The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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The Fog of…Fog

The other day, I went on a walk with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels, whose name has appeared many times in this blog because he is an actual expert whose authority I can legitimately cite, and because he so consistently tells me things worth citing.

This walk was no exception.

We chatted about all sorts of things, scientific and otherwise, and generally had a good time. Other than the walk itself—we were trying to get to a particular place and explore it—we had no agenda. I’m not going to tell you all about that conversation, though much of it would interest you. I am going to tell you what he said about climate change.

Question: What Is About to Change?

In the course of our walk I asked “What is likely to change here [on Mount Dessert Island] over the next few decades, other than trees getting bigger and so forth?”

He’d already told me about the impending loss of paper birch, so he mentioned that again only in passing. He also discussed the problems of spruces, another previously discussed topic, elaborating this time that the island isn’t about to lose its spruces, but their life expectancy is being cut from 400 years to less than 100, for reasons he does not entirely understand, but climate change is likely involved as contributing stress, since they are cold-climate trees. Something is causing them to rot.

Then he told me something I did not know at all, but should have: that Mount Dessert Island is on track to lose its fogs. Not all its foggy days, perhaps, but many of them. The island will no longer be characterized by frequent fogs.

I should have known it because I knew both pieces of information that he cited as evidence. I knew that we get so much fog here because the Gulf of Maine is very cold, and I also knew that the Gulf of Maine is getting rapidly warmer. Therefore….

The Problem with the Loss of Fog

I like fog. It’s spooky and mysterious and lovely. I don’t want there to be less of it around here. But aesthetics are not the primary reason why the loss of fog would be a problem, and I didn’t need Tom to tell me what the real problem was—or, rather, I didn’t need him to tell me just then. I already knew about the ecological importance of fog around here, and I knew because he told me the better part of a decade ago.

The thing is, Mt. Dessert Island owes much of its identity to fog. A large number of natural history questions around here can be answered the same way; “because it’s so foggy.”

Most dramatically, frequent fogs allow the lichens on trees to grow much faster than they otherwise would—lichens can only grow when they’re wet, and those on bark, as opposed to soil, dry out quickly. Fog keeps them wet. And so here lichen growth is responsible for 40% of the forest’s overall nutrient balance. Less fog = less lichen = an impoverished forest.

Northern white cedar, one of the lovelier trees on the island, is also here because of fog. It requires calcium-rich soil, which our mostly granite bedrock would normally preclude, but fog motes each contain a speck of dust, and a cloud of fog contains a lot of motes and therefore a lot of dust. All that dust enriches the soil with calcium. Northern white cedar is, in fact, especially good at catching fog. I asked Tom if the cedars would be hurt by the loss of fog, and he said they might well be.

He said the fog problem will be apparent within the next fifty years, which is not a lot of time as such things go.

The Problem with Foggy Losses

As I said, I had overlooked the possibility that fog frequency could be altered as part of climate change. I’m not sure why. I’ve never before heard anyone else raise the issue, but I don’t know why I didn’t draw the conclusion myself.

What I’m wondering now is what else does climate change hold in store that nobody is talking about and that I don’t guess?

Even worse, is fog frequency already changing—without anyone talking about it?

I didn’t ask Tom. I could, but he doesn’t actually know everything, and it’s possible no one has yet crunched the relevant numbers. He is familiar with the island and its fogginess, but human beings are notoriously bad at assessing these types of trends, that’s why we invented statistics. It’s just not the sort of change we can reliably eyeball.

He said the change would be apparent within fifty years, but what does “apparent” mean? Is that when fog lessens enough to make a difference, or is that when the forests’ response to the loss becomes evident to casual human observation? If the latter, the fog might already be changing—both lichens and northern white cedars grow very slowly. Were their growth to slow even more, the difference would take a long time to add up.

How long? I don’t know. Maybe close to fifty years?

Question: What’s Changing Now?

One of the more disconcerting discoveries I made when I became an adult was that there were important topics where I was dangerously ignorant but had thought myself well-educated. I had heard simplified descriptions created for teens or as public talking points, and they had given me a clear picture of the situation with no apparent holes or gaps. So I had thought there were no gaps. I thought I knew all I needed to.

There were holes and gaps, of course, I had just been unintentionally misled by the skill with which the introductory talking points were constructed.

Simplified explanations are not bad. If well-constructed, they cover most of the important points of the subject in question while being accessible enough to reach beginners whose attention may be elsewhere. The important thing is to recognize them as simplifications. As I wrote last week, much of what most of us know about climate change is correct, but it’s simplified.

There are important things happening that we don’t always see.

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Cold

I’ve been cold all week. In fact, I’ve been cold and dirty, because I’ve been wearing all the warm clothes I have constantly and can’t bear to take them off long enough to wash them. I plan to buy a set of long underwear tomorrow and then do the laundry.

Of course–and I’m paraphrasing Stephen Colbert, here–me being cold doesn’t invalidate climate change any more than me being well-fed invalidates world hunger. It’s hard to even be sure this isn’t a normal, or even an abnormally warm, spring in coastal Maine, as I wrote last week.

But I talked to my friend (and go-to authority on most subjects), Tom Wessels, and he said this area IS running about a week late, and was running at least two weeks late back in April. Further, he says that late springs are the new normal around here, not in spite of climate change, but because of it.

A Cold Kind of Warming

Most of us are probably familiar by now with the idea that global warming is a trend and that individual cold snaps can still happen. Further, “climate change” is a more accurate name for the phenomenon, because warming isn’t the only thing happening. Some areas get wetter, others drier, and perhaps some areas get colder, although the global average temperature is still going up.

But all that is still an oversimplification.

Coastal Maine is not a local spot of paradoxical cooling, nor is this year anomalously chilly. Talking to locals, I learn that winter weather came late, and never got very cold, often warming up enough to rain. Then the rain and slush would freeze, adding another layer of ice to sheets already slick, thick, and vast. It’s just that the spring got a late start. In fact, since we seem to be catching up to normal, spring must be proceeding a little faster than it used to. I don’t know whether this later, faster spring is really a facet of climate change as Tom says–I trust his expertise, but I don’t know whether he really knows or is simply making an educated guess. But it’s certainly possible.

Because this is a big planet with a complex climate, and any simple explanation is likely to be more or less wrong. The world is getting warmer, but that doesn’t tell us what’s happening with storm tracks and front movements and different facets of the system that can vary with respect to each other, decoupling phenomena we thought were inextricably linked.

It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on, it’s that what’s going on is subtle, intricate, and pervasive.

The Moral of the Story?

While most of us have to simplify things to wrap our heads around them, such simplifications introduce error and make some things that are actually true, like coastal Maine’s new spring, seem bizarre and counter-intuitive. The moral of the story, if there is one, is not to put too much faith in the fables we tell ourselves to get through the day.

There are people who spend their entire lives studying climate change for a reason–it’s a difficult puzzle that takes a lot of work. When they tell us what they know, based on those hours and years spent tackling a puzzle most of us don’t have time for, we should believe them.


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Novel Excerpt 2

I’d like to write an article on the children’s climate strike, but such a topic will take time to do well–and today is my wedding anniversary. So I’m giving you another excerpt from the essay at the back of my next novel, since that is already written. I’ll cover the children later this week if I have time, or next week.

In the meantime, you enjoy the following, while I enjoy dinner with my husband.

Essay Excerpt 2: Predicting the Future of the Climate

Readers familiar with New England may notice that the weather in this book seems odd. It is hot in May, the people are preoccupied with the possibility of flooding, and there are a lot of storms. The characters think it all normal. Am I, the writer, trying to depict climate change? Yes and no.

Yes, I had climate on my mind when I wrote this book. The New England climate in the story is not the one that exists today, and I wanted readers to notice. Fiction in the present Age of Rapid Climate Change needs to acknowledge climate as a function of time as well as space: no writer would give Seattle the same climate as Miami, so why depict the past or future with the same climate as the present?

Climate is the set of patterns that weather makes over time, and this story takes place over less than a year: not enough time for any patterns to become clear. That the characters think hot weather in May is normal—not the hot weather itself—suggests the climate has changed, and even that is a poor indicator. Humans are notoriously bad at identifying trends based on personal experience; that is one reason why record keeping and statistics were invented.

It is just as well that the story does not give the reader a good view of the climate. Constructing a scientifically plausible fictional climate—which I would sorely like to have done—is fiendishly difficult if not ultimately impossible. The problem is that climate cannot be predicted by ballpark estimations and back-of-the-envelope calculations. One of the curious traits of complex systems is that no detail can be guaranteed to be too small to matter. The phrase “butterfly effect” describes how the flap of an insect’s wings could cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. In a picturesque way, the phrase describes a problem that cropped up with the earliest weather simulations: two simulations with nearly identical starting numbers often yielded radically different results (Curtin & Allen 2018). Attempting to simulate a climate without the aid of a supercomputer and a lot of data is, at best, an exercise in fantasy.

If the story were set in a version of the future that climatologists consider likely, my job would be rather more straightforward: just look up the climate projections that have already been done and attempt to synthesize. I did just that for a piece I published online several years ago. But the abrupt, near-term end of fossil-fuel use in my novel has not been subject to much in the way of simulation because no one thinks it likely.

Since I could neither invent nor look up a scientifically plausible climate to use as setting for the story—and since the plot does not allow for depicting the climate directly anyway—I simply wrote any scenes involving weather with three adjectives in mind: “warmer”, “wetter”, and “more extreme”. These are consistent with contemporary predictions for the region over the next century (see e.g. van Oldenborgh et al. 2013), as well as loosely plausible for the various scenarios implied by my story.

Science can’t tell us what the climate for the setting of the book should be, but it can shed light on what Andy thinks it is doing—an important part of his emotional landscape, given who he is. Remember that the field of climatology in his time is very limited. Most of what he understands about the climate is what he remembers from Before.

The reader might think that, since fossil fuel use has stopped, levels of greenhouse gases and average temperatures should both fall—but what might seem obvious is not necessarily true.

As of 2010, combustion of fossil fuels was responsible for about two-thirds of total greenhouse-gas emissions by weight. There are other sources of carbon dioxide however, and there are other greenhouse gasses: notably methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), but also nitrous oxide and two related groups of gases, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HCFs) (Edenhofer et al. 2014). In my scenario, carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use are over and have been for twenty years. That does not mean, however, that other kinds of emissions, such as methane from landfills or melting permafrost, stop – at least, not instantly. For reasons I will go into later, some could increase.

To understand the total concentration of each gas in the atmosphere—and how it is likely to change over time—it is not enough to know emission rates. One must also look at rate of loss, which will be different for each gas. Picture running a bathtub with the drain open; whether the tub fills or empties depends on inflow versus outflow.

For most greenhouse gasses, loss (“outflow”) is primarily by chemical degradation occurring at a more or less set rate per gas (Ehhalt 2001). Carbon dioxide is a little more complicated, because it does not degrade this way. Rather, it is absorbed through a number of processes, each with its own rate and capacity.

The fastest way for carbon dioxide to leave the atmosphere is absorption by the oceans’ surface waters. A large amount can be absorbed in just a few decades. Unfortunately, water can only absorb so much, and the oceans’ surface waters have already absorbed a lot; that is why they are becoming increasingly acidic. Of course, a lot more water lies beneath the surface, but the ocean mixing required for it to absorb carbon dioxide does not happen on a human timescale.

After ocean surface waters reach capacity, the next fastest way out of the atmosphere is the chemical weathering of rock, but that, too, does not play out on a human timescale. A big carbon dioxide spike takes tens or even hundreds of thousands of years to flatten out (Ciais et al. 2013).

Scientific articles on potential recovery from climate change tend not to mention absorption of carbon by organisms, even though it is organisms that sequestered the carbon in fossil fuels in the first place. I would guess this is because the sequestration processincluding the accretion of new oil, gas, and coal depositsis so very, very slow.

Andy confidently asserts that carbon dioxide levels are falling—quickly enough that he expects to be able to study the ecological results of the change himself. He is very excited. Presuming he is right, that could be taken to mean that ocean surface waters have not, in fact, reached capacity; but another possibility presents itself.

While the formation of fossil-fuel deposits takes place on a geological timescale, living plants are a different matter. They, too, sequester quantities of carbon, and many of them, including large trees, can grow relatively quickly. Individual plants are not considered carbon sinks because, when the plant dies, all that carbon is released again; but entire plant communities can, indeed, be carbon sinks. Where one tree in a forest dies, another can grow and take up the carbon in turn. Indeed, deforestation is considered an important source of carbon dioxide emissions—so, logically, the growth of large, new forests should have the opposite effect.

I have never heard reforestation suggested as a way for carbon dioxide levels to drop, but perhaps that is because relevant discussions typically assume that the human population is going to stabilize—not fall. With so many people and associated agriculture and infrastructure in the way, there is not much room for new forests to grow. But Andy has experienced a radical reduction in the population—the reader learns that, at least in the US, the population is about one tenth of what it had been; the rest of the world is presumably similar. Per capita resource use also appears to have fallen. That leaves a lot of room for new trees.

Could continental-scale reforestation cool the climate? There may be precedent.

When Europeans first came to the Americas, they brought along diseases to which the Americans1 had no immunity. This was not germ warfare (that came later), but the result was dramatic, continent-wide population loss and widespread societal collapse (Wessels 1997). Forests grew in places that had previously been cleared. The idea that North America was a pristine wilderness prior to European conquest is partly due to the overgrown, depopulated mess that colonial explorers found in the wake of the terrible pandemics (Wessels 1997).

The post-contact pandemics are history’s closest analogue to the present story. Contagious disease really did cause the end of a world. It also caused a large-scale reforestation event coincident with changes in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels and a global drop in temperatures (Dull et al. 2010), the second, more severe, phase of the so-called Little Ice Age. The first phase may be partially attributable to the Black Death in Europe, another pandemic that triggered large-scale reforestation (Hoof et al. 2006).

The timing of events does not support either pandemic as the sole cause of cooling. Other explanations and possible contributing factors have been advanced, and it is far from clear what role—if any—each played. Nevertheless, respected experts have taken seriously the idea that continental-scale reforestation could be enough to cool the planet, suggesting that global reforestation now could change the climate.

Of course, carbon sequestration by reforestation only works if the forests that once existed can grow back. History offers examples of cleared forests that did not return, despite apparent opportunity, for reasons like soil loss (Curtin & Allen 2018), and forests all over the world are starting to die from climate change itself, or from stresses made worse by climate change. Some forests—notably in the tropics—already have become net producers of carbon dioxide, and many more across the world may follow suit as climate change worsens and dieback exceeds growth (Allen 2009). Dying forests could even release enough carbon dioxide to speed climate change and kill even more forest, but whether we have reached that nightmare bifurcation point, or might reach it soon, is unclear.

So, in Andy’s time, the global greenhouse effect may or may not be weakening, depending on various interacting factorssome of which I have mentioned and some not. Several of the relevant questions might well be answerable by anyone with the appropriate mathematical skill and enough data. Others are only answerable with a supercomputer. Still others might not be answerable at all.

Even assuming that the greenhouse effect is weakening in Andy’s time, whether the planet is cooling yet is another question. If greenhouse gas levels simply stabilize, warming will continue for several decades, perhaps 30 to 50 years (Mann & Kump 2015), because the climate needs time to adjust to a stronger greenhouse effect. If the greenhouse gas levels then drop, cooling will occur—but I have not been able to learn how quickly that cooling happens. Logic suggests that if the greenhouse effect weakens before the temperature stabilizes, cooling will begin sooner than it otherwise would, but I have not found confirmation of that principle, either.

But even the onset of cooling will not necessarily undo the damage done by rapid warming. In fact, Earth may continue to deteriorate for some time. Biodiversity loss, like climate change, has a time lag. Evidence from Europe suggests that extirpations peak at least a hundred years after major habitat loss, a delay referred to technically as extinction debt (Curtin and Allen 2018). Ice, likewise, requires time to melt, as anyone knows who has ever enjoyed a drink with ice on a hot day. Big chunks of ice take longer than small ones, and so the massive glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica could go on melting for a very long time before the “melting debt” already accumulated is paid. Undoing such damage might not be possible on any time-scalewhen complex systems change, the change is often permanent.

But the irreversibility of change is not the same thing as hopelessness. The sooner the greenhouse effect weakens, the less debt will accumulate and the sooner the new anti-entropic phase can begin. We cannot go back, but we can go on.

So here is Andy, twenty years after the collapse of the world he once knew, in a climate that seems vaguely consistent with the predictions he remembers, but it’s hard to be sure. He knows that soon the world must diverge from prediction, if it hasn’t diverged already. Perhaps the planet will cool, wildlife habitat will expand dramatically, and he will live to see the beginnings of regrowth. Then all Andy’s losses, all the personal tragedy and tumult he has been through, will mean something: the unavoidable side effects of repairing the world that he loves. Alternatively, forest die-back, or some other destructive feedback loop, could render rapid climate change self-perpetuating. The sacrifice of nine-tenths of humanity might yet prove to be too little, too late.

Andy is aware of these possible alternatives, but in the year in which we meet him, he does not yet know which scenario is playing out.

References

Allen C.D. 2009. Climate-induced forest dieback: an escalating global phenomenon? Unasylva 60: 231—232, 43—49.

Curtin C.G., T. F. H. Allen. 2018. Complex ecology: foundational perspectives on dynamic approaches to ecology and conservation. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Dull R.A., R. J. Nevle, W. I. Woods, et al. 2010. The Columbian encounter and the Little Ice Age: abrupt land use change, fire, and greenhouse forcing. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100: 4, 755—771.

Edenhofer O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, et al. 2014. Technical summary. Pages 33—108 in Edenhofer O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, et al, editors. Climate change 2014: mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Ehhalt, D., M. Prather, F. Dentener, et al. 2001. Atmospheric chemistry and greenhouse gasses. Pages 241-280 in Houghton J.T., Y. Ding., D. J. Griggs, et al, editors. Climate change 2001: the scientific basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York.

van Hoof T.B., F. P. M. Bunnik, J. G. M. Waucomont et al. 2006. Forest re-growth on medieval farmland after the Black Death pandemic: implications for atmospheric CO2 levels. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 237: 2—4, 396—409.

van Oldenborgh G. J., M. Collins, J. Arblaster, et al, editors. 2013. IPCC, 2013: Annex I: Atlas of global and regional climate projections. Pages 1313—1390 in Stocker T. F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, et al, editors. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York.

Mann M. E., L. R. Kump. 2015. Dire predictions: understanding climate change. 2nd American Edition. D. K. Publishing. New York, New York.

Ciais P., C. Sabine, G. Bala. et al. 2013. Carbon and other biogeochemical cycles. Pages 465-544 in Stocker T. F., D. Qin, G. -K, Plattner, et al, editors. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (465-544). Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wessels T. 1997. Reading the forested landscape: a natural history of New England. Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.

Wessels T. 2006. The myth of progress: towards a sustainable future. University of Vermont Press, Lebanon, New Hampshire.


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Novel Essay Excerpt

My second novel should be out later this year–I have just finished final editing, so the book now moves into publication. To celebrate, I’m posting an excerpt from the essay on science at the back of the novel. The following is based largely on material I learned from Tom Wessels and Charles Curtin, either in class or in personal discussion–and yes, I thank them in the book.

Essay Excerpt 1: On Exoskeletons and Ox-carts

Ecological Memory depicts a world that includes both ox-carts and robotic exoskeletons. Some readers might ask why. Yes, this is a world without fossil fuel, but it is clearly a technologically advanced society, so why are the people stuck using ox-carts? Why not use renewable energy?

The short answer is that they can and do, but if they used enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels fully they would just wreck the world again. Where energy comes from is generally less important than how much is used.

People are used to hearing, and telling, the story of technological progress in terms of innovation. Cars are more advanced than ox-carts because they go faster. The other—often forgotten—side of the story is energy. A car that ran on a few bales of hay could not go much faster than an ox, no matter how advanced it was. Advancing technology has allowed the use of more and more energy, and that—not innovation alone—is what gives us our unprecedented power.

Fossil fuel has made increasing energy consumption possible because it is energy dense, easily portable, and abundant (or, at least, used to be). Fossil fuel also causes climate change and ocean acidification; and it indirectly causes several other ills, such as loss of biodiversity. The mechanisms involved should be roughly familiar to most readers. The surprise is that drawing the same amount of energy from other sources would likely cause similar problems; only the mechanisms would be different. Understanding why requires exploring the science of complex systems.

Complex”, here, has a specific, technical meaning: a system is complex if it has certain properties, such as self-organization and a nested or hierarchical structure (complex systems can have other complex systems inside them). I am a complex system, and so are you. So are cells, ecosystems, and entire biospheres. Books have been written about these systems, and they are worth a read, but the important thing to know is that systems science is all about the flow of energy. Complex systems can fight entropy and win. Readers may remember that entropy is the tendency for everything in the universe to run down as energy dissipates. Complex systems do lose energy to dissipation, but they do not run down, because they actively draw in energy from outside themselves. If a system is drawing in more energy than it loses, it is anti-entropic. Think of a baby, eating and eating, turning all those calories into growth and development, or a young forest, rapidly increasing in biomass and biodiversity. Eventually, the complex system reaches a point of equilibrium where energy inputs equal losses, and growth stops: that is maturity. From the standpoint of systems science, individual human beings remain mature only briefly. Almost as soon as people reach full size, our metabolisms slow and we start losing energy. We enter what is called the entropic phase. More colloquially, it is called aging, though injury or illness can trigger an entropic phase before maturity, too. A system that stays entropic long enough will cease being complex. That is death.

All complex systems go through these phases, though not all become entropic automatically with age. Forests never die of old age, but they can become entropic. A forest on fire, for example, is losing energy (in the form of heat and light) at a fantastic rate. If the fire is not too severe, the forest will survive and become anti-entropic again as it regrows. As Andy explains in the story, size, complexity, and stability increase and decrease together. A mature forest has more biomass and is more complex than either a young, recently-sprouted forest or the pile of ash and cinder left behind by a forest fire. Similarly, adult people are not just bigger than babies; they are also smarter and more resistant to disease. There is a reason people sometimes call the latter part of the human entropic phase a second childhood: bodies shrink, becoming less capable and less healthy as they lose energy.

All this energy must come from somewhere. Complex systems draw energy from the larger systems they are nested within. My cells draw energy from me. I draw energy from my society by working for a living and buying things. My society draws energy from the biosphere. The catch is that if the smaller system draws too much energy, it can force the larger system into an entropic phase. The larger system can even collapse—cease to exist—leaving the smaller system floating loose in whatever system the larger one was nested within. Think about why cancer kills if it is not successfully treated. Think about how unsustainable logging kills forests. Think about what follows from the rapid burning of fossil fuel.

The biosphere, too, is a complex system, and it, too, has had anti-entropic phases when it was actively growing, becoming more complex and more stable. The biosphere draws its energy (mostly) from the sun, through the process of photosynthesis, which gives us all our free oxygen and most of our biomass as well. And the carbon at the heart of that biomass remains part of the biosphere as long as it is part of chemical compounds that store energy captured by plants—which means that fossil fuels still count as biomass. When Earth was young, the growth of the biosphere, including the growth of its fossil fuel deposits, drew down the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. When the biosphere entered its mature phase, the carbon dioxide level more or less stabilized. Now that we’re burning fossil fuels, we’re liberating that stored energy and the CO2 concentration is rising rapidly as carbon leaves the biosphere—this loss of both biomass and energy means that the biosphere is now entropic.

Let me repeat that: Earth’s biosphere is currently entropic because of human activity.

Loss of stability, complexity, and size always accompany loss of mass and energy as a complex system starts to die. In human beings, that means poor health, increasing disability, and the wasting away of various tissues. Erratic weather, changing climate, and loss of biodiversity are simply the same pattern applied to the biosphere as a whole.

That burning fossil fuel should trigger a global entropic phase should not be surprising, given that the whole point of fossil fuel use is to access a lot of energy, quickly. Earth receives a certain limited amount of solar energy every year, and plant and animal life, as well as the movement of wind and water, takes place within that energy budget. If the human species confined itself to the same annual budget, living on sustainable forestry, agriculture, and renewable energy sources, most of the consumption that people take for granted today would simply be out of reach. Fossil fuel makes the more we want possible, and does so by delivering energy at a higher rate than the biosphere receives. Biospheric entropy is the inevitable result.

If the human species stops using so much energy, the biosphere will re-enter an anti-entropic phase and recover—though it will take a very long time for full recovery, possibly millions of years. That’s better than not recovering at all, and the sooner we reach carbon neutrality, the more likely we are to have a livable planet during the recovery period. Hope remains, though time is getting short.

Giving up fossil fuel entirely is probably a necessary step towards sustainability. What is the alternative, some complicated global carbon rationing system? Who would administer or enforce it? And why would anyone bother? Truly sustainable fossil fuel use would—by definition—yield no more energy than renewables can.

But the end of the Age of Fossil Fuel alone will not rescue us. Should we ever find and use an alternative way to draw more energy than the biosphere has to spare, the system will be back in the same entropic muddle it’s in now. Imagine replacing a Stage Four cancerous tumor with a six-mile-long tapeworm. The patient still dies; the only difference is the mechanism.

Energy is energy. Using too much has consequences.

One way or another, human over-use of resources will end. Unsustainable processes do end, by definition. We can survive only by shifting to an energy budget similar to what existed prior to the Industrial Revolution—a change that will impose real limitations on what the species can do and how it can do it. But a return to pre-Industrial limitations need not mean a return to pre-Industrial life.

An energy budget is not a time machine. There is no mechanism by which limitation alone can erase scientific and cultural advances or prevent further advances. Where those new advances might lead, I cannot say. I have simply imagined one possibility—one that includes both exoskeletons and ox-carts.


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The Carbon Footprint of Space Flight

So, what is the carbon footprint of a rocket launch?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Because rockets inject various substances into the upper atmosphere–both on the way up and the way down–they have the potential to chemically alter the atmosphere, and thus the planet’s greenhouse effect, in addition to whatever greenhouse gas emissions are associated with construction and launch. And nobody has studied the issue yet.

Other aspects of the carbon footprint of space travel are possible to calculate, but are still not quite straight-forward.

Footprinting Rockets

Reportedly, a single Space Shuttle launch released 28 tons of carbon dioxide, but I haven’t been able to find out how that was calculated. Is that the burning of rocket fuel only? Does it include all associated ground-based transportation, from moving the shuttle out to the launch pad to the morning commute of everybody who works in Mission Control? The problem with carbon footprinting is that there is seldom an unambiguous distinction between the footprint of one activity and the footprint of a different activity. What do you include? What do you exclude? Why? The best you can do is be clear about what you did include so that a fair comparison can be made with the footprints of other activities.

Some rocket launches can be described in terms that are seriously misleading; hydrogen is a popular rocket fuel, and burning hydrogen yields water as its exhaust, not carbon dioxide. While water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere depends on how much the atmosphere can hold, not how much steam is released. Look at just the launch of a hydrogen-burning rocket, therefore, and we seem to see a carbon footprint of zero–yay! But hydrogen cannot be simply collected, like so much firewood–it must be produced. And the production of hydrogen takes energy, which comes from….

It comes from wherever the production plant gets its electricity, but it’s a good bet much of that energy comes from coal-fired plants. Not only is coal itself an incredibly carbon-intensive fuel, but look at how many times this energy must transform on the way to the rocket. The chemical energy in the coal is converted to heat, which boils water to make steam, which spins a turbine, which makes electricity, which converts water to hydrogen–that’s at least six transformations! As per the Second Law of Thermodynamics, each time energy is transformed some of it is lost, meaning there is a lot less energy in that hydrogen than there was in the coal. The rocket would have a much smaller carbon footprint if it could just burn coal directly (except coal is too heavy to use in rockets).

Ultimately, the carbon footprint of one rocket is less important than the carbon footprint of the entire space industry; are we talking about a few rocket launches per year, or are we talking about thousands, or hundreds of thousands of them? The difference matters.

The reason for the launch might matter, too.

Space flight is not only a source of carbon emissions and other pollutants, it is also a critical part of climatological and meteorological research. Without data from satellites, we would not be able to effectively model the changing climate, nor would our predictions of extreme weather events be as accurate. GPS satellites and communications satellites are also important in research, not to mention facilitating communication that would otherwise require actually going somewhere, with associated carbon emissions. Conceivably, the true footprints of some launches could be less than zero if those satellites lead to meaningful climate action policies or make possible reduced carbon footprints on Earth.

The Future of Spaceflight and Climate Sanity

The reason I began thinking about all of this is I’ve been wondering whether the carbon-sane future can include space flight.

Climate sanity is all about energy; the function of fossil fuel use has been to give us more energy than the biosphere can spare, and it is this over-use of energy that is destabilizing the climate and collapsing biodiversity. The enhanced greenhouse effect is the mechanism by which the climate is being destabilized, but the overdraft of energy is the ultimate cause. If there were a way to access just as much energy by some means other than fossil fuel use, the planet would be pushed to crisis by some other mechanism.

It follows, therefore, that humanity, to become sustainable, must go on an energy diet. The change need not be painful; greater efficiency and new technology could ensure that standards of living remain about the same, or even improve, for most people. But some energy-intensive practices will have to be left behind.

Will space flight be one of them?

I’m specifically thinking of those various research and communications satellites, not manned space flight or military applications, both of which we really can do without, and not brief trips to the edge of space and back down again. How much energy is necessary to launch a satellite into orbit, and will that energy be available under a sustainable energy budget?

Calculating the energy required to put up a satellite is fairly easy, if you happen to know the relevant equations and don’t have a learning disability involving math (meaning I’m out of luck, but maybe you’re not).

Here is an article discussing part of the process.

The short answer is that it takes over 31 million joules of energy to put one kilogram of something into orbit, except that all those joules need to come from somewhere, and the fuel necessary to deliver that much energy is going to weigh more than a kilogram, meaning you’ll need more energy to lift the fuel….It sounds as though any rocket must be infinitely large in order to lift itself and its ever-increasingly large fuel supply, and obviously that’s not true, but rockets do have to be much more powerful than casual thought might suggest–and if the payload is bigger, the rocket must be much bigger, in order to account for the extra fuel, and the extra fuel necessary to carry the extra fuel, etc.

Calculating the total energy need for a launch thus requires an extra layer of math, but the process still sounds fairly straight forward, provided you know what you’re using for fuel (so you know how much weight you’ve got per joule), have the right equations, and, once again, are not me.

Then you’d have to figure out whether that much energy is available under the new energy budget, and that involves….

A Simpler Way to Figure It

So, how does a writer who cares about science but can’t do math figure out whether the climate-sane future has rockets in it?

I don’t know how to work the various equations, but I have seen an object launched into orbit aboard the Antares rocket. The Antares, as configured for launch to the ISS, is almost 43 meters long, or about 140 feet, and about 12 feet across. Total burn time, counting both stages, is about six minutes. The first stage burns 64,740kg, or 142727 pounds, of a highly-refined form of kerosene. The second stage burns 12,815kg, or 28252 pounds, of polyurethane. It can deliver a payload of up to 5,400kg, or 11,905 pounds. That’s the equivalent of about three average-sized cars.

A gallon of kerosene weighs 6.8 pounds, meaning we’re looking at well over 20,000 gallons of kerosene. That’s a lot, but offhand it doesn’t sound like more than could exist in a post-petroleum future–and yes, aviation-grade kerosene can be made from plant-derived oils. I’m not sure how much sense it makes to attempt to calculate gallons of polyurethane, but it’s going to be much smaller than the kerosene figure. And polyurethane, too, can be made from plant-derived oils.

Some time ago I attempted to calculate the per-gallon prices of various fuels in a post-petroleum world. Because I can’t begin to anticipate market forces in such an economy, I did not calculate the prices in money but rather by comparison to food. The two main biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel, can both be made out of edible substances: corn and soybeans or Canola seed, respectively. So, for every gallon of ethanol, how much corn must be removed from the human food-stream? For every gallon of biodiesel, how much soy or Canola seed must be lost? I didn’t mean that fuel must always be made from food, only that the comparison provides an intuitively accessible way to understand both the economic and ecological cost of fuel production in terms that are going to be relevant no matter what type of economy we end up using.

I have not attempted similar calculations for either kerosene or polyurethane–we’re interested in ballpark figures at present, in getting to the right scale, so for our purposes, the biodiesel figures are probably close enough.

If so, then the first stage of an Antares rocket alone burns the economic/ecological equivalent of enough food for at least 164 people–possibly as many as 657, depending on what kind of oil you start with–to eat for a year. And that’s not counting the energy involved in refining and chemically converting the oil into fuel, building the rocket, building the satellites, transporting materials or finished parts, running all necessary computers and communications equipment, and covering the loss of the occasional rocket the blows up during launch (as I saw an Antares do). And don’t forget all the people involved with all of this, who need to eat and so forth.

It’s a lot, but it’s not so much that the United States could not collect the resources for a launch every year or three, which is really all that should be necessary for satellites for science, GPS, and communication.

And this is for launch of the Antares, a launch vehicle certainly capable of delivering a good-sized payload to low-Earth orbit, but it’s certainly not the only way to get the job done. A smaller payload–or a launch vehicle made of lighter materials–would need dramatically less fuel, thanks to the issue we explored earlier of needing fuel to lift the fuel. Launching a rocket from the upper atmosphere (a balloon lifts it up to the launch “site”) reduces drag on the rocket and again reduces fuel dramatically.

Lunar colonies and space tourism are probably still out, but those applications of space flight that yield the biggest benefits to us here on Earth sound doable.

I had initially assumed that the carbon-neutral future would have to do without spaceflight. Now it looks like I was wrong.


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Groundhog’s Day!

The following is a slightly re-edited version of an older, but clearly seasonal post. I’ve always liked this time of year–it feels optimistic, when optimism can be hard to come by.

-C.

This weekend was Groundhog Day, the day when, supposedly, a groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts the weather by seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s the closest we have to a climate-related holiday.

It’s an odd holiday–never mind how a groundhog could predict the weather, how can one groundhog give a single prediction for the entire country? And why six weeks? We can explore these questions briefly and then I’ll get back to talking about climate.

Groundhog Day itself goes back to Europe, where a group of interrelated traditions had various animals–hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes–breaking hibernation in February to predict the remaining length of winter. The underlying idea is that clear weather in early February is, counter-intuitively, a sign of a late spring. And that association may well hold, at least in parts of Europe, for all I know.

February 1st or 2nd is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox (the solstices and equinoxes are the quarters). The other three are May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions and Christian holidays. All four are also holidays within the modern religion of Wicca. So today or yesterday is not just Groundhog Day but also Candlemas, Brigid, or Imbolg, depending on your persuasion, and all involve the beginning of spring. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, we in America got Groundhog’s Day when German immigrants in Pennsylvania adapted their tradition to the New World–Germans looked to hedgehogs as prognosticators, but hedgehogs don’t live in America (porcupines are entirely unrelated). Groundhogs do. In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Groundhogs (which are the same thing as woodchucks) do sometimes take breaks from hibernation, though they don’t necessarily leave their burrows. There are various theories as to why, but most involve the need to perform various bodily processes that hibernation precludes–including, perhaps, sleep. Hibernation is not the same as sleep, after all. But there is evidence that male groundhogs spend some of their time off in late winter defending their territories and visiting females. They actually mate after hibernation ends for the year, but apparently female groundhogs don’t like strangers. Thus, it is actually appropriate that Phil is male–the groundhogs who come out of their holes in February are.

Anyway, underneath the silliness at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawny, Groundhog’s Day is about a cultural awareness of weather patterns and animal behavior. Certain times of the year are cold and other times are not, dependably. If we pay attention, we can know what to expect and we can organize holidays and cultural observances around that knowing. In this sense, then, Groundhog’s Day is not about weather but about climate. Climate is the roughly stable pattern that makes it possible for ordinary people who don’t have supercomputers or satellites to predict the weather simply by watching the world around them.

We’re losing that, now. It’s fifty degrees outside, where I live. In February. And while warm, springlike weather is pleasant and I intend to go out in it as soon as I’m done writing this, there’s always something unnerving about unseasonable conditions. But the patterns our cultural traditions are build on–climate–are eroding. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.

Now.


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How Do You Know?

We’re in the deep freeze, thanks to a destabilized polar vortex, and predictably, certain people are publicly complaining that the cold disproves climate change, not realizing that this weather pattern is, in fact, a symptom of change.

Old news.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty, and how climate deniers sometimes use the fact that climatologists don’t know everything to argue that they don’t know anything.

Actually, it’s a fair question. While no one could fairly expect any expert to literally know everything in their field, how can climatologists be so sure of some things and so unsure of others? When a climate denier makes a wild claim (for example, that climate change on Earth can’t be due to carbon dioxide emissions because other planets are warming, too–which, by the way, they mostly aren’t), how can the rest of us be sure it is wild?

I thought of an analogy.

Imagine someone says to you “I just saw someone walk by the window, but I can’t be sure who it is.”

So, you start asking questions–what gender, what age, what clothing–and the person isn’t sure. “I think it was a man, but I’m not sure. Dark hair, blue clothing? I really didn’t get a good look.”

You then ask “OK, what about skin color? Was the skin purple?”

Even though your informant knows very little, the question is ridiculous, because humans can’t have purple skin. Three nipples, sometimes. Four kidneys, occasionally. But not purple skin, and we’re all familiar enough with our own species that we never ask if barely-glimpsed people have purple skin.

Knowledge comes in different levels–for any topic, some types of information are superficial, while others are fundamental. If you know those fundamentals, and a claim violates those fundamentals (as any suggestion that rising carbon dioxide levels aren’t causing warming does) then you don’t need to do any research on the specifics to know the claim is false.

Now, most of us don’t know the fundamentals about climate–it’s not difficult to study up, but not everybody has the energy or the time. If that’s your position, then you can’t identify wild claims as balderdash on your own–but you can trust that the genuine experts are not being arbitrary when they call foul.

This trust is important. I do not mean thoughtless trust, I mean informed trust, based on a carefully-developed capacity to identify which people have the fundamental knowledge and the understanding that such knowledge isn’t universal. There are things we really do need experts for–like performing surgery, flying airplanes, and sorting out real science from hooey.

Such trust makes us smarter, not dumber, because it means we don’t have to make sense of the world alone.