End of the Empire?

Since the conclusion of world war two, the United States has been viewed as the global leader. Much of this was due to the fact that we were the only industrial power on the planet that didn’t suffer massive infrastructure damage due to the war. We also had vast reserves of fossil fuels which we exploited to considerable advantage.

To most of the world we were the industrial, technological, educational and even moral leader. Now and especially since the election of the present national leadership, much of this is being questioned.

On the energy front we are still a major producer of fossil fuels, especially with the advent of the marriage of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The problem is that the world is moving on. Fossil fuels are yesterday’s technology. This has been clearly signaled by the Paris Agreement.

Seventy-two countries have ratified the agreement to reduce carbon emissions through efficiency and increasingly sophisticated solar and wind technologies. The countries which most vigorously develop and deploy these these “future fuels” will become the next leaders. Although we here in the US invented solar photovoltaics and pioneered wind power we are becoming small time consumers in this energy market.

The majority of wind turbines and solar panels here in the US are made overseas. Wind turbine blades, made here in the US, are made by foreign companies’ subsidiaries. Our labor goes to produce profit for companies in China and India.

And what does our current leader do? He has signed executive orders rolling back President Obama’s clean power plan that would have drastically reduced carbon emissions at little to no cost. The president’s proposed budget eliminates the energy star program – a program which has returned an astounding 300 dollars for every dollar invested! What does he say about our energy future? We’re gonna make coal great again. This makes about as much sense as subsidizing buggy whip manufacturing.

What does China do? China is on a trajectory to drastically reduce their reliance on coal. They are the world leader in producing photovoltaic panels and just recently became the world leader in installing solar. Denmark is a world leader in wind energy – currently getting 42 % of its electric power from wind. They are on target to reach 84% by 2035.

We currently get a scant 4 % of our electric power from wind and have essentially no target for improvement. We have essentially abandoned our position as world leader in the future of energy production.

Our immigration policy shows that we no longer really care about the “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” It is also impacting our educational leadership. Student in-migration is down. Forty percent of graduate schools are reporting decreased applications from foreign students. They represent the world’s best and brightest, who no longer see the US as the place to be.

Is this end of the empire? Just as the center of civilization passes from one society to another we very well may be witnessing the decline of or dominance in the world. We still possess the world’s biggest military but we may no longer be the world’s leader.

Sanctuary Cities

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a crack down on sanctuary cities. He has threatened withholding billions of dollars in federal grants that would otherwise go to the cities for projects such as transportation and housing infrastructure.

The title sanctuary city is a rather non-specific appellation but it refers to communities that don’t fully cooperate to capture and hold the undocumented for probable deportation by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials.

The Justice Department argues that sanctuary cities allow violent criminals to roam the streets. AG Sessions mentioned a couple of gruesome examples of undocumented men who had been picked up for minor crimes but released and then went on to commit much more violent crimes. Conversely officials in sanctuary cities argue that it is not their job, nor do they have the resources to act as proxies for ICE.

The question is, should we be detaining for likely deportation those undocumented immigrants who have been picked up for minor crimes? Answers to a few questions would be helpful. Do undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at higher rates than legal immigrants and/or citizens? Is the level of violent crime higher is sanctuary cities than others? Can this kind of police action actually make cities less safe?

To the first question, numerous studies over many years have shown that undocumented immigrants are no more violent than those born here. Census data for 1980-2010 shows that US citizens are anywhere from twice to five times as likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute has concluded that “undocumented immigrants had crime rates somewhat higher than those here legally, but much lower than those of citizens.“

The president has claimed that sanctuary cities are breeding grounds for violent criminals, but again the data don’t support the assumption. Professor Tom Wong, Professor of Political Science, UC San Diego analyzed data from the FBI statistics and found that counties designated as “sanctuary” areas by ICE typically experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime, including lower homicide rates, than comparable non-sanctuary counties.

So what, you say. It’s good to get rid of those illegal aliens, whether they are violent criminals or not. Maybe so, maybe not. In February an undocumented woman went to the El Paso, Texas county court house to obtain a protective order for an abusive domestic partner. While there ICE agents arrived and detained her for probable deportation. Since then undocumented women across the country are apparently dropping domestic abuse cases for fear of deportation. Essentially it is open season for domestic abusers. And it’s not just domestic abusers. In this type of environment any undocumented person is subject to more violence because the violator knows that they are less likely to have their crime reported.

Police everywhere know that finding the bad guys/solving crimes is a whole lot easier if they have the community on their side. When police go to the door to ask an occupant if they have knowledge of a crime in front of their home, is an undocumented person going to cooperate, if they know it may result in their deportation? Or will they just not answer the knock, even if it means a violent criminal remains at large?

Antarctica and Global Warming

Antarctica, the southernmost continent is literally the last place on earth. It occupies about 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million sq. miles.) For comparison, it is about twice the size of Australia and half the size of North America. Because of the tilt of earth’s axis and local elevation, it is obviously the coldest with an average wintertime temperature of – 60°Celsius, and summers averaging -28° C.

Interestingly Antarctica is also the driest, windiest and highest. Annual precipitation is 20 centimeters (8 inches) and most of that falls on coastal areas with the interior even drier. Ironically, although it is a desert based on precipitation, it contains 70% of the world’s fresh water as ice.

Wind speed averages 23 mph across the continent, but straight line winds of 200 mph have been recorded. Compare this with a category 5 hurricane whose winds are a puny 156 mph. Only an F5 tornado creates wind speeds equivalent to that encountered routinely on Antarctica.

One of the reasons for the cold weather in Antarctica, as noted earlier is its average elevation. The North Pole is at sea level, actual below it because the land mass at the North Pole is under the Arctic Ocean. The average elevation however for Antarctica is over 8,000 feet. The South Pole itself is over 9,000 feet and the highest point is 16,300 ft. Ice over much of Antarctica is a mile or more thick.

So what’s up (pun intended) with Antarctica? The temperatures? Well, it’s complicated as parts of the continent are warming while others aren’t. First the warming part. Both computer climate models and recorded data over decades show that while the planet is warming as a whole, the polar areas are warming even faster. This is a result of several different phenomena. Clouds, ice cover, water vapor and large scale weather patterns have all be implicated.

Ice is shiny stuff and reflects much sunlight. As ice over the sea melts the sun warms the less shiny water more. The term for light reflected divided by light absorbed is albedo. For very shiny snow or ice the albedo is about 0.9 (total reflection would result in a value of 1.0). Open oceans are much less reflective hence absorb more heat and have an albedo of less than 0.1.

The south pole has a confounding variable – the ozone hole. Essentially the reduced amount of ozone over the south pole reaches a maximum in the austral spring. The ozone hole is gradually decreasing due to international protocols which banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons. As the amount of ozone returns to normal the temperatures in the south pole are expected to rise as rapidly as in the north. As the Antarctic continent warms and sea ice melts, some of the land based, 1 to 3 mile thick layer of ice will begin to melt.

Were all this ice to melt sea levels would rise over 200 feet. This catastrophic sea level rise would inundate Manhattan Island, Miami, New Orleans, Houston and on and on. This won’t be happening soon, but without first recognition of human impact to global warming, it will happen.

Environmental Services

mangrove atoll

mangrove atoll

Environmental services is not only a name for numerous companies that provide, well, environmental services but also the concept that our environment provides many services to humanity. Also called ecosystems services, these range from the obvious such as recreation and food to the not so obvious but critical – regulation of the climate. Because of the burgeoning human population and the ever increasing use of fossil energy sources, these services are being taxed like never before.

The importance of climate stability is in the news daily for those willing to pay attention. The trend for decades has been that every year is warmer than the last, glaciers and polar ice are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising (three-quarters of the world’ megacities are coastal.) Less commonly addressed are some physical changes occurring in the oceans.

The oceans provide half the people in the world with their principal source of protein. Ocean fisheries provide sixteen percent of all protein consumed by humans. These food sources are under threat and the threat can turn into collapse (of fisheries for example) frighteningly fast. This has been shown already due to overfishing.

The grand banks off the coast of Newfoundland had been the world’s premier cod fishery. Europeans may have fished the site even before European settlement, but surely by the sixteenth century. Hundred’s of millions of tons of cod were taken over the centuries, a supply thought to be inexhaustible. In the late fifties, fisheries managers began to grown concerned. In 1968 the catch had dropped to just under a million tons. Just six years later it was down to under fifty thousand tons. The Grand Banks are now closed to international fishing. In a couple of decades, the blink of an eye in terms of human populations, the world went from “inexhaustible” to gone.

Conceivably other fisheries can be managed or at least one would hope. It is also hoped that burning fossil fuels can be managed, but there is little sign of that happening here in the United States. Two factors negatively impact ocean fisheries due to burning fossil fuels, heat and acidity. Both these problems have to do with the solubility of gasses in liquids. Unlike solids which are increasingly soluble in liquids, gasses are just the opposite. Atmospheric gasses such as Nitrogen and Oxygen dissolve better in colder water.

Those who fish the streams and lakes of Arkansas know that trout can only survive in cold water. Colder water contains more Oxygen which trout require. Cool water fisheries support species such as smallmouth bass whose Oxygen requirements are less than trout but greater than largemouth bass.

The long and short of it is that as the oceans warm they loose Oxygen which can stresses fish – they are slowly suffocating.

The other ocean problem is the dissolution of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which causes acidity. Although CO2 is a gas it reacts with seawater to become carbonic acid. The oceans are now about thirty percent more acidic than at the start of the industrial revolution when burning fossil fuels began in earnest. Coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans are suffering from damage due to both heat and acidity.

Carbon and Taxes

There are a number of ways to raise money to pay for the various and sundry functions of government. Here in the United States we use many different taxes. At the local level, say county and city, the emphasis seems to be on real and personal property taxes and sales taxes. At the federal level income taxes predominate. There are many variations on these taxes such as luxury taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes and special exceptions, i.e, tax deductions, but a common theme runs through them all. In addition to raising money for the operation of the government, taxes are aimed a social policy.

Progressive income tax rates, dependent allowance for income taxes, sales tax exemptions for food and drugs, deductions for mortgage interest and child care to name just a few. The result of all this is a rather arcane web of taxes that keep certified public accounts and tax lawyers in the the tall cotton. It could be simpler, for example we could get rid of all deductions and exemptions.

Much of Europe uses a VAT or Value Added Tax. Basically this is a sales tax on the increased value of an item. Iron ore is minded to make steel, which is used to make pipe, which is used to lay an natural gas line. At each point the value of the product increases and that increased value is taxed. A similar tax has been proposed in the US called a “fair tax.” This is a 30 % tax on sales of goods and services. The rate is set to be revenue neutral, that is it would replace other taxes but neither increase or decrease net revenue.

The flaw with any tax is that it punishes some activity. Some are intentional such as sin taxes, those on the sale of tobacco and alcohol, but others aren’t meant to punish but do just the same. Income taxes punish income (work), sales taxes punish sales (business), and capital gains taxes punish savings.

We have to collect taxes and that collection inherently punishes some activity. An alternative promoted by environmentalists is a pollution tax. The tax rate could be calculated to be income neutral, and the tax rate of a polluting activity could be based on the importance of the pollutant. The most mature of these pollution taxes is called a carbon tax, actually a tax on Carbon Dioxide released on combustion of fossil fuels. Over ninety per cent of of fossil fuels go to the generation of energy (do work), the remainder being used for the manufacture of plastic bags and axle grease.

The carbon tax would embed an additional cost for heating your home, fueling your car (and the trucks and trains that move the goods across the country,) and keep the lights on in your home, as long as this work was done via fossil fuels.

An most important added value of this form of taxation is the favoring of clean energy production. Solar, wind, and geothermal processes do produce useful work but don’t pollute so wouldn’t be taxed. This would greatly stimulate the adoption of sustainable energy for our future.

The Travel Ban

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump made a point of excoriating Muslims. In December 2015 he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” This Muslim ban was talked up throughout his campaign and even after his election but before the inauguration.

It is not surprising then that he acted on the proposition. His initial action was a blanket ban on all travelers from seven middle eastern countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia. The ban was initially without exception, even for those who already had valid visas or green cards. The justification of the ban is based on protecting our citizens from terrorists. It is important to note that not a single terrorist attack has occurred in the United States by a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. Not one.

The travel ban did not include several countries in the middle east whose citizens have committed terrorist acts, including the deadliest attack on American soil, the hijacking of planes and their subsequent suicidal attacks on the twin towers in New York and the pentagon in Washington, DC. These hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, none of which are on the travel ban list.

The ultimate question is will this action really make us safer? As noted the travel ban was not on all Muslims, but on all citizens from a select group of predominantly Muslim countries, so strictly speaking it was not a Muslim ban. In politics however, perception is reality. Trump spoke of a Muslim ban but banned everyone from Muslim countries. This will be perceived by many as the Muslim ban that he flogged repeatedly.

There are close to 2 billion followers of Islam worldwide and most of them are neither in the middle east or have anything to do with terrorism, yet. The Muslims in the banned countries represent only 12 percent of all Muslims, yet all Muslims have been insulted by this action. It is easy to see how this could be used as a recruitment tool for groups such as ISIS and Al Queda. Will the ban make us less safe?

What we get with this travel ban is a further polarization of attitudes of our citizens, a questionable change in the likelihood of terrorism on our soil and an image to the international community that grows darker by the day.

The United States has been a beacon of hope and promise for the disenfranchised around the world. After all, we are in the main an immigrant nation. Our success as the world leader depends to some degree on perceptions of us as a free and open society.

Hottest Year Ever

Drum roll please, and the hottest year in recorded history is…wait for it… 2016! Actually this is not so surprising. The previously hottest year in history was 2015, and the next hottest before that 2014. If you think you see a trend there you do.

With the exception of 1998, the 15 hottest years ever occurred in this century. 2016 was 2 degrees hotter than the average of the 20th century. In contrast the last recorded coldest year was in 1911, over a century ago. These records have been recorded in the troposphere, the atmospheric layer closest to the ground. Sea surface temperature measurements are congruent.

The culprits for the heating are anthropogenically generated (man- made) releases of green house gases to the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide causes over half of the radiative forcing so it is the major player but Methane, otherwise known as natural gas is a close second. The concentration of Methane in the atmosphere has recently been spiking and the likely source is fugitive emissions from fracking.

The new president has claimed that his EPA will “protect the environment and human health”; however, he has on numerous occasions called global warming a hoax. He has claimed that because it is cold outside (in the winter of course) that global warming doesn’t exist. He has claimed that the overwhelming scientific consensus is driven by climate scientists profiting from their research. The only thing making any sense here is that he would see money as the driver for any research outcome.

It’s not just the scientists here in the USA, every scientific body on earth that has addressed the issue agrees, global warming is real and a threat to both the environment and human health. This bears repeating: No scientific body of national or international standing holds a formal opinion denying the reality of global warming.

The actions so far in the new presidency seem to reinforce his prior proclamations. His selection to head the EPA is Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General. Attorney General Pruitt has sued the EPA over numerous regulations designed to clean our air and water. He has begrudgingly accepted that it is getting warmer, but questions humanity’s responsibility. Further he questions what if anything we should be doing.

Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and the selection to head the Department of Energy is similarly poorly informed on climate science. Perry has recently softened his stance. Previously he claimed the science of global warming was a “contrived phony mess.” Now he thinks it’s real but efforts to combat it should not cost American jobs. Study after study has shown that there are many more jobs created with sustainable energy over continuing to exploit fossil fuels.
Regulations in the sights of the president include previous efforts of several presidents going back to Jimmy Carter. Look for lifting of the transportation fuel efficiency standards, blocking the clean power plan to regulate power plant emissions, and reduced restrictions on coal mining and use.

Preventing additional accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is a zero sum game. You either add or you don’t. Utilizing fossil fuels adds, using sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar don’t.

Thoughts on Oxygen – Part 2

Based on genetic evidence across all life it appears that the earliest organism called LUCA, short for Last Universal Common Ancestor, contained a wealth of cellular components that handled molecular Oxygen otherwise known as O2. This in light of the fact that there was scant Oxygen present in the atmosphere, a fraction of a percent compared to the current concentration of 21 percent. Why?

Most likely is the fact that Oxygen is a very reactive gas, and it reacts by snatching electrons away from other molecules. This creates two other kinds of chemical compounds, free radicals which are electrically neutral but very reactive, and cations which are positively charged ions which also are reactive. When Oxygen or a few derivative molecules react with other components of cells or tissues they cause damage which can lead to cell death and even death of the whole organism.

One description of growing old is little more than the accumulation of cellular damage due to exposure to Oxygen. Just one example is that Oxygen reacts with a component of our skin called collagen. Over time the damage leads to reduced elasticity. This results in “brittle” skin which is more easily damaged by physical abuse. The skin also loses its tone and becomes saggy. These are oxidation reactions just like the rusting of iron and cooking oil becoming rancid. When you burn something you are oxidizing it, hence growing old is slowly burning up.

The earliest anaerobic single celled organisms had a myriad of cell components to protect themselves from oxidative damage even in an atmosphere which contained little oxygen. Today most of what we recognize as living things such as plants and animals, are aerobes. We require Oxygen to drive the processes by which we generate energy. We need the energy to do all the work of our bodies. To detoxify poisons in our liver. To move us from couch to dinner table and back. To fuel the nerve impulses to our brain that allow us to read newspaper columns.

Interestingly, our brains consume close to 25 % of all the Oxygen we use. Compare that to the heart muscle which only uses 12 % or the kidneys which need only 7 % of our Oxygen. The question now is how did we go from Oxygen being a deadly poison when life operated anaerobically (without oxygen) to our current state where it is demanded? The answer lies in a number of evolutionary advances. Those cell components that were used to protect anaerobic organisms were shifted in function by random mutations to do the job of aerobic metabolism. The advantage is that if you can control the reactivity of Oxygen, you can put it to good use to do the work of the body, but only if you control it.

Evolution does not require new constructions from whole cloth. Slight changes in a macromolecule allow it to be repurposed. Life is complex, but not so complex it requires a designer. Evolution only requires random mutations and a long time scale.

A Few Thoughts on Oxygen – Part 1

Until late in the 20th century scientists hypothesized that the earth’s early atmosphere was highly reduced, in a chemical sense. What atmospheric elements were present were bonded to hydrogen. This followed from the well-known fact that hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the universe . Hence, other elements were more likely to be chemically attached to Hydrogen than anything else. Any carbon would be present as methane CH4, nitrogen would be present as ammonia NH3 and oxygen in the form of water OH2.

Scientists in the early 1950s (Stanley Miller-Urey) used this assumption in experiments looking for mechanisms for the beginning of life. They created an atmosphere composed of these reduced gasses and then induced chemical reactions among them using UV light (which would have been abundant ) and/ or Electric arc (simulating lightning.) They found that the could produce several “life precursor” molecules such as amino acids (to form protein), purine and pyrimidines (to form nucleic acids), and simple sugars (to form carbohydrates.)

I gave many a lecture discussing the Miller-Urey experiments, which with current understanding of what the early atmosphere was like, were wrong. Evolution of life most likely required the same simple precursors to be present but they must have come about by other mechanisms. The current wisdom as to the composition of the early atmosphere suggests in was more in line with the composition of volcanic gasses. This is based on more recent geochemical studies. Carbon would have been present in its oxidized form, CO2. Nitrogen would have been present as the diatomic gas N2, sulfur as SO3.

The only feature of the previously assumed early atmosphere and the current hypothesis is that the presence of any free oxygen (O2) was very limited, maybe a fraction of one percent of the total atmosphere. Currently it is about 21 percent.

Regardless of the competing hypotheses about the composition of the atmosphere life most likely began and then evolved in the absence of any significant amount of Oxygen for a couple of billion years. Because of the specificity of the genetic code it has always been assumed that all life is related and the earliest ancestor of all life is called LUCA – the Last Universal Common Ancestor.

What did LUCA look like? How did she make a living? Surely she was a single celled organism replicating by cell fission. Information from mother to daughter cell was transmitted by DNA replication, so the enzymes attendant to this task are shared by all her descendants. She had to have been an anaerobe as there was scant oxygen in the atmosphere at the time. What about the other cell machinery?

When certain components of cellular machinery are found across all life, it must be that LUCA had these components. Oddly, for an anaerobe, LUCA appears to have had a broad range of macromolecular structures which are for handling oxygen. What is that all about?


A couple of decades ago and without having taken at least a high school chemistry course most would not have heard of Lithium, nor use it in their daily lives. Now however it dominates the battery world. Disposable Lithium metal batteries power all sorts of devices which require the packing a lot of power in a small space . In addition to AA and AAA batteries, Lithium metal batteries power virtually all the “coin” batteries in small devices such as hearing aids and watches. Lithium metal batteries also have an illicit use as a reagent in the synthesis of methamphetamine but that is another story.

Lithium metal batteries pack about twice the punch as Lithium ion batteries for a given size. More important for many applications is the fact that Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable, greatly increasing their utility. Everything from cell phones to plug-in hybrids (electric cars which can be charged at home or work) utilize the rechargeable aspect of lithium ion batteries.

Lithium is a metal but the periodic chart is populated by scores of metals, in fact the majority of elements in the universe are metals. What makes Lithium unique is it’s charge to weight (and volume) ratio. Lithium metal is the lightest metal and can exist as a stable ion. This means it is capable of giving up or accepting an electron, a necessary function of a battery. Think of a charged battery as reservoir of electrons. When a battery powered device is turned on a circuit is completed which allows the electrons to flow. This is the electric current which does what ever work of a device was built for, be it lighting a light bulb or powering an electric automobile.

As the reservoir of electrons is depleted the battery loses power. Rechargeable batteries are capable of reversing the loss of electrons by pushing electrons back into the battery.

Rechargeable batteries are at the heart of numerous university, government, and private research facilities for two obvious reasons. First, electric powered transportation is the future but contemporary batteries have a limited range. Equally limiting is the long recharge times required. To replace internal combustion engine powered cars, battery powered electric cars and going to have to have a several hundred mile range and a few minutes recharge time. That is a tall order.

So is there enough Lithium out there to meet the increasing demand? Do we have supplies here in the US or do we have to buy it from other countries? Can we afford it? All valid questions. Lithium is present in the earth’s crust at about 20 parts per million (PPM.) This doesn’t sound like much but it more than more commonly known metals such as Lead and Mercury.

Currently we import about 80% of our Lithium needs, but recent prospecting has turned up brine deposits in Wyoming which may provide for our need for sometime into the future. Ultimately the world’s richest deposits of economically recoverable Lithium are in the Atacama desert on the Pacific coast of Chile. Unrelated factoid – the Atacama is the driest place on earth.