Arctic Sea Ice

Image from National Snow and Ice Data Center September 2012

Well, we’ve hit another major climate record. Yesterday the National Snow and Ice Data Center, out of Boulder, Colorado, issued a statement indicating that we’ve finally hit the low point for the volume of sea ice in the Arctic. Every year the amount of ice in the Arctic rises and falls with the seasons, as one would expect. September is typically when we see the end of the summer melt off, before the temperatures start to significantly drop and the ice starts to accumulate again. This year we’ve fallen way below the average low point for ice volume, breaking a record that has stood since they were able to put satellites above the north pole to study this phenomenon.

To provide some perspective, the continental United States contains 3,119,884 square miles. The size of the Arctic ranges quite a lot, but in its current late summer state, it has 1.32 million square miles, which is about 42% of the size of the US, or about twice the size of Alaska. It is about 18% below the previous 2007 record, and 49% below the 1979-2012 average. From the graph below, one can see that it has generally on a downhill slide since they started taking measurements in 1972.

Yearly Extent of Sea Ice from NSIDC

Some scientists are estimating that within the next 20 years, Arctic sea ice will completely disappear during the late summer months. If this happens, and it is likely that it will, it will cause all kinds of serious problems with the environment. The white sea ice has a very high index of reflectivity, but the dark color of the melted ocean water will absorb the warmth of the sun, further complicating the trend toward global warming. The worry is that, if the sea ice is lost, then the added warmth of the atmosphere will lead to the accelerated loss of the freshwater ice locked up on Greenland (which is melting fast anyway). Unlike the Arctic sea ice, which is frozen sea water, Greenland is freshwater because it is ice that sits on land and has accumulated through moisture that has come from the atmosphere. Greenland holds so much frozen freshwater that when it melts into the sea, it will actually cause the oceans to rise, which is what most media outlet talk about. However, there is another more serious outcome. It will likely stop the naturally occurring currents of water that move around the planet.

Thermohaline Circulation – Image from NASA

The salinity of ocean water changes depending on where you are in the world. It also changes depending on how deep you are in the ocean. The currents move according to the salinity levels, and this giant conveyor belt moves warm waters northward, and cold waters to the south, creating a perfect balance which our 21st century cities are built for. It is called Thermohaline Circulation. If Greenland melts off, and dumps all that freshwater into the high salinity north Atlantic, it will likely shut down the conveyor belt, therefore slowing, or stopping, the warm waters of the south from moving northward. The result of such an event is nothing short of the next ice age because water is a fantastic heat sink, and the constant movement of the ocean water keeps a consistent temperature balance on the planet. I realize that calling for the next Ice Age sounds inflammatory, but it is a real possibility, that is not really discussed in the media.

You may have heard that Greenland has, like the Arctic, had record melting this year. It has been all over the internet. PBS did a pretty nice job putting it in context. Also, this (admittedly overly dramatic) video gives you a feel for the amount of water that is melting in just one location. They say that this particular 4 day melt is a result of a localized weather event, as opposed to climate change. It sure seems like it is part of a larger trend. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned to see if it continues to happen, or if this is just a single event.

So, I write about these things, knowing that there are many unknowns in the scientific community regarding these events. Similarly, I fully admit that like most people, I am not a researcher, and do not have the expertise to know anything for certain. However, this is one of the many things that I see in the world that tells me that we are heading in the wrong direction and things must dramatically change soon. It wakes me up from the numbness I’ve experiencing living in the bubble. You see, the feedback loops of major global systems are getting disrupted as a result of fossil fuels. The scientific community is in total agreement that our use of fossil fuels, in all their varied uses, is causing climate change. Climate change is causing the Arctic to melt, which has systemic relationships with a whole host of other complex systems (including the melting of permafrost).

The question of whether coal-fired energy plants, or oil based combustion engines, are appropriate as we move into the near future seems to totally miss the point. Both are totally inappropriate when more appropriate technologies already exist today. It amazes me that oil companies are spending billions of dollars to get to the sub-surface oil that is below the arctic. It is so incredibly inappropriate. Put your billions of dollars into something healthy, that makes sense to the long term welfare of the human race. The change will come eventually. It has to. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be much easier if we do it boldly now, rather than desperately later.


What in the World is Clean Coal?

Minnesota Power Plant Image by Josie Welsh – 2011

I watched President Obama’s speech a few nights ago, and really got a kick out of his formal recognition that climate change is real, and threatens our well-being. I believe his comment was something like this, “Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.” It was good to hear, and he has made some cautious progress on the environmental front.

However, I also noticed that he has quietly added to his own website, under his “Record on Energy and the Environment” page, advertising his support of “clean coal”. Man, whoever came up with that marketing stunt is a genius. What is it? It sounds great! We wouldn’t have to change our ways – just add a little technology and we’re golden. Perfect. Here is a radio ad running in Ohio, from Obama’s campaign.

This might come as a surprise, but the term “Clean Coal,” really has no formal, agreed upon, definition. According to Slate online magazine, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity defines clean coal as “any technology to reduce pollutants associated with the burning of coal that was not in widespread use” prior to regulations from 1990.

That is interesting because in 1990, there were some significant upgrades to the Clean Air Act, that added language to address acid rain, ozone depletion, and other types of toxic air pollution by limiting  the levels of nitrogen dioxides, sulfur dioxides, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, that can be pumped into the air. Since then, the list of chemicals regulated by the Clean Air Act has grown to 189, and the process for reviewing these power plants has become centralized and more efficient.

As the list of regulations grow, the technologies improve somewhat. What is interesting to me is how the coal industry is marketing “clean coal”, in the face of increased pressure from natural gas, wind, solar, and bio-fuels. All of the sudden, all those developments, that they fought with such vigorous and unrelenting intensity, are becoming a marketing effort. Convenient. Look at what we’re doing! We can be totally clean! Really, it’s just steam coming out of those smoke stacks…Hmmm. Obama might have faith, but I don’t.

At least I know what “Clean Coal” is now. It’s mostly a marketing gimmick. It does encompass some hope that we will be able to develop current technologies to a point that the smoke stacks will breathe only fresh clean air into the atmosphere and the power plant might become more than 50% efficient. However, there are alot of things that it can’t fix, and the current track record, with the current technologies, do not instill much confidence. Additionally, the persistent resistance of many power plant operators to upgrading old facilities to meet the current requirements compounds the lack of confidence in coal. Constantly requesting extensions of time, and taking advantage of loopholes indicates the true intent of these operators.

The American Lung Association doesn’t believe in clean coal. They have stated that 24,000 people die every year, prematurely, as a result of coal-fired power plants. They claim that 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions, and 550,000 asthma attacks are directly related to coal-fired power plants.  Additionally, burning “clean coal” still emits mercury, which has only gotten worse as technologies have gotten better. Mercury is bad on many, many levels, but is most harmful to infants and small children. It impairs the development of their brains and nervous systems, leading to learning disabilities, coordination problems, attention problems and lowered IQs.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 12,039 coal workers died as a result of “black lung” between 1993 and 2002. Their numbers are improving with time, but these power companies are still killing hundreds of their employees every year, without apology.

Clean coal still requires massive amounts of water. Keep in mind my previous post about our limited freshwater resources as you read this. The water is used for cooling and for scrubbing the air leaving the smoke stacks. In a report issued to Congress from the Department of Energy, it is estimated that 3.3 billion gallons of water are consumed everyday. Overall, coal-fired plants use 39% of all the freshwater used in the country, but a very large part of it, in newer plants is returned to its source. However, the 3.3 billion gallons per day is what is consumed, and not returned.

Clean Coal still removes mountain tops to get coal, destroying important environmental amenities for future generations, as well as destroying important habitat for the tens of thousands of species that live in the areas affected.

The process of mining coal kills rivers, streams, and other waterways that are nearby.

The list goes on, and on. When I hear statistics like “24,000 people die every year”, it sure seems like it should be the top news story everyday, rather than Prince Harry showing his ass. How many people died in the World Trade Center collapse? If we could only pour the same resources into alternative energies as we have into these wars, we would have our solutions by now. It is hard to believe that there is any way to support coal, in any form, when there are many simpler and cleaner technologies itching to take over, and the penalty for using coal is so high. The world used 8 billion tons of coal last year, to power thermoelectric plant that are only about 35% efficient, at best. China dug up about 8 billion tons on its own in 2011. The United States has about 237.295 billion tons in reserve within its borders, and it burned more than a billion tons last year. It doesn’t really matter that the coal is being “cleaned”, the environmental destruction that will ensue from using this coal will be beyond what the biosphere can tolerate.

Extreme Ice Survey

In our modern western world, life is very fragmented. We tend toward specialization. We are teachers, engineers, physicians, restaraunt workers, artists, politicians, et cetera,…and collectively, as a society, we provide all of the things we need for collective success. Some individuals find themselves able to become extremely skilled at what they do by concentrating all of their efforts in one very narrow area of expertise. They may do extraordinary work, and discover things that are truly stunning. However, there is a price to pay for this deep, but narrow, understanding of the world. People do not understand what their neighbors are talking about! Each of us have become specialists, with few common understanding of how the world works. This fragmented societal structure depends on trusting relationships between specialists and extremely effective communication.

Unfortunately, due to this imbalance in knowledge between individuals, there can always be a level of doubt felt by the larger party who is hearing, for the first time, the amazing discoveries of the highly specialized few. Recently, people motivated by things other than the pursuit of scientific truth, have learned that they can control the perceptions of the general public, by injecting large amounts of artificial doubt into the conversation. It is a tactic that has been used with cigarrette smoke for the past 60 years, as well as acid rain and several other hot button topics. Recently, this tactic of creating doubt is being used to control the conversation around climate change. For more information on this see The Climate Reality Project at the following address:

Unfortunately, if there are competing motivations among societal leaders, artificial doubt can be poison to the actual truth, despite any amount of scientific evidence.

The above video is fabulous because it bypasses the need to understand the topic deeply. It presents something that a minimally educated person can look at, and make a very good common sense evaluation. The truth becomes so visually obvious that one would be foolish to argue against it, and unsavory motivations become obvious. This is similar to what one feels when looking at the world’s population growth curve. It instantly becomes extremely obvious that we have a serious problem. To argue against it makes one look foolish – we obviously cannot continue to increase our population at the extreme rate that has happened in the past 150 years.

The Extreme Ice Survey uses time lapsed photography to make visually obvious what is happening to many of the glaciers throughout the world. The videos are amazing, and this TED talk features some of them. I am truly excited to see the Sundance movie that is advertised to be released this fall. It is very difficult to argue that the planet is warming with evidence like this. Enjoy the TED talk, and visit thier website at:

The Violence of TransCanada

I love TED Talks! Garth Lenz is a Canadian photographer, who has made clear the potential environmental destruction of the coming Keystone Pipeline. After watching this presentation I thought that basic common sense would never let this happen. Any reasonable person could sense that this kind of violence toward nature is not in our best interest, particularly after listening to the NPR radio show below. Additionally, the scientific evidence that has been generated in the last 20 years against this sort of thing is staggering. I thought that there would be enough resistance to slow it down, but there continues to be stories that make me believe this monster is going to happen anyway. I find it very difficult to believe that this is the obvious next logical step in the effort to move toward safer, renewable energy sources. What would happen if all of the money to develop this filthy infrastructure was diverted to clean renewable energy sources? How can our society (leaders) support/allow this?

NPR reported that TransCanada is apparently buying up the land to move the project forward. See the following articles from National Public Radio:

To see the beautiful (higher resolution) images from the Garth Lenz presentation, and a link to this TED Talk, please visit his website at:–the-true-cost-of-oil/editorial-42

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