Monday, April 25, 2005

defrosting global warming

I tend to believe that humanity is going to burn every scrap of carbon they can get their paws on, and thus depletion is a boon – forcing humans to deal with the global carbon cycle now, for the better or the worse. I’ve spent a fair amount of personal energy trying to take a fair look at the alternatives.

Of the high energy alternatives, nuclear won’t be able to fill the gap – it has immense startup and cleanup capital costs. Ethanol is clownish on a large scale. Methane hydrates are not proven as a recoverable energy source (and of course – just more carbon or direct greenhouse gas in the form of methane).

Leaving us with efficiency and conservation, and technology that can be applied to same. Wind, water and solar will fill local gaps.

This may be enough; after all, 66% of today’s oil should exist in 2030. So the world won’t enjoy cut rate goods shipped across the world any more. So what? Who gives a sheep dip about the global economy? Local wine is as good as any. Bring on the depression.

That is all well and good, but what about ongoing climate change? Kind of a wildcard, given sunk carbon costs, and increasingly, a scary one. James Inhofe (Senator, Ok.) can brandish fiction footnoted to Ann Coulter’s exacting standards, even place it in the congressional record, but it don’t dent reality. Glaciers are shrinking, the oceans are acidic, the thermohaline circulation is flickering, spring is encroaching on winter, and the arctic tundra is defrosting.

The tundra, then.

The Climate of Man – I
One of the risks of rising temperatures is that this storage process can start to run in reverse. Under the right conditions, organic material that has been frozen for millennia will break down, giving off carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas. In parts of the Arctic, this is already happening.
No one knows exactly how much carbon is stored in the world’s permafrost, but estimates run as high as four hundred and fifty billion metric tons.

Add to that the decreasing albedo of the Arctic:

“Not only is the albedo of the snow-covered ice high; it’s the highest of anything we find on earth,” he went on. “And not only is the albedo of water low; it’s pretty much as low as anything you can find on earth. So what you’re doing is you’re replacing the best reflector with the worst reflector.”

Houston, there is a problem. Really, it is all happening too quickly; half of the currently interred oil and gas is waiting to be produced and burned (that is excluding methane hydrates) and a heap of coal to boot.

The unspeakable possibility, while speculative in particulars, is that humanity may have already front loaded the globe with enough greenhouse gases to pulse out all the carbon dioxide and methane in the arctic tundra, which in turn may be enough to raise the temperature of the oceans enough to disturb the methane hydrates.

Something bad could happen, something like this.

The behavior of humankind seems genocidal, er, omnicidal.


At 12:48 PM, April 28, 2005, Anonymous Ken said...

"Of the high energy alternatives, nuclear won’t be able to fill the gap – it has immense startup and cleanup capital costs."

Well, yeah, if we keep the current hyperparanoid rules in place. I think that keeping our sputtering drive to the stars from stalling out completely is far more important than whether some spot in the desert is going to be contaminated 1000 years from now. If the whole planet's population isn't a minority of the human race in 1000 years, we'll have much bigger problems than whether some patch of desert is slightly less hospitable to humans than the rest of the desert...

At 5:55 PM, April 28, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Hey, I dream about the Stars. My grandfather worked on NERVA.

The problem I see with nuclear energy is that while regulatory concerns do add to the cost, it is a myth that "eliminating" them will lead to a more efficient nuclear infrastructure.

Capital costs are tremendous, particarly if one is betting on nuclear to replace liquid fuel, presumably vis a vis hydrogen.

I am pragmatic enough to think that we will build 50 new nukes or so in the next twenty years in the United States. Yeah, we'll solve the waste problem, when the continental US subducts.

100 gigawatts.

Won't make a dent in replacing lost liquid fuels. Ignoring sunk costs, if we somehow start producing energy from all those plants effeciently as liquid fuels, the energy total adds up to about 3% of current liquid fuel use in the U.S.

At 7:01 AM, April 29, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

100 gigawatts is enough to replace more than half of all fuel used for road vehicles in the USA.  (Or it is if you feed it to batteries; playing games with hydrogen would probably reduce it quite a bit.)

If pebble-bed HTGR's can be built for $1000/kWe, building that capacity would cost less than the Iraq war so far.  If you are willing to get creative with siting, you can use nuclear energy to replace heating fuel as well as electric generation fuel.

This is as close to a panacea as you're going to find.


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