Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths

What’s more, for a magazine that purports to be written by and for tech geeks, WIRED missed the biggest and most interesting part of the story: the same intrinsic efficiences of heat pumps can be run in reverse to give you the same economies for home heating as you get for air conditioning. To do this effectively, you’d have to run the heat pump off of natural gas rather than electricity (or perhaps run it off of locally generated solar power or wind). You’d also have to deal with the fact that heat pumps become less efficient when working across large temperature gradients, but that’s where geothermal heat storage systems come in, making use of the fact that the deep subsurface temperature remains near a nice 55F all year around. Now that would have been a nice story for a tech magazine to cover. And by the way, the decrease in efficiency of heat pumps as the temperature differential increases has another implication that WIRED missed: not only does global warming increase the basic demand for air conditioning, with all the attendant pressures on electricity demand, but it exacerbates the situation by decreasing the efficiency of the entire installed base of air conditioners.

Now about that spotted owl. This refers to a claim that industrial tree plantations take up carbon faster than old growth forests; Since spotted owls require the large trees found only in old-growth, the supposed implication is that if we want to soak up carbon we ought to damn the spotted owl and cut down all the old growth. WIRED really committed serial stupidities on this one. First of all, the article they cited in support of their claim was about carbon emissions from Canada’s managed forests, not from old growth. Now, it’s true that a rapidly growing young tree takes carbon out of the atmosphere more rapidly than a mature forest which more slowly transfers carbon to long term storage in soil. However, to figure out how much net carbon sequestration you get out of that young tree once it’s chopped down, you need to figure what happens to it. Lots of trees wind up in paper, carboard boxes, shipping palettes and other things that rapidly sit around decomposing or get burned off (or worse, turn into methane in landfills). Even the part that turns into houses has a relatively short residence time before being oxidized. Anybody who has maintained an old Victorian house knows about the constant battle against rot, and the amount of wood that needs to be replaced even if (knock wood) the thing doesn’t burn down or turn into a tear-down. So, WIRED is totally off the mark there, unless, to use the colorful language of my colleague Dave Archer, they can get trees to "drop diamonds instead of leaves."

Worse, they ignore the abundant literature indicating that old growth forests can be a net sink of carbon even in equilibrium, whereas the soil disturbance of clear cutting and industrial forestry can lead to large soil carbon releases. A classic article in the genre is "Effects on carbon storage of conversion of old-growth forests to young forests" (Harmon et al. Science 1990) . They state "Simulations of carbon storage suggest that conversion of old-growth forests to young fast-growing forests will not decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in general, as has been suggested recently.". For more recent work, take a look at what Leighty et al. (ECOSYSTEMS Volume: 9 Issue: 7 Pages: 1051-1065. 2006 ) have to say about the Tongass:.

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