Category Archives: climage change

Fire and Floods

So far, this is the worst year ever for fires in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The climate type for California lends its self to annual fires but global warming is making it worse because it is hotter and this time of year hotter is drier.

At the same time this is the worst season for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and for the same reason – warmer air means warmer water means more energy to fuel storms. So far this year is bearing out NOAA’s prediction of an extremely active season.

Over four million acres have burned so far this year in the aforementioned states. Scores have died and more missing. Three million acres are on fire now and toxic smoke blankets thousands of square miles.

The result of global warming amplified weather damage here in the United States is annually hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of crop loss and property damage, far negating any minor improvements in a longer growing season and amplified CO2 for plant fertilization. Without serious effort, these costs will become insurmountable.

Of course, the real problem is the name – Global warming. For example, because of an extended heatwave in the northern climes, the ice north pole is melting faster than ever and the nearby tundra is thawing rapidly. At one point it was thought that a warmer tundra would promote moss growth which would form peat bogs. This could moderate the rate of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slowing atmospheric heat accumulation.

Ah. but life is not so simple. In parts of Siberia, the thawed, warmed, tundra is now burning. Fires in the Arctic are now the largest ever in recorded history. The Siberian taiga, what we call the boreal forests in the western hemisphere are burning and north of them the actual peat of the tundra. Underlying the tundra is permafrost of normally frozen organic-rich soil. As it thaws from the fires above it releases methane which may or may not catch fire as it is released. Regardless, methane itself is a greenhouse gas.

The release of the methane and carbon dioxide from the burning peat above the thawing permafrost will act in a vicious cycle known as positive feedback – as more greenhouse gasses are released, more heat is produced which causes the release of even more greenhouse gasses. All this of course increases the rate of climate change.

Global tropical storms, especially in the central and western pacific have had a somewhat average season with the exception of Cyclone Amphan which hit the Bay of Bengal, killing over a hundred and causing the greatest amount of damage, in excess of one hundred billion US dollars worth of damage in Bangladesh.

Obviously most eyes have been on the Covid-19 pandemic but the relentless planetary degradation due to global warming is marching on and cannot or should not be ignored. Heating of land magnifies the number of deadly heat waves and fires just like heating of water can produce more deadly storms.

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

Climate Modeling

Among the many challenges to the dire predictions of global warming and climate change is the questioning of the accuracy of computer models that predict how bad it will get and when will it get there. The short answer is the models are good, not just good but very good. If we look back fifty years when computers were in their infancy and the models very crude we see a considerable congruency between what was predicted and what is happening.

Predictions about global warming are not new by any measure. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, over 200 years ago, scientists recognized that the atmosphere may be capable of trapping heat. Probably most important in the history of global warming and climate change is the work of Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1903 for his work in understanding certain features of chemical reactions.

Less well known at the time was his work examining the impact of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere on the climate. In 1895, Arrhenius presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” He mathematically modeled the impact of varying amounts Carbon Dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere using only pencil, paper and a slide rule.

Climate modeling with computers in the 1970s vastly increased the predictive power but the computer models are only good as the assumptions going into the models. The modeling done and predictions made look good “in the rear view mirror.” There were over a dozen different models and some overestimated warming and some underestimated warming but over all they were surprisingly accurate.

The models erred due to unforeseen changes in the variables . As time goes on however, the unforeseen decreases with better understanding. One example is the NASA model by James Hansen that overestimated the heating. It was due to an unanticipated reduction of Chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. This decrease came about due to an international effort to deal with the unrelated environmental issue of the Ozone hole.

The computer models calculate the heat input from the sun and output via radiation. Among the variables that impact these calculations are the amount of water in the atmosphere and whether it is in the form of vapor which warms the air, or clouds which reflect the sunlight, creating a cooling effect. The albedo of the planet, that is the reflectivity, is important and varies between land and and sea, and winter and summer due to snow and ice. The temperature of the oceans impacts how much of the greenhouse gases will be absorbed from the atmosphere because the solubility of gases in water is temperature dependent.

Climate modeling gets better by the day. There is no conceivable reason for the world’s scientists to act in concert to defraud the public. That is just silly. It does make sense however for those who profit from pollution to deny the pollution, or try to divert attention from the major culprit – burning fossil fuels.

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

Ocean Woes

Threats to the biosphere from changes in the oceans are real. Global warming involves not just atmospheric heating but also sea surface warming. About half the increased warming is going to the oceans. This can have wide-ranging effects, with deoxygenation at or near the top of the list of risks.

Henry’s law states that the solubility of gasses in water is inversely proportional to temperature. What this means is that warmer water holds less oxygen. Anglers in Arkansas recognize three distinct kinds of conditions for fishing. Likely the most common fishery in Arkansas is a lake where the water temperature and hence the oxygen content supports fish such as largemouth Bass, sunfish, and the like.

If you are after smallmouth bass you are unlikely to find them in a lake, at least here in Arkansas. Smallmouth bass require a higher oxygen content that is available only in cooler water – usually clear streams that flow fast enough to avoid warming from the sun. It is not uncommon to see smallmouth bass at the cooler upstream ends of creeks and largemouth at the lower, warmer reaches.

Trout are the most demanding in terms of oxygen needs. Trout only thrive in cold water with the highest oxygen concentration. Here is Arkansas that means creeks that get the majority of their flow from springs and the cold tailwaters of impoundments.

The point of this freshwater digression is to point out that the variety and number of fish in a given locale is dependent on water temperature. This is also true in the oceans. There is a reason that megafauna such as whales spend their time in the cold, oxygen-rich waters of the arctic and Antarctic regions – that’s where their food is found in abundance. As the surface of the oceans warm, we should expect changes in where fish and sea mammals alike can survive. Just that sort of change is happening and it doesn’t look good.

Cod are an extremely important commercial fish found in northern regions of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The importance of this fish alone can not be overemphasized. The coastal regions of northern Europe have depended to a large degree on access to Cod. In the middle of the twentieth century the United Kingdom and Iceland were all but at war over fishing rights to the cod in the north Atlantic near Europe.

The trouble with cod now centers in the North Pacific. Just last week, the Gulf of Alaska was closed to cod fishing for the 2020 season. Stocks have been declining for several years, not from overfishing as occurred in the Grand Banks region of the Atlantic, but from ocean warming. The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. Glaciers are receding, arctic ice is diminishing and now fish stocks are dwindling.

In the future, it is conceivable that other more tolerant species of fish can migrate into the warming Arctic waters but for other locales, this isn’t possible. Fish currently in the tropics are already the only species tolerant of the lower oxygen concentrations. Higher temperatures will likely create fish “deserts.”

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

Leaving Paris

President Trump campaigned on the denial of climate change, calling it a Chinese hoax. Upon election, he announced that the United States would be withdrawing from an agreement reached among every nation on earth. Despite the world’s scientists, the world’s scientific organizations, and the world’s governments agreeing that climate change is an existential threat to humanity and our environment, the government of the United States says no.

Despite polling showing the majority of us agree that climate change is occurring and action needs to be taken and despite the fact that the size of this majority is growing over time, the Trump administration continues to roll back regulations meant to combat global warming.

The full name of the agreement is “the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “ It is also referred to as COP21, the 21st Conference of Parties. This agreement was designed to improve upon and replace the rather ineffectual Kyoto Protocol from 2005.

The agreement is an international treaty that has been ratified by UN members representing nations that produce in aggregate over 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. This means very few nations representing major emitters could effect ratification of the treaty: China, USA, India, Russia, and Japan would be all that is necessary. In fact, 197 countries have ratified the treaty.

The treaty created individualized targets called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for greenhouse gas reductions. The developed nations have targets with steeper reduction curves compared to the developing world. The argument is the countries of the developed world are principally responsible for the excess of greenhouse gasses and therefore should bear the lion’s share of the reductions.

President Trump formally notified the international community this week that we will withdraw from the agreement next fall. The date for the formal withdrawal is one day after the 2020 elections. Even if he loses his bid for re-election he is still president until the inauguration of a new president.

Since at least the end of World War II, the United States has been the world leader in science and technology and a moral guidepost for the world. By disengaging from this treaty we are telling the rest of the world that we don’t care. By abandoning the objective of lessening of the risk of climate change also means that we will be less focused on science and technology to achieve the end.

The solution for addressing climate change is a moral one – we need to recognize reality, and a scientific and technological one – developing new ways of producing the energy we need to power our society with less greenhouse gas emissions.

China is the world leader in installing wind and solar power sources in total. On a per-capita basis, Denmark is the leader in wind and Germany for solar.

We literally stand along among the nations of the world in our direction of change. As the world moves to cleaner renewable energy our government is moving to subsidize fossil fuel utilization.

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

Water Management

Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are simply planets that circle a star other than our own. First detected in the late 1980s, there are now thousands of known exoplanets. Although there is no current interest as a place to flee the ravages of our planet, the exoplanets are none the less of scientific interest.

The biggest problem as an escape route is the fact of distance, the nearest is over four light-years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year or about six trillion miles. Despite being quite distant, the exoplanets are of interest as possible sources of other life in the universe. To accommodate life as we know it requires one universal – liquid water.

Water has unique chemical properties as a solvent that no other substance really can compare. Chemistry and thermodynamics, anywhere in the universe, combine in a way that makes life inconceivable without it.

With an abundance of water on this planet, one might think it is not an issue but increasingly it is. Specifically the availability of manageable water. Global warming and the climate change that follows therefrom is making the management of water difficult.

Sea levels are rising and rising faster than previously predicted. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that the sea level rise may be as much as six feet by the end of the century, more than twice the prediction of just a few years ago. And lest you think the end of the century is a long way off, it is within the lifetime of someone who could be reading this column today.

Whole cities will either have to be abandoned or pay incredible costs for infrastructure to hold the seas back. Forty percent of the world’s population is coastal, that is live within fifty miles of a seacoast.

Meanwhile farther inland, managing water is being made more difficult. Billions of people around the world depend on meltwater from the mountain snowpack. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly half the human population of the planet. Global warming is threatening the timely delivery of freshwater. More cold season runoff can overwhelm reservoir storage of water, making less water available later in the growing season.

We’ve recently had a lesson on water management with the historic flooding of the Arkansas River valley. Serious to catastrophic failure of levees is responsible for disaster declarations in a sixth of Arkansas Counties. Levees and other flood control structures will have to be not just replaced but radically upgraded to accommodate changing rainfall patterns.

At every turn, climatic instabilities force greater expenditures on infrastructure. This is the cost of climate inaction. The sooner we act to reduce the rate of global warming, the less we have to spend on mitigation. We have economically practical technologies to stop driving global warming. Wind and solar electric energy coupled with battery storage can power the world. We must wholeheartedly invest in the future, now. Or do we abandon our children to our unaddressed climate disasters?

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.

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.

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.