Sunday, February 23, 2020

Can An Ocean Get the Blues?

"The decision by many nations and cities to push for carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier will bring opportunities to realign financial institutions to a new economic paradigm."
We are more reliant on the ocean than ever before, we’re realizing that it’s vast but not limitless, and there is a full schedule of international conferences and negotiations in 2020 that have the potential to reshape our relationship with the ocean.
— Robert Blasiak, Our Future on Earth

This past week I sent my latest manuscript to the publisher and shifted my attention toward an upcoming trip to Belize, where I will teach a permaculture course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm and then continue the design process for our Cool Lab prototype biorefinery and microenterprise hub.

In December, when I was in Madrid for the UN climate conference, I was struck by how much attention has been going into the so-called Blue Economy, variously called Blue Finance, Blue Bonds, Blue Charter, Blue Revolution, Blue Carbon, etc. I had seen this transforming the RDRCC (Regenerative Design to Reverse Climate Change) initiative begun by the Commonwealth a few years ago. That made sense since the Commonwealth was 53 countries bound together by their coastlines. But in just a couple of years, somehow the concept has gone viral. Now big Blue is all the rage.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has made more sense of it with two recent reports, The Blue Acceleration in January and Our Future on Earth in February. Scanning some of the headlines the authors gathered in an appendix to the January report, you get a better feel for what is happening:

“Diamond mining companies setting sights on the sea as land dries up in Africa.” — The Telegraph (2016)
“Marine algae could help feed the world.” — World Economic Forum (2017)
“Humanity’s health may rely on what sits on the Arctic seabed.” — BBC (2016)
“Could seawater solve the freshwater crisis?” — National Geographic (2011)
“The future of tourism is a $20 million hotel that takes guests 30 feet underwater.” — Business Insider (2015)

As The Blue Acceleration authors explain,
[E]xpectations for the ocean as an engine of human development are increasing. Claiming marine resources and space is not new to humanity, but the extent, intensity, and diversity of today’s aspirations are unprecedented.
The problem I posed in my new book is, who speaks for the whales?


We have so overfished the “stocks” of all the principal food fish that today we are starting to gather and convert krill from Arctic waters into “superfood” supplements and fish sticks. We are feeding those to farmed fish (now equal to wild catch globally) or to our pets. The problem is, krill are near the bottom of the marine food pyramid. They are primary producers, converting sunlight and surface minerals into food for everything else, up to and including blue whales. The enormous die-off of 100 million cod and many other fisheries that happened when marine heatwaves parched krill in recent years is an indication of what can go wrong when you cut this vital food supply. The marine heatwave now active in the Southern Ocean around Australia may be as devastating to ocean biodiversity as the summer bushfires have been on land.

And yet, the pressure to exploit the “resource” is building much faster than our ability to understand its impact.

For most of the months I was writing, I was leaning heavily on the usually advertised solutions involving marine protected areas, better regulations, voluntary environmental stewardship, and so forth. Towards the end of my time with the project I became increasingly disenchanted with these strategies, which hadn’t been working before, so why should we put confidence in them now?



Instead, I turned to something I had been studying from the world of negative emissions technologies in the context of my Belize Cool Lab and biochar. That something was cryptocurrency.

In July 2015, the UN Research Institute for Social Development published a working paper called “Re-imagining Money to Broaden the Future of Development Finance: What Kenyan Community Currencies Reveal is Possible for Financing Development. “The paper focused on the case of Bangla-Pesa, an alternative currency used in poor urban areas in Kenya, and showed how currency innovation can work for poor people. In 2015 crypto was relatively new — BitCoin was trading at $300 (today it is $9600, down from a 2017 peak of nearly $20,000)— but in broad stroke, the “Re-imagining Money” paper had it right. Crypto is not tulip mania in digital form or a new flavor-of-the-week for gold bugs. It could be about integrating neglected externalities in neoclassical economics so that currencies aid social and ecological goals rather than take away from them, or simply ignore them. The authors wrote:
“It is in the context of historical and evolving confusion that we offer the Value- Sequence Typology of money, which is at present purely descriptive. However, we believe that in time, as the field of currency innovation expands dramatically, it could be used to predict the longer-term sustainability of currency valuations, due to analysis of whether the issuers, regulators, and users of currencies are clear about the relationship of a type of money to actual value. It may help reveal fundamental fallacies in the design, understanding and regulation of currencies that could cause volatility. In addition, it may also be able to predict the societal impact of currencies, with well-governed credit monies and Acknowledgement Monies enabling more social progress than commodity monies.”
Since the digital age first reached central banks in the last quarter of the 20th century, paper and coin money have taken a back seat to electronically-stored and instantly transmitted strings of ones and zeros that make up the modern global economy. Each day quadrillions of dollars, euros, rubles, pesos, and yen are exchanged by keystroke. This revolution has now evolved into blockchains of digital ledgers that offer verifiability and chain-of-custody records, and one even more significant advantage. They offer the prospect that we may be able to de-externalize costs that harm society and the natural world.

When we cut down a tree to make paper or furniture, our ancient system of accounting counts that timber as an asset. As value is added through labor and technology, the wood appreciates and is assigned a higher value. We do not subtract from that value the work the tree had been doing that is now lost. We do not account for its role in moderating climate, freshening the air, or fostering biodiversity. But we could. The shift to distributed ledgers and the acceleration of computing power makes that kind of revaluation possible. It is already happening with experimental exchanges like Nori and Puro that calculate how carbon-sequestration value changes as a product or service is exchanged, ages, or recycles its components. Activity that benefits the climate conveys a higher value, while activity that reduces our security or damages the environment drops the value of the commodity.
Ocean Claims: from Our Future on Earth

The decision by many nations and cities to push for carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier will bring opportunities to realign financial institutions to this new economic paradigm, where social and environmental costs are no longer externalized but are reflected in the price of anything exchanged. There will be opportunities for new jobs and better living conditions as a result.

One example of this approach is how we are planning to capitalize our Cool Lab build-out with a vessel called Noah ReGen that first emerged from the discussions at the Commonwealth. A Bleen Bond is the contraction of Blue and Green bond, used for ocean impact investment. The principal goal of the investment is ocean ecosystem regeneration. As most of the marine litter and pollution originates from the land, Noah ReGen is planning to issue Bleen Bonds to fund the cleanup and restoration of rivers, wetlands, and coastal lands. Bond funding can target sources of pollution, coastal erosion, microplastics, and acidification; can reverse coral and biodiversity losses; can then provide returns to investors from carbon credits for coastal mangroves, real estate, and biorefineries. The bonds will offer to bondholders:
  • Income security of 30-year bonds
  • 5% APR revenues: 4% in dollars; 1% in Blue Coins
  • Expected appreciation of bond value @ 7% APR based upon carbon exchange trading.
The Blue Coins appreciate or depreciate based upon continuing audits of their carbon sequestration, social goals, or regeneration of ecosystems. Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion pledge to tackle climate change could launch all this in a single stroke.

To avoid extinction requires us to de-externalize the true costs of things. Our exponentially accelerating computing power and these new distributed ledgers can now provide that opportunity.


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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Floating Cities, Microbubbles and the Blue Acceleration

"The human footprint is very large and there is little that has not felt its weight. "

We tend to think of the ocean as vast. Seven tenths of the planet’s surface. At its deepest, it is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. At its broadest, it crosses 13 time zones from beach to beach. Only 5 percent of the seafloor has been mapped in the level of detail of the Moon and Mars. 

Of course, we used to think that about the Great Plains in North America or Western China, but the human footprint is very large and there is little that has not felt its weight. 

Jean-Baptiste Jouffrey
I am very grateful that the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a Manhattan Project for the Climate Emergency, recruited the young French PhD candidate Jean-Baptiste Jouffray. Jouffrey specializes in the intertwined relationship between humans and marine ecosystems in the Anthropocene, with “the ambition to provide empirical novel approaches and analytical methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics around the world.”

His research encompasses multiple scales and systems, ranging from the Hawaiian archipelago and indicators for effective coral management, to the seafood industry at a global scale and the role of transnational corporations and the financial sector.
 
His seminal contribution, published with co-authors at the end of January, is The Blue Acceleration: The Trajectory of Human Expansion into the Ocean. In that, Jouffrey strips away the blue veil and reveals what is really going on below the surface of the sea. His team looks at overfishing, oil and gas exploration, seabed mining, desalinated water, the aquarium trade, the genetic patent rush, cargo shipping, cruise ships and beach resorts, pipelines and cables, wind farms, marine heat waves, sea level rise, military activities, waste disposal, algal blooms, and geoengineering.

Geoengineering is where microbubbles come in. As we lose the arctic ice cover, the dark ocean will absorb much more heat. While this will be offset to some extent by increasing cloud cover at the tropics, one idea is to outfit ships with special propellers that leave frothy microbubbles in their wake, reflecting more light, and hence heat, back to space.

Floating Cities is one idea about what to do with the 12 of the world’s 15 megacities threatened by sea level rise. Rather than move back, lean in. Put coastal structures onto floating platforms.

Jouffray’s genius is to reframe this discussion as competing claims on a finite resource. To balance those claims equitably and sustainably, you need to bring all the stakeholders to the table. My only question is, who speaks for the whales?



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Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Winning Strategy

"The scale is building. Three point five percent is 260 million of us."




Turns out McKibben was right. Or at least he may have been, it is still too soon to say. For some years I have been plinking away at these keys and getting scant results. In my spare time, I design cool labs that will remove carbon from the atmosphere and ocean and, at scale, could bring back the Holocene in as little as 35 years. It is somewhat better than just pontificating, but slower.

I ran that calculation of 35 years out in a little more detail in my interview with Kosha Joubert in the GEN webinar series, Communities for the Future Online Summit, earlier this week but it was moving so fast I am not sure how many of the viewers actually got it. I was trying not to sound hopeful and failing miserably. I also had gone into that interview wanting to say something about the downside of our human tribal tropism and was immediately thrown a question about the etymological origins of ”hippy” that knocked me off that plan. I never got around to saying that hippies, like permies, or greenies, by virtue of their tribalism, risk becoming a death cult just like Republicans and Democrats. But I digress.

In McKibben’s spare time he leads a social movement based on the number 350 that used to be a climate goal, but now is sort of an arcane throwback to an earlier decade, bordering on numerology. Strategy-wise, he was less concerned with carbon dioxide removal than with ramping up street protests. Having lived through the Vietnam, antinuclear, and antiwar protest era of the past half-century, I thought that was a fool’s errand. I am here today to say I was wrong. Although, I will still question whether The End of Nature was the first book on climate change written for a mass audience — that would have been Global Warming by Stephen Schneider.

Turns out McKibben was right, albeit only by an unexpected turn of events. Protests are bringing the beast to heel, and the key battleground came not in Washington or Paris but to a lonely field in South Dakota, not very far from Wounded Knee. It was the young water keepers that killed the dinosaur.

The story of modern-day fracking centers on an old dinosaur habitat called the Permian Basin, in West Texas. Radio Ecoshock host Alex Smith asked Nick Cunningham, who publishes at OilPrice.com, to tell him why big oil companies were simply flaring natural gas off into the air.
“When you drill for oil, gas comes up along with it,” Cunningham said, “and the Texas drillers are really after the oil…. Now they have the pipelines to move the oil to the Texas coast, which is far away, but they don’t have enough pipelines to move gas, and that causes a glut there in West Texas, and that causes prices to crash, and instead of slowing down on the oil production they are trying to drill as much as possible, in part because they are under a lot of financial pressure, so they just burn the gas into the air.

“Now, they say that they are working on the issue and it’s temporary, due to infrastructure constraints, but it’s an epidemic and an emergency in terms of the climate and local air quality. So it’s a big problem.”

Cunningham said there have been more than 200 bankruptcies in the oil and gas sector since 2015, which shows that the fracking industry is still an unproven business model. As Richard Heinberg warned in Snake Oil, back when the boom began, fracked oil and gas declines very rapidly once a well is tapped — 60 to 90% are gone within 3 years. Fracked oil gives way to fracked gas, but oil is worth money and gas is not. Steep decline rates mean you must keep drilling, which means you must raise more money. The fracking boom is built on Ponzi’d debt. Share prices are now collapsing, banks are cutting the spigot, and bankruptcies are cascading. 1.9 million new oil and gas wells will need to be drilled to replace those that are drying up. $13 trillion will need to be spent to drill all those wells but lenders are drying up. Prices for gas are too low to produce profits, and oil prices are down too because there is too much of it that can’t move out of fields in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, so share prices are falling, lenders are not interested and companies are going bankrupt.

In Canada, oil prices have dropped to as much as $40 per barrel below prices in the United States. Why is that? Well, among other things, it is because they have no way to get it to market. They took so long to build the pipelines like Keystone XL and Transmountain because indigenous climate protests, although eventually thwarted by President Cobblepot, succeeded in slowing everything down and sending wrecking balls through crucial financial timelines. 

The classic study on protest is by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict.” (International Security 33, no. 1 (2008): 7–44.) Stephan and Chenoweth found that despite being twice as successful as violent conflicts, peaceful resistance still failed 47% of the time to accomplish its goals. Looking at 323 violent and nonviolent civil resistance and social movements from 1900 to 2006, the researchers learned that although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, around 3.5% of a nation’s population actively participating in the protests is enough to ensure lasting political change. For a nation like the US, that would be 11 million people.

Scale is one prerequisite. The other stepping stones to success are presenting a clear and unambiguous request; addressing the person or institution empowered to meet that request; and putting leverage on that person or institution in an ethically unassailable way. If you can do these last three strategies with a small number of people, you may reach the needed scale for unstoppable change.

The M.L. King Center has six more precepts to consider: 
  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
  6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.
Did the Standing Rock water protectors know when they camped in the snow that they would so increase the cost of oil production that they would bankrupt hundreds of companies? No. In the end, they were forcibly evicted and the pipeline laid under their rivers and lake and over their sacred sites.
That didn’t matter. They chose the right place at the right time and chose love not hate. Their message was conveyed to the world. Their protest is not over.

Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old leader of School Strike in Sweden and around the world, is following these same steps when she speaks truth to power. She has set the example of a courageous way of life. Her request is clear and unambiguous. In Davos, Washington, London, and Geneva she is addressing the persons and institutions empowered to meet that request and they are starting to respond. Her leverage is her charisma. The scale is building. Three point five percent is 260 million of us. Every Friday.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.
 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Blizzards of the Deep - Part 2

"This is the second of a two-part look at the changes happening to our world that are far out of sight and far out of mind for most of us. In the first part, we journeyed to the bottom of the ocean, with no sunlight, temperature close to freezing, and enough pressure to crush a golf ball. There we met flashlight fish, with bean-shaped pouches below their eyes filled with bioluminescent bacteria, giant squid with eyes the size of soccer balls, and uniquely adapted jellyfish, octopuses, starfish, and sea urchins."

 


Red Tides

There are sometimes conditions at sea that favor the growth of algal soup — calm seas, sunlight, sediments — such that the population of algae explodes to millions per liter of water. It grows so dense that it is dangerous to many fish, clogging their gills and mouths. When the type of algae is red, it can produce what is called a “red tide” — and hundreds of tons of floating fish carcasses. As the bloom exhausts its food and dies, the algal cells sink to the bottom, smothering anything living on the seabed. 

Overactive algae also tend to concentrate bacteria up the food chain as they are consumed by shellfish, crabs, and baby turtles. Mussels can easily eat over 50 million cells per hour, storing and concentrating the bacteria. Outbreaks of permanent paralysis and other diseases in coastal cities have been traced to this shellfish toxin.

As a dilute soup, the algae are life-givers, but as a red tide they are deadly. A combination of warming oceans, sewage and soils from rivers, discarded by-catch and dying fish is providing optimal conditions to make such tides more frequent.

Bottom Trawls

A bottom trawl is designed to run close to the seabed. Sometimes it is weighted and just drags and other times it may use rollers or wheels to move along the sea floor. It goes after fish that linger near the bottom like plaice, sole, grouper, and flounder, but will also catch non-commercial fish — by-catch — such as manta rays and moray eels without specifically targeting them. In The Ocean of Life, marine biologist Callum Roberts describes being aboard a Costa Rican long-liner at Playa del Coco as it went in search of mahi-mahi (dolphin fish or dorado) for the North American market:
The collateral damage from the capture of just 211 mahi-mahi, which took fifty-four longlines with forty-three thousand hooks, was atrocious: 468 olive ridley turtles, 20 green turtles, 408 pelagic stingrays, 47 devil rays (close relatives of the manta), 413 silky sharks, 24 thresher sharks, 13 smooth hammerhead sharks, 6 crocodile sharks, 4 oceanic whitetip sharks, 68 Pacific sailfish, 34 striped marlin, 32 yellowfin tuna, 22 blue marlin, 11 wahoo, 8 swordfish, and 4 ocean sunfish. To capture enough mahi-mahi to provide one lunch for five average-sized office blocks caused carnage in Costa Rican seas.
***
Next time you sink your teeth into a delicious mahi-mahi sandwich, spare a thought for the ghosts of all those others slaughtered to catch that fish. The ocean’s big animals need protection beyond the limits of protected areas. Otherwise it won’t be many years before this Costa Rican fishery and others like it close shop as there will be nothing left to take.
In many beam trawls there are “tickler chains” set ahead of the net mouth to scare up fish that hug the bottom. Moving along at the speed of the trawling boat, foot-ropes and chains slice off or bruise sea fans, corals and sponges and chop down whole meadows of seagrass and forests of kelp in search of their prey. Sometimes they catch large boulders and roll them across the reefs, breaking apart huge coral chunks. 

Trawlers churn up organic matter and minerals on the bottom, leaving a dense plume, some of which will surface to feed plankton blooms but more will bury bottom feeders under a muddy rain. A small trawler fitted with two twenty-five-foot-wide nets and a chain that cuts an inch into the seabed can raise approximately two thousand tons of sediment per hour of trawling, of which over two hundred tons will remain in suspension for days.

 
Six million square miles of ocean is being fished this way every year. Some of the same areas of reefs are fished five or more times every day. Callum Roberts says that is more than 15,000 square miles of dead, damaged and dying bottom life every day, an area the size of Europe or America every year.
A global moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling was proposed to the UN General Assembly in 2006. Roberts says the measure “came within a whisker of being passed but was vetoed at the last minute by the Icelandic delegation. A nation of three hundred thousand people stymied the introduction of protection critical to the survival of deep sea life.”

Seabed Teslas

Something similar is happening now with regard to deep seabed mining. The debate over whether deep sea mining has a place in an environmentally and socially sustainable “blue” economy is stymieing ocean regulation.

Proponents argue that we will need resources from the ocean to transition to a low-carbon economy. To meet the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, metal demand for electric-vehicle batteries will have to increase more than tenfold by 2050. Opponents fear it will devastate the last untouched wilderness on the planet.

Potato-sized polymetallic nodules, which contain nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, lie on the seabed at depths of 4–6 km (2.5–3.7 miles) in an area of the Pacific called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. These ores are in demand for batteries and wiring in electric vehicles. A dozen countries, including China, India, Japan, Russia and the UK, have granted exploration contracts regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

These countries plan to send deep diving drone miners the size of a combine harvester trawling the seabeds to remove the top layer of sediment, pump it through a pipeline to a ship, which then separates the nodules and discharges the sediment into the ocean.

A major concern is that the sediment plume could carry for great distances, suffocating marine life. Another concern is that algal blooms at the surface could be fed by the mineral-rich discharges. Still another is that the quantity and diversity of biological species in the deep sea is far higher than previously thought and entire ecosystems could be destroyed by mining activities before many species are even named.

Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the ISA, which should be the agency protecting the ocean, says: “If you said that no industry can start until we know what is going to happen from that industry, then that’s an entirely circular argument that would prevent any industry in the history of humanity from starting.”

“We have a good idea of what the impacts will be,” Lodge says. “They are by no means as catastrophic as environmental groups would have us believe; they are predictable and manageable.” The industry argues that biodiversity losses from surface mining are likely to be much worse, given the greater abundance of wildlife in many areas.

With global recycling rates for electronic waste at only around 20%, a large amount of valuable metals that could go into electric cars and wind generators is being wasted. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition says we should be talking about refusing, reusing and recycling rather than opening up a whole new frontier of environmental degradation to feed a throwaway culture.
The industry agrees that recycling should be maximized, but says this will not supply the huge additional volume of metal needed to manufacture a billion new electric vehicles. “You can’t recycle what you don’t have,” a spokesman says. “What we first of all need to do is to have a massive injection of new battery materials put into the system.”

Which would we rather — more electric cars or more octopuses? What do we do when reversing climate change conflicts with preserving biodiversity? When we speak of sustainability, what is it we are trying to sustain? Our ability to supply fish oils to cats and cattle? A seafood-consuming human population of 8 billion and counting? Or might we rather, at the end of it all, have the web of life that provides the air we breathe and balances the temperature of our planet to within the range we require to survive?

Clean Coal

When we hear politicians from coaling nations like the USA, Poland, Australia and Canada calling for “clean coal,” the technology they are generally referring to is a geoengineering scheme, often debunked in these pages, called Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS. In its purest form, which litters the landscape with billion-dollar federal boondoggles initiated by every hapless and misguided president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. CCS most often means putting CO2 scrubbers on coal stacks, liquifying the gas, and pumping it somewhere… away. Because the capture process is technically challenging, and therefore expensive, massive taxpayer subsidies are the only way that polluters could ever be made, and indeed delighted, to use CCS, but the bigger problem is that back end of the process.

I have attended many lectures by university, government, and corporate researchers who study and promote CCS, and none of them has a good answer when it comes to disposal of liquified carbon dioxide. Some say it can be sold to enhance growth in large-scale greenhouses or as an ingredient in carbonated beverages. I call that “catch and release,” kind of like digging a deep hole and then filling it again.

Some say there are plenty of abandoned oil wells and coal shafts — we can just dump the liquid CO2 back from whence it came, but there are two problems with that approach. First, these repositories are not in the same places the powerplants and factories are, so the refrigerated CO2 would have to travel long distances in expensive pipelines, and second, the entire system — stack scrubbers, pipelines, and burial shafts — leaks. Estimates for just the repository leakage is 10% per year, or 100% in ten years. Catch and release. 

 Lately the darling of the CCS crowd is a wacky notion of deep ocean disposal. Since most of the world’s population resides within 200 miles of the coast, why not send liquid, or even gaseous, CO2 out to a pumping station that would inject it a mile deep. Once it crossed through twilight and entered the Midnight Zone, it would freeze and sink, so the theory goes, and rise to trouble the atmosphere nevermore. Offshore Ocean Mechanical Thermal Energy Conversion (OMTEC) platforms could be where the CO2 gets pumped down, using the same pipes that convey warm surface waters to the deep.


Except, instead of burying bottom dwellers now in trawler mudstorms, we would be smothering them in a continuously enlarging blanket of CO2, and as that is transformed by seawater to carbonic acid, it would dissolve the shells of crustaceans, disintegrate corals, and make the ocean floor too toxic for even a Moray Eel. 

These disposal schemes also plague the plan for a massive roll-out of BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture and Storage) that would run biomass power plants much the same way you run a coal or diesel plant — fuel in one end and pollution out the other. All current BECCS schemes are planning to pump CO2 to either deep land or deep ocean “repositories.” Those of us in the biochar world — environmental scientists, waste disposal experts, permaculturists and the like — prefer evolving BECCS terminology into slightly more apt, if even less elegant, using acronyms (and technologies) like WBEBCS (Waste Biomass Energy to Biochar Capture and Storage) or PyCCS (Pyrolysis Carbon Capture and Storage — which might include non-recyclable plastics). PyCCS, coined by the Ithaka Institut for Carbon Intelligence in Switzerland, is starting to gain traction in the scientific literature.
The advantage of biochar, apart from its use as a superior fertilizer, concrete and asphalt additive, and building block for bioplastics, biochemicals, and the circular economy, is that it doesn’t have all the disposal problems of CO2. Even if you just dumped it in the ocean, which would be like dumping gold or diamonds, all you would get would be more coral reefs.

Plastic Storms

There are now microplastics found in one-third of fish caught and examined. When a 2015 expedition to the Mariana Trench took samples of crustaceans on the ocean floor to analyze, they discovered that even those had plastic in their guts. Microplastics have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and affect behavior. Reports of fish stranding on beaches, their bellies filled with plastics, are becoming more common. 

In 1960 there were 15 million tons of plastic in the world. By 2020, we were adding 400 million tons per year. The plastic entering the ocean is doubling every 5 years, so by 2050, the world will add 1.2 billion tons per year, barring sudden de-industrialization. Today there is one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. By 2050 or sooner, there will be more plastic than fish.

 And yet, each year, millions of tons of plastic are flushed into the ocean. Sea turtles will eat it as they browse the floating islands of sargassum. Seagulls, terns, herons, and penguins will pick the colorful bits off beaches and feed them to their chicks. Dolphins and salmon will eat smaller fish who browsed plastic from coral reefs. Many of these indestructible polymers are known cancer-causers but the full toxicity of all of them — and the new kinds being introduced every year — is still unknown. For sea birds, whales, and fish that fill up their stomachs with indigestible plastic debris, or sea animals that tangle in abandoned plastic nets, six-pack rings, or floating ropes and fabrics, we don’t need to know how toxic they are, because these victims will die of starvation, strangulation, and defenseless predation. 

There is something uniquely stupid about designing a throw-away item to last forever and to be deadly, generation after generation, even when it falls like fresh snow upon the water.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Blizzards of the Deep — Part 1

"Which would we rather — more electric cars or more octopuses? What do we do when reversing climate change conflicts with preserving biodiversity?"


Blizzards of the Deep — Part 1


Ever since 1932, when biologist William Beebe and engineer Otis Barton squeezed through the 14-inch (36-cm) opening in their hollow metal ball they called a bathysphere, humans have been exploring the depths of the ocean. Beebe and Barton reached 2,200 feet on that first descent and would take the ball to 3,000 feet two years later. They saw flashlight fish, with bean-shaped pouches below their eyes filled with bioluminescent bacteria that blinked on and off as the fish winked. They saw sea jellies that made light by reacting a chemical called luciferin with oxygen. Other fish had eyes shaped like tubes to allow them to take in more light, or, like the giant squid, eyes the size of soccer balls. In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, in their research vessel Trieste, set a record that can never be broken by touching down on the lowest point on the surface of the Earth, 35,814 feet (10,916 meters) below sea level, in the Mariana Trench. 

 While the early explorers could take photographs through a porthole or describe what they saw, today’s research vessels have robot arms, sensors, and video cameras to gather samples and show what they’ve seen to the world. We have discovered countless organisms — like vampire squid, named for the webbing between tentacles that resemble a red bat wing, and a female octopus that sits on its nest of eggs for four and a half years, as its babies get large enough to enter their dark world.

Sunlight filters through the uppermost layers of water, but from 650 to 3280 feet (1000 meters), depending on where you are, it dims into what oceanographers call the Twilight Zone. Below that is the Midnight Zone, with no sunlight, temperature close to freezing, and enough pressure to crush a golf ball. For every 33 feet (10 meters) you descend, the pressure increases by 14.7 pounds per square inch. Animals like sperm whales and sea lions have flexible skeletons that collapse to accommodate these pressures when they dive.

With bodies or shells that maintain the same pressure inside as out, shellfish have their own bathyspheres. Invertebrates — animals that have no skeletons — reign on the ocean’s floor. There are deep sea versions of starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea anemones, and even corals that do not require warmth or sunlight. Mud-dwelling ratfish have skeletons made of cartilage and can find worms and clams by sensing electrical fields. This might explain why sharks and rays were able to survive so many extinction events, because their special abilities — to contract, sense electrical fields, and smell at great distance — allow them to dive deep and find food when all of the usual sources have disappeared. Another strategy is that of the giant isopods that can slow their heart rate and go for years without eating.

Aliens of the Ocean

The octopus is a most unusual deep dweller. Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible body that can squeeze through very small openings, and ability to instantaneously switch color and shape are just a few of the striking features that appeared suddenly on the evolutionary scene and are not found together in any other creature. We know that octopusses (not octupi) come from the same biological line as nautilus, cuttlefish and squid, but they are so genetically different that it has opened some interesting questions about their origins. In June 2016, a number of web sites reported that researchers had examined octopus DNA and discovered it was either “alien” or “from space.” This was a bit overstated. The source, an article in the journal Nature, actually said that octopuses have a genome that yields an unprecedented level of complexity, composed of 33,000 protein-coding genes. This number is well beyond the number that can be found in a human being, so one scientist humorously compared it to an alien, which started the rumor.

Other scientists didn’t think it it is a joke. The March 2018 issue of the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology (“Cause of Cambrian Explosion — Terrestrial or Cosmic?”) examined whether some of our evolutionary ancestors could have been extraterrestrial. The paper said that since the genes of the octopus “are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form — it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant ‘future’ in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically, from the cosmos at large.” The paper proposed that we not so quickly discount the notion that octopus genes might have been extraterrestrial. The scientists concluded:
Thus the possibility that cryopreserved squid and/or octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted, as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. 

Snow

What we have come to call marine snow is actually tiny bits of dead plants and animals, feces and plastic that fall like snowflakes from the surface and upper layers of the ocean. Some animals, like jellyfish, vampire squid, and sea urchins rely on this snow for food. Others rely on whalefalls, which is literally what it sounds like. When a whale or other large fish or mammal dies near the surface, its carcass drifts to the bottom where it becomes food for thousands of bottom dwellers, sometimes for many years. If there are more deaths of marine animals now from climate change, poisons, oil spills, radioactivity and other human-caused disasters, it stands to reason these are banquet years at the bottom of the sea. But then what?

Barring massive geoengineering interventions like OMTEC farms (Ocean Mechanical Thermal Energy Conversion), heat from the surface will not reach the depths of the deeper ocean during my lifetime, or for many lifetimes afterwards. You can think of the temperatures there as a kind of planetary memory because the average heat at different strata reflects previous ice ages going back hundreds of thousands of years. What changes, however, is the snow.


In the second part of this two-part series, we will look at those changes to the snow being caused by red tides, bottom trawls, seabed mining, carbon capture and storage, and microplastics. Readers willing to spend a dollar for a good cause can donate to my page on Patreon and get the second part now, but otherwise the second installment will be out with my free blog that comes out every Sunday.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.
 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Thugs and Circuses: President Cobblepot's Season Finale

"As the world watches, our circus moves to the floor of the Senate next week, pitting a real-estate-grifter-turned-reality-TV-host against the US Constitution."


Regular followers of this blog may know that our POTUS, Donald J. Cobblepot, has been formally impeached and at this writing is scheduled to stand trial. There is little concern within the gilded lair of the White House because a majority of jurors are party minions whose votes have been procured, by hook or crook, well in advance. 

There are some “smoking gun” witnesses being proposed that one faction or another feels may sway the verdict in the impressionable mind of the public, but those guns are pointed back at their advocates for reasons I will elucidate.

The John Bolton gun is assumed by Democrats to point at Cobblepot on the thin justification that the former National Security Advisor assignated former Mayor Rudy “The Joker” Giuliani’s forays in Ukraine “a drug deal.” As I pointed out in social media earlier this month, Bolton’s testimony may have also been purchased and is now pre-packaged awaiting release. The sequence of events that leads me to that conclusion:
  1. On January 5th, Iraq voted to seek immediate US disengagement rather than the lesser option of seeking a timetable for withdrawal.
  2. On January 6th, US command sent a memo agreeing to the pullout outlining the immediate withdrawal logistics. One may surmise POTUS was on board with this approach in keeping with his general wish to pull back from the theater. Congress voted to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2007.
  3. Later in the day on January 6th, John Bolton, an oil hawk and no fan of US disengagement, announced he is willing to testify in the impeachment trial and will comply with any lawful subpoena.
  4. Meanwhile, Iraq asked for clarification on some parts of the memo. US Command made revisions and sent a revised version in two languages.
  5. (January 7th, surmised) POTUS likely conferred with Bolton, they reach an accord on the substance of his testimony, and the Pentagon is informed that the withdrawal is off. Quid pro quo.
  6. US command in the theater walks back the memo and official state outlets like the New York Times call it a simple mistake, like hitting a SEND key on an internal draft. This official explanation is at odds with the timeline.
  7. US forces start pouring into Iraq to reinforce bases there. Attention is withdrawn from Iran for the moment and focused instead on defending the US positions in Iraq. The outcome is just as Bolton would have wanted as a quid and POTUS would not have initially wanted, but a quo is a quo.
The second smoking gun is Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who agreed to sit on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings Ltd, for an obscene amount of money. Republicans are less concerned about the sleaze factor, which rightly concerns Democrats (but apparently not the former Vice President), but more than convinced that Biden Jr had a role in corrupt practices that POTUS, in a now-infamous phone call with the the President of Ukraine, had wanted investigated, i.e.: the bribery and extortion scandal at the center of impeachment.

Unfortunately for its advocates, this second gun is also firing blanks. Hunter Biden provided advice on legal issues, corporate finance and strategy during a five-year term on the Burisma board, from May 2014 to April 2019. His tenure didn’t protect the company from the series of criminal investigations launched by Ukrainian authorities against its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, a multimillionaire former minister of ecology and natural resources. The allegations concern tax violations, money-laundering and licenses given to Burisma during the period when Zlochevsky was a government minister. 

The judicial process corruption angle involved chief prosecutor Viktor Shokin who was allegedly bribed to look away, but the Obama Administration, vocally led by Biden Sr., along with the European Union, pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin and root out the corruption, which is what happened in 2015-2016, resulting in Burisma’s being more thoroughly investigated. 

The Joker’s narrative, without any supporting evidence, is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, through Joe Biden, pushed for the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor to end the investigation into Burisma and Zlochevsky in order to, among other goals, protect Hunter Biden. That narrative is full of more holes than The Joker’s head, as will be discovered if Biden is subpoena’d to testify in the Senate trial. Yuriy Lutsenko, who succeeded Shokin as Ukraine’s prosecutor general in 2016, took over a tax investigation into Burisma before closing the case ten months later with a settlement over old bills. Lutsenko said that any legal issues with Burisma were not related to Biden.

In addition to the closed tax investigation, Ukraine authorities launched an investigation into licenses awarded to Burisma and a separate money-laundering probe into founder Zlochevsky. Both of these have been re-opened in recent months, but neither relate to the period after Biden joined the board. 
Curiously, it was revealed on January 13, 2020 that “Russian hackers” (of which there are various and sundry, rarely affiliated with the Russian state) had been surveilling Burisma’s internal communications since November, 2019. The New York Times reported that:
“…experts say the timing and scale of the attacks suggest that the Russians could be searching for potentially embarrassing material on the Bidens — the same kind of information that Mr. Trump wanted from Ukraine when he pressed for an investigation of the Bidens and Burisma, setting off a chain of events that led to his impeachment.”
Since the source of all this information was Oren Falkowitz, who previously served at the National Security Agency and now works for “a network of sensors and servers” known as Area 1, you have to check your wallet before accepting these “experts” at face value.

There is, however, a third gun that has been produced and has real smoke. On Tuesday night, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a long-awaited tranche of documents coming from from a data dump by lawyers for one of Joker Giuliani’s indicted Ukrainian henchmen, recruited by Cobblepot himself, Lev Parnas

As is often the case, the stereo sides of mainstream media trailed far behind this story, portraying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s delay in delivering the articles of impeachment to some misbegotten attempt to negotiate with entrenched Senate Majority Leader Mitch “Muggs” McConnell, when in fact, the delay was occasioned by Attorney General William “Glimpy” Barr attempting to keep the Parnas file (which named him as an accessory) beyond the reach of a House subpoena. After a month of delays, Barr’s efforts failed in court, the file went to Pelosi, and was stapled to the back of the indictment of Cobblepot delivered to McConnell the following day.

Parnas’ cellphone data, seized by the FBI when he was arrested and transmitted by the court to the House Intelligence Committee this week under the successful subpoena, shows that a Trump donor named Robert F. Hyde gave Parnas updates on the location and cellphone use of US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to allow The Joker’s thugs to stalk her and compile a dossier for Cobblepot. Hyde is now running for a U.S. House seat in Connecticut. POTUS used the dossier to fire Yovanovitch and then smear her in a series of tweets. Parnas was interviewed by MSNBC— available from Wednesday and Thursday as a free podcast.

As an aside to the Hunter Biden sleaze story, Parnas told MSNBC, “They [The Joker’s Ukrainian gang]were getting a million dollars plus $100,000 a month expenses and mine was $200,000.”
Parnas’ data dump also implicates Cobblepot insiders Mike “the Knife” Pence and Glimpy Barr, first and seventh, respectively, in the constitutional line of succession should Cobblepot be removed from office by the Senate, along with Rick “Tex” Perry (formerly 14th in succession).

Parnas and his business partner, Igor Fruman, are U.S. citizens born in the former Soviet Union. They were indicted last year on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and falsification of records after making millions of dollars in campaign donations to Cobblepot’s gang from bank accounts in Russia.

Joker and Parnas
Additionally, the messages between Parnas and Giuliani suggest that Giuliani believed he had Cobblepot’s support in reversing a decision to deny a U.S. visa for Viktor Shokin, the former top Ukrainian prosecutor whom then-vice president Biden and others had demanded be removed from office. I can revive it,” Giuliani purportedly said. “It’s going to work — I have no. 1 in it,” an apparent reference to Cobblepot. 

The most serious revelation concerns Cobblepot’s vendetta against US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. As the Associated Press reported
After texting about the ambassador, Hyde gave Parnas detailed updates that suggested he was watching her. In one text, Hyde wrote: “She’s talked to three people. Her phone is off. Her computer is off.” He said she was under heavy security and “we have a person inside.”
Hyde at one point texted Parnas that ‘’they are willing to help if we/you would like a price,” and “guess you can do anything in Ukraine with money … is what I was told.”

Parnas texted back: “lol.”

Reached for comment on the text messages by The Daily Beast on Tuesday night, Hyde texted, “Bull Schiff is a giant b*tch.”

Stalking a US Ambassador is a federal crime even if it occurs on foreign soil, which probably only matters if you don’t already have the Attorney General in your pocket.

Readers who have been with this blog for some years may recall my posts about the stages of empire collapse. One early stage common to both the Roman and the Mayan Empires has been termed the “Theater State.” In this phase immediately preceding contraction and disintegration, the ruling classes are bored and jaded with their wealth, so much so that they engage in brutal spectacles like throwing Christians to lions, pitting top-ranked gladiators against one another, disemboweling slaves on top of pyramids, or having sporting Super Bowls requiring the losing team be sacrificed. As the world watches, our circus moves to the floor of the Senate next week, pitting a real-estate-grifter-turned-reality-TV-host against the US Constitution.

Best of all, even if Cobblepot is removed in this season’s finale, viewers can vote to renew the show for another four years, come November.

_______________

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

John Wayne squares off against Jim Hansen

"Being a good climate scientist doesn’t automatically give you a doctorate in health physics."

 
After leaving a press conference in the COP-25 climate meeting with my ears burning, it has taken me more than a month to sit down and write this essay. I greatly admire James Hansen and have since the day I sat in the Senate gallery for his testimony to Al Gore and Tim Wirth’s hearings on climate change in 1988. Hansen was a pioneer climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who had been muzzled by President George H.W. Bush and was supposed to submit all his testimony for White House review before speaking. He ignored the instruction and that eventually cost him his grants and compelled him to resign his position.

What annoys me, however, about Hansen, then and now, is his insistence, in utter disregard of best science, that nuclear energy can somehow save humanity from climate change because it is clean, safe, too cheap to meter and besides all that, is carbon-free. I watched with pity more than scorn when he took his time to repeat this nonsense at the recent UN climate conference in Madrid. He mounted fallacy upon fallacy in a pyramid of lies that had been heard since the 1940s coming from the Atomic Energy Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency and others in thrall to the atomic devil.

Of course all of those assertions by Hansen are utter nonsense. It just goes to show that being a good climate scientist doesn’t automatically give you a doctorate in health physics. I was blessed to have met many of the world’s preeminent health physicists in the 1970s and 1980s while representing atomic victims in battles for fair compensation and writing my fifth book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do. These luminaries included the father of health physics, Karl Z. Morgan, and the man who wrote the still-definitive textbook in the field, Radiation and Human Health, John W. Gofman, former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and discoverer of U-233, someone with whom I became quite close. Judge E. Cooper Brown and I also interviewed and got to know Alice Stewart, George Kneale, Thomas Mancuso, Rosalie Bertell, Irwin Bross, Edward Martell, and many other world-ranked scientists at that time. Most of them, along with my esteemed friend Cooper Brown, have now passed away.

So, when James Hansen ignorantly opines that there were no radiation fatalities from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima and that the new generation of thorium metal reactors is inherently safe, I try to not gag.


Hansen: The waste from nuclear power is contained in containers and is killing no-one. The waste from fossil fuels is killing 10,000 people per day.
 
Here Hansen is comparing post-production wastes to production effluent. The better comparison would be coal ash piles or scrubber sludge to nuclear wastes. Comparing effluent to effluent, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported that emissions from presently licensed facilities produced under normal operating conditions will cause 1.7 million cancers and birth defects in the world population, barring accidents. That several-hundred page report was summarized in the Federal Register in 1979 (46 Fed. Reg. 39580). However, it excluded consideration of health effects from tritium, Tc-99, C-13 and 14 and other radionuclide emissions that were too inaccurate to estimate, they said. By too inaccurate they meant that tritium is easily incorporated into water, and so passes through living cells very easily, and carbon is the building block of organic chemistry, inseparable from life, so if one were to try to measure their impact inside the human body, the mortality and morbidity rates would need to be raised orders of magnitude higher than 1.7 million. This could make nuclear power unacceptable so, for reasons having to do with their institutional DNA, the NRC was not going to do that.

Hansen: [Rickover design was chosen by military and…] we turned down [alternatives] and we just didn’t do the alternative R&D on things like thorium-fueled molten salt reactors.

It is not difficult to debunk Thorium-141’s popular mythology using simple physics, as Drs. Arjun Makhijani and Helen Caldicott have, because thorium is not a naturally fissionable element and so must first be mixed with enriched Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239 before it can be fissioned under controlled conditions to make steam for a power plant. To do that mixing, never mind the reacting, is a dangerous, deadly, polluting and extremely expensive process generating loads of long-lasting and unrecoverable poisons. After reaction, the thorium blend leaves dangerous wastes like U-232, a potent high-energy gamma emitter that can penetrate one meter of concrete and will have to be kept safely out of our air, food, and water forever. Anyone who was nodding in agreement as Hansen was spouting his rubbish should try eating some of that and see how they feel. Stewart Brand? James Lovelock? Bill Gates? Andrew Yang?

Slide used by James Hansen at COP-25 Press Conference
Hansen: “Three Mile Island did not kill anyone.”

Officially, TMI caused no immediate deaths. But unofficial investigations and lawsuits claimed there were above-average rates of cancer and birth defects in the surrounding area. Anecdotal evidence among the local human population has been devastating. Hansen would say that anecdotal evidence is not science, but when public health agencies are prohibited from doing the scientific studies that does not equate with no effects. We know from anecdotal evidence that large numbers of Pennsylvanians suffered skin sores and lesions that erupted while they were out of doors as the fallout rained down on them. Many quickly developed large, visible tumors, breathing problems, and a metallic taste in their mouths that matched that experienced by victims of Hiroshima, or who were exposed to nuclear tests in the South Pacific, Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Nevada.

Approximately 2 million people in the immediate area were exposed to doses that were sub-lethal for early exposure, but the latent genetic effects have been calculated, by Gofman among others, to cause life-shortening in the global population for perhaps one million people. Moreover, there is reason to suspect the doses those estimates are based upon were much lower than what may have actually occurred and gone unreported. Entire bee hives expired immediately after the accident, along with a disappearance of birds, many of whom were found scattered dead on the ground. A rash of malformed pets were born and stillborn, including kittens that could not walk and a dog with no eyes. Reproductive rates among the region’s cows and horses plummeted. The state and federal governments did nothing to track the health histories of the region’s residents. Instead, they significantly understated the scale of the release and the magnitude of the exposures, as later peer reviewed studies showed.

A National Institute of Health study in 1998 found “Results support the hypothesis that radiation doses are related to increased cancer incidence around TMI.”

Harvey Wasserman, writing for Common Dreams, said: “Meanwhile, the death toll from America’s worst industrial catastrophe continues to rise. More than ever, it is shrouded in official lies and desecrated by a reactor-pushing “renaissance” hell-bent on repeating the nightmare on an even larger scale.”

I last shared a podium with Wasserman at a Conference on Michigan’s Future: Energy, Economy and Environment about ten years ago. He detailed a long list of nuclear power’s woes — its high cost (then about $10 billion or more per plant and rising), the potentially catastrophic health and safety effects from everyday radiation emissions and possible meltdowns and other accidents, the inability of the industry to get private funding or insurance (relying entirely on government subsidy and accident immunity), and the unsolvable issue of the disposal of radioactive waste. But, one thing for certain that can never be said of nuclear energy is that it is carbon neutral. Once you take into account the entire nuclear fuel cycle from exploration and mining, shipment of ores from Africa and China, milling, enrichment to fuel grade (enough gas and coal energy goes into that to power Australia), power generation, fuel removal and waste disposal, the fossil fuel footprint is so enormous as to be well beyond any suggestion of carbon neutrality.

The Health Issue

At the start of the 20th century, scientists started experimenting with elements that had unstable energies. Typically these elements had various versions of themselves, known as isotopes or nuclides, that possessed the same number of protons, and so the same atomic number, but had a variable number of neutrons.

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium emitted rays that resembled X-rays. Marie Curie suspected that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction but came from the atom itself. Her work with uranium disproved the conventional wisdom going back to ancient Greece that atoms were indivisible and set up the later discovery of subatomic particles. Curie discovered that thorium, radium, polonium and radioactive bismuth occurred naturally with uranium. Radium was known to glow in the dark, which made it useful for painting the hour and minute hands on watches and clocks. It was later discovered that radium “radiated” more than just neutrons, but also protons and electrons, becoming another unstable element, radon, and that element radiated its subatomic particles to become others, polonium and bismuth, until those eventually became a stable element, lead. Indeed, the radium Curie discovered was the progeny of another unstable element, thorium, which was the progeny of yet another unstable element, uranium.

Madame Curie was a physicist, not a medical doctor, so she did not recognize the health effects of handling uranium, thorium, radium and the other radionuclides. Indeed, she suspected the effects would be beneficial. One of the papers she and her husband published in the late 19th century announced that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells (the basis for today’s radio-chemotherapy). She carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pockets and stored them in her desk drawer. Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near-blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never acknowledged the inherent health risks. She likely did not recognize the symptoms when she began to feel weak and lose her hair. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia without ever knowing that she fought the same mortal enemy as those who had painted the hands on watches and clocks, or those who had mined and processed the uranium on which she worked. After her death, and to this day, her papers and effects are too radioactive to be handled and her laboratory is unsafe to enter.

The famous cowboy actor John Wayne may have been felled by the same foe. From 1951 to 1962 the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) detonated more than 100 bombs in the southwestern US desert, sending huge pinkish plumes of radioactive dust across the stony valleys and canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It gave each “shot” names like Annie, Eddie, Humboldt and Badger. Eleven of those tests were part of a series called Upshot-Knothole in Utah in 1953. In 1954, the Upshot-Knothole site was chosen as the location for a John Wayne film called The Conqueror.

The AEC sent a scientist with a Geiger counter to show Wayne that the location was safe enough for him to bring his wife and children to visit the set. The Geiger counter is said to have crackled so loudly Wayne thought it was broken. Waving it over clumps of cactus, rock and sand produced the same loud result. The Duke, by all accounts, shrugged it off. By 1980, 91 out of 220 cast and crew on The Conquerer had contracted cancer and 46 of them, including Wayne and co-stars Dick Powell, Pedro Armendáriz, Agnes Moorehead, and Susan Hayward had died. Those numbers did not include the families of the cast and crew. John Wayne’s wife and two sons all got cancer. While the two sons survived, the daughter of one of Wayne sons also died of cancer. Hayward’s son Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. Many of the Native American Paiute extras went on to die of cancer also.

When those subatomic particles fly out from a radioactive atom, they are like tiny bullets or missiles — they break genetic codes in cells. Sometimes that simply kills the cell, as it will most often with higher doses, but at low doses, slight genetic displacements can reform into mutations such as cells that are cancerous, or birth deformities. Sometimes the reformed codes are passed along to future generations and can produce hundreds of new and different deformities and diseases. In the 1930s, scientists learned that only about one percent of the total effects are experienced in each separate generation. The other 99 percent echo in the genes of our newborn descendants for thousands of years. In St. George Utah today, public health clinics get about 140 new patients per year from the genetic legacy of the desert blasts of the 1950s.

Declassified health physics reports from the Manhattan Project indicate that the senior scientists believed at least as early as 1945 that:
“. . . the genetic effect has no threshold and exposure is not only cumulative in the individual, but in succeeding generations. On this basis, there would be no tolerance dose, but rather an acceptable injury-limit.”[Parker, H.M., Instrument ation and Radiation Protection (March, 1947), Health Physics, 38:957,970, June 1980]
and:
“Even sub-tolerance radiations produce certain biological changes (cosmic rays are supposed to have some biological effects), so tolerance radiation is not what one strives to get but the maximum permissible dose.”[Morgan, K.Z., The Responsibilities of Health Physics, The Scientific Monthly, 93 (August 1946); reprinted in Health Physics 38:949–952, June 1980.]
The question of what percentage of the population can be acceptably damaged came first to the attention of the AEC at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine on January 16–19,1957. At this meeting the AEC advisors determined that a 20 percent increase in the rate of bone cancers and birth defects nationwide would be an “acceptable” effect of U.S. nuclear weapons testing activities. These scientists also acknowledged at this time that the long-term genetic effects were totally unknown.

The historical record indicates that prominent radiologists, health physicists, and geneticists of the time recognized even at the outset of America’s atomic power program that any large population exposure to even very minute amounts of ionizing radiation could create lingering public health problems and genetic damage, and these scientists went to some lengths, including sacrificing their own illustrious careers, to express their views publicly. See, e.g.: Wasserman, H., and N. Solomon, et al., Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation (Dell Publishing; New York, 1982); Rosenburg, H.L., Atomic Soldiers, American Victims of Nuclear Experiments, (Beacon Press; Boston, 1980), Ch.71- pp. 135–154; Shutdown: Nuclear Power on Trial, Bates, A., ed. (Book Publishing Co.; Summertown, 1979), pp. 160–168; Nader, R., and J. Abbotts, The Menace of Atomic Energy (W.W.Norton; New York, 1977); Grossman, K., Cover- Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power (Permanent Press: New York, 1980), Ch.4, pp.73–112; House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Hearings on the Effect of Radiation on Human Health, Ser. №95–179, 95th Cong. 2d Sess. (1978), Vol. 1, pp. 672–677; and House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, The Forgotten Guinea Pigs, A Report on the Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation Sustained as a Direct Result of the Nuclear Weapons Testing Program Conducted by the United States Government, Comm.Pr. 96-IFC53, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. (1980).

Now consider what happened on March 11, 2011. An earthquake in the ocean near Northern Japan generated a 14-meter-high tsunami that swept over the seawall at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and flooded four operating reactor buildings with seawater, knocking out the reactors and their emergency generators. The reactors shut down but without generators could not cool their radioactive fuel. Within hours, three of the reactors melted and exploded, sending parts of their radioactive fuel into the sky, land and ocean.

Hansen: “You can measure the effects of Fukushima on the coastline of the United States and it is several orders of magnitude below anything that would have any effect.”

This is why atmospheric physicists should not opine on health physics. There is no dose of radiation below which there is not a negative biological effect. Indeed, there is a “superlinear” ratio of dose to effect at low doses, because doses that do not kill a cell cause genetic damage that is a larger health threat than dead cells, so humans and animals exposed to low doses are at greater health risk than those exposed to higher doses.

While there are hundreds of different radioactive isotopes within a nuclear reactor, the isotope Cesium-137 is easily measured and has become a standard by which to calculate impacts. During the two-day accident, 18 quadrillion becquerels of cesium were released into the Pacific (18 with 15 zeros). A typical abdominal or pelvic CT scan (the most often performed) is 14–18 thousandths of a becquerel, so during the accident the cesium dose to the environment was the same as about 1 quintillion (1 with 18 zeros) CT scans (repeated every second, continuously, for the next 300 to 600 years). Depending on the type of scan and the age and sex of the patient, a single CT scan will produce 1 cancer for 150 to 3300 exposures, or a median risk of 10 cancers per becquerel (or seivert).

By that calculation, the cesium released during the Fukushima accident was capable of causing roughly 10 quadrillion cancers, but with one important difference.


When you receive radiation treatment like a CT-scan it is sudden and one-off. One second. The technician presses the button and it is on and then off. There is no danger from the machine when it is off. When radioactive elements like cesium-137 (and remember that is just one of hundreds of elements in a nuclear reactor) are released to the environment, there is no off-switch. Thus, the cesium released during the Fukushima accident is capable of roughly 10 quadrillion cancers per second. Inhaling or ingesting it can kill a person, a dolphin or a seagull, but then as the individual’s body decomposes after death — as bacteria, worms and fungi eat away the flesh and bone — the isotope goes back into the food chain to strike another individual, and another, and so on. The danger is limited only by the isotope’s half-life — the time it takes to decay to a harmless element, which for cesium-137 is 30.17 years. Scientists generally use 10 or 20 half-lives to bracket safety concerns, so for cesium 137, “safe” levels arrive in 302 to 604 years (around year 2322 to year 2624), admittedly an imperfect measurement since any residue, no matter how microscopic, may still be lethal, as we have known since before the Manhattan Project. Cesium is one of 256 radionuclides released during Fukushima, so we would need to calculate quantities, biological effectiveness, and the decay time of each of those to get the full health picture. Other isotopes in the Fukushima fuel include Uranium-235, with a half-life of 704 million years, and Uranium-238, with a half-life of 4.47 billion years, or longer than the age of the Earth.

At Fukushima, the end of the accident was not the end of the story. In 2013, 30 billion becquerels of cesium-137 were still flowing into the ocean every day from the damaged and leaking reactor cores. That is 300 billion cancer doses per second of man-made cesium added every day, or 109.5 trillion cancer doses per second added every year. To stop this assault on ocean life, and our own, over the next 5 years the owner of the plant constructed more than 1000 tanks to hold contaminated water away from the ocean. In September 2019, the Japanese government announced that more than one million tons were in storage but that space would run out by the summer of 2022 so it planned to begin releasing those billions of bequerels to the ocean again.

Swimmers and sailors who plan to compete in open water events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might want to think about that, as might any who fish those waters or consume the catch.

What happens to ocean creatures who ingest radionuclides from leaking nuclear power plants is not very different from what happened to John Wayne, his sons and his co-stars. As the isotopes decay within the body of a dolphin or a coral polyp they send microscopic bullets hurling through DNA chains, causing tumors, sicknesses, defective offspring and death for untold generations. The chance that a single mutation will produce a beneficial result are less than one in a million. Radioactivity is, for practical purposes, forever, as we can see just by looking up at our Sun, a benevolent nuclear reactor providing us energy from the relatively safe distance of 93 million miles.

Even that radiation will kill a number of us, but far fewer than would die if, by some devilish plan or panic response, we follow Dr. Hansen’s advice.


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