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Azolla Event (wikipedia.org)
104 points by baq on July 22, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments

And it was estimated to last 800,000 years. Drawing down CO2, reducing it to other forms and burying it, with solar power is bound to take some time.

Going in the other, exothermic direction is going naturally much faster.

Could we grow this thing artificially in a suitably stratified sea or lake to cause a meaningful drop in the atmospheric CO2 level?

If growth is only limited by the availability of phosphorus, well, we already know how to supply phosphorus on an industrial scale.

I would caution a easy solution as frankly we are but cavemen in the understanding of a complex ecosystem like earths. Attempting what amounts to a terraforming experiment would be a extremely high risk endevour with possibly catastrophic ends.

What's the alternative to deliberately trying to change the environment in order to combat the effects of global warming or even reversing that process entirely?

We've effectively, though inadvertently and not to our benefit, already been modifying our environment for quite some time now. Simply limiting CO2 output might just not be enough to avoid a catastrophic outcome in the future. Even if it were, that 'simply' in 'simply limiting' might not be so simple after all. Even if all relevant political bodies in the world agreed on this - which they currently and unfortunately sometimes emphatically don't - the exact means of how do so in any meaningful way isn't entirely clear. You can't just order industry and traffic to produce less CO2 overnight.

It certainly won't be an easy solution but such approaches need to be discussed and not ruled out entirely beforehand.

> Simply limiting CO2 output might just not be enough to avoid a catastrophic outcome in the future.

All but one of the IPCC scenarios now require massive CO2 sequestration on the order of half of current yearly emissions starting in 2050.

--> Current emissions are 40 Gt CO2/year, the sequestration is calculated at 20 Gt CO2/year, the optimists of the IPCC give us 4-500 Gt CO2 further leeway of emissions to stay below 1.5°C until 2100 which are about 10 more years at the current rate. (However, the methane deposits in the permafrost are thawing far faster than the models said, so we might have a lot less.)

We should be rioting in the streets, really. The kids have the right idea.

The "sane" alternative is to reduce our CO2 emissions to a point where we can use carbon capture to remove more than we emit. While fertilizing aquatic plants is also a form of carbon capture it's much harder to control and understand compared to our artificial methods.

Whether we have the political will to do this before positive feedback cycles make it impossible remains to be seen.

> What’s the alternative

How about just having our cake and not eating it too? Rewind the last 200 years and go back to a preindustrial society. Admit that this level of progress is a candidate for the Great Filter and turn around.

Sounds crazy, but if facing imminent destruction, why rule anything out?

Deliberately going back to a preindustrial society in the end means deciding who is going to live and who isn't (including both currently living human beings and those potentially born in the future). Who is to make that decision and on what grounds?

By the way, intentionally rewinding to a preindustrial society technically is a candidate for the Great Filter, too. While a civilisation that does this will survive it won't be discoverable anymore in order to provide an answer to the question "Where's everyone?".

Back to preindustrial society? What to do with the 80% of humanity this can't feed?

> not to our benefit

That remains to be seen, IMHO because it would be very lucky that the current global climate is the optimum for human activities.

For example, with a bit more CO2 in the atmosphere plants grow bigger. Warming might also open more land to agriculture than is lost. Etc.

Yeah, possibly, or more likely it's incredibly dangerous making rapid changes to the chaotic but balanced system that we live within.

The plants might grow bigger - until a voracious pest migrates into the newly available area and destroys them, or wildfires raging in the newly warmed area burn them to the ground.

The current global climate is probably not the optimum for human activities - perhaps that was some time ago, before the extreme weather events that we are ushering in started wreaking havoc. There's no reason to believe that fucking up the planet is somehow leading us towards a better, more optimum situation.

My point is that a warmer climate does not imply a worse climate for human activities overall.

Currently the narrative is change = bad.

What narrative? There are extensive models! More climate chaos = bad!

Using the term "climate chaos" in a discussion about changing climate is indeed pushing a narrative.

CO2 levels have increased by 50% over the past couple of centuries. Are plants growing bigger as a result?

Yes. Although this can be countered by other factors (e.g. less water, excessive heat, etc).

You know this has been studied, right? The conclusion is that it's a big net negative for humanity.

Haven't seen so definitive results...

For example, it is projected that wheat yield would decrease in India. Fine. But how much more wheat would we be able to grow in, e.g., Russia?

"It should be noted that the overall yield of grain crops in Russia is expected to drop by as much as 17 per cent by 2050. At the same time, in the Central, Volga, and Ural Federal districts the plunge in crop yield is described as ‘catastrophic’ at 14, 30, and 38 per cent by 2050, respectively."

"Without adequate measures to adapt agriculture to climate change, the annual economic loss from a decrease in climate-determined crop yield in Russia is estimated at RUB 108bn (approximately $3.5bn) by 2020 and over RUB 120bn (approximately $3.9bn) by 2050."

Logically this can only come from reduced precipitation, which can be countered.

And of course, more adapted crops can be grown.

There is a lot of potential in Russia to benefit from warmer conditions.

You find out! Soil doesn't magically turn productive you know, it takes an ecosystem to make topsoil.

We're already messing with things in what we think is the opposite direction to what's proposed by kijin.

Besides, how can we ever make progress on planetary improvement if we always just shrug and say that we're cave people? We have to try something.

What we want to be is a feedback controller, which means we can try stuff, but we need to be good at monitoring the changes and reacting to them.

I'm less worried about the monitoring parts, thanks to tireless work of scientist and technologists worldwide. We monitor things on the ground, in the sea, and increasingly also from space.

I'm worried about reaction time, though. Our institutions, especially political ones, absolutely suck at doing the right thing in a timely manner.

Good points. I would also just point out that our institutions suck regarding timing mainly because it's against their interests. If you have some way to improve the planet that isn't against special interests, it might not be fast, but will probably be a lot less slow.

We're already terraforming Earth, and not only with pollution, but also with fire, cities, transportation, dams...

One thing this article suggests is that this event caused mass extinction itself as the climate change probably wiped out those North Pole turtles. I think that is just the point of unexpected consequences I’m trying to raise. Previous attempts to reverse catastrophic changes to ecological environments have been unmitigated disasters. Just ask Australians about the cane toad or rabbits.

Inaction is not a privileged choice.

An interesting thing to explore would be its potential as a biofuel: connect carbon exhausts from factories (cement, etc) to pools/tubes containing Azolla, maybe with solar concentrators to give it even more sunlight.

Pipeline enough of these to generate a continuous (hydro-)carbon output, that can be transported elsewhere, or burnt on-site for electricity generation (and the results backfed to the pools).

The idea here would be to effectively create a giant organic solar panel, with its output in the form of (hydro?-)carbons. Ideally burnt on-site (thus they would act as a battery storage), but it could also be exported.

If we're not going to end our reliance on hydrocarbons today, it better be non-fossils ones, since the only reason CO2 levels climb is that we burn fuel that was sequestrated until recently. Earnings from fuel/electricity sales could be reinvested to fund this at a bigger scale. It wouldn't surprise me if everything could be ran as a completely closed loop, at least for electricity generation.

Of course, the idea isn't new, as a cursory search reveals [1]. I wonder if it could be further enhanced using GMOs such as [2].

[1]: https://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/15-algae...

[2]: https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/01/re-engineering-photo...

It's the first question that came to my mind, and as it turns out we're obviously not the first to ask it: http://www.climatefoundation.org/azolla.html

Could azolla be farmed and sold for carbon credits? Would it be possible to do so in international waters, tax-free?

Yes, it can be sold for carbon credits if sequestered properly. No, it's a fresh water plant.

I guess the main problem is the fact that it took 800,000 years to sequester 3000 ppm worth of CO2 out of the atmosphere, or roughly 3 ppb per year on average. And that was when there was a lot more CO2 to sequester than now.

We only need to sequester about 140 ppm of CO2 this time. It would still take tens of thousands of years at the natural rate, but we could probably increase the growth rate a hundredfold by carefully selecting high-sequestration cultivars, pumping them full of nutrients, and harvesting them at just the right interval to maintain optimal production. At least it sounds much more promising than the CO2-capturing contraptions I've seen on HN over the years.

Antarctic and Arctic oceans are very nutrient-rich so phosphorus is not the problem. Iron deficiency is the main limiting factor of plankton growth of algae in those areas.

Dumping iron-sulfate into the ocean has tested and it seems to work. https://www.nature.com/news/dumping-iron-at-sea-does-sink-ca...

Maybe we could revisit the idea of re-flooding Lake Eyre? :)

A certain amount of irony in that the Azolla blooms were deposited on the sea floor, and people are now looking to see if they've become large deposits of oil and gas.

How long do we have to wait before people give up on fossil fuels?

Somehow I thought that a significant proportion of oil ended up in non-fuel products (plastics, lubricants etc). So I was going to comment on how difficult it would be to give it up. But after a bit of digging I found this[0] and it seems the vast majority of it is used for fuel.

Question from someone who knows nothing about refining, if we did move away from oil/gas as fuel, would we still have to extract as much to gain the same amount of non-feul petroleum products?

[0] https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/In_a_barrel_of_oil

The plastic celluloid slightly predates the beginning of crude oil extraction. Plastics can be made starting with non-petroleum chemicals, such as cellulose.

See also Henry Ford's plastic car made from soybeans, wheat, and corn, and designed to run on hemp fuel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soybean_car However, making cars from foodstuffs may be inconsistent with feeding 10 billion people.

Until we find a way to economically cleave the ether bond in cellulose it’s more or less a byproduct of food production and can’t be used for a whole lot else. (edit: I meant anything food related, obviously you can make paper, rayon etc. out of it.)

What starts to encroach on the biomass used for food is when you start using the sugars (producing ethanol etc) which is what would be used to make plastics (like PE) that are currently made from oil.

Plastic products still contain most of the carbon that was originally in the oil, so I don't think it will be a problem for the climate even if we keep extracting oil and making plastic out of it. It will be just like making steel out of iron ore. We only need to stop burning that shit.

From a climate point of view certainly but we need to stop dumping plastics in the ocean desperately, we are fucking up the largest biosphere on the planet.

As has been remarked, the problem is less about extracting it and more about burning it. However, to answer your question, in the absence of any extraction its still quite easy to make oil from any carbon-based substance (search "thermal depolymerization"). We will never run out of oil - at worst, we will run out of "cheap" oil. However, as plastic is ludicrously cheap anyway, I don't see that as a major problem. Sure, it might cause some companies some headaches, but it won't cause any major disruption to modern life.

Last I checked about 4 percent of the produced oil went into the production of plastic.

I've read that oil or derivatives is used in a very large proportion of industrial or construction products and proxesses.

If we keep the current levels of consumption, then yes, we won't need that much oil. However, if oil will stop being used as fuel, petroleum products are expected to become much cheaper, which could raise the demand.

But first demand would drop, making a lot of extraction less profitable than it is now. Wouldn't a lot of the oil suppliers go out of business (forever) before we could "rescue" them by buying even more plastic crap we don't need? Also, even if we started building our houses out of plastic or something, I can't imagine that covering as much use of oil as we are currently burning.

Saudi oil is still quite cheap to extract, so Canadian oil sands producers going bankrupt wouldn't stop all production.

Also, a producer going bankrupt means their assets are sold for pennies on the dollar which would enable a low cost producer to take over without the huge sunk costs of the original producer.

Source on petro products becoming cheaper?

It's the natural inference from supply and demand (so I agree it's possible), but it's worth keeping in mind that oil is a very big capital-intense business. Extraction, multiple rounds of transport, and refining all have significant economies of scale.

Some of those scale advantages might break down if demand downscaled to any small fraction of current, which could make the fallout unpredictable.

I'm also not sure how fungible a barrel of oil is. That is to say, is the fuel fraction of current production easily repurposed for making plastics, or is that fraction more or less destined to become fuel of some sort? If fixed fractions are just compositionally destined for certain uses, a collapse in demand for those fractions could actually increase the cost of the remaining in-demand fractions since they still have to cover the costs of production.

Humanity seems to be in the death throes of hydrocarbon addiction

It’s an energy addiction, not a hydrocarbon addiction. Similarly, people get a nicotine addiction, not a cigarette addiction. They can switch to alternatives, like cigars, patches, and ecigs. Luckily, our alternatives are better - solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear.

The process workarounds required to run an airliner on geothermal energy are still kind of elaborate though.

This sort of comment always strikes me as a sort of faux-ignorance to reality. Nobody’s addicted to fossil fuels. People simply have a demand for energy, they just want to power their homes, and meet their transport needs.

> Nobody’s addicted to fossil fuels

Yeah we can quit any time.

Everything about this statement is wrong.

> addicted

Nobody’s addicted to anything here. There’s a demand for energy, and a supply of it in the market.

> addicted specifically to fossil fuels

Even if you put aside the frankly silly premise that anything the market has a demand for, it must be addicted to, the demand is for energy, not energy produced in a specific way. If you had two light bulbs, one powered by coal, and another powered by a renewable source, do you think there is a single person in the world that could tell them apart?

Well, people aren't addicted to heroin, they want their opioid receptors activated. :).

> Even if you put aside the frankly silly premise that anything the market has a demand for, it must be addicted to, the demand is for energy, not energy produced in a specific way.

Addiction also is a thing until it doesn't. Addicts can kick their addiction, especially if the underlying need is fulfilled by something else.

> If you had two light bulbs, one powered by coal, and another powered by a renewable source, do you think there is a single person in the world that could tell them apart?

Doesn't matter. The market cares about whether you can sell fossil fuels at a profit. Energy demand is what creates a fossil fuel demand, and our fossil fuel addiction will only end when we're able to close off the fossil fuel tap without immediately collapsing the whole civilization.

This is ridiculous. You're purposely conflating need/demand for addiction to try to spin something a certain way. I need food, water, air, etc. and yet would not call myself an addict. Would you?

I don't think any one is claiming oil is a viable solution long-term, so why are you bothering?

Addiction is not a binary state. I simply have a demand for tech discussions. Yet I’m addicted to HN. It’s fairly easy to identify addiction - you try to quit.

Addiction isn’t just whatever you say it is, it’s a word that has a defined meaning. Addiction is the pathological pursuit of a relief. Now even if you think our consumption of energy is pathological (and if you want to assert that, you’ll have to prove that our consumption of energy is generated by a mental disease), then the addiction would be to energy, not energy generated by a specific means.

This level of absurd hyperbole really doesn’t help anybody except climate deniers, who can quite rightly say ‘climate activists rely on absurd hyperbole’, or worse.

The market is the only source of fuel for people, thus until alternatives on it become viable or until fossil supply become scarce, whichever first.

Maybe you meant 'oil'?

We tried waiting, it didn't work. We're just starting to try more things. Society appears to be too slow to fix this.

Hell, people buy new SUVs far bigger than they have any use for and tell us they need it while the politicians try to protect the industry. If we just leave it be we'll never make it.

> How long do we have to wait before people give up on fossil fuels?

Probably not that long. Oil extraction is such a resource-intense process that some alternative, be it nuclear or otherwise, will become more economically viable.

So, this is all a part of natural cycle. Humans are part of life on Earth. Some life on Earth captures CO2, and the other emits CO2, until it runs into some consequences; then the cycle repeats.

Yes, so over {checks notes} 800,000 years, the growth of plant life may sequester enough CO2 to bring Earth's climate back into what we call reasonable.

{sets Android timer}

Shouldn't be long now!

Is there a risk that with the present Artic heathing a significant percent of that carbon gets released?

I have found that exactly this story is the strongest argument against the AGW narrative: Humanity is merely returning the state of the atmosphere back to a earlier state.

That's probably true. But it's doing so on a timescale of centuries, whereas the cooling happened over hundreds of millennia.

Maybe an apt metaphor is with pressure. Go from ten atmospheres of pressure to one in an hour and your ears will pop. Do it in less than a second and your blood vessels will pop.

Sure, for "the planet" it's not a big problem. A lot of species would die, but live would recover. It's happened plenty of times before.

The problem is that we also like living on this planet, and climate change might make a good portion uninhabitable in my own or my children's lifetime. Also people really like living on the coast, and either relocating them or combating rising sea levels alone will cost a fortune. Not combating climate change is the most expensive decision we can make.

Doesn't that mean that you are actually accepting "AGW" if you are saying it is OK because the planet was in a similar state before?

To a time when there was no humans and no animals and plants we depend on. Sure.

Planet will be fine, we won't.

We'll be fine as a species. There will be a lot more sob stories about this or that village in some less developed nation starving because they can no longer farm their land, there will be wars over resources, etc. Humanity will be just fine.

a million villages will try to move away from the equatorial zone and the tropics at the same time. this ends in war, famine and every other humanitarian crisis you can think of.

I didn't say it was going to be fun. Humanity will be fine though.

For vast majority of people climate change as currently predicted (not even the pessimistic scenario) will mean suffering, lowering of living standards and risk of premature death jumping a few orders of magnitude.

And no - it won't just be people in 3rd world countries. If that's fine for you then sure. We will be fine.

EU just had a so called "immigration crisis" because a few million refuges came and people disagreed how to deal with them, to the point of populist governments being elected and some countries considering leaving the EU.

Now imagine not 3 millions but 500 millions of refuges. How will the world deal with that? All of this while food is becoming much more expansive, and there is a need for many infrastructural projects to save coastal cities. The likely answer is - political turmoil, mass crimes against humanity, wars, failing states.

The biggest problem with global warming is that people reject solutions because of well-estimated costs, but they don't even try to estimate the cost of not doing anything, and when it's estimated for them they just ignore it like it's not there.

JFC. I'm not endorsing it or saying we should do nothing and the tone and content of your comments seems to imply you think I am. Yes it will suck but humans will keep on existing, just probably not 7.5 billion of them. Furthermore, it will happen over generations so from the perspective of the people who have to live it it will be a steep decline where things get worse and worse, it won't be a cataclysmic event like a war (expect for those unlucky enough to live in times and places that will see war as a result of this).

Yes we should do things to make it suck less but to imply that the end result will be a planet with no humans on it is hyperbolic and farcical.

Well it's a "sob story" until it's your airco shutting down. Does "less developed nation" mean you won't starve? Does your statement make it more or less likely for someone born less lucky than you to consider it legitimate to get your survival and make it his (mine) ?

If I bash your head in, I’m merely returning you back to an earlier state.

Well no, their state was never "head bashed in".

Eventually they’ll decompose and return to their original state of being dirt.

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