Heat Islands- “Invisible Mountains in the Sky”

Today, and several times in the last week, I got to “see” phenomena that was both unnerving and obvious. When I was in college, studying for an art/environmental education degree, one of my research papers was on what I called Heat Islands. These columns of air become super-heated and laden with energized compounds of hydrocarbons and particulates. These upwelling towers were what I was able to observe from stationary points. I have know of them for over twenty years, but only recently heard them called by the same name I gave them back in 1988.  Back then, I got a big fat “F”, because in the early days of internet, I could find not one reference to the phenomenon or any documented evidence or reference available on the web. Other than the fact that for the better part of a century, there was a known and well-documented discrepancy between temperatures and winds, even precipitation between the airport, where readings were most commonly taken, and the cities nearby. There was no name or explanation for the effect. When I did the painstaking observations, documenting reams of data, calculating a mass balance study of the BTUs of fuel shipped into our county, estimating the expansion of atmosphere that would result, all was discounted for lack of a reference. When air in a fire is heated through combustion, it expands to sixteen times the size. I used to imagine a series of mushroom clouds hovering over each and every metropolis based on fossil fuel combustion. The past week has proven that there are far more expansive perturbations of the atmosphere than the mushroom cloud can stand in for.

The high pressure ridges created by our population is much more like a series of invisible mountain ranges, squeezing and blocking the natural flow of air across the continents. Today, we traveled about 130 miles, along the bottom of one of these high pressure ridges. The “heat island” extended all the way down to the base of Lake Michigan. This was a ridge extending well above the tops of the highest cirrus clouds, five miles high! Heavy weather was pushing in off the plains and one thunderhead after another was overcome by upward pressure, bouyed up by the hotter, less dense air, as it rose, the dry air absorbed much of the moisture and wisps of cirrus-like clouds were formed stretching up like horse tails on end.

This ridge completely blocked the oncoming storms. Until they were well north of Green Bay. (The last significant part of the googleplex, stretching from Chicago North along the West Shore of Lake Michigan. Strung out along the Fox River Valley, the last eighty miles (about 125 km) is home to over one million souls. Part of this region is called The Paper Valley and is a major pulp and  paper-making area. When dozens, hundreds, thousands or millions of invisible mushroom clouds spread over an entire state, or region, the effects are virtually unimaginable. Each part of the invisible mountain that we create, is up to us. Our very metabolism warms the air a tiny bit all the time, not on the order of sixteen times the original size, as combustion can do, but just a bit, perhaps something like 1.6 times.

A friend taught me an interesting approach to ecological thinking. He walks and rides his bike at least as much as he drives. His theory is that as his breath is given back to nature, it offsets at least part of the carbon that gets spewed while he is driving. His carbon dioxide is beneficial to plant life, as opposed to the carbon monoxide which is toxic. We each need to make our peace with our piece of these mountains, offset what we can, scale back our contribution to the fossil fuel leviathan. During recent walkabouts, I have been planting trees, dropping seeds wherever they will find fertile ground and protection from greedy humankind…

I feel most human when I am actively giving back out of the abundance that I find all about me, perhaps if we found more ways to stay around our homes, beautify and integrate our lives with the seasons and take back our right to simple abundance, relying less on the machinations of far flung and dirty fossil fuel intensive ways of life, we could yet coax a recovery out of the ashes of international capitalism. When people truly have the interests of their people in mind, there will be no need for police protection.


About otherfishwrap

One of the last of the Baby Boomers, I remember where I was when JFK was shot. Good story. Born during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my life has been spent studying, practicing skills and attitudes that reflect justice and the sanctity of Earth, Air, Fire, Water & Spirit. Trained as an educator, my life has been devoted to cultural development and social justice.
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