Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why I went underground and how I am enjoying my subterranean life

Here is one of the windows of my new home. No, not the big one. Look at where my wife, Grazia, is pointing. Yes, that one!

This summer in Florence we already had two vicious heat waves. As I am writing, we are in the middle of the third one, even more vicious. It has been, actually, a continuous period of very high temperatures punctuated by a few storms that brought the usual floods and disasters.

Global warming is no joke. If you don't plan for these heat waves you seriously risk your life, especially if you are not so young and you are not in perfect health. And people do die: we don't have statistical data for this year, yet, but the reports from countries like Italy, Europe, India, and Japan tell of tens, maybe hundreds, of victims and thousands hospitalized.

As usual, people here and everywhere in the world suffer from the syndrome that Daniel Pauly calls "shifting baselines." They seem to think that it is all normal because that's what they have been seeing during the past decade or so. And they don't seem to realize that they are living in houses that were designed and built in a world where heat waves were occasional and lasted just a few days, not the rule for more than one month per year.

Most homes in Florence have no air conditioning or have the kind of makeshift units that make a lot of noise but don't do much to lower temperatures. Some people insist on saying that air-conditioning is "not ecological" because it consumes energy. In other cases, the city regulations forbid people to install the external unit of a truly efficient air conditioning system. And, worst of all, very few people realize how bad it is going to be in a few years from now.

So, I have been preparing for what's coming. I told you already how we (me and my wife) decided to move from a big, American-style suburban home to a smaller apartment, downtown. It was for several reasons, but one was that such our big house was impossible to cool in summer. So, we chose an apartment that would be especially suitable to survive these terrible heat waves. An underground apartment.

Actually, our home is not fully underground, It is on the slope of a hill, three sides are against solid rock, but the fourth, the North side, opens on a small garden. That's the only side having large windows, but the sun never shines on them. That was part of the choice to keep the house cool. Here is a picture of our living room.

And here is the garden, in the background you can see the bomb shelter that came with the apartment, it is a WWII relic. It is not supposed to be used against heat waves, but it could be useful again for its original purpose, who knows?

Here is my studio, the room that corresponds to the "slit window" shown at the beginning of this post. The picture is taken in a moment when the sun shines exactly on that window, normally the room is much darker, of course.

The apartment is not very large, but more than enough for two people. It has two bedrooms, kitchen, two bathrooms, storage space, and more things, but I guess what you want to know at this point is how it performs during heat waves. And, I can tell you it performs beautifully even without air conditioning.

As I am writing this post, the temperature outside is about 39°C  (102.2°F). Inside, the thermometer marks 26.3 °C, I never saw it going over 26.6 °C (80 °F), so far. No air conditioning, windows are tightly shut. It is a reasonably comfortable temperature although we found we needed a dehumidifier running full time to bring humidity in the comfortable range of less than 60%. (*)

For comparison, my mother-in-law apartment is nearby. It is an old building with massive walls, but also with windows facing South. With the air conditioning off, it touches 29 °C. My daughter's apartment is on the second floor of a modern building. It arrives at 30-31 °C if the air conditioning is off. Some people tell me that their apartments downtown Florence reach 33-34 °C (91-93 F). That starts to be uncomfortably close to that upper limit of survivability marked by a "wet-bulb temperature" of 36 degrees. Not a joke: heat kills.

So, what's the idea of going underground? Why not just use air conditioning? Sure, it could be done. But there is such a thing as the possibility of a black-out, you heard what happened in England these days. Now, if that happens in Italy at the height of a heat wave perhaps you won't die, but for sure you'll suffer horribly.

But can everybody live underground? No, of course not. Some people do, even in Florence there are plenty of basements used as living quarters. But that's not a good idea: Florence is built on an alluvial plain that's periodically reclaimed by the Arno river. It happens infrequently enough that people forget about these periodic floods -- the last big one was in 1966. But they are unavoidable and if you live in a basement in Florence you have to think that eventually you'll have to get out of it swimming, if you can. Our apartment, instead, is built on the slope of a hill and it is safe from flooding. But you can't build a whole city on the slope of a hill.

What you can do, though, is to build houses made to withstand the heat waves that will become worse and worse as time goes by. How to do that is no secret: the house must have a large thermal mass to make it able to absorb the heat. It may be underground or partly underground, it may have massive walls, or it may have other tricks to store heat away from the living quarters. But it shouldn't count 100% on air conditioning: besides being wasteful, it may not be healthy and not even comfortable.

So, we have been spending this sizzling hot summer tucked in this basement home. An interesting experience. Looking through the window at the haze of the heat, the feeling was like we were living in a science fiction novel. We had landed in an alien planet, too hot for humans to live, and we had to stay inside our spaceship to survive. Maybe that's our destiny in any case: a planet too hot for humans to live, at least during the summer. It is a concept explored by Antonio Turiel in a science fiction story published on his blog "The Oil Crash" titled "Dystopia IX (in Spanish). Maybe we'll really need spacesuits if we want to venture outside in Summer. Who knows?

Elon Musk's spacesuit was designed for Mars, but it could be useful here, on Earth, if things keep going the way they have been going.

(*) We'll have to see how the apartment performs in winter. I expect the rock to act as heat reservoir, but in reverse, so that it may be warm and comfortable with just a little help from the central heating system. Of course, the place will be a little dark but, hey, my ancestors lived in caves, who am I to criticize them?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Gaia Exists! Here is the Proof

Gaia is neither benevolent nor merciful. She is harsh and ruthless. 

Environmentalists are sometimes defined as "Gaia worshippers," a term supposed to be an insult. That's a little strange because most people on this planet openly worship non-existing entities and that doesn't normally make them targets for insults. Maybe it is because there is an important difference: Gaia exists.

But who or what is Gaia, exactly? The name belongs to an ancient Goddess but the modern version is something different. As you probably know, the term was proposed for the first time by James Lovelock in 1972 and co-developed with Lynn Margulis. As it happens for many innovative ideas, it was the result of a simple observation: if the Sun radiative intensity increases gradually over the eons, how come that the Earth's surface temperature has remained within the boundaries necessary to keep the biosphere alive? There has to be something that keeps it like that. Lovelock proposed that the mechanism was based on regulating the concentration of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2. You understand that this idea goes at the core of the current debate on climate change: it deals with the inner mechanisms that make the Earth's climate what it is and what it may become in the future.

So, Gaia is powerful but She is not supposed to be benevolent or merciful, and not even a Goddess: we could say that She is what She is. But does She really exist? Not everyone agrees on this point. The concept is often referred to as the "Gaia hypothesis" and entire books have been written to demonstrate that there is no such a thing as a control mechanism of the Earth's temperature. Indeed, in the beginning, the idea was mostly qualitative and not proven. Lovelock proposed a clever model called "Daisyworld" that showed how a simple biosphere could control the temperature of a planet. But the Earth's biosphere is not just made out of daisies and something more than that was needed. But over time proofs have accumulated to show that Gaia is much more than a qualitative hypothesis (or an object of worship by people believing in non-existing beings).

Let me show you some data from a 2017 paper by Foster, Royer, and Lunt that can be seen as proof of the existence of Gaia even though they never mention the term. It is not about new discoveries, but it uses available data to look at how the concentration of CO2 and the sun irradiation varied over the past 400 million years, most of the eon we call the "Phanerozoic." The paper is somewhat technical, but clearly written and you can follow the argument even if you are not a specialist in atmospheric physics. Here are the main results:

The top (a) figure shows the average CO2 forcing (red line), compared to the solar forcing (yellow line). "Forcing" means the thermal effect over the Earth expressed as power per square meter (W/m2). It is called forcing because it is a change of a previous condition. A positive forcing warms the Earth, a negative forcing cools it. Values of the order of a few W/m2 may seem to be small, but they may change the Earth temperature of some degrees C.

The surprising result shown in the figure is how the two forcings, sun and CO2, balance each other nearly exactly. You can see that in the bottom panel of the figure: the net forcing is the red line. This is truly impressive. Assuming a sensitivity factor of 0.3, you can calculate that the solar forcing, alone, should have increased the Earth's average temperature of about 2-3 C (nearly 5 F) over 400 million years. The increase would have been considerably larger if feedbacks (e.g. water vapor) are taken into account. But we don't see this increase, not at all. Here are some recent data by Mills et al.

Look at the gray curve: plenty of oscillations but, on the average, the temperature has remained constant over the past 400 million years. If it had increased even of just 2-3 degrees C, the effect would be clearly detectable. If we push back the boundary to more ancient times, to the origins of life on Earth, the effect should have been much larger: the ancient Earth should have been at least 20 K colder than it is today. It should have been a ball of ice. It was not: we know that there was liquid water even in those remote times.

So, the data are clear: the increasing sun irradiance over the Earth's geological history has been compensated mainly by a declining CO2 concentration. Of course, there are other factors affecting climate: other greenhouse gases, changes of albedo, ocean currents, clouds, atmospheric particulate, orbital and axial oscillations. But they seem to play a minor role at the time scale of an eon. And would you believe that this near-perfect compensation occurred by chance? Yes, sometimes things happen by chance, but can the same thing keep happening by chance for 400 million years?

Anyone said "Gaia"? Smile! The Lady is right in front of you. She exists and we are lucky that She is what She is. Otherwise, the biosphere wouldn't have died long ago, burned or frozen.

But what mechanism causes the CO2 concentration to decline as solar irradiance increases? And where does the removed CO2 go? Lovelock had proposed that it was just the biosphere that did the job, it seems now that we need a tight coupling of biosphere and geosphere to obtain the effect we see. In part, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis and then transformed into the inert substance called "kerogen" (the precursor of fossil fuels), then buried into the crust. In part, CO2 reacts with silicates in the crust to form solid carbonates. It is a long story and not everything is known, but things start to make sense. Lovelock was right.

Now, are events occurring over hundreds of millions of years relevant for us? Absolutely yes. The time scale may change, but the physics remains the same. The impressive point is that there is no fiddling, here, with mysterious models. These are experimental data coupled with simple physical principles that have been known and established for at least a century. They do show that CO2 affects climate, something that many non-worshippers of Gaia refuse to accept.

Comparing the current situation with the record of the Phanerozoic, we can see that the forcing that we are creating with our CO2 emissions (at present about 3 W/m2, and rising) is of the same order of magnitude of the past forcings that caused the Earth to reach the condition of "hothouse Earth," 10-20 degrees warmer than it is today -- and that even for a smaller sun irradiation! If it has happened in the past, it may well happen again. But it would be easier today because the sun is hotter. So, we may well be in deep, deep trouble.

How fast could the transition to hothouse Earth happen? On this point, the Phanerozoic data help us little: we don't have the resolution that would be necessary to detect rapid events such as the incredible burst in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that humans have created during the past few centuries. Some people say that humans will go exctinct in a few decades because of the triggering of the release of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, from the permafrost. That would be consistent with the several mass extinctions that took place during the Phanerozoic: we know that Gaia is neither benevolent nor merciful.

But the extinction of humankind is not necessarily Gaia's will. The damage we made may still be reversed, especially if we manage to crash the global economic system. That would stop the burning of fossil fuels and the Earth might return to the previous conditions without the utter destruction that some scenarios foresee. Eventually, it surely will, even though that may take a few million years. Gaia may not be benevolent, but she is surely patient.

You Gotta Believe from Nina Paley on Vimeo.


A comment from my personal troll

Ancient kings hired personal advisors to remind them that they were mortal. This I know well enough by myself, but I thought I could hire a personal troll to remind me of my limits as a scientist. Here is a comment from him, Mr. Kunning-Druger). 

Glad to see this post, professor Bardi, and I see that you and your friends finally admitted what you always refused to admit: climate has always been changing. And all the data you are showing to us that humans have no effect on climate: look at all those variations in CO2 concentrations: where were the SUVs, the coal mines, the oil wells that you and the others have been telling us are the cause of "climate change"? How can that be? And the supposed "coincidence" that you are showing to us, that should "prove" that Gaia exists. Do you think we are stupid to believe that when we know that these numbers come from the same people who wrote "hide the decline" in one of their mails? And all this story of the Goddess, again, it proves what we had been saying all along: those idiotic Greens are just a bunch of adhorers of Nature, they and their little prophetess, that disturbed girl, Greta - just another scam among the many. You think you are doing science, but you do politics with just an attempt to mask it with a little New Age flavor. The reality is that the whole story is a scam to get public money for your fat research grants. We know that and I am going to write to the president of your university to tell him that you are wasting the salary that the government gives to you. You are using it to scam people and you should be fired together with all those silly scientists. (KD).


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)