Friday, July 15, 2016

H2S: how could the curse of Moses save humanity?

First, a review.  H2S emissions from the ocean have reached levels high enough to kill every human on earth about 5-10 times in past history. Professor Peter Ward, arguably the world’s top expert on those past extinctions, says we seem to be on the path to reaching those levels again; while I do not agree with the exact details of his theories, I have checked in detail, and conclude that the threat is even more imminent than he suggests. See the details at:

Before my retirement from NSF in 2015, I had direct contact with people doing research on climate change and on technology which might reduce the probability of human extinction – and learned in enormous detail how the political constipation in Washington is getting in the way. I understand the importance of positive thinking, and of looking for ways to solve even the most overwhelming problems, but I have frankly found it hard to imagine realistic hope for the human species. What unnerved me a few years ago was seeing the map from NOAA showing how the thickness of the oxygenated bottom layer of water near the Antarctic, the source of the great current (“the lungs of the planet”, THC) which brings oxygen to the bulk of the world’s oceans, seems to be just 40 years away from zero on the Pacific side. This is not a matter of fancy climate models; it’s a matter of seeing how the fresh water and fresh water ice now ringing the Antarctic has shut down the convection current (involving salty water) all around that continent. To predict climate is a difficult matter, similar to trying to predict a complex electronic circuit like a computer or a TV; however, it is not difficult to predict that off is off, when you see the plug dangling in the air.

BUT THERE IS NOW HOPE!! And any human who is conscious and sane enough to care about survival should be glad to hear it. Even if we try to imagine a rational human who hopes on religious grounds that this problem has a 95% chance of just going away... there is a rational way forward, justified in rational cost-benefit analysis even if the probability were only as small as 5%.  

Basically, it has three components:

(1) People at the leading edge of studying space mirrors now estimate (roughly) that it would only cost about $1 trillion ($100 billion per year) to do geoengineering which MIGHT be enough to stop the fresh water deluge blocking the Antarctic THC, **IF** we develop a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) capable of getting costs down to <=$500/kg-LEO in scale, including an ability to step up production of such vehicles to something like the production of RLVs. But they have an important caveat: that's $1 trillion for "one unit of cooling"; that MIGHT be enough, but we don't know how many units of cooling we need until the specs for the job are refined, combining leading space technologists with guys... like Hansen, as retired as I am, and maybe even a guy like me who can translate and connect across disciplines.  

(2) There is a clear way forward to develop such an RLV, though it does depend on some very unique accomplishments made at Boeing years ago which no one else has been able to duplicate despite a whole lot of hard ball PR, lobbying and salesmanship. (I don’t mind so much that those folks have been evil. I do mind that we probably will all die as a result. I do not seek revenge; I just want us all to live.) Mike Snead of WPAFB and Ray Chase (retired from Project Air Force, SAB, JPL and the folks overseeing TAV) have documented that this is possible, with the kind of vehicle which could be mass-produced in the Boeing Seattle plant with only a bit of extension. Jess Sponable of WPAFB and DARPA has shown that such an activity is already justified, in terms of net present value, even based on just the planned launches of the US national security activities – though DARPA has not given him enough funds even to preserve the most essential endangered technologies. (DARPA’s initial ALASA plan would have preserved and used the most critical endangered technologies, until a “smart” DARPA political appointee smiled at her preferred stakeholders and restructured things, leading to a beautiful set of fireworks as her friend’s vehicle melted and exploded upon test.)

(3) There is growing hope of EARLY alarms waking us up before extinction becomes inevitable.

Note that this combination DOES NOT ask for a commitment to geoengineering yet! Rather, we could say... development of this specific RLV technology would give us an ace up our sleeve, so that we have the OPTION to scale up and stop the melting AFTER we see that our lives really are at stake, when we will only have a few years to get the job done. For about $12 billion in vehicle development and associated stuff (Chase’s peer reviewed estimate, reviewed by tough industrial cost estimation reviewers brought in at NSF), we buy the option to be able to scale up fast when we “wake up and smell the brimstone.” And we buy other stuff too, like maybe energy from space (as in Mankins’ The Case of Space Solar Power) and cost-effective boost phase intercept missile defense, and maybe even new basic physics.

None of these three points is a sure thing, but the combination is enough that maybe, just maybe, the continuation of the human species might be possible enough that a mere miracle might do the job. Item (3) especially reminds me of the wonderful benevolent miracles attributed to Moses... not the kind of miracle we would like.  And lately, there is more and more reassuring evidence that we may get what we need ... just like what the miracles of Moses were said to have provided back then!
(Of course, item (1) does cry out for work to narrow the uncertainty bounds and scope out options for what is needed.) 

People have reminded me that there is that other “lung of the planet,” the little one in the Arctic which we can probably live without. It was actually news from the Arctic which worried me first, back in 2009, when I started learning about these details. (In 2009, I was on-again off-again the lead guy in the Office of Senator Specter, interfacing with others on EPW, to understand and address climate issues.) The THC is still working up there, but the agricultural runoff and the depths are such that there is growing hope of massive H2S emissions from the Arctic well before the Antarctic,  giving us something to smell – especially for folks working for oil companies who will discover some operational difficulties they had not planned for. (In a way, this will be like what hit BP in the gulf a few years back, due to a small “surprise” from archaea under the sea bottom; but this will be much bigger.)

Even better, even sooner...

Peter Ward already popularized the stories of a few fresh water lakes, where H2S emissions caused a cloud of death in the night, very much like the final curse of Moses, except that everyone died, not just first born sons. There is some village in Africa, famous for looking normal one day, and the next day a town full of quiet corpses.  

Four counties in Florida recently experienced a great crisis of foul emissions from the water. When I saw the face and the words of the NPR TV reporter covering this... “you would not believe this smell...”.. it sounded very, very familiar. No, the low oxygen did not result from THC blockage, but it illustrated very clearly (though at a low level) when happens when low oxygen and agricultural runoff occur together.
Much higher levels of H2S underwater are brewing in the Black Sea and in... surprise... the Chesapeake!

And so... it is quite possible that we will be blessed within a relatively short time (a decade or two? next year?) by a cloud of death striking in the night, killing people in Annapolis, Sevastopol, or maybe even Baltimore or Capitol Hill. Who knows what the timing might be of what is in the pipeline?

After the Florida case, I wondered... what is the PRECISE relation between eutrophia and euxinia and combinations of the two? If algae get all the nutrients in a low oxygen zone, can they prevent archaea from getting them and limit the H2S production enough that blue-green algae can take care of most of the H2S? Is there a cutoff here, which affects the probability of an outbreak of the cloud of death in the night? In searching euxinia and eutrophia and on various recent outbreaks... I was amazed at how little inventory of species over time we have for these events. People just assume that an outbreak of cyanobacteria or purple bacteria, which can digest H2S, is due only to fertilizers and anoxia... but why don’t they ask about the supply of H2S? Also, I remember an article where they calculated the stiochiometry of what the H2S digesters do, and showed little hope of their blocking H2S emissions at the fatal levels we have seen before from the oceans.

It is odd and sad that this is our best hope, but some hope is better than none. Of course, Lamar Smith and Senator Shelby have been working very ruthlessly to make sure we never have this kind of hope. (The tactics remind me a lot of Miscavage’s book “Ruthless” on scientology, a much smaller and weaker cult, arguably less sane, arguably more sane. They all just take the money and run... but they will not be able to outrun H2S!! Nor will any of the rest of us; the technology for sustainable “lifeboats” simply does not exist, though the same old lobbyists would love to take money for it.)

Best of luck...

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