Friday, July 9, 2010

Rowland, Crutzen & Molina: Climate Change is real and they can save us!

It is possible that a perceptive science teacher in Ohio of the 1940’s may have helped save the planet. For that teacher allowed a bright, responsible pupil to look after the local volunteer weather station. And that pupil was Sherwood Rowland, who grew up to be the scientist who realized that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to ozone depletion.

“Chemistry definitely was not one of my favorite subjects”, Paul Crutzen admitted! But, his destiny says something different. Though, started his career as a civil engineer, longing for an academic career, Crutzen gained a job as a computer programmer at Stockholm University’s Department of Meteorology. He used his spare time to gain the equivalent of a Master’s in mathematics, mathematical statistics, and meteorology and a PhD in meteorology. While much of the work at Stockholm was aimed at acid rain, Crutzen says he was given free rein, and much help, in his ozone studies. He discovered that nitrous oxide (N2O), produced naturally by soil bacteria, rises into the stratosphere, where solar energy splits it into two reactive compounds, NO and NO2. These remain active for some time, breaking ozone (O3) down into molecular oxygen (O2). This is his research made him to get a phone call from Stockholm! This is the tale of how a chemistry phobic turned to a Nobelist in chemistry!!!

Next, Mario Molina is no less! During the post-doctoral research he went to work with F.S. Rowland at the University of California, Irvine, where he found a new challenge in investigating the behavior of certain industrial compounds – chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs - in the atmosphere and, beyond that, in the environment as a whole. It took just three months for Rowland and Molina to develop a theory predicting that these compounds would cause depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, a theory that was subsequently shown to be correct and which led to an international agreement banning the use of the industrial compounds causing the damage.

Thus in this Lindau meeting we have all three of the Nobel laureates who were recognized for their work on the chemistry of chlorofluorocarbons in the stratosphere which is responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer. Their work, which met with considerable corporate and political opposition, delineated the role of chlorofluorocarbons in causing the destruction of the ozone layer. The work led the way to further studies of human manipulation of climate and encouraged awareness of global warming.
The lectures had been set with the Laureates Rowland and Crutzen, a strong focus on greenhouse gases and climate change. From their focus have Rowland and Crutzen added, but there were strong overlaps of Crutzen introductory lecture and Rowland’s. Crutzen said that with "but I have the slides better."

F. Sherwood Rowland’s slide were followed by a basic discussion of greenhouse and gases and necessary requirements for a molecule to act as a greenhouse gas (it should have three atoms and it should have a reasonably long lifetime in the atmosphere). Rowland further talked about radiative forcings including the albedo effect mediated by clouds, snow and ice. A discussion of ice core measurements yielding the earth's record of CO2 and temperature changes follows.
Rowland's talk was followed by that of his fellow Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen who reiterated several of Rowland's points. Crutzen starts by noting the tremendous increase in human and cattle population, industrial output, water and energy usage and urbanization that has taken place over the last three centuries. The problem of water usage is especially acute and never readily appreciated; it takes 12,000 liters of water to produce a liter of coffee for instance. Nitrogen fixation has also been tremendously accelerated with the invention of the Haber-Bosch process. All these developments, while raising our standard of living, have also put significant strain on our biosphere and atmosphere.

During the Discussion session, Crutzen also coined the term Anthropocene to describe the geological epoch in which we are now to where the people have emerged as a veritable terra-forming species, like the glaciers of the last ice age. Which is characterized by ever Anthroprocene acceleration, we consume more and more water, more and more oil, more and more of everything and other species are dying out for it. Human activities are affecting, and in many cases out-competing, natural processes, for instance causing the ‘ozone hole’, the rise of greenhouse gases with their impact on climate, urban and regional air pollution, ‘acid rain’, species extinction, with all their consequences for human and ecosystem health.

Next day, Molina began with the basics of climate change and acknowledges the work of the IPCC in establishing a consensus on anthropomorphic climate change. He talks about the common objections of skeptics who point to changes in the climate throughout earth's history and make this an argument for challenging the concern about recent changes in climate.
So as usual, the cardinal question; what are the solutions? As Molina and many others have noted, at least some drastic changes in our personal and global habits would be necessary to deal with climate change. Alternative energies are key in mitigating CO2 emissions, as is also carbon capture. Gratifyingly Molina also noted the inclusion of nuclear power in future energy options and especially notes the safety and efficiency of the new generation of nuclear reactors. Molina concluded with a list of solutions to mitigating climate change. These include pricing or taxing carbon emissions and further research in energy technology.

In the quest of solution of Climate Change and Global warming, his saying, “People have to follow the Red Light”! According to Molina, “unless we inculcate personal habits and social responsibilities, use energy more efficiently, control population and reach out to others in improving the state of our world, we may indeed end up playing with our planet, and that we don't want to do.” This is Molina who was trying to point some solution towards Climate change. Beyond this crucial fact, I found him as a modest personality at the evening discussion session.

With Mario Molina at the Discussion Session

He is a chemical engineer! I came across him with a big grin as if I found someone from my field. He didn’t disappoint me either. We had a healthy conversation, even regarding the Climate condition in developing country like Bangladesh. I found him so knowledgeable about these contemporary burning issues!

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