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Discussion: Uninhabitable Earth

in: Orienteering; Off-Course

Jul 20, 2017 6:07 PM # 
chitownclark:
We've had some lengthy discussions about Global Warming on a/p. But not for a while.

So I'd like to call your attention to a long, very interesting article that appeared last week in New York Magazine that refuses to put a Happy Face on our immediate climate future....the face in the accompanying graphic, altho grinning, seems to be anything but happy.

...Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough....

For example:
....we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas [methane] that multiplies its warming power 86 times over....

The chapter headings of this long article give some idea of the tragic future we, and our children, have before us.

I - Doomsday: Peering beyond scientific reticence
II - Heat Death: the Bahraining of New York
III - The End of Food: Praying for cornfields in the Tundra
IV - Climate Plagues: What happens when the Bubonic ice melts?
V - Unbreathable Air: Rolling death smog that suffocates millions
VI - Perpetual War: Violence baked into Heat
VII - Permanent Economic Collapse: Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world
VIII - Poisoned Ocean: Sulfide burps off the skeleton coast
IX - Why can't we see it?

David Wallace-Wells, the author, suggests that mankind will be completely unable to control its use of carbon. Indeed, with President Trump leading the US away from recognizing this threat, and forcing us to turn our back on scientific thought and evidence, Mr Wallace-Wells' assessments may be closer to our future, than the 'reticent' warnings of so many milquetoast scientists that we've heard up until now.

My apologies to those who don't like such topics on a/p. But in a larger sense, as we 'navigate' through our lives, it is always nice to have a 'catching feature' that allows us to 'relocate' our erroneous thinking. Perhaps some will find this article to be such a catching feature to guide them in the future.
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Jul 20, 2017 7:44 PM # 
JimBaker:
I was exposed to the issue in university, and have followed it since. (In Planetary Astronomy class in the eighties, the (physics) professor took one class and had us calculate the effect of greenhouse gases on planetary temperature from first principles, and ended the class informing us of the data from Hawaii of rising CO2 levels over a few decades (at that time). He suggested that (since we were nearly all physics or astronomy majors (much the same thing)), we follow the issue during our careers. Since my career placed me amongst geologists and geophysicists, I had additional exposure.). It's become obvious enough that there's anthropogenic warming, based on various research such as isotopic analysis. However, the Earth has been much, much warmer than even the high predictions for this century, such as fifty million years ago, and the planet was lush not barren. So, I'm not yet so taken by the alarmist position. It's worth discussing in a peer reviewed way, but it's not at all clear that the consequences are as serious as the alarmists suggest. Also, despite Trump's withdrawal from the Paris accord, various changes to behaviour are happening many places worldwide, such as increased photovoltaic use in China and elsewhere. There's also the dropping price of photovoltaics, which are now competitive with other electricity generation except for energy storage costs, which are also dropping, making it appear as though it'll be an economical alternative relatively soon. (It can already be cheaper in some circumstances, with one supplier offering solar installation leases at below market rates for electricity.) Major auto makers are announcing a switch entirely to electric cars in a decade or so. Changing behaviour at the individual level may have more effect than programs by governments.

Just thought I'd offer a different perspective, not necessarily the definitive one. Fwiw, most of my miles are driven on electricity in an efficient vehicle, and my home is well insulated, verified by IR camera. But, I take a mellower view than some, based on the info that I've followed.
Jul 20, 2017 8:37 PM # 
GHOSLO:
But Jim isn't your electricity produced by burning coal?
Jul 20, 2017 9:19 PM # 
jjcote:
In Colorado, where Jim lives, less than half of the electricity is from coal at this point (though it's still the #1 source) and renewables are up to more than 3/4 of what they get from coal. (source) As opposed to where I live, which is nearly all natural gas.
Jul 20, 2017 10:15 PM # 
Nixon:
The earth will be perfectly habitable... just not by humans.
Jul 20, 2017 11:29 PM # 
cmorse:
Here in CT, we can choose our electricity supplier, and there are a few the provide 100% renewable. Its a bit more per kwH than the cheap rate, but not outrageously so. We've been purchasing renewable electricity for close to 20 years now...
Jul 21, 2017 12:49 AM # 
JimBaker:
The fraction of electricity produced by coal in America has plummeted in the last few decades, from about eighty percent (iirc) decades ago to about 30% now (versus 34% for natural gas).

The efficiency of an electric car is also a significant factor (by recovering energy when braking, a big difference in hilly terrain I find, and in stop and go), tending to make electrics cause less CO2 emission than a than a similar petrol car even if power were mostly from coal, as I understand.

But a single electric car isn't as relevant as what the bulk of people do. Luckily those numbers are trending well. And this is anyway a distraction from chitown's OP, which was raising the matter of how serious are the consequences...negligible like some imply, apocalyptic like some others say, or somewhere in between. And how will it affect navigation sports.
Jul 21, 2017 1:11 AM # 
jjcote:
That website shows Vermont at 100% renewable for electricity!
Jul 21, 2017 1:06 PM # 
Becks:
While I'm more inclined to believe the doomsday sayings of the New York Magazine, I think it's also worth asking how useful it is to write something so terrifying. I worry that it leads to a certain level of nihilism, "we're f**ked, so let's not even try." And if there's one thing we cannot afford, it's nihilism. I know this has been a discussion in climate science circles for years, and that some think they've given out the "soft" less threatening version for way too long, which has led to people ignoring it. The press seems to have reacted to the Trump administration by swinging the other way and being all over the worst case scenarios now. I've already swung back to the "maybe we shouldn't have kids after all" side of the argument after reading about some of the more recent changes to adjust models.

Jim, it would be fine to be a bit more chilled out about all this if we were some kind of zen master race and not the total mess of life we are as humans today. Even if the worst case scenarios are not true, there are things that almost all scientists agree we will almost certainly have to do in the next century that will result in widespread war and famine if we don't face them head on, with some compassion for the human race as a whole. Let's help people migrate from Bangladesh before they're swallowed by the ocean. We have enough money and resources to feed the people in Africa currently experiencing huge climate induced famine, but we're fighting about the politics instead of solving the problem. And by we I don't mean American, I mean the whole world.

Even the mildest estimations of climate change lead to scenarios where millions starve and millions are left homeless if we don't start to act. And instead we're entrenching all of the wealth in the pockets (and offshore accounts) of dinosaurs like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, arguing over reproductive rights, trying to take healthcare away from people who desperately need it, and fighting over which imaginary friend in the sky is the best one.

We need education, we need wealth redistribution (on a planetary scale, not a federal one), we need massive innovation in technology and global politics, and a bit of hope. Thanks to that article and other recent news, I don't even know where to start with hope. It's paralysing.


Well that escalated quickly. Can you tell I read a lot of dystopian novels as a teenager?
Jul 21, 2017 2:32 PM # 
JimBaker:
Becks: that's why I think that a somewhat chilled approach has value. Any changes are going to happen over a longer time scale...and have been, like the advance of photovoltaics (massive change in feasibility over decades, easy to miss over shorter timescales), energy storage, companies offering solar electricity for less than just utility power in some cases, efficient and increasingly practical electric cars. There are some like Trump who head the other way, but more than balanced by the large number of countries, states, cities, companies and individuals who are trying to make changes. I think that optimism and determination serve better, and recognition that one's not alone. And that a second nuclear war was averted (after WWII), as was the predicted outpacing of food production by population. Major challenges all, all amidst contentious politics and myriad economic interests. Even some major diseases have succumbed.

This is an orienteering forum, so I'm going to drop out of this thread, as much as there is one could say, given that I've said a bit already. Cheers.
Jul 21, 2017 4:21 PM # 
chitownclark:
Well thanks Becks and Jim for your efforts to explain your rational for taking the 'somewhat chilled' approach to Global Warming. But I disagree; I want to see people getting so scared that they make major alterations in their lives: sell those 'carbon pumps' otherwise known as cars; stop producing so many young Americans (each adding 9000 tons of carbon to the envionment during their life) and honor those of us who have remained childless, as Bill Maher suggests; and really face the facts about the American standard of living, and adopt a less consumerist lifestyle.

For instance, for many decades we've known about the threat of Global Warming, but have really done nothing about it. I remember seeing a popular movie in the 1950's entitled The Sea describing the effect of carbon build-up in the atmosphere creating rising sea levels even then. The movie memorably ended with the words "...is this The End?"

So we've had our heads in the sand for at least 60 years. Meanwhile nothing has happened to slow down the accelerating rate of carbon build-up. Don't you think it is time to become a bit more alarmed?

For instance, let's admit the truth about so-called 'renewable energy.' Yes the COST of renewable power has come down. But because cheap fossil fuels are used in China to make the solar panels, we here in the west are lulled into a massive misconception about solar energy. It seems to make economic sense. But by analyzing the Energy equation, that is Energy Recovered Over Energy Input to make them(ERoEI), recent studies show that:

.....estimates of the ERoEI of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to be 0.83....i.e. less than 1.0. If correct, that means more energy is used to make the PV panels than will ever be recovered from them during their 25 year lifetime. A PV panel will produce more CO2 than if coal were simply used directly to make electricity.

Worse than that, all the CO2 from PV production is injected into the atmosphere today, while if the coal were burned to make electricity, the emissions would be spread over the 25 year period. In other words, industrial wastelands have been created in China so that the West can make believe they are reducing CO2 emissions....
Jul 21, 2017 4:31 PM # 
Mr Wonderful:
Just the other day, I lamented on a climate change forum about how we hadn't talked about orienteering in a while.
Jul 21, 2017 5:05 PM # 
Becks:
Did you read my comment Clark? Whilst I did discuss a bit the benefits of staying chilled, I am personally not in any way chilled!
Jul 22, 2017 11:46 AM # 
chitownclark:
Yes Becks. And I was going to complement you on its thoughtfulness, since you mentioned your own doubts about the wisdom of having children. But when you concluded with the Left's standard thinking:

...we need wealth redistribution (on a planetary scale, not a federal one), we need massive innovation in technology and global politics, and a bit of hope....

...I just couldn't agree. Wealth redistribution? Half a billion Chinese have entered the Middle Class and bought cars in the past 20 years. And they've used American dollars to do so. Has that 'wealth redistribution' been a benefit to the environment?

And hoping technology will get us out of this mess? Hasn't it been technology that has produced the mess, beginning with the Industrial Revolution? As my paragraph above about the Myth of Solar Power illustrates, I don't think technology can help us dodge the consequences of our modern lifestyle. I know, not hopeful words for an engineer to contemplate. Sorry. :-)
Jul 22, 2017 2:22 PM # 
jjcote:
Lawful Good, folks. You know the stadard recommendation. (My bad, too.)
Jul 23, 2017 1:18 PM # 
Terje Mathisen:
@chitownclark: Please don't spread bogus information about the real energy efficiency of solar panels!

About 5-10 years ago PVs were indeed just a fancy form of battery, i.e. a way to get power to an off-grid location, but since then both the manufacturing energy usage and the efficiency of standard panels have improved, to the point where the total energy cost of production, transport and installation will be recouped in months instead of years (or never).

Back when I got my MSEE in electro-optics from NTH in Trondheim in 1981 things were very different from today, personally I drive an EV (as the only car in our family) knowing that 100% of the electricity used to charge it here in Norway comes from hydro power, but I still expect that it will make both ecological and financial sense to put PV panels on our south-facing roofs in the next decade.
Jul 23, 2017 4:58 PM # 
Becks:
So my entire generation has to move off the grid and die alone? Or can we think about mediating the damage?
Jul 26, 2017 11:51 AM # 
chitownclark:
Sorry Terje, I cannot let you get in the last word, trying to inject some hope into this thread. Regarding your two points about PV and hydro power:

1. PV power. The energy calculation for photo-voltaic technology (PV) is hotly disputed and is too optimistic. Unlike conventional fossil fuels, which deliver ERoEIs of 40 times input energy, PVs are limited to a very small fraction. No one seems to agree that we'll EVER get as much energy out of a PV system, as it took to manufacture, assemble, transport, maintain and store the energy from the system. And the energy cost of all those operations is hard to quantify, and are most certainly UNDERestimated in most PV analyses. Despite your almost Messianic belief in PV, my long linked article about the myth of PV power ends with:

...The belief that we can maintain our current electric grid system practically indefinitely, using only wind + solar + hydroelectric + biomass, is almost certainly a pipe dream....

2. Hydroelectric power. Sediment eventually fills up all dams and makes them inoperative...and dangerous. For instance, our Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River is filling with 30 000 dump truck loads of sediment every single day! And as California found out last winter, with its vast system of aging hydroelectric dams, when a dam fills with sediment, and a sudden deluge occurs, water can crest over the top of the dam very quickly, and become very threatening; we're currently removing over 60 dams each year!

So as the New York Magazine article contends, there really ain't no hope for our future, despite Norway's 'perfect' society! :-)
Jul 26, 2017 3:12 PM # 
pi:
Bringing the popcorn to this one!
Jul 26, 2017 7:51 PM # 
Terje Mathisen:
OK, as I stated my background is an MSEE in electro-optics, my brother's wife has her master in electro-chemical engineering, she has spent her professional career optimizing the energy usage for both Si and Al manufacture using hydro-electric power at market prices as the main cost driver.

Re your point 1: That article is almost totally bereft of any hard calculations, using handwaving arguments instead.

The only thing close to true there is that the current prices of PVs are probably somewhat lower than they should be (to reflect the total energy cost of making and transporting them), due to Chinese predatory pricing, but this factor is in the low percentage point range and definitely less than 2X.

When a company like Musk's Solar City and many others in other parts of the world can lease you a PV array knowing that it will pay itself back over the next 30 years, there is absolutely no way it can cost more to manufacture than the value of the energy produced. Please also note that the energy payback ratios quoted were in the 10 to 100 range!

A final point here is that allowing coal and other fossil fuels to have good numbers is what really disturbed me: Extracting and burning coal is of course energy negative since you are taking a finite resource and burning it.

Re. 2: Silt buildup is hugely determined by the the local geology and topography.

Here in Norway we have replaced most of our major dams but that was because we as a society didn't think concrete+rebar would last long enough: Currently almost all of them are dead simple "gravity dams", i.e. a flattened triangular cross section consisting of a very carefully controlled mix of boulders, rocks and gravel so that the total combination is waterproof and have no catastrophic failure modes unless the dam is already full and we get a year's worth of precipitation in a few weeks, in which case we'd have plenty time to evacuate anyone downstream.

To your final point: If you are dumb enough to use a New York Magazine as sufficient reason to simply give up, then I hope you don't have any children since it should be criminal to bring new humans into the world if you believe in such a scenario.
Jul 27, 2017 2:05 PM # 
GHOSLO:
I could bring out a really big bag of popcorn and ask "why not nuclear?"
Jul 27, 2017 4:13 PM # 
LOST_Richard:
Nuclear is always an option ☺
Jul 27, 2017 7:44 PM # 
Terje Mathisen:
I honestly believed nuclear to be the only real option, you just need about 10% of your reactors to be breeders, capable of burning the waste from the other 90%.

This is exactly how France is doing it btw, in most other countries the nuclear scaremongering have caused huge collections of extremely long-lived waste products that will have to be secured for many millenia.

Thorium might be an alternative, it has one huge advantage which is 1000x more known reserves and just two disadvantages:

1) It needs continuous waste separation, otherwise the reaction will suffocate itself. The only real pair of test reactors that ran many decades ago were only operational for a year or two, so they skipped that problem.

2) Even worse according to some people is the fact that you need a few A-bombs worth of U235 or Plutonium to start the Thorium cycle, but as soon as it becomes operational it would be impossible to extract the bomb material, so this should not be a real problem from the non-proliferation viewpoint.

BTW, Telemark county in Norway contains one of the largest known Thorium deposits, with energy enough to run the planet for decades or even centuries.

Anyway, when I realized that a tiny corner of the Sahara (or similar sunny, cloud-free areas) gets enough sunlight that a 100x100 km panel of current standard PVs would generate more power than the world is currently using, it just seemed obvious that solar power is by far the easiest way to handle our current and future energy needs.

Even if we can run out of both hydro and nuclear power, we will not run out of raw SiO2 (ie. quartz sand).

Finally, I have to apologize to chitownclark: I have never before written anything as negative as what I did above, and I should have abstained here as well. If this was a trolling effort I consider myself fully hooked. :-(
Jul 27, 2017 8:05 PM # 
j-man:
Terje--don't let facts get in the way of a good argument.
Jul 27, 2017 10:03 PM # 
GHOSLO:
Terje-
I wasn't trolling. I am a (retired) nuclear physicist.
Jim
Jul 27, 2017 10:28 PM # 
Terje Mathisen:
@Jim: I never considered _you_ to be trolling! Please correct any obvious blunders in my nuclear pro/con post. Most of what I know about modern nuclear reactors have been from reading plus (more or less annual) talks with another (retired) reactor designer.
Jul 28, 2017 12:08 AM # 
GHOSLO:
@Terje I didn't think so.
About forty years ago I gave an informal lecture about the relative safety of various forms of energy production. Of course the arguments at that time didn't include the dangers resulting from global climate change. But despite that lack, it seemed obvious to me that the world should be increasing its use of nuclear fission power and we should be weaned off of carbon fuels.
My impression was that my audience wasn't convinced. Too bad. The world should have started the change long ago.
BTW the lecture was at Universitetet i Bergen.
Jul 28, 2017 9:56 PM # 
Terje Mathisen:
From a safety perspective nuclear is still the clear winner, we could have a Chernobyl or Fukushima every year without changing this, but solar power has the potential to take over.

BTW, in 1977 when I started in Trondheim all Norwegian universities were dominated politically by far left-wing radicals, the engineers at NTH finally took over there by outlasting a left-wing filibuster.
Jul 29, 2017 6:11 PM # 
GHOSLO:
I don't blame the audience.
It was 1979. Norway was beginning its oil adventures in the North Sea. At coffee time I had been discussing the relative benefits of energy sources, suggesting that nuclear would be far safer than North Sea oil and maybe safer than hydroelectricity.
I went to a conference in the Netherlands in late March. The Three Mile Island Accident happened on March 28th. When I returned to Bergen, there was a sign on the door of the coffee room that I would be giving the colloquium the following week. It was a joke (I think) but I did it anyways.
(I wasn't in Norway in March 1980).
I still don't understand how the nuclear accidents led to a virtual shutdown of the building of new reactors when other forms of energy production continued despite serious accidents..
Jul 30, 2017 10:22 PM # 
TheInvisibleLog:
And there we move into the psychological study of human risk assessment, misperception of probability and even Kahneman's Prospect Theory. Or perhaps I shouldn't. What I learnt from the discussion above is that in an orienteering forum there is always a good chance you are exchanging views with someone who turns out to know much more about a subject than one's self. I suspect the risk is higher than in almost any other sport.
Jul 31, 2017 8:03 AM # 
Terje Mathisen:
@TheInvisibleLog:

You are absolutely right, orienteering has to have the (on average) most highly educated group of athletes.

Here in Norway I believe that even if you limit yourself to only the national team (arguably the second best in the world after Sweden?) from the 1960'ies to now, the average must be a MS, with the few BSs balanced against PhDs.

I.e. my clubmate Anne Margrethe Hausken Nordberg who has found time to have children and get her PhD while medaling in all O disciplines.

Sometimes I feel a little inferior since I didn't finish my second Master and then later on never found a suitable PhD project. (My brother Knut who ran on the national team did get his doctorate optimizing Yara's total energy cycle for producing fertilizer and my sister Eli is getting close on hers, working on treatment for substance-abusing pregnant women.)
Jul 31, 2017 3:06 PM # 
GHOSLO:
@Theinvisiblelog
quite right.
Aug 1, 2017 2:15 AM # 
TheInvisibleLog:
I helped recruit one family into our local orienteering club partly by explaining that the peer-group his children would be competing against would be a community of educational high achievers who would be a "good influence".
Aug 1, 2017 9:30 PM # 
Terje Mathisen:
@TheLog: Where I grew up, in Porsgrunn in the sixties and seventies, all our friends were other families where the father was a "Siv.Ing" (Engineering MSc) like my dad, working for Hydro, and the entire family ran orienteering.

My father drew the first two large new maps in the area, spending months on a ruby lith table in his study, my mother organized recreational orienteering in the form of "Tur-O". Together with the siblings I mentioned above (Knut & Eli) we did once win 5 different classes on a national event.

I think I never even realized that our group of families weren't typical of the entire country until many years later. :-)
Aug 2, 2017 3:43 AM # 
yurets:
Speaking of Orienteering, the global warming is an exciting thing,
lots of interesting terrain will open, like Labrador, Putoran Plateau.
America will get more maps with exciting sand hills terrain, like in Manitoba.
The whole huge Siberia will be habitable. Refugees will be sailing there from America across the Arctic Ocean (or just swim across Bering strait)

Best labs, sponsored by prominent philanthropists, are working to design an effective virus to help with overpopulation of this planet. Thinking of Zika as a first trial.

America will not decrease current level of consumption voluntarily, just by educating people. New forms of self-organization, or returning to old ones, may work.
As an example, think of lynching those who did not recycle, or whose water/electric bill was higher than avg.
Aug 11, 2017 7:29 PM # 
chitownclark:
Recent events may make our discussions irrelevant; Kim Jong-un and President Trump may take care of our future sooner than we may know.

But while we're reading more and more about warming every day, some people are taking action. Here's a likable guy from San Diego in a TED talk that seems intent to tell the world his environmental message, that he backs up with his own action and sacrifice.

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