Readers Respond to the August 2022 Issue

Readers Respond to the August 2022 Issue

OCEAN GLOW

I read Michelle Nijhuis’s article “The Mystery of Milky Seas ” thoroughly. I was in the U.S. Navy in 1975, and my ship was doing a cruise in the Indian Ocean early that year. It was amazing to see the bioluminescence Nijhuis described. This was not only a great way to watch the ocean. We also had a lot fun filling buckets with seawater with our firemains and then dumping them onto the deck. Additional bioluminescence was created by the act of spilling seawater. It was also thrilling to watch the ship’s wake. I didn’t know the milky seas phenomena had not been studied in depth (bad pun?).

PHIL DAWSON Everett, Wash.

CRITICAL Climate SCIENCE

Wishful Thinking in Climate Science,” by Naomi Oreskes [Observatory], provides a crucial message that hardly gets mentioned. Between “conservative” (best-case) estimates of warming and sea-level rise, which systematically underestimate impacts, promises of future magic technology and promotion of the “every little bit helps” attitude promising that many tiny personal actions will save us, the message generally being promoted about climate change is that everything will be fine. It won’t be perfect.

ERIC J. WARD West Palm Beach, Fla.

Oreskes claims that there is no technology to capture or sequester carbon dioxide. She dismisses the Orca project in Iceland because of its high unit cost and criticizes other projects that use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, speculating that the CO2 “may migrate … to the atmosphere.”

There are many active carbon capture-and-storage (CCS) projects around the world, including in Canada and Norway. These projects demonstrate that science is possible. Some have been operating for years and at scale: The North Sea-based Sleipner project has been sequestering about a million metric tons a year for about 25 years, and the more recent Quest project in Alberta has sequestered about the same amount annually. The science behind these technologies is still evolving. It is constantly evolving and will continue to evolve.

That Oreskes, a science historian, chose to ignore the data is ironic, given that “Florence Nightingale’s Data Revolution,” by RJ Andrews, in the same issue, describes how Nightingale made the compelling case for looking at such information more than 165 years ago.

ROBERT SKINNER Energy research adviser, Office of the Vice-President (Research), University of Calgary, Alberta

In “Climate Damage from Science” [Observatory; July], Oreskes argues that several scientific areas have a large carbon footprint, including large observatories, space-based telescopes and conferences. These don’t meet the commonsense test. An observatory is a large office building with a dome at the roof. Both have many computers and servers and both have people who work during the day and night. The telescope’s operations are likely to use very little power. It is also difficult to see how a space-based telescope could increase Earth’s carbon footprint. It is also difficult to understand how moving a conference from San Francisco to the middle would reduce travel costs, as Oreskes explains. Instead of 50 percent of the attendees traveling across the U.S. to a West Coast conference, for example, 100 percent would travel halfway across it, resulting in the same total travel.

My point is not to question these very dramatic claims but to wonder why Oreskes did not report the explanations. It would be great to know how and where this carbon pollution fits in with overall emissions. How else can scientists evaluate the relative benefits and costs of their work?

RICHARD COCHRANE Clarks Summit, Pa.

ORESKES REPLIES: Skinner is correct that the science of CCS exists. CO2 can be pumped into and stored underground. My topic was not science, but technology. Nearly all the world’s CCS projects are actually adjuncts to fossil-fuel production. Most so-called carbon storage projects are enhanced oil recovery projects. They inject carbon dioxide into oil and gas fields to remove fossil fuels that might otherwise be underground. This prolongs the field’s life. He notes that the Sleipner project is part a natural gas field. It captures CO2 that would otherwise contaminate the gas. The gas is then sold or burned. The Quest project is part the Athabasca Oil Sands Project, an Alberta fossil-fuel project that is both environmentally and socially harmful. Quest captures CO2 produced during the conversion of bitumen into usable crude oil. This oil is also sold to be burnt, thereby exacerbated the climate crisis .

Storing these bits of CO2 is better than releasing them to the atmosphere, but the amounts involved are tiny, compared with the releases associated with fossil-fuel combustion: globally, more than 36 billion metric tons in 2021 alone. It’s not clear whether these projects even represent a net benefit. One report found that Quest produced more carbon than it stored. Its operator Shell has acknowledged that Quest was designed as a “demonstration project.” If we had time to wait, these projects might one day pay off. But time is running out. CCS is at best a costly distraction. CCS can be a costly distraction. At worst, it locks up more fossil-fuel infrastructure and investment at the exact moment we need them to stop ..

To answer Cochrane’s questions: Space-based and astronomical telescopes consume astronomical amounts energy. They require enormous computational power and are extremely energy-intensive to build, launch, and design. And unlike office buildings, astronomical facilities are often open 24/7 .

The annual meeting of American Geophysical Union was the conference under discussion. Many of its participants are from Europe. Moving it from San Francisco (where the conference will be held this year), to Chicago means that more people will travel less. This will significantly reduce the overall carbon footprint. It would be more efficient to make the meeting virtual or only partially virtual.

ERRATA

Quick Hits,” by Joanna Thompson [Advances], incorrectly said that the supernova that may have forged a space rock found in Egypt in 1996 most likely occurred some 4.6 billion years ago at the outskirts of our solar system. Instead, the supernova was thought to have occurred within a huge dust cloud, and eventually led the dust to solidify on the outskirts our solar system’s early stages of formation (which began approximately 4.6 billion years ago).

The Mystery of Milky Seas,” by Michelle Nijhuis, should have described Pierre Aronnax as a marine biologist in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In “Every Inch of the Seafloor,” by Mark Fischetti, the illustrations should have been credited to Maciej Frolow.

3,117,275,501 Bases, 0 Gaps,” by Clara Moskowitz and Martin Krzywinski [Graphic Science], should have said that in 2022 scientists added 251,330,203 bases for a totally gapless genomic sequence.

This article was originally published with the title “Letters” in Scientific American 327, 6, 6-7 (December 2022)

doi: 10. 1038/scientificamerican1222-6

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