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Fading old memories and the chance for making new ones

Posted on December 27th, 2011 in Climage Change,Culture,Government,Politics by Robert Miller

Aftermath of Joplin MO Tornado 2011

It is innately human for us to recall and assess this past year’s major events and review the memories, as the end of the year winds down to the last few days. After that, the new year starts up and we supposedly have something to look forward to, as we turn our heads and point to the future, though not quite putting last year’s memories in a lock box. Whether this transition is cultural or more subtly linked to the events like the Winter Solstice, the transition we make on or about New Year’s day is a change from looking in the rear view mirror for a few moments, to catch a few fading memories and then switching to focus our eyes on the road ahead. Barack Obama will have to do that as he prepares for his re-election campaign. Right now, resting in Hawaii, he is probably soaking up the impact of his recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas and trying to estimate how effectively it went down with the Millennial crowd, those for whom it was designed. I agree with other assessments that he will benefit more from the Millennial generation in the coming election compared to any other age group and that’s why his Osawatomie speech was so important. He currently holds a 25 point lead over Romney among Millennials–they alone will hold the key to his re-election and I think he finally knows this–they are strongly in support of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, but he will have to make a few more left turns in order to convince them and keep his big margin, enough so that the millennials will massively get out and vote in November 2012: they went missing in 2010.  This is an historic election coming up. Let’s hope that this election proves to be the year that we put the Republican Party, at least this iteration of it, in our rear view mirror on a more permanent basis.  On the other hand, for the older crowd, those that are in the pre-Baby Boomer generation, many of whom are members of the Tea party,  Obama trails Mitt Romney by a 54-41 margin, a very wide gap. Perhaps he can whittle away and gain a few points with this group, because as soon as Romney gets the nomination, he will shift his focus towards cutting benefits for Social Security and Medicare and eliminating the new healthcare bill he refers to as “Obamacare.” Those are issues that touch many of the Tea Party members–what they are actually mad about is not their benefits, but the idea that illegal immigrants and lazy young people will step in to get a share of the American pie while their own is increasingly at risk–that’s why they are conflicted with Romney’s candidacy. At the very moment Romney gets the nomination, many Tea Party members might be uttering “Hell hath no fury like a former private equity manager running for President.”

Not only do we as individuals assess the recent past, but it makes sense that our government agencies  try to do the same; one assessment among the U.S. government agencies stands out: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has tallied the cost of the many weather disasters we have been through in the past year. Justin Gillis reports on this in the New York Times: as he describes it, a typical year in this country for weather disasters usually has three or four incidents which reach the threshold of $1 billion or more each. But this year NOAA has done the math and, while the agency has not yet finished adding it all up, the final cost is likely to exceed $ 50 billion. It includes wildfires, floods, heat waves, dust storms and several deadly tornadoes, the likes of which have not been seen before.  According to  a weather expert who co-founded the website called “Weather Underground,” a search of the historical weather patterns going back to the late 1800s did not reveal anything comparable to 2011 for weather disasters. Though most climate scientists are certain that the heating of the earth from greenhouse gases accounts for many of these catastrophic events, right now it isn’t possible to say which events are global-climate-change-related and which are not. Climate scientists know that we are changing the scale of atmospheric events, because we are putting more energy into the atmosphere. This additional energy has to be dissipated in some way and more frequent and violent interactions with the Earth’s surface, whether over water or land, are about the only options. But things like tornadoes are hard to pinpoint in terms of their genesis because they are relatively small on a global scale and seem random. However, less random is the fact that funnels in some of the recent tornadoes, like that in Joplin Missouri, were a mile wide and touched down for much longer stretches than one’s experience would indicate. This was a violent tornado, destroying virtually everything in its path. Right now climate scientists are retooling climate models to deal with smaller regions and study more effectively the impact that global climate change has on these events. But there is some doubt about the accuracy with which these more refined models can be predictive and with public interest in global climate change at such a low ebb, and the economy in the tank, needed research resources to address these kinds of problems are not available.

In case you were thinking about serious mountain climbing this coming year, you might want to check out what has been happening to the large mountains on the planet, those with glaciers on top, most of which are in full retreat. One climber even reported seeing running water near the top of Mt. Everest, something never reported before. You might want to visit Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa before its glacier completely disappears, perhaps as early as 2015. Glaciers on major mountain tops have had serious erosion during the past few decades and because snow and ice have been the glue that keeps loose rocks and boulders bound together, hiking in many places has become more dangerous. While some climbing can be more accessible, it is often longer and more treacherous. To top it all off, a new report indicates that emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere had the largest increase ever recorded, with an increase of 5.9 percent in 2010.  This contrasts with  the 1.4 percent drop in emissions in 2009, the year the recession generated a significant drop in the economy and greenhouse gas emissions. Most climate scientists agree that we have reached a tipping point in the sense that we will have to live through a significant period of  impact from global climate change and that our planet is likely to change in irreversible ways as this century progresses. Here’s hoping that our fondest memories each year are not related to the weather patterns we enjoyed, but may never see again.



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Permafrost as a global warming issue

Posted on December 26th, 2011 in Climage Change,ecology,Environment,Science by Robert Miller

Carbon Sequestration in Permafrost (right) by "Cryoturbination" from Charles Tarnocai

Permafrost (permanently frozen ground) has not been on the radar screen very often in the national conversation about global climate change (GCC). When I started reading about the science underlying GCC a few years ago, I came across brief, scattered descriptions about permafrost; my tendency then was to skip over the pages describing the problem, which wasn’t difficult, as there were few in number and fewer still were the number of scientists who considered the issue to be an emergency situation or a major component of GCC. Indeed, until recently, it was widely assumed that the warming of the permafrost would stimulate new plant growth, such that the net impact would be a sink for carbon, not a source and hence, a protective mechanism for absorbing the carbon hiccups of GCC.  The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC; Fourth Report: working group I: The Physical Science Basis, p 340) stated “The maximum extent of seasonally frozen ground has decreased by about 7% in the NH from 1901 to 2002, with a decrease in spring of up to 15%. Its maximum depth has decreased about 0.3 m in Eurasia since the mid-20th century. In addition, maximum seasonal thaw depth over permafrost has increased about 0.2 m in the Russian Arctic from 1956 to 1990. Onset dates of thaw in spring and freeze in autumn advanced five to seven days in Eurasia from 1988 to 2002, leading to an earlier growing season but no change in duration:” there was little hint from the report that permafrost was a serious, hidden threat anymore than that attributed to greenhouse gas emissions in general. Thus, until very recently, any special reference to permafrost as a problem seemed to be traveling under the radar screen.  Observers and scientists alike have all been rightly focused on the more significant issue of coal-burning power plants, the number one polluter and green house gas emitter and the single biggest danger to our planetary future.  But in the last few years, reports started to appear which suggested that permafrost could no longer be ignored in calculations and models about climate change, because more extensive measurements suggested that it is potentially a major source of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane and that permafrost may be a storage source for huge quantities of carbon, in the form of plant material that got buried long ago in the layers of permafrost–a source that is now in the process of being “liberated” through exposure to planetary warming. One of the revelations that changed our views on this topic came from recent studies that measured permafrost carbon content at soil depths deeper than 100 cm, revealing that for some permafrost regions, up to 2/3 of the carbon deposits in the soil were deeper than the 100 cm limit used in many previous studies. More measurements and additional studies of this problem are acutely needed to evaluate the significance of this newly revealed, potentially dangerous source of carbon. It could form another positive feedback mechanism for GCC, at a time when we have a hard time dealing with coal-burning power plants.

Recently, Justin Gillis wrote an article in the New York timeswhich provided  an excellent, fairly detailed front page story on permafrost, together with information about ongoing studies in Alaska, Canada and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. These studies are alarming because they indicate that the Northern Hemisphere could become a source of carbon rather than a sink (indeed, it may be there already, though we don’t know this with certainty), created by warming conditions which stimulate bacterial breakdown of dormant sources of carbon.

Permafrost of Circumpolar Region (from Charles Tarnocai)

When oxygen is plentiful, as in the bacterial breakdown of plant material in air,  the stored permafrost vegetation is generally broken down into carbon dioxide, but when the region is oxygen-poor, usually when it is submerged in water, bacteria can generate methane gas from this carbon source, which forms bubbles in lakes and ponds as it rises to the surface and ultimately into the atmosphere. Methane gas has been reported in locations in Alaska: once in the atmosphere, it is 33 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas when measured over a 100 year period. It is far better to burn it off into carbon dioxide than let it reach the atmosphere as methane, even though its half life in the atmosphere is less than that of carbon dioxide.  Recent estimates of the amount of carbon that currently exists in the permafrost is about twice the amount that’s in the atmosphere already and could eventually constitute up to 35 percent of today’s annual human emissions. The danger of this source, is that once the process of degradation begins, though it may take 100 years or more to biodegrade its way through the available sources of carbon, it will be impossible to stop. Now is the time to alertly invest in research to evaluate with more certainty the true impact of this new addition to the GCC orchestra. Is it a single instrument or a new section of the band!

The first question of interest of course is what is permafrost? A dictionary definition is that of a subsurface material that remains below zero degrees Centigrade (32 degrees Fahrenheit) for a least two consecutive years. More practically, it’s the area in the Northern Hemisphere that is largely frozen, but some regions of the permafrost have a surface layer which has seasonal plant growth. The permafrost areas, like the rest of the planet, are beginning to warm and there is new cause for concern about the consequences. The earth is heating up more rapidly in the Northern Hemisphere than any other region of the planet. As the reflective glaciers (albedo effect) retreat, the area exposes itself as a less reflective environment, in the form of water and land, and more of the sun ‘s energy is absorbed and accelerates the warming trend; this constitutes a positive feedback system which further accelerates the loss of snow and ice in the region–>more heat–>less ice–>more heat absorbed–>more melting of ice–>where will it all end?  Thus, GCC is already generating one positive feedback system in the form of the albedo effect, especially evident in the Northern Hemisphere. Though permafrost also exists within the Antarctic region, it has been less well studied. As glaciers and ice pack formation retreat, more  permafrost gets exposed, but the warming of the exposed permafrost appears to be adding another source of carbon that we should seriously worry about. This issue has become of interest lately because studies have shown that permafrost is a rich source of sequestered carbon that has been trapped in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years.

It is counter-intuitive to imagine that permafrost might be a type of soil that holds rich deposits of carbon. One’s first impression is that soils exposed to frozen conditions will  be poor in nutritional value and contain less vegetation than that of more temperate soils. But extensive measurements from many different regions of the permafrost indicate that overall, the permafrost can contain higher levels of carbon than more temperate soils and that deep down in the soil, rich carbon deposits can exist.  The first figure illustrates how the permafrost becomes increasingly carbonized by a process referred to as  “crytoturbination,” (right figure) as if a giant Hobart machine circulated plant deposits  (and a few dead animals) from near the surface deeper into the soil, such that very deep layers contain high levels of carbon when compared to soils from more temperate regions (left figure). This process of permafrost carbonation has been going on for thousands of years but it is still surprising that they contain such high levels and deep layers of carbon deposits.  The second figure shows, in a color-coded map, the areas of permafrost that presently exist in the Northern Circumpolar regions, based on carbon soil content derived from borehole analysis.  If the permafrost source of carbon dioxide/methane gains momentum, it will become another positive feedback mechanism with sufficient potential power to make a big contribution to global warming. Whereas climatologists and plant biologists once considered the exposure of the permafrost to have a positive influence through carbon sequestration, with the new higher estimates of the permafrost carbon content, the process may well have started and whatever benefit we might have derived may be turning into an additional problem for the future of the planet. When you look at it in the following way, you can appreciate the problem: for hundreds of millions of years, the earth accumulated carbon in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. Through man’s ingenious nature, a portion of this carbon  has been put into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but on a time scale of a few centuries. Since we now understand that the planet is in a delicate balance of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, with the Earth’s ice and snow content, shouldn’t it alarm all of us when we imagine that our actions cannot do anything other than change our planetary weather? What new philosophical form of inquiry is required for man to properly gaze into the future that he has created for himself? Scientific inquiry so far doesn’t seem to work.


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The Occupy Wall Street Survey

Posted on December 23rd, 2011 in Politics by Robert Miller

If you have nothing better to do than wait until Christmas happens, you might be interested in filling out the Occupy Wall Street Survey, available through the OWS website. It’s an opportunity to express your opinion about the movement and make suggestions about where they should go next. It is thoughtful and quite extensive and you get to rank-order your politics, your opinion of the police and your views on many other topics. Finally, you get to rank the designers of the survey. I urged movement growth over demands and suggested that the very people who brought the economy down were the same as those that don’t mind bringing the planet to its knees, so why not combine the environmental issues related to global climate change with the OWS movement of social and economic inequity into one big planet-sized movement. But given the declining poll numbers of those (in America) who are concerned about global climate change, it is not hard to see why a new movement, such as OWS, would refrain from identifying with climate change as the Republicans have been able to flush the issue down the toilet, at least for now. More information on this important issue can be seen in Naomi Klein’s article on “Capitalism vs Climate” which appeared in The Nation. I frankly don’t know whether the dramatic fall in the lack of interest about global climate change is the shrewd success of skilled Republican machinations or simply the sour economy and the fear that doing something about global climate change would further erode the economy. I guess we won’t know the answer until the economy improves and people feel better about their economic future. But will that happen without a new and very different economy?

Apart from all that, Happy Holidays!

Zucotti (Liberty) Park Before the Deluge


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