Friday, March 28, 2008

I didn't mean to start making sense

So I commented on the canadian Ice Seal hunt. I wasn't expecting agreement. Go figure.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ocean Iron Fertilization - the next big . . . ?

Recently at the Intersection, Chris Money reported on current efforts to get permission for iron fertilization of the ocean. He was using this specific example to spark a larger debate about the efficacy of geoengineering – essentially human manipulation of Earth systems to meet human needs and “right” human wrongs. As a science fiction fan, I'm very familiar with geoengineering's close cousin terra forming. I understand the processes very well, and I'm actually intrigued by any such activity.

Now, a disclaimer – I work for one of the federal agencies that are considering whether to permit this scheme. I don’t work in the office handling it, nor have I seen the application. I have read a lot of scientific, peer reviewed literature on ocean iron fertilization, and I have encountered a number of views on the subject. So what I’m about to write is NOT the official position of any government agency I am or have worked for. It’s my own synthesis. Period.

The idea behind ocean iron fertilization is that iron is a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton in the ocean. That means the microscopic plants that live in the first few inches of the ocean can’t grow because there isn’t enough iron for them to grow from. Iron, along with nitrogen and phosphorous, is a key fertilizer for all plants, and an iron deficiency can in fact limit plant growth. So the idea is to add a lot of elemental iron to several open ocean spots to cause huge phytoplankton blooms. The proponents of this idea say the big blooms will soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus lowering levels of a significant green house/ climate change inducing gas.

As a scientist, I have to ask – what is the science behind this? Are there peer reviewed studies that argue for or against the idea? And are there existing examples of similar activities that might guide an analysis of this idea?

There is lots of literature on Ocean Iron Fertilization. What seems to be missing from these analyses, however, is reference to unintentional but persistent existing ocean features that might mimic this process, and can offer what I think are significant insights.

Every year, the Northern Gulf of Mexico goes, biologically, dead. This death is due to a significant load of nutrients – including phosphorous, nitrogen and iron – washing down the Mississippi River each spring. Since the Mighty Muddy drain about 2/3rds of the nation, it’s no wonder it would have a huge nutrient load when it exits the continental US at Venice, Louisiana. The Gulf Dead zone was first documented in 1972, and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) has lead research on it every since.

The Gulf Dead Zone reaches between 6,000 and 7,000 square miles per year. It results when all the nutrients power a huge phytoplankton bloom. Once the plankton run of food, they begin to die, sinking to the bottom. On the way down, and on the bottom, they cause serious oxygen depletion as they decompose. This hypoxic zone has periodic fish kills, and all sorts of marine animals are known to run from it, literally for their lives. And sadly, while the Northern Gulf Dead Zone is the largest, it’s not the only one.

So what does this mean for ocean iron fertilization? I think it means we need to proceed with extreme caution. If run-off fed blooms can pull oxygen out of the water on the continental shelf and continental slope, what will an iron created bloom do to open ocean ecology? Will the cost to marine life through out the water column be worth the pay off in carbon dioxide reduction? And should we really alter natural phytoplankton systems because our modern economy won’t (yet) adjust to a more carbon limited model?

My own gut tells me we’ve done enough damage to the Earth already. I don’t think there needs to be a large scale ocean iron fertilization action. But I’m still open to the science, and if there are good, peer-reviewed papers that show how this might actually work, and what the water column impacts would be – I would be open to where that science led me.

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP

Arthur C Clarke, best known for his 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the series it spawned, died yesterday at the age of 90 in his home in Sri Lanka. In writing about the self-aware HAL computer, and about all the things good and bad the humans might do to their futures, Clarke was both prescient - he predicted wireless communications – and a harbinger of serious warnings. Yet as a person, as a man, he was one of the nicest most engaging people you will ever meet.

Over at the Intersection, Chris Mooney wrote yesterday about ocean iron fertilization. I had planned a post to talk about that subject – it’s the sort of futuristic humans attempt yet again to control their environment thing that Clarke would have loved to weave into a book – but with Mr. Clarke’s passing, I thought instead I’d commemorate his life by telling you what very little I learned about the man over dinner.

You see, while Mr. Clarke had the fabulous home in Sri Lanka and spent a lot of time there, in the 1990’s he also had a winter home in St. Petersburg, FL in the same retirement community that my late paternal grandparents lived in. Every winter, he’d come state-side for several months, and spend his days writing, dropping in on literary classes at Eckerd College, and hosting weekly dinners in the center’s dining room for fellow residents. Somewhere along the way, he made the acquaintance of my grandfather, a retired Presbyterian pastor, and so periodically he and my grandmother would get invited to dinner.

I was fortunate enough, being an Eckerd Student and then St. Petersburg resident, to attend one such feast. Mr. Clarke was as casual, as open, as any person I’ve ever encountered. As I recall dinner lasted about 4 hours, mostly because Mr. Clarke wanted to know each person he was dinning with. His questions, and thus our discussion, ranged all over, but what most fascinated him was the daily things we all did –whether the latest correspondence from a grandchild, the latest vacation, or one’s opinion on events of the day, Mr. Clarke had that knack of listening to you, really listening, and then weaving your story back into the conversation for the group as a whole. He was, or appeared to be, particularly fascinated with my studies and interests in oceanography, and for a lay person, was well read in the current issues in our field at the time. I would have loved to have had more such dinners.

So here’s to a great Author. Arthur C. Clarke was one of a kind, and both the science Fiction world and the real world have lost one of the good ones.

Friday, March 14, 2008

There's a war brewing, but it may not involve guns (or butter)

One of the advantages of living in the Nation's Capitol is that one can attend all sorts of intellectual happenings. You can see plays at the Kennedy Center (from PBS to your reality). You can hear just about any kind of music you want - I'm personally looking forward to the Japanese Tycho (sic) drums that will soon be a part of the Cherry Blossom Festival. You can go to the National Archives to learn about our past, and you can go to Politics and Prose to be regaled by the latest authors.

If you look hard enough, you can also find some really cutting edge science. I did so today, and while the title of the seminar might not appeal to the masses, it turned out that the talk was an evolutionary eye opener.

Delivered by Daniel Brooks from the University of Toronto, today's examination of marine parasites and their relationships to their hosts turned on a concept that parasites, and by extension other disease organisms, are really ecological specialists. They occupy specific micro-habitats, BUT they have the ability to exploit sort of similar micro-habitats in many related organisms. From that understanding, Brook lead us to examine, if this is true, how disease prevention and containment is not the best approach to emerging infectious diseases. He argues that we need to be looking at the micro-habitats and the organisms a host is related to in order to see what the next disease pathway might be.

Phew. I'm a fisheries oceanographer, so diseases and parasites hurt my brain ( and my eyes against the microscope). But the bonus - the reason I loved this talk so much - is what Dr. Brooks had to say about why humans don't follow this better pathway to elucidating emerging diseases.

His central thesis, drawing from paleontology, psychology, ethnobotony, and a whole host of other seemingly unrelated disciplines, is that humans can't take the complexity so we fail to act in the best possible way. He called it the "if you can't analyze complex patterns you are lunch" hypothesis. Basically, humans have evolved complex abilities to intuitively understand complex natural patterns and information. Yet at the same time, our ancestors learned to simplify complex interactions, so we didn't end up at the same watering hole as the jaguar at the same time. Basically, we have the amazing ability to both perceive complex richness in our surroundings, and deny the very existence of complexity because it makes decision making too hard. Hopefully I have that right.

How might this idea play out in modern human actions? Well, it might play out in denying that climate changes we observe are really caused by Green House Gas emissions. It might play out in launching war in a country whose history and ethnology you fail to understand because your ideology says the occupants of the country will switch to your ideology if you "liberate"them. It might play out in asserting that fathers are critical to children's development while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that modern divorce laws are designed to alienate fathers from the beginning.

In other words, the human capacity to deny the seemingly obvious is likely an evolutionarily hardwired trait. So we have to work, really hard, to overcome it. The war, which is already here, is really about which part of the brain, the denying part or the pattern recognizing part, will lead humanity into the future. I'm rooting for the pattern part.

Solar Energy - Not the mythical beast afterall?

These days there is a hot debate going on as to whether the human contributions to global warming can be reversed, or even slowed, by employing alternative energy technologies. On the one side, those who deny humans have any impact on global climate thus say there should be no concerted effort to change our energy sources. Even staunch supporters of human induced global climate change fear that there isn’t enough alternative energy to meet our needs.

What neither side has done, which irks the scientist in me, is a study on generating capacity of any of the alternatives. Everyone just assumes that if we switch to anything other then coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear, our economy will tank and our energy supplies will go down. These impacts will lead, they all agree, to a lowered standard of living.

So I did a simple study tonight that should point to a different answer. First, I looked up the area around my office on Google Earth. Essentially I created a viewscape in two dimensions that runs about ¼ mile or so out from the building. It’s really what I see out my window. Zoomed in enough, one can count individual buildings, and differentiate the residential structures from the commercial ones. With the proliferation of condominium buildings around the Washington DC area this calculation gets a bit difficult, but once I had an image I liked, I just called the condos commercial buildings to make the math easier.

Then I got out the multicolored crayon pack and colored the residences one color, and the commercial buildings another. Then I counted them – twice. I got 181 houses and 114 commercial buildings.

Now, the math gets a bit tricky. Assuming the residences had solar systems that generate 2 kilowatts (kW) and the commercial buildings averaged 5kW each (they would probably do more, especially the high rises with large roofs), these 295 buildings can generate at least 932kW at one time from roof mounted Photovoltaic (PV) systems. That’s 932kW each day, for anywhere between 6 and 10 hours a day, 365 days a year.

How does this help meet our energy needs – and reduce anthropogenic global warming? Simple really. The US Department of Energy estimates that in 2006, the US had a peak demand of 706, 108 megawatts (mW). So the few buildings I counted generate nearly 1 mW, thus reducing our nations energy needs measurably. Imagine what would happen if we expanded this to include, say, the 1500 federal buildings owned by the General Services Administration? What if those buildings had enough PV on the roof to reduce their daytime load by 30% on weekdays – when they are occupied – and they actually put hundreds of kW into the grid on weekends? Even better, what if every building in the DC area had the maximum PV system its structure could handle? Where would that put us for electricity generation? I don’t have the numbers, but I bet some enterprising engineering student hopped up on Jolt cola (or Red Bull) could figure it out.

Now I admit, the energy savings these PV systems create cease once the sun goes down, and that is a problem. Still, if we burn significantly fewer hydrocarbons during the day to make our computers runs, keep our coffee pots warm, and make sure our laundry gets cleaned, the fewer total hydrocarbons we have to burn period. I’ll admit that current thinking suggest that major reductions now may not take effect for many years, but why should that stop us?

My point in all this fuzzy math is this – we can say it can’t be done. We can say there isn’t enough capacity. We can say it’s too expensive. Those are easy statements to make when you haven’t taken the time to find out if it is possible. Unfortunately, our climate, our ecosystems, and our economy can’t wait for us to exhaust the excuses and then decide we should see if it is possible. After all, if Americans had taken a similar attitude in the 1950’s and 1960’s Neil Armstrong would never have set foot on the moon; August Picard would never have plumbed the depths of the Marianas trench; America would never have passed the Civil Rights Act and begun to rid our nation of the scourge of racism. But you are all probably right – switching to alternative energy sources probably won’t help us solve the problem.