Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica’
The suspense is over. The Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man is here. The End Times have arrived. Yes, the Walking Dead are at the door. OK, that went on too long. Let me get right to the point, one of the many doomsday scenarios facing humanity has indeed arrived. Granted it may take a few more decades or centuries, but our doom is assured. WTF am I talking about? Antarctica of course. More specifically, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS.) This is a giant slab of ice sitting on West Antarctica. About the same size as the western United States or Europe. That’s a lot of ice. And it is apparently now inexorably sliding into the sea. Yes, according to the latest scientific research, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun, and nothing can stop it.
OK, so, more icebergs near Antarctica? What’s the problem. The problem of course is that while much of the WAIS is floating, much of it isn’t. And when the parts that aren’t floating slide into the sea, global sea levels rise. How much? Well, depends on how much of the ice sheet slides into the sea. In the image above, pretty much all you see is the WAIS. See the two glaciers, the Pine Island Glacier and the Thwaites Glacier? They are the problem. They have basically been acting as plugs in a dam, holding back the WAIS. Well, the ocean waters under them have been warming, and they have been retreating rapidly. And now they appear to have given way completely and it’s only a matter of time before the ice behind them slides into the sea. How long? Two centuries at most, maybe much much sooner.
And just how much sea level rise are we talking about? Four to twelve feet (one to four meters in the civilized world.) Yes, on some levels that doesn’t sound like much. However, and it’s a big however, the vast majority of humanity lives near the sea. Even protecting the world’s great cities against that kind of sea level rise would be prohibitive. Entire island chains, and countless small towns and cities, will be partially or wholly inundated. Hundreds of millions of people will be refugees. And the environmental changes wrought by a sea level change that severe are unknown, but very likely to be catastrophic. The economic disruption caused by this is going to be global in scale, and unprecedented in effect.
You’d think this would make the news. And it did, sort of. Since most humans don’t look much past next week, and many of the rest live in complete denial of science, only the occasional science geek like me got excited. Well, and I am sure smart military and counterintelligence people the world over are looking into it. And smart politicians. They do exist, despite what one sees in the USA. The science deniers will ignore or deny it though. The media will move on and continue to essentially ignore climate change or pretend that there is a debate when there is none. And the world will adapt to rapidly rising sea level change. The adaptations may include global depression and global war, but hey, anything is possible. Maybe a Gandhi/Einstein clone will come along and save us all.
My point? I always have points. I’m back to blogging, point number one. I took a one year hiatus. I’ve learned many things. I’ve unlearned a few things. I’ve looked at different perspectives. I’ve come to new conclusions. I’ve come to refined conclusions. I’ve been an idiot. Personal growth, deal with it, or be an ant. I don’t make a very good ant, conformity makes me vomit. I tried to find an image of a vomiting ant to illustrate this point, but couldn’t find one. Please feel free gentle reader to visualize for yourself. Point two, I wonder when the Christian End Times people will catch on to the looming global flood. I mean, global flood, shouldn’t we be building arks?
In conclusion, the future is known to no one. Humanity’s just started to look a little more bleak, but no one has a crystal ball. Still, I have plenty of observations and trenchant remarks to add to the mix. Times are a changing, and I might as well chronicle it as anyone else. Could scientists be wrong about the collapse of the WAIS? Certainly. When it comes to Antarctica our understanding is still very limited. Still, more effort is being made all the time to study it. And so far the more we learn about Antarctica, the worst it looks. On the plus side some of my readers living in lowlands now have time to move. You will thank me later.
Coming soon, further depressing posts. Suggestions welcome.
(The above image was created by NASA, and as a government created image, is OK for public use. There’s probably a more legalistic way to state that. And yes, my conversion of feet to meters makes no sense. I think I was using the Dutch foot.)
Russian scientists hope this week to drill into lake Vostok, a lake buried beneath the ice of Antarctica. And not just a lake, Lake Vostok is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, about the size of Lake Ontario, but about three times as deep. It’s covered by two miles of Antarctic ice cap, for Lake Vostok is very near the South Pole and is in one of the coldest spots on the world. And now, after two decades of drilling, Russian scientists are about to punch through the ice into the lake itself and get samples.
Wait, two decades? Yes, humans got men to the moon faster than it has taken them to get to Lake Vostok, How does it take two decades to drill through a few miles of ice? Well, for one thing, the annual summer drilling season in Antarctica is about four hours long. OK, a few weeks long, but the gentle reader gets the point. Also, and more importantly, there has been a lot of delay due to concerns about just how to penetrate the lake itself. Scientists want to get pristine samples, they don’t want to contaminate the lake, and since the lake seems to have a lot of gas dissolved in it at high pressure … they want to avoid a catastrophic scenario akin to shaking a can of soda and then opening it. That would be a bad thing, possibly both contaminating the lake and the samples, while destroying the borehole and maybe even causing an ecological disaster. Yikes, keeping my fingers crossed for sure.
OK, so a lake in a deep freeze, what’s the big deal? Well, for one thing there are a whole series of lakes under the Antarctic ice, almost certainly connected somehow. So geologists want to know all they can about these lakes, partly just because they are unique, and as part and parcel of understanding the entire Antarctic Ice Cap. Which is part of ongoing scientific efforts to understand the Earth itself and its’ climate and climate cycles. Not to mention that if the Antarctic Ice Caps collapsed into the oceans, it would be a very bad thing. So, not a bad idea for scientists to figure out what’s going on under the ice.
The exciting part, at least for non-geologists, is what might be living in Lake Vostok. It was a real live genuine lake at one time, before it got covered with ice. How long ago did it get covered with ice? About 14 million years as far as scientists can figure, though if they get good water samples they will be able to put a far more accurate date on it. This means that whatever life was in those lakes may have been evolving quietly away in an environment completely unlike any other on Earth. And it’s pretty much a certainty that there will be life in the lake, since hydrogen sulphide eating microbes have been found in the ice above the lake. The deep biosphere, yet another topic for a future post.
So anyhow, weird microbes, anything else? I mean, really, I’ve watched enough sci fi to know that when they drill through the ice, giant intelligent man-eating ice amoebas will emerge and attack the Russian drilling crew, I hope some of them are armed. OK, that’s pretty unlikely. Still, these lakes might have geothermal vents, and just like oceanic geothermal vents, there might be communities of all sorts of strange worms and crustaceans living happily away. Sadly, it will be awhile before we know about that, I don’t know if plans are even afoot to send any sort of ROV down and actually explore the lake. Still, it is the ultimate goal, and the current project is developing the technology for eventually doing just that.
And while this step may not be all that exiting from a non-scientific view, though I hope some people think it’s cool, this is also a stepping stone to a far more exciting lake drilling project. Antarctica isn’t the only place with with bodies of water under ice, several moons and at least one asteroid, Ceres, are believed to very likely harbour oceans of water under their ice. And god only knows what could be living under there. Even if life didn’t independently originate there, there’s every reason to believe that pretty much every body in the solar system has been “seeded” by bacteria laden rocks blasted from Earth by comet and asteroid impacts. And with millions or hundreds of millions of years to evolve in pretty much a totally alien environment … I might get my giant man-eating ice amoebas yet!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Image by Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation. I’m not sure why I chose that image, the pretty colours perhaps. I mean, it’s not like it’s a difficult thing to visualize. I don’t know what the red arrows are, ice amoeba migration routes? I’ll do better tomorrow, I promise.)