Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Putting Global Warming into Context: We are Ice Age Creatures Living on a Planet That Was Already Getting Warmer Before We Started Speeding Up the Process

18 July 2017

I think I've pretty well figured it out. Speaking in terms of the Phanerozoic Era and a bit longer (750 million years or so), our planet is usually more than 7° Celsius warmer than today. The earth has already warmed almost 3° C, half of it before the industrial revolution. 



We're still in an ice age now (the ice is just disappearing rapidly). The last ice age ended roughly 280 million years ago (they don't happen often). Humans have speeded up warming dramatically. The oceans are already up 300 feet from their ice age lows. They have 225 more feet to go. 

Humans and our evolutionary progenitors have existed only during the ice age of the past 6-8 million years. We can probably extend the current cool period by not putting carbon into the atmosphere (though possibly not indefinitely, and at some point, it may be too late --- possibly now). 



Climate is twice as variable when the planet is cooler (as it is now). When the planet is hot, it's basically hot everywhere, and probably too hot for human survival at the equator. The sun is gradually growing warmer. Thus the long-term trend over hundreds of millions of years is almost certainly going to be towards somewhat hotter temperatures. 

Modern humans have walked the earth for only 200,000 years, 2/3 of that time only in Africa. It is possible, perhaps probable, that without the recent ice age, we couldn't have come to exist. We were almost extinguished as a species only 70,000 years ago. Could it happen again? We should be alert to the possibility. 

Thinking over the next few centuries, I'm pretty sure we'll stop adding carbon to the atmosphere, and we'll probably start removing it. Fossil carbon is limited in supply, and we've already burned most of the easy-to-find fossil carbon. It would be better to use carbon to synthesize organic molecules. To our descendants, burning carbon for fuel will appear incomprehensible. Will the end of carbon burning stop global warming, at least for a while? Not in itself. However, I'm optimistic. I think the current (natural) warming trend can be reversed or slowed, though possibly only temporarily. 



It's conceivable, perhaps likely, that humans may eventually learn how to manage global mean temperature for the benefit of biological diversity. The best way to start will be by developing non-carbon forms of energy generation. While solar and wind and other sustainable methods will be helpful, fusion power will eventually transform the power grid. 

Though fusion power doesn't generate carbon as a waste product, it releases considerable levels of heat, and thus will still contribute to global warming. It will be better to get started on living without carbon sooner rather than later, but we will eventually need to learn how to manage all forms of human energy generation and to regulate global climate. 



If the ice age norm of the past 6 to 8 million years can be sustained, our planet will remain more diverse. It may be that we can achieve this as a long-term climate goal. Much more examination of that question will need to take place than has so far occurred. 

A positive and desirable multi-species outcome to the current problem of global warming is possible. We must remember that what we don't know is still markedly greater than what we do know. We have much to learn, and many important decisions to make. 
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Saturday, July 15, 2017

WHAT WAS THE EARTH'S CLIMATE LIKE WHEN THE GLOBAL MEAN TEMPERATURE WAS LAST AT 22° CELSIUS?

15 July 2017

I've been doing a little bit of research, based on the observation that humans are ice age creatures, even though ice ages have made up only 5% or so of our current era (roughly the past half billion years or so). So today's topic is, "What was the earth like during the much warmer climatic periods during which humans and our precursors hadn't yet evolved?" An implication of this discussion is that, due to human-initiated massive carbon release, we might be headed back to such conditions sooner rather than later (that is, in a few hundred years, vs. several million years).


The underlying question we're asking is, "Did the earth have to cool before humans could emerge?" Our working hypothesis is that humans are specialists in handling ecological and climatic diversity, and that the "hot" earth that is more typical of the last several hundred million years lacked the diversity that may have been needed for humans and our precursors to evolve. It is notable that even our evolutionary forebears don't show up in the fossil record until the earth transitioned into its most recent ice age (we're technically still in it) about 6 million years ago. Homo Sapiens has about a 200,000 year history, and our genus (homo) has been around for only about 2-1/2 million years.

Well, let's take as an example the late Cretaceous period, roughly 65 to 100 million years ago, and just preceding the extinction of the dinosaurs: In general, the climate of the Cretaceous Period was much warmer than at present, perhaps the warmest on a worldwide basis than at any other time during the past 542 million years (the Phanerozoic Eon). No ice existed at the poles. The oceans were stagnant and similar to hot springs in temperature. Dinosaurs migrated between the Warm/Hot Temperate and Cooler (extreme north and south) Temperate Zones as the seasons changed. High temperature conditions were almost constant until the end of the period. The warming may have been due to intense volcanic activity which produced large quantities of carbon dioxide.


Floral evidence suggests that tropical to subtropical conditions existed as far as 45° N, and temperate conditions extended to the poles.
Large magma deposits were sufficient to raise sea levels to extremely high elevations, creating vast, shallow seas across the continents. The Tethys Sea connecting the tropical oceans east to west also helped to warm the global climate. Warm-adapted plant fossils are known from localities as far north as Alaska and Greenland, while dinosaur fossils have been found within 15 degrees of the Cretaceous south pole.


An equable temperature gradient from the equator to the poles (one-half that of the present) meant much less climatic variability than today, and weaker global winds, which drive the ocean currents, resulted in less upwelling and more stagnant oceans than today. This is evidenced by widespread black shale deposition and frequent anoxic events. Sediment cores show that tropical sea surface temperatures may have briefly been as warm as 42° C (108° F), 17° C (31° F) warmer than at present, and that they averaged around 37° C (99° F). Meanwhile, deep ocean temperatures were as much as 15 to 20° C (27 to 36° F) warmer than today's.
As to geography, the continents had differentiated from Pangaea, but were bunched together more closely than today. A vast watery channel divided North America north to south, with only the Rocky Mountains above the sea in the west. Despite sea levels more than 200 feet higher than today, Antarctica and Australia were still one continent. India was an island located east of Madagascar. There was much more sea surface, and much less land surface.
So, there are two questions to wrap up: (1) Is there any particular reason that our human precursors waited until the climate described above had cooled by about 10° C before showing up? (2) Are humans and other species going to adapt well to a planet that is 7-8° C warmer than today?

The scientist I have so far identified who seems most interested in this question is Dr. Rick Potts at the Smithsonian Institution. The following is an abstract for one of his journal articles.



THE RICK POTTS HYPOTHESIS

Variability selection (abbreviated as VS) is a process considered to link adaptive change to large degrees of environment variability. Its application to hominid evolution is based, in part, on the pronounced rise in environmental remodeling that took place over the past several million years. The VS hypothesis differs from prior views of hominid evolution, which stress the consistent selective effects associated with specific habitats or directional trends (e.g., woodland, savanna expansion, cooling). According to the VS hypothesis, wide fluctuations over time created a growing disparity in adaptive conditions. Inconsistency in selection eventually caused habitat-specific adaptations to be replaced by structures and behaviors responsive to complex environmental change. Key hominid adaptations, in fact, emerged during times of heightened variability. Early bipedality, encephalized brains, and complex human sociality appear to signify a sequence of VS adaptations—i.e., a ratcheting up of versatility and responsiveness to novel environments experienced over the past 6 million years. The adaptive results of VS cannot be extrapolated from selection within a single environmental shift or relatively stable habitat. If some complex traits indeed require disparities in adaptive setting (and relative fitness) in order to evolve, the VS idea counters the prevailing view that adaptive change necessitates long-term, directional consistency in selection. © 1998 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
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HUMANS AS AN ICE AGE SPECIES II

15 July 2017


Scientists have recorded five significant ice ages throughout the Earth’s history: the Huronian (2.4-2.1 billion years ago), Cryogenian (850-635 million years ago), Andean-Saharan (460-430 mya), Karoo (360-260 mya) and Quaternary (2.6 mya-present). Approximately a dozen major glaciations have occurred over the past 1 million years, the largest of which peaked 650,000 years ago and lasted for 50,000 years. The most recent glaciation period, often known simply as the “Ice Age,” reached peak conditions some 18,000 years ago before giving way to the interglacial Holocene epoch 11,700 years ago.

That humans arose during an ice age may be due to chance, but over the last 750 million years, the chances of a species emerging in an ice age (global mean temperature ~12C) would have been roughly 5%, as the planet is hot (~22C) something like 80% of the time. (Mammals showed up 220m years ago in the late Triassic, one of many warm/hot periods.)
Obviously species have had successes against longer odds than that. However, my working hypothesis is that there is more ecological diversity during ice ages (though not snowball earth of 650m years ago). If the earth usually has palm trees and crocodiles in the arctic circle, then there would be a lot less maple, walnut and apple trees elsewhere. This is not to say that humans did not originate in the tropics, as it seems we did, and there is a lot about the transition from forest to savanna that I don't know much about. Also, the African drought-induced near-extinction was apparently overcome by moving to the seashore, which gets you into the aquatic ape and ecosystem boundary hypotheses.
Keep in mind that the planet was 2-3 C colder then than it is now, and a bit more than half the difference is pre-industrial (most sea level rise has been/will be preindustrial). I think it's clear on the 750m year chart that we have been in a warming phase since we became tool and technology users, at the very least. So global warming was already happening, though I think it's obvious that this is the first time in geological history that fossil carbon has been burned. Thus, this cycle can go (and obviously is going) faster and possibly higher than in the past. Other causes of climatic variation include fluctuations in solar intensity, atmospheric clarity and orbital variations (Milankovitch), but the big cycle seems to be carbon-driven, which in my view is the strongest single argument that humans putting carbon into the atmosphere is changing things (that is, accelerating an existing trend). In fact, it is bluntly an irrefutable argument if you study geological history.

One can also see that at least 8 degrees C of the big fluctuations happen very quickly (less than 1 million years) in geological terms. I honestly believe (1) that if we don't get smarter, we'll move from 15 to 22C in only a few hundred years (a new geological record), as that will put all the carbon there is into the atmosphere, but also (2) given a few hundred years, we will get much smarter and actually more or less totally eliminate carbon burning, or at least highly restrict it, and that much sooner than that, we'll have the technologies to capture carbon and take it back out of the atmosphere (no UN bureaucracy or carbon credit system needed, because we'll be rich enough that we can easily afford it).
Note that around 13-14C is where the bigger/faster moves usually happen anyway, as that is enough to get the positive feedbacks going with methane, forest fires, tectonic rebalancing, etc. That is, whatever the bureaucrats may think, we've been past the breakaway threshhold for some time already.
So let's just say that humans had tried to get their start at 22C, which would take you roughly to 35m years ago. There would have been no coral reefs, the entire equatorial region would have been uninhabitable (>120F), and there would have been only tropical and desert ecosystems. I'm pretty sure it would have been a less diverse world, which is not to say that tropical systems are not diverse.

It is probably also not accidental that we are post Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction creatures (66ma), as the meteor impact that extinguished 75% of earth's life forms occurred at the height of the last warm period, which also (perhaps meaningfully) marked the rise of mammals, though it was still very hot for another 40m+ years after the mass extinction (there is also a current mass extinction being driven by human modification of all planetary ecosystems). The meteor impact at 66ma doesn't even show up on the longterm climatic cycle chart, but it would have been very cold for a very short time, geologically.
Importantly, humans didn't show up, even our precursors (who emerged no more than 6m years ago), until temperatures dipped down to ice age levels. However, Haplorrhini (apes, monkeys, tarsiers) are a human precursor who showed up immediately post extinction event (63ma), so maybe that is also meaningful.
Finally, the real advances in human technology have occurred in only the last few thousand years, which has been a period of significant glacial retreat (warming with positive feedbacks engaged long before industry started). I have just refreshed myself on Lake Agassiz, which oversat Kenora, Ontario (where I live) as well as most of central Canada and the North Central US. Interestingly, the central North American glaciers melted for thousands of years without sea level rise, because the lake was held back by a glacial dam that first broke about 13,000 years ago, then reformed, and had its last break about 8000 years ago (both events raised sea levels several feet, and one or both may account for the multicultural flood narratives).

The rupturing of Lake Agassiz is linked to the rise of systematized agricultural in Europe which enabled the rise of cities, and that is also dependent on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which sustains moderate European temperatures, but which has reduced 30% since 1957, associated with increased warming-induced freshwater flows into the Arctic Ocean, and thus with southward flows into the Atlantic (conversely, the Arctic Ocean is shrinking due to warm water penetration further north). On a positive note, when the AMOC reduces, we have fewer Atlantic hurricanes. On the downside, Europe would turn much colder very quickly if the circulation turns southwards (it currently forks, and half flows north around Europe, and half flows towards West Africa.
As to unanswered questions, human have obviously benefited by the plummeting of global temperatures to their lowest historic levels perhaps 6-8 million years ago, but we have also capitalized on the bounceback to warmer temperatures, which coincides with hominid evolution over the last 2-1/2 million years. In brief, it appears that humans thrive when ecosystems are multiple and diverse, and my best guess is that the Quaternary Ice Age created the exact types of increasing diversity on which emerging humans eventually capitalized.
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Thursday, July 13, 2017

IS THERE A REASON WHY HUMAN EVOLUTION OCCURRED DURING A RARE GLOBAL ICE AGE?

13 July 2017

I have become intrigued with the fact that modern humans emerged roughly 2.5 million years ago, at the absolute temperature bottom of one of the earth's relatively rare cold climatic periods (making up only 5% of the last 3/4 billion years or so). That is, we are unarguably ice-age creatures. I've found a couple of new charts that illustrate the link between human emergence and cold climate. Interestingly, a Google search on the subject doesn't really turn up anything beyond this.

Image result for human ice age origins

If you look at the link between human evolution and climate, you get articles explaining how climatic variability may have prompted aspects of human evolution --- tool-making, language, an enlarged brain case, etc., but we're talking in these cases about variabilities in maybe a degree or two of global mean temperature, which is small stuff if you look at the longer-term climatic record of our planet, where there is evidence of 12-25° Celsius variation in global mean temperature (today's mean temperature is in the 14-15° C range --- still near its 12° C low of 2-5 million years ago.

I also tried a search about humans as ice-age creatures, and literally all that comes up are endless articles about how hungry humans caused the extinction of the large ice-age mammals.
An examination of global mean temperatures over the past 700 million years makes clear that only about 35 million of those years were typified by today's still very low global mean temperature in the range of 12-15° C (recently warming dramatically, as everyone knows).

Note that the earth's mean temperature is much more often in the 22° C range --- with 450-500 million of the past 700 million years at or near that level. Strikingly, the transitions occur rapidly in geological time, with upward or downward spikes of maybe 8° C occurring in the space of roughly a million years (maybe less?). Positive feedback loops --- as we are seeing today --- very likely account for those geologically rapid transitions.
Keep in mind that our planet started out as a very hot fireball 4.5 billion years ago. Elevated levels of greenhouse gases kept the earth quite warm until oxygen-based life forms evolved. In turn, emerging photosynthetic life forms cooled the planet until the equatorial climate was similar to Antarctica today. When earth was a Precambrian snowball about 650 million years ago (visible on the above chart), there were no life forms to absorb atmospheric carbon, and it gradually reaccumulated, warming the planet again. It's probably the release of stored carbon in permafrost and seabeds that drives the return to 22° Celsius. Add to that today that humans are burning long-buried fossil carbon. No wonder the earth is currently warming so rapidly! 
In summary, my search for WHY humans seem to be ice age creatures has not really turned up anything at all yet. I'm not sure why the topic is not being actively discussed. One thing we do know is that humans thrive at ecosystem boundaries, so my current working hypothesis is that we also do well at climatic boundaries --- that is, trending from warm to cold and (possibly) back again. Local and regional temperature variation, which is more notable at cyclical lows than highs, would thus create the kind of ecological variation on which humans and early humans have thrived for 2-1/2 million years! 

How will humans fare when, in less than another millions years --- and possibly in only a few centuries, the planet goes back to its 22° C climatic norm (or possibly higher)? The process is gradual in individual human years, but currently extremely rapid in geological and generational terms. Our children's children will certainly be living with the ever more dramatic consequences of the current human-induced "carbon era."
As an optimist, I believe we can resolve most or all of the problems associated with a rapid return to a much hotter planet. However, we'll have to be considerably more focused than at present to accomplish the necessary ameliorations and accommodations.
Based on my reading to date, we'll do best to hold back the natural and at some point inevitable return to much warmer global mean temperatures. This will enable us to save the coral reefs as well as many other species, to preserve maximum species diversity, to keep our coastal and tropical cities where they are, and to contain northward-migrating tropical and temperate region diseases. To accomplish this, we will require fusion as well as solar power, and we'll have to put robots to work to aid us in maintaining and repairing the environments and systems we have damaged. 


This article provides the best summary of earth's long-term climatic variation that I have found: click here.
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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Global Warming: The Future Is Now

26 February 2017

As I learned in high school 50 years ago, atmospheric carbon retains energy (in the forms of both heat and motion) on and near our planet's surface. Humans put the carbon there by subjecting carbon-containing materials to combustion. This is known as global warming, the present round of which is caused by human activity. Please go back to your high school science class if any of what I just said is not clear to you. (You do not need a post-high school education to understand global warming.) 

Besides causing melting glaciers and soggy lawns surrounding Florida condos (including the Trump family's wintering grounds), the current human-induced warming is creating a wetter and hotter north. 

Climate change doubles size of lakes in N.W.T. bison sanctuary

Bison are a common sight along N.W.T. Highway 3 between Fort Providence and Behchoko, near the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary.

Due to other causal factors, global warming (and cooling) have happened many times before on a millennial-to-geological time scale, though never nearly so "exponentially." Many species, humans included, will have to adapt. 

Relocating coastal cities is going to prove very expensive, and northward migrating diseases and increased storm intensity will affect all of us. Shifting mass on continental plates even increases earthquake and volcanic eruption risks. 

Carbon credits and other bureaucratic schemes are equivalent to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Global warming is not a reason to give new powers to governments, which most of us probably agree have too many poorly applied powers already. Obviously as a species, we need to build sturdier homes, invest in infectious disease research (impacting both plants and animals), and, as I do not tire of stating, convert our power grids to fusion energy.


Image result for fusion reactor

Due both to the accelerating rate of change and to positive feedback loops built into the system (which we are only beginning to understand), the impacts of the current warming cycle are becoming more dramatic year by year. You can be alarmed or you can be ready. I suggest that readiness is the wiser response. 

Denial won't make it stop. 

Reallocating our carbon resources to organic molecular synthesis would be a mark of intellIgence at the species level. We know most everything we need to know now to cut this current carbon-combustion cycle short, and we can figure out the rest! The future is now. 

Keep in mind that because we're discussing systems, the warming trend at this point will persist for some time, even if we cut carbon emissions to near-zero. 

Regarding fusion power development, investors wIth a 20-year time horizon for return on investment (profitability will take longer!) will ultimately be the most rewarded ever in history. The funding could possibly be arranged through an income trust structure, which, unfortunately, Mark Carney (the thankfully-departed former Governor of the Bank of Canada, now wreaking havoc on Britain's currency) eliminated in Canada. 

I don't think it would be that difficult to undo Carney's work and set up a specialized income trust to fund this, and Canada has prior experience with this strategy. 

Thus, Canada could become the world's leader in fusion power development. 

The one new ingredient required will be the two-decade time horizon, and some kind of political initiative will probably be required to enable an investment strategy of this kind.

Monday, February 13, 2017

It's Gold's Turn in the Waltz....

13 February 2017 - charts updated 13 July 2017

The ups and downs have been harrowing. There is no other word for it. While the S&P 500 has easily outperformed gold since 2011, the two have been at a draw since December 2015, and gold has more than doubled the SPX (S&P 500 broad US stock index) since 2001 (when the collapse of the tech bubble triggered a renewed search for value and wealth preservation). Further, at least this is my view, stocks are inherently risky in an uncertain world, whereas gold is not --- particularly if you have a longer time horizon. As for the direction from here, I think there is no question that gold will outperform over the next 1-5 years, perhaps dramatically. It's how the two of them dance, and at this point in the exchange, it's gold's turn to shine more brightly still. It's a little bit of a waltz, but there are crescendos................


Just to put it all in perspective, we know in retrospect that the gain in the S&P 500 from 2002-2007 was entirely a bubble (as was the 90s dust-up before that). How moderate does that now appear, in contrast to the Himalayan ascent from 2009 to now? I'm a little at a loss as to how to describe it... The S&P trades at 26x earnings in an era of virtually zero growth. I've seen it called the "everything" bubble. It is fuelled by mad moneyprinting and/or so-called "accommodative" policy (loaning money at near or below-zero rates) in virtually every corner of the world. How can that possibly end well?


As you can see, gold got a little ahead of itself in 2011, and took a breather from Sep 2011 through Dec 2015 (51 months). Gold is now running sprints again, and training for the next marathon. It is the favourite to win.


Keep in mind, the first chart presented shows the gold price divided by the price level of the S&P 500 index. You may or may not recall the fireworks, which were mostly set off between 2007 and 2011. As of right now, another launch is being prepared, and based on the intelligence I receive, this one may actually prove to be another lunar mission (along the lines of 1976-1980, but longer, stronger, higher and more enduring).

We are preparing now for blastoff of the second and stronger stage, possibly as soon as the second half of 2017. 

Image result for moonshot
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Friday, December 23, 2016

Alternative Fusion Power - Still Underfunded and At-Risk - Sees a Tenth Project Launched

23 December 2016

If you've been following my posts on fusion power, you'll know that I've been tracking nine alternative fusion reactor designs. 

I do check the news semi-regularly to see what's new, and due to the fact that almost nobody anywhere is investing in fusion power research, there usually isn't much to be found. However, on today's search, I found good news. The US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (Princeton was Dr. Einstein's old hangout) is now planning to move ahead with a spherical tokamak design, which, due to being shaped more like a cored apple than a doughnut, will be about half the volume of a tokamak (click here for link).



Now, I suspect that Mr Trump plans to take us back to the stone age in science, in which case, this project could be at risk (thankfully, there are nine others). 

Ten Alternative fusion reactor designs and associated companies/sponsors

§  Levitated Dipole Experiment (MIT “plasma pinch”)
§  Compact Spherical Tokamak - Tokamak Energy Ltd. - spherical tokamaks + high-temperature superconductors (see also “Spherical Tokamak” PPPL below)
§  Colliding beam reactor - Tri Alpha Energy Ion beams - aneutronic fusion power.
§  Polywell - EMC2 company
§  Magnetized target reactor (acoustic fusion) – General Fusion (Richmond, British Columbia)
§  Dense Plasma Focus - LPP Fusion
§  Compact Fusion - Lockheed Martin (Skunkworks)
§  Sheared Flow Stabilized Z-PinchUniversity of Washington & Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (added by L. Hunt)
§  Spherical  Tokamak - US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) – announced 16 August 2016 (added by L. Hunt)

I do favour government funding of fusion power research, as the trillion dollar plus investment is and will remain a barrier to entry in the marketplace, and basic science is one of the areas where government spending has often produced positive results (the government did bring us the internet and almost every basic advance in computer science, not to mention the space program, multiple lifesaving medical treatments, etc.). 

On the private side, Lockheed Martin has a great little compact fusion reactor design, but I don't think it's a funding priority there either --- they've published nothing since 2014. 


So, commendations to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL)! And maybe it's time to cut the whole ITER project and rethink the design of that white elephant (it will be useful for research, but it WILL NOT ever be a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor)..........
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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Something Happened in 2001 --- and Nothing Shows It More Clearly Than the Gold Price

27 October 2016

Gold attained its intraday high price of $887.50 USD per troy ounce in early 1980, after climbing from its (fixed) 1934-1968 level of $35 in a steady and exponential march. From 1980 - 2001, the gold price didn't really do much, except mostly fall. I hope that even to the naive observer, however, it is evident that something changed in 2001 --- and that was central bank experimentation with money printing and ultralow interest rates that is unprecedented in all of human history (combined with a series of out and out crashes --- not yet done --- that have wracked the inflated markets and made mainstream investors increasingly insecure). 


After peaking in September 2011, the gold price fell until December 2015 --- and this occurred because market participants believed the moneyprinting and low/negative rates were working to boost the economy. 

What is now becoming apparent is that moneyprinting and low rates actually create a trickle-up economy, in which funds flow to those who can afford to borrow and leverage up at low rates and speculate. Investment in truly productive projects has remained neglected --- almost stagnant --- while speculators occupy themselves with paper gains, stock buybacks, leveraged buyouts encumbered with unpayable debt, showpiece projects (Trump Towers, anyone?) and other unproductive or even destructive misallocations of capital. 

Live 24 hour Gold Chart

This post is just meant to be a heads-up. The moneyprinting and free money don't actually make the economy grow... they just take it off-track in unproductive dead-ends. If I'm right, then, from here, gold is headed much, much higher than its 2011 peak of $1934 USD. Decide for yourself. I've made my decision....
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Saturday, October 15, 2016

ITER Is NOT the Only News in Fusion Power Development --- There Are Nine Alternative Projects That Are Equally or More Interesting!

15 October 2016

I fully support the development of the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) Project, located in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France. We have spent almost nothing on fusion power development over the past half-century (the US, which is the largest player, has invested only about a billion dollars a year, and presently spends less than that annually). 


By way of contrast, over the past decade, there has been a $50 billion per year investment in hydrocarbon fracking in the US alone. I maintain that had we put that one trillion dollars into fusion power development, we'd have working prototypes today. 



Watching this recent (well-produced) video reinforces my conviction that almost nobody understands the unique challenges and opportunities posed by the task of figuring out how to contain fusion power and make it work on earth. This video offers the "standard line" on the ITER reactor, which is the world's most expensive and most advanced fusion power project --- but almost certainly not the "best." 


As pointed out here, ITER is presently projected to cost $20 billion (it was originally priced at $5 billion), and let's round that up to $50 billion, just to allow some leeway. As noted, that amount is only one year's investment in hydrocarbon fracking in the United States alone. In other words, this project is not an over-priced albatross (I think it is "too big," but that is a separate problem). 




Rather, the fact that ITER is now 12 years behind schedule is simply another piece of evidence that our species is extraordinarily unfocused in its efforts to develop the only technological strategy that offers hope of powering the electrical grid for, say, 10 billion humans around the world, 10 or 20 years or so down the road from now. 

The Joint European Torus (JET) experiment in the UK is another large-scale, "mainstream" fusion project. It was originally developed by EUROfusion as a prototype for the larger ITER project. In turn, a DEMO project is intended to provide power to the grid --- though far in the future. 



I have so far identified nine much smaller, alternative fusion power development programs now underway in the world (one of them, General Fusion, based in Richmond, British Columbia, in Canada). 



I argue that ITER should be much more richly funded than it is, as should the nine alternative ("small") fusion power projects currently under development (see below):



Alternative designs and associated companies

        Levitated Dipole Experiment (MIT “plasma pinch”)
        Compact Spherical Tokamak - Tokamak Energy Ltd. - spherical tokamaks + high-temperature superconductors
        Colliding beam reactor - Tri Alpha Energy Ion beams - aneutronic fusion power.
        Polywell - EMC2 company
        Magnetized target reactor (acoustic fusion) – General Fusion (Richmond, British Columbia)
        Dense Plasma Focus - LPP Fusion
        Compact Fusion - Lockheed Martin (Skunkworks)
        Sheared Flow Stabilized Z-Pinch – University of Washington & Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (added by L. Hunt)
        Wendelstein 7-X - Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, Germany (added by L. Hunt: one of 11 operational stellarators, two more planned)

I have provided links to each of the nine projects I have identified (seven are from Fusion Wiki). I encourage the interested reader to explore all nine. 

For the super-motivated reader, check out the World Nuclear Association progress review, or examine this very exhaustive (US-focused) summary of fusion projects and resources from the US Department of Energy: Fusion Energy Sciences Research Summary



In my view, fusion power development is so important that all of these projects should be running ahead of schedule, rather than running behind, and certainly not lying dormant (as some are). Fusion is the future, and for some reason, we're not getting ourselves ready for it......



Recently, I came across a great article by one of the technology leads at ITER, which offers the best overview I've seen so far about what fusion power is and why it is the answer to the power needs of a world soon to support ten billion humans (I think that's too many people, but it's a fact I accept). 

The author --- Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith - understands the theoretical context of fusion power in a way that no one else does. Here's a little information about him, from Wikipedia.



Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Smith points out that the release of energy from a fusion reaction is ten million times greater than from a typical chemical reaction (both hydrocarbon and solar technologies produce power through chemical reactions). It is also 3-4 times more energetic than fission power, and dramatically safer (down the road, boronic (or aneutronic) fusion produces an electrical current without emitting neutrons or any other dangerous radiation, promising perhaps the ultimate power source for life on earth).



I suggest a simple strategy going forward.

Fusion power is too important NOT to develop. Every scientifically-defensible fusion power project currently under development should be richly and fully funded, which will enable us to learn rapidly what works and what doesn't work. 



I'm a liberal libertarian in political philosophy, which, in brief, means that I see a role for government primarily in infrastructure development (with corresponding limited interference in markets). There is no infrastructure more important for humans at this time than fusion power. Thus, I am wide open to whatever public-private partnerships can be struck (and I'm totally fine if some bold investor or group of investors is richly rewarded for making an early investment in fusion technology --- this is why capitalism works and nothing else does). 



I've written before that perhaps only a half century down the road, we will have advanced sufficiently in bringing forward fusion power, artificial intelligence and robotics that we will be forced into a post-capitalist society (and I write this as an avid proponent of capitalism as the only viable economic system for the management of scarcity). But with the moving forward of these three technologies, we will see the end of scarcity, and thus the need for the development of a new post-scarcity economics

We'd be wise to begin thinking about it now, but also to magnify greatly our efforts to get ourselves there! 

23 November 2016: Here is a link to a very friendly video on fusion power that is easy to follow and exceptionally well-produced. This video will also help you understand why we may end up mining helium on the moon: Fusion Energy Explained – Future or Failure.
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Ten Septillion Planets, Moons and Smaller Bodies in the Universe Could Support Life

15 October 2016

I've been counting galaxies for quite a few years now, as the scientific consensus on how many of them there are keeps expanding. Only two to three years ago, the official estimate was that there are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Then a new Hubble image revealed more galaxies than we expected, bumping the estimate up to somewhere between 100 billion and a trillion. Remember, that's galaxies we're talking about, not stars. Now the estimate has been bumped up again --- to two trillion galaxies.



As we know, our galaxy has 300 billion stars in it or so, and our neighbour, Andromeda, with which a merger is planned in about 5 billion years, has 600 billion stars. One of the new factors in this estimate is that there are going to be relatively more galaxies with only, say, a billion stars in them. On the other side, some are also far larger than Andromeda... an elliptical galaxy can hold 100 trillion stars (making it 300 times larger than our galaxy).

So, if you multiply the number of galaxies times the average number of stars in a galaxy, you certainly get a really big number. One generally accepted rule is that the average galaxy may hold 100 billion stars (only 1/3 the size of our galaxy). Then, if you multiply 2 trillion times 100 billion, you get roughly 200 sextillion, which is 2 followed by 23 zeroes.



Now the most interesting question in my view is whether there is life in the universe. We now believe that almost all stars have planets, and let's be conservative, and give them 5 planets each. That yields 1 septillion planets, or 1 followed by 24 zeroes. Our planet happens to have life on it... and we haven't ruled out that some planetary moons, asteroids and comets --- of which there are many --- may also support life. So let's multiply the number of planets times 10, to get 10 septillion bodies that could possibly support life (that is 1 followed by 25 zeroes).

In summary, all we really know is that there are a lot of places where life could possibly exist. We do rule out galactic centres. Not only are they crowded, but they are filled with dense radiation that almost certainly will make life impossible. Also, supernovas emit massive amounts of radiation, sufficient to eliminate life on nearby planets or moons, so you have to factor that in (our planet is at risk from Betelgeuse, which is familiar to us as Orion's right shoulder).

So you mostly have to consider the galactic suburbs to identify areas that could support life, and areas of lower stellar density are probably going to be friendlier... which tells us that moons or planets supporting life may not be that close to each other. Still, bottom line, everything we're learning about the universe tells us that we're very unlikely to be alone... It's just that we're also very unlikely to be near to other stars that also support life! I personally favour keeping our very imperfect species alive, and that does increase the chances that we may find other life forms.



Now there is also the question of whether the advanced life forms are friendly or not. On that question, I have no answer. We're not necessarily that friendly ourselves! However, regardless of their threat level, it's probably still to our advantage to find them first. Once that has happened, we'll most likely have at least several millennia, and very likely a few million years, to figure out what to do about it!



As an aside, the classic text, Intelligent Life in the Universeby Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii, remains the authoritative reference on the topic of life in the universe, despite its seeing its 50th anniversary of publication (1966) this year! (Thanks to Dr. Jon Culbertson for providing a tutorial in this text at New College of Florida in 1969). 
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