Archive for the ‘enviroment’ Category
Russian scientists hope this week to drill into lake Vostok, a lake buried beneath the ice of Antarctica. And not just a lake, Lake Vostok is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, about the size of Lake Ontario, but about three times as deep. It’s covered by two miles of Antarctic ice cap, for Lake Vostok is very near the South Pole and is in one of the coldest spots on the world. And now, after two decades of drilling, Russian scientists are about to punch through the ice into the lake itself and get samples.
Wait, two decades? Yes, humans got men to the moon faster than it has taken them to get to Lake Vostok, How does it take two decades to drill through a few miles of ice? Well, for one thing, the annual summer drilling season in Antarctica is about four hours long. OK, a few weeks long, but the gentle reader gets the point. Also, and more importantly, there has been a lot of delay due to concerns about just how to penetrate the lake itself. Scientists want to get pristine samples, they don’t want to contaminate the lake, and since the lake seems to have a lot of gas dissolved in it at high pressure … they want to avoid a catastrophic scenario akin to shaking a can of soda and then opening it. That would be a bad thing, possibly both contaminating the lake and the samples, while destroying the borehole and maybe even causing an ecological disaster. Yikes, keeping my fingers crossed for sure.
OK, so a lake in a deep freeze, what’s the big deal? Well, for one thing there are a whole series of lakes under the Antarctic ice, almost certainly connected somehow. So geologists want to know all they can about these lakes, partly just because they are unique, and as part and parcel of understanding the entire Antarctic Ice Cap. Which is part of ongoing scientific efforts to understand the Earth itself and its’ climate and climate cycles. Not to mention that if the Antarctic Ice Caps collapsed into the oceans, it would be a very bad thing. So, not a bad idea for scientists to figure out what’s going on under the ice.
The exciting part, at least for non-geologists, is what might be living in Lake Vostok. It was a real live genuine lake at one time, before it got covered with ice. How long ago did it get covered with ice? About 14 million years as far as scientists can figure, though if they get good water samples they will be able to put a far more accurate date on it. This means that whatever life was in those lakes may have been evolving quietly away in an environment completely unlike any other on Earth. And it’s pretty much a certainty that there will be life in the lake, since hydrogen sulphide eating microbes have been found in the ice above the lake. The deep biosphere, yet another topic for a future post.
So anyhow, weird microbes, anything else? I mean, really, I’ve watched enough sci fi to know that when they drill through the ice, giant intelligent man-eating ice amoebas will emerge and attack the Russian drilling crew, I hope some of them are armed. OK, that’s pretty unlikely. Still, these lakes might have geothermal vents, and just like oceanic geothermal vents, there might be communities of all sorts of strange worms and crustaceans living happily away. Sadly, it will be awhile before we know about that, I don’t know if plans are even afoot to send any sort of ROV down and actually explore the lake. Still, it is the ultimate goal, and the current project is developing the technology for eventually doing just that.
And while this step may not be all that exiting from a non-scientific view, though I hope some people think it’s cool, this is also a stepping stone to a far more exciting lake drilling project. Antarctica isn’t the only place with with bodies of water under ice, several moons and at least one asteroid, Ceres, are believed to very likely harbour oceans of water under their ice. And god only knows what could be living under there. Even if life didn’t independently originate there, there’s every reason to believe that pretty much every body in the solar system has been “seeded” by bacteria laden rocks blasted from Earth by comet and asteroid impacts. And with millions or hundreds of millions of years to evolve in pretty much a totally alien environment … I might get my giant man-eating ice amoebas yet!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Image by Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation. I’m not sure why I chose that image, the pretty colours perhaps. I mean, it’s not like it’s a difficult thing to visualize. I don’t know what the red arrows are, ice amoeba migration routes? I’ll do better tomorrow, I promise.)
And no, not another 9/11 post. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on those, there’s a even a few I haven’t responded to. Granted, I don’t get around to responding to every comment, but I try to respond to many or most of them. I get a lot of international comments, not terribly surprising, I’m a rare breed in the USA, an intellectual. I’ve known that since the 80s when we met some German brothers in New Zealand. Later they hitchhiked across the USA and visited us in California. One of their questions was, where are all the intellectuals? I couldn’t say.
I digress, the topic of today’s blog, fracking. Fracking is a method of drilling oil out of low grade oil deposits like oil sands and oil shales, of which the USA has in abundance. During the last gas crunch a few years ago, some wags tossed fracking around as a solution to our oil problems. The Bakken Formation was a favourite example. Experts in the field pointed out that we were decades away from being able to commercially exploit these deposits in a large way. My own considered opinion was that the experts were right.
Well, apparently I was wrong. So were the experts. The technology is here, now. Fracking wells have become commercially viable, and are sprouting up all over the place. It’s entirely possible that in a decade or less the US could produce its own oil, or even become an oil exporting nation again. This is a pretty big change from the peak oil scare a few years back, apparently peak oil has been put off a few more decades. This is all good, right?
No, not necessarily at least. There’s three points that make this an interesting topic, the first of which is, who knows? This is a wonderful example of how things can change very quickly on the world stage. For decades the exploitation of oil shale and oil sand deposits have largely been a pipe dream. They aren’t any more. This is a huge change. And when the equation changes, all sorts of things can fall out. So this is an important development that might change everything, so people should be aware of it.
Secondly, even if fracking really does produce copious amounts of oil and natural gas, the environmental consequences appear to be non-trivial. Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, which basically is pumping heated fluids into the ground to fracture rack and allow oil and gas to flow out. Um, what heated fluids? And um, isn’t there groundwater down there? Who knows, and yes. This is why fracking has been outlawed in a few minor jurisdictions. Like Queensland, Quebec, France, and several US states. At best it’s safe to say there are future unknown costs, possibly significant, due to environmental concerns.
Lastly, are there geopolitical implications? Yes, yes there are. One would think it would be a good thing, but anything is possible. My fear is that this will fuel American militarism abroad for a few more decades. And at our current rate of enemy creation, that means we will be at war with the entire world in a few decades. Yeah, that will work out well.
(The above image is of the burning Piper Alpha oil platform. It’s claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit. It was a disaster that was a classic disaster, a whole string of events led up to it, and it’s a study in disaster prevention to this day. A bunch of guys died. I chose it to illustrate that the exploitation of oil and gas involves costs, sometimes very human ones.)
I was wondering the other day how much human activity is altering the plant, erosion specifically was what got me looking into the subject. I mean, humans have converted vast amounts of forest and prairie into farmland or worse, and erosion rates must have gone up significantly over normal background rates of erosion. Well, turns out geologists have calculated that the global erosion rate is about 10 billion tons of sediment moved from mountains to sea every year. Since the onset of agriculture, this has risen to about 28 billion tons per year. And we also move tens of billions of other material around in the form of mining, concrete production, etc. There’s not any question that humans are now the dominant force shaping the very surface of the Earth by a huge margin. The numbers a so huge that geologists are seriously considering defining the human era as a whole new geological era, the Anthropocene Epoch.
Then there’s the impact of humans have on the atmosphere. Let’s look at volcanoes. Every year volcanoes erupt and dump copious amounts of CO2 and SO2 (sulphur dioxide) into the atmosphere. Humans? We dump about 100 times and five times respectively as much CO2 and SO2 into the atmosphere every year as volcanoes. This is not chicken scratch. In fact the amount of CO2 released by humans and absorbed by the oceans has increased ocean acidity by 25%. This is a huge increase, and has changed the geological processes on the ocean floor in ways we don’t begin to understand.
Let’s just look at it from an energy standpoint. The heat energy released by the Earth every year is well understood. It’s about 44 trillion watts a year. This is what powers volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics. Human activity is about 16 trillion watts per year. Yes, human energy output is now about 1/3 the energy output of the Earth itself! And if it keeps doubling every 34 years, the current rate of increase, by about 2060 humans will be generating more energy than the Earth! Puny my ass.
It gets worse. As CO2 builds up in the atmosphere it increases the greenhouse effect, IE it traps more of the Sun’s heat on the Earth, warming the crust, the oceans, and the air. If the CO2 in the atmosphere doubles, it will add about 1300 trillion watts of heat energy to the Earth every year! That’s about 28 times the energy the Earth generates every year. And we’re well on the way, humans have increased the CO2 in the atmosphere by about 40% so far with no end in sight. Humans are literally cooking the planet’s crust, atmosphere, and oceans. Literally.
And these are just the big picture items. Little picture items, though the term is misleading, include deforestation, habitat destruction, over-fishing, and groundwater depletion just to name a few. Then there’s the dizzying array of chemicals we make and dump. Any of these could fill volumes with their effects, at least their known effects. My point here is very simple, humans not only are having a huge impact on the nature of our planet, we have no clue what the end results of these will be.
We are deliberately and literally geoengineering our planet, our only planet, with little to no understanding of the long term consequences of our actions. This is why the aliens haven’t contacted us yet, and this is why I question the idea that humans are an intelligent species. We are transforming the globe in ways we don’t even begin to understand, in the name of greed, ideology, and religion.
This isn’t going to end well.
(The above image is a NASA image and is being used legally, essentially it’s a Public Domain image as long as it is used in such a way that does not imply that NASA is endorsing a product or service. NASA does not endorse Doug’s Darkworld. It’s the decline of the Aral Sea in central Asia, once the world’s fourth largest lake. It’s now about 10% of it’s former size, entirely due to human activity and the results have been catastrophic. Lastly, much of the information on this post came from Our effect on the earth is real: how we’re geo-engineering the planet.)
Part of the reason my blogging has slowed down recently is that so much of what is going on today makes me mad. So I decided to vent about it, maybe it will be cathartic, maybe it will just make me madder. In no particular order, and in no way comprehensive, here are ten things I spend my time seething about. Be warned, I may use some harsh language as the situation warrants.
1. The rich are ass raping us all, and tens of millions of Americans are clamouring for more. The rich have been getting richer in the USA since the 1970s, while the middle class has slowly and steadily lost ground. This is not debatable. They’ve moved our factories to foreign lands, slashed their taxes, taken over our government and mainstream media, and stolen trillions from the public till. And most Americans are so brain-washed and propagandized that they blame immigrants, liberals, conservatives, atheists, shriners, whatever. Anyone but the people who have actually gotten us into this mess.
2. The debt, an extension of number one. The Federal government has been running in the red a record breaking 33 months now. State and local governments are no better. How in the name of God did the richest country the world has ever seen run up debts so insane that there is no conceivable way to ever pay them off? The infinite greed of the rich and the apparently infinite stupidity of the great unwashed masses is my guess.
3. The Pentagon. There was a reason the founding fathers were adamantly opposed to a standing army. Armies get involved in politics, and then get the country involved in wars. All of which costs the country blood and money. And it just keeps getting worse, while tens of millions of Americans regurgitate the crap that our legions overseas are fighting to “defend our freedoms.” No, they are fighting and dying to make the rich richer and create endless new enemies for the USA. Frankly the US army needs to be disbanded it’s so out of control.
4. The historic last flight of the space shuttle. Good riddance. The space shuttle was one of the biggest boondoggles in history, it should never have been built in the first place, and it most certainly should have been canned after the first one blew up. Yet Americans are celebrating the lives lost and the billions wasted on this flying cash cow.
5. Iran is going to have nukes soon! Yes, another right wing think tank claims that Iran is going to be building nukes soon! Yes, the exact same claim that has been made by Israeli and American war mongers since the 1980s! Yes, for nearly thirty years Iran has been “just about to” build nuclear weapons! Meanwhile Israel and the USA have massively increased their war spending, including the creation of an Israeli nuclear arsenal. The USA spends more money on air conditioning for its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than the entire Iranian military budget, yet we are supposed to quail in our boots because Iran might someday acquire a few fifties era nukes?
6. Casey Anderson. A woman was acquitted of a terrible crime in a fair trial … and millions of Americans are braying for her blood. Literally. How does this make them any different than stone throwing Muslims? It doesn’t.
7. Health Care. France spends 11% of its GNP on health care, and provides everyone in France with cradle to grave health care of the highest quality. The USA spends 16% of its GNP on health care and provides its citizens with the worst health care in the industrialized world. Anyone who isn’t mad about this is a fool.
8. Fucking the globe. From climate change to deforestation to over-fishing humans are making widespread and unprecedented changes to the surface of our fine planet. Humans are now the greatest force for change operating on the surface of the Earth in numerous realms, in most cases either ignorant of what the end result will be, or worse, deliberately proceeding even though our best minds say the end result will be catastrophic. Collectively we are no smarter than ants.
9. Religious nuts. Even the Romans understood: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” – Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.) And here we are two thousand years later blowing each other up, destroying the planet, and breeding like rabbits because people think it’s a great idea to do stuff because of what someone’s imaginary friend said. Jesus wept.
10. We’re all little better than monkeys. Yes, science has now shown that our brains are hard wired to be stupid. When most people are confronted with logical and scientific evidence that refutes some stupid idea they have, it reinforces their beliefs! This wouldn’t be such problem if our leaders weren’t all too eager to promote dumb fuck ideas because it makes them richer and more powerful.
In conclusion, speaking globally, this isn’t going to end well. Speaking locally, despite a missing lime and a recalcitrant pull tab, it’s going quite well and will end up nicely. And when I wake up, maybe the last 31 years will have all been a nightmare. A man can dream.
(The above image is of a painting made in 1562, so it’s currently Public Domain under US copyright law. I expect that to change soon as corporations twist the law to their own purposes. It’s titled “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Pieter Brueghal the Elder. I believe it’s self evident why I thought this was an appropriate image for this post.)
Early in the morning of September 2nd 1859 the sky brightened and gold miners in Colorado got up and started cooking their breakfast. Gold miners get up with the Sun of course, at least the gold miners of that era. It wasn’t long before they noticed that while the sky was amazingly bright and colourful, this was no ordinary sunrise. It was no ordinary sunrise because the sun as nowhere to be seen. It was an Aurora, or Northern Lights, covering the entire sky, brighter than the full Moon.
And while the miners in Colorado got a particularly good view, people as far south of the Caribbean also saw spectacular Northern Lights, like nothing anyone had ever seen before. At least in recorded memory. And spectacular lights in the sky weren’t the only thing going on, all over Europe and North America telegraph systems burnt out, sparks were flying from telegraph poles, in some cases operators receiving shocks. And weirdest of all, there were some reports of telegraph systems that continued to operate, after they had been cut off from their power supply. What the hell was going on here?
What was going on was that the day before an astronomer by the name of Richard Christopher Carrington had seen the largest Solar Storm ever recorded on the Sun. They had in fact seen a Coronal Mass Ejection launched towards the Earth, a journey it made in 18 hours. Normally it takes several days, but a previous CME had cleared the way. The Sun was in an usually active period. And while they couldn’t actually see the CME, Carrington realized that the events unfolding on Earth were indeed related to what he had seen on the Sun, and he catalogued and recorded the effects of this event world wide. Thus it was named after him.
So how often do events like this happen? Fortunately science can answer that, such events are recorded in Arctic and Antarctic ice cores, and they show that similar events happen about once every 500 years, with smaller but also powerful events occurring several times per century. OK, so there’s a small chance that we will get beautiful auroras for a few days, and our telegraph lines will stop working, who cares? No one uses telegraph lines anyhow. No big deal.
Sadly, very big deal. Very big deal indeed. The telegraph lines failed because the storm supercharged Earth’s magnetic field, which induced current in the long conductive telegraph lines. In fact any metal wire will have current flowing through it if one of these big storms hits. And what do we use that has metal wires? Well, everything, but there’s two really big ones that are most vulnerable to this sort of event. Power grids are one of them, huge numbers of power grids could overload and fail. Think continent wide, or world wide, blackouts. Secondly, many satellites in orbit would be burned out. And as icing on the cake, radio communication would be severely disrupted or curtailed during the event.
Would it be the end of civilization? Of course not, for that we would actually have to have a civilization. Would it be the end of life as we know it? Naw, just some power outages. In fact since a smaller CME knocked out power in Quebec in 1989, efforts have been made to harden power grids against such events. And in fact the Sun is constantly monitored so that we would get warning of such an event, and more than likely be able to mitigate most of its effects.
Still, if one night there are incredible auroras and then the power goes out, you can astonish your friends by saying “Meh, a big CME just struck Earth. This means … we party till the power comes back on!”
Well, as was obvious almost immediately, the nuclear power lobby and their supporters went into overdrive to downplay and obfuscate the seriousness of the Fukushima crisis in Japan. No, this isn’t another Chernobyl. And World War Two wasn’t the same as World War One, that doesn’t mean World War Two was no big deal either. I’ve even read commentaries claiming Fukushima “proves” that nuclear power is safe. My jaw drops on that one, the Fukushima crisis isn’t over yet, so how the hell does this prove nuclear power is safe? Until the plant is safely brought back under control, and that may take up to a year, it’s a little premature to claim that this crisis is even over, let alone claim that Fukushima is no big deal.
The biggest lie I see about nuclear accidents is ones revolving around the death toll. By focusing entirely or almost entirely on how many people died, it’s easy to make nuclear power look safe compared to say coal power. There are two things horribly deceptive about this argument. For one thing it relies on the lowest possible estimates for deaths caused by nuclear accidents, often even limiting it to the people directly killed on site! It’s debatable how many people were killed by Chernobyl, maybe a few thousand, maybe many more, but focusing on this single statistic obscures the bigger picture. What about the people who got cancer but didn’t die? What about the hundred thousand people who were rendered homeless by Chernobyl? What about the area the size of Rhode Island (or Lancashire) that was rendered uninhabitable by Chernobyl? And what about the incredible cost of accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl? Can a fire at a coal power plant bankrupt a nation?
And speaking of coal power plants, the claim is often made that we have a choice between coal power plants and nuclear power plants. To say this is oversimplification would be unfair, this is simply regurgitated energy industry propaganda. The energy industry has done a fabulous job convincing people that the only way to provide power in the modern world is giant power plants and their attendant giant electrical grids. Conservation, energy efficiency, distributed power generation, etc. are all simply dismissed as hippie nonsense. If this were really the case, the energy industry wouldn’t need tireless propaganda for their cause, and more importantly, it completely obscures the massive public subsidies that the energy industry has enjoyed for decades. From the Rural Electrification Act to the development of nuclear power itself the energy industry has enjoyed generous public subsidies. Not to mention that the health costs of both coal and nuclear power are simply dumped on the public. Anyone who says coal and nuclear plants and centralized power are the “only option” is missing a big part of the picture.
Then we come to the amazing amount of misinformation spread about radiation itself. Mostly through conflating various types of radiation, and by claiming that “radiation” is normal and that a little bit more won’t hurt. Yes, we live in a world where there is a lot of radiation, it’s unavoidable. What the “it’s all OK” people deliberately ignore or don’t mention is that fallout is not normal. Fallout is radioactive particles that get released into the environment. And yes, the radiation produced by fallout is trivial. What they don’t mention, is that if the fallout gets incorporated into bodily tissue, it is horrifically non-trivial. It’s like if someone was shooting at you with a BB gun, close your eyes and you would be safe. If however they could insert that BB gun inside our body at shoot at point blank range at various organs, the results would not be pretty. This is the difference been the radiation one receives on a plane flight and the radiation one receives by ingesting fallout, same “radiation,” wildly different consequences.
The other way that nuclear industry apologists deliberately understates the risk from fallout is that they make the claim that it’s so widely distributed in the environment that the dose anyone gets is small. While this is sort of true, it completely ignores the way fallout in the environment get concentrated in the food chain. Sure, there’s very little fallout on that grass. Then however the cows eat that grass, and a small amount of radioactive fallout gets concentrated and becomes dangerously radioactive milk or meat. In fact there are all sorts of ways radioactive fallout can get concentrated in the food chain, many of them no doubt as yet unknown. This especially goes with the release of fallout into the sea, this is simply a complete unknown at this point. Don’t worry though, the risk is so small that our government is going to protect us by not even bothering to test for it. Phew, see, no problem.
Which leads to another point. It’s so easy to hide the damage caused by this sort of event. Let’s think about this. Governments and the nuclear industry have incredible incentive to downplay the consequences of Fukushima. Combine this with the fact that the actual risks of this, increased cancer rates in decades to come, are going to be very easy to conceal and obfuscate and deny. Pretty sure any poli-sci freshman can give many reasons why governments lie through their teeth in situations like this. This is just how human institutions work, especially today when the mainstream media is owned lock, stock, and barrel by these very same interests that have reason to lie. Is this proof that they are lying or that the consequences of Fukushima are extremely serious? Of course not, but it’s definitely proof that people need to take government, industry, and media “expert’s” pronouncements of safety with an extremely large dose of salt.
Lastly, a related point that Fukushima illustrates. Nuclear waste. There are decades worth of nuclear waste “stored” at Fukushima, under circumstances that are hardly safe. This is the most toxic waste humans have ever produced, and it’s going to remain dangerous for thousands of years. The fact that the fawning corporate media never even mentions this issue anymore is proof that they are simply shills for big energy and big government. I mean, passing their negative costs onto society is standard procedure for big business, but in this case they are passing the costs on to countless future generations. This should be factored into arguments about how “safe” and “practical” nuclear power is, but instead it simply gets ignored. I’m sorry, but ignoring the nuclear waste issue in the discussion of nuclear power makes about as much sense as ignoring a lump in your breast or testicle in a discussion about your health.
In summary, am I saying that Fukushima is a mind numbing disaster that’s going to kill huge numbers of people and proves that nuclear power is insane? Not at all. I’m saying that Fukushima is a serous disaster of yet untold proportions, and it’s very much proof that the whole issue of nuclear power needs to be publicly debated. And I’m also saying that anyone, government or otherwise, who claims Fukushima is “no big deal” is at best premature in their pronouncement, and at worst simply lying. No one knows the future scope of the Fukushima disaster, especially since the reactors and nuclear waste storage pools won’t be brought under control for months at best. This could still get a lot worse before it gets better. Sadly, I’m betting on worse.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. And yes, I’m kinda skirting the boundaries of copyright law here, but since I’m plugging their show, I hope that in the extremely unlikely event that a CBS corporate copyright attorney sees this blog, they can overlook this copyright violation. At worst, they can tell me to remove the image. Credit and Copyright: CBS. Anyhow, I digress. I chose this image for several reasons, the main one being that it illustrates that the comfortable post World War Two fantasy that most Americans have been living in is rapidly drawing to a close, and Fukushima and its attendant costs and disruptions to the world economy are one of the factors driving this sea change. Wealth can only be funnelled upwards while costs are passed onto the public for so long before the whole rotten edifice collapses of its own weight. And also because it as a really good TV series and I highly recommend it to my readers.)
“Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.” — C. Montgomery Burns
Sigh. Nuclear power. One can read opinion pieces all over the map about nuclear power, from Ann Coulter’s “radiation is good for you” to more sober analysis. Basically, if someone wants to believe this accident is no big deal, there’s plenty on the web to reinforce their beliefs. If one wants to go the other extreme, there’s stuff out there as well. The bottom line is that us sheep will never really know the full story, both because there are so many unknowns that no one knows, and the flood of conflicting opinion and information. However, this doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands in despair, there’s still wiggle room for thoughtful analysis. So, in my usual rough order, my current thinking on this unpleasant situation.
The first thing is that like the gulf oil spill, the powers that be have tremendous incentive to downplay this situation. More incentive really, we are talking about one of the world’s most important centres of finance and industry, not just some gulf coast fishermen and tourist traps. This means that it is a given that governments and the media are going to show a strong “everything’s OK, move along now” bias, they have to. Now this isn’t evidence that things are worse than they say, since they are going to downplay the situation no matter what, it just means that we shouldn’t simply take their word for it that this is no big deal. A codicil to this point is that it’s not over yet. IE, anyone who is now saying, everything’s OK, is considerably jumping the gun. The goddamn damaged nuclear power plants are yet to be brought under control, and the final cost is anyone’s guess, it’s way to early to assess the final impact of this disaster.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s no such thing as a “safe” amount of radiation. And by radiation I mean radioactive particulates tossed into the air by fires and explosions at the plants. Fallout basically. This is basically highly toxic dust that remains toxic for decades, though it does get less toxic over time. And unfortunately it is dust that gets concentrated in unpleasant ways in the environment, from animals grazing on radioactive grass to collecting in the ventilation systems of ships and buildings. And if it gets incorporated into an animal’s (or person’s) tissues, it continues to poison them for years or decades. Now maybe only modest amounts of fallout will ultimately be released in this accident, in which case, phew, we dodged a bullet. The point I am making is that pound for pound radioactive fallout is easily the most dangerous pollutant mankind makes. It’s been estimated that about 500 tons of cobalt could be used to make nuclear weapons that could destroy most life on Earth. I’m not saying that’s a possibility, but as a counterpoint to the argument so many people make about how dangerous coal power is as well. Yes, there are terrible costs to coal power, but is there any way to destroy the human race with 500 tons of coal?
So how bad is it? Is there any way for us to know? Well, actions speak louder than words. The US Navy for example is pulling the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out to sea to avoid fallout. And it’s considerably further from the reactors than Tokyo. The fear is that the ship could become permanently contaminated by sucking fallout into its ventilation system. The buildings in Tokyo don’t have the pulling out to sea option, so let’s hope the fallout doesn’t get that bad. It’s bad enough that they warned that Tokyo’s tap water is unsafe for babies to drink. I also find it a little disturbing that they Japanese government dramatically raised the level of radioactive contamination a person must get before decontamination is mandatory. And to me possibly most disturbing at all, a German bond rating company will no longer rate real estate bonds in Tokyo … because it is simply impossible to to assign value to real estate in Tokyo. All of this adds up to … I am not reassured.
A couple of old friends of mine reviewed the videos of the various explosions at the nuclear plant, one of whom whom worked in the nuclear industry his whole life, the other an engineer. The nuclear guy is the guy who pointed out to me that the promise of “clean” nuclear fusion plants is a lie, that a hydrogen fusion plant would have similar if not worse nuclear waste problems than a conventional fission plant. One has to remember that the whole nuclear industry is built on lies and prevarication, but that’s a topic for another post. In any event the nuclear fellow thinks that the biggest explosion was definitely a criticality event, so some sort of partial meltdown at least occurred … and released God knows how much fallout. On the plus side he doesn’t think it poses much danger to North America, but it’s the danger it presents to Tokyo that should concern us all. And again, so far I am not reassured.
Lastly, I should point out something that is also getting short shrift by the media, the nuclear waste issue. When a nuclear plant is refuelled, the old fuel rods are stored on site in what are basically swimming pools. This is because no one has ever figured out a way to properly and permanently store the rods. And these rods are basically just as dangerous used as when brand new, IE they still retain most of their radioactivity. And if not stored properly (say the water drains from the pool) they most certainly can go critical and create huge amounts of fallout. My point here is that decades worth of these used rods are in temporary storage at the plant (not to mention nuclear plants all over the world,) vastly more nuclear material than is inside reactor cores. And unlike reactor cores, there’s no containment vessel around them! This is literally insane, and it’s one of the things the mainstream media has obligingly ignored for the past few decades. We’re passing a terrible problem onto future generations so that we can enjoy the benefits of “clean” nuclear power now. Yeah, coal fired power plants kill a lot of people, but at least when the plant is closed it no longer poses much health risk. The health risked posed by nuclear power will be around for thousands of years, so it’s a little disingenuous to claim nuclear power is safe when it poses a risk of future Chernobyls generations into the future even if every nuclear plant on the planet was closed tomorrow.
I’m not saying that nuclear power is a bad idea, I’m saying that building nuclear power plants (and storing their waste) where they present a danger to great cities is clearly insane. Chernobyl only required evacuating Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people. If Tokyo or other major Japanese cities have to be evacuated, the cost to Japan will be incalculable, and the cost to the world will be non-trivial. I hope nothing of the kind happens, but until the Fukushima plant is safely shut down and brought under control, it’s premature to be claiming that nuclear power is safe. And even when it is, the topic is debatable. “See, it was only a minor disaster after all” isn’t really a very convincing argument.
And speaking of still unfolding world wide disasters, my next post, Libya … where Obama has bravely led Nato crusaders to achieve, well, who knows. The USA has gone from starting wars on false pretexts to just starting the war and hoping to come up with a convincing pretext later. Historically, these sorts of random military adventures don’t go well.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I don’t know who holds the copyright, but I got it from this site. It’s an image of Pripyat, the abandoned city near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. I chose it among millions of Pripyat images on line because of its ominous sombre feel. That’s the power plant in the distance. For a motorcycle tour of the region, click here: KIDDofSPEED.)
Just when I thinks the news can’t get any worse, it does. Actually, I always know things can get worse, I’m just a bit dismayed that my predictions of doom and gloom are bearing fruit from unexpected quarters. And by that I mean the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This is already one of the largest earthquakes in history, and the most destructive earthquake in Japan in nearly a century. This was badly timed to say the least. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and here are a few points of interest, thoughts about the quake, global implications, etc.
First, Japan is an organized an efficiently run country, right, so at least the rescue and rebuilding and all that will go smoothly, and they were well prepared? Well, sort of. My readings have indicated that Japan has one of the world’s best government bureaucracies. And by that I mean like all well run government agencies, they are really good at covering up problems and shifting blame. And they don’t have a good track record for honestly either, especially when it comes to nuclear releases. My point here? Take anything the Japanese government says with a grain of salt. Like any other government when they need to, they will lie. (Not putting them down though, in fact Japan has practised sustainable forestry and agriculture for centuries, nearly 80% of Japan is forested, something no other industrialized country can claim. That’s fodder for an upcoming blog.)
And how the hell did a bunch of nuclear power plants fail? Aren’t they designed to withstand earthquakes? Well, yes. Just not this earthquake. Nuclear power plants are designed to (hopefully) withstand a major quake, like a 7.0 or something. This quake was around 9, one of the largest quakes in history. And the cost to make a nuclear power plant able to withstand a 9.0 magnitude quake would be ridiculous, if it could even be done. Basically by building nuclear plants in Japan they were betting they wouldn’t have a quake like this in the lifetime of the plants. They lost the bet.
So what’s the worst that could happen? Something as bad or nearly as bad as Chernobyl is possible. The fact that they are evacuating huge numbers of people alone says that. Chernobyl killed over a hundred, certainly gave thousands cancer, and likely in the final analysis will have caused hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer. Then there’s the plain economic damage from abandoned cities and towns and lost agricultural land. Yes nuclear fallout is the gift that just keeps on giving. For generations. And this wouldn’t just be confined to Japan. Measurable (and thus cancer causing) fallout could easily reach the USA west coast, I mean, Japan sent balloon bombs to the West coast in World War Two, that’s just the way the wind blows. Sigh. Is this disaster an argument against nuclear power? Yes, yes it is.
Now globally, what are the implications of this earthquake? There’s two areas of concern here. The geophysical and the economic. The geophysical first, could this be a harbinger of things to come? There have been a lot of quakes lately, what’s up with that? Statistically, nothing. There’s big quakes all the time, usually they hit remote areas because most of the world’s population is very concentrated. There’s been a bit of bad luck lately in that some big quakes have struck areas were a lot of people live, but these things happen. Still, humans have made some enormous changes in a very short time geologically speaking in terms of how weight is distributed on the Earth’s surface. Think massive erosion, countless trillions of tons of soil have been eroded off deforested mountains the world over and washed into the oceans. Add to that cubic miles of ice melted from ice caps and glaciers the world over in recent decades. So maybe we are in for more quakes as the earth “settles” so to speak. Global rattling, great.
That’s pretty speculative. The economic news, well, that sucks. Japan is one of the world’s largest economies, so this is going to hurt. Tens of billions of dollars in real damage. Real damage in that real things were destroyed, infrastructure, farms, homes, businesses. Printing money won’t replace these, actual wealth has been destroyed. Then there’s further pressure on already shaky global food supplies. In and of itself this might not be a big deal, but in combination with other economic disruption running through the world today, this quake and tsunami is a body blow the world’s economy didn’t need. And by other economic disruption, I mean events in Libya and the Middle East. Just look at Libya, for one thing their imports and exports have dropped to zero. That’s going to hurt any business that had dealing with Libya. Then there’s refugees flooding into neighbouring countries, they have to be fed and housed. Then there’s the just plain loss of wealth because people in Libya aren’t working. And what’s playing out in Libya is also going on in a half a dozen other countries throughout the Middle East in one fashion or another. Not to mention ongoing war in a few countries, the west is pouring a lot of wealth into Bush’s foreign adventures still.
I wrote most of this last night. This morning I see there’s been another explosion at an afflicted reactor in Japan. And the rebels recaptured a city in Libya. I should mention that at this point, almost no matter what happens in Libya, it’s going to cause global problems for years or decades. If Qaddafi wins, great, Libya is a pariah state with an ongoing insurgency. Yeah, the world needs another one of those. And if Qaddafi loses, rebuilding Libya into a modern state and undoing the damage wrought by the rebellion will take years at best.
Sigh. So since things might get worse before they get better, my next post will be a helpful guide to surviving the coming appocalypse, whatever shape it may take. Suggestions welcome.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, having been created over a century ago. It’s titled “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and was created by Hokusai. It’s not a tsunami though people often assume that. The reasons I selected it for this post seem pretty self evident to me, so I’ll let people guess. My heart goes out to the people of Japan, I can’t imagine what they are experiencing.)
A couple of topics that I was unable to squeeze a whole blog post out on, but nonetheless wanted to say something. And yes, in some cases below I am simplifying or not adding obvious codicils:
1. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel claims that “multiculturalism has failed.” She didn’t exactly define her terms so no one knows what she really meant. Yes, millions of foreigners, mostly Turks, have settled in Germany. As far as anyone can tell though, all she was doing was pandering to some fringe anti-immigrant parties and no real changes in German policy are in the offing. There’s basically two points I want to make here.
One is that sooner or later immigrants get assimilated. The idea that a nation will be “taken over” by immigrants simply is not supported by history, the opposite is what occurs. There’s even cases where the immigrants invaded and conquered the nation in question … and still got assimilated. The Normans in England and the Mongols in China being good examples. Yes, mass immigration, legal or illegal, does have problems. It is not an existential threat to a culture though, under most circumstances.
Secondly, how did all these million of Turks end up living in Germany? Well, after World War Two Germany had labour shortages, so people from the east, mostly Turks, were given permission to live and work in Germany for several years only. Great policy, Germany got labour, nice slow paced cultural exchanges took place, and the countries the workers came from got both money and westernized workers returning to develop their country. Why did this change? Bleeding heart liberals? Nope. German industry complained about having to train new workers every few years, so they got the government to let the workers stay.
This is one of the things that makes me mad to this day. Bracero programs, where foreign workers are allowed to come to an industrialized country to work for awhile are a great idea. The industrialized country gets the benefit of cheap labour, and the worker’s country gets bootstrapped upwards on the development scale. Alas because industry would rather blatantly exploit illegals or hire a permanent underclass, this option is almost never used. And the liberals get blamed for the downside.
2. The cat bin lady, Mary Bale. This was a huge deal some weeks ago. Some woman was walking along, petted a cat, and then tossed the cat in a residential rubbish bin. All recorded on security video, which the cat owners posted in order to identify her. And then the solid human waste matter intercepted the rotating turbine blades (thanks, Ralph Johnson.) She became a world wide Internet villain, her life was threatened, and she even had police protection for awhile. She ultimately was fined about $500 and forbidden from owning pets for five years.
Two points here. For one thing, the level of outrage generated by this is probably the greatest ratio of outrage to incident in history. I mean, yeah, it wasn’t a nice thing to do, but far far far worse happens every day. And for God’s sake, death threats? I love kittehs too, and if someone did this to my cat I’d be outraged too. However, it would be a “What the hell is wrong with you?” outrage, not an “I’m gonna kill you!” outrage. Let’s keep some perspective here folks. Secondly, and this is where a lot of people fail psychology 101, this was obviously an impulsive action on her part. All people are prone to acting out impulsively without really thinking it through, a lot of suicides are impulsive for God’s sake. This action of hers was more a sign that she was troubled and upset, not a sign that she’s some sort of evil person. Again, perspective here please.
3. The fire in Israel. Turns out Israel has done the same thing the USA has done, obsessed over defence to the point of starving much needed domestic programs in favour of the military. I mean, they have to ask for foreign help to fight a forest fire? Um, what’s wrong with this picture? In any event, this is a good article about the fire and Israel: “A Wildfire Is Burning All Illusions in Israel.”
4. And there’s been a frightening new development in Iran. Iran just announced that they have produced some Uranium ore of their own. Yes, the dastardly Iranians have discovered … mining! International figures actually expressed outrage at this, and some claimed it’s further “proof” of Iran’s evil intentions. No, it’s proof Iran wants to make their own fuel for their own reactors, since they aren’t going to be able to acquire it abroad. Once again, Iran is a signatory to the NPT and their nuclear facilities are carefully monitored by the international community. Which hasn’t stopped certain people from murdering Iranians in the streets, where’s the international outrage on this terrorist act?
Ah well, more and more I think I’m living in Wonderland. Or its evil twin. Did Lewis Carrol have an evil twin? Watching Inception twice this weekend before sleeping has also damaged my already struggling brain. (I highly recommend it.) I’ll try to carry on though. The TSA’s plan to create more crowds for terrorists to attack should be covered, what’s up with that? Then there’s more wikileaks stuff, the jury is still out on whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing.
Have a great week everyone.
(The above image of the fire in Israel is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s central to illustrating the fire, it’s not being used for profit, and its use here in no conceivable way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. Credit and copyright: Reuters/Nir Elias. I chose it because it’s a lovely dramatic image. And, well, to point out the transcendent absurdity that both Muslim and Jewish religious fanatics are blaming the forest fire on God! When Hamas and Israeli religious fanatics agree, can the end times be far behind?)
In keeping with the theme of this blog, people should keep in mind that there is a small but real possibility that the Deepwater Horizon blowout could lead to a catastrophe of global proportions the likes of which hasn’t been seen in human history. How likely is it that we are now in the early scenes of a real life version of Armageddon? No one knows, the Deepwater Horizon blowout could trigger a methane eruption that will end civilization as we know it. Well, the end of civilization as we know it in the United States.
Let me explain. Say one has a huge reservoir of gas that has been turned into a liquid by low temperatures and high pressure. If the temperature goes up or the pressure goes down, this liquid starts turning into a gas. And when liquid turns into a gas, it expands, rapidly. To get an idea of how powerful this sort of thing is, this is pretty much what happens when a super volcano erupts and hundreds of cubic miles of ejecta is created. IE the gas dissolved in a huge underground reservoir of magma turns into actual gas and turns cubic miles of rock into vastly larger volumes of pumice and ash. Poof, whole states buried in many feet of ash. A key point here is that these things may start slowly, but once they start the end result is inevitable. IE once something starts relieving the pressure … the pressure starts to drop … and more gas comes out of solution! I mean it’s bad analogy in many sense, but it’s like blowing up a balloon, if you keep blowing it eventually pops … and once the pop has occurred … nothing is going to stop that balloon from exploding.
Well, in the sea floor there are huge reservoirs of frozen methane gas. They are the products of organic decay, but are kept in a liquid state by the cold temperatures and high pressure. And at least one time in Earth’s history they have “popped” and turned into methane gas in a very short time period. And methane gas makes CO2 look like a wimp in the global warming department. In this occasion they heated up the Earth 7 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit.) Yikes. That seems unlikely in this case, but it is possible that we have triggered what will be a methane eruption of historically unprecedented scale.
And a huge methane eruption could be quite exciting to say the least. Worst case scenario: Dozens of cubic miles of water in the Gulf of Mexico will more or less froth into toxic foam. Hundreds of people on ships, planes, and offshore platforms in the area will be dead almost instantly. The tsunamis created when the ocean rushes back in to fill this void will kill hundreds of thousands within hours. Florida will be especially hard hit, but so will parts of Georgia, which doesn’t even have a Gulf Coast! Property damage in the afflicted areas will basically be total. Millions of casualties is not outside the range of possibility.
Thank you. Just doing my job. I’d actually be appalled if it turned out that bad, but sadly the current oil spill reality is appalling enough. This is a slow moving Chernobyl. And this isn’t turtles and pelicans, this is people. Huge numbers of people are trying to clean up this mess without proper protective clothing. Few of them are really volunteers an any real sense of the word. Americans are manning the dikes in the worst ecological disaster in American history, and the government is standing by and letting BP public relations flacks call the shots. We should be declaring a national emergency and sending in the army to help with the clean up, but I guess that isn’t manly enough for General Petraeus and his ilk.
In any event, just how likely is some sort of massive methane generated tsunami? Well, according to BP, the possibility of this happening is “unfounded.” Well, I’m reassured, if BP says it can’t happen, then we have nothing to worry about.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, it’s use is central to illustrating the post, and it is arguably a historically important image. I can’t find the source, but the image is apparently titled: “Backward Flow in Qian Tang Jiang River, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China.” It looks exciting, doesn’t it? In any event this will be my last current events post for a bit, between the wars, the economy, and the gulf oil mess it’s all too depressing lately.)