Wyrd - OE: that which has become; fate-shaping; destiny-unfolding

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Grasping for silver linings ...and blooming saviours

Plankton blooms swirl north of Norway (ESA)
In the ongoing blizzard of climate change worries, it's always nice to spot a break in an otherwise relentlessly overcast sky. In fact, it only takes the briefest glimpse of 'good-news' research, and some are already polishing up the silver-lining they've just spotted in the swirling clouds. Today was just such a day for the polishers. 

"Iron from melting ice sheets may help buffer global warming"

That's the lead from a press-release accompanying an interesting new paper in Nature. The paper's authors have found that melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antartica aren't just cranking up sea-levels, inch-by-worrying-inch. They're also pumping out iron - an important nutrient - into the seas surrounding them. Given that a little bit of extra iron has been shown to boost the growth of blooms of phytoplankton - the tiny micro-organisms that are the basis of nearly all marine life - and that phytoplankton absorbs CO2 - the headache gas of global warming - it's easy enough to spot the kernel of a good-news story.

Nanoparticulate ferrihyrite in all its glory
It's not just any old iron, either, that ice-sheets are spilling into the sea, after grinding away at the mountains in the hinterland. The iron they are gifting to the oceans consists of hosts of tiny nano-sized iron particles, something that scientists call 'bioavailable iron'. That means the iron is readily absorbed by critters like phytoplankton. And without a paucity of iron holding them back, those plankton blooms can really boom.

The fact that melting glaciers are a major source of this 'bioavailable' iron is something of a novel concept. It may go some way towards explaining the large blooms of phytoplankton that colour the Arctic ocean in spring and summer. So this paper is major step forward in understanding the complex interweave between climate, chemistry and life in the coldest spots on the planet. But does this new research also point the way towards phytoplankton blooms as a force for good in the battle against climate change?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Is the 'little fella' about to bring big trouble in his wake?

Peruvian fishermen fear him, hurricane-battered Pacific islanders hope for him, and parched Californians are right now praying for him. El Niño - the 'little boy' or Christ-child - is gathering himself for a reappearance later this year, ready to wreak havoc with weather across the globe. Today the US's Climate Prediction Center pegged the chances of an El Niño event swarming across the Pacific at 65% for the summer - and 80% for the autumn.

With the hot-tempered little lad come changes across the globe - from heightened fire-risk in Australia and winter cloudbursts in California, to fisheries failures in the east Pacific. Naturally enough, headline writers are rolling out the gloom-and-doom headlines. Time to mark up a notch to the growing chorus of 'climate chaos', then? 

Not so fast.

After all, El Niño, for all its global meteorological drama, is part of a natural rhythm of wind and ocean movements, which have persisted for millennia. 

The sea-temperatures across the middle of the world's largest ocean have beat out an erratic pulse between hot (El Niño) and cool (La Niña) since at least the start of the last ice-age. There is certainly drama in El Niño, and the wave of consequences it pushes across the rest of the world. But it is a drama that's rather long in the tooth.