What I learned this Earth Day, 2014

Yamdrok Lake Tibet
In Tibet, Yamdrok Lake / Image by Laura Nielsen

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

In the summer I drive to my favorite of many nearby glacial lakes, a deep down-turned gumdrop of cool water ringed in lillypads. I catch painted box turtles. After a frenetic chase and what feels like too long without air I surface gasping, and marveling at each turtle’s personality. They might battle hissing and clawing at air, or hide a bit before emerging to inspect me… or their own reflections in my goggles. Some ignore me serenely, closing their eyes and turning their heads to the sun. If the turtle seems calm I like to float on my back and see how long it will sunbathe atop me before it slips back into the lake, leaving small unknowing scratches on my stomach.

I’ve never seen any landscape more lonely and vast than Tibet’s. After months in Beijing, where the air pollution can be so bad I couldn’t make out a glimpse of the skyscraper a few buildings down, Tibet’s big blue sky felt all the more freeing.

mother with children Tibet
In Tibet / Image by Laura Nielsen

We were stopped yet again to let our vehicle’s overtaxed brakes cool; the mountain roads of the region always force a series of steep ups- and downs- as one slowly ascends into increasingly thinner Himalayan air. The valley I stepped into was floored in shifting geometric white gravel that couches clear water reflecting the impossibly blue sky. Transient late spring weather had turned the land intensely hot.

‘Can I swim?’ I asked my guide. He was nonplussed – I guess it was an unusual question. My Tibetan language skills weren’t up to scratch for it, but we both had Chinese as a second language so I switched to that.

‘No,’ he answered the repeated question.

‘I hear and understand,’ I told him, then added: ‘Why?’

A convoluted conversation followed. Water is holy. I was confused… I’d seen other people bathing outdoors, I told him. This water is holy. Then why, downstream, did the river hold so many livestock passageways and irrigation channels, not to mention rather a lot of trash? Well, yes, he conceded, but you are a person, and the water is from a particular mountain. What mountain? Every slope around us was the flank of one mountain or another, but I learned that day of a far off (not yet visible) holy mountain, a sacred seat of power from whence it is said four of the region’s most vital rivers emerge. The water I was eyeing up for a dip came from one of those holy rivers.

I learned something that day, then pursued knowing more.

Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time. / Comic by Randall Munroe of xkcd.com
Ten Thousand : “Saying ‘what kind of an idiot doesn’t know about the Yellowstone supervolcano’ is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.” / Comic by Randall Munroe of xkcd.com

Education that we willingly pursue is always a work in progress. Today, April 22, 2014, is Earth Day, a day of awareness founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970. Earth Day is meant to promote respect for life on the planet and to encourage awareness of the challenges we face. I thought for this Earth Day that I’d learn some facts I didn’t yet know, and then share them with you.

Did you know? In 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency signed an endangerment finding that asserted some greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) are a hazard to human health when concentrated in the atmosphere. Naming them pollutants opened a door to allow more regulation of the gasses that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere.

monks prayer flags Tibet
In Tibet / Image by Laura Nielsen

A mass spectrometer is a tool that measures an element’s mass. Mass spectrometers can be used to help tell what the source of carbon dioxide (CO2) is, because different processes release different types of CO2. CO2 atoms can contain slightly higher or lower numbers of neutrons. The more neutrons present, the more massive and heavier the atom. So in example, when ancient plant matter that was once trapped in frozen permafrost thaws and decays, atoms of carbon-14 escape into the atmosphere. That’s why researcher Jason Dobkowski told Frontier Scientists: “Permafrost has often been described as a ticking time bomb.” In contrast to decaying plants, carbon that enters the atmosphere from burning coal, oil, or natural gas does not release carbon-14.

In 2005 the World Glacier Monitoring Service found that 90% of the world’s glaciers are shrinking. It may sound like a tourist problem, but glaciers are much much more than scenery. The rivers of Tibet’s holy mountain are a vital staple to human life and livelihoods, as well as regional ecosystems. Glacier melt water provides drinking water and crop irrigation in many regions of the world, including but not limited to India, Tibet and China. One-sixth of the world’s people live in regions supplied by mountain range meltwater. Climate change will reduce water availability in many regions as glaciers and mountain snow cover react to changing temperatures.

While drought strikes some regions, greater amounts of water vapor held by a warming atmosphere are expected to cause an increase in precipitation in other regions. Rainfalls will likely be less frequent but more intense. The same goes for extreme weather events like hurricanes. Less-understood conditions moving forward make it more difficult to plan for flooding, for drought, for arranging food security and planning adequate responses to natural disasters. Projected hotter, wetter conditions also increase risk from diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Over cities, pollutants mixing with hot temperatures can create smog. Those increasing days of poor air quality pose challenges for people with respiratory ailments like asthma.

painted box turtle lillypads
Painted box turtle / Image by Laura Nielsen

I have asthma. My third grade classroom was upstairs from an art room that flooded; when they tore out the tiles asbestos was uncovered, some of which entered the air system. Other children in my classroom also developed asthma that year. The thing about asbestos is that once it’s in your lungs it’s staying there, and it’s going to cause problems.

In that way it’s similar to the excessive greenhouse gasses that human activity is pumping into the atmosphere. Once CO2 has been emitted, it can remain in Earth’s systems for thousands of years. Even if we stopped emitting CO2 today, the world would continue warming about 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit [0.6 degrees Celsius] because of the CO2 we’ve already added to the air.

For me, having asthma is manageable. When I knew I was heading to China, I went to my doctor and asked for a stock pile of medicines to help me deal with the pollution there. The United States supports infrastructure and resources that help me face problems. Similarly if that lake I frequent dried out I’d be sad for the turtles, but my life wouldn’t be endangered. If the well in my yard dried out, I’d pay more to take advantage of city-supplied water.

If you’re living in a developed nation, it’s probable that you will be more capable of facing and overcoming the challenges that rapid climate change poses.

Meanwhile, our fellow humans across much of the globe don’t have the same means: if their water supply dries up, many who farm to feed themselves and their families will have to either develop new solutions or seek a new home where there are adequate resources. On the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, much of the land sits only 3 feet [0.9 meters] above sea level. Fields flooded with salt water have forced farmer to plant taro in soil held in tin containers above the ground itself. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change report says it succinctly: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change.”

shepherdess tourist Tibet
In Tibet / Image by Laura Nielsen

It’s a situation that brings up the idea of climate justice. Developed nations like the United States contributed most to anthropogenic (human-sparked) climate change; in the past they put the most CO2 into the air. Yet it’s the poorest nations who did the least to cause climate change which are most impacted by its hazards. Red Cross climate center director Maarten van Aalst said “It’s the poor suffering more during disasters, and of course the same hazard causes a much bigger disaster in poorer countries, making it even poorer.” At the same time, much of the industry and industrialization that can help an impoverished nation become a more developed nation releases CO2. China and India are releasing a lot of greenhouse gasses as their economies expand. The IPCC has asked developed nations to reduce emissions by roughly 80% and developing nations to reduce by roughly 20%.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke out urging action, saying “This is the most important challenge that humanity has ever faced.”

“There’s no country that has been exempted from very strange weather over the past let’s say 1 or 2 years. And these very strange weather events are going to continue both in their frequency and in their severity.” & “The longer we wait to have policy that positively affects the trajectory of emissions, the more of these events we’re going to have.” & “We are already faced with severe impacts both on the economy and on human beings and we can no longer afford not to take very very clear action.” ~Christiana Figueres

Today on Earth Day, I want to reflect on my part in humanity’s common home. Although it’s easy to take some steps and say ‘I’ve done enough’, to feel ‘There’s nothing I can do’, or to believe ‘I’m not responsible’, I want to urge myself to try. I didn’t plan those historical emissions, but I am actively benefiting from them while others are actively suffering. This hits home as a moral concern.

I also want to commend the scientists that are on the front line of climate issues, gathering precious data and developing techniques that can help us plan ahead in our changing world. If we’d never learned asbestos can cause lung disease, then far more would be suffering from it. Climate knowledge helps us recognize a negative and, hopefully, strive to ameliorate it.

You can!

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Join a global movement this Earth Day

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Climate Change Watch


  • ‘Climate change: the poor will suffer most’ Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian: Global Development (March 30, 2014)
  • ‘Climate Change and Global Warming Introduction’ Anup Shah, Global Issues (November 11, 2013)
  • ‘Climate change and human health – risks and responses’ World Health Organization (accessed April 20, 2014)
  • ‘Climate change impacts: The effects of warming on our world can be seen today’ Environmental Defense Fund (accessed April 20, 2014)
  • ‘CO2 put in the air by burning fossil fuels has a chemical signature’ Climate Central: Library > Climopedia (June 1, 2008)
  • ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ U.S. Department of Commerce | National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration: Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division (accessed April 20, 2014)
  • ‘Small Islands Say Global Warming Hurting Them Now’ Jason Webb, Planet Ark (Novermber , 1998)
  • ‘Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (accessed April 20, 2014)
  • ‘UN Climate Change Impact Report: Poor Will Suffer Most’ Environmental Defense Fund (April 6, 2007)