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The elephant in the sky

11 December 2019

Last week certainly was strange.

If you went outside you would be forgiven for thinking that you'd been cast back in time to the 1920s.


Well the world was decidedly sepia-toned.

Towards the end of last week the skies were not blue with puffy white clouds, they were kind of gray with brownish clouds and a hazy mist that (at least around here) came right down to ground-level on Saturday morning.

It seems as if some form of temperature inversion had bought the high-level smoke from Australia's bushfires right down to ground and it made the drive to the Post Office at 6:30am an extremely eerie one.

Yesterday, smog/pollution levels in Sydney spiked to a new all-time high, posting a significant risk to health

Once again, the culprit were those bushfires, spewing copious volumes of smoke into the air.

A change of wind direction at the beginning of this week has meant that our skies have cleared and the brown tinge lifted -- but odds are that it will be back once airflows revert to their previous pattern.

So here's the question I'd like to ask...

"How much CO2 and particulate matter have these fires produced?"

In the era of climate change, this is an important question and one that I've not seen anyone asking to date.

Are the effects of the latest bushfires "significant" in terms of greenhouse gas and particulate production? It sure looks as if they are -- but I'm only guessing.

The entire diesel vehicle fleet of Australia, all chugging around the Aussie roads don't seem to create any visible fallout over NZ -- yet these bushfires have already lifted the pollution levels to "moderate" in some NZ centres over recent weeks. Surely that's got to be an indicator that this is a significant event.

With ice sheets melting at far greater rates than was predicted by the climate-change models, surely we ought to be concerned over any event (natural or otherwise) that may contribute significantly to this issue.

Of course bushfires are a natural event, part of the Aussie ecosystem. Even before man arrived and started developing the landscape, bushfires were a regular occurrance so one might think that their effects won't change much anyway. However, if we could offset the man-made greenhouse emissions by preventing or reducing the severity of these fires, might that not be an extremely effective mitigation strategy?

Meanwhile, back in NZ, White Island is probably doing its bit (albeit on a much smaller scale) to warm the planet through the release of gasses and injection of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

I must go look up the effects of such volcanic events and see whether they're net warming or net cooling in nature. I recall that after the Pinatubo erruption back in 1991, surface temperatures around the world dropped by as much as 0.5 degrees for several years. I guess the sort-term cooling effect of the particulates played a roll in these temperature drops but what did the estimated 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gases that were belched into the stratosphere do for longer-term warming?

The reality of climate change is that although it's become pretty clear that man has had an effect on the planet, it would obviously not take too many severe natural disasters to dwarf our own influence (a nuclear winter notwithstanding). Even variations in the amount of energy coming from the sun could, in a few short years, make our centuries-long abuse of fossil fuels become all but totally insignificant.

All of this does not mean we should do a Trump and give up on even trying to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing our CO2, methane and other emissions -- but it does show that no matter how skillfully played, the game of life depends very much on the roll of the dice. (Einsten's claims notwithstanding).

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