Saturday, October 31, 2015

two small glimmers of hope which I hope someone can follow on

In a generally grim world situation, it was interesting to see two small but serious glimmers of hope... which could become big and important if the right kind of people followed up in the right way. (My wife reminds me that as a retired GS type, I am not the right kind of person any more -- at best a source of input and a bit player.)

First, the events, and then why they could become important:

(1) A major organized group of scientists is on the path to define and push a "national microbiome" initiative which they hope will become as big a deal as the national robotics or brain initiatives;

(2) In the global climate change negotiations, China has pushed for a new international effort to understand ecological and physical developments in the ocean around the Antarctic, the southern oceans.  

These two developments really need to be connected,
for maximum value.

My inner sense reacts very, very strongly to both of these, because I still believe that "death by H2S emissions from the ocean" is one of the two most important threats of extinction of our entire species (and many other species).  Just as folks in the Balkans never forget earlier wars...
I will never forget how 5 to 10 times in the history of the earth, H2S levels (and their consequences) reached levels which would be fatal to every human on earth, if humans had been there at the time. The phenomenon which ACTUALLY led to the most mass death and extinction really should not be totally ignored, if we care about survival of our species!!

But for now, I am not talking about the action needed to PREVENT such a new mass extinction. Rather ... what is the action we need to take on the scientific level in order to REALLY KNOW how serious the threat is, or to reassure us that it is far away IF IT IS? No amount of logic from  someone in my position (with other important responsibilities) would change much anyway, no matter how much I work out. It requires a real focus of more resources and mindpower from the scientific establishment.

The national brain initiative has worked out to be a total disaster in my view... for reasons beyond the main interests of this list... but it does warn me that the national microbiome initiative, if it ever happens, might or might not be better. However, a main problem with the national brain initiative was that folks could not justify big bucks without emphasizing things ... of questionable real value or in some cases of negative value.
In the case of microbiomes... "archaea" are about half the biomass of the entire ocean, and more than half of the biomass at or below the ocean floor. There is a WHOLE LOT to study, and folks who want big bucks for microbiome stuff would do well to focus on that important but little understood key part of the biome. The H2S-producing archaea are only one of the important archaea, not so prevalent today as they were  
before the previous mass extinctions, but a logical part of the system, if folks include a major thrust on the archaea system (and the full range of carbon and sulfur cycles, remembering the full range of earth history).

Such research could have important practical value for the following reason. It should logically include the following simple basic questions:
What, PRECISELY, are the conditions under which the H2S-producing archaea proliferate? Can we generate an empirically validated model which inputs variables like the concentrations of specific nutrients, oxygen level, pressure, temperature and others, and outputs a prediction of whether those archaea would proliferate or not?
(The RATE of proliferation is not so important, because if net population growth is positive, microbes take over very quickly in the region of favorable conditions.) There is a classic paper by Kump, CITED in Ward's book "Under a Green Sky," which suggests that low levels of oxygen and high levels of nutrients are the two key factors... which basically could kill us all, if we repeat the past. (We don't need to get too concerned about the details of the study of the past, because what matter to us now is an understanding of H2S-archaea growth NOW. 
The past gives us clues for what we should not ignore, but we don't need to nail down all aspects of the past... just a list of key things to pay attention to now, like the H2S producing type of archaea.)

So then: the China proposal addresses at least "the other half" of this key issue. I really hope the world can follow up more constructively and intelligently on China's suggestion -- perhaps expanding support and funding, but not ignoring it due to myopic low-level politics. (For example, I suspect Putin would be potentially supportive if China approached him the right way, not leaving it to dumb local agents who do not understand how bad things in the southernmost ocean can directly threaten our very lives in the north.) 

To truly get on top of the H2S threat, we need at least two basic things: (1) to be more certain of precisely what causes proliferation of the H2S-producing archaea; (2) to monitor and understand the CURRENT levels of the variables which drive H2S proliferation, at various locations (latitude, longitude, depth) in the southernmost ocean. I immediately see how the second point requires a data collection system, to generate a really interesting system of time series data, which can then be crosslinked to the H2S model, to allow prediction of future H2S production in different scenarios.  Once we understand that better, we will be in a much better position to see what input variables we need to worry about (if any) and what could be done. 

At the present time, I actually see nutrients rather than warming to be 
the main concern ... but if we could somehow stop the melting of the surface ice of Antarctica, through reduced greenhouse gasses or geoengineering, that might save us all if we can't do better on the nutrient side. For now, we don't even know what it means concretely to do better on the nutrient side, because we don't have the information we would need for that!  Nutrients are critical now, because we ALREADY have what Ward calls "stratified ocean" in his book,
for the all-important oxygen-bearing currents which came from the Antarctic for the last many thousand years. (That kind of stratified ocean did occur already before, at a time which is "recent" by geological standards, but did not kill us all, presumably because the nutrients weren't there... before the age of fertilizers and agricultural runoff.
Maybe they still aren't that bad... or not... BUT WE DO NOT KNOW AND THERE IS REASON TO WORRY. Fertilizer use now is certainly much greater than ever before in earth history, with big impacts on plant growth in total across the whole face of the earth; it is not so small that we are justified in underestimating it.)   


I sure hope someone out there is in a position to make some of these connections. 

Best of luck... we all need it....


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