Two for Tuesday: Natural Gas & Climate Change   3 comments

Rainbow over a drill rig, Bakken Field, North Dakota

I’m not going to get political here, don’t worry.  I actually long for the days when climate change was a scientific not political issue.  It seems strange now but before the late 80s/early 90s global warming was discussed among scientists.  Not many of the general public knew about it or cared.

But in the scientific community, it was already a well-studied and discussed phenomenon.  It really gained traction in the 1960s when a critical mass of data had been collected.  Especially influential were the (steadily rising) carbon dioxide readings from the top of Mauna Loa, a large shield volcano making up much of the island of Hawaii.  You can’t find a better spot to collect samples of the atmosphere, untainted by any local sources of pollution.

I recall taking a university seminar on paleoclimatology and seriously considering focusing on that, using glaciology to study it.  I didn’t, perhaps because I was scared off by the sheer complexity of the subject (so many variables and feedback loops!).  But I wonder what it would’ve been like, mid-career, to witness it become such a silly political football.

These two images are from the Bakken Field in western North Dakota.  Bakken is the name for the oil field and also the geological formation, a shale that lies more than 10,000 feet beneath the prairie.  Much of the drilling in the Bakken nowadays is for natural gas not oil (though that is still big too).  Gas is what this large drill rig in the picture at top is going for.  Although there is plenty of gas in this well, it will still be fracked to recover even more.  At least here in the Bakken, fracking does not endanger water supplies; it’s just too deep and is also cut off from shallower aquifers by impermeable shale beds.

All over this part of North Dakota you see gas flares, one of which is pictured with the setting sun at bottom.  Although these flares of course release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, they are quite necessary for safety.  And they don’t even begin to compare to the gas released from pipelines between here, the source, and the refineries.  Hooked to each gas flare is a monitor which measures how much gas is escaping.  The problem really lies in the pipelines, where we just don’t have a good handle on how much is being released.  I think that has to change.

The world is definitely warming, not evenly of course (as if any reasonable person would expect that).  We are in large part responsible for that, and I believe that human influence on climate extends back to the dawn of agriculture, over 9500 years ago.  We aren’t the first life-form to influence the world’s atmosphere and climate, and neither have we caused the biggest changes (single-celled bacteria hold that honor when they infused the atmosphere with oxygen).

But two things:  (1) we aren’t done yet; and (2) although the world has seen big changes in climate in the past, this change promises to affect us and the rest of the world’s life forms in huge ways.  We’ve built up our culture and changed our very natures as a result.  So even though we won’t be rendered extinct by climate change (probably), the changes coming are such that civilization could very well be thrown into utter chaos.  And that’s on top of causing the 6th major extinction of life across the board.

As many have said, it’s a moral issue.  Can we in good conscience leave that sort of world to our descendants and the creatures who share this planet with us?  The pope spoke about climate change this past week.  More religious leaders need to join ranks.  But most of all, we need real fundamental change in how we produce and use energy.  And now it’s bordering on a political post, so I’ll stop there.

Natural gas flares into the sky at sunset, North Dakota

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3 responses to “Two for Tuesday: Natural Gas & Climate Change

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  1. Great post – I share your thought 🙂 I was impressed that Pope Francis took the initiative, I think this is the first time there is a religious leader care on environmental issue – but maybe I am mistaken..
    BTW, the opening image is truly stunning – a perfect rainbow!

  2. Thank you. Climate change has actually been around for quite awhile.

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