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February 2001

Sunken Cities, Abysmal Depths, Ozone Holes
Burning Forests and Uncertainty

By Jim Scanlon

A record number of people, about nine thousand earth scientists from industrialized countries around the world swarmed through Mosconi Center for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on December 15-19.

One hundred and ten journalists, mostly from the US, were registered at the AGU Press Room. Reading just the first names of the four column list of registrants, were National Geographic Magazine, the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Inside Science and NOW-Network of the World. Science and Nature were represented along with the LA Times, Time, Physics Today and, or course the Marin County Coastal Post.

Few of the attendees wore suits, most were well dressed but casually. Healthy looking men predominated, but the number of women, young women and very young women, continues to grow and if the current trend continues, they will soon be in the majority. I didn't see anyone who fit the stereotype of the geeky nerd: lots of Robert Redford and Paul Newman types. The women just looked dignified and very attractive---definitely no misfits or bimbos.

The AGU is an immense "umbrella" organization of various scientific disciplines. For example the movement of the earth's vast plates, Plate Tectonics, involves the simultaneous study of earthquakes (Seismology), the study of volcanoes, (Volcanology), Geomagnetism and the traditional study of the solid earth, (Geology) as well as that black gooey stuff that we use so much (Petrology). Atmospheric, Ocean, Solar and Planetary studies add to the list which gets bigger every now and then, for example, Biogeosciences.

Earth science has enormous importance to the way we live and it seems to attract our best and brightest.

The big news this year was "The Uncertainty in the Future of Arctic Ozone." Recent large scale measurements by satellites, U-2 type research aircraft, balloon born and ground based instruments confirmed that Arctic ozone levels have declined irregularly, but drastically, within the last ten years. Climate change is cooling the stratosphere so that ice and acid clouds can more easily form, speeding up the chemical reactions that destroy ozone. Still not as bad as Antarctica but worrisome. This story even made the local TV news for the first time.

A mini ozone hole formed in late November 1999 with the lowest ozone level ever recorded (165 Dobson Units). The edge of the area of low ozone passed over Norway and Scotland during mid winter. This would not be disturbing in and of itself because sunlight in winter at high latitude is weak and of short duration, but the cold vortex now lasts longer, into March, when the sun gets stronger. Basically, low temperature means more ozone destruction and the northern winter of 1999-2000 produced record low temperatures.

While this information may have been new to journalists it wasn't new to researchers since it had been reported in the 1997 AGU meeting and published in Nature and the Coastal Post in 1998. With the apparent success of the Montreal Protocol in reducing emissions of ozone depleting substances, the ozone layer was expected to start healing around 2001. That projection was changed to recovery around 2040 to 2050. The most recent projection at the meeting was for recovery between 2050 and 2070. Not many of us will live to confirm that projection!

Buried in a NASA press release was another well known (to those in the know) assessment which was published in the Coastal Post two years ago: "...Other factors including greenhouse induced cooling of the stratosphere could delay future recovery of ozone levels. That is greenhouse gases are causing climate change which is destroying ozone, causing increased levels of ultraviolet radiation on to the surface of the earth.

The moral of this story is that a reporter can't depend on pre-written press handouts. One has to attend the specialized sessions and follow the published literature. The really hot topic in atmospheric research is the possibility that an increase in the temperature of the tropical Pacific will increase the amount of water vapor lofted up into the dry stratosphere. If that happens---well, that could be the beginning of the end. God's, or Gaia's way of slowing down the global economy. Actually the environmental views of the opposing candidates in our recent presidential election might be characterized as "God or Gaia?"

Excitement

Marsha McNutt, The President of the AGU, and head of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute announced a major initiative to explore the deep ocean. There is a lot of it and we know next to nothing about it. Plans are for a "signature voyage" of research vessels that will first systematically explore our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and then complete a circumnavigation of the globe from south to north with submersibles traveling under the fast disappearing North Polar Ice Cap.

Since this project will depend on support by the new administration in Washington, I worried that the bible thumpers might not take too kindly to voyages of discovery exemplified by Darwin on the Beagle or Cook on the Endeavor but then I remembered that Bush and Cheney were oil men who have a deep appreciation for Petrology to put it mildly. They chose Darwin over the bible when it comes to exploring for oil. So, this is exciting in more ways than one.

Sunken Cities

A striking reminder of what exciting future discoveries await us was the presentation on the location of three sunken Egyptian cities under the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria. One Pharonic and two Roman cities disappeared 1,500 years ago after an earthquake which caused the land to sink and the main mouth of the Nile to move eastward. The cities were described by Herodotus, a Greek traveler and historian who visited the area in 450 BC. Numerous historical sources describe two of the cities, Herakleion and Menouthis as "opulent and decadent," which would explain why they were destroyed according to the Reverend Pat Robertson and others. Evidence from Arabic, Roman, and Byzantine sources have documented 14 centuries of earthquakes in the eastern Mediterranean area, so the ancients must have behaved very badly. This could be a plus for future research.

Burning Forests

It was surprising to learn that large fires in boreal forests (forests in the far north, Alaska, Canada and Russia) produce more greenhouse gases than all the transportation systems of the world. These northern fires are increasing in response to a pattern of recent global warming. 1.2 million hectares per year burned in the 1960s and 3 million in the 1990s. These fires produce an estimated 3 billion metric tons of carbon while fossil fuel burning produces 6.6. billion tons of carbon per year.

In addition, smoke and trace gases from these fires are having an impact on the composition of the atmosphere . While these fires are important in renewing the productivity of mature forests, providing new wildlife habitat, their size and severity seem to be altering the recovery of the forests and affecting the regional climate. Of the earth's great ecosystems, the boreal forest has received the greatest increase in warming and vegetation seems to be changing.

Uncertainty?

What does it mean when someone says "uncertainty has increased?" This question is a little more than splitting hairs. New studies, incorporating the most up to date information available projects that the earth's atmosphere will experience a warming of between 1.5 to 6 C over the next century. Previously the estimate was from 1.3 to 5C. The range of uncertainty has increased. What does this mean? What does a decision maker hear or understand by this "uncertainty."

It means that there is uncertainty as to how bad it will be. The range has shifted upwards. It does not mean that there is doubt or uncertainty about the data that went into the projection.

Of course if the decision maker is unwilling or unable to make a decision, "Uncertainty" is a wonderful means for evading a decision.

What does all this mean? We are not sure.

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