Posts Tagged 'Climate'


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.”

It’s the heat, stupid

back40People, politely called “climate change deniers,” who reject the basic rules of physics and chemistry parade their stupidity with a militance. In their willful ignorance, they like to parrot the line that the planet can’t be warming because we still have winter — even though winters are measurably warmer than they were just half a century ago.

A warmer planet means warmer oceans, and warmer oceans mean more moisture in the warmer, more moisture-friendly atmosphere, which means more rain. In winter, this moisture can mean snow if the air temperature is low enough. The Atlantic is a substantial 5 degrees warmer than usual. When all that moisture meets frigid air rushing from the Arctic, as it did in this storm, it leads to… snow. back40(Click on images to get full panorama effect. Second Dr. Seuss-esque image made by moving camera off horizontal during pan.)

Feedback is Hell

“The undiscovered polar regions are the home of men.” Henry David Thoreau, December 16, 1850.

One day in the not-so-distant future, the imaginative hold of the Polar regions will be largely history, melted away into dreams. Zones of purity and terror, the once mysterious Poles obsessed peoples for centuries. Emily Dickinson, for one. She called the back hall in the Homestead “the Northwest Passage,” and was fascinated by the search for the Erebus and Terror, the fatefully-named ships of the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins and ends in the Arctic, as the creature escapes to the northern ice, promising to immolate himself… but I wonder if he had second thoughts? Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym is lost somewhere towards the South Pole… thought by the addled Poester to be the portal into a Hollow Earth. And, more prosaically, I just finished reading the young Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary of an Arctic whaling expedition, grim, gory work — they only managed to kill a few whales, but butchered thousands of seals — in the cold, from which I clipped this image:"Sampson and the Hunchback whale"
Feedback I:
The north is melting. The ice you know about. But tundra and its permafrost is a huge sink of greenhouses gases that, as it thaws, comes alive at the microbial level. This starts the release of carbon dioxide — there’s more than twice the amount in permafrost than currently in the atmosphere — into the planetary greenhouse. And as old organic matter thaws out enough to rot, methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, starts flowing out as well.

As the tundra warms in summer, dwarf birch and willow grow taller, replacing the hardy mosses which once toughed-out the old, harsher winters. During the winter, the now taller trees anchor snow drifts, which insulate the soil below, allowing the microbes to continue their heedless work. These critters can remain active even in freezing temperatures, but the warmer it is for them the better.

Feedback II:
As the ice melts, the race is on to exploit the fossil fuel and mineral resources of the Arctic, as well as to send more carbon-based fuels through both the fabled Northwest Passage and the eastern route (a supertanker full of LNG is making the first trip this way at this moment) to Asia. This all adds up to more fuel on the fire. The gangster regime of Russia, the Chinese dictatorship, the corporate oligarchy of the U.S.; none of these should be expected to do good here as they race in a frenzy towards the end, deranged creatures clawing each other in madness.

Where have all the Megafauna gone?

Long time passing. Sharon Levy’s Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About The Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals is hard to put down. It’s sort of a Pleistocene CSI: 13,000 years later, scientists are trying to put together the pieces of what happened to the large animals of North America. These include giant short-faced bear, dire wolf, mastodon, saber toothed cat, mammoth, giant ground sloth, tapir, giant beaver, lion, camel, stag moose, horse, and more. It was once thought that climate change did them in. Then it was argued that human hunting, overkil, did the deed, for the animals disappeared in rather a short time just after the first humans arrived in the Americas. Now the best bet on this kind of thinking may be a synthesis of both climate change/habitat shift and expanding human population. The animals had, after all, survived many interglacial warming periods between ice ages before. What they hadn’t meet before were humans, the technologically-armed predator (cf. Clovis points). Weakened by environmental stresses caused by a warming planet, the animals, usually (like the elephant today) slow to mature and slow to breed, became vulnerable at the species level to expanding humans. And the animals that predated the big herbivores were deprived to food, and around it went, the cycle of extinction.

The story is not unique to the New World. About 45,000 years ago, the giant mammals of Australia began to disappear. This was just after humans reached there. The story is repeated on big islands the world over. And on the largest of the landmasses, Eurasia. Finally, humans got to New Zealand, only about 750 years ago, and within a short period all nine species of flightless moas, some of which towered over people, were gone. When Europeans arrived there, they found nothing but the bones of thousands of these birds.

African megafauna survived best, possible because they had evolved with humans for a longer period of time. Now, of course, with the pressures of human population pressing them on all sides, they are severely threatened. They are the last of the megafauna.

What is particularly interesting about Levy’s book is the way she elucidates the complexities of competing theories and faint evidence, and the interwoven story about how these giant mammals changed their habitats, and how, with them absent, these habitats have suffered since. Transporting seed, depositing fertilizer, breaking up the ground with their hooves, browsing grasses or shrubs (depending on species), they created habitat which has since disappeared or been severely reduced. The giant beavers, like their little, surviving, cousins, were engineers of wetlands on a continental scale. (Levy doesn’t mention this, but the near extinction of the North American beaver by the European fur trade from the 17th century onwards radically changed the face, and nature, of the continent.)

Large predators also turn out to be key regulators of habitat, as the reintroduction of wolves has shown in the American West. They prey on the herbivores who would otherwise deforest the area. Dingoes in Australia — descended from Indian wolves — are another good example; they regulate the mesopredators, those mid-level predators (in Australia’s case, introduced foxes and feral cats) that wreck havoc without something policing them. Raccoons and feral cats are the equivalent North America plague.

Both wolves and dingoes are of course controversial cases; the ruralists in both the U.S. and Australia are very much against them. The struggles to reintroduce wolves in the U.S. and to keep Aussies from slaughtering dingoes are real world brakes to “Pleistocene rewilding.” This means introducing similar animals to the extinct species — elephants, camels, etc. — in places that haven’t seen anything like them in 13,000 years, so they can help to bring back some semblance of environmental order to the chaos. (Invasive introductions have a rather poor track record, though.) Of course, with big herbivores, you need big predators, and it seems unlikely that many people are going to want to see lions reintroduced to Wyoming any time soon. The introduction of horses back to the New World by Spaniards is a case study, inadvertent as it is, of such rewilding.

You should definitely read this book for more details, for in the study of the past there may be keys to the future, and saving the world’s last remaining megafauna.

Skeleton of Columbian mammoth in the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles, CA. Image by WolfmanSF, Wikimedia Commons.

Stormy thoughts

“Climate change is almost always abrupt, shifting rapidly within decades, even years,” writes Brian Fagin in his book on about the Little Ice Age. That period, which interrupted the interglacial warming phase that has seen the rise of human beings to overwhelm the planet, lasted roughly from 1300-1850, and saw massive demographic crisis throughout the world; the coldest years were near the end of this period. Folk memory in America highlights the grim winter at Valley Forge (1777-78); Napoleon foolishly invaded Russia (1812) and was decimated by the cold; icebergs got as far south as the coast of Portugal. Then came Tambora, which erupted in 1815, and caused “eighteen hundred and froze to death,” the miserable, murderous summer of 1816, when Mary Shelley, one of the lucky ones, wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and gave us a philosophical creature we still can’t seem to get our heads around, since we continue to misname the creation. And then, the climate got back on track to the general trend of warming between glacial advances, something that has gone on for hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of years. But, around this time, starting in Britain, we started to burn the past — fossil fuels — on a massive scale, and began releasing all that pent-up carbon into the atmosphere, driving the warming faster.

But let’s jump back a bit. Two thousand years ago, a mild period we now call the Medieval Optimum began. The empires of Rome and China had their golden weather ages. Just before its end in the Little Ice Age, Iceland and Greenland were discovered and settled by Vikings. But the transitional periods between climate shifts are characterized by radical weather. These Viking outposts were soon lost as the north Atlantic became impassible with ice and storms. Icelanders barely managed to hold on, and were cut off from the motherland of Europe for decades.

Rome, China, Maya, the West African states, Islam’s rapid rise — you name it, not a one of these has taken place in bad weather epochs. The Sahara turned from lush tropical zone to desert in a matter of decades some 5000 years ago because of a cold spell in the north.

And further back still, some 8000 years ago: a continental slab of ice slid into the Atlantic and forced water surging into the Mediterranean, and pouring into what is now the Black Sea, possibly the source of the myth of the biblical flood. 12,000 years ago, just as the glaciers were mostly well receded from their Wisconsinan maximum (as far south as St. Louis in the Midwest, and the very thing that created the long island Brooklyn sits on now), the Younger Dryas cold spell, a millennium long, began when another enormous influx of ice into the Atlantic.

Farther back still, some 9 million years ago, the early primates known as Dryopithecus fled the cold of Europe into Africa, laying the stages for our ancestors to become Homo sapiens.

‘Tis a fragile world, and all we have known is a lucky interim between extremes.

The Volcano

Remember my “bad acid trip” of nearly a year ago? I dropped an egg in some vinegar to show how acid breaks down calcium carbonate. Something like this is happening right now as some of the excess carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere gets absorbed by the ocean and acidifies the water. This spells doom for the many forms of ocean life that use calcium carbonate in their skeletons, shells, and bony architecture, as in the corals. A recent article detailing two papers on the Permian-Triassic Extinction brought my little experiment quickly to mind. 252 million years ago, during the “Great Dying,” something like 95% of marine species went extinct, along with a similar percentage of land species. Included in the extinguished ocean life were all species of the trilobites. I happen to have the remains of one that was transmuted into ghostly rock:The studies argue that “the animals died from a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water, an excess of carbon dioxide, a reduced ability to make shells from calcium carbonate, altered ocean acidity and higher water temperatures. They also concluded that all these stresses happened rapidly [in geological terms, 200,000 years or much less] and that each one amplified the effects of the others.” The reason postulated is a monstrous infusion of carbon into the atmosphere, from the biggest volcanic event in the last half billion years.

Very similar conditions pertain today: “warming, rapid acidification and low-oxygen dead zones.” Only today, we are the earth-shaking volcano. And we are producing more carbon dioxide than then, which suggests the work of the sixth Great Extinction will be done in much, much faster time.

The mind simply boggles. Have we humans, beginning quite accidently, become, essentially, the equivalent of a planet-transforming volcanic cataclysm, or the shattering event that destroyed the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction? Both the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions scrambled the evolutionary course of the planet, resulting in the development of very different flora and fauna afterwards.

After the Anthropocene Extinction… who or what will be around to document its ruins, find its fossils on the beach, theorize about its causes? Some fossilized coral, we think, I found on a Nantucket beach:We can’t stuff the carbon genie back down into the chimney and we’re unwilling to make the sacrifices to slow down our growing CO2 production (would that even help?) because, let’s face, it, this is a fossil-fuel civilization (and as Timothy Mitchell argues, we live in a Carbon Democracy, or rather more carbon, less democracy). So on we march to vanquishing… how much ocean life? 50% 75% 95%?

All things pass, as the long history of the planet shows us. Human beings have been and will be just a blip in time. Will we also be a planetary disaster? When a volcano blows up or an asteroid smacks into the planet, it’s a random, accidental event. But when we kill off a great proportion of life-forms by our actions, by our very civilization, does it matter that it’s not premeditated? (Or was it? The assault on the planet was something new in human history, beginning in earnest about two centuries ago, ideologically constructed from old religious texts and new capitalist ones, but Arrhenius fingered CO2 from burning coal, then the dominant fossil fuel, as likely to increase the greenhouse effect as far back as 1896 ~ we don’t have a single excuse today.) Admittedly, the majority of our victims are pretty abstract to most of us — even vegetarians have a hard time sympathizing with zooplankton. Still, I can’t help feeling that our moral failure here is spectacular, cosmic.


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