While our expectations are rarely met with the thrill of a wish granted, the dynamics of systems in change often provide us with just what we wished for, but usually in unexpected ways. Sometimes, just the opposite of our expectations appear to us first, distracting the initial intent of our expectant wishes and thereby diverting the flow of dynamic energy patterns away from our anticipated state. This is just the paradox of systems of change in continuous flux. Or, as The Archdruid Reports, The Cussedness of Whole Systems. In this case, the Archdruid reports “The issue at the heart of the debate is the shape of the curve that will define future petroleum production worldwide, and the reason that it needs to be addressed is that so far, at least, that curve is not doing what most peak oil theories say it should do.”
From Foreign Policy Magazine online: The Great Food Crisis of 2011 - It's real, and it's not going away anytime soon. By Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.
It's real, and it's not going away anytime soon.
BY LESTER BROWN | JANUARY 10, 2011
As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.
But whereas in years past, it's been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it's trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and -- due to climate change -- crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.
There's at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth's land and water resources.
Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.
The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That's enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.
The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.
While the annual demand growth for grain was doubling, new constraints were emerging on the supply side, even as longstanding ones such as soil erosion intensified. An estimated one third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes -- and thus is losing its inherent productivity. Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia, and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s.
Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil. In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.
In countries with severe soil erosion, such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests are shrinking as erosion lowers yields and eventually leads to cropland abandonment. The result is spreading hunger and growing dependence on imports. Haiti and North Korea, two countries with severely eroded soils, are chronically dependent on food aid from abroad.
Meanwhile aquifer depletion is fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world; this relatively recent phenomenon is driven by the large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water. Today, half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers. Once an aquifer is depleted, pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge unless it is a fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, in which case pumping ends altogether. But sooner or later, falling water tables translate into rising food prices.
Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.
The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world's other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.
The last decade has witnessed the emergence of yet another constraint on growth in global agricultural productivity: the shrinking backlog of untapped technologies. In some agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are using all available technologies to raise yields. In Japan, the first country to see a sustained rise in grain yield per acre, rice yields have been flat now for 14 years. Rice yields in South Korea and China are now approaching those in Japan. Assuming that farmers in these two countries will face the same constraints as those in Japan, more than a third of the world rice harvest will soon be produced in countries with little potential for further raising rice yields.
A similar situation is emerging with wheat yields in Europe. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, wheat yields are no longer rising at all. These three countries together account for roughly one-eighth of the world wheat harvest. Another trend slowing the growth in the world grain harvest is the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses. Suburban sprawl, industrial construction, and the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots are claiming cropland in the Central Valley of California, the Nile River basin in Egypt, and in densely populated countries that are rapidly industrializing, such as China and India. In 2011, new car sales in China are projected to reach 20 million -- a record for any country. The U.S. rule of thumb is that for every 5 million cars added to a country's fleet, roughly 1 million acres must be paved to accommodate them. And cropland is often the loser.
Fast-growing cities are also competing with farmers for irrigation water. In areas where all water is being spoken for, such as most countries in the Middle East, northern China, the southwestern United States, and most of India, diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.
The rising temperature is also making it more difficult to expand the world grain harvest fast enough to keep up with the record pace of demand. Crop ecologists have their own rule of thumb: For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This temperature effect on yields was all too visible in western Russia during the summer of 2010 as the harvest was decimated when temperatures soared far above the norm.
Another emerging trend that threatens food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is of particular concern in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau, where the ice melt from glaciers helps sustain not only the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, but also the irrigation systems dependent on these rivers. Without this ice melt, the grain harvest would drop precipitously and prices would rise accordingly.
And finally, over the longer term, melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, threaten to raise the sea level by up to six feet during this century. Even a three-foot rise would inundate half of the riceland in Bangladesh. It would also put under water much of the Mekong Delta that produces half the rice in Vietnam, the world's number two rice exporter. Altogether there are some 19 other rice-growing river deltas in Asia where harvests would be substantially reduced by a rising sea level.
The current surge in world grain and soybean prices, and in food prices more broadly, is not a temporary phenomenon. We can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to.
The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices -- and the political turmoil this would lead to -- that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.
Attention is a good expression for the first requirement of Permaculture and in fact any truly ecological or sustainable design practice, awareness and conscious participation with the natural world surrounding us.
From the Coloradoan: “Green living: Permaculture requires attention to elements' relation, function” http://bit.ly/igS9qD
Green living: Permaculture requires attention to elements' relation, function
By Kellie Falbo
When addressing the topic of green living, there are a lot of trendy words. It can be frustrating and mysterious to decipher what it all means. Is it supposed to be about living more simply? Exactly.
I want to throw the word permaculture into the mix, not as another addition to the trendy list, but as a new word for a very old concept - to help us in our quest to create a more sustainable life where we are more conscious of our choices and lifestyles - and nature leads the way.
Permaculture evolved through the hard work and experimentation of Australian Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren beginning in 1972. The word is a contraction of "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture." It is based on principles they identified in rich and sustainable ecosystems and indigenous cultures. They described their methodology as the "conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems." Since then, thousands have studied and contributed their own insights and experience to the global movement of ecological gardeners and designers who call themselves the permaculture community.
Permaculture starts at your doorstep and is a way of life. It's about systems. More directly, it's the study and application of sustainable systems, nature and natural systems and the patterns therein. It takes into account the full circle of life of plants, animals and humans. Everything is connected to everything else. It's that simple. Design systems to encourage nature to do what it naturally does and the result will inevitably be more sustainable than it was before.
In "Food Not Lawns," Heather Flores writes "Permaculture is not just about the elements of a system, it is also about the flows and connections among those elements. You can have solar power, an organic garden, an electric car and a straw-bale house and still not live in a permaculture. A project becomes a permaculture only when special attention is paid to the relationships between each element, among the functions of those elements, and among the people who work within the system. Through a design process like permaculture, we can organize these relationships for optimum success. Our creativity is our most powerful tool for overcoming the ills of our culture, and design helps us harness that creativity and put it to work."
Permaculture is a broad philosophy that goes far beyond the boundaries of the land. It encourages us to think globally and act locally. We are encouraged to become truly a part of our community in the larger sense.
From Rolling Stone Magazine: http://bit.ly/dMgQne
The Vanishing Ice Sheets
Are the pole’s great glaciers beyond saving? A look at global warming’s ticking time bomb
Perito Moreno glacier at los Glaciares National park in Santa Cruz, Argentina.
By Ben Wallace-Wells
SEPTEMBER 22, 2010 4:00 PM EDT
On July 18th, 2005, around four in the morning, a research ship called the Arctic Sunrise was slowly making its way south along the eastern coast of Greenland. It was already bright out, and very still. An ice scientist named Gordon Hamilton stood on deck, watching the rocks and eddies along the water's edge. The rest of the crew was still sleeping below. There was a helicopter on the deck, painted bright orange so it could be spotted easily if rescue were needed, and Hamilton saw its pilot, the only other person awake so early, coming down a nearby staircase. They had plans to fly to a massive glacier called Kangerdlugssuaq later that afternoon, to measure its speed and to see whether the warming climate had forced this part of the world into dramatic changes. The pilot asked if Hamilton wanted to take a quick flight over to the glacier now, to scout out a good landing spot. "Sure," Hamilton said. He went below deck to collect his maps.
Most of the ice in the world is contained in two great, ancient ice sheets, each of them the size of a continent: One covers Antarctica and the South Pole, and the other, not nearly as big, covers Greenland. Both of these formations slope gently from high interiors down to the coast, with ice edging outward in vast frozen rivers known as glaciers. Snowfall at the top of the slopes presses down on the glaciers, helping gravity propel them toward the edges of the continent. There, when it meets the warmer water, some of the ice melts slowly into the ocean. Until a few years ago, scientists like Hamilton thought of the ice sheets as changing only imperceptibly, on the time scale of centuries. But as the planet has warmed, they have come to see the ice as far more volatile and nimble. The ice sheets no longer seem static; they are mysterious, complicated dams that help hold back entire continents, keeping coastal cities free from flood. If you understand the ice sheets, and how they might melt, you can understand the future of the oceans — how much they might swell, and on what schedule. And if you understand the oceans, you might be able to get a more accurate fix on the future of the world's coasts, and of the civilizations they hold.
Hamilton and the pilot took off from the ship's deck and flew toward the coast, heading for the fjord where Kangerdlugssuaq empties into the ocean. At the time, ice scientists were trying to resolve a strange and disturbing anomaly. A glacier called Jakobshavn Isbrae — the largest in Greenland, on the other side of the continent from Hamilton's ship — had begun to thin rapidly, according to recent data collected by NASA, and to send far more ice into the sea than was normal. Nobody knew exactly what to make of this. If some change in the climate was responsible, then this accelerated melting should have shown up at other glaciers, but so far it hadn't. Hamilton had with him a sketch based on satellite images of Kangerdlugssuaq taken 10 months earlier, and it showed that the normal processes here were in balance. The glacier seemed to be at equilibrium.
As the helicopter headed toward the coordinates on the glacier where Hamilton wanted to land, he gazed out the window. His mind drifted absently across the landscape. The steep rock of the fjord rose above the dark, pooling water below, the glacier still miles upstream. Suddenly, Hamilton was startled out of his grogginess by a squawking in his headphones: The pilot was trying to tell him something. Hamilton asked the man to repeat himself. "We're here," the pilot said.
Hamilton looked down. They were over open water. The glacier had vanished.
Confused, Hamilton picked up the satellite image. Perhaps he had given the pilot the wrong coordinates. In the sketch, he could see two tributary glaciers that emptied into Kangerdlugssuaq right where he had wanted to land. He looked out the window. There were the two tributary glaciers. But they were emptying into the sea. In the few months since the image had been taken, the front end of Kangerdlugssuaq had disappeared. "It was here for more than 50 years," Hamilton says. "And now it was gone."
Returning to the Arctic Sunrise, Hamilton found the graduate student who was working with him, Leigh Stearns, and asked her to return to the glacier with him. On the way, he was purposely vague about what he'd seen; he still thought he might have missed something. Now, flying through the fjord a second time, Hamilton saw evidence of the disappeared glacier that he had missed earlier that morning. Along the sides of the fjord, like a ring on a bathtub, were icy smears that had been left on the rock when the glacier calved into the water. Higher up, he could see dirt mounds that suggested how high the missing glacier had risen. This section of Kangerdlugssuaq had vanished in only 10 months — a pace most scientists had thought impossible. Perhaps the ice sheets weren't battleships, massive and inert, but catamarans, nimble, bending to the wind. The question now was, how fast were the glaciers moving?
The answer, Hamilton knew, could have profound implications for the world's coasts. A report being put together at the time by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collection of the world's leading climate experts, estimated that global sea levels would rise no more than a foot and a half in the next century. But over the past five years, as more discoveries like Hamilton's have emerged, those numbers have come to seem obsolete. "The estimates are now clustering around a rise in sea level of three feet by the end of the century," says Richard Alley, a geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University — double the previous estimates. "Nature has begun to resolve some of these arguments for us." The new science indicates that by the end of the century, rising seas could turn as many as 153 million people into refugees. Most of New Orleans, and large swaths of Miami and Tampa, are likely to be underwater, along with some of the world's largest cities: Manila, Lagos, Alexandria. A full quarter of the developing world's coasts will be battered by more frequent hurricanes and tsunamis; roughly half of Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people, will be subject to regular flooding. If Hamilton was right, then within the ice sheets something truly cataclysmic had begun.
Flying over the water where Kangerdlugssuaq once stood, Hamilton and Stearns found the new edge of the glacier, sliding furtively down between a pair of hills. Once the pilot spotted a stable landing spot and touched down, they worked quickly. With an electric drill, they bored a hole into the ice and dropped a pole into it, with a small GPS receiver mounted on top. Then they flew off, found another steady landing spot and repeated the process. By the end of the afternoon they had installed six receivers along the glacier's edge, enough to get an idea of the ice's overall speed.
Back on the ship, Hamilton collapsed onto his bunk, exhausted. Stearns opened her laptop and started downloading data from the monitors. When she was done, the speed was so implausible that she checked her calculations five times to make sure she had the math right before she showed her boss. Kangerdlugssuaq, when it was stable, moved toward the sea at a rate of about three miles a year. Now, Stearns' calculation showed, it was moving nearly nine miles. "It was faster than any glacier had ever been measured," Hamilton says. "We hadn't thought glaciers could achieve those speeds." The continent was shifting, the planet shrugging its shoulders, sending the edges of the ice sheet racing into the sea.
Over the next century, strange as it is to contemplate, the Earth's surface will be forcibly reshaped by those parts of the planet that remain the most inaccessible and the least understood. The ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are so barren and unbroken that they seem more like geometric abstractions than continents. They impose on visitors a near-total sensory deprivation. Because there is virtually nothing living — no trees, no grass, no animals — there is nothing to smell. Even time is distended at the poles: Scientists are generally able to come only at the height of summer, when it is light for nearly 24 hours a day, and they find their workdays slipping later and later into the night. From the interior of an ice sheet, the arc of the horizon is so long and so constant that you stop fully registering the empty landscape, and you focus on the only things that change, which are the clouds. When one drifts past, you imagine it as a more permanent formation — a rock outcropping or a distant mountain. Three weeks or so on the ice sheet is as much of this isolation as most glaciologists can take, and so they race against that limit, science against time.
Ice is a curiously fragile substance; the tiniest shifts in its surroundings — the temperature and pressure of the air, the salinity of the frozen water — can trigger fundamental transformations. "Much of the ice in the world is quite close to a phase change," says Joel Harper, a professor of geosciences at the University of Montana. "It doesn't take much to move it from solid to liquid." At times, these changes can seem the product of the ice's interior will. When a glacier, moving downhill, encounters a small obstacle — a rock a few inches across — it simply melts, allowing it to pass over the stone, then refreezes on the downstream side. When it encounters a large obstacle — perhaps a boulder the size of a house — the ice deforms so that it can move around the rock like a syrupy liquid would. Years later, you can still see in the ice the marks of this change.
Changes like these are almost never witnessed by humans; on the rare occasions when they are observed, they become legends, told and retold. Glaciologists still talk about the moment in 1983 when scientists on top of Variegated Glacier, in Alaska, watched the ice beneath their feet dissolving into a web of small stream in the space of a few minutes. In 1995, Harper and his team drilled a bore hole into the ice in Alaska's Worthington Glacier. A few nights later, they awoke to a rumble as loud as a 747; an unseen lake had quietly drained, migrated and then exploded through the bore hole, sending a geyser hundreds of feet into the sky.
The ice sheets are such unique workshops that glaciologists must invent their own tools and experiments each time they arrive. You can measure the speed of glaciers by tossing dark rocks onto moving ice and tracking them with surveying equipment from a nearby rock outcropping. You probe the interior of glaciers by jerry-rigging a jet of hot water (a home heater, a pressure pump and a long flexible hose) that drills down into the ice sheet, melting a perfect vertical bore hole. You track the snow that has accumulated, from one year to the next, by using a coffee can, a GPS and a length of wire. But technical discoveries like these were lucky accidents, and they provided only partial glimpses along a glacier's edge. No one knew what the entire ice sheet was doing; its most essential changes were hidden beneath those vast blocks of ice, unseen.
That began to change in 1978, when scientists sent a satellite hurtling around the Earth to map the extent of ice in Antarctica and Greenland — what was frozen and what was open sea. NASA engineers, working from a half- decommissioned rocket-launching base on a barrier island in eastern Virginia, also rigged an old naval patrol plane with lasers and GPS, to record how high the ice was at certain points and how far it extended. By mapping the ice grid by grid, and tracking any changes over the years, they could begin to see, for the first time, the workings of the ice sheets.
As the contours of climate change have started to come into focus, glaciologists — a tiny band of scientists in a long-neglected field — have suddenly found themselves briefing Congress, consulting with the United Nations. Perplexed graduate students, stuck in the field in Greenland, were asked to educate visiting dignitaries. The dawning realities of global warming made it evident that one of the gravest threats facing the planet depended upon a field of science that most people had never even heard of. "How fast will the ice sheets lose their mass into the sea?" asks Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. "That's the million-dollar question."
Searching for answers, scientists soon focused their attention on the largest glaciers, whose leading edges are hundreds of feet thick and many miles wide, floating mostly submerged in the water. Some glaciologists were beginning to believe that these ice shelves act like corks in champagne bottles, keeping the gigantic rivers of ice behind them from flowing into the sea. If an ice shelf was somehow removed, they argued, the glacier behind it could slide out into the ocean, far more quickly and catastrophically than had been imagined. The data from the thinning glacier in Greenland was particularly alarming. "It looked like we might be loosening the cork," says Bob Thomas, who ran the polar science research program for NASA.
But most scientists disagreed with the cork theory. The prevailing model held that if the ice shelves were removed, the glaciers behind them would stay in place, kept there by the friction between the ice and the rocky trough in which it sat. The question was impossible to resolve in the abstract, however, and so for years it just hung there as a hypothetical, a suggestion at the edges of science, a conversation point when glaciologists were in their second week in the desolate, frozen field and were looking for things to talk about. What was missing was a test case — a place where the cork had been removed. Scientists doubted that nature would ever provide a conclusive demonstration. Then one day — in a dramatic display at the southernmost reaches of the planet — it did.
The Antarctic peninsula is a long, skinny curve of rock, and it reaches north toward the tip of Chile, like a gnarled finger beckoning you toward the pole. In October 2001, still spring on the peninsula, an Argentine glaciologist named Pedro Skvarca was on top of an ice shelf known as Larsen B doing fieldwork. Research in Antarctica imposes a special form of isolation; even in summer, scientists must surround their tents with snow banks to keep out the wind. The Argentines have a permanent base on the peninsula, and Skvarca had spent more time on Larsen B, and knew it more intimately, than nearly any other scientist.
Over the years, as he visited the ice shelf, Skvarca had watched the entire landscape change. Huge crevasses had opened up, rifts in the ice, the biggest among them visible from orbiting satellites. Skvarca found himself surrounded by meltwater, ponds of shimmering blue water up to 100 feet across. He could barely get any work done safely: Each time he pitched a tent it filled with water. This year, the melting was far more extensive. The ponds were most numerous in the north, where the weather was warmest, but they had spread out across the entire ice shelf. If Larsen B was a cork, then it looked like it was about to come unstuck. When he returned to the Argentine base, Skvarca e-mailed several of his colleagues in the United States and Europe. "I think this is it," he wrote.
Scientists had been worried about this portion of the peninsula for years. Over the past half-century, temperatures in this part of Antarctica have leapt by five degrees, and wind speeds have increased by 15 percent. Climatologists believe that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the size of the ozone hole control the winds like a dial: The more we've warped the climate, the faster the winds blow. At Larsen B, the combination operated like a convection oven, baking the ice each summer and melting it from above and below. "The stronger winds push more warm air over the peninsula," says John Turner, project leader for climate variability and modeling with the British Antarctic Survey. "It's been the nail in the coffin."
During the first week of March 2002, a few months after Skvarca sent his e-mail warning, Larsen B was obscured by clouds for several days; it was so overcast that orbiting satellites couldn't get a good image of the area. When the clouds parted, on March 5th, and the satellites could see through again, the scientists stared at the images in disbelief. Nearly two-thirds of Larsen B, an ice shelf the size of Delaware, had disappeared into the sea. The glaciers of the peninsula had come uncorked, altering the shape of Antarctica's map in only a few days. "How rapidly and completely Larsen B broke was beyond our imagination," says Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Since then, scientists have pieced together an extremely detailed model of how Larsen B shattered, bit by painstaking bit. The ice shelf, they believe, was so profoundly weakened from years of melting that it would have taken only a small disturbance at the water line — likely a wave of precisely the right amplitude — to rock the shelf back and calve off a long, narrow iceberg, sending it toppling into the water. The splash of that first berg rebounded against the edge of the shelf, in waves as high as a tsunami, breaking off a second iceberg, along the cracks opened up by the water, and the second berg begat a third. "It's like what happens in a mosh pit, where you have a chain-reaction feedback of energy," says Doug MacAyeal, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago who has studied Larsen B. Before long, a huge semicircle of water was rushing into the opening left behind by the ice shelf — moving inland at a rate of more than a dozen miles a day. "It looked like a giant disintegration machine had started eating into the ice sheet," Scambos says. "Here was unequivocal evidence of something happening because of climate change — and I think it really scared a lot of people."
A few days later, at the end of March, a British research ship sailed to the edge of the harbor, still too choked with bergs to actually enter. From the deck, a group of oceanographers took in the scene: The collapse of Larsen B had left behind exposed ice cliffs hundreds of feet high, so blue and so precisely angled that they looked almost unnatural, as if they'd been cut by a giant buzz saw. The physics had been so intense that the ice was shattered into pieces as tiny as gravel. Humpback whales occasionally drifted into these waters, but the scientists, looking around, saw that the sea was packed with them, drawn by the reverberating energy of the collapse, breaching everywhere they looked. With Larsen B gone, it seemed that one of the most enduring questions in glaciology might now be solved: What happens when you remove an ice shelf? Would the large glaciers that had once snaked down to Larsen B from the continent rush into the sea, like uncorked champagne? Or would they stay put, held in place by the rocks below?
Satellites over Antarctica don't work well in the lightless winter, so it took until the next spring — late October, early November — for photos to appear. Soon scientists were rushing to get papers into print about the glaciers behind Larsen B. Satellites examining one of the main tributaries of the ice shelf, Crane Glacier, showed that not only had the edge of the glacier begun to race rapidly toward the ocean, but that the speedup was taking place much farther inland than expected. Even more remarkably, the Hektoria Glacier, the largest river feeding ice into Larsen B, the largest had dropped in height by more than 80 feet in just six months. The leading edge of the glacier had slid out into the sea, its front decomposing from smooth ice to crunched, crevassed fragments, like stretching toffee. In more normal times, a drop in elevation of just a few feet had been considered big news.
"What we were able to see at Hektoria and at Crane was that the ice shelves do, in fact, have a huge impact on the glaciers behind them," says Scambos, who led one of the two scientific teams analyzing the data. "They are the Achilles' heels of the ice sheet." Nature, as glaciologists say, had provided the perfect experiment at Larsen B and resolved the debate: Remove the ice shelves, and the glaciers behind them would go racing for the sea.
Larsen B was, by geological standards, a vast formation of ice, but it is dwarfed by much larger ice shelves farther south, on the main part of the Antarctic continent. Unlike Greenland, which holds a small society, Antarctica is a planetary lockbox, a third the area of the moon and nearly as remote; it only holds ice. The ice sheets on both sides of the continent contain huge amounts of ice that lay below sea level — in West Antarctica alone, enough to raise global seas by more than 10 feet. A single shelf — the Ross Ice Shelf, the world's largest — is the size of France. "The lesson of Larsen B," Scambos says, "is that if you remove an ice shelf, then you will quickly tap deep into the center of the ice sheet."
Still, scientists weren't too worried that the glaciers behind the biggest ice shelves would rush into the ocean. Larsen B had been removed by sustained melting from a warmed atmosphere, a process almost impossible to imagine further south, where air temperatures never warm past the freezing point. So Antarctica was safe. Or it was so long as nature, evolving, didn't find some other way to remove the remaining ice shelves.
You don't have to spend much time in the company of ice scientists before you notice a marked generational divide. Those older than 50 got into the field when you needed to be a mountaineer to conduct meaningful research — to travel to the globe's end, to stick a pole in the ground and to suffer through brutal weather while the data accumulated. But the most profound insights, over the past decade, have come from satellite data. "Remote sensing technology has become so powerful that it allows us to observe the ice sheets in ways that would be impossible to replicate in the field," Eric Rignot, senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says with a hint of triumph. The younger ice scientists seem less like explorers and more like mathematicians. The new aim is to build a computer model that more perfectly mimics the Earth; if you take 10 graduate students in glaciology, each of them will be eager to go into the field, but only two or three will have the mathematical brain to synthesize the data. The older ice scientists always thought about ice — where it forms, how it moves, its fundamental properties and underlying mechanics. The younger ones are trained to think in terms of climate. And if you are thinking about the climate, you consider everything.
David Holland, director of the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science at New York University, falls firmly on the modern side of this divide. Holland started out as an academic by building mathematical models of the movements of oceans, but slowly, over time, he found himself drawn to the rhythms of fieldwork — the adventure and the engineering challenge. Holland, who has a clipped Canadian accent, is ironic and contrarian. He grew up in Newfoundland, raw country strafed by the storms of the Labrador Sea; there are holes along the cragged coast where the same molecules of water have lain for hundreds of years, too dense and salty to get out. It is a place that impresses upon you the power of the ocean to shape the land and the society built there.
In 2006, Holland got a call from Bob Thomas, who ran NASA's polar science division. Something was bothering Thomas about the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. Since scientists had documented the glacier's speedup, the assumption had been that its cause was the warming climate, which had melted pools of water on top of the ice sheet. That meltwater, the theory went, had drained through to the bottom of the ice and lifted the glacier off its rocky bed, sending it rushing to the sea, as slick and purposeful as a python.
But Thomas had spent nearly a decade studying Jakobshavn, had noticed something else. The glacier hadn't just sped up. The edge of it that lay in the water, the floating ice tongue, had thinned dramatically. At the time, thinning of a few feet a year was considered remarkable. Jakobshavn was thinning by more than 250 feet a year. The meltwater alone couldn't account for that much thinning. Something else must be helping to melt the glacier. What separated the ice tongue from the rest of the glacier, Thomas observed, was that it lay in the ocean. What if the key change hadn't happened on top of the ice sheet but beneath it? What if the larger problem wasn't warm air attacking the ice sheet from above but the ocean swallowing it from below?
NASA's satellites can't penetrate salty water, so Thomas couldn't see what was happening underneath the glacier. Was there a way, he asked Holland, to get into the polar fjord off Disko Bay where Jakobshavn's thinning tongue was bathing, to measure the water there and to see if something had changed?
Holland and Thomas talked through the problem. Even in summer, the fjord is too clogged with icebergs for a ship to get in. Thomas suggested giving instruments to the natives who went out on the ice by dog sled, digging holes to fish for halibut.
Holland had a better idea. In Ilulissat, a nearby town, he rented a helicopter and had the pilot fly over the fjord, dropping down low to clear a hole of ice with wind generated by the whirring rotors. Then, as the helicopter hovered 500 feet above the water, Holland leaned out the side and released a small metal probe, the size of a can of Coke. Sometimes he missed the hole, and the probe stuck in the surface ice, its small parachute flopping in the wind. But when he managed to drop the probe into the water, it left an FM radio transmitter on the surface before sinking to the bottom of the fjord, sending back temperature, salinity and depth readings as it went. Holland got the readings on his laptop instantly. In most places in Greenland, he knew, the water was about 34.7 degrees. But everywhere he looked in the fjord, it was 37.9 degrees. "For a glacier," Holland says, "that's absolutely intolerable."
The unexpected thing about the oceans is that their movements are as regular and fixed as subway lines. The physics of the atmosphere conspire to sort water into giant bands called currents — each hundreds of feet deep and thousands of miles long — which share the same temperature and salinity. Like subway lines, ocean currents may pass over or under one another, but the water inside one seldom mixes with another. When a buoy in Greenland detects that the water passing by is slightly saltier and slightly warmer than it has been for decades, it doesn't just mean that some water has sloshed around in the bay. It means that something more fundamental has changed: An entire subway line has moved. If Holland was right — if the ocean was responsible for melting Jakobshavn — then the threat extended far beyond Disko Bay. Warm air alone would never melt Antarctica. But if warmer water could find its way to Greenland and destroy the ice shelves, it could do the same in Antarctica, the world's great lockbox of ice.
When he returned from Greenland at the end of the summer, Holland and some colleagues built a computer model to try to predict how much ice the warmer water from Disko Bay might melt. In each experiment, the model produced melting rates of more than 250 feet a year — the same amount of thinning that Thomas had observed by satellite. "Now we knew that it was the oceans that were driving the ice," Holland says. "And the question became, what is driving the oceans?"
That winter, by e-mail and phone, Holland and a few other scientists tried to find all the data they could on the waters around Disko Bay. When, precisely, had it gotten warmer? They had little luck. Then a Danish oceanographer named Mads Ribergaard mentioned another source of data. For two decades, as fishermen trawled for cod and shrimp along the bottom of the continental shelf in Western Greenland, as much as 2,000 feet below the surface, they had attached small sensors to their nets that measured temperature and salinity, and then returned the sensors to the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, which was using the data to build a record. When Ribergaard and Holland assembled the data, they noticed a single, stunning change. During the early years of the program, the temperatures at the mouth of Disko Bay were steady, at about 34.7 degrees. Then, in 1997, the temperature jumped, to 37.9 degrees, and stayed there. The next summer, the speedup at Jakobshavn had begun. "To see a graph like that is very rare in ocean science," Holland says.
Holland looked more closely at the data set. He could see in the records that this pulse of warm water had crept north during the summer of 1996. This was, he knew, a branch of the Gulf Stream called the Irminger Current — very heavy, very warm water that usually cycled back into the North Atlantic far south of Disko Bay. But in 1997 something had changed; instead of turning back, this pulse of warm water had crept along the Greenland Shelf, farther and farther north. In other places in the fisheries data, you could see oblique references to this pulse: One species of cod, which favored warmer waters, began appearing in unprecedented numbers up the coast, and another species, which prefers the cold, was retreating. Something had changed the Irminger Current.
There is an international set of weather data that has been building for 50 years, composed of wind patterns collected by ships crisscrossing the sea and weather balloons launched at airports. Scientists have subjected this data to a rigorous analysis, plugging it into massive computers to build a model of the Earth's wind field over time. It is a clean model, beautiful in its simplicity, the best that climatologists can construct. Among many other features, it provides a record of the North Atlantic Oscillation, a mysterious element of the climate that governs the power of the winds that blow across the North Atlantic, from west to east: For 10 years or so, those winds will be strong, and then in the course of a month, they will inexplicably shift to weak and may stay that way for another decade.
It took Holland only a few minutes of paging through the records to discover what he was looking for. In December 1995, the oscillation changed, and the winds suddenly shifted from strong to weak. By the next summer, the Irminger Current had crawled so far north that it was just outside Disko Bay. The summer after that, the ice at Jakobshavn was racing for the sea. "It's all right there," Holland says. "That's how it works. The atmosphere controls the ocean. The ocean controls the ice. You could see it right in front of you."
On a recent afternoon, Holland sat in his office at NYU, overlooking Washington Square Park. He had just come back from a month in Antarctica, where he had gone hoping to install a weather station and some GPS devices on Pine Island Glacier, one of the continent's largest rivers of ice, already moving rapidly through its basin, already thinning at its edges. It had been a frustrating trip. Antarctica is a complicated logistical operation, run by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. military, and day after day Holland had sat at an airfield, waiting for a flight to the glacier's edge. One day the planes couldn't fly because of the storms. The next, a fuel pump was broken, and they had to wait for new parts. Then the pilots had to take a rest day. After a month of waiting, Holland wound up spending only four hours on Pine Island Glacier.
The experience made him sensitive to the limits of polar exploration. As he sees it, the oceans themselves are resistant to clear descriptions of cause and effect, and some of the most essential questions remain shut inside black boxes: How fast does the wind blow in the seas that surround Antarctica? How will ocean currents respond to the changing climate? We don't know, because the effort to figure it out has been spotty; too many of the critical spots in Antarctica haven't even been mapped. If we took the problem seriously, Holland thinks, then science wouldn't be delayed a year because a plane in Antarctica had a broken fuel pump, the scientists stranded in a base camp, anxiously watching the winds.
"Let me show you this," Holland says. He has Google Earth up on his computer screen, and he rotates the satellite photos so we are looking at a tiny outcropping on the coast of Antarctica. "This is called Sulzberger Ice Shelf, after the publisher of The New York Times," he says. "We know there's warm water here, warm enough to kill an ice shelf." He traces his fingernail across the screen, to the right. "Thirty miles away is the Ross Ice Shelf — the largest in the world," he says. If it were to flow into the ocean, the Ross would release enough ice to alter the shape of the world's map.
There are two alternatives at the Sulzberger shelf, Holland explains. "Either the warm water stays where it is," he says, "or the warm water moves. You could say, 'The warm water's been there a long time, and it hasn't come in yet, so it's unlikely.' On the other hand, we are changing the ocean's circulation in ways that we don't understand and whose consequences we aren't prepared for." The unique feature of Antarctica, he points out, is that much of the ice lies on bedrock that has always been beneath sea level. "It's a question," he says, "of whether the ocean wants its territory back."
In 1981, a glaciologist at the University of Maine named Terry Hughes was examining the data that had emerged from the first, crude attempts to map Antarctica, and in particular its more vulnerable part. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, these surveys found, contained three large drainage basins. Two of them ended in vast ice shelves, thick fists of ice as big as countries, which acted as corks, limiting the rate at which the interior of the continent flowed out into the oceans. But the ice shelf at the third portal, the Amundsen Sea Embayment, was very weak — not a broad fist of ice but a few skinny knuckles jutting out above the waterline. Hughes published a paper pointing this out, and he called the area the "weak underbelly" of West Antarctica. If climate change were ever to disintegrate Antarctica, he theorized, it would begin at the Amundsen Sea, by releasing the largest glacier that flowed into it, the Pine Island Glacier. This, he thought, this was the place.
For more than a decade, Pine Island has been accelerating, and it is now racing toward the sea: 2.6 miles a year, 38 feet a day, more than a foot an hour, 10 times the rate of the other large Antarctic glaciers. Because of these speeds, Pine Island is the first of the great Antarctic glaciers to begin disappearing. And so, slowly, glaciologists have begun to incline their attention here, to look, in Pine Island, for hints of how much of Antarctica might be at risk.
Pine Island Bay was named for an exploratory naval ship that was sent to Antarctica to help map the Amundsen Sea coast in 1947. The storms here are so regular and so violent that only one scientist has walked on the floating edge of the glacier: a NASA glaciologist named Bob Bindschadler, who touched down three Januaries ago on snow so tightly packed that the airplane's skis, as they carved a momentary runway, left almost no mark. ("As close to concrete as any snow I've ever stood on," Bindschadler recalls.) It was an impossibly still day, barely any wind at all. He spent 20 minutes on the glacier, then had to leave. The weather was too rough for another landing, and neither he nor anyone else has been back since. The basin that flows into the glacier is very deep and holds enough packed snow to raise global sea levels dramatically on its own, were the glacier to melt. Bindschadler thinks that much of Pine Island might "very well drain within our lifetime."
The accelerated melting in Antarctica has been discovered so recently, and its trajectory remains so hard to discern, that the estimates of sea-level rise still have a broad gap between the best- and worst-case scenarios. Some conservative predictions suggest that global seas will rise two feet by 2100. But if Pine Island Glacier drains completely, that alone will raise the seas another nine inches. Estimates that include other vulnerable glaciers in Antarctica put the total rise in sea levels at more than six feet. Pine Island is the pivot, the point at which the scenarios diverge into best and worst, and the future comes into clearer relief.
Every geographic section of ocean is composed of fat belts, different kinds of water layered neatly on top of one another, arranging themselves by gravity. In the Amundsen Sea, the shallowest water is very cold; some of it, which has just melted off the ice sheet, is nearly as fresh as stream water. But the deepest waters, more than 1,800 feet below the surface, are both saltier and warmer. Bindschadler says it is this water — at some places more than five degrees above the freezing point — that "is killing the ice sheet."
Some scientists believe that Pine Island Glacier has been thinning for 50 years; all that's known for sure is that it's been getting thinner for at least 15 years. "We knew the ice was thinning, and we knew the ocean water in front of it was warm," says Adrian Jenkins of the British Antarctic Survey. "But the ocean cavity beneath the ice was a black box, and to understand what is going to happen to the glacier, and what will happen to sea level, we needed to somehow see inside."
Few scientists have ever managed to get into Pine Island Bay; so much of the water remains frozen from one year to the next that it takes a warm and lucky summer to make the sea passable. But Jenkins got in two summers ago, on an American icebreaking vessel. He brought with him a torpedo-shaped remote-controlled submarine called the Autosub and, three miles from the edge of the glacier, lay it quietly into the cold sea. The sub dove and began to make its way toward the glacier, quickly losing contact with Jenkins and his team. Thirty hours later, they heard a series of beeps on their receiver — the Autosub had completed its circuit. Jenkins' team sent a signal directing it to resurface. A few tense minutes later, the sub breached the surface, like a tiny, sleek whale, and the crew brought it onboard.
When Jenkins downloaded the data from the seafloor, he discovered something startling. Scientists had thought that the ice on the underside of Pine Island Glacier was anchored to a ridge near the mouth of the bay. But the Autosub had made its way 30 miles inland, probing along the base of the glacier. The ice wasn't anchored to the ridge at all; the glacier had come unstuck, and was floating. That meant the warm water in the bay wasn't just lapping against the edge of the ice shelf but attacking the glacier's underbelly. What's more, Jenkins found, the water under the ice sheet was too warm to have been sitting there for years — it must be the result of warmer currents from the north being driven into the bay over and over again. "You couldn't just have had a one-time input of warm water onto the continental shelf, sometime long ago," Jenkins says. "We think this process is repeating itself regularly."
If you were to stand on a particular spot along the Antarctic coast for a day, or a week, you wouldn't always feel the wind blowing in any particular direction; the atmosphere is a chaotic system of storms, sudden and unpredictable, their dispersing energies sending air in every direction. But over time, it is possible to see a trend emerge, a subtle preference of the wind to move around the continent from east to west and to push the ocean currents in the same direction. As the winds go faster — energized by humans turning the dials, raising temperatures in the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer around Antarctica — the ocean currents grow stronger and more turbulent and more likely to send fingers of warm water up over the sill of the continental shelf, grasping for and then gripping the ice.
In the past few years, scientists have begun to worry that the world's glaciers have entered what they call a "runaway feedback mode," in which the dramatic changes to the water and wind and ice caused by global warming have not only accelerated but have themselves begun to alter the climate, creating a dynamic that could be irreversible. Both Antarctica and Greenland are now losing ice at twice the rate they were in 2002 — as much as 400 billion tons each year. In July, after the planet's six warmest months on record, a giant crack opened up overnight in the Jakobshavn Glacier; for the first time ever, scientists monitoring satellite data were able to observe in real time as an iceberg covering 2.7 square miles broke off and floated into the sea. Three weeks later, an even larger iceberg — four times the size of Manhattan — cleaved away from another glacier to the north of Jakobshavn, stunning scientists who study the ice sheets. "What is going on in the Arctic now," says Richard Alley, the geoscientist at Penn State, "is the biggest and fastest thing that nature has ever done."
Scientists say that oceans have long memories. The water reflects the slow-spreading response to events that took place a month, a year, a hundred years ago. An earthquake in the Arctic. A cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. A particularly strong El Niño summer, a decade and a half in the past. These memories are not all known, and their physics are not perfectly mapped, so the movements of the oceans are not well understood. "The ice sheet," Bindschadler says, "really is just the tail of the dog." There remains the chance that cutting carbon emissions might, in the long term, prevent more warm water from getting into the Amundsen Sea, where it is melting the ice shelves. If the atmospheric system really does have dials, in other words, then perhaps they can be turned to more comfortable settings. "That may be the saving grace," Bindschadler says. But even if we reduce emissions, he warns, there is no way to get the heat that is already in the ocean, melting the ice, back out.
"If you look at all these dramatic changes, water is doing it all," he says. "The vulnerability the ice sheets have to heat from the ocean is the key to all of this. And there's orders of magnitude more than enough heat in the ocean to kill the ice sheet, on whatever time scale the ocean and atmosphere conspire to deliver that heat. It's not at all about subsequent warming or future warming of the oceans. We don't have to warm up the ocean any more at all. The vulnerability is really from climate change altering the atmospheric circulation and how much that's going to alter the ocean circulation. The ice sheets have no defense against warm water. They don't really stand a chance."
At the end of last year, Bindschadler took a trip down the Atlantic seaboard, stopping at various points where the land sloped gently away to the sea, the places most vulnerable to the rising waters. He wanted to explain to local officials the dimensions of the threat they faced and to elucidate, as clearly as he could, what science could and couldn't say about the coming flood. In Norfolk, Virginia, only one or two city planners bothered to show up, leaving him to address a room of worried environmentalists and academics. Preacher, he thought, meet choir.
But when he arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina, Bindschadler found himself in a small room at city hall, equipped with his PowerPoint slides, explaining the state of things to a sizable gathering of local planners and politicians. The officials told him that they were planning a highway extension that would snake along the coast near the banks of the Cape Fear River, and it had been designed to come close to the water's edge — a foot above sea level in some places, two feet in others. Their question was simple: Did climate change mean that they should move the highway?
Bindschadler looked at the maps — the elevation figures for the ground, the route of the proposed highway. He imagined the seas rising here in a progression. Based on the science, he could picture what might happen here in 20 years, in 100, in 200. He looked up from the maps and turned to the officials.
"Well," he asked them, "how long do you want the highway to last?"
From Mother Earth News, an excerpt from Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money by Woody Tasch. (http://bit.ly/fXUhyH)
Slow Money: Reconnecting the Economy to Soil, Biodiversity and Food Quality
By Woody Tasch
The following is an excerpt from Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered by Woody Tasch (Chelsea Green, 2008). Tasch presents an essential new strategy for investing in local food systems, and introduces a group of fiduciary activists who are exploring what should replace the outdated concepts of industrial finance and industrial agriculture. This excerpt is from the prologue.
Civilization is a big idea. So is the idea that as soil goes, so goes civilization. So is the idea that as money goes, so goes the soil. We don’t need any more big ideas.
We need small ideas. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful because they lead to a large number of beautiful, small actions — the kind alluded to by Wendell Berry: “Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be solved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints.”
There is another kind of erosion at work, just as surely, here: erosion of social capital, erosion of community, erosion of an understanding of our place in the scheme of things.
It takes roughly a millennium to build an inch or two of soil. It takes less than 40 years, on average, to strip an inch of soil by farming in ways that are more focused on current yield than on sustaining fertility. A third of America’s topsoil has eroded since 1776. In the 1970s, the United States lost 4 billion tons of soil per year. Roughly a third of all farmland in the world has been degraded since World War II, with annual soil erosion worldwide equivalent to the loss of 12 million hectares of arable land, or 1 percent of total arable land. About a third of China’s 130 million hectares of farmland is seriously eroded, and Chinese crop yields fell by more than 10 percent from 1999 to 2003, despite increasing application of synthetic fertilizers.
Awareness of the centrality of soil health is nothing new. Aristotle laid the foundation for the humus theory of plant nutrition, and his student, Theophrastus, is often called “the father of botany.” The homo of Homo sapiens is derived from the Latin, humus, for living soil. Leonardo da Vinci observed, “We know more about the movement of the celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Darwin spent the last years of his life studying the role of earthworms in soil fertility. After World War I, Sir Albert Howard, perhaps the father of 20th-century organic agriculture, heralded the problems that would follow the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers by munitions factories looking for new postwar markets for nitrates: Fertilizers offered farmers boosts in yield but had deleterious effects on the health of microorganisms and the processes of growth and decay that are vital to the preservation of humus. In the first decade of the 21st century, despite beyond-explosive growth in our knowledge of everything from atomic energy to galactic motion, our ignorance with respect to life teeming in the soil remains humbling: It is estimated that in a gram of soil, there are billions of single-celled organisms and millions more multicelled ones, as well as more than 4,000 species, most of them not yet named or studied by scientists.
Yet we have slipped during the past half century — as if pulled by the gravitational or centripetal forces of population growth, technological innovation, consumerism and free markets— into a food system that treats the soil as if it were nothing more than a medium for holding plant roots so that they can be force-fed a chemical diet.
We have become dependent on technology and synthetic inputs, subsidized by what was, until very recently, cheap oil, which facilitated not only the production of nitrogen fertilizer, but also the management of large-scale, mechanized farms and the energy-intensive system of processing and long-range transportation necessary to bring agricultural products to distant markets. Agriculture accounts for more than 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions— all the more shocking when one realizes that recent science indicates that fertile soil is a potent carbon sink, holding the potential to play a significant role in remediating global warming.
The problems of our food and agricultural systems go beyond Peak Oil and Peak Soil, however. Aquifer depletion, biodiversity decline, widespread use of pesticides and other toxics, industrial feedlots that pose health and waste-management problems, nutrition and food safety challenges that attend centralized processing, the decline of rural economies, price volatility in global commodities markets: It is quite a litany, surprising in its breadth and even more surprising in the degree of its invisibility when seen through the lens of the modern economy.
A Flawed System
You wouldn’t use a 747 to go to the corner store for a quart of milk. You wouldn’t use a backhoe to plant a garlic bulb. You wouldn’t use a factory to raise a pig. You wouldn’t spray poison on your food. You wouldn’t trade fresh food from family farms down the road for irradiated or contaminated or chemical-laden or weeks-old food from industrial farms halfway around the world. You wouldn’t create financial incentives for farms to become so large that they need GPS technology to apply chemical inputs with quasi-military precision. You wouldn’t design a system that gets only 9 cents of every food dollar to the farmer. You wouldn’t allow topsoil to wash down the Mississippi River, replete with pesticides and fertilizer residues, creating a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico. You wouldn’t use 57 calories of petro-energy to produce one calorie of food energy.
No, no one ever sat down and designed such a system. Yet it is precisely such a technology-heavy, extractive, intermediation-laden food system that we now need to remediate and reform.
This is the system that has evolved in the wake of global capital markets and the investors who use them, much as industrial farmers use their land—as a medium into which to pour capital in order to harvest maximum yield.
In August 2007, at the 25th Anniversary Gala for the Rocky Mountain Institute, eminent panelists tried to answer questions posed by moderator Thomas Friedman: “If this is a win-win-win, if these new technologies and design solutions are so elegant and so profitable and so clean, what is holding them back? Where is the resistance to these innovations coming from?” Unexpectedly, because this was not a finance conference, the group discussion zeroed in on CEO compensation, short-term financial incentives, and the structure of capital markets.
Inventor Dean Kamen opined from the dais: “Venture capitalists have great enthusiasm but short attention spans. We are stuck in a 19th-century way of thinking that leads to large-scale, centralized production and power generation. We don’t have the mindset to really invest for the long-term in small-scale solutions that would improve life for billions of people.”
Such questions and observations lead to the premise for a new kind of financial intermediation, going by the improbable name of “slow money.”
That premise is this: The problems we face with respect to soil fertility, biodiversity, food quality and local economies are not primarily problems of technology. They are problems of finance. In a financial system organized to optimize the efficient use of capital, we should not be surprised to end up with cheapened food, millions of acres of GMO corn, billions of food miles, dying Main Streets, kids who think food comes from supermarkets, and obesity epidemics side by side with persistent hunger.
Speed is a big part of the problem. We are extracting generations’ worth of vitality from our land and our communities. We are acting as if the biological and the agrarian can be indefinitely subjugated to the technological and the industrial without significant consequence. We are, as the colloquial saying puts it, beginning to believe our own bullshit.
Which reminds me of a story.
About 15 years ago, I was turning a horse stall into my office. My first project was to shovel out the dried horse manure and shovel in sand, in advance of the construction of a wooden floor.
One day, reflecting on the transition from equine to intellectual, I realized, “How appropriate: from horseshit to bullshit.”
No discussion of the disconnect between capital markets and the land is complete without at least one reference to manure.
Let’s throw in a few bees and pigs, too:
“The story of colony collapse disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are also the same story: Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.” — Michael Pollan
A Hot Potato
There is such a thing as money that is too fast.
Money that is too fast is money that has become so detached from people, place, and the activities that it is financing that not even the experts understand it fully. Money that is too fast makes it impossible to say whether the world economy is going through a correction in the credit markets, triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis, or whether we are teetering on the edge of something much deeper and more challenging, tied to petrodollars, derivatives, hedge funds, futures, arbitrage and a byzantine hyper-securitized system of intermediation that no quant, no program trader, no speculator, no investment bank CEO, can any longer fully understand or manage. Just as no one can say precisely where the meat in a hamburger comes from (it may contain meat from as many as hundreds of animals), no one can say where the money in this or that security has come from, where it is going, what is behind it, whether — if it were to be “stopped” and, like a hot potato, held by someone for more than a few instants — it represents any intrinsic or real value. Money that is too fast creates an environment in which, when questioned by the press about the outcome of the credit crisis, former treasury secretary Robert Rubin can only respond, “No one knows.”
This kind of befuddlement is what arises when the relationships among capital, community and bioregion are broken:
“There is an appropriate velocity for water set by geology, soils, vegetation and ecological relationships in a given landscape. There is an appropriate velocity for money that corresponds to long-term needs of communities rooted in particular places and to the necessity of preserving ecological capital. There is an appropriate velocity for information, set by the assimilative capacity of the mind and by the collective learning rate of communities and entire societies. Having exceeded the speed limits, we are vulnerable to ecological degradation, economic arrangements that are unjust and unsustainable, and, in the face of great and complex problems, to befuddlement that comes with information overload.” — David Orr
As long as money accelerates around the planet, divorced from where we live, our befuddlement will continue. As long as the way we invest is divorced from how we live and how we consume, our befuddlement will worsen. As long as the way we invest uproots companies, putting them in the hands of a broad, shallow pool of absentee shareholders whose primary goal is the endless growth of their financial capital, our befuddlement at the depletion of our social and natural capital will only deepen.
Reprinted with permission from Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, published by Chelsea Green, 2008.
Agro Housing -- To Dwell is to Garden
Knafo Klimor Architects of Israel - Winners of the 2nd International Architecture Competition for Sustainable Housing. China 2007
According to a UN report, in 2010 about 50% of the Chinese population will reside in cities. This huge migration from rural regions to new urban megalopolises will create a dramatic cultural and social crisis, a loss of existing traditions and considerable unemployment. Massive urbanization will form random communities, severely deplete natural resources, exhaust urban infrastructures and transportation systems, and will increase air and soil pollution.
The concept of Agro-Housing is a new urban and social vision that will address problems of chaotic urbanization by creating a new order in the city and more specifically, in the housing environment.
Agro-Housing is a program that combines a high-rise apartment complex with a vertical greenhouse within the same building.
The idea behind Agro-Housing is to create a close to home space where families can produce their own food supply according to their abilities and choices. This will allow the citizens more independence, freedom, and additional income.
Advantages of this innovative building typology:
- Produces food for tenants and the surrounding community.
- Produces organic and healthy food that is disease and fertilizer free
- Creates an abundance of crops for self-consumption and sale for the neighbors.
- Requires no special skill set for greenhouse operation
- Allows for flexibility and independence for the greenhouse working hours.
- Creates extra income and new jobs for the inhabitants in the building.
- Creates a sense of community and softens the crisis of migration to cities.
- Preserves rural traditions and social order.
- Creates sustainable housing conditions and reduces air and soil pollution.
- Improves the building’s microclimate and reduction of its energy usage (cooling and heating)
- Uses water from the existing high water table and recycles grey water for gardening.
The concept of Agro-Housing is to have housing programs that will allow the formation of a new social and urban order that can be replicated as it represents basic human values lost in the process of modernization and progress. Additional expected benefits from Agro-Housing include the decline in commuting, the decline in further transportation system development, and the replacement of the zoning strategy by more sustainable urban conception.
Advantages for cities that adopt Agro-Housing:
- Allows urban growth with fewer investments in infrastructures and transportation systems.
- Creates new jobs within neighborhoods and independence of citizens.
- Forms public awareness about sustainable concepts and benefits.
- Contributes to environment preservation.
- Reduces water and energy consumption.
- Improves the quality of urban life and economic independence for cities.
- Lessens traffic and commercial spaces caused by the moving and selling agriculture.
Agro-Housing is a place for living that will create a new urbanity, contributing to the preservation of traditional and communal values.
Agro-Housing will promote the idea of sustainability and will dramatically reduce environmental problems in an era of globalization and urban migration.
Agro-Housing and Sustainability
The Agro-Housing is a combination of housing and urban agriculture. The building is composed of two parts: the apartment tower and the vertical greenhouse.
The greenhouse is a multi-level structure for cultivating crops such as vegetables, fruits, flowers, and spices. It is equipped with a drip-irrigation system, a heating system, and natural ventilation.
The Agro-Housing project suggests spaces for community activities. The greenhouse may serve as a place of casual or professional meetings. The roof garden offers an open air green space for recreation and informal gathering. The sky club on the roof is designed to host social gatherings and celebrations, and the ground floor kindergarten welcomes young children close to home and their parents. The Agro-Housing project provides diverse spaces for the benefit of its inhabitants.
The Agro-Housing project has a minimal footprint in order to free maximum ground surface for gardening and rainwater harvesting. The materials used for paving are recycled and cover limited surfaces. The parking area offers a large number of spaces for bicycles in the shade. The garden vegetation uses the natural cycles of the local environment to harmonize the landscape.
Sustainable Qualities of Agro-Housing:
Community & Quality of Life
Since sustainability is a holistic approach, our concern is to embrace social and economical conditions for the well-being of the inhabitants individually and as community.
Communal Spaces – The agro-housing project provides a diversity of spaces for the benefit of its inhabitants such as kindergarten on ground floor and sky club surround with green roof on top.
The Greenhouse - The vertical agro-space permits production of fresh food for families and the community reducing commuting and creating a harmonic and holistic environment of sustainable life in urban space.
Natural Ventilation - The inner vertical space in the building is functioning as a ventilation shaft for the apartments as well as for the greenhouse. The apartments benefit from cross natural ventilation and the balconies and shades reduces cooling loads. In summer the opening of the top level of the atrium space will create a thermal chimney and enable air circulation pumping the hot air out and allowing fresh cold air to flow indoor.
Shading - In summer the greenhouse floors will serve as vertical screens and shades along with the greenery for cooling the inner part of the building. South facing apartments have shaded balcony blocking the summer sun.
Energy & Lighting - Day lighting will minimize the building’s need of artificial lighting. Responsible use of lighting, occupancy sensors, and timing devices, dimmers controls will be integrated in the building.
Passive Solar Energy - In winter, the low angle winter sun will penetrate the building and heat the high mass elements which will absorb the energy during the day and discharge it at night. The greenhouse glazed wall will trap hot air that will circulate in the building.
Active Solar Energy - Solar heating system delivers heat energy from the collectors on the roof to each apartment by forced circulation system.
GSHP - Ground source heat pump using high water table constant ground temperature all year round to provide heating and cooling system without combustion of fossil fuels, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide.
Water Efficiency & Conservation
Grey-water Irrigation - The grey water from the greenhouse and the bathrooms will be used for gardening.
Drip Irrigation - Reducing water consumption by delivering irrigation directly to the plants and by collecting water that realized though evaporation. Stop leaching of nitrogen to under ground water table by using a smaller volume of water. Recycling drainage water and reusing them for production of crops by using advanced structures and soil less media containers.
Indoor Efficiency Water Use - Using high efficiency fixtures and dual water supply systems for potable water and reclaimed water.
Rainwater Harvesting - Capturing the rainwater from roofs and balconies for the use of irrigation of greenhouse and garden water preservation. Planting drought tolerant plants to increase the efficiency and the conservation of water.
Protection of the environment
Waste Management - reduction of waste generated by tenants by providing an easy accessible storage for waste recycling.
Vegetation – The intensive use of vegetation mainly in the greenhouse and on the balconies will contribute significantly to the reduction of carbon dioxide and the creation of a cooling effect and shading in the building.
Flexibility & Adaptability
The design of the apartments allows maximum flexibility to arrange interior spaces according to the requests of the future tenants. Beside the position of the plumbing fixtures, all the interior space can be divided easily with minimum energy by the definition of the owners and their financial capacities. There is a possibility to integrate working spaces within the apartments if needed.
Agro-Housing – Construction Information
The proposed structure of the building will be composed of metal columns and beams on a grid of 10x9. On top a deck flex sheets a concrete topping of five centimeters thick will be applied. This light steel structure will be prefabricated and installed on site. The concrete staircase will consolidate the building structure. This prefab steel system will create flexible spaces in the building and will contribute to the sustainability of the project. In the end of life of the building it will be easy to recycle.
The exterior panels will be prefabricated under a modular facade grid. The glazed panels will have sliding shading in the same dimension. The other panels on the façade will be covered with terracotta tiles.
The choice of materials in the building will take under consideration their thermal qualities and abilities to be recycled at the end of life of the building.
Using structurally insulated panels to determine the energy efficiency of the building and reduce future expenses on energy loss.
The bathrooms units will be prefabricated including the duct work and piping. These units will be installed in the apartment and will create the core unit in the apartment.
The partition of the interior space of the apartments will be subject to the individual choice. The design will allow the tenants to decide about the preferred distribution of spaces in their own place to create their personal home. All the partitions will be made of light plaster panels that can be moved and recycled very easily.
The estimated cost of construction per square meter is about 200 euros,
Divided approximately as follow:
Structure and facades: 110 €/m²
Electricity, plumbing and air-condition: 45 €/m²
Bathrooms and kitchen: 30 €/m²
Interior partitions and finishes: 15 €/m²
Greenhouse: 30 €/m²
Agro-Housing – Economic Assessment
The idea of Agro-Housing - carries a great economic potential as it will reduce the intensive use of natural resources for food production and enable the people to produce their food and to take responsibility for it. It will expose the young generation to the possibility to be responsible for their own health and well being by growing their own food.
Agro-Housing will reduce the air and soil pollution by cutting the need for transportation and freeing a large quantity of agriculture fields for forestation.
Agro-housing will create jobs within the neighborhood and will permit more independence to people.
Irrigation -The use of water for irrigation of the greenhouse and gardening will be from the exiting high water table on the site saving water from city system.
Rainwater Harvesting - From the roofs and balcony rainwater will be collected for gardening saving potable water from the city system.
Recycling -The metal structure as well as materials such as aluminum and glass will be recycled and will reduce the cost of the end of life of the building.
Flexibility -The planned flexibility of the interior space of the apartments will make possible to change partitions position and redesign of apartments with minimum energy and cost.
Building Envelope -The simple rectangular box represents a building with an economic envelope that can achieve an efficient energy saving and excellent thermal factors.
High-rise Building - The gathering of four apartments around each core of staircase and elevator will free land for rain harvesting and extra gardening and will contribute to the sustainability of the building.
End of life – Most materials suggested for the construction of the building such as steel, aluminum, glass and terracotta tiles will be moved from the site and recycled at a reasonable cost.
Local Resources –The local industry and expertise will be integrated in the detailed design of the building to maximize the identification of the people in the area with ideas of sustainability and preservation.
Tagit Klimor, David Knafo
Uri Halel, Efrat Tennebaum , Arie Hayun,
Yossi Shitrit, Omer Goldstien, Matan Poran.
Green house & irrigation technology consultants:
Chief agronomist Asia & Pacific: Dubi Raz
China branch: Sagi Shlomi, director
PhD Tian Dunhua, Brain Li, China agronomist
Eng. Itzhak Rokach
Rokach-Ashkenazi - Engineer, Consultant Ltd
Energy, ventilation & air conditioning:
Eng. Shafi Aharoni
Assa Aharoni Consulting Engineering Ltd
The Economy Is Getting Worse and Worse -- And No One's Doing a Thing About It
By Danny Schechter, AlterNet
Posted on August 22, 2010, Printed on August 23, 2010
We know we live in hard times that are on the verge of getting harder, with 500,000 new claims for unemployment last week, a recent record.
The stock market may be over for now as fear and panic drives small investors out. Big corporations hoard stashes of cash rather then hire workers. The D word (depression) is back in play.
Foreclosures are up, and the administration’s programs to stop them are down, well below their stated goals, only helping a sixth of those promised assistance.
And here’s a statistic for you: 300,000. That’s the number of foreclosure filings every month for the past 17 months. This year, 1.9 million homes will be lost, down from 2 million last year. Is that progress? In July alone, 92,858 homes were repossessed.
At the same time, the number of canceled mortgage modifications exceeded the number of successful ones. According to Ml-implode.com, last month, “the number of trial modification cancellations surged to 616,839, greatly outnumbering the 421,804 active permanent modifications."
And don’t think this problem only affects those homeowners about to go homeless. According to the New York Times, Michael Feder, the chief executive of the real estate data firm Radar Logic, says we are all at risk.
“My concern is that if we have another protracted housing dip, it’s going to bring the economy down,” Mr. Feder said. “If consumers don’t think their houses are worth what they were six months ago, they’re not going to go out and spend money. I’m concerned this problem isn’t being addressed.”
The larger point is that even if you believe the economy is already down, it can go lower. No one knows how to “fix" it either, just as BP couldn’t plug the “leak” that, truth be told, is still oozing oil.
So what are we doing about it? Are we demanding debt relief or a moratorium on foreclosures? Are we shutting down the foreclosure factories? Nope.
Progressives are spending time and wasting passion this August debating the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero, invariably responding to the provocations and agenda of adversaries. They are always on the defense, never taking the offense.
Who is beating the drum for job creation and a new economic policy? Maybe the unions, but their voices are muted and ignored in the electronic noise machine. Marches are planned for August 28 in Detroit and October 2 in Washington. But the expected war of words between Rev. Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck over the legacy of the March on Washington is expected to generate more heat.
Meanwhile, even as the administration seems to be finding signs of a “recovery,” a parade of failures march on from the discovery that there is an oil slick the size of Manhattan in the Gulf to the persistence of frauds in finance from state pension funds in New Jersey to the case against the head of the Bank of America. Even worse, ShoreBank, one of the banks that community activists considered a national model of social responsibility has gone down in Chicago, the 104th bank to fail this year, with 15 branches including some in Detroit and Cleveland. It was also active in 40 countries. In June, it reported over $2 billion in deposits. By August, it was gone.
In all, 349 U.S. banks have disappeared since 2007.
ShoreBank promoted itself as a community development and environmental bank. Based in Michelle Obama’s old neighborhood, it boasted the slogan “Let's Change the World.” Now the world of Wall Street has changed the bank with a partnership of investors, including American Express, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, taking over under the name United Partnership.
Hundreds of other banks are on the FDIC hit parade and may be next.
There were many worse casualties in banking in the past according to Barry James Dyke’s informative book, Pirates of Manhattan. He notes that 10,000 banks failed during the Depression and 2,900 bit the dust in the S&L crisis. The current number might have been higher had Congress not bailed out the Banksters who used some of our money to play PacMan, gobbling up smaller institutions.
AP reported, “ShoreBank lost $39.5 million in the second quarter amid soured real estate loans. The bank had been under a so-called cease and desist order from the FDIC for more than a year, requiring it to boost its capital reserves. ShoreBank was able to raise more than $146 million in capital this spring from several big Wall Street institutions. It was unable, however, to secure federal bailout funds it sought from the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program.”
Republicans are “investigating” alleged administration support for the Bank, AP explained:
Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to a White House legal adviser asking specific questions on possible contacts between administration officials and executives of ShoreBank or potential investors. The White House has said no administration officials met with ShoreBank concerning its rescue or requested help from financial institutions on its behalf.
Questions raised by Republicans, of course, seek to politicize the issue when it is the FDIC ‘s deal with the big banks that needs to be probed, as Zero Hedge explains:
As it stands, Goldman and 11 other banks are receiving a multimillion-dollar gift to conduct a portfolio liquidation run-off of ShoreBank's assets, while merely making sure existing deposits are serviced.
(Note: the FDIC is led by a Republican. Hmm.)
Blogger Mike Shedlock concludes: “The FDIC's handling of Shore Bank smells as bad as a pile of dead alewives on a Chicago beach in mid-July."
My question is: Why didn’t the administration help shore up ShoreBank (if it could be shored up) as it did so many of the "too big to fail" banks? Its hands-off attitude, perhaps in fear of criticism, helped doom the bank and, by extension, the idea that we could have socially responsible lending institutions.
So much for the priorities and power of Obama’s “Chicago Mafia.”
If they don’t have the guts to save a bank in their own hometown, a bank they know has meant so much to so many, is it any wonder they won’t take on the crimes of Wall Street?
Last week, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner complained he is being falsely identified as a “Goldman guy,” and insisted that he never worked for the financial institution that was recently branded a “giant squid on the face of humanity.” Geithner doesn’t seem to realize that the speculation is not based on the details of his resume but on an assessment of his track record as a toady for the pals he worked with when he ran the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.
And by the way, Tim, why the holdup on the appointment of Elizabeth Warren to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in your old institution? Is she too smart and popular for you?
Why the fiddling while our modern Rome burns?
Danny Schechter writes the News Dissector blog for MediaChannel.org. His latest book is PLUNDER: Investigating Our Economic Calamity (Cosimo Books).
© 2010 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/14792
Performance Analysis Technology and Radical Design Change for Carbon Neutrality
Dr. Don Mclean
Founder and CEO, Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES)
“Climate change is the greatest threat to our common future. We have a very short period of time to tackle the problem before it becomes irreversible and out of control. A lot of progress has been made, but we must now go further, faster and turn targets into real change.”
- Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change (May 2010)
With climate change so high on the global agenda, few of us need persuading about the importance of sustainable building design. But making it happen is another matter. Unfortunately, it is clear that currently, Green, Sustainable and High Performance Buildings are not going quickly enough in reducing their negative impact on the environment, and certainly not far enough to offset the balance of buildings that march on in ignorance.
The Lean, Clean, Green Approach
Sustainable design is a holistic way of designing buildings to minimize their environmental impact through:
- Reduced dependency on non-renewable resources
- A regional response to climate and site
- Increased efficiency in the design of the building envelope and energy systems
- Environmentally sensitive use of materials
- A focus on healthy interior environments
- Environmentally sensitive construction
- Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
A specific part of this, zero-carbon building design, is all about energy—reducing demand (loads) through climate responsive design, meeting those needs efficiently and effectively, and using renewables to deliver on reduced energy needs. However, it must be ensured that the building offers a healthy, comfortable internal environment. To achieve this, the industry needs to start thinking about the design process in an entirely new way, not just modify current practices. This is what I refer to as the Lean, Clean, Green approach.
- LEAN – using good design to make passive and hybrid strategies part of the solution
- CLEAN – applying low-carbon technologies
- GREEN – leveraging renewable technologies to a higher degree because the energy requirements of the building are now greatly reduced.
Climate needs to be the starting point—basic building design must be climate responsive, or the passive systems won’t work, and the mechanical systems won’t be small enough to be powered by renewable energy.
In this article I aim to discuss what radical changes need to be undertaken to the design process, changes in mindset required, and the important role Building Performance Analysis software plays in enabling the Lean, Clean, Green approach. Because, as the physicist Lord Kelvin put it, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
How Building Performance Analysis Tools Can Help
Passive design uses the sun, wind, and natural light to heat, cool and light the building. The building architecture should be used first—heat only with the sun, cool only with the wind and shade, light only with daylight where possible—and only then use mechanical systems to supplement what you cannot otherwise provide. Finally, use renewable, clean energy before hooking up to natural gas, oil, or the regular electrical grid.
As part of this process, there is a general comprehension and growing knowledge of just how powerful building performance analysis tools and energy modeling can be in guiding informed decisions on what strategies will work for the climate, site, and the building in question. However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, particularly among architects, as to what this technology is and how it can be used to best effect.
Questions that are routinely asked include: What analysis capabilities are available to me? How do the results inform me? What tasks should I be doing when? And how do I incorporate all this into my workflow?
Performance analysis is a vital component in designing truly sustainable buildings—creating understanding of the impact of different strategies on energy consumption and other environmental metrics. Building performance analysis software allows designers to “virtually” test the feasibility of different energy saving strategies and new technologies and facilitate low-energy/low-carbon designs. It can help not just during the design phase but also during the post-construction occupancy phase as well, as shown below.
Building performance analysis allows companies to achieve cost effective and increasingly more efficient environmental performance, while also enhancing competitive advantage, through a shift from the conventional linear building design and delivery processes to a multi-disciplinary practice of interrelated systems integration at the whole building level.
“An integrated design approach is required to ensure that the architectural elements and the engineering systems work effectively together.” IPCC report “Climate Change 2007”
You will have probably noticed that integrated design is a recurring theme at the moment across BIM, other CAD tools, and processes such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). This integrated information sharing approach to design team working is one of the key changes to current thought processes that needs to take place. This integration, in conjunction with a greater understanding of climate-responsive Lean, Clean, Green design, makes it possible to achieve significant energy and carbon emission reductions in buildings.
Starting Early with Building Performance Analysis
Many key decisions that affect a development’s sustainability credentials, such as orientation, layout, form, envelope and potential passive strategies, are taken right at the very early stages of the project. As a consequence, designs are often fully developed architecturally before the impact on sustainability issues is even considered, by which time, the opportunity to make a difference has passed. Addressing these issues and getting sustainability on the agenda right from the beginning has to be a key priority if the industry really wants to embrace sustainable design.
Unfortunately, the same is also often true of Building Performance Analysis—too often, modeling is undertaken at the later stages of design as part of compliance and not incorporated into the process right from the start where it can make the biggest impact.
A change in mindset is required; performance analysis needs to come out of the back room and into the forefront of sustainable design—from the hands of a few into the hands of many. It needs to be incorporated at the right level across the whole design process—from comparative ballpark, apple with apple comparison right at the earliest stages, through to more detailed analysis and compliance at later stages.
Comparative analysis of climate, building metrics, solar, energy/carbon, light and natural resources at the early stage, using ballpark figures, can be useful to check feasibility, quantify and inform design team decision making. It can help with those all important master-planning, orientation, massing, and form decisions, justifying choices and differentiating project proposals. Results can be used to explain and quantify to clients the sustainable impact of different decisions and tradeoffs, offering a competitive advantage. Also, feasibility conversations with engineers can easily be started early on before key decisions are set in stone.
Detailed analysis of these and other elements such as airflow, thermal comfort, heating/cooling loads, egress and value/cost at later stages provides more accurate figures and results for system sizing, fine tuning, compliance, costing, and documentation. Again, competitive advantage is achieved as results and analysis can be presented to clients and building control, justifying design decisions and providing data for effective commissioning and in-use operation.
Here are some questions that analysis can help answer throughout the design process:
From the examples above, it is obvious that such conceptual differences cannot be bridged with simple file compatibility no matter how perfect the interface is. The real solution is to build dynamic round-trip collaboration workflows, where each component of the workflow is specifically prepared to fulfill the different workflow requirements. Let us explore such an “open” IFC-based collaboration workflow between the architect and the structural engineer by discussing the specific requirements for each component.
The Importance of Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration
Such a holistic approach to sustainable design requires the greater collaboration and integration between all parties that we touched on earlier. As the word “holistic” implies, there a number of areas involved; I would encourage you to look at a document that was the result of a national group of different stakeholders who spent over two years developing a framework for enabling a holistic approach, which resulted in an ANSI standard (ANSI/MTS 1.0 WSIP Guide-2007, Whole Systems Integration Process). In addition to the standard, a book entitled The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability (www.integrativedesign.net) was developed by some of the participants on this committee as well, and carries the discussion further.
Carbon Neutral cannot be achieved without the highest level of early and continued cooperation amongst the client, architect and engineers. The “good design is sustainable design” ethos promoted by quantitative analysis can make a great impact. Architects get quick environmental feedback on design iterations and environmental engineers can input more into the design. Achieving this kind of effective collaboration and cross-discipline understanding is, in my opinion, core to achieving truly sustainable, energy-efficient building design.
Stephen Choi, sustainable design coordinator at Broadway Malyan, one of our customers who are trialing some recent developments, noticed that: “On pilot projects when the architects knew that their designs were being tested in a tangible quantitative method, the way they thought about the design started to change. This and the analysis feedback was a learning catalyst for them. A greater understanding of the non-visual effect the lines they were drawing started to grow and over time, a better ballpark appreciation of what design elements mean in terms of energy use, solar and daylight performance developed.”
About the Author
Dr. Don McLean is the Founder and CEO of Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES). He has 35 years experience in the use and development of building simulation analysis tools, including involvement in many landmark building simulation projects across the UK and Europe, such as Heathrow Terminal 5. In 1994, he founded IES for the development of the Virtual Environment platform with the objective to overcome many of the commercial barriers to the uptake of energy efficient simulation practices within design firms. Offering an integrated suite of performance analysis tools within one platform, IES continues to develop its tools, making them more and more accessible to architects and the mainstream building sector. Don holds a BSc in Environmental Engineering from the University of Strathclyde, and also spent nine years in the ABACUS unit at the Department of Architecture in the University of Strathclyde, undertaking a Ph.D. and Post-doctoral research. During this time, ABACUS was one of the foremost departments in the application of computers in the building design process.
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