Darwin’s Finches

The Galapagos Islands constitute a small group of about a half a dozen islands 600 miles off the coast of South Ameria. The total land area is a scant three thousand square miles, slightly larger than the state of Delaware. The islands are quite arid, averaging only two inches of rainfall a year. They are essentially the cones of volcanoes which arose from the sea a few million years ago.

The archipelago is most famous as a world heritage site and most of the islands are a national park. As a province of Ecuador, the islands are managed mainly and very carefully for preservation and tourism.

One of the first and certainly most notable “tourists” was Charles Darwin. In 1831, Darwin, as a 22-year-old naturalist and recent college graduate signed on to the HMS Beagle for a five-year sail around the world. The Beagle surveyed much of the coast of South America, including the Galapagos. Darwin’s time was spent observing and collecting specimens of the local flora and fauna.

As a geologically young island group, the flora and fauna found their way by air and sea. Sea birds flew, sea lions swam, and a few reptiles and small mammals “rafted” to the islands. When Darwin arrived he noted that there were very few passerines, what we call perching birds or songbirds. Of the passerines, the majority were finches – finches not seen anywhere else in the world. There are now seventeen species of finches recorded on the Galapagos.

Darwin’s observation of the finches was the seminal study that lead to the organizing tenet of biology – descent with modification. Only a single species of finch exists on the west coast of South America, the likely origin of the Galapagos finches. Darwin’s conjecture was that a single species of finch arrived accidentally on the island group.

With local no predators and few competitors, the finches thrived. Through adaptive radiation, they filled many different niches based on the size and shape of their beaks. Birds with big, strong beaks could crack larger seeds, smaller-beaked birds ate smaller seeds. Birds with narrow, pointy bills fed on insects. There is even a species of finch appropriately called the vampire finch that has adapted to pecking the tails of sea birds to drink their blood!

In his first book, “The Voyage of the Beagle,“ he noted “It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure in this one group can be traced in the form of the beak, from one exceeding in dimensions that of the largest gros-beak, to another differing but little from that of a warbler.”

The speciation of these finches is a microcosm of evolution on our planet. Life began over three billion years ago, and for about two billion of those years existed as single-celled organisms much like today’s bacteria. Over time more complex organisms evolved to form the major groups of plants and animals. These discoveries are the essence of science – small careful observations can lead to profound conclusions.
Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Modification

Modern humans are a couple of hundred thousand years old at best – compare that with cockroaches at 350 million years old. Regardless, in our short time on the planet we have worked tirelessly to modify our surrounds to our purposes. Minor reservoirs and irrigation channels are a few thousand years old.

Widespread modification of the soil in the Amazon basin over a thousand years ago was accomplished by building up polders in swampy areas then adding charcoal, bone, pottery shards, and nutrients to greatly improve soil productivity. The result was “terra preta do indio,” a Portuguese phrase meaning black earth of the Indian.

Prior to European colonization of north America, Indians use fire to modify the environment, maintaining grasslands which were more productive for game animals. What many colonists described as a pristine wilderness was actually a maintained mosaic of grasslands and forests.

These small scale environmental modifications pale in comparison to our current unintentional change to the global climate. From wildfires to floods, and hurricanes to droughts, we are having a negative impact on the climate. To retard further degradation of the climate we must rapidly decarbonize our energy systems. The environmental response to this action is however slow.

If we can unintentionally change the climate, surely we can intentionally make it right, right? We can do things to reverse the warming in the atmosphere? There is a recent natural precedent for global climate impact. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted violently, sending tens of billions of tonnes of ash and sulfur oxides in the stratosphere. The ash and especially sulfate particles circulated around the world, partially shading the earth. A drop of 0.6 degrees Celsius was recorded in the global mean temperature for 1991-1992.

So there you go, all we need to do is inject massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere. The sunlight will be partially shaded, cooling the earth and reversing the heat driven climate change. An engineering research group proposed just such an experiment. Billions of tonnes of molten sulfur would be delivered to the stratosphere via specially designed jet tankers. These would fly sixty thousand flights per year for decades. The scheme has been described as the cheapest and quickest way to cool the planet.

BUT, there is a lot of devilment in the details. Even moderate success may take the pressure off the need to decarbonize our energy systems. This would do nothing to address the damage to the oceans via acidification from the dissolved Carbon Dioxide. And that sulfur mist in the atmosphere? It turns into sulfuric acid, which would untimely rain down on the planet.

A uniformly gray sky could negatively impact crops, energy production from solar and wind, and even seriously change weather patterns – just the opposite of what was desired. A worst-case outcome would be international strife if the experiment did not have a global consensus.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

The cost of individual weather-related catastrophes is rising and at the same time, they are becoming more common. One measure is to to look at the frequency of events which cost over a billion dollars versus time. In 1988 there was only one event, a drought across a large portion of the United State whereas in 2018 there were ten, including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and floods. This year a new term has come to the fore, the bomb cyclone.

One could show all sorts of trends by picking only two data points especially with weather data which shows a lot of short term variability. But a clear trend exists and global warming can be tied to both the cost and frequency of weather events.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, drought is the one phenomena that worry people the most. Considering drought as just one catastrophe, they have become more intense, and last longer in recent times compared to the past. Not only here in the United States but globally. Many regions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are experiencing higher air temperatures, drier air, and more severe droughts. A NASA study has shown that a two-decade-long drought in the Mediterranean Levant is the worst in 900 years.

The economic impact of droughts is due in the main to reduced agricultural outputs, but the heat itself is lethal. In the database of billion-dollar weather events since 1980, four of the top ten most lethal events are heat waves.

The impact of climate-related risks falls most heavily on the insurance industry. Across the board, costs are rising. They are rising for property damage, healthcare costs, and even life insurance. Insurers know this – its what they do. One of the main activities of insurers is to calculate risk so they know how much to charge their customers in premiums. Because of their focus on risk, they know better than most just what the financial impact is of climate change.

The insurance industry holds assets obtained from premiums in investments, not cash. The industry is beginning to shift investments from carbon-intense industries. Eighty of the world’s largest insurers hold fifteen trillion dollars in managed assets. Currently, less than one percent of the investments are in low carbon industries that provide a solution to climate change.

California’s Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones leads a group called the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP.) A report from AODP assessed the industry’s investment portfolios and found that leadership in the trend away from carbon-intensive industries is coming from European firms. US firms are at or near the bottom. Some of the biggest firms with the most to lose, giants such as Prudential, AIG, and New York Life are that the bottom of the AODP ratings for attention to climate change.

Personal retirement accounts, in aggregate, are even larger than the insurance industry investments. Increasingly, mutual funds have categories like the Social Choice account at Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association. The investment strategy here is to disfavor fossil fuel industries and favor clean energy strategies.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Immigration Issues

Recently, President Trump has proclaimed, referring to immigration at our southern border, that we are full. “… We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.” But really are we full? The birth rate in the United States has been below replacement level for several decades.

To maintain a stable population there must be 2.1 live births per female. The fertility rate now is less than 1.8 births per female. The average age in the United States has risen by ten years over the last 50 years, from 28 to 38.

Without immigration we would be experiencing negative growth – our population would be shrinking. Some might say that we do have too many here already and we need to shrink our population but that creates a demographic problem. Quite simply a shrinking population is an aging population. An aging population means a shortage of more youthful workers to maintain economic productivity, and provide the tax base to support social programs for the aged.

A rapidly growing population presents its own problems. Rapid growth means a youthful population. A very young population distribution can mean trouble for education and employment. Young , poorly educated, and unemployed could mean disaster. Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria all have an average age under 25. The most extreme are a number of African nations where the average citizen is a teenager.

The current growth rate in the United States is 0.7 %, due to the combination of births, deaths, and immigration. Compare this to the global growth rate of 1.2%. Although the population in both the United States and the world is growing, the rate of growth is slowing for both.

Over the last couple of decades, the immigration rate to the United States has been decreasing. This is partly due to a reduction in the number of migrants from Mexico. Increased prosperity (NAFTA?) has lowered the pressure for impoverished Mexicans to flee to the north.

The current wave of immigration, the infamous caravans, come from a region called the Northern Triangle (of Central America.) Poverty and Violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have driven whole families to risk a perilous journey of over 2000 miles to seek asylum in the United States.

Closing the border will not change the plight of the Central Americans. Besides, the migrants are flocking to legal ports of entry, close those and they will head to more dangerous border crossings in essentially unpredictable areas. Likewise unregulated totally open borders is no solution either.

The current rate of immigration is not particularly high. The only crisis is our inability to rapidly process the claims for asylum. We don’t need walls or barriers to immigration. We need facilities to humanely house the migrants. We need mechanisms to get them to where there are jobs so that they can do what they came for – raise their families in a safe and prosperous environment.

Over the past five years, the Immigration rate for Canada is about twice that of ours, and for Norway three times. We can handle it. Si Se Puede.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is a proposal to address global warming and economic inequality. It is widely feared by conservatives as a proposal designed to take away freedom – and cars and money and hamburgers and airplanes. Nonsense.
What it is is a very broad brush plan to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and the release of other greenhouse gases in ten years. Although the timeline is unreasonable, the objective of necessity will be accomplished in the longer term.
Under the plan, sustainable energy sources will be expanded to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for electricity production. Wind and solar with battery backing can eliminate the need for any fossil fuel use for electricity production. This is already underway, as the use of coal has been cut in half in just the last two to three decades.
At the same time, grid-scale batteries are becoming a thing. The City of Fayetteville will soon begin utilizing a ten megawatt solar panel system with energy storage in batteries – intermittency is not an issue with battery backup. Entergy is planning to close two coal fired plants and is building its own solar farms.
In our economy, the transportation sector is the largest user of fossil fuels. Electrification of transportation is in its infancy but happening none the less. Tesla, the biggest manufacturer of electric cars, has sold over a half-million vehicles since they began in 2012. Electric long haul trucks, semis, are in development and will hit the highways in 2020. Electrification of the rails is a no-brainer, it exists already on a limited scale and can be expanded nation-wide.
A tougher nut is aviation. Jet fuel, essentially kerosene made from crude oil, is an ideal energy source as it is very energy dense. To eliminate the use of fossil fuels from aviation will require either of a couple of solutions. The most likely, especially in the short term is to manufacture fuel synthetically from renewable sources.
Biodiesel from oil crops like soybeans is a possibility but would compete with cropland for food production. Better would be the use of waste organic matter as a feedstock for fuel production. This is already happening but needs to be done more efficiently.
Electrification of aviation has already been achieved but is a long way from commercial airlines’ scale. A battery-powered single engine plane with a range of four hundred miles has been flown in England.
The cost of the total conversion to sustainable energy systems will require considerable investment in research and infrastructure, but at the same time it will create quality jobs in an increasingly automated economy. The increased tax revenues from these new jobs can offset some of the costs.
Then there is the issue of what is the cost of doing nothing. Hurricanes in the East, flooding in the Midwest, and wildfires in the West are already costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year and will only get worse from inaction. Our future depends on facing the reality of climate change. The sooner we address the issue the less costly it will be.

Favoring the Sun

Polling shows that a clear majority of Arkansans, 60 to 70 percent give or take, recognize that global warming is happening. Without any polling data, we can only guess the everybody given a choice would favor clean air over polluted air. One method to reduce the rate of global warming and clean the air is to generate electricity from solar panels. Keeping the lights on in a house at night or through a week or two of wintery overcast requires one of two options, a battery bank or buying power from a utility during those periods.

The latter is by far the most common as batteries, where utility power is available, are far more expensive. A common solution is a so-called grid-tied array. People with rooftop solar panels remain connected to the utility grid so that they can get power at night. During the day they can generate the power they need from the sun. To make solar power more attractive most states have some form of net metering.

Net metering is achieved via a bi-directional meter. At night when solar panels are inactive, the meter runs normally, but during sunny periods when the solar panels produce more power than is consumed in the home, the meter runs backward. The homeowner is at these times a net producer, essentially a little power company selling to the utility.

Act 464, 2019 addresses some issues with solar energy production. It allows for third-party leasing. Essentially this allows a homeowner to rent his roof space to another company for placement of solar panels. It also allows for larger net metered arrays so a business can take advantage of the sun to power their facility. A debate exists as to how the solar panel owner is rewarded for their excess production. The simplest and current method in Arkansas is that excess production is rewarded at the same rate as consumption. If in a given billing cycle there is an excess production, credit for that production is carried forward.

Utility executives say that this makes them buy power at a retail rate. Of course, they want to buy power at a wholesale rate, then sell at a retail rate to maintain profitability. But that is an oversimplification. Utilities pay different rates for power depending on demand, so there is no single wholesale rate. High demand times calls for the purchase of expensive “peaking” power. Conversely during low demand times equipment is idled which also has a cost.

Power demands vary by both season and time of day, but one thing is clear. Demand for electricity is always higher during the day than at night. Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way of producing power during the day when it is needed but not at night so no utility equipment is idled? Solar generated electricity is nicely matched to demand which can serve to lower overall costs to the utility and at the same time clean the air and slow global warming.

The act has good and bad points, but overall it is supported by several environmental organizations.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

A Bad Bill for Arkansas – SB550

The Arkansas Legislature is considering a bill this week that will radically change the way that agricultural wastes, essentially feces and urine from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are regulated. Although Senator Stubblefield (Republican Branch, Arkansas) said this bill is not about the CAFO near the Buffalo National River, it will certainly affect the farm.

This bill will take responsibility for permitting CAFOs from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, and simultaneously eliminate the existing permitting system. Currently, to spread feces and urine on a field requires a Regulation 5 permit but this bill will abolish Regulation 5. Responsibility for controlling these noxious wastes will be passed to local soil conservation district boards and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC.)

The move will radically weaken the way swine factory farms are regulated in Arkansas and would remove current protections for the Buffalo National River. Hog factories would be allowed to operate in a much more permissive environment and increase the likelihood of liquid animal waste entering the Buffalo National River, as well as other streams and even the watersheds of drinking water impoundments. For this reason, two of the largest water systems in the state, The Beaver Lake Water District, and Central Arkansas Water have announced their opposition to the bill.

SB550 does not provide a clear permitting framework for liquid animal waste systems. Under this bill, the management plans for disposal of the waste feces and urine will be weakened. There is no
requirement for geotechnical review as currently required under ADEQ, and the local boards for overseeing the waste management doesn’t have this expertise. They can consult the ADEQ, but why not leave the authority there where the expertise does exist?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees Arkansas’ regulations as it pertains to the Clean Water Act. The weakening of regulatory review and oversight will invite EPA scrutiny which will place increased demand on state resources and will actually create inter-agency chaos within the state’s regulatory environment. The proponents of the bill suggest the rationale for the bill is efficiency, but the net result will be the opposite.

One of the most egregious components of the bill will be to reduce public notification, input, and access to information about a CAFO. The bill allows the operators of a proposed CAFO to waive public notice. Further, animal waste management plans under the ANRC are not open to public scrutiny. When and if these animal wastes are spread to land in excess of uptake as fertilizer, the waste becomes a pollutant which can wash into streams and water bodies, causing degradation of water quality. A section of the Buffalo Natural River nearest the Mt Judea Hog factory is already impaired. Senate Bill 550 will only make things worse and take away the right of the public to know.

The Governor’s position is unclear on the bill, but he has vowed to protect the Buffalo. Senator Davis, (Republican Russellville) voted for the Bill. SB550 now goes to the House Agriculture Committee. Stan Berry (Republican Dover) is a member of the House Ag committee.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Making Clean Air Costly

The Arkansas legislature is doing its best to look backward rather than forward. Just this year the transportation sector in the United States became the major source contributing to global warming and the changes to the climate it induces. At the same time, a clear majority of Americans including Arkansans believe global warming is real, is caused by humans, and is especially threatening to future generations.

Logic should suggest then that changes to our transportation systems here in Arkansas should take account of this risk and do the right thing. Modes of transportation which don’t contribute to global warming should be favored over those that do. Right?

The new law for funding for highways in Arkansas raises fuel taxes to help pay for construction and maintenance of our highway system. For gasoline, the state tax will go from 20.8 cents a gallon to 23.8 cents a gallon, a 3 cent per gallon rise. The diesel fuel tax will rise by 6 cents a gallon.

It will raise 100s of millions of dollars a year. Ironically it will also reduce highway use at least in principle – the more gas costs, the less gas is used. Less gasoline use means a lower contribution to global warming which is a good thing. Lower gasoline use also means cleaner air, less volatile organic carbon emitted, and less ozone formed. Also a good thing.

At the same time, the bill taxes electric vehicles that don’t contribute to global warming and negative health effects from tailpipe emissions. As they don’t use gasoline or diesel, the “tax” will be assessed via a greater registration fee: 200 dollar increase per pure electric vehicle, and 100 dollars per plug-in hybrid . On the surface, this seems fair as these electric cars use and therefore abuse the highways and need to pay their fair share. But is this taxation rate fair?

The average Arkansas vehicle travels about 15,000 miles per year. At an average mileage, this works out to a tax rate significantly lower than that assessed on electric vehicles. The tax assessment plan will literally punish efficiency. It will make the purchase of electric vehicles less attractive. In so doing, this will increase, not decrease damage due our shared climate. Does the legislature really want to make our children’s future more grim?

Quite simply gasoline and diesel powered vehicles contribute to global warming, electric vehicles don’t. As a society, we need to consider the climate with every decision we make, at least if we care about our children’s future. We need to promote clean energy systems at the expense of those systems and processes that contribute to global warming.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Migrations and Climate Change

As our climate changes at an ever-increasing rate, everything from bacteria to blue whales are on the move. Climate changes have come and gone over the ages but rarely at the rate we are inducing by our profligate production of Carbon Dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Both plants and animals alike have only two choices – migrate or die.

Species migrations are generally are to the north or upslope, in either case to cooler climes that existed before global warming. Some migrations have little impact on humans. The Arctic is a bellwether for climate change as it is occurring there more rapidly than elsewhere. Moose are moving north, for the mosses and larch which now have moved northward. Ironically polar bears are moving south. As the ice floes where they hunted seals diminish, they are forced on to land, moving south where they are now competing with grizzly bears.

The now extinct Golden Toad lived in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. As the climate warmed, it went upslope until it had no higher to go. A smallish mammal, the Bramble Cay Melomys is now extinct. It formerly inhabited an atoll near Papua New Guinea, but sea level rise has inundated the atoll and it had nowhere to go.

Of greater concern to humans are shifting populations of pests. Leishmaniasis is a deadly disease caused by a protozoan parasite. Infection occurs from the bite of an infected sand fly. The sand fly and hence the disease has previously only been seen in the tropics, but the sand fly is now seen in North Texas.

Plant pests that affect food crops are on the move. A moth is moving south(southern hemisphere) ravaging cruciferous crops in South Africa. Coffee plants in Central America are threatened by a fungus due to wetter weather. Wine grapes and olives are threatened in Europe.

Rapid climate change invariably means large scale species extinctions. The greatest rapid climate change is called the Permian Extinction. Around a quarter of a billion years ago, not all that long ago considering the nearly 5 billion year age of the planet, something happened that wiped out about 90 percent of life’s species. It has been suggested that an asteroid a couple of miles across stuck earth.

The debris from the impact, plus induced volcanism from the shock to the mantle would have flooded the skies with ash and poisoned the oceans with sulfuric and other acids. The skies would have drastically darkened and cooled the earth, killing most plant life. The subsequent release of Carbon Dioxide upon their decay would have then drastically warmed the planet. The climatic whipsaws resulted in the extinction of 96 percent of ocean life and over two-thirds of terrestrial life. Rapid climate change is a bad thing for biodiversity and biodiversity is the best measure of a healthy environment.

A physical catastrophe such as an asteroidal impact is out of our control, but we can and must get our impact on the climate under control. No amount of walls and fences will stop starving migrants suffering from climatic change.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Infrastructure Matters

The good news is that 2018 wasn’t the hottest year on record, only the fourth hottest. The bad news is that the first, second, and third were 2015, 2016, and 2017. One record year doesn’t mean much as the average temperature of the planet is a somewhat “noisy” signal. But the trend is obvious and can’t be denied. How about this: 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.

This trend could be overlooked if one only looked at a particular locale like one state or even one country, but these statistics are based on the global mean temperature, measured by several different agencies, using differing techniques.

A proxy for the global temperature, isotopic analysis of ice cores at the poles can take us even further back in time, even past several glacial/interglacial cycles. It is hotter now than ever. The planet is warming overall and that is forcing other changes to the climate besides being simply hotter.

One of the more serious impacts which we are beginning to see already is an increase in the severity of weather phenomena. More intense hurricanes, heavier rainfall episodes, and more extended droughts can all be attributed to climate change.

The changes are a real existential threat to society. Our infrastructure must be remade to accommodate climate change. At the same time, we need to takes the steps necessary to slow planetary warming by reducing and ultimately abandoning the use of fossil fuels.

The text of the state of the union speech contained some mention of the need for attention to infrastructure. “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump told the assembled government leaders. “I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work … on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment.”

What wasn’t heard in the speech was any mention of climate change. In fact, climate change has been off the radar for the last three state of the union speeches. Simply replacing an old interstate highway bridge with a new one will not prepare us for the future. The bridges of the future will have to be higher to protect from increased flooding and built stronger to protect from hurricanes, tornadoes, or other storm events.

Coastal cities must plan for more flooding and more saltwater intrusion into their water systems. Power systems must not just be replaced but must be made more robust. It will be necessary to bury our electric transmission and distribution lines to protect them from untoward weather events.

An event, not out of the question, would be another record flood like the 1927 flood of the lower Mississippi River. An area, 27,000 square miles was flooded to a depth of 30 feet or more in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In today’s dollars that would be a several trillion dollar damage event.

Here in Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson is floating legislation to provide 300 million dollars annually for transportation infrastructure via a combination of sales and fuel taxes. Also planned is an increase in the registration fees for plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars such as the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla line. This is particularly wrong-headed as they are a solution to global warming. We should be promoting these vehicles, not punishing their use. The Governor’s plan is a business as usual infrastructure fix without any vision for the future and actually punishes actions needed for the future.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.