Saturday, October 13, 2018

Going to Hell in a Bucket

“I may be going to hell in a bucket babe, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” – Grateful Dead, 1983

Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, information about climate change has slowly disappeared from the web sites of the EPA and other government agencies. Trump pulled us out of the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Interior has aggressively pursued a policy of opening up lands from the Alaska to the Rio Grande as well as our coasts to more oil and gas drilling. The Energy Department is doing everything it can to prop up the dying coal industry.

Now comes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regarding the proposed freezing of fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks as of 2020.

The EIS paints a damning picture of the impacts to the planet if we continue on our current course of not reigning in CO2, methane, and particulate aerosol emissions. As of today, the EIS states, impacts will be “irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale . . . Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Because of the long time scales of heat transfer from the ocean surface to depth, ocean warming will continue for centuries.”

The report projects that surface temperatures are projected to rise about 4 degrees C by 2100, which would result in the drowning of coastal cities, the rendering of large portions of South Asia and the Middle East uninhabitable, drastically increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and so on.

It’s a jaw-droppingly pessimistic analysis. What is even more jaw dropping is that the EIS then concludes that maintaining President Obama’s planned increased fuel standards will not make a significant dent to the basically dire forecast, so therefore there is no reason to implement them.

In other words – why bother?

As Bill McKibben of Middlebury College wrote the other day in the Guardian: “You might as well argue that because you’re going to die eventually, there’s no reason not to smoke a carton of cigarettes a day.”

This proposal dovetails nicely with the administration’s plans to abandon regulations to reign in methane leaks from oil and gas production and transport, to weaken emissions regulations on coal-fired power plants, and to drop rules to limit leaks and discharge of refrigerants, which are far more powerful greenhouse gases than CO2 or methane.

As an aside, weakening coal plant emissions standards will result in over 1000 increased deaths per year from respiratory illness, using EPA’s own estimates. Another aside - the number of extreme weather events causing $1 billion or more in economic losses has increased 400% in the last 40 years.

Why is the administration taking this course? Because regulations cost businesses money. 

What the administration willfully ignores are the mountains of financial data which clearly demonstrate that the economic damage from climate change will be measured in the trillions of dollars between now and the end of the century.

Why do you think most major insurance companies want to us to reign in emissions? Because it will cost them money. Funny how that works.

I have stated in this column several times over the last couple of years that many of the consequences of increased CO2 emissions are baked in, no matter what we do, because CO2’s residence time in the atmosphere is measured in centuries. I have also said that we owe it to our children to not make it worse.

The Trump administration thinks otherwise. Why bother?

The Wild Texas Wind

If you are like most people, as long as you can plug something into the wall and turn it on, you don’t care much where the power comes from. But getting that power to your home or business is a complex process, which consists of all the power plants, transmission lines, and substations that go right to your electric meter, and everything else in between, aka, “the grid.”

Power is transmitted through the grid via alternating current (AC). If you don’t remember (or never had) high school physics, AC power reverses direction many times a second. In our country, that’s a frequency of 60 times a second. If the frequency changes too often and quickly, the grid becomes unstable and could crash. It’s analogous to water sloshing in a bucket. Slosh too much and you can’t keep the water in place.

Unlike other commodities, electricity, for the time being, cannot be stored in the quantities needed to meet fluctuating grid demand, although that issue is being addressed with rapidly developing technology. Power generators and utilities have to make sure that supply and demand are in balance at all times.

The grid in our country is not one big electric distribution system, it is actually three. The Eastern, Western and Texas Interconnections. These systems operate independently from each other.

So where am I going with all this?

One criticism I have gotten about my advocacy of large scale solar and wind is that because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, large scale alternative energy is not practical. The grid cannot handle the fluctuations. Critics tell me that above 11%, the grid will crash.

Is that assertion true? Actually – no. One of our grids routinely gets about 20% of its power from alternative sources. Which one? Texas. Texas the oil state is also Texas the wind state.

During 2017, 18% of the electricity provided to the Texas grid came from wind power. At times, wind was providing up to 45% of the grid’s power for hours at a time - and surprise, the grid did not crash.

According to a former official at the Oversight & Enforcement Division of the Texas Public Utility Commission, with whom I spoke earlier in the year, Texas manages wind power contributions to the grid with no significant issues. Wind will contribute more to their grid than coal by 2019.

There are still challenges getting wind and solar power integrated into the grid on a sustained basis, including development of sophisticated weather forecasting tools which can be used to predict how much wind and solar energy will be available at a given location, but these tools are being developed and prototyped right now.

In addition, according to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) the Eastern Interconnection could accommodate up to 30% renewable energy with appropriate operating procedures.

Scaling up the technologies to add even more alternative energy to the grid is going to take time and investment, but there is no reason the US cannot accomplish this task, as long as there is the will to do it.

We are already switching to other sources of energy. Natural gas is filling this gap right now, slowly replacing aging and expensive coal and nuclear power generation facilities with gas turbine generators that can quickly increase or decrease contributions to the grid as needed.

As grid-scale battery storage technology continues to scale up, wind and solar power will be able to charge storage systems, eventually replacing many gas-fired plants which now handle local or regional grid fluctuations. Because natural gas is currently very inexpensive, the switchover will probably be driven by state mandates to decrease emissions.

Many states, Massachusetts among them, are now mandating ever increasing amounts of renewable energy to their power portfolio. Boston’s goal is 100% clean-energy sourced electricity by 2050. These mandates themselves will drive utilities to come up with plans to manage integration of alternative energy. Texas has already been taking this path and its grid operators and generators have responded.

Keeping the grid in balance has always been a matter of monitoring constantly changing demand. If grid operators could not manage this process, we would have blackouts all the time. They handle sudden power losses – such as transmission line failure or a sudden power plant shut downs without missing a beat, so they already have the know how to handle varying supply.

The idea that it is impossible to integrate large-scale wind and solar into the grid does not pass the laugh test, because Texas already does it.

Fire or Flood

Last summer my wife and I were hiking in the Italian Alps near the French border where we met two scientists, an Irish biologist named Chris Allen and an American geologist Allen West, who were there for two very different reasons.

Chris Allen was looking for traces of dung left by Hannibal’s elephants, to prove that the Carthaginian conqueror had come this way in 202 BC on his way to Rome. Allen West was looking for traces of “cosmogenic dust” in an effort to prove that the Earth was thrown back into an ice age by a comet.

I thought their quests were esoteric to say the least (actually Allen West sounded a few cards shy of a full deck), but both were very serious. Sure enough, Chris Allen was the subject of an extensive article in the September 2017 issue of Smithsonian about Hannibal and Allen West was one of the an authors of a major paper about the comet hypothesis in the Journal of Geology.

I don’t know much about Hadrian’s elephants, but I am familiar with the sudden change in climate that occurred when the Earth was coming out of the last ice age 12,800 years ago. Temperatures were almost as warm as today, but in the space of less than 30 years, the Northern Hemisphere cooled by about 10 degrees F, enough to push it back to ice age conditions for about 1,200 years. Glaciologists call this interval the “Younger Dryas”.

But did a comet cause this event?

After overwhelming evidence indicated that an asteroid impact contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, scientists have wondered whether other major geologic events also had extraterrestrial causes. So far, the answer has been no, but it doesn’t stop some people from continuing the search.

An impact cause for the Younger Dryas has actually been kicking around for decades and was the subject of a PBS Nova episode back in 2009. Some researchers, like West, are convinced it happened. Most others aren’t.

We do know that when the continental ice sheets that covered North America 15,000 years ago started to melt, vast fresh water lakes formed, held in place by ice dams. In fact, such a lake once covered Westborough.

The “conventional” explanation is that as when the ice dams in northern and eastern Canada finally gave way, fresh water rapidly flowed into the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans, eventually shutting down the Gulf Stream and the source of energy which kept the northern Atlantic warm. This idea was recently bolstered by evidence published last July, based on cores collected from the Arctic Ocean north of Canada.

The comet proponents think that the Earth was repeatedly bombarded with fragments of a large disintegrating comet over a short time period. These fragments exploded in the air, like the meteor over Russia in 2013, setting off massive wild fires throughout the northern hemisphere, creating enough dust and soot to cool the atmosphere, triggering the return to cold conditions.

The late Carl Sagan made popular the phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Although West’s paper contain a substantial amount of data, the interpretation of that data still remains suspect and the thesis has major critics, according to a recent article in Science News.

Today, the Gulf Stream is again slowing down, as freshwater from the melting Greenland ice sheet flows into the Northern Atlantic. No one thinks we are about to retreat into another Ice Age given the level of CO2 in the atmosphere but the Arctic climate is clearly in a state of flux.

In fact, the summer Arctic ice pack volume is a whopping 75% lower than it was just 40 years ago. Current predictions are for the Arctic to be ice free in the summer by 2040.

The big lesson from the Younger Dryas is that the Earth’s climate is capable of tipping into a new state, warmer or colder, in a couple of decades if something throws it out of balance.

Given what is happening in the Arctic right now, things are clearly out of balance. Food for thought as record-setting heat waves and wildfires throughout the world are again in the news this summer.

Can 21 Children do What No One Else Can? Maybe

As the Federal Government dithers and ignores the overwhelming evidence and consensus that humans are altering the climate through the use of fossil fuels, municipalities and states throughout the US have taken to the courts, suing fossil fuel producers including Exxon, Shell, and Chevron, seeking damages to pay for mitigation they will be or are being burdened with as the impacts of climate change continue.

Coastal cities up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to San Francisco as well as Boulder, CO, New York City and the State of Rhode Island have filed lawsuits.

The basic arguments in all these filings is that the oil companies knew for decades that their products were causing climate change, yet they actively worked to obfuscate the issue by "orchestrat[ing] a campaign of deception and denial regarding climate change" and thus externalize the environmental costs of their products.

The problem is that several of these lawsuits have been dismissed including those filed by San Francisco, Oakland, and New York, not because the judges did not think the problem is real, but they reasoned that climate change mitigation is a problem to be addressed by Congress and the President, not the courts.

But there is one lawsuit, filed in 2015, that is still going on, and is going to go to trial this fall, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration to quash it. The defendant is the Federal Government and the plaintiffs are 21 young people, ranging from 11 to 22, who are suing the Federal Government with the goal of forcing the government to address climate change, because they will be irrevocably harmed if nothing is done. The plaintiffs are represented by a non-profit called Our Children’s Trust.

I should note that the suit started under the Obama administration and they too, fought the suit. In fact, the fossil fuel industry, in the guise of the American Petroleum Institute (API) and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), volunteered to become defendants, in order to bring their legal weight to bear against the plaintiffs.

On July 30th, the US Supreme Court rejected the Administration’s last gasp request for a stay, and the trial will go forward.

The premise of the suit, Juliana v. US, is that the US Government knew for decades that “burning fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system” but continued to support the fossil fuel industry, ignoring recommended policies and plans of its own agencies and experts to address the issue. This assertion is not in doubt. Reports to the President going back as far as 1965 warned about impending global warming caused by fossil fuel use.

As a result of the failure to take action, the US Government has “. . . violated and continue to violate Plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, and property; Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to equal protection; Plaintiffs’ unenumerated inherent and inalienable natural rights; and Plaintiffs’ rights as beneficiaries of the federal public trust.”

In broad strokes, the Plaintiffs allege that their 5th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection; as well as 9th Amendment rights under the public trust doctrine are being violated by willful government inaction on a problem the US Government knew full well was happening.

What do the Plaintiffs hope to have happen should they win?

“Order Defendants to prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system and protect the vital resources on which Plaintiffs now and in the future will depend.”


Here is an interesting tidbit, a year ago, both the API and NAM requested, and were granted, permission to withdraw from the suit. They did not give reasons, but most observers think they did not want to be subject to discovery, which would surely provide damning evidence about their long history of purposely misleading the public regarding climate change. I also suspect they knew that if the case went forward, they were going to lose. I suspect the Trump Administration knows that as well.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” - John Adams, 2nd President of the Unite States

Wise man, that Mr. Adams.


Resilience: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change – Merriam Webster Dictionary

Adaptation: the process of changing to suit different conditions – Oxford Dictionary

I hear the words resilience and adaptation bandied about a lot.  Along the coast, it can mean elevating homes and streets, upgrading coastal infrastructure, and building seawalls.

But what about Westborough? Do we need to be resilient?  We do. Fortunately, rising sea level isn’t an issue for us.

Let’s start with the early July heat wave, which affected a large portion of North America, caused by a large stagnant high pressure system. Temperature records were broken in many places.

Was THIS heat wave “caused” by global warming? No single weather event can be pinned on global warming. What scientists have been saying for many years is that our changing climate has made such events more likely, which is supported by weather records and charts freely available from NOAA. Bottom line – we will see more frequent heat waves.

During the last heat wave, residents received reverse 911 messages that the Senior Center was opened as a cooling center, a godsend for the great many of us who don’t have air conditioning in Westborough. In the 17 years I have lived here, I don’t recall the town having to take this measure until recently. Maybe someone can tell me if I am wrong.

As temperatures have increased, so have extreme weather events. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so in the temperate Northeastern US, we can expect more intense storms (in summer AND winter). According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the amount of precipitation falling “as the heaviest of 1% of all daily events” has increased 71% in the Northeast since 1958.

The latest FEMA flood maps show that the impact of 100-year or 500-year flood events in Westborough would not be significant. Downtown Westborough is adjacent to Cedar Swamp, which has a huge capacity to store runoff. Since the town does a very good job of maintaining its drainage infrastructure, we have made ourselves more resilient to such storm events.

The town also manages its water system in the face of droughts, like we had in 2016. We do not over pump our wells and we take care of Sandra Pond. The town repaired the Sandra Pond dams so they better withstand major storms. The town took down a lot of trees, but state dam regulations required it. Again, foresight and good management make the town more resilient.

Another step would be to fix the culverts under the railroad that crosses Cedar Swamp, which were designed to allow water to drain south into the Sudbury River but they collapsed or were blocked decades ago. When one major culvert at the Transflow rail yard off Flanders Road was fixed a decade ago, water levels in the eastern portion of Cedar Swamp dropped several feet. If the culverts closer to town were fixed, downtown Westborough would be much better protected.

Of course getting the railroad to repair them is another matter. It’s expensive because the rails need to be kept open while the repairs are performed.

Insect-borne diseases are another issue we have now that we did not have to worry about when I was a kid in the 1970s. Anyone even spending time on their lawn in Westborough, let alone the woods, should routinely check for ticks.

Ticks are tough creatures and are surviving our warmer winters. According to the Tufts University Lahey Clinic, ticks are a major vector not only of Lyme disease, which is debilitating enough, but Babesiosis (causes anemia), Tularemia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, both of which can be fatal.

Massachusetts already deals with Mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and to a lesser extent, Eastern Equine Encephalitis. The Asian Tiger mosquito is a vector for Dengue and Chikungunya. This species is steadily migrating northward from the Deep South. It’s already found as far north as southeastern Connecticut.

I know this all sounds scary, but everything I discussed is a recognized issue documented in the Massachusetts State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan (

Regardless of whether you think humans are causing the climate to change, the fact is that it IS changing and quickly.

The trends are pretty clear, which is why we have to be resilient.

The Tide's They are a Changin'

(apologies to Bob Dylan)

Sea levels are rising. That’s nothing new.

They rose over 400 feet at the end of the last glacial epoch over 10,000 years ago. Over the last 2,000 years, sea levels increased about 1.5 feet, or about 0.00025 mm per year. A really small number. Over the last two decades though, the rate increased to 3.2 mm per year, about 1,300 times faster than it was just a century ago. 

Still these numbers seem really, really tiny and you are tempted to say, so what?

Well, overall, U.S. sea level has risen about 0.7 feet since 1920. During this same interval, coastal tidal flooding frequency has gone from 1 or 2 a year to 20 per year. It’s double what it was just 30 years ago. That’s what.

Sea levels are actually increasing faster along the east coast of the US than elsewhere. The reasons include a slowing Gulf Stream, which causes water to pile up along the eastern seaboard; thermal expansion of warming waters, and changes in the distribution of gravity around the planet due to melting ice sheets which alone may add about a foot to east coast sea level rise by 2100.

This information comes not from a science fiction movie, but from a detailed 2017 report produced by NOAA (NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 083).  It’s a no kidding, here’s what’s gonna happen folks, report.

An axiom of engineers is that any problem can be solved with the proper application of money. Of course, there’s the flip side. Is the solution worth the cost? Boston recently decided the answer is no.

A study released last month recommended that the city NOT build a flood protection barrier at the outer edge of Boston Harbor. The barrier, which would have been closed to protect the city from storm surges caused by Nor’easters or hurricanes, would have cost over $10 billion and taken about 30 years to build.

The reason for not building the barrier was not because the study’s authors thought sea levels are not rising - they do - but because they thought it wouldn’t be cost effective and not help with the sorts of day-to-day nuisance flooding that Boston and other cities are now coping with.

Another big issue with the barrier was that it could very well be obsolete by the time it was completed. If we could slow or reverse greenhouse gas emissions quickly, sea level rise may be limited, so the barrier would be a waste. On the other (and more likely) hand, if trends continue as they are, the barrier might be ineffective by the time it was completed.

Last, if Boston built a barrier, any deflected storm surge would just go somewhere else, like Beverly, Cohasset, Manchester, or Scituate, for example. I imagine that the legal battles alone could prevent the first load of concrete from even being poured for 30 years.

Instead of a barrier, Boston has decided to address this issue using strategies right along the coast line, detailed in a plan called Climate Ready Boston, which, if implemented, would protect critical infrastructure and housing in low lying areas using a variety of strategies, including local berms and floodwalls. In East Boston, protecting against a 100 year flood (1% chance in a given year) combined with 21 inches of sea level rise by 2050 would prevent $1.3 billion in losses . . . from just one flood.

Boston is taking the issue of sea level rise very seriously. In the year ending April 30th, the city experienced 22 days of tidal flooding, breaking the record set in 2009. During last January’s Nor’easter, the city had the highest tide ever recorded, which flooded downtown streets. The city expects these types of floods will be the norm in coming years.

Boston is not the only city trying to cope with this issue. In Miami, Florida, and Norfolk, Virginia (home to the US Navy’s largest base), residents now routinely wade through knee deep water during peak high tides. They weren’t 20 years ago.

NOAA is projecting that this year the frequency of such events will be even higher as we head into another El Nino year. The last one ended barely 2 years ago.

There is old saying which goes, you can’t hold back the tide. It’s truer than ever these days.

When the Volcano Blows

“I don’t know where I’m-a gonna go, when the volcano blows.” -Jimmy Buffet

You may have heard about the newest eruption of a volcano in Hawaii last week. Actually, that volcano, Kilauea, has been slowly oozing lava for the last 30 years, but lately, the crater has been throwing out fountains of lava, ash, and poisonous gases.

On any given day, almost two dozen volcanoes are actively erupting, but most don’t make the news.  Many of these are located along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” which stretches from the tip of South America up through Alaska and down the eastern coast of the Pacific to New Zealand. These volcanoes are the result of ocean crust being recycled into the mantle where it melts into magma that rises to the surface.

Other volcanoes, like Hawaii, are the result of columns of magma which rise from deep in the Earth’s mantle, which erupt through the thin ocean crust, creating new islands.

But these are only the ones on land. There is a continuous chain of volcanoes, 40,000 miles long, that snakes through the deepest parts of all the oceans of the Earth, which creates new crust and pushes the continents around the planet at a rate equivalent to the speed of your fingernail growth.

Volcanic eruptions can have a profound affect o the Earth’s climate. In fact, at least 4 of the 5 mass extinctions of life during the last 550 million years can be traced to volcanism, but not like anything ever witnessed by humans. These eruptions lasted hundreds of thousands to a million years, covering millions of square miles in a thick layer of basalt, and discharging enough sulfur and carbon dioxide to really mess with climate. One such eruption, in Siberia about 250 million years ago, coincided with “The Great Dying”, when 95% of all life on Earth went extinct.

Much smaller eruptions can have a shorter, but noticeable effect on climate. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted explosively, sending 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the high atmosphere where it created a haze of sulfuric acid. This haze reflected sunlight and dropped global average temperatures by almost 1 degree F over the next two years.

Temperatures bounced back quickly as the haze dissipated and have continued their inexorable rise today’s record levels.

When one examines the temperature records since the late 1800's, the increase in global temperatures has not been consistent with the increase in atmospheric CO2. In fact, temperatures decreased significantly from the 1950's to the 1970's.

This decline coincides with overall post-war increases in industrial production and coal-fired power generation. A byproduct of burning coal was the release of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which, no surprise, resulted in a lot of sulfuric acid haze in the stratosphere.

Then in 1970, President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act.

Before the Clean Air Act (and similar legislation in Europe) sulfur emissions from power plants and vehicles caused significant air pollution, leading to acid rain, which caused widespread damage to the environment too numerous to list here. One of the requirements of the act was to decrease power plant and vehicle sulfur dioxide emissions.

Once sulfur emissions started to decline, acid rain decreased sharply throughout the industrialized world.  In addition, temperatures again started to increase and did so quite rapidly, a purely unintended consequence of the act.

So what is the lesson here? If you don’t think humans can change the climate, you’d be wrong. The history of human sulfur dioxide emissions proves it.

One of the proposed “solutions” to global warming is injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. This proposal is being taken seriously, especially by conservative think tanks who call themselves climate change skeptics. Oh the irony.

History shows that we would have to continuously inject sulfur at high altitudes to cool the Earth and we would have to burn fuel to do so, adding CO2 to the air as well. The moment we stopped, temperatures would soar. Then there is acid rain and its devastating ecological impacts including ozone depletion. The uneven application of this “solution” could cause massive droughts in areas that depend on annual monsoons. Who would manage this process is another question fraught with geopolitical peril.

Seems to me that the better course is to decrease CO2 emissions, not add a different kind of pollution to the atmosphere. Decreasing emissions is something we already know how to do.

What is lacking is the political will to do so. That, we can change . . . at the ballot box.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

“If there’s a third world war we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages” 

–  Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, March 11, 2018, discussing the need to colonize Mars.

Let me start by saying that colonizing other planets has been a romantic staple of science fiction going back over a century, but it is still just that – fiction. I think the potential for an extraterrestrial colony to survive let alone become self-sustaining is very small, given the hazards. Putting a Tesla roadster into solar orbit is child’s play by comparison.

In the early 2000’s I read a book called “Rare Earth”, which argued that planets like ours were rare and that the circumstances which lead to the evolution of humans and the development of civilization were thus also rare. 

Then came the Kepler probe, launched in 2009, which subsequently discovered thousands of planets in a very small section of the sky. Astronomers now estimate that some 40 billion Earth-like planets may orbit the habitable zones of their stars, where water could exist as a liquid, 11 billion of which would be orbiting stars like our own. Our Earth may not be so rare.

Geologists have recently pushed back the origins of life on Earth to over 4 billion years ago, which would mean that life started on Earth very soon after the solar system formed and the planet cooled from its molten state. Although biologists have yet to create life de novo in the lab, they have determined that the biochemistry needed to form self-replicating organic molecules is pretty straightforward. Life may not be so rare.

Indeed, life may already exist elsewhere in our solar system, buried deep under the sands of Mars, which used to be an Earth-like planet, or in the vast oceans which underlie the ice-covered moons of Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. 

But how about complex life and self-aware beings that create civilizations? Why has SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence not heard any radio signals from other civilizations, despite listening for the last 50 years or so? 

Which brings us to the “Fermi Paradox”. The famous physicist’s postulate that if there are so many stars and so many planets, “Where is everybody?” Recent UFO videos notwithstanding, there is really no conclusive evidence that we have been visited by extraterrestrials and we sure haven’t heard from any.

Life may not be rare, but life like us may be because planet-sterilizing cosmic events are common or civilizations destroy themselves through ecological mismanagement and/or war.

Back to Mr. Musk and his concern that we may send ourselves the way of the dinosaurs, so we should therefore not confine ourselves to one planet.  Note that dinosaurs existed over 100 million years. We have been around for only 160 thousand.

Musk’s goal is to save humanity, but what about everything between honey bees and humpback whales? Aren’t these lifeforms worth preserving? Musk ignores the fact that humans evolved in an interdependent ecological web within a very thin shell of a biosphere which would be almost impossible to artificially replicate. Stepping outside that shell anywhere else means stepping into an environment that is actively trying to kill you.

Colonizing the Moon or Mars means burrowing into the subsurface or building sealed domes. I ask, why go to Mars to do that when we can bury ourselves on Earth if things go south? Heck, let’s just avoid the need to do so in the first place. The cheaper alternative is to avoid nuclear war and to preserve our biosphere. 

I close with the sage words of the late Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot”, inspired by a view of Earth from the Voyager Probe, then 6.4 billion miles from Earth:

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. . . There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Published in the Westborough News, March 30th, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sound and Fury

I have written a lot of columns about the consequences of human-caused climate change, describing those both current and projected. My wife tells me my columns are getting depressing.
So this column is about the energy policy of our current Federal Government. It should not be surprising that the Trump administration is basically attempting to implement whatever the fossil fuel industry wishes.
First off is the Department of Interior’s recent decision to open up the entire US east and west coast’s outer continental shelves to oil and gas exploration because the administration wants to make America “energy dominant”.
We already produce almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia, due to fracking and sophisticated drilling technology, which allows energy companies to extract oil and gas from shale formations that have been ignored since the first oil well was drilled back in 1859.
Kinda makes us energy dominant already and thus a big player in the world’s energy markets.
Last year, the USGS estimated that one shale formation in West Texas’ Permian Basin contains 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Not only that, but the 75,000 square mile Permian Basin already has the infrastructure in place to extract, transport, and refine these hydrocarbons.
In contrast, the USGS estimates that mostly likely the entire 1.56 MILLION square mile outer continental shelf from Canada to Florida contains only 1.4 billion barrels of oil. In addition, there is no infrastructure off the east coast. No pipelines, no platforms, no nothing.  In addition, wells might have to be drilled in waters up to 12,000 feet deep.
The Macondo well, you know, the one that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, was in waters 5,000 feet deep. Coupled with the recension of regulations to make such deep-water drilling safer – What could possibly go wrong? But I digress.
Offshore oil exploration and production is expensive and oil prices have to be very high to make it worthwhile, like north of $100 per barrel. The price of oil has been anything but for the last decade, because the US is energy dominant . . . already. It’s currently $64 per barrel.
Along with laughably bad economics is the laughably rapid reversal of the new policy that took Florida off the table almost immediately to placate Governor (soon to be Republican Senate candidate) Scott (former offshore drilling advocate) because “Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver”.
I think every governor up and down the east and west coasts could make the same argument and most assuredly they will when (not if) they sue the Interior Department. #WhatAboutUs?
Thus, I doubt we will see any drilling platforms off our coasts for a very, very long time.
Then there is the Department of Energy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC. The Secretary of Energy asked FERC to institute a policy of supporting coal power plants under the guise of energy resilience, because they can stockpile their sources in the event of an emergency. This policy would slow the retirement of uneconomic coal power plants, prop up the price of coal power, and jack up consumer electricity prices by billions of dollars. So much for free markets.
This proposal was a sop to the coal industry, nothing more.
To everyone’s surprise, FERC, whose members are dominated by Trump appointees by the way, rejected the proposal.
Did I mention that Republicans made sure the Tax bill passed late last year preserves tax breaks for wind and solar, the two most rapidly growing sources of electricity in the US? Iowa gets a third of its electricity from wind and to no one’s surprise, Senator Chuck Grassley (R – Iowa) made sure the provisions remained.
Of course, the oil and gas industries have long benefited from all sorts of tax breaks.
Regardless of incentives, the price of alternative energy continues to drop, making it competitive with fossil fuels, even when wind and solar tax incentives end in 2022.

These are examples of Trump administration energy policy proposals that are running into the headwinds of reality, both economic and political. They will end up being, as the Bard put it “. . . full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Published in the Westborough News, January 19, 2018

Saturday, January 6, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different ...

I want to take a break from writing about our planet.

I have always been highly skeptical of UFOs, at least after my teenage years when my capacity for objectivity was less than stellar. Why, in this day and age when everyone and their cousin has megapixel cameras in their smartphone and surveillance cameras are ubiquitous is there so little in the way of credible evidence?

This brings me to an article published by the NY Times a couple of weeks ago. It’s a story about a secret program and included video images recorded in 2004. The videos were released by the Department of Defense last August.  The story was written by three prize-winning reporters.

We as a society barely batted an eyelash at this story, which recounts events which took place 13 years ago.

The videos show recordings by infrared tracking systems on a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet which was following what the pilot described as a school-bus sized Tic-Tac shaped object. It had no wings, no visible means of propulsion and its maneuvering ability far exceeded that of any known aircraft. One video shows the object rotating like a spinning coin as it flew and another shows it dashing out of range at an acceleration rate like something out of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

The facts of the encounter are pretty startling. A couple of dozen objects were tracked by a guided missile cruiser’s sophisticated AEGIS radar. More than one Super Hornet took part in the encounter and thus at least four highly trained Navy officers saw the objects. One recording was made by an external targeting pod designed to track targets on land or the skies under all weather conditions and the other by a pilot’s internal targeting display.

A coworker who worked on AEGIS radars for years said this video had to be a hoax. Given what I have read so far, I disagree.

Any electronic system can provide false information. Eyewitnesses can lie, their memories can be inaccurate, or they can be under the influence. The likelihood that three different electronic systems and multiple human witnesses were all spoofed in this instance is highly improbable, especially when the eyewitnesses were highly trained combat pilots with many years’ experience in the cockpit who are not likely to be chewing peyote.

In science, multiple lines of evidence decrease the probability that an observed phenomenon is a one-off, the result of instrumental error, or human bias. In other words, I think this information is pretty credible.

So what were they looking at? It appears to be a honest-to-God Unidentified Flying Object. A UFO.

One of the pilots interviewed by the Washington Post, which I’d also consider another reputable news outlet, stated that it was “Something not from the Earth.”
Is the pilot right? Does this encounter mean we are being visited by aliens?

Not necessarily.

We don’t know where these objects came from, who was piloting them, what they are made of, or even if anything organic was aboard. For all we know, the UFOs are from the future, a parallel universe, Atlantis, let alone another solar system. They could be manmade. We don’t have sufficient information to even speculate and we may never, but gee whiz, it would be cool to find out.

What is clear is that the DOD no longer cares. According to the Times, the secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program which studied such incidents ended in 2012. I guess that whatever these things are, the DOD does not consider them a threat. It’s hard enough to deal with countries and organizations we know want to do us harm, let alone “foo fighters” that dance through the skies taunting mere humans flying $70 million high performance warplanes.

And in the hubbub of today’s information-overloaded world, this story isn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar screen except mine and the tin-foil-hat crowd, of which I am proudly NOT a member.

Woke up this morning with light in my eyes
And then realized it was still dark outside
It was a light coming down from the sky
I don't know who or why

Must be those strangers that come every night
Those saucer shaped lights put people uptight
Leave blue green footprints that glow in the dark
I hope they get home alright

Hey, Mr. Spaceman
Won't you please take me along
I won't do anything wrong
Hey, Mr. Spaceman
Won't you please take me along for a ride

- Roger McGuinn, the Byrds, 1966

Published in the Westborough News, January 5, 2018