For a long time I have not used the term “global warming” but have preferred to think in terms of “climate change” as a constant of life on earth regardless of whether man’s behavior effects it or not (though I have to believe that human behavior has its effects for I believe that everything is inter-related).
Last Sunday night my family watched a dvd from The History Channel about The Little Ice Age. This is not ancient history lost in the mists of time. This is history that most of us have learned some portion of in our schooling but I had no idea that sudden and brutal climate change was the underlying factor for so many events that I had other explanations for. I’ve long realized that climate change happens all the time on this planet. I don’t doubt that the behavior of such an overwhelming presence on the planet as human beings are would affect our planet’s overall qualities including its weather related qualities.
It was surprising to know that such diverse occurrences as the Irish Potato Famine, which peoples originally migrated into the United States of American and why, the “Black Death” bubonic plague, the fall of the Ming Dynasty with the breach of the Great Wall by Manchurian invaders giving rise to the Qing dynasty in China, the Salem Witch trails and burnings, the French Revolution, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein book and the deaths of thousands of Napoleon’s troops in the Russian invasion are all effects of a 500 year long “Little Ice Age”.
It is staggering to realize that it only took a couple of degrees change to bring it on or how quickly such a “flip” in climate can occur. This is not a rare occurrence in the history of the Earth’s climate. In his article, Thom Hartmann describes The Great Conveyor Belt including the Gulf Stream, undersea rivers that move currents of cold salty water from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Although much of Europe and Scandinavia are at the same latitude as Alaska and permafrost-locked parts of northern Canada and central Siberia, their climate is more similar to that of the United States than northern Canada or Siberia.
That warmth is the result of ocean currents that bring warm surface water up from the equator into northern regions that would otherwise be so cold that even in summer they’d be covered with ice. In the North Atlantic Ocean salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea and then flow south down to and around the southern tip of Africa, where this river finally reaches the Pacific Ocean. The slightly lower level of the Atlantic ocean than the Pacific ocean draws in a strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace the outflow of the undersea river from the Atlantic. This warmer, fresher water loops around North America where it’s known as the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe.
Amazingly, this Great Conveyor Belt is the only thing between comfortable summers and a permanent ice age for Europe and the eastern coast of North America. Only since the 1980s have scientists begun to understand the transition time from icy to warm back to icy. According to Hartmann, in studying ice core samples from Greenland “scientists were shocked to discover that the transitions from ice age-like weather to contemporary-type weather usually took only two or three years. Something was flipping the weather of the planet back and forth with a rapidity that was startling”.
These weather patterns are part of a delicately balanced teeter-totter, which can exist in one state or the other, but transits through the middle stage almost overnight. What brings on these sudden shifts are the warm-water currents of the Great Conveyor Belt shutting down. Once the Gulf Stream is no longer flowing, it only takes a year or three for the last of the residual heat held in the North Atlantic Ocean to dissipate into the air over Europe, and then there is no more warmth to moderate the northern latitudes. When the summer stops in the north, the rains also stop around the equator so that at the same time Europe is plunging into an Ice Age, the Middle East and Africa are being ravaged by drought and wind-driven firestorms.
This is weather that is NOT for the faint-hearted !!! If the Great Conveyor Belt, which includes the Gulf Stream, were to stop flowing today, the result would be sudden and dramatic. Winter would set in for the eastern half of North America and all of Europe and Siberia, and never go away. Within three years, those regions would become uninhabitable and nearly two billion humans would starve, freeze to death, or have to relocate.
Most scientists involved in research on this topic agree that the culprit is global warming, melting the icebergs on Greenland and the Arctic icepack and thus flushing cold, fresh water down into the Greenland Sea from the north. When a critical threshold is reached, the climate will suddenly switch to an ice age that could last minimally 700 or so years, and maximally over 100,000 years.
OK, so what’s the GOOD NEWS ? There is some . . . there is “hope” (except whatever is beyond what human beings are able to control at all – like a giant meteor striking the Earth or a coronal mass ejection from the sun !!). According to a very recent article in New York Magazine by Jonathan Chait, “There is good news. And not just incremental good news but transformational good news, developments that have the potential to mitigate the worst effects of climate change to a degree many had feared impossible.” He goes on to say “The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed.”
A quick bold print snapshot tells us that Coal usage has declined 21% since 2007 and that the number of operational coal-powered electric generating plants has dropped from 523 in 2009 to 323 in 2015. I recently heard a bit on NPR about the railroads in Kansas City. Only 10 years ago, “… railroads couldn’t hire people fast enough. They couldn’t lease locomotives fast enough. They couldn’t upgrade the infrastructure quick enough. They couldn’t build railcars to haul the stuff quick enough.” according to Zach Pumphery, a train engineer in Kansas City. Since 2008 the rail traffic has dropped by the equivalent of 14,000 train loads for coal production alone. According to Frank Morris, “The big reason is the power plants like this one in Kansas City are switching from coal to natural gas, which is cheap now and burns cleaner.”
More good news ? The cost of a watt of solar power has dropped from $101 in 1975 to $0.61 in 2015. Global solar power installations have grown from 10,000 in 2009 to 65,000 in 2015. China plans to add 18 gigawatts of solar energy capacity in 2015 alone (just compare that to the TOTAL gigawatt capacity in the US of 20). “Clean Energy” has added 125,000 NEW jobs since 2013. And the number of electric cars has increased from 200,000 in 2012 to 750,000 in 2015.
The “Good News” is a long article but well worth reading to avoid despair over the climate change challenges. A link to the full article can be found in the ~ Information Resources at the end of this blog – “The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You’ve Ever Read”.
~ Information Resources
“Little Ice Age, Big Consequences” posted by Jennie Cohen, Jan 31, 2013 posted at The History Channel – http://www.history.com/news/little-ice-age-big-consequences
“Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia, 200 Years Ago” posted by Jesse Greenspan, June 22, 2012 at The History Channel – http://www.history.com/news/napoleons-disastrous-invasion-of-russia-200-years-ago
“How Global Warming May Cause the Next Ice Age…” posted by Thom Hartmann, Jan 30, 2004 at Common Dreams – http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0130-11.htm
“The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You’ve Ever Read” posted by Jonathan Chait, Sept 7, 2015 posted at New York Magazine – http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/sunniest-climate-change-story-ever-read.html
“Fall In Shipping Commodities Threatens Commercial Railroad Industry” by Frank Morris on All Things Considered aired on NPR Sept 2, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/09/02/436944868/fall-in-shipping-commodities-threatens-commercial-railroad-industry
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
I think that some of the most exciting developments in human evolution are in the realm of new and creative approaches to harnessing energy. Certainly, our dependence on fossil fuels – coal and petroleum – has done such damage to the environment of the planet that the sustainability of human life is uncertain. The new Pope Francis has taken the issue to heart saying “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics.”
However, it may be that human ingenuity will yet come to our rescue.
I love trees !! So this unique approach to harvesting wind energy being developed by NewWind of France is reaching right down deeply into my environmentalist heart. Each tree like structure includes a hundred mini-windmills. I suspect that such trees will pose far less risk to birds than the gargantuan windmills that make up the wind farms.
Due to the light construction of the “leaves,” the Wind Tree generates power at wind speeds as low as 4.4 miles per hour! This translates into sustained operation times (an average of 320 days a year) that are almost double those of standard windmills that need higher wind speeds in order to produce electricity. Total output for the tree is about 3.1 kiloWatts. This is substantially below standard windmills, but they can’t operate on as many days due to higher wind thresholds.
The Wind Tree is made entirely of steel and, according to the manufacturer, it is completely silent while running. Each tree is about 36 feet tall and 26 feet wide, allowing it to reach above low obstacles like buildings and other smaller trees and have uninterrupted access to breezes at that level. They can either be plugged in to the public grid or used to power an individual building or complex.
Each tree costs about $36,500, but the payback will be fast. “Planting” them in “groves” may be the key to making the model work most cost effectively. NewWind is planning a test this March, with several units being installed in Paris.
Harnessing wind power really isn’t a new idea. The first grinding of grain harnessing wind power may have developed in Persia. Evidence of windmills in England dates from the 12th century. Wind was not the first non-human power source applied to the task of grinding corn – it was preceded by both animal power, and in all probability by water power. And of course, the Dutch are famous for employing their own unique style of windmill to pump water.
Our family unexpectedly discovered the Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park while traveling through Oklahoma to share Thanksgiving Dinner with family. This little museum was established in 1994 by a gathering of old windmillers. By January 2013 there were 62 diverse examples of windmills standing in the park with no two exactly alike. Beyond displaying these historic structures the park also shows visitors how homesteaders lived and why the windmill was so important to their survival. The park is located at the junction of US Highway 283 and OK State Highway 15.
Wind is the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. In fact, wind exists because the sun unevenly heats the surface of the Earth. As hot air rises, cooler air moves in to fill the void. As long as the sun shines, the wind will blow. And as long as the wind blows, people will harness it to power their lives.
Wind is a clean source of renewable energy that produces no air or water pollution. And since the wind is free, operational costs are nearly zero once a turbine is erected. Mass production and technology advances are making turbines cheaper, and many governments offer tax incentives to spur wind-energy development.
Some people think wind turbines are ugly and complain about the noise the machines make. The slowly rotating blades can also kill birds and bats, but not nearly as many as cars, power lines, and high-rise buildings do. The wind is also variable: If it’s not blowing, there’s no electricity generated.
During our travels of the blue highways of the back roads we encountered the biggest wind farm we had ever seen in Texas. It turned out to be a project promoted by T Boone Pickens. He bought 500 turbines from GE to build the farm. But then the recession hit hard in late 2008, the Texas wind farm struggled to get the proper transmission lines permitted, and natural gas started on its downward spiral in price, making clean power less attractive to investors.
I’m not complaining about the incredibly low gas prices we are all experiencing currently in the United States. Some of that is driven by excess supply generated by the fracking boom and I suspect some of this has to do with geopolitics influenced by both the Middle East and Russia but I wonder if humanity is being short-sighted about the long-term costs. A General Accounting Office report noted that “shale oil and gas development poses risks to air quality, generally as the result of (1) engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, (2) emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment, (3) gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons, and (4) unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment-temporary storage areas”.
But back to novel approaches to harnessing wind energy, how about the winds that blazing-fast trains create (and mechanical forces and energy beyond that including the heat of stations, train car interiors and even the sweat of passengers) ? Around the world, small-scale projects are starting to find innovative ways to harness all this energy. Passengers waiting for a train on the platform are accustomed to the whoosh of wind when their train arrives. Making use of China’s high-speed rail network, designers Jiang Qian and Alessandro Leonetti Luparini have created a prototype of a small power generator called the T-box to make use of those gusts.
Knowing that all “good” things (a relative term if ever there was one) pass, I remain optimistic about human creativity and all of the ways that humanity is going to find to access energy that we never considered as a resource and have either been wasting the potential of or failing to harness the presence of – like wind which is as constant as the sun shining somewhere on this planet every minute of every day.
~ Information Resources
Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/pope-francis-edict-climate-change-us-rightwing
History of Windmills – http://www.windmillworld.com/windmills/history.htm
Shattuck Windmill Museum – http://www.shattuckwindmillmuseum.org/
Wind Power Information – http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/wind-power-profile/
T Boone’s wind farm plans finally blow away – https://gigaom.com/2012/10/15/t-boones-wind-farm-plans-finally-blow-away/
How Has Fracking Changed Our Future ? – http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/energy/great-energy-challenge/big-energy-question/how-has-fracking-changed-our-future/
6 Ways to Harness the Wasted Energy of Trains (and Their Passengers) – http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/efficiency/6-ways-to-harness-wasted-transit-energy#slide-5
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer