Column: A negatively positive feedback loop


Photo credit: Eliza Tiles

Archer seniors remove invasive species and transport them into large sacks for disposal. The removal of non-native species allows the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands to plant native species and restore the natural habitat. On Feb. 10, Archer’s seniors visited the Ballona Wetlands for their day of service. The unprecedented weather during the first week of February showcases the repercussions of the feedback loop of air conditioning on climate change. 

By Eliza Tiles, Columnist

Each fall, as the jacarandas lose their leaves and the days begin to get shorter and shorter, I anticipate the arrival of winter. I dream of bundling up in a puffy jacket while watching a blanket of snow cover the trees and the snow hares jump across frozen meadows. Yet, in southern California, this is far from my reality. The beginning of February brought a two-week-long heat wave that crushed any resemblance of a California winter I had.

Yet, as I mourned the loss of chilly mornings, the weather patterns changed drastically, and harrowing storms brought feet of rain and even, in some places, snow to Los Angeles County. This abrupt change in weather patterns is just one of the few ways we are seeing the repercussions of climate change.

According to the Los Angeles Times, at the start of the month temperature soared into the 90s — a temperature that our coastal school seldom reaches, even in mid-July. But, it wasn’t just the heat that upset me, it was the reactions of those around me.

Why wasn’t anyone talking about the heat? It didn’t seem to bother anyone that it’s supposed to be winter, that we’re supposed to be freezing (what us Los Angelenos call a brisk 50 degrees Fahrenheit), peeling off our cozy sweatpants just before first period to avoid being dress coded. Yet, it seemed like all anyone could think about was an impromptu beach day and an early chance to tan. I, however, couldn’t stop thinking about how cold the classrooms were.

There I was, in my polo without a jacket on this supposedly hot day, freezing as I tried to pay attention to the day’s lesson. All I could focus on was the sound of air conditioning pouring out of the vents. Sure, we humans don’t like being uncomfortable in extremely hot or cold conditions, so when temperatures drastically change, naturally, we turn on the central heating and cooling. 

As the cold air brushed past my shoulders and my mind wandered, I thought about the positive feedback loop that our classroom was directly contributing to. When I first learned about feedback loops it was a confusing concept for me to wrap my head around, especially in the context of global warming.

A negative feedback loop works to keep something at its equilibrium. Take body temperature, for example: if our brain senses that our body temperature is getting too hot, it will start to sweat, resulting in our body cooling back down to its equilibrium (97.5-98.9 degrees Fahrenheit). Thus, a feedback loop is formed that continues working when needed.

A positive feedback loop, however, does the opposite. It works to move something away from its equilibrium and amplify changes, therefore, creating instability. The process of ripening fruit is a positive feedback loop: as an apple starts to ripen, it releases a gas called ethylene, and the more it becomes ripe, the more gas it produces. This gas then affects the rest of the apples on the tree, which also then begin to produce ethylene, creating a surplus amount of gas that moves the tree farther away from unripe apples (one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel). 

Visually, a negative feedback loop can be demonstrated as a complete revolving circle, and a positive one is illustrated as a continuous neverending line moving farther away from the initial point. In the context of climate change, a negative feedback loop is a positive thing, while a positive feedback loop is, well, negative. See the confusion?   

My favorite feedback loop is that of central heating and cooling: AC. Ever since AC was invented we have been encouraging more use of it.

When we use excess energy to cool our homes and workspaces we directly input more CO2 into the atmosphere, damaging the ozone layer and, therefore, directly increasing global warming, creating more frequent and more destructive heat waves in the future. 

But then, guess what? The summers beg,in to reach record highs, and eventually the winters too, and what do people do when they are hot besides drink lemonade and eat watermelon? They turn up the AC! And, alas, there’s an overwhelming, detrimental positive feedback loop.

As we continue to face the seemingly never-ending climate crisis, it’s easy to get discouraged by the countless contributions society makes toward global warming. I, for one, often question my ability to help or if my contributions will make a difference. Realizing that unconscious everyday actions like turning on air conditioning have a vast effect on the global changes in temperature can be daunting. Yet, understanding one’s impact on the climate is the best way to start.

I may not have experienced the cold California mornings I had hoped for or the howling winter snowstorms, but I did see jacaranda’s violet flowers blooming in the warm weather: a reminder that it’s not too late.