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Environmental news and climate data.

Energy Is Not a Solved Problem: The MISkeptics Get Together

This month we are looking at energy storage and production.

Ludington Pumped Storage
The Pumped Storage Facility in Ludington Michigan Stores water in an elevated pond and releases it through turbines when there is heightened need for electricity.

Several months ago, Peter Sinclair joined us to talk about climate change, future energy production and energy storage. One of the energy storage solutions he referenced was the Ludington Pumped Storage facility on the West side of the state.

This inspired our very own John Dreystadt to research energy storage and he is presenting his findings to us.

The presentation will have three parts, why is storage important for the grid, why is it hard, and what the future may hold.

Come and join us for lively discussion, drinks, dinner and debate! This is a good event for Skeptics of Michigan to come together and discuss local, national, worldwide items affecting skeptics. All are welcome to listen and participate.

Please be sure to RSVP so I know how many are coming. That way I can modify the reservation if necessary. You can RSVP via Meetup, Facebook or by Google Plus.

I hope to see you all there!

Today at 3PM: Peter Sinclair will be a guest on The Magic Sandwich Show

Peter Sinclair, one of our recent Get Together guests and blogger on Climate Denial Crock of the Week will be a guest on The Magic Sandwich Show.

Peter Sinclair \
Peter Sinclair

The Magic Sandwich Show is a bi-weekly live call in show, broadcast every other Sunday on BlogTV and uStream. During the show a panel of 3 or 4 discuss topical issues relating to religion and science.

You can access the show on BlogTV and uStream.

After the show check out his blog for the latest information on his Dark Show Project.

Don’t forget to subscribe to his YouTube channel and follow him on Twitter!

Audio Now Available From Recent Get Togethers

We’ve recorded the audio from the last several Get Togethers that had special guests, and with the help of our super audio engineer, they are now available for download.

We only have two available so far but they are good ones.

Dr. Ron Fleming




Click here to download Dr. Ron Fleming‘s talk on Thorium as a nuclear fuel.



Dr. Zachary Blount
Dr. Zachary Blount




Click here to download Dr. Zachary Blount‘s talk on his paper about documenting the steps of evolution.




We also recorded Peter Sinclair‘s talk about Climate Change and will be posting that as well. In the future we hope to record as many of our guests so that members that cannot make the Get Togethers can still listen and take part. Stay tuned! There will be more great discussions available in the near future.

The First Get Together of 2013!

It’s been two months since we last got together. Unfortunately we had to cancel our December events, including out End of the World Party. But don’t worry, another one is coming up. Another one always is.

So for our January Get Together we have a special guest who is returning to talk to us again.

Photo of Peter Sinclair
Peter Sinclair runs and is a popular speaker on the environment.

This month we welcome back Peter Sinclair of to update us on the science and politics of climate change/denial. He was last with us two years ago and there’s a lot to be updated about.

Peter Sinclair is a long time advocate of environmental awareness and energy alternatives. An award-winning graphic artist, illustrator, and animator, Mr. Sinclair runs Greenman Studio from his home in Midland, MI.

Come and join us for lively discussion, drinks, dinner and debate! This is a good event for Skeptics of Michigan to come together and discuss local, national, worldwide items affecting skeptics. All are welcome to listen and participate.

We also have special guests and speakers that contribute to the conversation and/or debate.

Please be sure to RSVP so I know how many are coming. That way I can modify the reservation if necessary. You can RSVP at out Meetup Site, our Facebook Page, or our Google Plus Page.

I hope to see you all there!

Great Lakes Ice Coverage Down 71 Percent Since 1973

Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay
Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay breaks ice for freighters navigating through the St. Mary's River in the Great Lakes. During winter, paths must be made in the ice for freighters to continue shipping goods. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class William B. Mitchell.

The American Meteorological Society says that the amount of ice covering the Great Lakes has decreased over 71% in the past 40 years. A drop that the author of the report attributes to climate change, El Nino and La Nina. The report published last month said only about 5 percent of the Great Lakes surface froze over this year.

Researchers determined ice coverage by scanning U.S. Coast Guard reports and satellite images taken from 1973 to 2010. They found that ice coverage was down 88 percent on Lake Ontario and fell 79 percent on Lake Superior. However, the ice in Lake St. Clair, which is between Lakes Erie and Huron, diminished just 37 percent.

The study doesn’t include the current winter, but satellite photos show that only about 5 percent of the Great Lakes surface froze over this winter. That’s a steep drop from years such as 1979, when there was as much as 94 percent ice coverage. On average, about 40 percent of the surfaces freeze over.

The results are consistent with other studies that have found higher surface water temperatures on Lake Superior in recent years.

Jia Wang of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Ann Arbor, Mi, the lead author of the publication states that  that diminished ice can accelerate wintertime evaporation, causing water levels to fall. The lack of ice could also lead to earlier and increased algae blooms that can damage water quality, and could speed up erosion by exposing more shoreline to waves.

Even Lake Superior’s protected Chequamegon Bay, just north of Ashland, Wis., has been remarkably free of ice. It usually freezes enough for trucks to drive on it, but the ice was never thick enough. That forced the local Madeline Island ferry to operate all season, which has only happened once before.


Melting Arctic Ice Linked to Bad Winter Weather in Europe, Northern Hemisphere

The harsh winter in Europe caused a rare event of Venice freezing over.
The harsh winter in Europe caused a rare event of Venice freezing over.

As global temperatures have risen, the area of Arctic Ocean covered by ice in summer and autumn has been falling.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a US/China-based team show this affects the jet stream and brings cold, snowy weather. From 2007 to 2011, large parts of the U.S., northwestern Europe, and northern and central China experienced early or abnormally heavy snowfall. A climate model created by the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research pinpointed two mechanisms for how a decline in sea ice could lead to more snowfall.

The paper, published on February 27th, demonstrates a link between the decline of arctic ice and Winter weather. While still early in research, and this is not the only factor affecting winter weather, it is the only one showing a consistent downward trend. You can find the supplemental data for the paper here.

BBC News Describes how the link works:

If less of the ocean is ice-covered in autumn, it releases more heat, warming the atmosphere.

This reduces the air temperature difference between the Arctic and latitudes further south, over the Atlantic Ocean.

n turn, this reduces the strength of the northern jet stream, which usually brings milder, wetter weather to Europe from the west.

It is these “blocking” conditions that keep the UK and the other affected regions supplied with cold air.

The researchers also found that the extra evaporation from the Arctic Ocean makes the air more humid, with some of the additional water content falling out as snow.

According to David Rind, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City told National Geographic:

The atmospheric dynamic is so variable, and the basic equations of motion on the time scale that we’re discussing have so much inherent variability in them that you can have the same situations next time but everything is different. This year also has very little Arctic sea ice, but it’s going to be one of the warmest winters on record in the United States. The snowfall totals have been abysmal. … And in Europe the cold air did not come in the beginning of winter, but later

The challenge is to determine how much of these anomalies are caused by global warming.

I think the only thing that will ultimately answer that is the durability of the effect. If, year after year, we’re getting the same type of effect, that then looks like it’s not a variability issue but a climate change issue.


Is butanol our next biofuel?

Dependence on fossil fuels, increasing global energy demand and concerns of greenhouse gas emissions have led to an interest in alternative fuels produced from domestic renewable sources. In recent year, interest in bio-butanol has increased due to its perceived advantages over the traditional gasoline substitute, bio-ethanol. Here I will discuss the current state of bio-butanol and the challenges and possible solutions to making bio-butanol.

1-Butanol (butyl alcohol or n-butanol) is a four carbon straight chained alcohol with a molecular formula of C4H9OH (MW 74.12) and boiling point of 118 ºC. 1-Butanol is an important chemical precursor for paints, polymers and plastics Most 1-butanol produced today is synthetic and derived from a petrochemical route. Synthetic butanol production costs are linked to the propylene market and are extremely sensitive to the price of crude oil.

Renewable 1-butanol is produced from the fermentation of carbohydrates in a process often referred to as the ABE fermentation, after its major chemical products: acetone, butanol and ethanol. The ABE fermentation is a proven industrial process that uses species of bacteria called clostridia to convert sugars or starches into solvents. Biobutanol is an attractive renewable liquid transportation biofuel with superior properties to bio-ethanol. Bio-butanol is compatible with existing fuel infrastructure, has a better energy density, higher octane rating and less hydroscopic than ethanol and can be made from more sustainable feedstocks than bio-diesel. Therefore, if bio-butanol can be made cheaply and on renewable resources, it can readily replace ethanol and bio-diesel in the biofuel market estimated to be worth $247 billion by 2020.

Commercial production

The ABE fermentation process was first developed in the UK in 1912 and was quickly adapted for commercial production during World War I and II; first to produce acetone for ammunitions and second to produce butanol for use in paint lacquers. Butanol is now the preferred solvent since it attracts a higher price in the chemical market. By the 1950s, a synthetic route was developed and the renewable solvents were no longer cost effective. Today, research into the ABE fermentation process may make bio-butanol a new competitor in the bio-fuels market.

China leads efforts to re-commercialize the ABE fermentation process by investing over $200 million into six major corn starch-fed plants with plans to expand production capacity. Traditionally, most plants operate in a semicontinuous fashion with each fermentation lasting up to 21 days. The reactors consist of a cascading series of fermentation tanks that convert seed cultures and fresh feedstock into solvents. Conventional distillation is then used to recover the acetone, butanol and ethanol. Most plants are next to ethanol plants to reduce utility and operating costs. The butanol and ethanol plants can share treatment facilities to process the aqueous waste streams produced from anaerobic fermentations. Biogas produced as a bioproduct is used for heat and power.

The challenges for ABE fermentation

In general, to make the ABE route profitable, there is a need for cheaper feedstocks, improved yields, and more efficient solvent recovery and waste water recycle. Feedstocks contribute most to production costs, typically over 75% of the total. Biobutanol profitability is extremely sensitive to any price fluctuation in the price of feedstocks. Therefore, transitioning to a cheaper (non-edible) feedstock offers the greatest opportunity for cost reduction and improved sustainability.

Butanol titer and yield

The butanol titer (concentration) and yield (fraction of feedstock converted into butanol) of the ABE fermentation is largely a function of the microorganism. Performance can be improved by inducing mutations using chemical mutagens and selecting for improve traits, specific genetic manipulation or a combination of both. There are four main solvent producing strains that have been used industrially with Clostridium acetobutylicum ATCC 824 being the best studied and manipulated strain (the others being C. saccharobutylicum, C. beijerinckii and C. saccharoperbutylacetonicum). Research into manipulating these strains has been helped through the publication of their genomic sequences. Significant progress has been made in genetically manipulating C. acetobutylicum while the progress to genetically engineer the other strains has lagged.


Currently, biobutanol is economical if it is sold as a chemical commodity instead as a cheaper biofuel. For it to be sold profitably as a biofuel, the cost of feedstocks must be reduced. If cheaper waste streams (such as corn cobs, corn stover, sugar cane bagasse, wheat straw and municipal solid waste) could be converted into feed stocks then biobutanol could compete on price with ethanol for the biofuel market.

Solvent recovery

Currently, distillation is used as a robust and proven process to recover butanol from fermentations but the process is energy intensive. Improvements can be made to make the conventional distillation process for energy efficient but the biggest reduction in energy use can only be achieved by development of nonconventional means. Since butanol is toxic to the ABE strains, online removal of butanol from the fermentation will result in higher yields. Methods like gas stripping, pervaporation, reverse osmosis, vacuum fermentation, and aqueous two phase separation are being researched for online butanol removal.

What’s Michigan Doing?

In April of this year, Cobalt Technologies and American Process announced an agreement to build the world’s first industrial-scale cellulosic biorefinery to produce biobutanol. A plant is currently under construction in Alpena, Michigan. By April 2012, the Alpena Biorefinery will produce 470,000 gallons of biobutanol annually, which will be pre-sold to chemical industry partners.


The clostridial ABE fermentation is an old, but proven, industrial fermentation process that has be re-established recently. The clostridial ABE fermentation process is relatively simple and existing ethanol plants can be retrofitted fairly easily to produce butanol. In order to penetrate the larger biofuel market, biobutanol needs to compete on cost with ethanol despite its superior fuel properties. Reduction in feedstock cost offers the best opportunity especially since clostridia are well suited for sugars derived from cellulosic material. Further advances for both 1-butanol are likely to come from the deployment of continuous culture, especially when coupled with in situ methods for solvent extraction and recovery. The application of advances in biotechnology and engineering to the clostridia ABE fermentation process will drive down the cost of 1-butanol production.

Climate Change vs. Evolution

According to a UC Davis study, plants and animals may not possess the capability of adapting fast enough to survive the threat of climate change. (The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.) I read about the study in a UC Davis website news post titled Can evolution outpace climate change?

The particular critter featured in the study was the tide pool copepod Tigriopus californicus, a tiny shrimp-like animal found between Alask and Baja California, and the primary focus of the study was whether they could evolve a tolerance to increased temperature. Morgan Kelly, a UC Davis grad student collected copepods from eight different locations and grew them in the lab for 10 generations, under increasing heat to see if natural selection would produce more heat-tolerant progeny. They apparently failed to do so.

UC Davis Professor Rick Grosberg concludes that this study implies widespread species don’t have enough genetic capacity to work with in order to adapt to climate change, and also blames human interference with disrupting and fragmenting habitats to the point of damaging the ability for many species to survive. Grosberg believes that many species are already at their “environmental limits” and that natural selection won’t necessarily save them.

Now, I’m not an evolutionary biologist, and I don’t even play one on TV. But I found myself with a lot of questions while reading the article. Whatever your political views on global warming, it’s fairly obvious that the Earth is constantly in a state of climate change in that the climate is, well, always changing. There are long and short cycles, but there is a form of chaos inherent to the process. This is why forecasting the weather is still so difficult. Lets also assume for the moment that we are on an upward trend in global temperature. I don’t want to get into the debate on whether it’s caused by man, or is part of a natural trend. What I find myself wondering is how this study applies to evolution as a whole.

Many more studies would have to be done to show any sort of evidence of a multi-species trend in a lack of ability to adapt to conditions, but my understanding of evolution and natural selection is that climate is often the major driving force. It’s also my understanding that it’s not about all the existing species finding some way to “upgrade” to the right hardware to get them through another year. Individual living things die, species die, and as a whole, life evolves to fit the new environment because what doesn’t fit is no longer around.

Climate change isn’t new. Around 2.4 billion years ago, Earth’s atmosphere had practically no oxygen. Life as we know it would have found it a toxic environment. Evidence indicates that back then, the planet was home to scattered smatterings of shallow-water, photosynthetic microbes that produced oxygen as waste. After enough of this waste built up, toxic to life common to that time, adaptations allowed new branches of life to flourish which could make use of this new environment. (See “Learning to Live With Oxygen on Early Earth”.) The rate of the change in environment will obviously have an effect on the particulars of which species change and which die, but it doesn’t easily change the process itself.

So while the study may do a good job at proving that Tigriopus californicus may not be around for the long haul, I fail to see how it indicates anything like what the main thrust of the commentary seemed to be. I find myself wondering if it’s not a case of confirmation bias involving political views.

(NOTE: this is intended to be an opinion piece not a scientific claim – whether you agree or disagree I invite you to comment and include your own thoughts, especially if you have additional science/evidence to bring with you.)

Partly Cloudy With a Chance of CO2

What do CO2 and 9/11 have in common?

I have been having a conversation that started about a week ago with some friends on FaceBook, concerning an article that ran on Financial Times web site.  It’s behind a paywall, but you can also find it in The Wall Street Journal and at Fox Nation. But I am not really sure that lack of information is purely the problem. Some of the problem is people reading headlines and assuming they mean one thing, then to actually read the content of the article and find it is not as it seems. U.S. Greenhouse Gases Drop to 15-Year Low” This was clearly a misleading Headline.

Below is the outline of the conversation from FaceBook “Quoted” and my Response.

“WE are not the predominant causers of CO2 in the atmosphere. Human kind and all of what WE produce, filling all of our needs and wants, only counts for less than 2% of the CO2 produced on a global scale. Rain forest decomposition counts for more CO2 than WE could ever even try to produce…so…why don’t we cut all those trees down and use them before they fall over, decay naturally, and release even more CO2? Oh, wait, we already have ignorant jackazzes doing that, releasing long buried viruses from old grove root systems that could, ironically, kill us quicker than “global warming”.”

You are absolutely correct, we are not the predominate producers of CO2. The figure of 2-3% is correct. However, the normal background CO2 cycle is roughly 439 gt. (gigatons) output from land and forest and 332 gt. from ocean output. That is a total of 771 gt. being put into the atmosphere and then 788 gt. is being reclaimed. That shows that 17 gt. is excess being reclaimed. Problem is that as the earth warms the excess being reclaimed will diminish until more CO2 will be entering the atmosphere than being recovered. One saving grace!… There is an 800 year lag of earth warming and CO2 recovery. (i.e.) CO2 recovery lags behind temp increases by 800 years.

Explanation of CO2 lag here: What does the lag of CO2 behind temperature in ice cores tell us about global warming?

But here is the crux of the problem… 2007 IPCC AR4 Synthesis Report found here IPCC AR4 Synthesis Report you can see that the human contribution of CO2 the 2-3% is 29 gt.that means that 12 gt is NOT getting reabsorbed via, Oceans and Forests. This is the 1.5-2.5 ppm. rise we see in Global CO2 content yearly.

Continue reading

A new product that’s the bee’s knees!

I wasn’t sure where to start in finding the topic for my first post here. (By the way, hello!) My problem was solved, however, while listening to the local Public Radio station in my car the other night. The program that was on was CBC’s As It Happens. Aside from their having a pretty nifty and hip theme song, I’ve liked this program because of the conversational approach to the news they cover. In any case, what caught my ear was a five minute segment about the Bee Station.

Some quick background – I own a business, and sell websites to make a living. As a result, I don’t begrudge anyone coming up with products to sell.  Hurray for capitalism. However, what bugs me about what I heard was the marketing angle. It turns out that I do have a problem when people try to cash in on fear. I also have a problem with people selling something that won’t do what they claim it will do.

The Bee Station is supposedly a way you can help your friendly neighborhood bees by providing a nest and feeding stop for them on their busy routes. Explaining his product, Jamie Hutchinson (designer of the Bee Station) tells the show’s hosts that because bees have been dying, the remaining ones are working harder. His website repeats the point…

Our bees are dying at an alarming rate and the remaining bees are working twice as hard to keep our planet alive.

That was the first thing that made me tip my head and think “huh?” The questions that came to mind were along the lines of, “how do the surviving bees know they’re supposed to be working twice as hard?” and “is there some kind of bee work quota that they are trying to maintain?” In my admittedly limited understanding of bees, it seemed to me that a bee will work as hard as it needs to in order to survive and support the hive, with no regard to the situation of other bees or any danger to humans. When I contacted him for his opinion, Eric Mussen, Extension Apiculturist at UC Davis agreed.

So bees are not like a marathon runner (an analogy used in the radio interview) in need of an energy drink because they’re running twice as hard. The emotional buildup continued in Jamie’s interview, as it does on their website…

Our bees are dying at an alarming rate and without them we’re in real trouble. Our food, clothes and very survival depends heavily on the pollination carried out by this little, stripy workforce.

For those of you playing the skeptic game at home, you should have several logical fallacy points racked up by now. In general, the arguments that I heard made on the radio program were an appeal to emotion. The website also paints a similar picture… it’s not just the bees that need to be saved, you need to save your wife and children! Quick buy this product now!!! If you don’t, we’ll be naked, hungry and then dead! Along with cashing in on the concern for dying bees, the appeal to fear is made by pointing out that without bees our whole world will come crashing down. The final pitch is then made with an appeal to flattery.

The Bee Station is your chance to help our bees… The Bee Station is the perfect gift for anyone with an interest in the environment or design.

So, if you buy buy this product you can feel good about yourself. You’ll have saved the bees, and by extension, the world. (Or given the same as a gift.) In reality, there are better ways to make a difference. An expert I contacted at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory agreed that flower planting (in particular, planting a diverse range of types of flowers) would make more sense, and that feeding stations were likely not the answer.

Eric seemed to feel similarly, and told me that honey bees don’t cluster outside the hive (which would seem then to mean they don’t need a Steve Jobs looking rest stop). If the main use of this product is acting as a feeder, there are definitely less expensive ways to provide sugar syrup to honey bees.

And seriously, looking at the above picture, can’t you just imagine next year’s hottest product from Apple… the iBee? It would connect wirelessly to the Internet and regularly update a Twitter page with the number of bees, local weather, etc. (Mr. Jobs, if you make this I expect some kind of compensation.)

Anyway, back to my main point… the interview was difficult to listen to because it was deceptive, and was intended to get people thinking they were making a difference by spending their money. In my mind this is akin to homeopathy. The true danger is in preventing someone from doing anything actually beneficial. You want to help save the bees? Plant some bee friendly flowers. Get started by buzzing over to the Pollinator Partnership’s Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides website. (And be thankful that I didn’t find a way to work a popular Beatles song title into this article! The temptation was strong…)

More information…

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