Friday, November 18, 2022

The Witch King’s Forest Reserve

Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire CEO of the Patagonia company, must be feeling his mortality. A few months back, he announced that he was transferring ownership of his three billion dollar company to a trust, so that the capital and profits can be used to preserve wild spaces and fight climate change. He is not the first person to do this. About a decade ago, Gilded Age heiress Cordelia Scaife May gave her estate to a trust, which attracted notoriety when New York Times reporters revealed that for every dollar the trust gave to bird sanctuaries, more than twice as much was given to white supremacist groups.

Mr Choulnard’s politics and beliefs appear to be very different to Ms May’s, and what criticism I’ve read of his decision seems to be fairly mild, so I’m going to look at this from more of a structural angle. But because finance bores the teeth out of me, I will use metaphor. And since Stranger Things has made D&D cool again*, I will use that terminology.

In D&D, there are all kinds of monsters. But one of the most feared types are ancient witch kings and sorcerers whose magic is so powerful that it has allowed them to continue to roam the earth long after their bodies have died. These liches (or demi-liches, if they are so ancient their bodies have crumbled into a cloud of bone dust and a skull preserved by hate and enchantments) continue to exist and trouble the world long after their time has past, haunting the people and society of the game with their malice and cunning. And that, essentially, is what a trust is.

With a trust, the money is invested, usually in some sort of growth fund, and part of the returns are spent by a board of directors, who basically channel the spirit of the deceased to augur their long dead wishes. It basically gives the dead the power to reach out of the past and use their money to impact the living. And while it is no surprise that monsters like Scaife May would transform themselves in this way, the idea of a “good lich,” of Yvon the friendly neighbourhood witch king, seems a little bit odd.

Ideally, the future should belong to future generations, and the dead should not be able to rise from their crypts with seed money and bribes. At the same time, there is a role for conservation. After all, if the future generations wish to inherit anything other than a wasteland, then some sort of rules will be needed to preserve some of the Earth’s natural wonder for them. But at the same time, with wealth inequality only growing, and with these trusts and institutes compounding investment returns faster than they can give the money away, it makes me wonder. Does their existence doom the future generations to be serfs in a necrocracy, paying rent to long dead landlords who preserve their planet not for their sake, but according to the whims of a long dead plutocrat?

·      *   For the first time since the Cryogenean ice melted.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Shirtfront Shennanigans

 

Seven years ago today, in the leadup to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, said that he would shirtfront Russian President Vladimir Putin over the murder of 298 people, including several dozen Australians, in the skies over Ukraine. While Australians are quite familiar with the former PM, I will give a brief explanation for overseas readers.

There is nothing moderate about Tony Abbott. Not now, and not when he was in Parliament. An unrepentant, abrasive conservative Catholic, he said what he thought, wore his heart on his sleeve, and made such an effective opposition leaver that he won the election in 2013. Just as abrasive in government as he was on the cross benches, he eventually wore his own party out, and got replaced with a technocrat who could actually govern after a few years in the top job.

However, he was still in power in July 2014, when the Russian shot down the Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner MH17 as it was flying over the Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. As Malaysia was then a popular stopover point for travel between Australia and Europe, there were 27 Australians on board, and it was the worst overseas attach on Australian civilians since the 2002 terrorist bombings in Indonesia killed 88 Australians.

In the leadup to the G20 meeting, Prime Minister Abbott said in a media interview that he intended to “shirtfront” the Russian President Vladimir Putin over the MH17 murders. This raised more than a few eyebrows, not only because of the lack of diplomatic tact, but also for the use of a 1970’s era term for tacking used in AFL football, a sport mostly played in Southern and Western Australia, and not on the East Coast, where both the meeting and Abbott’s home electorate are located. However, following the suspension of Russia from the G8 earlier in the year, it was considered a potential flashpoint.

Seven years on, it is fair to look at where things now stand. Putin is still President of Russia. Tony Abbott is no longer in politics. After being replaced as Prime Minister in 2015, he retreated to the back bench, and eventually lost re-election to independent Zali Steggall in 2019. However, it’s not just about him.

All over the English-speaking world, conservative political parties have moved away from straight-talking ideological politicians like Mr Abbott and towards those more like the truth-bending, ideologically flexible, power abusing Mr Putin.

This is of course most obvious in the USA, where strongman apologist Donald Trump took over the Republican Party when he became President, and has been guiding it in a pro-Russian, anti-democratic direction ever since. To a lesser extent it is true in the UK, where Boris Johnson, the creative-tongued, ideologically nebulous anti-European populist is now Prime Minister.

Even here in Australia, where the technocratic Prime Minister who replaced Abbott was himself replaced, straight talking and ideological coherence seems to be out of fashion. While the current Prime Minister is also conservative, straight talking, above board conduct, and consistency aren’t really hallmarks of the current administration.

So all-in-all, the shirtfront seems to come up short. Not only is Mr Putin still in power, but he has ensured that Mr Abbott’s brand of politics doesn’t even have a place in the English-speaking world anymore.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Can mining Australian coal slow sea level rise?

Disclaimer. I am stuck at home waiting for a child’s COVID test result, and desperately looking for a distraction from some personal admin. I am taking a sick day. This has nothing to do with my work, my employer, or anything else and is entirely me falling down an internet rabbit hole in order to avoid making a phone call.

Second disclaimer. I am not a climatologist, or an oceanographer, or a bulk commodity logistics manager. If I have drastically screwed up any of these fields, please correct me. Here we go:

Here on planet Earth, the surface is looking a bit grim. The recent and continuing increase in CO2 from burning carbonaceous materials has resulted in the planet warming up, and this warming is threatening to melt various ice sheets, which will raise sea level enough to inundate low lying coastal properties.

Of particular concern are the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, in West Antarctica, both of which discharge into the Amundsen Sea. One of the problems with these glaciers is that warmish (a few degrees C, so well above the freeing point of -2 for salty water) salty water, which circulates around the continental shelf of Antarctica, is melting these glaciers from below. During the last ice age, the glaciers were thicker, the sea level was lower, and as a result, these glaciers flowed all the way to the edge of the continental shelf. They carved enormous canyons in it was they went, and today these submarine canyons allow the warm salty water to flow inland and erode the current glaciers from underneath. Both glaciers are also prone to collapse, which would cause rapid sea level rise, as they drain a large portion of West Antarctica.

If the planet continues to warm, these glaciers could start melting from above as well as below, but even if warming were to stop tomorrow, the basal melting is happening right now, with current CO2 levels.

As a result, there have been studies (like Kimura et al.2017) of how this warm water actually interacts with the seabed and glacier, and over the past few years, several authors have proposed various technological solutions to keep the glaciers from melting. Many of these (e.g. Lockley et al. 2020) seem like science fiction. Others (Wolovick et al. 2018) imagine and model action beginning a hundred years from now.

At the same time, action to reduce CO2 emissions here in Australia has been sluggish at best. The coal industry is large, influential, well funded, and provides thousands of well paying unionized jobs. It is also a very successful industry, which, every year, exports close to 400 million metric tons of coal, mostly to East Asia. Roughly half of this is burned to produce electricity; the other half is used in steel production. Both eventually end up being turned into heat-trapping CO2, which is released into the atmosphere.

So, in the interest of solving both of these problems together, perhaps we should consider reducing the flow of deep warm water to the Amundsen Sea glaciers by filling the submarine canyons up with coal.

Let’s start by looking at the scale of the problem. Most of the Pine Island Trough is about 50 km wide, and 500-800 meters deep, with deeper areas and more complex topography near the ice edge.

Luckily, Australia has tens of cubic kilometres of coal reserves, depending on which definition one uses. And if the trough doesn’t need to be completely filled because the warm water doesn’t reach within 250m of the surface, than there is plenty of coal- perhaps even enough to put a submarine rubble berm across the entire Amundsen sea (e.g. Gurses et al. 2019).

Furthermore, the infrastructure to dig coal up, transport it to a port, and load it onto a bulk carrier already exists, and is in use. The only difference is the direction in which the ship sails after leaving port. In fact, Pine Island Bay is several hundred km closer to the port of Newcastle than any of the major East Asian ports are- it is just in the other direction. As a result, everybody in the Australian coal industry gets to keep their job, because they are still doing the same work. In fact, it makes jobs more secure, as the risk of having an asset stranded is reduced.

 Furthermore, the coal, once dumped, isn’t going to be burned. It is effectively sequestered. There should be enough WWI shipwrecks in the North Atlantic to be able to determine the behaviour of coal on the seabed on the 100 year timescale, but the recovery of coal from the Titanic suggests that it holds up reasonably well.

Obviously, there are other potential problems. Although today’s bulk carriers traverse areas of high typhoon activity, these tropical storms are both more localized and more predictable than the huge temperate lows which spin through the Southern Ocean. There could be seaworthiness issues with the current fleet. Coal may not be a dense enough rock to stay in a pile on the bottom of the ocean without getting washed away be currents, so shipping overburden as well, or instead, may be necessary. And operating a floating unloader in the Amundsen Sea could prove to be challenging. But these are things than can be tested today, as opposed to technologies that are decades away. If someone spent the next 6 months integrating a selfunloader into a bulk coal carrier, it could potentially do a test run as soon as the pack ice melts in January. And while a phase-in from Asian exports would be the least disruptive approach, if urgent action was required, based on current export tonnages, a 250m high, 2 km deep, and 50 km long berm could potentially be dumped across the trough west of Burke Island in less than 30 years.

Global warming is happening now. So should our solutions.

 

 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Geosonnet 68

A hickory, a dickory, a dock
Diffusion rate of mice when timing’s known
But atoms, unlike rodents, have a clock
Which contradicts the others, all alone.

“A thousand Years,” says fat man Barium.
M-g squeaks, “Nah mate, more like less than one.”
T-i says, “Where’s my honorarium?
I can’t work here, diffusion’s not begun.”
He’s right! The two plus profiles haven’t moved.
The curves are melt dilution marks instead
The timescale’s not millennia, it’s proved
It’s more like months, and barium misled.
   Basalt melts felsic crystal mush so fast
   A season’s all you get before the blast.

Geology 43 695

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66  67 68

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Geosonnet 67

 When Hansel, sister Gretel mark their way,

They leave a trail of breadcrumbs to define

The path they’ve tread, retraced at end of day.

Their wish to scamper home demands the line.

But breadcrumbs made of stone tell diff’rent tales.

Dropped from volcanic vents, they lead not home.

Broadcast when glowing edifice exhales,

When they detached from rhyolitic foam.

And as the bubbles grew, they stretched and cracked

Brittle and ductile, like a crusty bun

Rheology of glowing glass intact

They log the speed of their eruptive run.

When ashfall buries house of gingerbread

The breadcrust bubbles mark only the dead.


Geology 48 1205

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66  67