Winter is Coming!

Nature is the law of balance in action. After fresh growth and longer days of light, plants and trees prepare for colder weather. Deciduous trees save the energy maintenance of keeping leaves alive which would otherwise have less photosynthesis in conditions of a light deficit. They withdraw nutrients and through the chemical reactions of sugars and tannins the leaves turn colour and fall. Metabolism slows and the roots become more dormant in the cold. This is actually a good time to plant a tree, as the tree has less demand for nutrients and water, and is less shocked by a new environment. 

Resilient Nature

While humans scramble for layers of clothing and turn on heating in their homes, trees stand naked in the chill,  with hardy specimens handling temperatures down to – 70 °C through the production of proteins that allows the space between cells to freeze, rather than the cells themselves. These temperature decreases are also good for killing pests and disease that would harm trees.

wild tree in cold weather, winter
Trees are well prepared to handle cold weather. However, they do struggle with sudden fluctuations.

Climate Change

With the increasingly unpredictable temperature fluctuations and the increase in milder winters in some parts of the world, trees have less time to adapt. This will result in the death of more species due to periods of extreme cold, as well as to pests and disease from milder winters. More adaptable trees and exotic species will also migrate to new areas, as new habitable regions appear for them. In years to come we will see there has been a large shift in species migration.

Hacking the Climate: Can Geoengineering Solve Climate Change?

As humans marvel at their prowess in producing electro-mechanical creations, along with advances in materials engineering and synthetic chemistry, it may seem logical to address the problem of Earth’s changing climate purely as a technological problem to be solved at the global level. This avenue of thinking is quietly growing due to the risks of politicians dawdling and carbon emissions continuing unabated.

This way of thinking is called geoengineering, which is to deliberately intervene at a large scale in the planet’s natural systems to counteract climate change. There are annual conferences, research programmes at Oxford University, funding by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and by billionaires, such as Bill Gates. Current research is to determine the feasibility of large scale intervention.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.

In 2009 the Royal Society published a report titled Geoengineering the Climate, and out of this grew research projects such as solar radiation management i.e. limiting how much sunlight the whole planet receives. One such project is called SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) which is a collaboration between the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford along with the MET Office and Marshall Aerospace. The idea is to release reflective aerosol particles into the atmosphere decreasing inbound radiation.  Other types of projects relate to carbon dioxide removal, such as seeding the oceans with iron to create phytoplankton blooms.

Injecting particles into the stratosphere in order to affect global temperatures.

Injecting particles into the stratosphere in order to affect global temperatures.

Last year the US National Academy of Sciences released a report saying fiddling with the global climate now would be “irrational and irresponsible”, however, this was due to our lack of scientific knowledge, and thus urged policy makers to commit to geoengineering research now so that should it become needed, when all other plans fail, it will be a more informed decision. These research groups have experienced scientists on board, complete with ethics committees. This all sounds like a worthy research cause…or does it?

Firstly, let’s look at some practical and ethical issues surrounding the research, and secondly, the underlying narrative behind this way of thinking.

  1. Distributional Consequences

Countries may seek to control inbound radiation affecting their own landmass, however models have shown this to be highly disruptive to the climate in other parts of the world. This likely means developing countries due to their lack of resources, and how does one prove country A caused the severe storm in country B? This thinking also applies with ocean fertilisation.

  1. Conducting Experiments

Due to the size of the planet, physical tests done in the laboratory or even in a city will be largely meaningless when it comes to predicting global effects. This means a reliance on computer models until initiating the experiment in full – which is extremely risky.

  1. Solving the Root Problem?

Even if effective aerosols are launched or iron particles seeded, the root cause of carbon emissions will still be continuing with all the same political problems, plus now a distorted climate. As Naomi Klein drily notes, it means solving the pollution problem…with more pollution.

Removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is the other proposed method of climate intervention, which the IPCC says is needed for most pathways towards a stable climate. One risky method already mentioned is ocean fertilisation, but others are more benign, for example carbon capture and storage, and expanding the use of bioenergy. Reforestation, while not a technology, is surely the most sensible of this type of intervention as it is beneficial to other life forms, while naturally absorbing carbon.

Reforestation makes the most sense.

Reforestation makes the most sense.

The thinking behind a large scale, technological, magic fix is not new. Its roots lie in religions’ portrayal of man’s dominion over Nature, patriarchal systems of thought, in our educational systems adherence to rationalism and materialism to the exclusion of intuitive appreciations of the natural world, and to centralised and decentralised economic systems that view Nature as a commodity, a thing to be used or controlled.  The difference is that now we have the technological capability to cause massive change, after all, one could argue that carbon emissions were an unconscious experiment in geoengineering.

A large failing behind some of these research ideas is an understanding of ecology and interdependence. Life on this planet does not depend upon one factor, and we cannot simply treat our species as a separate system from this delicate and intricate web of interaction. Life has evolved over 3.5 billions of years with a vast multitude of its own experiments and optimisations that we ourselves are part. To alter one parameter is to change all the rest.

The key problem is one of relationship. If we understood that solutions require working with Nature, rather than against, this type of thinking would not arise. Let us not force the hand that feeds us.

This article can be found also at SALT magazine.

world bubble

Natural Leadership Needed

With this year’s El Nino weather phenomenon gathering pace, potentially rivalling the 1997 intensity that left insurers wide-eyed, and data indicating July was Earth’s hottest month on record, combined with atmospheric CO2 concentrations now surpassing 400 ppm, it is clear leadership on our changing climate is needed.

El Nino weather phenomenon (Washington Post)

El Nino weather phenomenon (Washington Post)

Unfortunately there is a tendency with large problems that occasionally encroach on one’s daily life to be briefly pondered and then dismissed, not so much due to a lack of interest, but more to a sense of apathy and diminished sense of responsibility. After all, what can we as lone individuals do? In these situations it is best to take a step back and remember that what we have before us did not come about randomly, through a case of bad luck or divine punishment, but rather through what we created as a thinking species (we rarely forget to proclaim our rationality and ability to reflect in comparison to other species on this planet).

To quote systems theorist Ervin László, who inspired the above, “Today’s economic, social and technological environment is our own creation, and only the creativity of our mind – our culture, spirit and consciousness – could enable us to cope with it. Genuine creativity does not remain paralyzed when faced with unusual and unexpected problems but confronts them openly, without prejudice. Cultivating it is a precondition of finding our way toward a globally interconnected society in which individuals, enterprises, states, and the whole family of peoples and nations could live together peacefully, cooperatively, and with mutual benefit”.

Focus is needed on that phrase “confronts them openly, without prejudice”. All of us, as students, doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, teachers, bankers and writers, need to be honest with ourselves and each other and confront what is before us, whilst remembering that it is our inherent gift of creativity that allows us to forge a clearer path ahead. With currently more energy to be exchanged and dissipated over the planet, we can be sure that weather volatility will increase. While we can point fingers at governments or watch Obama being guided past vanishing glaciers by Bear Grylls, we must not forget our own responsibility to confront as well as to create.

Bear Grylls leading Obama around Alaskan glacier

Obama being guided around Alaskan glacier

In each of our days we are creating, yet we are not always conscious of this quiet power. In the stories we tell, the meals we make, the lessons we teach, the projects we design and the laws we write, we are all creating. If we shine our awareness towards this activity combined with the open confrontation of how we are affecting the planet, we will change the course of our somnambulistic spiral towards a path more in keeping with our natural surroundings.

China leads the world in emissions of CO2 (though not per capita), and the grey skies of Shanghai are a recurring scene from their reliance on coal. The media and government are not known for their transparency, yet it appears the leadership is aware of the problems they have created. Last year China spent $83bn on renewable energy, which is more than the US ($34bn) and Europe ($46bn) combined. From marginal power generation in renewables a decade ago, it now accounts for 25 % of their energy mix. There are naturally weaknesses of authoritarian capitalism, but what should be emphasised is their confrontation of the problem of their emissions and the ensuing creative process leading to action, rather than paralysis.

China's largest solar farm in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu, a 20 MW facility

China’s largest solar farm in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu, a 20 MW facility

As the cosmologist Brian Swimme notes, “With the appearance of the human, the coding process of life burst beyond the DNA molecule and began carving its information in stone”. What is argued here is for each of us to become more conscious of the ‘carving’ and to use that power and openly confront the carvings we have created before us. This will be natural leadership and will change the course of Earth’s current climate trajectory.

 

This article appeared in SALT magazine.

The Boreal Forest (Taiga)

Rainforests gain a lot of attention due to the amount and variety of species they support, but the world’s largest land-based biome is the Boreal Forest, aptly named after Boreas, the Greek God of the North wind. Also known as Taiga, from Russian, this concentration of trees covers much of Russia, most of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland and Norway,  coastal Iceland, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the U.S. and Japan representing 29 % of the world’s forest cover.

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Largely comprised of coniferous trees, this forest supports 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, 300 species of birds and approximately 32,000 species of insects. Life is hard here with temperatures ranging from -65 °F (-54 °C) to 86 °F (30 °C), low precipitation (200 – 750 mm/year), 50 – 120 frost free days per year and acidic, low nutrient soils.

Alaskan spruce

Alaskan spruce

Canadian wetland systems

Canadian wetland systems

The region also contains vast areas of wetland, bogs and fen, and the Canadian boreal region contains more rivers and lakes than any similar sized landmass in the world. Fire is a natural part of regeneration, and some trees like the lodgepole and jack pines have resin sealed cones which rely on fire to open and spread their seed.

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

This forest provides humans with enormous amounts of lumber and supports 1,400 communities in industrial activity. However, forestry practices are often still primitive in their approach, for example the practice of clearcutting in Canada removes most trees in an area only to be replanted as a monocrop (a singular species), which does not emulate a fire and is often followed by an increase in erosion.

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Deforestation and oil exploration along with the processing of tar sands pose significant threats, however, climate change is the main threat to this region. The boreal forests stores huge amounts of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, with much of it in the form of peat. The boreal zone of latitude has experienced some of the greatest increase in temperatures on Earth over the last 25 years, with greater relative increases in winter temperatures than those in summer. The release of carbon, mostly in the form of methane, greatly adds to a feedback cycle of warming.

pinebeetle

Attacks visible by the mountain pine beetle (Lorraine Maclauchlan)

Furthermore, the warmer winters lead to an increased survival of tree-damaging insects and recent years have seen forest destroying plagues of the spruce-bark beetle, the mountain pine beetle, the aspen leaf-miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm and spruce coneworm. In Siberia, the boreal forest is changing from predominantly deciduous larch trees to evergreen conifers; this is also likely to accelerate warming as evergreen trees absorb more of the sun’s rays. These signs indicate that serious change is already underfoot.

But this does not mean that we should bury our heads in the sand, or imagine our individual actions to be inconsequential.  Anthropomorphic warming of this planet is comprised of the activity of individuals and human minds. There may be perceptions of fear or paralysis in the comprehension of the enormity of the task required, but this is the time to act –  there is no other.