UPDATED: Possible natural explanation found for West Antarctica's warming

Posted by The New York Times and Rick C. Hodgin

South Pole - In 2008, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey reported a layer of volcanic ash and glass shards frozen within an ice sheet in western Antarctica [the same place the one degree Fahrenheit warming has been reported]. The volcano beneath the ice sheet "punched a hole right through" due to its heat and force. This geologic event (a volcano) may prove to be the source of the recent warming seen in West Antarctica in what has otherwise been reported as a 50-year cooling trend seen in East Antarctica.





Dr. David G. Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey said, "This is the first time we have seen a volcano beneath the ice sheet punch a hole through the ice sheet."



From The New York Times:


"Heat from a volcano could still be melting ice and contributing to the thinning and speeding up of the Pine Island Glacier, which passes nearby, but Dr. Vaughan doubted that it could be affecting other glaciers in West Antarctica, which have also thinned in recent years. Most glaciologists, including Dr. Vaughan, say that warmer ocean water is the primary cause."



See The New York Times.





Opinion and Analysis

by Rick C. Hodgin



The New York Times gives very little additional information on the event, such as the size of the volcanic chain, how active they are (in terms of non-eruption activity), etc. The abstract taken from the original Nature geoscience article reads:
"Indirect evidence suggests that volcanic activity occurring beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet influences ice flow and sheet stability. However, only volcanoes that protrude through the ice sheet and those inferred from geophysical techniques have been mapped so far. Here we analyse radar data from the Hudson Mountains, West Antarctica, that contain reflections from within the ice that had previously been interpreted erroneously as the ice-sheet bed. We show that the reflections are present within an elliptical area of about 23,000 km2 that contains tephra from an explosive volcanic eruption. The tephra layer is thickest at a subglacial topographic high, which we term the Hudson Mountains Subglacial Volcano. The layer depth dates the eruption at 207 BC (+/-240 years), which matches exceptionally strong but previously unattributed conductivity signals in nearby ice cores. The layer contains 0.019–0.31 km3 of tephra, which implies a volcanic explosive index of 3–4. Production and episodic release of water from the volcano probably affected ice flow at the time of the eruption. ."
It stands to reason that if there is an active volcano in Antarctica, one capable of punching a hole through the ice sheet and spewing "a layer of volcanic ash and glass shards" over 23,000 km2 at some point, then it (and its nearby possibly as-of-yet-unidentified brothers) may well be the cause of a one degree Fahrenheit increase observable in the western section of Antarctica over the past 50 years. Plus, the article cites this possibility explicitly: "Ongoing volcanic heat production may have implications for contemporary ice dynamics in this glacial system."


Also, if you look at the location of the warming, it is contained in the western region by the mountain range, indicating the warmer air comes from a local source and not a global phenomena to the entire continent. And keep in mind this huge red area is only an increase in temperature of 1 degree Fahrenheit. Traditional weather maps typically show color changes for 10 degree Fahrenheit differences.



Volcanoes are huge and even if they are not erupting, they are still churning and bubbling beneath the surface, moving their heat and toxic gases around. Their underground ability to raise water temperatures could very well result in the ice melting currently seen there - or at least be a significant contributing factor.



The older I get the more I realize how there are just too many variables in science - and in particular with the Earth, there's just too short a data set for us to be able to draw any conclusions as of yet. If we had 500 years worth of charts, then I might feel more comfortable with analysts pointing out trends, but that still wouldn't make them definitive. Even today science is constantly observing new, unexpected findings - ones which totally blow away their existing theories and models which may have worked well for literally decades.



Here's one such recent example: In May, 2006, NASA's Hubble telescope captured a nearby 200-day light source. There is nothing known to be at the location with which it was found and scientists today are baffled about what it could be. It gradually became brighter over 100 days, and then gradually became dimmer over the next 100 days.

Here's another one: Scientists have been using lasers for years. Our DVD players and CD drives all use lasers to read data off the disc. Every checkout in America has a laser scanner, and yet in 2008 a Princeton University research team discovered a double-beam quantum cascade laser while conducting laser research. The team noted that no existing quantum cascade theory of laser operations explained that there should be a second beam. Again, scientists were baffled by observations made which contradicted their theories and models.



To me it is simple: The Earth is a huge, immensely huge (almost unimaginably huge when the ocean's size is factored in) very complex system. It operates in a solar system that's had to deal with asteroid impacts, solar flares, volcanoes and all other manner of cosmic ray bombardments from space. And who knows what else (things we don't even know about yet)?


Look at this image of the surface of the sun. The color variations represent temperature differences. This is a swimming sea of heat and fire. As this sea of heat churns and flows, it results in greater or lesser amounts of emitted radiation as the temperature profile at any given point changes constantly.

NASA reports the surface temperature of the sun as "about 5500 degrees C (10,000 degrees F)". They use the word "about" partly due to rounding, but also because the surface temperature varies depending on where it's sampled. Specific areas of the sun are constantly heating up or cooling down. This results in a constant cycle of heat fluctuation, and over time patterns begin to emerge with when the heat cycles align with a particular part of the Earth facing the sun, etc.

NASA says this about the sun's photosphere (the part we see):
"The lowest layer of the atmosphere is called the photosphere. This zone emits the light that we see. The photosphere is about 300 miles (500 kilometers) thick. But most of the light that we see comes from its lowest part, which is only about 100 miles (150 kilometers) thick. Astronomers often refer to this part as the sun's surface. At the bottom of the photosphere, the temperature is 6400 K, while it is 4400 K at the top.
The photosphere consists of numerous granules, which are the tops of granulation cells. A typical granule exists for 15 to 20 minutes. The average density of the photosphere is less than one-millionth of a gram per cubic centimeter. This may seem to be an extremely low density, but there are tens of trillions to hundreds of trillions of individual particles in each cubic centimeter."

NASA says this about the sun's corona:
"Corona is the part of the sun's atmosphere whose temperature is greater than 500,000 K. The corona consists of such structures as loops and streams of ionized gas. The structures connect vertically to the solar surface, and magnetic fields that emerge from inside the sun shape them. The temperature of a given structure varies along each field line. Near the surface, the temperature is typical of the photosphere. At higher levels, the temperature has chromospheric values, then values of the transition region, then coronal values. 
In the part of the corona nearest the solar surface, the temperature is about 1 million to 6 million K, and the density is about 100 million to 1 billion particles per cubic centimeter. The temperature reaches tens of millions of Kelvins when a flare occurs."



According to our best science, the Earth is billions of years old. When we consider that there's this huge source of heat about 92 million miles away (the sun) emitting a constant stream of around 1500 watts of energy per square meter at every point which faces it - does it still seem reasonable to assume temperature variations are the result of man's activities? Are we really so arrogant as to believe that we can affect the Earth and its temperature so significantly in about 50 years of widespread automobile and power plant use (carbon emissions)? And even if we go back the few hundred years man has used significant power sources like wood burning and coal - it's still a geologic tick of the clock. And, there have been widely reported temperature variations over the many centuries, from mini-ice ages to long heat spells. 



To me, I find it a completely ridiculous prospect that man is the source of any observed global warming trends. I find it far more likely that the sun, something 109x larger in diameter than the Earth, could fluctuate a fractional percentage point in heat emissions (due to solar flares or natural cycles) and alter the Earth's temperature up or down a few degrees over years or decades. It makes far more sense than man's relatively paltry emissions being the source.



The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the Rick C. Hodgin.






UPDATED:  January 25, 2009 - 11:07pm CST
Several commenters (not all of whom have been published - due to their content) have indicated responses along these lines:  "Great! Now that man's no longer responsible for global warming, let's buy those gas guzzling SUVs and churn out the CO2. Woo hoo!" Another similar response is this: "We don't know if man has an impact yet. Are we willing to take the chance?"

I'm not sure how it is that some readers have come away from an article like this which says: "Man may not be responsible for global warming" and then translate that into the statement: "He's saying it's okay to pollute!" That's not what I'm saying at all, and those two statements are not related.

I am not advocating in any way man's free reign to pollute even if he is not responsible for global warming. That's an insane thought.

Personally, I believe in green sources of energy (solar, wind, hydro, those that are truly green) and in ultimately finding a way to live with the Earth by means that do not cause any more pollution than is absolutely required to do so - and even then, continuing to look for ways to reduce further. But that is me personally. That is one man and one family's views. The governments and industries on this Earth are not operating with that mindset (see TG Daily's related article on big businesses working together, keeping us from getting WOW! products).

The truth is:  We do not have more fuel efficient cars (burning less fuel means less pollution). We do not have efficient mass transportation systems which can take us city to city, or throughout a city, without requiring each of us to have our own vehicle for rapid, easy travel. Most cities don't even have bicycle paths with which to ride short distances.

Ever been to England? They have a system there which allows anyone from virtually anywhere to walk to a nearby train station, and then take the train or the tube (subway) to within blocks of anywhere they'd like to go. The monthly ticket cost is roughly that of a car payment + insurance, but it does not pollute as much as if everybody had their own cars because thousands of daily commuters ride a single vehicle (rather than everybody in their own vehicle).

We need things like that here in America, and in all industrialized nations. It's the best way to curb pollution quickly and in massive quantities. How many of us have a vehicle (or two or three) because of necessity? We have to get to work everyday, our work is 15 miles away, there's no reasonable way to get there through variable weather without owning a car. We can buy a new car that doesn't pollute much and pay a big amount of money for it (car payments, higher insurance, etc.) only to have it wear out in 10 years, or an older car that doesn't cost as much, but pollutes more. It's what our governments and big businesses have offered us.

There is a great personal desire by man to go green - even if it's only for the sake of going green and not because of some fear about global warming. But that personal desire is not enabled by our governments or big business. And until those attitudes change it will never happen. We can want to go green, we can desire to green, we can do what we can to operate "greener," and we can elect people who say "I'm going to work to make things greener." But that' doesn't mean it's going to happen. Both government focus and big business focus has to change before we'll have real options.

By the way, a Pew Research Center poll published on Fox News this past Friday shows that global warming concerns were dead last behind all other issues polled. From the article:
"Not surprisingly - the economy is the number one issue. 85% said it was a top priority - followed by jobs, terrorism, Social Security and education.
Global warming was dead last behind topics such as moral decline, lobbyists and trade policy."
"Global warming" concerns are dead last. That is not to say that "pollution concerns" are dead last. There is a huge difference in those two statements, and a lack of concern over one (global warming) does not translate into a lack of concern over the other (pollution).

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Related:  Scientists have found spruce and other seeds in deep ice cores in Greenland (see Ancient Biomolecules from Deep Ice Cores Reveal a Forested Southern Greenland). From the article:
"We show that high-altitude southern Greenland, currently lying below more than 2 kilometers of ice, was inhabited by a diverse array of conifer trees and insects within the past million years. The results provide direct evidence in support of a forested southern Greenland and suggest that many deep ice cores may contain genetic records of paleoenvironments in their basal sections."
Greenland once had no ice (or far less ice than today). In order for that to happen, the Earth would have had to be warmer. It has been recorded "within the last one million years," at a point and time long before any manmade carbon emissions from fossil fuels or coal. What caused the warming then? Or the cooling since then? Or any of the many cycles of warming and cooling seen on the Earth?

In short:  These are natural cycles we're seeing. And while we should not be polluting any more than is necessary, it is an alarmist over-reaction to believe - after having observed our climate for a maximum of 300 to 400 years (by any stretch that would be the maximum) - that we have evidence to suggest any warming trends are the result of any of man's activities. Or that Antarctica's 1F 50-year warming trend is the result of man's activities. This is especially true when we know for a fact that at various times in the past the Earth has been much warmer than today, and much cooler than today, and that man was not the influence during those cycles.