Practices that change the weather are not new. Hedgerows, rows of trees, act as windbreaks, preventing erosion and protecting young seedlings from damage. Planting vegetation stabilizes the soil against wind and water erosion, builds up nitrogen in the soil and reduces the atmospheric carbon dioxide by carbon fixation. Soil coverings, such as straw, black cloth and plastic absorb sunlight better and enables the soil to retain the heat. The coverings prevent rapid radiation from the soil enabling good seed germination, earlier growth of plants, prevent weed growth and soil erosion.
But what is the “greenhouse effect”? The term is a misnomer because “greenhouse effect” is not the same as the energy exchange in a greenhouse. There is an interaction between the atmosphere and incoming radiation that insulates the Earth and radiates 90 percent of the energy back into space. If not for the shielding effect of the atmosphere, the earth would be 700 degrees Fahrenheit in day and minus 700 degrees at night. Energy from the sun comes in the form of light waves and some of the waves as they pass through the atmosphere are shortened to ultraviolet. Earth and water absorb the 10 percent and radiates the surface energy back into the atmosphere as infrared (heat). The atmosphere traps some of the heat and holds it. This is known as the greenhouse effect. When the atmosphere develops a high content of carbon dioxide and water vapor, it traps most of the infrared and increases the heat load around Earth. Other gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, methane and minor ones are also in the water vapor. This is pollution.
Is the pollution natural or man made? There is natural pollution. The phenomenon that comes to mind is the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Volcanoes expel carbon dioxide, sulfur fumes and other gases. The dust settles to the ground, carrying most of the gases along with inorganic nutrients that produces fertile soil. Also, turpene fumes, mainly turpentine, and cresol, released by conifer forest cause a blue mist that adds to the greenhouse effect. The Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee got their name from the blue mist. Lightning strikes in a forest can start fires and release an abundance of carbon dioxide.
We, as humans, are producing gases and other particles that are increasing the world temperature by the greenhouse effect. An excess of carbon dioxide is the highest pollutant produced by man. Carbon dioxide is necessary for life. Animal life breathes out carbon dioxide and plant life takes up carbon dioxide and converts it to organic compounds that are the base of living things. For over 3 billion years life has been dying, deteriorating and returning carbon to the soil. The product is the source of fossil fuel that we use as a source of energy. By burning an excess of fossil fuel, we are releasing stored carbon and converting it to carbon dioxide, upsetting the life cycle and the balance in our atmosphere. It has been going on at least 5,000 years, when forests were being burnt to clear and cultivate the land. The greatest leap was the industrial revolution in the early 1700s, when burning of coal (anthracite) was used to produce energy. The early 1800s, we had the steam engines fueled by coal. The early 1900s brought mass production of fossil fuel-burning vehicles. The mass amount of garbage we have been accumulating for years gives off methane gas.
There are many ways that we can become better stewards of the Earth. We can reduce or eliminate the amount of wood and brush fires, drive more conservatively and even choose a vehicle that uses less or no fossil fuel. We can use mass transit systems as much as possible, might consider walking, bicycling and carpooling. When buying a new car don’t overlook electric or partial electric vehicles. We can plant vegetation rather than cover the ground with bark, gravel and asphalt. Plant ground-covering vegetation instead of using bark. We can reduce or recycle our garbage. Recycling is not hard to do, just have separate containers for the separate items. In many places Waste Management will pick up recycling material and you don’t have to separate. Start a wet garbage compost pile and use it as a fertilizer on that new garden you will plant that will use some of the atmospheric carbon dioxide. Support industries that are changing over to utilize energy from solar, wind and water sources rather than burning fossil fuel. It is not difficult to begin to put these changes into your future.
Dr. Del Ketchie, Wenatchee, is a horticultural researcher retired from the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research Center.