ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERT SEES CHANGE AHEAD; SPEED IS ISSUE
By Fred Dickey
Aug. 22, 2016
Phil Pryde knows more about where you live than you do. No, not your street name or how far to the Vons store. However, the ground under your house, the water running through your faucets and the air above you are all things that he thinks about and knows about.
Pryde, 78, lives in San Carlos and is the author of "San Diego: An Introduction to the Region." The book's five updated editions have for years been easy reading for learning about this area.
He is currently on the board of the San Diego River Park Foundation and the Anza-Borrego Foundation. In past years, he served on the county planning commission and the county water authority.
Pryde is self-described as an ardent bird lover. Which means if you ever have to pick a bird lover out of a lineup, choose the one who is gentle of manner, deep of intellect and passionate of beliefs. Him.
For all that, my purpose is not to quiz Pryde about where to view the California gnatcatcher, one of his favorites. I'm after bigger game, so to speak.
Pryde is a professor emeritus of geography at San Diego State University, the author of many academic papers that neither of us has any intention of reading. But when he speaks of the big-picture environment, it is wise to listen. In this case, I ask him about climate change.
(A travel advisory: If you're a climate change denier, I ask you to lean back and relax on your trip through this story. Pryde is not from the United Nations or the New World Order. He's a mellow guy who has learned some things he wants to share. You can take comfort that he doesn't claim all the answers. As a low-grade (of the C+ variety) science dullard, even I shall swim upstream and try to learn something.)
On climate change, Pryde draws a distinction among what is known, not known and maybe known. The inclusion of "maybe" should allow some doubting readers to exhale.
But to Pryde, the big ponderable on climate change is not maybe, but how fast. "Nobody really knows for sure, because we don't know what the rate of acceleration is going to be," he says.
What would not surprise you, Phil?
"I don't know, because we don't have enough facts. Right now, it's educated guesswork. That, of course, invites other people to say we don't know, or we're exaggerating, or even that it will never happen.
"There's even disagreement over whether it's human caused. But I don't see how anybody can objectively look at the facts and say it's not caused by humans, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.
"People would like scientists to say that 25 years, six months and four days from now the ocean is going to collapse. Big headline. Obviously, they can't say that. All they can say is they don't know exactly, but they know where it's headed."
Ocean-side San Diegans have a vital interest in knowing the effects of climate change because of where we live, which we tell everyone - no doubt irritatingly - is the most glorious spot on the planet.
The change, as it happens, will be uncomfortable. Literally.
"Even if global temperature increases by five degrees, we're going to sweat a lot more, we're going to wear shorts a lot more, but we'll survive that. We can always make more air-conditioners. Even most wildlife will adjust, but certainly not all."
The seabird brown booby used to be found south of Ensenada, but increasingly is seen along the San Diego coast. The reason is that the water is now warmer here. Other birds are behaving similarly.
The big problem will be beyond the shore, Pryde tells us. Climate change is affecting oceans in several ways. One is the melting of the ice caps. As ice, they reflect the sunlight back. They're white. But when the ice caps melt, they're replaced by the dark ocean, and dark absorbs more heat, which then melts ice faster, which makes it warmer, and so it goes.
Pryde says, "Here's another thing about warmer water: It expands a little as it warms. The oceans are actually getting bigger just by getting warmer. Only scientists think about that."
He says ocean levels have risen thus far only slightly, a few inches, but the trend is definitely upward. And someday if it increases much more, the change will hit us where we live. Or, to be alarmist about it, where we used to live.
"As it gets higher, that's going to send saltwater much farther inland. What's that going to do? Well, lots of things. It's going to salinize your wells. It's going to salinize your groundwater. San Diego River will become more saline. It's going to affect birds. It's going to affect everything."
As carbon dioxide levels in the air increase, it will mix with ocean water and increase the acidity of the sea, he says.
"Scientists are really worried about some things becoming extinct because of acidity, particularly small organisms at the bottom of the food chain."
Ocean dwellers are similar to rich people: Diminished resources make them unhappy.
Pryde says the rise of ocean temperatures is going to affect things far more than rising air temperatures, particularly in the oceanic food chain. We have plenty of evidence already that wildlife is struggling to adjust to changes in the ocean. Seals, for one thing, will be forced elsewhere in search of the colder water their prey requires.
A key to the survival of ocean wildlife is the fate of the tiny (not lowly) krill, a crustacean that's sort of the popcorn of the oceans, enjoyed by almost all. Krill flourishes worldwide, especially in cold waters, and no one knows what even a slight temperature rise will do to the species. To take chances with krill would be like us taking chances with corn.
"If the krill go, the oceans go," Pryde warns.
He says there's a form of ice other than bergs that could have a nasty surprise for us.
"We do know that the polar ice cap is melting, but something is happening that is a far worse threat - methane.
"Methane is much more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide," he says.
Pryde knows methane because of extensive on-site studies that resulted in three books he wrote on the environment of the Soviet Union before the fall of that government.
He says methane is trapped beneath the permafrost, especially in eastern Siberia. In the past, the top layer would melt in summer about 2 or 3 feet at the most. Thus, the methane to that depth has already been released. However, below that, it remains trapped by the frozen permafrost.
"Long story short," Pryde says, "with global climate change and as Siberia gets warmer, the permafrost is going to melt deeper. That's where a huge amount of methane is (trapped). The amount of methane that could come out of there would make us forget about carbon dioxide. Methane is basically poisonous. You make methanol out of it."
Pryde says methane will go into the atmosphere and be distributed around the earth by air circulation. It's a greenhouse gas, which means it doesn't go into outer space. Methane will form a blanket and block the escape of heat far more than CO2.
Phil Pryde is a concerned preservationist, but not an alarmist. He sees the problems of our environment but is pretty upbeat about the future, so long as that future is hospitable to his beloved California gnatcatcher.
How did climate change become so damned political? Agree or disagree, it's science that should be dispassionately sorted out.
Since we first wondered how a bug could fly or a bird could sing, scientific inquiry has required that we explore without fear, then question our findings and argue about them. But when we start to make a political or religious fight over those findings, someone ends up being exiled to Siberia.
At least that destination might be warmer now.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.