Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Toon time

Another example of scientists getting it wrong

Even if 97% of scientists DID support global warming, it would not be very convincing.  Scientists have been getting it wrong at least since the phlogiston theory. Rejection of continental drift, peak oil, global cooling etc.  

In 1997, physicians in southwest Korea began to offer ultrasound screening for early detection of thyroid cancer. News of the programme spread, and soon physicians around the region began to offer the service. Eventually it went nationwide, piggybacking on a government initiative to screen for other cancers. Hundreds of thousands took the test for just US$30–50.

Across the country, detection of thyroid cancer soared, from 5 cases per 100,000 people in 1999 to 70 per 100,000 in 2011. Two-thirds of those diagnosed had their thyroid glands removed and were placed on lifelong drug regimens, both of which carry risks.

Such a costly and extensive public-health programme might be expected to save lives. But this one did not. Thyroid cancer is now the most common type of cancer diagnosed in South Korea, but the number of people who die from it has remained exactly the same — about 1 per 100,000. Even when some physicians in Korea realized this, and suggested that thyroid screening be stopped in 2014, the Korean Thyroid Association, a professional society of endocrinologists and thyroid surgeons, argued that screening and treatment were basic human rights.

In Korea, as elsewhere, the idea that the early detection of any cancer saves lives had become an unshakeable belief.

This blind faith in cancer screening is an example of how ideas about human biology and behaviour can persist among people — including scientists — even though the scientific evidence shows the concepts to be false. “Scientists think they're too objective to believe in something as folklore-ish as a myth,” says Nicholas Spitzer, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego. Yet they do.

These myths often blossom from a seed of a fact — early detection does save lives for some cancers — and thrive on human desires or anxieties, such as a fear of death. But they can do harm by, for instance, driving people to pursue unnecessary treatment or spend money on unproven products. They can also derail or forestall promising research by distracting scientists or monopolizing funding. And dispelling them is tricky.

Scientists should work to discredit myths, but they also have a responsibility to try to prevent new ones from arising, says Paul Howard-Jones, who studies neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, UK. “We need to look deeper to understand how they come about in the first place and why they're so prevalent and persistent.”

Some dangerous myths get plenty of air time: vaccines cause autism, HIV doesn't cause AIDS. But many others swirl about, too, harming people, sucking up money, muddying the scientific enterprise — or simply getting on scientists' nerves.


Low oil prices mean few assets will be stranded


Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, in an exercise of warmist wishful thinking a few weeks ago, warned banks and by extension energy companies of the problem of “stranded” assets, left without value by environmental regulation. Naturally, this was just part of the threats and bluster designed to change behavior ahead of the Paris global warming conference. However I thought it worth considering whether the concept of stranded assets had any validity, and in what circumstances. My conclusion is that the stranded asset concept is valid but that current low energy prices greatly reduce their danger.

In essence, the concept of stranded assets is similar to the Austrian economic concept of “malinvestment.” In every economic cycle, some investments will be made which turn out in retrospect to have been a mistake. Those investments have to be liquidated at a loss or in some cases for no return at all, and the debt secured against them is generally lost.

There are three major reasons why malinvestment takes place. One is sheer bloody stupidity on the part of the investor, generally when a stock market or real estate bubble is in effect, pumped up by artificially easy money and low interest rates. A gigantic amount of malinvestment will undoubtedly have been caused by the zero interest rate policies of the Fed and other central banks since 2008. For example, the hotel sector has seen year after year of massive investment in new properties, with supply running far ahead of the most optimistic realistic projections for vacation and business travel demand.

Capitalism cannot work if the risk free real cost of capital is negative, because in that case any investment, even one with zero return, is attractive. As I discussed in an earlier piece when looking at the possibility of the Fed abolishing cash and pushing interest rates substantially negative, it would then be attractive to build ziggurats or other religious buildings with no monetary return and no resale value – you could live off the interest you received on the debt used to finance them.

A second form of malinvestment is that incurred when prices move dramatically and unexpectedly, as with the recent halving of oil prices. In this case, the investors are unlucky rather than stupid; if oil prices stay at $100 a barrel for several years, and everyone in the market has endless reasons why their future trend will be up, not down, then it is not necessarily foolish to make heavy investments in fracking opportunities that require an oil price of $70 per barrel to be viable. However the result is the same as if you had been foolish; if oil prices drop to $40 a barrel and stay there, as appears to have happened, then all that fracking investment has been wasted and needs to be removed from the market and written off.

The combination of these two forms of foolish and unlucky investment is currently causing severe problems in the junk bond market, which are likely to continue. Energy related investments that depended on $70 oil have neither value nor cash flow, and if they are dependent on fracking technology also have a relatively short lifespan, of around 18-24 months. Empty hotels produce a heavy cash flow drain, so will cause bond defaults pretty quickly. As bonds default, the value of other bonds goes down and bond mutual funds become more difficult to sell – we saw this dynamic play out with subprime mortgages in 2007. Consequently a junk bond market meltdown, in which the market seizes up altogether and credit becomes unavailable, is very likely at some point before the middle of 2017.

This is not however what Carney was talking about. The junk bond meltdown and massive financial panic that is shortly about to occur has not been deliberately caused by the world’s central banks; they are foolishly under the impression they have done all they can to avert it. On the other hand, Carney at least hopes that by dire warnings of “stranded assets” he can prevent energy companies from investing in fossil fuel projects, thus producing the carbon-free future the naïve little man imagines we ought to want. Like all government bureaucrats since the glory days of Gosplan, he hopes to prevent investment in areas he does not favor by warning potential investors of the costs of acquiring assets that cannot be utilized because of government regulation.

Energy companies considering new projects must therefore consider the probable future course of the world’s political/economic system, as well as the likely future trend in energy prices. If they believe today’s low prices are the new normal, then they probably won’t invest much in unconventional energy, developing only assets in which they have a lot of confidence, perhaps deep-sea assets in politically stable regions for which they have paid a great deal of money (probably too much, at current energy prices) for the leases. At low prices it is thus very unlikely that the oil companies will have much in the way of stranded assets; they will invest only modestly, so consumption will keep up with production, Even if an effective control or “carbon pricing” mechanism is introduced, the low-risk investments they are currently making are likely to pay their way so long as the oil deposits last.

The problem becomes more difficult if oil prices rise again (almost inevitable given the majors’ current reluctance to invest and Small Oil’s massive flirtation with bankruptcy.) In that event, investment projects will be more potentially profitable, but also located in more difficult areas and taking more time to come to fruition. These are the projects that can become stranded; if the regulators force down the use of oil by higher taxes or simple bullwhips, high-cost projects with heavy capital investment and long lives will become unviable, as it will become impossible to exploit them fully.

If prices rise, energy companies will have to engage in a two-pronged calculation: will prices stay high enough for the new investments to be profitable, and will the fad of global warming regulation last long enough for regulations against fossil fuel use to become effective.

The answers will differ depending on the project. For coal projects, the popular hatred for coal may just be sufficient to keep heavy regulations in force, whether or not the global warming problem is fashionable. Coal is in this sense like nuclear power; it can make a great deal of sense as an energy source but the political risk of hysterical reactions by a population driven mad by the media and by opportunistic politicians makes investment in it always a high-risk prospect. The only coal projects that are truly politically viable are those in countries like India and China, where the growth in energy demand is rapid and Western do-gooder politicians and regulators are even more unpopular than coal companies.

For oil and gas, on the other hand, the chances of Carney’s “stranding” appear pretty slim. If the world was not able to come up with binding climate change targets with the most environmentally committed President the U.S. has ever had or is ever likely to have, then it will be politically impossible to get the populace out of their petrol-driven cars, even if the ineffable Elon Musk brings down the cost of his alternative to say $40,000 before any subsidies. Budgetary constraints, which will increase exponentially after the next recession, will prevent the government from granting large enough electric car subsidies to overcome popular reluctance to spend that kind of money.

Accordingly, oil companies will continue to claim their product is essential (as indeed, it will be) and therefore politicians won’t be able to shut it down. Indeed, it seems likely that the Paris conference marked the point of “peak climate change” after which it becomes increasingly difficult to gain popular support for the increasingly Draconian regulations the Carneys of this world consider necessary. Energy companies (outside the coal sector) will be able to invest in full confidence that their assets can only be “stranded” by technological change, or by to the assets purchased being overpriced, either directly or in terms of the output they produce. The decision, in other words, will become once again a business one, of the type these highly analytical MBAs at the top are paid exorbitantly to take.

Mark Carney should concentrate on raising sterling interest rates, as far and quickly as possible; that is where his duty lies. Collapsing the British housing market is not a “bug” in this recommendation, it is a feature. The sooner real interest rates are again positive, and the detritus of regulation imposed in the last decade is swept away, the quicker will the global economy return to the rapid pace of growth which the world’s inhabitants demand. With rapid global growth and positive real interest rates, very few assets will be “stranded” either by Mr. Carney or by the market.


Days when wind farms run at 10% capacity: Union say figures show renewable energy cannot be relied upon and Britain needs nuclear and gas-powered energy plants

Wind turbines produced just 10 per cent of their energy capacity during almost a fortnight of the last three months, it was claimed yesterday.

Monitors tracking the energy generated from Britain's wind farms found 12 days when output dropped to 10 per cent of capacity or less, according to the GMB union.

It said its 'wind watch' figures demonstrated that Britain could not rely on renewable energy and needed nuclear or gas-powered plants to ensure its supply.

Britain has invested £1.25billion in wind power, which is now the country's biggest renewable energy source.

But critics have accused the Government and the National Grid of complacency over the risk of blackouts following the closure of coal-fired power stations.

A wind shortage last month (November) forced the National Grid to use new 'last resort' measures to keep the lights on in homes across the country on November 4.

Major industries were asked to down tools to protect energy supplies following high demand, power plant breakdowns and low wind power output.

At one point, wind farms were meeting only 0.5 per cent of the nation's electricity demand, compared to the average 10 per cent.

But in late November, dozens of wind turbines had to be switched off due to safety concerns when Storm Barney hit Britain.

Gusts of up to 85mph swept across the country, prompting fears they could overload the system or damage turbines.

The GMB, which supports more gas-fired power plants, said wind power produced 10 per cent or less of its energy capacity on 12 days during the three months from October 1 to December 21.

The figures related to wind farms connected to the national transmission system and not to turbines connected to local networks.

GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny said: 'The renewables lobby has to face up to the need for a base load electricity capacity that is reliable and clean on the days that the wind does not blow and the sun doesn't shine.

'When your electricity supply has 'Gone with the Wind', the response of the renewable energy suppliers that 'Frankly my dear we don't give a damn' is just not acceptable.'

Industry body RenewableUK has insisted that wind power is a 'success story' for Britain, and generated 9.5 per cent of the UK's electricity from July to September, the last period for which figures were available.

Overall, 23.5 per cent of the UK's electricity for the same period was generated by renewable sources, including bioenergy, solar and hydro power.

RenewableUK and the Department of Energy and Climate Change did not respond to requests for comment on the GMB figures.

A National Grid spokeswoman said: 'A diverse mix of generation is essential to the national transmission network in terms of security of supply.'


Mission impossible

On climate change, curb your enthusiasm. It’s not that the recent international conference in Paris didn’t take significant steps to check global warming. It did. Nearly 200 countries committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial times was reaffirmed. The trouble is that what’s being attempted is so fundamentally difficult that even these measures may be wildly unequal to the task.

What’s being attempted, of course, is the wholesale replacement of the world economy’s reliance on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) for four-fifths of its energy. To be sure, the shift is envisioned to take decades, four or five at a minimum. Still, the vast undertaking may exceed human capability.

Hence, a conundrum. Without energy, the world economy shuts down, threatening economic and social chaos. But the consequences of climate change, assuming the scientific consensus is accurate, are also grim — from rising sea levels (threatening coastal cities) to harsher droughts (reducing food supplies).

It’s useful to split the discussion into two parts. On the existence of human-driven warming, I accept the dominant scientific view, mainly because I’m not technically qualified to dispute it. But I have doubted that, without major breakthroughs in energy technology, we can do much about warming. The addiction to fossil fuels will triumph.

Paris confirms that view. Rather than show how much progress we’ve made, it demonstrates how little maneuvering room we have. Consider some estimates from IHS, a consulting company. In 2012, it reports, the world generated 45 gigatons of greenhouse gases, up 50 percent since 1990. Without new policies, that total would rise to 60 gigatons by 2030, IHS projects. But the national pledges made in Paris would hold the 2030 total to 50 gigatons. That’s good news, right? Well, not exactly.

Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would require that emissions in 2030 drop to 35 gigatons, reckons IHS. So even with the Paris pledges, we’re about 40 percent above the goal. Moreover, IHS thinks that some pledged cuts won’t materialize. They are political gestures or depend on unproven technologies. There are no enforcement mechanisms.

True, renewable energy is expanding rapidly in the United States. In the next two years, the solar industry expects to double its installed U.S. capacity. In 2014, wind generation was up 51 percent from 2011, according to government figures. Moreover, costs are said to have fallen sharply. The wind industry puts its decline at 60 percent over the past four years; the solar industry reports a 70 percent drop since 2009.

But these achievements need to be qualified. For starters, renewables’ rapid growth comes off a tiny base. As a result, wind supplied only 4.4 percent of U.S. electricity in 2014. Solar’s contribution was smaller, about 1 percent; for 2020, the industry’s target is 3.5 percent. Global figures are lower. The Economist magazine puts renewables’ share of world energy production at 1 percent . The fact that wind and solar are heavily subsidized in the United States, through tax breaks, suggests that recent cost reductions haven’t yet made renewables competitive with other energy sources.

Another handicap is physics: Wind and solar generate electricity only when the sun shines or the wind blows. They need backup power supplies. This hasn’t been (so far) a big problem in the United States, because we have many “base” power plants — typically fueled by coal and natural gas — that can provide backup. Developing countries are another story. Seeking to reduce their poverty, they need more bulk power, says Robert Bryce, an energy expert at the Manhattan Institute. They have favored coal.

Despite Paris, we haven’t acknowledged the difficulties of grappling with climate change, whose extent and timing are uncertain. We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these. The potential isn’t large enough.

Actual choices are harder. For example, Bryce argues that only an expansion of nuclear power could replace significant volumes of fossil fuels. But greater reliance on nuclear poses its own dangers, including the disposal of atomic waste, operational accidents and vulnerability to terrorism.

It’s true that technological breakthroughs could change this. We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground.

We have been searching for solutions for decades with only modest success. We need to keep searching, but without meaningful advances, regulating the world’s temperature is mission impossible.


El Niño is causing 'see-saw' weather: Fewer hurricanes formed in the Atlantic this year, but the Pacific was a hotbed for storms

El Niño dampened this year's Atlantic hurricane season while simultaneously creating conditions for powerful hurricanes in the Pacific Ocean.

This is according to a new study has found that an El Niño in the Pacific Ocean almost always hampers hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean–sometimes by as much as 50 per cent.

This year, only 11 named tropical storms formed in the Atlantic Basin, with four transforming into hurricanes.

In contrast, there were 18 named storms forming in the eastern Pacific this year and 14 named storms in the central Pacific.

El Niño is caused by a shift in the distribution of warm water in the Pacific Ocean around the equator.

Usually the wind blows strongly from east to west, due to the rotation of the Earth, causing water to pile up in the western part of the Pacific.

This pulls up colder water from the deep ocean in the eastern Pacific.

However, in an El Niño, the winds pushing the water get weaker and cause the warmer water to shift back towards the east. This causes the eastern Pacific to get warmer.

But as the ocean temperature is linked to the wind currents, this causes the winds to grow weaker still and so the ocean grows warmer, meaning the El Niño grows.

This change in air and ocean currents around the equator can have a major impact on the weather patterns around the globe by creating pressure anomalies in the atmosphere

An El Niño occurs when warm waters in the Pacific Ocean influences weather patterns around the world.

Researchers in Texas considered two distinct types of El Niño: a Central Pacific, also known as 'warm pool' El Niño; and East Pacific or 'cold tongue' El Niño.

'During both El Niño types, Atlantic hurricane seasons tend to become less active,' says Christina Patricola of Texas A&M University.

'This happens because the unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean leads to a shift in the typical location of deep convection (intense rainstorms), which in turn impacts high-level winds, causing greater wind shear which leads to unfavourable conditions for storms to develop.

'We also found that under the right conditions, in particular strong warming of the central Pacific, El Niño can suppress hurricane activity by as much as 50 per cent compared to normal conditions.'

Patricola and colleagues also found that the reverse can happen in other locations creating a 'see-saw' weather scenario.

She said a strong El Niño can produce more frequent hurricanes in the eastern North Pacific.

'This year is an excellent example of that,' she adds. 'Very strong El Niño conditions in 2015 contributed to the second most active hurricane season ever recorded in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

'So while an El Niño can help reduce hurricane impacts in the Atlantic basin, impacts can be much worse over the eastern North Pacific basin.'

Patricola says the findings, published in Nature Geoscience, could help improve seasonal and climate change forecasts.

'Our study gives us a more general understanding of how El Niño and its variations in location and intensity, influence hurricane seasons in both the Atlantic and eastern Pacific,' she points out.

'In essence, we found that strong El Niño events that occur over the warmer locations of the Pacific drive the greatest changes in Western Hemisphere hurricane seasons.

Thirty major hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones occurred in the northern hemisphere in 2015; the previous record was 23 (set in 2004).

Twenty-five of those storms reached category 4 or 5, well beyond the previous record of 18.

In the Atlantic, tropical storm Ana formed in early May off the southeastern coast of the United States, well before the June 1 start of hurricane season.

But the months that followed were relatively quiet, with 11 named storms, four hurricanes—the second year in a row below the 1981-2010 median—and no major storms making landfall.

Yet one storm, Fred, became the easternmost hurricane on record in the Atlantic, lashing the Cabo Verde islands in September.

In November, Hurricane Kate hit The Bahamas, becoming one of the latest storms ever recorded in the islands.

The waters of the eastern Pacific warmed significantly in 2015 with the arrival of a potent El Niño.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the region was stirred by 18 named storms and 13 hurricanes, nine of them major—the most since reliable records were started in 1971.

Fueled by warm air and sea temperatures, Patricia grew rapidly into the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, with wind gusts approaching 200 miles (320 km) per hour and air pressure at 879 millibars.

But as research meteorologist Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University noted, one of the biggest stories was the amount of activity in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

In the region above the equator from 140 to 180 degrees western latitude—the North Central Pacific—14 named storms and eight hurricanes formed or moved into the region.

Five of this year's storms reached category 3 or above (major), eclipsing the previous record of three.

At one point in August, three major hurricanes spun through the region east of the International Date Line at the same time, the first time any meteorologist has seen such activity.

'The 2015 season broke pretty much every prior record for that portion of the Northeast Pacific basin,' Klotzbach said.

'That portion of the basin had record-warm sea surface temperatures and record-low vertical wind shear, a prime combination for hurricane intensification and maintenance.'

'El Niño produces a see-saw effect, suppressing the Atlantic season while strengthening the eastern and central Pacific hurricane seasons,' noted Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, in a press release.

'El Niño intensified into a strong event during the summer and significantly impacted all three hurricane seasons during their peak months.'

Vertical wind shear was particularly strong in the Atlantic, cutting down storm systems before they could organize.

In the Central Pacific, the wind shear was the weakest on record, leaving nothing to stop the evolution of hurricanes and typhoons.

In the western Pacific, near Asia and the islands of Oceania, the season was noteworthy not for the total number of storms, but for the number of intense ones.

Fifteen typhoons grew to category 3 strength or higher in 2015, tying records set in 1958 and 1965. El Niño plays a different role in the western Pacific because slight decreases in water temperatures and wind fields push storm formation farther to the east, Klotzbach explained.

This allows the storms more time to intensify as they move from east to west with prevailing winds.



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your hard work & links.
Have a safe & happy New Year.

Mark McGuire aka handjive on the Gold Coast