Global Warming

Last winter was the coldest winter on record in North America. Last night, the temperature plummeted to 13°F here in Shoreline Washington (13 miles north of downtown Seattle). For this area that’s not unheard of but it is extremely rare.

Global Warming portrayed in the popular media is a gross over simplification. There are natural causes of climate change and there are man-made contributions. The relationship between the two is extremely complex and poorly understood.

Popular media would have you believe two things about the relationship between natural changes and man-made changes that are completely wrong. First popular media would have you believe that man made changes are much larger than natural changes. Second, that our scientists and climatologists actually have a firm grasp on the subject.

In actuality neither is true. Climatologists have developed computer models that fit past data. On the basis of the past fit they claim that their model is correct and therefore will make correct predictions of future changes.

This is wrong, and here is why. There at least a dozen competing models that fit the past to present data but they all predict different future climates and they can’t all predict different things and be correct. In addition, past computer models haven’t predicted present conditions accurately. There is no reason to believe that magic happened and all of the sudden their computer model accuracy has tremendously improved.

With respect to the relationship between natural changes and man-made changes, there is a 22 year solar cycle in which the suns magnetic field goes from north at one pole to very little field to south at one pole to very little field and then back to north again. When the polar fields are strong sunspot activity is high, and during the reversal process, sunspot activity drops, usually.

There is about a .3°C difference in Earth’s temperature between a normal solar peak and solar low. But there is also a great deal of variability between the intensity of the individual cycles as well as some long term cycles and some unexplained solar vacations. The sun normally goes from peak to low to peak every 11 years, taking 22 years for the magnetic field to return to it’s original polarity but there is a peak and low every 11 years. By contrast, a steady warming relating to increased carbon dioxide levels appears to be only about .1°C per decade.

So during during the portion of the solar cycle where the activity is on the upswing, the planet seems to be warming really fast and people will say things like the oceans are going to rise 200 feet by next week and the pretty soon wood frame houses will burst into flames from the heat. Then we get into a cooling part and eventually people aren’t so convinced.

In truth though, man-made warming even though it’s a smaller scale than natural changes, is unidirectional whereas natural variation is in part cyclical and in part chaotic. I want people to understand that what I am saying here is that even though nature makes bigger chances, nature makes them in both directions so over the long haul it averages out, but man is affecting the climate in one direction only, so over a long enough period of time our contribution, if left unchecked, will indeed be catastrophic.

The sun and it’s vacations are of particular significance right now because we’re now in a 50 year low in terms of solar activity, and historically when it’s done this in the past it’s gone into a long term minimum pattern and temperatures across Europe have fallen as much as 8-13°F during these times. The growing seasons shorted, people starved, and it looks like that’s where we are headed now.

But now we’ve got an additional danger. If people are lulled into thinking, ah global warming is all bogus, and they easily could be since the complexities were never really explained and things were exaggerated significantly for political reasons, then they’ll start burning coal like there was no tomorrow. After a decade or two when we’ve got the CO2 levels up to 500ppm, and people are croaking of asthma and cancer at even faster rates; the sun will re-establish a more normal pattern and global temperatures will go through the roof overnight. Then we will have really big problems.

There are other factors. It was once believed that there were around 20,000 under water volcanoes. We now know there are more than two million. We do not understand the scale of the impact that these have on global climate and ocean temperatures and currents but I have reason to believe they are substantial.

Another source of heating that until recently was grossly underestimated is the effect of currents induced in the Earth’s crust by solar wind particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. It used to believed that that energy was on the order of only a few tens of gigawatts, but we now know it is vastly larger and that the torque it imparts to the Earth’s crust is substantial and may be even enough to affect geological activity.

The fact of the matter is climate is naturally variable, change is the norm and occasional periods of unusual stability are the exception. We need to adjust to this reality and burning fossil fuels not only exacerbates the problem but also will never provide us with the amount of energy we need to survive extreme climate changes which will occur, with or without our input, nor will fossil fuel energy scale to the levels needed to alleviate global poverty, and that’s something I really want to see happen.

Nature has provided us with abundant energy resources that are much less environmentally damaging but generally a lot less convenient than fossil fuels, not just sun and wind, although those certainly exist and we should utilize them to our maximum advantage, but there is also geothermal, ocean wave, tide, thermal, and currents. There are forms of hydroelectric generation that can make energy from the natural flow rather than requiring the water be damned up.

There are advanced fission reactor designs that can not only provide more than 100x as much energy from natural uranium as conventional plants, but can do so without producing the long term actinide (transuranic) wastes of conventional one-pass boiling water or pressurized water reactors. These plants can also use the actinide wastes of conventional plants as fuel. This is a far better option than burying this waste at Yucca mountain because it converts it all to short-lived fission product wastes that will decay to a natural level (the same level of radioactivity as the ore from which it was mined) within 300 years rather than 50,000 years.

Of the fission products, there are only a couple of isotopes with significant half-lifes, and those can be destroyed using accelerator technology completely eliminating the long-term waste issue.

These advanced reactors also eliminate plutonium in the end product, and even as an intermediate product it is never in a state where it can be used for bombs, thus significantly reducing it’s potential for terrorism uses. Because it is present with other actinides and isotopes of plutonium with much shorter half-lives, it is too “hot” to be made into a bomb, any attempt would result in premature reactions that would fizzle, and any terrorist attempting to make a bomb out of the stuff would die of radiation poisoning in short order. This stuff would be processed in integral recycling facilities onsite and re-used as fuel rather than being shipped, stored, or buried.

Fusion is the real holy grail, and it is reachable today; we spend less on fusion research in a decade than we do in oil imports in a day. That is the only reason fusion isn’t online producing power for us today. In spite of oil company claims to the contrary; we’ve solved the big scientific problems. We know now how to adequately confine the plasma, we know how to make superconductive magnets that can achieve the necessary strength, and we have a pretty good handle on what materials will work for the diverter.

The US has withdrawn from ITER, I wish I could say that I disagree with this but I don’t, I think ITER is a waste of money. Originally, it has several goals, one was to develop the necessary superconductor technology but the Chinese couldn’t wait 12 years for ITER to be built so they built EAST with superconductive magnets, they worked. What EAST doesn’t accomplish is commercial power levels.

The British established the superiority of the spherical or short-aspect-ratio Tokamak over the convetional Russian Tokamak design. The spherical Tokamak achieves a confinement product approximately 3.5 times better then conventional designs, and this is another reason I believe ITER was a bad design, it was not a spherical Tokamak.

The British team the designed START and MAST went on to design a spherical Tokamak power reactor. It would produce approximately 600MW of power, and cost less to build than a fission reactor of similar size. Both START and MAST outperformed their design objectives so there is every reason to believe this power reactor would be equally successful.

ITER by contrast would have cost ten times more and even though it should achieve commercial power levels and be useful for material engineering tests, it is not an economically viable design for a commercial power reactor.

There are also even more promising newer designs that should be explored, the Bussard Polywell reactor, the levitated dipole, and some newer Z-pinch designs that can operate reiterively and do not destroy their electrodes with each firing.

We need to fund these projects fully and bring them online, but in the meantime, we need to pursue clean renewable alternatives, and in my opinion advanced fission reactors are also necessary to deal with the transuranic waste we’ve already accumulated from conventional reactors rather than burying it and creating a disaster for future generations to deal with.

We need to do these things now. Climate change and major Earth changes are already underway, we need to gear up our ability to adapt in real time to these changes. Instead of fighting nature; we need to find ways to work with nature and be what we are, a part of nature; not something set against nature.

5 thoughts on “Global Warming

  1. Sorry to tell you but ITER is alive and well. My company is working on several aspects with their US ITER office. They are still US funded operating under Washinton’s Continuing Resolution for all national science labs.

  2. Regarding US funding for ITER, you may wish to read these articles:

    If you will spend a little time in Google you’ll find these are fairly representative.

    Your definition of “alive and well” may be vastly different than mine.

    I do want to see fusion brought online, but I also feel of all the contenders out there, conventional Tokamak is at the low end of the financial viability scale even though it’s entirely scientifically viable.

    Of relatively mature technologies, the spherical Tokamak is much more viable owing to the 3+x better confinement allowing a significantly smaller machine to break even and thus produce energy for a much smaller capital investment on a scale that is more appealing to utilities.

    I also think there are many less mature technologies that have significance promise and should be pursued enthusiastically.

  3. I’m not a nay sayer per ‘se. I really think we should be pursuing every potential avenue for controlled nuclear fusion at least until we get something working. But given the extremely limited funding, I don’t feel ITER was the best technology choice.

    I really feel that a full power successor to MAST would have been a better choice.

    And both Korea’s KSTAR and China’s EAST reactors are capable of long-shot experiments using superconductive confinement magnets, so ITER really duplicates a lot of their efforts, assuming it is ever completed.

  4. I found this post very interesting. Its the most sense I’ve heard on global warming for a while now. I completely agree that the amazing complexity of the natural cycles around us make it hard to give definate answers. In my opinion whether we have caused much warming or not there is still no harm in becoming a more sustainable society. We’ve made mistakes in the past and now we should move on and stop the whole blame game.

    I agree with your emphasise on people knowing the truth and not just what you hear from the politicians and salespeople. This is the sort of informative posts a like to read. I’ve bookmarked your blog and I hope to hear more from you in the future.


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