Ohio Democrats Slap Down GOP Attack On Democracy

Posting something daily can be a bit of a drag, sometimes. I recently decided to increase my non-blog workload, and I’m still adjusting to it, which means that posting daily suddenly feels like more effort, because it’s now on top of other stuff. It’s also more than a little depressing to write about stuff in the news, because there always seems to be more bad than good. I think that’s largely because things are getting worse in a number of very real ways, but some of it could well be that bad news sells better. Some of it, for me, is also that bad news feels easier to write about. Good news is nice, and all, but in my life, I’ve rarely encountered good news that meant that an existing problem was actually solved. Maybe that’s just how things work, though – there will always be people trying to make the world worse for their personal benefit, so we’ll always have to fight to keep the good things that we have. It’s a tiring vision of the future, but I guess the goal is to have tomorrow’s fights be easier, and backed up by yesterday’s victories. In a lot of ways, that’s what a “victory” is – something that makes the next fight a little easier, even if all you did was prevent an opponent from making it harder. Case in point, the Democratic Party’s recent big win in Ohio:

Ohio voters on Tuesday decisively rejected a Republican-authored measure that would have made it more difficult to amend the state constitution through the ballot initiative process, a billionaire-funded effort aimed at preempting a November vote on abortion rights.

If approved by voters, the measure known as Issue 1 would have raised the threshold for passage of a constitutional amendment from a simple majority to 60%. The measure also would have imposed more stringent signature requirements for Ohio ballot initiatives.

The GOP proposal—which was the only item on the ballot in Tuesday’s special election—failed by a vote of 43% to 57%, according to the Ohio secretary of state’s office.

“Issue 1 was a blatant attempt by its supporters to control both the policy agenda and the process of direct democracy,” said Rachael Belz, the CEO of Ohio Citizen Action, one of the groups that mobilized in opposition to the proposal. “When they forced Issue 1 onto the ballot, they awakened a sleeping giant and unleashed a movement. And that movement isn’t going away tomorrow. It will continue to build and grow and to carry us through to victories in November and beyond.”

The Republican push for Issue 1 drew national attention given the implications for both the democratic process and reproductive rights in Ohio, where abortion is currently legal through 22 weeks of pregnancy—though the state GOP is working to change that.

A proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November would codify the right to abortion access in the Ohio constitution, stating that “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.”

Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state and a U.S. Senate hopeful, said in June that Issue 1 was ” 100% about” preventing passage of the abortion rights amendment.

Recent polling indicates that around 58% of Ohioans back the proposed amendment—a level of support that would have been insufficient had Issue 1 succeeded.

“From defeating Issue 1 tonight to submitting nearly twice the amount of signatures needed to get a measure protecting abortion access on the ballot in November, Ohio voters have made clear that they will settle for nothing less than reproductive freedom for all,” Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement late Tuesday.

“Republicans should be ashamed of their efforts to subvert the will of voters,” Timmaraju added. “Seeing this measure defeated is a victory for our fundamental rights and our democracy. We’re grateful to our partners on the ground for their tireless efforts to secure abortion rights and access. We look forward to fighting by their side to lock this fundamental freedom into law in November.”

I look forward to seeing that result, but I’m not gonna hold my breath while I wait for Republicans to develop the ability to feel shame. The Democratic Party has been kicking the can down the road on abortion rights for decades, using it as a fundraising issue, and then refusing to actually codify those rights into federal law. When it comes to the kind of good news I mentioned, probably the biggest bit of that, for the US, has been the way Democrats at the state level have apparently been moved to actual action by the conservative takeover of the Supreme Court. The battle’s far from over, but it seems that there are a growing number of Democrats who are no longer afraid of wielding power for progressive causes, and it’s nice to see. As the Majority Report says, this is a huge win for Democracy in Ohio:


Building Community Is Climate Action

I like Commondreams.org, as a news source. They have an unabashedly progressive bias, and they do a decent job in finding a balance as they cover the climate crisis, as we’re about to see. Back in April, I wrote about an unexplained and unprecedented spike in ocean temperatures, that was happening ahead of the impending El Niño. Well, that scary situation has only gotten scarier in the months since, as Antarctic winter sea ice is at its lowest peak on record, and the water just keeps getting hotter:

Climate scientists on Friday said the rapidly rising temperature of the planet’s oceans is cause for major concern, particularly as policymakers in the top fossil fuel emissions-producing countries show no sign of ending planet-heating oil and gas extraction.

The European Union’s climate agency, Copernicus Climate Change Service, reported this week that the average daily global ocean surface temperature across the planet reached 20.96°C (69.7°F), breaking the record of 20.95°C that was previously set in 2016.

The record set in 2016 was reported during an El Niño event, a naturally occurring phenomenon which causes warm water to rise to the surface off the western coast of South America. The weather pattern was at its strongest when the high ocean temperature was recorded that year.

El Niño is forming this year as well, but has not yet reached its strongest point—suggesting new records for ocean heat will be set in the coming months and potentially wreak havoc in the world’s marine ecosystems.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, told the BBC that March is typically when the oceans are at their hottest.

“The fact that we’ve seen the record now makes me nervous about how much warmer the ocean may get between now and next March,” she told the outlet.

The warming oceans are part of a feedback loop that’s developed as fossil fuel emissions have increasingly trapped heat in the atmosphere.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are warming the oceans, leaving them less able to absorb the emissions and contributing to intensifying weather patterns.

“Warmer sea surface temperatures lead to a warmer atmosphere and more evaporation, and both of these lead to more moisture in the atmosphere which can also lead to more intense rainfall events,” Burgess told “Today” on BBC Radio 4. “And warmer sea surface temperatures may also lead to more energy being available for hurricanes.”

The warming ocean could have cascading effects on the world’s ecosystems and economies, reducing fish stocks as marine species migrate to find cooler waters.

“We are seeing changes already in terms of species distributions, prevalence of harmful algae blooms popping up maybe where we would not necessarily expect them, and the species shifting from warmer southern locations up into the colder regions as well which is quite worrying,” Helen Findlay, a biological oceanographer at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom, told The Evening Standard.

“We are also seeing more species coming up from the south, things like European anchovy or recently examples of Mediterranean octopus coming up into our waters and that is having a knock-on impact for the fish that we catch, and consequences of economics,” she added.

Certain parts of the world’s oceans provoked particular alarm among scientists in recent days, with water off the coast of Florida hitting 38.44°C—over 101°F—last week.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to come from this, but it seems clear that this temperature spike is far from over. The only real questions are, how much damage it will do, and what will happen next? The planet isn’t going to stop warming until greenhouse gas levels go down, or it reaches a new stability, at a much higher temperature. Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with plenty to fear, and no clear idea what we can actually do about it. It’s all very discouraging, and a lot of publications don’t really talk much about what people can do besides voting, which doesn’t seem to help much. Fortunately, Common Dreams has us covered, with a Bill McKibben article saying some stuff I agree with, in response to the question of where to move, to be safe as the planet warms:

There is no safe place.

And yet I remain glad I live where I do, not because it’s protected from climate change, but because it’s at least a little bit more equipped to deal with it. And that, in turn, is because it has high levels of social trust. Only 38% of Americans say they mostly or completely trust their neighbors, but a 2018 Vermont survey found that 78% of residents think that “people in my neighborhood trust each other to be good neighbors”; 69% of Vermonters said that they knew most of their neighbors, compared with 26% of Americans in general. Those levels of social trust help explain, I think, why the state had the lowest level of fatalities from Covid-19, much lower than its neighboring states and much lower than other small rural states with similarly homogeneous populations. Everyone wore masks, everyone got vaccinated. In the same way, when this summer’s floods hit, people came together, reenacting the surge of mutual aid that came after Hurricane Irene similarly drenched the state in 2011.

This is not an argument to move to Vermont.


Instead it is an argument to get to work building that kind of social trust in as many places as possible, because we’re going to need it. We’ve come through 75 years where having neighbors was essentially optional: If you had a credit card, you could get everything you needed to survive dropped off at your front door. But the next 75 years aren’t going to be like that; we’re going to need to return to the basic human experience of relying on the people around you. We’re going to need to rediscover that we’re a social species, which for Americans will be hard—at least since Reagan we’ve been told to think of ourselves first and foremost (it was his pal Margaret Thatcher who insisted “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women.”) And in the Musk/Trump age we’re constantly instructed to distrust everyone and everything, a corrosion that erodes the social fabric as surely as a rampaging river erodes a highway.

But it’s not impossible to change that. President Joe Biden has been frustratingly dunderheaded about approving new pipelines and oil wells, and hydrocarbon production has been soaring on his watch. He has been much better about trying to restore some sense of national unity—he has been trying to scale down national division by rebuilding left-behind economies, and also by appealing to our better angels. And those angels exist: The most hopeful book for our time remains Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell, which recounts how communities, whenever natural disaster strikes, pull together, just like Vermont this summer. It happens in cities as easily as in rural areas—maybe more easily, since cities are places where the gregarious gather.

I would quibble a little with the casting of this as “easy”. If that sense of community doesn’t already exist, trying to start it means asking people to put in time and energy when they have little enough of both to spare. I also think it’s a bit much to stereotype city-dwellers as “the gregarious”. People live in cities for a lot of reasons, a big one being that it’s often the only place to find a job. Living in a city, even by choice, does not mean you’re an extrovert by any stretch. Furthermore, most people in the city rent their homes, which means that we’re likely to move pretty often, which means starting over again every couple years or so. People do pull together in a crisis, true, but cities can be difficult places to build anything lasting, or at least that’s how it tends to feel to me.

That said, he’s right on the main point. For an individual “action” that would actually help, we absolutely need social solidarity, and it’s good to see an article advocating that, right next to an article about how scientists are terrified about what’s happening to our climate. “Neighborliness” isn’t going to solve the global problem, but it’ll go a long way to helping us survive, which is a key part of solving most problems. It would be silly for me to say that people shouldn’t move to seek a better life, since I’ve done that myself. The catch is that when it comes to climate change, nowhere is safe, so it’s worth doing the work to build community, if you’re able, even if you’ll have to move on sooner than you’d like. We’re all in this together, and our best shot at getting out is also together.

Video: Border Patrol Caging Migrants Outdoors in Arizona Heat Wave

As most of you have probably heard, the razor wire deathtraps I mentioned are still up along the Rio Grande, and have killed people, as deathtraps tend to do. The federal government is suing Abbot to make him take them down, and in the meantime, people crossing the border to claim asylum (which is their legal right under US law) are extending their journey to go around. Unfortunately, razor wire isn’t the only way that the sadists “guarding” the US border are trying to “accidentally” kill asylum seekers. In Arizona, Border patrol has been keeping migrants in cages, in the middle of a heatwave. From the transcript of the interview:

Last week I got a tip that the Border Patrol was holding migrants outdoors in some sort of enclosure at the Ajo Border Patrol Station. And this was surprising for two reasons. Anybody who knows anything about the desert in southern Arizona knows that this portion of the desert is as deadly as it gets. And as you mentioned at the top of the show, we are right now experiencing a record-setting and deadly heat wave.

So, I drove out to the Ajo station with photojournalist Ash Ponders. As you said, it was 114 degrees that day. We hiked up to a ridge where we were able to see into the Border Patrol station. We had a telephoto lens and binoculars, and we were able to observe roughly 50 migrants being held in a chain-link enclosure under a sort of carport-style structure that cast a small strip of shade on the ground. The ground was loose rock. The shade was minimal. People were crowding themselves into the shade that was available, shoulder to shoulder. I observed roughly 30 migrants being marched off to a separate section of the facility, and roughly as many staying behind. The ground was littered with water bottles.

The cruelty is the point, and this is under a Democratic Arizona governor, and a Democratic president. The GOP may be worse, but they’ve got no monopoly on bad.

Video: Casual Geographic Takes On Foxes

I see foxes pretty frequently around here. I happened to glance out the window earlier today, and there was a rather mangy fox in the tiny garden behind my building. I’ve noticed that most of the foxes around here don’t seem to be doing very well, which is why I was a bit surprised to learn that in general, they thrive in cities. Back in the US, urban mid-sized mammals would be a mix of skunks, possums, raccoons, and the occasional fox or coyote. Out of all of those, the only ones that live on these islands are the foxes, and they do seem to have filled in that slot. While they all look a little ratty, there are foxes everywhere around here. Anyway, all of this was to provide a bit of an intro to this video from Casual Geographic, telling us about foxes, and how they took over the world.

Cooling the Planet With a Space Shade Is Now Very Slightly More Plausible

I think it’s important to remember, as we see the warming climate break down our ecosystems and weather patterns, that we do have a sort of very limited “emergency break”, in the form of solar geoengineering. The term, in this context, refers to a few different actions that could be taken to lower Earth’s temperature without reducing greenhouse gas levels, by blocking or deflecting sunlight, before it can hit the surface of the planet, and turn into heat. The cheapest and most reliable method, at least in the short-term, is to release sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere, simulating a massive volcanic eruption, and reflecting sunlight to cool the planet. From what I can tell, there’s not much question that this would have a cooling effect. The problem is that it will also have other effects, which are less certain, on atmospheric chemistry and on ecosystems. Another one that’s often proposed is to make man-made surfaces white – rooftops, roads, parking lots – just make all of it more reflective. There’s zero question that this would have an effect, but it would be a fairly small effect, and it’s not clear to me what it would take to maintain that brightness. There are some others, which you can check out at first link, but today we’re going to talk about the “space-age” option.

See, if you want to reduce the sunlight hitting Earth’s surface, but you don’t want to have to worry about mucking with ecosystems and atmospheric chemistry, you can take the most literal option, and put a sun shade in space. From the University of Hawai’i:

One of the simplest approaches to reducing the global temperature is to shade the Earth from a fraction of the Sun’s light. This idea, called a solar shield, has been proposed before, but the large amount of weight needed to make a shield massive enough to balance gravitational forces and prevent solar radiation pressure from blowing it away makes even the lightest materials prohibitively expensive. Szapudi’s creative solution consists of two innovations: a tethered counterweight instead of just a massive shield, resulting in making the total mass more than 100 times less, and the use of a captured asteroid as the counterweight to avoid launching most of the mass from Earth.

“In Hawaiʻi, many use an umbrella to block the sunlight as they walk about during the day. I was thinking, could we do the same for Earth and thereby mitigate the impending catastrophe of climate change?” Szapudi said.

Incorporating a tethered counterbalance

Szapudi began with the goal of reducing solar radiation by 1.7%, an estimate of the amount needed to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. He found that placing a tethered counterbalance toward the Sun could reduce the weight of the shield and counterweight to approximately 3.5 million tons, about one hundred times lighter than previous estimates for an untethered shield.

While this number is still far beyond current launch capabilities, only 1% of the weight—about 35,000 tons—would be the shield itself, and that is the only part that needs to be launched from Earth. With newer, lighter materials, the mass of the shield can be reduced even further. The remaining 99% of the total mass would be asteroids or lunar dust used as a counterweight. Such a tethered structure would be faster and cheaper to build and deploy than other shield designs.

Today’s largest rockets can only lift about 50 tons to low Earth orbit, so this approach to solar radiation management would be challenging. Szapudi’s approach brings the idea into the realm of possibility, even with today’s technology, whereas prior concepts were completely unachievable. Also, developing a light-weight but strong graphene tether connecting the shield with the counterweight is crucial.

I know the billionaires have given space stuff something of a stink, but unlike fantasies of colonies on Mars or Venus, this is one way that improving our ability to do stuff in space could actually help with the climate crisis. There would certainly be pollution from launching any kind of space shade, and from getting to the point where we can do such a thing, but I don’t know how that would compare to the other options on the table.

As I’ve said before, this kind of geoengineering is dangerous, but probably unavoidable, because of long we’ve delayed action. It won’t matter much if we don’t also reduce greenhouse gas levels, but a slight drop in incoming sunlight could make things a lot easier, as long as we avoid the Futurama Solution. I guess the main question is – absent the kind of systemic political and economic change that I want to see, what will it take for “world leaders” to decide it’s time to shade the planet? What would it take for you to decide it’s time for that?

For me, I honestly don’t know. Doing it sooner might buy us some needed time, by delaying the melting of ice and thawing of permafrost, but the geopolitical and ecological ramifications worry me, because it seems like a foregone conclusion that the side effects would fall hardest on those with the least say in any of this. It sucks we’ve let things go so far, but I guess I’m glad that people are at least working out what it would take to shade the planet, and buy us a little more time.

Adaptation and Mitigation: Food Production in a Rapidly Warming World

So I’ve been advocating a move to indoor food production for a while, and I often get pushback on it, some of which… seems to miss the point. Someone linked me an article from 2018 over on Bluesky (follow me @abedrayton.bsky.social), as a reason why vertical farming “won’t save the world”. It’s an interesting article, for what it is, but it crucially does not address the main reason why I believe what I believe. Before I get into that, however, I want to address one other issue, because whenever this subject comes up, and I mention indoor farming and microbial food production, people ignore that latter part, to focus on the former. My guess is that this is because most people don’t know much about microbial food production, and so don’t have much to say about it, in which case, I should probably do more to talk about it. I’ll give an overview here, but I’ll also just try to post more about it going forward.

Mass production of microbial food is, as I understand it, a fairly new field. It focuses mostly on yeasts, edible bacteria, and microaglae, all of which can be grown in more of a factory than a farm. In both cases, the focus usually seems to be on growing them as a source of protein, to replace animal agriculture and soy beans. Because of that focus, a lot of discussion around this stuff seems to focus on the inefficiency and cost of animal agriculture as a source of emissions, rather than about the fact that food grown in a factory setting is less vulnerable to weather and pests than food grown in fields.

The main concern I have at this point in time – something I’m emailing scientists about – is how well it could replace grains. There’s no question that finding better sources of protein is important, because while I didn’t mention it in my recent post about simultaneous crop failure, one of the likely effects of that is the mass culling or starvation of livestock, because that’s what we do with 77% of the soy we grow. People in the US, at least, could stand to eat considerably less protein, but I don’t believe that forcing that through crop failure is a good way to go about it. That said, humans do actually need carbohydrates, so if microbes can’t produce enough of that, then we may need to think about other options.

I think microbes are still a part of those other options, too. If we do actually need to continue relying on outdoor grain farms, then we should probably not be using that land for things that we don’t need, like mass production of beef. In that way, even if we can only rely on algae and bacteria for protein, we’ll be able to grow and store more grain to guard against famine, so it still seems worth major investment to me.

With all of that dealt with, let’s go back to this article about vertical farms, that was presented as a rebuttal to my belief that we should be moving food production indoors, to guard against global crop failures. My problem is that it in no way addresses my concern, but rather discusses vertical farming’s expenses, and vertical farming as a way to reduce carbon emissions:

First, these systems are really expensive to build. The shipping container systems developed by Freight Farms, for example, cost between $82,000 and $85,000 per container — an astonishing sum for a box that just grows greens and herbs. Just one container costs as much as 10 entire acres of prime American farmland — which is a far better investment, both in terms of food production and future economic value. Just remember: farmland has the benefit of generally appreciating in value over time, whereas a big metal box is likely to only decrease in value.

Second, food produced this way is very expensive. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that mini-lettuces grown by Green Line Growers costs more than twice as much as organic lettuce available in most stores. And this is typical for other indoor growers around the country: it’s very, very expensive, even compared to organic food. Instead of making food moreavailable, especially to poorer families on limited budgets, these indoor crops are only available to the affluent. It might be fine for gourmet lettuce, or fancy greens for expensive restaurants, but regular folks may find it out of reach.

Finally, indoor farms use a lot of energy and materials to operate. The container farms from Freight Farms, for example, use about 80 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day to power the lights and pumps. That’s nearly 2–3 times as much electricity as a typical (and still very inefficient) American home, or about 8 times the electricity used by an average San Francisco apartment. And on the average American electrical grid, this translates to emitting 44,000 pounds of CO2 per container per year, from electricity alone, not counting any additional heating costs. This is vastly more than the emissions it would take to ship the food from someplace else.


Proponents of indoor techno-farms often say that they can offset the enormous sums of electricity they use, by powering them with renewable energy — especially solar panels — to make the whole thing carbon neutral.

But just stop and think about this for a second.

These indoor “farms” would use solar panels to harvest naturally occurring sunlight, and convert it into electricity, so that they can power…artificial sunlight? In other words, they’re trying to use the sun to replace the sun.

But we don’t need to replace the sun. Of all of the things we should worry about in agriculture, the availability of free sunlight is not one of them. Any system that seeks to replace the sun to grow food is probably a bad idea.


Sometimes we hear that vertical farms help the environment by reducing “food miles” — the distance food items travel from farm to table — and thereby reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

This sounds logical, but it turns out to be a red herring.

Strange as it might seem, local food typically uses about the same amount of energy — per pound — to transport as food grown far away. Why? Short answer: volume and method of transport. A larger food operator can ship food more efficiently — even if it travels longer distances — because of the gigantic volumes they work in. Plus, ships, trains, and even large trucks driving on Interstate highways use less fuel, per pound per mile, than small trucks driving around town.

Plus it turns out that “food miles” aren’t a very big source of CO2 emissions anyway, whether they’re local or not. In fact, they pale in comparison to emissions from deforestation, methane from cattle and rice fields, and nitrous oxide from over-fertilized fields. And local food systems — especially organic farms that use fewer fertilizers, and grass fed beef that sequesters carbon in the soil — can reduce these more critical emissions. At the end of the day, local food systems are generally better for the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions. Just don’t worry about emissions from food miles too much.

No shame to the author of this article, of course. He didn’t set out to discuss the merits of vertical farming as a guard against crop failure, so he didn’t do that. My problem is with the person who linked this article, because it doesn’t even acknowledge the main reason I want to move food production indoors, as much as we can. The article makes good points – building and operating something like a vertical farm absolutely is very resource-intensive, and the recommendations made at the end – that we focus on better farming practices – are 100% on-point. We need to do that.

But the question – for me – is not whether vertical farms are the most efficient way to grow food, compared to existing, more conventional methods, or whether they’re as profitable (accounting for subsidies). It’s whether they’re a more reliable way to grow food, in a rapidly warming climate. I don’t have a clear answer to that, in part because the focus in this sort of discourse is still mostly about reducing emissions and preventing the warming. That’s all important stuff to take into consideration, but I think we’ve reached a point where we also have to consider what it will take to keep people alive, because we haven’t actually made all of those changes to agriculture that everyone’s been talking about for the last few decades. The clear answer I do feel I have, is that the odds of global crop failure are increasing, and if we don’t plan for that eventuality, a lot of people are going to die needlessly.

The other point made on Bluesky, and I think it’s a good one, is the concern that a shift in food production would hurt people who are currently farmers. My answer to that is twofold. First, as with fossil fuel workers, we as a society have a responsibility to make sure that farm workers are not left destitute because of a societal change over which they had no control. I think nobody should be left destitute in a world with abundant resources, but we should also have dedicated programs to making sure farmers are taken care of.

Second, and I think this is more important, investing in indoor food production should not come at the expense of outdoor food production, at this stage. The reason I want to do it now, is that we don’t need it now, but everything I’ve seen about the rate of warming and the effects of warming suggests that we will need it in the not-so-distant future. I expect that if we make this investment, and shift away from animal agriculture, that will free up farmland, which can then be put to different use, but the first priority is feeding humanity, which means that at this stage, we still need normal farms, operated more responsibly as the article above suggests. We have the resources to do both, while also working to end fossil fuel use, and one of the downsides of so many decades of inaction is that we now also have a growing need to do both, as the temperature continues to rise.

If you value the work I do, please consider helping to pay for it over at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Even small contributions like a couple dollars per month add up to make a big difference! If you can’t afford that, then I definitely don’t want your money, but I’d appreciate it if you shared this post with others, to help me increase my readership. Thanks for reading, and be sure to take care of yourselves in this scary world!

Drilling Deep: Methane, Hydrothermal Vents, and a False Alarm

Dear Readers, I would like to take you on a short emotional journey. I was browsing science headlines, and I came across one that had me worried for a good minute. Past climate warming driven by hydrothermal vents, with a sub-header specifying methane release from these vents as the driver of a warming event 55 million years ago. I imagine many of you already know why this caught my attention. Methane is well-known as a potent greenhouse gas, emitted by both fossil fuel extraction, and animal agriculture. It also exists in massive sea-floor deposits called “clathrates” or “hydrates”, in which a combination of low temperatures and high pressure create stable ice formations. The clathrate gun hypothesis is a proposal to explain warming during the Quaternary period, and it basically suggests that these deposits can destabilize, release all their methane, which would bubble up through the water into the atmosphere, driving an increase in global temperature.

The fear for us has been that this could be triggered by the warming of the oceans, adding fuel to the fire that is global warming. Last October, I posted about new research indicating that this was not actually likely to be a serious problem. See, getting the right combination of temperature and pressure for clathrates to form requires them to be deep enough under water, that the gas released by them is pretty much entirely absorbed:

New research from scientists at the University of Rochester, the US Geological Survey, and the University of California Irvine is the first to directly show that methane released from decomposing hydrates is not reaching the atmosphere.

The researchers, including John Kessler, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and DongJoo Joung, a former research scientist in Kessler’s lab and now an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography at Pusan National University in Korea, carried out the study in mid-latitude regions—Earth’s subtropical and temperate zones.

While the stability of the methane hydrate reservoir is sensitive to changes in temperature, “in the mid-latitude regions where this study was conducted, we see no signatures of hydrate methane being emitted to the atmosphere,” says Joung, the first author of the study, published in Nature Geoscience.

Reading about this research was a load off my mind. There are a number of ways in which global warming could make things go sideways really fast. The jaw-dropping spike in ocean temperatures that we’ve been seeing this year have, I think, alerted more people to that possibility, but for a while, the clathrate gun was the thing that worried me the most. A big part of the problem with global warming is the speed at which it’s happening. If it had taken us ten thousand years to warm the earth this much, ecosystems might have been able to adapt better, and we would have had a much easier time ending fossil fuel use. Unfortunately, it’s taken us something more like 150 years, and that’s already more than we can handle, based on how things are going. A sudden, massive release of methane into the atmosphere could speed that up even more, and that would try even my ability to be optimistic.

So, I see this new headline, about methane emissions from hydrothermal vents, and I immediately think of the hydrothermal vents with which I’m most familiar – the ones that exist deep in the ocean, surrounded by tube worms and furry crabs. The last month has been pretty stressful for me, and I was not looking forward to hearing confirmation that deep-sea methane could, in fact, reach the surface.

Fortunately, that is not what I read.

About 55 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean was born. Until then, Europe and America were connected. As the continents began to move apart, the Earth’s crust between them ruptured, releasing large volumes of magma. This rift volcanism has led to the formation of large igneous provinces (LIPs) in several places around the world. One such LIP was formed between Greenland and Europe and now lies several kilometres below the ocean surface. An international drilling campaign led by Christian Berndt, Professor of Marine Geophysics at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, and Sverre Planke, Professor of Marine Geophysics at the University of Oslo, Norway, has collected extensive sample material from the LIP, which has now been evaluated.

In their study, published today in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers can show that hydrothermal vents were active at very shallow depths or even above sea level, which would have allowed much larger quantities of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere than previously thought [emphasis mine].

Phew! Looks like we’re still in the clear.

With that anxiety now quelled, let’s take a look at how the researchers came to this conclusion, because it was quite the endeavor:

“At the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, some of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history took place over a period of more than a million years,” says Christian Berndt. According to current knowledge, this volcanism warmed the world’s climate by at least five degrees Celsius and caused a mass extinction – the last dramatic global warming before our time, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Geologists have not yet been able to explain why, as most modern volcanic eruptions cause cooling by releasing aerosols into the stratosphere.

Further studies of the Karoo large igneous province in South Africa revealed an abundance of hydrothermal vents associated with magmatic intrusions into the sedimentary basin. This observation among others led to the hypothesis that large amounts of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane could have entered the atmosphere through hydrothermal venting. “When our Norwegian colleagues Henrik Svensen and Sverre Planke published their results in 2004, we would have loved to set off immediately to test the hypothesis by drilling the ancient vent systems around the North Atlantic,” says Christian Berndt. But it wasn’t that easy: “Our proposal was well received by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), but it was never scheduled because it required riser drilling, a technology that was not available to us at the time.”

As the research progressed hydrothermal vent systems were discovered that were within reach of riserless drilling. Thus, the drilling proposal was resubmitted, and the expedition could finally begin in autumn 2021 – 17 years after the first proposal was submitted.

Around 30 scientists from 12 nations took part in the IODP (now the International Ocean Discovery Program) research cruise to the Vøring Plateau off the Norwegian coast on board the scientific drilling ship “JOIDES Resolution”. Five of the 20 boreholes were drilled directly into one of the thousands of hydrothermal vents. The cores obtained can be read by scientists like a diary of the Earth’s history. The results were compelling.

The authors show that the vent was active just before the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum and that the resulting crater was filled in a very short time, just as the global warming began. Quite unexpectedly, their data also show that the vent was active in a very shallow water depth of probably less than 100 metres. This has far-reaching consequences for the potential impact on the climate. Christian Berndt: “Most of the methane that enters the water column from active deep-sea hydrothermal vents today is quickly converted into carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas. Since the vent we studied is located in the middle of the rift valley, where the water depth should be greatest, we assume that other vents were also in shallow water or even above sea level, which would have allowed much larger amounts of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere”.

As far as today’s climate warming is concerned, there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn from the cores. On the one hand, they do not confirm that the global warming at that time was caused by the dissolution og gas hyrates [sic] – a danger that has been much discussed in recent years. On the other hand, they show that it took many millennia for the climate to cool down again. So the Earth system was thus able to regulate itself, but not on time scales relevant to today’s climate crisis.

Reading that feels a bit like reading about a city built on top of another city, with the ancient ruins still down there to be explored. I get that in principle, this isn’t much different from taking any other geological core samples, but it feels different to me for some reason.

Regardless, while the researchers did not make this connection in these materials, I think that for our purposes, we can take some comfort from the shallowness of these ancient vents. Obviously, global warming is a crisis that demands great urgency, and this changes that not one bit. Clathrate gun or no, we are running out of time. The reason I wanted to share this (aside from it just being interesting research), is that I think it’s genuinely helpful to know at least one of the ways in which everything could get suddenly worse, isn’t something we need to worry about.

If you value the work I do, please consider helping to pay for it over at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Even small contributions like a couple dollars per month add up to make a big difference! If you can’t afford that, then I definitely don’t want your money, but I’d appreciate it if you shared this post with others, to help me increase my readership. Thanks for reading, and be sure to take care of yourselves in this scary world!

Should we be worried about ancient frozen bugs? Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.

Human discourse about pathogens tends to be pretty narrowly focused on those viruses and organisms that directly infect humans. This is, I think, entirely understandable. Our health is hugely important to every aspect of our lives, as we all become aware when we get sick, or develop chronic health problems. I know nobody reading this has any personal experience with this, but if you add in something like an epidemic that goes global, well that adds a whole other layer to it. We have ample reason to be somewhat obsessed with our health and things that affect it.

Second to that, we care about the health of our food and our working and companion animals, which I would argue is also mostly about our own health.

Less attention is given to how pathogens affect wildlife. We tend to view nature as something that takes care of itself, when we’re not actively destroying it, but of course other life forms have all the same health concerns we do, adjusted for the specifics of their species. More than that, humans have acted as something akin to global plague rats, as we’ve scurried about all over the surface of this planet, introducing animals, plants, and microorganisms everywhere we go. Well, now we’ve found a new way to introduce microbes are new to our ecosystems, this time because of their age.

We’ve seen it in science fiction and horror, folks, and now it’s time for the real life version. Are you prepared for a panoply of prehistoric pathogens?

The idea that “time-traveling” pathogens trapped in ice or hidden in remote laboratory facilities could break free to cause catastrophic outbreaks has inspired generations of novelists and screenwriters. While melting glaciers and permafrost are giving many types of dormant microbes the opportunity to re-emerge, the potential threats to human health and the environment posed by these microbes have been difficult to estimate.

In a new study, Strona’s team quantified the ecological risks posed by these microbes using computer simulations. The researchers performed artificial evolution experiments where digital virus-like pathogens from the past invade communities of bacteria-like hosts. They compared the effects of invading pathogens on the diversity of host bacteria to diversity in control communities where no invasion occurred.

The team found that in their simulations, the ancient invading pathogens could often survive and evolve in the modern community, and about 3 percent became dominant. While most of the dominant invaders had little effect on the composition of the larger community, about 1 percent of the invaders yielded unpredictable results. Some caused up to one third of the host species to die out, while others increased diversity by up to 12 percent compared to the control simulations.

The risks posed by this 1 percent of released pathogens may seem small, but given the sheer number of ancient microbes regularly released into modern communities, outbreak events still represent a substantial hazard. The new findings suggest that the risks posed by time-traveling pathogens — so far confined to science fiction stories — could in fact be powerful drivers of ecological change and threats to human health.

I tend to have mixed feelings about this kind of simulation research, but there is no question that there are viruses, bacteria, and even roundworms that were frozen tens of thousands of years ago (or thousands of thousands, in the case of that bacterium), and that are viable once thawed. While it’s certainly possible some of them could directly infect humans, it’s far more likely that the danger from these ancient microbes lies in their potential to further disrupt ecosystems that are already collapsing under the weight of habitat destruction, pollution, and global warming.

Some of you may recall that I posted last year about the way European earthworms have been colonizing and altering North American ecosystems for centuries, to the point where most folks in the US have never seen an indigenous earthworm. More recently, there was that research indicating that invasive species cause more economic damage than earthquakes, so you can see why some people might have fears about ancient frozen bugs that have absolutely nothing to do with worrying about the next pandemic.

As I so often say, humans are part of the ecosystems that surround us, and we ignore that fact at our peril. The physical changes that we’ve caused on the surface of our planet are devastating, and they’re more than enough to cause a mass extinction all by themselves. Add in prehistoric organisms, which could end up altering the climate themselves, and it’s hard to tell what could happen. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to look at all of this and feel some level of despair. I do get that, and of course I feel it myself sometimes, but I continue to believe that we have the means to survive this crisis, as a species. That window of opportunity is closing, but it’s never over till it’s over, and the more we understand about what’s happening, the better our chances of finding a way through.

If you value the work I do, please consider helping to pay for it over at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Even small contributions like a couple dollars per month add up to make a big difference! If you can’t afford that, then I definitely don’t want your money, but I’d appreciate it if you shared this post with others, to help me increase my readership. Thanks for reading, and be sure to take care of yourselves in this scary world!

Video: Unions Will Save America

Working on things that are stressful and important for me to do, but that do not translate to a blog post at this point in time, so here’s a nice video about how unions will save America. I haven’t watched much of Leeja Miller’s stuff, but I like what I’ve seen so far. This video gives an overview of the history of unions in the US, makes the case for unions as a unifying force for the working majority of the country, and closes with suggestions about how you – yes, you – could get involved.

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

I’m doing organizational work today, so in lieu of a “real” post, I’m going to ask you to watch/listen to this lecture by Tim Wise. I think this is an important perspective on US history and society, with implications and applications for other parts of the world as well. Listening to it now, it puts me in mind of a quote from the late Michael Brooks:

Be ruthless with systems, but be kind to people.

I think I struggle with the latter at times, but it’s a good reminder to try to do better.