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November 2009 Archives

I have a sort of avuncular interest in Abramov Glacier, high in the Pamir Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I once published a paper that relied on a set of detailed measurements from Abramov to learn more about the error bars on mass-balance measurements in general. It is just as well that I published the paper in 1999, because later in that year the research station that supported the field workers who made the measurements was destroyed by militants in a civil war (or it might have been an overspill from a civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan).

That was the end of the long, valuable series of glaciological measurements on Abramov Glacier. I hope the Kirghiz people, or the Tajiks, ended up better off for their civil war, but it certainly wasn't a good thing for glaciological understanding.

Nor was it the only occasion on which glaciers have got caught up in the machinery of human conflict. One of the oldest conflicts of which we know was the one in which Ötzi, the Iceman of the Ötztal valley in the Alps, died in about 3,300 BC. We know little of the argument which ended with Ötzi suffering an arrow wound that was to prove fatal, but in this instance we have the glacier – the Niederjochferner, to be precise – to thank for preserving the fragmentary and poignant evidence, and for allowing us to communicate with Ötzi. Although it is a shame that we cannot speak to him, he has certainly taught us a lot.

Beside the pathos of Ötzi's final hours, and the stupidity of what was done on Abramov Glacier, there is a certain grandeur about the highest battlefield of all, Siachen Glacier in Kashmir. In 1949, the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan, which both claimed Kashmir, was laid down only as far north as a point about 50 km from the border of Kashmir with China. In 1984, India occupied most of a triangular void between this point and the Chinese border, containing Siachen and its drainage basin. That quarrel was put on ice, literally, with a new de-facto ceasefire line, across which thousands of Indian soldiers on Siachen now stare at thousands of Pakistani soldiers on neighbouring glaciers.

Every few years, one side gets nervous and shoots at the other, and things threaten to get out of hand. In all, several thousand have died, but many more have died from avalanches, hypothermia and the like than from human violence. Fortunately the violent episodes have been growing less frequent, but 25 years seems like an awfully long time for two armies to stare at each other across a bleak snowfield.

Of course, you might be able to think of a word other than "grandeur" to describe this high-level conflict. If so, I probably wouldn't argue. I don't want to offend either of the parties to a 60-year-old quarrel, but I would like to point out that Siachen Glacier is a rather grandiose object – there aren't many valley glaciers as large as 987 km2 – and would be more valuable to us all if we could study it in safety.

There have, in fact, been a few studies of Siachen Glacier. For example M R Bhutiyani, writing in the Journal of Glaciology for 1999 (volume 45, pages 112–118), estimated its mass balance during 1986 to 1991 by the admittedly less than ideal "hydrological" method. Over the five years it lost the equivalent of 2.5 metres depth of water, with unknown but large uncertainty.

Two telling points about Bhutiyani's work, however, are that he is at the College of Military Engineering in Pune, and that he required clearance for publication from the Directorate of Military Intelligence in New Delhi.

One idea for the triangular void where India, Pakistan and China meet is to turn it into the Siachen Peace Park. It is an idea that has been around for a while. As yet it does not seem to have gained much traction, but it is the best idea I have seen so far. Maybe one day I will be able to write an article headed "Peace and glaciers".

Can pneumatic cars, aka compressed-air cars, contribute to sustainable mobility? The answer is a clear no, according to our model that was published last week in Environmental Research Letters.

Compressed-air cars have been heralded as the saviour of mobility by a small but vocal community for the last decade. Focal point of this community are regular press releases of Motor Development Internationa (MDI), a French company with an US branch, announcing every few years the soon deployment of their compressed-air cars that have wonderful properties such that range above 1000 km, rapid refilling, and low costs of charging. There are also other small business such as Energine and K'airmobiles that claim to develop compressed-air cars. The press releases were positively reflected in a few newspaper articles in the Anglo-Saxon world, and reverberated then in a small but enthusiastic community.

Of course, there is some truth in the compressed-air story. Tram lines at the end of the 19th century were running on compressed air (the compression was powered by coal, so not so much the clean solution). In principle, it is valid technology, but not so much in practice.

Our paper shows that the MDI claims are nonsense. Let me shortly rephrase the argument here. In a compressed-air car (CAC) air is the storage medium. A compressor is needed to store air at high pressure in a tank. The air motor is then driven by the expansion of air. In that regard, a CAC is more a less equivalent to an electric car – but with compressed-air as storage medium instead of a battery. Now the point is: a battery is just significantly more efficient than the compressed-air storage. Thermodynamics are not to the advantage of the CAC. This translates into very poor economic and environmental performance. Furthermore, huge tanks would be needed (780l tank for a cruising range of 115 km).

So if you want to run your car on electricity – use battery as carrier technology. If lithium becomes a scarce resource, hydrogen produced by electrolysis would still be the more efficient option.

The ERL paper was immediately perceived in a range of auto-blogs, starting with the New York Times, receiving hundreds of comments. Many comments were up to the point. Others were very sceptical of the paper, e.g. "I'm a strong believer that this article is a bunch of BS. Or more specifically, oil-industry-speak. India auto-maker, TaTa Motors has many orders backed up for a compressed-air car that they build. London is waiting for 500 taxis. It will run for up 300 miles on one filling of the carbonfibre tank. The compressor comes with the vehicle and you install it in your garage. It runs on your local household current."

Now, it's nice to learn that I am a big fan of the oil industry. There is too much opinion on this topic, not sufficient analysis, on both sides. The enthusiasts do not care to do even some back-on-the-envelope calculations, and the critics of the CAC come up with talking points like "Air cars are hot air", which is not up to the point either: air cars are more than mere mind games – and actually run on cold air (look up some thermodynamics).

If you want to test your own set of assumptions of the CAC, you can download a spreadsheet model here. On that side, you can also find a link collection to blogs' discussion of the CAC paper.

F Creutzig, A Papson, L Schipper, D Kammen (2009) Economic and environmental evaluation of compressed-air cars. Environ. Res. Lett. 4 044011.

*Over he past five years, the Open University (OU) based New Europe-New Energy project has been looking at sustainable energy options in the new and candidate Central and Eastern EU countries. It started off focusing on the Baltic states, and then moved on via Bulgaria and Romania to the Balkans, linking up with local agencies, academics and practitioners and organising conferences and seminars.

Some of the new European countries have very large renewable energy potentials. For example, by 2005 Romania was already obtaining 17.8% of its energy from renewables and the target agreed with the EU is for 24% by 2020; Slovenia had reached 16% by 2005 and has a 25% 2020 target; Estonia was at 18% in 2005 and has a 25% 2020 target; while Latvia was at 34.9% and has 42% 2020 target. That makes the UK's 1.3% in 2005 and 15% 2020 target look pretty low.

Of course, unlike the UK, some of these countries have large hydro installations and also major biomass resources, and we have only just started developing our very large offshore-wind, wave and tidal resources. Even so, it could be that in the years ahead, eastern and central Europe could be major players in the renewable-energy field.

Lithuania

After having looked at the potentials in Kosovo and Albania, the OU project recently returned to where it started, looking again at Lithuania, to see what progress had been made, in county with a mid- to high-range potential. It noted that the binding EU renewables target for Lithuania is 23% of total energy consumption by 2020. Lithuania has set a national target of obtaining 12% of its energy from renewables by 2010 and 7% of its electricity. By 2005 it had reached 3.61% of electricity and 15% of total energy consumption.

So what's on offer? Lithuania has a quite significant wind resource and although only around 54 MW has been installed so far, expansion is expected, with the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) predicting 200 MW by 2010. There could be an overall 54 times increase between 2006 and 2017.

Lithuania also has over 8 MW (th) of biomass heating capacity in operation and has introduced new biomass technology in seven regional heating plants throughout the country supplying 14% of the country's heat.

The current overall situation in district heating supply is 78% from natural gas, 18% from biomass and 2.6% from crude oil. However, the Updated National Energy Plan aims for 50% of Lithuania's central heating to be provided by biomass thermal production by 2020.

While the heat market is strong, the value of electricity is higher and Lithuania already has more than 3 MW installed biomass-fired generation capacity with a nine-fold rise in electricity generation from biomass expected between 2006 and 2017. At present though, hydro is the main source of green electricity in Lithuania, with 128 MW in operation in 2006, representing 91% of the total electricity generated from renewables. By contrast wind was at 3% and biomass 6%.

Lithuania has adopted a Feed in Tariff in 2002. The tariff levels will stay unchanged until 2020. In addition, the Law on Heat (2003) encourages municipalities to purchase heat produced from renewable-energy sources. EU Structural Funds will be allocated to new boiler houses and CHP plants from 2007 to 2013 (approx €36.8 m).

Lithuania looks like exceeding its Kyoto emissions reduction target. The UNFCC note that, in 2006, Lithuania's emissions were 53% lower than the base-year level, well below its Kyoto target of –8% for the period 2008–2012. According to Lithuania's projections, with the existing policies and measures, emissions will still only increase by 2010 to reach a level 30% below base-year emissions. So Lithuania still expects to overachieve its target significantly.

Therefore reducing emissions is not an urgent issue as such. But reducing gas and oil imports from Russia is seen as vital, as is stimulating the economy and creating employment. Renewables offer one way to achieve these goals, while also meeting the EU's mandatory Renewable Targets.

Nuclear is sometimes also seen as vital – although it cannot be used to meet the EU renewables target. Lithuania closed Unit I of its Russian-era Ignalina plant in 2004, as a requirement of entry into the EU. But it now wants a replacement, though with the recession that looks some way off. As a stop gap it's trying to keep Unit II going beyond the closure date agreed with the EU – the end of 2009. That could be very contentious.

Bulgaria

A somewhat similar situation seems to have emerged in Bulgaria, where there are currently hopes of extra compensation from the EU for shutting down the Kozloduy reactors 1 and 2, which could influence scheduled decisions on finance for the proposed new Belene nuclear plant on the shores of the Danube. The expected costs of that have escalated from €4 bn to €10 bn. The EU is paying compensation for the decommissioning of the two old units in 2006. But more will be needed – and yet with the recession, money is tight. And as the WNN news service put it: "In absence of private funding, alternatives for funding two new large reactors at Belene range between Russian state funding and potentially Bulgarian state funding, both of which are controversial."

Certainly it would be odd to have to rely on Russian support, if one of the aims of going nuclear was to reduce reliance on Russia. Especially given its reasonably good renewable resources – not as large as Lithuania, but Bulgaria still reached 9.4% from renewables by 2005.

Part of the rationale for a return to nuclear there and in Lithuania is that it is claimed that nuclear power will be cheaper than renewables. This is debatable. New nuclear projects in France and Finland have repeated the familiar problems of construction delays and major cost overruns, while wind power has been claimed as more economic in some contexts. For example, see the data at www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Comparative_electrical_generation_costs produced by the California Energy Commission for May 2008, which put wind as the cheapest operational source, significantly lower than all of the other options, including coal, gas, hydro and nuclear.

As elsewhere in the world, in parts of new Europe, the rivalry between these two very different energy options continues…

*Based in part on an article for the October edition of the Newspaper of the British Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania.

When the Ice Melts is a remarkable story by Anjali Nayar in a recent issue of Nature. It centres on Thorthormi Glacier, which helps to feed the Pho River in north-central Bhutan. Like most other glaciers, Thorthormi is shrinking, and faster now than formerly. Much of the meltwater finds its way into a growing lake, dammed behind the moraine that Thorthormi built when it was larger than it is now. The moraine is nothing but a heap of rocks and dirt, delivered by the flowing ice to the glacier terminus.

The trouble is that, as moraines go, it is a rather flimsy barrier. As the meltwater accumulates behind it, the pressure on the moraine is building up. On the other side of the moraine lies Raphstreng Lake, itself a temporary store for glacier meltwater at the foot of the neighbouring Raphstreng Glacier. Eventually the meltwater finds its way into the mainstream of the Pho, and finally to the Brahmaputra and the Bay of Bengal.

Taking the long view, the fairly small Thorthormi and Raphstreng Glaciers, respectively about 17 and 4 km2 in area, are likely to cease to exist some time in the next hundred years, which raises long-term questions about the water resources of the Pho basin. But if you are a Bhutanese villager, with your home and your fields on the banks of the Pho, the water still ponded behind the Thorthormi moraine is not so much a long-run problem as a short-term menace. Nobody can tell whether, and if so when, the dam will collapse. If it does, the flood will take with it not just homes, livestock and crops, but hospitals, schools and other impedimenta of a decent modern society that Bhutan has managed to provide for itself in recent decades.

I have found that, in the face of adversity, you can't beat thinking of something to do and getting on with it. If it works, so much the better, and the way Bhutan is tackling the Thorthormi problem sounds as workable as anything I can think of. They are widening and deepening the outlet by which the Thorthormi meltwater bypasses the moraine. They are doing this with shovels, supplemented with hammers to smash the large boulders in which the moraine abounds and ropes to drag the pieces away. Of course this requires elbow grease, but bringing in heavy construction machinery would be impractical, apart from being too expensive.

This story is repeated with variations across the breadth of the Himalaya, as far as the menace is concerned. As far as the elbow grease is concerned, Bhutan is far ahead of other Himalayan nations. But even elbow grease costs money. The cost of the Thorthormi operation comes from scraps of first-world funding that amount to a few million dollars in all. Multiply by several hundred or thousand dangerous glacial lakes, and think about all of the other hazards conjured into being by global warming, and reflect that most of the total menace is not being tackled at all. It is not hard to accept that 100 billion dollars per year is a reasonable figure for the cost of adaptation to climatic change, or that the cost of failing to adapt will be greater still.

I can't help suspecting, though, that $100 billion worth of shovels and ropes is not the whole solution. Surely, for example, some of the cost has to go into high technology as a way of understanding the problem and deciding how to allocate the available human energy to the most effective solutions. In the Himalaya, satellite images of the glaciers and the glacial lakes have already been put to use in pinpointing the hazards. The leading contributions of this kind have come from ICIMOD, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here is another example of self-help working wonders, and an example that shows that self-help doesn't necessarily mean low-tech. But we have to face the fact that self-help doesn't mean zero-cost either. The ICIMOD inventories of Himalayan glacier and glacial lakes are already out of date. As Pradeep Mool, the chief remote-sensing specialist at ICIMOD, says, "All the lakes need attention. But we have to prioritize ... ."

There is much discussion today in the US regarding how much the government should spend, and go further into debt, to help get the economy growing and increase employment such that we can later pay back this debt when economic growth is good (i.e. positive) again. For those who do not believe in the general capitalism arrangement that assumes economic growth (as we define it today) can and must continue indefinitely, the logic of spending more so we can pay it back later can seem like putting off the inevitable final economic bust.

Persons such as Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under the President Bill Clinton, are calling for more stimulus spending (see http://robertreich.blogspot.com, and for an entry on his normal calling for more stimulus spending, visit http://robertreich.blogspot.com/2009/11/great-disconnect-between-stocks-and.html). Reich correctly says that the latest increase in US GDP growth, of a reported 3.6% in the 3rd quarter of this year, is mostly related to a shift in capital assets at the expense of labor. This is supported by research by Robert Ayres and Benjamin Warr indicating that investments in providing "useful work" and capital are responsible for roughly 50% of US economic growth whereas additional labor investments are only responsible for some amount of less than a few percent. Useful work is roughly equivalent to primary energy consumption divided by efficiency of conversion into mechanical motion – but think of essentially as how energy impacts our economy. In 1900 their research shows that investments in labor were the most influential factor (55%) in US economic growth with useful work responsible for nearly 40%.

What all of this means is that over the last 100 years our industrialized economy has replaced physical labor (working in factories and farms) with machinery run on fossil fuels. Therefore as long as cheap energy is available to operate this machinery and make more of it, human labor is simply not necessary. We pay people to think of ways to not need as may people to make a product, and then we act surprised when we succeed. We now pay people to think, not use their muscles, and we translate this to a need for better education. We also translate this to other areas of life, such as health care, where investments in capital (knowledge and machinery) have enabled incredible tools and techniques to cure disease and injuries.

What all of these advancements depend upon is excess energy such that people CAN be paid to spend time and think of new inventions. This excess energy is a function of the resource (renewable or fossil) and our ability to exploit it. This ability can be measured as energy return on investment (EROI). If US oil had an approximate EROI of 100 in the first decade of the century and today has an EROI of 10–20, then each barrel of oil in 1900 had approximately six times more capability of growing the economy than today. This estimate is calculated as follows:

˜ ((EROI-1)*"useful work" productivity factor in 1900) / ((EROI-1)*"useful work" productivity factor in 2000)
˜ ((100-1)*40%) / ((15-1)*50%)
˜ 40/7 = 5.6

So when we look to the past and assume we can invest in various economic stimulus packages with the thought that we have always had the ability to repay the debt in the future, I believe understanding this tie energy (EROI, useful work) and economic growth is important. So we can say:

1. The US has a large national debt load (the highest ever) and now the annual budget deficit is reaching the highest levels ever reached. Thus, we seem not to be paying back the debt over time, except interestingly the US did that during the time Robert Reich was serving in the 1990s under the Clinton administration; and

2. The total system-wide conversion of energy resources into useful work is becoming less productive over time yet more influential on the economy.

The conclusion is that we are increasing our debt load at the same time we are having less ability to pay it back. This basic conundrum will define this current century.

The Skills Summit, held at the British Wind Energy Association's annual conference earlier this year, saw the launch of a "Wind and Renewables Skills Sector Accord", which is hoped to encourage companies in the sector to take on apprentices to help reach government renewables targets, with the aim of training up to 60,000 new technicians and engineers.

There have certainly been a lot of pronouncements about the large number of jobs that could be created by the expansion of renewable energy in the UK – perhaps even matching the 250,000 so far created in Germany. Equally though there have been concerns about skill shortages – and the need for more and better educational and training provisions.

There is a range of initiatives at various levels. Some are part of more general schemes. The new Skills Funding Agency (SFA), which becomes operational in April 2010, is the successor to the Learning Skills Council and it plans to focus "exclusively on adult skills and working with colleges, skills providers and employers to identify needs". The government will play a facilitating role, offering two brokerage services, one for SMEs and one for larger employers; and schemes such as "Train to Gain" and the National Apprenticeship Service. All of these include the aim of enabling employers to adapt to the low-carbon economy and training a workforce competent for its new demands.

More specifically, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has announced plans to create about 1,500 graduate placements to help support marine renewable energy, while Gordon Brown has talked of a new £10 m "green internship" scheme for young people.

In the East Midlands, the Regional Development Agency (emda) is piloting a "Skills4Energy" programme designed to ensure appropriate support is available for Further Education colleges and skills providers to provide suitable training within the region in energy technologies. For more details. Visit www.skills4energy.com.

Meanwhile, British Gas is working with the Welsh Assembly to create the first dedicated environmental-skills training centre in Tredegar, and to provide more than 1,300 people a year with skills, such as installing solar panels. Most of the money to start the centre will come from the European contingency fund.

Universities are of course also trying to do there bit, with courses on sustainable energy and allied topics at both degree and postgraduate level, as well as short courses on specialist topics. One of the first and largest is the BSc in renewable energy, run by the University of Exeter in Cornwall at its Falmouth site. The University of Dundee, De Montford University and Glyndwr University also run undergraduate degrees in renewables/green energy, while Cornwall College offers a foundation degree in renewable energy.

The Open University offers a range of distance learning courses in the area, including its pioneering one-year sustainable-energy course (T206), which attracts around 500 students each year. For a "taster", visit www.open.ac.uk/T206/index.htm.

The market for Masters seems quite buoyant, with most major universities now running courses in sustainable-energy engineering or similar topics – perhaps the most well known being the CREST MSc at Loughborough.

It is clearly an expanding field – but the key issue is whether the education expansion is sufficient to meet the growing need for people with the right skills, at the right level. While people with professional science and engineering backgrounds are obviously always going to be central, people with vocational/technical qualifications are also urgently needed. It may also be that people with skills at various levels in the financial, management and planning areas are equally important. Project management and the ability to deal with environmental-assessment issues, planning conflicts and social outreach issues may be just as important to success as basic mechanical or electrical engineering. Some would say that policy-development issues and strategic-development studies are also important, given the need to push ahead with the UK's ambitious low-carbon transition programme. Overall it will be quite a challenge to meet this wide range of requirements.

For a list of courses, visit www.reuk.co.uk/UK-Renewable-Energy-Degree-Courses.htm.

Mention should perhaps also be made of the parallel initiatives on nuclear power. For example, the Open University and the National Skills Academy for Nuclear has secured funding from the North West Higher Level Skills Partnership to develop a certificate in nuclear professionalism, which aims to aid "the transition into the nuclear industry for recent graduates and experienced personnel transferring into the sector".

The certificate will be a modular framework, alongside a small element of scientific-skills development, with a particular focus on "providing the behavioural, commercial and project-management skills" that are seen as important to the nuclear sector.

If we are going to have a new nuclear programme, then it will be important that it is properly managed, so courses like this will be necessary. However, there is the problem that there may not be enough skilled people and training courses for them, to support both renewables and nuclear.

For more details, visit www.nuclear.nsacademy.co.uk.

More often than not, reports about new measurements in remote parts of the cryosphere show that things are either worse than we thought or about as bad as we thought. A while ago, I was describing the out-of-the-way glaciers in the remote southern Indian Ocean. Things down there, it turns out, are about as bad as they are everywhere else. Sometimes, though, we learn that things are a bit better than we thought. A paper by Evan Burgess and colleagues, to appear soon in Journal of Geophysical Research – Earth Surface, shows that more snow has been accumulating in southeast Greenland than conventional estimates suggest.

The Greenland Ice Sheet loses mass through by melting and the calving of icebergs. There has been more of both of these in recent years. The accelerated loss is cause for concern, but we mustn't forget that the ice sheet also gains mass by snowfall. Working out that gain is difficult, because the measurements are so sparse. The in-situ facts about snowfall on the ice sheet come from a few hundred snow pits and ice cores, in which investigators have counted and weighed annual layers. Over large tracts, no measurements have ever been made, and until recently we had to rely on spatial interpolation to make educated guesses about these data voids. What is worse, we want to know the total accumulation, and we can't measure that around the edge of the ice sheet, where much of the snow melts and runs off.

Unfortunately, spatial interpolation won't manufacture surprises for you. (And, if it did, you wouldn't know whether to believe in them or not.) The contribution of Burgess and co-authors is to bring the skill of a climate model, called Polar MM5, to bear on this problem of missing information. The model stays close to the behaviour of the actual atmosphere by restarting itself from an observed state once a month, and its estimates of precipitation are calibrated by comparison with the sparse observations of accumulated snow. This yields much more spatial detail than could ever be got by trudging around on the surface of the ice sheet and digging holes.

The result is a net accumulation rate of 337 mm/yr of water equivalent, roughly the same as the annual precipitation in Wyoming or Andalusia. Other recent estimates for Greenland have ranged between 290 and 310 mm/yr so, accepting the Burgess number as more reliable, the older estimates were biased low by 10–18%. One of these estimates was by me. I reckoned the accumulation rate as 299±23 m/yr. The Burgess rate carries an uncertainty of ±48 mm/yr, so if you wanted to be picky you could claim that it does not represent a "significant" increase.

But we are looking at two different kinds of error. That plus-or-minus symbol, "±", stands for an uncertainty due to random factors that cannot be controlled for – a give-or-take kind of error. What Burgess and colleagues have done is to correct a systematic error, or bias. The older estimates were off mainly because in southeast Greenland, where there are hardly any measurements, they were based on guesswork.

The authors managed to obtain a single field measurement from this data void. Where I estimated 950 mm/yr and another worker had 880 mm/yr, their model gives 2,780 mm/yr, but the measured accumulation over two years was 3,760 mm/yr. So it is an open question whether all of the bias has yet been eliminated.

The increased gain is not nearly enough to offset the losses the ice sheet has been suffering of late. It is still shedding mass and contributing to sea-level rise. But we always want the best estimate we can get.

One of the nice things about this work is that it shows that we are making progress. In the first place, we now have estimates of the uncertainty in the numbers, which is a quite new development. And in the second place, the uncertainties, give-or-take plus bias, are not really all that large. When it comes to uncertainty, less is better, but random errors of the order of 15% are bearable, and less than they were a few years ago.

You have to be a subscriber to read the Burgess paper while it is in press. But if you want to keep an eye out for it, its document-object identifier is doi:10.1029/2009JF001293.

A recent article titled "Government impose 'carbon capture levy' to fund coal-fired power plants", discusses the UK government imposing a tax on electricity to potentially fund carbon capture and storage (CCS) development on up to four coal plants over the course of 10–15 years. A quote from the article sums up the discussion:

"The Department for Energy and Climate Change said yesterday that uncertainty over the commercial viability of CCS meant that public support might have to continue beyond 2030."

Of course CCS is not commercially viable. The only way to make it commercially viable is to internalize the cost of CO2 emissions to such a degree that the cost of investing in the infrastructure for capturing the CO2 justifies the investment. The price of CO2 is not there yet for the UK, and is nonexistent within the United States. So the commerical viability question is not even applicable except for potentially using captured CO2 to extract more oil out of mature reservoirs. Still, given that there are natural sources of CO2 that only require major investments in pipelines while avoiding interacting with the electricity indudstry, a sufficient CO2 price may not exist for a couple of decades that induces investment in CO2 capture on coal plants.

But the real "commercial viability" conundrum rests on the fact that a large portion of society believes that we (well, the industrialized world) should place a value on reducing CO2 emissions. Capturing CO2 from coal plants will lower their net electricity output by 20–35%. In terms of the normal venacular of economics, this is going to something less efficient. In this case, the efficiency is less electricity output per unit of fuel input. This is a fundamentally different concept than has occured since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Sure, we have imposed certain types of pollution mitigation technologies on power plants before (e.g. SO2 and NOx scrubbing, mercury capture), but these have for the most part not prevented coal plants, and the power plant industry in general, to increase their efficiency over time by increasing the pressure and temperature of operation. But everyone knows that the thermodynamics of the power plant with CO2 capture will be less efficient. This goes directly against the purpose of investments and technological advancement since the founding of modern civiliazations.

People have historically invested in ways to extract more productivity and wealth from the Earth per unit of effort (human effort) until some ecological feedback prevents that from being a desireable option any longer. These feedbacks to date have mostly been associated with direct air-, soil- and water-quality problems. And the past mitigation methods have been of a small order of cost such that the human population has continued to grow since the Industrial Revolution. But this feedback fo global warming appears to cost several orders of magnitude more to deal with. The question is: "Is coal power so valuable to us that we will continue to use it even at lower efficiency?" In other words: "Are other viable technologies so inferior that coal power must continue to exist by providing less direct services than it has since we first put it in a steam cycle connected to a dynamo?"

So far, the answer seems "yes" to these two questions. Widespread use of CCS will mean that we value environmental/ecosystem services more than energy services on a larger scale than any time before in history of human civilization.

The government's new draft National Policy Statement on nuclear power, indicating which issues the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) should take on board, and which it can ignore, contains this remarkable statement:

"The Government is satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations. As a result the IPC need not consider this question." The draft statement goes on to say that: "Geological disposal will be preceded by safe and secure interim storage."

So it seems, the waste issue is all in hand and we needn't bother too much about it, or any problems with the much more active spent fuel that the new reactors' high-fuel "burn-up" approach will create. Despite the fact that the highly active spent fuel is to be kept on site at the plant for perhaps several decades, that is evidently not something IPC will have to consider in its assessment of whether the proposed plants can go ahead. Instead the IPC will just focus on any conventional local planning and environmental impact issues that may emerge in relation to the 10 new nuclear plants that the government has now backed.

Quite apart from the issue of on-site spent fuel storage, there are plenty of other issues to discuss. For example, the risk of flooding in the years ahead, as climate change begins to bite. Dungeness was dropped off the original 11 strong list, due to local eco-issues, including, we hear, concerns about flood risks. That leaves the following, all of them also coastal sites, although allegedly less at risk: Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa, all existing sites, plus newcomers Braystones, and Kirksanton, both in Cumbria.

The last one is currently the site of a 3.5 MW windfarm, partly local community owned, which would have to be dismantled. It's one of the more successful UK wind farms. Will, I wonder, the IPC treat its potential very symbolic demise as a negative environmental impact?

Perhaps more relevantly, will the IPC safeguard local interests effectively? IPC chair Sir Michael Pitt says that the large nuclear and other projects it will look at will "raise important issues for the nation and for local communities and we want the public to have confidence that their views will be heard. In every case there will be an opportunity for an open floor hearing as part of the IPC examination process".

Most green groups see the whole thing as top down, autocratic and designed to steam-roller through unpopular plans rapidly. CANE, Communities against Nuclear Expansion, said: "At a time when public confidence in our political process is at an all time low, government have decided to take to themselves more power to override people's wishes." But Sir Michael said: "The bottom line is that the IPC will not accept any application, where it considers that the consultation process has been unsatisfactory or the community's concerns have not been addressed."

Friends of the Earth (FoE) nevertheless remains concerned: "The IPC is an unelected, undemocratic body – the new Commissioners aren't directly accountable to the people their decisions will affect. It's going to be very difficult for local people to get their voices heard, especially with key documents being so technical and opportunities to attend inquiries so few. If people are unhappy with the process they'll have to take the matter to court, which is extremely difficult and costly."

Interestingly FoE and other green groups have said that, although they can see that the new planning system might in theory over-ride local opposition to wind projects, they are not willing to compromise basic democratic principles. Tony Juniper, then FoE's director, noted a while back: "Government advisors tried to sell the planning reforms to green groups on the grounds that we would get our wind power more quickly. We rejected that offer and instead said that we would prefer to win the arguments through debate, not via a lurch toward centralised planning."

In reality though it could be that trying to bulldozer projects through, using what might be seen as draconian measures aimed at defecting opposition, could be counter-productive – consolidating opposition. This could well also prove to be the case for nuclear plants, which, unlike wind farms, most green groups oppose. Maybe, in that case at least, perversely, IPC will thus do opponents of nuclear power a favour.

ASTER, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection radiometer, has been looking at the Earth since it was launched in 1999 on a satellite called Terra. A joint Japanese-American venture, ASTER is the foundation for all sorts of environmental monitoring efforts, but in particular for the GLIMS initiative. GLIMS stands for Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, and while we are doing acronyms I may as well tell you that DEM is short for digital elevation model.

Glaciologists need good maps, which nowadays means DEMs derived from air photos or satellite images, but we have a special interest in up-to-date maps because nearly all of our glaciers are getting smaller. This includes getting thinner. An accurate map of surface elevation tells us the state of the glacier at the date of the image. If we have an accurate map or DEM from some earlier date, we can subtract the newer DEM from the older to measure the change in elevation.

There are complications. Many older maps turn out to be much less accurate than modern ones. Often, air photos of glaciers taken in the golden age of mapping, roughly from the 1940s to the 1960s, show featureless white expanses. Snow just isn't photogenic. Surprisingly often, there simply aren't any accurate maps from the olden days.

Nevertheless, GLIMS was conceived in the 1990s as a way of bringing our knowledge of glacier surface elevations up to date. This is where ASTER comes in. It has two cameras, one looking straight down and one looking backwards. The two cameras see the same patch of surface, but several seconds apart because the satellite is moving. So ASTER can see in stereo, and can work out the surface elevation using trigonometry.

Participants in GLIMS have been documenting glacier changes with images from ASTER and other satellite sensors. ASTER, though still working, is beginning to feel its age, but something very notable happened in June of this year: the ASTER Global DEM was released. This staggering product contains more than 250 billion land-surface elevations, every 30 metres over nearly the whole world.

ASTER DEMs are composites from images obtained between 1999 and 2008, so they may prove not to be well adapted for measuring glacier elevation changes. But there is one way in which they are sure to excel: the mapping of regions that have never been mapped accurately before.

The ASTER GDEM had a predecessor in the form of SRTM, the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission of February 2000. Interpreting radar imagery presents problems of its own, but SRTM DEMs have already been put to good use in monitoring glacier elevation changes. One problem is that the shuttle orbit limits coverage to between 60°N and 60°S, so that most of the world's glaciers are not covered. Aggravatingly, however, it was decided that the South Sandwich Islands, the only significant land between 56°S and 60°S, weren't worth the trouble.

They are more than ordinarily troublesome as far as conventional mapping is concerned: windy, cliff-girt and ice-covered, therefore nearly impossible to land on by boat, helicopter or any other conveyance; and too far away to justify sending a plane equipped for photogrammetry in the faint hope that they won't be cloud-covered.


Montagu Island, the largest (101 km<sup>2</sup>) of the South Sandwich Islands. Exposed land is green and brown. Ice is purple and blue, with the glacier margin in red.
Montagu Island, the largest (101 km2) of the South Sandwich Islands. Exposed land is green and brown. Ice is purple and blue, with the glacier margin in red.

The ASTER GDEM team doesn't think the South Sandwich Islands are too much trouble, even though they had to contend with clouds, ice floes that look like land, and, in the case of the island in the map, a continuing volcanic eruption. You can see one of their problems in the map: the south coast is greyed out because the GDEM masked off the surrounding ocean by relying on the best previous estimate of Montagu Island's position, which was 4 km too far to the northeast. Less obviously, the largest of the pale blue patches is the summit of Mount Belinda. It rises only to 1070 m, a full 300 m lower than previously believed on the basis of a shipboard measurement made in 1930.

1930 was the date of the first of only three "serious" visits to Montagu Island. You can see the top of Mount Belinda from sea level, if it isn't cloudy. But even on the clearest of days you can't see the rest of the summit plateau, on which no human eye has ever gazed. So this map is exploration in the modern mode, that is, from orbit. Thanks to ASTER, it is the first ever contour map of Montagu – including the bits we have never seen before.

Chances are you will never need to think about Montagu Island again. But it holds 50 times as much glacier ice as the iconic and much better known Kilimanjaro, and it is a part of the global glaciological picture that doesn't deserve to be left out. If Montagu Island should happen to cross your path in the future, remember that you first saw it contoured courtesy of the ASTER GDEM.

In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking), Stewart Brand argues that environmentalists should change their thinking about four issues: population, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and urbanization. Amory Lovins, an equally legendary figure in US environmental circles, has produced a very damning critique of Brands assertions on energy in which he says: "His nuclear chapter's facts and logic do not hold up to scrutiny."

For example Brand rejects all non-nuclear options, arguing that photovoltaics need about 150–175 times, and wind farms from 600+ to nearly 900 times, more land than nuclear power to produce the same electricity.

In a summary of his full analysis, Lovins says that Brand understates nuclear power's land-use "by about 43-fold by omitting all land used by exclusion zones and the nuclear fuel chain" – including uranium mining and waste disposal. Conversely, "he includes the space between wind or solar equipment­unused land commonly used for farming, grazing, wildlife, and recreation. That's like claiming that two lampposts require a parking lot's worth of space, even though 99% of the lot is used for parking, driving, and walking. Properly measured, per kilowatt-hour produced, the land made unavailable for other uses is about the same for ground-mounted photovoltaics as for nuclear power, sometimes less­or zero, for building-mounted PVs sufficient to power the world many times over".

In his full paper, Lovins present a substantial amount of data to back up his claim that: "Land actually used per kWh is up to thousands of times smaller for windpower than for nuclear power. If land-use were an important criterion for picking energy systems, which it's generally not, it would thus reverse Stewart's footprint conclusion."

Brand's other arguments for nuclear and agains renewables are similarly dispatched as erroneous. For example while Brand claims that new nuclear will be more competitive, Lovins argues that "renewables are cheaper, faster, vaster, equally or more carbon-free, and more attractive to investors", backing this up with his usual truck load of references. They reinforce Lovins' claim that nuclear power "would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower" that is renewables (large hydro apart) and local CHP/cogeneration. He concludes that: "The more you fear climate change, the more judiciously you should invest to get the most solution per dollar and per year."

He is then left with trying to explain why nuclear had nevertheless been taken up by some governments, and why people like Brand talk of a "nuclear imperative". Lovins says that it is not due to any obvious advantage, economic or otherwise, In his summary he says: "If nuclear power isn't needed, worsens climate change (vs. more effective solutions) and energy security, and can't compete in the marketplace despite uniquely big subsidies – all evidence-based findings unexamined in Stewart's chapter – then his nuclear imperative evaporates". He goes on: "Of course, a few countries with centrally planned energy systems, mostly with socialized costs, are building reactors: over two-thirds of all nuclear plants under construction are in China, Russia, India, or South Korea. But that's more because their nuclear bureaucracies dominate national energy policy and face little or no competition in technologies, business models, and ideas. Nuclear power requires such a system. The competitors beating nuclear power thrive in democracies and free markets."

This is little less convincing, or rather, less than a full explanation. Lovins claims in his full paper that the "rout of nuclear power in the global marketplace, and its inability to persuade private investors anywhere to risk their money on its equity, marks the biggest collapse of any industrial enterprise in the history of the world" adding that "Brand can ignore it only by reading World Nuclear Association press releases instead of actual market order and installation data, and by pretending that the decentralized technologies that actually add tens of times more global capacity each year than nuclear power adds somehow cannot be important or effective competitors".

Certainly renewable and other green energy options are doing very well around the world – for example as the recent REN 21 annual review noted, by 2008, renewables represented more than 50% of total added generation capacity in both the United States and Europe i.e, more new renewables capacity was installed than new capacity for gas, coal, oil, and nuclear combined. But, as Lovins admits, there are still some new nuclear projects going ahead. And what he does he doesn't explicitly address is why some of these are in the (at least allegedly democratic) EU and possibly soon also in the US. It might be argued that they will not be economic and will have to be subsidized – by taxpayers or consumers. If so, then perhaps Lovins is saying that they are being mislead by governments under the sway of powerful corporate elites, even in ostensibly "free" countries? Maybe that is the case. I couldn't possibly comment!

Amazingly, the Romans managed to create an empire that lasted 500 years without having a word for glacier. Amazing to me as a glaciologist, that is. I can see that there would not be much call for such a word in ancient Greek – all those sun-drenched islands – but the Romans needed to cross the Alps regularly, and on one vividly-recorded occasion to cope with Hannibal and his elephants.

A few articles ago, I was able to trace the word glacier back to 1332 on the strength of documentary evidence, and more conjecturally to some date in the post-Roman period when some unknown speaker of Franco-provencal first uttered a word from which our modern form could have descended.

The notional Latin word ancestral to French glacier is glaciarius or glaciarium, but its first known appearance was in London in the 1870s, when an entrepreneur used it for his skating rink. The name didn't take, as we know. The Oxford English Dictionary's next quotation is about the closure of the Southport Glaciarium in 1889.

The closest thing to a description of a glacier in writings preserved from antiquity is Polybius' account of the crossing of the Alps by the Carthaginian general Hannibal in September 218 BC ( Histories, III, 55). He wrote in Greek, some 70 years after the event, but he emphasized that his account was based on interviews with participants. He says of Hannibal's descent on the eastern side "The new snow which had fallen on the top of the old snow remaining since the previous winter was itself yielding, both owing to its softness, being a fresh fall, and because it was not yet very deep, but when they had trodden through it and set foot on the congealed snow beneath it, they no longer sunk in it, but slid along it with both feet, as happens to those who walk on ground with a coat of mud on it." This is the Loeb translation. The verb translated by "congealed", sunestekuian, might be better rendered as "compacted".

Evidence of absence is always harder to find than absence of evidence. It appears that, although they had words like glacies, ice, and glaciare, to freeze, the Romans simply did not have in their minds the idea of a glacier. One possibility, of course, is that Hannibal and his elephants were just slithering down a steep snow-covered slope. Perhaps he had more sense, assuming he had the choice, than to march his army onto a glacier. We will never know the facts, I suppose.

Some of the possible solutions, notably my not knowing enough Latin or Greek, are very plausible. Another plausible answer is that Hannibal travelled through a pass that was not glacierized. Polybius is not very specific about which valley Hannibal exploited, and two thousand years of follow-up investigation have failed to identify it. A good bet seems to be the route from Gap to Turin via Briançon, the Col du Montgenèvre and Susa, and he could have gone that way without coming across any glaciers. There are several other candidates, though.

But there is something here that I really do not understand. How could Polybius, who writes proudly of how he made the passage of the Alps so as to see for himself the terrain he was immortalizing, not have noticed the weird whitish things hanging from the ridges and creeping down the valleys? Surely the local inhabitants, if they had a word for them either in Latin or, more probably, a Celtic language akin to modern Breton and Welsh, would have given him the word? And in later centuries the Alps were well inside the boundaries of the larger Roman empire. Apparently neither politics nor trade nor even curiosity provoked the Romans into inventing the word glaciarium or finding an equivalent.

Perhaps ancient history is like palaeoclimatology, a subject about which I am slightly less ignorant. If nearly all of the evidence has disappeared irretrievably, is it a waste of time to wonder about Hannibal and glaciers, or about Roman-era climate and glaciers? Somehow I cannot manage to think so.

The discussion continues in the US about economic recovery (it was somehow reported this past week at 3.5% for the last quarter). People keep asking typical and often meaningless questions. "Is this growth sustainable?" "But employment is still rising, when will unemployment go down?" To many in the research community that study society from a "whole systems" mentality, the answers to these questions are obvious in the long run even if few short term solutions exist to alleviate any real or perceived economic pain or loss of lifestyle. Oh, and the answers to the two questions are "no", and "when we (the US) accept lower lifestyles".

This weekend, Timothy Geithner, the US Treasury Secretary appeared on the popular Sunday talk show Meet the Press. Geithner was asked when employment (unemployment is US is measured at 9.8%) would start to rise, and when the budget deficit and national debt would stop growing. His answer was the mainstream view. This view is essentially that the economic stimulus funds are providing the base investments for growth in the future, and they will "take a while." Another way of looking at this statement is, that because private businesses spent years, if not the past couple of decades, making the wrong types of investments and/or expecting the wrongly high returns, the government is now making the right kind of investments that will make those same high returns. Oh, and create jobs.

Unfortunately, the research on energy and economics is showing us that the trends are not indicating that these future expectations will come to fruition. I present two areas of research to think about together.

(1) Work on economic production functions by Robert Ayres of INSEAD indicates that investments in increased labor no longer produce economic gains for the US. Work by Ayres and his colleagues (often Ben Warr) on how energy, or rather "energy services" (which they term more precisely "exergy services" or "useful work") relate to economic growth shows that investments in energy services and capital are practically the only drivers of economic growth at this stage of development in the US. If we consider, as many economic production functions do, that the "factors of production" are of three main categories, (i) capital, (ii) labor, and (iii) energy (or energy services), then Ayres' work shows that every dollar invested in capital or energy is each responsible for half of economic growth, and investments in labor are responsible for well less than 5% of economic growth.

See: an interview and/or journal paper from Ayres and Warr Interview: http://tv.insead.edu/video/EconomicsPolitics/2/7544 Journal paper: Ayres, RU, Sustainability economics: Where do we stand? Ecological Economics 2008 67(2) 281–310.

(2) Research on the trends in energy return on energy invested (EROI) for fossil fuels undergoing the inevitable decline. This does not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not there are large fossil resources, but can have something to do with describing fossil reserves (those that are economically recoverable). What this declining EROI means is that even though we have continually produced and consumed more energy (worldwide) and have large coal and natural gas resources, they will still not provide for the economic growth of the past.

One example of conceptualizing pionts (1) and (2) above is natural gas. The natural gas (NG) inudstry is now on a public relations campaign to explain the resource base increased by technologies to extract natural gas from shale rocks. So yes, we now have a greatly (2–3X) expanded resource base of NG, but at what EROI? These resources cannot be economically produced at the $2/MMBtu of the year 2000, and need closer to $6/MMBtu for a price. Thus, the EROI of unconventional NG could be 3X less than conventional NG. So the conculsion is, we may have 100 years of domestic NG in the US based upon current consumption, and these resources are valueable, just not as valuable as past resources.

What all this means is that economic growth, as defined since the industrial revolution, cannot happen as fast as the past. The conversion of energy resources, including both renewables (dependent upon current solar income) and fossils (benefitting from hundreds of millions of years of solar income) for productive uses simply requires more energy and resources than in the past. Thus, there is less excess available for other economic sectors, and most economists, businesses, and governments have not accepted this position. There is little incentive for them to do so, except for energy companies themselves since their livelihood is dependent upon making proper judgments of how EROI relates to their monetary return.

Furthermore, investments in energy technologies, capital, and resources that increase labor in the energy sector relative to past investments, inherently go against the trends of the last 100 years. This is not a result of bad public policy, bad tax incentives, overtaxation or even bad business practices. This is a result of increasing complexity of our society such that investments just no longer provide the larger marginal return as they used to, and perhaps they are no longer providing a marginal return at all anymore (think bank bailouts, two wars: Afghanistan and Iraq, health care reform).

We think more energy equals more capabilities, but that equation is incorrect. EROI is a necessary and important factor to understand. When EROI is high, there is a large margin for error and a high degree of discretion when making investment decisions. As EROI decreases, there is less margin for error, and each error can become more influential for a system that has been built upon higher EROI and still expects it. The pay of investment bankers and automaker executives together with health care technologies are results enabled by high EROI that enabled their existence to begin with. They are only causes of budget deficits and debt when we refuse to adjust. This point of adjustment, or lack thereof, is where we reside today.