Thu 23rd of November 2017
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Deep in the jagged red mountains of Oman, geologists are searching for an efficient and cheap way to remove carbon dioxide from the air and oceans - and perhaps begin to reverse climate change.
They are coring samples from one of the world's only exposed sections of the Earth's mantle to uncover how a spontaneous natural process millions of years ago transformed carbon dioxide into limestone and marble.
As the world mobilizes to confront climate change, the main focus has been on reducing emissions through fuel efficient cars and cleaner power plants. But some researchers are also testing ways to remove or recycle carbon already in the seas and sky.
The Hellisheidi geothermal plant in Iceland injects carbon into volcanic rock. At the massive Sinopec fertilizer plant in China, carbon is filtered and reused as fuel. In all, 16 industrial projects currently capture and store around 27 million tons of carbon, according to the International Energy Agency. That's less than 0.1 percent of global emissions - human activity is estimated to pump about 40 billion tons a year into the atmosphere - but the technology has shown promise.
"Any one technique is not guaranteed to succeed," said Stuart Haszeldine, a geology professor at the University of Edinburgh who serves on a U.N. climate body studying how to reduce atmospheric carbon.
"If we're interested as a species, we've got to try a lot harder and do a lot more and a lot of different actions," he said.
One such action is underway in the al-Hajjar Mountains of Oman, in a quiet corner of the Arabian Peninsula, where a unique rock formation pulls carbon out of thin air.
Peter Kelemen, a 61-year-old geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has been exploring Oman's hills for nearly three decades. "You can walk down these beautiful canyons and basically descend 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the earth's interior," he said.
The sultanate boasts the largest exposed sections of the Earth's mantle, thrust up by plate tectonics millions of years ago. The mantle contains peridotite, a rock that reacts with the carbon in air and water to form marble and limestone.
"Every single magnesium atom in these rocks has made friends with the carbon dioxide to form solid limestone, magnesium carbonate, plus quartz," he said as he patted a rust-colored boulder in the Wadi Mansah valley.
"There's about a billion tons of CO2 in this mountain," he said, pointing off to the east.
Rain and springs pull carbon from the exposed mantle to form stalactites and stalagmites in mountain caves. Natural pools develop surface scum of white carbonate.
Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change, which threatens political instability, severe weather and food insecurity worldwide, according to the United Nations climate body.
Natural carbon levels have risen from 280 to 405 parts per million since the Industrial Revolution, and current estimates hold that the world will be 6 C hotter by 2100.
In 2015, 196 nations signed the Paris climate accords, agreeing to curb greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would keep the rise in the Earth's temperature to under 2 C.
That has injected new urgency into the work underway in Oman, where Keleman's team recently spent four months extracting dozens of core samples, which they hope to use to construct a geological history of the process that turns carbon dioxide into carbonate.
Around 13 tons of core samples from four different sites will be sent to the Chikyu, a state-of-the-art research vessel off the coast of Japan, where Keleman and other geologists will analyze them in round-the-clock shifts.
They hope to answer the question of how the rocks managed to capture so much carbon over the course of 90 million years - and to see if there's a way to speed up the timetable.
Kelemen thinks a drilling operation could cycle carbon-rich water into the newly formed seabed on oceanic ridges far below the surface. Just like in Oman's mountains, the submerged rock would chemically absorb carbon from the water. The water could then be cycled back to the surface to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, in a sort of conveyor belt.
Such a project would require years more of testing, but Kelemen hopes the energy industry, with its offshore drilling expertise and deep pockets, will take interest.
Prelims Question of the Day
With reference to 'Natural Rate of Unemployment', consider the following statements.
1. It is the level of unemployment in an economy that is just consistent with a stable rate of Inflation.
2. It is the unemployment that prevails when all markets in the economy are in equilibrium.
(a)1 and 2
(d)None of the above
Mains Question of the Day
1.GS-No party in power can afford to ignore Directive Principles of State Policy. Comment.(200 Words)
2.Political Science - Explain the role of non state actors, like IMF, World Bank, European Union and MNCs, in modulating and transforming the broad dynamics of international relations. (250 Words).
3.SOCIOLOGY - What is the impact of Globalization on the structure and mobilization of the working class in India? (250 Words).