Back to School

Image Credit : Des Gould

After my careers in engineering and information technology, I went back to university today, to train for my third career, in sustainable development.

Like most of the other people enrolling on the course, I want a green job, and I’m prepared to study for it.

The only future for the economy is in clean energy and saved energy, Renewables and Conservation, and I want to be in there, doing something productive and practical.

I learned several things today, some of them from the course leader.

1. The Greenhouse Effect is really hard to communicate.

After the lecture, a lot of the students went to the subsidised bar for a soft drink and some nibbles, and we went back over black body radiation and the electromagnetic radiation absorption spectrum, with pens and paper, shouting at each other in the dim and the noise.

I think I might have actually helped someone, by explaining radiative forcings of the various components of the atmosphere several times in several different ways, and he said it clicked, finally.

Let’s face facts here : everyone, from Al Gore downwards, have a hard time communicating this basic science, because it relies on the Laws of Physics, which are just not normal everyday kind of intuition.

2. The Sydney Duststorm most likely contained Uranium ore.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/8277924.stm

“Where did the dust storm originate from ?” asked one of my co-students. Lake Eyre. “And what’s right beside it ?” Shrugs shoulders. “Woomera. Only an open-cast uranium mine !”

3. That Britain has twice the Carbon emissions it says it has.

I think the Government might regret hiring David MacKay as its Energy and Climate Change adviser :-

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/01/carbon-emissions-david-mackay

4. Richard Betts says we could see 4 degrees of warming by 2060, 2070.

The course tutor reported back from the 4 degrees and beyond conference in Oxford.

In order to avoid the serious consequences of overshoot in the Earth’s average temperature, emissions have to peak some time between 2015 and 2020. If we peak early, then we have to see a 3% to 4% decrease in emissions per year after that (some scenarios 10% per year).

The later the emissions peak the faster you have to decrease after the peak.

And as for adaptation, there has to be wholescale change in our understanding of what it is necessary to do not just “fiddling at the edges”.

We clearly need much more international co-operation.

For the presentations from the conference :-

http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/4degrees/programme.php

5. Ocean floor methane hydrates might not be an issue.

The real problem with methane is the melting Arctic thawing up millions and millions of years of partially decomposed peat, which will start emitting huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as the temperature comes permanently above freezing point.

On the continental shelves there are methane hydrate formations, but they are below the thermocline (the temperature gradient between the warming upper ocean and the deep ocean), so they are unlikely to warm up greatly.

And as sea levels rise, the methane hydrates will be deeper, so less likely to destabilise (something I hadn’t thought about !)

6. Methane emissions are rising again.

http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2009/20090925_arctic.html

“September 25, 2009 : Unusually high temperatures in the Arctic and heavy rains in the tropics likely drove a global increase in atmospheric methane in 2007 and 2008 after a decade of near-zero growth, according to a new study. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, albeit a distant second.”

“NOAA scientists and their colleagues analyzed measurements from 1983 to 2008 from air samples collected weekly at 46 surface locations around the world. Their findings will appear in the September 28 print edition of the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters and are available online now.”

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