31 December 2010

Geo-engineering II

Is there doubt about that we are playing very dangerous games with climate? No. There is no doubt at all that greenhouse gases are called greenhouse gases for a reason, and there is no doubt that we are hurling insane qualities of them into the atmosphere. There is also no doubt about that the system is somewhat inert, so that if you do that, and you don’t immediately suffer the consequences, it doesn’t mean there are no consequences. We have an excellent record, from air bubbles in ice cores, of past levels of such gases. And we know very well levels such as we have today have not occurred in the last ~900.000 years. And for going back further we rely on less ideal evidence, but that evidence shows clearly the last time we had so much CO2 in the atmosphere was 55 million years ago. We also know we are now changing the system at a speed that is seen rarely in the geological record, and if we see such large and rapid changes in the past they tend to be associated with mass extinctions. And there will be plenty of people who wish to brush all that aside and say it’s a left-wing conspiracy, but you need a certain flexibility of mind to do that. I’m not that flexible. I worry my head off. And I’m interested in the question of what we can still do to limit the damage.

The best thing to do would be simply not produce that much greenhouse gases anymore. How? Knowledgeable people have written excellent books about that, and I have in turn written about these on my blog. Let’s say it again; read the books by Tim Jackson, Chris Goodall and George Monbiot!
But it’s good to have several irons in the fire. We won’t stop exhausting large amounts of greenhouse gases tomorrow. So what about making sure that the methane we produce is used instead of letting it leak away into the atmosphere, and that the CO2 we produce is stored? That way we reduce our impact, even before we have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels.

We produce greenhouse gases all over the place. A cow burps, a car rides from A to B, I turn the central heating on… it’s not very concentrated. But heavy industry tends to exhaust lots of it at discrete places. They could, and with a financial incentive, they would capture it, and deal with it. How? This is another branch of geoengineering: carbon capture and storage (CCS). It requires some logistics. The best equipped are the oil companies. They produce lots of CO2, and they routinely transport fluids over large distances. So where to store it? There’s, as far as I know, a few options: in the deep sea, in minerals, in unmineable coal seams, in water-bearing geological formations, in salt caves, and in empty oil and gas fields.

I object to CO2 storage in the deep sea. It’s not very stable! The idea is that the CO2 is supercritical at such pressures, and would sit there, which that’s bad enough as it is; it would kill any life at that level. And I don’t trust the stability. The CO2 may bubble up when disturbed by a submarine landslide or an earthquake; it may get dissolved in the sea water with disastrous consequences… bad idea!

Storing CO2 in minerals is quite innocent; CO2 incorporated in a mineral to form a carbonate isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The problem here is that you don’t tend to find large enough amounts of receptive minerals just lying around.

If you have coal seams that are so difficult to mine that mining them would cost more fuel that it would yield it might still be energetically viable to drill a hole into them, and pump CO2 in. CO2 sticks to coal better than methane does, so you get rid of it in a safe way, and you get methane for free! If you then burn that, and pump the thus produced CO2 back into the coal seam, you may get yourself some nice low-CO2 fuel.

If you have no coal seams around you may just pump your CO2 underground, if you have a layer of rock that’s permeable, and will hold the CO2, with a non-permeable layer on top of that. Porous rock will normally be water-filled, so you just turn the still water into sparkling water and Bob’s your uncle. Just make sure the CO2 can’t go anywhere, but there’s plenty of geological structures that provide that.

Salt is very impermeable, and occurs in big blobs in the subsurface. Sometimes these are used for salt winning, and in that case there’s space in them for CO2. Geologically they’re not stable, but on human time scales they are.

The storage space I like most is empty oil and gas fields. Especially gas fields. They have proven they can contain gas for millions of years. So they can also do it for a little bit longer. And there will already be a pipeline leading to them. And there will be a plant somewhere near, and that plant could be extended to include equipment that catches the CO2, if it doesn’t already have it. Oil and gas exploration often goes hand in hand, and oil refinery produces lots of CO2. Oil companies already pump CO2 into their oil reservoirs to make the oil less viscous, so in many places the entire infrastructure would already be in place. So all works together to allow at least one big player in CO2 exhaust to tidily get rid of its CO2!

I sometimes advocate this practice. And I’ve heard strange objections. People have seriously voiced the concern you would get land subsidence where you inject CO2. Subsidence? If you just empty a gas field you might get that. If you refill it with another fluid you avoid it. Another advantage.

Is this already done? Yes. Is there a financial incentive? To a certain extent. There is such a thing as carbon tax in many countries, but it’s still too low to really provide a strong push. Would an increased carbon tax move CO2-fuming industries to countries with no such tax? Perhaps, but I have never heard of this effect due to the initial establishment of carbon tax in the various countries.

Can it go wrong? Yes. Anything can go wrong. But chances are slim. A methane molecule is much smaller than a CO2 molecule, so a reservoir that can contain methane can contain CO2. Except, of course, that these reservoirs have been drilled into. But if you keep the pressure within limits the risk is small.

So should we do this? I think so!

30 December 2010

Project Seatpost: the end

Sometimes a story needs an end. Two months ago I started blogging about my efforts to change a most uncooperative bicycle from an infertility-inducing monstrum to the most comfortable iron steed possible. About a month ago I blogged that I had managed. But I never blogged about actually giving it back! Don’t know if anybody noticed, but for me it felt bad to leave the story pending like that.

Circumstances inspired postponing the reunion of man and bike for a while. But yesterday the day came after all. I rode the bike back to Plymstock, where Jon agreed it had been greatly improved (of course!), and then we went off to celebrate the occasion with a hearty pub meal. And perhaps a modest pint or two. And I don’t like happy endings in art, but on my blog it’s allowed. So that’s it! Project Seatpost has been completed. And now I have a very roomy kitchen again, with only two bicycles in it. Good, as my own bicycle happened to have a puncture the very same day, and I had use for the manoeuvring space!

Today I realised I had forgotten to give the key back…

29 December 2010

Geo-engineering I

It's easy to hurl greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s not so easy to get them out of there. The whole world is still burning fossil fuels like mad, and only a small minority is willing to reconsider that. Even if the shit hits the fan people might not want to give up burning whatever they can burn. Every man for himself! So it’s not strange that there are people who think our best bet is trying to adapt to the climatic upheaval that is imminent. And there are two angles from which that can be done. One is: trying to mould our environment to meet our needs, such as building dikes, redistributing water, moving populations and whatnot. The other one is: tampering with the climate signal even more, but then with opposite effects to what we have so far. And that falls within the field of geoengineering.

There are ways of anthropogenically inducing cooling. Many ways. Some of them have been studied and discussed so much they already have widely accepted acronyms. One of these is: Solar Radiation Management (SRM), and it has many different faces. One is very simple: just paint every dark surface white. That will reflect lots of sunlight back into space. There are also ways of making marine clouds more reflective. You can also mimic volcanic eruptions: toss black carbon and sulphur into the stratosphere. After every big eruption, such as that of the Pinatubo in 1991, global average temperature drops for a while. Or you can drop all sorts of reflective thingies in space, between the sun and the earth, so sunlight is even reflected before it reaches the top of the atmosphere. So many options! And climate change is a dangerous thing! Should we try it?

The 1991 Pinatubo eruption; picture courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

It sounds all very nice, but there is always a catch, isn’t there? If you, for instance, paint all sorts of surfaces white, you would cool the continents by making them more reflective, but that would also influence the temperature gradient between land and sea. And that gradient is what largely dictates precipitation patterns. We wouldn’t want to create massive drought in China in our attempt to stop climate change, would we? And of course you can try to cool the oceans by making marine clouds more reflective, to even it out, but that requires a level of fine-tuning we haven’t reached. Why, by the way, only make only marine clouds more reflective? I have to admit I don’t know. But I’ll give a reading list at the end of this post and those who bother to read that will know before me. It’s an offer of weakness, but there’s only so much time I have.

If you put mirrors into space you may influence climate in an uneven way as well. The Polar regions are less directly influenced by the sun than the Equatorial regions, for instance. It’s a darn expensive thing to do, as well, but climate change is already costing us unspeakable amounts of money anyway, and in that light it’s quite cheap. And space mirrors may be fairly manageable items: if you don’t like their effects, you can just remove them again. Again, very expensive, but possible.

Putting all sorts of aerosols in the stratosphere is a “solution” that greatly scares me. Sulphates and carbon in the stratosphere also have all sorts of effect other than homogeneous warming. It’s not entirely clear what they would be, but just finding out by trial and error may cost many, many lives. And you might accidentally throw other things in the atmosphere as well. Or it may go somewhere unwanted. And I’m not saying you should never do anything of which you’re not sure what the effect are, but we do know such things, just like painting the continents white, will influence precipitation patterns. And that’s bound to do damage.

Another point with this approach is that these aerosols will be naturally removed, so you have to replenish them all the time to keep the cooling up. If it would happen something goes wrong and you stop replenishing after a considerable time span, the temperature will shoot back up to what it would have been without these sulphates, which is climate change at mind-numbing speed. Scary! And what if people will use it as a means of exerting power? If it’s people who keep the flow going, they also might, for instance, decide to stop doing so, if climate models indicate it would be other people than themselves who will suffer for that. Or only threaten to do so. Too much power in to few hands!
So what do I think of SRM overall? What can I say. I think we should focus on trying to not damage the system too much, rather than to fight the symptoms. Every time humans tamper with the system things go wrong. Humans thought it was a good idea to introduce rabbits to Australia. If we first disrupt the system by changing the atmosphere, and then we go change the incoming radiation too, there’s just too many ways in which that can go wrong. And before you know it every country that paints 5m2 of its surface white claims the moral right to hurl endless amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. And then we’re worse off than ever.

Picture from Infrastructurist.com

But if we don’t use SRM, would we instead focus on reducing emissions? Not very likely. And in that sense SRM has a strong advantage: it’s sexy! You can have the rich nations do it, they can show off with it, people can earn money with it… much more likely one could convince the US to install a space mirror than to become energy-efficient. So in that sense we might want to do it anyway. Not because it’s the best option, but because it’s the most feasible one. But then I’d say we should try to choose versions of SRM that are easiest to reverse if things go wrong. So perhaps indeed paint the roof white. And install that mirror, even though that would as well place lots of power in few hands.

It’s a bit of a catch-22, this. You could say we don’t have the right to tweak the system like that. But we also don’t have the right to tweak the system the way we are already doing. Maybe there’s an answer anyway; many people have written well-wrought books about the topic. I haven’t read any of them yet. I hope I will, though there’s a bunch of other books in the way on my to do list. But those who are intrigued now: don’t wait for me! Read them yourself! And draw your own conclusions. In the meantime I will blog on about another option: trying to get rid of the CO2 in the atmosphere instead of trying to compensate for it. Stay tuned for more climate talk!

Reading list:
Fixing the Sky by James R. Fleming
How to cool the planet by Jeff Goodell
Hack the planet by Eli Kintisch
Coming climate crisis by Claire Parkinson


If you move to a country as culturally distant as Norway is from the netherlands, you suddenly appreciate literature education in school, and the stream of cultural information in the media. I never knew how much at home I was in Dutch, English, French and German literature until I went to Norway. I suddenly was utterly lost in the library and book shops! And most of my friends were no help either. Most of them were equally lost foreigners, and the Norwegians were too busy skiing, kayakking, climbing, hiking, fishing and whatnot to have a solid grasp themselves. So I held on to Ibsen for dear life. And beyond that went for compromise.

When I'm in Norway I try to buy books in Norwegian, but as I don't know which writer I might like I often end up buying books that have been translated into Norwegian from a language I don't read well, or not at all. So I have an Allende in Norwegian on the shelf; I can't read that in the original language anyway, so why not read it in Norwegian. And I bought a book of an author I did not know, but the topic sounded interesting. The Norwegian version of "Fünf Jahre meines Lebens" by Murat Kurnaz. A description of life in Guantanamo Bay from inside!

I would say: read this book. It's available in German, English, Dutch, French, Danish and Norwegian, so the possibilities are endless. But don't expect to be cheered up by it. You read in the newspapers fragments of how bad it is in there, but a description of a several year stay hits hard. And the bloke ended up there mostly for being at the wrong time at the wrong place. And a little bit because of one bullshit remark by a would-be friend. It's scary. And it gets worse if you read he afterwards finds out it was already clear in 2002 that he was plain innocent, but as the German authorities were not very keen on letting a muslim with a beard, however law-abiding, back into their country, they let him rot there for another four years, until elections changed the players on the field.
One appreciates freedom and a life devoid of torture much more after reading this. It should be something you can count on, but evidently it isn't! And I take my hat off to the author, who managed to not be broken by this experience. I hope his voice is heard and that the powers that be will be less and less able to get away with such outrage...

28 December 2010

Christmas with my sister

We have nothing in common except our frequency. Many years ago, my father said this about my sister and me. And as we were so close I had noticed our undisturbed communication, but never really registered our profound differences. But they are there! Indeed, we have not much in common other than a last name. And the differences grow in time. My sister likes things systematic, clean, and well-designed. I like things to facilitate my life without costing any time themselves. She is happily married and doesn’t spend very much time with friends. I don’t have an impressive resume when it comes to relationships, but I can’t get enough of friends. She has the patience to faff around in a supermarket to make sure she buys exactly what she wants, and take time cooking it, and she can’t be asked to do uncomfortable and painful things. I do things like shopping and cooking as quickly as possible in order to have time for nicely painful and uncomfortable things such as caving. I like 3500BC to 1000AD, and she likes modern history. I drink alcohol and she eats sweets. And there’s much more than that. But we still communicate on the same frequency! Nobody knows me like she does. If I have to get anything off my chest I write to her.

We would celebrate Christmas together, and I really looked forward to that. But then I didn’t manage to leave San Francisco. And then I got stranded in Frankfurt. And Heathrow was still a mess, and she was supposed to fly over that airport! Would we make it? I was already coming to terms with the possibility we wouldn’t make it. But we made the effort, and it worked! I t was great to see her, and Antero, her husband.

I expected a calm Christmas with lots of tea and games of Scattergories, the customised version. And that’s what I got! And it was what I turned out to need: after the exhausting trip I managed one day of remnant health, and then I descended into a cold. No state to go on wild hikes or things like that. But Marieke wouldn’t be up for that anyway. And I would have liked to have a bit less use for handkerchiefs, but beside that it was a great time! We did go to Dartmoor, but there was way too much snow there. I send them off to the South West Coast Path (east of Plymouth) while I stayed on the couch, feeling snotty.

We did a few meters of the South West Coast Path (west of Plymouth) in the beautiful sun. We drank litres and litres of tea. I drank all sorts of English Ales with Antero. We hung up Roland’s Christmas decoration, which he didn’t need himself, as he didn’t celebrate at home. We played Scattergories until we dropped! And even there the differences were evident. I know all the bands and characters from books, and she knows all dishes, sweets and spices. And lots of other things I don't want to remember. And it was great!

It may be winter on Dartmoor, but it wasn't at the coast! 

As I arrived at home at the same time as them I hadn’t been able to raise my house to their hygiene standards (Marieke is keen on cleanliness and Antero is allergic to most things, including dust) but Marieke just did that herself. She was happy to help me eat sweets that were lingering around the house (these have a very long half-life in my household). And it turned out I had been looking for a watch like she had, while she actually wanted another one. So she gave me hers! Sweet! Things worked out miraculously.

On Christmas Day we would go to the pub (more to Antero’s delight than Marieke’s) with Jon and John, but I hadn’t counted on the effect Christmas has on the UK. Marieke doesn’t ride a bike anymore, as it locks her ankle, and the water taxi didn’t go, and all land taxis were engaged. You can’t reasonably walk to that pub from where I live! But such is life. We had a glass of mulled cider and were quite happy anyway.

Some old remnants of sibling rivalry force me to point out that on this picture, Marieke is wearing shoes, and I'm not! We are of the same height.

And way too soon it was Sunday and they left. But we can just keep things going by letter. And we'll see each other again!

27 December 2010

The long way back from SF

The conference was over. I had had a last jetlagged night, and came down to the breakfast room. There was quite a buzz. Soon I heard the news: due to adverse weather conditions in the UK, all our flights were cancelled. All except Ian’s, who hates Heathrow, and who had chosen to fly over Paris.

The hotel, that had been full of AGU participants, had turned into a beehive. People trying to phone their airlines, people trying to phone their travel agents, people trying to phone their relatives, people online, people booking their rooms for a few nights more...

My phone doesn’t work and my computer is slow. I had found out British Airways told travellers who hadn’t booked themselves should contact their travel agent. So I tried. I knew it would be expensive, but I wanted to get home. I listened to a mind-numbing tune for 45 minutes and then got disconnected. Great. That turned out to be $218 down the drain.

At ten o’clock the Durham team decided to go to the airport. I joined. BA didn’t turn out to have a desk there, and their partner, American Airlines, said they couldn’t help us. So we tried the BA check-in desk. They would open at 12.30. We just sat in line for an hour.

At 12.30 BA employees told us they couldn’t reschedule us. They did give us vouchers for hotels though. Tasha did her usual thing, got out the technology, and sorted things out. She phoned her mum, who phoned their travel agent, and the whole lot got rescheduled to Tuesday evening. My phone didn’t work so I didn’t even have it with me, which meant I did not have the contact information of people who could try to ring my travel agent from the UK. I felt powerless. Then it became clear that they actually did reschedule people. I had been out of the line. Shit! I got back in. I was already hungry, and frustrated, and I had to go to the bathroom, but I was not going to let my place in the queue go another time. I was very glad I had Anna Karenina AND then newspaper with me. And my laptop, which could use the airport wi-fi.

The non-moving queue

This girl was in front of me in the queue... I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the very topical drawing she had made

The Durham lot went back to the hotel; they were sorted out, and were going to retrieve our stuff so we could check into the BA-paid one. They would take my things as well. So I sat in the immobile line. I hadn’t slept well. I almost fell asleep while reading my book. Luckily there were very nice people in the line. There was water and crisps available to us. After their crap start, where the only thing they handed out was confusion, they got their act together.

At about 17:00 I reached the front of the queue. Some very nice ladies did their best for me. I was tired, and I spent another hour with them, as they didn’t manage to print my new ticket for me. Half the BA crew got involved, everybody stayed positive. Then I wanted to get home. It was raining and I had no idea where my hotel was. I found the shuttle bus, though, and at about seven I reached the monstrous hotel. I staggered through it, completely dazed, accidentally stumbling through at least one wedding, failing to locate the Durham crowd. I gave up, went to my room, phoned Tasha, which would be expensive but I didn’t care, and found out where they were. Then the day turned good.

Is this monstrous or what?

We had a beer, a banter, and then a fancy dinner paid by BA. And then I went to bed. When I touched the mattress I realised that was what I had been wanting to do for the entire day. Finally!

The next day it turned out the Durham crew was not as sorted as they should have been. The plans for visiting Alcatraz or a museum or whatnot went out of the window. We first had a ludicrous breakfast (because we could!) and then our roads diverged. Tasha, who wasn’t sure of things, and turned out to have tried finalising their bookings for half of the night, went to the airport to sort things out. Emma and Sarah went to the laundrette as their stack of clothes was not going to stand up to the extra long time they would be away from home. I was ordered to look for things to do after Tasha got back. Naive.

The first day of ridiculous breakfasts

Antony, who is an editor for JQS, had urgent work to do, and I had lots to blog about. And the blogging got more and more emphasis as the day drew on. As if Tasha would be back in time for going out and having some fun! At some point the washing ladies did return. No sign from Tasha yet. Again the situation occurred that Antony had lots of ladies draped over the beds in his hotel room. Next time we really should have Roland around! Antony claimed he felt his hotel room was violated.

Anyway. By the time the laundry was back Antony had finished his editorial work, figured out how Skype works, and was trying to contact their travel agent. The whole reason they weren’t sorted out was due to miscommunication between the travel agent and the airlines. Why not work on two fronts? And even though we had cumulatively tried for many, many hours to contact such people, in vain, it so happened that Antony had the travel agent on the phone, and they were about to make a breakthrough, while Tasha was getting somewhere at the airport as well. So Antony was Skyping the travel agent, Emma has Tasha on the phone who reported back on her efforts, and I was blogging about it. Modern travel!

When Tasha came back with tickets there was great elation. And almost homicide, as Antony declared he was bored. What not to say to someone who has just spent a day in a queue at an airport. It was almost dark when she returned... Indeed, no time for touristic exploration of California! But what can one do. Instead of shedding blood we retreated to the hotel bar, where four more stranded Durham-dwellers joined us. Tasha kept us up to date on the exploits of those who had already managed to leave San Francisco, but invariably had not managed to get home yet. Ian might have been smug when he got his flight to Paris, but it turned out later his airline had dumped him in Lyon...

Tasha has the tickets! Emma documents this long-awaited moment. And Antony plays stoic.

The next day the Durham crew got ready to do some sightseeing, knowing they didn’t have to chase tickets anymore. I had breakfast with them, and then it was time to say goodbye. I would fly that day! I was very glad to have been stranded with them; it would have been very tedious without them! If you get stuck then best with many nice people. Thanks Tasha, Antony, Emma and Sarah.

As no logistic works I waited for them on the wrong floor. But after 15 minutes Antony figured it out. So then they were off! And I did some final blogging, packed my stuff, and off I was.

My plane was delayed. A little bit. And then some more. And more. I only had 2 hours time to change planes. This wouldn’t work out, unless the other plane would be delayed too. And then, above Frankfurt, the captain announced he had gotten orders to circle for an hour. I prepared myself for not flying anywhere else that day.

This is how the day greeted me above the Atlantic

This is what Southern Ireland looked like. Wales looked just like that.

On arrival in the terminal it turned out the flight had been cancelled. So I decided to get my luggage and explore my options. Yeah right. My luggage didn’t show up, and after another 100m of queue for the luggage tracing I found out it wouldn’t. Bags checked through had to be delivered somewhere! But how would I know where I would end up? I decided to give them my mother’s address. I couldn’t give mine; how on earth would I know when I would end up there myself?

This meant my decision was made. I’d try to get to Amsterdam/Amersfoort by train, and then try to get to Bristol or Exeter, who are not as heavily struck by the weather, some later day. And I think it was a good choice... The whole airport, one of the biggest in Europe, was filled to the brim with stranded travellers. I knew train services would be disrupted as well, but I really didn’t want to do the whole shebang of spending a day in a queue and then flying two days after that again. I got into a modest queue for train tickets, and then I went looking for some internet.

I found a corner where a photo journalist was beaming his pictures to his news agent. I plugged in my computer, and chatted away a bit with the photographer, and a girl who had travelled Brazil and was a dazed as me, while I checked my possibilities online. There were flights to Exeter and Bristol. But when to travel? My sister was scheduled to fly in the next day from Helsinki to Heathrow. Yeah right. Not very likely she would make it. And if she wouldn’t there would be no point for me to rush home. I would be alone with Christmas, when I could also be with my mum! And Heathrow was reported to be at only 30% capacity... luckily I was back in Europe, and could text my sister, my mum, and whoever else I wanted. And then my time was up!

 They were evidently prepared for lots of stranded passengers!

It does look scenic, such dark, snowy railtracks

Who would be surprised that my train was cancelled? And that the next one was both only half as long as normal, and delayed? And required an extra change at Cologne? This would be the longest trip I’d made in a while! Even though the USA fieldwork was not quickly reached either...

I reached Utrecht without further ado, and there had a final scare as my train to Amersfoort suddenly disappeared from the boards, but luckily it only left from a different platform. And then I walked, and sometimes ran, simply because I wanted to be there, to my mother’s house. Finally!

The travel angst continued, as the time had come to make decisions with my sister. But would we both manage to get there to the UK? I phoned her, and we decided to try. So she booked me a flight while I had a cup of tea with my mother. And then I was off to bed! My mum tucked me in. I needed that.

Beautiful winter scenery near where my mother lives

The next day I had some time to relax with my mother before the whole circus started again. To my concern I would fly over Gatwick, and my sister over Heathrow. But I came to Schiphol without incidents, and then to the Heathrow bus station, which was the meeting point. And then suddenly my sister burst out of nowhere. Yay!

They had found an acquaintance that also had to travel west, so after some confusion we went to Terminal 3, got a shuttle bus to the car rental company, and from there Antero would drive us. The thought of walking around half the airport and again waiting for another means of transport gave me shivers, but well, it had to be done, and a while later we saw Antero himself. That had been a while! And then we could go to where our hitchhiker had to go, and then home. We were there at midnight. Marieke was already asleep. But we had made it! Home at last!

So I should have been home Sunday in the early evening. It turned into Wednesday at midnight. And I was tired, jetlagged, confused, tired of travelling and filthy, as my luggage was still in Frankfurt, as I had prioritised books and computers over clean clothes and toothbrushes. How I would ever be reunited with that was something I would worry about later. But now I was home and didn’t need to fly anywhere soon!

AGU: insight into addictions

My name is Margot and I'm a coffee junkie. I won't leave the house in the morning before having finished a litre of the stuff. And if I do office work I tend to start that with the next half litre. Or a whole one. And if I'm doing lab work I have a few mugs more at the coffee breaks (enigmatically known as tea breaks) at 10.30 and 15.30. Must have coffee! Must have lots!

I remember absolutely loving the American habit of the coffee refill-until-you-drop. I remember getting up at 5.30 during the glacier course in Norway because I wasn't willing to have that heavy day of hiking without a coffee first. Easy diagnosis one would say. But then came AGU!

The hotel served some mediocre coffee in the morning. And then it was up to the conference centre. They did serve free coffee at some hours, but with 18.000 likely coffee addicts around, the queues were astronomical. And I just couldn’t be bothered to stand around for ages to get to my shot. And to my great surprise I quickly got used to it. Effortlessly! I thought I was a veritable junkie, but I’m clearly only addicted to easy coffee. I was glad to notice that. The whole week, which was one with lots of work and not that much sleep, was a likely one for high caffeine intake, but I haven’t drunk that little of it in many months.

When BA put us in the monstrous hotel we got back to an eternal-refill-regime at breakfast. And then it’s an easy fix again! It was torture if my cup was empty, and the waiters wandered in every direction but mine. Back to what has symptoms of an addiction, but is evidently much more convenient than that!

24 December 2010

AGU: the social aspect

At AGU time was compressed. There were at least ten years compressed into that one week. Recent time was there: my Plymouth and Durham colleagues. The recent past was there too: my Tromsø colleagues. And the somewhat distance past: colleagues I met during my PhD. And even the distance past was there: people I knew when I was a student. And I think I even caught glimpses of the future! So there was a lot of catching up to do.

To start with the present: we had made sure that the Durham and Plymouth delegations booked the same hotel. From Plymouth, it was Pete, Roland and I coming, but Pete was a local, so he didn’t sleep in a hotel at all. Halfway down the conference, Maria and Rosa would join us. From Durham there was a large delegation, including Tasha and Antony, who are in the same project. And that was fun! In the morning there were always people to have breakfast with, though it must be said the Plymouth delegation seemed to leave the hotel before the Durham delegation had showed up in its entirety for breakfast... we southerners are disciplined and conscientious.

Roland in a cheezy diner

Dinners were often just organised by going to the hotel, bumping into people, teaming up and randomly wandering off to some restaurant. Excellent networking! One night I went for a drink with Maria. And the Durham lot were always up for a drink in the hotel bar after everything else had been done! It was a pleasure to have them around.

On Tuesday everything got chronologically confused.It was my birthday, and I had booked a restaurant. I was very privileged to have two Durham colleagues, one Plymouth colleague, and seven Tromsø colleagues all at my table while I majestically turned 35!

This is what Maria and I encountered on our girls' night out. Did we go in? Did we?

Concerning chronological confusion: I spoke of a glimpse of the future. Early in the conference I bumped into Eelco, who pulls the cart of the proposal that, if funded, gets me three more years of sea level work in Plymouth... they would tell us this year, but they won’t!

The recent past is the Norwegian lot; beside the birthday meal I one day scored Helgard and Steve for lunch, I met Dima at his poster, and on Friday I teamed up with Arto and his wife, in an excellent Japanese restaurant. Unfortunately, I was knackered after a week of heavy science and a lack of sleep, and I had been fed quite an amount of dubious booze by Antony, who had gathered lots of women in his hotel room, and who was not going to let any of the two litres of booze remain undrunk. Roland, by the way, would have revelled in such a situation, but Antony is of a different material, and he was very relieved when two male colleagues showed up as well. Anyway. I was not at my best at that dinner! And when I got home I fell asleep on my bed with all my clothes, including shoes, still on. I think they understand...

With Steve and Helgard at lunch

When I walked to the conference centre on Tuesday I suddenly heard singing. It was two Dutch ladies who knew it was my birthday! Dutch singing, so that’s the more distant past. One of the girls I had met on a Lance cruise, and the other one had been a student at the VU when I was a PhD student there. People from longer ago! And they sang “happy birthday” to me. That was sweet.

I also bumped into two gentlemen I knew from when I did geochemical lab analysis in Cambridge. That was cool! One I expected there; he’s quite a bigshot. I’ll see him again in Bern, next year, at the next conference. The other one I had lost track of. It turned out he now taught seismic methods in Chile! Who would have thought. He was doing well! Got engaged in the meantime. And spoke fluent Spanish.

Our hotel

The furthest back in time I got was when I was standing at my poster, and was suddenly tapped on the shoulder. It was one of the guys who was a postdoc in Amsterdam, when I was still an undergraduate there! Even he hadn’t changed a thing. He was presenting a poster right behind me. Interesting stuff, with seismics of a Messinian erosional surface off the coast of Spain. Quite something else!

So my whole scientific life floated past. From the times I could round 20 million years off to zero, all the way to now, when I ignore everything that’s older than 500 years. I got told I hadn’t changed. But my life, and my work, definitely have!

20 December 2010

AGU San Francisco: personal account

At a big science conference you tend to get a science overload. I think the blog already speaks of that! But I am not a science blogger. I am just a blogger. And this blogger was far from home, in an interesting place! I already spoke of the trip to San Francisco and the half day of fun we had before it all kicked off. And then on Monday morning it did! 8AM I enjoyed my first presentation.

AGU is big. Very big. It seems at the peak there were 18.500 people. We had two very large buildings at our disposal: one for posters and some talks, and the other one for all the other talks and some fringy things. And these buildings were not on the same street. We saw a lot of pedestrian crossings. At these crossings there were often people distributing free juice. I like! American hotel rooms don’t come with a kettle, so I was permanently at risk of dehydration.

Random shot of the central hall of the building with most of the talks in it

There’s always countless many sessions going on at the same time, but I didn’t encounter many conflicts. And the organisation is excellent; they distribute a newspaper with all sessions in a very comprehensible way every day. And there’s wi-fi everywhere, so you can search the program as well. And the buildings are so big it hardly gets stuffy, even with thousands of people in them! And at the poster sessions they serve free beer from 15.30 to 16.00, which keeps everybody’s spirits up.

The Monday and Tuesday were reasonably quiet. I went to talks, I had a look at posters, but in between things I had time to blog, check e-mail, go into town and look for a kettle in vain, and for earrings (for the PCG Xmas do!) with success, and drink beer.

Not sure what this building is; I think it's the town hall; and what that three-headed, five-armed woman is doing there, but they were photogenic!

I had nothing on my schedule for Wednesday, so I figured I would take the chance to rent a bike again, and bike to the Redwood forest on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. But over breakfast I bumped into Roland, who said there were many interesting things going on. And there were! So I changed into my official-looking kit (well, for my standards, that is; still including boots as your feet suffer hard at such a conference) and went anyway. And I was glad I did! I had made my schedule a bit quick, so I had missed many interesting things. Luckily you can update yourself on the fly. And most of the things I’ve blogged about so far were from the Wednesday. And in a rare break I got mail: we had our final 14C dates coming in! So I had to process them there and then.

The thing with 14C dating is that they often give you several options. And I had to compile a lot of these options from several sources, which requires a systematic mind, which I don’t have. And after compiling them comes the making sense. If you then have about 10 of them, you have unspeakably many possible ways of drawing a line through all the possible ages. You would normally use some software package for that. Tasha and I gave it a try, but our netbooks were not up for it. We will have to do that in the office, with a solid desktop. But at least I got to compile them: I had left a table on my poster blank, to fill them in. My poster would be very, very fresh from the press!

My scribbled-on poster

Another thing about AGU is that it’s very broad. I could go to presentations about the topic of my Master’s degree, my PhD, my first postdoc job, and my present one, and countless many more. Good to stay in touch with all that! I especially was happy with a whole session on the glacial-interglacial cycle. It’s still not clear how it really works, and it’s fascinating!

Thursday was another day that just whizzed past. I was at the conference from 8AM to 6PM, and I didn’t even feel tired, even though I was still jet-lagged, and woke up at ridiculous hours every morning. And then Friday: the day of my own presentation! In the morning there were the talks of our session. In the afternoon there were the posters, mine included. In between I managed to sneak off for lunch. And then I could get moving! As we still are working on data generation, my poster wasn’t as spectacular as it would have been later in the project, but there still were people interested. And my neighbours had interesting posters as well. And colleagues brought me beer, while I was attending to my poster! But at about 5PM I gave up. I knew the Durham crew would already be boozing. So I gave an old friend, who came to my poster when I was already taking it down, an A3 printout of it, and then we walked away. I threw my badge in the badge-recycling-box, knowing now there was no way back, and went to the hotel. The conference was over! And it had been a good one!

This picture was taken just before the poster session kicked off. It would actually get crowded later, even though it was Friday afternoon! The red poster on the right is mine.

AGU: science communication in general

The ivory tower has a balcony. We natural scientists do peer out over the rest of the world from it. On a conference like the AGU fall meeting there’s a lot of attention for science communication. The first talk I went to was about what society needs from climate scientists. It was a good start. But there was more to come.

There was a panel discussion on science communication. It mainly turned into a vivid example of how that goes wrong: we had the mad, screaming NGO people howling at the panel for allegedly not listening and/or talking to the poor and the young; we had geeky panellists mumbling away quite far from the microphone (by the way: all the guys in my personal AGU hall of fame don’t do that: they are excellent speakers! Wally Broecker, though, shirked this discussion and stubbornly stayed seated in the audience. Oh well, at his age you have an excuse), we had far too civilised chairpersons not keeping either audience or panel under control...

Evidently, these discussions are still necessary. Not only beacuse of discussions like this one. A man that could have been in this panel but wasn't, Richard Alley, mentioned he had been lecturing about the state New Orleans was in decades before the shit hit the fan. And that information was not restricted to universities: there was a plethora of governmental reports that also said New Orleans was doomed. And still nobody acted. And what proves better there's something not going well with science communication than that? The scientific community knew it, the politicians knew it, but the general public probably didn't, for they didn't use their electoral voice to do something about it. And the general public can’t deny a certain degree of seeing us as the people in the white coats with our own agendas without bothering to find out if we really are. There’s work to be done! This blog is only a tiny little effort, but who knows, it might do its share.

And considering that: there also was a panel discussion on science blogging. Some people out there get millions of hits! But then again; this blog is about all sorts of things. And you wouldn’t have millions of people interested in me slithering down yet another muddy southern English cave or mine. It was quite funny that this session lost its internet connection, but it was interesting to discuss about how to attract attention, what the pros and cons are of being either anonymous or fully public, how to deal with nasty comments, how to deal with talking about other people, or about unpublished data.

We, in all our fallibility, try to do our share, but hopefully journalists will do the same. Michael Mann emphasised that there are several sources for journalists and the likes to get quick and reliable information. If your newspaper writes bollocks: write to them, and tell them there’s no excuse! There’s realclimate.org, there’s a climate Q&A from AGU itself, there’s the rapid response team, there's lots of other websites... and yes these are reliable sources. They are written by people in the field. And right wing nutcases will say all climate scientists are in a worldwide conspiracy, either in order to get our research funded or because we’re power-crazed madmen (m/f), but well, make your own judgement here. Are we? Muhahahahaaaaa!

So that was a week’s worth of communicating about communicating. And what were the take home messages? For scientists they were:

Be clear! The general public may be hostile towards uncertainty; we’re so used to stressing it, as our peers require that, but don’t, in the public eye, as it will be misunderstood. Be prepared to be misquoted, unheard, and hated on. Don’t numb the audience with horror scenarios. Bring things close to home, both in time and space
Shake off the geekiness; speak with conviction, fire, and absence of “ehmm...” and “errr”; then you’ll be heard!

And for the general public? Well, there was no emphasis on that, as the entire audience consisted of scientists, but I guess that would be: make your political voice be heard! Vote treehugger! Sign petitions! Vote with your feet: consume as sustainable as possible! Inform yourself; there’s so many ways to do that. Read the books by the bigshots! Visit climate websites! And support those whose voice is louder, such as the 350.org people! Maybe one day we can get a climatic Manhattan Project going!

19 December 2010

AGU hall of fame: Michael Oppenheimer

I can be brief about Michael Oppenheimer, one of the big guys in IPCC. He gave a talk, and it was recorded, and can be viewed online! I recommend it. He's an excellent speaker. And he spoke not of elusive science but of science communication. And unlike the others in the hall of fame so far, he hasn't written a book, so this presentation is all I plug. Enjoy!

AGU hall of fame: Michael Mann

At AGU there lurks a bigshot in every corner. And even the biggest of the big are around. So big that every educated person in the world should know who they are. I had the pleasure of attending presentations by a number of these. And I’ll try to share that.

Michael Mann, that one could possibly call Mr. Hockey stick, was there too. Does he need introduction? He published the hockey stick, and some acidic climate sceptics found some statistically debatable issues in it, they decided that as it was imperfect it was wrong, and as it was wrong all climate science that indicates anthropogenic warming is wrong too. He’s been hit hard by the sceptic community. Right-wing bullies try to get in his way all the time. The US government at one point demanded all his data and all relevant documentation. What? The guy’s been in science for decades! It’s like asking any adult person to account for their entire financial conduct since adulthood. Nobody could do that. But Mann fights on, counters drivel by the likes of Sarah Palin in big newspapers, fends off legal action against him (these actions are chanceless as he’s clean, but they do take much of his precious time, and that seems to be the point), and still looks fresh and enthusiastic. Kudos! I am an insignificant pawn in climate science communication, and I already get entirely discouraged by brainless responses from time to time, but thinking of what Mann had thrown at him while he doggedly continues will give me renewed tenacity.

Mann, by the way, is one of the founders of RealClimate. All you ever wanted to know about climate, written by actual scientists, and more! And he, as well, wrote a book. Ask Santa for it!

AGU hall of fame: Jim Hansen

At AGU there lurks a bigshot in every corner. And even the biggest of the big are around. So big that every educated person in the world should know who they are. I had the pleasure of attending presentations by a number of these. And I’ll try to share that.

A name that would be familiar to those who follow the climate debate is Jim Hansen. He has fought hard for getting his science to the public. And he’s suffered for it. He is an example of not letting yourself be shut up by the powers that be. It seemed he was silent for a while, until he realised he couldn’t justify his silence to his grandchildren. He spoke of a ban by his employer on talking to the media; he said ”I had that ban lifted by talking to the New York Times, who put my story on the front page...” Go Jim go!

Hansen pointed out that the problem with climate change boils down to political will. Science knows quite well what the problem is and what to do about it. I think I remember that politics says it wants to limit atmospheric CO2 to some ludicrous level as 550ppm or so. Maybe even more. If you’re a climate scientist that is a number that slaps you in the face. Hard. Hansen proposes 350; that’s LESS than what it is now! One may be puzzled by that; so far we are still surviving at ~390ppm. But the climate system has quite some inertia and these levels will turn around and bite us. And we can still limit the pain of that bite, but we don’t! We keep on exploiting tar sands and building coal fired plants and doing everything we can to make it worse quickly, and once in a while powerful people get together to say they’re very concerned and then do nothing. And if you want to know more about this aim to reach 350ppm: see http://www.350.org/.

Hansen has written a book for the general public as well. Buy it! Read it!

AGU hall of fame: Wally Broecker

At AGU there lurks a bigshot in every corner. And even the biggest of the big are around. So big that every educated person in the world should know who they are. I had the pleasure of attending presentations by a number of these. And I’ll try to share that.

I’ll start with God. Or at least, that’s how he sometimes is described. His fame may be illustrated by the following anecdote: one of my Amsterdam colleagues walked out of his office, slightly dazed, and told the first person he bumped into he had just had God himself on the phone. The response was: really, did you just have Wally Broecker on the line? Broecker more or less discovered the conveyor belt, which earned him his status. And since that discovery he hasn’t been idle. And now he’s written a book about it. Strange that science goes so fast that you can still meet the person who discovered one of these certainties in life... like talking to Alfred Wegener. Or Charles Darwin. And by now he’s not the youngest anymore; we don’t know how much longer we can enjoy his presentations.

14 December 2010

AGU San Francisco: the run-up

“As you’ve put Russian literature on my desk...” I was standing at US immigration. I needed to get my passport and some other documents out, so I had to lay my book down. I had figured that for this 5 hour train ride and 10 hour flight, and then back as well, I needed a substantial book. I had chosen Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. And now I had laid it on this authoritive-looking American male’s desk. Oops.

I promised the Geography aviation geeks a picture of an airplane... here it is; the one that took me to SF!

“As you’ve put Russian literature on my desk... you’re my favourite person of the day! I’m reading a Tolstoy myself at the moment...” That went well! In line with everything else. The trip so far had been very uneventful. Lots of quality time with Mrs Karenina. I was on my way to the AGU (American Geophysical Union) fall meeting in San Francisco. Tasha and I would have to present our results so far there. Roland and Antony would be there too. And then some other 15.000 people or so.

Not very long after discussing Tolstoy with the immigration officer I happily felt Roland’s abrasive cheek. There was no wi-fi in the hotel rooms, so he was sitting in the lobby, and was the first phenomenon I saw when I walked in. Half an hour later we went out for a beer.

The very American view from my hotel window

In case you can have Roland be your travel guide you should. He took me to John’s Grill, which seems to feature in The Maltese Falcon, and then we went for dinner. A bit of a strange dinner; he’d flown in eastward while I’d flown in westward, so when we had our food served it was 4AM for me, and 4PM for him. After dinner I was keen to go to sleep...

The next day was scheduled for some fun and some de-jetlagging. Helgard was in town too, so after breakfast we convened, and went into town. With Helgard it always feels like you've never been separated! We rented bikes, and made a circle, over the Golden Gate bridge, and then around the bay, and back by ferry. Splendid! And then it was already time to have a shower, and go to the congress centre for registration and the icebreaker. On the way there we bumped into some ladies I knew from my time in Amsterdam, and from one of the Lance cruises. They would almost remain the only acquaintances we’d meet.

The gate to Chinatown 

Helgard and the Golden Gate Bridge 

The view down from the bridge on the other side 

Cycling heroes 

The golden Gate bridge decoratively seen from the ferry

I went for dinner with Roland and Ian, who’s another sea level giant from Durham. We were just about to pay the bill when some very tall person and some not very tall person walked into the restaurant. Matthias and Dorthe! I really hoped to see Dorthe; I hadn’t since I left Norway. But we agreed on meeting on Tuesday. And after one last whisky in the hotel bar (there’s no avoiding some booze if Ian’s around) I went to bed again. The next day the conference would kick off, with interesting sea level talks from 8AM on!

10 December 2010

CORiF lab

I like intermediately long time scales! I prefer what science geeks like me know as Milankovitch time scales. The time scale on which the glacial-interglacial cycle fluctuates. Tens of thousends to hundreds of thousends of years. And the deep oceans have quite a splendid sediment archive of these times. The problem can be, though, that they're difficult to date. 14C only goes back ~50.000 years, and beyond that you have to be lucky to have something datable, such as volcanic ash, in your record. During my PhD I didn't. And then you have to rely on secondary information. You can see the glacial-interglacial cycle in your sediment, so you know roughly where you are, but if you want to correlate your records with equally unconstrained records from elsewhere you have a problem.

This job restricts itself to shorter time scales. But the good thing about that is: you can date away! 14C, 210Pb, 137Cs, the lot. Bring it on. And our 14C samples we send away, but the radionuclide work I do myself. In the CORiF lab. The idea of radionuclide dating is that you can detect things like bomb testing, and Chernobyl, in the sediment, and you know when that happened. Furthermore there's 210Pb; the idea is that natural radioactivity, in a way, rains down from the atmosphere onto the surface, and decays away with time. From how fast you lose your signal with depth you know how old your sediments are. Just to summarise it briefly.

So I'll be counting radioactive decay from my samples. And for that purpose, I have to slice up my core, weigh it, freeze-dry it, weigh it again, grind it to dust, jam as much of it as I can into a small plastic tube, and then wait for machine time. A lot of work! Especially if your core consists mainly of roots instead of mud. Try to mortar roots into powder! One needs lots of patience for that. But it's fun; I like playing with machines...

It's even good to keep in shape: the CORiF lab is on the 1st floor, while "our own" lab is on the eighth. And I have to do all the processing there, while I have to do all the weighing downstairs. The biggest gain was when, on a Friday, around 5PM, I wanted to weigh something, so I walked down, realised I didn't have access to the calibration weights, walked back up to store my samples, walked back down, bumped into a lady who was quite happy to open the door in question for me, so walked back up to get my samples, walked down to weigh them, and then back up to store them, and down because I was finished! If you are an isotope geochronologist you don't have to go running...

My samples in the freeze dryer
A dry sample

A ground sample (a nice and clean one)

My special upside-down-chisel technique to hammer as much material into that vial as I can

Before you can weigh anything, you have to calibrate the balance. With very cute little standard weights!

These are the big ones: 10, 5 and 1g. Below the white plastic slab there's the really small ones...

08 December 2010

Truncated caving trip

Mines are built to last as long as they are in use. Many cavers dislike mines, because they’re inherently unsafe. Many caves we visit have been abandoned nearly a hundred years ago, and in the time that passed the timbers and the floors rot, and the tunnels and stopes start to crumble. It has happened that we were in a mine, and saw the scar of a tunnel high up a wall. One of us mentioned he had walked in that tunnel the previous time he had been there...

We would go deep down into an iron mine. It would involve a lot of rope work. So I set my alarm at a not-very-Sundayish time, and biked with full bags to Dave. When I got there, only Dave and the cats stirred in that household. Dave must have had a wave of psychic powers, for he offered me a mug of coffee before we would set off. When we were on the way we got a warning message from Lionel: icy roads! We soon noticed that ourselves too. So we teamed up with him and Richard, some 2 miles from the mine, and pondered about how to get there. All together in Dave’s car we tried the road, and it was an ice track. We then tried the most unlikely routes, until we got another message, this time from Mike. After the slippery start the road was fine; he’d tried it! So with a half hour delay we reached the designated parking place.

We heaved all bolting kit and 130m of rope onto our shoulders and walked to the adit. About 100 m in we got kitted up (it took two people to squeeze Dave into his harness), whereupon Dave started rigging. He started on more or less solid rock, and moved onto a wooden floor, which contained the trapdoor through which we would go down. He was rigging when we suddenly heard a shout and a massive thundering sound. It made my heart jump! I knew Dave was tied to a rope, but it still didn’t sound good. It turned out he was fine; he had just gone through the floor with one foot. And all sorts of material had gone down into the depths. He carefully went down the hole anyway, but every time he touched the sides more rock came loose and thundered down. Lionel had a look too, and he didn’t really like what he saw, or what he heard crash into a lower level with a mighty thud. We decided this was perhaps a bit too tricky, even for our standards. As a matter of fact, the whole mine was decidedly dodgy, with collapses everywhere. So we just packed up our kit and got out again! I felt very sensible.

Splendid staining on the walls!

We now had lots of time, so we decided to go to a nearby pub and have lunch together. Who would have thought! A Sunday afternoon, and the cavers are sitting in comfy chairs in a warm pub having a meal. A Sunday with surprises, this!

Evidently an iron mine! Most things turn purple in there. And don't worry, the rope was fixed to bolts; this was just some extra security.

A lot of this adit had already collapsed

From here you can see all the false floors above our heads. These timbers weren't what they had been in better days. See in the distance some coloured figures: Richard and Mike keeping an eye on Dave and Lionel

Dave on the wooden floor. Behind him is the hole we had thought to disappear into.

And then we were standing outside in the bright sunlight!