February 19, 2007

Climate Change Contest: Let the Ocean Absorb More Carbon

Living On Earth had a segment this week about Richard Branson's Virgin Earth Challenge where he's offered to give a $25 Million prize for the best idea for capturing the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to slow down global warming. So LOE went out to see what types of ideas would potentially be viable for this contest.

One of the ideas discussed looked at how the ocean could be better at soaking up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. John Latham of the National Center for Atmospheric Research proposes to cool the earth by increasing the droplets in low hanging clouds which would reflect more sunlight, allowing the planet to cool. This in turn would create a cooler ocean which could absorb more of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Nice idea, but I suspect that this solution would not necessarily work as he thinks it would. Today the oceans are soaking up an enormous amount of the carbon dioxide that we humans are putting in the atmosphere. As I noted last year, the warming of the oceans has led a decrease of phytoplankton. Latham believes that loss of phythoplankton can be mitigated by simply cooling the ocean.

However, is it really the warming of the ocean that is causing the decrease of phytoplankton in the ocean? Or is it the acidification of the ocean where the very chemistry of the ocean is changing because of the large amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed?

Last year, scientific studies confirmed that the acidification of oceans is truly changing the ocean environment to the detriment of all shelled creatures that rely on the calcuim carbonate to create their shells. As the ocean becomes more acidic, shelled creatures (including the phytoplankton and the coral reefs) will no longer be able to extract the calcium carbonate from the seas that they need to build their shells.

Therefore, simply reflecting a greater amount of the sunlight from the earth won't be sufficient for solving the greenhouse gas emissions problem. After all, the pollution we are emitting is also doing quite a bit in reflecting sunlight as it hits the atmosphere.

In fact, when James Lovelock declared last year that the earth had passed the tipping point, one of the things he pointed to was the fact that our polluted skies were keeping the full effect of our greenhouse gas emissions from being apparent. And he predicted that if civilization collapses and significantly less pollution is emitted, the cleaner air would speed up the heating of the atmosphere and the land.

The problem of global warming is very complex. Slowing the heating of the earth solves a piece of the problem. Perhaps the glaciers will not melt as fast, yet can humans really live on an earth where the oceans have lost 90% of the known species? As long as we are emitting greenhouse gas into our atmosphere which are then also absorbed into the oceans, we will continue to create an environment that will negatively impact the future for most life on earth.

The challenge of global climate change is not simply the most important problem we face, but it is also the most important problem humans have ever faced. It is unique in that it is a problem which requires enormous collaboration from everyone on earth (it is a SHARED problem) to solve. And it is one that requires a recognition that we are tinkering with an incredibly complex system. Fixing just one trigger will not be enough. We need to be thinking more expansively than humans have normally thought and we must be much more open and adaptive to data we encounter as we proceed. Solving the problem of global warming will take the utmost in human ingenuity as well as our capacity for empathy because there is no way this problem can be managed in isolation.

Posted by Mary at February 19, 2007 12:42 AM | Environment | Technorati links |
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