The impact of sea level rise on Florida–and the world

Read these two excerpts (here and here) from a new book by Elizabeth Rush which details the effects of sea level rise on the south coast of Florida, USA.  “Sunny day flooding”–where coasts flood even without rain and storms due to rising seas and high tides is increasingly frequent today.  This is not a theory or a prediction; it is happening today “from Portland, Maine to Key West.”  High tides top seawalls and bubble up through storm sewers.  Local governments try to protect pricey real estate investments but often leave “low to middle-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color” to fend for themselves.

Most of the excess heat being driven by climate change is stored in the oceans.  That heat is causing sea level rise–by expanding ocean waters and, more importantly, causing increasingly rapid melting of ice at the Poles.  Estimates of sea level rise range from 2 to 6.5 feet by 2100; others predict more–“when sea levels have risen in the past, they have usually not done so gradually, but rather in rapid surges.”

Over about 130 years, the population along the south coast of Florida has grown from a few thousand to more than 6 million; the sea will continue to rise; what will all those people do?  Research suggests that approximately 13 million Americans may have to move due to sea level rise by the end of the century and economic losses and impacts will be huge.

But, Florida is just an example; this is happening today all over the world.

Facial recognition and privacy

Biometric systems, especially facial recognition scans, are being introduced at major U.S. airports–a response to a U.S. Congressional mandate “for recording the entry and exit of non-U.S. citizens at all air, sea, and land ports of entry.”

Facial-recognition systems have “improved significantly in recent years.”  Governments and law enforcement agencies are now using them.  Does use of facial recognition “violate [U.S.] Constitutional protections against unreasonable searches”?  In addition, research with facial recognition has shown it to be “less accurate with older photos and with images of women, African Americans, and children.”  Mistakes and deliberate abuse can happen.

Also, while Congress mandated the use of biometrics for non-U.S. citizens traveling into and out of the country, the faces of U.S. citizens are also being scanned at airports.  Both Congress and, more recently, President Trump have never authorized “the collection of facial scans from U.S. citizens at the border routinely and without suspicion.”

What happens to this scan data after it is collected at the airports?  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it is deleted … but, we don’t know.

Facial recognition is being promoted by airlines like JetBlue and Delta as a way to “speed up the boarding process.”  However, if you are a U.S. citizen, this may not be an option you want to choose.

Read the article (Mike Orcutt, MIT Technology Review, July 13, 2017).

Methane leaks undermine the benefits of using natural gas

Oil producer burning off natural gas Natural gas has long been “promoted as a clean alternative to other fossil fuels.”  It’s main ingredient is methane.  Compared to other greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long but, while it’s there, “its warming effect is much stronger.” A new independent study shows that methane “has been leaking from oil and gas facilities [in the United States] at far higher rates than governmental regulators claim.” These leaks “have nearly doubled the climate impact of natural gas, causing warming on par with carbon dioxide-emitting coal plants for 2 decades.” The benefits of burning natural gas instead of coal “are being undermined by the leaks.”  Natural gas emits less CO2 than coal when burned.  The U.S. EPA is “understating industry methane leaks by approximately 60%.” According to the study, “in 2015 methane leaks represented 2.3% of total gas production nationwide”; in comparison, the U.S. EPA estimated 1.4%.  While the percentages and the difference between them seems small, what they represent–the actual amount of methane leaked–is very large.  Earlier studies also showed that leaks of methane at both production and distribution sites are underestimated. The more leakage, the smaller the environmental benefit of using natural gas. Read the article (Warren Cornwall, Science, June 21, 2018).  

Now that China will no longer take it, the U.S. and other countries will have to deal with their own plastic waste

Recycling plastic is a challenge.  Over the past few decades, plastic “recycling” has in fact consisted–about half the time–of sending that plastic to China (often through Hong Kong).  China and Hong Kong “have imported 72% of all plastic waste.”

But, this route is now at an end.  As of January 2018, China has banned the import of “nonindustrial plastic waste.”  As a result, according to a recent study, “that will leave the world–mostly high-income countries–with an additional 111 million metric tons of plastic to deal with by 2030.”  And, these countries, especially the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, and Germany “have no good way to handle it.”

As an example, in 2016 “the U.S. exported 56% of its plastic waste to China, an additional 32% went to Hong Kong” (and most of that then went to China).  The rest (12%) went to Mexico, Canada, and India.  And, much of that plastic waste ultimately also went to China.

With a permanent ban now in place, plastic recyclers in other countries like the U.S. are seeing “a globally cascading effect.”  Outside of China, “little infrastructure exists … to manage the rejected waste.”  Plastic is piling up.

Previous studies have indicated “that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled”, the majority goes into the landfill or is thrown away into the oceans and on land.  In 2015, people threw out about 74% of all the plastic that was produced.  Changes are needed–in recycling programs, in how plastics are made, in how humans behave …

Read the article (Zoe Schlanger, Quartz, June 20, 2018).


Using the Allam Cycle to generate electricity and capture CO2

As of May 30, 2018, a supercritical carbon dioxide demonstration power plant began operation in Texas, USA.  Operated by NET Power, LLC, the technology is powered by natural gas and generates electricity using CO2 itself to run the turbine.  The technology–called the “Allam Cycle”–may eliminate “virtually all emissions from natural gas power generation without requiring expensive … carbon capture equipment.”

Traditional natural gas power plants burn gas using air and use water to crank the turbine.  A by-product of the process is CO2 which often is released into the atmosphere or is attempted to be captured using expensive equipment.

The Allam Cycle replaces the water with supercritical carbon dioxide which operates as both a liquid and a gas.   Oxygen, CO2, and natural gas are fed into a combustor; the gas ignites; the by-products “are hot water and a lot of supercritical CO2 which acts as an efficient working fluid for driving the adjacent turbine.”  Using CO2 to run the turbine improves efficiency, avoids energy losses, and eliminates parts of the process needed by steam-electric power plants.

The end result could be the production of “low-cost electricity from natural gas while generating near-zero atmospheric emissions, including full CO2 capture.”

The plant fired on May 30 is a demonstration facility.  If successful, NET Power predicts the building and deployment of commercial-scale power plants starting as soon as 2021.

“If it plays out as advertised, it could be an actual game changer.”

Read the articles–here and here (James Temple, MIT Technology Review, August 30, 2017 and NET Power, PR Newswire, May 30, 2018).

Hurricanes are slowing down and are becoming more dangerous

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey moved very slowly across parts of Texas (USA) dropping “more than 30 inches of rain in two days and nearly 50 inches over four days.”  “Harvey’s rainfall exceeded every known flooding event in American history since 1899.”

The reason for the high rainfall totals was the slow movement of the storm–and a 2018 study reports that “between 1949 and 2016, tropical cyclone translation speeds (how quickly a storm moves) declined 10 percent worldwide.”

While a 10% change may not seem significant, the reality of Hurricane Harvey and other recent storms show the effect–“devastating flooding and billions of dollars of damage” as well as death, trauma, stress, widespread and long-lasting environmental damage, and the list goes on.

What is the cause of the slower storm movement?  “Broader evidence suggests that climate change is playing a role.”

The winds that push hurricanes along are influenced by temperature differences between the tropics and the Poles.  That temperature difference is getting smaller.  As a result, the steering winds are weakening, and the hurricanes and other storms are moving more slowly dropping more rain and causing more destruction.

Hurricanes are becoming more dangerous.  Additional scientific analysis indicates that as the winds that push hurricanes weaken, the winds inside hurricanes strengthen.

And, the danger from hurricanes is not just along the coasts.  Inland flooding and mudslides caused by the intense rainfall “poses the highest mortality risk nowadays in certain regions.”

Read the article (Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times, June 6, 2018).


Antarctica’s ice is melting faster and the seas are rising

Most of the world’s fresh water is found frozen in Antarctica.  And, that ice is melting today–and the melting is happening at an increasing rate.  A new study estimates that the rate of melting “has tripled since 2007.”  At this rate, the melting ice will “contribute 6 inches to sea-level rise by 2100.”

While this may not seem threatening occurring over decades, it will cause substantially increased coastal flooding; many coastal areas globally are highly populated.  For example, “around Brooklyn (New York, USA) you get flooding once a year or so, but if you raise sea level by 15 centimeters (6 inches) then that’s going to happen 20 times a year.”

“Between 1992 and 2017, Antarctica lost 3 trillion tons of ice.”  40% of that occurred since 2012.  And, melting ice is not only happening in Antarctica, “Greenland lost an estimated 1 trillion tons of ice between 2011 and 2014“, and there are many other areas of substantial ice loss as well.  The melting ice and warming sea water have “all been primarily driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”  “The rate of sea level rise due to Antarctic ice loss has tripled since 2012.”  The main driver of the Antarctic ice melt is actually the edges of the ice sheets interacting with warming ocean water–“forces that you can’t reverse easily.”

Sea level rise is impacting people living on coasts today–including and especially in the U.S.  The economic costs will be immense.  What can we do to mitigate and adapt?

Read the article (Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times, June 13, 2018).

Water and the West

Lack of fresh water for agricultural use and for human consumption is a growing and very serious problem globally–including rich countries.  Read this article (Henry Fountain, New York Times, May 24, 2018) for a look at how climate change is affecting rivers in the western United States.  The Rio Grande and the Colorado, two major western U.S. rivers, are experiencing significantly reduced flows due to warmer temperatures, longer and more frequent droughts, less snow and less winter precipitation overall, and the need to serve more people.  By May, stretches of the Rio Grande had already completely dried up.  “Both of these rivers are poster children for what climate change is doing to the Southwest” U.S.  These events are not a theory or a future projection, it is happening today.  How can we as a society and as individuals mitigate and adapt?

The Rio Grande is drying up

See this source behind this story.

Is there a “tipping point” for public opinion?

How and when does an established viewpoint of a society change? What does it take for a society (a very large group of people) to alter its collective opinion? Is there a “tipping point” for public opinion? A recent study using a naming game discovered that when a minority viewpoint became held by “at least 25% of the population,” that viewpoint “was likely to rapidly become the majority viewpoint.” In the naming game, “all participants participated as equals, similar to the way anonymous individuals interact online” through social media. A small minority of people can become powerful/influential by “pure, unwavering commitment to an idea” (Roni Dengler, Science, June 7, 2018).

Is there a tipping point for changing public opinion?  An image of a rally for legalizing same-sex marriage in Australia
Is there a tipping point for changing public opinion? An example is the general change in opinion about legalizing same-sex marriage.