Archive for the ‘Anthropocene’ Category
The video below contains a very compelling 22-minute summary of an impressive array of work, widely reported in the World’s newspapers this week. The research team, based in the Geography Department at the University of Hawaii, was led by Associate Professor Camilo Mora.
Sadly, it has already been dismissed by people with a track-record denying, downplaying or dismissing the nature, scale and urgency of the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). People such as Bjorn Lomborg, for example.
A brief summary of the key points of the research:
1. For any geographic location the time of ‘climate departure’ is the time beyond which even the coldest monthly average temperature will be warmer than anything observed in the last 150 years. The same method was used to determine the time beyond which a range of other factors (such as precipitation and evaporation) would no longer fall below the range of local values observed in the last 150 years.
2. The monthly average data for all these calculations, data were obtained from 39 global climate models (GCMs – the accuracy of which I discuss below) constructed by 21 climate modelling centres in 12 different countries around the World. Common to all of these models is the same suite of CO2 emissions projections scenarios, two of which the research team used to define the range of possible temperature rises: RCP8.5 – representing a business as usual (BAU) scenario where humanity makes no attempt to reduce CO2 emissions; and RCP4.5 – representing a scenario where globally co-ordinated and concerted efforts are made to reduce CO2 emissions. With regard to atmospheric CO2 concentrations, it should be noted that:
— RCP8.5 is projected to result in a continuing increase to 900 ppm CO2 by the end of the Century; and
— RCP4.5 is projected to result in a peak value of 500 ppm being reached by mid-Century.
3. The results suggest that on average, climate departure (for temperature) is reached 2047 under the RCP8.5 scenario, or 2069 under the RCP4.5 scenario. This therefore implies that aggressive attempts to reduce carbon emissions could delay the onset of climate departure by several decades. Furthermore, the results suggest that climate departure will come to lower latitudes (equatorial and tropical areas) first. Under RCP8.5 this is as early as 2020 in some places. Under RCP4.5, climate departure is projected to be experienced almost everywhere by the end of the Century.
4. The team has produced an interactive map, published online here by the Washington Post newspaper, which can be used to see when climate departure is predicted under both scenarios for any location on the Earth’s surface.
5. The team suggests that the historical focus on absolute changes in temperature (i.e. predicted and observed to be greatest in polar regions) have given humans a false sense of security about the likely personal impacts. This study inverts that pattern and shatters the illusion that humans will not be directly impacted by changes in temperature. This is because, where the natural climate variability is smallest, less absolute change is required for it to be significant and most of the species present have less resilience to that change.
6. The research highlights the changes that have already occurred. Indeed, the most striking finding of the research is that the pH of seawater across the entire planet – i.e. without any exceptions – is already lower than it has been at any time in the last 150 years.
7. The research highlights the fact that those areas that are likely to reach climate departure soonest are also areas with the highest average population density and the lowest capacity to adapt. Under RCP4.5, it is expected that 1 billion people will be living in area experiencing unprecedented climatic conditions by 2050. Whereas, under the RCP8.5 this is expected to be 5 billion people (i.e. half the currently-projected global population).
8. The research indicates that the Earth’s most significant biological assets (essential ecosystem services and biodiversity) are at risk. This is the consequence of three facets of the above: (a) equatorial and tropical regions will be the first to experience climate departure; (b) they contain the greatest proportion of the Earth’s biological assets; and (c) are the least resilient to any change and the least able to adapt.
Conclusions (some readers may find some sentences upsetting)
1. If we stick to BAU, we will guarantee that (a) the long-term consequences will be increasingly unpleasant; (b) mitigation will become impossible; and (c) adaptation will be required sooner and faster and therefore be more costly. Alternatively, if we decide to try and mitigate ACD (by aggressively reducing CO2 emissions), we may be able to limit the unpleasantness and the scale and total cost of adaptation required (by humans and non-humans alike).
2. If we do nothing, the extinction of a significant proportion of species on Earth would appear to be unavoidable in the long-term (and, if that happens, the survival of humanity would have to be seriously in jeopardy). Alternatively, if we take action, the extinction of some species looks highly probable but, critically, this will buy most species several decades to adapt. This means that the costs of adaptation can be spread over those extra decades.
3. Given all of the above, how can it make any sense to continue to argue about what we should do?
Comments about the accuracy of Global Climate Models (GCMs)
One very easy way to dismiss all this is to point out that, in the course of the last decade, global average temperatures have slipped from well above 75th to just above 5th percentile of GCM predictions. Despite this, however, the exponential nature of the observed temperature increase over the last 150 years is very obvious in the above video.
Furthermore, the only way anyone can justify reaching the conclusion that this increase will not continue is by asserting that CO2 is not the main driver. A recent article on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media website, entitled ‘Examining the Recent Slow-Down in Global Warming‘, has an excellent set of graphs that explain how and why we can be certain that CO2 is the main driver.
In addition, as per the comments I have posted on the above article, none of the GCMs include the global dimming effects of industrial pollution. Given that this is the case, I really do not understand why so many climate scientists keep saying we do not understand the reason for the current hiatus. In his book, ‘Storms of my Grandchildren’, James Hansen repeatedly complains about the fact that, 20 years ago, NASA refused to invest in satellite monitoring of this pollution. Thus we have been unable to model its effects because we have no data to put into the GCMs.
I decided that my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006, was dragging on a bit, so have decided to finish it off. This is therefore the fourth and final part (and thus longer than normal posts).
Having explained what Gaia is (part one), discussed the need to decarbonise our economies (part two), and discussed the various sources of renewable energy available to us (part three), we must now confront ‘the radiating face of Gaia’. The possibly surprising reality is that almost half the book is taken up by Lovelock discussing the sensibility – if not inevitability – of the widespread use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.
As before, some may consider this a self-contradictory position to adopt because, as indeed Lovelock concedes, the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth in a post-carbon age is unlikely to be greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution. That being the case, why would such a small population (of say one billion humans) need nuclear energy; and who is to say they would be capable of harnessing it? When the history of human failure (to see the writing on the wall) has finally been written, catalogued and left in the library long enough to be coated in dust, some may well wonder if today’s nuclear power plants will become the curious prehistoric monuments of a distant, post-carbon, future.
However, I see Lovelock’s pro-nuclear stance as part of the technological optimist side of his split personality: Whereas his pessimistic side laments the unintended ecocide being caused by human arrogance, greed and stupidity; the optimistic side of Lovelock assumes humanity will somehow avert the approaching environmental catastrophe and will, therefore, need lots of energy to power a post-carbon civilisation.
However, to be fair, Lovelock has always been in favour of nuclear energy. In this respect, he is probably very unusual amongst those concerned with issue of environment degradation. He may never have quite been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but the truth of the matter is that most pro-nuclear environmentalists have not always thought as they do now (e.g. Mark Lynas and George Monbiot). Nevertheless, however and whenever they came to be so, they join with the likes of Tom Blees, Stewart Brand and James Hansen – in being pro-nuclear. Personally, I think it is much more accurate to describe them as ‘ecopragmatists’ (and would count myself as one too). Indeed, Brand’s most recent book sounds like it is worth reading: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
As such, all would agree that nuclear energy will have to be the main source of power in decades to come if billions of humans survive the approaching environmental meltdown, which we are causing by burning fossil fuels.
Before continuing, I think it is worth drawing attention to a couple of things recorded by Brand in the online Afterword he is maintaining in relation to this book. (i.e. as quoted on the Wikipedia page for the book – as per the above link):
(1) Brand quotes Lovelock as having repudiated his alarmism because “Something unknown appears to be slowing down the rate of global warming”. This would appear to suggest that Lovelock was not satisfied by the answers that climate scientists have given, namely that: (a) warming is being offset by ‘global dimming’ (caused by other forms of atmospheric pollution); and (b) the ‘missing’ heat will be found in the deep ocean (because it must have gone somewhere).
(2) Brand has appears to admit having been influenced by the ‘global warming has stopped’ myth that has been peddled so fiercely by the fossil fuel lobby. He has therefore suggested that maybe nothing (more) will happen as a result of the accumulating greenhouse gases. However, he also chose to add that doing nothing about our CO2 emissions would be “like playing Russian Roulette with five cylinders loaded”.
As I have now said quite a few times, although sympathetic to the overall message, I am concerned by intellectual incoherence, selective blindness and a tendency to exaggerate, which Lovelock appears to display in the writing of The Revenge of Gaia. Although not limited to his remarks about radiation and nuclear power, these traits are certainly very much present. This is a shame, in my view, because Lovelock also makes some very valid points about the irrational way most people assess the chances of either good or bad things happening. For example, the chances of any individual winning a lottery is extremely small but, even so, a great many people waste an awful lot of money trying to do so. Similarly, the risk of any individual dying as a result of travelling in a car is much higher than that of flying in an aeroplane but, even so, how many of us worry about the former more than the latter?
Lovelock, correctly in my view, blames widespread anti nuclear sentiment today on fears, stoked by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), over mutually assured destruction that grew out of the insanity of the Cold War. Such fears were entirely justified but, as Lovelock says, the demonisation of the civil nuclear power industry was not. Just because it was a by-product of military programmes to build atomic bombs does not make it inherently bad. Mobile Phones were a product of military surveillance technology, but they are generally accepted as being beneficial (apart from those who blame them for killing bees and causing brain cancers).
Cancer is another subject about which Lovelock has a lot to say; but here also, I think he takes his argument too far. It is undoubtedly true that cancer is very common; that very little of it is caused by radiation; and that even less is caused by artificially-created radiation. Lovelock makes the point that the whole planet was irradiated as a result of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s but the only deaths linked to such tests have been among those who witnessed them. Lovelock also recalls the reactor fire at Windscale (now called Sellafield), which also irradiated the entire UK but has not been linked to any deaths. Most famously of all, of course, Lovelock cites the meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in what is now Ukraine. Estimates vary but, given the amount of hysteria caused in Europe about radiation clouds, the numbers of people killed as a result (i.e. as determined how many more people have died than might otherwise be expected to die) is really not that great. This is not intended to belittle the suffering of individuals; merely to suggest that people put these things in some proper perspective: Perspective that might include considering how many people are shot dead every day; or die in car accidents every year; or how many were killed in wars in the last decade; or died as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic nearly 100 years ago.
However, Lovelock goes further; and the point at which I think he ceases to be reasonable is this: He suggests that oxygen is a carcinogen. Noting that – whereas some photosynthesising plants can live for hundreds of years – humans tend not to live for much more than 100 years, he argues that oxygen is a carcinogen because it of its involvement in biochemical processes at the level of individual cells (i.e. respiration). This may be true but, if so, it would also be true to say that eating causes constipation. However, that does not mean that we should be worried about eating! Furthermore, there are also scientific studies that have linked the development of cancer with oxygen-deficiency at cellular level. Far more importantly still, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the risks of any individual dying of cancer are dramatically increased by their inherited DNA and lifestyle choices they make (such as excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco smoking). For all of these reasons, I find Lovelock’s argument about oxygen being carcinogenic to be misleading; if not disingenuous.
Nevertheless, I agree with Lovelock that civil nuclear power should not be feared in the way it is (in many minds); and it should not have been abandoned in the way it has (in many countries). However, I remain bemused by the conflict between Lovelock’s misanthropic pessimism (most recently echoed by Bob Geldof) and his technological optimism, which ignores the geologically unprecedented rate of both CO2 rise and warming that has occurred in the last 200 years.
In addition, there remains the problem that the global use of civil nuclear power would likely be a new form of technological dependency (along with the widespread use of GMOs) that will probably not reduce inequality of opportunity because the ‘trickle-down’ effect does not seem to work.
There is also growing evidence that time is no longer a luxury that humanity has. The relatively stable sea level and climate that has made agriculture, civilisation, urbanisation and modernity possible has now been brought to an end by the folly of humans believing they were superior to nature; rather than part of it.
We have fouled our own nest; and we appear to be running out of time to clean it up.
Greenland was never called Iceland – even though it is largely surrounded by the ice cap and covered in glaciers. Iceland, which often has brilliantly green places, is also in the Arctic Circle. But Iceland is not connected to the rest of the Arctic sea ice.
The Arctic can be confusing. But it’s needs protection. If you have not already done so, please sign up to save the Arctic, before big oil risks it all for profit, by visiting: www.savethearctic.org.
For the avoidance of any doubt:
According to the 12th Century oral history “Landnámabók”, Iceland got its modern name from the Norwegian Viking Flóki Vilgerðarson when he saw a distant fjord full of sea-ice from a tall mountain.
In the “Icelandic Sagas”, Erik the Red, a Norwegian-born Icelander was exiled for murder. He sailed away to Greenland and supposedly gave it a pleasant name to attract more settlers.
Confusion may be understandable but ideological blindness is unforgivable. Increasingly obvious climate disruption will not stop until we make serious attempts to stop causing it. Effectively irreversible, it will soon be unstoppable. End of story (in more ways than one).
Can someone please explain why…
Arctic ice is still disappearing.
Biodiversity is still reducing.
Coral reefs are still dying.
Deserts are still growing.
Experts are still worrying.
Fisheries are still shrinking.
Glaciers are still retreating.
Heatwaves are still coming.
Ice caps are still melting.
Jungles are still burning.
Koch Brothers are still lobbying.
Lindzen is still obfuscating.
Micheal Mann is still winning.
Non-experts are still losing.
Oceans are still expanding.
Positive feedbacks are still emerging.
Quackery is still appealing.
Risks are still increasing.
Sea levels are still rising.
Temperature records are still breaking.
Uncertainties are still reducing.
Vanuatu is still sinking.
W, X, Y and Z are still missing.
See here for more on spoof book cover.
If the link between geology, plate tectonics, and climate change seems obscure to you, I would recommend reading the whole thing. However, if you’re busy, let me jump straight to the important bit – what I see as being the implications for humanity today:
Just because it has been much warmer in Earth’s distant past does not change the facts that:
(1) All life on Earth is adapted to the relative climate stability that preceded the Industrial Revolution; and
(2) Most life on Earth will not adapt to the unnatural change now underway unless we stop causing it.
Now we know we are in a hole, I think it would be a good idea to stop digging.
For those who think they might have some time to spare, here is how the article begins:
This post delves into the long-term carbon cycle that involves the interactions of the atmosphere with rocks and oceans over many millions of years. Because of its length, I’ve broken it up into bookmarked sections for easy reference: to come back here click on ‘back to contents’ in each instance.
Introduction: what is weathering?
Carbon dioxide and rock weathering: the chemistry.
Limitations to the precipitation of calcium carbonate: the Carbonate Compensation Depth.
The significance of weathering as a carbon-sink.
Deep weathering of rocks: an illustrated example from Mid-Wales, UK.
How breaking up minerals affects their weathering-rate: mountain-building as an accelerant.
Picking up signals of major weathering episodes in the geological record.
If this sounds interesting, I hope you will go and read the whole thing:
Tony Robinson is probably best known to most people (over the age of 40 at least) for playing the character of ‘Baldrick’, alongside Rowan Atkinson, in the Blackadder series of brilliant comedy series in the 1980s. However, since then, he has carved out a niche for himself presenting numerous Time Team programmes about archaeology. They are almost invariably excellent and the latest programme – all about a tsunami that hit the East coast of Britain about eight thousand years ago – was broadcast in the UK last night.
I am very pleased to discover that the broadcaster, Channel 4 Television, has uploaded the programme to YouTube and, therefore, I have embedded the video at the end of this post. I cannot recommend watching it highly enough but, if you need some encouragement, please allow me to summarise its content:
Tony Robinson open’s the programme from a helicopter above Flamborough Head in North Yorkshire and – in the course of the programme – visits places up and down the East Coast of England and Scotland. Using computer generated animation, the programme reveals that the tsunami was caused by an enormous underwater landslide on the edge of the continental shelf off the coast of Norway.
The programme also presents an amazing array of artefacts recovered from a site in North Yorkshire, called Star Carr, where peat has preserved all manner of objects – bone, wood, leather, etc – thereby painting a picture of a much more sophisticated and stable society in what is known, in anthropological terms, as the Mesolithic era.
With the help of experts, Robinson demonstrates how, unlike people in the Iron Age who tended (for reasons that will become clear) to live on hill-tops, people in the Mesolithic era lived next to rivers. Far from being hunter-gatherers, they lived in settled communities and, with the exception of fish, allowed their food to come to them. However, in terms of geography, the programme focussed on the fact, because sea level was much lower at the time, the UK was connected to Europe (from Denmark all the way round to Brittany in the northwest of France).
Probably the most fascinating artefacts presented in the programme are those that look very similar to things that, in modern times, early European explorers of Siberia found local Shamen using in their religious ceremonies. However, so as to encourage you to watch the video, I will not say any more than that!
So then, you may well be thinking, what has this got to do with concern for the environment and/or climate change? Well, having watched the programme, I was left feeling that Robinson had, to use a soccer-based analogy, dribbled the football up to an open goal and then, almost inexplicably, managed to fail to score a goal. It left me feeling that, although Robinson clearly accepts that the Earth’s climate has changed in the past, he does not believe that humans are the main driver of change today. If he did, he would not have closed the programme by suggesting that we might be heading for another Ice Age!
To me, this was completely at odds with all of the facts about palaeoclimatic changes presented in the programme:
— Sea Level was120m lower than it is today at the end of the last Ice Age (about 12k years ago).
— The tsunami probably resulted in a decision by humans not to live near sea level about 8k years ago.
— The sudden emptying of the enormous, North American, Lake Agassiz about the same time, which resulted in the UK being separated from Europe by the current expanses of water known as the North Sea and the English Channel.
I am quite sure that I cannot have been the only person to watch all this and think: “Holy Cow! We are already in an inter-glacial warm period and we are now moving into temperature conditions not seen since Antarctica first became glaciated in the Eocene era (35 million years ago)”. Therefore, although it may take hundreds of years, very significant sea level rise is now inevitable (because Eocene-like levels of atmospheric CO2 are now driving the Earth back towards Eocene-like temperatures).
As I said, the one conclusion I did not reach was: “Oh well, change happens. Ice Ages come and go and, if sea level drops again, travel to Europe will be much easier!”
Tony Robinson, yes, I am talking to you now! You seriously need to wake up! There will never be another Ice Age unless or until humans become extinct. Even if the Earth was to suddenly start to cool down (i.e. because we now understand why it has happened repeatedly in the past million years this is not expected to happen for many thousands of years), if humans were lucky enough to still be around, all they would have to do to stop this happening is release some of the CO2 they had managed to remove from the atmosphere (and buried underground like nuclear waste).
Despite my frustration at all of this, I would, as I said, heartily recommend that you invest the time in watching the video.
Last year, James Hansen (et al), pointed out that extreme weather events of all kinds (hot, cold, wet and dry) are becoming more frequent. In fact, their statistical analysis of historical data (as opposed to computer modelling of future events) demonstrated that extreme events (i.e. more than 3 standard deviation above or below average) are now ten times more likely than they used to be. As the authors put it:
We illustrate variability of seasonal temperature in units of standard deviation (σ), including comparison with the normal distribution (“bell curve”) that the lay public may appreciate. The probability distribution (frequency of occurrence) of local summer-mean temperature anomalies was close to the normal distribution in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in both hemispheres (Fig. 2). However, in each subsequent decade the distribution shifted toward more positive anomalies, with the positive tail (hot outliers) of the distribution shifting the most.
Last year it was the USA and Australia, today it is India that is suffering from a heatwave, with temperatures approaching 50C. Above 50C/120F, in dry air, proteins begin to break down (and plants die). Furthermore, a Wet Bulb temperature of 35C (which causes animals to die because they overheat) is reached at 40% relative humidity.
So much for global warming being beneficial.
If, like me until recently, you struggle with all this meteorological stuff, here is a nice graph from Wikipedia that tells you all you need to know about Wet and Dry Bulb temperatures and Relative Humidity.
I know this chart is complicated but, the important bit is the pale blue line with a “35” next to it. The top right corner of the graph (beyond this line) is therefore what you could call the “death zone” and the higher the Dry Bulb temperature (vertical lines in green) the lower the Relative Humidity (curves in red) required to enter it.