Climate clippings 24

I’ve been on holidays for a bit. Here are some links that I saved from a few hours spent on my daughter’s computer last week by checking some of the usual sources. In the next few days I’ll check the feeds and see whether there are more links to share.

E10 debacle puts the brakes on biofuels in Germany

German motorists have shown uncommonly good sense by not buying the biofuel mixture E10.

The real reason, though, was confusion over which car models could use the stuff without harm. Meanwhile a study found that:

up to 69,000 square kilometers (about 27,000 square miles) of forest, pasture and wetlands would have to be cultivated as farmland to satisfy the future demand for biofuel in Europe alone. This is an area twice the size of Belgium. One consequence of such cultivation would be the release of up to 56 million tons of CO2 a year, or the equivalent of the emissions of an additional 12 million to 26 million cars on European roads.

Germany squanders chance to pioneer CO2 capture technology

That’s the headline of a recent article.

The problem is that people don’t want it. They don’t trust the process not to leak. Enabling federal legislation has allowed the states to opt out and it is anticipated that they will.

It’s not game over. The pilot project at Ketzin near Berlin will go ahead and the law is yet to be passed. However, in the long run you’d have to think this avenue of mitigation is going nowhere in Germany.

Greens will have to give way on Stuttgart redevelopment

Still on the German theme, the redevelopment of Stuttgart train station may go ahead after all.

The Greens recent success in Baden-Württemberg was partly due to Fukushima nuclear disaster. Arguably just as important, if not more so, was the vigorous campaign, bitter and at times violent, against the redevelopment of Stuttgart train station, which quickly emerged as a time bomb. But:

Cancelling the contracts would now be as expensive as the project itself. So the new coalition can either pay up to €4.5 billion for a new station — or roughly same amount for nothing at all.

At stake on the one hand are heritage values and a sizeable bunch of trees. On the other we have:

a stretch of high-speed rail to replace 160-year-old track between the city and Ulm. This corridor happens to be vital for Europe. It lies on the busy route from Paris to Munich and points east — Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest. If the long-term dream is to build a high-speed corridor linking western and eastern Europe, renovating this stretch will be unavoidable.

Green values on both sides, it seems.

Politically the path chosen by the new Greens-led Baden-Württemberg state government is to let the people vote on the issue. You would think the majority would be for proceeding.

Ozone hole has dried Australia, scientists find

The ozone hole is tending to move the weather south and the rainfall with it according to a new study. But we should be clear here, the ozone hole is only part of the story. Generally in the Southern Hemisphere the ozone hole is responsible for 10% of this southern shift. But there are regional variations and in Australia the influence is thought to be 35%.

The implication, I think, is that when the ozone hole heals, expected in 2045 to 2060, the problem won’t go away.

Ten years to save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

That’s according to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at the University of Queensland:

If we continue to release CO2 into the atmosphere at current rates, within a decade we will reach a tipping point beyond which ocean warming will occur no matter what we do, reducing the reef’s chances of survival, he told delegates at the Greenhouse 2011 conference in Cairns this week.

The reef biology is not as adaptable as we quite recently thought.

The only problem is we are not told exactly what has to be done within 10 years.

Gulf Stream could be threatened by Arctic flush

Rapid warming in the Arctic is creating a new and fast-growing pool of fresh water in the Arctic Ocean. Measuring at least 7500 cubic kilometres, it could flush into the Atlantic Ocean and slow the Gulf Stream, bringing colder winters to Europe.

That’s according to Laura de Steur of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research who is tracking the build-up of fresh water which is

mostly coming from melting permafrost and rising rainfall, which is increasing flows in Siberian rivers that drain into the Arctic, such as the Ob and Yenisei. More comes from melting sea ice.

Hansen on “Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications.”

Hansen et al have posted a new draft paper on the earth’s energy balance.

The paper is fundamentally an explanation of why Hansen and company think we need to reduce emissions to 350ppm to achieve an appropriate global energy balance. As it is they think the temperature will continue to rise during the next decade. On sea level rise, thermal expansion is likely to increase and the ice melt will accelerate.

The paper goes into some length about the difficulties of measuring such things as the effect of aerosols, net energy balance and the heat content of oceans.

This story was courtesy of Climate Progress where, unusually, Joe Romm fails to appreciate the main point of the paper.

Ruddimann on early land use

William Ruddimann has long been interested in the notion that the land use associated with agriculture had an effect on the climate. During a ‘normal’ interglacial the temperature gradually reduces and then slides into a new ice age. The question is whether human activity associated with land clearing and rice growing produced enough emissions to counteract this effect and that is what kept the temperature steady during the Holocene.

Ruddimann some years ago suggested that these factors may be the major story, but estimates of land use indicated that this effect was insufficient. Now the thought is that those land use assumptions were wrong. They were based on a constant per capita land use formula. New evidence indicates that the more modern land use is more efficient and is a fraction of the earlier in per capita terms. Nothing is certain but the old theory has been dusted off.

98 thoughts on “Climate clippings 24”

  1. Systems thinking, as opposed to its touchy-feely cousins, actually has some uses. But it still relies on reductionism to tease out what the elements of the system are. The behaviour of systems follows their structure. If you get the structure of your model wrong, your conclusions will also be wrong.

    Scientists who measure ocean temperatures, fiddle with peat or study cell division in wheat are not fools lacking insight. They’ve understood the biggest picture science has: that reductionism is a necessary precondition for reliable holism.

  2. Thanks Brian – Ive long held the view that biofuel is a major deadend for climate change action, and food security for that matter.

  3. Bian,
    Thanks for that, it confirmed that the US corn to biofuel program is not the only scam on the planet.
    I run my car on 10% ethanol, mainly because it is lower cost.
    I think the stuff about compatability is bullshit actually.

    It’s not as though there are not processes available that can utilise biological stuff without consequences for food production.
    Nothing comes free.
    Next we will have the Fukishima Aplogists saying that waste to energhy is worse than nukes.

  4. I’m really suspicious of that “69,000 km2” figure needed to make biofuel. What’s the foodstock? Is the reporter naively assuming corn-biofuel which is one of the most stupid and subsidized sources of the stuff? Sugar cane seems to be better on almost every metric.

  5. While Huggy and I rarely agree, he does have a point on biofuel arguments. Too often they are reduced to questions over corn.

    It seems entirely plausible that waste biomass or even algae might well be feasible as a feedstock for niche energy products like ethanol, butanol, biodiesel etc in usages where there simply was no good alternative to a liquid fuel.

    It’s worth noting that few people question the ecosystem footprint of crops like sugar cane, tea, tobacco, or other foodcrops turned into alcohol. Before people making swingeing claims about how crazy trying to raise ethanol from corn to power the first world’s cars is (and let’s be clear, it is stupid), they ought to ask similar questions about comparable low value uses of land. Corn from ethanol is at least, on balance, energy positive, albeit weakly so, (and sugar cane derived ethanol less weakly so). You can’t say that about raising corn for HFCS, or using it in packaging. Should we be using land to raise tobacco or cattle if we are bothered about the state of staple food markets or potable water? I don’t think so.

    We should of course be trying to reduce the miles done in vehicles running on liquid fuels, and not merely because of sustainability either. Yet some of the attack on biofuels does sound suspiciously like special pleading with wedge on behalf of the fossil hydrocarbon merchants.

  6. The E10 debarcle in Europe is a huge loss for everyone, and should not in anyway be confused with Australian E10 or Brazillian E blends.

    I’ve typed a detailed response here twice but have lost both to this stupid laptop keypad which occaisionally ejects from the thread loosing the text in the process, so I am not going to type it again. Suffice it to say that there is absolutely no correlation between Australian E10 which is almost entirely derived from the cultivation of sugar cane with the US corn Ethanol or the European E10 product.

  7. I understand that it is not only land availability that is a problem with biogfuels vs food but also na question of post harvest losses.
    The provision of simple low cost storage for grains would be of immense benefit in many countries; for example.
    I was told this morning by a Japanese visitor that Japan will never build another nuke (Sorry Fran) but that it will go gangbusters on waste to energy power generation and some rather neat energy efficiency measures.
    So long as most of the waste is of biological origin there is no greenhouse consequence in fact it is renewable.
    Now all we have to do is come to grips with urine collecting toilets and we can do ammonia as a fuel–wastewater-treatment
    Since we now wee about 7 billion litres of wee into the sea every day it would seem to be a rather large resource. Fill Sydney harbour in a week or so.
    Guaranteed no meltdowns or radiation.

  8. BilB @ 9, Gore’s book Our Choice has quite a comprehensive chapter on biofuels. I can’t do it justice here but he has a table of the yield in gallons of biofuels per acre. Corn yields 400 and sugercane 650. He also talks about ‘second generation’ sources which don’t need agricultural land and have higher yields. He cites switch grass (1000 gallons per acre) and miscanthus (1250). He says they cost less CO2 to produce and help to fix carbon in the soil while growing.

    Oil palm yields 610 gallons per acre, rapeseed 122, peanuts 109, sunflowers 98 and soybeans only 46 Those are all sources of biodiesel.

    I googled and came up with a similar graph here (scroll down).

    He reckons biofuel from corn is straight out a mistake.

    Amongst the newer technologies he cites algae as yielding up to 5000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year.

    So I’m not sure what the Europeans are growing, but if it is rapeseed or soybeans or the like it’s a disgrace for ostensibly intelligent people.

  9. Brian

    One of the other benefits of miscanthus and panicum (switchgrass) is that they are coppiced crops meaning that the roots — which can go 3-5m into the soil remain there. They can also prevent leaching of excess fertiliser beyond their perimeter and provide windbreaks. Herbivores can feed on them and of course what remains after biofuel has been extracted can either be combusted to operate a biomass plant or returned to the soil.

    They can also be raised on marginal land that would not normally support other crops.

    I don’t for a moment suggest that such crops are a sufficient answer to the demand for oil — but they could well play a marginally useful role as a niche fuel source or as a transition fuel from fossil oil to something else.

    As to algae, as you know, I think Co2 biosequestration may be a more useful thing than fuel. Unless petroleum becomes a lot more expensive I don’t see the economics of this stacking up, and of course, if it did become that expensive, there would still be a question about the capacity of the planet’s people to afford to use oil with such profligacy.

  10. I don’t get it, Brian. How can ozone affect the weather? It’s just an extra oxygen atom isn’t it? What is the transmission mechanism?

  11. Huggy said:

    I was told this morning by a Japanese visitor that Japan will never build another nuke (Sorry Fran) but that it will go gangbusters on waste to energy power generation and some rather neat energy efficiency measures.

    Don’t apologise. If the Japanese can find a way of living acceptably without building another nuke or contributing directly or indirectly to further GHG accretion you won’t see tears from me. I’m not pro-nuclear. I’m pro-“cleanular” 😉

    Show me something else that works better, all things considered and I’m for that wherever that is true.

  12. Can that last comment. I’ve found an explanation. It is because ozone absorbs infra-red and heats up the stratosphere.

    So, does that make the ozone hole a good thing (for mitigating climate change)?

  13. I’m disappointed, Brian, that you have taken the headline and run with it. For starters I suggest that you phone Hans Scholz at Pioneer Cane and get the real cane ethanol figures from someone who is up to his neck in it.

    On corn ethanol the disaster of it is that the corn farmers are stuck in their European origin farm practices and cannot change. Worse, the Ethanol distillation industry has on developed based on those original poor practices. What does this mean? US corn farmers are using traditional cultivation which involves complete turnover of the soil. The alternative is to use non tilled seed drilling techniques which requires only the seed furrow to be ploughed and a small area either side to be disturbed. The benefit: better soil preservation, less energy required, less fertilizer required, and there is no requirement to plough in the stover to replenish the soil as the next harvests furrow is offset from the last. The consequence of this is that the corn stover biomass is then available to use as the energy source for the Ethanol distillation instead of the fossil fuel gass that is now used. By far the largest energy content in the corn ethanol production is the distillation energy. Because the stover has not been available to use by the distillers the entire industry has been built up on the consumption of fossil fuel gass, and the prospect of changing that at this stage is small.

    Further more, hat tip to Robert Merkel, SAAB, prior to their collapse had been developing an E85 9 litre commercial engine which would have been suitable for powering most of the machinery required to cultivate corn, cane, switch grass, palm, rape seed, or any other biofuel source. The ramification being that in the so doing there would be no significant fossil fuel content in the biofuel end product.

    As far as Europe is concerned, their farmland has been in idle mode for decades. There is finally a use for much of their highly subsidised farming capacity for a good purpose. The function of the subsidies has been the preservation of the open land space preventing its being consumed by urban sprawl. Utilising a percentage of that, already cultivated land space, for the production of biofuels is good environmental management. I suspect that the basis of the “independent” studies is that European biofuels were based on the clearing of land to make way for more farming, rather than better use of already cultivated land.

    On palm oil I suggest you go to Robert Rapier’s website and scroll back a few pages to his more recent expose on palm oil where he concludes that under the right conditions it is ok. It is not ok for big business or governments to elbow aside traditional land owners to plant huge areas of monoculture biofuel crop, but it is ok where local people commit a share of their land to the production of palm in amoungst their food crops, for a balanced food and export income improved existence.

    If you cannot get Hans on the phone then here are some of the figures that he gave me for their area in the Burdekin.

    For an average minimal effort farmer 9,500 litres per hectare.
    For an energetic use all methods farmer 12,500 litres per hectare

    Field costs (all) less that 5% of yield value.

    now compare that to

    “Corn yields 400 and sugercane 650”

    and reconcile the difference.

    The last figure for Ethanol per Brazillian hectare that I had was 7000.

  14. I&U @ 15, I don’t understand it completely, but I think the idea is that the heating of the stratosphere draws in the weather circulation systems into a tighter circle around the poles, which pulls the mid-latitude systems further south and has some impact on the tropics. But I’d assume that the heating at the tropics which expand the tropical circulation system would be the dominant effect in the mid-latitude systems.

    I think the ozone hole has the effect of accelerating climate effects that were forecast over the next half century. But its effect will now no doubt be incorporated in the models for forecasts that will appear in the next IPCC report. After the ozone hole heals those effects will wash out.

    BilB I don’t try to keep up with mitigation issues as much as the basic causes of climate change. So don’t expect too much of me. There are areas where you clearly know more than I do.

  15. Sorry, Brian, I had the name wrong. Rod Shultz

    Contact Person: Rod Schultz
    Phone: 07 47892111
    Fax: 07 47835136

    Give him a call. As one farmer to another I’m sure you would enjoy the conversation, and have a lot to report back in your usual faithfully quantitative method. Ask him about haow they were affected by the floods. Also you would be interested to learn how the product yield is divided.

  16. As an aside, one advantage of biofuel crops is that they cannot be manipulated by Woolworths or Coles. That’s got to be burning a hole in their egos.

  17. Brian @17,

    It’s a bit counterintuitive though, isn’t it? Ozone is a greenhouse gas, but an ozone hole has a similar effect to higher CO2 concentrations? Strange.

  18. BilB @ 18, I’m a bit tempted to ring Herr Schultz. It might close a circle. As a university student I spent part of a summer picking tobacco at a place called Dalbeg up the Burdekin River. The industry was on its last legs at the time.

    There were 6 of us, from memory, working for a German farmer. There was only one German farmer in the district, along with, I think two ‘Australians’ and the rest Italians. Can’t remember the name but Rod could be his son.

    I’d be interested in what the prospects are for the industry and how it performs in comparison to Brazil.

    Gore is positive about ethanol from sugar in Brazil, which is rain fed. He’s partly critical of corn in the US because of how much water it uses.

    He has a guilty conscience about it because he promoted the industry in the 80s and 90s and used his casting vote to start a national project in 1994.

  19. Gore need not feel guilty. How an industry expresses itself is not necessarily the responsibility of the proposers. Having said that I wonder who signed off on the introduction of cane toads. Corn ethanol farming and production techniques can be improved, and ultimately will have to. I’m not so sure about the success of evicting the toads.

    Here is some preliminary info on palm oil

    “The high oil yield of oil palm trees (as high as 7,250 liters per hectare per year) has made it a common cooking ingredient in southeast Asia and the tropical belt of Africa”

    Do give Rod a call. He is a very genuine guy with the most up to date information on the Australian Ethanol industry who will give it to you straight. And it is important to get the facts right if the European kaffuffle is used to taint the use of E10 globally.

  20. International Energy Agency now believes we either hit peak oil back back in 2006, or have hit it now. Time to change, any way you slice it, whether or not you accept the science on AGW.

    Its that simple.

  21. In 2007 the average Australian car consumed about 1500 litres/yr. So @ 10,000 litres per hectare a hectare would support about 7 cars if they were run on E100. If we were talking small plug in hybrids we are talking about over 70.
    My take is that biofuel will become important once we are trying to get emissions below say 10% of current value.

  22. John D, that’s useful figuring. I’ve often wondered how big a paddock a wheat farmer would have to put aside to generate biofuel to work the rest. It would be the modern equivalent of a horse paddock.

    Fran thanks for the link @ 1. One small point. I’d need to check to be sure that I’ve remembered rightly, but I think the original Gaia concept came from the question of how you identify whether there is life on a body like the moon or Mars. One way would be to find the life.

    Lovelock realised that with life you would always have a chemically dynamic atmosphere, so you don’t actually have to find the life. This led him to reflect on the relationship between the organic and the inorganic in a system that features life.

    That’s as I recall it.

  23. BilB, on Germany and biofuels, I do know that Germany is a net food importer. What I don’t know is whether that means there is no unused or underused farm land.

  24. Coming from a cane growing area, in my opinion sugar cane has a really bad effect on the natural environment. The pesti/herbicides and the soil degradation and the fertilisation really take their toll on the ecosystem.

    The state premier of BaWue, Kretschman said a couple off days ago to the big auto manufacturers here that in the future we don’t need more cars we need more and better transportation concepts.

    Looking forward to the day when we don’t, just simply don’t, have as many cars.

  25. I get the feeling from people in research on algal production of hydrocarbons, that they really won’t take off until we run out of oil, and that when they do take off it will be for production of plastics etc which depend on hydrocarbons, rather than wastefully burning it for fuel.

    Regardless of whether you think we’ll find alternative sources of hydrocarbon, we definitely won’t be using them for transport.

  26. Jess @28,

    Agreed. Photosynthesis is a really, really inefficient way of harvesting solar energy.

  27. I disagree with you on that, Jess. As we move forward here you will see a slow transition towards local fuel manufacture. The use of the fuels will depend entirely upon what is most readily available in each area. Sewerage treatment centres will become major fuel manufacturers providing both liquid fuels via algae and methane gas from other parts of their operation. Even local councils will become energy providers supplying methane and ethanol from digesters at their local refuse centres.

    The most solid trend will be towards all electric cars for personal transportation, but along the way towards that goal will be the plug in hybrides which will be providing the most flexible solution for the next 20 years.

    So it is right, I believe, to say that we will not be replacing oil will bio fuels. Biofuels will be an important part of the future energy transition to a clean energy world, and driven both by Global Warming Concerns and Declining oil availability.

    Production of fertilizers from alternative sources poses a big question.

  28. BilB: You’ve probably got a better feel for this than I do, but what’s the return on energy for biofuels (i.e. how many units of energy do we get back per unit of energy that we put in)? Is there a nice single number for that?

    As an aside, did anyone see the bit on Catalyst about oil demand – the IECA’s (or whatever the acronym is) graph of where our oil will come from with the huge ‘undiscovered’ oil portion propping up their projected ‘robust growth’ was pretty funny.

  29. Brian, that weather system around antarctica that influences Vic weather is the Southern Annular Mode, (SAM). Vic Dept of Primary Industries has some nifty animations and BOM is as usual solid.

  30. There is no single figure, Jess, as every bio fuel is specific to its situation as is the economics of each. My observation is that cane ethanol and palm oil are by far the most economic fuels, in current volume production, from all view points. The problem with getting any real feel for energy returns is that the internet has been flooded with negative information put forward by those who oppose corn ethanol in the US, and this “information” is missinterpreted as being represetative for all bio fuels.

    Let Brian phone Rod Schultz and then we will get his audit for Australian cane ethanol. That way there will be one reputably qualified cornerstone from which to build an understanding of what is real, so that we can seperate the fiction from the facts.

  31. There are some entertaining animations there, Dylwah. To really understand what is going on you really need to see it in 3 dimensions. The best way to visualise the atmosphere is to observe a large pot of water on a medium size burner on a stove. When the water approaches boiling you can see the convection process that circulates our atmosphere with the centre of the pot being the equator and the perimeter being the zone between the antarctic and Australia. Turning up the heat will give a representation of global warming, and moving the pot off centre one way or the other will represent the winter and summer oscillation. if you were able to rotate the pot as all of this was happening then you would start to see some of the other effects that make weather work.

    I just might do the experiment myself for my daughter, I might even try injecting some dye with a needle to see what else can be learned.

  32. BillB @ 33 I thought it might be a bit difficult to boil it down to one figure, which was my reason for asking. I’ll be interested to hear what Brian learns.

    No pressure Brian…

    BillB @ 34 Remember that your convecting pot is also rotating. A better way to do it is to put your pot on a record player, spin it up until all the water is rotating at the same rate as the pot (takes about 5 mins), and then stick a dyed ice cube in the water to simulate a buoyancy source. You’ll get lots of nice weather patterns that way. I’ve done this with primary school students and they loved it.

  33. Yeah, I saw the Catalyst thing, Jess. The IEA graph had three separate “sources” for oil that were well into “making shit up” territory – not just the as-yet undiscovered oil, as I reckon they’ve over-estimated the not yet developed and the gas to liquid as well. Wildly optimistic, but I suppose they don’t want to scare the children …

  34. Actually, Jess, taking your method and my engineering, it becomes a rotating pan on a central shaft with the outer rim of the pan over a bunsen burner to represent the sun’s heating, and your dyed ice block in the centre of the pan to achieve the cooling. This does not faithfully represent the air’s expansion/cooling/loss of density feature but it may achieved the Hadley cell circulation due to the more dense water flowing rimwards on the bottom of the pan from the ice block drawing some of the top flow water down before it gets to the central ice block.

    It sounds like a longweekend experiment.

  35. BillB: We do an experiment with the third year physics students here at the ANU in a 2m wide rotating table, where we have a central copper cylinder in the middle of the table. We fill the outer part of the table and spin it up to solid body rotation, then put hot water in the central cylinder, which causes the outer body to convect and sets up a series of vortices whose wavelength is related to the rate of rotation.

    You can see some of the cool experiments with rotating tables and instability in geophysical flows here, along with a bunch of other bits and pieces.

  36. P.S. You can also see some of the analogue lava flows in that last link, which is what I’m doing for my PhD if anyone’s interested.

  37. P.S. The camera in that video is mounted above the tank and is rotating with the table. The rotation is switched off at the end when you start to see the water rotate quickly.

  38. Most of Australia is unlikely to make any practical contribution to future world food supply. A saltwater based algae to fuel system could become important some time in the future. Bio fuels may not be as limited as we are currently thinking.

  39. @ David: yep, well it’s a self-organising unstable flow, so it really has quite a bit to do with chaos theory. Self organisation is a pretty neat phenomenon, and certainly one that draws me to earth science in particular.

    Simple physics giving complex and beautiful results – the epitome of elegance really.

  40. Brian,
    About horse paddock, sorry but there is no equivalence; horses require massive inputs of oaten hay as well as their “paddock” in order to do useful work. This was the major limitation on agriculture in the 19th century.
    The average global insolation is about 1 kW/m2 the conversion efficiency for photosynthesis is a few % (say 4%) the conversion of biomass to fuel is say 10% and the conversion of fuel to work in a motor car is say 40%. Now multiply these numbers together .04X.1X.4 = 0.2% of the solar energy converted to work. Don’t even think about it> Biofuels are bullshit – UNLESS you can convert with an energy efficiency of >10% – some algal entities will do this. That’s how we got the oil in the first place – only took a few million years to accumulate and we have used most of it up in 100 years.

  41. I’m not sure we can say that “wer have used most of it up in 100 years” but Huggys point is well taken. You only have to reflect on how many years worth of carboniferous era production of hydrocarbons the world consumes in a single year — I seem to recall a figure of about 400 years, to see the problem we are going to have living sustainably (i.e. from metaphorical hand to mouth) on photosynthetic fuels. If the 400-year figure is accurate, then we have to harvest globally about 400 years worth of solar energy in a single year.

    If we were to ape one of those cooking shows, we’ve pointed to our “solar/biomass” fuel stores and said “here’s a planet’s worth that we prepared earlier over 80 million years”.

  42. What I am intrigued with, Jess, is the vertical relationship with regards air flow and the dynamics that drive the high and low air pressure systems. It is all, clearly, driven by heat as with out that the air has no reason to circulate. A spinning orb in deep space might have an atmosphere that would co-rotate with the body and bulge outward with the centrifuge. But in the presence of a heat source the whole thing becomes very dynamic. The are so many apparent contradictions with weather. For instance low pressure systems are associated with cold weather when they are in fact caused by warm air rising. High pressure systems are air from the upper atmosphere (cold) falling and yet they are associated with hot weather. On their own high pressure systems should not occur as there is little influence to cause high altitude low density air to fall. So it takes heat to cause air to rise to pull air at the surface away from an area to induce air at altitude to fall thereby forming a circulation. Now you would think that highs and lows would form sets and operate in unison, but no. Low pressure systems traverse westward while high pressure systems traverse eastward making stability periodic. It is all really fascinating.

  43. @BilbB, is that due to the wind direction of each system (in the same direction as the earth’s rotation ie E to W for southern hemisphere Low Pressure systems and reverse for HP)?

  44. @BillB It really has to do with the way that an Ekman layer works.

    In the body of a fluid, when you have what’s called geostrophic flow, you end up with a balange between the Coriolis force and pressure force (which is why wind travels along the isobars in meteorological maps).

    However, near the earth’s surface you have frictional effects (since the surface of the earth doesn’t move). Because you add this frictional force to the mix, to maintain balance the flow in this small frictional layer near the earth’s surface around a low pressure system must spiral inwards (or outwards from a high pressure system). This is called Ekman transport, and the frictional layer near the earth’s surface is called an Ekman layer.

    Mass balance then means that you have to have a rising flow over the low pressure system to compensate for the fluid arriving at the centre through the Ekman layer, and this rising fluid gives clouds and rainfall: hence our storms associated with cyclonic conditions around a low pressure system. Correspondingly, because the Ekman transport near a high pressure system is outwards, you have to have sinking air at the centre, which is why we get clear skies. It’s also why high pressure systems in the Artic are so dammed cold.

    The way that convection feeds back into rotation is that the earth’s atmosphere (and ocean) is essentially a shallow, rotating fluid mass. In such systems, a property called potential vorticity (which I’ll denote P.V.) is conserved – this is a result of a series of assumptions about how the fluid can behave in a shallow layer. The potential vorticity is defined to be the sum of the Coriolis frequency f, and the relative vorticity z, divided by the depth of the fluid, h.

    In essence: P.V. = (f + z)/h

    The Coriolis frequency is dependent on latitude – it’s zero at the equator and equal to the frequency of the earth’s rotation at the poles. The relative vorticity is the rotation of a parcel of fluid relative to someone rotating with the earth (i.e. the residual left over once you remove the Coriolis rotation). The point is that the ratio given above is constant for a given column of fluid – if you change one part of it you have to change something else to compensate for it.

    We can change the Coriolis frequency by changing latitude, and the height of the fluid by passing over a mountain range for example. One interesting example of this balance is the slight southwards blip in the Gulf Stream Current as it passes over the mid-Atlantic ridge – since h decreases it has to detour southwards to increase its Coriolis frequency f so that the P.V. remains constant.

    To get a feel for how this works with convection in the mix, imagine a column of air in the atmosphere, being carried along with the atmospheric flow along a line of latitude so that the Coriolis parameter f is constant.

    A high pressure system compresses our column of air, and the height of the column (h) decreases. Since the Coriolis frequency (f) is constant, the relative rotation of the flow (z) has to increase. As you increase the compression, the relative rotation increases. Obviously you can only compress a column of air so far (i.e. once you’ve compressed it to its original depth you’re done), so this puts an upper limit on how fast you can spin up high pressure systems.

    In contrast, a low pressure system has no such limit – it stretches out a fluid, increasing h, so z must decrease to compensate. Now z will be negative but this just means that it’s spinning in the opposite direction to f, with more negative z meaning faster spin. Since our column of air can be lengthened a lot more than it can be compressed, we can in theory spin faster and faster. So low pressure systems can have much more energy than the high pressure ones.

    Sorry, it’s a bit hard to explain Ekman pumping and PV in a comment. 🙁 I’ll find some links if I have time, but most of this stuff is on Wikipedia.

  45. @ BilB Also, be careful when you talk about convection being solely about hot air rising – this is the case near the tropics, but in the mid-latitudes the mechanisms I discussed above are much more important.

    This is simply because the Coriolis force is non-existent in the tropics, and strongest at the poles, so you get convection-driven Hadley cells at the equator, but these are much weaker (I think they’re called Fresnel cells? Don’t quote me through) in the mid-latitudes, where rotation and barotropic instability becomes much more important for the development of high and low pressure systems.

  46. @ BilB Also, be careful when you talk about convection being solely about hot air rising – this is the case near the tropics, but in the mid-latitudes the mechanisms I discussed above are much more important.

    This is simply because the Coriolis force is non-existent in the tropics, and strongest at the poles, so you get convection-driven Hadley cells at the equator, but these are much weaker (I think they’re called Fresnel cells? Don’t quote me through) in the mid-latitudes, where rotation and barotropic instability becomes much more important for the development of high and low pressure systems.

  47. About 8 years ago I moved to the Sunshine Coast in Qld and bought a house on the Old Bruce Highway on the section between Nambour and Cooroy where the new highway parallels the old. The massive amount of heavy vehicle traffic the passes daily caused me to ponder the *advantages* of road v rail for long distance transport. Surely the emissions from rail would be much lower than road.

  48. Lindsay, you are of course quite right. The trouble is in the labour involved in handling, and in the invisible subsidy for road transport because roads are provided as a public good while rail has to pay its way (other than subsidised passenger services). You load a truck at one end and unload it at the other, while with rail you load a truck, it takes it to the train, it’s loaded on the train and transported to the rail freight depot, where it’s unloaded onto a truck and then unloaded again at the final destination. The economics of labour costs vs fuel costs mean that truck transport is king. There are of course a large number of goods where handling=spoilage. Consider whether, if you were moving house interstate, you’d want your furniture handled four times rather than the usual twice. Nonetheless, removal of the hidden subsidies for road transport would even up the score a lot. Many goods carried by road can be containerised, minimising handling costs for transhipment to rail. Some goods, such as new cars, suffer less damage in rail shipment than by road…

  49. Rail would become a lot more attractive if a truck was able to run along the rails as well the road. Gets rid of the problem mentioned by HAL900. There is no technical reason why not but tunnels etc. would limit some truck dimensions. Problem might be a mindset that says railways are there to run long trains with a very big gap between them. Running trucks would require a different way of operating.
    Running diesel electric trucks along rail lines comes with a number of attractions:
    1 Could reduce emissions on the electrified parts of the line.
    2. Avoids the frequent loading/unloading issue.
    3. Could be automatic – so no more accidents involving very tired truck drivers.

  50. Jess @ 58, I think it’s Ferrel rather than Fresnel. One thing to do is to search Google images with some of the terms, such as Hadley cells. People struggle to illustrate a three dimensional dynamic effect in a two dimensional static image. Here’s two I found. The first illustrates the concept of expansion of the tropics, especially Hadley circulation. The second shows the Hadley, Ferrel and Polar cells with the associated winds and pressure systems.

  51. Hi Brian. Thanks for the correction – serves me right to stick stuff in off the top of my head. I’m clearly getting confused with Fresnel near-field diffraction.

    I think more generally that it’s pretty difficult to get an intuitive feel for what rotation does to atmospheric circulation without a serious dose of mathematics, since the results are rather difficult to think about in non-mathematical terms. Simple experiments like the ones that I linked to above can help through.

    It’s also why simplistic models for atmospheric evolution as peddled by Pilmer et al make me laugh. The man might be a professor of geology but he probably would have failed first year mathematics. I don’t even see how he gets over the first hurdle to understanding climate science.

  52. Hal9000, An 18 wheeler fully loaded does the same road damage as 9,600 cars. That would more than support your case that heavy road transport is subsidised.
    There’s a 9MB pdf linked to which is merely a report to congress asserting the same figures.

    It would be great if some clever person here could use those figures to come up with a subsidy figure for Australian road transport.

  53. Thanks guys. Yes the three dimensional relationship is a complex one, but it is important that we start to develop a general understanding of how this all works. Our perceptions of climate are largely dominated by 2 dimensional observations of how the winds and clouds operate at the surface, while failing to connect the very large dots. What I mean by that is that an intense tropical low will give rise to a very large high pressure system soon after somewhere south (or north) with the size being proportional to the intensity of the low. The Victorian fires were created by a low pressure system somewhere in the tropics, but what caused the winds to be so intense. The answer is probably connected to the position of the high at that time of year which in summer would normally be further south (with the tilt of the earth’s axis). For some reason that air mass decended prematurely perhaps concentrating the flow thereby giving rise to the hot high velocity winds. Or something.

    What happens high up is what sets the stage for what will play out at the surface. This is where a large part of the mystery lies. Also the interplay of atmospheric moisture with the energy low pressure systems. Does a higher moisture content cause higher velocity air flows as the latent heat of the moisture is transfered to the surrounding air, and if so does this propel the air mass higher into the atmosphere? From Brian’s first link there is a hint that there are several circulation possibilities from the tropics. It is all very interesting and I think that we would all benefit from a well created animation of how these flows actually appear when you take away the atmosphere’s cloak of invisibility. At present the only way that we can see this is when atmospheric moisture becomes visible, and even then time hides the real picture as some of the time lapse images of air flows over mountains and the passage of gravity waves reveal.

  54. SG @ 65. What’s really funny about the government repot from the 70s is the efforts that truckies will go to to bypass weighing stations. Sounds like it might be easier just to remove them entirely. 🙂

  55. Jess, I remember someone once claimed (rather unkindly) that the reason many people did geology was because they lacked the mathematical ability to balance their cheque book … Plimer obviously falls into that class.

    I can’t see that being the case these days, btw.

  56. John D – the ideal solution would be to have trucks that run on rails that could be linked into a train and then decoupled at a point close to the destination. That way no-one other than the train drivers would have to do the long haul – potentially a major labour saving as well as emissions, safety etc.

  57. DI(nr): Well, it’s probably not untrue.

    I was the first undergraduate in several years (maybe a decade or two) at my university to study maths and geology simultaneously. The timetable clashes were horrendous because the timetablers just assumed that no one ever wanted to study that particular combination of subjects. Fortunately I had some very accommodating geology professors who bent over backwards to sort things out, but it made sorting courses very slow every year.

    Makes you worry about projections for peak oil based on ‘geological speculation’ though, if my experience is typical.

  58. Hal9000: A lot of the weight in railcars goes into making them strong enough to withstand the stresses being transmitted from adjacent cars. One of the skills required of iron ore train drivers is avoiding breaking the train by trying to accelerate too fast. (Admittedly we are talking about trains carrying 25,000 tonnes of ore in one go.)
    You may have a much better system if you could use modern control technology to allow trucks to travel unconnected. (Not sure what spacing is required for safe operation.) These days there is no particular need for a driver. One of the advantages of rail is that you don’t need particularly sophisticated controls to operate unmanned.
    Another advantage is that it becomes easy for a single truck to enter or leave the rail line – So the truck doesn’t have to go to train assembly points etc.

  59. John D, you’d have to have automatic piloting on the rail-trucks. I wouldn’t trust truck drivers not to push the speed barrier a little too far. This is all feasible, of course. The trouble is you’re still looking at one driver per trailer, whereas in a train…

    At any event, creativity hasn’t been the Australian rail sector’s strong point since they invented bulk carrier systems.

  60. Firstly, its important to remember that about 50% of kilometres travelled by trucks is within cities, for example transporting from frieght terminals to supermarkets. This load could not be easily substituted to rail, without an absolutely huge proliferation of rail networks.

    It would be great if some clever person here could use those figures to come up with a subsidy figure for Australian road transport.

    What kind of figure are you imagining? Something like this?:

    (Cost of road maintainence * percentage of road damage caused by road transport) – contribution of road transport to funding of road maintainence

  61. Fmark, so you’re saying that 50% of all truck miles are clocked up on the highways. A shameful figure, surely? Reducing that figure to, say, 20% would be a huge saving in fuel, emissions, road wear and safety, I’d be confident in saying. It would also be interesting to see what destinations those trucks are going to and where they’re coming from, in relation to rail infrastructure. A lot of trucks roar up and down the deteriorating New England and Newell highways carrying loads destined for and coming from the industrial areas of capital cities that are richly serviced with rail loading facilities already. I’d reckon, although without direct evidence, that the main issue is that trucks compete with rail on cost, and that the main factor in road transport cost competitiveness is the hidden subsidy.

    Malcolm Fraser tried to get road transport to pay its way and had to back down when the truckies blockaded the Hume Highway back in the early 80s. Nothing has changed since.

  62. If you were going to talk about externalities associated with heavy vehicle transport, one woukd have to throw in road trauma to all other road users occasioned directly or indirectly by heavy vehicles. Fuel cost arising from more corwoded roads etc.

    That would be hard to model accurately I imagine. Trauma resulting from unrepaired road surfaces damaged mainly by heavy vehicles would be tough.

    It’s true that goods being moved within cities by truck would be hard to put on rails cost effectively. Perhaps what we need is better warehousing at rail heads so that the trucks could simply operate between the rail head and the final destination. Purely local vehicles could of course run on CNG/electricity more easily than long haul. This would reduce urban pollution as well.

  63. I might add that JWH’s 2001 backflip on fuel excise indexation is effectively a rising long-term subsidy for road transport – and indeed for fossil-fueled transport generally.

  64. Road Transport pays tax on diesel as replacement for the bureaucratic nonsense that was the road tax. In case it’s thought that isn’t much, 2-3 kilometres to the litre is normal for heavy vehicles. The main impediment to a bigger switch to rail is logistical through lack of infrastructure. when I began trucking in the early 60’s most freight had to be put on rail if it exceeded a certain distance. Under the restraint of trade laws that existed, interstate manufactured goods could be delivered direct, while same State manufactured goods required transport from factory to and from rail.

  65. Road Transport pays tax on diesel as replacement for the bureaucratic nonsense that was the road tax.

    I don’t believe that’s true, Zorronsky. Fuel excise has a long and interesting history, see
    including some landmark constitutional law cases. But no particular change in relation to road freight – just abolition of the road tax.

  66. Rod eddington’s review of Melbourne transport infrastructure showed that 70% of Melb’s trucks were intra-urban. There’s no efficiency in loading and unloading these things multiple times within 150 km. Disappointing but true.

  67. Even if that is so Wilful

    1. It means that Melbourne’s truck fleet might be cut by something like 30%. Those inter-urban trucks are doing serious damage

    2. It probably means that the other 70% could run on some sort of hybrid electric + some other fuel — perhaps CNG or biodiesel

  68. Had our cities had even the vaguest hint of planning then one might have found that the bulk of interurban heavy haulage is distribution of consumer goods from warehouses to stores and industrial areas, as well as from industrial areas to warehouses and ports. Considering that both industrial areas and stores are mostly clustered (shopping malls) much of this traffic could be handled by a loop cargo tram system thereby taking the bulk of the heavier traffic off the roads and onto seperate rail real estate, as well as making it easier to electrify (dramatically reducing the amount of diesel consumed). The remaining heavy haulage traffic will be predominated construction traffic (quarry trucks, machinery transports, etc), which would most likely need to stay as they are.

  69. Hal9000 @95: I assumed automatic operation with possibly remote control for manipulating unmanned vehicles in the parking lots at injection and exit points. Would be a bit frightening (and labor intensive) to have manual control for a mix of trucks and conventional trains. I also expected that the trucks would group as convoys (virtual trains) to maximize line capacity.
    Drivers might stay with the truck for short hauls with the remainder being unmanned. The actual units that go onto the rail may actually be nothing more than specialized trailers with independent drives that hook up to a unit with a driver when on the road.
    Can see no theoretical reason why something could not be designed to run on both rail and light rail but the load would be restricted by light rail capacity.

  70. Wilful @85: What is suggested @62 is all about avoiding the multiple loading/unloading that is a feature of conventional rail.

  71. Further to @8: Climate Spectator announced a Pilbara based saltwater algae biofuel/chemical demonstration. Claims to produce about 100 tonnes/hectare (but not clear how much of this would be water. Food would be a byproduct so there is no clash between fuel/food. The country around Karratha is hardly prime food producing country.

    One of the world’s leading algae demonstration projects has begun operations in Karratha, in Western Australia’s mining-rich Pilbara region, in what could be a prelude to the world’s first commercial-size facility of its type.

    The Californian-based Aurora Algae officially opens its eight hectare project this week; a $10 million, six-pond facility – partly funded by a $2 million state government grant – that will grow algae to be used for fuel, for the pharmaceutical and food industries, and as an animal feedstock.

    Algae has been hailed as one of the potential breakthrough products of the 21st century, not just for its ability to act as a replacement fuel – the US Department of Energy recently suggested algae could replace nearly one fifth of imported fuel needs by 2025, and there have been suggestions that an Australian algal fuel indusdtry could be worth $20 billion – but also for its ability to sequester carbon dioxide and deliver other profitable bi-products.

    Aurora originally intended to focus on the fuel market (it used to be called Aurora Biofuels), but because of the strains of algae it grows in its salt water ponds, it has decided to focus – at least initially – on the high yielding omega-3 market. Potential customers include pharmaceutical and food groups seeking a natural, sustainable and cost-effective alternative to fish oil and fermented products.

    “This project will be profitable,” says Matthew Caspari, the general manager of Aurora Algae’s Australian subsidiary. “Omega-3 helps get us there quickly.”

    There are more details via the link.

  72. John D, there is a functioning roadrailer system operating in Australia. I only know about it because I have cycled past the units a thousand times at Dynon freight terminal. They’re like these:

    A quick google informs me they’re “Tralerail bimodal freight”

  73. Wilful: The designs in your link are aimed at setting up conventional multi-car trains that avoid some of the time loss and equipment requirements associated with moving gear from road to rail and back again. To set up a train with many cars you would need trailers that could withstand the longitudinal stresses that occur in long trains.
    What I had in mind was a single truck (or road train) that simply drives on or off the railroad. Don’t know enough about railways to be sure of the practicalities. Some of the things required to make this work weren’t there when the trailers you describe were built.

  74. The problem with your idea John, is that truck tyres are designed to pread their load over a large area of road surface. To attempt run these same wheels on narrow rails will not work well. Consider how duals would work. Where road vehicles do travel on rails the vehicle tyres are used for load bearing and traction and there are small guide rail rims which drop down to guide the vehicle along the rails. So without dramatic redesign of the of the drive system of trucks such a plan is unlikely to work effectively. The new trend to make seperate commuter bus roadways is an interesting one which could be evaluated for heavy traffic as well.

  75. Yes, I am aware of that John which is why I linked to that @ 72, but that is not the independent vehicle option that you are exploring.

    Frankly none of these ideas are starters in Australia or the US because of our “efficient market” philosophy. No-one is going to pay more than they can get away with to make our transport infrastructure more effective or…efficient. That is why the road truck haulage became so strong in the first place. It is by some measures efficient, but most significantly it is funded by distributed investment.

  76. The latest poll on the popularity of an explicit price on CO2e emissions (dubbed by the Liberals and their media entourage as “a carbon tax”) shows that only 30% support this option.

    This underlines the political incompetence of this regime. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, even a perfectly plausible approach to mitigating emissions seems beyond this government. I’d like to think that the government could respond by adopting the less economically feasible (but more operationally feasible) approach of regulatory fiat and direct investment, but if they can’t sell an explicit CO2e price, one would have to doubt their ability to do this latter without messing it up.

  77. Tony Windsor is getting restless about the carbon tax:

    KEY independent Tony Windsor says that he will not back a carbon price that just churns cash, and that some of the revenue from a carbon tax should be spent on research and development, soil projects and renewable energy.

    In a warning to the Gillard government, Mr Windsor told The Age the debate about how best to use money raised from taxing carbon emissions – including the size of industry and household compensation packages – had so far been about placating political pressures.

    ”If it is just a churn of money to keep people quiet, then I won’t be interested in it,” Mr Windsor said.

    Hope the government is actually working on a plan B that doesn’t depend on a tax churn to work.
    The real problem with selling the carbon tax is that it is poor policy. Not helped by a government that shows little understanding of the alternatives that require much lower price increases to work.
    What some of the voters want is an adult conversation with the government. Not the slogans and economic PC we ae getting at the moment.

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