Climate Crisis: Rising Tides and Sinking Cities

climate_changetideWith all the population, urban sprawl, and consumption that we as a species are imposing on the planet, there are those who argue that we’ve entered a new geological era – known as the Anthropocene. It’s an age we’ve lived in since the neolithic revolution and the advent of farming, one where the human race is the dominant force shaping our planet. Since the industrial revolution, this era has been accelerating and escalating, and things are not likely to get better anytime soon.

It is because of this that we need to contemplate what the near future will look like. Consider the recent floods in the Canadian Prairies, or last year’s wildfires which raged across the American midwest. Consider the famines and shortages that led to a world food price crisis in 2007-8 which had serious political consequences, especially in the Middle East (i.e. the Arab Spring).

climate_changesandyWhen you add to this the fact that rising tides and the increased risk of storms are already effecting coastal communities in severe ways, you begin to understand just how turbulent the next few decades are likely to be. Already, incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, which rocked the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard in just the past decade, have shown just how extensive the damage can be.

Historically speaking, cities have been built in fertile river valleys and at river mouths to take advantage of fertile conditions, maritime resources and trade. Agricultural run-offs of sediment, water and nutrients created rich coastal deltas that could support greater food production. This and the good maritime and river connections for trade and transport made these ideal places to live.

Population_curve.svgBut as populations grew, rivers were tapped and diverted for irrigation, industry and canal transport. They were also trapped behind dams and reservoirs for energy and water storage, and depleted by droughts and other extractions. Meanwhile groundwater is increasingly being extracted from beneath cities, and sea levels are rising because of the run-off from the melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans.

As a result of these changes, many major cities are slowly sinking into the oceans. Our rapid industrialization over the past century has sped these processes, so that now, many urban centers face inundation by storm surges, and we stand to lose many of the most economically important parts of our planet. The loss of these cities will mean a terrible loss of life, economic fallout, and a massive refugee crisis.

Population_densityCities from Bangkok to New York have already experienced emergency flood conditions, and many more are to follow. Those most at risk include Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans. More than 3 billion people currently live in coastal areas at risk of global warming impacts such as rising sea levels – a number expected to rise to 6 billion by 2025.

And as was recently learned, the carbon levels in the upper atmosphere have surpassed 400 ppm (parts per million). The last time the atmosphere boasted this concentration of greenhouse gases was the Pliocene Era, a time when sea levels were as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than they current are. If sea levels rise to that level again, we can say goodbye to all these major cities, as well as any that sit on major waterways.

climate_changeshanghaiIt’s not just a matter of water rising up to swallow the coastlines, you see. As the flooding in southern Alberta and the Canadian Prairies demonstrated this week, there’s also the threat of flooding due to increased precipitation and of sewage systems backing up from increased storms and rainfall. These threats make shoring up river deltas and waterways effectively useless, since its not simply a matter of blocking the tides and rivers.

In terms of solutions, a number of major cities are investing in new sea walls, dykes and polders, or high-tide gates – like London’s Thames Barrier – to hold back high waters. In poorer places, people simply endure the problem until they are forced to abandon their homes. As the problem gets worse though, coordinated efforts to rescue people caught in flood zones will need to be mounted.

climate_changedykesAnd there are those who speculate that underwriting the damage will be a waste of time, since no government will be able to afford to compensate its citizens for the untold billions in property damage. In reality, many of these place will simply have to be abandoned as they become unlivable, and those forced out resettled to higher ground or protected communities.

At this point in any lecture on the fate of our planet, people are about ready to abandon hope and hang themselves. Hence, I should take this opportunity to point out that plans for dealing with the problem at the root – cutting our carbon footprint – are well underway. In addition to clean energy becoming more and more feasible commercially, there are also some very viable concepts for carbon capture.

These include inventions like artificial trees and ecoengineering, which will no doubt become absolutely essential in coming years. At the same time though, urban planning and architecture are beginning to embrace a number of alternative and clean technology concepts as part of their design. Not only will future buildings be designed to provide for the needs of their residents – food, water, electricity – in sustainable ways, they will also incorporate devices that can trap smog and turn it into biofuels and other useful products.

Of this, I will be saying more in the next post “Thinking, Breathing Cities of the Future”. Stay tuned!


Artificial Trees to Fight Climate Change?

The indices of Climate Change have been growing in the past few decades, culminating in some serious trends that have left the scientific community worried and the general public far from calm. In addition to Arctic sea ice levels reaching a record low and record high temperatures being set during the summer, North Americans also experienced the worst wildfire season in recorded history. Over a million acres of forest burned up in the US alone, but the extended range of the fires reached from as far south as Texas to as far north as Nunavut.

For many years now, those on the forefront of climate science have been arguing that things will get a lot worse before they get better, and argue that some drastic geoengineering projects might be the only way to avert disaster. Many of these involve advanced climate science, such as evaporating more water around the mid-latitudes or “capturing” carbon in the upper atmosphere and converting it to harmless compounds. But as Gaia Vince, a science writer from BBC’s Future pointed out, the solution may be as a simple as improving upon an existing “carbon capture” technology, otherwise known as the Tree.

For some time now, climatologists and naturalists have understood the role that trees, plants, algae and plankton play in the carbon cycle. Unfortunately, the long life-cycle of trees, and the various ecological issues surrounding the artificial stimulation of algae and plants, make this aspect of ecoengineering somewhat impractical. What’s more, the growing demand for agricultural space is also putting pressure on existing green spaces. As our population continues to grow and more farmland is needed to provided for them, simply planting plants and trees more may not even be an option.

Luckily, there is an invention that takes all this into account and provides a possible solution: the artificial trees. Designed by Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, this “tree” is capable of absorbing CO2 from the air using “leaves” that are 1,000 times more efficient than the real thing, but at the same time does not require exposure to sunlight in order to carry out the process.

As Vince himself describes them: “The leaves look like sheets of papery plastic and are coated in a resin that contains sodium carbonate, which pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it as a bicarbonate (baking soda) on the leaf. To remove the carbon dioxide, the leaves are rinsed in water vapour and can dry naturally in the wind, soaking up more carbon dioxide.”

Based on Lackner calculations, a single tree would be capable of removing one tonne of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere in a single day. By that reckoning, a forest of ten million would be able to remove 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in a single year, the equivalent of about 10% of our global annual carbon dioxide emissions. One hundred million would solve our emission crisis altogether!

As for the resulting mass that the process creates, Lackner claims that could be turned into liquid fuels to power vehicles. In fact, when CO2 and water are combined, the end result is what is known as syngas, a fuel that is easily converted into methanol and diesel. So basically, while the artificial trees are scrubbing the air of fossil fuel emissions, they are also actively creating the means to generate more fossil fuel. Might seem ironic, but this in turn will allow humanity to keep using their carbon engines, all the while knowing that they are producing less than the trees are extracting. This will give the scientists of the world more time to invent a clean alternative to the fossil fuel engine, and that by the time they do it won’t already be too late.

Although some question the viability of this entire process, mainly where the issue of total cost is concerned, Lackney stresses that as global fuel supplies dwindle, fuel companies will see the wisdom in buying into this process, mainly because it offers them the possibility of fuel retention. Yes, by investing in artificial trees, oil and gas companies will be able to turn their own carbon emissions back into hydrocarbon fuel. Which will come in handy if the oil runs out as quickly as some analysts say it will. In addition, us consumers can expect a break the pump if it all goes well!

Does this strike you as ironic, or just a weird and interesting take on recycling? Who knows? All that is certain is that the technology is making some pretty bold forecasts, and if it should prove successful, we are likely to see a great deal of investment towards this new method. I can see it now, countless roofs and skyscrapers with fields of artificial trees lining their roofs. Water circulation systems that capture the CO2 once its sucked off the leaves and then channeled down to the fuel cells in the basement. And the rest trucked off by trucks that bear the logo of Haliburton, Shell, and Petro Canada. And for once, the drivers won’t feel a lick of shame!