03 January 2015

Plowing Under a Carbon-fixing Crop

The common criticism of ocean fertilization by upwelling nutrients from the depths is that it also brings up CO2 from the depths. If one does not explore the issue more fully, it makes one think that upwelling nutrients is counterproductive.

Things look different if one uses push-pump pumps rather than simply upwelling of nutrients. Some of you may recall this argument from my GLOBAL FEVER book from the Univ of Chicago Press, but the following is an excerpt from my more recent THE GREAT CO2 CLEANUP, chapter six:
To avoid competing with the world’s food production and supplies of fresh water, most sequestered carbon must come from new biomass grown in new places. Here I explore how paired ocean pumps might uplift nutrients and then sink the new organic carbon back into the ocean depths.

Instead of sinking only the debris that is heavy enough to settle out, as in iron fertilization, we would be using bulk flow to sink the entire organic carbon soup of the wind-mixed layer (organisms plus the hundred-fold larger amounts of dissolved organic carbon) before its carbon reverts to CO2 and equilibrates with the atmosphere.
        The CO2 later produced in the depths by the sunken carbon soup will reach the surface 400-6,000 years later. Smearing it out over that period greatly reduces the damaging peaks in ocean acidification and global fever.
...If we fertilize via pumping up and sink nearby via bulk flow (a push-pull pump), we are essentially burying a carbon-fixing crop, much as farmers plow under a nitrogen-fixing cover crop of legumes to fertilize the soil. Instead of sinking only the debris that is heavy enough, we would be sinking the entire organic carbon soup of the wind-mixed layer. 
        Algaculture minimizes respiration CO2 from higher up the food chain and so allows a preliminary estimate of the size of our undertaking. Suppose that a midrange 50 g (as dry weight) of algae can be grown each day under a square meter of sunlit surface, and that half is carbon. Thus it takes about 10-4 m2 to grow 1 gC each year. To produce our 30 GtC/yr drawdown would require 30 x 1011 m2 (0.8% of the ocean surface, about the size of the Caribbean).



        But because we pump the surface waters down, not dried algae, we would also be sinking the entire organic carbon soup of the wind-mixed surface layer: the carbon in living cells plus the hundred-fold larger amounts in the surface DOC. Thus the plankton plantations might require only 30 x 109 m2 (closer to the size of Lake Michigan). 
        The space requirement will be more because downpumps will not capture all of the new plankton; it might be less because the relevant algaculture focuses on oil-containing algal species and on harvesting a biofuel crop, not on plowing under the local species as quickly as possible. The ocean pipe spacing, and the volume pumped down, will depend on the outflow needed to optimize the organic carbon production. [The chemostat calculation FYI.] Only field trials are likely to provide a better estimate for the needed size of sink-on-the-spot plankton plantations, pump numbers, and project costs. Though ocean fertilization is usually proposed for low productivity regions where iron is the limiting nutrient, another strategy is to boost the shoulder seasons in regions of seasonally high ocean productivity. For example, ocean primary productivity northeast of Iceland drops to half by June as the nutrients upwelled by winter winds are depleted. Continuing production then depends on recycling nutrients within the wind-mixed layer. However, to the southwest of Iceland, productivity stays high all summer.

       Because not all of the new plankton will be successfully captured and sunk, fertilization will stimulate the marine food chain locally. Most major fisheries have declined in recent decades and, even where sustainable harvesting is practiced, it still results in fish biomass 73% below natural levels. At least for fish of harvestable size, there is niche space going unused.
       Locating the new plankton plantations over the outer continental shelves is more likely to supply a complete niche for many fish species, whereas deep-water plantations will lack variety. (The main commercial catch in deep water is tuna.) Also, down-pumping near the shelf edge would deposit the organic carbon in the bottom’s offshore “undertow” stream, carrying it over the cliff onto the Continental Slope into deeper ocean.
        Note that pumps would be tethered to the bottom so that the ocean currents are always creating a plume downstream: a plume of fertilizer near the surface and a second plume of carbon soup in the depths. (Pumping up from a different depth than pumping down will prevent the interaction that characterizes the oceanographers’ box models.) While the water might come back around in a thousand years, the plumes for the clean-up will only be about twenty years long and well diluted by that time.


25 December 2014

The Aerosol Silhouette in Geoengineering: Both Problem and Opportunity


Holding a hand near the projection screen casts a well-defined shadow. Moving the hand back toward the projector makes the shadow indistinct: the edges are too fuzzy. Were thumb and forefinger creating a silhouette with a hole, it would become difficult to discern the hole.

There is a similar difference between dimming the sun from millions of miles away and doing it in the stratosphere close to the target.

Uniformity of aerosol application is difficult to accomplish—and maintain—via sun-scattering aerosols in the upper atmosphere. This means that the cooling will tend to be as patchy. What happens with patchy cooling from this aerosol silhouette?

Temperature differences create density differences—and thus winds are generated between the air column of the cooling silhouette and uncooled neighboring regions. At many altitudes, more dense air will flow sideways out of the silhouette column. A patchy silhouette could rearrange the generally eastward track of storm systems, though simulations are needed to estimate how sensitive the storm tracks are to this.

Weather disruption might be avoided by doing the uneven scattering at some distance toward the sun, though that does nothing for the shadowed nighttime side of the globe with its warmer nights. And even a uniform application, pole to pole, will create an ever-moving stirring along the terminator that is not the natural one.

There is, however, a circumstance where patchy cooling from stratospheric aerosols might be of use—say, for cooling a region with out-of-control forest fires. There is now a need to break up the blocking highs that stall eastbound weather systems to cause three-day downpours, prolonged heat waves, and facilitate the prolonged arctic outbreaks into the subtropics.

In the same manner that a long barrier island can be cut in half by waves, one can imagine an aerosol application scenario whose changing cooling silhouette temporarily creates a channel for the stalled storm systems to pass through the ridge of high pressure.





William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 geoengineering climate contest.

November 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu

07 November 2014

Why Climate is Already an Emergency

As World War Two was starting in Europe, the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the metaphor of a “four-alarm fire up the street” that needed to be extinguished immediately, whatever the cost.

The situation in 1940 was not merely a crisis, what with Europe engulfed and Britain under attack. It was an emergency: there was a danger of not acting quickly enough while there was still a chance of reversal and recovery.

An emergency is when there is a shrinking time window for taking effective action. Suppose you are alone and see a fire spreading up the stairwell of a building full of sleeping people. Which do you do first, wake up everyone by breaking a few windows or phone the fire fighters?

It depends on the time lag for the action that will save the occupants, not the building. In the country it will take fifteen minutes for help to arrive—and in that length of time, the fire could spread throughout the building. In an urban setting with a three-minute response time and a mobile phone in your pocket, it’s a different answer.

Actively managing an emergency response is something that the military teaches its senior officers and we medical school professors teach to medical students and residents. Get fluids and vaso­pressors started up front. Make sure that you think of a number of possible diagnoses early, rather than fixating on the most obvious one. Get the lab started on all of them. If you don’t think of a second possibility until giving up on the first, and it takes another hour to get the lab results back, the unnecessary delay can see the patient’s condition become irretrievable.

Few people seem to approach climate change in this manner. One must start with questions such as:

How fast is the damage spreading?

The increase in extreme weather events (deluge and drought, prolonged heat waves, wind­storms, big hailstones, and such) since the supersized El Niño of 1998 is the relevant indicator, not global average temperatures. Extreme events are no longer tracking our usual indicator, the slow ramping up of average near-surface air temperature, averaged globally and over all four seasons.

What’s the irrecoverable condition that we must focus on?

Focus on the setups for global economic collapse, as it can set up a human population crash via famine, disease, resource wars, and genocides. Recovery will be much delayed by memories of what happened between groups during the "downsizing.”

What is the time it takes to back out of the danger zone?

Most would say centuries; my perhaps over-optimistic estimate is 24 years. See my post on an emergency CO2 drawdown for caveats.

“It’s already too late” is one of the premature opinions about our escalating climate crisis. Yet no one has done a serious analysis of this.

Have we already passed the “Last Exit” on this Expressway to Hell? Or just most of the exits?

If we want a restoration before global economic collapse sets in, we have indeed already passed most possible exits, e.g., reforestation. Methods that take a century will be too little, too late.

Removing the excess CO2 from the air and stashing it in the ocean depths for thousands of years appears to be the only avenue remaining that promises to be big enough, sufficiently quick, and dependable enough in a situation where we are unlikely to get a second chance. It also reverses the other major threat to the food supply, the acidification of the oceans.

So yes, the climate emergency is already upon us. In retrospect, it started back in 1998 with that supersized El Niño.


Our usual framing, with near-surface averaged temperature as the relevant input and emissions reduction as the appropriate response, has failed us—however logical it was a half-century ago.



William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 geoengineering climate contest.



September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

27 October 2014

Who Will Support Climate Repairs?

Avoiding catastrophe has not worked very well as a motivation for doing something about climate. Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” for stage performances seems to kick in for reality that sounds like a disaster movie. Nor has relying on the general environmental agenda been fast enough.

Mere reduction in the yearly fossil fuel emissions does not promise any reduction in heat waves or shoreline inundation or ocean acidificationonly that they will get worse a little more slowly. The extreme weather of the last decade will only continue to prosper.

But climate repair, on top of the current preventative measures such as emissions reduction, promises much more than slightly slowing civilization’s disorganization and resource wars. Cleaning up the excess carbon dioxide in the air promises some real reversals in things that matter to many business and homeowner interests.

About 54 percent of the world’s population lives near an ocean shore, so let’s start with coastline interests. Ocean acidification is already affecting the shellfish industry, but sea level rise is the more widespread threat.

Fortunately, most current sea level rise is from the thermal expansion of the ocean’s surface layer—and that is mostly reversible as air temperature comes down.

A minor portion of the present sea level rise comes from ice sliding into the ocean from the shores of Greenland and Antarctica. Unfortunately, cooling may not stop it, given how melt water has already greased the skids at bedrock. If sea level rise is to be stopped, it is important to reverse thermal expansion so as to make room for any rise from ice sheet collapse.

Who’s interested in stopping sea level rise? Certainly the people of the eastern third of North Carolina, the southern half of Florida, and the southern half of Louisiana, all scheduled for inundation as overheating progresses.

But will people wait until regularly flooded before seeking action to reverse the ocean’s thermal expansion? No. Long before then, mortgages and shoreline slums will become the more immediate problem.

Guess what happens to the economy when lenders stop lending, for fear of never getting their money back? New construction will stop and many owners will no longer bother to maintain their threatened property. Instant slums.

The prospects of no new construction have already alarmed the real estate developers, judging from the science censorship attempt in the North Carolina legislature regarding sea level rise. 

Perhaps the bankers will also pressure governments to censor the scientists, just so depositors won’t be scared away by the uncertainty about getting their money back.

Even those still willing to lend will want the property to be insured. But insurers are not out to insure against major trends, such as rising sea level. The prospect of more superstorms also doesn’t fit their business model, what with high winds pushing water inland over a wide area in the manner of Hurricane Sandy.

As extreme weather intensifies, insurance companies will likely pull out of some regional markets, not merely raise their rates. That’s certainly what happened in Florida after four hurricanes hit in 2004-2005. And with no more insurance, no more mortgages. Their makeshift solution? Let the state taxpayers guarantee the insurance companies against major losses via big tax increasesjust the thing to push the whole state into bankruptcy, if taxpayers start abandoning the place.

Civic booster groups are often out to polish their community’s image for those who might move into the area. Some will even whitewash local problems to help “maintain property values”—which leads us to an interesting question. 

How much of organized climate denial is a whitewash strategy in aid of keeping potential buyers ignorant for a little longer—while owners unload their property? Accustomed as we are to smokescreen efforts by the tobacco, asbestos, and petroleum industries, we often fail to spot the newer whitewash tactics of those with other aims.

Misleading propaganda only works with the poorly informed—it’s a sucker strategy, as in selling the Brooklyn Bridge. But it doesn’t work with the data-driven analysts who advise lenders and insurers. To counter the impression made by the ominous data trend requires a plausible scenario for reversing the climate prospects, such as a cleanup in progress.

Pushing hard for a quick climate repair that stops sea level rise is one thing that coastal and low-lying communities can do to save themselves. Taxpayers almost everywhere else will be having their own extreme weather and economic loss. It seems unlikely that they will pay to move all of Miami, New Orleans, and Galveston to higher ground.

Insurers already know from their own records that a 20 percent increase in peak wind speeds from 50 to 60 mph causes a 500 percent increase in windstorm claims. Guess what happens to insurance premiums?

In addition to more extreme windstorms, global overheating promotes deluge, both as rain and snow. It promotes drought and heat waves. Any one such episode can produce an instant slum—even a freeze-free winter that allows an insect infestation to quickly spread.

The obvious climate fix is to cool things off. But generating a high haze to reflect sunlight on a continuous basis, mimicking a long series of volcanic eruptions, is far too dangerous. The uneven coverage would tend to rearrange circulation patterns like the jet streams, triggering abrupt drought and flooding.

The only sustained way to cool things and reverse ocean acidification is climate repair—cleaning up the 43 percent excess of carbon dioxide in the air and then continuing it to counter any out-of-control emissions.

So who will support climate repair? Mayors and county executives, certainly, but potentially even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once new leadership takes over and they abandon their lobbying efforts promoting a climate whitewash. For the new leaders, climate repair will become the only game in town, essential to restoring confidence to buyers, lenders, and insurers.


William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 geoengineering climate contest.



September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

20 October 2014

The Emergency Cleanup of Excess CO2 via a Second Manhattan Project

Briefly: Pull up sunken nutrients to create CO₂-capturing plankton blooms, then push new organic carbon into the ocean depths before it reverts to CO₂. This push-pull pump avoids many of the problems of up-only pumps for fertilizing the ocean surface.


Suppose our CO₂-based overheating became an emergency via abruptly rearranging the winds—say, a supersized El Nino that doesn’t quit? More emissions reduction would be too little, too late—nor would it fix ocean acidification.

   An emergency drawdown of atmospheric CO₂ would address all three issues—but it would need to be big, quick, and sure-fire.

   How big? Aim at removing all 350+ GtC emitted since 1750.

   How quickly? We must back out of the danger zone before being weakened by resource wars and economic collapse. During a 20 yr project period, another 250 GtC are likely be emitted from business-as-usual, so make that goal 600 GtC. That's 30 GtC/yr. Once the drawdown is complete, half of the sequestration capacity might still be needed to continuously counter out-of-control emissions from developing countries; the rest goes on standby for future emergencies.

   Sure to work the first time? With no second chance, our initiative needs to be sure-fire, since we must avoid the human population crash that a global economic collapse would trigger.

   Most candidates suitable for long-run improvements will be too small, too slow, or too uncertain for an emergency. Even fertilizing the ocean surface enough to settle out 30 GtC/yr of the usual debris into the depths would require an unachievable 3x increase in ocean productivity worldwide.

The proposed push-pull pump plantations need less than 1% of the ocean surface. Pump up nutrients from the depths to enhance plankton production (what winter winds do)—but with an essential addition.

Simultaneously, emulate the natural downwellings of eddies and whirlpools. Pump down the carbon-enriched surface waters within a week, before the new organic carbon reverts to CO₂. This also sinks the 240x larger amounts of organic carbon from feces and decomposition, which are dissolved in surface waters. This sinks far more organic carbon than is needed to offset any upwelled CO2.


A plankton plantation that uses windmill power. 
Wave-powered pumps should be more economical.

   Just as farmers grow a nitrogen-fixing crop of legumes and then plow it under, we would be growing a carbon-fixing crop of plankton and then pumping it under.

   This simplified sketch shows the ballpark in which we are forced to play. Charge the experts gathered for the Second Manhattan Project with deploying this or something equally big, quick, and sure-fire within four years using wartime priorities. If nothing major intervenes in the following ten years, the climate threat might be cut in half.


This latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 geoengineering climate contest.


William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). 

September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin




19 October 2014

The Important Warming Isn't Global


Yes, the world is overheating. Yes, that tends to cause climate change in ways that go beyond hotter afternoons--say, the widening of the tropics, the desertification of the Mediterranean, and more extreme weather.

One would think (irony alert) that the best way to summarize the climate threat is to average the near-surface temperature 1) over day and night, 2) over all four seasons, and 3) over both ocean surface and land surface.

There is fifty years of tradition in producing the annual number this very way. This globally averaged annual surface temperature, once we subtract what it was back in the good old days, is known as "global warming."

"Global" warming is global only in the sense of including both ocean surface and land surface, not in the sense of incorporating everything. It leaves out the air blanket above your head and the ocean depths, both major places where the excess heat has been stashed. Global is just what you see on a globe—and thus a somewhat misleading use of the term.


Since there is twice as much ocean surface as there is land, the land warming only counts half as much as the ocean surface warming when calculating "global" warming. Most of us live on land and so this global average number underestimates what we experience.

We now have a half-century of experience summarizing the growing climate problem via this unnatural number. Logical as it seemed fifty years ago when introduced to track the planet's heat budget (and it is still very useful for that), it has turned out to only roughly track climate changes.


Furthermore, this unfortunate choice of terminology has generated endless confusion among nonscientists, eagerly exploited by promoters of "unfettered business as usual" who seek to delay climate action by prolonging our confusion.

Then there is that word "warming," another somewhat misleading term. It has sounded cozy to some people. "Warming" just doesn't imply an excess in the way that "overheating" does.

Some have wondered, not unreasonably, how an unusually cold winter could be consistent with a general warming. Or how there could be a pause in "global warming" while the CO2 concentration keeps rising. The climate scientists have perfectly good answers to these concerns, but they tend not to be heard—in about the same way as corrections to yesterday's news articles tend not to be read.

It has become increasingly apparent over the last fifteen years that we can have a lot of climate change, and a lot of CO2 increase, without much trend in that "global warming" number. We had a similar period from 1950 (when Popular Mechanics had a nice article on global warming) until 1977. It didn't seem to be globally warming at all, despite a lot of additional CO2 accumulation from the soaring post-war emissions.



The climate system has a lot of sectors; sometimes, cooling influences can temporarily counter the extra heating of greenhouse gases. More clouds or greater ocean downwelling could do it.

Just as a map is not the terrain, an index is often not where the action is. An analogy: the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, "The DJI," tends to underestimate what is happening in tech stocks. "The market" may go nowhere while some market sectors are thriving. 

Is something like that happening to our index of what alters climate? However useful the global average overheating may be for working out the heat budget and finding hidden sinks, is there a better index for drivers of climate change than just averaging over oceans and continents?

It is certainly worth looking for one. The two major topics at all three climate science conferences that I attended in a ten-day period in September were the Arctic Amplification and, separately, the so-called "hiatus" in global warming of the last ten years. During the third meeting, one possibility occurred to me: Don't add. Subtract.

Subtracting Arctic temperature from continental land temperature would have helped understand Arctic Amplification, prolonged heat waves, and those frigid "Arctic outbreaks."
Subtracting ocean temperature from land temperature would have been a better idea than adding them. That's important because the extra heating warms the land twice as fast as it does the ocean surface. That has consequences.

So let's talk about movers of climate change rather than the usual statistical abstractions. As is well known from monsoons, hot land heats the air just above the surface, causing it to rise, which sucks in cooler moist air from offshore.

It's just like the draw of the fireplace. This "sea breeze" peaks in the late afternoon and helps sailors get home in time for supper. Suppose climate change is strengthening the sea breeze?

So rather than adding together two parts ocean to one part land, subtract ocean from land. Compare that to what it was in the good old days. Call it enhanced coastal contrast if you like.

Think of it as a rough index of what should strengthen the moist onshore winds. That's already an improvement over that weighted sum of land and ocean temperatures which, to nonscientists, mostly suggests warmer afternoons and the need for more air conditioning.


[It's not as if atmospheric scientists don't already create climate indices based on regional differences. A pre-overheating classic is the North Atlantic Oscillation ("NAO"), which subtracts the air pressure at Iceland in the north from the higher pressure at the Azores in the south. When the difference is big (NAO+), the storm tracks often take a left turn into Europe. When the pressure difference becomes less pronounced (NAO-), the Atlantic storm tracks deliver the rain to the Mediterranean rather than Europe. Once shifted, it tends to stay that way for a decade or more, enabling predictions about winter storm tracks.]
Subtraction's focus on stronger onshore winds also helps us think in terms of rainfall, or its lack. But a stronger wind need not follow the customary path and may well deliver its moisture somewhere else. Result? Some places will get unexpected rain, others will lack enough.

Flood here, drought there, and who knows when? This generality tells us quite a lot about what’s ahead. Even minor rearrangements in wind can produce trouble. Change the month when the rains arrive and fields that supported two crops each year may only support one, cutting food yield in half. Note that no change in the annual rainfall is required for trouble—nor does it take extreme weather, as when prolonged heat waves bake all of the water out of the topsoil and the plants collapse.

Were a new pattern of moisture delivery to stick around for decades, we might slowly adapt. But no. That’s because the watery laggard in the global warming race just keeps falling further behind the continents with the years, thanks to all of that evaporative cooling of the ocean surface, its greater heat capacity, and the way surface waters are flushed into the depths in a few places. And so the continent's winds keep changing around unpredictably. That's a recipe for even more climate chaos.



As long as “Hot-Spot Temperature” keeps increasing its lead over “Sea Surface Temperature” in this horse race to Hell, the strengthening temperature contrast across coastlines can strengthen the moisture-laden winds coming off the ocean and thus change where the rain falls (or doesn't).

Welcome to climate instability, where all bets are off when recent history doesn't help you decide what to plant where.






William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 geoengineering climate contest.
 October 2014 WCalvin@UW.edu faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

13 October 2014

In Search of Climate Solutions



So what would constitute a climate solution?

Even if rich countries somehow achieve zero emissions, the developing countries attempting to modernize are likely to continue burning their own coal and oil. (They already emit more than half of the yearly total).

Some will surely continue doing this for many decades, so we must continuously bury equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide elsewhere. Any “climate solution” that does not handle out-of-control emissions is unworthy of the name.

The obvious climate fix is to clean up the 43 percent carbon dioxide excess, taking it out of circulation to reverse the overheating and most of sea level rise. And then continuing to counter the out-of-control emissions. An emergency cleanup of the atmosphere is also the only intervention that stands a chance of reversing ocean acidification.

And unless we clean things up in the next decade or two, as today’s cute toddlers grow up, we stand a good chance of losing any ability to keep climate from spiraling into irreversible disaster. Like rotten teeth, climate disasters can become pretty ugly. Many of us will not survive the population crash.

What we need is a paradigm shift. The old one is plainly inadequate, dangerously so.

Most suggestions for what to do about climate were not created by the climate experts. They were carried over from the excellent 1970 environmental agenda and given new urgency.

Indeed, most climate scientists consider climate repairs as outside their expertise, someone else's business. The low emission scenarios they endorse are simply the low end of the scenarios crafted by the economists—which, for the mid-century time frame, are about as effective as a placebo drug.

Nonetheless, climate scientists are going to be the most knowledgeable people available to critique a climate repair proposal. Some cautions, however: Ph.D. scientists’ training is not about giving timely advice. Instead we’re supposed to take the time to be dead sure.

We are seldom trained in crisis management, where decisions must be made in a hurry, balancing the time it takes to investigate further with the time window within which you can still act effectively. We are, however, excellent critics.

But as my medical school colleagues emphasize, he who hesitates to act until dead sure of the diagnosis can wind up with a dead patient.  Curiously, a carbon dioxide cleanup is seldom mentioned by anyone. Ever wonder why? Scrubbers that remove carbon dioxide from the air are standard on submarines. But to clean up the planet’s air, massive amounts of new power would be needed to run enough of them. It would have to be clean power; run them with fossil fuels and the effort will just make things worse. That much clean power takes decades to build.

Given the increasingly extreme weather, our civilization could be in deep trouble by the time massive scrubbers began scrubbing.

Nature’s scrubbing system mostly uses leaves and algae to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Photosynthesis releases the oxygen from the CO2 molecule while incorporating the carbon into sugar and such.

The obvious strategy is more leaves and more algae. Freeman Dyson laid out the reforestation strategy in 1977. But with the accumulation since then, planting more forests has become too little, too late. To do the job, we would need to quickly double the world’s forests –and then prevent them from rotting and burning. Currently, we cannot prevent this from happening even in rain forests like the Amazon. 

Fire and drought are not a problem in the ocean. Algae can, in 24 hours, double and redouble their numbers. But the prospects for fertilizing enough blooms of algae have not looked good.

Only about one-fourth of the new life manages to settle into deep waters before decomposing. Removing the excess carbon via settling alone would require a four-fold increase in productivity for 20 years in all the oceans, 71 percent of the earth’s surface. Not likely.

Perhaps you see now why cleanup possibilities are seldom mentioned by the experts. Only fans of the apocalypse (remember Aum Shinriyko?) could like our present situation. We are just about out of repair options capable of quickly resetting our climate–but not entirely.







William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 climate contest.



September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

06 October 2014

Our Understated Climate Problem



For climate disease, there is no doubt remaining about the diagnosis: global overheating, mostly from an insulating blanket of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. That’s what stirs up such knock-on effects as extreme weather and expanding subtropical deserts.

It's now dishonest to claim that the overheating hypothesis fails, just because some line of evidence seems dubious to you. Even if you were right to be suspicious, there would still be a dozen independent lines of evidence, all firmly pointing at global warming destroying the climate that supports 7 billion people. Anyone still dubious about global warming immediately labels themselves as either a quarter-century out of date or a profit-making promoter of climate confusion.

The climate scientists’ forecast is also impressive–so far as it goes. However, their state-of-the-art climate simulations leave out components where they are not sure enough about the numbers. "When in doubt, leave it out."  Vicious-cycle feedback loops were originally omitted as insufficiently understood.

When only the slow accumulation of heat-trapping gases are included in simulations, it’s no surprise that they show the heat waves slowly getting worse.

But what’s left out of most simulations are the equally important rapid change mechanisms, where good numbers are still hard to come by. “Are you really, really sure?” pressures have only aggravated the experts’ understatement of our climate problem.

A familiar example of the forecast's incompleteness is the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, long predicted to disappear sometime after 2100. Instead, the track record since 2000 suggests the ice might disappear in the next decade. Obviously, something was left out of the simulation forecast. The Arctic overheating is already causing strange winter weather farther south.

We also cannot count on gradual transitions like the ones seen in current climate simulations. When forced to move, climate can jump into a new regime with no warning. For example, the world drought acreage suddenly doubled during 1982 and has never gone back . It does not require a sudden jump in temperature to trigger such a change-of-state transition.

What makes them sudden? Vicious-cycle feedback loops are often involved but a shift in the winds will suffice. Air and ocean circulation patterns can radically shift in mere months (a big El Niño is the classic example). If you live somewhere that fails to get its usual wind-borne delivery of ocean moisture, you will experience drought, wildfires, and crop failures. Somewhere else, they get flash floods and soil erosion. In human terms, one region's loss is not another's gain.

No one has a clue about when additional climate jumps will occur as the overheating continues. The obsession with precise numbers usually causes the subject to be omitted from the climate forecast.

Is this “scientific understatement” wise, when it amounts to seeing fire but reporting smoke? Physicians would not omit a warning simply because they couldn’t attach reliable numbers to it. Using the slow-only simulations as a forecast is grossly inadequate to the task of warning the public and policymakers of the dangers ahead.

Thus the typical climate forecast ought to be firmly labeled “At least this bad but probably worse.” And probably sooner, too. We must bear in mind that the extreme weather episodes that are forecast for 2028 could happen this year instead.




William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 climate contest.


September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

18 September 2014

Climate: Is This the Best We Can Do?



Suppose that you went to the dentist with a toothache. But instead of filling the cavity, the dentist merely told you to brush your teeth more often.

Without a repair, a tooth not only hurts: it won’t survive long enough to benefit from better brushing. Once you’ve got a problem, what you need is a quick fix, then a redoubling of preventive measures.

Our current approach to global warming is also all prevention and no fix. We persist in framing the climate problem in the same way as we did before 1976, which is when major climate shifts began.

Prevention is no longer the appropriate way to look at this problem, not when we’ve already accumulated a 43 percent excess of carbon dioxide in the air. The overheating from it has been exaggerating the usual causes of extreme weather episodes.

But we’re doing something about it, right? Yet reducing emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks does not reduce the carbon dioxide accumulation, not any more than a drop in the interest rate will reduce the balance of your savings account. It’s like confusing the annual budget deficit with the accumulated national debt. And it's the carbon dioxide accumulation that causes overheating.

In the continental U.S., it now looks as if we are going to overheat 2°C (3.6°F) by 2028 . Remember that year. It’s when today’s toddlers finish high school and contemplate their future—or lack thereof.

That 2°C (3.6°F) frontier is when we have about twice as much overheating as today. There will be many more extreme weather events than in recent years.

What to do? Miraculously converting to low emissions tomorrow, worldwide, would only delay the U.S. reaching that frontier by nine years, to 2037. At our current level of effort, we’ll be lucky to get an extra nine weeks.

There is a hazard to long-term thinking. To reap long-term benefits, you first have to survive the short-term risks–and they often require a different approach than prevention does.

Yet all we hear about climate action, even from the good guys, will merely slow down the worsening of climate. These “climate solutions” will neither stop climate change nor reverse the trends. But almost no one ever mentions that.

Is this the best we can do?

The climate problem has outgrown its original frame, with its conveniently distant dates and a patchwork quilt of climate actions promoted as "every little bit counts." Emissions reduction, though still essential for the long term, is now insufficient for decently surviving the near term. It’s too little, too late.

Emissions reduction is also insufficiently sure-fire, given what’s at stake. We now have an unmanageable situation promising major systems shutdowns, rather like terminal kidney failure used to proceed. With dialysis to clean up the blood, however, it was made into a manageable disease, enabling a near-normal life.

We must now make our climate problem into a manageable disease using a strategy analogous to dialysis. Otherwise, there is an unacceptable risk of civilization collapsing. In the past, such disorganization usually caused a human population crash.


William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

17 September 2014

This New Era of Climate Instability

In our race to overheat the planet, hot spots have developed. Unless you reside on a yacht, you probably live atop one.


A fireplace is merely a mini hot spot. As warm air rises, cooler air comes rushing in to replace it (the “draw”). With hotter spots, you get a stronger breeze. 

The planet’s new hot spots are, naturally enough, busy rearranging when the winds blow and where the rain falls. Climate change, in other words. (Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.)

Since 1977, the continents have been warming twice as fast as the ocean surface. 



Global mean temperature rise (AKA global warming) is just the weighted sum of land and sea surface temperature averages; there is twice as much ocean surface as land. So the difference between land and sea continued to increase. And thus the temperature contrast across coastlines.

That can strengthen the moisture-laden winds coming off the ocean. But a stronger wind need not follow the customary path and may well deliver its moisture somewhere else.

Result? Some places will get unexpected rain, others will lack enough. Flood here, drought there, and who knows when?

This generality tells us quite a lot about what’s ahead. Even minor rearrangements in wind can produce trouble. Change the month when the rains arrive and fields that supported two crops each year may only support one, cutting food yield in half.

Note that no change in the annual rainfall is required for trouble—nor does it take extreme weather, as when prolonged heat waves suck all of the water out of the topsoil so that plants collapse.

Were a new pattern of moisture delivery to stick around for decades, we might slowly adapt. But no. That’s because the laggard in the global warming race just keeps falling further behind with the years, thanks to all of that evaporative cooling of the ocean surface and its greater heat capacity.

As long as “Hot-Spot Temperature” keeps increasing its lead over “Sea Surface Temperature” in this horse race to Hell, the strengthening temperature contrast over coastlines will keep producing newer and newer patterns of moisture delivery. Tracking a staggering target is far more difficult than slow adaptation to a new arrangement.

Welcome to climate instability, where all bets are off because history doesn’t help anymore.

There will be many more bad years for regional agriculture. And that increases the chance of a global bad year, as when Russia and the U.S. both got hit in 2010.

You would think that governments would return to stockpiling grain, and on a far grander scale than the pharaoh’s seven-year plan. Consider what can happen to governments relying on just-in-time supply lines.

The record heat of summer 2010 led to food shortages the following winter—and the world turned out to be surprisingly vulnerable, with lethal food riots in many countries. By the spring of 2011, a number of improvident governments started falling.

Projecting ahead, enough repetition of extreme weather—hurricanes and windstorms, deluge and drought, heat wave and Arctic outbreak—can seriously disorganize our civilization. They can lead to instant slums, a failing economy, climate refugees, resource wars, and a great difficulty in getting anything done—even crucial climate repairs.

Before collapse threatens in the emergency room, physicians institute a number of measures to “stabilize the patient.” You have to start them early to avoid the slippery slope to shock. For climate, we now need that crisis-manager way of thinking, but there is not much of it to be seen in those voluminous climate reports.

Prevention measures such as emissions reduction no longer suffice, however important they remain for the long run. To get there, however, we now need climate repairs, such as cleaning up the 43% excess of carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the air, in order to back us out of the danger zone.

The standard “take” on climate’s future by most well-informed people currently rests on predicted climate at mid-century, a gradual approach to it, and preventing worse through reduced emissions. That won’t do anymore.

In this new era of climate instability, don’t make the mistake of thinking things will change gradually. Or predictably. Or that prevention is still the obvious answer. Think repair and restoration.





William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 climate contest.


September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin