Monthly Archives: December 2014

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice can occur anywhere from December 20 to 23. This year it will be Sunday, December 21. This demarks the point when the axis of the earth’s rotation is tilted farthest from the sun in the northern hemisphere. This produces the shortest day and longest night of the year.

The change in the angle of the earth’s axis is what generates the seasons. It gets cold in the wintertime in the northern hemisphere because the tilted axis mean the suns rays are less effective at warming the surface of the earth. This is caused by two effects. Shorter days simply mean less sunlit time, and the sunlight we do get in the winter is weaker because the sun’s rays strike earth at a shallower angle.

We can mark time by observing the sun’s angle. Between the winter solstice and the summer solstice the sun gradually rises higher in the sky every day. The word solstice is from latin and means sun stand. It’s the point when the northerly or southerly movement stops and reverses.

The changing seasons have obvious effects which are important to all life on earth. The need for light, shelter and food all vary with the seasons. Ancient societies, even stone age societies monitored the sun’s angle to keep track of passing seasons.

Stonehenge, in southern England, was built around 2,000 BCE. It’s massive stones are arrayed such that on the equinoxes and the solstices, the sun rising over the horizon appears to be aligned between the gaps. This is doubtless not an accident. Similarly the citadel of Machu Picchu, built high in the Peruvian Andes, was dedicated to the sun god.

Winter soltice, Machu Picchu

Winter soltice, Machu Picchu

Within the temple is a semicircular room with a window aligned for observance of their winter solstice in June.

The winter solstice was always a time of celebration as the sun starts its northerly climb, and the days begin again to get longer, not shorter. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia around the time of the winter solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor. yule log

In ancient Rome the winter solstice was celebrated with Saturnalia, a seven day event meant to honor Saturn, the god of seed and sowing. A novel feature of the celebration was the suspension of normal social order. Government offices closed, legal restrictions on things like gambling were suspended, and masters served slaves. Gifts were exchanged among family and friends, especially candles which signified the return of light.

Saturnalia, later called Brumalia, from bruma, the “shortest day,” was celebrated for centuries. By about the 4 century CE as Rome came under christian rule, the festival morphed into Christmas celebrations. It is thought that the tradition of gift giving at Christmas is relic of the winter solstice.

Climate Conference and Local Attitudes

Scientists, heads of NGOs, world leaders, and diplomats are meeting again, now in Lima Peru, for the 20th session of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change. Scientists and policy makers from around the world warn,

“ that it now may be impossible to prevent the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding—events that could harm the world’s population and economy.”

President Obama, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has promulgated rules for power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. But this is not enough, other countries have much more aggressive plans for replace the burning of fossil fuels with sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar.

So what is holding us back? Basically, a level of anti-intellectualism rarely seen before in our country, from top to bottom. Senator Jim Inhofe, republican from Oklahoma will chair the senate Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He believes global warming is a hoax. Somehow Hollywood liberals have convinced the world’s scientists, literally thousands of them, to accept some environmental extremists plan to? To what? Take over the world with solar panels? He has said that he will resist any attempt to regulate carbon emissions. His position makes no sense what so ever unless you come from a state whose economy is centered on producing fossil fuels.

Actually if Oklahomans took a close look they would see that their state could be a national leader in both solar and wind if they so chose. These energy supplies will be here long after the last lump of coal or drop of oil has been squeezed from the ground.

How about closer to home? Governor Beebe and some democrats have been supporters of sustainable energy, and have tepidly supported regulations that rein in carbon emissions. The recent election however shows that Arkansawers want republicans in control. What does governor elect Hutchinson think? Asa! said that he would join with other states to sue to block the EPA’s clean power plan.

Attorney General elect Rutledge has not spoken on climate change issues directly but has expressed more than a willingness to push back on federal regulations. In all fairness pols on both sides of the aisle in Arkansas don’t want cleaner air or a stable climate. And this generally reflects the attitudes of many from Arkansas.

We are rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus from around the world. Even if we believe that the planet is warming, and even if we believe that we (human activities) are doing it – we reject any personal responsibility nor personally fear any consequences.

We don’t have to believe in gravity to be held here on earth, rather than drifting away. Likewise we don’t have to believe in global warming to be harmed by the multitude of negative effects coming our way if we don’t act.

Tar Sands and Energy Returned on Energy Invested

The No. 1 oil exporter to the United Sates is Canada, sending us close to 3 million barrels of oil per day, just under 15 percent of our total imports of oil. This is more than twice as much oil as we get from Saudi Arabia. Much of Canadian oil production, 47 percent, comes from tar sands. Tar sand formations contain a heavy crude oil called bitumen intermingled with sandy soil.

The oil is currently produced by large scale strip mining of the tar sands, which then must be heated with steam to lower the viscosity so that the oil can be separated from the sand. Methods for in situ processing are being developed. Steam and/or solvents are injected into the soil to free the oil for extraction.

Another technique being examined involves injecting oxygen into the tar sand formation and actually burning some of the bitumen to heat the remainder for extraction. The latter two technologies for extraction are more expensive, but lend themselves to obtaining oil too deep for surface mining techniques. After the bitumen is separated from the soil; it still must be processed before it can be sent by pipeline as the native bitumen has a consistency of cold molasses.

Virtually all of the Canadian tar sands production comes from the Athabasca tar sands formation in Northeastern Alberta. This oil supply is available due to the proximity to natural gas which is used to produce heat for extraction and hydrogen production for conversion of the bitumen into a lighter form of crude oil wthat flows through a pipeline. And herein lies one of the problems with production of crude oil from tar sands.

The production of fossil fuels as an energy source is absolutely and completely dependent on the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). If it takes more energy to obtain a fossil fuel than the fossil fuel delivers on use, then it is not an energy source. It is a waste of energy.

Consider the EROEI of some other fuel sources. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, the EROEI for crude oil in the U.S. was close to 100:1, that is to say one barrel of oil invested in exploration/production produced about 100 barrels of oil. Conventional crude oil today has an EROEI of about 20:1, compared this to EROEI for tar sands of less than 3:1. Paraphrasing a late-night infomercial, BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. (the caps are necessary as they always seem to be shouting). Lower EROEIs mean greater amounts of greenhouse gasses emitted for useful energy produced. Fuels such as natural gas have relatively low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional crude oil, which has less than coal. The low EROEI means that bitumen processing and use makes it as bad as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, massive amounts of water are required to process the tar sands. Roughly 5-10 barrels of potable water are converted to oil fouled waste for each barrel of oil produced. Although there are tar sands in Utah and thereabouts, the resource may never be extracted due to the lack of process water.