Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe... Yet, clumsily or smoothly, the world, it seems, progresses and will progress. - H.G. Wells
I've found that many people on the board believe that peak oil is real, and that the range of effects will be mild to catastrophic. Intuitively, it's easy to understand how a finite resource mined or drilled at exponential rates will level off and begin decline. The next step – climate change - is a little harder and less intuitive, and given the 40 years lag between fuel oxidation and Earth heating, it is plausible that sufficient carbon can be ejected into the atmosphere, depleting the bulk of readily available fuels long before we see the full extent of Hot Earth’s effects in the horizon.
Before we can adapt to changing conditions, we have to understand that what is happening is real both in our and our children’s lifetime. I will try to make some of the connections here in the interest of speeding up understanding. Some of the processes handicapping change are insufficient knowledge, psychological distancing, extreme skepticism, chosen ignorance, data cherry-picking, fatalism, and conspiracy motives such as profiteering or global domination. It is not my intention to argue, but to enlighten, impart knowledge, and at the very least make for some entertaining reading. I also acknowledge that I may make errors and be wrong in part. Corrections are welcome.
By viewing man as he transitions through forms of hunter-gatherer, agricultural tribal, township, cities, countries, and eventually globalized world, it can be seen that increased societal complexity is only possible through ever increasing usage of energy. Early societies did this primarily by growing carbohydrate rich foods and hunting game. Latter societies grew grains and farmed animals. Eventually, we grew to include wood and coal, ultimately to our present industrial society which utilizes all of the above including oil, gas, fission, hydro, and solar. Of our energy sources, fossil fuels provide the vast majority of our energy needs, and as supplies dwindle we turn evermore to photosynthesis for biomass – itself requiring the judicious use of fossil fuel fertilizers. All societies, upon surpassing peak energy, must become more efficient or risk losing complexity. Some societies, myopic of the changing energy conditions, collapse completely.
Of the fossil fuels we use, coal is the dirtiest, containing the most contaminants and highest carbon content. The mining process is frequently destructive, ruining ecosystems and waterways. It provides much of our electricity for homes, manufacturing, and industrial use. The vast majority of the coal we burn was born in the Carboniferous period between 360 and 290 million years ago. Had you been alive then, the world would have been a much different place. There would be no mammals, no birds, and no reptiles – hot and humid marshes prevailed, dominated by enormous ferns and alien-like trees. The high oxygen content allowed gigantism, with insects ballooning to metres in length. As the trees and plants died, they fell into the anoxic swamps, slowly pressuring down to ever increasing depths. Over geologic time these plants became brown coal, bituminous coal, and eventually the cleanest burning anthracite.
Oil is much tougher to create – and what we have today exists through a precise and improbable process. Much of the oil we use today was created 160 million years ago in a period of extreme warmth, allowing the blooming of enormous amounts of phytoplankton in oceans and estuaries. Oil constitutes all that is our modern life, and transportation consumes a vast bulk of it.
Tim Flannery words it better than I can.
First the sediments containing phytoplankton must be buried and compressed by other rocks. Then, the absolute right conditions are needed to squeeze the organic matter out of the source rocks and to transfer it, through cracks and crevices, into a suitable storage stratum. This stratum must be porous, but above it must lie between a layer of fine-grained, impervious rock, strong enough to withstand the pressures that shot the oil and gas high into the air above Spindletop, and thick enough to forbid escape. In addition, the waxes and fats that are the source of oil need to be 'cooked' at between 100-135 degrees C for millions of years. If the temperature ever exceeds these limits, all that will result is gas, or else the hydrocarbons will be lost entirely.
In the process of becoming coal and oil, these living photo synthesizers sequestered carbon over hundreds of millions of years and buried them to the deepest depths. In 2002 alone, we released 21 000 000 000 000 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. If our Earth were represented by an onion, the atmosphere would be the thinnest outer parchment. It’s thin and precious to life, although some would treat it as free sewage disposal. Most particulates we pump into the air eventually finds their way back into the oceans, soils, and water supplies.
So now we know how oil and coal came to being. We dig up the coal, pump out the oil, and capture the gas. The energy stored in the hydrogen bonds of the long dead plants are now stored in the hydrogen bonds of the hydrocarbon fuel. We oxidize this, utilizing its heat energy. There’s less oil and coal in the ground – that’s a given. But what about combustion products? Ignoring heavy metals, aerosols and water vapour, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere as CO2, and can be breathed in again by plants and plankton. Small amounts can be used for shell and skeletal matter of oceanic organisms. Small amounts can even offset the slow cooling occurring during the interglacial. But what if we release too much, too fast?
This is where the ocean steps in – the ocean is an incredible climatic regulator. It buffers out changes, absorbs the excess carbon and heat, but only to an extent. Continued addition of carbon acidifies and heats the ocean enough that the cryosphere begins to melt away, and the present interglacial-adapted organisms begin to suffer. Carbonate organisms are less able to develop shells. Of course, a select few can and will survive the hot acidic conditions, and will eventually rebound back to present day numbers, but only after the extermination of those ill suited and unable to cope with changing conditions. Water has an incredible heat capacity, and variations in current temperature, stratification, and direction changes global and regional climates. As long as sea ice exists, it will regulate the ocean and atmosphere to conditions of which we are equatorially adapted. Permafrost, snow, and land ice too plays a large role in regulation.
As the rapid addition of CO2, methane, nitrogen oxide and halocarbons build up in the atmosphere,they cover the earth in an invisible blanket. This blanket allows solar radiation to pass through freely and warm the Earth’s surface, but captures and traps the infrared heat reflecting back out into space. They function as a logarithmic thermostat that varies with incoming solar wattage – increased solar radiation causes more heat to be trapped. Dark aerosols and pollution have a paradoxical effect, decreasing the amount of radiation Earth’s surface receives, but still warming the lower atmosphere. Clouds too play a role in both warming and cooling. Surface color – white ice, blue ocean, green trees, tan desert, and brown dirt - affects reflection, and the total amount of infrared heat released to be trapped by GHGs. Earths wobble and orbital ellipsis has an incredible effect on temperature, and is a causative factor of ice ages. This makes calculations by the layman incredibly difficult to do, and to ignore GHGs in determining why climate change is occurring would be to omit an obvious, stark, and highly coincidental data set. To say that CO2 is a benign and pleasant gas - nothing more than plant food - is contrary to all modern scientific evidence.
Now let’s discuss evolution. Darwin’s work has long been available, and almost everyone agrees that we evolved from oceanic single-celled organisms perhaps 3.8 bya. Algal scum spread onto land about 1.2 bya, providing a feedstock for other organisms. Land plants appeared about 450 mya, with mammal-like reptiles appearing 285 mya. Stepping forward to today, here we are are in front of your computer screen. Improbable beyond belief as it is – we exist and are conscious of it. This implies a generous planetary positioning, suitable chemical composition and stratification, and buffer systems that maintain the conditions for living organisms within a suitable range. What would be the effect of changing those precise conditions, at a rapid pace? It is unlikely to be beneficial for large organisms, least of all for modern society.
But what about the atmosphere, biosphere, and geosphere? How have they evolved over time? While some may anthromorphize the Gaia theory – that the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and lithosphere works as an interacting organism to maintain conditions suitable for life - the Earth and atmosphere is strictly physical & chemical, and is no more alive than a virus or the fur on a cat’s back. But a virus propagates itself, as does the fur of a cat become the ecosystem to a host of microbes and mites. The vast majority of biomass on Earth is microscopic in nature. That is, the Earth's systems favour less complex organisms.
Earth’s early development involved gravitational separation of heavy and light elements, allowing the formation of the crust and mantle, a solid inner core and an outer liquid core. This allowed heat transfer and provides the magnetic field that protects the biosphere from cosmic radiation. Cooling of the core and the scorching hot 3000 degree C surface occurred, until finally around 4.2 bya a thin crust had formed, sufficiently cooled to below 100 degrees C. The hydrosphere could now develop. Early prokaryotic life came to being 3.7 bya and it is here that the biosphere begins its coexistence and evolution in tandem with the geosphere. The geosphere ultimately determines evolutionary direction, while the biosphere has become increasingly resilient and independent over time. Plate tectonics developed 2.5 bya and provided the deep oceans and continents required for further evolution. All the while, the Earth core continues to cool and volcanism becomes less intense.
The early oceans were necessary for protection against temperature spikes, cosmic rays and asteroids. The oceans also allowed the quick distribution of biogenes around world, and for the hydrosphere to directly weather rocks, providing necessary minerals for the formation of oceanic life. Early life didn’t need light, but used minerals weathered directly from the mantle for chemosynthesis. The arrival of photosynthetic organisms allowed the harnessing of an external energy source – sunlight.
The emergence of the supercontinent Pangea 2.5 bya allowed for a deep and uniform ocean, and changes in plate tectonics increased the oceanic potassium and sodium levels. The existence of membrane bound cells was now possible, and the development of the sodium/potassium pump allowed the quick evolution of the nervous system.
Early in Earth’s history, the atmosphere comprised mostly of volcanic emissions and craterous discharges. There was no oxygen. This is a good thing – had there been any in the air, precursor compounds for life would have quickly oxidized and we wouldn’t be here today. Ultraviolet radiation allowed the breakdown of water to create trace oxygen levels and ozone – the ultraviolet shield. Eventually, photosynthetic single celled organisms arrived and polluted the air with their emissions – oxygen - killing off much of the anaerobic organisms and themselves in the process. It is about 3 bya that organisms began playing a substantial role of atmospheric regulators – at least as far as maintaining life was concerned. Rock weathering and biotic respiration constitutes much of our present atmosphere. All life is built up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other trace elements. We are the products of volcanic emissions, weathered rocks, and water. Star dust as some might say. Less romantically, we originate from clay-silicate structures, the earliest of which was able to absorb ions, biogenes, minerals, and organic matter. This allowed the formation of pre-biological structures. Those structures most resistant to weathering, and most able to incorporate the necessary materials for life, thrived and survived. Survival of the fittest as we would call it.
When we terraform the land through deforestation, cities , and industry. reduce biodiversity by overfishing, pollution, and displacement, modify habitats intentionally and unintentionally, pollute indiscriminately, and oxidize the dead for energy, there are reactions - chemical consequences - for present life. It doesn't affect those organisms long dead, nor those organisms that will evolve in the future - just present life. Eventually, the Earth and life will recover – but when - and at what cost? And will we be a part of it and will society survive? Will the transition be easy? How will human physiology respond to changing conditions? Everything that exists has co-evolved with the modern atmosphere, or the reverse – the modern atmosphere has co-evolved with everything that has lived. The oceans, arctic ice, forests, plankton, and microbes all serve to regulate and stabilize the climate. The forests suck up enormous quantities of water, provide ecosystems, revitalize soil carbon, prevent erosion, regulate rainfall, and moderate weather. Phytoplankton, now reduced 40%, provide half the worlds oxygen and serve as the bottom rung of the oceanic ecosystem. The coral reefs, now dieing, are as diverse as the rainforests, and integral to survival of much of the oceans lifeforms. Once threshold buffers are passed, then cascading events affects all life on Earth.
The ocean acidification event of 55 mya is most analogous to todays situation. Magma incinerated a natural gas chamber triggering the release of vast quantities of CO2 and methane hydrates. Atmospheric CO2 raised from about about 1000ppm to perhaps 1700ppm or higher. The atmosphere warmed beyond the boundaries of the ocean to buffer, and temperatures raised 2-9 degrees C above the ambient ice-free Paleocene climate. CO2 warming is logarithmic, and percent rise is more important than ppm rise. The oceans acidified, killing most oceanic life. It’s unknown what happened on land, but it is during this event that mammals proliferated over Earth, indicating profound changes were occurring. Ultimately, while a select few may argue with the warming, the inaccuracy of models, or the relevance of historical records, the end result is that the event shows extreme climate sensitivity, while current models and scientists likely underestimate atmospheric sensitivity and tend to the conservative side so as not to be branded alarmist. Secondary is the human nature to be optimistic and assume the best.
Climate change occurs in neither linear non exponential a manner. Changes progress in leaps and jumps, with generous periods of apparent calm in-between. The time scale is measured in decades, and annual events matter little. The overall global trend may show warming, but it says little of regional climate. The oceans absorb the majority of our pollution and heat, and is still poorly understood as compared to the land and atmosphere. To ignore the ocean when measuring climate change is to ignore the elephant in the room.
The Earth, oceans, atmosphere, and microbial life provide a substantial buffer zone for technological progress. The green-reductionist approach of minimizing impact provides little room for human progress, and ignores boundaries already crossed, while a free resource exploitation, overpopulation, and pro-pollution attitude bulldozes over the buffers and reduces the ability for interglacial-adapted organisms to survive the geologically rapid changes. There exists a medium in which a technologically advanced society can exist without destroying the support systems that keep it alive. It is the collective actions of our species that dictates our destiny.
Some documentaries that I’ve found entertaining and informative.
National Geographic – How Six Degrees Could Change The World
National Geographic – Collapse – By Jared Diamond
David Attenborough - Are We Changing Planet Earth
Leonardo Dicaprio – The 11th Hour
Yann Arthus Bertrand – Home
Franny Armstrong – The Age of Stupid
The History Channel – Crude
Timothy Bennett – What a Way to Go – a bit depressing
A Crude Awakening / The End of Suburbia - the usual
Last edited by scas
on Mon 27 Dec 2010, 16:20:26, edited 6 times in total.