Tag Archives: climate

Oil Spills and Nature’s Resilience

Faced with an oil spill of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon’s mag­nitude, nature is resi­li­ent and well-adap­ted to cope with the consequences–that is, provided we don’t try to clean it using meth­ods that will do more dam­age.

Matt Rid­ley, author of The Ration­al Optim­ist (and many of my favour­ite pop­u­lar sci­ence books), dis­cusses what we should remem­ber from pre­vi­ous oil spills, and what this means for the Gulf of Mex­ico in the face of yet anoth­er oil spill:

First, be care­ful not to do more harm than good. When the Tor­rey Canyon was wrecked off Corn­wall in 1967, spill­ing 120,000 tonnes of oil, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment not only bombed the wreck (and missed with one bomb in four), but sprayed 10,000 tons of deter­gents, which were much more dam­aging to mar­ine life than the oil itself, then bull­dozed the oil and deter­gents into the sand on some beaches where it per­sisted for longer than if it had been exposed to the ele­ments.

The mis­take was repeated in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 40,000 tonnes in Prince Wil­li­am Sound. Thou­sands of volun­teers were sent out to wash rocks with hot water, which helped kill lots of microbes that would oth­er­wise have eaten the oil.

Speak­ing of microbes, do not under­es­tim­ate nature’s powers of recov­ery. After most big oil spills, sci­ent­ists are pleas­antly sur­prised by how quickly the oil dis­ap­pears and the mar­ine life reappears. […] The Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmo­spher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion says on its web­site: ‘What sci­ent­ists have found is that, des­pite the gloomy out­look in 1989, the inter­tid­al hab­it­ats of Prince Wil­li­am Sound have proved to be sur­pris­ingly resi­li­ent.’ A sci­ent­ist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that ‘Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mex­ico are just wild over­re­ac­tions’. […]

This rap­id recov­ery was also a sig­na­ture of the last big Gulf rig spill, the Ixtoc 1 dis­aster off Mex­ico in 1979. Although the num­ber of turtles took dec­ades to recov­er, much of the rest of the wild­life bounced back fairly rap­idly. […] The warm waters and strong sun­shine of the Gulf of Mex­ico are highly con­du­cive to the chem­ic­al decom­pos­i­tion of oil by ‘photo-oxid­a­tion’, and are stuffed full of organ­isms that actu­ally like to eat the stuff – in mod­er­a­tion.

Rid­ley also notes how wind farms kill “far more rare birds per joule of energy pro­duced than oil does” and that the wind farm at Alta­mont Pass in Cali­for­nia kills more birds each year that the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill did (≈ 1,300).

via The Browser

A History of the Climate Change Controversies

After obtain­ing and ana­lys­ing the doc­u­ments and emails from the Cli­mate Research Unit email con­tro­versy (the so-called Cli­mateg­ate emails), Der Spiegel “reveals how the war between cli­mate research­ers and cli­mate skep­tics broke out, the tricks the two sides used to out­man­euver each oth­er and how the con­flict could be resolved”.

The res­ult is an excep­tion­al and com­pre­hens­ive art­icle on the his­tory of the cli­mate change issue and the sci­ent­ists’ place in it.

The art­icle con­cludes:

Soci­olo­gist Peter Weingart believes that the dam­age could be irre­par­able. “A loss of cred­ib­il­ity is the biggest risk inher­ent in sci­entif­ic com­mu­nic­a­tion,” he said, adding that trust can only be regained through com­plete trans­par­ency. […]

It seems all but impossible to provide con­clus­ive proof in cli­mate research. Sci­entif­ic philo­soph­er Silvio Funtovicz [described] cli­mate research as a “post­nor­mal sci­ence.” On account of its high com­plex­ity, he said it was sub­ject to great uncer­tainty while, at the same time, har­bor­ing huge risks.

The experts there­fore face a dilemma: They have little chance of giv­ing the right advice. If they don’t sound the alarm, they are accused of not ful­filling their mor­al oblig­a­tions. How­ever, alarm­ist pre­dic­tions are cri­ti­cized if the pre­dicted changes fail to mater­i­al­ize quickly.

Cli­ma­to­lo­gic­al find­ings will prob­ably remain ambigu­ous even if fur­ther pro­gress is made. Weingart says it’s now up to sci­ent­ists and soci­ety to learn to come to terms with this. In par­tic­u­lar, he warns, politi­cians must under­stand that there is no such thing as clear res­ults. “Politi­cians should stop listen­ing to sci­ent­ists who prom­ise simple answers,” Weingart says.

via Art and Let­ters Daily

The Landscapes of Gadgets

Stat­ing that mod­ern giz­mos (in this example, the iPhone) are no longer just depend­ent on highly integ­rated and developed sys­tems for their pro­duc­tion, but now also depend upon “a vast array of infra­struc­tures, data eco­lo­gies, and device net­works” for their oper­a­tion, Rob Holmes’ “mind-bog­gling update to I, Pen­cil”* looks at the land­scapes of extrac­tion, assembly and oper­a­tion mod­ern gad­gets cre­ate.

As Google is, like Apple, quite secret­ive about the details of the phys­ic­al loci of its imma­ter­i­al product, the loc­a­tions of less than half of Google’s Amer­ic­an data cen­ters are known, with those known cen­ters spread between Cali­for­nia (five cen­ters), Ore­gon (two), Geor­gia (two), Vir­gin­ia (three), Wash­ing­ton, Illinois, Texas, Flor­ida, North Car­o­lina, South Car­o­lina, Oklahoma, and Iowa.

The first of these data cen­ters to be con­struc­ted is in The Dalles, Ore­gon, and “includes three 68,680 square foot data cen­ter build­ings, a 20,000 square foot admin­is­tra­tion build­ing, a 16,000 square foot ‘transient employ­ee dorm­it­ory’ and an 18,000 square foot facil­ity for cool­ing tower­s”. Like Google’s oth­er data cen­ters, the Dalles facil­ity con­sumes enorm­ous quant­it­ies of elec­tri­city (estim­ates range from 50 to 100 mega­watts — some­where between a tenth and a twen­ti­eth of the capa­city of an aver­age Amer­ic­an coal-fired power plant), gen­er­at­ing sim­il­arly large quant­it­ies of heat, which neces­sit­ates loc­at­ing the cen­ters by sig­ni­fic­ant water sources for the chillers and water towers which cool the serv­ers.

Inside, the data cen­ters are filled with stand­ard ship­ping con­tain­ers, each con­tain­er packed with over a thou­sand indi­vidu­al serv­ers run­ning cheap x86 pro­cessors: anonym­ous, mod­u­lar data land­scapes, the nerve cen­ters of America’s con­urba­tions, their stand­ard­iz­a­tion and dull rec­ti­lin­ear­ity indic­at­ing extreme place­less­ness, but con­tra­dicted by the logist­ic­al logic of water bod­ies, energy sources, and trans­mis­sion dis­tances which gov­erns their place­ment.

* As Simon Bostock called it (via).

Long-Term Thinking and Climate Change

One of the reas­ons the gen­er­al pub­lic are slow in act­ing on cli­mate change in the man­ner the situation’s import­ance demands is our reluct­ance to think too far bey­ond our imme­di­ate time hori­zon. How­ever this shouldn’t stop us.

That is the sug­ges­tion of Mar­tin Rees, Astro­nomer Royal, who extols the vir­tues of long-term think­ing more elo­quently than I’ve heard before:

“As in polit­ics,” he says, “the imme­di­ate trumps the import­ant.” Our future-blind­ness may reflect a basic lim­it­a­tion of the brain. “In so far as brains evolved to cope with every­day life on the savan­nah, they evolved in a con­text where you didn’t plan 50 years ahead and you cared about your loc­al com­munity. Although…” A pause. A sip of tea. “Although, it’s odd—I gave a talk at Ely cathed­ral not long ago. The people who built the cathed­ral had a lim­ited view of the world. Their world was the fens, and they thought it would end quite soon, but nev­er­the­less built this won­der­ful struc­ture which is part of our her­it­age 1,000 years later. And it’s shame­ful in a way that we, with our longer hori­zons and great­er resources, are reluct­ant to think 50 years ahead.”

via The Browser

Note: The full art­icle is behind a pay wall. The above quote and the con­text there­of is avail­able.

Creating Effective Messages

Nature has pub­lished a short inter­view with psy­cho­lo­gist Robert Gif­ford look­ing at the “inter­face between psy­cho­logy and cli­mate change”.

Not­ing the prob­lem of pubic dis­trust of sci­entif­ic mes­sages that are delivered with uncer­tainty, Gif­ford pro­poses five ele­ments of effect­ive mes­sages*:

  1. It has to have some urgency.
  2. It has to have as much cer­tainty as can be mustered with integ­rity.
  3. There can’t be just one mes­sage: there must be mes­sages tar­geted to dif­fer­ent groups.
  4. Mes­sages should be framed in pos­it­ive terms. (Evid­ence from a recent thes­is […] shows that people are less will­ing to change their beha­viour if you tell them they have to make sac­ri­fices. If you tell them they can be in the van­guard, be a hero, be the one that helps — that works.)
  5. You have to give people the sense that their vote counts and that their effort won’t be in vain.

This doesn’t apply just to mes­sages on cli­mate change, of course.

via Mind Hacks

*The ori­gin­al art­icle has, since post­ing this, gone behind a pay­wall.