Climate conversations: Earth—The Operator’s Manual

Clyde Burnett, Gilpin County.  The 3-part video series, “Earth—The Operator’s Manual,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Professor Richard Alley of Penn State, was released in 2012. Much of its content remains valid; I believe it is appropriate for me to review this material for your possible viewing.

Professor Alley is a top climate scientist and communicator. (He will present the public lecture at the annual American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December.) Professor Alley’s companion book, Earth—The Operator’s Manual, is his personal kitchen table- type presentation of the climate science and energy solutions. (The book can be ordered online.)

In Part I, “Your Planet is Due for an Oil Change,” Professor Alley begins with an overall picture of the formation of fossil fuels and the various ways that humanity has historically used energy. Then he begins the story of his climate research with onsite visits to the Franz Josef glacier and the Tasman glacier with its terminal lake in New Zealand. (The Tasman had no lake in 1973; in 2008 it was 7K long and 2k wide and 245 m deep [804 ft.])

He shows the ways that the snowfall and movement of the glaciers traps the history of the daily, seasonal, and long-term climate. His discussion of the decade’s abrupt climate changes is emphasized in his bungee jump from the original New Zealand bridge site. (Been there—did NOT do that!)

Study of Greenland ice cores stored in Colorado show the simultaneous large changes of CO2 and temperature from analysis of the trapped air bubbles. And analysis of the carbon isotopes in recent ice confirm the source to be the burning of fossil fuels by human activity. Alley notes that 0.01% of sun’s energy is more than all human use today.

Part II,    “Powering the Planet,” considers our history of energy problems of transport and supply and present need for climate solutions, with plans for solar and wind. Alley contrasts our society’s reluctance to undertake the step away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy to the medieval city’s abrupt move from sewage dumping in the streets to modern sewage treatment.

Leadership examples include developments of biofuel in Brazil, solar in Spain, wind in Denmark, and China’s world leadership in renewables and  5-year plan of immense research development for clean coal. Another example was Eisenhower’s leadership ability to make a 2-year, rather than 50-year improvement of our Interstate Highway System.

Part III, “Energy Quest USA.” Professor Alley presents the brief history of energy use and the problem of sustainability. Shirley Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic, emphasizes our diversity of energy sources. Now we begin to see citizen progress to economical carbon-free solutions including conservation. Examples range from the geothermal projects at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, to wood recovery for heat from the Tanana River and wood pellet heat at North Pole, Alaska.

The attraction of wind in West Texas moved farmers to lease space to wind farms with significant economic advantages. Energy efficiency projects with electric and bicycle transport are beginning to transform some of our cities. “The atmosphere doesn’t care what we think but what we do”.

I recommend these videos and book be made available in our Nederland and Gilpin libraries and our area high schools.