When it rains, it floods: Hoboken underwater

A Hoboken street and power station partly flooded. Photo:  Donna Ferrato.

A Hoboken street and power station partly flooded. Photo: Donna Ferrato.


Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

The next BURN special is about what keeps us all going, except when it doesn’t: the grid. That’s the term for the complicated, interconnected electrical power system that runs so many of the machines that power our lives. The grid makes i-everything possible.

But it is old, and in many places frail. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey, is subject to flooding even in normal heavy rains. But it never saw anything like what happened last October when Hurricane Sandy hit. Parts of the city were without power for ten days. Now Hoboken is working to build a new, smarter grid for itself – in part, an official told me, because the big lesson the city learned from the storm was that by the time the next big storm hits, Hoboken will have to be ready to save itself.

The city partly flooded twice in the last month from rain storms. Now it’s late May, and after recent heavy rains, the city is partly flooded again.

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Japan goes big time with citizen radiation tracking

A post-Fukushima effort to crowdsource radiation data in Japan has since become the largest source of radiation data in the country. And it’s now set to expand to other parts of the world.

Catherine Winter reports from Tokyo.

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Party like it’s 399 (ppm)

By Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Does it matter when nature offers up round numbers? Maybe not, but for the same reasons that we attach special significance to anniversaries and birthdays ending in zero, humans treat big tick marks and bold milestones with gravitas.

For Earth’s climate, a very significant round number milestone was reached last week, when NOAA measured an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 400 ppm at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for the first time in modern history.

PPM – or parts per million – is a measure of concentration. 400 ppm means that for every one million parts dry air in the atmosphere (water is excluded because its concentration is variable), 400 of those parts are CO2. These ‘parts’ are moles: a chemist’s unit of measurement to keep track of molecules.

Think of the atmosphere as a big pot of soup with lots of finely chopped vegetables. Carbon dioxide is the carrots. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, if you filled a ladle with 1,000,000 really finely chopped vegetables, then you’d have found that 280 of those veggies in any given ladle-full of soup that you scooped would be carrots, or carbon dioxide.

Now, today, after we have been dumping extra chopped carrots into the soup (i.e. burning fossil fuels) for a couple hundred years, a ladle-full of 1,000,o00 veggie bits would include 400 carrot chunks (carbon dioxide). For the last few years, we have diluted the soup by about 4-5 carrot bits every year.

There are many places across the globe that measure atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, but the measure of atmospheric COon Mauna Loa (Long Mountain in Hawaiian) is an important and historically significant indicator for two reasons.

First, because of the remote and high altitude location (measurements take place at a height of 2 miles above sea level), measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa generally come very close to representing the global mean concentration of that gas.

Keeling measuring CO2 at Mauna Loa in 1988. Photo: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD

Second, the record of CO2 at Mauna Loa represents the longest, continuous monitoring of carbon dioxide on Earth. In 1958, Charles Keeling, a scientist employed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, began regularly collecting samples of air from the atmosphere and measuring the concentration of CO2.

Within a few years, Keeling not only observed remarkable seasonal variability in CO(from large swaths of northern hemisphere plants breathing CO2 in and out, summer to winter), he also clearly showed – for the first time – that atmospheric CO2 was steadily increasing each year.

The canonical time history of Mauna Loa atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which scientists have relied on for 50 years, is, as a result, called the Keeling Curve.

Now. How big of an impact does a change from 280 ppm to 400 ppm have on the Earth’s climate?

To answer this question, it is best to peer back into Earth history to see what the world looked like the last time the atmosphere had 400 little carrots pieces for every million-chopped-veggie ladle full. Scientists have tried to do just that by looking at various types of ancient rocks and sediments, and even bubbles in ancient ice.

One good estimate of when atmospheric CO2 was last 400 ppm was produced by Yale researcher Mark Pagani and fellow scientists, who looked at the chemical properties of ancient ocean sediment.

What these scientists found is that the last time atmospheric CO2 reached 400 ppm was likely somewhere around 4.5 million years ago.

At that time, temperatures on the planet were an average of 4° Celsius (7.2° Fahrenheit) higher than today and sea level was about 22 meters (72 feet) higher. Because of a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification, northern climes were even warmer – likely 19° Celsius (34.2° Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

Since the Earth’s climate system takes a little bit of time to adjust to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, perhaps these are changes we might expect to see coming down the climate pipeline.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Carbon Cycle 101

Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Americans burn fossil fuels doing most of what we do every day – using electricity, driving to work, and buying food and goods. You probably know that the burning of fossil fuels results in the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), to the atmosphere. Maybe you’ve even calculated your carbon footprint.

But what about the big picture of carbon dioxide on Earth? How much CO2 is in the atmosphere already? Does it stay there forever? Leak out into outer space? (No.) Fall out of the sky as rain? (Also no.)

Carbon is everywhere, and the planet’s dynamic natural forces are continuously moving it from place to place. There are four major reservoirs, or stocks, of carbon on Earth: 1) in rocks (this includes fossil fuels), 2) dissolved in ocean water, 3) as plants, sticks, animals, and soil (which can be lumped together and called the land biosphere), and 4) as a climate-warming gas in the atmosphere.  (Check out the diagram below. Everyone loves dioramas, so it will henceforth be referred to as a diorama. You can do your best to envision it in 3D.)

carbonn cycle graphic

The Carbon Cycle (adapted from “Earth’s Climate: Past and Future,” by William F. Ruddiman)


In the carbon cycle diorama, the size of each reservoir  is expressed in GtC, and the transfer of carbon between reservoirs are written as GtC/yr. GtC stands for “Gigatons of Carbon”, which is the same as one billion tons of carbon.

One GtC/yr means one billion metric tons of carbon moved between reservoirs in one year. 

You can think of the carbon in each reservoir as a tiny building block – carbon is, after all, an atom. Under foot, carbon is a building block that helps create the structure of rocks and minerals. All around us, organic carbon forms the building blocks of life. In oceans and rivers, carbon is a building block of various molecules that exist together with H2O in all but the purest water. In the atmosphere, carbon is the central building block of several greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).


The biggest carbon reservoir on earth is in rocks, weighing in at some 66 billion metric tons of carbon. In very rare instances (as in roughly .004%), carbon in rock is in the form of coal, oil or natural gas. Most of the time it occurs as a chemical component of plain old granite, sandstone or limestone.

Carbon can leave rocks and enter the atmosphere. And, it can leave the atmosphere and go back into rocks.

Here’s how the first part works: rock-bound carbon enters the atmosphere via volcanoes, as shown by the yellow arrow in the diorama. (Apologies for not having drawn in a volcano; every good diorama should have one.)

For the second part: as wind and rain break down rocks over eons, CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere and put back into “rock” form as sediment (brown arrow).

The amount of carbon that enters and exits the atmosphere from volcanoes and into sediment each year is tiny compared to the amount that we emit by fossil fuel burning. Tiny, as in volcanoes typically emit less than 1/100th the amount of CO2 that humans emit every year.

For the record, human fossil fuel emissions may have  hit 9.7 billion metric tons of carbon in 2012 (emissions are still being tallied).

When fossil fuels are burned, the CO2 released enters far less stable reservoirs: first the atmosphere, and from there the trees and plants around us, and the ocean. Let’s look at how those reservoirs function, and what happens when they can’t handle any more carbon.


The next-biggest reservoir for carbon on Earth is the ocean. Scientists tend to split the ocean into two ‘pools,’ like a two-layer cake. The top layer goes from the surface to 100 meters down. Wind sloshes the water around, allowing CO2 gas to exchange with the atmosphere.

The bottom layer – or deep ocean – is bigger and less exposed to the atmosphere, and is therefore a good long-term storage place for large quantities of carbon.

Carbon moves between the ocean and atmosphere by diffusion. When the level of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, some of it dissolves into ocean water.

Now, back to our diorama. Notice that the value of the white “into-the-ocean” arrow is slightly bigger than that of the blue “out-of-the-ocean” arrow. This indicates that the ocean is sucking up excess carbon from the atmosphere.

It is fabulously useful that the ocean absorbs some of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere. Due to this imbalance, the oceans have been offering us a major (25%) global warming discount every year. In other words, 25% of fossil fuel carbon we emit gets drawn into the ocean for good. If the ocean weren’t such a sink for CO2, more would remain in the atmosphere, and more global warming would be happening.

There is a very bad downside to this discount, however. When ocean water absorbs carbon, it becomes more acidic. Hence the current degradation of the world’s coral reefs.

Furthermore, this discount won’t last for too much longer. The ocean’s chemistry will soon hit a threshold where it will stop absorbing CO2. When that day comes, we’ll have to reckon with much more global warming impact from each coal reserve and tank of gas that we burn.


The final reservoirs for carbon are the atmosphere and the terrestrial biosphere. As you can see in the diorama, they hold roughly equal amounts of carbon – a quantity close to that of the surface ocean.

Plants draw CO2 out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis. CO2 is plant food. During the night, some of that CO2 is returned to the atmosphere. When plants die and decompose, all of the rest of that CO2 is either returned to the atmosphere or turns to organic matter in soil.

Before the industrial revolution, the atmosphere contained roughly 600 GtC. As of March 2013, that number had risen to 843 GtC: a 40% increase. If the world’s oceans and plants hadn’t been sucking excess CO2 out of the atmosphere all these years, the increased burden of CO2 in the atmosphere could be something closer to 60 or 70%.

You’re rereading that sentence, aren’t you? Yes, that’s right. It’s not just the oceans; land plants are also sucking more CO2 out of the atmosphere than they are emitting back to the atmosphere. In fact, plants and the sea combined provide a 50% discount on emissions… as in, if these natural systems weren’t absorbing CO2, global warming would be twice as bad. This is an unbelievable stroke of good fortune for humans today.

The plant half of the discount is occurring because plants like a little bit of extra CO2 in the air – they use CO2 like we use food.

Sadly, though, we are close to reaching a level of atmospheric CO2 where plants will stop absorbing excess carbon from the atmosphere. Like a kid in a candy store, even plants hit the wall at some point and can eat no more.

As you can see, once carbon is unlocked from long-term storage as fossil fuels, that carbon goes into the atmosphere, land plants, and the surface ocean. One small forest fire, and all of the carbon stored in land plants returns to the atmosphere again to increase global warming. One Gigaton too many into the oceans and their waters will stop absorbing CO2.

The carbon cycle represents a vast and delicate balance. It seems clear that the safest option is for fossil fuels to stay deep underground where nature stored them millions of years ago.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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There’s power, and then there’s power

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

When you think about political power, electricity probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But when you think about the ability – or more importantly, the inability – of a government to deliver electricity to its citizens, the political nature of energy transmission becomes clear.

Ask any mayor or governor who worries about the wrath of constituents during extended power outages, such as those that occurred last year during Hurricane Sandy. The politics of Sandy were captured in this headline from the Associated Press: “Sandy a Super Test for Bloomberg, Christie, Cuomo.”

Lenin and electrification

One of the first politicians to grasp the political nature of electricity was neither from New York nor New Jersey. He was Vladimir Ilych Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union. In the early years of the USSR the new Bolshevik government faced the daunting challenge of extending control over the vast Russian landmass. Lenin framed the issue this way: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

Lenin understood that a government is as good as its grid. The ability to provide a reliable source of electricity is one of the most important measures of effective state governance. Lay a electrical grid across the land and the people will be satisfied and prosper.

In prosperous, developed countries, the grid is so well-established and electricity so plentiful that it’s taken for granted. Fail to lay down a reliable grid, or fail to make quick repairs when the power goes out, and a government’s credibility may tatter, with political, economic and social consequences to follow.

Which makes an event in the Middle East last week especially interesting.  It happened in Syria, which is embroiled in a God awful civil war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has spent most of the past few months hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus.

Mideast SyriaLast Wednesday, Assad made a rare public appearance. He visited a power station in the city center.

Al-Assad’s message: Don’t worry, be happy. I can deliver electricity to the people of Damascus. I still have political power.

The problem, of course, is the conundrum Assad will face if anti-government fighters manage to turn off the lights.

This summer, BURN will feature a one-hour radio and multimedia special on our nation’s electrical grid system – how it was built, how it works, and what happens when it doesn’t. Follow us here, on Facebook, SoundCloud, and Twitter all next month to hear great excerpts, see photos, and learn more about America’s grid.

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