I saw two particularly depressing trend lines this week. Both were confronting enough to make me stop, sit back and just contemplate. It was not as though these came as a great surprise — I’d been following these data for years. But for some reason, the seriousness of them really struck home like never before.
The first was a report on Arctic sea ice volume. Here is the graph that shocked me:
It shows the minimum northern hemisphere sea ice volume yearly from 1979 to 2011, and a simple time-series forecast based on a fit of the exponential-decline model. You can read about the details here: PIOMAS September 2011 (volume record lower still), where various related charts are also shown. One can argue about the precision of the projection line, but the general fit is remarkably robust and, on this basis, it is reasonable to conclude that unless some remarkable turn around occurs, the Arctic summer ice volume will be near-zero by 2020.
One explanation for this greater-than-expected decline is given in this new paper in Journal of Geophysical Research. Rampal et al. show that as the ice thins, it drifts more — increasing ‘export’ of ice to lower latitudes and accelerating melting. This may also explain the deviations seen between sea-ice extent (see left chart) and volume (both are bad, but volume is looking worse). Perhaps the gaps between small aggregations of ice are not showing up in the satellite data, with the mushy residual ice spreading out evenly to close gaps, thus appearing to maintain or even increase its extent, especially as the thinning summer ice becomes more ever more vulnerable to wind dispersion. As we approach zero volume, we will obviously get a clearer picture on positive feedbacks, but all that we can be sure of for now is that we are entering unknown territory.
The second depressing trend that disturbed me was the latest global carbon dioxide emissions data. The core problem is summarised here:
The world pumped about 512 million tonnes more of carbon into the air last year than it did in 2009, an increase of 6 per cent. That amount of extra pollution eclipses the individual emissions of all but three countries – China, the US and India, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases.
A decent graphic that tells the ‘onward and upwards’ story is this:
Another more detailed chart, emphasising the magnitude of the recent spike in emissions, can be seen here. Most countries reported rises in their emissions, including many European nations (so much for the Euro carbon price), and of course the rising industrial powers of the developing world. The march to embrace new coal and the relentless push to access all of the world’s liquid hydrocarbon reserves, continues unabated. As this recent paper in Nature Climate Change reports, this path takes us towards a very different world:
Folks, we are failing badly, and our failure continues to compound each year. I tweeted this news (restricted to 140 characters) as: “Global CO2e emissions rises >500 million tonnes over 2010 – 2011 period, an increase of 6 % on 2009 – going backwards, need nuclear + renew!“, and pretty soon afterwards, solicited a typical tweet-based reply from someone saying: “//100% Renewables possible. Nuclear unnecessary!“.
Wake up. Smell the roses. This is extremely serious, and people who can look at these sea-ice and emissions data and still say: “We don’t need nuclear!” are, frankly, dangerous and delusional. Only hard-nosed rationality will fix this problem — and that will be built on policies that focus on reducing the cost of non-fossil energy (of any kind), such that it becomes an economically sensible decision to built these preferentially.
Folks as philosophically diverse as The Breakthrough Institute experts and Peter Lang get this. Indeed, it is almost certain that you — each and every one of you — can find someone you respect who gets it. The concept is really not that hard to understand, but we desperately need widespread education and a healthy dose critical, pragmatic and realistic thinking from the general populace. Will you help make this happen?
Finally, some articles on the Fukushima nuclear accident that are worth reading. First there is The Nuclear Power Safety Record by Ted Rockwell, which looks at the global nuclear safety record, its comparison with other industrial activities, and a review of background radiation.
Second, there is a the IEEE Spectrum article 24 Hours at Fukushima, which provides a detailed blow-by-blow account of events, and draws six lessons learned:
1. Emergency generators should be installed at high elevations or in watertight chambers.
2. If a cooling system is intended to operate without power, make sure all of its parts can be manipulated without power.
3. Keep power trucks on or very close to the power plant site.
4. Install independent and secure battery systems to power crucial instruments during emergencies.
5. Ensure that catalytic hydrogen recombiners (power-free devices that turn dangerous hydrogen gas back into steam) are positioned at the tops of reactor buildings where gas would most likely collect.
6. Install power-free filters on vent lines to remove radio-active materials and allow for venting that won’t harm nearby residents.