May 30, 2003


I had a most interesting conversation last night with an engineer professor who is 'on loan' to Virginia Tech from I believe, the University of Johannesburg, in South Africa. We have spent several months in weekly meetings with this man and his wife, part of the 6 or 7 couples we meet with in a church home-group. I had understood by inference that he was a researcher of some distinction, but had never known exactly what it was he did. Last night, over the punch bowl, I asked him.

His expertise is in converting energy into power. Power, you remember from physics class, is 'energy doing work'. Driving turbines, powering engines, that sort of thing. He has been in the field for more than 30 years, involved in electrical fuel for automobiles going back more than 20 years, as well as many other major projects around the world.

I asked him his thoughts on the potential of hydrogen as an energy source to replace fossil fuels, given what seems like the obvious geopolitical reasons to do so ASAP. We discussed this a bit, and at one point his demeanor changed from excited and engaged to defeated. He began to talk about per capita energy consumption, and how there seemed to be no end to our hunger for energy. Americans, and eastern Europeans are, as you know, using many times the world per capita average. "What will happen when the other 9/10ths of the world's population, China and India, for instance, begin to approach American levels of energy use?" He felt that there was no way to effectively bring about a voluntary decrease in energy 'needs'. "The best thing I can do is try to make energy conversion more efficient", he said. And this has been his life's work.

"I tend to be an optimist. But in the end, the increasing total of all of the energy we will use around the world in coming years-- from hydrogen, biomass, whatever we use-- will end up as heat. We are going to have problems with the heat". (layman's translation of his very technical explanation, sorry)

This conversation was especially meaningful because earlier in the day, I had read two related articles in New Scientist dealing with climate change. One, described how in a warming planet, the cloudline was moving up mountains more and more each year. It mentioned the Appalachians, especially the Spruce-Fir forest that depends on cloud condensation as a part of it's moisture source and of the effect on the amphibians (particularly salamanders) that are impacted by rising clouds.

Concerned about the effect of a rising cloud ceiling on this forest boundary, the researchers examined data from 24 airports located along the south-west to north-east axis of the Appalachians. Airports routinely measure the cloud ceiling because it is important to pilots.

Richardson's team found that in the 18 most northerly airports, the cloud ceiling has climbed an average of six metres per year since 1973. "Over 30 years, that's 180 metres, which is about six tree heights," says Richardson. "It is pretty stunning."

The second recalculates how much more rain we can expect (a lot) if greenhouse gasses are figured into the models of potential change. Apparently no one had thought about this effect of greenhouse gases on rainfall:

...In response to high levels of carbon dioxide, plants shrink their stomata - the holes in the surface of their leaves through which gases pass in and out. This drastically reduces water loss from the plants, leaving more water in the soil.

When Betts included these changes in his models of groundwater levels, he found the effect could increase groundwater by 10 per cent over the next century - 10 times as much as global warming alone.

Nobody knows for sure how the planet will handle it. But there seems to be no end to our insatiable appetites for energy. And although no current model of future change is perfect, in the closed system of our planet, major changes certainly will take place. Americans are the world's role models for energy consumption. If there are no checks on energy use and the heat it produces, at some point, there will be a check on the producers. And in the end, the world will come back to some kind of equilibrium, with Mr. Malthus' Utterly Dismal Prediction correct in the end.

The best course of action still, I think, is Think Globally. Act Locally. I'm willing to do that. I always turn off lights when I leave the room. But just don't make me give up my computer. Or gas-powered string trimmer or chain saw. Or my truck. Or CD player, or...

Posted by fred1st at May 30, 2003 05:31 AM | TrackBack
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