Tuesday, January 29, 2013

coffee insecurity

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

 “..you 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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

the rain barrel and persistence of regret - short story

In constructing a rain barrel with two friends a few years ago, we got to a point in the instructions where the spigot is put through a hole cut low in the side of the plastic barrel. The barrel was bright blue plastic, smelling faintly of the slight remains of 55 gallons of balsamic vinegar.  The spigot was a gorgeous brass fitting, a classic of the plumbing arts. We were tired and running out of time from moving the barrel around by car to a place where we could work and struggling with drilling and sawing through plastic with improvised tools.

We looked forward to the moment when the one with the longest arms could reach down inside to attach the nut to the spigot and call it done. As we approached that point I realized we didn't have any rubber washers to snug between the brass parts and the blue plastic.  One of my compatriots tried to convince me that the rubber washers simply weren't necessary.  I knew him to be someone who once he took a view, tended to hold it, so I wondered how to convince him otherwise. I told him that without the washers the barrel would fail some day. He didn't believe me.

Then I had a realization that had far more to do with my friend's personality than anything else at the moment. I told him that the opening and shutting of the spigot, combined with the water pressure, would wear away at the barrel immediately, and it would leak every day.  I also agreed to go find a hardware store and get the washers. That proved to be about an twelve mile trip, as it was a weekend afternoon in a small town. I was glad I did, as the washers, once installed a day or so later, performed perfectly.

What seemed key to the persuasion process was to describe the immediate daily event of leaking.  In contrast, the probability of barrel failure at some moment in the uncertain future did not convince.  Moreover, an inevitable certainty of barrel failure in the future did not convince!

Is this not like many decisions?  The probability of climate change in the future does not motivate.
Yet visible changes in one's daily life - the overwintering insects and the different weather, even though they are not yet total system failure  - are more convincing. Present circumstances nudge us to act.

Someone might say that we do listen to probabilities; after all, we buy insurance. But I'm thinking that there's something about seeing evidence of house fires, floods, mud slides, car crashes, and sick people that is different from probabilities alone.  That background evidence is like having a leak in the barrel dripping every moment of every day which prompts a persistence of regret, had we not installed the washers before loading up with water.

At what point in climate change do we develop an awareness of the earth as we know it soon to be dripping away, in fact already dripping away, and decide to act?

Monday, January 14, 2013

thinking analog or digital, what to do when there is no Pearl Harbor catalyst

When do we change our opinions? 

Does one's view develop in a slow creep like an analog dial, tuning into a radio station,
 hearing it first faintly with static, and after some adjustments, finally loud and clear?

Or do we jump from one view to another like a digital search for a strong signal,
ignoring fainter messages?
Some of both?

When climate hawks are frustrated by what seems an ignorant static-ridden state of public opinion,
a temptation is to hope for a miraculous shift, like a digital radio's signal search,
a "Pearl Harbor moment" signal that overwhelms other signals. 

Yet the human brain is more varied in how we make decisions.
Several research efforts have looked at how sectors of the public develop opinions about climate change. 

I could and probably should develop a collection of links and comments on that research, but for now I want to ruminate more on the images of analog and digital moments for decision making.

Joan Savage 1-14-2013

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What does resiliency mean in recovering from Hurricane Sandy?

Governor Cuomo has been setting up commissions to plan rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.

Can we count on institutions like National Grid or Con Edison to suggest resiliency improvements that might put a dent in their business? It might be up to the rest of us to point out some options, instead.

Can we brainstorm before the next super storm?

We can't expect a power utility to suggest building well-insulated replacement structures that use a small fraction of the energy of the ones that were lost. Combine insulation with water cisterns and ultra-low-flow toilets, and such a building is minimally habitable for more days in a power outage, as long as there aren't too many stairs to climb.

But why put it in the path of a storm anyway? Oh, we don't know the path of the next one!
Storms can come further inland, like the proverbial gorilla joke;  What does a gorilla do in the living room? Answer, Anything he wants to.

Solar and wind-supported energy would be handy for cell phone towers, which usually rely on the grid with generator back up. Keeping them going for weeks while the old grid is drying out is important for emergency services and locating storm refugees.

Nobody who paid millions for property in lower Manhattan or a substantial amount for a home in Far Rockaway is likely to just walk away from investment. Who's to tell people just don't build so close to the coast again, even if the design is made of concrete and elevated? It might be brilliant if instead oceanfront property was more like the old temporary indigenous structures, cheap to replace, and accepting of the ways of the ocean.

If the resiliency components cut down on fossil fuel dependency, like the insulated building could do, that would be a two-fer.

I have a feeling I haven't pushed far enough to re-imagine a reasonable post-Sandy downstate. The fact that New Orleans made it through Hurricane Isaac, with higher levees than it had for Katrina, doesn't seem like enough of long-term answer.

As an insuror has been quoted in a piece by Mindy Lubber, reprinted at Climate Progress:
“We need to figure out how to close this climate resiliency gap,” Zurich Financial Services’s Lindene Patton said, referring to outdated infrastructure ill equipped for higher sea levels and bigger storm surges. “What we have today is a series of physical assets which are becoming less and less appropriate given the changing weather patterns that we face. You don’t want to assume something’s going to last 30 years only to have it blown away in 10.”

I'd like to see more discussion of resiliency proposals.

watts and happiness?

Can I decrease my net demand for joules (or fossil fuels) while increasing quality of life?  About ten years ago I switched to buying electricity generated by wind and small hydro, but I like to conserve on watts, too.

Conservation and efficiency - what could it look like? Practically.

I can imagine an awesome next-generation insulation on the home, cutting down on both heating and cooling, while having good air flow. Or a smaller home altogether.  Pie in the sky for now, but still a real option.
Less fossil fuel could obviously mean living where I can walk to more activities, or use public transport.

Quality of life measures surely include health, food, fresh air, green space...communications with and for family, friends and work. 

Seems like I could be happy with even fewer joules of energy.
As long as the insulation works!