The Weather Outside is Frightful

~ And Denial is So Delightful ~

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I’d like to give a warm shout out to all my friends soldiering through in Buffalo with your literally above my head levels of snow – at this point you should probably consider giving in and hibernating through the rest of the year. No one will judge. Even for upstate and our beloved lake effect, this week’s storm was intense for this time of year, though sadly Ithaca remains almost entirely snow free. The weather was quite apropos considering the activities this week at Cornell, which was a busy one so far as climate change and its effects were concerned. The president of Iceland was visiting, and hopefully felt right at home. The weekly department seminar was as relevant a topic as you could hope to have for a presentation: “Has a warming Arctic contributed to colder winter weather in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes?”

Answer: Yes. Probably. So if anybody tries to use the weather recently to tell you that global warming isn’t real, here’s a rough breakdown of the theory from this particular talk: warmer global temperature —> less sea ice —> more open water —> more evaporation and water vapor in the air —> more snow in Siberia in the autumn. Colder air over Siberia changes pressures in the atmosphere and results in something called the Arctic Oscillation going into a negative phase. When the AO is negative, the polar vortex that circles the pole is weaker, making it easier for cold air to breakout from the Arctic and descend to lower latitudes. Incoming cold air + lake effect = Snowvember. There are other proposed models as well, but all stemming from the high rate of warming in the Arctic and loss of sea ice, called Arctic amplification. For one, warmer Arctic temperatures mean there is less of a difference between Arctic and mid-latitude temperatures, which results in a weaker jet stream, which means that circulation systems move slower, and extreme weather events in the US are more probable. Climate is complicated, y’all.

SciShow also has a bit on why lower winter temperatures don’t contradict climate models:¬†

Also this week, there was a day-long meeting with the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which tries to bring together researchers and gas companies to monitor and improve drilling and extraction processes in the Marcellus Shale, and a report on the World Economic Forum from one of the faculty members here who attended, but the main event was the visit of Icelandic president Olafur Ragnar Grimmsson and his talk on Iceland’s transformation to a clean economy. Some of the scientists from the Icelandic contingent came early and gave talks on Thursday; the president’s speech was Friday evening, and the Energy Institute students had the chance to attend a breakfast with President Grimmsson on Saturday. All of the talks were remarkable for their sheer enthusiasm and scope; the focus of each conversation was very nature oriented, very integrative, and with no lack of drive or imagination. Iceland is powered almost entirely by geothermal power and hydropower, but that was only part of the story.

The focus of one of the talks was on the possibility of a society with “no waste, only resources.” The most obvious case is the Blue Lagoon resort and spa, where you can pay to bathe in the wonderful mineral baths of Iceland’s geothermal waters. Only, those waters are the runoff pools from the geothermal electric plant powering Reykjavik. Some 700,000 people visit every year – quite the tourism boost. One of my favorite innovations that they had implemented as an offshoot of geothermal development is from the fishing industry – using geothermal heat, fish can be more rapidly dried and preserved, including the fish heads and spines for use in stock, and then exported, mainly to Nigeria. Other ideas they talked about were using basalt fibres, or “witches’ hair,” from Iceland’s volcanoes in production of enhanced plastics, while concepts that were tossed around as future possibilities involved harnessing power from osmotic pressure differences where freshwater meets seawater, or using arrays of lights underwater to herd fish instead of physical nets. If you want to get a good idea of what the tone of the meetings were like, the final point of one talk was that geothermal plants in Iceland are, or ought be, treated like art museums: the plant starts as an idea in someone’s head, is given physical form, and installed in a beautiful building:

Courtesy of: Atlantik Tour Services

The president’s talks continued in the same vein, though much of his focus was on the economic benefits of¬†converting to a clean energy sector. Conversion to geothermal central heating, use of geothermal for agriculture by heating greenhouses: most of these developments were locally or even family driven projects. They even have the largest banana plantation in Europe, a high bar to hit. Many of the questions coming from students and locals were about how the US could ever make such a transition, and there was a small undercurrent of frustration from the president and the other visitors. Icelandic geothermal groups have developed partnerships with companies in East Africa and in China, where Sinopec, the fifth largest company in the world – otherwise known for oil extraction and environmental damage in Western Africa – has been rapidly expanding its geothermal sector as a prestige project. The question seemed to be why the US could not initiate such a partnership. Twenty-five percent of US energy use goes to heating and cooling; using combined power and heating plants or geothermal heating could be a big step for reducing emissions and energy requirements. Talking to the students at breakfast, President Grimmsson made the point that it was no longer an acceptable strategy for researchers to simply conduct their studies then hand the results off to someone else, hoping they will be implemented. We can’t be passive about research and let others do the implementation – somebody has to get in there and get it done.

I’ll finish the same way the president did, with a point that he had brought up throughout each of his talks: that not too many years ago, these innovations would have been inconceivable. Instead, they’ve found that “things thought impossible are not only possible but profitable.” Here’s hoping the sentiment catches on in the US.

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