September 9, 2009

Nightmare Scenarios

You know, I keep trying to stay away from this stuff, but I can't. Turns out there's a whole new wrinkle on climate change. Once the glaciers melt and all that weight pressing down on the earth's crust lifts, seriously bad things start to happen (via the Guardian):

Scientists are to outline dramatic evidence that global warming threatens the planet in a new and unexpected way -- by triggering earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches and volcanic eruptions.

Reports by international groups of researchers -- to be presented at a London conference next week -- will show that climate change, caused by rising outputs of carbon dioxide from vehicles, factories and power stations, will not only affect the atmosphere and the sea but will alter the geology of the Earth.

Melting glaciers will set off avalanches, floods and mud flows in the Alps and other mountain ranges; torrential rainfall in the UK is likely to cause widespread erosion; while disappearing Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets threaten to let loose underwater landslides, triggering tsunamis that could even strike the seas around Britain.

At the same time the disappearance of ice caps will change the pressures acting on the Earth's crust and set off volcanic eruptions across the globe.

Yikes! One would hope this all is far enough off that none of it is baked into the climate (as certain amounts of warming and sea level rise already are). But it certainly means that we need to get our act together ASAP. It also means that we may need to pay a bit more attention to geo-engineering schemes. Not the wacky ones, like giant space shades, of course. But did I mention that someone has invented a magic carbon eating machine, and it's considered one of the best geo-engineering options by UK engineers?

Top of their list of practical solutions that would be low-carbon to build and require only existing technologies were artificial trees. These units, invented by Columbia University scientist Klaus Lackner, would be the size of a standard shipping container and could remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere. "100,000 trees would take up an area of around 600 hectares, which is less than 10% of the surface area of the Firth of Forth, and that would be able to absorb the CO2 emissions of the UK's non-power sector annually," said Fox.

Currently the UK produces 556 megatonnes of CO2 per year and the 100,000 trees could absorb around 60% of that amount. The engineers calculated that forests of artificial trees powered by renewable energy and located near depleted oil or gas fields, where the trapped CO2 could be buried, would be thousands of times more efficient than planting trees over the same area.

Making each artificial tree would require energy and materials but this would only account for 5% of the CO2 that the device could capture in its lifetime. On a global scale, between 5-10m artificial trees could absorb the CO2 emitted from all sources other than power stations.

We can't geo-engineer as a replacement for emissions reductions, but if it's tsunamis, volcanoes, landslides and earthquakes, I think we better expect to do a whole lot of both and soon. The good news: Congress is on the case! Oh, wait. No, they're not.

Photo credit: National Parks Service

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