Giant larvaceans and a strange interaction between high-north methane and carbon dioxide are now underlining the complexities of trying to predict climate change.
“Good news about climate change is especially rare in the Arctic. But now comes news that increases in one greenhouse gas – methane – lead to the dramatic decline of another,” Science Magazine reported last week.
Arctic methane had been thought to be part of a feedback loop accelerating the warming of the planet. The thinking was simple: as the planet warms, northern ice melts, methane bubbles out, and the methane – a greenhouse gas – further warms the planet. Then repeat and repeat and repeat.
But scientists working far north of Norway discovered that in some cases the methane is providing fertilizer for phytoplankton blooms that gobble up carbon dioxide.
While probing methane seeps off the Svalbard islands, biogeochemist John Pohlman of the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Mass., “and his team were constantly surprised by how little methane they found,” wrote Science’s Randall Hyman. “But the bigger surprise was that surface water CO2 levels dropped whenever their ship crossed a seep.
“[The CO2 data] became the most important part of the story,” Pohlman told Hyman.
The paper Pohlman and colleagues published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America highlighted how the cooling effect of CO2 uptake “overwhelmed” the warming effect of methane release.
“Our work suggests physical mechanisms (e.g., upwelling) that transport methane to the surface may also transport nutrient-enriched water that supports enhanced primary production and CO2 drawdown. These areas of methane seepage may be net greenhouse gas sinks,” they reported.
In simpler terms, it is possible Arctic methane could in some cases be working to cool the globe not add to the warming.
But the unexpected interaction between methane and CO2 in the Arctic wasn’t the only potential climate change moderator reported in May.
Almost 4,400 miles southwest of the Svalbard archipelago, which sits about halfway between Norway and the North Pole, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., found giant larvaceans sucking unexpectedly large volumes of carbon out of the ocean.
The carbon-gathering powers of giant larvaceans have long been known. Filter feeders, they build what scientist Kakani Katija and colleagues describe as “complex mucus filtering structures that reach diameters greater than one meter (three feet).”
The filter structures break down carbon dioxide and hold the carbon. Eventually, they become so heavy with carbon they sink to the bottom of the ocean where they are thought to store carbon for millions of years.
How to study their carbon removing potential, however, has been a problem because the mucus membranes break down in the lab. Katija and her associates, however, were able to design a laser measuring system that could be attached to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to study the larvaceans in Monterey Bay.
“The (carbon-uptake) rates measured for giant larvaceans exceed those of any other zooplankton filter feeder,” the reported in a paper published in Science Advances. “Given these filtration rates and abundance data from a 22-year time series, the grazing impact of giant larvaceans far exceeds previous estimates, with the potential for processing their 200-m principal depth range in Monterey Bay in as little as 13 days.”
As with overall influence of the unexpected methane-CO2 interaction in the Arctic, the overall power of giant larvaceans to remove carbon dioxide from the ocean is unknown. The affects could be localized and of little meaning or widespread and powerful buffers on the steady upward tick of atmospheric CO2.
“To accurately assess the impacts of climate change on our planet,” the California scientists noted, “modeling of oceanic systems and understanding how atmospheric carbon is transported from surface waters to the deep benthos are required. The biological pump drives the transport of carbon through the ocean’s depths, and the rates at which carbon is removed and sequestered are often dependent on the grazing abilities of surface and mid-water organisms.”
The ocean teems with life, and given that oceans cover 71 percent of the globes surface, how much carbon dioxide they consume in photosynthesis, and what happens to the carbon split off from oxygen in that process plays a big role in global climate.
A complex puzzle
You are, however, unlikely to read much about this in the mainstream media.
The New York Times did report on the mucus “houses” built by giant larvaceans, and how “when their filters get clogged, the larvaceans abandon ship and construct a new house. Laden with debris from the water column, old houses rapidly sink to the sea floor.”
The story contained no mention of climate or climate change.
Stephen Yin’s story noted the organisms likely play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle, but never connected the dots to atmospheric CO2.
Instead, the story focused on the unique structures built by the larvaceans – “these zooplankton are not particularly giant themselves; they resemble tadpoles and are about the size of a pinkie finger,” Yin wrote – and the sophisticated technology required to study them – “DeepPIV projects a sheet of laser light that cuts straight through a larvacean’s mucus house, Yin wrote. “A highdefinition camera on the remotely operated vehicle can then capture the inner pumping mechanisms illuminated by the laser.”
The standard media narrative on climate change is now well established.
The author Charles Eisenstein, writing in Resurgence & Ecologist in 2014, drew parallels between war, religion and that narrative.
“Disciplined by an existential threat, a nation at war turns away from culture, leisure, civil liberties, and everything of no utility to the war effort,” he wrote. “Disciplined by the promise of heavenly rewards or hellish punishments, the believer distances themself from unimportant worldly things.
“Anyone who is wary of these institutions might also be wary of the standard climate change narrative, which lends itself to the same mentality of sacrifice to an all-important end. If we agree that the survival of humanity is at stake, then any means is justified, and any other cause – say reforming the prisons, housing the homeless, caring for the autistic, rescuing abused animals, or visiting your grandmother – becomes an unjustifiable distraction from the only important thing. Taken to its extreme, it requires that we harden our hearts to the needs in front of our faces. There is no time to waste! Everything is at stake! It’s do or die! How similar to the logic of money and the logic of war.”
Eisenstein is not a global warming skeptic. He is a guy who recognizes the world is a complex place with a lot of problems. Others have a different view.
“No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” former President Barack Obama said in his 2015 State of the Union speech. The mainstream media has largely adopted that narrative.
Reporters followed Obama around like lap dogs on a September 2015 global-warming tour of Alaska.
“…Obama brought his crusade against climate change to Alaska this week with a three-day trip designed to highlight the devastating effects of global warming and promote initiatives to address the issue,” wrote Time’s Justin Worland.
Alaska is wrestling with fallout from climate change. Melting, underground permafrost has wrecked some roads and homes in the 49th state. Some coastal villages, precariously located from the beginning, are threatened by early winter storms that now lash the coast in front of them before ice forms.
Bigger problems are predicted for the future, but the future is hard to predict. It could depend on unseen creatures like larvaceans and unexpected interactions like that between Arctic methane and carbon dioxide.
One of the keys roles of modern journalism is to simplify a complex world for people who read the news, but there is always a danger of oversimplifying things.
Could giant larvaceans and Arctic methane save us from a climate catastrophe? No one has a clue. No one even has enough information to plug data into any of the climate models that predict the future with very mixed results.
“…Models continue to get better. But most climate scientists acknowledge that there are limits: no matter how sophisticated our models become, there will always be an irreducible element of chaos in the earth’s climate system that no supercomputer will ever eliminate,” writes Richard Martin, the senior editor for energy at MIT Technology Review.
“The models are getting more accurate in the sense that they simulate many processes more realistically,” explains Reto Knutti, a professor at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Zurich who was one of the lead contributors to the Fifth Assessment Report. “But having said that, all of that has not really helped in decreasing the uncertainty in future projections.”
It’s easy to scare people with predictions about the possible devastation of climate change, but don’t they also have a right to know when findings pop up that might indicate natural occurrences buffering climate against a radical change in the style of the movie “The Day After Tomorrow?”
It posits a global warming scenario in which global warming tips the planet’s climate into a new Ice Age, and if there’s anything worse than a global warming, it’s a new Ice Age.
“Good news” from the Arctic would be a lot better.