Friday, May 14, 2010

Five More Thoughts: Important Questions Ed.

1. Does this ever happen naturally?
In the first place, it impresses me that such a gigantic quantity of hydrocarbons has been infusing the crust all these millennia. Crazy that it's even there; crazier still that it's so well seized up in the rocks for so long. Organic crud is lighter than stones are, and lighter than water too for that matter, and you'd think that it'd've bubbled up eons ago, farted out into the air by seismic activity, tracked across the verdure by the dinosaurs' gooey talons. The earth's geological cycles, evidently (or at least by successful analogy) swirl around similarly to other convecting systems, they just do it really slowly. Impossibly slowly. The forests and pond scum of yesteryear get drowned, buried, subducted, chemically reduced. The suite of un-oxygenated organic materials ranging from from methane to graphite gets caught up in the cracks and pores, frozen bubbles waiting out the interminable centuries till the crust gets turned over and the pressure's released.

The oil leak in the Gulf is horrific, really, shaping up to be a generational national disaster, maybe an epochal one. What fucking hubris--nothing can go wrong? you really thought that?--and yet I keep thinking that with all these pressure bombs lurking under the surface, don't any of them go off from time to time without human influence? Are there no recorded gushers due to earthquakes? Along faults? This is not meant to be an exercise in douchey climatological contrarianism, just something that got me curious. There is (or was) a lot of oil under there, and are we the only reason it ever gets out? Sounds anthropocentric.

acoustic image of a methane plumeNo Googling turned up any inadvertent natural blowouts, although the crust certainly outgasses regularly. Some of the more famous modes are gas seeps from the sea floor, along which methane-eating microbes flourish. Near active geological regions and fault lines, these trapped organics, as well as water, can also get hot and get released. Mud volcanoes are one way that hydrocarbons get released from the earth, causing trouble, or just looking cool when observed in the depths. (Hee hee, mud "diapir"!)

Other reading has suggested that an oil slick emerged from Haiti's recent earthquake, maybe from new faults that released the subterranean material. Oil formations might underlie one of the Caribbean's more tragically impoverished communities. Would energy development save the island? (Resources have had ambiguous benefits in the past.)

underwater mud volcanoSome hydrocarbons on the ocean floor are present in clathrates, crystals composed of methane and water, resembling ice (more generally, clathrates have cage-like molecular structures in which various compounds can be incorporated). Methane clathrates burn, which is just awesome--I want some in my freezer to impress my friends. These are evidently sedimentary minerals, formed by the reduction of carbon dioxide by methanogens or some similar bugs, and fallen to the anoxic depths. It's been hypothesized that enough atmospheric warming and ocean acidification could release all this otherwise stable methane (a greenhouse gas), raising global temperature in a runaway fashion. This may have even caused the big Permian extinction. Scary, but according to the Wikipedian sages, most of it is deep enough that it's not expected to play the major part in our own lurking doom--I'm thinking of these clathrates as the shallower turns of the carbon cycle, an epicycle jiggling along the even slower elemental circuit. Methane lives a relatively short time in an oxidative environment, and if you go back far enough, free methane must have been more significant in the reducing Achaean proto-atmosphere. Where did the carbon originally come from? Condensed with the rest of the planet probably, buoying itself along the surface regions with record ebullience, as far as geological terms go.

And so we have mud volcanoes, but tar pits are famous too. They're still here, having leaked the heavier crude fractions along fault lines for ages, sustaining permanent lakes of sludge. We've found a lot of cool stuff preserved in there, and my suggestion is that we deliver time capsules into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sunken offerings for far-future paleontologists to discover, for whatever they may make of all of this.

2. Seriously, if the problem was that we neglected to clean the bathtub for a whole month, what makes us think that the solution is to get one of those spray bottles that you have to use *every single day*?
Update: it's still sitting there.

3. Did coal cause the Renaissance?
A lot of things changed at the end of the middle ages, which to us moderns, appear to have happened very fast (we like to forget the generations that passed in obscurity, as always, and celebrate the pockets of leisurely thinkers that woke up here and there). Anyway, suddenly we imagine a Renaissance, an explosion of art, science, economics, population, international instability, schism, and war. I've been asking myself, off and on, over the years of this blog, how the hell did it happen? Did prosperity cause democritization of power? Or maybe it was the other way around. Did the establishment of systems of learning and patronage (universities, monasteries, pet intellectuals) spur secularism in Europe (or Protestantism, the next-best thing at the time), or was it the reverse? To pick any one observation as the cause of the others is to taint yourself with ideology, and I try to avoid that. Well, usually I do.

Even if an inferiority complex about the grandeur that was Rome pervaded the West for centuries, progress didn't exactly grind to a halt. The accelerated close of the late middle ages may well have been a consequence of the enthusiastic recovery from the famines, plagues, and climate disaster of the the regrettable 14th century. Urbanization was happening apace, and it was running on wood: by the 1500s deforestation was already major problem. Northern Italy was pretty well wiped clean of trees when the Medicis aspired to employ the likes of DaVinci and Machiavelli. Later, Elizabethan England would be built on, and run on, imported timber.

Coal was well known enough by the time of the Renaissance, but it was not preferred thanks to its general stinkiness. But as the economy took off, there was little else to go on. Surely there was an interdependence in all these changes: innovations required fuel, and even if, say, ship-building couldn't help but be wood-intensive, the means of manufacture of everything else still had to be accounted for. It might be too much to say that new fuels caused the new thinking, but they certainly sustained it. Coal came just in time, and if it came to soot up the streets of London with obscene quantities of filth, it kept the imagineers of the age employed too. In our own times, the industrial revolution couldn't have proceeded without an immense supply of oil either.

Without energy availability, you can't do anything. What scares the shit out of me is that (regardless of the rest of the ecology) if sixteenth century people couldn't be sustained by wood, the current population sure as hell can't come close. If we're low on hydrocarbons, what the hell are we going to revert to as fossil fuels get scarce? The next amazing fuel? We might be a little behind. I deeply fear the limits to Cornucopianism.

4. Daddy, can we watch Spider Man tonight?
I am surprised to regard myself as an authoritarian. "What's allowed" is what they ask. Apparently, these royal indulgences are sufficiently rare that they're scooped up with budding entitlement. Uh, rated PG? I guess. (I don't give much of a shit about the language, but I tell the kids they can't watch violence until they understand irony, and as far as sex goes, I'd rather they learn to be in charge of it--I know far too well how much you should trust boys, and, well, we can have a discussion of what happens if you don't treat fucking very seriously--which the media seems a bit sketchy on, and I'm less comfortable sharing this than I thought I'd be when I first joined the club.)

Anyway, what's curious is that if a movie is watched once together, it becomes part of the family canon. Spider Man, now that he's been admitted into the club, is one of the handful of flicks that my little darling troll for obsessively on the on-demand (not to mention the sequels). Cartoons that I've happened to mention hating less are the preferred viewing when I'm around. It's like the cargo cult of parental affection, television selections in place of non-functioning airstrips. "See Daddy, we reproduce the stuff that was on when you loved us," or maybe it's a just their stretch for common ground. Am I so stingy in my interaction? In my affection? What a terrible thought! My god, turn it off, let's do something real!

5. Will this change the price of beer?

I take back whatever I might have ever said about John Kerry over the years. The senator is proposing to reduce the taxes on brewers that make less than two million barrels of beer yearly (about the Sam Adams threshold). He's clearly targeting the microbrew industry, which is still strong in New England, despite the decline in the small-brew fad over the last ten years or so. For the tax discount, we're talking three bucks a barrel for the little guys, an excise tax, which I guess means on production, which according to my calculations, might save me as much as six cents on a ten dollar six-pack if it all of the windfall is reaped by the consumer. But you know, it's the priciple of the thing, and if it's an edge to keep local brewers alive, then I'm all for it.

(I hope they have similar relaxations for local agriculture. As it is, the regulations often favor the big boys...)

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