Archive for August, 2006

Biological Soil Crusts

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Check out the Biological Soil Crusts site.

Crusts are formed by living organisms and their by-products, creating a surface crust of soil particles bound together by organic materials. Aboveground crust thickness can reach up to 10 cm.

Some pretty pictures, and a textbook.

Climate Change Articles

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

The current issue of California magazine focuses on climate change.

Extreme Science
looks at results from Inez Fung on models and the new data coming in:

[A]ll these signals, she suggests, demonstrate that the fragile balance that keeps the earth’s ecosystem functioning properly—a complex and finely regulated series of homeostatic effects that tends to maintain its stability for generations at a time—may…now be spiraling out of control.

Fung is among the group of leading climatologists who have signed the amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of eleven states suing EPA for not regulating greenhouse gases.

Some detail on what is happening.

Synthetic Solutions
examines aspirations for biofuels, using plants to make fuels. The science is currently at a primitive, how do things work? stage, but Jay Keasling has big aspirations, creating fermenting microbes that can create ethanol, and butanol, say, rather than ethanol:

It’s easier to ship, has more energy (per gallon), and is less corrosive.

Plug and go describes advantages of plug-in hybrids, cars that operate totally on batteries for short trips, so they require less oil (or biofuels, eventually). Instead of an expensive electricity sector requiring nuclear power plus wind (or that dreaded coal) for base load plants, with natural gas (plus solar) peak load plants for times of high usage, most of the grid could be run on some combination of nuclear plus wind plus solar. The electricity that would be wasted at night today could charge cars in the plug in hybrid future. During times of electricity needs, the cars could be discharged to help the grid.

Sounding the Alarm
has a few choice quotes you may want to use on what is happening, how easy and how hard it is to make change, and the morality of emitting more than our fair share.

Global Warning displays what we are already seeing on a world map. What we will soon see. Or may see.

Kilimanjaro shows changes in glaciers over the years, both in Tanzania and in Glacier National Park. People in Tanzania depend on both the water collected by the forest they are destroying and the glacier melt that will soon be no more.

Tuvalu is a Pacific Island state, where the average elevation is less than half of the height of an SUV. Emigration has begun.

Leaders in Bangladesh, with a population almost half that of the U.S. on land area about the same as Wisconsin, are trying to find ways to adapt, such as gardens that float on water. But a half-meter sea level rise would displace 10 million people. [Dhaka, the capital far inland, has an elevation of only 8 meters.]

Tanganyika, the longest fresh water lake in the world, contains almost 1/5 of the world’s freshwater. It has warmed by 0.8 C over the past 80 years, slowing down the growth of algae, thus affecting the entire food chain.

Residents of Churchill near Manitoba, Canada, are already shifting from an economy that depends on polar bears to a more diversified tourist industry. Sometime soon, enough ice will be gone that Churchill can act as a seaport.

Flower Power is the story of John Harte’s work warming up a part of the Rockies. In the slightly warmer environment, sage replaces flowers, doubly bad. The current ecosystems in the Rockies hold more carbon than the new warmer ecosystems, so a warming releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a positive feedback. The sage is darker than the flowers, so more sunlight is absorbed, another positive feedback.

The frightening thing, [Harte] says, is that, for lack of understanding, biological feedbacks like those in the meadow are not factored into our current global warming models. While the models anticipate increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from future fossil fuel emissions and from some feedbacks like increased water vapor and lower ice reflectivity, they don’t account for the carbon that will be unleashed from the ground, and the oceans as the world warms. If they did, Harte says, the upper-limit increase in global temperature by 2050 would not be 8 degrees Fahrenheit, as is currently projected, but closer to 12 degrees [almost 7 degrees Celsius].

California at Risk describes climate change effects expected for California. California is likely to see big changes, detrimental changes, in agriculture (the wine industry alone is worth $45 billion/year to California). A rise in sea level could overwhelm already fragile levees in the Delta, which supplies drinking water to 22 million [of 36 million Californians; it also supplies much of the agricultural water in California.] A continued increase in forest fires (nationwide in 2005, a total area larger than the state of Maryland was burned), plus changes in precipitation, temperature, and pests, could reduce forest size by 1/5 this century. See the temperature change and agriculture map, and the sea level rise map.

China’s sorrow provides a picture of the harm done by the large increase in fossil fuels in China—the author didn’t see the blue sky or yellow sun during a 1,000-mile (car) trip through China. The blackest market shows more.

Unforbidden cities details the kind of gated communities China is building at the rate 10 – 15 per day. Harrison Fraker, Jr. and his students spent a semester designing an alternative community that depends less on cars, is able to supply most of its energy needs through photovoltaic (solar) panels, wind, and biogas (natural gas from plants), and reduces energy need through good design. It also collects rainwater; clean water is a precious commodity in China. If the design can be modified to meet Chinese standards, or vice versa, the Chinese government is able to implement the new design immediately. There is interest now:

several cities are vying for the opportunity to build one of these prototypes, resource-self-sufficient, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Can we adapt in time? describes one way of dealing with imminent environmental catastrophe: the destruction of fishing in Gloucester, Massachusetts by denial and fighting all attempts at regulation. There are reports on the large effects that climate change has already wrought, but we ignore them. [how many changed their behavior or their messages to their legislators as a result of, and after, this summer’s heat?] We may not be wired to respond to long-term threats, we are more likely to notice the moment.

There are a few errors. Estimates of sea level rise this century differ from author to author. The 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report assumes a maximum increase of 33 inches, but points out great uncertainties in understanding ice sheet stability. The 2007 IPCC report is expected to predict larger sea level rise, perhaps as much as 2 meters increase this century, and 3- 4 meters/century afterwards. The U.S. does not emit 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases, though it once did, decades ago. The current figure is 21%. Errors are few.

Overall, this provides a perspective on the changes we are seeing, and expect to see. The editorial says that people don’t appear to respond to fear messages. But we need to know what is happening, what may happen, if we are to change the future.

Note: not all links are up, will update later.

Some Holdren pieces

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

John Holdren in an op ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle advocates rapid changes in policy. John Holdren is one of the most important people in US energy policy, president of AAAS, MacArthur award winner in 1981, founder of the Energy Resource Group at UC, Berkeley, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, at Harvard University, etc.

What he cannot do from his position is ask, how will people who fail to take climate change seriously today feel in 10 years, or in 5 years, when options are fewer. or no longer exist? How will we address young people — those who will be alive mid-century, answering why we who are adults today dawdled, failed to change our behavior, did not elect legislators focused on climate change, did not campaign for programs that limited greenhouse gas emissions and raised fuel prices and tax ourselves to pay for third world mitigation, or argued against nuclear power?

Also watch John Holdren’s talk at the China US Climate Change Forum. There are four talks in this video, beginning with Holdren’s talk and ending with Paul Baer’s talk on EcoEquity. In between, speakers focus on the China contribution to the problem and to the solution. The message sounds much different when accompanied by a discussion as to what will happen if we don’t respond sufficiently, and how hard it will be to succeed.

The term climate sensitivity is used frequently. There is a temperature increase associated with each doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, so that temperature would increase by n degree C when atmospheric carbon levels reach 550 ppmv (parts per million volume) and then would go up about the same amount if carbon levels reached 1100 ppmv. This ignores the contribution of other greenhouse gases.

Climate sensitivity is estimated to be between 1.5 C and 4.5 C, with a middle value of 2.9 – 3 C. As Holdren points out, there are questions as to whether sensitivity is even higher, because we are seeing the current increase with enormous pollution which masks climate change by reflecting light and cooling the Earth (temporarily).

For a discussion of voluntary simplicity, fast forward to 1:48:30 or so. Baer places current “sustainable” emissions of carbon at 0.3 tonnes C (multiply by 44/12 to get to carbon dioxide).

Read the op-ed piece, see the video, and then comment here.

Enough Uranium

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

There was a comment to the last post saying, among other things, that there isn’t enough uranium and that it costs more energy to refine uranium than nuclear power plants produce. I’ve seen a variation of this argument on anti-nuclear discussions.

From David Bodansky, Nuclear Energy (an excellent and easy to read reference book, get the second edition),

Adopting the probably conservative resource estimate of 20 million [metric] tonnes … A resource of this magnitude could sustain four times the present rate of generation for 80 years.

He then looks at research on extracting uranium from seawater, in very early stages yet, as it will be decades before this source is important. At current costs of $700/kg U, an order of magnitude more than uranium costs today, nuclear power costs would increase by 1.5 cent/kWh.

No one knows how much uranium there is because as long as there is enough for the next generation of plants, there is no incentive to go looking for more. Other technologies, such as extracting uranium from sea water, will only be studied for economic feasibility when other cheaper sources are exploited.

I don’t know the energy costs of refining uranium ore, but it would be surprising if countries such as France would continue to export nuclear power if they could have as easily have exported whatever energy they used to refine the uranium.

I highly recommend the Bodansky book.

Nuclear Power Questions

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

Many Friends and others have questions about nuclear power. Many have been listening to anti-nuclear companies (such as many of the environmentalist organizations) for decades, and assume – as I once did – that they would not be so strongly against nuclear power without reason, and that the reason has to do with more than money flow. I will try to answer questions I receive, though some will take more time than others. As with these questions, I may do a little paraphrasing and rearranging. If you have insight you’d like to contribute, please comment and supplement my answers.

Nuclear power plants require a very high level of expertise to operate. In the U.S. the trend is for only a few companies to operate nuclear plants – many utilities are opting out of this responsibility. If the expertise is so specialized doesn’t this lead to an unhealthy dependence on an elite set of companies? In addition, with an unstable network based on a relatively few large plants there is the risk of a major failure of large parts of the system?

I would think that just the opposite is true, that limiting nuclear power in the US to companies with a good track record will improve its safety. One or more companies have sold their nuclear reactors because they failed to meet NRC policy, which rewards early reporting of problems and gives the (incredibly expensive) fine-toothed comb treatment to companies that fail to report problems.

Siting several reactors close to one another is thought to be safer because there will be more knowledgeable people in close physical proximity.

In the developing world this could be a much more severe problem – how do these countries generate a stable operational base? Would it be OK if countries like Mexico, Algeria or Georgia built and tried to operate these complex facilities?

I don’t know how we can prevent anyone from building nuclear power plants, if that is what they want to do. However, the nuclear industry has a strong investment in safe operation of nuclear power. Tens of thousands of Americans die yearly from coal pollution, and I hear no one cares – some may care, but I don’t hear it. Several workers in the oil refineries 10 miles from my home died in fires, but I haven’t heard from the public that we need to stop using oil, today. But a small leak of water with an insignificant radioactivity level, compared to our daily dose? Then I hear.

I would expect that nuclear power plants, should they be built in countries such as you name, would be run by groups from other countries, even if the country has a lot of home-grown talent. But none of these countries has a strong regulatory system. That said, I heard a physicist on NPR who went to China expecting to see a nuclear industry run somewhat on the same lines as their coal industry (which kills how many per year? many hundreds of thousands of deaths yearly at the very least from pollution, plus 6,000 miner deaths in accidents alone in 2004, and so many more due to coal miners’ diseases), though not nearly as bad. Instead he found conditions closer to the first world.

Advocating nuclear power does not mean advocating that anyone and his cousin start operating nuclear power plants. Indeed, there are many who advocate that technical countries use more nuclear power so that non-technical countries can use more than their share of fossil fuels.

Building nuclear power plants near populated areas seems to be another decision that ignores the risk of even a small radioactive accident. For example, if Rancho Seco was operational and had an incident that required the evacuation of Sacramento the economic costs would be very high. The agricultural products of the whole valley would be instantly suspect. Given the large population of Ca. where could plants be safely sited in California? These facilities generally require a lot of cooling water – where sites that are appropriate?

There have been accidents already in populated areas. For example the accident at Three Mile Island, an early nuclear power plant built and operated under an early regulatory system, generated panic (and from someone I know who was there, a sense that the government was lying every time they told the truth), but there was no major exposure to radiation.

California has nuclear power plants in San Luis Obispo and San Onofre, near San Clemente. I hear that there are people in San Luis Obispo who drive to discussions of the dangers of nuclear power, and this appalls me. I don’t know how dangerous a nuclear power plant accident in the US could be, but there is some danger. Since Three Mile Island, there was a required infusion of jillions of dollars to update nuclear power plants, and a similar infusion of regulatory energy into the then just formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Today, nuclear power plant operators are required to study as many hours per year as do airplane pilots, there is constant review. If the operators of the local oil refineries are now forced to take classes, I am unaware of it.

There has been a big change in the understanding of nuclear power plant designers as well. For example, they now assume that the operator is malicious, because there is no functional difference between a malicious operator and one who puts paper over the warning lights. New nuclear power plants are expected to be 10 – 100 times safer than the current generation of American plants.

All thermal power plants – nuclear, coal, natural gas, biomass (plant matter), and solar thermal (using mirrors to concentrate solar power on water turning it to steam) – must be located near water. Of these, nuclear power plants have the lowest operating temperature, and so must use the greatest amount of water to cool per unit energy produced. This is particularly harmful to local fish, which do not appreciate the increase in temperature from any power plant, but of course, the nuclear power plant does a little more damage. On the other hand, the use of fossil fuels is likely to lead to widespread extinction of fish species, notably cold-water fish.

Re suspect agricultural products, I have heard again and again from people who worry about the radioactivity dropped on Welsh cows, and such. We and these cows are exposed to radioactivity in our daily lives. There are huge variations in what is considered normal, with very high natural exposures in some areas without an increased cancer rate.

It is true that many people – and some describe this reaction as natural – might become afraid of eating food grown near a nuclear power accident, event though food grown near Three Mile Island, for example, would not have had an important exposure. It is our job to reach that which is human within us, to overcome fears that are innate or taught, so that we can be more effective at dealing with fears harder to see when the sky is blue, the weather pleasant if somewhat warm, and all around us looks lovely.

For most of us, it is easier to deal with fears of someone else causing an accident. However, reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to individual behavior, and the technologies that enable what we do every day — driving and flying and turning on the light — should be our focus.