Apocalyptic Planet-Part Six: Cold and Ice


In spite the current global warming, Earth’s past and perhaps distant future is ice.  This past winter, much of the Midwestern and Eastern United States thought it had already returned.  A friend, forced to attend a mandatory training session, reported that the trainer from Minnesota made fun of those who claim we are warming.  Even though it was March, Minnesota remained a frozen land.  I kept thinking to myself, wait until the heatwave hits this summer.  Then what will he think.

Craig Childs likes adventures most of us would avoid even if we feel rather adventurous.  He flies into a camp in Greenland where scientists, all men, study ice.  Ice does not encourage a lot of life.  No animals, no plants, nothing here–the Greenland Ice Sheet.  The weather remains dreadful most of the year.  On the few days when they can leave camp, these scientists go out to take readings on remote sensors stuck in the ice.  These sensors enable them to determine how the ice changes.  They get to the camp by ski plane during the windows of clear weather which sometimes do not occur for days.  What kind of scientists go here?  Physicists, chaos researchers–yes there is such a thing as chaos research, climate change scholars, ice climate researchers, and an occasional adventurer.  The chaos guy’s interests focus on what cannot be predicted.  He records creaks, snaps, ice sounds.  These giant glaciers emit considerable noise.

This Greenland Ice Sheet is nothing like the ordinary ice we think of.  It’s dry and hard.  Shovels do not work very well.  They use chisels to break off big chunks.  The wind shrieks over the ice, sometimes at 80 miles per hour. It is twenty below in the summer.  Not twenty below Fahrenheit, twenty below Celsius.  To urinate, a guy has to wear parka, mittens, the works, and goes out to the pee pole far enough from camp not to contaminate the drinking water made from melted ice.  Now and then some poor bird gets lost or blown off course.  They don’t last long usually.  Here holes drilled find bedrock thousands of feet below the ice sheet.  One drill came up with spruce tree needles.  Once this very same location was a forest.  Greenland was green!

What happened?  One driver is solar radiation changes caused by the earth’s tilt.  Over tens of thousands of years, Earth swings away from the sun and then back.  These are nearly imperceptible changes.  It takes only a little.  The opening and closing of the Bering Strait also affects climate change.  Current warming aside, Earth’s recent past  (the last 60 million years) is an ice age, partly caused by teutonic plates moving and mountain building which reduced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making it colder.  All this points to human behavior as a factor in the current change to warmer. When Childs asked these scientist if they thought another ice age was on the way, they all laughed.  One noted that change in and of itself is unpredictable.  As one of my students might say, “Duh!”  On its own Earth makes quick climate jumps.  They did make a point to say , “We are tinkering to the point we could initiate a jump on our own.” Some computer models say global warming can lead to another ice age by disrupting climates.  One scientist indicated that humans may be preventing or delaying the next ice age by warming the earth.

Who knows what the future may bring even one thousand years from now.  In the long distant past the entire Earth was covered with ice.  At other times the poles were forests.  Maureen Raymo, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University says, “My feeling is that there is never going to be another ice age as long as there are humans on the planet.”  Some scientists think we will develop a technology to control the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Raymo notes, “If they (meaning humans) were smart, they’d get their act together.”

Gratitude and Dust


Initially, I planned to continue my Apocalyptic Planet series, but today’s events caused me to choose otherwise.  As I sit here writing this, I can see the endless blowing dust through the spotted window.  Sometime today, while I was at work, it sprinkled while the dust blew.  Now every window on the east and north side of my house appears as if someone had thrown handfuls of nearly dry mud at it.  My black car looks the same.  The wind whistles in the flue of the wood burning stove in my bedroom.  This storm  blows harder and longer than the one we experienced last week.  Tomorrow they forecast more of the same.

Saturday I stopped by two greenhouses to purchase some hanging baskets and native flowers.  The mesquite trees kept telling me, “Wait, wait.  Cold will come again. Wait!”  Normally, I obey what the mesquite trees tell me.  They never come out until they know without a doubt the cold is over and they feel safe.  I bought the flowers anyway.  This coming Saturday, Hilltop Senior Citizen Center in Amarillo has their Gala at my house to raise money–complete with a silent auction, food, and drink to raise some much needed money.  I want everything to look springlike and pretty.  I heard the weather forecast on the radio coming home from work.  I just looked again on the Internet.  Frost predicted tonight and even colder tomorrow night.  After I fed Rosie, placing the alfalfa as much out of the wind as I could, I brought the hanging baskets inside and poured a bunch of water on the other new plants. The native plants, tough, worry be little.  The others will not survive 33 degree weather.  Later, I will go out and cover them with old towels, hoping the wind relents and does not blow them off.

Everyone here posts photos of the dust on the Internet and gripes about this horrid weather.  Although I certainly dislike it, I refuse to complain.  This, too, is tornado country.  I listened to the news this morning and again coming home from work.  Thirty four dead, whole towns destroyed, a new school flattened.  Here I see no devastation, only the endless, depressing, annoying dust and wind.  My friends, family, and I are alive, our houses intact.  Rosie huddles behind the barn, still healthy, neighs when she hears me coming.  Gratitude engulfs me.

 

Rosie

 

Rosie

 

SAM_0461

 

The iris I was hoping for.

Earth Day


Sometimes when you love nature, the environment, wildlife, wild places, it is easy to become extremely discouraged.  News about the dramatic increase in poaching in Africa condoned by some governments there does little to help.  Data illustrating how the United States is a hub for wildlife trafficking, the push to kill wolves, big oil’s persistence to explore and open fields in the Arctic and other more delicate environments, water waste, climate change denial, a seemingly endless lists of negatives, can make one think about giving up.  The Colorado River is under siege.  The drought ridden Southwest of which I am a part has too many people fighting over too little water. The EPA just approved a new pesticide known to kill bees which are already disappearing, posing a huge threat to our food supply (see a previous blog highlighting how our food supply depends on these same rapidly disappearing bees).  Another mountain top removal coal mine is being proposed in Kentucky and it is next to a school.  The US Army Corps of Engineers issued the permit.  I could probably spend this entire evening adding to this list of negatives.  I could give up, but I never do.  I keep looking for positives and for changes created by people who care.

 

In honor and praise for those who care and for the positives occurring, I am creating another list:

-Ralph Maughan, an Idaho native, continues to work on the saving the pristine wilderness of the River of No Return Country.  He wants to save wolves in a state where politicians have proposed a law to kill 60 per cent of the state’s wolves.  The Idaho Department of Fish and Game plans to professionally exterminate them so there will be more elk for hunters.  No, I did not make this up.  Maughan says, “the wilderness is supposed to be a place where large carnivores, like wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions can exist as they did before humans arrived.”  Now the agency wants to come into a proclaimed wilderness to suit their own purposes. This fight continues.

-In Hawaii many housetops and businesses now glitter with solar panels.  Isaac Moriwake’s consumer advocacy efforts support consumers who want to generate their own electricity through clean energy.  Solar panels totally cover the roof of the new parking garage at the Kapl’olani Medical Center in Oahu.  Hawaii has been able to create a clean energy framework with considerable solar success in spite of traditional utilities’ efforts against it.

-In more remote places like Nepal the WWF helped locals replace wood burning stoves with biogas burners so they would not have to cut down their forests for fuel.

-As Myanmar develops economically and joins the international stage, huge areas of prime forests and native animals are at risk.  Conservationists work with the new government to create national parks and other areas to preserve Myanmar’s rich biodiversity and to listen to local wishes as to how to preserve their valuable natural heritage.

If I wanted to stay up half the night, obviously I could add more and more to each list.  And it is easy to wonder just what can one person do.  For starters, use less water, get rid of all the junk mail that arrives–a later post will describe methods to do this–so it will not add to the landfill and the demise of trees, do not buy furniture made from slow growing tropical wood, adjust your thermostat to warmer in summer and cooler in winter, carry your own bags so you won’t have to use the plastic ones at the store, become politically vocal about conservation.  If you wonder is all this effort worth it, take a walk in the woods, along a beach, through the jungle, on a desert path; fill yourself with wonder.

 

Apocalyptic Planet-Part Four: Seas Rise


As I write this title, it seems a bit counter intuitive that one of the first things I saw this morning was a newspaper discussing many small cities around the Texas Panhandle which are running out of water.  And on the TV news as I write this, the city of Amarillo announces measures being taken to curtail water use, followed by a detailed discussion, explaining how one of these smaller towns plans to address the lack of water.  Drought expands while ice melts and seas rise.

Childs explains sea behavior by comparing it to pouring water back and forth among a bunch of pans.  Ocean behavior varies from place to place.  Louisiana has been losing seacoast at the rate of twelve meters per year and large parts of the Nigerian coastline has lost as much as thirty meters per year, one of the fastest losses on earth–erosion.  The moon causes tides twice a day changing sea levels on the average of two meters each time.  Historically most sea level changes are long term changes.  A major cause of sea level change is temperature.  Half the current sea level rise can be attributed to thermal expansion.  Water warms and spreads out.  Not only does heat expand near the sea surface, but now also expands into depths not previously affected.  Findings by two oceanographers, Purkey and Johnson, indicate an increase in ocean heat 16 per cent greater than previously thought.  Oceans are the largest reservoirs of heat on earth.  Once heated, their size makes them slow to cool.

Purkey also notes that even in the depths of the seas, waves transfer heat.  However, because of the size of the Pacific, an event that occurred forty years ago in the southern Pacific will not reach the northern Pacific for approximately those forty years.  Thus, the warming and subsequent ice melt we see in the north Pacific started in the south Pacific forty years ago.  Another scientist, Carl Wunsch, notes that earth changes remarkably without human intervention.  Nevertheless, he recommends humans do something to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a precautionary measure in addition to discouraging people from settling in low lying areas.  Unfortunately, rising seas do not bode well for much of the earth’s population who live in exactly these low lying areas:  all of Bangladesh, Venice, Shanghai, New Orleans, Bangkok, the Marshall Islands, and many US coastal cities to name just a few places.

St. Lawrence Island north of the Aleutians provides a perfect example of what is happening.  Sea ice breaks up too early, fish species they used to see are gone replaced by new ones they never saw before, and the population of seals and sea lions has altered.  Cancer rates in the villages there have risen dramatically caused in part by the toxic poisons concentrated in the meat of the seals, whales, and salmon they harvest from our polluted oceans.  In 2008, they brought a lawsuit against Exxon, Chevron, and Mobil, claiming that these companies are the world’s major contributors to global warming.  They want these companies to pay for moving their villages to higher ground.  Sea rise necessitates the move.  They lost in District Court, but the case is under appeal.  The court cited that the chain of events causing their predicament is too long to lay blame in one place.  Childs notes that we really need such places to endure, places where people know how to lead minimalist lives, places where people know how to survive.

Apocalyptic Planet–Part Three: Ice Collapses


It may be difficult for some to believe, but over the last three million years ice dominated earth’s climate. We remain in that long ice age; widespread glaciers still exist.  For most of earth’s long, long existence no ice existed anywhere.  Currently, we are in an interglacial period in which ice has retreated back to the poles and the highest mountain reaches.  Earth as we know it has been shaped primarily by ice and to a lesser extent by volcanoes.  Once ice lay hundreds of feet deep as far south as Chicago and London.  What caused this see saw between Ice Ages and warm, wet periods where the ice retreated or disappeared entirely?  The changing tilt of the earth’s axis. Currently, the earth’s tilt is 23.5 degrees or so.  This tilt causes the seasons in non tropical areas.  Earth’s tilt changes a degree or so over time, causing the alternating periods between extreme ice coverage and warm periods.  At times the change has been so great that no ice remained even on the poles.  Usually, these changes are very slow, over thousands of years.  No longer.

Equatorial glaciers once common in the high equatorial mountains, e.g. Andes, Himalayas, a century ago no longer exist.  Ernest Hemingway once described the glacier on Kilimanjaro as “wide as all the world”.  Now nothing but a few patches of hard snow remain.  The once giant ice fields in northern Patagonia in Chili and Argentina currently lose volume at an ever accelerating rate.  While hiking and kayaking with a filming crew in this area, Childs saw just how rapidly this ice loss occurs.  In one instance a huge ice lake run off from one glacier totally disappeared in two weeks.  In Greenland an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan floated off in 2010 and finally melted in the Gulf Stream.  It narrowly missed shipping lanes and offshore oil wells.  The Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica the size of Yosemite National Park and 700 feet deep had been stable for more than 12,000 years.  It started coming apart over a decade ago.  It eventually floated off and melted.

Why does any of this matter?  Ice keeps the planet cooler.  Solar radiation bounces off into space.  Currently, ice reflects approximately 30 per cent of incoming sunlight.  Few present animals and people are prepared for the hothouse that would exist if much more ice melts.  This is in spite of the fact that radiation from the sun has actually gone down in the last fifty years.  As the planet warms, more ice melts, more heat remains on earth, more ice melts and the cycle continues.  The current acceleration of ice loss causes many scientists to question:  where is the tipping point?  How can we stop this rapidly accelerating ice loss?

Humans are increasing carbon dioxide levels ten thousand times faster than they changed over the last 65 million years.  Our globe is warming; all climatologists agree.  At what point will it be too late to turn this around?  Indeed, can we turn this around?  And if we do, will some of the ice return?  No one knows.  Nothing like this has occurred before in human history.  All this melting ice causes sea rise.  At the current rate a one meter sea rise by the end of this century is plausible.  Many of the world’s largest cities already have a sea level problem e.g.Bangkok.  Furthermore, the water supply for much of southern and southeast Asia depends on water from rivers and glaciers in the Himalayas.  The world’s largest supply of fresh water depends on this system.  Are we ready for a hotter, drier earth?