The Arctic & The Big Toot


Much of the talk about climate change centers around the word “carbon”. However, “methane” is a much more sinister contributor to climate change. Per molecule, methane, that stinky “fart” gas, is twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide over the course of a century. One region where methane’s contribution to climate change is studied by NASA is the Arctic. “The Arctic?!” the gringa exclaims. Yes, I know, dear reader. You must be thinking the same thing. What the heck is in the Arctic to contribute to atmospheric pollution? I mean, what does it have, a population of a hundred or so? How could a population so small create a problem so big?

Well, methane does not necessarily need a human created industrial complex to exist. In the Arctic, methane is created from decomposing microbes within the soil. While the Arctic tundra remains sealed by permafrost, the methane gas remains trapped within. As soon as Spring rolls around and this frozen layer of soil begins to thaw, the gas is released. This is a natural cycle. This was the thinking of the scientific community.

Based on models that depict this stable, natural cycle’s past methane gas release volumes, it has been determined that current methane levels that are escaping into the atmosphere are much higher than model estimates expected. Surprise, surprise! The research team conducting these studies have used specialized precision instruments to measure Arctic methane gas emissions during the summer months. They ignored gathering data during the brutal winter months on the assumption that because the ground was frozen solid, the methane would be sealed within the permafrost.

They are now discovering they have been terribly wrong.  From September until May, the Arctic winter, the wet, lowland tundra as well as the drier, upland tundra are very actively emitting methane gas. In fact, the Arctic winter emits just as much methane as the Arctic summer. Methane seepage is just much slower during the frozen conditions upon the tundra during the winter season. However, since the winter season is about eighty percent longer in duration than the short summer season, there is plenty of time for slow winter methane seepage to catch up to the amount of emissions that are released quickly during the warmer Summer months.

During winter, even though the temperature of the soil is below the freezing point (32 degrees Fahrenheit/0 degrees Celsius), water that is trapped within the soil does not necessarily freeze completely. The active layer of Arctic soil, the top layer that thaws in summer and freezes in winter, experiences what scientists call a “sandwich effect” when it re-freezes. As the active layer begins to refreeze, there is a mid-section that is insulated by a frozen top and frozen bottom. This mid-section of the top, active layer does not completely freeze. Within this unfrozen strip of soil microorganisms do what microorganisms do, they break down organic matter which creates methane emissions. And this goes on all winter long in the Arctic.

The drier, upland Arctic tundra has also surprised scientists. Prior to these studies researchers believed that this area would produce less methane gas. However, what they have discovered is that the grasses and plants act like little chimneys, spewing higher volumes of methane into the atmosphere.

Although this may sound like bad news, the gringa says, “There, there. Do not dismay. Even if it seems like bad news at least it’s NEWS! Now we KNOW and now we can ACT.” And that is just what NASA plans to do. Now that they have this very important data, they can rearrange their climate models which are used to create predictions to calculate future methane budgets. And, if the dear reader is anything like the gringa, you know very well that any budget has to be adjusted, sometimes quite often, especially when new expenses are realized.

Since methane is a critical component to the warming of Earth’s atmosphere, it is vitally important to have correct data. Now NASA can develop better solutions to continue to improve life here on Earth and to safeguard the future of Earthlings. And the gringa is glad that they are on the job.

Source: http://www.nasa.gov

Photo credit:  http://biomesgroup2.wikispaces.com/Tundra

 

 

The Breath of the Earth


The cover photo for this post depicts a NASA supercomputer generated model that simulates what carbon dioxide looks like in Earth’s atmosphere if climate change creates a situation where the land and ocean are no longer capable of absorbing fifty percent of the CO2 emissions that are currently produced. Things are going to start getting hot really fast.

The aim of the UN climate summit in Paris is to set future limits on human-produced carbon emissions. The research of NASA will play a critical role in briefing all nations who attend. The gringa is willing to put her trust in NASA. In my opinion it is an agency that is a-political and non-nationalistic. It has one goal: scientific truth. It does not care about a scientist’s nationality, religion or political persuasion. NASA only cares about discovering the truth and using it for the benefit of all mankind.

Whereas there are many political motivations to embrace or reject the science of climate change, the gringa will put her trust in NASA. Whereas there are many financial gain motivations that cause people to embrace or reject suggested technologies to help curb climate change, the gringa will put her trust in what NASA advises. So, what is it that they have to say?

First, NASA will present how the Earth is reacting to the rise of gases in the atmosphere that trap heat. These are the gases causing climate change. NASA’s OCO-2 mission (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2) is a satellite designed for the purpose of measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Presently, as mankind burns fossil fuels around the world, the land and oceans absorb about half of the carbon dioxide emissions such action generates. But remember, the earth itself produces its own natural levels of CO2. Mankind is heaping its own contribution atop that. A full year of data collected by OCO-2 has been analyzed by NASA experts. The key question is whether or not the oceans, forests and ecosystems can sustain the current fifty percent absorption level of CO2.

Mankind is contributing to an atmospheric level of carbon dioxide that has reached a concentration point (400 parts per million) that is higher than it has ever been in over 400,000 years. This level continues to rise about 2 parts per million per year. In the years since the industrial revolution, the earth has experienced a 250% increase of carbon based emissions. It only took mankind about two hundred years to do that.

So, if nothing changes, it is a certainty that carbon emissions will increase. As the ecosystems continue their work as the lungs of the earth, will they be able to sustain their current efficiency? As warming of the earth continues, these ecosystems are affected and changed. Will these changes result in lowering the efficiency of the earth to breathe or increase its efficiency, causing the earth to gasp, or will it simply evolve to compensate and its ability to filter out these toxins from the atmosphere remain the same? Those are the only logical conclusions of our current environmental predicament. It has to be one of those three.

The deputy project scientist of the OCO-2 mission, Annmarie Eldering of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has stated that “… carbon dioxide is the largest human-produced driver of our changing climate…” That is actually good news. If dangerous levels of carbon emissions are not a natural condition but, rather, an artificially created condition by mankind, mankind can then make changes and lower these dangerous carbon emission levels. If we will only do it.

Life as we know it definitely has to change. Change is always uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. The largest contributors of carbon emissions are populations that are enjoying the benefits of the technologies that are creating the problems. Can spoiled, grown up children really be expected to give up some of their toys or, at the least, limit the amount of time they play with them?

Mankind not only has to consider its physical contribution of pollutants that end up directly in the atmosphere, but also the things that we do that harms the lungs of the earth. Can mankind really afford to upset the balance of the world’s oceans and ancient forests? If we don’t change our ways it’s essentially no different than a human continuing to smoke two packs a day even though their doctor has told them they have lung cancer.

As conditions created by mankind causes atmospheric temperatures to rise, the oceans warm. Phytoplankton is the first link in the ocean’s ecosystem chain. And now that link is showing evidence of change in reaction to warmer oceanic temperatures. Mike Behrenfeld, the principal investigator for NASA’s mission of studying the largest natural phytoplankton bloom, said: “Phytoplankton are not only influenced by climate, but they also influence climate.” Everything on earth is interconnected, co-dependent, if the phytoplankton goes, we all go.

So, as the climate warms and changes the ecosystem, what about carbon emissions? Will the changes result in a rise or fall in atmospheric levels? Will the delicate balance remain the same? According to NASA’s decade long investigation “Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment” scientists have determined that as warmer temperatures result in Arctic permafrost thaw and increase forest fires, atmospheric carbon levels will increase. The chain reaction will be that the natural features of earth that act as the lungs that breathe for our world, will slowly deteriorate and be destroyed. The breath of the earth will slowly disappear as lung capacity diminishes.

In fact, NASA researchers have established a definitive link between forest wildfires in the Amazon with powerful hurricanes in the North Atlantic. One natural disaster feeds another. Warm ocean water is the fuel needed for devastating hurricanes. Warmer ocean temperatures are created when the lungs of the world, ancient forests, are decimated. So, deforestation raises carbon levels which warms the ocean which feeds a massive hurricane which reduces atmospheric moisture which creates dry conditions which contributes to decimating forest fires which leads to…. Are you following the gringa’s logic here?

University of California Earth System Scientist James Randerson concluded, “Keeping fire out of the Amazon basin is critical from a carbon cycle perspective.” And yet the forests burn. The most irresponsible deforesters are big business, often the mining industry or petroleum companies. The indigenous people understand their inter-dependence on the forest. They tend to respect what feeds and houses them. Big business, however, is only there temporarily to exploit the natural resources. Hence, the irresponsibility.

So, the predicted increase of a two parts per million annual increase of carbon dioxide could end up being much, much more. The earth could see a chain reaction event, a snowball effect, a runaway train rise of greenhouse gases that gets way beyond mankind’s ability to affect any manner of control or reversal of effects. That is the tipping point, the point of no return. That does not mean Armageddon and the destruction of all mankind. It does mean life as we know it will be over.

A runaway train event of global climate change would mean areas that once were agricultural breadbaskets could become deserts. Areas that are richly inhabited coastal areas could become reefs. Areas that were ancient forested Amazonian jungle could become barren and unable to sustain the indigenous populations that lived off the land.

A runaway train event of global climate change will mean mass migrations of humanity to areas that are capable of providing crops and freshwater. Cartography will become big business as coastlines change and borders move. In fact, borders could very well become a thing of the past as a global population undergoes a migrational shift such as has never been seen before.

NASA’s plans for the future:

  • A 2016 atmospheric carbon emission study over the skies of the United States
  • Coral Airborne Laboratory mission in 2016 to study the world’s coral reefs and changing pH levels of the oceans as they absorb increasing levels of carbon emissions
  • Pre-Aerosol, Clouds and Ocean Ecosystem satellite deployment to measure phytoplankton from orbit
  • Integration into the International Space Station of the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation and ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment which will observe plants and forests

NASA’s contribution to solving our world’s environmental issues is critical. However, just as you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, NASA can educate the world on the facts and that’s it. Mankind must make the determination to act upon those facts. And the gringa thinks that sooner is better than later.

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov