Burning questions remain about Dublin’s ‘Waste-To-Energy’ incinerator


Dublin Waste to Energy [Pic Credit Blathnaid Mc Polin]

The Covanta Dublin Waste to Energy plant is now operating at full capacity, but questions remain around the safety and potential public health impact of the plant.

I visited the plant on 15th March 2018 to put these questions to its General Manager, John Daly, and to take a close up look at the technology that is required to incinerate 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste.

Listen below to the piece broadcast on Drivetime on 26th March 2018.



TCD scientists devise tool to predict impact of warming on parasitic disease.

Lyme Disease

TCD scientists have devised a method to predict the impact of global warming on parasitic diseases such as Lyme disease, which is caused by a tick. [Source: http://www.Macleans.ca]

The prediction of which infectious diseases will worsen and which will diminish with rising temperatures is now possible thanks to scientists at TCD.

The method can, the scientists say, identify which infectious diseases will have worsened or diminished effects with rising temperatures.

“Rising temperatures due to global warming can alter the proliferation and severity of infectious diseases, and this has broad implications for conservation and food security,” said Professor Pepin Luijckx, who led the study with William C Campbell, lecturer in parasite biology at TCD and graduate student Devin Kirk.

“It is therefore really important that we understand and identify the diseases that will become more harmful with rising temperatures, with a view to mitigating their impacts,” Prof Luijckx added.

Scientists have found it difficult to pinpoint the the precise  impact  rising temperature will have on the host and pathogen, and on disease, because temperature can affect these in different ways.

For example, while host immune function and pathogen infectivity may be higher as temperatures rise, pathogen longevity may be lower.   Additionally, to predict the severity of disease, scientists need data that doesn’t always exist on the temperature sensitivity of all the processes involved, especially for newly emergent diseases.


The solution, the TCD scientists say, is that the so-called metabolic theory of ecology can be used to predict how various biological processes respond to temperature.    This theory is based on the idea that each process is controlled by enzymes, and that the activity and temperature dependence of these enzymes can be described using simple equations.

Even with limited data, the theory thus allows for the prediction of the temperature dependence of host and pathogen processes.

In their study, the scientists used the water flea and its pathogen and measured how processes such as host mortality, aging, parasite growth and damage done to the host changed over a wide temperature range. They used these measurements to determine the thermal dependencies of each of these processes using metabolic theory.

The results showed that the different processes had unique relationships with temperature. For example, while damage inflicted to the host per pathogen appeared to be independent of temperature, both host mortality and pathogen growth rate were strongly dependent — but in opposite ways.

“What is exciting is that these results demonstrate that linking and integrating metabolic theory within a mathematical model of host-pathogen interactions is effective in describing how and why disease interactions change with global warming,” Prof Luijckx said.

“Due to its simplicity and generality, the method we have developed could be widely applied to understand the likely impact of global warming on a variety of diseases, including diseases affecting aquaculture, such as salmonid diseases like Pancreas disease, pathogens of bee pollinators, such as Nosema, and growth of vector-borne and tick-borne diseases in their invertebrate hosts, such as malaria and Lyme disease,” the Prof concluded.

My weekly science news round up on East Coast FM: weight loss; mindfulness; ancient Egypt; super volcano; Chinese space station

The latest science news from around the world 

Broadcast on The Morning Show on East Coast FM (20/10/2017)

A group of scientists say there is no evidence for many of the benefits claimed for mindfulness (Source: http://www.positivepsychologyprogram.com)


Every two lbs overweight knocks nine weeks off your life

Source: Telegraph, UK

  • Study of 600,000 people study link between longevity and lifestyle
  • Smoke pack of cigs per day, die seven years earlier on average
  • Edinburgh University researchers did this as a so-called big data project, which means analysing and cross referencing vast amounts of data.
  • If you are two stone overweight, then it will take, on average, six months off your life.
  • Data came from Europe, North America and Australia, via the UK Biobank.
  • But… also found that life is extended by one year for every year a person stays in education after school, on average. That’s a massive effect.
  • Life expectancy continuing to increase, and in the UK it stands now at 79.5 years for a man, on average, and 83.1 for a woman.
  • But, Public Health England found this year that the average ‘healthy’ average life expectancy – the number of years a person can live largely free of illness – is less than the age people get the state pension

Little proof mindfulness meditation works, say scientists

Source: Scientific American

  • Scientists in the US now asking where is the proof that mindfulness works? Question asked by a group of 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
  • Lots of studies have been done on mindfulness and it has been reported to relieve stress, pain and even slow ageing.
  • But, these researchers are critical of these studies because they say they are poorly designed, they have inconsistent definitions are what mindfulness actually is, and often do not use a control group to rule out the placebo effect.
  • Only some 9 per cent of studies on mindfulness has been tested in clinical trials, one report said, and meta analysis of mindfulness research not impressive.
  • In 2014, a review of 47 meditation trials, involving over 3,500 people found that no evidence mindfulness enhanced enhanced attention, curtailed substance abuse, helped sleep or controlled weight.
  • Mindfulness meditation and training is now a huge industry, so there are vested interests promoting its effectiveness, the scientists state.
  • Less than 25 per cent of trials on mindfulness monitor potential negative effects and that is causing worry among scientists too.
  • The 2014 review did find some benefits, modest benefits, for anxiety, depression and pain from the use of mindfulness.
  • A reputable trial this year found that mindfulness attention training reduced self perceived stress, but not the stress hormone cortisol. What does it mean?
  • Another trial found that mindfulness increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex around of the brain, which is associated with complex behaviour, decision making and shaping the personality.

Ancient Egypt brought down by volcanoes and climate change

Source: Independent UK

  • Volcanic eruptions caused riots and rebellions against Ptolemaic rule and Cleopatra was one of those leaders.
  • Ancient Egypt relied on monsoon weather to provide water irrigate the nile delta region, as does 70 per cent of the globe still today
  • Researchers at TCD and Yale looked at the historical records and used climate modelling methods (working backwards) to do this study.
  • Summer floods helped crops to grow, fed population and were the fundamental basis for the wealth of ancient Egypt at this time 350BC to 30 BC or so.

Yellowstone Super Volcano could erupt inside decades causing global volcanic winter

Source: Independent UK

  • The last time it erupted was 630,000 years ago and created the Yellowstone caldera, which is 40 miles wide.
  • The volcano is so big that if it erupted, it could choke the Earth’s entire atmosphere with ash, blocking out a lot of sunlight, causing temperatures to dip, and this would continue for years.
  • That last massive eruption, scientists at Arizona State have found, occurred following two influxes of fresh magma into the magma chamber.
  • The temperatures increased around the volcano as this happened over decades, not centuries, as previously thought.
  • This shows that the the yellowstone volcano could become dangerous inside decades, at any point, when temperatures start to rise.
  • Large parts of the USA would be covered in dangerous ash if it erupted, the Earth would dramatically cool, sunlight would struggle to get through and the impact would last more than a decade. Life would get very tough, esp in US.

Chinese space station will crash to Earth in months

Source: Guardian UK

  • The 8.5 tonne orbiting laboratory (two large male bull elephants) is now out of control, and in a death spiral, and the ISS will follow perhaps as earth as 2020.
  • The Tiangong-1, or heavenly palace, lab was launched in 2011 as part of China’s push to become a space superpower.
  • Visited by taikonauts including China’s first female taikonaut Liu Yang in 2012.
  • Much of the craft will burn up in the atmosphere, but scientists in the west estimate that pieces as large as 100kg (16 stone man) will crash to Earth anytime between now and April 2018.
  • Impossible to predict when and where the pieces will fall scientists say.
  • No-one has been hurt by space debris falling to Earth, but in 1979 NASA’s 77-tonne Skylab space station crashed to the ground with some large pieces landing outside Perth.


Volcanic eruptions in ancient Egypt triggered revolts, TCD research indicates

Volcanic eruptions may have disrupted the stability and prosperity of of ancient Egypt by triggering revolts (Source: heritagedaily.com

Major revolts in ancient Egypt may have been triggered by volcanic eruptions that prevented the Nile from its usual summer flooding.

That’s according to research conducted by TCD and Yale University historians who examined evidence from ancient Egyptian writings during the Ptolemaic period, as well polar ice-core records and climate modelling.

The researchers believe that this research, published in Nature Communications can improve understanding of how societies respond to climate shocks.

Egypt’s Ptolemaic era, which ran from 305 BC to 30 BC is famed for its prosperity, cultural and material achievement, rulers such as Cleopatra, and was home to the great city of Alexandria.

The success of Egypt during this glorious period of its history was directly linked with the river Nile, and its annual summer flooding, which provided the water, and irrigation necessary to support the region’s thriving agriculture.

It is very rare in science and history to have such strong and detailed evidence documenting how past societies responded to sudden hydroclimatic shocks,” said Dr Francis Ludlow, from the TCD School of Histories and Humanities, who jointly led the study.

“To fully understand how sudden environmental pressures could act to destabilise society, the historical context is key, and in this case included pressures from high levels of taxation and ethnic tensions that likely coalesced to trigger revolt at times of agricultural failures from insufficient floodwaters,” Dr Ludlow added.

The researchers were able to show that large volcanic eruptions disrupted the African summer monsoon and reduced Nile river flow. This helped to trigger economic and political instability, in particular to trigger revolts against Ptolemaic rule of Egypt and limiting that state’s ability to wage warfare.

The authors also provided evidence of further social stresses through the increased sales of family-held land following eruptions. This has been documented in the surviving records, and likely to have occurred because families were unable to meet state taxation demands after failed harvests.

The study, according to the authors, also has significant implications regarding how societies will respond to future climate change, and more specifically about how the nations that depend upon the summer flood waters of Nile might manage under the impact from the next big volcanic eruption.


Huge crack in Antarctic Larsen C Ice Shelf signals collapse


Broadcast on Drivetime RTE Radio 1 on 8th May 2017

Crack in Larsen C

A large, widening crack has appeared in the Larsen B Ice Shelf [Credit: British Antarctic Survey]

If a 180 km crack was appearing across continental Europe there may be a sense of public panic. Well, that’s just what is happening across another continent, in Antarctica, where scientists early this year spotted a crack in a lump of floating ice called the Larsen C ice shelf, which is about twice the size of Wales.

A secondary crack, or fork, has now appeared in Larsen C, leaving just 20km of solid ice left preventing it from total collapse. Scientists believe that nothing can now stop the collapse of Larsen C, and when it does break up it will be even more dramatic than the break up of the nearby Larsen B ice shelf in 2002.


In February, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey reported that they had found a large crack, about 180 km – about the distance between Dublin and Galway – in an ice shelf called the Larsen C Ice Shelf.

This crack has been monitored by scientists over the past few months and they have found that it is widening. More recently, a fork has split away from the main crack, and this secondary crack is heading straight for the open ocean.

The continent of Antarctica is famous, among scientists at least, for having several large shelves of ice around its coastline. These ice shelves are huge, floating platforms of ice, which form i the ocean and are fed ice from the continental landmass.

The Larsen C ice shelf is part of the larger Larsen ice shelf, which is one of the largest in Antarctica and has been breaking up now for a number of decades. The Larsen B, ice shelf, which was about the size of Rhode Island, some people may recall, broke away in 2002.

The area is closely watched by scientists interested in climate change because the western side of Antarctica is the fastest warming area of the world, and an indicate of how fast climate change is happening.


The ice shelves of western Antarctica were stable for 10,000 years, and it is only in the last 30 years that they have started to break up.

Scientists are very concerned, as with just 20km of ice for the breakaway fork to travel to get to the sea, the breakup of Larsen C appears to be close. When Larsen C breaks away, it will produce the largest iceberg in history, which will be cleaved off the Larsen ice shelf to float off into the southern ocean around Antarctica.

The fact that ice shelves float in the ocean means they are susceptible to changes in ocean temperature. Scientists know that the temperature of the oceans is heating up, and this heat is being transferred, they believe, to the bottom of ice shelves, which can make the ice unstable, fracture and break.

There have been cycles of ice shelves forming, and breaking away throughout Earth’s history, with repeated cycles of warming and cooling. At one point, for example, during the last ice age a large ice sheet existed off the west coast of Ireland.

What is worrying scientists is that the current fracture of Larsen C is mimicking the processes that led to the breakup of Larsen A and B. In those cases there was destabilisation of the front of the ice shelf, where the ice cliffs – as big as the cliffs of moher – meet the open water.

Scientists, like Dr Paul Dunlop, who has studied glaciers, and is based at the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Ulster University, Coleraine, is worried that what’s happening could be a sign of something bigger, and far more serious.

Another worry is that if the Larsen ice shelf breaks away that this will expose land based glaciers to the open ocean, meaning they will melt faster.

At the moment, the ice shelves in the western Antarctica are acting like a buffer between the glaciers and the sea, but if that goes, it may be something akin to pulling the plug out of a bath.


It tells us that the waters underneath the ice shelves in the western Antarctica are warming. That is worrying because the deep waters around Antarctica were considered to be the last ocean locations to experience global warming, but that now appears to be happening, as deep cold water, cycles up and is warmed.

There will still be climate deniers that will say that the breakup of Larsen C is simply part of a cycle of the formation and breakup of ice shelves that has gone on for millions of years, and that it is not linked to climate change. However, this view is simply that and it is not remotely credible to climate scientists.

Climate scientists believe that the deep ocean waters around Antarctica are starting to warm and that is the source of the problem. This is part of a pattern going in recent decades not just in Antarctic, but around the world,  with Alpine and Himalayan glaciers retreating and the Greenland ice sheet thinning for example.


Earlier this year, a British scientific team had been on the Larsen C ice shelf, surveying the seafloor beneath. The information they gathered, and other data, suggested that a break up was likely, so they decided not to set up camp on the ice as would be normal practice. Instead, they made one-off airplane trips from the UK’s Rothera Research Station, as it was considered too dangerous to stay.

It’s getting pretty dangerous for scientists on Antarctica, especially those working on the ice shelves around the continent. In January, the Halley VI British Antarctic Station was shifted – on skis – to a safe remove on health and safety grounds as a result of a crack in the Brunt Ice Shelf that was growing in size just to the north of their futuristic modular facility. The designers deliberately designed the base so that it would sit on stilts with skis and could be moved if required.

Dr Louise Allock, senior lecturer in Zoology at NUI Galway has visited Antarctica for her research into octopuses, corals and sea pens many times over the last 15 to 20 years, and was on a research vessel in the southern ocean off Antarctica when the Larsen B shelf dramatically collapsed in 2002.

She told me what scientists will be watching closely – as the Larsen C collapses – so see whether this has the potential to cause large scale ice shelf collapse.

Did Viking 1 find life on Mars in 1976? Gene therapy for cancer & heart disease; Relentless warming risks abrupt climate change


The view of the Martian surface from the Viking 1 lander, which landed on Mars on 20th July 1976 (Credit: NASA)


The colour images of the Martian surface sent back from the Viking 1 probe which landed on Mars on 20th July 1976 made world headlines.

But, did one of the three experiments onboard Viking 1 set up to test for life find evidence of life in the martian soil? Many scientists believed this 40 years ago, and many more reputable scientists believe it today.

A new gene has been found which could provide a new therapy against cancer, by cutting off its oxygen supply, and heart disease, by increasing the growth of new blood vessels.

The month of June 2016 was the hottest on record, with records going back to 1880, continuing a pattern of relentless global warming. Are we moving towards a situation where an abrupt climate change, triggered by global warming, could lead to unexpected dangerous consequences for us all?

This was first broadcast on The Morning show with Declan Meehan on East Coast FM (21/07/16)


Paris climate deal would be a political miracle

Climate Change Ireland

A climate deal in Paris looks unlikely, and storms will hit the Irish coastline with greater frequency and intensity in coming years and decades as a result (Credit: Independent.ie)

The COP 21 UN Climate Conference is underway in Paris, and hopes are high, yet, it will take a political miracle for a solid, lasting, and enforceable agreement to be reached.

The one common denominator, of course, is that we are all potentially facing into a climate Armageddon. The problem is we don’t know precisely when that will happen or how bad it will be.

Click above to hear discussion of COP 21 deal prospects with Anne Marie Donelan, host of The Grapevine, on CRC FM.

Politics and human nature being what they are, means that politicians are very good at dealing with a ‘clear and present danger’ but very bad at dealing with some kind of vague, not easily identifiable threat.

This is what unites the problems of dealing with ISIL and climate change. The enemy is out there, but not in full view.

Meanwhile, there have already been rumblings of ‘breaches of trust’ between the rich nations at COP 21 and the poorer nations. Meetings have been held outside of the main group, and this has increased the sense of paranoia and tension that surrounds the meeting.

Think about how hard it can be to get two nations to agree on difficult issues. Ireland and the UK perhaps, or Israel and Palestine? Imagine trying to get agreement from all the nations of the world, on climate, when each and every nation working to a different agenda.

This time around, as opposed to the last attempt to get  climate deal in Copenhagen in 2009, each country has been asked to submit its own assessment of what it can achieve on emissions reduction.

The plans, when taken all together, are, one analyst reported, likely to lead to a disastrous 3 Celsius rise in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels. So, a lot of painful compromise will be required.

For a multitude of political reasons that looks an almost impossible task, and a fudge of some sort looks the likely outcome.

Expect the announcement of a deal – as no deal would look bad for all the politicians gathered in Paris – but the reality to be different.

Countries like China, India, Japan, and the western nations are not going to risk damaging their economies, by making a real deal.

There is too much to lose, and not enough – concrete – to gain. Each nation wants a deal, but they want others to do the compromising.

For example, Ireland’s emissions are high, largely due to agricultural practices here, and we are coming under pressure to reduce them. This will not be easy, and will come at a financial and political cost.

Does the Government have the political will to do this, and risk annoying rural voters with an election coming? I think not.

The US, meanwhile, is the main contributor to greenhouse gas, but they don’t want to do anything to reduce emissions which will hurt their economy. They have an election coming up too.

China, the other main offender, is busy burning cheap coal, trying to get into the elite club of developed nations, and it too, is not inclined to do anything to hinder its progress.

Then there is India. The west is in a very weak position when trying to preach about reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to a country where some 240 million people are living without electricity.

Then there are the agreed targets. Everyone is talking about limiting the damage to a rise of 2 Celsius. However, 2 Celsius is far too high for low lying nations, which could be underwater with that kind of rise. These countries need something of the order of 1.5 C or less to survive.

There is talk about eliminating the use of coal, which will have ‘no future’ as a result. Yet, try telling that to countries like India, and China and, even Japan, that are still burning huge amounts of cheap coal, to provide for their growing demand for energy.

For countries to develop they need cheap energy. Coal provides that, while renewable sources don’t – for now at least.

The best hope of success is if the rich western nations, led by the USA, agree to allow developing nations to continue to burn coal, while paying for technology which will reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from that burning, or to bury it safely under the ground.

The west also needs to make massive investment in developing renewable sources of energy, such as wind, wave, and solar so that it can truly start to meet growing energy demand – at the right price.

The problem of course is that there is no immediate threat here, which could be the impetus to push a deal over the line.

Think about how Europe dealt with the financial crisis. The can was pushed down the road continually until a gun was put to the leader’s heads, and the break of the EU looked imminent.

Then there is the question of enforcement. How will leaders ensure that everyone is adhering to the deal, if one is reached? What will the penalties be like? Will they be sufficient?

The European Central Bank only enforced its will on reluctant nations like Ireland by threatening to stop money being available in the ATMs. Something just as drastic will be required here if a deal is to work.

However, in the absence of Paris, New York, and London being hit this week by a climate-change inspired Superstorm, a deal looks unlikely.

The history of this issue is one of fudge, from the first climate change conference in Rio in 1992, up to 2009 and failure at Copenhagen. If something real emerges from Paris it will be truly historic.




Abrupt Climate Change; a clear and present danger to life on Earth

CLICK ABOVE to listen to discussion on the topic of abrupt climate change with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast 14th August 2015)

The Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream is threatened by rapid melting of the West Greenland Ice Sheet, and if it was cut off, this could trigger rapid and severe global cooling (Credit: http://www.marketoracle.co.uk)

We tend to think of climate change as something which happens very slowly. perhaps over centuries, causing sea levels to rise a little perhaps or winter storms to get a little worse.

Perhaps this explains why there is no real sense of panic when stories come out about the latest appalling new threat to the stability of our global climate.

We have grown accustomed to such stories, and we don’t appear to believe that climate changes, which we all know are coming, will affect us too much in our lifetimes.

We tend to think of climate change as something which happens very slowly. perhaps over centuries, causing sea levels to rise a little perhaps or winter storms to get a little worse.

Perhaps this explains why there is no real sense of panic when stories come out about the latest appalling new threat to the stability of our global climate.

We have grown accustomed to such stories, and we don’t appear to believe that climate changes, which we all know are coming, will affect us too much in our lifetimes.

There is also confidence that human ingenuity, technology and engineering will come to the rescue to make sure that we don’t suffer too much inconvenience from any climate changes.

Yet, all this complacency is totally unwarranted, scientists believe, as there is plenty of scientific evidence to show that the Earth has gone through both rapid cooling and warming in the past; even before humans appeared on the scene.


Even some of the biggest creatures that ever walked the Earth have gone extinct due to very rapid climate change.

Most famously, there were the dinosaurs, but new research indicates in more recent times, rapid climate change was the primary reason behind the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth, a big, hairy elephant.

The Woolly Mammoth roamed large parts of the Earth for millions of years until its numbers declined 10,000 years ago, then disappeared about 4,000 years ago.

One of the most popular theories for why the Mammoth disappeared was because of over-hunting by hunter-gathering human societies.

However, the latest research indicates that the Mammoth, along with some bear species and cave lions went extinct due to rapid climate warming, not hunting.

At the end of the last Ice Age, the planet warmed by 16 Celsius in a matter of decades, then cooled, then warmed again. The Mammoth and other species couldn’t adjust.

The scientists examined Greenland ‘ice cores’, DNA studies from the bones of extinct Mammoths and the sedimentary record, and compared all of these.

The ice cores are taken by drilling deep into Greenland ice. This provides a geological record going back thousands, even millions of years into the Earth’s past.

The cores are a bit like tree rings, in that they can show when the climate has rapidly warmed or cooled and whether a volcanic explosion was the cause, or not.

Comparative DNA studies can tell you about how quickly a species disappeared, and what other species replaced it – which gives a clue to the extent of climate change.

It was not just the Mammoth that had trouble during this period of rapid cooling and warming about 12,000 years ago, lots of other species went extinct too.

The period from 10,900 BC to 9,500 BC is called the Big Freeze, or Younger Dryas as it’s known to scientists, where the Earth became very cold and experienced drought.

The onset of the Big Freeze, scientists believe, happened extremely fast, possibly inside a decade, and the end of the event was equally fast.

The evidence for this is seen in ice and sediments, and the fossilized remains of pollen and mammals.

As well as the Mammoths, many of the large vertebrates that dominated the last Ice Age died off during the Younger Dryas abrupt climate changes.

These included the short-faced bears, saber toothed tigers, giant sloths and mastodons.


These past climate changes had nothing to do with us, of course, but they happened very quickly, and saw enormous changes in global climate and sea levels.

Humans managed to survive the changes, probably because of their flexibility and large brains which made them better capable of finding survival solutions.

However, climate induced ‘mass extinctions’, such as the one that affected the dinosaurs, have wiped out more than half of the Earth’s life forms in the past.

It can, and will, happen again, the only questions are when? and how?


Most agree that we are entering a period of ‘natural’ warming, but there is also little doubt that mankind is pushing the natural warming cycle which is happening.

It’s important to draw a distinction here between ‘normal’ climate change, if you like, and ‘abrupt’ climate change, which happens faster, and is a lot more dangerous.

Abrupt climate change has happened inside a decade in the Earth’s past, and there is every reason to believe why the same couldn’t happen again.

Reputable climate scientists predict that the Earth will warm by an average of between 2 Celsius and 6 Celsius by the end of this century.

There is ‘normal climate change, if you like,  which is a worry in its own right, but then there is the far more ‘clear and present danger’ of abrupt climate change.

With ‘regular’ climate change, scientists believe that sea levels may rise by 2 metres and temperatures by about 4 Celsius, globally, by the end of this century.

These kind of changes over that period of time can be contained by mankind, using engineering and technology, although it won’t be easy or with massive costs.

For example, the best current estimates are that it will cost several billion to protect the city of Dublin alone from future likely climate events.

But, this is economics and maybe a century down the road, why do we need to worry now, you might ask? Don’t people have more pressing things to worry about?

Well, the worry is that the natural cycle of warming, when ‘pushed’ by human activities could push us past a ‘tipping point’ where climate changes rapidly.

The term ‘tipping point’ which was used during the Iraq war, when the statue of Saddam was torn down in Baghdad and people lost their fear of the regime.

[The origin of the term is from Malcolm Gladwell’s book called ‘The Tipping Point; How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’]

With climate change it is similar. There can be an accumulation of factors, perhaps small in their own right, that push the climate past a ‘tipping point’.

In climate terms, the tipping point is when abrupt climate change is triggered, and mankind cannot control it, and no-one can predict the possible final outcome.

Rapid climate change ,can also be caused ‘natural’ events which are beyond our control, such as eruptions of ‘Supervolcanoes’, or being hit by comets.

Tipping point

Well, one possible scenario was depicted in The Day After Tomorrow, a Hollywood film from 2004, starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal.

This is the most likely way that humans could ‘drive’ abrupt climate change.

In this film, which was based on real science, we see breaking off of a piece of the Larsen Ice Shelf, which is part of the Antarctic landmass.

At the same time, ice in the North pole floods into the North Atlantic, cutting off the North Atlantic Current, and disrupting other sub ocean currents.

In the real word, many scientists believe that the melting of the West Greenland Ice Sheet, which is underway, could also cut off this current.

The North Atlantic Current, is an extension of the Gulf Stream, which keeps Ireland ice-free, and without it, Europe and North America would become a tundra.

Allied to this, there are superstorms, which may believe would arise in this scenario, and the whole global weather pattern is thrown into chaos.

Many of the great cities of North America and Europe, – in the film – are buried under snow and ice, and US refugees, ironically, try to gain access to Mexico.

It’s Hollywood, it’s a film, but it’s based on real world climate ‘modeling’ scenarios, and the result was only parts of the globe remain habitable for human beings.

This is all largely down to mankind ‘pushing’ the climate cycle, by releasing carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’ into the atmosphere and causing ice at the two poles to melt. However, tipping points have been reached in the past too ‘naturally’.

Lake Toba Location

The location of Lake Toba where the most recent Supervolcanic eruption took place. The emerging humans only survived in small numbers


The biggest threat, in the ‘uncontrollable’ category, by far, is of an eruption by a ‘Supervolcano’ – of which there are about six in the world.

The two most famous, which people may have seen on National Geographic or Discovery are the ones at Yellowstone in the US, and at Lake Toba, Indonesia.

If either of these went off, and there are others, like I said, we’d be in enormous trouble; all of us, not just those living in close proximity to the eruption.

A supervolcano is one which has an enormous amount of magma in its chamber and has the ability to cause devastation to a wide area and change global weather.

Let’s take Lake Toba. The last time it erupted was 74,000 years ago. Its impact was so colossal it caused a ‘volcanic winter’, with huge, and rapid cooling of the Earth.

This led to ‘mass extinctions’ of the majority of plant and animal species alive at the time, and early humans were one of the fortunate species to survive the event.

A Supervolcano is totally different to anything most people understand about volcanic eruptions, even the worst of them, going back hundreds of years.

For example, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, also in what is now Indonesia, killed 36,000 people – at least, and its explosion was heard 4,500 km away in Perth.

That famous eruption, caused a drop in global temperatures of 1.2 Celsius and a general cooling of the Earth’s climate for at least 15 years afterwards.

Consider this then:

Krakatoa expelled 45 cubic km of volcanic material. Toba expelled 2,800 cubic km, making it vastly more powerful and bigger than Krakatoa.

Frighteningly, Krakatoa’s eruption, which was tiny compared to Toba, was estimated to have the force of 200 mega tonnes of TNT explosive, compared to 20 mega tonnes for the Hiroshima bomb.

Toba, it has been estimated had 10,000 times the explosive force of Mount St. Helen’s which some might remember erupting in 1980, flattening all around it.

Scientists have linked the Toba eruption to a ‘Volcanic Winter’ which caused the planet to rapidly cool by 5 Celsius and to be plunged into a 1,000 year Ice Age.

The rapid cooling of the planet had an immediate and almost life-ending impact on early humans.

Scientists have reported that evidence from DNA studies has shown that the numbers of humans dwindled to a tiny number in the aftermath of Toba.

Researchers finally found an answer to the mystery of the ‘evolutionary bottleneck’ where the diversity of the human species shrank dramatically 74,000 years ago.

These kind of super eruptions are not as rare as we’d like to think.

Scientists have recorded at least 4 major Toba eruptions, and there are at least five other known Supervolcanoes; Long Valley, California; west of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Taupo Caldera, New Zealand; and Aira Caldera, Southern Japan.


The Sun is another element that has an important role, scientists believe, to play in climate change; even rapid climate change.

There is a solar cycle every 11 years during which there is a solar maximum when the Sun’s activity peaks and a solar minimum when it troughs.

There are also bigger solar cycles that go across centuries of time.

The simple way to measure solar activity is to look at its sunspots. The more sunspots the more solar activity, the less there are, then the less activity there is.

The “Maunder Minimum’ refers to a time when Sunspots almost disappear, and the sun’s activity is very low. Two Irish astronomers, Annie and William Maunder spotted this when looking at historical records, and their own observations.

Between 1645 and 1715 there was a Maunder Minimum when Sunspots disappeared, and the Earth cooled to the extent it has been called ‘The Little Ice AGe.

In London, for example, the Thames froze over in winter far more often than today, and a tradition of Frost Fairs grew up, which lasted into the 19th century.

As well as people doing business of all sorts on the ice, there were even ‘Ice Taxis’ to transport well-oiled revellers to and from their social engagements on the ice.

The Irish climate during this time, was like that of south western Iceland today, with average temperature year round of 6.8 Celsius compared to about 10 Celsius today.

Some business interests have tried to link all climate change, big or small, fast or slow, to solar cycles, and they deny the impact of mankind on it whatsoever.


Asteroids and comets impacting Earth are another thing to consider in this.

The biggest asteroid  impact to be recorded by geologists is the one which hit the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico 65 or 66 million.

This is called the Chicxulub impact crater.

This was large enough to cause mega-tsunamis, global firestorms, and trigger earthquakes and volcanoes, but also to cause rapid climate change.

A lot of carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’ would have been released into the atmosphere from the breakdown of carbonate asteroid rocks like calcite.

This caused a very quick warming of the Earth, of a couple of degrees C, followed by a longer term cooling, as the dust from the impact blocked out the sun.

The dinosaurs, and most of the life then on Earth, couldn’t cope and went extinct.

The impact crater measures 180 km in diameter and is about 20 km deep.  That’s about the distance from Maynooth to Galway city diametre-wise.

The idea of an asteroid impact killing the dinosaurs was first proposed by Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980, and it has since stood up to rigorous testing.

The impact resulted in the extinction of three-quarters of the other species of plants and animals on the Earth in one of the most famous ‘mass extinction’ events.

This wipe out opened the door to new species, mammals and ultimately to ourselves, as new creatures, better adapted to new conditions, began to thrive.

The extinction of most of life on Earth leaves opportunities for the few that survive.

What can we do?

Well, one thing we can certainly do is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide before we push our climate past its ‘tipping point’.

I suspect, however, that it would take a colossal, rapid change in our climate for politicians and many people to wake up to the threat.

Unfortunately, that would be too late. It would be like trying to give someone a new cancer treatment when the disease has spread to all major organs of the body.

I would ask people to think again, and realise that abrupt climate is a real possibility and that if it is allowed to happen, no technology on Earth could reverse it.

In terms of the Sun and the impact of its cycles on global climate, there is not too much we can do, but we are getting better at predicting long term Solar cycles.

However, even if we face a Little Ice Age, as caused by the sun a few centuries ago, I’d be confident that we’d have the ability to survive it, although it wouldn’t be pleasant.

On comet and asteroid impacts. Again, scientists are getting very good at developing methods of warning us well in advance of something that could hit Earth.

I’d be confident here too, as, if we are faced with an asteroid about to hit us inside a few years or decades we will use our ingenuity to develop a way to divert it.

This could be by using lasers, or something else to nudge it slightly off its path, so that it swings by us.

The big threat, as with so many other things, to us from abrupt climate change is from our own activities, and this is where I worry about inaction.

The privatisation of space exploration; lightning strikes herald more warming, cancer risk in Ireland from lack of sunlight

Lunar Mission One

Lunar Mission One which will land on the Moon in 2024 at a cost of 1 billion pounds will be funded by private donations, big and small (Credit: Lunar Missions Ltd)

The era of huge government spending on space appears to be over, and private funding models look set to fill the gap.

The number of lightning strikes is going to increase by one-third by the end of the century. This will increase the risk of dangerous wild fires.

More lightening also produces more nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere, which is a ‘greenhouse gas’ and thus, will further accelerate the heating process.

The lack of Vitamin D, most of which is obtained in sunlight, among people in northern Europe is a significant cancer risk, according to large-scale Danish research.

To hear the discussion on the above, tune in below to the interview broadcast on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan on East Coast FM on 20th November 2014.