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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.

Energy from Ocean Currents

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Whether we learn to stop burning fossil fuels as a way to mitigate global warming or we simply use them all up, we will have to find truly sustainable supplies of energy for our future. Nuclear power is always a possibility but seems to be going nowhere as nobody but nobody wants the radioactive wastes.

Solar energy in all its direct and derivative forms is the odds on leader. Solar thermal for powering turbines to generate electricity and Photovoltaic energy production are direct applications of solar power. Important but derivative is wind. Wind is the result of the Coriolis effect (more about this later) and uneven heating of land and water which creates the movement of air from regions of high pressure to low pressure. Wind driven wave action of some coastal areas also can be exploited.

Hydropower is also derived solar power. Solar heating causes water to evaporate from the surface of the earth. The water vapor can then condense and return to the surface as rain. Rainfall can be captured in reservoirs and used to generate power.

Geothermal power, heat from the interior of the earth, can be tapped to generate power where cracks in earth’s mantle make sufficient heat close enough to the surface as to be practically accessed.

Even the moon can provide power. It’s gravitational attraction drives the tides and in prime locations this power source has been tapped. The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia has tidal changes as high as 50 feet.

Ocean currents are an as yet untapped source of power. They are driven by several factors. The Coriolis effect is a force exerted by the rotation of the earth. Combine the Coriolis effect with the temperature differential between the equator and the poles and and differences in salinity between the two and you get a gyre.

The north Atlantic gyre is a circulation of water involving the gulf stream flowing north up the east coast of the United States, across the north Atlantic then down the western coast of Europe and back east across the Atlantic. The flow rate if the gulf stream is only about 2 miles an hour. This seems slow compared to wind speeds of about 12 to 15 miles per hour need for practical wind turbine power production.

The much slower movement of water still can provide significant amounts of power as water is about 800 times as dense as air, and power production is directly proportional to fluid density. All that is needed for power production is the placement of turbines anchored in place amid an ocean current.

Another current which could be used to produce power is a similar ocean gyre in the Pacific Ocean. The north Pacific equivalent of the gulf stream is called the Kuroshio current. It flows northward up the east coast of Japan and circulates in a clockwise pattern around the north Pacific.

An abundance of sustainable energy supplies exist around the world. Accessing multiple sources of sustainable supplies can assure all the power we need without using fossil fuels. The energy needs of humanity can be accomplished without utilizing fossil fuels and all the baggage their use entails.

Balkanization – SCOTUS Style

Within an hour of the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that there would be no hearings to replace Scalia until after the elections in the fall. His argument is that we should await the decision of the American people as to the next president before deciding on a replacement Justice.

The constitution is clear that the President of the United States selects nominees for the court with the advice and consent of the Senate. What is not clear is how to select a new justice if the senate refuses to hold hearings on a presidential nominee.

There are a number of “what ifs” built into the constitution and its amendments. If the president dies or becomes incapacitated, we have a vice-president at the ready. Three successive congressional acts have defined a presidential succession that goes well beyond the vice president. If there is no majority of votes cast in the electoral college, the election goes to the House of Representatives. If congress doesn’t like the actions of a president s/he can be removed through the impeachment process. If a tie vote occurs in the Senate, the Vice-President as casts a tie breaking vote.

There is however no mechanism to force a recalcitrant senate to act to confirm a selection to the supreme court. For that matter the senate could refuse to confirm any federal judge appointment, essentially abolishing the federal courts by attrition.

When the court is short one member, the possibility of a tie exists. In the case of a tie there is no decision. The previous appeals court decision stands. The death of Scalia has already changed things. In a recent civil action, Dow Chemical decided to pay an 835 million dollar settlement in an antitrust price-fixing case that it had lost in lower courts and that was on the Supreme Court’s docket. (A 4-to-4 tie at the Supreme Court would have left the lower court’s decision in place, including a judgment in excess of a billion dollars against Dow.

A serious problem exists now because tied decisions mean that the circuit court decision stands, but only for that circuit court, of which there are 12 (Arkansas is in the 8th circuit.) Tied decisions mean no decisions, it is as if there were no supreme court only the 12 regional circuit courts. There can be no consistent federal law throughout the nation as long as tie votes are possible.

With only eight justices on the court, and the possibility of tie decisions, we have a situation which “Balkanizes” federal law (Balkanization is a term which refers to a condition when one political unit fragments into several smaller units, especially when there are political differences among the smaller units. It refers to the Balkan Peninsula in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed into a number of smaller often hostile nation states.)

Right now it is not the United States of America, but rather the “Amalgamated 12 Different Regions of America.”

National Security is More than Bombs

The focus of a previous Republican debate was national security. To a man (or woman) the only concern was for the security that comes from a bullet or battleship. Their strategies involved variations on sending our troops to die in Syria, greater involvement of the Arab nation’s troops, increased drone attacks and a strangely abundant call for carpet bombing.

Other kinds of security may come to mind on a national scale, food security is a biggie, and avoidance of floods and droughts, and disease vectors such as insect born infections, and epidemics, and heat waves and on and on from global warming and climate change. Bullets and battleships won’t help here, just the opposite. Instead of fighting we must work on agreeing so we can reach solutions.

Back to national security of the bombing kind. Last July the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report outlining possible threats to national security that could involve the military. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries…”

When the British exited the Indian subcontinent they partitioned the area into India and East and West Pakistan, based strictly on religious grounds. Later east Pakistan became Bangladesh. It is a small but populous, low-lying country. A predominantly Muslim country adjacent to a predominantly Hindu India. What happens when rising sea levels push 150 or so million Muslims “upslope” into Hindu India? The capital of Bangladesh is not coastal but still is just 4 meters above sea level. Even without forcing migration across borders, population concentration can cause strife.

Hardly any place on earth is immune from threats that could turn into military conflict. The melting of Arctic sea ice will bring several major nations into proximity in the area. Some of the area has ill-defined borders which when covered with ice weren’t much of an issue. Now those issues along with the seas are heating up.

Access to fresh water will surely become a flash point in the future. The high latitudes and low latitudes are predicted to get wetter, but the mid latitudes drier. There are already over a billion people with limited access to potable water and this may only get worse with global warming.

The DoD report emphasizes that the threat is real and requires planning to be prepared for the future. “The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change requires monitoring, analysis and integration of those risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command, they added.”

A recurring theme in science fiction novels and movies has been the coming together of otherwise warring nations to fight a common enemy – space aliens. Will global warming be the threat not from space but from within which will bind us together as a world community? An important step was taken recently in Paris with a much heralded agreement among all nations. The meeting of world leaders has resulted in an international resolve to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Upcoming Paris Talks

Next month, world leaders from over 190 countries, and scientists that represent governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will meet again, this time in Paris, to try to address the issue of global warming. This is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. Fully 80% of the global economy runs on the energy produced from burning fossil fuels which releases Carbon Dioxide. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a blanket trapping heat which results in warming the planet.

The answer is simple and clear, but the solution is anything but. The answer is to stop burning carbon as an energy source. How that is achieved is the crux of the problem. Some say that if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to solve the climate problem. To be honest that was an easy goal to achieve. First and foremost we did it essentially alone. The global warming challenge requires the cooperation of every country on the planet, something which has never happened before.

Our putting a man on the moon also didn’t require any special source of energy or concern for the wastes produced therefrom. To solve the global warming crisis will require a combination of drastic reductions in burning fossil fuels, massive improvements in energy efficiency to reduce demand and an expansion of sustainable non-carbon energy sources over an extremely short time scale, unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Some steps have been initiated in a few countries, most notably Western Europe, where several countries have moved aggressively to deploy wind and solar. On a good day Denmark can get 100 % of its electrical energy needs from wind. Germany is not particularly well situated for solar power yet in 2014 they produced over 6% of the electrical energy from solar PV panels. Even China is reacting. Their current 5-year plan has a goal of over 11% of energy needs from renewable sources. That’s some of the good news, the bad news is that it is not nearly enough.

If the countries could agree to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from the current scenario, over the next 50 years, it will only push back the time it takes to double the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 10 years – from 2065 to 2075. Some countries such as those in western Europe have both the technological acumen and the political will to achieve that kind of a goal. Others like the US have the technology but as yet have not expressed the political will to take on the task. And finally much of the rest of the world has neither.

So where does that leave us? Eventually the planet with run out of energetically available fossil fuels, but it doesn’t look like curtailing their use will happen any time soon. Adapting to “a new world order” of the climate variety seems inevitable. If there is one thing we humans do well is adapt. As a species we are very young, but have come out of Africa and covered the globe, occupying every conceivable niche. From the frozen tundra to desiccated wastes of deserts. From lowland swamps to the tops of mountain ranges.

We will pull our cities back from the submerging coasts, and adapt our crops to the hotter regimen. But what about the rest of the biosphere? I suspect we will be adapting to a more biologically barren world.

Mean Coal

To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.

Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.

In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.

We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?

Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.

So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.

To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.

 

Global Warming, Problems and Solutions

The drumbeat to deal with the immediate problem of global warming gets louder. Ice caps are melting and glaciers shrinking at ever increasing rates. Sea levels continue to rise and the oceans are becoming more acidic. 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history and 2015 appears on the way to surpass that. The hottest 10 years on record have occurred in the past 17.

melting glacier

melting glacier

Meanwhile human activities added over 40 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere in just the last year. Human activities are also increasing the amounts of other climate forcing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Frightening feedback loops serve to intensify the rate of climate change: A warmer atmosphere hold more water vapor, a very strong greenhouse gas in it’s own right. Melting sea ice reflects less solar energy back into space and thawing tundra in the far north releases Methane.

The data from above is measured on a daily basis across the globe. There is no controversy. We are creating a situation that will continue on for generations. The only question is just how badly do we want to burden our children ? The longer we delay the more costly it gets; in environmental degradation, in money, and in human lives.

President Obama has taken a bold step with the clean power plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 30 % compared to 2012 levels by 2030. It is a first step, but only a small one. Basically we have to find alternatives for energy production to replace the use of fossil fuels. The United States is behind many other countries but we have the resources available, wind and solar, to rapidly catch up and become the preeminent power in the world again.

Our heartland, the Midwest, is considered to be the Saudi Arabia of wind, but to properly exploit the resource requires a rapid expansion of the grid to deliver the power to where its needed. Part of the expansion of transmission should pass through Arkansas. Utilities are beginning to show interest, or at least are prodded on by the clean power plan. They tend to favor large “ utility scale” projects for both wind and solar.

Wind resources here in Arkansas are limited but readily available from our neighbors to the west. A utility scale 500 acre solar farm will soon be built near Stuttgart Arkansas. Large scale projects like this are financed by long term contracts with the energy producer and the power companies that have the transmission and distribution capacity to deliver the power to the consumer.

Big power producers and big industries have the lobbying might to bring on the large projects, but that needn’t be the only way to generate large amounts of clean power. If individual home owners and small businesses were afforded the the same long term contracts, there wouldn’t be a need for large tracts of land, only south facing roofs.

bob

bob

You could be a power provider by using the sun falling on your roof everyday. Just measure how much energy your roof can capture, then go to your grid operator and request a long term contract based on the power you could be producing (and profiting from.) With contract in hand go to the bank for underwriting a loan, to be paid for through the power contract. Alternatively lease agreements could still earn a tidy profit.

In Arkansas this could be as simple as the Public Service Commission mandating that long term contracts be available to small producers, just as they are to the big boys. Voila, large scale distributed energy.

Fuel Cell Vehicles

Auto manufacturers, both here and abroad are scrambling to produce electric vehicles. The most successful out of the gun has been the high end Tesla model S. Others include the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3. Chevrolet will be introducing the Bolt in the near future. All these cars are whisper quite and perform well. They all however suffer the drawback of limited range on a charge and a rather long recharge time at least compared to the time to fill a tank of gasoline.

Notably missing from the cars listed above is the world’s largest car manufacturer – Toyota. They set the standard for hybrid cars with the introduction of the Prius in 2001. It is powered by a internal combustion engine (ICE) which is supported by a electric motor and battery that results in quite high mileage compared to other ICE powered cars.

Although Toyota has yet to produce an all-electric car, they seem to be hedging their bet on the development of an alternative to electric cars with batteries. In development is an electric car that runs off of a fuel cell that is powered by Hydrogen. The chemistry of the fuel cell is just the opposite of the high school CHEM class experiment called electrolysis. If you pass an electric current through water it cause the production of Hydrogen and Oxygen from the water. This process consumes electrical energy.

In a fuel cell powered vehicle, hydrogen gas is stored at high pressure in a tank. When electrical energy is needed, the gas is passed into the fuel cell where it combines with oxygen from the air to produce electrical energy. The principle is simple but in practice fuel cells are complex devices that require unique and often expensive catalysts to make the chemical reaction proceed at a sufficient rate to power a vehicle. The real advantage to this technology is the range of the vehicle between refills. It should be possible to store enough Hydrogen in a vehicle to get a lot more range than can be achieved with charging batteries.

A problem with the use of Hydrogen is one of thermodynamics. It takes more energy to produce Hydrogen than you can get back when used. Basically any time you do work, energy will be wasted. Thermodynamically work is the use of energy to drive a process, be it chemical , electrical or mechanical. In the case of Hydrogen energy losses occur when it is created from water by electrolysis, when it is compressed for transportation, when it is decompressed for use, and when it is used in a fuel cell. Each of these processes constitute an inefficiency where energy is lost.

Another problem is that Hydrogen is a gas and somewhat difficult to handle. Hydrogen stored in metal containers, or piped in metal pipes causes embrittlement. The metals become more fragile and likely to fail under pressure on exposure to Hydrogen. It is also problematic in that it has a low energy density by volume. It takes a lot of space to store a given weight of Hydrogen.

Toyota is betting that these difficulties with the production, storage and utilization of Hydrogen can be overcome.

flooding

Stormy Weather in the Southern Plains

The recent wave of severe storms, tornadoes and flooding plaguing the southern plains, essentially Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas have cost a over 30 lives, countless injuries and billions in property damage. And it isn’t over yet. Some of the rain and flooding from these storms are breaking all records. One Texas official described the recent rain as “of biblical proportions”

One of the effects of global warming is more severe storms of all kinds – tornadoes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, etc. Over the following decades we will see these increase in both frequency and severity. As we continue to pump ever increasing amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat will be trapped, and more heat in the atmosphere is a principle cause of severe weather.

There are a couple of factors involved. A warmer atmosphere means warmer seas, which means more evaporation. Additionally the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere will hold is a function of temperature, the warmer it is, the greater the greater the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. Conditions such as wild fires will also increase, due to “dry thunderstorms.” Lightning and high winds accompany these events where the rain evaporates before it gets to the ground.

And it’s not just the current storms in the southern plains nor the blizzards on the east coast last winter, it is global. Although the Atlantic was rather calm during the traditional hurricane season last year, there was an unprecedented number of severe storms in the eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean nations. Again billions upon billions of dollars of damages and hundreds of lives lost.

An important point to make is that all this accelerated activity correlates with a warmer atmosphere. Can any one storm (or it’s intensity) be blamed on global warming? No, of course not. No more than any one home run by Mark McGwire could be attributed to steroid use.

The type of societal damage from severe storms varies. Flooding causes the most economic injury. Damage to infrastructure, homes and vehicles dominate the costs. Most human deaths in the US are caused by heat waves. Tornadoes cause the most human injuries.

So what can be done? In the long term the solution is obvious – quit burning stuff for energy production. Burning coal, oil and natural gas returns Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere over a few decades that took many millions years to remove from the atmosphere. The problem is one of recognizing the true costs of energy sources. What we see on our electric bill or at the gas pump only includes the direct costs. The costs of externalities due to severe weather is not included.

How about a weather tax assessed to energy sources driven by fossil fuels? The money from this assessment could be used to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure, subsidize construction of more storm resistant residences, improve drainage, and expand reservoir capacity in drought prone areas just to mention a few. Basically we should use the funds to provide for the general welfare as is called for in our constitution.

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rare earth elements

Rare Earth Elements

As is the case in so much manufacturing, China is now the world leader in the production of a class of elements known as rare earths. They are not actually rare in terms of relative abundance in the earth’s crust, Cerium for example is about as common as Copper. The rare part of the name comes from the fact that they are difficult to obtain because they generally don’t occur in high concentration deposits as do better known metallic elements such as Iron, Copper, and Nickel.

Where they are found, the ores occur in lower concentrations and because the various rare earth elements have very similar chemical properties, they are difficult to separate. This makes the processing all the more expensive. Seventeen elements constitute the group, the majority of which occur in the Lanthanide Series of elements.

Although they share much of their chemical properties, each has unique uses especially in electronics and other modern high tech products.

One of the more common is Neodymium (Nd, atomic number 60.) It confers hardness and unique optical properties when used in small amounts as a dopant in glass. This glass is then used in the manufacture of certain kinds of lasers. Nd is also used in an alloy for high strength permanent magnets. Neodymium magnets have the advantage of having a high magnetic field strength to weight ratio. Applications include loud speakers, in-ear headphones and computer disks.

Several of the rare earths were first discovered in Ytterby, a small town in Sweden,. Yttrium (Y no. 39), Ytterbium (Yb 70), Erbium (Er 68), and Terbium (Tb 65) all take their name from the same mine

As noted many modern devices utilize rare earths – electronics, magnets, lasers, batteries, and efficient lightning just to name a few. An obvious modern device loaded with rare earths is a hybrid car. About 28 kilograms (~ 62 pounds) of rare earths go into a hybrid car. That is only a small fraction compared to the total weight, but it is a very important fraction.

Another now ubiquitous device, the cell phone, is chock full of rare earths. The glass is harder, and the speakers and memory are lighter, and the vibrating motors stronger – all due the rare earths.

So what’s the big deal about rare earths? The big deal is that currently China controls 97% of the market on these elements which are so important to modern society and even more importantly to a modern military. Our military is dependent on a foreign power for a strategic material. There are exploitable deposits of rare earths in the United States, but are not mined because of costs.

Efforts are being made to bring the cost of mining and processing of the rare earths down which could make our sources more attractive. That said, applying the same techniques to the richer Chinese deposits will make their materials correspondingly cheaper also.