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Week of 1.9.09

Sea Change

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A rise in sea levels isn't the only impact global warming is having on the world's oceans. A growing body of evidence suggests that climate change is also affecting ocean currents and the chemistry of the seas, with potentially catastrophic results.

This week, NOW travels deep into the oceans with scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) with help from other researchers for a first hand look at this stunning sea change, and what we can do about it.

"We've been aware of global warming for several decades now. We haven't taken any substantive action, and we're now what many scientists would call at tipping points," Ruth Curry, an ocean scientist at the WHOI.

In a simple experiment, using ice cubes, a beaker of water, and a hot plate, Curry shows NOW's David Brancaccio how ice acts as a heat buffer in the oceans. When the ice melts, the buffer collapses, and may cause a rapid rise in ocean temperatures, with unpredictable results.

Some ocean scientists believe that if action isn't taken quickly to address climate change, our oceans could face their biggest shock in 100 million years.

The world's oceans face a global-warming catastrophe. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to act quickly to fight climate change but can his Administration make a difference?

In the News

Associated Press: One-fifth of coral reefs already lost, much more feared

The Economist: Troubled waters: a special report on the sea

New York Times: In Obama's Team, Two Camps on Climate

Related Links

Conover Fish Ecology Lab, a marine science research center.

Oceana, a group focused on ocean conservation.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, dedicated to ocean research, engineering and education activities.

Viewer Comments

Commenter: Curtis Johnson
Concise show on what will happen if we don't curb CO-2 emissions: Do it or fry. Once the polar ice caps are gone, so is life here as we currently know it. Others are correct in calling for more on ACTION as opposed to decrying the now obvious.

As in wartime, lots can be done in little conventional ways in terms of lifestyle changes that can make a dramatic difference -- the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Make it mandadory and systematic. Create and enforce aggressive auto mileage efficiency standards that industry has defeated through payoffs and lobbying. Implement more solar and wind power, and convert to natural gas as a primary residential heat source.

New technologies to create and implement would include hydrogen power cells, for residential, transport and small industrial use. Advance a truer clean coal emmission technology. Manufacture and use biodiesel, but not through the use of corn. Algae are much more efficient.

Create a mass transit network for our growing population, on the scale of what the 1955 Interstate Highway Act did. Europe and Japan have had them for half a century, and now we need one too. It would also reduce the drunk drivers who kill over 25,000 people a year on our nation's highways. Talk about terrorism.

Finally, if we must still look to nuclear as our energy savior, yes, as Mr. Lamas suggests, but with a twist, develop FUSION as opposed to a breeder reactor which creates MORE nuclear waste. And find a way to responsibly dispose of that waste, and our current horrendous stockpiles of waste that that inlcude those that lie over the Snake River Aquifer, North America's largest, in Idaho, and seep into the Columbia River at Hanford, WA. Yucca Mountain awaits, and nothing is endangered there. Otherwise, no plan for waste disposal, no responsible plan for expanding nuclear energy can conscienciously be considered.

Curtis Johnson
Spokane, WA

Commenter: Ann Lamb
After I watched your show with Ruth Curry, especially looking at Arctic ice, Congressman John Duncan's latest newsletter made some assertions that I don't know how to evaluate. Where would I go to find some critique of these:
"The National Post of Canada reported that the snow cover in much of North America, Siberia, Mongolia, and China this year was the greatest since 1966. Gilles Langis, a senior forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service, said this past Arctic winter was so severe that the ice not only recovered, it was actually 10 to 20 cm thicker in many places." He went on to quote others, such as Freeman Dyson, and Prof. David Deming (no institution given), geophysicist, saying that, "the last 2 years of global cooling have nearly erased 30 years of temperature increases. To the extent that global warming ever existed, it is now officially over."
Who are these people and what do you think of their views?

Commenter: Dave Lamas
Great piece on global warming. I would like to see a piece on a major solution to global warming... nuclear power. Specifically, fast breeder reactors that make more fuel than it consumes. What happened to the propposed prototype design that Secretary O'Leary turned down a few years back? Pebble bed reactors? Our new Energy secretary understands this subject well. He should initiate the start of research to nuclear systems that uses the fuel (Uranium) instead of declaring it as 'waste' after using less than 4% of its potential power. We should also atart looking into limiting and eventually reducing the world's population... the root creator of green house gases --- aka, global warming.

Commenter: John Reed
Re: NOW of January 9, 2009

A comment was made of the difficulty or impossibility of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Consider the following:


Ethanol and Removal of Carbon Dioxide from the Atmosphere

John Reed1

To realistically attack the problem of global warming requires reduction of the absolute concentration of global warming gases in the atmosphere. The technology required to permanently remove atmospheric carbon dioxide is currently available. Carbon dioxide from atmospheric sources is currently extracted by fermentation of sugars or starches from photosynthesis processes with the help of sunlight. Sequestration of the CO2 gas thus produced permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere. The process is of particular interest in association with the production of various alcoholic fuels and work is widely underway to improve processes to economically ferment various and abundant starch containing vegetation such as wood chips, agricultural waste, prairie grass or switch grass and possibly even municipal waste. The sequestration of the resultant carbon dioxide from fermentation can be undertaken on a large scale whenever the will and capital become available. The wide variety of feedstock allows production over a wide range of job locations. Research is needed on new sequestration processes particularly if fossil fuel energy production is not curtailed in the near future.

More details are available at:

Thank You

Commenter: J. Blair
I am saddened to see that while so many good people are documenting the destruction of our planet by pollution, few offer any solutions to our mounting problems. The plain fact is that any species that exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat will, in the end, face dire conquences. Religous teachings along with government policies that all encourage population growth will eventually lead to a near total destruction of the enviornment, followed by a collapse in population numbers that will be brutal in nature. Until we, as a species, recogonize our responsibility to acheive and maintain a population level that can be substained without furthur eroding the enviormnent, all the efforts put forth will only be feeble attempts at treating the symptoms and will never stop the progress of the disease. Is it not time to educate everyone as to the consequences of their actions?

Commenter: Mary Ann
Doesn't that fact that the decline of certain species of ocean life prove that there is a problem. I don't understand why people don't believe there's a problem. The facts speak volumes!

Commenter: mike sieverson
It escapes me why you feel you need to believe that the sky is falling. The globle warming is just a normal cycle that the earth goes through. Reminds me of the hystarical insanity the scientists put us all through about the Ozone Layer. Then they found out the level doesn't change it just pulsats and is shaped like a doughnut; not flat.

Commenter: Gustavo Corral

I hate society. As an expression of my hate I was thinking of throwing a few spent ink cartridges into the sea. But thanks to your program I've thought I'd better not; after all those pints of ink might spread all over the world and darken the oceans (I've even tried a small experiment with my fishbowl and that is EXACTLY what happened! I even killed my goldfish! ). After the oceans are black with carbon it's just a short step to global catastrophe and the end of all life, and I don't hate humanity THAT much!

So thank you for your timely program and for alerting us to the dangers of what might be possible!!

Commenter: CO2 link not proven
Bunch of crock. No explanation of how CO2 causes warming because they can't prove it. How can going from like 28 to 38 molecules per 100,000 molecules of the heavy gas CO2 warm the earth? What about water vapour?--biggest contributor. What about changes in the output of our biggest warming plate--the Sun? This is simply a U.N. world government money grab ran by government-paid scientists. Can't believe how one-sided this show is.

Commenter: Jim Adcock
Thank you for this [unfortunately rare] honest, and scientifically accurate portrayal of global warming on TV. It is only this kind of honest and science-based coverage, and a lot more of this kind of honest and science-based coverage, that might possibly save the lives of my children and grandchildren!

Commenter: David Earnshaw
I watched with interest the effect that CO2 is having on our oceans. As a resident of Wyoming, I am appaled that ExxonMobile still dumps 30,000,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day from their Shutte Creek gas processing plant in Western Wyoming! Since the opening of the plant in 1986 they have vented over 150,000,000 tons. This plant dumps more CO2 into the air than all the coal burning power plants in the state. Oh, by the way. Wyoming has a law that prohibits the state from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Sea Change

Our Oceans: What Could Happen

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