Monday, July 04, 2005

Disgust, wonder and dread

It was heart-wrenching, on a brief trip to the Murcian coast this weekend, to visit a few hundred metres of shore which is still undeveloped and is preserved as a tiny nature reserve. The beauty of the dunes - rich in plant and birdlife even in the great heat and drought - was breathtaking. The ugliness of the surrounding development - mile upon mile of concrete monstrosity and consumption - is made all the worse.

A respite from the hideousness was in the world of ideas and exploration.

I finished Jeffrey Sachs on poverty, and compared it with the arguments by Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian (here). I soared in reading David Craig's Native Stones (thank you, Candida Clark! - I must return your copy), and marvelled at Karen Schmidt's article in the 2 July edition of New Scientist about the amazing pools - remnants, perhaps of the proto-sea that surrounded Pangea - in Coahuila state in northern Mexico that contain rare "fossil ecosystem" microbial mats similar to those common on Earth half a billion years ago (like many people, I knew about the stromalites of Sharks Bay in Western Australia but not about the algae of Cuatro Cienegas).

The pleasure in knowlege all the greater in turning the page to learn about how the Mocken people on the Surin Islands learn to focus underwater as children.

But then a moment of real fear. A short piece on page 19 of the same magazine reports new modelling of an already quite well understood phenomenon - the atmospheric cooling effect of pollutant particles produced by human activity.

Meinrat Andreae and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry reckon that previous studies have been underestimating the cooling effect. Their model predicts that, as aerosols diminish, temperatures will warm by at least 6 degrees C during the 21st century (Nature, vol 435, p1187).

Any trace of smugness I may have felt in my tiny life for commissioning, editing and publishing Myles Allen's excellent piece (notwithstanding the dubious stuff it's been packaged with) or for the note of appreciation from John Houghton disappeared. I felt dread for a moment.

Of course, the work by Andreae and others will need to be further scrutinised. But even if the probability that their modelling is right turns out to be small, it should give pause.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

6 July post on expresses doubts about the findings in the paper by Andreae et al - see