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Azolla fern: A climate change cure?

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FIFTY million years ago the Earth was in a dire state. Overheated by runaway greenhouse gases, the future of life seemed bleak. But a little green fern saved the day. Can it do it again?...

Behind the shift which created the balmy climate of the past few million years was a geological coincidence: The isolation of the Arctic Ocean.

At this critical point in history, the newly enclosed sea became a shallow, tepid, salty and nutrient-rich lake. It spawned the future of our world.

Scientific American reports it was these conditions that proved ideal for a small algae-like fern to flourish. That plant changed our atmosphere.

Now scientists and amateurs around the world are racing to find if this little fern can do it again: And fast.

post-19153-0-88917000-1437221682_thumb.j

Read more: http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/its-widely-regarded-as-a-weed-but-the-tiny-fern-azolla-once-saved-the-planet-from-runaway-climate-change-can-it-do-it-again/story-fnjwvztl-1226991748938

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FIFTY million years ago the Earth was in a dire state. Overheated by runaway greenhouse gases, the future of life seemed bleak. But a little green fern saved the day. Can it do it again?...

Behind the shift which created the balmy climate of the past few million years was a geological coincidence: The isolation of the Arctic Ocean.

At this critical point in history, the newly enclosed sea became a shallow, tepid, salty and nutrient-rich lake. It spawned the future of our world.

Scientific American reports it was these conditions that proved ideal for a small algae-like fern to flourish. That plant changed our atmosphere.

Now scientists and amateurs around the world are racing to find if this little fern can do it again: And fast.

attachicon.gifimage.jpg

Read more: http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/its-widely-regarded-as-a-weed-but-the-tiny-fern-azolla-once-saved-the-planet-from-runaway-climate-change-can-it-do-it-again/story-fnjwvztl-1226991748938

 

I can remember reading up on this a few years ago. I'm pretty sure all the Azolla that sank to the bottom of the Arctic ocean, with all that carbon, is a large part of the reason why so many oil companies are desperate to get working in the Arctic.

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I can remember reading up on this a few years ago. I'm pretty sure all the Azolla that sank to the bottom of the Arctic ocean, with all that carbon, is a large part of the reason why so many oil companies are desperate to get working in the Arctic.

Yes I certainly agree: I discovered a really interesting post on Reddit worth a read really enlightening.

The Azolla event really needs to be put in context of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs that were killed rather rapidly by a rock fell from the sky. When that meteor hit 65 million years ago, CO2 was at 600 ppm. Think about that - our discussion of global warming is currently about the jump we've made from 280 ppm to 400 ppm (Hansen et al. 2013). Dinosaurs lived in a much warmer world.

If you drive down I25 between Pueblo Colorado and Aztec New Mexico, you will cross low quality coal beds (lignite) that preserve some plan structure both before and after the meteor hit. If you count the stomata (holes in the plant which allow CO2 to enter) you get a rough idea for how much CO2 was in the air. This is how they get to the 600 ppm number for the dinosaurs. Using the same method for finding out post-meteor strike CO2, they get 2,000 ppm CO2 (Beerling et al 2002).

This is because when the meteor hit, it ejected a log of small recently formed glass grains in the air, which circulated around the world in atmospheric currents before falling back down. This caused a short term heat wave of about 730°C. This combusted just about everything on land (Robertson et al. 2000). After global forest fires and all around Armsgeddonness, there was a CO2 spike that makes our concerns about global warming look like child's play.

So anyway, this CO2 spike was responsible for what is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (Jaramillo et al. 2010), or PETM for short. The PETM was really #]*#+{]% hot. We don't have a lot of comparisons today to anything like this. Also, plants need CO2 for food. So air super-saturated in 2,000 ppm CO2 in a hot, humid climate is the context when Azolla entered the seen.

The Arctic Ocean, the watery northern space between Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, was very different in these conditions due to the heat. For one, alligators and palm trees lived in this region (compared to polar bears and seals today) (Ivany et al. 2003). A freshwater slick seems to have opened up across the Artic (freshwater floats on saline water) and this provided an environment for Azolla to grow (Brinkhuis et al 2006).

Between 49 and 48 million years ago, Azolla sucked in a lot of CO2 at the North Pole, reducing CO2 concentrations to around 400 ppm. This is what set the Earth on a course for the ice ages - not immediately, Antarctica in the south wouldn't freeze over till 18 million years ago (and even that would t stick) (Zachos et al 2001). But still, it was a big deal.

But Azolla was only able to do this because the conditions were so weird in the first place. You need 2,000 ppm CO2 and a freshwater ocean to make this happen. And you may not want to make this happen, because if you lose control of Azolla, you risk causing climate damage in the opposite direction and push us into an ice age, which is much worse. Think of Azolla like some kind of suicide squad.

The scary part is that the CO2 didn't just vanish. It was sequestered in the Arctic Ocean. When you hear about people talking about getting coal or oil from the Arctic, this is one of the deposits. My worry is that we will re-release the carbon bomb unleashed by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

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Yes I certainly agree: I discovered a really interesting post on Reddit worth a read really enlightening.

The Azolla event really needs to be put in context of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs that were killed rather rapidly by a rock fell from the sky. When that meteor hit 65 million years ago, CO2 was at 600 ppm. Think about that - our discussion of global warming is currently about the jump we've made from 280 ppm to 400 ppm (Hansen et al. 2013). Dinosaurs lived in a much warmer world.

If you drive down I25 between Pueblo Colorado and Aztec New Mexico, you will cross low quality coal beds (lignite) that preserve some plan structure both before and after the meteor hit. If you count the stomata (holes in the plant which allow CO2 to enter) you get a rough idea for how much CO2 was in the air. This is how they get to the 600 ppm number for the dinosaurs. Using the same method for finding out post-meteor strike CO2, they get 2,000 ppm CO2 (Beerling et al 2002).

This is because when the meteor hit, it ejected a log of small recently formed glass grains in the air, which circulated around the world in atmospheric currents before falling back down. This caused a short term heat wave of about 730°C. This combusted just about everything on land (Robertson et al. 2000). After global forest fires and all around Armsgeddonness, there was a CO2 spike that makes our concerns about global warming look like child's play.

So anyway, this CO2 spike was responsible for what is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (Jaramillo et al. 2010), or PETM for short. The PETM was really #]*#+{]% hot. We don't have a lot of comparisons today to anything like this. Also, plants need CO2 for food. So air super-saturated in 2,000 ppm CO2 in a hot, humid climate is the context when Azolla entered the seen.

The Arctic Ocean, the watery northern space between Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, was very different in these conditions due to the heat. For one, alligators and palm trees lived in this region (compared to polar bears and seals today) (Ivany et al. 2003). A freshwater slick seems to have opened up across the Artic (freshwater floats on saline water) and this provided an environment for Azolla to grow (Brinkhuis et al 2006).

Between 49 and 48 million years ago, Azolla sucked in a lot of CO2 at the North Pole, reducing CO2 concentrations to around 400 ppm. This is what set the Earth on a course for the ice ages - not immediately, Antarctica in the south wouldn't freeze over till 18 million years ago (and even that would t stick) (Zachos et al 2001). But still, it was a big deal.

But Azolla was only able to do this because the conditions were so weird in the first place. You need 2,000 ppm CO2 and a freshwater ocean to make this happen. And you may not want to make this happen, because if you lose control of Azolla, you risk causing climate damage in the opposite direction and push us into an ice age, which is much worse. Think of Azolla like some kind of suicide squad.

The scary part is that the CO2 didn't just vanish. It was sequestered in the Arctic Ocean. When you hear about people talking about getting coal or oil from the Arctic, this is one of the deposits. My worry is that we will re-release the carbon bomb unleashed by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

 

Certainly an interesting comment, though there are a lot of questions and uncertainties when looking at anything back that far. At least he added the references at the end. For anyone curious or wanting some more reading...

 

References: Beerling, D.J., Lomax, B.H., Royer, D.L., Upchurch, G.R., Kump, L.R. 2002. An atmospheric pCO2 reconstruction across the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary from leaf megafossils. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99(12): 7836 - 7840
 
Brinkhuis, H., Schouton, S., Collinson, M.E., Slujis, A., Sinninghe Damasté, J.S., Dickens, G.R., Huber, M., Cronin, T.M., Onodera J., Takahashi, K., Bujak, J.P., Stein, R., van der Burgh, J., Eldrett, J.S., Harding, I.C., Lotter, A.F, Sangiorgi, F., van Konijenburg-van Cittert, H., de Leeuw, J.W., Matthiessen, J., Backman, J., Moran, K. 2006. Episodic fresh surface waters in the Eocene Arctic Ocean. Nature 441: 606-609
 
Hansen, J., Karecha, P., Sato, M., Masson-Delmotte, V., Ackerman, F., Beerling, D.J., Hearty, P.J., Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Hsu, S.L., Parmeson, C., Rockstrom, J., Rohling, E.J., Sachs, J., Smith, P., Steffen, K., Van Susteren, L., von Schuckmann, K., Zachos, J.C. 2013. Assessing “Dangerous Climate Changeâ€: Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations, and nature. PLoS One 8(12): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648
 
Ivany, L.C., Nesbitt, E.A., Prothero, D.R. 2003. The Marine Eocene-Oligocene transition: A synthesis. in Prothero, D.R., Ivany, L.C., Nesbitt, E.A. (eds). From Greenhouse to Icehouse: The Marine Eocene-Oligocene Transition. Columbia University Press, New York, NY. pp. 522-534
 
Pearson, P.N., Palmer, M.R. 2000. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past six million years. Nature 406: 695-699
 
Robertson, D.S., McKenna, M.C., Toon, O.B., Hope, S., Lillegraven, J.A. 2004. Survival in the first few hours of the Cenozoic. GSA Bulletin 116(5/6): 760-768
 
Zachos, J., Pagan, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E., Billups, K. 2001. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292(5517): 686 - 693

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Yes I certainly agree: I discovered a really interesting post on Reddit worth a read really enlightening.

The Azolla event really needs to be put in context of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs that were killed rather rapidly by a rock fell from the sky. When that meteor hit 65 million years ago, CO2 was at 600 ppm. Think about that - our discussion of global warming is currently about the jump we've made from 280 ppm to 400 ppm (Hansen et al. 2013). Dinosaurs lived in a much warmer world.

If you drive down I25 between Pueblo Colorado and Aztec New Mexico, you will cross low quality coal beds (lignite) that preserve some plan structure both before and after the meteor hit. If you count the stomata (holes in the plant which allow CO2 to enter) you get a rough idea for how much CO2 was in the air. This is how they get to the 600 ppm number for the dinosaurs. Using the same method for finding out post-meteor strike CO2, they get 2,000 ppm CO2 (Beerling et al 2002).

This is because when the meteor hit, it ejected a log of small recently formed glass grains in the air, which circulated around the world in atmospheric currents before falling back down. This caused a short term heat wave of about 730°C. This combusted just about everything on land (Robertson et al. 2000). After global forest fires and all around Armsgeddonness, there was a CO2 spike that makes our concerns about global warming look like child's play.

So anyway, this CO2 spike was responsible for what is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (Jaramillo et al. 2010), or PETM for short. The PETM was really #]*#+{]% hot. We don't have a lot of comparisons today to anything like this. Also, plants need CO2 for food. So air super-saturated in 2,000 ppm CO2 in a hot, humid climate is the context when Azolla entered the seen.

The Arctic Ocean, the watery northern space between Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, was very different in these conditions due to the heat. For one, alligators and palm trees lived in this region (compared to polar bears and seals today) (Ivany et al. 2003). A freshwater slick seems to have opened up across the Artic (freshwater floats on saline water) and this provided an environment for Azolla to grow (Brinkhuis et al 2006).

Between 49 and 48 million years ago, Azolla sucked in a lot of CO2 at the North Pole, reducing CO2 concentrations to around 400 ppm. This is what set the Earth on a course for the ice ages - not immediately, Antarctica in the south wouldn't freeze over till 18 million years ago (and even that would t stick) (Zachos et al 2001). But still, it was a big deal.

But Azolla was only able to do this because the conditions were so weird in the first place. You need 2,000 ppm CO2 and a freshwater ocean to make this happen. And you may not want to make this happen, because if you lose control of Azolla, you risk causing climate damage in the opposite direction and push us into an ice age, which is much worse. Think of Azolla like some kind of suicide squad.

The scary part is that the CO2 didn't just vanish. It was sequestered in the Arctic Ocean. When you hear about people talking about getting coal or oil from the Arctic, this is one of the deposits. My worry is that we will re-release the carbon bomb unleashed by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

In our current epoch of genetic engineering I wonder whether it would be possible to modify the Azolla to do the same type of job in our current climate and topography. 

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In our current epoch of genetic engineering I wonder whether it would be possible to modify the Azolla to do the same type of job in our current climate and topography. 

 

There is nothing particularly new about this idea. Twenty five years ago they were dabbling with the removal of COby iron enrichment of surface waters. Like many ideas the theory looks fine but in practice there are huge obstacles. It really smacks to me of looking for esoteric ways of tackling the symptoms to avoid making harsh decisions about the cause, From the early 90s.

 

Little effort has been made to alter the rate of fossil-fuel consumption or land use -despite the social, economic, and political impacts. This inactivity is partly due to the level of uncertainty regarding the current predictions of environmental change that will be induced by the increasing atmospheric concentrations of C02• It is also due to the perceived prohibitive costs of developing alternative energy sources and systems. As a result attention has focused on removing the excess of C02 from the atmosphere, rather than cutting its production at source.

 

This has led to a proposal that marine phytoplankton growth might be stimulated by fertilising surface waters of the North East Pacific, the equatorial Pacific, and the Southern Ocean (an area of over 10% of the world's ocean). These waters contain abundant nitrate and phosphate, but support an unusually low biomass. The late John Martin believed that primary production in these nutrient-rich waters is limited by iron. Laboratory (microscale) experiments had already convincingly shown that nanomolar iron enrichments of high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll waters do, indeed, stimulate phytoplankton growth and biomass • The 'bottle experiments' have also been successfully repeated in waters south of the Galapagos Islands (project 'lronEx'- see Figure12.12), although the results differed from those expected. The observed changes in the partial pressure of C02 and in nitrate, fluorescence, and chlorophyll levels were considerably less than theory predicted, presumably due to various unquantified loss terms (the grazing by zooplankton fortunate enough to benefit from the increase in phytoplankton numbers, the export of organic carbon, etc.). However, mesoscale field experiments are notoriously difficult to undertake and interpret and contain many unexpected and unquantifiable factors.

 

If the 'iron hypothesis' is correct, adding sufficient soluble iron to these waters should stimulate enough primary productivity to consume one-third to one-half of the anthropogenic C02 flux. Supporters of this hypothesis have described this as a rapid method for recreating sedimentary organic matter, to counterbalance the rate of fossil fuel destruction. However, in the extreme, it is also possible that sustained elevated levels of photosynthesis might also remove sufficient C02 from the atmosphere to induce periods of glaciation.

 

Ref. C. P. Summerhayes, S.A. Thorpe, Oceanography: An illustrated Guide, Wiley 1996.

 

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In our current epoch of genetic engineering I wonder whether it would be possible to modify the Azolla to do the same type of job in our current climate and topography.

There was an idea to genetically modify rats to inhale CO2 and exhale harmless gases, I recall reading it in a newspaper a while back. Google doesn't return much though so I'm guessing the idea never got anywhere.

This idea is an interesting one, but doesn't focus on removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Rather, it focuses on adding SO2 to the stratosphere to counteract the effects caused by greenhouse gases.

http://www.intellectualventureslab.com/invent/introducing-the-stratoshield

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