Shocked and Persuaded

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Separating Fact From Fiction

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).

chart11

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.

chart31

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:

H375,000,000O132,000,000C85,700,000N6,430,000Ca1,500,000P1,020,000S206,000

Na183,000K177,000Cl127,000Mg40,000Si38,600Fe2,680Zn2,110Cu76I14Mn13

F13Cr7Se4Mo3Co1

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:

chart23

Geoengineering Delays the Inevitable

The following is from last week’s Economist:

Geoengineering is an umbrella term for large-scale actions intended to combat the climate-changing effects of greenhouse-gas emissions without actually curbing those emissions. Like genetic engineering was in the 1970s, the very idea of geoengineering is controversial. Most of those who fear climate change would prefer to stop it by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Geoengineers argue that this may prove insufficient and that ways of tinkering directly with the atmosphere and the oceans need to be studied. Some would like to carry out preliminary experiments, and wish to do so in a clear regulatory framework so that they know what is allowed and what is not.”

What Geoengineering really is is an ingenious group of scientific avenues that will allow society writ large to shrug off it’s (our) responsibilities and hand the myriad of them to future generations. I absolutely believe in some of the techniques/concepts that fall under the Geoengineering umbrella BUT only if society is willing to embrace significant across-the-board electrical, consumption, and natural resource stewardship austerity measures. Otherwise Geoengineering allows us to circumvent a much deserved bout of self-flagellation. When the facts change we must change our mind. Aside from an unfortunate obfuscation of the data at the University of East Anglia the facts have changed for the worse ergo – Geoengineering aside – it is time for us to change our minds and embrace a Blended Climate Change Amelioration Portfolio (BCCAP). This will include anathema (i.e. Nuclear, Geoengineering, Genetic Engineering) to some environmentalists – including myself – but in return it must include the aforementioned flagellation and a bullish embrace of wind, CH4 digestion, ecosystem appreciation vis a vis development or agribusiness, and biofuels that embrace the role of plant-root carbon sequestration.

Chart of the Day

How bout this eye-catcher from the Environmental Law Institute.

It shows US Energy Subsidies, with $2.3 Billion to Carbon Capture and Storage, $12.2 Billion to Traditional Renewables, $16.8 to Corn Ethanol, and $70.2 Billion to Traditional Fossil Fuels (energy_subsidies_black_not_green1). I wonder how these numbers will change with the recent hydraulic fracturing love affair and the Marcellus/Bakken Shale formations in the Northeast and Upper Midwest Respectively.  Another example of a 5:1 Ratio here in the US (Okay 5.75:1 you get the point!).

The prevalence of the 5:1 Ratio here in the US is quite worrisome given where we see it (i.e. See previous posts).

Land of the Rising Sun

I was just reading an awesome piece in The Economist on the death of an 800 year old Ginko Tree (Ginko biloba) in Japan when I came across the following quote:

“nature is to gods and man what God is to nature and man in Western religions.”

Do we have it backwards here in the West?

It seems as though Western religion – especially given the recent Catholic redux – could use a little dirt beneath its nails.

Instead of Finding Religion they could do themselves good by Finding Mother Nature! It is God’s Green Earth after all isn’t it?

Peak Oil Fact or Fallacy!

Michael Lynch makes some compelling points in his recent piece on ‘Peak Oil’ in the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/opinion/25lynch.html?ref=todayspaper), but he calls on one very important fallacy commonly invoked by the Big Oil:  Rate-Of-Discovery Is Not A Concern!

He states that “easy oil” is gone is “vague and irrelevant”. If you replaced the word oil with coal a majority of geologists would agree with the contention that “easy coal” is indeed gone. If it isn’t than why are we resorting to horrific, both from a health and ecological perspective, techniques such as mountain-top-removal and strip mining of thousand of Appalachian and Northern Plains hectares? The answer is that the industry is desperate and the same curse will strike Exxon, Conoco, etc. Recent advocacy for hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale is a prime indicator of such desperation and presents similar concerns for human health and our fisheries here in the Northeast.

The fuzzy logic Mr. Lynch refers to is actually his estimate that their are 2 trillion barrels of “recoverable” oil. According to who? BP and the EIA estimated 1.26 and 1.32 trillion barrels, respectively. This amounts to anywhere from 30 to 43 years of oil depending on whether we do what we did in 2008 curbing consumption by 1.1 billion barrels or we reach the commonly held projection of 43.1 billion barrels by 2030. I think it is time for another Malaise Speech. Obama….Obama….!

Let Them Drink Vodka and Eat Sushi

In reading the latest global census data one thing popped in my head: Is it possible that per capita global CO2 footprints may decline in the coming year(s)?

The answer is essentially yes and we have countries like Japan and Russia to thank. For example, Russia’s population of 140.7 million is projected to decline by 0.49% annually and when considering The Reds 10.5 tons of CO2 per capita per year it turns out Russian per capita emissions could potentially decline by 7.28 Million Metric Tons in the next year.

Additionally, Japan is expected to lose 0.10% of it’s 127.3 million people (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/business/economy/18charts.html?ref=todayspaper), which when combined with their per capita footprint of 9.8 tons of CO2 per year we see a potential net decline of 1.25 MMT annually. Furthermore, the eastern european/former Soviet Union states will experience an average net population decline of 0.68% annually resulting in a decline of 790 thousand tons of CO2 from this region in the next year. Russia’s near-abroad neighbor will lessen it’s footprint by 2.57 MMT in the next year given it’s annual population decline of 0.80%

Is this fact? Of course not but it is quite probable, because Russians and Japanese, two significant contributors to atmospheric CO2, are getting older fast and in the case of the latter incapable of staying away from their beloved national spirit. Conversely, our footprint here in the US will increase by 55.83 MMT, Canada and Mexico 5.31 each,  Argentina 1.60, Brazil, 4.24, Venezuela 2.60,  France and the UK 1.65-1.90. Interestingly BBC (Big Bad China) will increase by 32.12 MMT. However, the overwhelming good news is that our global per capita Co2 emissions will increase marginally (+0.023%) in the next year, a trend indeed deserving of attention but not plaudits. The estimates above for China may actually be conservative given that they have gone from producing 1 coal fired power plant a day to 1 per week, which itself is a 14.3% change in energy strategy. Couple this with the fact that China had originally planned to have only 5,000 megawatts (MW) of wind online by the end of next year, but now project 30,000 MW, which essentially replaces the need for forty-eight 625 MW coal plants. This 30,000 figure is 118% of the current US wind power generating fleet (25,400 MW) (reliability_factsheet1).

The cumulative affects of the aforementioned population declines will be a decrease of 12.25 MMT in Russia, Japan, and the Eastern European block. This is equivalent to 48.3% and 21.2% of Canadian and Australian emissions, respectively, or put another way would cancel the annual emissions from the state of Vermont and our nation’s capital combined. Not bad but again just a start. Now get out there and buy some vodka to wash down your nightly serving of sushi! The planet thanks you and your children will thank you as well!

Supply and Demand in the US?!

Let me get this straight if an energy source is finite and came into being over a geologic scale it is fair to pay less as we deplete it but if it is ubiquitous and markedly easier to access we should pay more? That doesn’t make sense to me I mean don’t we have to pay an order of magnitude more for a Ferrari then we do a Tato Nano? Furthermore don’t we pay equally disparate fees for handcrafted furniture, jewelry, or pastries then we do stuff at Ikea or a Hostess Cupcake? Now that makes sense but the initial example makes absolutely none and needs to be dealt with here in the US ASAP. What makes us so special that we were at the height of the oil bubble paying $3.37 and folks in Britain, Italy, and France between $8.06 and $8.33 a gallon?
gas-taxes-europe-canada
Are we owed this discount and if so why? Everyone knows by now that we consume ~ 25% of the world’s energy. Additionally, each of us is responsible for 15.1-23.6 tons of CO2 per year ranging from a low of 7.2 in the nation’s capital to 123 Tons of CO2 per year in Wyoming, with nearly 20% of this coming from transportation related needs.

us-primary-energy-consumption-20071

It is true that China and India are emitting a lot with rough respective totals of 7,150 and 1,210 Tons of CO2 annually.

However the latter on a per capita basis pale in comparison with 5.5 and 1.1 tons per capita CO2 annually.

gdp-vs-co2

All these trends roughly, although not as well as you might think, with prosperity as is evidence in the graph to the right.

You may say you’re just a self-hating American and I would respond only when I/we deserve it and only when we arrogantly disavow logic and certain norms accepted the world over, because for some systemic and at this point cancerous reason we feel entitled.

Did you know that those statistics I mentioned earlier include a 12% gas tax for us and >55% for the Euros?

co2-per-capita-us2

They get it and the reason they get it is that they have been forced to work with their neighbors, both locally and within the union to offset their many years of insensitive and short-sighted practices. Again some will retort that the US will do the same in good time and I would note that Churchill’s notion that Americans always do the right thing once we tried everything else is not an option at this point.
Any politician worth his or her backbone would have left the price of fuel where it was last summer or maybe even kept raising it! Yeah I know political suicide and boy would I feel really bad for any politician who really told the American people what they really needed to hear. Wait one such politician did his name was Jimmy Carter and the moment was his now famous and probably in his mind infamous “Malaise Speech”. The former president sounded much like a parent would when trying to curb the mindset of a spoiled child. Only in Mr. Carter’s case the dog was too old, had no interest in new tricks, and would bite the hand of anyone who said otherwise. This is an example of a prescient politician who paid the ultimate price for his honesty. Aren’t we always looking for honest politicians? The answer is no we just portend that is what we want when really we desire someone who looks just as good on his ranch as he does on an aircraft carrier, at a barbecue, or on a basketball court. We want a Big Brother who will demand that our needs as a nation are met, whether that comes at the expense of other nations, plants, animals, or fish so long as the price of gas plummets the masses will be pacified. The challenge of reversing this inertia has been gleefully passed from our erstwhile “leader” to Barack Obama, who in my opinion is the smartest man ever to hold this office and truly understands the concerns of this country irrespective of tax bracket. However, the jury is still out as to whether he will have the conviction and long-term vision to shower us with the tough love we as a nation so rightfully deserve. My confidence in this occurring is in the words of Gen. David Patreus “fragile and reversible”. This cynicism could easily be transformed into elation if President Obama conveyed to the American people that the only tool they have to stabilize oil prices is driving less and that they need to come to the realization that the laws of supply and demand and matter conservation dictate that anytime demand exceeds supply the consumer pays the ultimate price, whether we like it or not. This is not so much a matter of national security as it is a question of what if anything we want to leave for future generations. Rome is burning folks and all we’re worried about is how much the arsonist is paying to commit the crime.