Monday, April 27, 2015

Saudi Arabia: the great oil game

Saudi Arabia just increased oil production to a record level, never reached in previous history. They are doing that in a moment of record low oil prices. What do they have in mind? (Image from Arthur Berman)

When the collapse of the oil prices started, in the summer of 2014, everyone noticed that Saudi Arabia was not playing their traditional role of "swing producers", that is varying their production in such a way to maintain reasonably constant prices. Facing a slump in demand, they should have reduced production; but they didn't.

Initially, I thought the Saudis were simply taken by surprise and they were slow to react. But now, with the recent increase in Saudi production, it is clear that they have something in mind. Maybe they haven't engineered the market collapse, but in some way they are riding it.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it. But what method could there be in raising production just when prices are lowest? Every single textbook in economics will tell you that the market should adapt to changes in demand and offer in exactly the opposite way: facing a reduced demand, production should go down, too. 

Of course, as we all know, what you read in textbooks of economics has little to do with the real world. And, in the real world, there is a well known market strategy that consists in bankrupting your competitors by selling below cost. The idea is to create a monopoly and recoup later what the winner of the struggle has lost at the beginning. It is, of course, illegal, but the very fact that there are laws against it, means that it is done.

However, there is a little problem in applying this strategy to the oil market. It has to do with the fact that oil is a finite resource. So, if producers manage to obtain a monopoly, that means they will run out of the resource before the others. Imagine you are an art dealer: would you sell your Picassos at low cost in order to undercut the other art merchants and gain a monopoly? Of course not, what you would obtain is simply to run out fast of your precious Picasso paintings and then leave the market fully open to the others. 

So, what are the Saudis doing, exactly? Art Berman suggests that they are fighting against the banks that created the tight oil bubble possible. After the elimination of the bubble, the market might return to relatively high oil prices and maximize the revenues for Saudi Aramco. 

Berman's interpretation is surely possible, but, as in all these cases, we are looking at governments as if they were "black boxes", trying to understand the inner mechanisms that make them move. This is very risky: just as we see in clouds faces that aren't there, we may see in a government's actions a plan that is not there. Are the Saudis really planning for a long term profit? Or are they simply misjudging the extent of their resources? 

After all, we have several examples of non-renewable resources having been managed as if they were infinite. Just consider how the North Sea oil was extracted at the highest possible rate when the oil market was experiencing historically low prices. That left producers with declining oil fields when market prices started increasing. It was not a very smart strategy, to say the least.

In the case of the North sea, there was no long term planning; it was just that the long term depletion problem was not understood. So, are the Saudis blind to the very concept of "depletion"?(*) That's impossible to say at present. The only certain fact is that age of cheap oil is gone; even though some wild oscillations may make us believe that the good times have returned - but just for a while. 

(*) About being unable to perceive that a mineral resource is running out, an especially tragic case is that of Yemen. For a few years, I have been following the "Yemen Times" and. in all this time, I never could read any statement that indicated that the problem of oil depletion in Yemen was understood. Whenever the decline in production was mentioned, it was attributed to terrorism, civil unrest, and other temporary problems. From what I could read, it seems to me that the Yemen society was (and still is) completely and totally blind to the fact that they have been gradually running out of oil and that oil depletion is the root cause of all the troubles that they have experienced, and that they are experiencing right now. (graph from "our finite world")

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The mind of empires: the story telling approach to strategy

This video is making the rounds on the Web. Here, Mr. George Friedman speaks of strategic matters in Europe and argues that the objective of the United States is to contain Russia in order to maintain their world empire. (note: this video has been removed from youtube after the publication of this post, but you can still find it at

What is that motivates governments in taking decisions that so often turn out to be tragically wrong? The problem is that we have no data on the inner functioning of most governments; that is, we don't know what leaders say to each other when discussing in private. We can, however, have some idea on the way of thinking of governments if we look at the public pronouncements of that category of "experts" that go under the name of "strategic advisers".

I have no direct experience in military matters, but I do in a field that is just as strategic; that of the energy supply and, more in general, the supply of mineral commodities that makes a country's economy function. In this field, I have encountered several specimens of the category of the "policy advisers" who are supposed to whisper wisdom in the ear of the world leaders. These people tend to use a story-based approach; something that I would define as "story telling based strategy."

I have already reported how someone who advised the Spanish government described the world's oil market in purely narrative terms; giving roles to each major producer and having them play in the great theater of the world. And his narration was totally unencumbered by facts and data. The clip shown at the beginning of this post has a very similar style. Mr. Friedman's epistemology of international matters seems to be based on a basic narrative concept: major world governments are given roles and then they are described as playing these roles in the world theater. The resulting play is not encumbered by data; it is, after all, pure narrative; story telling based epistemology. 

Least you accuse me of speaking without data myself, let me bring up at least one historical example of this approach. I can picture in my mind a cabinet reunion of the Italian government at some moment, in late 1941. I can imagine Mr. Mussolini standing up and saying, "You know, guys? I have an idea: we should declare war on the United States!" And everyone in the room nods and says, "Yeah, great idea, chief! Let's do that!"

What led the Italian government to take this disastrous decision? I think it can be explained in terms of the narrative models that they had in their minds. The documents we have from that time tell us that, in their minds, the dominant narration was that the Mediterranean Sea was an Italian lake. The US - as they saw the situation - had no more interest in controlling the Mediterranean Sea than Italy had in controlling the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know if Mussolini was influenced by some policy advisers in developing this narration, but it is clear that he and the whole Italian government badly misjudged the quantitative factors involved; that is the tremendous US military potential in terms of the human and natural resources it could muster.

Do you think this example is an exception? I don't think so. Imagine a reunion of the Japanese government, also in 1941, with someone standing up and stating: "gentlemen, it is obvious that if we attack the Americans at Pearl Harbor, they will surrender to us immediately afterward.." Their story telling models cast the Americans as weaklings who could be easily intimidated. Again, lack of quantitative data on the extent of the US human and natural resources led to disaster.

There are several more recent examples of monumental mistakes made by governments; we could discuss more of them, but it seems that the concept that government officers work on the basis of narrative models can explain most of what has been happening in the world. And, if they continue in this way, God knows what kind of new monumental mistakes will be made.

Mr. Friedman's speech is a good example of a narrative (unencumbered by data) that could shape the strategic thought of a government. It cannot be understood simply from the clip which is making the rounds on the Web. The complete speech is not just about warmongering, it is not simply an imperial advocacy speech (in part it is, though). It is a fascinating speech that deserves to be listened at. The problem with this kind of speeches that the fascination of story telling hides the ugly details of reality. There is no mention in the speech about the fact that not even an empire can plan wars without worrying about where it can find the resources needed. To be fair, Friedman does mention that if Germany and Russia were to form an alliance, they would have the resources to challenge the American Empire. But he never seems to wonder where the resources that created and maintain the American Empire are coming from right now and for how long they can keep coming. For instance, when he mentions oil prices, he says that low prices are "the new normal". And that, I think, says a lot the limits of storytelling as a guide to understand the world. (To say nothing about the lack of any mention about the grim reaper character waiting to go on stage: climate change).

In the end, these narrative models for leaders are just somewhat more sophisticated versions of the ones used by the media for "consensus building". These are based on the simplest and most primitive narrative device we know: "we are the good guys and they are the bad guys". In their public declarations, high level government officers will often follow the media narrative. Occasionally, however, as with these declarations by Mr. Friedman, their inner mental models briefly surface up from the depth of cabinet reunions. Do some governments know what they are doing? Probably yes, but, from the historical record of humankind, it must be a rare condition.

Our curse as human beings seems to be that we keep trying to force the world to behave according to mental models that were developed by our ancestors of long, long ago. Role playing models were probably working well when we were living in tribes of a few hundred individuals. They don't work anymore with those entities we call "states" or "nations", encompassing tens or hundreds of millions of people.  Will we ever understand that we have to base our decisions on reality? Maybe, but we'll have to be taught some more harsh lessons by the real world before we learn.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Climate change: can the Seneca effect save us?

The "Seneca Cliff" (or "Seneca Collapse"). The ancient Roman philosopher said "The path of increase is slow, but the road to ruin is rapid." A "Seneca Collapse" of the world's economy would surely reduce the chances of a climate disaster, but it would be a major disaster in itself and it might not even be enough.  

Nothing we do (or try to do) seems to be able to stop carbon dioxide from accumulating in the atmosphere. And, as a consequence, nothing seems to be able to stop climate change. With the situation getting worse and worse (see here for an example), we are hoping that some kind of international agreement can be reached to limit emissions. But, after many attempts and many failures, can we really expect that next time - miraculously - we could succeed?

Another line of thought, instead, has that depletion will save us. After all, if we run out of oil (and of fossil fuels in general) then we'll have to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Won't that solve the problem? In principle, yes, but is it going to happen?

The gist of the debate on the future of fossil fuel production is that, despite the theoretically abundant resources, the production rate is strongly affected by diminishing economic returns generated by depletion. This factor forces the production curve to follow a "bell shaped", or "Hubbert," curve that peaks and starts declining much before the resource runs out, physically. In practice, most studies that take into account the diminishing economic returns of production arrive to the conclusion that the IPCC scenarios often overestimate the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned (see a recent review by Hook et al.). From this, some have arrived to the optimistic conclusion that peak oil will save us from climate change (see this post of mine). But that's way too simplistic.

The problem with climate change is not that temperatures will keep smoothly growing from now until the end of the century. The problem is that we will run into big troubles much earlier if we let temperatures rise over a certain limit. Sea level rise, oceanic acidification, and land desertification are just some of the problems, but a worse one could be the "climate tipping point." That is, over a certain point, the rise in temperatures would start to be driven by a series of feedback effects within the ecosystem and climate change would become unstoppable.

We don't know where the climate tipping point could be situated, but there exists a general agreement that we should keep temperatures from rising above 2 deg. C to avoid a major catastrophe. From the 2009 paper by Meinshausen et al. we can estimate that, from now on, we should not release more than about 1x10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. Considering that we have released so far some 1.3x10+12 t of CO2 (source: global carbon project), the grand total should not be more than about 2.3x10+12 t of CO2.

So, what can we expect in terms of total emissions considering a "peaking" scenario? Let me show you some data from Jean Laherrere, who has been among the first to propose the concept of "peak oil."

In this figure, made in 2012, Laherrere lists the quantities of fuels burned, with a "U" ("ultimate") measured in Tboe (Terabarrels of oil equivalent, see below for the conversion factors used). As a first approximation, if all the emissions were from crude oil, we would emit some 4.5x10+12 t of CO2. Things change little if we separate the contributions of the three fossil fuels. Crude oil, alone, would produce 1.3x10+12 t of CO2.  Coal would produce 2.8x10+12 t and natural gas 0.95x10+12 t. The final result is nearly exactly 5x10+12 t of CO2.

In short, even if we follow a "peaking" trajectory in the production of fossil fuels, we are going to emit around twice as much carbon dioxide as what some people (probably optimistically) consider to be the "safe" limit.

Of course, there are plenty of uncertainties in these calculations and the tipping point may be farther away than estimated. But it could also be closer; much closer. And we should take into account the problem of the increasing CO2 emissions per unit of energy as we progressively move toward dirtier and less efficient fuels. So, we are really toying with disaster, with a good chance to run straight into a climate catastrophe.

This conclusion holds in the assumption that the "peaking" scenario is not too optimistic in the amount of fossil fuels that can be produced and burned in the future. But these scenarios are normally termed "pessimistic" in mainstream studies, so that little would change as long as we work with nearly symmetric, bell shaped curves. At best, we can assume that peaking could take place a few years earlier than in Laherrere's estimate; but that still leaves us facing the very real possibility of a climate catastrophe.

Could we, instead, consider a different shape for the production curve? The symmetric "bell shaped" or ("Hubbert") curve is the result of the assumption that extraction is performed in a fully  functioning economy. But, once the economic system starts unraveling, a series of destructive feedbacks accelerates the decline. This is the "Seneca collapse" that generates an asymmetric production curve (the "Seneca cliff").

A Seneca shaped production curve would considerably reduce the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned in the future. Tentatively, if the collapse were to start within the next 10 years and it were to cut off more than half of the potential coal production, then, we could remain within the estimates of the 2 deg. C limit, hoping that it could be enough. Hubbert can't save the ecosystem, but Seneca could (maybe).

But, even if that came to pass, a Seneca collapse is a major disaster in itself for humankind, so there is little to rejoice at the thought that it could save us from runaway climate change. In practice, the only hope to avoid disaster lies in taking a more active role in substituting fossils with renewables. In this way, we can force the production of fossil fuels to go down faster than it would do as an effect of gradual depletion, but without losing the energy supply we need. It is possible - it is a big effort, but we could do it if we were willing to try (see this paper by Sgouridis, Bardi and Csala for a quantitative estimate of the effort needed)


Unit conversion

One Boe of crude oil = 0.43 t CO2 (

One Boe of coal = 0.53 t CO2 (calculation from and from 

One Boe of natural gas: 0.31 t CO2 (calculation from and from 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Breath of Life: the elders speak

This recent film by Susan Kucera is a survey of the sad state of the world. The film presents stunningly beautiful imagery together with together with interviews with a group of scientists and intellectuals (including myself). The overall impression is of something primeval, certainly consistent with the many sections of the film shot in Hawai'i. The people speaking on screen give the definite impression of being the elders of the tribe telling to the young hunters that they should not kill that mammoth; it could be the last they'll ever see! But the young hunters don't listen. It is the story of our species.   

Watch it, if you have a chance.  Here is the film's site.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The ultimate limits to carbon burning: an order of magnitude calculation

Total amount of fossil carbon on the Earth, from Vanderbroucke and Largeau (1)

During the past few years, the development of "shale gas" and "shale oil" in the US, generated a wave of optimism that spread widely in the mediasphere. It was common to hear of "a century of abundance" or even of "centuries" provided by these new sources. However, with the recent collapse of the oil market, these claims seem to have gone the same way as those of the sightings of the Loch Ness monster. But there remains a point to be made: what is exactly the limit to what we can burn? Could we really keep burning for centuries? Or, maybe, even for millennia or more?

Let's see if we can make a calculation, at least in terms of order of magnitudes. The first question is how much fossil carbon do we have on this planet. The total is reported to be about 1.5x10+16 t (metric tons), mainly in the form of kerogen, a product of the decomposition of organic matter which is a precursor to the formation of fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) (2) .

It looks like a lot of carbon, especially if we compare this number with the amount we are burning nowadays. The data reported by CDIAC (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center) report 9.2x10+9 t of carbon transformed into CO2 as the result of fossil fuel burning (gas+oil+coal) in 2013. As an order of magnitude estimate, at this rate, we could go on burning for more than a million years before truly running out of fossil carbon.

But, obviously, that's not possible. Simply, there is not enough oxygen in the atmosphere to burn all the existing fossil carbon. The total amount of free oxygen is estimated to be about 1.2x10+15 t or 3.7x10+19 mol O2⁠ (a "mole" is a unit used in chemistry to compare the amount of reactants in chemical reactions). One mole of molecular oxygen will react with exactly one mole of carbon to form carbon dioxide and, since 1.5x10+16 t of carbon correspond 1.25x10 +21 mol, there follows that we cannot possibly burn more than about 1% of the existing fossil carbon. Instead of a million years, we are down to about 10,000 years.

Of course, then, burning that 1% of carbon would mean to use up all the oxygen of the atmosphere and that would be bad for us, no matter how much we need fossil fuels. In practice, we can't use up more than a few percent of the atmospheric oxygen; otherwise the effect on human health and on the whole ecosphere would be likely disastrous. Let's say that we are willing to bet that a 5% loss is still safe, even though nobody could be sure about that. It means that we only have 500 years or so to keep on burning before we start feeling symptoms of suffocation. But the story doesn't end here. 

So far, we have been reasoning in terms of the total amount of fossil carbon as if it were all burnable, but is it? Kerogen, the main component of this carbon, can be combined with oxygen producing a certain amount of heat (3) but it can hardly be considered as a fuel, because it would be very expensive to extract and the net energy yield would be modest or even negative. In 1997, Rogner (4) carried out an extensive survey of the carbon resources potentially usable as fuel. At page 149 of this link, we can find an aggregate estimate of 9.8x10+11 t of carbon as "reserves" and up to 5.5x10+12 t of "resources", the latter defined as not economically exploitable at the current prices. "Additional occurrences" are reported to a possible amount of 1.5x10+13 t of carbon, but that is a rather wild estimation. If we limit ourselves to proven reserves, we see that at the present rate of about 1x10+10 t/year we would have about a century of carbon to go.

We are not finished, yet. We now need to consider how much carbon we can combine with oxygen before the increased greenhouse effect caused by the resulting carbon dioxide generates irreversible changes in the Earth's climate. The "tipping point" of the climate catastrophe is often estimated as that corresponding to a temperature increase of 2 deg C and, in order not to exceed it, we should not release more than about 10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. That corresponds to 3.7x10+11 t of carbon (5). This is about one third of Rogner's global reserve estimate. So, at this point, we don't have a century any more, but only about three-four decades (and note that the estimation of what we can burn and still avoid catastrophe may have been optimistic. See also here for a more detailed estimate that takes into account different kinds of fuels).

You see how misleading it can be to list carbon resources as if they were soldiers lined up for battle. Not everything that exists inside the Earth's crust can be extracted and burned and we can't afford to extract and burn everything that could be extracted without wrecking the atmosphere. Taking into account the various factors involved, we went down from more than a million years of supply to just a few decades.

But, of course, calculating the number of remaining years at constant production rates is also misleading. In practice, fuel production rates have never been constant over history; rather, the production tends to follow a "bell shaped" curve that peaks and then declines. Today, we may be close to the peak (See e.g. here). Will the impending decline save us from catastrophic climate change? At present, we cannot say; too many are the uncertainties involved in these estimates. What we can say is that we are not facing centuries of abundance, but a decline which might even very rapid, considering the possibility of a "Seneca collapse." 

In short, the age of fossil fuels is ending. It is time to take note of that and move to something else.


(1) M. Vandenbroucke, C.     Largeau, Kerogen origin, evolution and structure, Organic Geochemistry, Volume 38, Issue 5, May 2007, Pages 719-833, ISSN 0146-6380,  

2. Falkowski, P., R.J. Scholes, E. Boyle, J. Canadell, D. Canfield, J. Elser, N. Gruber, et al. 2000. “The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System.” Science 290 (5490) (October 13): 291–296. doi:10.1126/science.290.5490.291.

(3) Muehlbauer, Michael J., and Alan K. Burnham. 1984. “Heat of Combustion of Green River Oil Shale.” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Process Design and Development 23 (2) (April): 234–236. doi:10.1021/i200025a007.

Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 22 (1) (November 28): 217–262. doi:10.1146/

(5) IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Thursday, April 9, 2015

An interview with Cassandra

This blog, "Resource Crisis" deals mainly with depletion, climate change, and the ongoing systemic crisis. However, up to no long ago, it was known as "Cassandra's Legacy" and its Cassandric roots remain strong. After all, the Trojan prophetess, Cassandra, is a perfect metaphor of what's happening around us; with scientists trying to warn the public and governments of various impending disasters, and not being believed.

At present, my more "mythological" musings appear in a blog that I titled "Chimeras" There, I just published a post titled, "An Interview with Cassandra" that is at the same time a climate-fiction piece and a personal interpretation of the saga of Cassandra.

As a post, it is a bit long and perhaps also off-topic, so I won't publish it here. But I thought that the readers of this blog could be interested in reading it. At least, I can say that I had a lot of fun in writing it!

So, just click here to access my interview with the Trojan prophetess. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why democracy doesn't work (and how to fix it)

(image source)

This post is not supposed to be a proposal for reforming democracy. Any real reform seems to be impossible in a world where the main (and perhaps the only) rule seems to be "don't even think of changing anything important" (DETOCAI). This said, I noticed a recent article by Dean Burnett on "the Guardian" that attempted to answer the question of why people keep electing idiots. That set my mind in motion and I came up with some considerations based on the effect of "public relations" (PR) on the democratic process. I don't claim to be an expert in PR, but, if you deal with climate change, as I often do, it is impossible to miss the role of PR in a debate that has been based on lies and exaggerations aimed at demonizing science and scientists. So, this post is mainly a reflection of mine on the importance of PR in our world.

There seems to be no category more badly vilified and despised than that of politicians. Yet, theoretically voters can vote for whoever they want; why do they keep electing people they despise? (It sounds like the old joke: 'a masochist is someone who likes the things he hates'). Are most voters masochists; or what?

I think there is an explanation for this apparently bizarre behavior of voters. It has to do with the PR methods used in election campaigns and, in particular with negative advertising that has generated a general self-inflicted vilification on all politicians. Let me explain.

In public relations, there are two basic approaches to promote one's ideas or products: a negative one and a positive one. The negative approach (demonizing your opponent) is usually much more powerful and more effective than the positive approach (idolizing your friend). There have to be deep psychological reasons for this, but it is the way things are (*).

The problem with negative advertising is the same you have with chemical weapons: it works wonders, but it can backfire. This is something that the armies of the first world war armies learned when the wind blew back on them the gas they had directed against their enemies.

Indeed, negative ads are so powerful - and so dangerous - that they are almost never used in commercial advertising (**). Think of what would happen if, say, Pepsi were to mount a campaign based on the accusation that Coke gives you cancer. And imagine that Coca Cola were to retaliate by saying that Pepsi causes heart attacks. Not a good idea, obviously: would anyone ever try a soft drink again? It is a well known principle: if you throw it at the fan, it will spread all around.

But in politics? The same constraints do not apply. In politics, the market size is fixed: it is a seat in parliament (or in the city council, or whatever). It doesn't matter how many people show up at the voting booths, someone will always get that seat. For a politician, negative PR carries no risk of shrinking the market, hence, it is a fundamental tool. It is well known: vilifying your opponent works wonders (***). But, of course, if everyone uses it the result is the generalized demonization of all politicians. Again, you see the effect of throwing it at the fan; it does spread all around.

So, it is likely that the widespread mistrust of politicians is the result of a long series of demonization campaigns that have led the public to conclude that all politicians are thieves, liars, psychopaths, sex maniacs, bumbling idiots, and the like. Maybe some of them deserve to be defined in this way, but the problem is that these vilification campaigns keep away honest people from running. And this is the problem with democracy, in a nutshell.

Can we do something to improve? In principle, yes. After all, most governments have enacted laws designed to protect customers from misleading  advertising. Often, ads disparaging a competitor's product are forbidden and even comparative advertising is strictly regulated. But no such rules apply to politics, where everything goes and arriving to similar regulations seems to be just unthinkable.

Could we use a different tactic? Could we make negative campaigning a bad idea for those who use the method? We could, for instance, make the political "market" more similar to the commercial market in the sense that the total number of seats in parliament is like the market size for a product. That is, the number of seats in parliament could be proportional to the number of people who actually vote. So, if only half of the voters show up, then only half of the seats are assigned. The remaining ones go vacant, or maybe are assigned by a national lottery. In this way, politicians would be wary of using tactics which risk to reduce the market size (i.e. the number of seats assigned).

So, we could think of ways to fix democracy. But the problem is not that there is anything wrong with democracy. The problem is with PR - and negative PR in particular. We are not going anywhere in any field until we understand the awesome power of negative PR on our perception of the world. It is truly a weapon of mind destruction, witness how effective PR has been in attacking climate science and climate scientists and in convincing a large number of people that climate change is a hoax.

There is only one good weapon against this kind of PR: it is remembering that, as Baudelaire said, "The devil's best trick is to persuade you that he does not exist."


(*) about the higher power of the negative, see for instance "Bad is stronger than good".

Baumeister, Roy F.; Bratslavsky, Ellen; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D.
Review of General Psychology, Vol 5(4), Dec 2001, 323-370

(**) A well known case of negative commercial advertising may be the "where's the beef?" campaign used by Wendy's in 1984 to disparage the sandwiches marketed by their competitors, McDonald's and Burger King. Note, however, that it was not really a negative ad; it was, rather, a comparative ad ('our hamburgers are bigger than theirs'). Nevertheless, it was it was aggressive enough that it was picked up by Walter Mondale who successfully used the same slogan against his adversary in the primaries of that year.

(***) About negative campaigns in politics, there is plenty of documentation on the Web. You can start, for instance, from this article in Wikipedia. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Breaking News: the West Antarctic Ice Sheet starts collapsing, says IPCC

Huge rift in the West Antarctic ice sheet as revealed by satellite photos: the whole ice sheet has started moving toward the sea.

A new report released today by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) discloses satellite data showing a huge rift in the West Antarctic ice sheet, indicating that the whole mass of ice has started moving toward the sea. Recent reports had already indicated that the deglaciation process was taking place faster than previously expected, but the new data indicate an unexpectedly rapid collapse. According to IPCC, at the measured speeds, the total collapse of the Western Ice Sheet will take place in less than a decade.

The collapse of the Western Ice Sheet is expected to cause a sea level rise of 4.8 m (16 ft). If the same phenomenon will affect all the Antarctic glaciers - as it appears to be the case from other data in the IPCC report - the final result will be to raise the sea level of 61 meters (200 feet). The report does not detail the possible effects on coastal cities and on populated areas at elevations lower than the expected sea rise.

Most comments on the IPCC report seem to agree on the fact that the satellite data indicate a very rapid melting of the Antarctic glacier, as admitted also in "skeptical" circles. Anthony Watts, famed for his "Watt's up with that?" blog reports that he feels "vindicated" by the new results, since they prove that the IPCC models for climate change were "wrong" having been unable to predict how fast the melting was to become. Viscount Cristopher Monckton has commented that this event "shows that global warming has nothing to do with the Antarctic collapse" because "the warming pause is still ongoing."

Many scientists also commented on the news about Antarctica. Michael Mann, of Penn State University, stated that "Those glaciers got quite a blow by the hockey stick!" Others declared that they felt comfortable in seeing that they would not be branded any more as "catastrophists" and "alarmists", but several also expressed concern that, now that global warming was demonstrated beyond all doubts, their research grants on the subject would be curtailed.

On  the political side, the right sees the flooding of the coastal cities as "nothing to fear". Righteous people, it is said, will surely be spared by the incoming waves, just as Moses and the chosen people were spared when they crossed the Red sea. The comments from the left are generally positive, as it is hoped that the flooding of the coastal regions will reduce pollution. It is also hoped that flooding will generate opportunities for more resilient communities and a zero-growth lifestyle based on local resources.

The general reaction of the industry to the news has been of cautious optimism. Spokesmen from the oil industry and the mineral industry have reported great interest in the mineral exploitation of the newly exposed lands of Antarctica, expected to contain oil, gas, coal, and other important minerals. The construction industry is also reporting interest in the new business opportunities involved: such as barriers against the sea rise and the relocations of whole cities inland. "Never before" one spokesman for the industry said, "prospects for the cement industry have been so bright."

Also in Washington D. C., the new IPCC report is seen with cautious optimism. The US President has spoken of a "new frontier" opening up with the deglaciation of Antarctica and with the new lands being freed for human settlement. He used the sentence "go south, young man!" to indicate the new direction for the growth of the economy.

More news on this subject: "The Great Greenland Melting: Threat or Opportunity?"

Note: I have been told that someone could take this post as if it were a serious report. So, let me state it explicitly, just in case: this is an April's fools post. It is true that the Antarctic glaciers are melting down, but not as fast as described here. 

Note also that, the image at the beginning is from the University of Michigan, it is about ice calving in Antarctica but, again, it does not indicate a super-fast melting


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)