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Posts Tagged ‘environment

“In every grain of sand there is the story of the earth”*…


Green sand


A pair of palm-tree-fringed coves form two narrow notches, about a quarter of a mile apart, along the shoreline of an undisclosed island somewhere in the Caribbean.

After a site visit in early March, researchers with the San Francisco nonprofit Project Vesta determined that the twin inlets provided an ideal location to study an obscure method of capturing the carbon dioxide driving climate change.

Later this year, Project Vesta plans to spread a green volcanic mineral known as olivine, ground down to the size of sand particles, across one of the beaches. The waves will further break down the highly reactive material, accelerating a series of chemical reactions that pull the greenhouse gas out of the air and lock it up in the shells and skeletons of mollusks and corals.

This process, along with other forms of what’s known as enhanced mineral weathering, could potentially store hundreds of trillions of tons of carbon dioxide, according to a National Academies report last year. That’s far more carbon dioxide than humans have pumped out since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Unlike methods of carbon removal that rely on soil, plants, and trees, it would be effectively permanent. And Project Vesta at least believes it could be cheap, on the order of $10 per ton of stored carbon dioxide once it’s done on a large scale.

But there are huge questions around this concept as well…

Scientists are taking a harder look at using carbon-capturing rocks to counteract climate change, but lots of uncertainties remain: “How green sand could capture billions of tons of carbon dioxide.”

* Rachel Carson


As we contemplate carbon, we might send airy birthday greetings to F. Sherwood Rowland; he was born on this date in 1927.  A chemist whose research focused on atmospheric chemistry and chemical kinetics, he is best-remembered for his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to ozone depletion– for which he shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

F._Sherwood_Rowland source


“We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees”*…




About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California. The seed may have travelled there on a gust of wind, its flight aided by a winglike attachment to the nut. Or it could have been planted by a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker, which likes to hide pine seeds in caches; nutcrackers have phenomenal spatial memory and can recall thousands of such caches. This seed, however, lay undisturbed. On a moist day in fall, or in the wake of melting snows in spring, a seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots.

Most seedlings die within a year; the mortality rate is more than ninety-nine per cent. The survivors are sometimes seen growing in the shadow of a fallen tree. The landscape of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, as this area of the White Mountains is called, is littered with fragments of dead trees—trunks, limbs, roots, and smaller chunks. Pinus longaeva grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Conditions are generally too arid for the dead wood to rot; instead, it erodes, sanded down like rock. The remnants may harbor nutrients and fungi that help new trees grow. Bristlecones rise from the bones of their ancestors—a city within a cemetery.

Coast redwoods and giant sequoias, California’s gargantuan world-record-holding trees, can grow fifty feet or more in their first twenty years. Bristlecones rise agonizingly slowly. After four or five years, the seedling on the steep slope would have been just a few inches higher, sprouting needles in place of the embryonic shoots. The needles are a deep green, tough, resinous, and closely bunched, in groups of five. On a mature tree, they live for fifty years or more. Decades may have passed before the tree was human height, and decades more before it resembled a conventional pine. Bristlecone saplings grow straight up, with relatively sparse foliage, looking like undernourished Christmas trees. After a few hundred years—by which time the Old Kingdom of Egypt had fallen—it was probably forty or fifty feet in height.

Many tree species live for hundreds of years. A smaller but not inconsiderable number, including the sequoias and certain yews, oaks, cypresses, and junipers, survive for thousands. Once a bristlecone has established itself in the unforgiving conditions of the White Mountains, it can last almost indefinitely. The trees tend to grow some distance from one another, so fires almost never destroy an entire stand. Because only a few other plant species can handle the dry, cold climate, the bristlecones face little competition. Unlike most plants, they tolerate dolomite soil, which is composed of a chalky type of limestone that is heavily alkaline and low in nutrients. As for insect threats, bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it.

Empires rose and fell; wars raged; people were enslaved and freed; and the tree from 2500 B.C. continued its implacable slow-motion existence, adding about two-hundredths of an inch to the diameter of its trunk each year. Minute changes in the tree-ring record make bristlecones an exceptionally useful source of data about changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen. When volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings make the anomaly visible. The precision of these records means that bristlecones have periodically butted into other disciplines: geology, archeology, climatology. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the trees contributed to the upending of the canonical theory that Bronze Age civilization had spread westward from Egypt and the Near East. Bristlecones have also affected modern political discourse: the famous “hockey stick graph,” which two decades ago raised awareness of human-driven global warming, relied on bristlecone data…

Bristlecone pines have survived various catastrophes over the millennia, and they may survive humanity: “The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees.”

[A grateful TotH to PN]

For a rather different look at bristlecones (as a setting): “‘Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography’ at the Nevada Museum of Art.” [TotH to EWW]

* Marcel Proust


As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Saint Valentine; he was martyred (beheaded) by Claudius II (for performing unauthorized marriage ceremonies) on this date in 269– an annual occasion observed as been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine’s Day) since 496 AD.  From the High Middle Ages, his Saints’ Day is associated with a tradition of courtly love (and more recently, of course, with sickly-sweet candy hearts).


Oil painting by Leonhard Beck, circa 1510



Written by LW

February 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

“A good rule of thumb is to assume that everything matters”*…


Dayen-financial-climate 112019


Every few months, a news outlet will write a story heralding the next financial crisis, with an assumed assuredness that we should all view as suspect. Predicting the next crisis has become a sport, one that typically magnifies risks and displays an unreasonable degree of certainty. But if you had to choose a looming event that’s most likely to produce a negative shock to the financial system, it would almost certainly be the climate emergency.

That’s the takeaway from a fascinating issue brief… from the Center for American Progress’s Gregg Gelzinis and Graham Steele from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Both worked for the Senate Banking Committee for many years, and they make a compelling case, not only that headline risks to financial stability will flow from a warming planet and the efforts to mitigate that, but that federal banking regulators have gone almost completely AWOL in monitoring or even assessing this legitimate threat.

Worse, to the extent that any financial regulators in Washington are paying attention to the climate crisis, they’re seeking to dismiss it. A subcommittee formed at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to look at climate-related market risk is stacked with fossil fuel industry representatives, including several executives from climate-polluting agribusiness, banks with significant carbon-intensive portfolios, and fossil fuel giants BP and ConocoPhillips.

The committee’s clear intent is to examine the climate risks to polluting companies’ core business, not from their polluting. As one critic—Paddy McCully, the climate and energy director at the Rainforest Action Network—notes, “We should recognize that there’s risk from the climate to the economy, and that the corporate sector needs to assess their contributions to climate change and then deal with it.”

The report explains that global economic losses from a rise in temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius have been estimated at $23 trillion per year. This would pose two kinds of risk to the financial system: physical risk from natural disasters, and a more indirect risks from transitioning away from fossil fuels…

A new paper makes the case that financial regulators are ignoring the significant risks from a warming planet and even from efforts to green the economy.  The fascinating– and chilling– analysis in full at “The Biggest Threat to Financial Stability Is the Climate.”

* Richard Thaler


As we internalize externalities, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that the Great Smog of London began,  A period of cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants—mostly arising from the use of coal—to form a thick layer of smog over the city.  It caused far more severe disruptions than “pea-soupers” of the past,  reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas.  While the Underground maintained service, bus service was virtually shut down (as visibility was so severely and reduced; and thus, the the roads, congested). Most flights into London Airport were diverted to Hurn, near Bournemouth and linked by train with Waterloo Station.

Government medical reports in the following weeks estimated that 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog; and 100,000 more, made ill by the smog’s effects on their respiratory tracts.  More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities may have been considerably greater, one paper suggesting about 6,000 more died in the following months as a result of the event.

The disaster had huge effects on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health.  It led quickly to several changes in practices and regulations– perhaps most notably, the Clean Air Act 1956.


Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog



“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”*…




The dangers of environmental pollution receive a lot of attention nowadays, particularly in the developing world, and with good reason. Air quality indices are dismal and worsening in many places, with India, in particular, facing an acute public-health emergency. But as serious as the pollution problem is, it must not be allowed to obscure another incipient environmental catastrophe, and potential source of future conflict: lack of access to clean water.

We may live on a “blue planet,” but less than 3% of all of our water is fresh, and much of it is inaccessible (for example, because it is locked in glaciers). Since 1960, the amount of available fresh water per capita has declined by more than half, leaving over 40% of the world’s population facing water stress. By 2030, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by an estimated 40%.

With nearly two-thirds of fresh water coming from rivers and lakes that cross national borders, intensifying water stress fuels a vicious circle, in which countries compete for supplies, leading to greater stress and more competition. Today, hundreds of international water agreements are coming under pressure…

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include an imperative to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”  Yet, in the last four years, matters have deteriorated significantly.  Jayati Ghosh explains “The Growing Threat of Water Wars.”

For a combination of historical and statistical perspective on water conflict, see “Whatever happened to the water wars? More of them have happened than most people think.

* Benjamin Franklin


As we struggle to share, we might send rational birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.



“Infrastructure is much more important than architecture”*…


The wind driven Kincade fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California


A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.

In software development, engineers have long noted that taking the easy way out of coding problems builds up what they call “technical debt,” as the tech journalist Quinn Norton has written.

Like other kinds of debt, this debt compounds if you don’t deal with it, and it can distort the true cost of decisions. If you ignore it, the status quo looks cheaper than it is. At least until the off-the-books debt comes to light…

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.

Of course, it’s been saying that for many years. The number is so big as to be almost laughable. It’s 2.4 times the amount Donald Trump’s tax cuts are to add to the American budget deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Washington Examiner

Climate change will soon expose a crippling problem embedded in the nation’s infrastructure.  In fire-ravaged California, it already has: “The Toxic Bubble of Technical Debt Threatening America.”

[TotH to AR]

* Rem Koolhaas


As we aspire to be good ancestors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1906, at the first International Radiotelegraph Convention in Berlin, that the Morse Code signal “SOS”– “. . . _ _ _ . . .”– became the global standard radio distress signal.  While it was officially replaced in 1999 by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.

SOS has traditionally be “translated” (expanded) to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” “send out succor,” or other such pleas.  But while these may be helpful mnemonics, SOS is not an abbreviation or acronym.  Rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letters were chosen simply because they are easily transmitted in Morse code.

220px-Thesos source



Written by LW

November 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

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