End the Ice Age 

The current ice age

The planet earth is currently in the middle of an ice age.

At regular intervals polar ice caps expand, causing widespread glaciation and causing widespread devastation to the planet's ecosystems.

This graph illustrates the temperature during the most recent glaciation cycles:


Recent global temperatures (from ice core data here)

One thing is pretty obvious from this data - we are very near the end of the current interglacial period - and a new glacial cycle is imminent - indeed, probably overdue.

Reglaciation would represent an apocalypse for life in the northern hemisphere - humans should be doing everything they possibly can to prevent this from happening.

The current ice age has lasted 30 million years so far. Glaciation currently happens every 100,000 years on a very regular cycle.

This graph illustrates the glaciation cycles:

Ten in the last million years - and they happen with considerable regularly.

The cause of glacial cycles

Until relatively recently the preferred explanation for these cycles was [Milankovitch cycles ]. Milankovitch cycles are periodic variations the Earth's orbit, caused by factors such as precession of the elliptical orbit of the Earth, and changes of its axial tilt. However, this theory suffers from [many problems]. More recently some other theories invoking other astronomical effects have been developed.

One theory is described in the document: Sun's fickle heart may leave us cold.

The associated article is here: Solar resonant diffusion waves as a driver of terrestrial climate change [PDF].

The other theory involves changes to orbital inclination - an effect not understood in Milankovitch's day. This theory was pioneered by Richard Muller and Gordon MacDonald. The theory is summarised on Richard Muller's web site.

Because of the problems with the Milankovitch cycle theory, these other theories may be preferable.

Because of the considerable uncertainty about the causes of glacial cycles, nobody really knows exactly when the current one will come to an end.

The possibility of reglaciation

Whatever the causes of the temperature cycles, we are currently in an interglacial period. However we are still in an ice age. If temperatues begin to drop again, large ice sheets will form. These will increase the Earth's reflectivity and reduce the absorption of solar radiation - creating positive feedback that leads to runaway cooling - and a catastrophic drop in global temperature.

During glacial periods our planet is cold, dry, and inhospitable. Winters are longer and more severe. Few forests can survive but there are plenty of glaciers and deserts. Glaciers scrape up and pulverize vast stretches of land scraping off vegetation and topsoil and completely destroying entire ecosystems. In their wake they leave altered river courses, flattened landscapes, and piles of broken rock.

Overall, an ice age is an abnormal and relatively-rare state of affairs. They are usually temporary and fleeting sicknesses for the planet. Details are here. Ending the ice age - if that is possible - would return the planet to its normal state.

Ending the ice age

It should be obvious that ending the current ice age - and its regular cycles of glaciation - should be a matter of high priority. The current cycle of devastating glaciation must not be permitted to continue - since the cycles destroy a lot of the life on earth - and turn much of the planet into a frozen wasteland.

If humans can successfully heat up the planet - and perhaps totally melt the ice caps - the next cycle of glaciation might conceivably be avoided - and we might successfully end the current ice age.

Here is Freeman Dyson on the problem:

In each hundred-thousand year period, there is an ice-age that lasts about ninety thousand years and a warm interglacial period that lasts about ten thousand years. We are at present in a warm period that began twelve thousand years ago, so the onset of the next ice-age is overdue. If human activities were not disturbing the climate, a new ice-age might already have begun.

Ice age causes

The geological record appears to show that ice ages start when the continents are in positions which block or reduce the flow of warm water from the equator to the poles and thus allow ice sheets to form. If incoming solar radiation diminishes, ice sheets form. These increase the Earth's reflectivity and thus reduce the absorption of solar radiation. This creates positive feedback that leads to runaway cooling.

Currently we have the continent of Antarctica sitting on top of one pole, and the the Arctic Ocean is almost land-locked - so circulation around both poles of the planet is restricted, preventing ice from encountering very much warmer water.

This situation looks unlikely to change any time soon - and it is difficult to imagine us being able to do much to change it. The planet is still in a configuration where it is prone to glaciation.

Action plan

While oceanic circulation is challenging for humans to assist, other effects may be easier to control:

Albedo

To some extent the planet's temperature depends on its albedo. Making the planet darker should successfully raise its temperature.

Currently the easiest way to darken an area of land is to plant trees on it - Vegetation absorbs much light from the sun, and re-radiate it as heat. Forests are more competent at this job than other kinds of vegetation.

Trees heat up the planet by making it darker, so that it absorbs more heat, and by transpiration, where water vapour is created by leaves for cooling purposes during photosynthesis. They temporarily take some carbon out of circulation - but most of it is returned to the atmosphere when their leaves fall in autumn and rot - and when the tree trunk rots it dies. This recycling of organic matter is quite efficient - and typically only a small fraction of the carbon from dead plants winds up buried in accumulating sediments and is eventually subducted.

One place to try developing forests is deserts. The main problem in those regions is lack of water - and water could be provided by irrigation projects - dams, canals and pipes.

Another place is northern wastelands. Trees have the biggest effect on albedo if they turn snow-covered ground into evergreen forests - that shrug off snow and remain dark.

Albedo effects trump greenhouse effects, in a sense: reflected radiation is more likely to carry energy away from the planet than radiation that has been absorbed and re-emitted in all directions and at low wavelengths - and in terms of molecular vibrations - as heat.

Once energy has turned from radiation into jiggling molecules, its chance to escape into space has been lost - and that's what happens when radiation hits plant leaves.

Reflections from - e.g. water droplets - give high frequency, penetrating radiation a second chance to be turned into low frequency non-penetrating infra red radiation and heat by leaves - but the importance of this effect is reduced if the radiation is likely to have hit leaves the first time it hit the surface.

In the more distant future it seems likely that we will develop floating fertiliser delivery systems - and surface-living ocean organisms will become possible. These may be capable of rolling a green carpet over large areas of seawater, if we are prepared to fertilise them. In this way, it may be possible to convert areas of ocean into a farmable surface. This would make the planet absorb more sunlight.

In order to increase the scale of the plant life on the planet, we will also need more essential minerals and nutrients. Phosphorus is an important limiting nutrient for many plants. This can be obtained by mining. More carbon, iron, copper, zinc and magnesium may also be needed - all can be obtained by mining.

Clouds - particularly high clouds - make the planet reflect sunlight back into space. Clouds are a natural planetary thermostat that hinders attempts to increase the planet's temperature: the hotter it gets, the more high clouds form, and the more radiation is sent back into space.

This thermostat doesn't work so well at low temperatures. The cooler it gets, the fewer clouds form, and the less rain there is. If this causes enough plants to die, the planetary albedo suffers, and the earth is then in danger of turning into an icy ball.

Controlling cloud seeding using micro-organisms or small particles seems like a desirable skill - if we can master it.

Greenhouse effect

Another influence on the global temperature is the composition of atmospheric gasses. These have the power to influence what frequencies of light are re-radiated into space, by bouncing them back down to the earth from the atmosphere, in what is known as the greenhouse effect.

By exploiting this effect, we may be able to turn the planet into something more like a greenhouse - warmer and more hospitable to both plant and animal life.

The greenhouse effect results in something analogous to wrapping a warm blanket around the planet. Trapped heat results in the poles heating more than the equator - so that heat is applied to the planet in the areas that are least hospitable to life - and so need it the most.

The insulating effect means that temperature variations over time will become less extreme - meaning that living and non-living systems will have to withstand reduced stress from thermal variations.

A stabilisation of temperatures between the poles and the equator should also lead to a reduced global temperature gradient, and reduced wind levels.

On the other hand there will probably be more evaporation, precipitation - and thus more thunder storms.

More precipitation is basically good. It will help irrigate the world and allow for plant growth - and will help to reduce desertification and forest fires. However, not everyone will enjoy a more stormy planet.

Frozen wastelands

Obviously a warmer planet is highly desirable for other reasons - besides averting the global catastrophe that re-glaciation represents.

Much of the continental land mass is concentrated around the poles.

Russia, Europe, Canada, Greenland and Antarctica would all have their climate vastly improved if they were warmer. These regions contain large areas which represent potential environments for living systems but which are currently largely uninhabited, due to adverse temperature conditions.

Run global warming scenarios backwards in time and you get a global catastrophe - where large, previously habitable areas of the planet are reduced to icy wastelands.

Here are some of the areas that will benefit from global warming:


Russia

Canada

Sahara

Most of the human population of the planet exists around the equatorial belt. Russia and Canada are largely uninhabited because their temperature is too low. Also, Saharan Africa is too dry - and would benefit from additional rainfall.


Population density Source

The equatorial region of the planet is mostly water. Oceans are mostly empty, inhospitable wastelands as far as living system go: nutrients all sink to the bottom - where there is no light - and on the surface there's nothing to eat.

This distribution of land - where the land is concentrated around the poles - is actually what causes ice ages in the first place. Polar land masses prevent warm water from equatorial regions circulating around the frozen areas, and allow ice formed over the winter to persist over the summer - and thus accumulate.

Winter deaths

Cold kills. Here is Freeman Dyson on the topic:

Thereís a lot made out of the people who died in heat waves. And there is no doubt that we have heat waves and people die. What they donít say is actually five times as many people die of cold in winters as die of heat in summer. And it is also true that more of the warming happens in winter than in summer. So, if anything, itís heavily favourable as far as that goes. It certainly saves more lives in winter than it costs in summer.

Freeman Dyson is right about this. Heating the planet up a bit seems likely to save many lives.

Climate stability

Ice age climates are inherently unstable. That is because they are characterised by positive feedback - and are prone to flipping between extreme states. The cause of this positive feedback is the fact that ice and snow are white - and reflect incoming radiation back into space. This cools the planet, which in turn causes more ice and snow to form.

When the planet is not locked in an ice age, its climate is more stable. That is because such eras are characterised by negative feedback. The cause of this negative feedback is the fact that any increases in temperature cause water to evaporate, which forms white clouds - which reflect incoming radiation back into space, which cools the planet down again.

Greening the deserts

Saharan Africa is much too dry. Deserts are largely an ice-age phenomenon - for example, the Sahara desert formed during the current ice age. The main problem is lack of precipitation. A bigger greenhouse effect will heal the planet's deserts, and transform them into vibrant living ecosystems.

This is already underway. The phenomenon is known as Global greening.

Timescale

The warming process will inevitably be slow. It is estimated that it will take about a thousand years for the Greenland ice sheet to melt. Antarctic will probably take much longer. It is about -37 degrees C down at the pole, and the ice is an average of 2 kilometres thick. Because of the inevitable slow rate of progress, there will be plenty of time for living organisms to adapt to the changes.

Objections

For some reason, certain factions seem to have got hold of the idea that warming the planet up is bad.

They point to flooding, coral bleaching, forest fires and other problems as indications that change is undesirable.

Warming the planet might have some side effects, it is true - but at least it helps avoid the devastating global catastrophe that re-glaciation would represent.

It seems to me that many of these folk are luddites - who see the issue as a good excuse to place limits on industrialisation and growth.

You might think environmental groups would be in favour of improving the habitability of the planet by getting rid of the parts of it that are uninhabitable frozen wastelands. You might think that they might regard CO2 as plant food - and would embrace plans to pump it into the atmosphere. However, they seem to be more interested in polar bears, bush fires and floods.

Progress

This attitude raises the question of whether humanity is too stupid to see the problem - and will fail to take the required action to prevent reglaciation.

I am optimistic about our chances. We probably have enough time to execute this plan, and - despite the protests of objectors - progress is now clearly being made.

There is an evolutionary pressure to occupy vacant ecosystems. Now that life has become more adept at mastering technology, it is in a good postition to succeed. It seems likely that living systems will use their expertise to expand out of the equatorial band and colonise the rest of the planet, increasing the planetary albedo in the process, and tipping the planet away from its current frozen state.

The likely outcome of all this is that [ocean reclamation] will take place - and most of the planet's surface will become covered with solar energy collectors - resulting in a significantly warmer planet, with fewer icy wastelands.

Success will require increased efforts in these areas:

  • Mining - to supply the required nutrients for all the new living organisms;
  • Irrigation - and other resource distribution schemes;

Accelerate Global Warming

So far, progress has been rather slow.

Slow progress leaves the planet close to the edge - and means that the climate is vulnerable to developing into another glacial era.

For example, it is widely theorised that human efforts are already responsible for preventing another glacial period from starting. If humans are all that's keeping the planet from freezing, then catastrophic events - such as meteorite impacts or global warfare - may send the planet back into another glacial cycle - probably the last thing survivors will need.

Because of these risks - and because the benefits of increased global temperatures are so great - an action plan is proposed to melt the ice caps - and more rapidly increase the safety and habitability of the planet.

Having said that, some fear that the current changes are taking place too rapidly - and think we should slow progress in this area down, rather than speeding it up. I am inclined to think that the case for this is weak. Slowing down leaves the planet frozen for longer, and extends the duration of the period in which the climate is changing.

Questions

What about the idea that global warming could slow the north atlantic current, cooling northern Europe, thereby precipitating a new ice age? This idea is hogwash - it never made any scientific sense in the first place, and has now been widely discredited. For details, see here.

What about deserts? Aren't they as bad as ice sheets? Not really - deserts can be dealt with by irrigation projects. There is no planetary water shortage - but there are water distribution problems. We need to continue to work on water distribution. Though a warmer planet will cause faster evaporation of surface water, it will also help dramatically in this area - by increasing precipitation. Warming will eliminate> the world's deserts. Deserts are an ice age phenomenon.

Humans are not built to withstand high temperatures - what about heatstroke? Most temperature increases will be far from the equator. Currently, regions near the equator have some of the largest population densities. Consider India, for example. Humans thrive in the conditions currently there. Even if equatorial regions become less hospitable, this seems likely to be compensated for by all the other gains elsewhere.

What about costal flooding? If we successfully melt the ice caps, sea levels will rise. However, this will inevitably happen gradually - over many thousands of years. There will be lots of time to get out of the way. Currently sea levels are estimated to be rising at about 2mm per year: this is an extremely slow rate of progress. My page on [Ocean reclamation] indicates what will eventually happen to much of the ocean surface.

What about the rainforests and the coral reefs? At the moment, these are confined to equatorial regions. If the planet warms up a bit, the areas which are capable of supporting this type of ecosystem will expand substantially northwards and southwards.

What about the idea that we will turn the Earth into a planet like Venus? We are too far away from the sun for that to happen for a few billion years yet.

A message to environmental groups

There are some real environmental issues out there which need addressing. The world badly needs proper irrigation. Heavy metals and other pollutants degrade the environment.

I do not recommend wasting your energies trying to cool the planet down. That puts you on the side of those who want to drag the planet back into the dark ages.

I do not recommend demonizing carbon either. Carbon dioxide is plant fuel. Plants thrive in CO2-rich atmospheres, grow faster, and absorb more CO2. Some horticulturists pump CO2 into greenhouses to encourage plant growth. Carbon is essential to all living things. Carbon dioxide is good. Carbon sequestration would be an idiotic move.

The hysteria about global warming serves primarily to drain energy, funds and time from more important issues. Global warming is a bad cause. As such, it is mostly a destructive force. As with other types of religous zealotry, the supporters are typically well meaning, but misguided.

Isn't the ice age already over?

No. The most recent glacial period has ended - but that's not usually the end of the ice age. Laymen sometimes refer to the glacial periods themselves as "ice ages" - but that is not how real scientists use the term.

Whether humanity's efforts to heat the planet will prove sufficient to end the current ice age - despite the adverse continental positions - remains to be seen.

One thing we can be pretty sure of: the costs of failing to end the ice age will dwarf any side effects of over-zealousness in attempting to prevent it.

In summary

Warming up the planet will represent a substantial engineering challenge. It may demand skills beyond our existing technological abilities. However, its importance is very great.

Unless humans intervene on a dramatic scale and successfully end the current ice age, there is a large probability that the planet will shortly be plunged into yet another period of devastating glaciation, greatly reducing the planet's habitable zone, and destroying many living things.

Once the planet enters another glaciation cycle, positive feedback effects mean that it will may be very difficult to extricate it. In order to avoid this fate - and to make the planet more habitable - we should work on heating up the planet now.

Links

Global warming is good for you
Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry About Global Warming, by Thomas Gale Moore
Dyson on Global warming
Harrison H. Schmitt and William Happer: In Defense of Carbon Dioxide
The Greening of Planet Earth (1992)
The Greening of Planet Earth Continues (1998)
GLOBAL WARMING: A Boon to Humans and Other Animals - from 1995
Global warming 'is good and is not our fault'
Global Warming a Boon for Greenland's Farmers
Global Warming: A Chilling Perspective
Love Global Warming - opinion piece
IceAgeNow - "Not by Fire but by Ice"
Climate Police
Climate myths: It's too cold where I live - warming will be great
Climate myths: Higher CO2 levels will boost plant growth and food production
Climate myths: It's been far warmer in the past, what's the big deal?
Fossil-fuel hangover may block ice ages
Global Warming and Nature's Thermostat - an article on clouds
Gore's climate film has scientific errors - judge
Gore and UN share Nobel peace prize

Trees

Do trees share blame for global warming?
A climate model suggests that chopping down the Earth's trees would help fight global warming
How Trees Might Not Be Green in Carbon Offsetting Debate
More Trees, Less Global Warming, Right? - Not Exactly

Wikipedia articles

Ice age
Timeline of glaciation
Five Myr Climate Change
Milankovitch cycles
Global warming
Effects of global warming
Mitigation of global warming
Adaptation to global warming
Carbon capture and storage
Scientific opinion on climate change
Global cooling - Concern in the mid-twentieth century

CO2 advocacy

CO2 Science - Is carbon dioxide a harmful air pollutant, or is it an amazingly effective aerial fertilizer?
CO2 is green - Claims that CO2 is a pollutant are a myth and are absolutely false
Greening benefits
Greening theory
Carbon Dioxide - The Miracle of Food

Books

Climate of fear: why we shouldn't worry about global warming
SuperFreakonomics
Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years
Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media
Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don't Want You to Know
The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming

Gulf stream scare

The Source of Europe's Mild Climate
Gulf Stream Will Not Shut Down, Science Magazines Admit
No new ice age for western Europe
Gulf Stream safe if wind blows and Earth turns

The causes of ice ages - orbital inclination theories

A New Theory of Glacial Cycles
Spectrum of 100-kyr glacial cycle: Orbital inclination, not eccentricity - [PDF]
Glacial Cycles and Astronomical Forcing - 1997 summary
A brief introduction to ice age theories
The ice ages and the Earth's climate
Get Out Your Mittens

The causes of ice ages - solar cycle theories

Sun's fickle heart may leave us cold.
Solar resonant diffusion waves as a driver of terrestrial climate change [PDF].

The causes of ice ages - Milankovitch cycles

Milankovitch cycles
Long Debate Ended Over Cause, Demise Of Ice Ages? Research Into Earth's Wobble
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