Dr. Jokull and Mr. Hide

Our unpredictable and unpronounceable friend from the North, Ms. Eyja F. Jokull (I think she must be a lady due to her explosive and unpredictable nature) continues to live up to her mercurial reputation, shutting down airports at random in northern Europe, occasionally dipping down to Iberia, taking a brief holiday in Morocco, and threatening to become transatlantic. The weather people, airlines, politicians, and everybody in general breathe a sigh of relief whenever they’re told she plans to go east for a spell. All quiet on the eastern front.

She’s a naughty girl though, playful and persistent. Already travel agencies are predicting potential summer mayhem if she chooses to stamp her foot through July and August. As if cancellations of Greek holidays weren’t enough. Things in Greece are so tight now they’ve probably stopped breaking crockery.

Volcanic ash has other interesting side effects: for instance, if the volcanic cloud is large enough it provides an effective barrier to solar radiation and cools the planet. A while ago I made some comments on climate change models, this is definitely a factor to add to any model. Economists would call it an externality.

In the oceans grow little algae that look like pillboxes, which are very beautiful when seen under the microscope. They can in fact look a little like Murano beads, because the little pillboxes are made of silica, the raw material of glass. Silica mainly comes into the sea from land, and over the last fifty years there is more nitrogen and phosphorus coming in due to agriculture, urban wastes, and other sources, so less of these pillbox algae exist, replaced by other groups that don’t need silica. Some of these can cause red tides, beach foam, and other nasty things. Even death, by poisoning the seafood that we eat.

But this year Ms. Jokull dumped a whole lot of silica-rich ash on the North Atlantic, just in time for the spring bloom. It’ll be interesting to see how that affects the whole ecosystem, with shifts in species, changes in fisheries, and other consequences. The enhanced production of algae increases the drawdown of carbon dioxide (CO2) and cools the atmosphere. All good stuff.

However, humans are beavering away trying to sort out the CO2 emissions in other ways, now that we have a carbon economy, credits being traded, and so much more. One of the tools at our disposal is something called Carbon Capture and Storage – I don’t want to turn this post into acronym hell, but let’s call it CCS. Big oil is big on CCS, using a simple idea. CO2 is pumped into the earth, into the layers where the oil extraction takes place. The carbon dioxide goes in as a supercritical fluid – this is a strange beastie, a kind of chemical Minotaur, half liquid half gas. It can move through solids like a gas, and dissolve stuff in it like a liquid. Sneaky supercritical stuff.

So… carbon capture, CCS, pump CO2 into those deep layers, it helps to push out the oil and replace it with a layer of CO2 which ideally will stay there for eternity. Big oil can sell carbon credits and sell oil. Double whammy. The idea caught on like nuts at a chimp convention and there are now a number of designated zones in Europe and the US where CCS takes place.

There are couple of small issues, one of which is leaks. In land storage areas, or in coastal areas close to towns, a substantial CO2 leak could be devastating. When you fly long haul in coach, especially if you’re stuck at the back of the bus, what gives you the headache is elevated CO2, not low oxygen. If you want to hold your breath longer in a bet with your friends, secretly hyperventilate a little first (but don’t get dizzy and keel over). It doesn’t store more oxygen, it lowers your CO2 level. So, too much CO2, you suffocate. Nice. We don’t know an awful lot about leaks of supercritical CO2 from these CCS deposits. Maybe we should.

Iceland and the North Atlantic

There may be other issues. One of the places where this deep injection of supercritical CO2 has been taking place is er… Iceland. Yup, an area which is geologically pretty active. If you click on this science article link, you’ll find the injection is actually in southwest Iceland, to be precise. Exactly where Ms. Eyjafjallajokull has been doing her thing. So she’s a naughty girl, but maybe  it’s not all her fault. Society’s also to blame. Dr. Jokull. Mr. Hide.

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