Sunday, October 21, 2007

Baker Wetlands and Change

Saturday my son and I went hiking in Lawrence's Baker Wetlands. We were discussing the onset of fall and Norman mentioned that the trees looked very much like it was still summer. Leaves were beginning to fall but there is no real color. Fall is creeping up on us but I too have had the impression that the color is not very vibrant this year.






Quite coincidentally,
on Sunday I spotted this report from Vermont that claims that the fall colors in New England have not been as bright for a number of years. The frosts come too late to provide the cold required for vibrant colors. Of course, the tourism board does not agree, but after all getting tourists to come and spend money on foliage trips is it's job.




So who is right-I really don't know. And while the fall here in Kansas seems less bright than normal to me, one really can't tell looking at the bright sumac leaves from the wetlands on Saturday, so bright that I showed this picture to my classes just to show something bright this morning to counteract the rainy grey day.






Humans are always aware of change-I remember growing up the winters seemed harsher than now. The talk among birders even in the 1950's was that Southern birds and mammals were moving north...possums in the Berkshires! Poor things would freeze their tails off in the sub zero weather.

Of course today changes are blamed on global warming, sometimes correctly perhaps but sometimes we confound short term changes with longer term changes that we ought to be concerned about. For instance, consider this article from Science Daily which asserts that the oceans are becoming more acid. The significance of this is that as the oceans become more acid then the ability of coral and other organisms to make calcium carbonate declines as does the ability of the oceans to absorb more carbon dioxide.



This is a big issue since the oceans are assumed to be a major carbon dioxide sink, moderating the increase of carbon dioxide in the the atmosphere. And indeed it appears that the natural sinks (e.g. oceans, the forests) that we rely on to moderate global warming are losing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Coupled with reports that carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing more rapidly than expected, this suggests that the biological world is going to become very different more rapidly than we thought possible even five years ago.

The irony of course is that we strive to regulate our immediate environments, air conditioning our homes, managing our landscapes, reducing risk and raising life expectancies. But this requires greater inputs of energy and other resources which we must harvest from more and more diffuse sources. This brings conflict. We see this in Kansas where the head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has refused to permit two large coal fired plants in South West Kansas over concerns about global warming. OK good idea. But which would the residents of SW Kansas rather have a coal fired plant or wind farms? The coal is often harvested by leveling mountains with seams of coal that were not economical until we depleted the more concentrated high grade coal resources.

Wind farms harvest a relatively diffuse source of energy as well- easier on the carbon budget perhaps but not without aesthetic and other environmental costs. Statewide, Kansans do appear to back wind or natural gas, but the residents in the flint hills at least have opposed large scale wind farms, calling them "industrial sites" that could destroy the tall grass prairie. Hyperbole perhaps, but symptomatic of the sorts of energy conflicts we have as we use more and more diffuse energy sources.

Tidal power or wave power? Again very diffuse sources of energy-easy on greenhouse gases but with uncertain environmental affects. Some of the proposed projects such as the one to build a massive tidal power facility to supply San Fransisco with electricity look promising on the surface, but we need to go in to these sorts of projects realizing that that they may well be unintended consequences to the life of the Bay.




There is probably no technology that can undo the effects of human activity on the planet and some people argue that even sustainable development is not enough. James Lovelock best known as proponent of the Gaia hypothesis says that the best we can do is a sustained retreat to power sources that can bridge the transition from our current energy mix to a fusion power hydrogen economy. He argues for nuclear power (fission) along with a mix of local renewable energy sources as the best option for weathering the coming environmental changes. He may be right but politically we will be slow to accept nuclear power. He says about nuclear power critics:

"Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer."


He may be a bit over the top about his description of oxygen as a carcinogen, but on the whole his case is persuasive. But in a counter argument George Monbiot argues that we can save more energy from increasing efficiency than what we can gain from use of nuclear power. Of course no energy source is going to be perfect be it nuclear, wind, geothermal, or as envisioned in this proposal, solar power satellites that beam energy from space using lasers or microwaves.

The world is changing and we have become the agents of much of this change We must look at all our energy options and how to best apply them to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We need to foster a global energy vision that has as its twin goals reducing the drain on what is left of the planet's natural systems and allowing developing countries to raise the standard of living for their peoples. I think we have the technology now or are on the cusp of developing even better technologies. However, I wonder if our global civilization has the will or the rationality to seriously work toward these goals.














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