Trying to catch the wind – and succeeding, all too well

Carbon emissions are invariably highlighted as the major culprit in climate change, but there is another contributor – possibly even more damaging – that has been overlooked almost completely. 

For decades, long before climate change became such a dominant global issue, I have been expounding against the detrimental effect of pneumatic tyres in causing extremes of drought and flooding.

In the 1980s and 90s, while writing columns for South African newspapers, I brought this to the attention of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Lengthy correspondence ensued, but no action – then or now. I have just checked the CSR website and there is no reference whatsoever to pneumatic tyres, despite an otherwise comprehensive section on climate change.

Perhaps this is typical of the scientific establishment. All too often there is a reactionary attitude to anything that challenges the accepted conventions. But only a modicum of scientific thought is necessary to grasp the influential role of pneumatic tyres in dramatically altering the climate since 1887, when John Boyd Dunlop developed the first practical inflatable tyre for his son’s tricycle.

Little was he to know how his invention would revolutionise transport and lead to melting of the polar ice-caps. Scots-born Dunlop was a veterinary surgeon by profession, and this itself suggests he was a man of ecological empathy who would not knowingly have contributed to environmental catastrophe.

The clue is in the name: pneumatic. It derives from the Ancient Greek πνεῦμα (pneûma), meaning ‘air’. Our planet is cocooned in air, much like an embryo is protected by a life-giving placenta. The embryo can emerge from its placenta and survive; not so the planet.

Air is not an infinite commodity, as is easily demonstrated. It gets thinner at altitude. That’s why climbers use oxygen masks, and aircraft have emergency oxygen supplies so that passengers can survive if a crisis occurs when flying at 10,000 metres.

South Africa provides a perfect example, as I pointed out to the CSIR all these years ago. Johannesburg is roughly 1,750 metres above sea level. The air is thinner, and coastal visitors are immediately aware of a shortness of breath. Golfers from the coast are surprised at how far they are able to hit the ball, yet their prowess has not magically improved. It’s simply because the air is thinner at altitude. There is less resistance so the ball is able to travel further.

Let us now consider how pneumatic tyres come into play in climate change. As established air is not an infinite commodity. But in the 133 years since Dunlop’s invention, the volume of air trapped in pneumatic tyres has increased exponentially. A century ago, when the age of the internal combustion engine was in its infancy, the effect was negligible. Today, as countless millions – billions – of pneumatic tyres populate the surface of the Earth, their capture of available air is all too evident.

Our volume of air reserves declines by the day with the relentless and seemingly inexorable growth in the number of wheeled vehicles clad in pneumatic tyres – from simple baby buggies to giant earth-moving machinery, where one tyre alone consume the air equivalent of several dozen of Henry Ford’s early motor cars.

The effect of pneumatic tyres on thinning the Earth’s air resources is therefore patently obvious and indisputable. And herein lies the really serious problem. Having established the cause, let us examine the effect.

As we have seen from the Johannesburg golf ball, thinner air means less resistance, so the ball travels further. In the case of our planet, thinner air also means less resistance – but enabling faster rotation. And there is also a secondary effect of pneumatic tyres that compounds the increased speed of planetary rotation – traction!

The sheer number of pneumatic tyres turning on the Earth’s surface have a gearing effect, just as a mill-race turns a water-wheel. The faster the flow of the stream, the faster the wheel turns. If the number of tyres was evenly distributed on the Earth’s surface, they would cancel out their respective effects. Instead there is a vast imbalance.

Some areas have very few vehicles – if any – per 100 km²; others will have a density of many thousands, with a proportionate tractive effect contributing not only to increased speed of planetary rotation but an imbalanced increase.

We now have a trio of hazards attributable to pneumatic tyres: thinner air, faster planetary rotation, and a wobble in that rotation. How exactly do they contribute so profoundly to climate change imperilling the survival of our planet?

This time, let us replace the golf-ball example with a (new) tennis-ball. Dip the tennis- ball in water and soak its furry surface. Then, place the ball on a table, and with your fingers, turn it slowly on its vertical axis. Notice how the water drips off. Now spin the ball and see what happens. The water will spray out, primarily from its equator, with the kinetic pressure forcing the remaining liquid towards the poles.

So it is with the Earth’s rotation. The increased speed accelerates droughts in equatorial regions and causes flooding in previously stable areas. The physical forces involved with the tennis-ball are analogous to changes in barometric pressures in the Earth’s air envelope, already thinner, as we have seen, and thus more vulnerable to the cyclones and tsunamis that were once a rarity but are now commonplace.

All this can be traced back to the advent of the pneumatic tyre, and as we have demonstrated, how its extraordinary growth has captured such a large proportion of the Earth’s protective air envelope. With all the disastrous knock-on effects that have been illustrated here.

What next? The CSIR experience would suggest that it is pointless approaching official bodies such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the   European Science Foundation. The predictable response will be on the lines of: “Thank you for getting in touch and for your most interesting observations…” Blah, blah, blah. But nothing by way of any constructive collaboration on the issue.  

Nowadays, direct activism seems to be the most effective way of rousing bureaucracy from its comfort zone slumbers. Protests, demonstrations, placard-waving… prompting widespread media attention and grabbing headlines. At the same time, increased public awareness – and outrage – leads to political pressure, and when politicians’ re-election is under threat, they tend to be more inclined to listen to their constituents.

Consequently, we plan to contact Greta Thunberg and arm her with a new weapon in her battle with global authorities to achieve effective action in combating climate change. And unlike most arms providers, we have no cause for secrecy – in fact we will urge her to credit the TriMedia website as her source of this crucial scientific data that has been ignored for so long.

Srem, Bulgaria August 13, 2020

1 comment

  1. Flysco

    Bollox notwithstanding, doesn’t a real solution to this aerated (nay, C-rated) problem suggest itself? We should be inflating our pneumatic tyres with recycled carbon dioxide instead of air. Trapped in a rubber toroid, the gas could scarce exert its malign greenhouse effect on our climate. And, you could even top up a slow puncture with a recycled 1970s Sparklets Capsule!

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