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earth-globeSo it’s Earth Day again. I would like to express my very best wishes for our beautiful home planet! I wish the brightest and healthiest future for Earth and Earth life! I am sure all sane people feel the same way. Frustratingly, however, Earth Day is tinged with all sorts of political controversy and antagonism–because different people have very different ideas about exactly what constitutes a bright future for Earth and its inhabitants.

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People whose politics incline to the right are broadly guilty of ignoring the deleterious effect which billions of people constantly running engines and throwing away rubbish are having on the poor oceans and skies. Many religious folks are also seemingly inclined to think that animals have no souls and are meant to all be driven to extinction for humankind’s amusement and profit. The extremely devout laugh outright at the idea of conservation: saving the planet is unimportant to them since some messiah, or demon, or god is going to show up any minute to save/end everything (all while lifting the few faithful up into a parochial paradise filled with virgins or harps or whatever and throwing everyone else down to hell).

 

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

These ideas are bad—morally, scientifically, and philosophically. Yet I also find the environmentalists who created earth day to be a bit smug. People on the left can be just as antiscientific—for similarly nonsensical reasons. Every day on the internet or on the subway, I hear people despise genetically modified organisms or voice paranoid suspicions about vaccines—vaccines for goodness sake! Some of my dear friends fight against bioengineering and geoengineering while advocating organic everything. Some people on the left belittle those on the right for being anti-science while stridently opposing new energy technologies—especially new nuclear technologies. It makes me want to knock the damn-fool kombucha out of people’s hands and explain the actual nature of the world’s energy economy in greater detail.

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All of this illustrates that I have some serious prejudices and preconceived inclinations myself. I’m sorry. It’s a problem I’m working on. In fact we all need to look harder for solutions while being more respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints. Those religious people whom I so thoroughly disparaged are (mostly) good people and we need their steadfastness, bravery, and compassion. Likewise we need the dreamers who wish for a gentler world of sustainable farming and mining. The people who are afraid of vaccines are afraid for their children: too often they have heard self-serving megacorporations speak as if with the weight of science when those corporations were just spouting more misleading advertising (even if that is not at all what is happening with vaccines). The people who steadfastly deny anthropocentric climate change presumably realize how central hydrocarbon energy is to every aspect of economic, defense, and agricultural activity. Society simply can not transition away from consumer culture and fossil fuels. Not without some big breakthroughs.

No Future World

The answers are hard to find and even harder to understand…and it’s all about to get even harder as the human population expands further and competes more intently for resources. Only through understanding math and, above all, science can we move forward. No god has given me reason to believe in any divine rescue. Likewise the raw economic data indicate that organic farming and windmills will not be enough to provide basic sustenance—much less a livelihood– for everyone. Humankind’s gawky and protracted adolescence will need to end and we’ll all have to get smarter if we hope to build a worthwhile future for all living things.

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work...

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work…

It will involve studying harder and taking science much more seriously—despite all of its fraught ambiguities and uncertain answers. It will also involve everyone setting aside some of our fears, prejudices and certainties and reaching out to understand the scariest big animals that live on Planet Earth—our fellow people.

...then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there...

…then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there…

The animals and plants of the Oligocene rainforest at Riversleigh (as envisioned by an artist)

The animals and plants of the Oligocene rainforest at Riversleigh (as envisioned by an artist)

Occasionally in the geological past, extraordinary circumstances resulted in the near-perfect preservation of an entire ecosystem.  These astonishing fossil beds are known as Lagerstätten (one of the first such finds was in Germany) and they provide one of the best sources of information about life on this planet.  A particularly rich Lagerstätten is located in the arid scrubland of Riversleigh in northwest Queensland, Australia: there fossils from the Oligocene and Miocene epochs are preserved in uncompressed limestone (which allows paleontologists to recover 3 dimensional skeletal remains).  During the late Oligocene, Riversleigh was a lush and vibrant rainforest filled with an incredible profusion of bizarre life forms.  When the Oligocene ended, the region dried into grasslands (and the climate continued to dry out further in subsequent epochs until the present, when the area is a near desert).

The giant carnivorous platypus (Obdurodon tharalkooschild)

The giant carnivorous platypus (Obdurodon tharalkooschild)

All of this is backstory to a remarkable recent discovery.  This week paleontologists studying the bats, snakes, and strange tropical marsupials of Riversleigh made an unexpected discovery–a giant hunting platypus twice the size of the living species.  This big predator, Obdurodon tharalkooschild, was a formidable meter long (3 foot) creature with sharp teeth for grabbing crayfish, amphibians, aquatic reptiles, and fish.  The newly discovered platypus lived in the long-lost rainforests of Queensland.  It was a generalist with a much larger diet than the somewhat specialized modern platypus.

No, not that much larger!

No, it wasn’t THAT big…

Monotremes (platypuses & the more recently evolved echidnas) are an extremely ancient branch of mammalian life which date back at least to the Jurassic–and more likely to the Triassic epoch or earlier.  Platypuses are believed to have evolved in what is now South America and then spread to Antarctica and finally to Australia.  The amazing giant hunting platypus indicates that there were hitherto unexpected branches of platypus evolution. I wonder if  Obdurodon tharalkooschild was toxic (like the modern platypus).  I also wonder what strange monotreme fossils lie beneath the ancient ice of Antarctica.

Antarctica Seen from Space

Imagine standing high above planet Earth and looking down at the blue and white band of seas surrounding Antarctica.  You are looking at one of the most important features of the Earth’s surface.  The turning of the planet and strong westerly winds drive the cold deep waters of the Southern Ocean into the planet’s largest and most powerful current system, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).  The clockwise current isolates the frozen continent into its own self-replicating climate. Since there are no great land masses lying in the ring of open water at these latitudes, the ACC also forces waters from the ocean depths up to the surface.  This upwelling brings rich nutrients from the depths and causes immense blooms of phytoplankton (which in turn nurture life throughout all the world-ocean).  Additionally the current stirs the circulation of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

The ACC has been known to sailors for centuries.  A sailing ship can travel west along the current with great speed (if the sailors have the bravery and stamina to confront the fierce winds of “the roaring forties”).   The “clipper route” was the fastest sailing route around the world, but it was dangerous.  The three great capes (Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Leeuwin) all claimed innumerable lives as did wind, ice, and storm.  Today the clipper route has been abandoned as self-powered ships bring their cargoes of plastic junk straight across the ocean from China (and then cut across the Panama Canal) but sailing enthusiasts still recognize the fastest way to ride the wind around the planet.  The major circumnavigation sailboat races all travel the clipper route.

“Roaring Forties” (Gordon Frickers, oil on canvas)

The true history and significance of the ACC vastly exceeds the paltry recent concerns of navigation and world trade.  Geologists estimate that the ACC current began spinning around 34 million years ago at the end of the Eocene epoch as Antarctica split from Australia and drifted further south.  Back when Antarctica and Australia were still connected, the great amalgamated continent was a place where cold southern water and chill weather mixed together with tropical warmth—thus causing the whole planet to warm up.  However when Antarctica broke away and drifted south, it started a series of climate feedback loops.  The oceans around the continent began to freeze and ice started to build up on the mountains.  An entire continental ecosystem began to change in the cold.  The tropical forests (which had been filled with strange marsupials) began to die and become tundra.  As the Oligocene progressed and Drake’s Passage widened, the rivers–once filled with catfish–turned to ice.  The landmasses of Antarctica became crushed down under immense glaciers.  Antarctica died in the cold.  By 15 million years ago it became as it is now–home to only tardigrades, lichen, and a handful of visiting birds and seals.

The Transantarctic Mountains (photo by John Goodge)

Even now the Antarctic Circumpolar Current still isolates the continent from the warmth of the rest of the world.  Yet through upwelling of iron and other nutrients, the current bolsters an immense fecundity of phytoplankton–the great primary producer of the ocean.  Masses of copepods and krill feed on the algae and the diatoms and they in turn are eaten by fish, mollusks, mammals, birds, filter feeders…everything.  The great southern oceans are among the most diverse and strange habitats for living things.  It is there that the largest mollusk on the planet is found—which is the subject of an upcoming post.

The Eocene (Illustration by Bob Hynes for the Smithsonian Institution)

The Eocene epoch (which lasted from 56 million ago to 34 million years ago) was hot!  Temperate forests ran all the way to the poles.  Steamy tropical jungles grew in the latitude where Maine is now and the equatorial regions of earth were (probably) sweltering. Tropical reefs formed in the coastal waters around a heavily forested and ice-free Antarctica. Since there was not year-round ice at each pole, the sea levels were much higher.

A Global Map of the Early Eocene (map by Dr. Ron Blakey)

The Eocene was a time when most of the contemporary mammalian orders first appeared.  The earliest artiodactyls, perissodactyls, rodents, bats, probiscideans, sirenians, and primates all originated during this time.  Of course mammals were not the only story: the Eocene was also a time of great diversification for birds and many familiar orders of avians developed then.  Reptiles begin to put the setbacks which marked the end of the Cretaceous behind them and several giant new species emerged including an immense tropical ur-python and a host of crocodiles and turtles. It is harrowing to think that the first wee dawn horses and cute little early atiodactyls were forced to contend with a 13 meter long super snakes and giant crocodilians (which flourished in the great hot swamps of Alaska), but such is the case.

Titanboa with Ancient Crocodilian (painting by Jason Bourque)

The high temperatures of the Eocene are perplexing to scientists.  By contrast, the temperatures of the Paleocene (which was the first era of the Cenezoic and had directly preceded the Eocene) were much more temperate. In fact the temperature spike of 56 million years ago seems to have ended the Paleocene and brought about the diversification of Eocene life.  The rapid warming is known as the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum and scientists have been vigorously debating what caused the climate change.  An immense amount of carbon seems to have entered the atmosphere at this time, which in turn led to greenhouse warming.  It remains controversial as to how such a large quantity of carbon got into the atmosphere.  Comet/meteorite impact, massive peat fires, and volcanic activity have been suggested as triggers, however supporting evidence is lacking.  The release of globally significant quantities of hydrocarbons–which had been trapped in undersea clathrates seems like a more feasible hypothesis, as does the idea that the earth’s orbit brought the planet closer to the sun for a time.

Phenacodus, a goat-sized grazer of the Eocene era (painting by Heinrich Harder)

The end of the Eocene was also linked to the carbon cycle.  Reduced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seems to have led to global cooling and newly evolved varieties of grasses began to invade large swaths of the world.  Additionally two massive meteor strikes in Siberia and Maryland combined with substantial volcanic activity to finish off the long hot summer. But during the Oligocene, the era which followed the Eocene, the world was a much more familiar place inhabited by orders of animals which are still here with us today (or are us–since primates first evolved during the Eocene).

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia (photo from grandpoohbah.net)

Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand.  It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.

The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.”  A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch.  Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.

The shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen (photo by Michael Poliza)

The desert is ancient.  For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that.  West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.

The Namib Desert photographed from The Space Shuttle Columbia

Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.

The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world).  Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc.  Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).

The Navachab Open Pit Gold Mine, Erongo Region, Namibia

Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation?  The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters).  Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.

Hint: It's not the mighty African Elephant (one of my favorite creatures), but strangely enough african elephants do live in Namibia.

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