Sunday, March 26, 2006

The revenge of Gaia

The revenge of Gaia .
The revenge of Gaia

A book by James Lovelock ( ISBN 13:978-0-713-99914-3 )
This a good summary and call to arms .

He argues that an extreme sense of urgency for remedial steps is necessary , as a major discontinuity ( or tipping point )  looms in about 30 to 40 years at present projected rates of global warming . The Global temperature would rise by about 3 degrees within this time , then suddenly suddenly rise within a year or two by about 8 degrees Celsius after this threshold is reached .

This is the Algal die-off tipping point .
If the global temperature rises by  3  degrees Celsius (ie a total 500 ppm CO2 concentration) global warming causing the rapid extinction of most algae in surface temperate and tropical oceans will result . This would cause a decrease in CO2 downdrawal and decrease in cloud-cover due to lack of DMS condensation nuclei for droplets . The combined effect bounces the global temperature up by at least 8 degrees in a very short time .

Other lesser positive feedback warming effects which are already operative :

1 . Melting of Siberian and Canadian permafrost is releasing large volumes of trapped methane and CO2 . ( Methane is 24 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 ) . Large peat fires is to be expected as dry-out progresses , releasing even more CO2 .

  1. Melting of Arctic ice is reducing reflection of light , raising temperatures in arctic regions .

  2. Melting of glaciers . Less flow-off during summer leads to less vegetation and more warming .

  3. A temperature rise of 4 degrees will see the vanishing of all tropical forests ( The why is tied to the evaporation rate . Even present temperature rises are enough to cause dry-offs in marginal areas , leading to very large fires in the Amazon , Indonesia , Malaysia.) Human exploitation exacerbates this effect .

  4. The slowing-down of the Gulf-Stream due to the large-scale influx of fresh water from the melting of the arctic and Greenland ice masses . Actually , the whole planetary ocean current system is affected , but nobody knows to what effect .

  5. Solar dimming effect ( due to solar reflection by sulfur pollution aerosols ) decreases . The effect can be very pronounced : apparently , the week-long banning of all flights over the USA after 9/11 caused a whopping 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature over the north American continent .

  6. Human activities .

  7. Rising ocean levels and extreme wheather is killing vegetation , the rotting of which releases their carbon content as methane or CO2 .

Negative feedback factors:
  1. Large scale volcanism : rapid melting of large volumes of ice will destabilize the tectonic balance , especially in the North Atlantic and North Pacific .

  2. Lowering of oxygen concentration due to alagal die-off .
3. Humanity will have to supply the rest . All the natural restorative mechanisms seems to result in the extinction of humans .

What does this mean for humans?

The Business as usual scenario:
For about 20 years , things will get slowly worse . More extreme hurricanes , droughts , floods etc . Famines , water-famines and increasing oxygen-famines cause large-scale environmental refugees . Resource wars and genocidal wars increase in frequency and intensity .

The present resource-rich nations withdraw core-survivors to highland areas in the arctic and Antarctic regions . (Notice present fortifications in Urals and bio-banks in Norway and Sweden) The sea-level rises within a decade by at least 7 m as the Greenland ice melts at around 2050 . Antarctic melts are uncertain , but it would be prudent to relocate at least 200 m above present sea-levels .

All regions between Canada-NorthernEuropeSiberia and TierreDelFuega-NewZealand-Antartica become uninhabitable ( or at best , like the sub-sahel at present) . The Hadley-cells in the atmosphere broaden and shift the trade-wind further to the poles . Huge storms , hurricanes , floods , tornadoes . The risen sea-levels means huge expanses of shallow seas over Western-Europe , Eastern-US , Amazon , with concommittant  heating fuelling the storms .

The cooling caused by the cessation of the Gulf-stream on Western-Europe will be initially offset by the global warming ( the estimated effects cancel out : -8  by +8 degrees , but the rising sea-levels will drown most of the West-European plains (return to Tethys Sea) . The shallow seas trap heat and generate unbelievable storms .

The inevitable volcanism caused by the shifting tectonic stresses of lifting ice-masses will cause a short-term cooling , but even bigger storms . Super-volcanoes? Can anybody survive the energy fluctuations ?

Human intervention .

All this seems very pessimistic . Unless something drastic is done , it seems all too possible that no one will survive . Business as usual is not sufficient . Extinction is not only a real possibility , but a high probability .

Essentially , humans will have to increasingly manage the planet . Services supplied free and without conscious thought by the planet (call it Gaia ) ( like breathable air , potable water , edible food , safe domiciles , anti-boredom) , will have to be done by humans if they want to avoid extinction .

The Morality.

Humans have enormous power at the moment . They can easily control the problems of the planet . They have the technology and a lot of the necessary knowledge .

What they lack is a moral basis to mobilize it all .

There is a curious paralysis of the will .

They ask themselves :
“Is it the right thing to do?”
They are quite willing to sacrifice themselves if they are convinced it is the right thing to do (history is full of this) .

But they ask themselves:
Shall we loose a human disease on all the Universe ?
Will humans be like a plague ? At the moment they are contained on one planet . They think they have nearly destroyed their biosphere . Is it moral to release uncontrolled positive feedback forces ?

This is a very general way of looking at it:

The key here is variety and transformation .

Large numbers lead to variety . Variety lead to both conflict and co-operation .

Conflict and co-operation are fractal in combination . Elements have conflicts between  boundaries of co-operation , and these boundaries are in turn the elements of conflicts between bigger boundaries of co-operation , and so forth .

This gives sufficient scope for transformation .

Essentially , this means that any sufficiently large number of elements is bounded : Competitive elements are bounded by  co-operative boundaries , and co-operative boundary-elements are bounded by competitive boundaries . And so forth .

It means you can screw up big time , but you can’t destroy the universe .

Conversely , inaction in a complex situation spinning out of control is the worst possible response .

The moral thing for our society is to intervene .

That perennial problem “ Does the end justifies the means ? “ can be shown to be bounded .
You can try to analyze the effects of any decision in its competition environment until its co-operation boundary , then on all co-operation boundaries , then on all competition environments after that , etc . You will very rapidly reach reach a fuzzy boundary . Like a chaotic system into the future .
An example is climate . Climate and competitive humans is predictable (it is , after all , what we did above with global warming) . However , if co-operative humans are added , the end-result is unpredictable .You cannot say “this end justifies the means” , but only that “my striving towards these possible ends justifies some of these means “.

It is my considered opinion that the right thing to do is not to limit human numbers .

This translates into :
1.No artificial plagues .
2.Release energy technology .
3. Use present technology to the utmost , but in all areas .

Humans will have to manage the planet.

This means building up knowledge of how ecology works . Actively regulating the energy inflow to the planet , as well as the outflow .

These things Mother Earth used to do for us for free . But we’re slowly growing up . Time to stand on our own feet .

For instance , managing the energy inflow to the planet is trivial . Numerous umbrella-type plans are available . All require large masses in orbit , which can be done (and will be if things get bad ) by Orion type thrusters .
There is sufficient variety on the planet at the moment to make it inevitable .

It sounds like a lot of work , but there are a lot of hands . The terran biosphere , excluding humans , can be very closely approximated . If humans are included , decent first and second order approximations can be made .

Humans can run their biosphere .


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