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I returned from Antarctica nearly two months ago to find it considerably busier ’round these northern parts. Among the things that almost slipped past:

Dumping iron in the ocean to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s premature to do it commercially, and it may never turn out to be a good idea. But we could learn a lot about how the ocean works if we do some more experiments in that direction. That’s the gist of a special issue of Oceanus on the subject, in which I got to write five of the articles. Also covered: It’s become quite common to ridicule the idea for various appalling but unspecified side-effects; here are some details. Also, could it ever work? Why are economists and carbon traders interested? And what makes us think it might work in the first place?

Apparently, way more water has been dragged into the bowels of the Earth under Costa Rica than anyone ever thought before. Time was you could just dig up a handful of olivine crystals and spin the story any way you wanted – but that was before Jenn Wade got ahold of some clinopyroxenes and squeezed from them the truth. The verdict: Throw away your boron, your beryllium. Cast out your futile barium/lanthanum assays. Stop clinging to the illusions conjured in your strontium-neodymium dens. There are two kinds of magma beneath Costa Rica, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise any longer. Questions? Ask the magmatic maverick herself (and check out her dancing skills) at Danger Bay.

There’s a fascinating story about whether chickens came to South America in Spanish galleons, via the Atlantic, or Polynesian outriggers, via the Pacific, here. (Thanks to El Nuthatchenyo for the tip.)

And thanks to the New York Times for keeping tabs on kimchee‘s inexorable expansion around the globe… and into outer space.

p.s. Hands up who wants to hear the best parts from Bleak House?

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orange_duffel.jpg I carried my bright-orange duffel through the last of the crisp 60 degree new Zealand air and onto the C-17, which – unlike last Friday – took off and headed for Antarctica at 300 knots. One of the most comfortable flights ever, despite the reputation, owing to unlimited legroom and even more elbow room than you get on commercial flights. The C-17 is cavernous. We sit backs to the fuselage, facing monstrous shipping containers – one holds an ice-coring drill that aims to go back 150,000 years in time through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Coming out of the dim recesses of the plane and into Antarctic whiteness was breathtaking. The horizon opened up and hulking black mountains appeared as little chevrons in the distance. It felt vast. Looking out the door I had guessed at our orientation from the shadows, and I immediately started piecing together the sights. This must be White Island, where the Polar parties made a dogleg before heading straight to the pole. There’s the Royal Society Range, with the broad Koettlitz glacier running at its feet. Behind me, I realized, was McMurdo, huge brown dorms stacked on the hillside, crosses to fallen explorers standing on windy ridgetops, the geodesic instrument dome I had seen in so many pictures in full view. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it has a familiarity, but also surprise as the pieces come together slightly differently than you’d imagined.

We had landed on the thick blue ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later that we touched the gray-brown volcanic rock of Antarctica. It was 20 degrees  outside and cooling off.

So where exactly am I, you ask? Somewhere down in Antarctica, but I have realized in recent conversations that not everyone has been reading quite so much on the subject, nor do they have quite such a grasp on the geography of the place. So let’s start at the beginning:

 Antarctica is big: 40 percent again larger than the U.S., and that’s not counting the tremendous ice sheets or the pack ice that forms each winter. It looks a little like a rubber ducky with a very long beak (just tilt your head to the left). That beak is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is technically part of the Andes and juts up toward South America.

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 We’re going to the other side, down behind the neck of the ducky. That curve between neck and back is the Ross Sea, the place where ships can get their farthest south, all the way to about 78 degrees south latitude, or a bit more than 1,320 miles from the pole.

rosssea_n.jpg If the Ross Sea doesn’t look like much on the map, then McMurdo Sound is nothing, just a little comma at the southwest edge. Pretty hard to pick out without zooming in.

Guarding the eastern edge is Ross Island, a speck wedged up against the Ross Ice Shelf that nevertheless contains a 13,000 foot active volcano and 450,000 adelie penguins (if you count the youngsters). Not to mention McMurdo Station, our home base for the next month.

 McMurdo Station is on Hut Point peninsula, where Scott made his Discovery expedition camp in 1902. To the north is Cape Evans, where the Terra Nova expedition stayed, and 20 miles from McMurdo is Cape Royds, our first camp, with David Ainley and about 4,000 pairs of penguins. We’re hoping to be there by Saturday.

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 Jump across McMurdo Sound – that comma that you couldn’t even see from the Ross Sea map. About 50 miles from McMurdo is Mt. Morning, where we’ll spend the middle of December with Woods Hole geologists Mark Kurz, Adam Soule, and grad student Andrea Burke.

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 After a scheduled laundry day at McMurdo, we’ll head back out to Cape Crozier, of Worst Journey fame, for Christmas with Grant Ballard and some 300,000 penguins (adults and young). Here we’ll hope to investigate Igloo Spur as well as make the trek over to the Emperor penguins huddled on the sea ice south of the Adelies.

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(I love the little penguin icons on the map.)

 And that’s our month in Antarctica – now you’re situated. So far it’s been great, but it’s been nine hours of mostly indoor heat and cafeteria food. We’ll see how melting ice for water – not to mention sleeping on it – work out. Hope you stay tuned.

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The first of five articles I wrote about iron fertilization of the oceans for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Oceanus magazine is online. It’s an overview of the issue from scientific, environmental, economic, and regulatory angles. The other four articles look into each of those angles in a bit more detail and should be online soon.

Iron fertilization of the oceans is a form of geoengineering, a controversial idea that humans can intentionally alter the Earth to make it more hospitable. Critics assail geoengineering as unethical, arrogant, and just begging for tragic side-effects. Proponents counter that the human race has been unintentionally altering the Earth for centuries, so we might as well use some forethought for a change. It’s the stuff of epic arguments, but the fact that it’s even under discussion points at the bigger issue. Climate change has us in a deep hole, and we are furiously digging:

  • Every time you burn through a 15-gallon tank of gas, you put about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.
  • The world currently emits more than 7 billion tons of carbon every year.
  • That’s about 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or enough to raise atmospheric CO2 by nearly two parts per million every year (roughly speaking, and that’s after accounting for the tendency of ocean and land to take up about half of what we emit).
  • Before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 was about 280 p.p.m. Now it’s around 380. The most optimistic long-term scenarios talk about stabilizing levels at 560 p.p.m. (double the pre-industrial levels).
  • The remarkably successful E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme last year traded about 430 million tons of carbon emissions equivalents, or one-fourteenth of the problem, assuming all the accounting and regulation was done correctly, which is kind of a big assumption.
  • Emissions reductions are still emissions, and they will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere as long as they are above zero.
  • Early climate models were criticized for including unrealistic emissions scenarios that environmentalists had trumped up to make the predictions more scary. Looking back, our actual emissions have pegged at the highest of those estimates, according to David Keith of the University of Calgary.
  • Even if the U.S. gets its act together and joins Europe to cut emissions, there are roughly two billion Indians and Chinese getting ready to go car shopping. If those people were to match current American levels of car ownership (more than one car per American), global oil demand would more than triple, Elizabeth Kolbert recently reported in the New Yorker.
  • And though we’re not making a ton of progress on alternative fuels, we keep finding more petroleum to burn. Kolbert also recently described the oil sand boom in Alberta, Canada. It has the potential to supply 1.7 trillion barrels of “synthetic crude” oil (yippee!). Worse, the procedure is energy intensive, putting each barrel’s total emissions tab at up to 140 percent that of straight-from-the-well oil.

So while changing light bulbs and carrying groceries in canvas tote bags and driving something smaller than a rhinoceros are great starts, they’re not really getting us anywhere near a solution. That’s why people are talking about iron fertilization and putting sulfur particles into the atmosphere. But just like in Carlos Moffat‘s favorite Seinfeld episode, anytime you find yourself doing something so crazy that it requires a helmet, it may be time to rethink.

Enter the carbon tax: What a concept: paying for producing an undesirable waste product. I mean, we pay to have our trash picked up. Every time we replace car tires we pay to have the old ones disposed of. Every homeowner pays a sewage bill.

Opponents cite the strain such a pervasive tax would place on the economy. Everything we buy that uses petroleum as a material or during shipping would get more expensive. The costs would multiply and suddenly everyday Americans wouldn’t be able to afford their (seemingly) modest lifestyles. We would find ourselves having to make dramatic changes in the way we live, eat, shop.

But then again, isn’t that the point? As long as riding a bike to work seems like a noble deed, many of us are happy to stop there and feel good about ourselves. But if we finally make burning carbon cost something, people and industries will start to make changes on their own, simply out of service to their bottom line. No idealism required.

(Image: New York Times)

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phytoplankton off norway

The controversial “ocean restoration” firm Planktos has set sail from Miami with a hundred tons of hematite, vowing to dump it off the Galapagos to set off a huge plankton bloom. They’re making so much noise about it that bloggers everywhere and even the New York Times is paying attention. It’s exactly what we don’t need.

As it happens, I just spent all of October writing about this idea, called ocean iron fertilization, for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (articles due out soon). The work was prompted by a 2-day meeting of 80-odd scientists, economists, lawyers, and environmentalists who all met to discuss the issue.

In all the news, Planktos is a polarizing figure – but in making themselves look bad they encourage reporters and bloggers to weigh in with hasty fact-gathering and snide rhetoric that obscures the larger issue: that many intelligent, scrupulous people are thinking very carefully and very clearly about iron fertilization’s prospects.

A few clarifications, then:

  • This isn’t a hastily devised and implemented scheme: the idea is 20 years old, and the first ocean tests were conducted 14 years ago. Since then, there have been a total of 12 ocean experiments on the scale of one ton of iron and 100 square kilometers. Planktos wants to do 100 times that.
  • Iron doesn’t cause plankton blooms everywhere; in fact the only place it’s likely to work on a large scale is the Southern Ocean.
  • The idea is for plankton blooms to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then sink that carbon so it doesn’t re-enter the atmosphere.
  • Very little carbon will reach the seafloor, but 20% to 50% may escape the top 200 meters or so, where it will drift in currents that may not return to the surface for a few decades to centuries. In that respect, iron fertilization is not all that different from growing a forest, with the bonus that it won’t all leap back into the air at once, the way a forest is susceptible to a forest fire.
  • Even Planktos’s 100-ton experiment is still small on the scale of the oceans. It’s a pity they appear to be doing it without proper scientific support or a published monitoring methodology – it means they’ll likely gain very little useful information from their work. But since it’s relatively small, it’s also unlikely to cause great repercussions in the ocean ecosystem (as Ken Caldeira noted in comments to the NYT piece linked above).
  • But are they going to get rich selling this “global warming snake oil”? Probably not. Despite their stated intent to sell carbon credits in regulatory markets, those markets make absolutely no allowances at present for selling carbon from iron fertilization. That leaves the much smaller voluntary markets, where people buy credits to make themselves feel better about their consumptive lifestyles. In those markets, perceived quality is key, and credits hawked by a salesman in a rusty tanker may have trouble competing.

But bear in mind why people are taking iron fertilization seriously at all: We face a carbon emissions problem at a scale that almost no one comprehends gravely enough. We need to keep 7 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every single year – not counting what’s about to happen in India and China (more on this in a coming post about why you should support a carbon tax). Subtract  from that number whatever progress we make this year, then, come January, add another 7 billion tons. The result is going to be pretty close to 14 billion tons. What about the year after that?

Unfortunately, the visible figurehead of this movement is a shifty businessman with terrible taste in slogans (I mean, “Voyage of Recovery”??). But don’t dismiss the whole field because of one person with a used research ship and a bad business model.

After we’ve changed out all our light bulbs, hiked the price of air travel, switched to biodiesel, planted trees on all the remaining land, and persuaded Congress to begin talking about the possibility of enacting legislation to encourage further changes, we’ll still be facing a hefty carbon liability. What then?

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Here’s to good old Al Gore for winning (or sharing, to be exact) the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Scribbler admits to having laughed off Gore’s chances just the day before the prize was announced. I mean, he’s done an incredible job of getting this issue onto people’s radar screens, and finally there’s a slight intimation that we, as a planet, may actually start taking some baby steps to reduce the rate at which our emissions are increasing.

But peace? It’s a fair argument that staving off climate change will avert wars over resources (and, let’s face it, over plain dry land). But it’s a stretch to say that talking about doing something about staving off climate change qualifies as work for peace. On the other hand, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin got their Peace Prize for shaking hands – and then Palestine imploded six years later.

Another angle, perhaps, is that there’s not a whole lot of peace breaking out in the world right now.

Ridiculed as he may be by the right-wingers, Gore deserves some respect. Outside of an unfortunate period of focus-grouping in mid-2000, he has spent his energy promoting a cause he actually thinks is important – a refreshing tactic for a politician. He survived the indignity of losing an election by getting more votes than his opponent, went home to think, and returned with an honest conviction to talk incoveniently.

That’s not grandstanding, it’s not opportunism, and it’s not political maneuvering. It’s leadership. Remember that?

Previously on s.b.s: The Al Gore Union

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Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, most of us are familiar with the concept of time-release capsules. Our tummies ache and we soothe them – not with a concentrated blast of raw medicine, but with a pill that gently releases its ingredients through the day.

Now picture a 13-mile-wide time-release capsule floating in the Weddell Sea – that nook of water that hides out in the lee of the Antarctic Peninsula. That’s the picture that Ken Smith, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and his colleagues offered this week in Science Express.

Smith and his team studied a couple of large icebergs as they drifted away from the Frozen Continent. Granted, it doesn’t take eight scientists and an NSF grant to realize that icebergs melt in water. But what Smith found interesting was all the dirt sprinkled throughout the ice. While dirt is pretty unremarkable on land, it gets increasingly rare and precious as you head out to sea. The minerals and nutrients it contains are simply missing from large swaths of ocean water. In this respect, an iceberg is sort of like a humongous Jolly Rancher candy drifting through the sea, slowly distributing its goods.

iceberg_smaller.jpg Smith’s study measured the effect of the added nutrients – evident to more than 2 miles away – and traced them up the food chain. They found more phytoplankton, more krill and more seabirds around their icebergs than in open water. In 4,300 square miles of the Weddell Sea, they counted a thousand more icebergs and calculated they could be spurring productivity in as much as 39% of the Weddell’s waters. When all that fertilization is combined, they suggest, it could have a significant contribution to drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ocean.

Sound familiar? This is a neat illustration of a nearly self-contained ecosystem, the kind of microcosm – like a termite mound, or a tree frog living in a bromeliad plant – that never fails to capture our imagination. That’s why I like the story. And yet, didn’t Science just report something far less optimistic about fertilizing ocean waters and carbon dioxide? Yes, not two months ago, in fact, we learned that most of that carbon – 50% to 80% of it – gets recycled by zooplankton and never makes it to the safety of deep waters.

I suppose it’s hard to blame Smith et al. for not fleshing out their argument. They are, after all, writing in Science, which is so tight on space that it no longer bothers printing study methods (relegating them instead to “supporting online material”). But then, if academia has become so compartmentalized, is it fair to turn around and blame journalists for misrepresenting the broader issue? Their word counts are even stingier (and their syllable counts? forget it).

Science Express, where Smith’s article appeared, is the online-only, rush-publication branch of Science that its editors reserve for the coolest, latest-breaking research. This same week, Science ran two articles about carbon sinks – basically, the question of where all the carbon that doesn’t stay in our atmosphere winds up. One reported that tropical forests do more carbon uptake and northern forests less than we previously thought. The other suggests changing wind patterns in the Southern Ocean have reduced its capacity for soaking up carbon over the last 25 years.

To help Science‘s readership keep all this research straight, David Baker, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, offered a “Perspective” article summarizing the two papers. But even here, the scope was reined in. The editorial didn’t mention Smith’s article, even though the same publisher ran it the very same week and it broached the very same topic: carbon dioxide uptake in the Southern Ocean

For academia, this is appropriate. Smith and co. didn’t offer any actual data about carbon sequestration, so it’s premature for scientists to talk about it. And yet, which of these various papers should a reporter draw from? As long as scientists drop nuggets of research haphazardly into the literature, we have to expect it to diffuse on its own, slowly and gently, into the ocean of public awareness. So far, climate change seems to have taken some 50 years to acheive an effective dose.

Illustration: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation; photo: Rob Sherlock, MBARI.

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heddha.jpg Pudgy, snub-nosed, totally cute and only slightly prickly. Can there possibly be such a thing as too many hedgehogs? Apparently, the answer is yes, at least for small islands like the Hebrides west of Scotland, where hedgehogs only recently arrived.

And yes, this story is filed under climate change because the author traces a possible looming hedgehog bonanza as one nightmarish offshoot of the coming global warming. Now, I don’t normally like to poke fun at global warming alarmists – I mean, what’s alarmist about standing in a burning building and pulling the fire alarm? But he may be stretching things a bit here.

Nevertheless, introduced hedgehogs don’t confine themselves to politely rummaging under privet bushes. On tiny islands like South Uist they barge around like they own the place, cracking shorebird eggs with their little nubbin teeth and sucking out the contents. Their natural predators, foxes and badgers, are absent from the island, so apart from the odd death by recklessly driven Mini or wobbly hedgehog syndrome, there’s no stopping them.

A Journal of Zoology paper by the (aptly named) Digger Jackson estimated about 2,700 adult hedgehogs on the island and found up to 32 per square kilometer in some pastures. Come springtime, all that concentrated adorableness creates quite a bustle in your hedgerow, as adults churn out some 3,000 youngsters each year.

Most young die over the long, harsh North Atlantic winter, rendering the hedgehog population something of an annual crop, like arugula. But the Hebrides have warmed at an average rate of 0.06 degrees C per year over the last 20 years. With milder winters, earlier springs and warm, insect-filled summers, the author reports, hedgehog populations could be on the rise.

Image: hedgehog coffee mug by Judie Peters, on cafepress

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