Category Archives: earth

Watching the biosphere as it breathes…

…watching the biosphere as it gasps for breath. As we fill the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than all the photosynthetic organisms on earth—who alone know how to make the molecules of life out of dead COand sunlight—can handle. Carbon that was fixed by their ancestors and ours long ago, then dead and buried deep underground until we figured out how to pull it out of the bowels of the earth, and burn it to build this industrial civilization of ours. Civilization which is pouring all that ancient fossilized carbon back into the atmosphere in quantities that are too much for all those green plants and planktons to handle. So that the CO2 keeps rising in the air, trapping heat, warming the planet, melting glaciers and polar ice, causing the sea to rise more angrily into our coastal cities, churning up storms ever more vigorous and destructive… like the earth lashing out at us for making its biosphere, its baby, slowly suffocate.

Watch the biosphere breathe, because, for the first time, you actually can. See the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in an annual rhythm that is quite soothing to watch. NASA’s JPL has just released a fascinating, mesmerizing video (download it in HD) showing us the global biosphere breathing:

Watching the last part of that video, with the seasonal pulsing of the green and yellow alternately suffusing the surface of the earth, reminds me of the many hours I spent at night watching my daughters sleep when they were babies. The gentle rise and fall of their little chests, the soothing soft sound of breath in, breath out. There is nothing quite as calming as watching a baby breathe as she sleeps. Or watching the entire biosphere breathe as it lives, throughout the year.

But this video is far from calming if you remember the first half. That graph of the annual pulse of CO2, climbing up in the winter, down in the summer, up in the winter, down in the summer, but lately arcing upwards overall, with a rising amount of CO2 in the air. Remember that graph? It is telling us we are adding too much CO2 for the biosphere to handle. A few years ago, we were still hoping to keep CO2 below 350ppm (parts per million). We urged our governments to do something, anything, to keep levels below 350ppm because that, our best science told us, is probably the safety limit for keeping the earth, the biosphere, in a state we know and love. Within a range of 275ppm to 350ppm, a domain which allowed our species to flourish, spread all the way across the biosphere. We tore up much of that living, breathing biosphere in the process, but it still kept on breathing in its seasonal rhythm. And we started adding more and more CO2 into the air, ripping it out of the earth and the biosphere, and pumping it out into the atmosphere, until it hit that upper limit of 350ppm. Go above that in a sustained manner, and we enter a new domain, where all bets are off, for the biosphere, and for our civilization. 350ppm is the safety word. But this past summer, we passed 400ppm for the first time in our recorded history. All bets are indeed off for us, it seems, because we are still not prepared to roll it back to below 350ppm. Governments continue to fiddle, for the 18th time, in Doha this week, amid growing confidence that they will, again, do nothing toward bringing us back into the climatic safe zone.

So watch the earth’s biosphere breathe like a baby, but know that it is also gasping as CO2 levels keep rising. It is up to us to bring those levels down. But first we will have to start by disturbing the blissful, willful sleep of our governments and institutions and corporations… and all our people…

… get them all to watch the biosphere as it breathes.

Sorry Desert Tortoise. No room for you in Google’s Earth Day paradise.

Today is Earth Day, a once grassroots movement seeking to remind people to pay attention to the earth which has now grown to become a global event apparently “celebrated” by over a billion people – much of it courtesy of your neighborhood multinational corporations who have co-opted the day to urge you to buy more products at special discounts to “celebrate Earth Day”. They must mean “celebrate our collective destruction of this earth for profit and a few fun consumer products and gadgets”. Why, instead of actually going out and planting a tree today, you can enjoy playing Lorax Garden” on your iPhone! Download for free today!! After all, why bother getting your hands dirty in an actual garden when you can get virtual karma playing it on your smartphone. Surely that’s what the Lorax wanted us to do, no?

As part of these corporate celebrations of the once-grassroots movement, Google sports this image of an impossibly idyllic edenic paradise as their doodle for the day:


Lovely, isn’t it? Pandas and penguins and tigers living in harmony with the corporate logo tastefully hidden amid the verdant scenery!

Unfortunately, Google’s vision of paradise has no room for the Desert Tortoise, the Joshua Tree, or the ancient mesquites and all the other poor denizens of the Mojave Desert, just a few hundred miles outside Google’s corporate office windows. You see, just last week, Google upped their investment in the “green” solar energy company Brightsource, pouring in another $168 million to support that company’s massive solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Never mind that the project is already killing endangered tortoises, destroying their habitat along with that of all the other denizens of the Mojave’s unique biodiversity. And never mind that this kind of concentrated power generation with associated transmission costs and losses is an outdated model for this century. After all, combating global warming by switching to non-fossil-fuel energy sources is the be-all and end-all of environmental movements these days, we are told. By none other than the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who thinks conserving land is just “boring” compared to using exciting new “green” technologies to destroy habitats! This massive solar power generation technology is so exciting, it seems, that even Science Friday invited Madrigal to celebrate it on their Earth Day broadcast – where Ira Flatow forgot to ask any questions about the ecological impact of putting massive solar plants in the Mojave:

What’s doubly sad this Earth Day is that Madrigal is not alone. Too many environmentalist nonprofits and activists have bought into this model of green technology. One that merely substitutes one kind of power generation for another “greener” one without questioning the whole model! Why must we generate power at such massive scales, entailing land degradation, transmission losses, and a host of other problems, rather than developing smaller-scale technologies for distributed power generation from rooftops and parking lots? Whatever happened to “small is beautiful“? And why not put larger plants, if they’re needed, in brownfields and other land that we’ve already severely degraded through our other uses instead of bulldozing tortoise habitat? After all, there is plenty of such land within California’s urban/agriculture matrix which already covers more of the state than the remaining desert patches. If Germany, not known for its bright sun, can generate a significant amount of its power from rooftops in a distributed model, why must the US have to destroy remnant habitats still containing biodiversity? And why is Google, a company once at the cutting edge of innovation, with a motto “don’t be evil“, a supposed champion of the open-source internet as a force for democracy, i.e., distributed power, now investing in concentrated large-scale power projects mired in the old models of centralized production and distribution?!

Why aren’t more environmental groups raising these questions? Why is it left to a handful of “useful idiots” like Chris Clarke and Solar Done Right?

More importantly, why are we not asking the more fundamental question: WHY ON EARTH DO WE NEED TO KEEP USING SO MUCH DAMN ENERGY??!! Why can’t we cut down on the energy we currently waste, become more efficient, and work on reducing our massive ecological footprint by using less power-hungry products?

Oh, I forgot… how can we ask these questions, when the corporations are dangling all that shiny new magical technology in front of us all the time? Bright shiny smart phones where we can go play the Lorax game… what were you going on about the environment for, mate?

Sorry Lorax. Sorry Desert Tortoise. Sorry Mesquite. And Sorry Earth. We’ve sold you all out for a few shiny baubles. Happy Earth Day.

Coal Comfort, or why you must toss those 3D goggles aside and return home from Pandora

Its not often that one sees a paper in Science becoming grist for the late-night comedy talk show mill! So this is yet another reason to salute Stephen Colbert, who already offers the most science coverage of any such popular show, and treasure him for the precious resource he is. And I especially loved how he left the very distinguished ecologist Dr. Margaret Palmer floundering in helpless (and retort-less) laughter last night!

But, once you stop laughing, you should check out the Palmer et al paper – and then do something to hold the Obama EPA’s feet to the (non-coal) fire on this issue. Mountaintop removal, like dragnet/bottom trawling fishing—or ocean bottom removal, if you will—is a barbaric practice, especially in this day and age when we are so proud of our precision in everything, including—especially—aerial bombing of remote mountain villages! Isn’t it about time we stopped being so damn destructive towards the very earth that sustains us?

Will the people who spent over a billion dollars within the past few weeks (and are likely to spend that much and much more over the coming months) to be swept away in a fantasy about the noble fight to stop evil human corporations from destroying incredible ecosystems on a distant imaginary planet wake up, take off those damn goggles, step outside, and look around at the very real planet we inhabit, and see what we are doing to it?

Is that Antarctica’s delegate to the Copenhagen negotiations?

If so, I’m afraid they may be a bit too late, as they are moving rather slowly, and are also apparently lacking in GPS technology, being headed towards Australia rather than Denmark!! And that’s a real pity. Because the world’s leaders gathered in Copenhagen this week to collectively twiddle their thumbs about global warming could really use a frakking 115 square kilometer (that’s 44 sq. miles for you Americans) iceberg shoved into their midst just about now! Don’t you think?

What a way to crash a party that would be, eh? A real ice-breaker, even, perhaps, between the global warming activists and the denialists! Much more effective than poor old Al Gore. Quite the message from the ice continent, indeed the planet itself, that would be, to its human children gone astray!

But as so often happens with politicians (and indeed the rest of us), this ‘berg too seem to have lost its enthusiasm for the cause. deciding instead to head for the beaches of Australia! I can hear its growing murmur, “Aw… fuck it, I’ve been freezing my ass off here for centuries, stuck between the penguins and the krill, so why shouldn’t I make a break for it? Why can’t I just spend one last glorious summer on the beach? I hear the surfing can be quite something around Australia this time of year… so watch out: SURF’S UP!!!”

Hat-tip to the Bad Astronomer, who has more on the incredible voyage of freedom for this little iceberg!


Even as some people here (Fresno-Clovis) saw a few flakes of snow on Monday night, and many of us have woken up to frosted lawns, dead plants (sadly), and iced over windshields for the past two mornings in the San Joaquin Valley, here’s a terrific composite image from NASA showing the real extent (we don’t really have too much to complain about yet) of these storms that swept past us this past weekend (click on the image to download a much larger version):


A severe winter storm blustered its way across the United States on December 7 and 8, 2009. The storm dumped heavy snow from California to the Great Plains, and fierce winds added to the hazardous conditions. The storm was predicted to continue eastward in midweek, and blizzard warnings were in effect for Great Lakes states as of December 9.

This image shows the blanket of snow laid down by the storm across the West, along with the thick swirl of storm clouds over the Great Plains from North Dakota to Oklahoma. The image is made from a combination of images captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors on NASA’s Terra (most of the left side of the image) and Aqua (most of the right side) satellites on December 8.

[From Winter Storm Crosses United States : Natural Hazards]

Note also that another set of storms are heading our way across the Pacific and we may see quite a few this winter as we are in an En Niño warming phase as you can see in this NOAA animation of sea surface temperatures (SST) over the past several months…

… and of SST anomalies:

All that red, i.e., warmer sea surface temperatures, can only mean more moisture laden winds heading our way from out west over the ocean! So brace yourselves, prepare to batten down the hatches, find an extra blanket to wrap yourself in (lower carbon footprint than burning something for heat!), grab that mug of hot beverage, and curl up this winter break with George Stewart’s brilliant novel Storm, which I have mentioned here before. How the meteorologist in that book (published in 1941), who takes us through the life-stages of a storm as he tracks it across this same ocean from its infancy near Japan to fully mature fury over California, would have loved to be able to see such images! I may give that wonderful book a second read myself, once I’ve dealt with a minor storm of final final exams/term papers brewing on my desk from my various classes…

Al Gore lays out Our Choice to Jon Stewart, extendedly

You may have heard that Al Gore has a new book out about the climate crisis and what we need to do about it, titled “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis” (and as I discovered in adding that Amazon link just now – there is even a young reader edition!). His book tour brought him to The Daily Show last week for a fairly interesting interview, with Jon Stewart asking some typically insightful questions, including about whether the constant doom-n-gloom in books like Gore’s may be turning off ordinary people from a message they really ought to hear. Gore argues that “we have all the tools to solve the global warming crisis except for political will.” But is the message getting through to generate that political will? It seemed a couple of years ago that “An Inconvenient Truth” played some part in (or coincided with) turning public opinion around on accepting the reality of global warming in this country. Recent polls, however, suggest that the fickle American public has shifted again and global warming has lost some ground as an issue of concern in the US. Will Gore’s new book help stem that erosion again?

Anyway, here are two parts of the extended interview which obviously didn’t fit into the usual 22-min time-frame of a Daily Show episode, but which is available on their website in its entirety:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Al Gore Extended Interview Pt. 1

Daily Show

Full Episodes

Political Humor Health Care Crisis

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Al Gore Extended Interview Pt. 2

Daily Show

Full Episodes

Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Acting locally to pull our global atmospheric CO2 level back below 350ppm

This Saturday, October 24, 2009, is another day for global action on climate change. And unlike the recent Blog Action Day, this is one where you get to actually go out into the real world, rub shoulders with fellow human beings, perhaps get your boots muddy, and participate in an action in your community to bring the world’s attention to a specific climate goal: bringing our atmospheric CO2 levels below 350ppm, a benchmark deemed relatively “safe” based on our current knowledge of the climate. Where are we right now? Around 387ppm! So we’ve already overshot the safety limit, and have to act fast to pull back into the comfort zone if we are to avoid further problems. And don’t tell me that global warming/climate change isn’t real, or that you don’t think we have problems already: tell that to the Maldivian’s whose president last week held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the fact that their entire country is set to sink below rising ocean levels if we in the rest of the world don’t do something to reverse ongoing global warming! Indeed, leaders of the world are meeting in Copenhagen this December for the UN’s 15th Climate Change Conference to make a deal on what they(we) will do about climate change!

So what can we, as individuals do, to get our governments to act?

The environmentalist writer Bill McKibben (interviewed here on PBS’ NOW program) would like us all to join in a global day of action, the International Day of Climate Action, being coordinated by an organization he set up called Here’s a video from the site to explain what the action, and the number 350 are all about:


Want to find a specific action in your neighborhood that you can participate in? Here’s a map:

View Actions at

For folks in my local community, Fresno: you might want to join in this event of bike rides and walks being planned on our campus. Here’s the invitation from the organizer, who also had a table at yesterday’s Campus Sustainability Day event:

24 October 2009 – 11:00am – 4:00pm

Hi guys!!

Thank you very much for your interest in Fresno State Climate Action Day. So far we haven’t defined the action, but we do have several ideas that we want to share with you. This is because we want everyone of the participants to be comfortable with the action.

This is what we are going to do:

  1. A 2×3.50mi bike ride from Fresno State to the Chrismas tree lane and come back. We calculate that it will take around 1.5 hours because I guess we are not gona go that fast (that distance usually takes me 40min). I think the timing will be good to take the picture at 2pm.
  2. The other option for those who doesn’t have a bike, we will make a walk along Shaw Ave. from fresno state to Fresno street (its a 3.50mi round walk).
  3. We will meet at fresno state (peace garden next to the library) at 11:30am, so we have enough time to organize everyone; do the bike ride and walk; do a speech; and then organize everyone for the picture.
  4. We will have a table this wednesday in sustainability day on campus. Please come and visit us!

Please RSVP for the action so I can keep you posted with news about the event.

Thanks in advance.


Now get out there and do something meaningful!

Where on Earth are endangered species?

You can read about them in academic journals. You could go on long, arduous, adventurous journeys all over the planet with no guarantees you’ll actually see any (like I’ve done). You could get really lucky like me!! You could wait for Stephen Fry and Mark Cawardine to take you on a vicarious journey to visit the most endangered of them in the footsteps of the late Douglas Adams – depending on if and when BBC’s “Last Chance to See” ever airs in your country. You can do all of those things. Or/and, you can sit right here on your computer, and let ARKive take you on a spin around Google Earth, as featured in Google’s Outreach Showcase! You can traverse the spinning 3D globe, even dive into the oceans, looking for endangered species using ARKive’s helpful signposts, with links to images, videos, and more information in a little window right here in this very browser tab, if you have the Google Earth plugin installed. But surely you already have the Google Earth application on your computer (if not, why on earth not?! Go get version 5 with the underwater views), so why not download the ARKive KML file instead, and enjoy the ride in fullscreen glory?

And if you need someone other than me to persuade you to try this out, who better than Sir David Attenborough himself, speaking here about marine endangered species?