Friday, February 20, 2015

Setting Earth's Thermostat

Events like the Pinatubo eruptions of 1991 happen about once a century — on average — roughly.

Some scientists say that next time there's a Pinatubo-scale eruption, we should deploy a fleet of instrument-carrying aircraft, balloons, and satellites: to see exactly what happens when sulfur dioxide and other chemicals get dumped into the upper atmosphere.

We know that the stuff causes regional and global climate changes: but we don't know exactly how the process works.

There's more than pure scientific curiosity behind wanting this knowledge. Earth's climate is changing, which is par for the course: but we're at a point where our actions can affect climate.

The job at hand is leaning how Earth's climate works, how it changes, and what causes the changes. Then we'll decide what to do about that knowledge.

Just for fun, I also picked a news item about furry critters that lived in the days of dinosaurs.
  1. 'Next Pinatubo' and Geoengineering
  2. Furry Critters and Dinosaurs

Pinatubo, 1991

(From USGS, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(June 12, 1991: Mt. Pinatubo eruption. U.S. Geological Survey Photo taken by Richard P. Hoblitt.)

June, 1991, was not a good month to live on — or near — Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Folks knew a big eruption was coming, so evacuation plans had been made: and put off until rather close to the catastrophic event.

Unlike Boston National Weather Service forecasters back in 1953, Philippine authorities weren't worried about panicking 'the masses.' (January 16, 2015)

They realized that if they kept issuing false alarms, folks in harms way might start ignoring them: and did get around 60,000 folks out of a 30-kilometer danger zone by June 13. The 'big one' came June 15.

Evacuees included Aeta living on Mount Pinatubo: whose ancestors may have walked to the Philippines during the last (or current) ice age. Many Aeta had started moving after the first eruptions. You don't survive that long by being stupid or crazy: and that's not really another topic.

My guess is that we're centuries, maybe millennia, from having technology that could suppress or control volcanic eruptions. At this point, we're doing well to predict when the things will go off while there's still time to run.

We can do something about the weather, though: and are learning the value of prudence and foresight.

Cloud Seeding and a Disturbing Coincidence

(From National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Black Hills Flood of 1972: jumbled cars.)

At the start of the 20th century, "experts" knew that weather modification was a foolish waste of time — or a fraud. I can see their viewpoint: they hadn't learned how to make it rain when they got their degrees, so how could these young whippersnappers and bunko artists possibly be right?

Around 1950, even "experts" had to acknowledge that cloud seeding works. Large-scale weather modification was a very real possibility when I went through high school.

Living in the upper Midwest, I took more notice of plans that focused on bringing rain to growing crops — and keeping the fields dry during planting and harvest.

Then the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences tested a newish cloud seeding technique on a storm west of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Torrential rain filled Rapid Creek and other waterways past their banks, backed up behind the Canyon Lake Dam: which underwent catastrophic failure during the night of June 9, 1972.

Rescue and recovery teams eventually found most of the bodies, and the debris has long since been cleared away.

The flood killed 238 people, injured 3,057, and destroyed more than 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles. After that experience, disaster response procedures changed: and folks aren't allowed to build houses or motels where another flood will eventually happen.

Another bit of good news: Nobody hunted down and lynched the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences folks. The last I heard, there still wasn't any evidence that their cloud seeding experiment made that storm get nasty.

As I recall, though, public discussion of weather modification stopped — rather abruptly. Understandably, I suppose.

Learning Wisdom: Not Fear

Humans have pretty good brains: the trick is using them properly. (February 10, 2013)

I take the Bible very seriously: it's 'in the rules.' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

On the other hand, I'm not a hardwired literalist, and that's another topic. (January 30, 2015)

Bear with me, this connects to a discussion of geoengineering that comes later in this post.

We're made "in the image of God," with the power and authority that implies:
"4 Then God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.'

"God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. "
(Genesis 1:26-27)
No, I do not think that I look like God.

Being made in God's image means that we're people: I'm someone, not something. (Catechism, 356-358)

There's more to it: like what's in Catechism, 1701-1709. Today I'm focusing the job that goes along with that "dominion."

We're pretty hot stuff, like it says in Psalms 8:
"When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place -"

"4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?"

"5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor."
(Psalms 8:4-6)
I've talked about hubris, humility, and getting a grip, before. (August 10, 2014)

We've got "dominion," but we do not own the universe: or Earth.

I think the 'we can do anything we want' attitude of the 19th and early 20th century was as silly as the currently-fashionable notion that humanity is nothing more than a dangerous, demented, and doomed, animal.

The world is a wonderful place: and it's God's property.

Our position is sort of like shop foreman or steward. We don't own the place, but we're responsible for its management. (Catechism, 339, 952, 2402-2405, 2456)

Considering the responsibility that comes with our power, being made in the image of God is a scary thought. (March 17, 2013)

But, scary or not, we've got a job to do: taking care of the world's resources for our use, and for future generations. (Catechism, 339, 2402, 2415)

Curiosity comes with being human. Studying the universe, and developing new tools using that knowledge, is part of our job. So is paying attention to ethics. (Catechism, 2293-2295)

Being scared silly won't, I think, help. It makes about as much sense as a shop foreman being scared of power tools.

1. 'Next Pinatubo' and Geoengineering

(From USGS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The 1991 Mount Pinatubo blast was the biggest on Earth in recent times"
(BBC News))
" 'Next Pinatubo' a test of geoengineering"
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (February 14, 2015)

"Scientists who study ideas to engineer the climate to mitigate global warming say we should be ready to deploy an armada of instrumentation when Earth has its next major volcanic eruption.

"Data gathered in the high atmosphere would be invaluable in determining whether so-called 'geoengineering' solutions had any merit at all.

"It would have to be an event on the scale of Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

"That eruption cooled global temperatures for a couple of years.

"It did so by pumping 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide high into the sky above the Philippines.

"The resulting droplets of sulphuric acid that formed on contact with moisture reflected incoming sunlight back out into space, preventing that radiation from warming the surface.

"Some have suggested humanity could mimic this same effect by deliberately seeding the stratosphere with sulphur...."
Mount Pinatubo's 1991 eruption "was the biggest on Earth in recent times" — sort of.

It depends on what you think "recent" means. Novarupta's inaugural 1912 eruption, 47 kilometers, 290 miles, southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, was roughly as big as Pinatubo's.

The Oruanui eruption, about 26,500 years back; and the Yellowstone Caldera's. some 640,000 years ago; were more than a thousand times more massive than any 20th century.

Then, every 22,000,000 years or so, on average, large igneous provinces happen. There was one in what we call the Pacific Northwest about 17,000,000 to 14,000,000 years ago — which was still fairly active until around 6,000,000 years back.

Another, some 125,000,000–120,000,000 years back, formed the Ontong Java Plateau; and 251,000,000 to 250,000,000 years ago another big one left the Siberian Traps, and almost certainly helped start Earth's biggest known extinction event.

It might be coincidence, but we've found what looks a whole lot like what's left of an asteroid impact under Wilkes Land in Antarctica. That happened a quarter of a billion years back, when Wilkes Land was antipodal to the Siberian Traps.

Earth's core would have acted as an acoustic lens, focusing shock waves from the impact — if that's what it was — on the other side of the planet. Something like that happened on Mercury, and that's yet another topic. (November 29, 2013)

Where was I? Pinatubo. Global warming. Climate change. Geoengineering. Right.


"... Allergic to Change ..."

"Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."
(Grace Hopper, developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language, U.S. Naval officer)
Geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth's climate, is a new word for a new idea. Some discussion of geoengineering has been fairly calm:
Other folks, predictably, seem convinced that geoengineering threatens life, liberty, and business-as-usual. They're right about that last point.

If this was the 'good old days,' we'd probably see fear that discussing geoeningeering offends the Almighty. I don't miss the 'good old days.' (August 29, 2014; April 27, 2014)

The easiest approach to geoengineering is to assume that there's nothing we can — or should — do about Earth's climate: and hope that we'll never need to regulate climate. I think there are several ways to justify this approach: or maybe "rationalize" would be a better term.

Someone might decide that Earth's climate never changes, never will, and can't change: because it doesn't. Another person might decide that we're all gonna die because of [select your favorite crisis], so it doesn't matter what we do: because we're all gonna die anyway.

I didn't say those justifications make sense: but they're possible, if extreme, versions of attitudes I occasionally run into.

Yet another justification may be seriously discussed. It's a version of the 'my end of the boat isn't sinking' argument.

Geoengineering, deliberately changing Earth's climate, will be an expensive project, and more important to future generations than to anyone alive today.

I have no trouble imagining someone deciding that spending money on entertainment, a political campaign, or the biggest tombstone in the cemetery, is more important than making Earth a better place for folks living a thousand years from now.

'It won't happen in my lifetime, so I don't care' may be a natural attitude: but that doesn't make it right. We're expected to use the animals, plants, and inanimate resources of this word — wisely, with respect for the integrity of creation, and with a concern for future generations. (Catechism, 2415-2418)

Then there's Deuteronomy 25:4, instructions about feeding oxen mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 18, that comes between instructions for punishing wrongdoers; and that's yet again another topic.

Earth: Hot, Cold, and Everything in Between

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth during the Paleocene - Eocene Thermal Maximum, 50,000,000 years ago.)

Earth's climate isn't what it used to be: and never was. We're in an interglacial period with another round of continental glaciation on the way — or at the end of the latest ice age cycle.

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth during the early Miocene, 20,000,000 years back. This warm era wouldn't last.)

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth today: either just after — or during a warmish break in — Earth's most recent ice age.)

Either way, Earth is cooler than "normal:" by early Eocene standards. (January 10, 2014)

The current ice age, the Pliocene/Quaternary glaciation, started about 2,580,000 years back.

The last I heard, scientists aren't sure whether this ice age is finally over: or if we're in one of the interglacial periods. We don't know exactly how ice ages work: but it's likely that one factor is how much snow falls near the poles.

It's possible that when Earth heats up enough for the Arctic ice cap to melt, more water evaporates there, leading to heavier snowfalls that don't entirely melt each summer. Eventually, you've got glaciers grinding their way south.

All those glaciers make Earth brighter, reflecting more sunlight back into space. Between that, and lower sea levels that come from so much water going into glaciers, there isn't as much snowfall: which slows the advance of glaciers. That's the idea, anyway.

It's also likely that where the continents matters where ice ages are concerned. Right now, for example, there's a continent at Earth's south pole, and a nearly-landlocked body of water at the north pole. Less water gets moved between the poles and the equator, letting the poles stay very cold.

The Himalayas may be a factor, too. Earth's precipitation rate has apparently gone up since they formed; and they're still growing, by about five millimeters a year.

Earth has been through five major ice ages: the Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, Karoo Ice Age and Pliocene/Quaternary glaciation. Earth has had permanent icecaps at the poles ever since humanity showed up, about two and a half million years back. (July 11, 2014)

It's easy to assume that this is the way it's always been — and always should be. The more we learn about Earth's past, though, the more it looks like ice-free high latitudes are normal: and we're living in an oddly-cold era.

Geoengineering and Options

Somewhere during the next thousand years, we must make some hard decisions.

The question isn't whether or not we can change Earth's climate.

There's good reason to believe that we've been doing it for the last few generations.

The results haven't, hysterical headlines notwithstanding, been dramatic: but we hadn't been trying to turn up the thermostat. It just happened.

Earth's climate changes, and was changing long before humanity arrived. It's changed a lot over the last few billion years.

We've learned quite a bit about these changes in the last few centuries: and there's a lot more to learn.

The last I heard, for example, scientists are still sifting through data and discussing whether the Medieval Warm Period was a regional event: or global.

The Little Ice Age that came later wasn't exactly an ice age, but it was cold: which was good news, sort of, and bad news. Folks could walk from Manhattan to Staten Islands in the winter of 1780. That was the good news. The bad news — well, it could have been worse.

The Great Famine of 1315–1317 happened just before or just after the start of the Little Ice Age — depending on how that protracted cold snap gets defined.

Only around 10 percent of folks living in France, Norway, and Sweden died in famines of 1693–94 (France), 1695–96 (Norway), and 1696–97 (Sweden). Estonia and Finland's famines of 1696–97 killed between a fifth and a third of Finns and Estonians.

Meanwhile, folks stopped trying to grow oranges in Jiangxi Province. Maybe it's a coincidence that shorelines on Pacific islands receded from 1270 to 1475, New Zealand's Franz Josef glacier grew rapidly during the Little Ice Age. Then again: maybe not.

We're still collecting data about Antarctic and Australian climate back then, but there's evidence of colder-than-usual conditions there, too.

One more thing, and I'll get back to long-range planning: Patagonian tree rings show slow growth from 1270 to 1380 and 1520 to 1670, so it looks like the southern hemisphere cooled off then, too.

Gathering Data

As " 'Next Pinatubo' a test of geoengineering" (Jonathan Amos, BBC News) says, the next Pinatubo-scale eruption will let us collect data about what happens when 20 million tones of sulfur dioxide gets dumped into the stratosphere.

The sulfur dioxide changed to droplets of sulfuric acid when it hit water droplets. That reflected incoming sunlight back out into space, which cooled off part Earth's surface.

Studying this phenomenon would take a fleet of balloons, aircraft, and satellites: at least some equipped with lidar. Those resources weren't available when Pinatubo exploded, but now we could set up rapid-response teams and wait for the next major explosive eruption.

We could probably get the data faster by pumping sulfur into Earth's upper atmosphere: but that would be expensive, and I don't think any sane person would be overly eager to sign the 'go ahead' order.

It'd be a bit like those 'mad scientist' movies, when Professor Übergeschnappt chugalugged (yes, they're real words) a brew that Boris the demented assistant wouldn't touch: and that's still another topic.

Seeding the stratosphere with sulfur isn't our only geoengineering alternative. For example, we've developed carbon dioxide scrubbers for industrial operations — and the Space Shuttle.

Scaling something like the shuttle RCRS up to handle continent-size volumes of Earth's atmosphere would be expensive: and a massive technical challenge. But it might be a better idea than seeding the stratosphere.

More than you may want to know about RCRS:

Choices: Crazy and Otherwise

Like I said, we have hard decisions ahead.

We're very close to having the technology needed to adjust Earth's climate. Having the knowledge it takes to do so safely — that's emphatically a work in progress.

In the short run — a few centuries, on these scales — putting more carbon dioxide scrubbers on factory exhausts and fruit storage locations, and catalytic converters on cars should be enough. Finding a practical alternative to petroleum-powered vehicles is a good idea for several reasons. Still more topics.

Somewhere in the next thousand years or so, though, we'll need to decide where to set Earth's thermostat.

One option is to pick a recent era — maybe that warm spell, a thousand years back; or the mid-19th century — and keep Earth's climate pretty close to that era's conditions.

Or we could decide that what this world needs is more mammoths and mastodons; clone a few herds, or reverse-engineer the critters from elephants; and return to the climate of the Late Miocene and early Pliocene. Eventually we'd have to evacuate places like Seattle, Chicago, New York City, and Moscow: but there'd be new beachfront property, thanks to lower sea levels.

Yet another option would be to let Earth warm up a little more. Humans aren't really suited for arctic and subarctic conditions, anyway.

If we were careful, we'd have time to build new port cities, replacing places like San Diego and Singapore — which would flood as sea levels rose to "normal" levels.

I suggest the Late Cretaceous as the model for this option. 'Correcting' what happened around 66,000,000 years back would allow open-air zoos stocked with ersatz dinosaurs, and that's — you guessed it — another topic.

We wouldn't necessarily have to completely abandon today's coastal cities. A few, at least, could be preserved as museums or luxury resorts: enclosed by water- and pressure-resistant domes.

My guess is that we'll decide that polar ice caps are okay: and ignore the 'save the mammoth' and 'dino power' activists.

2. Furry Critters and Dinosaurs

"Furry forerunners: Jurassic arboreal, burrowing mammals unearthed"
Will Dunham, Reuters (February 12, 2015)

"It may not have been the most opportune time to be a furry little critter, what with all those hungry dinosaurs and flying reptiles hanging around. But early mammals still managed to make their mark during the Jurassic Period.

"Scientists on Thursday described fossils unearthed in China of two shrew-sized creatures that represent the oldest-known tree-climbing and burrowing mammals and show that early mammals had claimed a variety of ecological niches.

"Agilodocodon scansorius, an omnivore that lived about 165 million years ago, possessed paws with curved claws for climbing, limb dimensions characteristic of other tree-dwelling mammals and flexible elbow, wrist and ankle joints good for scrambling up trees with agility.

"Its spade-like front teeth, similar to some New World monkeys today, allowed it to chew into bark and eat tree gum or sap.

"Docofossor, a mole-like insect-eater that lived about 160 million years ago, boasted shovel-like paws for digging, teeth similar to later burrowing mammals that forage underground and sprawling limbs ideal for underground movement.

"University of Chicago paleontologist Zhe-Xi Luo called Docofossor a 'dead ringer' for today's African golden mole...."
I'm fascinated by what we're learning about Earth's long backstory. Your experience may vary.

Docofossor seems to have pioneered underground life for mammaliaformes. That's a phylogenetic nomenclature term — a new way of describing critters that you'll probably never use, unless you're a big fan of paleontology.

Getting back to Docofossor, moles, and all that: golden moles aren't made of gold, and they're not moles. They look a lot like Australia's marsupial moles, which also aren't moles. I've talked about convergent evolution before. A lot. (January 30, 2015; September 12, 2014; June 6, 2014)

Agilodocodon scansorius looked a bit like a squirrel: a very small squirrel. The critter was 13 centimeters, about 5⅛ inches, long: including the tail. Agilodocodon scansorius had spade-like teeth, sort of like critters that gnaw bark and drink sap today.

But evolutionary biologist Frietson Galis pointed out that saying its teeth aren't quite like today's sap-sucking monkeys — and the extinct critter's lower jaw is long, thin, and doesn't look strong enough to chomp tree bark. Not effectively.

This isn't, I think, useless information. If you memorize enough of these facts, you'll find them effective at inducing glazed eyes and blank expressions in folks you want to bore silly.


A bit more seriously, the Reuters article says that Docofossor's fingers are so exactly similar to today's moles that they may have used the same genes. That may mean that one of the scientists mentioned in Will Dunham's article said so: or that Mr. Dunham knows about Wikipedia.

The critter in the photo is an eastern, or common, mole: and sincerely not threatened by extinction. Not any time soon, at least.

Wikipedia's page on Docofossor says that the BMP and GDF-5 control that critter's mole-like finger traits. That's odd, or at least unexpected, since Docofossor and moles are in different branches of the mammal family.

Or maybe not so odd. The same genes control the growth of paws, hands, and spotted gar fins. Earth's life is very modular at the genetic level. (January 9, 2015; December 26, 2014)

I still run into folks who seem unwilling to think that we really are made of the stuff of this world. And like just about every other topic in this post, I've talked about that before. (October 31, 2014; July 15, 2014; April 4, 2014)

More about cautions optimism and "greater admiration:"


Brigid said...

Extra letter: "Alaska, was roughly as big as Pinaturbo's."

Capitalization: "Climate change. geoengineering. Right."

Missing word: "leading to heavier snowfalls don't entirely melt each summer."

Missing word: "It's also likely that where the continents matters where ice ages are concerned."

Wrong word: "so it looks like the southern hemisphere cooled of then, too."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


Right! I typed "Pinaturbo" quite a bit while writing this. Thanks for catching that one: and the other errata. :)

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.