Ecosystems in a changing climate

Ashley Thorvaldson in party mode

As climate changes, many species are moving. Sometimes, it is from lower to higher altitudes, in order to live in familiar temperatures. Sometimes, it is from south to north for the same reason. Such natural adaptation is inevitable and, while it is a coping mechanism for individual species, it invariably changes the composition of ecosystem. Birds and flying insects may be able to relocate more easily, leaving slower-moving or less adaptable species behind. Suddenly, the structure of food webs start to change as predator-prey relations are redefined.

Some people have argued that allowing ecosystems to respond to climate change on their own is the best course of action. Others have argued that vulnerable species should be relocated to areas where they will be able to continue living. Some have even argued that polar bears should be relocated to Antarctica to make them less vulnerable to global warming. Others have argued that elephants and rhinos should be introduced to North America as a hedge against the danger of poaching. Finally, there are those who argue that we should actively manage ecosystems to try to mitigate climate change effects: if pests have shifted into new areas and begun eating crops, import their predators. If coastal erosion is worsening, bring in species to stabilize beaches.

The human record of such interventions is definitely not stellar, but the debate is nonetheless increasingly energetic. The discussion is both pragmatic – asking what the probable costs and benefits of making a change would be – and philosophical – engaging with the question of what the ‘natural’ world is and how people should engage with it. Global climatic change will make both of these sets of questions more immediately relevant and pressing.

C’est quoi le mot pour ‘reverse osmosis?’

This morning, I had a French conversation class. The advantage of being in the first class of the day was that nobody else showed up. As such, I learned a lot of vocabulary relating to Welsh mountain climbing, desalination, battery and fuel cell technology, and fossil fuels. There will be two one-hour classes a week, focusing on conversation. It will be good to finally get back into the practice of speaking la belle langue.

One Laptop Per Child

Bronze maple leaf

People who do not spend half their lives on the internet may not have heard about the One Laptop Per Child Program. This non-profit initiative has produced an inexpensive laptop meant to be used as an educational tool by children in the developing world. The device has been reviewed by the New York Times and, while it is limited in some ways, it seems to serve its intended purpose very well. Furthermore, it does some things that no other available laptop can, such as on-the-fly mesh networking: where computers close together automatically link up, allowing internet connections to be shared and collaboration within applications. It uses a $10 battery that is good for four times more charges than a normal laptop battery, while also providing six hours of power with the screen’s backlight engaged or 24 hours without. The machines also have built-in video cameras and microphones.

Through the ongoing Give One, Get One promotion, people can spend $400, receive one laptop for themselves, and donate one to a child in the developing world. Needless to say, one of these would make an amazing Christmas gift for a young person (the keyboard is apparently too small to be used comfortably by adults). Dust-proof and spill-proof, these things seem to be safe in the hands of the average child. Not only do they come with some very neat software, they really embrace the philosophy of letting children learn how it all works. One button reveals the code behind any website or program being used on the machine: potentially breeding a new generation of skilled programmers.

That last part is important. Some people have argued that laptops are hardly a priority in a world where people lack access to the basic requirements of life. In many places, that is certainly true. At the same time, having access to technology of this kind can help both individuals and societies push themselves along the path to development. It is more rewarding and sustainable, in the long run, to do that through the accumulation of expertise and skill than by continuing to rely upon what can be caught in nets, cut down, or dug out of the ground.

Another orbit well celebrated

Many thanks to everyone who called or sent various kinds of electronic messages for my birthday. I will respond to all of them, in the fullness of time. Special thanks to the various people who sent me kind gifts. In emulation of Emily, I will list a few in order to highlight the amusing diversity:

  • Green wine
  • Hand-made cufflinks
  • Nepalese woolen socks
  • Murchie’s Earl Grey Tea (my favourite kind)
  • Fudge from Vermont
  • Delicious Sri Lankan food
  • A large book of Canadian artwork
  • Rare earth magnets (still in the mail)
  • Twelve cans of chick peas

Despite my relative isolation in Ottawa, I am fortunate to have so many considerate family members and friends.

[Update: 4 December 2007] Two new items joined the list today:

  • A guide to tying knots
  • A CD by the group Afterparty

My magnets also arrived.

[Update: 22 December 2007] Emily gave me a couple of nice things:

  • Ichthyosaur t-shirt
  • Safari Outback Water Filtration Kit

Climate change and the Inuit way of life

Random portrait from the National Archives

At several points in the past, Arctic native groups including the Inuit have been effectively involved in the development of international regimes for environmental protection. Perhaps most significant was the role of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in the development of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Studies done on the human health impact of Arctic POPs on the Inuit provided a big part of the scientific basis for the agreement. Arctic native groups were also effective at pressing their moral claim: chemicals being manufactured elsewhere were poisoning their environment and threatening their way of life.

A similar claim can be made about climate change, though the probable outcome is a lot more negative for Arctic native groups. Relatively few states and companies manufactured the bulk of POPs and, in most cases, less harmful chemicals can be used in their place. The economic costs of phasing out POPs were relatively modest. While the costs of dealing with climate change are a lot lower than the costs that will be incurred through inaction, they are nonetheless many orders of magnitude greater than the costs associated with abatement of POP use.

The threat posed to the Inuit by climate change is also quite a bit more far-reaching. It is entirely possible that the whole Arctic icecap will be gone within twenty years, or even sooner. 2007 was by far the worst year ever recorded for Arctic sea ice. Without summer sea ice, the Arctic ecosystem seems certain to change profoundly. Given the reliance of traditional Inuit lifestyles upon hunting terrestrial and marine mammals, it seems like such conditions would make it impossible to live as the Inuit have lived for millenia. This isn’t even a matter of worst-case scenarios. Even without significant new feedback effects, summer Arctic sea ice is likely to vanish by mid century. Increasing recognition of this partly explains the ongoing scramble to claim Arctic sub-sea mineral rights.

As with small island states, there doesn’t seem to be enormously much hope for avoiding fundamental and perhaps irreversible change in the Arctic.

Clean coal isn’t cheap

The point is increasingly well made by numerous sources: once you add carbon sequestration, coal is no longer an economically attractive option. In Indiana, a 630 megawatt coal plant is being built for $2 billion. That’s $3,174 per kilowatt. If we expect investors to seek a an 11% return on investment over a 20 year span, the capital cost of the plant is about 5.7 cents per kilowatt hour. On top of that, you need to pay for transmission, fuel, staff, and maintenance. On average, electricity in Indiana sells for about 6.79 cents per kilowatt hour.

The nominal price of the plant and the power it generates also doesn’t consider other coal externalities: like how mining it is dangerous and environmentally destructive. While this plant uses Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology and is capable of being attached to carbon sequestration infrastructure, it will not actually sequester the carbon it emits. As such, it will be only incrementally better than a standard coal plant with the same electrical output.

The only possible justification for this is that this is a demonstration plant that will help to make the technology much cheaper. Of course, when it is considered in that way, it seems at least equally sensible to spend $2 billion on experimental renewable power plants, in hopes of reducing their capital costs. The more you think about it, the more it seems like coal is densely packed carbon that is conveniently already in the ground. It should probably remain there.

Observing global oceans

Canadian Parliament

A number of severe problems are facing the world’s oceans and the living things that dwell within them. There is the exchange of invasive species through shipping, worldwide overexploitation of fish stocks, the acidification of the ocean from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, changes in salinity that threaten major ocean currents, and pollution (including eutrophication from chemical runoff). As such, calls for more extensive study seem quite justified. One group that has been making such demands is the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO). They have called for an expanded global monitoring system involving research ships, buoys, satellites, and animal tagging. Such a system should both help scientists to understand the operation of existing systems better and predict the future consequences of ongoing human activities.

One of the more interesting satellites in the process of deployment is Jason-2. It will provide data on sea level changes with unprecedented accuracy and coverage. Using a RADAR altimeter, it will determine sea levels to centimetre precision, measuring the 95% of all ice-free ocean areas every ten days. This is helpful because sea level is not constant or globally consistent: observing how it changes can improve the quality of weather predictions and climate models. The level of radiation in the zone where Jason-2 will orbit is intense. As a consequence, the projected lifetime of the craft is only about five years. If all goes well, it should be launched in February 2008 to replace the Jason-1 system, already suffering from multiple failures.

Understanding climate absolutely requires understanding the nature of the oceans, as well as the interactions between the hydrosphere (liquid water), cryosphere (ice), and atmosphere. Hopefully, a few billion dollars spent on oceanic research will yield understanding that can help to guide more intelligent action. Of course, having that transpire requires more than scientific certainty – it requires the personal and political will that have really been the absent element in ocean management.