Category Archives: Global Warming

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.

Agriculture and Climate Change – A Two Way Street

garden

Global warming and the attendant changing climate is caused mainly but not entirely by burning fossil fuels. This releases carbon dioxide, the principle greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere which traps heat by absorbing infrared radiation. Close to 25 per cent of the greenhouse gasses produced in the United States is due to agriculture.

Fuel, mostly oil derived gasoline and diesel fuel is used in tractors and other farm equipment to produce and haul food and fiber. Additional fossil fuels are used to produce fertilizer and a bevy of “cides” – insecticides, herbicides, etc. .

Nitrous Oxide and Methane are two more greenhouse gasses released to the atmosphere and have agricultural sources. Nitrous Oxide comes mainly from application of nitrogen fertilizers. Methane comes from the action of anerobic bacteria on plant matter. This can occur in wet soils such as occur in rice farming. Sewage lagoons where the wastes from confined animal operations also produce methane. Last but not least the stomachs of ruminants such as cows and sheep contain the same bacteria and produce the same methane emissions.

A final agricultural contribution to global warming comes from clearing timberland or more importantly rainforests for crop production. This is not particularly an issue here in the United States but is an issue on the global stage. The role the United States plays is as a consumer. Rainforests in the Amazon basin are being cleared to create pasture for cattle, aka hamburgers. In southeast Asia forests are cleared to create cropland for palm oil production, aka deep fried whatever.

Briefly that’s the impact of agriculture on climate change, how about the obverse, the impact of climate change on agriculture, especially here in the United States? The picture is not pretty.

Global warming is a cause, climate change is a result. Changing climate means a disruption of agricultural zones, not only based on temperature, but also rainfall. Crop production, whether for us to eat directly or for feed for livestock requires climatic stability. Any individual crop requires just the right combination of temperature, rainfall at the right time and proper soil conditions for that crop.

Climate change will disrupt all of the above. Consider our breadbasket, grain production in the upper midwest. Two factors impacted by global warming are a problem. First is the temperature. As the planet warms the growing zone will shift to the north. No problem you say, we will just grow our corn in Manitoba rather than Iowa. The problem is that the deep loam of Iowa doesn’t exist in Manitoba, and soil is a big deal.

Second is timely rainfall. Computer models of global warming predict that rainfall patterns will change in two ways. Rainfall will increase in the coastal areas, but decrease in the mid-continental regions. Not good. Also what rainfall that does occur will come in more intense storms. Even worse.

We have to eat, but we need to learn to produce our food in ways that lessen our carbon footprint, and at the same time decrease our dependence on crops that are too sensitive to climate. For starters, support your local small farmers. They generally have a smaller carbon footprint and can react more quickly to climate change.

Hottest.April.Ever

While conservatives in several states are tearing their hair out over transgender bathroom issues and passing laws to the same and Donald Trump is ranting about Hillary coming for your guns, a more pervasive real issue is pounding on the front door.

For the seventh straight month, and the third strait year, it’s the hottest ever recorded on planet earth. Whether you use actual thermometer readings, or proxies for temperature such as freeze-thaw dates, the answer is the same. Whether you use land based or sea surface temperatures, the answer is the same. Whether you use ground based or satellite data, the answer is always the same.

It’s hotter than ever and more importantly, it’s getting hotter faster than ever. That is the really scary part. The earth’s average temperature has changed radically over time. It has been hotter and it has been colder, but never in the past 800,000 years has the temperature of the earth been warmer nor changed as rapidly as it has in the last couple of centuries. And the rate of change is accelerating.

This planetary cycle is driven by our continuing to flood the atmosphere with certain gases, called radiatively forcing gases which trap heat and hence warm the surface of the planet. It’s really not very complex science, and most of the world’s scientists understand.

The time period arbitrarily chosen as a baseline is 1950-1980. If we call that zero, then the temperature In in April was hotter than ever. New data from NASA, the agency that put man on the moon, and maintains people in space on the International Space Station, show that the average combined land and sea temperatures for April were 1.11 degrees Celsius (2.00 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the baseline. That is the average. It was much hotter near the poles (here in Bullfrog Valley it was actually a little cooler as I recall but BFV is not the rest of the world.)

In locations such as Alaska, Russian Siberia, and Greenland, the difference was as much as 4 C (> 7 degrees Fahrenheit). “The interesting thing is the scale at which we’re breaking records,” said Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s clearly all heading in the wrong direction.”

The saddest and most maddening thing is that this is nothing new or surprising. Scientists around the planet have been beating the drum, loudly, since the 1980s. Our climate is in crisis and we need to act now. Every day we delay means more costs to our children both in dollars and a loss in biological richness. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist warned of the possibility of global warming in a paper published in 1896, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid [Carbon Dioxide] in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.

Forewarned is forearmed, if we will just listen.

Fracking Yeas and Nays

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process which has been around for over 60 years but because of recent technological changes is being used to increase production of oil and gas. Basically a fluid is pumped underground under high pressure causing the substrate to fracture which allows oil and gas to move more readily through the fissures created into the well and up to the surface.

The historical precedent goes back to the post civil war era. Civil war veteran Col Roberts received a patent for a method to increase production in oil wells that involved dropping a nitroglycerin filled “torpedo” down the well shaft. The explosion would fracture the formation, increasing oil production.

Hydraulic fracturing began about 1950. The recent fracking boom is the result of a combination of advances to the technology including directional drilling and the use of “proppants” like sand and glass beads which prop open the fractures. The technique was pioneered here in the US but its use is rapidly expanding around the world.

There is no question that it is a hot button issue. Some claim that it is a useful, even necessary way to produce fuels for a growing economy. Others suggest the the environmental problems associated with the technique are so untoward as to require banning its use.

Natural gas, regardless of its source, has been called the Prince of Fuels. Among fossil fuels it is by far and away the cleanest burning. It has essentially none of the noxious impurities like sulfur and heavy metals that occur in both coal and oil. It also has a considerable advantage in that it produces more energy for the amount of carbon dioxide produced. Older coal fired power plants have been closing across the country, due in part to it replacement by natural gas plants. Natural gas could even replace liquid fuels for transportation as compressed natural gas (CNG) or by catalytic conversion to a liquid fuel.

Natural gas can be burned in turbines to generate electricity. Gas turbines are ideal as a source of rapidly dispatchable energy that combines well with intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar panels. If the wind blows hard, you idle the turbines, light wind, power up just a few, no wind, turn ’em all on. Over half the natural gas produced in the US comes from fracking.

There are however serious downsides. Fracturing requires a toxic witches brew of hydraulic fluids and some suggest that these pollutants in the fluids have found their way into groundwater. Although it is not hard to imagine how this could happen, the evidence of it actually happening is scant. A more clearly defined problem is the cluster of shallow earthquakes that correlate well with spent fracking fluid reinjection sites. Once the fluid has been used it is disposed of by permanent injection into wells. This fluid under pressure lubricates the subterranean rock layers allowing them to move, hence earthquakes.

Natural gas, essentially methane, is itself a potent contributor to global warming. A final negative is the growing evidence that fugitive emissions from gas production and transmission facilities is a serious contributor to global warming.

These negatives are not insurmountable. Better well casing and location limitations can minimize the risk of ground water pollution. Reprocessing of used fluids, rather than injection will end the earthquake issue, and simply “tightening up” the production and transmission facilities will lessen the fugitive emissions.

Nuclear is Not the Answer

RusselvillePowerplant

James Hansen is the climate scientist who first loudly and persistently proclaimed a risk to society of global warming and the consequent climate change and acidification of the oceans. Recently he and a few others suggested that a vigorous expansion of nuclear power is the only option for producing enough power to completely replace fossil fuels for energy production.

To achieve this goal would require the construction worldwide of over one hundred reactors a year, every year till 2050. As the United States uses something like twenty percent of the world’s energy, our share of the nuclear construction would be about 20 to 25 reactors every year. Conservatively that would be close to 700 nuclear reactors. Based on population that would mean about 7 new reactors in Arkansas alone.

This is a construction rate far, far beyond the heyday of reactor construction in the 1970s. It is just not going to happen for several reasons. Hansen has blamed environmental concerns for blocking the expansion of the nuclear power industry and there may be some truth to this. Past catastrophic nuclear reactor failures loom over the industry. And the seemingly intractable, politically at least, problem of permanent storage of high level nuclear wastes. The best we have come up with so far is on site storage in concrete containers – essentially the radioactive spent fuel rods are placed in casks standing around in parking lots adjacent to the reactors.

Environmental concerns are not the real issue, it is that nuclear power can’t compete economically. The extremely long planning and construction time make essentially impossible to stay on budget. The Union of Concerned Scientists report that the cost for the planning, construction, and licensing has gone from an estimated 2 billion dollars in 2002 to an astounding 9 billion in 2009.

Meanwhile the carbon free competition – efficiency, wind, and solar PV have see an opposite cost curve. For comparison, the cost of a 2 megawatt wind turbine is about 3 million dollars. For an equivalent amount of power produced by a nuclear reactor, the cost is a little over a billion dollars. For large scale commercial solar photovoltaic arrays the cost is about 2.5 billion dollars. Most importantly the cost curves for sustainable energy are downward whereas for nuclear they are upward.

The fuel costs for nuclear power are now relatively modest, but in a scenario with 700 nuclear reactors requiring Uranium, the cost will be substantially greater. Most likely fuel reprocessing will be necessary to produce new fuel but also to deal with the waste stream from all these reactors. Reprocessing fuel will add to costs and increase the risk of additional handling of radioactive material. Both accidents at reprocessing plants as occurred to at Kerr-McGee facility in Oklahoma, or the possibility of diversion to terrorists as weapons.

The future may see some expansion of nuclear reactors, as they serve an important function for baseload power, but something will have to be done to control costs. Savings via deregulation is a non starter. In fact increased regulation may save money. Standardized designs and construction methods may be able to contain costs somewhat. Additional subsidization of the nuclear industry via taxpayer backed insurance is a must. When it comes to the nuclear industry; capitalism, meet socialism.

Private Sector must be the Answer

In Al Gore’s award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth” he used the old saw to depict a real problem with global warming. If you put a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in cold water but very slowly warm it up and the frog will stay until it is too late and be boiled alive.

That is a nice analogy for the dilemma we face with with global warming. The process is slow. Another analogy would be to call it glacially slow, but glaciers are moving, and melting, at a fairly rapid pace these days. Humans and a number of animals evolved to react to rapidly occurring threats – the snap of a twig in the brush, the glint of light from an eye, and we are ready to fight or flee.

Global warming is a decades to centuries change that threatens us now, and many just don’t see the threat, a threat not to us individually, but to our future. Some are so insensitive to the risk that even if they believe it to be true, won’t react because it doesn’t matter to them personally. If the majority of us hold this opinion, we are doomed as a species.

Some governments are beginning to react with policies that favor carbon free energy strategies, but the steps are often small and can be more costly than simple business as usual burning of fossil fuels. Hey, it’s on face value cheaper and we know how it works.

On a more hopeful note is the fact that technology got us into this problem, but technology and the private sector, hold the potential to get us out. Obviously we need to stop burning fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. Natural Gas, essentially methane, is does not produce as much pollution as the others, but ultimately its use must be curtailed also.

There two ways to replace the fossil fuels, use less through efficiency and replace energy production with non-carbon sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Of the three, wind is the most developed. We currently get about 4 % of our electric energy production from wind, entirely land based. The potential for off shore wind, especially on the east coast affords considerable potential but currently is more expensive to exploit than wind resources in the midwest. Currently the cost of wind generated power is as cheap as that from a modern coal fired plant. And the costs continue to decline, the opposite of the cost for producing power from coal.

Solar Photovoltaic systems (solar panels) are sprouting up everywhere, especially since the price has dropped by half in just the last few years. Not only are homeowners adding panels to their roofs but utility scale systems are being installed. Entergy recently announced that they intend to build a 500 acre solar farm near Stuttgart. For perspective, a square mile covers 640 acres.

Until the intermittent energy sources of wind and solar penetrate to about 30% of total production, no additional back up power is needed. Essentially there is enough existing reserve power to keep the lights on after dark when the wind isn’t blowing. Beyond that, battery backup will be needed. Development and deployment of utility scale battery production will surely follow the demand.

Clean Power Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the Clean Power Plan. This plan has been evolving since multiple supreme court rulings avered that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant and should be regulated according to the Clean Air Act. Carbon Dioxide is the principle greenhouse gas driving global warming. It’s release to the environment must be slowed and ultimately stopped to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The plan seeks to lower the emissions of Carbon Dioxide by going after the low hanging fruit first: coal fired power plants. The national mandate is to reduce emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, so implementation will be spread over 15 years. Interestingly, current levels of CO2 emissions are lower that 2005 already. This is due to a combination of the recession lowering demand for power and the increasing reliance on sustainable energy supplies such as wind and the conversion of older coal plants to natural gas. Natural gas plants have always been cleaner burning in a number of ways such as particulate emissions, but especially cleaner due to lower CO2 emissions.

Realistically the country has been moving away from coal already. The cost of coal fired plants has been on the rise because of the increasing recognition of the harmful health effects of burning coal. This has resulted in stricter control of emissions other that Carbon Dioxide. These include particulates which when inhaled interfere with breathing, and toxic metals that pollute the environment and have health consequences of their own. An additional factor driving down the use of coal is the availability of increasing amounts of cheap Natural Gas brought on by the fracking boom.

The situation here in Arkansas is made more difficult because we are behind the curve when it comes to transitioning away from coal. Although the national mandate is a 32 percent reduction averaged over the states in aggregate , ours is 37 percent. The relevant measure is “pounds of CO2 produced per amount of electricity generated (lbs CO2/MMWhe .) California for example only needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 14 percent because they have already moved aggressively to sustainable energy supplies. The states have much latitude in how to lower carbon emissions. Increasing efficiency in energy production from coal plants, carbon trading, and producing more energy from renewable energy are all on the table.

In addition to reducing the risk of global warming, the health benefits of cleaner air abound. Reduced particulate emissions will reduce the incidence of asthma and other cardiopulmonary ailments. Other improvements include lowered emissions of toxic heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that tens of billions of dollars will be saved in 2030 by improvements in human health and environmental services.

The coal industry is of course squealing like a stuck pig and will sue, along with states heavily dependent on coal use like Arkansas. Their argument is regulation will drive up the cost of electricity. History has shown time and again that industry claims of the cost of regulation are invariably exaggerated. The EPA claims that actual costs of electricity will go down.

And finally there are jobs. Although a few jobs in mining, transporting and utilizing coal will be lost many many more will be created in the new industries associated with renewable energy.

Global Warming; Freshwater, Saltwater

Will fighting over freshwater replace fighting over oil? The snowpack in mountains has been exploited by humans since the beginning of civilization. The slow release of water as the snowpack melts provides not only drinking water but also water for irrigation of crops where seasonal rainfall is insufficient.

Billions of people around the world depend on melt water. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly 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, and less warm season runoff means less water for irrigation during the growing season.

Researchers at Stanford have published a paper examining the projected impact of global warming and water resources, especially those related to the snowpack in the northern hemisphere. Using the average and extreme rates for precipitation, accumulation and runoff for the 30 years from 1976 to 2006 as a baseline, they then used computer modeling to project out through the 21st century.

They found that as global warming intensifies, low snowfall years will increase, and the snow melt will occur sooner, disrupting water management. “”While the greatest impacts are likely to occur at higher levels of global warming, our results highlight the fact that continued emissions over the next few decades are likely to substantially reduce snow accumulation in a number of regions, increasing the risk of both flooding and drought in different parts of the year,” said the lead author of the paper.

A second, obvious threat posed by global warming is the melting of ancient land bound ice. As the ice reservoirs on the antarctic continent, Greenland, and other interior glaciers melt away, sea levels will rise threatening the great coastal cities of the world. Sea level rise is happening now and recent data suggests that it is happening at an accelerating rate.

Based on long term measurements of tidal gauges and more recent satellite data, on average the rate of sea level rise from 1880 to 2013 has been 0.06 inches per year. If one looks at more recent data however the rate of rising is much greater, over twice as fast. Looking at data from 1993 to the present shows a rate of change of sea level of 0.14 inches per year. Taking account of the accelerating rate of change of sea levels, experts predict a sea level rise of up to 6 feet by the end of the century.

It is extremely difficult to stop the seas from rising but by active approaches to slow global warming we can slow the rate of change of sea levels, giving us more time to protect coastal populations through mitigation.

Global Warming and Politics

Anthropogenic Global warming (AGW)and the resultant climate change is acknowledged by essentially every scientific body around the world. President Obama recognizes this and has instituted several policy initiatives.

These include but aren’t limited to a mandate to increase transportation efficiency to reduce the use of oil and oil derived fuels. The new Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFE) standard will rise to over 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

The EPA is completing rule making which will result in a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants. Obama also supports research and development of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal to replace the use of fossil fuels.

But Obama will leave office in 2017 and a new president will be in charge. What will be his or her policies towards global warming?

Democratic candidates are generally are more concerned about AGW and are more likely to enact policies that address the issue. Republican candidates, not so much.

Hillary Clinton, the hands down leader for the democratic party’s nomination, put AGW near the top of her priorities. She described it as “ “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.” She also joined with Obama by saying that she would defend the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Bernie Sanders, her challenger from the left for the democratic nomination is equally in favor of strong actions on AGW. At a speech in Burlington, the senator from Vermont said “Climate change is real. It is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. And let’s be clear — if we do not get our act together and have the united states lead the world in combating climate change, there will be more drought, more famine, more rising sea level, more floods, more ocean acidification, more extreme weather disturbances.”

The current leader in the crowded republican field, Jeb Bush, has expressed concern for climate change but thinks private industries innovations such as fracking to produce natural gas will solve the problem. Natural gas, essentially methane, does burn cleaner than oil and coal; however methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Right now billionaire Donald Trump is runner up to Bush in the republican sweepstakes but like the remainder of the crowd is only in the single digits for support. He is a AGW denier. His comments tend to the claim that occasional cold weather or snow storms prove that it is a hoax. He has said little on energy policy but we could expect little action on climate change in his administration.

Just the announced Republican candidates are too numerous to include comments from all but here are a couple more.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, claims that climate change is irrelevant – “there’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on.” Mike Huckabee – “The volcano that erupted over in Northern Europe [in 2010] actually poured more CO2 into the air in that single act of nature than all of humans have in something like the past 100 years.” This patent falsehood shows where he stands.

Global Warming and Biodiversity

Global warming denial takes many forms and for a number of reasons. One factually true but disingenuous form of denial involves the claim that climate change has happened before and will happen again so we don’t need to take action.

It is factually true that the climate changes. But the changes which have occurred in the past generally took anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of years. On these time scales plants and animals adapt and net biodiversity is at least stable or even increases due to evolutionary adaptation to change.

Rapid climate change such as we are observing now is occurring at a pace which drives species to extinction. Slow climate change can be good as it leads to greater biodiversity but rapid climate change is always bad as it reduces species diversity. The richness, the real value – even economic value – of a biome is related to the diversity of organisms present.

Ecologists discuss this in terms of environmental services. Environmental services are the benefits we derive directly from our environment. Climate stabilization, biogeochemical cycles, the hydrologic cycle, soil development and protection, pollination services, and pest control are among the services provided by diverse environments.

Climate stability depends to some degree on forestation which removes carbon from the atmosphere while providing an environment that harbors much other biota leading to richness.

Biogeochemical cycles which release nutrients and build soils are enhanced by a rich biota that contribute to the process. Decomposing plant matter release substance which help build soil which contribute to more and more diverse biota.

The hydrologic cycle is stabilized to large degree by the flora and fauna. The flora provide soil stability and nutrients for herbivores. Herbivores feed carnivores. Fauna such as beaver are described as a keystone species. They enhance wetland habitat, reduce downstream flooding, and reduce silt runoff. In so doing they provide an important niche for other species as diverse as predators -wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions and any number of prey organisms like fish. The fish service the environment through fertilization for more flora.

Over a third of the human diet depends on insect pollination of vegetables, legumes, and fruit. Even meat production requires pollination of important feedstock such as alfalfa. Pollination is a service for which there is NO practical alternative.

While we are on thirds, over a third of crop production is lost to pests. Literally tens of thousands of insects exist in predator prey relationships. Invariably the more diverse the biome the more stable and therefore predictable is the environment.

Finally there are untold miscellaneous services. The majority of drugs come from or are produced synthetically but patterned after substances from nature. Woodpeckers are studied to learn how to build crash helmets, squid nerves can be a thousand times as long a human nerves and their study important to neurology. Even the study of primates, related indirectly to human ancestors, can tell us much about the evolution of human behavior.

Climate stability helps maintain a richness to our lives. Rapid climate change will if we allow it, produce a warmer, flatter, less attractive human existence. Is that what you want for future generations?