Friday, October 27, 2017

Earth without Seasons

Planet Earth’s annual sequence of seasons is a defining characteristic. Weather and climate manifestations are intricately related to conditions generated by our seasons. As we travel north or south from equatorial regions, seasonal variety becomes an all-important factor in describing earth’s weather and climate. Mid-latitudes between 30º and 60º have well defined periods of gradual spring warming or progressive autumn cooling. Sandwiched between these intervals are more or less consistent warm summer or cold winter conditions for several months. Much of our world’s population is embedded in mid-latitude seasonal variety. 

High latitude regions and equatorial regions have less seasonal variety. In the Arctic and Antarctic seasonal variety exists, but cold frozen conditions predominate all year. Weather at low latitudes is generally warm continually. In contrast, seasonal changes in mid-latitudes are more spectacular and fascinating. Temperatures alternate above and below freezing. Mid-latitude weather idiomatically packs a lot of wallop related to the presence of seasons.

What would Earth without seasons be like? We know that the current 23.4º  tilt of the earth’s axis with respect to the plane of our planet’s orbit is the cause of seasons. If the axis were not tilted at all there would be no seasons. A greater tilt would result in more extreme seasons; with a smaller tilt seasonal effects would be less extreme. Planet Earth without seasons would be unable to support the seven billion population of Earth. Conclusions of scientists are based on observations of currently operating weather and climate systems.

Without seasons every latitude would experience only one set of weather conditions all year long. Those who currently abide permanently in warm climates such as southern Florida may relish their lifestyle with little need for an overcoat and plentiful opportunities for outdoor bathing all year long. The benefits of mid-latitude seasons with alternating seasonal periods separating cold and warm, however, should not be overlooked by residents of year-round warm regions such as southern Florida. Even low latitude locations have a modicum of seasonal variation in their weather conditions on our planet. This variation diminishes as we approach the equator. For example, the average daily high temperature fluctuates by over 50 degrees F from warmest to coldest months at typical mid-latitudes. We cite our personal experience living in northwest Illinois. In southern Florida the typical average daily high temperature varies only about 20 degrees F from warmest to coldest months. Statisticians have supplied weather “junkies” with an almost unlimited set of detailed information on variable conditions at multiple locations to describe effects of the healthy grip of Earth’s seasons. We resolve to counsel our southern Florida relatives to appreciate the cold winter regions to their north. We invite them to pay a mid-summer visit to mid-latitude agricultural states such as Illinois and Iowa to observe the extensive fields of lush cornfields, prolific soybean plots, and numerous other crops thriving in alternating seasons of summer heat and winter cold.

Research into the outcome of loss of seasonal variations in Earth’s climate, especially in mid-latitude regions, yields interesting results. Mainly, food production would be significantly reduced. Many of the world’s essential food crops such as wheat, corn, potatoes, oats, and barley, grow far better where cool or cold winters persist. Humanity learned to innovate agriculturally at the close of the Ice Age. This occurred roughly 10,000 BC, the beginning of the Neolithic period—“Antiquity’s Agricultural Revolution.” Man learned to domesticate plants, working within warm/cold seasonal cycles which intensified as the Ice Age waned. It was an exciting time in the history of humanity.

In a world without seasons, ecological anthropologist Don Atwood claims, “Humans would probably never have advanced past a stage of living in small, scattered settlements, scrounging for survival and often dying of horrific insect-born diseases.” Remove Earth’s seasons and Atwood asserts humanity world suffer in a sorry state. It is certain that our Earth’s population would not have burgeoned from one billion to over seven billion in the past 200 years.

The catastrophic effects of removing Earth’s seasons is hypothetical. We will never be able to test the hypothesis. Earth’s axis tilt is not about to change significantly. Astronomer/climatologist Milutin Milankovitch (1879-1958) has proposed that three earth motions change and affect climate over long periods of time. Axial tilt is one feature which changes slightly—from 22.1º to 24.5º—over a period of 41,000 years. The other two features are eccentricity (elongation of orbit) and axial precession (a “wobble” of the axis similar to the wobble of a toy top). Both of the latter conditions vary over long time periods. These factors affect long term climatic conditions, but axis tilt has the greatest effect on seasons year to year. Currently the tilt of our planet’s axis is very slowly decreasing within the above range of change without significantly affecting conditions on earth.

We briefly address a few other environmental conditions inherent in a hypothetical “Earth without seasons.” The habits of animals and plants would change. There would likely be altered reproductive habits, no hibernation, changed adaptive responses, and minimal migration of animals or insects. Living things would change in their ability to cope with a non-changing environment. Tree rings would not exist. There would be no deciduous plants. Mid-latitude weather would differ considerably. Changing seasons produce mixing of moving air masses on a seasonal basis. Seasonal hurricanes, thunderstorms, and snowstorms may not form. Instead of blessings, these changes may result in less precipitation, perhaps even droughts. Some scientists propose that thick ice caps would form at the north and south poles, lowering sea level around the world. These scenarios are not all testable but inspire thoughtful speculation.

Why do we have axial tilt and why do we have seasons? A sound theory is that the Earth’s Moon was formed by a giant impactor, a protoplanet which collided with Earth early in the history of the Solar System. The impact of the smaller protoplanet imparted a tilt to Earth’s axis. Debris from the monstrous collision later became the Moon. Currently our companion Moon stabilizes the axial tilt of the Earth. Without the Moon, chaotic forces would disrupt Earth’s consistent axial tilt to the detriment of Earth’s population.

The timeless God of Creation created all things In the Beginning. Hundreds of physical constants and laws of nature, present from the initial creation, have fashioned our universe according to His divine plan for this created sphere. The presence of Earth’s seasons is the result of a transformational miracle. We delay detailed discussion of this type of miracle for another post. Scripture records dozens of environmental events and conditions on Earth such as rain, snow, thunder, wind, cold, and heat. These events are intricately connected with the presence of seasons which characterize our planet. Hundreds of beneficial yet awesome seasonal events have the unmistakeable handiwork of God’s intelligent agency.   




Friday, October 20, 2017

Sustained by Seasons

The seasons of Planet Earth sustain humanity in several ways, including supplying emotional needs. Seasonal changes are enjoyable to many Earth residents, especially those who choose to live in regions where changes are more pronounced. We revel in delightful seasonal variety. 

Seasons are welcomed by some and scorned by others. For example, springtime is generally a time of enjoyment and optimism as is autumn. Complaints about oppressive summer heat or bitter winter cold tend to balance the ledger for some mid-latitude residents. Of course, every season possesses unique appeal. Although autumn is a time of astronomical decline and cessation of plant growth, most people enjoy the refreshment of slowly declining temperatures. In select geographic regions autumn is graced by splashes of color around the countryside. Fall hues enhance decorations for parties and social gatherings. Harvest of pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, vegetables, fruits, and grains communicate a reality statement: Summer is over; harvest has arrived. It is a time for joy and thanksgiving.

During autumn, the weather shifts slowly from summer heat to winter cold. In extreme northwest Illinois, the average daily high temperature declines from early July (82ºF) to early February (27ºF), a drop of 55º. Average daily low temperature declines a similar amount from the warmest to coldest months. Sunrise times slowly become earlier from December to June while sunset times slowly become later during that six month time frame. From June to December the situation is reversed. Sunrise times become later; sunset times become earlier. In December and June sunrise and sunset times change hardly at all for a few weeks. Hours of daylight slowly increase from winter to summer. From summer to winter hours of daylight slowly decrease. In northwest Illinois summer has 15 hours of daylight and 9 hours of darkness. In winter the situation reverses—we receive 9 hours of daylight and 15 hours of darkness. Sun rays strike Earth at a much lower angle in winter, spreading themselves out over a much greater land area. Therefore, we receive less heat. In summer, of course, we receive more heat because sun rays strike Earth more directly. In addition, northwest Illinois receives six more hours of intense sun rays.

We cited extreme northwest Illinois by way of illustration. At higher latitudes to the north seasonal effects are even more extreme. In mid-summer we recall walking on the streets of Fairbanks AK at 10:30 PM in daylight. At lower latitudes to our south the effects are less extreme. Near the equator the amount of daytime heat and length of daylight vs darkness is not very significant from one time of year to another compared with latitudes farther north or south. By coincidence, the five US locations where this blog author has lived were each located at approximately 41ºN latitude. Seasonal changes described in the above paragraph were embedded in personal experiences throughout my life. When our family visited Fairbanks AK in the summer or Aruba in the winter differences in the effects of seasons depending on latitude became apparent.

Thriving, healthy animal and plant populations and their unique adaptive behaviors depend in large part on Earth’s phenomenon of seasonal changes. If Earth were not tilted on its axis there would be no seasons.  Our planet’s life forms, including human life, and their current population levels would be impossible to sustain. Environmental scientists have explained in detail why this would be true. In future posts we will deal more extensively with the beneficial consequences of our changing seasons.

We close with one well known example of the reward of seasonal changes. We are created with emotional and psychological needs and the means to satisfy them. Our Creator supplies the sensory and intellectual ability to identify wonders of nature and its design features. Many readers may remember our teachers and science texts touting the presence of chlorophyll, a green chemical pigment to aid plants in using the energy of sunlight to synthesize their own food from water and carbon dioxide. When the autumn season descends on our countryside, the reduced intensity of light is not sufficient for plants to continue to produce or retain green chlorophyll. As a result, many leaves lose their green color and display other colors formerly visually masked by the plentiful presence of chlorophyll. Eventually, the lifeless plant leaves drop away, giving up food synthesizing until new leaves are produced the following spring. Many motorists flock to regions where autumn leaf colors are most vivid.

Changing seasons supply multiple opportunities to discover wonder-producing processes of our environment. Together, awareness and intellectual understanding of these processes nourish our sense of wonder. God has given us “all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Spectrum of Weather Events

Our focus in recent weeks has been the destructive impact of hurricanes in the southeast quadrant of the United States. Hurricanes form when sufficiently warm oceans join with steering prevailing winds and other meteorological factors to produce just-right conditions for cyclone formation. Billions of Earth residents never experience hurricanes, including populations in South America, Europe, Africa, and most of Asia.

Tornadoes are even more violent than hurricanes. They occur over a much smaller area. Most form when large, cold air masses from the north collide with warm southern air masses already in place. Many prerequisites must be favorable for tornado formation. A tornado is one of Earth’s most awesome meteorological events. The likelihood of a tornado striking a given town in any specific year is small. Residents in tornado prone areas should keep a “weather eye” on forecasts. The United States is more vulnerable to tornadoes than any country in the world. A large area of the midwestern US is known as “tornado alley.” Many regions of the world never experience a tornado.

Thunderstorms, droughts, floods, and blizzards are part of the plethora of weather events. Over long periods these events comprise the elements of climate. We devour media reporting of both gentle and harsh weather events. Climate change is the topic du jour among many journalists who relentlessly link out of the ordinary contemporary weather events to this enormously complex topic, especially when they are unusual or destructive. Our Earth experiences harsh meteorological events to balance beautiful and beneficial weather events over the decades, centuries, and millennia of man’s sojourn. Our blog message has offered weather and climate issues in a balanced perspective in order to understand the world God created. He created our climate system with a purpose. When destructive storms destroy property and even human life on occasion, some attribute the events to God’s higher purpose.

The Creator has provided our physical Earth with its climate system as an abode for humanity. It is a wonderful home for over seven billion souls. The climate system is a product of God’s higher purpose, not only when weather disasters occur, but also when the weather and climate conditions supply bountiful food and joie de vivre. We are thankful that scientists have uncovered new knowledge of how Planet Earth has been geologically prepared for bountiful life and how its weather and climate system supports our planetary array of life. The causes of some nuances of weather and climate cycles remain unclear. We must search for wisdom and understanding of divine higher purposes from our heavenly Father.

Matching the profound deadly impact of the four recent landfalling hurricanes of 2017 was the tragic tornado super outbreak of 2011 primarily in Alabama and Mississippi on April 25-27. Those tornadoes took the lives of 348 people, second only to the deadly tornado outbreak of 1925 which killed 747. In contrast, the four recent US hurricanes cost 177 lives. Monetary damages from the hurricanes exceeded property damage costs of the tornadoes by multiples, but deaths from the 2011 tornado outbreak were double those from the hurricanes. Damage from the tornadoes totaled $11 billion while hurricane damage from this year’s hurricanes may total upwards of $300 billion.

When the tornado super outbreak occurred we were moved to submit serial commentary about weather events, both destructive and beneficial. We have attempted to analyze the issue of weather and climate with a balanced perspective. Weather events, both beneficial and harsh, are opportunities to revel in both the goodness and power of the Almighty God of creation. Our planet remains “a place to thrive” despite recurring inauspicious weather events.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Coping with Problems and Tragedy

Humans propose diverse rationale for believing or not believing in the the existence and actions of an omnipotent Creator. One of the most common reasons is personal belief that God, loving, powerful, and all-knowing, would not or should not permit evil to exist in this created sphere. This includes natural evil such as the three recent hurricanes generated in the South Atlantic which have devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Moral evil is on a different causal plane. Degenerate, depraved, deviant, and debauched seem inadequate terms to describe the actions of a mass killer who murdered 59 souls and injured hundreds at the Las Vegas country music festival. ISIS killers reinforce their hate for divergent ideologies with senseless brutality. There are myriad examples. Moral evil has been a feature of human experience since Adam’s original sin.

Moral evil may be easier to explain than natural evil. It is caused by sinful actions of conscious human beings. Our response to both outcomes of “evil” is often similar. It is tempting to ask, “Why does God permit these events to happen, regardless of the cause?” The outcomes of moral evil relate to freedom of choice with which God created humanity. Man may accept or reject the tenets of natural law—the intuitive moral perception of right and wrong. Worse, he may deliberately disobey the Creator’s explicit commands.  

The outcomes of natural evil result from a different sort of freedom. Tragic meteorological or geological events are examples of natural evil inflicting hardship and loss of human life. Such events cannot be blamed on moral failures of any human or group of humans. Our physical system functions according to laws of nature—scientific principles under which our universe operates. For instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics controls the flow of heat energy driving events during prime hurricane and tornado generating seasons. Planet Earth is “free” to manifest the sometimes violent results of energy flow in the production of its destructive hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards. The results of this freedom are sometimes unpleasant and destructive. More often the outcomes of energy flow and energy conversion are highly beneficial in distributing water resources and heat energy. One example: Remnants of the latest 2017 Atlantic hurricane, Nate, quickly moved up the east coast to deliver beneficial rainfall to the dry northeast after striking the Gulf Coast. 

The Creator of all things is fully capable of installing “stop signs” to prevent moral and natural evil. He originated the created order with its current conditions. He designed a “very good” world but it was not “perfect” according to some human standards of perfection. Many define perfection to include no pain, no inconvenience, and no concerns—perhaps a work-free set of conditions. Scripture does not indicate the Garden of Eden was a work-free zone.  

Our planet’s early Eden Garden residents were instructed to “work it and take care of it.” After the Fall they were expelled from the unique Garden location and thrust into the hazards of Planet Earth in the outside world. The Fall resulted in a “sea change” in human nature, but not in different manifestations of the Law of Decay. Scripture does not instruct us as to the length of their Garden sojourn prior to the Fall. We imagine that events of the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden may have occurred quickly. Scripture is not explicit concerning time frames.

What motivates our questions about Law of Decay events? Many of these events are actually beneficial to life on Earth. For example, we could not exist without consumption of fuels to supply energy, including the benefits of consumption and digestion of our food and heat energy flows which drive beneficial weather events.     Virtually every human activity is dependent on the Second Law. We “…live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28) who “made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). Some events, however, cause human grief and pain in varying degrees. Second Law events could be placed on a spectrum of expected events—the beautiful and beneficial events at one end of the spectrum, the painful and destructive events at the opposite end, with many other events of varying impact distributed along the spectrum.

Human problem-solving and work-related events have been established by God as strengthening and beneficial. Harsh and difficult events serve an even greater strengthening role. The Apostle Paul frequently referenced hardships, including physical hardships, as factors in personal strengthening. He writes, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (Acts 12:10). Tragic or fatal events call our attention to God’s wisdom or “God’s higher purpose.” No mortal is able to discover or understand the depth of “God’s higher purpose” with respect to tragic events. Some individuals use this human inability to “discover” as an excuse to reject the wisdom or even the existence of the Creator.

Some of the deepest theological concepts related to human reaction to tragedy in our sphere of existence and how we deal with it are cited by Job, the ancient Old Testament figure. From a human standpoint we cannot explain Job’s statement after his unspeakable family and personal loss: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). At the conclusion of the Book of Job, both Elihu and God comment on the omnipotent, omniscient God of Creation in chapters 35-41. Finally, Job exclaims, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” Job 42:2-6.