Oceans, Islands, Energy, and Climate Change
- April 22, 2014
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In a Nature interview on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition at the Science Museum in London featuring some of his inventions, James Lovelock was asked the question, “Is climate change going to be less extreme than you previously thought?”
His response was, we were taken in by the perfect correlation between temperature and CO2 in the ice-core analyses [from the ice-sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, studied since the 1980s]. You could draw a straight line relating temperature and CO2, and it was such a temptation for everyone to say, “Well, with CO2 rising we can say in such and such a year it will be this hot.” It was a mistake we all made.
“We shouldn’t have forgotten that the system has a lot of inertia and we’re not going to shift it very quickly. The thing we’ve all forgotten is the heat storage of the ocean — it’s a thousand times greater than the atmosphere and the surface. You can’t change that very rapidly.”
In retrospect, in view of the imagery of the small blue marble in space that was available to us a decade before the 80s, it is hard to imagine how intelligent men of science could have been so short sighted. And for the past fifteen years, as witnessed by the following Skeptical Science chart derived from IPCC AR4 184.108.40.206 data for the period 1993 to 2003, the evidence has been clear.
Over 90 percent of global warming heat has gone into the oceans yet we remain fixated on atmospheric temperatures, which are indicative of only a small fraction of the problem.
Looking in the wrong direction has insured our failure to find the solution to the problem.
Although the planet would be virtually uninhabitable were it not for the fact the oceans absorb most of the heat, their so doing comes with ramifications. Ocean water expands with heat leading to sea level rise. Heat at the ocean’s surface drives tropical storms that cause loss of life, serious property damage and move heat from the tropics towards the poles where it melts icecaps and permafrost, which amplify sea level rise and the warming problem. Ocean heat also leads to increased evaporation and more intense precipitation events.
Those who bear the brunt of these changes are island inhabitants, who for the most part also pay a high price for the fossil fuels they burn to produce the electricity they currently consume.
In the Nature article, Lovelock was asked, “So what will the next 100 years look like?”
His response, “All I can say is that it will be nowhere near as bad as the worst-case scenario.”
Those who live on islands that will be submerged in 100 years or will be buffeted by more intense and frequent storms combined with higher seas no doubt will differ with the professor on that point but then he and others, who for the most part are prospering by the energy status quo, are offering what he refers to in his latest book as a sustainable retreat.
In a Telegraph article, he suggests that although climate change is extremely serious and probably unfixable, this might not be such a bad thing. What we are seeing around us, Lovelock argues, may be the large-scale destruction of the planet’s ecosystem by rapacious humanity. But it may also be “no more than the constructive chaos that always attends the installation of a new infrastructure”.
Humanity is already concentrating itself in bigger and bigger cities, so rather than trying to “save the Earth”, or restore some artificial version of a normal climate, why not live comfortable lives in clustered, air-conditioned mega-cities? This serves ants and termites perfectly well, he argues – as well as the inhabitants of Singapore.
As one who fled the city 35 years ago to live on an island, I find the notion of living like an ant retrograde and unappealing.
Paradise after all is usually associated with a tropical island rather an ant hill.
The Earth can be fixed and it is the interest of island dwellers to take the lead in the effort. What is needed are joint ventures to develop the requisite new infrastructure; like developed countries have found necessary to approach large scale projects like the International Space Station and ITER.
By definition islands are surrounded by ocean and a recent IPCC study found that electricity produced from that source creates the second lowest concentration of CO2/kWh, behind hydro that is typically unavailable to island nations.
When ocean energy is produced using the temperature differences between cooler, deep, and warmer, shallow, ocean waters to run a heat engine, particularly when a deep water condenser is used to move surface heat to deeper water, the threat to islands from rising seas and storm surge is diminished. Furthermore this power can be produced typically at less cost than many islanders are currently paying and not only does it convert ocean heat to usefull energy, it takes advantage of the ocean’s inertia to move damaging surface to heat to the relative safety of its deep water.
Because the link between ocean heat and global warming was missed thirty years ago and has only casually been made subsequently, ocean thermal energy conversion proponents are now struggling to get their prototyping efforts off the ground.
It is in the interest of island nations to get behind these efforts and to become global leaders in clean energy in order that the planet can be saved one island at a time.
Island preservation will require ocean thermal energy conversion on a massive scale but it starts with a single, expensive, plant with each succeeding effort being increasingly more self-sustaining.
Ultimately we all live on islands of one dimension or another and triage protocol requires that those at greatest risk, though salvageable, be treated first.