Why you can’t attend a rising seas conference in NY

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

This week, in New York City, the Union of Concerned Scientists is convening a meeting of dozens of public officials from New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida to talk about one of the most serious issues these officials are facing: rising sea levels brought about by global warming, the product of greenhouse gases. Some of these officials dealt with Hurricane Sandy – the one that left parts of Manhattan without power for five days and battered the New Jersey coast. Others, especially in Florida, already see evidence of climate change – not from storms, but simply in the tides. The officials are meeting with one another for conversations, with a few scientists on hand to offer guidance.

They will be there – but the public will not. UCS, which describes itself as a coalition of citizens and scientists working to better public policy and corporate practices, has closed the meeting.

I learned of the event a month ago through one of the participants. I sent UCS a note asking to go, and dropped what I thought would be our best card with this group – we were just recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for best radio science reporting. I though of this as an opportunity to meet and listen to the people who are going to be creating the policies and practices that will be of ever greater significance in this country, as more and more lives and enormous swathes of property are at increasing risk.

The response from UCS was that it would be ‘unwieldy’ to allow reporters to observe. And no one from the public, either.

A citizen who might think s/he would like to know more about rising sea levels? No, not this time, they said. Unwieldy.

I’ve known the Union of Concerned Scientists to be public-minded advocates of science-based solutions to all sorts of issues. They’re tough-minded and fearless in their frequent papers and testimony. But when I protested the exclusion of reporters and others from this meeting, a UCS press person said that climate has become so controversial that they worried about hecklers, or trouble-makers – people who would show up for theatrical opposition.

If UCS is going to close a meeting because some nut-job – or even a true skeptic, though many believers doubt there is such a thing – might show up and try to disrupt things, then we are in worse shape than I thought. These are public officials, at a meeting convened by a science organization that boasts of its citizen involvement. And they want to talk just among themselves because an outsider might be argumentative – even disruptive?

A spokeswoman told me a week ago that they’d think about opening the meeting. She’d tested the idea on one official already, and the response was that UCS would be changing ‘the rules’, and thus the official might not attend. Wonderful. If UCS and public officials are doing such a great job getting out the climate message, where is the public consensus about the urgency of doing something?

UCS and public officials have done such a great job getting out the climate message that there is noted consensus about the urgency of doing something. So, okay, maybe we should just leave them alone in a room, talking to each other. But when they close the doors, I hope there’s a flicker of shame somewhere inside there.

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Global warming’s day at the beach

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

If energy-induced global warming truly is global, how come it’s not showing up in my neighborhood?

Actually, it is in my neighborhood. I live around Venice Beach in Los Angeles. A couple of months ago, I noticed new flood gates on the Venice canals. The agency putting them in called them tidal gates – but the canals have been here for more than 100 years, and they never had gates until fairly recently.

Here’s another sign: you can get in the water. Without wet suits. And it’s barely April.

I grew up near New England beaches. I’m used to water that’s too cold for most people. I usually start swimming here in late April or May. There’s a big difference in water that’s 58º or 60º. Late March/early April is a little too cold.

Except now, it’s not. It’s tolerable, at least wading out knee-deep. And I saw little kids getting in in the last week. I would guess the ocean is about a month ahead of itself in terms of water temperature. It should be 57º right now.

But I checked with two lifeguards. They have boats out everyday, and they sample water temperature daily just off from where I go in. Their readings these days are running at least 60º. Yes, they said. Warmer than normal.

It’s been overcast here. The subject of another posting to come. But if we get a warm day, I’m going in for further data collection. And a good wave or two.

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Why the Greens are going nuclear

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

From the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, a take on the ongoing schism among Greens on the nuclear question. The piece looks at the migration of environmentalists – historically anti-atomic energy – to the pro-nuclear side.

The emergence of the pronuclear Greens represents an important schism in modern environmentalism. For decades, groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have pushed an antinuclear agenda and contended that the only energy path for the future is the widespread deployment of wind turbines and solar panels. But fear of carbon emissions and climate change has catalyzed a major rethinking. As Brand puts it in a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise, which explores the conversion of antinuclear activists to the pronuclear side: “The question is often asked, ‘Can you be an environmentalist and be pronuclear?’ I would turn that around and say, ‘In light of climate change, can you be an environmentalist and not be pronuclear?’ ”

The writer appears to be pro-nuclear, and this piece makes the argument that climate change is so serious that we must go heavier on nuclear because there are no other better options.

 For nuclear energy to gain significant momentum in the global marketplace, then, it has to get much cheaper. In a September essay published in Foreign Policy, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, with coauthor Jessica Levering, provided a road map for revitalizing the nuclear sector. They called for a “new national commitment” to the development and commercialization of next-generation nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors. The goal, they said, should be reactors that can be built at “a significantly lower cost than current designs,” as well as a new, more nimble regulatory framework that can review and approve the new designs.

While that plan is sensible enough, it’s not clear whether groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace can be persuaded to abandon their antinuclear zealotry. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that some influential environmentalists are realizing that we have no choice but to embrace the astonishing power of the atom. We do have to get better at nuclear power, and that will take time. But we’re only at the beginning of the Nuclear Age.

It’s not especially persuasive for the US, given the abundance of very cheap natural gas here. But natural gas is much more expensive in Europe and Japan, and nuclear looks much better there.

But should it, especially in the evolving form of small, modular reactors – termed SMRs? I missed this a couple of weeks ago, but Taxpayers for Common Sense – a Washington, DC, based non-profit – gave its Golden Fleece award to the Department of Energy for its support of SMRs. Hundreds of billions of dollars a year in subsidies.

The group said that the subsidies often go to large, very profitable companies that don’t need help with their R&D. Golden Fleece awards were originally handed out by the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisonsin, who used them to ridicule what he considered wasteful government spending. BURN covered one small start-up looking to develop its own SMR, Nuscale Power, on our first radio special.

My observation: the regulatory oversight of nuclear seems appropriate and necessary. But the same standards are not nearly so applied to other energy sources.

Hello, big oil, coal and gas – I’m talking about you.

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Wind Science, Energy, and Growing Prevalence

Wind is the kinetic energy of molecules in the air. Wind has powered ships and mills for centuries or longer.

Modern windmills convert the wind into rotational energy by allowing the air molecules to bombard the blades, turning them. The blades are connected to turbines, which generate electricity from that rotational energy.

Wind energy is one of the cleanest forms of energy available because it doesn’t require a fuel or produce greenhouse gas or other bi-products, outside of those from production and maintenance of equipment and transmission.

Wind turbines themselves take up only a small area compared to their generating potential, making it possible to install them on agricultural, forest, or grazing lands.


In just ten years, wind power in the United States grew more than ten-fold, from just over 2,000 megawatts in 1999 to more than 34,000 megawatts in 2009, when wind accounted for 9 percent of renewable energy produced in the country and more than geothermal and solar combined.

Here’s an animated map of wind development from 2000 to 2010.

Texas, Iowa, and Minnesota had the greatest wind capacity in 2010. Additionally, at least 27 other states used wind to generate electricity that year.


Wind is an intermittent resource, meaning that the windmills can’t continuously and predictably produce energy. They only work when the wind blows, and they can only work as hard as the wind is blowing at that time.

Research is ongoing into predicting what regions of the country have significant wind resources suitable for wind development, a process that requires computer programming and meteorological knowledge.

Furthermore, public and private researchers are working to produce better models of wind on an hourly, daily, and seasonal basis to make it easier for wind energy producers to forecast their output and sell it ahead of time.

Another major hurdle to wind power is that it is expensive compared with fossil fuel-based electricity. Modern windmills cost a lot to design and build, especially as they have to be strong enough to endure extreme weather, even though they will mostly operate in moderate weather. That makes competing with other energy sources difficult without government intervention.

Some people don’t like the way windmills look, and windmills can also kill bats and birds, though newer designs have slower and less deadly blades. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Ornithology estimated that windmills kill around 440,000 birds every year. However, the same study showed that house cats kill more than 1,000 times that number, as many as 500 billion per year.

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Major sources of energy/their advantages and disadvantages

There is no easy answer to what is the best source of energy or electricity. Is the priority reliability, affordability, the economy, international human rights, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, preserving environmental resources, or human health?


It’s undeniable that today — whether we like it or not — humans worldwide are overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Everything eaten, worn, lived in, and bought is tied to availability of fossil fuels. Even if 100 percent of politicians were determined to stop using them today, society has neither the electricity grid nor the vehicular and industrial technology to sustain the current American lifestyle on non-fossil sources of energy. Yet.

When comparing sources of energy, it’s easy to forget how universal fossil fuels are. These sources continue to dominate for reasons that are difficult to measure, like political influence, advertising clout, and control over energy infrastructure. Other sources have disadvantages purely because they don’t fit in as well.

Volume brings another difficulty in comparing sources of energy. There is so much more fossil energy, and it’s been used for a long time, so we know a lot more about its hazards and benefits. More modern technologies are harder to quantify. Some are renewable but still pollute (biofuels), some are very clean except in accidents or waste disposal (nuclear). Most electricity sources (renewable or not) use steam turbines, and all the water to make steam has to come from somewhere, but how important should that factor be?

Clicking the graphic above will give an abbreviated chart comparing sources line by line, but that doesn’t provide anywhere close to the whole story.

Each of the following topics compares the major sources of energy  through a different lens. Though environmental and local issues may seem the most important to those of us who don’t own power plants or utility companies, the cost of energy drives which sources are actually in place today and which sources will see investment tomorrow.












Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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The Connections Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy

Most of the greenhouse gas emitted through human activity comes from the production of energy.

This group of gases is thought to contribute to global climate change, long-term shifts in weather partly due to the tendency of these gases to trap energy, in the form of electromagnetic radiation from the sun, that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space. For more about the relationship between the climate and greenhouse gases, go here.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases  are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

Energy creation results in such a high level of greenhouse gas because the vast majority of energy we use — regardless of what country we live in — comes from burning something, usually coal, petroleum fuels, natural gas, or wood. More than 80 percent of U.S. energy in 2009 came from the combustion of fossil fuels.  Go here for more information about how combustion works.


Plants and some types of microscopic organisms take carbon dioxide gas out of the air and turn it back into solid, carbon-based materials like plant fibers, using the energy of sunlight. The basis for all of our fuels, even the fossil fuels, comes from exploiting the fact that organisms convert  light energy into chemical energy, a potential energy source inside the plant or organism’s cells, whether the energy was converted in the last few decades (wood, biodiesel, ethanol) or millions of years ago (fossil fuels). Today, however, organisms don’t have the capacity to capture anywhere near as much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as we produce, partly because we are burning fuels produced over millions of years.


The United States produces more greenhouse gas each year per person than most other countries. However, even if we stopped producing any carbon dioxide at all, which is unlikely, the world would still keep producing 80 percent of its former output. Other regions produce just as much as we do, particularly Europe and China.

Furthermore, instead of holding steady at a particular emission rate, every year we use more energy and therefore emit more greenhouse gas. For a graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide by year, go here.

When we talk about energy-related emissions, we don’t only mean electricity. Energy involves burning oil and natural gas for heating, burning gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels for transportation. Transportation accounted for just over a third of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, electricity was almost 40 percent and residential, commercial, and industrial production, excluding electricity, made up roughly 26 percent.

Some greenhouse gases are thought to alter the climate more than others. Nitrous oxide is a much smaller percent of the gas mix than carbon dioxide, but for its weight it has a much stronger heat-trapping capability.

For more information go to The connection between greenhouse gases, climate change, and global warming.

Each year what proportion of emissions are man-made are carefully tracked by several agencies nationally and internationally, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Energy Information Administration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
CIA World Fact Book
World Energy Council
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy. March 2011.

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The Connection Between Greenhouse Gases, Climate Change & Global Warming



Climate change is the shift in long-term, global weather patterns due to human action; it’s not exclusive to warming or cooling.

Climate change includes any change resulting from different factors, like deforestation or an increase in greenhouse gases. Global warming is one type of climate change, and it refers to the increasing temperature of the surface of Earth. According to NASA, the term global warming gained popular use after geochemist Wallace Broecker published a 1975 paper titled Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?

Since 1880, the average surface temperature of the Earth has increased by roughly 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit, but the rate it’s increasing is faster than that, depending on which region you live in. If you’re closer to the equator, temperatures are increasing more slowly. The fastest increase in temperatures in the United States is in Alaska, where average temperatures have been increases by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit per century. For a graph of average global temperatures by year, see the NASA website here.



Greenhouse gases are those thought to contribute to the greenhouse effect, an overall warming of the Earth as atmospheric gases trap electromagnetic radiation from the sun that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These gases are thought to affect the climate directly and indirectly, even though they constitute only a small fraction of the blanket of gases that make up the atmosphere.

Currently, the composition of the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with just 0.033 percent carbon dioxide and all other gases accounting for even less.



According to 2010 models cited by NASA, 20 percent of the greenhouse effect is attributed directly to carbon dioxide and 5 percent to all other greenhouse gases. The remaining 75 percent of the greenhouse effect is thought to be due to water vapor and clouds, which are naturally-occurring. However, even though carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases are such a small percentage of the total gas in the atmosphere, they affect when, where and how clouds form, so greenhouse gases have some relevance when it comes to 100 percent of the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is thought to modulate the overall climate, like a atmospheric thermostat.

Some greenhouse gases are produced in natural processes, like forest fires, animal manure and respiration, or volcanic eruptions. However, the majority of new greenhouse gases are produced from industrial processes and energy production.

The four largest human sources of U.S. greenhouse gases in 2009 were energy, non-fuel use of fossil fuels, natural gas production, and cement manufacture, in descending order. Non-fuel, greenhouse gas-producing applications of fuels include industrial production like asphalt, lubricants, waxes and other . Emissions related to cement manufacture happen when limestone (calcium carbonate) is reacted with silica to make clinker, the lumps ground to make cement. ( Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis.)

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Ocean Energy

You don’t have to talk about hurricanes and tsunamis to know that the oceans are powerful. People have dreamed about harnessing their energies for centuries, and today there are many projects worldwide experimenting with just how to plug into the oceans.

However, ocean energy projects are expensive because of the nature of their energy source. The salty seas can be corrosive, unpredictable, and destructive.

Several aspects of the ocean’s energy can be exploited to generate power;  we’re not limited to the crashing waves. The three most well-developed ideas are tidal power, wave power, and ocean thermal energy conversion.

There are many different projects in various stages of development in coastal states today. However, as yet, ocean energy isn’t a significant source of energy nationally.

Ocean energy is renewable, and it’s clean because of its lack of emissions. However, using ocean energy along coastlines can cause conflict with other coastal uses – transportation and scenic oceanfront – and ocean energy can as affect marine life and environmental conditions.



Wave energy capitalizes on the power of waves as they roll through the ocean. There are small wave systems generating small amounts of electricity today, though the development costs are high and it is difficult to design equipment that can withstand the salt water, weather and water pressures.

Systems have to be designed for average waves but must also withstand the much stronger waves that occur in seasonal storms and the extreme waves that appear only rarely. Waves shift direction, so systems are designed to move to optimize direction.

Prototype plants currently operating have capacities of fractions of a megawatt, which is the tiniest drop in the bucket compared to average-sized power plants in the hundreds of megawatts.

There are over 100 wave energy technologies in various states of planning and testing or in operation as prototypes. However only one type is operating commercially, the Pelamis Wave Power, according to the World Energy Council.

In the United States there are other projects in planning or testing in Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, and California.



Using the potential energy of rising and falling ocean tides is called tidal energy.

One way of harnessing the tides is to trap the high tide behind dams.When the ocean rises to its highest tide, the dam is closed and high water is held in a reservoir by the dam. After the water recedes in low tide, the trapped water can be released through turbines like in hydroelectric plants.

Tidal energy plants of this type demand a large height difference between high and low tides, a condition that applies to only select global locations. However, research is ongoing to bypass this limitation.

The one major tidal power plant in operation is the 240 megawatt plant in La Rance, France, which has been operating since 1966, according to World Energy Council. There is also an 18 MW experimental plant in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia and a 0.4 megawatt plant near Murmansk, Russia.

Tidal energy can have the same drawbacks as hydroelectric power, such that dams may interfere with aquatic life.



Thermal energy conversion harnesses the difference in temperature between the warm, surface waters of the ocean and the colder, deep water. The two temperatures of water are matched to a fluid that has a low boiling point, like ammonia. Using the heat of the warmer water in a heat exchanger, the ammonia is evaporated and, once in gas phase, it rotates a turbine. Then, the colder seawater cools the ammonia back to liquid in a second heat exchanger. The rotating turbine generates electricity.

Open-cycle thermal energy conversion is similar but uses low pressure vessels to boil the warm surface water, instead of employing a fluid like ammonia. Water will boil at lower than its boiling point if the pressure is less than atmosphere. The steam runs a turbine, and then the cold seawater cools the steam back into fluid water.

These projects are expensive and difficult to site, since they must have deep enough water to get a substantial enough difference in temperature, yet the site must also be close enough to shore to transmit electricity.

Thermal plants can change the temperature gradient of the ocean around them, having a potential affect on marine life.

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Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Coal

The world depends on fossil fuels for its energy, and the United States is no exception. The vast majority of U.S. energy — more than 80 percent in 2009 — comes from burning fossil fuels. (more…)

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Groundwater, the Water Cycle, and Depletion


Water is created and destroyed in natural chemical reactions within plants and animals. However, most water sticks around. It changes phases through the water cycle; it can become polluted with salt, toxic chemicals, or pathogenic organisms. However, it generally doesn’t go away, globally speaking.

The water, or hydrologic, cycle describes how water moves through the atmosphere, on the Earth’s surface, and underground.

As “surface water” in the lakes, streams, rivers and oceans warms from the sun’s electromagnetic radiation, some evaporates into the atmosphere.

This water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into rain and snow, called precipitation. The precipitation falls on the Earth, eventually feeding into streams, lakes, and oceans. Some of the water seeps into the ground and collects in underground aquifers as groundwater. About 20 percent of the U.S. water supply comes from groundwater.

Groundwater can resurface from springs or it can discharge into lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans. High pressures deep inside the Earth can force groundwater up through artesian wells, or groundwater can be pumped up or pulled up in old-fashioned buckets from wells. (“Artesian” means that there’s sufficient water pressure that the groundwater need not be pumped).

Briones Reservoir in Northern California

Humans use water from the surface sources (lakes, rivers, oceans), we collect rainwater and snowmelt, and we also use groundwater. Most of this water gets discharged back out into waterways or oceans. However, water used in homes and businesses is sent to municipal water treatment, after which it is discharged into waterways, returning to the water cycle.




Groundwater isn’t as free-flowing as surface water. Predicting and modeling how it flows is wildly complex, factoring for what’s dissolved in the water and what materials it’s moving through, in three dimensions. What is easy to say is groundwater moves slower than surface water, and it gets recharged more slowly. Because modeling is complex, and tracking depletion involves drilling wells, it’s far more difficult to gauge groundwater depletion than water shortages on the surface.

When groundwater is depleted, it is still there, just lower down, as many as several hundred feet lower in extreme cases. However unseen it is, groundwater depletion – and the lowering of the water table – is very serious for several reasons.

Trees and plants rely on groundwater, and if they cannot reach water with their roots in regions where it doesn’t rain all year long, they can die, and with them all the life that depends upon them.

For people who rely on well-water, depletion can be equally disastrous. As the depth needed to reach the water increases, the amount of energy required to pump it out also increases. Lowering the water table can pollute the water, as saltwater zones can underly freshwater zones.

And even for those who depend on surface water, which is all of us, groundwater depletion can have its effect because ground water feeds surface water and vice-versa. Groundwater depletion can reduce the amount of water in streams and lakes, even if the effects take years to become obvious.



An apartment building in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

As the water table lowers from groundwater depletion, the materials within the ground dry out and the ground can actually collapse in on itself, either suddenly or slowly over time, a phenomenon called subsidence. The most dramatic incidents of subsidence are sinkholes, but most of the sinking is happening imperceptibly slowly. This sinking is why some regions of the Netherlands came to be below sea level; centuries of pumping water out of the peat-based soils shrank them, and the land — protected from flooding by the North Sea and Rhine River waters behind dikes — sunk lower and lower.

Today, subsidence from pumping of water has been recorded all over the United States, but the Santa Clara Valley in California was the first area in the country where land subsidence from human use of groundwater was recognized and the first place that organized remediation to stop the subsidence in 1969, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

While today the region is best known for its Silicon Valley technology, in the late nineteenth century, Santa Clara was full of fruit orchards irrigated with groundwater, much of it from artesian wells, meaning that the wells filled themselves with the pressure of the water created by confined aquifers. Constant reliance on this easy source of groundwater meant by 1930, wells that formerly filled themselves had to be pumped, and by 1964 one well in downtown San Jose had sunk well over 200 feet below the surface.  As water was permanently removed from the ground, the ground shrank, and by 1984, downtown San Jose had sunk quite substantially, to just 84 feet above sea level from 98 feet above sea level in 1910.


For more about water use and energy see here.

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