Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Monday, August 14, 2006

  Global Warming - Solved!

I've had a lot on my mind lately, and I took some time off to celebrate day 0 of the Mayan calendar (and also my personal day 0) to clear my head.

While reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse" - where Al Gore's latest work is environmentalism "lite", Jared hits you with 50 tons of silent Easter Island statue and then piles on an ahu- and being grumpy about his general attitude towards technology (hey Jared - how could those government programs achieve their goals without the new technologies they pay for?) I spent some time trying to think out of the box.

That kind of pushed me into a corner - what can we do about climate change that doesn't involve (much) technology...

OK, I came up with an answer. It's not one that a normal environmentalist might come to, so, here it is.

Ready?

What we need is more volcanos spewing sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.

Really.

The Mt St Helens explosion lowered global temperatures by .1c, and El Chichon lowered global temperatures by nearly 5 times as much. The relationship between major volcanic eruptions and global cooling is well established.

As Diamond repeatedly notes, volcanos' rich ejecta are good for the soil. Aside from local loss of life and tsunamis and the like, the world is refleshed by the periodic eruption of volcanos.

So, obviously, in order to halt global warming, and refresh the world's topsoil - we need more active volcanos!

There are certainly a lot of dormant volcanos in the world, quite a few of which are located far from human habitation (and quite a few that are not - as noted above, some volcanism results in very good soil for farming)

So how do we get more volcanos?

Easy.

Use up some of these otherwise useless atomic bombs. I wave hands here, as I don't know how many bombs would be required to trigger a volcanic eruption in an older volcano - perhaps someone else has done the calculation - I'll look it up in the morning.

There you have it - global warming - solved! and as a side benefit, our supply of nuclear weapons declines - and our sunsets will be ever more beautiful for decades to come.

Why worry?

For my next trick, I will defend our expanding the use of nuclear power vs getting involved in more war in the Middle East.

I wish I knew why I didn't get along so well with greens. I mean, I'm just trying to help....
 
Comments:
I too found Collapse to be a scary book. However I can't help wondering if technology, being connected and education will make our society a little more robust.
 
Funny idea, (and I assume that was your intention), but to be pedantic, nukes aren't anywhere near powerful enough for that.

this is a picture of what happens when you detonate a nuke underground. That crater is about 250 meters across. When Mt St Helens popped in 1980, it left a crater 6 times further across and probably at least 10 times deeper, not counting the whole top thousand feet of the mountain that got blown off, all in all representing several hundred times as much energy--on the close order of half a gigaton--and St Helens wasn't even that big a deal, as volcanos go. IMHO, the only way you're going to be able to trigger a volcanic eruption with nukes is if there was about to be one anyway; the most you could do is speed up nature's timetable a fraction.

Plus, I'm not sure if volcanic soil would still be all that good for plants if it was mixed up with a bunch of cesium-137 and shit. :)
 
Well, it was pretty funny at 3AM when I woke up with it after an oppressive dream spent staring back at the silent Easter Island Statues, while taking the place of the person cuttind down the last usable tree....

As for feasability, I spent the morning researching volcanic activity on the web. One telling quote was that Mt St Helens "released as much energy than one atomic bomb per second during it's biggest" eruption.

Now, I hated that quote - was it Hiroshima or something on the scale of Tsar Bomba - but I note that Tsar Bomba was well within the order of magnitude you describe.

Secondly, it's not the size of the explosion that matters but the size and type of the particulates emitted. The much smaller El Chichon eruption was much better than St Helens cooling the globe. "The eruption was notable in that large volumes of sulphur dioxide rich aerosols were injected into the lower stratosphere and were dispersed globally, causing brilliant sunrises and sunsets over a large area of Earth and a decrease in the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface."

Thirdly, just as a fission reaction triggers a fusion reaction in a modern H-Bomb, a modern H-bomb could be placed so as to suddenly relieve the pressure of a magma well deep within a volcano, and thus trigger a much larger explosion powered by the earth itself.

As you say, this might only be hurrying the volcano a bit, but perhaps such a solution would give us time to come up with other, more long term ones.

When compared to changing human nature enough to truly reverse global warming, engineering a few extra volcanos a year to blow their stack seems like a piece of cake....

and think of the sunsets!
 
I understand how you feel about that Easter Island scene in the book. Scary stuff. These sorts of books are like scary bed time stories for adults. However, in this case its up to us (our generation) to "engineer" an ending. And I think your post (taken seriously) is actually a pretty good start.

Here are a few other very scary (is plausable) stories that I have read over the last few year:

1/ Evolution (Steven Baxter). For example the author actually tells us what it feels like to be a dinosaur chick being eaten by a preditor, and also deals with human extinction. The story as a whole makes me realise how transitory our species could be.

2/ Transcendent (also by Baxter): A really good look at the world near the end of our lives (2047) when the fossil fuels are gone and the climate is all screwed up. Scared the hell out of/fascinated me as the hero is the same "age" as my son (ie born in 1998). Mike, you will be pleased to know that engineers saved the day.

3/ Empire of Debt (Bonner & Wiggen): Basically tells us how the west is spending itself into economic collapse. Especially you naughty Americans (although in .au we do exactly the same on a smaller scale).

These sorts of books scare me because I have trouble rationalising my way out into a rosy future. I pretty much _know_ there is no big bad wolf. But I cant deny the oil will run out one day.

Funny thing is I don't buy most of the "green" arguments - they just don't stack up to me - too emotive, not enough reason, and often solving the wrong problems (or ruling out viable solutions on emotive grounds).

BTW on balance (having donea little research) I am also for nuclear power (serious).
 
My take on nuclear power is that in the long run it's the wrong horse to back, for several reasons, but it's so vastly much better than the current practical alternative (to wit, coal) that I kind of hate to speak up and say so.

The cost of mining uranium ore, crushing it, and purifying it, is not zero; it increases in inverse proportion to the quality of the ore, and it increases with the price of oil. You can stretch things by reprocessing used fuel, but for nonproliferation reasons we don't. In principle you could stretch the supply forever if you used breeder reactors, but so far no one's ever built one that was commercially viable; they're very hard. So effectively under the current regime we get to use the uranium for one cycle. Eventually, as the best ores are used up, the money and energy it takes to dig the shit up is going to exceed the money and energy it produces.

And even today, when uranium is still relatively cheap and accessible, nobody's managed to run a nuclear power plant and make money on it without government subsidies. Without the subsidies (price-anderson etc), the cost for electricity from a fission plant would run something like 25 to 40 cents per kWh.

Meanwhile, there's enough wind in Kansas alone to run our civilization forever, and it costs about a nickel per kWh. People kvetch about wind's unreliability, but in fact, the wind is pretty-much always blowing somewhere--what we need is more wind farms, all over the place. And solar-thermal, and hydro, and tides, and geothermal. (Hmm, enabling deeper drilling for geothermal power... that might be something we could talk about using nuclear bombs for...)

But, all that said, coal is much much worse than nuclear power. Between the greenhouse gases, the acid rain, the flyash, and the tops of mountains being blown the fuck off (and not in an atmosphere-cooling volcanic way, either), I'd sign on for building more nukes in a heartbeat if it would stop people from burning coal.

But in terms of economics and sustainability, I just think there are more productive ways to go.
 
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