Image credit: National Weather Service

Clouds & Kelp: Two Sides Of The Struggle To Address Climate Change

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Climate change is happening. Average global temperatures have increased about 1.2°C since the start of the so-called Industrial Revolution. To many, that seems like an insignificant amount. Would we really suffer if the temperature in our living rooms went up a degree or two? What’s the big deal?

What we fail to understand is how delicate the balance of the Earth’s ecosystems really is and how small changes in temperature can lead to a cascade of consequences. Everything is connected. Contrails left by airplanes flying over the ocean really can lead to cloud formations that coalesce into major storm systems. That 1.2° rise — small as it may seem –has caused the polar ice caps to melt which leads to sea level rise. It has also contributed to more powerful storms and wildfires.

Climate scientists are hard at work trying to understand the intricacies of global climate patterns. Some are researching ways of reflecting some of the sunlight that strikes the Earth every day back into space to cool things down. Others are seeking ways to capture more of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to reduce the rise in average global temperatures.

Cloud Research

Clouds are created when molecules of water in the atmosphere (what we commonly refer to as humidity) coalesce around tiny particles of dust or other floating debris. Clouds have two primary characteristics. They can reflect sunlight away from the Earth, cooling things down, or they can act like an insulating blanket, warming things up. For a long time, scientists have struggled to understand which characteristic will prevail at climate change makes the Earth hotter.

The problem is inaccuracies in their observational techniques. Satellite data tends to collect information in hundred square kilometer chunks, but changes in cloud formations tend to occur in micro-scale interactions. Studying clouds is like looking at a colony of amoeba with a telescope. The measurement tools are simply too coarse to yield any useful data. “We have a really tough time simulating with any fidelity how clouds actually behave in the real world,” Timothy Myers, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells the Washington Post.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the characteristics of clouds change depending on how high they are in the atmosphere. “When they rise, their greenhouse effect, or warming effect, on the Earth tends to increase,” Myers says. The number of low level clouds is expected to decrease as the planet continues to warm. One study, in the journal Nature Climate Change, used satellite observations to discover how cloud formation is affected by ocean temperatures, wind speed, humidity, and other factors, and then analyzed how those factors will change as the world warms.

“We concluded that as the ocean warms, the low-level clouds over the oceans tend to dissipate,” said Myers, one of the authors of the study. That means that there will be fewer clouds to reflect sunlight and cool the earth, which will amplify global warming. Another paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a similar result, also using observational techniques. Research based on high resolution models, which are better able to model cloud formation than general, larger-scale climate models, have also concluded that clouds are likely to amplify global warming, according to the Washington Post.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the relationship between clouds and climate change. Because clouds are so influential on the Earth’s climate, even small changes in them as the world warms can have large effects on future temperature change.

That’s something that those who think we can just blithely shoot sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet fail to understand. No one knows how much to release, or at what altitude, and where in order to have the desired effect. It’s a little like a person wearing a blindfold trying to play darts when the consequences of missing the target could be catastrophic.

Kelp For Victory Over Climate Change

Another feature of the natural world that is extraordinarily difficult to quantify is kelp, because satellites are unable to penetrate deeply below the ocean surface. But a recent study by scientists from eight countries, led by Dr Albert Pessarrodona of the University of Western Australia, manually sifted through hundreds of studies — including local plant data records, online repositories, and citizen science initiatives — to model the global distribution of ocean forests. They found that underwater forests cover between 6 million and 7.2 million square kilometers — an area comparable to the Amazon rainforest basin and twice the size of India. The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

Marine ecologist Dr Karen Filbee-Dexter, one of the study’s 10 authors, tells The Guardian the research was a “major step forward” in understanding the potential role that seaweed can play in mitigating climate breakdown, “because it calculates the productivity — growth and carbon uptake — of the largest marine vegetated ecosystem.” It can also help estimate the carbon sink potential of the world’s marine forests, she added.

There is debate in the scientific community about how effective kelp may be at sequestering carbon, as it does not have a root system that connects to the Earth. More research into that question is needed, yet there can be little doubt that 6 million square kilometers of kelp contribute significantly to the amount of carbon dioxide the world’s oceans can store.

Kelp also has another surprising characteristic, the researchers found. On average, ocean forests in temperate regions, such as Australia’s southern coast, produced between two and 11 times more biomass by area than intensely farmed crops. That productivity could be harnessed to provide food for humans and other species.

“We found ocean forests are more productive than many intensely farmed crops such as wheat, rice and corn,” the study found. It defined productivity in terms of how much biomass — the fronds, stipes, and holdfasts of the seaweed — was produced by crops and seaweed. If harvested properly, seaweeds have the potential to be a very sustainable and nutrient-dense food source, marine biologist Amanda Swinimer tells The Guardian. Seaweed has been been part of people’s diets in Asia for centuries.

Kelp forests face multiple threats from rising sea temperatures, pollution, and invasive species. Along the northern California coast, kelp has declined by more than 95% over the past several years because of an infestation of sea urchins. There numbers exploded as vast numbers of starfish, their main predators, were killed by a disease linked to warming waters. The Great Southern Reef along Australia’s coastline, and forests in the north-west Atlantic, along the coasts of Maine, Canada, and Greenland, are also showing concerning signs of decline. That is just another example of how a little change in temperature can have enormous effects on life on Earth.

Seaweed forests are often overlooked and less studied compared with coral reefs, making it difficult to understand how they are changing. “Most of the world’s seaweed forests are not even mapped, much less monitored,” says Filbee-Dexter. While corals are found in warm, calm and easily accessible areas, making them fairly easy to study, kelp is in cold waters on some of the choppiest, roughest coasts in the world.

The Takeaway

The arrogance of humans is breathtaking. Faced with warming temperatures due to climate change, we immediately pivot to strategies for mucking about with our environment when we barely understand the forces that control it. The chances are great that our geoengineering and carbon capture strategies will cause more harm than good.

We know how to solve the problem of climate change — stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. But that is politically unpopular, whereas extinction apparently is OK so long as it happens to someone else. Our extreme shortsightedness is baked into our DNA, apparently, yet it may be the one thing that will lead inexorably to our demise.

We know more about the dark side of the moon than we do about clouds in the atmosphere and the ecology of the oceans. And yet we insist we know all we need to know to fiddle with the environment in order to preserve life on Earth. As Shakespeare once said, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5254 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley