Mars Can Be Terraformed to Reduce Costs of Colonization

(p. D5) Since joining NASA in 1980, Jim Green has seen it all. He has helped the space agency understand Earth’s magnetic field, explore the outer solar system and search for life on Mars. As the new year arrived on Saturday, he bade farewell to the agency.

Over the past four decades, which includes 12 years as the director of NASA’s planetary science division and the last three years as its chief scientist, he has shaped much of NASA’s scientific inquiry, overseeing missions across the solar system and contributing to more than 100 scientific papers across a range of topics. While specializing in Earth’s magnetic field and plasma waves early in his career, he went on to diversify his research portfolio.

. . .

Ahead of a December [2021] meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Dr. Green spoke about some of this wide-ranging work and the search for life in the solar system. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our interview.

. . .

    You’ve previously suggested it might be possible to terraform Mars by placing a giant magnetic shield between the planet and the sun, which would stop the sun from stripping its atmosphere, allowing the planet to trap more heat and warm its climate to make it habitable. Is that really doable?

Yeah, it’s doable. Stop the stripping, and the pressure is going to increase. Mars is going to start terraforming itself. That’s what we want: the planet to participate in this any way it can. When the pressure goes up, the temperature goes up.

The first level of terraforming is at 60 millibars, a factor of 10 from where we are now. That’s called the Armstrong limit, where your blood doesn’t boil if you walked out on the surface. If you didn’t need a spacesuit, you could have much more flexibility and mobility. The higher temperature and pressure enable you to begin the process of growing plants in the soils.

There are several scenarios on how to do the magnetic shield. I’m trying to get a paper out I’ve been working on for about two years. It’s not going to be well received. The planetary community does not like the idea of terraforming anything. But you know. I think we can change Venus, too, with a physical shield that reflects light. We create a shield, and the whole temperature starts going down.

For the full story, see:

Jonathan O’Callaghan, interviewer. “Inhabiting Mars? He Calls It ‘Doable.’” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2022): D5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 2, 2021, and has the title “NASA’s Retiring Top Scientist Says We Can Terraform Mars and Maybe Venus, Too.” The first three paragraphs, and the block-indented sentence and question, are by the interviewer Jonathan O’Callaghan. The answer after the question is by Jim Green.)

“Unsettling” and “Remarkable” That the “Early Atlantification” of the Arctic Was Not Predicted by “Climate Models”

The research summarized below supports the thesis of Steven Koonin’s recent Unsettled book.

(p. D2) Long ago, the two oceans existed in harmony, with warm and salty Atlantic waters gently flowing into the Arctic.

. . .

But everything changed when the larger ocean began flowing faster than the polar ocean could accommodate, weakening the distinction between the layers and transforming Arctic waters into something closer to the Atlantic. This process, called Atlantification, is part of the reason the Arctic is warming faster than any other ocean.

. . .

In a paper published Wednesday [Nov. 24, 2021] in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Tesi and colleagues were able to turn back time with yard-long sediment cores taken from the seafloor, which archived 800 years of historical changes in Arctic waters. Their analysis found Atlantification started at the beginning of the 20th century — decades before the process had been documented by satellite imagery. The Arctic has warmed by around 2 degrees Celsius since 1900. But this early Atlantification did not appear in existing historical climate models, a discrepancy that the authors say may reveal gaps in those estimates.

“It’s a bit unsettling because we rely on these models for future climate predictions,” Dr. Tesi said.

Mohamed Ezat, a researcher at the Tromso campus of the Arctic University of Norway, who was not involved with the research, called the findings “remarkable.”

“Information on long-term past changes in Arctic Ocean hydrography are needed, and long overdue,” Dr. Ezat wrote in an email.

For the full story, see:

Sabrina Imbler. “This Ocean Invaded Its Neighbor Earlier Than Anyone Thought.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 30, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 27, 2021, and has the same title as the print version. The last three sentences quoted above, appear in the online version, but not in the shorter print version. Where there is a slight difference in wording between the two versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The paper co-authored by Tesi is:

Tesi, Tommaso, Francesco Muschitiello, Gesine Mollenhauer, Stefano Miserocchi, Leonardo Langone, Chiara Ceccarelli, Giuliana Panieri, Jacopo Chiggiato, Alessio Nogarotto, Jens Hefter, Gianmarco Ingrosso, Federico Giglio, Patrizia Giordano, and Lucilla Capotondi. “Rapid Atlantification Along the Fram Strait at the Beginning of the 20th Century.” Science Advances 7, no. 48 (Nov. 24, 2021): eabj2946.

The Koonin book that I mention above is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Colorful Spawning of Great Barrier Reef Is “Strong Demonstration” of Ecological “Recovery”

(p. D2) Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is spawning in an explosion of color as the World Heritage-listed natural wonder recovers from life-threatening coral bleaching episodes.

. . .

“It is gratifying to see the reef give birth,” Phillips said in a statement on Wednesday. “It’s a strong demonstration that its ecological functions are intact and working after being in a recovery phase for more than 18 months.”

For the full story, see:

AP. “In the Great Barrier Reef, Spawning Prompts a Burst of Color.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 30, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: I could not find an online version of this story on the NYT web site.)

E-Mobility Devices Offer Consumers “Lower Virus Risk” and More Convenience Than Public Transit

(p. A9) A boom in electric-powered mobile devices is bringing what is likely to be a lasting change and a new safety challenge to New York’s vast and crowded street grid.

The devices have sprouted up all over. Office workers on electric scooters glide past Manhattan towers. Parents take electric bikes to drop off their children at school. Young people have turned to electric skateboards, technically illegal on city streets, to whiz through the far corners of New York.

Though many of these riders initially gave up their subway and bus trips because of the lower virus risk of traveling outdoors, some say they are sticking with their e-mobility devices even as the city begins to move beyond the pandemic.

“I use the scooter for everything, it’s really convenient,” said Shareese King, 41, a Bronx resident who deleted the Uber app from her phone after she started running her errands on an electric scooter.

Electric bikes, scooters and other devices are in many cases made for urban life because they are affordable, better for the environment, take up little, if any, street space for parking and are just fun to use, said Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

For the full story, see:

Winnie Hu and Chelsia Rose Marcius. “As Personal E-Mobility Spreads, Safety Challenges Grow.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 28, 2021): A9.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. [sic] 8, 2021, and has the title “As E-Scooters and E-Bikes Proliferate, Safety Challenges Grow.”)

Small Modular Reactors Are Safer and Cheaper Than Older Reactors and Generate More Predictable Carbon-Free Energy Than Can Wind and Sun

(p. B13) Nuclear energy is a rare thing—a carbon-free energy source that isn’t hyped and enjoys bipartisan support in Washington. The big question now is whether new technologies that might lower the costs actually work.

Governments are reconsidering nuclear power, given its ability to provide predictable carbon-free energy.

. . .

“Modular” nuclear fission plants are where the real promise lies. Simpler designs, standardized components and passive safety features all help reduce costs. Being smaller can make it easier to find sites and integrate into a grid with intermittent renewables. Proponents estimate that modular reactors could more than halve the cost and build time associated with traditional ones.

One approach uses existing technologies to build small modular reactors, known as SMRs. They generate anything from a few megawatts to 500, compared with around 1,000 or more for a typical conventional reactor. The controlled fission reaction splits uranium, which heats water into steam, driving a turbine to generate electricity. Water also cools the reactor. SMRs use passive safety features, such as placement underground or in a pool of water, to reduce the need for some more expensive measures. It makes them cheaper to build, but opponents worry it could be a recipe for more disasters.

. . .

Others are trying to build modular reactors with new technology, such as novel nuclear fuels or cooling systems involving gas or salt instead of water. These advanced designs are intended to reduce the risk of accidents and build in more flexibility for intermittent power.

. . .

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program co-founded two advanced nuclear reactor demonstration plants to be completed by 2027. The first is designed by Bill Gates-backed TerraPower in partnership with GE-Hitachi. It will feature a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with integrated energy storage on the site of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. The second will be built in Washington state by X-Energy using four of its 80 MW helium gas-cooled reactors fueled by special uranium pebbles.

. . .

There is also innovation in nuclear fusion—combining atoms to generate energy—which comes with fewer safety and waste concerns. This month, Commonwealth Fusion Systems secured $1.8 billion in funding with promises to build reactors in the 2030s. But many think commercially viable fusion remains a very long shot.

For the full commentary, see:

Rochelle Toplensky. “Nuclear Power’s Second Chance.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021): B13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 20, 2021, and has the title “Nuclear Power Has a Second Chance to Prove Itself.”)

Fewer Wildfires, but More Wildfire Costs, Due to More Building Near Forests

Source of graph: online version of WSJ commentary cited below.

(p. A19) In the early 1900s, about 4.2% of land world-wide burned every year, as you can see on the nearby graph. A century later, that had dropped almost to 3%. That decline has continued through the satellite era, and 2021 is likely to end with only 2.5% of the globe having caught fire, based on data through Aug. 31 [2021].

This data is entirely noncontroversial. Even a report from the World Wildlife Fund—chillingly subtitled “a crisis raging out of control?”—concedes midway through that “the area of land burned globally has actually been steadily declining since it started to be recorded in 1900.”

Human ingenuity gets the credit: People have moved from hearths to power stations, converted untamed land into protected farms, and created enough excess wealth that societies can increasingly afford to defend our surroundings with fire suppression and forest management.

. . .

It is true that more people will probably be threatened by fires in the future, but this is because part of the world’s growing population will settle where wildfires are more common. The number of homes in high-fire-risk zones in the Western U.S. has increased 13-fold over the past 80 years and is set to increase further by 2050. A 2016 Nature study concludes this is true globally. “Contrary to common perception,” the researchers write, “human exposure to wildfires increases in the future mainly owing to projected population growth in areas with frequent wildfires, rather than by a general increase in burned area.”

For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “Climate Activists Blow Smoke on Wildfire Fears.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021): A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 27, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Lomborg’s quotation from he report of the World Wildlife Fund is from p. 8 of:

Group, Boston Consulting. “Fires, Forests and the Future: A Crisis Raging out of Control?”: World Wildlife Fund, 2020.

The Nature study Lomborg quotes above is:

Knorr, W., A. Arneth, and Leiwen Jiang. “Demographic Controls of Future Global Fire Risk.” Nature Climate Change 6, no. 8 (Aug. 2016): 781-85.

No Clear Evidence That Tornadoes Are More Frequent or Intense Than 40 to 60 Years Ago

Damage from tornadoes depends on the strength of buildings, which depends on broad economic growth. To reduce harm, the level of economic growth matters as much or more than the frequency and intensity of tornadoes.

(p. A12) Some studies have concluded that as global warming advances, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, favorable conditions for severe storms in the United States will increase this century.

. . .

It remains less certain as to whether those increasingly severe storms might lead to more tornadoes. These complex events are harder to model, and so far there doesn’t appear to be clear evidence that, for instance, tornadoes have changed in frequency or intensity over the past 40 to 60 years.

. . .

“We might not know exactly how climate change is going to affect tornadoes going forward, but we do know that there are lot of things we can do to protect people today,” said Stephen Strader, a disaster scientist at Villanova University.

. . .

“There are always two sides of the coin when it comes to disasters,” Dr. Strader said. “There’s the climate itself, but there’s also society vulnerability. We can work to address climate change, but we shouldn’t lose focus on what we can do today to improve survivability against these extreme events.”

For the full story, see:

Brad Plumer, Winston Choi-Schagrin and Hiroko Tabuchi. “As World Warms, Bracing for More Extreme Weather.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 18, 2021): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 17, 2021, and has the title “Examining the Role of Climate Change in a Week of Wild Weather.”)

Taking “Capital Allocation Away From People Who Have Demonstrated Great Skill in Capital Allocation”

(p. 1) The richest people on earth typically devote a share of their vast resources to charity. That is the bargain and the expectation, anyway.

Jeff Bezos, until very recently the world’s richest human, has been applying himself dutifully if a bit cautiously to the task, giving money to food banks and homeless families while pledging $10 billion of the fortune he earned through the online retailer Amazon to fight climate change.

The latest richest human, Elon Musk, has taken a rather different tack. There was the public spat with the director of the World Food Programme on Twitter, for instance, announcing, “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.”

. . .

And, of course, there is the ongoing insistence that his moneymaking efforts, running both the electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX, are already better-(p. 8)ing humankind, thank you very much.

Mr. Musk is practicing “troll philanthropy.”

That’s what Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, has called it, noting that Mr. Musk seems to be having fun with this novel approach.

“He doesn’t seem to care much about using his philanthropy to curry public favor,” Mr. Soskis said. “In fact, he seems to enjoy using his identity as a philanthropist in part to antagonize the public.”

. . .

“The particular barrier for donors from a tech background is they don’t just think their genius has made them good at what they do, they also think what they do commercially also makes society better,” said Rhodri Davies, a philanthropy commentator who wrote a piece on Mr. Musk called “The Edgelord Giveth.”

Mr. Musk, for instance, has said that getting humankind to Mars through SpaceX is an important contribution and has written and spoken acerbically about what he calls “anti-billionaire BS,” including attempts to target taxes at billionaires.

“It does not make sense to take the job of capital allocation away from people who have demonstrated great skill in capital allocation and give it to an entity that has demonstrated very poor skill in capital allocation, which is the government,” Mr. Musk said on Monday at an event hosted by The Wall Street Journal.

At the same time, Mr. Kharas said a more charitable reading of Mr. Musk’s exchange with the World Food Programme is possible. He could just genuinely want to know how the money will be spent and is putting in public, on Twitter, the due diligence work that institutional giving does behind closed doors.

“I think this idea that he was willing to engage was really good,” Mr. Kharas of the Brookings Institution said of Mr. Musk. “I think his response was extremely sensible. It was basically, ‘Show me what you can do. Demonstrate it. Provide me with some evidence. I’ll do it.’”

For the full story, see:

Nicholas Kulish. “Elon Musk, Trolling Away.” The New York Times SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, December 12, 2021): 1 & 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 10, 2021, and has the title “Elon Musk’s Latest Innovation: Troll Philanthropy.”)

Bans on Natural Gas for Cooking and Heating Could Most Hurt Low-Income Citizens

(p. A13) This week, New York City moved to ban gas hookups in new buildings, joining cities in blue states like California, Massachusetts and Washington that want to shift homes away from burning natural gas because it releases carbon dioxide, which causes global warming.

Instead, developers in New York City will have to install electric heat pumps and electric kitchen ranges in newly constructed buildings.

. . .

But the gas industry is fighting back and has lobbied in statehouses across the country to slow the shift away from gas. It argues that gas appliances are widely popular and still cost less than electric versions for many consumers. Opponents have also warned that a rush to electrify homes could strain power grids, particularly in the winter when heating needs soar, at a time when states like California and Texas are already struggling to meet demand.

Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association, an industry group, said efforts to disconnect homes and businesses from the extensive network of gas pipelines would make it difficult to supply those buildings with low-carbon alternatives that might be available in the future, such as hydrogen or biogas.

“Eliminating natural gas and our delivery infrastructure forecloses on current and future innovation opportunities,” she said.

The question of whether to use natural gas in homes has become part of the culture wars, pitting climate activists against industry and other interest groups. Some chefs and restaurant owners have argued that they won’t be able to cook certain dishes as well without gas.

. . .

In a statement, Bill Malcolm, a senior legislative representative at the AARP, said the group had “supported legislative and regulatory initiatives allowing customers to continue to use the fuel of their choice to heat their homes and cook their food.” He added: “Outright bans on certain fuel options would run contrary to that choice.”

. . .

For now, natural gas remains the dominant fuel in much of the country, heating nearly half of American homes. Electric heat pumps, by contrast, satisfy just 5 percent of heating demand nationwide.

. . .

Experts have warned that as more homeowners go electric, gas utilities will still have to pay to maintain their existing network of pipelines, which could mean higher costs for the smaller base of remaining customers, many of whom may be low-income.

For the full story, see:

Brad Plumer and Hiroko Tabuchi. “Gas vs. Electric Stoves Join Partisan Battlefield.” The New York Times (Friday, December 17, 2021): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 10, 2021, and has the title “How Politics Are Determining What Stove You Use.” The online version says that the New York print edition had the title “Gas vs. Electric Stoves on a Partisan Battlefield.” My National print edition had the title “Gas vs. Electric Stoves Join Partisan Battlefield.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Return of New York City Oysters Are a Hopeful “Symbol of Resilience”

(p. A10) The restoration of New York Harbor has reached a new milestone as 2021 draws to a close: 11.2 million juvenile oysters have been added in the past six months to a section of the Hudson River off the coast of Lower Manhattan, where they are helping to filter the water and creating habitats for other marine life.

. . .

. . ., in addition to the ones being introduced, wild ones are being found on the bottoms of piers off the West Side of Manhattan and in the Bronx.

. . .

. . . the oysters are a symbol of resilience, and a rare hopeful sign amid ominous news about New York waterways in the age of rapid climate change.

If they grow big enough, the oyster reefs can even play a role in dissipating wave energy, helping to protect the city’s shorelines from storm surges and flooding in extreme weather.

. . .

The researchers at the River Project will track the oysters and their effect on the water. They run a small, free aquarium at Pier 40 that is designed expressly to educate the public about the abundant marine life in the area.

One very special oyster, named Big, lives under the pier. At 8.6 inches and 1.9 pounds, it was believed to be the biggest oyster found in New York Harbor in a century when it was discovered in 2018.

For the full story, see:

Karen Zraick. “11 Million New Oysters. Want to Eat One? Maybe in 100 Years.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 11, 2021): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 10, 2021, and has the title “11 Million New Oysters in New York Harbor (but None for You to Eat).”)

Demand for Oil and Gas “Will Remain Robust for Years to Come”

(p. B1) The leaders of the world’s largest oil companies said Monday [Dec. 6, 2021] that demand for the products they make will remain robust for years to come even as the world attempts to transition to lower-carbon energy sources.

The chief executives of Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Saudi Arabian Oil Co., speaking at the World Petroleum Congress in Houston, said that while the world needs to address the risks posed by climate change, global economies cannot function without fossil fuels.

“Oil and gas continue to play a central role in meeting the world’s energy needs, and we play an essential role in delivering them in a lower carbon way,” Chevron CEO Mike Wirth said Monday. “Our products make the world run.”

. . .

(p. B2) Jeff Miller, chief executive of Halliburton Co., said Monday that the world’s underinvestment in oil and gas since 2014—years in which international spending was 50% below historical norms—is leading global markets to an era of scarcity.

. . .

Just a few weeks ago, some market observers had predicted crude prices could soon hit $100 a barrel for the first time in seven years, on the back of a strengthening demand recovery and sluggish growth in oil supplies.

For the full story, see:

Collin Eaton and Christopher M. Matthews. “Demand for Fossil Fuels Seen Lasting for Years.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, December 7, 2021): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 6, 2021, and has the title “Demand for Oil, Gas to Remain Robust for Years, Energy Leaders Say.”)