Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Running Hot and Cold

Here's a little something from the "All I Know Is..." Department.

Current political correctness, aided by former vice-president Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth, would have us believe that industrialization is leading to a potentially disasterous climate change.

At the same time many voices are offering a counter-argument that the opposite is occurring, citing examples like the Maunder Minimum.

The picture above is of Big Knockemdown Key, one of the uninhabited Florida Keys. In the background is a stand of pine trees. During the last period of glaciation, which ended about 10,000 years ago, the sea level was substantially lower. What is now Florida Bay was a pine forest. As the sea intruded the area covered with pines became smaller and smaller. Although this species is tolerant of salt air, they will not grow in salt water. Their range was gradually limited to the mainland or to the few offshore islands that had a small freshwater aquifer.

According to botanists the pines pictured above are the descendants of remnants of the original post-glacial pine forest. The pines on each island are autochthonous--descendants of the original pines that were growing on site (as opposed to pines developed from seeds spread by birds or by the wind). Thus they or their descendants had been growing in place for at least 10,000 years.

After Hurricane Wilma passed through the Keys in 2005, the pines all died. So for 10,000 years they had survived countless storms and hurricanes, all of which leads to the strong conclusion that in recent years the sea level has increased slightly, enough to inundate the island during a high-water incident like Wilma to the point that they were killed by salt intrusion.

So I don't really know if we are in a warming phase of a greater overall cooling phase, or if human-generated warming is counteracting a strong overall sun-related cooling phase, or any combination of the above.

All I really know is that now the pines are dead. And they weren't before Wilma in 2005. They had been there for over 10,000 years.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Will Someone Tell Us--About the Marcellus???

The price of gasoline has gone up again, not so high as it was three years ago in 2008, but high enough that families are feeling the pinch, and more specifically enough so that energy companies are exploring alternative sources of fuel.

One of the potential sources is the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that stretches from New York State down through West Virginia. The Marcellus (named after a town in western New York where the "type section" was identified) was laid down in the Devonian era, 350 million years ago.

It is a black shale deposited in deep water when North America was splitting off from a supercontinent to the east. Decomposing plant and animal life was eventually converted to "natural gas," mostly methane, trapped within its layers.

In order to extract the gas in marketable quantities energy companies use a process called fracturing, or "fracking." Certain fluids and a type of sand are pumped into drilled shafts to fracture the rock, and find their way into every nook and cranny. When the fluid is extracted, the crevices remain, help open by the sand that is introduced. Then the gas can be pumped up the surface in marketable quantities.

(Above: section of the Marcellus Shale--darker layers in upper right)

But here's the rub: the companies who are drilling for gas in the Marcellus and other formations like it are hush-hush about the fluid used in fracking. After all, they are independent companies in competition with each other, and their trade secrets are proprietary information.

There is mounting evidence, however, not just from environmental bureaucrats but from landowners whose well water has been affected, that fracking fluid is contaminating local aquifers. Worse yet, it seems that in some cases the fluid contains benzene, a known carcinogen.

(Formula for benzene C6H6. Each carbon shares two hydrogens with the one adjacent to it, in a conformation known as a "benzene ring.")
Major urban centers like New York City and Philadelphia draw their water supplies from areas underlain by the Marcellus Shale. The potential problem is so great that even the state of Texas is now considering legislation requiring energy companies to reveal the nature of the fracking liquids they are using.

There is no doubt that the Marcellus contains enough untapped energy to alleviate greatly the country's dependence on foreign oil in future years. But it is also essential to maintain and safeguard a viable source of fresh, potable water for an expanding urban population.

Even a small amount of organic hydrocarbons (like benzene) can pollute an aquifer more or less permanently. Just ask anyone who has (or had) a well anywhere near a gas station with a ruptured or abandoned underground fuel tank. It's there, you can smell it, you can taste it, but you had better not drink too much of it.

Regardless of what kind of public relations "spin" energy companies put on the situation, good water is a basic necessity of human life, moreso than cheap, or even moderately cheap energy. Poisoning the aquifers is not an acceptable price. In the meantime the world awaits that clever engineer who will find a way to frack shale using a non-toxic method, and will surely beat a path to his door.

Annual Hurricane Prognostication

Once again, at the start of hurricane season this year, we have contacted our amateur hurricane prognosticator Typhoon O'Connor, who otherwise declines to be depicted or identified, for his annual report on water temperatures, thickness of caterpillars' fuzz, directions of land tortises crossing the road (what few of them are left), and other obscure imponderables known only to old Florida hands.

“This is another a them La NiƱa years,” he says. “This year th’ hexperts is downgradin' th' number of storm we'll have, but sayin' to look out--there'll be at least one big one to make land. To me that's like saying they'll have their cake an' eat it, too. Which is it?

"But that's how it is with all them buroocrats--they gotta have it both ways. So I'll stick with the amatoors again. Shoor we're in th' middle of a drought, an' no rain means the water ain't been cooled off like it should be. But them as have dipped their dainties in the offshore waters say that ain't so---the water's actually cooler this year.

"So I say, cool yer jets. Don't get all hot an' bothered about what's gonna happen. I predict another light year with a couple of scares maybe, but we're gonna luck out.

"Cut your coconuts, lay in some tinned meat and bottle water, pay up yer insurance if ya got it, but don't give yerself a case of agita."