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Despite small budget, SA makes strides in science research

by Sarah Wild , December 12 2012, 10:48
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ALL AT SEA: The Southern Ocean is the only ocean that is surrounded by other oceans, instead of land. Picture: THINKSTOCK

SOUTH Africa, with its small science and research budget, tends to focus on the things it’s good at, or fields in which it has a geographic advantage. It is difficult for a country that spends 0.96% of its $408.24bn gross domestic product on research to compete with the likes of the US and China without some kind of advantage. As a bioscientist once told me, “A lab is a lab is a lab.”

While South African scientists still participate in these infrastructure-, equipment- and money-heavy scientific areas, we do try to make the best of what we have.

The most obvious is astronomy, with South Africa recently winning 70% of the Square Kilometre Array telescope. With South Africa being home to a new species of hominid, Australopithecus sediba, it is a given that we focus on palaeosciences and human evolution.

Another area in which South Africa is very active is the Southern Ocean.

I’ve been writing quite a bit about it, and today a colleague came to my desk and asked me what the Southern Ocean is — he’d never heard of it.

For some quick crib notes, this is the Southern Ocean.

Historically, South Africa has been involved in the Southern Ocean, but this research has generally focused on biodiversity, marine resources and the like.

In part because it is, for the most part, an understudied marine scientist and oceanographer’s dream, but also because South Africa’s territory extends to two islands in a sub-Antarctic archipelago of the Prince Edward Islands: Marion Island (290km²) and Prince Edward Island (45km²). We also have a base in the Antarctic, and recently bought a shiny new polar research vessel called the SA Agulhas II.

So, why is the Southern Ocean important? It is the only ocean that is surrounded by other oceans, instead of land. Someone once described it to me as the “lungs” of the ocean system.

With global climate change inching up all governments’ agendas, the Southern Ocean is also falling under the microscope.

One of the things I find so fascinating about science, and an important factor in being a science journalist, is just how much we don’t know. People often think that science is axiomatic, and that it is taking all the mystery out of the world, but the truth is that the more we find out, the more we realise we don’t know.

Also, people spend their lives giving into curiosity about strange, arcane topics.

Take these researchers from Stellenbosch University, Bjorn von der Heyden and Prof Alakendra Roychoudery, who, with American-based researchers, have been mapping the different kinds of iron in the Southern Ocean.

Why should iron matter? Plants (like humans) need iron to survive, both in water and out of it. These plants also consume carbon dioxide, which they convert into oxygen.

Carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases have become public enemy number one in the battle against climate change. We need to remove carbon dioxide (and monoxide) from the atmosphere, and the ocean is one of the world’s main carbon sinks. And the Southern Ocean is one of the main players in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Marine algae such as phytoplankton are more important than the Amazon rainforest for taking greenhouse-causing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” Von der Heyden explains. “In parts of the Southern Oceans, the amount of algae or phytoplankton present depends on how much iron is available in the water,” he says.

“Ultimately, this means that the more iron there is available, the more phytoplankton can grow, and the more carbon dioxide can be taken from the atmosphere.”

Part of their research is to find out what kind of iron is present where and in what quantities. You have Fe(III), which is insoluble, and Fe(II), which is soluble. Physorg.com has an interesting article about it.

In their research, the scientists found that areas with high concentrations of Fe(II) had more phytoplankton.

This matters because — in an extreme scenario — people might one day use this information to geo-engineer the planet to stop global warming.

(I’m still trying to make my mind up about geo-engineering. You can read an article I wrote in 2009, which follows below this post.)

Now, before you stop reading, thinking I’m a conspiracy theorist or doom-and-gloom prophet, people are already doing it, as reported in The New York Times in October.

In short, the more we know the better. The more data we have, the better able we are to make informed decisions about the future of our planet.


From The Weekender, October 3 2009

A radical solution to climate change

If we fail to act, geo-engineering could be our last option — but we should beware the law of unintended consequences, writes Sarah Wild

A REPORT released by the UK’s Royal Society last month presents climate change and the issues surrounding it in direct and unequivocal terms: climate change is a reality, with global temperatures expected to rise between 2°C and 4°C this century.

If the world’s governments do not make a concerted and meaningful effort to reduce carbon emissions, the planet’s only hope may lie in the untested, and possibly dangerous, science of geo-engineering.

The phrase “climate change” is bandied about so frequently these days that it has lost its meaning and impetus.

Some people believe it is touted by flower-wearing hippies who want to impede the progression of industrialised, and in some cases developing, nations; others that they are buzz words wielded by politicians to instil the fear of God into their populations and win votes. Some people view the whole idea with scepticism.

Geo-engineering is a meeting place of various disciplines — engineering, science and risk management — with the aim of modifying the earth’s atmosphere and makeup to mitigate the effects of climate change caused by greenhouse gases.

While the thought of engineering the planet might get people’s hackles up, it is a broad science with measures ranging from the innocuous, such as painting roofs white to reflect heat rather than absorb it, to the extreme, such as shooting reflectors into the atmosphere.

The large quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mean solar radiation filters unfettered through the stratosphere, but then becomes trapped lower down and bounces back onto the earth’s terrestrial and ocean surfaces, causing global temperatures to rise.

The side-effects of this phenomenon are vast and severe, from the melting of the permafrost in the Arctic and rising sea levels, to the acidification and warming of the oceans, to the disturbance of global climate patterns, causing drought and flooding and threatening water and food security.

The Royal Society has broken the various geo-engineering techniques into two categories: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.

While carbon dioxide removal addresses the root of the problem — the removal of excessive quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — its techniques are expensive in relation to the hoped-for benefits, and its effects will be felt only in the long term.

This approach is considered to have the fewest side-effects and the most likely to succeed in recalibrating the earth’s climate.

The most promising carbon dioxide removal technique examined by the Royal Society was proposed by Klaus Lackner of Columbia University in New York.

His plan is to pepper the earth with artificial trees that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

However, the costs of such a project are substantial and, even on the scale proposed, would not necessarily solve the greenhouse gas problem.

Another option is to create areas of oceanic algae to absorb the carbon dioxide that has dissolved in the oceans.

In order to cultivate these algae farms, large quantities of iron would have to be dumped into the ocean to promote this growth.

This not only raises questions about possible adverse effects on ocean ecosystems, but also on the people living on nearby land masses and the resultant legal, political and ethical issues.

Although removal of carbon dioxide may have side-effects, these are minor compared with the possible consequences of solar radiation management, which addresses rising temperatures.

Comparatively cheaper, these options have possible, wider-ranging results, which may be even more detrimental than climate change. One of the problems with these techniques is that they involve the manipulation of climate patterns, which are mysterious at the best of times. Even the most apparently innocent of these measures could have unforeseen consequences.

For instance, painting roofs white to reflect heat could alter the flow of warm air, disturbing air circulation and thus altering weather patterns.

A more drastic solution to the problem of global warming is the introduction of sulphates into the stratosphere to act as radiation reflectors.

This has precedent in nature. In 1991 Mount Pinatubo — a volcano in the Philippines — erupted, showering sulphate particles into the atmosphere. These particles reflected solar radiation back into space, and consequently global temperatures dropped by 0,5°C.

Once again, not enough is known about how Earth’s climate and atmosphere behave to state unequivocally that scientists know all of the consequences of something as radical as shooting tons of sulphates into the atmosphere.

All the case studies so far have been carried out in controlled environments on a small scale. With the millions of variables at play in our delicately balanced atmosphere, there is no way of knowing which one of them may be adversely affected, thus creating a chain of unforeseen events. Ozone depletion, which may result from the proliferation of sulphates, is just one of many possible results that could make the climate change problems worse.

As the Royal Society’s report points out, all of the proposed geo-engineering techniques are dogged by uncertainty regarding their effects as well as efficacy.

Prof John Shepherd, who chaired the study, says: “Our research found that some geo-engineering techniques could have detrimental effects on many people and ecosystems — yet we are still failing to take the only action that will prevent us from having to rely on them.

“Geo-engineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change. It is essential that we strive to cut emissions now, but we must also face the very real possibility that we will fail.

“If Plan B is to be an option in the future, considerable research and development of the different models must be undertaken now.”

Geo-engineering’s detractors accuse governments of turning to these possibly dangerous measures rather than addressing the root of the problem — greenhouse gas emissions caused by wide-spread use of fossil fuels.

Doug Parr, the chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, says: “Geo-engineering is creeping onto the agenda because governments seem incapable of standing up to the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby, who will use the idea to undermine the emission reductions we can do safely.”

And geo-engineering really is “creeping onto the agenda”, with these issues being taken up by the UK parliament, Nasa and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, among others.

To date, governments across the world have failed to take significant action on climate change and make concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The world waits with bated breath for the United Nations summit on climate change taking place in Copenhagen in December but, considering the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, cynics are doubtful. Consequently, the use of geo-engineering techniques to mitigate the effects of climate change is becoming a real option, which requires extensive research.

In its recommendations, the Royal Society encourages governments to increase their research funding for geo-engineering. This is because, in its present form, the deployment of these options could be more catastrophic than climate change itself.

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute in California says: “The worst situation is to not test the options and then face a climate emergency and then be faced with deploying an untested option, a parachute that you’ve never tested out as the plane’s crashing.”

Jeunesse Park, founder of Food and Trees for Africa, has a more pragmatic view: “Even if we introduced serious reductions and offset programmes internationally, we will still have to deal with the 150 years of abuse we have caused.

“Technology is developing at such a rate that we’re not going to be able to stop it, so we should rather promote research and understanding, which can help save our species.”

Even if the geo-engineering techniques are found to be fool-proof, a quantum leap in itself, that would not solve the problems of using these techniques.

According to the Royal Society, technical and scientific issues may not be the ones to impede the promulgation of geo-engineering technology, but rather social, legal, ethical and political issues.

If world leaders have been unable to reach consensus on how to reduce carbon emissions, how will they agree on an international legislative framework to ensure the safe usage of this dangerous technology?

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