Time to Pull Over

Ever been driving down the highway and that little red engine light comes on? It’s just a small thing but it usually means something really bad is about to happen.

Something similar happened with our planet this week. A group of scientists has just discovered that the oceans ability to absorb carbon dioxide may be collapsing all over the world due to warmer water temperatures.

That is not good news. Our planet’s oceans helpfully soak up about 11 billion tonnes of human-produced carbon dioxide every year. That’s about one quarter of all the additional carbon that we are dumping into the atmosphere – and it looks like that gravy train may be grinding to a halt.

Warmer water dissolves less carbon and researchers report that since 1992, the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed in the Sea of Japan has plummeted by half. There is no reason to believe that the same process isn’t happening all around the world.

Kitack Lee, an associate professor at Pohang University of Science and Technology, who led the research, says the discovery is the "very first observation that directly relates ocean CO2 uptake change to ocean warming".

Such arcane nuts and bolts of our planet’s chemistry are not typically something that grab a lot of headlines. For instance, this frightening research was published in the rather obscure publication “Geophysical Research Letters” and was picked up in only three on-line publications.

In contrast, last night’s Golden Globe awards generated 4,791 Google news hits, but admittedly Eva Longoria’s maraschino-red Reem Acra dress did look fabulous.

So what does all this mean for climate change? The simple answer is that the hill we must now climb to get global emissions under control just got a lot steeper. With less carbon dioxide being soaked up by warming oceans, we need to drastically reduce future carbon to avoid things getting dangerously out of control.

The other nasty side effect of loading our oceans with 11 billion additional tonnes of carbon dioxide every year is that they are becoming more acidic.

While that might not seem like a big deal compared to Eva’s dress, bear in mind that the entire foundation of the ocean ecosystem is at risk. Plankton, algae and corals all depend on being able to make their shells out of dissolved calcium carbonate. More acidity means that these animals have to work much harder to produce their bodies, and down the road may loose this ability altogether.

This is probably not an experiment we want to try, but we are doing it anyway.

"Ocean acidification is happening today and it's happening on top of global warming, so we are in double trouble", said Jelle Bijma, a bio-geochemist at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven.

Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic. "Under a "business as usual scenario, predictions for the end of the century are that…oceans will become 150 percent more acidic -- and this is a hell of a lot”, adding Bijma is refreshing frank fashion for a scientist.

You don't need to be a mechanic to know that when that little red engine light comes on you need to pull over and deal with it. Turning up the radio will not help.


Climate Change Cancelled! (Whew!)

Good News! Climate change is all a big mistake! This remarkable finding was revealed by Michael Asher in Daily Tech – a publication more focused on iPhones than atmospheric science.

Asher’s piece Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979 confidently states that “Thanks to a rapid rebound in recent months, global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago…”

Strange. That’s not what scientists are saying. Just last month NASA released a chilling report showing that between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion tons of ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted at an accelerating rate since 2003 – enough to fill Chesapeake Bay 21 times.

The satellite survey of global ice loss showed that in the past five years, Greenland has lost between 150 gigatons and 160 gigatons each year. One gigaton equals one billion tons or enough to raise global sea levels about .5 mm per year

"It's not getting better; it's continuing to show strong signs of warming and amplification," said NASA ice scientist Jay Zwally. "There's no reversal taking place."

Scientists studying sea ice announced that parts of the Arctic north of Alaska were 9 to 10 degrees warmer this past fall, a strong early indication of what researchers call the Arctic amplification effect.

Positive feedback loops and accelerating climate change occur when reflective sea ice melts and allows sunlight to be instead absorbed by open water. Melting permafrost can also release massive amounts of CO2 and dangerous methane. Playing with the thermostat of the planet is deadly serious and extremely worrying to researchers.

"The pace of change is starting to outstrip our ability to keep up with it, in terms of our understanding of it," said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., a co-author of the Arctic amplification study.

So what about the bold dismissal of climate change by Michael Asher in the electronic gadget blog? Nothing new there. He seems like just another off-the-shelf climate denier with no apparent scientific credentials.

Asher has made a monotonous habit of slagging climate science. Have a look at the titles of some of his past posts:

  • Climate Report Downgrades Ice Loss; Media Reports Opposite
  • Princeton Physicist Calls Global Warming Science "Mistaken"
  • Defying Predictions, Sea Level Rise Begins to Slow
  • Glaciers in Norway Growing Again
  • Electric Car Sales in Freefall; Industry Risks Collapse
  • How to Reduce Pollution by Drilling for Oil
  • Study Finds Health Problems from Wind Farms
  • Oxygen Depletion: The Next Great Environmental Scare

You get the idea.

There is certainly nothing new about hacks like Asher holding forth with irresponsible, baseless and boring claims of how the entire scientific community has got it wrong on climate science.

I look forward to the day when they will be treated with the same deference as people who wear tin foil hats so space aliens won’t read their brain waves.


Bush's Scorched Earth Legacy

Apparently seeking to cement his name in infamy, lame duck president Bush is using his final days in office to monkey wrench the incoming Obama Administration's ability to tackle climate change.

W is seemingly unsatisfied to stand on his already substantial record of inaction and obstruction on the most important issue facing humanity. In the last month of his presidency, he is closing the “back doors” on regulation of carbon dioxide, creating additional climate policy barriers for the Obama presidency to overcome.

Specifically, the Bush Administration barred the Environmental Protection Agency from considering the effects of global warming on protected species. It also excluded carbon dioxide from a list of pollutants that the EPA regulates under the Clean Air Act.

Thanks W.

Environmentalists view the moves as a last-minute attempt to block speedy, executive action by the president-elect on climate change. Obama "now has to clean up a mess," said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club, which has challenged the EPA over the Clean Air Act decision and plans to sue to block it.

Bush is also using his final days to hand out goodies to his friends in the coal industry. Environmental groups are challenging another last minute anti-environment edict from the Bush Whitehouse allowing coal companies to fill streams with mine tailings.

“With the stroke of a pen, President Bush has made unlawful acts by the coal industry legal and will allow their assaults on our homes, our way of life and the destruction of our headwater streams to continue,” said Chuck Nelson, a former deep miner, now a volunteer organizer and board member of the West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

“A change in the stream buffer zone rule on Bush's watch only adds to his pathetic legacy as one of the worst presidents in our nation’s history.”

The coal industry wasted no time in demonstrating what toxic mine tailings do to a river. Two weeks after Bush granted them the ability to destroy creeks with poisonous coal sludge, there was a massive tailings dam failure in Tennessee, which covered 400 acres of land with toxic ash up to six feet deep.

According to local news reports millions of yards of ashy toxic sludge broke through a dike at TVA's Kingston coal-fired plant, covering hundreds of acres and knocking one home off its foundation. Coal ash can carry toxic substances that include mercury, arsenic and lead, according to a federal study.

So much for the $35 million PR industry myth of “clean coal”.

As for Bush, it is remarkable that a man who has already so thoroughly discredited himself and the Office of the Presidency still feels there is more left to do.

There are as yet no reports of W burning the furniture in the Oval Office, or trying to plug the executive toilet, but he still has 20 days to go...