Tag Archives: Environment

Collapse Was Slow

The abstract of a new 3-page Science article:

An eclectic group of scholars who met recently at the University of Cambridge argues that true social collapse is a rare phenomenon. They say that new data demonstrate that classic examples of massive collapse such as the disintegration of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the end of the Classic Maya period, and the vanishing of pre-Columbian societies of the U.S. Southwest were neither sudden nor disastrous for all segments of their populations. Rome, for example, didn’t fall in a day; recent work underscores the fact that the sack of Rome was just one step in a long and complex spiral of decline that affected peoples of the empire differently. This emphasis on decline and transformation rather than abrupt fall represents something of a backlash against a recent spate of claims that environmental disasters, both natural and humanmade, are the true culprits behind many ancient societal collapses.

The important bottom line: yes societies have “collapsed,” but usually rather locally, taking centuries, and only moderately influenced by climate change. To avoid our future collapse, we should not be overly focused on climate or ecology, or on sudden collapse scenarios, where refuges might be useful. Let us instead look to the more basic long-run stability of our social order. Quotes: Continue reading "Collapse Was Slow" »

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Nuke That Oil Well

Back on May 4:

As BP prepares to lower a four-story, 70-ton dome over the oil gusher under the Gulf of Mexico, the Russians — the world’s biggest oil producers — have some advice for their American counterparts: nuke it. Komsomoloskaya Pravda, the best-selling Russian daily, reports that in Soviet times such leaks were plugged with controlled nuclear blasts underground. …

The Soviet Union, a major oil exporter, used this method five times to deal with petrocalamities. The first happened in Uzbekistan, on September 30, 1966 with a blast 1.5 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and at a depth of 1.5 kilometers. KP also notes that subterranean nuclear blasts were used as much as 169 times in the Soviet Union to accomplish fairly mundane tasks like creating underground storage spaces for gas or building canals.

These kinds of surgical strikes to shut off underground leaks, however, were carried out only five times, with the last one occuring in 1979. And there was only one misfire, near Kharkov, Ukraine, where a nuclear blast was unable to stanch a gas leak. Happily, with a track record like that, “the chances of failure in the Gulf of Mexico are 20%,” KP writes. “The Americans could certainly risk it.”

Makes sense to me. Seems a low risk of fire or of a radioactivity release of comparable harm to the oil pollution. The Christian Science Monitor agreed May 13. On May 24 it looked like we might see reason:

President Obama has stepped in and has sent a team of nuclear experts to contain the spill. The man in charge to contain the spill is Steven Chu, U.S. Energy Secretary and also the one who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb in the 50s. The five member multidisciplinary team are a creative lot involved in the first hydrogen bomb, finding ways to mine in Mars and ways to position biomedical needles. The team will work along with BP’s scientist to find a solution. Meeting at BP’s crisis centre in Houston, Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward said after the meeting, ‘lots of nuclear physicists and all sorts of people coming up with some quite good ideas actually.’

Alas, Today’s Post:

The failure of traditional well-killing methods may also heighten the pressure on authorities to try unconventional approaches. Simmons, for example, suggests a military takeover of the whole operation, and possibly even an attempt to seal the well with an explosive device.

Allen, the national incident commander, dismissed the idea. “My view is since we don’t know the condition of that well bore or the casings, I would be cautious about putting any kind of kinetic energy on that well head,” Allen said, “because what you may do is create open communication between the reservoir and the sea floor.”

Seems caution isn’t working so well now.  [Added: And it is hard to believe the well bore or casings matter much – it is the kinds of rock/mud/etc. near the hole that matter.]  Alas, also seems Obama has decided the nuke option is politically unpalatable.   Sure BP deserves blame for the spill itself, but doesn’t anti-nuke political correctness deserve lots of blame for our reluctance to stop the spill?


One prominent energy expert known for predicting the oil price spike of 2008 says sending a small nuclear bomb down the leaking well is “probably the only thing we can do” to stop the leak. Matt Simmons, founder of energy investment bank Simmons & Company, also says that there is evidence of a second oil leak about five to seven miles from the initial leak that BP has focused on fixing. That second leak, he says, is so large that the initial one is “minor” in comparison.

Obama seems to have avoided getting involved in fixing this spill, for fear of being tarred with its failures.  May 28:

Obama … said that his administration is doing all it can, but that, when it comes to plugging the leak, “the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP.”

But I’ll bet BP doesn’t have nukes. If nukes are the answer, then leaving the fix to BP has definitely made things worse.

Added 31May:

The Russian television channel RT described how Soviet authorities used underground nuclear explosions to seal off leaking gas pipes. The idea is that the explosion shears the leak closed for good. “That’s not something we’re considering. It would be far too risky,” said BP’s MacEwen. (more)

They don’t explain what risk they have in mind.

Added 3June:  Yesterday National Review had an article favoring the nuke option. The NYT had article “Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, U.S. Says.”

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Is Mass Transit Green?

Brad Templeton:

That transit is a significantly greener way to get around than private car travel almost goes without saying in our thoughts and discussions. Disturbingly, this simply isn’t true. … City diesel buses and electric trolley buses are both mildly worse than the car in energy efficiency. Light rail systems are also slightly worse, on average, though it varies a lot from city to city. Commuter rail and subway (heavy rail) trains tend to be a bit better, but not a lot better.


Passenger Miles Per Gallon

What’s not in these numbers … energy to make and recycle cars and transit vehicles. … to build and maintain roads … and tracks … to extract, refine and ship fuel …

In spite of [these numbers], it is always the green move for any individual to take existing mass transit over their car. That’s because the transit is running anyway, so the incremental cost of carrying one more passenger is indeed less than just about any private vehicle.

This is a common way to analyze marginal costs, but I wonder.  When one rides mass transit one not only makes the train a bit heavier, one also makes it a bit more crowded, discouraging other passengers.  Worse, one makes all future transit planners estimate that a slightly higher fraction of the population is willing to ride mass transit, encouraging them to build more and large transit systems.  It seems to me that this last effect could bring the marginal cost of using mass transit back up to near its observed average cost, i.e., about the same than cars.

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