Sunday, August 14, 2022
Sunday, August 07, 2022
I visited Death Valley in August 2008 shortly after rare, plentiful rains (at least by Death Valley standards) had turned one of the Earth's hottest and driest places into a riot of yellow, blue, red and pink color as wildflowers bloomed across the valley. The day I visited was a clear one and not at all unusual for Death Valley at that time of year. When at midday we tourists climbed off the air-conditioned bus, it felt as if I had just stepped into a pre-heated oven. It was 112 degrees F.
I had no thoughts of climate change that day. This was just the way Death Valley was and had been for a very long time. However, reading about recent heavy rains in Death Valley twice in the last week—rains so heavy that they trapped automobiles and closed roads due to mud and debris—I took note that in a place where dryness and heat are normal, water suddenly became a dangerous hazard, one that resulted in the closing of all roads in and out of the national park that comprises Death Valley. (Something similar happened in nearby Las Vegas, Nevada the week before as water flooded streets and gushed through roofs flooding casinos and frightening visitors. This in a city that gets less than 5 inches of rain a year.)
Drought has been getting almost all the media coverage in the American Southwest. That's in part because the drought story persists over long periods and becomes a story whenever fear of water restrictions or actual restrictions surface or when it looks like rain might bring relief.
Sunday, July 31, 2022
More than a century ago two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, perfected a technique for taking nitrogen from air and combining it with hydrogen to make ammonia, now widely used to make nitrogen fertilizers. What came to be known as the Haber-Bosch process unleashed a revolution in crop yields which were no longer limited by natural inputs of nitrogen.
So important is this process to crop yields that it is estimated that without it half the people alive today would starve. If the worldwide application of nitrogen fertilizers had no adverse consequences, there would be no problem continuing business-as-usual. But the consequences have become worrisome:
- Increasing algal blooms fed by nitrogen runoff in waters around the world are killing aquatic life and endangering humans who wade or swim into such waters. This is the cause of so-called "red tides" and also of the famous "dead zones" at the end of some of the world's largest rivers.
- Nitrogen fertilizers stimulate microbes in the soil thereby increasing their conversion of nitrogen to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Those fertilizers are responsible for a dramatic rise in nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. This gas is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide and methane.
- The imbalances and blooms caused by nitrogen fertilizers are threatening many species and thus the planet's biodiversity.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Climate change deniers have had to adjust their story in recent years as the effects of climate change have become more and more apparent to people where they live all around the world. The first iteration was that climate change is good. It will make winters milder and it will help "fertilize" crops with additional carbon dioxide which all plants need to manufacture the food they live on.
While the "greening" effect of rising carbon dioxide concentrations is real, there is a limit to how much it will help plants. As for milder winters, they may be good for some and worse for others. Where they result in diminished snows in critical watersheds such as the Himalayas and the Alps, the effect can be diminished water supplies, particularly at crucial times in summer when mountain snowmelt can stabilize flows in key streams and rivers that might otherwise be very low so that they can provide irrigation water and water for human consumption.
So, now the deniers argue that we can just adapt. This is, of course, the path of least resistance since it requires no major changes in business-as-usual. Let's see how that's working out.
Sunday, July 17, 2022
It's hard to say that three years makes a trend. But one of the world's major energy consulting firms has lowered its estimate of world oil reserves for three years in a row now.
Rystad Energy provides a publicly available analysis of world oil reserves each year. In 2020 Rystad wrote that "the world’s recoverable oil [dropped] by around 282 billion barrels." That represented a 12.9 percent decline in just one year. In 2021 the firm stated its analysis showed that recoverable resources declined by another 178 billion barrels or about 9.4 percent. Rystad said the decline was due in part to new modelling based on resources "at well level rather than field level." The closer Rystad looked, the less oil there seemed to be.
In 2022 Rystad noted yet another decline of almost 9 percent in its press release headline. Recoverable oil resources dropped another 152 billion barrels. (For all estimates Rystad uses figures for crude oil and lease condensate which is the accepted definition of oil.)
Sunday, July 10, 2022
Half of all the oil consumed since the dawn of the modern oil age in 1859 has been consumed from 1998 through 2021 inclusive based on data available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Approximately 1.4 trillion barrels of oil is thought to have been consumed to date (though there are estimates as low as 1.1 trillion). That means that in just the last 24 years total historical oil consumption has doubled.
It is hard for most people to imagine the vast increases in the rate of consumption of practically everything that makes modern life possible. Resources appear without most of us ever thinking about how or whether the rising rates of consumption can be sustained.
For copper, one of the critical metals we depend on for electrical, mechanical and even monetary purposes, the story is similar. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that about 700 million metric tons of copper have been extracted to date. Based on mining statistics from the Copper Development Association, that means about half of all the copper ever mined has been mined from the year 2000 through 2018 inclusive.
Could we double total oil and copper consumption again in the next 24 and 19 years, respectively?
Sunday, July 03, 2022
Sunday, June 26, 2022
An obscure federal commission created by the U.S. Congress issued a report in May suggesting that genetically engineered crops (often referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOs) could become a new battlefront with China and not in the commercial sense. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in a staff research report that "Beijing could easily hack the code or DNA of U.S. GM [genetically modified] seeds and conduct biowarfare by creating some type of blight that could destroy U.S. crops."
The report said that while GMO crops are designed to resist naturally occurring crop diseases, the Chinese could create a genetically engineered fungus or other disease that targets the type of crops grown widely in the United States.
The writer of the report understands precisely why such an attack might work:
[A] virus or fungus engineered to kill a GM plant could wipe out an entire crop with no genetic variation to mitigate the losses. In a natural crop, a variety of DNA traits in the field could mitigate some losses and ensure some of the plants survive the viral or fungal infection.
Sunday, June 19, 2022
The U.S. oil and natural gas industry long fought for and in the last decade finally won release from federal restrictions that limited exports. The ostensible reason was that because of the so-called "shale revolution" in the country's oil and gas fields, the United States would have plenty of oil and gas to spare for export.
The real reason behind the push was that the oil and gas industry wanted what almost every other industry in American already had: The right to sell their products to the highest bidders no matter where they lived on the globe.
This made it almost certain that as U.S. prices rose to match world prices, U.S. consumers would feel the pain. And, since energy prices affect everyone who votes, they are always politically consequential.
So, it is unsurprising that with U.S. regular gasoline prices over $5 per gallon President Joe Biden lashed out at U.S. oil companies—which are having one of their best years ever—saying they need to increase production of refined oil products. The companies have responded that their refineries are running at close to maximum capacity and so there is not much they can do in the short run.
Sunday, June 12, 2022
Scientists thought they could make hamsters more cooperative by editing out a gene for a receptor that, when activated by a particular hormone hamsters produce, causes more aggression. Essentially, they made the hamsters immune to the aggression-promoting hormone expecting the hamsters to become more cooperative.
But just the opposite happened. Both male and female hamsters with the altered gene became more aggressive—much more aggressive.
There are several problems with the reductionist thinking that resulted in this experiment. First, behavior is exceedingly complex. We describe and define it using words which have multiple and ambiguous meanings. Those words need to be understood in a larger context. And, even when they are, those words still only point to meaning in our environment and inner experience. They are not the thing itself.