for Delmonte that has a wastewater treatment facility, all other manufacturing plants along the coast of CDO discharge raw effluents directly into bay or river waters. A decade ago I warned all members of my household not to swim in Macajalar Bay.

Of Global Warming and El Niño

Global warming and El Niño are buzzwords that conversant Pinoys have inserted into their vocabulary. But for various reasons, El Niño is used much more often, despite its decade long interval, and global warming is treated with disdain or ignored completely.
Perhaps the reason El Niño is heavily favored is that it is a great motivator. Whenever it is conjured in official circles, it can elicit funding (in drooling amounts) “to minimize the ill-effects”. It is a convenient justification for doling out a sack of rice to farmers nearing starvation, or during its La Niña reverse, when sudden downpours induce roofs to leak and wet some home floors it gives cause for barangay bleeding hearts to plead for a calamity declaration, the” open sesame” that opens the calamity fund coffer.
The GMA administration geared up to face the El Niño that it says will begin in October 2002 and last until June 2003. The timing seems a bit stretched ─ Niños are known to begin at Christmas time when the Christ child (El Niño de Navidad) arrives. These oceanic phenomena occur yearly but are usually mild. However, about every tenth year or so (nine Niños were recorded during the past 40 years), a severe one occurs (the canonical El Niño), bringing extreme weather globally. Heavy rains fall in coastal South America and elsewhere, but drought in other regions such as Southeast Asia.
Rainfall and drought are atmospheric phenomena that are linked to oceanic El Niño in the weather cycle. Insolation energy from the Sun absorbed by the Pacific Ocean produces the convection currents and wind patterns in the air, which in turn generates rain (or lack of it). When the pattern of prevailing winds and ocean currents is exceptionally disrupted and leads to an El Niño, it also perturbs the rhythm of life. Predicting an onset of this climatic disturbance would be useful in agricultural planning, especially in anticipating food reserve needs and good water management.
It seems we have yet to learn from experience if we include cloud seeding as one of the relief measures. It would constitute a case of “too little, too late”. Given the 10-year cycle of Niños (which is being studied if it has correlation to the 10½-year sunspot cycle), the 2002-03 Niño could have been anticipated. The U.S. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) started giving warnings when prevailing winds began weakening in May 2002. It would be interesting to find out how Napocor managed the water usage in the Agus and Pulangi generators.
In contrast, what can global warming stimulate? At best, a few palm-leaf fans. Why do Filipinos not take it seriously? How did the term become a scare word? A bit of historical background might provide an insight.
The alarm attained grave proportions when a scientist from NASA (the U.S. Space Administration) while giving testimony to the U.S. Senate hearing on global climate change, stated that “the Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in history”, and said further that “the greenhouse effect is changing our climate now.” The publicity reverberated around the world.
Why would Pinoys who are used to year round warm weather even care? The bad news is that warmer global climate would expedite the melting of the polar ice caps which, if completely melted, would raise the ocean level 200 feet. The Philippine archipelago would lose thousands of islands to the sea and submerge coastal regions of major islands. The good news is that this process will take hundreds of thousands of years.
The Earth gets almost all its energy from the sun, except for a very negligible amount from volcanic eruptions and geothermal sources. About 45% of incoming insolation is immediately reflected by clouds back to space. The energy reaching the surface is re-radiated back to space at night (after doing work evaporating water into clouds, moving winds in the atmosphere and waves in the ocean, and a tiny amount on photosynthesis.) However, the greenhouse effect traps some heat, preventing it from escaping to space.
A major contributor to the greenhouse effect is carbon dioxide (CO2). Although CO2 is a common component of the atmosphere, man’s rapid progress in the 20th century ─ moving about in vehicles and operating factories that burn fossil fuel oil ─ has made substantial contribution to the increase in atmospheric CO2. In parts per million by volume, CO2 in the atmosphere was 285 in 1860, jumped to 340 in 1981, hurdled 375 in 2000 and is projected to be 540 in the year 2040.
Two recent studies predict that the average global temperature will rise as much as 5.5º F. because the atmosphere concentration of CO2 prevents the earth’s heat from radiating to outer space. The adverse effects of rising temperature includes a shift in desert and agricultural belts, the spread of pests and tropical disease, and as ice sheets melt, a 15 – 24 feet rise in sea levels that would displace shoreline inhabitants.
Another major greenhouse gas is methane, produced by cows, sheep, goats and other ruminant animals. Billions and billions of termites also produce methane. Forest denudation also increases the concentration of CO2, but only to a slight degree, since only one-tenth of the total CO2 consumption is due to grass, bushes and trees, the other nine-tenths being accounted for by phytoplankton (algae) in the ocean. (The Japanese whale-meat diet helps reduce the whale populations that consume the plankton in huge ton-size gulps.)
Some factors that inhibit the heat build-up from insolation are the reflectivity of clouds and the albedo effect of air particles floating in the atmosphere. Further into the future, the probability of another ice age (in ten to fifteen thousand years) would help cool things down, but that’s another story.
The common element of both greenhouse gases CO2 and methane is carbon, but this should not detract from its value to humanity. Carbon is also a component of trees, crude oil, synthetic rubber, steel, graphite in pencils, strengthener of composite materials, and girl’s-best-friend diamonds. And let us not forget, proteins, the essence of life.

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