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!

Video: Meteorologist Resigns Following Right-Wing Threats Over Climate Change Coverage

For a couple years now, I’ve paired fighting climate change, with fighting fascism. There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest one, from the climate perspective, is that fascists value power far more highly than the environment, and so they’ll happily continue denying climate science, and using fossil fuels. When it comes to crises that can’t be ignored, well, the recent refugee boat disaster, which I’ve seen some right-wingers celebrating, is a good example of the eco-fascist solution. In the meantime, they are actively terrorizing people just for reporting on what’s happening. An Iowa meteorologist named Chris Gloninger has been getting death threats, some bad enough to give him PTSD, and has decided to resign because of it. Mike Figueredo from The Humanist Report has more:

Record Ocean Heat Frightens Scientists, Threatens Grim New Era

For the last few decades, Earth’s oceans have been absorbing the vast majority of global warming – over 90%. This has resulted in declining oxygen levels, marine heatwaves, and a myriad of problems for marine life. Last March, I covered research from Monterey Bay Aquarium that confirmed that “extreme” heat is now the norm for a majority of the ocean’s surface. That would be alarming enough, even though the news is a year old, but now we’ve got more bad news to add to it:

Temperatures in the world’s oceans have broken fresh records, testing new highs for more than a month in an “unprecedented” run that has led to scientists stating the Earth has reached “uncharted territory” in the climate crisis.

The rapid acceleration of ocean temperatures in the last month is an anomaly that scientists have yet to explain. Data collated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), known as the Optimum Interpolation Sea Surface Temperature (OISST) series, gathered by satellites and buoys, has shown temperatures higher than in any previous year, in a series stretching back to 1981, continuously over the past 42 days.

The world is thought to be on the brink of an El Niño weather event this year – a cyclical weather system in the Pacific, that has a warming impact globally. But the El Niño system is yet to develop, so this oscillation cannot explain the recent rapid heating, at a time of year when ocean temperatures are normally declining from their annual March and April peaks.

Prof Mike Meredith of the British Antarctic Survey said: “This has got scientists scratching their heads. The fact that it is warming as much as it has been is a real surprise, and very concerning. It could be a short-lived extreme high, or it could be the start of something much more serious.”

The image shows the annual variation of ocean surface temperatures for every year from the present, dating back to 1981. April 2023 is far and away the hottest global sea surface temperature from that time period.

The image shows the annual variation of ocean surface temperatures for every year from the present, dating back to 1981. April 2023 is far and away the hottest global sea surface temperature from that time period.

That “something much more serious” is will happen, sooner or later. As the oceans warm, their capacity to keep absorbing the excess heat diminishes, which means that from our perspective, things are going to suddenly start warming a lot faster. Hotter oceans also have less capacity to absorb gases from the atmosphere, which increases the rate at which greenhouse gas concentrations increase. On top of all of that, there’s the fact that a hotter ocean creates stronger storms, which will set us even further back in this age of endless recovery. If the oceans are reaching some sort of thermal tipping point, that could also disrupt the big ocean currents that are so important to moving heat around the planet, and to bringing oxygen to the depths. A big change to those currents could have pretty immediate and dramatic effects on a global scale. It’s not just this year, either. Over the last 15 years, the oceans have apparently warmed as much as the previous 45 years; a finding that has been described as so disturbing that scientists don’t like to talk about it:

Scientists from institutions including Mercator Ocean International in France, Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, and Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research collaborated to discover that as the planet has accumulated as much heat in the past 15 years as it did in the previous 45 years, the majority of the excess heat has been absorbed by the oceans.

In March, researchers examining the ocean off the east coast of North America found that the water’s surface was 13.8°C, or 14.8°F, hotter than the average temperature between 1981 and 2011.

The study notes that a rapid drop in shipping-related pollution could be behind some of the most recent warming, since fuel regulations introduced in 2020 by the International Maritime Organization reduced the heat-reflecting aerosol particles in the atmosphere and caused the ocean to absorb more energy.

But that doesn’t account for the average global ocean surface temperature rising by 0.9°C from preindustrial levels, with 0.6°C taking place in the last four decades.

The study represents “one of those ‘sit up and read very carefully’ moments,” said former BBC science editor David Shukman.

Lead study author Karina Von Schuckmann of Mercator Ocean International told the BBC that “it’s not yet well established, why such a rapid change, and such a huge change is happening.”

“We have doubled the heat in the climate system the last 15 years, I don’t want to say this is climate change, or natural variability or a mixture of both, we don’t know yet,” she said. “But we do see this change.”

It’s true, we don’t know for sure what’s going on. Maybe Godzilla is to blame!

In all seriousness, I don’t blame Shuckmann for being careful in the claims she makes. If I’m annoyed, it’s because of the people who love to jump on qualifiers like that to say, “See? They don’t even know what’s happening!” The reality is that even if this turns out to be a blip, and we’re lucky enough to get cooler sea surface temperatures over the next few years, that won’t change the trajectory we’re on. The heat in the oceans won’t just go away, even if it’s not at the surface. What’s more, when you have an unusually hot year, that adds to the momentum of the whole crisis. Ice melts a bit faster, permafrost thaws and rots a bit more, we get a few more fires, and now there’s just that much more CO2 in the atmosphere, and that much less ice to reflect sunlight back into space, and ecosystems are just that much less resilient.

As long as greenhouse gas levels keep rising, this can only go one way.

A study published earlier this year also found that rising ocean temperatures combined with high levels of salinity lead to the “stratification” of the oceans, and in turn, a loss of oxygen in the water.

“Deoxygenation itself is a nightmare for not only marine life and ecosystems but also for humans and our terrestrial ecosystems,” researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in January. “Reducing oceanic diversity and displacing important species can wreak havoc on fishing-dependent communities and their economies, and this can have a ripple effect on the way most people are able to interact with their environment.”

The unusual warming trend over recent years has been detected as a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is expected to form in the coming months—a naturally occurring phenomenon that warms oceans and will reverse the cooling impact of La Niña, which has been in effect for the past three years.

“If a new El Niño comes on top of it, we will probably have additional global warming of 0.2-0.25°C,” Dr. Josef Ludescher of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research told the BBC.

It looks like we should expect more extreme weather in the coming year or so, but if we have reached a point where the oceans are going to be less effective at absorbing heat and greenhouse gases, then things up on dry land are probably going to start progressing much more quickly. I often talk about how the action that has been taken so far to end fossil fuel use is criminally inadequate, but at this point that’s only half the picture. It’s been a decade or two since we passed the point at which dangerous warming could still be prevented. The inaction of our leadership, which seems to be a gerontocracy still stuck in the mid-20th century, has meant that it will keep warming for the rest of my life, and the rest of your life, dear reader, and the lives of your children, and of their children. Absent a series of technological and political miracles that seems very unlikely, this is our future now.

That means that simply ending fossil fuel use, while absolutely essential, is not enough. We must do better to prepare for a hotter planet. We must change how we produce food, to protect it from the conditions that we have created. We must reshape our infrastructure to deal with higher temperatures, stronger storms, and rising seas. We must take measures to to help those countries that have been deliberately kept poor for the benefit of rich nations withstand the hellish forces that have been unleashed upon this world.

Well, we must do all of that if we value human life. If we want to weather this storm, and keep making the world better.

It is past time that we considered that “we” don’t really want any of that, when it comes to the aristocracy of global capitalism. Despite Biden’s words, his actions show that he feels no urgency to deal with climate change. I’ll probably write more about this soon, but the people who run our world seem to be deliberately driving us to destruction, while setting themselves up to rule what remains. Maybe they think that reducing the population will reset the timer on how long they can cling to a system based on endless growth. Whether it’s delusion, malice, or both, they seem poised to use global warming to kill off most of humanity, while they live in luxury and insist that it’s all for the greater good.

I think the oceans could literally be boiling, and they’d still insist that they know best.

We are running out of time and options, both as a species, and as the working class that makes up most of that species. I don’t know how much longer we can afford to wait for those at the top to go against everything they believe, and act for the benefit of humanity. I think we’ve already wasted more time than we had on that false hope, and we’ve yet to fully grasp the price that we’re going to pay for that. We need revolutionary change, and we need it as soon as possible. It is my hope that a combination of worsening conditions, and a general strike, might get the powerful to change their tune. I don’t know how to get there from where we are. I’ll look into it, but I feel like we need more than my current attempt at an organizing guide. Mass unionization is probably the most direct route to the kind of organization we need. It’s a concept that’s familiar to people, and unions are more popular now than at any time I can remember. While I still like the notion of organizing centered around communities, the reality is that work is a bigger part of people’s lives than community right now, so it makes sense on multiple levels to start there.

In the meantime, one thing that individuals can do, outside of organizing and agitating, is prepare for hard times. If you can afford to, make a habit of keeping a store of non-perishable food, not just because climate change may disrupt supply chains and lead to shortages, but also because in the event of a general strike, you and those around you are likely to need the supplies. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but a strike is a siege, and so success will depend on how well supplied we are.

At the same time, if you can, feed people who are hungry. Help people who need help. Economic desperation is the main weapon wielded by the rich in the class war, and undermining that empowers people, and builds solidarity. Those of us who want humanity to have a future have to come together and fight for that future. What I laid out above is the only path I can see that might lead to revolutionary change without war. As mentioned above, this big jump in ocean temperatures may just be a blip. We might have a rough year, then go back to a “normal” that’s still unacceptable. But we might not. Things have gone so far that it’s a real possibility that we’ve passed a major tipping point sooner than expected. If we don’t organize, prepare, and change course very soon, things will get ugly.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

Keeping what we’ve won: The ozone layer still needs defending.

When confronted with the claim that climate change is simply too big for us to do anything about, a lot of people like to bring up the ozone layer. For those who are unfamiliar, in the late 1970s humanity realized that our release of certain chemicals, mainly chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, was eating away at our planet’s ozone layer like acid. Most alarming was a “hole” – a giant patch of especially thin ozone, over Antarctica. This scared a lot of people, because that ozone works to shield us from the frankly horrifying amount of radiation coming from the sun. Less protection would mean more skin cancer, among other problems, and so the world got together and mostly phased out the use and production of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals.

And it actually worked. There are still a lot of chemicals we produce that mess with ozone, but the international effort to change course worked.

Scientists said the recovery is gradual and will take many years. If current policies remain in place, the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 levels — before the appearance of the ozone hole — by 2040, the report said, and will return to normal in the Arctic by 2045. Additionally, Antarctica could experience normal levels by 2066.

Scientists and environmental groups have long lauded the global ban of ozone-depleting chemicals as one of the most critical environmental achievements to date, and it could set a precedent for broader regulation of climate-warming emissions.

“Ozone action sets a precedent for climate action,” World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “Our success in phasing out ozone-eating chemicals shows us what can and must be done — as a matter of urgency — to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gases and so limit temperature increase.”

And as with climate action, this is only really a “success” if we stay the course and keep not using those chemicals. As the article I quoted notes, just a few years ago, there was an upsurge in CFC emissions from eastern China a few years ago that had a number of people understandably worried. Emissions are back down now, but it’s a good reminder that we are still actively interacting with our atmosphere, and doing well for a few years doesn’t mean that we get to be irresponsible again.

Speaking of which…

While Elon Musk still has his fanboys, I think a lot of people reconsidered their belief in his genius when he kept insisting that Mars, a frozen, radioactive desert, was a totally viable place for humanity to live. Musk is, however, clearly playing five-dimensional chess. On the one hand, he’s going out of his way to obstruct mass transit projects that would reduce the need for personal cars, and on the other, he’s working hard to ensure that while it might not be frozen, Earth is also a radioactive desert:

Rocket launches emit both gases and particulates that damage the ozone layer. Reactive chlorine, black carbon, and nitrogen oxides (among other species) are all emitted by contemporary rockets. New fuels like methane are yet to be measured.

“The current impact of rocket launches on the ozone layer is estimated to be small but has the potential to grow as companies and nations scale up their space programmes,” Associate Professor in Environmental Physics Dr Laura Revell says.

“Ozone recovery has been a global success story. We want to ensure that future rocket launches continue that sustainable recovery.”

Global annual launches grew from 90 to 190 in the past 5 years, largely in the Northern Hemisphere. The space industry is projected to grow more rapidly: financial estimates indicate the global space industry could grow to US$3.7 trillion by 2040.

“Rockets are a perfect example of a ‘charismatic technology’ – where the promise of what the technology can enable drives deep emotional investment – extending far beyond what the technology also affects,” Rutherford Discovery Fellow and planetary scientist UC senior lecturer Dr Michele Bannister says.

Rocket fuel emissions are currently unregulated, both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally.

UC Master’s student Tyler Brown, who was involved in the research, says Aotearoa New Zealand is uniquely positioned to both lead and participate in this field. “New Zealand’s role as a major player in the global launch industry means we can help steer the conversation. We stand to benefit enormously from additional growth in our domestic space industry, and with that comes the opportunity to ensure that global activities are sustainable for the planet as a whole.”

The review lays out detailed plans of action for companies and for the ozone research community, with a call for coordinated global action to protect the upper atmosphere environment. Actions that companies can take include measuring the emissions of launch vehicles on the test stand and in-situ during flight, making that data available to researchers, and putting effects on ozone into industry best-practise rocket design and development.

“The international ozone research community has a strong history of measuring atmospheric ozone and developing models to understand how human activities could impact this critical layer of our atmosphere. By working with launch providers, we are well-placed to figure out what impacts we might see”, says Dr Revell.

“Rockets have exciting potential to enable industrial-level access to near-Earth space, and exploration throughout the Solar System. Creating sustainable global rocket launches is going to take coordination across aerospace companies, scientists, and governments: it is achievable, but we need to start now,” says Dr Bannister. “This is our chance to get ahead of the game.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m a big fan of being proactive, when it comes to the environment. “Getting ahead of the game” is the big dream, but for the most part, it has just been that – a dream. Whether it’s handling of dangerous chemicals, public testing of automated driving systems, or lying about addictiveness and pushing opioids on people, the default is for the rich to get their way. They get to do whatever they want until the peasants get together a big enough mob to stop them. Over, and over, and over again.

I’m in favor of space exploration, and in developing our ability to get off this planet. I love the idea of humanity as an interstellar species, and one of my biggest gripes with mortality is that I won’t be able to see that happen. On the plus side, there’s no guarantee that it’ll happen how I want it to, and I also won’t be alive to see the horror show that is space exploration and exploitation driven by the greed of capitalists.

My big dream for my lifetime is to see humanity move towards a society that values life and the common good over the greed of the worst among us. Decade by decade, we have developed our ability to see problems coming well before they arrive. In the past, I’ve likened science to a flickering light over a rough sea. It gives us a series of imperfect snapshots of an ever-shifting future, and as we’ve gotten better at it, the flashes of light have gotten closer together, and lasted longer. A side effect of our success with the ozone layer was that it proved not just that we could see a problem coming – we’ve been able to do that for centuries – but that we could change course in response, and avoid that problem almost entirely.

The climate movement is plagued by fatalism, and it’s easy to understand why. It took decades of fighting to address the problem of lead pollution, and decades to get the truth about tobacco and cancer, and decades to get any protections of air and water. The fight for climate action is older than I am, and it seems like emissions only keep increasing, and the main thing governments are doing to prepare for the rising temperature, is increasing police and military spending. Worse, we live with the knowledge that at any moment, some multi-billionaire could use their obscene power to do something with global implications, like risking our ability to see into space, or mucking about with geo-engineering.

Or ignoring the warnings and undoing everything we’ve achieved in protecting the ozone layer.

But that achievement itself is worth remembering. The other source of doom-flavored fatalism that same group of powerful people who want to continue preventing real change. They spend so much money trying to stop us, because they know that we can change things, and that we can build a world in which nobody has the power to just fuck up the whole planet because of their greed and insecurity.

We can do this. We’ve done it before.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post useful, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name character in that series!

Researchers see good results from lower mowing intensity, and fewer pesticides

My posts about agriculture tend to lean one of two ways. The first is to advocate for a dramatic, rapid increase in indoor food production. That includes the various forms of indoor farming, as well as efforts to cultivate edible bacteria and microalgae. The second is that for the land that’s currently being used for farm, we shift to a form of ecosystem management much closer to what Native Americans did prior to the European invasion. Land Back should be part of that, of course, but the basic idea is to cultivate an ecosystem that’s full of useful and edible organisms, and to treat it as a community resource, owned in common by everyone, for everyone’s benefit. As always, the exact specifics of this approach will vary depending on regional and local conditions.

I get that just swapping over would feel like a big change to most people. We’re very used to what “farming” looks like, and it can be hard to trust that something like bacterial flour or rows of plants under LEDs would be able to feed humanity in our billions. Fortunately, while I’m more interested rapid, radical change, my philosophy for making the world better is one where every step along the way should come with its own improvements. My favorite example is probably the use of plant life to mitigate air pollution. There’s ample evidence that being around greenery improves both our mental and our physical health (not that those are really separate things). We’d get pretty immediate benefits from adding plants to the urban landscape. Those improvements to our health and wellbeing give us more power, through better health and saved money, to fight for the next step up.

That’s why, while the vision in my head may be some sort of solarpunk permaculture utopia, there are actually much smaller steps that we could take, which would have measurable benefits, both in terms of dealing with climate change directly, and in terms of improving ecosystem health. For example, this study lays out what seems to be a sort of intermediary step, designed to capture carbon, improve ecosystem health, and reduce dependence on pesticides and herbicides, with relatively little effort:

The researchers conducted two independent experiments at the University’s research facilities at the Ruissalo Botanical Gardens in Turku. In the greenhouse and common garden studies, the research team showed that the intensity of mowing has a great impact on pastures. By reducing the intensity of the mowing and cutting the plant higher, the overall yield of the pasture increased and the plants developed bigger roots. This indicates a higher atmospheric carbon sequestration into belowground storage.

What was surprising, Fuchs emphasises, is that the researchers found a detrimental effect of herbicide residues in soil on root growth regardless of the intensity of the yield harvest.

“This demonstrates a tremendous limitation to the potential carbon binding and storage belowground when soils are polluted by pesticide. Considering the vast amount of pesticides applied to agricultural fields yearly, we can conclude that the impact on soil quality is a major driver of limited root growth, carbon sequestration, and consequently plant resilience and productivity,” Dr Fuchs says.

The authors propose additional field studies to extrapolate their findings onto a field scale. Both studies conclude that climate change mitigation via optimising carbon sequestration and storage in soil can be achieved by reducing pesticides, which will facilitate root growth and improve plant resilience.

All over the world, cultivated grasslands are used as grazing pasture as well as for growing fodder that is turned into hay and silage. They cover large parts of the world’s agricultural land and have a tremendous potential for climate change mitigation through carbon storage. The plants use carbon dioxide as they grow, and some of this atmospheric carbon becomes bound in the soils.

“Consequently, understanding how pesticide pollution in soil and intensive management limit plant productivity is the key to optimising intensive grassland-based agriculture in a sustainable and climate-friendly way,” Fuchs concludes.

Oh yeah, it means better crops, too. Did I bury the lede? Maybe a little. They don’t really talk about ecosystem health, but I think it’s pretty easy to see how less intensive mowing, and less pesticide use would both have a “side effect” of improving the general health of the area.

I think we should be ending most of our animal agriculture, which would eliminate much of the need for grasslands as fodder, but we’re not going to get there overnight, and anything we can do to improve things now will make our lives just a little bit easier down the line. Of course, that only matters if this research actually leads to a change in practice. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? There’s something we could try to make the world better, but nobody in the aristocracy seems to feel like investing in it. That’s why I keep coming back to collective power and political change.

As I said at the beginning, the steps we take now can be both immediately beneficial to us, and beneficial to our ability to get bigger changes down the road. We’re not capitalists here at Oceanoxia, so don’t think in terms of “political capital”. The kind of power we on the left want to build isn’t something that’s lost when used. Each victory brings more people and power to the cause, and sets us up for an even bigger victory.

I think many of us are accustomed to witnessing a political and economic “ratchet” effect, in which Republicans use their power to damage things like the social safety net, and Democrats stabilize things, but don’t actually reverse the damage, or guard against further damage. I mean, the Dems do plenty of damage themselves, but we’re talking generalities. While we’ve made great advances in terms of civil rights (hence the current reactionary backlash), 9/11 ushered in a new era of authoritarian government power in the United States, coupled with a dramatic increase in the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the ruling class. It’s discouraging, and often horrifying to watch.

The one bit of hope I’m offering today is that we can, by working together, create our own ratchet effect, whereby we can increase our own power and happiness, and lay the foundations of a much better future than what currently looms on the horizon.

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Global warming reached central Greenland (over a decade ago)

Even with all of our fancy technology, fieldwork in places like central Greenland remains difficult and dangerous. The conditions are unforgiving, and the ground is treacherous. That’s why, despite the global importance of studying the ice sheet, expeditions into the heart of that island aren’t particularly common. A recently published study shows the results of an effort to update our ice core data. Previous cores from the 1990s didn’t show clear evidence of warming, but the new data, extending to 2011, is very different:

“The time series we recovered from ice cores now continuously covers more than 1,000 years, from year 1000 to 2011. This data shows that the warming in 2001 to 2011 clearly differs from natural variations during the past 1,000 years. Although grimly expected in the light of global warming, we were surprised by how evident this difference really was,” says AWI glaciologist Dr Maria Hörhold, lead author of the study. Together with colleagues from AWI and the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, she analysed the isotope composition in shallow ice cores gathered in central-north Greenland during dedicated AWI expeditions.


The AWI researchers have now extended the previous datasets up to winter 2011/2012 by a dedicated redrilling effort, recovering time series unprecedented length and quality. The temperatures were reconstructed by using consistently one single method for the entire record in the lab: measuring concentrations of stable oxygen isotopes within the ice, which vary with the temperatures prevailing at times of ice formation. Previous studies had to draw on a range of different climate archives and combine results to reconstruct temperature, introducing much larger uncertainties in the assessment of natural variability.

In addition to the temperature, the team reconstructed the melt production of the ice sheet. Melting has increased substantially in Greenland since the 2000s and now significantly contributes to global sea-level rise. “We were amazed to see how closely temperatures inland are connected to Greenland-wide meltwater drainage – which, after all, occurs in low-elevation areas along the rim of the ice sheet near the coast,” says Maria Hörhold.

As Dr. Hörhold stated, this result was, to some degree, expected. The planet has warmed so much, and has been reacting to that warming so much, that there was very little chance that it wouldn’t be detectable by 2011. It’s nice that scientific understanding of the climate is good enough that expectations more or less match reality, but obviously it’d be nice if things were moving a bit more slowly. These data don’t change what needs to be done, and they don’t really change the urgency. It’s certainly frightening to hear that one of the coldest places of the earth is warming so dramatically, but I think it’s good to remember that our need for swift action is not driven by models or ice cores, but by the effects that the tiny amount of warming we’ve seen so far is already having on humanity.

I recently had a bit of a discussion with a longtime reader about the eugenicist history of the environmental movement, and it’s a good reminder of the importance of centering humanity as a whole in how we respond to environmental crises and injustices. A lot of environmentalism over the last century has followed the notion that humanity is somehow separate from the rest of this planet’s biosphere, and that advances in technology are some level of “unnatural”. This has been used, at times, as a justification for the under-development of the so-called Global South. Efforts to stop deforestation, for example, put the focus on the people doing it, rather than the systemic factors that made put them in that position in the first place.

The first example of a better approach that I personally saw was at the Kakamega Rainforest in Kenya. During the Moi regime, someone lower down in the government came up with the idea of putting a tea plantation around the rainforest, and employing the locals to work there. The basic idea was to provide them with a means of survival other than hunting in the forest. I’m sure it’s far from a perfect solution, but it was the first time I’d seen an environmental project that focused on the factors that caused people to do “bad” things.

That arrangement, however, still relies on the notion that keeping people out of “nature” is the best way to safeguard that nature from “human nature” as defined by a colonialist, capitalist society. The modern movement for environmental justice is trying to be something different, centering humanity’s right to personal autonomy and self-governance as inseparable from the environmental issues facing us. It aims its ire not at the people who are actually doing the clear-cutting, but on the global capitalist system its endless drive for ever-increasing profit, humanity and nature be damned. We’re trying to build something new, informed by science like this Greenland study, as well as science surrounding humans and our history. That’s why it’s good to know about this research, even though I honestly think that it should not affect your day to day life much if at all. This stuff informs me, but it’s not what drives me, if that makes sense.

And on that note, this study gave us another interesting finding – it turns out Greenland sort of has its own microclimate, separate from the rest of the Arctic:

Another exciting finding from the study: the climate of the Greenland Ice Sheet is largely decoupled from the rest of the Arctic. This could be shown in comparison with the Arctic-wide temperature reconstruction ‘Arctic 2k’. Although ‘Arctic 2k’ is an accurate representation of the circumpolar region, it does not reflect the conditions in central Greenland. “Our reconstruction now offers a robust representation of temperature evolution in central Greenland, which has proven to have a dynamic of its own,” says Prof. Thomas Laepple, AWI climate researcher and co-author of the study. “Actually, we had expected the time series to strongly covary with the warming of the Arctic region,” Laepple reports. But the authors have an explanation for these differences: the ice sheet is several kilometres thick; because of its height, Greenland is more affected by atmospheric circulation patterns than other parts of the Arctic. Temperature time series on the Arctic with regional resolution are needed, says Laepple, in order to reliably describe climate change in the Arctic.

I periodically run into people on Twitter and such places who insist that the world is too complex for us to ever understand or influence, and I honestly find that to be a bit of a depressing outlook. The last person that told me that had also openly said that he doesn’t need to know what climate scientists have to say about all this. That seems like a very self-limiting approach to life. It’s like he’s in Plato’s cave, and someone went out, saw the rest of the world, came back and told him about it, and he just dismissed them without even turning his head.

The world is complex – wonderfully so. It sometimes feels as though most of our problems come from people who desperately want that to not be the case. Personally, I love finding out that the Greenland ice sheet is such a massive chunk of ice that it stands out from the rest of the Arctic, a place that’s rather well known for having a lot of ice. Maybe I’ve just achieved some level of enlightened detachment, but stories like this give me just a glimpse of what it might be like to watch this incredible, planet-spanning change take place from the point of view of a scientist who is somehow not emotionally invested in the outcome.

It’s just a glimpse, because I am emotionally invested, but it’s still there. Nothing like this has ever happened in human history, and it’s teaching us all sorts of things about how the many interlocking systems of this planet function. We’re seeing how it affects migratory species that don’t rely on weather for migration cues. We’re seeing how it affects animals’ body sizes, and plants’ toxicity. We’re seeing how changes in the Arctic affect life thousands of miles away. We’re seeing what happens when a species creates chemical compounds that never existed before, and spreads them across the planet.

It often sucks to be a part of it, but it is absolutely fascinating to watch. I think it helps that I feel like I’m more or less doing what I’m able to at this point in time. I’d like to do more, but I’ve come to accept that I have limits on what I’m can to do, and when can do it. All of that buys me enough space to be able to appreciate how cool it is that people were able to go drill a few holes in the ice in north-central Greenland, and get so much intelligible information about the world’s past and present from that. For all the man-made horrors beyond our comprehension, it’s still a strange and wonderful world.

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A new year, a new Brazilian president, and new hope for the Amazon

I’ve written before about the political situation in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro, a neofascist with ties to the old military dictatorship, ended up in power after a bogus corruption scandal and Bolsonaro’s soon-to-be Justice Minister put the most popular candidate in prison, so he was unable to run for office. Fortunately, that candidate, Lula da Silva was freed, and then won the next presidential election. While the man was in no way perfect, his previous time as president saw a great many people lifted from poverty, new rights and protections for Indigenous Brazilians, and for the Amazon Rainforest. There’s still very real concern about a coup attempt from Bolsonaro’s faction, but Lula will be sworn in as president this coming Sunday, and it looks like he intends to continue doing good things for Brazil, and for the world:

Environmentalists and rights advocates around the world are celebrating Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s selection of Marina Silva and Sônia Guajajara to serve as the nation’s environment and Indigenous ministers, respectively.


Several advocates throughout Brazil and beyond celebrated both appointments. Kenneth Roth, the former long-time executive director of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, proclaimed that “Lula’s win was a win for the Amazon.”

Jennifer Morgan—who earlier this year stepped down as Greenpeace International’s executive director to serve as special envoy for international climate action in the German Foreign Ministry—also congratulated and celebrated both women on Twitter.

“The world is fortunate to have you in this critical position at this key moment of history,” Morgan said of Silva. “Look forward working together to achieve your vision for a social, ecological transformation for the people and nature of Brazil.”

Morgan wrote of Guajajara: “Your courage and tenacity is an inspiration. Celebrating this historic day for you and Indigenous peoples around the world.”

As The Guardian detailed: “Guajajara was born in the Araribóia territory of the eastern Amazon and became one of the leading lights of Brazil’s flourishing Indigenous rights movement, as well as a prominent leftist politician. In 2018, Guajajara became the first Indigenous woman to run for Brazil’s vice presidency. She won a place in Brazil’s overwhelmingly white, male Congress in October’s election.”

While I’m far from knowledgable about this, both women seem to have strong records when it comes to the intertwined subjects of the environment, and Indigenous rights. From what I can tell, the political situation is still far more precarious than I’d like. There’s some evidence of FBI involvement in Bolsonaro’s rise to power, and there’s a long history of left-wing regimes being attacked by the United States and other imperial powers. Lula is no communist, but he’s a ways to the left of the United States, and he seems to mostly put people over profit, which seems to offend the sensibilities of capitalist “world leaders”. Unfortunately, I think it’ll be a long time before we can expect to see real movement to the left in the world without that movement drawing fire from the global capitalist war machine. The upside is that Biden has show support for Lula, and has some political reasons to maintain that support, given Bolsonaro’s closeness with Trump, and the Dems’ desire to stop there from being a pattern of this particular kind of coup attempt.

Sorry, had to fret at least a little about that. The reality is that this is good news, and there’s been so much bad news the last few years, that good things feel like a trick sometimes. This really is good news, though. I first started paying attention to Brazil back in 2006, when I met a man in Tanzania who had been at a renewable energy conference, and was excited to talk about all the advances Brazil had been making – it seemed like it was way ahead of the U.S.! That was right in the middle of Lula’s first stint as president, and while Bolsonaro has done his damnedest to sell the Amazon for lumber, there’s still a lot left to save, and Lula taking office is a great way to start 2023.

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Scientists: It’s dangerous to assume we’ll be able to cool the planet later this century

A month or two ago, I heard some politician/executive type person saying that there wasn’t any real concern with the likelihood that we’ll overshoot our climate “goals”. His reasoning was that the goal was to be under two degrees warming by the end of the century, maybe that’ll mean that we overshoot, and spend 2060-2100 bringing the temperature back down through stuff like carbon capture. I don’t remember who it was, or where I heard it (Found it! It was Shell CEO Ben van Beurden talking to John Stewart (in this video)). I also have no idea whether he believed what he was saying, but I doubt that matters. The level of irresponsibility is honestly breathtaking, given that this dude is certainly not going to be around for the period in question. He’s just cheerfully declaring that his grandkids will deal with it. Clearly the dogma of “personal responsibility” has always been projection, just like all other conservative rhetoric.

Meanwhile, back in reality, we have research confirming what anyone who’d been paying attention already knew: passing the goals set by the Paris climate agreement is unlikely to be temporary

“To effectively prevent all tipping risks, the global mean temperature increase would need to be limited to no more than 1°C—we are currently already at about 1.2°C,” noted study co-author Jonathan Donges, co-lead of the FutureLab on Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). “The latest IPCC report is showing that we’re most likely on a path to temporarily overshoot the 1.5°C temperature threshold.”

The researchers examined various scenarios with peak temperatures from 2°C to 4°C. As lead author and PIK scientist Nico Wunderling explained, they found that “the risk for some tipping events could increase very substantially under certain global warming overshoot scenarios.”

“Even if we would manage to limit global warming to 1.5°C after an overshoot of more than 2°C, this would not be enough as the risk of triggering one or more global tipping points would still be more than 50%,” Wunderling said. “With more warming in the long-term, the risks increase dramatically.”

I’ve long felt that we have already passed some tipping points, such that even if we eliminated most or all of our CO2 emissions, we’d keep warming, albeit more slowly. This is by no means a confirmation of that belief, but I think it does imply that whether or not I’m right, we should be acting with a great deal more urgency. That is also why I keep insisting that we should be planning for life in a hotter planet, and we should expect “too hot” to be the norm for at least a century, probably much longer. Barring a political or technological revolution on a scale that I find unlikely (though that won’t stop me from trying), we’re headed for rough times.

Of course, there’s also the fact that the more it warms, the more it’s likely to keep warming, which is why I think our preparations need to include dealing with our emissions. We have to do everything at once. I’m not kidding about the time frame, either. What we do over the next fifty years or so is likely to set the climate trajectory well into the future:

Study co-author Ricarda Winkelmann, co-lead of the FutureLab on Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene at PIK, pointed out that “especially the Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheet are at risk of tipping even for small overshoots, underlining that they are among the most vulnerable tipping elements.”

“While it would take a long time for the ice loss to fully unfold, the temperature levels at which such changes are triggered could already be reached soon,” she said. “Our action in the coming years can thus decide the future trajectory of the ice sheets for centuries or even millennia to come.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire climate would be as “doomed” as the ice sheets – it may be that we could get to a point where the collapse of the ice sheets will continue even if cool back down significantly. Unfortunately, that kind of long-term risk isn’t limited to the ice – it threatens other systems like the Amazon rainforest, which could be turned into grassland even without continued clear-cutting. What’s possibly even more worrying is the risk to ocean currents:

An analysis of the Amazon released in September by scientists and Indigenous leaders in South America stated that “the tipping point is not a future scenario but rather a stage already present in some areas of the region,” meaning portions of the crucial rainforest may never recover—which could have “profound” consequences on a global scale.

study on the AMOC from last year, also published in Nature Climate Change, warned that the collapse of the system of currents that carries warm water from the tropics to the North Atlantic “would have severe impacts on the global climate system,” from disrupting rains that billions of people need for food and increasing storms to further threatening the Amazon and ice sheets.

Donges stressed that “even though a temporary temperature overshoot would definitely be better than reaching a peak temperature and remaining there, some of the overshoot impacts may lead to irreversible damages in a high climate risk zone and this is why low-temperature overshoots are key here.”

Pointing to estimates that current policies could lead to an average global temperature of up to 3.6°C by 2100, Donges declared that “this is not enough.”

As Winkelmann put it: “Every tenth of a degree counts. We must do what we can to limit global warming as quickly as possible.”

Neither the actions that we have taken so far, nor the actions that have been promised, are not enough. “Better than nothing” is, you know, better than nothing, but we’ve got beyond the obscene callousness shown by rulers to their subjects, and entered an era where we can see a murderous scorn for the entirely of humanity, extending indefinitely into the future.

Or, you know, maybe they’re just deluding themselves, and they’re driving us to extinction out of ignorance. As far as I can tell, there’s no material difference for the rest of us. It’s clear that they cannot be talked into actually giving a shit about anything but themselves. Hell, we can barely get the media to even pay attention to the issue. Hell, a guy literally set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court to draw attention to the issue, and it felt like it barely made a ripple. I have an almost compulsive urge to find a way to end every post on a positive note, but sometimes it’s just hard to find a silver lining. I’m sure the darkness of the season isn’t helping my mood, but for all some progress was made in this last year, it’s progress on a scale that would have been more appropriate two or more decades ago.

Climate change has already killed millions of people, and we’re still getting what feels like less than half-measures, while those at the top are allowed to literally steal billions from workers, and legislators are concerned with their “right” to engage in insider trading. As far as I can tell, there is no line. There’s no “tipping point” at which those in charge will do the right thing. We have to do it ourselves. I’ll be updating my direct action post some time in early 2023, so if you have suggestions to improve it, feel free to let me know. We’ve got a lot to do, and it’s still hard to figure out how to go about doing it in a world so clearly shaped to make us spend all our energy enriching those at the top.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

The U.S. is about to freeze. Stay warm, and help others if you can!

It looks like the U.S. is headed for another devastating cold snap driven by the increasingly distorted polar vortex. I’ve seen no indication that places like Texas are any better prepared to deal with this than they have been for such events in the past. As is usual for this sort of thing, anarchist groups on the ground are doing what they can.



The infuriating reality is that even people with shelter are going to get hit by this, and I’m willing to bet a lot of people didn’t have the resources to do much preparation. In this age of endless recovery those with the means to make a difference at the systemic level clearly have no interest in doing so, and so it’s left folks on the ground with the time, energy, and tools to help both neighbors and strangers.

Try to stay safe and warm, and help others if you can. Remember to *always* run generators outdoors, even if that means you have to crack a door or a window for the cable. Far too many people die of carbon monoxide poisoning when cold weather hits and the power goes out, and we need you – yes you – to be alive, so no gassing yourself! I’ve always found enjoyment and a degree of beauty in cold weather, but that’s because I’ve always known I have the means to get warm. I want a world in which that’s the default (and *not* because of global warming), but we’re not there yet.

If you want more updates on this sort of thing, you can follow It’s Going Down on Mastodon.

Whales, Carbon Sinks, and Eco-Socialism

The “mainstream media” has gotten ahold of a bit of interesting research, and I wanted to give my own two cents on the subject. Basically, cetaceologists (and others, but I wanted to use that word) have added a little weight and some important framing to something we already knew – whales sequester carbon.

“Understanding the role of whales in the carbon cycle is a dynamic and emerging field that may benefit both marine conservation and climate-change strategies,” write the authors, led by Heidi Pearson, a biologist from the University of Alaska Southeast. “This will require interdisciplinary collaboration between marine ecologists, oceanographers, biogeochemists, carbon-cycle modelers, and economists.”

Whales can weigh up to 150 tons, live over 100 years, and be the size of large airplanes. Like all living things, their hefty biomass is composed largely of carbon and they make up one of the largest living carbon pools in the pelagic ocean, part of the marine system that is responsible for storing 22% of Earth’s total carbon.

“Their size and longevity allow whales to exert strong effects on the carbon cycle by storing carbon more effectively than small animals, ingesting extreme quantities of prey, and producing large volumes of waste products,” write the authors. “Considering that baleen whales have some of the longest migrations on the planet, they potentially influence nutrient dynamics and carbon cycling over ocean-basin scales.”

Whales consume up to 4% of their massive body weight in krill and photosynthetic plankton every day. For the blue whale, this equates to nearly 8,000 pounds. When they finish digesting their food, their excrement is rich in important nutrients that help these krill and plankton flourish, aiding in increased photosynthesis and carbon storage from the atmosphere.

A blue whale can live up to 90 years. When they die and their bodies fall to the seafloor, the carbon they contain is transferred to the deep sea as they decay. This supplements the biological carbon pump, where nutrients and chemicals are exchanged between the ocean and the atmosphere through complex biogeochemical pathways. Commercial hunting, the largest source of population decline, has decreased whale populations by 81%, with unknown effects on biological carbon pump.

It seems that “nature-based solutions” is a catchphrase that is very much in vogue right now, and I’m thrilled to see it. The authors of this study state right at the beginning – before the abstract – that we need to do something about climate change, and if we know what’s good for us, we’ll save the fucking whales.

  • As climate change accelerates, there is increasing interest in the ability of whales to trap carbon (i.e., whale carbon), yet it is currently undetermined if and how whale carbon should be used in climate-change mitigation strategies.
  • Restoring whale populations will enhance carbon storage in whale biomass and sequestration in the deep sea via whale falls, though the global impact will be relatively small.
  • Whale-stimulated primary productivity via nutrient provisioning may sequester substantially more carbon, though there is uncertainty regarding the carbon fate in these food webs.
  • Recovery of whale populations via reduction of anthropogenic impacts can aid in carbon dioxide removal but its inclusion in climate policy needs to be grounded in the best available science and considered in tandem with other strategies known to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Good note at the end there. Even a full recovery of whale populations, back to their numbers before commercial whaling began, would not “fix” the climate. It would be awesome, and it would certainly help, but it’s just one part of the system I always rant about changing.

Confession time – during a rather bleak period a couple years before I left the U.S., I more or less gave up on saving marine ecosystems. Honestly, I have up on pretty much everything for a bit. That coincided with a number of health problems, which may have influenced my mood, but a lot of it was from grim news about oceanic plankton levels, my recently-assuaged fears about the so-called “clathrate gun”, and a growing understanding of just how incredibly fucked up our political and economic systems were. Improvements to my health and to Raksha’s also helped my mood, I think, as did a change of employment.

More than that, however, I needed a shift in how I looked at things. I had had the “ecologist” perspective, and the “environmentalist” perspective, but I think I was lacking the “socialist” perspective to bring me to some form of eco-socialism. I couldn’t see hope for a better future, because all the paths to change that I knew about were blocked by the immense and utterly ruthless power of corporate interests. The solution, of course, is to forge a new path, by attacking that power itself. People talk about grassroots organizing, and while that’s basically what I advocate, I think tree roots might be a better metaphor here – we need to increase our own power by cracking apart the foundations of theirs.

All of this is to say that while I still feel the outlook is not currently good, there is a synergy between problem and solution that makes the way forward not only clear, but beneficial to humanity in the short term, if only we can convince people to abandon their understandable fear of big changes. Whales may or may not be the most charismatic of the charismatic megafauna, but they certainly fit the “mega” part of the description. Maybe a new “save the whales” campaign will tie into the same nostalgia-obsession that has a stranglehold on Hollywood and TV? I joked about charisma, but honestly, whales really are cool.

The more I think about them, the more fascinating they become. The obvious thing about them, of course, is their size. They’re just way, way too big, and unlike other organisms of comparable size (I’m thinking trees and some fungus), they move around a lotThis means that in addition to their role in ocean mixing (along with smaller critters), they also move large amounts of biological material around. Some of that was covered in the quotes above, but it seems that in addition to moving nutrients around vertically in the water column, the fact that they are so big means that they distribute nutrients all over the planet, simply by being nomadic and huge.

Fortunately, efforts to restore whale populations have actually had some success, and that in turn has had a real effect on the oceans:

“As humpbacks, gray whales, sperm whales and other cetaceans recover from centuries of overhunting, we are beginning to see that they also play an important role in the ocean,” Roman said. “Among their many ecological roles, whales recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity in areas where they feed.” They do this by feeding at depth and releasing fecal plumes near the surface — which supports plankton growth — a remarkable process described as a “whale pump.” Whales also move nutrients thousands of miles from productive feeding areas at high latitudes to calving areas at lower latitudes.

That article, which also mentions the cetacean role in carbon sequestration, is from 2014, which triggers a couple thoughts. The first is that, as I said at the beginning, we’ve known for a while that whales play a part in natural carbon sequestration and natural carbon capture, but as with so many other things, it hasn’t been given much attention in media or in policy.

The second is that we actually have a pretty good idea about how to make life easier for whales. Recovery efforts have had huge successes just in my lifetime! This is yet another area in which we pretty much know what needs to be done, and to some degree it is actually being done in this case. I feel like I don’t get to say stuff like that very often. Even so, it’s not like whales are out of the woods. While they are, by themselves, foundational to oceanic ecosystems, they also depend on said ecosystems, and we’re messing with those in a variety of ways. As ever, what we’ve done is good, and we need to do more.

I mentioned the fears people tend to have about change, and the article I quoted just above actually addresses what may be both the most long-standing and the most culturally persuasive objection to the idea of a boom in global whale populations: What about the fishermen?

Sometimes, commercial fishermen have seen whales as competition. But this new paper summarizes a strong body of evidence that indicates the opposite can be true: whale recovery “could lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth,” supporting more robust fisheries.

As whales recover, there may be increased whale predation on aquaculture stocks and increased competition — real or perceived — with some commercial fisheries. But the new paper notes “ a recent investigation of four coastal ecosystems has demonstrated the potential for large increases in whale abundance without major changes to existing food-web structures or substantial impacts on fishery production.”

I think a lot of people cling to the way we do things now, because of how well it’s done for us. For all of its problems, there’s a lot to like about life as it exists, especially if you live in richer nations. We have a fear of putting our weight on an unproven bridge, especially if it doesn’t look like the bridges we’ve crossed before. That combines with the modern love of incremental change (which seems to be uncomfortably similar to the slippery slope fallacy) to persuade people that the path forward is for people who care about this stuff to try their changes and see how they do “in the marketplace of ideas”. Somewhere along the way we seem to have developed a societal belief that we can make the world better without risk or discomfort, because of how well our current system supposedly works. We’re in the perfect vessel, and it’s on autopilot, so just go don’t rock the boat and everything will get better.

Part of the beauty of the path I want us to take is that while it will not be easy, safe, or free of problems, every step we take actually takes us in the right direction. We’ve been taught to view good things with suspicion. To quote The Dread Pirate Roberts, “life is pain, and anyone who says differently is selling something.” We hear it so often, in so many different ways, that it feels like it’s just… how things are. Everyone’s always trying to get one over on us, because that’s just how the world works, right? My twitter bio may say “utopian pragmatist”, but this isn’t a matter of even the most level-headed of utopianism. This more akin to understanding why an increase in greenhouse gases causes an increase in temperature.

When we take measures to reduce our impact on the ecosystems around us, we reliably get results that make life better for us. In some ways, this feels obvious, right? It’s like how maintaining good hygiene, diet, and exercise habits pretty reliably improves our health. There are real and important benefits to modern technology, social innovations, etc., that have made life better, and for many people possible. Most of the good stuff we can keep, and that does include a variety of “toxic” chemicals. What we need is to make a societal priority out of global ecosystem health in a way that includes us as a part of that global ecosystem.

Hence, eco-socialism, hence solarpunk, hence climate justice, hence the call to organize and build collective power.

The advances we’ve made have not come from “capitalism” or from our so-called leaders. They have come from the hard work of people, often fighting against capitalism and its leaders. That includes labor rights, civil rights, environmental protections, even safe living spaces – none of that was given to us. All of it was taken, by people working together to make life better for everyone. That’s the attitude I see in the rise in unionization and strikes in the United States. It’s the attitude I see in the Land Defenders of Atlanta, and the Water Protectors of Standing Rock. I would say it’s also an attitude that’s been long-standing among indigenous activists around the world, which is why it is so important to listen to them on things like ecosystem management, and to support the land back movement. It’s a matter of justice, but it’s also a matter of changing our relationship with the planet.

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