Category Archives: Science

Much but not all of my science writing regards global warming / climate change / energy accumulation. To the extent I understand physics I work at the observable layer, atoms and larger, matter and energy (which may be the same thing.) Quantum level physics is, for now at least, simply beyond my comprehension.

Dodging Bullets

Dodging Bullets

I remember when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring.  We were killing off the creatures we share this land with at an incredible rate with our poisons and things, and she called it to our attention.

One of the things we were killing off was the bald eagle, our national bird, symbol of the United States of America.  There’s nothing we Americans like better than a good symbol, so we gathered round and passed a bunch of laws and Nixon signed them and – we’ve still got the bald eagle.  And a bunch of other things that otherwise might be extinct by now.

So – I remember the Silent Spring era.  Then there was the Ozone Layer – we were making a big hole in the ozone layer.  Then on another day we noticed that it was raining acid and forests were dying and downtown buildings were melting. For a while we were worried about whether the various weird chemicals that make up the soup we call water might be harmful to our health.

We worried about the loss of topsoil.  We worried about the loss of forests.  We worried about – ah, hell, I can’t remember them all.  Environmental disasters have been looming on the horizon since I was in grade school, and I’m an old man.  Now it’s global climate change, via our worldwide modification of the atmosphere.

You know what? They are all still out there. They are all still out there. You’d never know it to read the news, but to a greater or lesser extent all those threats are still out there, except maybe to the bald eagle.  We Americans do love symbols.

Here’s a question for somebody much smarter than me:  What is the mathematical formula to take all these individual threats to our long term survival, multiply them by their specific danger to us, then multiply all the different threats’ dangers by the quantity of threats, and then, to make it more realistic, we’d need to multiply in there the possibility that two seemingly individual threats might interact to increase their danger to us, say, particles in the atmosphere and some hormone in the water… I don’t know. Probably have to square some number to make it right. I don’t know how much danger we, the human race, are really in.

Nobody else knows either.  We act like we can see the future, but we can’t.  Not one second.  I’m expecting to live to finish this essay, but I have no way of knowing that.  We can’t even see the present, not when we’re talking about threats to the worldwide ecosystem’s ability to continue to support our particular life form.  We don’t have a clue.

Have you ever been driving along, thinking about what was on the radio and what you were going to be doing in fifteen minutes, only to find out that in fifteen minutes you were standing on the pavement talking to a cop, maybe also looking at the damage to your car and some stranger’s car?  Or waking up in a hospital room?  If it hasn’t happened to you it’s happened to somebody you know.  We can’t see one second into the future.

We think that, so far, we’ve more-or-less dodged all these bullets.  But in reality we haven’t dodged them.  We’re walking wounded.  In major cities in China people can’t go outside without masks because the particulates in the air are too painful to breathe.  If Republicans get their way it will be like that here.  We already kill a couple hundred thousand Americans a year with crud in the air.

Skin cancer is up worldwide.  Yep.  Turned out we did need the entire, functioning ozone layer after all.  Oops.

In many countries human life expectancy has peaked and is on the way back down.

So – we appear to be dodging the bullets that are already flying, but we’re not.  Imagine if terrorists killed a couple hundred thousand Americans a year.  Why is it OK for capitalists to do it?  And that number is from only one of the many bullets flying.

I’m not a Luddite.  I’m writing this on my computer and will be posting it on my internet blog.  I earned my livelihood by installing, servicing and repairing computerized stuff of one sort and another for all my working years.  I own a bunch of power tools and use them regularly.  That said, we’ve got to get a grip on our technology before it kills us.

We know that we are driving other species into extinction, one after another.  We know that the current extinction rate ranks high among mass extinctions of the past.  So what do humans do to cause extinction?

There are two main things: one, we kill them all, on purpose.  That’s what we did with the passenger pigeon, probably the most famous example.  We appear to be in the process of doing the same with elephants, rhinoceroses, and a few other things.  The other thing we do is, we make it so that there is no longer any place on Earth that will support their lives.  We refer to that as “habitat destruction,” but that oversimplifies what has happened.

Life in general is incredibly tough, tenacious, and adaptable, but specific forms of life mostly have rather specific requirements if they are to survive.  We say they must live in one specific niche.  Since life started up here on Earth living creatures have modified the planet in uncountable different ways.  When some critter invented photosynthesis almost all the others went extinct more or less at once (in geological terms).  At the same time geological processes, from continental drift to weather, have modified the planet as well.  In the process the world became more and more complex. Every time a new niche turned up in some weathered rock or newly evolved life form, another life form rose up to fill it.  In the broadest sense speciation, the variety of creatures that exist, is a measurement of the complexity of this planet.  Over the course of a couple-three billion years the world ecosystem became pretty complex.

By about eight thousand years ago, when humans invented agriculture and what we so modestly think of as civilization, the complexity of the earth, and of life upon it, was immeasurable.  Then we decided we weren’t part of it.  The first time it ever occurred to us to cut down every last tree in one particular forest, the world became a little simpler.  Maybe the loss of just that one forest took the only example on the planet of some highly specific niche to live in.  Maybe at that moment some unheralded, highly evolved, niche-dependent species vanished.  But the earth was rich, rich beyond our wildest current imagining, and the loss was trivial.

The losses are beginning to add up.  But that’s not really the point.  The point is that we, too, have certain requirements in order to be able to live.  We, too, are niche-specific, but it’s a pretty deep, wide niche.  Examples of our niche can be found in mountain, desert, prairie and swamp.  People can live in reasonable comfort in igloos and grass huts.  Compared to bacteria that live in volcanic steam vents our requirements are not that specific – but on the other hand, we can’t live in their houses either.

We have spent some 8,000 years eliminating niche after niche; we simplified the world, we eliminated complexity.  We do it faster and faster, and the species that live in the niches we eliminate cease to exist.  Meanwhile, we are just now learning to what extent we, too, are ecosystems, filled with other life forms, some helping us, some hurting us, and some perhaps just along for the ride.  We clearly don’t know what all  we depend on for our survival.

It’s no news to anybody that you don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry, but it’s worth thinking about why our rivers aren’t drinkable.  It’s even more worth thinking about the fact that nobody knows what is still in that river water, well water, spring water, plastic bottle water when it reaches every single cell in our bodies and brains, or what effect those contents might have in the aggregate.  Because we are not “other.” We are a species.  We live here.  All our food, all our water, and all our air are components of Earth.  There ain’t no place else.

We’ve already got all these bullets to dodge.  We’re already not dodging them all, in spite of the fact that, so far, we can reproduce faster than our stupid cleverness can kill us off.  You don’t hear it on the news that technology operated by capitalism killed 200,000 Americans, because capitalism is using technology to inform us instead that TERRORISTS KILLED TWELVE PEOPLE IN [fill in the blank].

No, we are not going to destroy life on Earth.  Life is tough, rugged, and persistent.  I don’t think we could destroy life on Earth with all-out nuclear war.  Our own personal lives, however, our survival as a species, depends on a much narrower band of requirements than “life” writ large.  Something will survive our stupidity but not necessarily us.  And if we do survive it won’t necessarily be in the way we want to live.  City dwellers having to put on breathing masks to go outdoors was the stuff of dystopic science fiction not that many years ago.

I am suggesting something really drastic: I am suggesting that keeping the Earth habitable for humans is as important as winning World War II.

In order to win World War II Americans were willing to put up with fuel rationing, food rationing, and a drastic reduction in everybody’s standard of living.  It’s time to do it again.

I am suggesting that we make mass transportation mandatory, for most trips, in vans at first, then buses as fast as we can build them, on from there to trains as fast as we can build those.  Fuel efficiency per person-mile should be our number one priority.  I am suggesting that people who live in 9 bedroom houses like the Obamas just bought board up half the rooms and don’t heat or cool them.  I am suggesting that everybody everywhere put their heads together and try to figure out how to live without poisoning the air and water AT ALL.  It’s not one bullet that threatens us, it’s all the bullets.  Yes, I would consider horses and buggies.  Electric solar golf carts.  Bicycles. Feet.

We have this idea that bizarre chemicals, like humans, have a right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty.  This is lunacy.  The only way they can be proven guilty is to end or ruin a bunch of human lives, do some irreparable damage to the planet we live on, or otherwise show exactly how stupid that whole idea is.  Everything that has never been put into the air or water before, and most things that already have, should be considered guilty until proven innocent.

Everything that comes in containers should come in reusable, returnable containers.  Period.  Hire people to hand wash them.

We currently measure efficiency mostly in person-hours.  The more we can produce per person-hour the more efficient we are.  That has to go.  Energy efficiency and resource efficiency are vastly more important in the long run.  If that means we can’t have as much stuff, then we can’t have as much stuff.  Most of it winds up in landfills in a few months anyway.

We can’t get the crap we’ve already made out of wherever we put it, the air or the water or the soil.  We can’t throw it away.   There is no away.  There is only here.  We’ve got to stop adding more as quickly as we can.

I realize how crazy this sounds.  It sounds crazy to me.  I grew up in this country.  I wanted to be an astronaut, back during the very first generation of astronauts.  I drove big V8 cars, the faster the better, and did all the same stuff everybody else did.  Due to my chosen trade I wound up driving well over a million miles just going from one service call to another.

But that’s as it may be.  I didn’t know.  We didn’t know.  Just like we didn’t know we were going to World War II until Pearl Harbor day.  But particulates in the air are going to kill many multiples as many Americans this year as died at Pearl Harbor.  Global warming bombed us at Katrina, bombed us at Sandy, and has California under siege.   When do we figure out that we are at war, and our lifestyle is the enemy?


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Addressing Global Warming

Tackling global warming is a war level, survival level event. Our military knows this. Everyone with a lick of sense knows it. A Democratic administration and Congress could address the problem at a level appropriate to the existential threat we face.

I am ashamed that the United States is, temporarily at least, not part of the Paris Agreement. However, I think we could realistically exceed the Paris goals, and I think we must. I think global energy accumulation, the process normally known as global warming or climate change, is already worse than you have been told, not because somebody is lying to you but because most serious researchers have careful, prove-that-twice, intellectually conservative mindsets. I have an untested theory that climate researchers have overlooked a growing reservoir of added energy which can’t be measured with a thermometer. If I’m right we have less time than the worst estimate you have seen. And if it’s not as bad as I think, but we do all we can anyway, we lose nothing except some money. We will have a vastly less destructive society than before. It’s OK.

The gases which capture increasing measures of solar energy in the earth’s systems come primarily from generating electricity and from transporting people and objects from place to place. Power and transportation. There are lesser causes which I will not address here.

Power generation

Power generation is the number one source of energy-capturing gases. Step 1 for addressing this would be to cover every roof, and roof every parking lot, in the United States with solar panels. The spaces are already dead. Nothing additional has to die or get destroyed. There are approximately a zillion acres of roofs and parking lots.  We could turn waste space into productive space. Parking lots would come to be shady in the summer and dry in the rain. What’s not to like?

I mean this literally. Every roof, or at least every roof with an east, west, or south facing exposure. Pretty much every roof. Private homes. Commercial buildings. Schools and governments. I would exempt churches as long as they’d promise not to use any electricity. Every parking lot. Individual parking places where possible. Yes, at taxpayer expense, if need be. This is war. You just can’t see the bullets.

I don’t care how far from the equator these roofs and parking lots are, or how cloudy. I’d do it in the Pacific Northwest. For crying out loud, I’m talking rooftops and parking lots. Solar panels run for free, for a long time. After amortizing the energy required to produce and install them, any output greater than zero would be a net gain. And I bet before we got them all up somebody would have figured out how to capture more power under clouds than we are now. Geeze, you can get a sunburn under clouds. People are clever. They’ll figure out a way to catch that energy.

There would be a curve while production ramped up on solar panels, but this is war. Think of the production of tanks and aircraft during World War II. We need to get cracking: the world is about to put us in our place. We are running a hundred miles an hour; the bridge is out.

I don’t know if solar panels everywhere we could possibly put them plus other renewable processes would generate enough electricity to meet our needs, but I know this for absolute sure: It would get us a lot closer than we are now. If we chased it from both sides, renewable generation and energy efficiency / waste reduction, I bet we could break even before it was all over.

Just one example: Parking lot lights. I can see Kansas City, Excelsior Springs, and Richmond, MO from here at night. 50 miles away, 15 miles away, and 5 miles away respectively. The light I see is wasted energy produced by wasting other energy. It is provably, emprirically wasted energy: there is no human being alive who obtains any benefit from sending that light out where I can see it. Waste. All that energy contributes to warming the planet we live on. It’s time to get smart.

The Solarization Project will require skillful, physically capable workers everywhere in the country where there are roofs or parking lots. In other words, everywhere people live. There will be more work for blue-collar workers than all the unemployed or underemployed blue collar people in the country. Miners, just to take one currently popular example, are almost all physically strong and have high mechanical aptitude, appreciably higher than the general population according to recent research I saw, A nationwide solar installation project could easily put every unemployed miner in the country to work mining sunshine and still go on advertising for help.  Finding enough workers will be a limiting factor in how fast we can accomplish this.

We’ve had worse problems.

Needless to say, a distributed renewable generation system will require a distributed smart grid to handle it. That’s OK too. Our existing grid is a mishmash of new, old, and drooping down gravel roads on locust poles. There are probably as many underemployed geeks in the country as there are underemployed ladder jockeys. They can design the new grid and build the physical plant for it. If we’re halfway smart we’ll design it inside a virtual capsule which makes it more robust and hack resistant.

It seems inevitable that a nationwide project at the outer limits of established technology would attract inventive people and spur invention and manufacturing of peripheral improvements to the technology. I would expect widespread economic growth and activity to accompany any serious attempt to halt or drastically reduce global climate change.

Although I have only spoken so far of solar, we already have wind generation at work, and room to increase it. I have mixed feelings about wind; I dislike covering wild lands with windmills. Windmills require vastly more maintenance than solar systems. However, humans build things. Seeing windmills dotted across the prairies and mountain ridges would beat dying because the overheated ecosystem could no longer feed us. The same reasoning applies to tide generation.

I don’t even know what or how many other power production systems are in development or running in somebody’s garage right now today. I suspect there are some. The government should aid and evaluate such research. Remember, we are at war with our own past ignorance here; it is reasonable to spend some money.

Obviously, power storage technology would evolve. It already is. We can almost surely store power better than we do now, but we’ve got means available to us today that will work for a long time. We should encourage and assist with invention but don’t have to wait for it. This isn’t some Clean Coal Chimera. We can do this with off the shelf technology.

There is a sizable amount of energy storage research and development going on. If inventors were pretty sure that somebody was going to get rich thinking up the better battery or pump-back system, I bet they’d be right. Somebody would. The need is there.


Second to energy generation, transportation is a major source of the energy-capturing gases we are adding to our atmosphere. In addition to pollution and global warming gases, our current transportation system is an amazing combination of wasteful of space, energy, and time; deadly and injurious to users; and a source of war and conflict worldwide.

Heat engines – internal combustion engines, whether they burn gasoline, diesel, natural gas, hydrogen, whatever – are inherently inefficient. Typical engine efficiencies in modern cars are in the 25% range. Finely tuned racing engines approach 50%. The largest and most efficient diesel engine in the world peaks at 51.7% thermal efficiency.

Electric motors routinely run at above 80% efficiency. Well designed applications often exceed 95% efficient.

Any sensible transportation system would rely on electric rail for long distance transportation and electric local vehicles for short hop and local transportation.

I lay out such a system, and some thoughts about getting there from where we are, in my essay Rational Transportation.

Global climate change / stored energy increase is the biggest problem in human history. Humankind literally must figure out a way to reduce the net increase of energy-storing molecules in the atmosphere to zero. Zero net increase. Can we do that? I’m not sure. The closer we get, though, the longer we can hope to keep civilization. We need to put absolutely all we can think of toward solving this problem.

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Heat Engines

Everything that moves of itself is powered by an engine. Humankind, in our wisdom, invented engines. There are essentially four common kinds of engines (in terms of operating principle) adaptable to serve most of our needs. Of those four only two are significant in most people’s lives, heat engines and electric motors (engines). Some of the machines we operate on a regular basis are powered by electric motors; virtually all others are powered by heat engines.

Heat engines drive cars, trucks, jet planes, rocket ships, motorcycles, lawnmowers, tractors, atomic submarines, bulldozers and chainsaws. If it has a fuel tank it’s a heat engine. If it runs on nuclear power under human supervision it is, in most cases, still a heat engine.

Electric engines, electric motors, are our other common source of motion. Air conditioners, electric drills, Mixmasters, those other chainsaws, subway trains and Chevy Bolts are driven by electric motors.

If you come full circle even most electric motors, most of the time, ultimately draw their power from heat engines, because that’s how most electricity is generated. Coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power plants are big heat engines spinning generators. The home generators that get us and our neighbors through power outages are small heat engines spinning small generators. Heat, moving from hot to less hot, causing motion. Hydropower, wind power, and solar electric panels generate electricity without the intervening use of some heat engine.

There is an amazing amount of science related to heat engines, but strangely enough the engines came first and the science followed along to explain them. So leaving aside the science for now, here’s how a heat engine works:

You generate a bunch of heat and you stuff it into a confined space.
Somewhere near to that space it is cooler. The heat forces its way from the hot space to the cooler space, and whatever is in the way has to move.

Early steam engines generated the heat with fire and used steam to move the heat into a closed space. There was a piston somewhere in that space, and on the other side of the piston it was cooler. The piston had to move as the heat pushed its way over to the cooler spot.

That’s it. In every heat engine everywhere: Heat moves some object in order to reach a place with less heat. Energy moves from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration. It is an expression of the second law of thermodynamics: heat flows spontaneously from hotter to colder bodies and never the reverse.* Your pizza gets cold and your beer gets warm.

With early steam power they had a problem where sometimes the heat would push its way out to the cool spot without going through the cylinder and piston. If it couldn’t escape any other way the heat blew right through the walls of the boilers, often killing large numbers of people. Heat will not be denied.

One rarely hears our system described in these terms, but this is literally and exactly what is happening. Heat is moving. The fire, the steam, the Ultra High Test Scientifically Improved gasoline – all that is secondary. The heat is the thing. The energy.

Look at how a car works: no firebox, no steam, no boiler. We just squirt some gasoline into the cylinders and the car magically goes, right?

Well, not exactly. It’s a heat engine. We squirt in some gasoline and we set it on fire. The fire generates heat which, in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics, just has to go to the cool place, which is outside your tailpipe, On the way there the heat pushes a bunch of pistons – because remember, anything that gets in the way of the heat’s journey has to move – and the piston bone attach to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone attach to the tire bone, and down the road we go.

A jet plane works the same way, except instead of pistons they’ve got a big fan. Heat moves, the fan spins, air moves, and all things  being equal and opposite reactions the jet plane takes people to Frisco. Riding on heat engines. On rocket ships the heat squirts right out the tailpipe and the whole rocket ship moves.

Heat moves from a hot place to a not-as-hot place and the 21st Century goes round and round.

What all these heat engines have in common is that the amount of heat equals the amount of power. Oh, there are fancy theorems and proportions and this and that, but the basic fact is, the more heat the more power.

Build a bigger fire and the steam engine runs faster. Step down on the gas pedal and your car goes faster. Push forward the throttle on your tractor and your plow cuts either deeper, faster, or both in your field. The more heat the more power.

Not Richmond. I couldn’t find any pics of the local event. CA somewhere.

Which brings me to a related point: the earth is a heat engine. It’s harder to see the confined spaces where the heat is by looking out your window but they’re there. They don’t have shiny fins on them and say Harley Davidson, but they’re just as real. We call them by names like high pressure area and jet stream, but they are essentially just heat stuffed into restrained areas. It operates on the same principle as your car engine: heat moves from the hot place to the cooler place, and whatever is in between has to move.

Everything on Earth moves, from hummingbirds to mountains, and heat drives it all, but we particularly notice the motion of air and water. We know it as weather. Or climate, depending on the frame of reference.

So that’s why earlier this week a spring breeze blew down a quarter mile of electric poles in my home town, and tore down several buildings. There is more heat than there used to be. Our heat engine has more power. Somebody pushed down on the gas pedal. It’s never going away, not in a human scale of time.

We call it global warming.


*Direct quote from Wikipedia article.

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All Weather is Global Warming Weather

One frequently sees a question in the form of, “Was [some weather event] caused by global warming?” The answer is yes.

All the weather on Earth is caused by all the energy on Earth. It has always been that way; it cannot be any other way. Barren frozen rocks spinning through intergalactic space do not have weather.

Global Warming is the name we give to a continuing process whereby the amount of free energy stored in the system we call Earth increases. One of the ways we measure energy is by measuring temperature. If the  average temperature is higher (and it is) we have directly measured the presence of more energy. Since all weather is caused by all available energy, and we have increased the available energy, all weather has more power.

So yes, the weather event you were wondering about was global warming weather. It’s the only weather we have.

Was some specific event “caused by” global warming? Yes. Global warming is not a separate thing laid over some other real world where we usually live. Global warming is where we live. Where we live makes our weather. There is more energy in the system all day every day. Weather is caused by energy. There is more free energy in the world than there used to be. Any specific weather event under discussion was formed, caused, created by all the available energy at the place and time it happened. Once again, global warming is simply a handy name for an increase in the amount of energy stored in, on, and around the earth. Literally every single weather event since the measurable increase began, its magnitude and power, wherever it happened, happened exactly like it did because of global warming. Every time without exception. It is pointless to ask. The more the temperature increases, the more powerful weather events become.

We have always had weather, but never before have we had this weather. We live in global warming weather. It is not rational to try to parse whether some particular weather event was “caused by”  some describable, different, separately measureable thing. If that’s the global warming you’re looking for it’s not there. Global warming is energy imbedded into, on average, every single thing on Earth. That’s how energy works. The dirt outside your door is part of global warning. It is, on average, warmer than the dirt outside that door 150 years ago. Your hair is warmer than your great-great grandfather’s hair. Forget for a moment the “might happens” of global warming and look around you. Weather. Weather is winning. We are not.

This is almost so simple that it can’t be grasped. One definition of energy in physics is “The property which must be transferred to an object in order to do work.” Energy is also referred to as force. The object in question can be anything which has mass. A molecule of air or water is an object.

In turn, the physics definition of work is the motion of matter as a result of applied force (energy). From Wikipedia: “In physics, a force is said to do work if, when acting, there is a displacement of the point of application in the direction of the force.” The “point of application” can be any material object. Molecules. Stuff. Mass. Everything. Air. Water. More energy equals more force. Measuring temperature is, at the actual cause-and-effect level, measuring how fast molecules are moving and how hard they hit stuff, specifically your thermometer. If you run into a wall at 2 mph it’s going to be less violent than if you run into it a 4 mph. A lot less violent. Molecules work the same way. The wind blows harder. More water evaporates. Warmer air automatically is able to contain more water. All these things show up as weather. The details can be hard to measure and difficult to comprehend, but at the root it is blindingly simple: energy moves matter. The more energy there is, the more matter will move, perhaps as measured in rate of motion, perhaps in quantity of moving matter, perhaps both.

It is easy to think that just a degree or two Celsius of average temperature can’t really be that much energy. A degree and a half is a big deal? You can barely feel it if the temperature in your room rises or falls by one degree. How much change can there really be?

As it turns out, a degree and a half average temperature increase in the entire atmosphere, hydrosphere (rivers lakes and oceans), and geosphere (dirt and rocks) is a big deal. It is almost incomprehensible how much raw energy it took to create this measurable change. For starters, all the atomic bombs ever dropped or tested, in the aggregate, did not release enough energy to cause a measurable increase in average temperature worldwide, yet just one atomic bomb, and a crude early version at that, released enough energy to reduce an entire city to rubble and widespread death.  

Only the sun showers enough energy onto the earth to raise the temperature worldwide, to heat all the air, all the land and all that lives upon it, and all the water. And the sun has energy to spare; after it warms our planet, much of that energy bounces back into space. In recent times, though, incomprehensible numbers of carbon (and related) atoms have captured more of that energy and held it here, have kept it from radiating back out into space. More energy. We measure it with thermometers.

Weather today is more powerful than it used to be by a factor greater than all the atomic explosions man has ever triggered. One hurricane can slam more energy into the land than an atomic bomb.

Yes. Global warming caused that particular storm, wherever and whatever it was. There might have been a storm without global warming but it wouldn’t have been that storm, the storm that happened. There is only one earth, only one atmosphere, only one hydrosphere. It all contains more energy. Every weather event reflects that fact. Global warming did, indeed, cause that storm.


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Global Warming Ice part 2

We don’t have certain days when global warming injects itself by some nefarious means into the natural, 1776 atmosphere we live in the rest of the time. That’s not how this works.

The comments I made during the arrival of this instance of global warming ice are now a couple of days old. I wrote Two Stick Ice on Friday evening, it is now Sunday evening. I still cannot go anywhere including the house next door, even walking, even with two canes, without significant risk to myself. And the house next door and I share a back yard and have connecting paths. I would not attempt to walk to my car, even with my sticks, because it is on smooth pavement in the middle of an ocean of global warming ice. Whatever “Slicker than…” simile you have ever heard, this is way slicker than that. I’d be risking my mobility for the rest of my life, at my age and with my replaced knees, to attempt to walk to my car. Don’t even think about trying to drive it anywhere.

It’s not because I am old and rickety, although there is that. I am still pretty agile for an old guy. I still work on ladders, still repair and climb on machinery, still park at the farther end of parking lots and walk in. This is different. They covered the whole world with ball bearings. You cannot walk on this stuff unless you have grass under it, and even then it’s tricky.

Chica has to go out. She is a lady; she’s not going to go potty in the house.  This stuff is miserable for her. Chica is far more agile than I am; she’s an athlete. We do Dog Agility together, not at a high level but with a bunch of 4H kids where we volunteer. Chica can jump higher than her size requires, and runs agility courses with joy and vigor, if not technical perfection. She is probably, next to the teacher’s dog, the top agility star in the group.

Chica cannot get back into the house tonight because of the ice. Chica can’t climb the back porch. Usually my problem with Chica and the porch is that she zips up it so fast that I can’t get the door open in time, and she comes to a screeching halt with her nose stuffed into the door jamb. If it’s ok with her it’s ok with me, but I try to get it open for her. It’s kind of a game we play. We both win, or we both lose. My favorite kind of game. It’s fun.

See that reflected fence post in the steps in that picture up there? Those steps are regular lumber yard concrete blocks. They are not reflective. Not even in a howling downpour. You can’t put enough water on that concrete to make it reflect. What you are seeing is a thin but solid layer of the slickest substance I have ever encountered anywhere, right here at home on my back steps. Chica the Athletic Chihuahua cannot climb that porch. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t get awkward, obese Donald Trump from my back yard to my kitchen tonight, and he’s only a few months older than I.

Digression —

People speaking in public ask, over and over on TV, radio, and in text media on paper or online, “Did global warming cause this storm?” “Did global warming cause that flood?” Today in particular they are no doubt rubbing their evil palms together like a character from Shakespeare and gloating: “Look at all that ice! I thought you said the globe was warming! It’s 8 degrees out there!”

I don’t like the phrase “global warming” very well. As I point out in my essays, what we have done is store a large amount of energy in the global system. Which system? There is only one. It is made up of everything from the outer reaches of our atmostphere, inward. The earth is one complex system made of all the air, dirt, rocks, cars, caterpillars, water, sand, whiskey, people great and small, computers, concrete blocks, ice crystals, steam, bacteria, mold, things living and dead, and all the remaining traces of them that are still here. The system to which we have added energy is absolutely everything there is in, on, and above earth to the outer reaches of our atmosphere. There are no dividing lines; it is one. This isn’t religion, it’s physics.

It is the nature of energy to move from greater to lesser concentrations. That is pretty much what makes the world go around. Thermal systems in contact with one another seek equilibrium. Your coffee gets cold, your beer gets warm, the energy stored in your fuel tank is released inside cylinders at high concentration and swooshes out the tailpipe into the cool air with its lower concentration of energy. Some of the energy traveling from your gas tank to the surrounding atmosphere expresses itself as motion, for a while. Your car moves, for a while. Finally, and perhaps several times over a journey, you take the motion energy moving your person through distance and convert it back into heat energy by pushing down on your brake pedal and dissipate that heat into the cooler, lower energy concentrations of the system you’re in. Perhaps you sit for a moment in traffic, centered in a growing puddle of energy moving directly from the fuel tank to the surroundings, creating no motion except the pistons and parts, but in the long run it’s all the same stuff. Energy moves. We pump stored energy up out of the ground, sell stored energy at the gas station and distribute it into the system we are part of by the quadrillions of measurable units, and then we say, “Where’d all this energy come from?” “What made this weather?”

Well, they call it global warming.

There is no “is caused by” global warming. There is only, “is” global warming. All weather, everywhere, every day, is the weather which forms in this warmer system. We don’t have certain days when global warming injects itself by some nefarious means into the natural, 1776 atmosphere we live in the rest of the time. That’s not how this works.

The energy we capture with our carbon atoms arrives here as heat. From the sun. Sort of. Perhaps one can always perceive it as heat, measure it with a thermometer. Frankly I’m not sure. Energy is slippery stuff. The more you read about it the slipperier it gets. Everything is energy. It appears that matter is energy, but that’s getting off into the place where my comprehending circuits say, “Huh?” and make electrical fritzing noises.

Energy does wonderful things. Energy arrives here as light, as sunlight, yet some of it winds up as blackness personified, blackness buried in the dark of the earth, blackness that might be fire and motion but is still energy. Pure light. Pure dark. It’s all heat – stand the coal with oxygen, add a little heat to remind it what it once was, and it becomes heat again. Heat escapes. The sunshine and the blackness make your living room feel better or your ship cross the ocean. Energy.

When we capture heat with our added atmospheric carbon (and related) atoms we add energy to the entire system.

When a raging flood storms through a valley tearing homes from their foundations, rolling cars like pebbles, sweeping away possessors, possessions and the possessed, all that motion is work. The way a system consumes energy is through work. Energy entered this building, did work moving the building, and when the energy was used up the building stopped moving. Here. For the moment don’t think about the storm that caused it, just look at what is happening right in front of your eyes. Motion. The energy in the world, including the part we stored in the atmosphere last week or last year or during the Civil War, is expressing itself as motion. Same principle as the energy in your tank moving your car, except we don’t know where the gas pedal or the brakes are on the world we live in, It’s All. One. Thing.

So one doesn’t look at a storm and say, I wonder if global warming caused that storm. No. Global warming is that storm. That storm came today; all the energy on earth causes all the motion on earth; therefore all the energy in and on earth today contributed to that storm. There is more energy here than there was yesterday. It really, really is that simple.

Somewhere some hardworking atmospheric scientist is tearing his hear out and screaming, “No, you lunatic, it’s not simple at all!” And she’s right. It’s not. We can’t figure out for the life of us exactly how this new energy is changing our planet, or where or how it is going to manifest itself. That question is complex beyond description. But the broader question: Did global warming cause [X] weather event?

Yes. It did. Every time. It’s the only weather we have.

But I digress.

When Chica needs to go outside, we go outside. Most days year round we just zip out the door, take care of our business, and zip back in. We have various assigned places, we go there, we do what we need to get done. If the temperature is much above 25 or 30 degrees and the wind is mild or still, and there is no water falling from the sky, we just go in our inside clothes. We’re not going to be out long. When it gets much chillier we start putting on coats. When it’s six or eight degrees with a whistling wind and little balls of ice with liquid centers are falling at broad angles from the sky we dress warmly indeed.

The yard is regularly mown grass. We keep it fairly short for the chihuahuas’ comfort. The ice, as it fell and formed, bridged the grass part-way up the blades. At the end, as the surface cold absorbed the energy from the warm air above, the water began to crystallize as it did in the old days. Snow fell, a thin layer atop the covering ice.

The shrews and the tiniest of the mice are, today, traveling in near darkness beneath a translucent ceiling of snow covered ice, walking amongst the tall trunks of grass on dry ground. Chica and I are above the surface in ice world. The photo above shows where my big feet have broken through.

As Chica attempts to walk her feet sink through the inch or so of snow, come to a firm surface at the ice layer, then break through as she puts her full 11 pounds down. I have had a similar experience walking on / through heavily crusted snow: plant foot, push, break through, struggle, repeat. She is not pleased. I don’t blame her. I clump out with my two sticks, walking slowly, ever so slowly. If someone took a video of me walking Chica toward the Big Yard Gate, and played it, viewers would likely think they were watching a slow motion clip. Chica and I, side by side, taking step… step… step… in my case punctuated by stick… stick… stick.

Eventually we got there. Eventually we got back. I stood in the garden with the back doorknob above my head, reached up and opened the door. I picked up my little friend who could not run up her porch and placed her carefully indoors, let the door shut, and began the process of getting myself back into the house.

It will be, according to the forecast, a few days before there is any chance of melt. On the other hand, two winters ago Chica and I were trapped in this house for two months while I got two knee replacements, and we got through it. This too shall pass.

Part 1 of this story, Two Stick Ice

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Two Stick Ice

It iced today. Two stick ice. 

I haven’t had to walk with a stick much since my new knees healed up year before last. Tonight I had to use my foot-bottomed cane from the knee days, and my hiking staff from interim times, just to go shut the chickens up.

Even with the sticks I couldn’t walk out on my concrete back porch. I tentatively put one foot down and knew immediately that it was hopeless. I made a long step down from the inside floor to the garden beside the stoop, pretty confident that I could keep my footing on soil and plant matter.

But even to walk across the short grass yard to the chicken yard gate, I had to use both sticks. And walk very carefully: plant each stick, move one foot, one stick, other foot, other stick. Plant foot and stick carefully after each move. I’m pretty tough for an old geezer, but I’m also pretty sure it would annoy my skeleton for me to take a dive onto this frozen ground. The spring goes out of the machinery over the years.

My back porch is concrete blocks. I had to turn one of the blocks dry side up in order to get back into the house, and then carefully not put a foot down anywhere else.

Some folks might read to this point and say, “See? I told you. Global warming is a hoax!”

Nope. This is global warming ice.

I was born some fifty miles from where I’m sitting now, on a hot July night in 1947. Mostly I’ve pretty much stuck around. The first time I ever saw a killer ice was 1974. I had lived 27 years and never seen one. Most of Kansas City was in the dark for most of two weeks. We have had a killer ice at least once every couple of years ever since. Some entire winters have been defined by killer ice.

My parents were born 150 miles north of here in 1913 and 1915. They didn’t remember many, if any, killer ices like the ’74 icing, in their lifetimes in Iowa and Missouri. They lived to see dozens of them. We make funny videos now.

In 1974 our ongoing science experiment with our planet’s energy level appears to have crossed some threshold when measured against my particular area. We used to have winter rains or winter snows. Now we’re stuck in the middle. We have ices.

We have ices because at higher altitudes the air is warmer than it used to be. It is also warmer than the air at the surface. In the warmer air, water doesn’t crystallize into the individual crystals of ice which we call snow, it simply precipitates out as liquid water. Down here on the dirt, though, it’s below freezing. It is, after all, winter. (We do still have winter, yes we do. The earth’s axis is tilted, see, and… maybe next time.)

As the liquid water falls on 20 degree F surfaces it freezes. It is literally not possible to walk on it. Young agile people fall down. Walking depends on friction. Youth and health can’t compensate if the friction isn’t there. This is slicker than lake ice, slicker than ice skating rink ice. Eat your heart out, Zamboni. Tonight’s global warming ground ice still has liquid water falling on it, lubricating it.

Depending on droplet size the ice may be utterly invisible, or thick enough and heavy enough to tear down trees, power lines, even buildings. But it is deadly either way.

The people who are paid handsomely for informing America have left a sizable number, I think probably a majority, of Americans thinking the weather I am living with tonight calls global warming into question. These people, the supposed-to-be informers of the public, should be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.

I do not watch TV but I would place a sizable cash wager that in every major market under this ice storm there are respectable-looking persons on the airwaves tonight pushing this very fiction, asking the stupidest imaginable question: If there is global warming why do we have this ice? If this particular ice storm causes enough death and destruction they will be doing the same thing on national TV. They should be made fun of, insulted, and held up to ridicule, on every occasion by every reporter on every station. Or themselves tarred and feathered. Along with the on-air personalities who speak seriously to them, the editors who chose these stories for airtime, and the owners of the media outlets carrying the disgusting propaganda.

One does not have to be a scientist to understand how and why global warming causes ice storms. One has to be cheated by one’s supposedly advanced and educated society in order to not know.

Toby the dog fell down on the sidewalk tonight. Twice. He’s old, but… he’s a dog. He has four feet and claws. He fell down on the ice. Global warming ice.

Followup Essay: Global Warming Ice, part 2

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A Repairman Looks At Weather

Every time something happens on earth – every action, every thought, every motion living and dead – energy powers it.  Energy drives everything.

Friends make fun of me from time to time when I make these basic, blindingly obvious observations out loud and seem to think that they are profound.  But I do think that is profound.  Whatever observable thing happens in front of you, you can understand it in terms of energy.  And it’s not that hard.  Maybe I’ll explain it in another essay.  For now, it’s just a statement of fact to build on.

The same can be said of everything that happens in the universe, but tonight we’re on earth.

The label “global warming” represents or names a continuing human made process, the capture and storage of additional energy in the system which is Earth.  teapotYou.  Me.  Chica here in my lap. My laptop.  The frogs singing in the yard.  The mouse annoying me behind my stove.  Air. Water. Bugs. Rocks and dirt.  Everything there is around you.  We are adding energy to all of that. I’m stating as a fact the following:  We have increased and continue to increase the total amount of energy stored in the terrestrial system, meaning planet Earth, everything on it, and its atmosphere.

People tend to make it complicated, but it’s really quite simple.  It is not about the air, or the water, or the weather, or the cars and trucks, or the carbon dioxide.  We have added energy.  From there the  laws of thermodynamics govern what happens.  The laws of thermodynamics are inescapable; the laws of thermodynamics work all the time every time in every situation we know of so far or have managed to imagine.   We use the actions these laws describe to cook our food, heat our homes, move our cars and stop them, fly our airplanes, generate our electricity – the laws of thermodynamics are among the most fundamental principles of the layer of reality we live in, the visible layer above quantum mechanics.


One of the ways these wonderful laws show themselves in nature is through weather.  Things get hot, things get cool, energy inevitably moves from hot to cold and moving energy does work.  Moving energy makes stuff happen.  The more energy moves and the faster it moves, the more stuff happens.

The sun shines (radiates energy) on the world, but not evenly all over all at once. Where sunshine hits the air the air gets warmer. Hot air doesn’t weigh as much as cool air, so it floats up and gets even thinner, and thick air expands into the space where the air got thinner and we call that “wind.”

Don’t get me wrong.  Global warming doesn’t cause wind.  This was already happening before we increased the amount of available energy.  There has been weather on Earth for as long as we’ve had an atmosphere.  The sun has always provided energy.

Various things happen when energy moves around through the atmosphere.  And move it must.  Move is what energy does.  Wind blows, as described above.  Water evaporates. Water condenses.   All the free energy in the system, current energy from the sun and energy stored here locally, contributes to the stirring of the atmosphere / hydrosphere.  Energy stirs the air and water.

lightningThere is more energy in the system now than there was yesterday. We call it heat and measure it with a thermometer, but heat is just energy in one of its many avatars. Yesterday there was more energy stored on Earth than last week. Last week there was more than in 1900.  By 1830 there was already measurably more energy in the system than there had been in the previous, oh, ten thousand or so years.  Energy makes weather.  More energy makes fancier weather.

More energy makes bigger faster rain.  More water moving from down to up, up to down, faster.  100 year floods every few weeks.

Ten feet of water flood nearly 20 percent of the neighborhood throughout the city of Minot, N.D., leaving more than 4,000 homes inundated by flooding, June 25. With the Souris River expected to crest, city official scramble to implement a recovery strategy hoping to endure the high water preventing the loss of thousands of homes already damaged by flooding. At eight feet above major flood stage, the water appears to be leveling off.
Ten feet of water flood nearly 20 percent of the neighborhood throughout the city of Minot, N.D., leaving more than 4,000 homes inundated by flooding, June 25. With the Souris River expected to crest, city official scramble to implement a recovery strategy hoping to endure the high water preventing the loss of thousands of homes already damaged by flooding. At eight feet above major flood stage, the water appears to be leveling off.

We need a new name for them.  Maybe we should call them “water” and either move out of the river or live on floatable houses.  If we move we have to move completely out of all the river, as defined by the highest historic high water line wherever it is.  Because the river is going up to that highest high water line more often than it used to, and it’s always gone there.  That’s how the high water line got there.   Living in a fixed house below the highest high water line was never a real good plan, but it’s gotten worse.   floating-housePeople all over the eastern half of the continent, and especially in Louisiana, used to live in floatable houses. Or houses on stilts.  Houses that worked just fine if the river was running through the yard.  Time to get back to that.  We’re not this stupid.

More energy makes faster winds.  Warmer warms.  Colder colds.  Free energy doesn’t sit around.  It moves from here to there, doing work along the way.  Higher pressures and lower.  It could not be any other way.  The laws of thermodynamics say so.

It is the least informed question imaginable to ask if this or that weather event was “caused by” global warming.  Of course.  Of course not.  This isn’t a junior high school debating society. All weather always, since the earth has had an atmosphere, is caused by all the available energy in the system.  It is that simple.  It is not God’s breath.  Energy makes every thing that happens, happen. We have added energy to the system.

There may be no more important set of facts for 21st century literate well fed humans to internalize than the facts of energy and weather.

Here is how it looks from here:  We have two sides of a an incomplete conversation about global warming.  One side is either lying (the rich ones) or believes in magic.  The other side (the Better Guys, in my opinion) is talking about putting up solar panels and inventing self-driving cars. Which is all well and good, but it is not going to have any short term positive effect. Long term positive effect, yes, but it won’t help the next few decades much. The reason we need to do something now is for humans not yet born. We are borrowing this planet from them.

The humans already here have made our (electrified waterbed) bed and we’re going to sleep in it. We need to start making serious short term plans how we’re going to live with what’s already done. If you just think about what is actually happening out there, the continuing capture and storage of additional energy, it is obvious that even significant changes right now won’t prevent, for instance, a massive rearrangement of where our coast lines are. 092915miamibeachfloodingmichaelspearsphotoThe molecules are already in the atmosphere and they capture energy. We are still adding to them. We can’t stop it or even cut it down drastically all at once. We are acting like people who have jumped off a bridge and don’t believe they’re going to hit that water. Why aren’t we discussing the everyday reality of what is happening around us?

Most Americans of average intelligence are capable of understanding the basic principles at work here. Few do. Why is that?  The laws of thermodynamics are easier to learn than the rules of football, and many Americans know the rules of football.

Football is unlikely to end civilization as it has been.

Under our current system there is no money in teaching people what I am talking about – basic reality.  So nobody does it.  The current American social theory is that everything worth doing is worth doing for money.  I don’t agree. Reality is relatively important.  Reality matters.  It may even matter as much as who wins the Super Bowl.

We are going to have to live with  global warming weather.  It would be good to adapt to it, but adapt or no we’re living with it.  It’s the only weather we have.  Right now. Global warming weather is the only weather that there will ever be, from a human perspective.  Global warming weather is not a threat, it is our everyday reality.

Summer thunderstorms here in northwest Missouri are stronger than they used to be.  No, they’re not all read-it-in-the-news storms, but we routinely get storms like last night.  Flash flood warnings. Rescuers pulling people out of their cars in Kansas City.  At least one car fully submerged in the street.  This was just a new normal regular late August thunderstorm in a hilly town.  Yes, that storm always could have happened.  Energy is like that.  It goes where it must, and sometimes a whole lot of it winds up in one place, and Hoo Hah! Gully Washers! Rip Snorters!  Only now it’s almost every storm.  Then when you get what would in the old days have been your Gully Washer, things get out of hand and everybody sees it on the TV.  Then they go back to the baseball game.  Or to Election 2016 The Movie.  Or maybe they get evacuated to a shelter somewhere.

What I mean by adapting, is we need to change our lives so that these storms don’t destroy our homes and kill us.  The storms aren’t going away.  “We’re brave.  We’re tough. We’ll rebuild.” Wrong. Every time a town washes away everybody acts surprised.  Meaning no offense, but it’s not a surprise. Which town washed away may be a surprise, but the fact that we lost another one is not. I find the pretense offensive.

I’m not kidding about building floating houses.  Move completely out of the river, or build a floating house, or quit asking for my money when it rains. It is not stopping. Accept that the only way to measure any river anywhere is by its maximum extent. If you live within a river’s maximum extent you are going to get water in your house.  Many rivers’ former highest high water line is obsolete.  Gotta move farther than that.  Or float.  I’m tired of disaster area declarations for easily foreseeable events.  That wasn’t a disaster; that was a rainstorm.  That’s what they are like now.

I’ll help you fix your problem.  I don’t mind my tax money helping to foot the bill – we’re all Americans and ought to be in this together.  However, I’m tired of helping you not fix it. Everybody out of the river. All the rivers. Start tomorrow. Or build a floating house. shantboatPeople were still living in floating houses in the United States in living memory. We quit it fifty years ago so now it’s impossible? Why?

Sea level rise is not going to happen at 3.728 cm / yr, or any other stupid average number. One day you’ll be above water, one day under.  The water will recede for a while. It will come back. This is the New Normal. Let’s get real.

We need to have a realistic discussion of what we might do about it. We can’t stop it. Do we want to do anything?  Maybe it’s best to assume that at least some humans will survive no matter what happens, and go with what we’ve got.  Ride it out.  I don’t know what’s coming.  Neither does anybody else.  But we’ve never known what was going to happen next.  The invisibility of the future didn’t start just because we heated up the planet, so… just go with it?  But if that’s what we’re going to do I’d like to hear somebody admit it. The moment somebody says, Roll back emissions to [any year except 1800] levels you know that person is not serious. Or doesn’t understand the principle. As long as we keep adding certain molecules, with carbon being the best known one, to the atmosphere faster than they go away, we are going to continue to capture more of the energy that falls on us from the sun. Heat is energy in one of its commonly observed forms. So the world is getting warmer.

If we want to do anything that might have a perceptible effect it must be drastic and it must be directed to the point of reducing new energy capture and storage.   Energy is the issue. Stored solar energy. This isn’t about carbon dioxide.  Or cow flatulence, although virtually all 9 year old boys like to talk about it.  Blacktop roads capture energy.  Parking lots too.  I believe that any realistic discussion is going to require a willingness to give up cars as we know them, totally, forever.  Almost all transportation will have to be on trains; they are simply the most efficient option we have.  I have some ideas about local transportation but I’ll save them for now.

If we continue to live by any of the norms of today, from sports cars to supertankers to skyscrapers, we are going to continue to accelerate global warming.  The sun has a lot of energy.  We keep thinking up new ways to capture and store it.  The more we store the more exciting life here is going to get.

We can’t stop global warming or prevent it.  Global warming is here, the energy is here, the enhanced energy capture/storage system is here.   It would not be too great a stretch to say that humanity has never faced an equivalent challenge.  It would be good if everyone who can do so learns what is going on here so that we can bring all the intelligence in America into this conversation.  This is too big a deal to be left to a handful of self-selected experts, no matter how well intentioned.

Or not.

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