Tipping Points

Our earth is located in what scientists term the “Goldilocks Zone” because it is “just right.”  If we were not located exactly where we are in the solar system and in the galaxy and in the universe, we probably would not exist.  Extremophiles probably live in hostile environments throughout the universe, but mesophiles, like our species, need a stable and moderate habitat or they cannot survive.

There have been mass extinctions throughout the life of our planet with the Permian extinction having the distinction of killing off the most – about 90% of the species on earth at that time.  Some scientists are concerned that we may be on the brink of a sixth major extinction since plants and animals are dying off anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times faster than they did before humans came on the scene. 

Scientists at Duke University completed a study, published May 29, 2014, in the journal Science, that measured the rate at which species are disappearing from earth.  In 1995, the researchers found that the pre-human rate of extinctions was roughly 1. Now, that rate is about 100 to 1,000.

Stuart Pimm, the study’s lead author, said habitat loss is mostly to blame for the increasing death rates.  As humans continue to alter and destroy more land, animals and plants are increasingly being displaced from their natural habitats.  Climate change is also a factor, he added.

So, with the balancing point of nature being “just right” on our planet, it probably does not take much to tip the balancing scales to one side or the other, which will have devastating effects to those species which cannot adapt in time.

There are many potential tipping points on our planet:  (1) climate change, (2) ocean currents, (3) frozen methane, (4) buried black carbon, (5) permafrost and glacier melt, (6) hydrological cycle, (7) reduced sea ice, (8) draught, (9) bacteria resistant to penicillin, (10) proximity of sun, (11) proximity of moon, (12) volcanic activity, (13) pestilence, (14) movement of asteroid belt, and (15) other things that we may not even see coming, such as black energy and black holes.    

Although global warming focuses on greenhouse gas as the culprit, there are other more significant sources of carbon that would be more dangerous tipping points that would contribute to major climate change that might lead to mass extinctions.  These sources of carbon are black carbon buried in soil, methane frozen in water, and volcanic eruptions.  In fact, the Permian extinction may have been caused by all three of these releases of carbon. 

The most devastating of the three releases may be methane, which has an exponential impact.  As the climate warms, more methane is released.  As more methane is released, it causes our temperatures to go up higher than they would with releases of carbon dioxide.  This melts more methane, causing even higher temperatures with a tipping point being reached with runaway releases like in the Permian period.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, have found that there is black carbon only about six and a half meters below the surface in Kansas, Nebraska, and other parts of the Great Plains where ancient soils are filled with black carbon and plants that have not yet fully decomposed.  These carbon stores could be released into the environment via erosion, road construction, mining, or deforestation.

Erika Marín-Spiotta, a professor at UW-Madison and a coauthor of the study, which was published earlier this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, stated, “It was assumed that there was little carbon in deeper soil.”  Since most soil studies do not penetrate deeper than 30 centimeters, scientists had dramatically underestimated underground carbon reserves that could be released into the air.

Erika explained that carbon reservoirs in buried soils can lurk in a range of environments—under dust accumulation, in floodplains, in valleys, at the foot of slopes of hills and mountains and under lava flows.  She said they are likely to occur in many other parts of the world.

Marín-Spiotta said as much as 5.95 trillion pounds of carbon could be lurking in the depths of the Great Plains area her team looked at.  That’s assuming the ancient soil forms a continuous layer across the region; the researchers were only able to collect measurements from specific points and don’t really know what portion of the region contains the carbon-rich soil.

This giant carbon bomb could be released over the next few decades as we clear cut more forests and see more erosion in draught-prone areas.  We have already seen recent exposure to the atmosphere.  But for the subterranean reserves, Marín-Spiotta believes a number of factors are at work, including how much carbon there really is, how much has persisted since it was buried, and what kind of carbon is down there.

Though Marín-Spiotta says the buried reserves carbon don’t pose an immediate risk to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but land managers need to take precautions, since the researchers found that the ancient soils are more reactive than was previously understood.

As with all tipping points, there can be multiple contributors to the final point of no return.  And these contributors can have exponential effects on each other.  We probably will not know when we have reached the tipping point, but our ancestors will not only know when that tipping point had been reached, but will also suffer the consequences.

Weather or Not, There Are Climate Changes

Some scientists argue that climate changes occur in cycles, not necessarily the result of temporal weather patterns.  For example, we had a series of vicious winter storms that struck the eastern United States in 2013-14.  On one day, all fifty states had snow.  This weather is not indicative of a climate change, by itself.  It may have been an anomaly.  So you may have bitter cold weather patterns interspersed during a warming climate change.

However, there may have been some interesting reasons for the unusually cold winter.  Typically, a Polar Vortex circling in Canada and the Arctic area, keeps frigid air north of the United States, but when there are unusual warming trends in the climate, this could disrupt the Polar Vortex, breaking it down, allowing cold air to drop into the deep southern states.

Many scientists now believe that man’s burning of fossil fuels has triggered a climate change that may be locked in and cannot be reversed.  Once the climate is tipped into a new direction, there are forces that not only continue down that path, but many times can accelerate it.  For example, the drought conditions in the southwest create more forest and grass fires, which, in turn, cause more soot to carry to the poles, causing “dark ice,” which causes accelerated melting of the ice. 

As the air and oceans warm, the most dangerous consequence awaits us in the cold depths of the ocean.  Methane ice is frozen at great depths, but it only takes a few degrees of warming of the ocean to trigger the thawing of the methane gas, which would create a global warming scenario hundreds of times worse than what man can cause with fossil fuels.  This warming of methane in the oceans may have been what caused the Permian extinction.  Once the blanket of methane covered the earth’s atmosphere, we would move quickly into a Global Winter for decades with most plants and animals dying off.

The new normal with our climate will be its extremes and unpredictability.  We will have more intense storms, more mega droughts, more ice storms, more tornadoes, more hurricanes, more flooding, more fires, more snow… more extremes in weather.

The Arctic has been our bellwether for climate changes, and it clearly points to climate change that is here to stay.  The ice is melting at a rapid rate.  Greenland is losing 300 billion tons of ice each year.  The Inuit hunters are not finding wildlife along the ice pack near their home because the ice edge is moving further north away from them, causing the walrus and seal population to move north too.

There is a theory that the ocean currents are being impacted by the new climate change, so that normal warming from equatorial waters, being carried north and south, is also being interrupted.  This disruption of warming currents and the methane melt could combine to cause our world to go into a deep freeze.  It sounds strange, but global warming may actually be the trigger for the next ice age.

Global Warming

Global warming has been a tennis ball bashed back and forth by both liberals and conservatives.  And as usual, they are both wrong.  Or perhaps, I should be sensitive and say that they both are partly correct.  But indicating that they are both partly correct is dangerous because the public has a tendency to forget the word “partly” and only hear “correct.”

Global warming may be a misnomer.  The initial warming probably will turn into global freezing.  As the ocean currents which maintain a worldwide equilibrium are interrupted by global warming, the temperatures become colder.  So the liberals are incorrect.

But the conservatives do not tell the truth either.  The increases in carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide have definitely had an adverse impact on our environment.  However, if you examine the earth’s history, volcanic activity has pumped out a devastating amount of these elements that has made much more of an impact on climate and our environment than manmade emissions. 

The real question is what is the elephant in the environment that nobody is talking about?  The big ticket item is methane ice located at the bottom of our oceans.  When the seas warm, this methane is released into our atmosphere.  Methane is much more hazardous to our environment.  Within a short period of time, it could reflect the sun’s rays, blocking our life support system.  Earth could become a frozen planet.   This may have been what happened during the Permian extinction when so many species were wiped out.

The global warming could be a triggering event that warms the seas to such an extent that the methane ice starts melting; however, that does not seem to be happening.  As the polar ice has melted, the ocean’s temperature has not dropped significantly.  But global warming could be disrupting the major ocean streams, which regulate the temperatures throughout the world.  This may create climate changes, causing more drought and violent storms.  Some areas may become deserts while others may be flooded. 

It is not likely that the global warming described by both liberals and conservatives will be our reality.  Global warming will more than likely lead to colder temperatures, which is different than what both left and right wingers are saying.  The more accurate prediction is that we will be exposed to more violent climate changes, which could significantly impact our lives, but probably will not lead to global extinctions.

However, that being said, it is possible that the climate changes might cause a shifting in the tectonic plates as the weight of ice is lifted at the poles and redistributed as the weight of water elsewhere on the planet.  Tectonic activity can result in an increase in volcanism, which could lead to runaway global warming which could easily trigger the melting of methane ice.  Now, that could lead to global mass extinctions.