Posts Tagged 'Climate'

Last Ocean

Weller_Antarctica031The Last Ocean by John Weller, published by Rizzoli.

This year, I’m going to try to be systematic with my natural history reviews. I begin with a remarkable book of photography.

Darwin knows, there’s a lot of nature photography out there on-line, in print, and on TV (and DVD etc.). A lot of it is lovely, but as this blog hopefully argues overtly and covertly, such exotica shouldn’t keep you from exploring the local with your own eyes. Of course, Antarctica is a place few of us will probably visit. And these photographs by John Weller are rather jaw-dropping. There’s a slide show on his webpage to give you an idea; the book itself is oversize and worth looking at in its paper format, a very different experience from the screen.

This is predominately a picture book, but the text is definitely worth reading. I was particularly struck by the passages on the mechanics of very cold water and the importance of the southern ocean to the world’s deep ocean currents; the explosive sound of Weddell Seals, nearly strong enough to burst human eardrums, and evidently used to stun prey; and the transformation of the region by climate change and resource exploitation, for in the Ross Sea the toothfish industry is doing the same thing fishing fleets have done for ever, stripping the world of a particular species. The Dry Valleys, a Martian-like region usually kept clear of snow, were a revelation: in this near lifeless zone, the mummified bodies of seals which wandered in centuries ago still influence the delicate balance of the microbiota.

The Martian analogy is telling: we spend a lot of time and enthusiasm looking into space, but we don’t know enough about, or care enough for, the life surrounding us here.

Foggy Old Town

Nothing quite says “harbor” like a foghorn. This freakishly warm December has been producing intense fogs in the archipelago of New York City. Up here on the Harbor Hill Moraine, visibility has often been reduced to less than an avenue block away. It’s just about an avenue now as I write; a large antenna on the corner of 40th and 5th Ave is my marker of that distance. The harbor, six avenues away, is completely shrouded, represented only by the long boom of the occasional foghorn. At just after 6 this morning, a very loud horn repeatedly boomed. I assume it was one of those appalling, floating environmental crimes known as cruise ships.

For these photos from the other day, I was down at Bush Terminal Park. It cleared rapidly after these shots, but the uphill cloud — fog is basically a cloud at ground level — settled on the apartment surrounds well into the afternoon.



Arctic Longing

UnknownWhat an amazing and awe-inspiring book. I’ve long heard about Barry Lopez‘s Arctic Dreams but have only just got around to reading it. I was nudged by a fellow conspirator, Erin of the Familiar Wilderness on the other end of the Long Island. And now I want to read it again. Combining human and natural history with beautiful prose, Lopez’s subtitle “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape” captures his mission. Originally published in 1986, just a couple years before James Hansen testified before Congress about global warming, the book now reads like a premature elegy. Lopez was already noting the radical transformation of landscape and indigenous culture under the onslaught of – well, what can only be called, from the perspective of the far north, southerners. But the Great Melting was on very few people’s minds then. Indeed, in the 1970s, a mainline scientific assumption was that, based on historical patterns, we were cruising along in an interglacial era, and the Ice Age would return, oh, some time in the future. (A formidable story of my youth was A.C. Clarke’s “The Forgotten Enemy,” about the return of the glaciers.) So by default, in the whiplash-rapid Anthropocene, Lopez’s book is becoming a record of a lost world.

King Carbon still hungers to devour the North Slope; circumpolar nations are now jockeying to strip what they can from the de-iced Arctic Sea. The ignorant and/or mendacious still mouth nonsense about the “wasteland” of the tundra, and celebrity sociopaths like Sarah Palin whip up the lynch-mob-minded cretins who enable her with her fascist porn about executing wolves from helicopters, but the human story of the north transcends all these enemies of the planet, and hence, inevitably, humanity.

Ending The Endless War

Last year was the the hottest year since modern record keeping began in 1880, capping all the other recent record-breakers. And it’s NOT going to get better. If you were born in 1985 or after, you’ve never experienced a year in which the global temperature has been below the 20th-century average.

And then there’s methane. Mother of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (who isolated Franklin’s “flammable gas”)! Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For the length of human civilization, most of the CH4 on the planet has been frozen and out of the way, no bother at all to, say, Sumerian seal carvers, Medieval shepherdesses, Arabic astronomers, Incan princesses, Nri-Igbo traders, Australian song-line cartographers, or even lardy Americans bellowing from their couches at corporate sportainments on their big, big screens. Most of the gas has been locked up in the permafrost and at the bottom of the polar oceans in the form known as methane hydrate. But now our warming-by-CO2 planet is unleashing the CH4, adding it to the blanketing layer of atmosphere-trapping heat. And it will be astonishingly bad for humanity.

I call it the methane bomb ~ not with fire, and certainly not with ice… but with a fart?

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group — contemplate that name for a moment — is calling for a re-freezing of the Arctic to prevent this eruption. I think we can safely say that that’s a non-starter now, and if it ever is a starter it will be too late. The feedback mechanisms we have set in motion are no longer a matter of turning things on and off, even if we could. We’re hit 400 ppm of CO2 (not so long ago, put where they wanted to draw the line in their name). Among other effects, the AMEG gets to the rub of what is often confusing about radical climate disruption when they note that the methane bomb’s effects will be “disruption of jet stream behaviour, with abrupt climate change leading to crop failures, rising food prices and conflict in the Northern Hemisphere.” Because it’s not the planet that’s ending, not for a long time yet, barring a meteor collision. What’s going to end is the world as we know it, the world as the last 10,000 years of humans have known it. Yes, rising waters, fiercer storms, greater flooding, harsher droughts, — and yes, more snow when, as happened off New England this winter, very warm ocean water (unusually warm ocean water, soon to be the norm, not so unusual), pumping more moisture into the atmosphere, meets cold air from the north — but the really terrifying and terrible changes will be the resulting political ones, the human ones. Considering that the world is already a chaos of conflicts, beset by refugees, terrorism, overweening authoritarianisms, and the rapid movement of disease, lighting a massive fire under current conditions must obviously make things infinitely worse. (Remember, we’ve seen weather-related economic migration already within the US itself; they were called “Okies” by the Californians who wanted to keep them out; I called one of them my mother.)

Rebecca Solnit, who is one of the essential writers of our time, has a short essay in the February Harper’s that is mandatory reading. (It is, however, subscriber only, but this is a necessary publication amidst so much corporate shit, so don’t tell me you aren’t subscribing already.) She writes of the war being waged against Earth; she dates it as a kind of continuation of the Second World War (I might argue it’s older, but certainly it became fiendishly modernized in the last half century with plastics, pesticides and nuclear power). A servant of the oil and gas industry, the carbon lobby suicide squad that for all intents and purposes currently owns a significant part of our country, is quoted here on the “endless war” against the Earth and all its Earthlings. But it’s not endless; it’s going to end, sooner or later. That time should be ours to decree. Later will be very much worse for today’s children and their children.

King Carbon is as wrapped up in our economy and lives, our entire civilization, as slavery once was. Capitalism, with its bottomless maw for finite resources, can’t be permanent, which is why it desperately wants to devour other worlds. What this means, though, is that, like slavery, these things can be ended. Thomas Jefferson, for all his blindness, rightly called the Missouri crisis the “fire bell in the night” that “awakened me and filled me with terror” for the firestorm to come. Jefferson heard it late in the game; it had been ringing already for two centuries before the fire came, always louder and louder. We have rather less time now to heed the screaming klaxon.

People’s Climate March

The march is tomorrow, Sunday, starting at Columbus Circle at 11:30.

I’m posting this today because tonight at midnight I will be going on an fossil fuel fast, attempting to use the least amount of power as possible, including everything connected to the internet. Trying to shrink my small urban footprint even smaller; this is purely symbolic, but I feel marching isn’t enough. I figure I’ll leave the fridge plugged in, but not open it. Otherwise, everything’s being turned off; I’m even avoiding public transit.

So, I’ll be in the march tomorrow, but… really, what political efficacy will a march to nowhere have? It’s police-approved and corralled, not allowed to go anywhere near the UN, whose meeting later in the week is the ostensible reason for the march. The energy corporations have nothing to fear here. The “Flood Wall Street” after-party, so to speak, on Monday, is a much more direct challenge.

March organizers explain the march here.
For a more critical take on why a politics-free march may probably achieve little, read this.


stungIs it too early for a couple of quick ones? Non-Russian vodka, with Bloody Mary camouflage, if you please. This book is unrelievedly depressing and despairing. It makes you want to jump in the ocean and drown… but you’ll probably be stung dead by jellies before that happens. Should your grandchildren ever get ahold of this book, and see how you were warned, they will pummel you with it. And who will blame them? jelly-1Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-ann Gershwin details all that is ailing Planet Ocean. (“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean,” said Arthur C. Clarke.) And what isn’t? Overfishing, pollution, acidification, warming, eutrophication, and above all these massive jellyfish blooms clogging nuclear power (oh, wonderful!) and desalination plant intakes, fish farms, beaches, bays, bights…. As Gershwin shows, these processes are not unrelated. Jellyfish — or since they are not remotely fish, just jellies — thrive on disruption. They have been practicing survival for half a billion years — they may be the oldest multi-organed animals — and in barely a blink of an eye, time-wise, we have made it easier for them, warming the water, killing their predators, removing their competition, poisoning and sucking the other life out of the water. They do what they do — in an amazing way, too, reproducing both clonally and sexually — but of course, their boom will inevitably lead to a bust, too. They can also eat each other.New York AquariumAn analogy Gershwin borrows from some other scientists: we aren’t just extracting the capital from the bank of the sea, we are burning down the bank, destroying those breeding grounds of future generations of sea life in the coral reefs (tropical, and the little known cold-water reefs), mangrove swamps, saltwater marshes, etc. Like weeds, the jellies come upon our ruins and feast, growing wildly. For every pound of seafood, ten or more times that weight is wasted, crushed, killed, rotted; this “bycatch” includes mammals and seabirds. Thousands of miles of “ghost nets,” and barbed long lines continue to float through the sea, lost from ships, but continuing to trap and kill. Recall all those false alarms in the Pacific and Indian Ocean over that missing plane; oil slicks and garbage far, far from humans (and that’s just what we can see — many of the most deadly things are invisible). And all that CO2 we’re pumping out, a good portion of it is absorbed into the oceans, radically changing them. Starry-eyed amoralists dream of terraforming other planets; we are recreating the primal seas of algae and jellies right here. The grim news goes on and on, cascading. Thalassa, Thalassa!
jellyApropos graffiti on panel truck.

I used the word “warned” above. But it seems much to late for that. Gershwin’s epigraph is from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns.”

I’m so glad I haven’t reproduced. I could not bare to look them in the eye when they turn back from staring at ghastly seas of slime.

The Earth Abides

sunsetAt the end of Emile Zola’s 1890 novel, La Bête Humaine, a train full of soldiers hurls along the rails into Paris. No one is in the engine, for, after much madness and jealousy, the engineer and the fireman have killed each other. The doomed train is Zola’s vision of technology out of control. The human beast has unleashed the mechanical beast. We might think it quaint, now, but the train engines of the day were a triumph of industrial capitalism, shrinking distance and time, knitting entire continents together. And they were coal-powered, burning through the remains of ancient life, releasing carbon into the air. Zola draws the curtain before the terrible wreck, the wreck, as he saw it, of the Franco-Prussian War, but surely that was only an opening act for the wreck of the 20th century.

This image has not left my head in the 20-plus years since reading the book. It’s what leaps forcefully to the fore when I read something like this, which details the worst case scenario for catastrophic global climate change. The worst-case scenario is … merely a matter of basic physics and chemistry. You know, when vanishing polar ice lessens albedo because dark water absorbs much more heat than white ice, and melting permafrost and methane hydrates bloom, potentially releasing awe-inspiring amounts, in the gigatons, of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, making our industrial inputs look like the work of amateurs. (By awe-inspiring, I mean the old definition, which was full of terror.) This is a bullet Train à Grande Vitesse.

Now, I might, if I’m very, very, lucky, have several more decades of life. What will I witness? My early years were un-American, and perhaps as a consequence I have a tragic sense of history, and thus no “faith” in the future, either of the Whiggish-liberal “it gets better” or the fundamentalist “it gets better when we die” types. I suspect some awfully bad things to come. I take the long view, backwards, that is, where there are precedents in the geological history.

We humans show a remarkable capacity to be unfazed, largely, by distant disaster. Even proximate ones soon fade from memory, although, unfortunately, the hysteria-driven responses to such crises can sometimes stain us long afterwards. But future disasters are the most incomprehensible of all. Others will suffer much more than those of us reading this: the poor, marginalized, all those millions living next to rising seas and greater storms.

There is the high probability of catastrophe. Such things have happened before, feedbacks and individual effects amplifying others (warming, ocean acidification, dead zones, etc. etc.) although they are unprecedented in the short span of human history. How does one react?

Yet “planetary emergency” is incorrect; it’s a human emergency. And a moral one, for it is we who are responsible for mass extinctions of other lifeforms. But the Earth will abide. This is one tough old, gas-wreathed rock. It has seen ’em come and go. The end of our star, and hence our planet, is well-beyond human existence. It isn’t Earth we should be worried about.

No answers here. Barely coherent questions.

But still, on these tortured notes, I may — indeed, must — rise a paw and say “Happy New Year.”


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