Ted Auch

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Separating Fact From Fiction

Motor City BOTE

BOTE stands for Back-Of-The-Envelope and is a common phrase applied to macroscale or overly coarse calculations done kinda haphazardly. Well given this caveat I came across an article from The Telegraph (UK) titled “Detroit to Bulldoze Thousands of Homes in Fight for Survival”, which quoted the following statistic:

“Almost a third of the city’s 139 square miles is vacant or derelict, though its land area would comfortably fit Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston, cities with combined populations of three million.”

I thought it would interesting to apply some of my dissertation data to figuring out how much of Detroit’s CO2 footprint could potentially be offset if this land was reforested. So, here it goes step by step.

(33%*139 Sq Miles)=45.87 Sq Miles of vacant or derelict land

Convert to Hectares=45.87*259>11,880 Hectares

Hectares to Square Meters=11,880*10,000>118,803,229 Square Meters

Grams of Carbon per Square Meter Per Year (From my Thesis work we assume the average for Great Lakes forests is 10,849 g C m-2 yr-1)=118803229 Square Meters*10,849 g C yr-1>1,288,896,240,464 g C m-2 yr-1

Metric Tons Per Year=1,288,896,240,464 g C m-2 yr-1*0.000001>1,288,896 Metric Tons of C captured Per Year IF the 45.87 Sq Miles of vacant or derelict land was reforested!

NOW lets put this number in perspective relative to Detroit’s actual emissions.

If we assume Detroit’s population (For Now!) is 951,270 and residents of the city emit approximately 23.4 Tons of CO2 per person per year that comes out to 22,260,764.4 Tons of CO2 per year for the city of Detroit, which means……..

The figure calculated above for potential carbon captured by reforestation of vacant and derelict land (i.e., 1,288,896 Tons of CO2 per year) equals 5.80% of total city-wide emissions. This number while not jaw dropping is far from trivial and any efforts to implement such plans should be encouraged locally and nationally as 5.8% of anything at that scale adds up and would greatly increase the quality of life in Detroit. Similar projects are sprouting up in neighboring F lint, Michigan as well as places as far off as Chilibre, Panama. Likewise we have data on those areas as well and could do similar BOTEs in an effort to quantify the impact of reforestation, both above- and belowground.

We have an interesting love affair with shopping in this country and I thought it would be illustrative to quantify its influence on our land to capture carbon. First lets quickly look at how much we love shopping and how much our economy (and by association China, Japan, the EU, etc etc) depend on our insatiable appetite for stuff. It is true that we have come down off our Great Depression high of 83% Consumption as  a percent of GDP, but for the better part of the last 63 years we have maintained a relatively static 65% of GDP attributable to consumption.

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However, this figure has risen substantially in the last 20 years from 62% in 1981 to 70.8% in 2009.

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You might say well what does my local strip mall have to do with CO2? Well your local strip mall displaced some sort of native ecosystem that, up until the big trucks and earth-moving equipment came, was drawing down CO2 via photosynthesis and decomposition of biomass to produce soil carbon.

Well that has had a cumulative effect and I have attached a couple of graphs to demonstrate this phenomenon. Using Gross Leasable Area (GLA in sq feet) per person data back to 1990 we can calculate above- and belowground carbon displacement via shopping center expansion (Blue Line), which sums to about 218 Million Metric Tons between 1990 and 2009, which when subtracted from Total US CO2 Emissions gives us the inset in the figure below.

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How you might ask does this relate in-terms of percentages? Well it turns out it is quite similar in magnitude to what I described for Detroit. If we assume - based on EIA assumptions - that Residential emissions is 6.65% of the story here in the US with respect to CO2 emissions than the above removal of native ecosystems for shopping centers translates to anywhere from 2.78 to 3.31% of Residential CO2 emissions across the entire US. However, if we had implemented the type of plain they are considering in Detroit across all fifty states beginning in 2005 we would have had the opportunity to “offset” 3.13% of our emissions per year as opposed to 2.85% between 1990 and 2004. You may say what is the big deal about 2.85 to 3.13%? Well when you consider we are measuring our fiscal and monetary peril here in the US with values like 3 to 12% of GDP and the fact that US GDP is expected to grow by 3.0% in 2010 v. 0.18, a decline of 1.83, and 2.53% in 2009, 2008, and 2007, respectively…Then the numbers I present here start to take on a whole new meaning. The harm inflicted by shopping centers - never mind the removal of capital and liquidity from local markets via large multinationals like Wal-Mart and Best Buy - is not just skin or in this case soil surface deep. It impacts the ability of communities and watersheds to withstand flooding, retain nutrients that would otherwise pollute reservoirs and aquifers, moderate temperature and moisture volatility, and propagate a sense of ownership among residents. The data back it up. Chalk another one up for BOTEs!

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Forget Peak Oil….Try Peak N, P, and K

Below I have plotted USDA data for Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potasssium (K) applied to crops in the US from 1960 to the present. You will notice two distinct trends (Ex. Fertilizer labels read - for example - 10-10-10 or something like that, which corresponds to 10 Parts N, P, and K Respectively):

1. Nitrogen is and has always been the predominant fraction of fertilizers. However, more importantly N:P ratios have risen at an alarming clip from 1.06 in 1960 to 2.88 in 2007, which translates to 271% in less than 40 years. This in itself is an unsustainable trend that genetic engineering will not be able to offset. Additionally, the ratio of P to K was 134% higher in 1960 with the pivot-point (i.e., more K than P applied) being 1976-1977 (Note: I wonder if it is in any way correlated with the awesome run the Grateful Dead had during that same time frame?).

2. The percent vs. Tons P & K curves, while largely decoupled prior to to 1978 have now converged, which means that more fertilizer needs to be applied - and energy expended - to get the same Energy Return On Investment. This is quite unfortunate given the apparant lake of Global P-Pools and the recent USGS report that quantified global P at 62 Gigatons (ie 1 Billion Tons) and K at 250 Gigatons.

This data demonstrates our reliance on not just Carbon (i.e., Oil) but also N, P, and K alike. It will come to pass that the import of these 3 elements will approach if not surpass that of Oil in the next 50 years mark my words! However, there are tons of ways to ameliorate this trend and they include the application of Industrial Policy to large-scale composting ventures…Not at the Federal level but rather within counties or municipalities. These would produce two sustainable and non-trivial revenue streams via the sale of compost and anaerobic digestion of methane gas. Additionally, these materials could easily be applied to agricultural operations across the country as a dry (No Soluble P or N responsible for eutrophication), nutrient rich, carbon dense amendment. NO ZERO SUM HERE!

My primary concern going forward is what I will call the CNPS Approach, which just means that instead of having such a strong and disproportionate Carbon-Bias policy needs to focus equally on the other two-thirds of the biogeochemical pie, which are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) (and Sulfur (S)). Everyone is familiar with the influence of CO2 and the established as well as nascent efforts aimed at monetizing carbon, but with some very simple modeling we could easily link the former to equally important Upward (i.e., CH4, N2O, and N2) and Downward Flows (i.e., NH4, NO3, PO4, and DOC) via emissions and leaching, respectively.

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It Aint Just Carbon!

The importance of GDP to economic growth is exceeded by the importance of CNP in nature

It all started with the discovery by American oceanographer Alfred C. Redfield (1890-1963) that the ratio of Carbon (C) to Nitrogen (N) to Phosphorus (P) (C:N:P) of free-floating marine phytoplankton (seston) throughout the world was quite static and reflected the differences of dissolved nutrients in associated waters. The Redfield Ratio as it is known today is 106:16:1 for C:N:P, which means that for every unit of phosphorus there are 16 units of P and 106 units of C. The importance of this discovery for biologists was equated to Avogadro’s number or the speed of light in a vacuum by some scientists according to Sterner & Elser’s book “Ecological Stoichiometry”. Redfield’s Ratio has since been proven an overly generalized depiction of aquatic C:N:P, with an average of 354.4:20.1:1 across all manner of aquatic phytoplankton (See Chart 1).

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Out of this discovery grew a very specialized but extremely important discipline called Ecological Stoichiometry, which is essentially a bunch of balanced equations describing how C, N, and P are transferred and transformed in ecosystems. It is quite a revolutionary and at the same time elementary concept, with detractors noting that Ecological Stoichiometry is either too complicated to be understood or too simple to be true. Another way to look at it is that Ecological Stoichiometry gives scientists the opportunity to quantitatively attach elemental importance to the balance of energy and materials. The name stoichiometry comes from the Greek root stoicheion for element and metron meaning measure. Broadly speaking the field focuses on C, N, P, to some extent sulfur (S), and rarely hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) or as scientists like to call them “The Big Six” for their ubiquity and import in all organic and some inorganic processes. Every constituent of this planet, whether living or dead, flora or fauna, above or belowground, land or sea has a unique stoichiometric ratio of these elements. Organisms must vigilantly maintain these ratios in order to survive, which is also the case for humans (homeostasis). In their book “The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements: The Environment and Life’s Chemistry” Williams & Fraústo da Silva hypothesized that evolution from early to late prokaryotes, to unicellular eukaryotes, and eventually to complex multicellular eukaryotes was coupled with an increased affinity for homeostasis.

Homeostatic stoichiometry is the struggle to maintain a consistent internal chemistry, while an organism’s environment particularly the elemental makeup of its food fluctuates quite drastically. Some organisms – usually of the sedentary variety – display a flexible Ecological Stoichiometry. Their lack of mobility means they must capitalize on the resources available at any given point in time. Truly homeostatic creatures, whether they be ants (C:N:P = 4.8:12.0:1), snakes (C:N:P = 4.4:3.7:1), or the Dalai Lama (C:N:P = 13.3:6.3:1) are not, in the strict sense, what they eat, rather they maintain their C:N:P by a variety of unsavory and malodorous activities we won’t expand on here for fear of offending the faint of heart. Needless to say organisms that must maintain a narrow C:N:P will go to great lengths in pursuit of that goal even if it means no one to sit next to in the lunchroom. You know that stuff you accidently stepped in while walking down the sidewalk or in your local park? That present Fido left for you has a C:N:P of 9.7:0.9:1.

The question is why should we care about these ratios? Well for the answer let’s look to the most famous examples of balanced chemical reactions, photosynthesis [Eq. 1] and decomposition [Eq. 2]. After all when you peel away the layers of scientific mumbo-jumbo this is what Ecological Stoichiometry is all about. If you are starting to have horrible images of your Intro Organic Chemistry class now would be a good time to stop reading. Are you still here? Good. These two reactions drive plant growth [Eq. 1] and decay of everything from tree leaves (C:N:P = 18.6:8.2:1) to septic waste (C:N:P = 12.0:2.7:1). These reactions and those that produced the Redfield Ratio rely on what is called the Law of Definite Proportions.

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The importance of the “Big Six” in nature is not hard to find. One need not look further than Adenosine Tri (ATP) and Diphosphate (ADP) the primary energy transfer molecules in cells for the importance of phosphorus, while sulfur is crucial to amino acids (i.e. cysteine) the primary precursors of proteins. Researchers have shown that the Stoichiometric formula for humans in number of atoms is:

H375,000,000O132,000,000C85,700,000N6,430,000Ca1,500,000P1,020,000S206,000

Na183,000K177,000Cl127,000Mg40,000Si38,600Fe2,680Zn2,110Cu76I14Mn13

F13Cr7Se4Mo3Co1

Thus, we humans have a “Big Six” H:O:C:N:P:S Stoichiometry of 2.8:1.5:13.3:6.3:5.0:1. This may seem confusing but understanding how these elements flow into and around the human body or for that matter ecosystems tells us a great deal about the so-called “velocity of elements”. Many reading this have heard about the “velocity of money” in recent years and the importance of keeping the flow of money brisk and consistent. Well the same is true of elements and Ecological Stoichiometry is an important tool in determining where elements are backed-up or where they are moving too fast to be utilized. Two interconnected examples of the human condition’s influence on Ecological Stoichiometry are the Haber-Bosch process that fixes nitrogen gas to produce ammonia for N, P, and Potassium (K)-rich fertilizers and the Gulf Coast algal blooms in the US that have created consistent and ever expanding deadzones in the waters off the United State’s Gulf Coast. The latter is a direct function of excessive fertilizer application and manure production in the Mississippi River watershed, with manures having C:N:P of 20.3:7.0:1 and most fertilizers either having equal parts N:P:K (10:10:10) or an excess of P (10:20:10). Thus, Gulf Coast’s aquatic ecosystems are experiencing an increase in the velocity of Ecological Stoichiometry – specifically P – via the Mississippi river, which is leading to increases in algal production and decay all of which deplete the waters of oxygen.

Plants and animals adhere to relatively strict C:N:P (:S), because in theory they are trying to fulfill their maximum growth potential, even though such conditions in actuality might be completely illusory. Living beings want to find that stoichiometric “Sweet Spot”. Ecological Stoichiometry explains why we crave certain foods and can’t stand the sight of others. Ecological Stoichiometry, and specifically the C:N:P:S ratio, is a field of study and a natural process that will receive increasing attention in the coming years given the fact that humans are rapidly depleting the world’s supply of P, with 62 Gigatons remaining according to the USGS’ most recent estimates.

In addition, this ratio and its variability is responsible for phenomena such as acid rain in the northeastern US and Europe, and groundwater contamination in and around areas of heavy agriculture. Scientists have known since Redfield and earlier the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of the “Big Six” and more specifically C, N, P, and S. In 2000 Falkowski and colleagues compared natural and human-induced changes in the stoichiometry of earth and found that the change due to anthropogenic causes was 13%, 108%, 400%, and 113% for C, N, P, and S, respectively. Thus, our fascination with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) may be at best myopic and at worst dangerous. Forget the GDP what is your country or state’s CNP?

Complete Chart 1 From Above:

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Misdirected Attention

From an interesting article by Joschka Fischer on Project Syndicate:

In Iraq, the question of power-sharing between Sunnis and Shia has neither been resolved or secured institutionally in such a way that would definitively prevent a slide back into civil war after the majority of US troops withdraw in 2011.

Quite simply the reply to this is that while Sunni v. Shia may be the short-term cyclical conflict of most importance it is clear from this reader’s perspective that the long-term structural problem is the Kurdish Northeast (Large concentrated oilfields) v. the predominantly Arab rest of Iraq (Small dispersed oilfields). The Trigger Line as this separation is known will prove a chronic issue and one that no amount of troops, drones, or Maliki/Obama DoubleSpeak will resolve.

Nuance is the name of the game in Iraq and the quicker we in the US brush up on it the quicker we will be equipped to hold our politicians feet to the fire on the off chance they show their faces around town. I would imagine the heat will turn up even more when water becomes more restricting…Again a short-term cyclical (Oil) v. long-term structural (Water) paradox, only this one will be a matter of life or internal combustion. In the words of Hindu priest Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati “Without electricity, you can survive. One can’t survive without water…”

Conservation Dept. under siege

In deciding quite forcefully that she would close the Waterbury environmental laboratory, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s commissioner Laura Pelosi demonstrated that her concern for both the environment and conservation runs only skin deep. This type of move is indicative a philosophy first forwarded by William Kristol and Karl Rove, which is to say when the chips are down, pick on the defenseless or eliminate them entirely. Privatization of the science underlying efforts to monitor our lakes, rivers and streams is analogous to moves by the Bush administration to privatize the military in its entirety for the profit of a select few. That worked and continues to work really well, doesn’t it?

Well, don’t be under any illusions that Ms. Pelosi’s and, by extension, Douglas’ vision will do any better. We must be very careful when we entrust the private sector to interpret and present us with data. This type of effort borders dangerously on Andrew Jackson’s “spoils system” in which cronyism is openly embraced and deemed the best option. As you would probably imagine, the health of our natural resources is not something that exactly dovetails with the bottom-line concerns of private industry, no matter how altruistic they may pretend to be.

Won’t everyone have to make sacrifices in the immediate future to stem the tide of this recession? Of course, and no one is saying otherwise, including those at the DEC who suggested Ms. Pelosi trim employee hours or, heaven forbid, really try to get creative about this problem. Here’s the rub. We have a lake that we share with New York and Quebec that teeters every summer on becoming eutrophic due to urban and agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have been low in the last two years, but there is no reason to believe that we can count on this trend to continue, and if Ms. Pelosi gets her way we won’t have any data to prove or disprove the myriad hypotheses floating around Vermont, New York and Quebec. What about those icy days when large trucks slip and slide only to overturn their load in some unsuspecting wetland? What will we do then? Send samples off to where? The fact is that Ms. Pelosi wants to close shop on the environmental laboratory now only to reopen a similar incarnation in five to six years when the economy miraculously springs back to life! However, in doing her calculations I would imagine Ms. Pelosi, et. al., didn’t take into account the money that will be needed to train new technicians, equipment, etc. This would not be, in the popular vernacular of the present, a “shovel-ready” project. So, why take that shovel and throw dirt on an already existing and invaluable resource?

The University of Vermont recently outsourced much of its soil testing laboratory and, given our status as an agricultural state, such actions along with the one proposed by Ms. Pelosi reflect poorly on us as a state and Gov. Douglas’ completely apathetic and disillusioned administration. This is an example of Montpelier neither leading nor following; rather, they and Mr. Douglas specifically are all too comfortable to get in the way of progress, and now, it turns out, science. I say bring on vox populi! Bring on Anthony Pollina ASAP!