Monthly Archives: April 2015

Thawing Permafrost Feedback Loop

Within the scientific community there is no argument about global warming. It is real, and it is caused by human activities. Those activities include burning fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide (CO₂.) The carbon dioxide acts as a climatic blanket to retain heat in the atmosphere which would otherwise be radiated out to space.

Other activities which release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are deforestation. Cutting trees causes the release of CO₂, if the biota is simply burned to clear land as is practiced in the rain forests of the Amazon and southeast Asia. Even if the timber is harvested for construction, there is still a significant portion of the biomass in the form of twigs, branches, roots, and shoots which degrade rapidly to release CO₂.

Carbon dioxide is only one of the so called greenhouse gasses, the major one, but only one just the same. Methane, CH4, is another greenhouse gas. On a per weight basis methane is much more effective at global warming than CO₂, but its contribution is lower as there is a lot less of it. That may be changing – read on.

As stated earlier, global warming is real, the planet is getting warmer and it is to a very large degree caused by humans. A question yet answered is how fast will the planetary temperature rise? That depends on how fast the concentrations of the gasses increase.

If there is one condition that keeps climate scientists up at night, it is a risk of a “runaway” feedback mechanism. If warming itself can cause the release of greenhouse gasses, then a feedback loop causes more heating which causes more gas release which causes more rapid heating which causes more rapid gas release…

Image from thepolicylass.org

Image from thepolicylass.org

Feedback loops exist, but how sensitive are they to what is happening now? A disturbing result was recently published in Nature Climate Change. One of the vagaries of climate change is that it is happening faster at the higher latitudes (nearer the poles) than near the equator. Not only are glaciers melting but areas of exposed permafrost are thawing rapidly. The permafrost is composed of a thick layer of accumulated biomass from the slow growth of moss, lichens, and sedge. There is estimated to be twice as much carbon sequestered in the permafrost as exists in the atmosphere.

The carbon in the permafrost can degrade in two ways depending on environmental conditions. Microbial action can convert the carbon to either CO₂ or methane. If more methane is produced the feedback loop is accelerated even faster than if CO₂ were produced.

This all starts with burning fossil fuels which enrich the atmosphere in carbon dioxide. This causes the climate to warm, which causes the permafrost to thaw which causes the production of even more carbon dioxide or even worse methane.

The only way to stem this cycle is to stop extracting and stop burning coal, oil, and methane. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken some early steps to limit burning coal, the worst of the fossil fuels.

near a wind farm in western Oklahoma

Anatomy of a Scam

In 2008 reports of a new style of wind turbine for producing electricity began showing up on “techie” web sites. The turbine was touted as a small powerful shrouded turbine which would produce energy in low winds and because of the shrouded design much less likely to be dangerous to birds and bats. On a website in 2008 Phillip Ridings claimed that his turbine design, patent-pending, was so efficient that it produced more energy than simple physical principles would allow. His turbine is called the dragonfly-turbine.

When asked about the violation of the physical law known as Betz limit, Mr Ridings replied “I did read “Betz Law” and it does not affect it because of Dragonfly’s unique design. If you want to apply Betz Law then its about to be broken.. just like the sound barrier!“

In 2010 Mr Ridings was interviewed on another website and claimed that his as yet unbuilt turbine would produce 2.4 to 4 times as much energy as a conventional turbine (or was 60% more efficient depending on which part of the interview one was reading.)

Although as of this writing there is still no real turbine, Mr Ridings claimed to have orders for turbines and was establishing a network of dealerships. None have been built, much less tested, other than via computer modeling.

Dragonfly Industries International was founded in Texas with Phillip Ridings as the managing member of the limited liability corporation in September 2014. The company is seeking or has purchased a 311 acre parcel of land in Northwest Arkansas to develop a wind farm. They claim to have a 1 megawatt (MW) shrouded turbine design ready to be built. The plan is to deploy 80 of these turbines on only a small portion, 80 acres, of the site, hence an 80 megawatt wind farm.

This is physically impossible. On a land use basis alone the farm is highly unlikely. Wind farms require a lot of space because turbines create wind shadows and turbulence. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the Energy Department, reviewed the data for wind sites around the country, mainly in the midwest where winds are strong and found that the average area needed per megawatt of energy captured was 85 acres. That’s 85 acres per MW. Dragonfly claims to need only 1/85th as much land to produce the same amount of power, 1 acre per MW.

The proposed 20 foot diameter turbine is claimed to be able to produce 1 MW of power from a 17 mph wind. It is unlikely that there is a consistent 17 mph wind in Northwest Arkansas, but regardless, a turbine of this size cannot produce that much power. The maximum amount of power in wind can be calculated if you know the swept area of the turbine and the wind speed. For the claimed turbine the maximum power available is slightly less than 8 kW. But due to Betz limit it is about 5 kW and for a turbine of this size considering mechanical inefficiencies about 3 kW is realistic estimate. Not 1000 kW.

A simple analogy is instructive. Take an orange and squeeze the juice out. You could get about 2 to 3 ounces. If however you were as good at squeezing as this turbine is at producing power, you could get 2 to 3 gallons! If it sounds too good to be true…

There is no Scientific Controversy

There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the denial of science as it relates to anthropogenic (man made) global warming and the resultant effects of climate change. The media bear considerable blame in the shallow attempt to be “balanced” when it comes to reporting on global warming issues.

Reports from prestigious international scientific agencies will report on the risks, then the media will try to provide balance by citing the denial of risks touted by a very small number of flacks for the fossil fuel industries. The perception then of the public is that there is a real controversy.

To make matters worse, various state and federal agencies are in the business of active denial. In North Carolina, state agencies have been banned from using current scientific studies when discussing sea level rise resulting from global warming. In Florida, state agencies have been banned from the use of the words “global warming” and “climate change.” Tennessee and Louisiana have both have laws which relate to the teaching of climate change denial.

At the federal level, congress is attempting to pack certain scientific bodies by limiting participation by real scientists. A bill would essentially pack the Science Advisory Board with “industry experts.”
This board is mandated to advise the Environmental Protection Agency on policy issues. Industry experts with their conflicts of interest will serve to dilute sound decisions guided by independent scientists.

The only real conflict about man made global warming is political, certainly not scientific. Below is a brief listing of the various agencies from the United States and around the world that have spoken forcefully about the risks and reality of climate change. Space limits a complete listing but here are just a few:

National Research Council (USA)
American Meteorological Society
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American Institute of Physics
American Physical Society
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Academy of Paediatrics
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Medical Association
American Public Health Association
European Academy of Sciences and Arts
InterAcademy Council
International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological
Network of African Science Academies
Royal Society of New Zealand
Polish Academy of Sciences
European Science Foundation
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
American Geophysical Union
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
Geological Society of America
Geological Society of Australia
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
National Association of Geoscience Teachers
Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological
Society of London
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Royal Meteorological Society (UK)
World Meteorological Organization
American Quaternary Association
International Union for Quaternary Research
American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians
American Society for Microbiology
Australian Coral Reef Society
Institute of Biology (UK)
Society of American Foresters
The Wildlife Society (international)
American Academy of Paediatrics
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Medical Association
American Public Health Association
Australian Medical Association
World Federation of Public Health Associations
World Health Organization
American Statistical Association
Engineers Australia (The Institution of Engineers Australia)
International Association for Great Lakes Research
et al.

At the expense of being repetitious, there is no scientific controversy.
­

appian way

Civilization and Highways

Arguably the greatest road builders in the history of civilization were the Romans. Their highways were constructed mainly for military purposes and extended across much of Europe and into North Africa. Over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced roads were built using their greatest invention, concrete. Construction of the highway system began with the Appian Way in the third century BCE. Segments of this and other Roman highways exist to this day.

roman-roads-map

roman-roads-map

Another grand highway system of yore was constructed by the Incas across the highlands of the Andes. The Inca Trail ran for some 14,000 miles across rugged mountainous areas. The system was built for both commerce and especially for messengers who carried information throughout the Inca Empire. The roadway extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Along its course it occasionally exceeded 16,000 feet in elevation. Parts of this 600 year old roadway are currently used by hikers to access Machu Picchu.

inca trail

inca trail

More recent but still historic is the German Autobahn. This was the first controlled access highway. Begun across Germany, mainly in the 1920s-30s, it allowed for rapid transit and at the same time provided an important public works project which helped Germany climb out of the disastrous depression following their defeat in the first world war. Although endorsed and expanded by Hitler, the autobahn had little purpose for the Nazi war machine during world war II. Rail transport was more important in fuel poor Germany. The autobahn became important at the end of second world war as it greatly impressed General Eisenhower who traveled much of it after the war.

Autobahn

Autobahn

Colonel Eisenhower had experience with highways before the second world war. After WW I, he participated in an experiment to transport military equipment across America. They used the Lincoln Highway which stretched from New York to San Francisco. The 3000 mile trip took 62 days. The partially paved highway caused much damage to the vehicles in the form of flat tires, busted axles, and general damage to the drive trains of most of the vehicles.

In 1956 President Eisenhower pressed congress for the construction of a highway system similar to the autobahn. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…” he wrote in his book At Ease.

Societies benefit greatly by large scale transportation projects. They provide not only for important commercial and military transport but also are important for the jobs created in their development, construction, and maintenance.

It appears we have lost sight of this vision. Several dozen highway projects in here in Arkansas have recently been canceled because of the lack of funds in the federal highway trust fund. Even worse, a bill has been introduced in the 2015 state legislature, HB 1781, which would allow the state highway department to simply walk away from several thousand miles of state highways. We’re abandoning our highways because we don’t want to pay for them. Because we don’t want to pay the taxes, we simply give up on an important part of civilization.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.