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Archive for November, 2006

Polarstern icebreaker

On Thanksgiving Day, 47 scientists set off on a two-month voyage to explore uncharted seas.

No ship’s hull has ever parted the waters they’re headed to. That’s because until a few years ago the 3,000-square-kilometer region was underneath the Larsen B ice shelf just east of the Antarctic Peninsula.

It may have been 2005 and Hurricane Katrina that etched climate change into public consciousness, but for many scientists the first clear casualty of global warming came in 2002 with the sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf. (Watch the time-lapse satellite imagery here. A 200-m-thick chunk of ice the size of 1.4 Luxembourgs vanishes in about 90 days.)

Always on the lookout for silver linings, scientists realized that what the collapse left behind was unstudied water and uncharted seafloor. Or “unchartered” as the Cousteau Society website unfortunately wrote – please people, remember your copyeditors.

So they mounted an expedition to kick off the International Polar Year and contribute to the Census of Antarctic Marine Life. Aboard the Polarstern, a double-hulled ship that can chew through ice at temperatures of 50 below, the 47 scientists are planning 25 research projects.

The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, which owns the Polarstern (and supplied the image above), is hosting live questions to researchers once they get to the scene of the collapse, next week. Track the ship’s progress on the Alfred Wegener Institute website. It has a constantly updated position map and weather reports every 3 hours (i.e., at lunchtime, it was cloudy and raining. They had seen their first icebergs at 9 in the morning.)

So jot down your Antarctic questions here…and I’ll pass them on to the bottom of the world. Till then tread lightly.

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h.m.s. beagle

An English group called the Beagle Project Pembrokeshire is building a replica of the ship that carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos and beyond. Founders David Lort-Phillips, who counts the Beagle‘s mate as an ancestor, and Peter McGrath intend to dispatch this new Beagle on another circumnavigation beginning in 2009.

The ship will return to many of Darwin’s key stopovers, including the aforementioned equatorial islands so teeming with cunningly beaked songbirds. They’re planning to shave a couple of years off Darwin’s five-year voyage with the help of two diesel workhorses down below. By 2011, the ship will enter into a life of taking students to sea a la the James Cook, punctuated by chartered science expeditions for those researchers whose work simply can’t be done without a beamy three-master.

It sounds a bit cramped and primitive for modern scientific research. But then again, it was a very similar ship that sailed into the greatest biological discovery in history. I only hope they reserve one berth for Her Majesty’s blogger. Even voyages of discovery must evolve, after all.

P.S. I got to this site through the Filter, a great place to find amusingly scientific images. Scroll past Pac-Man to get to 7th graders’ drawings of scientists before and after they visited Fermilab.

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good witch of the west

Here’s to Kofi Annan for talking about the “frightening lack of leadership” from some of the world’s economic (and emissions) giants at a conference on climate change in Nairobi, Kenya. There’s two sides to every story, of course, and our government’s goes like this:

“We think the United States has been leading in its groundbreaking initiatives.”

That’s from undersecretary of state Paula Dobriansky, and though the New York Times didn’t specify, she seems to have said it with a straight face. She went on to list a couple of these initiatives.

Curiously absent from her list were prominent Bush strategies including “closing eyes” and “clicking heels together three times.”

Read all the way to the end for a proposal and a choice comment from Swiss president Moritz Leuenberger: “This is not a fight against nature. It is a battle against shortsighted egoism.”

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Swaddled in clouds

cold november rain
Everything is connected, and in case you’ve been having doubts lately, here’s a cool reminder.

It comes in the form of a hypnotic animation from the National Center for Atmospheric Research – a global model of atmospheric water vapor moving around the Earth.

Watch as westward-plodding tropical clouds hiccup into the subtropics. From there, raging easterlies whip them into cotton candy to be spun across the oceans. Eventually, pale tendrils will sweep across the continents, turning orange in the model as they rain themselves out.

It’s fascinating to watch the atmosphere as it placidly churns out weather. Especially when a late-fall storm is whipping golden maple leaves, branches and all, into the side of surf.bird.scribble’s Cape Cod beachhead. Rarely has “there’s more where that came from” resonated this way.

Check the movies here (QT and mpeg). You can watch a whole year or choose a month at a time if you don’t want to take on such a large file. Thanks to John Chiang for pointing me here.

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Himalaya, Dhaulagiri in foreground
Imagine the big picture of climate change on our planet.

Start small: picture our species sucking vast reservoirs of carbon out of the ground, vaporizing it, and stuffing it into the atmosphere the way you shove a pillow into a too-small pillowcase.

Now remember, the Earth is a closed system, so any such feat of imagination must be accompanied by a similar feat in the other direction. Where did all that subterranean carbon come from in the first place? Right. From plants. Which pulled it out of the atmosphere some 70 million years ago or so.

But wait, that means there’s a carbon cycle shuttling molecules around the planet on a scale far larger – and longer – than the standard elementary school model of rabbits nibbling clover and then exhaling.

How does it work? Well, in the dim geologic past, before we started ruining the air with jet-skis, great volcanic belches expelled carbon dioxide from deep within the Earth. As the Times reported this week, eruptions 550 million years ago raised CO2 levels to as much as 18x their present-day values, trapping heat and eventually growing all those lush, steamy swamps pictured in the dinosaur books.

So how did CO2 levels drop to a measly pre-industrial 280 parts per million? Once you let a gas escape into the atmosphere, how do you get it back underground?

Turns out that if you’ve got long enough to wait, the Earth’s rocks will do it for you. In a process called chemical weathering, falling rainwater mixes with carbon dioxide to make weak carbonic acid. The acid dissolves elements like calcium, silicon, and magnesium out of rocks, leaving a molecule called bicarbonate to run off into a nearby stream. Carbon dioxide has now left the atmosphere.

So all you really need to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air is a whole lot of rocks. The Himalaya is a good place to start. In fact, MIT geologist Maureen Raymo noticed that the rise of the Himalaya 50 million years ago marked the beginning of Earth’s cooling into a series of ice ages. She suggested that as those massive mountains weathered, they drew enough CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce the then-raging case of greenhouse effect. And since there’s still roughly 29,028 feet of Himalaya (and rising) left to weather, maybe they’re our best friends in the fight against a warmer tomorrow.

Appalachians; white line is Tenn./N.C. border
And if that’s not cool(ing) enough, consider the Appalachians, that eastern-U.S. range that 18th century naturalist William Bartram described as “those fuzzy little mountains.” As most of us hear at some point, they once rivaled the stature of the Rockies and the Himalaya, they’re just a lot older. Recently, Seth Young and Matthew Saltzman of Ohio State University learned that a similar weathering effect may have made CO2 levels plummet while the Appalachians were in their prime 450 million years ago.

As for New Scientist’s suggestion for storing carbon dioxide in rocks while producing geothermal energy with whatever doesn’t stick, that does sound like a neat idea but just for the record doesn’t involve any weathering.

And finally, thanks for sticking with me during these few busy weeks. I was at a fascinating meeting last week learning about how many dimensions the universe has and what it means when you recognize your own DNA in the dung of an extinct giant sloth.

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