Monday, April 22, 2013


One of the sophisticated, yet simple sounding, lessons in ecology is that natural selection does not / cannot foresee a future selection pressure.

In the past, human cleverness modifying materials was among our more successful adaptations, right up there with long-distance running and social groups. 

Now we have reason to rue outcomes of our clever material modifications: toxic waste, scarcity of essential resources, and this dreadful thermal alteration of the planet.

As I posted over at Climate Progress, we could go the way of the cyanobacteria, once the prevalent form of life, which produced so much oxygen as a byproduct that the world’s atmosphere shifted in favor of other life forms.

Cyanobacteria are still around, but they don’t pretend to have authority over the earth.  Or they aren’t telling.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Note to keep the Antarctic Undersea Waterfall Working

 We utterly depend on ocean currents to bring us moisture and warmth.

The kick start for the global ocean pattern  is thought to develop off the coast of Antarctica during the Southern Hemisphere winter.   As the cold sets in, the sea water surface freezes forming  fresh-water ice, releasing salt beneath it into the ocean. This heavy saltwater downdraft occurs at such a volume that an enormous undersea waterfall spills the saltwater down all the way to the seafloor.   For a graphic illustration see NOVA's Earth from Space.
Altogether, the Cape Darnley Bottom Water and three other Antarctic bottom water salt currents are thought to be the main drivers for nothing less than the earth's ocean circulation, or more specifically called, thermohaline circulation.

Meanwhile, snow on the Antarctic continent is melting at an unprecedented rate.  Under what conditions could that fresh water snow melt interfere with the saltwater waterfalls?
The saltwater waterfalls depend on freezing of seawater,  not fresh water, as it its the freezing of sea water which produces both sea ice above at the surface and the heavier salt water that sinks.
As the summer freshwater melt flows to the ocean,  it is likely to stay on top of the water column, at least at first,  but would it still be there come winter time?  How the melt water affects both temperature and salinity in the adjacent ocean would be useful to know. If the low-salt surface melt lingers in the ocean around Antarctica, it could freeze in winter without prompting production of heavier salt water beneath. And that would mean, less of an undersea water fall, less of a driver for ocean circulation.
It had been reported that a layer of Antarctic meltwater has affected the bottom water, slowing the thermohaline circulation.

We are alarmed by the atmospheric disruption from the melting Arctic, but oceanic disruption from a thawed Antarctic hasn’t been given much layperson attention. The implications for climate disruption from perturbed oceans are even more catastrophic than the extreme, but not totally unfamiliar, weather occurring in the Northern Hemisphere from deformation of the northern circumpolar jet stream.

What is the risk of a diminished Antarctic saltwater waterfall?

 Let's hope it keeps working.

(For more on the Arctic, see work by Jennifer Francis at Rutgers and by the team at the Potsdam Institute).

This is an edited revised post, as I didn't have all the bits to include for ocean current links between Antarctic bottom water and the Gulf Stream.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bloodless yet deadly? Is that possible? Shifting legal geography: examples of climate change, cyberwars, and drones

In the UK, jurists in 2011 held a mock trial, Test trial convicts fossil fuel bosses of 'ecocide'
 This trial is refreshingly international in scope.

Who among us does not tacitly accept the legal geography that gives geographic boundaries' primacy over other empowerment to judge actions? That assumption sprang from kingdoms and nationalities, in which jurisdiction is identified first by place under control, historically assumed to be also the place of occurrence, and secondarily by category of behavior.  This spatial view of law has been stretched and bent by events that cross those geographic boundaries.

International law has wrestled with cases such as environmental damages by Chevron in the Amazon, as well as acts of genocide in the Balkans, while publicly acknowledged genocide goes unprosecuted in central Africa.  International law has blank spots, such as what to say about cyberwars, acts of militias funded from outside a country, detainees at Guantanamo, or un-manned drone attacks in Asia that were guided by military individuals sitting in buildings in the US. 

Cyberwar attacks may emerge as an exceptionally provocative example of cross-boundary attacks.  These can cause the downfall of many enterprises, but a link to personal damage or environmental damage is inconclusive.    Bloodless yet deadly? Is that possible? 

A disturbing rumor about prosecuting acts of genocide, and by inference ecocide, is that allegedly only individuals have been convicted of acts of genocide. How odd is that? How true is that? If so, is it likely to change?

As the journalist for the Guardian wrote in 2011: " is worth noting that Bolivia has already passed laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. Furthermore, ecocide could become an international crime by amendment of the ICC's Statute of Rome, which would need 86 nations to back it. Are there 86 states backing the ICC who feel climate change, the crisis in the oceans and other environmental problems are trashing their "peaceful enjoyment" of the Earth's bounty?"

Don't we know of organizations that can be held responsible for hate crimes or other hostile acts, and don't we want to call those acts something criminal, without limiting to old categories of conspiracy, or war? 

April 6, 2013 Joan Savage

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

That difficult term "Climate Sensitivity"

Climate sensitivity may be defined as projected response of global surface temperature to radiative forcing, or a factor affecting net radiative forcing, usually CO2 emissions.  See also the Wiki definition

That said, the words climate and sensitivity have so much baggage that news media have a hard time translating in a conversation about climate sensitivity.

Serious limitations:
- only marks an atmospheric surface temperature change.
- does not directly indicate change in heat content of materials, most significantly the ocean.
- does not correlate temperature or heat content to dynamic climate phenomena.
- does not have a standardized time frame. 
- does not provide indicators at a regional scale, yet the pace and extremity of temperature change differs greatly from latitude to latitude, land to sea,  and so on.

I'd like to see a work-up on "heat content sensitivity" which could describe the more direct relationship between greenhouse gas and the increased heat content of the globe, which varies by region and substance.

The temperature estimates for "climate sensitivity" all have to be derived from the heat content and from there to other dynamics about heat distribution.

Heat content sensitivity is related to very useful questions. Imagine having better predictors for when glaciers melt, water vapor rises from a lake or ocean, or locating places that would fail to cool off enough at night for plant or animal survival.

As it stands now, "climate sensitivity" yields an unwieldy factoid, an average global temperature shift.  Nobody is going to get excited about average 2 degrees Celsius, but Whoa, if that means that some parts of the planet have heated up into the realm of heat exhaustion and heat shock, or the ocean has warmed up so widely that dynamic superstorms are common arrivals on land, and on and on, some of us might get agitated.  

Even though we can measure temperature, temperature is a proxy for other changes taking place.
In a child with a fever, the physiology, immunology and chemistry are far more complex than just being warmer.  Like the child, a raised temperature of the planet is a clue that complex changes have already taken place as well as acting as indicator for what is to come.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ecosystem restoration in a time of Climate Change, as inspired by Dan Dindal

In graduate school at SUNY-ESF,  my advisor Dan Dindal taught Terrestrial Community Ecology (TCE), a course offered for undergraduate or graduate credit.  I was a teaching assistant for the course for an enviable three semesters, and I say enviable as other graduate students felt lucky to have it as their T.A. for a single semester.  Dr. Dindal has long since retired, yet two of his publications, Soil Biology Guide (editor) and Ecology of Compost are still in print due to their durable usefulness.

In TCE, students were supplied with a suite of tools for analyzing ecosystems. In the days before easy spreadsheets, possibly the most daunting exercise was a hand-calculated Bray-Curtis Ordination which compared communities by species abundance, and was distinguished by being a non-parametric analysis.

Among the abundance of other tools, we learned to compare communities by number of trophic levels, species diversity, population redundancy and rarity, and non-organism characteristics such as biotic and abiotic nutrient cycling, stability, ecosystem successional stages, and more.

One enduring lesson I take from that education is that an ecosystem has characteristics that are not completely dependent on current species composition.  

When an ecosystem has been degraded by human activity it is not enough to cover it up with a thin layer of soil, plant grass and a few trees and call it "restored."

If an ecosystem is fully restored, it would have the same number of trophic levels as before disruption.
It would have the same diversity of species, genus, family and class, same efficiency of nutrient cycling, same ability to capture energy in biomass, and resiliency to natural disturbances.

Does it have to have identical rare species?  Could be, if none other can be the keystone species for that environment.  Consider that the salmon that are caught by bears become fertilizer for the forests of the Pacific Coast.

I am impatient with giving more examples, even though that is an efficient way to teach.

Let's just imagine that in a climate-changed world we'd have a better chance ourselves if the ecosystems we depend on have the resiliency that comes from diversity, even if the particular species composition of an ecosystem has changed and continues to shift.

Updated, April 22, 2013.