I’m pleased to welcome Bru Pearce as a contributor to BoomerWarrior. Bru is the co-founder of Envisionation, a climate change messaging and solutions website based in the UK. (Rolly Montpellier ~ Editor, BoomerWarrior).

httpwww.oklahomascienceteachersassociation.orgp=5887biodiv-big
Image Credit: Oklahoma Science Teachers Association

There is a lot of concern about loss of biodiversity but very little is said about the loss of total biomass (the sum of all living things) which is another extremely dangerous anthropogenic impact on our planet, but one that may also point the way to a solution to our problems.

A huge amount of evidence exists to show that the overall biomass on land has been massively reduced over the past 3,000 years and increasingly evidence is coming to light in respect of the loss of biomass in the oceans. Loss of biomass on land may well be as great as 50%, loss of biomass in the seas could be as high as 80%. If this is correct one of the consequences of man’s actions over the past 3,000 years is that the overall annual living carbon cycle has been massively reduced by perhaps as much as 70% of what it would have been over the preceding 2 million years through around 20 ice age cycles, and the part of the paleo record that is relevant to evolved life, including us, on earth now.

I would argue that with a much greater carbon cycle the biosphere’s resilience was far greater than it is now, in respect of maintaining and/or recovering atmospheric balance through major shocks, be they geological, biological, asteroid strikes or as a result of the sudden emergence of an industrial society.

Because of this, referencing the past paleo record as a way of predicting future climate change cannot be entirely relied upon and we therefore need to recognise that there is a significant risk that climate change impacts will occur much faster and with greater intensity than presently anticipated by our paleo based modelling.  This reduced resilience is beginning to become apparent in the earth system sensitivity (the amount of global warming in relation to a doubling of atmospheric CO2e). So that even David Wasdell’s sensitivity figure of 7.8°C to doubling of atmospheric CO2 based on paleo records, may be exceeded due to our additional anthropogenic actions!

We Need a Global Environmental Restoration Project, boomer warriorEvidence for the loss of biomass on land is all around us; consider the amount of land converted to agricultural use that was formerly forested and further consider that the soils associated with agricultural use that have been ploughed, contain far less organic carbon than mature forest soils. Into this equation one should also add the known areas of expanding deserts and growing urbanisation.

Evidence of the loss of biomass in the oceans is less obvious, researched or understood. What is clear though if one reads the reports of the early explorers, is that in the coastal environments around the world human action has led to a huge reduction in nearly all marine life, fish, kelp forests, reefs, mangroves, seagrass meadows, reed beds, shell fish and marine mammals. We have data that shows a near total collapse of the ocean fish stocks likely to occur by 2042 and most alarmingly records show that a reduction in ocean phytoplankton of 40 % has occurred over just the past 50 years and phytoplankton is responsible for half the planet’s oxygen production!

If we look back 350 years to a time when the world’s whale population had not been reduced by at least 97% and consider that then there would been a much more active nutrient cycle across most of the world oceans, then it follows that phytoplankton numbers would have been massively higher, providing vastly more available food for zooplankton and the tropic pyramid above them. Back then the entire oceans would have been teeming with life instead of having large areas as virtual lifeless desert.

Presently the total amount of carbon in living biomass is thought to be between 750 and 1,500 gigatons. I am speculating therefore that 3,000 years ago it was very much greater, at least twice the size – 1,500 to 3,000 gigatons – and possibly even more.

This suggests that with good husbandry of our planet through a Global Environmental Restoration program we should be able to grow and maintain in seasonal and hemispherical balance at least 750 gigatons of additional organic carbon.

Now our principal problems are:

  • That we have added in excess of 532 gigatons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to 250 gigatons of carbon) to the atmosphere about half of which has dissolved into the oceans making them more acidic which is disastrous for ocean life.
  • That over the years since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and particularly over the past 30 to 40 years when atmospheric CO2 levels have been very much higher not only has the atmosphere warmed but huge amounts of radiant heat have been able to penetrate deep into the Earth’s oceans and this store of heat needs to be radiated back out into space. The amount and the depth of the penetration of solar radiation is greatly increased due to the reduction in phytoplankton on the ocean surfaces which has the effect of reducing ocean albedo. This means that the oceans react differently now as compared to previous warming cycles in the paleo record.

To counter the warming, proposals are being put forward to preserve and expand Arctic sea ice, generate cloud shields, and ocean brightening, to reflect away solar radiation. Although these may be necessary to buy us a little more time, in the end the only real solution will be an overall reduction in greenhouse gases to a level a little below that of the 280 ppm experienced throughout most of the Holocene. This will require the removal of all of the 532 gigatons of CO2 because as atmospheric concentrations are reduced CO2 will off gas out of the ocean back to the atmosphere.

The lower CO2 ppm number is proposed because the excess ocean heat has to be radiated away, once this had occurred CO2 levels could then be allowed to rise again to ensure proper temperature balance of the biosphere and as necessary to correct against the natural trend to dip towards the next ice age.

Usually when we speak of atmospheric CO2 reduction we are considering permanent sequestration of atmospheric carbon and we look to the natural annual sink that takes place due to biological and geochemical activity as carbon transfers out of the living carbon cycle. It’s only in the case of reforestation that we really look to atmospheric carbon reduction due to increased biomass.

However where I see a real solution to our problems is in a return to a much greater amount of living carbon, drawing down say 325 gigatons of atmospheric carbon into increased biomass on land and in the oceans, which I believe could be done in a matter of 10 to 15 years by growing forests, restoring soils and most importantly fertilising the oceans in such a way that the correct amount of nutrients are permanently available long enough for the re-establishment of the original ocean ecosystems.

Simply put, human activity has reduced the amount of living things on earth by more than 50%. We know therefore that the Earth can support double the amount of life that is on it now. If we go flat out to promote the regeneration of life and then maintain twice the amount of living things that are on the planet now, we will quickly have drawn down enough atmospheric CO2 to restore the climate and de-acidify the oceans.

This will double the size of the existing natural carbon cycle which is presently somewhere in the region of 600 gigatons per year, currently only about 10 to 15 gigatons is permanently sequestered out of the living carbon cycle. With a much greater amount of biomass on Earth the carbon cycle will increase and so too will the amount of permanently sequestered carbon out of the living carbon cycle.

The big one-off atmospheric CO2 reduction comes from the growth in biomass in the active live carbon and that can happen relatively quickly.

Importantly the numbers show that there is opportunity for this over-correction which will allow us some hydrocarbon burning leeway, in order to make the transition and to maintain essential economic services. This is immensely important because as well as having added significant greenhouse gases, we also have atmospheric pollutants which shield us from solar radiation and if we fail to maintain these before atmospheric carbon levels are rebalanced, then we risk almost immediate temperature spikes particularly overland which could have devastating impacts on global food production. The economic collapse which would come about if we stop flying and reduced our hydrocarbon energy generation too fast, must be avoided at all costs, as it would immediately kick off a series of extremely severe positive feedbacks. Just consider the impact of millions of starving people in bankrupt economies, cutting down every last tree for fuel and eating anything left alive.

So we need a plan to commence biomass regrowth across the globe immediately and for a graduated reduction in hydrocarbon burning until we reach a sustainable level. In practice this means a rapid implementation of all renewable energy types and a complete retooling of our energy infrastructure. Hydrocarbon use needs to be prioritised so that it is only used were it cannot yet easily be replaced by non-hydrocarbon energy systems.

Climate change is everybody’s problem, all 7.3 billion of us, I argue that if we all get engaged either physically or by paying for it, in growing biomass, then the Earth has already provided us with a mechanism that has the power and capacity to solve the problem. This is not a geoengineering proposal; it’s a call for a Global Environmental Restoration Project and intelligent management of our only home.
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Bru PearceBru Pearce is the co-founder of Envisionation, a climate change communications and messaging site. In the Envisionation Blog, Bru shares his thoughts, ideas, interviews and responses to what is going on in the climate world. He believes “that the speed and impact of climate change will be far greater than is generally understood – everything in relation to climate change is exponential, it happens faster and becomes more severe every year.” You can follow Bru on his Blog and contact him at EnvisionationFacebook and Linkedin.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Yeah yeah, pretty good I’d say. One thing to point out where Mr. Pearce says,

    “Climate change is everybody’s problem, all 7.3 billion of us, and I argue that if we all get engaged either physically or by paying for it”

    I would have to say that we surely will not be paying for it. Our economies are not setup for that kind of massive project, economies relying on market dynamics anyway. Free enterprise relies on growth, lots of it or it dies, that’s the math and it can not be changed because of how the money supply works, more money has to come back than has been spent or banks go broke, though most economist seem to have a hard time admitting that, they think they can tweak free enterprise, you can’t, it works one way. and we’ve proven that by the tweaking we’ve done already which could bring us catastrophe even before climate change does.

    The only choice we have to do a project like this is that citizens voluntarily change their lives and become a part of the project itself. We ALL will need to grow things, mainly food. We will all need to catch water and store it in a way that won’t allow it to evaporate like it does now in our reservoirs. We will need to compost every freaking thing that is compost able. In other words, we will All have to go to work for the climate. And that means life for many generations we will not be the same again. Until we get that through our heads, we don’t stand a chance to do much about this deal. Our lives must change and change dramatically, and it won’t be fun, it’ll be miserable. Accept it.

      • Hi Danny,

        My view: free-market economies are not entirely free they operate within a set of ground rules, such as the international rules that we have with regards to polluting the seas. Unfortunately we do not yet have international laws against polluting the atmosphere and it becomes increasingly obvious that these in one form or another are going to have to be implemented. Personally I favour Polly Higgins’s approach based on implementation of a fifth law against peace to be added to the Rome statute. That being the crime of ecocide. Google Polly Higgins and eradicating ecocide. This could eventually make the various carbon credit structures obsolete. But however it’s done we have to face the fact that the party is over and it’s time to clean up and restore our atmosphere. Some of us will be able to take direct action by growing things, restoring soils, making carbon char, restoring ocean nutrient balances, using wind turbines to grow new icebergs and stimulating cloud development to increase reflectivity. Those that can’t take direct action will end up paying those that do. Once the ground rules are in place a free-market economy can function efficiently to make sure it is delivered.

        As to growth, well it applies to all sorts of things, some growth is sustainable there are no limits to it, such as the advancement of knowledge. Growth based on limited resources is of course totally unsustainable. http://www.envisionation.co.uk/index.php/blogs/blog-contributors/133-earth-economics

        • Bru – I am aware of Polly Higgins movement to implement an “Ecocide” crime similar to that of “Genocide” currently on the statutory law books. I have signed several petitions in that regard.
          http://eradicatingecocide.com/polly/
          In 2010, Polly hoped to bring “Ecocide” into european law (Treaty of Rome), but so few people know about the Ecocide movement, it is really an uphill battle for her. However, I believe this is one of the most important law changes we can bring about to stop destruction of the environment and depletion of our biosphere. Polly has fought for 12 years as a lawyer to promote the legal rights of “the earth,” and she could really use more support than she currently has. She posts occasionally on twitter – @pollyhiggins

  2. Interesting article. I wonder how many people realise just how much of our biodiversity is lost (forever?). I was watching a historical program and back in the 17th century, the East coast of Canada saw fish stocks teaming in such abundance, that no area of empty sea could be found! The fish could literally be scooped out everywhere. Now, our seas are largely empty! It is a tragedy! I enjoyed Bru Pearce’s article.

        • Hi Bru,
          I believe the program was perhaps an episode of “Coast.” I couldn’t find it to give to you, but the information they used is also available on Wikipedia

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cod_fisheries

          “Native Canadian fishing[edit]
          The Beothuk (called Skraelings by the Vikings) were the native people of Newfoundland, and survived on a diet of fish. With British and French coastal settlements, the Beothuk were forced inland, and coupled with the European propensity of murdering them on sight, the lack of their normal food source gradually decreased the Beothuk. By the 19th century, the tribe no longer existed.[40]

          15th and 16th century[edit]
          After his voyage in 1497, John Cabot’s crew reported that

          “the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets,”[41]

          and around 1600 English fishing captains still reported cod shoals

          “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”[42]”

          Hope this is helpful.

          • Thanks Colette,

            That’s a very useful link. I have read the stories of the cod off Newfoundland being so thick you could scoop them out the water with a basket. It is my view that the sailing and fishing technology available from 1500 to 1700 could no way have made a dent in a marine biomass of that size. Sailing ships simply can’t toe trawls of that size and there are limits to hand managed long lines not to mention the materials of the time. However early fishing technologies were particularly efficient by comparison when it comes to catching whales and other large marine mammals. Whale blubber powered the early industrialisation of Europe and the East coast of America and we very efficiently reduced whale stocks down to a fraction of what they once been. I strongly suspect this had a massive disruptive effect on the marine nutrient cycle causing a very big reduction in phytoplankton and a corresponding reduction in the food web that relies upon them. The biomass of cod is pretty much limited by the available food in the marine ecosystem. Thus it was not over fishing of cod but our insatiable appetite for whale blubber that did the damage.

            I’m having interesting time tracking down the reports of the early explorers and their descriptions of the amount of marine life that they encountered.

            I am particularly enjoying Capt Cook’s log http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8106?msg=welcome_stranger

            Should you come across similar things please send them to me.

            With thanks

            best wishes

            Bru Pearce

          • Hi Bru,
            Have noted your link to Captain Cook’s Log and will read it when I have a bit more time.

            Incidentally, I know about the connection of whales and the rest of the marine ecosystem. Without whales, the rest disappears. Why? well it’s whale poo!

            http://www.livescience.com/8788-whale-poo-ocean-miracle-grow.html

            This is an old article, but there are many on the connection of whale poo deposits in shallow water. Rich in nutrients, it feeds the phytoplankton at the bottom of the marine food chain. Without it, the whole chain falls apart.

            It is sad that Iceland, Norway, Japan, Faroe Islands, South Korea, Russia, still conduct whaling. And even Alaskan, Canadian, Greenland, St Vincent and Grenadine Islands have a native allocation for traditional hunting. Japan especially, wants to open up again to bigger hunts – they are already notorious for switching to dolphin hunting in Taiji and other coves where many hundreds are driven into the coves for barbaric slaughter from October to April each year. The same thing happens in the Faroes. Most of this is hidden from world view, just like the practice of shark finning which has reduced shark populations by 90%. These animals at the top of the marine chain are in real trouble – we can only expect the rest to disappear.

            Add to this terrible decimation, a few more degrees of warming, and there will be little left in the sea to eat or even observe.

        • PS – had a quick look at your website: http://www.envisionation.co.uk/index.php
          Very interesting.

          Also, I had a look at this article
          http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/07/climate-change-global-warming-refugee-crisis

          Interesting to note how climate change can affect war and refugee migration even now… The Syrian refugees (and Afghanistan’s who join them) are overwhelming Europe with the massive numbers arriving – many without documentation, passports or any sort of registration. The recent erection of razor-wired border fences shows just how frightening this has become for many European countries. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and other Eastern Block countries are reluctant to take any of them. Germany cannot take them all, and countries like Greece and Turkey just don’t have the financial capability or infrastructure to care for them properly. The whole thing has become a black-market for extortion to get the migrants to “rich countries.”

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