Learn Something New


After grading 45 essays this weekend, it remains a wonder that I learned anything new.  I did, sadly, once again find a few plagiarizers, but I also read some good essays on which students had obviously spent time.

As a person extremely interested environmental issues, I belong to several environmental organizations and read a lot about related issues.  Here are some of the things I have learned either recently or in the last few days:

-June and July were the warmest June and July on record and the 14th and 15th straight months in which such records have been set.

-Thawing permafrost near the Alaskan Highway has caused it to sink in places.

-In Siberia the same thawing has caused the release of deadly bacteria–anthrax to be specific.

-This past summer, toxic algae affected waterways in states as diverse as California and Utah.  It does not smell all that wonderful either.

-In Alaska so many wolves have been killed that naturalists can no longer research them in their natural state.

-The Republican Platform claims coal is a clean source of energy.

-Hot summers have caused Douglas fir trees to quit growing.

 

 

 

If Antarctica Thaws


Recently, my posts discuss a lot about Ice Ages, climatology,  and global warming. Most of it focused on the Arctic.  Apparently researchers in Norway and Germany think another vulnerable area is East Antarctica specifically the Wilkes Basin.  It stretches over 600 miles (1,000 km) inland and is vulnerable to thawing because only a tiny rim of ice on bedrock holds it in place.  If oceans warm and this rim of ice melts, the Wilkes Basin could break lose and melt.  Because the Wilkes Basin slants and this small rim of ice lays below sea level, once unplugged, it cannot reverse.

Antarctica is the size of the United States and Mexico combined.  If it ever melts, sea levels would rise 188 feet (57 meters).  Do not worry.  It will take 200 years for this plug to the Wilkes Basin to melt.  Those of us alive now won’t have to worry about seas rising that high.  However, it does not take much sea level rise to decimate many of our current large cities.  Already, in recent years New York City, Miami, and New Orleans have experienced immense economic flood costs.  Even if the seas rise a little more than seven inches by 2050, the following cities are expected to suffer huge economic losses:  Havana, Houston, Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Baranquilla, Mumbai, Kolkata, Marseille, Istanbul, Athens, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Naples, Alexandria, Athens, Algiers, and five cities in China, including Shanghai.  The latter may explain why suddenly China has taken an increased interest in global warming and how to curtail it.

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.”

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.