Oceans of Acid

21 11 2009

Here’s  a nice article from Australia’s Cosmos magazine.  It’s nominated for an Earth journalism award.  You can vote for it here.

Oceans of acid

Pickrell, John
Cosmos Magazine (2009-02-06)
Read the original report (online, press)


As global warming wreaks havoc on coral reefs, evidence is mounting that another problem caused by carbon dioxide is an even bigger threat. But is it too late to fix?

It’s six o’clock on a Sunday morning and I’m sitting on Queensland’s Four Mile Beach. There’s still a night chill to the air. Though the light is dim, a red glow is building on the horizon as the Sun is about to emerge from beyond the Pacific Ocean.

I’m playing with the sand between my toes and fiddling with a small piece of coral rubbed smooth by the tide.

I’ve spent the preceding few days out on an Australian government marine survey vessel snaking its way along the Great Barrier Reef. The trip has given me a lot to think about, both good and bad, and this morning I’m mulling over everything I’ve experienced.

In late July, the CSIRO invited me to join a team of 14 scientists, led by oceanographer Bronte Tilbrook and climate modeller Richard Matear, as they collected data to predict the future health of the reef.

The issue on their agenda is ocean acidification, commonly referred to by those in the know as “the other CO2 problem” – separate, but linked to climate change. Though acidification has had a lot less press, there is mounting evidence to suggest that it will be a bigger problem for marine life than the warming of the oceans themselves.

Our waste carbon dioxide (CO2) is mostly maligned for causing climate change as it builds up in the atmosphere, trapping heat, but for the past 200 years it’s also been quietly dissolving into the oceans, slowly making them more acidic.

Continued here.


If its bad for devils, then what about us?

24 01 2008

It turns out that dead Tasmanian devils are showing high concentrations of flame retardants in their tissues.  Its a reminder for us that contrary to notions of pollution being pleasantly diluted in the natural world, sometimes toxins (especially fat soluble ones) become concentrated up the food chain. That means that predators like Tasmanian Devils and….well….us…..can be especially at risk.  Australia has five times the concentrations of these particular nasties in our blood as Japanese or Europeans.

This article here reports on worrying levels in human breast milk.  Kids under 4 years have particularly high levels. Also a reminder that although we know a lot about very short term, high levels of exposure to organic toxins, we know next to nothing about long term, more moderate exposure to such pollutants. Can we blame male infertility, neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmune diseases and rapidly escalating cancer rates on pollution? For the most part, we can’t say just yet. The complexity and expense of doing large, prospective studies on these things is quite extreme. So its unlikely we’ll find out any time soon.

A precautionary approach seems sensible. All of this makes me want to move away from petro-chemicals and towards organic processes and foods.

It will be a very sad day for our species when it is safer for babies to drink formula than to drink their own mother’s milk.

Growth versus green on Sydney’s fringes

16 12 2007

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

New housing developments on the outskirts of Sydney will not be subject to environmental laws that protect endangered plants and animals, in the latest move by the State Government to fast-track building in the north-western and south-western growth centres. The Government has assessed the environmental value of the two areas, where up to 181,000 homes will be built, at the regional planning stage rather than assessing threatened species on individual housing developments. At the same time, it has committed $530 million to protect 3800 hectares of native bush in Sydney’s west.

The decision has delighted developers, who say it will speed up planning decisions and make homes more affordable, but dismayed environmentalists, who see it as little more than government greenwash.

More here.


Dark satanic mills 2007 – Where our stuff comes from

27 06 2007

I can’t stop thinking about these images from Wired magazine. Photographer Ed Burtynsky has captured China’s industrial rise.

How sad are the pictures of single old tenament style houses, standing defiant while all around has been demolished and redeveloped with high rise.

..and meanwhile we slumbered

3 05 2007


Take a look at the following extracts from an article(1) from one of the most esteemed scientific journals – Nature. Many parts of it will sound fairly familiar.  The article is titled “West antarctic ice sheet and CO2 greenhouse effect: a threat of disaster”

 “……long been suspected, but only recently, as the implications of a continuation of the current near exponential growth of the industrial CO2 production have been realised, have many come to fear a disastrous climatic warming in the rather near future.  In a recent report on the climatic effects of energy production,  [omitted] et al. conclude that industrial civilization may soon have to decide whether or not to make the tremendous investment of capital and effort needed to change over from fossil fuels to other sources of energy.”

 and further in,

 “One warning sign that a dangerous warming is beginning in Antarctica will be the breakup of ice shelves in the Antarctic peninsula just south of the recent January 0 degree C isotherm;………….There is some evidence not yet conclusive, that such a southward recession of the ice shelf limit in the Antarctic Peninsula has already begun;…”

The article from which these extracts come was authored by J.H. Mercer from Ohio State University. 

The year of publication…….wait for it………1978.  Yep, before the  internet and mobile phones, before the PC or the Mac, before the space shuttle, cabbage patch kids or walkmans.

I set out wondering if I could shock myself looking for articles from the past…and I think I succeeded.   The truly scary thing is that I found a heap of articles on global warming in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Here’s some other happenings of 1978:

  • The World Health Organisation is formed.
  • The Bee Gees dominate music charts.
  • Jimmy Carter postpones development of the neutron bomb.
  • In Australia, the Hilton Hotal bomb is detonated.
  • Serial killer Ted Bundy is caught in the USA.
  • People born in that year like Audrey Tautou, Harry Kewel, Katie Holmes and Ben Lee are all just about to turn 30 yrs of age.

So why exactly did it take THREE DECADES to get this issue discussed around the BBQ?  I can’t say for sure.  Now, it’s true that there was still a high degree of uncertainty in 1978.  I’m not suggesting that the article’s predictions all hit the target.  But there was some significant concern in parts of the scientific literature and it beggars belief that we have been so careless and blind over this period.    My main point here is that we could have and should have acted earlier.  It is a misconception to think that this whole climate change thing has just come out of nowhere or is a passing fad-theory.

As for the predictions of antarctic peninsula ice sheets – the massive Larsen B ice sheet in this area broke up in 2002.

1.      Mercer, J.H. West antarctic ice sheet and CO2 greenhouse effect: a threat of diaster. Nature 1978; 271: 321-5

One planet, many people

2 04 2007

Atlas cover

There remain plenty of people who find it difficult to imagine humans having any appreciable impact on a planet the size of Earth.   Myself, I find analogies useful at times.  Particularly striking is the comparison that if the Earth were the size of a desktop globe, the atmosphere (as we commonly understand it) would be about the thickness of the layer of varnish on that globe (source: An inconvenient truth– Al Gore)

Another way of reminding ourselves of the impact we humans have had is through photography from the air or from space.  The United Nations Environment Program has produced a book entitled “One planet, many people: Atlas of our changing environment”.  Although the hardcover edition costs $150 US dollars, the UN has made the contents available (as jpegs and as powerpoint presentations) free on it’s website.  The images are characterised by “before and after” shots taken over thirty years from many parts of the planet.  The changes in geography are starkly evident.

The great aviation debate

24 02 2007

trailsThe daily transit argues that air travel offers huge benefits to society and that we should tackle automobiles before touching airlines.

The trouble is that air travel contributes disproportionately to global warming.  A trip from Amsterdam to Phuket for two people by air contributes more to atmospheric CO2 than driving a car for AN ENTIRE YEAR.

Air travel unequivocally needs to be brought within the carbon capping and trading mechanisms.  There is no reason for it to be specially privileged.  To do otherwise is to externalise the cost of flying onto the environment.

I cherish my international travel experieces like most others, but it is absurd to imagine that air travel can continue to grow EXPONENTIALLY into the foreseeable future as is currently the case.

Certainly there are social benefits to travel.  I wonder if there are social costs too.  Perhaps the more accessible a place becomes the more it becomes anywheresville.  Generica.  Easy to get to but not worth visiting.  It’s impossible to visit a place without changing it in some way.  Are we losing global cultural diversity as we all strive to be “cosmopolitan”?  Just a few thoughts.  For my two bobs worth – bring back the romance of train trips and sea-faring !!  Air travel is fun, but not if it costs the Earth.