Global warming, ocean acidification and mass extinctions

On-going anthropogenic carbon emissions has reached levels 40% higher than pre-industrial ones in 1750, due to human burning of fossil fuels. Despite international discussions and various national efforts to decrease carbon emissions, the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record 390.9 parts per million (ppm) in 2011, according to a report recently released by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO). As a result, 30% more  atmospheric heat was kept from escaping to space than in 1990. The increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere has lead to a 1°C increase in average temperatures worldwide. This may not sound much, but with the long retention time of CO2 in the atmosphere the average temperature will continue to rise for a long time even if we should manage to limit our carbon emissions extensively. The World bank estimates an average temperature rise to as much as 4°C by 2060 unless we start reducing our carbon emissions significantly! The effects of such a dramatic global warming would mean serious threats to the human civilization, with extreme weather, heat waves and sea-level rise, but that is not all…

The geological record testifies to the effects of global warming. Numerous scientific articles dealing with the causes and consequences of the mass extinctions at the end-Permian (252 million years ago) and end-Triassic (201 million years ago) have provided evidence of the dire effects of intense global warming. Both events are linked to massive volcanism from large igneous provinces (LIPs) that emitted huge amounts of CO2 and methane to the Earth’s atmosphere. As discussed by Payne and Clapham (Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, May 2012) such mass extinction events in the geological record may serve as an important ancient analog for the twenty-first century! Climate change and increased temperatures, possibly coupled with destruction of the ozone layer, can account for the extinctions on land, whereas changes in ocean oxygen levels, CO2, ocean acidification, and temperature made life difficult for marine animals, resulting in the demise of as much as 96% and 80% of all species for the end-Permian and end-Triassic events, respectively.

Recent scientific reports provide warning signals. One of the most well documented consequences of the increased CO2-levels at the end-Permian and end-Triassic events is referred to as the biocalcification crisis. The increased CO2-levels caused upper ocean acidification due to lowering of the pH of surface waters, causing problems for calcareous organisms such as calcareous phytoplankton and reef-building organisms, e.g. bivalves and corals. Scientists have long discussed the on-going coral bleeching as one result of our anthropogenic carbon emissions, but now Bednarsek et al. (Nature Geoscience, advanced on-line publication 2012) report alarming evidence of dissolution of shells on living pteropods (shell-bearing free-swimming sea-snails) in the Southern Ocean, providing further warning signals of on-going ocean acidification.

In addition, Arneborg et al. (Nature Geoscience, advanced on-line publication 2012) show increased inflow of warm and salty bottom waters to the central Amundsen shelf in Antarctica where the thinning of glaciers have persisted over the last decades. The Amundsen shelf is part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that contains enough ice to raise global sea level by several metres and, because it is grounded mainly below sea level, it is extra sensitive to ocean warming.

These reports, among many others, should serve as serious warning signals to world leaders that we need to take immediate action to reduce carbon emissions. So far, we have not managed to act efficiently on reducing emissions. At the UN-sponsored climate meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 the relatively weak agreement was to a non-binding target of limiting the world’s greenhouse-gas-triggered temperature increase to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels to limit the potential damage. The 2011 numbers provided by  the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) clearly show that we are failing to keep even that!

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In memoriam: Jan Bergström, Professor Emeritus in Palaeozoology at NRM

Today I was reached by the sad news that Jan Bergström, Professor Emeritus in Palaeozoology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History passed away on Saturday the 17th of November after a long period of illness.

Jan Bergström did his PhD on the biology and systematics of trilobites, and although much of his research was dedicated to early arthropods, he had also worked on brachiopods and written several important papers on the regional geology of Sweden. His paper, co-authored with Erik Norling: “Mesozoic and Cenozoic tectonic evolution of Scania, southern Sweden” published in Tectonophysics in 1987, has been cited in many of my own papers and reports.

In 1989 he was appointed Professor and Chair of Palaeozoology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. There he continued to develop his research on early arthropods, with a lot of the work focusing on the Chengjiang biota together with international colleagues.

I especially remember Jan Bergström from my years at the Department of Geology at Lund University, where he was a frequent  and well known guest attending seminars or meeting with colleagues. Having once worked at that same institute, and also at the Swedish Geological Survey in Lund, he had many friends and old colleagues there, and always seemed to have a keen interest in the research carried out at there.

He left behind an extensive list of publications, both peer-reviewed and popular science articles.

My thoughts go to his family and close friends.

Natural hazards: Are we being responsible?

Last month the hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States full force. The evacuation plans set up by the authorities have with all certainty spared many lives, but the devastation to infrastructure, homes and business will take a long time to repair.

If anything, hurricane Sandy demonstrates the vulnerability of our society to natural hazards. Are we being responsible when we plan and build our communities? Are we considering the risks not only for our own generation but for those to come when we develope land areas in risk zones?

Some natural hazards are unpredictable, but many are regularly occurring events. We should have learned from our history by now. 

The 79 AD destruction of the Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeji by the eruption of the stratovolcano Mount Vesuvius is estimated to have caused the death of 16.000 people due to hydrothermal pyroclastic flows. During the last 400 years Vesuvius has had 23 fairly severe eruptions, with the last one occurring in March 1944 when several villages in the area were destroyed. Vesuvius is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world with some 3 million people live in the city of Naples and surrounding areas.  Evacuation plans exist but the question is if they are effective enough considering that Naples experiences traffic jams on a daily basis?

This Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) image of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy was acquired September 26, 2000. The full-size false-color image covers an area of 36 by 45 km. Vesuvius overlooks the city of Naples and the Bay of Naples in central Italy. In 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted cataclysmically, burying all of the surrounding cites with up to 30 m of ash. Picture and text borrowed from NASA Earth Observatory. Click the photo to go to that webpage.

Mount Vesuvius is not the only active stratovolcano situated in a densely populated area, other examples are Mount Fuji in Japan and Popocatepetl in Mexico.

Today we can monitor volcanic activity (see e.g. USGS volcano hazards program), which can help to prevent loss of life and property damage. But while hurricanes and volcanic activity can be monitored, earthquakes are more difficult to predict even with continuous monitoring. The United Nations Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program have provided a global map depicting the threat of earthquakes:

Global seismic activity map provided by the UN.

Most of the tectonically active zones are also densely populated: e.g. western US, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Indonesia, Japan. So I ask again:

Are we being responsible when we plan and build our communities? Are we considering the risks not only for our own generation but for those to come when we develope land areas in risk zones?