Catastrophic Arctic methane release feedback?

NewImageThere is high concern in some quarters about the possibility of near-term catastrophic Arctic methane release. Example: the Arctic Methane Emergency Group which promotes videos such as Arctic Methane: Why the Sea Ice Matters. I’ve reviewed the recent peer-reviewed publications via Google Scholar, concluding that near-term (decades) disaster is extremely unlikely. The potential for long-term (centuries) feedback remains one of many climate change risks that we just don’t know much about. The current climate forcing is so much faster than anything seen in the geologic record — we are definitely exploring new territory.

A good summary of what I’ve learned can be found in this post at the Arctic Methane blog by Prof. Euan Nisbet. Here’s a brief excerpt that addresses the recent media-frenzy prompted by the Guardian articles (which stemmed from the Whiteman paper).

Is Godzilla about to arise? Is there a methane monster?

In the 25th July issue of Nature this year, Whiteman et al. suggested a monster methane release is about to occur in the Arctic. They modelled a release of 50 Giga-tons of methane from Arctic hydrate, at 5 Gt a year over 10 years from 2015 to 2025. One Giga-ton is 1000 million tons, or 10^15 grams. To put this in context, the total amount of methane in the world’s air now is about 5 Gt, and the annual input is about 0.5 Gt, so this would double the methane in the air within the first year. They based this number on a ‘single stage blowout’ scenario from another paper by Shakhova et al, (2010). The Whiteman et al. paper had immediate press interest, from newspapers as prestigious the Guardian and the New York Times to a wide range of blogs.

Contrary voices were also heard, in particular from researchers on methane and hydrates (including the present author). They were widely sceptical of such large releases. Responses were both published later in Nature, and also a posted comment that is accessible by scrolling far down the page on:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v499/n7459/full/499401a.html

The full text is on:

http://equianos.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Response-to-Whiteman_et-al-Comment.pdf

There’s clearly a great deal of methane hydrate in the Arctic, and much of it is likely to be destabilised by Arctic warming. But is it going to come out as a great sudden burst in a few years? Or is it going to dribble out as a chronic release, as suggested in 2008 by David Archer, a recognised hydrate expert? Remember also that the northern wetland methane emissions respond very fast to warming. There’s much evidence that at the end of the last glaciation it was not primarily the hydrates but the wetland response that drove the very rapid increase in methane.

Archer, et al (2008) Ocean methane hydrates as a slow tipping point in the global carbon cycle, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 106, 20596–20601

Nisbet, E.G. and Chappellaz, J., (2009) Shifting gear, quickly. Science 324, 477-8

The scepticism of Arctic researchers about the 50 Gt blowout scenario was initially dismissed by an influential Guardian blog as “narrow arguments of scientists out of touch with cutting edge developments in the Arctic.” http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/05/7-facts-need-to-know-arctic-methane-time-bomb

However, later the comment was modified:

http://planet3.org/2013/09/05/nafeez-ahmed-responds/#comment-40721

The answers to these puzzles is what we’re trying to find out….

Dr. Nisbet’s post is written for the lay public – highly recommended. To repeat, Dr. Nisbet and colleagues wrote a detailed response in Nature to the Whiteman et al paper. Nisbet mentions this in his blog post — so politely that it may not to be noticed.

Persistent Prejudice Against Nuclear – Can Anything Be Done? Part 2

Excerpt from Jim Hopf on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) which will be mass-manufactured, then delivered to the site by rail or truck.

Many concepts, such as SMRs, give up size and power density in exchange for inherent safety advantages, resulting in the far lower accident probabilities discussed above. The lower power density and smaller size will tend to make SMRs more, not less, expensive. The hope is for volume production to reduce cost. However, what’s really needed is to use the SMR’s, or advanced reactor’s, fundamental advantages to reduce cost, as opposed to further reducing (already extremely low) accident risk. What needs to be discussed is what other (Nuclear Regulatory Commission/quality assurance) requirements can be relaxed so that accident risk is a little better than current plants, but costs are significantly reduced. However, any such discussion would be blasphemous, for both the public and the NRC. Never mind the fact that requiring reactor accident risk to be as low as possible simply means that fossil fuels will be used instead, resulting in a large increase in public health risk.

Nuclear City: updates

Haiyan.png

Update: Will F @NeedsMorePower in Melbourne (Will’s blog) sent me the announcement Construction of Chinese ‘Nuclear City’ to start at Haiyan in Zhejiang province. And Martin Burkle sent the same press release with the comment 

Since we spent twice the money to build the same thing as China spends, we need about 350 million to get the city started. That seems unlikely.

Indeed – China can make progress faster in the “politically sensitive zones” that aren’t favored by the establishment. So where is China on the road to fast deployment of zero-carbon nuclear energy? So far I’ve not been successful to find out what progress has been completed with the “China Nuclear Power City” since the initial press release (I am finding mostly 404 bad links). Here’s an excerpt from the original press release that Will and Martin sent me:

Plans are advancing for the construction of the first industrial park in China to help with the rapid development of the country’s nuclear power industry, with detailed engineering and construction preparation work at the site in Haiyan, Zhejiang province, expected to start soon.

The coastal city of Haiyan, on the Yangtze Delta, has been selected to house the ‘Nuclear City’. It is some 118 kilometres (70 miles) southwest of Shanghai and close to the cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou and Ningbo. It also lies midway along China’s coast, where several nuclear power plants have been constructed or are planned.

…CNNC and the Zhejiang government plan to accelerate the construction of the nuclear components centre and training centre in Haiyan. The central area of the industrial park and the exhibition centre was to be launched first in July 2010. Enterprises in the industrial park will enjoy priority for bidding quota, bidding training, qualification guidance and specific purchasing with CNNC.

China will reportedly spend some $175 billion over the next ten years on developing the 130 square-kilometre Haiyan Nuclear City.

The Haiyan nuclear industrial park is entitled to all the preferential benefits granted to national economic and technological zones and national hi-tech industrial zones.

The Nuclear City is expected to have four main areas of work: development of the nuclear power equipment manufacturing industry; nuclear training and education; applied nuclear science industries (medical, agricultural, radiation detection and tracing); and promotion of the nuclear industry.

On its website, the Haiyan Nuclear City said that it will be based on the Burgundy region of France, which successfully became an industrial centre for the French nuclear industry. Several small and medium sized French nuclear-related companies moved to Burgundy to actively participate in the global market.

Whatever has happened since the announcement, I take this as a positive indication that the Chinese leadership is thinking seriously about how to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon nuclear. 

Working out what is really happening in China is challenging. For example, reading the WNA China Nuclear Fuel Cycle, I find the identical quote (as above) on “China Nuclear Power City” in Haiyan. Then at the bottom of the section on Industrial Parks I find this:

In May 2013 CGN and CNNC announced that their new China Nuclear Fuel Element Co (CN- FEC) joint venture would build a CNY 45 billion ($7.33 billion) complex in Daying Industrial Park at Zishan town in Heshan and Jiangmen city, Guangdong province. It was to be established during the 12th Five-Year Plan and be fully operational by 2020. However, in July 2013 the plan was abruptly cancelled. The 200 ha park was to involve 1000 tU/yr fuel fabrication as well as a conversion plant (14,000 t/yr) and an enrichment plant, close to CGN’s Taishan power plant.

Dear readers – I would appreciate links to current information. Comments?

There’s No End In Sight For California’s Extreme Water Drought

stressedSage.pngHenry I. Miller addresses the irony of extreme drought in areas where the politically correct but ignorant voters enact bans on the technology that can help farmers produce more with less water:

Water is in increasingly short supply in many parts of the United States.  Here in California, where most of the state is experiencing “extreme” drought, 2013 was the driest year on record, and we have had no relief during what should be the height of the rainy season.  Moreover, there’s no end in sight: The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service forecasts that the drought will “persist or intensify” at least through April.

Reservoir levels are dropping, the snow pack is almost nonexistent, and many communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage.  In the city of Santa Cruz, for example, restaurants can no longer serve drinking water unless diners specifically request it; Marin County residents have been asked not to clean their cars or to do so only at “eco-friendly” car washes; and there are limitations on watering lawns in towns in Mendocino County.

(…snip…) Drought may not be partisan, but it does raise critical issues of governance, public policy and how best to use the state’s natural resources.  It also offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: Ironically, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Marin counties — all of which boast politically correct, far-left politics — are among the local jurisdictions that have banned a key technology that could conserve huge amounts of water.

The technology is genetic engineering performed with modern molecular techniques, sometimes referred to as genetic modification (GM) or gene-splicing, which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do spectacular new things, including conserve water.  In the United States and about 30 other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.

Even with R&D being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, genetically engineered crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world.  Cumulatively, over 3.7 billion acres of them have been cultivated by more than 17 million farmers in 30 countries during the past 15 years – without disrupting a single ecosystem or causing so much as a tummy ache in a consumer.

(…snip…) Incredibly, in spite of the intensive, safe and successful cultivation of genetically engineered plants for almost two decades, four California counties have banned them entirely, either via legislation or referendums.  These actions in Trinity, Mendocino, Marin and Santa Cruz counties represent political leadership and voter ignorance at their absolute worst.  The measures are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk: They permit the use of new varieties of plants and microorganisms that have been crafted with less precise and predictable techniques but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones.

The Decline of Renewable Energy

rewnewables_declining_share_lomborg.jpg

When green renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, they will take over the world. Instead of believing in the Tooth Fairy, we should start investing in green R&D. — B Lomborg

Bjorn Lomborg examines the long perspective on renewable energy trends. I liked this piece because it so concisely summarizes both the engineering and social realities of the popular but tragically expensive rush to solar and wind.

Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables – about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material – humanity’s oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable.
Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today. The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than three million people annually. Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture, and push up food prices.

The most renewables-intensive places in the world are also the poorest. Africa gets almost 50% of its energy from renewables, compared to just 8% for the OECD. Even the European OECD countries, at 11.8%, are below the global average.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94% of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

(…snip…)

The momentous move toward fossil fuels has done a lot of good. Compared to 250 years ago, the average person in the United Kingdom today has access to 50 times more power, travels 250 times farther, and has 37,500 times more light. Incomes have increased 20-fold.

The switch to fossil fuels has also had tremendous environmental benefits. Kerosene saved the whales (which had been hunted almost to extinction to provide supposedly “renewable” whale oil for lighting). Coal saved Europe’s forests. With electrification, indoor air pollution, which is much more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, disappeared in most of the developed world.

And there is one environmental benefit that is often overlooked: in 1910, more than 30% of farmland in the United States was used to produce fodder for horses and mules. Tractors and cars eradicated this huge demand on farmland (while ridding cities of manure pollution).

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of CO₂ emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world’s clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26% per year and solar a phenomenal 48%. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038% of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29%. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04%.

Yes, Denmark gets a record 34% of its electricity from wind. But electricity accounts for only 18% of its final energy use.

Europe now gets 1% of its energy from wind – less than before industrialization, when cozy windmills contributed about 2% (and ships’ sails provided another 1%).The UK set its record for wind power in 1804, when its share reached 2.5% – almost three times its level today.

Moreover, solar and wind will still contribute very little in the coming decades. In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34% of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42%. Global renewables will most likely increase by roughly 1.5 percentage points, to 14.5% by 2035. Under unrealistically optimistic assumptions, the share could increase five percentage points, to 17.9%.

So we are nowhere near switching back to renewables anytime soon. In the US, renewables accounted for 9.3% of energy production in 1949. President Barack Obama’s administration expects that number, almost a century later, to increase slightly, to 10.8% by 2040. In China, renewables’ share in energy production dropped from 40% in 1971 to 11% today; in 2035, it will likely be just 9%.

Yet we are paying through the nose for these renewables. In the last 12 years, the world has invested $1.6 trillion in clean energy. By 2020, the effort to increase reliance on renewables will cost the European Union alone $250 billion annually.

Spain now pays almost 1% of its GDP in subsidies for renewables, which is more than it spends on higher education. At the end of the century, Spain’s massive investment will have postponed global warming by 62 hours.

Current green energy policies are failing for a simple reason: renewables are far too expensive. Sometimes people claim that renewables are actually cheaper. But if renewables were cheaper, they wouldn’t need subsidies, and we wouldn’t need climate policies.

Former US Vice President Al Gore’s climate adviser, Jim Hansen, put it bluntly: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and [the] Tooth Fairy.”

The solution is to innovate the price of renewables downward. We need a dramatic increase in funding for research and development to make the next generations of wind, solar, and biomass energy cheaper and more effective.

Consider China. Despite the country’s massive investment in solar and wind, it mostly sells solar panels to Western countries at subsidized prices. Wind makes up just 0.2% of China’s energy, and solar accounts for 0.01%.

Meanwhile, China has 68% of the world’s solar water heaters on rooftops, because it is a smart and cheap technology. It needs no subsidies, and it produces 50 times more energy than all of China’s solar panels.

Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and Our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them

Maryn McKenna cited this book, so after reading hair-curling reviews I just bought the Kindle edition. Maybe no sleep tonight…

Antibiotic-resistant microbes infect more than 2 million Americans and kill over 100,000 each year. They spread rapidly, even in such seemingly harmless places as high school locker rooms, where they infect young athletes. And throughout the world, many more people are dying from these infections. Astoundingly, at the same time that antibiotic resistant infections are skyrocketing in incidence creating a critical need for new antibiotics research and development of new antibiotics has ground to a screeching halt!

In Rising Plague, Dr. Brad Spellberg an infectious diseases specialist and member of a national task force charged with attacking antibiotic resistant infections tells the story of this potentially grave public health crisis. The author shares true and very moving patient stories to emphasize the terrible frustration he and his colleagues have experienced while attempting to treat untreatable infections, not to mention the heart-break and tragedy that many of these patients' families had to endure.

Dr. Spellberg corrects the nearly universal misperception that physician misuse of antibiotics and “dirty hospitals” are responsible for causing antibiotic-resistant infections. He explains the true causes of antibiotic resistance and of the virtual collapse of antibiotic research and development. Most important, he advocates ways to reverse this dire trend and instead bolster the production of desperately needed new and effective antibiotics.

He also warns against complacency induced by the decades-old assumption that some miracle drug will always be available to ensure the continuation of our “antibiotic era”. If we do nothing, we run the risk of inviting a bleak future when infectious diseases will once again reign supreme. Then many of the medical breakthroughs that we now take for granted from routine surgery and organ transplants to intensive care and battlefield medicine might all be threatened.

 

Health reform will close hospitals: Why that may not be a bad idea

Closure-of-The-Queen-Eliz-007

Health reform will close hospitals: Why that may not be a bad idea Robert Pearl is a physician and CEO, The Permanente Medical Group. This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.


A practical example: Cardiac surgery in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley stretches approximately 50 miles from San Jose to San Francisco. Within its boundaries there are 14 hospitals that perform heart surgeries: two academic medical centers, two hospitals that are part of larger health systems and 10 independent community hospitals. Some facilities are located as little as 1 mile apart.

While the operative procedures performed at these facilities are largely the same, their volumes and outcomes vary greatly. The highest-volume facility performed nearly 800 cardiac surgeries in 2011, the last year the State of California released its risk-adjusted data. The lowest performed 57.

Seven of the 14 hospitals performed fewer than 150 heart surgeries and, together, accounted for just 20 percent of the surgeries in Silicon Valley. Not surprisingly, the lower-volume facilities averaged more risk-adjusted deaths. In contrast, the mortality rates for the two highest-volume facilities were about half the hospital average.

Despite averaging less than one surgery a day, the nurses, technicians and other staff at low-volume facilities need to be paid regardless of whether any surgeries are performed.

Mortality_vs_volume_NEJM

Pose this problem to a first year MBA student and the solution would be clear: Close the half of the cardiac surgery programs that did the fewest procedures then watch as the volume and experience in the remaining seven increases, leading to higher quality and lower costs. Moving from less than one surgery per day to an average of three would make a noticeable difference. And using just a fraction of the savings, patients could be picked up at their homes, travel by limousine to the designated facilities and receive free hotel rooms for their families.

The benefits of consolidation apply not only to cardiac surgery but to just about every surgical and medical service.

(…)

Don’t expect hospitals to jump on board quickly

We can predict that the first hospital CEO who suggests closing down a cardiac surgical program will be fired on the spot. The doctors and local community will do everything in their power to stop it from happening.

Consolidating or closing entire hospitals will be even more painful. Regulators would likely intervene. Change will be resisted and delayed.

But if there were fewer hospitals with higher volumes, quality would rise and the overall spend on hospital services would decrease. We should not underestimate how difficult this process will be or how long it may take. But once it is complete, patients will barely miss the old hospital down the street.

Dr. Pearl cited the study Hospital Volume and Surgical Mortality in the United States published in NEJM April 11, 2002.

Lomborg on the declining share of renewables

When green renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, they will take over the world. Instead of believing in the Tooth Fairy, we should start investing in green R&D.

Bjorn Lomborg examines the long perspective on renewable energy trends. I liked this piece because it so concisely summarizes both the engineering and social realities of the popular but tragically expensive/ineffective rush to solar and wind. Bjorn forecasts that, in the next 25 years –  from 2011 to 2035, renewables will only increase by about 1.5%. That means from about 13% to 14.5%. But what does “renewables” actually mean. It doesn’t mean “clean” because nuclear power is excluded. Most people think “renewables” means the politically popular “feel good” solar and wind. In some countries, think Norway, New Zealand or Canada, a large portion of renewables comes from hydro power. But expansion of hydro is severely limited – both by opportunity and by politics. So what “renewables” mostly means is burning stuff:

Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables – about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material – humanity’s oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable.

And in most places “burning stuff” is really bad. That is the nasty, filthy life that the developed world has escaped – but continues to kill the poorest two billion by air pollution, especially indoor air pollution.

Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today. The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than three million people annually. Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture, and push up food prices.

The most renewables-intensive places in the world are also the poorest. Africa gets almost 50% of its energy from renewables, compared to just 8% for the OECD. Even the European OECD countries, at 11.8%, are below the global average.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94% of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

(…snip…) 

The switch to fossil fuels has also had tremendous environmental benefits. Kerosene saved the whales (which had been hunted almost to extinction to provide supposedly “renewable” whale oil for lighting). Coal saved Europe’s forests. With electrification, indoor air pollution, which is much more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, disappeared in most of the developed world.

And there is one environmental benefit that is often overlooked: in 1910, more than 30% of farmland in the United States was used to produce fodder for horses and mules. Tractors and cars eradicated this huge demand on farmland (while ridding cities of manure pollution).

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of CO₂ emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world’s clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26% per year and solar a phenomenal 48%. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038% of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29%. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04%.

There is lots more Lomborg at Project Syndicate.

Felix Salmon: ‘How Money Can Buy Happiness, Wine Edition’

Via John Gruber (emphasis mine):

Felix Salmon:

I, for instance, am absolutely convinced, on an intellectual level, that the whole concept of “super-premium vodka” is basically one big marketing con. Vodka doesn’t taste of anything: that’s the whole point of it. As such the distinction between a super-premium vodka and a premium vodka is entirelyone of price and branding. And yet, it works! The genius of Grey Goose was that it created a whole new category above what always used to be the high end of the vodka market — and in doing so, managed to create genuine happiness among vodka drinkers who spent billions of dollars buying up the super-premium branding. But if someone asks me what kind of vodka I’d like in my martini, I still care, a bit. And if I my drink ends up being made with, say, Tito’s, I’m going to savor it more than I would if I had no idea what vodka was being used.

What’s more, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on first-growth Bordeaux for this to work. You just need to spend a little bit more than you normally do — enough that you consider it to be a special bottle of wine. That’s it! When you sit down and pop it open, probably with people you love, in pleasant surroundings, everything is set for a very happy outcome.