Notes from a warming world

Temperature Gauge

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The Geological Society of London is the oldest association of Earth scientists in the world. Its members, as author Mike Davis reports in Rachel’s Democracy & Health News, spend a good deal of time dividing the planet’s history into different eons, eras, and epochs marked by mass extinctions and atmospheric chemistry. Sometimes the classifications are hotly contested. For example, in the 19th century, society members fought “the Great Devonian Controversy” over competing interpretations of geological strata in Wales and England. More recently, the society struggled with how to demarcate the ice age oscillations of the last 2.8 million years.

But when it comes to one important question – “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” – the society’s quarrelsome geologists are unanimous. The answer, according to a recent survey of members, is yes.

The society’s members agree that the buildup of greenhouse gases and the human transformation of the landscape have led to an “interval without close parallel in the last several million years.” The society warns that this new age exhibits a “combination of extinctions, global species migrations, and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocrops. … These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks.”

Or, put another way: Humanity has pushed Earth’s evolution in an entirely new direction.

Pickens Picks Wind

photo of Tycoon T. Boone Pickens says the next oil boom
is up in the air.

The biography of Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens is like something out of the film There Will Be Blood. In the 1980s, Pickens’ Mesa Petroleum earned a reputation as a no-holds-barred master of the corporate takeover, targeting oil companies many times its size. Pickens’s large holdings in ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum, among other companies, make him one of the richest people in the US.

But – as if trying to prove wrong F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dubious claim that there are no second acts in American lives – Pickens is now throwing his money and influence in an entirely new direction and refashioning himself as a champion of renewable energy. “I used to be an oilman,” he recently announced. “And now I’m not.”

Concerned about the impending prospect of peak oil (“I do believe we have peaked out at 85 million barrels a day globally,” he told a Senate committee), Pickens is making massing investments in wind power. He has poured some $2 billion into the Pampa Wind Project, a giant wind farm in the Texas Panhandle that will be the world’s largest when completed in 2014. At the same time, he is launching a media and advocacy campaign, “The Pickens Plan,” to convince government leaders to invest $1 trillion dollars in creating a clean energy infrastructure.

Pickens’s conversion has impressed many leading environmentalists; Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope says he “will be in the front row of the chorus, cheering.” But greens have some reason to be skeptical. Under The Pickens Plan, the natural gas supplanted by wind energy will be used to … power our automobiles.

Acid Bath

When power plants and automobiles pump out CO2, most of it goes straight into the atmosphere. But about one-third is absorbed by the planet’s oceans.

The oceans’ daily absorption of some 22 million tons of CO2 is steadily changing the chemistry of seawater and causing the oceans to become more acidic. For years, scientists believed most of the acidification was occurring in the deepest waters. But a new study reveals that acidic waters are moving into shallow areas and are eating away at the shells and skeletons of starfish, coral, and clams.

“This means that ocean acidification may be seriously impacting our marine life on our continental shelf right now, today,” says Richard Feely of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

Look Out Below

In addition to the long-term threat of a steadily acidifying ocean, sea creatures are facing a more immediate danger from climate change: falling icebergs.

Marine species in Antarctica are taking a pounding from the increasing amount of icebergs that are breaking off the continent as warmer temperatures melt the ice. Shallow water-dwelling creatures such as giant sea spiders, sea urchins, and corals face new risks as icebergs tear up the ocean floor.

“The whole balance of the ecosystem could be affected, with consequences that are very difficult to predict,” says Dan Smale, a researcher at Cambridge.

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