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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Limburger logic
December 17, 2012 - 4:48pm

I may be the only person in Backboro who likes Limburger.  (Maybe not, of course.  It's unlikely that the local grocery stocks it just for me, but for sure there's aren't very many of us around here.)  Smelly.  Very smelly.  But a lovely flavor, and you get used to the aroma after a couple of decades.

Anyway, it appears that there's another link between Limburg and objectionable emissions.  Only, in this case, the correlation is negative.  Bacteria have been identified in peaty, nitrate-rich soil around Limburg -- bacteria that neutralize methane.  Since methane emissions from peat -- particularly, from previously frozen peat in northern climes -- are a big deal, so is any process that shows potential to neutralize them.  (For those who don't commonly work with (I almost said "live and breathe", but that would be a bit much, wouldn't it?) these things, methane is a greenhouse gas that's more than 20 times as effective at warming the earth as carbon dioxide is.)

How good is this news?  It's hard to say.  As I mentioned, the peat around Limburg is particularly nitrate-rich (probably from agricultural run-off).  Arctic and sub-arctic peat may not have enough nitrates for the bacteria to survive, or to do its thing.  Also, the difference in temperature may inhibit bacterial action -- who knows?

So for now, this discovery drives home two messages. 

First, it demonstrates just how difficult the precise modeling of future climate really is.  Major factors like the greenhouse effect (and not just the greenhouse effect -- many other factors, large and small) we understand well enough to put reasonable projections around.  But there are lots (lots!) of other factors that will affect future climate in minor ways, and if we wait until we understand all of them it will no longer be necessary or useful to make projections.  By that point, we'll know precisely how much trouble we're in (and it's very likely to be quite a lot).

Second, this new knowledge serves as an example of the kind of finding that can generate unjustified optimism (a close relative to the "irrational exuberance" that preceded the financial crash from which we're all still recovering).  Is it possible that this bacterium -- in conjunction with billions of its friends and relations -- might help save us from ourselves?  Certainly, it's mathematically possible.  Add that together with the mathematically possible effects of a whole lot of other factors we can't yet reliably estimate, and maybe climatic conditions a generation from now will look pretty much as they did a generation back.  Still, that's hardly the way to bet.

I look at it this way:  It's mathematically possible for me to engage in a high-speed car chase going the wrong way on a super-highway at rush hour in a major metropolitan area, and to survive the experience.  Maybe -- just maybe -- all the other drivers on the road will be attentive enough, and have quick enough reflexes and consistent enough behavior patterns, that they'll all successfully avoid crashing into me (or me into them). 

But the fact that a large number of Hollywood movie-goers seem willing to accept such a scenario at face value doesn't affect my chances of survival in the real world.

Unfortunately, the seeming willingness of a large number of the same people to accept a scenario in which Earth's bacteria rise up to save human civilization as we know it will have similarly little effect. 


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