The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on March 5, 2008

7


lunar eclipseAccording to an article in New Scientist, scientists from the University of Colorado – Boulder have calculated that a) there isn’t much volcanic dust in the Earth’s atmosphere and b) that may be contributing to global heating.

Generally speaking, volcanoes emit lots of stuff, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and lots and lots of ash. However, it’s been shown scientifically that the dominant climate factor in nearly all volcanic eruptions is the sulfur dioxide, a gas that combined with water vapor in the atmosphere to create sulfuric acid droplets. Those droplets are very reflective, and when combined with high-altitude ash and dust, they create very white clouds that cool the Earth down far more than any carbon dioxide emissions would heat it up. This effect was seen most recently with the Pinatubo eruption in 1991. But Robert Keen of CU-Boulder thinks that, since there haven’t been any major eruptions since 1991, the lack of volcanic dust in the atmosphere might be contributing to global heating. However, Susan Solomon of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado believes that the IPCC’s computer models correct for the difference in haze, and that there has been more haze in the air over the last 60 years – when there was a lot more heating instead of cooling as expected from haze – than in the 20 years prior to that.

Ultimately the data will determine who’s right and who’s calculations or models need to be updated.

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High oil prices don’t automatically mean a reduction in carbon emissions. As the Weekly Carboholic pointed out on February 20, high oil prices are actually leading to an increase in emissions from Canadian tar sands operations and U.S. Midwest refineries. Now there’s new information that supports the idea that high oil prices are actually increasing carbon emissions instead of decreasing them. Part of the reason is shifts to source of oil like tar sands. But another reason is that nations are transitioning away from expensive oil to cheap, but super-ultra-mega-dirty, coal.

Coal can be converted via chemical processes to oil. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most well-known example of coal liquefaction, as Germany has large coal reserves and was cut off from oil during World War II. These same techniques for coal conversion are used today around the world, but they have a huge cost. Not only do you have to mine the coal in the first place, coal liquefaction releases a LOT more carbon dioxide in the refining of a gallon of gasoline than the equivalent process of refining petroleum. And until carbon dioxide is assessed as a pollutant and either taxed or capped, the true cost of coal conversion will be borne by the atmosphere instead of by the energy users themselves.

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According to Time Magazine, increasing food prices due to the direct and indirect effects of global heating are already causing food riots around the world. Prices of staples (wheat, rice, corn, barley, potatoes, etc.) have increased 75% since 2005, and the increasing food prices are forcing aid organizations to slash the amount of food they can purchase and deliver – they simply aren’t capable of buying enough food at the current prices. And so riots over food prices and availability have occurred in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritania, and India.

According to the article, food prices are being upward driven by the cost of oil, freak weather leading to poor crop yields around the world, and supply problems driven largely by U.S. corn ethanol subsidies, the last two of which may be impacted by global heating. After all, if the climatologists are right, then global heating will lead to harsher weather all around – colder cold snaps, hotter heat waves, more flooding and more drought – and crummy weather is bad for most farmers and most crops. And the U.S.’ misguided ethanol subsidies are a direct result of Congress (and the politically powerful state of Iowa) trying to improve energy security and reduce carbon emissions at the same time. All together it appears we’re already starting to see some of the effects of global heating predicted by both the Pentagon and the CNA Corporation in studies on the national security effects of global heating.

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In other global heating-driven conflict news, Canada’s National Post reports that Former U.S. Coast Guard Lt.-Cmdr. Scott Borgerson has claimed that the U.S. has to take the lead in addressing resource claims in the Arctic lest the region become a flashpoint for resource wars. Given that several of the nations around the Arctic are nuclear armed, conflicts over prospective natural resources under the rapidly retreating Arctic icecap could be bad.

According to the Post’s article, Canada is bulking up its northerly surveillance and military capabilities in order to enforce sovereignty claims over the Northwest Passage, something that the U.S. doesn’t presently accept. And Russia has already claimed a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean under existing international laws regarding territorial waters, although their claims remain to be scientifically verified.

Geologists know that there is oil under the northern reaches of the North American continental shelf – off-shore oil pads and rigs north of Alaska are proof of that. But geologists also suspect that there is a lot more oil in the deeper reaches of the Arctic Ocean as well. Given the potential for conflict over oil resources in the Middle East and both Central and South America, and given the intentions of autocratic regimes like Russia and Venezuela to use their energy resources to manipulate other nations into doing their bidding, the sooner the resource and sovereignty issues of the Arctic are resolved, the better.

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