Friday, 28 March 2008

Random Enviro thoughts

Just the other day, I was wondering what had happened to a proposed Plasma Gasificataion process to incinerate garbage. When I first saw this on Daily Planet, I was utterly fascinated. Imagine, an environmentally sound process that burns waste, produces energy and is a self-perpetuating process once started. Sounds like Nirvana, there's no way its real. Right? Well, as in any discovery, the true test of its mettle is if it is successfully deployed. I give you, the City of Ottawa!
Confirming something else I harped about earlier, hydrogen-burning internal-combustion engines are a viable alternative to gasoline powered vehicles. Like any new technology, hurdles must be overcome to make it viable. Though hydrogen is earth's must abundant element, free hydrogen ain't that readily available. So right off the bat, there's a major hurdle. Find a energy efficient means of extracting hydrogen. You don't want to put more energy into the process than you get out, like the tar-sands for example, as it isn't sustainable, efficient or environmentally sound.

Well as illustrated above, we have a not bad means of producing energy, and not that long ago, an efficient method of extracting hydrogen using aluminum catalysts was discovered.

I posted about the issues of a wholesale migration to hydrogen power and how flex fuel IC engines overcome that. But there's another argument in favour of hydrogen IC engines, particularly in light of recent economic woes in the manufacturing sector. We have a whole industry dedicated to making IC powered vehicles. From parts suppliers, to assembly plants, to the automotive mechanic, to back-yard mechanics. That is a lot of knowledge and infrastructure to leverage. Switching from gasoline to hydrogen involves not much more than changing the type of fuel tank. The rest of the vehicle, its assembly and maintenance process, is pretty much the same as before. The second R in the Rs is re-use. Going hydrogen IC re-uses a lot of infrastructure. Think of the impact in energy and waste created to throw that infrastructure out and start over.

And lastly, I'm going to play devil's advocate to a denialist. Lorne Gunter makes the rather startling claim that the earth is not warming, in fact we have evidence that it may be cooling.

Wow.

The basis of his claim is that the recently deployed Argo network of buoys "in five years, ..... have failed to detect any global warming. They are not reinforcing the scientific orthodoxy of the day, namely that man is causing the planet to warm dangerously"

Fire up the SUV mama! Global warmin' ain't happenin' afta all!

Yes, Global Warming, Climate Change et. al. is a theory predicted using models. And you know what? Sometimes the models are wrong. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THE THEORY IS DEAD. It means you have to re-work the models. The theory stays credible, and remains the predominant theory, as long as it is supported by the majority of the evidence collected. And this is where the denialist movement has its problem. They don't understand scientific theory and how to apply it. As a real world example, gravity, scientifically speaking, is still a theory. We don't know what it is or what causes it. But that doesn't mean gravity doesn't exist. We can observe it, measure it, test it and quantify it in many ways. But we still don't know how its created or what perpetuates it. (For any scientist that cringes at my wording, feel free to correct BTW).

So now we have one measurement platform that (according to Lorne) isn't meeting expectations. First off, as Lorne notes but ignores, the Argo network is meant to provide a more accurate means of measuring ocean temperature so "No longer would scientists have to rely on measurements mostly at the surface from older scientific buoys or inconsistent shipboard monitors".

Well that means any data recorded before the Argo network was deployed cannot be included in the findings, as it is inaccurate and inconsistent. So now we have, at most, 5 years worth of recorded data, dating back to the first deployed buoy. The Argo network itself was fully and 100% deployed as of November 2007. In reality, for only for the last 4 months have we been recording temperatures of all the world's oceans. Not a lot of data to go on.

Even the Argo site itself highlights the difficulty of analyzing data from a sparse sample set:

Why do we need Argo?
We are increasingly concerned about global change and its regional impacts. Sea level is rising at an accelerating rate of 3 mm/year, Arctic sea ice cover is shrinking and high latitude areas are warming rapidly. Extreme weather events cause loss of life and enormous burdens on the insurance industry. Globally, 8 of the 10 warmest years since 1860, when instrumental records began, were in the past decade.

These effects are caused by a mixture of long-term climate change and natural variability. Their impacts are in some cases beneficial (lengthened growing seasons, opening of Arctic shipping routes) and in others adverse (increased coastal flooding, severe droughts, more extreme and frequent heat waves and weather events such as severe tropical cyclones).

Understanding (and eventually predicting) changes in both the atmosphere and ocean are needed to guide international actions, to optimize governments’ policies and to shape industrial strategies. To make those predictions we need improved models of climate and of the entire earth system (including socio-economic factors).

Lack of sustained observations of the atmosphere, oceans and land have hindered the development and validation of climate models. An example comes from a recent analysis which concluded that the currents transporting heat northwards in the Atlantic and influencing western European climate had weakened by 30% in the past decade. This result had to be based on just five research measurements spread over 40 years. Was this change part of a trend that might lead to a major change in the Atlantic circulation, or due to natural variability that will reverse in the future, or is it an artifact of the limited observations?

In 1999, to combat this lack of data, an innovative step was taken by scientists to greatly improve the collection of observations inside the ocean through increased sampling of old and new quantities and increased coverage in terms of time and area.


You can tell from reading that, that Lorne is out to lunch in his "critical analysis". He completely ignores why the Argo network was deployed.

Lets recap

  1. Sea level is rising at an accelerating rate of 3 mm/year
  2. Arctic sea ice is shrinking
  3. High Latitudes are warming rapidly
  4. 8 of the top 10 warmest years on record happened in the last decade
  5. etc
  6. etc
  7. etc
In other words, many independent measurable events are all supporting the notion that the climate is changing, but we don't have enough data to accurately model it. The Argo network was setup to fill some of that deficiency. A single 5-year trend on one data gathering network is not enough to invalidate the climate change theory all by itself.

But for sake of argument, turn this around. Say the Argo network is showing that the world's oceans are gradually cooling while the other events continue apace. What does that mean? It isn't obvious, by any stretch of the imagination, that the continual cooling of the oceans would be a good thing!

There are two important words in Climate Change (which is why I prefer it to the misnomer Global Warming). The most important one is CHANGE. Change in our Climate, especially if it is rapid, is unlikely to be a good thing. But we won't know, and we won't be able to plan for what is changing, if we don't measure that change. If we have any hope of adapting, it makes sense to look forward to see what's coming, does it not?

Lastly, if this measurement were so significant, given that its a worldwide project with international support, wouldn't it be all over the Internet? Hmmm. 5 "news" stories. And they all reference either directly, or obliquely, the "U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) interview with Josh Willis at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a scientist who keeps close watch on the Argo findings."

So this conclusion is reached based on a single interview with a rocket scientist, "
who keeps close watch on the Argo findings". I didn't know oceanography and climatology were part and parcel of rocket research. I wait for the day when the shuttle will be powered by Humpback Whale recordings.

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