Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is science journalism of a high order. As with her earlier notable book on climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, she includes lively narrative accounts of her visits to places around the world where scientists are at work and communicates the import of their work with clarity and intelligence. Well-informed background discussions on the general topic of extinction are woven into these narratives, in passages well pitched to the understanding of the general reader. Foreboding though the subject may be the book is a pleasure to read.
The phenomenon of species extinction has only begun to be understood in relatively recent times. Kolbert traces the discussions of the 19th century from the ground-breaking conclusion of Cuvier to the doubting Lyell and finally Darwin, whose theory of evolution necessarily involved the disappearance as well as the emergence of species.
In evolutionary terms the mass extinctions of the distant past are a special case, arising from relatively sudden events for which natural selection over long periods of time had not prepared many of the species which disappeared under the stress of a rapidly changed environment. Kolbert comments on the fact that just as we have recovered the story of these past events and identified five of them we have discovered that we are causing another. Whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five is not yet known, but the indications are significant enough for it to be called the Sixth Extinction. She notes the estimation that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles , and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. It’s no small matter.
Continue reading “The Sixth Extinction”
Warsaw has seen a deluge of important climate-related information released — so much that it’s been difficult to keep up — but still not enough to steel negotiators to reach an equitable arrangement that gives us all a chance at a reasonable future climate. And at the same time, the planet has been sending signals that it’s not happy. The Pine Island glacier has finally calved the giant iceberg that first started to shown signs of cracking away from the ice stream a couple of years ago. Iceberg B-31 has been described as being the size of Singapore (about 700 km2), but isn’t likely to move far from Pine Island Bay in the near future. NASA Earth Observatory coverage here and here; see also Telegraph (UK) and Antarctic Sun.
The Global Carbon Project announced earlier this week that greenhouse gas emissions are projected to reach the highest level in human history this year — 36 billion tonnes. There are some encouraging signs that the rate of growth may be slowing, but nowhere near enough to enable the planet to avoid hitting a two degree rise in the first half of this century. There’s an excellent visualisation of national emissions at the Global Carbon Atlas (and at the Guardian). See also The Age, Think Progress. Continue reading “While they sleepwalk in Warsaw: icebergs calve, emissions climb, “pause” disappears”
Geoff Simmons and Gareth Morgan, with help from John McCrystal, have produced a book which one hopes will be read by many New Zealanders. Ice, Mice and Men: The Issues Facing our Far South not only carries illuminating scientific information about the islands and seas to our south and the Antarctic continent beyond them, but it communicates it in a relaxed and engaging style which should ensure a wide general readership. The more people understand what is happening in this vital region the better, and it’s easy to see this book adding to their number.
The opening section explains why the region is important, breaking it into three zones: first, the subantarctic islands, “liferafts” of the Southern Ocean; second, the Southern Ocean itself, home to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) and “the engine room of the global ocean and the world’s climate”; third, Antarctica, including the sea ice that surrounds it which helps drive the marine food chain and affects the transport of nutrients essential for marine life around the world. The section provides a detailed account of the function of the three zones not just in relation to each other but in crucial relation to the globe as a whole.
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â€œWe are committed to developing deepwater energy supplies offshore.â€ Those blunt words from the US Administration were put to oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Stephen Sackur late in a captivating BBC Hardtalk interview I watched a few days ago. What chance, he asked, did her message about the plight of the oceans stand in the face of the determination of governments to exploit the massive fossil fuel sources under the oceans?
Before giving her response Iâ€™ll briefly provide a little context. Sylvia Earle is a famed oceanographer who 40 years ago headed the first team of women so-called aquanauts in an underwater habitat programme.Â She was chief scientist at NOAA in the early nineties, has continued to be engaged in deep ocean exploration, was named Time magazineâ€™s first â€˜hero for the planetâ€™ in 1998 and received the 2009 TED Prize. Now in her mid-seventies she continues to be a strong advocate of marine reserves and ocean protection and exploration generally. Earlier in the Sackur interview sheâ€™d explained how the ocean dominates the way the world works and pointed out that most of life on earth, in terms of both volume and diversity, is in the ocean. Sheâ€™d outlined some of its importance for our own life. Imagine, she said, what changing the chemistry of the ocean might do.
Continue reading “Earle: everything in the oceans at risk”
With the terrible events in Japan uppermost in everyone’s mind, this week’s Climate Show goes nuclear, examining the prospects for the future of nuclear energy with Professor Barry Brook from the University of Adelaide. John Cook looks at what the tropical troposphere hot spot really means, and Gareth and Glenn look at mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, a record ozone hole over the Arctic, and review last winter’s climate numbers.
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Show notes below the fold.
Continue reading “The Climate Show #9: Barry Brook, hot spots and melting ice”