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Rocket Doc Notes for Week of May 16, 2021

My take future life on this planet - Part I

First, I need to define what I’m going to talk about

Weather refers to atmospheric conditions that occur locally over short periods of time—from minutes to hours or days. Familiar examples include rain, snow, clouds, winds, floods or thunderstorms.

Climate refers to the long-term regional or even global average of temperature, humidity and rainfall patterns over seasons, years or decades.

Climate Change is the really long changes in climate measured over thousands of years such as our periodic Ice Ages caused by perturbations in Earth’s orbit.

Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere. The term is frequently used interchangeably with the term climate change, though the latter refers to both human- and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet. It is most commonly measured as the average increase in Earth’s global surface temperature.

Figure 1 - This graph illustrates the change in global surface temperature relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures, with the year 2020 tying with 2016 for warmest on record (Source: NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Learn more about global surface temperature here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since the pre-industrial period, human activities are estimated to have increased Earth’s global average temperature by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a number that is currently increasing by 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade. Most of the current warming trend is, to greater than 95 percent probability, the result of human activity since the 1950s and is proceeding at an unprecedented rate over decades to millennia. I don’t think there are many doubters left believing that Global Warming is not happening or that it is not caused by the burning fossil fuels.

As I said climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional, and global climates. These changes have a broad range of observed effects that we are just beginning to understand. Changes observed in Earth’s climate since the early 20th century are primarily driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere, raising Earth’s average surface temperature. These human-produced temperature increases are commonly referred to as global warming. Natural processes can also contribute to climate change, including internal variability (e.g., cyclical ocean patterns like El Niño, La Niña and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) and external events (e.g., volcanic activity, changes in the Sun’s energy output, variations in Earth’s orbit).

Western Drought - Right now, the Western Drought Pattern, show in figure 2 below is mistakenly blamed on global warming in the media, but is actually caused by the long-term cyclical ocean pattern La Niña. This drought has been blamed for the severe California fire seasons and the current cutoff of water to farmers in the San Juaquin valley. The drought pattern shown in the figure above is caused by the La Niña Ocean pattern which often lasts for several years and may or may not be acerbated by Global Warming.

Figure 2 - Western Drought Prediction brought on by La Niña Ocean pattern

This is a serious problem which I will attempt to explain. First, I need to explain what La Niña is. La Nina refers to the periodic cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific. Typically, La Nina events occur every 3 to 5 years or so, but on occasion can occur over successive years. La Nina represents the cool phase of the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. La Nina strengthened last year but began to show signs of weakening this year as less negative temperature anomalies returned to the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Several computer models forecast this warming to continue through the winter and therefore the latest official forecast from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) calls for this La Nina to be over by late May of 2021. The current ocean temperature distribution is shown in figure 3 below.

Figure 3 – Current Pacific Ocean Temperatures relative to Average

During a La Nina event, the changes in Pacific Ocean temperatures affect the patterns of tropical rainfall from Indonesia to the west coast of South America. These changes in tropical rainfall patterns affect weather patterns throughout the world. These effects are usually strongest during the winter months when the jet stream is strongest over the United States. As shown in the Figure 4 below, La Nina episodes in the winter months feature a wave-like jet stream flow across the United States and Canada, which causes colder and stormier than average conditions across the North, and warmer and less stormier conditions across the south. Historically for this part of the Midwest, fall tends to be warmer and drier than normal while winters tend to be wetter than normal. However, there are also many other complicated factors in the atmosphere and oceans that can also impact our weather patterns. La Nina episodes can last for several years, and it is disingenuous to blame the current conditions on global Warming.

Figure 4 – Typical Wintertime La Niña Ocean Pattern

I have personal experience with La Niña. Back in the early 1970s I bought an old gold mining claim up in the Cascade Mountains. I was in a remote mountain valley close to the old mining town of Monte Cristo. The claim dated from the 1890s but there was road access to the foot of the claim via a Forest Service Road and three log bridges. The 1970s was a period of repeated La Niña and we had heavy snows followed by a “Pineapple Express”, heavy warm rainstorms, which resulted in three “one-hundred-year floods” in seven or eight years. These floods washed out the roads and bridges that had stood there since the 1890s. Access to my property is still very limited today. We are experiencing La Niña again and that is the cause of the severe western drought shown in figure 2.

Scientists use observations from the ground, air and space, along with theoretical models, to monitor and study past, present and future climate change. Climate data records provide evidence of climate change key indicators, such as global land and ocean temperature increases; rising sea levels; ice loss at Earth’s poles and in mountain glaciers; frequency and severity changes in extreme weather such as hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods and precipitation; and cloud and vegetation cover changes, to name but a few.

Find Out More: A Guide to NASA’s Global Climate Change Website

Energy Generation Issues - When the sun is constantly shining, and the wind is blowing at full gust … we can’t even use all of the energy it supplies us with. So, without some cheap way to store this energy, a ton of it goes to waste. In one year, for instance, China wasted enough clean energy to power all of Beijing. This year so far, California lost 774,000 megawatt hours of clean power. That’s enough to provide power to 129,000 homes for the past nine months. And it’s the same everywhere there’s solar energy and wind energy… Our power needs just don’t match what either deliver. So, we could build all the solar panels and wind farms we want… But without the ability to STORE this power, for use when we need it the most… Solar and wind, as great as they are, will never grow beyond just a niche market. It is the one thing that’s held us back from a world of clean, 24/7, on-demand power. There are two primary options for storing the excess renewable power: batteries and on the spot generation of an energy storage medium. I’ll cover on the spot generation of an energy storage medium next week. Batteries are the current preferred solution, but they are both very expensive and require a lot of mined minerals per kilowatt-hour stored. In other words, it would virtually all the cobalt and lithium in the world to supply the batteries to convert all the worlds trucks and automobiles to electric, and to store the extra renewable power required to power those trucks and automobiles.

Fortunately, advancing technology is going to save us. Self-driving cars are going to enter the market within the next two years. This will radically reduce the number of trucks and automobiles manufactured because it will be far more economical to use the ubiquitous shared, fraction ownership option than own a car of your own. Your phone can have a self-driving car at your door is less than a minute and that car will deliver you to any destination safely and quickly for a few dollars. This service would operate 24 hours a day seven days a week and be far cheaper than buying and maintaining your own car, plus no parking fees. This will also be safer and a special boon to us older folks who can’t see that well at night.

Less trucks will be needed because self-driving trucks can work 24 hours per day seven days a week with minimal downtime for refueling or recharging. Deliveries should also be faster because of less rush hour traffic because the cars and trucks will talk to one another and avoid unnecessary congestion.

The savings with self-driving cars and trucks are manifold. Fewer vehicles to manufacture means less minerals to mine, less factories to build and maintain, and less power to generate both for the building and operating of these vehicles. My estimate is that this technology will reduce the predicted cars and trucks energy consumption in half by the 2050 “tipping point”.

To better understand what all this means I’m going to use California’s estimated total energy consumption for the year 2018. California is one of my favorite whipping boys because they are “Green” through and through and have burdened their citizens with the highest energy costs in the country and yet delivered rolling blackouts and unbreathable air quality over much of last summer. The energy consumption data is shown in figure 5 below and was compiled by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Note that electrical power is just under 22% and transportation is just under 43% of total energy consumed. This means that California will have to more than triple their electrical energy generation by 2050 if they are going to phase out fossil-fueled transportation by that year (more than triple because of the inefficiency of charging and discharging batteries).

Figure 5 – Estimated California Energy Consumption in 2018

First of all, this doesn’t include the benefits of self-driving cars and trucks discussed above, which implies they will only need to double not triple their electricity generation to support transportation. In 2018 less than 7% of their energy came from wind and solar. Assuming their goal is to eliminate coal and petroleum by 2050 they need to increase their wind and solar outputs by seven times relative to 2018. I’m sorry but this is almost impossible without raising taxes in California to astronomical levels. Is there a better, more logical, way to do this?

I’m a systems engineer and we were trained to look at the bigger picture first and then work back to details. The bigger picture is the goal of reduction of the world’s carbon emissions. The United States today contributes roughly 15% of the world’s carbon emissions and Europe about the same. See figure 6 below for the history of the World’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Figure 6 – Historical World CO2 Emissions

Systems engineering tells me the cheapest way to achieve our goal of reducing the world’s CO2 emissions is to help the other 70% of the fossil fuel burners with cheaper, cleaner, energy-generating alternatives. They burn fossil fuels now because it is the cheapest option available, and they desperately need the power to maintain their level of civilization. Solar is becoming available at competitive prices in the third world, but energy storage is a problem with solar, and windmills require a lot of construction infrastructure to be cost competitive with fossil fuels. If they had access to cheap natural gas, then high-efficiency, combined-cycle natural gas turbine powerplants (shown in figure 7 below) would be an excellent compromise to reduce CO2 emissions in the short term and still have 24-hour power.

Figure 7 - Combined Cycle Power Plant

Long-term the world needs compact nuclear powerplants. We could start out with compact fission powerplants, hopefully using molten salt reactors to eliminate the nuclear proliferation problem, and then switch to compact fusion powerplants when they are ready (I predict less than ten years). If designed for low-cost manufacture and maintenance these powerplants would solve the world’s energy problems and greatly reduce the world’s CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, our government is not recognizing the need for compact, low-cost nuclear fission powerplants and is spending a pittance (less than $1B out of $4T) of their budget to build and test the best answer for the World’s CO2 emissions. Fortunately, or unfortunately, India and China recognize the need for compact, low-cost nuclear fission powerplants and are pressing ahead with this technology. The U.S. is leading in the race for a compact fusion powerplant, but that is probably ten years away. California can waste a lot of taxpayer’s monies in ten years.

Summary - The current situation is not good. We have several advantages and several disadvantages. To our advantage is tremendous technology ingenuity demonstrated over the last fifty years and the fact that Earth is huge with tremendous heat sinks (like oceans) and changes will not happen overnight. To our disadvantage is the fact that most of the planet’s population depend on fossil fuels to survive and they are not going to switch unless it is clearly in their benefit to do so. The other great disadvantage is that most of our politicians are bought and paid for by businesses and unions and unless some Political Action Committees (PACs) are formed soon with sufficient funding to enable smart votes with respect to Global Warming the current Green Movement is going to end in financial disaster.

Thanks for Reading,

Dana Andrews

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