Antarctic ‘Hot’ Spots

Some scientists say there’ll be more carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere this year. They may be right.

I think the information’s interesting, and may be meaningful. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t a portent of doom.

Neither is a new and more detailed map of Antarctica’s bedrock temperatures.

I’ll be talking about that, the Halley VI base getting back in operation: and why I think we should keep learning about how Earth’s climate works.

Avoidable Tragedies

Humans cause some disasters, like what happened in Aberfan.

That plaque is in a memorial garden, where the town’s school used to be.

The last two lines are in Welsh, repeating the last two lines of English text.

“I’r rhai a garwn ac y galarwn o’u colli.”
(Plaque at the Aberfan Memorial Garden. From plaque at the Aberfan Memorial Garden, via Wikipedia.)

A 19th century coal mine near Aberfan was nationalized in 1947. Folks running England’s National Coal Board mine had miners pile debris above their town. Some piles were on springs or streams.

Aberfan is a rainy place. 6.5 inches, 170 millimeters, fell in the first three weeks of October, 1966; about half in the third week.

At 9:15 a.m., October 21, part of tip 7 liquefied and headed for town. Teachers had started taking attendance at Pantglas Junior School on Moy Road when slurry flowed over them.

That was 51 years ago last month. Of the roughly 5,000 folks calling Aberfan home, 144 died that morning: 28 adults and 116 children.

When surviving neighbors reached them, some children were still alive, protected by teachers and staff who had died trying to protect them. Others died with their protectors.

Giving credit where credit is due, their English rulers didn’t mistreat the Welsh. Much.

For example, the British government helped pay for the Aberfan cleanup — confiscating money from the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund in the process. Over three decades later, someone decided that wasn’t right, and the money was returned.

Natural Disasters

Some disasters are natural: the sort of thing folks blamed on the gods, and sometimes still do.

About a millennium back, Europe’s scholars began reading what folks like Aristarchus and Hippocrates said.

Some, including Saints Albertus Magnus and Hildegard of Bingen, helped lay the foundations of today’s science. Others got overly excited by Aristotle. The Church reminded us that God’s God, Aristotle’s not, in 1277. (October 6, 2017)

New ideas give some folks conniptions. That, and European politics, spawned ‘based on actual events’ stories about Copernicus and Galileo. (October 13, 2017; April 28, 2017; March 24, 2017)

Thinking that storms, earthquakes, and other disasters are “natural” got traction a few centuries back.

Older ideas are still in the mix, though. My culture’s legalese still describes a natural disaster outside human control as an “act of God.”

I figure God is large and in charge. I also think we affect a growing portion of natural processes, but are not ‘lords of creation.’ I’ll get back to that.

God and Secondary Causes

I don’t see a problem with thinking God exists — and that most of what we experience are natural phenomena.

I’m a Catholic, so I think God is creating a universe that’s following knowable physical laws. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268, 279, 299, 301, 302305)

If I pay attention and think, I’ll see some facet of God’s truth is in everything I can observe. (Catechism, 300310)

Natural processes, like fire and gravity, involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws written into this creation. (Catechism, 301308, 339)

Dealing with new information and reviewing old assumptions may be hard. But knowledge and faith get along fine. For Catholics who understand what we’re told.

Truth cannot contradict truth. Scientific discoveries are opportunities for greater admiration of God’s creation. We’re supposed to be curious. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341)

The Blame Game

A few folks, at least, look for a scapegoat after disasters. Blaming the victim, or God, isn’t a new idea.1

Folks have sometimes done both.

Someone wrote “On the Evil Times of Edward II” after the Great Famine of 1315-17, but before the Black Death. The versions we have are rewrites of a lost original:

“…For tho God seih that the world was so over gart,
He sente a derthe on eorthe, and made hit ful smarte.
A busshel of whete was at foure shillinges or more,
And so men mihte han i-had a quarter noht yore I-gon….

“…And thanne gan bleiken here blé, that arst lowen so loude,
And to waxen al hand-tame that rathere weren so proude.
A mannes herte mihte blede for to here the crie
Off pore men that gradden, ‘Allas, for hungger I die…!’…”
(Symonye and Covetise, or On the Evil Times of Edward II)

“When God saw that the world was so over proud,
He sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard.
A bushel of wheat was at four shillings or more,
Of which men might have had a quarter before….

“…And then they turned pale who had laughed so loud,
And they became all docile who before were so proud.
A man’s heart might bleed for to hear the cry
Of poor men who called out, ‘Alas! For hunger I die…!’…”
(Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II, c. 1321, via Wikipedia)

I figure there was a bit of truth in seeing generations before 1315 as “proud.”

Folks in Europe, at least, had been enjoying what we call the Medieval Warm Period, a few centuries of mild winters, warm summers, and good harvests. Nowhere near as many died of starvation, more children survived to become parents.

It was good times. Compared to what followed, anyway. But seeing the Little Ice Age as God smiting folks for building cathedrals seems a trifle unlikely.

Global Carbon Dioxide Prediction

(From Global Carbon Project, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

First CO2 rise in four years puts pressure on Paris targets
Matt McGrath, BBC News (November 17, 2017)

Global emissions of CO2 in 2017 are projected to rise for the first time in four years, dashing hopes that a peak might soon be reached.

“The main cause of the expected growth has been greater use of coal in China as its economy expanded.

“Researchers are uncertain if the rise in emissions is a one-off or the start of a new period of CO2 build-up.

“Scientists say that a global peak in CO2 before 2020 is needed to limit dangerous global warming this century….”

I see this as a ‘glass half full/half empty’ situation.

On the one hand, Carbon dioxide levels stayed steady for about three years. And, assuming that the graph’s data is accurate, the amount was leveling off for a few years before that.

That’s a good thing. Assuming that Earth’s carbon dioxide levels around the early 1700s are “normal.”

On the other, some scientists say it’ll be up a few percent this year. Once the final figures are in. And, predictably, if we don’t do something about it — something “dangerous” is gonna happen. Since it’s carbon dioxide, it’s “dangerous global warming.”

What surprised me a bit is that China was given credit for the projected increase. I had become accustomed to China’s significant pollution problems being soft-pedaled.

I suspect that attitude started fading a decade or so back.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics wouldn’t have helped maintain old habits. Quite a few reporters experienced Beijing’s smog. At least some of them cared about athletics.

Beijing’s pollution was between two and three times higher than World Health Organization ‘safe’ limits at the time.

It’s not all bad news from China. The official line is that they’re trying to clean up their air, water, and land. I’m inclined to believe them. It’s in the leadership’s interests. Running a nation of sick folks isn’t an ideal situation.

It won’t be easy, since they also say they’ll keep making the transition through an industrial to a post-industrial economy.

As I said, I think there’s hope that China’s official line is more than just talk. The environmental situation there is still far from good. But it could be much worse, and monitoring technology makes independent verification easier these days.

Greenhouse Gasses: We’re Learning

I’m not sure why ‘global warming/climate change’ news focuses so much on carbon dioxide. Maybe it’s the easiest to describe.

I don’t have a news editor’s concerns, so I’ll go ahead and talk about carbon dioxide, CO2, and mention the other greenhouse gasses.

The other four of the top five, anyway.

CO2 is one of five main greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. The others are water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone.

I don’t think we’d be better off without them. Scientists figure our planet’s average surface temperature would be about -18° Centigrade, 0° Fahrenheit, if they weren’t there.

Earth’s current average surface temperature is 15° Centigrade, 59° Fahrenheit.

That’s higher than it was during the most recent glacial phase, but it’s still below average.

No surprises there. The last I heard, scientists figure we’re almost certainly in an interglacial period of the ice age that started about two and a half million years back. Those who aren’t funded by well-intentioned climate action outfits.

I think, and hope, that most folks try to be honest: scientists included. I also think that it’s very easy to let a desire to please, and stay employed, affect judgment. (April 28, 2017; October 16, 2016)

About pollutants and all that, I’m quite sure that 19th and early 20th century mistakes shouldn’t be repeated. Efforts like the Paris Agreement and Kyoto Protocol have a reasonable motive: maintaining our home.2

The trick will be learning what works and what doesn’t. And being willing to make sense.

Antarctic Hotspots

(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Hotspots are located under West Antarctica; in contrast, the East is broadly relatively cold”
(BBC News))

Antarctica’s warm underbelly revealed
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 17, 2017)

This is the best map yet produced of the warmth coming up from the rocks underneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

“This ‘geothermal heat flux’ is key data required by scientists in order to model how the White Continent is going to react to climate change.

“If the rockbed’s temperature is raised, it makes it easier for the ice above to move….”

There’s interesting science going on here, including new data about “Antarctica’s warm underbelly.” We’ve known for some time that western Antarctica’s bedrock was warmer than the continent’s other half.

What’s new is how much we know about exactly where it’s warm, and where it’s not. That’s warm, not boiling hot. Except around active volcanoes, of course.

Despite the “climate change” reference, Jonathan Amos and BBC News aren’t touting this as a portent of doom and gloom to come.

I think learning about Antarctica is a good idea. We’ll probably learn more about how Earth’s climate works, and that’s important.

But I don’t fear a disaster-movie scenario. I just figure learning about the planet we call home makes sense.

Change Happens

I don’t ‘believe in’ climate change, global warming, or the coming ice age.

Not in the sense that I think any of that belongs at the top of my priorities, or will tell me why I’m here. (Catechism, I.13, 21122114)

On the other hand, I think Earth’s climate has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. It’d be downright odd if it somehow stopped changing at this particular moment.

It’s quite possible that we’ve influenced changes over the last few millennia.

That’s not a typo. Agriculture has been changing landscapes since before we invented writing.

We started getting more aware of our effect on the environment in the 19th century.

I think rapid changes in cities, caused by industrial and economic development, encouraged that awareness.

Top-priority concerns shifted from urban manure to combustion products around 1900. Folks had reason for concern.

How some have reacted has been less than reasonable, I think.

I’m not sure how many scientists took the ‘coming ice age’ seriously. The data was real enough. What got into the news was another matter.

Folks had noticed assorted drops in temperatures and speculated. That gave journalists something to write about from the 1920s to somewhere in the 1970s.3

Next we had global warming, with about as much basis in fact. That’s given way to the more safely-non-committal climate change. That slogan may last longer. Like I said, Earth’s climate keeps changing.

I think folks on all sides of the ‘climate’ fracas would enjoy more success if they turned their hysteria down a few notches. They might at least get more respect from the rest of us.

My view is that we’re not all gonna die of whatever the crisis du jour is. And we should take care of our home. Within reason. More about that toward the end of this post.

Halley VI: Opening Soon at a New Location

(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“In good shape: Halley station is now being readied for the summer season”
(BBC News))

Antarctic base comes out of deep freeze
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 10, 2017)

The advance party sent in to open up Britain’s mothballed Antarctic base have found no damage.

“Halley station was closed in March and staff withdrawn because of uncertainty over the behaviour of cracks in the Brunt Ice Shelf – the flowing, floating platform on which it sits.

“The base was secured and left to the elements, with temperatures dipping down to around -50C….”

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) had architects design portable modules for Halley VI, the latest Halley station.

As “portable” as house-size structures can be, that is.

It makes sense, since Halley VI is on the Brunt Ice Shelf, not Antarctica’s mainland ice sheets.

Scientists noticed large cracks in the ice shelf a little less than a year ago. Odds were pretty good that the Brunt Ice Shelf wouldn’t break off from the mainland.

But folks running BAS didn’t want to risk leaving a crew of about 16 on drifting ice during Antarctica’s winter. So they decided to move the station farther ‘inland,’ and mothballed it for winter.


(From BAS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Halley should be occupied year-round”
(BBC News))

“…Together with the Rothera base on the Antarctic Peninsula, Halley spearheads British activity on the White Continent.

“The station gathers important weather and climate data, and it played a critical role in the research that identified the ozone ‘hole’ in 1985.

“In recent years, Halley has also become a major centre for studying solar activity and the impacts this can have on Earth….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 10, 2017))

As the BBC News caption says, Halley VI was designed for year-round occupation.

“…During a ‘normal’ winter, technical specialists keep the station and the scientific experiments running. The wintering team at Halley includes a chef, a doctor, mechanics, an electrician, several electronics engineers and a heating and ventilation engineer….”
(Halley VI Research Station, BAS)

The recent Antarctic winter wasn’t quite ‘normal,’ since an unusual crack had been opening on the Brunt Ice shelf. I think BAS made a prudent decision.

There’s a lot of research going on at Halley other than ‘climate’ observations. A riometer measures 30 megahertz radio ‘noise’ from our galaxy and magnetometers detect ultra-low-frequency waves from space near Earth.4

That last might have effects on our climate. It’s among many things I think we’ll be learning over the next few decades.

A “Newer Dread:” 1898

Before you start stockpiling oxygen cylinders or establish a doomsday cult, Check the date on that Evening Post Saturday Supplement.

It’s from July 30, 1898.

Knowing a little history, and science, helps me avoid jumping on the latest prediction of doom and gloom.

So does remembering a fair number of fizzled End Times Bible Prophecies and their secular analogs.

I haven’t tracked down the Cassell’s Magazine piece about Lord Kelvin’s prediction that “A Startling Scientific Prediction” describes.

Lord Kelvin was a whole lot smarter and sharper than his recent reputation suggests. (May 26, 2017)

He may have spoken with Mr. John Munroe of Cassell’s Magazine. It’s also likely enough that he talked about oxygen consumption and some nifty calculations.

How serious he was about “the speedy end of the human race?” That, I don’t know.

“…Lord Kelvin startled America by an estimate of the speedy end of the human race. We are, he calculates, using up our fuel at such a rate that it will all be consumed in five hundred years. … The newer dread is that we are using up our stores of oxygen faster than our stores of fuel. In four hundred years’ time — at our present rate … — there will be no more oxygen for us to breathe!…”
(“A Startling Scientific Prediction,” Saturday Supplement, Evening Post (July 30, 1898))

Lord Kelvin’s data was reasonably accurate, and so was his math.

If we’d known everything there is to know about Earth’s oxygen cycle and related phenomena in 1898, We’d have a real crisis on our hands.

We didn’t, and we don’t. Concerns, yes. Crisis, not so much. My opinion.

About our “speedy end,” we’ve learned that we’re not running out of oxygen. The oxygen cycle is bigger than he realized. More complex, too.

We’ve also learned more about what Lord Kelvin called “carbonic acid gas:” the stuff we call CO2. Several of the current popular crises focus on global warming. It’s dramatic stuff: our fair cities facing fearsome floods and all that.

As I said before, I think everyone with an axe to grind on the subject could do themselves a favor by toning down their hysteria. There’s a real issue in play, but it’s hard to notice with all this angst flying about.

A Big Job

Folks get odd notions about “dominion” and how humans fit into this world.

Some apparently read bits of Genesis and decided that they owned Earth: and could plunder it at will. We’re still cleaning up the mess that left.

That notion faded during my youth.

Currently-fashionable ones make about as much sense.

One is that we’re helpless before the awesome might of Mother Nature.

Another has the virtue of showing some responsibility. I don’t, however, think that everything we do has terrible consequences for Earth’s delicate ecosystem: and that we know exactly how to make everything better.

About “dominion” and all that, I’m a Catholic. That means I must take the Bible seriously. Including this:

“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.
“God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
“God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.”
(Genesis 1:2628)

“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? “Image of God,” “dominion,” “little less than a god.” We’re hot stuff.

I do not see that as reason for smug self-satisfaction.

Yes, we’re powerful. We’re becoming more powerful, and — happily — learning to use that power wisely. Our power comes with scary responsibilities.

Part of our job is taking care of the world’s resources: for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Genesis 2:58; Catechism, 339, 2402, 2415)

Studying this universe and developing new tools using that knowledge will help us do that job. If we do it right. (Catechism, 22932295)

About the current climate ‘crisis’ — I’m pretty sure we know enough today to deliberately change Earth’s climate.

I am also quite sure that we do not know enough to do so safely. Not yet.

This is one case where conducting field tests without knowing what we’re doing would be a very bad idea.

The way I see it, we should keep doing what we’re doing: in the sort run. Reducing industrial pollution makes sense. So does learning more about long-term climate changes. In the long run — that’s another topic. One I don’t have time for this week.

More, mostly about being human and getting a grip:

1 Disasters and the blame game:

3 Earth’s long story; and learning wisdom, slowly:

2 Real issues, debatably reasonable responses:

4 Britain’s Antarctic research:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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3 Responses to Antarctic ‘Hot’ Spots

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing article: “Hildegard of Bingen, helped lay foundations of today’s science.”

    Extra word: “I also think we affect of a growing portion of natural”

    Missing word: “three times higher World Health Organization ‘safe’ limits at the time.”

    Stutter: “all sides of the ‘climate’ fracas would would enjoy more success if”

    Awkward sentence, especially in the middle: “Several of the current popular crises center focus on it’ll cause global warming, flood our fair cities, and all that.”

    Missing pronoun: “us do that job. If do it right.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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