Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


130 years of global warming in 30 seconds: NASA video makes it clear

In this week’s Earth Journal: a video that shows 130 years of global warming in 30 seconds, a wind farm that puts the turbines underground, and the “water footprint” of agriculture in Mississippi River valley.

Like a lot of other folks, I’ve spent some awestruck hours recently with NASA images of the solar flare M8.7 and its effects, especially the enhanced aurorae borealis.

But even more awesome (in the original meaning of that word) was a different sort of NASA video showing, in just under half a minute, the warming of Earth’s atmosphere from 1880 till now — the “modern record” for climate measurement.

In the final frame, above, shadings from yellow to red indicate areas where temperatures were higher than the average for a baseline period 1951-1980, and blue shadings indicate places with lower temperatures. (Since we all know the plot line of the global warming story anyway, I’m guessing that won’t be a spoiler.)

One point worth underlining: The video’s comparisons are not to Earth’s temperatures before industrial-scale burning of coal and other fossil fuels, but to a baseline that was really only last month, in terms of modern economic history — and just a moment ago in geologic time.

Another way to harness wind

It might be the best new idea for making electricity from wind, or merely the weirdest-looking: Capture the force of moving air with some big scoops and channel the energy to turbines underground.

Article continues after advertisement

I ran across it in the Minnesota 2020 blog, wherein Will Nissen reports that people with renewable-energy expertise are giving serious attention to the pioneering approach of a Chaska-based company called SheerWind:

The new wind turbine technology, called Invelox, promises significant cost, reliability, power and aesthetic improvements compared to current turbine technology.

It’s in the running for a $100,000 grand prize at the Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago, hosted by an Illinois-based partnership of research institutions, corporations, investors, foundations, trade groups, and government agencies, and rewards the most innovative clean energy companies in the Midwest with cash prizes.

The most obvious advantage of the Invelox design is that it presumably gets around the objections of people who find standard three-blade turbines too noisy, too hard on the birds or just too damned tall.

Whether it gets around all aesthetic objections can’t be known until an Invelox project actually gets built, but the illustrations above leave room for doubt. The above-ground profile is definitely lower  — but lovelier, who’s to say? (I think the regular turbines are rather pretty.)

SheerWind’s more important pitch, however, is that this design can make more electricity from less wind. The company told EarthTechling:

Sheerwind’s simulations and computer models indicate that the Invelox technology can produce three times more power than a conventional wind turbine, while mounted on a tower at least 25 percent shorter, and using a ground-based turbine with blades 25 percent as long.  Because the system is shorter, smaller, and has fewer moving parts than a conventional system, SheerWind expects to achieve savings of 16 to 38 percent per megawatt-hour (MWh) produced.

At 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, the technology is believed capable of producing wind power at prices comparable to new gas-fired generation.

Another footprint of concern

The “carbon footprint,” individual and collective, is part of our everyday language now. For an intriguing look at the “water footprint” of agriculture along the Mississippi River, wander over to National Geographic:

You wake up to cereal made from midwestern corn. You slip on cotton clothes, get into a vehicle fueled partly by ethanol and dine later on chicken and rice—all made possible by crops from the Mississippi River Basin, a vast area that stretches from Montana to New York and drains all or parts of 31 states.

Article continues after advertisement

The part of the basin east of the Mississippi River largely relies on rain to grow crops; farmers on the west side irrigate much, much more. All told, it’s among the most productive farming regions in the world.

Trouble is, fertilizer that flows from fields (and cities) takes a toll on local waters and eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the economically important fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen and phosphorus pollution suffocates marine life and has led to a dead zone larger than the state of Connecticut.

The notion of a water footprint has been around for about a decade, arising out of research at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and its Institute for Water Education.

A carbon footprint measures contributions to the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel consumption; a water footprint measures deductions from the world’s freshwater resources through consumption or degradation.

According to the Water Footprint Network, almost two-thirds of Americans’ total water footprint results from activity in the Mississippi River Basin; most of that activity — no surprise here — is related to agriculture, especially corn and soybean production.

The average American’s water footprint is twice the global average, the Geographic says; to those interested in calculating their personal water footprint, it offers a handy tool.