Monthly Archives: May 2019

Darwin’s Finches

The Galapagos Islands constitute a small group of about a half a dozen islands 600 miles off the coast of South Ameria. The total land area is a scant three thousand square miles, slightly larger than the state of Delaware. The islands are quite arid, averaging only two inches of rainfall a year. They are essentially the cones of volcanoes which arose from the sea a few million years ago.

The archipelago is most famous as a world heritage site and most of the islands are a national park. As a province of Ecuador, the islands are managed mainly and very carefully for preservation and tourism.

One of the first and certainly most notable “tourists” was Charles Darwin. In 1831, Darwin, as a 22-year-old naturalist and recent college graduate signed on to the HMS Beagle for a five-year sail around the world. The Beagle surveyed much of the coast of South America, including the Galapagos. Darwin’s time was spent observing and collecting specimens of the local flora and fauna.

As a geologically young island group, the flora and fauna found their way by air and sea. Sea birds flew, sea lions swam, and a few reptiles and small mammals “rafted” to the islands. When Darwin arrived he noted that there were very few passerines, what we call perching birds or songbirds. Of the passerines, the majority were finches – finches not seen anywhere else in the world. There are now seventeen species of finches recorded on the Galapagos.

Darwin’s observation of the finches was the seminal study that lead to the organizing tenet of biology – descent with modification. Only a single species of finch exists on the west coast of South America, the likely origin of the Galapagos finches. Darwin’s conjecture was that a single species of finch arrived accidentally on the island group.

With local no predators and few competitors, the finches thrived. Through adaptive radiation, they filled many different niches based on the size and shape of their beaks. Birds with big, strong beaks could crack larger seeds, smaller-beaked birds ate smaller seeds. Birds with narrow, pointy bills fed on insects. There is even a species of finch appropriately called the vampire finch that has adapted to pecking the tails of sea birds to drink their blood!

In his first book, “The Voyage of the Beagle,“ he noted “It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure in this one group can be traced in the form of the beak, from one exceeding in dimensions that of the largest gros-beak, to another differing but little from that of a warbler.”

The speciation of these finches is a microcosm of evolution on our planet. Life began over three billion years ago, and for about two billion of those years existed as single-celled organisms much like today’s bacteria. Over time more complex organisms evolved to form the major groups of plants and animals. These discoveries are the essence of science – small careful observations can lead to profound conclusions.
Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Modification

Modern humans are a couple of hundred thousand years old at best – compare that with cockroaches at 350 million years old. Regardless, in our short time on the planet we have worked tirelessly to modify our surrounds to our purposes. Minor reservoirs and irrigation channels are a few thousand years old.

Widespread modification of the soil in the Amazon basin over a thousand years ago was accomplished by building up polders in swampy areas then adding charcoal, bone, pottery shards, and nutrients to greatly improve soil productivity. The result was “terra preta do indio,” a Portuguese phrase meaning black earth of the Indian.

Prior to European colonization of north America, Indians use fire to modify the environment, maintaining grasslands which were more productive for game animals. What many colonists described as a pristine wilderness was actually a maintained mosaic of grasslands and forests.

These small scale environmental modifications pale in comparison to our current unintentional change to the global climate. From wildfires to floods, and hurricanes to droughts, we are having a negative impact on the climate. To retard further degradation of the climate we must rapidly decarbonize our energy systems. The environmental response to this action is however slow.

If we can unintentionally change the climate, surely we can intentionally make it right, right? We can do things to reverse the warming in the atmosphere? There is a recent natural precedent for global climate impact. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted violently, sending tens of billions of tonnes of ash and sulfur oxides in the stratosphere. The ash and especially sulfate particles circulated around the world, partially shading the earth. A drop of 0.6 degrees Celsius was recorded in the global mean temperature for 1991-1992.

So there you go, all we need to do is inject massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere. The sunlight will be partially shaded, cooling the earth and reversing the heat driven climate change. An engineering research group proposed just such an experiment. Billions of tonnes of molten sulfur would be delivered to the stratosphere via specially designed jet tankers. These would fly sixty thousand flights per year for decades. The scheme has been described as the cheapest and quickest way to cool the planet.

BUT, there is a lot of devilment in the details. Even moderate success may take the pressure off the need to decarbonize our energy systems. This would do nothing to address the damage to the oceans via acidification from the dissolved Carbon Dioxide. And that sulfur mist in the atmosphere? It turns into sulfuric acid, which would untimely rain down on the planet.

A uniformly gray sky could negatively impact crops, energy production from solar and wind, and even seriously change weather patterns – just the opposite of what was desired. A worst-case outcome would be international strife if the experiment did not have a global consensus.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

The cost of individual weather-related catastrophes is rising and at the same time, they are becoming more common. One measure is to to look at the frequency of events which cost over a billion dollars versus time. In 1988 there was only one event, a drought across a large portion of the United State whereas in 2018 there were ten, including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and floods. This year a new term has come to the fore, the bomb cyclone.

One could show all sorts of trends by picking only two data points especially with weather data which shows a lot of short term variability. But a clear trend exists and global warming can be tied to both the cost and frequency of weather events.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, drought is the one phenomena that worry people the most. Considering drought as just one catastrophe, they have become more intense, and last longer in recent times compared to the past. Not only here in the United States but globally. Many regions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are experiencing higher air temperatures, drier air, and more severe droughts. A NASA study has shown that a two-decade-long drought in the Mediterranean Levant is the worst in 900 years.

The economic impact of droughts is due in the main to reduced agricultural outputs, but the heat itself is lethal. In the database of billion-dollar weather events since 1980, four of the top ten most lethal events are heat waves.

The impact of climate-related risks falls most heavily on the insurance industry. Across the board, costs are rising. They are rising for property damage, healthcare costs, and even life insurance. Insurers know this – its what they do. One of the main activities of insurers is to calculate risk so they know how much to charge their customers in premiums. Because of their focus on risk, they know better than most just what the financial impact is of climate change.

The insurance industry holds assets obtained from premiums in investments, not cash. The industry is beginning to shift investments from carbon-intense industries. Eighty of the world’s largest insurers hold fifteen trillion dollars in managed assets. Currently, less than one percent of the investments are in low carbon industries that provide a solution to climate change.

California’s Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones leads a group called the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP.) A report from AODP assessed the industry’s investment portfolios and found that leadership in the trend away from carbon-intensive industries is coming from European firms. US firms are at or near the bottom. Some of the biggest firms with the most to lose, giants such as Prudential, AIG, and New York Life are that the bottom of the AODP ratings for attention to climate change.

Personal retirement accounts, in aggregate, are even larger than the insurance industry investments. Increasingly, mutual funds have categories like the Social Choice account at Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association. The investment strategy here is to disfavor fossil fuel industries and favor clean energy strategies.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.