Tegan Tuesday: When online mobs turn wholesome

There’s a lot going on this week in personal life, in the wider world, and in the internet world. So I thought I’d share a heartwarming story from tumblr. I’ve been a tumblr user since 2012 or so, as has probably been obvious by the amount of tumblr threads that I’ve shared, and it is a very specific culture. A lot of it is silly, a lot of it is incredibly intelligent, and most of it is anonymous.

On October 27th, tumblr user Aquila Calvitium posted this:

https://aquilacalvitium.tumblr.com/post/699296989413785600/okay-fuck-it-if-this-post-reaches-666k-notes-by

This user had never had a text post of theirs get more than a dozen notes, so betting against almost 700,000 notes felt like a sure bet and a funny little joke amongst their friends. Unfortunately for Aquila Calvitium, tumblr loves a challenge. The first several thousand notes were simply people reblogging the post with the air of ‘haha sucker! We’ll fix you!’ Tumblr user LizLuvsCupcakes stated the general vibe:

Well, OP, I’m officially invested in this shit. Your whiny ass is doing self care if I have to drive to your goddamn house and do it for you.

By October 30th, Aquila Calvitium had moved the deadline to the end of 2022. This still seemed like an unachievable goal.

Then after a discussion about throwing an osage orange at OP between users Headspace-Hotel and TheLeakyPen, user LaineysBucketList offered a gamechanging idea:

We should just fill this post with other interesting things as reasons to reblog it.

Within the versions of this post I’ve seen discussions of hagfish slime used as an egg white substitute; infodumping about beryls; the axial tilt of Venus; and many other interesting random facts from the interesting and random users of tumblr. This collection of smart people with wildly different interests posting informally and anonymously is one of the reasons why I still love tumblr. It’s where academics (formal and informal) go to infodump.

Another update from OP happened on November 4th.

I was going to wait until y’all hit the mark, But I feel like I should say this now
When I made this post, it was supposed to be a joke
I mean, none of my posts ever get more than 20 notes if I’m lucky, so what are the odds of one reaching 666k? Impossible, haha
But then, something happened, something I didn’t expect
People actually began to… like it? And… reblog? And comment?
Before I knew it, my notifications were swarmed with comments after comments after reblogs after comments all on this one post
Then, still in the mindset of this being a joke, I realised I’d made the goal too easy, so I upped the stakes
But… the notes just got more frequent from there
And it started to hit me just what was happening

[Editor’s note: there are inserted screenshots of comments like “i Will reblog this every time i see this. you WILL do self care op,” “how does nihilism still exist. when tens of thousand of people can band together to make a stranger take care of themself,” and “get self care’d idiot <3.”]

For a while, I was overwhelmed with a feeling
A feeling I wasn’t used to
It was like… all of a sudden… I mattered…
My existance was actually noteworthy
People actually… cared?
It wasn’t a game anymore, it was a race to assure a stranger on the Internet that they were actually worth something
Hundreds of people all gathering in one online place to help out
Leaving messages and well wishes
Making me smile
Making me laugh
Funny comments
Jokes
Fun facts
Even simple comments
It all suddenly felt so real
This was never a joke to you
This was important
And I won’t let any of that go in vain
So… stay tuned I suppose
I’ll look after myself, and I’ll post proof of it too
I’ll catalogue every time I put my health first
Physical and mental
I’ll acknowledge my bad days and celebrate my good days
But most of all
I won’t forget this
Any of this
Ever

I am happy to report that today, November 8th, 2022, was the first day of self-care for the original poster. Yesterday, a mere eleven days after the first post, we went over 666,000 notes. As of writing, there are over 697k. Here is OP’s first post about self care.

https://aquilacalvitium.tumblr.com/post/700357376093667329/starting-today-on-the-8th-of-november-2022-the

Aquila Calvitium, who normally has problems eating properly, made themselves a sandwich and hung out with their family. Three cheers to OP! I hope their sandwich was tasty and that their beginning steps for self care and self maintenance take off. And if the news you see in the world is cold and unfeeling, remember how thousands of anonymous people pulled together to convince a stranger that their life matters. The world can be a wonderful place, if we let ourselves see it.

Video: John Oliver on election subversion, and why you should vote

Remember back when Trump got elected? There was a torrent of articles on surviving under authoritarianism, and how to fight back against its creep in your day to day life, but while most of the stuff on that list has happened, and continues to happen, it doesn’t seem like we’ve done very well at fighting back. It’s not that nothing has been done. Biden, for all his many, many flaws, has been better than Trump and the GOP in a number of ways, and it’s fine to feel good about that.

But it’s also the fact that the far right has near-total control over the judicial branch of the U.S. government, and they have been escalating their rhetoric and their efforts to destroy what remains of U.S. democracy. More than that, they are now being very open about their intentions, and they are specifically aiming to take over the positions of power that blocked the GOP’s attempted coup in 2021.

As he said, learn what’s happening in your local elections, and vote. It won’t solve the problem, but it can give more time to solve the problem, and it can keep anti-democracy fanatics from gaining the power they need to crush democracy and have the cops defend them while they do it. And then think about the kinds of things you can do that go beyond voting. By now it should be clear to everyone that the system we have is incapable of defending even the false democracy of the U.S.. It’s down to the people to build democracy and defend it, and it seems like that requires far more active participation than what’s normalized in a representative democracy.

Data on the economic toll of heat waves underscore the need to prioritize climate justice.

A few days ago, I wrote about how the increasing damage from powerful hurricanes is on track to being more than the U.S. economy can absorb. Unfortunately, it’s not just hurricanes, and it’s not jut the U.S. Since the 1990s, the global economy has lost 16 trillion dollars due to the various effects of heat waves:

Geography professor Justin Mankin and doctoral candidate Christopher Callahan, Guarini ’23, combined newly available, in-depth economic data for regions worldwide with the average temperature for the hottest five-day period—a commonly used measurement of heat intensity—for each region in each year. They found that from 1992 to 2013, heat waves statistically coincided with variations in economic growth and that an estimated $16 trillion was lost to the effects of high temperatures on human health, productivity, and agricultural output.

The findings stress the immediate need for policies and technologies that protect people during the hottest days of the year, particularly in the tropics and the Global South where the world’s warmest and most economically vulnerable nations are located, the researchers report.

“Accelerating adaptation measures within the hottest period of each year would deliver economic benefits now,” says Callahan, who is the study’s first author. “The amount of money spent on adaptation measures should not be assessed just on the price tag of those measures, but relative to the cost of doing nothing. Our research identifies a substantial price tag to not doing anything.”

The study, “Globally Unequal Effect of Extreme Heat on Economic Growth,” is the among the first to specifically examine how heat waves affect economic output, says Mankin, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of geography. “No one has shown an independent fingerprint for extreme heat and the intensity of that heat’s impact on economic growth. The true costs of climate change are far higher than we’ve calculated so far.”

Dishonest actors sometimes point to deaths due to cold as a reason why we shouldn’t be worrying about climate change, but that argument ignores several factors. The first, of course, is that we are at the beginning of this warming event. While we can see a great deal of measurable change already, the sheer scale of what is happening makes it hard to remember that it’s actively getting worse. The second is that a lot of those deaths are due to the same economic system that has destabilized our climate. Lack of shelter, lack of adequate heat, and lack of adequate medical care all combine to make people far more vulnerable to all sorts of weather conditions, and the sad reality is that someone can die of hypothermia in pretty “warm” conditions.

Beyond that, there’s also the simple fact that we are a species that evolved on a cold planet. Our history has been hundreds of thousands of years of ice ages, and warmer inter-glacial periods, like the one we’ve been in for the last few millennia. We have many more tools for keeping ourselves warm than we have for cooling off. Deaths due to cold, would be pretty easy and cheap to prevent, but as a society we don’t value life very much.

And, of course, the statistics for cold deaths tend to focus on fairly wealthy countries that have harsh winters, and that choose to maintain a certain level of poverty, “for the economy. The growing problem of heatwaves is not only global, but is predictably hitting poorer countries harder:

“Our work shows that no place is well adapted to our current climate,” Mankin says. “The regions with the lowest incomes globally are the ones that suffer most from these extreme heat events. As climate change increases the magnitude of extreme heat, it’s a fair expectation that those costs will continue to accumulate.”

[…]

The study results underscore issues of climate justice and inequality, Mankin says. The economic costs of extreme heat—as well as the expense of adaptation—have been and will be disproportionately borne by the world’s poorest nations in the tropics and the Global South. Most of these countries have contributed the least to climate change.

The researchers found that while economic losses due to extreme heat events averaged 1.5% of gross domestic product per capita for the world’s wealthiest regions, low-income regions suffered a loss of 6.7% of GDP per capita.

Furthermore, the study revealed that to a certain point, wealthy subnational regions in Europe and North America—which are among the world’s biggest carbon emitters—could theoretically benefit economically by having periods of warmer days. The economies of other principal emitters such as China and India would be harmed by a greater intensity of extreme heat events given their regional baseline temperatures, the researchers found.

“We have a situation where the people causing global warming and changes in extreme heat have more resources to be resilient to those changes, and, in some rare cases, could benefit from it,” Mankin says. “It’s a massive international wealth transfer from the poorest countries in the world to the richest countries in the world through climate change—and that transfer needs to be reversed.”

 That last sentence could easily describe much of the last couple centuries of global politics and economics. It also follows what seems like an increasingly open hatred of anyone who’s struggling, and a belief that such people should be punished for their misfortune. It feels like a very superstitious, Calvinistic perspective – that those at the bottom are suffering because they deserve to be suffering, and therefor we should punish them for the sins they must have committed to be so cursed by God/The Free Market. That’s where we see people waving away a housing-first approach to homelessness, because of vague assertions about drug use or the preferences of people without adequate shelter, in my opinion. While it may not be unique to United States, it feels like a very USian outlook on life, and the flip side to the prosperity gospel that infuses that country’s culture.

And after a certain point, it’s hard not to see this as white supremacist eugenics at work in the climate denial movement, especially when you look at the other political projects funded by fossil fuel corporations and their owners.


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!

Video: Unlearning Economics on theories of value

On rare occasions, you may see me talking about ways in which I think our political and economic system ought to change. I know I don’t talk about it a whole lot, but it is something that I think is important. Despite that, I also don’t know a whole lot about economics. From what I’ve learned over the years, I think that the same could be said of a lot of people who call themselves economists, or at least – if they do have a clear understanding of how things work, then they spend most of their time lying to the general public about what creates prosperity. Regardless, I do tend to believe that if you want to change something, it’s helpful to understand how it works, which is why I am grateful to channels like Unlearning Economics for making videos like this:

 

More CO2 can lead to less nutritious crops

One of the oldest “arguments” against mainstream climate science is the claim that because plants “eat” carbon dioxide, a rise in atmospheric CO2 would be good for plants, and therefor good for us. As with all good misinformation, there’s a grain of truth here. All things being equal, a plant will grow better with higher CO2 levels. The main problem with this argument is that it ignores the other factors that help plants grow. Drought, flooding, and heatwaves all harm plant growth, and this was pretty well demonstrable a decade ago:

And in case all that wasn’t bad enough, it seems that a higher concentration of CO2 is particularly good for poison ivy, both in terms of its growth, and its toxicity. It’s just one of the many irritating things about the current situation. There’s more to it than that, though. Even if we can protect our crops from heat and drought, it seems that higher CO2 levels can result in less nutritious food for us plant-eaters:

For years, scientists have seen enhanced photosynthesis as one of the only possible bright sides of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) — since plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, it is anticipated that higher levels of the gas will lead to more productive plants. In a review publishing in Trends in Plant Science on November 3, scientists from Institute for Plant Science of Montpellier in France explain why this effect may be less than expected because elevated levels of CO2 make it difficult for plants to obtain minerals necessary to grow and provide nutritious food.

“There are many reports in the literature showing that the CO2 levels expected at the end of the twenty-first century will lead to a lower concentration of nitrogen in most plants, mainly affecting the protein content in plant products,” says first author Alain Gojon, research director of France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. “It is very important to understand why growing plants at elevated CO2 has such a negative effect on the protein content of most staple crops and the future of food.”

Plants use photosynthesis to incorporate CO2 into sugars that they derive their energy from. However, photosynthesis does not provide plants with the key minerals they need to grow. For most plants, these minerals, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron, are picked up from the soil through their root systems. Nitrogen is particularly important as it is a key building block for the amino acids that plants use to make proteins.

A nitrogen deficiency not only means that a plant will have difficulty building its tissues, but also that it will provide less nutrition to humans. “What is clear is that the nutrient composition of the main crops used worldwide, such as rice and wheat, is negatively impacted by the elevation of CO2. This will have a strong impact on food quality and global food security,” says corresponding author Antoine Martin, researcher of the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

“Two main nutrients that are essential for human nutrition may be affected by this phenomenon,” adds Gojon. “The first one is proteins built from nitrogen. In developing countries this can be a big issue, because many diets in these countries aren’t rich in proteins and plants grown at elevated CO2 can have twenty to thirty percent less protein. The second one is iron. Iron deficiency already affects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide.”

Beyond global food systems, lowered mineral status of plants at increased atmospheric CO2 levels may lead to a negative feedback loop for mitigating climate change. “The terrestrial carbon sink associated with enhanced photosynthesis may be limited if most of the vegetation is deficient in nitrogen and other minerals, which may prevent any additional increase of CO2 capture from the atmosphere” says Gojon.

“We would like to really understand the mechanisms that are responsible for the negative effects of elevated CO2 on the mineral composition of plants,” says Martin. “For example, we are currently exploring the natural genetic variation behind these negative effects, that could be used afterwards to improve crops nutritional value under future COatmosphere.”

This seems like something that could be mitigated with different farming practices, but it serves once again to demonstrate that carbon dioxide is not the only thing that can limit a plant’s wellbeing. Even if they didn’t result in ocean acidification and temperature rise, our emissions wouldn’t magically increase all other nutrients that plants need, and that has always been pretty obvious.

As ever, these arguments don’t exist to make a compelling case. They exist as weapons in a propaganda war, to be re-used for as long as possible, facts be damned. It’s good to keep doing this kind of research, but most of the climate denial we see in the world is not caused by a lack of information. Ideology and greed are doing far more harm than simple ignorance ever could.

The witch hunts never really went away

Over the last few years, I’ve had a gradual realization that has honestly made me pretty worried about the future of humanity. I’ve been an atheist for over a decade now, and in that time, I definitely went through a phase of anger at the degree to which our world is governed by magical thinking. At the same time, knowing and respecting a large number of religious people, I knew that most of them are perfectly rational people whose day to day thoughts and actions fit with a naturalistic understanding of the world. Hell, I generally tried to make decisions rationally, though I would pray over/meditate on important or difficult ones.

I also grew up learning about strange and horrible things “from the past”, like witch hunts, which happened because of superstition, and possibly contaminated grain? But all of that was in the past. We know better, now, and those areas that still have people murdered for being “witches”, well, they’re just backwards and primitive, and… Boy, when you lay it all out it starts to sound pretty bad, doesn’t it?  Almost as if I grew up within a society constructed around white supremacy, and bought into a fair amount of it, particularly about places to which I had never been. I bought the narrative of Africa as a poor continent, that was strangely slow to develop technologically, and they weren’t doing education well enough, so superstition filled in the gaps in people’s understanding, and that led to stuff like problems being blamed on witches. That, and a dim awareness of religious and spiritual practices outside my own experience as a white, middle-class, Quaker kid from New England.

As with most misinformation and misunderstanding, there are fragments of truth there. I still believe that magical/religious thinking leads people in bad directions, and to bad conclusions, it’s just that there are a myriad of other ideas and ideologies that do the same, and are often far more destructive in the process. White supremacy is a good example, not just in its most blatant and bloodthirsty forms, but also in the more subtle ways it excuses the abuses of the rich and powerful, and masks the real causes of societal problems. In fact, bigotry in general seems to operate very like a magical belief. The beliefs that drive it tend to have connections to a bigot’s sense of self, and so they will tend to cling to those beliefs even in the face of falsifying evidence.

Through that lens, we can see that the social dynamics leading to things like witch hunts have changed in appearance, but they have not gone away. The Renegade Cut video below does a good job of breaking this down, but think about things like the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, where lives were destroyed over accusations of, well, practicing dark magics and human sacrifice. Think of current moral panics.

The horrifying reality is that this stuff never went away. Not in poor countries, and not in rich countries. Some of us just managed to convince ourselves that our society had gotten past all that. We haven’t, any more than we’ve gotten past white supremacy, and that fact has me worried about our capacity to actually change things for the better. I think we can do that, but it seems that as a species, we’re far too good at convincing ourselves that the mere passage of time has moved us “forward”. It seems that this is a problem that will not go away by itself.


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!

Tegan Tuesday: A Semple Solution to Corporate Greed

It has been 0 days since fresh nonsense from Adobe. This round of unfriendly-to-users action is a team effort between Adobe and Pantone, both. Effective today, Pantone colors are paywalled and any programs that run with Pantone colors, like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, no longer work without a monthly subscription (the author of the above tweet mistook USD for AUSD, and later corrected to say that the price is AUS$21/month, or US$15). This is part of a larger trend from tech in general and Adobe in particular. You can only use the approved programs our technofeudal overlords tell us to use, in the manner that they require us to do so, or you are not only courting being out of step with industry standards (like the Pantone/Adobe situation) but you are in danger of felony charges if you alter a program to better suit your uses or budget.

A full breakdown of the situation by Cory Doctorow can be read here, and I do recommend reading his work if you haven’t yet – he’s probably one of my favorite non-fiction writers today. For this post, the short answer on why this is so tragic for digital artists requires looking into both Adobe and Pantone as companies and integral components of modern visual art.

It should be well-understood at this point that Adobe is a household name for digital image software. However for nearly a decade Adobe has used a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, with subscription fees forever. The days of just buying a program and being done with it are dead and buried, and Adobe has always been one of the worst offenders. This means that any changes to the program or the licensing go into effect immediately with no option to roll back to a previous version. Funnily enough, the first place that I’d ever heard about the old trick of changing the clock on your computer to a time before your license expired was in order to use Adobe products. The way Adobe got around this well-known hack? They got rid of the ability to use the program without web access so there’s no opting out of updates and license expirations. I’ve always been a little resentful when I lose a sneaky little computer trick, and Adobe’s been in my black books for decades for this and similar moves against users. It’s also fairly expensive AND the industry standard. Gotta love monopolies; Adobe also has the same hobby as other monopolies, buying their competition.

Why is Pantone in particular so important? The fact is that they have been the industry standard for physical and digital prints since the 1960s (even colored filters and films for stage lights are often described and ordered using Pantone colors). Part of working with Pantone is a very specific color blend, and, for physical printing, even the formula for making the ink or pigment. The company and their proprietary color system have been deeply embedded into every field that cares which particular red goes where. As Doctorow points out in his article on the situation, however, it also goes beyond that. Normal print is based around the combination of Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-blacK, or CMYK.

A strip from webcomic Johnny Wander, showing how with the addition of a cyan collar, their black cat ‘Rook’ is fully CMYK compliant with yellow eyes and ID tag, and magenta mouth and toe beans.

But Pantone also uses over a thousand ‘spot colors’ which can include fluorescents, metallics, pastels, and any number of colors not found in traditional CMYK printing. Beyond industry uses, Pantone is also fairly important culturally. Since 2000 the company has declared a Color of the Year (2022 is Very Peri) which impacts interior design, fashion, and cosmetics. Pantone colors are also specified for country flags, to ensure ‘brand standard’ across printing and manufacturing of materials for or with flags (the US flag uses Blue PMS 282 and Red PMS 193, also known as #002868 and #BF0A30 in hex). Pantone and its proprietary color system would be incredibly difficult to root out of modern culture, which means this move to a subscription model is devastating.

Unsurprisingly, many guides or alternatives around Pantone restrictions have already sprung up. A number of designers on Twitter were wondering if this is perhaps their push to move away from Adobe products and give Krita a go. This has the layered effect of keeping your new products out of step with the industry, potentially losing old work, and requires learning a new system at a professional level. But the colorful hero of the hour is of course, your friend and mine, Stuart Semple.

Semple and his (extremely talented!) chemistry shop made news when he protested Aneesh Khapoor’s copyrighting of ‘Vantablack,’ a proprietary “blackest black to ever black” pigment that was matte, absorbed nearly all light, and was also fairly toxic. Semple has since released three non-toxic versions of a  “Blackest Black,” the “Pinkest Pink,” the “Glitteriest Glitter,” and a number of other proprietary colors like “TIFF” (a Tiffany blue knock-off) and “Easy Klein” (an Yves Klein blue knock-off). The mission statement of his company, Culture Hustle, is a quote from Semple:

I believe art should be for everyone, that self-expression is a basic human right. To do that well, we need the best materials.

The fact that all of his materials are non-toxic bears repeating, because at industrial chemistry levels of pigment innovation, that is really not the standard. Semple’s approach to art is to encourage and raise up other artists, and hope that they stay in the field a long time to make more art and devise innovative ways to use existing materials. You can’t do that if exposure needs to be limited because of toxicity. All of this means that it makes sense that Semple, the champion of artists everywhere for open access to materials and colors, would create a Pantone clone. It’s called Freetone, because of course it is, and it is free to download and use, forever.

Unlike a lot of the workarounds linked above, Freetone is a one-to-one substitution for Pantone that has the full portfolio of colors and uses the same number identification system. Any program that uses Pantone colors can use Freetone seamlessly. The goal was to be as helpful and immediately useful as possible, and I think that Semple achieved that. But this is only a stopgap until Adobe tightens its walls and makes it harder to import different third-party color portfolios. It’s a never-ending arms race against companies who want to raise the walls and narrow the laneways of use, and I for one am tired to always have to worry about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we reached a point again where when you bought a thing it stayed bought? Where your own work stayed yours? Here’s hoping for a brighter — more colorful? — future with fewer corporate monopolies steering the world.


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!

Turns out Antarctica has had rivers this whole time

The image is a variant of the “astronaut with a gun” meme. It shows two astronauts, looking down on Earth from space. The first says, “wait, there are rivers under the Antarctic ice sheet?”
The second, pointing a gun at the first, says, “There always have been.”

I remember learning about the existence of lakes under the Antarctic ice sheet a while back. It was something that just hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility, but if they’re there, they’re there, and that’s pretty neat. I think part of my brain insists on forgetting that while Greenland is big, Antarctica is quite a bit bigger. It makes sense that the diversity of sub-ice conditions on a continent would lead to liquid water in some places. I thought, “Cool! I bet there’s interesting microbial life down there”, and didn’t really give it much thought after that.

But, now that I think of it, if there are conditions for liquid water under billions of tons of ice, then it makes sense that those melt points wouldn’t necessarily be where water would pool into lakes. If there are sub-ice lakes, then there must also be water flowing under there, right? Still, there hasn’t been actual evidence for them, beyond the discovery of lakes. Now, a team of researchers has discovered a large river system under the ice.

The 460km-long river is revealed in a new study, which details how it collects water at the base of the Antarctic ice sheet from an area the size of Germany and France combined. Its discovery shows the base of the ice sheet has more active water flow than previously thought, which could make it more susceptible to changes in climate.

The discovery was made by researchers at Imperial College London, the University of Waterloo, Canada, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, and Newcastle University, with the details published today in Nature Geoscience.

Co-author Professor Martin Siegert, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said: “When we first discovered lakes beneath the Antarctic ice a couple of decades ago, we thought they were isolated from each other. Now we are starting to understand there are whole systems down there, interconnected by vast river networks, just as they might be if there weren’t thousands of metres of ice on top of them.

“The region where this study is based holds enough ice to raise the sea level globally by 4.3m. How much of this ice melts, and how quickly, is linked to how slippery the base of the ice is. The newly discovered river system could strongly influence this process.”

Currently, Antarctica doesn’t have the same kind of surface melting seen in Greenland, where summer meltwater flows down through cracks and holes in the ice, and then flows along the ground underneath it. I guess there’s also been no clear sign of rivers emptying into the seas around the continent before now, so it has been impossible to calculate what effect, if any, sub-surface water could have on ice melt and sea level rise. It seems pretty unequivocal – these rivers are not caused by global warming. They’ve always been there, we just haven’t been able to detect them. What scientists need to figure out is how these rivers are or are not represented in past calculations about ice movement, and what role they will play as the temperature continues to rise.

That such a large system could be undiscovered until now is testament to how much we still need to learn about the continent, says lead researcher Dr Christine Dow from the University of Waterloo.

She said: “From satellite measurements we know which regions of Antarctica are losing ice, and how much, but we don’t necessarily know why. This discovery could be a missing link in our models. We could be hugely underestimating how quickly the system will melt by not accounting for the influence of these river systems.

“Only by knowing why ice is being lost can we make models and predictions of how the ice will react in the future under further global heating, and how much this could raise global sea levels.”

For example, the newly discovered river emerges into the sea beneath a floating ice shelf – where a glacier extending out from the land is buoyant enough to begin floating on the ocean water. The freshwater from the river however churns up warmer water towards the bottom of the ice shelf, melting it from below.

Co-author Dr Neil Ross, from the University of Newcastle, said: “Previous studies have looked at the interaction between the edges of ice sheets and ocean water to determine what melting looks like. However, the discovery of a river that reaches hundreds of kilometres inland driving some of these processes shows that we cannot understand the ice melt fully without considering the whole system: ice sheet, ocean, and freshwater.”

If Antarctic surface melting starts catching up to Greenland, that would cause the existing river systems to “flood”, just like a big storm does on warmer continents, but it’d be more constant. Presumably that would speed up the movement of ice, which would itself increase heat generated from friction, which would melt more ice, and so on. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to happen overnight, but it could be a process that, once started, would be difficult or even impossible to stop. As with so much else in the climate crisis, momentum matters.

I do want to end on a more speculative note, however. Since we now know that these rivers do connect with the oceans, are there fish that use them? Anadromous fish exist in every other continent, so far as I’m aware, but I don’t know if there’s enough food in these rivers’ microbial ecosystem for the babies to feed themselves. On the other hand, there would be no danger of aerial or terrestrial predators. I know we’ve already solved the eel mystery, but are there any other fish that seem to just sort of disappear for part of the year?

I’m not going to lie – I’m very much hoping they discover ecosystems based on sub-ice volcanic activity, similar to deep-water hydrothermal vents. There could be all sorts of critters just living out their lives in complete darkness under there!


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!

Dog-distracting for Halloween


Since Halloween is fireworks season in Dublin, and tomorrow is a bank holiday, we’re at a friend’s house helping distract her dogs. Bella hates fireworks as much as Raksha did, but where Raksha would just pace and pant and hide under my desk, Bella barks at fireworks (and airplanes).

We’re playing Munchkin Cthulhu with Over The Garden Wall on in the background. It seems to be enough to mask the booming overhead.

Bella is a sheltie who hates loud noises with a fiery passion, and barks at them so they know of her hatred.

 

Lucy is a yellow lab sleeping with her snout on my foot. She’s more bothered by Bella’s freaking out than by the fireworks.