New Details on CO2 and Extinction

Guest Article by Dr. Paul J. Werbos
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Photo courtesy of Steven C. Hall

(Correspondence recently originated in the deliberations of Lifeboat Foundation, an organization involved in study of the most serious problems facing humanity and the world. Win Wenger is a member of its Board of Science Advisors, and heads its new Board of Methods for Innovating, Inventing, Discovering, and Problem-Solving.)

Because I am NOT in the part of NSF (National Science Foundation – ed.) which studies the implications of CO2 levels, I do not pay as much attention to that issue as I do to technology issues. But sometimes things sink in, especially when I get to hear talks here from other parts of NSF. (Nothing in this email is an official NSF viewpoint…)

Several months ago, I mentioned (in other correspondence within Lifeboat Foundation – ed.) the work of Peter Ward, which was initially far more worrisome to me than most of what you hear about CO2. The real issue is the probability of extinction of the human species.

First, a review…

The story I heard first about CO2 was as follows: we are now at 380 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere; people are very worried about the weather implications, and then sea level rise, which certainly becomes a problem if CO2 gets up to 700 ppm. At PRESENT levels of CO2 emission, we will get to 700ppm for sure, before too many decades, because CO2 is ACCUMULATING in the atmosphere; to stop the ACCUMULATION, the GROWTH in the ppm level, the actual emissions would have to be much smaller than they now are. The COST of 700 ppm is much debated — trillions of dollars perhaps, but even so perhaps easier to handle by adaptation than prevention. Maybe. Many hoped that this “global warming” could be alleviated by first-aid measures, like putting reflective particles into the atmosphere, or encouraging the oceans to absorb more CO2.

A nice story, but grossly incomplete.

The next story (in two stages) was: watch the oceans

Stage one: Weather may be debatable… but what is NOT debatable is that CO2 dissolved in the ocean creates acidity in the ocean. That’s very elementary and reliable chemistry. Zones of acidity are growing … and would be worse if we tried to shove the CO2 into the oceans even faster. Enough acidity… and the expression is “no more sushi.”

Stage two some of you may remember from last year. Peter Ward of the University of Washington has reported about recent, world-class research into the causes of the great extinctions of animal life on the land in earth’s history. Those of us who respect empirical science are naturally interested to learn what caused great extinctions in the past, when we try to assess what the possibilities are for it to happen once again.

You all know about the comet and the dinosaurs — but that was only one of the great extinction events, and not the greatest. The greatest extinction was the Permian event, when all vertebrates living on the land were killed off – and it took 100 million years before they re-evolved. (Go to Ward’s web page and book to learn more.)

Ward has argued (based on lots of empirical data) that high levels of CO2 released from ancient volcanos caused this extinction. More precisely — the CO2 caused a growth in low-oxygen regions of the ocean, which caused the proliferation of stinky “swamp gas” kinds of bacteria, which emitted enough H2S (the poison which makes rotten eggs smell stinky) to poison off every single species…   we know that not a single species survived, despite their diversity. More precisely: the data indicate very strongly that H2S levels AND RADIATION (presumably due to a thinning of stratospheric ozone) were both enough to kill everyone.

Ward estimates (by gut feeling as he looks at the numbers and the history) that 1000 ppm of CO2 would be enough to do the same thing all over again — kill off every land vertebrate. That’s important, because we are really well on track right now to reach that level, if one accounts for the ongoing political and economic realities of this world.

I did a whole lot of checking of this about six months ago, and sent an email to this list about what fell out of it.

On the one hand, regions of low oxygen really have started to increase at an alarming rate in oceans — partly due to CO2 effects, but partly due to ordinary runoff kinds of issues. AFTER the low oxygen effect becomes a really large part of the ocean, one can expect high H2S emissions. But even after about two decades of that, the main effect would be a hugely bad  smell permeating the entire earth. The main environmental effect would probably be lowered reproduction in many species (because really bad smells do turn off many creatures). It would take about a thousand years to reach outright poisoning — and by then, the fossil fuels would be used up anyway.

By the way, I did check with folks running big climate models… which haven’t yet been interfaced with this kind of oceanic chemistry. Data on ocean chemistry are at a relatively early stage, and there are unmet opportunities to use new technology to get far more data per dollar on such issues.

That’s the review. Of course there is a lot that I still don’t know, and I have tried to avoid phrasing things in a dogmatic way; please do not impute more than what I am actually saying!

Recently..  a few things have been pointed out to me.

First, the “half life” of CO2 in the atmosphere is also thousands of years. So even if the fossil fuels run out in only a century or two, the effect probably would last long enough to poison all land life on the earth. (And no, folks, gas masks wouldn’t save your food supply…).

Also, of course, very formidable efforts are being made to try to extend the period of availability of fossil fuels, most of them likely to produce more greenhouse gasses per BTU than what we have now, despite lots of glossy PR brochures. (Even the new “hot rock” geothermal technology ideas pose that risk — though economics probably will keep them form being an issue, except in small niche applications and R&D funding.)

Of course, there are lots of folks out there who really don’t care whether the human species goes extinct, so long as it’s not in their lifetime. There are others who say we should not think about issues like extinction (of a species or of a nation) until they have actually happened to us. (Again, they HAVE happened to others, in the past.)  Nothing is TRULY proven until after it has happened, after all… as many drunk drivers have said again and again.

Best of luck to us all,


P.S. This still leaves open the question of the radiation. But if H2S is already enough to kill us all…. it reminds me of the old movie “AI.”

©2008 Paul J. Werbos

Win’s comments:

H2S is what’s been erupting massively from the ocean, along with methane, along the coast of West Africa, occasionally forcing evacuations of some of the fishing villages there. The eruptions are massive enough to have been photographed from satellites in space.  Methane, a super greenhouse gas for warming the planet, has also been bubbling up off of San Diego.  Massive amounts of methane is being released also into the atmosphere from melting permafrost in the arctic.  Oceanic dead zones are spreading along the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the USA.  See some of our previously expressed concerns on this matter at Can Methane Be Part of the Solution?.

We may or may not get an unearned reprieve. The prolonged absence of sunspots in the sunspot cycle may be cooling us.  The famous Maunder Minimum, which lasted about 60 years, triggered the Little Ice Age.  If we fail to take advantage of the reprieve and keep pumping greenhouse gasses into the air, we will be truly roasted when we come back into a period of high sunspot activity.

We can intercept and reverse the spread of those dead zones in the sea, by application of the same invention (A “Blue” Revolution in World Food Production) as makes possible the inexpensive but massive fulfillment of the world’s protein needs via oceanic fish farming. — Only, the dead zones are so very polluted, they cannot be used for fishing or fish farming, but they can be ventilated by bubbling up air from below after pumping it down, and those zones eventually cleansed of their pollution by natural processes.

Nothing useful can be accomplished, of course, if the total discussion and debate on these matters remains polarized into extreme opposite camps and no one is thinking comprehensively or in a balanced way about these issues and about what must be done. We renew our call for a colloquium for contingencies planning on these matters, similar to the one proposed in “A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships” (Winsights No. 90, May/June 2006) and at The Art and Science of Hosting Conferences, with special reference to use of techniques for discovering consensus, as per ” Consensus and Higher Syntheses” (Winsights No 99, September/October 2007).

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