Category Archives: Environmental Science

Happy (?) Earth Day 2014

It’s Earth Day, when politicians wave their environmental flag and we’re all encouraged to make a token effort at reducing our enormous environmental footprint. I think Earth Day has in a number of respects, outlived its usefulness. When it was first celebrated in 1970, the notion of an environmental movement was still very new: Silent Spring was only eight years old, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Environment Canada were established (the EPA would be by the end of the year, and EC the next), and it would be at least ten years before municipal recycling programs started to appear. Having a single day around which to promote environmental causes made sense when environmental issues aren’t very visible, but with climate change consistently on our collective radar, I think the focus of Earth Day needs to shift.

Maybe my impression of Earth Day leans too heavily on the “go clean up a patch of river with your class” sort of effort from grade school, but Earth Day is the original in a collection of one-off, isolated efforts designed to raise awareness and, to a lesser extent, make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. I’m dubious of anything whose primarily purpose is to nebulously “raise awareness” rather than actually doing anything [1] — especially considering that environmental issues aren’t exactly obscure these days. Earth Hour (which is of course distinct from Earth Day) is a perfect example of this: having a smattering of people turn off their lights for one hour does bupkis for actually reducing emissions, and the principal awareness it raises is remembering where you put the emergency candles (which is important but not the point).

This model is ineffective and, I’d argue, counterproductive: it proposes a model of small, discrete individual efforts to reduce emissions rather than the sustained, concerted, and substantial efforts actually needed to effectively combat climate change. It drastically undersells the level to which we need to collectively reorganize our lives to make a substantial change in emissions level, and, perhaps most importantly, it puts the onus of dealing with climate change on us as individuals and ignores both industrial and commercial sources of emissions as well as the need for good public policy to encourage those choices.

Let’s consider take the breakdown of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2012 which I found in this report from Environment Canada: (see also this report [PDF])

Source Emissions in Mt CO2 equiv. Proportion
Oil and gas 173 25%
Transportation 165 24%
Electricity 86 12%
Buildings 80 11%
Emissions Intensive and Trade-Exposed 78 11%
Agriculture 69 10%
Waste and Others 47 7%

Most of these are not things that can be effective tackled solely by individuals acting en masse. The oil and gas industry is the single largest contributor of GHG in Canada, and considering the number and scale of pipelines being proposed for transporting and exporting tar sands oil, it seems wildly unlikely that this number will go down in the foreseeable future. Buildings includes homes, but also businesses, skyscrapers, and all sorts of infrastructure that individuals have minimal power to change. It’s unclear whether constructed structures other than buildings are also included in this number, though I suspect they are, and if that’s the case, there’s an even tinier amount of influence that individuals can wield to change this number. Emissions intensive and trade-exposed includes “metal and non-metal mining activities, smelting and refining, and the production and processing of industrial goods such as chemicals, fertilizers, paper and cement,” and while individuals can reduce their general consumption, I suspect it’s hard for citizens to make much of a dent in this sector.

So that’s 54% of Canada’s GHGs which are highly resistant to change by individuals, and electricity, transportation, agriculture, and waste and other still to consider. It’s straightforward for individuals to reduce their electricity usage, by using energy efficient goods and lightbulbs, not leaving lights and appliances on when not in use, and efficiently insulating their houses to reduce heat loss. However, it’s unclear how much electricity is used by individuals as opposed to the industrial, commercial, and public users, and other efforts need to be enacted to deal with those sectors. Transportation breaks down similarly: it’s straightforward for individuals to drive less (if your city has an efficient, robust, and accessible public transit system, which is not a given), but this number includes commercial and industrial transportation as well, and I don’t know how the number divides. GHG emmisions from agriculture can be reduced in part by people eating less or no meat, but plant crops also emit GHG (via machinery rather than ruminants), and many people are very resistant to becoming vegetarian, let alone vegan. Waste and other includes emissions from landfills, so by consuming less, composting, and recycling, individuals can make a dent in this number too.

So out of the sectors that can be impacted by groups of individuals, which represents about 46% of the total GHG emissions, not one source of emissions is due solely to individual consumption. All are split between individual, industrial, and commercial uses, and most require systemic factors to be favourable before large numbers of individuals can make substantial efforts over a sustained period of time to reduce the amount of GHG they directly or indirectly generate. It’s much easier to get people to retrofit their houses when there are subsidies and public policy supporting them. People are much more likely to leave their cars at home if there is a robust, safe, efficient, and (economically and physically) accessible public transit network. Without appropriate public policy to make environmentally conscious choices realistically accessible to broad sectors of citizens, few people will make those choices on a daily basis.

But even if we all, as citizens, consistently reduce our transportation and electricity usage and start eating tofu instead of steak, we’re shaving off parts of a small part of GHG emissions pie. Pushing individual reductions while ignoring that well over half our GHG emissions are due to industrial and commercial sources of various stripes is a spectacularly ineffective way to deal with climate change. To enact any sort of meaningful change in the oil and gas sector in particular will require concerted and sustained political vision and willpower. To effectively address our outsized GHG emissions (Canada has one of the highest emission rates per capita in the world), we need to drastically reduce not only our individual, but especially our industrial emissions, and that won’t change without public policy, legislation, and a drastically different vision of economic prosperity in Canada. It’s up to us as individuals to do what we can, but we need our politicians and civil servants to set policy that ensures that industry and commercial interests put in their share of the work too.

Happy Earth Day 2014. Let’s go protest some pipelines.

  1. Top of the list of offenders: the pinkwashers “raising awareness” about breast cancer.

In the News: Experimental Lakes Area Up for Sale?!

I’ve not written much here about the current slash-and-burn effort of the Harper government on federal environmental research (mostly through Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and at this point there’s been so many cuts and so many groups dismantled, laid off, or functionally crippled that I don’t even know where I’d begin. One of the initiatives cut is the Experimental Lakes Area, a group of 58 lakes in northern Ontario that have been set aside for whole-lake research on everything from acid rain to fresh-water contaminants to lake ecology. The ELA is unique in the world, has been running very successfully for 44 year (generating an impressive stack of research), and costs about $2 million a year to operate. It is expected to cost substantially more than that to close the project, but in the name of “cost cutting” (…right…) the Harper government has cut the funding and shut the program down.


Apparently they’re looking to sell the ELA to an unspecified “interested party.” The negotiations are happening in secret (of course), so it’s totally unclear what terms the area is being sold under. The land it sits on is held by the Ontario government, not the federal one, and since the terms being negotiated are secret, I’m not sure what, if any, issues of jurisdiction would come up.

What’s really appalling is that this was a scientific jewel for the federal government. It’s known by scientists around the world (at least scientists who do research in fresh-water environments), it’s produced excellent and very important research, and it’s run on a comparative shoestring. There’s no reason to close it or sell it — other than ideological. This government has no use for good regulatory environmental research, and is hacking away at the research groups and stations that do that work. (See also: the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory [PEARL] near Eureka, in the very High Arctic.) To first cut the funding, and then turn around and sell the area is a kick in the teeth after a slap in the face to Canadian environmental science. Since the parameters are all secret, there’s no indication of what sort of science will be done by the buyers, but if it’s in private hands, there’s no reason to believe that the scientific program will stay at all on course. Will the results of the research be publicly available? Will there be any requirement that the work done must be documented in some way, for regulatory purposes? What sort of regulation will the lakes have, if they’re not being managed by a federal department? Those are important questions to answer, and I doubt we’ll get any satisfactory answer.

Furthermore, who is funding the organization that’s buying the area, and will their interests influence the research done and the results published? From the news article linked above:

Despite the lack of public information, the coalition of scientists working to save the facility insist the IISD is the only current contender in the talks.

They say they’re concerned that a policy group doesn’t have what it takes to run an active research station. They’re also worried that the IISD’s funders — which include energy companies such as Enbridge and Suncor — could taint the research coming out of the ELA.

If this is accurate, then a world-class, governmentally run research facility known for rigourous, independent research is going to become a greenwashing research site for oil companies. Just what Canadians need!

My (Very Belated) Two Cents on Heartlandgate

There’s been reams of digital ink spilled about the leak of a large quantity of documents from the Heartland Institute, which is a think-tank devoted to to anti-environmentalism. The leaked documents are available here on DeSmogBlog, and the contents aren’t especially surprising: there’s lists of donors, including big tobacco companies and pharmaceutical companies, there’s the names of people on their payroll, including Anthony Watts, and there’s some strategy documents which don’t have anything startlingly unexpected in them that I’ve seen. The added wrinkle is that the documents were collected by Peter Gleick, an American environmental scientist who worked, among other things, in ethics. He contacted the Institute with a false identity and got a hold of the documents, which was a deeply stupid move that demolishes Gleick’s credibility as an ethical scientist. While it’s nice to have these documents, as they confirm a lot of the tactics and participants that climate and environmental scientists thought were a part of anti-environmental movement, it’s not like there’s much that earthshattering in them.

I don’t have very much to say about the documents themselves, though I encourage you to have a look at them — primary sources are optimal! I do have a few words to say about how the documents were obtained and what that means for the scientific community as a whole, and a few other words about the strategy to dissuade teachers from teaching science, which is the bit from the documents that’s caused the most hubbub in the media.

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File Under Things You Never Thought You’d Need To Worry About: Exploding Lakes!

Limnic explosions are really bizarre and not very well understood, since there’s only been two confirmed and documented events in recent history (Lake Monoun and Lake Nyos, both in Cameroon, in 1984 and 1986 respectively), and it’s difficult to study an exploding lake for what should be obvious reasons.

What happens is this: gas emitted from the lakebed dissolves into the lower depths of the lake water, creating a supersaturated solution. Solutions consist of who components: the solvent, or the liquid which forms the bulk of the solution, and the solute, which is the material dissolved in the solute. A solution is undersaturated when the quantity of solvent can dissolve more solute than is currently in solution, saturated when the critical amount of solute is dissolved in the solvent and no more can be added to the solution, and supersaturated if, under some circumstance, more solute than can normally be dissolved in the solvent is present in the solution. A supersaturated solution is generally unstable, and if the solution is jarred or disturbed, the compound dissolved in the water will suddenly precipitate out, releasing a lot of energy and heat. While this is commonly demonstrated in high school chemistry class by dropping a crystal of salt into a large flask of supersaturated salt water, the same basic principle can apply to a lake, too.

Three things are needed for a limnic eruption to be even remotely possible:

  • The lake must be tropical, so that it doesn’t overturn. Lakes in temperate regions (for example, the Great Lakes) overturn due to the seasonal fluctuation of the air temperature above the lake. As the air cools in winter, the surface water cools and sinks, pushing water from the depths up to replace it. This means that there is no consistent bottom layer of water that remains undisturbed for long periods of time.
  • The lake must be deep and very stably stratified, so that there is a bottom layer of water that is not disturbed for a long period of time and doesn’t interact with the surface or sunlight.
  • There must be a geophysical source of gas, usually CO2 or methane (CH4) at the bottom of the lake. This may be as a result of volcanic activity under the lake.
Four schematic lakes.

Top left: a tropical lake that does not over turn. Top right: a temperate lake overturns. Bottom left: a stratified lake Bottom right: a lake with a gas source in the lake bed.

Without all three of these ingredients, a limnic explosion is not possible, because there is no way to create a supersaturated bottom layer. If the first is lacking, the bottom layer of water interacts with the upper layers, and the dissolved gas will dissipate. If the fluid is not strongly stratified, the gas will easily diffuse upwards and out of the bottom layer. If there is no source of gas, there is nothing to explode. Lake Nyos is a very deep crater lake, which sits on top of a dormant volcano. It’s surrounded by tall hills, which shields it from strong winds (which can help stir lakes). It’s a perfect candidate for a limnic explosion.

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