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Monday, September 1, 2008


The following is excerpted from Chapter 5 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth.

The concept of society changing climate has been around a long time, for even Thomas Jefferson discussed the human effect on the climate in some of his early writings, not long after which, in 1824, French mathematician Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier; famous for his Fourier transform in mathematics, predicted a warming climate caused by the greenhouse effect. Nearly seventy years later, Svante Arhennius, in 1896, estimated a 3°C temperature increase for a 50% increase in CO2, and a 5 degree rise for 100%. He also predicted that the greater effect would occur at night, in the winter and in the coldest regions.

From the late 1800’s through the first few decades of the 1900s, some scientists already predicted that the American Dust Bowl was a sign of the greenhouse effect. But temperatures cooled from 1940 to 1970, so climatologists began to predict a new ice age.

Yet, Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography warned that humanity was upsetting the balance by releasing too much carbon dioxide. A few miles up the road, David Keeling, a student of Harrison Brown at the California Institute of Technology, began some preliminary work on measuring carbon dioxide. But this was not a high priority area, so in the International Geophysical Year of 1956, a little extra money was provided by governments, and Revelle prevailed to siphon off a few dollars, with which he hired Keeling to come to Scripps to start the project. It just so happened that 1956 was the year that a weather observatory was being built atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The military was also interested, and actually helped with road building for the Keeling project.

In 1965, Edward Lorenz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that climate change could cause catastrophic surprises, and coined the term, “the Butterfly Effect,” when even slight changes in initial conditions can produce drastically different results, as for example, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China could alter the weather in the United States three days later.

My first experience with global warming came in the early 1980’s when I sat in on U.S. Senate hearings related to the subject. One of the testifiers, also from MIT, Professor David J. Rose, later in the 80’s moved to Hawaii and the East-West Center, where I had a chance to discuss the problem with him in some depth. In 1988, James Hanson of NASA, at a U.S. Senate committee hearing, said that he was 99% certain global warming was occurring. I later crossed paths with Dr. Hanson, very recently exchanging thoughts about hydrogen.

More specifically, my interest was two-fold. First, as most of the funding in those days (and still today) went towards computer modeling of the phenomenon, I thought that a small portion, say 5% of the budget, should go towards developing remediative, mostly biotech, prevention and curative options. If we later confirmed that something really serious was happening, we might as well have a few strategies for reversing the Greenhouse Effect. Second, having had considerable experience with ocean thermal energy conversion, I felt that a long-term solution could well be artificial upwelling to suck up carbon dioxide into the ocean and convert the gas into a carbonate, like calcite, using autotrophic coccolithophores, a type of phytoplankton, which would drop to the bottom of the ocean and remain there for many millennia. Calcite, or calcium carbonate, comprises 4% by weight of the Earth’s crust. This mineral is used as an antacid, forms the shells of snails and eggs, is also called limestone and is most of marble.

I formed a task force for this purpose in 1989. Called “Mitigation of Global Greenhouse Warming Program,” our campus team included Victor Phillips of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, who served as the lead, Fred Mackenzie, Lorenz Magaard and David Karl of oceanography, and Toufiq Siddiqi of the East-West Center (EWC). Nejat Veziroglu of the University of Miami, John Appleby of Texas A&M University, Meyer Steinberg of Brookhaven National Laboratory and George Woodwell of Woods Hole Research Center were our national associates. William Kellogg and Steven Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Hub Hubbard of the Solar Energy Research Institute, Charles Helsley of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics, John Laurmann of the University of California at Santa Barbara and John Bardach of the EWC were supposed to serve on the scientific steering committee. Contact was made with Belgium, Japan, Peoples Republic of China, South Korea, the UK, Vietnam and West Germany. This was a team of monumental proportions with grand visions. You’d think the lesson of forming these pioneering groups would be remembered.

Seed funds were provided by the University of Hawaii and the Environmental Protection Agency, and we hosted in Hawaii the First Greenhouse Warming Remediation Workshop in March of 1989. The group prepared a $3 million proposal for Year One, which hopefully was to begin in 1991. I went to see Robert Corell of the National Science Foundation, who had been a close colleague of mine when he was at the University of New Hampshire. As an ocean engineer, he was recently named to head the interagency committee on global climate change, a scientific organization. He was mentioned in the quest for the Blue Revolution. Corell’s frank recommendation was to forget remediation at this scale for ten years until the atmospheric and marine scientists had a better handle on the science. U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga, told me, “shoot for the stars, and if you fail, it will probably at least get you to the moon.” Taking this strategy, we thus abandoned the international/national effort, but, focusing on what we did best, natural energy, succeeding in multi-year funding for “Energy Technology Options for the Pacific Region” as a mechanism for reducing the use of fossil fuels.

My fantasy research focus was to see if artificial upwelling could be used to promote the growth of coccolithophore algae, a one-celled marine plant (phytoplankton) which had the capacity to form limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3, what makes up the White Cliffs of Dover), for the compound would fall to the bottom of the sea and stay there for a long time. Marine scientists kept telling me, though, that this process would add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, something I just could not comprehend, and still don’t. As regularly happens throughout the world, in June of 2006, NASA satellite images showed that a massive growth of this plankton was seen off Vancouver Island. As 75% of the total carbon deposited in the oceans is limestone, and growth should be enhanced by the nitrates and phosphates from upwelling, someday, I will need to re-visit this concept.

A decade later, I assisted in initiating a major international effort for ocean storage of carbon dioxide, largely funded by the U.S. Department Energy and the Japanese government. The project was spearheaded by the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research. Ironically enough, the effort encountered considerable environmental opposition because such a solution, it was deemed, encouraged coal use. While I did not participate in any of this research, and, in fact, kept on the sidelines almost purposefully because I was almost sympathetic with the views of environmentalists, I agonized as the PICHTR crew kept getting lambasted in the media. But from my days as a campus ecologist when I taught “Technology and Society,” I did warn them to, as early as possible, include Greenpeace and the Sierra Club in their advisory council, something they felt was unwise. The project was eventually abandoned.
Gustav came, and, whew, went, with some wind damage, flooding and enormous inconveniences. Well, it's not over until it's over (Yogi Berra), so we shall see later today. So, New Orleans if dodged this potential cataclysm, another one will surely again return. What to do? Category 2 Gustav made landfall around 80 miles west of the city at 110 MPH, and the vaunted storm surge caused a lot of stress, but mostly mental, for the levees held. Government can be commended for mandating evacuations (which no doubt will now be criticized because no one died--94 did in the Caribbean) and being prepared. The Republican Convention became a fundraiser for Gustav's victims, TV commentators provided the traditional, dangerous and unecessary survival show antics and attention now shifts to the Atlantic...
...where Hanna is now a hurricane at 75 miles/hour in the vicinity of the Bahamas. Strange, but Hanna is now moving south, no, southwest, well, west tomorrow and north northwest soon thereafter. This storm should in a day or two track safely north off the coast of Florida and hit Georgia or South Carolina on Friday or Saturday, discombobulating football games and hopefully not much more as a Category 1 hurricane. Oh, there is now Tropical Depression Nine, soon to become Tropical Depression Ike, then Hurricane Ike, heading in the same general early path as Hanna.
With 25% of domestic oil production on hold, crude prices actually dropped, to $111/barrel.

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