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2008/03/18

The canary in the coal mine

Glacier. Image: Glaciers Online/Jurg Alean
Some glaciers in Europe have suffered significant loss

I was reading a news item on my favourite news website (BBC) today, headed "Glaciers suffer record shrinkage", where it said "There are many canaries emerging in the climate change coal mine. The glaciers are perhaps among those making the most noise and it is absolutely essential that everyone sits up and takes notice". Apparently, the average rate of glacial shrinkage has risen from 30 centimetres p.a. between 1980 and 1999, to 1.5 metres p.a. in 2006. That's a whopping acceleration/multiplier of 500%. Some of the biggest losses recorded have occurred in the Alps and Pyrenees mountain ranges in Europe.

That reminded me of the "canary" I saw when I took the family for a visit to the power hydro-electric generating station at Tokaanu (part of the New Zealand Tongariro power scheme), at the south end of Lake Taupo, about 15 years ago. We had been on Mt Ruapehu at Whakapapa, staying in the Christiania ski club lodge, and had gone out for the day to avoid being cooped up in the lodge in bad weather whilst the ski-lifts were closed.

The power company operators gave us tourists a tour of the plant and showed us a superb educational video which included descriptions of the feats of hydro engineering of the mainly British hydro engineers that designed and built the power generating system (Tokaanu was commissioned in 1973). Through an ingenious and huge system of underground interconnecting pipes ("feeders" and "races"), the hydro part of the Tongariro scheme effectively uses the same water at 3 different points, harnessing its energy as it continues to run downhill. The most significant point for me was that, for a continuous supply of energy, the hydro power depended on the consistent and steady storage and release of water at source - i.e., from the glaciers on Mt Ruapehu.

That was the "canary". The power company had also monitored the rate of loss of glacier size, and from that data tried to estimate the future viability of the system, but the estimates assumed a slow decline rather than the rather more abrupt decline that current environmental data and environmentalists are suggesting. I remember thinking at the time that the planners must really have their heads screwed on, looking forwards like this, and I wondered what sort of future alternatives they would have mapped out for when/if the Ruapehu glaciers had melted to the state where they no longer provided a viable store of water for release to feed the hydro system. Maybe one alternative was the South Island Clyde dam - a "Think Big" project in the 1980s - but I don't know. I have to say that I do not recall any statements from government or Transpower suggesting that they have a plan to secure the national grid power supplies and protect them from an inevitable global warming, but I do think that hydrothermal power is an option that has begun to be exploited to a limited extent.

The idea of carrying caged canaries into coal mines was that the bird's highly sensitive metabolism detected methane and carbon monoxide gas traces that signaled potential explosions, poisoned air or both. Being far more sensitive to poisonous gas than humans, the bird would start to exhibit warning behaviours (e.g., excessive swallowing, swaying on its perch) and would eventually pass out before the gas level got too high for humans, giving the miners sufficient warning to get themselves out alive. If you were a miner, you watched the canary very, very closely, and ignored it at your peril.

In the UK in 1986, coalmine canaries were officially made redundant and replaced by technology. So far, the coalminer has not been made redundant. The thing is, we are stuck inside this particular environmental coalmine that we have engineered about ourselves, and we cannot escape to a safer environment. It therefore seems to me that, if human society is unable to generate sane and responsible survival responses from observing its environmental canaries, then that society is at risk of being headed for premature oblivion. The depressing thing, to me, is that I and my family are part of that society and we inevitably must share in its - at this rate, gloomy - fate.

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