Blue Marble - December 2009

Retreating Glaciers Starve Oceans

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 6:35 PM PST

Just when I thought I couldn't be surprised by yet another falling domino in the cascade of negative effects from global climate changejolt. A study  of Alaskan glaciers in the prestigious journal Nature finds that as glacial ice disappears, so does high-quality food from the marine foodweb.

Here's how it works:

  • As they flow into the sea, glaciers fringing the Gulf of Alaska export dissolved organic matter left over from extinct forests overrun by ice.
  • The surprise is that this organic matter turns out to be super biologically active (read: nutrient-rich), above and beyond what's found in nonglacial rivers.
  • The second surprise is that this particular brand of dissolved organic matter does not decreases in quality as it ages (like most such particulate).
  • Instead, this 4,000-year-old stuff turns out to be super nutritious, with up to 66 percent of it rapidly metabolized by tiny marine microbes, instantaneously becoming part of the living biomass and supporting the greater marine foodweb.

The problem is that Alaskan glaciers are receding and disappearing in a warmer world. Therefore the input of this valuable food source is disappearing. What's at stake? Well, the glacial-fed rivers fringing the Gulf of Alaska discharge as much water as the Mississippi River into a marine system harboring the most productive salmon fishery in the world. For starters.

Poof. We figure it out and then it's gone. Another example of what I'm beginning to think of as the twisted quantum observer effect.
 

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CFACT Goes to Copenhagen

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 1:00 PM PST

As Josh Harkinson reported yesterday, plenty of dirty American money is flowing to international climate change denial groups, who have been hard at work to derail progress on climate. I caught up with one of those groups, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), in downtown Copenhagen at their rally to "celebrate demise of UN climate agreement," as roughly 60,000 pro-climate action protesters were marching through the city. At that point, the celebration was a little preemptive, but about 30 representatives from CFACT were on the scene wearing branded scarves and waving signs pointing out that it's cold outside and that "Without CO2, Nature Suffers."

The handful of deniers didn't stand much of a chance beside the pro-climate forces. But that doesn't mean they didn't try. They passed around a megaphone singing Christmas-themed songs about Al Gore ("He's making a list, he's checking it twice, gonna find out who's carbon neutral or not."), and they appeared at the end of the rally with their banner proclaiming "CO2=Life."

I talked briefly with CFACT president David Rothbard, who mentioned their recent listing at No. 6 on our roundup of top climate deniers. "It's neat to be number 6, but we'd like to get higher," he said.

Their plan for getting a higher rank ahead of next year's climate summit in Mexico is to "educate" more people, he said. "We've been saying for 20 years now that the science isn't settled, but there's a rush to judgment," said Rothbard. "They've said the science is settled, we need to move to the policy. We say it's anything but."

Here are some photos from their "rally" in Copenhagen.

The Forecast for Alaska: Extreme Weather

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 9:09 AM PST

After the major emitting countries agreed to the hastily made Copenhagen Accord late Friday night, President Barack Obama rushed onto Air Force One and jetted back across the Atlantic. He was presumably eager to get to Washington, DC before the big winter storm that was due to arrive on Saturday. The president made it back just in time. But perhaps the US would have been better served had he hung around Copenhagen a bit longer.

As the UN climate conference wound down overseas, two corners of this country were buried by unusually heavy snowfalls. In addition to the foot and a half of snow that closed public schools, federal buildings, and many offices in the Capital (the DC bureau of Mother Jones excluded), Valdez, Alaska, experienced record snowstorms that dumped over 76.5 inches. The town located six hours from Anchorage along the state's rugged southern coast managed the blizzard better than DC—amazingly, its 33-year streak without snow-day school cancellations lives on. But as the latest story from Mother Jones contributor Ted Genoways makes clear, the danger in Valdez isn't passed until after the snow has melted.

Last May, a record-breaking heatwave caused the meltwater-swollen Yukon River to spill its banks. The resulting flood nearly wiped Eagle, Alaska, the oldest town in the interior of the state, off the map. Over the years, Eagle has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers, and romantics—among them, Jack London, John McPhee, and Genoways. In the "Last Breakup" (web head: "Will the Yukon River Claim the Alaskan Frontier"),  Genoways travels back to the historic town to tell the story of one heroic couple's struggle for survival and to render a dramatic illustration of the danger climate change poses to even the most hearty and isolated Americans.

Skeptics are always keen to note that no single weather event can ever be directly linked to climate change. But the compelling body of anecdotal evidence from places like Eagle and Valdez only serves to bolster the rock-solid scientific and economic cases for taking immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If the Copenhagen Accord proves a misstep on the path to preventing catastrophic climate change, citizens of Alaska and elsewhere should brace themselves for more extreme weather.

UN to Reform Climate Negotiations

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 5:01 AM PST

Only a few days after the Copenhagen climate conference ended, the UN announced plans to overhaul its climate negotiations process. That's because if the recent climate talks illustrated anything, it's the extent to which the current treaty framework—an unwieldy process in which consensus among the 192 participating countries is near impossible—no longer serves its intended purpose of guiding nations toward meaningful, rigorous emissions reductions. "We will consider how to streamline the negotiations process," said UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon on Monday. "We will also look at how to encompass the full context of climate change and development in the negotiations, both substantively and institutionally." 

The world has changed considerably—economically, ecologically, socially, etc., etc.—since the existing UN treaty process was set into motion after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit where countries drafted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty that each subsequent Conference of the Parties, or COP, attempted to build on and improve. (Copenhagen was the 15th conference, hence the COP15 moniker.) But whereas the original UNFCCC treaty got away with carving the world into overly simplistic categories—essentially, a) industrialized countries, b) developed countries, and c) developing countries—the world has evolved considerably since then; across a country like India, where "development" is the decades-old rallying cry, you'll find economies and societies industrialized, developed, and developing, all within one nation's borders. Rigid categories like the UN's, then, hardly capture the complexities of today's global economy.

The plight of smaller, poorer countries is another matter crying out for change. Some, like the Group of 77, a bloc of impoverished countries, slammed the Copenhagen negotiations that they felt were dominated by wealthier nations. Tuvalu, a tiny, low-lying cluster of islands that could be an early climate-change casualty, was so fed up with the big nations' bullying that one of its negotiators jammed up the talks and introduced a tougher, legally binding treaty of his own. A few other smaller countries kicked up a ruckus as well—but in the end, it was a short, vague agreement hatched by the world's biggest countries that emerged from the arduous negotiations.

Perhaps, then, the best thing to come out of Copenhagen was clear evidence that the UN's treaty process is outdated and needs fixing. Any new negotiations framework should better balance the needs of the developing world against the developed, and streamline the process so that, like Kyoto before Copenhagen, the fate of a far-reaching, crucial, monumental treaty—that is, if we ever get one—isn't decided in the waning hours by a few world powers. 

350 Still Too High

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 6:00 PM PST

Adding insult to Copenhagen injury, a new study shows that the increases in atmospheric CO2 taking place today could have a much larger effect on global temperatures than previously thought.

How so? Well, only a relatively small rise in CO2 in the Pliocene era 3 to 5 million years ago drove temperatures a whopping 3 to 4 degrees Celsius higher. Peak temperatures were reached at CO2 concentrations between 365 and 415 parts per million. Today’s CO2 stands at about 386 ppm.

The new findings in Nature Geoscience suggest that even the 350 ppm the science community has rallied around of late are likely too high.

The problems with the current models (and the resulting 350 target) is they take into account only the faster feedbacks, like changes in atmospheric water vapor and the distribution of sea ice, clouds, and aerosols.

The new study assessed long-term feedbacks, including changes in continental ice-sheets, shifting terrestrial ecosystems, and the impacts of greenhouse gases other than CO2. Lead author Mark Pagani tells Yale:

"This work and other ancient climate reconstructions reveal that Earth’s climate is more sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide than is discussed in policy circles. Since there is no indication that the future will behave differently than the past, we should expect a couple of degrees of continued warming even if we held CO2 concentrations at the current level."

Of course, not only is policy discussing the wrong numbers, it's still discussing. The failure of Copenhagen makes me realize we need to look at ways to exit the rut of discussion and enter the age of meaningful action. Especially now that the 15 minutes of media coverage are over.
 

Econundrum: Last Minute Easy DIY Gifts

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 5:00 AM PST

Part two of MoJo's greener gift guide: Step away from the mall. Here are two easy DIY projects you can do with stuff you might even already have on hand. I spent a nice few hours on Saturday making custom cards, chatting with my roommates, and listening to music all the while. Cheaper than shopping, and much more pleasant.


Project #1: Custom Greeting Cards

You'll need:

Blank cards and envelopes
Wrapping paper, wall paper, old magazines—anything with images you'd like to cut out (I used some old ads for ladies hats that I found at a vintage store).
Glue
Ribbon

Simply cut out images you like and glue them to the cards. You can package the cards and envelopes together in groups of three to five, and tie each bundle with a ribbon.
 
Project #2: Key Hangers

You'll need:

Small picture frames (you can get cheap wooden ones at a craft store)
Wrapping paper or wall paper
Stapler or craft glue
Key hooks (hardware stores sell 'em for cheap)

Wrap the picture frame like a present, creating a smooth surface over the front where the picture would go. Staple or glue the edges to the back. Screw key hooks into the bottom of the frame. Hang like you would a picture.
 

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Warming That Gives You the Chills

| Sun Dec. 20, 2009 1:25 AM PST

Late Friday night, after the word had come down that the climate talks had ended in a five-way non-binding, unfair, and breathtakingly unambitious agreement between the US, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, a crowd of demonstrators from around the world gathered at the Metro station outside the Bella Center. It was 1 a.m., and it was bitter cold, in several ways.

These were not angry anarchists. These were young people who had spent the last few years of their lives working hard to make this process work. They came from groups like Greenpeace and Avaaz and Energy Action and 350.org. They all had credentials to the conference, but almost none had been inside for days, ever since the UN decided to stop letting more than a token few NGOs into the hall. They had written position papers, advised small nations, organized email blasts, and now—at least for the moment—it had all come to an end, an end far worse than most had imagined.

Inside, the less important nations of the world were still “negotiating,” trying to decide whether to sign on to the text that the powers that be had left behind. It was an empty and impotent debate, resembling in its power more the “model UNs” that high schoolers conduct in civics classes across the U.S. It was also brave—an effort to say that the process of trying to solve the world’s problems will continue.

It’s unclear what that process will look like, or what role global civil society will play in a world where the power balance is now more nakedly obvious than it was before yesterday. China and the US have taken it upon themselves to solve the biggest problem we face, but both have set out profoundly unambitious plans for doing so. The best guess from the modelers at Climate Interactive was that the proposals various countries were making might yield a world 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and with a carbon concentration of 770 ppm. That’s hot, and it’s why it felt cold down by that Metro station.

Obama's Copenhagen Deal: Real Or Not?

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 7:21 PM PST

David Corn and Kate Sheppard explain how Obama's eleventh-hour climate deal was stitched together—and why it may not even be a deal at all.

Anywhere But Earth Today, Please

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 5:59 PM PST

Trolling the science news today, as Copenhagen devolves into a shambles of squandered opportunities and the wasted hopes and dreams of most of the people on the planet, I can't help but notice how the big push is over. For the last couple of months, there's been a monstrously huge collective effort in the scientific world to present findings that might persuade the politicians to actually act on climate change.

You know, a Really Meaningful Deal. Not the meaningful deal we got.

Today, in the midst of frustration, anger, sadness, a lot of people seemed to need to leave the Earth behind. Evan Lerner at Seed articulated it well:

"It was hard to tell which was more depressing this week: stories detailing the seemingly inevitable collapse of our planet’s ecosystem, or stories detailing the seemingly inevitable collapse of our political efforts to save it. With the woefully underwhelming Copenhagen summit wrapping up today, there’s not much positive to say about the prospects for the Earth. So let’s turn our attention to another planet."

I enjoyed his word portrait of the astounding discovery of a water-rich world "only" 42 light years away. Until I remembered that one explanation for why we've never had contact with other intelligent beings in the universe is because no society has survived the ecological suicide we're currently committing.

New Scientist chose to amuse us with 10 oddities from London's Wellcome Library that made even the staff scratch their heads in puzzlement. I found myself engaged with their series of photographs of peculiar objects, like weird amputated paws and [spoiler alert] nipple protectors. I took their multiple-choice quiz reminding me of our limitless ignorance.

The BBC distracted us momentarily with the possibly momentous announcement of the detection of signals that could indicate the presence of dark matter. The irony is infinite. Just as we start to figure out the universe, we deprogram our own life support.

I managed to get really lost in Science Now's The Origins of Tidiness, detailing at an 800,000-year-old hominin site in Israel where Homo heidelbergensis practised super housekeeping:

"The team found that hominin activities were concentrated in two main areas at opposite ends of the strip. Knapping of stone tools made from flint was concentrated in the northwest area, while production of tools made from basalt and limestone was concentrated around a hearth in the southeast. There was also a clear pattern of animal and plant remains. For example, remains of crabs consumed by the hominins were clustered around the hearth, as were the remains of nuts and stone tools, such as anvils and choppers, suitable for cracking them open. On the other hand, fish bones were found in two clusters, one at each end of the excavated area. The team concludes, in its report on the findings in the 18 December issue of Science, that the hominins' division of their living space into designated activity areas is a sign of "sophisticated cognition" once thought to be the special preserve of modern humans."

That's pretty exciting. But then I realized that 800,000 years later, we still can't put our planetary house in order.
 

Who Really Pays for Copenhagen

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 4:31 PM PST

It's been a long week at Copenhagen, resulting in a non-binding resolution with parameters which Obama says "will not be by themselves sufficient to get to where we need to get by 2050." 2050 sounds like a long way off: a baby born today would be 41 then. But if we don't get emissions on track, fast, it'll be today's babies and kids who'll have to do it twice as quickly in 2050. You can see the faces of our future climate negotiators here, in a gallery of pictures our readers uploaded to our climate cover module.