Friday, May 15, 2015

More on the greatest near-term threat to your survival from climate change

OK folks, this is more on the threat of massive H2S emissions from the ocean, and also on the reasons why you haven’t yet been told how bad the threat to your life is.

Part of the problem is that the threat is “crossdisciplonary” – it cuts across different areas of study, and the key information has only recently come to emerge. I have gotten new information on this recently, and we have had discussions on very serious discussion lists. Here is copy a few of the recent discussions, starting with an IEEE discussion of how soon and how it might affect you, and on to the needs for research to really pin this down.

Why do I keep after this same old thing? Well, folks, if something seems likely to kill you, do you just forget it before there is logical reason to do so? Can twitter thinking really save you?

================ Timing and big picture

An IEEE person asked:
Paul, what are the time scales for the effects you discuss?  People do react differently to threats that are likely to occur this year vs. 100 years from now.

As I said, the maps from NOAA show oxygen already decreasing in the deep waters off Antarctica, which are the primary source of oxygen for the deep oceans of the entire earth. On quick eyeball, it looks like about 40 years before zero for the side which supplies oxygen to the Pacific. Once conditions are right for ANY kind of microbe, the explosion and proliferation is instantaneous on the time scales we usually live on.

To put this in perspective -- one of the smallest mass extinctions which Ward talks about in his paperback book, Under a Green Sky, is the paleocene-eocene event, the most recent. AFTER the dinosaurs died off, primates and big  cats evolved -- and all died at this event. we are part of the strand which re-evolved from scratch, presumably from very robust small rodents like rats or aardvarks or whatever. Key point -- this was a relatively small H2S outbreak, mainly from water in the North Atlantic. Earlier, larger H2S breakouts would have been enough to kill off not only the primates but all the rats too. The sheer volume of H2S produced, and discharged through big waves, has a big impact. The Pacific Ocean, which is coming into play now, is MUCH larger than the North Atlantic. (Still, last I heard, transition in the SArctic and North Atlantic might be ten or twenty years off; I haven't paid as much attention, since I learned about the bigger problem in the Pacific.)  Zero oxygen would be like a very sudden, huge step change in "dead zones" and H2S producing areas   Still, the expansion of dead zones is ALREADY a problem -- much more serious for coral reefs, for example, than ocean acidification. And perhaps there may already be some link between dead zones and nutrient runoff with problems in sustainable seafood supplies.

By the way, the Black Sea already is an advanced case of "black water," the kind of water where H2S is produced in huge quantity and where poison crowds out our kind of life. It is sad how Putin's allies have systematically done in  local political leaders who wanted to do something about that threat. But the Black Sea is much smaller than the North Atlantic, let alone the Pacific, and the outgassing is usually far less than from the ocean. Still, there was a similar lake in Africa where people felt very safe... until one night, there was a small ripple... and the folks in the closest town all "woke up dead" the next morning. (I think I read that in Ward's book, but there are other sources). I would not be totally surprised if something like that happened one day in Sevastopol, Istanbul or Ankara (though Sevastopol seems most likely). If the main Russian navy wakes up dead one morning, I do hope Putin shows more self-control than usual.

In truth, years ago, as I tracked down papers which Ward cited, and asked NASA people for their
thoughts, I ran across a paper arguing that it took 2,000 YEARS for the H2S of the great Permian-Triassic extinction to reach levels which would be fatal as poison to a human on the land. That seemed to reduce the urgency.. until I looked at the implied chain of events BEFORE H2S would reach that level of concentration.VERY soon, the entire earth stinks like the very worst foul marsh or rotten eggs you have ever smelled, like the "stench of brimstone" folks once talked about. That already has direct implications on reproductive behavior and selection of all mammals. For many years, the H2S creates other sulfur compounds in the atmosphere, like an SOx problem multiplied a hundred fold, with side effects like severe acid rain and chemicals rising up to the ozone layer. Long, long before the H2S concentration is directly fatal, it makes everyone blind. My guess is that radiation from the ozone layer problem would be what kills people first --
BUT AGAIN: my point is that we really need to understand and quantify the threat a whole lot better than I have done, putzing around part time on my own and asking questions from folks who should know a whole lot better.

And why don't they?

Years ago, I remember telling a colleague with excitement: "Hey, we have early indications of a fuel cell which could actually WORK for automobiles,\which actually gets that more than 50% whole systems efficiency without which none of this is real. Just go to arxiv and search on Urquidi and Grimes..." And his response: "But Paul, all the money is specifically for PEM fuel cells."
Me: "But none of them show any sign of actually working." Him: "The money is not for things that work, it js for PEM, for what the folks want who control the budgets. We know not to talk back to them; they don't like that kind of thing." I suppose there is a lot of  money for warming and ocean acidification, and that the folks in Congress who doubt that warming is THE BIG THING are more interested in phasing out climate and evolution altogether, rather than trying to understand anything. They sure don't put up with any kind of back talk; they like to keep things simple, which seems to be their concept of transparency. (I do wonder what they plan to do with quantum physics when they get to it.)

I do wonder about the big contradiction between "wealth management" classes, which teach highly motivated big donor types how to make sure their grandchildren have money, even as those same grandchildren are being scheduled for a rather unpleasant death. And no, they are not doing anything at all serious to develop launch systems capable of providing any fraction of the human population an alternative; their lobby systems are blocking that too (perhaps because the folks in charge of such top-down political networks don't have information about technical requirements for RLV development).

==================================== Where this started after recent conference

Five to ten times in past earth history (after the initial evolution of life) the levels of H2S and radiation on the land
reached levels which would kill every human on earth, if humans had been there at the time. Peter Ward, whose book Under a Green Sky
gives a good description of how that data is collected, believes that we are on course to reaching those levels again -- killing every human on earth.
Though I disagree with the details of Ward's THEORIES about the data, I for one do not intend to just ignore this threat. More and more, this is looking to me like the most likely "final trigger" likely to kill us all.

One of the IEEE people, from the IEEE Oceans Society, recently expressed worry that nutrients released from the biofuels industry are causing dead zones in the Caribbean. That seems very different from what Ward was saying -- but from the viewpoint of science I see them as pointing to the same tasks we really ought to be focusing on. When the much lesser threat of global warning surfaced years ago, Reagan was wise enough to say that we really ought to be studying the threat seriously, to try to understand how serious it is and what it depends on. With so much more at stake on the H2S front, it really should not be left to a part time hobby for a retired guy like me doing it alone, mainly focused on other topics! Still, I do keep trying to improve my understanding of this topic, and do have new thoughts to report.

The risk which concerns me most is the risk that the oxygen level in the deep waters of the southern Pacific
will get close enough to zero in about 40 years to cause a very sudden spurt in the growth of the specific type of microbe (a type of archaea)
which produces H2S. Ward gives various examples of places where that has already happened in a small area, and argues that this is what explains the mass extinctions of the past, which he is a leading expert on. That part of his story makes sense to me.

But then he gets politically correct. He notes a correlation between past extinctions and the rate of change of CO2, and speculates that ocean acidification is the "second trigger" which, combined with low oxygen in deep oceans, will kill us all.

At a conference yesterday on satellite data, I had a chance to speak to one of the Navy people, who has gotten a clear message from above that
sea level rise is a major concern (guiding some of the data collection), but none of that other stuff. "But what about threats that could kill every human on earth? Are they a concern or anyone?" Response: a knowing look, and a question, "oh, are you talking about ocean acidification"  In fact, since Ward has such high credentials in his field, as well as a powerful book aimed at the public, his theory that ocean acid is the trigger has had a strong impact on a certain circle of people. It has mainly just added energy to one of the existing factions in the climate debates.  But Ward is a paleontologist, not a chemist or a physicist. Why don't we have the kind of effort going to probe the competing explanations, and really try to learn what the implications are, instead of trying to act politically immediately without having any idea of what we are doing and what is really facing us?  This is really serious, for example, when data collection itself will have major blind spots.

Though I tend to doubt Ward's acidification theory, I still have deep respect for how he treated the subject in his book, which is far more satisfying to real scientific thinkers than most of what is published these days. He explained why he believes that theory, but he also cited other sources in a serious way, and emphasized the need for new crossdisciplinary research (especially on "thermohaline currents," the study of how levels of saltiness and temperature shape the currents which bring oxygen to the deep ocean, most of the time).

One of the sources he cites is a paper by Kump of Penn State, whose work seems to draw more respect than Ward's in those particular circles.
In effect, Kump says: "Our bottom line worry is the proliferation of those archaea which produce H2S. That's what kills us. But these archaea are not such a mystery. To proliferate, they need just two things -- low oxygen levels, and a supply of nutrients."

Even though I am theorist myself, I always ask: "What do the primary empirical data really tell us?" A year or two, I thought: "If it is that easy to get archaea and H2S proliferation, could we even see it (and model it) in an aquarium?" So I googled on 'stinky aquarium" -- and I didn't see anything to contradict Kump's idea. Lots of entertainment there, and maybe some possibilities for even a high school science project to be useful. (By the way, the Black Sea is another important test, though fortunately there is much less upwelling from there to the atmosphere than there is to the oceans. Still, I wonder what the chances are of a poison cloud striking Sevastopol or Istanbul in the night some day, causing an interesting international situation.)

There is pretty decent data on oxygen levels in the deep ocean. I was really stunned, a year or two ago, to learn that the issue is not "when will the oxygen-bearing currents by the Antarctic shut down?" Ward asked "what do the THC people have to tell us about the risk of stratified ocean?" That's not the issue, because it already happened! The new ice which guys like Inhofe crow about is due to the great wash of fresh water (which freezes much more easily than salt water, which is why we put salt on roads), water due to melting on the surface of the Antarctic, pouring into the ocean nearby. That same fresh water has simply zeroed out the current which bring oxygen to the deep ocean. The best maps I find on the web suggest we have about 40 years to go before it hits zero in the deep ocean, for the side which brings oxygen to the Pacific. It doesn't have to be zero on the surface for archaea to proliferate.

But it turns out that this happened before, even just a few thousands of years ago, before widespread human agriculture.
The risk is due to the COMBINATION of growing areas of low oxygen, and widespread (also growing) areas of nutrition
pouring into the ocean.

What would we need to be able to do a decent forecast (even stochastic) of how far away we are to a sudden tipping point when our extinction becomes assured?

Before the last IEEE Energy Policy Committee meeting, I had a nice conversations with the oceans guy (who is welcome to identify himself if he chooses).  We began thinking.. it would be nice if we had a database, with "adequate' resolution in three dimensions and time, of ocean oxygen and ocean levels of crucial nutrients such as phosphates, carbohydrates, iron, etc... above all the ones most important to archaea. Anticipating large dead zones has near-term benefits, as well as benefits in understanding the extinction possibility.

But what could be done at minimum cost to get a better feeling for the risk than what I said on these lists? How could we get such a database?

It would be nice if the DOD climate folks could add this to their radar. It is possible that the Navy already collects streams of data which simply require new back end analysis, to give us some better feeling. But the back end analysis might require some new research collaborations, to learn what new information could be extracted from the existing data either on its own or in combination with other data sources.

I was very interested yesterday in the presentations on "from Argos 3 to Argos 4," a report on plans for an ongoing productive collaboration on the Argos system of satellites. the French spaced agency (CNES) started this, and still leads the collaboration, but the US, the EUMETSAT effort and now (as of 2007) India's ISRO all play important roles as well. I wonder whether and how soon the network of ocean-observing buoys they maintain could be expanded to measure ocean chemistry?

Some big US aerospace stakeholders were also there. They suggested that we could simply combine the ongoing data on oxygen levels (limited as it is) with data from satellites on chlorophyll observed on the surface. My initial reaction was pretty negative, since archaea in the deep ocean aren't on the surface and they may have special nutrient vectors. However, BEFORE we have that kind of data, there may be some kind of statistical correlation (with error bars we need to know) between surface chlorophyll levels and the kind of nutrient variables which drive the growth of archaea. If we learn to understand those correlations better (with high school science experiments?), perhaps we could make better use of existing data, to give us at least a gross handle on the present threat and the future threats in the pipeline. The uncertainty bars may give at least some indication of the value of getting more and better data.

In the end, this still begs the question: whether the new Great Dying begins 40 years from now or 100 or 200, what can we do about it? I pay more attention to that question than I do about the timing, but this email is already long, and it is best for me to postpone that to other times and venues.

Best of luck,

================== more on acid ocean not the real problem

On Thu, May 7, 2015 at 4:20 PM an IEEE person wrote:

IMO, the problem with promoting adaptation is that there are no conceivable ways in which even industrialized countries will be able to adapt to an acidified (and thereby under productive) oceans or the unrest and migration resulting from diasporas in less developed regions of the world.

My reply:

A lot of the most serious scientists in climate, with important first-hand knowledge, like Caldeira and Ward, do point to acid ocean as the problem which worries them the most. Ward claims that the COMBINATION of acid ocean and "stratified ocean" (zones of low oxygen) are the two factors which have directly led to massive production of H2S in the ocean in the past, enough H2S to kill every human on earth, and are likely to do so again.

However, I respectfully disagree.

In 2009, working with the Senate EPW group, I had access to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on ocean acidification. CRS did an excellent job on this. Among other things, instead of the pure tide of words and images we usually see from left and right, they had freal numbers for Ph. The kinds of ph people are talking about even through 2100 or 2200,
even in worst case discussions, are nothing even remotely like the really low (acid) ocean bottom acidity levels lone could see that year in the Smithsonian exhibit on ancient marine life. (Unfortunately, the same kind of pressures working to dumb down NASA and NSF have also been working on the Smithsonian, particularly in areas involving the evolution and history of life.) The direst worst case numbers I could find fell well short of making the ocean AS ACID as the normal fresh water we drink every day, which life in rivers and streams has long adapted to.

There were arguments (which CRS worked very hard to do justice to)
about specific endangered species, especially coral. But I really wouldn't want to give individual endangered species a priority comparable to the risk of H2S killing us all! Also, studied of coral by people really intensely concerned about individual coral reefs tend to implicate issues like oxygen dead zones and excess nutrients (and other chemical runoff) much more than ocean acidity.

On the other hand, I cited the work by Kump -- and note that one could even do experiments in an aquarium to clarify some of these issues! Low oxygen and nutrients are what drive the proliferation of those archaea which produce H2S, and they are both a serious concern, short-term and long-term.

How does this affect Lee's bottom line? Well, the nations of the world seem even less mobilized to understand (let alone respond to) the oxygen/dead-zone threat and the interaction it has with existing nutrient runoff than they are to ocean acidity. So it essentially strengthens his concern.

Hearing Peter Ward's talk about past H2S runups (and the immediate radiation problems near the start of those runups) was a big personal shock to me, since we are talking about OUR personal lives, and the lives of everyone we know. But in a way, it was a bigger, more depressing shock that almost everyone else who heard that story either treated either as just a nice little ego booster ("See! Look at me! I'm a good guy! I've been doing exactly the right thing all along") or as an alien evil thought meme to be rejected on religious or ideological grounds. ("My church says it's evil even to breathe a hint of the possibility that there might be some brimstone in our future?")
WHY don't more people WANT TO KNOW what the risk to them might be, and what might be done about it, the questions which really matter?

(I had a long dinner conversation with a visiting IEEE guy a few days ago, and this kind of question about human reactions came up, in a study about 45 years ago from Greeley, with links to Valliant. It's a really serious issue how people react to important things off their usual track.)

That is, none conceivable without significant reductions in standard of living or security. The above doesn't even consider weather extremes, impact of droughts on crops, biodiversity loss, wildfire losses, sea level rise, and other detrimental (but perhaps more manageable) occurrences.

While I don't like to sound like a pollyanna, the means for meeting the 2C goal should still be our primary concern, particularly if we consider the IEEE to be an organization that 'engineers for humanity.'

I have the impression that the official IEEE policy already accepts the idea that some balance between reducing net CO2 from human activities, adaptation, and developing technologies for geoengineering to survive worst cases (looking ever more likely) is called for. And I agree too. As for the details of that balance, and the types of R&D we need in the geoengineering part of it... I've written a lot already, and this email is too long for now.

Best regards,

No comments:

Post a Comment