Sunday, February 10, 2013


Ominous, right?  Source.

The picture above is the entrance to the Svalbard facility.  Think about that for a moment.  It's got the name "Svalbard", and it's clearly located in the side of a frozen mountain.  Let's first discuss what it is not.  It's not the lair of a supervillian.  It's not a fortress of solitude for a superhero.  It's not a multi-billionaire's pet project known informally as "Fort Kick-Ass."  It's not the location of a secret doomsday machine (and even if it were, the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret).

No, it is none of the aforementioned things.  Let's take a look inside and see if that gives any clues:
Not terribly ominous, but nonetheless puzzling.  Source.

What is being stored [~130m] in the side of a Norwegian mountain?  Seeds!  Many, many hundreds of thousands of agriculture seeds.  I read about this a year or two ago, I've retained the details of what I read, but not most of the sources, unfortunately.  A great place to start is the TED talk given by Cary Fowler, if you'd like to learn more about it.

Now, why on Earth are we storing seeds here?  Well, you no doubt remember my post on genetic algorithms, but allow me the indulgence of briefly touching on some points here.  Life as we know it is ultimately the product of a grand genetic algorithm, different organisms with different genes competing and co-operating, with the "fittest" surviving to pass on their genes to the next generation.  Now, how does this grand system evaluate the fitness of different species, let alone individuals of a species?  Varieties of pressures exist, plant diversity is often determined by the availability of water and how cold or hot a specific locale gets.  Pressures like this can wipe out or encourage different species.  Fun fact: barley as we know it today is a product of the human harvest of wheat.  Selective pressures which we used to breed good wheat crops also bred usable barley out of the wild varieties that existed.

It could be argued that while these pressures effect* the diversity we see on Earth, a much greater determinant would be mass extinction events.  We are familiar with the end of the dinosaurs which, it was recently [probably] confirmed, was caused by an asteroid impact.  A lesser known but far more devastating extinction event was the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event.  It is hypothesized that a supernova in a nearby arm of the Milky Way created a gamma ray burst which decimated our ozone layer, leaving Earth vulnerable to the UVC rays from our Sun.  This decimated over half of marine life [I have no idea if there was land life at this point, as I didn't look very hard for information].  We are currently living in an extinction period known as the anthropocene in which the natural extinction rate has been accelerated by a factor between 100 and 1000 times.

So things go extinct, this much we have established.  It is the species and thus genetic code that make it through these extinction events that by luck or by adaptation serve as the genetic diversity for the next round of genetic contestants.  In crops [and even humans], diseases, parasites and pests can affect populations much the same way, eliminating vulnerable populations and leaving resistant populations which will hopefully go on to produce another generation of disease/pest-resistant populations.  This effect can be seen when using herbicides in crops.  There is a joke in the field [field?  See what I did there?] that it's easy to find out which weeds are herbicide-resistant, you spray the herbicide in question and see which weeds survive.  The same is true of antibacterial-resistant "superbugs".  You treat people with antibacterial drugs, and the superbugs are left to wreak havoc, C. difficile being an excellent example.

Now, from this we see that genetic diversity can be key to a population surviving some sort of extinction event, at least for the species [and I'm sure I'm butchering this terminology, I apologize whole heartedly].  If you're at all familiar with our current agricultural practices, you might have alarm bells going off in your head. We, as a civilization, tend to grow large monocultures of clones.  You've no doubt heard of the potato famine in Ireland.  The potatoes in Ireland were largely identical species, as only so many were brought over from the New World.  Potato fields were populated of clones, and the genetic diversity was relatively low.  A blight that affected that one variety of potato had an extremely large population at its mercy.  So much so that large numbers of Irish people either died or set sail for America, some of my ancestors among them.

This is why agriculturally useful seeds are being stored at Svalbard.  Various seed banks exist around the world, but they are vulnerable to human conflict and natural disasters.  Banks in Afghanistan and Iraq were recently lost, and are prime examples of why we should store our seeds far away from people.  Svalbard, ideally, should refrigerate itself (it is in and/or around the Arctic Circle), is far enough away from people to avoid conflict, but is reasonably accessible by air.  Most, if not all countries of the world have deposited seeds to the vault, which will be made available to the depositors upon request.

A long time ago (I remember the point of the story, but not the details), a cataloger was wandering through the countryside, taking samples of agriculturally useful seeds.  He came across a family's strain of wheat, and described it as some of the saddest and most pathetic wheat he had ever come across.  Nevertheless, he took samples, and they were deposited and recorded.  A few year ago, the global wheat crop experienced a major disease outbreak (because we planted a large monoculture, as we are wont to do).  Populations were devastated, and costs of bread [leavened and otherwise] increased as a result.  Immediately, efforts went into breeding a new strain of wheat which would be resistant to this new disease.  Where did they find resistance?  You, my monocled, top-hatted, and attractive reader, guessed it.  That pathetic wheat the cataloger had stashed away.  Genetic diversity is key to the survival of the crops we rely on, and it must be preserved if we are to make it in a changing climate.


P.S.  I believe there is a similar effort to Svalbard known as the Millennium Seed Bank in UK.  They not only store agriculturally significant seeds, but also those of threatened (or just regular) plant species.

P.P.S.  Will I ever decide between regular and square brackets?  Keep reading to find out!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

[Old MacDonald Had a Farm] EROEI

An explosion from nuclear test Operation Upshot-Knothole.  Simon, to be specific.  Source.


You have my apologies for the delay in exploration of fascinating [read: "mildly interesting"], topics.  It would seem between a laptop dying and a lack of night shifts, I don't have the large of chunks of time to properly discuss [read: "write until I get bored"] the issues which I feel you, dear monocled reader, deserve to know about.

The topic of this post is EROEI, an acronym for Energy Return on Energy Invested, also known as EREI, but if you have the extra O, it ends up being more like the Old MacDonald song.  In either case, I believe that our future prosperity as a species hinges upon our ability to effectively utilize renewable and sustainable energy sources, for reasons I will get into later.  That being the case, we need to consider EROEI when evaluating energy sources to determine their viability.

For some context, let's think about oil.  Since the first "gusher" was discovered in Texas, we have gradually been tapping all the easy oil we have been able to find.  After a while, there were no gushers left and we had to work to get the oil out of the ground.  This has continued ad absurdum because we have built an infrastructure for ourselves that runs on oil.  Those first gushers received their name for a reason.  For the equivalent energy of one barrel of oil (just above 6GJ of energy, 42 US Gallons), 100 barrels were gathered.  So we put a little energy in, and got it back one hundredfold.  In 1970, the efficiency of oil imports to the US represented an EROEI of roughly 40.  By the late aughts, it was closer to ten.  The oil from the Canadian tar sands can be extracted for an EROEI of roughly three.

This means that the efficiency of oil has decreased significantly for us.  We have gone from getting energy back one hundredfold for our efforts, down to about three times in northern Alberta.  This actually represents my biggest issue with oil going forward.  We have plenty of oil reserves from which we could draw for decades to come, but the problem is that we are approaching a point where the EROEI for oil will reach 1, and decline from there.  This would mean that it wouldn't actually be worth our time getting oil out of the ground, because the work we perform to extract the oil would be greater than the energy in the oil we extracted.

To attempt to put this in perspective, I'll talk about first generation biofuels (I provide this link knowing full well that you, my dearest top hatted reader, remember the post vividly).  In order to make ethanol out of corn in Canada, the EROEI represents between about 0.8 and 1, if I recall correctly.  That means that if you consider all the energy the farmer/factory worker spent in gas and fertilizers to grow, harvest, then convert the corn to ethanol, we would have been further ahead to just burn the gas directly and skip the ethanol fiasco.  Naturally, the legislation surrounding first-generation biofuels is really intended as a stepping stone to get to second generation biofuels, which will have an EROEI well in excess of 1, and probably greater than that of the tar sands.
You've been reading a while now, so here's a picture.  It's not switchgrass, but it sure is nifty.

In my article on switchgrass [my favourite biofuel candidate], I point out that the EROEI for growing and then burning switchgrass is roughly 20 [though I wasn't aware of the concept at the time].  For growing, converting to liquid biofuel and then burning, the EROEI is hypothetically around 5.  To put that into context, that means that in terms of energy, we would be further ahead making biofuels out of switchgrass than getting into the tar sands debacle.  Simply growing and burning switchgrass for heating purposes puts the tar sands to shame, and makes a mockery of home heating oil [in terms of energy, of course].  Why don't we do this?  Sure beats me, I assume it's some combination of an unwillingness to invest in new technology (and changing existing infrastructure), and distorted economics due to government subsidization of the oil industry.

Now, I assume at this point your are adjusting your monocle and top hat, and saying "I'm sure enjoying this talk of ratios, but could there be broad, global implications from falling EROEI?"  I'm glad you asked, dear reader.  Historians have hypothesized that a contributing factor to the downfall of the Roman Empire was falling EROEI.  The Romans, as it turns out, were not terribly good at soil conservation.  As time went on, the amount of food that Roman crops produced declined with the quality of the soil.  I am quoting a friend Paul on this, but I am told that great tracts of fertile land were reduced to desert, land which has never recovered.  Naturally, there were economic consequences to this, and the Empire declined and fell*.

It has also been pointed out that energy prices (which are somewhat reflective of EROEI in absence of ridiculous market forces), are intimately related to economic strength.  Every time there has been a sudden spike in the price of oil, an economic downturn has followed.  With falling EROEI of oil, I don't believe it's unreasonable to expect economic consequences from our continual dependence on oil.

At this point, I'm sure you're wondering what some good alternatives would be.  While nuclear explosions yield a fantastic EROEI (the picture at the top WAS related after all!), current nuclear reactors can offer an EROEI of roughly 10 and thorium reactors of the future (maybe a post-worthy topic), could yield 50.  What about wind and solar?  Well, wind offers an EROEI of 18, and solar 6.8 [though focused research is aiming to improve that figure].  I'll point out here that EROEI for wind and solar refers to the energy generated over the lifetime of the equipment divided by the energy required to manufacture the equipment.  You'll notice that even though these figures are low, they're all higher than the 3 we get from the tar sands.  That being said, it sure would be nice if we still had a sustainable power source which yielded an EROEI of 100.

Wait, hold on, there's something about that figure that's familiar...

Ah, yes.  We have an energy source like that.  It's hydroelectricity.


* - No, I'm not saying that this is the only reason that Rome fell, but I'm saying it was likely a contributing factor.  The same work producing a smaller product is bound to have consequences on that grand a scale.

P.S.  This turned out pretty messy, I'll maybe edit this later.  Hope you got this far and/or enjoyed it!