Category Archives: Global Warming

Nuclear Power: Salvation or Catastrophe?

Many people these days are concerned about climate change caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even those who deny the relationship of burning fossil fuels to global warming will admit that one day these energy sources will be depleted and the world will need to develop alternative sources of energy. Some folks say that wind and solar power cannot possibly provide sufficient energy to meet this need. They maintain that nuclear power is the answer. France is usually pointed out as an example of how a country can meet most of its energy needs through nuclear power plants.

Count the Ways

Before you start telling all of your friends that nuclear power is the way of the future, consider the following downsides:

  1. Nuclear waste is dangerous for thousands of years. This is the one “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) that all of us can agree on. No one wants the stuff in his or her backyard. The feds spent a few billion preparing a storage facility in Nevada, but have since found out that the citizens of Nevada won’t let it happen. No one has come up with an alternative, so the stuff piles up at Diablo Canyon and other power plant sites.
  2. Nuclear power plants are prime targets for a terrorist. Remember 9/11? A large plane flying into a nuclear power station would make Chernobyl look like a walk in the park. A British study determined that this type of event in England would make large swathes of the British Isles uninhabitable and cause more than two million cancers.
  3. Nuclear power plants are prohibitively expensive. Without huge government or ratepayer subsidies, they cannot be built. Insurance companies are wise enough that they will not insure the plants against a disaster or terrorist attack. Therefore, the government becomes the “insurer of last resort.” When the San Onofre nuclear plant near San Diego was closed for repairs in 2013, it was determined that the costs to make it safe would be so substantial that the decision was made to permanently close it. The citizens of San Diego and Los Angeles will be stuck for decades with the bill for decommissioning it. The cost of shutting down one reactor is estimated to be $10 billion. Most of the existing plants in this country will have to be shut down soon, having exceeded their lifespan expectancy.
  4. Nuclear power plants are prohibitively dangerous. There have been four major disasters so far…all different in nature. All were considered impossible to happen. The Fukushima event in 2011 is still far from under control. Each day tons of radioactive water escape into the ocean. We will probably never know just how much damage to ocean life has occurred. It is estimated that over a million people have died prematurely (mainly cancer) because of the Chernobyl accident.
  5. These plants draw funds away from the development of sustainable energy. Each nuclear power plant costs about $8 billion. Think how many solar panels and wind turbines that would purchase. Solar and wind generators can also be located close to the users, eliminating the need for long distance transmission lines.

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” was a nuclear power advocate until Fukushima happened. Now she has closed eight of Germany’s 17 reactors and plans on phasing out the others by 2022. That nation is leading the world in the switch to renewables.

Nuclear fusion technology may be a partial answer to the world’s energy needs if it ever gets perfected, but until then, we should forget about nuclear power as the answer to global warming. Wind and solar are the best bets at this time. Tidal and wave energy are still waiting to be perfected, but hold promise.

We should all be working to get the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant shut down. The danger of a major earthquake there is much greater than what they thought it was when the plant was built. California doesn’t need a Fukushima type disaster.

This article first appeared in the January 6, 2016 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Bob Hanson.

A History of Climate Change

Although the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, the science necessary to detect atmospheric change did not exist. Indeed, the element “oxygen” and gas “carbon dioxide” had not been identified. The “scientific method” had been developed, but there were probably no more than a hundred scientists in the world.

Observed First: 1700’s

In the 1750s, Joseph Black observed that limestone, when treated with various acids, produced a gas more dense than air and that smothered flames. He called it “fixed air” and showed that it was also produced by animal respiration and fermentation.

In 1770s France, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife began an analytic study of combustion. They very carefully weighed all the components and products involved in burning. They showed that “inflammable” air, now called hydrogen, combined with a new element they called oxygen, to produce water. Moreover, they showed that oxygen was necessary for combustion and resulted in Black’s “fixed air,” which we now call carbon dioxide.

These discoveries were collected in Lavoisier’s book “Traité élémentaire de Chimie,” which established the science of chemistry and guided the 1800s stunning development of the chemical industry.

In the 1770s, Dutch physiologist Jan Housz discovered photosynthesis, determining that plants took up carbon dioxide in amounts equivalent to their weight increase. Botanists soon realized that plants gave off oxygen in this process. It is by this cycle that atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide are kept in balance.

Greenhouse Effect

In the early 1800s, John Dalton proposed that carbon dioxide was composed of one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen. In 1824, Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, using this knowledge and discoveries of the thermodynamics of gases, calculated how the heat from the sun is trapped by the atmosphere. He determined that without any atmosphere, the earth would be 60-degrees colder. Although Fourier’s observations gave rise to the phrase “greenhouse effect,” there was no appreciation that the earth’s atmospheric and ocean temperatures might be changing away from the balance. The first realization that the temperature of the earth might change came about through the efforts of geologists who found evidence of glaciation in the past, giving rise to the term “Ice Ages.” This idea was as controversial as today’s idea of global warming. People in the Alps were aware that glaciers were retreating; they knew this from reports by their ancestors.

No clear explanation came until Louis Agassiz took up the case. After some years of field study, he described Ice Ages in 1840. Even then, the matter was not resolved until 1875, when James Croll published an extensive analysis that not only proved previous ice ages when glaciers covered much of Europe, but provided an explanation of their cause. Huge changes in the earth’s temperature in the past implied the possibility of present-day changes taking place.

In the 1890s, American astronomer Samuel Langley attempted to measure the temperature of the moon’s surface by measuring the infrared light leaving the moon and arriving on earth. The Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius used Langley’s data to estimate the atmospheric cooling or heating upon changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He was interested in exploring mechanisms that might result in another ice age. He calculated that another ice age would result if the carbon dioxide fell to one-half its value. Equally, he calculated a warming of 5-degrees if it doubled. Estimates that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was increasing led him to predict a slight global warming that might take thousands of years.

Is Carbon Dioxide A Factor?

The matter remained in doubt during the first half of the 20th century. Methods of measurement were improved, but the absence of long-term studies made it difficult to distinguish between random fluctuation and a warming trend. Most scientists remained unconvinced. Charles Keeling, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, was the first person to make frequent regular measurements of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Beginning in 1958, he made continuous measurements at several locations, extending on to 2015. His measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, show a clear increase.

Over each year the carbon dioxide level fluctuates above the average line in May and below the average line in late September. The average line, however, smoothly rose from 315-PPM (parts per million) to 400-PPM carbon dioxide today. The increase slightly accelerated with time and will reach a doubling before mid-century if the increase continues. Modern computers permitted much more accurate and extensive versions of Arrhenius’s calculations.

Computer Models Corroborate

By the 1970s three-dimensional computer climate models were predicting that a doubling of carbon dioxide would result in a 2-degrees C rise in global temperature (3.6-degrees F). This doubling now seems certain from the Keeling curve. By this century, climate study has become well-accepted science. Permanent research programs are being carried out at both poles. Data gathered from satellite observations gives continuous measurements of ice and snow loss at both poles and of increasing fluctuations of ocean temperatures.

The result is that almost every issue of the scientific journals comes out with one or more detailed research report supporting climate change and adding to our understanding of its effects. This includes this year’s Nov. 13 special issue of the journal Science, which is devoted to how climate change is transforming the oceans.

This article first appeared in the December 2, 2015 issue of the Rossmoor News authored by Wayne Lanier, Ph D.

Time for a Carbon Tax

Recently, President Obama axed the Keystone Pipeline, which is a clear win for the environment. In other news, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier has initiated an investigation into whether Exxon lied about climate change back in the 1980s when Exxon scientists predicted that the earth would warm up if fossil fuel use continued the way it was going, while their public relations personnel were denying it. The times, they are a changing.

Like many other folks, I was at first skeptical about whether or not global warming was happening because of human activity or whether it was naturally occurring, as has happened many times before in the history of the earth. I am now convinced that 98 percent of the climate scientists probably aren’t wrong and that people are to blame for what looks like very serious problems for future generations, including our grandchildren.

When I hear of the 30- foot sea-level rise expected to happen due to melting glaciers and ice from Greenland and Antarctica, I lament my share of the responsibility for the burden we are putting on future generations.

While it may be too late to reverse the results of our consumption of fossil fuels, we can probably slow climate change and somewhat mitigate the long-range effects if we leave most of the remaining oil, coal and natural gas in the ground. This will give future generations some much needed time to adjust to the new world, and somewhat lessen the detrimental effects.

At some point, the fossil fuels are due to run out anyway. Fortunately, we have the knowledge and technology to switch to renewable options now if we can muster the political will. The sun, the wind, the tides, the waves and the core heat of the earth all can be tapped to provide the energy needs of tomorrow’s peoples.

Like many other folks, I was at first skeptical about whether or not global warming was happening because of human activity or whether it was naturally occurring, as has happened many times before in the history of the earth.

Climate Lobby Campaign

Sustainable Rossmoor (formerly Solar Powered Rossmoor) has endorsed the Citizens Climate Lobby campaign.This plan places a tax on all fuels that produce carbon dioxide pollution. The tax money collected will all be rebated as a dividend to every United States household on a per capita basis. Donald Trump will get a monthly dividend exactly the same as my two-year-old granddaughter. Gasoline, for example, has been far too cheap in this country. If you have been in Europe, you will have noticed that their highly taxed petrol has resulted in smaller cars and more highly used public transportation. That’s the main reason our carbon footprint is about twice as big as theirs.

The tax, small at first, but gradually increasing, gives the country time to transition. The rebate will average about $2,000 per family initially and be enough to off-set the price increases. An independent study shows about 2 million jobs will be created by this infusion of cash into the economy. Both Republicans and Democrats support this approach and it’s gaining support in Washington – because of its simplicity, fairness and the support of growing numbers of citizens.

If this campaign succeeds, everyone will have an incentive to ride a bike, take a bus, live close to work, turn down the thermostat or buy an electric car. Wasting energy will be costly. Those who conserve will be rewarded. Alaska citizens profit exactly the same way from the oil extraction tax that is rebated to them.

To endorse this campaign or find out more about it, go to Citizens Climate Lobby’s website. Our children and grandchildren are rightfully concerned about climate change. We need to be also. The victory on Keystone is just the beginning. This win will help inspire resistance to a thousand other projects harmful to our future. Remember when Smokey the Bear used to say: “Only you can prevent forest fires”? I say: Only WE can slow down global warming and assure a livable world for those who follow us.

This article first appeared in the November 18, 2015 issue of the Rossmoor News. Authored by Bob Hanson.

Does El Nino Mean Longer Showers?

 

Batten down the hatches! The El Niño is acomin! We are certainly hearing a lot about El Niño coming, hoping it will bring the wet year we so desperately need. But what exactly is an El Niño and will it really end our devastating drought?

El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. Normally, this warm water pools near Indonesia and the Philippines. During an El Niño, the Pacific’s warmest surface waters sit offshore of northwestern South America.

Forecasters declare an official El Niño when they see both ocean temperatures and rainfall from storms veer to the east. Experts also look for prevailing trade winds to weaken and even reverse directions during the El Niño climate phenomenon.

El Niños occur every three to five years but may come as frequently as every two years or as rarely as every seven years. Each event usually lasts nine to 12 months. They often begin to form in spring, reach peak strength between December and January, and then decay by May of the following year.

El Niño was originally named El Niño de Navidad by Peruvian fishermen in 1600s. This name was used for the tendency of the phenomenon to arrive around Christmas. Climate records of El Niño go back millions of years, with evidence of the cycle found in ice cores, deep sea muds, coral, caves and tree rings.

The Good News

There is increasing evidence that we may well experience an El Niño year. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center, in its monthly long-term weather outlook, cited increased odds of greater-than-normal precipitation for nearly all of California this winter – including, crucially, the Sierra Nevada and most of Northern California, source of most of the state’s water supply. Snowmelt from the Sierra supplies the largest percentage of EBMUD water.

Increasing evidence for an El Niño year includes warmer ocean temperatures not only in the tropics but also in other parts of the Pacific. Unseasonably warm ocean temperatures have been measured along the coast. The higher ocean temperatures have the potential to increase the intensity of more frequent storms produced by El Niño.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at Stanford University, noted that the atmospheric ridge of high pressure off the coast, which he has dubbed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” is gone, thus removing a potential hurdle to wet weather. In previous years the ridge pushed storms north of California.

The Not So Good News

So there is general agreement by climate experts that we will experience El Niño conditions this winter. However, they also caution that even a few wet months won’t eliminate the water deficit created by the state’s four-year drought. More than twice the average rainfall would be needed to make up the shortfall, an amount that has not fallen in more than 150 years of recordkeeping. Even the state’s wettest years have seen just less than twice the average.

Additionally, El Niños tend to bring not only wetter weather but also warmer temperatures, meaning a quicker-melting Sierra snowpack isn’t expected to grow as much as it might otherwise.

The Bottom Line

Even if a robust El Niño year brings us substantial rainfall and snow melt it will not be enough to offset the water deficit created by our four-year drought. Additionally, California will continue to experience drought years in the future.

We’ve done very well in our conservation efforts. We’ve met EBMUD’s goal of cutting back 20 percent on our water use. It is imperative that we continue our efforts to conserve water and always try to think of new ways to conserve water.

We need to investigate ways to recycle the water we have such as the installation grey water systems and treatment of sanitary sewer water. So when the rains come and we wonder if they will ever stop, please don’t be tempted to take longer showers or let the water run when you brush your teeth.

CONSERVE. REUSE. RECYCLE.

This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News on November 4, 2015, by author Barbara Coenen.

Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

A salt-marsh microbial mat produces bubbles of oxygen. Photo courtesy of Wayne Lanier

Each of those shiny round things in the accompanying photograph is a bubble of pure oxygen, produced by microbes living in the microbial mat. The mat was on the bottom of a San Francisco Bay salt marsh pond about three-inches deep. Individual microbes are too small to see without magnification, but form a complex community of Cyanobacteria, Archaeabacteria and Diatoms. To see a video of Cyanobacteria, search the Internet for “Cyanobacteria Doing the Dance of 3.5-billion Years.”

Calculating Volume of Oxygen

Count the bubbles and measure their diameter to get a reliable average and you can calculate the volume of oxygen shown here. The scale indicator enables estimation of the minimum amount of oxygen produced per unit area, about 2.7-liters of pure oxygen per square meter. I write “minimum” because each bubble doesn’t hang around all day. When it grows large enough for buoyancy to overcome the surface tension holding it in place, it floats to the surface and releases its oxygen into the atmosphere.

I did not wait around all day taking pictures, but I did take a jar of another salt marsh microbial mat home and left it on my deck. That sample was taken from a giant floating microbial mat in a large pond in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The pond was shown on the city of San Jose Environmental Services map, so I could calculate its mat area at 260,000 square meters and biomass of 170 metric tons. It floated because it had a slightly larger amount of Archaea, which produced a gel that trapped bubbles long enough to float the mat.

When I looked at the jar early in the morning after collecting the sample, the mat was down on the bottom of the jar. I came back later and found the mat sample floating. So I covered the jar with my hat for a while. When I removed my hat, the mat was back down on the bottom. By this method of blocking sunlight with my hat for varying lengths of time, I was able to calculate a “dwell time” for the bubbles of around 15-minutes. Put another way: While the sun shines, 2.7-liters of pure oxygen are produced about every 15 minutes per square-meter of microbial mat.

Using “average hours of sunshine” for the Bay Area, a conservative estimate is that more than 14,400-liters of oxygen are produced per square meter of salt marsh ponds every year, or about 58-million liters/acre/year. This is a year’s worth of oxygen for 290-humans.

Like all photosynthetic organisms, Cyanobacteria and Archaea and Diatoms take up six molecules of carbon dioxide for every six molecules of oxygen they release. At standard temperature and pressure the carbon dioxide weighs about 264g per liter and the «dioxide» component of carbon dioxide weighs about 12g, so the weight of carbon sucked out of the atmosphere is 252-grams. Removing 58 million liters of carbon dioxide per acre per year amounts to removing about 4.2-million metric tons of carbon.

Salt Marsh Organisms Reduce Carbon Dioxide

The Cyanobacteria and Archaea in this photograph have been on earth for about 3.5 billion years. Geological data indicates that the early earth’s atmosphere was mostly nitrogen, with between 10 percent and 30 percent carbon dioxide and virtually no oxygen at all. Since then, and with the help of Diatoms that evolved around 2 billion years later, these creatures produced and maintained the 20.95 percent oxygen in the atmosphere that we breathe today while reducing the carbon dioxide to about 0.036 percent.

Moreover, as these organisms died and sank into the mud, they were increasingly buried deeper and deeper and converted into fossils; what we now call the “fossil fuels” coal, oil and natural gas.

So, when you burn fossil fuels, you are releasing into the atmosphere carbon buried millions of years ago. Since 1700, the American Chemical Society estimates the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has roughly doubled and the increase over the last few decades is very much steeper. Every gallon of gas burned when you drive your car sends 19 pounds of fossil carbon back into the atmosphere.

In European Cap and Trade, officially the EU Emissions Trade Scheme (ETS), carbon emissions pollution must be offset by purchase of an equal amount of carbon from someone who is either removing carbon from the atmosphere or carrying out a normally carbon-producing process in a carbon-free manner (like solar panels). Or, possibly, they own and care for some salt marsh land. Today’s ETS price of carbon converted to dollars per acre under Cap and Trade means an acre of salt marsh can earn about $267,000 per year for every year the marsh is conserved.

Cargill, Inc. now proposes to sell 18,800 acres of salt marsh land in the Bay Area. Business folks are likely to buy it and, since we have no U.S. Cap and Trade, that marsh will probably be filled at enormous cost and turned into shopping malls and housing.

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2015 issue of the Rossmoor News. Author: Wayne Lanier.