Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future: Book Review

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021), Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction writing about human’s attempt to essentially “change nature.” Humans caused the current global warming; now various groups are trying to reverse it. That’s more or less the type of thing Kolbert is covering: “This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems” (p. 170). Kolbert describes these people as “techo-optimists,” but she considered them more “techo-fatalists.” Not the typical rationale for a book. This is an unusual review, because it covers topics MVG doesn’t blog about, but it crosses over to some that I do. I’ll focus mainly on those.

Down the River. Chapter 1. This covers to Sanitary and Ship Canal, meant to channel the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan to a tributary (Des Plaines River) that eventually feeds into the Mississippi. Because Lake Michigan is the source for drinking water in Chicago, pouring all the waste into it was not a swell idea. Solution: spend lots of money to send it into another river. So much for the hydrology of the Midwest. The major point is this is just one episode of the by-products of the Anthropocene, the age of man: “atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication [basically, runoff into lakes killing animals]—these are just some of the by-products of our species’ success” (p. 9). The current problem attempting to be solved is to make the canal impassable for fish, specifically invasive fish like the Asian carp. Electric barriers were used, beginning in 2002. Not an effective solution, but no cost-effective alternative is in sight.

Chapter 2: On to New Orleans and surrounding parts of Louisiana around the Mississippi River. Guess what. The river moves the land. Rising water levels, hurricanes and so on make much of the area untenable. Solution: have the Army Corps of Engineers repair the damage. They can kind of do this temporarily at a high cost—no doubt the cumulative costs are greater than the value of the land and, long-term, won’t work. The region: “was sinking into oblivion” (p. 40). Giant floods happened every few decades long before global warming. They fixed it then, so why change? “The Louisiana delta is now often referred to by hydrologists as a ‘coupled human and natural system … a CHANS” (p. 53)—Kolbert calls that a “nomenclatural hairball.”

Into the Wild. Chapter 1. Between Death Valley and the Mohave Dessert is a cavern with warm, clear water (Devils Hole) inhabited by Devils Hole pupfish. Never heard of them? Me neither. They are found no where else in the world and their presence is a mystery. The National Park Service is dedicated to protect them. A landowner was pumping water nearby which was also draining the cavern, for example. Some 26 species are found nearby at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge that are found nowhere else and need protection.

Kolbert covers additional factors about how humans have destroyed habitats and relationships between human and animals; e.g., synanthropes are animals well suited to be around humans; the bad ones are “misanthropic synanthropes.” Many more species have declined or become extinct. Human attempts at correction results in “conservation-reliant” species like the pupfish.

Chapter 2. Warming, acidic ocean water has been destroying coral reefs. This chapter centers on scientist Ruth Gates as part of a team to research rebuilding the Great Barrier Reef, mainly by breeding hardier corals (“assisted evolution”)—“a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural” (p. 80). Reefs are home to millions of species (like lots of tiny crabs and shrimp); the extent of the diversity is called Darwin’s paradox. Consequently, it’s about more than just about the corals. The loss is overwhelming and restoration likely miniscule.

Chapter 3. Genetic engineering: first bacterium produced in 1973; mouse, 1974; tobacco, 1983; tomato, 1994. It is now much easier with CRISPR (“clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”), a bunch of techniques. Jennifer Doudna was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work in this area. Cane toads are a non-indigenous invasive species in Australia. Its toxins kill animals that eat it. CRISPR was used to detoxify the toads. Maybe that would work. Destroying mosquitoes is also a possibility. “Driver genes” can turn on/off various genetic processes. A “suppression drive” can defeat natural selection, by wiping out a population. “In a world of synthetic gene drives, the border between the human and the natural, between the laboratory and the wild, already deeply blurred, all but dissolves. In such a world, not only do people determine the conditions under which evolution is taking place, people can—again, in principle—determine the outcome” (p. 113).

Up in the Air. Chapter 1. New companies will scrub carbon emissions from the air (for a high price). One is in Iceland, where energy from geothermal heat is captured, dissolved in water and injected underground. Because about 40 billion tons of CO2 are emitted annually, scrubbing emissions are miniscule. The Paris Agreement’s goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, meaning dropping emission to almost zero within a decade. One problem is CO2 stays in the air. Dropping emissions to zero means keeping the level at about the current 417 parts per million. That emission stop would mean freezing weather in Texas can be expected to repeat, plus all the other problems. Reducing emission just means warming would just occur less quickly. CO2 can be reduced, say by planting a trillion trees.

Chapter 2. The Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815 killed virtually everyone on the island and was catastrophic worldwide, sending sulfur dioxide around the world—which turned into sulfuric acid. Weather turned gray and cold, causing harvests to fail. People can send chemicals into the atmosphere, given the specialty stratospheric geoengineering. One thought is calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone. This would block much of the sun’s rays and lower temperatures. It would be quick, expensive (but cheap relative to alternatives), have to continue as the calcium carbonate would fall to earth, plus unexpected consequences. It would turn the sky white—hence the title of the book. There are shock effects at the immediate difference in temperature. This would do nothing to reduce the level of CO2. Not a lot of enthusiasm for it, but it could avoid catastrophe.

Chapter 3. Greenland. It turns out that the US military had a secret 1950s project in Greenland in the massive glazier, essentially installing mobile missiles. That didn’t work out well, but some research was done with ice cores. These weren’t really used by the military, but Danish scientists continued this and analyzed the ice cores in detail. Each layer represented annual tree-like rings and gases were trapped inside; these can be analyzed in detail. The levels of trapped air can tell the average temperature of the planet (corroborated by other ice cores and further evidence like ocean sediments). The cores go back over a hundred-thousand years.

The cores also have evidence of such things as the Tambora volcanic ash, ancient Roman lead pollution, and Mongolian dust. Geophysicist Willi Dansgaard began analysis in the 1960s. It turns out the earth had a massive ice age that lasted from 110,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago; known as the Wisconsin Ice Age in the US. That explains much about the start of farming and rise of civilization. It also turned out that temperatures were extraordinarily erratic during that 100,000 years, fluctuating as much as 14 degrees F in a few decades (roughly the difference in temperature between New York and Houston)—called Dansgaard-Oeschger events. There were 25 of these D-O events during the Wisconsin.

Perhaps the most amazing was the analysis of the last 10,000 years. After a giant run-up in temperature of 15 degrees F, temperatures remained relatively constant; that is, a stable climate. This has been the entire period of our civilization. Thank you, Mother Nature. “The perfect conditions for agriculture. If you look at it, it’s amazing. Civilizations in Persia, in China and in India start at the same time” (p. 168). Back to current global warning: “The current Arctic is experiencing rates of warming comparable to abrupt changes, or D-O events, recorded in Greenland ice cores” (p. 169).

[The ice cores show such things as the Minoan warming, Roman warming, and the Medieval warming, followed by a little ice age. In theory, we can review historical events and incorporate this new information.]