November 30, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Dispatch From the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Brought to you by three gallons of Peet's Coffee....

I think that's it.  It could be East Arctic Siberian Shelf. Or East Siberian Arctic Shelf.  I can't think straight right now because my head's frozen.  I understand, and accept, that the Arctic is warming at a rate about 3 or 4 times faster than the globe generally, but it's still colder than a well digger's nuts up here.

I'm waiting for Natasha to show up. You know her as Natalia Shakhova.  I call her Natasha, but on the other hand she thinks my name is Boris.  It's a private joke that only one of us is in on.  My reference is obviously to Rocky & Bullwinkle, but Natalia is Russian, for real, and I'm not, even if I've gotten in the habit of starting all of my sentences, when I speak to her, with "is." 

I'm wearing a wetsuit and standing on squishy ground on the shore of the Laptev Sea.  This is real Solzhenitzen country out here, bleak, windswept, desolate, with the Arctic, covered with a thin layer of ice, stretched out before me.  Yes, I have a tuxedo on under the wetsuit.  As if you needed to ask.  I don't know what Natalia will be wearing.  I know it will be something pretty good.  Global warming was a good field for her, because she's hot.

Natalia is the lead author on a couple of recent papers on Arctic methane.  Her work was reviewed by David Archer of the University of Chicago on the blog.  David happens to be my prof on the course I'm taking on global warming.  I knew all of this couldn't be a coincidence, so I called Natalia and made sure she knew about David's analysis (she did, of course), and pointed out the intriguing point Professor Archer had made about methane hydrates in the Arctic Sea.
Methane hydrate seems menacing as a source of gas that can spring aggressively from the solid phase like pop rocks (carbonated candies). But hydrate doesn’t just explode as soon as it crosses a temperature boundary. It takes heat to convert hydrate into fluid + gas, what is called latent heat, just like regular water ice. There could be a lot of hydrate in Arctic sediments (it’s not real well known how much there is), but there is also lot of carbon as organic matter frozen in the permafrost. Their time scales for mobilization are not really all that different, so I personally don’t see hydrates as scarier than frozen organic matter. I think it just seems scarier.

The other thing about hydrate is that at any given temperature, a minimum pressure is required for hydrate to be stable. If there is pure gas phase present, the dissolved methane concentration in the pore water, from Henry’s law, scales with pressure. At 0 degrees C, you need a pressure equivalent to ~250 meters of water depth to get enough dissolved methane for hydrate to form. 

Let me jump to the conclusion: Mr. Archer doesn't think you're going to find methane hydrates in 50 meters of water, and that's supposed to be the scary part about the East Siberian Arctic Shelf - all that methane locked up in ice "cages" in shallow water along the largest continental shelf in the world, losing its ice cover, exposed to heat conducted downward from the dark surface of the water.  Yeah, like pop rocks, alright: fiizzzzzzzz! Those hysterics over at the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been free-riding on some of Natalia's research and talking about a "methane bomb" in a 2013 paper, although Natasha herself, ever demure and scientific, doesn't go there.

So Prof. Archer asks the question:  

But these experiments spanned 100 hours, while the sediment column has been warming for thousands of years, so the experiments do not really address the question. I have to think that if there were some impervious-to-melting hydrate, why then would it suddenly melt, all at once, in a few years? Actual samples of hydrate collected from shallow sediments on the Siberian shelf would be much more convincing. 

One answer that occurred to me:  because the melting of the Arctic ice cap has occurred over a few years?  But David Archer must be aware of this.  Although he makes me a little nervous when he says that he would not be concerned with methane emissions in the Arctic unless they increased by "an order of magnitude."  Uh, my gal Natasha's work records that the methane vents in the Arctic increased in size from a meter across to a kilometer across.  I think that's 3 orders of magnitude.  Nevertheless, Mr. Archer is right: why not just go down in the goop and grab a handful of Arctic sediment and see what's in it?

You rang?

"Is thinking we dive down and grab handful," I said.  I'm wearing a black Borsalino just to be in character, although I'm talking on the phone.

"Is yes," Natalia says. 

So here we are on the shore.  Natalia shows up, but she's got that guy Semilitov with her, the Russian climate scientist who takes all those cruises with her around the Arctic during the summer, counting methane bubbles.  They're both decked out in down jackets about three feet thick.

"Is thinking is better use submersible from ship during summer than dive in late November," purrs Natalia.  Semilitov is wearing a smirk, like a KGB thug in a Bond movie.  "Is agree," he says.

Is bummer, I think.  I came a long way for nothing.

"Is local  bar and lounge where can find Stoli on rocks?" I ask, unzipping the wetsuit to reveal my down-lined tuxedo.

"Is of course," says Natasha. "Is Russia."  I love the way she says "Russia."  Like a native.

After a couple of Stolis, Natasha tells me that American climate scientists hate this methane angle. "Is messing up neat models," she says.  "Is, how you say, wild card.  Better to worry about 2100 than say a few weeks from now."

Is spot on, I'm thinking.  Semilitov is showing no signs of leaving, so I do.  They casually mention that maybe I'd like to come along on the Arctic cruise next summer.

"Maybe take the dive in submersible," she says coyly.  "Is room only for two."

November 27, 2013

Dmitry flicks it in

Dmitry Orlov has decided not to post Collapsarian blog posts at anymore, or at least that is the impression I got from his most recent post and from an email he sent to me and to other readers who have bought his books or supported the site.

I certainly understand the feeling.  He has a child now and he's probably tired of living on the boat.  He may find himself in the position of joining the workforce again.  This happens to new fathers; against all their better instincts, they drop "attitudes" in favor of responsibilities.  A little of the quotidian always sneaks into the purest of ideologies.  I read not long ago that Henry Thoreau's cabin at Walden was not actually that far from his mother's house.  Occasionally, tiring of the solitude and the rough fare by the Pond, he'd sneak over there for something to eat and a little comfort.

That's the way real life works.  You're here for one stretch between cradle and grave, and as you age it becomes increasingly clear that it had never mattered all that much whether you existed or not. The exceptions to this insight are very few and far between.  Dmitry probably longs for that awful thing called normality once in a while, and I suspect it's because he seems like a very normal, well-balanced individual. It's difficult to feel normal if you're writing about the collapse of civilization all the time.  Everything Dmitry writes may be true (I suspect most of it is), but in your one life you long for a little carefree time where you forget all about the heavy stuff.

Dmitry's unique perspective came about from his Russian provenance.  He saw the Soviet "collapse" after communism packed it up and departed from the last of what you might call the Western, European-style countries.  Anyway, that was his hook, and Reinventing Collapse was a funny, insightful book about the precedent that the Soviet Union set for the United States.

In a way, I don't buy that thesis at all.  Granted, the United States and the Soviet Union are (were) both very large, creaking, mostly ungovernable nations, but there are essential differences, starting with the premise that the United States has always been for sale to the highest bidder. Since America emerged from the last vestiges of its agrarian past, about the time of the Great Depression (when the Okies and small-scale farmers were displaced by drought and national bankruptcy), America has been about business in a way that the Soviet Union never was before its collapse.  David Halberstam's book The Fifties was, I think, very enlightening in this regard.  We are the home of the chain hotel (Holiday Inn), the chain restaurant (McDonald's and all its follwers), the Big Box stores (Wal-Mart, CostCo), the mega-hardware store (Home Depot, Lowe's), the strip mall, the suburban housing tract, and most importantly, the concept that corporate power should be concentrated in huge holding companies that own very diverse and large businesses.  On this latter point, whether Americans realize it or not, every meal they eat out, every processed food they buy at the market, every sundry (detergent, household necessities) they purchase wherever, every drug and almost everything else they routinely buy is sold to them by about 10 huge holding companies.  And all communications are essentially owned by 6 large corporations, so everything you ingest with your ears and eyes is also owned by a corporate cartel. Except Waldenswimmer, of course.

These huge companies are multinational in character,  with much of their business (and payroll) located overseas.  They are nominally American, but the sinking mass of the American middle and lower classes here are more or less of marginal relevance to them, and only to the extent that Americans form part of their customer base.  The American booboisie needs to be manipulated because the U.S.A. is still  nominally a democracy, de jure, although de facto it is what Sheldon Wolin calls an "inverted totalitarian state," one where the government is owned by Big Business.  We are not going to "vote" our way out of this situation, as Russell Brand, among numerous others (including Dmitry Orlov, most definitely) seems to get.

America is a corporate headquarters and tax haven which executes its business plans by means of a huge standing army, which does not often just stand around.  We got this way because (a) power always tends to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands, even in a liberal democracy, since as money aggregates it can get rid of legal impediments such as high taxation and anti-trust laws, and (b) because America was the most innovative and naturally-blessed (our peerless real estate) nation on Earth.  We also benefitted mightily from intellectual immigration to this country, made possible by the double-digit IQs in charge of Nazi Germany.

I don't think the United States is going to collapse in the sense that the Collapsarian community talks and writes about.  For one thing, the emphasis is too much on Peak Oil.  I've written before that I think Peak Oil represents a kind of deus ex machina for anti-American wish fulfillment.  Some sensitive souls, such as James Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov and many others, are so appalled by the grisly ugliness of the American crapscape, with its chain everything and grotesque proliferation of hideous suburban grids, that they long for some way to predict confidently that it must fall of its own weight. That's where Peak Oil comes in: you posit that an economy runs on cheap energy, especially petroleum in the American economy, and this gives you a means of assuring everyone that it will all be over soon and an anodyne vision of Norman Rockwell's neighborhoods will materialize peacefully out of the formless void.

No, I don't think so.  The lower 90% of the American populace has no way to go but down, until it reaches a rough parity with the hard-working masses in Asia who, after all, have many of the same employers as the Americans.  The American multi-nationals are indifferent to the fate of their so-called "countrymen," indifferent to the environment (mountain top removal, fracking, pesticide and fertilizer flushes into the Gulf and oceans, plastic waste, soil erosion, CO2 emissions) and essentially react only when conditions become so dire that the American "platform" is threatened.  We're inflating bubbles again through money printing to retard this natural contraction, and when the bubbles pop (again), we'll have nother "crisis" which will in fact simply be another step-phase down after the gooey soap is cleaned up.  I think that's how we'll get there, in a ratchet fashion.  We will even adapt to oil high prices, as in fact Americans have done since the 2008 financial crisis began.  Americans drive 3% fewer miles now per year than they did 5 years ago, despite increases in population and the "recovery."  Gasoline usage is way down, as people shift to fuel-efficient cars and just leave the car keys on the table in the hallway.  `Or by the oil can fire under the bridge.

The dramatic immiseration of the American people (thanks, Rob Urie) since 2008 has made catastrophe prediction and doomsaying one of America's chief growth industries, and many, many writers and speakers have gotten in on the act.  But it's not especially lucrative.  Owning one of the Big Corporations is better for that, so the doomsayers drop out and flick it in.  It's always nice to go over to Mom's house.