The Consequences of Denial

April 25, 2010

Suppose that an airline pilot, doing his pre-flight checks at Denver’s International Airport, got a printout of weather data which reflected not metropolitan Denver 2010, but  the  same area as it was in 1800.  The occasional native American cooking fire would have been the only contribution of man to the area temperature in 1800. Metropolitan Denver, like all 21st century urban areas, contributes by means of the well-known “heat island” effect, several degrees (as much as 22 degrees F.), depending on the season/time of day, etc., to its area temperature.  This is in addition to global climate change and other factors.

Factoring the spurious data he was supplied into the “density altitude” calculation critical to successful take-off, the unfortunate pilot and his passengers risked  winding up being mixed with fiery wreckage just across the freeway marking the end of the runway—another tragedy based on faulty data.

Another example: the trainee helmsman on duty as the Exxon Valdez wallowed  fully loaded  through Prince William Sound Alaska one night in 1989,  failed to realize that the fully loaded vessel handled very sluggishly to its controls compared to its handling, empty, on the trip to Alaska.  Pushed by cost-cutting management to shave time from the voyage by charting a course near Bligh Reef, the unfamiliar feel to the controls drew the vessel onto the reef, and on to front pages around the world.

In 1964, my wife and I visited the beaches along New Jersey’s Atlantic Shore. Wondering why so few were present on a beautiful summer afternoon, we soon discovered tar balls and oily goo along the water’s edge. The locals told us that an upwelling of the sea  had brought up oil from the bottom placed there as Nazi submarines, organized into “Wolf Packs” sank hundreds of merchant ships, many of them oil tankers, during the early years of WWII, many within sight of shore (wreckage and bodies were a regular sight along our Atlantic beaches at that time. The massive effort to stop this carnage was a well-kept secret during the war). The  waters of Gulf of Mexico are presently unwilling recipients of enough oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blowout, underway as this piece is written,  to fill each of the sunken tankers of the WWII era in a few minutes. Leadership of the communities  which came to depend on revenue from the undersea oil resource are already in denial, for the usual political reasons.

Natural systems are a lot like the fully loaded Exxon Valdez.  As a helmsman on various ships on several occasions, I am well aware of the need to anticipate the reaction of a vessel to its controls as currents, winds and cargo loading mix with steering commands to produce the vessel’s actual course. Reductions  in, for example, CO2 contributions by man, will not be fully felt in terms of global warming, for decades. Does this mean that we should deny that Bligh Reef, or its climatic equivalent, exist?

Obviously waiting until the Exxon Valdez is within a few feet of the reef to correct its course would be disastrous, as history shows. When do Global Climate Change skeptics plan to take corrective action, should the extremely complex variables at play in man-caused climate change finally produce a definitive result with which all could agree?

The good part is that I am unaware of any global climate change skeptics piloting commercial aircraft or ocean-going ships. We can all be thankful on that score.

Dan Townsend

(Re: the above article: I was a resident of Alaska for 35 years, during the “Pipeline era” and the Exxon Valdez tragedy and its aftermath. At different times I was a helmsman on three ocean-going vessels: the MV Stevonia {Ellerman Wilson Lines, UK}; and  the fully rigged sailing vessels “Western Union” and “Wolf” home port, Key West Florida. I was also, among other duties, a “cockpit observer” for the Federal Aviation Administration.)

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