, December 06, 2013
People nowadays do not look at our atmosphere with enough caution and something that is completely essential for life. Our atmosphere is actually a fragile balance of gases that make the Earth inhabitable. Yes, we humans have greatly impacted and changed the atmosphere but we are still here. That is because the air around us is forgiving. Meaning, although we have made changes and altered the air around us, it still has found a way to sustain our existence. Many of the choices humans have made over the past few centuries have put our atmosphere in danger. It is true, however, that there are those who care deeply and passionately about the air around us and the good deed and us it does to sustain life on earth. These scientists and everyday people are the ones who are going to figure out ways to adapt the human race to sustain a healthy and inhabitable atmosphere.
In the book, Somerville thought it was essential to teach a few of the major functions our atmosphere does that are somewhat overlooked by the general population. The first main concept Somerville discussed was the ozone hole and how it affected the Earth. From what I read, the ozone hole occurs in the stratosphere, specifically in the ozonosphere. Ozone is a very small layer of the atmosphere that is made of ozone particles. These particles consist of three oxygen molecules. These molecules take a very long time to bond together, so when ozone is lost there will not be new ozone to replace it for a while. According to the book, ozone is completely essential for life on earth because it absorbs most of the harmful UV shortwave radiation that is put off by the sun. If this radiation is not absorbed by the ozone layer, there would likely be an increase in skin cancer towards humans, and plants and animals would be dangerously affected. Somerville did what I would consider a wonderful job of explaining what the ozone layer was and the functions it has. I could tell that it was a concern to him and that he wanted to make people aware of the harm we are causing ourselves through destroying portions of the ozone. Somerville concluded the ozone chapter by stating, “There are limits to the compassion of the forgiving air.” This means that even though our atmosphere is able to withstand the damage that humans do to it, altering the ozone is something that could throw off the atmosphere and result in danger to our species.
The next major concept Somerville discussed was the greenhouse effect. To me, this was the most informational chapter in the book because he did a fantastic job explaining the process of the greenhouse effect. Going back to the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect is similar; it consists of a small layer of particles that reflect and absorb radiation. Ozone (O3) actually is a greenhouse gas, as are methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide, water vapor, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s).
The book taught me that the sun emits different kinds of radiation, some longwave and some shortwave. The shortwave radiation, which is dangerous to humans, is for the most part reflected or absorbed by the greenhouse gases. The rest of the radiation is passed through to the earth’s surface where it is absorbed or reemitted back up towards the greenhouse gases. Once there, the radiation either escapes into the outer atmosphere again or is reflected back towards Earth again. This process is the greenhouse effect and it is needed to keep the lower atmosphere warm and habitable for plants and animals.
The problem is that humans are adding to the greenhouse gases, which is making the greenhouse effect more predominant and making our atmosphere warm up. One of the main culprits Somerville focuses on is CO2 . He consistently refers to developing countries as the places where most of the carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere. It is completely true that countries such as India and China are juristically adding to the atmospheric CO2 and it is a global issue, but I wished he had focused more on the United States. My reasoning for this is so he could focus on a smaller scale and possibly explain ways people in the United States could single handedly help in controlling greenhouse gases. Yes, our government is aware of the issues but many people are unaware of how to control their carbon dioxide emissions. From using less natural gas to even not eating beef because cows put out methane, not everyone understands simple fixes like this. Somerville also touched on how the greenhouse effect can be responsible for setting off many positive feedback loops. He is aware that this alone can change the world as we know it. He also says “we’re stirring one more potent ingredient¬¬¬��"additional greenhouse gases��"into what is already a very complicated soup.” This quote sounds very dramatic to me, almost like the world will end soon because of this. I know it is a serious issue but in my view, because humans created this issue. Again, I would have liked to see more information on how people can dramatically prevent further issues.
The rest of the book Somerville goes on to talk about other issues such as acid rain, computing weather and climate, and air pollution. His passion for these subjects did not seem as great as it was for ozone and the greenhouse effect. I believe this because these problems mainly stem from the ozone and greenhouse effect issues. One thing that struck me as interesting was how we can learn so much about what we do in the future by looking at our past. Not just what we humans have changed in the last couple hundred years, but what the climate was like thousands of years ago. We know that there is a natural cycle in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere but records state that right now, because of human interaction, we are at a record high rate. This confirms the fact that we are the reason for our problems, and that the ball is in our court when it comes to fixing these problems. He also did touch up on what can be done to prevent the further extent of the already massive issues that humanity faces. Again, most of what he said was on a global scale (e.g., minimizing carbon dioxide emissions in developing countries). I truly believe that for things to be completely fixed, not just a fraction of countries need to be on board with a plan, but rather everyone in the world. Just like the Montreal Protocol when everyone was on the same page.
Overall, I thought Somerville did a great job at stating details and facts about the atmosphere and how humans interact with it. You could tell he was knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. There wasn’t much opinion to the book because he, again, was stating facts and explaining things. The one thing that will stick with me though, is that one day, if things are not fixed and humanity doesn’t make changes, the air will not be so forgiving.