Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
After looking over some recent columns, I discovered that it’s been a while since I dipped into the Weather/Global Warming file and I’ve recently stumbled across some news that’s having an interesting effect on our own weather. More on that later.
It’s summer in North America and that means that the North Pole has been in perpetual daylight since last June. I’ve done articles about the opening of the Northwest Passage and the rising ocean level. Of course, the melting ice in the North Pole hasn’t been considered the problem that it presents at the South Pole because the ice at the North Pole is already in the water and shouldn’t contribute much to the rise in sea level. Recent research says that may not be true.
A GREEN LAND MELTS
The island of Greenland has probably the most inappropriate name for any location on Earth. Whiteland would have been a MUCH better name. But that’s all changing. The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than expected, according to a new study led by a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher.
The study conducted by Dr. Sebastian Mernild and colleagues from the United States, United Kingdom and Denmark, shows that the Greenland ice sheet may be responsible for nearly 25 percent of the global sea level rise over the past 13 years. Their study also shows that seas now are rising by more than an inch every four years. This is more than 50 percent faster than the average for the 20th century.
They discovered two things. First, it’s not snowing as much over Greenland in the winter to replace the snow that’s lost, and second that melting, evaporation and calving of icebergs from Greenland’s flanks has increased. Since 1995, the ice sheet has lost 100 cubic MILES of ice each year. To wrap your mind around that, just imagine an ice cube 10 miles on each side.
Researchers have kept a close eye on Greenland as one of the major indicators of climate change. Major glacier calving events in 2000 and 2007, sent up to 44 square miles of ice into the sea at a time. Researchers are studying these major events as well as the less dramatic ongoing melting of the ice sheet through runoff and surface processes.
Ice melt from a warming Arctic has two major effects on the ocean. First, increased water contributes to global sea-level rise, which in turn affects coastlines across the globe. Second, fresh water from melting ice changes the salinity of the world’s oceans, which can affect ocean ecosystems and deep water mixing.
Researchers are also afraid that the sudden influx of cold water into the northern Atlantic from Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic could stop the Gulf Stream in its tracks causing profound climate change on the eastern coast of North America and in Europe.
Greenland could, indeed, become a ‘green land’ but at the risk of profound climate change for many of the world’s inhabitants.
Melting water from a glacier in Greenland runs into the ocean. (Credit: Photo by Sebastian Mernild)
Although the events of the previous story are unlikely to affect us directly here on Guam, except for that pesky sea level rise in the World Ocean, the events described in the following story are already affecting us here.
FIRE IN THE SKY
Have you noticed all the thunderbumpers lately? Does it seem to you that there’s a lot more thunder and lightning this year than there’s been for a while? While the weather reminiscences of older folks are usually laughed at, in this case, they’re probably right.
When I first came to Guam, more years ago than I care to remember, I taught first graders in Merizo. In the autumn of that long-ago year (OK, it was 1980), there was a lovely thunderstorm with lots of lightning. My six-year olds were absolutely terrified. When I began to question them, they told me they had NEVER heard noises like that or seen flashes of light like that in the sky.
I figured this was just a bid for attention from the kids, but when I talked to the teachers and other adults at the school, they assured me that the kids weren’t just playing up. The thunderstorm was extremely unusual and in fact, the kids were young enough that they might never have heard thunder or seen lightning.
Then I did a little research. In order to create the charge differences that cause thunderstorms with lightning, you must have particulate matter in the air. Summer thunderstorms are common over continents because there’s a lot of dust in the air. They’re much less common in winter (although I have seen a lightning snowstorm, surely one of the most bizarre of weather spectacles) and much less common over the open ocean because typically, there’s no dust in the air to cause the charge differences.
Windblown salt can cause the charge differences, which explains why thunderstorms were not completely unknown here, but I can say from personal experience that thunderstorms have certainly increased in frequency over the last 30 years. So . . . what changed? Read on!
Let’s take a little trip to China, home to most of the world’s human population. We’ll stop at the thriving metropolis of Shenzen and visit two large brown buildings owned by a private company. They’re the Longgang trash incinerators. They can be smelled a mile away and pour out so much dark smoke and hazardous chemicals that hundreds of local residents recently staged an all-day sit-in, demanding that the incinerators be cleaner and that a planned third incinerator not be built nearby.
If you think Guam has a landfill problem, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of household garbage and unlike our local legislators, China has embarked on a vast program to build incinerators as landfills run out of space. But the incinerators have become a growing source of toxic emissions, like dioxin and mercury, that don’t do a human body good.
But here’s the kicker. The pollutants emitted by the incinerators in China, particularly the long-lasting substances like dioxin and mercury, are dangerous not only in China. A growing body of atmospheric research based on satellite observations shows that air currents waft them out of China, across the Pacific (and over us) and beyond.
Chinese incinerators can be less polluting. At the other end of Shenzhen from Longgang, no smoke is visible from the towering smokestack of the Baoan incinerator, built by a company owned by the municipal government. Government tests show that it emits virtually no dioxin and other pollutants. Unfortunately, the Baoan incinerator cost 10 times as much as the Longgang incinerators to run.
The difference between the Baoan and Longgang incinerators lies at the center of a growing controversy in China. Incinerators are being built to wildly different standards across the country. For years, Chinese government regulators have discussed the need to impose tighter limits on emissions. But they have done nothing because of a bureaucratic turf war. (Hmmmm, does this sound familiar? Just how many sessions of the Guam legislature have done nothing about the dump?)
The Chinese government is struggling to cope with the rapidly rising mountains of trash generated as the world’s most populated country has raced from poverty to rampant consumerism. Beijing officials warned in June that all of the city’s landfills would run out of space within five years so the rush to build i
ncinerators is on.
The governments of several cities with especially affluent, well-educated citizens, including Beijing and Shanghai, are setting pollution standards as strict as Europe’s but incinerators in China’s interior are being built with virtually no pollution standards at all.
Recent scientific studies have estimated that a sixth of the mercury now falling on North American lakes comes from Asia, particularly China, mainly from coal-fired plants and smelters but also from incinerators. Pollution from incinerators also tends to be high in toxic metals like cadmium. Incinerators play the most important role in emissions of dioxin but little research has been done on dioxin crossing the Pacific. Analyses of similar chemicals have shown that they can travel very long distances.
Chinese agencies agree that tighter standards on dioxin emissions are needed. They just disagree on whether the environment ministry should have the power to stop incinerator projects that do not meet tighter standards. The planning agency wants to retain the power to decide which projects go ahead but other government officials oppose the idea. (Are you aware the Chinese invented bureaucracy?)
Yan Jianhua, the director of the solid waste treatment expert group in Zhejiang province, a center of incinerator equipment manufacturing in China, defended the industry’s record on dioxin, saying that households that burn their trash outdoors emit far more dioxin.
“Open burning is a bigger problem according to our research,” Professor Yan said, adding that what China really needs is better trash collection so that garbage can be disposed of more reliably.
Critics and admirers of incinerators alike call for more recycling and reduced use of packaging as ways to reduce the daily volume of municipal garbage. Even when not recycled, sorted trash is easier for incinerators to burn cleanly, because the temperature in the furnace can be adjusted more precisely to minimize the formation of dioxin.
Yet the Chinese public has shown little enthusiasm for recycling. As Mr. Zhong, the engineer at the Baoan incinerator, put it, “No one really cares.”
Hmmmm. That sounds sort of familiar, too, doesn’t it? Are you doing any recycling at all?
Yet, the Chinese failure to recycle is helping keep your children up at night and scaring your dog because there is absolutely no question that the increase of thunderstorms over your personal island is fueled by the dirty smokestacks in China. And the toxins coming out of those smokestacks could have a much longer effect on you and your children and your dog that the immediate trauma of bright lights and boomy noises.
The ocean level is rising because of melting half a world away and our weather is changing because of the activities of people who live thousands of miles away. It really is true that Earth is a global community and all of us must suffer the consequences of the fact that there are too many of us and “No one really cares”.
Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about our global ecosystem and many other topics. Enjoy!
A worker shovels trash at the Baoan incinerator in Shenzhen, which also generates power.