Thursday, December 08, 2005

Why Does CO2 Matter?

I've been asked that question before and I recently wrote a long reply about it. Then I realized that I'd like to save that reply for posterity here on my blog.

To understand why the CO2 level is critical nowadays, please start by going here and play with the Pangea breakup animation. Yes, the CO2 level was higher in the past. So was the oxygen level, significantly, which is part of what enabled those massive dinosaurs to exist. That CO2 helped maintain the global tropical/sub-tropical/hot desert climate that was so dominant on earth for hundreds of millions of years but there was another factor too.

As you watch the Pangea breakup animation, you'll note that for a long time (hundreds of millions of years) that North America and South America were completely separate landmasses. You will also note that there were clear lines of oceanic circulation between all the major continents. This circulation was equatorial. Consequently, the entire planet had a much more tropical/sub-tropical climate even into the farther northern reaches. (This animation is not the best one but many of the animations fail to account for sea level and instead just focus on the underlying plate movements.)

However, just a few million years ago, note that the Central American isthmus rose from the sea. Also note that the Mediterranean/Red Sea linkage was broken as well. At that point in time the "normal" global equatorial circulation was broken and the earth started experiencing intermittent ice age/warm age cycles. This also caused a new circulation pattern, often called the Thermohaline Circulation to come into existence. This pattern attempts to redistribute heat but does not do so as evenly as the prior circulation patterns did. The result is the ice age/warm age cycles we've experienced for the past few million years.

Now what's critical here is that each prior warm age appears to have ended with a global warming event. Those events took thousands of years to unfold normally but in the end they changed the Atlantic circulation (the Thermohaline) and caused it to shift dramatically south. Each time this happened, the northern reaches of the world became vastly colder in short order. What caused this shift in the Thermohaline Circulation? All the initial evidence points to high ice melt rates from the Greenland ice cap plus high ice melt rates flowing into the Arctic Ocean from Canadian and Siberian permafrost melt. Note also that these cycles are positive feedback loops because once the permafrost melts even more CO2 and methane is released into the atmosphere further warming things, resulting in more melt, til the Thermohaline shuts down. At least that is the current theory and it is consistent with the newly uncovered data on abrupt climate change. The existing Thermohaline Circulation is highly dependent on properties of subfreezing temperature highly saline water, which due to its coldness and density, can rapidly sink into the depths of the Atlantic to continue the circulation cycle back through the South Atlantic into the Pacific then back around to the Atlantic again on the surface after it warms. The melting cycle dillutes that water with fresh water, preventing it from achieving densities high enough to sink and continue the circulation pattern.

So the danger here, with the current tectonic plate arrangement is that further warming appears to actually act as the trigger for another ice age. Current CO2 levels have risen rapidly and are higher now than any time in the last 650,000 years and worse, appear to be rising at a rate far higher than previous increases.

Interestingly, instead of tackling the CO2 problem another suggestion that's been made is a huge engineering effort to re-open the Central American isthmus and the Mediterranean/Red Sea linkages again. This does not mean a system of locks like today but a huge, free-flowing ocean channel where massive ocean currents like the Gulf Stream can freely flow around the equator. One problem with this is that it will definitely alter earth's global climate but in ways that we cannot easily predict. Plus it will have further effects on existing ecosystems just as they are highly stressed by human overpopulation. The problem with either change (ice age or opening the isthmus and restoring ancient circulation patterns) is that the world is highly dependent on food production from temperate areas of the globe such as the US/Canadian breadbasket, the Ukraine breadbasket, and the Australian breadbasket areas. Any major climate shift could destroy those areas as viable farming areas and result in global famine and death in the hundreds of millions or even billions. So we, as a species, need more time to both bring our own population under control and gain a better understanding of what we are doing to the climate.

If an ice age started tomorrow, even without human action, it would be disastrous for mankind. That that we appear to be actively accelerating the arrival of the next ice age when we have no mechanisms in place to mitigate its impact is the height of irresponsibility.

Of course, to make matters even worse, we are now beginning to see evidence that the power of hurricanes is growing in the Atlantic tropics due to global warming before we even get to the beginning of an ice age. And the fact is that this power factor change appears closely related to the shutdown of the Atlantic current. So even before we get to catastrophic climate shifts, we're already seeing damage accrue in the Atlantic tropics and subtropic regions due to global warming. This damage is extensive enough that major insurers like Lloyds of London will be forced to dramatically raise insurance rates for operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

So yeah, CO2 matters, especially when CO2 is higher now than any time in the last 650,000 years and it is entirely our own fault.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jumping Off The Fence

There's a huge psychological tipping point that many people fear to cross when discussing peak oil. That point comes when you realize that, if you are going to plan for a future of any kind, you must choose between believing that the "system" (good and bad, all of it) will survive or not survive. When I say "system", I do not mean anything necessarily derogatory but rather that our entire modern world is a system that must function in order for us to live within its boundaries, to reap its benefits, and to suffer its limitations whatever they may be. If you believe that this system will survive the coming of peak oil and remain mostly intact, any plans you make would be colored by this assumption. But if you believed the system would not survive, your plans would undoubtedly be different.

Personally, I don't believe the system will make it yet paradoxically, I hope that it does. Technological society saved my life, cured my cancer, and has allowed me many more years than I would have otherwise had. I don't find it all bad and actually find it mostly pleasant. But my personal experiences with people, both inside and outside the United States, leads me to believe that not enough of them will react to the problem until it's too late to change the ultimate outcome.

And we really are a "global" system these days, international borders notwithstanding. A recent discussion on Yahoo looked at how fragile microprocessor production actually is and the Financial Times of London talked about how many single points of failure now exist in the global economy. These are just small bits of the overall picture of a global system that is increasingly fragile and subject to both natural and man-made interruptions. Things like this are why I insist that the system has to survive as a whole, around the entire planet, or else we'll see a collapse. Collapse does not necessarily mean a "mad max" world, either, despite the impressions that some movie goers may have. Collapse in this context means movement from a higher level of organization using higher energy levels to a lower level of organization using lower energy levels.

One way to improve energy usage, and to get more from even lower levels of energy, is to live in higher density locations. The negative side of this would be trending towards a cyberpunk world of megacities consisting of tens of millions of people each. But maybe we don't need to go that far and just need to improve energy density to a level somewhat better than the diffuse suburban situation and more like traditional urban areas. No one has really examined that problem in detail so it's very hard to say what we need. What we know is that the current suburban lifestyle cannot continue.

And yes, I know about biodiesel. But it's not scalable, at least not yet. Right now the most common biodiesel plants are soybeans, which produce 40 to 50 gallons per US acre, and rapeseed, which produce 110 to 145 gallons per US acre. The highest yield biodiesel actually being produced is from palm oil, at 650 gallons per US acre (15.5 barrels). Let's assume for a moment that we could plant the entire 400,000,000 acres of United States arable land and harvest palm oil from all of it. (This assumes we don't eat but ignore that little problem for a moment and bear with me.) In one year we could get 6,200,000,000 barrels of biodiesel from the entirety of US arable farm land. That sounds big until you realize that we use over 7,665,000,000 barrels of oil in the US per year right now. And then you realize that we've grown no food at all either, which is impossible to sustain. The real production of biodiesel, short of finding another plant more than an order of magnitude more efficient, means that we need to cut oil use by 90% or more. So biodiesel is useful but not useful for continuing the current way we live.

And that is part of the crux of the psychological aspects of the problem - the unwillingness of the American people to consider living a different way, such as in higher concentration urban settings. Political leaders have loudly proclaimed that our way of life is "non-negotiable" without considering that the universe doesn't negotiate anyway. You live within the constraints the universe establishes or you die. It's this observation, the unwillingness of Americans to do anything but want more of the same that makes me believe we are headed towards a social collapse.

We've had the technical know-how to migrate to a sustainable culture for decades. It's not the technical question that stops us. It's ourselves.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Say It Ain't So!

Peak oil is a difficult issue psychologically for many people. Basically we're being told that everything we ever knew may go away and the life that comes after this will be very, very different. It could be very, very different in a good way or very, very different in a bad way but there's not much now to tell us how it will all turn out. There's a natural desire to reject notions like that, even when there is a great deal of science behind them. It was that rejection factor that drove the bulk of the nation to reject both the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report as well as Jimmy Carter's call to the citizens of the United States that it was time to chart a new course. The US didn't want a new course. We were high on success and wealth from the 1950s and 1960s and believed that anything was possible. We didn't want to accept the notion of limits to anything. So we didn't and on we charged as a nation.

We tried to recreate the 1950s in the 1980s but failed in distinct ways. We, as a nation, tried to attribute these to various factors but nobody paid attention to the fact that 1979 was the per capita peak in expenditure of energy worldwide. We've produced more energy since then but we've produced people at a faster rate than energy. So down we've spiraled. Part of this is the unease that many people have about the world around them. Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, recently lamented that we've all made A Separate Peace, aware that the system is broken but are unable to fix it and resigned to whatever fate awaits us. She, and others, sense that something is very wrong compared to yesterday and all our attempts to restore yesterday have gone for naught.

That's happening still today even as the entire global petrochemical industry on which our very lives depend starts to experience upheaval. People don't want to accept the notion that we may face decades or centuries of economic (and biological) contraction. Yet respected scientists are concluding exactly that and making predictions such as lower birth rates based on lower energy availability.

Despite all this the first reaction of most people is rejection. They don't want to be told that The Party's Over or that their dreams of wealth, power, and self-indulgence may have to give way to austerity, humbleness, and even poverty. All this is natural and arguing with such people will simply serve to anger them further. Human beings are stubborn cusses and trying to tell them much of anything doesn't usually work well, especially when it's a negative message. Remember the old adage about shooting the messenger!

However, if someone hears this message and then starts to evaluate it, even if they reject it at first, often their position will begin to change. Slowly, you may find people accepting the idea yet they still may not be willing to do anything about it. Often they will proclaim that some undiscovered technology will save us. Sure, it might, but can we count on that? Or they will agree with the idea but conclude that your timing is wrong and it's not their problem. This is passing it off on their own children or grandchildren but that's better (for the rejecter) than facing the issue directly.

Even further along the line, people begin to accept and realize they need to do something for both themselves and those they love. Often though, fate ties hands and one person may recognize the issue but the other rejects it. This can result in paralysis of decision. If you find yourself in such a situation, rather than argue about it, see if you can negotiate some concessions. Maybe you can negotiate a preparedness budget in exchange for not bringing up such gloomy topics at the dinner table. Yes, I jest, sort of, but the idea of negotiating with a significant other in a way that allows you to begin preparing is not crazy. It lets you get started. And if your significant other sees you are really serious about the issue, then they may decide to pitch in as well. At that point your battle is mostly won.

So, if, after all this mental vacillation, you are finally ready to do something to prepare, just what is it that you can do? You can start by preparing yourself physically and mentally. This is common advice and I just reiterate it here because it's true - good health and a well informed mind are the two best tools when you are forced to survive on your own.

Beyond that you have to consider where you live. If you live in the typical suburban area, your first thought might be to start a garden. That's a good thought - except that many suburbs are divided up with loads and loads of pressure treated lumber to build fences and decks, lumber that has been treated with arsenic. Getting clear facts about arsenic leaching can be difficult but generally, unless your entire backyard was fertilized with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) based sawdust, you won't have many issues. Just be observant and if worried, consider having your soil tested. Also, be sure to plant several inches away from the pressure treated lumber. Leaching that does occur appears to be minimal and stays near the wood.

Getting a garden started is good but then you have to provide water for it and tend to it. Tending to it might not be hard if your company no longer exists but then you begin to wonder how long the banks will let you stay in that house too unless you own it outright. These sorts of issues have led me personally to consider searching for and acquiring a few to several (2 to maybe 20) acres of arable land within a few hours of the city where I live. If I can find and obtain such land for typical agricultural land prices ($600-$1800 per acre) then I can have a personal place not subject to seizure by a foreclosing bank. Locating and acquiring such a block of land thus becomes my first personal concern. I'd like a bit more land because ideally I'd like to be able to support not just myself and my wife, but my children, their spouses and children, and some of my friends as well.

Once acquired though, you're still without shelter. My recommendation here is acquiring a good tent for starters. Again, you can buy it outright so that it can't be taken away from you. You can even buy a couple if need be. These would only be temporary shelter but at least it's something. But with what do you replace temporary shelter? Permanent shelter, of course! Our problem in a collapse/depression scenario is that we're not likely to have the finances to build a traditional structure. So what can you do?

The best solution may be to start studying earthships and their design. Earthships are intended to be self-contained living units that need no external connections to an outside power, water, or sewage network to function. Earthships recycle all waste and have extensive natural lighting via their greenhouses, which can provide the bulk of your food when tended properly. I've seen a few examples of earthships such as this one built near Durango, Colorado and this one in San Juan County, Colorado as well.

Earthships are built using recycled tires, bottles, aluminum cans, and even straw bales. There are also other homes built with straw bales and such materials but earthships seem, to me at least, to be the most complete designs I've encountered so far for living "off the grid", so to speak. And that leads to my next decision - after acquiring the land I want, I plan to begin the process of building a small earthship or similar structure fully targeted to be off the grid.

These decisions are not excessively expensive for me and I can begin to move in this direction right now. It will still take me a few years and if we somehow muddle through peak oil and find a new energy source plus replace all the surrounding infrastructure, I will have lost nothing but still gained a rural retreat and even a possible retirement home someday.

You too can find a way to do something for yourself. All it takes is the decision to do so.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

That Pesky Peak Oil Problem


Peak oil is just not going to go away. I was playing with some numbers from the Oil and Gas Journal as my starting point and built up a spreadsheet inspired by another one I'd seen elsewhere lately. I kept things simple and I gave every benefit of the doubt to the cornucopians (people who think oil will always be plentiful for the foreseeable future). I used a depletion rate of 6.9% which is industry average even though most fields are beginning to deplete faster. I used that same depletion rate on new fields, even though new fields seem to deplete closer to 15% annually and last no more than 6-7 years. I even allowed new fields to stay online 15 years instead of 6-7 years and I limited world growth demand to just 2% annually for new oil.

The line going down from 2004 with the blue boxes is annual production. The line going up is the annual demand. The really thorny problem is that it seems that the bulk of existing fields are in decline, not just a few. And as all these old fields go into decline, the industry's promise to bring 3-4 million barrels per day of new production online each year is just not going to cut it. Heck, I even doubled the industry projection to 6 million barrels per day of new production each year and it just delays the decline by about 3 more years tops and we go negative (demand exceeds supply) in 2009 instead of 2006. What people don't realize is that the entire world production today of roughly 84 million barrels will fall to less than 16 million barrels by 2030. This means that to support growth, we not only have to find enough new oil for the growing demand of India and China, but we also have to replace 68 million barrels per day of production by then. This is close to 130 million barrels of all new production when we haven't even reached that in the first 150 years of production. Geometric growth curves are evil things, including when applied to geometrically growing human populations and demand.

Dr. Kenneth Deffeyes is calling peak this year. Ali Morteza Samsam Bakhtiari, senior expert at the National Iranian Oil Company, is calling peak this year. Multiple other geologists are calling peak this year. Who opposes them? Economists, people with no formal training in physics, chemistry, earth sciences, geology, and particularly petroleum geology. The same economists who can't figure out what inflation is going to be next month are telling us that the geologists are wrong, despite those same geologists having been right time and time again, since Dr. M. King Hubbert first made his prediction of an oil peak oil for the US back in the 1950s (which happened on schedule in 1970) and then made his world oil peak prediction in the 1960s for the early 20th century.

Who do I trust? The geologists, of course. What does peak oil mean to people in the first world? Not much at first except rising prices across the board. The poorer nations will be cut off first, by lack of cash to buy oil. It's already happened in places like Zimbabwe, Somalia, Nicaragua, and Tibet. It will happen more. And as the gap between supply and demand grows larger and larger, the price will generally escalate, though swings will occur largely due to irrational human psyches trying to wish it down. Later, peak oil will affect everyone negatively, unless you cut your oil addiction now. If I was independently wealthy, I'd get off the grid, go completely solar power, earth sheltered passive heating and cooling, on my own property at least 2 hours from any major city and in or near a small town. Since I am not, I'll have to cope as I can.

If you want to know how to handle peak oil, talk to your grandparents or great-grandparents if they lived through the depression. Collect their thoughts and ideas now. Learn to grow a garden. Begin walking as much as you can because if things really go south, soon you won't have much choice. And don't bother asking your representatives to bail you out because it's too late. This is going to hurt and it's going to hurt all of us. The best we can do now is grit our teeth and bear it.

Oil is a finite resource. Higher prices can only produce so much oil and eventually it will be all gone. But on the way down to empty on the gas tank we can expect wars over remaining oil, economic stagnation and recession, and perhaps ultimately extreme depression. And the only way out of this is something other than oil. Got seeds and hand garden tools? Maybe you should.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Hello, Mainstream Media? Anyone Home?

For every problem we humans face, there seems to be something wonderful as well. All of this continues to ensure that the future remains a blurry grey zone. One of the positives I've been following for a few years is the concept of quantum nucleonic reactors. These reactors are not "nuclear" at all so don't confuse the term "nucleonic" with nuclear, as I've seen many others do. In fact, if you want to understand a little bit of the physics involved, you ought to read this paper from the University of Texas at Dallas that describes The Essential Fundamentals of Quantum Nucleonics.

Apparently the United States Air Force is considering building a quantum nucleonic powered aircraft to be used for various purposes. The most immediate thought is of drone planes hovering over enemy territory. But I wonder how such a power source might be used outside of military applications. Would quantum nucleonic reactor powered aircraft provide financial stability to the airline industry? Can quantum nucleonic powered trains become the backbone of a cleaner and less oil-dependent transportation network?

Technology like this provides us with a way to both reduce dependence on oil, thus extending the lifespan of available oil supplies, and to reduce total greenhouse emissions, basically killing two birds with one stone. Such reactors might also be useful in powering ships as well as aircraft or trains.

Humanity stands at a crossroads. We've reached a point where we can and are making indelible and dangerous impacts on the world in which we live. We must make choices and soon. The choices we make will decide whether we move forward to a brighter tomorrow or backwards towards the Olduvai Gorge from whence we came.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Quantum Nucleonic Reactors and Our Future

For every problem we humans face, there seems to be something wonderful as well. All of this continues to ensure that the future remains a blurry grey zone. One of the positives I've been following for a few years is the concept of quantum nucleonic reactors. These reactors are not "nuclear" at all so don't confuse the term "nucleonic" with nuclear, as I've seen many others do. In fact, if you want to understand a little bit of the physics involved, you ought to read this paper from the University of Texas at Dallas that describes The Essential Fundamentals of Quantum Nucleonics.

Apparently the United States Air Force is considering building a quantum nucleonic powered aircraft to be used for various purposes. The most immediate thought is of drone planes hovering over enemy territory. But I wonder how such a power source might be used outside of military applications. Would quantum nucleonic reactor powered aircraft provide financial stability to the airline industry? Can quantum nucleonic powered trains become the backbone of a cleaner and less oil-dependent transportation network?

Technology like this provides us with a way to both reduce dependence on oil, thus extending the lifespan of available oil supplies, and to reduce total greenhouse emissions, basically killing two birds with one stone. Such reactors might also be useful in powering ships as well as aircraft or trains.

Humanity stands at a crossroads. We've reached a point where we can and are making indelible and dangerous impacts on the world in which we live. We must make choices and soon. The choices we make will decide whether we move forward to a brighter tomorrow or backwards towards the Olduvai Gorge from whence we came.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

By Fire or By Ice?

Today I had the opportunity to read The Heat Death of American Dreams. It's an interesting post and like many about global warming tries to make the case for the seriousness of what is happening. Yet amidst all the noise and thunder, the author simply fails to note that the models upon which he bases his expectations have already seriously failed. In other words, the models are highly flawed, yet he bases his sense of urgency on those very flaws.

Now I happen to agree with him that there is a hugely pressing environmental problem staring at us, but in choosing what we can or even if we can do anything about it, it's important for us to get as accurate of a picture about what is going to occur as we can. But since the models used for these predictions are heavily flawed with events occurring now that were not expected for another 90+ years, we need to look elsewhere in order to have some basis for what may occur.

Fortunately, aside from these flawed models used by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we also have the historical record to consult. And also, perhaps fortuitously for the human race, paleo-climatology has begun to actually unravel what has happened to this planet's climate in the more recent past as opposed to the remote past quoted in the article.

In the last 20 years large breakthroughs have been made in understanding The Science of Abrupt Climate Change. Articles about Rapid Climage Change at places like the American Institute of Physics, or The History of Climate Change, or The Discovery of Rapid Climate Change all contribute to the understanding of what happened in the past on this blue planet. And the geologic record is breathtaking.

What we discover as we venture down this avenue of study is that climate has changed suddenly and frequently over the last several hundred thousand years. The changes have occurred within the span of potential human lifetimes and some have been confirmed to have completed whole state changes from warm age to ice age in under 5 years time. So why is this important to us in relation to the fears of heat death on earth due to global warming? Because the evidence is steadily growing that many, if not most of the rapid transitions to ice occurred in relationship to warming events, and further, that those warming events show evidence of high amounts of greenhouse gases.

That is our real problem, based on the evidence. Not death by fire but death by ice. Death by mile thick glaciers extending as far south as Oregon and Ohio. Death by desertification of the central US as it turns to a cold, dry wasteland, destroying our arable farmlands. And what is incredible is that related events, like the weakening of the Gulf current in the Atlantic, the breakup of Antarctic ice shelves, and the melting of the northern polar cap and Greenland are happening at rates that validate the geologic record and not the UN IPCC's model.

Either result, if it occurs, would be catastrophic for mankind. But for me the evidence points to ice, not fire, and that will color my thoughts and decisions going forward into tomorrow.

The Changes on the Horizon

The human race is on the edge of a wave of changes that will remake our world and our way of life. Those changes may give us a far better world or something far worse. Those choices are up to us, now, today. In this blog, my goal is to discuss these changes and the choices we face, for both better and worse.