2006-07-21 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

Global Warming III: Mistaken Interpretations

by Stephen Yaeger

To paraphrase Michael Corleone in

The Godfather, Part 3 , "Just when I thought I was through with global warming, they pull me back in." Local historian Emil Lucev's letter to the editor in the Wave's July 7 edition "threw down the gauntlet" when he wrote that I should get on a report about what happens when ethanol (a substitute for fossil fuel) comes in contact with water; According to the report, when ethanol and water come together a "chemical called formaldehyde is produced." And who knows what happens when its fumes come in contact with the atmosphere and sunlight. According to Emil this report "was killed," implying that global warming believers wanted it out of the way. Shivers did not exactly crawl up my spine when I read this. I taught chemistry at Beach Channel HS and at a local yeshiva for many years and, if my memory serves me correctly, such a combination does not produce formaldehyde. Here's a simple chemistry lesson.

Ethanol is an organic compound belonging to the alcohol family and is also known as ethyl alcohol. The compound is composed of two carbon atoms, five hydrogen atoms, and the hydroxyl group, -OH. The chemical formula is: C2H5OH. If one adds water to ethanol nothing will happen. You see, ethanol and water are immiscible ; neither one is soluble in the other.

Formaldehyde is an aldehyde having one carbon atom, three hydrogen atoms and an aldehyde or carbonyl group, CHO. The chemical formula is CH3 CHO. Formaldehyde is produced when the alcohol, methanol or methyl alcohol, is combined with oxygen in the presence of copper or silver. The reaction is: 2 methanol + 1 O 2 -> 2 formaldehyde + 2 water. And, yes, formaldehyde is a smelly gas which is quite soluble in water. The water and formaldehyde mixture is called formalin and is used to preserve specimens among other things. So this report was obviously written by someone who knows zilch about chemistry, and it was written to pooh-pooh ethanol as a fossil fuel substitute. It was, therefore, a lie!

Now Emil wrote about a number of other things related to global warming, at least so he believed, through no fault of his own not being science minded, but surely an excellent historian (I do read his column as I, myself, love history).

Evidence does show that Pluto is warming, but this fact has nothing to do with Earth's global warming problem. Pluto averages some 3600 million miles or so from the sun, whereas Earth averages some 150 million miles distant. We use average because the orbits of the two planets are not circular. Now everyone knows that the closer an object is to a source of heat the hotter it gets and visa versa. So if Pluto's global warming is due to the sun's energy, boy, are we in trouble. This concept contradicts what global warming non-believers say-namely that it does not exist. There are other factors that will satisfactorily explain Pluto's warming such as increased volcanic activity on the planet or changes in its internal structure.

As for Saturn's five series of rings, and the lightning that was found, this also may have a simple explanation. The rings are composed of ice, icy rocks and micro-space dust. The particles range in size from centimeters to meters. When the rings were subjected to X-rays they sort of sparkled or were found to undergo fluorescence. It is this fluorescence that was referred to as lightning. Fluorescence also happens when the rings are subjected to solar X-rays striking oxygen in the rings' water molecules. Lightning may also occur due to the static electricity built up on the rings. This phenomenon has nothing to do with global warming.

As for Jupiter's red spot(s), it only indicates that the planet has its own weather problems and, not to worry, it cannot become a second sun. Jupiter does not have the wherewithal for fusion reactions: combining hydrogen atoms to form helium with the release of humongous amounts of energy.

Ice sheets have advanced then receded four times in the last 10 million years. Before that time there were probably many more ice sheets traveling back and forth. Our last ice age occurred 11,000 years ago and we are now in an interglacial warming period. But, what global warming deniers fail to understand, either through ignorance or consciously, is the fact that human pollution of the atmosphere has been with us since the industrial revolution began in the mid-1800's; only a minute speck of time in the geologic clock and in an interglacial warming period. Pollutants in the atmosphere cause a gradual change in the Earth's ability to rid itself of excessive heat energy. Also scientists are not sure how the Earth's climate will be affected in the long run, but right now what they see is not pleasant.

Much evidence indicates that the periodic changes in the tilt of the Earth's axis coupled with slight alterations in its orbit might account for periodic ice ages. Are we due for another ice age? In 20,000 years or so, but in the meantime how will today's global warming alter a future ice age-there may be a major conflict.

Over the past 100 years the average sea level has risen 1 - 2mm/year. Now that doesn't sound like much, but it is abnormal. If it continues the mean average sea level will be about 3 feet higher. The mean global sea level is measured in still water. Average local height of global mean sea level is determined by using a level (keep in mind that the Earth is curved) reference surface called a geoid . Now, if all glaciers and ice sheets were to melt the oceans would rise about 210 feet higher than they are now. The reason more water would accumulate (don't forget water always moves to its own level) near the equator has to do with the rotation of the Earth on its axis. The planet is not really round; its rotation causes a bulge at the equator so that the diameter along that point is less than the diameter at the poles. The Earth is an oblate spheroid . One also must take into account ocean currents caused by winds and the Coriolis Effect as well as atmospheric heating and cooling. So if all glaciers and ice sheets melt, space on the 40th floor of the Empire State Building would not be recommended as NYC would be under, say, 80+ feet of water. The oceans would come up on shore and inundate everything from the east coast to Chicago. The Sears Building might be a better place to rent space.


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