Be prepared for more dramatic sunsets

March 17, 2017

Cape Gazette photographer Ron MacArthur captured a spectacular reflected sunset that recently was front and center on this newspaper. Sunsets are a pleasurable eye-catcher because of changing color when an abundance of clouds capture the fading light spectrum. When there are no clouds, no one notices. However, sunsets with an abundance of clouds will become commonplace due to increasing sources of water vapor that form clouds.

The central focus of climate change has been carbon dioxide or CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels by electric-producing power plants. Fossil fuels used in power plants include coal, oil and methane, by-products of plant decomposition from an earlier era. The focus on power plants is political nonsense because all combustion produces CO2.

Combustion is burning anything that is carbon based. This can be a gas (methane), liquid (alcohol, oil, gasoline) or solid (coal, paper, wood, grass). In addition to heat, three combustion by-products, along with recognized carbon dioxide include carbon monoxide as well as water in a gas or vapor form. These three gases are odorless, colorless and tasteless, and are increasing without human perception or awareness. High-altitude white condensation trails from jet airplanes composed of ice crystals, and water dripping from the tailpipe of a car are visible examples of condensed water vapor as a by-product of combustion.

Water or H2O in its many forms comprises about 80 percent of the planet's surface as well as 65 to 80 percent of the human body. Water is critically important to our lives and is environmentally benign to our well-being, thus it is never included or discusses as a primary by-product of combustion. Major combustion sources globally contributing to the increase in humidity and CO2 are the addition of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks within the last 40 years, hundreds of millions of new homes that are heated with gas, oil or wood, and use gas for cooking and heating water. Hundreds of thousands of factories use huge quantities of fossil fuels in manufacturing.

A major contributor of water vapor and CO2 is the global increase in forest or grassland fires that burn for days as well as the occasional volcano eruption. Globally, there are over 90,000 airplane flights daily. Notably, though not carbon-based, the by-product from a liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen fueled rocket launch is water vapor.

Water vapor does rise in warm air, eventually forms clouds, the contents becoming rain, sleet or snow. Importantly, as sources of combustion increase, we must face the reality that water vapor is not benign even when contributing eye-catching sunsets.

Water vapors from plant transpiration and ocean evaporation are the major contributors to our planet's water cycle and contribute to beneficial precipitation. This cycle continues, but now has the added burden of disposing huge quantities of continuously added water vapor from our daily activities that we consider benign. Now, perhaps we understand why the increase in damaging rain deluges and record setting blizzards. Unattributed to the additional atmospheric water vapor is the increase in cloud formation resulting in spectacular sunsets that too, are the new normal.

John Neal
Rehoboth Beach

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