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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Anthropocene

This is a book review of William F Ruddiman's book, Plows, Plagues and Petroleum.  It's premise is that the Anthropocene* didn't start some 200 years ago with the beginning of the industrial revolution and hence the burning of fossil fuels but actually started 6000 to 8000 years ago.

* The age in which humans have started to have a significant effect on the climate

In the popular literature you will often find comments such as 'we live in a very unusual period.  Our climate, compared with previous times, has been remarkably stable for thousands of years'    That is not to say completely stable.  We have had the so called little ice age for instance and the medieval warm period but compared to the climate as read in ice cores, this has been a period of great stability.

Prof. Ruddiman basis much of this contention on information from ice cores.  In Antarctica, cores have been drilled which reach ice which was deposited around 800,000 years ago.  Over this period the alteration between glacial periods and interglacial periods* has had a cycle of about 100,000 years.  Here is a most amazing graphic of the past cycles.

* Note that I say glacial and interglacial period, not ice age.  Strictly speaking, despite popular usage, an ice age is the approximately 3m year period we are in with approximately 50 or so glacials and interglacials.  If we want to use the term ice age, for instance, for the time between the previous interglacial (the Eemian) and the present interglacial (the Holocene) then we need another name for the approx. 3m year period of alternating cold and warm periods that we are in the middle of right now.

What has caused these warm and cold periods has been pretty well established as the Milankovitch cycles.  There are three of these which have different periodicities.  There is the tilt of the earth  which varies between 21.2 and 24.5 degrees from the plane of it's orbit.  it is called Obliquity for some reason.  It's period is about  41,000  years.  There is the eccentricity of the orbit which varies from round to elliptical and back with a period of 100,000 years* and there is the orientation of this ellipticity in space which will result in the earth being closest to the sun in summer or closest in winter.  This has a period of 23,000 years and is called axial precession

It is a little more complicated than this.  For instance Eccentricity has a number of components.  It is not a simple sin wave but that will do for now.

Adding these three cycles together you get a variability in the strength of the sun on the surface of the earth and most important, in the mid to high latitude area of the Northern Hemisphere (where most of the land is).  To go into a glacial (glacial period), the insolation (Amount of radiation reaching the earth's surface) must be low in the Northern Hemisphere summer.  This allows snow to remain over the summer and to be increased during the next winter. Then the more land that is covered continually with snow, the more solar radiation is reflected back into space and we have a feedback which accelerates the process.  I won't go into how glacials end but you can go here and here for some ideas on how this occurs.

Over many many glacial-interglacial periods it has been observed that Carbon dioxide rises as the ice melts (some controversy on why) and a little before maximum melt, Carbon dioxide begins to fall.  Following this, with the odd up-tick CO2 falls continually.  At a certain level of Carbon dioxide, combined with the right part of the Milankovitch cycle, snow begins to accumulate, bringing on the start of the next glacial.

Since the Milankovitch cycle is the sum of three cycles, each with a different period, each glacial-interglacial cycle is somewhat different.  Looking at these cycles, the two which are most like the present one that we are in are the 4th and the 9th back from our present one.

In both these cycles (and in other less similar cycles) Carbon dioxide began to fall and just continued to do so, starting a little before maximum melt and falling to about 185ppm.

Our recent (Holocene) interglacial started some 20,000 years ago by definition since that was when the ice sheet was at it's greatest extent but melting really got under way about 11,500 years ago.  And as with all other cycles, Carbon dioxide began to rise.

Then, as usual, just before maximum melt, Carbon dioxide began to fall.

If it had continued, then at a certain point, snow would have begun to accumulate again.  Apparently the 'epicenter' of ice accumulation is on the high lands of Baffin Island and somewhat later in Labrador.  It didn't happen.  Around 6000 to 8000 years ago, the concentration of Carbon dioxide began to climb in complete contrast to other cycles.  It wasn't enough to fully counteract the downswing in the  Milankovitch cycle  but greatly slowed down the cooling.

It had almost reached the level for snow accumulation when there were two catastrophic events in human History.  One was the Black Death which scythed down huge numbers of people* in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

It is often noted that this was the beginning of the rise of the rights of the serfs since they were in such short supply that they could demand better conditions in exchange for their labor.

The second was the invasion of South America by the Spanish.  The Spanish brought with them a plethora of deadly diseases for which the local population had no resistance.  Disease spread through south, central and North America and decreased the population*, by some estimates, by 90%.  In both plagues forests grew up on deserted farm lands and drew down Carbon dioxide below the level needed for the beginning of snow accumulation.

*Contrary to popular opinion, archeology has now confirmed that North America was populated by a large number of people, many of them living in what we would characterize as  advanced civilizations.

There is some very interesting evidence that glaciation  started.  Around the high lands of Baffin island there is a 'halo' of dead lichen with young new lichen beginning to grow here and there.  What happened?

Apparently, snow began to accumulate and last through the summer and occupy more and more area and of course smothered the lichen.  Then  along came the industrial revolution and the snow retreated again leaving this halo of dead lichen.  We were that close to beginning, once more, to slide into a glacial.

So what did man do to slow the advent of a new glacial for long enough for the Industrial Revolution to take over and really up the concentration of this green house gas.

First there was the burning down of forests to simply roast and catch animals. Areas burnt off, and especially if burnt off regularly, became grass lands which attract grazing animals and in which it is much easier to hunt.   In Australia, this probably started around 50,000 years ago when man first reached that continent.  Then as agriculture started, forests were cleared to plant crops.  An early technique was to simply ring bark a tree and then plant a fire at the base once it had died and dried out.  As the bronze age and then the iron age took hold, we could simply fell the trees.

Very soon after that, the plow was invented.  We have seen the tremendous damage the plow can do in modern times with the destruction of the soils of the great plains in America.  These were reservoirs of huge amounts of carbon which the plow released into the atmosphere.  If you travel through the Middle East you see clearly all the exposed rock.  The soils there have not only released their carbon but have been washed into the sea.  Farming with the plow is mainly responsible.

In the Far East the cultivation of rice in ponds was developed.  Anaerobic ponds give out large amounts of Methane which is a very powerful green house gas.  It oxidizes to the less potent Carbon dioxide and so stays around in a less toxic form.  This development reversed the methane trend.  Of course to build the extensive rice ponds, often terraced up the sides of mountains, you first have to eliminate the forests.

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