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The Virus and Melting Ice
CHAPTER 112 Short Term and Long Term Threats
As I finally get around to writing a column, after having just submitted my income tax returns, there is virtually only one topic being discussed on the media and in everyday conversations, the corona virus. The virus becomes an item of much more intense interest and concern when one learns that a man from a neighboring town is a patient harboring the virus in our town's hospital just a mile from my house. Furthermore, I have just enjoyed a couple of meals of a Mexican dish cooked by my next door neighbor, the meal delivered to me by her husband, a surgeon at that hospital! ...... It's now been over a week since I started this column with the preceding three sentences. I don't know why I got distracted initially but I do know that I've spent way too much time following the TV news programs devoted almost entirely to the Corona virus. As of today, March 26, there are over 20 reported cases in my town here in New Jersey only about 20 miles from the epicenter of the corona outbreak in New York.
I am missing the weekly walk at our local mall with two couples. One of the couples just returned last week from a three-week cruise to Hawaii and of course, I was concerned that they could end up being stranded on their ship as happened with the Diamond Princess. Fortunately, their cruise went smoothly and they arrived back in New Jersey on schedule, only to find that their 17-year-old granddaughter had the Corona virus and was recuperating under quarantine at home. I'm happy to see that the Corona patients in our town are all reported as recuperating at home.
We're all experiencing various effects of the COVID-19 explosion. Within the past few days or weeks, I've gotten emails from various organizations or entities that played an important role in my life. One was from the University of Pittsburgh outlining measures being taken in the realm of online learning etc. I was not surprised to read that Pitt's Center for Vaccine Research is pursuing developing a vaccine for the virus. After all, when I was doing my graduate work there, Jonas Salk was working on his vaccine for polio. Another email yesterday was from the Electrochemical Society (ECS) saying they were having to cancel their meeting in Montreal scheduled for May. ECS has two national meetings a year and this one had nearly 3000 abstracts submitted. In its 118-year history, ECS has only had to cancel one other national meeting!
I also received an email from Margee Ensign, the president of my undergraduate alma mater, Dickinson College, telling of the measures being taken to address the problems related to the virus. Coincidentally, I had just read an article by Nina Strochlic in the March issue of National Geographic in which Margee Ensign played a significant role. The article is about those 276 Nigerian schoolgirls that were abducted at gunpoint by Boko Haram back in 2014. Some 57 of the girls escaped, most by jumping off the truck in which they were being held. At that time Margee Ensign was president of the American University of Nigeria in the city of Yola and at some point she drove to the town of Chibok where the escapees were located and came back to the university with a couple of vans loaded with two dozen girls who became students at the university. After that, Ensign became president of Dickinson College and the article describes how one of the girls, Patience Bulus "spent the summer far from home, on the idyllic campus of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania." Ensign also brought a few more of those girls to Dickinson.
Let me now return to the subject of a previous column, last year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the lithium-ion battery. In that column I related how I was one of the lecturers in a NATO sponsored course in Erice, Sicily and one of the other lecturers was John Goodenough, one of the three who shared that Nobel Prize for his work on cobalt oxide, the cathode material in Sony's lithium-ion battery. Akira Yoshino, in Japan, shared the prize for his work putting together the cobalt oxide as the cathode and carbon as the anode in the lithium-ion battery. In my column, I speculated that I might have gotten the prize instead of Yoshino had I come home from Sicily, where Goodenough had mentioned his cobalt oxide, and made a battery of the oxide with graphite (carbon), which was patented by my Bell Labs colleague, Samar Basu.
Well, it turns out that had I done that and made a lithium-ion battery with graphite I would not have gotten the Nobel. Some of the remaining former members of the battery group at Bell Labs still get together for pizza most months and last month I brought up the subject of the Nobel Prize. One of them, not sure he would want his name given, told how he had been involved in determining just what was the form of carbon in the Sony battery. There was some graphite but the bulk of the carbon was of a different form. Had I made a battery with just graphite and the cobalt oxide, the lithium ions would not have gone in and out of the graphite fast enough to provide the electrical current needed for practical applications, notably I would think, driving a Tesla car! Yoshino's work on whatever form of carbon he came up with did indeed make a very significant contribution to the lithium-ion battery and he fully deserved his share of the Nobel Prize.
Let's turn to a problem that promises to make the Corona virus problem seem relatively minor in the long run - global warming. I've recently gotten a number of emails from NASA/JPL detailing results from 20 years of satellite observations related to the melting of ice in Greenland and in Antarctica. These ongoing studies have involved researchers around the world such as the recently decommissioned Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission and its successor, GRACE Follow-On, missions in which NASA partnered with the German Aerospace Center and with the German Research Centre for Geosciences. In these missions the satellites measured changes in Earth's gravitational pull resulting from changes in mass, notably water. Somehow, from their very precise measurements, scientists can determine the amounts of polar ice, global sea levels and groundwater availability.
Last year in 2019, Greenland lost 600 billion tons of ice - enough to raise global sea levels by nearly a tenth of an inch in only two months. That's more than twice the yearly average for the preceding 17 years. Down in Antarctica, areas on the western part of the continent continued losing ice but these losses have been partially offset by gains from more snow falling in the northeast. Let me quote from the email I got from NASA?JPL. "We knew this past summer had been particularly warm in Greenland, melting every corner of the ice sheet," said lead author Isabella Velicogna, senior project scientist at JPL and a professor at UCI. "But the numbers really are enormous. In Antarctica, the mass loss in the west proceeds unabated, which will lead to an even further increase in sea level rise. But we also observe a mass gain in the Atlantic sector of East Antarctica caused by an uptick in snowfall, which helps mitigate the enormous increase in mass loss that we have seen in the last two decades on other parts of the continent."
This sets the stage for the next email I got from NASA/JPL. It described the case of the Denman glacier on East Antarctica. While the extra snow falling there is heartening, the glacier is melting, having retreated over 3 miles in the past couple of decades. While this may not seem like much, another section of the glacier is an extension that lies over open water and it's melting at a rate of some 10 feet per year compared to its previous melting rates around 9 feet per year. All these numbers may not seem worrisome but due to the shape of this chunk of ice, a sizeable portion extends over open water subject to the possibility of warmer water coming in underneath and increasing the melting rate. Oh, did I mention that if this glacier melted completely, the sea level around the world would rise by 4.9 feet! Goodbye to my favorite vacation spot, Marco Island in Florida and much of our Jersey shore towns.
Oh well, at 92 years old, I won't have to worry about those possibilities. I'll just hope to be around when this virus decides to call it quits, hopefully, not to return in the fall.
Allen F. Bortrum