Pin It
Caseythoughts To really kick off 2020 I thought I'd pass along a quote I ran across recently that I thought was pretty insightful. On the surface, it makes perfect sense, but I think its wisdom touches a rarely considered 'fact' about human nature and our 'instant media'. The author of this note is Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and author of ten books. He said this on the eve of 2020:

"...Progress is invisible to most people because they don't get the understanding of the world from numbers; they get it from headlines. Journalism by its very nature conceals progress, because it presents sudden events rather than gradual trends. Most things that happen suddenly are 'bad': a war, a shooting, an epidemic, a scandal, a financial collapse. Most things that are 'good' consist either of nothing happening--like a nation that is free of war, or free of famine--or things that happen gradually but compound over the years, such as declines in poverty, illiteracy or disease." (Steven Pinker, 'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress' ).

Now, the reason that quote caught my eye is because I have noted two stories of 'slowness', or rapidity, depending on your point of view. The two stories are, on the surface, unrelated, but they seem to be happening at the speed of paint drying, or, perhaps in a geological sense, moving like greased lightning. Let me see what you think, and if I've gone off the proverbial deep end I'm sure you'll let me know.

First, a few factoids from Zurich on climate change, as if we didn't have enough roiling on this fact already. Don't sigh from the 'been there, done that, got the t-shirt' syndrome yet. There's method to my madness.

Switzerland has 1800 glaciers and it has been estimated that two per cent of that country's glacial mass has melted in 2019, alone. To give that number some 'oomph', that's enough water released from melting to fill a twenty five meter swimming pool for every Swiss citizen.

The Swiss citizenry is now aware that four of the 'hottest' years in the Swiss records (since late 19th century) have been in the last five years. Jean-Baptiste Busson, a climatologist, has written that more than half of the world's 'biggest' glaciers will be gone, at this rate, by 2100.

More factoids: Glaciers store more than ninety five per cent of the world's supply of fresh water. Since 1980, Switzerland's glaciers have lost thirty seven per cent of their mass with the pace seeming to accelerate in recent years.

It seems everyone has a solution, assuming their ideas about 'causes' are correct ( a point of contention, I point out) and most of these solutions involve stopping the world's industrial base, blaming it on human activity. You know, as Mencken once opined, they may be right, but...

Here's a story that moves as slowly as a glacier (retreating, as it were) but is another lurking disaster that seems to have avoided headlines, but just as curious, worrisome, and perhaps even devastating in its potential consequences, but no one is blaming it (yet) on human activity. This is from a combination of stories found in the magazine Popular Mechanics (don't laugh, it has had its day in predictions, investigations and innovations since early in the 20th century), Live Science, and other creditable sources. But, maybe it's too 'slow' to be noted in major media.

If you haven't heard, the earth's 'magnetic north pole' is moving. Moving quickly. In the last five years, it has moved across the Prime Meridian. Now, to keep it simple, for most of the last, say, two centuries or so, magnetic north has been approximately located in Northeastern Canada. It is a 'river' (putting it mildly, but not quite accurately) of molten iron that is about three hundred kilometers below the surface and is a part of the molten core of our earth. Your compass as you probably know, points to magnetic north, not necessarily 'true north', and calculations have been available for quite a while to compensate for this, but imagine how strong a force this is to affect, among other things, compass needles around the earth. The fact that it is approximately near the North Pole is a convenient coincidence, for it has not always been that way.

That core of molten iron is now moving inexplicably at about twenty five kilometers a year, and crossing the Prime Meridian means it is now approximately due north (very well north, it should be pointed out) of Greenwich, England, and that molten subterranean river is now apparently headed for Siberia. Yes, it's always moved around, but not at this 'breakneck' speed and science is at a loss to explain its sudden hell-bent-for-leather giddyap.

The magnetic poles have drifted and changed places often in earth's history (often catastrophically), but long before humans knew or cared, the last big change being over seventy thousand years ago.

The first thought is that this could play havoc with compasses and global positioning systems/satellites (GPS) and you're right. Since aviation also names airstrips in the direction that runways have been built, some international airstrips have already been re-designated to accept this 'change'. It poses risks and worries that could make Y2K and other recent 'scares' look like a tea party. But there's another interesting fact about this drift.

The molten iron rises, cools, swirls under the surface and has an effect, both direct and indirect, upon such phenomena as continental drift due to convection (that's your oven, in simple terms). But it also generates the 'magnetosphere'. The magnetosphere is one of earth's first responder protectors: it deflects the solar wind and its devastating hurricane of radiation. The Aurora Borealis is a direct indicator of how the solar wind 'blows' around the protective layer of the magnetosphere, a direct result of the rise and fall, the movement, heating and cooling of the iron core coursing below, what we call 'magnetic north', moving at twenty five kilometers a year, a speed apparently unprecedented, and at the least unclear in its implications.

Is earth alone in holding such an important feature like a magnetosphere? Not in the least in this solar system. But: Live Science points out that it may be the big 'WHY" life on earth is possible. Mercury has a tiny and weak magnetosphere, and Venus' magnetosphere (though not well understood) traps its poisonous atmosphere. It's not just the proximity to the sun and the resultant scorching temps on those two planets that prohibit life as we know it. It's protection from the sun that makes them uninhabitable, among other reasons. Mars, according to scientists, had a protective magnetic field in its ancient past, but today the Martian atmosphere is being blasted by the solar wind.

To quote:"...without the magnetosphere, solar wind and radiation would blow our atmosphere right off the planet...".

So, is the movement of this magnetosphere a threat? And, since scientists are baffled, what will be the effect of a continued movement and corresponding change in the magnetosphere?

The $64,000 question (OK, boomer) may be: is this more important in climate change than the conviction that going 'carbon neutral' would make a difference?

Are we witnessing (like watching paint dry, or grass grow, or is speed the issue?) an incredible, world-wide change in a 'cosmic paradigm' much bigger than man-made pollution, or even that our little brains can comprehend? Is it possible that our ideas on climate change (formally global warming) and our legitimate arguments on both sides (if we can just eliminate the political swordplay which exacerbates the situation) are not legitimate in a wider, universal and scientific sense? Is it possible that things are happening so slowly/so quickly that we humans can barely comprehend that we may be merely pawns in a universe we hardly understand?

I know it might be easy to conclude that I'm saying climate change is too big for us, or not being caused by human activity. I can't say that, and shouldn't. What I am questioning is whether, in the sense of things moving 'slowly' or 'quickly' (and these are such elastic and relative, tiny and human terms that make the Dalai Llama clap his hands and laugh/cry) that, truly, we don't know what we don't know. But we continue to think that we have all the answers.

Maybe we might stop, for a few cosmic moments, look up in wonder at the universe (maybe the skies might clear some night this winter and give our part of the world another glimpse of the Aurora Borealis), appreciate our tiny presence in it, and grasp that 'slow' and 'fast' are but poor descriptors for a creation that is still, most definitely, a 'work in progress'.

Pin It