Last week I wrote about the Northwest Passage, the ocean channel across the top of Canada connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, being free of ice for the first time in modern history. Now thanks to Nasa’s satellite imagery, you can see the ice-less water in all its scary glory. Here is the high definition image. A smaller image and article is here. It really is stunningly beautiful, despite the implications.
There are enough bad peat puns in the article, so I’ll spare you any in the headline here. Conventional wisdom regarding climate change dictates that as temperatures rise, the frozen lands in the north will release methane that has been locked in the ground. Methane is regarded as being 23 times stronger than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat, so this phenomenon would likely accelerate global warming.
As bad as it may seem, it may not be quite so. A five year study done by ecologists at Michigan State University in East Lansing has found that as the frozen peatlands thaw out, they become wetter and provide fertile ground for fast-growing water plants which will suck up carbon dioxide, thus offsetting some of the methane release.
Of course, it won’t be a one-for-one tradeoff. And as the wetlands fill in, the water plants will be replaced by slower-growing dryland plants and trees. These new northern forests aren’t nearly as good at reducing global warming as the tropical ones.
So there you go. We’re still going down the tubes, just not quite as quickly as people thought before. Well, I’m off for a drink.
As Jamais Cascio and others have pointed out, geoengineering – large-scale technological projects aimed at averting the climate change crisis – should only be considered as last-ditch options, because they come with the risk of actually making things worse.
Take for example James "Gaia" Lovelock’s suggestion that we install hundreds of huge pipes in the ocean, with the aim of channeling nutrient-rich deep water to the surface to promote the growth of algae and (hopefully) absorb more atmospheric carbon dioxide. Lovelock himself admits that there’s a risk of the plan backfiring, but he says he’s worried enough that he thinks traditional scientific caution should be left behind. I hope he’s wrong – but even if he is, we could be doing a lot more to solve the problem than we already are. [Via BLDGBLOG] [Image by Jurvetson]
A lot can happen in 160,000 years. Back then a handful of human beings scraped out a life in Africa and at various hard times during the centuries catastrophes have pushed the total world population down to barely 10,000 people. This excellent animation by the Bradshaw Foundation shows how the human race expanded and contracted as climate changed, eventually spreading to all the continents after the last ice age. Watching the ice and glaciers advance and retreat and volcanoes erupt and change and the impact this had on human lives is a stark warning to anyone denying climate change. It’s amazing how much the Earth can effect our lives.
And here’s a reminder of just how small even mankind’s efforts are amidst the vastness of the universe. This wonderfully kitsch 1977 video zooms out at a power of ten from the earth out into space. Alternatively, why not go the other way, as in this zooming in animation.
Choosing a big story to kick off with was pretty easy. This week, it was announced that the famous Northwest Passage is open for the first time since records began. The Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the coast of Canada, has always been impenetrable due to high levels of ice.
Now for the first time even boats with fibreglass hulls are able to make the journey, opening a major trade route. With the possibility that the Northeast Passage across the Arctic near Russia might soon be open too, expect a grand old tussle for the rights for the oil and gas previously hidden beneath the frozen depths. The unexpectedly fast melting is possibly due to a couple of feedback systems – the release of methane as permafrost melts and the albedo effect. As the average global temperature rises, the temperature of the Arctic is expected to increase by two or three times as much. [image courtesy of wikipedia commons.]