Overlooking the Obvious?

Our efforts at reducing global warming so far are totally ineffectual. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is that we are starting out with the wrong idea. There is much discussion about “safe levels” of Carbon Dioxide (equivalent) in the atmosphere, but nobody knows if they are actually safe. In any case, they are not relevant at all in our present situation, but will become relevant later, after we have achieved climate stability.

I think the best way to explain this is to liken the Earth to a ship coming into dock in a harbour. It is no use for the ship’s captain to gradually reduce power to the engines, and hope that the ship will lose enough speed to stop it crashing into the wharf – he has to go to “Full Astern” to take way off the vessel in time. If he makes an error of judgement, he either makes a hard contact with the wharf, or has to go to “Slow Ahead” to counter the excess reverse thrust.

Why is it that difficult? Because of the ships “Momentum”, which is dependent on both its speed and its mass – and ships don’t have brakes.

With the Earth, we have a similar problem, although we are not trying to dock it anywhere. Over the last 200 hundred years or so, we have been steadily winding up the overheating process, (increasing speed), by pumping more and more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, but it took a long time before the effects became visible, and even longer before we would accept that it was us that was causing it.

What we have now is the equivalent of the ship approaching the wharf at too high a speed, and our engines are still at “Full Ahead”. What is worse, is that we cannot immediately switch our engines to “Full Astern” because it doesn’t work that way. What is worse still, is that nobody is even considering switching to “Full Astern” yet, and to make it yet more severe, we are actually increasing power in the forward direction.

To get to “Full Astern” in the shortest time possible – (for the time is critical) – we need to do two things:-

1 Drastically reduce our output of all greenhouse gases, not just Carbon Dioxide
2 Sequester Carbon Dioxide as fast as we possibly can.

Our aiming point must be 200 ppm of CO2 or lower, to ensure that “Full Astern” is applied!

Once we have reached that point, we must wait until the climate moves towards stabilisation again, and then release enough CO2 from storage to maintain the equilibrium. This will have to be done empirically, and will not be an easy matter, as the Earth’s Thermal Inertia will mask immediate effects as usual. If we are successful, however, we then have the possibility of keeping the planet in its “Inter-Glacial” state, by either sequestration or release of Carbon Dioxide, thus maintaining our compatible environment indefinitely, in spite of periodic external influences.

It occurs to me that our analogy is incomplete, which presents a further difficulty:-

Where, and who, is the captain?

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Don’t be Misled!

Many news articles and reports about global warming around the Internet are simply misleading, for they only give you half the picture. Take the following leader from a recent MSN page as an example:-

” Warming to Cause Catastrophic Rise in Sea Level?

A recent Nature study suggested that Greenland’s ice sheet will begin to melt if the temperature there rises by 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). That is something many scientists think is likely to happen in another hundred years. The complete melting of Greenland would raise sea levels by 7 metres (23 feet). But even a partial melting would cause a one-metre (three-foot) rise. Such a rise would have a devastating impact on low-lying island countries, such as the Indian Ocean’s Maldives, which would be entirely submerged. Densely populated areas like the Nile Delta and parts of Bangladesh would become uninhabitable, potentially driving hundreds of millions of people from their land.”

As it stands, the leader has one fatal flaw – it makes no mention of the Antarctic!

We cannot simply divorce the Arctic (Greenland) from the Antarctic, and speak of them as completely separate entities. They are both on the same planet – ours – are both affected by global warming, and are melting at approximately the same rate.

This means that any figures you see that refer to Greenland alone, you should automatically double to get the real picture.

Now lets take a more detailed look at the article to see how it stands up in other respects.

“A recent Nature study suggested”

The word “suggest” is commonly used in reporting to indicate a lack of certainty, for this is some legal protection for the article’s publisher. However, as it was published in “Nature”, it is quite likely to have been peer reviewed, and the author must have had convincing reasons for writing it in the first place. We should therefore take the content of the article seriously.

“Ice sheet will begin to melt”

Glaciers are on the move already, and their rate of movement is increasing. It is unclear where the demarcation line between ‘glaciers’ and ‘ice sheet’ lies. We could reasonably infer that the ice sheet is melting already.

“In another hundred years”

Only a year ago, the phrase being used was slightly different – ‘in another thousand years’. In a very short space of time, it has shrunk to 1/10th of its former value. While it is clear that nobody knows exactly how long it will take, the timescale will continue to shrink, as we are still doing the same things that caused the problem in the first place, and more of them.

“Even a partial melting”

Partial means anything less than the whole, and could mean a rise in sea levels of from 1 cm to 6m 99cm, and still be true. The chosen example of 1 metre appears to be random, and don’t forget that it should be doubled to 2 metres anyway, and our actual maximum within this timescale should be 14 metres (46 ft), and not 7 metres.

A 14-metre rise in sea levels will cause worldwide devastation, with many major population centres completely submerged, low-lying countries and islands either submerged or severely reduced in area, huge tracts of arable land taken out of circulation, and a massive refugee problem of unheard-of proportions!

The second aspect of the problem with no mention of the Antarctic, is that the amount of water stored there as ice is considerably more than that stored in Greenland. If all of that ice melts, and we must assume that by this time all mountain glaciers have long since disappeared, we will be confronted with a total sea-level rise of about 75 metres.

As always, we need to read every article on this matter very critically.

The foregoing may appear to be unduly pessimistic to some readers. However, we know that the IPCC reports are deliberately tailored to produce an outcome that is “acceptable” to governments, and thus in all probability do not represent the full danger of our situation. The same is true of the media to a great extent, but for different reasons, and anything we read should be suspected of not revealing the whole truth. Furthermore, we know that some governments deliberately suppress accurate information, and feed us watered-down versions with the intention to mislead.

My own interpretation is that the whole truth will be a global catastrophe, and that the devastation will come faster than anybody is expecting. I just hope that there is somebody out there that can prove me wrong!

World Population

Advances in science and medicine, adequate nutrition, and a period of relative freedom from major conflicts have combined to produce a backdrop for increased fertility. As a result, the world’s human population has increased by a third in only 20 years.

It must be obvious to those that care to look that the Earth is overcrowded. Although efforts have been made to try to stem the tide, they have met with only partial success, and the population is still a long way from stabilising.

In view of the problems besetting the world at the moment, it would be pertinent to take a fresh look at the situation, evaluate what needs to be done, and implement a course of action as quickly as possible.

Our requirement, in fact, is not just to stop further population increase, but to reduce it to the point where it can still be sustained with our planet in its present condition, or rather the condition that it will be in very shortly.

There are several hindrances to this endeavour, and it would be useful to examine them in more detail.

1. Nationalism. Where a nation is seen to be reducing in number, the government usually takes steps to encourage higher fertility, as the national identity should be preserved. This, however, goes directly against the global requirement to reduce.

2. Religion. The Roman Catholic Church still prohibits the use of artificial contraception, with the possible exception of AIDS patients. Even though this prohibition is not universally strictly followed, the result is still more children than would normally be desirable.

3. Age of Consent. The modern trend is for the age of consent to be reduced, leading to earlier marriage, and shorter periods between generations. This has a significant effect on population increase.

4. Requirement for Growth. The unfortunate fact is that modern economies can only continue to survive with a constant expansion of their labour force to fund the ever-increasing cost of welfare for an ageing population. This runs directly counter to the need to reduce the population.

5. Extended Family. In countries where welfare is limited, or not available at all, most men want to ensure that children can be produced with the chosen partner. Consequently, the majority of women are pregnant before marriage, with the corresponding reduction of generation gap. Furthermore, families tend to be large, with 10 or even 12 children not being uncommon.

6. Sexuality. The power of the sex drive is probably well understood by adults. They are unfortunately unable to communicate this knowledge to their children in most cases, with the result that the children learn by experimentation, and early unwanted pregnancy results.

7. Lifespan. In general, people are living longer. Although there are signs that problems with lifestyle and obesity will sooner or later begin to take their toll, this will not happen in the near future, and consequently the numbers of elderly people are increasing.

8. Drugs/Alcohol. Sexual activity under the influence of drugs or alcohol is more likely to result in pregnancy, as precautions that would normally have been taken will probably be ignored.

9. Rape. Where rape is used as a method of suppression and subjugation, it is intended to result in pregnancy.

10. Irresponsibility. There are those men among us who simply disregard the probable consequences of their actions. This seems to be predominant with servicemen on overseas duty, and may also be relevant to tourism.

11. Superstition. In some parts of Africa, it is believed that sex with a virgin is a cure for AIDS.

12. Blackmail. Sex in return for good grades at school is common practice in some areas.

13. Global mobility. Where it is possible for people to work abroad for better pay, it could lead to a larger family than would otherwise have been possible.

14. Lifestyle. Sex is a constantly recurring theme in modern cultures, being used extensively in advertising, often present in films, and always available in the form of pornography. It would come as no surprise at all to learn that this results in increased sexual activity on the part of the population.

The list is long enough to demonstrate the enormous complexity of the problem, although it is not complete.

The time for population reduction is long past, and it is unlikely that anything we can undertake now will take effect quickly enough. This should not deter us from implementing those measures that are considered helpful.

The following are offered as suggestions:-

a) A global information campaign on the inadvisability of bringing children into a world that is about to undergo traumatic change. This is already a factor that people are considering, see
World troubles affect parenthood

b) Eliminate all financial inducements to procreation. It is time to think globally, not nationally.

c) Consider applying a global one-child policy. It may seem a harsh solution, but in view of the problems we will be facing, it is realistic. And instead of cheating, as some Chinese are doing, by inducing multiple births, adopt a child from somewhere else, and help solve another problem in the process.

d) Where possible, eliminate reliance on the extended family, and provide welfare from the state, or the local community.

e) Provide effective sex education to youngsters before they start to experiment, and ensure that they are aware of the power behind this instinctive urge, and know how to cope with it.

f) Raise the age of consent to increase the time between generations.

g) Increase the penalties for rape that is intended to impregnate.

h) Consider making irresponsible sex that results in pregnancy an offence.

i) Ban sex from advertising completely, and purge it from our lifestyle as effectively as possible, with a heavy crackdown on paedophilia, pornography, and prostitution. This would have the added benefit of cleaning up large areas of human trafficking.

Understanding Thermal Balance.

Heat is probably the most undervalued form of energy available to us. It is by far the most abundant form of energy occurring naturally, but most of it is left to dissipate to the surroundings as it will.

Our prime source of this energy is the Sun. This is a giant nuclear fusion reactor at a mean distance of some 93 million miles from Earth, Earth’s orbit taking us from a close point of 91.4 million miles to a far point of 94.5 million miles. The Sun is believed to be 4.6 billion years old already, and will continue to shine for a projected 7 billion years more.

Heat from the Sun reaches us in the form of radiation. The wavelength of this radiation is determined by the Sun’s temperature, which ranges from 16 million degrees K at the centre to 5,800 K at the surface, and the wavelengths range from Ultra Violet, and the visible spectrum, through to the short Infra Red.

The Ozone Layer in the Earth’s atmosphere fortunately blocks the worst of the Ultra Violet range, for these rays are very dangerous for us. The remaining radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and is the driving force behind all life on the planet.

The composition of the atmosphere is crucially important to the thermal balance. Without Carbon Dioxide, or any other gas that would perform the same function, the temperature at the Earth’s surface would be about -18C, ie. the planet would be a ball of ice, and would stay that way. Some “greenhouse gas” is necessary for our continued existence.

The records of past planetary behaviour are held in ice cores, and detailed investigations of these records show that the Carbon Dioxide content of the atmosphere normally varies between two limits:- 200 ppm during an Ice Age, and 280 ppm during a warmer period.

Within these limits, the Earth is able to achieve thermal balance by re-radiating surplus energy out to space, and by storing energy in chemical form – fossil fuels. Note, however, that the balance is not a static one, but swings from one Ice Age to an Interglaciary period such as the one we are currently experiencing, and back again. Note also that energy directly re-radiated out to space is at a longer wavelength than that coming in from the Sun. This is because the wavelength of radiation is dependent on the temperature of the radiating object, and the Earth is much cooler than the Sun. This is what enables the “Greenhouse Effect” to function.

With Carbon Dioxide concentrations within this range, the condition of the planet is also influenced by other factors, such as its albedo (reflectivity), and periodic changes to external influences such as orbital forcing, as described in the Milankovitch theory.

With Carbon Dioxide concentrations above this range, however, changes in albedo will have a reduced effect. Temperatures will increase, and we see evidence that this is already happening. The fact that Olive trees will now grow in Southern England, (Devon), shows that a Mediterranean climate is now being experienced at a latitude of 51°N – hitherto unheard of.

We must also remember that the Earth has an additional heat burden to dispose of – the one caused by us using 80 million barrels of oil per day. We can no longer afford to just let this heat dissipate into the surroundings, for the surroundings themselves are in trouble, and this is where we live!

Further increases in temperature will trigger further effects that will accelerate the problem. The two most disturbing ones are the release of Methane from the Arctic Tundra, and the increase in Water Vapour take-up of the atmosphere in general. Both Methane and Water Vapour are greenhouse gases, and are considerably more effective than Carbon Dioxide.

As temperatures increase, water locked up as ice will melt. There is overwhelming evidence to show that this is happening around the world already. The immediate result of this will be higher seal levels, which in turn leads to decreased land area. As oceans retain more heat than land, there will be an additional warming factor added to the others. Increasing temperatures in the oceans themselves will in turn lead to further increases in sea level, compounding the problem still further.

If we are to get the Earth back into thermal balance, the task will be easier if we do it before further greenhouse mechanisms are triggered – and this means starting Carbon Sequestration now.

Our use of heat energy should be completely revised. Heat can be controlled with remarkably low technology – mirrors, conductors, insulators, heat engines, and it has no qualms about doing work on its way from its higher-temperature source to its lower-temperature destination. We have to learn to use it effectively, in as short a space of time as possible.

Approaching the Switch-point.

Two recent news items are rather disturbing. They strongly indicate that the effect of our Carbon Dioxide emissions will accelerate, bringing us faster to the point at which natural forces start to work against us, instead of for us.

The news items in question are:-

Ships’ CO2 ‘twice that of planes’ and

Oceans are ‘soaking up less CO2’

The first reference may come as a surprise. The fact that ships in general have now departed from their age-old practice of cruising at 11 kts – the optimum speed for fuel conservation – and are now using more fuel to go faster in order to keep up with demand, was not generally known. The fact that the demand for shipping has increased as the result of world trade policy and other factors, such as increasing population, should, however, come as no surprise.

The second reference should be no surprise either. It is quite normal for a solution to slow down absorption as it approaches its saturation level. It is also quite normal for a solution’s saturation level to go higher with increased temperature. This would mean that the oceans will continue to absorb CO2, albeit at a slower rate, as they warm up. Unfortunately, with increasing acidity, marine life – including another major carbon sink, Coral, is likely to suffer badly.

As temperatures continue to increase, our Rainforests, (such as are remaining to us after years of devastation), will stop sinking CO2, and become a source of it. Furthermore, increasing temperatures will thaw permafrost, releasing Methane into the atmosphere, and compounding the problem immensely.

At this point, our carbon sinks will be no more, and the Earth will be locked into a warming phase which is constantly accelerating as new mechanisms are triggered.

It comes to mind that if shipping is now a major polluting factor, what other mechanisms also cause increasing pollution that we are still unaware of? The pollution from cars and other road vehicles has long been under discussion, although without useful result as yet. Trains, however, are also subject to the same pressures as shipping and other forms of transportation, but are not yet included in our overall picture.

Nor is one other factor that could yet prove to be significant, as the resulting effluent is Methane. I refer in this case not to “Cow Belch”, but to “Flatus”. The ‘Flatus factor’, with a world population of 6.5 billion or so humans, is quite likely to prove our undoing if not included in our calculations in time. Flatus is a result of the digestive process, and is produced by anything that digests food – ranging from humans to termites.

It should be clear that without carbon sinks of any description left functioning, the temperature of our planet has only one way to go – up!

If we are at all interested in surviving this global environmental catastrophe, we have to start sequestering Carbon Dioxide now, and not just that from dirty (or even cleaner) coal-fired power stations. The requirement is to reduce the atmospheric CO2 content to a level where the Earth is once again in temperature balance.

The power for this sequestration must come from our daily input of solar energy, and not from fossil fuels, otherwise we are only “shooting ourselves in the foot”.

The technology for this purpose is already in widespread use. BOC, (British Oxygen) for example, produces Carbon Dioxide in steel cylinders, for sale. The gas is then released again into the atmosphere as the customer uses it. When cooled to its freezing point, however, it should be easy to sequester it as “Dry Ice”, where it will return to its gaseous form under storage. The one problem with this process is that it uses fossil fuel as its power source.

With a change of technology, however, it should be an easy matter to convert the process to an environmentally friendly one. The Free-Piston Stirling Engine using solar radiation, for example, can produce cryogenic temperatures directly, and Carbon Dioxide is one of the easiest gases to extract from the atmosphere by this means.