1) Scientists warn of dramatic changes in the next 5 years at one of the biggest glaciers in Antarctica
2) Nuclear-Fusion startup lands $1.8 billion in investments
3) Puffin Recovery in Maine hits Climate Change Snag
The annual American Geophysical Union conference took place this week and with it, an update on the annual Arctic Report Card. The results, not good? Although that should be expected.
The big alarming story is the new developments with the Thwaites ice shelf, one of the largest ice shelves in all of the Arctic. It’s roughly the size of Great Britain, and since 1980 has lost 600 billion tons f ice due to global warming. Most of that has been the ice shelf itself sitting on top of the Arctic Ocean, meaning it is not directly adding to sea level rise, although it is contributing to global warming. However as that shelf melts away, which is primarily due to warming ocean waters attacking it from underneath, not the sun from above, we risk melting the land ice. And that’s a big problem. The land ice behind the Thwaites shelf melting would lead to a rise in sea levels of several feet, which would on its own push some global coastal cities underwater.
The discovery this year is that there are multiple cracks forming throughout the shelf, leading to fears it could fall apart much faster than expected, possibly as soon as 3-5 years from now. Although the land ice would take much longer to then melt itself, if we lose the ice shelf we lose our last line of defense so to speak on that being more or less inevitable.
“I visualise it somewhat similar to that car window where you have a few cracks that are slowly propagating, and then suddenly you go over a bump in your car and the whole thing just starts to shatter in every direction,” explained Dr Erin Pettit from Oregon State University.
UNDERSTANDING ARCTIC MELTING
The arctic is experiencing temperature increases 2x as fast as the rest of the world. This is primarily due to the decreasing ability of the Arctic to reflect sunlight. White ice reflects 2/3 of the light that hits it, however dark waters from melted ice absorb much more of that heat. This creates a bit of a vicious cycle of warming unique to the Arctic. On the same day this report was released, Siberia recorded a new record high temperature of 100 F. On August 14th, for the first time in recorded history, rain fell at the Arctic ice sheet summit.
This is a big problem. Rising sea levels are of course an obvious issue – if all the ice were to melt in the Arctic, ocean levels would increase 230 feet, essentially wiping out every major coastal city in the world and lead to a land and food shortage crisis that would likely tear this world apart.
There is also the risk of thawing the Arctic permafrost, which is currently storing 1,440 gigatons of carbon. For comparison, across the planet humans are emitting ~40 billion tons of carbon each year and that is already a major problem. Imagine adding 1,440 gigatons to that.
The marine and terrestrial life that keep the Arctic ecosystem alive would lose out too, leading to a broader ecosystem collapse. Not to mention there are 5 million people that live in the Arctic’s permafrost region that would likely be displaced or be forced to drastically change their cultures for survival.
Not only that but the melting Arctic also increases adverse weather throughout the world. From making the jet stream more volatile to changes to the polar vortex, both hot and cold extremes just get worse.
Here is a great video that nicely demonstrates these effects:
OUR TAKE – SAVE THE ARCTIC!
Ok so this is a bit more doom and gloom than we like here at Animalia, but the changes to the Thwaites are a big deal that further demonstrate there is no more time for deliberation and debate.
The most important thing we can do to prevent the Arctic from melting altogether is lowering emissions/greenhouse gases ASAP, which primarily means getting the heck off of fossil fuels, and protecting the natural carbon sinks we have left, which means getting off of industrialized land and sea agriculture.
A recent model showed if we hit our most ambitious global warming targets by 2050, we could cut the volume of ice lost in Greenland by 75%. So there is hope.
In addition, there are many innovations in the spirit of geoengineering out there to explore as well. The most popular being a plan from the organization ICE911 to cover the remaining ice with billions of small silica glass beads. These would greatly increase the amount of sunlight reflected off the surface, reducing warming, and early tests show now direct harm to the environment or animal or plant life. However there is a lot more testing to be done before deploying something like this at scale.
Saving the Arctic is not just about polar bears and penguins – they matter too 100% – but every single living creature on this planet including everyone reading this will experience great negative effects if it does indeed melt away. Much of it will be lost at this point no matter what, but it is not yet inevitable it will be all lost forever if we can get our act together on climate action.
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HOLY GRAIL OF ENERGY GETS BIGGEST CHECK YET
Commonwealth Fusion Systems recently raised a whopping $1.8B investing round with he hope that it will prove it’s product is possible by 2025 and maybe in the market by 2030.
So why so much funding for something so early and risky? Because they are chasing the holy grail of renewable energy, the long-time science fiction answer to a limitless source of clean energy that would change the course of global warming forever: nuclear fusion.
Commonwealth is not alone. Helion Energy recently raised $500M with another $1.7B promised in milestones and the world’s largest fusion project, ITER, located in France, has to date received $22B in government funding from around the world with the promise of reaching the superheated plasma state necessary for fusion by 2025 and having a functional fusion net energy source by 2035.
Why all the recent funding and what is all the fuss about fusion?
FISSION VS. FUSION
Nuclear technology today uses a process called nuclear fission. This is when atoms are split in order to create a supercharged heat that is then used to create electricity. Typically this is in the form of a neutron colliding with an isotope of Uranium, causing the Uranium to split. Uranium is used because it’s a large mass isotope, making the collision easier, is relatively easy to split, and produces a ton of heat when split.
However this source of nuclear power requires a relatively scarce resource in Uranium and also produces nuclear waste….the particles left over from that split isotope.
Nuclear fusion however, essentially produces heat the same way a star does. It uses an insane amount of heat to super charge 2 atoms together causing them to collide and fuse together, and when they do, an enormous amount of energy is given off. Unlike fission which uses uranium, fusion can use hydrogen atoms, which are common and limitless, potentially allowing us to create an endless source of energy requiring basically air.
That said, the amount of energy needed to heat the plasma where the fusion reaction occurs has always and still today is higher than the energy produced on the other side of it. Just how hot does that plasma need to get to? Try 100 million Celsius. Damn.
So what is Commonwealth’s solution? Their breakthrough is the successful test of a super magnet that can sustain a magnetic field of 20 Tesla, which serves to essentially control and insulate the plasma as it heats up. And not just any magnet, but a fairly small one by fusion standards allowing their potential fusion plants to be smaller and more viable to build out.
There is no doubt that net energy positive nuclear fusion at scale would solve our energy needs and allow us to hit basically every goal on limiting global warming. So yeah, it’s a big deal.
However the scientific community greatly debates when this point will be reached – most say 20 to 30 years from now -and some if it’s possible at all. Certainly CFS and Helion think it’s possible on a much shorter horizon and plan on proving it to everyone in the decades ahead.
All that said, we should really consider if this is the best approach to a truly limitless energy supply vs. something like ITER which has the potential to be more publicly owned. If we allow private enterprise to control the ultimate source of energy for the sake of profit, we may find ourselves back dealing with the same inequity and social issues that we are in today. Just as health care and education should be a fundamental human right, shouldn’t electricity as well? We’d like to see more programs like ITER where multiple, public finance sources are carving their way to net positive fusion.
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LISTEN TO THE PUFFINS
By the early 1800s, puffins were wiped out of the Northern Atlantic region, hunted to extinction in the islands off the coast of Maine where they once thrived, but they remained in other areas such as Newfoundland.
Thanks to some innovative recovery efforts led by the incredible ornithologist Steve Kress, puffins have made a recovery on those Maine islands. Today, there are over 180 healthy breeding pairs.
But just as the recovery has been starting to stabilize, climate induced changes to the ecosystem are putting them back at risk. Puffins are doing their job as indicator species in letting us know, which is part of the reason we need them.
PUFFINS & LOCAL CLIMATE
We’ve talked about Indicator Species here on Animalia before, such as the incredible pikas in the Rocky Mountain regions. And Indicator Species is one that can signal changes in their ecosystem quite early on, allowing scientists to get a heads up with hopes of getting out in front of whatever is causing the issue.
Puffins primarily do this in how they feed. They are VERY picky when it comes to the fish they feed on especially when feeding their young. They prefer fish with thin exteriors and high calorie density like butterfish and white hake. And they can dive as far as 150 feet to get them. See the video below of a puffin diving for food.
However, the waters off the coast of Maine are increasing in temperature faster than 99% of all ocean waters worldwide, due to the intersection of two major ocean currents in the Gulf f Maine. With that rise, butterfish and hake are moving out to more suitable waters, and more resilient fish like Atlantic herring and rough scad remain. However they are not nearly as suitable for puffins.
Combing this food security issue with increased storms and rainfall causing unexpected flooding of some puffin brood nests, also due to the changing weather from the warming planet, in 2021 puffin chicks survived at just a 25-33% rate compared to the typical 66%.
That’s a big drop.
Conserving puffins is not about their cute factor, although they are really lovable birds.
Puffins not only play a key role as Indicator Species as we discussed, meaning we will know less about the changes and health of our ocean ecosystems in real time without them, but they also stabilize fish populations as most other predators do. They keep things in balance and help avoid specific fish species taking over a certain marine ecosystem which then has other cascading negative effects.
This is why the work from Steve Kress was so valuable. And this methodology for recovering this specific bird was quite remarkable. He used the laws of “social attraction”. His theory was that by mocking faux puffin bird calls and even making puffin dolls and placing them along these islands, reintroduced puffins would see this and feel comforted this is a safe, trustworthy place. Despite a lot of skepticism, it worked! He was right. And puffins have been recovering well in the Gulf of Maine ever since.
Now sadly the climate issue is interfering as it is in so many other ways as well. Still, Kress’ work gives us reason to believe we can continue to find creative ways to recover species like puffins, but we also have to simultaneously tackle global warming and get out in front of dramatically reducing emissions.
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