Is There a Lightning Rod on the White House?

Michael H. Glantz
6 April
2005

Is There a Lightning Rod on the White House?

Definition: Lightning-conductor; lightning-rod: /noun/ 1 A metal rod, usually projecting above the roof of a tall building, designed to prevent structural damage by diverting lightning directly to earth.


The odds are very high that there is a lightning rod somewhere on the White House rooftop to protect against lightning strikes that could cause power outages, if not fire. So, what are the odds for any given building to be struck by lightning? It has been estimated that the probability of a golfer being hit by lightning is about one in a million. I would assume it is even lower for hitting any individual building, given that there are so many manmade and natural structures around.

But with such a low probability, why bother seeking protection from such an unlikely (not impossible, though) occurrence? Anyway, President Bush and family can sleep tight at home knowing they are protected from the elements of Nature.

A few thousand scientists from around the globe - government scientists, independent researchers, consultants and so forth - have been engaged in three assessments of the global climate system and the warming of the Earth's atmosphere. Today, the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere is on the increase at an alarming pace. It is today at levels higher than in the last 400,000 years or more. Scientists have set a target of a CO2 level to avoid: double the level of the pre-industrial CO2 concentration of 265 ppmv. These scientists are in the midst of the fourth such assessment. Each assessment has suggested, and then strengthened, the view that human activities are likely responsible for the enhancement of the naturally occurring greenhouse effect. Each assessment tends to reduce the uncertainties about human involvement in global warming.

So, no big deal, right? The Earth's atmosphere is warming up a few degrees Celsius. That'll mean warmer winters, less snow, lowered need for heating oil, a few more disease-bearing mosquitoes or invasive species where they had not been for centuries. In fact, it is a big deal. A very big deal.

Aside from the shifting patterns of rainfall, with the dry areas becoming drier and the wet areas becoming wetter (or so the computer models suggest), other things are going to change. Sea level is already on the rise. All countries with a coastline, especially the densely populated urban centers, are at risk to sea level rise. That means people and structures are at an increased risk to coastal storm surges working off of a higher level of the sea. That, in turn, means flooding further into the hinterland. Global warming means more melting of glaciers around the globe (96% of the world's glaciers are melting in today's warmer atmosphere, as opposed to a century ago). The intensity and duration of extreme events such as droughts, floods, fires, and infectious disease outbreaks are expected to increase in frequency. A world that is already water-stressed will become even more so in future decades. And so forth.

The major sources of global warming are past and present-day emissions of greenhouse gases as a result of the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), tropical deforestation (the forests sequester carbon taken from the atmosphere), and various land-use practices. Although most CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) production has been banned as a result of a treaty (the Montreal Protocol), it has a century-long residence time in the atmosphere. CO2 also has a long residence time as well. What we emit today will likely be with us for decades.

The United States will not be immune from the impacts of a warmer atmosphere. For example, computer-generated scenarios of the future aside, other studies have shown that during the Altithermal period 6,000 years ago, the US midwest of North America, the proverbial breadbasket of the United States and Canada, was much drier then than now, when it was 1 degree C warmer. Thus, food production will likely decline while the sea level rises. Yet, it is the United States that is THE major producer of carbon dioxide, responsible for about 25% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. What, then, is the US doing about the impending climate-related crises likely to emerge in the coming decades? At the moment, the administration of George W. Bush is doing nothing to limit the use of fossil fuels and resultant GHG emissions. It is as if the problem does not exist, and if it does, it is as if the US has no responsibility for it or for the fate of other countries at risk to climate change.

Most recently, Bush and the US Congress, controlled by the Republican Party, have voted to explore in the ANWR for oil. It is interesting to note that Alaskan senators voted for this, along with other fellow senators. However, Alaska is like the proverbial "canary in the coal mine"; that is, a canary would show signs of elevated carbon monoxide levels in a mine in advance of adverse effects on miners. The canary served as an early warning to miners to clear out of the mine in order to avoid being subjected to increasing lethal carbon monoxide levels. Well, according to geophysical scientific research, a 1-degree warming in the mid-latitudes (North America, Eurasia, Japan) means that there will be a 3- to 4-degree warming in the higher latitudes of the polar regions. That means Alaska will be among the first areas to suffer from the impacts of global warming. All for the sake of a few dollars now, Alaskan children will pay the higher price. The irony is that it will be like a cowboy shooting himself in the foot.

A burning question to me is as follows: why would a president bother putting lightning rods on his home where the known risk of a known problem is so small, while continuing to foster policies that will increase the emissions of GHGs into the atmosphere and resultant enhancement of the greenhouse effect: a hotter atmosphere, a known problem with uncertain but adverse impacts that could affect 6 billion people. The probability of the latter is a lot higher than the probablity of the former. Go figure.

It would be laughable if the potential impacts of global warming on the well-being of ecosystems and societies were not projected to be a combination of devastating and, in many instances, unknowable effects.

--Michael H. Glantz

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