(Car-)Bon Voyage – Small Islands in Big Trouble

The award as the sexiest volcano alive goes to Eyjafjallajökull. As a tongue twister Eyjafjallajökull definitely beat Mount Pinatubo to it. Go ahead, try it yourself: ˈeːɪjaˌfjatl̥aˌjœːkʏtl̥. But as a Volcano, Mount Pinatubo won the race, with its eruption not far from Manila in the summer of 1991, 10,000 times larger than Eyjafjallajökull’s four years ago. Eyjafjallajökull, earns the trophy anyway since it is the world’s first carbon neutral volcano, too. Sounds odd, considering that volcanic eruptions emit millions of tons of carbon. Well, one way for carbon neutrality is a carbon offset – the reduction in emissions of carbon made in order to compensate for an emission made elsewhere, be it a car, a factory or a volcano. But who would pay to offset a volcano? The owner? Officially Eyjafjallajökull belongs to Iceland. Already short on cash the country luckily wasn’t charged for the volcano’s emission. Instead Eyjafjallajökull took care of itself. Its ash plumb grew from the east coast of Canada and the US, to as far west as Siberia and Mongolia, grounding countless commercial airline flights. Thus the planes were kept from emitting CO2 – more or less the same amount as Eyjafjallajökull released: The first carbon-neutral volcanic eruption.


The June 12, 1991 eruption column from Mount Pinatubo taken from Clark Air Base. U.S. Geological Survey Photograph taken by Richard P. Hoblitt. Wikimedia Common


Chilly 100 ppm

But why even talk about carbon neutrality? Let’s see and go on a journey 300 ppm ago. For those who wonder: ppm is short for parts per million, in this case 100 parts of carbon dioxide per one million parts of air. 100 out of 1000.000 doesn’t sound a lot. And it wasn’t. That’s why scientist call the period of the planet 850 million years ago ‘Cryogenian’ or ‘Snowball Earth’, nearly frozen from the poles to the equator.

The problem at hand is the fabulous fusion reactor in the sky, also known as sun, sending us its rays which penetrate the Earth’s surface and escape back to space. Luckily there is a warming blanket around the planet, also known as greenhouse gases, reflecting some of the escaping rays back to the otherwise frosty planet. The most famous of such blankets is carbon dioxide, CO2. But 100 ppm CO2 only make a rather thin blanket leaving the planet freezing with only 4 ºC and 85% ice cover. A true snowball.

Here come our friends in, the sexy volcanoes. Take Mount Pinatubo. On first sight he is a very cool guy, or rather a cooling guy: In addition to CO2 he exhales sulfur dioxide, too. If CO2 is a blanket, sulfur dioxide is a mirror, increasing the global cloud cover so much, that the suns was reflected and the Northern Hemisphere cooled by 0.6°C for 2 years. But if you get to know Pinatubo, Eyjafjallajökull and their buddies, you see that they are hot indeed. Or rather heating. Their enormous CO2 emissions, that would make every smoky coal plant jealous, rendered the Earth’s blanket ever more cosy and thick.

Cosy 230 ppm

Thick and thin blankets came and went throughout the history of the Earth, driven by volcanos among other heating or cooling phenomena. Like a yo-yo, our planet was fluctuating between two dominant climate states: the greenhouse earth and the icehouse or snowball earth. Since nobody wants to live on a snowball, Earth fortunately continued to warm and ended up with a cosy 230 ppm thick CO2 blanket. Under this blanket you could measure pleasant 13.6 º C, 10.000 years ago during the so called Holocene. The ice covers from the last big ice age melt down to 15%, making space for homo sapiens, the modern humans, to spread to all parts of the world and develop civilizations.

Not being sidetracked to stay warm in the cold anymore, Homo sapiens tried to by worthy of its name, and smartly invented lots of stuff like agriculture, and the steam engine. The former helped the hunter and gatherer society of some 15 million people globally to grow to billions, the latter provided the energy for them to move and produce stuff – and more and more CO2 blanket for Earth’s atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Thus, this gloriously smart invention marked the industrial revolution and the dawn of the so called Anthropocene. The Age of humans, who started to compete with the sexy volcanos to have a global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere, now having 290 ppm CO2 and 13.7 ºC.

From 290 to dripping 400 ppm

290 ppm, 13.7 ºC. Cosy enough for people to thrive. This is when we should have stopped. This is when thinks went wrong. How wrong, shows a peep on the ‘Keeling Curve’, famously displaying rising CO₂ levels as a steep, linear curve. A curve that reached the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million one year ago on May 9th 2013. How do 400 ppm feel again? Hard to say, since the last time the atmosphere showed such levels 4.5 millions years ago, humans where not yet around to let us know. What we do know, however is that back then the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert, coral reefs suffered mass die-offs, temperatures were 4 ºC warmer than today and polar temperatures even 10 ºC. What that means for the leftovers from snowball Earth, the polar ice covers, you can easily experience on a hot day if you don’t lick your ice-cream fast enough: It melts. And drips. Not on your fresh white shirt as chocolate ice-cream tends to do, but in the oceans. Their levels were up to 40 meters higher than today.

As 40 meters are hard to imagine, let’s start with 8.2 mm. That’s the annual sea level rise Australia’s National Tide Facility has measured on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea. The 0.6 square kilometers island with a maximum elevation of 1.5 meters 2,600 people call their home. Or called, to be precise. Coupled with climate change’s tendency towards more severe weather patterns, the island is predicted to be completely submerged next year. Not wanting to wait till they had to swim away, 5 years ago in May 2009 the entire community of Carteret was forced to leave their home for good, becoming the first official climate change refugees.

Sun Come Up von shootingpeople – Embedded from www.dailymotion.com

Reggae, Mambo, Reggaeton

And they won’t be the last. Just remember the recent catastrophic climate events, such as the ‘Dust Bowl’ like North American drought 2012–14, costing $35 billion in the Midwest alone, or typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, killing thousands. Such auspices are felt by so called Small Island Developing States (SIDS) first – and not by coincidence. Their small size and isolation makes them vulnerable to environmental disasters and climate change, while the 32 SIDS of the Caribbean, the Pacific, Africa, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea contribute little to climate change themselves. Their combined population of 63.2 million people lives in an intimate relationship with nature and the oceans. Fish contributes at least half of total animal protein intake in some small islands and Pacific Tuna fisheries alone more than 50% of their export. Coral reefs provide an estimated $ 375 billion per year in goods and services to the world. Also on land, small islands are rich in biological diversity and home to many endemic species, found nowhere else on Earth. The Seychelles, Comoros and Mascarene islands in the Indian Ocean for instance hold numerous critically endangered bird species, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Thus, Small Islands make a contribution to global biodiversity that is out of proportion to their land area. But they are not only biodiversity hot spots. Reggae, Mambo, Reggaeton, Bob Marley, Tito Puente or Rihanna all come from Small Islands, making them cultural hotspots, with 28 World Heritage Sites.

400 ppm: Leave or Change

But in a 400ppm world these hotspots are at peril: Coral reefs are slowly bleaching in warming water to finally die off. Of the 724 recorded animal extinctions in the last 400 years, half were of island species, and at least 90% of the bird species that have become extinct in that period were island-dwellers. And also human island-dwellers like the people of Carteret have to leave.

Leave or change. And for the necessary change, the small size of Small Islands can actually be a blessing.  Many SIDS, including the Maldives, Tuvalu and several Caribbean island states, are working to achieve climate neutrality. Unlike our carbon neutral friend Eyjafjallajökull these states want to get there, using renewable energy or leading the way in ocean conservation efforts. Also some of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world are being established in the Pacific, supported by initiatives such as the Micronesia Challenge, the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, the Coral Triangle Initiative and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. In Southeast Asia the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity aims to protect Island Biodiversity, assisted by GIZ, the German Development Cooperation. In this spirit the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) announced ‘Island Biodiversity’ to be the theme of the International Day for Biodiversity (IDB) on May 22, 2014, coinciding with the designation by the United Nations of 2014 as the ‘International Year of Small Island Developing States.’

These efforts show that SIDS are ideal locations for pilot projects, which can then be rolled out in other countries on a larger scale. There is hope that they can be the change they want to see in the world, as President Mohamed Nasheed, his cabinet and colorful fish made clear. You heard right, they were surrounded by reef fish, when they famously met underwater in October 2009, to highlight the threat of global warming to the Maledives.

Embedded from Youtube

Tropical 1000 or Save 350 ppm?

These threats will increase as CO₂ levels keep rising. And they are rising at an unprecedented speed: Naturally an increase of only 10 ppm would need at least 1,000 years. But the world’s scientists agree in the latest emissions scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that we could reach 1000ppm already by the end of the century. Such levels were last seen 100 Million years ago during the ‘Cretaceous Warmth’ with average temperatures of 22 ºC. All of the Earth’s glaciers were melt, tropical plants and reptiles were found close to the Earth’s poles and one third of today’s land areas were under water, including the center of the United States. Let’s rather go back to 350ppm, which are considered save for people and the environment as we know it, including Small Island. We should learn from them, or from Eyjafjallajökull, how to finally become carbon neutral.

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A journey through Earth’s history Embedded from www.abc.net.au


First Published  17 May 2014 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror