Archive for the ‘Geology’ Category
Just over seven months ago, I posted an item about the near-term probability of a catastrophic eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland. Today, sadly, I think I have discovered that this might not be the worst natural disaster in human history (not to have happened yet).
Scientists believe that, when it happens, the Katla eruption could ultimately be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. However, there are many uncertainties; and a great deal of scope for deaths to be prevented. The same cannot be said for a mega tsunami originating in the Canary Islands.
La Palma is one of a group of Spanish volcanic islands off the coast of North Africa. The volcano of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma erupted in 1949 and 1971. It is not like most other volcanoes; it is more like the Laki fissure on Iceland. Previous eruptions have been associated with earth movements; and it is now estimated that another eruption could send a large part of La Palma sliding into the North Atlantic ocean. In fact, it is estimated that another eruption could cause a landslide containing 500 cubic kilometres to slide into the ocean.
Contrary to popular myth, scientists are not prone to being alarmists. However, a wide variety of scientists are actively studying and modelling the consequences of another eruption of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma.
At the end of this post you will find the YouTube video of the BBC/Discovery Channel production “Could We Survive a Mega Tsunami?” Similar to fears over an approaching ecological catastrophe arising from human activity, this fear over a catastrophe emerging from the Canaries is founded on science: It is not just the idle speculation of a bunch of doomsayers. There is evidence of previous tsunamis in the Canaries caused by previous landslides on the islands. What marks the landslide on La Palma (that has not happened yet) is the size of the area that could be affected (and the volume of material that could be mobilised).
The programme (video below) uses Hollywood style CGI, dramatic reconstruction and footage of previous tsunamis to great effect to tell the story of what is guaranteed to happen if the landslide occurs. This has been established using a combination of physical and computer modelling (you need to watch the video to appreciate the reality of all this).
Within 10 minutes, the mega tsunami – travelling at the speed of sound – would hit Gran Canaria, within 60 minutes Morocco, within 90 minutes Portugal, within 3 hours England; within 6 hours the Caribbean. Most devastating of all, however, by virtue of the geography, within 7 hours the entire length of the Eastern seaboard of the USA would be hit almost simultaneously.
Within minutes, social media would alert the World to the disaster but, it is thought, the USA would not take notice until its network of buoys in the North Atlantic indicated a tsunami was on its way. Worse still, psychologists reckon that even after being warned, 50% of urban Americans would ignore the danger (i.e. optimism bias and denial strike again).
In the city of New York, the authorities have already spent 10 years analysing the consequences of a mega tsunami from the Canaries, which will reach several kilometres inland, and have determined that the death toll will be significant. Along the eastern seaboard of the USA, 40 million people live within 40 km of the current seashore and 30 million of those people live within 10 metres of current sea level. By the time the tsunami makes landfall, it is likely to be at least 25 metres high. However, the main problem is that there will not be one wave, there could be as many as 10 waves; and each one has a very long wavelength – measured in hundreds of metres – so it will be like a river of water flowing inland. And what goes in must come out again; and when the water flows back out to sea again it is loaded with debris… Then you have the interruption to basic services, the breakdown of law and order; and the spread of disease… This will make what happened to Japan very modest by comparison.
One member of the US authorities estimates that there could be over 4 million casualties (I am not sure what he means by this). It seems clear, then, that this tsunami would make the death toll of the Indonesian tsunami (250 thousand) seem modest by comparison. Authorities in New York City reckon they could not cope with more than 600 thousand displaced people.
The collateral damage will also be extensive. The tsunami would knock out every single east coast port, which will trigger food shortages everywhere east of the Mississippi…
But enough from me. Watch the video. It will blow your mind…
Yesterday, I mentioned that I worked as a mine geologist in Australia in the late 1980s. One of the weirdest places I visited, while living and working in the Hammersley Range of Pilbara Region in the NW of Western Australia, was the former asbestos mining town of Wittenoom.
I made the trip up from Newman to Wittenoom before the tarmac Highway through to the coast was completed in the late 1980s.
The town itself was bulldozed in 2007 but, as an historical site, even though the Highway has made it much easier to get to, visiting is probably not a good idea…
In the late 1980s there was still a Youth Hostel in the town and, even though the risks are probably minimal, I remain slightly nervous about the fact that I had a good look around – walking over the spoil heaps (on which plants do not grow) that fill much of the steep-sided valley between the mines and the town. The Western Australian government leaves you in no doubt about who will be responsible if any tourists eventually become ill as a consequence of a visit…
Mining at Wittenoom stopped in 1966, according to the Australian Asbestos Network website, but it was not until 2006 that the government of WA declared the site to be contaminated; and officially closed the town. So what is all the fuss about? Blue asbestos (crocidolite) is probably one of the most dangerous naturally occurring substances that is not radioactive. One microscopic fibre inhaled may be sufficient for you to develop chronic breathing difficulties (mesothelioma) – only one problem it takes decades to develop… So guess what? Decades after miners and their families started developing breathing difficulties and dying, the mining companies (and later the government) denied all responsibility for what was happening. Does this sound at all familiar? It should do, because we humans have a very sad record of discovering things to be hazardous; allowing a lot people to die before those with a lot of money to lose finally admit their responsibility; when governments finally intervene to restrict access to the substance and/or make its use illegal. I am thinking of things like heroin, uranium, x-rays, chlorofluorocarbons, and tobacco.
On the Learning from Dogs blog, yesterday, Paul Handover published an 18-minute video of a presentation by David Roberts (a blogger on the Grist website). It is the most straight-forward explanation of why people need to wake up to the reality of what humans are doing to the planet; and I cannot recommend it highly-enough.
As David points out in his presentation, the International Energy Agency claims that greenhouse gas emissions must peak within 5 to 10 years or:
– stabilising the Earth’s temperature will become impossible;
– 6 Celsius rise by the end of the century will be guaranteed; and
– mitigation and/or adaptation costs increase by 500 billion USD every year.
Even if Carbon Capture and Storage does prove achievable (I remain sceptical), we now seem to be very short of both time and money. However, I am not just a doomsayer: I believe that this problem is solvable but only if we think outside the box, #StopFossilFuelSusidies; and start paying people to install renewable electricity and water-heating systems in their own homes (etc). My only question is this:
How long will it be until fossil fuels are classified as Hazardous?
While you’re waiting to build-up a head of steam of rage over this issue, please listen to this very apt song by 80′s Australian band V.Spy V.Spy, entitled ‘Injustice’:
To mark the occasion of our World leaders converging on Rio de Janeiro this week, the BBC’s Science Editor, David Shukman, has visited the World’s largest iron ore mine, Carajas, in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.
See: Forests and caves of iron: An Amazon dilemma (includes an iPlayer video of the yesterday’s news item).
I was very interested to see this for at least two reasons: (1) I first heard about Carajas while doing ‘A’ Level Geography at school in 1981-82; and (2) I spent over 2 years working at the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine in Western Australia in 1987-89 (the biggest in the World at the time).
I must say that the Vale (pronounced “Var-lay”) mine at Carajas does look incredibly impressive now and, whilst I do not doubt the mining company’s sincerity in wishing to be as green as possible, there is a much bigger issue at stake than site restoration. As Shukman discovered, Vale are working with local ecologists to survey the caves to determine what lives in them; and ensure that populations of species (including bats) can be moved prior to the destruction of their homes, but this too ignores a much bigger issue than enforced migration. The questions not addressed in Shukman’s piece are these: Would we cut down the entire rainforest if it was all underlain by iron ore; and what will we do when can find no more to dig up? The questions are partly rhetorical; but I believe they raise important issues…
Although the lifetime of the mine will be several decades, the fact that Vale have promised(!) to backfill the hole (with all the overburden taken out) and re-plant native trees (already being grown from seedlings) removes the first problem of long-term habitat destruction. But, how do we put a value on the Amazon rainforest; and will the ecosystem services it provides (sustaining a habitable planet) ever be recognised as being greater than the instrumental value of either its trees or what may lie beneath them (Brazil is rich in mineral resources)?
We will have to recycle metals when there are no more left in the Earth to dig up; so why not get used to the idea now – maximise recycling and minimise mining? The answer is of course twofold: People need gainful employment and our Politicians need economic growth. It is no wonder, then, that some environmentalists describe what humanity is doing as “raping and pillaging” the Earth; literally slashing and burning it in some cases… But, if everyone is going to be allowed to aspire to and attain the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by inhabitants of the developed world then, I guess, we may have to accept that the exploitation of the Earth’s resources will only ever accelerate (until they run out at least). And by the time they run out, we must just hope that technology will have come to our rescue; that human ingenuity will have come up with alternatives for all those rare metals in our smartphone circuit boards (etc).
However, let’s get back to the here and now; and to a real problem we need to face: If iron ore mining is going to continue because of an insatiable demand for steel… and if coal must be used to manufacture that steel (must it?)… Is this not just yet another very good reason why coal should not be used in other processes where there are ready-made alternatives? On the subject of sustainable development (you may not have realised it but I am), when will we have enough cars, televisions, or supermarkets? To what should people in poor countries aspire – 2, 3, or 4 cars per household? How about televisions? How many supermarkets does a town of 100,000 people need? (Especially if the shops and their car parks just get bigger and bigger?) Will we ever have enough economic growth; how much would be too much? To many economists today the answer seems to be ‘No’. However, despite the fact that the 1987 Brundtland Report tried to deny it (as in “Growth has no set limits in terms of population or resource use beyond which lies ecological disaster” on page 45), you cannot argue with things like The Law of Conservation of Energy and The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Therefore, perpetual growth (of energy consumption) within a closed system (a finite planet with finite resources) is not sustainable indefinitely. Similarly, the quantitative growth in consumption of economic resources or food production is not sustainable indefinitely either.
Given all of the above, we need to face the harsh reality that sooner or later we must achieve qualitative development without quantitative growth. However, even then we will have a problem: Jeremy Bentham‘s hedonistic goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is unachievable because, unless we acknowledge that there must be limits to desirable growth, one person having more than they need will mean that someone else does not have enough… Must we allow growth to continue until we are all living like subsistence farmers? That will be no less than the ultimate Tragedy of the Commons outcome that Garrett Hardin warned about in 1968.
So then, what can be done to avoid this doomsday scenario? To be honest, I am not sure. Everyone aspires to better themselves; but this just ensures that resource depletion accelerates. If you have some clever answers, I would like to hear them.
However, in the interim, I will return to the specific problem posed earlier (regarding mining of coal and iron to produce steel)… Assuming that the link between burning fossil fuels and climate disruption is not in doubt (mainly because it isn’t), coal mining and/or turning it into steel is not a problem (not yet anyway); but using coal to generate electricity when we do not have to is simply insane. However, this is the real world, remember, not an ideal one. Therefore, coal-fired power stations are going to continue to operate in certain countries for decades to come. However, as I think I have said before, this is yet another reason why the rest of us should close them down as soon as possible.
We should stop talking about substitution; and start putting it into practice.
This is the fourth and final part of my 5000-word essay (researched and written in March 2011) on the water resource problems being encountered within the Yellow River catchment of northern China as a consequence of ongoing climate change. Having looked at the problems being experienced within different parts of the catchment, I now begin to consider whether and how these may be solved. (A situation update is appended after the list of References.)
The problem (of demand exceeding the capacity of the groundwater and surface water system to supply) is far from being solved. In 2009, Benewick and Donald used data supplied by the Chinese Government to conclude that 50% of China’s population lives in the arid northern half of the country but is reliant on 15% of the available water (2009: 60). They also indicated that 3 large-scale water transfer projects were either under construction or consideration; and that the first of these (from the mouth of the Yangtze to the North China Plain) should now be operational (2009: 61).
However, WANG et al have studied the Yellow River in some detail; including interviewing farmers in numerous villages throughout Hebei, Henan and Ningxia provinces (2008: 278). Although they acknowledge that the Chinese Government has considered over abstraction of groundwater as a serious problem since at least 1996 (2008: 277), along with many other analysts, they believe the water shortages in northern China are due to slow governmental policy response and/or implementation and/or enforcement (2008: 293).
Thus, WANG et al concluded that the Chinese Government…“has not created the institutions and infrastructure that will provide the incentives required to make farmers save water. We believe a sustainable environment needs to be built on effective water pricing and water rights policies… Although this is a huge job, we believe it will be more effective and much cheaper than…” the proposed south-to-north transfer projects (2008: 293). N.B. The second of these is proposed to take water 1200km from the Three Gorges Dam to Beijing by 2030; and the third to transfer water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze (Tibet Autonomous Region) to those of the Yellow River (in Qinghai Province) by 2050 (Benewick and Donald 2009: 61).
In 2008, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its Climate Change White Paper, which included the admission that climate change “…arises out of development, and thus should be solved along with development” (CPC 2008).
Therefore, although China is no less wedded to the idea that economic growth is the best means available to eradicate poverty – and may not be much closer to decoupling economic development from environmental degradation – than the rest of us, it is determined to reduce the carbon intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. emissions per unit GDP). In essence, faced with the fact that China must feed 20% of the world’s population using 7% of the world’s agricultural land (Benewick and Donald 2009: 43), whilst watching the latter being reduced by desertification etc., the CPC has realised that climate change is a potential threat to its own survival; and is therefore determined to pursue (as per the CCWP) both mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The Yellow River basin is the ancient birthplace of Chinese civilisation; and home to a significant proportion of the current population. It is the source of a large amount of industrial and agricultural enterprise; and the river is also used as a major source of hydroelectric power generation.
The length of the river and the size of the catchment result in a wide range of climatic and vegetation zones, ranging from the high-altitude glaciated valleys of Qinghai Province to the west, to the North China Plain; with the River passing through the very arid Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (between Yinchuan and Hohot) on its way to the sea. As such, although average rainfall across the catchment is nearly 500mm/yr, actual rainfall ranges from in excess of 750mm/yr in the south; to less than 150mm/yr in the north.
The Yellow River basin includes very significant thicknesses of sedimentary rocks and superficial deposits, which form a complex hydrogeological system capable of storing very large volumes of good quality groundwater (where it falls and can be recharged without being evaporated).
With regard to mineral resources, the Yellow River basin contains more than 25% of China’s oil and more than 50% of its coal reserves and, consequently, it is the focus of a considerable amount of industrial activity. As such, the demand for water is very high and, despite the size of the Yellow River, not all of this can be met from surface water (in part due to climatic variations along its length). Therefore, very large volumes of groundwater are also abstracted to meet the demands of both urbanised industrial and domestic water supply. Therefore, in addition to a general excess of demand over supply, pollution of both surface water and groundwater are also serious problems.
Although the Chinese Government has been aware of the problems for many years, existing policy and legislation appear to have had little positive effect. Furthermore, although very considerable sums of money have been spent on large scale water transfer projects, there remains a significant possibility that the real solution lies in better demand management, including market-based solutions to maximise the efficiency of all water use.
In conjunction with continuing improvements in the effectiveness/enforcement of legislation designed to encourage polluter responsibility and/or pollution prevention, it is therefore to be hoped that, in the face of continuing concern over the potential impacts of ongoing climate change, all of this may yet prevent potentially-catastrophic unsustainable use of available water resources.
Benewick, R. and Donald, S. (2009), The State of China Atlas. Berkeley CA: UCP Press.
CPC (2008), White Paper: China’s Policies and Actions on Climate Change. Available at http://www.china.org.cn/government/news/2008-10/29/content_16681689_5.htm [accessed 11/05/2011].
HAN, Zhantao et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater balance and circulation in key areas of the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.59-86.
IPCC (2007), AR4 Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
MATSUOKA, Norikazu et al., (2009), ‘Permafrost and hydrology in the source area of the Yellow River’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.39-57.
MENGXIONG, Chen (2000), ‘Distribution and exploitation of groundwater resources in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.28-37.
MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (2000), ‘Groundwater resources and hydro-environmental problems in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (Eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.38-44.
Mori, Koji et al., (2009), ‘Large-scale and high-performance groundwater flow modelling and simulation for water resource management in the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.131-46.
Muraoka, Hirofumi et al., (2009), ‘Geological model of the Yellow River basin for the long-term groundwater simulation’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.117-30.
Parker, P. (2010), World History. London: Dorling Kindersley.
Tamanyu, Shiro et al., (2009), ‘Geological interpretation of groundwater level lowering in the North China Plain’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.105-15.
Uchida, Youhei et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater quality and stable isotope compositions in the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.87-104.
WANG, Jinxia, et al., (2008), ‘Understanding the water crisis in northern China’, in SONG, L. and Woo, China’s Dilemma: Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change. Canberra: ANU Press, pp.276-96.
WEN, Dongguang et al., (2009), ‘Outline of the Yellow River basin of China’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.9-18.
WWF (2007), ‘Yellow River (Huang He)’ [online], WWF. Available at: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/about_freshwater/rivers/yellow_river/ [accessed 04/04/2011].
YRCC (2007a), ‘About YR’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: http://www.yrcc.gov.cn/eng/about_yr/about.htm [accessed 04/04/2011].
YRCC (2007b), ‘Strategy for Flood Control of the Yellow River’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: http://www.yrcc.gov.cn/eng/about_yr/jj_09471025026.html [accessed 06/04/2011].
YRCC (2007c), ‘The History and Main Achievements of Soil and Water Conservation’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: http://www.yrcc.gov.cn/eng/about_yr/jj_15462525082.html [accessed 08/04/2011].
YRCC (2007d), ‘Development and Utilization of Water Resources’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: http://www.yrcc.gov.cn/eng/about_yr/jj_13362425174.html [accessed 08/04/2011].
ZHANG, Eryong et al., (2009), ‘Regional geology and hydrogeology of the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.19-32.
In May 2011, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its 12th Five Year Plan, which re-affirms the principle (first alluded to in the 2008 White Paper) that climate change “arises out of development, and should thus be solved along with development”. Therefore, after decades of insisting that economic development must not be impeded by environmental concerns, the CPC has now officially conceded that climate change is a real problem; that humans are its cause; and that doing nothing is not an option. It must be hoped that the rest of the World will soon do the same; especially since China will probably be one of the last places on Earth to actually stop burning fossil fuels. What we most certainly cannot afford to do is to continue pointing the finger at China and saying “Well if they can burn them then so will I”. Such a childish response does not help anyone; and will guarantee unintended ecocide becomes a reality. In short, it may well be humanity’s epitaph.
This is the third of four posts regarding the Yellow River basin in northern China. Having described the geography and geology (Part 1) and the hydrogeology (Part 2), it is now time to look at the extent to which (a) the system is over-subscribed and (b) climate change is set to make the situation worse.
Overall Resource Assessment
There are nine major multi-purpose projects and hydropower stations constructed on the main stream of the Yellow River; and four under construction. The total capacity of the 13 reservoirs is (or will be) in excess of 56 billion m3; with in excess of 35 billion m3 of effective storage. The total installed capacity is (or will be) just over 9 million KW, with an annual average power generation capacity in excess of 34 billion kWh. This represents approximately 30% of the total capacity of the main stream for both installation and power generation and, as the YRCC point out, in addition to exploiting a latent natural resource this “…also brings tremendous comprehensive benefits in terms of flood control… siltation reduction, irrigation, water supply etc, which plays an important role in promoting national economic development and harnessing the Yellow River” (YRCC 2007d).
In 2000, a collection of research papers by Mengxiong Chen (former chief hydrogeologist within the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources) and Zuhuang Cai (a fellow-member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) were published in Beijing in English. Within this volume, MENGXIONG (2000) presents a wealth of statistics for the entire country but, (unfortunately in the present context), not in a way that enables data for the Yellow River Basin as a whole to be extracted. However, he does highlight the fact that many “of the important cities in China… are dependent chiefly on groundwater”; a category in which he includes Xi’an and Baotou. Indeed, after noting that the demand for water in some cities including Xi’an is in excess of 1 million cubic metres per day, he also notes that “the growth of urban population and the rapid development in industry and agriculture, water demand has also increased by 40 times the output in the early 1950s” (MENGXIONG 2000: 35).
Growth in the industrial demand for water appears to be impacting on agriculture because, citing as an example the city of Cangzhou (on the North China Plain but outside the Yellow River Basin), Mengxiong and Zuhuang record that water levels in city wells have dropped 60 metres over recent decades; creating a large cone of depression in the area an leading to the failure of 38% of irrigation wells in the surrounding area (MENGXIONG and ZUHUANG 2000: 43). Therefore, although there is little or no published data for cities within the Yellow River Basin, given that Xi’an and Baotou have been highlighted, it would seem likely that similar problems may exist – or soon develop – in those areas and/or in proximity to other major centres of industrial development such as Lanzhou, Hohot, and Taiyuan.
According to the YRCC, up to the end of 1996, a total investment of 42 billion Yuan had been made by the State government in over 10,000 reservoirs of various sizes; over 33,000 pumping stations; and over 380,000 wells. Numerous irrigation projects have reduced the adverse impact of lower-than-average rainfall (YRCC 2007d).
However, this success has been achieved without regard to the sustainability or otherwise of such increased anthropogenic use of water (see the discussion of Groundwater Modelling results below).
In 1975, the Water Resources Protection Bureau of the Yellow River Basin was set up, which led to the beginnings of water resource protection in the form of water quality monitoring, environmental management, and scientific research. However, according to the YRCC, the water quality monitoring work in the Yellow River Basin actually started in 1972, under the auspices of the Department of Public Health; with the YRCC only formally taking over responsibility for the monitoring on the Yellow River in 1978. However, responsibility for water quality monitoring work on tributaries was transferred to the water conservancy and environment protection bureaux within provincial government (YRCC 2007d).
The major industrial centres within the Yellow River basin are Lanzhou, Yinchuan, Baotou, and Sanmenxia on the main river; and Xining, Taiyuan, Xi’an, Luoyang, and Tai’an on the tributaries (see WEN et al Figure 4 – below). Although population growth has been minimal, continuing urbanisation and the improved living standards have resulted in rapid increases in industrial development and agricultural production. Therefore, despite improved regulation over recent decades, large volumes of untreated industrial effluent continue to be discharged into the Yellow River and its tributaries, having a continued adverse effect on surface water quality (YRCC 2007d).
WEN et al Figure 4 Major cities in Yellow River basin
By the end of 1994, a total of 340 water quality monitoring stations (monitoring at least 40 parameters) and 30 laboratories had been established within the entire catchment. However, it would appear that this monitoring has only served to record a significant increase in effluent being discharged to surface water over time. The YRCC currently acknowledge the existence of at least 300 major pollutant sources on the Yellow River alone and, according to analysis of the 1997 water quality monitoring data, only 17% of the total river length has water of a quality that meets minimum drinking water standards; such that it is restricting economic development of the Yellow River Basin (YRCC 2007d).
Referring to his previous work and that of other fellow-contributors, Mengxiong also states that in more than 40 cities (across China as a whole) groundwater is polluted to varying degrees by harmful substances such as arsenic, chromium, cyanide, fertilisers, insecticides, mercury and phenols; and that such pollution is found in both shallow and deeper aquifers (MENGXIONG 2000: 36).
Having constructed their three-dimensional numerical groundwater flow model, Mori et al first simulated groundwater flow with no human intervention (no abstraction from either river or groundwater) and compared this to data for the upper and lower reaches of the catchment in the 1960s (for which sufficient reliable data are available) and obtained a good correlation with observational data (Mori et al. 2009: 136-40).
Much of the subsequent modelling work undertaken has focussed on the North China Plain, not strictly part of the Yellow River Catchment, because this is where population density and/or groundwater abstraction is greatest. This predicted that, if current abstraction is continued from the deep aquifer, a further drop of 1m per year should be expected. Whereas, if all abstraction were to cease, piezometric levels would recover in about 5 years (Mori et al. 2009: 140-43).
No modelling of future increased abstraction was undertaken. No reason for this is given and, although this may reflect unstated government policy regarding population and/or development control, it is hard to see how a moratorium on all abstraction could last 20 years.
However, as an indicative tool for the analysis of a problem, the results speak for themselves: Current rates of abstraction are unsustainable in the long-term.
Because of frequent droughts affecting flows in the Yellow River basin, government action has been taken at both National and Provincial level to put in place a variety of demand management measures, such as constructing water conservancy projects; improving irrigation efficiency; and soil conservation schemes (as discussed above).
As part of its 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) – indeed part of a more widespread acceptance of market economics – the Chinese Government has allowed the price charged for water used to be increased in order to moderate demand (YRCC 2007d).
Tomorrow, in the final part of this presentation of my essay on the subject of the water resources of the Yellow River, I will discuss potential solutions to the problems climate change is causing; and discuss the conclusions that can be drawn from all of the information presented. Furthermore, in addition to providing details of all the references consulted in the process, I will also offer an update on the situation since I wrote this essay in March 2011 (e.g. the 12th Five Year Plan published in November 2011).
This is the second of four posts presenting my research into the ways in which climate change is impacting the environment within the Yellow River basin. Having described the geography and geology in Part 1 (yesterday), this second part looks in detail at the hydrogeology of the three distinct geographic zones within the surface water catchment.
The Tibetan Plateau
Based on observational data and extensive modelling, the IPCC (AR4 2007) has concluded that temperature changes induced by anthropogenic global warming (AGW) have already been – and will continue to be – most pronounced at higher latitudes.
Nevertheless, studies at lower latitudes in China have found evidence of AGW-induced temperature changes at high altitude; where conditions are similar to those nearer sea level at higher latitudes. However, Tibetan mountain permafrost is not as thick as that at high latitudes; and its distribution is highly dependent on slope aspect. Furthermore, irrespective of location, the presence of permafrost – unlike glaciation – is not always readily apparent because it is overlain by a seasonally thawed layer (the active layer) usually less than 3 metres thick (MATSUOKA et al. 2009: 39-40).
A variety of data collected at the Geological Environmental Monitoring Station of Qinghai Province in 2002 suggests groundwater levels are falling; these include the downward migration of spring lines and discharges within alluvial fans; the reduction in valley-bottom areas covered by moorland; the disappearance of thermal springs; and the drop of groundwater levels in densely-populated areas (cited in HAN et al. 2009: 59).
According to Mori et al., who have undertaken a detailed three-dimensional modelling of the entire basin, groundwater resources are limited in the Tibetan Plateau region because there are few sedimentary basin structures to contain them and, therefore, surface water is the main source of water for agricultural and domestic use (Mori et al. 2009: 131).
Major ion studies of the hydrochemistry of groundwater throughout the Yellow River basin have established that bicarbonate type groundwater dominates beneath the Tibetan Plateau; whereas isotope studies (of hydrogen and oxygen) indicate that, in general, most groundwater has been subject to minimal surface evaporation prior to sub-surface percolation (HAN et al. 2009: 66-7). Exceptions to this general rule are highlighted in subsequent sections of this essay. Groundwater in the Yellow River source area (i.e. the Tibetan Plateau) is calcium-bicarbonate type, except for sodium-sulphate type thermal spring water at the provincial capital of Xining (Uchida et al. 2009: 89).
The degradation and/or disintegration of permafrost leads to the deeper percolation of subsurface water. Furthermore, the fact that lake shrinkage has been observed implies that the subsequent reduction in interflow to lakes is greater than any increase in surface runoff from melting glaciers. Based on the results of a two-year intensively instrumented study, it has been concluded that, at current rates of change, the shallow Tibetan mountain permafrost (i.e. where it is currently less than 15m thick now) could thaw completely within 50 years (MATSUOKA et al. 2009: 40-2).
At high altitude, therefore, groundwater circulation is affected by the presence and/or seasonal thawing of permafrost. As such, two separate groundwater systems have been identified; unconfined groundwater in unconsolidated strata; and deeper groundwater in well-fractured bedrock (HAN et al. 2009: 75).
Water balance calculations undertaken by the Geological Survey of Qinghai Province, from 1956-67 and from 1977-99, show that there is only a positive change in water storage in years of high rainfall and low evaporation. Notwithstanding the absence of data for 1968-76, there appears to be a long–term drying trend; with only 4 out of 23 years since 1977 recording a surplus. Furthermore, droughts lasting 2 or 3 years were sufficient to cause no-flow events in 1961, 1979, and 1997 (HAN et al. 2009: 80-1).
The Loess Plateau
In the area around Yinchuan, Quaternary deposits are typically in excess of 1700 metres thick, with at least 3 separate aquifers (one unconfined and two confined) being widely recognised. Downstream of the most arid climatic area (i.e. in the Hubao Plain below Baotou), the occurrence of unconfined groundwater is more sporadic and only a single confined aquifer has been identified (HAN et al. 2009: 60-1).
In the Guanzhong basin (i.e. the Wei catchment of the northern half of Shaanxi Province, around the city of Xi’an), groundwater is relatively deep. As such, it should be less vulnerable to pollution than elsewhere, which may be just as well given that this is a relatively densely-populated area. In the Taiyuan basin (in the extreme eastern part of the deeply-incised Loess Plateau) the recharge areas are mainly limestone outcrops; with abstraction mainly occurring from Quaternary strata in the valley bottom of the River Fen tributary. Here again, however, there are two distinct groundwater bodies; unconfined and confined (HAN et al. 2009: 62-5).
Sulphate-bicarbonate waters are dominant beneath the Loess Plateau; and isotope studies indicate that evidence of evaporation, mineralisation, and/or salinisation are widespread within the shallow and/or unconfined aquifers of the Yinchuan and Hubao Plains. Furthermore, within deeper aquifers here – and/or with increasing distance from recharge areas elsewhere – hydrochemistry becomes complex; with a wide variety of groundwater types having been identified due to the large range of rock types present (HAN et al. 2009: 67-73).
However, in general, the same two groundwater types predominate here; with a clear division between shallow calcium-bicarbonate groundwater deeper sodium-sulphate groundwater (Uchida et al. 2009: 89).
Two circulation systems have been identified in the area of the Yinchuan Plain; local (shallow) and regional (deep); with typical residence times (i.e. carbon-14 ages) of less than 10 years and greater than 5000 years respectively. In the Taiyuan basin, two groundwater circulation patterns have also been identified. Whereas shallow groundwater flow is determined by topography, deeper groundwater flow and/or discharge his heavily affected by artificial pumping. Where unconfined groundwater is present, surface discharges are generally due to vertical flows induced by evaporation; causing salinisation (HAN et al. 2009: 76-8).
Data from 2000 to 2004 for the Yinchuan Plain area suggest that typically 80% of groundwater recharge is artificially induced by irrigation methods; whereas evaporation and abstraction account for 47% and 22% of groundwater losses respectively. It is believed that current annual abstraction is probably equivalent to at least 33% of the mineable resource beneath the plain. Equivalent data for the Habao Plain suggest overall abstraction is equivalent to 65% or total recharge; but with groundwater mining (i.e. unsustainable abstraction) occurring in densely-populated areas. In the Taiyuan basin, the situation is much worse; with abstraction already greater than recharge and groundwater levels continuously falling. No comparable data are available for the Guanzhong basin (HAN et al. 2009: 81-3).
The North China Plain
The water level in the Yellow River is typically 3 to 8 metres higher than the groundwater level beneath the surrounding alluvial plain, which makes the Yellow River an important source of groundwater recharge in the area; mainly as a result of large-scale irrigation schemes: As such, the zone of influence of the Yellow River extends between 13 and 26 km on the north bank; and up to 20km on the south bank. Within the surrounding alluvial deposits, groundwater is believed to circulate to a depth of 350 metres and can be found in four separate Quaternary units Q4, Q3, Q2, and Q1 (HAN et al. 2009: 65-6).
Within the lower reaches of the Yellow River, shallow bicarbonate type groundwater is mostly of good quality; with low overall mineralisation and a typical hardness of less than 450 mg/l (HAN et al. 2009: 74). In Shandong Province, many shallow groundwater samples have been found to be sodium-bicarbonate type; with some resembling the composition of sea water (Uchida et al. 2009: 89). However, deeper fossil groundwater has been found to be of meteoric origin; between 10,000 and 25,000 years old (Uchida et al. 2009: 101-2, and Tamanyu et al. 2009: 110).
Annual rainfall is typically between 600 and 700 mm, which would appear to have been equivalent to 87% of long-term groundwater recharge in the area (i.e. after evaporation) due to the unconsolidated nature of the fine clay and silty-clay soils. However, recharge direct from the river and via irrigation systems are also important (HAN et al. 2009: 79).
Water balance data for the lower reaches of the Yellow River suggest that infiltration from precipitation represents 60% of recharge, with artificially-induced infiltration and direct leakage from the Yellow River accounting for 26% and 11% respectively; whereas pumping and evaporation account for 37% and 60% of groundwater losses respectively (HAN et al. 2009: 83).
Average groundwater levels in confined Quaternary aquifers beneath the Yellow River (up to 400 m below sea level) have fallen from less than 5m below ground level in 1980, to greater than 30m in 2002. Furthermore, comparative piezometric (contour) maps for these confined aquifers beneath the North China Plain as a whole indicate level reductions of up to 80m, in the same time period, in densely populated areas such as Dezhou and Canzhou.
However, in proximity to the Yellow River, little change has been observed along much of its length (from Xingxiang down to the Provincial Capital of Jinan); whereas increased abstraction would appear to have caused a 60m drop in the area around Binzhou (Tamanyu et al. 2009: 110-1).
Tomorrow, in Part 3 of this essay, I pull all of this information together to look at the relationship between economic development and water pollution; and to look at how groundwater modelling is being used to help assess and predict problems.
Following my scene-setting yesterday, this is the first of four posts presenting my case-study of the challenges posed by ongoing climate change in the Yellow River basin of northern China. All references cited will be listed in Part 4 on Friday.
The problematisation of water resources in the Yellow River basin
The Yellow River is the second-longest river in China (after the Yangtze River) and, at 5,463km, the seventh-longest in the world. In China, the Yellow River (Huang He) is known as the “Mother River of China” because it is considered by many to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
It is called the Yellow River because huge amounts of loess sediment turn the water that colour in its lower reaches. Here, the average annual sediment flow is 1.6 billion tonnes with a sediment content of 35kg/m3. An average of 400 million tonnes of sediment is deposited every year; resulting in an increase in the elevation of the river bed of 10cm/year (Yellow River conservancy Commission[YRCC], 2007a).
The source of the Yellow River (in Qinghai Province) is located in the rain shadow of the Himalayas; within the high altitude Tibet-Qinghai plateau (greater than 4000 m above sea level (ASL). This forms the first of three distinct topographical areas through which the Yellow River flows; the other two being the Loess Plateau (1000-2000 mASL); and the North China Plain.
After this section and the two that follow (regarding human geography and hydrogeology respectively), this threefold geographical division of the Yellow River basin will be used to structure the discussion of groundwater resources; followed by a multi-faceted assessment of the water resources (i.e. surface water and groundwater) of the river basin (i.e. its surface water catchment area) as a whole; and the presentation of conclusions drawn from all of the above.
Within the Tibetan Plateau, the Yellow River valley floor is at 4800-3700 mASL. The Yinchuan and Hubao Plains (the main parts of the Loess Plateau) are at 1200-1100 mASL. The Taiyuan and Guangzhong basins (incised into the Loess Plateau) are 830-735 mASL and 800-320 mASL respectively. The lower reaches of the Yellow River are below 100 mASL; and the river delta below 15mASL.
Because of this large change in elevation over its vast length, the Yellow River basin encompasses a wide range of vegetation types and climatic zones. However, most of the basin – below approximately 3000 mASL – has been classified as having a mid-temperate to warm-temperate climate; but is bounded by the aridity of Inner Mongolia to the north; and the humidity of the Yangtze basin to the south. The Yellow River basin has an average annual precipitation of 479 mm; the distribution of which is very uneven in both space and time. Between 58% and 77% of all rainfall occurs between June and September.
With reference to WEN et al Figure 3, it may be seen that there is a wide range of total precipitation; with over 1000 mm/yr in areas bordering the Yangtze catchment to the south. However, the majority of the Yellow River Basin (south of 35°N in the west and south of 38°N in the east) receives at least 750 mm/yr.
The average annual runoff into the Yellow River from its catchment area is in excess of 57 billion cubic metres per annum. However, because of its seasonal nature – and as a result of over-abstraction (for industrial and agricultural use) – the lowest reaches of the Yellow River dried up completely in 22 out of 29 years between 1972 and 1999. However, since 1999, better centralised regulation of abstraction may have prevented any drying-up of the river between 2000 and (at least) 2006 (WEN et al.2009: 13).
WEN et al Figure 3.
The silt load of the Yellow River is the highest for any river in the world, but is highly seasonal – with 85% being carried between June and September. As with rainfall, the distribution of this sediment load is therefore uneven in space as well as time; with sediment input being particularly high where rainfall is low and evaporation is high.
Today, the human population living within the catchment is in excess of 110 million, and the area of land under cultivation is in excess of 12 million hectares. With regard to its economic importance to China, the Yellow River basin is home to less than 8% of the total Chinese population but it contains greater than 12% of Chinese land under cultivation. Furthermore, the basin is also the source of greater than 25% of China’s oil and greater than 50% its coal. The Yellow River basin contains 8 provincial capitals and 36 other cities above prefecture level. As a consequence of this activity, the total demand for water supply in 2005 was 46.5 billion cubic metres; with usage being 70% agricultural, 14% industrial, and 6% domestic (WEN et al. 2009: 14).
Chinese Ministry of Water Resources data (circa 2005) suggest that there was a 10% reduction in total water supply volume between 1998 and 2005; which may be due to climate change. This is giving cause for concern because any significant increase in demand will not be sustainable (WEN et al. 2009: 15-16).
As with all other countries in the world, China has found it very hard to achieve continuous economic development without causing ongoing environmental degradation. This subject is addressed in detail in the Overall Resource Assessment towards the end of this essay.
ZHANG et al Figure 1 (below) presents a simplified geology map of the Yellow River Basin. The Yellow River basin contains a relatively complete set of geological strata ranging from the Archaean to the Cenozoic in age (i.e. from greater than 2500 to less than 65 million years old). The former are mainly represented coarse-grained metamorphic rock (gneiss) generally exposed at the margins of the river basin (i.e. at altitudes in excess of 2500mASL), whereas the latter form the surface of much of both the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain; with a wide variety of water-bearing lithologies present (including aeolian and alluvial deposits). In between these two, there are generally very significant thicknesses of both Palaeozoic and Mesozoic strata; with a variety of lithologies present, although limestone (both karstic and non-karstic) is the most regionally-important aquifer type (ZHANG et al. 2009: 19-21).
ZHANG et al Figure 1.
As described above, tomorrow I will look in detail at the hydrogeology (i.e. aquifers, groundwater chemistry, circulation, and the balance between supply and demand [such as it may be]) within each of the three main geographic areas making up the surface water catchment.
With my thanks to Paul Handover at Learning from Dogs for alerting me to the fact, I have been saddened – but not surprised – to read about the tone and content of the latest five-yearly Global Environmental Outlook report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). As Richard Black reports on the BBC’s website, this highlights the fact that significant progress has only been achieved on 4 out of 90 previously-agreed environmental goals; and that humanity’s current trajectory is a very long way away from being sustainable.
However, in addition to being unsustainable, it is, as Paul himself put it yesterday, “insane”: We appear to be surrounded by political leaders who are in denial about being in denial of the finite capacity of the Earth to provide us with what we need; and to recycle the waste we produce. When confronted with a reality such as this, rather than put all their energy into building a sustainable solution; they continue to throw good money after bad and prop-up the fossil fuel industry with massive subsidies. If you have not already done so, please register your protest against this via Bill McKibbin’s 350.org online petition here.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) may well eventually prove feasible – and our continuing existence as a species (if not the continuing habitability of Earth as a whole) may come to depend on us making it feasible but – CCS should not be used (as it is being used) as an excuse to make something that is insane seem sensible… Now that we know the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the problem, we should find ways to replace their use wherever we can: We may be a long way from finding alternatives for many things we derive from fossil fuels (such as plastics); but we already have alternative ways to generate heat, light, and electricity. Therefore, where the use of fossil fuels can be readily substituted, this needs to happen as soon as possible. The list of organisations warning that delay will be unimaginably costly – and possibly terminal – grows longer all the time; a list to which we can now add UNEP.
Burning fossil fuels just because they are there is insane
For a long time, I have told anyone that would listen that we should leave unconventional hydrocarbons in the ground because of the extremely high probability that James Hansen is right; if we burn them all the runaway greenhouse effect is a “dead certainty” (i.e. on page 236 of Storms of My Grandchildren). However, thanks to the persistence of my many friends in the blogosphere, I have now also woken up to the reality that unconventional fossil fuel extraction – and hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) in particular – is having significant immediate adverse environmental impacts. Pendantry has described this as humanity “fouling its own nest”; but I think my own description of it as “defecating in our own pig pen” conveys a more appropriate image.
In the USA, fracking has recently been prohibited in the State of Vermont and it must be hoped that other States will now do the same. The Vermont legislature took this action as a result of reports confirming the link between fracking and minor earthquakes; and because of high profile campaigns mounted by those communities already being adversely impacted by fracking. However, the latter should not be confused with NIMBYism. This is because opposition to fracking is a response to real environmental problems afflicting real people as a result of real stupidity on an industrial scale.
When hydrocarbon exploration turns kitchen [taps/faucets] into flame throwers; kills fish in lakes and rivers; and renders water wells unusable, I think it is time for Plan B.
Must we turn the entire planet into a pollution incident in order to extract a non-renewable fuel source? Why don’t we replace our growing dependence upon this vanishing resource with the sustainable development of all forms of renewable energy? If it were not for the vested interests that prioritise the maintenance of the status quo over the interests of life on Earth, our insane behaviour would surely have been changed a long time ago? Sadly, vested interests are everywhere; they are like an invasive species that has infested the very fabric of society – making it very difficult for an alternative paradigm to emerge. Unfortunately, unless it does, I am fairly certain civilisation as we know it will be consigned to history. Civilisations have come and gone before; and the main reason history repeats itself is because no-one is listening. As George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it” …Must History and Santayana be proved right once more?
Business as Usual is not sustainable
Since realising that, in addition to being insane from a sustainability perspective, fracking is having very significant adverse environmental effects; I have been trying to establish what the current position of the Geological Society of London (GSL) is on the issue. Last year, the GSL published an ambivalent statement on the subject; urging a precautionary approach but ignoring the sustainability issue. Much more recently, the GSL has published a position statement on hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic that, although re-iterating the previously-published recognition of the threat posed by anthropogenic climate disruption, relies entirely on the future efficacy of CCS to justify the World’s current laissez-faire strategy of burning all the Earths fossil fuels. Thus, I do not need to wait for the GSL to reply to my requests for an explanation, their position is very clear: CCS is a valid excuse to trash the planet; and the short-term interest of those employed in the hydrocarbon industry trumps those of the global ecosystem that sustains all life on Earth.
As if to add insult to injury, the independent review the UK Government commissioned last year recently concluded, on the basis of submissions from the GSL and many others, that fracking should be allowed to proceed. Furthermore, although it has gone through the motions of public consultation, it seems highly unlikely that government will go against expert advice. Therefore despite relying entirely of the future efficacy of CCS; despite all the mounting evidence of immediate environmental hazards; and despite the complete insanity of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels rather than investing in renewable energy… the UK seems set to just that. Meanwhile, in the USA, the International Energy Agency, which last year issued a very sensible statement warning of the dangers of failing to de-carbonise our energy production systems, has now completely contradicted itself by appearing to be in favour of continuing with fracking…
Truly, I think the world has gone fracking mad
We are in a massive hole but we are going to carry on digging regardless. Forget Digging for Victory; I think we are more likely to be digging our own grave.
To mark the slightly-weird occasion of the Eurovision Song Contest coming from Baku (4 hours ahead of the UK and almost as far east of London as as Titanic wreck off Newfoundland is west), I am going to take a break from environmental politics and return to my first love – geography.
Things were much simpler for me as a child: Warsaw Pact countries weren’t really in Europe; they were part of the very un-European USSR. As for the other point of potential ambiguity in Turkey; it was simple enough to draw the line at the Bosphorus. By the time I reached the age of 25, the Berlin Wall was being pulled down and suddenly we had Western Europe and Eastern Europe again: With the dismantling of the USSR it became very clear to me that Russia had just temporarily suppressed the European-ness of a large number of countries; but I would still have thought of Russia and the Ukraine as Asian countries – and I was still adamant that, although Turkey straddled the border, it was almost entirely part of Asia. However, the key to answering the question, “Is Azerbaijan in Europe?”, is to decide whether you are talking about physical or human geography.
Taking physical geography first, it is important to understand that – although there is an awful lot of science in Geography – it is not like maths or physics. So, there is not always a right and a wrong answer; and the boundary between Europe and Asia is a case in point: The notion that the city founded by the emperor Constantine – and later re-named Istanbul – lay at the boundary of two continents was a convenient historical illusion re-inforced by a physical barrier that was only tamed by a bridge in the late 20th Century. In the current century, a tunnel has been constructed that has incorporated some very clever technology to overcome the other reason that I personally have always drawn the line at the Bosphorus; that being earthquakes. However, although a common misconception, the plate boundary causing the earthquakes does not pass from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus.
I should imagine that most people born after about 1950 have at least a basic understanding of plate tectonics and, given a map of the Earth, could probably draw plate boundaries along the mid-ocean ridges that split both the North and South Atlantic in half; and around the great Southern Ocean to encircle Antarctica. Furthermore, thanks to Michael Palin, quite a lot of people are familiar with the term “Ring of Fire” but, as a plate boundary, I doubt that many could position it correctly on a blank map of the Pacific Ocean. However, like I said, geography is not like maths; everything is not straight-forward: We call Africa a continent; but it includes the East African Rift Valley and is very slowly tearing itself apart. Similarly, we refer to North America as a continent but it has an even more famous plate boundary messing-up our attempt to impose order on chaos – the San Andreas Fault. This is where plate tectonics starts to get complicated: There are actually three types of plate boundaries; constructive (where new crust is being formed), destructive (where it is being destroyed), and conservative (where lateral movement is preserving the crust on both sides of the boundary).
Now things get really messy: The plates that form the Earth’s surface are not all similar sizes; some are huge and some are tiny. Rather than being thought of hexagons on the surface of a (soccer) football; it is better to think of them as pieces of floating sea ice – a random mixture of all shapes and sizes. Hence we have huge plates like the in the Pacific (with destructive boundaries on almost all sides) and small plates like the Caribbean. Thus, if you asked people to draw lines on a map to show where the African plate from its neighbours, some might include the East African Rift Valley, most would probably draw a line up the middle of the Red Sea and hopefully link up with the Jordan Valley… but where then? Similarly, most would draw a line west to east through the Strait of Gibraltar through the Mediterranean (but where exactly – and where does it go after Istanbul?).
So then, continents are not defined by plate boundaries; they are a social construct – an invention of the human mind. Having grasped this, we are now ready to try to answer the question in physical terms. Or rather, we would be but for one slight problem: Europe and Asia are not two separate continents; they are a single Eurasian plate. Thus there is now no obvious boundary between Europe and Asia – in terms of continents or plate tectonics at least. This is why, if they have to, most geographers will draw the line along previous collision boundaries – delineated today by the crumple zones of the Caucasus and Ural mountains. However, if that is the case, part of Kazakhstan may be in Europe – but Azerbaijan is not.
This is clearly a bit of a mess; and I therefore yearn for the simplicity of my youth: I think we should all have stuck with the simplicity of human geography and history that would exclude from Europe – Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. That would leave Ukraine in Europe (because it is north and west of the Caucasus Mountains) and Russia… Oh goodness, I dont’ know! Personally, I don’t consider it to be part of Europe in any normal sense but, if Ukraine is in; how can Russia be out?
So, in terms of human geography, Europe is a social construct and, given that most contestants sing in english but vote for their neighbours, the Eurovision Song Contest is a complete load of bullsh…
Brought forward 24 hours in order to mark Earth Day, this is the third (and possibly the last) part of my mini-series of posts looking at what we can and should learn about the fragility and contingency of our existence (i.e. the fact that we might so easily not be here to ponder the meaning of it), based on Episode 2 of the excellent Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide. Parts 1 and 2 (both on Episode 1) having been published here last Thursday and Friday respectively.
Whereas Episode 1 concluded with the establishment of a wide variety of marine life in the Cambrian Period (the first major geochronological division of the Palaeozoic Era), Episode 2 covers the development of complex life through most of the Palaeozoic Era; culminating in the extinction of 90% of life on Earth at the end of the Permian Period (251 Ma BP); something that those who ridicule climate change “alarmists” as being misanthropic will be pleased to see that I can – and will – admit had absolutely nothing to do with human activity!
As such, Episode 2 covers the following:
Ordovician (488 to 444 Ma BP) – including the emergence of fish like organisms with (at least partial) exoskeletons (i.e ‘placoderm’ fossils found in the Simpson Desert).
Silurian (444 to 416 Ma BP) – including the emergence of the first animals to venture onto land and leave the trails and/or tracks in the sand (as preserved in the rocks of Kalbarri National Park in WA); and the emergence of the first complex, self-supporting, plants on land (as preserved in rocks at Yea in Victoria).
Devonian (416 to 359 Ma BP) – the period in which the variety of fish living in the oceans seems to have increased greatly (if fossil preservation is an accurate indicator).
Carboniferous (359 to 299 Ma BP) – the period in which a similar explosion of plant life appears to have happened on the land.
Permian (299 to 251 Ma BP) – In Australia, this period is synonymous with glaciation on land and business as usual in the oceans.
Anyone who is bemused by all these names and ages, may find Lionel’s Time Spiral useful. Alternatively, those who prefer things to be organised in Table format, may prefer this from the Geological Society of America (N.B. international stratigraphic nomenclature may be a can of worms you don’t really want to open!).
In all of this, possibly the most important event was the emergence of the first pioneer plants, which would probably have covered large amounts of otherwise bare rock. I am trying very hard to avoid attributing conscious decision-making processes to non-sentient life forms but, even if they did not “decide to try and get away from all those nasty sea creatures”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these plants took advantage of the fact that there was nothing else on the land or in the sky that could eat them. It is certainly logical to conclude that, in the absence of predation, plants would have for the first time turned the planet green. It is therefore believed that plant life thus rapidly increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere and gave rise to the presence of ozone; thus blocking out all that nasty ultra-violet light from the Sun.
In order to discuss the development of life within the Devonian Period, Professor Richard Smith visited the Bungle Bungle and Napier Ranges of Western Australia (Purnilulu and Windjana Gorge National Parks respectively), in order to demonstrate how:
1. Pre-existing rocks were by then being recycled (weathered, eroded, and deposited) in huge rivers that meandered backwards and forwards across wide open plains thereby, over time, depositing thick sequences of alternating layers of grit, gravel and pebbles; subsequently cemented together and then eroded again.
2. Coral reefs at least as big as the Great Barrier Reef fringed the Devonian landmass now known as the Kimberley; but eventually emerged from the sea as a result of gentle uplift and/or sea level change (i.e. undeformed and/or intact apart from subsequent weathering and erosion).
Somewhat more mundanely, Professor Smith also noted that placoderm fish fossils can be found in limestones across much of the northern part of WA. However, just when you thought the story was getting rather dull, sex seems to have been invented: The first heterosexual reproduction seems to have been underwater; maybe this explains why so many women like birthing pools… As if that is not weird enough, Smith then introduces us to Devonian-style lungfish (i.e fish with lungs) still living in freshwater creeks in eastern Australia – which he suggests evolved to cope with drought (a problem in this part of the world for almost 400 million years!)…
In the Carboniferous, everything seems to have got very big – plants and animals alike – as a result of the atmosphere being 50% oxygen. It is almost a chicken and egg conundrum – which came first – but I am sure there is an explanation. There was also, possibly, a day of reckoning… In the interim, amphibians became quite common and reptiles invented eggs (i.e. more deliberate, light-hearted, anthropomorphic nonsense). Whereas the Carboniferous Period’s bequest to providential posterity in the UK was coal, its main legacy in Australia is the presence of some very large lizards. But Australia has of course not been left impoverished, far from it, its coal however is of Permian age.
By the Permian Period, the party was well and truly over – for plants at least: Whilst there is evidence for glaciation found in South Australia, the sea life seemed to continue to be very abundant – but with much reduced biodiversity. This is analogous to the current situation in the waters in polar regions today – very large numbers of a modest number of species (i.e. as a result of higher levels of oxygen solubility in colder water – the reason bubbles form in water when you heat it up).
And so we reach the end of the Permian – the period that has given Australia 50% of the fossilised carbon it is currently pumping into the atmosphere approximately 1000 times faster than the carbon was originally removed from the biosphere by the process of sedimentation. Furthermore, as George Santayana would probably be keen for all to note, the mass extinction of 90% of all life on Earth that then occurred was caused by the sudden release of gases including carbon dioxide. Other culprits, it has to be said, were hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. However, whilst the latter two would quite easily have poisoned the atmosphere and cooled the planet, it is the CO2 that was primarily responsible for the ocean acidification that ensured the elimination of most sea life as well.
Today, at the end of the Carbon Age, human beings have caused CO2 to build up in the atmosphere ten times faster than it has done at any other time in the Earth’s history; and we are now witnessing ocean acidification at a similarly unprecedented rate: Thus, ecologists like Peter Sale (and many others) warn us that we are perilously close to the point at which impacts upon marine biodiversity will be sudden and permanent. Shellfish will be unable to extract calcium carbonate from the water and, if the acidification does not kill them, then, in the case of corals, the increasing temperature of the water will.
We have been protected from – and possibly blinded to – the damage we are doing to the planet as a consequence of the cooling effect of all our other forms of pollution. However, as would now seem to be becoming ever more obvious, increasing CO2 is by far the most important factor driving anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and, unless we decide that behaviour modification is necessary, we may well cause the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Indeed, there is accumulating evidence that it is already underway: In geological terms, the current rate of biodiversity loss is already probably unprecedented. Just because we can barely measure it, does not mean it is insignificant.
I therefore believe that it is imperative that humanity acknowledges that business as usual is not a survivable option.
Recommended reading: Richard Fortey’s Life – An Unauthorised Biography (2009).