Apr 16, 2010

Turning Unwanted Wood Products Into Pieces Of Art

April 15, 2010 — You may find this hard to believe but each person in the United States produces more than four pounds of trash per day. In this report, the Monitors Ryan Naquin visits a man who is taking unwanted wood products and turning them in to things of beauty.

Related links:

Environmentalist, 350.org Founder Bill McKibben on "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet"

Ahead of Bolivia’s indigenous summit on climate change and the expected unveiling of a Senate climate bill next week, we speak to someone who sounded one of the earliest alarms about global warming. Twenty years ago, environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, but his warnings went largely unheeded. Now, as people are grappling with the unavoidable effects of climate change and confronting an earth that is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding and burning in unprecedented ways, Bill McKibben is out with Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, a new book about what we have to do to survive this brave new world. [includes rush transcript]

Tea Party supporters far less informed about climate change than general public | Grist

The new CBS/NYT poll of tea party supporters [PDF, H/T Greg Sargent] includes a question on climate change: Do you think global warming is an environmental problem that is causing a serious impact now, or do you think the impact of global warming won't happen until sometime in the future, or do you think global warming won't have a serious impact at all?
This shouldn't come as a surprise, but it turns out that tea party supporters are far less informed about climate change than the general public. This meshes with a spate of other recent polls showing a sharp decline in understanding of and concern for environmental issues among Republicans. In contrast, other recent polls have shown that Latinos, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and young Americans are much more concerned about climate change and environmental issues.

Apr 15, 2010

Peak oil is happening next year, US government says

When considering Peak Oil, the US Department of Energy usually stands among the most optimistic sources regarding the depletion of world oil reserves. Now its senior forecaster has come to accept that “Liquid fuel” production will peak next year and from then on decline slowly, with occasional increases, but still on a long term downward trend. And the US army scenario planners agree. They are now basing most of their scenario planning on just such an eventuality. Glen Sweetnam, who is supervising the DoE’s next annual International energy outlook, is the most prominent official analyst on energy inside the Obama administration.
He says it may still be that some unforeseen source of oil suddenly emerges between now and next year, but admits that the source of that oil is currently “unidentified” His view emerged at a round-table of oil economists that Mr Sweetnam held in Washington, DC. titled “Meeting the Growing Demand for Liquid (fuels)“. Unnoticed, it put forward forecasts that are far more pessimistic than any analysis the DoE has ever delivered.
His unit at the DoE predicts that the decline of identified sources of supply will be steady and sharp : – 2 percent a year, from 87 million barrels per day (Mbpd) in 2011 to just 80 Mbpd in 2015. At that time, the world demand for oil and other liquid fuels should have climbed up to 90 Mbpd.
By 2007, despite huge profits, the top 5 international oil companies were spending a mere 6 percent of their free cash on exploration, compared to 34 percent on share buybacks, according to a Rice University study cited by The New York Times. Back in 1994, those top oil companies were spending 15 percent of their free cash on exploration. Many experts assume that this shift in strategy is forced by a lack of access to new oil reserves, while the world keeps clamoring for more oil.

Sweetnam’s warning comes after a long set of warnings dealing with possible troubles ahead on the supply side of the world oil market. Those warnings have been emitted over the last years through a range of sound sources such as
The Wall Street Journal, The Houston Chronicle (main daily newspaper of the world capital of crude oil trade), the CEO of Brazilian oil company Petrobras, aformer n°2 of Saudi national oil company Aramco, anInternational Energy Agency ‘whistleblower’, the chief economist of the IEAhimself, the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security or legendary-wildcatter-turned-renewable-tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

The Hope of Trees Part I: Biochar

looks like coal but it’s different in a key way. It’s charcoal, also called char, or biochar, and like coal is mostly carbon. Unlike coal, which is carbon sequestered 300 million years ago, biochar is carbon recently pulled from the atmosphere by trees. Buried in the ground it will foster plant growth and likely remain as is for many hundreds of years. Biochar is produced by combusting wood with limited oxygen. Done in a controlled way, emissions are minimal and energy is a byproduct. The Earth’s forests accumulate about 60 gigatons (Gt) of carbon per year, but they give almost all of it back to the atmosphere on a short time scale as leaves and wood decay. Biochar is virtually immune to microbial attack and so if some of the carbon captured by plants can be siphoned off into the form of biochar, it will stay out of the air.

If produced and buried on a large scale, biochar could significantly lower the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. James Lovelock, in his book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, (p. 151) says that massive production and burial of biochar, which would also produce, not consume, energy is “the only realistic proposal by which we have even a chance of restoring the Earth to the state it was in before we started using fossil fuel.”

The key question is whether biochar production could be scaled up to a dimension of planetary significance. Some are skeptical. Stuart Staniford, in his blog Early Warning, (http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2010/03/scalability-of-biochar.html)
argues that only a few gigatons of carbon could reasonably be sequestered each year in the form of biochar, and this would not be a panacea for even the current level of 8.5 gigatons of fossil fuel emissions. Johannes Lehmann, in his 2007 article in Nature (vol. 447, pp. 143-144) provides some numbers that are more optimistic. He points out that in the U.S., the carbon in forest residues and crop residues amounts to about 0.5 Gt/y, and if currently idle farmland was converted to high production woody plants, another 0.25 Gt/y carbon could be harvested. This is for the U.S. only, which accounts for a relatively small portion of global biomass production.

It is possible that not only crop and forestry residues and production from marginal lands, but also production from some of the massive acreage that’s currently devoted to feed grains or corn for high fructose corn syrup could be converted to biochar production. And fossil fuel emissions could be cut by major conversion to nuclear power. Then, biochar could cancel out much of humanity’s fossil fuel emission, or even go beyond that and start to bring down the carbon content of the atmosphere, while at the same time producing useful energy. On paper, this seems do-able with existing technology, and that’s reason enough to take a closer look.

Climate Change Contrarian Nonsense

There's been a recent spate of contrarian nonsense regarding climate change. There's no better evidence that the earth is warming than the relentless rise of the seas everywhere. Recent data show that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. (See chart in McCarthy, James, 2009, Reflections on: Our planet and its life, origins, and futures, Science 326, 1646-1655, reproduced here)

The ocean is rising for two reasons only; melting of glaciers and thermal expansion. It takes added heat to do this - a lot of it. If we humans don't get serious about dealing with this problem, fifty years from now, as floods hammer unprepared coastal cities, folks who egregiously misinformed people will deserve some of the blame. Several books that cut through the confusion are Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen, The Long Thaw, by David Archer, and The Rising Sea, by Orrin Pilkey and Rob Young.

Fuel Cost as Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

One aspect of the current economic difficulty that argues that the future may not be like the past is the cost of energy. The chart below shows U.S. fuel cost as a percent of GDP. Historically, fuel cost has been in the range of 3 or 4% of GDP. This percent spiked to nearly 10% in the late 70s, and times were somewhat hard then. For several reasons, including oil discoveries in the North Sea and Mexico, nuclear power coming on line, and some energy-intensive industry leaving the U.S., this percent dropped back down. Now it is rising again. If global petroleum production has peaked and begun to decline as some argue (see, especially, writings of Ken Deffeyes, Colin Campbell, David Goodstein, and Jim Kunstler) the price of oil will rise, and the percent of GDP spent on fuel will grow. Obviously, we cannot spend 100% of GDP on fuel. Can the economy function normally if we're spending 6%, 10%, 15%? Stay tuned.
See http://michaelaucott.blogspot.com 

Make your own BioChar and Terra Preta

Make your own BioChar and Terra Preta simple way to make BioChar in a 55 gallon drum. Hoping to promote simple, scalable, environmentally sound methods for making biochar for improving the soil on small farms and in backyard gardens. And improving the air as well.

When you bury the carbon you are sequestering it out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years. A pound of carbon buried this way takes quite a bit of CO2 gas out of what's overhead.

Inefficient power grid loses sixty percent of energy

The current system of generating electricity centrally and distributing it through the grid wastes as much as sixty per cent of energy -and it ain’t about to get any better, a leading UK academic has told Off-Grid.
Tim Green, Professor of Power Engineering at Imperial College London told us that efficiency losses in power generation are the biggest issue facing the power industry today.
He estimated that energy losses in the power grid during generation of electricity are between 45 per cent and 55 per cent, depending on the technology used. The transmission system run by National Grid which does the bulk shipping of electricity in the UK, loses a further two or three per cent. Local distribution networks run by big power companies have losses of between five and seven per cent.
“The local distribution networks have higher losses than National Grid because they operate at lower voltages,“ explained Professor Green.
Limited generating efficiency
But he said that it would be too expensive to make transmission more efficient and that generating efficiency is limited by the laws of physics. “(Transmission efficiency) could be improved if one was prepared to invest heavily in more wires and cables. But frankly it is not the biggest problem facing the industry.”
For networks, the real issues are how to accommodate low-carbon sources, such as wind, and still run a reliable and cost effective system, he said.
The story is very different for generation where he said efficiency is the biggest problem the industry has. “In energy generation you simply cannot achieve 100% efficiency -or anything close to it because of thermodynamic limitations such as maximum operating temperatures.”
However he was anxious to separate the issues of power generation and transmission, which he sees as unrelated, “It is highly misleading to lump generation and transmission networks together and give an overall loss figure because there are two different sets of issues at play and two different approaches needed.”
Of the conventional generating technologies, There are several competing generation technologies and some are more efficient than others, he said. “Combined Cycle Gas Turbines can achieve 55% efficiency or so and beats coal stations which do well to achieve 45%. If one can find a use for the “waste” heat in combined heat and power then the overall [efficiency] can be substantially better,” he says.
But he argued that conventional power sources compared well to newer technologies such as photo-voltaic, “Photo-voltaic panels have efficiencies in the range 10-25% depending on materials and cost.”

Making Terra Preta Soil: Ramona's Recipe for Home-Made Dirt

by Ramona Byron I once heard a joke that went like this: An arrogant agnostic once challenged God that he could do anything that God could do. God said "very well" and accepted the challenge. God rolled up some dirt and fashioned a human out of it, who then became alive and ran away rejoicing and praising God's name. The agnostic sniffed, and reached down for a handful of dirt so he could make his own "improved" version of a human, who would of course immediately begin praising the agnostic's name even louder. But God held up his hand to stop him before he could even get started. "Hold on there, young man," said God sternly. "You go make your own dirt." So I felt a little like an arrogant God-wannabe when I set out to make my own soil. Terra preta soil, to be precise. Unlike God, though, I had more than Chaos to work with initially. I had all of the ingredients made for me ahead of time, thanks to billions of years of star evolution to create the atoms of which the Earth, the soil, and we ourselves are all made; and millions of years of earth evolution to create the microorganisms that dwell in that soil and make it fertile for the plants that feed us. RAMONA'S RECIPE FOR HOME-MADE DIRT (TERRA PRETA SOIL): A partner with a lot of stamina (helps but is not absolutely necessary) Two sledge hammers A sharp, short hoe An earth-tamping tool A large umbrella with stand, for shade to work in Safety glasses Sun hats Some very understanding, forgiving, or just hard-of-hearing neighbors Several bags of charcoal – as many as you have the stamina or attention span for; it helps a lot to open the bags and leave them out under the sprinklers for a few days or weeks to get it good and wet, to make it easier to break up. I do not recommend mesquite, and it is devilishly hard and difficult to break. Use Cowboy brand or some other brand that does not have chemicals added. A large shallow bin for breaking the charcoal into Some concrete pavers to put under the shallow bin, to provide a firm surface for breaking the charcoal Some buckets, or plant pots to pour the broken charcoal into (or you can just dump it from the shallow bin directly onto the ground, for that matter) Some nitrogen (there is no science to tell you how much to use – just follow your instincts; my advice is to apply somewhat less nitrogen than charcoal) Some soil life (beneficial fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and earthworms) Compost Perlite Water Some organic fertilizer, if you want to jump-start things One citrus-flavored soft drink (for the terra preta and maybe one for you too) One cheap stale beer (for the terra preta) Some good cold fresh beer (for you) A strong back, or else a chiropractor who's on call A whole lot of glucosamine and analgesics for your back, whether or not you have a chiropractor A lot of shampoo, soap, a good scrubber, and hot, hot water because you're going to **seriously** need a shower when this is all done Now you have probably discerned from this list, that making terra preta soil is not for the feeble of body or faint of heart. I will get into the details of what to do with all of the above later; but I want to digress a bit first. First of all, my own high-stamina partner-ingredient for this recipe is Michael P. Byron, author of "Infinity's Rainbow: The Politics of Energy, Climate and Globalization" and "The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad." You can find links for these wonderful books on Mike's webpage at: http://www.michaelpbyron.com/. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER I most highly recommend Mike's books, and it's not just because I'm Mike's wife. It's because I care whether you yourself survive the coming crises of peak oil and the famine that is almost certain to result from it. Think about it – in the United States, over 90% of our food production and distribution is directly dependent upon petroleum; so when the oil goes, our agri-business supplied food also goes. Ignorance of this subject is not bliss – it is dangerously irresponsible and suicidally stupid. If you read Mike's books, you will be informed of what is going to happen, why, and what you can do to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Knowledge is power. THE GOOD EARTH Mike talks about terra preta soil in his second book, in the section titled "The Good Earth." Here's a short quote: Recently, in the deep Amazon basin region of north-central Brazil, archaeologists from the Central Amazon Project discovered evidence of an ancient indigenous soil technology that may hold enormous potential for post-petroleum civilization's fate. The area was first discovered by Europeans in 1542 when Francisco de Orellana entered it in search of the mythical golden city of El Dorado. He was not successful in his quest for gold; however, five centuries later, it appears that he may have unknowingly stumbled upon something even more valuable than gold: rich, self-fertilizing, and self maintaining soil. Terra preta soil is formed by incorporating biochar-locally produced charcoal-into ordinary soil. This activates the soil and enables it to permanently hold far greater quantities of minerals and nutrients than would otherwise be possible. This then sets into motion a complex and still not fully understood chain of events that include microorganism growths throughout the soil, which results in the soil becoming terra preta soil within several years. One Amazonian farmer has cultivated crops on terra preta soils for 40 years without ever adding any fertilizer. "That's incredible," an environmental researcher said. "We don't get that in Iowa." So. Well, then. Take that and stuff it, Miracle-Gro! FOOD NOT LAWNS Mike and I recently bought a home in Oceanside, California. We looked for a place with enough land to grow our own fruits and vegetables, adequate space for Mike's enormous tortoises, and still enough space left over for us to relax and unwind. We love this place. I had attended a fascinating event in the summer of 2007 that was sponsored by San Diego Food Not Lawns. I attended one workshop where the presenter showed pictures of his front yard, which was landscaped with food plants. The presenter made the point that you don't have to do everything at once – that you can take out the grass in small patches and just landscape in small, manageable sections. You can even leave paths of grass between the sections. You can use the tall plants like fruit trees to support other plants like pole beans, with the lettuces underneath because they like a bit of shade, so that the plants work together. His pictures were beautiful! So Mike and I committed ourselves to using only organic farming methods for our fruits and vegetables, and even for the grass. That's because the more that we have learned about the dangerousness of the chemicals that are slathered on people's food and yards, the less we want anything to do with it. This decision required us to do some extremely hard manual labor as we dug out waist-high weeds, one by one, then tilled and planted grass and vegetables. But we were determined to walk the talk. And the wisdom of our decision was made truly, wonderfully and visually worthwhile for us when one day we watched a tiny bird using our wet grass as a bird bath, and then drinking the water from the grass blades. That was when we were really glad that we had not used chemicals to kill the weeds, because we knew that our tiny guest was safe playing in our yard and drinking the water off of our grass. And by the way, I like to wiggle my own toes in the wet grass sometimes, and it is very good to know that it is chemical-free. And speaking of birds, we have a bird feeder right by the patio, and the finches come right up even when we're sitting out there. There are lots of mockingbirds back there, too. I've been trying to teach them the first few notes of the Marseillaise, but they don't seem very impressed with my whistling. Or maybe they just don't like the French. No accounting for taste, oui? In the front yard, we have so far planted a stand of banana trees, an apple tree, a mandarin orange, two papayas, and two blueberry bushes. There will be a small orchard there eventually. In the turtle and people parts of the backyard, we've planted a macadamia nut tree, three zinfandel grapevines, a coffee tree, an allspice tree, three cherry trees (one Catalina cherry and two Surinam cherries), a fig tree, and a lemon tree – so far. There will be more stuff coming in soon, no doubt. I'm nowhere near done with this yet. A WEED BY ANY OTHER NAME IS A PLANT We actually left the weeds on the turtles' side of the yard, but they've eaten almost all of them by now. We tilled the bare areas and planted clover and grass, carefully steering the roto-tiller around to avoid the weeds in order to leave them growing there for the turtles to feed on. And would you believe, we also planted MORE weeds in there! Actually, dandelion greens are about three times more expensive than other types of greens at the vegetable sections of the grocery stores, and they're way more nutritious – both for turtles and for people. So we transplanted dandelions into the turtle yard, and when one goes to flower, we thump the seeds back into it again! I've always said that the only difference between a weed and a plant is whether you want it where it is. If you want it, then it isn't a weed, no matter what it is or what the neighbors think of it (by the way, we made sure to buy in an area with no covenants like that). TERRA PRETA "FIRST DAY OF CREATION" We set out early one Sunday morning to make terra preta soil in the vegetable garden side of the back yard. We were out rather early because it was going to get hot later in the day, and we wanted to do the greatest part of the work while it was relatively cool. Banging on charcoal early in the morning on Sunday is the reason that my recipe for terra preta calls for either very understanding or else hard-of-hearing neighbors. Think drums, but without the rhythm or resonance that give drums their redeeming social value. Fortunately for us, no one called the noise police. I can tell you, we would never have gotten away with that in Germany, where I lived for two years (very **quiet** years – well, mostly), and where folks deeply resent it when people raise an unholy ruckus on Sundays. So there we were, crushing about eight bags of charcoal by hammering the pieces with heavy mallets, the earth-tamping tool, and the short hoe. This was HARD WORK, to say the least! We tilled the ground with a roto-tiller, spread the charcoal on the ground, added nitrogen, some fertilizer that contained beneficial fungi, some compost, some Perlite, and our secret ingredient -- some turtle poop. Mixed that all into the ground with the garden tiller, and planted three eggplant seeds, and a bunch of rows of mustard and lettuce, and some onions. The eggplants and onions are for us, but the mustard and lettuce are mostly for the turtles – for now at least. When we get really serious about using that garden for feeding ourselves, then the turtles will get busted back to eating weeds and clover from just their own side of the yard. This was about 300 square feet of terra preta garden. Of course, we will be doing this again and again, to gradually turn the entire vegetable garden into terra preta. You can use as much charcoal as you wish because the science doesn't say that there is any upper limit to how much to use; but eight bags for about 300 square feet of area should be the minimum, in my opinion. So you can do the math for the amount of charcoal that you will need to crush for the area you're trying to cover, and the amount of richness that you want to give to it. We looked like coal miners by the time all that charcoal-pounding and ground-tilling was all over. By the time I got done with my long shower, I was so tired that I could barely stand up. Mike made me go sit down and have a cold beer, and I got better after a couple of hours – or was it, a couple of beers? Probably both, and using them to wash down several glucosamines, of course. Surprisingly, I was able to get out of bed the following day, which I attribute to the glucosamine. SO DON'T FORGET THE GLUCOSAMINE! 'Nuff said. TERRA PRETA "SECOND DAY OF CREATION" Later, after several days of rest (after all, God himself took several of his kind of days to finish making his own dirt), I poured a mix of water, beer and citrus-flavored soft drink over the area. You pour one beer and one citrus-flavored drink into five gallons of water, and then sprinkle it over the ground. It is important that both of these be the regular and not the low-calorie or sugarless kind of beer and soft drink. Low-cal beer is made of rice and lacks the amount of yeast that regular beer has. The yeast in the beer feeds on the sugar in the soft drink, which then gives a jump-start to the beneficial bacteria in the ground. You can use cheap beer for this particular job – plants and bacteria don't have much of a palate, after all. TERRA PRETA "THIRD DAY OF CREATION" About a week later, I added the beneficial nematodes. I didn't add them on the same day as the beer because I suspect that nematodes can't handle their alcohol and I didn't want them to get soused in there. So while you're waiting for the beer to sink in (to the ground, I mean), you can store your nematodes in the refrigerator for a few days or even a few weeks. Appetizing – NOT. BE PATIENT Be aware that the charcoal has to absorb the nitrogen and nutrients before it can give any back to the plants. For this reason, it could be awhile before the terra preta becomes truly fertile for plants, so you have to be patient with it. That was the reason that I listed organic fertilizer as a jump-starter for the terra preta garden, to both feed the plants in the interim and to help load up the charcoal with nutrients. And that's how we made our own terra preta soil. There is not a lot of hard science on this, so there is plenty of room for improvisation in developing your own recipe. So good luck and happy gardening!

Terra Preta: Making Soil Fertile | The Seminal

You’ve probably heard the phrase, terra firme (or its more familiar spelling, terra firma). Literally translated, it means "solid earth." What you may not have heard of is terra preta, a type of soil that is extremely fertile and takes a long, long time to lose its nutrient-housing sustainability (think centuries). Terra preta means "dark earth", for obvious reasons: it is black, nutrient-rich soil, and much of its properties are the result of adding biochar — a type of charcoal, bones, ash, human and animal excrement, and pottery fragments (which help keep the soil loose to allow for water absorption) to soil. Terra firme has few nutrients because in the Amazon the hot and humid conditions cause organic matter to break down far more quickly, making it necessary for plants and animals to get to it first. The result is that very little nutrition is locked in the soil — it is instead contained within living creatures such as plants and animals. But recent archeological studies in the Amazon river basin (written about most recently in the March/April 2010 issue of Science Illustrated) have revealed that Amazonian cultures fed tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, by turning vast swaths of the river basin area into fertile growing lands using this mixture of organic components. Lead author of the research, Michael J. Heckenberger, says that the complex of communities could be just one of many complexes in the Amazon region. These societies were long overlooked by archeologists because they did not build the large cities and rock structures seen among the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. Since stone is not widely available in the Amazon, settlements were constructed of wood, clay, bone and other materials that deteriorate rapidly in the warm, humid climate of the rainforest. Thus, once abandoned, buildings and roads constructed by Amazon dwellers quickly disappeared back into the jungle. Amazonian societies supported large populations by the careful management of their surrounding environment. Instead of the European farm system where single crop monocultures were common, Amazon farmers may have cultivated and managed entire ecosystems. In his account of the pre-Colombian Indian societies, 1491, Charles Mann explains, "Indians survived by cleverly exploiting their environment. Europeans tended to manage land by breaking it into fragments for farmers and herders. Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did (about 1.5 million acres of terraces still exist in the Peruvian Andes), but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes… Unlike Europeans, who planted mainly annual crops, the Indians, he says, centered their agriculture on the Amazon’s unbelievably diverse assortment of trees: fruits, nuts, and palms." In an environment like the Amazon, without the benefits of iron tools or domesticated animals, clearing and sowing agricultural fields was a difficult and time-consuming process. Instead, Indians planted trees, yielding twenty years of productivity from their labor, as opposed to two or three years with a standard low-growing crop. Creating orchards, instead of field, early inhabitants of Amazonian regions served themselves with great economy. Planting trees in the fertile river basin, Indians capitalized on the benefit of rich soil quality and the deep reaching roots of trees helped agriculture to survive during the dry season and in periods of drought. Experts now estimate that a significant portion of lowland forests, perhaps as much as 15 percent, were organized to benefit humans. The concept of a "built environment" contrasts sharply with the idealist and traditional version of an all-natural, virgin territory. Terra preta fields, many of them up still fertile after more than two thousand years, have been known to be six feet deep and cover large areas. But soil fertility fit for growing is not the only benefit of terra preta; it may even help slow the process of global warming by absorbing carbon. A U.N. task force on global warming has proposed using the technique, prominently citing research by UGA research scientist Christoph Steiner, who studied terra preta for years in Brazil and now is researching ways biochar might help modern humans. The Kyoto Protocols, an international agreement designed to slow down global warming, names two techniques for sequestering carbon to keep the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere: reforestation, or restoring forested areas, and afforestation, or converting other kinds of landscapes to forest. Steiner thinks biochar could become a third major technique. The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification last month said biochar should be added to the list when world governments adopt a new climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Biochar – what most of us think of as charcoal – is created by a thermochemical process called pyrolysis by applying heat, like burning, but without air. When wood burns or rots, its carbon diffuses into the atmosphere, but biochar can stay in the soil for centuries, Steiner said. Through means scientists do not completely understand, the biochar improves soil fertility – and for a long time. Biochar has the potential to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, said Steiner, a member of UGA’s engineering faculty and one of several UGA scientists in UGA’s Biorefinery and Carbon Cycling Program. The Science Illustrated article points out that yields increase 100% in terra preta-based soils. Fruit crops such as mango and papaya grow up to three times faster in terra preta than they do in conventionally treated soil. As we struggle to feed growing populations while soil-depleting farm techniques make that task ever more difficult, terra preta could go a long way toward halting or even reversing some of the damage we’re doing to our planet. Here are some web sites that offer information on making terra preta yourself. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org http://www.opednews.com/articles/Making-Terra-Preta-Soil-R-by-Ramona-Byron-080821-153.html http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/taxonomy/term/59

Apr 13, 2010

Lost Tribes Used Clever Tricks to Turn Amazon Wasteland to Farms | Wired Science | Wired.com

amazonmoundsguyanamapA vast series of earth mounds on the eastern coast of South America may be living landscape fossils of a forgotten civilization’s agriculture.

People raised the mounds between 1,000 and 700 years ago in order to create cropland in terrain that is flooded for half the year, and parched for the other half. New insect ecosystems formed on the mounds, further enriching the soils and keeping them fertile for centuries, long after their human stewards had vanished. This lost agricultural system could be a model for modern farmers, according to a new study.

“Today these lands are used for cattle ranching or hunting. People think agriculture must not be possible in these areas,” said ecologist Doyle McKey of the University of Montpellier in France, co-author of a study published April 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The common conception is that these areas are wastelands.”

McKey and a team of archaeologists, paleobiologists and soil scientists describe the earthworks, which run for 360 miles from the Berbice River to Cayenne, the modern-day capital of Guyana.

The study is part of a fast-growing body of research on the pre-Columbian world of the Amazon basin. Historians and anthropologists once thought it inhabited only by small bands of primitive hunters and gatherers, with interior jungles and coastal floodplains unable to support large-scale agriculture and complex societies. That picture no longer seems accurate.

Scientists have shown that now-vanished people transformed the Amazon, using biochar to nourish jungle soils, and moving floodplain soils to create irrigation channels and planting beds. McKey’s findings expand the range of known coastal agriculture and take an in-depth look at the beneficial ecological changes it created.

“Human engineering, if we do it cleverly, can work together with natural ecosystem engineering,” said McKey.

In addition to 100-foot-long, water-diverting berms, they identified expanses of mounds covering hundreds of acres. From the air, the mounds were too symmetrical to be natural. On the ground, soil samples returned fossilized evidence of maize, squash and manioc.

The mounds appear to have been constructed from layers of surrounding topsoil, which was shoveled out and layered like cakes. That formed the basis of the mounds, which put crops above the flood line but that was only one part of the agricultural trick.

Species of ants and termites settled in the mounds, where their colonies wouldn’t flood. Their burrowing aerated the soil, and plant matter foraged from surrounding areas enriched it further. As a result, the mounds acted like sponges for rainfall, and outsourced insect labor made them rich in key fertilizer nutrients of nitrogen, potassium and calcium. The root systems of perennial plants kept the mound structures intact, and likely did so when mounds were rotated out of production.

McKey is reluctant to speculate on how many people were supported by mound agriculture. A conservative guess based on crop yields from modern raised-bed farming experiments put the figure at one person for every two acres of farmland. That’s a very rough estimate, but enough to suggest that the farmers were not just small, family-based tribes.

More important than exact numbers is the evidence of agricultural success in a region that’s not considered suitable for modern agriculture. McKey thinks today’s farmers could learn from ancient tricks, and supplement them with modern tools.

As for the original inhabitants, little is known. They belonged to so-called Arauquinoid cultures, which emerged 1,500 years ago and vanished shortly before the arrival of Europeans. Whether they left descendants is unknown. They’re known only from a single wooden shove, some ceramic fragments and their farms.

“When people modified these ecosystems long ago, they changed the way the ecosystems work. We can use that knowledge,” said McKey.

Lets Get Real - One Straw: Be The Change

Oh, but it gets so much better. I hate reading reports of reports, so I spent 5 minutes tracking down the original Joint Forces Report to learn more. The data they are basing their predictions on is the IEA World Outlook. So lets look at that for a minute:

Posted on April 12, 2010 by onestraw
There has been ALOT of buzz about the Peak Oil Guardian Article today. And with good reason. For years we, on the “lunatic fringe” have been crying from the roof tops that the sky is falling. And now, the US Joint Forces, is saying the exact same things we have been. HA! We were right! Now who’s the lunatic sucka! But then, within seconds – IT hits. OMG – I’m right. THEY’RE right. Oh.My.God. …2011 oil surplus is gone. Um, that is 8 months from now! 2015 the world is 10 million barrels short. A DAY. In 2008 the US used 19.5 million brls/day. Aw, shit.
Right. See the light blue – that is our current oil production. It drops like a rock. Not good for Business as Usual. So if I am reading this right, the IEA says, well what if we put like a bajillion more drills into the current reserves? That gets you the dark blue block- pulling the oil faster, not adding more oil. This is wicked expensive, and won’t really happen any time soon. Why not? Because it didn’t happen at $150/brl oil so there is no way in hell its going to happen at $87/brl oil. But the beauty thing? The billions of infrastucture in drilling only gets us flat for a year, and then 10 million barrels –per day– short by 2015. 4.5 years. Ah but what about the red, gold and green splotches? Notice the lines through them? I translate that as IEA speak for “good fucking luck” or “Cheney made us put that in to stop world panic”.
But back to that JOE report I linked to. The JOE report is the Joint Operations Environment report and sets out to paint a backdrop for strategic planning for the next 25 years. Its the military so they spend the first half dozen pages talking about honor and history and manifest destiny with the obligatory quotes from Ancient Greece. But then they get into a sober frank telling of the Big Issues of the coming decades. Their conclusions should scare the shit out of each one of us. 5 of the Top 1o will sound very familiar to readers of this blog:
The Economy
Oil Scarity
Climate Change
Water Scarcity
Food supplies.
Are Rob Hopkins, Richard Heinberg, and David Holmgren working for the Joint Chiefs? Remember that this is based on the largest and best funded intelligence gathering entity on the planet. Let me state this again – at the highest levels our military views oil, water, climate change and food as strategic issues. Let that sink in for a good long minute.
But as I read through this I was struck by the same thing I almost always am (except when I read the 3 authors above). While the JOE report talks about Oil scarcity by 2015, and 40% of the world being thirsty by 2030 and millions of people under water by 2030 they don’t connect the dots. What they don’t get is that we will be out of oil, thirsty, under water, hungry AND broke. At the same time.
4 years ago I started this blog to document our attempts to be more sustainable. Buying organic. Installing CFL’s. Driving a hybrid. I read and read and my concern deepened so I started growing more food. And working on energy projects. I began to question if these were problems to be solved or if, as John Michael Greer stresses in The Long Emergency that these issues were now predicaments to be reacted to. I guess I have answered that question for myself. We saw the effects of $4 gasoline. Ironically, the recession bought us “time” by reducing oil consumption. We are now seeing the economy resurge. But it will smack into the energy reality before the end of the year or so and we will see economic growth sputter again. But this time we will have less capacity – no more stimulous and unemployment will still be 10%+ so we will likely fall farther and take longer to rebound.
Problem or Predicament, we have our design criteria. Water, energy, “money”, and food will all be scarcer in the future, and likely the near future. Our solutions and preparations will be as diverse as we are – and rightly so. But they must focus on being 3 things:
I am scared shitless about how fast we have crossed the tipping points and how even those of us who have been working so hard aren’t ready. Greer nailed it – this will be a LONG emergency sparked with respites, like the one we are in now, where things feel good and we can get our feet under us. But we will get thrown again, and all the uncertainty and fear that we all felt last year will return only to recover again, but to a lower level of “prosperity”.
There is much to do.
Be the Change.

Apr 12, 2010

US military warns oil output may dip causing massive shortages by 2015 | Business | The Guardian

Total oil refineryThe US military has warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years and there could be serious shortages by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact.

The energy crisis outlined in a Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces Command, comes as the price of petrol in Britain reaches record levels and the cost of crude is predicted to soon top $100 a barrel.

"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.

It adds: "While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India."

The US military says its views cannot be taken as US government policy but admits they are meant to provide the Joint Forces with "an intellectual foundation upon which we will construct the concept to guide out future force developments."

The warning is the latest in a series from around the world that has turned peak oil – the moment when demand exceeds supply – from a distant threat to a more immediate risk.

The Wicks Review on UK energy policy published last summer effectively dismissed fears but Lord Hunt, the British energy minister, met concerned industrialists two weeks ago in a sign that it is rapidly changing its mind on the seriousness of the issue.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency remains confident that there is no short-term risk of oil shortages but privately some senior officials have admitted there is considerable disagreement internally about this upbeat stance.

Future fuel supplies are of acute importance to the US army because it is believed to be the biggest single user of petrol in the world. BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, said recently that there was little chance of crude from the carbon-heavy Canadian tar sands being banned in America because the US military like to have local supplies rather than rely on the politically unstable Middle East.

But there are signs that the US Department of Energy might also be changing its stance on peak oil. In a recent interview with French newspaper, Le Monde, Glen Sweetnam, main oil adviser to the Obama administration, admitted that "a chance exists that we may experience a decline" of world liquid fuels production between 2011 and 2015 if the investment was not forthcoming.

Lionel Badal, a post-graduate student at Kings College, London, who has been researching peak oil theories, said the review by the American military moves the debate on.

"It's surprising to see that the US Army, unlike the US Department of Energy, publicly warns of major oil shortages in the near-term. Now it could be interesting to know on which study the information is based on," he said.

"The Energy Information Administration (of the department of energy) has been saying for years that Peak Oil was "decades away". In light of the report from the US Joint Forces Command, is the EIA still confident of its previous highly optimistic conclusions?"

The Joint Operating Environment report paints a bleak picture of what can happen on occasions when there is serious economic upheaval. "One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest," it points out.

The Entire J.O.E  Report

Carbon Stories | Carbonscape

Carbonscape charcoalForest front a centre in carbon capture and storage.

The potential role of forests as a mitigation option for storing carbon; a significant raw material for charcoal/biochar that would allow a constant cycle of sequestration to be established, has emerged as a major alternative option to the highly technical and incredibly expensive carbon capture and storage of greenhouse gases underground. The US Secretary for the interior commenting on a US national assessment recognised the major opportunity of restoring land and ecosystems the US for carbon storage. The US geological survey scientists estimated that the 48 lower states have the potential to store an additional 3-7 billion tons of carbon in new forests. In a separate study by the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) with WRI and South Dakota State University, indicated that there were over a billion hectares of former and degraded forest land, “a global combined area greater than that of China”.

Most biofuel observers are very familiar with the opportunities around the energy market but the bio-plastics market is generating new market opportunities for companies such as Carbonscape. Currently the main market players are developing bio-plastics from corn, wheat and potatoes, as they wait for the price of oil to creep back above US$70–95 a barrel (depending on who you talk to, it becomes a viable alternative for the huge plastic market. In a recent article ‘Potatoes and algae may replace oil in plastics’ the plastics market was estimated to be worth $2,500 billion. This massive market is also very attractive from a business perspective in saving greenhouse gas emissions. A CNN story‘Are booming bioplastics here to stay?’ quotes French manufacturer Sommer Needlepunch and Natureworks LLC, the provider of Ingeo, that a bio-oil option for bio fibre in their carpet at the UN Copenhagen conference had saved the emissions equivalent of driving an average car 68,869 miles (110,834 kilometers). So as the world economy emerges from its current recession and the barrel of oil starts to climb well above the current US$70 it is hovering about today, the plastics market will start to hunt for an alternative to fossil fuel, and bio-plastics based on alternative bio-feedstocks with their associated CO2 benefits can reap the rewards.

Threatened Forests hold back Climate Change
New research from the University of Leeds in collaboration with the Royal Society and Dr Lee White, the Gabon’s Chief Climate Change Scientist, have assessed the current CO2 absorbing capacity of the remaining tropical forests in Africa, South America and Asia and estimated they are taking up to 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year; 18% of the CO2 added by human activity each year. The 40 year study reported in Nature showed each hectare of intact African forest was trapping an extra 0.6 tonnes of carbon per year. This research once again demonstrates the huge capacity of forests to sequester greenhouse gases to combat climate change. Better still, new forests funded by political initiatives and financial incentives (carbon market for charcoal, renewable energy or biochar), offer Carbonscape’s technology a huge opportunity to make major contribution to combat climate change. A technology and solution that exists now.

Biochar gets recognition at UN Poznan meeting on climate change
At the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Poznan that commenced on the 11th December, its sister UN convention on Desertification lodged a submission in support of Biochar, recognizing the opportunity for soils to act as a major carbon sink. This was rapidly followed by Micronesia endorsing the biochar initiative as an immediate mitigation strategy that should be considered under the current Kyoto protocol rules. These submissions are extraordinary moves by a sister convention and a UNFCCC Country party to kick start negotiations for biochar as an official UN mitigation strategy pre 2012. For Carbonscape, the political endorsement of biochar as a key mitigation strategy for greenhouse gases, provides a framework in which biochar carbon credits, derived from charcoal production, will have a global market both in developed and emerging economies.

Professor James Lovelock argues that charcoal offers the best chance to take the heat out of global warming
In a recent interview in the New Scientist, Professor James Lovelock argues that the ‘massive burial of charcoal’ is humanities one last hope to save itself from global warming and climate change, Professor Lovelock suggests farmers could convert organic waste from the farm to charcoal which can then be ploughed into the soil. Organic waste along with woodchips are the two main sources for charcoal production that Carbonscape have used. Professor Lovelock is the author of the Gaia theory and one of the key scientists whose research lead to greater understanding of how CFC’s damaged the earth ozone protection.

Trees have key role to play in climate change
A Swedish energy firm, Vattenfall, has studied the global opportunities for forests to sequester carbon dioxide through re-afforestation. In a recent report they have identified “1.86 billion hectares of degraded land in the world and that 930 million hectares of this degraded land have a chance of being profitably reclaimed”. They have also calculated that this massive land area of 930 million ha could absorb 21.6 billion tons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere. Forest carbon is another target market for Carbonscape, to convert the wood to charcoal and to lock up the carbon permanently. This new charcoal market for forest production has the economic potential to encourage land owners to replant the 930 million ha again take up to another 21.6 billion tons of CO2 per year as the stored carbon in the wood is locked up through the charcoal process and is no longer released back to the atmosphere at the time of felling.

US framers recognise climate change offers new economic opportunities by providing a new carbon market for changing land-use
Obama’s new Agriculture Secretary has identified the new opportunities to trade carbon as no different to other produce from the farm, that will create further diversity in revenue and will make farming more sustainable. In support of this the US Department of Agriculture has established the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets. Carbonscape is also focused on this new opportunity in the agricultural sector called the biochar market—the adding of charcoal to soils offers huge potential especially in the US where intensively farmed soils have been heavily depleted of their natural carbon stocks.

The global carbon market has risen 84% in the last year
A New Carbon Finance report in January identified that the carbon market had grown to US$118 billion, an increase of 84% over the previous year. It also projected that the market remained robust despite the global recession and projected a further rise up to $150 billion in 2009.

David Wardle vs. Carbonscape - a Battle on Biochar

By Marie Puddu
For every argument, there are always two sides. In schools, debates have been a part of every student's life. To better understand the argument, people should always see all angles. The more we look at biochar and how it will affect our environment, the better the perspective we get of it. An excerpt of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
So here we are, giving everyone a chance to state their points of view towards biochar. I believe "scientists" are always the first ones to squawk their observations and opinions because they are always the first ones to discover most scientific occurrences. But I also believe that at a time like this when we are past our limit on greenhouse emmisions, we should try almost anything to find a solution to this environmental crisis.
Almost two years ago, David Wardle of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences published the results of an experiment done within a ten-year period in Sweden. Wardle is an ecologist who stated simply that biochar is no way to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. How? In the ten-year controlled experiment whose results were acquired in 2006, Wardle and his team scattered hundreds of bags of mixed leaf litter and charcoal, pure charcoal, and pure natural leaf litter in various sites in Sweden. At the end of this experiment, they found out that the bag with the charcoal and leaf litter mixture had shrunk and lost the carbon content within the first 2 years.
What does this mean? Wardle argued that charcoal is indeed a stable CO2 trap, but just like most decaying organic matter is it also a good source of food for soil microbes. Therefore instead of keeping the stable carbon dioxide within it, by unintentionally feeding the microbes, it is actually causing a faster decay, a faster carbon absorption, and a faster carbon release back into the atmosphere from the soil.
The experiment results and conclusions sound convincing. If this is the case, then why even use biochar? It seems that by burying charcoal in the soil, we are making the environment's condition even worse than it already is, by contributing more greenhouse gas.
But a closer look at Wardle's experiment reveals that there's something amiss.
In Wardle's experiment, as a matter of fact, the bags of leaf litter and charcoal were NOT buried in the soil. This is probably their biggest mistake. Supporters of biochar argue that in order for biochar to be effective in preventing the release of more CO2 in the atmosphere, IT HAS TO BE BURIED IN THE SOIL, NOT KEPT IN BAGS AND SCATTERED ON THE TOP OF THE SOIL. The key is to trap the CO2 inside the earth instead of emitting it forcefully in the atmosphere, just like energy plants do when burning fossil fuels.
Probably the best known supporter of biochar production is Carbonscape. A startup company that began operations back in 2006, Carbonscape was already "chosen as the judges top choice from over 300 companies in the global FT (Financial Times UK) Climate Change Challenge competition." Their motto is to help the air breathe a little easier.
Carbonscape's solution to an excess of atmospheric CO2 is to use microwave technology to burn the plant matter and convert it into biochar. This pyrolytic process, according to them, locks carbon away for thousands of years. Ironically, the discovery leading to this method has been recalled by Chris Turney, founder of Carbonscape. Chris is a British geologist and currently holds a Chair in Physical Geography at the University of Exeter, UK. He said that when he was a boy he accidentally microwaved a potato for 4o minutes. It turned into charcoal. Now his company uses microwave technology to produce massive amounts of biochar.
The ideals of Carbonscape and other biochar supporters is to sequester, as soon as they can, and in the most inexpensive way possible, greenhouses gases such as CO2 with the help of nature and technology. Even better, is that the use of biochar can keep away excess carbon for millennia. They have actually developed large-scale industry equipment that is geared towards biochar production. And they're still growing.
They say people usually regret what happened to them when it's already too late to rectify the situation. We should always give skeptics the benefit of the doubt for questioning a possible waste of effort, if biochar is something we don't need. But we should also applaud the efforts of those who try their best to help improve the situation of our environment. It's a lot like caring for ourselves and the generations to come.

Vermont Biochar

Vermont Biochar, Green Fire Farm in West Danville, Vermont.Makers of GreenFireChar – Inoculated Biochar Vermont Biochar sells inoculated charcoal, a potent organic soil improver we call GreenFireChar. We make both the charcoal and inoculant entirely on site, from start to finish, here at Green Fire Farm in West Danville, Vermont. Inoculated Biochar is crushed charcoal saturated with the microbes that make a living soil. Inoculated Biochar increases crop nutrient content and soil fertility, neutralizes acidity and toxins, and you won't have to wait years to see the change.

Bio Char, Flow Farm Bio Char

New Adam Retort Bio Char system on Flo Farm

10 Visionary Ideas

  • We Are in the Middle of Transformational Change: It's Time the Debate Matches Up With the Huge Challenges Ahead of Us (Frank Joyce): Our methods of solving problems for the past 200-300 years are not adequate for the issues we face. The current reality requires much more. We must begin anew.

  • The Growing Movement for Publicly Owned Banks (Ellen Brown): We the people have given away our sovereign money-creating power to private, for-profit lending institutions Some states are moving to take that power back.

  • Generation Mixed: Breaking the Race Barrier (Adrienne Maree Brown): We can only transform and love ourselves if we accept both the honorable and shameful aspects of our history and our humanity.

  • 3 Steps Americans Must Take to Prevent Another Economic Meltdown (Matthew Bishop & Michael Green): We are not going to build a more sustainable, healthier capitalism unless we tackle problems like financial illiteracy and greedy myopia.

  • Fighting School Failure Isn't Rocket Science -- We Know What Works(Colin Greer): In the U.S., 30% of youth fail high school every year, and the vast majority come from poor communities and populations of color. We must solve this problem.

  • "The Only Way to Survive Is By Taking Care of Each Other" -- Legendary Activist, Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs (Amy Goodman): Do we really want to be equal with the people who ripped us off?

  • 7 Food and Resource Crises on the Horizon and What You Can Do About It(Roberta Cruger): There are big problems facing the food industry and agriculture -- a look at what's on the horizon.

  • Why Are We Afraid to Say "Socialism"? (Frances Moore LappĂ©): Knee-jerk reactions to words like "socialism" and "capitalism" get us nowhere. We need to first define the terms.

  • Are We Selfish Individuals or an Empathic Society? The Answer Could Determine Whether We Have a Future (Jeremy Rifkin): The industrial age built on and propelled by fossil fuels is coming to an end. What replaces it is at the center of our fight for survival.

  • What You're Eating Could Make or Break Our Planet -- 7 Principles of a Climate-Friendly Diet (Jill Richardson): Anna Lappe talks about her new book "Diet for a Hot Planet" and explains how to change our diet so it becomes part of the solution, not the problem.