Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Compost: a weapon of mass destruction?

December 2, 2010

In another example of how climate change is going to ask us to redefine much of our natural environment – two new studies highlight a growing threat to life as we know it – THE COMPOST BOMB. From Science Daily:

The compost bomb instability is a runaway feedback that occurs when the heat is generated by microbes more quickly than it can escape to the atmosphere. This in turn requires that the active decomposing soil layer is thermally-insulated from the atmosphere.
Catherine Luke explains: “The compost bomb instability is most likely to occur in drying organic soils covered by an insulating lichen or moss layer.”

Similar to the fears of sudden release of methane hydrates from the Arctic Ocean bottom – such a runaway feedback from peatlands will lead to rapid release of carbon, providing yet another (unaccounted for) positive feedback.

The scientists are now working on accounting for this “compost bomb” risk.

The Exeter team is now modelling the potential impact of the compost bomb instability on future climate change, including the potential link to the Russian peatland fires. It is also working to identify other rate-dependent tipping points.

Pee On Ice

November 8, 2010

New research seems to finally be acknowledging the obvious: that water runoff from initial glacier melt is triggering much more dramatic, accelerated melting. Science Daily reports:

melt water in Greenland

“We are finding that once such water flow is initiated through a new section of ice sheet, it can warm rather significantly and quickly, sometimes in just 10 years, ” said lead author Thomas Phillips, a research scientist with Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. CIRES is a joint institute between CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Contrary to the right-wing-noise-machine’s protestations, the climate science has been, again, overly conservative:

Conventional thermal models of ice sheets do not factor in the presence of water within the ice sheet as a warming agent, but instead use models that primarily consider ice-sheet heating by warmer air on the ice sheet surface. In water’s absence, ice warms slowly in response to the increased surface temperatures from climate change, often requiring centuries to millennia to happen.

Ironically even the scientists must put some softening caveat into the news, saying:

“However, this process is not the ‘death knell’ for the ice sheet. Even under such conditions, it would still take thousands of years for the Greenland ice sheet to disappear…”

That may be so, but even if the ice doesn’t disappear, our coastal cities will be under 20 feet of sea water.

A bit more from this important article:

To quantify the influence of melt water, the scientists modeled what would happen to the ice sheet temperature if water flowed through it for eight weeks every summer — about the length of the active melt season. The result was a significantly faster-than-expected increase in ice sheet warming, which could take place on the order of years to decades depending on the spacing of crevasses and other “pipes” that bring warmer water into the ice sheet in summer.
“The key difference between our model and previous models is that we include heat exchange between water flowing through the ice sheet and the ice,” said Rajaram.
Several factors contributed to the warming and resulting acceleration of ice flow, including the fact that flowing water into the ice sheets can stay in liquid form even through the winter, slowing seasonal cooling. In addition, warmer ice sheets are more susceptible to increases of water flow, including the basal lubrication of ice that allows ice to flow more readily on bedrock.
A third factor is melt water cascading downward into the ice, which warms the surrounding ice. In this process the water can refreeze, creating additional cracks in the more vulnerable warm ice, according to the study.

So the next time you have an opportunity to pee on ice, don’t be surprised if it reminds you of our world’s polar ice melt catastrophe.

The number is ZERO

October 26, 2009

“If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none.”

– Gavin A. Schmidt, climate scientist quoted by Andy Revkin in Sunday’s NY Times.

Ken Caldeira, the now famously injured party in the SuperFreakonomics fiasco, says:

I believe the correct CO2 emission target is zero….

Every carbon dioxide emission adds to climate damage and increasing risk of catastrophic consequences. There is no safe level of emission.

It is a clarifying moment perhaps. I’d like to think this is a teachable moment brought to us by the irresponsibility of Levitt and Dubner. I’d like to think it is a moment where our artificial greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) take a big step toward becoming a social outcast akin to smoking, and that we may recognize these emissions are an unforgivable liability being passed to our children and grandchildren.

As we know any amount of smoking is bad for our health, a carcinogen – so it is that any amount of GHG emissions are bad for the health of our climate and the civilization as we know it, delivering catastophe.

It is time we all take a closer look at our lives – individually and as a society. How do our daily actions needlessly imperil our planet? How does the extravagance of our travel and entertainment, our business and household activities? How do we take concrete steps, incremental and wide ranging steps to reduce our carbon footprint?

Yes, like it has taken government action to banish smoking from work and public places, so to our government will need to lead in transforming our world economy to one based on clean energy. And as Bill McKibben notes in Revkin’s article, we need to hit a “wartime footing”.

But as I see it, the most important step may be the awakening in so many that no additional GHG emissions are acceptable. NONE ARE ACCEPTABLE. Many are now recognizing the self-destruction in our actions, transforming how we see our lives and how we live. As we must stop smoking to live a healthy life and so too we must stop emitting GHGs.

As our grandparents and parents frugality was bred from Depression and WWII era scarcities, our lives today now demand we be frugal with our GHG emissions.

Our emissions are the single biggest liability we are passing on to our children and grandchildren – a liability unlike mere monetary debt which can be “restructured”. Our emissions liability is one that will be unforgiving and ruthless, utterly destroying the quality of life for generations to come. Our careless emissions today are sealing a hellish fate for our babies.

A new ethic of frugality toward emissions must take hold.

Zero is the number.

and The Bad News….

January 27, 2009

It is now inexcusable for us to not radically drop our CO2 emissions….. NOAA reports.     To do otherwise is to doom our decendents to hell on earth.   Read the checklist and do what you can now.

The Importance Of Being Pristine – Another IPCC Shortcoming

August 20, 2008

As deforestation accelerates and grows ever more concentrated the consequences on climate change are even greater than previously thought. As reported in New Scientist:

Pristine temperate forest stores three times more carbon than currently estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and 60% more than plantation forests, according to research in Australia.

Yes, the IPCC underestimates yet again. The numbers:

Plugging the data into a computer, the team calculated that trees in areas untouched by logging store on average 640 tonnes of carbon per hectare, compared with an IPCC estimate for temperate forest of 217 tonnes.

The study?

Mackey and colleagues used remote sensing and direct sampling to study eucalyptus trees at 240 sites across a 14.5-million hectare swathe of natural forest in south-east Australia.

The study can be found here.


The global implications are not yet clear. It could be that the carbon-storing ability of other temperate forests, such as those along the Pacific coast of the US, have also been underestimated. Mackey’s team is now investigating this possibility.

One thing is clear: the IPCC desperately needs to update their projections to include data such as this, as well as “slow” feedbacks such as permafrost melt, wetland destruction, actic ice loss and
to name a few. As humanity debates what to do to combat climate change it’s clearer than ever that the climate change beast is still not fully exposed to be the potential cataclysm it is morphing toward.

For the next American administration to make a serious attempt to combat climate change up-to-date consensus climate models will be invaluable. The past year has brought an avalanche of data that is destined to profoundly affect the models.

So while the media remains insistent on hedging what has been with a few exceptions a bad to worse story – Al Gore’s remarks back in January at Davos ring truer than ever: “the climate crisis is significantly worse and unfolding more rapidly than those on the pessimistic side of the IPCC projections had warned us,

As many scientists have anecdotally said: “Things are happening 100 years ahead of schedule”.

Yet, disconcertingly, the IPCC is not scheduled to issue another scenario report until 2013.

Wetland Destruction – Another AGW Puzzle Piece

July 24, 2008

Wetlands, understood to be an essential ecosystem in promoting biodiversity and flood control, is also another key element in slowing climate change – as wetland destruction potentially accelerates global warming.

As reported in Science Daily, leading scientists are now meeting in Brazil at the 8th International Wetlands Conference, discussing actions to better understand, protect and manage this key global resource.

How big a deal are the wetlands?

Covering just 6% of Earth’s land surface, wetlands (including marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river floodplains) store 10-20% of its terrestrial carbon. Wetlands slow the decay of organic material trapped and locked away over the ages in low oxygen conditions.

So how much carbon are we talking about?

These waterlogged (either seasonally or year-round) areas contain an estimated 771 gigatonnes (771 billion tonnes) of greenhouse gases — both CO2 and more potent methane — an amount in CO2 equivalent comparable to the carbon content of today’s atmosphere.

Put another way:

Drained tropical swamp forests release an estimated 40 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. Drained peat bogs release some 2.5 to 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.

That’s significant. Of course it all depends how quickly, particularly the Methane, is released. And like the disappearing forests, disappearing wetlands hold a double whammy for climate change – as another carbon sink becomes a carbon emitter.

The preciousness of wetlands goes beyond carbon capture, of course:

“Wetlands act as sponges and their role as sources, reservoirs and regulators of water is largely underappreciated by many farmers and others who rely on steady water supplies,” says Prof. Junk. “They also cleanse water of organic pollutants, prevent downstream flood inundations, protect riverbanks and seashores from erosion, recycle nutrients and capture sediment.”

Typically high in nutrients, wetlands also offer rich habitats for small organisms which feed fish and other water life, which in turn nourish mammals and birds. Many wetlands feature biodiversity comparable to that of rainforests or coral reefs.

What’s our track record in protecting this invaluable resource you might wonder?

Some 60% of wetlands worldwide — and up to 90% in Europe — have been destroyed in the past 100 years, principally due to drainage for agriculture but also through pollution, dams, canals, groundwater pumping, urban development and peat extraction.

So what to do now?

German expert Wolfgang Junk says…”Lessening the stress on wetlands caused by pollution and other human assaults will improve their resiliency and represents an important climate change adaptation strategy,” he says. “Wetland rehabilitation, meanwhile, represents a viable alternative to artificial flood control and dredging efforts that may be needed to cope with the larger, more frequent floods predicted in a hotter world.”

Prof. Junk, of the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, notes that maintenance of wetlands is much cheaper than rehabilitation and that poorer countries will have fewer means to rehabilitate their wetlands to cope with climate change. Wetland-friendly development alternatives must be elaborated in developing countries, therefore, to minimize losses of their many benefits, he says.

Like a deforested northern hemisphere asking the tropics to save their forests, this familiar dynamic is unavoidably playing out with wetlands:

He notes too that while pressure on wetlands in poorer countries has risen dramatically in recent years, they have not suffered nearly as much damage as those in the developed world.

In fact the conference is taking place in Cuiaba on the edge of the Pantanal wetlands: “…spanning 160,000 square km, is confronted by increasing development pressure. Its catchment area straddles Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, while Uruguay and Argentina are downstream.”

A bit of good news here in the U.S., since there’s been so little, should be noted: Not only has the U.S. largely stopped wetland destruction, it is undergoing significant wetland restoration, most notably in the Florida Everglades:

The US will spend $700 million over two decades to revive the Florida Everglades. It will include six artificial wetlands (“storm water treatment areas”), to receive and cleanse excess nutrients from neighbouring farm districts.

And the most threatened?

…those around the Mediterranean, where for two millennia the population has been draining wetlands and floodplains for agriculture — and more recently for urban areas, tourist developments, and to eradicate malarial mosquitoes.

Wetlands destruction is also a slow positive feedback. As we warm, the rising temperatures will destroy further wetlands. So far it is estimated that wetlands damage due to rising temperatures has been minimal, but according to UN University scientists: “…a warming of 3° to 4°C could eliminate 85% of all remaining wetlands in the world.”

Saving and restoring wetlands, like stopping deforestation and promoting reforestation, must be a top-shelf climate change fighting effort.

You Thought The Sunburn Was A Problem

July 3, 2008

In Air travel in the tropics is worse for climate New Scientist reports on a new study that should give us all pause before booking our next winter travel plans:

As well as producing carbon dioxide and contrails, planes also produce nitrogen oxide, which triggers both the creation of the warming gas ozone, and the destruction of another greenhouse gas, methane (Journal of Geophysical Research…).

In mid-latitudes, these ozone and methane reactions cancel each other out and you get zero net warming from nitrogen oxide emissions, says Keith Shine of the University of Reading, UK. But the brighter sunlight in the tropics is very efficient at converting nitrogen oxide to ozone – in fact it creates ozone five times faster than in the air of mid-latitudes, according to Shine’s calculations – whereas methane destruction only increases marginally. Worryingly, the warming effects of ozone are particularly strong at a plane’s typical cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, he adds.

The research raises the question of whether future attempts to control aircraft emissions should consider extra penalties for flights in tropical countries where air travel is booming. India, for instance, has the fastest growing airline fleet in the world.

For now aircraft emissions are excluded from international treaties on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But the European Union has plans to control aircraft emissions from 2011.

Not to worry you say? You bet Sir Richard Branson is working on a scheme right now to fix the problem? That’s what I’m afraid of.

Permafrost Melting = Too Much Methane

April 22, 2008

Methane: the other green house gas, is 20 to 25 times more potent than CO2 (depending on who you ask).

The good news was that over the last decade methane releases have been largely flat due to reductions in man-made emissions. Unfortunately the good news is old news. NOAA has just released a report today titled “Carbon Dioxide, Methane Rise Sharply in 2007”.

The NOAA report states:

Rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics are the most likely causes of the recent methane increase, said scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost,” said Dlugokencky. “It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.”

As I discussed previously in “The Awakening Great White Whale”, the arctic permafrost is the place to look for the most critical planetary tipping point.

Spiegel Online has a frightening confirmation of what we face with further warming in just the next few years.

What treachery lies in the permafrost?

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea, enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. “This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now,” says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

And so our permafrost is now permamelt:

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.

We warm the earth further at great peril:

Climate change could give an additional push to these trends. “If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer,” said Overduin. That could lead to a situation in which the temperature of the sea sediment rises above freezing, which would thaw the permafrost.

The $64,000 question is what’s the rate of acceleration of the permafrost melt?

“We don’t have any data on that — those are just suspicions,” the Canadian scientist said. Natalia Shakhova also passed on the question of whether to expect a gradual gas emission or an abrupt burst of large quantities of methane. “No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years,” she said. But one cannot rule out sudden methane emissions. They could happen at “any time.”

One thing is clear, though: The thawing of the Arctic sea floor will create “new potential sources for methane … which no one had reckoned with until now,” said Laurence Smith, a professor for geography at the University of California in Los Angeles. Smith is researching North Pole frost zones and expects that a thawing of the permafrost will “supply fuel for methane engines.”

If we don’t slam on the CO2 brakes hard and now, this war for survival could be over before we’ve even started to fight.

“Cap and Bulldoze”

April 14, 2008

James Hansen sent off another wonderful letter today – this time addressed to Governor Jim Gibbons of Nevada.

The money quote – toward the bottom of the second page – to get us rolling:

Utilities and the fossil fuel industry must reckon with the fact that the laws of Nature and the human instinct for survival will overrule any paper agreements that may exist now or be wrangled in the near-term. “Grandfathering” of fossil fuel plants and any ineffectual “cap and trade” scheme, should it be initiated, will necessarily be replaced by “cap and bulldoze”. Uncaptured CO2 emissions from coal must be eliminated.

He goes on, as only Hansen can:

Is it possible that I am wrong, that the governments are so larded with fossil fuel special interests that they will allow us to destroy the planet that we leave for our children and grandchildren? Sure – just as there was a chance that the United States andn the Soviet Union could have blown each other off the face of the planet with nuclear weapons – but it is much more likely that we will come to our senses soon, as the scientific story and emperical evidence overwhelm the deceit of short-term special interests.

One of the “Fossil Fuel Facts” is that a substantial fraction of fossil fuel CO2 emissions stays in the air for what is, for all practical purposes “an eternity”, more than 1000 years. That is a well-established scientific fact – there is no debate. A direct implication is that we cannot be aiming for a 50, 80 or 90 percent reduction of emissions. We must transition over the next several decades to practically zero net CO2 emissions. Thus our energy focus must be to develop renewable energies and energy efficiency.

Again, like with Mr. Rogers, he lowers the boom:

Governor Gibbons, I understand that you have also supported proposals for new coal-fired power plants, in Ely, Mesquite and White Pine. These coal-fired power plants would expose ratepayers and Nevada to grave financial risk. Steeply rising construction costs and coal prices are themselves ratcheting up the cost of coal-fired electricity, and sure-to-appear federal legislation that demands elimination of CO2 emissions will drive costs much higher. Given that Nevada’s geology is not very well-suited for storing CO2 , any assumption about retrofitting a coal-fired plant for CO2 capture is a dubious and financially risky proposition.

As for the insidious sponsors of the presidential debates:

A major additional disadvantage of coal is the pollution associated with it. There is no such thing as “clean coal”.

With another whack at coal he clears a path through Nevada to the promised land:

Although the fossil fuel industry pedals misinformation, claiming that renewable energies can only be a niche contribution to energy needs, that contention defies common sense. As proof of the contrary, consider just one of the renewable energies, solar power. The technology for solar thermal power stations already exists, power stations can be built rapidly, and as the market for them increases their unit costs will fall steadily, as the cost of coal power continues to rise. There is enough solar energy in a small fraction of our desert Southwest to provide all of the electrical needs of the United States. Nevada has the potential to be a leader in this field, providing power for itself and for distant location as a low-loss grid is developed. Leadership would provide great economic benefit to Nevada and provide a large number of high-pay jobs and new businesses.

Let’s recap (with minor elaboration):

1. We must reduce to practically zero CO2 emissions.
2. Solar thermal is a significant part of the answer.
3. Nevada has the sun exposure to power practically the whole country.
4. With next generation low-loss transmission lines the power can be distributed.
5. Keep coal in the ground.

A Simple Proposal: A Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty

April 13, 2008

While the world is awakening to the horrific ramifications of climate change, our progress in combating it is dangerously slow – retarded by an inertia composed of mighty fossil fuel interests, our wanton personal habits, an indifferent press and short sighted political leadership. We await the promise of a new American administration but precious days are passing. What can be done before November, to stack the deck so that the new administration can’t just do “the right thing” wink, wink – but is compelled to do everything that needs to be done? It is as they say, a defining moment.

In his new slide show Al Gore speaks passionately to the predicament and possibilities of this extraordinary time. Along with his smart and well funded “we” branding strategy – Al Gore for many Americans is the face of global warming. History will treat Al Gore well, yet at this moment he’s unjustly trapped in the warped prism of Bush/Cheney World – and so his message is lost on too many fence sitting Americans.

But there is another leader right now: the conservative, mid-westerner James Hansen. Level-headed and firm, he has embarked on what seems to be a one man quest from another era; to stop the construction of new coal power plants. Hansen rightly defines the issue in terms of security – our existential security. He’s written letters to the heads of Britain and Australia, testified at public hearings and harangued energy officials in his effort to stop new plants.

Hansen sees the politicians as intractably beholden to fossil fuel interests and is increasingly stating that the only way to break the log jam is through the courts. He may be right.

Yet his clear insistence that coal plant construction be halted and that all existing coal plants be shut down – last year by 2050 and now ominously he says by by 2030. Hansen calls for a moratorium on coal as do others, including leading Democrats. A moratorium is the result we require. Yet the mechanism for getting such a moratorium at the requisite global scale remains nebulous and consequently ineffectual. A strong and clear mechanism to achieve a global moratorium on coal power plants is absolutely required. I believe the clear mechanism missing is a Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unambiguously defined humanity’s primary existential threat, this new treaty would unambiguously define humanity’s current threat. And as the pillars of nuclear non-proliferation do, the coal power treaty should not only halt the construction of new coal power plants but create the framework for disarmament – the dismantling of existing plants by 2030.

Ireland proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 – might they brush it off and put it to adaptive reuse in 2008? Could a “great power” do it? Germany? Britain? Japan?

If* done right, such a treaty would afford many unique opportunities and qualities:

1. It links the climate fight to the most popular vestige of the Cold War – a treaty whose clear military, national security and humanitarian interests were paramount, and by association, conveying to the climate crisis struggle those same attributes into today’s popular imagination.
2. By rhetorically linking to the Cold War era treaty, it can reach outside party politics and traditional international alignments – allowing for the possibility of entirely new and positive dynamics.
3. It kick-starts a national and international debate focused at the heart of the problem while decoupling it from the highly complex and esoteric negotiations of Kyoto and Bali.
4. It provides a clear and powerful mechanism to pressure all countries – most importantly the US, China and India to get on board.
5. It provides a concrete reference point, easy for all to understand and then work from. Because if you agree you can’t build another coal plant – what are you going to do?

What are we going to do? There’s a multitude of actions that must accelerate like an avalanche if we are to save ourselves. It’s my thought that such a “simple” act as this treaty might do a bit toward uncorking the bottle on our way to the next inauguration.

Come’on Ireland, the world again awaits your leadership!

* a big if.