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Blame the human race, or the weather?

As trees burn and droughts hit, climate change is already having an impact on the construction industry.

We can’t predict the future. We don’t know how quickly CO2 levels in the atmosphere will rise.

And it seems the increase in CO2 levels isn’t just down to human activity – we have some fascinating new insights on this from a NASA satellite.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) tracked CO2 during 2015 to 2016, during which time there was a major El Niño event.

El Niño boosts the amount of CO2 in the air, and the OCO was able to show that this was down to the way tropical forests respond to heat and drought, becoming less able to absorb carbon dioxide.

The downside of this is that if trees lose some of their ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, then the level of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase at a faster rate.

In a normal year, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up by approximately two parts per million by volume of air molecules.

But during this El Niño event it went up by 3ppmv. This rate or increase hadn’t been seen on our planet in the preceding 2000 years.

Human emissions have been relatively stable, and it was the inability of plants and trees to mop up excess CO2 that led to the increase.

The OCO was able to track the gas and therefore the rate of photosynthesis in plants – the process by which CO2 is taken up.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory showed that a drought in South America limited the ability of vegetation to absorb the gas.

In Africa, hotter than usual temperatures increased decomposition of plant matter, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, and in Asia rampant fires released peat carbon.

The satellite can only monitor a 10km wide section of the Earth as it flies overhead, so its scope is limited, but Europe has plans for a constellation of satellites that will map a much wider area.

Ultimately this could lead to policing individual countries’ carbon emissions.

So why is this relevant to our industry?

I’m sure most of us follow the changes to our planet with interest, as weather and climate has such an impact on the buildings we create.

I’ve talked before about homes on stilts to avoid floods, but that’s just one element of what’s ahead. Buildings will need to be able to bear different and changing conditions, and our industry must continue to evolve to meet new demands.

And we also need to ensure we are not contributing to climate change ourselves, but looking at more sustainable ways of working.

If you need a structural engineer for an upcoming project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, or a member of my team.



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