Crash Diets and Carbon Detoxes: Irreversible Climate Change

Much of the changes humans are causing in our atmosphere today will be largely irreversible for the rest of the millennium.

WHO: Susan Solomon, Chemical Sciences Division, Earth System Research Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado, USA
Gian-Kasper Plattner, Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics, Zurich, Switzerland
Reto Knutti, Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, Zurich, Switzerland,
Pierre Friedlingstein, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace/Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de  l’Environnement, Unité Mixte de Recherche à l’Energie Atomique – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique–Université Versailles Saint-Quentin, Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique-Saclay, l’Orme des Merisiers, France

WHAT: Looking at the long term effects of climate pollution to the year 3000

WHEN: 10 February 2009

WHERE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), vol. 106, no. 6 (2009)

TITLE: Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions

Stopping climate change often involves the metaphor of ‘turning down the thermostat’ of the heater in your house; the heater gets left on too high for too long, you turn the thermostat back down, the room cools down, we are all happy.

This seems to also be the way many people think about climate change – we’ve put too much carbon pollution in the atmosphere for too long, so all we need to do is stop it, and the carbon dioxide will disappear like fog burning off in the morning.

Except it won’t. This paper, which is from 2009 but I came across it recently while reading around the internet, looks at the long term effects of climate change and found that for CO2 emissions, the effects can still be felt for 1,000 years after we stop polluting. Bummer. So much for that last minute carbon detox that politicians seem to be betting on. Turns out it won’t do much.

The researchers defined ‘irreversible’ in this paper at 1,000 years to just beyond the year 3000, because over a human life span, 1,000 years is more than 10 generations. Geologically, it’s not forever, but from our human point of view it pretty much is forever.

So what’s going to keep happening because we can’t give up fossil fuels today that your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandkid is going to look back on and say ‘well that was stupid’?

The paper looked at the three most detailed and well known effects: atmospheric temperatures, precipitation patterns and sea level rise. Other long term impacts will be felt through Arctic sea ice melt, flooding and heavy rainfall, permafrost melt, hurricanes and the loss of glaciers and snowpack. However, the impacts with the most detailed models and greatest body of research were the ones chosen for this paper (which also excluded the potential for geo-engineering because it’s still very uncertain and unknown).

Our first problem is going to be temperature increases, because temperatures increase with increased CO2  accumulation in the atmosphere, but if we turned off emissions completely (which is unfeasible practically, but works best to model the long term effects) temperatures would remain constant within about 0.5oC until the year 3000.

Why does this occur? Why does the temperature not go back down just as quickly once we stop feeding it more CO2? Because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a much longer time than other greenhouse gases. As the paper says: ‘current emissions of major non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxide are significant for climate change in the next few decades or century, but these gases do not persist over time in the same way as carbon dioxide.’

Temperature changes to the year 3000 with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

Temperature changes to the year 3000 with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

Our next problem is changing precipitation patterns, which can be described by the Clausius-Clapeyron law of the physics of phase transition in matter. What the law tells us is that as temperature increases, there is an increase in atmospheric water vapour, which changes how the vapour is transported through the atmosphere, changing the hydrological cycle.

The paper notes that these patterns are already happening consistent with the models for the Southwest of the USA and the Mediterranean. They found that dry seasons will become approx. 10% dryer for each degree of warming, and the Southwest of the USA is expected to be approx. 10% dryer with 2oC of global warming. As a comparison, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was 10% dryer over two decades. Given that many climate scientists (and the World Bank) think that we’ve already reached the point where 2oC of warming is inevitable, it seems like Arizona is going to become a pretty uncomfortable place to live.

Additionally, if we managed to peak at 450ppm of CO2, irreversible decreases in precipitation of ~8-10% in the dry season would be expected in large areas of Europe, Western Australia and North America.

Dry season getting dryer around the world (from paper)

Dry season getting dryer around the world (from paper)

Finally, the paper looked at sea level rise, which is a triple-whammy. The first issue is that warming causes colder water to expand (aka thermal expansion) which increases sea level. The second is that ocean mixing through currents will continue, which will continue the warming and the thermal expansion. Thirdly, warming of icecaps on land contributes new volume to the ocean.

The paper estimates that the eventual sea level rise from thermal expansion of warming water is 20 – 60cm per degree of climate change. Additionally, the loss of glaciers and small icecaps will give us ~20 – 70cm of sea level rise too, so we’re looking at 40 – 130cm of sea level rise even before we start counting Greenland (which is melting faster than most estimates anyway).

Sea level rise from thermal expansion only with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

Sea level rise from thermal expansion only with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

What does all of this mean? Well firstly it means you should check how far above sea level your house is and you may want to hold off on that ski cabin with all the melting snowpack as well.

More importantly though, it means that any last minute ‘saves the day’ Hollywood-style plans for reversing climate change as the proverbial clock counts down to zero are misguided and wrong. The climate pollution that we are spewing into the atmosphere at ever greater rates today will continue to be a carbon hangover for humanity for the next 1000 years or so. Within human time scales, the changes that we are causing to our atmosphere are irreversible.

So naturally, we should stop burning carbon now.

Unprecedented: Melting Before Our Eyes

The volume of Arctic sea ice is reducing faster than the area of sea ice, further speeding the arctic death spiral.

WHO:  Seymour W. Laxon, Katharine A. Giles, Andy L. Ridout, Duncan J. Wingham, Rosemary Willatt, Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, Department of Earth Sciences, University College London, London, UK
Robert Cullen, Malcolm Davidson, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands
Ron Kwok, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA.
Axel Schweiger, Jinlun Zhang, Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
Christian Haas, Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering, York University, Toronto, Canada.
Stefan Hendricks, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany
Richard Krishfield, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA
Nathan Kurtz,School of Computer, Math, and Natural Sciences, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Sinead Farrell, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland, Maryland, USA.

WHAT: Measuring the volume of polar ice melt

WHEN: February 2013 (online pre-published version)

WHERE: American Geophysical Union, 2013, doi: 10.1002/grl.50193

TITLE:  CryoSat-2 estimates of Arctic sea ice thickness and volume (subs req.)

Much has been written about the Arctic Death Spiral of sea ice melting each spring and summer, with many researchers attempting to model and predict exactly how fast the sea ice is melting and when we will get the horrifying reality of an ice-free summer Arctic.

But is it just melting at the edges? Or is the thickness, and therefore the volume of sea ice being reduced as well? That’s what these researchers set out to try and find out using satellite data from CryoSat-2 (Science with satellites!).

The researchers used satellite radar altimeter measurements of sea ice thickness, and then compared their results with measured in-situ data as well as other Arctic sea ice models.

A loss of volume in Arctic sea ice is a signifier of changes in the heat exchange between the ice, ocean and atmosphere, and most global climate models predict a decrease in sea ice volume of 3.4% per decade which is larger than the predicted 2.4% per decade of sea ice area.

Sea ice area minimum from September 2012 (image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Sea ice area minimum from September 2012 (image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

The researchers ran their numbers for ice volume in winter 2010/11 and winter 2011/12, and then used the recorded data sets to check the accuracy of their satellites (calibration for my fellow science nerds).

The most striking thing they found was a much greater loss of ice thickness in the north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Additionally, they found that the first year ice was thinner in autumn, which made it harder to catch up to average thickness during the winter, and made greater melting easier in summer.

Interestingly, they found that there was additional ice growth in winter between 2010-12 (7,500km3) compared to 2003-08 (5,000km3), which makes for an extra 36cm of ice growth in the winter. Unfortunately the increased summer melt is much greater than the extra growth, so it’s not adding to the overall thickness of the sea ice.

For the period of 2010-12 the satellite measured rate of decline in autumn sea ice was 60% greater than the predicted decline using PIOMAS (Panarctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System). Most researchers when seeing results like that might hope that there’s an error, however when measured against the recorded data, the CryoSat-2 data was within 0.1 metres of accuracy. So while astounding, the 60% greater than expected loss of sea ice thickness is pretty spot on.

The researchers think that lower ice thickness at the end of winter in February and March could be contributing to the scarily low September minimums in the arctic death spiral, but the greatest risk here is that the ever increasing melt rate of ice in the arctic could take the climate beyond a tipping point where climate change is both irreversible and uncontrollable in a way we are unable to adapt to.

Visualisation of reduction in arctic sea ice thickness (from Andy Lee Robinson, via ClimateProgress)

Visualisation of reduction in arctic sea ice thickness (from Andy Lee Robinson, via ClimateProgress)

So as usual, my remedy for all of this is: stop burning carbon.

When the Party’s Over: Permian Mass Extinction

“The implication of our study is that elevated CO2 is sufficient to lead to inhospitable conditions for marine life and excessively high temperatures over land would contribute to the demise of terrestrial life.”

WHO: Jeffrey T. Kiehl, Christine A. Shields, Climate Change Research Section, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA

WHAT: A complex climate model of atmospheric, ocean and land conditions at the Permian mass extinction 251 million years ago to look at CO2 concentrations and their effect.

WHEN: September 2005

WHERE: Geological Society of America, Geology vol. 33 no. 9, September 2005

TITLE: Climate simulation of the latest Permian: Implications for mass extinction

The largest mass extinction on earth occurred approximately 251million years ago at the end of the Permian geologic era. Almost 95% of all ocean species and 70% of land species died, and research has shown that what probably happened to cause this extinction was carbon dioxide levels.

As the saying goes; those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so let’s see what happened to the planet 251 million years ago and work out how we humans can avoid doing it to ourselves at high speed.

This research paper from 2005 did the first comprehensive climate model of the Permian extinction, which means their model was complicated enough to include the interaction between the land and the oceans (as different to ‘uncoupled’ models that just looked at one or the other and not how they affected each other).

The researchers used the CCSM3 climate model that is currently housed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and is one of the major climate models currently being used by the IPCC to look forward and model how our climate may change with increasing atmospheric carbon pollution (or emission reduction). They organised their model to have ‘realistic boundary conditions’ for things like ocean layers (25 ocean layers for those playing at home), atmospheric resolution and energy system balance. They then ran the simulation for 900 years with current conditions and matched it with observed atmospheric conditions and got all of their data points correct with observed data.

Then, they made their model Permian, which meant taking CO2 concentrations and increasing them from our current 397ppm to 3,550ppm which is the estimated CO2 concentrations from the end of the Permian era.

What did ramping up the CO2 in this manner do for the planet’s living conditions in the model? It increased the global average temperature to a very high 23.5oC (the historic global average temperature for the Holocene (current era) is 14oC).

Oceans
Changing the CO2 concentrations so dramatically in the model changed the global average ocean surface temperature 4oC warmer than current conditions. Looking at all the ocean layers in their model, the water was warmer in deeper areas as well, with some areas at depths of 3000m below sea level measuring 4.5-5oC where they are currently near freezing.

The greatest warming in the oceans occurred at higher latitudes, where ocean temps were modelled at 8oC warmer than present, while equatorial tropical oceans were not substantially warmer. The oceans were also much saltier than they currently are.

The big problem for all of the things that called the ocean home at the end of the Permian era is the slowing of ocean circulation and mixing. Currently, dense salty water cools at the poles and sinks, oxygenating and mixing with deeper water allowing complex organisms to grow and live. If this slows down, which it did in this model, it has serious consequences for all ocean residents.

Current ocean circulation patterns (NOAA, Wikimedia commons)

Current ocean circulation patterns (NOAA, Wikimedia commons)

Their Permian model measured ocean overturning circulation around 10 Sv (million cubic metres per second), whereas current ocean overturning circulation is around 15-23 Sv. The researchers think the ocean currents could have slowed down enough to create anoxic oceans, which are also known as ‘ocean dead zones’ or ‘Canfield Oceans’, and stated that it set the stage for a large-scale marine die off.

Land
If the end of the Permian was pretty nasty for ocean residents, how did it fare for land-dwellers? What happened to the tetrapods of Gondwanaland? Well it looked really different to how earth looks today.

Permian land mass (Wikimedia commons)

Permian land mass (Wikimedia commons)

There were deciduous forests at high latitudes, and the elevated CO2 in the model was the dominant reason for warm, ice free Polar Regions (which also hindered ocean circulation). Land surface temperatures were between 10 – 40oC warmer than they are today. In their model, dry sub-tropical climates like the Mediterranean or Los Angeles and Southern California were much hotter, with the average daily minimum temperatures around 51oC. Yes, Los Angeles, your overnight low could be 51oC.

Understandably, the authors state that ‘these extreme daily temperature maxima in these regions could contribute to a decrease in terrestrial flora and fauna’, which is scientist for ‘it’s so damn hot outside nothing except cacti can grow’.

All of these changes were run over a 2,700 year period in the model, which if you take the 2005 CO2 concentration of 379ppm as your base is an increase of 1.17ppm per year.

This is the important bit to remember if we’re going to learn from history and not go the way of the Permian residents. Our current rate of increase in CO2 concentrations is 2ppm per year, which means we are on a super speed path to mass extinction. If we continue with business as usual, which has been aptly renamed ‘business as suicide’ by climate blogger Joe Romm, we will be at the end of the next mass extinction in around 1,500 years.

Where humanity is headed (from Royal Society Publishing)

Where humanity is headed (from Royal Society Publishing)

All we need to do to guarantee this being the outcome of all of humanity is keep the status quo and keep burning fossil fuels and the entire sum of humans as a species on this planet will be a tiny geological blip where we turned up, became the most successful invasive species on the globe, burned everything in sight and kept burning it even when we knew it was killing us.

However, I think this part from the paper’s conclusion should give most of us a pause for thought;

 ‘Given the sensitivity of ocean circulation to high-latitude warming, it is hypothesized that some critical level of high-latitude warming was reached where connection of surface waters to the deep ocean was dramatically reduced, thus leading to a shutdown of marine biologic activity, which in turn would have led to increased atmospheric CO2 and accelerated warming.’

As a species, if we are going to survive we need to make sure we do not go past any of those critical levels of warming or tipping points. Which means we need to make sure we stop burning carbon as fast as possible. Otherwise, T-Rex outlasted us as a species by about two million years which would be kinda embarrassing.

Sleepwalking off a Cliff: Can we Avoid Global Collapse?

‘Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster’
Drs. Paul and Anne Ehrlich

WHO: Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, Department of Biology, Stanford University, California, USA

WHAT: An ‘invited perspective’ from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (the Royal Society) on the future of humanity following the election of Dr. Paul Ehrlich to the fellowship of the Royal Society.

WHEN: 26 January 2013

WHERE: Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences (Proc. R. Soc. B) 280, January 2013

TITLE: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Dr. Paul Ehrlich has been warning humanity about the dangers of exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for decades. He first wrote about the dangers of over-population in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, and now following his appointment to the fellowship of the Royal Society, he and his wife have written what I can only describe as a broad and sweeping essay on the challenges that currently face humanity (which you should all click the link and read as well).

When you think about it, we’re living in a very unique period of time. We are at the beginning of the next mass extinction on this planet, which is something that only happens every couple of hundred million years. And since humans are the driving force of this extinction, we are also in control of how far we let it go. So the question is, will we save ourselves, or will we sleepwalk off the cliff?

Drs. Ehrlich describe the multiple pressures currently facing the planet and its inhabitants as a perfect storm of challenges. Not only is there the overarching threat multiplier of climate change, which will make all of our existing problems harder to deal with, we have concurrent challenges facing us through the loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity from mass extinction, land degradation, the global spread of toxic chemicals, ocean acidification, infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, resource depletion (especially ground water) and subsequent resource conflicts.

you have humans Wow. That’s quite the laundry list of problems we’ve got. Of course, all these issues interact not only with the biosphere; they interact with human socio-economic systems, including overpopulation, overconsumption and current unequal global economic system.

If you haven’t heard the term ‘carrying capacity’ before, it’s the limit any system has before things start going wrong – for instance if you put 10 people in a 4 person hot tub, it will start to overflow, because you’ve exceeded its carrying capacity.

The bad news is we’ve exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. For the planet to sustainably house the current 7 billion people it has, we would need an extra half an empty planet to provide for everyone. If we wanted all 7 billion of us to over-consume at the living standards of the USA, we would need between 4 – 5 extra empty planets to provide for everyone. Better get searching NASA!

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The next problem is that a global collapse could be triggered by any one of the above issues, with cascading effects, although Drs. Ehrlich think the biggest key will be feeding everyone (which I’ve written about before), because the social unrest triggered by mass famine would make dealing with all the other problems almost impossible.

So what do we need to do? We need to restructure our energy sources and remove fossil fuel use from agriculture, although Drs. Ehrlich do point out that peaking fossil fuel use by 2020 and halving it by 2050 will be difficult. There’s also the issue that it’s really ethically difficult to knowingly continue to run a lethal yet profitable business, hence the highly funded climate denial campaigns to try and keep the party running for Big Oil a little longer, which will get in the way of change.

The global spread of toxic compounds can only be managed and minimised as best we can, similarly, we don’t have many answers for the spread of infectious and tropical diseases along with increasing antibiotic resistance that will happen with climate change.

Helpfully, Drs. Ehrlich point out that the fastest way to cause a global collapse would be to have any kind of nuclear conflict, even one they refer to as a ‘regional conflict’ like India and Pakistan. But even without nuclear warfare (which I hope is unlikely!) 6 metres of sea level rise would displace around 400 million people.

One of the most important things that we can be doing right now to help humanity survive for a bit longer on this planet is population control. We need less people on this planet (and not just because I dislike screaming children in cafes and on airplanes), and Drs. Ehrlich think that instead of asking ‘how can we feed 9.6 billion people in 2050’ scientists should be asking ‘how can we humanely make sure it’s only 8.6 billion people in 2050’?

How can we do that? Firstly, we need to push back against what they refer to as the ‘endarkenment’, which is the rise of religious fundamentalism that rejects enlightenment ideas like freedom of thought, democracy, separation of church and state, and basing beliefs on empirical evidence, which leads to climate change denialism, failure to act on biodiversity loss and opposition to the use of contraceptives.

And why do we need to push back against people who refuse to base their beliefs on empirical evidence? Because the fastest and easiest way to control population growth is female emancipation. Drs. Ehrlich point out that giving women everywhere full rights, education and opportunities as well as giving everyone on the planet access to safe contraception and abortion is the best way to control population growth (you know, letting people choose whether they’d like children).

More importantly, Drs. Ehrlich want the world to develop a new way of thinking systematically about things, which they’ve called ‘foresight intelligence’. Since it’s rare that societies manage to mobilise around slow threats rather than immediate threats, there need to be new ways and mechanisms for greater cooperation between people, because we are not going to succeed as a species if we don’t work together.

They’d like to see the development of steady-state economics which would destroy the ‘fables such as ‘technological innovation will save us’’. They’d like to see natural scientists working together with social scientists to look at the dynamics of social movements, sustainability and equality and to scale up the places where that kind of work is already happening.

They point out that our current methods of governance are inadequate to meet the challenges we face and that we need to work with developing nations who are currently looking to reproduce the western nation’s ‘success’ of industrialisation, so that they can instead be leaders to the new economy, because playing catch up will lead to global collapse.

Do Drs. Ehrlich believe that we can avoid a global collapse of civilisation? They think we still can, but only if we get fully into gear and work together now, because unless we restructure our way of doing things, nature will do it for us. It’s your call humanity – shall we get going, or will we sleepwalk our species off the cliff?

Don’t go in the Water

Warming sea surface temperatures in low-salinity oceans like the Baltic Sea is increasing cases of Vibrio bacteria infections

WHO: Craig Baker-Austin, Nick G. H. Taylor, Rachel Hartnell, Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Weymouth, Dorset, UK,
Joaquin A. Trinanes, Laboratory of Systems, Technological Research Institute, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, CoastWatch, Maryland, USA
Anja Siitonen, Bacteriology Unit, National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Helsinki, Finland
Jaime Martinez-Urtaza  Instituto de Acuicultura, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

WHAT: Establishing patterns between Vibrio bacteria infection outbreaks and climate change in the Baltic Sea to be able to predict future outbreaks.

WHEN: January 2013

WHERE: Nature Climate Change, Vol 3, January 2013

TITLE: Emerging Vibrio risk at high latitudes in response to ocean warming (subs. req)

Imagine that it’s a hot summer’s day in Northern Europe. The heat wave has lasted for more than three weeks now and you’re just dying to get into the ocean for a swim to cool off, except that you can’t, because there’s been a bacteria outbreak in the water and going swimming will make you sick.

Looks great! Can’t swim. (photo: flickr)

Looks great! Can’t swim. (photo: flickr)

It doesn’t sound like fun does it? But it’s happening increasingly in the Baltic Sea, and it looks like climate change is providing the exact conditions these bacteria love.

Vibrio is a type of bacteria that grows really well in warm (>15oC) low-salinity (<25 parts per trillion salt) water. The most common type in estuaries and other shallow water is Vibrio vulnificus, which is related to the same bacteria that causes cholera (Vibrio cholerae). Not a nice family, really.

When you swim in water that has Vibrio bacteria, it immediately gets excited (yes, I’m aware that bacteria don’t have feelings) about any cuts or wounds you have and infects them giving you symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains and blistering dermatitis. Well, that’s a way to really ruin your summer.

If you’re really unlucky or immuno-compromised, Vibrio will give you blistering skin lesions, septic shock (life threatening low blood pressure) and possibly kill you 25% of the time. It’s an efficient bacterium though, and will kill you in only 48hrs.

Vibrio vulnificus (Wikimedia commons)

Vibrio vulnificus (Wikimedia commons)

So why is Vibrio moving into the Baltic Sea more often? Climate change, combined with location.

The Baltic Sea is the largest low-salinity marine ecosystem on Earth, and is surrounded by highly populated countries, meaning there are 30million people living within 50km of the shores of the sea. The Baltic Sea is also warming rapidly.

The Baltic Sea (Google maps)

The Baltic Sea (Google maps)

The researchers found that the sea surface temperature has been warming in excess of 1oC per decade, which is seven times the global average rate of warming. The rate is also increasing. From 1850 to 2010, the rate of warming was .51oC per century. The warming between 1900 to 2010 was at a rate of .77oC per century, and more recently the warming from 1980-2010 has been at a pace of 5oC per century, which is scarily fast for planetary systems.

Their data shows that for every 1oC increase in the summer maximum sea surface temperature, the rate of observed Vibrio infections increased by almost 2 times. This of course, gets compounded with the fact that increased summer maximum sea surface temperatures mean the air temperature is also hotter, and a hotter summer means more people head to the beach and get infected.

Even worse, recent research shows that some Vibrio bacteria’s ‘pathogenic competence’ (which is scientist for how good it is at infecting you) could be improved by increased temperatures.

Which all adds up to a nasty sequence of events where many more people than usual get nasty skin lesions. So what should we do about it? The researchers suggest monitoring conditions and sending out health advisories for when the sea surface temperatures are >19oC for three weeks or more as well as using predictive models to try and work out where/when the worst outbreaks might occur.

I don’t know about you, but nasty bacterial infections from a warmer ocean on a slowly cooking planet doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. So I’d also like to suggest we stop burning carbon so I and the people of Northern Europe can continue to swim in the summer.

Will the Well Run Dry? Non-renewable Water

Ancient groundwater sources are being depleted at fast rates and the impacts of climate change are still unknown

WHO: Richard G. Taylor, Department of Geography, University College London, London, UK
Bridget Scanlon, Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, USA
Petra Döll, Institute of Physical Geography, University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany
Matt Rodell, Hydrological Science Branch, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA
Rens van Beek, Yoshihide Wada, Marc F. P. Bierkens, Department of Physical Geography, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Laurent Longuevergne, Géosciences Rennes, Université de Rennes 1, Rennes, France
Marc Leblanc, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, NCGRT, James Cook University, Cairns QLD, Australia
James S. Famiglietti, UC Center for Hydrologic Modelling, University of California, Irvine, USA
Mike Edmunds, School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
Leonard Konikow, U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia, USA
Timothy R. Green, Agricultural Systems Research Unit, USDA-ARS, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA
Jianyao Chen, School of Geography and Planning, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China
Makoto Taniguchi, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan
Alan MacDonald, British Geological Survey, Edinburgh, UK
Ying Fan, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA
Reed M. Maxwell, Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado, USA
Yossi Yechieli, Geological Survey of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel
Jason J. Gurdak, Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California, USA
Diana M. Allen, Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
Mohammad Shamsudduha, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, London, UK
Kevin Hiscock, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, UK
Pat J.-F. Yeh, International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management (ICHARM), UNESCO, Tsukuba, Japan
Ian Holman, Environmental Science and Technology Department, Cranfield University, Milton Keynes, UK
Holger Treidel, Division of Water Sciences, UNESCO-IHP, Paris, France

WHAT: Looking at all the research on groundwater and working out what we know and what we don’t know

WHEN: 25 November, 2012

WHERE: Nature Climate Change, 2012 nclimate1744

TITLE: Ground water and climate change (subs req.)

Last month, 26 scientists all published a paper together on groundwater, which must have required either some massive Skype sessions, or people getting very sick of email chains where everyone hits ‘reply all’. As I’ve said before: science – it’s a collaborative thing.

What these researchers were trying to do was to work out exactly what we know about groundwater and how it will be affected by climate change and where the gaps are that we need to fill. Having worked in water policy, I can tell you that groundwater is normally the big unknown. Governments and organisations generally don’t have the information to know how much there is, who is taking it at what rates and how to monitor and regulate it. Generally, it gets put off until next time, while surface water rights are dealt with.

However, groundwater is estimated to be one third of all freshwater withdrawals worldwide and also the water source for 42% of the world’s agricultural water. So with climate change affecting rain patterns and shifting weather pole-ward, what will happen to groundwater? Will the well run dry in some places?

One of the biggest issues with measuring groundwater is the rate of recharge for the underground aquifers. These underwater storage vaults of water and mostly ancient water in that if you measure the isotopic composition of the water, they were likely filled thousands of years ago and have remained there without changing greatly.

Another interesting thing the isotopic analysis of the water tells us, is that if you look at the oxygen and hydrogen isotope ratios (so that’s the ratio of atoms that have different numbers of neutrons, making some heavier than others), many aquifers were filled in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras, around 12,000 years ago when the average temperature of the earth was around 5oC cooler than now.

Isotopic analysis: Hydrogen on the left and it’s isotope Deuterium (with the extra neutron) on the right

Isotopic analysis: Hydrogen on the left and it’s isotope Deuterium (with the extra neutron) on the right

What that means is that if those aquifers were recharging when the world was 5oC cooler than now, it’s unlikely that any recharge is taking place now or going to take place as we continue to heat our world through climate change. As the paper says ‘this non-renewable groundwater exploitation is unsustainable and is mined in a manner similar to oil’. Thousand year old water is just as renewable as million year old oil, and both are longer than a human life span.

So, what do we know about groundwater? There are two ways that groundwater can recharge: rain fed (the rain soaks into the ground) and surface water leakage (from rivers, irrigated agriculture or lakes). Both of these methods will be variable and vulnerable to climate change.

Changes in snow pack and snow distribution also impact recharge. The research currently published is still uncertain as to the extent of the impacts, but early findings are that the early start to spring is reducing the duration of recharge. Glacial retreat also impacts groundwater.

The other affects on groundwater are land use change and sea level rise inundating areas and making them salty. Managed ecosystems are not able to respond to change the way natural ecosystems can. Even if it’s a drought year, a farmer still needs to plant and crop their land. For each degree of climate change, you can roughly estimate that the equivalent climate will move 150km towards the pole. The desert of Salt Lake City will move north into the cropping areas of Idaho, and the slushy snow will move north into the ‘champagne powder’ ski regions.

More importantly, global estimates of groundwater depletion by 2050 range from 70% decreases in the Mediterranean and Brazil to increases in the Middle East and only 10% decreases in the Western US. There’s lots of uncertainty in the models as there’s a lack of data, so researchers need to extrapolate from incomplete data, resulting in large uncertainty margins.

One interesting thing I learned from this paper that I hadn’t considered before is that groundwater depletion increases sea level rise. How, you may ask? It’s the thing of living in a planetary system where everything is connected, so follow me through the water cycle here:

Thousand year old water that has been stored in the ground is pumped up a well and onto your farm. Some of the water will evaporate and the other water will grow plants, but the water has now gone into the atmospheric water cycle, so the evaporated water goes into the clouds, comes down as rain, and since 70% of our planet is ocean, there’s a really high chance the ancient groundwater will get added to the ocean. How much water? This is where it gets scary.

Groundwater water cycles (from paper)

Groundwater water cycles (from paper)

The paper talks about cubic kilometres of water. Yes, kilometres. I was unable to mentally picture that too, so I did a conversion for you. The groundwater depletion for the planet is between 145 – 204km3 of water per year, which is between 145,000 and 204,000 billion litres of water. To visualise this, you’d need to take the island of Manhattan and cover it twice with 1km deep water, which would be a depth of 4.5 Empire State Buildings end to end. This contributes between 0.4-0.5mm of sea level rise each year.

Climate change will have an effect on groundwater resources. Exactly what that is won’t be known until all the data is collected to create detailed models. However, sustainable aquifer management is going to be difficult and grow increasingly difficult as the climate continues to change.

IPCC vs Reality: Who Got it Right?

How did the projections from the IPCC 3rd and 4th reports match up against recorded temps for the last decade?

WHO: Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany
Grant Foster, Tempo Analytics, Garland, Maine, USA
Anny Cazenave, Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales, Toulouse, France

WHAT: Comparing the projections from the IPCC 3rd report in 2001 and the IPCC 4th report in 2007 to the observed climate data to 2011

WHEN: November 2012

WHERE: Environmental Research Letters Vol 7, No. 4 (2012)

TITLE: Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011

The IPCC. It is the favourite punching bag of climate deniers and conspiracy theorists alike, who all like to claim that the reports are faulty or flawed or incorrect. So these researchers decided with the 5th Assessment Report due soon to go back to the 3rd and 4th reports, check what was in the projections and see how accurate they were on temperature rise and sea level rise. Kind of like a mid-term report card!

Five years ago, the CO2 concentration and global temperatures were closely following the projections of the IPCC 3rd report, and sea level rise was tracking along the upper limit of the uncertainty range. So where the sea level rise projections were plus or minus several millimetres a decade, the observed data was only on the plus side. How did the projections look with an extra five years of data?

The IPCC projections didn’t attempt to include the effect of solar variability, volcanic eruptions or El Niño in their temperature models because those things are random and therefore pretty impossible to predict in the future. The observed data was adjusted to remove the random variability from solar, volcanic and El Niño effects so that the researchers were comparing apples to apples when trying to assess the accuracy of the IPCC projections. For those playing at home, they used a multivariate correlation analysis (yeah, I love those too!).

The data adjustment removed the cold anomaly from the 1992/3 Mt Pinatubo eruption, and the ‘exceptionally high’ 1998 temperature maximum from the extreme El Niño event.  The observed data showed warming of 0.3oC from 1990 to 2011. The IPCC 3rd report projected 0.2-0.4oC warming to 2011 and the 4th report projected 0.3-0.5oC warming. So for temperature increases, the IPCC was pretty much spot on.

3rd report projections in blue, 4th report projections in green, observed data in red, shaded areas are the uncertainty range. (from paper)

3rd report projections in blue, 4th report projections in green, observed data in red, shaded areas are the uncertainty range. (from paper)

So what about sea level rise? The IPCC got that one wrong, but not in a way that climate deniers can celebrate – they underestimated it by 60%.

Sea level rise: measured data in red, third assessment in blue, fourth assessment in green (from paper)

Sea level rise: measured data in red, third assessment in blue, fourth assessment in green (from paper)

The IPCC best assessment was 2.0mm per year of sea level rise, and the satellite based recorded data is actually 3.2mm per year (±0.5mm error range). The researchers tried to work out if the huge difference between the projection and the recorded data was because of variability over recent decades, and decided it was unlikely because the IPCC similarly underestimated the sea level rise from 1961-2003. It was even more unlikely because the rate of sea level rise over the past 130 years has a ‘highly significant correlation with global temperature’.

This is scientist for almost identical, because those of you that read the IPCC 3rd report will remember that when the IPCC says ‘very likely’ they mean there’s a 90-99% chance it will happen. Talk about understatement.

What did the IPCC miss for sea level rise? Well firstly, it’s worth mentioning that most of the world’s scientific community didn’t expect humanity to ignore them when they warned of climate change, so their predictions were more conservative as they hoped we wouldn’t keep burning carbon at greater and greater rates as we are currently doing.

The key part though is ‘future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow’ which is scientist for big and unexpected changes, like the Arctic Death Spiral we had this summer where they found the Arctic was melting about 80 years ahead of schedule. The Arctic wasn’t supposed to be ice free in the summer from climate change until 2100, but we might get to see it as early as 2020.

What does that mean for future climate change projections? Well, it’s not pretty. So far the IPCC has been either seriously accurate (yay science!) or their worst case scenario underestimated what we’re actually doing to the planet. Which means that while the picture that the IPCC paints doesn’t look very appealing, it seems that reality could be a whole lot worse. My suggestion once again is that we stop burning carbon.

brisbane

Brisbane floods 2011 (photo: Eric Veland, flickr)

World Bank Wants off the Highway to Hell: Part Two

‘Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur’ World Bank report

WHO: The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, commissioned by the World Bank

WHAT: A report looking at the impacts of 4oC of global warming and the risk to human systems

WHEN: November 2012

WHERE: The World Bank’s website

TITLE: Turn down the heat: Why a 4oC warmer world must be avoided

This is part two; part one is here.

What does a 4oC world look like?

It looks like a place where climate change has undermined economic growth through natural disaster after natural disaster which eventually overwhelms emergency response capabilities.

It looks like a world where all of the gains towards to the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating poverty and hunger have been wiped out by the negative impacts of climate change, and extreme heat stress has caused a 60% or more reduction in crop yield.

It looks like a world where even wealthy industrialised countries are no longer able to adapt to or meet development goals because of climate change and where entire coastal cities have been abandoned because the cost of fortifying them against rising sea levels was too great.

New York City in a 4oC world?
(Photo from New York Times Sunday Review Nov. 25th 2012 via ClimateProgress)

How could this happen? How could the change from 2oC to 4oC be the difference between continuing economic growth in a green economy and abandoned flooded cities?

Non-linear and cascading impacts.

Cast your minds back with me to high school math where you learned about exponential graphs. The ones that were y=x2 and you had to solve for x in your exams and it hurt your brain? This is non-linear and what is likely to happen with the planet. Take the oceans for example. While we still have sea ice in the Arctic, the warming from the oceans sucking up almost half of our carbon emissions every year is still relatively slow. However, once the ice melts and it’s all open water for the first time, that’s when warming gets going and it will likely ramp up like an exponential graph.

In fact, if you really feel like nerding it up, you can simulate sea ice at home and watch the tipping point happen. Put ice and water into a pot and once it’s cold (1-2oC) turn the heat on high and take the temperature every 30 seconds until the ice is all gone and the water is getting hotter (15-20oC or longer if you want). Graph the results and find your tipping point. Science!

Simulating Arctic ice melt: science! (photo: ©Adam Hart-Davis)

The final chapter in the World Bank report looks at the potential implications for a 4oC world in terms of risk management. If it’s going to cost a certain number of trillion dollars to prepare for 2oC, should we just double the amount and prepare for 4oC? They think that may not be enough since ‘lurking in the tails of the probability distributions are likely to be many unpleasant surprises’.

The report points out that since cascading effects are very difficult to predict, that most of the predictions I covered in part one are based on linear models and likely to be conservative estimates of what will happen with 4oC warming. They are also sector based and don’t take into account what happens when impacts team up and work together.

Going back to the oceans again, what will the cumulative impacts be of all the effects that have been studied separately? What happens when coral reefs collapse, marine production reduces from rising temperatures and acidification, low-lying coastal areas are inundated from sea level rise, and human economic and social impacts are all lumped together at the same time?

The report states that there is a high level of concern that all of those effects all happening together at once hasn’t really been studied or quantified beyond ‘horrifying’.

From what we know now from all of the leading research, this is a list of potential tipping points from the report:

1.5oC
This may be the coral reef tipping point which will create larger storm surges for coastal areas that were previously protected. It also means an economically significant loss of tourism dollars for places like the Great Barrier Reef.
This could also be the tipping point for the Greenland Ice Sheet which has been melting faster than expected (was previously predicted for 4.6oC). There is approximately 6-7m of sea level rise in this ice sheet, so New York City may need to move inland.

3oC
This could be the tipping point for the Amazon Rainforest, where large parts of the rainforest die off from lack of water and release more carbon into the atmosphere, further fuelling climate change in a positive feedback loop that it will be almost impossible to recover from.
This could also be the point for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which has 3m of additional sea level rise stored in it. New York City will need to keep moving.

4oC
This is the probable tipping point for world agriculture as crops start dying from heat stress. The IPCC assessment predicts that crop yields will decrease between 63-82%. Keep in mind that this goes hand in hand with a population increase to 9 billion people.
This is also the point at which the accumulated stresses from 2oC and 3oC overwhelms emergency and health services and all of the gains made to alleviate poverty are also overwhelmed by the negative consequences from climate change.

Once the World Bank has laid out for us exactly how horrible it could possibly get in a way we can’t easily predict, plan for, adapt to safely or afford, this is the very simple conclusion they have that we should all be able to agree with:

‘Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.’

World Bank Wants off the Highway to Hell

“It is my hope that this report shocks us into action… This report spells out what the world would be like if it warmed by 4 degrees Celsius… The 4oC scenarios are devastating.” Dr. Jim Yong Kim President, World Bank

WHO: The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, commissioned by the World Bank

WHAT: A report looking at the impacts of 4oC of global warming and the risk to human systems

WHEN: November 2012

WHERE: The World Bank’s website

TITLE: Turn down the heat: Why a 4oC warmer world must be avoided

Following on from last week’s Highway to Hell post, the World Bank released a report looking at the human system implications for climate change because things that disturb the current systems of running the world tend to be expensive for organisations like the World Bank.

The report looks at climate change projections for a 4oC world, most of which I’ve already covered on this blog like; ocean acidification, droughts, tropical cyclones, sea level rise and extreme temperatures. So I’m going to skip ahead to the chapters on impacts in different sectors and then my personal favourite, non-linear impacts. This week will be sector impacts.

It’s refreshing to see an organisation that is normally known for its staid and stuffy conservatism talking about climate change reality. The foreword by the World Bank’s President says no less than that the science is unequivocal, that warming of 4oC threatens our ability to adapt and that meeting the currently agreed upon UNFCCC targets (which we’re not meeting) will lead to 3.5-4oC warming which must be avoided through greater and more urgent action now.

Let’s look at what this bastion of the three piece suit with not a dreadlock in sight says about the impacts that could be felt in a 4oC world.

Agriculture
Generally the impacts for agriculture will be regionally specific, as will the impacts for climate change. Some regions will get more rain, some less rain, and the timing of the seasons will change.

The favourite argument of luke-warmists is that increased CO2 in the atmosphere is excellent because it will benefit agricultural growth and we’ll be able to grow lettuce in Siberia. Well, yes and no – it’s more complex than that. Between 1-3oC of warming it’s likely we’ll see increased yields in certain regions from CO2 fertilization. Beyond 3oC productivity will decrease as the stresses of other climate change impacts outweigh any benefit from extra CO2.

And even then, demand from a world population growing to a projected 9 billion by 2050 is going to increase demand by 70-100% for agricultural food products, so even without the costs of climate change reducing the productivity of crops, it’s going to be difficult to feed the world with that many people.

Another vulnerability for agriculture is sea level rise and salination of some of the world’s most productive agricultural land. Having to move your farm from a nutrient rich delta to less productive soil further inland will detrimentally affect crop yields.

Finally, the benefits of CO2 fertilisation will be limited by the availability of other nutrients. You can give a plant all the CO2 it wants, but if you don’t also give it nitrogen, phosphorus and water, it’s not going to grow any faster. It’s currently looking like there’s going to be a world shortage of phosphorus based fertilizer, which will have a very detrimental affect on world crops that need to be becoming more productive to feed a growing population, not less.

Water Resources
This section starts with a very obvious statement that is useful to point out: ‘The associated changes in the terrestrial water cycle are likely to affect the nature and availability of natural water resources and, consequently, human societies that rely on them.’

We rely on the services that the environment provides for us and the second most important one of these is water (the first one is air).

As well as the expected (and already occurring) more severe droughts, river runoff is expected to decrease significantly in areas where the water is used for both agriculture and transport like the Danube, the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia.

In a 2oC warming world, most of the water stresses can be expected to be from population increase. By the time we get to a 4oC world, the stress of climate change will outstrip that of population increase. Even in the areas where there will be increased rainfall, it’s not likely to come at the right time of the year, or it could come all at once causing flooding.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in many models of drought prediction and rainfall prediction as well as the possible effects for specific regional areas, but the conclusions that are coming from all of the studies identified in this report range from bad to very bad, and in a 4oC world almost half of the world’s population could be water stressed by 2080.

Ecosystems and Biodiversity
This is the fun section that starts using terms like ‘mass extinction’ and gets everyone Googling things like the Eocene.

Biodiversity is, in my opinion going to be the ‘sleeper issue’ of climate change, because it happens over longer periods of time and is easy to ignore as out of sight out of mind for us urbanites until it’s too late. As the report quotes; ‘It is well established that loss or degradation of ecosystem services occurs as a consequence of species extinctions’.

There’s also the issue of thresholds. Where an animal or plant or ecosystem can absorb a certain amount of degradation, until you reach the tipping point and it can no longer take it. Some areas will be able to absorb more warming (Canada, Northern Europe) while others may reach biodiversity and ecosystem tipping points earlier (Pacific Islands, Bangladesh).

In a 4oC world, it’s possible that habitats could shift by up to 400km towards the poles, which is fine if you’re a mosquito moving north from Mexico, but not so good if you’re a mountain rabbit and you run out of mountain.

And here’s some food for thought: the report states that if the planet lost all of the species that are currently listed as ‘critically endangered’ we would officially be living through a mass extinction, and if we lost the species that are also ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’ we would be confirmed as the sixth mass extinction in geological history. Which means history would list the dinosaurs and then the humans in the fossil record of mass extinctions.

As the report says: ‘loss of biodiversity will challenge those reliant on ecosystem services’. This means all of us.

Human Health
Like smoking, climate change is bad for your health. The above mentioned agricultural and water issues with a 4oC warmer world will lead to famine and malnutrition on a large scale. The extreme weather events from a planet on climate steroids will kill people in heat waves, increase respiratory diseases and allergies from the extra dust in the droughts, weaken existing health services through damage to hospitals in extreme storms, flooding and so on.

Living with constant extreme weather is bad for your mental health, whether it’s the slow and painful crush of watching drought destroy your farmland or the fast emergency of cyclones, hurricanes and floods.

And remember the mosquitoes moving north? They’ll bring new tropical diseases with them that will infect many new people who have never developed any immunity to them.

Given all of the above, it’s pretty clear why the World Bank wants off the highway to hell. Because they’re concerned about both loaning money to countries that are dealing with these catastrophes, and living through these impacts. Because, as all of my fellow Gen Ys already know, living these impacts by 2050 is not some vague and distant future. It’s before we all retire.

 

Next week: non-linear impacts, which are scarier than they sound. 

The Forests of Planet Ocean

Estuaries are the forests of the ocean and they take up carbon 90 times more efficiently than land forests

WHO: Colin Campbell (Science Advisor, Sierra Club BC, PhD Marsupial Evolution, UC Berkley)

WHAT: ‘Blue Carbon’ report looking at how carbon is stored in oceans

WHEN: August 2010

WHERE: Sierra Club BC – in print and online

TITLE: Blue Carbon British Columbia: The Case for the Conservation and Enhancement of Estuarine Processes and Sediments in B.C.

Since I’ve moved to Canada, I’ve learnt a lot about salmon and it’s a pretty tough gig from what I can tell. Everyone wants to eat you along the way (including humans like me – yum!) and evolution decided it would be a good idea to swim up the river – way to make it harder!

Salmon – it’s a hard knock life (photo: Dan Bennett, flickr)

But even harder again – once baby salmon have hatched and are swimming back down the river to eat and grow and become edible for me, they have to also make the switch into salt water which is impressive in any animal.

Changing from fresh water to salt water as a fish takes a whole heap of osmoregulation, which is the transfer of water into and out of your cells to keep an even salt balance on both sides of the cell membrane. When there’s too much salt on one side, the water moves to dilute it, which is the reason we feel dehydrated after eating a lot of salty food. So a salmon changing to salt water would be like you or I changing to only drinking salt water instead of fresh water. Salmon can do this, we would not survive.

How do salmon do this? Well it involves estuaries. Estuaries are the underwater grasslands at river mouths which look pretty gross to walk through in your bare feet when you’re going swimming. But if you’re a salmon, it’s your training ground. Salmon will hang out in estuaries full of eelgrass or salt marshes for a week or two until their bodies switch to salt water. The area is full of microbes dissolved in the water for the salmon to eat and the eelgrass provides a great hiding place for salmon that aren’t yet fast enough to swim away from everyone who wants to eat it. Without estuaries, the salmon race down the river and shoot straight out into the salt water, which is quite a shock to their systems.

Eelgrass – salmon training ground and underwater forest (photo: Eric Heupel, flickr)

This paper from the Sierra Club here in British Columbia talks about estuaries other feature – they’re great carbon sinks, and we need more of them. Carbon moves around our planet in a cycle with sources and sinks. Humans burning fossil fuels are a huge source of it and the sinks can’t keep up the balance (hence ocean acidification and global warming). So the more carbon sinks we can preserve and create the better for our survival.

Because eelgrass, mangroves and salt marshes are in the shallow water, they get lots of sunlight, which allows them to photosynthesise. 1km2 of mangroves can store the same amount of carbon as 50km2 of tropical rainforest and estuaries are constantly sucking carbon dioxide in, and releasing oxygen while pushing carbon further down into the sediment on the ocean floor.

They suck carbon in, send oxygen out and provide a training ground for animals – so far there’s no downside.Except that many estuaries have been or are being reduced by human development. In the Fraser River here in Vancouver alone, 99% of the delta marshlands are gone due to flood prevention dyking, farmland or development. That’s a whole lot of carbon that could be sucked into the estuary that isn’t.

Currently, it’s estimated that BC estuaries sequester 180,200 tonnes of carbon per year, even with their diminished size due to humans. When you realise that Metro Vancouver’s carbon emissions were 10.5 million tonnes in 2010, estuaries take up 1.7% of our emissions each year. If we keep burning carbon, we will need a lot more estuaries. Additional benefit for our own self interest as well of course is that more estuaries means bigger salmon runs and more delicious food for us, the bears, the seals, the whales, the eagles and all the rest.

As Vancouver aims for its 2020 Greenest City targets, one of the most efficient ways of sequestering more carbon while also reducing our emissions might not be our forests, but our underwater forests – the tidal estuaries.