Monday, December 27, 2010

Green Nukes: Saviors or Charlatans?

As we struggle to deal with greenhouse gas pollution, it's easy to treat the search for alternative fuels as a secondary issue, as a way to resist global warming, ocean acidification, and such. 

But I see it differently.  I think we need to do it ASAP for lots of reasons that are even more pressing than global warming, because we're going to run out of cheap oil and coal in the relatively near future.  When that happens, the consequences for us, our descendants, and the environments we live in could be devastating, potentially escalating rapidly from frustrating inconvenience to a cause of increased poverty, famine, social unrest, ecological degradation, and/or war.  Reducing climatic impacts is a great side benefit to this important issue, but even those who deny a human role in climate change can get behind the search for lucrative new energy sources.

At the moment, at least as much governmental-scale attention also seems to focus on reducing energy usage, mainly by trying to make it too expensive to use as we do now. But there's much political resistance to that idea, and although I worry about climate change I think that trying to use economics to artifically choke off fossil fuel consumption is short-sighted and will  harm too many people who live at or below the poverty line. 

Some say that rich nations could avoid that pitfall by subsidizing less wealthy nations for the increased costs, but I seriously doubt that it can be done without millions of innocent, struggling folks falling through the cracks.  What are we going to do; simply send millions of compensatory dollars to some "wonderful" government head like Robert Mugabe to disseminate fairly among all impoverished Zimbabweans, then watch him use it to fill his pockets and those of his supporters?  And what about the impoverished folks who happen to live in the rich nations - how will they all be found, evaluated, and compensated?  And what about the resultant inflation in the prices of fertilizers, plastics, or anything that needs to be imported from another country, not to mention the fuel costs themselves... anyway, you get the picture.

As far as I can see, the only way to treat the whole political, social, and economic spectrum of humanity fairly, effectively, and with a minimum of controversy is for a new generation of sustainable, cheap, non-carbon fuels to come on line soon and naturally replace the fossil stuff.

This is where "green nukes" come in.

The only environmental action I ever took in college was protesting the use of nuclear power plants in New England.  My uncle, aunt, and cousins stayed with my family as refugees of the Three Mile Island accident. And I remember being told to avoid reindeer meat in the grocery stores when I lived in Sweden because the free-range commercial herd was contaminated with Chernobyl fallout.  Not surprisingly, the first word that arises in my mind when I hear the words "nuclear power" is "no," as in "no nukes."

Imagine my shock when arch-environmentalist Bill McKibben recently began to tout nuclear power as an energy source that emits no greenhouse gases. What? Has he drunk so much of the global warming Koolaid that he's now talked himself into making a pact with THE DEVIL????

But now I'm starting to come around, too, thanks mainly to my geologist friend David Franzi.  We were exploring the Altona Flatrock in the northeastern Adirondacks this past summer, looking for wetlands that might contain long climatic records in their underlying peat and mud deposits.  In the course of conversation, he mentioned a new kind of nuke that lacks most of the problems that have made "regular" nukes so objectionable.

They're called "thorium reactors." Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much easly readable info about them on the web yet; most of the items online are too full of nuclear/engineering jargon to be decipherable by non-experts.  But the gist of the topic sounds almost too good to be true.

If I have this right, thorium reactors can't melt down; they shut themselves down naturally if they get too hot. They produce little or no waste, and what waste they do make breaks down fairly rapidly.  Thorium is cheap and abundant, and safe enough to carry in your pocket.  And thorium reactors don't make plutonium or other isotopes suitable for bombs (the one form of uranium waste product that might do so is easily diluted on site so it's unusable).

So why aren't we using them now? You might be able to guess if you put on your cynic cap and re-read the last paragraph. Apparently, it's mainly because you CAN'T make bombs from thorium reactor fuels or wastes. In other words, the main reason the regular nukes are the machines of choice, despite the risks of meltdowns, contamination, storage leaks,  and terrorism, is that they enable the countries that have them to build nuclear arsenals.

Now, suddenly, the Iranian nuclear power plant controversy make more sense...

Anyhow, what if the world switched quickly to these new "green nukes?"  They would make lots of cheap electricity, enough to generate yet another green fuel as well; hydrogen gas, from the electrical hydroloysis of water.  No coal mining disasters or strip mines. No fuel cartels. No wars over oil fields. No fossil greenhouse gases or soot or nasty smog chemicals; the waste product from the burning of hydrogen is water.

So what are we waiting for? 

From the little I know thus far, I'm cautiously optimistic, but part of me is also still suspicious.  In my experience, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  Unfortunately, as I said earlier, there isn't much online that's very readable, even for a nerd like myself who has some scientific background (well, I didn't do all that well in physics, either, come to think of it).

The closest thing to a good online summary that I've found so far is this one, from Wired:

I'm hoping that someone who reads this post and knows more about the subject will pass along some truly useful links or other info sources.  If thorium reactors are really as great as they seem, then there's real HOPE for civilization and the ecosystems we depend on.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crossing the final ecological threshold: some Arctic lakes are disappearing.

My friend John Smol is a noted paleolimnologist (lake historian) at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, who has a knack for finding dramatic stories to investigate with sediment corer and microscope.  But this story may top them all.

Normally, paleolimnologists reconstruct human impacts on lakes that have changed them from a clear, clean-looking condition to a silty or algae-choked state, or that make them more or less deep, acidic, or salty.  Such changes occur along spectra that range from low to high intensity, but John and his colleagues have recently found a situation among certain lakes and ponds of the Canadian High Arctic that pushes them completely off the scale of relative environmental impact. 

He calls it "crossing the final ecological threshold," and describes it in detail on his lab's website ( and in several high-profile papers, but there's a simpler way to put it. 

The shallow ponds are disappearing.

Here's a photo of what used to be one of his larger ponds at Cape Herschel on Ellesmere Island, taken from the lab website.

And here's another photo that he sent to me recently, showing some of his colleagues collecting the last water sample from a vanishing pond in the same locale.

We often hear that most of the Arctic is warming faster than the global average, that ice is retreating on the Arctic Ocean, and that  melting of the Greenland ice sheet is speeding up.  But the lakes, ponds, and wetlands up there are also changing, though we rarely hear about it.  They're losing ice, as well, and it's making many of them more prone to evaporation and drying out.

Smol told me, "Until recently, the Ellesmere ponds remained frozen until July in some cases, and some of the deeper lakes would maintain at least a partial cover throughout the summer, with only a narrow moat of open water around the edges." Now that it's getting so much warmer up there, the ice shrinks enough seasonally to let larger and larger amounts of water evaporate from the lakes' exposed blue surfaces under the 24-hour daylight of summer.  There are no major rivers feeding most of them, and they aren't replenished by groundwater because they sit in depressions in solid bedrock.  As a result of the new boost in annual evaporation, many of them now lose more water than they gain.  In more and more cases, that imbalance is driving them over the edge into what amounts to hydrological bankruptcy.

Is it just part of some repetitive "natural cycle?" 

Being lake historians, John and his colleagues are well qualified to adress that question, which often remains unanswered when it's raised in discussions about human-driven climate change. 

The sediment cores that they've collected there over the years show that these lakes have existed for thousands of years with no sign of desiccation, which would show up clearly in the sediment record.  The remains of diatom algae in the cores also show that the ice cover has been shrinking for the last century or so, another change that is unique in their long history and that can only be logically attributed to warming (see the papers posted on the lab's website if you'd like more technical info in support of that claim).

How does John feel about watching his study lakes vanish before his eyes?  "Depressed," he says. "But not quite despairing, either. I still rage about what's going on, but that's because I still have hope than we can stop things from getting a lot worse."

Monday, December 20, 2010

What's an "Ice Age Mammal?"

Nice story on musk oxen by Natalie Angier in the NYTimes (  She's an excellent and entertaining nature/science writer (check out her book, "The Canon," some time), and she does a great job of describing these shaggy brown beasts as icons of the Arctic and as resilient holdovers from the last ice age.

But that's not what stuck in my mind after I finished reading "Musk Oxen Live to Tell a Survivor's Tale." 

When she described musk oxen as "holdovers from the Pleistocene," as has been so often said of them before, my admittedly strange paleo-nerd imagination did an unexpected double take.  First came the intended imagery of ice sheets, mammoths, and wooly rhinos.  But then the other Arctic animals mentioned in the piece - the polar bears, caribou, and such - entered the picture as well and triggered a question that I've never heard asked before. 

Why do we think of hairy Arctic musk oxen as survivors of the Pleistocene epoch, and of mammoths and wooly rhinos as "ice age mammals," when virtually ALL of the mammal species alive today also lived through the last ice age and are therefore also survivors of the Pleistocene? 

Polar bears, caribou, and real oxen (aurochs, anyway) were here on Earth along with musk oxen during the peak of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, and so were tropical African elephants and rhinos.  So were armadillos, and beavers, and whales, and squirrels, and manatees. So were people, for that matter.  Technically speaking, we too are "ice age mammals" and resilient survivors of the Pleistocene.  In fact, most of the 200,000-odd year history of anatomically modern Homo sapiens took place during that geological epoch,  mainly during times when mile-thick slabs of ice smothered Canada. 

I suppose some of the confusion arises from how our imaginations tend to envision the distant past.  When we think "ice age" we immediately think of ice sheets, but they only covered the higher latitudes and altitudes during the repeated continental glaciations of the last 2-3 million years.  The tropics were still tropical, if a bit cooler and generally less rainy than they are now, and few animals went extinct as a result of climatic changes during the last glaciation.  There were plenty of ice-free, even toasty places to live in back then, as there are today.

We also focus on mammoths and wooly rhinos and such because they're cool, and because they're not with us any more.  But that's because our spear-toting ancestors killed them, not primarily because of climate change.  Yes, some scientists do think otherwise, but they're in the minority among their peers, and their arguments just don't stand up well against the overwhelming evidence for a non-climatic cause.  To put it simply and, to me at least, decisively; if climate change killed off so many of the big mammals at the end of the last ice age, then why didn't it do so when the previous dozens of ice ages ended? 

Anyhow, this mini-epiphany was a nice little thrill for me.  I like it when something makes me snap out of a mistaken or clouded point of view, leaving me wondering why I didn't notice this or that amazing thing before. 

Hey, everybody - I'm an ice age mammal!  A hold-over from the Pleistocene (as many of my students would likely attest). 

And if you can read this... so are you.     :)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Only 6% of scientists are Republican: Why? And so what?

Interesting and thought-provoking piece by Daniel Sarewitz here in Slate, titled "Lab Politics: most scientists in this country are Democrats.  And that's a problem " (LINK:

According to a recent Pew poll, only 6% of U.S. scientists are Republican, while 55% are Democrat and 32% are Independent.  Sarewitz ties this to the polarized nature of public discussion about climate change and considers various possible explanations for the imbalance. 

What's going on here?  What is it about U.S. scientists that makes them so unlikely to be Republican?  Or, for that matter, what makes them so likely to be Democrats?

Although I don't have any firm answers to those questions, the documentation of such a large political imbalance among my peers helps me to better understand why my own work on climate change in the Adirondack-Champlain region generates so many politically-tinged write-in responses when it appears in the media.  Many of the writers seem to be surprisingly angry, and they also tend to link my work - which I've taken great pains to conduct in a balanced, scientifically rigorous manner - to Al Gore, left-wing politics, and big-government agendas.

You can see one example of such a response to a piece that ran in the Press Republican this past summer, over in the panel to the right of the article (  I'd estimate that 90% of the email responses to newspaper and radio coverage of the Champlain Climate Report were of this sort.

In light of the Pew findings, maybe it's not so surprising that these respondents seem to sense a political target when they come across someone like me. 

But I wouldn't say that Republicans are necessarily more anti-science than Democrats are, either.  I suspect that most of the New Age alternative-healer-types, civil-disobedient environmental radicals, extreme "natural" health product proponents, and such with whom I've also tangled in the past were Democrats rather than Republicans, but they certainly weren't very interested in hearing scientific information that challenged their beliefs, either. 

In fact, scientists are usually the oddballs of society, catching it from all sides except when some party finds certain scientific info useful in support of their agenda.  And right now, Republican agendas just don't seem to mesh well with climate science, perhaps in part because Democrats are seen to have made an unholy alliance with the scientists.  In that view, scientists can seem like deceitful charlatans from the get-go; "how dare they claim to be impartial seekers of truth?"

This unfortunate situation sometimes makes me wish that "An Inconvenient Truth" had been produced by someone other than Al Gore.  His prominence in the public sphere certainly helped it to draw widespread attention to the issue of climate change... but it also linked the whole subject to a prominent Democrat who was Clinton's VP, ran against GWBush, and so on.  I suppose it may therefore have closed as many minds as it opened, at least in this country.

There was one bit from Sarewitz himself that I disagree with.   I'll quote it here:

"As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more "science literacy" as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists."

First, I  disagree that "insulation of pure science from dirty partisanship" is a mere "myth."  Nonpartisanship is a vitally important and absolutely attainable goal, a thing that distinguishes science from most other human behaviors.  It's specifically designed to detect, dissect, and reject self-delusions, cherished but incorrect preconceptions, and biases.  To claim otherwise is to hurl the worst possible insult at those of us who devote our hearts, minds, and professional lives to following that noble ideal. 

Science is our best hope for probing physical reality in a sane, rigorous, repeatable, reliable manner, and to have Sarewitz call it partisan surprises me more than the attacks of politicized climate naysayers.  I didn't expect it from him (I believe he has a geoscience degree), and in my personal experience it's generally just plain false.  I'm extremely careful to keep politics from interfering with my scientific work, and I can confidently say the same for the colleagues I work with, at least.  In my field, to do otherwise is to kiss your reputation and your profession goodbye. As responsible voting citizens, we scientists may of course aim to support a political agenda of our choosing, but our science shouldn't and, as far as I know, it usually doesn't.

I also disagree with Sarewitz' claim that we need more Republican scientists, as if a "Republican thermometer" will somehow measure a different global average temperature.  Please keep politics out of it altogether.  Otherwise, it's not science at all.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Global COOLING ahead.

Ice and reflections on Lower Saint Regis Lake, by Kary Johnson ( 

One of the many things I like about this beautiful photo is that it's not necessarily obvious whether it represents winter freeze-up or spring ice-out.  It reminds me of the changes that are going on in the Arctic today, with the retreat of summer sea ice progressing farther and farther, year after year.  But it also reminds me of what lies farther ahead of us in the deep future, when "climate whiplash" eventually flips the world into global cooling recovery mode.

The thinning and drawing back of summer ice is already revolutionizing the ecology of the Arctic Ocean (  Harbor seals, orcas, and other marine species of the Atlantic and Pacific are moving north into the shrinking territories of ice-loving ringed seals, narwhals, and such,.  Eventually the open summer waters of the Arctic Ocean will support vast plankton-based marine communities powered by the Arctic midnight sunlight, which is now largely blocked out by the ice ceiling, and commercial fishing industries are already gearing up to exploit them. 

Today, it seems incredible that such huge changes could occur as a result of our carbon-based lifestyles; no ice at the North Pole!  And it makes many of us feel uneasy, too, as if blue water at zero degrees North is somehow unnatural or inherently awful.

Well, of course it certainly can be mostly bad if you're on the losing end of things in a warming world. 

But consider this; how might a cooling world look, instead?  In the Big Picture, most of the recovery from our modern-day carbon emissions pulse will involve global cooling back towards more moderate temperatures over tens of thousands of years. 

How will people and species of the deep future respond to the changes that will come AFTER our enormous carbon dioxide pulse begins to fade, thereby allowing northern climates to begin their long, slow cool-off?  Thousands of years from now, what by then will have become ancient temperate-climate cultures and ecosystems will face an entirely new threat as the surface of the polar ocean slowly beings to re-freeze.

What will it feel like to watch ice creep over the waves, gradually choking off shipping lanes and traditional fishing grounds? Imagine living in a centuries-old settlement on an Arctic coast, watching the sea begin to solidify around your home.  Will the rebirth of a polar ice cap seem like a return to the way things "should" be, or like a horrible end of days for you and the world as you know it?

In the Big Picture, perhaps it's not so much warming or cooling as change itself that we fear, especially when it comes at us on a global scale as the collective, unintended consequences of things we do in our daily lives. There's a whole lot more to the story of our carbon legacy than global warming alone!

Monday, December 13, 2010

What happens AFTER global warming?

This is the central theme of my book, "Deep Future," which was largely inspired by the pioneering work of David Archer and colleagues (Archer is based at the University of Chicago).  Here's a link to one the seminal (and quite technical) papers behind this revolutionary, long-term view of carbon pollution, by Archer and Brovkin (

I was shocked when I first saw their computer-generated outlines of the future.  Our carbon dioxide emissions will peak during the next few centuries, then pivot sharply from a "climate whiplash" phase into long-term cooling mode.  And I mean truly LONG-term... the last dregs of our carbon fumes will hang around in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and possibly for as long as half a million years depending on how much coal we end up burning in the next century or two. 

Here's a chart based on two basic scenarios, a "moderate" total carbon emission of 1000 Gtons that we follow by switching ASAP to non-carbon fuels, and an "extreme" 5000 Gton emission scenario in which we simply continue to plow ahead as usual and end up burning through most of our coal reserves:

Up until I saw these findings, my view of the climatic future was mainly informed by charts that ran from the present until  2100 AD, as is still the case for most folks.  But the deep future of our fossil fuel pollution is truly immense, long enough to interfere with future Ice Age cycles.