Monday, November 16, 2009

Davy Jones

Now that the promise made two years ago in Bali to have a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol by the end of this year has been deep sixed, we have a budget to work with. Each delay in cutting greenhouse gas emissions means we get to do something unthinkable to compensate. We could build dikes for example or try to move species poleward or attempt some other ridiculous adaptation measure like opening our borders to refugees. Mitigation is too easy and too cheap so let's plan on breaking the bank.

But still, there are things that fall in between, not exactly smart things like saving money by switching to renewable energy but then not exactly stupid either like letting many species go extinct but they still maybe a little expensive. We can say that all adaptation is stupid since it means that mitigation was not in time. And we can say that mitigation measures that preempt more effective mitigation efforts owing to higher cost like new nuclear power or carbon capture and sequestration at coal plants is stupid since they force more stupid adaptation. They have a highly amplified opportunity cost. But there are after-the-fact mitigation methods that might compensate for missed mitigation opportunities that could avoid some even more expensive adaptation, and perhaps more importantly, the sense of failure that adaptation evokes. Things that fall into this category might include renewably powered artificial trees that collect carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or getting fuel gas from making biochar. Pumping liquid carbon dioxide into the ground or spreading char on the surface though may leave some questions open about how permanent these actions might be. But, turning carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate might last for a while since this is how the main branch of the geological carbon cycle operates. How does the natural cycle work? Largely by making coral.

Yet coral is currently being harmed by increasing sea surface temperatures which cause bleaching and cut down the productivity of coral colonies. And, even though rising sea levels should stimulate coral growth in order to keep the coral tops illuminated, we would still need to increase the active coral surface area by about a factor of 15 and have 30 cm of sea level rise to clean up the mess we've made in the atmosphere. But 30 cm of sea level rise seems like an expensive proposition. What could we do to grow coral without the sea level rise?

Reef building coral need salt water, oxygen, stable temperatures, calcium ions, carbon dioxide and light to prosper. And there is lots and lots of ocean floor that has all of these but light because it is too deep. So, why not provide the light? In tropical seas that do not suffer from cyclones, floating islands built to collect solar power may soon be available. Running a power cable to the bottom and illuminating coral starts with blue LEDs using a portion of the generated power could make these islands not just carbon neutral but carbon negative. And, one would be building a new fishery supported by the new reef.

Off the Queensland coast there is good wind power potential. Stranded wind power might similarly be used to build the deep outer portions of the Great Barrier Reef in clean water with stable temperature.

And, it may be possible to construct buoys that can simply direct sunlight down through optical fibers to greater depth. No need for wiring or LEDs.

Although a slow process, it may be worthwhile to form novel architectural elements using directed light to determine the shape of coral growth that could be raised and used on land. Decorative columns or domes might be fabricated in this manner. Perhaps even sculpture could be made by directing how the light falls on the growing coral.

Full fathoms five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

--The Tempest