Friday, December 30, 2011

A New Atlantis?

I am reading a fascinating book at the moment, "Forbidden History", which challenges certain prevailing scientific edicts and claims there are intellectual conspiracies at hand regarding such matters as the reality of ice-ages, the prospect of interplanetary cataclysms caused by massive electromagnetic discharges (lightning bolts striking one planet from another) and that ancient mythologies may provide accurate records of cosmic events in pre-history. It is also speculated that there may have been technically advanced civilizations on Earth prior to our own who were wiped-out along with most of any physical record of them by abrupt and cataclysmic events. It is claimed these people may have lived on the fabled island of Atlantis, but traversed the globe as evidenced e.g. by common linguistic roots and architectural constructs that are found across a range of geographically diverse human cultures. The source of such cataclysm it is suggested might be a "pole-shift", an event speculated upon by Charles Hapwood and by no less a figure than Albert Einstein.

Now, what is being proposed here is not a gentle shifting of the Earth's magnetic poles but something rather more dramatic. It involves a physical slippage of the Earth's crust over the substance of the planetary interior, like the skin of an orange skidding over the softer and deeper fruit, with the movement of entire continents abruptly from polar to warmer regions and vice versa. It is speculated that the absence of a steady fossil record showing the process of evolution in action is due to a past forged by catastrophic suddenness rather than by gradual change and adaptation. The work of Immanuel Velikovsky is given due mention, but also that it was eschewed and the man himself vilified by senior scientists. His books, however, won him public fame and became best-sellers, e.g. "Worlds in Collision", "Earth in Upheaval", "Ages in Chaos", which are of the highest erudition and scholarship and well worth reading, whether the ideas they propound may finally prove valid or not.

Atlantis itself and where it might have been is discussed in some detail. It is the stuff of legend that the island was destroyed by some unknown and possibly volcanic calamity. However, it is speculated that rather than disappearing to the bottom of some sea, it might have been what is now Antarctica. It is proposed that at the time of the Atlantean civilization and its advanced state of knowledge the island was located at a more temperate latitude, but the "skin-skid" which wiped-out the Atlanteans relocated it to the south pole and over the intervening 10,000 years or so Atlantis/Antarctica has become covered deeply with ice. All very interesting and I keep an open mind on such alternative and iconoclastic views to be both intrigued and entertained by them.

But how unstable is the Earth? I am reminded of the following which I wrote some time ago:

"An Unstable Earth?

I came across an interesting article, referenced below, which suggests that we may expect trouble from within the Earth itself, in addition to the surface effects of climate change involving mainly the atmosphere and the seas. According to the geologic record, the interglacial periods are separated by around 100,000 years, and are inter-spaced by the ice-ages. The exact causes of ice-ages remain a matter of considerable speculation but are generally thought to relate to changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, and hence to variances in the amount of solar radiation falling onto the Earth.

As an ice-age progresses, glaciers advance in varying degrees from the polar regions in the direction of the equator, resulting in substantial proportions of the continents becoming covered in sheets of ice with a thickness of more than one kilometer. Now that is an amazing thought! To achieve this phenomenon, water is drawn from the oceans and frozen into ice. Correspondingly, the sea levels globally were anywhere up to 130 metres lower than they are today. Given the relatively shallow basin of the English channel and that between Alaska and Russia, it was once possible to walk between the various continents.

At the end of an ice-age, the ice-sheets retreated and so the melt-water drained back into the ocean basins, causing the sea levels to rise at a rate of several metres per century. Significantly, research by Bill McGuire, who is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, shows that in the Mediterranean area, there exists a good correlation between the rate of rise and fall of sea levels during the last ice-age and the number of volcanic eruptions in Italy and Greece. The connection was clearest following the retreat of glaciers which occurred around 18,000 years ago, resulting in extensive flooding of the globe, and an increase in sea levels to where they are now, with a corresponding 300% increase in the number of volcanic explosions in the Mediterranean region.

Now correlation does not necessarily reveal cause, but the following explanation has been offered to account for these findings. The huge mass of melt-water pouring onto the continental margins and marine island chains (where over 60% of the world's active volcanoes are) squeezes and distorts the Earth's crust, forcing-out underlying magma into an actual eruption. There is considerable variation in results from mathematical models as to the extent of sea level rise that might occur in the future, but it seems quite possible that hair-trigger volcanoes (those close to blowing their top) might be set-off by relatively modest increases. Sea-level rise is in itself a dangerous thing, since a one metre rise would threaten to inundate about a third of all agricultural land in the world, two metres would overwhelm the Thames flood-barrier under surge-conditions, while four metres would swamp Miami, placing it 60 kilometres off the US coast.

The higher that sea levels rise, the greater is the chance that the world's volcanoes may be triggered, and in extreme cases, the activation of geological faults could occur, resulting in more earthquakes and undersea landslides. Hence there is a tsunami risk too, for example the Storegga Slide off Norway 8,000 years ago, which sent a 20 metre high wave across the Shetland Islands and onto the east coast of Scotland. The whole notion brings to mind that the Earth is not a collection of unrelated parts but an holistic entity (the "Earth system"), wherein change in one feature may have ramifications through the whole planet."

Related Reading.
"The Earth Fights Back," by Bill McGuire, Guardian Unlimited August 7, 2007.
"Forbidden History", Published by Bear and Co., Rochester, Vermont 2005, Ed. J. Douglas Kenyon)

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Energy" - not just "Electricity".

Implementing nuclear power on a grand scale will not secure an energy supply for the U.K., nor will it significantly reduce our CO2 greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is simple, but is seldom rendered explicitly, that only 18% of the total final energy consumption is provided by electricity. 78% (430% more) of the U.K.'s total energy is produced by burning coal, natural gas and oil directly, and this burden would not be influenced at all by any amount of nuclear development. The maximum change that might be made - at least in principle - is the substitution of all fossil fuel (mostly coal and gas) fired power stations by nuclear.

Exactly how monumental an undertaking this would be may be gauged from the fact that the current 17% of total electricity produced by nuclear is generated from 18 reactors, which are housed in 10 separate power stations. On this basis, to substitute for the 80% of electricity currently produced from coal and gas, using nuclear, would require building around 100 new reactors, and that is on top of the new ones that will be required in any case, to replace all but one of the existing reactors, which will come to the end of their working lifetimes by the year 2023. This clearly is a colossal undertaking which does not solve the major issues of "security of supply" or CO2 emissions in any significant degree. We will still need to import oil and gas from politically maverick regions, mainly Russia and the Middle east, and is the uranium fuel required for nuclear to be found on our doorstep? Hardly. Most of it comes over from Canada.

What about renewables? It is thought that in the longer run (say, by 2050) around 40% of the U.K.'s electricity might be provided using wind/wave/hydroelectric/ solar power. A significant proportion of this would be produced by "microgeneration" devices, rather than a large scale "grid", though any excess electricity generated beyond the local demands of each "micro" community, could be fed into the central network. This still only addresses "electricity" as a final fuel, and the question of providing the greater bulk of "energy" persists.

In simple economic terms, on the level of an individual or a country, the degree of security depends on the gap between income and expenditure. More can be earned or less spent. As far as the U.K.'s energy earnings are concerned, the limit is in sight. We cannot realistically "earn" more fuel, and we may well have to endure a pay-cut. It is thus a matter of economy, and of economising. That we spend the precious resources of oil and gas only where it is essential to do so. This will involve schemes of energy efficiency, for example the "40% House" being researched by Dr Brenda Boardman's group in the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University and the Passivhaus concept.

Such advances in building design could make huge savings in energy use for "space heating" across both the domestic and commercial sectors (each of which accounts for around 30% of the national total energy demand). Transport, which uses another 26%, mainly in the form of oil, is another area where savings could be made, both through more efficient combustion engines (or fuel cells, if the costs can ever be made realistic), and simply by eliminating all unnecessary use of cars (especially the military style "road wagons" - 4x4's, SUV's, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are - that have more to do with symbolising status than any practical transportation issue) .

To a reasonable mind it all seems straightforward, but I suspect there are too many people making too much money to allow any attention more than lip-service to be paid, until it is too late and there is no longer any choice.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Die-Off or Abundance?

The ownership of the largest deposits of oil, notably in the former U.S.S.R., e.g. Siberia and Kazakhstan and the Caspian region generally, in addition to the fields in the Middle East, will likely determine the future balance of world power. "The New World Order" as it is sometimes referred to. It is interesting that it is scientists from the former U.S.S.R. who throng among the ranks of "Hubbert detractors" - those who do not believe in an imminent "peak oil" scenario. There appears to be a conflict of opinion, and probably of interest too, between Western and Soviet oil experts, which revolves around different viewpoints as to the origin of petroleum. The western belief is, as we were all taught at school, that petroleum is a result of "cooking" plant and animal remains over millennia, and proof of its origin thus is taken to be the presence of the same type of organic molecules (porphyrins etc.) as are found in living plants and animals, i.e. the biotic theory.

Soviet thinking, which goes back at least as far as the great Russian chemist Medeleyev (who devised the Periodic Table of the chemical Elements), is that petroleum is formed in the deep earth by geochemical processes - Mendeleyev thought by the action of water on iron carbides. This is called the abiotic theory.

The explanation for the presence of porphyrins etc. is that they are simply dissolved from higher strata by petroleum moving upward from the depths, and acting as an organic solvent. The essential difference between these schools of thinking is that, if the Russians are right, oil can be considered a limitless resource, while the western view readily accords with an imminent peak oil; i.e. a finite supply of oil. The Russians, however, are sufficiently convinced after more than 50 years of intensive research that their theory is correct and they have made enormous investments in developing "deep drilling" techniques (8 km and more down) with which to reach the petroleum deposits formed deep underground. Of course, while there are differences of opinion about how much oil there is, even conventional oil depending on whether a 90% probability (P90) or 50% probability (P50) scenario is used, and there may well be large amounts of either biotically or abiotically derived oil beyond what has been estimated, if that oil cannot be recovered at a sufficient rate to meet demand for it, then a supply-demand gap for crude oil is inevitable. The event of Peak Oil will rapidly and substantively enlarge that gap.

Either the Russians will secure their position more strongly in the new world order, or affordable oil will run out - for everybody. This is particularly alarming in the context of world population. In 1900, there were less than 2 billion people on the planet (up from about 1 billion in 1800); now the figure has just passed 7 billion, and the exponential curve in population growth that these numbers can be plotted upon is an exact parallel with the curve for oil production. Without the vast quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and fuels to run farm machinery, all of them being made from crude oil and natural gas, we could not grow enough food to feed the rising population, nor even the current number, nor far less than that. Some predict that a "die off" will follow peak oil production, and that the world population will fall from 7 billion to perhaps as few as 500 million (the death of almost 5 billion people, or about 92% of the number now alive).

An analogy can be drawn with the growth of bacteria, which, so long as there is sufficient food available, follows a "sigmoid curve". There is an initial growth in population which multiplies rapidly (the rising upper of the sigmoid), and then levels off abruptly when the food supply becomes restricted relative to the new, far larger population. Then they begin to eat each other instead, and the number of bacteria remaining alive plummets.

Placed in human terms, it is hardly a comforting comparison.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Peak Oil, the NHS and theTransition Nation: Cuba.

Almost all aspects of modern life are acutely dependent on oil, including the practice of contemporary medicine. What then will happen as easy oil becomes more scarce, its costs rise, and ultimately there is less of it? The growing instabilities in those regions of the world where most of the oil is, e.g. the Middle East, do not bode well for a secure supply of oil meanwhile, and once sovereign production peaks occur, the loss of income to these oil-producing nations will urge further unrest. In reality, the major oil-costs incurred by the NHS in the U.K., and most medical services worldwide, are from transportation. Thus, health, along with food, and virtually all else that we have come to accept without question as a given, is standing still, while the edge of a precipice advances toward it. Modern medical care requires transport of people to hospitals in emergency cases (gasoline to put into the fuel tanks of ambulances), and even air-ambulances (e.g. the "heli-pad" on top of the Royal London Hospital); moreover, it requires the movement of medical supplies: drugs, equipment for surgical procedures, hypodermics, blood, bottled oxygen, food, the disposal of medical-waste...the list goes on and on, and the doctors, nurses, administrative staff, porters, and even the Senior Managers and accountants - since most hospitals are now "cost centres" - all have to get to work!

If, as some think, the world is already at close to the half-way point of oil extraction and consumption, then this might be a good moment to ponder how to achieve a condition of healthfulness in the time that is at hand. Provision of energy affects everything, and complex equipment in hospitals as elsewhere can only run if there if sufficient electricity to allow it to do so. Otherwise it may just sit monumentally outside in the carparks of such institutions, that are no longer replete with either the means to operate the latest medical breakthrough or indeed cars. Most items, even surgical gloves, are manufactured fundamentally from oil. Hence oil (petroleum) should be cherished as a unique chemical feedstock, and so breaking our dependence on it for fuel, is mandatory, even ignoring all other reasons for doing so. This is an exercise in conservation, not obviously of flora or fauna, but of a precious resource and hence ultimately of the human species.

Food - whether we are healthy or ill, all of us need to eat to stay alive. The same goes for water provision. Modern means of food production and of water purification and the distribution of these commodities all require oil. Heat in winter, and increasingly air-conditioning in summer requires energy, and that is mostly provided from oil and gas. Will the edge come quickly or slowly? This is an important question, but it is hard to answer. It depends - on lots of things. It will depend on the unfolding of world politics, and who has their hands on the oil reserves in 5, 10, 20 or more years, and whether an individual nation counts itself among their friends or not. In effect it will depend on a world barter system: of goods, of money, of political (including military) support for given regimes, all manoeuvring for security of a self- supply of oil and gas.

It is interesting that Cuba, which is the single positive example known of a successful post peak-oil economy, in fact produces more doctors than are needed at home, and Cuban doctors are well known for their world aid work. It is striking that Cubans have a very similar life expectancy and infant mortality rate to the U.S., but use around only 12% (one eighth) of the energy, per capita. The example of Cuba should be taken as highly encouraging - that it is possible to achieve a great deal with a preventative, holistic approach to health overall, rather than just medicine. Were it not for the overwhelming drive to secure as much money as possible - mostly through oil - as facilitated by the global status quo, we might act more quickly to discover just how much could be "secured" by thinking and acting on a more local level. But this will not happen significantly until there is almost no slack left in the system - when there is really no choice left over oil.