Monday, November 30, 2015

Update on H2S threat of human extinction: news keeps getting worse

Bottom line: as the oxygen gets depleted in the deep waters on the Pacific side of the Antarctic, it
seems ever more likely that a major new extinction event -- to include all humans on earth -- will begin in about 40 years. I STRONGLY recommend major new research efforts to better understand where oxygen levels may go all across the Pacific on that time scale, accounting for the exhaustion of those deep waters, linked to studies of what drives the proliferation of H2S-producing microbes and some ability to predict H2S prediction in regions like the offshore waters of California, China and Japan.

Here is some recent correspondence on that issue (to Lifeboat Foundation and Energy Consensus):

Just to easy my conscience, I report just a few more thoughts on the H2S issue.

One of you referred to "your theory" about the risk from H2S emissions from the ocean. For the record, it is not a theory, but an empirical fact that H2S levels in the atmosphere and radiation levels (expected from stratospheric ozone levels implied by H2S emission levels) have 5-10 times in the past reached levels high enough to kill every human on earth, if humans had been there at the time. We may disagree with various THEORIES in the book Under a Green Sky by Peter Ward, but his reports of what was measured and how are about as authoritative as it gets. 

Kump of PSU (cited by Ward) explained that we KNOW what causes proliferation of the archaea which produce H2S in the ocean. (Right now, most of the Black Sea is a reservoir of that kind of poison... though fortunately the waves in the Black Sea are not as vast as those in the Pacific.) It is low oxygen, plus nutrition.

About two years ago, I discussed this with a leader in physical oceanography at Columbia. He was already well aware that the "main lungs of the planet" (the thermohaline currents which bring oxygen 
from the surface waters near Antarctica to all of the Pacific) have ALREADY been cut off. I previously sent you the link to the main data available from NOAA:

The main pathway for oxygen is from deep Antarctic to the rest of the oceans. It looks fine on the Atlantic side, but on the Pacific side it looks like 40 years.

What I did not really pay attention to before is that nutrition ANYWHERE in the Pacific (especially deep waters) is enough for a proliferation of H2S-producing archaea, when low oxygen gets that far.
A friend (formerly part of the NOAA oceans group) tells me that the nutrients washing off China, California and Japan in huge quantities,
unprecedented in earth history, are exactly what those archaea need. 
Thus if we study what is going on here... what we would need to study is the future of oxygen levels in the Pacific.. and if they get low... I see much less hope/uncertainty now than I did when last I wrote.

Just this week, there was an interesting story suggesting that mainstream, narrow climate science has ALREADY been blindsided
by changes in the microbiome of the ocean:

But that is as nothing compared to what happens when the deep waters run out and oxygen drops much lower....

My friend the physical oceanographer said I was UNDERESTIMATING
the threat to the human species, and that he and a group of folks who understand this stuff tried to get together to push geoengineering as a last ditch effort to save our species. But when our thick skulled politics got in the way, even in the face of a strong push by folks with lots of ocean credentials... He just retired, not like me to the DC area, but to a beach far away. 

It is a good sign that the Chinese for Paris have asked for a new international effort to really understand what is happening with oxygen and future microbial ecology in the Pacific... short of that, it would be typical for human leaders to just wait until we have little if any hope left. 

And again... I would ask for RESEARCH, not for BELIEF. 

There are thousands of people who OUGHT to be following up... and I can only contact a few myself, given that I have more unique knowledge (and hence responsibility) in areas related to geoengineering technology. 

Best of luck. We really do need it.


More details: 


Fascinating stuff!


Can you comment on relationships between ocean water pH, T, and source and on atmospheric CO2 and T?


Hi, Hal!

Thanks for providing an entertaining exercise here.

People have written books to give a more complete picture of all these relations... so I must simplify and choose which aspects to stress.

You start with pH. PH ****************************************** 

In the mainstream climate change research, there has been a kind of progressive minority saying that we should also worry about "ocean acidification -- ph." Early on, in my year (2009) handling climate for Senator Specter, I checked a lot of the claims from the climate mainstream and its critics, including the ocean acidification literature. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) had a great review, which translated the issue into numbers.   Summery: "The great fear is the risk that ocean pH might decline from 8.0 as it is now to 7.9 or even 7.7 in a hundred years." Those numbers drive me to an about-face on that issue! Fresh water normally has pH of 7.0, so it is incredibly implausible to worry that our form of life would have troubles adapting to pH even as low as 7.0! By the way, that fear was based on the well-known chemistry of CO2 dissolving in water, one of the major mechanisms in nature for removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

I mentioned before that the historical measurements of H2S and radiation reported by Ward in Under a Green Sky are solid data -- but that I don't believe all of Ward's theories. (I am very grateful to Ward for providing a useful annotated bibliography in his book; for a condensed summary of the book, see Ward says very clearly that he is NOT an expert on ocean currents... he proposes that low oxygen ("stratified ocean") and ACIDITY in the ocean may be the two drivers of past mass extinctions. And so, he warns us that higher CO2 could cause BOTH low oxygen AND acid ocean, and get us to a new mass extinction, starting perhaps when CO2 reaches about 1000 ppm. He admits that this is just a seat-of-the-pants guesstimate, and calls for new crossdisciplinary research, to bring in people who know more than he does about the physics of ocean currents -- especially "thermohaline currents (THC)," the currents caused by variations in water density caused by variations in temperature T and salinity.

But we do not need to speculate like that, in order to understand what conditions cause the (very rapid) proliferation of the microbes which produce H2S! Ward cites an important classic journal article by Kump which cites what we KNOW about those organisms -- that oxygen level and nutrient level are the two main drivers. (Kump's paper, like Ward's book, also includes thoughts about other larger issues, which people debate, but the conditions for growth of these microbes is reasonably clear.) Low oxygen in water and high nutrients -- these are not esoteric conditions found only on Mars! I actually did a google search on "stinky aquarium" to verify how easy it is to create this problem. (Too bad the parents of those kids interpreted the outcome as a mess, not as an important scientific result!) Still, IF THE WORLD HAS THE SENSE TO INSTITUTE A NEW RESEARCH PROGRAM AIMED AT REALLY UNDERSTANDING AND CALIBRATING THE H2S RISK TO HUMANITY, it should include a small component of competitive university-based research (with high school outreach?!) to nail down more precisely the mathematical conditions for proliferation of the H2S-producing microbes, to support mathematical models to predict H2S output as a function of oxygen levels and other variables. Seeing when or whether pH is an important variable should be part of this. After reading Ward's book, I was hoping that "good" H2S-eating bacteria might save us, and that pH might be important in killing them in earlier history, but papers on ocean chemistry suggest to me that the stoichiometry is not right for them making much of a difference in this situation; again, however, a proper research effort should include some effort to check and calibrate this, to consider not only the H2S-producing bacteria but  the role of the main bacteria which can eat some of the H2S sometimes. 

Final observation on PH -- the Smithsonian had some really great exhibits about ten years ago, showing just how much lower the ocean bottom pH once was (4 or 5?) in parts of earth history, and how all this interacted with evolution, from archaea to eukaryotes.. Now that evolution is considered less acceptable to many in power than the public exhibition of sex, and funds have been withdrawn for such things, it is harder for people to engage with reality. 

******************  T
As I mentioned above, "T" is important to the H2S risk because T and salinity are the two major factors determining the density of ocean water, which in turn drives the powerful THC currents which have brought oxygen to all the world's oceans for many thousands of years.

The mechanism behind these currents is insanely simple and straightforward,
and I am embarrassed that I did not have a really clear picture of how T and salinity interact here until just a few years ago. Ward said "We need to being in folks who understand this kind of physics,"  and I instantly felt a duty to try some of this analysis on my own time, since I really do know about PDE and about computer models. (Back in the 80's I built a few big computer models for DOE, used in their Annual Energy Outlook, and I have a recent paper in Quantum Information Processing which trees back to harder PDE than any the climate folks work with.) But it doesn't require such hairy stuff!

The primary currents here, "the lungs of the planet," are simple convection currents, like what we should all understand from seventh grade. We all know how the sun often heats up the air next to the ground, so that it has lower density and rises up to higher altitude, creating a motion which drives the weather of the earth (and wind energy and so on). But normally, when the sun heats water at the surface of the ocean, the water just gets lower density and does NOT float up into the air! No currents produced. The "lungs of the planet" are driven by the fact that fresh water in the temperature range from 0 degrees C and 4 degrees C is a rather special material, for which higher temperature RAISES density, causing a current which plunges DOWN in the ocean. When water is salty, the range from 0 to 4 degrees changes to something like -4 degrees to 0 degrees. (In other words, salty water won't freeze unless it gets significantly colder than 0 degrees; that's why people put salt on driveways in winter.) These curves are VERY well known!!!

For several years, I was worried more about the Arctic than the Antarctic, because of EU empirical work suggesting we might be only a decade or two away from 0 degrees C in the Arctic Ocean and far north Atlantic, which could shut down the northern (small) lung of the planet. Even just the Arctic and North Atlantic could produce enough H2S for a major extinction event. 
(In fact, the most recent mass extinction, the eocene-paleocene event described by Ward was based mainly on North Atlantic production.) But at the time I had not fully understood how salinity plays into this, and how the situation in the Antarctic is more serious than I knew.

Of course, salty water is denser than fresh water at the same temperature! 
We all have heard about how easy it is to float on the Great Salt Lake in Utah! And the basic chemistry is pretty obvious to those who study such things. In the short term, as ice still covers Greenland, melting ice creates fresh water which floats to the top, and sometimes blocks the northern Gulf Stream, which keeps the UK and France from being as cold as Labrador! The University of Southampton in the UK has done a stellar job of tracking these near-term variations in the Gulf Stream. (It is curious how their lead researcher -- Broyden? -- was denounced as a "crackpot" and "alarmist" by the PR mavens of political correctness some years ago, when the Economist ran an article "Will England freeze over?"... but then won some great prize as the number one contributor to ocean inputs to climate models a few years later!)  Because the RATE of melting of Greenland has fluctuated, the impact on the Gulf Stream has waxed and waned, but once T crosses a critical level, the whole game changes, and it is no longer a matter of fluctuation.  That is quite serious, but only for the EU, really, and maybe Boston. 

For the earth -- the crucial problem right now is the outflow of fresh water (often freezing into sea ice) into the waters around the Antarctic, which
has already floated to the top and blocked the MAIN THC, including the THC which brings oxygen to the Pacific. Anoxic Pacific could produce enough H2S to give us a rerun of the biggest mass extinction, the PT event which Ward talks about.

The key point is NOT that warming COULD SOMEDAY lead to enough melting to block the southern THC. The point is that it already HAS, and that the oxygenated bottom waters on the Pacific side of the Antarctic appear to be just 40 years away from disappearing. It is as if we were already under water, with 40 years worth of oxygen left in our lungs. Again, I am merely describing the numbers in the NOAA map whose URL I sent out last time.
This is data, not speculation. 

Professional political tranquilizers have stressed the possibility that the total thickness of ice over the total Antarctic may have even increased lately. But that is not the variable which drives the H2S risk here. Total thickness is like precipitation minus melting -- but melting ITSELF, especially on the Pacific side, is what has ALREADY shut down the THC.    

If, after more research, we get a better handle on the risk, and find that we are indeed on a pathway to extinction of humans and almost all other mammals, what can we do about it? For now, I am just arguing that we need to FIND OUT, and that BETTER UNDERSTANDING of the risk will be important to figuring out what we can do. But... it is possible to guess a little, tentatively, in advance. Since the two key drivers are oxygen in the ocean and nutrient levels... the possibilities which seem most promising to me would be: (1) to arrest the fresh water runoff around the Antarctic; and (2) to drastically reduce the nutrient runoff from places like China, California and Japan. Both would be quite heroic -- and if we don't recognize the problem soon enough, we may not have enough time to do either.

Is it possible to REDUCE CO2 in the atmosphere enough to help much with (1)? Breakthroughs seem possible, but present politics seem to make it impossible. There are also possibilities for geoengineering -- such as Abdul Kalam's favorite idea of using lightweight mirrors in space to reduce warming of specific areas like the Antarctic, feasible if we reduce the cost of getting to space. The technology is now there to make that possible, but corruption and ideological insanity in Washington  currently makes it very heroic to try to deploy it. (They give us a choice between "blue pixie dust" -- just giving more money to jobs programs in Alabama and Georgia to build expendable rockets with no hope of cutting costs anywhere near enough -- and "pink pixie dust", counting on the sheer charisma and ideological correctness of guys like Musk  to overcome physical barriers they have no real understanding of.) Maybe the sight of the gallows might help wake people up before it is too late? It is a thin reed to depend on, but we don't have much else. Of course, keeping humans alive beyond the earth, as in the movie "Wall-E," would also require low cost RLV lifting lots and lots of new stuff.

The nutrient side probably can't be improved all that much, but the 15 Sept 2015 issue on Earth and Space News (EOS) has an interesting related story on page 3. Already, there are three really big "dead zones" on earth -- the Black Sea (full of H2S but relatively tranquil water), the seasonal dead zone off of Louisiana and a bigger zone in the Baltic (mentioned briefly in the article).  Those ocean dead zones are ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE smaller than what we could expect with a low oxygen Pacific; the nutrients flowing in from the Mississippi mainly cause growth of algae, which THEN cause a local area of low oxygen, as the bodies of the dead algae then float deeper into the ocean. But they give a useful foretaste. Since NOAA already has models to predict this dead zone, maybe it would not be SO hard to extend the models to consider what happens if one would START with low oxygen where the 
nutrients flow in, such that archaea, not algae, proliferate from the beginning. The article also discusses what kinds of changes in agricultural practices might reduce the nutrient inflow.  I would guess that such changes would only be good, at best, for one order of magnitude reduction, and that we would need much more than that to reduce the coming problems in the Pacific to a manageable scale.

If we reduce the problem to a manageable scale, such that H2S production off each of the three key regions of nutrient source (China, California, Japan)
is comparable only to the Black Sea, that might possible save us. Or not. Even if that works, the waves there are a lot bigger than those of the Black Sea.  There might still be some occasional breakouts,  like mass death in the night in those three areas... but it would not threaten extinction of the entire species. Poor Japan... Fukushima II?

**************** Your other questions

I am not sure whether I have addressed your final questions. 

Re sources -- it is important here how oxygen gets FROM the deep waters off the Antarctic to the Pacific as a whole. My physical oceanographer friend was very emphatic that this is where the oxygen mainly comes from for the Pacific... but actual mathematical models of the flow of oxygen, which account for the reduction as the deep water source gets exhausted,are really essential here. In fact, that is the biggest part of the new research we need. to nail down better the numbers of when and where we can expect oxygen levels to fall in the Pacific, especially about 40 years from now.

For now, the onset of large scale H2S production is enough of a research challenge. But I have done a few quick calculations on what happens next.
The outgassing and accumulation of H2S in the atmosphere would have a kind of 2,000-year trajectory, which sounds reassuring at first... except that 
very awful things happen well before the H2S concentration is enough to be directly fatal. Acidity ON THE LAND AND IN THE ATMOSPHERE resulting from H2S emissions reaching the atmosphere are one concern. Another concern is that the initial chemical descendants of the H2S (like sulfuric acid and whatnot) can break down the stratospheric ozone layer. My guess is that the radiation which that produces is what would really kill us first. Prior to the fatal level of radiation... well, let me not chronicle the various dire wrinkles here and now. 

Thank you for your interest, and I apologize if this is too long for others.

Wouldn't it be nice to know more exact numbers and to 
understand what possible escapes or loopholes might exist in reality, and not just in the imaginary worlds of left and right ideologies, or in the limited stuff we know today? That's my real point. We need to find out.

But in allocating my own limited capabilities... I am more on the geoengineering and CO2-reduction technology side, one important part of what needs to be done. Other groups are needed to do the new research to really calibrate this threat.

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