We Moved Earth’s Axis, We’re No. 1 and Other Climate Change Briefs

Ice melt causing the poles to zip about like geo-rabbits, what the surface of Mars can’t do and mystery microbes

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Mexico’s Ayoloco glacier, at the Iztaccihuatl volcano, April 21, 2021
Mexico’s emblematic Ayoloco glacier, at the Iztaccihuatl volcano, in a photo taken last week. Rapidly melting glaciers are changing the distribution of water on the planet.Credit: Courtesy of Maria Paula Martinez/Mexico’s National Autonomous University
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Ice melt has moved the Earth’s axis of rotation

The Earth’s axis of rotation isn’t static and never was but what drives the poles’ motion had been poorly understood. We did know that the distribution of water and ice on the planet mattered, but how much? Well, in the 1990s, the North Pole suddenly began to hare eastward rapidly, for reasons unclear.

Now Shanshan Deng of the Chinese Academy of Science and colleagues suggest in Geophysical Research Letters that it was caused by rapidly melting glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, the Southern Andes, Antarctica, the Caucasus and the Middle East changing the distribution of water on the planet. Enough melted to cause the direction of polar roaming to turn – and accelerate to a whopping 3.28 millimeters a year, which was 17 times its average speed between 1981 and 1995. Note, however, that the scientists suspect that unsustainable groundwater pumping is partly responsible for the water redistribution at the planetary level too.

Why does the water redistribution matter? Think of the planet as spinning like a top; now imagine climate change redistributing its weight. It would start to lean and wobble as its rotational axis changes, explains Vincent Humphrey of the University of Zurich. By the way, after the 1990s, the poles continued to move, as they do; other data fingers movement by the molten core as a key culprit responsible for the North Pole moving away from Canada and toward Russia this century.

Wait, the Middle East has glaciers?

Depends who you ask … There is a teeny tiny glacier, or at least packed snow, atop Damavand volcano, the highest peak in the Middle East. It’s around 65 kilometers from Tehran and last erupted as far as we know about 7,300 years ago. Elsewhere in Iran’s Alburz Mountains we find another small one; two more in the Zagros mountain range; and one in the Sabalan mountains. Back in 2014 the Guardian stressed how melt from these wee icecaps is crucial to the peoples in this arid area, and how costly their loss to climate change would be.

A tiny glacier, or at least packed snow, atop Damavand volcano, the highest peak in the Middle East, located around 65 kilometers from Tehran.Credit: M samadi

Conditions on Mars are good for bacteria

…Which changes nothing: Conditions on Mars are not good for us. We may send people to the Red Planet one day but no, we can’t colonize Mars. That is the climate change context: We can’t escape our folly in destroying our own petri dish by moving there. Anyway, a new paper in Astrobiology by researchers from Brown University examined the atomic composition of meteorites from Mars.

If one adds water, the Martian rock theoretically can provide a source for chemical energy, of the type tapped by the legions of microbes living deep below Earth’s surface, entirely bereft of sunlight and feeding only on chemical reactions produced when rocks come into contact with water. So, they conclude, much of Mars’ surface could be habitable. By extremophiles. Great.

An illustration depicting NASA's Ingenuity robotic helicopter during a recent test flight, as part of the space agency's Mars 2020 mission. Credit: NASA/AFP

Veni, vidi, vici: A moment on ecological intactness

Nature reserves. Without getting into the quality of protection there, one snag with defining what an “ecologically intact” region might be, is there’s no definition for it, an article in SciTech Daily explains. If we thought that roughly a quarter of the planet remained unmolested by humankind by criteria of roads-passing-through and similar human touches, now if we define it as biodiversity, the untouched areas amount to 2 percent of the terrestrial surface. A lot is lost cause but Dr. Andrew Plumptre from the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat in Cambridge, the author of the paper, estimates that 20 percent could be restored to faunal intactness through reintroductions of only a few species.

So what areas are ecologically intact, biodiversity-wise? “Areas identified as functionally intact included east Siberia and northern Canada for boreal and tundra biomes, parts of the Amazon and Congo basin tropical forests, and the Sahara Desert.” Upside? These are not spots likely to be devastated by a sudden rush of tourism.

Mysterious microbes to the rescue?

Meanwhile, American and Chinese scientists have identified extremophile archaea that live in hot springs and geothermal systems all around the world, and uniquely, break down plant matter without producing and emitting methane.

The existence of this primitive anaerobic phylum, Brockarchaeota, was deduced not by finding them – that’s so 20th century – but by reconstructing their genomes from genetic fragments collected in hot springs in China and hydrothermal sediments in the Gulf of California. Science had known something about them: “When we looked in public genetic databases, we saw that they had been collected all around the world but described as ‘uncultured microorganisms,’” explains lead author Valerie De Anda. They still remain uncultured. Their role in the global anaerobic carbon cycle is completely unknown and could be major, given that they’re everywhere and until now archaea that ate plants were thought to all produce methane and these don’t. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

This could be intriguing.

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