Why the Arctic is so vital in the fight against climate change.

The Arctic is warming far more than the rest of the world, in some regions it is already more than 3oC warmer than the 1950s, already exceeding the Paris agreements threshold. What makes this so frightening is the incredible potential the Arctic has to warm the planet further.

The albedo effect is when solar radiation enters our planet from the sun and some is reflected. Brighter surfaces are more reflective than darker ones, and so at the moment the Arctic reflects huge amounts of heat out of our atmosphere due to its bright sea ice and snow cover. However, as sea ice and snow melts, more and more solar energy is being absorbed by the Earth’s darker surfaces.

Moreover, cold Arctic temperatures have limited carbon release for tens of thousands of years, instead storing it in the frozen ground. However, as temperatures rise, the ground is starting to thaw, releasing huge volumes of carbon that is thousands of years old.

We used to think this warming would be counterbalanced by the increasing biomass (basically the amount of living stuff) from higher temperatures, which would take in more carbon. However, several studies have now shown that whilst increased temperatures does promote life, extreme events such as droughts, fires, storms and pest outbreaks are potentially decreasing the biomass.

Jarle Bjerke released one such study which revealed the unbelievable and absolute devastation of an Arctic ecosystem which caused half of all life to die:

First, there was the biggest storm for 30 years. Next, temperatures shot up from -20oC to above freezing for 10 days. This ‘tricked’ the plants into thinking it was spring and so they burst their buds, and in the process losing their tolerance to cold conditions. When the temperatures inevitably fell again, the plants were encased in ice, which pierced their cells and drew all the moisture out.

Not only that, but there was then a devastating outbreak of a moth species which completely stripped the plants off all of their leaves. Finally, all the dead stuff on the floor acted as a fuel, and so when a fire was ignited, it spread rapidly and killed most of whatever was left.

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Is the concern from overpopulation a racist concept?

Headlines asking, ‘Can we live in a world of ten billion?’ both in the media and in scientific articles are widespread. They portray a kind of dystopia world where houses are stacked on top of each other whilst the population manically consume the entire world’s resources. The reality, in fact, is just as bad, but population isn’t the main issue.

Here I show two things. Firstly, that our lifestyles have much more of an impact on the world than population size. Second, that the focus on overpopulation in the media is inherently racist, as it tries to place blame on developing nations, avoiding the elephant in the room that actually, countries with the least population growth are consuming the most.

One example is the often stated problem of how we are going to feed 3 billion more people by 2050. Actually, those 3 billion more people only account for a third of the extra food we need to produce. The other two thirds come from people eating a more meat heavy and exotic diet.

Another, is the fact that Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world, yet only contributes to 1% of greenhouse emissions. Moreover, India has more than three times the population of America, but only consumes half as much.

So clearly, having more people on the planet doesn’t matter as much as what they do, so why does western media kick up such a fuss?

Well, if population rise is seen as the worst of the world’s problems, then so is Africa and Asia. To this extent, blaming population over and over is just a way of saying, ‘look at Africa and Asia, their population is growing so fast we won’t be able to cope!’. And if we can blame the Africans, the west can continue to fly on holidays, own huge homes and cars, and unfairly monopolise the planets resources.

So next time somebody stresses about the population increase in Africa and Asia, question why they think they can consume so much, but the rest of world should stay the same.

Antimicrobial resistance is not a scare story, it’s happening, the World Health Organisation warns.

The idea of antibiotics failing to work and medicine plunging back to the medieval ages seems ridiculous. However, the World Health Organisation, Center for Disease Prevention and Control and government funded research by Jim O’Neill have all now come out and said that it is a distinct possibility.

50,000 people die each year due to antibiotic resistant infections, a number that is projected to rise above the deaths by cancer by 2050, when resistance will cost the U.S 29 billion dollars each year in healthcare.

Antibiotic resistance builds up when bacteria aren’t fully exterminated by the antibiotics. In these cases, most of the bacteria are killed, but the strongest survive. The trouble is, doctors give out prescriptions far too easily, meaning that the bacteria are rarely wiped out.

America is especially guilty here, where private healthcare results in profits being more valuable than human lives. As such, doctors give out as much medicine as possible, regardless of the illness. As a result, America has a disgraceful healthcare system which is the least efficient in the world and one of the least effective amongst developed nations.

Worst of all is the meat industry which feed their animals low levels of antibiotics, as it prevents some infections and makes the livestock heavier. Low levels of antibiotic use and unsanitary conditions however, is the antibiotic resistant bacteria’s absolute dream. Worse still, these meat companies refuse to release information to scientists and so there’s no way of telling what resistance is building up.

Jim O’Neill says that the regression to medieval medicine is a genuine possibility, but easily preventable if governments and companies take responsibility and work together to improve antibiotic use and research into new antibiotics.

The most extreme life on Earth part three: the great deep sea farmers

In the abyss of the deep, vents provide energy for an oasis of incredible and bizarre life.

The bottom of our oceans are a black expanse of nothingness for hundreds of kilometers in each direction. Yet in the darkness of the deep sea desert, hydrothermal vents provide a spectacular oasis, as densely populated as most ecosystems on land, boasting an array of the strangest animals on the planet.

In the deep abyss, you have to deal with crushingly high pressures, low and high temperatures but most of all, an absence of energy. About a kilometre down there is no light and without photosynthesis, or basically anything else, finding an energy source is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The vents provide energy by constantly pumping superheated water (up to 400oC, as at high pressures the boiling point of water increases), which have previously gathered minerals in the rock below.

Large animals can’t use this chemical energy directly, but incredibly they literally farm microbes which can.

Tube worms (above and below) can grow to a massive 3 meters long, and they are gross. Perhaps the weirdest thing about them isn’t the fact that they look like a garden worm on steroids, but that they don’t have an anus. Instead, they gather their excrement in a sac, which slowly fills up and poisons them until they die. More remarkable still, their farming of microbes has gone so far that they have replaced their digestive tract with their livestock. Infact, half of the body weight of a tube worm is pure microbes, constantly using the hydrogen sulphide to provide the worm with energy.

The tube worm outside its shell showing the sac which slowly fills up with its own excrement.

Pompeii worms are equally as bizarre, but farm their microbes in a more traditional sense (kind of). They harbour the livestock on their back, let them grow and then let other worms feed on them. Vent shrimps do something similar, growing microbes on their body, but instead of letting others harvest them, they wait until they shed their skin, and then eat their old carcass.

A Pompeii worm

Considering these crazy creatures have been farming for millions of years, and we only started 12,000 years ago, maybe they’ve beaten us other things? If we look further maybe they’ve got little cars and record players, and are studying humans in tiny, deep sea laboratories.

The most extreme life on the planet part two: living for 250 million years.

Could a microbe (arrow) live inside a salt crystal for 250million years?

On the turn of the millennia, Russell Vreeland released an incredibly controversial paper, in which he claimed they had found a microbe that had been alive for 250 million years. That’s your life, 30000000 times. More remarkable still, the microbe had survived inside a salt crystal (above).

Originally, it was received with a great deal of caution in the scientific community, as no-one thought life could persist that long, even if in suspended animation, let alone active and growing. After all, how do you get energy to grow for a quarter of a billion years?

Since then, another scientist, Brian Schubert, devised a more robust experiment, suggesting that microbes can live off the glycerol produced by just one cell of green algae for 12.5 million years. The glycerol would provide energy for cell repair whilst preventing dehydration and protein damage.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility then, that life could persist for 250 million years, or even longer. Could Vreeland have been right all along? In a booming scientific field, the race is on to find out.

Extreme life part one: volcanoes:https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/the-most-extreme-life-on-the-planet-part-one-life-in-volcanos/‎(opens in a new tab)

To understand how long 250 million years read: Feel old yet? Understanding just how ancient Earth is: https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/10/feel-old-yet-understanding-just-how-ancient-earth-is/‎(opens in a new tab)

The most extreme life on the planet. Part one: life in volcanos.

Yellowstone National Park, with each ring of colour due to a different microorganism.

For all its beauty, Yellowstone National Park is a terrifying place. If it erupted tomorrow, most of America would be drowned in ash, and they wouldn’t see sunlight for weeks. Add extreme pressures, no nutrients and oxygen depletion to the searing heat in volcanic pools and you can understand why we used to think life here was impossible.

However, those amazing dashes of red, green and yellows sweeping across the volcanic pools are not from the rocks but from microbial life which aren’t just tolerating the scorching heat, but need it to survive.

Apart from being a liiitle bit painful, if I jumped in the pool and tried to survive, my cell membranes would crumble, my enzymes and proteins would melt and my DNA simply unravel and fall apart. How is it then, that at 115°C we still find archaea (single celled organisms which are as different from bacteria as we are)?

To survive and grow, these archaea have ultra strong membranes to stop the cell from melting. Weirdly, they then pump salt into their cells, acting as a clamp to hold the protein and DNA structures together, so they don’t fragment. For food the ingenious and complicatedly named Sulfolobus acidocaldarius actually sticks and clings onto sulphur crystals and uses the hydrogen sulphide to gather energy.

Nothing so far has been found above 120°C as it is thought any large molecules will simply fall apart. But, we have been wrong before.

As an aside to why you should care, the first ever life, which has given rise to you, me and everything living almost definitely lived in a deep sea volcano. Furthermore, the enzyme used to replicate DNA and sequence entire genomes was isolated from a bacteria living in a volcano.

If you are interested, I will be writing about various extreme life in the near future, including life in space, other planets, inside ice, rocks and salt and will be asking whether it is possible for an organism to live for 250 million years.

The advent of complex life. Why wait 4 billion years?

An artistic impression of life after the Cambrian explosion

As I explain in a previous post (https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/124), the Earth is extraordinarily old. Yet remarkably, complex life has only been thriving for 10% of its incomprehensibly long 4.54 billion year existence.

When life began, it was confined to simple, single celled organisms in microbial mats, locked in an apparent stasis. Then, at some perplexingly arbitrary point, one cell engulfed another and formed a beneficial relationship that sparked an explosion (named the Cambrian explosion) of intricate life, morphing and evolving for 540 million years before eventually ending with us and everything else living.

For a long time, scientists couldn’t understand why the world had such a long and arduous 4 billion year wait for complex life. Afterall, becoming multicellular and elaborate comes with a major evolutionary advantage: you can become mobile and feed on other organisms.

Some scientists postulate that there must have been some adaptation that was advantageous, and multicellular life kicked off from there. However, this all seemed too random and Dr Erik Sperling explains how scientists now believe complex life was limited by low oxygen levels.

Before the explosion of life, oxygen levels were only a fraction of today’s. Place a modern fish in these conditions and it would quickly die. Oxygen is the most efficient molecule to use in respiration and without it, your maximum energy consumption is massively reduced. In this regard, with such little oxygen, elaborate organisms simply wouldn’t have enough energy to survive.

It should be of little surprise then to learn that at the cambrian explosion, oxygen levels rose to 0.5ml/L, just enough, Sperling suggests, to harbour complex life.

Once complex life started in the Cambrian, it proliferated at an astonishing rate and quickly formed an array of creatures including a spiky slug, a five eyed Opabinia, jellyfish and predators with finger like suction pads and rows of teeth (figure above).