Acid Tripwire

Worse than the brown acid.

Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold — whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx — the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.

That’s from the MIT press release on Rothman’s new paper, published in PNAS.

The MIT release continues:

Scientists know that when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater, it not only makes the oceans more acidic, but it also decreases the concentration of carbonate ions. When the carbonate ion concentration falls below a threshold, shells made of calcium carbonate dissolve. Organisms that make them fare poorly in such harsh conditions.

Shells, in addition to protecting marine life, provide a “ballast effect,” weighing organisms down and enabling them to sink to the ocean floor along with detrital organic carbon, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the upper ocean. But in a world of increasing carbon dioxide, fewer calcifying organisms should mean less carbon dioxide is removed.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Rothman says. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

To answer that question, Rothman surveyed the carbon record for the last half-billion years of Earth history, and then built a mathematical model of the carbon cycle in the upper ocean to help him analyze the current, human-driven injection of carbon dioxide into the climate system.

When he introduced carbon dioxide at greater rates, he found that once the levels crossed a critical threshold, the carbon cycle reacted with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification. The system did, eventually, return to equilibrium, after tens of thousands of years in today’s oceans — an indication that, despite a violent reaction, the carbon cycle will resume its steady state.

This pattern matches the geological record, Rothman found. The characteristic rate exhibited by half his database results from excitations above, but near, the threshold. Environmental disruptions associated with mass extinction are outliers — they represent excitations well beyond the threshold. At least three of those cases may be related to sustained massive volcanism.

“When you go past a threshold, you get a free kick from the system responding by itself,” Rothman explains.

I should emphasize that all this is a theoretical approach to the question. Rothman is a mathematical geologist, not a field guy, and his business is building formal representations of complicated systems to probe action in the real world that can’t be measured or experimented upon directly.

His prediction, then, is just that, a statement about the likelihood, not the certainty of a given outcome.  But that caveat doesn’t mean this is “just a theory.” Quite the reverse: because the model builds in solid and known physics, and is driven by dozens of observations in the historical record, this theory is one supported both by the math and the gold-standard of empirical measurement.

It’s scary, in other words, because it represents a rigorous attempt, using stable, well established knowledge, to depict a scary, inhospitable future:

In other words, if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.

I should add that I know Rothman a little — my students made a short film about a lovely little piece of work he and his students did on the branching networks of ground water drainage systems.  Just i that one encounter, on a question he tackled mostly for fun, it was easy to see that he’s an impressive thinker, combining mathematical intuition with a nose for earth-science problems that can be expressed in tractable systems of equations.

That doesn’t make this work right; it does make the suggestion that there is a chance we’re close to a trigger of a runaway feedback in the oceans a prediction to take very seriously indeed.

The TL:DR of all this?  One — there’s a risk that major and on human-lifetime scale irreversible changes for the worse are either very near or already baked into the way we’ve hacked the climate system.  The need to squelch that hack, to stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, is thus even more urgent than we thought.

A second implication amplifies that urgency:  Rothman’s math is simple (at least for him). It exposes one vulnerability, one potential feedback that could go against preserving the basic ecological support system human society depends on. But the climate system is big, incredibly complicated, and potentially hides a bunch of such triggers.

You can read this study, that is, as a case study, an example of how something seemingly well removed from direct warming issues (the physics and chemistry of the shells of microscopic ocean animals) can produce profound global effects.  So, if acid oceans haven’t terrified you enough, remember that where there’s one such hidden mechanism of major disruption, there may well be others.

As most of you know, I have a son. He’s nineteen now, and I find so much of my dread these days is bound up in my fear that I will leave him a world that is vastly more precarious than the one I inherited from my parents.

I do not have a good answer for myself on that, but it is one more reason why current politics seem to me to be life-or-death.  If we have any time left at all to keep the damage from climate change manageable, we don’t have that many years.  The longer the GOP holds power, the worse our chances become.  Go Science! is not the rallying cry that will win next year — but it’s damned important, even so.

And on that cheery note: have at it!

Images:  Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498

 








Poverty Kills. So Does The Color Bar

Today, The Guardian reported on an analysis of life expectancy by neighborhood in 500 American cities.  In that study, Chicago stood out, for all the wrong reasons.  The predominantly white, lakeside Streeterville district is a lovely place to live — for a long time, to ninety.  A few miles away, in the mostly black, Englewood neighborhood, average life expectancy is just sixty.  That thirty year gap is the largest within a single city in the study.

The implication:

“There’s a concept that is increasingly being understood, that your zip code has as much to do with your health as your genetic code,” said Dr Marc Gourevitch, chair of the NYU department and the principal architect of the health dashboard.

“Another way to look at that is that your zip code shouldn’t determine whether you get to see your grandkids. And at some level, that’s how I see and feel about these kinds of data. It’s shocking.”

Among the likely factors accounting for the disparity are the usual suspects: violence, trauma associated with fear of/proximity of violence, environmental and public health deficits, which can in turn feed back into social strife — as the Guardian story notes:

But health inequities also drive violence. Take lead poisoning. For decades, Englewood had one of the highest rates of residential lead contamination in the country. Research has shown that lead poisoning in children is associated with dramatic spikes in impulsiveness and aggression.

The larger interpretation: access to health care is only one piece of the health inequality puzzle. An important one, to be sure, but not the only one, and likely not in itself close to sufficient to deal with something like a full-generation gap in the amount of time each of us can hope to spend on this earth.  Addressing poverty, access to city services, open space, good schools, and absolutely clean air and water are all part of the puzzle.

This is, btw, why Elizabeth Warren keeps impressing me so much.  Her theory of government is one that encompasses not just a specific program or policy need, but a view of how government can address root causes and broad enabling possibilities.  I get some of that of Harris too, and some of the others, including a couple with whom I disagree on the specifics, similarly have an idea of what government is for.  Sanders and Biden, not so much.

But back to the matter at hand:  poverty kills, early and often.  We know (as the Guardian article goes into a bit) at least some of the things that work to defang that toxin.  That the GOP doesn’t see the necessity to do that is kin to the same impulse that doesn’t see what’s wrong in refusing soap and toothpaste and minimal care to those it stuffs in the American Gulag.  We can do so much better.

Image:Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn – Christ with the Sick around Him, Receiving Little Children (The ‘Hundred Guilder Print’) c. 1646-50








Midwest Flooding: Waters Receding

Offutt Air Base in Omaha had to move planes to Lincoln as the runways flooded. Side note: I was born there and pretty sure my blood runs Air Force Blue.

My brother and niece were stranded here. They came out for spring break and then the town they and my parents live in became an island as the Loup flooded and many levies broke. (The farmer who died when the bridge washed out is from there, too)

My sister-in-law is a nurse and couldn’t get to work because all roads out of town were underwater. She finally made it to work through a three-hour route (she’s twenty minutes from it normally) and my brother made it home yesterday with just a few long, out of the way roads.

More roads are opening up, but many highways are with escorts only.

The Nebraska State Patrol is posting some great photos. Here are their animal rescues:

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He seems to be enjoying the boat ride.

 

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You’ve come to save me? I love you.

And this haunting photo was not far from where my parents (who are thankfully dry  – even though they live next to a levy):

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The little town of Genoa had to completely evacuate. This is one of their bridges.

Here’s the Governor flyover video:

I know we have some Nebraska and Iowa jackals, are you all okay? Anyone at risk as all this water moves downstream?

But you know…climate change is a liberal conspiracy.

 








My Views On Nuclear Power

Last night we learned that Cory Booker feels that nuclear power will be important in our response to global warning.

So let me give a short summary of my feelings about nuclear power. They haven’t changed since I wrote this in August 2017.

We need nuclear power. I think that we can make it work. But there are a lot of reasons we might not. The fear of radioactivity is a big one. It’s irrational, it comes from a lack of education, the media fan it, and it seems impervious to any sort of persuasion.

The belief that there is no way to deal with the wastes is related, but separate. The repository at Yucca Mountain would be just fine except for politics. Nevada has decided that it won’t take other states’ radioactive garbage. So there. I can sorta sympathize, but not really. We do have a lot of empty space out here in the west, and not many people.

The time it takes to build a new reactor and the cost overruns, as they exist now, are disqualifying. This seems to be a problem in all sorts of areas, though. The solution may have more to do with contracting practices and bad incentives than anything else.

The new, smaller reactors that are being developed may be part of the solution. But it will take time to have them ready to go. Older reactors should not be shut down simply because natural gas is now cheap. Booker is right about that.

Overall, don’t give up on nuclear power. Learn about what radioactivity is. The nuclear industry and its proponents at DOE have to do a better job.








By Their Works Shall Ye Know Them

With Trump and his Trumpkins — aka the entire Republican power structure — the extremes of grotesque behavior serve a purpose: in the disgust they evoke, they distract us from the point of the whole exercise.  That would be, of course, extracting as much cash as possible through the exercise of arbitrary power.

Today’s example — actually, now about a week old — comes from griftmonger supreme Scott Pruitt.  All the grandiose corruption, stiffing aids for hotel rooms, buying a Maxwell Smart cone of silence, unobtanium-infused skin cream and the rest was the sizzle. The steak was wrecking the environment at the behest of one corporate master or another.  This was true to the bitter end:

In his last act as EPA Administrator on Friday, Scott Pruitt vacated an Obama-era ruling that dramatically restricted sales of polluting “glider” trucks.

What are glider trucks, you may ask? (I did.)  Do they serve any useful social purpose?

You be the judge:

The glider trucks, led by manufacturer Fitzgerald Glider Kits, are new truck bodies and frames fitted with old, diesel engines that pre-date emissions controls.

Those engines emit as much as 43 times the carcinogenic particulate matter and 13 times as much smog-forming nitrogen oxides as modern diesel truck engines. In the presence of sunlight, nitrogen oxides form smog, which has been linked to asthma.

The whole thing was a scam, exploiting a loophole that was supposed to allow the reuse of new engines if a rig was totalled, but instead installing pre-2007, high polluting engines in new truck bodies.

Pruitt used a debunked and then retracted study that claimed the highly polluting engines were somehow magically transformed into cleaner ones in their new clothes in a move that bars the EPA from enforcing the Obama-era rules this year and next.

I’m not sure exactly what Pruitt’s profit-center is here, given that everyone — and I mean everyone — hates these things.

Manufacturers such as Virginia-based heavy-truck maker Volvo, Illinois-based Navistar, and Cummins, which makes diesel engines in Indiana, all opposed Pruitt’s efforts to keep the loophole open, as did UPS, which buys thousands of long-haul trucks. Name-brand truck and engine makers have invested millions in developing the cleaner engine technology.

“I cannot recall an issue with such a breadth of opposition,” Paul Billings, national senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association told the Washington Post.

Was this simply bidnezz–some quid pro quo between Pruitt and the one truck company making a buck of these shit-spewing rigs? Or was this just one last f**k you to liberals on the way out?

I guess it could be both, or rather, it was certainly the latter, plus whatever personal corruption Pruitt was able to extract from the deal.  But my point (and I do have one, besides generalized disgust and impotent rage) is that this his how Trump’s administration rolls, and it’s exactly as the Republican Party and its paymasters intended it to.

While the gaudy scandals dominate our attention and most of the media effort, the executive departments and agencies are keeping very busy, creating or gutting rules, making decisions, operating almost completely unexamined, in ways that transfer wealth to the chosen few, and risk and consequences to everyone else.

I’m not sure there’s a shovel big enough to clean manure pile these assholes are depositing in our stable.

Pace Adam:  I’m doing a really crappy job staying frosty these days.

Open thread.

Image: Elihu Vedder, Corrupt Legislation, mural in the main reading room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, 1896