Monthly Archives: September 2016

Pipelines and Electric Lines

Over the coming months two major public service transmission lines will be installed across Pope county. One is a high voltage direct current (HVDC) electric transmission line from the panhandle of Oklahoma to Memphis, Tennessee. The other is a pipeline to move oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to Memphis. One will contribute to a clean energy future, the other will contribute to global warming. Both will, to the point of law suits, incense landowners along the rights of way.

Cushing Oklahoma, because of location and historical precedent, is the major hub for oil pipelines in the United States. It also happens to have the largest oil storage tank farm in the world. The Diamond pipeline will move 200 thousand barrels of light sweet crude per day to a Valero refinery in Memphis. To get a sense of just how much oil that is, if the pipeline were diverted it could fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium in less than a day. If the oil were all converted to gasoline, it could fill the tanks of half a million cars a day.

Opposition to this 900 million dollar project comes from landowners who would rather not have a 25 to 150 foot wide strip of land which must be maintained as an open space – no forestation or permanent structures in the right of way. The pipeline is also opposed by environmental groups who would rather not have more crude oil turned in to fuel which ultimately contributes to global warming.

The panhandle region of both Texas and Oklahoma have some of the best wind resources in the country. Wind speeds average near 20 miles per hour. It is a problem however as there is no market for all the potential wind energy in the area, hence the need for transmission lines to take what energy could be generated elsewhere. Most practical is transmission to the east across Arkansas to a distribution hub in Memphis. This will allow for clean renewable energy to replace energy from coal fired power plants across the Tennessee Valley Authority power grid. It also will require a 150 or so foot right of way.

The HVDC transmission line will carry 4,000 Megawatts of direct current electricity about 700 miles start to finish. Power poles are 150 feet tall and spaced 5 to the mile. This power line is like a super highway for electrons with very limited access. The only “drop-off” point planned currently is an off ramp near Atkins. This will allow 500 Megawatts of power to flow into the local grid.

Like the oil pipeline, land owners are opposing the HVDC line. The nation’s preeminent environmental group, the Sierra Club, is supporting it.

Both project require regulatory oversight which allows the use of eminent domain to secure the rights of way. The process is different for the projects. The oil pipeline has been approved by the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) even though the Pipeline will provide no direct benefit to Arkansas. Apparently pipelines get a legal pass, not afforded to the electric transmission lines.

Because the initial HVDC line had no direct benefit to Arkansas, it was denied legal status by the APSC and therefore is seeking federal oversight. By partnering with the Department of Energy Clean line will gain federal right of eminent domain.

Species Extinctions

President Obama, when announcing his clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions said “we only get one home. We only get one planet. There’s no plan B.” The current human population is about 7.4 billion and growing by about 80 million a year. The United Nations population program projects a global population of 11 billion people by the end of this century, on our only planet.

Humans and our as yet unrestrained growth are having a profound impact on our only home, planet earth. We have transformed our atmosphere by filling it with excess carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The oceans are becoming more acidic from the same carbon dioxide dissolving to form carbonic acid. Agriculture has transformed over 80 per cent of the arable land and 50 per cent of the total land surface.

Our evolutionary success comes at the expense of the rest of the planet’s wildlife. We are driving other species to extinction at an unprecedented rate. Species come and go but scientists at the World Wildlife Fund estimate that human activities have accelerated the rate by over a 1000 times the natural extinction rate.

Our largest or possibly most gentle competitors for the resources of the planet are going first. Marine mammals are particularly stressed. A twenty million year old river dolphin found only in China is now officially extinct. The Banjii, called the “goddess of the Yangtze,” succumbed to human pressures in the form of habitat loss, suffocation in fish nets and collisions with shipping.

The world’s smallest porpoise is also the world’s most endangered. The Vaquita lives in the northern end of the Gulf of California, There are likely less that 60 animals, and these continue to die mainly in fish nets, many of which are illegal. Scientists are considering a hail Mary approach to its survival similar to the successful effort to save the California Condor. The rescue plan would involve collecting and captive breeding to rebuild stocks of the Vaquita. The problem is that this animal has never been held in captivity and uncertainties abound.

All 5 of the worlds species of Rhinoceros are endangered. Fewer than 60 Javan and 100 Sumatran Rhino’s survive in southeast Pacific Islands. Other Rhinos in India and Africa are more numerous but still critically endangered.

All is not lost however, as there are a couple of uplifting trends. A giant concern for the future is global warming. On that front there is some good news. Carbon free energy sources around the globe are the fastest growing source of new power. Simultaneously at least here in the US, our per capita consumption is actually decreasing. Even though there are more of us, we each are using less.

Most promising for the planet is the strong positive correlation between increased women’s education and birthrates. The more educated a woman, the fewer children she will have. Also more educated women delay childbirth and are therefore better able to provide for the children they have.

The Human Microbiome

The human body is composed of something like 30 trillion cells. Those are are own, made by ourselves from our DNA. Living on and in us however is another 40 trillion or so cells made up of a slew of bacteria, mainly in the gut. The microbiota include viruses, fungi and protozoa. In aggregate, they occupy nearly all other body cavities such as the mouth or vagina in addition to every square inch of our skin. The average forearm alone is home to over forty different species of bacteria.

Since Louis Pasteur expounded on the germ theory of infectious disease, the common idea has been that the only good bug is a dead bug. Yes there are bacteria that can cause toxic effects and some people go to great lengths to try to sterilize their bodies using alcohol or antibacterial detergents and lotions. Ironically, irregular use of these agents may be breeding resistant organisms and hence doing more harm than good.

The vast majority of our micobiota do not cause acute diseases. And in fact recent research suggests that we may well be able to improve our health by fine tuning just which of these trillions of bacterial cells there are. In 2007 the National Institutes of Health began a effort to study all aspects of the human microbiome as it relates to health and well being. The effort involves studying the genes of the microbiota, but in so doing scientists are learning of just what the bacteria are doing. Some very interesting results are turning up.

It has become apparent that the microbiota in the gut of a neonate are very important in training the immune system. Essentially our immune system needs early examples of non-self cells to “learn” how to properly react. There are many autoimmune diseases such as juvenile diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis where our immune system fails to properly distinguish between self and non-self, resulting in inappropriate attacks on our own cells.

Interestingly, there may be connections between the gut and our mental health. There is a correlation between conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease and psychiatric conditions like anxiety and depression. A 2009 publication from the NIH noted, “While evidence is still limited in psychiatric illnesses, there are rapidly coalescing clusters of evidence which point to the possibility that variations in the composition of gut microbes may be associated with changes in the normal functioning of the nervous system.” In mouse models, they found both behavioral and brain chemistry differences between normal mice and those raised in a environment free of bacteria.

The real promise in this research follows from the fact that our microbiome is or can be quite variable between birth and death. Both the variety and number bacteria can change over time periods from days to years. A recent application involves “fecal transplants.” Some patients who have been treated with strong antibiotics have had their colons overgrown with C. difficile, a harmful bacteria. Transfers of normal microbiota from a healthy donor allows for the repopulation of the recipient’s colon and the elimination of the harmful bacteria.

The Future of Power

We are now at what appears to be the dawn of an energy transition. It will take a couple of generations to accomplish but it will happen. The transition is from an energy economy based on burning fossil fuels to clean sustainable electric energy generation from wind turbines and solar. We will transition from a few large power plants to a much more diffuse collections of wind farms, solar farms, and even more dispersed home solar photovoltaic arrays, all connect to a robustly interconnected transcontinental grid.

The technology exists and is operating on a small scale now but to bring in the future much will need to be done to strengthen, expand, and interconnect our electrical infrastructure. There are several drivers for the technological revolution. Fossil fuels are in limited supply, global warming is real, and large power plants are ideal targets for terrorism, an unfortunate reality in today’s world.

Fossil fuels are in limited supply so we continue to form alliances with despotic regimes and fight wars for access to oil. Even with the advent of new drilling technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, we still need to import well over half of the crude oil we use in this country. Coal may be abundant here but it’s extraction and utilization has many negative consequences. The new energy economy can end this vicious entanglement, and produce energy in ways that are much, much cleaner.

Global warming is real and a real threat to all life on the planet. Not only is it getting hotter, but it is getting hotter faster. Although the global climate has changes over geologic time, we are driving changes to the climate at rates that in the past have lead to severe die-offs. Although we may survive without reversing global warming, it will be in a world with drastically reduced biological diversity. Producing our energy cleanly and renewably is the only realistic approach to reversing the dangers inherent in global warming.

Global economic inequity breeds despair, anger and, rightly or wrongly, attempts at retribution against the “haves” by the “have-nots.” Terrorism is a reality around the world, not just the near east and north Africa, but everywhere. An attack on a single large power plant could not only darken the the night, but threaten the well being and lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a single stroke. Widely distributed energy resources such as wind and solar coupled with a robust and redundant grid make that kind of threat essentially nonexistent.

The development of the new energy economy will not come with out costs, but the benefits of a sustainable energy future , and more stable ecological and political climate will far out way those costs. The process of developing, constructing, and maintaining the new energy infrastructure will provide jobs. The future energy economy will require a degree of technical expertise that generates well paying jobs the continue into the future and can’t be exported.

The upward arc of civilization is marked by our level of cooperation. The more we work together and the more of us that work together the more likely will be a bright, clean, and stable future.

Zika in Arkansas

Currently there are several confirmed cases of the Zika virus in Arkansas. The cases all involve individuals who contracted the disease while traveling in areas where the disease is prevalent, usually Latin American or Caribbean locales.

The virus can be carried by two related mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti and A. albopictus. Transmission of the disease occurs when a mosquito bites an infected individual and picks up the virus in the process. Then when that mosquito bites another uninfected person and inoculates them with the virus. Of the two mosquitoes, A. ablopictus is the lesser threat as it feeds on animals in addition to humans. On the other hand A. aegypti prefers humans and is therefore more likely to transmit the virus among humans.

Once contracted, an infected individual is capable of spreading the disease for several months, both via mosquito bites and also sexual contact. The virus has been isolated in the semen of infected men up to two months after acquiring the disease.

The range of A aegypti includes almost all of Arkansas, only the northeast corner near the boot heel of Missouri being outside the range. A aegypti is particularly problematic because it breeds rapidly and in amazingly small amounts of water. Eggs laid in a bottle cap’s worth of water mature to adults in as short as a weeks time. Also troublesome is that A aegypti is a daytime feeder when humans are more likely to be out and about.

The Zika virus causes a range of symptoms. A minor set of symptoms include rash, mild fever, joint pain and headache which may persist from a couple of days to a week or so. What has gotten the most attention of course is the teratogenic effect. If a pregnant woman gets infected, the virus can pass to the fetus and cause a condition know as microcephaly, an abnormally small head. The condition is severe and can result in seriously impaired brain function and premature death and.

Avoiding travel to the Caribbean or Latin America is no longer enough to be safe here in Arkansas. Because we have infected people and the transmitting mosquitoes, we are all at risk. So what is to be done? Obviously don’t get bitten by an infected mosquito, but that is easier said than done. The first line of defense would be to use an effective repellent. The gold standard, the agent which all others are compared to is DEET. Nothing is as effective nor lasts as long per application. The science is clear that all others have a weaker effect and don’t last as long.

Broad scale spraying of insecticides has been shown to reduce transmission rates, but in so doing kills off not only the target mosquitoes, but also any and all other insects. Many of these are not only desirable but a necessary part of human life. The FDA has recently approved an interesting strategy involving the use of gene modification to create a mosquito whose offspring can’t reproduce.

Most promising is an effective vaccine to prevent infection. This will have the least impact on the biosphere. No deaths on non-target insect species, nor any disruption of other organisms that rely to some degree on mosquitoes as part of their diet.

Climate Ocean Linkage

In recent years there seems to be somewhat of a kerfuffle over the use of the terms Global Warming and Climate Change. Some in denial about the scientific concerns for changes in our planetary environment have suggested that “they” have changed the terminology to confuse the public. Or denialists claim that the term climate change is employed to cover up for the fact that the planet is not actually warming. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both terms have been around and in use for years by scientists and mean different things. Realistically climate change is a result of global warming and includes many derived effects in addition to warming. The best way to look at is yet more terminology. Anthropogenically (man-made) driven changes to our planet include overall warming, which directly drives things such as warmer land and sea temperatures, the melting of the polar ice sheets and the recession of glaciers. All of the above has been going on and accurately measured for a couple of centuries. The rate of change is not always constant but the trend is undeniable.

The warming is due to something called radiative forcing. Certain gases produced through human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, absorb infrared energy (heat ) in the atmosphere. The heat is trapped in the atmosphere rather than radiated out to space. Essentially planetary heat gain and heat loss are out of balance. Carbon Dioxide not only drives the heat cycle but also negatively impacts the oceans.

The oceans are getting warmer due to the direct heating effect, and as there is more water from melting ice, the salinity or saltiness of the oceans is decreasing. Coral bleaching is being observed around the world. Bleaching is the term given to the die-off of coral due to heat and acidity. All that is left is the lifeless exoskeletons which appear white without the living matter present. Coral makes up the reefs that constitute the nurseries of the much of the ocean fish populations.

Wetlands on the continental shelves are being drown from rising sea levels. Wetlands also constitute nurseries for fin fish and shellfish stocks which are threatened. As the water levels rise the brackish water moves farther inland. Jellyfish, which have little nutritional value and therefore aren’t part of a food chain seem to be replacing other valuable organisms around the globe.

The world’s oceans are actually acting to moderate the rate of global warming by absorbing some the Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere, but this comes at a cost. As the Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans, it reacts chemically to become more acidic. The same effect is achieved in bottled soda drinks. Carbon Dioxide is the stuff that makes a soft drink fizzy, and also more tart, due to the acidity. The acidity of oceans is directly proportional to the amount of Carbon dioxide absorbed. The worst case scenario is that Calcium Carbonate, the stuff of shells and the bones of animals won’t form.

All these changes are being accelerated by what are known as positive feed back loops. As sea ice melts the surface of the earth becomes less reflective. Less reflectivity means more heat absorption, which leads to more sea ice melting. The longer we delay action the more difficult our predicament becomes.