Tag Archives: carbon dioxide

Environmental Services

mangrove atoll

mangrove atoll


Environmental services is not only a name for numerous companies that provide, well, environmental services but also the concept that our environment provides many services to humanity. Also called ecosystems services, these range from the obvious such as recreation and food to the not so obvious but critical – regulation of the climate. Because of the burgeoning human population and the ever increasing use of fossil energy sources, these services are being taxed like never before.

The importance of climate stability is in the news daily for those willing to pay attention. The trend for decades has been that every year is warmer than the last, glaciers and polar ice are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising (three-quarters of the world’ megacities are coastal.) Less commonly addressed are some physical changes occurring in the oceans.

The oceans provide half the people in the world with their principal source of protein. Ocean fisheries provide sixteen percent of all protein consumed by humans. These food sources are under threat and the threat can turn into collapse (of fisheries for example) frighteningly fast. This has been shown already due to overfishing.

The grand banks off the coast of Newfoundland had been the world’s premier cod fishery. Europeans may have fished the site even before European settlement, but surely by the sixteenth century. Hundred’s of millions of tons of cod were taken over the centuries, a supply thought to be inexhaustible. In the late fifties, fisheries managers began to grown concerned. In 1968 the catch had dropped to just under a million tons. Just six years later it was down to under fifty thousand tons. The Grand Banks are now closed to international fishing. In a couple of decades, the blink of an eye in terms of human populations, the world went from “inexhaustible” to gone.

Conceivably other fisheries can be managed or at least one would hope. It is also hoped that burning fossil fuels can be managed, but there is little sign of that happening here in the United States. Two factors negatively impact ocean fisheries due to burning fossil fuels, heat and acidity. Both these problems have to do with the solubility of gasses in liquids. Unlike solids which are increasingly soluble in liquids, gasses are just the opposite. Atmospheric gasses such as Nitrogen and Oxygen dissolve better in colder water.

Those who fish the streams and lakes of Arkansas know that trout can only survive in cold water. Colder water contains more Oxygen which trout require. Cool water fisheries support species such as smallmouth bass whose Oxygen requirements are less than trout but greater than largemouth bass.

The long and short of it is that as the oceans warm they loose Oxygen which can stresses fish – they are slowly suffocating.

The other ocean problem is the dissolution of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which causes acidity. Although CO2 is a gas it reacts with seawater to become carbonic acid. The oceans are now about thirty percent more acidic than at the start of the industrial revolution when burning fossil fuels began in earnest. Coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans are suffering from damage due to both heat and acidity.

Hottest.April.Ever

While conservatives in several states are tearing their hair out over transgender bathroom issues and passing laws to the same and Donald Trump is ranting about Hillary coming for your guns, a more pervasive real issue is pounding on the front door.

For the seventh straight month, and the third strait year, it’s the hottest ever recorded on planet earth. Whether you use actual thermometer readings, or proxies for temperature such as freeze-thaw dates, the answer is the same. Whether you use land based or sea surface temperatures, the answer is the same. Whether you use ground based or satellite data, the answer is always the same.

It’s hotter than ever and more importantly, it’s getting hotter faster than ever. That is the really scary part. The earth’s average temperature has changed radically over time. It has been hotter and it has been colder, but never in the past 800,000 years has the temperature of the earth been warmer nor changed as rapidly as it has in the last couple of centuries. And the rate of change is accelerating.

This planetary cycle is driven by our continuing to flood the atmosphere with certain gases, called radiatively forcing gases which trap heat and hence warm the surface of the planet. It’s really not very complex science, and most of the world’s scientists understand.

The time period arbitrarily chosen as a baseline is 1950-1980. If we call that zero, then the temperature In in April was hotter than ever. New data from NASA, the agency that put man on the moon, and maintains people in space on the International Space Station, show that the average combined land and sea temperatures for April were 1.11 degrees Celsius (2.00 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the baseline. That is the average. It was much hotter near the poles (here in Bullfrog Valley it was actually a little cooler as I recall but BFV is not the rest of the world.)

In locations such as Alaska, Russian Siberia, and Greenland, the difference was as much as 4 C (> 7 degrees Fahrenheit). “The interesting thing is the scale at which we’re breaking records,” said Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s clearly all heading in the wrong direction.”

The saddest and most maddening thing is that this is nothing new or surprising. Scientists around the planet have been beating the drum, loudly, since the 1980s. Our climate is in crisis and we need to act now. Every day we delay means more costs to our children both in dollars and a loss in biological richness. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist warned of the possibility of global warming in a paper published in 1896, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid [Carbon Dioxide] in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.

Forewarned is forearmed, if we will just listen.

Thawing Permafrost Feedback Loop

Within the scientific community there is no argument about global warming. It is real, and it is caused by human activities. Those activities include burning fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide (CO₂.) The carbon dioxide acts as a climatic blanket to retain heat in the atmosphere which would otherwise be radiated out to space.

Other activities which release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are deforestation. Cutting trees causes the release of CO₂, if the biota is simply burned to clear land as is practiced in the rain forests of the Amazon and southeast Asia. Even if the timber is harvested for construction, there is still a significant portion of the biomass in the form of twigs, branches, roots, and shoots which degrade rapidly to release CO₂.

Carbon dioxide is only one of the so called greenhouse gasses, the major one, but only one just the same. Methane, CH4, is another greenhouse gas. On a per weight basis methane is much more effective at global warming than CO₂, but its contribution is lower as there is a lot less of it. That may be changing – read on.

As stated earlier, global warming is real, the planet is getting warmer and it is to a very large degree caused by humans. A question yet answered is how fast will the planetary temperature rise? That depends on how fast the concentrations of the gasses increase.

If there is one condition that keeps climate scientists up at night, it is a risk of a “runaway” feedback mechanism. If warming itself can cause the release of greenhouse gasses, then a feedback loop causes more heating which causes more gas release which causes more rapid heating which causes more rapid gas release…

Image from thepolicylass.org

Image from thepolicylass.org

Feedback loops exist, but how sensitive are they to what is happening now? A disturbing result was recently published in Nature Climate Change. One of the vagaries of climate change is that it is happening faster at the higher latitudes (nearer the poles) than near the equator. Not only are glaciers melting but areas of exposed permafrost are thawing rapidly. The permafrost is composed of a thick layer of accumulated biomass from the slow growth of moss, lichens, and sedge. There is estimated to be twice as much carbon sequestered in the permafrost as exists in the atmosphere.

The carbon in the permafrost can degrade in two ways depending on environmental conditions. Microbial action can convert the carbon to either CO₂ or methane. If more methane is produced the feedback loop is accelerated even faster than if CO₂ were produced.

This all starts with burning fossil fuels which enrich the atmosphere in carbon dioxide. This causes the climate to warm, which causes the permafrost to thaw which causes the production of even more carbon dioxide or even worse methane.

The only way to stem this cycle is to stop extracting and stop burning coal, oil, and methane. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken some early steps to limit burning coal, the worst of the fossil fuels.