Category: Environment


By Sean Carroll | December 8, 2009 3:12 pm

I keep meaning to write something substantive about the theft of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, but my day job does sometime intervene. (Over six hundred postdoc applications in theoretical physics, but not to worry — only about 400 of them are in areas related to my interests.) There are some good discussions at Time and Foreign Policy, and you can’t poke your nose into the science blogosphere without reading someone’s take on the issue.

My own take is: what in the world is the big deal? Indeed, I would go so far as to ask: what could possibly be the big deal? Most of the noise has simply been nonsensical, focusing on misunderstandings of what scientists mean by the word “trick” and similar deep issues. And some people got upset when a dodgy paper was accepted by a journal, and they discussed giving the journal a cold shoulder. Cry me a river.

But I don’t really want to defend the scientists involved, because I’m not informed enough about who they are and what they did. For all I know, they may be very nasty and unethical human beings. (Actually that’s not true; I know Michael Mann, and he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.) And I see no reason not to do a thorough investigation, and hand out appropriate sanctions if there’s real evidence of wrongdoing.

What baffles me is the idea that this changes the conversation about climate change in any way. This isn’t a case like Jan Hendrik Schon, the rogue physicist who rose to prominence on the basis of falsified data, and was later exposed. The job of monitoring the climate is one that has been taken up by more than just one or two groups of people. There have been thousands of peer-reviewed papers that have provided evidence of global warming. Not to mention common sense; when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has shot up dramatically over the last century, and the temperature has done the same thing, it takes some willful stubbornness to avoid the obvious conclusion. All of the noise we’re hearing about “Climategate” is based on politics, not on science.

And that’s what really puzzles me. I understand the non-scientific motivations of certain climate denialists; in the abstract, they don’t want to accept that the unfettered actions of capitalism can ever have any deleterious effects, and in the concrete, many of them are paid by oil companies. (See this charming “letter to the American Physical Society,” whose handful of signatories includes “Roger Cohen, former Manager, Strategic Planning, ExxonMobil.”) Those are powerful incentives to ignore the evidence.

But what is the incentive on the other side supposed to be? What exactly is the motivation for the nefarious conspiracy of people who are supposedly plotting to mislead the world about global warming? What do the people counting oysters get out of this?

Are there a lot of people out there who think that scientists as a group (since the vast majority of scientists appreciate the problems of global warming) have knee-jerk reactions against technology and industry? Let me propose another motivation for whatever corners the East Anglia group might have contemplated cutting: they’ve seen the data, they know what’s happening to the planet, and they’re terrified of what the consequences might be. They know that the other side is motivated by non-scientific concerns, and they want to fight back as hard as they can, both for the good of humanity and for the integrity of science. There’s no question that scientists can go overboard, pulling the occasional shenanigans in the pursuit of their less lofty goals. (Like, you know, other human beings.) But nobody wants to believe that we’re facing a looming global ecological catastrophe. They believe it because that’s what the data imply.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Science and Politics

Astronomical conflagration?

By Daniel Holz | August 31, 2009 3:07 pm

The mountains surrounding Los Angeles are on fire. One of the world’s largest metropolises has an uncontrolled wildfire at its very doorstep:
The station fire above La Canada. Photo: Wayne Smith, via NYT.
The Mount Wilson Observatory sits in the middle of the San Gabriel Mountains, and is visible on a clear day from many places in the Los Angeles basin. As you walk around Pasadena you can’t help but glance up at the dome, and imagine Hubble diligently performing his observations almost a century ago. By demonstrating that the nebulae aren’t in our galaxy, he ushered in one of the most humbling developments in the history of humanity. He showed that our galaxy is only one of many, and that the Universe stretches well beyond the limits of our familiar Milky Way. And, as if this weren’t insulting enough, he established that the rest of the Universe is running away from us at a tremendous clip.

The fire is now threatening this historic observatory. A live webcam (more commonly used to provide astronomers sky conditions [is it snowing?]) shows the view from the top (it occasionally goes down due to heavy traffic; if it doesn’t load for an extended period it may be a bad sign). Lots of smoke, but no flames at the moment. This is, of course, a chilling reminder of the 2003 fire at Mount Stromlo. You can follow the progress of the fire here. Perhaps our man on the ground will chime in with some live-blogging? Note: Phil is keeping us informed.

As it happens, many communication towers are also found on Mount Wilson. Should the fire sweep across the peak, communications for much of the Los Angeles area may be compromised. No cellphones. No TV. No LAX. Back to the stone age.
downtown LA and mushroom cloud
Although this looks like a still from a Hollywood disaster movie, it is much scarier. This is really happening. It is a sobering reminder that, despite our best efforts, Nature still trumps Man.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, News, Science and Society

Leave Nature Alooooooone

By Sean Carroll | May 28, 2009 3:02 pm

This might be my favorite Atrios post ever:

Exciting Maps With Lots Of Colors

Play around with maps at the H&T Affordability Site. Not very surprisingly, people who live (for example) in the city of Philadelphia drive less and have lower vehicle carbon emissions per household. Though not surprising, there is a weird tendency to equate environmentalism with being near nature when in fact the enviornmentalist thing to do is LEAVE NATURE ALOOOOONE and live a modestly-sized place in an urban hellhole with decent mass transit.

(via the overhead wire)

Though I live car free in my urban hellhole because I don’t need a car and like my urban hellhole, not because of environmental concerns.

Sadly my own carbon footprint is presumably enormous, even though I live in an urban hellhole, because I drive an aspirational vehicle and fly around the world a lot. If I were prone to feeling guilty about things, I’d definitely feel guilty for that. But I make up for it by giving talks in Second Life, so I’m pretty sure everything is balanced.


Ships that Pass in the Day

By Julianne Dalcanton | April 24, 2009 9:47 am

We’ve all become familiar with contrails — the cloud tracks that planes leave as they fly through certain altitudes:


But, did you know that ships apparently do the same thing? (I sure didn’t!)

ship tracks

UW professor of Atmospheric Sciences Cliff Mass (author, and weather blogger) has a nice post up discussing the phenomena. Both contrails and “ship trails” are produced when microparticulates released by combustion serve as seeds for condensation. Over the ocean, the typical droplet size is much smaller in ship exhaust than in the natural cloud cover, producing different reflectivity, leading to high contrast white ship trails. As Cliff discusses, you can imagine the interest that national security agencies might have in this effect….

(EDIT: Actually, it turns out that contrails are primarily due to vapor released during combustion, not nucleation, so the processes are somewhat different.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Science
MORE ABOUT: ship trails

Freeman Thinking

By John Conway | March 29, 2009 8:48 pm

Today’s New York Times magazine had a long feature on Freeman Dyson, loosely based on his skepticism about global warming. Dyson, one of the founders of modern relativistic quantum field theory, is skeptical about a lot of things, as a matter of fact.

Freeman spent two weeks at our department at UC Davis last year, gave a public lecture, a colloquium, and was available for a number of very stimulating conversations. We had lunch with him one day, and pressed him on his taste for smaller, lighter, faster experiments in particle physics, as opposed to the dominant large collider experiments such as those at the LHC, the Tevatron, and LEP. In his kind way, Freeman said it was all fine with him that such things took place, but that he simply preferred the more table-top variety, where the individual experimenter could control the variables and the measurement at hand. I do too, but as the NYT article quoted Weinberg as saying, “get over it!”

Anyway, about global warming. I have to say that my own skeptical streak doesn’t simply cave to the present dominant stream of thought on this issue either. As scientists we need to continue to question all of it. It seems to me that the dominant paradigm can be summarized in a number of straightforward notions:

  • The earth’s climate is in an overall warming trend. The average global surface temperature, and the average surface temperature of the oceans, is increasing.
  • The root cause of the increase in global surface temperature is in large part, or even dominantly, due to the increase of the level of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane in the atmosphere.
  • The dominant source of the excess greenhouse gases is human activity: industry, transportation, agriculture and the like.
  • If the global surface temperature continues to increase, then drastic and devastating consequences will ensue due to the melting of polar ice and the rising of sea levels, desertification of huge swaths of land, increased frequency and intensity of devastating storms, and other effects.
  • By changing our means of energy production and ceasing the use of fossil carbon fuels as soon as possible, there is still a chance that we can evade the above ill effects.

My own skepticism increases linearly as we go down this list. The first two items, that the global surface temperature is increasing, and that it is due to greenhouse gases, seems to be incontrovertible. The extensive measurements and correlations reported by the IPCC are rather hard to refute at this stage. (It is a very great setback for this science that NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed on launch last month, or we would have gotten the mother lode of data on these questions.)

That the dominant source of excess greenhouse gases seems incontrovertible as well, though here the climate models start to differ about the sources and sinks of global CO2, methane, and other gases. And, as the climate changes, not all the models can possibly predict all the outcomes. An example: in 2005, the Amazon experienced a drought which turned the region, with over half the world’s rainforest, from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source.
Was the drought predicted by any (or all) of the models? Was the net effect on carbon predicted?

The best models must combine physics, oceanography, chemistry, and biology all at once. Has it really been done yet? (Enlighten us all, gentle readers, if you know!)

Then the last two: the negative effects. We dwell on these. Clearly ocean levels will rise rapidly in our lifetime if Greenland melts, and it appears to be melting faster than expected by the models.
That would be a bad thing, especially here in the Central Valley of California. My house is 15 meters above sea level, and a lot of the roads around here are lower than that. If Greenland melts, sea level will rise over 7 meters. Well, the Central Valley used to be a sea, and it will be again some day, no doubt. And with so much of the world’s population living so close to the sea, this is a serious, serious concern.

I am less convinced about the severity and frequency of storms with global warming, but my mind is open to being convinced by good science.

Lastly, can we do anything about it? The whole question of whether we’ve reached a “tipping point” seems to be hot right now. The answer lies in the climate models, so let’s keep our skepticism alive here. We don’t understand what causes ice age cold and warm spells. When those are in the models, and we can post-dict the previous glaciations, I’ll start to believe the models. The oceanic thermohaline circulation seems to be key here, but how? What about the Milankovich cycle? Chaotic perturbations in the solar system? Dust lanes in the Milky Way? No one said this would be easy…

And how soon could we wean ourselves from carbon, even if we wanted to? Oil may run out, but there is a crapload of natural gas and coal left to burn. Remember, “drill, baby, drill!” is the same as “burn, baby, burn!” And we have a lot left to burn.

I am not convinced at all that in 10 years we can “Repower America” and eliminate fossil fuels. And the rest of the world certainly won’t. That doesn’t mean we should not try, should not do research into new, non-carbon-based energy sources, expand our use of renewable, clean energy. We should! I am just very skeptical that it could be done even if it became the #1 national priority. It seems to me to violate physics itself, not to mention basic economic facts. Twenty years? Thirty? Eventually it will be clear to every one that we don’t really have a choice.

Sigh…Freeman, what’s the answer?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, News, Science and Society

Cloudy with a Chance of Satellite

By Julianne Dalcanton | February 16, 2009 12:14 pm

From the National Weather Service:

1145 PM EST FRI FEB 13 2009



(h/t Slog)

And I can’t believe I beat Phil “Death from the Skies” Plait to this! Actual Death from the Skies!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Humor

More on the Stimulus

By John Conway | January 27, 2009 4:45 pm

Two weeks ago the US House released their nascent version of the $825 billion stimulus bill, which later passed in committee and was introduced to the House floor yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Senate unveiled its version of the stimulus package, with a much more terse summary. Oddly, the section specifically mentioning science only talks about NSF and NASA:


National Science Foundation (NSF) Research: $1.4 billion in funding for scientific research, infrastructure and competitive grants.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): $1.5 Billion for NASA, including $500 million for Earth science missions to provide critical data about the Earth’s resources and climate.

What about the DOE Office of Science? NIH? NIST? NOAA? I surely hope that the next summary will call out items to the level the House summary did. But, further down, under Energy, we find

$40 billion to the Department of Energy for development of clean, efficient, American

Whoa. Suddenly, the DOE is not your daddy’s Atomic Energy Commission any more! (Or your grand-dad’s Office of Naval Research…) In fact, I winder just how many congresscritters really know the history of the DOE, that its 2008 $24.6 billion budget included

  • – $8.7 billion for energy programs, of which $4.4 billion is for science, and most of the rest is for actual energy projects, and
  • – $15.5 billion for weapons activities, of which $5.4 billion is for nuclear cleanup.

By my calculation, therefore, the non-weapons, non-basic-research part of DOE’s budget is less than 20% of the whole DOE program.

So what will this mysterious $40 billion for in the Senate plan be for? Do they seriously envision giving ten times the present budget to that portion of the DOE and say, “here, invent clean, efficient American energy”. I am going to guess that the “$40 billion” is going to augment the DOE Office of Science programs in basic research by something like the $1.9 billion in the House bill (of which $400 million was specifically tagged for energy research). But what about the other $38 billion?

Anyway it all boggles the mind. No doubt the so-called “Clean Coal” people will be all over this, as will the T. Boone Pickens compressed natural gas types, those who want enormous (and I mean freakin’ enormous – do the math) wind farms and the supporters of first- (ick) and second-generation biofuels. (I say “ick” because corn-based methanol is simply a big waste of resources). To me it seems that that “energy” is clearly the buzzword these days. (It will certainly be in the title of my next proposal, but with “high” in front of it.)

Two main areas of debate and discussion spring to my mind here. Firstly, I think that it is high time to merge the disparate funding agencies which support basic research into a cabinet-level Department of Science, rather than a dozen little agencies. This was discussed (and eventually dismissed) in the early Clinton years, the argument essentially being that “the more spigots the better.”

Secondly, we have the much more difficult question: Where will all this new, efficient, clean American energy actually come from? Presently we have in place systems for nuclear, hydro, solar, fossil, wind, and geothermal. Fossil fuels dominate by far in the US. It is interesting, in fact, to look at the DOE’s Energy Information Agency’s chart of where it all comes from and where it goes (as of 2007):

As you can see we are rather heavily dependent on coal, oil, and gas. I wonder if the average person on the street quite realizes just how deep we are into carbon based energy…

I am all for research into new approaches to energy, but we are going to have to be realistic about the basic underlying physics. And we had better fund basic research in physics in our universities if a new generation of physicists is going to emerge to develop new energy sources, and spend all these taxpayer dollars effectively.

We live in amazing times.

Steven Chu Addresses the National Labs

By John Conway | January 22, 2009 2:20 pm

The new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, addressed the national labs in an all-hands video transmission today. I was not there, but my colleague and friend Rob Roser at Fermilab was there, and sent me a very nice bulleted summary. So, you are getting this second hand, and people who were there can add nuances in the comments, but here goes:

  • Energy is the defining issue of our time.
  • Addressing the environment is the major reason Chu took on this job.
  • These problems provide a tremendous opportunity for the DOE, but it comes with a burden: we can not fail.
  • The DOE is the principal supporter of physical sciences in the US, and the physical sciences are the conernstone of prosperity for the US future.
  • This was part of the message of the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report.
  • The DOE should endeavor to replace the great industrial labs that no longer exist as they once did.
  • The DOE will be the “go to” organization for a multitude of key problems — will depend on all labs to help.
  • The DOE can quite literally “save the world” by developing a sound energy policy going forward, and invent new science that will provide new technologies.
  • Our current use of energy not sustainable — have to move forward.
  • We are facing something society has never been asked to do before: to deal with ominous problems with climate change. If half of the things climate science tells us are half true, we have a huge problem on our hands and the DOE has to work to provide those solutions.
  • The Obama administration is creating a new Energy and Climate Change Council which will serve as a coordinating body including all stake holders in this arena. DOE is first and formost in this but Interior, Agriculture, Treasury and Defense etc. all play a role.
  • The DOE is the science and technology “arm of energy”.
  • There is a core of truly oustanding scientists at the national labs, and these labs have trained many successful scientists.
  • The national labs are “crown jewels that the US doesn’t want to lose”.
  • Restimulation of the economy is #1 on the priority list. DOE will get considerable funds in the stimulus package, not just to get the economy going but to provide a long term path for the US.
  • We can’t be completely overwhelmed by the short term economic woes; we need to still find a path to solve our long term problems. The DOE has to invent transformative technologies that will allow us to get to the next level of energy independence.
  • Chu sees a lot of young and middle age scientists shifting careers to deal with energy, and the DOE is optimistic to capture the best and brightest to work on these issues.

I am truly awed by the vision presented by Chu here, and so hopeful that we can get our country back on a path to long term prosperity by supporting research in the physical sciences. At least half of our present economy relies on the knowledge gained in the 20th century about our physical world…one can only imagine the revolutions to come.

Backyard Nukes?

By John Conway | November 12, 2008 5:56 pm

Miniature nuclear power generator.  Image courtesy Hyperion Power Generation, Inc.I am not sure if this is clean, or it’s green, but at least it doesn’t emit CO2.  The net is full of stories recently about new, miniature self-contain nuclear reactors which supply  25 megawatts of power, when and where you need it.  The technology was developed at Los Alamos National Lab, and is now apparently being commercialized via a company called Hyperion Power Generation, Inc

The miniature power plant  is truck-sized and buried underground for the five years it operates.  HPG says it has no internal moving parts, needs no maintenance, and emits no pollution (though I am guessing there amy be a few neutrons and gamma rays flying around, which is a good reason to bury it; HPG doesn’t talk about this).   After five years, you replace it, like a battery.   

It may be a while before one of these is literally in your back yard, since you probably don’t need 25 megawatts of power, and also because one of the units purportedly costs 25 million dollars.  But for, say, a university like mine which already has its own power substation, it might be quite feasible to install one of these babies underground, and enjoy much cheaper power, selling any excess back to the power company.

But all this kind of set off my inner skeptic…let’s do the math. Present commercial rates for power are about about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. These mini-nukes last five years, putting out 25 MW. My trusty HP-15c tells me that this represents 219 million kilowatt-hours per year, or just over 2 cents per kilowatt hour!  That would be a nice savings. (Note – original post was in error here!)

Then, on the company’s own web site FAQ it ways that each module puts out 25 MW electric power, but 70 MW thermal!  Definitely don’t want that in my back yard – and so does one need a 70 MW cooling tower? Or use the waste heat somehow? This kind of ruins the nice picture of the thing sitting quietly underground while a couple strolls on the surface…70 megawatts is like 30 sticks of dynamite exploding per second.

In addition, of course, anti-nuclear activists will howl in protest: there are the obvious issues of nuclear waste storage (we won’t open Yucca Mountain until at least 2017), uranium mining, terrorism during transport, and more.  

But there may be plenty of applications where this would seem to be a great solution, like remote locations or already secure places with big power needs. In the long run we will need more nuclear power plants to offset carbon emissions.   Maybe this solution is better than giant multi-gigawatt installations?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Saving the Planet, One Search at a Time

By Julianne Dalcanton | February 1, 2008 11:51 am

One of my postdocs has turned me on to The simple idea behind Blackle is that it’s identical to Google, except for the energy efficient black background:


It’s a cute idea, though they should have chosen dark blue and gone for “Bloogle”.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Environment

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