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Entries in climate change (9)


Grasping the scale of the Queensland floods

Sam at Oceanographers Choice has an excellent post up that seeks to address a journalist’s statement that Queensland (Australia) “should have seen the flood coming”, using a quick climatology exercise relating rainfall and the climate pattern called El Nino Southern Oscillation (currently in a strong La Nina phase) in that part of the world.  In short, the answer is probably not, no; ENSO is an OK predictor at annual scales, but probably not usefully predictive at the monthly scale that would be needed to prepare a response to an anticipated flood event.

Seasonal rain cycles in Queensland, Australia

My friends in Brisbane (where I lived for 8 years during college) have all been affected directly by the flood or know someone who is.  One friend rescued neighbours in a boat and another is still missing a friend in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane.  The floods are getting a bit of press in the US, but perhaps not as much as they should because the body count is low (~25 compared to >600 in the concurrent Brazilian floods).  That’s mostly a function of Queensland’s low population, so don’t be fooled; we’re still talking about a once-a-century or worse flood event.  75% of the state is affected, which might not sound like much until you realise that Queensland is three times the size of Texas at over 715,000 sq. miles!  It is a truly gargantuan issue, especially now that there is also some flooding in Victoria and other southeasterm states.  This is the equivalent of a flood that extends from Cape Hatteras to Miami and Savannah to Houston!  Total cost is expected to be on the order of $10 billion, which in a state of 4.5 million is over $2,000 per person.  Its staggering.

Australia truly is a land of droughts and flooding rains.



12,081ft - The oceans, by the numbers

I was inspired by recent articles highlighting a revised calculation of the ocean’s average depth as 12,081ft, to consider the seas in a numerical light today. To that end, here’s a few random, sourced numbers and back-of-the-envelope calculations that might be food for thought:

0.87% = Amount we can see by diving from the surface (about 100ft) over the average depth
0.28% = Amount we can see by diving over the deepest part (Challenger Deep, Marianas Trench off the Philippines)
2.9 = Number of times deeper the deepest part is, compared to the average.
5,400 = Number of mammal species in the world
25,000 = Number of fish species in the world
Millions? = Number of marine invertebrates species in the world (no-one really knows)
2.3 Million = The number of US citizens directly dependent on ocean industries (source: NOAA)
$117 Billion = Value of ocean products and services to the US economy (yr 2000, source: NOAA)
50% = US population living in coastal zones
48% = The proportion of all human-produced CO2 absorbed by the oceans in the Industrial era (NatGeo)
0.1 = The pH drop in the surface oceans since 1900
0.35 = Expected pH drop by 2100 (source)
18 = The number of times more heat absorbed by the oceans than the atmosphere since 1950 (source - TAMU). Global warming is an ocean process far more than an atmospheric one.
3.5 Million = Estimated tons of plastic pollution circling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and growing.

And yet:

30 = Number of times thicker the atmosphere is (out to the “edge of space” about 60 miles) than the average ocean. That would be the atmosphere that astronauts describe as a “thin veneer” on the planet…
0.06% = Thickness of the average ocean, compared to the radius of the earth. I think we can argue that the water is the veneer, not the air
$4.48 Billion = NOAA’s 2010 budget, including the National Ocean Service, Weather Service and Fisheries Services. (source NOAA)
$18.7 Billion = NASA’s 2010 budget, i.e. 4 times the size of the agency that looks after our own planet (source NASA)
$664 Billion = Department of Defense base budget 2010, not counting special allocations (source DoD)
0.6% = The amount you would need to cut Defense in order to double the NOAA budget

Some sources:  


Q: When is a ship like a tree?

A: When you can't see the forest for it.

You may have followed some press in the last week or so about a Chinese coal ship, Shen Neng 1, that ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and spilled some of its fuel oil.  This has caused a regular frenzy in the Aussie media and the global conservation and environmental news-o-sphere.  There have been all sorts of calls for prosecution of the shipping company and new stringent regulations for the transport industry and so on, along with dramatic accounts of the damage the ship did and the risky salvage operation that came next.  But you know what?  I am not worried in the slightest about this incident.  Not that its a good thing - far from it - but this accident is nothing more than a tree, obscuring us from seeing one big and scary forest.

The main reasons I am not especially bothered by the Shen Neng accident are that (1) it affected a very limited area - the G.B.R. is really B.I.G. and one ship can only damage so much of it; and (2) it was a single event in time - this was not a process or an ongoing problem, but a singular disturbance.  Science shows us that the GBR, and reefs in general, are amazingly resilient to violent disturbances like this; a decent cyclone can literally turn a reef upside down, and a couple of years later you'd never know the difference.  Indeed, periodic disturbances may  be really important for maintaining a healthy reef ecosystem.

No, the Shen Neng is just a tree, obscuring us from seeing the forest that really threatens the future of the GBR and all reefs.  Its not the 2km gash that the hull cut in the reef, nor is it the tons of fuel oil leaked into the water; it's the very concept of burning that fuel oil, and burning the thousands of tons of coal that the Shen Neng 1 was carrying.  When you consider all the other ships and all the coal and fuel they were carrying that day and every day, and all the cars in the world, the power plants and so on ... ach, you get my point.  THAT'S what we ought to be worried about, because both of the main effects of increased atmospheric CO2 - warming and ocean acidification - will likely result in unrecoverable damage to All reefs. Everywhere. In our lifetime.  Warming is directly linked to lethal bleaching events, while acidification disrupts the ability of reefs to lay down their skeleton and grow.   Oh yeah, and lets not forget the drowning effects of sea level rise, too.  The more I think about it, the more it seems that jumping up and down about the Shen Neng is hypocritical (coal is one of Australia's biggest exports, after all) and akin to complaining about the deck chair arrangements of another, even bigger, ill-fated ship.  (Ironically, if Titanic sailed today, she probably wouldn't have to worry about icebergs...)

Of course, its a false dichotomy, we should be worried about BOTH the Shen Nengs of the world AND the global climate change/ocean acidification.  But I only have so much energy/capacity for worrying about these things, so with a limited anxiety budget, I feel compelled to focus on the bigger issue and what (if anything) we can do about it - to try to reduce consumption and to try to make sensible decisions that are mindful of how much energy is involved and what the broader impacts might be.

In other words, to worry about the forests - and let the trees take care of themselves.


Ocean Conveyor running AMOC

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

If you’ve ever seen the disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, then you’ve been introduced to the idea that one day the global ocean conveyor might stop.  Its a pity (or perhaps not) that the movie was such a sensational introduction to the concept, because its a pretty serious possibility.  By way of short explanation: one of the things that makes life possible on this rock is that the ocean redistributes heat that arrives on the earth’s surface between the tropics, sending it to the higher latitudes by way of warm surface currents.  There, the waters are cooled and made more dense (both colder and saltier) by the polar ice caps; they then sink and begin a slow meander back to the tropics, eventually returning to the surface to complete the cycle.  Without effective redistribution of this sort, the tropics would bake and the polar zones would sink into a deep hard freeze (in both cases much more so than “normal”).  The climate in the UK, for example, would be much more like Siberia were it not of the tempering effects of the Gulf Stream continually bringing heat from the Caribbean to the North Sea.  An important point about the conveyor is that it is driven from both ends: by the suns heat near the equator and by the cooling effect of all that ice at the poles.

 Why would the conveyor grind to a halt?  The equatorial heat doesn’t show any sign of stopping; if anything its getting hotter.  No, the biggest fear is for the other driver: if the polar ice caps melt too much, there will no longer be a big enough reservoir to chill and brine the surface waters and they will cease to sink.  Some data from recent years suggested that this was happening, and happening fast.  Well, it seems as though Armageddon isn’t here just yet.  A new paper by CalTech/NASA’s Josh Willis in the journal Geophysical Research Letters uses a more complete data set than ever before to conclude that the conveyor, or more specifically a major section of it called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC - hence the corny title of my post) measured at 41°N (near where it says “Atlantic” on the figure above), is not slowing.  In fact, there is some evidence that it may have sped up marginally in recent years, perhaps in response to warming and expansion of Atlantic waters.  The data were consistent across both satellite sources and sensor arrays deployed in the oceans, so it would seem like a pretty robust study (though I am no physical oceanographer).

I am sure I speak for everyone on the bonnie British Isles when I heave a sigh of relief.

But wait?  What light through yonder ice-shelf breaks?  Tis Greenland, and its seeing more of the sun!  In the very same issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a different group of authors report that ice loss is increasing from the Greenland ice sheet.  This is one of the major impacts of recent climate warming and the greatest contributor to increases in sea level globally.  It would also freshen the north polar waters, further reducing the driving force behind the global ocean conveyor.

My response to this news is to marvel at - and grapple with - the complexity and dynamics of the earth and its climate system.  Scientific results with seemingly opposite implications can come out (in this case in the same journal issue), but without threatening the major underlying pattern; I doubt, for example, that Dr. Willis would disagree with the concept of man-made climate change.  Faced with this seeming contradiction, its perhaps no wonder that many folks grapple with the Big Ideas at the heart of global climate change, and even doubt that it exists at all.  I for one have no doubt  that things are changing, and changing fast.  It may just be that some of the really big features of the climate system (including ocean currents) are slower to respond than others.  Its a bit like turning an oil tanker, which may be an unfortunately apt analogy…

Willis, J. (2010). Can in situ floats and satellite altimeters detect long-term changes in Atlantic Ocean overturning? Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (6) DOI: 10.1029/2010GL042372

Khan, S., Wahr, J., Bevis, M., Velicogna, I., & Kendrick, E. (2010). Spread of ice mass loss into northwest Greenland observed by GRACE and GPS Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (6) DOI: 10.1029/2010GL042460


More on the geo-hacking idea

Not so long ago I posted about the idea of capturing all the extra atmospheric CO2 into the worlds oceans by fertilising them and thereby creating enormous plantkon blooms that would convert all the CO2 to plant tissues, which would then sink to the bottom and be buried in the ocean depths.  This new scientist article probes a different angle that I didn't think of, which is Who decides what we will or won't do to change these things?  The author Jim Giles refers not just to ocean fertilising, but engineering the whole planet to combat climate change - what has become popularly known as "geo-hacking" - including sensible concepts like reforestation and cloud seeding, as well as the more absurd notions such as building giant reflectors to bounce the sunlight away.  Its a thought provoking question, so who do you think should decide these issues?  The US? UN? UNESCO?  Perhaps we need a new body with that as its sole charter?


If you can catch lightning in a jar, why not gas in a puddle?

Imagine if you could take all the greenhouse gases and somehow keep them away from the atmosphere, where they would otherwise contribute to global climate change.  Well that's kind of the idea behind SOFEX, a huge experiment done by marine scientists a few years back (my buddy and fellow Aussie Pete Strutton was involved).  The idea stemmed from an observation that the growth of plankton (which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and multiply) in the oceans is limited by some nutrients, especially iron.  So, if we fertilise the oceans with iron, perhaps we can get the plankton to "bloom", suck up all the carbon and then sink to the bottom, taking the greenhouse gases with them.  The colour picture hereabouts shows a satellite view of an artificial bloom created by adding iron to the ocean.  It was actually a neat idea, except I could never shake off the feeling that the stuff would resurface one day and that it was just delaying the inevitable; it depends to some degree on whether the sunken material gets buried on the bottom or not, I guess.

Well, the idea recently received another blow; a new paper in PNAS reports that the sort of plankton that bloom after iron fertlisation are the same ones (Pseudonitzschia ) that produce domoic acid, a nasty toxin that causes horrible problems as it accumulates higher up the food chain, especially in sea lions and other marine mammals.

Marine mammals are kind of a sacred cow in biology, so my guess is that that will be that for iron fertilisation.  Ironically enough, the whole problem with domoic acid in the oceans, which is a relatively new phenomenon, may have climate change as its root cause anyway - blooms of Pseudonitzschia are supposed to have increased in frequency and intensity because of environmental changes.  You can't win, sometimes.


Lazy SCUBA divers - pushing back the frontiers of climate science since 1970

Confused?  Read on...
Australia's CSIRO (the primary government-funded scientific research body; the kool kids say it like SIGH-row) has taken possession of a SCUBA tank last filled by its owner, a Mr. J. Allport, in 1968.  This may represent among the oldest clean compressed air currently available, and the boffins at CSIRO (one such boffin shown below), hope to use the contents to extend the directly-measured CO2 record back a few more years.  This would help improve the quality of climate data just a teensy bit more.  Admit it, that's kinda awesome.

I should call them. I'm pretty sure I've got a ham sandwich from 1982 somewhere in the attic; that must be useful for something...


Giant iceberg threatens Australia

Sounds odd right?  I mean, the sunburnt country - itself "adrift" in the southern oceans - on a collision course with a giant chunk of ice?  And yet, thats exactly the scenario unfolding off SW Western Australia.  Supposedly it broke off the Ross ice shelf, one of the largest on the planet.

The people in Perth could make a lot of gin and tonics...



Some time ago I noticed there wasn't as much going on in the blogosphere with respect to marine science as I would like, but I was really prompted to start writing by the press release last week from IUCN naming the 10 species - other than polar bears - most likely to suffer as a result of climate change.  Seven of those were aquatic and we had all of them, or close relatives, in the collection at Georgia Aquarium.  In choosing these particular species, the IUCN underscored the significant role of the oceans in global climate change processes.  This is tremendously important because I think most folks still regard GCC as a terrstrial issue.  Its not: evidence is growing that the ocean is the single largest driver of climate, and the response of the oceans to increasing greenhouse gases will determine how GCC plays out, including which models - if any - most closely meet the changes we observe.  The oceans are our best friend in this respect, absorbing excess carbon dioxide and dampening the effect of all that fossil fuel burning, but they do it at the expense of their inhabitants and they can only do it up to a point.   I expect this will be a topic we return to pretty regularly; it should be higher on many people's climate change radar, and we can hope that it features prominently in discussions in Copenhagen this week.

When I thought a little more about it, it shouldn't be at all surprising that ICUN picked 70% aquatic species for their list; after all, 70% of the earth is covered in water...