Saturday, September 17, 2011


Every time we invent a new instrument that reveals more about the world than we had previously known, we end up being terrified by the possibilities for destruction, the hurtling of time pushing us into a future we don’t want, more troubles bursting out of Pandora’s cursed box, more rules we are supposed to enforce on ourselves and others to prevent total disaster.  But if you try to pass on the warnings or suggest changes, you’ll be attacked.  Kill the messenger.
The oceans of the planet have been our symbols of eternity, oblivion, making it all go away.  Some say we’ve explored the oceans less than we’ve explored the moon.  Now that we find out more about our submarine planet, it is as complex and scary as the land.  Garbage vortexes.  Dead zones the size of continents.  Bleached bones of coral reefs.  The water is turning fresh!  That sounds good, doesn’t it?  Our oceans are turning acid.  Uh, oh.  Our oceans are rising into the air, where they will fall again as rain and snow.  Yes, I’ve seen that myself.  The ocean is becoming bitter.
I’ve always known about the Japanese Current because in Oregon that’s what brought turquoise bubbly-glass net floats to the beach after they escaped in Japan, and then during WWII the same current brought bombs meant to set our forests on fire.  They did, too, but not very effectively.  When I was little, sentries watched from wooden towers like “lifeguards,” which they were.  We were warned not to touch anything tangled in the washed-up windrows of seaweed.  We were obedient mostly.
A woman scientist was the first to describe the conveyor system that moves both water and air in a long planetary dance, sinking, traveling, rising, returning.  Her gender was nice for the scoffers since she was easier to discredit, but then the big males came on board to confirm that a combination of temperature and salinity, both of which affect the gravity of water -- pun intended -- are what make the northern edges of the continents comfortably inhabitable.  Not only that, but they control the turn-over of nutrients that support life.  Without movement -- stirring up -- the sea would be a dense, light-less, lifeless, pousse cafĂ© that could not benefit humans.  
Not until I got to Montana and did wintercounts did I understand about Los Ninos, the “male” and “female” phased Christmas “babies” that somehow by turning hot or cold (no one knows why or how) way out there in the ocean could make our Montana winter open on bare ground or close with ten foot drifts.  And not until recent years have I understood that the bull pines and aspens were moving up the mountains, the pikas were pushing up into high talus, and the bugs were going out of sync with the flowers so that the latter were not being visited on schedule, so no berry crop.  In short, climate change is turning up the heat under we frogs.
Climate warming sounds like a good thing in a Montana winter, but those who escaped the cold by driving their RV’s to Yuma, Arizona, had better hope they have enough gas for generators or reliable electrical connections to keep their AC’s running even in winter.  Up here a few hundred feet of elevation, a few hundred miles of north/south location, can make a difference for a rancher between successfully raising wheat or having to switch to barley and even then see it fail to mature.
Climate drives politics, partly by affecting agriculture, particularly where farmers grow cash crops instead of doing subsistence farming to feed their own families.  Cash crops force small landholders into the global economy where they are prey for corporations.  But researchers were also surprised to find that disease (which is highly related to climate because of what vectors can be sustained -- malaria-carrying mosquitoes, for instance) correlates almost exactly with war.  When countries are in anguish and chaos, they turn to terrorism which tips into war.  Boys without jobs become soldiers.
Lewis and Clark explored this territory where I live because they were searching for the fabled Northwest Passage.  It opens now in summer -- it crosses the Arctic Sea and opens ports in Russia as well.  This will change politics, already has since the oil-mongers are pitched against the pristine-landers in the far north.  Warming has doomed the lives of people who had lived on permafrost, now no longer solid.  The Panama Canal is no longer the only route past North America.  In time the Isthmus will submerge.  So will Manhattan.  So will Bangladesh, which even now is wiped of life in every major storm.
We’ve all learned to say “albedo,” because that’s the difference between the reflective capacity of arctic ice versus dark water.  The albedo causes the effect of melting to fold back on itself, so more ice melts faster.  The more the change, the faster it goes.
“All that additional heat threatens to light the fuse of the world's biggest ‘carbon bomb’, the vast permafrost region spanning 13 million square kilometers across Alaska, Canada, Siberia and parts of northern Europe.  Permafrost contains at least twice as much carbon as is currently present in the atmosphere. Even if a small percentage of this is released, catastrophic climate change is likely, experts believe.”
Christians take for granted a three level world on earth:  the ground in the middle, heaven in the sky, and hell under the ground somewhere.  But in the ocean there is a different three-layered trinity.
"At the surface to a depth of about 100 meters (330 feet), we have the layer of the ocean where there is enough light for photosynthesis to occur. Below this we have what I call the barrier layer.
“The barrier layer is what oceanographers refer to as the thermocline (because it is where temperature changes rapidly with depth) or the pycnocline (because it is where density changes rapidly with depth).
“Since density variations in the ocean are due mostly to temperature, the terms "thermocline" and "pycnocline" are interchangeable, according to Sarmiento.
“The barrier layer averages about 500 to 1,000 meters (1,600 to 3,300 feet) in depth. The deep ocean, which has an average thickness of about 3 kilometers (2 miles), lies below the barrier layer.”
Maybe society is like the ocean: three layers.  The top layer of enlightenment (330 feet); the barrier layer (1,600 to 3,300 feet) which prevents knowledge from sinking in; and the deep ocean (an average of two miles thick).  They say “ignorance is bliss.”  If you don’t know the bridge is out, you’ll only have a few moments of panicked surprise when you drive off the end.  To know or not to know, that is the question.

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