The right stuff in politics

A week of calm has descended over Wellington, but we cannot have that can we? If the weather stays really calm, someone has to substitute, and in this case it was the politicians. In some of the futuristic ebooks I am self-publishing, one of the background themes is how governance can be manipulated by politicians. One way is by making misleading statements. How do you defend yourself against these?

We have had an example here. The problem: the cities of Auckland and Christchurch have house prices that are getting out of hand. There are several reasons for this, and the one I feel is the most likely to be determining the prices is that there are too few of them. In Christchurch, the reason is the recent earthquakes. Large areas of the eastern city have been found to be built on ground that rapidly liquefies, many of the services such as sewage have been hopelessly wrecked, and the authorities that be have declared that part of the city is not worth rebuilding, and rebuilding should occur elsewhere. The problem is, it has taken some time to get around to building enough houses to house about a quarter of the city’s population, so housing is really expensive. In principle, this is a transient problem, because eventually enough will be built and the prices should come down. The current high prices should reflect those who have money and want to get to the head of the queue. Whether that is right is another story.

Auckland has a different problem. New Zealand is currently experiencing significant immigration, the immigrants all land in Auckland and few go further. On top of that, there have been far too few houses built recently. The reasons are somewhat obscure, but it seems to be that the planners that be have decreed that Auckland is occupying enough area already, and it needs greater housing density, more apartments, etc, and to bring about that nirvana, it is not issuing permits outside certain boundaries. There is not much free land within the boundaries, and while the City Council no doubt thinks high-rise apartments are the way to go, nobody is building such apartments, possibly because a recent lot were not a financial success. That was probably because not everybody wants to live in postage-stamp sized apartments without somewhere to park a car.

Given such a problem, there is some evidence that speculators have descended and several thousand such houses have been purchased by foreign people who have no intention of living here. Presumably they will rent and resell at some time in the future. It is not clear how many such houses are purchased by foreign speculators.

Now enter politics. The Labour (opposition) leader has announced that if they win the next election they will ban foreigners from buying houses unless (a) they come to live in them, or (b) they build them. There are various responses to this. The right wing accuses them of being xenophobic. The prime Minister has said only a few per cent of the houses are bought by foreigners for investment, so it is hardly a big deal. To me, that is misleading. Those bought by foreigners are often bought at auction, and top auction prices tend to set expectations from sellers, especially when there is a clear shortage. If you know what someone else got for a comparable house, don’t you want something similar? Also, our Prime Minister made his own personal fortune as a trader, so he must know that it is the top few transactions that tend to be price setters on a rising market.

This illustrates a problem (apart from, following from my previous post, we just had another earthquake while writing this!) in that politicians and their appointed authorities control our lives through their actions. Our system of governance only really works when politicians “do the right thing”. Making dismissive statements to abandon responsibility is hardly “doing the right thing”. At the end of my next ebook, Jonathon Munros (available some time  in August) one of my characters expresses the opinion that the problem lies in that getting the right person to do the job and getting the person elected require completely different skills. What do you think?

Wellington shakes

First storms, and now earthquakes! This is not altogether surprising, because there are a mass of fault lines nearby that are caused by the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates grinding by each other. These quakes were centred in Cook Strait, with the small town of Seddon, which is in the northern part of the South Island, being the closest habitation, but it was also not very far from Wellington. The first bigger one was just after 9 am on Friday and was 5.7 on the Richter scale. The news media made quite a fuss about it, with various comments about how scared people were, but I was in the rather odd position of hearing about it first from my wife about two hours later. I had seemingly been driving into Lower Hutt, but it was also interesting that I saw a number of people later, talked to some, and nobody mentioned the quake. Obviously, it was not serious.

 There was an after-shock later in the afternoon, which created discussion, not the least because, since we could barely feel anything, I thought it was nothing more than some nearby road works, which I knew were going on because I had to avoid some seriously heavy machinery a little earlier in the day.

 Then, two days later, while lying in bed and wondering whether to get up, there was another from the same place, this time at 5.8 on the Richter scale. Again, nothing to be particularly bothersome, but of course when you experience these sort of things, the real fear is not what is going on, but what it might develop into. My house is on a hill, and at the bottom of the hill, I suppose about 100 – 200 meters away, there is the main Wellington fault, and if it decides to go, it has seemingly generally produced shakes in the 8s on the Richter scale, and these are really serious.

 Then, at 1709 hrs on the Sunday there was yet another. It started harmlessly enough, but it kept building up, and kept building up. After some time, I could hear the walls in the house straining, and just when I was thinking this could get really serious, it started to subside, but it kept going nevertheless, as was 6.5 on the Richter scale. Over all, it lasted a minute, which is not a very long time, but it feels like it in an earthquake. This time there were more serious outcomes. It was fortunate when it struck because there were relatively few people on the Wellington streets. What happened was that a number of windows on high-rises shattered, and sent sheets of glass downwards, and these might be the most dangerous in a quake. A quake of 6.5 disperses approximately 400 TJ of energy, or about 6 times the energy released by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima.

 Actually, Wellington is apparently experiencing a continuous “quake” this year. I gather that for several months, a massive land mass around Wellington is drifting north-eastwards, at something like a millimetre a week. Because this is smooth, at this rate the accelerating force is impossible to detect, and we would not be aware of it, but for physical measurements that depend on the GPS. We joke that airlines will probably raise their charges! On the other hand, the bulk of the South Island is not matching this drift, which means either a fault line is slipping, or strain is building somewhere, or both. These quakes could have involved the relief of this strain. The major fault lines that mark the tectonic boundaries are essentially north-south in direction with, if looked from above, a modest clockwise turn.  From our point of view, we regard modest earthquakes as good. They do not do any damage, but they relieve strain, and strain is bad because if it builds up too far, the inevitable bang just gets bigger. We are just hoping there is no follow-up bang, through strain being transferred elsewhere.

Another Wellington storm

Yet another storm hit Wellington; this time winds were a mere maximum of 165 k/h (about 100 mph). Is this climate change? Whatever, it is interesting that climate change is now a major concern, which raises the question, what can we do about it? Suppose we answer, “Stop burning fossil fuels,” what would the effect be? Currently, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is about 400 parts per million (compared with about 280 ppm at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). If we are concerned about the effects of such atmospheric carbon dioxide, then if we stop producing it right now, the 400 ppm remain. Now, as noted in the last post, the climate shows strong signs of what physicists call hysteresis. This is when the effect is something depends on how you got there, where the system has “memory” of previous times. In this aspect, the Greenland ice sheets are actually the last remnants of the last great Ice Age. As we heat the planet, all that happens first in some places is that ice melts, the extra heat being absorbed by the melting ice without any temperature increase. In other words, for a while what you see is not what you are going to get!

In my opinion, the major problem civilization is going to face is rising sea levels. If the Greenland Ice Sheet melts, then the sea will rise about 7 meters. Take a look at Google Earth and see what goes. Amongst other places, a significant fraction of Bangla Desh, and essentially all Pacific islands based on coral reefs (as opposed to the volcanic basalt peaks, but you cannot live on the side of them). So, how do you defend against that?

 One suggestion is to build sea walls. These would have to be around all the land, including alongside riverbanks, and they may have to last tens of thousands of years. And, of course, while you are making all the required concrete and moving rock, you are probably generating massive amounts of further carbon dioxide, which will lead to more of the Antarctic ice melting, thus cancelling any value from your efforts. You could build walls of up to fifty meters high, and that would certainly be adequate for as long as the walls last.

 You could try removing the carbon dioxide from the environment. At first sight this seems futile; there is just too much there. However, at least some can be removed without much effort if we regrow forests. You would have to start planting them, but once underway, they would happily consume carbon. Even more spectacular would be to grow marine algae. The kelps such as Macrocystis pyrifera are extremely fast growing, and you can harvest them by mowing them. I rather fancy collecting such kelp and using it to make either biofuel or other chemicals. The key is to ensure that the carbon is removed from the ocean.

 Currently, we produce about 10 billion tonne per annum of carbon dioxide. That means we have to remove 10 billion tonne per annum just to break even. It is unlikely we can do that, although what we can do, we should, so what other options are there? A massive deployment of nuclear power would slow the fossil fuel burning, but it would not remove any of the current 400 ppm, and who wants nuclear power?

 The simplest answer is for every tonne of water melted by the ocean currents, we deposit a tonne of snow into the ice sheets. That involves geoengineering, and the problem is, when you interfere like that with nature, the effects are probably not that readily calculated. Such proposals in the past have been met with opposition. The problem is, some countries are going to be adversely affected by the geoengineering, and these are the ones that, in the first place caused the problem. Of course if we do nothing, it is the Pacific Islanders and the Bangla Deshis who pay. Do we know what will happen if we intervene? No, we do not, but we know what will happen if we do not. Of course there is another problem: how do we decide, and who decides?

Climate Change

In the previous post, I showed why certain gases in the atmosphere acted as a blanket, and slowed down the cooling of the ground. The next question is, is there any observational evidence that this is happening? After all, there are a number of people who view statistics and argue that this is not happening because the temperatures are not rising the way you might expect from the models. So, what is the truth? The critical evidence is from the oceans, which have been measured as receiving 0.64 Watt per square meter. That may not seem to be much, but consider the number of square meters in the oceans. Without any doubt whatsoever, the planet is receiving a net heat input.

Some may protest that statistics show there has been none of the expected temperature raise since 2000 AD. This is difficult to account for with certainty. Temperatures fluctuate greatly from year to year, and arguments that there has been little net temperature rise since 2000 may simply mean that a negative fluctuation has been cancelled with net heat. The second reason might be that the ice caps are melting. If you heat a mix of ice and water, as long as you stir, there is no net rise of temperature until all the ice melts. The heat goes into melting the ice. The heat may be lost to the deep oceans. Finally, some places may get a significant rise in temperature but others do not, and statistics at one place may be misleading. It is very easy to get stupid answers from the misuse of statistics. It also may not matter. After all, if the Sahara or Death Valley get twenty degrees hotter and everywhere else stayed the same, would it matter? Even if the world got a few degrees hotter, would it matter? That depends on what happens to the spare heat.

So, the ground gets hotter, but what happens next? I mentioned in the previous post that the absorption of infrared radiation by greenhouse gases does not, in itself, heat the gas. There is an indirect method by which it can, though. If the excited state molecule undergoes a collision with another molecule, there can be an exchange of energy, and now neither molecule is in a stationary state, and this results in the energy being dissipated, usually as heat. Whether this happens depends on a quantum probability, and as far as I am aware, this probability is unknown, so I cannot answer whether this happens. The probability of a collision during the lifetime of the excited state depends on the overall gas pressure, and Earth’s pressure is such that whether a collision occurs is a bit of a toss-up. On the other hand, Martian pressure would be too low, and Venusian pressure would almost guarantee a collision. However, the reverse also happens. If a gas molecule collides with a molecule of greenhouse gas, heat may be converted to excited state vibrational energy, again with a certain quantum probability, and that may be radiated away. The very top of Earth’s atmosphere, called the thermosphere, has an absence of such molecules, and an effective temperature of something like 1400 degrees. The thermosphere of Venus, which is mainly made of carbon dioxide, and which receives twice the sunlight as Earth, has a temperature of a mild summer’s day.

Three are two mechanisms to warm the air. Contact between ground and air heats the air and cools the ground, whereupon the warmer air rises and mixes with the general air. A more effective mechanism is where ocean water cools by evaporating water, and when this condenses as clouds, heat is transferred to the air. It also tends to be dumped in one place, which raises the pressure of the local air, which in turn leads to air movement. The more water being condensed in a small volume, the more likely a storm will eventually result.

However, the biggest cause of temperature differences is ocean currents. Everybody knows that but for the Gulf Stream, Europe would be a miserable place, and ice ages are probably accompanied by a redirection of that Gulf Stream. And herein lies our real problem. The oceans are carrying sufficient heat to melt very significant amounts of polar ice, and this will led to major sea level rise. However, the issue regarding greenhouse gases now becomes more confused, because in the last four interglacials, there is clear evidence that without our industrial output of greenhouse gases, the Greenland ice sheet melted and sea levels were about 7 meters higher. Our problem is, if this is really inevitable this time, and with even more net heat input, more of Antarctic ice should melt. Now, look at Google Earth, and check the location of major coastal cities and see how much of their area is less than 10 meters above sea level. See how much prime agricultural land is less than ten meters above sea level. Now, work out how civilization can continue in our current ways if we continue to keep our population expanding the way it is?

See how difficult it is to get the future right in your novels?

The so-called Greenhouse effect

One of the problems I faced when writing my futuristic novels was how to describe the environment, and the most difficult of all was what to do about global warming. What is really going to happen? At first sight, this looks easy: there are models that make various predictions. Unfortunately, all of these have serious faults, although many of these will cancel each other out so the predictions might even come about. So, what is causing this? One of the things I have noted is that much of what you see in the media is either wrong or at best, misleading. Even the name is misleading; a greenhouse largely works because it allows the inside to get warm while it stops outside cold air from getting in. How can the general public come to grips with this, when there are so many seemingly contradictory messages? I am going to try to sort this out in a series of blogs that hopefully will be comprehensible to the non-expert.

 So, what is the effect? We start with the ground, which has become warm through the day. All things on the ground emit infrared radiation. This is usually treated as black body radiation, but in such radiation, all frequencies are available, if there is the energy to power them. The higher the temperature of a body, the more high frequency radiation is emitted. If it gets hot enough, light is emitted, and the body glows, at first red, and as it gets even hotter, whiter. Most bodies cannot do this, and are best described as grey bodies. Why, then, are they treated as black ones? Simply because black ones obey the Planck radiation law, from which you can calculate the energy intensity and frequency distribution. The radiation emitted from grey ones depend on exactly what they are made of so it is nigh on impossible to deal with non-uniform grey ones over the planet. It might be easier to calculate based on black bodies, but doing that automatically inserts errors. However, provided the planet is not changing, this problem can, with some difficulty, be corrected for. Unfortunately the planet is changing.

 Accordingly, the ground emits continually infrared radiation as a distribution of radiation frequencies heading towards space, the ground slowly cools down during the night, and in a vacuum, that is the only way it can cool. What the so-called greenhouse gases do is they absorb certain frequencies. Molecules vibrate, and if they absorb infrared radiation, they vibrate faster, reaching what are called “excited states”. There are three important features about these excited states:

  1. Absorption of radiation only occurs if there is a movement of electric charge in the molecule while doing so (a change of electric moment). Symmetrical gases such as nitrogen and oxygen cannot do that. One of the vibrational states of carbon dioxide also cannot do that.
  2. Each vibrational state can only absorb a very narrow band of frequencies.
  3. When the radiation is absorbed, and this will surprise most readers, that in itself does not provide any heat to the gas. Heat is random kinetic energy and such vibrational energy is ordered.

 So, what happens next? The excited states only last a very short period of time, and the radiation is re-emitted, but in a random direction. Accordingly, something approaching half of it goes back towards the ground, and half continues upwards, where it may strike more greenhouse gas, whereupon the same happens. Since half of that comes backwards, quite a bit comes back to the ground.

 What happens to that which returns to the ground? Recall, the ground is full of vibrations that are emitting infrared radiation. When the radiation is returned to the ground it excites these radiators, and in turn they further emit. The difference, of course, is that before these radiators got their energy from heat in the ground. Now they get it from the back radiation. Accordingly, the air does not heat the ground, as is sometimes stated (that would violate the second law of thermodynamics: a colder body cannot heat a warmer one) BUT it does slow down the cooling by recharging the ground radiators where before heat was required. Water is a very good “greenhouse gas” and this is why, on overcast winter nights, you get milder or no frosts. The clouds do not heat anything, but they slow down cooling. I like to think of it as a blanket effect. You put blankets on the bed to keep warm. The blankets provide no heat, but they greatly slow the loss of heat from you, and since you (unlike the ground) generate heat, you maintain a constant temperature with the right number of blankets.

 The gases that act in this way are gases with a strong change of electric moment when they vibrate, as this increases the probability of absorbing photons at a given frequency, and those with a number of different ways of vibrating, because they absorb at a number of different frequencies. Carbon dioxide is a linear molecule O – C – O and it has three ways of vibrating. Both oxygen atoms can go to or from the oxygen at the same time, and since this is symmetric, there is no dipole change so that vibration does not absorb. The carbon can vibrate between the oxygen atoms, and the molecule can bend, so there are two not especially strong relatively narrow bands of absorption. Water is a much stronger absorber, partly because it is bent so all possible vibrations absorb, and all involve a good change of electric moment. Further, water molecules tend to stick together (hydrogen bonding) and when this happens, there are changes to the frequencies of absorption, so the net result is, the bands are much broader, and more radiation is absorbed. Finally, there are a number of other gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, etc, and their problem is, they absorb frequencies that carbon dioxide and water do not, so the problem gets worse from the different gases. Methane, in particular, has a number of vibrations, and is considered to be about 25 times worse than carbon dioxide.

 That is some of the bad news. More bad news next week. Meanwhile, is this comprehensible? If you do not understand something, please comment.