Sundin column: The Titanic syndrome
As I See It
On April 10, 1912, the British ship “Titanic,” the world’s largest and most luxurious ocean liner, left Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage to New York. After stops in Cherbourg, France, and southern Ireland it headed into the open Atlantic Ocean. Aboard were 2,224 passengers and crew, among them many famous and wealthy people.
There were half a dozen warnings about an unusually large number of icebergs being swept south into the north Atlantic shipping lane by the Labrador current along the east coast of Greenland. But that didn’t phase the captain because the Titanic was claimed to be unsinkable because the hull was divided into 15 compartments separated by water-tight bulkheads, so he continued at full speed ahead.
At 20 minutes before midnight on April 14, a lookout spotted a huge iceberg dead ahead. An order was quickly given to cut the power and veer to the left, but because of the massive momentum created by the huge size and high speed of the ship, it was too late to avoid a collision. The iceberg popped the rivets below the water line along 300 feet of the right side of the bow, letting water into five forward compartments — one more than the limit of four that would allow the ship to remain afloat. (The technology for welding ship hulls was not developed until World War II.)
Moreover, the bulkheads extended only a few feet above the water line, so as water entering the front compartments caused the bow to sink, water flowed over the tops of the bulkheads, progressing from compartment to compartment. As the bow sank more and more deeply the stern rose out of the water until the stress broke the ship in half, sending it to the bottom at 2:20 a.m. on April 15 — just over 2 1/2 hours after the collision.
Unfortunately the ship we are on — Our World — may be entering its own titanic syndrome. Here are some of the signs. The world population has more than quadrupled in just the last 100 years, from 1.8 billion in 1918 to 7.4 billion in 2018, and is projected to increase by another 2 billion by 2050.
Before the Industrial Revolution that started in the late 1700s, earth’s atmosphere contained 280 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide (CO2), which had risen by only 30 ppm in 1917. In the past 100 years, population growth compounded with the rapidly increasing per capita burning of fossil fuels, has elevated the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to over 400 ppm, and it is now increasing at a rate of more than 2 ppm per year. That rise in atmospheric CO2 has been accompanied by an increase in earth’s temperature of 1.75 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree C). If atmospheric CO2 continues to rise at the present rate, it will be over 460 ppm by 2050 and earth’s temperature could increase another 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees C).
This doesn’t seem like much, but the effects can be catastrophic. Global warming is a “positive feedback” phenomenon, which means that rising temperature accelerates the rate of warming. As global temperatures rise, the area of sea ice shrinks, reducing the amount of solar energy reflected back into space and increasing the amount absorbed by the ocean.
Global warming also thaws circumpolar permafrost, releasing trapped CO2 and methane. Methane is not as long-lasting as CO2, but its warming effect is 30 times that of CO2. In addition, widespread deforestation is reducing CO2 absorption by trees.
Global warming has many adverse impacts affecting the livability of our planet, including but not limited to, rising sea levels, increased intensity of storms and weather effects, widespread desertification, drying up lakes and reservoirs, and many parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable due to heat and drought.
Scientists have already issued many warnings about the hazards of climate change. Unfortunately, our captain has chosen to ignore those warnings and is set on full speed ahead. Or is the momentum of population growth and addiction to fossil fuel consumption just too great for the world to change course and avoid catastrophe?
Paul Ehrlich’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion is “If you’ve booked passage on the Titanic you might as well go first class.” Anyone over the age of 60 may be able to take some comfort in the fact that they may not be around when the fit hits the shan, and therefore may be the only ones with any reason for optimism.
“As I See It” appears on the first Thursday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.