Archive for the INVIRONMENT Category

This Dry Patch of Land Used to Be Bolivia’s Second Largest Lake

Posted in INVIRONMENT, SCIENCE with tags on January 22, 2016 by 2eyeswatching

Post 5039

This Dry Patch of Land Used to Be Bolivia’s Second Largest Lake

Yesterday 5:34pm

This Dry Patch of Land Used to Be Bolivia's Second Largest Lake

This satellite image shows the outline of where Bolvia’s Lake Poopó used to be. Once the county’s second largest body of fresh water, it’s now dried up because of recurring drought and water diversion projects.

Typically, rainfall during the wet season (which runs from December to March) replenishes the lake. But we’re now well into January and rain remains scarce.

This Dry Patch of Land Used to Be Bolivia's Second Largest Lake

The image above was taken on April 12, 2013, and shows Lake Poopó when it’s filled with water. The one below was taken just six days ago on January 15, 2016. The water is essentially gone, replaced with dusty sand flats. The effect on the environment and ecosystem has been devastating.

This Dry Patch of Land Used to Be Bolivia's Second Largest Lake

This happened before in 1994, and it took several years for the water to return. But this time, scientists say recovery may not be possible. The APreports:

“This is a picture of the future of climate change,” says Dirk Hoffman, a German glaciologist who studies how rising temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels has accelerated glacial melting in Bolivia.

As Andean glaciers disappear so do the sources of Poopo’s water. But other factors are in play in the demise of Bolivia’s second-largest body of water behind Lake Titicaca.

Drought caused by the recurrent El Nino meteorological phenomenon is considered the main driver. Authorities say another factor is the diversion of water from Poopo’s tributaries, mostly for mining but also for agriculture.


A study by the German consortium Gitec-Cobodes determined that Poopo received 161 billion fewer liters of water in 2013 than required to maintain equilibrium.

“Irreversible changes in ecosystems could occur, causing massive emigration and greater conflicts,” said the study commissioned by Bolivia’s government.

A similar situation is happening in California, where the Salton Sea—a massive man-made lake—is shrinking, releasing dangerous toxins into the environment.

[NASA Earth Observatory | AP]

Top image: Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Email the author at and follow him @dvorsky.

Hundreds of Tiny Bugs Are Probably Hiding in Your Home

Posted in INVIRONMENT, SCIENCE with tags on January 21, 2016 by 2eyeswatching

Post 5035

Hundreds of Tiny Bugs Are Probably Hiding in Your Home

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

Posted in INVIRONMENT with tags on January 2, 2016 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4998

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

Humans suck at preparing for disasters. Society barely made it through the scourge of Twitter changing stars to hearts. When the sky darkens, thunder rumbles, or snow starts falling, many people simply fall to pieces. These five tips will help you get through the next big storm that’s bad enough to earn its own scary name.

1) Know Where You Live on a Map (Without Being Told)

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

This point is first because it is horrifying. Any meteorologist or weather reporter who deals with the public will tell you in no uncertain terms that many adults cannot find where they live on a map. They can find the United States just fine. They can probably find their home state with ease. That’s a good start! But for an alarmingly large number of people, their ability to find where they live on a map—being able to point their finger at a specific point and confidently state “I live here.”—is a tenuous bet at best.

Most weather maps you see online and on television aren’t all that detailed. They strip the excess information so the graphic isn’t too busy or confusing, but that comes at a cost. When a severe weather outbreak is looming, for instance, odds are this is the most detailed map you’ll come across on the internet:

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

This is a map from the Storm Prediction Center’s website showing the risk for severe thunderstorms on a day this past July; the product is a commonly circulated piece of information that gives you a quick idea of your risk for dangerous weather. Right off the bat, you can glance and see that most of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky are in for a rough day. (We saw an impressive derecho that day.)

Can you pinpoint where you live based on this map? The Vane has a very smart audience, so I’m sure many of you can, but this is usually the greatest level of detail most people will ever encounter on a weather map. Some graphics produced by television stations often show you major cities—Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Denver—or, if you’re lucky, county outlines, but if people don’t know where they live within the state, even big cities and county outlines don’t help very much.

If people can’t point out exactly where they live, what good is the forecast?

Every adult needs to know how to find their town on a map. Every adult needs to memorize exactly where they live within their state relative to the borders, relative to geographic features, and relative to major cities. Every adult needs to know the name of the county in which they live and the names of the counties that surround them.

The first step to staying safe during bad weather is knowing where you are so you can know what to expect.

2) Understand the Terminology

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

We use so many different terms in weather communication that it’s easy for even seasoned weather geeks to get confused sometimes. Confusion is a hell of a thing when it comes to urgent safety information, so if we get tripped up from time to time, you can only imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t tuned in to every twist and turn of the jet stream.

Every term we use in communicating weather forecasts has a specific meaning—for instance, a tornado watch and tornado warning sound similar, and a lot of people think there isn’t a difference, but one is far more urgent than the other.

In the weather world, a “watch” means that bad weather could happen soon, usually within the next couple of hours. A “warning” means that bad weather is occurring or imminent, meaning that it is happening or will happen within the next hour or so, and you need to take immediate action to ensure your safety.

You get longer lead times with slower, bigger storms. A warning can be issued before a hurricane or blizzard a day or two before they strike, giving you plenty of time to get ready. On the other hand, you usually get a very short heads up before more localized disasters like a tornado or flash flood—sometimes less than ten minutes, if any warning at all.

The terms “tornado watch”and “tornado warning” are pretty straightforward, but the nerd lexicon grows even more confusing as we head into the colder months. When a winter storm comes through, you’ll hear three main types of alerts: winter storm watch, winter weather advisory, and winter storm warning. It sounds counterintuitive to people for some reason, but an advisory is more urgent than a watch. If winter weather alerts ran on scale, it would look like this:

  1. Winter Storm Warning
  2. Winter Weather Advisory
  3. Winter Storm Watch

A winter storm watch, like all watches, advises you ahead of time that hazardous weather is possible within the next day or two, and you should keep a close eye on the forecasts.

A winter weather advisory is issued when small amounts of snow or ice (a few inches of snow or a light glaze of ice) are expected within the next couple of hours, which could make travel hazardous.

A winter storm warning is issued when large amounts of snow or ice are expected within the next few hours, so much so that it will make travel nearly impossible and potentially disable the area for days in the worst case scenario.

It gets even more confusing when you take into account that every National Weather Service office across the country has different criteria to trigger these alerts. Three inches of snow is enough to warrant a winter storm warning in parts of Alabama, but the same amount of snow would barely require a winter weather advisory in far northern parts of the country.


Wikipedia, despite the bad rap it gets from teachers around the world, has a very good page describing just about every alert issued by the National Weather Service. If you’re not clear on the terms, keep this link in your bookmarks and check back whenever strange weather creeps up on you.

3) Develop Some Kind of a Plan

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

If you can picture a PSA about severe weather safety, it begins with stock footage of a lightning strike, fast music, a shaky narration, and ends with a creepy, smiling nuclear family sitting in their dining room with maps and floorplans and first aid supplies strewn about.


Coming up with a plan for severe weather doesn’t always require acting like an emergency manager formulating a plan for an elementary school. It’s nice to write stuff down—if only to help you remember it—but planning for hazardous weather can be as informal as thinking “where would I go if a tornado hit?” while you’re sitting on the couch waiting for a movie to start.

The most important things you need to figure out are how you’ll keep yourself safe and what you should do to prepare to deal with the aftermath.

Where will you go if a tornado is barreling toward you? How many interior rooms do you have on the lowest floor? Do you have an underground basement? If you have a basement, is your hiding spot below a very heavy piece of furniture? What about natural gas or propane tanks, are they nearby?

And that’s just a tornado! Preparing for flooding is almost the opposite—if the waters suddenly rise and you can’t flee, you want to get as high as possible, not low. Switching over to winter, what will you do if you’re stranded in your car during a snow or ice storm? Where will you go if you lose power for an extended period of time?

These are all things you should think about. You don’t have to write down a ten-point plan, but it’s good to mull them over so you’re prepared if you’re caught in a dangerous situation.

Surviving the storm itself is just the beginning—you have to make it through the aftermath, as well.

Five Important Things Everyone Should Know to Survive the Next Weather Disaster

The most common consequence of bad weather is a loss of utilities. Whether it’s a tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake, or winter storm, the hardest-hit areas will probably lose power, water, phones, and internet for an extended period of time. You should have a disaster supply kit at the ready in your home—preferably all in one spot so you can have access to everything at a moment’s notice.

Always make sure you have enough non-perishable food, water, prescription medicine, emergency supplies, and cash on hand to last you a week in the aftermath of a disaster. Actual, physical cash is an important but overlooked aspect of preparedness—your debit or credit cards won’t work at the store without electricity and phones/internet, so if you’re fortunate enough to have the luxury keeping some extra cash on hand, it’s not a bad idea.

Aside from the list of first aid/emergency staples, think of some extra items you should have to help get through different situations. If your home or property is damaged, do you own a sturdy pair of shoes, boots, and gloves to walk through and handle the debris? If you’re affected by a historic winter storm, do you have the supplies and materials to keep from freezing to death?

4) Have Multiple Sources of Information

If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably heard that horrible emergency alert sound screeching from your phone. It’s common to get severe weather alerts from cell phones these days, but it’s not a good idea to rely on only this one method. Cell service can go down in a disaster, warnings through apps can be delayed, and your battery can only last so long if the power is out.

Make sure you have several additional ways to receive urgent weather alerts, whether it’s through cell phones, battery-operated NOAA Weather Radios, television, FM/AM radio, or the internet. A NOAA Weather Radio is your best back-up for weather forecasts and severe weather warnings. Modern devices can be programmed with your county’s unique, six-digit S.A.M.E. code that allows the device to automatically sound a loud siren when a watch or warning is issued for your county. These devices have saved lives, and even if you are glued to your phone, it’s a great layer of additional security.

Using several methods to receive urgent weather information lessens the chance that you’ll miss a potentially life-saving alert.

5) Know What’s Junk and What Isn’t

Not all weather forecasts are equal. Many forecasts issued by professionals are pretty accurate—if you get your weather from The Weather Channel, the National Weather Service, your local news station, or even an outlet like AccuWeather, it’s a safe bet that what you see is pretty close to what will happen.

That’s not always the case, though. For every reputable source for weather information, there are at least ten more sources run by people who aren’t qualified to talk about the subject or, even worse, operated by people with malicious intent. Many of these individuals run Facebook and Twitter pages with tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of followers, and reach that extends into the millions. One quick bit of misinformation from them can put countless people in danger. I talk about hoaxes and bad forecasts frequently here on The Vane, but the overarching theme is always “if it sounds too horrible to be true, check somewhere else.”

To that point, most people get their weather information from the internet these days. Whether it’s through a website or some smartphone app, most folks only check the temperature, see if it’s going to rain, and that’s usually the end of the day’s weather adventures.

Problem is, that’s not enough.

Your app might show rain or thunderstorms tomorrow, but will the storms be severe? How much rain will fall? Is that forecast of 5-8” of snow really for your location or a city 25 miles away? You need more than just an icon and a few numbers to fully anticipate what will happen.

If you’re using a less-than-reputable app, don’t. You need to check your weather somewhere else. You need analysis from a knowledgeable person or team of meteorologists when the sleet hits the fan. Many no-name, popular weather apps just rip raw data straight from the weather models, without using quality controls or intervention from qualified forecasters. That’s the best way to get a wrong forecast almost every time.

Most local news channels employ meteorologists who maintain blogs and an extensive social media presence. Networks like WeatherNation and The Weather Channel are on air all day—the latter will revert to 24/7 weather soon—and you can catch local forecasts from news stations several times during each newscast.

In addition to social media and television, there are a number of excellent websites and blogs dedicated to the weather (ahem), not to mention free access to National Weather Service forecasts online and via NOAA Weather Radio.

Meteorologists can’t do everything. They give you the best forecast they can using the best data and methods they’ve got, but we are all ultimately responsible for our own safety. If a warning is issued and things start to go downhill, it’s up to you to handle it properly and live to see the sun shine another day.

[Cars Trapped on Atlanta Highway: Associated Press | Flooded House: Associated Press | Worker Restoring Power in a Winter Storm: Associated Press | Severe Weather Map: SPC | Warning Map:NWS | Fake Snow Map: Author]


A California Gas Leak Is the Biggest Environmental Disaster Since the BP Oil Spill

Posted in INVIRONMENT with tags on December 30, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4991

A California Gas Leak Is the Biggest Environmental Disaster Since the BP Oil Spill

A California Gas Leak Is the Biggest Environmental Disaster Since the BP Oil Spill

The largest natural gas leak ever recorded is jeopardizing health and causing evacuations for thousands of Southern California residents. And two months into it, scientists and engineers still can’t figure out a way to contain the seeping gas.

It is easily the worst environmental disaster since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Tellingly, some experts who stopped that leak are working to contain this one.

On October 23, the Southern California Gas Company discovered a leak in its natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, a neighborhood about 25 miles northwest from downtown Los Angeles. Engineers don’t know what caused it, but believe that a well casing failed deep below the surface. It will take at least several more months to find the source and repair the leak, which requires careful drilling far from the tank itself to avoid igniting the gas and causing an explosion.

A California Gas Leak Is the Biggest Environmental Disaster Since the BP Oil Spill

A relief well is being connected to the leaking well in the hopes that all the gas can be diverted there while engineers try to seal the leak. (Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News via AP, Pool)

For two months the leak has been spewing natural gas into the atmosphere at up to 110,000 pounds per hour. Why is it such a big deal? Although natural gas is a better energy source than coal when it comes to emissions, in its raw form this is the same climate-destroying gas that 195 countries have been trying so hard to keep out of the atmosphere, according to a report by the Environmental Defense Fund, which is tracking the amount of gas leaked in real time:

Methane—the main component of natural gas—is a powerful short-term climate forcer, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released. Methane is estimated to be leaking out of the Aliso Canyon site at a rate of about 62 million standard cubic feet, per day. That’s the same short-term greenhouse gas impact as the emissions from 7 million cars.

That’s not just bad news for local residents, who are suffering from headaches and trouble breathing (two schools have been relocated for the 2016 semester), it’s potentially devastating on a planetary scale. A spokesperson for California’s Air Resources Board told Mashable the leak is dumping the equivalent of “eight or nine coal plants” worth of methane into our already fragile climate.

The leak itself is invisible but new infrared video shows a jet of gas pluming into the foothills, which hopefully will bring some awareness to the issue. I admit, even as a Southern California resident I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Let’s hope that not only the leak can be repaired soon but that the state takes swift action to ensure the safe storage and transportation of natural gas in the future. Or better yet, switch the state to entirely renewable energy sources, quick.

[Motherboard, Mashable]


These Scientists Predicted Earth’s Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

Posted in INVIRONMENT with tags on December 14, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4947

These Scientists Predicted Earth’s Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

The Paris climate summit may go down in history as the singular moment nations decided to tackle the threat of anthropogenic climate change. But few of us appreciate the fact that it’s taken over a century to arrive at a global consensus on the science.

Decades before global warming became a buzzword in the ‘90s, radical scientists suspected that human activity could be messing with the planet’s thermostat. Early climate change soothsayers were ignored and derided by their peers—but their findings turned out to be remarkably prescient. Here are four people who believed that human activity would warm the planet, long before the world had a clue.

Svante Arrhenius

The first person to suggest industrial activity could heat up the Earth was Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist famous for his discoveries about the temperature dependence of reaction rates. Arrhenius preferred pen and paper to real-world observations, and his predictions about Earth’s future climate drew on the work of several of his contemporaries.

In particular, Arrhenius made use of data collected by astronomer Samuel Pierpoint Langley to calculate the absorption of infrared radiation by CO2 and water vapor. After months of painstaking calculations, Arrhenius managed to produce crude estimates of the energy balance for each latitudinal band on the Earth. “I should certainly not have undertaken these tedious calculations,” Arrhenius wrote in his seminal 1895 paper on the greenhouse properties of CO2 (at the time, carbonic acid) “if an extraordinary interest had not been connected with them.”

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

That extraordinary interest paid off: Arrhenius discovered that even a small change in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere could have global impacts, and that cutting CO2 by half would be sufficient to produce an ice age—a finding that stacks up pretty well withpaleoclimate data on Earth’s geologic past.

Svante Arrhenius, 1909. Image: Wikimedia

In his 1895 paper, Arrhenius was primarily concerned with global cooling. But shortly thereafter, a colleague—the Swedish geologistArvid Högbom—put a strange idea in Arrhenius’ mind. Högbom had calculated that coal burning and other industrial activities were adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate comparable to natural processes. Arrhenius realized that human carbon emissions might, in the future, have the capacity to warm the planet.

But due to the relatively low carbon emissions at the turn of the century, Arrhenius thought the process of anthropogenic global warming would take thousands of years to manifest. A handful of scientists took an interest in his ideas, but by the early 1900s, they were widely discredited. Simply put, people didn’t see how humans could ever be a force of nature powerful enough to influence the climate. Prevailing wisdom held that nature would always balance itself out—and it would be decades before that notion was rattled once again.

Guy Stewart Callendar

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

Arrhenius may have been the first to suggest that fossil carbon emissions could warm the planet, but British steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar was the first to show that they alreadyhad in 1938.

A back-of-the-envelope scientist in the truest sense, Callendar spent his free time compiling global temperature records and carbon dioxide measurements. And he came to a remarkable discovery: the two datasets appeared to be correlated.

In a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in April of 1938, Callendar not only showed that the Earth’s land surface had warmed over the past 50 years, he argued that the combustion of fossil fuels was responsible. For a brief period of time thereafter, global warming came to be known as the “Callendar effect.”

Guy Stewart Callendar, 1934. Image: Wikimedia

Here’s the synopsis that Callendar wrote at the beginning of his paper over 75 years ago:

By fuel combustion man has added about 150,000 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air during the past half century. The author estimates from the best available data that approximately three quarters of this has remained in the atmosphere.

The radiation absorption coefficients of carbon dioxide and water vapour are used to show the effect of carbon dioxide on “sky radiation.” From this the increase in mean temperature, due to the artificial production of carbon dioxide, is estimated to be at the rate of 0.003°C. per year at the present time.

The temperature observations at zoo meteorological stations are used to show that world temperatures have actually increased at an average rate of 0.005°C. per year during the past half century.

Callendar’s calculations were remarkably accurate given his simple methods, his limited CO2 data, and our incomplete understanding of atmospheric radiative physics in the 1930s. His observations of global temperature change not only map neatly onto modern reconstructions of the early 20th century, he correctly observed that more warming was taking place at high latitudes. Callendar also took steps to account for the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon that was not widely known at the time.

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

Observed global temperature departures for the atmosphere over western Europe and New York state. Image: Callendar (1938)

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

Comparison of modern reconstructions of 19th—early 20th century temperature departures (black) with Callendar 1938 (red) and Callendar 1961 (blue). Image: Hawkins & Jones (2013)

There are a few parallels between Callendar and Arrhenius. For one, both mens’ conclusions were pretty much dismissed by the scientific community. Callendar, at least, seemed to derive some satisfaction from punching holes in the conventional wisdom of purported experts. “Few of those familiar with the natural heat exchanges of the atmosphere, which go into the making of our climates and weather, would be prepared to admit that the activities of man could have any influence upon phenomena of so vast a scale,” he wrote. Undeterred by naysayers, the engineer would go on to author dozens more papers on global warming over the next thirty years.

Second, both Arrhenius and Callendar thought global warming would be a good thing for the planet. Arrhenius—clearly speaking from experience as a Swede—envisioned that global warming would make the north a much more pleasant place to live. Callendar believed man-made climate change would “indefinitely” delay the return of “deadly glaciers,” in addition to boosting agricultural productivity at high latitudes. “[I]t may be said that the combustion of fossil fuel, whether it be peat from the surface or oil from 10,000 feet below, is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power,” Callendar wrote.

Hey, nobody’s right about everything.

Roger Revelle and David Keeling

During the first half of the 19th century, barely anyone had heard of anthropogenic climate change. Most who had considered the notion preposterous. But following the advent of nuclear energy in 1945, thinking about man’s relationship with nature began to change. Suddenly, people had the technological power to destroy civilization, if not wipe out all life on planet Earth. So why shouldn’t we control the weather, too? At the same time, advances in digital computing and radiative physics offered scientist the tools they needed to dust off Callendar’s papers and take a modern look at the issues he raised.

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

Among those scientists: American oceanographer Roger Revelle, who served as director for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) from 1950 to 1964. One argument that Earth scientists were kicking around in the 1950s was that the oceans effectively soaked up any and all carbon humans put in the air. The timescales for this process, however, were unknown.

Roger Revelle. Image: San Diego History Center

Revelle did the math, and in 1957, he co-authored a paper showing that Earth’s oceans weren’t absorbing CO2 very quickly at all. This led Revelle to conclude that the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 “may become significant during future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially.” Revelle was well-aware of the—albeit limited—global warming research of his time, and he soon realized that Earth’s climate could be in for a dramatic change in the not-too-distant-future.

Given Revelle’s position as a respected scientist, his claims attracted the notice of reporters and politicians. Revelle did not shy away from the attention. Rather, he was among the first scientists to issue public warnings that humans were “conducting a great experiment” with the atmosphere and Earth’s climate. He went on the record making predictions that carbon emissions could turn parts of the southwest into “real deserts,” and that Arctic melting could cause the Soviet Union to become a maritime power by the 21st century.

While Revelle could not have predicted the dramatically altered global geopolitical landscape by the end of the century, his comments have a disturbing air of prescience in light of the California’s ongoing 500 year drought, and the recent scramble to prospect newly opened Arctic waters for oil, which some have dubbed “a new Cold War.”

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

The Keeling Curve, developed by Charles Keeling in 1960. Image Credit: Scripps

Still, many of Revelle’s predictions were little more than speculation. To drill deeper into the science of global warming, Revelle recruited geochemist Charles David Keeling to Scripps to head up a new Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide program. Keeling began taking atmospheric CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and in Antarctica. After a few years of laborious data collection, Keeling announcedthat he had detected a rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration, yielding the earliest version of his famous “Keeling curve.” Year after year, that curve would be extended, the trend becoming impossible to ignore. To this day, the Keeling curve remains a powerful symbol of the impact of human society and technology on the Earth.

These Scientists Predicted Earth's Future Long Before the World Had a Clue

Charles David Keeling receiving a medal of science from President Bush in 2001. Image: Wikimedia

Fifty years ago last month, Revelle, Keeling, and three other prominent climate scientists authored a report for President Lyndon Johnson, warning him that fossil carbon emissions were having a significant impact on Earth’s climate. In addition to laying out the mechanisms of climate change with remarkable accuracy, the report calls carbon dioxide an “invisible pollutant”—a classification that wasn’t officially recognized until this year.

It also made a number of predictions about the consequences of climate change, including sea level rise, Antarctic melting, and an increase in the acidity of fresh water. Sound familiar? Finally, the scientists used UN data on fossil fuel growth to estimate the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the year 2000—350 parts per million. The actual figure? 370.


Many view the development of the Keeling curve as the turning point at which global warming stepped out of the shadowy fringes to take its place as an important topic of scientific discourse. But it would take another thirty years, hundreds more scientific papers, and some nasty cover-ups for the idea to seep into general public’s consciousness. And public acceptance of climate change is far from universal today.

Arrhenius, Callendar, Revelle and Keeling were all ahead of their time, using simple tools and limited data to see the future with remarkable clarity. As nations around the world finally start heeding the council of scientists, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how far back this paper trail goes.

Follow the author @themadstone

Top: The Mauna Loa observatory, Hawaii, 1965. Image Credti: NCAR/HAO

The Outlook for Nuclear Power in the U.S. Really Sucks

Posted in INVIRONMENT with tags on December 14, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4946

The Outlook for Nuclear Power in the U.S. Really Sucks

The Outlook for Nuclear Power in the U.S. Really Sucks1

As the Paris climate summit kicked off two weeks ago, venture capitalist Peter Thiel penned a scathing op-ed for the New York Times, decrying the plight of nuclear power in the U.S. He cited a stagnant regulatory environment unable to adapt to innovative new reactor designs, and continued public hysteria over safety and radioactive waste disposal, as the primary culprits holding us back from a bright nuclear-powered future.

Thiel makes some valid points. But what’s really killing nuclear power in this country is garden-variety economics: in the emerging energy market of the 21st century, nuclear just can’t compete — particularly with ultra-cheap natural gas.

It matters because natural gas plants emit greenhouse gases, while nuclear plants do not. The International Energy Agency has estimated that we need to double global nuclear capacity by 2050 to meet the 2 degree Celsius cap on global warming set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Other countries are stepping up — there are 437 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, and some 66 reactors being built — but the U.S. is closing more old plants than it is building new ones. And renewable energy sources, while growing rapidly, won’t be able to fill the gap on their own.

Granted, there are currently more than 100 nuclear power plants in the U.S., supplying around 19% of total electricity needs, according to Steven Koonin, a nuclear physicist at New York University who has worked on U.S. energy policy for many years. But these plants are aging out: within 20-30 years, most of them will likely be shut down unless their licenses are extended. There are only five new plants licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently under construction — and one of those is an older project that has recently been revived. All are far behind schedule and over-budget.

“There are a lot of climate scientists talking about how we need nuclear power or we can’t solve climate change,” said Greg Jaczko, a former chair of the NRC who is now a consultant in Washington, DC. “I hear that and I think, well, then we’re never gonna solve climate change, because nuclear power is not gonna do it. We’re not doing today what would need to be done to maintain that massive fleet of reactors in the future.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

It all comes down to the staggering price tag. Every type of electricity generation has associated costs, but to build a nuclear power plant in most states, companies need to put the capital expenditure upfront and absorb that cost for however long it takes to complete construction. That’s usually five to seven years, on average, although even the latest designs have been plagued by significant delays and cost overruns. And we’re talking about a big investment: between $8 to $10 billion for a single large plant.

Jaczko estimates that it would cost $540 billion to build 90 new plants over the next 20 years — equivalent to the entire Department of Defense budget. Even if you staggered that, building five new plants each year, that still amounts to $30 billion per year — equivalent to the entire Department of Energy (DOE) budget. And that’s assuming energy demand stays constant, when it is far more likely to increase.

The problem is not the energy source; uranium is highly efficient. It’s what it takes to harness that energy safely and reliably. For instance, light-water reactors(LWRs), by far the most common design, rely on pumped water to dissipate heat and cool the reactor. But water can only absorb so much heat. When it gets hot enough, at very high pressure, it has so much energy it can fracture steel and massive concrete structures. Hence the need for multiple trains of safety equipment; if one part fails, a backup kicks in.

Koonin acknowledges that construction costs for nuclear plants are heavily front loaded, but he argues that once that considerable initial investment is paid off, there are just operating costs like fuel, maintenance and personnel to contend with. “It’s basically a cash machine,” he told Gizmodo.

Investors don’t seem to share his optimism. “I talk to the kinds of people who finance these projects, and they’re very supportive of the technology, but privately they’ll tell me, we’d love to go nuclear, but the performance just hasn’t been good enough to justify the capital investment,” said Jaczko. “Nobody is investing in nuclear power plants.”

So how about upgrading existing plants instead? The NRC is doling out licensing extensions bit by bit, but Jaczko is skeptical that this will be a viable solution, since fully 80% of existing plants would need license extensions to meet the country’s electricity needs. The oldest plants in particular would require expensive refurbishment, and they still would not be able to compete, price-wise, with natural gas. The profit margins just aren’t there. “Bottom line, most [nuclear] plants in the country are going to shut down in two decades or or so,” said Jaczko.

It’s already begun. Entergy shut down its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in January of this year after 42 years in operation, even though it is licensed to operate until 2032. The company is also closing its Fitzpatrick plant in Oswego, New York; that facility is expected to lose around $40 million in 2016 alone. Also closing: the Kewaunee facility in Wisconsin and Florida’s Crystal River plant.

In northern Illinois, Exelon will likely be closing its small single reactor plant, even though the NRC agreed to relicense the plant for another 20 years. But it did so on the condition that the plant be refurbished, which could cost as much as $1 billion. The company can build a shiny new combined cycle gas-fired plant for a comparatively affordable $500-$600 million. “It’s hard to justify being green to stockholders when they’re losing money on every kilowatt that’s being produced,” said Robert Rosner, a plasma physicist at the University of Chicago and co-founder of its Energy Policy Institute.

Nuclear power holds far more potential in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, according to Rosner. Despite the havoc wreaked by the Fukushima accident, Japan has turned one of its reactors back on, and Rosner is confident more will follow — although the older reactors, like those used at Fukushima, will most likely be retired. China desperately needs an alternative to coal, and nuclear power is their best option. As for the Middle East, Rosner said that there are four reactors currently under construction, and plans for 18 reactors in Saudi Arabia.

But in the U.S., Rosner thinks it will take a catastrophe of some sort before the current disturbing trend changes — and just such a catastrophe could already be looming for my home state of California. Apparently drought, wildfires, earthquakes and horrific traffic aren’t sufficient; we need an energy crisis to boot. The state is closing its San Onofre facility near San Diego, one of two major nuclear plants in the state, and Rosner thinks it’s likely that theDiablo Canyon facility will be shut down, too.

California is betting heavily on renewables with its energy portfolio, but Rosner is skeptical that renewables can make up the shortfall. The consequence may be rolling brownouts, as the supply system struggles to keep up with consumer demands. That leaves natural gas plants as a short-term interim solution, which can be built quickly, are very efficient, and the economics work for utility companies. But that won’t help reduce CO2 emissions, so it’s the opposite of the state’s current energy strategy. Still, “California may not have a choice,” said Rosner.

But won’t we run out of natural gas reserves as well? “You wish,” Rosner laughed ruefully. Yes, the shale reserves being mined by fracking will eventually be depleted, but there is still plenty of methane at the bottom of the ocean. It’s a major technical challenge to bring it to the surface, but the Japanese, in particular, are pursuing this resource with gusto.

Several years ago, when I spoke to experts in the energy community, there was a solid consensus that while the ultimate goal was to phase out fossil fuels and shift the majority of electricity production to renewables, nuclear power would provide a vital interim energy source. Now it’s looking like nuclear will be phased out, too, and natural gas will provide the short-term interim solution — despite the fact this this will pour more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Oh, and California is pretty much fucked.

A Glimmer of Hope?

The biggest issue with renewables going forward is what’s known as the dispatching problem. The existing power grid system is actively managed down to the second to ensure that supply always matches demand. Nuclear and coal plants provide baseline power; they’re designed to run all the time. Gas-powered plants can be quickly turned on and off in response to fluctuations in demand. But renewables like wind and solar produce electricity intermittently: it’s not always windy out, and clouds can obscure the sun. So they don’t fit well into the existing grid model. Better battery storage technology could help resolve that issue, andGeneral Electric, among others, is heavily invested in that area. But we don’t yet have anything capable of the enormous scales required.

There is something called slow energy storage that works pretty well in some geographical regions, notably Europe and upstate New York, according to Rosner. Pump water up the Hudson River to a reservoir, for instance, when there’s not much demand and electricity is cheap. Then when demand spikes, send it back down through the same turbines, this time producing electricity. But as the name implies, it’s a slow process— it can’t do this with the per-second response time required by the power grid.

An alternative approach is to use hydrogen as a storage medium — a kind of chemical battery. A company called Siemans is currently running an experiment in Mainz, using the excess electricity from wind and solar during slow demand times to produce hydrogen in an electrolysis facility. Hydrogen is used to turn methane into ethane, thereby increasing the energy value. But it can also be stored in fuel cells, and grid-scale fuel cells already exist.

We tend to associate fuel cells with NASA and space missions, but they are also of interest to the automotive industry. In fact, Toyota recently abandoned itsmuch-touted battery powered cars (with Tesla supplying the batteries), in favor of investing in hydrogen filling stations to support its new hydrogen-powered Mirai car. The idea is to “convert your entire transport sector over to electric motors powering the wheels, but with fuel cells rather than batteries providing the electricity,” said Rosner.

Jaczko insists that we need to look long and hard at the electrical distribution system in the U.S. It currently relies on large power plants and a vast transmission infrastructure to send huge amounts of high-voltage electricity to local hubs, where it is then stepped down for use by residents and businesses and so forth.

“It’s a very old model,” said Jaczko. “I think we are doomed, we will fail, if we don’t begin to examine the distribution and transmission system.” The power grid is aging out along with the rest of America’s crumbling infrastructure, requiring trillions of of dollars to upgrade over the next 20-30 years. It could be a prime opportunity. “If you’re designing the right system from the get-go, some of the other technologies make more sense,” he said.

There are some innovative new reactor designs on the horizon, such as small modular reactors — a design favored by Koonin, and being developed by a startup called NuScale. Then there is TerraPower, a project that Bill Gates is developing with China: it uses sodium as a coolant and depleted uranium as fuel. Thiel is backing a company called Transatomic Power, founded by two MIT graduate students. That design can burn liquid uranium (LWRs burn solid uranium); the startup claims its reactor should be able to run on the spent fuel of other nuclear reactors, thereby addressing the waste storage issue as well.

But Jaczko says new designs are at least 10-30 years away from being commercially viable. “It’s not a technology problem, it’s an engineering and project management problem,” he said. “[Nuclear] is a fundamentally flawed technology.”

And what about fusion? Despite the recent news of an experimental fusion reactor, the Wendelstein 7-X (W7X), starting up in Germany, Rosner — who served on the DOE’s fusion energy advisory committee — insists that the fusion option just isn’t on the table right now. “The idea that we would have fusion this century is not credible,” he said. “This is not an engineering problem, it’s a lack of physics understanding, both for magnetic and inertial fusion.”

The current DOE budget priorities make matters worse: tons of funding is being poured into the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), butnews broke last month that it will take at least six years longer to complete than originally planned. Meanwhile, basic fusion research is in peril. MIT’s world-class tokamak research program just got the axe — an indication that probing the underlying physics of fusion power just isn’t a high priority for the agency. In fact, federal funding for nuclear energy in general plummeted after the 1970s; Rosner estimates that in real dollars, the U.S. spends less than half on nuclear than it did 4o years ago. “Is it any surprise not much is happening?” he said.

There are no easy answers, no magic bullet, because the energy system is incredibly complicated. “The general public is so shielded from the realities of the energy system,” said Koonin. “People are eventually going to have to understand that you can have relatively inexpensive electricity, you can have emission-free electricity, or you can have nuclear plants.”

As for Rosner, “There are forces afoot here that are very unpredictable,” he said. “For people to tell you that they think they know what’s going to happen — I don’t think so. I think we’re in for a few surprises.”

Image: Nuclear power plant, San Onofre, California. Credit: Julius Fekete/Shutterstock

The Paris Climate Agreement Has Been Adopted

Posted in INVIRONMENT with tags on December 14, 2015 by 2eyeswatching

Post 4945

The Paris Climate Agreement Has Been Adopted

The Paris Climate Agreement Has Been Adopted

After two weeks of marathon negotiations, 195 countries approved an accord that would wean the world off fossil fuels this century, limiting global warming to 2ºC, with an aspirational target of 1.5ºC. It’s the first successful end to a global climate summit after two decades of failed negotiations.

The final draft of the text that forms the backbone of the Paris accord was supposed to be completed Friday morning, but negotiations ran long in light of numerous disputes over the wording of key passages. Major sticking points included whether the world should limit its carbon emissions to prevent more than 2ºC of global warming—a widely recognized target—or whether a more ambitious goal of 1.5ºC of warming should be pursued. Developing nations and low-lying countries that are already feeling the impacts of climate change have made a strong push for the latter.

The final text is a bit of a compromise: the resolution calls on the world to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C” and to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” We should, however, bear in mind that the world has already hit 1ºC of warming, and based on the carbon reductions pledges countries have brought to the table, experts say we’ll be lucky if we hit the 2ºC warming target.

Another major point of contention in Paris has been financing. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, it was decided that wealthy nations would shore up $100 billion a year by 2020 to help the developing world decarbonize quickly. Developing nations have insisted that specific language needs to be included in the final text to ensure that this pledge is met. Ultimately, the $100 billion figure appears only in the text’s preamble, not in any legally binding portions of the agreement.

Each country has created its own carbon emissions reductions targets and deadlines. The final text legally requires all countries to report their progress every five years, with the goal of incrementally stepping up ambition across the board.

Perhaps the most optimistic part of the final accord is an explicit long-term goal of net-zero carbon emissions, to be met sometime in the latter half of the 21st century. Here’s that specific text:

The Paris Climate Agreement Has Been Adopted

Not everyone is 100% happy with the accord, but today’s unanimous vote of support is nonetheless historic, marking the very first time an agreement of this scope is legally binding for all nations.

“Our text is the best possible balance,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this afternoon, “a balance which is powerful yet delicate, which will enable each delegation, each group of countries, with his head held high, having achieved something important.”

Now let’s see if the world acts on it.

Follow the author @themadstone