Are Seawalls the Answer?

Articles have appeared in the media recently quoting different studies on projected sea level rise. Some have said a 20 ft. (6m) rise will take place. Another predicts a 250 ft. (76m) increase. Those projections are for sea level rise hundreds of years from now. Either one would put all coastal cities under water.

In the near term, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of up to 1 meter (3.3 ft.) by 2100, based on the current rate of global warming increase, thermal seawater expansion, and the melt rate of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.

However, a new paper published the week of July 20, 2015, in the European Geosciences Union journal projects a sea level rise of up to 10 ft. (3m) by 2100. The study authored by James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Climate Center and now a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and 16 co-authors, bases its projections on evidence that the Antarctic ice sheet is melting 10 times faster than thought, due to warming ocean waters and increases in carbon emissions. Not all climate scientists agree with the new study, but most are taking it seriously.

But even the more modest UN projection puts coastal communities at risk. A 1m (3.3 ft.) sea level rise would flood much of Miami and a large part of lower Manhattan, driving millions of people from their homes and causing trillions of dollars in property loss. The UN panel also predicts that tropical storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy will be more common and more intense. If you add the threat of storm surge to the projected sea level rise, many coastal communities will be in dire flood danger by the end of the century.

That is, unless steps are taken to protect those communities against the rising sea by building seawalls or dike systems. The question is would building such mitigation systems cost more than projected property loss if nothing were done?

The answer may well be found in a paper published in the February 3, 2014, edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to this study conducted by the Global Climate Forum, the cost of property loss if nothing is done could be as high as $100 trillion worldwide. On the other hand, if dike systems are built in exposed locations, the cost of flooding could drop to around $80 billion.

If the decision is made to protect coastal communities with dikes or seawalls, several questions arise. First, where does the money come from? The 2015 budget for the US Corps of Engineers allocates only $28 million for flood control and coastal emergencies, which won’t go far when construction will run into the tens of billions. The funds required would have to be either voted by Congress or provided by local jurisdictions by raising taxes or issuing bonds. It will probably take several disasters before either is likely to happen.

If funding is provided, the next decision is whether to build hard seawalls of reinforced concrete, or use the so-called soft system preferred by the Dutch. Hard seawalls are usually erected at the water’s edge to protect existing structures that have been built close to the high tide line. Drawbacks are high cost, degradation of beaches, and a landscape eyesore. Also, even the highest seawalls can be overtopped by a strong storm surge or major tsunami.

The Dutch “soft system” utilizes a wide beach with dunes as the first barrier, then a belt of woodland, and finally a wall of low dikes built of sand, clay, and a straw binder. Wetlands and drainage canals are also used to handle excess water. The eroding beach sand is constantly replenished with a device called a sand engine. The Netherlands system requires more land and mandates that structures be built much farther back from the tide line than in the US.

Whether we see a 1 meter or a 10 meter sea level rise, and whether concrete seawalls or earthen dikes are used, it appears that some form of protection against rising and stormy seas is in our future.




Energy Storage: Key to Carbon-Free Future

In 2014, the US produced 4,093 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Two-thirds of that power was generated by burning coal and natural gas. Nuclear accounted for 19%. Wind, solar, and other renewables made up the remaining 15%.

One of the problems that will have to be solved if renewables are to completely replace carbon-based sources, is the ability to efficiently store unused power. Coal and natural gas powered plants keep producing electricity at the same rate 24 hours a day. During periods of low demand, much of that produced power goes unused, and billions of tons of CO2 and methane are emitted into the atmosphere.

Wind and solar do not emit greenhouse gasses, but when the wind doesn’t blow, wind farms can’t produce energy. When the sun goes down, solar farms stop producing as well. If wind and solar are to replace coal and gas, a way to store excess energy produced when the wind blows and the sun shines will have to be developed on a mass commercial scale so that the stored electricity can be released into the grid at night and on calm days.

A number of national laboratories and commercial companies are currently involved in energy storage development. Sandia National Lab and Argonne National Lab are both working directly with the US  Dept. of Energy (DOE) to develop advanced grid storage technologies.

CalCharge is a consortium of national labs and commercial companies in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, joining together to develop cost-competitive energy storage. Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratories are part of the team.

The Energy Storage Association (ESA) has 120 members, including major public utilities such as PG&E and Duke Energy; international corporations such as LG, Hitachi, Bosch, Lockheed Martin, and Mitsubishi; and dozens of companies specializing in energy storage. The mission of the Association is to cooperate in the development of more efficient grid electrical storage.

 The 3 storage systems in widest use at this time are pumped hydroelectric, lithium ion batteries, and traction drive.

Pumped hydroelectric is a system using upper and lower reservoirs. During times of low grid usage, the excess electricity is used to pump water uphill to the top reservoir. When more energy is needed during times of peak usage, water in the upper reservoir is released through turbines that generate electricity for the grid.

Lithium ion batteries, a staple in electric and hybrid vehicles, are limited in range and capacity. A team at Argonne National Lab has been working to improve the capacity and longevity of lithium ion batteries. Several commercial companies including 24M, a company started by a group of MIT researchers, are also developing a higher capacity, longer range lithium ion battery.

Traction drive employs a fleet of shuttle trains operating on a closed rail network to transport electric masses between two storage yards at different elevations. The system operates very much like the pumped hydroelectric, shuttling energy to the top yard during times of low usage, and sending it back to the lower yard when the grid experiences high demand.

 For those who want to go off the grid,Tesla has developed a line of lithium ion batteries called Powerwall for storing rooftop solar energy. Homes with solar panels can install either a 7 kilowatt-hour or 10 kWh suitcase-size battery that can be used for backup power, or for daily use when the sun goes down.

With all the developmental activity, both government and commercial, there seems to be a good chance that enough cost-effective grid storage capacity will be available to make the transition from carbon to renewable energy a reality.  








Tornado Damage 2015

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center reports 716 tornadoes in the US in the first 5 months of 2015. Although most tornadoes occur in the American Midwest and South, vortex storms are not a US exclusive. They occur in many other countries and can be as destructive as in the US, if not more so.

A good example is the tornado that sank the Chinese cruise ship Eastern Star in the Yangtze River on June 1, 2015. According to the China Meteorological Centre, a supercell associated with a stalled storm front spawned an EF1 tornado with funnel wind speeds up to 109 mph (175km/h) in Hebei Province near the Yangtze. While crossing the river, the tornado struck the cruise ship, causing it to capsize. 434 people were confirmed dead in the tragedy.

In Brazil, on April 20, 2015, an EF2 tornado with wind speeds up to 135 mph (225km/h) struck the city of Xanxere, damaging 500 homes. 1 person died, 120 were injured, and 1,000 were left homeless. On May 5, 2015, an EF3 tornado with wind speeds to 165 mph (275kp/h), hit the German city of Bützow causing major structural damage to the city’s buildings. On the same date in Hamburg, straight-line thunderstorm winds killed 1 person and injured 30.

Worldwide tornado fatalities so far in 2015 total 463: including 434 in China, 14 in Mexico, 10 in the US, 3 in Myanmar, and 2 in Brazil.

In the US, on March 25, a waterspout developed over Keystone Lake near Sand Springs, Oklahoma. The spout became an EF2 tornado that moved through a mobile home park, resulting in 1 fatality, 30 injuries, and extensive property damage.

On April 8, an EF4 with wind speeds reaching 200 mph (330km/h) hit northern Illinois, killing 2 people and injuring 22. On May 9, a series of EF3 tornadoes killed 1 person near Cisco, Texas, 2 people in the town of Van, Texas, and another 2 in Nashville, Arkansas, making a total of 5 deaths on a single day.

Although tragic for those impacted by the storms, the 2015 tornado fatalities and property damage totals are somewhat less than those in prior years. For example, in 2011, 553 people died in a series of violent tornadoes. Alabama and Missouri were especially hard hit during that year. The average annual number of tornado deaths in the US is 109.

The reason given by NOAA for the lower than normal tornado activity in 2015 is the pattern of a long-term trough in the east that brought cooler temperatures to that part of the country, and a high-pressure ridge that has persisted in the west bringing warmer temperatures. The combination has reduced the number of thunderstorms and supercells over the middle part of the US. That pattern will change and there will be future years with above average tornado activity, and they may be stronger than ever due to global warming. If you live in a tornado prone area, be prepared.


Climate Change & Weather On Steroids

Although there are still those who doubt or deny that global warming influences weather, 98% of the world’s scientists now agree that carbon emissions are contributing to a rapid warming of our planet, and that a hotter earth intensifies extreme weather events.

Three current cases in point are the rainstorms and floods in Texas, the disastrous heat wave in India, and the recent report that the Antarctic ice sheet is melting 70% faster than previously thought. Droughts and floods in Texas are not new, heat waves in India are not new, and there has always been ice sheet melting. What is new is the ramped up intensity, duration, and frequency of these events.

In an article in the May 27, 2015, issue of Scientific American, Texas Governor Greg Abbot described the flooding along the Blanco River as a tsunami-style flood. “This is the biggest flood this area of Texas has ever seen,” he said. 31 deaths have been confirmed and dozens are still missing. The National Weather Service reported that 10 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period in the Houston area and, as of this writing, the rain continues to fall.

Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she believes global warming likely contributed to the extreme conditions. She noted that a combination of a building El Niño and record-breaking ocean temperatures revs up the hydrological cycle. “When storms organize, there’s much more water you can wring out of the atmosphere than in the past,” she said.

Katherine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center said, “Science does not say global warming is causing the extreme rain. Just like steroids make a baseball player stronger, climate change exacerbates weather extremes, making them worse than they would have been naturally.”

In India, the prolonged heat wave and drought have taken 1,800 lives. Temperatures reached a peak of 118˚F (48°C). In the May 27 issue of Live Science, Subimal Ghosh of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay is quoted as saying that heat waves are not going away anytime soon. In a study published in the April edition of the journal Regional Environmental Change, Ghosh and his colleagues found that heat waves may come earlier in the year. “With the increase of global warming, the occurrence of heat waves will increase,” Ghosh said.

 The Antarctic ice sheet is melting 70% faster than previous studies have indicated, according to a new study published in the March 23 edition of the journal Science by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography.  There has always been ice sheet melting, but in the past the loss has been offset by new winter snow and ice. That is no longer the case. Fernando Paolo, the study’s lead researcher states, “The forces driving this trend point toward altered wind patterns over Antarctica that bring less precipitation to East Antarctica and warmer water to the continent’s ice shelves. That, in turn, is likely caused by long-term changes in the climate linked to the warming effect of increased carbon building up in the earth’s atmosphere.”

As the director of the Texas Tech Climate Center put it, global warming does not cause extreme weather events, but it makes them worse. It’s like weather on steroids. It will be that way, or worse, until we replace carbon-generated power with green power.

Global WarNing

In March, 2015, concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a global average exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm). it has been 23 million years since CO2 concentrations that high have occurred on earth, according to a February,2015, article in Scientific American.

Every year, 40 billion tons of carbon emissions are pumped into our atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. 98% of the world’s scientists agree that coal, oil, and gas emissions underlie the rapid buildup of CO2 in the air, and the rapid advancement of global warming. Reaching 400 ppm worldwide should act as a global warning of what may lie ahead for mankind if we do not quickly make the switch from a fossil fuel-powered world to wind, solar, and other renewable power sources.

Here are some of the changes we can expect if we don’t change our ways:

Progressively hotter world.  Our planet will continue to get hotter and hotter. According to NOAA, over the last 40 years land temperatures globally have increased at the rate of 0.5°F (0.28°C) per decade. Temperature increases have doubled in the last 50 years over the rate of increase of the prior 50 years. Global warming is speeding up.

 Accelerating Sea Level Rise. According to National Geographic, sea level rise is occurring twice as fast as it did before 1990. The new speeded up rate of increase is 1.4″ (35mm) every 10 years, a 1 ft. (305mm) rise by the end of the century. That’s enough to flood out low lying coastal cities such as Miami and make lower Manhattan and other east coast cities vulnerable to major flooding from storm surges. Venice, Italy, and many atolls could become uninhabitable.

Melting ice sheets. Glaciers and the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting at a record pace. Global warming is also warming the ocean. The warmer water gets, the more it expands. Both ice melt water and warm water expansion are contributing to sea level rise.

Acid oceans. The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more and more CO2 from the atmosphere. The higher acid content dissolves the calcium carbonate in shellfish shells, threatening our food supply. Coral reefs that harbor great populations of food fish are dying as the acid in the ocean water attacks the carbonate in the coral.

Heat waves and drought. Scientists project more and longer heat waves and droughts not only in arid regions but in grain-growing areas such as the American Midwest and vast areas of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Extreme weather events. Meteorologists predict bigger hurricanes and storm surges, stronger tornadoes, heavier rainfall, and more massive flooding, as well as prolonged heat waves and droughts. Everything we have now on steroids. More and larger wildfires and shrinking ground water supplies are also on the menu.

Can we reverse this gloomy trend? Every time a manufacturing plant installs rooftop panels and converts from fossil fuel power to solar power, we take a step forward. Every time a new wind farm replaces a coal-fired power plant, we take a step forward. We hope to see more and more steps forward as the world gradually weans itself off fossil fuels and converts to green power. When the CO2 ppm drops below 400 we’ll know we’re headed in the right direction.


Can a Nepal-Strength Quake Hit The US?

As reported by all major news organizations, a Magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near Nepal’s capital, Katmandu, on April 25, 2015, taking more than 6,000 lives, demolishing buildings, and triggering avalanches that killed eighteen mountain climbers on Mt. Everest. Casualties and property damage from the quake were also reported by India, China, and Bangladesh.

The Nepal quake resulted from a major thrust fault rupture where the Indian Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. This is one of the world’s most seismically active areas. In 2005, a Magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Kashmir on the same fault system triggered massive landslides that buried villages and killed 75,000 people.

Can a quake of equivalent strength hit the US? The answer is yes if you live on the west coast; no, not that strong, if you live along the eastern seaboard; and yes if you live near the New Madrid fault in the middle of the country.

A joint study by USGS, the California Geological Survey, and FEMA, published in April, 2015, indicates that more than 143 million Americans in 48 states live where damaging earthquakes can occur. That’s nearly half the US population, and double the estimate published by USGS 20 years ago. The study was based on an analysis of the newly published National Seismic Hazards Map. Those conclusions appear to be supported by a number of other recently released USGS studies.

One recent study pinpointed the epicenter of the 2011 Virginia 5.8 earthquake that shook the ground from eastern Canada to the Gulf Coast, cracked the Washington monument, and caused damage to buildings in several states. USGS located the epicenter on a previously unknown fault near Quail, VA, 20 miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Quail Fault is only 6 miles long, but may connect deep underground with other fault lines in the region. 

New data indicate that the New Madrid Seismic Zone, running through several Southern and Midwestern states, could reactivate and produce an earthquake in the M8.0 range, similar to the one that struck the region in 1811-1812. An earthquake of that strength on any of the 3 fault lines that make up the New Madrid Seismic Zone has the potential for inflicting great damage on parts of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is believed to be contributing to swarms of earthquakes in several states. When fracking operators retrieve the chemical solution used to extract oil from deep shale deposits, they dispose of the waste by injecting it into deep wells. This deep injection lubricates dormant fault lines, causing slippage and earth movement. Oklahoma in particular has seen a great upswing in fracking-induced quakes. Oklahoma had 585 earthquakes of Magnitude 3.0 or higher in 2014. The state is on track for 800 such earthquakes in 2015. Prior to fracking, Oklahoma averaged 3 quakes a year.

On the US west coast, seismologists have been predicting an 8.0 on the San Andreas and up to a 9.3 on the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. And now, a new analysis of a minor fault line has raised some concerns. The Ventura fault, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, runs from the Santa Barbara Channel seafloor, through the city of Ventura, connecting deep underground with other fault lines that run along the foothills of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. Researchers believe a rupture on that fault could produce a Magnitude 8.0 quake that would inflict great damage on millions of people in 5 Southern California counties.

The best way to protect against a mega earthquake is to make sure the structures where you live and work are built to the latest earthquake standards. And make sure there are no heavy objects on walls or high shelves that can fly loose and injure you. Earthquakes are unpredictable. Even if you live where they seldom occur, it’s best to be prepared.