Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Doomsday’ seed vault meant to survive global disasters breached by climate change


Those of us who live in the frozen north tend, I believe, to understand more of the nuances and implications of climate change. We burn FAR more than our share of fuels, we are the folks who made industrialization happen, and even the slowest among us understand that without fuels, the cold will kill us very quickly. The overwhelming majority of the land on earth is found in the northern hemisphere so not surprisingly, most of the more dramatic manifestations of climate change happen where we cold-weather fire-starters set up our civilizations.

But even assuming that, the two stories below are amazing. One concerns how melting permafrost in Norway is threatening the seed vault that was supposed to protect the plant genetics of the planet for "eternity." The other concerns the likelihood that a failed Gulf Stream could leave Europe with the charming weather of North Dakota.

In all fairness, because we cold-weather denizens use an outsized share of carbon fuels, we should be threatened by most of the big climate-change disasters. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we would be just the folks to tackle a solution for such possible catastrophes. Unfortunately, the culture of the North is a shadow of what it was just two or three generations ago.

'Doomsday’ seed vault meant to survive global disasters breached by climate change

Fortunately, no seeds were damaged

by Alessandra Potenza@ale_potenza May 19, 2017

The seed bank designed to preserve the world’s crops and plants in the event of global disaster isn’t prepared to withstand the greatest global disaster facing our planet: global warming. Melting permafrost on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located, has seeped into the seed bank, raising questions of how the structure will be able to survive in the future as the Earth keeps warming.

The seed vault is built in an abandoned Arctic coal mine, deep inside a mountain. It contains about a million packets of seeds from almost every country in the world, representing “the most diverse collection of food crop seeds.” In 2015, the ongoing civil war in Syria prompted researchers in the Middle East to withdraw some seeds to replace those previously stored in a gene bank in war-torn Aleppo.

The structure was built underneath the permafrost so it could be “a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters,” as the seed bank’s website says. But oh, the irony. Unusually warm temperatures in the winter have caused rain, and the permafrost has been melting. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault, told The Guardian.

Fortunately, the water hasn’t flooded the vault itself. It only got to the entrance of the tunnel, where it froze. (The seeds are stored at minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit.) But the incident has raised questions over the durability of a seed bank that was supposed to operate without people’s intervention.

The vault managers are now waterproofing the facility and digging trenches to channel melt and rainwater away, according to The Guardian. They’ve also installed pumps in case the vault floods again. “We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world,” Åsmund Asdal at the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the seed vault, told The Guardian. “This is supposed to last for eternity.” more

Collapse of Gulf Stream poses threat to life as we know it

Tamsin Walker, 11.01.2017

New research suggests the Gulf Stream system that grants Europe and parts of North America its temperate climate cannot weather global warming. Should we be worried?

There's nothing quite like an out-there climate prediction to elicit a looming end-of-the-world scenario from the doomsday press. The findings from recent research into what is known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) - or the Gulf Stream system - have presented just such an opportunity.

The study, which was published in Science Advances, explores the "overlooked" possibility that the Gulf Stream system could collapse under climate change, bringing with it a period of "prominent cooling" that would have significant implications for life as we know it.

And the way we know it is as such: the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the tropics all the way to the North Atlantic, where its warmth is released into the atmosphere, thereby helping to regulate global climate and weather patterns. As the water loses its heat, it becomes denser, making it sink and eventually circulate back to the warmer climes of the tropics to eventually begin its voyage again.

The existence of the Gulf Stream makes possible the relatively temperate climates in Europe and parts of North America.

If, however, carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise - and as a consequence, heat the air around the North Atlantic - the water in the Gulf Stream system would not be able to cool down, so would thus not be able to sink and circulate back to the tropics.

And that, says the study, could lead to a complete collapse of the regulatory flow "300 years after the atmospheric CO2 concentration is abruptly doubled from the 1990 level."

Meaning, parts of the northern hemisphere would be looking at temperature drops of up to 7 degrees Celsius (almost 13 degrees Fahrenheit). And that takes us back to the doomsday predictions.

Not looking at an ice age scenario

"When you tell people there is a risk of cooling, they talk about an 'end of the world ice age,'" Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) in Berlin told DW, adding that it is "extremely exaggerated."

A case in point is the concept that based on a comparison between our future and paleoclimatic records, descent into climatic frigidity could occur over the period of a human lifetime.

"We know this has happened in the past," Rahmstorf continued. "But that was during the last ice age, when we saw a massive sliding of continental ice into the Atlantic Ocean."

While Rahmstorf, who is among the leading climatologists in the world, sees little sense in comparing that past extreme with our unwritten future, he stresses that the study's prediction of 300 years "is not the final word."

"No way," he says. Not least because the model the researchers used for the study fails to factor in meltwater from Greenland, which could speed up the process of any collapse.

Author Wei Liu of Yale University acknowledges he is in the early stages of his work. "This is just a first step," he told DW, adding that he and his colleagues are already planning further research that he hopes will deliver more detailed results.

"The 300-year collapse, and extent and degree of North Atlantic cooling, may be subject to change for different models and different warming scenarios."

He says the model he used for this study was based on a "moderate" one, but that it has "opened a window" for further research.

Prevention is the cure

Rahmstorf, whose own research over the past two decades has led him to believe there is "quite a serious" risk that global warming will cause a slowdown in the Gulf Stream system, says Lui's research serves two main purposes.

"To make the wider climate modeling community aware of a potential risk that has not been properly evaluated, and to inform the public that there are risks of tipping points in the climate system that are poorly understood, and that may well have been underestimated in the past."

Exactly what that translates to in terms of the future face of northern Europe in particular, is, Rahmstorf adds, impossible to predict.

"If it were to break it down, it would imply such a massive change that I would be hard-pressed to make specific forecasts on human society."

And, like other scientists, he says that to alert rather than alarm the world. Rahmstorf means it as a call to action of sorts - a chance to prevent any doomsday scenario spun to make headlines from becoming a reality. And as Liu also points out, there is one way to insure that doesn't happen.

"A collapse of AMOC would be triggered by global warming, by the CO2 increase that warms the water in the North Atlantic - so if we want to prevent this collapse and reduce this possibility, we have to decrease the level of CO2." more

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