Archive for the ‘glaciers’ Category


May 10, 2008

Up here on the southern shore of Lake Superior, we do a lot of ice fishing. It’s a hell of a lot of fun — not the fishing, per se, but all the stuff that goes with the fishing. By fun, I do not mean exciting; ice fishing is just like other kinds of fishing; long periods of calm contemplation of the human condition and ones own place in’t.

A person knows when they’ve got a fish on the line when the tipup is triggered — on my rig, a little orange stick that springs up and literally quivers with excitement.

When I read the story in the Chicago Tribune about Russian scientist Sergei Zimov study of methane gas release from Siberia’s melting permafrost, a tipup spronged up in my head.

In Siberia, the permafrost entombs billions of tons of organic matter from the Ice Age, when northern Russia’s steppe teemed with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, musk oxen and other wildlife. Dormant for millennia, the permafrost is being thawed by global warming, triggering the microbial consumption that results in the release of greenhouse gases.

The process feeds on itself. As the climate warms, permafrost on the banks of Siberian lakes collapses into the water, supplying bacteria with more organic material to consume and further raising the level of methane released into the air.

The melting of permafrost cannot be stopped, Zimov said, but it could be slowed.

(Chicago Tribune – entire article)

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Konrad Steffan on a National Geographic program calmly say that the Greenland ice sheets are experiencing a positive feedback of melting. As an aside, I get a huge kick out of how calmly scientists talk, how their tone, word usage and body language say “Move along, nothing to see”; a person’s really gotta listen to get their point.

A few weeks before that, I read an article about how shocked scientists are at the rate of polar ice melt. Just five years ago, most scientist predicted that we may have an ice-free arctic summer sea by 2070. Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) just predicted that this summer, the summer of 2008, may experience an ice free arctic polar ocean — a sight last seen by the dinosaurs.

I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse. What I like about it so far is that it is so beautifully hopeful. There are ways that societies throughout our time on this old earth have dealt with these issues. Some societies, like the Easter Islanders, have failed completely. But others have managed not to fail.

We’ve hooked one hell of a fish. It’s easy to see that the global climate is going to change in increasingly dramatic ways. I think that, personally, I need to turn my attention to something other than staring horrified at the Loch Ness Monster that’s on the end of our line. It’s time that I started talking about what we might do with the bastard.


Deus ex Machina

April 8, 2008

I’ve been quiet for a while.  Sometimes it just gets too much and I have to step away.

The big environmental news story on MSN today is that beer drinkers might have to pay more for their brew.

I wonder how many people know that scientists were shocked to see how fast Antarctica’s Wilkens Ice sheet is breaking up.

It takes an awful lot to shock a scientist.

I wonder how many people know that “If global emissions of CO2 from human activities continue to rise on current trends then the average pH of the oceans could fall by 0.5 units (equivalent to a three fold increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions) by the year 2100. This pH is probably lower (more acidic) than has been experienced for hundreds of millennia and, critically, this rate of change is probably one hundred times greater than at any time over this period. The scale of the changes may vary regionally, which will affect the magnitude of the biological effects.” The Royal Society, Ocean Acidification Due To Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, 2005 (my ephasis)

I wonder if people know that scientists who thought that the arctic ice cap would be ice-free by 2070 are now predicting that it’ll be ice-free by 2015?

I know that there is a growing sense of unease. But I don’t think that decreasing our use of shopping bags is going to make much of a difference. It might make people feel better, but it will not deflect the load of buckshot that has already fired and is speeding toward our collective faces.

“Deus ex Machina” is a latin phrase — “God from the machine.” In Greek theater, when all was lost, God would jump out of a box and save the day.

I’m going to school, to University, and I’m surrounded by young people every day. Eating, laughing, studying, typing away on their laptops, chatting on their cell phones, they are seemingly unconcerned by their future. They talk about their future as if the world will always be as it is right now.

And it’s certainly not just the 20-somethings. I hear 40-somethings talking about their retirement funds and whether they are saving enough to support themselves when they are in their eighties.

I look around at all of this and I wonder if any of the current world governments will survive through the end of this century. I wonder if the ocean die-off will be gradual or quick. I wonder what will happen when their is no more money left for public schools, public housing and public medical care. I wonder what will happen when we face starvation in the cities.

We aren’t saving ourselves, and the hand of God or science will not sweep away the self-inflicted death-shot flying toward us that is our future.

Sometimes I have to set it aside and think about the day — getting kids to school, making dinner, walking the dog, listening to the first birds of spring, lifting my face to the late day sun. Sometimes I have to just take a deep breath and think about my own personal plan.

I wonder how many other people, these people who are seemingly unconcerned, are like me.

Black Carbon — New Report

March 25, 2008

A new report was published on line this weekend at Nature Geoscience:

Nature Geoscience
Published online: 23 March 2008 | doi:10.1038/ngeo156

Global and regional climate changes due to black carbon
V. Ramanathan1 & G. Carmichael2



Black carbon in soot is the dominant absorber of visible solar radiation in the atmosphere. Anthropogenic sources of black carbon, although distributed globally, are most concentrated in the tropics where solar irradiance is highest. Black carbon is often transported over long distances, mixing with other aerosols along the way. The aerosol mix can form transcontinental plumes of atmospheric brown clouds, with vertical extents of 3 to 5 km. Because of the combination of high absorption, a regional distribution roughly aligned with solar irradiance, and the capacity to form widespread atmospheric brown clouds in a mixture with other aerosols, emissions of black carbon are the second strongest contribution to current global warming, after carbon dioxide emissions. In the Himalayan region, solar heating from black carbon at high elevations may be just as important as carbon dioxide in the melting of snowpacks and glaciers. The interception of solar radiation by atmospheric brown clouds leads to dimming at the Earth’s surface with important implications for the hydrological cycle, and the deposition of black carbon darkens snow and ice surfaces, which can contribute to melting, in particular of Arctic sea ice.

The paper concluded that black carbon’s warming effect in the atmosphere is about 0.9 watts per meter squared, compared with IPCC’s consensus estimate of 0.2 to 0.4 watts.

“The positive side of this discouraging story is we know how to cut down black carbon,” Ramanathan said. “We have reduced it. So this is something we can do now.”
(Los Angeles Times, 25 March 2008 )

Faster Than Expected

March 18, 2008

BBC reports that some of the world’s glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were just 10 years ago.  “In its entirety, the research includes figures from around 100 glaciers, with data showing significant shrinkage taking place in European countries including Austria, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.”

In a second report today, University of Vermont ecologist Brian Beckage discusses changes in the forests of Vermont: “Scientists have long thought it would take generations if not centuries for tree populations to shift in response to a warming world.”

One of Beckage’s graduate students, Ben Osborne, measured significant shift of the transition zone, where deciduous hardwoods, like sugar maples, must give way to boreal conifers, like balsam fir.

“Acid rain damaged trees, creating openings in the forest canopy,” Beckage says, and this might have accelerated the hardwoods’ uphill push.

There’s an important message in these two reports. The thing is, scientists are trained to study in depth one small thing in one field. And so they point to this one thing and say, “well, warming temperatures won’t change the forests quickly, because trees live for tens of decades.” They don’t take other climate change factors into consideration, such as acid rain, insect attack, and increased forest fires.

And the problem with that is that we have a lot of scientists out there telling people that there is cause for concern, but no need to panic, eh? We have plenty of time to get our ducks in a row…