Short Future


World's End

At 1/5 the speed of light, dust and atoms might not do significant damage even in a voyage of 40 years,
but the faster you go, the worse it is - space begins to become abrasive.
When you begin to approach the speed of light, hydrogen atoms become cosmic-ray particles, and they will fry the crew.
So 60,000 kilometers per second may be the practical speed limit for space travel.

- Isaac Asimov

I don't try to describe the future.  I try to prevent it.

- Ray Bradbury

London - Physicist Stephen Hawking said yesterday that he feared the human race would not survive for another thousand years.  The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and author of A Brief History of Time said that an accident or global warming would wipe out life on Earth.  Only by settling on other planets could humanity guarantee its survival, Professor Hawking said.  The physicist made the comments before a lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh called The Universe in a Nutshell, the title of his new book.  He said, "I am afraid the atmosphere might get hotter and hotter until it will be like Venus with boiling sulphuric acid.  I am worried about the greenhouse effect."

Professor Hawking, who uses a wheelchair and speaks with the aid of a computer, has motor neurone disease.

He said space travel would not solve the problems of overpopulation, but without colonising other planets humans were presented with the possibility of becoming extinct.  Professor Hawking also said that the challenge for physics was to produce an explanation of everything - a complete unified theory. - The Times

Source: The Dominion 2 October 2000

Personally, I think Stephen Hawking's solution (colonising other planets) lacks creativity and anyway, it won't help those of us left behind.  What might?  For one idea for healing the ozone hole, see Boxing the Compass (elsewhere in this section).  For an idea on extending the life of planet earth by using asteroids to change her orbit, see Save the Earth.

Oil Chief: "My Fears for Our Planet..."

by David Adam

Shell boss's "confession" shocks industry

The head of one of the world's biggest oil companies has admitted that the threat of climate change makes him "really very worried for the planet".  In an interview in the Guardian, Ron Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, says we urgently need to capture emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which scientists think contribute to global warming, and store them underground - a technique called carbon sequestration.  "Sequestration is difficult, but if we don't have sequestration then I see very little hope for the world," said Lord Oxburgh.  "No one can be comfortable at the prospect of continuing to pump out the amounts of carbon dioxide that we are pumping out at present... with consequences that we really can't predict but are probably not good."

His comments will enrage many in the oil industry, which is targeted by climate change campaigners because the use of its products spews out huge quantities of carbon dioxide, most visibly from vehicle exhausts.  His words follow those of the government's chief science adviser, David King, who said in January that climate change posed a bigger threat to the world than terrorism.  "You can't slip a piece of paper between David King and me on this position," said Lord Oxburgh, a respected geologist who replaced the disgraced Philip Watts as chairman of the British arm of the oil giant in March.

Companies including Shell and BP have previously acknowledged the problem of climate change and pledged to reduce their own emissions, but the issue remains sensitive, and carefully worded public statements often emphasise uncertainties over risks.  Robin Oakley, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace, said: "This is an important statement to make but it does have to come with a commitment to follow through, and that means making the case to his peers in the oil industry who are still sceptical of climate change."

Mr Oakley said a gulf was opening between more progressive oil companies such as Shell, which invests in alternative energy sources including wind and solar power, and ExxonMobil, the biggest and most influential producer, particularly in the US.  In June 2002 ExxonMobil's chairman, Lee Raymond, said: "We in ExxonMobil do not believe that the science required to establish this linkage between fossil fuels and warming has been demonstrated."

Lord Oxburgh's words will also fuel arguments over sequestration.  Supporters say it will allow a smoother transition to reduced emissions by allowing us to burn coal, oil and gas for longer.  Critics argue that the idea is an expensive and probably unworkable smokescreen for continued reliance on fossil fuels.  Last year the Guardian revealed that ministers were considering plans for a national network of pipelines to carry millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from power stations to be buried under the North Sea.  "You probably have to put it under the sea but there are other possibilities.  You may be able to trap it in solids or something like that," said Lord Oxburgh, who claimed even vehicle emissions could be trapped and disposed of.  "The timescale might be impossible, in which case I'm really very worried for the planet because I don't see any other approach."

According to a 3,000m (about 10,000ft) ice core from Antarctica revealing the Earth's climate history, carbon dioxide levels are the highest for at least 440,000 years.  Lord Oxburgh said the situation is particularly urgent because many developing countries, including India and China, are sitting on huge untapped stocks of coal, probably the most polluting fossil fuel.  "If they choose to burn their coal, we in the west are not in a very good position to tell them not to, because it's exactly what we did in our industrial revolution."

Bryony Worthington, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: "It isn't a responsible attitude to say we're going to pledge to do sequestration but if the plans don't work out then the world's messed up.  He's done quite a clever job by making it clear he's concerned but at the same time not pledging to do anything about it."  She called for tougher emission standards for new vehicles, as well as greater investment in energy efficiency measures and renewable sources.

A former non-executive director with Shell, Lord Oxburgh was catapulted into the chairman's role after the company was forced to reveal it had overstated the extent of its reserves.  He was widely viewed as a safe pair of hands.  He followed his long-standing academic career with spells as chief science adviser to the Ministry of Defence and rector of Imperial College, London.  A crossbench life peer, he still chairs the Lords science and technology select committee, although he must retire from Shell next year.

David Adam is the Guardian's science correspondent

Source: The Guardian Thursday 17 June 2004

Here's an idea for effecting some more immediate global cooling.  Fossil fuels today supply 85% of the world's commercial energy.  As early as 1977, a scientist came up with a scheme to inject CO2 into the Strait of Gibraltar.  But turning the oceans into seltzer water could be a serious mistake...

Can the Ocean Hold CO2?

Scientists Set to Store Liquid State in the Deep

by Alex Salkever

Honolulu - At the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii on the sun-splashed Kona Coast, a pipe drops steeply from coastal lava fields through azure waters to depths of 3,300 feet.  At some point during the next year, scientists may send liquid carbon dioxide coursing through the pipe and into the Pacific Ocean.  The goal: to find out whether it's safe to use Earth's oceans as storage bins for massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) - a greenhouse gas linked to global climate change.

For environmentalists, the experiments represent a red herring that could encourage even greater greenhouse-gas emissions and divert resources from more valuable climate-change efforts.  But for some scientists, the international project represents an elegant solution to the worsening problem of CO2 emissions and fossil-fuel dependence.  "It will allow us to use fossil fuels without carbon emissions," says Howard Herzog, a research engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. 

Carbon levels in the earth's atmosphere have gone up about 25% since the Industrial Revolution, largely because of the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas that supply about 85% percent of the world's energy needs.  And that level is increasing.  "It's not only the higher levels that we are worried about," says Gerard Nihous, an ocean engineer with the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research.  "It's the rate of change.  Rapid changes in the atmospheric chemistry might create rapid changes in climate."

Meanwhile, fossil-fuel consumption - spurred by low oil prices and industrialisation in the developing world - continues to skyrocket.  The use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, is lagging considerably.  And nuclear energy, which produces almost no greenhouse gases, is a public pariah.  In addition, the cutting down of forests that soak up greenhouse gases is outstripping reforestation.  Furthermore, scientists say even the expected advances in all of these energy methods would not be enough to stabilise, let alone reduce, CO2 emissions.

All these reasons make the industrialised nations' target for emissions reduction look even more daunting.  By 2012, they want a 5 to 8% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels.  As an alternative and complementary solution, scientists are mulling over injecting CO2 into the ocean.  The gas, to be captured from flue gases and other power producers, would be injected deep undersea via pipes that may be based on land or dragged under specially outfitted oil tankers.  By putting the CO2 under high pressure, the gas would remain in liquid form and stay in the ocean for several centuries before bubbling to the surface.  This, scientists claim, would give humans the breathing room to continue to use fossil fuels until more efficient technologies are developed, emissions are reduced, or fossil fuels become scarce and expensive.

The benefits to this proposal are clear.  Technology to capture CO2 with special solvents and convert it into a liquid already exists.  And to capture the CO2, power plants would only need to retrofit their facilities with new equipment, they wouldn't have to construct a whole new power-supply system.  These two factors mean that CO2 capture would most likely be considerably cheaper than other solutions.  Most important, say project scientists, is the fact that the oceans are already the planet's largest reservoir of carbon gas.  They absorb about a third of the carbon produced by humans.  "There's a huge exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean," says Stephen Masutani, a University of Hawaii engineer working on the Kona project.  "The bottom line is, it's happening anyway."

But CO2 storage in deep oceans is no slam-dunk.  Capturing the CO2 from power plants and other carbon emitters would initially increase the cost of power by 50 to 100%, something that would meet resistance from utilities, car manufacturers and consumers.  How to distribute the cost equitably among countries is also a problem.  Also, funding for CO2 capture - although dramatically increased over previous years - is minuscule when compared with government and private funding for clean-burning technologies and strategies for greenhouse-gas mitigation.  Many environmentalists vow to oppose the CO2 storage, which they've dubbed "carbon dumping."  They say efforts to capture carbon, let alone put it in the deep ocean, are misplaced.  They fear that higher CO2 levels would harm marine life due to increased acidity, something the scientists hope to study during the experiments.  Critics also note that the oceans are warming, and they question whether this would result in the CO2 bubbling up quickly, escaping into the atmosphere.  Besides, environmentalists say that figuring out a way to allow mankind to maintain and even increase current levels of fossil-fuel consumption is a misguided goal.

"The whole purpose of this exercise is to stabilise atmospheric gases at a level that will avoid dangerous climate change," says Gary Cook of Greenpeace USA.  "People are not considering what the implications of increasing fossil-fuel-burning activities have on that objective.  I don't know any environmental group who is in favour of ocean dumping."

Source: The Christian Science Monitor 1999; all rights reserved.

That's a Gas

According to scientists, the CO2 should "remain in liquid form for several centuries before bubbling to the surface"?

The following is from my journal for 3 May 1999 (when I first read the article about using CO2 to control global warming):

I've had some experience with effervescence.  My observations are:

bulletFirst, some marine life won't like living in sparkling water.
bulletSecond, if the ocean warms, bubbles may be released earlier than planned.  An earthquake, underwater eruption, or meteor strike might jar loose a huge uprush of bubbles.

Consequently, my husband Jeff and I came up with these science fiction plots (mine first):

Imagine global warming in the future causes large parts of the earth to be dry - like tinder.  Fires sweep whole areas, making the situation much worse, threatening huge cities.  The CO2 has come to form small bubbles on the sides of anything cling-able underwater.  The oceans have become like champagne or Perrier - sparkling.  Scientists realise this and instruct the government to explode a small bomb underwater to cause local CO2 to bubble up and save LA (the CO2, they figure, will act much the same as a giant fire extinguisher).  All residents must evacuate the LA basin or else be asphyxiated (like hundreds of people were a few years ago who lived by a large lake in Cameroon (see below) which bubbled limestone-formed CO2 when jarred by a thermocline).

Oxygen is made available to those unable, for whatever reason, to leave.  (Looting is rampant, but thieves who don't get out in time die in the hundreds.)  Unfortunately, the bomb triggers a small earthquake (this is Los Angeles after all) and too many bubbles are jarred loose.  The climate changes drastically all at once, resulting in the relatively rapid destruction of (almost?) all (higher?) mammals.  Plants thrive, however.

Jeff's version is this:

Heavy CO2 dumping has made the world livable in spite of continued carbon-based fuel usage.  But a meteor heads toward earth.  Everyone knows it's coming, but what can be done about it?  Several governments try to stage a Hollywood-movie-type rescue involving nukes (one of which is tried and goes horribly wrong?).  The meteor won't kill too many people, but the firestorms its passage evokes will destroy a wide band around the Northern Hemisphere, covering both the US and Europe.

All hell breaks loose.  But, rather than the expected Armageddon, the fires are soon extinguished by the CO2 which the impact of the meteor jars loose.  You can either have all oxygen-breathing animals die, leaving lush green plants to take over the world (a new garden of Eden but without snakes or women to upset the balance) or else you can have some way for the combination of the fires and CO2 to cancel each other out (science-based, but unclear exactly what) to save all mankind.

If you  have a plot of your own you'd like to send in, let me know, and I'll post it here!

The Lake Nyos Disaster Again

by Nigel Bunce and Jim Hunt

On 21 August 1986, a sudden and catastrophic release of gas from Lake Nyos in the northwest area of Cameroon, West Africa killed at least 1,700 people and 3,000 cattle.  This was actually the 2nd such event, as almost exactly 2 years previously, a similar eruption in Lake Monoun had killed 37 people.  The world's press immediately announced the event as a volcanic eruption, but the scientific community very quickly rejected that explanation since there was no corroborating evidence for either an earthquake or volcanism.  The problem remained, nevertheless, as to the cause and nature of the event and the probability of its recurrence.

Such gas eruptions can be of 3 types: volcanic, magmatic and biogenic.  Volcanic gas is associated with a high-temperature violent eruption from deep in the earth's crust, usually associated with the flow of molten rock.  Magmatic gas has its origin deep in the crust but seeps up slowly along rock fractures or by being dissolved in water.  It is released slowly to the atmosphere unless it is trapped by some process such as being dissolved in the water of a lake.  Magmatic gas is largely carbon dioxide, whereas the volcanic gases contain substantial amount of hydrogen chloride and sulphur dioxide.

Biogenic gases evolve in lakes by the decomposition of organic material.  These gases are characterised by the presence of sulphur gases such as hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg gas).  Biogenic gases, like magmatic gases, may dissolve and accumulate in very stable lakes and later be released in large volumes if the lake is disturbed.  In this column, on 31 December 1986, we discussed an early suggestion that the Lake Nyos gas was of biogenic origin.  It is now clearly established that this was not the case; the gas was carbon dioxide and was magmatic in origin.

Six days after the disaster a US team of geologists and environmental scientists arrived at the site to begin investigations into the event; their findings appeared in Science in April of this year.

Lake Nyos is situated in an old volcano crater, but the lake itself is not very old, having been formed within the last few centuries.  The predominant gas dissolved in the lake water was found to be CO2 and radioactive dating of the carbon shows it to be older than 35,000 years.  This immediately rules out the biogenic hypothesis, since CO2 from that source could be no older than the lake.

The temperature of the water in the lake was quite normal and not hot.  When a volcano injects lava and hot gas into the lake, such as into the Soufriere crater lake on St Vincent, the water temperature can rise as high as 80º Celsius.  This lack of a temperature rise is further evidence that the event was not volcanic.

Autopsies performed on the dead and the medical symptoms of the survivors are consistent with CO2 asphyxiation.  Survivors recalled no unusual taste or odour before losing consciousness.  They described fatigue, lightheadedness and confusion before collapsing and lying unconscious for up to 36 hours - all symptoms of CO2 poisoning.

It seems clear that magmatic CO2, seeping up and dissolving in the stable lake water, had accumulated in solution for decades if not centuries.  In the deep layers of the lake, much more gas can be dissolved because of the high pressure than near the surface where the pressure is lower.  The situation is similar to that in a soda pop bottle.  Under pressure large quantities of CO2 are dissolved in the liquid and remain dissolved so long as the cap remains on the bottle.  If the cap is removed, the pressure is lowered and the gas comes out of solution in the form of bubbles.  On 21 August 1986, something disturbed the stable layering of the lake and saturated deep water rose to the surface releasing great volumes of gas.  It is estimated that about one cubic kilometre of gas was released, lowering the lake level by over one metre.  What caused the disturbance is unknown but there is evidence of a recent rock slide on one rim of the lake.  Large quantities of gas remain dissolved in the lake and future safety can only be assured by a costly program of pumping the deep water to the surface to release the trapped gas in a controlled way.

College of Physical Science
University of Guelph

Source: The Science Corner 2 September 1987

I read in a recent Wall Street Journal  article (25 July 2003 in the Science section) that Texas oil well operators inject CO2 to coax out every bit of oil hiding in the ground.  The wells are now sequestering about 20 million tons of CO2 a year.  Globally, wells have the capability of storing 300 billion tons.  Porous rock deep underground could hold 10 times that amount.  Norway oil well operators already sequester CO2 because CO2 emissions are taxed there and this saves them money.  But too much CO2 underground could cause cracks which would allow the gas to escape in a rush.  An alternative is chemical reaction to form carbonates or bicarbonates which should be stable for hundreds of years.  But implementing this solution would require new equipment or expensive retrofits.  Perhaps CO2 can just be sucked out of the air - this may, in fact, prove to be the only viable option.  However, the cost could add as much as US25¢ to the cost of a gallon of fuel and raise the cost of electricity by as much as 50%.  There appear to be no easy answers.

Undersea Mounds May Host Gas Pockets Ready to Burst

by Lee Dye

When Edward A Keller got his first look at some recent high resolution images of the ocean floor off Santa Barbara, California, he saw things that were surprising, exciting, and a little unsettling.  For openers, he saw what he believes to have been an ancient island, buried under the sea for thousands of years.  And he saw huge craters, one measuring at least 1,500 feet across, scattered along an earthquake fault zone like a series of open pits left behind by some aquatic miners.  He also saw mysterious mounds pushing up from the ocean floor, one more than 600 feet in diameter, and at first he didn't have a clue as to what they were.  After many months of pondering the evidence, the UC Santa Barbara geologist is fairly convinced now that the mounds conceal pockets of gas that could rupture through the ocean floor with possibly disastrous consequences for anyone unfortunate enough to be directly over them.

A huge pocket of methane, suddenly bursting to the surface, would create a gaseous hole in the water so large that even an oil tanker could plunge into it and sink, Keller says.  "If enough bubbles come up, the water loses its buoyancy, and you can imagine a huge amount of methane coming up in a concentrated area," he adds.  "If there was a boat there, it would lose its buoyancy and sink."

Is that very likely?  Probably not, Keller says.  "There's not a bunch of shipwrecks out there," he says.  But the fact that he can't rule it out has given rise to speculation that if the Earth burps at just the right time, ships - and even airplanes suddenly deprived of oxygen because of a flood of methane - might sink or fall out of the sky.  There is even speculation that such events might explain the lost ships and aircraft in a region of the Atlantic known as the Bermuda Triangle, made famous by a pulp magazine article in 1968.  Adding to the speculation was the discovery of a sunken fishing boat near a sub sea crater off Great Britain in the North Sea.  That crater looks very similar to the craters now known to lie off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Of course, many scholars scoff at the idea that there is anything unusual about the shipwrecks off the southeastern coast of North America in a region known variously as the Bermuda Triangle and the Devil's Triangle.  But mysteries tend to die slowly.  As for Keller, he's got his own set of mysteries, mainly the strange structures he has found on the floor of the Santa Barbara Channel.  Keller has been studying earthquake hazards in that region for more than a decade, and he has recently been focusing on two offshore faults, called the Oak Ridge and Mid Channel faults, which are capable of producing a major quake.  In fact, one of the faults may have caused a 1925 temblor that nearly destroyed the community of Santa Barbara.

"While I was studying these faults, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute gathered a lot of really high resolution topographic data for the bottom of the channel," he says.  The institute was founded by the late David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame, and it has some of the best marine research equipment in the world.  The exquisitely sharp images revealed a bottom that "looked strange," Keller says.  The data revealed a 1.25-mile-long slab of rock jutting up from the bottom.  There's abrupt cliffs, about 30 feet high, around it," Keller says.  "It came to my mind that maybe we were looking at something like a sea cliff."

The most logical explanation for the cliffs is erosion caused by punishing waves like those that batter Southern California's coastal bluffs today.  But that couldn't explain the cliffs in the present situation, because the flat top of the rock slab is 300 feet under the water.  But that might not always have been the case.  Some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when the Earth was going through an ice age, so much seawater was locked up in glaciers that sea level was about 400 feet below what it is today, according to many who have studied the record.  That would have left about 100 feet of the rock slab sticking out of the sea, thus allowing erosion to gnaw away at its edges and create the cliffs that can be seen today, far below the water.

Recently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute sent a remotely operated sub to take a closer look at the craters and mounds that have so intrigued Keller and his colleagues at the university.  The sub captured video images of methane gas, seeping out of one of the craters.  There is a huge oil field in the area, and methane gas is always found in oil-bearing strata, so that finding was not particularly surprising.  But the fact that it was coming out of a crater suggests that sometime, perhaps long ago, the crater was a mound like the others seen in the area today.

Then, possibly because of an earthquake, the mound ruptured and an explosion of natural gas blasted to the surface.  That's all just theory at this point, Keller says, but it could explain the craters and the mounds.  It may be that such events happen only once every few thousand years, but no one knows for sure.  So Keller will spend the next few years studying his craters and mounds, and of course, his new island.  He has even given it an unofficial name: "Isla Calafia."  As legend has it, Calafia was a beautiful warrior queen who ruled a utopian island empire, and is believed to be the source for the name California.  Now she's just a sunken island.

Lets hope she doesn't burp anytime soon.

Source: © 2004 ABC News Internet Ventures 28 December 2004

Japan Mines "Flammable Ice," Flirts With Environmental Disaster

by Shigeru Sato

Fifty-five million years ago the world's climate was catastrophically changed when volcanoes melted natural gas frozen in the seabed.  Now Japan plans to drill for the same icy crystals to end its reliance on imported energy.  Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water buried in sediment some 3,000 feet under the Pacific Ocean floor, may help Japan win energy independence from the Middle East and Indonesia.  Japanese engineers have found enough "flammable ice" to meet its gas use demands for 14 years.  The trick is extracting it without damaging the environment.

Japan is joining the US and Canada in test drilling for methane even as scientists express concerns about any uncontrolled release of the frozen chemical.  Some researchers blame the greenhouse gas for triggering a global firestorm that helped wipe out the dinosaurs.  "Methane hydrate was a key cause of the global warming that led to one of the largest extinctions in the earth's history," says Ryo Matsumoto, a University of Tokyo scientist who has studied frozen gas since 1987.  "By making the best use of our wisdom, knowledge and technology, we should be able to utilise this wisely as a new energy."

If successful, the gas drilling project could help Japan reduce a liquefied natural gas import bill that last year was 2.66 trillion yen ($23.3 billion).  The country's LNG imports totaled 62.2 million metric tons, equivalent to 3.03 trillion cubic feet, according to the Ministry of Finance's trade report.  "We are closely watching the government's methane hydrate project, expecting some day to start receiving gas via pipelines from the continental shelf," says Toshiharu Okui, deputy general manager of gas resources at Tokyo Gas Company, the country's largest distributor of natural gas.

500 Meters Thick

Trapped within sheets of ice up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) thick is an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of crystalline methane encased in an ocean trench called the Nankai Trough, 30 miles (50 kilometres) off the coast of the main Honshu Island.  "Reserves aren't as much as Saudi Arabia's or Russia's, but they will contribute to us cutting our heavy dependence on imports," says Yoshifumi Hashiba, deputy director of the trade ministry's petroleum and natural gas division.

Exploiting the Nankai Trough depends on developing technical know-how through a test project in Canada's frozen north, says Kenichi Yokoi, team leader of the methane hydrate research project at state-controlled Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, known as Jogmec.  "Test production in Canada's permafrost is the key to provide clues and determine how methane hydrate can be tapped for mass production," says Yokoi.  "Conventional drilling technologies won't be applied for methane hydrate exploitation."

Test Drilling Results

The most efficient method has proved "depressurising," which requires deep bore holes being drilled into the ice sheets.  Pressure within the chamber is reduced by a pump, causing gaseous methane to separate from the water and ascend to the well head.  A first round of drilling was completed in April by Jogmec and the Canadian government and a second set of tests are scheduled for early 2008.  The two governments won't disclose results due to a confidentiality agreement, Jogmec's Yokoi says.

Commercial exploitation of methane hydrate is economically viable when oil trades above $54 a barrel, Japan's government estimated two years ago.  The trade ministry is targeting 2016 to start production, corresponding with the scheduled completion of the 16-year government-led test project.

While governments are attracted to an abundant clean fuel, drilling risks disturbing the seabed and triggering an uncontrolled release, says Matsumoto of the University of Tokyo.  "A mass release of methane into the sea and the atmosphere is a risk for global warming," he says.  "Massive landslides at the ocean floor must be avoided when drilling at the Nankai Trough."  Undersea landsides triggered by volcanoes that occurred more than 50 million years ago resulted in the release of methane hydrate, contributing to global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years, says Matsumoto.

Japan's government is promising rigourous environmental controls with gas-leakage detectors and monitoring systems in place before the scheduled test drilling in as early as 2009.  "Energy security and environment protection cannot be apart from each other," says the trade ministry's Hashiba.  "We need a comprehensive assessment."  Among other concerns are that the separation of sea water and colder fresh water will cause ocean temperatures in the Nankai Trough to fall, says Hashiba.  The area is a habitat for red sea bream, a fish delicacy.

"We're worried that drilling work might harm our fishing banks out there and eventually reduce our catches of red sea bream," says Hironori Watanabe at the Katsuura City fishery association.  A bigger worry is evidence that the undersea ice may already be melting.  In September, Matsumoto joined a research party in the Sea of Japan to follow up on a 2006 discovery by his university colleagues of methane gas bubbles rising from the ocean floor.

"It's ironically recurring," Matsumoto says.  "Extinction of living organisms has repeatedly taken place in the earth's history, and dead bodies were accumulated in soil and under the sea bed, and turned to oil and natural gas."

Shigeru Sato in Tokyo at

Source: 25 December 2007

See also:

bulletBy the End of the Century (the previous page in this section) - Under the precautionary principle, the lack of full scientific certainty is no reason for postponing action to protect the environment.  In other words, even if we don't have the facts, the government should take drastic measures as a first resort.  This approach carries risks of its own...
bulletFronting Up to Rising Seas (the next article in this section) - ...At that meeting, I asked David Gascoigne, Chairman of Lambton Harbour Management Limited, if the fact of rising sea levels had been factored into their building plans (as several of the proposed new buildings actually extended over the water on pilings).  Presumably any new buildings would be expected to last at least 30-50 years, during which time the sea is projected to rise up to half a metre - possibly more if the Western Ice Sheet breaks loose (or other similar phenomena).  Gascoigne seemed surprised at my question and said no, sea levels had not figured into their plans at all...
bulletPoseidon Adventure (two pages further on in this section) - (three pages further in this section) - Not everyone agrees on the speed with which global warming is causing the oceans to rise: "...the current sea level rate of rise after cycle 276 is 0.9 mm/yr, half the rate claimed for the last 100 years, and less than 1/5 the rate claimed for the 21st century..."
bulletThe book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjørn Lomborg, Phd, associate professor in statistics, Department of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Denmark.  Lomborg is a concerned environmentalist, a former Greenpeace member, a left-wing sympathiser who is vegetarian because he does not want to kill animals.  When Lomborg started investigating the statistics behind the current gloomy view of the environment, he was genuinely surprised because the facts clearly pointed towards an ever-improving world.  He published these statistics as four lengthy articles in a leading Danish newspaper, unleashing the biggest post-war debate with more than 400 articles in all the major papers.

Maybe Pollution Is Bad Enough All by Itself?

Neuika coral reef, New Caledonia, France (22°50' S, 167°25' E)

The string of coral reefs that girdles the deep blue lagoon of New Caledonia is under threat.  It is turning pale and dying, attacked by pollution generated especially by nickel extraction on Grande-Terre, the territory’s chief island.  Every year, New Caledonia’s opencast mines produce 118,000 metric tons of this metal - the 10th biggest production in the world.  The industry is the archipelago’s main economic resource, but it is a threat to the lagoon.  Rainwater runs off from the mines into the sea, bringing waste that then settles on the surrounding coral.  Many residents also suspect that the nickel treatment plants dump toxic waste and metals in suspension into the lagoon, and that these poison the coral reefs.  These reefs are precious.  Although they cover only 0.09% of the planet’s seas and oceans, they are home to 2 million animal and plant species.  But more than half are being damaged by human activity such as pollution, removal of coral, and dynamite fishing.

Source: from Earth from Above by the incomparable photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The world's second largest barrier reef encircles Grande Terre [STS033-73-61, 1989]


For pages on several other types natural disasters - including lightning strikes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanoes and more - as well as some great satellite and tree photos, clicking the "Up" button immediately below takes you to the Table of Contents page for this Environment section.

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