Monday, December 16, 2013

a problem with novelty

 by Joan Savage

I'm mulling over how humans are drawn to novelty. In this characteristic we are a lot like other mammals and some birds.  

In one story, some indigenous people in Amazonia had a cure for headaches, but they were so fascinated by a bottle of aspirin that they ignored what they already had locally for free and bartered for aspirin. 

That dynamic seems so familiar.  Advertising is built on images of new, special, rare, best.

We may be fascinated by risks that are novel, too, more attentive, at least for a time, to a rare danger than a nearby familiar danger. That could be a survival skill.   

If we really accept that an earthquake will happen along a fault line, and build for that inevitability, no matter how indefinite the timing, we've done a good thing.  But, having a stockpile for disaster is not an excuse to forget to stop at a red light or brush one's teeth.

Do things come back in perspective when we satisfy our curiosity and sense of preparedness about a formerly novel item or risk? 

Curiosity has been both a delight and a curse. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ocean pH and us, updated

By Joan Savage

 It has been said we land animals are creatures born of the seas. Our ancestors came to land as sacks of sea water, and our blood somewhat resembles seawater, or at least some patches of seawater: salty, full of nutrients, some oxygen, some carbon dioxide, some bicarbonate ion.

A recent BBC article on ocean acidification came with a jaunty, even flippant title, "Emissions of CO2 driving rapid oceans 'acid trip.' " I must point out that 'acid trip' connotes a youthful misadventure, albeit memorable. I didn't try LSD, but I've had to listen to those who did experiment on themselves, and they thought it was important.

'Acid trip' does not hint at irretrievable change in the oceans, so I am holding BBC accountable.  What is happening to the oceans is poisoning, and more like brain damage.

The BBC article included a sidebar of bulleted points, they are useful and I have cut and pasted here:

From BBC:


  • The oceans are thought to have absorbed up to half of the extra CO2 put into the atmosphere in the industrial age
  • This has lowered their pH by 0.1
  • pH is the measure of acidity and alkalinity
  • It usually ranges from pH 0 (very acidic) to pH 14 (very alkaline); 7 is neutral
  • Seawater is mildly alkaline with a "natural" pH of about 8.2
End BBC sidebar.

So,  the ocean's pH has already changed by 0.1.  Would it bother you if your coffee or tea's pH changed by 0.1? Probably not.

Consider this comparison instead.  Human arterial blood functions at a narrow range of pH, from pH 7.35 to pH 7.45. Outside of that range of pH range lies emergency situations and death. So the entire range of human blood's physiological health is 0.1.

The oceans have on average shifted by pH 0.1, the maximum pH shift that arterial blood in the human body could tolerate.

At what point does our mother the ocean become fatally ill and die?

Other news stories on ocean acidification:

1) Scientists warn of hot, sour, breathless oceans

By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer   Updated 4:30 pm, Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"...the sweet spots where the factors combine are getting harder to find, Feely and Riebesell said.The world ocean pH already has gone from 8.1 to 8.0 — it's considered a 26 percent increase in acidity because scientists measure hydrogen ions for this."

Friday, November 1, 2013

imaging a positive future

I have to admit this blogging seems to be largely a personal exercise.
So just for the record, or my own record, it seems worth it to imagine a post-fossil fuel society.

Let's be comfortable, peaceful, cheerful, and with many of the personal freedoms that we currently enjoy, like open communications and information flow, and the fragrances of living plants in fresh air.

How to have..

Well-insulated, and ventilated, homes and offices that take little energy to heat, cool, and have humidity control.

Landscape architecture and infrastructure that enables easy walking and public transport to employment, services, and entertainment.

Rechargeable delivery trucks and mini-buses.

Regionally grown food.
Fish ponds.

Trains and canals for efficient long-range transport.
Maybe some new forms of transport.

Parks near schools.

Full-life accessibility features.


Just had to make some notes.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Climate change adaptations - native communities

When I started this blog I explained it was inspired by the Mohawks' work to preserve ash trees which are a species threatened both by Emerald Ash Borer and climate change.

Here's a link to more examples of confronting climate change in other indigenous communities.

8 Tribes That Are Way Ahead of the Climate-Adaptation Curve



Monday, October 21, 2013

Something mainstream media usually misses in the solar cycle

It turns out that geomagnetic storms and electron fluxes occur predominantly before or after the famed high-energy solar activity part of the sun's cycle, per one of NOAA's nifty reports, graph on page 3.

Media attention to the solar cycle has been driven by climate change deniers who try to deceive people into believing that heat waves and droughts are only cyclic, ignoring the overdrive of anthropogenic global warming.  That denier deception is far more sinister than the, "Ignore the man behind the curtain," moment in the Wizard of Oz, even though both are attempts to deflect attention away from what is really happening.

The earth is accumulating heat even during the slow parts of the solar cycle, important to mention.  Yet mainstream media should also pay attention to other aspects of the solar cycle.

Why would we care about it?  Geomagnetic storms, proton surges and electron fluxes, what about them?  They affect electronics. They affect power grids and pipelines.  As we turn away from coal and oil (and I hope nuclear) we have protect and sustain the electronic culture and the devices that displace carbon energy.

Friday, October 4, 2013

If a man eat of the fish..

ProMed has carried a report that could be rather ominous.  If the prion that can give deer Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) can be transmitted by something as common as alfalfa, what does that suggest about pathways to other animals such as cows, humans, or even fish fed on animal protein?   In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the prince muses, "A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm."

Date: Fri 27 Sep 2013
Source: OASIS (Online Abstract Submission and Invitation System), The Wildlife Society Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin [edited]

Uptake of prions into plants
Session title: Current science of chronic wasting disease: what have we learned in the last 5 years?
Author: Christopher Johnson, US Geological Survey, Madison, WI

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) and scrapie-infected animals shed infectious prions during both the preclinical and clinical phases of disease. Contamination of environments with prions released from animals or from infected carcasses appears to contribute to the transmission of these diseases.

Previous work has suggested that soil may serve as an environmental disease reservoir. Vegetation is ubiquitous in CWD-contaminated environments and plants are known to absorb a variety of substances from soil, ranging from nutrients to contaminants.

The uptake of proteins from soil into plants has been documented for many years and we have been investigating the uptake of prions into plants in vitro. Using laser scanning confocal microscopy, we observed root uptake of fluorescently-tagged, abnormal prion protein in the model plant thale cress or mouse-eared cress (_Arabidopsis thaliana_), as well as the crop plants alfalfa (_Medicago sativa_), barley (_Hordeum vulgare_), and tomato _(Solanum lycopersicum_). Using serial protein misfolding cyclic amplification, a sensitive biochemical prion detection method, we have found evidence of prions in aerial tissues from these species, as well as maize (_Zea mays_). Both stems and leaves of _A. thaliana_ grown in culture media containing prions are infectious when injected into mice and oral bioassays are underway for _A. thaliana_ and other plants. Our results suggest that prions are taken up by plants and that contaminated plants may represent a previously unrecognized risk of human, domestic species, and wildlife exposure to CWD and scrapie agents.

Communicated by:
Terry S Singeltary Sr

Monday, September 30, 2013

Imagine success in a world of climate changes - Year 2054

By Joan Cope Savage

Communication about climate change is challenging, we know that.  The diagnosis of climate change sometimes lacks an agreement about a preferred alternative to the disease state. What's the description?  And the prescription?

We can be confused when an indecisive doctor hands off a complex list of What you can do.  What we need are coaches, those who get up close and personal, expecting us to exercise daily, and sticking with us while we apply our energies towards a greater goal.  We have to imagine ourselves healthy to make ourselves healthy.

In coaching our way through climate change, what is the greater goal?

Like Israelites fleeing Egypt, do we have the slightest clue what the old homeland may look like when we find it at last? Do we have to wander for forty years, figuratively or literally, until we reach a place of beauty, safety, and abundance, and know we have found our home?

I propose that imagining a beautiful post-apocalyptic world is essential. 

About that word -  apocalypse is a revelation, an  'un-covering.'   The unfortunate human tendency to loll around and wait to be dragged kicking and screaming though destruction to a new perception is why the word apocalypse has become linked with the kinds of catastrophes that it sometimes takes to get human attention.

So let's see if we can pay attention without more catastrophes.

We as all humans, catastrophes include several floods, droughts and storms from 2010 onward.

What could a lovely sustainable 2054 world look like?
Or at least what would we prefer, if we can do it?

Imagine agriculture productive enough so that people can eat healthily, yet without waste. That would mean reducing both food waste and transportation waste, so probably a mix of longer-distance transported and locally grown food.  So that might mean long distance via train, and local distribution via electric trucks and vans.

Imagine clean skies without soot, acids, or undue ozone.

Imagine occupying buildings that are well insulated and oriented to sun and wind in such a way that supplemental heating or cooling is minimal.  Imagine buildings well adapted to the extreme weather events that are likely to continue for some time.  So if that means stilts near a shoreline, or earth-sheltered in Tornado Alley, let us get on with it.

I'd like the South Pacific nation of Kiribati to still be above the waterline, without having to have had a mass evacuation.  I'd like the nation of the Netherlands to still exist.

This is just the initial spin, looking for a happy expectation for 2054.

This is intentionally unfinished.

PS No more nuclear contamination.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Off Topic - civic duty - shots fired

Yesterday evening there were shots fired somewhere in the city. I could hear them,  though they weren't close. Three, several minutes, two, a few minutes, two, a few minutes, two.

A family member was not happy that I didn't call the police. I'd called a few years ago when I thought I heard gun shots, but by the time the officers arrived, there was only an approximation about from what direction, much less a house location.

This time, I let it go, and the next day, today, went through the news reports to see what had transpired. Nothing in the press.

I had promised my family I'd call the non-emergency number and ask about what to do next time.

When I did, I explained I hadn't wanted to tie up 911 with an unnecessary call when I wasn't near an event.
Of course I was told I should have called, always call,  but the officer seemed in a hurry to wrap up the conversation, because he had other calls waiting.

The so-called non-emergency number was overloaded.

When I feel like it is not worth it to call the police about gunshots at a distance, what does that mean?

That I came to my senses, or lost them...

What it seems to mean to me is that I'd like to be living in a sleepy town where so little is happening that the officer on duty has time to discuss the previous evening's gunshots.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pillar of Salt

by Joan Cope Savage

View of pillars in the salt mine under the city of Detroit.
Biblically speaking -  given a chance to escape disaster, Lot's wife was told to flee without a backward look. Yet, she turned. We don't know if, in a flash, she saw Sodom consumed by sulfurous fire or if she died in the process of turning.  As the story has it, the backward look turned her into a pillar of salt.

Her fate reminds me of the shadows of people burnt into the walls of Hiroshima by the force of nuclear explosion or the hollow casts of Pompeiian citizens shaped in volcanic ash. We know about them through the patterns they left behind when disaster struck, disaster they did not escape.

How many among us are not 'bad' people, but like Lot's wife, we are hesitate to flee the familiar?
I might be one.

We -or I- could turn into a modern version of the pillar of salt, looking backward, even briefly.

I strive to move even a little bit, acknowledging my uncertain future.   Like those trapped in time before me, I might not be moving fast enough. I'd rather be found face-forward, at least.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

note to self about science fiction

By Joan Savage

Allegedly, a Cold War solution to the risk of nuclear war (another abrupt event to consider, to be sure) was to move the core personnel of government to an undisclosed location in the Appalachians. That approach was without thinking through the logistics of finding and moving people within the twenty minutes’ warning window for incoming missiles.
A rush of meltwater from the Antarctic or Greenland might have weeks, months, or years to work its way to DC, but its disruption of climate along the way would be just as spectacular. Who needs science fiction.

Cross posted as a comment on a Climate Progress article that I recommend, Like Butter: Study Explains Surprising Acceleration of Greenland's Inland Ice.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The poop on worm poop as a paleotemperature marker, corrected and updated

by Joan Savage

Why are researchers about paleoclimate so interested in earthworms, or actually in one kind of earthworm?

The common nightcrawler earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris, produces castings year round that include calcium carbonate granules. Not exciting you might think, and even with a vivid imagination,  no, no, earthworm farming is not the latest foolish idea for carbon dioxide sequestration.

Photo of Lumbricus terrestris from wikipedia commons

The calcium-carbonate-flecked worm poop was among those curiosities of nature known to few, and among the few were several scientists collaborating in the UK,  one group is Emma A.A. Versteegh, Stuart Black  Matthew G. Canti  Mark E. Hodson.
Their article Earthworm-produced calcite granules: a new terrestrial palaeothermometer? is fortunately Open Access. What they  produced is a newprocedure for tracking LOCAL temperature conditions over thousands of years in many areas of the planet. This method uses  δ18O values, as determined on individual calcite granules. As they say, "As the granules are abundant in modern soils, buried soils and archaeological contexts, and can be dated using U-Th disequilibria, the developed palaeotemperature relationship has enormous potential for application to Holocene and Pleistocene time intervals."
The correlation to  δ18O data by Kim & O'Neil was at p < 0.0005

In the world of science, particularly climate science, that's a rock star. 

The more recent of the two article's authors are Loredana Brinza, Paul D. Quinn, Paul F. Schofield,  J. Frederick W. Mosselmans, and Mark E. Hodson.  The Brinza et al article published earlier this week in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, "Incorporation of strontium in earthworm-secreted calcium carbonate granules produced in strontium-amended and strontium-bearing soil," was treated like a rock star, possibly because it was confused with the previous article's bolder stance. The title and abstract modestly didn't hint at the implication of their work.
The full article is available for free for what you can read in five minutes! The full article is 17 pages including references. I raced to the conclusions which were both optimistic about the eventual use as a paleoproxy, yet they cautioned that more research is needed on soil conditions and temperature. What had been a variable in the study was the amount of strontium in the soil.
Basically, here's how the Sr/Ca works. The ratio of strontium to calcium in calcium carbonate formation is affected by temperature, but strontium90 presence has also been used to monitor nuclear fallout.  The Sr/Ca ratio has been tracked in coral reefs, over 10^5 years to within 0.5 degrees C accuracy when tested against oxygen isotope records.  That's over 100,000 years, count those zeroes.  So, the earthworms' casting granules with their distinct Sr/Ca ratios are miniature temperature records for the time that they pooped, but soils are not the watery solutions from which corals took their minerals.  

Keep both the bold Versteegh and the cautious Brinza articles in mind.  One's ready to roll and the other might prove useful, too.

Where has the nightcrawler been in the Holocene and Pleistocene? 

In the now-rare definitive work by John W. Reynolds, The Earthworms  (Lubricidae and Sparganophilidae) of Ontario,  Reynolds cites Gates (1972).  Lumbricus terrestris Linnaeus 1758 is a native of Palearctis, now known as Europe, Iceland, North America, South America, Siberia, South Africa, and Australasia.

Reynolds also comments on a belief that the worms had been introduced to North America from Europe, which he corrects to say the worms were native south of the last continental glaciation.  That does suggest that eager researchers may be limited to recently re-introduced post-Pleistocene worm castings in forests of Wisconsin, upper New York, Canada, and other areas that were glaciated up to about 11K years ago.

Palearctis leaves out North Africa and Antarctica. Australasia doesn't include mainland Asia, the subcontinent of India or the Middle East, either.

Even so,  what an opportunity to pinpoint temperature conditions at archaeological sites that have been dated by carbon isotopes, or in soils or geologic strata!   It's not just for coral and mussels anymore.

I am grateful to BBC news for correctly reporting that the Versteegh et al article was the breakthrough.

TB and geoengineering responses to climate change

Joe Romm recently posted on research that further discredits the geoengineering proposal to seed the world's oceans with iron. The iron seeders think that an algae bloom would store CO2 in ocean sediments, but Joe points to studies  that show the effects would be flawed and or short-lived.

My comment was so much fun to write that I've copied it here:

The iron-sprinkling notion reminds me of the 19th century belief that wearing garlic around one’s neck would ward off tuberculosis.
Because TB takes time to become fully symptomatic, the garlic wearers refused to believe they were making a mistake until it was too late. That surely sounds like the current inadequate measures to reduce symptomatic climate change.
The iron sprinkling and the garlic are also somewhat similar in terms of dose and effect.
Garlic extract can kill Mycobacterium tuberculosum, at least in a Petri dish, but it’s not proven that eating a huge amount constantly is possible at therapeutic doses. Similarly, the iron sprinkling has the now-identified bad side effects and is not possible at a therapeutic dose.
To wrap the analogy, TB levels go down when preconditions for communicability are reduced. Even today with cures available, prevention is a better epidemiological approach than trying to treat millions of cases.
Same goes for climate impacts.
Being hopelessly addicted to puns, I must say that it felt good to get that off my chest.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

the Re resource reconsider re re re

Reduce > reuse & repair > recycle.
When are people going to notice the RE in resource?

The closing of the comments period for the Pebbles Mine in Alaska prompted me to look up more about the demand for copper and other minerals.  It's ugly.

Clean energy isn't totally clean.
-- At least not while it depends on mining and mining pollution.

Copper in wind turbines, copper in solar panels, copper in electronics, are all part of a huge global demand for the metals and minerals associated with electricity.

Things I own and use every day...

Friday, June 21, 2013

off topic humor: equal protection under the law and 48 hours and sex

This is not about climate change.

When a branch of a state legislature passed a law that a woman must wait 48 hours for an abortion, I pondered.
The better spirit of such a law is to prompt careful reflection before making a weighty decision, while the lesser spirit of the law is a demeaning dismissal of a woman's ability to make her own weighty decisions, and specifically discounts the discernment process she may have had in the previous 48 hours before she first sought medical assistance.

So let's take the better spirit of the law, plus the 48 hour rule, and see how that applies to men under the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.  Doesn't equal protection infer equal prosecution? Maybe that tough nut about equality has yet to be fully resolved, but for the moment let's assume the equality is in both protection and prosecution.

The last moment at which a man has direct personal control over whether or not conception might take place is in the minutes before his semen ejaculates in or near a vagina, is it not?

So if the 48 hour law were equally applied, a man would have to seek permission for an act of sex and wait 48 hours before the procedure could be accomplished. Would not this give a potential fetus equal protection from irresponsible decisions by a father as well as by a mother? 

Suppose a husband thinks of sex at 9 pm Friday, and must wait until after 9 pm Sunday to consummate his intention.  Consider the anticipation, the overtures, the limited foreplay, during the 48 hours of waiting, and perhaps, it might achieve the intended purpose of the 48 hour rule to prompt careful reflection before taking action.
Moreover, if a man sought the services of a prostitute, would not the 48 hour rule apply in that relationship as well?
Would any man failing to follow the 48 hour rule be judged equally with women?

File this under humor, in case anyone didn't get the joke, at least taken in the whole, if not in part.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ye cannae break the laws of physics, Solvay Process and Calera concrete

Many an inventor has thought he or she found the chemical version of a perpetual motion machine, where by-products are incorporated into new useful end-products.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that energy flows down hill towards heat, so lots of energy would be needed to revert a product of a chemical process back up the thermodynamic hill to its starting materials. For unregulated industries it has been expedient (basically cheaper) to go with the flow of thermodynamics and let slag, waste heaps and pollution accumulate at the bottom of the hill, sometimes literally as well as figuratively. On that thermodynamic down-hill roll, a myriad variety of products can branch off.

Figuratively, the process is like an old pinball machine;  energy pushes the molecules up initially,  and as they roll down the thermodynamic slope,  they can be nudged to end in a particular slot.

Calera plans to take waste carbon dioxide (CO2) and incorporate it into concrete in what we might characterize as a novel slot in the thermodynamic pinball machine.

CO2 sequestration is the advertised outcome, but Calera's flow chart tells something more. For one, it will use salt, in addition to the CO2 laden materials.  For another, it will have sodium hydroxide (NaOH) as one of its products.

Sodium hydroxide has a huge history in my hometown of Syracuse, New York.

It was an important product of the Solvay Process, an industry that had followed the salt industry.   The Solvay Process uses brine (water and salt (NaCl)), limestone (largely CaCO3), and energy (initially from coal) to produce soda ash, which is largely sodium carbonate. But - they had by-products, which they cleverly found slots for.

Solvay Process, the collection of Solvay-named companies, eventually became Allied Chemical, which subsequently combined with Honeywell, and took the name Honeywell, except for spinning off LCP Chemical, which had the effect of distancing Allied from a large part of its mercury pollution. The chemical products also evolved to include a long list, among them sodium hydroxide, baking soda, chlorine, and components for making plastics.

One of the big questions being raised about the Calera process is, can it scale up to stow away the enormous amounts of CO2 being generated by the burning of fossil fuel.  People are wishing for a Big Fix for the dilemma of a huge dependence on fossil fuel and the ill effects of its use.

As much as I'd like Calera to succeed in making low-CO2 concrete and sequestering some CO2, the warning signs are there.  Salt in, sodium hydroxide out.
Scale that part of the Calera process up to a global scale, and I foresee issues, even if the CO2 sequestration works technically.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bridge fuel blues

I got bridge fuel blues,
hydrofracking blues, radioactive blues.
Don't give me gas,
don't give me spent fuel rods in a cask.
I don't want to be the subject
of a human health risk assessment,
Not for coal, nor water-frack,
nor an nuclear act.

We all wanna live nice-
not too hot not too cold -
and travel the world.
Who has time to spin our own cloth
like Gandhi did?
But that bridge fuel stuff is all about
attachment to things that gotta go

From the far side of the bridge
the future is looking back at us with
sad eyes, sad eyes.
Just walk across, why not,
your feet are what you've got.
They have those bridge fuel blues,
looking back at me and you.

what bicyclists accidentally teach me & what we all take for granted

I get dumbfounded when bicyclists think they have the answer to creating a low-carbon environment.

We know their strong points. Bicycles operate on human food power;  the cyclist's respiration generates CO2, and  a bit of methane out the other end, and the cyclist would do some of that even if not on a bike, so the CO2 footprint is only a bit more due to exercise.  The energy it takes to manufacture a bicycle is much less than for a car, yet some bike frames can last as long as a car.  More bikes can fit on a patch of roadway than the car equivalents with passengers.  All good stuff.

That said, bicyclists today seldom reflect on the historic 20th century political and economic struggle to establish smooth surfaces for their rubber-wheeled travel.  The asphalt roads are a product of the petroleum industry. The concrete roads and bridges with their concrete, structural steel and rebar, are carbon-intensive to make.  And repair.

To fully imagine a post-fossil fuel future, take out the smooth black roads and concrete overpasses, take out the steel-trussed bridges and the diesel-powered ferries.
Think about compacted dirt lanes, cobblestone roads, and a ferry operated by wind, or maybe by rechargeable electric engines.

The electric car and the bike are both rides taken on the waning of fossil fuel.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Good read on fracking's use of water supplies

Choice quoate: "That’s about equal, EPA says, to the water use in 40 to 80 cities with populations of 50,000 people, or one to two cities with a population of 2.5 million each."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Update on elephants' hearing and tsunami

June 11, 2013 Add in. Stanford University seismologists have suggested a tsunami warning system that uses sound cues from an earthquake.

"We've found that there's a strong correlation between the amplitude of the sound waves and the tsunami wave heights," co-author Eric Dunham, a Stanford geophysicist, said in a statement. "Sound waves propagate through water 10 times faster than the tsunami waves, so we can have knowledge of what's happening a hundred miles offshore within minutes of an earthquake occurring. We could know whether a tsunami is coming, how large it will be and when it will arrive."

Oh science is satisfying.

But that means there's more. Sound speed in water varies with depth, temperature and salinity.
So the Stanford statement is probably over-simplified, as observers would have to know other factors to make reliable predictions about the tsunami.
Yet, if we take a factoid about sound in seawater moving at about 1560 m/s, that's 1.56 km/s or 5,616 km/hour. That's about seven times a high-end tsunami velocity figure of 800 kmh in open water, another factoid. 
 So the "10  times faster" works if we accept that he's making a generalization, and I'm comparing it to factoids for  approximation.

However, this also suggests a prediction would benefit from knowing the shape of the seafloor, so as to calibrate for the acoustical shift when an open ocean tsunami hits an underwater constriction.

And then - to interpret it as wisely as an elephant.

 Here's the earlier post, published January 24, 2013.
Off topic, but I love puzzles.

This one is related to a story about elephants that came out of the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami.

In the story, a group of Indonesian work elephants became agitated and pulled up the stakes that supposedly held them tethered. They ran away from the sea, uphill, followed by their also very agitated human handlers. Shortly thereafter, the tsunami arrived ashore and the flood swept inland, but at lower elevation than the vantage point of the elephants and their attendants.

The social life and work attitudes of the elephants would be a delightful topic in itself, given their tolerance for being staked out as long as other things like food and safety were satisfactory.

But I also wanted to know more about when the elephants sensed there was danger.

Here's what might be a nice word problem for a promising freshman physics student.

Elephants can hear sounds as low as 14-18 Hertz frequency.
Tsunamis in the open ocean have far lower frequency than the range of elephant hearing (big hint),  a wavelength  can be 200 km, with a velocity of 800 kmh, and an amplitude that might be a few cm to a meter at most, not really noticeable to ships at sea.

When a tsunami approaches shallower water, it is compressed, so it slows down, reportedly to around 50 kmh, its wavelength shortens, and its frequency increases.    In terms of wave compression, like audible sound, the tsunami's pitch rises. With the compression at shallower water, the tsunami's wave amplitude also rises, sometimes to an astounding height.

Figure out the tsunami wavelength condition necessary for an elephant to be able to hear a tsunami coming.

If I knew the decibel sensitivity of an elephant at 14-18 Hz that would add to the fun.  There's a relatively old reference (Heffner and Heffner, 1982) that found a seven-year old female Indian elephant had a threshold of about 64 dB at 16 Hz.  Maybe there's more recent research.   In human terms 64 dB -  at an accessible frequency - could be an air conditioner or dishwasher, hardly as painful as an alarm. 

Then we'd want to know how far the tsunami was from the elephant, so we could guess what would be necessary in intensity for the elephants to react as if they'd heard an air-raid siren.  Did it even need to be loud, or just dangerously different?

It would also be credible to examine if the elephants had other modalities to sense danger. Did they feel something  unusual through their feet? Or even smell something strange as the sea pulled away from the shore..

Thursday, June 6, 2013

teeter-totters - as a business model

According to a finance expert, prudent businesses keep one foot in the depreciating assets that pay high income while they put the other foot into a new market, where the cost of access may be high, but where they want to have a forefront position relative to competition.

Cash-rich companies, such as fossil-fuel providers, often do some version of this. The PR around taking a progressive step may be greenwashing, but deep down it's just business to get a toe-hold in a next-generation market.  The coal, oil and gas companies have the capital to move into solar and wind more aggressively, but they are on a teeter-totter between income and long-term investment.

Give energy companies more and bigger incentives (carrots or sticks) to shift their assets and we'd be over one of humps on the way to success.

If Coal India changes its name to Energy India, we'll know the weight is shifting from one foot to the other.

I cross posted at Climate Progress.

Monday, June 3, 2013

proper motivation

I question climate activists' versions of saber-rattling, such as threatening bigger-badder-weather or the metaphorical hotter pot of water.  I'm beyond tired of reading their malicious hopes for a catastrophe, such as hoping for an El Niño.  That approach is based on the assumptions that a future fear or pain is either adequate motivation for change now, that a catastrophe would lead to a progressive policy outcome (how often does that happen..) and that incremental problems might be enough to prompt a major revision. Even an ordinary insurance policy is for coverage that takes effect immediately, it is not a protection that is postponed until next year.  Who hasn't said, I can't make plans on that, it's too vague? Or, I'll just fix what I have, until it's really broken?

I suggest that what makes juices flow and feet go is an immediate priority for something specific that we hold dear. The energy is strong for a positive and personal outcome, as compared to merely negating a generic negative.
When I am thrifty I have an immediate benefit as well as future benefit. When I fed my children nutritious food, same thing, both an immediate and future benefit. When I eat locally grown food, I have both.

With climate change, consider measures to either mitigate and/or adapt to the changes already in motion. Which of these have a clear positive outcome, part of a vision for the future?  A benign fuel like solar energy is an easy example of a sunny outcome, pun intended.

In the battle to cut down on tobacco-related illness, a Madison Avenue advertising executive explained that ads about dire threats of illness from smoking did not motivate. He said instead you have to make tobacco-free activity far more sexy than acts of smoking. Show healthy attractive people enjoying clear air and each others' company.  The tobacco industry had done its darnedest to try to make smoking seem sexy, but it is straightforward to show that tobacco-free is REALLY really sexy!

Same thing with prepping for climate change. The oil and gas industry have tried to make fossil fuel vehicles and  houses and things made with fossil fuel all seem sexy and upscale. Fortunately we have some counterpoints like the electric cars with elegant lines or the zero-energy houses that are definitely upscale.

We need a positive vision for the future, not one that is whupped by fear.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Solid-state batteries and a China-Japan dispute

Remember news of the dispute between China and Japan over what are known as Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China?  I'd forgotten about it.

This morning my interest had turned to what might be the next breakthrough after lithium-ion batteries, and the internet bits are about solid-state batteries. 

Wikipedia gives a list of candidates for solid-state batteries, including "Ag4RbI5 for Ag+ conduction, LiI/Al2O3 mixtures for Li+ conduction, and the clay and β-alumina group of compounds (NaAl11O17) for Na+ and other mono- and divalent ions."

Clearly the cheapest is not going to be the one with Ag (silver) or the one with Li (lithium) so let's look at the sodium-aluminum-oxide.

NaAl11O17 turns out to be the mineral  diaoyudinite.  
Uhoh. Yes, it was first identified on Diaoyudao Island, part of the Diaoyu Islands.

The island isn't necessarily a mother lode, exactly, but that term may have to do. 
 "There is strong suspicion that diaoyudaoite, from all its known localities, is an INDUSTRIAL WASTE product (from chromium refining, corundum synthesis, etc.) and not a natural mineral." per Mindat.

What should we call an illegal industrial dump site that is now so attractive that countries may risk war over access to the seafloor sediments?

Meanwhile the US has some diaoyudinite in Newark Bay (New Jersey) and the Chester Emery Mines slag (Massachusetts). (Thanks again to Mindat.)

So this only confirms my usual suspicion that nearly any political, even military, position is driven by economics. Why fight over uninhabited islands unless they are key to a technological advantage and possible future market dominance?

This also may indicate that some people are taking solid-state batteries mighty seriously.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sept 3, 2013 Update on Greenland Ice melt

by Joan Savage

Breaking News Update: September 3, 2013

A major canyon beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet leads from mid island northward to near the outfall of the Peterman Glacier. 
Now scientists think that feature may be contributing to meltwater reaching the Arctic Ocean.
I'm delighted about confirmation of my suspicion of mid-island under-ice melting, and the shape of the canyon fits with why the ice cores that reached bedrock didn't reveal the canyon, located to the north.  I'm not delighted that stealth melting could be occurring on a massive scale.

Earlier posts:
Greenland ice melt turns out to be more complicated, and better studied, so this is a revision of what I posted on September 18, 2012, and again in May 2013.

The top surface melt may either move slowly downwards, re-freezing and consolidating in firn, the form of old snow that is compressing into ice, or it may move as meltwater (more on this), or perhaps some other fate, for which I have yet to find a study. Sublimation?

The massive surface melt in the summer of 2012 was remarkable because nearly every surface experienced some melting, at least in place.  The scientists monitoring Greenland melt had earlier classified Greenland ice as dry-snow facies, the combined percolation and wet-snow facies, ice facies, transient melt areas and moraine.  Dry snow facies are surfaces where if snow falls, it accumulates, never melting. Percolation facies are surfaces that melt and refreeze, forming pipes and lenses.  The

As a recent abstract by McGrath et al (2013) clarifies, "Extrapolation of this observed trend now suggests, with 95% confidence intervals, that the dry snow facies of the Greenland Ice Sheet will inevitably transition to percolation facies. There is a 50% probability of this transition occurring by 2025."

In the percolation facies is were the lakes and moulins form.
As the Greenland ice sheet melts around the edges and off its top surface, transient meltwater lakes form on the top of the ice at some locations. Sometimes the transient lakes discharge in transient mighty rivers that cut across the ice sheet surface and may join with more permanent rivers or perhaps better-termed seasonally recurrent rivers.  In the summer of 2012 an engorged ice melt river destroyed a bridge in Kangerlussuaq.  How many months of the year do the  ice melt rivers flow? I don't know. How much melt water stays on the ice sheet surface all the way to ground surface and from there to the ocean,  and how much melt water diverts through the moulins to under-ice channels before it reaches the ocean? I don't know those answers, either, and it would be great if someone was gathering real data on those questions.

In other instances, the meltwater lakes accumulate for only a few days or weeks in summer,  then flush themselves down the inverse-chimneys, the moulins, that develop under the lakes and deep into the ice, as the melt water opens up cracks in the ice.  In a moulin, the melt water creates a deep vertical shaft that extends to the base of the ice sheet. The moulin water is thought to travel through under-ice channels to the ocean. How well established is that fate? Does all the water go to the ocean?

Tracking ice melt comes with some tools, as ice melt is fresh water, low in salts and conductivity, and as it is from snow fall, it has a lighter oxygen isotope signature than does seawater.

Is it part of the freshwater runoff accumulation found in the seas near shore? Apparently yes.
The East Greenland Current  and in consequence, the West Greenland Current, are affected by plumes of glacial melt water that can be detected far into the current by oxygen isotope studies.

Is the meltwater also pooling in the great central lowland of Greenland that is hidden under the ice? The data from the 1990s did not suggest that it was. The  Greenland  ice core samples from GISP, GSIP2, GRIP, NGRIP, and NEEM did not hit a lake of any sort before approaching bedrock. 

However the times are a-changing. In the summer of 2012, the entire top ice surface of Greenland had a melt layer, unlike previous years' observations in which center of the continental sheet did not lose a layer. This years' loss of annual ice record is as startling as if a geologist could watch the loss of a geologic stratum.

Also in this past year, researchers at the other pole were able to drill down in Antarctica, to the ancient Lake Vostock, deep under the ice sheet.  Is there another lake like Vostock forming under Greenland's melting ice sheet?
Like Antarctica, Greenland has a low bedrock area in mid-sub-continent as much as 500 meters below current sea level.

Researchers suggest that the Greenland meltwater from surface lakes may be lubricating the icesheet's bottom surface. With the slopes of that mid-continent depression, not all the ice sheet would slide towards the sea.
Two to five areas of Greenland bedrock have channel patterns linking the mid-continent depression to the sea.
These channels could unplug at some point in the mix of sea level rise and ice melt.

For now, the Greenland ice cores suggest, but don't prove, an absence of a preexisting mid-continental lake.

Perhaps it's one of those answers that is all of the above or some of the above.

In breaking news on November 30, 2012, a report published in Science, A reconciled estimate of Ice-Sheet mass balance,  shows that Greenland's ice sheet is melting five times faster than the models had predicted.

Most recent update May 22, 2013. Joan Savage

You may enjoy a  cartoon published by Funny Times in 2009.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Insurance industry and catastrophes

The business section of the New York Times has a good article by Roberto Porter on how insurance companies are looking at climate change, " For Insurers, No Doubts on Climate Change."

The usual reaction is are they just going to raise premiums? Porter found that insurance companies did well financially in 2012, so we can assume there were some price rises.

However, raising insurance rates has several kinds of limits.
In the NYT article Porter reports,”Mr. Muir-Wood notes that the insurance industry faces a different sort of risk: political action. “That is the biggest threat,” he said. When insurers canceled policies and raised premiums in Florida in 2006, politicians jumped on them.”

A more prudent defense against an insurance company wipe-out is to merge into a larger customer pool that extends beyond the high-risk locales. This measure helps with cash flow, as well as with rate rise rebellion. In 2011, over twenty percent of insurance in the US was carried by five insurance groups (NAIC report, page 3).

Aggregation is also the basic financial mechanism behind federal flood relief, relying on the pool of taxpayers across the country to pick up the tab for regional events.  We've seen interesting dynamics among 'red' states and 'blue' states in consequence of this politically-shaky assumption of mutual support in time of trouble, even though individuals around the country are typically sympathetic to catastrophe victims.

Accelerated climate change kicks this combine-and-survive strategy to its limits, as regional catastrophic events grow geographically larger and thus more expensive, testing the federal government’s preparedness to pay off, as we saw a few months back with Superstorm Sandy.

Private insurers aren’t ready to throw in the towel, but I expect they are going to lobby for expanded federal instruments for flood insurance and crop insurance and possibly other contingencies to cover catastrophes, even while the private insurers remain largely silent on preventive measures.

h/t Climate Progress pick up on the NYT article.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nature's surplus firepower, a/k/a global warming

In some Tom Clancy book, I forget which, he paraphrases a military observation to the effect that in the long run, firepower always beats out defenses.

Nature has been given the military advantage of surplus firepower.
 Resiliency is about surviving our mistake.

I cross posted this comment at Climate Progress

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Chasing our tails

 I haven't been posting much here as my energy seems to have gone into researching comments I make on others' blogs. Here was something I nearly posted as a comment elsewhere.

A tale of progressivism

New York City reached its population limit around 1800 when it ran low on wood for fuel and construction.  Two decades later, the Erie Canal brought wood from upstate and so the city grew while forests fell elsewhere.

 New York City reached its limit again around 1870 when the sheer numbers of horses to maintain, and piles of manure to remove, were thought to prevent further growth. The city shifted to trolleys, trains and autos, and the city grew while the oil gushed. 

Several times the city was limited by water supply, with public works projects responding with aqueducts and tunnels to draw water from hundreds of square miles of watersheds.

Each resource limit was overcome at a cost to something or somebody somewhere. 

Isn't interesting that the known approaches to climate disturbance take two routes that are actually utterly familiar? One is the familiar progressivism through technology that employs novel resources, and the other is conservation and efficiency with what one has. 

What makes dealing with climate so different is that we are all in it, there is nothing outside, there is no climate change equivalent of an upstate forest or an Ohio oil field or a Jersey watershed that is somewhere "else."

Monday, April 22, 2013


One of the sophisticated, yet simple sounding, lessons in ecology is that natural selection does not / cannot foresee a future selection pressure.

In the past, human cleverness modifying materials was among our more successful adaptations, right up there with long-distance running and social groups. 

Now we have reason to rue outcomes of our clever material modifications: toxic waste, scarcity of essential resources, and this dreadful thermal alteration of the planet.

As I posted over at Climate Progress, we could go the way of the cyanobacteria, once the prevalent form of life, which produced so much oxygen as a byproduct that the world’s atmosphere shifted in favor of other life forms.

Cyanobacteria are still around, but they don’t pretend to have authority over the earth.  Or they aren’t telling.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Note to keep the Antarctic Undersea Waterfall Working

 We utterly depend on ocean currents to bring us moisture and warmth.

The kick start for the global ocean pattern  is thought to develop off the coast of Antarctica during the Southern Hemisphere winter.   As the cold sets in, the sea water surface freezes forming  fresh-water ice, releasing salt beneath it into the ocean. This heavy saltwater downdraft occurs at such a volume that an enormous undersea waterfall spills the saltwater down all the way to the seafloor.   For a graphic illustration see NOVA's Earth from Space.
Altogether, the Cape Darnley Bottom Water and three other Antarctic bottom water salt currents are thought to be the main drivers for nothing less than the earth's ocean circulation, or more specifically called, thermohaline circulation.

Meanwhile, snow on the Antarctic continent is melting at an unprecedented rate.  Under what conditions could that fresh water snow melt interfere with the saltwater waterfalls?
The saltwater waterfalls depend on freezing of seawater,  not fresh water, as it its the freezing of sea water which produces both sea ice above at the surface and the heavier salt water that sinks.
As the summer freshwater melt flows to the ocean,  it is likely to stay on top of the water column, at least at first,  but would it still be there come winter time?  How the melt water affects both temperature and salinity in the adjacent ocean would be useful to know. If the low-salt surface melt lingers in the ocean around Antarctica, it could freeze in winter without prompting production of heavier salt water beneath. And that would mean, less of an undersea water fall, less of a driver for ocean circulation.
It had been reported that a layer of Antarctic meltwater has affected the bottom water, slowing the thermohaline circulation.

We are alarmed by the atmospheric disruption from the melting Arctic, but oceanic disruption from a thawed Antarctic hasn’t been given much layperson attention. The implications for climate disruption from perturbed oceans are even more catastrophic than the extreme, but not totally unfamiliar, weather occurring in the Northern Hemisphere from deformation of the northern circumpolar jet stream.

What is the risk of a diminished Antarctic saltwater waterfall?

 Let's hope it keeps working.

(For more on the Arctic, see work by Jennifer Francis at Rutgers and by the team at the Potsdam Institute).

This is an edited revised post, as I didn't have all the bits to include for ocean current links between Antarctic bottom water and the Gulf Stream.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bloodless yet deadly? Is that possible? Shifting legal geography: examples of climate change, cyberwars, and drones

In the UK, jurists in 2011 held a mock trial, Test trial convicts fossil fuel bosses of 'ecocide'
 This trial is refreshingly international in scope.

Who among us does not tacitly accept the legal geography that gives geographic boundaries' primacy over other empowerment to judge actions? That assumption sprang from kingdoms and nationalities, in which jurisdiction is identified first by place under control, historically assumed to be also the place of occurrence, and secondarily by category of behavior.  This spatial view of law has been stretched and bent by events that cross those geographic boundaries.

International law has wrestled with cases such as environmental damages by Chevron in the Amazon, as well as acts of genocide in the Balkans, while publicly acknowledged genocide goes unprosecuted in central Africa.  International law has blank spots, such as what to say about cyberwars, acts of militias funded from outside a country, detainees at Guantanamo, or un-manned drone attacks in Asia that were guided by military individuals sitting in buildings in the US. 

Cyberwar attacks may emerge as an exceptionally provocative example of cross-boundary attacks.  These can cause the downfall of many enterprises, but a link to personal damage or environmental damage is inconclusive.    Bloodless yet deadly? Is that possible? 

A disturbing rumor about prosecuting acts of genocide, and by inference ecocide, is that allegedly only individuals have been convicted of acts of genocide. How odd is that? How true is that? If so, is it likely to change?

As the journalist for the Guardian wrote in 2011: " is worth noting that Bolivia has already passed laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. Furthermore, ecocide could become an international crime by amendment of the ICC's Statute of Rome, which would need 86 nations to back it. Are there 86 states backing the ICC who feel climate change, the crisis in the oceans and other environmental problems are trashing their "peaceful enjoyment" of the Earth's bounty?"

Don't we know of organizations that can be held responsible for hate crimes or other hostile acts, and don't we want to call those acts something criminal, without limiting to old categories of conspiracy, or war? 

April 6, 2013 Joan Savage

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

That difficult term "Climate Sensitivity"

Climate sensitivity may be defined as projected response of global surface temperature to radiative forcing, or a factor affecting net radiative forcing, usually CO2 emissions.  See also the Wiki definition

That said, the words climate and sensitivity have so much baggage that news media have a hard time translating in a conversation about climate sensitivity.

Serious limitations:
- only marks an atmospheric surface temperature change.
- does not directly indicate change in heat content of materials, most significantly the ocean.
- does not correlate temperature or heat content to dynamic climate phenomena.
- does not have a standardized time frame. 
- does not provide indicators at a regional scale, yet the pace and extremity of temperature change differs greatly from latitude to latitude, land to sea,  and so on.

I'd like to see a work-up on "heat content sensitivity" which could describe the more direct relationship between greenhouse gas and the increased heat content of the globe, which varies by region and substance.

The temperature estimates for "climate sensitivity" all have to be derived from the heat content and from there to other dynamics about heat distribution.

Heat content sensitivity is related to very useful questions. Imagine having better predictors for when glaciers melt, water vapor rises from a lake or ocean, or locating places that would fail to cool off enough at night for plant or animal survival.

As it stands now, "climate sensitivity" yields an unwieldy factoid, an average global temperature shift.  Nobody is going to get excited about average 2 degrees Celsius, but Whoa, if that means that some parts of the planet have heated up into the realm of heat exhaustion and heat shock, or the ocean has warmed up so widely that dynamic superstorms are common arrivals on land, and on and on, some of us might get agitated.  

Even though we can measure temperature, temperature is a proxy for other changes taking place.
In a child with a fever, the physiology, immunology and chemistry are far more complex than just being warmer.  Like the child, a raised temperature of the planet is a clue that complex changes have already taken place as well as acting as indicator for what is to come.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ecosystem restoration in a time of Climate Change, as inspired by Dan Dindal

In graduate school at SUNY-ESF,  my advisor Dan Dindal taught Terrestrial Community Ecology (TCE), a course offered for undergraduate or graduate credit.  I was a teaching assistant for the course for an enviable three semesters, and I say enviable as other graduate students felt lucky to have it as their T.A. for a single semester.  Dr. Dindal has long since retired, yet two of his publications, Soil Biology Guide (editor) and Ecology of Compost are still in print due to their durable usefulness.

In TCE, students were supplied with a suite of tools for analyzing ecosystems. In the days before easy spreadsheets, possibly the most daunting exercise was a hand-calculated Bray-Curtis Ordination which compared communities by species abundance, and was distinguished by being a non-parametric analysis.

Among the abundance of other tools, we learned to compare communities by number of trophic levels, species diversity, population redundancy and rarity, and non-organism characteristics such as biotic and abiotic nutrient cycling, stability, ecosystem successional stages, and more.

One enduring lesson I take from that education is that an ecosystem has characteristics that are not completely dependent on current species composition.  

When an ecosystem has been degraded by human activity it is not enough to cover it up with a thin layer of soil, plant grass and a few trees and call it "restored."

If an ecosystem is fully restored, it would have the same number of trophic levels as before disruption.
It would have the same diversity of species, genus, family and class, same efficiency of nutrient cycling, same ability to capture energy in biomass, and resiliency to natural disturbances.

Does it have to have identical rare species?  Could be, if none other can be the keystone species for that environment.  Consider that the salmon that are caught by bears become fertilizer for the forests of the Pacific Coast.

I am impatient with giving more examples, even though that is an efficient way to teach.

Let's just imagine that in a climate-changed world we'd have a better chance ourselves if the ecosystems we depend on have the resiliency that comes from diversity, even if the particular species composition of an ecosystem has changed and continues to shift.

Updated, April 22, 2013.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Phase in carbon taxes to phase out greenhouse gas emissions

I’d like to see carbon tax applied in three phases.

The first phase would be a carbon tax applied to extraction: coal, crude oil, natural gas, even if the extractor claims the material will be stockpiled and not sold immediately.

Second phase would be a carbon tax on industrial sales of material as well as their emissions. That means refineries, electric generation by coal, etc.

Third phase would be a carbon tax on small commercial ‘retail’ and household and personal use emissions. This point would pick up on embedded carbon costs in products or services that are imported from outside the US tax system.

Example for the third phase would be a tax on the carbon footprint of a plastic item like a detergent or shampoo container that was stamped out in a mold operating on coal-fired electricity in a foreign country.

The three phases should add up like a VAT (value added tax), so no one taxpayer feels they are paying overmuch for someone else’s decisions. Places where residential populations depend nearly exclusively on coal-fired electricity or oil transport should be given the means to change their ways.

Overview of sources and users of all forms of energy is available in a convenient graphic from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Estimated U.S. Energy Use in 2011: ~ 97.3 Quads

We’d have to work something else out for taxing other GHG emissions, like the HFC coolant in air conditioners. I don't have a graphic for that at present.

Basically, don’t kill the economy while saving it.

A carbon tax system can steer the economy towards energy efficiency, and pick up other bonuses that might emerge along the way, like public transportation on safe bridges.

I agree with others that the revenues of a carbon tax could go into a general fund.

If carbon tax follows the history of the tobacco industry and cigarette taxes, then put the revenues towards an array of public works and services that reduce dependency on fossil fuels. That can scale from major public transport improvements to subsidized solar roofs on residences.

I cross posted a version of this in a couple of comments on Climate Progress.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Favorite Maxims

Justice delayed is justice denied.

First do no harm.

1. you can never do just one thing
2. everything goes somewhere
3. no population can increase in size forever
4. no free lunch (energy is finite)
5. evolution matters
6. time matters
7. life would be impossible without interactions

Saturday, March 9, 2013

looking ahead - looking behind - climate change and an abandoned piano

Some ideas for how to deal with the problems of our time seem as naive as pioneer dreams in the westward expansion in the 19th century.

Ideas like --
--hydroponics after the planet gets too hot for plants.
--living in a biodome
--adding sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere constantly
All of these are energy and mineral resource intensive.

These notions remind me of a photo. It was a black and white photo of a rutted trail across the plains. Even though decades had passed after the last pioneer's covered wagon rumbled by, the ruts were a persistent scar on the land.

An upright piano stood at the side of the trail. Superficially, it looked like one could walk over and strike a few keys. Its owners abandoned the piano at a point in the trail where one could see that there were many long miles ahead before a place to water the animals.

I have not been able to find that picture again. If anyone knows it and can tell me I'd appreciate it.

The abandoned piano is an icon for me of a frequent mistake in foreseeing the risks. Too many of us assume that we can take the familiar with us into the unfamiliar, without understanding the fundamentals of logistics. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Climate Change and Niemoller's refrains

Thinking about the public's slow response to issues of climate change, Father Niemøller's poem came to mind.

A version that seems suitable for adaptation:

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me -
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

My experiments with adapting Niemøller's saying:

Adaptation #1

In America carbon use was widespread,
and I didn't speak up because I too used carbon.
In China the carbon use became widespread,
and I didn't speak up because I bought products from China.
The carbon use destroyed the water and soil and homelands of indigenous peoples,
and I did not speak up because I was far away and not indigenous.
The carbon use destroyed the habitats of plants and animals,
and we didn't speak up because the plants and animals were not our food.
Finally the extreme consequences of carbon use and climate change came for us all,
and it was too late to save everyone, including me.

Adaptation #2

In Africa climate change brought drought to the Africans,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't an African.
In Asia climate change brought weakened monsoons,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't an Asian.
In New Orleans climate change came for the low-lying neighborhoods,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't from there.
Climate change brought floods to Great Britain,
and I didn't speak up because I was an American.
Then climate change came for me -
and by that time no one had time to come help.
They were too busy trying to survive.

Adaptation #3

In the 1980s the flowers began blooming earlier in the spring,
and I didn't speak loudly because it seemed like a small thing.
In the 1990s, the winters became wetter with rain or snow,
and I didn't speak up because I was busy with children who liked to play.
In the 2000s the killing heat waves and forest fires spread larger on the maps,
and I did not speak loudly because I was far away and had air conditioning.
In the 2010s the crops began to fail in other parts of the world,
and I said only a few things because I had food and I didn't know who else to talk to.
Finally climate change became personal,
And yet it is personal for everyone.

Joan Cope Savage

Monday, February 25, 2013

supporting material for comment on land use

I made a remark at Climate Progress that the net shift from grassland to crops had been relatively tiny in the past five years, here's the clip, followed by  a longer explanation.  I expect to update this if necessary. There's enough to make the conclusion.

  1. Joan Savage says:
    The net change is about two thousand square miles of land. That is actually a tiny shift compared to the hundreds of thousands of square miles in either crops or grassland.
    These states typically have around ninety percent of their land in farms; Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. Iowa has 90% in crops alone.
    The danger of dust-bowlification is already enormous, just based on how much land is already in annual crops.
    • Dick Smith says:
      It’s a hard to reconcile your opinion that it’s a “tiny shift” with the author’s opinion that the 5-year-shift rates were comparable to deforestation in the Amazon, Mayalsia and Indonesia–from which I inferred, he’s saying, it’s an “alarming” rate.
      Since I respect your comments as very informed, factual and constructive, I was hoping you could elaborate a little more–perhaps with a few actual numbers.
      Your takeaway messages are quite different.

"Tiny" being about the percentages.

Here's how it goes starting with the five state chart in the article.

1.3 million acres / 640 acres = 2,031 square miles.
I compared that shift to the total farmland in the five states.

Nebraska’s farms and ranches utilize 45.5 million acres – 93% of the state’s total land area, so over 70,000 square miles in agriculture and ranching.

Iowa land area is 60% row crops, 30% ranch
Iowa has total 55,857 square miles,
so agriculture and ranching has over 50,270 square miles.

South Dakota
75,811 square miles of land
of which 90% is in crops or ranches, or approximately 68,229 square miles.
A recent report showed 16.55 million acres harvested in fall 2012, or 25,859 square miles in crops.
That number does not include the rangeland.

North Dakota
69,000 square miles of which about 90% is in farms or ranches.

79,626 square miles
20% of Minnesota's corn crop goes to ethanol.

By the time I saw just the numbers from Nebraska and Iowa, it meant that the 2,000 square mile shift in five years, spread out over the cropland and grazing land of five states was going to be well under 2%.

UPDATE: If we add up all the crop and range land together for the five states, its around 297 thousand square miles, of which a net shift within it of 2 thousand square miles over five years is 0.6% over five years. 

Meanwhile... in 2004 the Amazon rainforest shrank by 10,000 square miles
More recent report is that the Amazon rainforest shrank 93,000 square miles in the past ten years that is a loss off of the rainforest's 2.4 million square miles. That's a rate of over 3.8% over ten years.

If the rainforest loss was averaged for five years instead of ten, that would be 1.9% over five years, quite a faster loss than the  0.6% net loss of grassland in the US over five years.

As it is, I wouldn't want to overlook that it takes somewhat less time to reestablish a grassland than it does a rainforest! Neither is a trivial project, as conventional crop farming can leave pesticide and herbicide residues that preclude the regrowth of a full grass land ecosystem

What could be said more carefully (based partly on the north central US map) is that parts of Iowa and the Dakotas changed over from grassland at rates that exceeded the rate of loss of Amazon rainforest.  It is not correct to say that the whole five-state agricultural region experienced a shift at the rate of the rainforest.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Calling low carbon Moses; we need to cross the Red Sea

I believe us die-hard climate hawks urgently need to understand the political/social/economic nuts-and-bolts of transition to low-carbon. The president’s “all of the above” makes us uncomfortable not only because it allows more CO2 generation, but because he’s offering the public a view that allays some real anxieties that we have not adequately addressed.
Too many climate hawks snap back with, “They should install solar panels or wind turbines,” in a way that is just as ugly and insensitive and uninformed as, “Let them eat cake.”
There are whole communities utterly dependent on coal-fired plants for their electricity, and even though it’s like living in bondage, the community members have to be able to see a path through the proverbial Red Sea to get to something else.
We need a Moses who walks among the people.
A low carbon version of Johnny Appleseed would help.

I cross posted this at Climate Progress.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

broaching rationing

In the struggles to turn the tide of fossil fuel use, several approaches have been advanced. These approaches range from personal lifestyle decisions to cap-and-trade to carbon tax, and some have broached rationing.

Rationing has some features that most of us alive today have never experienced personally, though I heard about it from my parents' generation who lived through World War II.

One is more cooperative behavior, such as pooling coupons to make a birthday cake.

Another is legitimate barter, such as sharing a car ride with someone willing to use their gasoline coupon as partial payment.

Another was the chagrin when a commodity is not available at any price, even with careful accumulation of rationing coupons. When metal products were in short supply, my mother took a full day going from store to store in Philadelphia seeking an iron, which she really needed to dress properly for work.

To the best of my knowledge, my parents did not participate in a black market for goods, but sooner or later everyone heard about that activity.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Often and lightly, the snow I shovel

 I have shoveled snow twice today, and expect at least one more round before bedtime, I'm feeling aware of the risks of snow shoveling such as wrenched backs and heart attacks.  In my case, frequent shoveling of light two-inch layers of fresh fluffiness is much less risky for my health than waiting for a six-inch layer to form and congeal with the setting of the sun.  Besides frequent prompt visits to the drive way, I rely on a shovel with a bent handle that makes it a lot easier to push snow or lift it.

 This reminds me of Jared Diamond's essay in the New York Times in which he explores misplaced anxiety. He draws attention to "the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently."   Such as, falling in the shower, or a the risk of a tree toppling on one's tent.
Diamond pointed out he doesn't stop taking showers, he's just careful about how he goes about it.

Aren't there more applications?

In the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the designers of the nuclear plant gave it a 25 year operating life, and that meant it would have been unlikely to have been damaged by a 100-year earthquake or tsunami.  But the operators of the plant keep it going for 40 years, increasing the likelihood that the plant might eventually be damaged.

Something might only happen infrequently, but give it enough time, and that event becomes nearly inevitable!!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

coffee insecurity

Jacob Mammen, managing director of India's Badra Estates coffee growers:

 “ have a sense of insecurity. Things are slipping out of your hands.”

In an interview in "Coffee farmers adjust to climate struggle"  Seattle Times
 Hat tip to Climate Progress blog

Indian coffee growers are not alone in facing unstable climate conditions.
Coffee growers in Colombia have an amazing array of coffee varieties to offer, based on subtle differences in altitude, climate and soils.  Yet in recent memory, many Colombian coffee groves were hit with exceptional rains, damaging crops.

According to Mark Pendergast, coffee isn't really the second most valuable commodity after oil, but in 2006 coffee was the fourth most valuable legal agricultural commodity.  That said, many of us are deeply attached to coffee, so on the scale of emotional reactions, scarcity of coffee is right up there with scarcity of petroleum, wheat, sugar.
We've been attached to coffee for generations. William Penn, the wealthy founder of the province of Pennsylvania, once sent a pound of coffee as a present to his wife in England.

I have said before that it may take a coffee shortage to move Congress to act.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Digression on elephants and tsunami, a physics puzzle

Off topic, but I love puzzles.

This one is related to a story about elephants that came out of the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami.

In the story, a group of Indonesian work elephants became agitated and pulled up the stakes that supposedly held them tethered. They ran away from the sea, uphill, followed by their also very agitated human handlers. Shortly thereafter, the tsunami arrived ashore and the flood swept inland, but at lower elevation than the vantage point of the elephants and their attendants.

The social life and work attitudes of the elephants would be a delightful topic in itself, given their tolerance for being staked out as long as other things like food and safety were satisfactory.

But I also wanted to know more about when the elephants sensed there was danger.

Here's what might be a nice word problem for a promising freshman physics student.

Elephants can hear sounds as low as 14-18 Hertz frequency.
Tsunamis in the open ocean have far lower frequency than the range of elephant hearing (big hint),  a wavelength  can be 200 km, with a velocity of 800 kmh, and an amplitude that might be a few cm to a meter at most, not really noticeable to ships at sea.

When a tsunami approaches shallower water, it is compressed, so it slows down, reportedly to around 50 kmh, its wavelength shortens, and its frequency increases.    In terms of wave compression, like audible sound, the tsunami's pitch rises. With the compression at shallower water, the tsunami's wave amplitude also rises, sometimes to an astounding height.

Figure out the tsunami wavelength condition necessary for an elephant to be able to hear a tsunami coming.

If I knew the decibel sensitivity of an elephant at 14-18 Hz that would add to the fun.  There's a relatively old reference (Heffner and Heffner, 1982) that found a seven-year old female Indian elephant had a threshold of about 64 dB at 16 Hz.  Maybe there's more recent research.   In human terms 64 dB -  at an accessible frequency - could be an air conditioner or dishwasher, hardly as painful as an alarm. 

Then we'd want to know how far the tsunami was from the elephant, so we could guess what would be necessary in intensity for the elephants to react as if they'd heard an air-raid siren.  Did it even need to be loud, or just dangerously different?

It would also be credible to examine if the elephants had other modalities to sense danger. Did they feel something  unusual through their feet? Or even smell something strange as the sea pulled away from the shore..

June 11, 2013 Add in. Stanford University seismologists have suggested a tsunami warning system that uses sound cues from an earthquake.

"We've found that there's a strong correlation between the amplitude of the sound waves and the tsunami wave heights," co-author Eric Dunham, a Stanford geophysicist, said in a statement. "Sound waves propagate through water 10 times faster than the tsunami waves, so we can have knowledge of what's happening a hundred miles offshore within minutes of an earthquake occurring. We could know whether a tsunami is coming, how large it will be and when it will arrive."

Oh science is satisfying.

Brief note on Briar Patch of Carbon Tax

The Obama Administration announced it doesn't plan to introduce a carbon tax.
Now a carbon tax is a messy prickly topic, with lots of twists and turns that we don't fully comprehend, yet.

I reflect on Brer Rabbit’s interaction with Brer Fox.
“Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

And what if some Brer Foxes flung the Obama administration into the briar patch of carbon tax? Not such a bad end, really.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

green job geography - information needed!

In the political-economic geography of congressional districts and states, is anyone looking at placement of green industry and employment that would succeed the old fossil fuel jobs, without incurring massive migration to seek new work?

Every time I have browsed the economies of congressional districts or more broadly a home state, I have found huge economic components for voters, not just a few big donors. Surely some climate hawk strategist has seen this as well.

One example is that Speaker John Boehner is from Ohio which produces about 5% of the coal mined in the US. Boehner’s 8th district isn’t on top of the coal, yet it is a largely urban population that has felt the recession. Does someone know more about green jobs development there?

This is not a cynical buy-out proposal, we really need to have green jobs that don’t require an immediate migration.

One of the rather creepy legacies of the Cold War is that military industries and installations are still found sprinkled among many of the old configurations of congressional districts, more or less guaranteeing that workers at the sites would press their congresspersons to keep those projects going.  Our egregiously large military budget has been a jobs-generator, but not openly discussed as such.  Why not re-configure that employment strategy towards a more peaceful outcome? 

Instead of vilifying the politicians, let’s find a better solution for their constituents.

Updated January 29, 2013.

Earlier version was cross posted, pre-edits, at Climate Progress

climate change is not a tide - it's a heating up version of the Cold War

 Earnest people struggle to express the urgency of addressing climate change.  In response to a conversation about whether to frame the cause as a war, someone broached the image of not being able to hold back the tide.
I balk at that. Here's a comment thread from Climate Progress that includes my view.

David B. Benson says:
Please no more war on … whatever.
They always turn out so badly.
Len Conly says:
“The physics of climate change is implacable, absolutely implacable.”
Who gets credit for:
“There’s no turning back the tide on global warming.”
Joan Savage says:
Dunno. I’m not fond of the tide metaphor.
Tides go out on their own once or twice a day. And they are natural.
A climate change policy that is the equivalent of waiting until the tide changes isn’t the course of action we are trying to evoke.
Some of those who deny human influence on climate are very fond of the notion that it is all a natural cycle that could resolve itself without intervention.
We know it is not the case. This accelerated climate change is not a natural cycle.
Actually the metaphor that comes to mind is the build up of nuclear arsenals in the Cold War. It wasn’t until people on both sides began to understand the mutually assured destruction of both aggressor and target, and the ensuing nuclear winter, that disarmament talks got serious.