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.