Putting the life back in science fiction

Beavering away at geoengineering

Two down, now three (four?) EIRs to go.  Oy.  And one of the ones I commented on planned, perhaps, to install a meter-wide water line in the same busy intersection as another group is currently going to install a 240 KW electrical transmission line.  Shocking, possibly explosive.  I can only hope that the engineers already knew of the juxtaposition, even if the environmental consultants did not.

So, I want to talk about something else: peat.  And beavers.  And some really silly ideas about geoengineering.

This was inspired by a “opinion” piece in the Washington Times on DEcember 8 (“The mud that could save the world“).  It’s actually about peatlands in the Congo, which turns out to be unexpectedly extensive and deep, and thus stores a lot of carbon.  It’s also about a proposal by the French Development Agency to log these forests, because “‘well-managed exploitation,’ rather than informal logging by locals, ‘is the guarantee for forest conservation.'”  It’s too bad such virtual bovine excreta doesn’t sequester carbon.  If it did, I’d read more EIRs, just to see the tonnes of carbon they’d metaphorically pull out of the atmosphere to fertilize, well, something-or-other.  But I digress.*

Yes, there’s a simple point here: peatlands, when they dry out, burn (emitting CO2), outgas (emitting methane), or oxidize (emitting who knows what), all of which produces buttloads of greenhouse gas.  Which we don’t want, of course.  We’re already worried about permafrosted peatlands in Siberia thawing and belching enough methane to cause an end-Permian level mass extinction (there’s disagreement that it would be this bad, of course).  Similarly, we’re concerned about the destruction of tropical peatlands in Indonesia (Greenpeace listicle on why this is important), which really should be a head’s up about why clearcutting peatlands in the Congo is stupid.

Actually, that Greenpeace listicle is a nice introduction to the reasons why we want peatlands, and that’s where my naive little thoughts about geoengineering come from.  Why not wetlands and peatlands as targets for geoengineering?  Actually, there’s a really, really simple form of geoengineering involving peatlands: leave them alone.  It’s probably cheaper to figure out ways to get people out of the business of burning and destroying peatlands, than it is, to, say, armor up New York and London to keep them from flooding.  The problem is that money spent to protect peatlands might be perceived by some as, just perhaps, reparations for all the Congo experienced on the receiving end of both colonialism and the Cold WarThis appears true also for Indonesia.   So instead of protecting peatlands and thereby trying to fix multiple societal problems, keep carbon sequestered, and repair some of the damage from colonialism, we’ve got proposals for “managed exploitation.”  But I digress again, grumpily.

Along with passive preservation of peatlands, I wonder if it makes sense to try to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere by actively creating peatlands.   This may sound daft, but our Irish ancestors, accidentally, over the course of about 2,000 years, caused rather a lot of peatlands  (technically, blanket bogs) to grow inadvertently through clearcutting upland forests (reference).  If there are ways to both speed up paludification (the process of bog creation on dry lands) AND a way to keep from losing it to a rapidly warming climate, we might conceivably have a reasonable form of geoengineering.  Moreover, it’s conceivably a way to use lands (such as all those wetlands in northern Canada) that would otherwise have to be converted into farmlands (somehow) to feed a human population rapidly migrating poleward.

As for beavers, well, these cute rodents are natural ecosystem engineers that are just great at slowing water flows, thereby enhancing groundwater recharge, and thereby also forming wetlands, and thereby sequester carbon, apparently over 20% of the carbon sequestered in a landscape, at least where beavers are actively maintaining a dam.  Spreading beavers around North America, especially reintroducing them into watersheds where 19th Century fur trapping eliminated them, is another simple form of geoengineering.  If that seems too simplistic and bunny-hugging, we could do worse than to emulate beavers on the large scale, especially in the upper tributaries of our major rivers.  The idea is simply to slow down water flow, recharge groundwater supplies, keep streams from downcutting channels, and so on and so forth.  Beavers do it better though, because they actually like to live and work in such conditions, where you have to pay humans to do such muddy work.

In light of the recent fires in southern California, which are burning  through dry riparian vegetation along dry streambeds, there’s even more to be said about keeping streams wet where possible.  We’ve gotten too greedy about dewatering streams to water our lawns and gardens.  Fires in dry streambeds can help remind us that sometimes, water needs to be where it normally flows too.  Diverting it all can have unexpected and dangerous consequences.

Ultimately, I think there’s something to be said for actively creating wetlands, keeping them wet so they don’t blow off greenhouse gases, and especially, keeping the wetlands we already have.  Perhaps it’s less sexy than launching miniature parasols into space, a matter of civil engineering rather than mechanical engineering, but that shouldn’t stop us from beavering away.

*Actually, the Berggruen Institute, which helped produce the Washington Post article, is involved in an, erm, intellectually fascinating development proposal up in LA.  They’re busily buying up ridgeline a bit west of where the Skirball fire burned.  They want to set up some sort of compound for the Institute, and they’ve even tried to privatize parklands for it.  The fascinating thing about it is that part of the site they want to build on is an old landfill.  Said landfill used to (still?) emits enough methane that golfers were warned not to smoke and most especially not to drop lit cigarettes on the green for fear of starting methane-fueled ground fires.  Apparently the Institute was not aware of these issues when they came up with their scheme, and I’m not sure whether to hope it causes issues for them or not.  The way that they’ve been trying to warp the project approval process is something I’d more expect out of a far-right corporation, not a good governance group.  But I digress again.


3 Comments so far
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Read the Wikipedia entry re: Berggruen Institute – says they’re into philosophy. No mention of science. Philosophical discussions are okay for coming up with ideas and questions, but (IMO) useless for testing ideas/concepts. Article does not mention Institute members or funding agencies apart from founder ‘homeless-billionaire’ Nicolas Berggruen … kinda odd for an outfit that’s into transparency.

Comment by SFreader

According to the Wikipedia article (which I just now glanced at), “The Berggruen Institute (formerly Berggruen Institute on Governance) is an independent, non-partisan think tank which develops ideas to shape political and social institutions.” That’s not exactly philosophy, and their support of devolution of government in California from Sacramento to individual cities is something that would be immensely beneficial to a billionaire like Nicolas Berggruen. It’s all very, erm, interesting.

Comment by Heteromeles

Well, ‘philosophy’, ‘ideas’, etc. is repeated quite a bit in the stuff I read. I might have chased a couple of links on this. Anyways, my take-away was: basically, some unidentified person has this neato idea and is gonna sell it to whoever and will do this without any data to back up why this is such a neato idea. ‘Independent think-tank’ suggests people like Rand Corp which does not evoke warm and fuzzy.

‘Ideas’ are good – ‘tested ideas’ is better.

Comment by SFreader

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