Category: Energy


The usual four seasons, especially as defined by the equinoxes and solstices, don’t work very well for interior Alaska. Show cover is generally established by a month after the autumnal equinox, and stays on the ground until well after the vernal equinox. Rivers freeze a little later and remain frozen longer in the spring, and the only running water for six months of the year is in hot springs and indoors. But there is one season that everyone both longs for and dreads: Breakup.

Breakup is the time of year when snow melts and rivers thaw. The two are connected by more than sunshine and warmer weather. Melting snow makes mud (one of the reasons breakup is a time of some dread) but it also runs into rivers. If the water rises in the upper stretches of a river before lower reaches are thawed, as often happens in Alaska, the result can be ice jams and resultant flooding. I’ll talk about that some other time, but right now I want to discuss the simple process of melting snow.

Clean snow reflects most of the solar energy that strikes it. Some of the sun’s rays are absorbed within the snow pack, and cause internal melting and settling — but this is a slow process. Even clean snow, however, is a very good absorber in thermal infrared wavelengths. The sun doesn’t put out much energy in these wavelengths, but buildings, trees, and just about everything else except polished metal does. As a result, snow near the south side of a building melts much faster than snow out in the open. So does snow near tree trunks.

I see this every year. In addition to the photo of my road, which is rapidly turning into mud, I took two of the north and south yards of my house, minutes apart. Both areas got almost exactly the same amount of snow, and both have very similar exposure to sunlight. The snow stake still has a good 18” of snow. The ground around the birch is almost bare.

Why? Two reasons, actually, and the combination explains why open birch forest is usually the first natural area free of snow around here. First, birch trees hold their seeds through winter, and drop them shortly before breakup. As a result the seeds on the snow around the tree absorb the solar radiation and transfer that energy to the snow, speeding its melt. Natural selection? Quite possibly. It certainly seems likely that the enhanced snow melt, leading to earlier warming of the ground, would help the tree.

Second, the tree itself absorbs some solar energy, and then re-radiates it to the snow in the form of thermal infrared. Just about any object poking through the snow this time of year has a little depression around it. Spruce trees do an even better job of absorbing sunlight than do birches, but they also shade the ground and transfer much of the energy they absorb directly to the air. As a result spruce forest, while it probably does a better job of warming the air than birch forest, is among the last areas to have completely bare ground.

On a different note entirely, one of the fixtures of breakup in Fairbanks is the Beat Beethoven 5 km race, a fundraiser held today for and by the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. I won’t be running this year, though I did “run” with a cane once — and came in last. The idea is to cover the 5 km before the end of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, about 30 minutes. I’m volunteering this year to park my car along the race route with the radio tuned to 91.5 (KSUA, the campus radio station) blaring out Beethoven’s 5th. I expect temperatures below 50°F and much of the course to be slippery or wet!

Added later (after the race.) This is definitely a family race. There were parents pushing their children in strollers, parents with children in backpacks or riding piggyback, dogs, and one contestant on crutches. (And she wasn’t at the end, either.) I did have a bit of a problem in that instruction to volunteers said if possible, not to have your car idling as the runner went by. I did. And needed a jump to start the car after the battery totally discharged itself.

A very quick note. I have a guest blog up on But What Are They Eating about some of the foods my characters eat–and why those using esper talents must eat so much to avoid low blood sugar.

The Perversity of Inanimate Objects 1 4/10/10
Insulin Pumps 5/20/10
Wars With Word 5/28/10
The Perversity of Inanimate Objects 2 6/4/10
Float Chair (fictional) 6/24/10
Tricycles are not Bicycles 8/8/10
Why Temperature Remembered doesn’t match the Record 4/5/11
Does Banking Software Work? 4/21/11
My New Toy – an iPad 2 5/12/11
Before Computers 6/5/11
How do you Eat a Salad? 4/28/12
Battery Woes 5/12/12
Printer Woes 6/14/12
Adult Proof 9/8/12
Digital Cameras 9/29/12
Who Needs a Nightcap? 9/3/13

500+ posts is too many for me to keep track of, and quite a few are “reference” posts, such as the ones on planet building or horse coat color genetics. So I’m putting in a new feature, an index page that links to posts linking to the posts on a given topic. (Sound confusing? Try doing it!)

These indexing posts start today (see below) and will appear occasionally until the reference posts are all indexed. After that I’ll just be updating the index posts, which will be accessible from the Index tab above.

With 550 posts as of today, I’ve started to have problems remembering what I’ve already put on here. This is particularly a problem with posting existing content such as poems, short pieces from the Summer Arts Festival, or science explanations originally written for the Alaska Science Forum. I can’t remember which books or DVDs I’ve posted reviews on. It also is starting to be a problem when I want to link to a previous post and can’t remember when it was put up or what the title was. And there are posts on this blog that have permanent information, like the series on planet building and the one on horse color genetics, or the book and DVD reviews. I want to make it easier for my readers as well as myself to find things.

I made a start some time ago by adding an index page, which can be accessed from the menu at the top of any page. Right now, the only links are to index pages on my author site. This takes you out of the site and sometimes back in, which is rather clumsy. The index list is also incomplete.

I’m going to start posting an occasional entry which is strictly an index of past posts on a particular topic. These posts will be linked from the index page, and will link forward to the individual blog posts. As it takes a while to find all the posts that belong together, this will be a slow process—probably extending over the next few months. The first in this series, on DVD reviews, is already queued for January 3. Others will follow, most on Thursdays.

I probably won’t be indexing every post. Some, like those early posts which were simply glossary entries for my books, are on the author site and really belong there. Others, like the regular Monday updates on North Pole weather starting in November 2010, can be found easily enough just by using the calendar on the site. But I hope that by the time I have finished this, older posts of interest will be easier to find.

I don’t often repeat posts, but with the projection of the  world population passing 7 billion this week, I thought it was time to bring this one out again.

Domestication is a mutual process—the plants and animals domesticated historically have met us halfway.

We and our domesticates have entered a kind of symbiosis—both we and they benefit, at least in numbers.

Plant and animal domestication was the first step toward civilization.

There are only two ways of increasing agricultural yield: Increase the amount of food produced per acre, or increase the amount of land farmed.

Once domestication occurred, we were locked into a positive feedback loop between food production and population. But a positive feedback loop is inherently limited and unstable. Are we approaching a crash?

I’ve been taking a Teaching Company course on DVD for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve taken so far. I’ve always been interested in the process of domestication, especially since it became clear that the early agriculturists were generally less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. How did wolves become dogs? Who first thought of riding a horse? Did riding come before or after driving? And are cats really domesticated, or did they domesticate us?

The course is “Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact” by Professor Gary A. Sojka, but it’s really about human impact. I can’t say it answered all of my questions, or even asked them, but it did a good job of summarizing our current state of understanding, and of steering a middle course between “domestication is a sin and all domesticated animals should be returned to the wild” (most would not survive, and we probably wouldn’t, either) and “animals have no feelings and were put on this world solely for our use.” There are fewer moral problems with domesticated plants and microbes, though even here there are quandaries. How dangerous are monocultures, for instance? Or reliance on a small number of closely related varieties? (Think the Irish potato famine.)

If I have an argument with Professor Sojka, it is that he is too optimistic about the future. This may be appropriate for a college course, but I don’t feel enough sense of urgency. Yes, some people—a small minority even in the West—are beginning to think about long-term sustainability. (The politicians aren’t, by and large.) But the major problem—a population that is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (if it hasn’t done so already)—has become a taboo subject for serious discussion.  “The demographic transition will take care of it.” But will that happen soon enough?

Historically, our population has been kept in check by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine. War. Disease. Death by wild beasts—today, accidental death of all kinds. All of these are premature deaths—death by old age simply is not mentioned.

Today, we tend to regard such deaths—those of the young—as particularly tragic. We fight them in every way we can—and in many ways, we’ve succeeded. What we’ve forgotten is that every person born dies eventually, and to reach sustainability we have to reduce the number of people being born until it balances the number who die. Otherwise the four horsemen will eventually increase the death rate to match the birth rate—or more.

Food and energy both rely on sunlight—the sunlight that falls on the earth today and the sunlight that fell hundreds of million years ago, and is now stored in fossil fuels. I group food and energy for several reasons. Fertilizer. Biofuels. Pesticides. Transportation. Pumping water to where it is needed for crops, in some cases pumping down water that has been in storage since the ice age. All of the advances that have allowed us to hold back that horseman, Famine, ultimately rely on those fossil fuels and fossil water, or plan to replace them with agricultural products. And fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky to exploit—look at the BP oil spill.

But an increase in agricultural output to match the increase in population means more efficiency—which we are obtaining today largely through fossil fuels—or more land in agricultural production. There is only so much land suitable for agriculture, especially if we want to keep the ecosystem services we depend on going. And one of the oldest causes for war is the desire for more land. Desire for more energy, often perceived as a need, is a rising cause of wars today.

Disease? In part that ties back to our methods of food production, as well. Certainly much antibiotic resistance can be linked to the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, and many diseases that started out in animals have crossed over to human beings. I find it interesting that all of the great world religions, many of them very pro-natalist, trace their origins to early city dwellers. Disease can spread rapidly among city-dwellers. In fact until the last century or two, urban areas were dependent on immigration from the countryside to maintain their populations. Having many children was important to these early city-dwellers—most of their children would die before having children themselves. That’s not true today, thanks largely to public health improvements—but the mindset and the religious imperative remain.

All living things—plants, animals, and human beings—are driven to reproduce. In our case, that deep-seated drive is reinforced by religious and social pressures. We claim we have a right, even a duty, to reproduce. But do we? Not in nature. Nature says the “right” to reproduce must be earned. It’s a lesson I hope we can learn before it is enforced by the Four Horsemen.

This is Post 486. Comment to join the drawing.

I haven’t had much experience with chimney sweeps.  In fact, until that week, my experiences had been entirely from literature.  Bert in Mary Poppins was probably the most memorable of these, with ”I chooses me bristles with pride, yes I do,” and the sweeps’ rooftop ballet across London.  But there was also the knowledge of Victorian sweeps who sent little boys, often later affected by black lung and scrotal cancer, down chimneys.  On the lighter side, Mr. Puffert and the vicar with his shotgun in Busman’s Honeymoon had me grinning as much as Lord Peter.

So when the furnace repairman pointed out on his annual check that the cap was gone from the furnace stack, and that consequently rain was getting into the firebox, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I am certainly well beyond climbing on a roof, even if I knew what to do once I was up there.

“Get a chimney sweep,” was the furnace repairman’s advice.

A chimney sweep?  Well, I’ve lived in Fairbanks long enough to know that lots of people up here heat with wood, and wood causes creosote buildup which has to be gotten rid of to avoid chimney fires.  So it stood to reason there’d be chimney sweeps, but how did I find one?

The Yellow Pages, of course.  Chimney sweeps weren’t listed as such, but chimney cleaning was, with three entries.  The Woodway was the one I was familiar with (and the only one with a live human being on the other end of the phone) but they no longer swept chimneys even though they are one of the largest suppliers of wood stoves.  I left messages at the other two, and eventually got an appointment for sometime after 2 pm Monday to get the cap replaced on the stack of my oil burner and the stack itself swept—it turns out that oil burners need that service occasionally.  It meant missing an afternoon of Festival, but I wanted to get that cap replaced before I went Outside for a week.

The young man who knocked at the door that afternoon was almost as lean as Bert, but a good deal cleaner.  I showed him the furnace, explained the problem, mentioned that my own previous knowledge of chimney seeps was gleaned from Mary Poppins, and did he mind if I took a few pictures?  He countered that sweeps went back to Roman times, and proceeded to clean up the outside of the chimney in the garage, and set his shop-vac to suck in any loosened soot.  Then he leaned his ladder against the door side of the garage, on the other side of the garage from the stack.  “Why carry stuff any further than I have to?” he asked.

Finally he was on the roof, studying the beheaded chimney pipe.  “It’s sound,” he called, a dark silhouette against the pale, drizzling sky, “though it could use some calking.   I’ll do that when I’ve swept and capped it.”

 He picked up the rods at his feet—that was what had made me think there was something wrong with the dark gray shingles—and screwed the first into his brush.  Then another and another, now with the brush in my chimney, until he became the iconic shape of a chimney sweep, working his brush up and down in the innards of the wide pipe.  When I moved so his background was trees, rather than sky, he became a surprisingly neat figure in a blue coverall.  Almost before I realized it he was pulling his brush up and strapping the rods back together.  “Now the cap,” he said.

 The old cap had resembled a hub cap—in fact when it showed up in the dog run, that’s what I’d thought it was.  The new one was double flanged: a shallow-crowned bowler on top, then a gap, then another rim below it.  He attached the new cap swiftly, and then ran a bead of calking around the base of the chimney.

“All done,” he called down, and vanished to the far side of the roof and his ladder.

“My kids love Mary Poppins,” he said as he left.  “They call me Bert sometimes.”  And he stuck out his clean hand to me, grinning.  “Lucky, you know.”

This was actually written during Summer Arts Festival in 2008.  I hope you’ll enjoy it — and get a feel for Alaska.

Mass into Energy

“If you can Heal, you may eventually be able to exchange mass and energy if you conserve hadrons,” Derik told Roi. (from Homecoming.)

Exchange mass and energy? And what are hadrons?

Einstein’s famous equation—E=mc2—says that a very small amount of mass can be turned into a very large amount of energy or vice versa. If you could turn a gram of mass (that’s about the mass of a small gourmet jellybean) into energy, you’d get roughly 25 million kilowatt-hours. In practice, you have to conserve hadrons—essentially the total number of neutrons and protons in the cores of atoms, which make up most of their weight.

Thus it is possible, with enough heat and pressure, to force four hydrogen atoms (each with one proton and one electron) together to form one helium atom (with two protons, two neutrons and two electrons.) The four hydrogen atoms turn out to have about 1% more mass than the helium atom, and this extra mass, the binding energy, reappears as gamma rays and particles. This is the energy of the hydrogen bomb, and also the energy that powers the sun and most of the stars. The process is called fusion (coming together), but as of yet we cannot control it. (I don’t think you can call a hydrogen bomb controlled.)

A second way in which mass can be transformed into energy involves very heavy elements, such as uranium. It turns out that all of the protons and neutrons packed together in these elements aren’t really happy. They may split apart on their own, or because they are hit by some other particle, but the net effect is that the mass of the parts they split into is less than that of the original atom, so the split produces energy. This is nuclear fission (splitting.) This is the energy of the original atomic bomb, but it is also the energy that drives plate tectonics and volcanoes, and is occasionally tapped for geothermal energy. This one we can control to some extent, and it is the energy source for nuclear power plants—but those large, unstable atoms are rare in nature.

The middle-weight elements—such as iron—are stable. There is no way to extract binding energy from iron—it is sometimes called the nuclear ash of stars. (Note that many of the elements of all masses have isotopes in which an imbalance between neutrons and protons leads to instability, but these are very rare in nature. They are very important in man-made nuclear waste, however.)

Most of the energy we use today comes from sunlight past or present—fusion energy. Solar energy intercepted by the earth today fuels not only what is called solar energy but also wind power, hydropower, and biofuels. These are all “renewable” sources—we can use them at the rate present-day sunlight generates them. But they are limited by the amount of sunlight available.

Fossil fuels are storage for the sunlight of the past—and we are using them up far faster than they can be replenished. Only a tiny fraction of the sunlight falling on the surface of the earth is actually captured as biomass, and only a tiny fraction of that biomass is buried and eventually becomes coal, oil or natural gas. But ultimately, it is all nuclear energy.

So yes, mass can be turned into energy, and in fact almost all of the energy we use actually comes from such conversion. But there are limits.

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