An interesting projection of arctic vegetation changes was published recently. As you can imagine, if the arctic continues to warm, more trees will grow. The study expects up to 50% more trees in arctic regions by 2050. This would most likely lead to significant changes for the arctic climate and other areas of the world. One would tend to think that if more trees grow, then more sunlight will be absorbed (as compared to snow-covered tundra) and that this would lead to a positive feedback, leading to more warming. However, nature and the climate are complex and rarely follow a human script.
Could there be some negative consequences from more tree growth in the arctic over the next 4 decades? Yes. Could this lead to continued warming? Yes. Should we try hard to reduce our impact on the envrionment? Yes. However, we know that more warmth and “bad consequences” not a certainty because there was more vegetation, more warmth, and much less ice as little as 1600 years ago. Researchers studying the retreating ice in the Canadian arctic have found plant material under the ice which dates to as little as 1600 years ago. If wildlife, plant life, and the biosphere in general was able to survive much less ice in the arctic as little as 1600 years ago, maybe it will not be the “end of the world” this time around either, as more melting is expected.
Also, the proposed feedback mechanisms might not be as strong as some suspect. One of the commonly repeated themes of the arctic thaw is that “huge” amounts of carbon dioxide are going to be released from the permafrost and accelerate warming across the globe. This theme does have some scientific backing and makes intuitive sense, but nature doesn’t operate by human intuition. A recent paper claims that fungus in the soil around tree roots are what hold the most carbon in arctic regions. So not only would more trees be a carbon sink (as they grow) the fungus in the soil around the roots might sequester more carbon. I cannot say with any certainty how much carbon we are talking about here, or if there would be a significant effect on future theorized warming, but this finding once again challenges the thought that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and positive feedback loops are fait accompli.
Of course, discussing past climate events as a comparison with the current situation is a little like comparing apples to oranges. Well maybe not that much different, more like comparing a Granny Smith apple to a Fuji apple. Humans have changed the atmosphere to a degree so that adds an extra variable to the mix. A lot of AGW theorists expect a lot more carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere in coming decades – often discussing it as fait accompli. But even here, as I have mentioned in the past, perhaps there is room for less negativity.
The U.S. in the last few years is a great example. If you had looked at carbon dioxide emmission projections from 10 years ago, you would find most experts, in fact almost all experts, predicting a steep rise. What happened? Just the opposite. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions sank dramatically after 2007 and are now as low as back in the early 1990s. Can this trend continue? Sure it can, but it will take continued effort and continued use of less carbon intensive fuels like natural gas. Natural gas development and “fracking” have had a lot of negative press lately, but it has been a great bridge fuel. I am glad a few other people are now recognizing the environmental benefits as well.
The idea here is that natural gas can begin a trend of cleaner energy, while development of solar or other alternatives continue to develop. It is a slow process but more solar power is installed every year, solar panels have gotten cheaper, and solar panels continue to get more efficient. The solar industry has come far enough that some claim it is now a net energy producing industry! Here are some of the latest develoments:
In specialized solar cells there have been a couple of news records for efficiency. Swiss researchers have generated a world record 10.7% efficiency with a single junction polycrystalline solar cell. Yale scientists created a record 11% efficiency with carbon-nanotube-film-over-silicon cells. In the lab, materials science continues to produce possible future breakthroughs. The Neils Bohr Institute has shown that nanowires can concentrate sunilght up to 15 times normal intensity. Computer simulations at the University of Vienna have shown that single layer oxides could be used to make more effcient and ultra-thin solar panels in the future. Lastly, Uconn researchers are trying to develop what are called “solar rectennas”. These tiny devices could in theory harvest up to 70% of the incedent solar energy.
Of course, not all breakthroughs in the lab make it to commercial production, or they might not be a commercial success. That is the story with a lot of thin film solar businesses. About 10 years ago, these businesses were “hot” and proposed to make less efficient but cheaper solar panels. Unfortunately, business realities have forced many of them into bankruptcy. Crystalline silicon solar panels have dropped in price so much that thin films are not very cost competitive. The low solar panel prices have also forced one the world’s biggest producers – Suntech - to go bankrupt. It is a story of over-supply. Subsidies from the Chinese government allowed Suntech to expand production – so much so that a glut developed and prices fell to a point where they couldn’t turn a profit. Some people are a bit concerned that cost pressures will slow down innovation in the industry while companies focus on cutting costs, but finding ways to cut cost and remain profitable is a form of innovation. Where real innovation is needed is in regulations and installation costs. The majority of the cost of going solar is in regulations and installation. The actual solar panels are dirt cheap as compared to a few years back. Cheap panels should be good news for developers of big solar projects and it seems like Brightsource is taking advantage – moving forward with building another plant (a solar thermal plant) in southern California.
Even in the event that alternatives a slow to come online, and theorized warming comes to pass, there is always the possibility of sequestering carbon dioxide or even taking itout of the air. I have heard some people say it is a nearly impossible task, but some people are working on it. Here are a couple of recent articles on the subject: Scientists explore the miriad ways of removing carbon dioxide from the air. New fuel production process could use carbon dioxide from the air.
Have a fine Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on April 3, 2013