EarthTalk: Don’t some scientists point
to sunspots and solar wind as having more impact on climate
change than human industrial activity?
-- David Noss, California, MD
climate change doubters blame global warming on sunspots
and/or solar wind. Many climate scientists agree that
natural variations in the sun’s output could
be playing a role, but the vast majority view it as
very minimal and attribute Earth’s warming primarily
to emissions from industrial activity - and thousands
of peer-reviewed studies back up that claim.
© Getty Images
are storms on the sun’s surface that are marked by
intense magnetic activity and play host to solar flares
and hot gassy ejections from the sun’s corona. Scientists
believe that the number of spots on the sun cycles over
time, reaching a peak—the so-called Solar Maximum—every
11 years or so. Some studies indicate that sunspot activity
overall has doubled in the last century. The apparent result
down here on Earth is that the sun glows brighter by about
0.1 percent now than it did 100 years ago.
wind, according to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,
consists of magnetized plasma flares and in some cases is
linked to sunspots. It emanates from the sun and influences
galactic rays that may in turn affect atmospheric phenomena
on Earth, such as cloud cover. But scientists are the first
to admit that they have a lot to learn about phenomena like
sunspots and solar wind, some of which is visible to humans
on Earth in the form of Aurora Borealis and other far flung
interplanetary light shows.
skeptics of human-induced climate change blame global warming
on natural variations in the sun’s output due to sunspots
and/or solar wind. They say it’s no coincidence that
an increase in sunspot activity and a run-up of global temperatures
on Earth are happening concurrently, and view regulation
of carbon emissions as folly with negative ramifications
for our economy and tried-and-true energy infrastructure.
in solar energy output have far more effect on Earth’s
climate than soccer moms driving SUVs,” Southwestern
Law School professor Joerg Knipprath, writes in his ‘Token
Conservative’ blog. “A rational thinker would
understand that, especially if he or she has some understanding
of the limits of human influence. But the global warming
boosters have this unbounded hubris that it is humans who
control nature, and that human activity can terminally despoil
the planet as well as cause its salvation.”
climate scientists agree that sunspots and solar wind could
be playing a role in climate change, but the vast majority
view it as very minimal and attribute Earth’s warming
primarily to emissions from industrial activity—and
they have thousands of peer-reviewed studies available to
back up that claim.
Foukal of the Massachusetts-based firm Heliophysics, Inc.,
who has tracked sunspot intensities from different spots
around the globe dating back four centuries, also concludes
that such solar disturbances have little or no impact on
global warming. Nevertheless, he adds, most up-to-date climate
models—including those used by the United Nations’
prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—incorporate
of the sun’s variable degree of brightness in their
the only way to really find out if phenomena like sunspots
and solar wind are playing a larger role in climate change
than most scientists now believe would be to significantly
reduce our carbon emissions. Only in the absence of that
potential driver will researchers be able to tell for sure
how much impact natural influences have on the Earth’s
Marshall Space Flight Center; Token
Conservative Blog; IPCC.
EarthTalk: Are the United States’ vast
oil shale resources a potential source of energy?
-- Larry LeDoux, Honolulu, HI
nations mine oil shale for energy generation and other
purposes. The U.S has the world's largest supply,
but has only periodically considered tapping it when
oil prices have been high. Green groups oppose oil
shale extraction as even more environmentally destructive
than oil itself and want Obama to overturn George
W. Bush's 2008 executive order to open up two million
acres of land across Wyoming, Utah and Colorado for
lease to oil shale extractors.
Oil shale is
a fine-grained sedimentary rock that contains significant
amounts of kerogen, a solid mixture of organic chemical
compounds that can be converted into synthetic liquid fuel
similar to oil, or into shale gas similar to petroleum-derived
natural gas. Geologists believe there is more oil shale
out there in the rocks of the world—three trillion
barrels worth of fuel—than there is oil in existing
Oil shale has
been mined extensively in Brazil, China, Estonia, Germany,
Israel and Russia, but up to two-thirds of the world’s
supply lies in the Green River basin of the western United
States, including parts of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. To
date, these American oil shale resources remain virtually
untapped, but an 11th hour executive order by the Bush administration
in 2008 put two million acres of Bureau of Land Management
(BLM) land across Wyoming, Utah and Colorado up for lease
to oil shale extractors.
with oil shale reserves have been mining them for decades
for power generation and other uses, but American enthusiasm
has run hot and cold, depending on oil prices. The U.S.
was bullish on oil shale during the 1970’s oil shocks,
but when gas prices fell again, so did the enthusiasm for
didn’t look into mining domestic oil shale again until
2003—again, thanks to spiking oil prices. George W.
Bush’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 officially opened
federal lands to oil shale extraction. But then once again
lowered oil prices, along with environmental concerns and
growing enthusiasm for renewable energy sources left oil
shale’s future in the U.S. again uncertain.
For their part,
environmental groups are unequivocally against oil shale
extraction. For one, extracting operations destroy affected
landscapes, forcing plants and animals out, with regeneration
unlikely for decades. Another big issue with oil shale extraction
is water usage. The process requires as much as five barrels
of water—for dust control, cooling and other purposes—for
every barrel of shale oil produced.
Oil shale extraction
is also very energy-intensive, and as such is no solution
to our global warming woes. Researchers have found that
a gallon of shale oil can emit as much as 50 percent more
carbon dioxide than a gallon of conventional oil would over
its given lifecycle from extraction to tailpipe.
Due to these
concerns and others, 13 environmental groups, including
the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Natural Resources
Defense Council, teamed up in January 2009 to file suit
against the federal government for opening up all that western
U.S. land to oil shale development. The suit contends that
the BLM failed to properly consider air quality and endangered
species impacts in the region. The groups also contend that
the development would require the construction of 10 new
coal-fired power plants in order to get at and process the
oil shale, significantly upping the carbon footprint of
the entire region.
hope that the Obama administration will overturn Bush’s
decision to lease development rights on the land, which
is near three national parks in one of the least developed
parts of the U.S.
Land Management; Wilderness
Resources Defense Council.