02 August 2010

Burning the Candle at Both Ends Can't Last Long, Let Alone Forever

Two very big bad "newses" this week:
  1. Russia is burning.
  2. Phytoplankton populations are plummeting.
So, on land, our food sources and forests are burning up. In the oceans, the very foundation of the marine food web (which extends onto land) is disappearing. Is it possible that someone might NOW announce the climate change emergency?

As reported by the BBC, a United Nations team, "shocked by the destruction it saw on the island of Sakhalin and the vast region of Khabarovsk near the border with China," has said that "the scale of the damage caused by recent forest fires in Russia's Far East amounts to a world-wide ecological disaster."

"The experts said the damage would have far-reaching consequences not only for neighbouring countries, but for the entire northern hemisphere." Russian Prime Minister Putin has called in the army to help with the devastation.

According to Alexei Lyakhov, director of Moscow's meteorological service, temperatures for July were 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees F) higher than normal!! He sees the heat as evidence of global warming.

Lyakhov also says that in 130 years of daily weather monitoring in Moscow, there has never been such a hot summer. "This is not normal weather, this has never happened."

Imagine. Siberia, the coldest place on the face of the planet in winter is experiencing a heat wave — temperatures are hitting 32 degrees C! (That's pushing 90 degrees F!) And Moscow has broken temperature records, reaching 37.2 degrees C (99 degrees F) on Monday, July 26.

According to Agence France Presse (reported at WeatherOnline), "an emergency drought situation has been declared in 19 of Russia's 83 regions with crops dying on an estimated 9.6 million hectares of fields."

So not only are "developed" nations in the northern hemisphere going to struggle as the Arctic summer sea ice melts away (doing away with our summer "air conditioning"), but now we're also facing this carbon feedback: the heat of global warming dries the forests, which start to burn, releasing more carbon and creating more heating — which will devastate our agriculture: more heat = more summertime fires and more droughts. That extra heat also means that green plants are withering instead of absorbing carbon, another carbon feedback.


And why should we be concerned about a bunch of microscopic plants floating around in the ocean? Because a 40 percent decline in the world's phytoplankton is a planetary catastrophe! Planet Earth is, after all, an ocean planet — all life on land came from the oceans and is entirely dependent on the oceans. For example, phytoplankton produces half of the oxygen we breathe. (And we're burning up the trees and withering away the green plants that produce the rest of our oxygen ... hmmm, deoxygenation of the planet. Sounds to me like we're heading for suffocation.)

Again, the BBC is on it. According to researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, "the amount of phytoplankton — tiny marine plants — in the top layers of the oceans has declined markedly over the last century."

An Icelandic website explains that in the summer, phytoplankton live in the upper photic zone (the layer of the ocean reached by sufficient sunlight to allow plant growth) where they are carried by currents. Phytoplankton, like plants on land, have the ability to use sunlight to make organic matter out of non-organic, using the process of photosynthesis. Phytoplankton then become the main source of organic material for other organisms, especially as food for zooplankton (tiny animals), which in turn are prey for young fish and pelagic fish (those that inhabit the upper layers of the open sea). "So the phytoplankton is the basis for all organic life in the sea...."

Phytoplankton need sunlight from above and nutrients from below, but as the oceans warm they are becoming more stratified, limiting the availability of nutrients, conjecture the researchers at Dalhousie. Since phytoplankton removes carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis, this trend could act to accelerate global heating — another carbon feedback.

Carl-Gustaf Lundin, head of the marine programme at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says that the implications could be significant. "If in fact productivity is going down so much, the implication would be that less carbon capture and storage is happening in the open ocean. So that's a service that humanity is getting for free that it will lose."

Alas, we are burning our candle at both ends — land and sea — and threatening Nature's gifts (ecosystem services) at the same time. And we're the intelligent species?

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?