Thursday, April 24, 2008

Methane Levels on the Rise Again

After being fairly stable for almost 10 years methane levels in the atmosphere went up in 2007. This gloomy news was reported yesterday by the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). How gloomy this news really is depends on why methane levels are increasing again. The gloomiest reason would be that thawing permafrost in Arctic areas are releasing methane, a positive feedback from rising global temperature. Such a release of methane has been reported by researchers but according to scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory the most probable reasons for the recent increase in methane are rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics. Dlugokencky also said that ”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost. It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.” As almost a side note, the NOAA scientists found that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to surge upward, with the annual rate of increase again exceeding 2 parts per million (the increase was 2.4 ppm) which has been a disturbing trend that began after the year 2000. The level of carbon dioxide is now 385 ppm. That’s 35 ppm above the level that climate scientist James Hansen now says we should be aiming for. Needless to say, things don’t look good.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Methane Being Released from Arctic Sea Floor in Siberia

Here is some potentially catastrophic climate news. According to an article at Spiegel Online, Russian scientists are reporting that methane stored as frozen methane hydrates under the Arctic Ocean is being released into the atmosphere because of thawing that is taking place in Siberia. This is one of the positive feedbacks that climate scientists dread the most because of the enormous volume of methane that is stored as frozen hydrates. Although methane doesn’t last in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does each molecule of methane traps much more heat. The scientists found that the permafrost had become porous on a shelf below the sea off the Siberian coast. They also found that the seawater in the area was oversaturated with methane and higher methane levels were detected in the air as high as about one mile above the site.

During the last several years it has been reported that methane levels in the atmosphere have leveled off. No one seems to know quite sure why. There have been reports of methane being released from below the thawing permafrost on land in Siberia but if this is occurring it hasn’t yet affected methane levels in the atmosphere. The next bit of very bad news regarding methane could be that atmospheric levels are beginning to sharply rise. Such news could leave us with few options other than to get ready for the oncoming catastrophe.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Obama and Clinton Still Calling for More Biofuels

So far it appears that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton have adjusted their policies on biofuels to the new scientific realization that large scale production of both ethanol and biodiesel are contributing to global warming rather than being a partial solution. The other major presidential candidate, John McCain, doesn’t seem to have any policy on biofuels or for that matter on how to reduce greenhouse gases from transportation as his website simply says that he offers to limit carbon emissions “by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technologies, such as nuclear energy, to the market faster, reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy, and see to it that America leads in a way that ensures all nations do their rightful share.” At least Obama and Clinton do get down to some specifics.

Barack Obama’s website says that he “will require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be included in the fuel supply by 2022 and will increase that to at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol by 2030.”

Hillary Clinton’s website says that she will have “60 billion gallons of home-grown biofuels available for cars and trucks by 2030.”

That’s a lot of biofuels to be promising considering that so far the use of biofuels has led to increasing food prices around the world and increased emissions of greenhouse gases in instances where land was cleared for planting. Cellulosic ethanol at this point remains unproven as a source of fuel and hardly something to count on.

What we should be hearing from all three candidates is that they want to put a halt to large scale production of ethanol and biodiesel and carefully review whether the using these fuels in place of petroleum-based fuels at this time makes any sense. Unfortunately that is not what they want to hear in Iowa or neighboring farm states so there is little if any chance anyone will be hearing it from the candidates very soon.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Biofuels Are Losing Their Clean Energy Label

Heralded as an answer to both attaining energy independence and limiting global warming biofuels have enjoyed great popularity during the last few years even though concerns about using crops for fuel instead of food has raised concerns in many places. Biofuels have become so popular in fact that last year Congress passed legislation mandating that the US produce 36 billion gallons of the stuff annually by 2022. However, here we are only a few months after this legislation was passed and signed and it appears that the wheels are starting to come off the biofuels bandwagon. Biofuels have lost their “green” appeal almost overnight because scientists have found that rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared with burning gasoline biofuels for the most part increase greenhouse gas emissions.

It turns out that the main problem with biofuels is that when land clearing to plant the crops is included in the equation the amount of carbon released from the cleared plants is so great that it dwarfs the carbon saved by using biofuels versus gasoline. Biofuels were thought to produce less carbon emissions because the next crop of plants sequester as much carbon as is released by burning ethanol or biodiesel. The crop clearing “inconvenient truth” is described in a Time magazine article by Michael Grunwald called The Clean Energy Scam. Grunwald concludes his article by saying that:

Advocates are always careful to point out that biofuels are only part of the solution to global warming, that the world also needs more energy-efficient light bulbs and homes and factories and lifestyles. And the world does need all those things. But the world is still going to be fighting an uphill battle until it realizes that right now, biofuels aren't part of the solution at all. They're part of the problem.

The challenge facing the environmentalists is convince the public and politicians that biofuels should not be used after there has been so much written and said about the benefits of using biofuels. This could be a tough sell.