Beat the Heat with SCIENCE!

It’s really frickin’ hot in much of the US. Fortunately, we have central air at home, A/C in the car, and convenient local businesses with air conditioning and free wi-fi. The inadequate HVAC systems in the Science and Engineering building on campus aren’t anywhere near being able to cope with this, so I’m working from home or a cafe until the weather breaks.

I will, however, use this as a shameless plug to re-link a post from last year, where we scientifically tested whether it’s better to leave your car windows open or closed on a hot day. The answer: if it’s a short stop, closing the windows will hold the cold air in, while opening them leads to faster initial heating. For the full-on SCIENCE! you need to click the link, though.

More Fun With Fracking

I intended to do a big book-sales post today, but our DSL modem may be dead, so there was no Internet in Chateau Steelypips this morning, and I forgot to copy the relevant files onto a thumb drive, so it will have to wait. Maybe this afternoon.

In lieu of that, here’s some other stuff on shale gas drilling in the Northeast, following on Tuesday’s post:

— It’s always nice to have my half-assed writing about economic issues supported, even indirectly, by people who know something about the subject writing similar things. Thus, Felix Salmon on cost-benefit analyses of oil drilling:

Under something known as the Revised Program Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program 2007-2012, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement does a very basic cost-benefit calculation when deciding whether or not to allow drilling in a certain spot: it looks at the costs, and then at the benefits, and then if the benefits outweigh the costs, it gives the go-ahead.

What this calculation misses is the significant option value of doing nothing. The oil is, after all, not going anywhere — and if you don’t drill for oil right now, there’s a good chance that the costs of drilling for oil in the future, both economic and environmental, will be lower than the costs of drilling for oil in the present

This is based on a policy paper from NYU, so it’s even scholarly…

— Speaking of policy and politics, the Attorney General of New York is threatening to sue the Federal government to force a review of drilling practices:

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today pledged to sue the federal government if it doesn’t commit in 30 days to conducting a full environmental review of proposed regulations that would allow natural gas drilling – including the potentially harmful “fracking” technique – in the Delaware River Basin. The Basin includes the New York City watershed and portions of Broome, Chenango, Delaware, Schoharie, Green, Ulster, Orange and Sullivan Counties, and provides approximately 50 percent of the drinking water used by over nine million New York residents and visitors every day.

— Why is the AG willing to go to court over this? Well, all you need to do is look to the latest news from Pennsylvania, where a flawed well is spilling polluted water leading to a suspension of drilling activities while they try to figure out what they screwed up.

Good times, good times…

My Feelings on Fracking

The New York Times had another article on the environmental impacts of shale gas drilling, which reminded me that I had intended to write something else on the subject after February’s post on the fracking panel at AAAS, but never got around to it. The hook for the article is yet another study showing that the environmental questions are more complicated than just the question of how much CO2 is released in burning gas vs oil or coal, with loss and leakage during the drilling process potentially producing a lot of greenhouse gases.

This is, of course, a single study, and includes the obligatory dismissive comment from an industry spokesman, but also this bit toward the end, from somebody with a more environmental organization:

David Hawkins, the director of climate programs with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that much could be done by regulators to nudge drillers to capture more of the fugitive methane, but that it is often more economical for industry to simply let it escape.

Mr. Hawkins also said that too little was known about just how much methane was being lost and vented, and that studies like Mr. Howarth’s, while needed, relied on too slim a data set to be considered the final word.

The end of that first paragraph really goes to the center of what I think about the issue. This is, of course, strongly colored by having grown up in Broome County, where they are now considering how to develop the gas-bearing shale deposits underneath the region. To a large extent, this strikes me as a case where the community potentially has a great deal more power than is usually the case when negotiating with major industries, and industry is to a large extent trying to keep them from realizing it.

To my mind, there are two absolutely critical facts that need to come into any analysis of developing these resources:

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Wind Power Economics and the Ability to Focus

Kevin Drum re-posts a chart on wind power made by Stuart Staniford showing that the number of new wind power plants installed in 2010 was way lower than in 2009 or 2008:


This is meant as a starting point for discussion about the big economic issues that might’ve caused this. One of the many, many reasons I’ll never make it as a political pundit, though, is that when I see a graph like this, I’m inexorably drawn to speculating about aspects of it that really have nothing to do with the intended point. In this particular case, I look at this graphic and ask myself “Why are there so many wind power plants installed in the fourth quarter every year?”

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Hydraulic Drilling at AAAS: Fracking Annoying

I grew up in Broome County, NY, down by the PA border, and my parents still live in scenic Whitney Point. Broome County is one of the areas affected by a huge environmental controversy, because it sits on top of the northern bit of the Marcellus Shale formation, which contains huge amounts of natural gas. For years, this has been deemed too difficult and expensive to extract, but gas prices and drilling technology, specifically hydraulic fracture drilling where they pump large amounts of water down the hole to break up the rock and let the gas escape, have moved to a place where it’s beginning to be developed. Tension between the desire for energy and money for a region that’s been shaky economically for as long as I’ve been reading the news, and concerns about environmental and social effects of exploiting the gas deposits is THE issue in local politics right now.

Thus, when I saw an AAAS meeting session titled Fractures Developing: The Science, Policy, and Perception of Shale Gas Development, I said “I have to go to this.” The speakers looked kind of balanced: one guy from a state agency, one from an energy consulting firm, and a sociologist from RPI. It seemed like it would cover most of the bases.

I would’ve been better off skipping it, because all it really did was to piss me off.

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The Status of Simulations

Most of what would ordinarily be blogging time this morning got used up writing a response to a question at the
Physics Stack Exchange. But having put all that effort in over there, I might as well put it to use here, too…

The question comes from a person who did a poster on terminology at the recently concluded American Geophysical Union meeting, offering the following definition of “data”:

Values collected as part of a scientific investigation; may be qualified as ‘science data’. This includes uncalibrated values (raw data), derived values (calibrated data), and other transformations of the values (processed data).

In response, he got a note saying:

You have a bias here towards observational data. Need to recognize that a lot of data comes from models and analyses.

The question is phrased as, basically, “What constitutes ‘data?'” but really it’s about the status given to simulation results within science.

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The Unexpected Leaping Ability of Bovines

I’m spending the day trying to get some work done on the book-in-progress, so I’m avoiding both work- and blog-related stuff. I don’t want to leave the site completely quiet, though, so here’s a question to ponder, relating to SteelyKid’s continuing fascination with Goodnight Moon:

How does a cow jump over the moon?

The father of one of SteelyKid’s classmates, who is not originally from the US, asked why there’s a cow jumping over the moon in that (or, as SteelyKid puts it: “Cow jumping MOON!!”), and I don’t have a good answer. I’m aware of the nursery rhyme and the Tolkien joke, but why anybody would posit a cow jumping over the moon in the first place, I don’t know.

If you run the numbers (and yes, I’m dorky enough to do this), it’s awfully improbable.

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Media Skills for Scientists

Everybody’s favorite science-and-politics blogger has posted a video clip showing part of what’s wrong in science communication. It’s a clip from the BBC from last December, featuring one of those head-to-head quasi-debates about “Climategate” between Prof. Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia and political consultant Marc Morano, who has made himself a nice little media niche as the go-to guy for climate change denial:

I don’t think this is quite as damning as Chris says, but it’s pretty bad. What you see here is a competition between a scientist and somebody who knows how the media works, and it doesn’t end well.

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1491 by Charles C. Mann

We picked up a used copy of Charles Mann’s pop-archeology book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus a while back. I didn’t read it at the time, because I was a little afraid that it would be rather polemical in what I think of as the Neil Young mode– wildly overstating the awesomeness of pre-Columbian cultures, and exaggerating the evil of the European invaders (Neil’s recorded some great stuff, but the lyrics to “Cortez the Killer” are pretty dopey). It came up several times recently in discussions elsewhere, though, and seemed like it would make a nice break from the disappointing run of SF novels I’d been reading, so I picked it up for bedtime reading.

Happily, it is not at all polemical, unless you’re a hard-core Eurocentrist or a member of the Texas Board of Education. Mann’s core message is that the pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas were more populous and more advanced than previously suspected, but for the most part he avoids politicizing this. He lays out a bunch of recent(ish) archeological evidence pointing to higher population and technology levels, and explains how previous generations of archeologists managed to fool themselves into thinking otherwise. It’s only a survey of these civilizations, as he’s trying to cover two whole continents and tens of thousands of years of history, but it’s a fascinating and highly readable description of the recent science dealing with these people and their cultures.

Of course, I come to this very much as an outsider, so it’s possible that I’m missing some critical context that would make this a plausible-sounding-but-deeply-flawed work (see: Diamond, Jared), but it’s a fascinating story, well told. Two things in particular jumped out at me from reading this, one medical and the other environmental.

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Not Everything Is About CO_2

Climate change is a major crisis, don’t get me wrong, and it’s something that needs to be discussed extensively in both scientific and policy circles. We’re pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at rather too high a rate, and getting something done about that is a key priority.

It’s possible, though, to take the obsession on climate and CO_2 a little too far, though. Such as this news story from Physics World:

A cosmic gamma-ray burst striking the Earth could be harmful to ocean plankton at depths of up to 75 m, according to a team of Cuban researchers. These organisms account for up to 40% of the ocean’s photosynthesis, so such an event could have a serious impact on Earth’s carbon dioxide levels.

You know, call me crazy, but I suspect that in the wake of a gamma-ray burst striking the Earth with enough radiation to damage plankton at a depth of 75m, we’ll have problems a little more immediate than the carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere…

And on that cheery note, have a nice weekend!