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Is the ocean carbon sink sinking?

Filed under: — david @ 1 November 2007 - (Español)

The past few weeks and years have seen a bushel of papers finding that the natural world, in particular perhaps the ocean, is getting fed up with absorbing our CO2. There are uncertainties and caveats associated with each study, but taken as a whole, they provide convincing evidence that the hypothesized carbon cycle positive feedback has begun.

Of the new carbon released to the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, some remains in the atmosphere, while some is taken up into the land biosphere (in places other than those which are being cut) and into the ocean. The natural uptake has been taking up more than half of the carbon emission. If changing climate were to cause the natural world to slow down its carbon uptake, or even begin to release carbon, that would exacerbate the climate forcing from fossil fuels: a positive feedback.

The ocean has a tendency to take up more carbon as the CO2 concentration in the air rises, because of Henry’s Law, which states that in equilibrium, more in the air means more dissolved in the water. Stratification of the waters in the ocean, due to warming at the surface for example, tends to oppose CO2 invasion, by slowing the rate of replenishing surface waters by deep waters which haven’t taken up fossil fuel CO2 yet.

The Southern Ocean is an important avenue of carbon invasion into the ocean, because the deep ocean outcrops here. Le Quere et al. [2007] diagnosed the uptake of CO2 into the Southern Ocean using atmospheric CO2 concentration data from a dozen or so sites in the Southern hemisphere. They find that the Southern Ocean has begun to release carbon since about 1990, in contrast to the model predictions that Southern Ocean carbon uptake should be increasing because of the Henry’s Law thing. We have to keep in mind that it is a tricky business to invert the atmospheric CO2 concentration to get sources and sinks. The history of this type of study tells us to wait for independent replication before taking this result to the bank.

Le Quere et al propose that the sluggish Southern Ocean CO2 uptake could be due to a windier Southern Ocean. Here the literature gets complicated. The deep ocean contains high concentrations of CO2, the product of organic carbon degradation (think exhaling fish). The effect of the winds is to open a ventilation channel between the atmosphere and the deep ocean. Stratification, especially some decades from now, would tend to shut down this ventilation channel. The ventilation channel could let the deep ocean carbon out, or it could let atmospheric carbon in, especially in a few decades as the CO2 concentration gets ever higher (Henry’s Law again). I guess it’s fair to say that models are not decisive in their assessment about which of these two factors should be dominating at present. The atmospheric inversion method, once it passes the test of independent replication, would trump model predictions of what ought to be happening, in my book.

A decrease in ocean uptake is more clearly documented in the North Atlantic by Schuster and Watson [2007]. They show surface ocean CO2 measurements from ships of opportunity from the period 1994-1995, and from 2002-2005. Their surface ocean chemistry data is expressed in terms of partial pressure of CO2 that would be in equilibrium with the water. If the pCO2 of the air is higher than the calculated pCO2 of the water for example, then CO2 will be dissolving into the water.

The pCO2 of the air rose by about 15 microatmospheres in that decade. The strongest Henry’s Law scenario would be for the ocean pCO2 to remain constant through that time, so that the air/sea difference would increase by the 15 microatmospheres of the atmospheric rise. Instead what happened is that the pCO2 of the water rose twice as fast as the atmosphere did, by about 30 microatmospheres. The air-sea difference in pCO2 collapsed to zero in the high latitudes, meaning no CO2 uptake at all in a place where the CO2 uptake might be expected to be strongest.

One factor that might be changing the pressure of CO2 coming from the sea surface might be the warming surface waters, because CO2 becomes less soluble as the temperature rises. But that ain’t it, as it turns out. The surface ocean is warming in their data, except for the two most tropical regions, but the amount of warming can only explain a small fraction of the CO2 pressure change. The culprit is not in hand exactly, but is described as some change in ocean circulation, caused maybe by stratification or by the North Atlantic Oscillation, bringing a different crop of water to the surface. At any event, the decrease in ocean uptake in the North Atlantic is convincing. It’s real, all right.

Canadell et al [2007] claim to see the recent sluggishness of natural CO2 uptake in the rate of atmospheric CO2 rise relative to the total rate of CO2 release (from fossil fuels plus land use changes). They construct records of the atmospheric fraction of the total carbon release, and find that it has increased from 0.4 back in about 1960, to 0.45 today. Carbon cycle models (13 of them, from the SRES A2 scenario) also predict that the atmospheric fraction should increase, but not yet. For the time period from 1960 to 2000, the models predict that we would find the opposite of what is observed: a slight decrease in the atmospheric fraction, driven by increasing carbon uptake into the natural world. Positive feedbacks in the real-world carbon cycle seem to be kicking in faster than anticipated, Canadell et al conclude.

There is no real new information in the Canadell et al [2007] analysis on whether the sinking sink is in the ocean or on land. They use an ocean model to do this bookkeeping, but we have just seen how hard it is to model or even understand some of the observed changes in ocean uptake. In addition to the changing ocean sink, drought and heat wave conditions may change the uptake of carbon on land. The infamously hot summer of 2003 in Europe for example cut the rate of photosynthesis by 50%, dumping as much carbon into the air as had been taken up by that same area for the four previous years [Ciais et al., 2005].

The warming at the end of the last ice age was prompted by changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, but it was greatly amplified by the rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The orbits pushed on ice sheets, which pushed on climate. The climate changes triggered a strong positive carbon cycle feedback which is, yes, still poorly understood.

Now industrial activity is pushing on atmospheric CO2 directly. The question is when and how strongly the carbon cycle will push back.
 
—–

Canadell, J.G., C.L. Quere, M.R. Raupach, C.B. Field, E.T. Buitehuis, P. Ciais, T.J. Conway, N.P. Gillett, R.A. Houghton, and G. Marland, Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, doi 10.1073, 2007.

Ciais, P., M. Reichstein, N. Viovy, A. Granier, J. Ogee, V. Allard, M. Aubinet, N. Buchmann, C. Bernhofer, A. Carrara, F. Chevallier, N. De Noblet, A.D. Friend, P. Friedlingstein, T. Grunwald, B. Heinesch, P. Keronen, A. Knohl, G. Krinner, D. Loustau, G. Manca, G. Matteucci, F. Miglietta, J.M. Ourcival, D. Papale, K. Pilegaard, S. Rambal, G. Seufert, J.F. Soussana, M.J. Sanz, E.D. Schulze, T. Vesala, and R. Valentini, Europe-wide reduction in primary productivity caused by the heat and drought in 2003, Nature, 437 (7058), 529-533, 2005.

Le Quere, C., C. Rodenbeck, E.T. Buitenhuis, T.J. Conway, R. Langenfelds, A. Gomez, C. Labuschagne, M. Ramonet, T. Nakazawa, N. Metzl, N. Gillett, and M. Heimann, Saturation of the Southern Ocean CO2 sink due to recent climate change, Science, 316 (5832), 1735-1738, 2007.

Schuster, U., and A.J. Watson, A variable and decreasing sink for atmospheric CO2 in the North Atlantic, J. Geophysical Res., in press, 2007.


680 Responses to “Is the ocean carbon sink sinking?”

  1. 601
    AK says:

    Re: 595

    Ray Ladbury Says:
    14 November 2007 at 12:06 PM

    AK, Re: the difficulty of working in space. I would characterize the difficulty of maintaining life in space as being a case of space providing nothing needed to maintain life. All oxygen, water, food, waste disposal… is dependent on regular deliveries from Earth. The crew need to be protected from particulate debris, radiation, and other hazards. In low-Earth Orbit (LEO) atomic oxygen causes chemical weathering of surfaces. In middle Earth orbit (MEO), the radiation environment makes life particularly nasty, brutish and short. Outside the magnetosphere (GEO, interplanetary, including the moon), there is constant exposure to galactic cosmic rays–and you need a few meters of material to shield against them.
    Think of the difficlty of supplying an advanced force on the battle field. Now multiply those difficulties by several orders of magnitude and you have an idea of the difficulties of operating in space. Look at the failure of Biosphere II–and they were able to take in air from the outside continually.

    Thanks, Ray.

    The problems with radiation (and micrometeorites) are part of why I’m assuming a Lunar habitat. A few meters of moon dust (or rock, as appropriate) will protect.

    I’m pretty sure that Biosphere II isn’t really a valid comparison. They weren’t allowed to use electric lights or “outside” CO2 scrubbers (except for the carbonating concrete they didn’t plan on). It was mostly an experiment in maintaining a closed ecosystem, rather than a system with external power, oxygen, and emergency supplies if necessary. Except for the transport issue, I don’t see it as that much worse than an Antarctic base.

    BTW, they weren’t supposed to take in outside air.

    As to terrestrial solar farms, we’re a long way from being able to tile the desert with solar arrays, and maintaining these farms in the hostile desert conditions is not a problem that will be easy to solve.

    As for the Sahara, I agree with you, although the technical problems could probably be solved in a few years. Since an installation in the Mojave has been on the grid since the ’80′s (see #587), I think we can consider the technology mature, although mass productionalization may still be required.

    IMO you may be taking an overly critical attitude regarding technological maturity. The fact that low-volume production, or production of a technology for a slightly different purpose, can’t be rolled out “off the shelf” for a mass-produced use doesn’t mean it can’t be relied on to be available within a few years of the necessary development money becoming available.

    It’s the money, and the politics, and their interaction, that are the major problem.

  2. 602
    SueC says:

    David,

    Way up above you say, the technology exists to reduce CO2 to safe levels at reasonable cost. Are you referring to the wedges?

  3. 603
    Ray Ladbury says:

    AK, I get paid to be skeptical of new technology–it’s part of my day job doing radiation physics for satellites. I only started carrying a cell phone this year. Having said this, what I object to is “relying on” a technology that has heretofore not been demonstrated on anything like the scale that would be needed to meet future energy needs. Solar energy works great when the sun shines. It is problematic when it doesn’t–and that is >50% of the time on Earth. Any space-based system is in the realm of fantasy–and I would note that much of the science fiction in the 50s and 60s having to do with space and energy remained science fiction. Some problems are just inherently difficult.
    Finally, solar energy does nothing to resolve the needs of transort and that is likely to remain a significant consumer of petroleum into the foreseeable future.

  4. 604
    AK says:

    Re: 599

    A New Chapter Begins for Concentrated Solar Power

    Gilbert Cohen, Vice President of Engineering & Operations for Solargenix, said the project costs somewhere in the range of $220-250 million. He said the power is slightly more expensive than wind power, but less than photovoltaic (PV) power, more commonly used in small rooftop projects on homes or businesses. Other sources close to the project put this price at somewhere between 9-13 cents per kWh. As more are built, however, and they’re scaled up even bigger, Cohen says a target of seven cents per kWh will not be difficult to reach in the near future.

    [my emphasis]

    There are also some nice pictures, and a wealth of interesting information.

  5. 605
    SecularAnimist says:

    James wrote: “Now I’m saying that the problem can almost certainly be addressed at much less cost than full decomissioning.”

    And you base that claim on what, exactly? What alternatives to decommissioning of aged nuclear power plants are you referring to, where have they been tried, with what result?

    I would suggest that you read the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s fact sheet on decommissioning nuclear plants, which gives details of the regulations and procedures involved, and discusses two dozen or so US nuclear power plants that are in some stage of the decommissioning process.

    James wrote: “The point I’m trying to get at here is that opponents of nuclear power invariably pick the worst case scenario, exaggerate that beyond all reason, and compare it to the best case of an alternative technology. Or all too often, assume that the alternatives have no costs or risks at all.”

    Oddly enough, what I almost always see from proponents of nuclear power is consistent exaggeration of the limitations of and obstacles to renewables as though they were insurmountable, consistent understatement of the costs of nuclear power, and consistent refusal to acknowledge legitimate concerns about the very real risks and dangers of nuclear power, which are always portrayed as the emotional imaginings of anti-nuclear zealots.

    For those who want to pursue this subject in depth, a good statement of the argument that nuclear power is not a useful solution for reducing carbon emissions can be found in a May 2006 article posted at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service website. Nuclear proponents would do well to study that article and do the research needed to offer a point-by-point rebuttal.

  6. 606
    Nick Barnes says:

    AK: I didn’t say or mean to imply that China will be selling power outside its borders. You seem to be taking a parochial view. GHG emissions are global. Electricity is expensive to transport intercontinental distances in TW volumes: the transmission lines themselves become megaprojects. Happily we have large deserts in various parts of the world.

    I want to see thousands of square kilometres of mirrors on the Gobi not because I am Chinese (which I am not) but because I think that’s better for all of us than hundreds of GW of additional coal plant (roughly speaking, 1 square kilometre of CSP in a sunny spot can deliver a sustained 25 MW of electrical power). Make no mistake, barring economic catastrophe, one way or another China will be generating and consuming hundreds of GW more electrical power.
    Similarly, I’d like to see more CSP in the Mojave and other western deserts in the US, not because I am American (which I am not) but because it would enable the US to reduce its fossil fuel use and thus reduce GHG emissions.
    The same with Algeria: the Algerians think they can generate CSP electricity and sell it to the Germans and other Europeans. Good luck to them. I’m not going to second-guess their view of their own politics.
    My own suspicion is that anti-western sentiment in Algeria and other states in the Maghreb can be bought off by energy wealth about as effectively as it has been for several decades across the Middle East. If it weren’t for the war and preceding sanctions, Iraq would still be a secular dictatorship selling us oil. Saudi Arabia continues to be a thoroughly evil radical islamic dictatorship, selling us oil. Iran continues to be a rather unique “islamic democracy” and would be delighted to continue selling us oil. And so on. The dollar (well, increasingly the euro) speaks louder than the sword.

    The reason I favour CSP over SPS is that CSP is a proven technology, already generating electricity at affordable prices (a few cents per kWh), which can be rolled out by private industry or by governments, one plant at a time, large plants or small, ready to connect to existing transmission grids, in many different parts of the world. It’s also relatively low-tech (as power generation goes), and easy to maintain.

  7. 607
    Nick Barnes says:

    The reason I favour CSP over SPS

    boils down to the fact that I think that a square kilometre of operational SPS in GEO will be far, far more expensive and less reliable than 15 square kilometres of CSP in Algeria, the Gobi, the Mojave, Namibia, or the outback. Betting the farm on SPS seems insane to me: far too many unknowns. Although as I have said I’d be happy for us to put a few billion down on it as a long shot, and would be delighted if that paid off.

    The other difference between SPS and CSP is that we are already building the latter, with serious backing, whereas the former has a few enthusiasts behind it (and, as far as I know, no Actual Money).

  8. 608
    Hank Roberts says:

    James, this is hardly the place to argue with the nuclear engineering profession about what’s a safe way to run the business. Rhetorical questions are a waste of everyone’s time. If you ask a question that seems uneducated, I’ll assume you’re doing so honestly and want help.

    Brief answer: you get statistics about performance by mass producing the components and running enough of them long enough to know how they behave.

    There is no standard nuclear power plant. Each differs in original build and each is modified over time. There is nothing remotely close to enough accumulated information to predict failures. As the clip I posted said, failures have been surprises; patches have led to other surprises. It’s technology full of surprises as of now.

    It’s nuts to try to fix piecemeal something where you know all the parts are being degraded by the combined effects of chemical and physical and radiation conditions.

    There’s a classic story about Henry Ford visiting junkyards and finding out what broke in the Model T, and noticing that all sorts of things failed on the car, but he never found one in a junkyard with a broken crankshaft. So he redesigned it with a weaker and cheaper crankshaft.

    This is not the way to run a fission industry.

  9. 609
    AK says:

    Re: #603

    Ray, I wasn’t talking about space-based technology, I know that’s visionary.

    Solar power is another matter. I was astonished at the state of CSP, with several installations on the grid since the ’80′s, and nobody talking about it. Granting predictable nights, and very occasional sandstorms and cloudy days, the existing installations and technological progress seem reliable. Much more so if a way is found to pump money into R&D without getting it stolen by pointless bureaucracy or blocked by entrenched interests.

    Another technology linked above is flywheel energy storage. This probably will never be competitive for vehicles, but IMO it’s the cat’s pajamas for storage balance for solar power. Again, some redesign and development is needed, for cost-effective fixed storage eliminating any expensive design criteria for vehicles. Since nobody has mentioned it, I’m assuming it was dismissed because it’s not mature.

    A somewhat more visionary idea I like is fuel cells based on sodium and air (rather than hydrogen and air). IMO with proper development this technology could match the power/weight performance of most batteries, but with much faster recharge times, using direct electrolysis rather than pumping energy back through the fuel cell electrolyte. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, the existing electricity distribution system could be used for recharging.

    I can find nobody developing this technology, although there was a bus built in the ’90′s using a sodium fuel cell, and one company had a military contract to develop “sodium air batteries” and also has much experience with handling liquid sodium and sodium ion electrolytes.

    IMO if we really have an emergency, all possible technologies like these should be looked at hard, by at least making an honest and well funded effort to create a prototype. Then, those that look halfway feasible should all be pursued.

  10. 610
    AK says:

    Re: 606, 607

    Nick, I’m thinking in world-wide terms, but I find China doubtful as far as replacing coal-fired with solar: IMO if they build solar they’ll simply add it to coal-fired that they’ll continue building as fast as they can. Also, have you noticed the latitude of the Gobi? According to these maps, things start getting iffy around 35-40 degrees. Xianxiang and especially parts of Tibet look better (from a rainfall and latitude perspective, I don’t know about clouds), but both are high-risk areas for insurgency.

    I’m certainly not suggesting “betting the farm on SPS“, But I think it should be provisionally planned for as a long-term solution. And the more attention it can get as a potential solution for climate issues, the better its chances of getting “Actual Money“. (Also, the more people involved in climate discussions who know what it represents and how it’s intended to work.)

    BTW, do government funded studies count as Actual Money?

  11. 611
    James says:

    Re #605: [And you base that claim on what, exactly?]

    The fact that this approach seems to work with just about everything else. I see no reason to think that nuclear power plants are fundamentally different from any other machine. Do you?

    Re #608: [So he (Henry Ford) redesigned it with a weaker and cheaper crankshaft.

    This is not the way to run a fission industry.]

    Nor is it the way to run an auto industry :-) Consider where Ford is now, versus say Honda & Toyota.

    [There is no standard nuclear power plant. Each differs in original build and each is modified over time.]

    Which seems like part of the problem. If you insist on building each one differently, of course they’re going to be expensive, just as automobiles were too expensive for ordinary folks before standardized production. But I think this is largely a legacy of the original building, where individual utilities each ordered one or a few plants, and operated them independently. I think this is one reason France has had better results: it used standard designs.

    I’d go so far as to say that the standard design is going to be a necessity, if enough plants are going to be built in time. It’s not as though the world has the luxury of time to sit around developing alternative technologies, like solar power satellites, that might work someday. We need to start kicking the CO2 habit now (well, we needed to start back in the ’70s, but absent time travel now is the best we can do), and I don’t see any workable alternatives that don’t involve nuclear as a big part.

  12. 612
    Matt says:

    #555 dhogaza: I do hope the example of the ivory-billed woodpecker makes clear to you the difficulty of documenting the extinction of a species.

    Yes, understood.

    Bad analogy. A better analogy is “You have incurable cancer. You have one to eight months to live”.

    Wilson put no upper time bound on his prediction. Thus your analogy doesn’t compare.

    Let’s look at this from a different direction, and assume that everything that makes it onto a the IUCN list of threatened species (“the red list”) ultimately goes extinct. Here (1) we see a rise in threatened species from 16116 to 16306 between 2006 and 2007. That’s 190/year. Now, they’ve only evaluated 41K of 1600K species. Presumably if they had looked at all known species, we’d have seen 190 * 1600/41 = known 7400 species per year threatened, and for this discussion, doomed to extinction. That still falls short of Wilson’s “10’s of thousands” prediction. It’s getting close, to be sure. But at this point, I think Wilson’s prediction falls into the bucket of “experts saying it enough and trying to make it so”.

    Now, it coudl be argued that 7400 figure shoudl be multipled by 6 to account for all species. In that case, that puts you at ~44K species, squarely into Wilson’s range. That takes a couple of stretches, IMO, but I suppose I see how that could happen.

    (1) http://www.iucnredlist.org/info/2007RL_Stats_Table%201.pdf

  13. 613
    Joe Duck says:

    Matt RE: 612. Excellent articulation of the issue in dispute. I’m not up on this issue but I sure appreciate the fact somebody is actually doing the math to present the issues under dispute. Unless I’m mistaken the species under observation and on lists are “more likely” to become extinct, so extrapolating in this fashion will lead to too large a number.

  14. 614

    Ray Ladbury writes:

    [[Solar energy works great when the sun shines. It is problematic when it doesn’t–and that is >50% of the time on Earth.]]

    The Earth is in darkness more than 50% of the time? How does it manage that? It’s a rotating spheroid.

    And as I have pointed out many times, there are solar thermal plants that operate close to 24 hours, because at peak sunshine they can store some heat in molten salts to run the generators later. Energy storage is available in all kinds of ways, from pumping water uphill to charging batteries and fuel cells to speeding up flywheels.

  15. 615
    Dan Hughes says:

    The Science is Settled and Scientific and Engineering Consensus has been established for decades. Thus The Precautionary Principle should be invoked relative to the following:

    (1) Coal-burning central electricity generating plants emit more radiation than nuclear power plants.

    (2) The waste from coal-burning power plants is emitted into The Commons atmosphere 24/7.

    (3) Some of that waste is a factor in Global Warming.

    (4) Nuclear power plants emit less radiation than coal-powered plants.

    (5) Nuclear power plants emit far less waste into the commons atmosphere.

    (6) Nuclear power plants do not emit any wastes that are a factor in Global Warming.

    All of the above are Settled Science and have been for decades. Scientific and Engineering Consensus have been established for decades. The Precautionary Principle would seem to dictate that coal-power power plants be replaced with nuclear power plants

  16. 616
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dan, the precautionary principle doesn’t dictate binary choices, you’re misusing the idea by limiting your options to two and trying to force a choice. It’s a capital mistake.

  17. 617
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Joe’s approval of Matt “doing the math”:

    It’s astounding that you prefer back-of-the-envelope ad hockery over the peer-reviewed science. I implore you to look at the published population data I posted in 563. See those exponential curves approaching zero? They represent the complete destruction of entire ecosystems.

    Among biologists, there is no dispute: humans are causing one of the worst extinction events in the planet’s history. Debating the size of the error bars on extinction rate estimates is simply a Lomborg tactic to sell complacency in the face of this appalling catastrophe.

  18. 618
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 615

    “The Precautionary Principle would seem to dictate that coal-power power plants be replaced with nuclear power plants.”

    Not to be contentious, but … you are being selective in your evaluation, what Sagan described in his essay “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” from his book, “The Demon-Haunted World”, as the fallacy of observable selection.

    http://rucus.ru.ac.za/~urban/docs/baloney.html

    Factor in the zero/infinity problem (Low risk/high consequence) and the as-yet-to-be solved issue of long-term (100,000s of thousands of years) storage of nuclear waste, add the potential of other alternatives, and then discuss this in relation to “The Precautionary Principle”.

    Either/or propositions, the idea that something is as simple as deciding between black & white, strike me as disengenuous. Not all the time, mind you, but much more often than not, particularly when there are many complex factors to take into account.

  19. 619
    James says:

    Re #614: [The Earth is in darkness more than 50% of the time? How does it manage that? It’s a rotating spheroid.]

    Clouds, of course. There’s a lot less energy to be captured on a cloudy day. (Remember that the eye is a non-linear sensor.) Then there’s angle: unless you can tilt your whole solar array, you’re going to have much less effective area around sunrise & sunset. (Even if individual elements tilt, they’ll still be shading others.)

    “…at peak sunshine they can store some heat in molten salts to run the generators later. Energy storage is available in all kinds of ways…”

    And every one of those ways is less than 100% efficient, so you have to build more plant to cover the storage losses, which increases costs. I’ve never seen an analysis of large-scale solar (or wind) power that includes those costs, but IIRC at the home level the cost of an off-the-grid solar system is about double that of a grid-tied one.

  20. 620
    Matt says:

    #614 Barton Paul Levenson: Energy storage is available in all kinds of ways, from pumping water uphill to charging batteries and fuel cells to speeding up flywheels

    The problem is that low-cost energy storage is required to make all this work.

    Solar Two, which uses molten salt, requires 30X of the space of of a turbine farm. To power the US would require 23% of CA filled with these things.

    Run the math on a flywheel storage for a day of energy from a single wind turbine and I think you’ll see it’s many, many tons, spinning over 10K RPM and riding on magnetic bearings.

    Storing energy in a pumped water system, as we’ve seen in the Chinese example, costs about $100/kwh for the Chinese to build the plant, which means storing a night of energy for the US would cost over $1T.

    The point is that massive energy storage is required to make alt energy really interesting, but unfortunately, low-cost energy storage isn’t anywhere close to readily available.

    And that’s the dirty secret of alt-power. It works great and can be cost effective when it needs to only kick in a few million kwh here and there. But as soon as it’s anything more than a novelty, the costs start to go up very quickly.

    And the longer folks refuse to allow nuclear because they believe in their head that there ARE clean alt technologies that would work but aren’t being used, the more of a force you are to keep the status quo in tact.

    The day in the 1970s that the US decided it wasn’t going to go nuclear and instead would make alt energy work, oil and coal executives high-fived and took the afternoon off for golf, because they understood they had just been granted another 40 year monopoly on energy generation.

    And those that were responsible for that decision are directly responsible for the >50B tons of extra CO2 our coal plants have pumped out in the last 30 years. I’ll say it again: put up enough barriers, and you are sure to keep the status quo.

  21. 621
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 620

    Matt, you said:

    [The day in the 1970s that the US decided it wasn’t going to go nuclear and instead would make alt energy work, oil and coal executives high-fived and took the afternoon off for golf, because they understood they had just been granted another 40 year monopoly on energy generation.

    And those that were responsible for that decision are directly responsible for the >50B tons of extra CO2 our coal plants have pumped out in the last 30 years. I’ll say it again: put up enough barriers, and you are sure to keep the status quo.]

    Lets sart with Ralph Nader. In the 1970s he pronounced the end of nuclear power by manipulating environmentalists and politicians to prevent any form of centralized storage of nuclear waste. He intended to kill the industry by choking it on its waste.

    Now, that waste accumulates in on-site storage pools located in close proximity of populated areas.

    Clever guy, Nader. He could not see the difference between Mr. G or Mr. B so he jumped into the campaign and refused to get out in time to assure FL went for Mr. G. Now, we live with Mr. Bs failures.

  22. 622
    David B. Benson says:

    Of course another way to store energy is as hydrogen. Cost effective ways to generate and store hyrogen are currently being researched.

  23. 623
    SecularAnimist says:

    James wrote: “I see no reason to think that nuclear power plants are fundamentally different from any other machine.”

    With all due respect your pronouncements about decommissioning nuclear power plants seem to be the result of “reasoning” based on a lot of assumptions and very little knowledge, nor do you seem very interested in acquiring knowledge of the subject, since you have apparently ignored the detailed NRC information, and other articles, on nuclear decommissioning that I linked to above.

    James wrote: “We need to start kicking the CO2 habit now … and I don’t see any workable alternatives that don’t involve nuclear as a big part.”

    In previous posts on this thread, I cited and linked to a January 2007 report from the American Solar Energy Society, which found that full application of existing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (wind power, biofuels, biomass, photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, and geothermal power) could reduce US carbon emissions by 60 to 80 percent by mid-century, which is in line with what mainstream climate science indicates will be needed to keep CO2 levels below 450 ppm, generally considered to be the threshhold for “dangerous” climate change. Fifty-seven percent of total reductions would come from energy efficiency improvements and 43 percent from expanded use of the six renewable technologies examined.

    So, there’s a “workable alternative” that doesn’t “involve nuclear as a big part”. If you “don’t see” it, it’s because you have chosen not to look at it.

    I would also commend to the attention of nuclear proponents a 2003 MIT study, The Future Of Nuclear Power, which began with the pro-nuclear premise that “this technology is an important option for the United States and the world to meet future energy needs without emitting carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants.” The report discusses a hypothethical scenario in which world nuclear electrical generation capacity is approximately tripled by mid-century, thereby “keeping nuclear’s share of the electricity market about constant” and avoiding “1.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually from coal plants, about 25 percent of the increment in carbon emissions otherwise expected in a business-as-usual scenario.” Note that this scenario — with a tripling of current nuclear electrical generation capacity — is not envisioned to reduce present levels of CO2 emissions from electrical generation, but merely reduce the growth in emissions by 25 percent from what it would be if the new generating capacity was coal-fired. Emissions benefits are less significant when compared with natural gas-fired electrical generation.

    The MIT study finds that “prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited” by four unresolved problems: high costs; adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.

    The authors note that “we know little about the safety of the overall fuel cycle, beyond reactor operation” and that “there is also growing concern about the safe and secure transportation of nuclear materials and the security of nuclear facilities from terrorist attack”, that “the United States and other countries have yet to implement final disposition of spent fuel or high level radioactive waste streams created at various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle”, and that “the current international safeguards regime is inadequate to meet the security challenges of the expanded nuclear deployment contemplated in the global growth scenario.”

    The MIT report expresses the view that increased efficiency, expanded use of renewables (solar, wind, biomass and geothermal), and carbon capture and sequestration will all be needed and does not “argue for their comparative advantages” but only attempts to “explore and evaluate actions that could be taken to maintain nuclear power as one of the significant options.”

    Among their recommendations, of course, are calls for hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding to overcome the “challenges” to nuclear expansion (on top of the hundreds of billions of dollars already lavished on the nuclear industry over the last half-century).

    Nuclear proponents who make sweeping pronouncements about nuclear power being “THE obvious answer” to reducing carbon emissions would do well to study the more sober and cautious conclusions reached by this pro-nuclear MIT study.

  24. 624
    SecularAnimist says:

    John L. McCormick wrote: “Lets sart with Ralph Nader. In the 1970s he pronounced the end of nuclear power by manipulating environmentalists and politicians to prevent any form of centralized storage of nuclear waste. He intended to kill the industry by choking it on its waste.”

    The nuclear power proponents all seem to be going off the deep end today with their Limbaugh-esque fantasies about wicked liberals killing off nuclear power. Ralph Nader has nothing to do with the failure to implement centralized long-term storage of nuclear waste, ie. the Yucca Mountain repository. That failure is the result of very real problems, problems that nuclear proponents don’t want to acknowledge or deal with, so instead they invent phony bogeymen to blame it on.

    This whole myth of “environmentalists have prevented the US from going to all-nuclear electrical generation” is on a par with the one about “climate scientists perpetrating the global warming hoax” and has just as little foundation in reality.

  25. 625
    David B. Benson says:

    Here is an (indirect) link to a world-wide carbon dioxide monitoring site regarding power producers only it seems:

    http://biopact.com/2007/11/carma-website-reveals-emissions-from.html

  26. 626
    Joe Duck says:

    Jim G: “Back of the Envelope Ad Hockery”. Such a great turn of phrase I won’t spend too much of your time arguing the following problems with your approach, especially because I (and I’m guessing Matt and almost everybody) would agree we have a major problem with extinctions. As with many other global issues AGW is likely a small component – habitat destruction by humans in the Amazon would be the top culprit I assume.

    Matt above has not at all suggested that species extinction rates higher than background are “OK”, and I’m sure he’d agree they are a very bad, human caused problem. Although I have not reviewed all the math I think he’s reasonably extrapolated from real numbers and real estimates. Don’t you?

    Are you additionally saying that since these numbers are a snapshot in time, and trends are negative, we should focus on the worst case scenarios? This is a different point entirely, though also worthy of consideration. I’m uncomfortable assuming that a trend to zero is the same as zero, since actions are generally taken at some point along the curve. When? I’d accept the USA’s species categorization approaches which do not wait for “threatened” to act – they look for potentially threatened species and work to stem the tide. What more would you ask for?

    Are you simply stating that “Species extinction is a serious problem and we should address it immediately!” Agree with that – infact in part thanks to Matt’s “back of the envelope ad hockery”.

  27. 627
    J.C.H. says:

    “As with many other global issues AGW is likely a small component – …” – joe Duck 626.

    Why does this distinction matter?

  28. 628
    AK says:

    Re: 620

    Matt Says:
    15 November 2007 at 12:45 PM

    Run the math on a flywheel storage for a day of energy from a single wind turbine and I think you’ll see it’s many, many tons, spinning over 10K RPM and riding on magnetic bearings.

    Storing energy in a pumped water system, as we’ve seen in the Chinese example, costs about $100/kwh for the Chinese to build the plant, which means storing a night of energy for the US would cost over $1T.

    The point is that massive energy storage is required to make alt energy really interesting, but unfortunately, low-cost energy storage isn’t anywhere close to readily available.

    And that’s the dirty secret of alt-power. It works great and can be cost effective when it needs to only kick in a few million kwh here and there. But as soon as it’s anything more than a novelty, the costs start to go up very quickly.

    Based on figures here, 100 Kwh/ton is a reasonable storage figure. At the power densities of Nevada Solar One one ton of rotor would be required for every ~200 square meters. With proper design and mass production, a stationary 1-ton vacuum-packed flywheel ought to be fairly cheap compared to the equivalent amount of concentrating mirror and receiver.

  29. 629
    Hank Roberts says:

    James wrote: “I see no reason …”

    Serious students in the industry do. Look at failure analyses done in the industry by people well aware of the difference they make.

    Just one example:
    http://shippai.jst.go.jp/en/Search?fn=1&dt=0&op=0&so=0&vt=0&kw=Environment&st=1&nct=TZ00000008

  30. 630
    James says:

    Re #623: [...January 2007 report from the American Solar Energy Society, which found that full application of existing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (wind power, biofuels, biomass, photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, and geothermal power) could reduce US carbon emissions by 60 to 80 percent by mid-century, which is in line with what mainstream climate science indicates will be needed to keep CO2 levels below 450 ppm, generally considered to be the threshhold for “dangerous” climate change.]

    Yes, I read that report. The problem here is our different ideas of how much CO2 it takes to cause dangerous climate change. You seem to agree with the 450 ppm limit. I think that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere now has ALREADY caused dangerous climate change. It’s not enough aim for a 60-80% reduction (though I think when I read the report it was more like 40-60%) through alt energy (and maybe fall short of the target). We need to aim for 100% reduction, and also work on things like revegetation that might take out some of the previously-added CO2.

    [So, there’s a “workable alternative” that doesn’t “involve nuclear as a big part”. If you “don’t see” it, it’s because you have chosen not to look at it.]

    No, I have looked at it, and it forms part of the reason I think nuclear is necessary to fill in that missing 20-40%; because a 60-80% solution is just not going to be enough.

  31. 631
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Joe, thank you for the reply. I’m glad you agree that species extinction should be addressed immediately. If you’ll recall the original context of this sub-thread, it’s Lomborg who thinks differently — biodiversity loss isn’t on his Copenhagen Consensus list. Until I hear differently from Matt, I can only assume he agrees with Lomborg.

    Although you’re certainly correct that habitat destruction is a major component of the sixth mass extinction event, AGW also plays a decisive role in whether marine ecosystems will survive. It’s well documented that abnormally warm ocean temperatures are destroying corals globally, and when a reef dies, the entire ecosystem that depends on it unravels.

    The specific policy I’m advocating is that the world should spend the $30 billion to protect the most threatened habitats. If we get habitat destruction and overexploitation under control, these ecosystems stand a better chance of stabilizing enough to survive whatever environmental changes may occur in the next centuries.

  32. 632
    Joe Duck says:

    J.C.H. – not sure what you meant above. Distinction between AGW and GW?

  33. 633
    Matt says:

    #631 Jim Galasyn:If you’ll recall the original context of this sub-thread, it’s Lomborg who thinks differently — biodiversity loss isn’t on his Copenhagen Consensus list. Until I hear differently from Matt, I can only assume he agrees with Lomborg.

    Actually, my only concern is that numbers are fairly represented in any argument AND that folks grasp the magnitude of numbers in context.

    If biodiversity “only” costs $30B relative to a world economic output of $50T or so, then it seems reasonable to try and solve.

    Note that Lomborg wasn’t against fixing it. He merely wondered what is the downside to modest extinction rates, even if those rates are 1000X higher than background. He noted the arguements presented to date didn’t necessarily provide a compelling reason why the last beetle of a species was important. Of course, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone that does NOT want every animal living on the planet today to keep living on this planet. However, every species isn’t necessarily worth the same (to us or to the ecosystem).

  34. 634
    Matt says:

    #624 SecularAnimist: This whole myth of “environmentalists have prevented the US from going to all-nuclear electrical generation” is on a par with the one about “climate scientists perpetrating the global warming hoax” and has just as little foundation in reality.

    You gotta be kidding (1). Why do you believe the US rates for new plant construction have remained so low compared to the rest of the world?

    You seriously have a uphill battle on this one, when there are so many folks that openly talk about scaring people away from nuclear power. Some never stopped and still are scaring people to death today.

    Consider public opinion of nuclear power in France find 2/3 “strongly in favor” of nuclear power (2). In fact, folks are pleased when a reactor come to their neighborhood. In the US, 70% favor nuclear energy (3), but the % of folks that would accept a reactor anywhere near them is much, much smaller. You can chalk that up to scare tactics from evironmentalists.

    (1) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/magazine/16wwln-freakonomics-t.html
    (2) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/readings/french.html
    (3) http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/documentlibrary/newplants/reports/publicopinionreport505/

  35. 635
    J.C.H. says:

    “J.C.H. – not sure what you meant above. Distinction between AGW and GW? …”

    Your persistence in claiming a specific event has a low/small/trivial AGW component:

    “As with many other global issues AGW is likely a small component – …” – joe Duck 626.

    You seem to think this is something important. I don’t think the percentage of culpability that can be attributed to AGW matters much at all.

    You seem to think tagging a negative event with a low AGW component has some magical significance. It doesn’t. It will be interesting to see what AGW component you attach to positive events.

  36. 636
    Dan W says:

    Matt #634,

    ‘scuse me for butting in, but this one is not so hard to dispute. Nuclear electricity is relatively cost competitive in France. However, only with nuclear’s multiple tax and other subsidies in the US it can it begin to compete cost wise here given the cheap abundance of coal.

    Recent nuclear industry paper: http://www.uic.com.au/nip08.htm

    This could change with the implementation of a carbon tax…

  37. 637
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 634

    “You gotta be kidding (1). Why do you believe the US rates for new plant construction have remained so low compared to the rest of the world?”

    Three Mile Island, followed by Chernobyl…

    “Some never stopped and still are scaring people to death today.”

    Another fallacy…enumeration of favorable (or, in this case, “unfavorable”) circumstances to the exclusion of any arguments that would suggest there were more than one position or idea, ideological, scietific, political and/or societal that might be at play here beyond people trying to “scare” everyone.

    In short, you are trying to demonize and thereby trivialize the very real and thoughtful positions of people and groups opposed to nuclear power, many of them with very real, cautionary concerns backed by both the history of nuclear power, the understanding of the engineering problems faced, and the science that informs the debate.

    As has been detailed for you exhaustively, this is not either/or discussion, nor is it about scaremongers with an agenda. Until you can acknowledge that, and deal with it honestly, in the end all you really manage to do is trivialize your own position to anyone actually paying attention.

  38. 638
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Matt, it’s welcome news to hear that you also support taking action on biodiversity loss.

    I’ll disagree with your characterization of Lomborg’s position, however. He explicitly denies there is a crisis of biodiversity loss, and as far as I can tell, he has no interest in doing anything about it.

    He merely wondered what is the downside to modest extinction rates, even if those rates are 1000X higher than background.

    Putting aside the question of how 1000X background can be a “modest” extinction rate, Lomborg’s flawed method is to consider individual species in isolation and to view mass extinction as an incremental affair: one by one, the species go extinct.

    As you say, “He noted the arguments presented to date didn’t necessarily provide a compelling reason why the last beetle of a species was important.”

    This is because Lomborg doesn’t understand ecosystems specifically, and feedback systems generally. In the case of marine biodiversity loss, we are literally strip-mining the oceans of biomass at several trophic levels. This is the ocean equivalent of clear-cutting forests.

    But it’s even worse than clear cutting — at least when an expanse of forest is razed, the animals can potentially flee to adjacent habitat, if it exists. With longlining and bottom trawling, many, if not most, of the animals are caught and killed, and most are discarded as bycatch. It would be as if a forest were surrounded with trap lines and bird nets, then clearcut. When this is done, we see those population curves for multiple species exponentially decaying to zero. In fact, the situation is so dire that only 10% of all large fish are left; 90% of all large fish, including tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod and halibut are gone.

    In the current mass extinction, the catastrophe is not only loss of species, it’s loss of entire ecosystems. You and I agree that overexploitation is a crisis that must be stopped, but Lomborg explicitly denies there is a crisis. Lomborg comforts himself by saying, “Fishing down the food web just removes the oldest fish from the population.” But he’s really just whistling past the graveyard.

  39. 639
    Dan Hughes says:

    re: # 637

    But The Science is Settled. There has been both Scientific and Engineering Consensus for decades.

  40. 640

    Matt writes:

    [[ He noted the arguements presented to date didn’t necessarily provide a compelling reason why the last beetle of a species was important. Of course, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone that does NOT want every animal living on the planet today to keep living on this planet. However, every species isn’t necessarily worth the same (to us or to the ecosystem).]]

    “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

    All species are important because we don’t know what the crucial species are. No one does. We will know when we’ve hit the extinction of a crucial species because everything will begin to go bad faster and faster.

  41. 641
    Joe Duck says:

    J.S. to Matt:
    As has been detailed for you exhaustively, this is not either/or discussion, nor is it about scaremongers with an agenda. Until you can acknowledge that, and deal with it honestly, in the end all you really manage to do is trivialize your own position to anyone actually paying attention.

    Sheesh! Matt made all of his positions clear, supported them with data, addressed the concerns raised by others, and has demonized nobody. I only wish others here were as diplomatic and reasonable.

    J.C.H. I don’t think I was trying to make a specific point regarding the size of the AGW connection, I just think it’s important to quantify the AGW component as much as possible so we can know how to allocate resources. e.g. As Matt and Jim note above saving species is a good idea. If we could save all of them for 30 billion it would seem a good use of global resources and perhaps better than using that same 30 billion on carbon sequestration. We simply cannot do everything and mitigation is expensive, so the key question is how do we proceed, and that depends very critically on the degree to which AGW affects these problems.

  42. 642
    Joe Duck says:

    Jim: biodiversity loss isn’t on his Copenhagen Consensus list

    But it could be on the next one. This is why the Copenhagen Consensus approach for all it’s flaws is an excellent approach to resource and solution prioritization. In one sense it is trying to define where we spend our “first few dollars” to solve pressing global problems. This helps avoid the problems that come from how we all focus most of our attention narrowly, assuming that our areas of expertise are of more pressing global concern than others.

  43. 643
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Barton makes a trenchant observation about intelligent tinkering:

    All species are important because we don’t know what the crucial species are. No one does.

    Fortunately, our knowledge is better than this. We can say with certainty that the primary producers and the apex predators are crucial species. Eliminate them, and their ecosystem is very likely to fall apart.

    But your larger point is well taken: removing any species from an ecosystem is risky business. And I’d have to say that for the oceans, things are definitely going bad, faster and faster.

  44. 644
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 639:

    re: # 637

    But The Science is Settled. There has been both Scientific and Engineering Consensus for decades.

    ================

    Settled on what? That it isn’t a problem, or that there is as yet no realistic, long term solution for problems such as nuclear waste? That blow-ups happen? That with an increase in the number of nuclear facillities comes a commesurate increase in potential for disaster? Do you refer to the zero/infinity problem (low short term risk/high long-term consequence if there is a major accident.) That no matter how perfect the machine, humans are infallible.

    This is not an oil spil we’re talking about (though in it’s own way toxic and long-lasting) This is not a wildfire consuming thousands of homes, nor a hurricane-driven flood. What we are discussing is something that, if mishandled, has the very real potential to make vast areas of land uninhabitable for generations.

    Which consensus are you referring to?

  45. 645
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    Sheesh! Matt made all of his positions clear, supported them with data
    ============

    Rhetorical fallacies are not data.

  46. 646
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Joe suggests, hopefully, that biodiversity loss could be on the next Copenhagen Consensus list.

    Not very likely. He’s quite convinced that the biodiversity crisis exists only in the minds of alarmists.

  47. 647
    J.C.H. says:

    Such an attribution, regardless of its actual accuracy, has no logical place in the decision for the allocation of resources.

  48. 648
  49. 649
    James says:

    Re 644: [What we are discussing is something that, if mishandled, has the very real potential to make vast areas of land uninhabitable for generations.]

    Which is a perfect example of scare tactics. Look at the so-called “dead zone” around Chernobyl, the “worse than worst case” nuclear accident. Humans are (theoretically) excluded because of the radiation danger, and as a result everything else is thriving.

    The problem here is the starting assumption: an exaggerated idea of the dangers of low-level radiation that’s basically derived from a linear response model. We’ve been through this before, in previous threads. Anyone interested can search.

  50. 650
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Chernobyl :

    Chernobyl ‘not a wildlife haven’
    By Mark Kinver
    Science and nature reporter, BBC News

    The idea that the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has created a wildlife haven is not scientifically justified, a study says.

    Recent studies said rare species had thrived despite raised radiation levels as a result of no human activity.

    But scientists who assessed the 1986 disaster’s impact on birds said the ecological effects were “considerably greater than previously assumed”. …


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