Energy Problems

Introduction

There are many problems that arise from misuse of the fuels that provide us with energy. That misuse, if allowed to continue unchecked, has the potential to deeply threaten the stability of modern civilization on a global scale and to do harm to our planet and its ecosystems in ways that are pervasive and long-lasting.


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Global Warming

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Since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid 18th century, there has been an increasing release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, largely the result of the burning of fossil fuels. The level of those gases has risen to a level in modern times unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years of earth history. The result of that accumulation of greenhouse gases is a global warming of the earth, including land, oceans, atmosphere and the polar ice caps.


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Excess Greenhouse Gases

The present rate of use of fossil fuels is releasing excessive amounts of what are known as "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere. The impact of rising temperatures has become increasingly disruptive to all of the earth's environmental and biological systems - land, atmosphere, oceans, glaciers and polar ice caps, and the biosphere.


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Rising Sea Level

The level of oceans is rising. Since 1993 the average increase has been approximately 2.6 - 2.9 mm per year. That rate of increase is currently accelerating, likely as a result of global warming, and could cause the oceans to rise by the end of the 21st century, depending on the degree of mitigation implemented to limit release of greenhouse gases, by a conservative estimate of a total rise of at least 52 - 98 centimeters. Other estimates place the total rise at 0.3 - 2.5 meters.


The two main causes of increasing sea levels are (1) expansion due to increasing heat content of the oceans and (2) melting of glaciers and polar ice caps.


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Ocean Acidification

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The measure of acidity in chemical systems is the pH value. pH values can range from 0 to 14. Values in the range less than 7 are acidic, pH of 7 is neutral, and a pH greater than 7 is basic (alkaline). The oceans are normally slightly alkaline, with a pre-industrial pH value of approximately 8.179. The current pH value of the oceans is approx 8.07, which represents a decline in alkalinity in the last 2-3 centuries.


Increased ocean acidity is caused by increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the result of massive combustion of fossil fuels for the generation of energy for modern civilizations. Atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by the oceans and in its reaction with water, releases hydrogen ions that lower ocean pH levels.


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Ocean Deoxygenation

As the ocean rises in temperature due to global warming, the upper layers of the ocean become less dense, and the upwelling of nutrients from the denser, lower layers of the ocean declines. Most photosynthesis in the ocean occurs in the upper layers, so the decline in nutrients results in a decline in photosynthesis, resulting in a lowering of oxygen in those upper regions.


In addition, oxygen is less soluble in warmer water than cold, resulting in a lowering of oxygen in the ocean, as the ocean is warmed due to increased global temperature.


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Changes in Antarctic Ice

Antarctica
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About 98% of Antarctica is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet. It contains about 90% of the ice in the world. If all the ice on Antarctica melted, the result would be a global rise in sea level of about 60 meters (200 feet).


Of particular interest is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is more unstable than the ice in the East Antarctic regions. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt enough to start breaking apart and descend into the ocean, it would result in a rise in sea level of several meters.


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Decrease in Arctic Sea Ice

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Arctic Sea Ice is declining annually at a rate of approximately 9.3% per decade. Although melting of sea ice does not change the level of the oceans directly, it nonetheless does occur because of global atmospheric warming, and that has major implications for the continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. If those were to melt entirely, it would cause the oceans to rise approximately 70 meters and would result in massive flooding in the world's highly populated coastal areas.


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Decrease in Greenland Ice Sheet

Greenland
Source: Eric Gaba – Wikimedia Commons
user: Sting
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About 80% of the surface of Greenland is covered with ice, the second largest body of ice in the world, second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet.


If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt, it would cause an increase in global sea level of about 7.2 meters {24 feet}.


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Retreat of Glaciers

Average Glacier Thickness Change
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Almost all glaciers worldwide are retreating and declining in thickness. The above image shows the average decrease in thickness of mountain glaciers around the world.


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Thawing of Methane Hydrates

Methane Hydrate
(water: red and white; methane: silver and green)
source: USGS
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A methane hydrate is a type of clathrate, which is a molecular lattice containing an entrapped compound. In the case of a methane hydrate, the clathrate is a lattice "cage" formed of water molecules (H2O), within which is trapped one or more methane (CH4) molecules.


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Extreme Weather

A recent research report by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) covers 27 peer-reviewed analyses of extreme weather around the globe. The influence of anthropogenic climate change was sufficient to warrant the conclusion in at least three of the reports, that the severity of the event would never have been possible without human-caused global warming. This is the first report of this kind by the AMS that came to such unequivocal conclusions.


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Disruption of Ecosystems

The environmental disruptions that are the result of climate change from excessive use of fossil fuels are both rapid and extensive. Many of the millions of species of animals and plants on earth are incapable of adjusting to those disruptions quickly enough to survive as a species. The threat to ecosystems is particularly acute in the tropical and polar latitudes, but even in more temperate regions of the planet, species survival is often imperiled. This danger to the inhabitants of each ecological environment will only increase, as the extent of greenhouse gas emissions grows.


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Nuclear Waste Disposal

The disposal of nuclear waste is both an engineering and a political challenge. As far as the engineering side of that challenge is concerned, it basically boils down to developing ways to safely contain dangerous radioactive substances for several centuries, while the material decays to a harmless level of radiation. That seems like a long time, but most solutions accepted as effective by professionals in the field involve deep geological burial, and in geologic terms, a few centuries are like the blink of an eye. Finding stable geological formations for burial of radiological waste lends itself to straightforward analysis and should be a readily solved problem. However, the solution to this problem has been fraught in the USA with both engineering difficulties and resistance from local residents that have delayed the development of a permanent, deep geological repository.


The more difficult problem in the disposal of radioactive waste is the political challenge. Much resistance arises from local populations when an area is selected or undergoes examination for a repository site. Legitimate challenges to the engineering solution get mixed in with apprehension over having harmful radiological substances stored nearby and cause long delays in developing a safe repository for the material.


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Nuclear Plant Accidents