The spate of warm weather we enjoyed back in February in the Winchester area was covered in a Winchester Star front page story, which noted that “since record keeping began in 1880 . . . 2016 is the third year in a row to set a record for global average surface temperature.” Some immediately engaged in a reflexive, self-flagellating response over climate change, but it got me to wondering just how old is the Earth’s current atmosphere, and therefore, what percentage of that time does our 136 years of records represent? My research led me to a fascinating website run by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center entitled, Meet Your Atmosphere which is an eight slide introduction to our climate.
The final slide, entitled, “Modern Atmospheres”—and which features a very nifty illustration of dinosaurs and critters and swamps and things—states that our “modern atmosphere” is 290 million years old. 290 million! That’s only .0006 percent of Earth’s estimated 4.6 billion years of life. So, the atmosphere itself is a very new earthly phenomenon.
And to apply this to the point about the temperature being in the mid-70s in Winchester on February 7th, let’s assume that that 290 million year age estimate was made on a Monday morning, by a rookie scientist who had partied too hard all weekend and could hardly see his calculator through his blurry vision. Let’s assume then that the real age of earth’s modern atmosphere is more like 136 million. This way, we’ll be extremely conservative AND make the math much easier. Thus, the time we have been keeping records represents one ten-millionth of the modern atmosphere’s life.
Anyone who lives to the age of 80 will have lived 42,076,800 minutes. Judging the steadiness of the Earth’s atmosphere on those 136 years of records, then is the equivalent of judging your life’s steadiness on the last four minutes and 12 seconds of it.
More from Slide #8:
The Eocene Epoch was the warmest part of the past 65 million years. During the early Eocene, palm trees grew as far north as Canada, and forests of dawn redwoods covered Ellesmere Island near the North Pole. The Arctic Ocean was not permanently frozen, alligator relatives swam in the swamps on Ellesmere Island, and mammals related to flying lemurs climbed in the dawn redwood trees. Since the Eocene is so recent (geologically speaking), many clues remain to tell scientists about the atmosphere and climate, and how these affected life on Earth. [Bold face is mine.]
Palm trees in Canada?
If we judged baseball players the same way some judge “global warming” we might think that Rennie Stennett and Wilbert Robinson are the two greatest hitters to ever play the
game because they are the only two players to collect seven hits in seven at-bats in a nine inning game. They batted 1.000! For that one game. But not for a lifetime. Stennett finished his ten-year career with a .274 batting average, while Hall of Famer Robinson concluded his 17-year career with a .273 average. Those career averages rank them 814th and 835th, respectively.
For the same reason that I recognize that Stennett and Robinson were not the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, I do not feel guilt or outrage over “global warming.” Warming up and cooling down is what the Earth does. The hubris that leads us to the belief that we should “control” what the Earth’s atmosphere does seems quite similar to the hubris that says we can do anything we want to it. Everyone should respect the Earth as a living organism; and then let it live its own life.
Regardless, beware the small sample size whether you’re watching baseball or enjoying a spring-like day in winter.
[Note: If you’re really fired up about this topic now, I suggest reading Thomas Gale More’s, “Why Global Warming Could Be Good For You.” This article was written in 1995, but the climatological history that he covers going back 6,000 years has not.]