Tag Archives: global warming

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

wind turbine

Size Matters/Wind Turbines

Utilization of the wind for motive power has a long and rich history. Wind-powered sailing vessels were known to ply the Nile river somewhere between 3 and 5 thousand years before the common era (BCE.) Although there is no direct evidence, it is quite possible that sailing craft could have been employed 50 thousand years ago to populate Southeast Asia and Australia.

Stationary power production in the form of lifting water has been dated to a few centuries BCE. Similarly, the wind was used for motive power to grind grain. The use of wind turbines in the Netherlands is legendary. By the 14th century CE, the Dutch were making extensive use of wind turbines to pump water out of the Rhine river basin to recover and maintain dry land. There is a reason this part of Europe is referred to as the “Low Countries.”

The history of wind for the generation of electrical energy is of course much younger. In 1877 Professor James Blythe in Glasgow, Scotland erected a 10-meter tall cloth-sailed wind turbine connected to batteries to light his cottage. Small scale isolated wind-powered electrical production has been in use around the world, including early twentieth-century Midwestern United States. Centralized power delivered via rural electrification in the 30s replaced virtually all small systems.

The modern era of electrical power production began in the 70s following the formation of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) and subsequent oil price shocks and embargoes. The price of crude oil skyrocketed and shortages of gasoline forced rationing. Later years saw the federal government subsidize wind power with grants and production credits. In 1990 less than one percent of total electrical energy in the United States came from wind. Currently is over seven percent.

The real change in wind power is the size of the turbines themselves. The earliest modern turbines averaged 50 kW, enough to power only a handful of homes. Also, these early turbines were erected on derricks which made for attractive roosting sites birds, especially raptors which led to unacceptable bird kills. The development of monocoque supporting towers have greatly reduced but not eliminated bird kills.

By the start of the twenty-first century, the average turbine size increased 30 fold. These giants produce about 2 MW. Simple calculations show that the midwestern United States could easily produce all the electrical needs of the country except for the distribution problem – most Americans live near the coasts far from the windy central United States.

The real expansion of wind power will occur with off-shore installations. Most off-shore wind is now located in shallow near-coastal areas, but plans for real behemoths on floating towers are in the works. Each of these 20+ MW plants, taller than the Eiffel Tower, can provide energy for tens of thousands of homes.

Both wind energy production and potential continue to grow. The cost of energy production continues to drop and with the advent of large off-shore plants comes more reliability and less intermittency.

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.

Carbon Control

Energy production from burning fossil fuels is a classic example of the failure of capitalism to protect us from harm. The fossil fuel industry privatizes profits while socializing costs. Fossil fuel combustion products damage our health and the environment and endanger our future due to global warming.

Some laws have been enacted to protect us. Coal-fired power plants have to have filters to remove some particulate matter and substances which contribute to ill health yet as many as fifty thousand deaths a year are attributed to fossil fuel emissions. These are deaths not accounted for by capitalism.

The biggest threat to global stability and human health is now climate change. There are currently no limits on fossil fuel emissions to protect us. One way to make the user pay the costs would be to put limits on the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted. The process to remove CO2 is called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS.)

If CCS can be made to work, we could have our cake and eat it too. That is, we could have the benefits of energy from burning fossil fuels without negative consequences. Basically, CCS is a process of capturing the Carbon Dioxide waste stream from a power plant and then putting it somewhere other than the atmosphere.

The problem is that it is neither cheap nor easy. CCS technology could double the construction and operating costs of a power plant. The major limitation is the need for storage sites such as airtight underground caverns or the ocean depths, where the carbon dioxide would stay for a long, long time. Like forever.

The best site would be a geologic formation where subsurface rock naturally reacts with carbon dioxide via a process that chemically mineralizes it. These formations exist but are few and far between. We need enough storage space for about five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Without mineralization, storage becomes much more difficult. Carbon dioxide, a gas at normal pressure, would need to be pumped into storage wells and the wells then capped to prevent release. At atmospheric pressure, it would require over six thousand cubic miles of underground open space per year. This kind of space doesn’t really exist, hence pressurization is necessary to reduce the volume. The higher the pressure the more difficult it will be to contain the stored gas. Any leakage will increase the cost both economically and energetically- all that capture, transportation, and pressurization uses energy.

The only way to store the five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide produced every year seems to be by pumping it at high pressure into every hole in the ground that we can find, plugging the hole, and then hoping that the cap doesn’t come off – forever. But what if a storage site does burp? It could be lethal for just about every living thing in the area of the release of CO2.

Carbon capture and storage in the last analysis is expensive, uses a lot of energy, and is quite risky to all life in the area of the storage wells. The only real solution is to abandon the use of fossil fuels and get all our energy from clean, sustainable energy supplies.

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

Energy Storage Efficiency

There are those who constantly dismiss wind and especially solar as impractical energy sources because it is not available all the time, hence standby power must be available – fair enough. Right now Unit One of Arkansas Nuclear One is offline for refueling.

So is anybody sitting in the dark for a month or two? Of course not. Must there be another nuclear reactor standing idle waiting for Unit One to go down for refueling? Again the answer is no. There is sufficient excess capacity in our electrical grid to make up the difference in electrical energy needs during the outage. The same is true today for our intermittent energy sources, wind and solar. It is estimated that no additional backup will be needed until we reach about thirty percent contribution of these renewable sources to our total electric production.

Right now wind turbines to our west and the solar panels at my home use the grid as storage, just like Unit One. When the wind isn’t blowing, the sun isn’t shining, or Unit one is offline to refuel, the other power sources in the grid make up the shortfall. Electrical energy transmission and storage are hot research topics in science and technology. Numerous ways exist already for grid-scale energy storage, the ongoing research is to find ways to store energy efficiently and affordably.

One option being explored by as Swiss company is a cuckoo clock writ large. Excess energy is used to raise concrete blocks up, just like the weights on a clock. To recover the stored energy simply allow the weight to go down, turning a generator as they come down. This type of energy storage is not very efficient, maybe sixty to seventy percent, but is inexpensive.

At the other end of the spectrum is a high-cost, high-efficiency strategy such as a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery. The efficiency here is about ninety percent. Although expensive, Lithium-ion batteries are quite lightweight so they have value to power portable devices, from hearing aids to electric cars.

One energy storage medium that most don’t recognize as such is Hydrogen. Hydrogen gas is very energy-dense, meaning a small amount of it will store a lot of energy. Hydrogen can be generated by electrolysis of water. The hydrogen can be stored until energy is needed, then the hydrogen can be burned to make steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity. But, burning anything to produce heat to turn a turbine is a quite inefficient process. Because of the laws of thermodynamics, you can only get back about a third of the energy put in.

Better than burning to make heat is another technology known as a fuel cell. Fuel cells convert Hydrogen back to water without as much waste heat. Hydrogen generation via electrolysis, then conversion back to electricity has a “round-trip” efficiency of about fifty percent.

The science and technology of grid-scale electrical energy storage will mature as we expand our reliance on wind and solar, ultimately eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

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

Powering Flight

The obvious answer to a cleaner and safer future is the abandonment of fossil fuels. For the production of electricity, this is already on the way. Use of coal has been cut in half just since the turn of the century and the trend continues today.

Decarbonizing surface transportation is way behind the curve, but occurring nonetheless. Projections suggest that by 2030, half the new cars on the market will be electric. In the second quarter of 2019, One electric car, the Tesla Model 3, sold more cars in its class than any other. And all the others were gasoline-powered cars.

Stationary power production and surface transportation are easy compared to flight. To practically power aircraft takes an extremely energy-dense fuel. Fossil fuels such as gasoline or jet fuel are 70 to 100 times as energy-dense as the energy stored in a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery.

The only current alternative to liquid fossil fuel is biofuel, ethanol from corn and sugar beets and biodiesel from soybeans. Ethanol makes up a scant two percent of our liquid fuel needs, biodiesel less than that. The figure is even lower than that when you account for the fossil fuel energy inputs to the production of biofuels. We won’t see row crop biofuels making up a larger share of our fuel needs because of the negative environmental impacts and the fact that biofuels production drives up food prices.

Another source of liquid fuel could be waste-to-fuel plants. There are already facilities which burn garbage (solid waste) for the generation of electricity, consuming about fifteen percent of all solid waste. Although this does produce energy and reduce the need for landfills, it doesn’t help with air transportation. There are also concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the combustion products.

Recycling has become difficult recently as China has greatly decreased accepting our wastes. Rather than simply landfilling wastes that can’t be recycled, it is possible to convert the waste to a useful fuel to power aircraft.

Various wastes , even municipal sewage waste, when heated to high temperatures produce a mixture of gasses in a process called destructive distillation. These gasses can be chemically manipulated with catalysts and turned into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

A model system for waste to fuel would look something like a plant sited near a current landfill. Municipal solid waste, agricultural wastes, and suburban wastes would all be brought to the processing plant where the materials would be separated . Materials which are unusable would still be landfilled.

The biggest problem with a waste-to-fuel strategy is the resource base. The best way to contain the rising cost of just about anything is to become more efficient. The easiest way to be more efficient is to reduce waste. That means a diminishing resource base. This may not be a business model that many will wish to pursue.

The only long term solution to our energy needs regardless of source or form is to use a lot less and produce what we need sustainably. We have to learn to live within our means.

Dr. Bob Allen 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.

Infrastructure Matters

The good news is that 2018 wasn’t the hottest year on record, only the fourth hottest. The bad news is that the first, second, and third were 2015, 2016, and 2017. One record year doesn’t mean much as the average temperature of the planet is a somewhat “noisy” signal. But the trend is obvious and can’t be denied. How about this: 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.

This trend could be overlooked if one only looked at a particular locale like one state or even one country, but these statistics are based on the global mean temperature, measured by several different agencies, using differing techniques.

A proxy for the global temperature, isotopic analysis of ice cores at the poles can take us even further back in time, even past several glacial/interglacial cycles. It is hotter now than ever. The planet is warming overall and that is forcing other changes to the climate besides being simply hotter.

One of the more serious impacts which we are beginning to see already is an increase in the severity of weather phenomena. More intense hurricanes, heavier rainfall episodes, and more extended droughts can all be attributed to climate change.

The changes are a real existential threat to society. Our infrastructure must be remade to accommodate climate change. At the same time, we need to takes the steps necessary to slow planetary warming by reducing and ultimately abandoning the use of fossil fuels.

The text of the state of the union speech contained some mention of the need for attention to infrastructure. “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump told the assembled government leaders. “I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work … on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment.”

What wasn’t heard in the speech was any mention of climate change. In fact, climate change has been off the radar for the last three state of the union speeches. Simply replacing an old interstate highway bridge with a new one will not prepare us for the future. The bridges of the future will have to be higher to protect from increased flooding and built stronger to protect from hurricanes, tornadoes, or other storm events.

Coastal cities must plan for more flooding and more saltwater intrusion into their water systems. Power systems must not just be replaced but must be made more robust. It will be necessary to bury our electric transmission and distribution lines to protect them from untoward weather events.

An event, not out of the question, would be another record flood like the 1927 flood of the lower Mississippi River. An area, 27,000 square miles was flooded to a depth of 30 feet or more in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In today’s dollars that would be a several trillion dollar damage event.

Here in Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson is floating legislation to provide 300 million dollars annually for transportation infrastructure via a combination of sales and fuel taxes. Also planned is an increase in the registration fees for plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars such as the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla line. This is particularly wrong-headed as they are a solution to global warming. We should be promoting these vehicles, not punishing their use. The Governor’s plan is a business as usual infrastructure fix without any vision for the future and actually punishes actions needed for the future.

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

Science Denial

The scientific perspective is that global warming is real, it is causing harmful changes to the climate, and it is caused by human activity. A strong majority of Americans believe the planet is getting warmer, and most believe that humans are the cause. A disconnect occurs however when Americans are asked about risk. When asked will global warming harm us, that majority gets much more narrow. When asked will global warming harm you personally, all of a sudden the majority disappears.

We know it’s happening and it might impact others but we don’t believe it is a risk to us personally. Like so much else, the political divide over global warming is widening. As time goes on Democrats and to a lesser extent independents are becoming more convinced of global warming while Republicans less so.

Numbers are slowly increasing over time and across the political spectrum that global warming will have an impact in the future. Not surprisingly there is a strong inverse correlation between age and belief in the risk of global warming. Younger generations express much more concern than their elders. Women are more concerned than men, and the more educated express more concern than the less educated.

Denial of scientific evidence has been around since, well, science. Denial is strongest when the evidence challenges a particular worldview. Evolution of life on earth, especially the part about humans, is still denied by a significant minority of the public. A lot of folks learn their religion long before they learn science and among some religions, evolution is anathema.

John Scopes wasn’t prosecuted for teaching the atomic weight of Carbon. He was prosecuted for teaching that humans have an ancestor in common with apes’ ancestors. This has always been misunderstood as humans evolved from apes.

Galileo wasn’t convicted of heresy for showing that gravitational acceleration was constant (his famous dropping of dissimilar sized balls from a tower in his hometown of Piza.) No, his sin was to challenge the orthodoxy of the church about the sun circling the earth. Work with his invention, the telescope, led him to accept and promote the Copernican view of a heliocentric solar system. It took the church over 350 years to admit that he was right.

Reasons for denial of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) range from simple ignorance to a purposeful deceit. Surely we puny humans can’t have an impact on the global climate (yes we can.) There is no way we could know what the temperature or atmosphere was like millions of years ago (yes we can.)

Slightly more sophisticated, but equally wrong, are some pseudoscientific arguments. One is that volcanoes emit much more Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ) than human activities, therefore it isn’t our fault. Nope, humans produce orders of magnitude more. A true, but immaterial statement is that water vapor in the air absorbs more heat than CO2 . The amount of water in the atmosphere is dependent on the temperature hence it is a result, not a cause of warming.

So why all the denial? H L Mencken put it nicely: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.”

Hurrah for Clarksville

Our neighbor to the west just had a ribbon cutting ceremony for their new 6.5 Megawatt solar array. It is visible from Interstate 40 near exit 55. The 20,000 panels will provide enough electricity to power 25 % of Clarksville homes. They also purchase wind-generated power so that nearly half the communities’ needs for power are met by clean and renewable resources.
Home solar arrays are being installed at an ever-quickening pace. Here in Arkansas, Entergy is in negotiations to close two large coal-fired plants, and the replacement? Installation of large-scale solar arrays locally and purchase of wind power from abundant sources to our west.
The cities of Fayetteville and Little Rock have joined with the Sierra Club in the “Ready for 100” program, a pledge to work towards 100 % sustainable power for their cities. All of this is important because our current administration has completely dropped the ball when it comes to addressing global warming by replacing the use of fossil fuels with clean, sustainable energy sources.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has been all over the map when it comes global warming. In his previous position as Attorney General of the State of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA several times. Many of those suits involved actions taken by the EPA to reduce the impacts of global warming and resultant climate change. Pruitt, as Attorney General for Oklahoma was frequently joined by Leslie Rutledge, Attorney General for Arkansas.
Apparently, he previously agreed with his current boss who famously claimed that global warming is a Chinese hoax. His position shifted somewhat to maybe but we need more study and it sure isn’t us. By us he means his patron, the fossil fuel industry. Shortly after taking office he stated “I would not agree that it [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” It has been shown and is known around the world that burning fossil fuels release carbon dioxide which leads to global warming.
His latest position is – maybe it’s real but not so bad. In a recent interview in Las Vegas, his tune is now ”We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends, So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”
One can only assume that he is referring to a time when humans went about barefooted in the snow, running down Woolly Mammoths. Were a warmer air temperature our only metric, he might have a point. Life is a bit more complicated now. There were no major cities to be flooded due to sea level rise – no Miami, Houston or New Orleans. Besides the obvious issue of sea level rise, the complexity and integration of a global economy are dependent on climatic stability.
A warmer climate in a temperate zone for wealthy countries may not have as negative an impact as the direct impact on poor countries in the tropics. Widespread crop failures from heat, drought or flooding could create major economic collapse and out-migration to cooler regions, regardless of these regions ability to support the immigrants. Walls will not stop the starving. Our arrogance to fail to join with the rest of the world in the Paris Agreement to address global warming will come back to us in the future.
It’s the (sustainable) economy, stupid.