Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected

"As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. "

The fisherman throwing his discards to the gulls under a red orange sky at sunset with flamingoes still wading just off shore in brilliant turquoise waters in the background makes this place seem like a Jimmy Buffet license plate.

We are back in Mexico, revisiting old haunts. A few years ago we asked Richard Heinberg what he thought about jetting around the world to speak at various events, and he said he thought now was a good time to be doing that; as world explorers and messengers we should travel as much as we could; the day will soon enough come when air travel will be too expensive or even unavailable at any price.

In solemn atonements (our planting ceremony runs something like, “Grow, ya bugger!”) we plant trees  and bamboo groves for our travel indulgences, and make biochar from the coppicings. Last year we were in eight countries; next year we already have speaking engagements in ten. We might have taken the advice a bit too seriously.

In the fall of 2005, we were at this same location in Southern Mexico, clutching the book contract to write The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook for New Society Publishers, its ink still wet. After searching about, we spent part of our advance to take lodgings in a sweet little grass shack on a beach off the Straits of Cuba. Our perfect book-writing retreat was in a rustic, dirt-road town with one internet café and almost no-one who spoke English.

That October we had gone back to Tennessee to tie up some business before hunkering down in Mexico for the winter, sheaves of research in hand. Then the unexpected.

On October 19, Caribbean breezes kicked up to Tropical Storm strength along the Southern coast of Mexico. Tropical Depression number 24 had formed four days before, 85 miles SW of Jamaica, and had organized with unprecedented speed. On Monday it tied a record of 1933 by becoming the 21st named storm of the Atlantic season. The name it was given was “Wilma.” By Wednesday it had become the 12th hurricane of the year and had set another record: at 5 pm that day its pressure was recorded at 892 millibars. It had become the strongest hurricane in history. If there were Category 5 hurricanes, Wilma might have been a Cat 5.

The flight back to Mexico had been cancelled. The airlines were sending their aircraft only one way – outbound, jam-packed with evacuating tourists. Wilma made landfall at noon on Friday, crossing Cozumel and moving into the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact weakened it to a Category 3, but it also stalled its forward motion, so the giant storm just lingered, pounding Cancun and the Riviera Maya through Saturday. The National Hurricane Center said it was “meandering,” then “drifting northward,” then “erratically drifting.” Hurricane force winds persisted over land for 24 hours, then 48. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Wilma drifted Northeastward into the Gulf of Mexico, passing directly over my palm-leaf shack, with sustained winds of 115 mph.

On Monday Wilma slammed Palm Beach, Florida as a Cat 3 storm with winds at 125 mph, but it was moving so fast – 50 mph – that it crossed Florida in just 2 hours and headed North into the Atlantic. On Tuesday it dissipated, 200 miles Southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mexico is extraordinary when it comes to disaster preparedness, but Wilma left six dead — one of them a body washed ashore from Cuba — and devastation in our small town was total. The entire village went under 3 feet of churning water for a day or more. Eighteen-foot breakers had pounded shore-front properties to rubble. But, thanks to military-enforced evacuation of the entire coast, people were mostly unharmed and were soon able to return.

As soon as the airport reopened, we flew down to see what had become of our advance book royalty. It was not a pretty sight.

What was pretty, though, were the ways that people came together to assist one another in the clean-up and rebuilding. It would be another month or more before power and water would return, and the internet café was now a sandy pile of soggy CPUs and broken plastic terminals, but with a deadline to meet, we began writing our Survival Guide with a folding solar array, a motorcycle battery, and a set of cables that could charge the iBook during the day. We got hot water from a solar shower bag and baked some quesadillas with a solar oven.

Our roof, surprisingly enough, was entirely intact, its palm thatch rising and falling in respiration with its tormenter. It is still in fine shape now, 7 years later. Where the rushing seas, in their retreat to the Caribbean, undercut our little home’s foundations and caused the walls to crack and collapse, we excavated down and poured fresh cement. The government came with trucks and gave away free construction materials. All over the Yucatan there were piles of sand, bags of cement, steel rod, and concrete block piled neatly in front of every damaged home. 

At night, with no power for televisions or computers, the village would assemble in the central plaza with guitars, fiddles, and flutes. A generator would light the park. We would dance and sing and laugh and tell jokes.

Within a year, we could hardly tell that any storm had come through, so complete were the repairs.

We wrote this chapter in our book in those months:

“Preparing for peak oil can be relatively easy, since the preparation is 75 percent mental, 15 percent physical, and 10 percent fiscal. Don’t be flabbergasted at what to do. Quit asking should I buy solar? Should I buy an axe? Should I buy a gun? The answers are no, no, and no …. This feeling of a need to buy stuff is in fact the very reason why we have this predicament. We over-consume. The preparation problem is not addressed by buying more stuff; it’s addressed by mentally and physically getting used to the idea of getting by on less stuff.” — Chris Lisle

Sometimes it is comforting to recall that life before Colonel Drake discovered that well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, was not without creature comforts. Blacksmiths under spreading chestnut trees worked on steam-electric “horseless carriages.” Trains and horse-drawn wagons brought fresh food from distant farms. The most daring folks even tottered around on the penny-farthing bicycle. Many of the jobs people had then were not so different from jobs today. Some would be greatly enhanced by the tools we have developed in the past century.

In many other ways, the world is a very different place. The first big change is global warming. Our burgeoning population has added significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the air, and we know from the fossil record that every time atmospheric carbon has risen, so have global temperatures. We have now nearly doubled CO2 concentrations that existed at the start of the industrial era, and reliable science suggests it will take thousands, possibly millions, of years for natural processes to bring us back to pre-industrial equilibrium. In the near term — the next century or two — the world is going to get warmer. Much warmer.

The areas first noticeably affected by this warming will likely be in the mid-continental regions, where drier soil conditions will prevail, droughts will occur more frequently, and desertification will be a serious threat. Next will be coastal areas, where sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and storm activity will submerge entire islands and permanently alter the shape of continents. These changes will be most profound at the higher latitudes, but no part of the Earth will be spared completely.


Global warming is not the only ticking time bomb. For 50 years, the nuclear industry has routinely been receiving permits to dump radioactive wastes into the air and water even though British, French, Dutch, Russian, and other governments are well aware of the lethal consequences to future generations. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects 1.7 million cancer and genetic deaths in the world population from current US-based plants alone.

At least the nuclear industry has watchdog agencies, even if their historic role has been more like that of lapdogs. The level of regulation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is far more lackadaisical. Thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical dumpsites are leaching toxic compounds into the environment without anyone seeming to notice. Rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have been treated as a vast open sewer, and the damage to human and ecosystem health is only beginning.


So this is where we find ourselves. We have spent the past hundred or so years at a huge party thrown by petroleum. Our host has spared no expense and has lavished wonderful gifts upon us, and we are surely grateful. Some of the gifts we have used wisely and some we have wasted. The party has been going on for so long that most people, although tired, have the sense that it’s a permanent thing — that we can go home and go to bed and come back again tomorrow and it will still be here.


It’s nearly over now. The band is packing up. Tomorrow we have the big cleanup.

As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. Only time will tell. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Goodbye Columbus

" We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try."

Forest gardening is about as close as any strategy comes to addressing all of the most pressing needs of humans in one great sweep. Climate change, peak oil, poverty, extinction, and civil strife — all are rooted in the ground, and in most cases, those roots belong to trees.

Our nine-day EdibleForest Garden Design Intensive with David Jacke started last Friday with 23 participants from Canada, Honduras, Haiti/Albania, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, and Florida. 

In our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society Publishers), we described the relationship between the two main styles of agriculture that existed at the start of the Columbian Encounter (1492) and the two distinct types of civilization each tended to produce.

A.Eisenstaedt, Oklahoma Farmer 1942, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In the Eastern Hemisphere humans marked the dawn of agriculture by their discovery of two great inventions: irrigation and the plow. Those began, we think, in the richest lowland river valleys — the Tigris and Euphrates; Nile delta; and Yellow River and radiated outwards. Because annual flooding erases boundaries, the ancients invented surveying instruments and sophisticated ownership systems for property.

Too much of any good thing is bad, we know. In this case fertile points of origin were plowed and irrigated until they salted into deserts. Capitalism, socialism, militarism and theocracy were attempts to adapt to the boom and bust cycles of that kind of agriculture, and to predations that pair with property, food stores, and aggregations of artificial markers for wealth. Abundance and scarcity; scarcity and abundance — these beget hoarding; snatch-and-run; entrenchment and defense.

In the Western Hemisphere (although we admit to speaking in broad generalizations and quickly acknowledge that examples of opposites appear on both sides of the oceans) a second strategy dominated. Daniel Quinn (author Ishmael and its sequels) has termed this the “Leaver” culture. It is characterized by discovery of cooperative strategies that compliment, rather than compete, with nature and the directions she appears to be following. Natives of the Americas developed highly complex cultivated ecologies. Prairies were managed by fire for buffalo and elk. Forests were managed for deer, beaver and large fowl. While some food preservation was practiced, and many domesticated cultivars were grown (notably maize, potatoes, beans, and squash), much of the Western diet came from seasonal forage, even in city-state cultures like Incan Peru and Mayan Mesoamerica.

In the Americas, field and forest management strategies were typically soil building, game conserving and water protecting. To the East, urban commerce and military conquest tended towards exploitation, mining, and resource extinction.

In the Americas, soil nutrients were consumed at or close to their places of origin and the residues returned back to resume the cycle again. In the East, an “export economy” arose almost immediately, with Sumer, Ur, Babylon, Egypt, Macedonia, Greece and Rome, and trade routes carried vital soil nutrients to great distances where they filled sewers to be carried off into oceans. While both cultures recognized at a deep level that maintaining a positive balance with nature was absolutely essential to survival, one of them failed to recognize that many seemingly wonderful social inventions were antithetical to that goal.

When the two styles finally met, it was catastrophic almost beyond reckoning. The Europeans, armed with gunpowder brought West by trade with China on the Silk Road, and with Andalusian war horses bred by the Moors to escape Medieval Maximum warming in the Middle East, having been starved out of Europe, now flooded into North and South America with the intent to subdue and conquer all in their path. Estimates of the genocide of Native Americans range from 30 to 99.9 percent, far greater than the Black Plague or any other historic scourge. As we wrote in The Biochar Solution:
After the passing of the plagues, and the brutal conquest that ensued, those Native Americans who remained were reduced to a state of extreme poverty. Before European contact, the people of Amazonia cultivated or managed at least 138 of the 257 plant species cultivated in the Western Hemisphere. Two centuries later, they were reduced to farming only a handful.
Anthropologist Charles C. Mann says, “The pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams — entire ways of life — hissed away like steam.”
When the civilizations of the Americas perished, with them perished the agricultural sciences gained from millennia of field trials. Countless valuable domestic cultivars, unable to self-propagate, went extinct. Where great shining cities had stood, vines and moss covered the façades; trees broke through the paving stones and engulfed buildings. Rain rotted away the roof timbers, and insects ate the parchment of scientific and literary manuscripts, leaving but a few to the bonfires of the conquerors.
So great was the burst of vegetation over open fields and mounded cities in the Western Hemisphere that the carbon drawn from the air to feed this greening upset atmospheric chemistry. Analysis of the soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-contact population centers and sparsely populated surrounding regions reveals that the reforestation of land following the collapse drew so much carbon out of the atmosphere so rapidly that Europe literally froze.
That period of global cooling, which was most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, is known as the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age ended the Medieval Warming Period that corresponded to the time when the Amazon was not jungle, but tall white cities with many miles of wharf-front, wide causeways extending inland, and highly cultivated societies.

What we hope to do with these Edible Forest Design workshops, beyond improving the resiliency of our tiny rural community amidst a perfect storm of energetic decline, climate change, and ecological collapse, is to propagate a new meme. It really isn’t all that new, actually. It’s mostly just forgotten. We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try.

When we tried the one based on irrigation and the plow, we turned the Great Plains into a Dust Bowl. Franklin Roosevelt, may his name be praised, reversed that by sending the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant hundreds of miles of “tree alleys” North-South across the plains. His jobs program was long on ecological restoration, and lest we forget, it worked. Spectacularly.

Now we need to do that again, only on a grander scale. We need to use it to grow a food supply by agroforestry, and to sequester gigatons of carbon in the bargain. Who’s up for it? Will you join us?


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This Revolution Will Be Televised

"History tells us that at key pivot points on the civilizational timeline, humanity’s zeitgeist is highly explosive and a tiny spark can be, well, revolutionary. There was no spark here, only fire-extinguishing foam. We found ourselves watching an extension of Lost."

Like many, we had our attention drawn by the promotional advertising for the new NBC series, Revolution, and downloaded the online pilot. Like most (judging from the #Revolution twitterstream every Monday night) we have been disappointed. History tells us that at key pivot points on the civilizational timeline, humanity’s zeitgeist is highly explosive and a tiny spark can be, well, revolutionary.

There was no spark here, only fire-extinguishing foam. We found ourselves watching an extension of Lost, one that even featured Lost actors Elizabeth Mitchell and Mark Pellegrino. It also had Breaking Bad’s drug kingpin Giancarlo Esposito in a bad guy role far below his abilities, milking it in a desparate audition for better roles than this.

Once there was an ambitious plan to build 1000 nuclear reactors in North America. Then came Three Mile Island. But was it the TMI meltdown or China Syndrome, the Jack Lemmon - Jane Fonda Hollywood film released while “an area the size of Pennsylvania” was being evacuated that did in the nuke? Our betting is on the latter: the power of media and celebrity to redirect a dominant cultural narrative.

Revolution carried that potential. The brains at Bad Robot and Warner Brothers Television made sure it didn’t come anywhere near. It was filmed on location at the Hard Rock Music Park in Myrtle Beach, SC, written and produced by Eric Kripke, whose previous credits include Boogeyman 1, 2, and 3, Ghostfacers, and 152 episodes of Supernatural for the CW channel. So, instead of some healthy post-petrol collapse advice, we can expect aliens, evil spirits, or shapeshifting demons from the netherworld to appear sooner or later. Maybe Esposito’s Captain Tom Neville is really a reptile.

Folks, the aliens are not coming to save you. Only you can save you.

From C-Realm Podcast Episode 328 (Sept 19, 2012):

KMO: Before I go, I want to play a clip from the new NBC series, Revolution. It sounds like it might hold some appeal for those interested in Peak Oil, transition, and collapse, right? I suppose it might, if you got good and baked before watching it and just took in the expensive post-collapse images in the first few minutes. Thereafter, if you've give half an hour's thought to potential collapse modes and their implications, this show will insult your intelligence at every turn.

It premiered on September 17th, the one-year anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street, but that seems to be a coincidence, as the show has nothing to do with opposition to unjust political power in the present. Instead, it introduces us to a handful of characters just prior to a global blackout and picks up 15 years later in a world that bears a strong resemblance to Kevin Costner's film adaptation of the David Brin novel, The Postman.

I plan to record a detailed conversation with Arik Roper in which I will detail all of the things that Revolution got wrong, but most of them come down to the fact that people on TV are very, very pretty, and their prettiness exemplifies the advantages we all enjoy due to electricity and being the master of so many mechanical servants.

The characters in Revolution obviously all still enjoy hot showers, a full range of cosmetics and body-care products. They all seem to have someone to wash their clothes for them, clean up after them, and allow them to live a life very similiar to the life we enjoy now, just without cars and smart phones. We all live better than emperors of old because we are attended night and day by a gaggle of energy slaves.

Revolution had the opportunity to depict what life would be like without those energy slaves, but instead, what we get is a depiction of a group of pampered idiots from today having a pretend adventure in a post-petroleum theme park.

The illustrations in this post were captioned by KMO for The Great Change

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bioenergy, TLUDs, and Our 2012 Stove Camp

"Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil. "

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center we just completed our first, hopefully annual, Biochar Stove Camp. And a good time was had by all.

Dr TLUD demo's the Mwoto double chamber gasifier
These stove camps are the brainchild of Paul “Dr. T-LUD” Anderson, a retired geography professor who is spending his remaining active years enjoying as much geography as he can extend into. We, and “Solar Bob” Fairchild, whom Doc recruited to organize this camp, find ourselves kindred spirits in that way. We like to travel and exchange information, and we’re getting older.

Doc got interested in stoves doing mission work in Africa, and started attending stove camps in places like the Aprovecho Institute in Oregon, where he picked up on the gasifier design and its capabilities to produce biochar. Tom Reed, one of the early organizers of the International Biochar Initiative, interested him in the climate benefits of biochar. We saw him at Newcastle for the Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate conference in 2008 and at the U.S. Biochar Conference in Boulder, Colorado in 2010, showing off his namesake TLUD — “Top Loading UpDraft” — biochar-making stoves to, among others, the Secretary of Agriculture and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Doc just came back from Uganda where last spring he set up a project near Kampala to manufacture TChar stoves, a TLUD kit design he developed collaboratively in CHAB (“Combined Heat and Biochar”) camps such as ours. The Ugandan project is called Awamu Biomass Energy, or ABE for short. Awamu means “together” or “juntos” in Lugandan language. Awamu will set up a shop to cut, bend, drill and assemble the TChar, grow and harvest fuels and make hand-presses for biomass briquettes. It will then wholesale the stoves, presses and briquettes locally. If successful, Awamu would next expand to Bungoma, Kakamega and maybe Nyamira. 

Engineers Without Borders, Micro-Compound-Lever Press / Easy BioPress.
HAND PRESS: The press has a low build cost (about US$18), is easy to build using hand tools, is lightweight at 26 pounds and can create a force far in excess of that required to make a high quality briquette (typically in excess of 4,000 pounds). Briquettes can be produced at a rate of about twelve in ten minutes depending of type of mold used.

After Uganda Doc went to Kenya, then to Haiti, Honduras, back to the States for the Biochar Conference in Sonoma, Uganda again, and home to his Brazilian wife, Noeli, in Bloomfield, Illinois before packing his car with TChars, Toucans, Mwotos, and assorted other kits and tools, and heading here to Tennessee for Labor Day.

An engineer by training, Robert J. Fairchild went off to Ladakh in the early 80s and became one of the key staffers for Helena Norberg-Hodge’s International Society for Ecology and Culture. All over the Tibetian Plateau Solar Bob designed and built solar cookers, water systems, power systems, and home retrofits to save energy and fuel. When he came back and homesteaded near Berea KY, he bought and rebuilt an old hydropower dam. Today he sells into the Kentucky grid, and the system runs itself well enough to let him occasionally travel, installing solar energy systems in distant places (-- he installed our array here in 1995). He has spent the last 3 years working in Haiti with a group of missionaries from Nashville — building the first oil-drum rocket stove in a refugee camp that feeds 300 children daily — and went to Doc’s CHAB camp Massachusetts in 2011 to better understand what to do about charcoal. That’s where he first met Doc. Now he instructs the camps. He is just back from Haiti and has some new ideas he wants to try out having to do with heat exchangers.

Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. One of Doc’s stoves, designed specifically for Haiti, is a three-stage unit that makes charcoal in the top, gasifying, stage before burning it for cooking in the lower stage, rather like a machine that roasts and grinds coffee beans before steeping them into your cup.

The Whitfield Home Garden Biochar Pellet Stove, undergoing trials in 2012.
Of course, it would be better not to burn the charcoal but instead to grind it fine, run it through the compost pile and then get it into the garden, but that kind of use is a hard sell in Haiti.

We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion of charcoal cultures than are Doc and Bob, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil.

It might be a long shot, but then considering the alternative is that places like Haiti and Africa become intolerably hot and dry and unable to support life, we think taking that gamble is warranted.

NikiAnne makes a TChar
The biofuels/agribusiness issue always crops up, to abuse a metaphor, but we are of the persuasion that whatever risks that agriculture-for-energy may hold, they are worth the risks if we can reverse climate change and get the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million carbon, or below, on decadal time scales. 

The challenge is that in the rural areas where biomass is available in abundance and can be collected at little or no cost, gasifying stoves are not affordable. Another challenge is having dry fuel in the rainy season. Unfortunately gasifiers are very sensitive to fuel moisture and do not handle fuel well unless it is less than 20% moisture. Making briquettes and pellets from dry grasses and biomass that if left alone would become greenhouse gases is a potential village enterprise that would be sustainable.

This stove charges your laptop off
a USB port that
derives electricity from a
bimetalic heat/cold current generator
We have no delusions about the potential of biofuels. It is hard to improve upon the renewable energy economies of the Greeks and the Romans even today — and they built empires on that kind of energy — but in the end Greek and Roman appetites for energy and consumer goods outgrew their empires’ abilities to enslave and deforest. Today populations are much larger, and better armed, and empires are again running out of far away places to enslave and deforest. They are having to do it at home to their own people and forests.

Part of the prescription for backflow in the carbon cycle is reforestation and afforestation, taking back fields converted to farms and suburbs and returning them to mixed-age, mixed-species food forests. (Other parts of the prescription include biochar, holistic management, mob grazing, keyline, organic no-till, and painting the built environment white or silver). We will hone in on this notion at our next workshop here at the Ecovillage Training Center, Building Food Forests for the 21st Century.

It is our strategy to build a permaculture army to turn this into a garden planet, using ecological services to meet all of our needs, while returning our Mother to the comfortable climate of the Holocene.

The Food Forest workshop starts September 23, runs to October 7, and places are still available. And for those who are in the Northeast, Albert Bates will be appearing on stage each day of the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania from September 21 to 23. 

They are giving away conservation heirloom chicken brood starters as a door prize. Won’t you join us?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Game Over? Or Overtime?

Methane Hydrate Gas Crystal
As we reported two years ago, an international group of scientists, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group has been sailing into the Arctic waters around Norway and Russia to take samples of methane bubbling from ocean clathrates — frozen methane deposits on the sea floor. Some of their findings, very preliminary, are now making their way into the blogosphere, but like many, we await peer-review published articles or discussion in the next IPCC report — AR5 — due in 2014, before we draw hard conclusions.

The preliminary reports, if they can be believed, are frightening.

One report last February was titled, “Global Extinction within one Human Lifetime as a Result of a Spreading Atmospheric Arctic Methane Heat wave and Surface Firestorm.” Its author, Malcolm Light, predicted, “This process of methane release will accelerate exponentially, release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere and lead to the demise of all life on earth before the middle of this century.”

Light wrote:

“The warning about extinction is stark. It is remarkable that global scientists had not anticipated a giant buildup of methane in the atmosphere when it had been so clearly predicted 10 to 20 years ago and has been shown to be critically linked to extinction events in the geological record (Kennett et al. 2003). Furthermore all the experiments should have already been done to determine which geoengineering methods were the most effective in oxidising/destroying the methane in the atmosphere in case it should ever build up to a concentration where it posed a threat to humanity. Those methods need to be applied immediately if there is any faint hope of  reducing the catastrophic heating effects of the fast building atmospheric methane concentration.”

Light’s proposed geoengineering solution is to piggyback on the Air Force’s HAARP high energy communications network to broadcast a 13.56 MHZ pulse to transform methane in the stratosphere and troposphere to nanodiamonds and hydrogen. Other geoengineering proposals include genetically engineered methanotrophic bacteria that eat methane in soil and air and iron-based catalysts that can oxidize high concentrations of methane in ocean water and raindrops.

All of this seems a bit frantic and desperate, enough to push the skeptical scientist in us to ask, “Are we really there yet?”

Some arctic sea regions as large as one kilometer in diameter are indeed “frothing” from massive gas releases from previously frozen CH4 deposits. Beginning in 2010, Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences said his research team discovered more than 100 plumes, and estimates there are “thousands” over a wider area, extending from Russian mainland to East Siberian Arctic Shelf. 

“Earlier we found torch-like structures, but only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time we found continuous, powerful, impressive seeps more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s amazing.  We carried out checks at 115 stationary points and discovered methane of a fantastic scale—on a scale not seen before,” Semiletov said.

In our March 2010 post, “Various Bubblings,”  we wrote:
Of course, as we have noted here before, warmer oceans, methane from permafrost and clathrate bubblings are all tipping points that accelerate climate change and are multiplicative - 2 or 3 orders of magnitude times anthropogenic emissions, once their threshold is crossed. Earth, meet Venus. The toxic gas fireballs rolling across Kansas, destroying and poisoning everything in their path, are described in Peter Ward’s book, Under a Green Sky. As Wallace Broecker says, “The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.”

Atmospheric CH4 concentrations have risen more in the past 4 years than in the previous 20. Methane has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2, but it is 50 to 70 times (in the short term 100x) more potent as greenhouse gas. It doesn’t go away when it decays, either. It oxidizes into CO2.

The last IPCC assessment (AR4) concluded that the risk of a melting clathrate event triggering a sudden shift to a much warmer planet is minimal. A sustained increase in sea temperature will warm its way through the sediment eventually, and cause even the deepest, most marginal clathrates to start to break down, but it will typically take of the order of a thousand years or more for the temperature signal to get through.

One exception, however, may be in clathrates associated with the Arctic Ocean, where water is shallower and clathrate ice crystals are stabilized by lower temperatures rather than higher pressures. Recent research carried out in 2008 in the Siberian Arctic has shown millions of tons of methane being released, apparently through perforations in the seabed permafrost.

Shakhova et al. (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and 5–10% of that area is subject to thawing. They conclude that “release of up to 50 GtC of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time.” That would increase the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere by a factor of twelve, equivalent in greenhouse effect to a doubling in the current level of CO2.

Another wild card in the clathrate deck is whether a near-term effect would be global cooling, not warming. Sudden concentrations of flammable methane could bring about explosions and fireballs that would produce lots of smoke and dust, which would lead to global dimming, comparable to nuclear winter. The evolution of dust and smoke, if it caused global cooling, would likely only last a short time before the particulates washed out of the atmosphere. Elevated temperature forcing from levels of methane and the derivative carbon dioxide would then take over. The greatest consequence, apart from incineration of coastal cities, would be an alternating series of extra cold and extra warm years, arguably more devastating to crop production than a trend in one direction or the other.

Professor Gregory Ryskin, in a paper published in Geology in 2003, concluded:
The consequences of a methane-driven oceanic eruption for marine and terrestrial life are likely to be catastrophic. Figuratively speaking, the erupting region “boils over,” ejecting a large amount of methane and other gases (e.g., CO2, H2S) into the atmosphere, and flooding large areas of land. Whereas pure methane is lighter than air, methane loaded with water droplets is much heavier, and thus spreads over the land, mixing with air in the process (and losing water as rain). The air-methane mixture is explosive at methane concentrations between 5% and 15%; as such mixtures form in different locations near the ground and are ignited by lightning, explosions and conflagrations destroy most of the terrestrial life, and also produce great amounts of smoke and of carbon dioxide. Firestorms carry smoke and dust into the upper atmosphere, where they may remain for several years; the resulting darkness and global cooling may provide an additional kill mechanism. Conversely, carbon dioxide and the remaining methane create the greenhouse effect, which may lead to global warming. The outcome of the competition between the cooling and the warming tendencies is difficult to predict.

Another significant contributor to atmospheric methane is fracking — the explosive fracturing of geological formations to release oil and natural gas (see illustration). While difficult to quantify, we can expect a significant bump from this source for at least the next few decades, just from wells already completed. And once the bottle is uncorked, you can’t put another cork back in. U.S. shale gas production is projected by EIA to increase over the 2012–2035 period by 3 million barrels of oil equivalent (Mboe) per day (it currently contributes 700,000 boe/d, and a recent Harvard study projects the 2020 shale gas potential contribution to be 49 Mboe/d). The USGS estimates that the Green River Formation alone holds 3 trillion boe, “around half of which is deemed recoverable.” Which is not to say that which is not deemed recoverable won’t also find its way to the atmosphere. Then add European fracking, Asian fracking, and Middle Eastern fracking, and what do we get?

We’re fracked.

A recent item from New Scientist highlighted the clathrate issue but unfortunately provided more smoke than light. The August 17 report described research led by Graham Westbrook of the University of Birmingham and Tim Minshull of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2009GL039191). Their team sailed into the west of the Svalbard archipelago, which lies north of Norway, where they found CH4 plumes being heated by the West Spitsbergen current, which has warmed 1 °C over the past 30 years. The methane being released from hydrates in the 600 km2 area added up to 27 kilotons/year, which suggests that the entire hydrate deposit around Svalbard could be releasing 20 megatonnes a year. Globally, extrapolating to all shallow, cold ocean areas, that translates to around 0.5-0.6 GtC/yr, or about 10% of fossil fuel emissions.

Said New Scientist, “Methane hydrate could be used as a new, somewhat greener fossil fuel, but extracting the methane without releasing any into the atmosphere remains a challenge.”

The pity is, no one is even trying to extract fossil energy without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or offsetting them with net sequestration reverses like carbon farming. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are climate deniers. Ryan has accused scientists of engaging in conspiracy to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” He has implied that snow invalidates global warming. When he wasn’t busy sponsoring the Akin plan to distinguish “legitimate rape,” he voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from limiting greenhouse pollution, to eliminate White House climate advisers, to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from preparing for climate disasters like the drought devastating his home state, and to eliminate the Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E).

Barack Obama offers no better choice. He wants to expand fracking and build a pipeline to carry the gooey tar sands through nine states, even though a spill into the Kalamazoo River has yet to be cleaned because no-one knows how to remove tar from a river.

So what are we left with? Jill Stein, MD, Green Party candidate. She hasn’t got a chance, but she does have a microphone. She was arrested at a sit-in in Philadelphia earlier this month when she protested Fannie Mae housing foreclosures. The Green Party’s platform is more forward-looking if a bit naïve:
  • Strong International Climate Treaty
  • Economic Policy for a Safer Climate
  • Repay Our Climate Debt
  • More Efficiency and Conservation
  • Clean, Green Energy and Jobs
  • Clean, Green Agriculture
  • Encourage Conservation and a Significant Decrease in our Energy Consumption
  • Institute National Energy Efficiency Standards
  • Move Decisively to an Energy System Based on Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Marine, and other Cleaner Renewable Energy Sources
  • End the Use of Dirty and Dangerous Energy Sources
  • Plan for Decentralized, Bio-Regional Electricity Generation and Distribution
  • De-Carbonize and Re-Localize the Food System
  • Electrify the Transportation System
  • Transition to Non-nuclear Energy Future
Contrast that with the Republican platform:
We strongly oppose all efforts of the extreme environmental groups that stymie legitimate business interests. We strongly oppose those efforts that attempt to use the environmental causes to purposefully disrupt and stop those interests within the oil and gas industry. We strongly support the immediate repeal of the Endangered Species Act. We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished. We encourage a comprehensive energy policy that allows more development of domestic energy sources and reduces our need for foreign energy. Energy policy should be cooperative, economically viable without taxpayer funded subsidies, and environmentally safe, but not restricted by overzealous environmental activism. We support immediate removal of government barriers to free market solutions to production and distribution of energy including restrictions on:
  • drilling and production operations on public and private lands and waters
  • refineries
  • electric power generation and distribution
  • federal gas mileage standards (CAFÉ standards) and fuel blends
We support the elimination of the Department of Energy. We support the immediate approval and construction of the Keystone XL and other pipelines that will reduce our reliance on imported oil and natural gas from unstable or unfriendly countries. We support land drilling and production operations including hydraulic fracturing. We support the repeal of legislation mandating ethanol as fuel additives and/or primary fuel.

We have not provided the Democratic Party’s Platform because, although it has not been adopted yet, would essentially do the same as the Republican’s while trying to look and sound just like the Green’s. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At least the Green Party wears its own wool.

So, given a choice between tweedledum and tweedledumber, we choose neither. We plan to vote Green. 




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