Archive for January, 2011

Warm Arctic, Cold Continents

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

For the first time ever, the annual New Year’s day snowmobile parade at Iqaluit had to be cancelled this year: record high temperatures, rain, and lack of suitable ice made it impossible.

Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, is targeted for considerable growth as the Arctic melts, and the Northwest Passage opens up.

Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut, in southern Baffin Island on Frobisher Bay, a little south of the Arctic Circle. This week, at the end of January, the weather there is as frigid as it should be this time of year – high temperatures around -25 degrees Centigrade, lows around -40. But until a couple of weeks ago, winter still hadn’t started. Temperatures were 10-20 degrees above normal, rain fell instead of snow, and Frobisher Bay had yet to freeze.

Frobisher Bay in early January should be covered by thick ice

Despite the winter weather that has clobbered those of us living in the mid latitudes south of the Arctic, the Arctic continues to get warmer, much more rapidly than the models predicted even a few years ago.

Temperatures over North America have changed. This year, as of Jan 9, they are much below normal (blues) in the mid latitudes, and much warmer than usual in the polar region (browns) (earthobservaroy.nasa.gov)

How does this affect our atmosphere? In the past, the jet stream encircled the cold polar air mass, preventing it from leaking south to the mid latitudes that it has molested this winter, as it did last winter. The jet stream is usually kept in place by the pressure differences between the cold polar air mass and the relatively warmer air of the mid latitudes.

The way it oughta be: the jet stream keeps the cold air in Canada (acer-acre.org)

But with a warmer air mass over the pole, the pressure differences are not as great, and the jet stream has weakened. Huge tongues of cold air have leaked south, and at times unexpectedly warm air has seeped into the Arctic. Climatologists have labelled this the Warm Arctic-Cold Continent condition.

The Arctic Oscillation isn't new, but the polar air mass is likely to remain warm indefinitely (nidc.org)

We should have known this was going to get complicated. Disruption of global weather patterns as the Arctic continues to warm of course was expected, but that disruption may be more violent and variable than anyone conceived. How can we have some of the hottest and fire infested months in the same year a winter like this one occurs?

It’s true that it remains difficult to be certain about cause and effect relationships between global warming and all the severe climate changes we are experiencing. But what we can be certain of is that the Arctic is warming rapidly, and that atmospheric and oceanic circulation will be disrupted as a result.

How great will that disruption become? Of course we don’t know. However, we do know that the human and economic costs of coping with severe weather events will continue to increase. Our energy will go increasingly into never ending efforts to recover from droughts, fires, floods, snow storms, ice storms, monsoons and hurricanes.

In hopes of mitigating those costs, anything that reduces the magnitude of climate warming is worth considering. Despite the other issues plaguing us all, the need for action on climate change is greater than ever. Meanwhile, in his conciliatory State of the Union speech a few days ago, President Obama did not once mention climate change.

We have a growing sense of what’s ahead. Good luck to us.

Oil from Bacteria

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

There is new player in town, and it is a very interesting one.

Joule Unlimited is engineering bacteria species, including E.coli and species of cyanobacteria, to produce liquid hydrocarbons such as diesel fuel and ethanol. The bacteria utilize only CO2 and sunlight, and excrete hydrocarbons, so the process is a modified photosynthesis.

The entire process – from bacterial engineering to engineering the exposure to CO2, providing the water, collecting the hydrocarbons and separating them from the water, and then delivering the hydrocarbons – all remains very secret. What does it actually look like? The few pictures offered suggest an automated process that involves panels exposed to the sun, where the bacteria are exposed to high levels of CO2 and bathed in water.

The one picture available of the process reveals little (jouleunlimited.com)

Atmospheric levels of CO2 are too low as a carbon source for the bacteria, but waste levels produced at coal and natural gas power plants are just right. What else? Water is needed, and a lot of it. But apparently it need not just be fresh water – brackish and salt water will work as well.

Just as critically, the process is apparently efficient enough that the product should sell for about $30/barrel, competitive with the price of oil at the very best of times, let alone the $100 per barrel we now face.

Joule Unlimited, centered in Cambridge, Mass, describes what it has developed as a single step process to energy independence, unlimited fuel, total sustainability, all of it very scalable. Really quite an extraordinary claim. There is a growing sense that it may be real, and not just another fantasy.

The stakes are, of course, very high.

Sustainable oil production is the aim of other efforts to produce biofuels from corn and other crops, but this bacterial process involves no crops or cropland, leaving agricultural land available for growing food again instead. Using most, perhaps 90%, of the waste CO2 from power plants is obviously very attractive. Eliminating the need to explore for oil offshore oil and gas in increasingly risky deep water and Arctic regions would be an astounding development. It could even be an alternative in Canada to the environmental catastrophe of the Alberta tar sands exploitation – now there’s a dream worth dreaming.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, engineered to excrete hydrocarbons (jouleunlimited.com)

It still produces fuels whose burning returns CO2 to the atmosphere, and it doesn’t reduce our dependency on carbon-based fuels. It also doesn’t eliminate the need to exploit viable alternatives to carbon-based fuels, or to find more ways to conserve our use of energy. But it reduces some of the damage, and it buys us time.

Part of the excitement about this process is that it can be set up, at any scale, anywhere. This is, as they say, ‘game changing’.

A pilot effort is now underway in Leander,Texas, chosen for high levels of solar energy and a suitable source of CO2, and built on non-agricultural land. The first commercial product should be available in 2012, so we’ll know soon.

Can it all really be true? It sounds so good.

Search the Internet, see what you can find – I haven’t found anything yet that indicates that this is just another fantasy. Of course there are the usual skeptics, but their skepticism is as yet uninformed.

We can use some hope just now, in these fraught times.