Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The ecological cost of subsidies

September 13, 2008 5 comments

The declining condition of our fisheries is in large part due to the floating factories that pass for fishing boats now.  Using unsustainable methods, they “sweep the sea clean”, as The Simpson’s Montgomery Burns likes to say.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Turns out those monster fishing boats depend on subsidies granted for political, rather than economic or ecological reasons.  Shifting Baselines has the story: Funding Priorities: Big Barriers to Small-scale Fisheries

Small-scale fisheries use much less fuel than industrial fisheries. They also discard fewer fish, convert almost none of their catch into fishmeal (to feed farmed fish, pigs, and chicken), and favor the use of labor over capital. Despite these more ‘sustainable’ traits, small-scale fisheries are disadvantaged by subsidies that go to industrial fishing fleets and keep big boats out on the water. This bias occurs because, as Daniel Pauly says, “small-scale fishers don’t golf.”

The differential in resource efficiency between large and small fisheries is really quite striking – go check it out.

If we stopped all long-term production subsidies tomorrow, corn would still be grown, cars would still be built, oil would still be pumped out of the ground, minerals would still be mined, and fish would still be caught.  If any specific commodity cost more, at least consumers would pay for it directly instead of through taxes.

This would leave short-term subsidies, intended to weather a crisis or jump-start an industry deemed important for whatever reason.  And those subsidies, like a gallon of (subsidized) milk, should have expiration dates on them.

Charcoal and topsoil loss

August 24, 2008 6 comments

When I read stories like “Where Food Begins” I want to add National Geographic to the president’s reading list. Because, his one-page “intelligence briefings” just aren’t doing the job.  Here’s a real, tangible threat to national and global security – one we can do something about for very little money (but which the free market won’t fix) – so you’d think that “conservatives” would want to do something about it.

Turns out, the ancient Amazonians knew how to do something about it.  They systematically buried pottery and charcoal in their fields over a two thousand year period.  Weird, but get this – the result was rich soil six feet deep instead of 8 inches like the rest of the Amazon basin.  And if we did something similar in our mechanized fields, we could lock up enough carbon in the soil to offset a huge chunk of our carbon dioxide output in the bargain. 

See also:

“500-year flood”

June 19, 2008 1 comment

I often see news stories that say, “Scientists estimate that last week’s deluge was a 500-year flood”.  But that doesn’t make much sense; there was a 500-year flood in 1993 and we’re having another one now.  What gives?

Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous says big surprise, the scientists never said “500-year flood’, or at least they’re learning not to after the media grabs their conclusions and twists them into sensationalistic headlines.

Here’s the short version: events that are both extreme and semi-random are impossible to predict in a given year, so we express them as a probability.  As in, “the probability of a river flow matching this rate is .002 in any given year.”  News creatures hear that statement, think back to junior high math and think; “That’s one in 500!  That means a flood like this one occurs every 500 years!” 

No it doesn’t, any more than it means that every other flip of a coin will be ‘heads’.  And – as data becomes available, extrapolations give way to observations and the probability estimates are revised.  The long version, and the comments following, are well worth reading as an antidote to the chattering journalistic class.

Go for a walk today

April 22, 2008 3 comments


I always appreciate seeing people move under their own power, however they do it.  One student at the College Of Business even carries a skateboard around.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see corporate executives riding to work on skateboards, rollerblades, bicycles?  We have muscles, folks; let’s use ‘em!

We’re OK… really! (Earthquake)

April 18, 2008 10 comments

A friend emailed MrsDoF from Florida (land of mammoth hurricanes) to see if we were OK.  Central Illinois had an Earthquake a few hours ago – a 5.4.  That’s enough to rattle windows, wake a few people up but most buildings are up to the challenge.  The quake was felt as far away as Wisconsin and Ohio.  But I must have been snoozing because I didn’t know about it.  Lucas is down in Urbana, a little closer to the epicenter; maybe he’ll give us a report.

Our region has had one real smack-down of a quake, though, in 1812.  (Actually two big quakes followed by one staggeringly enormous one) Estimated at an 8.0 on the Richter scale, it cracked sidewalks in Washington, DC and rang church bells in Boston.  Around here it changed the course of the Mississippi and even toppled resilient buildings like log cabins.

I can’t remember exactly how the Richter scale works and right now instead of geeking out over it I have to rush off to work.  But the New Madrid quake of 1812 was several thousand times as powerful as today’s quake. If the same quake happened today…

Anyone notice the quake?  Or been through another quake?  Tell us about it!

Notes & Updates:

Of no small importance to New Orleans, I would think

April 13, 2008 2 comments

We have been getting some serious tonnage of water in our county.  Luckily, McLean county drains well, but that’s not so lucky for our neighbors downstream.  The ground is saturated, lakes are full (and I wish we could send that water to Alabama!  They really need it.)

Robert E. Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says MidWesterners have not learned “the lesson of geologic reality”.  He says levees that support an unrealistic expectation of security when building on flood plains.  I bet he doesn’t get invited to many urban developer Christmas parties but someday people will ask; “Why didn’t we listen to him?!”

The concept of shifting baselines

April 12, 2008 2 comments

We humans are not good at observing gradual change.  Things tend to sneak up on us: it’s how a lean, healthy 20-year-old becomes an obese, arthritic 50-year-old.  The same is true in our perception of the natural environment.  We look out across the bay and it looks pretty, so we assume everything is OK.  But what if there are less than ten percent of the fish remaining from 50 years ago?  We can’t see the fish, and we didn’t know there were so many there in the first place…

(Hat tip to: Shifting Baselines)

And I thought driving across Kansas was an accomplishment…

February 23, 2008 Comments off

Scientists studying the movement of glaciers in Antarctica;

Julian Scott has just returned from there. He told the BBC: “This is a very important glacier; it’s putting more ice into the sea than any other glacier in Antarctica. “It’s a couple of kilometres thick, its 30km wide and it’s moving at 3.5km per year, so it’s putting a lot of ice into the ocean.”

It is a very remote and inhospitable region. It was visited briefly in 1961 by American scientists but no one had returned until this season when Julian Scott and Rob Bingham and colleagues from the British Antarctic survey spent 97 days camping on the flat, white ice. At times, the temperature got down to minus 30C and strong winds made work impossible. At one point, the scientists were confined to their tent continuously for eight days.

“The wind really makes the way you feel incredibly colder, so just motivating yourself to go out in the wind is a really big deal,” Rob Bingham told BBC News.

When the weather improved, the researchers spent most of their time driving skidoos across the flat, featureless ice. “We drove skidoos over it for something like 2,500km each and we didn’t see a single piece of topography.”  (emphasis mine)

Holy frozen mackerel…  imagine making a fifteen-hundred mile trip on a frakkin’ snowmobile across a featureless sub-zero wasteland to gather data on ice movement.  The next time somebody tells me that scientists go into climate and geophysical studies because they get rich from academic grants, I’m gonna choke from laughing.



History of global warming denialism

February 15, 2008 12 comments

The denialist campaign has experience, I’ll give them that.

“Polls show that between one-third and one-half of Americans still believe that there is “no solid” evidence of global warming, or that if warming is happening it can be attributed to natural variability. Others believe that scientists are still debating the point. Join scientist and renowned historian Naomi Oreskes as she describes her investigation into the reasons for such widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus and probes the history of organized campaigns designed to create public doubt and confusion about science. Series: Perspectives on Ocean Science”

Whichever “side” of the global warming issue you find yourself, this video is really worth the hour that it runs.  The first half is the history of global warming research and of the IPCC, and the second half is about the organized campaign to discredit climate science.  (Tip of the hat to John Lynch at Stranger Fruit)

Asimov on climate change

February 2, 2008 11 comments

Most people know Isaac Asimov as a science fiction writer, but his more than 500 works are listed in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey decimal system.  In particular he wrote a number of nonfiction science books, some more technical than others and of which I have twenty or so.  His writing style is a model of crystal clarity that I wish more authors would attempt to emulate.

In 1973 Dell Publishing printed a collection of Isaac Asimov’s essays from Science Digest magazine, called Please Explain.  My copy is dog-eared and falling apart, but the other day I was looking for some bedtime reading and began flipping through it.  A couple of the essays caught my eye – one on the consequences of Earth’s ice caps melting, and another describing the greenhouse effect. 

If the essays are listed in the order that Science Digest printed them, both these essays would both be from 1967.  They are entitled “What would happen if the ice caps melted?” and “What is the greenhouse effect?”  Of course a great deal of new information has been learned and computer modelling has much improved since Asimov typed these essays on his beloved IBM Selectric typewriter, but it is interesting and fun to see how the ‘great explainer’ addressed the questions:

33: What would happen if the ice caps melted?
The earth’s land areas carry a load of nearly 9 million cubic miles of ice (about 85 percent of it on the continent of Antarctica).  Since water is somewhat denser than ice, this load of ice would melt down to about 8 million cubic miles of water…

Naturally, if the ice melted, almost all that water would run off the land areas into the ocean.  The ocean has a total surface area of 140 million square miles.  If that surface area remained constant and the 8 million cubic miles of melted ice were to spread out evenly over the top of the oceans, it would be 8/140 or 0.057 miles thick.  this means the layer of melted ice would be 300 feet thick.

However, the surface area of the ocean would not remain constant, for if its level rose it would spill out over a couple of million square miles of the low-lying land areas along its shores.  This means the ocean’s surface area would increase and the layer of new water would not be as thick as we have just supposed.  Furthermore, the added weight of water would depress the ocean bottom somewhat.  Still, the ocean level would probably rise 200 feet, enough to reach the twentieth story of the Empire State Building and to drown much of earth’s most densely populated areas.

Throughout earth’s geologic history, the quantity of land ice has varied considerably.  During the height of an ice age, mile-high glaciers advance over millions of square miles of land and the water level of the ocean drops so much that the continental shelves are exposed as dry land.

On the other hand, when the ice load is virtually zero, as it has been for tens of millions of years at a time, the ocean level is high and the continental area small.

Neither situation is necessarily catastrophic.  At the height of an ice age, millions of square miles of land are covered by ice and are uninhabitable to land life.  On the other hand, millions of square miles of continental shelves are exposed and habitable.

If, contrariwise, the ice is gone, millions of square miles of land are covered by water, and are uninhabitable to land life.  On the other hand, without ice, and with smaller land areas, the climate is more equable and there are few deserts, so that a larger percentage of what land surface is left is habitable.  And the change in total ocean volume is comparatively small (6 or 7 percent at most) so sea life is not much affected.

If the change in sea level were to take place over thousands and tens of thousands of years, as it always has in the past, man could well cope with the change.  The difficulty is, however, that man’s technology is pouring dust and carbon dioxide into the air.  The dust tends to cut off solar radiation and cool the earth, while the carbon dioxide tends to trap heat and warm the earth.  If one effect predominates much over the other in times to come, earth’s temperature may fall or rise comparatively rapidly.  Continental glaciers may form or an ice cap may melt in a matter of 100 years or so.

It will be the rapidity of the change, not so much the change itself, that will be catastrophic.

And following are Asimov’s desktop+slide-rule calculations on the greenhouse effect, which has been studied in considerably more detail since then.  In any case here is a wonderfully clear explanation:

35: What is the greenhouse effect?
When we say that some object is “transparent” because we can see through it, we don’t necessarily mean that all kinds of light can pass through it.  For instance, we can see through red glass, which is therefore transparent, but blue light won’t go through it.  Ordinary glass is transparent to all colors of light; it is, however, only slightly transparent to ultraviolet or infrared radiation.

Now imagine a glass house standing out in the sunlight.  The visible light of the sun passes right through the glass and is absorbed by whatever is present inside the house.  The objects in the house warm up as a result, just as objects outside the house exposed to the direct light of the sun.

Objects warmed by sunlight give off that warmth again in the form of radiation.  They are not at the temperature of the sun, however, so they don’t give off energetic visible life.  They give off, instead, the much less energetic infrared radiation.  After a while, they give off as much energy in the form of infrared as they absorb in the form of sunlight, and their temperature remains constant (though they are warmer, of course, than they would be if the sun weren’t shining on them).

Objects in the open have little trouble getting rid of their infrared radiation, but the sun-warmed objects inside the glass house are another situation altogether.  Only small quantities of the infrared radiation they give off will go through the glass.  Most is reflected, so that energy accumulates within.  The temperature of the objects inside the house rises considerably higher than does the temperature of the objects outside.  The temperature inside rises until enough infrared radiation can leak through the glass to set up an equilibrium.

Because of this, plants can be grown inside a glass house even though the temperature outside the house is cold enough to freeze them.  The flourishing greenery inside such a glass house gives it the name of a “greenhouse”.  The additional warmth inside the greenhouse caused by the fact that glass is quite transparent to visible light and only slightly transparent to infrared is called the “greenhouse effect”.

Our atmosphere consists almost entirely of oxygen, nitrogen, and argon.  These gasses are quite transparent to both visible light and tot he kind of infrared radiation the earth’s surface gives off when it is warmed.  The atmosphere also contains 0.03 percent of carbon dioxide, however, and this is transparent to visible light but not very transparent to infrared.  The carbon dioxide of the atmosphere acts like the glass of the greenhouse. 

Because carbon dioxide is present in such small quantities in our atmosphere, the effect is comparatively minor.  Even so, the earth is a bit warmer than it would be if there were no carbon dioxide present at all.  What’s more, if the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere were to double, the increased greenhouse effect would warm the earth a couple of additional degrees and that would be enough to bring about a gradual melting of the ice caps at the poles. 

An example of an enormous greenhouse effect is to be found on Venus, where the very thick atmosphere seems to be mostly carbon dioxide.  Astronomers expected Venus to be warmer than the earth since it is considerably closer to the sun.  Not knowing the details of the composition of its atmosphere, they had not expected the additional warming of the greenhouse effect.  They were quite surprised when they found that Venus’ surface temperature was far above the boiling point of water and hundreds of degrees warmer than they had expected.

End Notes:

  • I am depending on the good offices of chapter 7 “Fair Use” of the copyright law in reproducing this two percent of an out-of-print book, but if the publisher requests it, I shall remove it.