21 May 2010: Science, sea temperatures and synthetic life

The journal Nature has published results of a comprehensive study of marine temperature data gathered over the last two decades. This is a fully peer-reviewed journal, so should (but will not) end some of the arguments about whether there is any global warming. The study reports that there is now incontrovertible evidence that the top few hundred meters of the sea are warming.

Scientists have taken measurements of the top 700m of the ocean. They conclude that this upper layer of ocean has warmed significantly between 1993 and 2008, and at a slightly faster rate than earlier estimates used in the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Ocean temperatures are a more reliable signal of climate change than are land-based measurements, which fluctuate more due to weather. Since 2003, there has been a slight levelling off of the rise in temperatures, which the scientists said that they cannot yet explain. However, the oceans are still warming, just not as fast as before.

Warmer sea water is very worrying, not only because it is a clear signal, but also for its practical effects:

“Rising ocean temperatures are important because the sea is a huge “sink” for global heat and carbon dioxide – its capacity to store heat is about 1,000 times greater than the atmosphere. Warmer water is less able to absorb the extra carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels, and as seawater warms it also expands, causing a rise in sea levels.”

(See The Independent: Climate change: Man-made climate change blamed for ‘significant’ rise in ocean temperature.)

The fact that the oceans are warming up does not, of course, prove that this is due to human activity or the burning of fossil fuels. The climate changed before humans existed. We can now expect those who oppose any change in the fossil fuel status quo to argue that warming may have been shown to be happening, but is only due to sun spots or some other natural variation.

The other big science story this week is that Craig Venter and his team have, for the first time ever, created synthetic life. This raises enormous ethical issues. Should human beings ‘play god’? It also involves major climate and environmental issues. Venter says that synthetic life could produce new oil and clean up pollution. It could also, though he does not say this, wipe out existing forms of life. The most sensible response I have read on this is from Friends of the Earth USA. They do not go into the ethical debate, which I think is sensible of them, and do not demand an end to all science in this area. Instead, they demand proper oversight:

We must ensure that strong regulations are in place to protect the environment and human health from this potentially dangerous new technology. We are far from actually understanding how genes affect the development of life, but it could be difficult to prevent Venter’s synthetic biology experiments from eventually entering the natural ecosystem and acting as invasive species, choking out natural living things.

(See Friends of the Earth: Venter Takes Genetic Engineering to ‘Extreme New Level’.)

Synthetic life is too important to be left to the free market.


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