By Eileen Fay
Luc Jacquet’s documentary film March of the Penguins — due
out this July — follows emperor penguins’ travails
as they struggle
to mate and to raise a family in the harsh
Antarctic. Faced with winds reaching some 90 MPH, the females
march over 70 miles and back to find food. Yet, nature’s
sheer forces aren’t penguins’ only challenge.
Mounting evidence suggests that global warming —
as well as a proposed solution to confront global warming — will
bring even more peril to penguins and other species across
Baby penguin reaches for food
Photo by Guillaume Dargaud
The phenomenon of the greenhouse effect is fairly straightforward. As solar rays heat Earth’s surface, part of the energy forms into infra- red radiation. Much of that is absorbed by molecules of CO2 and water vapor in the atmosphere and reflected back to the surface as heat. The gaseous molecules thus act like a greenhouse’s glass panes by retaining the sun’s warmth. Too much heat retention can make Earth another Venus, steaming and unlivable for virtually all animal species.
While several affluent humans can alter the climate to survive droughts, most other animals cannot. Whereas we can use irrigation pipes, water tank reserves, and even bottled water from supermarkets, wild animals who rely on a flowing river or non-stagnant woodland pond generally have two choices: travel much greater distances to find fresh water, or die. Often the first choice leads to the second, unintentionally, as a consequence of animals’ having to cross more roads to get to water as any of us who have seen a crushed turtle, smashed squirrel or car-struck deer will attest. As for longer and hotter seasons, animals who rely on cool and/or damp climes either must migrate, if they can, or, again, die.
Warmed waters in the two poles already have disrupted polar creatures’ lives. Global warming’s early breakup of sea ice in Antarctica endangers whole generations of emperor penguins who must wait for their hatchlings to fledge. If the ice cracks earlier than it has for centuries, the young birds die. At the other pole, the polar bears, the world’s largest carnivores, may be extinct before Century’s end because the current thinning of Arctic ice melts the very ground on which they rely to travel from dens to hunting grounds (Imagine all streets and grounds leading from your house to grocery stores becoming water).
To respond to this planetwide crisis, one road — an
underground one, so to speak — is being taken. For
the past few years, several governments, including our
own, Canada, and the E. U., are trying to bury excessive
carbon dioxide. The process, hailed by numerous scientists,
involves “capturing” carbon
dioxide from power plants by scrubbing emissions with an
absorbent solvent. The CO2 is then pressured into liquid
form and piped into old oil wells and aquifers.
But the proposed solution is not without its potential problems
Pressure could build due to any number of factors, including tectonic shifts, and no one can predict the result of a sudden, concentrated emission of CO2. Any animal species, including homo sapiens, near such an event, could be seriously harmed, if not ultimately destroyed. Forests and greenlands can only absorb so much carbon dioxide. David Schimel of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado told the Christian Science Monitor that sequestration is clearly a short-term strategy that overlooks more pressing issues such as renewable energy sources.
Storing carbon dioxide beneath oceans also poses problems.
A 2000 Norwegian study showed that carbon dioxide can “migrate” through
storage aquifers. However, the Norwegian Project Manager
Tore Torp believes that leakage is unlikely for several
hundred years. Despite such claims, the Australian School
of Petroleum at Adelaide University has documented Australian
and European sites where leaks, indeed, have occured. Greenpeace
International researchers also note that there’s
almost no way that a leak could not occur and harm marine
life. Deep-sea organisms, for instance, are physiologically
accustomed to stable environments and cannot adapt to changes
such as CO2 coming into their waters.
Then, too, the ocean’s pH level would be affected,
a potentially lethal factor for numerous sea species. And
as Greenpeace campaigner Truls Gulowsen stated,
“The more we store greenhouse gases away, the bigger the potential climate
bomb is and the longer it will take to get rid of the real problem—the burning of fossil fuels.”
University of Rhode Island marine
biologist Brad Seibel said in a Science Daily article (18 Nov. 2003) that we
know enough now about sealife to predict with certainty the effects of an
increase of CO2 in our oceans. Atmospheric CO2 not only has already inhibited
shallow-water shelled mollusks’ ability to form shells but also has
dissolved coral reefs. “CO2 injection would be detrimental to
a great many organisms,” said Seibel. “It would kill everything that can’t swim fast enough to get out of the way, because in concentrated
form it’s highly toxic, even to humans.”
The proposed partial “cure” of storing CO2
may prove harmful to wildlife (not to mention ourselves).
Whether undersea or underground, this practice is highly
questionable, and should be questioned before it becomes
accepted as a substitute for more sensible, far-sighted
climate-preserving measures — and before species
such as penguins lose their breeding grounds and ultimately
their place on the planet.