Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Hot dry summers

August 10, 2018

Apparently its been hot all around the northern hemisphere this summer.

And that got me thinking about the long hot summer of 1976 when I was 16.

I have the general impression that summers now are warmer than they used to be. But I am aware that such impressions can be misleading.

Being the age I am (58), I fear my own mis-remembering of times past.

So was 1976 really exceptional? And will this year (2018) also prove to be really exceptional?

I decided to download some data and take a look.

Heathrow Data.

I popped over to the Met Office’s Climate pages and downloaded the historical data from the nearby Heathrow weather station.

I had downloaded this data before when looking at long-term climate trends, but this time I was looking for individual hot months rather than annual or decadal trends.

When I plotted the monthly average of the daily maximum temperature, I was surprised that 1976 didn’t stand out at all as an exceptional year.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data July Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. I have highlighted the data from July each year using red squares. Notice that since 1976 there have been many comparable July months.

In the graph above I have highlighted July average maximum temperatures. I tried similar analyses for June and August and the results were similar. 1976 stood out as a hot year, but not exceptionally so.

Ask an Expert

Puzzled, I turned to an expert. I sent an e-mail to John Kennedy at the UK’s Met Office  and to my astonishment he responded within a few hours.

His suggestion was to try plotting seasonal data.

His insight was based on the fact that it is not so unusual to have a single warm month. But it is unusual to have three warm months in a row.

So I re-plotted the data and this time I highlighted the average of daily maximum temperatures for June, July and August.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data June July August Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines as in the previous figure. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 now stands out as an exceptionally warm summer.

Delightfully, 1976 pops out as being an exceptional summer – in line with my adolescent recollection.

More than just being hot

But John suggested more. He suggested looking at the seasonal average of the minimum daily temperature.

Recall that in hot weather it is often the overnight warmth which is particularly oppressive.

In this graph (below) 1976 does not stand out as exceptional, but it is noticeable that warming trend is easily visible to the naked eye. On average summer, summer nights are about 2 °C warmer now than they were at the start of my lifetime.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data JJA Minimum Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature minima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 does not stand out exceptionally.

John also suggested that I look at other available data such as the averages of

  • daily hours of sunshine
  • daily rainfall

Once again seasonal averages of these quantities show 1976 to have been an exceptional year. Below I have plotted the Rainfall totals on two graphs, one showing the overall rainfall, and the other detail of the low rainfall summers.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall

The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer. The data below 50 mm of rainfall are re-plotted in the next graph.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall detail

Detail from the previous figure showing the low rainfall data. The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer.

de Podesta ‘Hot Summer’ Index

Following on from John’s suggestion, I devised the ‘de Podesta Long Hot Summer Index‘. I defined this to be:

  • the sum of the seasonal averages of the minimum and maximum temperatures (for June July and August),
  • divided by the seasonal average of rainfall (for June July and August).

Plotting this I was surprised to see 1976 pop out of the data as a truly exceptional hot dry summer – my memory had not deceived me.

But I also noticed 1995 ‘popped out’ too and I had no recollection of that being an exceptional summer. However this data (and Wikipedia) confirms that it was.

Now I just have to wait until the end of August to see if this year was exceptional too – it most surely felt exceptional, but we need to look at the data to see if our perceptions are genuinely grounded in reality.

Heathrow Hot Dry Summer Index

The de Podesta Hot Dry Summer (HDS) index as described in the text.  Construct an ‘index’ in this way really flags up the exceptional nature of 1976, and also 1995.

John Kennedy’s blog

In typical self-deprecating manner, John calls himself a ‘diagram monkey’ and blogs under that pseudonym. 

His is one of just two blogs to which I subscribe and I recommend it to you highly.

Not everything is getting worse!

April 19, 2017

Carbon Intensity April 2017

Friends, I find it hard to believe, but I think I have found something happening in the world which is not bad. Who knew such things still happened?

The news comes from the fantastic web site MyGridGB which charts the development of electricity generation in the UK.

On the site I read that:

  • At lunchtime on Sunday 9th April 2017,  8 GW of solar power was generated.
  • On Friday all coal power stations in the UK were off.
  • On Saturday, strong winds and solar combined with low demand to briefly provide 73% of power.

All three of these facts fill me with hope. Just think:

  • 8 gigawatts of solar power. In the UK! IN APRIL!!!
  • And no coal generation at all!
  • And renewable energy providing 73% of our power!

Even a few years ago each of these facts would have been unthinkable!

And even more wonderfully: nobody noticed!

Of course, these were just transients, but they show we have the potential to generate electricity which has a significantly low carbon intensity.

Carbon Intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere for each unit (kWh) of electricity generated.

Wikipedia tells me that electricity generated from:

  • Coal has a carbon intensity of about 1.0 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Gas has a carbon intensity of about 0.47 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Biomass has a carbon intensity of about 0.23 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Solar PV has a carbon intensity of about 0.05 kg of CO2 per kW
  • Nuclear has a carbon intensity of about 0.02 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Wind has a carbon intensity of about 0.01 kg of CO2 per kWh

The graph at the head of the page shows that in April 2017 the generating mix in the UK has a carbon intensity of about 0.25 kg of CO2 per kWh.

MyGridGB’s mastermind is Andrew Crossland. On the site he has published a manifesto outlining a plan which would actually reduce our carbon intensity to less than 0.1 kg of CO2 per kWh.

What I like about the manifesto is that it is eminently doable.

And who knows? Perhaps we might actually do it?

Ahhhh. Thank you Andrew.

Even thinking that a good thing might still be possible makes me feel better.


Volcanic Clouds

September 28, 2015
The estimated average air temperature above the land surface of the Earth. The thick black line. The squiggle lines are data and the grey lines give an indication of uncertainty in the estimate. Th bold black line shows the results of a model based on carbon dioxide and the effect of named volcanoes.

The estimated average air temperature above the land surface of the Earth. The squiggly lines are data and the grey lines give an indication of uncertainty in the estimate. The bold black line shows the results of a model based on the effects of carbon dioxide and the effect of named volcanoes. Figure is from the Berkeley Earth Temperature Project

The explosion of Mount Tambora in 1815 was the largest explosion in recorded history. Its catastrophic local effects – earthquakes, tsunami, and poisonous crop-killing clouds – were witnessed by many people including Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java.

Curiously, one year later, while touring through France, Raffles also witnessed deserted villages and impoverished peasantry caused by the ‘year without a summer’ that caused famine throughout Europe.

But at the time no-one connected the two events! The connection was not made until the late 20th Century when scientists were investigating the possibility of a ‘nuclear winter’ that might arise from multiple nuclear explosions.

Looking at our reconstructed record of the air temperature above the land surface of the Earth at the head of this article, we can see that Tambora lowered the average surface temperature of the Earth by more than 1 °C and its effects lasted for around three years.

Tambora erupted just 6 years after a volcanic explosion in 1809 whose location is still unknown. We now know that together they caused the decade 1810-1820 to be exceptionally cold. However, at the time the exceptional weather was just experienced as an ‘act of god’.

In Tambora: The Eruption that changed the world, Gillen D’Arcy Wood describes both the local nightmare near Tambora, and more significantly the way in which the climate impacts of Tambora affected literary, scientific, and political history around the globe.

In particular he discusses:

  • The effect of a dystopian ‘summer’ experienced by the Shelleys and Lord Byron in their Alpine retreat.
  • The emergence of cholera in the wake of a disastrous monsoon season in Bengal. Cholera went on to form a global pandemic that eventually reached the UK through trade routes.
  • The period of famine in the rice-growing region of Yunnan that led to a shift towards opium production.
  • The bizarre warming – yes, warming – in the Arctic that led to reports of ice free northern oceans, and triggered decades of futile attempts to discover the fabled North West Passage.
  • The dramatic and devastating advance of glaciers in the Swiss alps that led to advances in our understanding of ice ages.
  • The ‘other’ Irish Famine – a tale of great shame and woe – prefacing the great hunger caused by the potato-blight famines in later decades.
  • The extraordinary ‘snow in June’ summer in the eastern United States

Other Volcanic Clouds

Many Europeans will recall the chaos caused by the volcanic clouds from the 2010 eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced like this  or phonectically ‘[ˈeɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœːkʏtl̥]).

The 2010 eruptions were tiny in historical terms with effects which were local to Iceland and nearby air routes. This is because although a lot of dust was ejected, most of it stayed within the troposphere – the lower weather-filled part of the atmosphere. Such dust clouds are normally rained out over a period of a few days or weeks.

Near the equator the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere – known as the tropopause – is about 16 km high, but this boundary falls to around 9 km nearer the poles.

For a volcanic cloud to to have wider effects the volcanic explosion must push it above the tropopause into the stratosphere. Tiny particles can be suspended here for years, and have a dramatic effect on global climate.


Tambora may have been ‘the big one’ but it was not alone. Looking at our reconstructed air temperature record at the head of this article, we can see that large volcanic eruptions are not rare. And the 19th Century had many more than the 20th Century.

Near the start of the recorded temperature history is the eruption of Laki in Iceland (1783-84). Local details of this explosion were recorded in the diary of Jon Steingrimsson, and in their short book Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe describe the progression of the eruption and its effects further afield – mainly in Europe.

In the UK and Europe the summer consisted of prolonged ‘dry fogs’ that caused plants to wither and people to fall ill. On the whole people were mystified by the origin of these clouds, even though one or two people – including the prolific Benjamin Franklin – then US Ambassador to France – did in fact make the connection with Icelandic volcanoes.

Purple Clouds

Prior to the two books on real volcanic clouds, I had previously read a fictional account of such an event: The Purple Cloud by M P Shiel, published in 1901, and set in the early decades of that century.

This is a fictional, almost stream-of-consciousness, account of how an Arctic explorer discovers a world of beauty at the North Pole – including un-frozen regions. But by violating Nature’s most hidden secrets, he somehow triggers a series of volcanic eruptions at the Equator which over the course of a couple of weeks kill everyone on Earth – save for himself.

I enjoyed this book, but don’t particularity recommend it. However what is striking to me now having since read accounts of these genuine historical events is that the concept of a globally significant volcanic cloud actually existed at the end of the nineteenth Century.

Final Words

The lingering flavour of these books – factual and fictional – is that historically there have been poorly-appreciated tele-connections between historical events.

Now, we live in a world in which the extent and importance of these global tele-connections has never been greater.

And in this world we are vulnerable to events such as volcanic clouds which – as the chart at the top of the page shows – affect the entire world and are not that rare.

Cradle of the best and the worst

July 19, 2014
One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

I am on holiday with my family in Nevada and California, and while shopping for beer and clothing in Las Vegas, I was reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen:

It’s coming to America first.
The cradle of the best and the worst

Lenny’ was speaking of Democracy,  but I feel that the phrase can be extended into environmental, technological and cultural realms. And in his blog I wanted to record a few thoughts about the ‘best’ of the things I have seen.

Amidst the hyperbolic kitch of Las Vegas, we stayed in the walls of a gigantic hollow pyramid that is a truly astounding architectural and engineering achievement. For example, the elevators obviously cannot run vertically but instead run at angle along the slanted edges of the pyramid.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel - which is pyramidal in shape.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel – which is pyramidal in shape.

Housed underneath this beautiful roof were any number of gaudy distractions. But amongst them was the Bodies exhibition. I found the exhibition dignified, tasteful and astonishingly  educational. I left with renewed wonder at my body.

We visited the Hoover Dam in which the barely mentioned reality is that the water levels are running low. But there is no denying the engineering genius and boldness of the ambition behind it’s construction.

The Ivanpah Solar Power plant may be on the wrong-side of a historic divide between solar photo-voltaic and solar thermal. But the engineering is awe-inspiring: three giant towers concentrating solar energy – one resource which is not in short supply in this part of the world.

In Los Angeles we have used the excellent public transport rail system, which is easily accessible and welcomes bicycles. Over long stretches it has been built to use the inner lanes of freeways or major roads to minimise construction costs. And nearly all the buses have bicycle carriers attached to their fenders.

An LA Metro Train. Teh station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

An LA Metro Train. The station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

Many freeways have car pool lanes – in which only cars with more than one passenger may travel. Some freeways use a road pricing system –  long-discussed in the UK – in which the price to use a ‘Fastrak’ lane changes minute by minute – reaching peaks of 10 times the minimum charge at times of peak congestion. These lanes also allow fast buses to speed public transport as advertised in this excessively positive advertising video.

Of course road traffic defines LA. But driving speeds are slower in suburban streets  than in the UK’s narrower and more congested roads. In the suburban area of LA in which we are staying (El Segundo) traffic is dramatically better than Teddington.  And contrary to myth, there is excellent provision for pedestrians. And of course, California is a world-leader in legislation to control vehicle emissions.

The Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl  is aunique cultural venue combining excellent music with the  friendly ambience of the proms and the ability to picnic as the Sun sets over the Hollywood Hills.

Culturally, the Getty Centre and Villa, the California Science Centre  (which houses the space shuttle Endeavour) and the Griffiths Observatory are among the best museums I have ever visited. And they are free.

The Disney Theatre is breathtaking and the Hollywood Bowl provides a venue for music that is unique – it felt like ‘the Proms with picnics’

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a modern day secular temple to the stars.

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a secular temple to the stars.

So forgive me if I pass on reciting the sins of this resource-gobbling satan. In this ‘cradle’along with ‘the worst’, are some things that I find inspiring and well-worthy of the epithet ‘the best’. And I hope that like many Californian innovations – such as vehicle emission limits – many of these will leave this cradle and spread around the world.

And to my friends: forgive me if I forgive myself for this carbon-heavy holiday.

Some things to look forward to…

March 1, 2014
Swansea lagoon visitors centre

Swansea lagoon visitors centre. Picture from BBC News.

‘News’ is frequently an abbreviation for ‘Bad News’. There seems to be no end of stories about ‘things’ getting worse.

And so it is something of relief to hear of people providing solutions to our problems. Here are few things which have recently inspired me with hope.

  • Meeting some teachers today.
  • The Swansea Lagoon Project in Swansea.
  • The Solana and Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power projects in the western USA.

Teachers: Today, Saturday March 1st, I got up early and drove to Birmingham to give a talk to a group of eight physics teachers at a training day.

They were a friendly and positive bunch – but what inspired me was not their subject knowledge (which was actually excellent) but their looks. To my 54 year-old male eyes these people didn’t look like what I expected physics teachers to look like.

From this gender-balanced group there was short and tall, thin and chubby, and a range of ethnicities. They were united only in an interest in Physics and in teaching it well.

As I reflected on the long drive home, it seemed as though these people were part of the solution to a long-standing problem in physics education, and I felt honoured to be able help a little.

The Swansea Lagoon Project (BBC Story) may or not get built, but I loved the design flair in their visitors centre (main picture above), and modesty of the project.

This is not the Severn barrage which would block the entire Severn estuary and which would be able to supply 5% of UK electricity demand to the detriment of nobody but a few wading birds.

This is a much more modest lagoon off the coast of Swansea which would not even harm the birds! Its lower cost makes it much more likely to actually get built, and the technology is scalable – multiple projects could be developed one by one – something which also makes it much more investment friendly.

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Two solar thermal projects in the US have recently begun operating.

  • The Ivanpah plant consists of an astonishing 170,000 parabolic mirrors each of which tracks the Sun to focus light onto a furnace at the top of gigantic tower. This heats steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity.
  • The Solana plant in Arizona is similar, but distinctly different. One difference is that it uses cheaper parabolic troughs to heat a synthetic oil which runs along a tube at their focus. But this plant can also generate electricity after dark! This astonishing engineering ‘trick’ involves storing the thermal energy in gigantic vats of molten salt. The heat can then be used to generate electricity after the Sun has gone down, allowing the generation of electricity at its time of peak demand.

These plants have been heavily subsidised. But they show that this technology is practical and I am sure the next generation of plants will be cheaper to build and operate.

However the LA times reports today that solar thermal plants are already obsolete – even as they open! – because the falling cost of silicon photovoltaic plants is making them uneconomic. That may be true – but photovoltaics definitely don’t work in the dark!

The future is not obvious. But when I see the diversity of people teaching physics and wanting to do it better. And when I see the range of emerging options for sustainable energy generation I feel able to hope that even if I don’t recognise it immediately, the future will arrive all by itself – and that it will not be all bad.

Signs of change

January 6, 2014
An electric car charging in central London.

An electric car charging in central London. How long might it be before such a sight is commonplace?

I don’t often walk through central London: I find the place mystifying and alienating. But one can sometimes see things there before they become common in other places.

Earlier in 2013 I remember spotting hydrogen cylinders on top of a fuel-cell powered bus. And just before Christmas as I shopped for gifts, I wandered past two electric cars being charged. I had previously seen the charging stations all over the place, but I had never seen them being used.

So how long might it be before such a sight becomes commonplace? Well I don’t know – it’s a question about the future – but it is likely to be decades. And of course electric cars are currently mainly powered by coal and gas burned in power stations, not renewable energy.

Scientific American recently published an article about the slow rate at which ‘new’ sources of energy have historically been adopted. I adapted the data and re-plotted it below.

Graph showing the number of years it took various fuel sources reach a give share of world energy supply - after they reached 5%. What realistic growth rate can we expect for renewables?

Graph showing the number of years it took various fuel sources reach a given share of world energy supply – after they reached 5%. What realistic growth rate can we expect for renewables (3.5% in 2012)?

Notice that throughout the 19th Century, coal was never more than 50% of world energy supply: the world was still burning wood. And notice that the ‘switch to gas’ is still underway.

Each of these transitions represents colossal financial investments from which people will not simply walk away. And since ‘World Energy Supply’ now is vastly larger now than it was in 1850, it is inevitable that change will be slow.

But the lesson of this graph is this: Take Heart. Looking back coal, oil and gas seem like they were somehow ‘obvious’ or inevitable, but that is probably just hindsight. Was it obvious that we would overcome the seemingly impossible engineering challenges required to sink mines, drill wells and capture natural gas?

So when it comes to renewables – and this refers only to ‘modern’ renewables: mainly wind and solar – the rate of rise in usage is unlikely to exceed that seen for coal, oil or gas. But that does not mean that change is not coming.

The slow rate of growth is not something to be proud of, or to rejoice in: but neither is it a cause to berate ourselves and say ‘nothing is happening’. It’s just a measure of how much energy we use, the colossal investment in existing infrastructure, and how much more we need to do.

Hopefully new sights will become visible to us in the decades ahead as we build a new world which doesn’t require fossil fuels to make it work.

Our Energy Trilemma

November 3, 2013
Our energy trilemma is that Energy policy needs to balance three goals that defy simple solutions.

Energy policy needs to balance three goals that defy simple solutions.

“The development of stable, affordable, and environmentally-sensitive energy systems defies simple solutions. These three goals constitute a ‘trilemma’, entailing complex interwoven links between public and private actors, governments and regulators, economic and social factors, national resources, environmental concerns, and individual behaviours”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I simply quote from a report by the World Energy Council. And “No”, I have no idea who they are either. But I am grateful to them for enunciating clearly the three strands of the problem. If only our own political parties could speak to us so intelligently.

At the moment the UK’s labour party and the governing coalition are battling over issues of social equity. The labour party advocate an energy price freeze and the coalition advocate some kind of ‘improved’ market.

I don’t think anyone on either side seriously thinks either of these policies addresses longer term issues of social equity. And the arguments ignore the impact on the other two strands. Lower prices are bad for the environment. And in a society that has adopted a market-based way to provide energy, reducing the profitability of energy supply companies is bad for future energy security.

Similarly even the looming environmental threats from climate change cannot justify ignoring the other ‘horns’ of this trilemma. Increasing the price of energy or restricting its availability will have impacts on social equity and energy security.

And focussing on energy security – which means prioritising coal because of its widespread availability – has obvious devastating effects on any attempt to build a sustainable energy infrastructure.

So What?

It is only when we recognise the ‘three-pronged’ structure of our problem that we realise that a rational energy policy – whatever components it contains – will have one key feature:

  • A rational energy policy will disappoint all vocal advocates of one horn of the trilemma.

That means that almost everyone will fight to block it  and that almost no-one will speak up for it. You don’t believe me? Well consider some of the following – any or all of which could be part of a rational energy solution:

  • Fracking – which if implemented well could potentially help both energy security and reduce the use of coal (38% of UK supply today)  – is met with vehement ‘green’ opposition.
  • Wind turbines – which sustainably generated 6.4% of UK electricity supply today – are objected to almost religiously, and its energy generating capacity erroneously dismissed.
  • Nuclear Power – which for all its faults actually works and generated 21% of UK supply today – is objected to because despite being ‘low carbon’ it is not genuinely sustainable
  • The Severn Barrage – which could sustainably generate 5 GW (~7% of UK demand) of electricity for the same cost as Hinkley C – is objected to because of its effects on wading birds.
  • Coal-fired power stations – which generated 38% of UK electricity supply today at the lowest cost – are objected to because they are emit more carbon dioxide than gas-fired Power Stations.
  • Gas-fired power stations – which generated 25% of UK electricity supply today while emitting half the carbon dioxide – are actually being moth-balled rather than opening because they are ‘uneconomic’.
  • Increased energy costs – which are essential to pay for energy investment of whatever kind, and inevitable in any case because of increased worldwide demand – are objected to by almost everyone.

So although I don’t have ‘the solution’, I think that we do collectively have access to all the elements of a rational energy policy. But if we are to choose a rational policy, then we need to understand the nature of our trilemma. If we don’t understand this then democratically more people will object to every aspect of the solution than support it. And proponents of one aspect or another of energy policy will seek ‘victory’ or fight ‘defeat’. And using that language to describe our situation will make us all losers.

P.S. ‘Today’: This post was written on Saturday 2nd November 2013

Is the IPCC report ‘News’?

September 27, 2013
For a couple of hours this was the headline at the BBC News Web Site. By the evening it was the fourth story after a 'Tax Break for Married Couples'.

For a couple of hours this was the headline at the BBC News Web Site. By the evening it was the fourth story after a ‘Tax Break for Married Couples’.

Why do I find myself unmoved by the release of the fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? Because despite the epic scale of the report, on my quick perusal of the summary, I see nothing ‘new’.

And the BBC seems to concur. Although it made the lead story on the BBC web site for a couple of hours, it was down to fourth position by the evening and made only the third story on the television news. At least it was ahead of the inane story about why ballet dancers don’t get dizzy. [Aside: since when was that considered ‘News’?].

One aspect of the news did make me smile. Because of the ‘pause’ in rise of the average air temperature above the land surfaces of the Earth, sceptics are now saying that our understanding of climate change must be fundamentally flawed. This made me smile because while the ‘temperature curve’ was rising the sceptics were arguing that the data could not be relied upon. Now that it has slowed down, the data is all of a sudden more trustworthy!

But levity aside  the report is grim. It reads like a list of battle casualties where new intelligence reveals that those previously listed as ‘missing in action’ are now confirmed as ‘fatalities’ or ‘injured’. The report list each casualty detailing our state of knowledge of the extent of their injury. I have included a couple of snippets below.

So the report is as clear as it can be, but it leaves one basic question unasked, and of course unanswered:

What are we going to do about all this?


  • The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.

  • CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions.

  • The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification

  • Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)

  • Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971.

  • Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years (medium confidence). 

  • The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m

Why Measuring Stuff Matters

April 12, 2013
We live in a world in full of vast structures which change imperceptibly slowly, and tiny structures which change imperceptibly quickly. Measurement extends our senses into these realms.

We live in a world in full of vast structures which change imperceptibly slowly, and tiny structures which change imperceptibly quickly. Measurement extends our senses into these realms.

One of the wonders of human psychology is how we deceive ourselves about the true nature of the world.

One of the triumphs of the human psyche is that – even while trapped within our own deception – we can break through and discover uncomfortable facts about the world. Facts that allow us to understand our limitations and learn how to overcome them. Experiments which allow us to experience our own blind spots are a classic example, but in fact we go much further than that.

We trust our measurements more than we trust ourselves. From basic measurements of length and time and mass, we have developed an infrastructure that allows us to make measurements – often simple in themselves – through which the nature of the Universe is revealed to us – despite our very human biases and blind spots. Sorry that sounds so pompous – but that’s how it is!

We make measurements and then we trust them more than our own eyes. If sensors tell us a light is flickering 100 times a second – we believe it – even though our eyes see nothing. If measurements indicate that continents are moving apart at 2 centimetres per year – we believe them – even though we experience nothing.

We have developed techniques of measurement that allow us to see ourselves and our world in richer detail than at any time in human history. Looking just through the open tabs on my browser I see have measurement ‘stories’ on all these themes:

In each case above, measuring things and comparing them with our expectations doesn’t simply provide a number – it allows us to view the world in new ways. And it allows us to extend our vision into the realms of the otherwise imperceptible, or the overwhelmingly vast. And that is why measurement matters!

Solar power gets real

April 7, 2013
Some of the long parabolic reflectors in the Shams 1 electric power plant in Abu Dhabi.

Some of the long parabolic reflectors in the Shams 1 electric power plant in Abu Dhabi.I love to see this kind of machinery made real. Image from the Shams Image Gallery

I love seeing pictures of real solar electricity generating plant. In a sunny country where peak sun coincides with peak electricity demand – for air conditioning – this makes complete sense. I can’t speak for the finances, but in terms of EROEI, this looks a sensible energy investment.

The BBC recently showed footage of the SHAMS 1 plant in Abu Dhabi. The enterprise also has a web page and wikipedia entry.

There are loads of ways to generate electricity with solar energy. I don’t know that one technology can yet be said to make better sense than any other – but this plant looks relatively low tech and relatively expandable. This must be like in the early days of steam engines or powered flight where people struggled to find optimal engineering solutions.

This plant in fact appears to be a solar-assisted gas-fired steam turbine, where the solar heating is used to reduce the gas consumption, but where gas can be burned as back-up at night or on cloudy days.

There was a mention of the ability to store the solar heat for short periods and so spread the generating time, but it didn’t sound as though this had been implemented.

Why am I mentioning this? Because lots of places in the world are sunny – and many of these places have lots of space. This is unlikely to be a good technology for use in the UK, but for countries near the Equator such a plant must look attractive – exploiting a natural and inexhaustible resource and delivering valuable electricity.

It looks to me like a glimpse into the future. A sustainable future.

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