Friday, May 30, 2008

Primacy of Volcanism

I think that considering our investigations over the past year, that it is now time to attempt a finding about the climate of the Northern Hemisphere that conforms to the data that we have. This is not a finding on the actual validity of the currently fashionable CO2 global warming conjecture, for which direct evidence remains unconvincing.

Left undisturbed, the atmospheric heat content of the Northern Hemisphere will rise and fall in response to Solar variation which is postulated to vary over a two degree spread (at the moment by circular reasoning) and in equilibrium with the polar sea ice. We have been living in an era reaching the top of the range and if uninterrupted will now swiftly dispose of all the long term sea ice.

This regime can be and has been disturbed by volcanism, ranging from a couple of years to the 1159 BCE catastrophe extreme which blocked summer growth for eighteen years and appears to have collapsed the European Bronze Age culture and destroyed Atlantis.

It is my conjecture that the cause of major cooling is occasional volcanism and that it will be possible to link the global tree ring data for the past 10,000 years to individual major volcanic events. This is not a new conjecture, but my position is that it is now the strongest.

This also places the little ice age in its proper perspective. It was a sustained solar minimum and informs us of the worst that can be delivered from that quarter. The question remains as to whether there was a major volcanic event that initially worsened the effect. I do not think that such would have been missed. These events have to be big and messy and they do fill the atmosphere with dust somewhere. Confusing the issue is the claim that there was an increase in volcanic activity at the time, but this likely reflects the age of exploration and the attendant increase in eyeballs.

We can make this finding because of the apparent power of the volcanic mechanism as compared to all other mechanisms that have been trotted out. Solar variation is only good for gradual movement in either direction within the proscribed two degree range.

Ocean currents are also looking like also-rans because of their vast stability and that impact on the atmosphere is at best a surface effect that acts as a stabilizing heat sink.

None of these are contenders for an eighteen year long crop failure.

What I have just said about the obvious variables, also applies to novel hypothesis such as the CO2 idea. Whatever its merits, it is simply subsumed in the background noise that currently includes a global temperature recovery to the optimum.

The important question to ask was always to ask what caused the temperature to precipitously decline from time to time.

Right now, I have learned to respect the inherent stability of the global weather regime and its power to make real adjustments to the overall climate. I also find that the two hemispheres are much more independent of each other that I would ever have surmised. I would like to discover a strong atmospheric mechanism for shifting heat from the north to the south.

It is within our technical capabilities to establish a tree ring data set back to the Pleistocene Nonconformity and also link both northern and southern sets to the ice core data. It is a challenge well worth achieving, knowing that quality will persistently improve as it has over the past decades.

The Holocene record begins with the geological event that ended a million year Panama induced northern ice age and is so far clearly punctuated by one major volcanic event that lasted twenty years. Uncovering the volcanic causation of cooling events will be at least a dated foundation of global history of the Holocene and will allow archeology to hang their discoveries on a supporting historic framework. This will also provide the necessary data to prove up the conjecture beyond any reasonable doubt by supplying a data set large enough to apply statistical tests.

This item helps underline the wide reaching impact of Icelandic Volcanism.

Icelandic volcanic eruption caused 18th century Egyptian famine

Washington, Feb 09: A study by three scientists from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and a collaborator from the University of Edinburth, Scotland have found that an a volcanic eruption that killed around 9000 people in Iceland in the late 18th century, brought a famine to Egypt that reduced the population of the Nile Valley by a sixth.

The scientists used a computer model developed by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies to trace atmospheric changes that followed the 1783 eruption of Laki in southern Iceland back to their point of origin and establish linkage between high-latitude eruptions and the water supply in North Africa.

"Our findings may help us improve predictions of climate response following the next strong high-latitude eruption, specifically concerning changes in temperature and precipitation. Given the sensitivity of these arid regions to reductions in rainfall, our predictions may ultimately allow society time to plan for the consequences and save lives,” said Rutgers researcher Luke Oman, first author of the study.

He said while it was known that eruptions of volcanoes in the tropics produced warmer winters in the northern hemisphere, the new study had demonstrated for the first time that volcanic influences can also flow north to south, generating an array of repercussions, including both hot and cold weather.

He said the "new evidence, from both observations and climate model simulations" showed that high-latitude eruptions had altered northern hemisphere atmospheric circulation in the summer following, with impacts extending deep into the tropics.

Historical records show that in June 1783, the Laki volcano began a series of eruptions, regarded as the largest at high-latitude in the last 1,000 years. The eruptions produced three cubic miles of lava and more than 100 million tons of sulphur dioxide and toxic gases, killing vegetation, livestock and people.

These eruptions were followed by a drought in a swath across northern Africa, producing a very low flow in the Nile. Laki's far-flung effects were chronicled by the French scholar Constantin Volney and his friend Benjamin Franklin.

"The annual Nile inundation of 1783 was not sufficient, great part of the lands therefore could not be sown for want of being watered, and another part was in the same predicament for want of seed. In 1784, the Nile again did not rise to the favourable height, and the dearth immediately became excessive. Soon after the end of November, the famine carried off, at Cairo, nearly as many as the plague," wrote Volney in his chronicles.

“In the northern hemisphere, the summer of 1783 was chilly – the coldest in at least 500 years in some locations, according to tree ring data. Sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere kept the warmth of the sun from the Earth's surface,” Volney added.

Oman said their study showed that significant warming had occurred in the region west to east across Africa to the southern Arabian Peninsula and on to India during the summer of 1783.

“With little or no monsoon, there were no clouds to bring rain for the rivers or shield the surface from evaporation. Little or no rain, no irrigating floods, no crops and no food – all conspired to bring about the situation Volney described, and all were traceable back to Laki,” Oman added.

The findings were published in the September 30 issue of the Geophysical Research Letters, and now features online at NASA’s website.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Freeman Dyson on Global Warming

This is a superb review written by Freeman Dyson and is well worth the effort. I was reminded here that the CO2 in the atmosphere is recycled every twelve years. This is an extremely important fact that he observes. It may even be suggested that the environment’s response to increasing CO2 merely lags the increase in supply by a twelve year time gap. The CO2 atmospheric measure is a net of supply and demand though it is not that simple.

This also implies that actually capping CO2 production will allow the increasing absorption capacity to quickly overrun the increased supply of CO2 in the atmosphere. I have this ironic and amusing vision of farmers at the gates demanding that oil wells be set alight in order to promote and maintain high yields.

On a more serious note, this brings me back to my fundamental theme. The best human action will be to promote a healthy growing environment throughout the globe. That means:

1. Establishing managed woodlands in direct partnership with government supplied long term finance.

2. Developing healthy wetland agriculture that particularly utilizes cattails to produce sufficient ethanol for transportation.

3. Instituting the terra preta protocol on all our croplands to maximize the efficiency and expansion of the soil base.

Tackling the deserts will be a much more challenging task and can certainly wait until we have the rest of this under control.

All the afore mentioned steps can be made completely self financing with the implementation of a supportive regulatory regime and a little effort, although the woodlands will need a long term government supported financing structure as I have described in earlier postings. It is still meant to be very profitable for the agencies involved.

If I have been able to demonstrate anything, it is that the whole of the CO2 problem can be solved by aggressively supporting good agricultural husbandry throughout the globe while even allowing for a sharp population increase. In the meantime the debate continues to be informed primarily by the merchants of fashion.

A presidential candidate that stood up for the establishment of a federal agency to partner with farmers on silviculture with long term finance will win the farm vote. Everyone has an ill managed woodlot or two.

That same candidate promoting the establishment of a crash wetland agribusiness program to produce enough ethanol to totally replace gasoline will get everyone else’s support.

These two simple steps will employ millions and wean the USA off a large piece of its fossil fuel dependence.

It will also put the USA back into the economic driver’s seat in the energy business. If these policies are quickly adopted world wide, and I do not see why they should not end the oil age.

Volume 55, Number 10 · June 12, 2008

The Question of Global Warming

By Freeman Dyson

A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies
by William Nordhaus

Yale University Press, 234 pp., $28.00

Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto
edited by Ernesto Zedillo

Yale Center for the Study of Globalization/Brookings Institution Press, 237 pp., $26.95 (paper)

I begin this review with a prologue, describing the measurements that transformed global warming from a vague theoretical speculation into a precise observational science.

There is a famous graph showing the fraction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it varies month by month and year by year (see the graph). It gives us our firmest and most accurate evidence of effects of human activities on our global environment. The graph is generally known as the Keeling graph because it summarizes the lifework of Charles David Keeling, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Keeling measured the carbon dioxide abundance in the atmosphere for forty-seven years, from 1958 until his death in 2005. He designed and built the instruments that made accurate measurements possible. He began making his measurements near the summit of the dormant volcano Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii.

Concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

He chose this place for his observatory because the ambient air is far from any continent and is uncontaminated by local human activities or vegetation. The measurements have continued after Keeling's death, and show an unbroken record of rising carbon dioxide abundance extending over fifty years. The graph has two obvious and conspicuous features. First, a steady increase of carbon dioxide with time, beginning at 315 parts per million in 1958 and reaching 385 parts per million in 2008. Second, a regular wiggle showing a yearly cycle of growth and decline of carbon dioxide levels. The maximum happens each year in the Northern Hemisphere spring, the minimum in the Northern Hemisphere fall. The difference between maximum and minimum each year is about six parts per million.

Keeling was a meticulous observer. The accuracy of his measurements has never been challenged, and many other observers have confirmed his results. In the 1970s he extended his observations from Mauna Loa, at latitude 20 north, to eight other stations at various latitudes, from the South Pole at latitude 90 south to Point Barrow on the Arctic coast of Alaska at latitude 71 north. At every latitude there is the same steady growth of carbon dioxide levels, but the size of the annual wiggle varies strongly with latitude. The wiggle is largest at Point Barrow where the difference between maximum and minimum is about fifteen parts per million. At Kerguelen, a Pacific island at latitude 29 south, the wiggle vanishes. At the South Pole the difference between maximum and minimum is about two parts per million, with the maximum in Southern Hemisphere spring.

The only plausible explanation of the annual wiggle and its variation with latitude is that it is due to the seasonal growth and decay of annual vegetation, especially deciduous forests, in temperate latitudes north and south. The asymmetry of the wiggle between north and south is caused by the fact that the Northern Hemisphere has most of the land area and most of the deciduous forests. The wiggle is giving us a direct measurement of the quantity of carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere each summer north and south by growing vegetation, and returned each winter to the atmosphere by dying and decaying vegetation.

The quantity is large, as we see directly from the Point Barrow measurements. The wiggle at Point Barrow shows that the net growth of vegetation in the Northern Hemisphere summer absorbs about 4 percent of the total carbon dioxide in the high-latitude atmosphere each year. The total absorption must be larger than the net growth, because the vegetation continues to respire during the summer, and the net growth is equal to total absorption minus respiration. The tropical forests at low latitudes are also absorbing and respiring a large quantity of carbon dioxide, which does not vary much with the season and does not contribute much to the annual wiggle.

When we put together the evidence from the wiggles and the distribution of vegetation over the earth, it turns out that about 8 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by vegetation and returned to the atmosphere every year. This means that the average lifetime of a molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, before it is captured by vegetation and afterward released, is about twelve years. This fact, that the exchange of carbon between atmosphere and vegetation is rapid, is of fundamental importance to the long-range future of global warming, as will become clear in what follows. Neither of the books under review mentions it.


William Nordhaus is a professional economist, and his book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies describes the global-warming problem as an economist sees it. He is not concerned with the science of global warming or with the detailed estimation of the damage that it may do. He assumes that the science and the damage are specified, and he compares the effectiveness of various policies for the allocation of economic resources in response. His conclusions are largely independent of scientific details. He calculates aggregated expenditures and costs and gains. Everything is calculated by running a single computer model which he calls DICE, an acronym for Dynamic Integrated Model of Climate and the Economy.

Each run of DICE takes as input a particular policy for allocating expenditures year by year. The allocated resources are spent on subsidizing costly technologies—for example, deep underground sequestration of carbon dioxide produced in power stations—that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, or placing a tax on activities that produce carbon emissions. The climate model part of DICE calculates the effect of the reduced emissions in reducing damage. The output of DICE then tells us the resulting gains and losses of the world economy year by year. Each run begins at the year 2005 and ends either at 2105 or 2205, giving a picture of the effects of a particular policy over the next one or two hundred years.

The practical unit of economic resources is a trillion inflation-adjusted dollars. An inflation-adjusted dollar means a sum of money, at any future time, with the same purchasing power as a real dollar in 2005. In the following discussion, the word "dollar" will always mean an inflation-adjusted dollar, with a purchasing power that does not vary with time. The difference in outcome between one policy and another is typically several trillion dollars, comparable with the cost of the war in Iraq. This is a game played for high stakes.

Nordhaus's book is not for the casual reader. It is full of graphs and tables of numbers, with an occasional equation to show how the numbers are related. The graphs and tables show how the world economy reacts to the various policy options. To understand these graphs and tables, readers should be familiar with financial statements and compound interest, but they do not need to be experts in economic theory. Anyone who knows enough mathematics to balance a checkbook or complete an income tax return should be able to understand the numbers.

For the benefit of those who are mathematically illiterate or uninterested in numerical details, Nordhaus has put a nonmathematical chapter at the beginning with the title "Summary for the Concerned Citizen." This first chapter contains an admirably clear summary of his results and their practical consequences, digested so as to be read by busy politicians and ordinary people who may vote the politicians into office. He believes that the most important concern of any policy that aims to address climate change should be how to set the most efficient "carbon price," which he defines as "the market price or penalty that would be paid by those who use fossil fuels and thereby generate CO2 emissions." He writes:

Whether someone is serious about tackling the global-warming problem can be readily gauged by listening to what he or she says about the carbon price. Suppose you hear a public figure who speaks eloquently of the perils of global warming and proposes that the nation should move urgently to slow climate change. Suppose that person proposes regulating the fuel efficiency of cars, or requiring high-efficiency lightbulbs, or subsidizing ethanol, or providing research support for solar power—but nowhere does the proposal raise the price of carbon. You should conclude that the proposal is not really serious and does not recognize the central economic message about how to slow climate change. To a first approximation, raising the price of carbon is a necessary and sufficient step for tackling global warming. The rest is at best rhetoric and may actually be harmful in inducing economic inefficiencies.

If this chapter were widely read, the public understanding of global warming and possible responses to it would be greatly improved.

Nordhaus examines five kinds of global-warming policy, with many runs of DICE for each kind. The first kind is business-as-usual, with no restriction of carbon dioxide emissions—in which case, he estimates damages to the environment amounting to some $23 trillion in current dollars by the year 2100. The second kind is the "optimal policy," judged by Nordhaus to be the most cost-effective, with a worldwide tax on carbon emissions adjusted each year to give the maximum aggregate economic gain as calculated by DICE. The third kind is the Kyoto Protocol, in operation since 2005 with 175 participating countries, imposing fixed limits to the emissions of economically developed countries only. Nordhaus tests various versions of the Kyoto Protocol, with or without the participation of the United States.

The fourth kind of policy is labeled "ambitious" proposals, with two versions which Nordhaus calls "Stern" and "Gore." "Stern" is the policy advocated by Sir Nicholas Stern in the Stern Review, an economic analysis of global-warming policy sponsored by the British government.[*] "Stern" imposes draconian limits on emissions, similar to the Kyoto limits but much stronger. "Gore" is a policy advocated by Al Gore, with emissions reduced drastically but gradually, the reductions reaching 90 percent of current levels before the year 2050. The fifth and last kind is called "low-cost backstop," a policy based on a hypothetical low-cost technology for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or for producing energy without carbon dioxide emission, assuming that such a technology will become available at some specified future date. According to Nordhaus, this technology might include "low-cost solar power, geothermal energy, some nonintrusive climatic engineering, or genetically engineered carbon-eating trees."

Since each policy put through DICE is allowed to run for one or two hundred years, its economic effectiveness must be measured by an aggregated sum of gains and losses over the whole duration of the run. The most crucial question facing the policymaker is then how to compare present-day gains and losses with gains and losses a hundred years in the future. That is why Nordhaus chose "A Question of Balance" for his title. If we can save M dollars of damage caused by climate change in the year 2110 by spending one dollar on reducing emissions in the year 2010, how large must M be to make the spending worthwhile? Or, as economists might put it, how much can future losses from climate change be diminished or "discounted" by money invested in reducing emissions now?

The conventional answer given by economists to this question is to say that M must be larger than the expected return in 2110 if the 2010 dollar were invested in the world economy for a hundred years at an average rate of compound interest. For example, the value of one dollar invested at an average interest rate of 4 percent for a period of one hundred years would be fifty-four dollars; this would be the future value of one dollar in one hundred years' time. Therefore, for every dollar spent now on a particular strategy to fight global warming, the investment must reduce the damage caused by warming by an amount that exceeds fifty-four dollars in one hundred years' time to accrue a positive economic benefit to society. If a strategy of a tax on carbon emissions results in a return of only forty-four dollars per dollar invested, the benefits of adopting the strategy will be outweighed by the costs of paying for it. But if the strategy produces a return of sixty-four dollars per dollar invested, the advantages are clear. The question then is how well different strategies of dealing with global warming succeed in producing long-term benefits that outweigh their present costs. The aggregation of gains and losses over time should be calculated with the remote future heavily discounted.

The choice of discount rate for the future is the most important decision for anyone making long-range plans. The discount rate is the assumed annual percentage loss in present value of a future dollar as it moves further into the future. The DICE program allows the discount rate to be chosen arbitrarily, but Nordhaus displays the results only for a discount rate of 4 percent. Here he is following the conventional wisdom of economists. Four percent is a conservative number, based on an average of past experience in good and bad times. Nordhaus is basing his judgment on the assumption that the next hundred years will bring to the world economy a mixture of stagnation and prosperity, with overall average growth continuing at the same rate that we have experienced during the twentieth century. Future costs are discounted because the future world will be richer and better able to afford them. Future benefits are discounted because they will be a diminishing fraction of future wealth.

When the future costs and benefits are discounted at a rate of 4 percent per year, the aggregated costs and benefits of a climate policy over the entire future are finite. The costs and benefits beyond a hundred years make little difference to the calculated aggregate. Nordhaus therefore takes the aggregate benefit-minus-cost over the entire future as a measure of the net value of the policy. He uses this single number, calculated with the DICE model of the world economy, as a figure of merit to compare one policy with another. To represent the value of a policy by a single number is a gross oversimplification of the real world, but it helps to concentrate our attention on the most important differences between policies.

Here are the net values of the various policies as calculated by the DICE model. The values are calculated as differences from the business-as-usual model, without any emission controls. A plus value means that the policy is better than business-as-usual, with the reduction of damage due to climate change exceeding the cost of controls. A minus value means that the policy is worse than business-as-usual, with costs exceeding the reduction of damage. The unit of value is $1 trillion, and the values are specified to the nearest trillion. The net value of the optimal program, a global carbon tax increasing gradually with time, is plus three—that is, a benefit of some $3 trillion. The Kyoto Protocol has a value of plus one with US participation, zero without US participation. The "Stern" policy has a value of minus fifteen, the "Gore" policy minus twenty-one, and "low-cost backstop" plus seventeen.

What do these numbers mean? $1 trillion is a difficult unit to visualize. It is easier to think of it as $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the US population. It is comparable to the annual gross domestic product of India or Brazil. A gain or loss of $1 trillion would be a noticeable but not overwhelming perturbation of the world economy. A gain or loss of $10 trillion would be a major perturbation with unpredictable consequences.

The main conclusion of the Nordhaus analysis is that the ambitious proposals, "Stern" and "Gore," are disastrously expensive, the "low-cost backstop" is enormously advantageous if it can be achieved, and the other policies including business-as-usual and Kyoto are only moderately worse than the optimal policy. The practical consequence for global-warming policy is that we should pursue the following objectives in order of priority. (1) Avoid the ambitious proposals. (2) Develop the science and technology for a low-cost backstop. (3) Negotiate an international treaty coming as close as possible to the optimal policy, in case the low-cost backstop fails. (4) Avoid an international treaty making the Kyoto Protocol policy permanent. These objectives are valid for economic reasons, independent of the scientific details of global warming.

There is a fundamental difference of philosophy between Nordhaus and Sir Nicholas Stern. Chapter 9 of Nordhaus's book explains the difference, and explains why Stern advocates a policy that Nordhaus considers disastrous. Stern rejects the idea of discounting future costs and benefits when they are compared with present costs and benefits. Nordhaus, following the normal practice of economists and business executives, considers discounting to be necessary for reaching any reasonable balance between present and future. In Stern's view, discounting is unethical because it discriminates between present and future generations. That is, Stern believes that discounting imposes excessive burdens on future generations. In Nordhaus's view, discounting is fair because a dollar saved by the present generation becomes fifty-four dollars to be spent by our descendants a hundred years later.

The practical consequence of the Stern policy would be to slow down the economic growth of China now in order to reduce damage from climate change a hundred years later. Several generations of Chinese citizens would be impoverished to make their descendants only slightly richer. According to Nordhaus, the slowing-down of growth would in the end be far more costly to China than the climatic damage. About the much-discussed possibility of catastrophic effects before the end of the century from rising sea levels, he says only that "climate change is unlikely to be catastrophic in the near term, but it has the potential for serious damages in the long run." The Chinese government firmly rejects the Stern philosophy, while the British government enthusiastically embraces it. The Stern Review, according to Nordhaus, "takes the lofty vantage point of the world social planner, perhaps stoking the dying embers of the British Empire."

The main deficiency of Nordhaus's book is that he does not discuss the details of the "low-cost backstop" that might provide a climate policy vastly more profitable than his optimum policy. He avoids this subject because he is an economist and not a scientist. He does not wish to question the pronouncements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of hundreds of scientists officially appointed by the United Nations to give scientific advice to governments. The Intergovernmental Panel considers the science of climate change to be settled, and does not believe in low-cost backstops. Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology he mentions in the sentence I previously quoted—for example, "low-cost solar power"—Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that "no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it." The "low-cost backstop" policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change.

At this point I return to the Keeling graph, which demonstrates the strong coupling between atmosphere and plants. The wiggles in the graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth. Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality.

Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto is the record of a conference held at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in 2005. It is edited by Ernesto Zedillo, the head of the Yale Center, who served as president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000 and was chairman of the conference. The book consists of an introduction by Zedillo and fourteen chapters contributed by speakers at the conference. Among the speakers was William Nordhaus, contributing "Economic Analyses of the Kyoto Protocol: Is There Life After Kyoto?," a sharper criticism of the Kyoto Protocol than we find in his own book.

The Zedillo book covers a much wider range of topics and opinions than the Nordhaus book, and is addressed to a wider circle of readers. It includes "Is the Global Warming Alarm Founded on Fact?," by Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences at MIT, answering that question with a resounding no. Lindzen does not deny the existence of global warming, but considers the predictions of its harmful effects to be grossly exaggerated. He writes,

Actual observations suggest that the sensitivity of the real climate is much less than that found in computer models whose sensitivity depends on processes that are clearly misrepresented.

Answering Lindzen in the next chapter, "Anthropogenic Climate Change: Revisiting the Facts," is Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at Potsdam University in Germany. Rahmstorf sums up his opinion of Lind-zen's arguments in one sentence: "All this seems completely out of touch with the world of climate science as I know it and, to be frank, simply ludicrous." These two chapters give the reader a sad picture of climate science. Rahmstorf represents the majority of scientists who believe fervently that global warming is a grave danger. Lindzen represents the small minority who are skeptical. Their conversation is a dialogue of the deaf. The majority responds to the minority with open contempt.

In the history of science it has often happened that the majority was wrong and refused to listen to a minority that later turned out to be right. It may—or may not—be that the present is such a time. The great virtue of Nordhaus's economic analysis is that it remains valid whether the majority view is right or wrong. Nordhaus's optimum policy takes both possibilities into account. Zedillo in his introduction summarizes the arguments of each contributor in turn. He maintains the neutrality appropriate to a conference chairman, and gives equal space to Lindzen and to Rahmstorf. He betrays his own opinion only in a single sentence with a short parenthesis: "Climate change may not be the world's most pressing problem (as I am convinced it is not), but it could still prove to be the most complex challenge the world has ever faced."

The last five chapters of the Zedillo book are by writers from five of the countries most concerned with the politics of global warming: Russia, Britain, Canada, India, and China. Each of the five authors has been responsible for giving technical advice to a government, and each of them gives us a statement of that government's policy. Howard Dalton, spokesman for the British government, is the most dogmatic. His final paragraph begins:

It is the firm view of the United Kingdom that climate change constitutes a major threat to the environment and human society, that urgent action is needed now across the world to avert that threat, and that the developed world needs to show leadership in tackling climate change.

The United Kingdom has made up its mind and takes the view that any individuals who disagree with government policy should be ignored. This dogmatic tone is also adopted by the Royal Society, the British equivalent of the US National Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society recently published a pamphlet addressed to the general public with the title "Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide." The pamphlet says:

This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming.

In other words, if you disagree with the majority opinion about global warming, you are an enemy of science. The authors of the pamphlet appear to have forgotten the ancient motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in Verba, which means, "Nobody's word is final."

All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1159 BCE Tree Ring and Climate Break

The major problem with the history of climate variation in the Northern Hemisphere has never been explaining why it warms up to temperatures better than today’s. It has been explaining why it cools down. The Northern Hemisphere has had several protracted warm periods that include an exceptionally long period during the European Bronze Age that ended abruptly around 1159 BCE. We also had the medieval optimum, which lasted about two hundred years.

The evidence points to a natural climate regime as warm as we are now experiencing that left alone will eliminate perennial ice in the Arctic and enhance growing conditions in the north. That little extra heat slowly pushes the trend line to the optimum over as many years as it takes. In this case, since the little ice age, it has taken a good two hundred years and more.

I had a chance to see a program on ancient Ireland and got an eyeful of the tree ring evidence. It was startling, in that occasional cold years were common and that conditions for the Bronze Age did not stand out that much. What did stand out was the eighteen year growing break between 1159 to 1176 BCE. Afterwards, the climate recovered as it normally did after a bad year or two.

One advantage with the Irish data is that the Irish climate is profoundly moderated by the Gulf Stream. This means that any modest increase or decrease in the available heat will be generally buffered by the incoming winds. It will always want to be cold, wet and miserable. As we go into the Baltic, we both get and expect a much broader variation in conditions.

More plainly, a cold summer in Ireland translates into a disaster in most of Eastern Europe.

Because the moderating effect is dominant, normal variation is suppressed strongly. When you get a sharply defined event, it is certain to be a global event. We get this with the 1159 event which is marked in the tree ring record as an eighteen years stretch of zero summer growth.

This means a major temperature drop in Northern Europe and that has been substantiated with other records. That is deep enough to end any cropping for a generation over vast areas. Fortunately the bulk of the inland folk relied on cattle husbandry, which perhaps contracted but they were likely able to sustain themselves.

This period is associated with the onslaught of the sea peoples throughout the Mediterranean and the movement of peoples from the north in general. It is nice to police up the actual decades of this historic movement.

What is becoming much more apparent is that both the protracted eighteen year cold spell of 1159 and the many shorter cold year events are caused the same way. We need to look for major volcanic activity.

Remember that our own knowledge of volcanism is still in its infancy. Surely we learned that after Mt St Helens. We simply do not have the full range of geologically inferred activity available to us for study.

We know that a single major blast can drop global temperatures for a year or so. We also know that an active spewing volcano that operates for months will do the same thing.

A very likely disaster is the activation of a large magma mass at near surface that erupts for years. Iceland has the needed features and I believe it is quite capable of flooding the atmosphere with fine dust for eighteen years. It would also be limited to the high latitudes, unlike any of the monsters in Indonesia.

My conclusion is that the one clear mechanism able to chill the northern hemisphere is volcanic activity in all its various expressions. A number of known cold intervals have in fact been associated with known volcanic events. The proposition that all chilling events in the Northern Hemisphere are directly linked to volcanic events is strongly supportable.

I have never seen any popular media actually attempt to describe the full range of volcanic possibilities. The onshore mega volcanoes appear very dormant, but that includes Yellowstone Park, Iceland and Hawaii. You get the picture. Imagine any of those becoming truly active and throwing many cubic mile of dust into the atmosphere for decades. This is no risk with Hawaii but that give as us a clear measure of the real size of these structures. The global temperature would nosedive and crops would be largely impossible outside the tropics.

It is quite clear that a year or two is quite survivable because of our current global infrastructure. It would just be inconvenient as hell and we all would be on wartime rations. Sustaining populations past that would require a crash program aimed at massive food production in the tropics. We would all learn to enjoy our recently recognized cattail starch ration.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Incredible Cattail

I came across this ten year old article on cattails by Kevin Duffy that is well worth sharing. As I have posted, we are searching for a high yield method of producing ethanol and biofuels in general.

We have seen the use of subsidies to promote the growing of corn for making ethanol. Yet a crop yield of three to four tons or so per acre is about as good as it gets. The ten to fifteen tons of waste material is not yet a credible feedstock, even though the promoters are talking the talk.

Potatoes, which I have recently posted on, are good for yields of around fifteen tons per acre, making it the star of our agricultural sources of ethanol feedstock, although I do not know if anyone has started using them. They are probably waiting for a subsidy. In any event, when the moisture is deducted the dry weight is a lot less than the original and likely approaches five tons or much the same value as corn.

Our best guess, when it comes to real oil yields from algae is also around five tons per acre with strong potential for increasing into the teens if we are prepared to build massive greenhouse facilities.

It is becoming obvious that we need something a lot better than what we have here if we hope to produce a great deal of the ethanol that we need.

And then I came across this article on the cattail that we all know and have ignored. It turns out that the yield per acre is an astounding 140 tons of rhizomes. It also almost certainly produces another thirty tons or so of reeds that also might be used. The dry weight of this bounty is thirty two tons, easily ten times the competition.

It is ninety percent starch making it an easy fit into the ethanol industry. So far it is the only plant based protocol able to deliver this much ethanol feedstock. That is twice to three times as much by weight of its nearest cellulose crop of corn stover or bagasse.

Therefore, if the regulators have any sense, they will tailor their pro ethanol regime around the production of starch and that will catch any high starch production protocol like this.

The bonus here is that the horticulture of the cattail will rarely compete directly with other crops. We are actually looking to develop water logged paddies similar to rice culture and we will likely be looking at valley bottoms and bogs long since ruined for agriculture, if ever attempted.

The article describes the various products that can be produced and have been produced in the past. The plant has never been exploited properly because it originally needed an inconvenient amount of hand labor compared to other options. We can over come that today and if we domesticate it properly we will be able to also produce a high quality seed. Right now the seed is too small to be of much value.

As reported in the article, the plant is edible, particularly as a spring vegetable. Therefore a grower can expect to produce seasonal products through the year that may add commercial value. The markets are yet to be established but it seems fairly straight forward.

The incredible cattail

The super Wal-Mart of the swamp
By Kevin F. Duffy

I can think of no other North American plant that is more useful than the cattail. This wonderful plant is a virtual gold mine of survival utility. It is a four-season food, medicinal, and utility plant. What other plant can boast eight food products, three medicinals, and at least 12 other functional uses?

The Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) and its brethren Narrowleaf Cattail (Typha angustifolia), Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis), and Blue Cattail (Typha Glauca), have representatives found throughout North America and most of the world. While living in Northern Japan, I spent many chilly mornings in snow storms among miles of cattails while duck hunting. Cattail is a member of the grass family, Gramineae, as are rice, corn, wheat, oats, barley, and rye, just to mention a few. Of the 15 most commonly consumed domesticated plant foods, 10 are grasses. However, of more than 1300 wild grasses, none holds a loftier position as a survival food than cattail. Just about any place you can find year-round standing water or wet soil, you can usually find cattails.

In Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, his chapter on cattails is titled “Supermarket of the Swamp.” As you will see, this title aptly applies to the cattail. However, due to its medicinal and utilitarian uses, we may want to mentally modify the title to “Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp.”


Cattails are readily identified by the characteristic brown seed head. There are some poisonous look-alikes that may be mistaken for cattail, but none of these look-alikes possess the brown seed head.

Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus) and other members of the iris family all possess the cattail-like leaves, but none possesses the brown seed head. All members of the Iris family are poisonous. Another look-alike which is not poisonous, but whose leaves look more like cattail than iris is the Sweet Flag (Acorus calumus). Sweet Flag has a very pleasant spicy, sweet aroma when the leaves are bruised. It also does not posses the brown seed head. Neither the irises nor cattail has the sweet, spicy aroma. I have seen large stands of cattails and sweet flag growing side by side. As with all wild edibles, positive identification is essential. If you are not sure, do not eat it.

Corms, shoots, and spikes

In just about any survival situation, whether self-imposed or not, one of the first plants I look for is the cattail. As a food plant, cattails are outstanding and offer a variety of food products according to the season. In early spring, dig up the roots to locate the small pointed shoots called corms. These can be removed, peeled, and eaten, added to other spring greens for a salad, or cooked in stews or alone as a pot herb. As the plant growth progresses to where the shoots reach a height of two to three feet above the water, peel and eat like the corms, or sauté. This food product is also known as “Cossack Asparagus” due to the Russians’ fondness for it.

In late spring to early summer, some of my favorite food products come into fruition on the cattail. Soon after these shoots become available, the green female bloom spikes and the male pollen spikes begin to emerge. These spikes can be found in the center of the plant and form a cylindrical projection that can only be detected when you’re close to the plant. Peel back the leaves in the same way you would shuck corn, and both the male portion above and the female below can be seen. The female portion will later develop into the familiar brown “cattail” seed head from which the plant’s name is derived. The male portion will atrophy into a small dried twig that may easily break off the top of the seed head. Both the male and female pollen spikes can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob, and both are delicious. The male portion provides a bigger meal at this stage. They have a flavor that is corn-like, but distinct from corn. I cannot imagine anyone finding the flavor objectionable. Both may also be eaten raw.

Pollen and root starch

Later, the male pollen head will begin to develop an abundance of yellow pollen with a talcum powder consistency that can easily be shaken off into any container. Several pounds of this can be collected in less than an hour. The traditional use of this pollen is to substitute for some the flour in pancakes to make cattail pancakes. This also works well with cornbread. Other uses of the pollen include thickeners or flour extenders for breads, cakes, etc.

In late summer to early fall, the tender inner portions of the leaf stalk may still be collected, but the availability of this Cossack Asparagus begins to dwindle, due to the toughening up of the plant. During this period and all the way to spring, the most abundant food product, the root starch, may be harvested. It is so abundant, a study was conducted at the Cattail Research Center of Syracuse University’s Department of Plant Sciences. The chief investigator of the project was Leland Marsh. The reported results were as follows:

Yields are fantastic. Marsh discovered he could harvest 140 tons of rhizomes per acre near Wolcott, NY. That represents something more than 10 times the average yield per acre of potatoes. In terms of dry weight of cattail flour, the 140 tons of roots would yield approximately 32 tons.

To extract the flour or starch from the cattail root, simply collect the roots, wash, and peel them. Next, break up the roots under water. The flour will begin to separate from the fibers. Continue this process until the fibers are all separated and the sweet flour is removed. Remove the fiber and pour off the excess water.

Allow the remaining flour slurry to dry by placing near a fire or using the sun.

Cattail root flour also contains gluten. Gluten is the constituent in wheat flour that allows flour to rise in yeast breads. The Iroquois Indians macerated and boiled the roots to produce a fine syrup, which they used in a corn meal pudding and to sweeten other dishes. Some Indians burned the mature brown seed heads to extract the small seeds from the fluff, which was used to make gruels and added to soups.
Medicinal and other uses

The medicinal uses of cattails include poultices made from the split and bruised roots that can be applied to cuts, wounds, burns, stings, and bruises. The ash of the burned cattail leaves can be used as an antiseptic or styptic for wounds. A small drop of a honey-like excretion, often found near the base of the plant, can be used as an antiseptic for small wounds and toothaches.

The utility of this cattail is limited only by your imagination. The dried stalks can be used for hand drills and arrow shafts. The seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder. The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing. The leaves can be used for construction of shelters or for woven seats and backs of chairs, which has been a traditional use for hundreds of years.

They can be woven into baskets, hats, mats, and beds. The dried seed heads attached to their stalks can be dipped into melted animal fat or oil and used as torches.

The next time you see “The Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp,” why don’t you do some shopping?


1. Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Alan C. Hood and Company, Putney, Vermont; 1962. 303 pp.

2. Harris, B., Eat The Weeds. Barre Publishers, Garre, MA; 1971. 223 pp.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Developing Oil Fright

The past few weeks have made the developing supply crisis in oil crystal clear to everyone. The fact that I was able to predict this scenario a few months past did not require any prescience on my part. I only had to overcome everyone else’s state of denial. And now, the consumers are beginning to change their consumption habits.

The $130 price for a barrel of oil is quite sufficient to encourage a maximum effort to expand production and to expand replacement sources. A jump to $300 per barrel is unnecessary or that but will likely happen briefly if we have a surprise. By that I mean an unexpected drop of two million barrels per day. Such an event may not happen this year or even next year, and if we can get past that, other patches can kick in.

Right now a lot of folks are actually sitting down and doing the supply analysis and all you see are glum faces. The fact is that this crisis will not be magically fixed by turning on a well somewhere. That option has evaporated and with pending declines everywhere, supply has to be found by emergency replacement from non oil sources.

Even with the advent of THAI oil production and a number of important new fields, the industry can only hope to keep pace with the developing decline. To put it more succinctly, we are on the verge of losing roughly around 10,000,000 barrels per day of production over the next several years and I am likely still sugar coating the story. I think that we can bring on around this much new production with the aforementioned resources, after which the THAI technology could well be able to keep pace with further declines for some time.

The good news for us is that most of this will be focused in North America, permitting us the luxury of sort of controlling our destiny. So although we are going through an uncomfortable readjustment, the transition will be long and drawn out

The new emergency reserve supply is coming from the conversion of the transportation fleet over to LNG engines. This will easily release 15,000,000 barrels of oil per day globally and can be done almost overnight. In fact California is well on way to doing this and has begun to force the infrastructure. It is good to see that at least one group of politicians are not in denial. The point that I am making is that the USA can release millions of barrels of daily oil back into the market in probably less than two years by the simple expedient of a slight engine modification and a few tanks and tankers. The recent rise of diesel prices will force the truckers to make the switch as fast as they can.

I should mention that globally there are massive supplies of LNG for the asking. This is a direct result of a market that has been limited to pipeline distribution to meet the low end market of home heating. Transportation fuel readily can justify the economics of hauling it around in cryogenic tanks. I observe that LNG produces a steady supply of boil-off gas that needs to be shoved into a local pipeline if it is not immediately burned. We can live with all that with a lot of common sense applied.

The other big fix that is been suggested is the simple expedient of making all new automobile engines able to switch on demand to ethanol. That industry is still shy of a few solutions, but establishing capability is the first step to driving demand and supply. I have little doubt that ethanol supplies will begin to climb. I will be posting tomorrow on a discovery that I have recently made for a huge new ethanol feedstock that is likely capable of replacing all our gasoline.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Biochar in the Garden

Phillip small is developing this FAQ on the application of biochar to the home garden. Although a work in progress, as it must be with the current state of knowledge, It covers enough to give a new user a running start.

The evidence to date supports spending a fair amount of effort to produce a finely powdered product. In fact I would get the appropriate screen and simply use only the fines in the garden. This of course will prove a little difficulty with commercial wood charcoal were the fines have already been cleaned out.

Everyone is discovering that crushing wood charcoal is not easy or convenient.

If one actually has an efficient retort working on a pyrolysis gas fuel system, then we have the option of using non wood plant material as a feed stock which immediately solves the problem. The pollen evidence and the additional likelihood that the original terra preta was cooked up in earthen kilns formed out of corn stalks and their root pads informs us that the original biochar protocol did exactly this.

In the meantime, crushing wood charcoal is the available option. Laying down a ground sheet to capture the charcoal powder on a concrete slab, then a layer of charcoal and then a plywood sheet, creates a crush zone. Driving your car back and forth over the sheet may do some good. Making use of a drop weight while standing on the panel is the next option we may want to try.

What you will learn is that as fineness goes up, so does energy expenditure at a much faster rate. Welcome to the world of mining and milling.

The reason this all works is because the surface of elemental carbon grabs and holds nutrients until a root cell arrives with its biological entourage and extracts the nutrient away from the carbon. The nutrient so bound can not escape into the mobile drainage system. Obviously a root will have difficulty penetrating a large chunk of charcoal.

As yet no one is marketing powdered charcoal as such, although that can not be far off. That will be followed very quickly with fertilizer blending. In the meantime it is pure do-it-yourself.

In terms of application, I would blend five pounds of powder in ten to twenty pounds of soil with fertilizer and use that to set seeds in mini hills of the blend. That way you are not treating the huge amount of area that lies in between the seed beds.

This should maximize immediate results for the home gardener.

I would particularly like to see this tested in this manner on the clearly poorer soils. Fine loamy soils barely need the assistance. Former desert soils most certainly do. And there are plenty of urban lots in which removed topsoil was never properly restored. At least with this protocol, the home owner has a method for soil restoration that compliments and supports any thing else he may try.

A really interesting experiment would be to plant alfalfa in a very thin top dressing that included fifteen percent biochar on a subsoil base. It is the nature of alfalfa to run a root system both deep and broad while also fixing nitrogen. This penetrates the sub soil with organic material on an ongoing basis. The top dressing holds the soluble nutrients also needed. The question that we are really asking here is whether this protocol is able to produce a viable top soil quickly. While this is going on, it may be possible to harvest the alfalfa and perhaps aerate the top three inches. Obviously any now barren non productive field could be used for this experiment and I expect the carbon to counter even salinity by sequestering the salts into the carbon.

The important point is that the initial top dressing does not need to be very thick, although more will be clearly better. But if you have an impossible soil, getting anything to set up and establish itself is a blessing. The established root material will then start the process of rehabilitating the soil. After that it is a matter of how much of a hurry you are in. An established alfalfa field providing a steady and improving supply of fodder is at least nicely carrying itself.

Welcome to a Gardening with Biochar FAQ!

... a work in progress...

When gardeners add biochar to garden soil, we are, in effect attempting to follow in the footsteps of the originators of Terra Preta. Because we don't know exactly how that process worked, nor how we can best adapt it outside its area of origin, we are left to discover much of this by experimenting with our own gardens and comparing observations within our own communities.

1.0 What is Biochar?

Biochar is charcoal formed by low temperature pyrolysis. Medium temperature pyrolysis produces a more traditional charcoal, high temperature pyrolysis produces activated charcoal. Ideally biochar is made in a way that achieves maximal woodgas condensate retention.

1.01 How does biochar relate to agrichar and to Terra Preta?

Agrichar is a synonym for biochar. This material was fundamental to the creation of Terra Preta de Indio, as it is to creating its modern equivalent, Terra Preta Nova. Terra Preta "Classic" was made by adding charcoal, broken pottery shards along with the organic fertilizer amendments. This, in conjunction with the microbial ecology occurring in these soils, resulted in an incredibly fertile soil, and a reputation for self-regeneration.

1.02 What is pyrolysis?

Pyrolysis is a chemical decomposition of organic materials by heating in the absence of oxygen. This releases heat energy and yields combustable gases (aka syngas, wood gas, and producer gas) and charcoal. The charcoal produced is a combination of black carbon, along with small amounts of woodgas condensate and ash.

1.03 What temperature range is considered "low temperature" in the context of biochar?

The theoretical low end of the range approaches 120 deg C, the lowest temperature at which wood will char, (Reference) thus the temperature at the pyrolysis front. A more practical low end is to use the piloted ignition temperature of wood, typically 350 deg C. (Reference) The theoretical high end, between biochar and more traditional charcoal, depends on the process and feedstock used, but is seldom indicated in excess of 600 deg C.

1.04 Can I substitute other forms of charcoal for biochar?

Yes, up to a point. The woodgas condensates in biochar give it considerable value, but that is not to imply that using simple charcoal, or charcoal made from other than plant materials, won't produce some, and even most, of the same benefits. It is normally adviseable to avoid charcoal briquetttes because the binders used during manufacture can add undesireable constituents.

1.05 Why are the condensates valuable?

We believe this to be the case because higher temperature charcoal does not produce as much of an observed beneficial effect.

1.06 Is biochar made from hardwood best?

Biochar made from hardwood is richer in condensates when compared to biochar made from softer wood, from bamboo and from less woody vegetation. The fact that hardwoods were readily available to the originators of Terra Preta de Indio has not escaped the attention of Terra Preta enthusiasts.

1.07 Where can I join in with this community of Terra Preta enthusiasts?

  1. Bioenergy lists: Terra Preta: the intentional use of charcoal in soils.
  2. Bioenergy lists: Terrapreta -- Discussion of terra preta, the intentional placement of charcoal in soil.
  3. Hypography Science Forums: Terra Preta

2.0 How do I Get Biochar?

You can purchase biochar, purchase a charcoal substitute, or you can make it yourself.

2.01 Where can I purchase biochar?

Currently manufactured biochar is in short supply and is needed for research projects. The alternative is to purchase charcoal and use it as a biochar substitute. Cowboy brand hardwood charcoal is available in the United States in 20 pound bags by the pallet, about 600 pounds, for less than US $ 0.7/lb. For larger amounts, as in a shipping container, consider coconut shell charcoal, available for less than US $ 300/mt. Worth repeating: It is normally advisable to avoid charcoal briquettes because the binders used during manufacture can add undesirable constituents.

2.02 How do I make biochar?

While colliers the world over normally use either a covered pit or a covered mound (earth kiln) to make charcoal, most gardeners will want to start with an easier method that works at a smaller scale. Home pyrolysis is pretty easy to accomplish and a bottom lit burn barrel is the common starting point. Make sure the openings at the base of the barrel are large enough. Light it off, give it an occasional shake to settle the fuel, and, when done, pop a cover on it or douse it with water. The burn in all of these approaches can produce a fair amount of smoke and partially combusted gases. Out of concern for air quality, many gardeners may prefer not to use these approaches.

2.03 What are some less smokey approaches to making biochar for the gardener?

Choose your feedstock wisely. No matter what technique you use to make charcoal, choosing uniformly sized, dry woody material produces the highest yields. Uniformity is one reason that colliers will routinely use coppiced hardwoods.

Inverted Downdraft Gassification. For a cleaner burning configuration, consider a Top Lit Updraft (TLUD) technique, also referred to as an inverted downdraft gassification. The technique looks simple but in reality it involves some fairly sophisticated physics (PDF). That doesn't prevent success using common materials and dead simple design. Take that same open barrel configuration, tweak the design per the afformentioned physics involved, and now light it from the top instead of the bottom. This takes a different skill set than lighting from the bottom but its also not that difficult to master. A little vaseline or ethanol on a cotton ball can work wonders for starting up. Once the fire gets going, the top layer of wood burns, creating charcoal, naturally. The heat from the charcoal layer burning heats the wood below it, and ignites it, but at a lower temperature sufficient for pyrolysis. The gases released by pyrolysis (carbon dioxide and water) flow through the charcoal layer. Glowingly hot charcoal has a wonderous ability to strip oxygen molecules from of anything that passes over it, so it converts the water into hydrogen, and the carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide. These two gases are flammable and they are ignited once mixed with air coming into the top of the open barrel above the charcoal layer. The result is a scrubbed gas-fed flame that is much more controlled, and which burns substantially cleaner and hotter than can be achieved with the bottom lit burn barrel. (Source). The lack of oxygen below the combustion zone is impedes loss of the charcoal despite the high temperature flame immediately above it. This alows biochar to build up faster than it is consumed, at least until the pyrolysis zone reaches the bottom of the fuel column.

A handy TLUD fired Retort. The retort process works by restricting the air supply to the target feed stock for the duration of the burn. An outside heat source pyrolizes the retort contents, small openings in the retort allow wood gas to escape, but restrict the flow of oxygen in. While capable of very high yield efficiency, the open flame used to fire the retort is not as clean as can be achieved with an inverted downdraft gassifier. A common further inefficiency with smaller retorts is that much of the wood gas generated from the retort can end up not being burned. Folk Gunther's hybrid TLUD/retort demonstrates a simple configuration that neatly addresses these concerns.

2.04 What are some higher volume but less smokey approaches to making biochar for the garden?

While TLUD's can get fairly large [Link needed], a large TLUD/Retort is less practical, than a large drum retort.

A Large Drum Retort. [Expand]

The Wood Vinegar Kiln. [Expand]

2.05 How much charcoal yield can I expect?

On a dry matter weight basis, as well as an energy basis, between 20 percent, for the top lit open barrel approach, and 60 percent, for a retort under ideal conditions. 50 percent is a reasonable goal. [Sources needed]

2.06 What can I burn to make biochar?

Any reasonably dry and clean burnable feedstock will work. Woody plant material is the primary candidate. Bones are also a traditional component in Terra Preta, but one we don't know as much about. Other materials can be used conditionally.

2.07 What do I need to consider in making biochar from other than woody plant materials?

The two considerations are, what additional contaminants are being carried off as pyrolysis gas during the burn, and what contaminants are present in the ash component of the charcoal produced.

2.08 What refractory materials can I use to make a kiln? a retort?

2.09 What gases does pyrolysis produce?

2.10 How much heat does pyrolysis produce?

2.11 Is biochar worth more as a fuel than as a soil amendment?

2.12 Is biochar worth more as a fuel than its value for offsetting greenhouse gases?

2.13 What do I do if I make more biochar than I can use?


3.0 How do I prepare the biochar once I've made it?

You can use it as is, especially if it is a small amount. For larger amounts, the choices are to crush, screen, add liquids, add dry materials, and to compost it.

3.01 Why would I need to prepare the biochar, as opposed to applying it as is?

There are several reasons that might apply to your situation. [Expand, obviously]

3.02 What size should the biochar be?

3.03 What are some ways to crush and screen biochar?

[For crushing, I am leaning to a mortor and pestle approach: a 5 cm dia hardwood trunk 2 m long and a 20 liter bucket with a plywood insert in the bottom.

For screening, I think a sloped screen works better than a horizontal screen for higher volumes.]

3.04 What can I do to make the biochar easier to crush?

Wetting and drying it seems to help. Crushing it with a little moisture in it helps to control dust.

3.05 Besides water, what else can I soak the biochar in?

Yes. Compost tea, MiracleGro (TM), fish emulsion, urine, ....

3.06 Can I add biochar to compost?

Yes. This will help temper the biochar. For the added benefit of odor control, consider topping off each addition to the household kitchen scrap collector with a healthy layer of biochar.

3.07 Will biochar affect the compost process?

Casual observation indicates that adding fine, untempered biochar may accelerate the composting process.

3.05 Will biochar harm the worms in my compost?

Anecdotal accounts indicate that worms tolerate up to xx% charcoal, above which reduced worm activity can occur.

3.08 Can I use biochar in my composting toilet?

Yes. Again, the added benefit of odor control is compelling.


4.0 How do I apply Biochar?

4.01 What materials combine well with biochar for application?

4.02 How is biochar generally used

4.03 What is the normal application rate for biochar?

4.04 Are there benefits to deeper placement?

4.05 Are there benefits to using biochar as a mulch?


5.0 What happens after biochar is in the soil?

5.01 Does biochar affect soil pH?

5.02 Does biochar increase soil CEC and Base Saturation?

5.03 Does biochar improve soil moisture characteristics?

5.04 Can biochar have a harmfull effect on my soil or on my garden?

5.05 Does biochar affect soil ecology?

5.06 Does biochar improve plant growth?

5.07 How much improved plant growth can I expect?

5.08 How much carbon dioxide does sequestered biochar offset?

5.09 How much nitrous oxide formation does biochar prevent?

Soil scientist Lucas Van Zweiten has observed a 5 to 10 fold reduction in nitrous oxide emmissions with some of the biochars he is working with in an agricultural setting. Generally, soil with elevated soil nitrate levels in the presence of sufficient moisture and robust soil organic matter will have higher nitrous oxide production, and thus will be more likely to benefit at the levels observed by Van Zweiten.