10 December 2006

The Next Bad Thing

Common Sense
John Maxwell

One bright blue day in spring, about five years ago, I was standing in the parking lot of an Amsterdam hospital when I decided to look up at the plane passing above me. I was amazed to see that the sky was literally a checkerboard of cloud, contrails from the planes leaving Schipol airport in an absolutely regular grid pattern. It was one day I didn't carry my camera.

One of my aunts, now departed, used to believe that the trails left behind by high-flying planes must have an effect on the weather. I, full of juvenile cocksureness, attempted to disabuse her of this bizarre idea.

She was right. I was wrong.

In the last half-dozen years or thereabouts, scientists have discovered that the contrails of jet planes and other atmospheric pollutants have serious effects on the weather.

The Dimming of the Earth

The clinching evidence came on September 14, 2001, when, after all commercial planes in the United States had been grounded for three days, a scientist named David Travis discovered that 5,000 weather stations across the United States had recorded the same phenomenon - when the skies were clear, the average ambient temperature went up by more than one degree Celsius.

The Blue Swallowtail was fairly common in parts of the Blue and John Crow mountains
This finding correlated with observations by Dr Gerald Stanhill who had been measuring the amplitude of sunlight in Israel for nearly 50 years. He discovered that over the span of his observations, the average solar energy reaching the ground in Israel had dropped by 22 per cent. Another scientist, a German doctoral candidate named Beate Liepert working independently, found that something of the same sort had happened in Europe where the average decline was nine per cent. Russian scientists found that their solar energy levels had dropped by 30 per cent over five decades.

When scientists put all the pieces of this strange discovery together they realised that there was an explanation: the sun hadn't cooled, but soot, sulphur dioxide and other man-produced particles had reduced the solar radiation reaching the surface of the Earth by a considerable degree in the previous half century.

This realisation is enough to make the blood run cold; if pollution is keeping the temperature artificially low, then the estimates of global warming are far too conservative. The human race and all other living things are in much greater danger than anyone realised.

It soon became obvious that the buffering effect of the enhanced cloud cover was concealing the real extent of global warming. This meant that as we cleaned up our atmosphere, global warming would accelerate.

Scientists discovered that this effect, which Stanhill called the "Dimming of the Earth" held not only future disaster potential, it was already wreaking catastrophic damage here on Earth. The problem was that no one had recognised that because the damage was mainly being done to Africa.

The area south of the Sahara - the Sahel - and a wide swathe across Northern Africa into Ethiopia have always depended on a regime of rainless seasons followed by monsoons which replenish the lakes, watering holes and aquifers of these northern savannahs. Scientists deduced that the "Dimming" effect was the major agent in the African droughts which killed millions of people a decade ago. The human-induced cloudiness, exported from North America and Europe, was shielding the Sahel and Sudanese Africa from their monsoons, pushing the weather further south and condemning millions to death by starvation.

And what is worse, the effect will gradually extend across Asia, eventually displacing or even shutting down the monsoons on which India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and more than half the world's population depend.

Forward the Titanic!

The essential news from all this is that Global Warming is probably moving twice as fast as anyone predicted and that until and unless we manage to put brakes on it, we are headed for disaster in an even shorter time frame than we had thought.
Since cleaning up atmospheric pollution is working and is part of the anti-global-warming campaign, the situation will get worse long before it gets better.

The problem is that in the biosphere, minute changes have large effects over long periods. Global warming was predicted by Svente Aarhenius in 1896 and it was soon realised that any action to reverse warming takes a long time to have an effect. It is rather like the Titanic, propellers powering full astern, but the ship ploughing forward into the iceberg for another mile before it came to a stop. It took a long time for the propellers to overcome the inertial mass of the giant ship.

So too, if all the fires on Earth were turned off today, it would take another couple of hundred years before we were back to the temperatures of 1896. Of course, the situation 200 years from now will have only a passing resemblance to the Earth of 1896.

We have already done so much damage that although we may mitigate it somewhat, the biosphere - the living space or thin skin of the Earth in which all living things feed and breed - will be very different even from today's. Global warming will keep ploughing forward, like the Titanic, ripping great holes in the biosphere and condemning many of us and our descendants to death, as in the Sahel and in Ethiopia.

The results for places like Jamaica and the Caribbean are likely to be dread. If global warming is moving faster than we thought, the Greenland ice-cap may be provoked into terminal meltdown sooner, and together with the melting of the Ross Ice Sheet in Antarctica, an area bigger than France, will raise the sea levels around the world by seven to eight metres before my children reach my age. And it may also stop the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic circulation and produce a new Ice Age in parts of the Northern hemisphere.

This means that in Jamaica, all the beaches we know and desecrate today will be under water, as will the hotels built on them, Most of Savanna-la-Mar, Black River, much of Kingston and Old Harbour and all of Portmore will be visited only by fishermen and scuba divers.

The rise in sea level will affect the groundwaters of Jamaica, poisoning the aquifers of the St Catherine/Clarendon plains - already seriously compromised by over-pumping, and probably also those of South Manchester, St Elizabeth as well as the north coast.

Where I live in Stony Hill, the water has been turned off at night for the last 26 years, because there isn't enough St Catherine water to supply the thirsts and toilets of Havendale and upper St Andrew. Although there isn't enough water for Stony Hill, within a mile of the Hermitage Dam, confident developers are even now preparing to put in dozens of upscale mini-mansions with lots of bathrooms.

During the 1970s, as chairman of the NRCA I engaged in a long-running fight with Moses Matalon, then chairman of the Portmore Land Development Company as well as of the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), urging him to stop developing Portmore because all that I had read told me that the place was a potential deathtrap from flooding, hurricane and earthquake. I tried to enlist Michael Manley in my campaign, but he, unlike his father, was not an environmentalist and didn't see why environmental concerns should stop poor and middle-class people from getting houses.

The highest point in Portmore is the gas station at Independence City - six metres (eight feet) above mean sea level. Sea level rise of six to eight metres will also submerge parts of the Doomsday Highway and most of Kingston below North Street.

The UDC had a particular hostility to mangroves and mowed down many, destroying much of the fertile fish-breeding grounds of Dawkins Pond and Hunts Bay. The Port Authority has carried on where they left off and in addition, has been spreading toxic waste through their dredged landfills for the 'improvement' of Port Kingston, enabling us to manage even larger and more polluting ships.

The Blue Swallowtail

The time for these excesses is now clearly over, no matter what the development experts say. If my children won't be able to visit Savanna-la-Mar or Falmouth when they are my age, I promise that my ghost, if I can manage one, will come back to bedevil those of the guilty who are still alive.

All the information available to me, and I presume to the scientists and other experts employed by the Government, suggest that much of our so-called development is greed-driven and totally unsustainable.

If Mr Parris Lyew Ayee believes that he can relocate the flora and fauna of the Cockpit Country I would ask him to give us an explanation of how he would deal with just one species - the beautiful Blue Swallowtail butterfly.

The Blue Swallowtail is a seriously endangered species. It is one of the world's largest butterflies and is the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere. The nearest thing to it is in New Guinea. They are big enough to cover most of the palm of a normal hand. Once upon a time, the Blue Swallowtail was fairly common in parts of the Blue and John Crow mountains.

One of its favourite hangouts was near Roselle Falls on the St Thomas road, but it has almost completely disappeared from this area because of construction work there and the chopping down of the lancewood trees which are its main food supply. It now exists in significant numbers only in the Cockpit Country. This beautiful animal requires 100 per cent humidity to mature and will die if it is any drier.

Jamaica is a very special place for all sorts of pants and animals. In the Cockpit Country, which is the most special part of a special island, there are also large numbers of species which are found nowhere else. There are more varieties of snails in the Land of Look Behind than in the entire North American continent. The village of Auchtembeddie alone boasts more than 60 species.

The website cockpitcountry.com speaks, for instance, of fireflies or peenies and peeny-wallies as we know them
"Lampyrid fireflies (and Elateridae click beetles, known locally as peeny wallies and headlight beetles) have been a subject of both scientific and popular fascination. The first species of Jamaican fireflies to be mentioned in the literature were described by Patrick Browne in 1756.. at present 48 species are recognised taxonomically; 45 are endemic to Jamaica (94 per cent endemism). During the dry summer months, the hillsides of the Cockpit Country glow with the mate-attracting light dances of males.. [one of these fireflies] - Microdiphot cavernarum is known only from Windsor Great Cave (McDermott and Buck 1959). It is not known how many species of firefly occur in the Cockpit Country because little scientific collecting has been undertaken."

This fact alone should indicate how precious the Cockpit Country is and why we should preserve it in as pristine a state as possible. When I was a teenager I occasionally saw whole fields of 'blinkies' flashing in synch. One of the researchers at the Windosr research centre has also seen this fantastic display. I had thought we had lost it forever.

There is much too much to tell you about here; go to the website and find out more. You will be amazed at how rich the Cockpit Country is and why it is so important.

We have lost important treasures over the years, places like Roaring River Falls, acres of cataracts now tamed for a minuscule hydropower plant, we have lost two phosphorescent lakes, one called the Flashes at Hellshire and more recently, Glistening Waters in Falmouth, largely destroyed by the dredging of the wetlands and the building of a hotel.

There are other questions in my mind, about Lumsden Cave which (according to Patrick Browne) was a tourist attraction in the 18th century; and why Blowfire Hill was so called, and why there appears to be an Olmec pyramid between Point Hill and Moneague, unless a bauxite company has got there first. Some of these are sacred places, in the most universal meaning of the word.

When we were trying to keep the developers out of Hope Gardens a woman wrote from the United States, begging us to save it. She had been born and lived in the 'ghetto' she said, and Hope Gardens was the only place she could find tranquility and the space to study. She had become since then, she said, a full professor at an American university.


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