April 29, 2007
Creation Of North Atlantic Melted Ice Caps?

The creation of the North Atlantic Ocean might have spewed so much carbon dioxide that it toasted the Arctic ice covering.

Michael Storey at Roskilde University in Denmark and colleagues have found evidence that a huge volcanic eruption, 55 million years ago, unleashed so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that world temperatures rose by as much as 8°C – with the Arctic ocean reaching a toasty 25°C.

So then did polar bears evolve since then? Ditto for some of the other North American and Northern Russian cold weather animals?

Massive volcanic eruptions are a much bigger threat to humanity than asteroids. For the asteroid threat we could (if we were wiser) develop excellent systems for detecting and deflecting asteroids. But I doubt that we can do much to prevent massive eruptions (though if anyone has any ideas on that please post in the comments).

If geological scientists could predict a massive volcanic eruption on some part of the Earth I would take that prediction as an argument for a massive nuclear reactor construction project in other parts of the globe. In the early stages of eruption light from the sun would get blocked out. So solar panels would become worthless and the planet would become really cold. Later the planet might go through a big warming as Michael Storey thinks happened before. But first we'd need to survive the very cold and dark period. Nukes would help on that score.

The farther out a volcanic eruption prediction could be made the more we could do to reduce the loss of life. We could stockpile food and medicine, move people away from the eruption area, build cold weather shelters, and build nuclear power plants.

How big can a volcanic eruption get? Tambora in 1815 spewed 100 times as much as Mt. St. Helens in 1980 but Toba about 71,000 years ago spewed 2800 times as much as Mt. St. Helens. Toba's 2800 sq. km. spew is not the biggest in history. Note that the Yellowstone Caldera could become a supervolcano again and the current US territory has been the site of other supervolcanoes, including one that spewed up 5000 sq. km. of stuff.

Update: The scientists who conducted this research see it as evidence that a big spike in CO2 and methane can cause global warming.

The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, or PETM, was a period of intense warming that lasted roughly 220,000 years. In addition to the warming of sea surface waters, this event – characterized by scientists as a "planetary emergency" – also greatly increased the acidification of the world’s oceans and led to the extinction of numerous deep-sea species.

Warming periods in Earth’s history are of interest as analogs to today’s climate change, Duncan said.

The international science team was able to link the PETM with the breakup of Greenland from northern Europe through analyzing the ash layers deposited toward the end of the peak of the volcanic eruptions. Using chemical fingerprints and identical ages, they were able to positively match ash layers in east Greenland with those in marine sediments in the Atlantic Ocean.

"We think the first volcanic eruptions began about 61 million years ago and then it took another 5 million years for the mantle to weaken, the continent to thin and the molten material to rise to the surface," Duncan said. "It was like lifting a lid. The plate came apart and gave birth to the North Atlantic Ocean."

If the human race doesn't get wiped out by robots, nanotech replicators, or an invading alien species then at some point we are going to need to do large scale climate engineering to compensate for future periods of intense volcanic activity.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 April 29 12:54 PM  Dangers Natural Geological

David Mathews said at April 29, 2007 3:49 PM:

Hello Randall,

> If the human race doesn't get wiped out by robots, nanotech replicators, or an invading alien species then at some point we are going to need to do large scale climate engineering to compensate for future periods of intense volcanic activity.

The human race is on the certain path to extinction. Volcanoes can provide a global-scale catastrophe but they are not necessary because Homo sapiens are a biological global-scale catastrophe.

There is no technology which can solve the human problem. When an entire species goes insane with power, violence, and near-infinite destructiveness it cannot help but exterminate itself from the Universe.

The end of technological civilization is fast approaching. Likely we shall witness the collapse of technological civilization with our own eyes. All dreams of technology saving us (or bringing about a utopia or providing immortality to individuals) will evaporate away with the end of technological civilization.

The 21st century will provide humankind with an apocalypse which shall put the book of Revelation to shame. John's imagination certainly could not encompass the tragedy which shall overtake our species.

Too bad for humankind, but the punishment fits the crime.

Bob Hawkins said at April 30, 2007 9:09 AM:

Space colonies. Watch the eruptions on TV.

David A. Young said at April 30, 2007 9:35 AM:

Studiously ignoring the Lusting-for-Death Mr. Matthews:

I think very (and I stress "very") high end nanotechnology could be effective against mega-eruptions. If you identify and quantify the areas where such events are likely (such as Yellowstone) then nano-bots could - by reinforcing the mantle in some places and weakening it in others - redirect enough of the building pressure to keep it below the critical level. Essentially, creating pressure valves. This would be easier if you trust your nano-bots enough to allow them to self-replicate. (And mind, even with high-end nanotech, we're talking an initiative that would have to be started well before a critical situation arose -- at least years, maybe decades.) Maybe you could even lay out the artificial "lava tubes" so that they'd direct their payload to geothermal power plants. It could happen!!!!

Randall Parker said at April 30, 2007 5:55 PM:

Bob Hawkins,

It would be cheaper and easier to build structures hundreds or thousands of miles away from the supervolcano than to build space colonies. As soon as we have enough tech to build space colonies we'll also have even better tech for building cave complexes or surface complexes with really strong roofs that can withstand several feet of soot accumulation.

We could also build water pumping systems that would bring water in from the ocean to constantly wash off a living area to remove the accumulating soot. I'm picturing nuclear reactors built on coast lines and massive buried pipes running out into the ocean. The pipes could bring in water to cool the nukes and then the water could get disgorged at a higher altitude above settlements. The settlement could have streets that can handle a couple feet deep of running water. The water could get rotated thru different settlements on a regular schedule to wash away the accumulated debris coming down from the sky.

Though extremely cold air might make such an effort problematic as the water could freeze. That's solvable with a sufficient amount of energy. If the supervolcano erupts after we have fusion energy we could just run buried heating pipes in streets and keep the streets warm enough to keep the water flowing. Houses could have sprinklers on their roofs too.

With enough technology, robotics, and capital equipment hundreds of millions of people could survive the worst sort of supervolcanic eruption.

David Mathews said at May 1, 2007 6:25 AM:

Hello Randall,

> That's solvable with a sufficient amount of energy.

And that is the reason why all of these science fantasy scenarios must fail. Humankind's supply of energy (from fossil fuels) is fast depleting at the rate of 85 million barrels a day.

Even the military notices:

"We have to wake up," said Milton R. Copulos , National Defense Council Foundation president and an authority on the military's energy needs. "We are at the edge of a precipice and we have one foot over the edge. The only way to avoid going over is to move forward and move forward aggressively with initiatives to develop alternative fuels. Just cutting back won't work."
Pentagon study says oil reliance strains military

Here is a problem which is monumental in scale and promises to bring down technological civilization altogether. The solution is a mirage: Alternative energy sources are only possible today because the the existence of easy, cheap & abundant oil.

But the supervolcano problem need not concern us. Humankind is going to face the fossil-fuel-exhaustion problem this century. Very soon.

Randall Parker said at May 1, 2007 5:33 PM:

David Mathews,

When the oil runs out we can turn to wind, nuclear fission, and eventually sun and fusion.

doctorpat said at May 5, 2007 1:32 AM:

Geothermal is a dark horse in power production.

All it needs is better drilling tech (a factor of two!) before geothermal is competitive with nuclear in many locations (such as near Sydney, Australia).

A factor of two in tech improvements occur all the time. And it isn't as if drilling isn't the focus of huge industrial research, (by oil companies for example).

Randall Parker said at May 5, 2007 10:47 AM:

Doctor Pat,

What I wonder about geothermal: If one could drill to geothermal power beneath a populated area (or even a military base) could one use part of the heat for warmth in colder months and thereby make the economic justification for geothermal easier to make?

I'm thinking the heat could first generate steam to spin turbines. Then the hot water could heat buildings or even greenhouses before being sent back below.

As for making it cheaper: Because the underlying technology is being driven by other industries there's probably less need for government funding of geothermal research than for other types of energy research. Though I still think some government funding of geothermal could help. For example, development of ways to prevent mineral build-up on pipes and surveys of where to find hot rocks would help.

Kralizec said at May 7, 2007 12:32 AM:

Regarding David Mathews's comment, at April 29, 2007 03:49 PM: Anger, especially righteous indignation, seems to sustain certainty. Fear seems to sustain certainty, as well, at least insofar as certainty about the future reduces the fear of an uncertain future. However any of this may be, now that David Mathews is so sure everything "shall" go badly, it seems just as well for him to try to relax and quietly enjoy watching us as we make our reasonable efforts to deal first with one problem, then another.

Nihilists are so funny.

Bob Badour said at May 8, 2007 4:02 PM:

Might have polar bears evolved in the last 55 million years? It is probably safe to assume that bears of all kinds evolved from very different creatures in that timespan. Whales might have been land mammals 55 million years ago.

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