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CHAPTER 110 It's Unanimous
Every year around this time, I reflect on the most significant achievement in science and technology during the past year. Typically, I rely on the journals Science and Discover magazine to guide me and this time it's unanimous. Their choices and mine are the same - "seeing" a black hole. As I discussed in my column posted on 5/1/2019, "seeing" a black hole in a galaxy some 50 million light years away from us required a huge cooperative effort among hundreds of workers and many of the world's major telescopes. It was a monumental achievement and I hope a member or members of the team gets the Nobel Prize relatively soon.
Speaking of Nobel Prizes, I just got my copy of The Electrochemical Society (ECS) publication Interface with pictures on the cover of the three 2019 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry - John Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, from Japan. I knew that Goodenough and Whittingham are members of ECS but didn't know that Yoshino also is a member. In an earlier column, I discussed the work on lithium-ion batteries for which the three received the Nobel Prize. Recently I received an email with a link to the Nobel ceremonies where the three winners received their awards and also the addresses given by each of the three laureates. Goodenough, the oldest Nobel laureate in history at 97, was in a wheelchair and he had a colleague go to the podium in his place. However, Goodenough had taped a sizeable number of film clips that were played at intervals during his colleague's speech. It was an interesting approach, permitting Goodenough to be seen and heard even though he didn't deliver his remarks live.
Initially, I had planned to write here about an article I had read on the reduction of oxygen levels in the oceans caused by climate change and the deleterious effects on big fish such as tuna. However, I found that our editor Brian Trumbore scooped me by discussing the subject in some detail in one of his Week in Review columns. So, I found another effect of global warming that I hadn't known of before, the formation and growth of lakes from the water from melting glaciers and the possibilities of catastrophic loss of life when the boundaries of such lakes are breached. While I have long known of the threats due to melting of ice in places such as Greenland and other polar regions, resulting in a rise in sea levels, I assumed that melting glaciers in inland mountainous regions would just lead to water running off into rivers which would drain into the oceans or seas. However, in the December issue of National Geographic, an article by Freddie Wilkinson titled "When the Roof of the World Melts" describes how glacial lakes are formed and the threats they pose.
There are two terms that are important here - moraines and GLOFs. When a glacier goes plowing down a mountain it digs up dirt and debris that piles up to form channels. The walls of debris are called moraines. If part of a glacier melts, the water can be contained by the moraines, forming a pond and ponds can grow and/or combine to form lakes. In this era of global warming, these ponds and lakes are forming so rapidly and in hard-to-get-to areas it's hard to keep track of how many lakes there in the Himalayas and other high mountain ranges that form an arc ranging from Afghanistan to Myanmar. What happens if a moraine breaks? A GLOF, a glacial lake outburst flood, can result and, depending on the size and location of the lake, the results can be deadly.
Peru, which also has high mountains and glaciers, has had GLOFs. One killed 5,000 people and destroyed a third of the city of Huaraz! Peru has attacked the problem of glacial lakes by draining some of them, forming hydroelectric plants and irrigation channels, etc. Peru is smaller and the lakes are more accessible than in the vast high mountain ranges of Asia, where getting equipment in to accomplish remedial actions is a real challenge. Meanwhile, climate change seems almost certainly responsible for the horrendous situation in Australia, where wildfires all over the country are causing vast losses of wildlife (notably koala bears) and property and air pollution.
Well, I'm going to post this very short column ending my coverage of some of the more interesting (to me) scientific achievements of 2019. With the deaths of my wife and, just a few weeks ago, her brother Frank "Bunsie" Novak, as well as at least five others in her family this past year, this has not been a good year for me and my wife's family. With what lies ahead in this country in 2020 and today's news of the killing of the high ranking Iranian, I'm not optimistic but, hopefully, there will be some good news in the scientific area, maybe a cure for some disease or some development that will actually slow the pace of climate change.
Coincidentally, after writing the above, I received an email from my undergraduate alma mater, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and the email offered me a chance to actually make a direct contribution to counter climate change. For $11.70, I can purchase one metric ton of carbon offset that Dickinson will use to help fund a forestry project some 80 miles from the college campus. The metric ton can offset the carbon emissions from a round trip domestic flight, while if I purchase five metric tons of carbon offset that would compensate for 12,500 miles of driving. OK, at the age of 92, I no longer drive or fly but if I purchase a few tons of carbon offsets I can help my alma mater reach its goal of being carbon neutral in 2020.
I was going to stop there but I went on the Dickinson web site and found some information on what Dickinson has done and is doing to lower its carbon footprint. Since 2008, it has cut its carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. Two ongoing projects caught my eye. Dickinson signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with Tesla to build a 3 megawatt photovoltaic system that started delivering power in 2019. The projected power generated by the system is 4.8 million kilowatt-hours per year and will be 25% of Dickinson's annual power needs, cutting Dickinson's greenhouse gas CO2 emissions by 2000 metric tons. As one who worked on light-emitting diodes for years at Bell Labs, I was taken with Dickinson's "LED Blitz". The college has converted nearly all of its indoor and outdoor lighting to LEDs! It wasn't cheap, costing some $360,000 compared to conventional lighting but now they are saving $150,000 a year. Quite a change from the days when I worked on LEDs and all we were concerned about was using them to light up something called a telephone for use in something called the Bell System.
Happy New Year!
Allen F. Bortrum, AKA Forrest Allen Trumbore