Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Open access science

Far from being an ivory tower, nowadays science looks more like a battered citadel besieged by an army of Orcs.  It doesn't help that scientists don't seem to understand that the public has a right to have access to the results of the research work performed with their tax money. We need to make science more open if we want to be ablet to act on the knowledge that science is producing (image credit "crossbow and catapults")

In the 1990s, when the Internet was young, I had the idea of an "open access journal" in what was my scientific field at the time: surface science. The idea was that scientific research is paid by the public and that, therefore, the results of scientific research have to be freely accessible to the public. So, together with a few colleagues, we started an Internet site called "The Surface Science Forum" which made research papers in surface science freely available on the Web.

It was not a success. The "Surface science forum" survived for a few years, but it never had a real impact. In 2000, I was moving to a different field and I decided to close the forum. If you are curious, you can still find it here.

But the problems with scientific publishing that the Surface Science Forum had tried to address are still there and, with time, are becoming more and more serious. Not long ago, George Monbiot gave a good description of these problems in an article on "The Guardian" He says:

Distrust [in science] has been multiplied by the publishers of scientific journals, whose monopolistic practices make the supermarkets look like angels, and which are long overdue for a referral to the Competition Commission. They pay nothing for most of the material they publish, yet, unless you are attached to an academic institute, they'll charge you £20 or more for access to a single article. In some cases they charge libraries tens of thousands for an annual subscription. If scientists want people at least to try to understand their work, they should raise a full-scale revolt against the journals that publish them. It is no longer acceptable for the guardians of knowledge to behave like 19th-century gamekeepers, chasing the proles out of the grand estates.

What Monbiot says is true: in giving the results of their work to publishers for free, scientists are exploited as if they were seasonal fruit pickers. Of course, there would be nothing wrong in this practice if the money paid for accessing scientific papers were to go to finance research or to pay for services useful for research. But that's not the case. Commercial publishers don't finance research and they face very modest costs for their activity. Peer reviewing, for instance, is performed by scientists for free (again!).

Scientists are not supposed to be dumb and, normally, they aren't. This behavior of theirs is the result of a specific factor: the fact that scientific papers are a sort of "currency" in the world of science. Money, as well known, is nothing but credit and, for scientists, each paper is a form of credit that can be later redeemed in terms of career advancement, grants, academic positions and the like. It is "money", in short.

Scientific publishers have managed to act as "banks" for this scientific currency. As banks, they guarantee the value of the currency they manage; actually they create it in the form of published papers that they stamp with their seal of quality, just as Roman Emperors stamped their denarius coins with their face.

So, it is understandable that scientists don't want to see their currency debased. For them, publishing outside the system is the equivalent of printing counterfeited money. It is not only valueless, it may actually have a negative value, damaging the scientist's reputation. for instance, in some quarters, keeping a blog is considered as a blot on a scientist's reputation. That was the attitude that had doomed the "Surface Science Forum" and which is still the prevalent one in science.

But times are rapidly changing. Once, science might have been seen as an ivory tower, able to keep its own currency.  Now, it looks more and more like a battered citadel besieged by an army of orcs with catapults. The situation is especially bad with climate science, object of political spin campaigns designed to destroy the reputation of individual scientists as well as of the whole field. The public tends to ask science for miracle solutions to our problems and people are disappointed when told that there is none. Disappointed people tend to become aggressive, as you can see, as an example, in some comments on the recent case of the E-Cat scam. In this situation, the traditional methods of scientific publishing are not going to enhance the prestige of science.

Fortunately, scientists seem to be discovering that they can't stick to the old ways any longer. After all, the quality of a paper doesn't reside on the seal of a commercial editor, it is guaranteed by the peer reviewing process. And scientists are doing peer reviewing, not editors. So, scientists tend to publish more and more in "open access journals", which just didn't exist up to not long ago. There is now an "open science movement", and a movement to boycott Elsevier, singled out among the many scientific editors as an especially bad one.

Is all that enough? Surely, these are positive developments, but we must do more. Science is not an ivory tower and not even a besieged citadel. It is an enterprise designed to produce knowledge and we badly need this knowledge in this difficult moment. It is not enough to make this knowledge available to those who paid for it, we must also strive to make it understandable to those who can act on it. How to do it? Well, there are many ways. For a start, if you are a scientist, why don't you keep a blog?

On the question of open access, see also this article on the New York Times (h/t Bart Anderson)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Blue ice: beautiful and dangerous

Blue ice: it is beautiful, but when it appears in the Antarctic sea it is also a symptom of dangerous global warming. Image from a post by Antonio Turiel titled coming to terms with nature" (in Spanish).

In a previous post titled "Blue ice" I reported some observations by Antonio Turiel on the color of Antarctic ice. In a post in his blog, "The Oil Crash", titled, "Coming to terms with nature" (in Spanish) Turiel tells of a colleague of his coming back from an Antarctic expedition. What made him worried about global warming, was not so much the increase in temperatures, but the color of the icebergs in the Antarctic sea. The icebergs had turned blue. Turiel reports the words of his colleague.

"You know, the worst is not that each year there is more free sea. 20 years ago, the icebergs were white. Now they are blue." I said, "yes," and we both remained silent.

I received several comments on this post over the mail and Turiel himself answered to some of them. With his permission, I am now reproducing an edited version of Turiel's mails in order to explain why old icebergs are blue and why this is relevant for climate. So, here is Turiel commenting on his post:

Something that I (deliberately) omitted in my story about blue ice is that my colleague is Russian, a former researcher in the Shirsov Institute (a well known oceanographic institution in the former Soviet Union). Soviet Russians had a wide knowledge about polar seas and they studied in great detail the physics of water formation in those areas, to the point that their studies on abyssal waters are still a reference in the field. Mikhail's voyage with a Spanish research vessel was, to some extent, a nostalgic travel as our ship was intended to meet at a given date his former ship and his former companions. To tell you the truth on Mikhail's return to my lab, when I was talking with him, I was unsure about the exact meaning of blue ice, but it seems that Russians know this very well...


..... surface melting creates crevasses which lead to water accumulate in the base of glaciers, lubricating and accelerating the ice tongue and that makes ice move faster towards the sea. This extra ice flux can cause an increase of the ice covered area of the seas nearby, especially in winter. But don't get confused about that: in such a case the sea is covered by a much thinner layer, but at the same time the ice cap has grown thinner. If you consider the total amount of ice in the ice caps you observe a net ice loss, as it is the case in Antarctica and everywhere.

Unfortunately we lost Cryosat-1 at launch, and Cryosat-2 has just started giving us data about ice thickness. Thus, we don't have a complete historical record and, in addition, we will need to calibrate these new remote sensing data during for many years to come. I'm personally involved in the calibration-validation of another ESA mission, SMOS, and I can confirm you that getting sensible data from new satellites is a lot of work that takes several years. So, we cannot rely on comfortable, large-scale measures of ice thickness to know what is exactly going on. Our only possible reliable evidence about ice thickness comes from repeated in situ measurements at selected locations, and all them indicate an increasing ice loss; but there is always of course a certain degree of uncertainty with these measurements.

    Nevertheless, satellite gravimetry can give us good hints. Satellite missions such as Grace or GOCE allow us to measure small differences in the gravitational field of Earth. These measurements can be used to improve our knowledge of Earth's geoid or the average sea level, but also can be used to estimate very slow displacements of land masses and even of land ice (areas of active sea ice change too fast for those techniques to be of application). These measurements have been combined with new GNSS-R reflectometry techniques to evaluate discharge rates by glaciers; to my knowledge this has been done mostly for Greenland, with twenty of so large glaciers being monitored. I guess it is because it is the most accessible area of this kind from Europe and the United States. Pedro Elosegui is a known specialist who was for several decades in the US and now works at my lab. Quite recently Pedro gave us a presentation, compiling the state-of-the-art in the field, and the conclusion is that glacier discharge in Greenland seems to be accelerating, at least during the last decade.

Now, some comments from me. First of all, there is a persistent legend that says that Antarctic ice is "growing" and that this fact, somehow, disproves the whole concept of global warming. This is just a legend. Temperatures are increasing in Antarctica, as everywhere else on Earth. At most, it can be said that the area of the floating ice around Antarctica is constant or slightly growing. But the volume of the Antarctic ice shows a net loss, just as the volume of Arctic ice is decreasing, and Greenland's too.  In other words, all the major ice sheets are losing mass because of global warming. Details on this point can be read here:

Allison, I., Alley, R., Fricker, H., Thomas, R., Warner, R. (2009). Ice sheet mass balance and sea level. Antarctic Science. 21(5), 413-426 (full text). In this paper, it is estimated that Anctartica loses something of the order of 100-200 Gigatons of ice every year. Some other estimates (http://www.skepticalscience.com/antarctica-gaining-ice.htm) report a loss of  300 Gigatons/year.

If Antarctica is losing ice, then the flow of icebergs from the ice sheet must increase. That means, in turn, that these icebergs must be older. Then, why the color blue? Well, Antarctic ice is compacted snow. Snow contains a lot of air in the form of small bubbles. As it is compacted under the pressure of an overlying ice mass, it loses more and more of these bubbles. The older the ice, the smaller the density of bubbles. Now, small bubbles scatter light just like the frosted glass of a shower panel. So new ice scatters light and it appears white. On the contrary, old ice is transparent and it takes the color blue because blue light penetrates to a higher depth than red light. In the end, older icebergs show up as blue icebergs. That is a confirmation of the fact that Antarctica is losing continental ice faster than it did 20 years ago.

So, as usual, the question of climate change is shrouded in legends of all kinds; the one about "Antarctica not warming" is just one of the many. But if you look at the science, there is no doubt that global warming is occurring faster than ever.

Antonio Turiel is a physicist working at the Institute of Marine Physics in Barcelona, Spain. In his blog, "the oil crash" (in Spanish) he discusses a wide variety of subjects, all related to Energy; from peak oil to climate change. A recent post of him on the "E-Cat" hoax is available in English on the EnergyBulletin.

h/t Euan Mearns for having started the discussion on blue ice. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Cassandra's task is hopeless

Sometimes you stumble into something that needs no comments; except to note that Cassandra's task, really, is hopeless.

In Mackerel's Plunder, Hints of Epic Fish Collapse


25 January 2012

TALCAHUANO, Chile – Eric Pineda, a dock agent in this old port south of Santiago, peered deep into the Achernar’s hold at a measly 10 tons of jack mackerel — the catch after four days in waters once so rich they filled the 17-meter fishing boat in a few hours.

Mr. Pineda, like everyone here, grew up with the bony, bronze-hued fish they call jurel, which roams in schools in the southern Pacific.

It’s going fast,” he said as he looked at the 57-foot boat. “We’ve got to fish harder before it’s all gone.” Asked what he would leave his son, he shrugged: “He’ll have to find something else.” 

From the New York Times - h/t The Oil Drum

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Centennial of Alfred Wegener's continental drift theory: the start of Earth systems science

Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) during a scientific expedition in Greenland, in 1912. His theory of "continental drift," presented for the first time in January of that year, started a scientific revolution in geology that deeply affected the way we understand how Earth systems work. 

One century ago, in January 1912, Alfred Wegener presented for the first time his theory of "continental drift" at a meeting held in Frankfurt, in Germany (*). Wegener had collected geological and paleontological data that gave weight to an old observation: that the margin of continents on the opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean seemed to correspond; as in a gigantic puzzle. Accordingly, Wegener proposed that the present continents were once joined together but had slowly drifted away from each other over hundreds of millions of years. (image source: J. Floor Anthony)

The story of the theory of continental drift spans several decades. Initially rejected by a majority of geologists, it gradually gained acceptance, until it became standard in the 1950s. Later on, it became part of what we call today "plate tectonics" which is a pillar of everything that we know in Earth systems science.

Occasionally, the troubled story of Alfred Wegener's theory has been perversely appropriated by climate deniers to claim that they are discriminated by the scientific establishment. But that only shows that climate deniers don't understand how science works. All new scientific theories are subjected to close scrutiny and Wegener's one was no exception. Its acceptance took time for various reasons, including the start of the First World War, shortly after it had been presented. Mainly, however, it was because at the time of Wegener there was no evidence that continents could actually move and no proof that they actually did. When satisfactory experimental evidence on these points became available, the theory was universally accepted. It is true that the debate on continental drift was harsher than usual, but it was not different than any scientific debate, as you can read in detail at this link. Wegener himself would be appalled today if he could see his name associated to junk science, as sometimes it is (see here, for instance).

The relevance of Wegener's idea of continental drift (and of its underlying mechanism: plate tectonics) is not just related to an old scientific debate. It is the basis of the modern science of Earth's systems, which includes climate science. Continental drift is a manifestation of the dynamic forces existing inside the Earth, in the region that we call "mantle". It is because of the flow of matter from the crust to the mantle and back that the system maintains a concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere sufficient to maintain plant photosynthesis. Without plate tectonics, there could be no life on Earth. Indeed, Venus and Mars have no active plate tectonics and - as far as we know - no organic life.

But plate tectonics does not just maintain some carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also regulates its concentration and, with it, the surface temperature of Earth. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas acting as the Earth's "thermostat knob." The mechanisms of plate tectonics have slowly reduced its concentration in order to maintain an average constant temperature, despite the gradual increase of solar irradiation over geological times (some 10% each billion years). This regulation is far from being perfect: during the past Aeons, the Earth saw ice ages and very hot periods but, on the average, temperatures remained within the bounds necessary for life to exist. Unfortunately, this regulation mechanism is too slow to remedy to the perturbation we are causing today to climate by our carbon dioxide emissions. Still, what we know about the mechanism of plate tectonics and its consequences on the past history of our planet should make us more careful about what we are doing now to the ecosystems. This knowledge goes back, ultimately, to the work of Alfred Wegener: scientist and pioneer of Earth systems science.

You can read how modern Wegener's view of Earth systems science was from this excerpt from UCMP (University of California Museum of Technology)

"Scientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence. . . It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine 'truth' here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw."

* Wegener, Alfred (1912). "Die Herausbildung der Grossformen der Erdrinde (Kontinente und Ozeane), auf geophysikalischer Grundlage" (in German). Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 63: 185–195, 253–256, 305–309. Presented at the annual meeting of the German Geological Society, Frankfurt am Main (January 6, 1912).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Breaking the walls of Diaspar: the revolution of planetary science

The title of this post derives from the 1956 novel by Arthur C. Clarke "The City and the Stars" which starts with the description of the ancient city of Diaspar - one billion years in our future.  Just as the protagonist of the novel breaks one barrier after the other in his quest for truth, so we are breaking one scientific barrier after another in a series of scientific revolutions. A recent one has started with the discovery of a large number of extra-solar planets coupled with the new understanding we have of the mechanisms that keeps our Earth "alive".

If I go back to my teenage years, I can identify some of the reasons that led me to follow a scientific career. One is a novel by Arthur C. Clarke: "The City and the Stars," published in 1956 and that I read when I was, maybe, 15 years old. The name of the city of the novel "Diaspar" has remained riveted in my mind ever since. 

"The city and the stars" is "hard" science fiction; it deals with planets, stars and spaceships. You can read it as an adventure novel, but also as an allegory of the human search for truth and enlightenment. It starts with the protagonist locked inside the walls of Diaspar. A jewel of a city of a billion years in our future, but also a small world from which the protagonist tries to escape. And he succeeds; breaking one wall after another, exploring what is left of the ancient planet Earth, and then moving to space to find all sorts of wonders. The novel leaves you breathless with its width and depth. It is pure magic: the magic of scientific discovery.

It is said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I can confirm from my experience that it is true. Of course, science fiction makes things easier: it removes the 99% of perspiration. But even in real science, the 1% of inspiration is well worth the 99% of hard work. Good science brings to you the same sensation of wonder that good science fiction produces - the sensation of breaking down one knowledge barrier after another, with the advantage that it is for real!

So, during the past few years, we have had so much good science that it has been almost overwhelming to keep track of it. Every morning, I give a look to the web to see what is new in science and, almost every morning, I am struck by something new and unexpected to be read and understood. It is hard to absorb so much, but I try and it is always fascinating.

The latest scientific revolution is in planetary science. It seems almost unbelievable that just some decades ago people were still debating on whether extrasolar planets actually existed. Today, we are discovering so many of them that it is now believed that almost every star in the galaxy has planets. It all reminds us of the times of Galileo Galilei. Think about that: before Galileo, planets were just specks of light fixed to crystal spheres. Then, after Galileo looked at the night sky with his telescope, - bang! - planet became big balls floating in space. And and not just that: there were small planets orbiting big planets; miniature solar systems. A sudden expansion of the horizon - the breakdown of a knowledge barrier. From Galileo to us, it has been breaking one wall after another: science is enlarging our horizons at a breathless pace. The universe keeps becoming bigger. Now, everytime you raise your eyes to look at the Milky Way, you know that you are looking at a galaxy full of planets. (image below from ESO, showing a comparison of the planets of the Solar System and those of Gliese 581, a star located at about 20 light years away from the Sun. )

But the thrill of new discoveries doesn't just come from knowing that extrasolar planets exist. It comes also from what we know about these planets. A revolution in planetary sciences has been going on at a breathless pace. It is a synthesis that puts together geology, biology, astronomy and physics to give us a picture of the life and the evolution of planets. Life on an Earth-like planet is not just a question of being at the right distance from a star. It is a delicate balance of factors that involve plate tectonics, the core temperature, the carbon cycle, solar irradiation; all interacting with each other to keep a planet "alive". The right combination of these factors can make a planet suitable for organic life and, probably, for the development of intelligent life. So, looking at the sky at night, we what we are seeing is not just a galaxy full planets, but also full of life and - probably - of intelligent life.

At the same time, the new science of planetary systems gives us a pretty clear view of how we can destroy our civilization by upsetting the delicate balance of the factors that keep our planet alive and friendly to us. We can do it in more than one way, but the most effective one is to continue to emit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So, once you have looked at the stars, come back to Earth and start doing something because we are all in trouble. If we manage to destroy ourselves it will little consolation to know that others in the Galaxy may do better than us.


About extrasolar planets, you may look at "Centauri Dreams" for updates.

A good synthesis of the interlocking factors that keep planets alive can be found in an article by Milan Cerkovic.

A previous post of mine on galactic civilizations is "The Hubbert hurdle: revisiting the Fermi paradox"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why biofuels are not a good idea

If you have always been thinking that biofuels are not a good idea, this book by Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi will tell you exactly why.

Last year, I was engaged in a public debate on energy with a high level senior official of the Italian government - a "technocrat" if you like to use this term. When I expressed strong doubts about biofuels as a source of energy, his reaction was aggressive. He attacked me personally, hinting that I was on the payroll of the oil industry, since it is obvious that they don't like biofuels. He added that this fact was proven by the statements against biofuels issued by the Saudi ministry of petroleum. Besides, he said, speaking against biofuels is a way to prevent the poor of Brazil from reaping the goods that globalization will bring to them as soon as the biofuel world market of ethanol will be liberalized.(*)

Debates are always a learning experience, this one was no exception. One of the things I learned is that technocrats are just politicians who don't have to worry too much about their constituency. As politicians, their instinct in the debate is to go immediately for the personal attack; it is a strategy honed to perfection through thousands of years of political debate. My opponent applied it without worrying too much about the contradiction implied in accusing me of being on the payroll of the oil industry - think that I have spent the past ten years preaching the arrival of peak oil!

Another thing that I learned from that debate is how, by now, the biofuel industry has become so big that it is already politically incorrect to speak in public against biofuels. If you do that, you are bound to take plenty of flak; which is what happened to me. If you want to survive this kind of attacks, you must be very well prepared on the subject. For this purpose, you may find a lot of help in the recent book "The Biofuel Delusion" by Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi. If you are unsure about why exactly biofuels are the disaster that they are, this book will explain to you that on the basis of a rigorous analysis and plenty of data. It is unfortunate (actually, it is a scandal) that it is so expensive; almost 70 dollars for a copy. But if you are engaged in the energy debate, it is a good investment.

Biofuels are a complex matter and Giampietro and Mayumi use almost 300 pages to eviscerate it in all its aspects. The main point of their analysis is based on fundamental physics: the efficiency of photosynthesis is low and the result is that the areas needed for cultivation are large. If we are thinking of amounts of biofuels comparable to the present needs for transportation, the task is simply unthinkable: there would be no space left for food production. As the authors flatly state at page 128 of the book, "Full substitution of fossil energy with agro-biofuels is impossible."

The large area needed is only one of the problems with biofuels. More in general, agriculture is a good technology for producing food, but it is terribly expensive in terms of the resources it requires. It needs land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical work; all supplies that normally come from fossil fuels. Taking all that into account, the EROEI (energy return for energy invested) of biofuels is generally low; unless the invested energy is supplied by low cost human labor, as it is the case for Brazilian sugar cane. Apart from Brazil, the need of an energy subsidy in the form of fossil fuels makes biofuels unable to deliver their promise of being a "sustainable" technology. They can't help us in reducing our dependency on fossil fuels nor in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Of course, the biofuel story is more complex than that and Giampietro and Mayumi examine the whole spectrum of possibilities in their book. Are there better biofuels? Or, perhaps, ways of using the present form of biofuels in a more effective way? Yes, of course; there is the promise of "second generation" fuels (cellulosic ethanol) and the possibility of cultivating marginal areas, unsuitable for food production. But the physical factors of the problem don't change much and, right now, biofuels and conventional agriculture are already competing for land and resources. One of consequences may be the increase increase in food prices that we have been seen during the past few years.

In the end, what do we want to do, exactly, with biofuels? Do we really think that the way to solve our energy problems is to use an inefficient technology to support an already inefficient transportation system? The only explanation I can think of for so much emphasis on biofuels is that, once a bad idea is implemented, it starts to gain momentum and then it becomes nearly impossible to stop.

At this point, you may wonder how the debate with my technocratic opponent ended. Well, I was tempted to use his own tactics and accuse him to be on the payroll of the biofuel lobby. But I am not a politician and I didn't do that; also because I saw that it was not necessary. If you have some experience in speaking in public, you soon develop a sixth sense about what your audience thinks. In this case, it was clear to me: the audience was with me, not with my technocratic opponent. They just didn't buy the idea that biofuels can solve the world's fuel problem without starving anybody - to say nothing about the idea that globalization will make the Brazilian peasants rich. Did he sense that, too? I can't say. A few months later, he got an even higher level position in the new "technocratic" Monti government in Italy.

* By the way, the recent abolition of the government subsidies on corn ethanol in the US is probably a good thing, but it does not at all end the government support on biofuels, as you can read in this interesting article by Mike Sheldon on "The Oil Drum." Note, in particular, that the abolition of subsidies comes together with the abolition of the tariff on ethanol imports from Brazil and that could make ethanol cheaper than it was with subsidies! And it remains to be seen how that will affect the Brazilian peasants. 

See also: The Earthscan's page on "The Biofuel Delusion"
Mario Giampietro's page at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The return of "The Limits to Growth"

The main results of the "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" study, from a recent article on the New Scientist by Debora McKenzie (available upon registration)

The return of interest in "The Limits to Growth" continues. After decades of ridicule and insults, the value of the 1972 study and of its sequels is more and more recognized. The latest item in the series of revisitations is the article published by Debora McKenzie in the New Scientist on Jan 10, 2012 and titled "Boom and Doom, revisiting prophecies of collapse" (can be read on the New Scientist site after registration)

On the whole, the article by McKenzie is very well done and it summarizes all the main points of the story: how Limits never made the mistakes it was accused to have made, how the study was demonized, and how its scenarios are still relevant to our situation today. The article has been extensively researched and it cites the opinion of most of the researchers who have been working on the reappraisal of the study and of its methods, including my book, "The Limits to Growth Revisited".

A point that is less than satisfactory in the New Scientist's article is about the relation of the Limits scenarios with the present findings of climate science. It says that Limits "was too optimistic about the future impact of pollution," but I think this is not the case. The study did contain at least one scenario in which economic collapse took place because of the rapid rise in pollution. But the main point is that Limits was perhaps the first study able to identify the interaction of pollution and the industrial system that produces it. What the authors of Limits called "persistent pollution" in 1972 could later be identified with the forcing effect of greenhouse gases. It is not possible, today,  to say whether the economy will collapse because of resource depletion or because of global warming; but that the terms of the dilemma were already clarified in 1972 must be considered as a remarkable intuition!

The other point that connects "The Limits to Growth" to climate science is the demonization treatment that the study received after its publication. This point is well covered in McKenzie's article. The smear campaign set up against Limits and its authors is surprising similar to the one unleashed in our times against climate science and against climate scientists. The only difference is that the methods used nowadays against science are much more aggressive. The authors of "The Limits to Growth" were often ridiculed and insulted; occasionally they also received death threats, but the level of abuse that climate scientists have been receiving in recent times is much higher. That is, perhaps, because the consequences of global warming on our society could be much more radical and fearsome than anything that Limits had foreseen decades ago.

This said, it is clear that we can learn a lot from the story of the Limits and its demonization. Unfortunately, one of the things we learn from history is that we almost never learn from history.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Blue ice

Coming to terms with Nature,
by Antonio Turiel

A colleague of mine is occasionally engaged in oceanographic campaigns in Antarctica. A couple of years ago he found himself revisiting an area that he had seen for the first time some 20 years earlier. Coming back, he told me many stories about his travel; of how he had seen his old oceanographic ship, his colleagues on board..... After that, he became pensive and he told me, "You know, the worst is not that each year there is more free sea. 20 years ago, the icebergs were white. Now they are blue." I said, "yes," and we both remained silent.

The color of the ice is related the amount of air which remains trapped inside. As the ice is trapped in higher depths and is more compressed, the air escapes and the ices becomes more and more blue. Those icebergs seen by my colleague hadn't seen the light of the sun for a long time; perhaps centuries......

Continue reading the complete post in Spanish, or in Italian

Friday, January 6, 2012

Old ladies of the Appennini mountains

Mrs. Fidalma, resident in the village "Ca' di Franca" (Arezzo) in the Appennini Mountains, Italy. She has nicely agreed to have her picture taken and shown here.  Photo taken by the author on Jan 5, 2012.

Some areas of Italy have maintained the lifestyle of a hundred years ago; especially in the mountains. In small villages, people still rely on wood for heating their houses and for cooking, as their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years, before fossil fuels appeared. Old ladies in these places still dress the way they were dressing 50 years ago, as Mrs Fidalma does in the photo above. Below, another picture, this time showing Mrs. Iliana of the village of Trecciano, in the same area of the Appennini Mountains. It gives a good idea of the nice atmosphere of a house all made in stone, heated by a fireplace.

Maybe it is a world that will disappear in a few more years, or maybe it is a world that is going to return with the gradual disappearance of fossil fuels. But, what was I doing in the mountains, in a cold day of January? Well, there are some interesting windy places, there.....

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Peak everything: return to segregation in Italian trains?

This post is a bit off topic, but I thought to publish a little note on this subject because it seems to me that it illustrates how so many things are changing in this world that looks more and more "post-peak". One thing that is clearly changing is the increasing unbalance in the distribution of wealth, worldwide. An effect of this change seems to appear in some recent choices made by the Italian national railways ("Trenitalia"). The company has recently introduced a new, low-cost "fourth class" in their trains. In this class, passengers are segregated; they can't access the other three classes, where the bar and the restaurant are.

That's already nasty in itself; but what the managers of Trenitalia seemed to have in mind came up from something they published on their site. There were pictures of the passengers in all the four classes; those of the first three classes were all white, whereas those in fourth class were - imagine that - black (see above). Of course, there were protests and the image has been hastily removed from the trenitalia site after the scandal erupted. You can read the whole story (in Italian) here, and here. Trenitalia has not apologized, so far.

Things are indeed changing in this post-peak world.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Losing the war against the planet

We knew we had picked up a fight we couldn't win when we tackled a whole planet, but perhaps we didn't expect that the planet would fight back so viciously and so effectively. 2011 has been a year of environmental disasters in numbers and intensity never seen before. And we ain't seen nothing yet!

Give a look of the photos of the rout of humankind at thinkprogress and also at Desdemona Despair.

(for the Desdemona link - H.T. Cristiano Bottone)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy new year from Cassandra

Despite all her magic spells, sometimes even Cassandra has troubles in predicting the future.
(image: painting by John Waterhouse)

Every year, during the past few years, I have been publishing a post with my predictions for the new year on my Italian blog. I think I have been rather successful in this role of mine as Cassandra, the prophetess. Sometimes, I have been surprised myself of how accurate some of my statements have been. For instance, at the beginning of 2008 I said something about a coming financial crisis and how I expected oil prices to crash (I stated that also in English, here and here). And, at the beginning of 2011, I said that I expected big troubles for the European Union (see here, in Italian). You see? I think I should be scared of what I have been doing. But, in reality, it was nothing more than common sense, good data,  and the general attitude that things never stay the same.

So, how about the coming year? I was planning to write something about what 2012 could bring but, this time, it is beyond my possibilities; I am overwhelmed. The situation is so complex, so unstable, so desperately out of control that, really, anything can happen. And most of the things that can happen are bad. War in Middle East, the breakdown of the European Union, financial collapses, the bursting up of Arctic methane, epidemics, famines, major environmental disasters..... Anything can happen, even that 2012 could be, miraculously, a quiet year.

So, all what I can say is "happy new year" to everybody and hope, just hope, that Cassandra's predicting power could make this wish true.