Moving past predictions and towards robustness

Our climate future, much like our economic future, is very uncertain. This is something that we can all agree on, even the skeptics. Climate models typically input the entire globe, where interactions and feed backs are so complex that we can never promise any future condition with confidence. What is well known is the tendency of our climate system to be variable and change over time, even without increasing ambient temperatures. This is why experts are now suggesting that we move past arguing about scenarios and predictions and move toward preparing for variability and extremes (Hallegatte, 2009). Instead of planning around a given climate scenario, we should plan robustly for resiliency. Continue reading

Nuclear energy, a climate change solution?

 Last week I was fortunate to see a preview of Pandora’s Promise, a documentary on nuclear energy coming out in 2013, followed by a discussion with the filmaker, Robert Stone. His film looks at various scientists and environmentalists who have recently accepted nuclear power as a viable answer to climate change and increasing world energy demand. Prior to this event, I had done some reading on new nuclear technologies in the peer-reviewed literature that shook my worldview. 

There are many reasons to be anti-nuclear power: we don’t know what to do with the waste, nuclear weapon proliferation is too risky, meltdowns are too real, it’s too expensive… For years, these claims convinced me that nuclear was not the way to go, not even worth considering. But then I thought about the relative risks of nuclear. When considered next to renewables, it is hard to see nuclear as clean or safe, but what about fossil fuels?

Thermal energy (oil, coal and gas) currently makes up most of the world’s base-load electricity. These resources fit the bill for large-scale generation: plentiful, dependable and cheap. I’m a big believer in the potential of renewable energy, but we have yet to rely on it for our base-load energy supply. This will require breakthroughs in battery and energy storage technologies, or enormous smart-grid infrastructure like green power superhighways. Is large-scale development of these technologies really viable for both developed and developing countries in the short-term?

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Growing certainty of link between hydrofracking and earthquakes in the US

I was shocked last August when my friend told me that an earthquake shook his office building in Dutchess County, NY. It was yet another strange event to place alongside hurricane Irene and the blizzard in October. The earthquake made me think of something- have you ever considered the possibility of a link between earthquakes and oil and gas extraction? Well, it turns out that the US Geological Survey has. According to a recent study, mid-continent earthquake occurrence (magnitude 3 and greater) increased six-fold between 2001 and 2011 compared to the 20th century average. The report almost certainly link this increase to anthropogenic causes, pointing to changes in extraction method, ie. the use of hydrofracking. We don’t have too much information now, so keep your eye out for the proceeding full report.

Here’s the abstract of the report.

Here’s the article from the New York Times.

Was Hubbert all wrong??

By Libby Murphy

Perhaps the world is not at Peak Oil. We may still have a long way to go. That is the good and bad news of Bloomberg’s recent article titled Everything You Know About Peak Oil is Wrong.

            In college I took a seminar called “Oil”. We studied all aspects of the stuff- from the geology to the politics. We learned how John D. Rockefeller set the standards for modern capitalism through his ruthless pursuit of developing the world’s largest oil company. We spent a while studying the idea of Peak Oil.  At the time it was still a somewhat little known theory outside of the industry but has since entered the general lexicon.

        In the 1950’s, Marion King Hubbert first introduced the idea that fossil fuel production follows the shape of a bell curve. Production starts out small and then increases as demand and technology develops until it hits a peak and declines. Using this theory he correctly predicted US oil production to peak around 1970. The theory was extrapolated by Colin Cambpell who predicted a world oil production peak around 2008-2010. This estimate has been a topic of much debate. Around the time of expected peak, many regions, including the US, did witness a telling sign of Peak Oil known as the Bumpy Plateau. See, the curve of oil production does not always follow a smooth peak but rather a period of jagged ups and downs. This is thanks to the inverse relationship between demand and price: when prices go up, demand goes down, which spurs prices to drop again and demand to then increase. The cycle continues.

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Climate change, explained.

By Libby Murphy

Variability is a natural part of Earth’s intricate climate system. The planet has endured periods of warmth and glaciation alike in its some 4.5 billion year history. Shifts in climate can be traced back to a variety of natural events and trends, Earth’s rotation, solar irradiance, volcanic activity and more. Currently we are in a period of warming, the rapidity of which is unprecedented, unlike anything we have witnessed or have evidence of in the past. This global warming trend is abundantly clear, measurable and rarely disputed. What is debated, however, are the cause and affect of this warming. There is a strong consensus among the scientific community that this rapid warming is human induced. More specifically, that it is a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. To many people, however, this conclusion is not as evident or logical. The argument to support global warming ranges from a couple of fundamental concepts, the greenhouse effect and the carbon cycle, to key evidence connecting human activity to warming temperatures. An understanding of these issues is necessary to wrap one’s mind around the current global warming scenario. This paper intends to present these arguments in a manner more approachable to a non-specialist and will conclude with a framework for which to look toward the future and make key decisions regarding this issue, if you so desire.

Many fuels, including oil, wood, biomass, coal are made up almost entirely of carbon. When we burn these fuels, carbon reacts with oxygen to create carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is in gas form so it rises and settles in the atmosphere. The physical tendency of atmospheric carbon dioxide is to absorb and reradiate energy, effectively creating an insolating blanket around the planet. This in turn leads to warming on the Earth’s surface known as the greenhouse effect. This is the cause of global warming and can be measured in the steady rise of global mean temperature. Other greenhouse gases include methane, CFCs, water vapor and more. Currently, there is a large amount of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human industrial activity, most significantly carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion.

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The US’s first commercial tidal permit has been granted

A historic moment for tidal power in the US. Thank you, FERC, for issuing the first commercial license to a tidal power project. The lucky permit holder is Verdant Power. However, it is not really a question of luck but rather hard work. The company has been building its turbine design and East River project site for years. They first installed turbines at this site in 2002, 10 years ago. The turbines got mangled by the fierce tides so the company has been improving its design since then. The 1 Megawatt project is expected to sell enough energy to Con Edison to power almost 1,000 nearby homes. The first 5 turbines are expected to enter the water in late 2013. The renewable energy world will eagerly await the environmental results of this system, which I’m sure will influence the policy and regulation issues faced by future tidal companies.

Energy Turbines May Be Spinning in New York’s East River by 2013 (Bloomberg)