22 December 2009

Peak Everything?

An interesting book caught my eye today, called Peak Everything. Society has talked, and joked, about Peak Oil for decades since M. King Hubbert put the idea forward in 1956. He predicted a peak in oil in the 1970's. Now many educated individuals, which we would label experts, are applying this model to other resources.

There are many indications that we have reached or are nearing a peak in gold, natural gas, helium, electricity, fresh water, aluminum, copper, and other metals.

Let's get something straight right now. The idea of a peak does NOT refer to a depletion of a resource. What it describes is a tipping point, where the remaining resources are more costly and more time consuming to reach, extract, and process, at which point supply cannot meet demand.

Not every deposit of a natural resource is created equal. Oil is an easy one to use for examples. There are many grades of oil, from sweet light crude to heavy crude. The lower the grade the harder and more costly it is to refine. Most of the light sweet crude deposits are gone. Oil is also located in many places, from extremely hospitable climes such as southern California, to extremely harsh climes such as northern Alaska and Siberia. Harsher climates, and more remote locations, mean higher costs and longer transport times.

What it comes down to, in a nutshell, is that we can only dig something out of the ground so fast, and no faster. THIS then is the peak. The point at which we can't dig any faster, but demand continues to increase. As the cost of extraction and processing climbs, and the pace of extracting and processing slows, the price increases rapidly. This mechanism will actually slow consumption due to higher prices, but will restrict access to those who have the economic means. Gas will become a luxury. And if this model holds true resources that we take for granted, like fresh water, may become a luxury as well.

21 December 2009

ELE

Also known as an Extinction Level Event. These events are, for the most part, measured on a scale that spans generations rather than a single human lifetime. However two scenarios can have a more rapid impact. The first is a massive volcanic eruption, known as a flood basalt. Enormous amounts of lava cover the landscape, as much as 1.5 million square kilometers, to a depth measured in thousands of meters. With our modern monitoring equipment, it's likely that we would know well in advance if such a large scale event were going to take place.

The second scenario is one we envisioned often as kids, the asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out the dinosaurs. WOOSH! BAM! A fiery column rises from the Earths crust, millions of gallons of seawater turn to steam, hurricanes sweep across continents, tsunamis thousands of feet high race across the globe, the sky grows dark, and another ice age begins. Totally unthinkable!

And yet, it's not. There is strong evidence that an asteroid impact contributed to at least one of the Big Five major extinctions. A single object of sufficient size would end most life on earth. A smaller object would simply annihilate a continent, or wipe out the coastlines of several continents, and cause planet-wide changes in the weather and average temperatures. Another option would be a comet or asteroid that calved, causing multiple strikes of various sizes.

We live on an island, as the saying goes, and we are stuck here. Interstellar travel is still the stuff of dreams. Our ability to monitor the heavens is far from sufficient to warn us of an impending strike. There is simply too much space to monitor. Even if luck allowed us to spot an incoming object, what would we do? There really isn't any publicly known strategy for shoving aside an asteroid. Various governments may have ideas, but at the current rate of off-planet development and exploration it is doubtful that any feasible technologies exist.

The human race is young. We have not experienced any ELEs in our written history. To think that such a thing could never happen is folly.  To leave ones survival to the hands of fate is ridiculous. True, in such a scenario there are many people who would perish regardless of their preparations, but we cannot know where such conditions will exist. Perhaps North America will be flattened, but maybe it will be Antartica, or an oceanic strike could wipe out coastlines but leave the interior of contintents intact. To be prepared is the only logical choice, just in case fortune smiles.