Shocked and Persuaded


Separating Fact From Fiction

The True Origin of Arizona’s Wildfires

I am currently working on a book geared towards teaching Generation X about the importance of volatility, participation, frankly debating the merits of laissez-faire capitalism, etc. It is a broadly defined objective but one of the topics deals with invasive species of the floral and fauna variety relative to our myopic infatuation with illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. Ground-Zero for invasive species and illegal immigration is Arizona. I have pasted below an excerpt from my book that deals with the primary cause of wildfire intensity, frequency, and spatial scale. It is a rambling excerpt at times but please consider the underlying premiss regarding invasive species and their chronic role in ecosystem degradation and eventually human fallout.

Governor Brewer and her henchman Mr. Pierce had the right idea with respect to “illegal invasion” and the fact that “it can’t be tolerated”, however, their scopes were aimed at the wrong target. As I noted before Latin-American migration to Arizona was, is, and never will be the problem for two very important reasons: 1) Arizona is the native land of many of the people being pushed out a/o excluded and 2) the export of jobs from the state not the import of people is Arizona’s problem. Job creation not Scarlet Letter divisiveness and profiling is the only way out of this quagmire for Arizona. Read the rest of this entry »

Benefit to Cost Ratio

In his last post Dave noted that the real reason for events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Maghreb and eastward was finite resources. That is extremely true AND if you couple that with the increasing influence of derivative speculation by those that don’t give a hoot about social cohesion AND the declining benefit to cost ratio associated with agricultural related biotechnology you have a Terrible Trio that needs to be addressed via long-term stewardship of biomass and the planet’s limited biogeochemically available elements such as phosphorus. Read the rest of this entry »

BOTEs and CO2

So there is a common expression that is getting even more common and more over used called “Back Of The Envelope” which basically is an expression that describes calculations that are very course spatially or vertically OR rough enough that they can be done on the back of an envelope/napkin.

I decided it might be fun to take this concept and apply it to the commonly held belief that man emits 45 Gigatons (1 Gigaton = 1 Billion Tons) per annum. This has been cited in many a popular and scientific paper. Hope you enjoy! I would just note that below there are a bunch of numbers and all assumptions came from some of my Ph.D. work and not out of thin air. It is interesting that my BOTEs while not exactly the same as the IPCC’s independent estimate of 45 Petagrams (1 Pg = 1 Gt) are similar. The issue going forward will be identifying the black-boxes that remain in these equations. (NOTE: All local ecosystem units are in Grams of Carbon per meter squared per year and this is a standard unit of measurement for ecosystem fluxes). Read the rest of this entry »

Motor City BOTE

BOTE stands for Back-Of-The-Envelope and is a common phrase applied to macroscale or overly coarse calculations done kinda haphazardly. Well given this caveat I came across an article from The Telegraph (UK) titled “Detroit to Bulldoze Thousands of Homes in Fight for Survival”, which quoted the following statistic:

“Almost a third of the city’s 139 square miles is vacant or derelict, though its land area would comfortably fit Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston, cities with combined populations of three million.”

I thought it would interesting to apply some of my dissertation data to figuring out how much of Detroit’s CO2 footprint could potentially be offset if this land was reforested. So, here it goes step by step.

(33%*139 Sq Miles)=45.87 Sq Miles of vacant or derelict land

Convert to Hectares=45.87*259>11,880 Hectares

Hectares to Square Meters=11,880*10,000>118,803,229 Square Meters

Grams of Carbon per Square Meter Per Year (From my Thesis work we assume the average for Great Lakes forests is 10,849 g C m-2 yr-1)=118803229 Square Meters*10,849 g C yr-1>1,288,896,240,464 g C m-2 yr-1

Metric Tons Per Year=1,288,896,240,464 g C m-2 yr-1*0.000001>1,288,896 Metric Tons of C captured Per Year IF the 45.87 Sq Miles of vacant or derelict land was reforested!

NOW lets put this number in perspective relative to Detroit’s actual emissions.

If we assume Detroit’s population (For Now!) is 951,270 and residents of the city emit approximately 23.4 Tons of CO2 per person per year that comes out to 22,260,764.4 Tons of CO2 per year for the city of Detroit, which means……..

The figure calculated above for potential carbon captured by reforestation of vacant and derelict land (i.e., 1,288,896 Tons of CO2 per year) equals 5.80% of total city-wide emissions. This number while not jaw dropping is far from trivial and any efforts to implement such plans should be encouraged locally and nationally as 5.8% of anything at that scale adds up and would greatly increase the quality of life in Detroit. Similar projects are sprouting up in neighboring F lint, Michigan as well as places as far off as Chilibre, Panama. Likewise we have data on those areas as well and could do similar BOTEs in an effort to quantify the impact of reforestation, both above- and belowground.

We have an interesting love affair with shopping in this country and I thought it would be illustrative to quantify its influence on our land to capture carbon. First lets quickly look at how much we love shopping and how much our economy (and by association China, Japan, the EU, etc etc) depend on our insatiable appetite for stuff. It is true that we have come down off our Great Depression high of 83% Consumption as  a percent of GDP, but for the better part of the last 63 years we have maintained a relatively static 65% of GDP attributable to consumption.


However, this figure has risen substantially in the last 20 years from 62% in 1981 to 70.8% in 2009.


You might say well what does my local strip mall have to do with CO2? Well your local strip mall displaced some sort of native ecosystem that, up until the big trucks and earth-moving equipment came, was drawing down CO2 via photosynthesis and decomposition of biomass to produce soil carbon.

Well that has had a cumulative effect and I have attached a couple of graphs to demonstrate this phenomenon. Using Gross Leasable Area (GLA in sq feet) per person data back to 1990 we can calculate above- and belowground carbon displacement via shopping center expansion (Blue Line), which sums to about 218 Million Metric Tons between 1990 and 2009, which when subtracted from Total US CO2 Emissions gives us the inset in the figure below.


How you might ask does this relate in-terms of percentages? Well it turns out it is quite similar in magnitude to what I described for Detroit. If we assume – based on EIA assumptions – that Residential emissions is 6.65% of the story here in the US with respect to CO2 emissions than the above removal of native ecosystems for shopping centers translates to anywhere from 2.78 to 3.31% of Residential CO2 emissions across the entire US. However, if we had implemented the type of plain they are considering in Detroit across all fifty states beginning in 2005 we would have had the opportunity to “offset” 3.13% of our emissions per year as opposed to 2.85% between 1990 and 2004. You may say what is the big deal about 2.85 to 3.13%? Well when you consider we are measuring our fiscal and monetary peril here in the US with values like 3 to 12% of GDP and the fact that US GDP is expected to grow by 3.0% in 2010 v. 0.18, a decline of 1.83, and 2.53% in 2009, 2008, and 2007, respectively…Then the numbers I present here start to take on a whole new meaning. The harm inflicted by shopping centers – never mind the removal of capital and liquidity from local markets via large multinationals like Wal-Mart and Best Buy – is not just skin or in this case soil surface deep. It impacts the ability of communities and watersheds to withstand flooding, retain nutrients that would otherwise pollute reservoirs and aquifers, moderate temperature and moisture volatility, and propagate a sense of ownership among residents. The data back it up. Chalk another one up for BOTEs!


Forget Peak Oil….Try Peak N, P, and K

Below I have plotted USDA data for Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potasssium (K) applied to crops in the US from 1960 to the present. You will notice two distinct trends (Ex. Fertilizer labels read – for example – 10-10-10 or something like that, which corresponds to 10 Parts N, P, and K Respectively):

1. Nitrogen is and has always been the predominant fraction of fertilizers. However, more importantly N:P ratios have risen at an alarming clip from 1.06 in 1960 to 2.88 in 2007, which translates to 271% in less than 40 years. This in itself is an unsustainable trend that genetic engineering will not be able to offset. Additionally, the ratio of P to K was 134% higher in 1960 with the pivot-point (i.e., more K than P applied) being 1976-1977 (Note: I wonder if it is in any way correlated with the awesome run the Grateful Dead had during that same time frame?).

2. The percent vs. Tons P & K curves, while largely decoupled prior to to 1978 have now converged, which means that more fertilizer needs to be applied – and energy expended – to get the same Energy Return On Investment. This is quite unfortunate given the apparant lake of Global P-Pools and the recent USGS report that quantified global P at 62 Gigatons (ie 1 Billion Tons) and K at 250 Gigatons.

This data demonstrates our reliance on not just Carbon (i.e., Oil) but also N, P, and K alike. It will come to pass that the import of these 3 elements will approach if not surpass that of Oil in the next 50 years mark my words! However, there are tons of ways to ameliorate this trend and they include the application of Industrial Policy to large-scale composting ventures…Not at the Federal level but rather within counties or municipalities. These would produce two sustainable and non-trivial revenue streams via the sale of compost and anaerobic digestion of methane gas. Additionally, these materials could easily be applied to agricultural operations across the country as a dry (No Soluble P or N responsible for eutrophication), nutrient rich, carbon dense amendment. NO ZERO SUM HERE!

My primary concern going forward is what I will call the CNPS Approach, which just means that instead of having such a strong and disproportionate Carbon-Bias policy needs to focus equally on the other two-thirds of the biogeochemical pie, which are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) (and Sulfur (S)). Everyone is familiar with the influence of CO2 and the established as well as nascent efforts aimed at monetizing carbon, but with some very simple modeling we could easily link the former to equally important Upward (i.e., CH4, N2O, and N2) and Downward Flows (i.e., NH4, NO3, PO4, and DOC) via emissions and leaching, respectively.


It Aint Just Carbon!

The importance of GDP to economic growth is exceeded by the importance of CNP in nature

It all started with the discovery by American oceanographer Alfred C. Redfield (1890-1963) that the ratio of Carbon (C) to Nitrogen (N) to Phosphorus (P) (C:N:P) of free-floating marine phytoplankton (seston) throughout the world was quite static and reflected the differences of dissolved nutrients in associated waters. The Redfield Ratio as it is known today is 106:16:1 for C:N:P, which means that for every unit of phosphorus there are 16 units of P and 106 units of C. The importance of this discovery for biologists was equated to Avogadro’s number or the speed of light in a vacuum by some scientists according to Sterner & Elser’s book “Ecological Stoichiometry”. Redfield’s Ratio has since been proven an overly generalized depiction of aquatic C:N:P, with an average of 354.4:20.1:1 across all manner of aquatic phytoplankton (See Chart 1).


Out of this discovery grew a very specialized but extremely important discipline called Ecological Stoichiometry, which is essentially a bunch of balanced equations describing how C, N, and P are transferred and transformed in ecosystems. It is quite a revolutionary and at the same time elementary concept, with detractors noting that Ecological Stoichiometry is either too complicated to be understood or too simple to be true. Another way to look at it is that Ecological Stoichiometry gives scientists the opportunity to quantitatively attach elemental importance to the balance of energy and materials. The name stoichiometry comes from the Greek root stoicheion for element and metron meaning measure. Broadly speaking the field focuses on C, N, P, to some extent sulfur (S), and rarely hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) or as scientists like to call them “The Big Six” for their ubiquity and import in all organic and some inorganic processes. Every constituent of this planet, whether living or dead, flora or fauna, above or belowground, land or sea has a unique stoichiometric ratio of these elements. Organisms must vigilantly maintain these ratios in order to survive, which is also the case for humans (homeostasis). In their book “The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements: The Environment and Life’s Chemistry” Williams & Fraústo da Silva hypothesized that evolution from early to late prokaryotes, to unicellular eukaryotes, and eventually to complex multicellular eukaryotes was coupled with an increased affinity for homeostasis.

Homeostatic stoichiometry is the struggle to maintain a consistent internal chemistry, while an organism’s environment particularly the elemental makeup of its food fluctuates quite drastically. Some organisms – usually of the sedentary variety – display a flexible Ecological Stoichiometry. Their lack of mobility means they must capitalize on the resources available at any given point in time. Truly homeostatic creatures, whether they be ants (C:N:P = 4.8:12.0:1), snakes (C:N:P = 4.4:3.7:1), or the Dalai Lama (C:N:P = 13.3:6.3:1) are not, in the strict sense, what they eat, rather they maintain their C:N:P by a variety of unsavory and malodorous activities we won’t expand on here for fear of offending the faint of heart. Needless to say organisms that must maintain a narrow C:N:P will go to great lengths in pursuit of that goal even if it means no one to sit next to in the lunchroom. You know that stuff you accidently stepped in while walking down the sidewalk or in your local park? That present Fido left for you has a C:N:P of 9.7:0.9:1.

The question is why should we care about these ratios? Well for the answer let’s look to the most famous examples of balanced chemical reactions, photosynthesis [Eq. 1] and decomposition [Eq. 2]. After all when you peel away the layers of scientific mumbo-jumbo this is what Ecological Stoichiometry is all about. If you are starting to have horrible images of your Intro Organic Chemistry class now would be a good time to stop reading. Are you still here? Good. These two reactions drive plant growth [Eq. 1] and decay of everything from tree leaves (C:N:P = 18.6:8.2:1) to septic waste (C:N:P = 12.0:2.7:1). These reactions and those that produced the Redfield Ratio rely on what is called the Law of Definite Proportions.


The importance of the “Big Six” in nature is not hard to find. One need not look further than Adenosine Tri (ATP) and Diphosphate (ADP) the primary energy transfer molecules in cells for the importance of phosphorus, while sulfur is crucial to amino acids (i.e. cysteine) the primary precursors of proteins. Researchers have shown that the Stoichiometric formula for humans in number of atoms is:




Thus, we humans have a “Big Six” H:O:C:N:P:S Stoichiometry of 2.8:1.5:13.3:6.3:5.0:1. This may seem confusing but understanding how these elements flow into and around the human body or for that matter ecosystems tells us a great deal about the so-called “velocity of elements”. Many reading this have heard about the “velocity of money” in recent years and the importance of keeping the flow of money brisk and consistent. Well the same is true of elements and Ecological Stoichiometry is an important tool in determining where elements are backed-up or where they are moving too fast to be utilized. Two interconnected examples of the human condition’s influence on Ecological Stoichiometry are the Haber-Bosch process that fixes nitrogen gas to produce ammonia for N, P, and Potassium (K)-rich fertilizers and the Gulf Coast algal blooms in the US that have created consistent and ever expanding deadzones in the waters off the United State’s Gulf Coast. The latter is a direct function of excessive fertilizer application and manure production in the Mississippi River watershed, with manures having C:N:P of 20.3:7.0:1 and most fertilizers either having equal parts N:P:K (10:10:10) or an excess of P (10:20:10). Thus, Gulf Coast’s aquatic ecosystems are experiencing an increase in the velocity of Ecological Stoichiometry – specifically P – via the Mississippi river, which is leading to increases in algal production and decay all of which deplete the waters of oxygen.

Plants and animals adhere to relatively strict C:N:P (:S), because in theory they are trying to fulfill their maximum growth potential, even though such conditions in actuality might be completely illusory. Living beings want to find that stoichiometric “Sweet Spot”. Ecological Stoichiometry explains why we crave certain foods and can’t stand the sight of others. Ecological Stoichiometry, and specifically the C:N:P:S ratio, is a field of study and a natural process that will receive increasing attention in the coming years given the fact that humans are rapidly depleting the world’s supply of P, with 62 Gigatons remaining according to the USGS’ most recent estimates.

In addition, this ratio and its variability is responsible for phenomena such as acid rain in the northeastern US and Europe, and groundwater contamination in and around areas of heavy agriculture. Scientists have known since Redfield and earlier the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of the “Big Six” and more specifically C, N, P, and S. In 2000 Falkowski and colleagues compared natural and human-induced changes in the stoichiometry of earth and found that the change due to anthropogenic causes was 13%, 108%, 400%, and 113% for C, N, P, and S, respectively. Thus, our fascination with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) may be at best myopic and at worst dangerous. Forget the GDP what is your country or state’s CNP?

Complete Chart 1 From Above: