It's been a long time since I've written anything in my economics diary. Too busy, I guess. I've also been wanting to change the format of this diary a bit....
For some reason I don't completely understand, I've been thinking a lot about ice, from ice floes in the Arctic:
to the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica:
to the frosty dunes of Mars:
I made the more impressionistic pictures above by messing with some photos... a bit of art therapy to help delve into my obsession.
I'm not sure where this interest in ice came from - I don't get this way every winter! I guess I've been feeling cold, both literally and metaphorically, influenced by the chilly feel of some songs on Bowie's album Heathen, which I recently started listening to.
Like this, from the song The Rays:
Steel on the skylinewritten in New York before September 11th, 2001. Maybe I was also influenced by the recent news on global warming, which makes ice into yet another endangered species. I don't know! But the recent news at least gives me an excuse to talk about ice:
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
You can see Greenland melting here, from 1992 to 2002:
CLIMATE CHANGE:Richard A. Kerr
A Worrying Trend of Less Ice, Higher Seas
Science, March 24, 2006
Have an urge lately to run for higher ground? That would be understandable, given all the talk about the world's ice melting into the sea. Kilimanjaro's ice cloak is soon to disappear, the summertime Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by century's end, 11,000-year-old ice shelves around Antarctica are breaking up over the course of weeks, and glaciers there and in Greenland have begun galloping into the sea. All true. And the speeding glaciers, at least, are surely driving up sea level and pushing shorelines inland.
Scientists may not be heading for the hills just yet, but they're increasingly worried. Not about their beach houses being inundated anytime soon; they're worried about what they've missed. Some of the glaciers draining the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland have sped up dramatically, driving up sea level and catching scientists unawares. They don't fully understand what is happening. And if they don't understand what a little warming is doing to the ice sheets today, they reason, what can they say about ice's fate and rising seas in the greenhouse world of the next century or two?
That uncertainty is unsettling. Climatologists know that, as the world warmed in the past, "by some process, ice sheets got smaller," says glaciologist Robert Bindschadler of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. But "we didn't know the process; I think we're seeing it now. And it's not gradual." Adds geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, "The time scale for future loss of most of an ice sheet may not be millennia," as glacier models have suggested, "but centuries."
The apparent sensitivity of ice sheets to a warmer world could prove disastrous. The greenhouse gases that people are spewing into the atmosphere this century might guarantee enough warming to destroy the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, says Oppenheimer, possibly as quickly as within several centuries. That would drive up sea level 5 to 10 meters at rates not seen since the end of the last ice age. New Orleans would flood, for good, as would most of South Florida and much of the Netherlands. Rising seas would push half a billion people inland. "This is not an experiment you get to run twice," says Oppenheimer. "I find this all very disturbing."
Much of the world's ice may be shrinking under the growing warmth of the past several decades, but some ice losses will have more dramatic effects on sea level than others. Glaciologists worried about rising sea level are keying on the glaciers draining the world's two dominant ice reservoirs, Greenland and Antarctica. Summertime Arctic Ocean ice may be on its way out, but its melting does nothing to increase the volume of ocean water; that ice is already floating in the ocean. The same goes for floating ice shelves around Antarctic. The meltwater from receding mountain glaciers and ice caps is certainly raising sea level, but not much.
The truly disturbing ice news of late is word that some of the ice oozing from the 3-kilometer-thick pile on Greenland has doubled its speed in just the past few years. In the 17 February issue of Science, for example, radar scientists Eric Rignot of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Pannir Kanagaratnam of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, analyzed observations made between 1996 and 2005 by four satellite-borne radars. These synthetic aperture radars measure the distance to the surface during successive passes over a glacier. The changing distance can then be extracted by letting successive observations form interference patterns. The changing distance, in turn, translates to a velocity of the ice toward the sea.
In central east Greenland, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier more than doubled its speed from 2000 to 2005, Rignot and Kanagaratnam found, from 6 kilometers per year to 13 kilometers per year. That made it the fastest in Greenland. To the south, Helheim Glacier accelerated 60%. And on the west of Greenland, Jakobshavn Isbrae almost doubled its speed between 1996 and 2005. The accelerations are "actually quite surprising," says glaciologist Julian Dowdeswell of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Even at its slower speed, Jakobshavn had ranked as one of the fastest-flowing glaciers in the world, perhaps the fastest; now it's just one of the pack.
As glaciers draining the Greenland Ice Sheet are picking up speed, researchers are realizing that nothing has made up for the increased loss of ice. Greenland's pile of ice is getting smaller. How much smaller is still being debated, if only because of the vast scope of an ice sheet. What goes out through glaciers is just one part of the equation: Ice sheets also lose mass by melting and gain it from snowfall. To gauge those gains and losses, Rignot and Kanagaratnam used previously published estimates of how the warming climate over Greenland has increased meltwater losses and slightly increased snowfall, making for a growing net loss in addition to the glacier flow. All told, the scientists find that the loss of mass from Greenland doubled from 1996 to 2005, reaching 224 ± 41 cubic kilometers per year. Los Angeles uses 1 cubic kilometer of water per year.
These charts are taken from:
So, now it's just a diary. We'll see where it goes.
I'm at the University of Chicago now, visiting the math department until
May 15th. There are lots of people working on n-categories
here, mostly associated with Peter May. I'm giving some
lectures here next weekend,
as part of a conference
in memorial of
Saunders Mac Lane,
one of the founders of category theory and a Chicago man through
I got an email from Adrian Burd, who wasn't completely enthralled
by my abstract expressionist massaging
of that photo of the Ross
Ice Shelf. He gave me the nice photo below:
Please feel free to use the photo if you so wish.
All the best,
I was part of an NSF run field course. The group of people who work
in the poles
in oceanography (and in other sciences) tend to form a tight knit
group and it's hard
to inject new blood. So the course introduces about 20 grad students,
junior faculty to working in the Antarctic and gives them practical
experience there -
dealing with issues such as what is and us not feasible, the
mountains of paperwork
involved, the scheduling of helicopter time and the procedure for
writing grants for
Polar Programs which differs somewhat from a regular NSF proposal.
It's a unique environment and the problems of doing science there
make it a challenge.
We also did a lot of fun science. We had the first automated DNA
sequencer on the
continent, so the gene jocks were sequencing everything that moved
(or not, as the case
may be). We were able to collect some unique data sets from the
on Bratina Island. So all in all, a crazy, exhausting but incredibly
Curiously, on the C-17 flight out I sat next to a guy from CalTech
who was heading
to the South Pole to work on the new telescope there. So we were able
to have a good
long chat (more a shout to get above the noise of the C-17 that is)
about the state of
cosmology today. Although I dip into the journals and keep up through
like yours, there's a great deal I've been missing. There were also
through to work on the Ice Cube, so I was able to catch up on that
aspect of things as well.
Ah, I see, I misunderstood. Standing on Ross Island and looking up
the Ross Ice Shelf is quite
an amazing experience; particularly when you have an inkling for the
All the best,
There are some interesting mathematical problems associated with gene
from the experimentally derived PCR sequences. Sadly, I don't think
too many practicing
geneticists are aware of them, or the issues they raise. I see too
many phylogenetic trees in
talks without any hint given as to the uncertainty in the tree.
The Antarctic Sun is a neat newspaper since it keeps everyone in
what is going on. That way, support staff like helo-techs can learn
what the folks
they are helping out are actually doing, as well as keeping other
All the best,
April 4, 2006
As an ex-cosmologist turned oceanographer I've followed your "This
Weeks Finds" pages
for many years. I recently came across your diary outlining your
recent obsession with ice
on which there's a fuzzy photo of the Ross Ice Shelf. Having just
returned from there, I thought
you might be interested in this one that I took in January.
This started an interesting email exchange where Adrian Burd
answered some questions I had. Here's a slightly edited version
of his next email:
It's from the top of Observation Hill looking down on the New Zealand base (Scott Base) and up the ice shelf. You can see the nice pressure ridges near Scott Base. The long straight line is a "road" heading out to Pegasus airstrip.
And the next:
> Cool! What sort of oceanography were you doing down there in Antarctica?
>> I recently came across your diary outlining your
>> recent obsession with ice on which there's a fuzzy photo
>> of the Ross Ice Shelf.
> It took me a long time to process the photo so it became that
> fuzzy - I was aiming for something between impressionism and
> abstract expressionism.
Here's what the
IceCube will look like... if you could see it:
> Pretty weird, going to Antarctica to sequence genes!
We only sequenced microbial genes, looking into the microbial
diversity in different
environments. With modern day equipment, one can sequence genes just
anywhere. The course itself was written up for the Antarctic Sun (the
local paper at McMurdo)
under the headline "
The Mother of All Field Trips".
>> There were also folks passing through to work on the Ice Cube,
>> so I was able to catch up on that aspect of things as well.
> Hmm, I forget what that detector is supposed to do, and where it is.
It's located at the South Pole station and will detect high energy
neutrinos. It will
take a while before coming on-line since it will take a while to
drill the large number
of cores required for a 1 cubic km detector! A nice write up on
progress as of the end
of the season can be found in the
These charts are taken from:
So, now it's just a diary. We'll see where it goes.
I'm at the University of Chicago now, visiting the math department until May 15th. There are lots of people working on n-categories here, mostly associated with Peter May. I'm giving some lectures here next weekend, as part of a conference in memorial of Saunders Mac Lane, one of the founders of category theory and a Chicago man through and through.
I got an email from Adrian Burd, who wasn't completely enthralled by my abstract expressionist massaging of that photo of the Ross Ice Shelf. He gave me the nice photo below:
Please feel free to use the photo if you so wish.
All the best,
I was part of an NSF run field course. The group of people who work in the poles in oceanography (and in other sciences) tend to form a tight knit group and it's hard to inject new blood. So the course introduces about 20 grad students, postdocs and junior faculty to working in the Antarctic and gives them practical experience there - dealing with issues such as what is and us not feasible, the mountains of paperwork involved, the scheduling of helicopter time and the procedure for writing grants for Polar Programs which differs somewhat from a regular NSF proposal. It's a unique environment and the problems of doing science there make it a challenge. We also did a lot of fun science. We had the first automated DNA sequencer on the continent, so the gene jocks were sequencing everything that moved (or not, as the case may be). We were able to collect some unique data sets from the microbial communities on Bratina Island. So all in all, a crazy, exhausting but incredibly fun enterprise.
Curiously, on the C-17 flight out I sat next to a guy from CalTech who was heading to the South Pole to work on the new telescope there. So we were able to have a good long chat (more a shout to get above the noise of the C-17 that is) about the state of cosmology today. Although I dip into the journals and keep up through reading sites like yours, there's a great deal I've been missing. There were also folks passing through to work on the Ice Cube, so I was able to catch up on that aspect of things as well.
Ah, I see, I misunderstood. Standing on Ross Island and looking up the Ross Ice Shelf is quite an amazing experience; particularly when you have an inkling for the scale of the place.
All the best,
There are some interesting mathematical problems associated with gene reconstruction from the experimentally derived PCR sequences. Sadly, I don't think too many practicing geneticists are aware of them, or the issues they raise. I see too many phylogenetic trees in talks without any hint given as to the uncertainty in the tree.
The Antarctic Sun is a neat newspaper since it keeps everyone in touch with what is going on. That way, support staff like helo-techs can learn what the folks they are helping out are actually doing, as well as keeping other scientists informed.
All the best,
My math lectures are over - whew! An intense and exhausting conference. I recovered by writing up some stuff about math in week229, all related to the amazing properties of this map of the world invented by the philosopher C. S. Peirce, the founder of "pragmatism":
I often wish I could spend all my spare time (when I'm not teaching) writing This Week's Finds - it's one of the truly unalloyed pleasures of life for me. But, if I did it all the time, it would somehow become a "job" and be less fun. The tricks of the mind.
I'm all jazzed up today, because yesterday Stewart Brand invited me to give a talk in San Francisco on October 13th as part of his Seminars About Long-Term Thinking. This is a series of talks sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, which seeks to extend our horizons from the next quarterly report to the next 10,000 years, to foster a more sane approach to life.
As Brand puts it:
Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where 'long-term' is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth. It began with an observation and idea by computer scientist Daniel Hillis:
"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 2000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium."
Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.
Hillis, who developed the 'massive parallel' architecture of the current generation of supercomputers, dev ised the mechanical design of the Clock and is now building the second prototype (the first prototype is on display in London at the Science Museum). The Clock's works consist of a binary digital-mechanical system which is so accurate and revolutionary that we have patented several of its elements. (With 32 bits of accuracy it has precision equal to one day in 20,000 years, and it self-corrects by 'phase-locking' to the noon Sun.) For the way the eventual Clock is experienced (its size, structure, etc.), we expect to keep proliferating design ideas for a while. In 01999 Long Now purchased part of a mountain in eastern Nevada whose high white limestone cliffs may make an ideal site for the ultimate 10,000-year Clock. In the meantime Danny Hillis and Alexander Rose continue to experiment with ever-larger prototype Clocks.
Long Now added a "Library" dimension with the realization of the need for content to go along with the long-term context provided by the Clock - a library of the deep future, for the deep future. In a sense every library is part of the 10,000-year Library, so Long Now is developing tools (such as the Rosetta Disk, the Long Viewer and the Long Server) that may provide inspiration and utility to the whole community of librarians and archivists. The Long Bets project - whose purpose is improving the quality of long-term thinking by making predictions accountable - is also Library-related.
The point is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time.
-Stewart BrandI'll give a talk called Zooming Out In Time, based on my studies of climate change, mass extinctions and the long term history and future of the universe. Brand says he wants cool graphics and a mind-blowing talk. So, I have to start thinking about it. It should be fun! But I have to figure out the overarching message - a talk should always be about one thing - while packing the talk with fun stuff.
April 16, 2006
The title of my talk Zooming Out In Time is a double entendre. On the one hand, I want to show how science is letting see the history of the universe ever more clearly, so we can now zoom out in time and understand processes on scales of 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years, 10000 years, 100000 years and so on, like that wonderful movie Powers of Ten. On the other hand, I want to explain how we're broadening our perspective just barely in time to ameliorate certain crises like climate change and mass extinction.
I want to illustrate these ideas with four examples:
These examples will cover increasingly large time scales.
- Cultural memory loss - the burning of the library of Alexandria, the forgotten revolution in Greek science, the translation of Greek texts to various languages before they reached the Arabs and then medieval Western Europe, and the recent recovery of lost treasures at Oxyrhyncus and Herculaneum, and the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest.
- Climate change, past and present, including the Younger Dryas event, the danger of abrupt changes in the thermohaline circulation, maybe even stuff about Heinrich events.
- Mass extinctions, past and present.
- The posthuman future of the universe.
Ironically, I won't have time for all this... the talk should only last 45 minutes.
April 17, 2006I'm staying on 61st St., near the University of Chicago but just south of the "Midway" - a strip of land and roads separating the "okay" part of Hyde Park from the "bad" part - the part where everyone tells you not to walk in at night. So, I'm in the "bad" part, but right on the edge - so every night I try to make it all the way back home before someone mugs me. It is deserted and somewhat spooky - so deserted that I hope no mugger is sufficiently patient to wait there for someone to mug.
When I walk to the University in the morning everything looks more benign... especially because it's spring! When I first arrived, on April Fool's Day, it was quite cold. Since then it's warmed up. At first the forsythia bushes looked like dead sticks. But soon they had leaves and yellow blossoms, and now, each day as I walk to school, their leaves and blossoms grow visibly bigger! Nature is full of life, irrepressible.
Alas, I heard today on the morning radio news that sea bird populations have crashed in the Pacific Northwest:
It may be related to global warming: the upwelling of cold water in the Pacific didn't happen in the usual way last year, so there wasn't as much plankton as usual, and everything that feeds on them suffered. For example, there was a 20-30% drop in the population of salmon, and 5 to 10 times as many dead birds washed up on beaches from central California to British Columbia:
- Deirdre Kennedy, Disappearing birds may point to bigger problems, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, April 17, 2006.
- The Sea Duck Joint Venture.
- Lynn La, Bird populations declining in Puget Sounds, The California Aggie, March 1, 2006.
But, apparently this doesn't explain a longer-term population decline among sea ducks. Over the last decade, for example, the number of grebes has dropped by a factor of 10!
- Glen Martin, Sea life in peril - plankton vanishing: usual seasonal influx of cold water isn't happening, San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 2005.
- Carina Stanton, Warmer oceans may be killing West Coast marine life, Seattle Times, July 13, 2005.
I wish I could find more detailed in information on how ocean currents are changing, and how this is affecting ocean life. Here's a related item I mentioned on November 4, 2004:
- Angus Atkinson, Volker Siegel, Evgeny Pakhmonov and Peter Rothery, Long-term decline in krill stock and increase in salps within the Southern Ocean, Nature 432 (November 4, 2004), 100-103.
In the southwest Atlantic there's been an 80% drop in krill population since 1979, apparently because there are 30 fewer days of sea ice near the Antarctic Peninsula, on average, and it only gets cold enough for them to breed every three years or so these days. Krill are near the bottom of the food chain there, so this is a big deal even if you don't love teeny crustaceans: no krill, no whales - and a lot fewer penguins, too. The krill population outweighs the world's human population!
But I digress. I wonder how the Antarctic ocean upwellings are changing, and how this is affecting things. It's all part of the "Great Ocean Conveyor Belt".
In a secretly related story, the radio played an interesting interview with Kevin Phillips about how America's dependence on oil is affecting foreign policy:
- Kevin Phillips and Steve Inskeep, America under the influence of oil, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, April 17, 2006.
April 18, 2006
I've been reading a bit about "Snowball Earth" - an attempt to explain what may be really serious ice ages in the Cryogenian Period of the Neoproterozoic Era, between 800 and 550 million years ago. It seems that least twice, glaciers extended almost to the equator and most of the Earth's oceans were covered with ice! How could this happen, what was its effect on life, and how did we ever get out of it?
Of course all this is a bit speculative, since fossil and other records of the Proterozoic aren't so great - it was a long time ago! But, the "Snowball Earth" theory does seem to explain lots of anomalies. For more, try these:
- How could this happen? There could have been a runaway "ice albedo effect". This is the feedback loop where the colder it gets, the more ice there is, so the more sun gets reflected back out of the atmosphere, so... the colder it gets! The reverse feedback loop is happening now as glaciers melt and the Earth heats up. It's a basic instability in the climate system. It may be exacerbating the erratic climate changes the Earth has experienced in the last 1.8 million years ago - the "glacials" that normal folks call "ice ages":
The real puzzle is what stabilizes the climate system! Some drastic effect may have occured to heat up the Earth after each brutal ice age in the Proterozoic - more on that later.
- What was its effect on life? In the 1960s, Martin Rudwick and Brian Harland theorized that it triggered the rise of multicellular animal life! The body plans of nearly all living animals appeared between 600 and 525 million years ago, perhaps near the end of Earth's days as a big fat snowball. According to Hoffman and Schrag,A series of global "freeze-fry" events would cause population "bottlenecks and flushes", observed to accelerate evolutionary rates in some species. The crash in population size accompanying a global glaciation would be followed by millions of years of comparative genetic isolation in high-stress environments. This is a favorable scenario for genomic reorganization and the evolution of new body plans. Finally, repopulations following each glaciation would occur in transient selective environments quite different from those preceding the glaciation, favoring the emergence of new life forms.
- How did we ever escape from Snowball Earth? The ice-albedo feedback loop may only have been broken when the lack of running water diminished weathering of rock - a process that uses up carbon dioxide - to the point where enough CO2 built up to cause a serious greenhouse effect. Unusual carbonate rock formations support this theory. The change from cold to hot could have been quite drastic. Hoffman and Schrag write "Calculations by Raymond Pierrehumbert at the University of Chicago suggest that tropical sea-surface temperatures would reach almost 50 degrees Celsius in the aftermath of a "snowball" Earth, driving an intense hydrologic cycle. Sea ice hundreds of meters thick globally would disappear within a few 100s of years.". Hence the "freeze-fry" scenario mentioned above.
Since you can only access the last one if you have a subscription, I'll quote a bit:
- Paul F. Hoffman and Daniel P. Schrag, The Snowball Earth.
- Wikipedia, Snowball Earth.
- David Archer, Who threw that snowball?, Science 302 (October 2003), 791-792.The overall stability of Earth's climate is generally attributed to a balance between degassing of CO2 from deep within Earth, and consumption of CO2 by weathering reactions at Earth's surface. Urey wrote the reaction as:
metamorphosiswhere the left-hand side is favored at the high temperatures of Earth's interior and the right-hand side is favored in the cool, wet conditions at Earth's surface. Walker et al proposed that the rate of weathering should depend on temperature and the intensity of the hydrological cycle, which in turn depend on the partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere, pCO2.The latter adjusts such that the CO2 sources and sinks balance. If the Sun warms up, weathering accelerates, consuming more CO2 until Earth's surface cools back down. The time scale of Walker et al.'s thermostat is ~500,000 years.
CaSiO3 + CO2 CaCO3 + SiO2
This thermostat appears to have broken down during Snowball Earth. The Snowball Earth hypothesis is based on geological evidence of multiple glaciations at sea level in low latitudes. The glaciation deposits are accompanied by "banded iron formations," which appear to mark the oxidation of an iron-rich anoxic ocean. They are overlain by caps of mineralogically peculiar CaCO3 deposits that resemble abiotic precipitates from a highly supersaturated ocean.
The leading explanation for the Snowball is a runaway ice-albedo feedback. When ice sheets reach some critical latitude, they reflect so much solar energy back into space that the entire planet freezes over. In the frozen world, weathering stops. Hydrothermal iron becomes more abundant than weathering sulfur in the anoxic ocean, generating the first banded iron formations on Earth in 1000 million years. Ultimately, Walker et al.'s thermostat overcomes the ice albedo, because CO2 degassing from Earth's interior drives atmospheric pCO2 upward. The ice melts abruptly, transforming Earth into a hothouse, which the thermostat eventually ameliorates. In the process, weathering consumes large amounts of CO2, generating the cap carbonates.
There were two to four snowball glaciations during the Neoproterozoic. Why did the thermostat break repeatedly during this interval, but not at any other time? Ridgwell et al. have identified a mechanism that may help to answer this question. To understand their idea, we need to consider a second feedback mechanism in the carbon cycle: CaCO3 compensation.
The balance this time is between weathering of CaCO3 and its burial in the ocean. The homeostat switch is the pH of the ocean. CaCO3 is a base and dissolves in acid. If the rate of weathering exceeds that of burial, the ocean becomes more basic, enhancing burial until the two fluxes balance. CaCO3 compensation operates more quickly than Walker et al.'s thermostat; under today's conditions the time scale is about 10,000 years. Ridgwell et al. have identified a mechanism by which CaCO3 compensation might have gone awry, drawing down enough CO2 to explain the descent into the Snowball state.
April 19, 2006
You may think my diary is depressing: global warming, dead ducks, Snowball Earth... but in fact, I'm getting pretty optimistic. History seems to show that life is wonderfully resilient. After each mass extinction or disaster, it springs back better than ever! For example:
So, the mass extinction we humans are causing may also lead to good results we can't imagine now.
- When cyanobacteria first invented photosynthesis about 3.5 billion years ago, oxygen was a poisonous gas: life was unable to handle it! Life had to adapt or die... and it adapted. Now we breathe oxygen.
- Life almost froze during Snowball Earth, but the selection pressure may have triggered the rise of multicellular animals!
- Each of the five classic mass extinctions led to the rise of new life forms... most famously, the demise of the dinosaurs seems to have let mammals rise to their current prominence.
The interesting question is whether we'll be around to see them.
I think the answer is: we're too destabilizing to last for long in our current form. We'll either die out, move out, or transform into something different.
(The last two could both happen, in principle.)
April 22, 2006
Oil gossip seen on Bruce Sterling's blog:
Oil: The Party Is OverBy Gwynne Dyer
GBN Global Perspectives
Welcome to the world of $70-per-barrel oil. That's if there is no crisis in the Gulf over Iran's nuclear ambitions. If there is, then get ready for $140 a barrel. Oil briefly breached the $70 barrier eight months ago, but this time it is going up for good.
Exactly one year ago the investment bank Goldman Sachs put out a paper suggesting that the "new range" within which oil prices will fluctuate is $50-$105 per barrel. (The old range, still used by most of the oil industry when deciding if a given investment will be profitable, was $20-$30.) The price could surge well past the upper end of the Goldman Sachs range if the United States actually does launch military strikes against Iran, but it's going up permanently anyway.
Whatever his longer-term plans, President Bush is unlikely to attack Iran before the mid-term Congressional elections in November, for three of the last four global recessions were triggered by a sharp rise in the oil price. But even without a Gulf crisis, the oil price will only stabilise at a price a good deal higher than now, because the major players in the market understand the long-term trends.
Transient events like the Iran crisis and the political unrest in Nigeria (which has cut that country's exports by a quarter) drive the daily movements in the oil price, but the underlying supply situation is so tight that oil would stay high even if Nigeria turned into Switzerland and Iran opted for unilateral disarmament. "On production, there is nothing we can do. [OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is] already producing at maximum output," said Abdullah al-Attiyah, Qatar's Oil Minister.
This is not about "peak oil," the notion that we are already at or near the point where total global oil production reaches its maximum and begins a long decline. That may well be true, but the present price rise is just about rising demand for oil as the big developing countries, especially the Asian ones, lift large parts of their populations into the middle class.
Middle-class people buy cars. They also run their air conditioners all summer, and take holidays abroad, and do other things that have big implications for total energy consumption, but above all they buy cars. For the foreseeable future most of the cars they buy will run on some form of refined oil.
The rising demand that drives the oil price up does not just come from the middle-class Americans (and, increasingly, Europeans) who insist on driving enormous SUVs with macho names like 'Raider', 'Devastator', and 'Genocidal Exterminator'. It also comes from the new middle class of unassuming Chinese, Indian, Russian and Brazilian families who only want a modest family car for the school run and the weekend. ĘThere are just so many of them. This is the first big price rise that has been caused by rising demand rather than some temporary interruption of supply.
Goldman Sachs also predicted last year that in twenty years' time there will be more cars in China than in the United States -- about 200 million of them. Ten years after that, India's car population will also overtake America's. Within twenty years Russia and Brazil will each have more cars than Japan. We are headed for a billion-car world (unless all the wheels fall off first), and that means permanently high oil prices.
Good. If the oil price rises gradually from $70 to $100 over the next five years, people and governments will start paying serious attention to energy conservation and alternate energy sources (including nuclear energy). ĘThe sooner that happens, the less extreme the global warming that we will have to contend with as the century progresses. But if the oil price leaps to $100 or more in one swift jump we will have the mother of all recessions, and then there will be a desperate shortage of funding for developing alternative sources of energy.
April 23, 2006
I just spent a nice day on a tour of historic buildings of Chicago with Thomas Fiore and his wife. I guess Chicago was a boomtown in the late 1800's, so they started building the world's tallest buildings, some of them quite beautiful....
Did you know I'm going to run for President in 2024? I'm not! But, you can still buy a campaign T-shirt. And while you're at it, visit the myspace.com page that some joker set up in my name. I asked them to take it down, but they didn't... so, I might as well enjoy it. Some of my "friends" look pretty shady, but I won't let that stand in my way. After having been Geek of the Week, nothing short of the leading the world's only hyperpower will sate my ever-growing ambition.
Addendum as of December 26, 2006 - Yay! That myspace.com page is gone now!
April 28, 2006
Coyotes are settling into the suburbs of Washington DC:
Quoting a bit:
- Mary Battiata, Among us, Washington Post, April 16, 2006.There was a paradox in all this. Over the past 20 years, residents of suburban Washington had become accustomed to living amid ever-growing herds of azalea-stripping deer, flocks of lawn-fouling and territorial Canada geese, as well as raccoon and squirrel populations far more dense than they would be in rural areas. But coyotes were something different: medium-size predators, with a wolf-like appearance and a reputation for wiliness, who seemed to stir a primal fear of wolves that came to this continent with European settlement. [...]I see coyotes sometimes when I walk back from work late at night. When I see more than one at a time, it's a bit scary. But the right thing to do is act big and tough and scare them... so they'll stay elusive and not get in trouble.
Washington is the last major metropolitan area in the country to be colonized by coyotes. They arrived in Maryland and Virginia about 20 years ago, after expanding their range into every part of the continental United States except the southernmost tip of Florida. (They showed up there about five years ago.) By 2004, when coyotes first were sighted in Rock Creek Park, large populations already were ensconced in suburban Westchester County, outside New York City, as well as Boston, Nashville, Phoenix, Houston and elsewhere. Last month, a coyote on the loose in Central Park, at the latitude of 66th Street, made headlines -- "Beep! Beep! Wily Coyote Captured." It was the second coyote to show up in Manhattan in recent years. In downtown Chicago, coyotes have been spotted trotting back and forth across Michigan Avenue. Outside Boston, the presence of coyotes has provoked a fierce debate in the state legislature about reintroducing leg-hold traps, currently banned as cruel and unnecessary. In California, coyotes have been a fact of urban life for decades. On the beaches of Santa Barbara, when bathers go into the water, coyotes come out of the brush to sniff beach towels.
The coyote -- biological cousin of the wolf, fox and dog -- has roamed the Plains states for at least 15,000 years. The coyotes' outward migration began about a century ago. They moved east and west, filling the ecological vacuum left by human efforts to eradicate wolves from the lower 48 states. Coyotes expanded west first, toward California. Eastward expansion began a few decades later, along two routes, one due east and southeast, through the Gulf States, and the other northeast, into Canada, and eventually down into New England and along the East Coast. Wildlife biologists believe that the coyotes now showing up in the Washington area may be part of both eastward migrations: the smaller, Western coyotes -- 20 to 35 pounds -- of the due-east migration; and larger coyotes from the Canadian migration. Coyotes in this second group weigh 35 to 50 pounds, because of interbreeding with Canadian wolves.
Failing to show dominance toward a coyote is always a mistake, Boelens said. It undermines the coyotes' fear of humans and, with that, the urban coyote's best chance for peaceful coexistence with us. So now it was time for Boelens to go to work, to remind these coyotes that hanging around and staring at humans, even out of curiosity, was unacceptable behavior.
He turned and looked directly at them. He raised his arms, widened his eyes. Then he ran toward them, arms over his head. Before he'd taken three steps, the coyotes hopped in place, and then took off, so silently and fluidly that they seemed to float over the open ground. Within seconds, they were gone.
Sometimes it seems unlikely that a society as a whole can make wise choices. Yet there is no choice but to call for the "the recovery of the commons" - and this, in a modern world that doesn't quite realize what it has lost.... The commons is a curious and elegant social institution within which human beings once lived free political lives while weaving through natural systems. - Gary Snyder
© 2006 John Baez