Monday, September 19, 2005

NZ glaciers grow while elsewhere they shrink

Wellington - While glaciers around the world are shrinking because of global warming, 50 in New Zealand's Southern Alps have been gaining more ice mass over the last three years.

An annual survey by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) using aerial photographs shows the glaciers have reversed a pattern in which they shrunk in four of five years between 1998 and 2002.

But NIWA climate scientist, Jim Salinger, said that while the glaciers were continuing to recover, they were still far from their ice-packed glory of a century ago.

He said the Frank Josef Glacier, in the Westland National Park, which descends about 10km from the main divide in the Alps to about 300 metres above sea level in temperate rain forest, was still much shorter than in 1900.

And the total volume of ice in the Southern Alps has been reduced by 25 to 30 percent as mean temperatures rose by 0,7°Celsius.

Mark Mellsop, director of Franz Josef Glacier Guides, said the ice was advancing by up to about one metre a day.

It's pushing a pile of rocks in front of it like a slow-moving bulldozer blade, so you can certainly see evidence of the advance," he told The Press newspaper, Christchurch.

The 14-kilometre Fox Glacier is growing about 70 centimetres a day, according to Alpine Guides managing director Mike Browne, who said the advance had been especially noticeable over the last three months of winter.

He said guides had to cut new steps into the ice for guided walking groups regularly because old ones were being moved by the advancing glacier.

Salinger said last year's gains were caused by heavier snowfalls in the Alps which had caused the seventh largest increase in ice volumes since NIWA's aerial surveys began in 1977.

The World Glacier Monitoring Service has reported an average annual loss of half a metre in ice thickness since 1980 in monitored glaciers, demonstrating the effects of global warming.

But Salinger said New Zealand glaciers were boosted by extremely high rainfall, with more than 10 metres a year falling west of the Southern Alps main divide.

Most glaciers, except for some in parts of Norway, were in areas of lower rainfall and were affected more quickly by rising temperatures.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Power of the Oceans

Tidal energy.

Thanks to our orbiting moon, twice a day the world’s oceans create powerful water currents and the rise and fall of tides. Humans have studied and used the tremendous power of water for over a thousand years. 10th century millwheels harnessed the energy of rivers to grind wheat into flour. 40 years ago, the first tidal dams were constructed, converting the tidal energy into electricity.

Today, new energy technologies that produce power from tidal currents could help supply as much electricity as the largest hydroelectric dam, or nuclear / fossil fuel generating power plants without negative side effects on our environment.

Science confers, huge advantages.

There are enormous advantages on this potential energy resource.

  1. The natural occurrence of the earth’s tides is a free renewable and reliable (FIRM)
  2. By Virtue of the physical characteristic of sea water’s density (832 time that of air) and it’s non compressibility. Its energy producing potential is far higher that of wind. For example a body of water moving at 8 knots has a wind speed equivalent of 390km/hour.
  3. Our environment is not damaged by greenhouse gas emissions.

Early tidal power plants.

As early as the 1930’s countries have been using tidal power with differing success and power output levels but what is notable is that all of these projects have stood the test of time the marine environment and still exist.

La Rance Tidal Brige France.

Tidal Barrage France In the 1960’s France began the construction of this Project. The system consists of a 330 meter long dam across a 22 square kilometre basin with an 8 meter tidal range. It was completed in 1967 and 24 5.5 meter wide turbines rated at 10MW were added to the 225kV French transmission network.

Using barrage bulb turbines, developed by Electricite de France allows this dam to generate power on both ebbs of the tide.

The turbines are rated at 10MW, therefore a total capacity of 240MW.
Maximum Electricity generated per annum (kWh) = 240000 * 8760 (hours in a year)

= 2102400000 kWh

Marine Turbines

These could be described as underwater wind farms and have the advantage of being much cheaper to build than tidal barrages. They also do not have the environmental problems that a tidal barrage would bring and there are many more suitable sites.

Array of marine turbines

These underwater turbines, which are generally rated at 750 to 1500kW per unit, (depending on the local tidal patterns and peak tidal velocities), are grouped in arrays or "farms" below the surface.

The rotors turn slowly (about 10 – 20 RPM) so risk to marine life is minimal as virtually all creatures which choose to swim in areas with strong currents have excellent perceptive powers and agility.

The Future.

With the obvious effects of global warming and climate change due to continued pumping of co2 gases into the atmosphere, marine turbines and tidal power are an indisputably clean renewable energy resource. We need to start now to help these alternative energies develop and for governments to harness the power of the oceans.

Written by Peter Young
Water Well - Watering the Future

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina: Predictable, preventable, ignored.

Right now, looking back is easier than looking forward.

Joel K. Bourne Jr. writes in National Geographic:

The storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however -- the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level -- more than eight feet below in places -- so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

The catch here (there's always a catch) is that Bourne wrote this in October 2004, based on worst-case scenarios by FEMA and other agencies. Obviously it's too soon to tell how closely to this prediction Katrina's wake will play out, but the fact that the storm was this predictable is disheartening to say the least.

Bourne continues with his predictions of the fallout from a disaster just like the one that struck this week:

"The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours -- coming from the worst direction," says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast. "I don't think people realize how precarious we are," Suhayda says, watching sailboats glide by. "Our technology is great when it works. But when it fails, it's going to make things much worse."

[It's worth reiterating here that Katrina was a Category Five hurricane just one day before it hit New Orleans, weakening slightly to Category Four with winds at about 145 mph when it made landfall.]

While such loss hits every bayou-loving Louisianan right in the heart, it also hits nearly every U.S. citizen right in the wallet. Louisiana has the hardest working wetlands in America, a watery world of bayous, marshes, and barrier islands that either produces or transports more than a third of the nation's oil and a quarter of its natural gas, and ranks second only to Alaska in commercial fish landings. As wildlife habitat, it makes Florida's Everglades look like a petting zoo by comparison.

The deep offshore wells now account for nearly a third of all domestic oil production, while Louisiana's Offshore Oil Port, a series of platforms anchored 18 miles (29 kilometers) offshore, unloads a nonstop line of supertankers that deliver up to 15 percent of the nation's foreign oil. Most of that black gold comes ashore via a maze of pipelines buried in the Louisiana muck. Numerous refineries, the nation's largest natural gas pipeline hub, even the Strategic Petroleum Reserve are all protected from hurricanes and storm surge by Louisiana's vanishing marsh.

You can smell the petrodollars burning at Port Fourchon, the offshore oil industry's sprawling home port on the central Louisiana coast. Brawny helicopters shuttle 6,000 workers to the rigs from here each week, while hundreds of supply boats deliver everything from toilet paper to drinking water to drilling lube. A thousand trucks a day keep the port humming around the clock, yet Louisiana 1, the two-lane highway that connects it to the world, seems to flood every other high tide. During storms the port becomes an island, which is why port officials like Davie Breaux are clamoring for the state to build a 17-mile-long (27-kilometer-long) elevated highway to the port. It's also why Breaux thinks spending 14 billion dollars to save the coast would be a bargain.

"We'll go to war and spend billions of dollars to protect oil and gas interests overseas," Breaux says as he drives his truck past platform anchors the size of two-story houses. "But here at home?" He shrugs. "Where else you gonna drill? Not California. Not Florida. Not in ANWR. In Louisiana. I'm third generation in the oil field. We're not afraid of the industry. We just want the infrastructure to handle it."

As the situation in New Orleans continues to degrade, even more stories bubble up to the surface that this disaster was eminently predictable and preventable. The infrastructure that Louisiana needed to weather this storm was not only unavailable, but it was explicity unfunded in favor of the White House's preferred agenda of war and tax cuts for the rich. Knowing this does little good for the people in the city now, but there's always hope that we can prevent future catastrophes, both the human kind that lives in the White House, and the natural-disaster kind.

Matthew Wheeland is an Associate Editor at AlterNet.

Hurricane Katrina affected 1,223 water systems-EPA

WASHINGTON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Some 1,223 drinking water systems in three states have been affected by Hurricane Katrina, and some systems need more fuel to run generators to stay operating, the Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday.

The agency has issued boil-water notices to many of the systems. Louisiana has 683 drinking water systems affected, with 468 in Mississippi and 72 in Alabama, according to the EPA.

Separately, the agency on Monday conducted more sampling of flood waters in New Orleans.

The agency also said it granted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a waiver from water discharge permits to help pump the hurricane flood waters from the city.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Coca-Cola to shut plant in southern India

COCHIN, India -- The pollution control head of India's southern Kerala state said he has ordered Coca Cola Co. to close one of its largest bottling plants in the country for failing to comply with environmental regulations.

G. Rajmohan, chairman of the state's Pollution Control Board, said he told the Coca Cola plant in Plachimada, a village in the southern part of the state, to shut down immediately because of pollution problems.

"The plant does not have an adequate waste treatment system and pollution from the plant is affecting the drinking water in adjacent villages," Rajmohan told The Associated Press. Company officials did not immediately react to the order.

The factory is one of the largest of Coca-Cola's 27 plants in India. It bottles mineral water and soft drinks, including Coca-Cola and Thums Up. The Kerala plant has long faced protests from the local Plachimada village council, which has accused it of depleting local groundwater and has refused to renew its license.

Rajmohan said the factory has been unable to disclose the cadmium content of its waste. The board issued a closure notice to Coca Cola, he said.

The plant was closed for nearly 16 months after the village council refused to renew its license. However, in June, the Kerala High Court rejected the council's plea for its permanent closure.

The council welcomed the decision.

"We have been fighting for the closure of this plant for more than two years now. We are happy that the government is finally giving justice to the people who are affected by the plant," village council president A. Krishnan said.

How Global Warming May Cause the Next Ice Age

While global warming is being officially ignored by the political arm of the Bush administration, and Al Gore's recent conference on the topic during one of the coldest days of recent years provided joke fodder for conservative talk show hosts, the citizens of Europe and the Pentagon are taking a new look at the greatest danger such climate change could produce for the northern hemisphere - a sudden shift into a new ice age. What they're finding is not at all comforting.

In quick summary, if enough cold, fresh water coming from the melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland flows into the northern Atlantic, it will shut down the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe and northeastern North America warm. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown return of the last ice age - in a period as short as 2 to 3 years from its onset - and the mid-case scenario would be a period like the "little ice age" of a few centuries ago that disrupted worldwide weather patterns leading to extremely harsh winters, droughts, worldwide desertification, crop failures, and wars around the world.

Here's how it works.

If you look at a globe, you'll see that the latitude of much of Europe and Scandinavia is the same as that of Alaska and permafrost-locked parts of northern Canada and central Siberia. Yet Europe has a climate more similar to that of the United States than northern Canada or Siberia. Why?

It turns out that our warmth is the result of ocean currents that bring warm surface water up from the equator into northern regions that would otherwise be so cold that even in summer they'd be covered with ice. The current of greatest concern is often referred to as "The Great Conveyor Belt," which includes what we call the Gulf Stream.

The Great Conveyor Belt, while shaped by the Coriolis effect of the Earth's rotation, is mostly driven by the greater force created by differences in water temperatures and salinity. The North Atlantic Ocean is saltier and colder than the Pacific, the result of it being so much smaller and locked into place by the Northern and Southern American Hemispheres on the west and Europe and Africa on the east.

As a result, the warm water of the Great Conveyor Belt evaporates out of the North Atlantic leaving behind saltier waters, and the cold continental winds off the northern parts of North America cool the waters. Salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea, most at a point a few hundred kilometers south of the southern tip of Greenland, producing a whirlpool of falling water that's 5 to 10 miles across. While the whirlpool rarely breaks the surface, during certain times of year it does produce an indentation and current in the ocean that can tilt ships and be seen from space (and may be what we see on the maps of ancient mariners).

This falling column of cold, salt-laden water pours itself to the bottom of the Atlantic, where it forms an undersea river forty times larger than all the rivers on land combined, flowing south down to and around the southern tip of Africa, where it finally reaches the Pacific. Amazingly, the water is so deep and so dense (because of its cold and salinity) that it often doesn't surface in the Pacific for as much as a thousand years after it first sank in the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.

The out-flowing undersea river of cold, salty water makes the level of the Atlantic slightly lower than that of the Pacific, drawing in a strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace the outflow of the undersea river. This warmer, fresher water slides up through the South Atlantic, loops around North America where it's known as the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe. By the time it arrives near Greenland, it's cooled off and evaporated enough water to become cold and salty and sink to the ocean floor, providing a continuous feed for that deep-sea river flowing to the Pacific.

These two flows - warm, fresher water in from the Pacific, which then grows salty and cools and sinks to form an exiting deep sea river - are known as the Great Conveyor Belt.

Amazingly, the Great Conveyor Belt is only thing between comfortable summers and a permanent ice age for Europe and the eastern coast of North America.

Much of this science was unknown as recently as twenty years ago. Then an international group of scientists went to Greenland and used newly developed drilling and sensing equipment to drill into some of the world's most ancient accessible glaciers. Their instruments were so sensitive that when they analyzed the ice core samples they brought up, they were able to look at individual years of snow. The results were shocking.

Prior to the last decades, it was thought that the periods between glaciations and warmer times in North America, Europe, and North Asia were gradual. We knew from the fossil record that the Great Ice Age period began a few million years ago, and during those years there were times where for hundreds or thousands of years North America, Europe, and Siberia were covered with thick sheets of ice year-round. In between these icy times, there were periods when the glaciers thawed, bare land was exposed, forests grew, and land animals (including early humans) moved into these northern regions.

Most scientists figured the transition time from icy to warm was gradual, lasting dozens to hundreds of years, and nobody was sure exactly what had caused it. (Variations in solar radiation were suspected, as were volcanic activity, along with early theories about the Great Conveyor Belt, which, until recently, was a poorly understood phenomenon.)

Looking at the ice cores, however, scientists were shocked to discover that the transitions from ice age-like weather to contemporary-type weather usually took only two or three years. Something was flipping the weather of the planet back and forth with a rapidity that was startling.

It turns out that the ice age versus temperate weather patterns weren't part of a smooth and linear process, like a dimmer slider for an overhead light bulb. They are part of a delicately balanced teeter-totter, which can exist in one state or the other, but transits through the middle stage almost overnight. They more resemble a light switch, which is off as you gradually and slowly lift it, until it hits a mid-point threshold or "breakover point" where suddenly the state is flipped from off to on and the light comes on.

It appears that small (less that .1 percent) variations in solar energy happen in roughly 1500-year cycles. This cycle, for example, is what brought us the "Little Ice Age" that started around the year 1400 and dramatically cooled North America and Europe (we're now in the warming phase, recovering from that). When the ice in the Arctic Ocean is frozen solid and locked up, and the glaciers on Greenland are relatively stable, this variation warms and cools the Earth in a very small way, but doesn't affect the operation of the Great Conveyor Belt that brings moderating warm water into the North Atlantic.

In millennia past, however, before the Arctic totally froze and locked up, and before some critical threshold amount of fresh water was locked up in the Greenland and other glaciers, these 1500-year variations in solar energy didn't just slightly warm up or cool down the weather for the landmasses bracketing the North Atlantic. They flipped on and off periods of total glaciation and periods of temperate weather.

And these changes came suddenly.

For early humans living in Europe 30,000 years ago - when the cave paintings in France were produced - the weather would be pretty much like it is today for well over a thousand years, giving people a chance to build culture to the point where they could produce art and reach across large territories.

And then a particularly hard winter would hit.

The spring would come late, and summer would never seem to really arrive, with the winter snows appearing as early as September. The next winter would be brutally cold, and the next spring didn't happen at all, with above-freezing temperatures only being reached for a few days during August and the snow never completely melting. After that, the summer never returned: for 1500 years the snow simply accumulated and accumulated, deeper and deeper, as the continent came to be covered with glaciers and humans either fled or died out. (Neanderthals, who dominated Europe until the end of these cycles, appear to have been better adapted to cold weather than Homo sapiens.)

What brought on this sudden "disappearance of summer" period was that the warm-water currents of the Great Conveyor Belt had shut down. Once the Gulf Stream was no longer flowing, it only took a year or three for the last of the residual heat held in the North Atlantic Ocean to dissipate into the air over Europe, and then there was no more warmth to moderate the northern latitudes. When the summer stopped in the north, the rains stopped around the equator: At the same time Europe was plunged into an Ice Age, the Middle East and Africa were ravaged by drought and wind-driven firestorms. .

If the Great Conveyor Belt, which includes the Gulf Stream, were to stop flowing today, the result would be sudden and dramatic. Winter would set in for the eastern half of North America and all of Europe and Siberia, and never go away. Within three years, those regions would become uninhabitable and nearly two billion humans would starve, freeze to death, or have to relocate. Civilization as we know it probably couldn't withstand the impact of such a crushing blow.

And, incredibly, the Great Conveyor Belt has hesitated a few times in the past decade. As William H. Calvin points out in one of the best books available on this topic ("A Brain For All Seasons: human evolution & abrupt climate change"): ".the abrupt cooling in the last warm period shows that a flip can occur in situations much like the present one. What could possibly halt the salt-conveyor belt that brings tropical heat so much farther north and limits the formation of ice sheets? Oceanographers are busy studying present-day failures of annual flushing, which give some perspective on the catastrophic failures of the past. "In the Labrador Sea, flushing failed during the 1970s, was strong again by 1990, and is now declining. In the Greenland Sea over the 1980s salt sinking declined by 80 percent. Obviously, local failures can occur without catastrophe - it's a question of how often and how widespread the failures are - but the present state of decline is not very reassuring."

Most scientists involved in research on this topic agree that the culprit is global warming, melting the icebergs on Greenland and the Arctic icepack and thus flushing cold, fresh water down into the Greenland Sea from the north. When a critical threshold is reached, the climate will suddenly switch to an ice age that could last minimally 700 or so years, and maximally over 100,000 years.

And when might that threshold be reached? Nobody knows - the action of the Great Conveyor Belt in defining ice ages was discovered only in the last decade. Preliminary computer models and scientists willing to speculate suggest the switch could flip as early as next year, or it may be generations from now. It may be wobbling right now, producing the extremes of weather we've seen in the past few years.

What's almost certain is that if nothing is done about global warming, it will happen sooner rather than later.

This article was adapted from the new, updated edition of "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" by Thom Hartmann (thom at, due out from Random House/Three Rivers Press in March.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Thousands feared killed; water fetid

NEW ORLEANS -- A major American city all but disintegrated, as the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands in New Orleans and the mayor ordered 1,500 police to abandon their search-and-rescue mission Wednesday night to put a stop to looting.

"They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas -- hotels, hospitals, and we're going to stop it right now," Mayor Ray Nagin said in a statement after hundreds of looters roamed the city largely unchallenged during the day, ransacking tiny shops and big-box stores.

With police officers and National Guard troops giving priority to saving lives, looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, TV sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law-enforcement officials. Dozens of carjackings, apparently by survivors desperate to escape, were reported, as were a number of shootings.

As Nagin redirected virtually the entire police force in New Orleans away from thousands still believed trapped in their homes, federal officials warned the toxic soup of pollutants, feces and decaying bodies covering the city could cause diseases, including cholera and typhoid, that would endanger many more.

"We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions," said Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, in announcing a public health emergency from Louisiana to Florida.

Experts said it could be several weeks before the contaminated floodwaters are pumped from the city, heightening the risk of more hardship across an area already ravaged by Katrina, which roared in with a 145-m.p.h. fury Monday.

Nagin's frightening estimate of those killed in New Orleans alone would make the storm the nation's deadliest natural disaster since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed up to 6,000.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and other people dead in attics, Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

Army engineers, meanwhile, struggled to plug the city's breached levees, and authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of people left in the Big Easy, including shuttling the 25,000 in the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston, 350 miles away.

As the sense of desperation deepened in New Orleans, hundreds of people wandered up and down Interstate 10.

Stuck on an overpass, Patricia Trasher was so desperate that she uttered the unspeakable.

"I wish I had drowned," Trasher, 37, sobbed, begging for help to find her brother and trying to comfort her mother, who is deaf, and an aunt who has dementia.

Despite the despair, the rescue efforts went on.

Huge rescue effort

All day Wednesday, the federal government dispatched helicopters, warships and elite SEAL water-rescue teams in one of the biggest relief operations in U.S. history, aimed at plucking residents from rooftops in the last of the "golden 72 hours" rescuers say are crucial to saving lives.

The skies above the city buzzed with National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters frantically dropping baskets to roofs where victims had been stranded for days.

Atop one apartment building, two children held up a giant sign scrawled with the words: "Help us!"

Emergency managers in New Orleans said new volumes of water largely stopped entering the city, but only because levels had equalized with Lake Pontchartrain.

Total recovery appeared to be far more remote. Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers said it would be weeks or months before the city could be pumped dry, and that it would take years to rebuild its thousands of homes and businesses, its streets, highways and other infrastructure.

President George W. Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged: "This recovery will take years."

Evacuation to Astrodome

By late Wednesday afternoon, the slow evacuation of the Superdome began. The sick and disabled were the first to be led out. But some couldn't wait for one of the almost 500 buses scheduled to ferry people to the Astrodome in Houston by Friday.

Bernice Mueller, 71, said she could not stay another minute in the sickening heat and stench. "I'm going to take my chances with the water and swim," she said.

From Slidell, La., to Mobile, Ala., the entire Gulf Coast around and south of I-10 was a morass of fallen trees, smashed buildings, mud and hot, sweaty, hungry people.

Residents grew restless and angry.

"We have not had any assistance down here, whatsoever," Don Franklin, 48, said as he stood on Main Street in Biloxi. "Not one case of bottled water."

The folks who fled New Orleans only knew that they'll be away a long time.

"Nothing, nothing, nothing," groaned Craig (Poncho) Thompson. "We got nothing."

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