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03/30/2010

Mostly Water

What a yucky winter it was. Unfortunately, the weather forecasters were all too accurate in their predictions of the plethora of snow, ice, wind and rain that buffeted us here in the Northeast. As I'm writing this, on Tuesday, March 30, another nor'easter is dumping enough rain that this will be the wettest March on record in some areas. Apropos of the disgustingly reliable weather forecasts, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the launching on April 1, 1960 of the world's first weather satellite, TIROS 1 (Television Infrared Observation Satellite). 
 
According to a Perspective by Stanley Kidder and Thomas Vander Haar in the February 26 issue of Science, TIROS 1 was only in orbit for 79 days, during which it returned over 19 thousand useful images. Even so, TIROS 1 was a quite primitive weather platform, sending back only 32 pictures for each orbit. Today's satellites, some in geosynchronous orbits, are capable of sending back what are essentially movies of our weather with data on cloud cover, precipitation, temperatures, wind velocities, etc. Today, you can pretty much rely on 5-day, even 7-day forecasts.
 
This month's earlier, unnamed nor'easter was devastating for many, bringing down trees and power lines, along with major flooding. My basement flooded and we found that our recently installed sump pump turns out to be in the highest part of the basement. The result is that the water has to build up to an inch or so over the whole basement and rec room before the sump does its job! With at least 11 fatalities due to the storm,  my basement flooding was minor compared to the painful and sometimes deadly damage caused by the storm to others in our region. Even so, my flooded basement, combined with my wife having developed pneumonia, provided a very unsettling end to this disgusting winter.
 
All of which provided the backdrop for what I consider an amazing coincidence story. I am the editor for the April bulletin of our Old Guard organization. As monthly editor, I was supposed to pick up any information not emailed at the Old Guard's first meeting this month. Not being comfortable leaving my sick wife alone for several hours, I skipped the meeting, delegating the job of receiving the bulletin material to a friend in the group.
 
The day before the meeting, I sent emails telling those supplying bulletin material of my forthcoming absence.  One of these individuals was Tod, charged with supplying certain historical material. I knew Tod's computer was in a computer "hospital", so I decided to call him. I punched in his number on my portable phone and was poised to push the button to initiate the call when the doorbell rang. Yes, you guessed it. There stood Tod with his handwritten input in hand - the day before the meeting and at the very second I was about to dial his number! I was blown away! Tod had been to my house only once before, over a year ago, also to deliver bulletin material.
 
I have no idea as to how one calculates the odds of this happening, but I figure it must be in the one chance in a zillion range. I vaguely recall in a past column discussing how highly improbable things happen and how they can mislead one into thinking the particular event is a miracle or that it demonstrates some kind of extrasensory perception. Actually, when I found Tod at my doorstep, my first remark to him was indeed something to the effect it was extrasensory perception.   However, if we think about it, given the zillions of times improbable things do not happen, there is a finite probability that some improbable things will happen, given enough time. 
 
Speaking of coincidences and weather, what about the recent high level meeting on global warming that just happened to take place in snow and cold weather in Copenhagen? And then Obama arrives back in Washington to experience record breaking snowfalls! For those who don't accept that global warming is real, the irony of the wintry weather conditions forms the perfect storm for them to cast doubt on the warming scenario. I also recall writing in some past column about the fact that the global warming scenario does not necessarily call for uniform warming all over the globe but, in fact, certain areas may experience just the opposite. I must admit saying at times during this past horrible winter, "Where is global warming when we need it?"
 
El Niño has no doubt played an important role in our unusual weather but even so, when Vancouver and Alaska had temperatures in the 50s while we were well below freezing, I imagine they were thinking global warming. I personally think there's no question that Earth as a whole is warming. Is it due to us or is it just one of the many warming periods that occur in our planet's history? 
 
Well, our politicians may provide us with the answer. Following up on an item in the February 26 issue of Science, I went to what I assume is the Utah legislative Web site, le.utah.gov, and found both the initial and final texts of HJR12, a resolution passed in the Utah House by 56 to 17. The resolution, backed by all of the Republican representatives, calls upon the Environmental Protection Agency "to immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated." The final resolution did eliminate some rather strident remarks about a "climate data conspiracy", "tricks" related to global temperature data, "flawed" climate data and the "climate change gravy train". The resolution also proposes that the climate data correlate more closely with the banning of the chlorofluorocarbons that were shown to be involved in the depletion of the ozone layer. This is a new one to me!
 
I'm horrified to think that global warming is being taken over, so to speak, by the politicians. With the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere now at 390 parts per million, we're already past one "tipping point" postulated by some scientists. In the March 22 Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) Faith Hayden reviews the book "STORMS of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity"" by James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen has been called the grandfather of climate change and first started testifying before Congress in the 1980s. He warns that we'd better get that carbon dioxide level down to 350 ppm or the consequences will indeed be catastrophic. 
 
One feature of warmer air temperatures is that the air can hold more water. Hence more rain and more violent storms. Without prompt action, Hansen predicts cyclonic blizzards on the East Coast ( we just had a "hurricane-like " blizzard only a few weeks ago), F5 tornadoes through the Midwest, and sea levels rising by meters. In an excellent article, "Global Warming and Climate Change", by Stephen Ritter in the December 21, 2009 C&EN, Ritter explores at length the science and the views of the global warming believers and the "deniers". Ritter quotes Hansen as projecting that if CO2 increases to 450 ppm the sea level rise could be tens of meters by the 21st century. If so, say goodbye to Florida and I would imagine New York and any other cities near or on the coasts of the world.
 
You may have heard or read of Hansen's problems with the politicians. In his book he writes that both the George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, and even the Clinton administration, either tried or succeeded in suppressing or modifying his findings regarding global warming. 
 
As if things aren't bad enough, I get my copy of the April National Geographic and it's an issue devoted to WATER, in big bold letters on the cover. Of course, we all know about the warming of Alaska and the melting glaciers in places ranging from Alaska to Africa to Antarctica to the Himalayas and Tibet. With few exceptions, glaciers are receding at a rapid pace worldwide and the consequences if the melting continues are catastrophic. Glacier melting feeds rivers that provide the water for farming and drinking and millions are dependent on these waters for sustenance.  It's very depressing to read about what many have to go through to get water. For example, in parts of Africa, women may spend 8 hours a day just walking to a source of water, typically of highly dubious quality, and then carrying back anywhere perhaps 50 or more gallons on their back! And the unsanitary conditions in many areas due to lack of clean water are truly horrific.
 
I tried to find something less gloomy in all of this and did manage to find a couple of tidbits in the Geographic issue. As a golfer I was happy to read that there is a certain grass variety, Paspalum, that thrives on brackish water and can survive short droughts. The grass is of a type that allows the golf ball to sit up nicely on top of it, just what I need. This grass apparently is great for coastal golf courses. Now all we have to do is hope the coasts don't get submerged by rising seas due to global warming. 
 
The Geographic issue also contains a discussion of various methods of desalination, the process of turning saltwater into drinkable water. The obvious method is distillation; just heat the saltwater and drive off the water leaving the salt behind. Another is reverse osmosis, in which you force the saltwater through a membrane that won't allow the salt to pass through but does allow the water molecules to pass through. This process requires energy to pump up the water to the necessary pressure to force it through the membrane.  
 
Normal osmosis depends on the principle that if you have two solutions separated by a membrane, water will tend to migrate from the solution where it is in the highest concentration to the solution having a lower concentration of H2O. Reverse osmosis involves the opposite process and hence the need for the pressure to push the water through the membrane in the "wrong" direction. Coming online this year is another process known as "forward" osmosis, which is really just a true normal osmosis. 
 
In forward osmosis, saltwater is on one side of a membrane and on the other side is a solution of another salt at a higher concentration than the salt in saltwater. In such a situation, the water from the saltwater is "sucked" through the membrane to bring the water concentrations even on both sides of the membrane. The Geographic article says that other salt is a salt that can be evaporated off by a relatively low grade heat but doesn't identify the salt. That sounded to me like a strange salt that would evaporated more than water on heating but I found an article in the journal Desalination by Jeffrey McCutcheon and coworkers on ammonium bicarbonate. Apparently, heating this salt to only 60 degrees Centigrade (water boils at 100 C) the salt decomposes to ammonia (NH3) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and, with the formula NH4CO3, I'm guessing H2O. 
 
Another method in the National Geographic caught my eye. We've talked many times about carbon, in particular about carbon nanotubes, those tiny carbon tubes with the carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal structure resembling chicken wire. One method of desalination involves embedding nanotubes in some sort of material to form a membrane of nanotubes and putting an electrical charge on the nanotubes. The charge repels the sodium ions and the water passes through the nanotubes to the other side of the structure. It seems that the nanotubes are nice and smooth and water flows freely through them. Sometime I'll have to gather together all the multitude of possible uses for these teensy little tubes. But now it's down to the basement. ......
 
Well, I've just returned and, sure enough, the water is starting to trickle in and the rain continues to pour down. I'll post this now and apologize if it is more disjointed and wandering than usual. It's been a tough winter and so far spring isn't much better!
 
Next column on or about April 30, hopefully.
 
Allen F. Bortrum



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-03/30/2010-      
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Dr. Bortrum

03/30/2010

Mostly Water

What a yucky winter it was. Unfortunately, the weather forecasters were all too accurate in their predictions of the plethora of snow, ice, wind and rain that buffeted us here in the Northeast. As I'm writing this, on Tuesday, March 30, another nor'easter is dumping enough rain that this will be the wettest March on record in some areas. Apropos of the disgustingly reliable weather forecasts, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the launching on April 1, 1960 of the world's first weather satellite, TIROS 1 (Television Infrared Observation Satellite). 
 
According to a Perspective by Stanley Kidder and Thomas Vander Haar in the February 26 issue of Science, TIROS 1 was only in orbit for 79 days, during which it returned over 19 thousand useful images. Even so, TIROS 1 was a quite primitive weather platform, sending back only 32 pictures for each orbit. Today's satellites, some in geosynchronous orbits, are capable of sending back what are essentially movies of our weather with data on cloud cover, precipitation, temperatures, wind velocities, etc. Today, you can pretty much rely on 5-day, even 7-day forecasts.
 
This month's earlier, unnamed nor'easter was devastating for many, bringing down trees and power lines, along with major flooding. My basement flooded and we found that our recently installed sump pump turns out to be in the highest part of the basement. The result is that the water has to build up to an inch or so over the whole basement and rec room before the sump does its job! With at least 11 fatalities due to the storm,  my basement flooding was minor compared to the painful and sometimes deadly damage caused by the storm to others in our region. Even so, my flooded basement, combined with my wife having developed pneumonia, provided a very unsettling end to this disgusting winter.
 
All of which provided the backdrop for what I consider an amazing coincidence story. I am the editor for the April bulletin of our Old Guard organization. As monthly editor, I was supposed to pick up any information not emailed at the Old Guard's first meeting this month. Not being comfortable leaving my sick wife alone for several hours, I skipped the meeting, delegating the job of receiving the bulletin material to a friend in the group.
 
The day before the meeting, I sent emails telling those supplying bulletin material of my forthcoming absence.  One of these individuals was Tod, charged with supplying certain historical material. I knew Tod's computer was in a computer "hospital", so I decided to call him. I punched in his number on my portable phone and was poised to push the button to initiate the call when the doorbell rang. Yes, you guessed it. There stood Tod with his handwritten input in hand - the day before the meeting and at the very second I was about to dial his number! I was blown away! Tod had been to my house only once before, over a year ago, also to deliver bulletin material.
 
I have no idea as to how one calculates the odds of this happening, but I figure it must be in the one chance in a zillion range. I vaguely recall in a past column discussing how highly improbable things happen and how they can mislead one into thinking the particular event is a miracle or that it demonstrates some kind of extrasensory perception. Actually, when I found Tod at my doorstep, my first remark to him was indeed something to the effect it was extrasensory perception.   However, if we think about it, given the zillions of times improbable things do not happen, there is a finite probability that some improbable things will happen, given enough time. 
 
Speaking of coincidences and weather, what about the recent high level meeting on global warming that just happened to take place in snow and cold weather in Copenhagen? And then Obama arrives back in Washington to experience record breaking snowfalls! For those who don't accept that global warming is real, the irony of the wintry weather conditions forms the perfect storm for them to cast doubt on the warming scenario. I also recall writing in some past column about the fact that the global warming scenario does not necessarily call for uniform warming all over the globe but, in fact, certain areas may experience just the opposite. I must admit saying at times during this past horrible winter, "Where is global warming when we need it?"
 
El Niño has no doubt played an important role in our unusual weather but even so, when Vancouver and Alaska had temperatures in the 50s while we were well below freezing, I imagine they were thinking global warming. I personally think there's no question that Earth as a whole is warming. Is it due to us or is it just one of the many warming periods that occur in our planet's history? 
 
Well, our politicians may provide us with the answer. Following up on an item in the February 26 issue of Science, I went to what I assume is the Utah legislative Web site, le.utah.gov, and found both the initial and final texts of HJR12, a resolution passed in the Utah House by 56 to 17. The resolution, backed by all of the Republican representatives, calls upon the Environmental Protection Agency "to immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated." The final resolution did eliminate some rather strident remarks about a "climate data conspiracy", "tricks" related to global temperature data, "flawed" climate data and the "climate change gravy train". The resolution also proposes that the climate data correlate more closely with the banning of the chlorofluorocarbons that were shown to be involved in the depletion of the ozone layer. This is a new one to me!
 
I'm horrified to think that global warming is being taken over, so to speak, by the politicians. With the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere now at 390 parts per million, we're already past one "tipping point" postulated by some scientists. In the March 22 Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) Faith Hayden reviews the book "STORMS of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity"" by James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen has been called the grandfather of climate change and first started testifying before Congress in the 1980s. He warns that we'd better get that carbon dioxide level down to 350 ppm or the consequences will indeed be catastrophic. 
 
One feature of warmer air temperatures is that the air can hold more water. Hence more rain and more violent storms. Without prompt action, Hansen predicts cyclonic blizzards on the East Coast ( we just had a "hurricane-like " blizzard only a few weeks ago), F5 tornadoes through the Midwest, and sea levels rising by meters. In an excellent article, "Global Warming and Climate Change", by Stephen Ritter in the December 21, 2009 C&EN, Ritter explores at length the science and the views of the global warming believers and the "deniers". Ritter quotes Hansen as projecting that if CO2 increases to 450 ppm the sea level rise could be tens of meters by the 21st century. If so, say goodbye to Florida and I would imagine New York and any other cities near or on the coasts of the world.
 
You may have heard or read of Hansen's problems with the politicians. In his book he writes that both the George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, and even the Clinton administration, either tried or succeeded in suppressing or modifying his findings regarding global warming. 
 
As if things aren't bad enough, I get my copy of the April National Geographic and it's an issue devoted to WATER, in big bold letters on the cover. Of course, we all know about the warming of Alaska and the melting glaciers in places ranging from Alaska to Africa to Antarctica to the Himalayas and Tibet. With few exceptions, glaciers are receding at a rapid pace worldwide and the consequences if the melting continues are catastrophic. Glacier melting feeds rivers that provide the water for farming and drinking and millions are dependent on these waters for sustenance.  It's very depressing to read about what many have to go through to get water. For example, in parts of Africa, women may spend 8 hours a day just walking to a source of water, typically of highly dubious quality, and then carrying back anywhere perhaps 50 or more gallons on their back! And the unsanitary conditions in many areas due to lack of clean water are truly horrific.
 
I tried to find something less gloomy in all of this and did manage to find a couple of tidbits in the Geographic issue. As a golfer I was happy to read that there is a certain grass variety, Paspalum, that thrives on brackish water and can survive short droughts. The grass is of a type that allows the golf ball to sit up nicely on top of it, just what I need. This grass apparently is great for coastal golf courses. Now all we have to do is hope the coasts don't get submerged by rising seas due to global warming. 
 
The Geographic issue also contains a discussion of various methods of desalination, the process of turning saltwater into drinkable water. The obvious method is distillation; just heat the saltwater and drive off the water leaving the salt behind. Another is reverse osmosis, in which you force the saltwater through a membrane that won't allow the salt to pass through but does allow the water molecules to pass through. This process requires energy to pump up the water to the necessary pressure to force it through the membrane.  
 
Normal osmosis depends on the principle that if you have two solutions separated by a membrane, water will tend to migrate from the solution where it is in the highest concentration to the solution having a lower concentration of H2O. Reverse osmosis involves the opposite process and hence the need for the pressure to push the water through the membrane in the "wrong" direction. Coming online this year is another process known as "forward" osmosis, which is really just a true normal osmosis. 
 
In forward osmosis, saltwater is on one side of a membrane and on the other side is a solution of another salt at a higher concentration than the salt in saltwater. In such a situation, the water from the saltwater is "sucked" through the membrane to bring the water concentrations even on both sides of the membrane. The Geographic article says that other salt is a salt that can be evaporated off by a relatively low grade heat but doesn't identify the salt. That sounded to me like a strange salt that would evaporated more than water on heating but I found an article in the journal Desalination by Jeffrey McCutcheon and coworkers on ammonium bicarbonate. Apparently, heating this salt to only 60 degrees Centigrade (water boils at 100 C) the salt decomposes to ammonia (NH3) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and, with the formula NH4CO3, I'm guessing H2O. 
 
Another method in the National Geographic caught my eye. We've talked many times about carbon, in particular about carbon nanotubes, those tiny carbon tubes with the carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal structure resembling chicken wire. One method of desalination involves embedding nanotubes in some sort of material to form a membrane of nanotubes and putting an electrical charge on the nanotubes. The charge repels the sodium ions and the water passes through the nanotubes to the other side of the structure. It seems that the nanotubes are nice and smooth and water flows freely through them. Sometime I'll have to gather together all the multitude of possible uses for these teensy little tubes. But now it's down to the basement. ......
 
Well, I've just returned and, sure enough, the water is starting to trickle in and the rain continues to pour down. I'll post this now and apologize if it is more disjointed and wandering than usual. It's been a tough winter and so far spring isn't much better!
 
Next column on or about April 30, hopefully.
 
Allen F. Bortrum