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Friday, October 9, 2015

The Chernoble Nature Reserve

Much surprise is exhibited by people when they realize that the no-go area around Chernobyl is turning into a wild life sanctuary.  We see such comments as "People are worse than nuclear fall out", referring to  the ever increasing richness and abundance of the flora and fauna in the area since people were excluded.  No argument there but it misses the basic biological point.

It is, of course true that if there is sufficient radiation, such as you might find inside one of the damaged Fukushima reactors and you stay in there long enough (not all that long), you will have your insides sun tanned and you will die.  Expressing it a bit more scientifically, the ionizing radiation wizzing through your body will disrupt so much of your physiology that your organism will cease to work.

Less radiation than that will cause an increase in mutations and as we all know, most mutations decrease an organisms fitness to survive in his environment.  The effect on an individual organism, being hit with increased radiation is something of a lottery.  One individual may be made less fit, another not effected. A very small proportion will have a mutation that will be advantageous.   And remember that we all live with a background level of radiation.  We get it from the sky as cosmic rays (heavy nuclei travelling at near relativistic speeds) and from radioactive elements in our soil.  To some extent our genetics is adapted to this radiation and there are mechanisms in our bodies that repair at least a portion of the copying errors.

Let's jump sideways for a moment.  Think of a pair of wolves.  The mother can easily have three pups (often many more) each  year and a wolf can easily live for 10 years.  Let's say 30 pups born to the couple over their life time.  Why are we not overrun by wolves.  A sparrow even more so.  A successful pair of sparrows can have 5 clutches of 5 young each clutch in a single season.  Why are we not overrun by sparrows.  Even Humans are in this category.  A female human can have 10 babies in her lifetime and it wasn't so long ago that this was not unusual.  Thank heaven for contraception.  Without it, there would be standing room only.  Actually, the result would be starvation and pestilance.   

Most of the young of any animal  you care to mention die and in fact, in a stable population, on average, only two young from each pair of adults survive to carry on the species and they themselves give rise to two survivors.  Natural selection involves a lot of death.

So how does this relate to animals living in an area of increased radiation.  As long as the radiation isn't of such a level to "cook" any organism in the area, some offspring will be dealt a poor genetic hand, some not and natural selection will winnow out the ones with no aces.  The winnowing will simply occur a little earlier in a population with higher radiation  levels.  In the case of our wolf, in a "normal" radiation area, all the pups might survive with most of them starving in the winter if their food source is not sufficient*.  In the high radiation area, it is likely that less of  the litter will survive initially and by and large, the same number of wolves will survive into the next spring in both cases.

*Which will  always occur at some point, if the wolf population is increasing.

Part of the reason we are so shocked is that if we humans were exposed to increased radiation, many of our children would be effected and we don't just shrug this off and let the maimed children die.  In the animal  world, without human interference, many young would die in the whome and simply not be born alive.  We never see this.  Following hatching, many little sparrows fall. It may or may not meet his tender view but that is life (or rather natural selection).  The radiation has to be pretty severe for an actual decrease in population.  All animals produce a  massive excess of young, surplus to what what is needed to keep the population in a steady state.  As long as each pair leave more than two offspring who in turn produce more than two, the population grows.

This is clearly what has happened in Chernobyl.  The radiation is not sufficient to kill off enough young to decrease the population.  Quite the contrary. The animals have left more young than enough to grow the population 

We get tied up in misunderstanding when we try to apply a human perspective of the acceptableness of having many wonky children to the Animal situation in which only a very few of the progeny of any animal survive even without increased radiation.  Short of massive radiation levels, natural selection simply occurs a little earlier and as long as a few survive, the population will rise until it encounters the usual limiting factors, such as food supply at which point, the population will level out.

Note that in certain extreme areas with simplified assemblages of flora and fauna such as the Arctic, population boom and bust but still remain over all around the carrying capacity of their area.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Arctic Hurricane

The following is a hypothesis of why we have hurricanes in the Arctic and what lies in the future.  It is written as if it is well established fact.  It is not.  The reason I write it this way is that it is simply too annoying to read something that full of might be's and could be's.  Remember too, that while much of it is well established science, you only need one broken link in  a chain of argument to wreck the whole.  With that in mind, here goes.

Does it ever strike you as odd that we have hurricanes in the Arctic.  The one in 2012 was right on the border between a category 2 and 3, quite a powerful beast.  That was also the year of the greatest ice melt we have yet seen (up to 2015).  In the tropics the surface water must be at least 25 or 26C to create a hurricane. This is because, in the tropics, all the pressure gradient needed to create a hurricane is supplied by the "suck" in the middle.  Warm humid air rises, reaches the dew point, and the water vapour begins to condense, releasing latent heat of vaporization*.  This keeps the air buoyant and powers it upward.  Air is sucked along the surface of the ocean from all around to be sucked up and continue the process.  Only with the sea above about 26 degrees C is there enough water vapour in the air to sustain this process.

* It takes 2260 kj (kilojoules) of heat to vaporize one kg (kilogram) of water.  When water vapour condenses, it gives out this heat.

In the Arctic the surface water never gets this warm (so far) so to achieve the pressure gradient necessary to create a hurricane.  We need a "blow" from outside.  This is created, especially in the fall when the land begins to rapidly cool down, cooling the air above it.  The ever more open Arctic ocean has accumulated heat in the top tens of meters while the land rapidly cools off. And in the Arctic, the land is all around the sea.  We have a push from almost all sides from this cooling, sinking air toward an ocean that  each year is accumulating more heat.

This is further exacerbated by Coriolis.  In the Northern hemisphere, Coriolis causes anything that is moving to veer to the right.  Since it is a function of how rapidly something moves closer to the centre of rotation (the earth's axis) it is more powerful in the Arctic than in the tropics.  Near the North Pole, a km of motion across the sea is nearly a km toward the centre.  However, just like water going down a plug hole, once the rotation starts it is powered by the gradient between the outside and the centre.

So what can we expect.  The Arctic ocean, as more of it becomes open ocean, is absorbing more and more heat from the sun.  Snow over top of ice is said to reflect about 90% of the incoming radiation back into space while open water absorbs 90% of the radiation.  Don't take the exact figures too seriously.  There are a number of whichever's involved but the basic principle holds.  At present, melting ice helps to keep the water cold as it absorbs latent heat of crystallization.*  We are seeing another one of these positive feed back mechanisms.  As the ice melts, it sets up the situation to melt even more ice.

* To melt a kg of ice takes 334kj.  Water, when it freezes gives out the same amount of heat per kg.  This will become important below.  Incidentally, this is approximately enough heat to raise the same mass of water by 80 degrees.

So as the ocean becomes more an more ice free, we can expect more hurricanes, especially in the fall.  And we might, in the future, even see them following Sept 15 when the freeze up starts again.  Remember it is the gradient that creates hurricanes.  If we have got to the point where most of the Arctic is ice free then a lot of latent heat is released as the water freezes.  If this freeze doesn't start until the surrounding land is really cold and snow covered, a serious pressure gradient could be created.  Of course, as it freezes, sublimation replaces evaporation which is less vigorous.  If the land has really cooled down and air is falling over the land,  the gradient could still be enough to create a hurricane.  Other effects occur.

When the Arctic Ocean is pretty well covered with ice and snow, the air doesn't get heated from below as it does everywhere else on earth due to the absorption of heat from the sun.  It is an area of falling air which gives rise to a clockwise, high pressure weather system.  This clockwise rotating air pushes the water in the same direction giving rise to the clockwise rotating Beaufort Gyre to the North of Alaska.  Coriolis comes into play again as surface water rotating in this gyre veers toward the centre.  Fresh water is pouring into the ocean from surrounding rivers and this floating fresh water (and ice) accumulates in the gyre. The gyre is actually a little higher in the middle than on the outside.  The fresher water layer is a couple of hundred meters deep and holds an amount of fresh water equivalent to a couple of years of the flow of the surrounding rivers. 

Now what happens if we start to have anti-clockwise (storm) patterns over the Arctic.  If sufficiently long and strong, the Beaufort gyre should reverse direction, flinging ice and surface fresher water outwards to be expelled through the Bering and Fram straights.  This creates  another positive feed back loop.

The surface water in the Arctic is colder than the deeper water.  It is only kept on the surface because of its lower salinity.  If we start to expel this surface layer, the deeper warmer water comes closer and closer to the surface.  The very storms which expel this fresher water from the arctic, create large waves which mix the layers.  This is especially so when the waves come into shallower water and internal waves between the layers break.

It would appear that in the coming years we should expect more and more hurricanes occurring in the arctic.  As the melting of the ice progresses, these hurricanes should occur earlier and earlier in the melt season.  It is also possible that they will continue into the beginning of the re-freezing season.  If their effect is to send more ice and fresh water into the Atlantic and Pacific, this will exacerbate the melting.

I wouldn't want to live in a coastal community on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  I would be moving to higher ground.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stealing our infrastructure

Countries spend considerable time and energy stealing each other's infrastructure.  For a take on this, read John Perkins book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and his two subsequent books on the subject.  Also get Oliver stone's book, The Untold History of the United States or click on the link Timeline America.

Here is a new scenario (to me at least); a new wrinkle on this ongoing quest for dominance and economic advantage.  I don't know if this is been actively engineered or if countries are simply taking advantage of the situation opportunistically.  Either way, the result is the same.  One country owns more and more of the infrastructure of another country.

And it may not be the actual country that is doing it but rather her large businesses.  In fact, with the independence of large multi-national companies, the companies themselves will be either engineering take overs or taking advantage of opportunities when they arise independent of their country of origin.  This applies particularly to commodity enterprises such as coal mines and lumber mills.  I will use milk as an example since with respect to our milk markets, New Zealand is at present deep in what comes out of the other orifice of the cow.

So how does it work.

A country with deep pockets gives top dollar for a commodity such as raw logs, coal or milk powder.  It must be a large country with a large market for the commodity for this to work.  It also must be a commodity that has a long shelf life.  You may think that this eliminates milk but much of the milk that is traded around the world is traded as powdered milk.  As long as you keep your powder dry, it lasts for ever.  The country with the deep pockets stockpiles far more of this product than she needs and then stops purchasing.  Because she is such a large part of the  market for the product, the price plummets.

Being human, the farmers (in the case of milk) have spent up big when the milk solid price ishigh and even overspent in anticipation of a long run if high milk prices.  Many have increased their debt.  Now the price tanks.  Foreclosures are inevitable.

Here is where we see the metal and the vision of the government of the small country that is under this economic attack.  She can make it open slather on farms and allow the country that caused the crisis to buy up the foreclosed farms.  The foreclosed farmers will be happy (as much as they can be under the circumstances) since they get out from under their debt.  The big country can pay at least enough to pay off the debt and voila; the farms are alienated from the economy of the small country.

On the other hand they can legislate that no farms will be sold to non residents.  Lets burrow down into this decision level by level and see what the results will be if only residents can buy these farms.

Level 1
Pretty harsh on the foreclosed farmers.  Without someone with deep pockets coming along to buy their farm, They might still owe money to the bank even after it has been sold.  With a deep pocket buyer, they might even have a little surplus in pocket after the sale of their farm.

Level 2
The banks may think twice and then once again about foreclosing on a farm if the prospect of a rich buyer is not in the offing.  Less farms will be foreclosed. As the milk price recovers, some of these farmers will get their heads above water and become successful.

Level 3
Residents who do buy  foreclosed farms will get them for a reasonable price when there is no competition from overseas.  With the resulting smaller mortgage, their break even milk solid price will be lower.  Our dairy industry will be just that little bit more financially resilient when the next attack on the industry occurs.

Level 4
Most of our mortgages (in New Zealand) are held by Australian banks.  With lower mortgages, less money will be hemorrhaging to Australia and NZ's balance of payments will be that little bit better.

Level 5
With no farm sales to non residents we will have a measurement of how much overseas sales push up  farm prices and hence a hint of how much they push up  housing prices.  Perhaps if the drop is significant, the government of the day will consider legislating for no house sales as well to non residents with similar beneficial effects for Kiwis.

As I said, I don't know if this sort of thing is being actively engineered by large countries with deep pockets or if they are simply taking advantage of periodic falls in commodity prices.  Whichever the case, without a government with some long term vision, a small country is slowly but steadily bought out.  Not a bullet fired and you become tenants in your own country.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Corruption of our Politicians

A letter to some MP's in New Zealand

Isn't it ironic or some might call it perverse.  On one hand if we sign up to the TPP, it includes regulations with real teeth.  If we do something to protect our people like insisting on plain packaging on tobacco, the tobacco industry can sue our country.  No use denying it.  Such provisions already exist in other trade agreements and our neighbour, Australia is right now embroiled  in such an action.  The court consists of a collection of judges who in their private law practice often work for the very companies that are suing governments.  There is no recourse to our sovereign courts and we, the tax payers are obliged to cough up the money.

On the other hand we have carbon emission agreements under Koyota et al..  these agreements have no teeth what so ever.  If the scientists are even 10% correct we are on the way to triggering a suit of mutually re-enforcing tipping points which will send us back into the dark ages.  If they are 50% correct, we are heading for the stone age and if they are completely correct It is well withing the bounds of possibility that we, and many of our fellow travellers on the planet are heading for extinction.

And, to put the cherry on the cake, it is the very same giant businesses; the banks, arms manufacturers, fossil fuel merchants, Monsantoes of the world and so forth that are fighting tooth and nail to maintain their bottom line and, in the process, stop any actions which might avert the coming climate disaster.

Do you think I am exaggerating.   Have a look at the following.  This is a small sample of things that happened under Globilization and the imbedded trade agreements with the enforcement or threatened enforcement of the WTO (world trade organization).  small caps intentional

A soft drink company successfully sued Brazil when they wanted to reduce harmful fructose in soft drinks.

Australia is at present embroiled in a stramash with a tobacco company over plain packaging

An extremely successful program in Ontario, Canada to replace coal fired power stations with renewably generated electricity was closed down.  The program, as is the case with many renewable energy projects,  was also providing thousands of new jobs.

The USA challenged a Chinese wind power subsidy program.

China filed a complaint over Italian and Greek wind power programs and has threatened to challenge wind power programs in 5 US states.

The USA has challenged India's Nehru National Solar Mission; a program to generate large amounts of renewable power.

India has replied, threatening to challenge a number of US renewable energy programs.

Free trade agreements and Globalization under the auspices of the WTO have the following effects.

    Stops the world from weaning itself off fossil fuel

    Ties your hands when you want to protect your citizens from harmful products. 

    Turns your farms, businesses and houses into international commodities.  Great for the real estate agents and the now famous 1% but not so good for your citizens if they want to buy a farm, house or business.  A wall of money out there  is searching for a safe haven from the abuses of Northern Hemisphere banks,hedge funds and wall street.  If it falls on us it will send our own assets way beyond the means of our citizens. 

      Stops you from protecting your citizens from companies like Monsanto. (are you familiar with the Percy Schmeizer story.  If not, click on this link).
Stops you from implementing many measures you could put in place to create jobs in your country.
If you have a drug buying institution such as exists in New Zealand to get the best prices for the countrie's drugs, this will be shut down.   

Now the American government (not the American people) want us to enter into multi-lateral trade agreements which will result in these multiple sorts of abuse from all sides.   I just don't get it. Implicit in the word 'Democracy' is that it is "for the people".  For heaven sake, it is actually written into the founding documents of the greatest abuser of her own citizens; the USA but is also implicit in the foundation of all democracies.

These corporations have subverted our so-called democracies by buying our politicians.  People stage huge demonstrations against the abuse.  Occupy Wall Street, March against Monsanto, Protest against the Iraq war and so forth and these actions and demonstrations have absolutely no effect.  And they will continue to have no effect if we don't sort out the core problem.  PPCT

Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune.  With  most things, my own country, New Zealand is too small to have any  directly effect any outcome in the world.  If, for instance, we went completely carbon free tomorrow, it would have no effect on the world's carbon pollution.  However, we do have an ace in the hole. 

Countries, like people, are sheep and we are experts on sheep.  They follow a leader and we have been that leader many many times in the past.  People need a concrete example that they can refer to when they are telling the story.  Humans are the story telling ape.  Everything we do is based on "story".

The one  action which is necessary so that all the other very necessary actions will bear fruit is to get big business out of politics.  Then the politicians can start to do what is needed for their people.  For a change we might just have government for the people, not for the corporatocracy. 

It is not just the case that once a politician has been paid by big business,  he returns the favour. Much worse, he knows if he does not do the bidding of his financial supporters, then the next time he needs election funds, the tap will be closed.  It's insidious.

It is time for New Zealand to set the example and make it illegal for any person or business to give money to a politician for any reason what so ever.  Take a legislated amount of money from the public purse with each prospective MP getting so much, Each leader of a party so much and so forth. (with complete accountability for every cent they spend) 

Does this sound expensive.  Look at the complete gutting of the people of the world under our present system and then tell me it is too expensive.  Look at the likely consequences of the present system and tell me it is too expensive.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ocean Nodule Mining

Here in New Zealand, an application has been rejected to mine the mineral nodules in the deep ocean.  I think that the powers-that-be have little sense of proportion.

Let's assume for the sake of the argument that the hoovering up of the nodules and the return of the gangue* totally trashes that area of sea bottom.

*waste bits and pieces that are not mineral nodules

No polluting chemicals are used.  At the most extreme, the returning waste will smother whatever is living on that area of sea bottom.  The most extreme possibility is that the area is rendered sterile.  Once the area has been mined it can't be mined again for many thousands of years.  It takes that long for nodules to grow.  The area gets recolonized by whatever lives in the area and goes back to its original state.  It may even be improved, in a similar fashion  to when you clear small areas in a forest.  Pioneer species are favoured, increasing the diversity of the local ecology for a period until the area reaches its climax fauna.

Compare that with bottom trawling which we do allow.  You scrape the bottom clean and then do it again and again and again.  The area never has a chance to recover.  If we want to do something for the bottom of the ocean we should ban bottom trawling and only allow long line methods.

We need a sense of proportion when deciding what to allow and what to forbid.  Nodule mining has to be on the extreme benign end of the spectrum.   Bottom trawling at the disastrous end.

This whole episode is similar to the stramash we had over indoor dairy farms in the MacKenzie country.  Yes, indoor dairy farms can be bad for the animals and truly horrible places.  However they can  be much better for the animals, far more ecologically friendly and, would you believe, more profitable.  The devil is in the details.

I saw a similar situation in Canada.  I met a fisheries biologist who should have known better.  He was off to break up a beaver dam in the belief that they were bad for fish stocks in that river.  Hydro dams are bad so, so must be a beaver dam.  I asked him why, pre the Hudson Bay Company era, when beaver dams were in pretty well every location where  one could be built, the salmon runs were many orders of magnitude larger than they are today*.  He still went out to break up the beaver dam but hopefully it got him thinking.

*In about  1888, the Hudson Bay Company initiated a policy to exterminate the fur bearing animals of the Columbia Catchment to deny an economic base for America in that area.  The beavers were first to go.  Salmon runs plummeted. 

More famous is the situation with wolves.  Farley Mowat deals with this in his very amusing book Never Cry Wolf.  Canadian wildlife biologists were convinced that the wolves were decimating the caribou and put a bounty on them.

Of course we then have the example of the destruction of the fisheries of the Grand Banks under the supervision of fisheries biologists, a group of people who tend to be as green as they come.  Through a combination of corporation short sighted greed and faulty science by the best scientist of the day, the Grand Banks were trashed. 

I am a greenie through and through.  I always support the Green Party, my hero is George Monbiot and my passion is rewilding in general and beavers in particular but the greens do sometimes do go off half cocked with knee jerk reactions to things without examining the deeper implications (unexpected consequences) of their actions.  As greens we must choose our battles and carry them through to the  end and not get distracted by unimportant causes or causes in which we are  on the wrong side of the argument.

The green parties of the world are our only chance in a world we seem to be determined to trash.  They are usually the only party with a vision that extends beyond a single election term.  We desperately need them to make the right choices, hold their governments feet to the fire, speak truth to power and just maybe they will succeed in pulling us out of mad rush to exterminate ourselves or at least to end the fantastic advances we have made since we have shaken loose the bonds of religious fanaticism.