Monday, August 22, 2016

The Anthropocene epoch began …

It is important to define when the Anthropocene epoch began so we can model how humanity has affected our life support system. Climate modelers need a more complete record of what is actually going on to make accurate predictions. Though it may not matter whether this represents a new geological epoch (a line in the dirt filled with plastics, nuclear fallout, or transistor radios), we need some kind of demarcation that signaled our arrival.

Scientists to launch global hunt for ‘line in the rock’ marking the ‘scary’ new man-made epoch Declaring we now live in the ‘Anthropocene’ would reflect the impact of artificial changes to the Earth's climate, chemistry, lifeforms and even the rocks of the future A worldwide hunt for a “line in the rock” that shows the beginning of a new geological epoch defined by humanity’s extraordinary impact on planet Earth is expected to get underway in the next few weeks. The idea that we are now living in the Anthropocene epoch has been gaining ground in recent years. The surge in global temperatures by an average of one degree Celsius in little over a century, the burning of vast amounts of fossil fuels, the extinction of many animal species, the widespread use of nitrogen fertilisers, the deluge of plastic rubbish and a number of other factors have all caused changes that will remain visible in rocks for millions of years. (August 18, 2016) Independent

What will matter is that we establish a realistic baseline from which to locate the point (or points) that our earth systems—the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydro-sphere, and the energy system—veered wildly from their ‘natural’ (or non-human influenced) state to our present state. How much more disturbance can our environment (the particular ecological constraints we need to thrive) take before things get dicey? Have we already burst pass Earth’s carrying capacity?

Our ecological footprints have been profound. Our greenhouse gas emissions have already dangerously warmed the planet. Our desire to get around on well-paved roads has bifurcated almost every land ecosystem, making it difficult for plants and animals to live and adapt. (Smugly, we often call animals that don’t respect our highway boundaries ‘road kill’.) Our need for more and more food has hijacked much of our planet’s land surface for our purposes, regardless of the natural dynamics needed to make ecosystems work. 

Even our economics have become a major environmental driver in our earth systems because they influence widespread human behavior. As we respond to (man-made) market prices, this has a profound effect on how many forests we destroy, or the amount of ground we disturb, or how much water we reallocate. 

If we just assume that our present way of life is sustainable and base our climate models on this present period of time only, we are going to fool ourselves into thinking that it’s healthy for seven billion people (going on nine billion by 2050 and maybe twelve billion by the end of this century), desiring a higher standard of living (and all the environmental resources that comes with that), to be a proper baseline from which to plan our future. That would be a dangerous delusion.

Whether we discover the Anthropocene as a particular strata in the ground will not matter as much as our accepting that the fact that that human behavior at some point (probably many, many points) began to seriously disturb a natural evolution that began some 3 billion years ago here on Earth. Then we can adjust accordingly.

My guess is that Anthropocene began when humans forgot that the things we discovered about how the world works also pertained to ourselves.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

The false nuclear energy option

The public should be concerned about aging nuclear power plants that are ‘struggling’ financially and operating with safety issues. If our energy future must have nuclear power, that does not mean that we should keep aging, unsafe power plants going. These are two different issues.  
Ginna owner taking over additional Upstate nuclear plant Exelon, which owns the Ginna nuclear power plant, has agreed to buy the FitzPatrick plant in Oswego for $110 million. That means that Exelon will own all three of Upstate New York's nuclear power generators. And all three are struggling.  In recent years, each of the plants has been flagged by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for non-critical mechanical or safety violations. Each has also been losing money, though the dual-reactor Nine Mile Point in Oswego has reportedly fared better than Ginna and FitzPatrick. (August 10, 2016) Rochester City Newspaper 

Proponents of the use of nuclear power to address Climate Change should distinguish aging nuclear power plants separate from next generation nuclear (which can reuse spent nuclear materials) and small nuclear power operations (which can be built for less money, pose less risk, and provide backup for renewable energy like wind and solar).

Four prominent scientists--James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley--feel so strongly about the need for nuclear power to address Climate Change they wrote an essay on this in The Guardian last year.

Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change Nuclear power, particularly next-generation nuclear power with a closed fuel cycle (where spent fuel is reprocessed), is uniquely scalable, and environmentally advantageous. Over the past 50 years, nuclear power stations – by offsetting fossil fuel combustion – have avoided the emission of an estimated 60bn tonnes of carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy can power whole civilisations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion. There are technical means to dispose of this small amount of waste safely. However, nuclear does pose unique safety and proliferation concerns that must be addressed with strong and binding international standards and safeguards. Most importantly for climate, nuclear produces no CO2 during power generation. (December 3, 2015 The Guardian)

But their plea does not address the problem of aging nuclear power plants.  Not to make the distinction between next generation nuclear power and old struggling power plants is to present a false energy option to the public.

The New York state Public Service Commission has recently adopted the Clean Energy Standard “that will boost renewable energy use while rescuing upstate nuclear power plants with a multi-billion-dollar subsidy.” (August 1, 2016 NY OKs energy plan with nuclear bailout, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

It would be helpful to the public and our ability to plan for the future if our media investigated how safe aging nuclear power plants are when these local nuclear power plants are struggling financially and continually having safety issues -- and keep that issue separate from next generation nuclear power. 

I suspect more folks would get behind the idea of including nuclear power in our energy choices if these old, aging nuclear power plants were closed down. Although these (local) old plants have provided power without any major incidents, and the folks keeping them going have been an important part of our community, the public needs to have a better picture of the safety concerns involved in keeping these nuclear plants operational. The statewide public comment meetings leading up to the decision on the Clean Energy Standard often included rooms full of local nuclear power employees pleading for their jobs. This was probably a great strategy for those employees keeping their jobs, but there were no discussions about the risks involved in keeping aging, struggling nuclear power plants running.

With nuclear energy there’s no room for error.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Monstrous Alligator Gar vs. Asian Carp Invasion!

“There was never a thought in our minds at all about any kind of control on Asian carp.”1

Our present media, ravished by the Internet and desperate for advertisement bucks, are forever seeking stories that will engage the public. Not necessarily in a good way. Too often, rather than taking the time to inform the public about important stuff, our media tends towards outrageous, titillating tidbits of gobbledygook.  

Tackling thorny issues like invasive species in a time of Climate Change is going to be a herculean challenge, virtually on the level of the twelve labors of Heracles himself. Ecosystems, such as the Great Lakes, are going to be transformed by warmer waters, less ice cover, and the more extreme weather that comes with a warming climate—not to mention a myriad of pollutants like toxic flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, plastic bits, human waste (from periodic sewer overflows), and pesticides. On top of all that, some invasive species may well survive better than our endemic species under these conditions.

Much speculation by scientists about the invasion of the Asian Carp (actually, there are three species of these critters) anticipates the arrival of this crazy, leaping fish. Will the Asian Carp totally decimate our Great Lakes ecosystem by gobbling up endemic fish, or will all the ink spilled about this invasion come to nothing? Most folks seem to be leaning towards the prudent notion that given what we know about the Asian Carp in other waters, it wouldn’t be a good idea to allow them into our precious Great Lakes system. But they are coming. Continual sightings and DNA droppings throughout the Great Lakes are heralding their arrival. And, there are insufficient funds and efforts for keeping them out.

Asian carp ‘fatigue’ threatens Great Lakes Boat captains call on Congress to renew efforts to address potential invasion Great Lakes charter boat captains are calling on Congress to refocus efforts on Asian carp, the exotic species with a voracious appetite that many fish biologists fear would wreak havoc on the region’s $7 billion fishery if they ever became established in it. Those fishing captains are one of the groups with the most to lose, because they are highly dependent on a diverse mix of fish species to make their businesses more attractive. That’s especially true in Lake Erie, where more fish are spawned than the rest of the Great Lakes combined. (August 3, 2016) The Toledo Blade

What to do? It seems hopeless, like it did in the 1980’s trying to keep the Zebra Mussels out of our local waters. Some have suggested that we just learn to love and eat the prolific Asian Carp. Most others don’t think that’s a good idea at all—given the potential disruption to the greatest freshwater system in the world.

Enter the media. Recently, the media has seized onto the unsubstantiated idea of a monstrous-looking endemic species, once brought back to a sizeable population, could put the Asian Carp in its place—the lively carp would meet its match.

Once-hated fish now sought to combat Asian carp Persecuted by anglers and deprived of places to spawn, the alligator gar — with a head that resembles an alligator and two rows of needlelike teeth — survived primarily in southern states in the tributaries of the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico after being declared extinct in several states farther north. To many, it was a freak, a “trash fish” that threatened sport fish, something to be exterminated. But the once-reviled predator is now being seen as a valuable fish in its own right, and as a potentially potent weapon against a more threatening intruder: the invasive Asian carp, which have swum almost unchecked toward the Great Lakes, with little more than an electric barrier to keep them at bay. Efforts are now under way to reintroduce the alligator gar from Illinois to Tennessee. (July 31, 2016 Detroit Free Press)

I know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that, but is reestablishing the monstrous alligator gar the way to curb the Asian Carp? What if, instead, both become our enemy?

Anyway, according to the biologist actually part of the team trying to reestablish the gar, “There was never a thought in our minds at all about any kind of control on Asian carp.”1

Alligator Gar Not Effective Weapon Against Asian Carp, Says Biologist A spate of recent news articles have suggested that reintroducing a mammoth fish called the alligator gar into Illinois waterways may help protect Lake Michigan from the invasive Asian carp. But not everyone believes this to be true, including Dan Stephenson, a longtime biologist and chief of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. That's the state agency that’s reintroducing the once-extinct alligator gar into Illinois’ waterways. “We’re just trying to bring back an extirpated species, a native fish that was here once and we’d like to have them back,” Stephenson said. “There was never a thought in our minds at all about any kind of control on Asian carp.” (August 3, 2016) Chicago Tonight WTTW 

The media, ya gotta laugh: Biologists trying to reintroduce monstrous alligator gar into the Great Lakes never thought they could handle the Asian Carp. Asian Carp would vastly outnumber the gars and the gars cannot even open their jaws wide enough to gobble up a humungous Asian Carp. But the media likes to publish stories about bringing back great big monster-bad fish to eat the hordes of a big invasive species—and save the day! Makes for good sales, I guess.  

Our media needs to evolve into an information system that will help us get through Climate Change, the mother of all problems (which will include dealing with invasive species). 

Time passes. 

Monday, August 01, 2016

Modeling Climate Change

For those who still think climate science and the scientific likelihoods for Climate Change are the stuff of dreams, they should focus for a while on climate modeling. Climate modeling (“quantitative methods to simulate the interactions of the important drivers of climate, including atmosphere, oceans, land surface and ice” Wikipedia) is anchored deeply in the laws of physics, math, and all the accumulated data on weather and climate from around the world. Predicting climate has come a long way as the software and hardware of computing have advanced quickly, making it possible for climate scientists to assert, with a high degree of certainty, that global warming is upon us and Climate Change is a grave threat.

Here’s a more rigorous argument from climate modelers:

 “In the face of criticism of climate science, it is important to note that the physical science behind climate models and energy is based on physical laws known for several hundred years and is not new or subject to question. If the world did not work this way, cars would not run, airplanes would not fly, and everyday motions that we observe (baseball pitches, gravity) would not happen. As we demonstrate later, these underlying scientific principles are not cutting-edge science. The principles are not open to question or debate, any more than the law of gravity can be debated.” (Page 39, 2016) Demystifying Climate Models, A Users Guide to Earth System Models)

Scientists can factor in the energy from the sun and follow it through many of our planet’s systems, including ocean currents, our atmosphere, and even model energy as it passes through plant and animal life. Unlike economics (where, if you run out of money you just make more), there are strict energy conservation laws to which climate models have to adhere. If you follow the sun’s energy through one of the many systems in a climate model and the numbers don’t add up, you have to find the missing or additional energy.

With the new climate models, scientists can even factor in many of humanity’s influences on our climate—beyond the production of greenhouse gas emissions -- which our way of life releases.

“Changing water availability affects industry and also affects agriculture. Agricultural land (pasture and cropland) has very different surface properties than natural vegetation, which can result in significant differences in evapotranspiration, affecting precipitation, and albedo, affecting surface temperature. Changes in precipitation and temperature in turn feedback on crops: requiring changes to crop types or additional irrigation water if available. All of these feedbacks can be predicted and modeled, with varying degrees of fidelity.”(Page 130, ibid) 

The take home message is that the more climate scientists learn about global warming (a subset of Climate Change) and gather information for climate models, the more certain they are that we are heading for disaster.

Climate models are accurately predicting ocean and global warming A new study from my colleagues and I vindicates climate models, which are accurately predicting the rate of ocean heat accumulation For those of us who are concerned about global warming, two of the most critical questions we ask are, “how fast is the Earth warming?” and “how much will it warm in the future?”. The first question can be answered in a number of ways. For instance, we can actually measure the rate of energy increase in the Earth’s system (primarily through measuring changing ocean temperatures). Alternatively, we can measure changes in the net inflow of heat at the top of the atmosphere using satellites. We can also measure the rate of sea-level rise to get an estimate of the warming rate. (July 27, 2016) The Guardian

Someday perhaps we may be able to factor in many other features of modern life that are affected by and effect climate, like how our cities take in and release energy.

There are limits to climate modeling. If we don’t include all the data we need to know in order to understand how our climate works (like monitoring clouds’ effect on climate), our models will be limited. Already, climate modelers are learning that their knowledge about clouds and climate is severely limited:

“Perhaps most chillingly, the study reveals how inadequate our present observing systems still are when it comes to certain fundamental climate questions—such as whether the world is getting more or less cloudy, Stevens adds. “This work reminds us that if we really want to understand our changing climate … we need to do a much, much better job of watching clouds.”” (Cloud patterns are shifting skyward and poleward, adding to global warming; July 11, 2016, Science Magazine)

More importantly, there are a lot of unknown unknowns (things we don’t even know we don’t know) that come with something so incredibly complicated as our climate. For example, a climate model won’t ever be able to tell us how our climate will respond to the human peculiarity called climate denial—a refusal to accept science and reason. If we react to every indication that energy is being trapped in our climate system with hostility and distain towards climate modeling, we will be stumbling about blindly on a very warm world.

Time passes.