Archive for the ‘Air Pollution’ Category

People have a blind spot concerning their computers, the internet, and modern communications. For a while now (since about 15 years ago) I’ve thought about the seeming inconsistency of people worrying over the internet about what is the greenest way to make a change in their lifestyle, and discussing it throughout the world wide web. The changes, while laudable, may have little impact. Meanwhile they are getting the latest PC/PDA/Cell Phone/iPod, etc every few years, leaving their machines on all the time so they stay in touch, using massive web resources to get their messages across, and happily paying the electrical bills for same. These items are often replaced every 2-4 years (half the average replacement period for a car), contain steel, non-biodegradable plastics, toxic rare earth elements, require a huge infrastructure to maintain, have probably the worst and most deliberate obsolescence factor of any class of products on the planet, and are probably expanding their markets as fast or faster than any other class of products. Bill Gates isn’t the richest man in the world for nothing. If you try and break it down into what factors may be ecologically or climatologically unsound, interesting questions arise, regarding:

  1. Construction of the devices
  2. Construction of the communications networks, including land-lines, fibre-optic cables, wireless LAN networks, satellites and their replacements
  3. The facilities and infrastructure related to the facilities used to store and retransmit data over the web, especially considering the amount of information that the general public puts online (Google has hundreds of facilities, each with lots of servers, for example)
  4. Energy needed to run them, and the “Vampire energy” they use even when “turned off”
  5. Heat production, and energy needed for the cooling systems required to dissipate the heat (air conditioners draw energy from the outside to cool things; it is not a closed cycle). There are potential local effects on the environment, for example heating streams and rivers used as cooling sources, etc.
  6. The carbon emissions for much of the above
  7. The ecological disruptions of putting in the physical internet (fibre-optic cables, older cables, launching satellites, the facilities at the hubs, and the ongoing energy costs and pollution produced in acquiring the energy).
  8. The ecological disruptions of mining and otherwise aquiring the raw materials for construction of the devices, and the pollution produced in processing the raw materials and in making the gadgets, then packaging them, then transporting them, then removing them, then getting rid of them…
  9. What happens to most of them when they become obsolete? And what does obsolete mean these days?

I could add things, but this is definitely enough to start with.

Carbon emissions due to Internet servers.

Regarding carbon emissions alone, on the CBC program Spark, Bill St. Arnaud from Global Action Plan claimed that “the worldwide ICT sector is responsible for around 2% of man made CO2 each year – a similar figure to the global airline industry.” There is also evidence that it is growing significantly faster with respect to emissions than the airline industry, at least in the United Kingdom. The magazine New Scientist published an article indication that using a server effectively produces the same carbon emissions as a 15 mile per gallon SUV. One estimate of the number of servers in the world is 160 million, half of them being Apache servers, followed by 50 million MS servers. The number of SUVs in the U.S. was estimated by the Census Bureau to be about 25 million in 2002, up 56% from five years before. So extrapolating, we’d estimate about 55 million in 2007, and then sales slumped due to oil prices and market uncertainty. So we’ll guess about 60 million now. If so, there are about 2.67 servers in the world per SUV in the United States, and they put out about 2.67 times the emissions of the entire American SUV fleet. And the carbon footprint from servers is just the cost of running the bloody things; it doesn’t count construction, maintenance, replacements, etc.

With the number of PCs in the world projected to more than double by 2015, reaching about 2 billion machines, the carbon footprint prediction above is more than plausible, especially considering that much of the increase will be in developing countries, and most of these countries don’t have the greenest energy sources. To compare growth rates and impacts, there are currently about 600 million cars in the world, and they are projected to double in number by 2030. If true, the growth rate of PCs is at least 22 times faster than cars, and there is no reason to suppose that this rate will get any smaller (unless we run out of materials…).

I think it would be safe to say that the computer/internet industry is a bigger threat in the long term than the automotive industry, and accounts for a significant percentage (defined as greater than 1%) of the human carbon impact on global climate change. They’ll definitely beat the airline industry in the short term, which is one of the more notorious polluters.

Aside: the airlines are taking a worse beating than shipping is from environmentalists, especially from the amateur enthusiasts, but shipping does far worse damage. The airlines are responsible for about 2% of emissions, while the shipping industry accounts for 5%. Part of the reason that shipping goes unnoticed is that airlines are more high profile and visible, and more sensitive to popular pressure on their bottom line. Very few people could tell you what the major shipping lines are, or how much pollution they produce. The ships just quietly pollute their way around the world, incidentally dropping a little bunker oil here and there near Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada…


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As you’ve probably noticed in the news, the second of four assessment reports on climate change has been announced; the summary for policymakers details the main findings of the report. The first report summarised the scientific evidence of climate change and the probable future changes in climate.

The first report said “this is what is happening and what will probably happen”; this report says “these are the effects and dangers to the ecology and to us”, including water resources, species impacts, land-use and coastal effects, agricultural changes, etc. It is the first of the reports that tells us why we should be worrying about it and what we will probably have to cope with.

Because it is talking about impacts and addresses things that need to be done, some of the news media indicates increased political pressure to moderate the language in the report. Some of the scientists have decided to remove themselves from the IPCC in protest over some of the pressure applied. So when you read the summary for policymakers look for language that tries to water down the impact of results, and take it in context with the main message. Also, it might be better to err towards more significant impacts if you want to get a better idea of the consensus.

It is interesting that much of the research on biological impacts has been done in Europe; 28,000 of 29,000 observational data sets, most of them from the 6 year period since the last assessment report, come from EU countries. The European Union has consistently been the most responsible political unit regarding ecological issues over recent history. However, the greatest pressure to tone down the level of certainty in the document came from the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia, according to CBC News.

Finally, the new report talks about regional (i.e. continental) impacts. From a quick read-through, the areas that will suffer the worst seem to be the polar regions, Africa mainly due to droughts, coastal Asia (especially the mega-delta regions such as Bangladesh). For North America and the Arctic (our bailiwick) some of the findings are as follows (as quoted from the report):

Polar Regions:

  • Already Arctic human communities are adapting to climate change, but both external and internal stressors challenge their adaptive capacities. Despite the resilience shown historically by Arctic indigenous communities, some traditional ways of life are being threatened and substantial investments are needed to adapt or re-locate physical structures and communities.
  • In the Polar Regions, the main projected biophysical effects are reductions in thickness and extent of glaciers and ice sheets, and changes in natural ecosystems with detrimental effects on many organisms including migratory birds, mammals and higher predators. In the Arctic, additional impacts include reductions in the extent of sea ice and permafrost, increased coastal erosion, and an increase in the depth of permafrost seasonal thawing.
  • Beneficial impacts would include reduced heating costs and more navigable northern sea routes.
  • In both polar regions, specific ecosystems and habitats are projected to be vulnerable, as climatic barriers to species’ invasions are lowered.

North America:

  • Moderate climate change in the early decades of the century is projected to increase aggregate yields of rainfed agriculture by 5-20%, but with important variability among regions. Major challenges are projected for crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or depend on highly utilised water resources.
  • Disturbances from pests, diseases, and fire are projected to have increasing impacts on forests, with an extended period of high fire risk and large increases in area burned.
  • Cities that currently experience heat waves are expected to be further challenged by an increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves during the course of the century, with potential for adverse health impacts. The growing number of the elderly population is most at risk.
  • Coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change impacts interacting with development and pollution. Population growth and the rising value of infrastructure in coastal areas increase vulnerability to climate variability and future climate change, with losses projected to increase if the intensity of tropical storms increases. Current adaptation is uneven and readiness for increased exposure is low.

You’ll note that many of the findings are similar to previous predictions. The most important thing you should take away from this, and the difference with previous results and predictions, is that there is a lot more hard evidence supporting these statements. The 29,000 data sets I mentioned earlier show trends consistent with temperature changes as predicted by global warming, or directly show temperature change over the last few decades in the areas studied. Also, the Working Group I report that came out earlier this year show strong measured physical evidence of global and regional climate warming. The previous reports depended more on model extrapolations, but there was little data to validate against the models; now there is.

The next two reports are going to be the most interesting, since they will talk about “solutions” and will encourage governments to make responsible decisions. I expect a lot of spin. The next report will be by the Working Group III (Mitigation). This will be approved on May 4, 2007, in Bangkok. It will summarise the international consensus on how we are to cope with the effects of climate change for both the near-term and long-range impacts. In November  the synthesis report will be announced in Valencia, Spain.

The problem isn’t simple, the impacts are complicated and interconnected, and mitigation will have to address all of this together with international political interests. But the more we know the more we will be able to respond with effective actions. And governments will understand what needs to be done, and why they are doing it.

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This is a diatribe in three chapters. It was inspired by a report this evening on CBC’s As It Happens, and is a prelude to the IPCC press conference tomorrow on the Fourth Assessment Report on the current and future state of the climate. The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is sponsored by the UN and the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation), and is the main body that determines the world consensus on the scientific, social, and economic impacts and implications on climate change.


The word consensus is very important here. People have often been disappointed by the weakness of previous statements, especially regarding the scientific consensus on what the climate is doing. Because it is a consensus everyone has to agree on the exact wording, so even if 95% of the scientists in the  working group (Working Group 1) supports a definite stand, the 5% or less that dissent can add the words “may”, “probably” , etc. This allows government and industrial leaders to cast doubt on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supporting global climate change due to anthropomorphic carbon dioxide emissions, and annoys and distresses most climate researchers to no end.  It also sends most organisations concerned with climate change up the wall, for some reason.

As It Happens interviewed a member of the IPCC who discussed a related report published in Science today (Science is one of the main journals on cutting edge research in the sciences, along with Nature).  It looks at the predictions from the last IPCC assessment report in 2001, and finds that sea level rise may be greater than the previous model predictions indicated.This led me to check out the publications of the lead author, Stefan Rahmstorf, a prominent and respected oceanographer and climate change researcher.

Facts versus Fiction 

On his web page were some interesting articles.

  • The first is a very nice fact sheet summarising the main findings of climate change research, which summarises the scientific predictions, the social, economic, and ecological impacts, and addresses an approach to reducing and coping with the problem.
  • Second is RealClimate, a well-respected  blog written by climate change scientists.
  • The Climate Skeptics looks at the arguments and approaches taken by climate changes skeptics, and gives advice on how to come to your own conclusion,
  • and finally, there is a review of a “popular” movie on climate change.

Facts within Fiction

In the last few years I’ve seen two movies that relate to climate change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is possibly the best discussion of the science and implications that I’ve seen, and the science is very close to being impeccable, with the problems being extremely minor. As I’ve said before, it is a must-see.

The seconds movie is one that I despised so much that I went to see it again, so as to find all the errors and pitfalls. As a person who has been around climate change science, and who did a Master’s Degree in climate change modelling, it was particularly annoying that people with little real knowledge besides what they see in the news (almost zip) and popular science magazines (often not much better) enjoyed it as an action adventure, and totally missed much of the fantasy in this near-future SF&F movie.

However, Rahmstorf made some very relevant comments regarding some positive elements of the movie that I missed in the avalanche of small to major bloopers. Here are a few of the more insightful and cogent remarks from his comments.

  • Early in the movie the protagonist gives a talk on the shut-down of the North-Atlantic Current (the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift). He argues that the shut-downs could occur in a few hundred years, a few thousand, or not at all. Rahnstorf gave the same talk with the same diagram in real life.
  • The politics and skepticism portrayed in the movie also rang true.
  • Some of the dialog and the research work areas also rang true.
  • Relevant and important questions were raised.

Rahmstorf believes that most of the audience would understand the main fantastic elements of the movie, and would understand and be intrigued by the implications of rapid climate change (but less rapid than what would fit into a feature-length movie). If you grit your teeth and ignore the sciencific errors, it isn’t that bad, and its heart is in the right place.

Addendum and Example: At the beginning of the movie is a sequence where an Antarctic Ice shelf splits  from the mainland, and an actor has a leg on either side of the split. Also, the split occurs in about 5 minutes. Now if you check out the story of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, you’ll see the truth behind the fantasy. There are several other cases in the movie (Jack Frost chasing people around to show the cold air isn’t one of them, however.)


The press conference tomorrow will hopefully have the strongest statment about climate change to date, and might be very useful to hear. Make up your own minds, but looks at the preponderence of evidence first.

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WordPress’s online blog hosting service just released some of their statistics. I’ve just been browsing through them, and have noticed one or two things.

  • For their daily signups, there seems to be a strong weekly cycle. The minima seem to occur Friday or Saturday; I guess it is a TGIF(S) phenomena? It’s only reasonable that people would be away from their tin gods more on the weekends. Also, it reminds me of the Hawaii observations of carbon dioxide increase, but on a much shorter timescale.
  • For posting activity, the same pattern occurs, but there is more “CO_2 increase” going on, and it actually looks even more like the Mauna Loa observations.

For those unfamiliar with the Mauna Loa observations, you’ll note a yearly oscillation within the general upward trend. Some people call it Gaia breathing, or the Earth breathing. Basically, there is a significant difference in landmass between the northern and southern hemispheres, and the plant life on land (and the microbes in the soil) is much less in the southern hemisphere. Also, land biota dominate over oceanic species in their influence on oxygen/carbon dioxide variations in the atmosphere. So in a northern winter there is less net carbon dioxide uptake by plant life in the winter; in the summer the plants get more sunlight, the deciduous trees have their leaves out, and mid to high latitude plant life has its spring bloom, so the uptake of carbon dioxide is much larger.

Here is an animation of the planet breathing from the NASA Ames Research Centre. It is part of a study of the role of microbes in the soil on the greenhouse gas budget, but it does show the net transfer of carbon dioxide between the surface and the atmosphere as “seen” from space.

So go the dangers of free association, pattern recognition, and Google.

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It may be the cleanest and coolest air you’ll smell for a while.

Very recently the 2006 annual report on air quality, greenhouse gases, and water quality came out from Environment Canada. It is called Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (no euphemisms here, hmmm?) ; A better name might be the Air and Water Pollution Levels Report.

Within this report a number of items stood out. The following comments do not reflect the overall intent of the document, and any inferences taken from this potentially non-representative sampling of the report are the responsibility of the reader. I would recommend a quick perusal of the 6 page highlights report; it is a good summary of the state of things, and is easy to read.

It is part of the Clean Air Act web page, which also shows some selectivity in its presentation. For example, it has a section about Pollution Issues, which doesn’t mention greenhouse gases or global climate change as issues; it focuses on air quality, acid rain, and pollutants with immediate and short-term impacts. When you click on the main link, it directs you to the Pollution Sources page instead, for some reason.

Greenhouse Gases

I’m going to start with greenhouse gases, with which I am most familiar. This report considers the six greenhouse gases addressed in the Kyoto Protocol, but do not address ozone (which has a relatively small effect) and water vapour. Water vapour is too complicated to address here, but it is the primary greenhouse gas, is the most variable, is highly chemically reactive, and the effect of other greenhouse gases on water vapour and its resultant feedback on climate is probably the major problem in predicting climate change today.

  • The gases considered are carbon dioxide, methane (less common but extremely strong), nitrous oxide, and three groups of flourinated gases. These results are basically what is submitted to Kyoto annually as part of Canada’s commitment.
  • Canadian-made greenhouse gases have effectively increased 27% over 15 years (1990-2004), with per capita emissions increasing by 10%.
  • 91% of this change is due to transportation, the oil and gas industries, and fossil-fuel generated electricity. Alberta and Ontario led the pack in greenhouse gas production.
  • Production and consumption of energy increased 30%, and accounted for 82% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuel industrial emissions increased 49% over the period. Road transportation greenhouse gas production increased 36%, mostly due to purchases of larger vehicles. Emissions from thermal electricity and heat production increased by 37% due to greater energy demands.

It must be emphasised that extracting some fossil fuels requires generating greenhouse gases, even before the stuff extracted is burned. A good example is the Alberta Tar Sands, where they burn huge amounts of natural gas to extract the oil. Also, various agricultural practices produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including livestock and paddy rice farming, and methane emissions from vented landfills and vented septic tanks.

Methane is about 20 times more effective as a greenhouse gas per molecule than carbon dioxide. This difference actiually makes composting a desirable practice with respect to reducing greenhouse gases, rather than a problem. The decomposition does generate carbon dioxide, but it also inhibits methane production, giving a net benefit. Landfill decomposition is anaerobic and produces methane, so the more organic waste diverted from landfills to compost the better. While you can’t compost without generating greenhouse gases, it is a much better alternative than landfills.

Air Quality

Environment Canada focuses on ground-level ozone and particulates in the 2.5 micron range (PM2.5). They are both involved in smog production, and have deleterious effects on the lungs and bronchi in their own right. Basically ozone has increased by 0.9%/year over the period. This is almost exclusively in Southern Ontario, with other areas showing no clear trend. PM2.5 was greatest in Southern Ontario, and again there was no real trend from 2000-2004.

Freshwater Quality

  • For Southern Canada 22% of sampled water sources were marginal or poor, 34% were fair, and 44% were good or excellent.
  • Northern Canada was much better, with 13% marginal or poor, 20% fair, and 67% good or excellent.
  • The Great Lakes were good to excellent, except for fair for Eastern Lake Erie, and marginal for Western Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Of course Erie and Ontario are the most heavily populated and travelled lakes, and with the most industry along the shorelines.

For the freshwater statisitics, I would have liked a comparison with earlier data. But 44% of good or excellent water doesn’t seem like that much, especially since Canada is blessed with a huge amount of accessible fresh water. I also would have expected more good water in the north. On the other hand, I was fairly impressed by the Great Lakes.

What I get from this is that air quality is holding its own except in Southern Ontario, water quality doesn’t seem so great but we need more information, and greenhouse gases production rates don’t seem to be improving at all.

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Here’s an article from The Scientist. It discusses, among other things, the science of Jill Masterson’s body paint murder in Goldfinger, and of the poisonous orchids in Moonraker. More disturbing is the mention in this article of a chemical that is a more practical way to kill human beings en mass. It is called ricin, is fatal in fairly small doses (a few milligrams or less) , can be spread easily in aerosol form, and has no known antidote. It comes from castor-oil plants.

I wish they hadn’t been so explicit about it; but then again I never really liked castor oil.

P.S. I checked that infallible source of information, Wikipedia, and it says that ricin isn’t that bad compared to things like Anthrax and Botulinum, so belligerent countries or organisations with the technology would go for the latter substances. However, it is twice as deadly as Cobra venom, is easy to process from castor beans, and there is no known antidote, making it risky and also attractive to lower tech belligerents.

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A Nobel Laureate has proposed a possible but extremely unpalatable method to reduce global warming. The basic idea is to inject sulfate pollutants into the stratosphere, which will have a net effect of cooling the Earth. There is good experimental and observational support for the validity of this idea. When Mount Pinatubo erupted, it injected a large mass of sulfates into the stratosphere, causing the globally averaged surface temperature to drop by half a degree for a year. Other eruptions in history, plus a fair amount of climate modelling research, also support this idea. Given that the amount of global warming over the last 100 years has been estimated as 0.6 degrees, combined with the reputation of the scientist proposing it, this dramatic cooling mechanism is receiving some serious attention.

His method reminds me of 1940’s classic Science Fiction. I quote from CNN,

The Dutch climatologist, awarded a 1995 Nobel in chemistry for his work uncovering the threat to Earth’s atmospheric ozone layer, suggested that balloons bearing heavy guns be used to carry sulfates high aloft and fire them into the stratosphere.

The Nobel Prize-winning scientist who first made the proposal is himself “not enthusiastic about it.”

“It was meant to startle the policymakers,” said Paul J. Crutzen, of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. “If they don’t take action much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we have to do experiments like this.”

Known side effects would include increased acid rain globally (we are talking about sulfur dioxide, after all). There might also be a tendency for developing and/or irresponsible parties to delay reductions of greenhouse gases, given this method of ameliorating the problem.

This is an idea that could work without the monumental effort usually associated with global climate change scenarios. In the very short term, some might argue that here is a “viable” use for sulfur emissions. The most disturbing aspect of this idea is that it would be physically doable by the First World Countries, and it might be politically viable and also attractive for major industrial interests. Also, we don’t need to inject as much as Pinatubo; the rate of injection would only be enough to slow down or balance the posited global warming rate.

Engineering the global climate makes me think of the “good old days” of the 1950s and 60s, when we tried to interfere in local ecologies by adding species to new environments, and with the expectation that the ecologies would react in a linear and predictable manner (…hollow laugh…). This happened in Australia with rabbits, in Newfoundland with shrews and moose (we started with six, and a hundred years later we have about 120-140,000 healthy but somewhat inbred specimens). It’s hard enough trying to predict physical and chemical feedbacks in the climate; effects on ecologies, and possible feedbacks to local and global climates, make me want to go somewhere else.

As an aside, human effects on climate are not restricted to the Industrial Revolution. Consider the following three examples. First there is the obvious short-term interaction between farmers and the Sahel region of northern Africa. Second is the deleterious change over the centuries in the climate of the Fertile Crescent, most of which was man-made and was related to agricultural methods. Third is one that surprised me when I first read of it, but which does make sense. When agrarian societies started migrating into Western Europe, it was basically a series of vast forests. They started cutting down the trees and planting grains and grasses. Continue for 500-1000 years, and most of the sub-continent became grasslands and farms.

Think about it. Millions of square kilometres of forest became millions of square kilometres of fields and grasslands. The albedo of the ground changes, the rate of evapotranspiration (transfer of water vapour into and out of the ground and the plant life) changes, the rate at which the ground cools and is heated changes massively. Voila! The climate of all of Europe and areas downwind to the east are modified by primitive man, without resort to pollution nor greenhouse gases, and the ecologies had to adapt. No more Aurochs, Big Bad Wolves, getting lost in the forest for days, etc. The Black Death in the 1340’s slowed this change for a couple of generations, but didn’t stop it.

Finally, this sulfur injection proposal actually be the most viable solution, given the lack of progress and resistance on other fronts. We have a positive talent for changing the world around us in unpredictable ways without even noticing it; we used to blame it on Evil Chance, the much maligned Nature, or other gods. Now we’re getting into the hubris business big-time. Let’s hold our breaths and see what happens.

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