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Monday, July 30, 2007

KiwiSaver - Good For New Zealand? Good for a Kiwi?

KiwiSaver has the potential to be the most significant positive development for our economy and for our well being that has ever being instituted in New Zealand. Unfortunately it is a highly flawed system. KiwiSaver could:::

* Increase business development in New Zealand as this newly available money is used for investment.

* Create worthwhile jobs (as opposed to the present low paid, menial jobs) for Kiwi's from both the construction and running of these businesses.

*Reduce inflation since there would be  less money chasing consumer goods. If you are saving you have less to spend.

* Facilitate a better exchange rate due to lower inflation leading to increased exports. Ideally, one wants a lower inflation rate than one's trading partners to take advantage of the lag factor. (economic hysteresis)

* Reduce prices at the store for the average Kiwi due to competition**. With less money chasing goods, competition between retailers increases. This results in lower prices for the consumer. This helps to make up for the fact that we will have less money to spend when more of our income goes into savings.

     ** this effect was clearly demonstrated worldwide following the 2008 economic downturn as consumers opted to pay down debt rather than to buy-buy-buy.  Despite huge "Quantitative Easing" prices did not increase.

* Reduce the need for the reserve bank to hike interest rates to keep inflation under control since saving lowers inflation automatically. In fact, when increased saving has lowered inflation, the reserve bank should be able to reduce the base lending rate. Since interest is a business expense, lower interest rates increases profits. Lower interest rates will also discourage the "carry trade" in which "mom and pop" from overseas, largely from Japan,  speculate in our currency. Our own savings will replace money from the Carry Trade. The Carry Trade bubble also contributes to inflation as it forces the reserve bank to raise the base interest rate. Instead of the interest on investment going overseas, it will stay in New Zealand.

* Stimulate rather than choke business. The hiking of the base interest rate by the Reserve Bank chokes business by increasing this business expense whereas saving/investment powers business by providing less expensive credit.
Credit is less expensive due to this fund of KiwiSaving money being available for loaning. Simple supply and demand kicks in when lending institutions have an excess of liquidity. Money held in their vaults does them no good. They must reduce interest rates to get this money moving and working for them so all borrowers benefit.

* Make businesses more profitable, especially export businesses, since, with lower interest rates, it costs them less to service their loans. More profit leads to higher wages and/or more investment back into their business, further strengthening our economy.

We shouldn't be too hard on over-seas people who are investing in our economy. We aren't saving enough for the banks to have enough cash to lend us for our mortgages and business loans. Without this investment from overseas we would be in a difficult situation. For some reason it is worthwhile for them to invest in our economy but not worthwhile for us to do so???  This is probably due to the way the two groups (domestic and overseas investors) are taxed but I still find it a mystery. The result, though, is that the profit (interest) from our loans is flowing overseas rather than staying in New Zealand to power other enterprises. Hopefully, with some further improvements for the investor in KiwiSaver, it will become worthwhile for us to invest in our own economy and stop this financial hemorrhage. If we hypothesize a 10% leak from our economy, this means that every profit dollar that stays in New Zealand is exchanged 10 times, lubricating our business engine. Profits that go overseas are oil taken out of the motor.

* Provide a more stable and hence more attractive environment for business, possibly tipping the balance toward New Zealand for some businesses which are contemplating relocating overseas. Also the possibility of encouraging outside businesses to relocate to New Zealand. More businesses means lower unemployment figures and more competition between businesses for employees which translates into higher wages.  This, of course, flies in the face of what certain governments try to do.  Namely to keep wages down for the benefit of their business friends and their share portfolio.  It also results in more taxes into the government coffers and hence less overseas borrowing.  Less overseas borrowing raises our credit rating and makes those loans we still have to take, less expensive.

House affordability 

More money going into kiwisaver would ease the purchase of a house for Kiwis:

 *  (1) because of mortgages with lower-interest rates  This is caused by lending institutions having more money (supply and demand again) and because of the competition between the lending institutions to lend this money. This will allow more people to purchase their own homes.

*  (2) due to lower house prices  With a safe, worthwhile alternative investment through KiwiSaver, less people will be speculating on housing**. High house prices are a bubble, just as the currency speculation is a bubble and is powered by perception rather than intrinsic worth. All bubbles contribute to general inflation. Without the housing bubble, not only would houses be more affordable but so would bread and milk at the corner dairy.  Many house investors would probably be willing to take a somewhat lower return in KiwiSaver than they expect in housing speculation.  If you have ever owned a rental property, you know what a hassle it can be.

     **Some years ago when we looked for a house in Christchurch, nine out of ten houses we were shown were empty.  When you are selling the family home you generally have to sell it before you move out.  These were speculation houses.  Imagine the effect on house prices$$  of all of these spec-houses flooding back on to the market when there is a viable alternative investment.

$$This may explain why it is not being done.  How many MP's own speculation/rental houses and don't want to see the price of housing come down. For that matter, how many MP's don't want their family house to loose value.

*  (3). because of more money in peoples hands When people go to buy a house they will have a larger down payment in their hands from KiwiSaver, still further easing the purchase of a home. (The government has suggested that it will be possible to access KiwiSaver funds to purchase the first house and hence, a larger down payment resulting in a lower monthly mortgage payment to Australian banks).

*  (4)  due to increased wages  Investment in one's country increases per-capita productivity as money goes into the means of production (machinery, infra structure). As long as wage increases do not exceed increases in per-capita productivity, they are not inflationary. With a higher real wage (as opposed to a higher nominal wage that inflation quickly neutralizes), it is easier to buy a house.

back to general benefits

* Put more money in peoples hands at retirement with all the benefits this brings. Although this is the major reason given for KiwiSaver, it is actually a relatively minor benefit compared to all the other benefits which will come from all of us investing in our own economy.  With money in their hands, retired people become a positive asset to an economy rather than a drain as they seem to be considered at present. Retired couples tend to spend the money they have.  There is not much incentive for them to continue saving.

* Reduce the need for investment from overseas since we have our own increased source of investment. Overseas investment results in profit being sent overseas where it is lost to the New Zealand economy. Profit earned in New Zealand supports our home grown businesses at many levels as we spend our money locally.

* Reduce the debt owed by Kiwi's. Instead of buying something on credit, incurring interest and paying it back over time, people will save, get interest and then buy. High debt is going to land a lot of us in trouble. This depends on easier access to our KiwiSaver funds*, something that the government is against at this juncture and so we may not see this benefit. It also depends on KiwiSaver being a worthwhile system of investment so people will invest in it. Certain purchases such as an electric car, house insulation, solar panels etc are, in effect, a pension which starts at the date of purchase, not at age 65. Serious consideration should be given to allowing KiwiSaver funds to be used for these as well as the purchase of a first house.

* Help avoid the 'crunch'%%  which is coming due to us regularly spending 10% more than we earn. If this continues, it will eventually lead to a precipitous fall in our exchange rate as outside investors loose faith in the worth of our currency. Such economic earthquakes are as bad for everyone as is our present over-inflated currency. The longer this excess spending goes on, the greater will be the size of the inevitable correction. Our objective should be to induce overseas investors to gradually get out of our currency as we fill the gap rather than to have them suddenly pull the plug.

%% Note (Oct 2011) We have just been downgraded from AAA to AA.  Is this the beginning of "the crunch"

Up to this point the tacit assumption has been that all the money collected under the umbrella of KiwiSaver will be invested in New Zealand businesses. This is of course unrealistic. However, investing overseas is not all bad. True, we are investing in the businesses of our competitors but on the other hand, we are bringing their profits into New Zealand where they can help with our balance of payments.

So those are the potential benefits. Now,,, what is wrong with KiwiSaver as it stands.

The Employer Contribution
The employer contribution is the most cynical part of the kiwisaver con trick and like all con tricks it depends on the 'mark' thinking he is getting something for nothing. The employee looks at the system and believes he will be getting an increase in salary of 4%. Sure, he doesn't get to spend it but it will be waiting for him when he retires. Nonsense!

It is true that for the first year or two of the scheme, the employee will be getting a real benefit. He is on a negotiated salary and the employer will be adding money for KiwiSaver. Also, someone on the minimum wage will be getting a benefit since he must still get this minimum wage in hand.* Incidentally, most of this money is coming out of the employee's pocket anyway through taxes since the government is subsidizing the employer so that he can pay this extra. Even worse, it is coming out of the pockets of all tax payers and is going into the pockets of people who join KiwiSaver. However, leaving that aside, these first couple of years are irrelevant. What do you think will happen as inflation continues on its 3% per year course. What will happen when he changes jobs.

*just watch employers try to deduct money from the minimum wage to put into KiwSaver.  

In both these instances, the employer will calculate what he can afford for the great privilege of having you work for him. He will then deduct what he has to, to pay for KiwiSaver and offer what is left as a salary. If the employee stays in his present job, his salary will not increase as much as he would otherwise have expected and if he changes jobs, he won't be offered as much as he would have expected.

The employee, on the other hand will unwittingly be complicit in this fiction. He will look at his salary and say, OK it isn't what I was expecting but on the other hand, my employer is putting in X amount into KiwiSaver which will benefit me when I retire. Wake up. He is not putting in anything. He has simply offered a reduced salary so that he can afford to put his contribution into KiwiSaver.  You are in a forced saving plan that you can't access until you retire.

The Government Contribution 
The government contribution is also a fiction.  It is your tax money being given back to you after administration costs.  To do this, the government must take more money from you, from, for instance, increased GST*, or reduce services or  putt your children deeper into debt.  The present government is doing all three.

*(oct 2011) Since writing this blog, GST has gone from 12.5% to 15%.  Any bets when it will be increased again.

                             Fixing KiwiSaver
KiwiSaver as it stands is a very poor investment. One indication of this is that the government has had to bribe people with the various incentives to get them to enter the system. Whenever someone is giving you something for nothing, suspect a con trick. KiwiSaver is a case in point. So what is wrong with KiwiSaver for the investor.

There are two problems with KiwiSaver**. First, if you are a middle income earner on a marginal income tax bracket of 33%#, you have to earn $150 in order to invest $100. Secondly, when you earn a dividend or interest of $100 through KiwiSaver, you only get to keep $66. If you work through a calculation assuming you can get a 6% investment through KiwiSaver and that inflation over your life time is 3%, you will find that it takes just over 40 years before the first money you invested at, say, age 20 is back to the buying power of what you originally earned.**

 You are already close to retirement. Money invested later in life never does get back up to its original buying power. Its not as if no other country has got it right. Australia, the UK and the USA all have systems that allow the investor to invest before taxes (in the case of Australia you are taxed 15% on investment and dividends regardless of your tax bracket) and to keep what he earns through his pension plan investment.

 The whole problem with KiwiSaver is the tax regime imposed on it by the government and the bribes they provide, are a sure indication that they realize what a poor investment it is. When people wake up to what a poor investment KiwiSaver is, they will be opting-out and the huge benefits to New Zealand listed at the beginning of this blog will not occur.##

# Earning more than $70,000 as of 2014

##This is a quote from Wikipedia describing the Australian system
These taxes contribute over $6 billion in annual government revenue.[8] Superannuation is a tax-advantaged method of saving as the 15% tax rate on contributions is lower than the rate an employee would have paid if they received the money as income. The Federal government announced in its 2006/07 budget that from 1 July 2007, Australians over the age of 60 will face no taxes on withdrawing monies out of their superannuation fund if it is from a taxed source.

**The calculation
You earn $150. You are taxed before investment so you can only invest $100 for every $150 you earn. You put this money into a fixed interest investment in the bank (who would trust stocks and shares or a Kiwi investment company after the recent econo-quake). You earn 6%. At the end of the year, the tax man looks at your investment as sees that you have earned $6. You are in the 33% tax bracket so he takes $2. Remember that this money is on top of your other earnings so you are taxed on it at your marginal rate. Since inflation is 3%, you need $103 just to break even and you have $104 after taxes.  You have earned $1 in real profit. Taking this $1 back to when you invested it, your true earning is actually 97 cents but let's not quibble. If you plug this in to the compound interest formula (log 1.5/log 1.0097) you find that it will take 42 years to get back to your original buying power.  Let Kiwis invest before taxes and you are investing the whole $150 and are 42 years ahead of the game even without stopping taxes on your dividends.

Make KiwiSaver into a worthwhile investment and all the benefits will accrue to the economy as listed above.  Better still, us Kiwis will be the owners of our own economy.  We continue to sell off our assets** to keep our heads above water.  It is like a trucking company selling off its trucks to pay its debts.  Not sustainable.

** (Oct 2011)  Now the National government is talking about selling off 49% of our SOEs to us who already own them.  We will sell them off to overseas investors when the price is right or when we need the money and the dividends will go overseas.  Taxes will rise to make up for the loss of income.  Who is benefiting from all this.  Rich Kiwis, while they retain the shares, will have some dividends to make up for higher taxes.  Poor Kiwis not.  Once again money coming out of the pockets of poor Kiwis into the pockets of the rich***. 

*** The government has another cute little wrinkle in this story.  Even rich Kiwis have to pay taxes (well sometimes anyway).  The dividends they receive are taxes at their marginal rate.  Even though the government no longer owns the shares, they get about a third of the dividend anyway as long as these shares are in the hands of kiwis.  Very neat!!!!

ps(Oct 2011) A new wrinkle just came to my attention.  We have just had our economic rating reduced from AAA to AA.  The reason stated was that our national debt is too large.  This despite the fact that following the mini economic quake in 2008, Kiwis started to save in KiwiSaver.  The reason:  The government subsidies to KiwiSaver put the government further into debt so our total national debt which is made up of government debt and personal debt is not decreasing.  Solution:  Stop subsidizing KiwiSaver and simply make it  a worthwhile investment as outlined above.

How to structure Kiwi Saver
1)  Allow investment before taxes
2)  Don't tax the interest or dividends you earn.  KiwiSaver is not like other investments such as housing or shares where you have the option to go in and out of the investment when you want for profit taking.  You are asked to make an investment for your entire working life.  Therefore KiwiSaver investments should not have the same rules that apply to other investments.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nostalgia2 - Life in the Highlands

No, I don't mean the ScottishHighlands. I mean the district in North Vancouver, Canada called the Highlands. It sits on either side of Highland Boulevard which runs straight up the slope just below Grouse Mountain.

We moved in there when I was 9. That would make it about 1950. The whole area was second growth forest; Hemlock, cedar and fir trees that two people could just get their arms around and there was only one other house visible from where we lived. Highland Boulevard was a dirt track. We lived on the corner of Leovista which was just two roads below the top of the district and from there upwards there was nothing but forest. We found the traces of the original logging. There were partially rotted tree stumps with the notches still visible where the old loggers had jammed their spring boards to stand on while they felled these giants. And they were giants. I was smaller then but I would guess that it would take at least 5 adults holding hands to go around the trunk at chest level. There were also traces of the skid roads; small logs placed cross-wise along a path, often in a stream that they used to slide the logs out.

The real beauty of the area, though was found a block and a bit to the east of Highland boulevard. We called it Mosquito creek but I don't think I ever saw a mosquito there. It was a clear stream that flowed winter and summer regardless of rainfall, swelling a bit in the winter and spring with the heavy rains and snow melt and shrinking a bit in the summer, but always flowing. It ran from pond to pond all the way down from Grouse Mountain with trees on both sides draping their branches into the water. As kids we used to get a stick and string and a carefully guarded hook and with an earth worm or two from the garden, we could usually bring home a trout for mom to fry for lunch.

Further up along the stream was an old (to our young eyes) hermit who had a lovely little cabin beside the stream. He lived in a clearing on the west side of the stream and he had installed a water wheel where the water flowed from one pond to the next. I don't think the wheel did anything useful but he just liked the look of it turning around as the water poured over it. He was a nice fellow and we used to sit with him and talk and he would tell us about the area in 'the old days'. I think he might have been one of the loggers that simply liked the area and decided to stay on.

That's all changed now. The first change came when RKn and his gang found the old man's cabin when he was away visiting his daughter. They totally trashed it and then in final paroxysm of creativity, lit what was left on fire. We never saw our friend again. He must have come back when we weren't there, seen the destruction and lost heart. I always liked to think he may have found a place with his daughter.

Then a developer decided to clear fell all the area above the Highlands to prepare it for a huge housing development. That winter wasn't especially rainy but 5 metres of rain a year, mostly in the winter, is a lot of rain and there were no trees to left to hold the water and let it out slowly. It roared down mosquito creek taking out a wide swath of trees on both sides and turning that necklace of shady ponds into a boulder bed. Over the next few years the destruction continued. One year the stream jumped its banks and moved to the west a couple of hundred metres and went down what must have once been its stream bed. Only it was now a street with houses on both sides. By the time the water had gone down, the road was gone along with all the soil around the houses and the whole area was bed of boulders. Now in the summer the stream hardly flows any more and eventually just below where a small foot bridge crosses over from the Highlands to Delbrook, they built a cement tunnel to take the stream down to the sea. I haven't been back in a long time now. I often hoped as the housing area grew trees and lawns, the run off might come under control again but a housing estate has a lot of paved surfaces so its unlikely.

I wish my boys could have seen it the way it was. Even the way I saw it was not in its pristine state. The original old loggers must have thought they were in paradise and by the time I first saw the area, a great forest had grown up again. That is the problem with memory. You only remember back to your younger days. Collective memory is rare. Black and white photography helped when it came along and black and white is quite durable. Colour photographs tend to fade and despite their greater appeal when they are new, they are soon hard to even look at. Now we have computers and digital cameras. How quickly do photos stored on modern computers disappear. If you stored your information on those cardboard enveloped disks we used to call floppies you would have trouble finding a computer now to read them and stiffies will soon go the same way. I bet it won't be long before compact disks will be replaced by something else and if you have not re-stored your photos each time a new medium comes along, they will be lost. Its a bit sobering to think that we can still read clay tablets from 5000 years ago and get an insite into the culture of the people that wrote them but our civilization may dissapear except for the foundations of our buildings.

There is an interesting parallel here in New Zealand. After a 14 year battle the first small marine reserve was set aside. It wasn't long until it was just chock-a-block with fish, lobsters, shellfish and all the other organisms that should be there. To someone used to the rest of the sea, it seems like a miracle but as some people point out, this is no more or less than the way it was before man started to exploit it. This is the "norm' - the yardstick against which other areas should be judged. Great great grandad saw it this way. He could scoop a fish out of the water with a hand net. Great grandfather could collect a boat full with a rod and line in an hour. Grandad could easily catch a fish if he had an hour to spare and dad tells about the big ones he caught after a day of fishing. Each generation only remembers what it was like at the beginning of his own life. This is one of the main purposes of no-use reserves, whether on land or sea. Without them we have no measure of what was and what could be.

I wish I could have seen North Vancouver as the first of the first people saw it. It must of been magnificent.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Canadian Beaver - pest or benefactor

Beaver nibbling twigs -Kelowna BC
It's no wonder the beaver gets a bad press. The first time someone is aware that beavers have returned to their ancestral home is when a favorite fruit tree is cut down or a road is washed away because of a dammed culvert. The results of returning beavers are often visible, immediate and in your face. The benefits they bring are, unfortunately, often invisible, happen over generations and are hard to quantify unless you are  a scientist with access to long term records. However for all their subtlety the benefits from beavers are profound.

The beaver is an aquatic rodent as large as a medium sized dog. He is a odd beast compared to other mammals in that he continues growing all his life. He lives in a lodge which he constructs by piling up branches in a pond. He plasters the upper layer of branches with mud which, in the winter, freezes to the consistency of reinforced concrete. A small hole is left in the top for ventilation. When he has a suitable pile of sticks, he eats out underwater entrances and a den above the water line.

Where naturally occurring ponds are rare, or where pond locations are already occupied, the beaver will build a dam across a stream to create a pond and it is this habit that makes him so useful. In large rivers or lakes, he may excavate a burrow in the bank and become almost invisible

Beaver cut stump - Chilcoten BC
A main food of beavers is the under-bark of a wide range of copicing trees such as willow, cotton wood, poplar, aspen and alder and it is the wood of these trees that he uses for both dam and lodge. Beavers will also eat a wide variety of water plants and their roots.  Once the beavers have created a pond, these types of plants flourish and provide more food for beavers and other animals. A beaver will also eat windfall apples (or apples from a tree he has just felled).

Some botanists believe that the reason willows, alders and poplars are such good copicers is because they evolved with beavers. In beaver country a tree that sends copious branches from a stump each year has a distinct evolutionary advantage, over a tree that dies when it is cut down. In turn, this sort of tree is of great benefit to the beaver since it produces tender young food each year and a new supply of dam repair material.
Beavers were introduced into Tierra del Fuego in the 40's where the trees hadn't evolve with the beavers and there, beavers are considered an invasive pest. The local people aren't aware of the long term benefits of beaver dams and all they see is a treeless area around each dam covered with shrubs and grass.

Beaver eaten skunk Cabbage - Prince Rupert
Beaver knawed cedar tree - Prince Rupert
If really desperate a beavers will turn to some hard woods and even some evergreens but this is often just before they leave for a more favorable greener pastures. In lakes beavers can get by without a supply of suitable trees if there are sufficient water plants available. For instance in Morse Pond in Prince Rupert, BC, beavers are eating Lilly pad leaves,  skunk cabbage and undoubtedly many types of aquatic vegetation not visible on the surface of the pond. Except for some gnawing on a cedar tree by their lodge, there is no sign of them cutting down the very scarce deciduous trees in the area. Almost all the trees surrounding Morse Pond are evergreens which are distasteful to beavers.

Beavers produce around three kits each year and the kits stay with the parents for a second year and participate in the work of maintaining the dam and lodge.  In the third year young leave the home pond and look for a suitable site to build their own home. Given a decade or so without disturbance, a whole water-shed can have beaver dams in first, second and even third order tributaries.

In North America, historically, beavers lived from the Arctic circle down to Mexico. They manage very well in areas where their ponds are frozen over for months of the year and also in very warm areas.

Beaver populations are self limiting. They are completely tied to water and so their population is limited by the availability of suitable sites. Beaver families are very territorial and will drive out strange beavers. Typically, when beavers come back to an area, their population overshoots slightly and then falls back to the carrying capacity of the area.

So what good do beaver do. It is hard to know where to start.

Beavers mitigate floods.
Beaver dams have a small amount of free board (the part of the dam above the water) and as a storm wave moves down a stream system, the dams fill up to the top and then slowly release their water. This is especially so with the floods that seem to come, all to often , after a drought.

Beaver dams are somewhat leaky so with a long period of low rainfall, the level in the beaver dam is likely to be low. The lower the water level in the beaver dams, the greater the mitigating effect on flood peaks.

By widening the flood plain, beavers greatly increase the amount of water a stream bed can hold, further reducing flood peaks. Beaver dams also 'roughen' the stream bed, slowing down the water. This further reduces flood peaks down stream.

Water is not only stored in the pond itself but in the surrounding land.  Water tables intersect streams at their surfaces.  A beaver dam raises the water table in the surrounding land, storing yet more water to slowly leak back into the stream, downstream.

Check this out

In terms of human perception, we tend not to notice when something doesn't happen. We notice, when a flood washes away our house. We don't notice when the house isn't washed away. Only a hydrologist with access to rainfall and weir records over an extended period  would realize that a similar or more intense rainfall event than the one that destroyed property before the beaver returned was a non event with beavers back in the catchment.

Beavers increase the summer flow in streams and rivers.
Due to the effects described above and some others in following paragraphs, stream flow is increased in the summer when it is most needed for farming, drinking, lawn watering and so forth. In some places in the dry South West of the USA, streams which haven't flowed in the summer in living memory started to flow after beavers had returned to their head waters (link). In black and white cases like this, the effect of beaver dams is pretty obvious but who but a hydrologist would notice that the streams flowed more this summer than 10 summers ago when there weren't any beavers in the catchment. Once more, the effects of beavers, while profound, are hard to perceive without historical records of flow rates and rainfall events.

The water holding capacity of the stream is further increased by the excavations beavers do around their pond. They use mud to plaster both dam and lodge and they even dig canals so that they can float logs to their pond. This along with the dam itself, creates a series of wider areas in the stream at each beaver pond and increases water infiltration into the soil, ground water level around the dam, water holding capacity in the river and the size of the eventually formed wetland.

Beavers increase ground water recharge.
If all the water that drains off a catchment into it's streams is unimpeded, it flows down to the sea as fast as the slope and stream characteristics allow. A very rapid wasting of valuable water occurs.  This is especially so if there is a rainy season or a spring  snow pack melt. Some estimates suggest that well over 95% of the water falling in the Canterbury region in New Zealand flows straight down to the sea. Beaver dams increase the amount of water a stream can hold within its banks and hold it on the land for extended periods. The wetted area of the stream is increased. The combined effects of greater wetted area and longer contact between water and soil increases infiltration. Water which seeps into the ground, slowly seeps back into the stream, evening out stream flow over the year.

Better still, water flowing through soils is purified.

Beaver ponds also reduce the hydrological gradient (gradient of the surface of the water table) above the dams by raising the water level in the stream. This further slows the draining of the water from the water shed. All these effect ensure that more water goes down into the ground where it slowly flows back into the streams. The water table is also raised, benefiting anyone with a well. A beaver dam will raise the water table under adjacent land greatly increasing the amount of stored water way above what is in the actual dam. More infiltration results in more flow shifted from the winter to the summer and water in the ground is protected from evaporation ensuring more net flow. In building alluvial plains such as Canterbury in New Zealand where steams fill their beds and then change course, the effect of beaver dams would be especially strong with water flowing out into the adjoining alluvium. On a small scale, this is the same as the land to the East of the Rocky Mountains in the USA and Canada which were produced by a similar process. Farmers on the plains of the USA could benefit greatly from becoming fanatical about protecting beavers above and on their farms.

Beavers ponds clean the stream's water.
Fast running streams keep sediment in suspension. Ponds slow the water so that the sediment can settle out. Besides looking nicer, a stream of clear water is better for a wide range of aquatic animals. Sunlight reaches the bottom and a variety of water plants can grow, attached to bottom rocks and water logged wood. Attached water plants are both food and shelter for even more aquatic organisms. Clear water in downstream rivers is less expensive to process for a city water supply when sediment doesn't have to be settled out of it first and clear water is preferred by trout and salmon.

Beavers produce rich "bottom land".
If you have ever read a western novel, it's likely you came across one of the characters talking about the rich bottom land east of the Rockies (Rocky Mountains). Much of this bounty was created by the beaver. Over the 11,000 or so years since the continental glaciers left the land and for far longer south of the maximum extent of the ice sheet, beavers have been building layer upon layer of dams across the primary, secondary and tertiary streams which drain East through the Great Lakes or South down the Mississippi. Sediment from the young, steep, sediment-producing Rockies has been caught by generations of beaver dams, layered with wood chips, water-log leaves, insect exoskeletons and beaver and ungulate dung to make the rich dark soil that so much agriculture is based on. When the first farm-settlers arrived in North America, the beaver was already gone, trapped almost to extinction by the trappers who sent the pelts back to England to make top hats. The farmers had no inkling of where all this rich dark soil came from and why it was often terraced as you walked along the stream. A terrace, of course, was the filled in area behind a location where generation after generation of beavers had built their dams. With the beaver gone, the mud and stick dam was soon clad with grass and shrubs and effectively disguised.

Beavers Sequester Carbon
Anywhere beavers settle they sequester carbon and this is especially so on streams with high bed load (large amounts of sediment moving down the stream or river). Such streams are ones which start in steep, fast growing mountains such as the Rockies of the USA or the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Not only does the beaver build his dam and lodge from wood but in the quiet pond, leaves, wood chips, twigs and so forth become water logged and sink to the bottom. During spring snow melt or winter rains, more mineral material is carried by the stream, settles in the beaver pond and buries this load of cellulostic material. Half of the dry weight of wood is carbon so this represents a considerable amount of sequestering. A short distance below the bottom of a beaver pond, the oxygen is used up as the water seeps down and the environment is anaerobic. Wood is almost completely refractory under anaerobic conditions.

It doesn't end there. If the beavers abandon a site, it becomes a wetland with all the wetland plants growing where the pond once was. Such plants grow, die and fall into the marsh, also to be preserved as peat. Eventually trees colonize the area, and another family of beavers colonize the site. Typically they build their dam on the site of the former dam, raising the water level and flooding the marsh. The layer of sequestered carbon gets deeper and deeper and forms a larger and larger sponge to hold water and slowly release it. The effect of the beavers increases with each successive colonization.

Beavers increase ecological diversity. While coniferous forests are pretty barren places, deciduous forest create quite a few ecological niches for a variety of animals and plants. With the introduction of beavers, the situation is further improved. Beaver open up an area around their ponds, in rare cases going as far as a hundred meters from the stream to get their favorite food and building material. In the cleared area the sun reaches the ground allowing grass, herbage and bushes to grow. This sort of area becomes the favorite haunt of grazing and browsing animals such as deer. The pond which results from the damming of the stream, provides many niches not available in running water. Sedges, bull rushes and various water weeds grow in the shallow parts of the pond providing more places for everything from dragon fly larvae to trout to ducks. A stream that would otherwise dry up will now flows all year providing water for all the surrounding terrestrial animals and a stable habitat for fish. Animals such as moose will graze in the pond and deer graze along the margins. Some of their dung will be dropped away from the stream where they lay up. In this way, nutrients are kept on the land and even moved up-slope rather than only being flushed down to the sea. Salmon coming up the streams, eaten by bears and other predators also add to the upward transfer of nutrients. With beavers in the head waters of a stream the water is kept clear and attractive for salmon and trout.

If the pond silts up and becomes too shallow or the beavers exhaust the trees in the local area, they sometimes abandon a site. Eventually without the constant repair by the beavers, the dam will breach and the water will begin to drain out. The marshy area left above the dam will be colonized by sedges and other water loving plants and you have a wetland with all their well known benefits to the ecology. Flood peaks are still ameliorated by the wetland and nutrients and silt are still removed from the water. Wetlands also provide many ecological niches not found in either running water or in ponds.

The area will eventually become a meadow as it is colonized by a variety of grasses and as the water continues to drain out and silt is trapped. The meadow provides forage for grazing animals. Beaver meadows of this type are called "Vegas". And while this is going on, trees will be recolonizing the meadow from the edges. Eventually the meadow will disappear and becomes once more a riverine forest, flatter, higher and wider than it was before. At some time in this succession, the beavers will come back and, using the new tree growth, start another colony. The cycle repeats, and another layer of soil is added. Over the centuries, the water holding soil-sponge gets deeper and deeper and the positive effect of the beaver's work increases. No wonder that the First People called the beaver 'the sacred centre of the earth'. In legends of the first nation, the beaver provided the salmon. Another example of the first people understanding a relationship that we are only now beginning to 'discover'.

Beavers remove nutrients from the water. In our agricultural society with increasing levels of nutrients leaching into our water-ways, this characteristic of beaver dams is particularly important. Nutrient removal depends on the detritus cycle. Cellulose from wood chips, uneaten twigs, falling leaves and even the lodge and the dam of the beavers is actually poly-glucose, a natural 'plastic' made of chains of sugar molecules. No multi cellular animal produces the enzyme, cellulase, which can split off these sugar molecules for food. Many bacteria do however. We all know about the rumen of a cow or the gut of a termite that contain bacteria which can break down cellulose. Similar bacteria exist in streams and ponds. They colonize these various bits of cellulose and start to break them down for energy. However they can no more live on pure sugar than you or I can. They are hungry for Nitrates, Phosphates and all the other 'ates' that they use to build their bodies. They scavenge them from the water. These bacteria are equivalent to photosynthetic single celled algae in so far as they form the base of a food chain. The difference is that their source of energy is chemical (the sugar of the cellulose) rather than photic (the energy of the sun). They form the base of the detritus cycle just as the photosynthetic organism form the base of their photosynthetic pyramid of life. Another difference is that they live, attached to the cellulose particles they utilize rather than living in the water column as many single celled algae do. Various detritovours as diverse as worms, insect larvae and even ducks eat this rich source of protein and pass the remaining cellulose, somewhat diminished, through their gut to be recolonized and re-ingested. Once again, nutrients passing down a stream are caught, utilized and often redistributed up-slope in the water-shed by the animals which move away from the stream. Some of the detritus in the pond is buried, especially in spring when larger quantities of sediment are shed from the mountains, and this forms the rich legendary soil of bottom land. Without the beavers, detritus is washed straight down the stream. In the long term, even the dam and lodge of the beaver dam become part of the detritus cycle and part of the newly created bottom land.

Beavers improve salmon recruitment
With Coho at the very least, and probably with other salmon, beaver dams greatly increase the survival of juvenile salmon resulting in vastly improved recruitment into the sea.

When adult salmon migrate up-river, they represent a large pulse of nutrients moving landward from the sea. Many salmon are taken before spawning and some after spawning by a wide range of predators and scavengers.

The classic amount of nutrients transferred from one tropic level to the next is 10%, meaning 10% of the consumed nutrient (fish in this case) becomes 'bear' and that some 90% of the nutrients of the consumed fish are spread, within a day or two, over the surrounding land in the form of dung. The spawning runs, in their pristine state were so large that the predators could only consume a tiny part of the bounty. Large quantities of spent fish, stayed in the river and were swept downstream. In a stream system without lakes or beaver dams, the uneaten bodies of the adult salmon, are fairly rapidly swept down to the sea. Salmon biologists have realized the dynamics of the system for some time and in streams with lakes but with much reduced spawning runs they actually fertilized the lakes to increase the supply of food to the salmon fingerings. In pre-European times, the adult salmon were the source of nutrients to feed the young salmon. LinkLinkLink
LinkBeaver ponds with their rich supply of cellulose are the ideal venues to capture mineralised nutrients from the disintegrating salmon and the ideal mechanism to keep dead salmon from being washed downstream. Floating salmon carcases collect along the shore of the pond or by the dam and salmon which have disintegrated to the point where their air spaces have being breached, sink to the bottom of the pond. A wide variety of fauna eats up the dead salmon and rooted plants, floating plants and phytoplankton take up mineralized nutrients. The significance of all this activity is that nutrients are captured in various forms in the web of life both in the stream and in the surrounding land. The surrounding land slowly gives back some of its nutrients which the beaver dams captured. All this provides more food for the salmon larvae and fingerling after they have used up their yoke.

It wouldn't be much of a surprise if salmon juveniles themselves eat the cellulose detritus, digesting off the protein rich coat of micro and mia fauna and excrete the diminished particle of cellulose to be re-colonized. Whether or not they do feed at this first trophic level, they certainly feed at the next level and undoubtedly ingest considerable amounts of cellulose in the gut of their prey. Chitin from the exoskeletons of any arthropods consumed is excreted by the salmon to also become part of the detritus cycle.

The detritus cycle is not the whole story. Beaver ponds are widened areas in the stream. As such they have a larger sun-collecting area than the undammed stream. Given a supply of nutrients, they increase the amount of photosynthesis going on in the stream by both rooted plants and phytoplankton and hence the potential supply of food for the juvenile fish and the removal of nutrients from the water.

The beaver dams also provide quiet areas for juvenile salmon to grow and provides areas deep enough to protect the juvenile salmon from wading birds. The larger a smolt is when it reaches the sea, the greater its chance of survival. Not only do beaver ponds provide feed for the young salmon but also eliminate the need to constantly fight the current and burn up energy which is needed for growth.

I have occasionally seen suggestions that the beaver dams are barriers to the upstream migration of salmon. People who suggest this have clearly never seen salmon vaulting a waterfall. A beaver dam is just a hop, skip and a jump for a sex crazed salmon heading upstream for its once in a lifetime act of procreation. When you consider it from an evolutionary point of view, this isn't surprising. Beavers and salmon have evolved together for Milena and it is hardly surprising that a fish which evolved with the beaver dams in every possible place in the watershed where one could be built, not only isn't disadvantaged by beaver dams but has adapted to benefit from them.

Actually the above paragraph is a little unfair. A beaver dam without enough water immediately downstream can form a barrier to salmon. The salmon need enough of a plunge pool to get up some speed to leap the dams. This can be a problem early in spring before snow melt and spring rains swell the streams. It can also be a problem with a new dam if it is built in a location such that there is no depth of water just downstream. As soon as a stream fills up enough to give the salmon a fair run at it, beaver dams are no more than a little early morning exercise for migrating salmon. In addition, a new dam will usually develop a plunge pool after a few freshets. Once again, evolution and history are the best place to look for an answer to the question of beaver stopping salmon migration. Historically, salmon runs were at least two orders of magnitude larger than they are today in most North American streams. At that time, beavers had colonized every even marginally suitable location. It is abundantly clear that even if sometimes an individual beaver dam can stop the upstream movement of salmon, over all, beaver dams are not detrimental to salmon. Both the weight of evidence and simple logic is that they are highly beneficial.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that from 1818, following an agreement that gave the USA rights to the Columbia watershed, the Hudson Bay company had a policy of extirpating the beaver in the Columbia catchment to discourage American trappers. As the beaver disappeared,so did the salmon.

This happened long before there were any of the other influences extant that we associate with the decline of the salmon runs such as logging, farming and large man made dams.

LinkBeavers increase power generation
Hydroelectric dams have two purposes. The first is to create enough head to generate electricity. The greater the head, the more electricity that can be generated from a given quantity of water. The second purpose is to store water so that power can, be generated, to a large extent, when it is needed. the greatest reducer of gross power generation is a seasonal water flow. If lots of water flows during a rainy season or during snow melt, often much of the water must be allowed to flow over the spillway without going through the generators. To capture this water, larger more expensive dams must be built. A river with beavers in all the up slope catchment streams feeds the water to its river more evenly, transferring water from the wet to the dry season. This increases the total amount of electricity which can be generated from the same amount of river flow and allows the same power to be generated from smaller dams.

Beavers increase hydro lake life
Streams, especially from steep mountains, contain suspended sediment and push a bed load of coarser material along the bottom of their beds. In the most extreme cases, you get braided rivers as soon as the stream leaves the foot hills of the mountains and begins to deposit its load, jump its banks and establish new pathways. Any stream carries some mineral material. When a stream reaches a pond or lake, its velocity slows and this material settles out of the water. In the case of bed load, consisting of coarse material, this material settles out immediately forming a delta. Finer material travels further to settle out all over the bottom of the lake or pond. With beaver dams distributed through the catchment of a hydro dam, this material is intercepted before it reaches the hydro reservoir. The beavers, when their pond gets too shallow, either abandon the site or build the dam higher. An abandon site turns into a wetland which still settles out sediment, forms a meadow and eventually a forest. Beavers come back and build another dam with the new trees and another layer of sediment is captured. Over the Milena, beaver dams can fill up valleys with deep rich water holding soil and their value to downstream facilities, including generating reservoirs increases.

Beavers attract tourists.
People find it simply amazing just to view the works of this furry little rodent. Add to the experience an explanation of all the benefits that the beaver brings to the environment and the increasingly ecologically aware public find beavers fascinating. It is hard to beat a beaver dam as a station on an ecological walk or bird watching tour. A trailer park or camping ground fortunate enough to have a beaver dam on site has an attraction that their competitors can't rival. The ambiance, the feel good factor towards the business is really enhanced by the experience of seeing the camp living in harmony with the beaver.

Beaver Damage

How, though, do we deal with the beavers that are washing away a road or cutting down fruit trees on the side of the orchard near the stream. There are solutions to all of these problems, some of them expensive, most not. Wide deep box culvert have been tried but are expensive and don't always work. A relatively cheap fence can be put between the beavers and the fruit trees or each vulnerable tree can be ringed by wire mesh. Beavers hate to be separated from their stream which is their safe refuge. If a beaver does get up-slope of a fence he will become truly frantic until he finds a way around or through the fence. A little experimentation and observation will show the type and extent of fence needed to keep the beavers from doing damage. Go to for more information on living in harmony with beavers and how to build beaver deceivers.

Prehistoric man and Beavers
There is some speculation based on logic but limited archaeological evidence that early man gained considerably from the beaver.  I'm not talking about the obvious effects which are detailed elsewhere in this blog but more immediate benefits.

Beaver fell more trees than they need which they will  use if there is a breach in the dam or if it is necessary to raise or reinforce it during high rainfall events.  When you only have a Flint axe to cut down trees, how much easier to go and pick up what you need from around a beaver pond.  Even the branches which have already being incorporated into a dam can be pulled out and used.  This is so not only for wood for construction making handles (from well cured wood) but even fire wood.  The disassembly of a beaver dam would provide wood for the winter for an Indian Tepee, especially if collected in spring and allowed to dry.

A beaver dam also provides a convenient bridge to cross a stream dry shod.

Cattails grow in the shallows of beaver dams and the wetlands left over if the beavers desert the location.  They are a source of flour from the pollen and from the starchy roots, fire drills from the dried stems and a source fresh cooking vegetables from the center of young shoots.

Of course the beaver itself provides a very welcome easily captured meal and an unsurpassed fur for winter clothing and bedding.

A beaver dam is also a convenient place to sit and fish with fairly deep water right beside the fisherman and during the salmon migration, the salmon will have to jump the dam and can be caught in a hand net.  Perhaps that is where the game of Lacrosse started

Attracting Beavers

And what about encouraging beavers. The best thing you can do is to plant any of the wide variety of copicing deciduous trees over a wide swath on both sides of your stream. The beavers will do the rest. In early spring, cut down a copicing type tree. (almost any deciduous tree of Europe or North America). Cut it into arm length truncheons, sharpen the lower end . Pound these truncheons into the ground along your stream. For smaller branches, of a size that can be cut with a pair of pruning shears, use a steel bar to punch a hole in the ground and pop them in. Heel in the soil around them. As long as the ground has a bit of water in it, most of the truncheons and small branches will take root and grow into trees. Willow is unbelievable. I have seen willow mulch; willow branches which went through a mulcher and were then spread on the garden, break out in a lawn of little willow trees and poplars will even copice from roots left in the ground. In cattle country, cattle must be kept away from the stream in an area where you want beavers to establish.

Homo industrialis (that's us) is a control freak. We insist on putting our houses on flood plains and then get the Army Core of Engineers to canal the Mississippi so that our houses don't flood. We put shrimp ponds in the middle of mangrove forests and wonder why we get storm surge damage. We build houses in the low lands of New Orleans despite sure and certain knowledge that the land is sinking, sea level is rising, storms are getting worse and at some time in the future it will be flooded. We have behaved the same way with wetlands and drained them wherever we found them for their rich agricultural soils. Realization has dawned on us very slowly how valuable wetlands are for the good of the whole country. We are finally realising that the beaver provides an inexpensive way of reestablishing wetlands.

Every generation sees the country as it is when they are born and only has that vision as a basis of comparison. There is little collective memory of what it was like 2, 3 or 4 generations ago to compare with the present. And worse still, the first farmers in North America, had no chance to see the beavers. They had been eliminated by the time most farmers arrived to homestead.

With the beaver, we have the chance to restore wetlands all around our countries and with almost no cost. The price is the flooding of some land, which will then go out of agricultural production. We may also have to install a "beaver deceiver" or two in individual locations to keep a road from being washed away. We may even have to move bits of some roads or paths to go around a beaver pond instead of through it. Part of the problem is that the good that beavers do is long term, and hard to see with our senses while the problems they cause are visible but really insignificant.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the positive results from beavers are easy to see but it is hard to make the connection between what we see who caused the change. If a river flows less in the winter, mitigating floods, and more in the summer when the water is most needed, how many of us will make the connection that this is caused by beavers returning to the head-waters of the river. If the river runs clear and steadily instead of silty and pulsating, how many of us will realize that the resulting increased salmon runs are due to the beaver. If our rivers have less nutrients washing down stream, how many of us will realize that the reduced eutrophication of our lakes and estuaries and the recovery of our coral reefs are due to the return of the beaver. And yet destruction by the beaver is evident. A pathway in a trailer park gets flooded. Instead of building a new path the owner gets The Parks Board to destroy the beaver dam. A fruit tree is cut down. Instead of putting some cheap chicken wire around vulnerable trees, we shoot the beaver. Our view of life is very myopic.

After the Beaver Returns

The reintroduction of the beaver to a catchment will bring huge benefits but the real question is what will we do with the bounty. Our rivers will flow with more net water, clearer water, a bigger proportion of the net water in the dry period and with less entrained nutrients. Then what do we do. Since there is more available water, do we allow more extraction by agriculture. Since the water is less polluted, do we allow agriculture and industry to leak more waste into the water shed. If so, we will rapidly get right back to the situation that existed before the return of the beaver. On the other hand, we might decide to keep water extraction at it's present levels and to allow the same (or even less) pollution to escape agriculture and industry. If we follow this latter path, we will have a much improved environment to enjoy. And just a little warning. If we do allow more pollution and more water extraction after the return of the Beaver, we might make the environment so bad that the beaver will die out. Just imagine what our environment would be like then with the new levels of river abuse and without the beaver to mitigate the damage we cause.

Further Reading
For a most amazing account of the result of bringing back the beaver to an area, read Three Against the Wilderness by Eric Collier.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Global Warming - anthropogenic or not

Not many people would argue today that we are not in a period of global warming. Glaciers all over the world are disappearing, Spring, as measured by bud burst or the return of migratory birds is getting steadily earlier and earlier, Arctic ice is thinning and so forth.

It is less obvious, though, whether it is caused by the measurable increase in greenhouse gases or by natural (non man-made) phenomenon. There is even a niggling doubt whether or not the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is man-caused. I personally have no idea what the truth of the matter is. I don't have access to original data and even if I did, I doubt if I could make a creditable analysis of all but the simplest information. Until recently I just assumed that the anthropogenic model was correct because of the overwhelming publicity for this theory. However I started to come across the arguments of a number of sceptics. It is interesting, to present their arguments against the man-induced-warming hypothesis for examination. Science mustn't be turned into religion - into a belief system from which all consequences derive. Science is strong when we listen to skeptics and examine their arguments based on the evidence available and not based on our pet beliefs. So, what are the arguments against global warming being caused by man.

Measurement Errors

First a comment about our method of measuring the degree of global warming. While the retreat of the glaciers, and other physical evidence, is clearly visible and suggests very strongly that global warming is occurring, temperature records, surprisingly, are suspect. Why is this. After all, a mercury thermometer, calibrated against the freezing and boiling point of water, set in an approved weather box and recorded manually over the past few centuries should be a pretty reliable measure of global warming. Unfortunately not. Take a weather station set up 300 years ago in Rural England 50 miles outside of London. When the station was started, the area was covered with trees; fields were relatively small and there was no town of any size anywhere in the vicinity. Since then, London has expanded and the same weather station is now surrounded by high rise apartments. It is well known that urban areas are warmer than adjacent rural areas due, both to the energy they use and release as heat and the effect they have of trapping sun energy. So what does a scientist do (assuming he actually does something). He can stop taking measurements at this site or he can make a correction. The correction will be based on the best information available on the relative effect on temperature when a site is urbanized. A corrected value is already not a primary source measurement and as such its accuracy is suspect. In addition, buildings are continually being pulled down to make way for new buildings so the degree of heat augmentation due to urbanization may be continually changing.

Another confounding effect results from the advance of measuring technology. Suppose we introduce a recording, electronic thermometer. It must be calibrated against the original mercury thermometer and eventually it is relied on. With the increase in the wages of people who read the weather stations, it is very tempting to automate such systems. With continual recording there is now the possibility of averaging (integrating) the temperature over the whole 24 hour period rather than just recording the maximum and minimum and averaging these. All these changes introduce enough possible errors to make a physicist tear his hair out.

Another type of measurement which has come into vogue is radiation readings of the earth from satellites. Again, calibration against the original thermometer and against the electronic instrument is undertaken.  At each change we reset the base line and to some extent make previous data obsolete.

As soon as a new instrument or measuring technique is used, there is an added source of error. A dose of healthy scepticism and examination of the details of the way temperature measurements have been and are being taken is wise before placing too much faith in direct temperature readings. Having said that, the indirect indications that the climate is warming are pretty convincing, so what are the arguments against it being caused by man and his green house gases.

Climate Change Has Always occurred
One arguments against the anthropogenic model comes from the recent changes in climate. In the middle ages from around 1100 to 1400 the earth was quite a bit warmer than it is at present. Incidentally it was a period of great prosperity and many of the famous cathedral's of Europe were built around this time. Hence its name of a "climate optimum". Places all over England have names such as vineyard road winery cottage and so forth commemorating this period and suggesting that the climate was suitable for grapes. A bit later starting around 1400 and continuing to around 1850 we had the little ice age. The oft-quoted indication of this ice age was the freezing over of the Thames River as recorded in literature and art. Going back further we have the bronze age hipsithermal , also a climate optimum" between 8000 and 4000BP. Further back, the end of the most recent of a series of glacials* occurred 10 to11000 years ago. All this quite dramatic change, both warmer and cooler, happened without any help from humans. In itself, this is not an argument against the anthropogenic theory but serves to set the scene. Global warming (and for that matter, global cooling) has occurred in the very recent past with much larger temperature fluctuations than we have observed so far in our present temperature rise. Incidentally, the oft quoted disappearance of the Kilimanjaro glacier started in the 1880's, arguably before significant carbon dioxide was added to the atmosphere.

* interglacials.  The previous interglacial was the Eemian, around 125,000 years ago and the present interglacial is called the Holocene.  

Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming
What about the increase in atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. If you watched the film, An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, you would have seen a graph with Carbon Dioxide and global average temperature marching along hand in hand. If you look closely, though, it looked as if changes in temperature occurred before changes in Carbon Dioxide. If you want to suggest cause and effect between these two parameters rather than just correlation, you would be very tempted to suggest that a change in temperature caused a change in Carbon Dioxide rather than the contrary. Scientists who have noticed this 'anomaly' have suggested a mechanism. It is known that Carbon Dioxide is much more soluble in cold water than warm water. You see this with your favorite fizzy drink. Open a warm coke and you will find yourself wearing it rather than drinking it. Since Carbon dioxide dissolves to a greater extent in cold water than in warm water, as the oceans warm up they may give off Carbon dioxide or at the very least, absorb carbon dioxide less readily. The oceans are so large and the circulation is in the order of a millenia or two so the suggestion is that the lag is due to the carbon dioxide absorbing inertia of the oceans, causes Carbon dioxide levels to lag temperature changes. Looking at derived temperature data from such markers as the delta Oxygen 18 ratio in foramanifera shells, oxygen and hydrogen isotope ratios in ice and at the carbon dioxide concentration in bubbles in ice cores, it appears that carbon dioxide has lagged about 800 years behind temperature changes over many many millenia.

(The above article also deals with reduced stress on trees with higher carbon dioxide concentrations)

A rather interesting bit of information which I haven't seen yet is whether the surface of the ocean is actually warming now. This might give us a clue as to which is the cause and which is the effect.

Another anomaly occurs when you look at the recent temperature/carbon dioxide record in more detail. A marked increase in carbon dioxide production has occurred from the end of the Second World War up to the present. However, from about 1940 and continuing for some 4 decades, temperature actually decreased. In fact, around the 70's the theory in vogue was that we are in for another ice age. Following this period, the temperature increased again, oddly enough starting just as we had the industrial slow down caused by the oil crisis of 1973. Moreover,if you look at the recent temperature rise (the blade of the hockey stick) much of this warming happened prior to 1940. Some wee wrinkles need to be explained before we accept the anthropogenic theory whole hog.

Sun Spot Activity
There is, allegedly, a factor which correlates more closely with temperature than Carbon dioxide concentration. This is sun spot activity and sun spots have been observed and recorded for centuries. The sun spot activity at present follows about an 11 year cycle but there have been long periods when sun spot activity has been very low. One such period coincided with the little ice age. Again some scientist have suggested the mechanism that might explain the connection.

When fast moving radioactive particles wizz through saturated air, they leave a "con trail" much as is produced by a high flying airplane. This creates nuclei around which clouds can form. An early device used to view radioactive particles known as a cloud chamber shows this effect in the laboratory. A hermetically sealed, well lit box is lined with black material. Some open water and a wick keeps the air in the box saturated. A piston on one side of the box is pulled out, lowering the pressure a little in the box (or dry ice is used to produce supersaturation by cooling). However, in the absence of nuclei, no cloud droplets appear. If you now have a source of radioactive rays such as even a simple piece of granite, you will observe 'con trails' appearing. You can go one stage further by imposing a magnetic field across the box. Neutral particles continue to fly straight, positively charged particles curve one way and negative particles the other way. You can get an indication of what sort of particle is making the trail by the way they fly. Remember this deflection effect. It becomes relevant a little further on.

The same, so the theory goes, happens in the atmosphere. Cosmic rays from distant super novae, consisting of the charged nuclei of atoms, some of them quite large (iron for instance) and traveling at relativistic speed crash into our atmosphere. They are so energetic that they cause cascades of secondary particles and even tertiary particles. If they pass through saturated atmosphere, they make cloud trails which are nuclei for further condensation. That is to say they make clouds. Clouds, being white, reflect the sun's energy back into space, without it having the chance to warm up the earth.

Note here that except for some of the UV radiation which is absorbed by oxygen molecules high in the atmosphere, most of the sun's radiation passes through the air without heating it up. ie. The atmosphere is transparent to most of the radiation coming from the sun. Heating occurs when the radiation is absorbed by the earth which in turn warms the adjacent air. This heating from below combined with the latent heat of water is the source of most of our weather. With more high cloud, less radiation is available to warm the ground and hence the adjacent air.

So what do sunspots have to do with all of this. Apparently periods of sun spot activity are also periods of strong solar magnetic fields and the magnetosphere extends far beyond the orbit of earth. Remember our cloud chamber. In a magnetic field, charged particles are diverted from their paths. In periods of high sun spot activity, so the theory goes, the cosmic rays are diverted by the stronger magnetic field of the sun and don't hit the earth and less cloud is produced. The world warms up as more sunlight hits the surface of the earth. High sun spot activity results in warm periods, low sun spot activity in cold periods. The sun's magnetic field has doubled over the 20th century which would lead one to expect higher temperatures if the above mechanism is indeed responsible for global warming.

Glaciers Melting
There is not much doubt that glaciers are melting world wide - or at least they are retreating which could be due to less snow fall in the upper snow collection areas. Let's not quibble. Besides, whether or not there is less snow falling is pretty easily determined if there are reasonable historical snowfall records so one can quickly work out what is causing the retreat. In the Himalayas, and possibly elsewhere there is another factor which must be taken into consideration besides the increase in Carbon Dioxide. This is the brown cloud which is now permanent over Asia. It is the result of the burning of a wide variety of fuels for industrial and domestic purposes and from extensive forest burning, along, often with the peat deposits under these forests. This brown haze absorbs sun energy before it reaches the ground and is estimated to have warmed up the air at the altitudes of the Himalayan glaciers by a quarter of a degree per decade since 1950. This amounts to about a degree and a half which is quite serious vis a vis the stability of glaciers. This is actually an argument on the side of the anthropogenic model since, while it is not caused by carbon dioxide, it is certainly anthropogenic. It is, however,an argument for the redistribution of the heat from the sun rather than an overall warming. The good news is that if the generation of this material was stopped tomorrow, within a couple of weeks it would be largely cleared from the atmosphere. This is in contrast with Carbon dioxide which takes much longer to be removed from the atmosphere.

As mentioned, the Kilimanjaro glacier has been retreating from well before the major increase in Carbon dioxide. Since there is no indication that over this period the amount of soot in the air in this region increased, this would support the argument that there is global warming but it is non anthropogenic.

Vested Interest
When observing peoples actions (such as promoting one side or the other of the anthropogenic climate change argument) it is often useful to look at their motives. People who deny that the presently observed climate change is anthropogenic are often accused of being in the pocket of the big oil companies. I'm sure that many of them wish they were. Maybe the odd one is. However, one mustn't ignore, vested interests on the opposite side of the argument. Since Maggie Thatcher's campaign to promote nuclear power in order to gain independence from overseas oil and domestic, strike-plagued coal, great amounts of money have been put into research on climate change with the underlying 'flavour' that this money is given so that the scientists can prove their theory of anthropogenic climate warming. Someone who's theses is that climate change is completely natural will get short shrift from the granting agencies. In the USA, prior to the 70's, annual research grants for climate studies ran at about $170million. Today the figure is closer to $2 billion. An awful lot of scientists will be out of a work and/or find grants very hard to come by if the anthropogenic model is dis-proven. None of this proves one way or another whether the anthropogenic model is correct. I even hesitated whether to use the argument here but in the words of the elementary school playground "they started it". It does make one realize, though, that there are vested interests on both sides. mustn't ignore the vested interest of politicians. After some reluctance, a lot of politicians around the world have enthusiastically endorsed the 'reality' of anthropogenic climate change. They have introduced legislation which deals with ameliorating the emission of Carbon dioxide. Much of the type of legislation they have initiated is designed to make the banks rich, in which they likely have shares.   They have also invested significant political and emotional capital on the anthropogenic side of the argument. They will not be amused (to paraphrase Queen Victoria) to be told that climate change is not actually anthropogenic after all.

Another vested interest and very ugly interest at that, is the desire of the already industrialized nations to remain on top. In many cases this is at a gut-instinctual level although in some cases it has been openly articulated. We have evolved as a tribal animal and our strength derives, to a large extent, from how strong our tribe is. At a very more cynical level, it is much easier to exploit the natural resources of a simple, un-united people that it is to exploit a united educated people. Witness all the exploitation that Gandhi fought against during his life and this was against what we think of as one of the enlightened countries of the world. Indians weren't allowed to make their own salt from sea water or weave their own cloth from their own cotton because the enlightened colonial power in charge, was making money out of selling them these products. Talk about economic abuse!!! The anthropogenic global warming theory is brought forward to argue that the undeveloped parts of the world should not use their oil and coal resources but should depend on wind and solar. All the while the developed nations continue to burn these resources, derived, not only from their own countries but often from the very countries that they say should not use them. The vested interest argument doesn't weigh on either side of the scientific debate but it does let one realise where some people are coming from.

The atmosphere isn't warming as it should.
An argument against global warming being caused by Carbon dioxide involves the models which predict where warming should occur. As mentioned above when light from the sun hits the earth, some wave lengths of the UV are absorbed in the upper atmosphere ionizing oxygen molecules and heating this layer. However by far the greatest part of the electromagnetic energy (light and similar wave lengths), travels through the atmosphere without being absorbed. The atmosphere is transparent to most of this radiation. These wave lengths warm the ground and the ground warms the adjacent air and both radiate long wave radiation in the infra red spectrum. These long wave lengths are absorbed by green house gases (this is why they are called green house gases) and warm the atmosphere. The models say that we should see most warming in the mid levels of the atmosphere known as the troposphere around 10 km altitude. This is apparently not happening. Instead, the the atmosphere is warming mainly near the ground as would be caused by a reduction in cloud cover which in turn fits the sun spot model. Could this be another small glitch that has to be explained in the anthropogenic model.

Weather Disaster Scenarios in Error

Much is made of the theory that with global warming we will have much more severe weather. This is used as an argument for doing something about our green house gas emissions. There is some truth in this assertion in that weather is caused to a large extent by water vapour condensing, releasing latent heat and forming storms. Hurricanes, for instance, need surface water temperatures around 26 degrees and warmer, to power them. However, on the other side of the argument, meteorology texts state that much of the severity of our weather depends on the difference in temperature between the equator and the poles. It is well documented that, as the world is warming up, the greatest warming effects are at the poles. The temperature difference between pole and equator is decreasing. It will be interesting to see, as the world warms up, if it continues to do so, where we have more severe weather and where less. Of course this has nothing to do with whether global warming is anthropogenic or not but does raise some questions about the use of the threat of weather disasters to promote measures to counteract carbon emissions. There is a tendency now to blame any severe weather event on global warming. Katrina was a case in point. However Katrina was arguably not an unusual weather event but rather a normal weather event that hit an unusual target.

Disaster Predicted
A raft of disasters besides wild weather are predicted if our climate warms.They are used to reinforce the arguments against using oil or coal. It is stated, for instance that the Polar Bear will disappear. This is odd since the polar bear not only survived our own bronze age hipsithermal event but many inter glacial periods which have occurred in the most recent glacial age. It would seem much more likely that if the Polar Bears are disappearing, the cause is some other man made effect. For instance, volatile materials such as DDT PCB"s and mercury tend evaporate from the tropics and condense at the poles. It is known, for instance, that human milk from Eskimos has more of these harmful substances than human milk from warmer climates despite their distance from point sources of pollution. Could this, or some other man made change be a cause of the demise of the Polar bear (if indeed the polar bear is disappearing).

It has also being stated that with global warming, tropical diseases will spread north. This may or may not be so but some of the diseases we think of as tropical are not and various sanitation and other measures are more likely to have be the reason we no longer see them in northern climates. Cholera has been rife in Europe in many ages and one of the worse outbreaks of Malaria occurred in Russia in 1920 all the way up to the arctic circle. Remember that this was at the tail end of the little ice age. Each scare story of this sort should be examined on its merits and it is not a bad idea to talk to experts who study the field in question all their lives before postulating such effects from global warming.

Drama in Science
If you don't think that we are drama junkies, just look what we watch on Television. There is very little publicity value to a scientist reporting that yes, temperature will rise a little and then fall a little and everything will be much the same over all. There is not much more publicity value in stating that yes, the world is warming but it is natural and there is not much we can do about it. It is much more exciting and reportable to say that we are going into another ice age or alternately that global warming will inundate New York and London. Indeed in the early 70's, the prevailing theory, based on 4 decades of falling temperatures, was that we are heading into an ice age. Scientists are human and there is a strong motivation to be able to report something dramatic. Also a dramatic story is also much more likely to get a research grant.

We mustn't forget our reporters. Climate change in particular and ecology in general has become such big news that some papers have special ecology reporters. What reporter is going to report that climate change is not man made when everyone else is saying it is. His very job is dependent on the drama he can put into his disaster stories. As usual it is valuable to know what motivation a person has when evaluating what he says. Vested interests raise their ugly heads yet again.

Actions against Global Warming Good for the Earth
In the back of many peoples minds is the concept that even if global warming is not anthropogenic or even if it is not even happening, the measures we will take to reduce our production of carbon dioxide plus the methods we put in place to sequester carbon dioxide will bear fruit in other ways. Reducing the use of coal and oil, for instance, leaves more of this "much to valuable to burn" resource in the ground for future generations. Such materials would be much better used for industrial feed stock and not burnt as fuel. Less combustion of fuel reduces air pollution. Planting of trees has many beneficial effects such as the mitigation of flash floods, increase of rainfall, reduction of soil erosion etc. Development of local diffuse power generation, from roof top solar panels has an " Internet effect" reducing the vulnerability of our power supply to various disasters, natural and man made, and reduces our dependence on offshore power sources. All this is very positive. These arguments are compelling but there are always dangers in doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Better we understand what is actually happening and take these same measures for the right reasons. Namely to stop wasting a valuable resource by burning it. More important, if we think that global warming is inevitable we will expend our energies/money in different directions than if we think we can stop global warming. Instead of concentrating on sequestering Carbon dioxide, for instance, we might start research on how Iowa farmers can start growing rice or how Eskimos can start to grow wheat (only slightly with tongue in cheek)

So much for the arguments. This is where the fun starts in the scientific process. We have the currently accepted theory that Climate warming is a reality and it is anthropogenic. On the other hand we have the contrary, less accepted theory that Climate warming is happening but no, it is not (or mostly not) anthropogenic. Instead, the observed changes are a natural, not a man-induced phenomenon. If the less popular theory is correct, certain things should be observable.

1. If global temperature is dependent on sun spot activity, one of the pillars of the non-anthropogenic model, one would expect that the medieval warming was a period of high sun spot activity. Likewise the bronze age hipsithermal should have been a period of high sun spot activity. Conversely, the little ice age should have been a period of low sun spot activity. Apparently this is so for the little ice age but we don't have any direct observational data from the warm periods. Direct observation, however, is not absolutely necessary since sun spot activity can be deduced by certain proximal data such as isotope evidence (Barium) in ice cores. One must, always be aware of confounding factors. For instance, the little ice age which cooled areas adjacent to the North Atlantic may not have been part of a general global cooling but only a localized effect, say, due to the Gulf Stream shutting down. It would be well to first check the isotope record for foramanifera deposits which show the sea surface temperature in other parts of the world before concluding that any of these warm or cold periods were global. As far as sun spot activity goes, we are nearing the end of a sun spot cycle and some scientists have predicted that we may now enter a period of low sun spot activity. If so we would expect cooler temperatures despite increased carbon dioxide emissions. Only time will tell.

2. If global warming is dependent on sun spot activity, one might see an 11 year temperature wave in the recent recordings for individual weather stations. In such a short period, background noise might be too great to separate the signal from the noise but it is worth a look. In fact, since I wrote this article, it has been reported in New Scientist that some scientists have found an 11 year cycle in temperature of 0.2 degrees. They, oddly enough, suggested that this is an argument for, not against, anthropogenic warming since the fluctuation is so small. This of course ignores the thermal inertia of the earth. To see the effect of sun spots or lack of sun spots, we would need an extended period of high or low sun spot activity such as apparently happened during the little ice age. There are some indications that the years following 2008 will have low sun spot activity. If this is so, it will be interesting to see if this is a period of cooling.

3. If Carbon dioxide follows temperature rather than leading it, which is another pillar of the anti-anthropogenic model, one might also see a wave in the carbon dioxide readings with an 11 year cycle. Here, once again, the period might be too short to pick this up. However the global warming of the medieval period and the bronze age hipsithermal and the cooling of the little ice age not to mention the ice age from 11000 years ago and further back should be clearly visible in the carbon dioxide concentration in bubbles in the ice from these periods. If the medieval warm period was warmer than it is today, one would expect more than 380ppm of carbon dioxide in the bubbles in the ice from the appropriate years. Likewise, the little ice age should show low carbon dioxide , possibly less than the 280ppm preindustrial level. In all these periods, the sea surface temperature would have been of prime importance for the absorption or release of Carbon Dioxide. Oxygen isotope work on forams can give a good indication of the sea surface temperature to see if the sea was warmer during the medieval warm and bronze hipsithermal and colder during the little ice age. A confounding factor in the ice bubble record is that the upper 70 to 150m of the ice caps is not consolidated into ice and gas can diffuse down through this layer. This means that the gas in an ice core is more recent than the age of the ice. It also introduces a blurring of the record as air from different years mixes. This will make it hard to pick up short term changes in gas composition from ice cores but won't have such a blurring effect on longer warm or cold periods.

Whatever the final result of this debate, we must never allow science to become a religion. Science looses it power when people start to be dogmatic about their own pet theory and stop looking at the evidence. I have no idea whether global warming is all anthropogenic, partially anthropogenic or not anthropogenic at all. However, I do know that history is full of examples of very well thought of scientists who couldn't see the evidence that was in front of their own noses even when it was being pointed out by someone who had "seen the light". When continental glaciers were first proposed, the geologists of the time mocked the proponent of the theory and refused to see the evidence all around them. Continental drift was proposed centuries before it was finally accepted. Doctors, for the longest time, refused to wash their hands before doing operations or delivering babies even though they had just come from dissecting unpreserved corpses. Sometimes there was almost a hundred percent mortality of mothers and babies in maternity wards. This despite being told by proponents of antisepsis and the germ theory why they should wash their hands. Midwives had much better success at the time but the doctors had a motive for replacing midwives. Money. Always worthwhile to look at motive. And recently, despite strong evidence that lead is highly detrimental in any quantity, it was allowed to be put in our petrol, used to solder our tin cans and used in pipes. We mock the Romans for their use of lead glazes in their wine goblets and lead pipes in their water supply networks. Look at our own record. And even today, long after the publication of The origin of species, There are many who want to teach Intelligent Design instead of Evolution in our schools. Informed argument with open mindedness is the strength of science.

It is pretty important that we get it right. As mentioned above while many positive actions will likely be taken in the name of Anthropogenic Global Warming, not every action will be positive. On the plus side, if we reduce our use of fossil fuels by a shift to wind, solar and other renewables, this will reduce pollution and conserve these fossil fuels which are really far to valuable to burn. The planting of trees will stabilize soils and possibly help the hydrological cycle. This is all very positive and it doesn't matter whether it is done in the name of global warming or in the name of pollution control. However, if global warming is inevitable because it is part of a natural cycle, the money, effort and commitment we are now expending to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and even to sequester carbon would be better spent in working out ways to live with global warming. This could include developing new seed varieties, legislating against development within a certain vertical elevation from the sea, examining various health implications and so forth. Only slightly with tongue in cheek, we might be considering how we can get Iowa wheat farmers to grow rice and Eskimoes to grow wheat.

It is less damaging to falsely believe that global warming is not anthropogenic that to falsely believe that it is. If global warming is anthropogenic and we believe it is not, we will be preparing for the inevitable global warming. There is a very good chance that due to tundra carbon stores, clathrates and a number of other feed back mechanisms that we are over the tipping point; that a lot of carbon will be dumped into our atmosphere now no matter what we do. It is also very possible that we won't be able to persuade the various developing countries which are now undergoing logarithmic development to reduce their carbon emissions. If either of these scenarios are true and global warming is actually anthropogenic, our best strategy is to prepare for global warming rather than to try to sequester carbon. If we get it wrong the other way we will be putting wealth and energy into sequestering carbon which would be better spent preparing. Moreover, if it turns out after more research, that global warming is not anthropogenic, science, scientists and a lot of politicians are going to have a lot of egg on their faces. The public will loose faith in the validity of science. It will be much harder to persuade them that global warming is coming anyway and we should prepare for it. It will cut very little ice with them to explain that this is how science works; by having conflicting theories - by making predictions based on each theory and then testing which consequences are true.

What if we get it wrong, whether or not we are in for a sudden catastrophic climate change. If we believe the change is coming and get it wrong, we will have put in measures such as developing electric cars, installing wind turbines etc to reduce our release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Quite frankly, resources of coal and oil are far too valuable to be burning. They are feed stocks for a host of industries. Nothing much is lost.

If we believe that we are not in for sudden catastrophic climate change. That there will be climate change but it will be gradual and well within our capability to adapt to and get it wrong (in other words, sudden climate change does occur) we will likely have a world population of around one billion in a few decades. Not a bad thing for Gia but not so good for the 7 billion or so people who starve to death. All in all, I think it would be better to behave as if we are indeed in for sudden catastrophic climate change.