• Tue. Jan 31st, 2023

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Readers Respond to the August 2022 Issue

OCEAN GLOW

I read Michelle Nijhuis’s article “The Mystery of Milky Seas” with great interest. I was in the U.S. Navy in 1975, and my ship was doing a cruise in the Indian Ocean early that year. We encountered the kind of bioluminescence Nijhuis describes, which was truly amazing. The experience was not just limited to watching the ocean: We had a lot of fun with this phenomenon by filling buckets of seawater with our fire mains and then spilling them across the deck. The action of spilling the seawater caused additional bioluminescence. Also, watching the ship’s wake was especially thrilling. I didn’t realize the milky seas phenomenon had not been studied in “depth” (bad pun?) very much until recently.

PHIL DAWSON Everett, Wash.

CRITICAL CLIMATE SCIENCE

Wishful Thinking in Climate Science,” by Naomi Oreskes [Observatory], provides a crucial message that hardly gets mentioned. Between “conservative” (best-case) estimates of warming and sea-level rise, which systematically underestimate impacts, promises of future magic technology and promotion of the “every little bit helps” attitude promising that many tiny personal actions will save us, the message generally being promoted about climate change is that everything will be fine. Everything will not be fine.

ERIC J. WARD West Palm Beach, Fla.

Oreskes declares that the technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide doesn’t exist. She dismisses the Orca project in Iceland because of its high unit cost and criticizes other projects that use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, speculating that the CO2 “may migrate … to the atmosphere.”

There are several active carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects outside the U.S., notably in Norway and Canada, that demonstrate the science does exist. Some have been operating for years and at scale: The North Sea–based Sleipner project has been sequestering about a million metric tons a year for about 25 years, and the more recent Quest project in Alberta has sequestered about the same amount annually. Of course, as with most technologies, the science is not settled. It is evolving and will continue to do so.

That Oreskes, a science historian, chose to ignore the data is ironic, given that “Florence Nightingale’s Data Revolution,” by RJ Andrews, in the same issue, describes how Nightingale made the compelling case for looking at such information more than 165 years ago.

ROBERT SKINNER Energy research adviser, Office of the Vice-President (Research), University of Calgary, Alberta

In “Climate Damage from Science” [Observatory; July], Oreskes argues that several scientific areas have a large carbon footprint, including large observatories, space-based telescopes and conferences. These just don’t pass the commonsense test. To the casual observer, an observatory is just a big office building with a dome on the roof. Both have lots of computers and servers, and both have people working during either the day or night. The telescope’s workings are probably low users of power. And how a space-based telescope could contribute to a carbon footprint on Earth is puzzling. I also have trouble understanding how moving a particular conference from San Francisco to the middle of the country would save travel, as Oreskes describes. Instead of 50 percent of the attendees traveling across the U.S. to a West Coast conference, for example, 100 percent would travel halfway across it, resulting in the same total travel.

My point isn’t to question these rather dramatic claims as much as to wonder why Oreskes didn’t report the explanations for them. It would be nice to know how this carbon pollution happens and how it fits into overall emissions. How else can a scientist evaluate the relative costs and benefits of their work?

RICHARD COCHRANE Clarks Summit, Pa.

ORESKES REPLIES: Skinner is correct that the science of CCS exists. CO2 can be pumped into and stored underground. My topic, however, was not the science but the technology. Nearly all the world’s CCS projects are actually adjuncts to fossil-fuel production. Most so-called carbon storage projects are enhanced oil recovery projects. They pump carbon dioxide into working oil and gas fields to flush out fossil fuels that would otherwise be stuck underground, lengthening the life of the fields. The efforts he notes are a little different but not much: The Sleipner project is part of a natural gas field. It captures CO2 that would otherwise contaminate the gas. The cleaned-up gas is then sold and burned. The Quest project is part of the Athabasca Oil Sands Project in Alberta, one of the most environmentally and socially destructive fossil-fuel projects on Earth. Quest captures CO2 produced during the conversion of bitumen into usable crude oil. That oil is also sold to be burned, thus exacerbating the climate crisis.

Storing these bits of CO2 is better than releasing them to the atmosphere, but the amounts involved are tiny, compared with the releases associated with fossil-fuel combustion: globally, more than 36 billion metric tons in 2021 alone. And it’s not clear that these projects are even a net gain. One report found that Quest produced more carbon than it stored. Its operator Shell has acknowledged that Quest was designed as a “demonstration project.” If we had time to wait, these projects might one day pay off. But time has run out. At best, CCS is a costly distraction. At worst, it locks in more fossil-fuel investment and infrastructure at the very moment when we need to be phasing them out.

To answer Cochrane’s questions: Astronomical observatories and space-based telescopes use astronomical amounts of energy. They are energy-intensive to design, build and launch and require enormous amounts of computational power. And unlike ordinary office buildings, astronomical facilities often run around the clock.

As for conference travel, the one under discussion was the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Many of its participants come from Europe, so moving it from San Francisco to Chicago (where the conference is being held this year) means more people will travel less, considerably reducing the overall carbon footprint. Of course, making the meeting mostly or entirely virtual would reduce it far more.

ERRATA

Quick Hits,” by Joanna Thompson [Advances], incorrectly said that the supernova that may have forged a space rock found in Egypt in 1996 most likely occurred some 4.6 billion years ago at the outskirts of our solar system. Rather the theory is that the supernova occurred within a giant dust cloud and eventually led to the dust solidifying on the outskirts of our solar system in the early stages of its formation, which began about 4.6 billion years ago.

The Mystery of Milky Seas,” by Michelle Nijhuis, should have described Pierre Aronnax as a marine biologist in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In “Every Inch of the Seafloor,” by Mark Fischetti, the illustrations should have been credited to Maciej Frolow.

3,117,275,501 Bases, 0 Gaps,” by Clara Moskowitz and Martin Krzywinski [Graphic Science], should have said that in 2022 scientists added 251,330,203 bases for a totally gapless genomic sequence.