Monday, July 26, 2010

Who cooked the planet? And what do you mean by that?

This just in: While we kick the climate can down the road, the hits just keep on coming. This, from Voice of America: "...The global population of a marine algae called phytoplankton has declined by 50 percent since the middle of the last century, threatening marine creatures that depend on the microscopic plant for food. Scientists blame global warming for the trend..."

NY Times editorialist Paul Krugman let fly a few broadsides recently ("Who Cooked the Planet") at the usual suspects from the political-industrial complex for letting the latest climate bill die in the Senate. Intimating a future of doom for doing nothing, he explains inaction due to a combination of corporate greed and political cowardice. Of course the planet will not really "cook" i.e., resemble Venus, for a few billion years until the Sun expands with age and an increasingly bad diet of helium with a carbon chaser. But even a few degrees of prolonged temperature change on earth can have profound impacts on climate zones, sea level, local climate patterns, and thus human and other life form habitation.

We see the impacts of climate change abundantly in the geological record. After all, for lack of low sea level and a land bridge to Asia during the glacial eras, our early inhabitants of North America might have a different story to tell. Caught between a rock and a dry place were the ancient settlers of the Southwest, impacted by the prolonged droughts that occurred repeatedly after ~1270 A.D. Climate warming and glacial ice melt could make life Hell in Florida. Then again, Florida gave us the 2000 election debacle...what goes around comes around. I'm kidding, of course.

Taking a slightly different tack than Krugman's accusations of cowardice and greed, fellow Times writer Ross Douthat, in "The Right and the Climate" looks at the last forty years of interaction between predictions of apocalypse vs. politics and tells us that past efforts to point towards impending doom have often been overstated ("...The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms..."), leading many conservatives to a more understandable viewpoint of skepticism. Ross suggests inaction on the short term may be wiser than regulation. If legislation regulating climate forcing gases looks anything like the recently passed health care reform, I might actually agree. Climate science increasingly tells us that the future will entail significant change. Our reaction needs to be better focused than the usual Beltway sausage-making.

Warming skeptics like to focus on the uncertainties and disagreements among scientists studying the issue, and indeed some right-wing skeptics are politically and financially corrupted, some on the left are intellectually bankrupt, and some of the scientists need to better quantify their remarks. Get beyond the bad politics. While the complexities are daunting, the basic problem remains: adding CO2 to the atmosphere traps outgoing infrared energy that would otherwise go into space. This was pointed out long ago by Arrhenius. Multitudes of other variables (solar flux, ocean currents, continent placement, thermohaline circulation, cloud cover, CO2 dissolution to the oceans, residence time calculations, other atmospheric warming or cooling agents such as methane, sulfur aerosols) confound easy calculations of emissions vs. climate change. Indeed, our increasing ability to model complexity adds to the perception that on the short term, climate modeling is hopelessly complicated. But that doesn't really mean the underlying problem, driven by atmospheric chemistry interacting with sunlight, goes away.

In a now dated 1998 paper, James Kasting lays out some basics of the long-term carbon cycle. Burning all the remaining oil in the world will have far less consequence on our long term atmospheric carbon budget than burning up our coal. But as Kasting points out, the worst effects will not occur for several hundred years, thus humans tend to devalue the consequences compared to problems that we face today, such as unemployment and how to get to work. And as we all know, its easier to continue to write a check for coal fired power and worry about next week's crisis than to worry about what we can do to fix something that won't hit us hard for a century or more (although the pollution we create by burning coal hits us today). Hence, the problem gets kicked down the road. But if we wait too long, we may have neither the time nor money to fix the problem. Frankly, every dollar we spend for offshore oil is a dollar we don't have for investment in the U.S. whereas every dollar we spend on energy R&D in the U.S. may create a product we can sell abroad.

And now, we are told the algae are dying. Possibly due to oceanic warming and lack of nutrient-rich deep water overturn. Of course, more obvious is our inerrant habit of using the ocean as our global dumping ground, most recently seen in the Gulf of Mexico. Such observations are alarming. Cutting out the base of the food chain for marine life, not to mention our use of sea life for nourishment, suggests that once again we are sacrificing our future to present excess.

Given government inaction/corruption and corporate short-term thinking, what can we do in Los Alamos?

1. Insulate our homes and replace inefficient electrical devices to reduce the need to burn coal to produce electricity and reduce the natural gas needed to warm us in the winter.
2. Install individual solar roof arrays and wind turbines, the second of the two would be useful if you live in the middle of nowhere where it blows all the time.
3. If you live close to work or school, start riding that bike. If you live far from work, get a smaller car next time or a motorcycle. Yeah, I know...what about the horse trailer and six kids?
4. Support the Smart Grid and the solar power array. Los Alamos County should also lobby to build our own nuclear power plant to go along with the proposed 2 Mw solar array to be built on the old landfill and to augment our hydropower from Abiquiu. LA County should be 100% coal-free.
5. Eat locally grown food when possible and eat lower on the food chain to improve your dietary energy efficiency.

Feel free to add comments. This ain't my scientific specialty. Here are some conclusions from a Lamont-Doherty online presentation.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cyclist Down...

According to Carol Clark at the Monitor, a cyclist crashed into a guard arm at the West Jemez Vehicle Access Portal yesterday and was seriously injured.

According to Ms. Clark in her blog (see link above), "...Schon, 79, rode his bicycle into a guard arm and hit a gate on LANL property near the bottom of Pajarito Ski Hill...He was placed in a medical helicopter from Santa Fe and airlifted to UNM Hospital in Albuquerque..."

No details yet as to what caused the cyclist, identified by Carol as Herb Schon of Eldorado, to crash into that gate.

I'll be on KRSN this morning with LAPD and Carol Clark discussing traffic safety on the radio station's Safety and Security Matters call in show. Maybe more information will be available.

At any rate, please be careful out there. As I remind students of Traffic Skills 101, your air bags are your lungs, and your crumple zone is your ribs.

Here is an update:


Bill--FYI and anyone else you think will care: Herb was moved from the trauma center ICU to the regular trauma center Saturday night, and soon I hope he'll be downgraded to the general hospital so he can have visitors.

We keep getting conflicting information, but we think the story is that although he has a lot of injuries, none are life-threatening. He does have three breaks in the pelvis, but they are in positions that will allow him to do some weight-bearing exercises...if he can stay awake that long. He'll be in a neck brace for a while for the vertebral break, his shoulder and elbow look like raw meat, his head and shoulder wounds look like they were stitched up by Dr. Frankenstein, he has broken bones I never heard of and he has some remarkable bruising and lacerations and punctures, but on the whole, Peter and I are much heartened.

It seems he'll go from here to the general hospital and then to a rehab facility, most likely his alma mater, HealthSouth. He still is drugged much of the time--oxy and morphine--so doesn't do well with the phone. Visitors are restricted. I'll keep you posted. Thanks so much for your help with the bike and for staying in touch.