Anthropocene Anxieties – Maybe We Should Strive for Only 1 Degree Global Temperature Increase?

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Some good news on the climate front

Friday 13th of March, and yet there was some good news. IEA reported that in 2014, for the first time in the 40 years for which it has been collecting data, emissions of CO2 remained unchanged while the global economy strengthened by 3%. Emissions in 2014 totaled 32.3 billion tonnes CO2. Global emissions have remained flat or fallen on three previous occasions – late 1980s, 1992, and 2009 – but in all cases these events coincided with an economic downturn. IEA attributed the 2014 decoupling of emissions from economic activity as primarily the result of actions taken to expand use of green energy in China and in the EU. The world’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are beginning to bear fruit.

There were other signs that the need to address climate change is being taken seriously in jurisdictions and in corporate board rooms around the world. On 12th February, the Ontario government had posted a climate change discussion paper to its website, for public comment. This is clearly a first step towards announcing further climate initiatives in coming weeks. That is new initiatives by a Province that has already made changes that have shifted its electricity sector markedly away from fossil fuels towards renewables. A quick check on Google today using the phrase ‘new climate initiatives’ brought up the following among the first 20 hits – they are not a careful selection of the most important, just a random handful of what seemed to be on web in mid-March.

On 24th February, Citi, the global banking corporation, announced plans to lend, invest and facilitate a total of $100 billion within the next 10 years to finance activities that reduce the impacts of climate change and create environmental solutions that benefit people and communities. This announcement follows a previous pledge of $50 billion investment that was completed 2 years ahead of schedule in 2013. As well as renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, Citi will be looking at projects that reduce GHG emissions in other sectors, such as transportation. As well as helping communities in the 40 largest urban regions around the world, Citi has also set itself ambitious footprint-reducing targets of 35% less emissions, 30% less water use, and 60% less waste produced by 2020, compared to 2005. Bank of America and Wells Fargo have introduced comparable (though smaller) programs.

On 18th March, Governor Jerry Brown announced a $1 billion plan (already funded and approved) to address California’s drought. A mix of short-term relief and long-term infrastructure investments, the plan uses $273 million to address water supply by desalination and measures to recycle or use more efficiently, and $600 million in infrastructure for flood control. As Brown stated, California’s water problems are a result of climate change, and while the issue today is drought, it could well be floods once the drought breaks. Tougher regulations on use are also coming.

Also on the 18th March, an announcement in the journal Science drew my attention to a just-released proposal by 71 academics across Canada, with expertise in climate science, other natural science, social science, political science and policy. Acting partly out of frustration with the Harper government’s evident disinterest, they had come together to develop ten key policy orientations, illustrated by specific actions, that could be adopted to kick-start Canada’s transition toward a low-carbon society. As they state in a Foreward, “We offer it as input to Canadian decision-makers, opinion leaders, and elected representatives in preparation for our upcoming federal election followed by the 2015 Paris-Climate Conference.” Their proposal is realistic, feasible with existing technology, and could bring Canada into line with the US in terms of proportional reductions in GHG emissions. Their major push in the near term is to move towards 100% use of renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2035. It’s too soon to tell if this report will encourage the Harper government to get busy. So far, apart from the reported whispered conversations between Environment Canada and the Provinces there has been only silence. Of course Stephen Harper and Leona Aglukkaq might be busily quilting away in some back room of the Parliament building, fabricating a “Canadian” plan from what the provinces have been doing all along. Such is the leadership from behind that has dragged Canada back from near the front of the pack on global environmental issues.
Harper and Aglukkaq - postmedia news

PM Harper and Environment Minister Aglukkaq might be laughing about how small a national climate policy they can get away with. They plan to quilt a policy from the independent initiatives of the Provinces – beats developing anything real. Photo © Postmedia News.

On 19th March, Forbes has a glowing account of the work of Environmental Defense Fund over the last 10 years with major US corporations to improve their carbon footprints. It’s headed ‘Can Walmart save the planet?’ and it lists significant achievements by McDonalds (recyclable packaging), AT&T (efficient water use), and FedEx (hybrid-electric vehicles) as well as Walmart (energy efficiency changes in Chinese supplier factories). Large corporations will invest in environmental improvements when those investments save money in the long term, and in a world transitioning away from use of fossil fuels, energy efficiency and use of green energy are sound investments.

An announcement from the White House on 19th March reports plans to shift the share of electricity use by the US federal government to 30% from renewable sources, and to cut emissions by 40% from 2008 levels over the next 10 years, saving the country $18 billion in energy costs. In addition, the government is engaging with major federal contractors to encourage them to strive for similar emissions savings and efficiencies. A number of corporations, including IBM, Honeywell, GE, Humana, Hewlett Packard, Northrop Grumman, and Batelle have already announced their commitments under this plan. These steps are one part of the emissions reductions by 2025 that were announced in November in the treaty with China.

While it’s not an announced plan, my Google search did throw up an insightful piece by MP Elizabeth May, Leader of Canada’s Green Party published on March 9th. In it she used the kafuffle over the Keystone XL Pipeline to talk about the relative costs of different forms of electricity. Citing reports from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), investment bank Sanford Bernstein, and financial firm Lazard, which all reached similar conclusions, she stated that dramatic falls in the cost of solar infrastructure, and less dramatic decreases for other renewables, were such that in many places around the world, renewable energy is now competitive with fossil fuels. These analyses were all based on ‘levelized’ costs – a full-accounting procedure that takes into account all costs from initial construction of the generating plant to eventual decommissioning at end of life. I had seen previous comment to this effect. Elizabeth May drew the obvious conclusion – the time is fast approaching when Canada will not need pipelines to ship its dirty tar sands bitumen to markets around the world, because nobody will be buying it. (She was more diplomatic than that, although she did note that Canada was the only significant country not a member of IRENA, and wondered if Mr. Harper had ever seen these reports.)

Solar panels being installed on the Ikea store in Etobikoke, Ontario. Ontario has made progress in shifting energy generation away from use of fossil fuels. Image © Colin McConnell / Toronto Star

Now is the right time to up the ante – we need a target of +1oC.

Yes. It is a little bit like watching for the spring thaw on a river, but the signs are all around. Globally, there is starting to be real movement on the climate front. It makes me happy to realize that people are starting to take action. Now I worry that the progress must be sustained and it’s in this regard that I want to raise the issue of the 2oC target that the world has been told, by IPCC and nearly everyone else, is the right target to aim for as we seek to mitigate climate change.

Several months ago, I had discussed the arguments by social scientists Oliver Geden and Silke Beck that the 2oC goal should be raised even higher, because the world was not going to be able to reach it. In their view, we need a ‘realistic goal’, even if it is not environmentally sound. I still think their argument smacks of the same sort of political correctness that has no student ever failing, because it might damage his/her psyche, but that is neither here nor there. I think, for a number of reasons that it is time to up the ante and argue for a still more stringent goal. A +2oC change in global temperature is too much unless we want a radically altered future.

I’m not the first person to think this; nor is it a new idea. Coral reef scientists recognized, more or less at the time the climate community was coalescing around +2oC, that a temperature increase of that magnitude would pretty well close up shop for reef builders. And the organization owes its name to the idea that a 350ppm CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would be far better for us than the 450ppm concentration that conforms to +2oC. James Hansen had recommended 350ppm as a safe maximum CO2 concentration if we wanted to keep polar icecaps frozen. A target of 350ppm puts the clock back to about 1990 allowing coral reefs to persist, and a temperature regime (once equilibrated) about a degree higher than the average for the 20th century. I think, for several reasons, it is now time to start educating governments to recognize that +1oC is a much better goal than anything higher. Better they get to +2 while trying for +1 than that they take us to +3 and some unanticipated tipping points while hoping for +2. And best if the +1oC goal is attained.

I admit that I am arguing for +1oC because I care about coral reefs. They will be sorry shadows of their former glory at +2o (those that still survive), but they will persist at +1oC. But I am arguing for +1oC also because I fear that the changes that are now happening in the Arctic and Antarctic, the changes in the ocean, and the changes to intensity of weather are all turning out to be more severe, more quickly, than people have been saying.

Problems for Phytoplankton

On 28th February, I briefly commented on the article by Philip Boyd and colleagues in the December 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change. They had demonstrated that the changes occurring in the oceans are quite variable from one location to another, and that different combinations of change in properties mean that responses of biota will vary geographically in some cases quite substantially. The following images show the extent of variation in just four of the ocean properties they examined.
Boyd et al Fig 1 nclimate2441-f1

Extent and direction of change in temperature, pH, and concentrations of silicates and nitrates across the oceans. The colors scale as average degrees C, pH, and mmol/m3 in 2081-2100 compared to 1981-2000. Figure © Nature

In three of these cases, the pattern of change (positive or negative) is uniform, although the extent varies from place to place. For nitrates there are places in South-east Asia and the tropical Atlantic where the direction of change is reversed from the usual pattern. The next chart shows this graphically for the full range of properties examined.
Nature Climate Change 5, 1 (2015). doi:10.1038/nclimate2441

Chart from paper by Boyd and colleagues showing direction and extent of change in 15 ocean properties across 13 oceanic regions (SSO to AO), and the mean change for all ocean regions combined. Figure © Nature.

In this chart it can be seen that each ocean region has a unique pattern of change over the 100 year period when all 15 properties are considered, although some pairs [such as the east equatorial Pacific (EEPO), and the north subtropical Pacific (NSPO)] exhibit the same directions while differing in extent of change for each property. Boyd and colleagues discuss the likely responses by different groups of the phytoplankton.
coccolithophores diatoms

Marine phytoplankton come in a wide array of shapes and sizes. Those on left are coccolithophores, one of the major groups in all oceans, while on the right is a mixture of various diatoms, another major group. Photos © Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library (left) and (right)

Perhaps at this point I should remind you of three very important facts concerning marine phytoplankton. First, they come in many shapes and sizes, belonging to many quite different taxa, and they do not all behave similarly in response to changes in oceanic conditions. Second, they are the base of all marine food webs, and the organic matter they construct, through photosynthesis, is the food which ultimately supports all marine creatures, including the fishery species that provide some 16% of animal protein in the diets of humans. Third, in doing all that photosynthesis, they put into the atmosphere almost one half of all the oxygen we breathe (the other half is put there by terrestrial plants). Put these three facts together and you see that the phytoplankton are pretty important to the way the biosphere functions.

Changes to temperature, to pH, or to concentrations of various nutrients will have physiological effects on phytoplankton, but they all won’t respond in precisely the same way. Further, the changes expected may cause adjustments in the geographic distribution of particular species or larger groups altering the local composition of the phytoplankton community. Changes in pH and in silicate concentration can be expected to alter the ease with which species of diatom or coccolithophore construct their external skeletons, and changes in several properties at once can cause synergistic effects that result in a different overall response by a species than the response that would occur to any one of the properties changing alone. As Boyd and colleagues point out, we simply do not yet have the physiological studies of the various taxa of phytoplankton to make even an approximate prediction of the overall effects on the plankton community in any oceanic region. Growth rates, and photosynthesis may be enhanced by warming, but that may be counteracted by a reduction in pH, or of silicates, or iron.

We only have one planet, and I suggest that this article should give us pause. We need to know a good deal more about how phytoplankton are likely to respond before we go merrily altering ocean properties as we are doing by altering the climate. We might find ourselves with a seriously compromised oceanic ecosystem that fails to provide all the oxygen and food that the oceans and we depend upon.

What’s happening to the oceans?

It’s not just the biology of the oceans which is complex. Efforts to understand the processes and pathways involved in the warming of the oceans as climate changes continue to uncover interesting, sometimes disturbing new insights. To put it bluntly, the oceans of the world are not just very large basins full of water, but basins full of water that differs in temperature, salinity, pH, and other attributes from place to place both vertically and horizontally. These differing types of water move relative to one another under the influence of winds, tides, and physics.

I’ve written several times about the giant ocean conveyor that circulates water slowly around the globe, and how surface warming and desalination due to melting of ice may be causing this giant pump to be slowing down. A new article in Nature Climate Change, published on-line on 23rd March, suggests that the ocean conveyor has begun to slow, and that this will lead to a slow-down of the Gulf Stream which runs up the eastern coast of North America, and a significantly larger than average rise in sea level along that coast. Stefan Rahmstorf, of Germany’s Potsdam Institute, and six colleagues scatted across Germany, Denmark, Spain and the USA, state that they now have evidence that AMOC, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, has already slowed by about 20% since 1900. AMOC is one part of the global ocean conveyor, responsible for taking surface waters deep and generally, if slowly, stirring the oceans of the world. AMOC plays a major role in this circulation – subsidence of surface waters in the North Atlantic, as they cool and become more dense, drives the Gulf Stream which moves immense quantities of heat from the tropics towards northern latitudes.  Washington Post provides a good coverage.

In their article, Rahmstorf and colleagues present a surprising global temperature anomaly graph. This one shows the change in temperature between 1900 and now. While the globe is almost entirely pink to red as you’d expect given the climate change that has been taking place, there is a conspicuous place in the North Atlantic that has been getting colder. (The only other place doing this seems to be one in north central Africa.)
Rahmstorf Fig 1 edited

Figure 1A from Rahmstorf’s article showing the change in average annual temperature between 1900 and the present. The North Atlantic includes an obvious exception to the general rule of getting warmer. Slowing of AMOC, which moves surface water to depth in this region, has reduced the amount of warm surface water brought to this location from further south. Figure © Nature Climate Change.

The implications of this change in global ocean circulation are far-reaching. As well as including changes to climate in Europe – future warming there will be less pronounced than otherwise – impacts include the likelihood of more extreme sea level rise along the east coast of North America than would otherwise occur. This sea level change is due to the fact that a current in the northern hemisphere raises sea level on its right flank and lowers it on its left flank; Gulf Stream slowing reduces that effect and sea level to the left goes up. North Carolina and Florida, both of which seem to be trying to legislate sea level rise out of existence, have a bigger problem than we all thought they did.

Another recent paper, published on-line in mid-February in Nature Geoscience, suggests that the melting of Arctic sea ice will proceed more rapidly than previously anticipated because of complex patterns of mixing of deep waters in that basin. Tom Rippith of Bangor University, UK, and four colleagues from UK and Norway, report that, other than surface warming, the largest source of heat in the Arctic basin comes from North Atlantic water that flows in at depths between 40 and 200 meters. This North Atlantic water is saltier and about 4oC warmer than the less saline water above it. One might expect a relatively slow mixing with transfer of heat upwards across a sharp boundary layer (a thermo- or halocline). This is what is observed in regions away from continents where overall depth is in excess of 2000 m.

However, what Rippith and colleagues have found is that in continental shelf regions of the Arctic, at depths from 200 to 2000 m, tidal flows interacting with the topography produce sufficient kinetic energy to generate the turbulence necessary for effective mixing across the boundary layer and the transfer of heat to shallower depths is up to 100 times greater. The effect is most pronounced in places where the topography is steepest at shelf edges. Heat flux in the central Arctic basin is about 0.05 to 0.3 Wm-2 (Watts per square meter). In shelf regions sampled, heat flux averaged 22 ± 2 Wm-2, and estimates as high as 50 Wm-2 were recorded at some sites. While these processes are uninfluenced by whether or not sea ice is present, the melting of sea ice does permit greater wind influences on surface water circulation in the basin. This will tend to enhance the transfer of heat into shallower waters.
Rippith ngeo2350-f1

Figure 1 from Rippith’s article showing the locations where they sampled, and the vertical temperature profile at three locations near Svalbard. Note that the off-shelf site (gray line in graph) shows a more step-like transition between cold shallow Arctic water and warm deeper Atlantic water, compared to the profiles from the two shelf locations where heat transfer is greater. Image © Nature Geoscience

To put this starkly, the North Atlantic water is warmer now than it used to be. The heat transfer from this to shallower Arctic waters will enhance melting of the sea ice, and a more open Arctic is one with enhanced mixing, and therefore more efficient transfer of heat. Yet another positive feedback loop is now in operation tending to make the Arctic Ocean lose its sea ice more quickly than climate scientists expected as little as a decade ago.
Rippith ngeo2350-f2

Rippith’s Figure 2 showing heat dissipation against A) depth, and B) topographic slope, with and without sea ice cover. Colors of symbols relate to sites in Figure 1. Steep shallow sites exhibit much greater heat transfer. Figure © Nature Geoscience.

Moving to the Antarctic, there is more evidence that the glaciers of Antarctica have passed that point where they will begin melting in earnest. A new article published on-line on 16th March in Nature Geoscience reports on studies of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. This article is almost unintelligible to the non-specialist, but the Washington Post does a good job of summarizing it. At its face, the Totten Glacier exists as an extensive, mostly floating, ice sheet (35 x 144 km in area) that appears to be melting fast. It will take a while, but with the dissolution of that ice sheet, there is enough ice upstream in that single glacier to raise global sea level 3 meters. The study revealed large, deep cavities under the ice sheet that enable relatively warm deep water to enter, and provide heat from below that hastens the melting. As lead author Jamin Greenbaum, of University of Texas, explained to the Washington Post, the results “support the idea that the behaviour of Totten Glacier is an East Antarctic analogue to ocean-driven retreat underway in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The global sea level potential of 3.5 m flowing through Totten Glacier alone is of similar magnitude to the entire probable contribution of the WAIS”. In other words, this one East Antarctic glacier could melt to produce as much sea level rise as the melting of the entire West Antarctic ice shelf. While Antarctic melting is still estimated to take several hundred years, the point of such studies is that we now appear to have unleashed a melting process that is not going to stop any time soon – a melting that will raise sea level substantially higher than the 20 cm that the state of North Carolina legislated only two years ago. (Their action was silly then; it seems ridiculous now.)

As if to bear these stories out, NOAA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) released its report for February and reported that the Arctic had likely reached its maximum sea ice extent on February 25th. Sea ice covered 14.54 km2 on that date, the lowest maximum extent ever recorded. This year’s maximum is 1.1 million km2 below the average for 1981 to 2000, and 130,000 km2 lower than the next lowest year, 2011. It also occurred just one day later than the earliest peak in 1996, and 15 days earlier than average. When we combine the area of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, we have been losing an area of sea ice approximately equivalent to the state of Maryland every year, and the sea ice out there now is predominantly young and thin. There is still a lot of ice around our poles, but there is a good deal less than there used to be. And every indication suggests that it is disappearing ever faster.

And what about changes on the land?

In the early 1980s I took part in a memorable four or five day workshop organized by ecologists at University of South Florida. During the workshop, we were taken on a field excursion, for reasons I do not remember, and in the course of this found ourselves on top of a modest hill with an attractive view of the surrounding land somewhere east of Tampa. Although the hill was barely 20 m high, we were told that we were standing on the highest point of land from this point south in Florida. Pressed further, our hosts admitted that there was one piece of land further south that was higher. That was the landfill west of Miami. I understand that landfill may be even higher now.

Humans have made a lot of changes to the terrestrial parts of this planet, and recent interest in the advent of the Anthropocene has led to enumerations of those changes. Thus the editorial in the 12th March issue of Nature that discussed the Anthropocene begins with a story about Devil’s Mountain, or Teufelsberg, a prominent landmark near Berlin, which rises 80 m above the surrounding plain and is the dump site for the 25 million m3 of concrete rubble removed from the city at the end of WWII. The editorial goes on to mention that, since WWII, our population has increased by 180%, our use of water by 215%, and our use of energy by 375%. During that time we have skewed the composition of the atmosphere, warmed the planet, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans.

In that same issue, Richard Monastersky notes that as well as doubling the amount of methane in the atmosphere, and increasing that of CO2 by 30% (an amount not exceeded in at least the last 400,000 and probably several million years), our agriculture, construction and the damming of rivers are stripping away sediment at least ten times as fast as the natural forces of erosion.
670px-los_angeles_ca_from_the_air Wikipedia

Los Angeles used to be a natural valley environment ringed by hills. Photo © Wikipedia

All in all, we have captured 40% of the land for our own fields, parking lots and cities, and have also captured about 40% of the production via photosynthesis for our own use. Our impacts on climate are just one of many things we are doing to this planet, and our erosion of the natural resilience biodiverse ecosystems possess is leaving the biosphere less capable of withstanding the climate shocks, and other shocks that are sure to come unless we change our ways. A good place to begin is to rein in our impacts on the climate and on ocean chemistry. Put these things all together and I think we need to start a conversation about limiting global warming to +1oC. If we do not, I fear the world we will create as the Anthropocene progresses.

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, In the News | Leave a comment

Reflecting on the Extent of Human Impacts on this Planet, and on the Need to Act on Climate

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Last Sunday our temperature cracked 0oC for the first time in ages. On Tuesday the snow was melting rapidly and the temperature was a balmy 6oC. Yesterday I was out for a walk and came upon a gaggle of about 15 wild turkeys. The women, all dour and pinched-looking were off to one side, clearly gossiping about the men, while the three men had their tails fluffed fully, their necks back and heads up, sizing up each other judiciously with one eye occasionally cocked towards the girls. They at least were thinking about Spring! We are projected to break 0oC through till this Monday and then hover around 0oC for the week. The sun feels warmer than it has in weeks, and we’ve switched the clocks back for daylight saving. Spring is coming at last.

NOAA reports that January was globally the second warmest on record since measurements began, and that Eastern North America was seriously atypical. You can see that abnormality in their map of temperature anomalies (deviations from the average climatic values). The gloating from Vancouver, as they basked in double digit temperatures, could almost be heard here in Ontario, although most people now understand that our savage winter was a result of the warmer Arctic – I just hope this pattern is a temporary one. As is becoming routine, NOAA’s map is mostly a sea of pink and red, because most of the planet was warmer than usual in January. Global sea surface temperature was the warmest ever, confirming, in a way, that warming of the planet has been continuous, even during the so-called warming ‘pause’. The heat has been getting stored in the oceans.

NOAA NCDC Jan 2015 anomalies 201501

The NOAA NCDC map showing extent of deviation from average temperatures across the planet in January 2015, the second-warmest January on record.
Map courtesy NOAA National Climatic Data Center

The Warming Continues, and Heat Can Kill

Fact is, the warming of the planet is as serious as it ever was, quite a bit more serious than people imagined it would be when the IPCC was first getting started in 1988. We really do need to become more excited about the need to act on climate, so to that end let me tell you about three recent assessments. In the January issue of Nature Climate Change, Nikolaos Christidis, Gareth S. Jones and Peter A. Stott of the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre discussed the problem of hot summers. Heat waves kill people. Even in advanced countries. The European summer of 2003 was the warmest for several hundred years, particularly in France, Germany and Italy, and temperatures exceeded 40oC in some northern French towns. The average summer temperature across Europe that year was 2.3oC warmer than average, and the unusually warm weather took a toll, particularly among the elderly who mostly succumbed in their apartments to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Reliable estimates suggest 70,000 extra deaths occurred across Europe that summer because of the heat.

france-2003 heatwave AFP-Getty

French patients being treated during the 2003 heat wave.
Image © AFP/Getty

With the world becoming warmer, it is logical to assume that the likelihood of a summer comparable to that of 2003 will increase in the future. What Christidis and colleagues asked is ‘how much increase, how fast’. They report that “events that would occur twice a century in the early 2000s are now expected to occur twice a decade. For the more extreme summer observed in 2003, the return time reduces from thousands of years in the late twentieth century to about a hundred years” now (my italics). Using global climate models to peer into the future, they report that a summer like 2003 will be “very common” by 2040 regardless of how we act to address CO2 emissions between now and then. Using IPCC’s RCP8.5, the so-called ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, such a summer will be considered abnormally cold by the end of the century. Of course, by then all the elderly in France will have air conditioning. Or not. The real message is do not let anyone tell you a small increase in global mean temperature is no big deal – it’s a very big deal.

Managing Climate Change in the Mekong Delta

In February’s issue of Nature Climate Change, Alex Smajgl of the Mekong Region Futures Institute, and seven colleagues from Vietnam and Thailand, examine the relative merits of alternative responses to the 30 cm of sea level rise expected in the Mekong delta by 2050.

As well as being home to about 17 million people, the Mekong delta of Vietnam is a low-lying agricultural district in which about half the land (1.8 million hectares) is dedicated to rice production with an annual target of 23 m tonnes. Vietnam’s rice production makes it a major exporter, contributing nearly 20% of world rice trade. This agriculture depends on ample fresh water delivered via monsoon and upstream rain, and a substantial downstream transport of silt (160-200 m tonnes per year). Sea level rise will lead to salt water incursion, eroding the productive rice agriculture. In addition planned changes upstream (both monsoonal changes and new dams for irrigation and hydroelectricity in Laos, and Cambodia as well as Vietnam) are expected to cut the delivery of silt by 50% and further enhance salt water intrusion.

Rice-fields Vietnam Insiders Asia

The rice paddies of the Mekong Delta enable Vietnam to provide 20% of the rice on the world market. Climate change and upstream development actions will require adaptation if this productivity is to be retained. Image © Insiders Asia

The article discusses possible options for dykes and seawalls (at a construction cost of US$ 5-8 billion) as well as what they term soft options – a shift towards more salt-tolerant varieties of rice, other crops and shrimp aquaculture – which are less expensive but require greater change in farming practice and in government policy which currently focuses on rice as an export commodity. The solution is not easy. The community will be resistant to altering patterns of life, and several government ministries are pushing the engineered option despite the cost and likely poor outcome. A rational approach by all parties could be useful – the authors favor a hybrid solution with some engineered protection and some modification of agriculture as the best outcome. Time will tell what will really happen. And this struggle with the ocean will be repeated, with subtle local variations in many other productive coastal regions around the world while governments stretch to cover infrastructure costs and farmers struggle to continue to make enough money from their crops to feed their families.

Thawing of Arctic Permafrost

The January issue of Nature Climate Change contained an article by Ake Nauta of Wageningen University, Netherlands, and 10 colleagues from various Dutch, Danish and Russian institutions. They described a simple field experiment run over five years at a lowland site in north-east Siberia. In a set of five 10m diameter plots they removed all shrub vegetation (chiefly dwarf birch, Betula nana). A set of five control plots were left undisturbed with their shrubby vegetation intact. Nauta and colleagues then tracked changes in the plots over five years.

The issue they were investigating was the way in which presence of above-ground vegetation might modify the way in which permafrost melts as the Arctic warms, and therefore the extent to which tundra sites act as carbon sinks or as carbon sources. Such information is vital if we are to understand and therefore project into the future the pattern of climate change in the Arctic.

At present, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as more temperate localities, and as permafrost melts organic material that has been trapped in the soil begins to decompose, releasing methane to the atmosphere. Such methane releases can become a potent positive feedback mechanism for climate change. Nauta and colleagues found that the experimental and control plots differed significantly within one year. Thawing of the soil during the summer season extended 5 cm deeper into the soil in the denuded plots than in those that still had shrubs present. By year 5, the added depth of annual thaw was 15 cm.

Nauta Fig 2 nclimate2446-f2

Figure 2 from Nauta’s article showing the marked difference in surface profile in the vegetated (control) and the denuded (removal) plots in the final two years of the experiment. The plots all had similar profiles at the start of the five years.
Figure © Nature Climate Change

By year 4, there also was noticeable subsidence in the removal plots, leading to deeper snowpack the following winter, and subsidence was even more pronounced the following year. In other words, the presence of the shrubs protected soils from the full effects of the warming climate and slowed the melting of permafrost. In the absence of shrubs, permafrost melting was more extensive with the result that land became depressed as water left. Measurements of methane flux during the final year of the experiment revealed that methane was being taken up in the control plots, but released to the atmosphere in the denuded plots.

Relative surface elevation, snow depth, groundwater level and methane flux in control and B. nana removal plots in 2012.

Figure 3 showing that, at the end of the experiment, control plots were higher, collected a thinner snow pack, had less water-logged soils, and emitted less methane than plots from which all shrubs had been removed. [The symbols (*), *, and ** denote significance levels of 10%, 5% and 1% respectively.]  Image © Nature Climate Change.

These results reveal that permafrost melting is going to proceed quite differently from place to place as the climate warms. Shrub communities will be particularly important in slowing rates of thaw, and keeping soils functioning as carbon sinks as long as possible. It’s a small study that raises some important big questions about how we manage the ‘desolate’ tundra in coming years. We have realized for some time that the warming of the Arctic is going to be ‘complicated’ and probably ‘problematic’, and this study gives one more detail on how. Nauta and colleages close their article with an observation that expanded oil and gas exploration, or comparable types of mineral development, for example, will tend to reduce or eliminate vulnerable shrub cover, thereby worsening the rates of permafrost thaw and rates of methane emission from soils. I don’t think that thought has been part of Stephen Harper’s reflections over how Canada will benefit from climate change by ‘opening up’ the Arctic.

The Extent of Human Impacts on our Planet

If anyone still doubted it, we really must move on climate change mitigation. The old argument that the change is not likely to be ‘that bad’, or ‘as bad as the scientists are saying’ has now worn very thin. Our news media are full of stories of the latest sign that our world is changing fast, and the current effort among geoscientists to gather the evidence necessary for them to decide whether or not to formally recognize that we have entered the Anthropocene has once more made clear just how radically we have already altered our planet.

An article by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin of University College London in the 12th March issue of Nature seeks to identify a clear geological marker for the start of the Anthropocene. This is a necessary step towards formal recognition of a new geological period – the specific time-period must be definable by some geological marker. (For example, the end of the Cretaceous is formally defined by a globally distributed thin bed very rich in Iridium, a normally rare element believed produced by an impact by a massive asteroid that was the, or the major, event that triggered the massive changes that occurred at that time.) Among the Anthropocene start dates they consider, some are expected – the start of the industrial revolution in 1750-1800, and the start of the nuclear age with development and a peak of atmospheric testing of bombs between 1945 and 1963. Of these, the industrial revolution has no clear marker for its commencement, while the peak levels of 14C in tree rings and ice core strata from the early 1960s uniquely mark the start of the nuclear age.

To me, a more surprising signal, and one Lewis and Maslin propose for serious consideration as an Anthropocene start date, arises from the European colonization of the Americas. In the period between 1492 and 1650, that colonization led to a collapse of native American populations (from about 60 to 6 million people), and a substantial exchange of new world and old world foodstuffs, as well as some other plants and animals. The first records of pollen of Zea maize (native American corn) in European sediments in 1600 mark this event, but the authors instead turn to a brief reduction and recovery in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, as recorded in ice cores dated to 1570-1620. During that time CO2 concentration fell by 7-10ppm, because the immense dying of the native American population led to a collapse of agriculture in the Americas, and a regrowth of forests. The forests sequestered carbon, removing it from the atmosphere. Their numbers are staggering. About 50 million hectares of forested land regenerated over about 100 years, with a resulting uptake of 5-40 Pg of carbon from the atmosphere (that is 5 to 40 billion tonnes of carbon, 18 to 147 billion tonnes CO2). We currently emit about 10 billion tonnes of carbon per year. Lewis and Maslin suggest this event is a suitable marker for the start of the Anthropocene; to me it is simply one more piece of evidence of how substantively we have been changing this planet, and for how long.

Bradshaw_rock_paintings Wikipedia

Even before these ~50,000 year old Bradshaw images were painted in Australia’s Kimberley region, humans were having measurable effects on this planet, chiefly through our extermination of numerous megafauna. Image from Wikipedia

Lewis and Maslin note other pronounced human impacts on the planet. Our invention early in the 20th century of the Haber–Bosch process, which allows the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia for use as fertilizer, has altered the global nitrogen cycle so fundamentally that the nearest equivalent is the evolution of nitrogen fixation by cyanobacteria and the consequent generation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago. Our release of 555 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere since 1750 has raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to a level not seen for at least 800,000 and probably several million years, and delayed the planet’s next glaciation event. Those emissions have also set in train changes to ocean pH and sea level that will take hundreds of years to play out. We have appropriated 25-38% of primary production for human use, and taken over some 40% of available land for our use, thereby leading to extinction rates for other species that are 100 to 1000 times more rapid than usual, and may be signaling the start of the sixth mass extinction event. Our invention of novel chemicals such as plastics, antibiotics, and pesticides; our creation of novel genetically modified organisms; and our transport of species around the globe have collectively altered the course of evolution on the planet. Furthermore, the rates of most of these changes, particularly since 1950, probably exceed the rates of change any extant species has experienced in its evolutionary history. And our changes are cumulative and synergistic.

Any Political Progress Yet?

The IPCC expects to receive plans from governments over the next several months, and Switzerland was the first country to comply. Released on 27th February, the Swiss plan is for a reduction of emissions to 50% of its emissions in 1990 by 2030. This will be accomplished by partitioning with 30% achieved within Switzerland and 20% achieved through carbon markets or other offsets (purchasing reductions achieved elsewhere in the world). Switzerland currently emits 0.1% of global CO2 emissions (6.4 tonnes per capita per year) so these planned improvements will not make a huge difference to the overall problem. But they are of appropriate amount if achieved, and Switzerland is behaving responsibly. The Swiss also plan for achieving a 70-85% reduction by 2050.

abbott-harper1Steve Christo-G20 Australia-CC BY-NC-ND

The happy couple? The Bobbsey Twins of Fossil Fuel? Two climate-denying prime ministers?
Photo © Steve Christo/G20 Australia/CC BY-NC-ND

Canada continues to dither while our government tries to strike fear into our hearts – fear of terrorists, fear of pedophiles, fear of environmentalists, fear of science – while ramming bold new initiatives through Parliament to strip away our rights and freedoms in order to protect us. The uncanny parallel in behavior of Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott continues, and I remain justified in calling them the Bobbsey twins of fossil fuel. The International Council for Science, more circumspect, dubbed them the ‘climate bad boys’ on its Road to Paris website on Feb 10th. In their words, Australia and Canada are

“two mid-ranking powers —both in the G20, one in the G8—that are not just global warming laggards, but have made sharp u-turns from earlier international pledges, overturned previous governments’ climate legislation and boast leaders that are themselves climate sceptics and have even muzzled climate scientists.”

Neither seems to have ever seen a fossil fuel project he did not like. If there is a glimmer of awakening to the reality around him it is that Harper has now been heard, on at least one occasion, to say that climate change is a major problem. But he did not elaborate, and did not say whether it is a big problem because it interferes with his agenda or because the world needs to do something about it. It seems it is big but not yet major enough to trump such important issues as whether a new Canadian should be permitted to wear the niqab when taking the oath of allegiance. Protecting us from climate change is probably a bigger and more important problem if you measure the economic cost of not acting.

On March 3rd, CTV News reported that Environment Canada has been whispering quietly to Provinces, to find out what plans they have for counteracting climate change. While Harper’s Environmental Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, has refused requests for interviews on the topic over the past month, her spokesperson said,

“Canada is actively preparing its intended nationally determined contribution [to emissions reduction]. As this is a national contribution, the provinces and territories hold many levers for taking action on emissions, so the minister is seeking feedback from her counterparts on how initiatives in their jurisdictions will factor into Canada’s overall commitment.”

No national announcement. No billboards trumpeting how “Your Harper Government’s Climate Action Plan” will somehow help us all become loyal followers in the great greening of Canada. No talk about how our new greener economy will provide high-paying jobs to Canadians while keeping our environment entire. Just some whispering by lowly civil servants at Environment Canada, with the hope that they will be able to stitch together a little bit of BC climate tax, some Ontario expansion of green energy, and some Québecois capping and trading with California to produce a distinctively Canadian climate quilt to be taken to Paris. Just thinking about it makes one so proud to be Canadian. I’m sure Ms Aglukkaq is not talking to the press because she is just overcome with emotion over this grand, inclusive, distinctly Canadian plan being nurtured behind closed doors.

Canadians seem well ahead of their government on climate, but with the Federal government doubling down, keeping the discussion centered on terrorism, law, and order, and with the two main opposition parties still very gingerly stepping around the climate file, Canada is not getting the national political leadership it deserves. A thoughtful piece by UBC’s Max Cameron, in The Tyee on 2nd March provides a clear statement of the political and economic aspects of the climate issue. He addresses the difficulty any democracy faces when attempting long-term change – a difficulty perhaps sharpened in the increasingly polarized political community in Canada and the USA. He also says, very clearly, listen to the scientists, this is a real and growing problem.

As I write this, the prices for gas and oil continue to erode, and exploration in the tar sands grinds to a halt. Those corporations that have told us repeatedly in their airbrushed commercials how much they care about Canadians, are cutting back any activities that are not providing profit at the present time. Turns out all those great jobs we’ve been told about can be terminated with little notice, and they are now disappearing. The Alberta economy is tanking once again. Now, when gasoline prices are low, is the very best time for a national carbon tax, and Canada should put one in place. A national price on carbon is infinitely preferable to a patchwork quilt of measures put in place within single provinces (although full credit to provinces like British Columbia that stepped up to partly fill the national vacuum). The revenues from a carbon tax can be split, with a portion used to subsidize less well-off individuals facing added living costs, and the rest used to subsidize the cost of transition towards greener energy and the cost of adaptation to the environmental impacts of climate change.

We need a government that sets priorities that favor a shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. What we have is a government (and a good portion of the opposition) that is starting to talk about mitigating climate change, while continuing to advocate expanded use of the tar sands. Having it both ways sometimes works in politics, but not this time. As Tim Gray of Environmental Defense said of the tar sands in an Op-Ed in The Star on 25th February,

“To be clear, we’re not saying shut it down today. But there should be a moratorium on new projects and pipelines until Canada has meaningful policies and actions in place to address carbon emissions.

“There may be a future where some tar sands oil can be extracted while we reduce overall Canadian emissions. Such a future would also involve cleaning up extraction-related local impacts, negotiating fairly with affected First Nations, undertaking deep de-carbonization of the electricity grid (including closing Alberta’s coal-fired electricity plants), making massive investments in electrifying transportation (Ontario’s big polluter), scaling up energy conservation programs for industry and buildings (a huge opportunity in Quebec) and investing in new technologies that will create wealth and reduce emissions.

“This is actually a possible future for Canada and one that would help increase the productivity of industry, spur innovation, reduce costs and enhance our quality of life. Other countries are waking up to this possibility, investing in the clean economy and making public policy to enable it. Canada is not and we’re at risk of being left behind.”

To which I can only add, Amen. And immediately note that, as I write, Vanuatu is being hammered by Category 5 cyclone Pam, with 270 km/hr winds, causing massive destruction on this remote, vulnerable island nation, home to just 267,000 people. It is the worst storm there in recent history. Sure, we cannot claim this storm is a consequence of our changing climate, but the world is seeing far more ‘worst ever’ events these days. If we actually care about our own, and our children’s lives, we will act on climate now.

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | 1 Comment

The ocean – large, complex, not well understood, and changing rapidly: a big problem as we seek to understand global environmental change.

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Recent articles in the technical journals and in the media convince me we should be getting a lot more concerned about the state of the ocean than we are. Sure there has been progress. IPCC devotes whole chapters to discussion of ocean phenomena, numerous reports have appeared calling for more attention to the ocean, and oceanic processes are increasingly invoked to explain observed changes in climate. But I was prodded to attention when calls appeared earlier this month in both Science and Nature, urging the commencement of carefully controlled experimentation on possible geo-engineering solutions to the problem of global warming.

In their ‘comment’ in Nature, Jane Long, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and two equally senior US colleagues, called for the US government and others to begin programs to fund small-scale, low-risk, outdoor, climate-engineering research, and develop a framework for governing it. They argued that it was important to grow the science and the regulatory framework together, and to commence now, before rogue operators do something the world will regret. Their assumption, of course, is that US science and US scientists would not do anything reckless.

Science reported in its 13th February issue that the US National Research Council (NRC) has recommended that the US government commence funding for a coordinated program of research on albedo modification and on atmospheric carbon removal technologies. The article does not mention the risk of rogue operators, but talks instead of the likely need for such techniques “to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”, and the reluctance of funding agencies until now to fund such research. This article also reports that the NRC study was requested and partially funded by the CIA.

Geo-engineering is the term used to cover engineered or technological fixes for climate change and other environmental problems, and geo-engineering has its cheerleaders. Using geo-engineering, we invent our way out of difficulties rather than correct behavior that over-taxes the planetary systems. Many of those in favor of geo-engineering are the same people who believe we can establish colonies on the moon, or replace natural systems on this planet entirely with engineered ones. They believe we already understand environmental systems sufficiently to build a world where we can do what we want to do even if that includes exceeding currently existing limits set by the natural planetary system. They seek to bend the planet to our will rather than operate in ways that sustain the planet. They are definitely rah-rah engineers rather than scientists. We saw one, not too long ago, bilking First Nations people out of millions by promising to fertilize the oceans around Haida Gwai.

Albedo modification is a term used for various technological approaches to cooling the Earth, usually by making the atmosphere more reflective thereby reducing the amount of sunlight reaching and warming the planet. Most techniques involve polluting the atmosphere with small particles or molecules of some type. Carbon removal refers to approaches that would suck carbon, or CO2, out of the air for sequestration deep underground or elsewhere. Geo-engineering fans see these as obvious solutions to present problems. The problem is that any exploration of such approaches outside a lab necessarily makes use of our shared environment. Experiments are experimental – they can go badly wrong. I would much prefer carefully regulated research to rogue experiments in any science done outside the laboratory, but I am also concerned that the enthusiasm for research in this area, well regulated or not, smacks too much of an ‘if we build it they will come’ mentality that guarantees the upscaling and use of these approaches to managing climate whether or not other solutions are available. How much better to solve our CO2 pollution by adding commercial air pollution with reflective particles, than to reduce our problematic CO2 emissions? It becomes a new, money-making activity, and allows us to continue our profligate polluting ways.

At the same time, I am concerned that our very slow progress towards CO2 emissions reductions may well leave humanity exposed to an ugly climate in the near future, one that is so bad it must be improved temporarily using some geo-engineering strategy because the real fix (reductions in emissions) is taking too long. While they express it differently, authors of both recent articles share this concern. Indeed, the NRC report takes pains to discriminate between albedo manipulation and carbon removal, and lead author, Marcia McNutt referred to albedo manipulation as “really scary” and something to do our best to avoid. Nevertheless the report sees starting some well-regulated geo-engineering research as sound insurance.

In my view, the correct approach, difficult though it may be, is to put in place an international, enforced moratorium on any albedo manipulating experiments while continuing to encourage approaches for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and to work hard for the international agreement on reducing CO2 emissions that we all know we must have. It is the right approach because you do not solve pollution by creating additional pollution, and because you do not achieve difficult political agreements by reducing the pressure to agree. It is also the right approach because adjusting the planet’s albedo only addresses the warming due to addition of CO2 to the atmosphere – it totally ignores the impacts of all that added CO2 on the world’s ocean. We cannot afford to forget about the health of our ocean and proponents of geo-engineering frequently do.

The Ocean – most important ecosystem on the planet – is changing

The ocean is a massive yet moving heat sink that both stores immense quantities of heat and moves heat from the tropics toward the poles. Covering about 70% of the planet’s surface, and containing 13.7 billion km3 or 97% of the planet’s water, the ocean is enormous and the major heat sink on the planet. The ocean has absorbed about 93% of the excess heat entering the Earth system over the last 45 years, and about 30% of the CO2 which we have been emitting into the atmosphere.

Most of that heat remains in the upper 700 m of depth, which has warmed most appreciably in recent years. Some of this heat has diffused to deeper layers and there is now measurable warming down to about 2000 m depth. Below that depth, temperature has not increased significantly in recent years. Part of the reason for this is that the ocean is only slowly mixed vertically via the giant ocean conveyor system which operates on time-scales measured in hundreds to thousands of years. Surface warming has strengthened the stratification of surface layers, further limiting vertical mixing and heat diffusion.

Fig 3.18 IPCC WG1AR5 pH changes

Figure 3.18 from the IPCC Working Group I Report, part of their 5th Assessment Report, 2013. Plots show similar trends through time in [CO32-], pCO2, and pH for surface waters at Bermuda (BATS), Hawaii (ALOHA), and in the north-east Atlantic (ESTOC). At all sites, CO2 has been increasing while pH and CO32- have been declining. Image © IPCC.

The same slow mixing is responsible for most of the CO2 absorbed in recent years remaining in the upper layers. It is in these surface layers that increased CO2 is causing a decline in pH, which has fallen about 0.1 unit since the beginning of the industrial era. Present-day surface water pH ranges regionally from 7.8 to 8.4 (average about 8.1). The link between CO2 and pH concerns the chemical equilibrium of ions of CO2 and CaCO3. Increasing CO2 leads to an increase in availability of CO32- and a decrease in HCO3-. This decrease of 0.1 pH units represents a 26% increase in availability of H+ ions. On time-scales of 100 to 1000 years, the added CO2 will be distributed to deeper layers of the ocean, and on time-scales of 100,000 years, CO2 will be precipitated as CaCO3 sequestered into oceanic sediments.

Whether being warmed and carbonated or not, the ocean basin-scale circulation pattern termed the giant ocean conveyor transports heat and salinity away from the tropics in surface flows which tend to cool and sink beneath now less dense, less saline polar waters. There is some concern among ocean scientists, but little direct evidence so far, that changes in surface water temperatures, and rates of melting of ice may act to slow this ‘turnover’ between surface and deeper waters by slowing down the ocean conveyor.

As well as being an important storehouse for heat and CO2, the ocean has immense biological importance. Photosynthesis by marine phytoplankton currently rivals that of terrestrial vegetation in production of organic matter, and in release of oxygen to the atmosphere. Changes that reduce the effectiveness of phytoplankton would have major, and long-term, impacts on food production and on oxygen concentration in our atmosphere.

In a major review of the complexities of the microbiota of the marine plankton, Alexandra Worden of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), and five colleagues from MBARI, MIT, University of British Columbia, and Oregon State University, recently drew attention to the enormous variety of types of organisms represented in the marine plankton.

Their paper, in the 13th February issue of Science, pointed out that the huge diversity of lifestyles among the protists in particular made any presentation of the single-celled plankton as ‘photosynthetic’ far too simplistic. Their paper, an ode to the rich, and as yet poorly understood biodiversity of these smallest of oceanic species, included a fascinating diagram representing all of eukaryotic (non-bacterial) life on our planet. That we understand so little of so many of these types of organism, and that the marine plankton is rich in representatives of all seven major and many of the sub-groups in their diagram, must give us pause when we consider likely impacts on the ocean’s biological capacities of our additions of CO2. Perhaps we should all take a look at their diagram once a week as a way of instilling humility, and driving out the hubris that leads to simplistic notions of being able to geo-engineer our way out of the problems our CO2 emissions are creating for us.

Worden Science ocean plankton F3.large

Figure 2 from Alexandra Worden’s review. Single-celled protists of many types are well represented in every one of the seven major branches of the eukaryote tree of life, and representatives of all seven groups make up the marine plankton. We are located along with all the rest of the ‘higher animals’ (Bilateria), alongside the Cnidarians (corals), Ctenophores (comb jellies), and Porifera (sponges), within the Opisthokonts. Fungi are another type of Opisthokont, and mosses and green plants are among the Archaeplastids. This tree omits all the prokaryotes that are even more numerous.
Image © Science.

Although it came out a month earlier, the article in Nature Climate Change for January 2015, by Phillip Boyd of University of Hobart, Australia, and colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA, and Braunschweig Technical University, Germany, provides a nice reinforcement of Worden’s primary message that we do not yet understand oceanic biology well. Boyd and colleagues demonstrate that there is significant regional variation in the strength and direction of trends in various aspects of ocean condition (temperature, salinity, pH, concentration of certain nutrients) being caused by our CO2 emissions, and that these differing patterns of overall change are going to impact different members of the plankton in different ways. They suggest the responses to some variables range from shifts of 20% to 300% in various physiological rates. Numerous interactions will occur among species that are more or less favored by the changed environment. Yet another set of voices arguing for caution when evaluating the likely effects on primary oceanic processes when we consider the changes we are causing.

And it’s not just climate change

Our impacts on the ocean are numerous. I won’t even waste space here talking about our over-fishing. Nor will I say anything about our ocean pollution. Other than to point out that in mid-February, Science published the most up-to-date estimate of the amount of plastic waste that gets to the ocean. The paper by Jenna Jambeck of University of Georgia, and six colleagues from across the US (plus one from CSIRO, Australia), indirectly calculated amount of plastic waste entering the oceans by first estimating amount of solid waste produced, extent to which that waste was plastics, and the effectiveness of waste management for each of 190 countries. The proportion of waste production that was within 50km of a coast was used to estimate the extent of the mismanaged waste in each country that would likely end up in the oceans.

Jambeck and colleagues calculated that in 2010, 192 countries generated 275 million Mt of plastic waste, and that between 4.8 and 12.7 million Mt of this entered the oceans. That’s somewhere between 4 and 12 million metric tonnes of it! Their estimate is one to three orders of magnitude greater than the mass of plastic reported to be floating in oceanic gyres (about 50 to 60% of plastic waste produced would be buoyant). While the discrepancy is large, the quantities of plastic waste they calculated are reasonable given the amount of plastic resins being manufactured. Jambeck and colleagues also report they expect the amount of plastic waste produced to increase an order of magnitude by 2025 as economies and standards of living grow. They include a table of the top 20 countries in terms of quantity of mismanaged plastic waste per year which shows large variations in quantity of waste, effectiveness of waste management, and per capita rate of waste generation. Not surprisingly, China tops the list. Its huge population mismanages 8.82 million Mt of plastic waste per year, while that of the US, 20th on the list, mismanages 0.28 million Mt per year. On the other hand, per capita, Americans generate 2.58 kg plastic waste per day, while the Chinese generate just 1.10 kg per day. While lots of plastic waste forms unsightly flotsam, or entangles iconic marine creatures, the greatest damage to the oceans happens at far smaller spatial scales where minute marine zooplankton and larval fish ingest micro-particles (a recent article is available here).

I blogged earlier this month about the paper in Science by Doug McCauley and colleagues suggesting that marine defaunation is likely to proceed rapidly as we continue to intensify our use of the oceans. They detail the many ways we are impacting marine life, and the many ways in which marine systems currently provide important goods and services for us.

And our ocean modulates our climate

Just as our changing climate is changing the ocean, the ocean modulates our climate. The warming effects of our CO2 pollution would have been far more severe if the ocean was less able to absorb heat. And yet, the complexity of ocean dynamics continues to make it quite difficult for us to comprehend exactly how it acts on climate, or to anticipate how it will act on climate in the future.

Just this week, Byron Steinman, of U. Minnesota, Duluth, with Michael Mann and Sonya Miller of Penn State, reported additional details in Science of the relationship between large-scale, multi-decadal oscillations in sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic (AMO) and North Pacific (PMO) and northern hemisphere temperatures. The so-called pause in warming since about 2000 (‘so-called’ because while the atmosphere has warmed more slowly, the oceans have continued to warm in response to our continued emissions of CO2) has been argued about ad nauseum ever since denialists first grabbed onto it as the latest proof that climate was not changing. Over the past several years, there has been a series of reports by various scientists filling in the gaps in knowledge of the oceans, and this paper is the latest. Steinman and colleagues show that we have been going through a period when the AMO was in a modestly positive phase while the PMO was in a strongly negative phase. The result is that air temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have been cooler than they might have been. The expectation is that quite soon, the PMO will shift more positive and atmospheric warming will pick up noticeably.

Meanwhile, with warmer sea surface temperatures, and with a warmer Arctic causing the jet stream to slow and wobble, eastern North America has seen another bruising February, and record snowfalls in many locations. The Thinkprogress blog had a nice piece on our interesting winter. Despite a warming world, those of us in eastern North America may have to become used to a shorter, but more intense winter, at least for a while.


Sean Davey Aurora Photos surf-waves-adventure_22958_600x450

If we understand the ocean, we can work with it. If we take it for granted… Photo © Sean Davey/Aurora

Putting all these things together, I think we should be far more appreciative of our ocean, far more aware of all the things it does for us, and far more concerned about the things we are doing to it. Our changes to CO2 concentrations have already set in train oceanic processes that will continue for thousands of years as heat and carbon are redistributed about the ocean. The acidification alone may have major biological repercussions, as may our plastic pollution and all the other types of pollution we spill into the ocean. The reduction or loss of services as fundamental to life as the production of atmospheric oxygen are not outside the realm of possibilities, and we really need humility as we work to increase our understanding of just what we are doing.

News Flash – China is colonizing the high seas

Nothing to do with this week’s topic except it definitely concerns the ocean: China has for some time now laid claim to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of some 750 reefs and cays in the South China Sea.

Spratly Islands Google Map

This screengrab from Google Maps shows the Spratly Islands close to the Philippine island of Palawan, and also closer to Viet Nam and Maylasia than to China. Nevertheless, China claims them. Map ©

China’s interest, and indeed that of the Philippines, Malaysia and Viet Nam, has to do with the fisheries in these productive waters, and perhaps also with likely oil and gas reserves. However, China has recently upped the ante, with extensive island building. Borrowing the destructive techniques pioneered in the Arabian Gulf by the Dubai builders of Palm Jumeirah and The World, islands are being created on top of reefs, by dredging with no effort to contain sediment or siltation.

Now, it is true that most of the other claiming nations have also established outposts from time to time on one or more of the few small sand cays that are the only land. But building islands where no land previously existed, and islands big enough for runways and wharves; that is different. There is an excellent series of aerial photos here, and the Los Angeles Times provides a good account.

Ironic fact is that the building approach is not one that is compatible with continued sustainable management of productive reef waters. This is a blatant grab of high seas territory. Not only do we not understand the ocean, behavior such as this shows we do not respect it.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Climate change | Leave a comment