Rainy mountains speed CO2 removal

Rainy mountains speed CO2 removal

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The speed at which soil is produced by rain falling on mountain slopes proves to be much faster than science had realised – with significant implications for carbon in the atmosphere.  

LONDON, 19 January – US scientists have measured the rate at which mountains make the raw material for molehills – and found that if the climate is rainy enough, soil gets made at an astonishing speed. And in the course of this natural conversion of rock to fertile farmland and forest loam, carbon is naturally removed from the atmosphere.

Isaac Larsen of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues from California and New Zealand took a closer look at rates of weathering on the western slopes of the Southern Alps in New Zealand. They report in Science that, according to their measurements, rock is being transformed into soil more than twice as fast as previously believed.

On the ridge tops of the NZ mountains, soil was being manufactured by chemical weathering (which is scientific shorthand for rain splashing on rock) at the rate of up to 2.5mm a year.

“A couple of millimeters a year sounds pretty slow to anyone but a geologist”, said David Montgomery, one of the authors. “Isaac measured two millimeters of soil production a year, so it would take just a dozen years to make an inch of soil. That’s shockingly fast for a geologist, because the conventional wisdom is it takes centuries.”

The research matters because – once again – it throws new light on one of the dark regions of the climate machine: how carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, at what rate, and where it goes and where it all ends up.

Temperature drop

The Southern Alps of New Zealand are in geological terms young, and still going up in the world: they include some of the fastest-uplifting mountains on the planet. They are also among the rainiest: more than 10 metres of precipitation a year, on average.

Uplift – the process of mountain-building – provides fresh new rock for weathering to work on. Rainclouds arrive on the prevailing winds from the Tasman Sea, hit the mountain sides, rise, condense and release their burden on the western slopes, to generate colossal run-off, lots of silt and rock fragments and dissolved silica, and to nourish dense, vigorous forests at the bottom of the slope.

And along with all this trickling water and new soil is a steady delivery of carbon, removed from the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide.

The hypothesis that mountains play a role in chemical weathering, carbon dioxide removal and climate change is not new. Decades ago scientists argued that when the continent of India slammed into Asia and lifted up the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau more than 50 million years ago, this process generated conditions for monsoon rainfall that accelerated the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at such a rate that global temperatures dropped dramatically and ushered in the Ice Ages.

Such an argument is difficult to clinch, but the latest research from NZ certainly lends support to the reasoning that new mountain chains are influential components in the climate machine.

Strenuous research

Larsen and colleagues calculate that the young, wet mountain chains of the world make up only 14% of the land area that drains into the ocean, but account for 62% of the sediment, 38% of the total dissolved solids and 60% of the dissolved silica delivered down the rivers and into estuaries and deltas and ultimately to the sea, where huge quantities of this run-off settle to become carbonate rock.

Mountains, in effect, are agencies that turn carbon dioxide from the air into limestone beneath the sea, and the evidence from the Southern Alps is that this happens more speedily than anyone first thought.

To complete the research, the scientists had repeatedly to take helicopter rides to the highest ridges, hike down to collect a burden of new soil, and then climb the steep mountain slopes again to await the return flight.

Back in Washington, they tested their soil samples for levels of beryllium-10, an isotope made at the Earth’s surface by cosmic rays, and therefore an indicator of the newness of the soil, and the rate at which it formed.

“I’ve worked in a lot of places,” said Larsen. “This was the most challenging fieldwork I have ever done.” – Climate News Network

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Few would welcome geo-engineering

Few would welcome geo-engineering

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Trying to avert dangerously high global temperatures by modifying the climate – geo-engineering – may or may not be possible. It certainly won’t be popular, researchers say.

LONDON, 17 January – Geo-engineering – the frustrated climate scientist’s last-ditch solution to global warming – is not likely to be a very popular choice. Members of the public have “a negative view” of deliberate large-scale manipulation of the environment to counteract climate change, according to new research in Nature Climate Change.

Geo-engineering has been repeatedly proposed as a response to the steady build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and increasingly cited as a potential necessity as global emissions from fossil fuels have continued to increase. If political action fails, some scientists reason, then perhaps technology could stop global average temperatures from getting too high.

Among these options is the injection of aerosols into the stratosphere to block or dim the sunlight, or the release of reflecting devices in Earth orbit to actually reflect sunlight away from the planet, on the principle that if you can’t turn down the atmospheric temperature, you could at least put up a sunscreen to cool the planet a little.

Such ideas have failed to find universal favour in the scientific community, if only because such action could seriously upset rainfall patterns and trigger disaster in the arid parts of Africa.

Consistent reluctance

But until now, nobody has seriously put the question to the public. Ordinary people don’t like the idea, say Malcolm Wright and Pamela Feetham of Massey University in New Zealand, and Damon Teagle of the University of Southampton, UK.

They consulted large samples of opinion in both Australia and New Zealand, and found “remarkably consistent” responses from both countries, “with surprisingly few variations except for a slight tendency for older respondents to view climate engineering more favourably,” says Pamela Feetham.

The trio report in Nature Climate Change that where there had been engagement with the public, this had been “exploratory, small-scale, or technique-specific.” So the researchers tried another approach, one used by big corporations to evaluate marketing brands. Such approaches use psychological techniques to find out what people associate with different ideas, and have done so successfully for two decades.

The researchers systematically examined and compared in a controlled fashion the public reaction to six potential climate engineering techniques, among them, for instance, robot ships that would spray seawater droplets over the ocean to reflect sunlight – it’s called cloud brightening – and air capture, the design of structures to filter CO2 from the air.

Charcoal is popular

They found that people were not in favour of deflecting or blocking sunlight, but were more likely to have positive reactions to techniques that might reduce carbon dioxide levels.

“It was a striking result and a very clear pattern”, said Professor Wright. “Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles in the stratosphere are not well received. More natural processes of cloud brightening or enhanced weathering are less likely to raise objections, but the public react best to creating biochar (making charcoal from vegetation to lock in CO2) or capturing carbon directly from the air.”

The message is that if scientists want to save the planet by climate engineering, they had better ask around first. “If these techniques are developed the public must be consulted”, said Professor Wright.

“Our methods can be employed to evaluate the responses in other countries and reapplied in the future to measure how public opinion changes as these potential new techniques are discussed and developed.” – Climate News Network

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