May 2012 Archives

For History Geeks

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Two days ago, I used this image in a scientific talk: 

HutchinsonTree.jpg

From Edmondson 1971, it depicts the "phylogenetic tree" of the famous ecologist G. E. Hutchinson. Branches on the tree represent Hutchinson's doctoral students, with subsequent generations represented by further branching. Many iconic names appear on this tree, such as the legendary Gordon Riley, who designed what is now the canonical theory for ocean ecosystems. I was not surprised to discover later that members of my audience belonged on the tree as well, if further branches were to be drawn. 

I was discussing this matter with Jeff Runge--who advised much of my Ph.D. work, and who is, himself, tangled in the many branches of this tree. Having difficulty reading the digital version, we decided to dig up the original paper from Jeff's old bound copies of Limnology and Oceanography, which he inherited from another zooplankton ecologist. Flipping through the dusty tomes, with pages marked by folded corners and scraps of toilet paper, the book suddenly sprung open to the very page we sought. There, marking the page, was a letter from Gordon Riley himself, discussing the Festschrift honoring Hutchinson.

RileyLetterSmall.jpg

Jeff kindly allowed me to keep this priceless historical artifact. 

-Nick Record, signing off   

Rebecca in Norway

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Rebecca Jones, from our partner lab, is spending the month of May doing some field work in Norway. Her blog is here:

Zooplankton Research in Norway

In Search of the Magic Climate Fairy

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The vast majority of climate scientists, including us lowly oceanographers, are convinced that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the planet.  There is abundant evidence for recent warming and abundant evidence that CO2 is the trigger.  As a scientist, I think it's important to consider alternative hypotheses, but at this point, there are a vanishingly small number of alternatives to the standard model of anthropogenic climate change: climate change is initiated by CO2, amplified by water vapor and other feedbacks, and yields a climate sensitivity of 3°C for every doubling of CO2.The-Legend-of-Zelda-Episode-11--Fairies-in-the-Spring.jpg

As recently outlined in the New York Times, many of the most common arguments, at least those that have some shred of real science, involve clouds.  The granddaddy of these hypotheses is Richard Lindzen's notion that warming will lead to a negative cloud feedback.  The basic idea is that warming leads to an increase in evaporation in the tropics.  The warm, moist air then condenses as low, puffy clouds or precipitates as rain, instead of rising higher into the atmosphere to form cirrus clouds.  Because high clouds tend to retain heat, reducing their number reduces warming.  My understanding is that this hypothesis has been evaluated in a variety of ways and that, if anything, the cloud feedback is slightly positive (warming-->more clouds-->more warming).  Even if Lindzen is right and that the feedback is strongly negative, it would have to be incredibly strong to counteract the other positive feedbacks, yet it would essentially be so subtle that we can't observe it at the moment. 

I can't help but see a bit of magical thinking at work here.  Perhaps, if we just believe hard enough, a Magic Climate Cloud Fairy will appear and cause the earth to cool.  As suggested by Nick, here are two potential magical climate creatures that could rescue is from our warming fate:

  • Magically Migrating Copepod:  Loyal Seascape reader(s) are well aware of the many wonders of the copepod.  One cool thing that we haven't talked about is the penchant of many copepods and other zooplankton to migrate up and down every day.  While at depth, the magical copepods respire some of the carbon they acquired by feeding at the surface.  This helps pump carbon down into the water, away from the atmosphere.  As surface waters get warmer, this will force the copepods to migrate further down, increasing their potential to remove carbon.  Few zooplankton vertical migration studies have been done in the open ocean, so we must be wildly underestimating this flux.
  • Ocean Garbage Troll:  The presence of plastics in the ocean has been well documented.  In the Troll hypothesis, the increase in small plastic particles leads to higher mortality of zooplankton and mesopelagic fish.  When they die, they sink, carrying their carbon with them.  Because the amount of garbage in the ocean is directly related to industrial activity and thus CO2 levels, and because the reproductive potential of zooplankton and small fish is very high, increased CO2 will lead to increased flux of carbon to the deep sea in the form of dead fish and plankton.  Because of the time required to get plastic from the land to the ocean, the full effects of the Troll will only be apparent in the future.

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