The snowdrops and crocuses are out in my part of the world and there’s the slightest hint of spring in the air. No doubt it won’t last but nevertheless it’s here and it’s probably the reason I’m feeling little skittish, academically speaking.
As a result the new research I’ve picked up on in this week’s round up has just a hint of the out-of-the ordinary about it. They aren’t humorous — the topics I’m covering have serious implications about both the past and the future — but a couple of them are a little bit different as we go back in time and also go off-planet. But I’ll begin with a serious topic in the here-and-now.
The Wasting of the Himalayan Glaciers
The snow-capped peaks of the highest mountain range are more than just photogenic or a challenge for the adventurous. The freshwater locked up in the snowfields and glaciers represents a resource that’s significant for both the ecology and the economy of the region. And as the world warms, the inevitable consequence is the melting of the ice.
The report — snappily titled “Status and Change of the Cryosphere in the Extended Hindu Kush Himalaya Region” — is a very chunky document indeed, at over 600 pages including references and appendices, so the best I can hope to do here is give the merest nod to its key conclusions. The most important thing to emerge is a loud alarm bell for changes in the Himalayas the can’t be stopped and will have to be managed.
In the resources section for this article, there’s a link to a page containing the key findings and, probably most importantly, the crucial policy messages. This does a fine job of distilling a lot of research into something that’s relatively easily digestible by the lay person.
The findings are alarming in that they indicate the loss of ice from the Himalayas is already well under way and that there has been significant decline since the 1970s. More alarmingly, the loss is predicted to continue: “Glacier volumes are projected to decline by up to 90% through the 21st century in response to decreased snowfall, increased snowline elevations, and longer melt seasons” the report warms (though it notes that these may be offset by reduced carbon emissions).
The significance of the potential changes in the Himalayas covers not just the availability of water for drinking, but also for irrigation and for energy supply. Change will have impacts on the flora and fauna and also on the physical environment — another illustration of how change in one part of our Earth system can influence another.
Extra-Terrestrial Water: The Truth is Out ThereWater is essential to life on Earth, and its existence is therefore one of the key things that make our planet habitable. Where that water came from is another thing, especially given that temperatures on the early Earth were so high and the atmosphere so thin that any water would have been lost to space. So how come we have so much water now?
We do know that water exists elsewhere, certainly in its frozen form on both Mars and the Moon. One current, generally-accepted, theory is that water came to the Earth through its collision with water-rich bodies such as comets. We know those are out there, too — and the availability of such water may, in a distant future, be crucial to a future we currently only know through science fiction.
There’s a new study out that caught my eye and it addresses the question of just how much of this water there is. Given that these extra-terrestrial bodies must have delivered the vast quantities of it that we see around us, you might think there’s quite a lot, and you’d be right.
The study isn’t open access which means I wasn’t able to read anything more than the abstract and an interview with one of the researchers, but it’s interesting nevertheless. It’s based on spectroscopy, a technique that uses electromagnetic radiation to identify what a body is made of, and identifies the presence of hydrated minerals (those which contain water) in extra-terrestrial bodies.
It concludes that there are: “between 400 and 1200 billion kilograms (440 to 1.3 billion U.S. tons) of water that could be extracted from the minerals in these asteroids. In liquid terms, that’s between 400 billion and 1,200 billion liters (100 billion and 400 billion U.S. gallons) of water. That’s enough to fill between 160,000 and 480,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
The study also looks at their accessibility and indicates that there are literally hundreds that are easier to reach than the Moon. Of course, this is all very futuristic, but it may, in the future, prove crucial for the possible future of humanity or for potential economic exploitation.
The Environmental Impacts of European Settlement of the Americas
Human activity is known to have impacts on the climate, with the clearest example being the increase in global temperatures resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the associated burning of fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is the best know example — but it isn’t the only one.
Something that caught my eye recently is an example of this. It’s well known that the European settlement of the Americas had a devastating impact on the existing population but new research shows that the effects extended beyond the deaths of thousands and the damage to habitat and ecosystems. In short, it examines the theory that the European conquest and settlement of the Americas had such a significant impact that it actually caused global cooling and precipitated, or was a key feature in precipitating, the climate period known as the Little Ice Age, roughly between 1550 and 1850.
The new research looks at various factors and attempts to find a connection between the decline of population following the arrival of Europeans and the onset of the Little Ice Age. The loss of agricultural activity associated with the devastated population led, it argues, to increased sequestration of carbon, to a lowering of atmospheric CO2 and a subsequent atmospheric cooling.
And it concludes that: “The Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth System in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution”.