Category Archives: Anthropocene

Not Just Ice Cores, Here Is A Dead Sea Salt Core

Under the Dead Sea, warnings of dire drought jumped right at me off the Phys page.

Dead Sea Salt Core

Dead Sea Salt Core: below the seabed, drilling revealed thick layers of salt, precipitated out during past warm, dry periods. In this specimen, transparent crystals (left) formed on what was then the bottom during winter; finer white ones (right) formed on the water surface in summer and later sank. Credit: Yael Kiro/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The salt core was drilled in 2010 and is now receiving renewed, deeper scrutiny. During interstadial periods the Mideast becomes drier, so much so that inflows of fresh water into the Dead Sea largely stop. We’re not that dry yet, but human use of the Jordan River has effectively accomplished the same thing.

Jordan is developing the Disi aquifer and there is a Red to Dead canal planned.  The Saudis have long tapped that water for local agriculture in a foolhardy bid for food security that runs counter to the natural resources they have at their command. Jordan is engaged in a rear guard action for land that will inevitably become desiccated.

 

This triptych gives as sense of the progression of events in the Dead Sea. The south of the sea is shallow and has been steadily overtaken by human construction. Current practices involve the annual removal of two million tons of potash (potassium chloride) and other salts. You should recognize potash as a precursor for one of the three key plant fertilizers, potassium. It is the least concern of the three in terms of being a Liebig Minimum.

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

 

Bodies of water in the area drain and fill naturally as a consequence of Earth’s glacial cycles. There is a somewhat controversial theory, the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis, that is thought to be an explanation of the origin of various great flood myths in the region.

The Mediterranean Sea has experienced similar events – the Messinian Salinity Crisis and the Zanclean Flood that restored the sea to its current condition. There are cores from both the Black and Mediterranean seas, but they do not receive the same level of attention that ice cores do.

Four and a half years ago I published Why Gaza Is Screwed, a review of the water supply issues faced there. This is a ticking bomb for foreign policy, a pool of 1.6 million climate refugees just waiting to happen. The entire arc from West Africa to the Indus river valley faces this problem.

 

North of the Dead Sea is the Sea of Galilee, home to the Ohalo archeological site, which was occupied 8,000 years before North America’s Blackwater Draw. Humans hunted, gathered, and apparently performed early experiments with agriculture, inhabiting the site for a few generation before a fire of unknown origin leveled the simple huts. This site was revealed thanks to an epic drought in the late 20th century.

The Denisovans and Neanderthals were already gone except for their imprint on our genetics when that site was inhabited. Humans are now so pervasive and mobile that it will be difficult to track anything based on  genetics, but the Anthropocene is going to feature a massive cull of our species. What comes next? Maybe homo futurae, two thirds of our average height today, so they’ll tolerate the heat, digging into our species’ massive middens a hundred thousand years from now, wondering why we weren’t better at understanding our place in the web of life.

Last Of The Laurentide

The last of the six ice ages Earth experienced is the Quarternary, lasting the prior 2.58 million years. Understand what an ice age is – a period in which the poles have ice caps, not a period when we see glaciers in temperate latitudes. Those are stadials, and the last time we had those glaciers was during the Younger Dryas, which ended about 12,000 years ago. One of the periodic ice sheets in North America was the Laurentide.

And researchers have found the last of the Laurentide, that solid white spot in the middle of Baffin Island is the Barnes Ice Cap.

Baffin Island

Baffin Island

This five hundred meter thick sheet has just three centuries left at our current 400 ppm of CO2.

I wonder if that last little patch of ice will be a redoubt for reindeer or polar bear/grizzly hybrids, the way Wrangel Island was for the mammoths. That’s ten generations in our future, but it’s the blink of an eye in geological terms.

I don’t know that a Barnes Ice Cap core will be joining the others in the ice core vault at Antarctica’s Concordia Station, but it seems quite likely.

There are a variety of markers that are cited as the start of the Anthropocene, often the radionuclides from the Trinity test in 1945 being the first solid entry in the geological record. The lost of this last bit of the Laurentide will surely be an important milestone in the early centuries of this fearsome new age.

 

 

First A Seed Vault, Now Ice Cores

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a sort of Noah’s ark for plants, seeds from 300 species are preserved there in the event that we have some sort of global issue that threatens our food supply.

I just learned there is a similar storage facility for ice cores at the French-Italian base at Concordia.

Concordia Station

Concordia Station

Concordia Station Map

Concordia Station Map

The program started in 2015 at Grenoble and it aims to provide durable storage for ice cores even if a worst case 10C of warming hits.

There will be cores from the ice sheets, massive records spanning up to 900,000 years. The mountain glacier cores are shorter, just 100m to 150m, and they should be more numerous than the more demanding to obtain ice sheet cores. Each provides local climate history insight, including both gas bubbles and particulates.

Preserving the seed stock is a simple, easily understandable move. The motivation for keeping the ice cores in the face of unstoppable warming requires a little more thought. Maybe one day soon Mother Nature will utterly crush climate change denialism and we’ll suddenly have need of what those cores can reveal.

I remember another time when humans collected ice for snowballs, laughing and playing, each of them not understanding that they had reached a point of no return.

Titanic Sinking

Titanic Sinking

 

Exploring @darkmtn & Associates

Whenever I take an interest in a new group, like The Dark Mountain Project,  I examine their social network. Starting with the team page I found eight core members on Twitter.

Dark Mountain Core Members

Dark Mountain Core Members

And 811 of the people they follow.

Dark Mountain Core's 819 Follows

Dark Mountain Core’s 819 Follows

Who is mentioned is often more interesting than who is followed; this data represents activity, and it’s timestamped if we want to focus on a particular temporal window.

2933 Mentions By Dark Mountain Core

2933 Mentions By Dark Mountain Core

Dark Mountain Core & 128 Mentions

Dark Mountain Core & 128 Mentions

Dialing back to just accounts mentioned by three or more of the eight led to a quite manageable set of 128 mentions, which I then manually trimmed, removing media figures and news sources. We’ll hunting for interesting humans here, not entities they criticize. After a little manual work there are 112 accounts mentioned by the core members that seem worthy of manual examination.

112 Top Mentions

112 Top Mentions

And then one last click, viewing only accounts mentioned by at least four of the eight core members leaves us with this:

38 Top Mentions

38 Top Mentions

I already recognize @aeonmag as a source of insightful, provocative writing, but the rest of these are wholly new to me.

And I’m a bit worried to start reading … because this feels like the beginning of my foray into peak oil and energy policy a decade ago. There were months of despondence and depression, even when I saw a potential path out of it. This … this is a full on acceptance of a worst case estimate of what the Anthropocene means … and I think we’ve made our own slow motion Toba.

Liebig’s Red Line

I often see articles with inter-generational time spans and predictions that make no sense. The idea of nearly ten billion of us living on this little rock come 2050 is based on linear predictions of things that are already becoming non-linear. See Functional Triage for more thinking on this.

Our society has bumped into Liebig’s Law of the Minimum twice in the last two hundred years, as I first described in Dead Gods Of Atacama eight years ago. These two collisions in which we hit the upper limit of the least common basic plant nutrient, biologically available nitrogen, were resolved by first finding a fossil source, and then later by developing a process that trades fossil fuel for ammonia and follow on compounds.

Biological Liebig minimums put a cap on our population size. If we keep making biologically available nitrogen using fossil fuel, which currently contributes 1.5% of our total carbon dioxide, as well as a poorly characterized share of very potent nitrogen based greenhouse gases, we’ll find the limits are more to do with water and growing degree days. Corn wants moist soil and 86F days. Productivity declines when it’s hotter and all but ceases around 100F. This has grim implications for sub-Saharan Africa.

 

While originally developed in the context of biological systems, Liebig’s Law applies to technical systems as well. The same hopeful view on population also appears in connection with America’s automobile habit. “We’ll just be driving electrical cars.” This statement supports a future most Americans can visualize, but it’s not accurate. There simply isn’t enough lead, lithium, or other battery components to support a straight across switch, even if we could make the needed electricity.

This article on Phys.org explains without descending into breathless warnings. There is a bound on our clean energy future thanks to the availability of key minerals. Even if we accept that we’re not all going to drive Tesla sedans, the constraints are tighter than that.

Research team warns of mineral supply constraints as demand increases for green technologies .

The same may be true for technology metals that could become essential in green technologies—like neodymium, terbium or iridium. These minerals are only needed in small quantities, but they are indispensable to making the technology work, meaning that while the scale seems small, the value is immense.

And that is the very soul of a Liebig Minimum in a single paragraph.

What happened in Somalia, what is happening in Syria, what NATO triggered in Libya, what has just begun in Yemen, these are the new normal. Overpopulated, arid places will be the first to fail. Egypt erupted in 2011, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are ticking bombs. When these oil producers are unable to escape what engulfed their smaller neighbors, we may finally turn to the renewable energy path we ought to have taken at a variety of inflection points over the last fifty years.

 

When we finally, inevitably do make that course correction, we’re going to discover that there isn’t enough to go around. Our population overshoot, rising from one billion circa 1800 when we began working the Atacama’s fossil nitrate deposits, to the seven billion today, rides on the back of our temporary conquest of this biological minimum, but there are technical minima required to turn Trinidad’s natural gas into American corn and wheat.  Peak oilers liked to talk about “getting back to our solar maximum”. What that solar maximum looks like is going to be heavily modulated by how much of the sun’s energy we capture and in what form.

A purely biological capture system looks like the world circa 1800, while a mindful use of mineral resources might leave us with a 20th century standard of living. Nobody has modeled this, really, because it’s too complex, and because those with the power to change course lack the political will to even make a clear eyed examination of our prospects.

There are a spectrum of potential outcomes for the Anthropocene, ranging from relatively cold, isolated, culturally homogenous Japan as the last bastion of our developed culture, to a genetic bottleneck for our species that finally pinches out on Wrangel Island or some other Arctic redoubt. Even the best outcome is a hard future to swallow from the perspective of someone born at America’s peak and inspired by the hopeful techno cornucopia  of Star Trek seen against the backdrop of our first shuttle flights.

Abandoned Buran Shuttle

Abandoned Buran Shuttle

Functional Triage

If you’re going to read this post, you’ll need to discard some dichotomies:

  • Democrat vs. Republican
  • Left vs. Right
  • Rich vs. Poor

Those are the common divisors used to define political polarization. Let’s get under that, let’s turn the clock back ten years, to when peak oil discussions were themselves peaking. Let’s instead consider some inescapable drivers in the world today:

  • climate change
  • peak oil predicted effects, oil/food bilateral trade
  • financial system breakdown due to conceptual error

One of the key concepts that used to come up was triage. I have argued before that we’re in a massive population overshoot, see Dead Gods Of Atacama. We’ve had two centuries of overshoot, fueled first by fossil nitrates in the Atacama Desert, and then by the Haber-Bosch process. Thanks to our oil economy we can move goods … like food … globally. But what happens where there isn’t enough to go around? Or when there are places that simply aren’t going to be habitable?

2016 Fragile States

2016 Fragile States

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. But if you’re in a half loaded lifeboat a thousand yards away from the Titanic, you keep rowing the other way, because there aren’t enough life boats and you’ll be swamped if you try to fill your remaining seats. That might sound cruel, but it’s precisely what happened back in 1912 and I think that maybe we’re doing this to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula now.

I’ve worried over Yemen for a long time, in particular their food/water security issues. Things came to a head in 2016 and the dynamic is very different than Syria. Where are those people going to go? Saudi Arabia’s border isn’t porous like Iraq, Lebanon, or Turkey. They can’t very well motor through the Suez like Syrians crossing the 10km to Lesbos. Yemen is a famine trap today the way Somalia was twenty five years ago, with the added excitement of being a Shia/Sunni conflict.

 

There were conversations about an end to American democracy, with a development oriented authoritarian government evolving from our current system. I thought this was likely but expected it to be environmental oriented populism, not this race and religion mess that has emerged. Trump is talking about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. That’s silly, based on what we know about our special relationship with Mexico – the unprecedented cyclical migration of labor has few parallels.

But what happens over the long haul? Mexico is agriculturally rich … for the moment. What does another 50ppm of CO2 do?  Will our southern border look like the interface between Syria and Turkey? Perhaps.

 

We are in a post-factual world with Trump in office, but these underlying forces are inescapable. We might have a superstitious world view – the denial of climate change – but the race based politics are having the same effect as a clear eyed triage would. Don’t imagine for a minute that it pleases me to notice this, or to report that this is the case, it is what it is.

Mammoths & Mankind

Mammoth Distribution

Mammoth Distribution

 

Climatic suitability for the woolly mammoths in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene. Increasing intensities of red represent increasing suitability of the climate and increasing intensities of green represent decreasing suitability. Black points are the records of mammoth presence for each of the periods. Black lines represent the northern limit of modern humans and black dotted lines indicate uncertainty in the limit of modern humans

 

This was lifted from the Mammoth Steppe Wikipedia article. This is an example of a dramatic historical environmental change. What might happen in the future?

This is the world today, what I think the world might look like in 3000 AD when the Greenland ice sheet has almost entirely drained, and a population distribution map.

Earth Today

Earth Today

Earth With 7m Sea Rise

Earth With 7m Sea Rise

Earth Population Distribution

Earth Population Distribution

The pink areas have more than 500 people per square kilometer and purple spaces have between 100 and 500 people per square kilometer. More details can be found here.

That’s a bit hard to parse, but what will happen is the loss of Bangladesh (1100 people/sq km), the Mekong delta, the Indus delta, Shanghai, Singapore, everywhere that we live in large numbers. Americans might have an easier time with this map.

California 3000 AD

California 3000 AD

 

Yesterday in What HAVE We Done I speculated that we’ve caused a serious, unappreciated global geochemical change by mass production of synthetic ammonia. The sea level information I just presented isn’t an IF, it’s a HOW SOON. The mammoths lost their historic range over less than 40,000 years and they perished 4,000 years ago.

Things are going to change much more quickly for us. This planet has ‘breathed’ carbon dioxide between 180ppm and 280ppm in 100,000 year cycles for the entire Quarternary. We’ve moved the needle 100ppm in  just ten generations. This lunge outside the norms under which our species evolved will have dramatic consequences. A feature of the Anthropocene age will be dramatically fewer humans. Perhaps we’re going to end up like Homo Floresiensis, and I wonder who our successors will be, if hominids survive our namesake geological age at all.