Category Archives: Global warming

Nuclear power IS / IS NOT the answer…

[Editor: Back in the 1980s, I followed the lead of Dr. Helen Caldicott, who called for a “nuclear freeze.”  My spouse and I thought it was important enough that we founded an educational program on the dangers of nuclear arms and nuclear energy.  I have felt the same urgency in more recent years about the dangers of climate change and the absolute imperative of taking action to slow and reverse global warming.  Recently, I’ve read a number of articles promoting the virtues of nuclear power as a cheap “non-fossil-fuel source of energy.”  Below I am posting a few pro and con stories, side by side.  This “balanced” approach is unusual for me – my Benicia Independent is a personal blog, and I am more likely to advocate a position than to lay out pros and cons.  But this particular issue is critical for the planet, and might deserve a little study of the factors for and against a resurgence of nuclear power plants.  – R.S.]

Flanked by cooling towers, a nuclear reactor is contained inside a spherical containment building. Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Climate change is scarier than nuclear power

By Jack Edmonston, Barnstable Patriot, Dec 28, 2019 

While closing the aging Plymouth nuclear plant may have been a wise decision, the world’s withdrawal from nuclear power since the tragic tsunami at Fukushima in March, 2011 will likely lead to disaster.

Before Fukushima, a recent piece in The New Yorker points out, “there was serious discussion among energy experts about a nuclear ‘renaissance.’” After Fukushima, Japan shut all its nukes down. Belgium, Switzerland and Germany announced complete phaseouts of nuclear power, and France announced a major decrease.

The New Yorker reports that Pushker Kharecha, a scientist at Columbia University’s Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program, thinks this is a terrible mistake. “Our window of time to mitigate the climate crisis is shrinking by the day … . Given this urgency it simply makes no sense to curtail a non-fossil fuel source like nuclear power in countries that produce significant power from fossil fuels.”

If professors Steven Pinker of Harvard and Joshua Goldman of American University and Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist are correct, we need to stop closing nuclear plants and start building them as quickly as we can. In a New York Times op-ed, “Nuclear Power Can Save the World,” they argue that the only way to supply the growing global demand for electricity without fossil fuels is through a mix of renewable energy and nuclear power.

The professors believe we have to supplement the nuclear plants we have with a buildup of safer, advanced nuclear plants. While some experts assert that renewables alone can solve the problem, economic models show that at least 20% of our power has to come from a reliable, consistent, low-carbon source. And the only one we have available is nuclear power.

The risk of nuclear power is localized, visible and very low – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima notwithstanding. The risk of global warming is worldwide, not visible until it’s too late, and very high.

The professors tell us that “the reality is that nuclear power is the safest form of energy humanity has ever used.” “Mining accidents, hydroelectric dam failures, natural gas explosions and oil train crashes all kill people, sometimes in large numbers, and smoke from coal-burning kills them in enormous numbers, more than half a million per year.

“By contrast, in 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm,” and except for Chernobyl they didn’t kill anyone.

“Climate change is a trolley moving inexorably but slowly toward the people on the tracks,” says Steven Davis, an earth systems science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Maybe nuclear is scarier because a person could be run down before she even sees the trolley.”

The future of nuclear power lies in “fourth-generation” reactors currently being developed by dozens of startups. They will be mass-produced with standard parts and shipped to the world, “potentially generating electricity at lower cost than fossil fuels.

The good news is that Congress recently passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. Unless Donald Trump (who calls global warming a hoax) stops it, we may be on our way to a sensible answer to the problem.

Can nuclear power help save us from climate change?

The technology’s slide must be reversed, the International Energy Agency says, but significant barriers exist
Chemical & Engineering News, by Jeff Johnson, Sept. 23, 2019

Globally, nuclear power is on the skids. Its contribution to electricity generation is in a free fall, dropping from a mid-1990s peak of about 18% of worldwide electricity capacity to 10% today, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The agency expects the downward spiral to continue, hitting 5% by 2040 unless governments around the world intervene.

The driver for that intervention would be nuclear reactors’ ability to generate energy with low greenhouse gas emission. To meet the world’s energy needs and avoid the worst effects of climate change, low-carbon electricity generation must increase from providing 36% of the world’s energy today to 85% by 2040, the IEA says.

Electricity sources
The share of electricity generated globally from low-carbon sources has been relatively flat since it peaked in the mid-1990s.
Source: International Energy Agency, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System.”

“Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol says in a statement accompanying an IEA nuclear power report. “Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security.”

But steep barriers to a nuclear energy renaissance exist, among them aging reactors, high costs to build new ones, safety concerns, and questions about how much nuclear is needed in the world’s energy mix.

Historically, nuclear power has played its biggest role in advanced economies, where it makes up 18% of total electricity generation today. France is the most dependent on nuclear energy, with 70% of its electricity generated from nuclear reactors. By number of operating reactors, the US leads with 98 power plants capable of generating 105 GW; France is second with 58 reactors generating 66 GW of electricity.

However, many of those reactors are old. In the US, the European Union, and Russia, plants average 35 years or more in age, nearing their designed lifetimes of 40 years.

Building new nuclear power plants based on traditional designs will be nearly impossible in developed economies, IEA analysts say. The challenges include high costs and long construction times, as well as time needed to recoup costs once plants start running, plus ongoing issues with radioactive waste disposal. In addition, the competitive electricity marketplace in the US makes it hard to sell nuclear energy against that generated more cheaply through natural gas, wind, or solar. Right now, only 11 nuclear plants are under construction in developed economies—4 in South Korea and 1 each in seven other countries.

There is more potential for nuclear energy expansion in developing nations with state-controlled, centralized economies. China is the world’s third-largest nuclear generator, with 45 reactors capable of producing 46 GW of electricity. China also has the biggest plans for new power plants, with 11 at various stages of construction, the IEA says. India is building 7; Russia, 6; and the United Arab Emirates, 4, with a sprinkling of other new plants coming throughout the rest of the world. All will be state owned, the IEA says.

The nuclear industry’s main hope for future expansion lies in a new generation of small, modular reactors that generate less than 300 MW each and are amenable to assembly-line construction. These are still under development, however, with none licensed or under construction.

A middle path between new plants and no plants is lifetime extensions for existing reactors. The IEA estimates the costs for maintenance and improvements needed to continue operating an existing nuclear reactor for an additional 10–20 years would be $500 million–$1.1 billion per gigawatt, an amount the IEA says is comparable to constructing a renewable—solar or wind—system of the same size. The result would be effectively 1 GW of new, low-carbon electricity without the delays involved in siting and building a new solar field or wind farm.

In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already renewed and extended the operating licenses from 40 to 60 years for 90 of the 98 operating reactors. The industry is now focusing on renewals to operate for up to 80 years. Similarly, other countries are considering extending existing reactor operations but for shorter periods, the IEA reports.

These extensions present what the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) terms a “nuclear power dilemma.” The nonprofit organization, which advocates scientific solutions to global problems, has been a frequent nuclear industry critic.

Aging nuclear plants
Many nuclear power plants in the US, the European Union, and Russia are reaching the end of their design lifetime, while those elsewhere in Asia are much younger.
Source: International Energy Agency, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System.”

“We are very cognizant of this climate challenge and the need to act quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” says Rachel Cleetus, the UCS’s climate and energy policy director. The UCS’s solution for providing energy in a warming world is to tax and cap carbon dioxide emissions and introduce a low-carbon electricity standard for all energy sources. Such measures would drive the construction and development of low-carbon energy facilities and technologies, the UCS says.

For nuclear energy in particular, the organization endorses temporary financial support for the extension of some plants, conditioned on rate protection for consumers, safety requirements, and greater investments in renewables and energy efficiency. “We can’t just give them lots of money and blanket life extensions,” Cleetus says. Scenarios and mathematical models run by the UCS show nuclear is very unlikely to grow beyond providing at most 16% of the world’s electricity generation capacity by 2050 even with aid, far short of the 85% or more of the low- or noncarbon generation needed to address global warming.

Underlying the debates about power plant costs and operating lifetimes are questions of safety and risks—real and perceived—of nuclear reactors and radioactivity. These concerns have made nuclear power unpopular in the US, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), resting on the US West Coast north of San Diego, provides an example of why. Seven million people live within 80 km of the plant.

A stormy relationship between SONGS and its surrounding community goes back decades. Most recently, the facility was completely shut down in 2013 after two nearly new steam generators failed. The replacements were part of a $670 million overhaul that was supposed to provide 20 more years of life for the plant.

Then, while transferring used fuel into a storage vault last year, contractor Holtec International mishandled and nearly dropped a 50-metric-ton spent fuel canister. The NRC subsequently cited plant owner Southern California Edison for failing to properly report the incident, as well as conditions that led to it. The public learned about the slipup from a whistle-blower speaking at a community meeting. The event halted fuel transfer operations, which are just now restarting.

“Repairs and replacements could be done properly at nuclear plants,” says L. R. “Len” Hering Sr., a retired rear admiral of the US Navy who lives near SONGS and is cochair of a task force established by Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) to address community safety concerns at the facility.

Hering bases that assessment on his navy experience. “Ships are designed to last roughly 30 years, and when the navy goes through a process of life extension, we do extensive testing and evaluation,” he says. “We make certain all components are up to snuff. In the navy, repairs are made by a focused group of individuals separate from the ship’s operators, and it is not about cost.”

He has not seen a similar level of attention and rigor at SONGS. Once a nuclear advocate, he has cooled on nuclear power because of concerns over management and regulation. “I don’t believe the NRC has the capacity to properly inspect and oversee operations or maintenance,” he says.

Meanwhile, some of the groups advocating for strong action to address climate change question whether more nuclear energy is necessary. Over the past 20 years, as nuclear power generation has declined, renewable sources have expanded by some 580 GW—more than the output of all the world’s nuclear power plants—to make up the difference. Consequently, the overall share of low-carbon electricity sources—hydropower, nuclear, solar, and wind—has stayed even at about 36%.

The IEA applauds the growth of renewables but says that it is unprecedented and not sustainable. Hence the agency’s support for nuclear power.

However, energy researchers at the World Resources Institute and the UCS, speaking at a recent US congressional hearing, say renewable sources will continue to expand, and major increases in energy efficiency are on the horizon. In addition, the researchers expect that as more renewable energy facilities come on line, new technologies will be developed to address the challenge of variable output from renewable energy sources, such as with solar on an overcast day.

Overreliance on nuclear might in fact stall development and installation of technologies needed for a transition to a low-carbon future, Cleetus argues. Her modeling shows that capital investment needed for renewable energy development—building high-voltage power lines, advanced batteries and other storage systems, and of course, renewable resources themselves—could be funneled off to build and retrofit more nuclear power plants. And then there are those who question whether nuclear energy can even be called low carbon if greenhouse gas emissions are considered for the full energy cycle, including plant construction, uranium mining and enrichment, fuel processing, plant decommissioning, and radioactive waste deposition.

See also The New York Times Opinion, “Nuclear Power Can Save the World” by Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker, April 6, 2019

The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change

Mark Z. Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Director, Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University, Dicaprio Foundation, Jun 20, 2019

There is a small group of scientists that have proposed replacing 100% of the world’s fossil fuel power plants with nuclear reactors as a way to solve climate change. Many others propose nuclear grow to satisfy up to 20 percent of all our energy (not just electricity) needs. They advocate that nuclear is a “clean” carbon-free source of power, but they don’t look at the human impacts of these scenarios. Let’s do the math…

One nuclear power plant takes on average about 14-1/2 years to build, from the planning phase all the way to operation. According to the World Health Organization, about 7.1 million people die from air pollution each year, with more than 90% of these deaths from energy-related combustion. So switching out our energy system to nuclear would result in about 93 million people dying, as we wait for all the new nuclear plants to be built in the all-nuclear scenario.

Utility-scale wind and solar farms, on the other hand, take on average only 2 to 5 years, from the planning phase to operation. Rooftop solar PV projects are down to only a 6-month timeline. So transitioning to 100% renewables as soon as possible would result in tens of millions fewer deaths.

This illustrates a major problem with nuclear power and why renewable energy — in particular Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS)– avoids this problem. Nuclear, though, doesn’t just have one problem. It has seven. Here are the seven major problems with nuclear energy:

1. Long Time Lag Between Planning and Operation

The time lag between planning and operation of a nuclear reactor includes the times to identify a site, obtain a site permit, purchase or lease the land, obtain a construction permit, obtain financing and insurance for construction, install transmission, negotiate a power purchase agreement, obtain permits, build the plant, connect it to transmission, and obtain a final operating license.

The planning-to-operation (PTO) times of all nuclear plants ever built have been 10-19 years or more. For example, the Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland was proposed to the Finnish cabinet in December 2000 to be added to an existing nuclear power plant. Its latest estimated completion date is 2020, giving it a PTO time of 20 years.

The Hinkley Point nuclear plant was planned to start in 2008. It has an estimated completion year of 2025 to 2027, giving it a PTO time of 17 to 19 years. The Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia were first proposed in August 2006 to be added to an existing site. The anticipated completion dates are November 2021 and November 2022, respectively, given them PTO times of 15 and 16 years, respectively.

The Haiyang 1 and 2 reactors in China were planned to start in 2005. Haiyang 1 began commercial operation on October 22, 2018. Haiyang 2 began operation on January 9, 2019, giving them PTO times of 13 and 14 years, respectively. The Taishan 1 and 2 reactors in China were bid in 2006. Taishan 1 began commercial operation on December 13, 2018. Taishan 2 is not expected to be connected until 2019, giving them PTO times of 12 and 13 years, respectively. Planning and procurement for four reactors in Ringhals, Sweden started in 1965. One took 10 years, the second took 11 years, the third took 16 years, and the fourth took 18 years to complete.

Many claim that France’s 1974 Messmer plan resulted in the building of its 58 reactors in 15 years. This is not true. The planning for several of these nuclear reactors began long before. For example, the Fessenheim reactor obtained its construction permit in 1967 and was planned starting years before. In addition, 10 of the reactors were completed between 1991-2000. As such, the whole planning-to-operation time for these reactors was at least 32 years, not 15. That of any individual reactor was 10 to 19 years.

Creative Commons: Wikimedia

2. Cost

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for a new nuclear plant in 2018, based on Lazard, is $151 (112 to 189)/MWh. This compares with $43 (29 to 56)/MWh for onshore wind and $41 (36 to 46)/MWh for utility-scale solar PV from the same source.

This nuclear LCOE is an underestimate for several reasons. First, Lazard assumes a construction time for nuclear of 5.75 years. However, the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors, though will take at least 8.5 to 9 years to finish construction. This additional delay alone results in an estimated LCOE for nuclear of about $172 (128 to 215)/MWh, or a cost 2.3 to 7.4 times that of an onshore wind farm (or utility PV farm).

Next, the LCOE does not include the cost of the major nuclear meltdowns in history. For example, the estimated cost to clean up the damage from three Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor core meltdowns was $460 to $640 billion. This is $1.2 billion, or 10 to 18.5 percent of the capital cost, of every nuclear reactor worldwide.

In addition, the LCOE does not include the cost of storing nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years. In the U.S. alone, about $500 million is spent yearly to safeguard nuclear waste from about 100 civilian nuclear energy plants. This amount will only increase as waste continues to accumulate. After the plants retire, the spending must continue for hundreds of thousands of years with no revenue stream from electricity sales to pay for the storage.

3. Weapons Proliferation Risk

The growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or harvest plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes this fact. They concluded in the Executive Summary of their 2014 report on energy, with “robust evidence and high agreement” that nuclear weapons proliferation concern is a barrier and risk to the increasing development of nuclear energy:

The building of a nuclear reactor for energy in a country that does not currently have a reactor allows the country to import uranium for use in the nuclear energy facility. If the country so chooses, it can secretly enrich the uranium to create weapons grade uranium and harvest plutonium from uranium fuel rods for use in nuclear weapons. This does not mean any or every country will do this, but historically some have and the risk is high, as noted by IPCC. The building and spreading of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) may increase this risk further.

Creative Commons, Wikimedia

4. Meltdown Risk

To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants ever built have melted down to some degree. Meltdowns have been either catastrophic (Chernobyl, Russia in 1986; three reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, Japan in 2011) or damaging (Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979; Saint-Laurent France in 1980). The nuclear industry has proposed new reactor designs that they suggest are safer. However, these designs are generally untested, and there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly or that a natural disaster or act of terrorism, such as an airplane flown into a reactor, will not cause the reactor to fail, resulting in a major disaster.

5. Mining Lung Cancer Risk

Uranium mining causes lung cancer in large numbers of miners because uranium mines contain natural radon gas, some of whose decay products are carcinogenic. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10 percent) died of lung cancer, a rate six times that expected based on smoking rates alone. 61 others died of mining related lung diseases. Clean, renewable energy does not have this risk because (a) it does not require the continuous mining of any material, only one-time mining to produce the energy generators; and (b) the mining does not carry the same lung cancer risk that uranium mining does.

6. Carbon-Equivalent Emissions and Air Pollution

There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. Emissions from new nuclear are 78 to 178 g-CO2/kWh, not close to 0. Of this, 64 to 102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years are emissions from the background grid while consumers wait 10 to 19 years for nuclear to come online or be refurbished, relative to 2 to 5 years for wind or solar. In addition, all nuclear plants emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.

In fact, China’s investment in nuclear plants that take so long between planning and operation instead of wind or solar resulted in China’s CO2 emissions increasing 1.3 percent from 2016 to 2017 rather than declining by an estimated average of 3 percent. The resulting difference in air pollution emissions may have caused 69,000 additional air pollution deaths in China in 2016 alone, with additional deaths in years prior and since.

Pexels commons

7. Waste Risk

Last but not least, consumed fuel rods from nuclear plants are radioactive waste. Most fuel rods are stored at the same site as the reactor that consumed them. This has given rise to hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant. The more nuclear waste that accumulates, the greater the risk of radioactive leaks, which can damage water supply, crops, animals, and humans.


To recap, new nuclear power costs about 5 times more than onshore wind power per kWh (between 2.3 to 7.4 times depending upon location and integration issues). Nuclear takes 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation and produces on average 23 times the emissions per unit electricity generated (between 9 to 37 times depending upon plant size and construction schedule). In addition, it creates risk and cost associated with weapons proliferation, meltdown, mining lung cancer, and waste risks. Clean, renewables avoid all such risks.

Nuclear advocates claim nuclear is still needed because renewables are intermittent and need natural gas for backup. However, nuclear itself never matches power demand so it needs backup. Even in France with one of the most advanced nuclear energy programs, the maximum ramp rate is 1 to 5 % per minute, which means they need natural gas, hydropower, or batteries, which ramp up 5 to 100 times faster, to meet peaks in demand. Today, in fact, batteries are beating natural gas for wind and solar backup needs throughout the world. A dozen independent scientific groups have further found that it is possible to match intermittent power demand with clean, renewable energy supply and storage, without nuclear, at low cost.

Finally, many existing nuclear plants are so costly that their owners are demanding subsidies to stay open. For example, in 2016, three existing upstate New York nuclear plants requested and received subsidies to stay open using the argument that the plants were needed to keep emissions low. However, subsidizing such plants may increase carbon emissions and costs relative to replacing the plants with wind or solar as soon as possible. Thus, subsidizing nuclear would result in higher emissions and costs over the long term than replacing nuclear with renewables.

Derivations and sources of the numbers provided herein can be found here.

Nuclear power is not the answer in a time of climate change

AEON, By Heidi Hutner, Stony Brook University, Erica Cirino, science photojournalist, and editor Pam Weintraub, May 28, 2019
<p>The Woolsey Fire seen from Topanga Canyon in California. <em>Photo courtesy of Peter Buschmann/USDA/Flickr</em></p>
The Woolsey Fire seen from Topanga Canyon in California. Photo courtesy of Peter Buschmann/USDA/Flickr

In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire scorched nearly 100,000 acres of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroying forests, fields and more than 1,500 structures, and forcing the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people over 14 days. It burned so viciously that it seared a scar into the land that’s visible from space. Investigators determined that the Woolsey Fire began at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a nuclear research property contaminated by a partial meltdown in 1959 of its failed Sodium Reactor Experiment, as well as rocket tests and regular releases of radiation.

The State of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) reports that its air, ash and soil tests conducted on the property after the fire show no release of radiation beyond baseline for the contaminated site. But the DTSC report lacks sufficient information, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It includes ‘few actual measurements’ of the smoke from the fire, and the data raises alarms. Research on Chernobyl in Ukraine following wildfires in 2015 shows clear release of radiation from the old nuclear power plant, calling into question the quality of DTSC’s tests. What’s more, scientists such as Nikolaos Evangeliou, who studies radiation releases from wildfires at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, point out that the same hot, dry and windy conditions exacerbating the Woolsey Fire (all related to human-caused global warming) are a precursor to future climate-related radioactive releases.

With our climate-impacted world now highly prone to fires, extreme storms and sea-level rise, nuclear energy is touted as a possible replacement for the burning of fossil fuels for energy – the leading cause of climate change. Nuclear power can demonstrably reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Yet scientific evidence and recent catastrophes call into question whether nuclear power could function safely in our warming world. Wild weather, fires, rising sea levels, earthquakes and warming water temperatures all increase the risk of nuclear accidents, while the lack of safe, long-term storage for radioactive waste remains a persistent danger.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory property has had a long history of contaminated soil and groundwater. Indeed, a 2006 advisory panel compiled a report suggesting that workers at the lab, as well as residents living nearby, had unusually high exposure to radiation and industrial chemicals that are linked to an increased incidence of some cancers. Discovery of the pollution prompted California’s DTSC in 2010 to order a cleanup of the site by its current owner – Boeing – with assistance from the US Department of Energy and NASA. But the required cleanup has been hampered by Boeing’s legal fight to perform a less rigorous cleaning.

Like the Santa Susana Field Lab, Chernobyl remains largely unremediated since its meltdown in 1986. With each passing year, dead plant material accumulates and temperatures rise, making it especially prone to fires in the era of climate change. Radiation releases from contaminated soils and forests can be carried thousands of kilometres away to human population centres, according to Evangeliou.

Kate Brown, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), and Tim Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina, also have grave concerns about forest fires. ‘Records show that there have been fires in the Chernobyl zone that raised the radiation levels by seven to 10 times since 1990,’ Brown says. Further north, melting glaciers contain ‘radioactive fallout from global nuclear testing and nuclear accidents at levels 10 times higher than elsewhere’. As ice melts, radioactive runoff flows into the ocean, is absorbed into the atmosphere, and falls as acid rain. ‘With fires and melting ice, we are basically paying back a debt of radioactive debris incurred during the frenzied production of nuclear byproducts during the 20th century,’ Brown concludes.

Flooding is another symptom of our warming world that could lead to nuclear disaster. Many nuclear plants are built on coastlines where seawater is easily used as a coolant. Sea-level rise, shoreline erosion, coastal storms and heat waves – all potentially catastrophic phenomena associated with climate change – are expected to get more frequent as the Earth continues to warm, threatening greater damage to coastal nuclear power plants. ‘Mere absence of greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to assess nuclear power as a mitigation for climate change,’ conclude Natalie Kopytko and John Perkins in their paper ‘Climate Change, Nuclear Power, and the Adaptation-Mitigation Dilemma’ (2011) in Energy Policy.

Proponents of nuclear power say that the reactors’ relative reliability and capacity make this a much clearer choice than other non-fossil-fuel sources of energy, such as wind and solar, which are sometimes brought offline by fluctuations in natural resource availability. Yet no one denies that older nuclear plants, with an aged infrastructure often surpassing expected lifetimes, are extremely inefficient and run a higher risk of disaster.

‘The primary source of nuclear power going forward will be the current nuclear fleet of old plants,’ said Joseph Lassiter, an energy expert and nuclear proponent who is retired from Harvard University. But ‘even where public support exists for [building new] nuclear plants, it remains to be seen if these new-build nuclear plants will make a significant contribution to fossil-emissions reductions given the cost and schedule overruns that have plagued the industry.’

Lassiter and several other energy experts advocate for the new, Generation IV nuclear power plants that are supposedly designed to deliver high levels of nuclear power at the lowest cost and with the lowest safety risks. But other experts say that the benefits even here remain unclear. The biggest critique of the Generation IV nuclear reactors is that they are in the design phase, and we don’t have time to wait for their implementation. Climate abatement action is needed immediately.

‘New nuclear power seemingly represents an opportunity for solving global warming, air pollution, and energy security,’ says Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Programme. But it makes no economic or energy sense. ‘Every dollar spent on nuclear results in one-fifth the energy one would gain with wind or solar [at the same cost], and nuclear energy takes five to 17 years longer before it becomes available. As such, it is impossible for nuclear to help with climate goals of reducing 80 per cent of emissions by 2030. Also, while we’re waiting around for nuclear, coal, gas and oil are being burned and polluting the air. In addition, nuclear has energy security risks other technologies don’t have: weapons proliferation, meltdown, waste and uranium-worker lung-cancer risks.’

Around the world, 31 countries have nuclear power plants that are currently online, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. By contrast, four countries have made moves to phase out nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and 15 countries have remained opposed and have no functional power plants.

With almost all countries’ carbon dioxide emissions increasing – and China, India and the US leading the pack – the small Scandinavian country of Denmark is an outlier. Its carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing despite it not producing any nuclear power. Denmark does import some nuclear power produced by its neighbours Sweden and Germany, but in February, the country’s most Left-leaning political party, Enhedslisten, published a new climate plan that outlines a path for the country to start relying on its own 100 per cent renewable, non-nuclear energy for power and heat production by 2030. The plan would require investments in renewables such as solar and wind, a smart grid and electric vehicles that double as mobile batteries and can recharge the grid during peak hours.

Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the author of Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (2019), believes the technology is no longer a viable method for dealing with climate change: ‘It is dangerous, costly and unreliable, and abandoning it will not bring on a climate crisis.’

See also: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – “Why nuclear energy is not the answer” by Arjun Makhijani, September 8, 2011
See also: Nuclear Power, Not The Answer — 100 Percent Renewable Energy is the Only Moral Choice, Before the Flood, by Kelly Rigg, Director, The Varda Group for Environment and Sustainability

Flood of Oil Is Coming, Complicating Efforts to Fight Global Warming

A surge of oil production is coming, whether the world needs it or not.

A Norwegian oil platform in the North Sea. Norway’s production has declined for two decades, but its development of the Johan Sverdrup deepwater field should reverse the trend.
A Norwegian oil platform in the North Sea. Norway’s production has declined for two decades, but its development of the Johan Sverdrup deepwater field should reverse the trend. Credit…Nerijus Adomaitis/Reuters
The New York Times, by Clifford Krauss, Nov. 3, 2019

HOUSTON — The flood of crude will arrive even as concerns about climate change are growing and worldwide oil demand is slowing. And it is not coming from the usual producers, but from Brazil, Canada, Norway and Guyana — countries that are either not known for oil or whose production has been lackluster in recent years.

This looming new supply may be a key reason Saudi Arabia’s giant oil producer, Aramco, pushed ahead on Sunday with plans for what could be the world’s largest initial stock offering ever.

Together, the four countries stand to add nearly a million barrels a day to the market in 2020 and nearly a million more in 2021, on top of the current world crude output of 80 million barrels a day. That boost in production, along with global efforts to lower emissions, will almost certainly push oil prices down.

Lower prices could prove damaging for Aramco and many other oil companies, reducing profits and limiting new exploration and drilling, while also reshaping the politics of the nations that rely on oil income.

The new rise in production is likely to bring economic relief to consumers at the gas pump and to importing nations like China, India and Japan. But cheaper oil may complicate efforts to combat global warming and wean consumers and industries off their dependence on fossil fuels, because lower gasoline prices could, for example, slow the adoption of electric vehicles.

Canada, Norway, Brazil and Guyana are all relatively stable at a time of turbulence for traditional producers like Venezuela and Libya and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their oil riches should undercut efforts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia to support prices with cuts in production and give American and other Western policymakers an added cushion in case there are renewed attacks on oil tankers or processing facilities in the Persian Gulf.

Driving New Production

Daniel Yergin, the energy historian who wrote “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Power and Money,” compared the impact of the new production to the advent of the shale oil boom in Texas and North Dakota a decade ago.

“Since all four of these countries are largely insulated from traditional geopolitical turmoil, they will add to global energy security,” Mr. Yergin said. But he also predicted that as with shale, the incremental supply gain, combined with a sluggish world economy, could drive prices lower.

There is already a glut on the world market, even with exports from Venezuela and Iran sharply curtailed by American sanctions. Should their production come back, that glut would only expand.

Years of moderate gasoline prices have already increased the popularity of bigger cars and sports utility vehicles in the United States, and the probability of more oil on the market is bound to weigh on prices at the pump over the next few years.

The oil-supply outlook is a sharp departure from the early 2000s, when prices soared as producers strained to keep up with ballooning demand in China and some analysts warned that the world was running out of oil.

Then came the rise of hydraulic fracturing and drilling through tight shale fields, which converted the United States from a needy importer into a powerful exporter. The increase in American production, along with a choppy global economy, shaved oil prices from well over $100 a barrel before the 2007-9 recession to about $56 on Friday for the American benchmark crude.

Those low prices have forced OPEC and Russia to lower production in recent years, and this year many financially struggling American oil companies have slashed their exploration and production investments to pay down their debts and protect their dividends.

An Era of Cheaper Oil

The new oil will accelerate those trends, energy experts say, even if only for a few years as production declines in older fields in other places.

“This could spell disaster for every producer and producing country,” said Raoul LeBlanc, a vice president at IHS Markit, an energy consultancy, especially if the United States and Iran come to some sort of nuclear deal.

Like the shale boom, the coming supply surge is a sudden change in dynamics. Guyana currently produces no oil at all. Norwegian and Brazilian production has long been in decline. And in Canada, concerns about climate change, resistance to new pipelines and high production costs have curtailed investments in oil-sands fields for five consecutive years.

Production of more oil comes at a time when there is growing acknowledgment by governments and energy investors that not all the hydrocarbons in the ground can be tapped if climate change is to be controlled. But exploration decisions, made years ago, have a momentum that can be hard to stop.

A drilling ship operated by Noble Energy for Exxon Mobil off Guyana. The South American country’s entry into the ranks of oil producers follows a string of major discoveries. Credit…Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

“Legacy decisions keep going,” said John Browne, BP’s former chief executive. “Things happen in different directions because decisions are made at different times.”

The added production in Norway comes despite the country’s embrace of the 2016 Paris climate agreement, which committed nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Its sovereign wealth fund has cut investments in some oil companies, and its national oil company, Equinor, has pledged to increase its investments in wind power.

Equinor, which recently changed its name from Statoil to emphasize its partial pivot to renewable energy, nevertheless defends the new field on its company website, asserting, “The Paris Agreement is quite clear that there will still be a need for oil.”

Norway’s rebound from 19 years of decline began a few weeks ago as Equinor began production in its Johan Sverdrup deepwater field. The field will eventually produce 440,000 barrels a day, increasing the country’s output from 1.3 million barrels a day to 1.6 million next year and 1.8 million in 2021.

In Brazil, after years of scandal and delays, new offshore production platforms are coming online. Production has climbed over the last year by 300,000 barrels a day, and the country is expected to add as much as 460,000 more barrels a day by the end of 2021. In the coming days, Brazil is scheduled to hold a major auction in which some of the largest oil companies will bid for drilling rights in offshore areas with as much as 15 billion barrels of reserves.

In Canada, the 1,000-mile Line 3 pipeline that will take oil from the Alberta fields to Wisconsin, is near completion and awaiting final permitting. Energy experts say that could increase Canadian production by a half million barrels a day, or about 10 percent.

And the most striking change will be in Guyana, a tiny South American country where Exxon Mobil has made a string of major discoveries over the last four years. Production will reach 120,000 barrels a day early next year, rising to at least 750,000 barrels by 2025, and more is expected after that.

Guyana potentially has the most complicated future of the four countries. Its ethnically divided politics are sometimes turbulent, and Venezuela claims a large portion of its territory. But with the oil fields miles offshore, drilling is largely protected. In addition, Venezuela is mired in a political and economic crisis and unlikely to challenge a Chinese state company which has an oil investment in Guyana, along with Exxon Mobil and Hess.

Energy experts say the new production from the four nations will more than satisfy all the growth in global demand expected over the next two years, which is well below the growth rates of recent years before economic expansion in China, Europe and Latin America slowed.

At the same time, new pipelines in Texas are expected to increase United States exports to 3.3 million barrels a day next year, from the current 2.8 million.

That adds up to a vast surplus unless there is a resurgence of global economic growth to stimulate demand, or a prolonged conflict in the Middle East or other disruption to supply.

“To support prices, OPEC is going to have to extend and probably deepen their production cuts for a while,” said David L. Goldwyn, a top State Department energy diplomat during the Obama administration. “Getting the prices up to the point where Aramco can launch its I.P.O. is a big Saudi priority.”

The new barrels on the world market will also put pressure on companies producing in the United States, where profit margins for shale production are slim at current price levels and stock prices are falling.

“If I was in the business I would be scared to death,” said Philip K. Verleger, an energy economist who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. “The industry is going to face capital starvation.”

American oil executives express concern that drilling will fade in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Colorado as oil prices drop to as low as $50 a barrel in the next few years. Small companies are expected to merge, while others go bankrupt.

Scott D. Sheffield, chief executive of the Texas-based producer Pioneer Natural Resources, said he expected the growth of United States oil production to ease from 1.2 million barrels a day this year to 500,000 barrels next year and perhaps 400,000 barrels in 2021. Those increases are modest compared with the average increase of a million barrels a day every year from 2010 to 2018.

But Mr. Sheffield said he was optimistic, in part because new supplies coming to market could be offset by production declines in older fields in Mexico and elsewhere after 2021.

“There are no more big, giant new projects except Guyana,” he said. “We just have to be patient for a couple of more years.”

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Needed or Not, Oil Production Is Set to Surge.

Something strange is happening to Greenland’s ice sheet

What should be like a snowcone is becoming more like a popsicle, speeding up the runoff from the melting ice sheet.

When the remnants of Europe’s second summertime heat wave migrated over Greenland in late July, more than half of the ice sheet’s surface started melting for the first time since 2012. A study published Wednesday in Nature shows that mega-melts like that one, which are being amplified by climate change, aren’t just causing Greenland to shed billions of tons of ice. They’re causing the remaining ice to become denser.

“Ice slabs”—solid planks of ice that can span hundreds of square miles and grow to be 50 feet thick—are spreading across the porous, air pocket-filled surface of the Greenland ice sheet as it melts and refreezes more often. From 2001 to 2014, the slabs expanded in area by about 25,000 square miles, forming an impermeable barrier the size of West Virginia that prevents meltwater from trickling down through the ice. Instead, the meltwater becomes runoff that flows overland, eventually making its way out to sea.

As the ice slabs continue to spread, the study’s authors predict more and more of Greenland’s surface will become a “runoff zone,” boosting the ice sheet’s contribution to global sea level rise and, perhaps, causing unexpected changes.

It’s easy to think of Greenland as a solid, impenetrable hunk of ice. But in reality about 80 percent of the ice sheet’s surface is like a snowcone: A dusting of fresh snowfall covers a thick layer of old snow, called firn, that’s slowly being compressed into glacier ice but still contains plenty of air pockets. When the top of this snow cone melts in the summer, liquid water percolates down into the firn, which soaks it up like a 100-foot-thick sponge.

MacFerrin and his colleagues got their first hint that the firn may be losing its absorbency in the spring of 2012, when they were drilling boreholes through the firn in southwest Greenland. They started finding dense, compacted layers of ice in core after core, just below the seasonal snow layer. It was, MacFerrin says, as if a “turtle shell” had formed over the firn.

MacFerrin and his colleagues immediately wondered whether that shell might be preventing meltwater from percolating into the firn.

“That was May of 2012,” MacFerrin says. “And July was this record-breaking melt year, and we got our answer very quickly.”

That summer, for the first time on record, meltwater from this part of Greenland visibly started to flow away as runoff.

Realizing they had witnessed something significant, the researchers set about drilling more cores over a larger region to see how extensive the ice shell was. They discovered that it spanned a transect 25 miles long and was having widespread effects on local hydrology.

Those findings, published in 2016 in Nature Climate Change, were the springboard for the new study. Using radar data from NASA’s IceBridge airborne campaign, as well as ground-based surveys, MacFerrin and his colleagues have now created a first-of-its-kind map of ice slabs across the entire surface of Greenland.

Based on modelling results, the researchers think the shell began to form and spread widely in the early 2000s. As of 2014, it covered some 4 percent of Greenland’s surface, according to the new analysis. Every summer that extensive melting occurs, it gets thicker and spreads inland to colder, higher ground.

“Every handful of years, these big melt summers are doing a number on the firn,” MacFerrin says. “That’s causing this whole process to grow inland pretty quickly.”

This photo is a segment of a firn core, essentially a baby ice slab that eventually will grow into a meters-thick slab of ice.


Sea level rise and unexpected consequences 

Ice slabs have already caused Greenland’s runoff zone to expand by about 26 percent, according to the new study. So far the additional runoff has only added about a millimeter to global sea levels. Greenland now contributes a little under a millimeter per year to rising sea levels, through a combination of icebergs breaking off glaciers and melt occurring at the surface and base of the ice sheet.

But if Greenland’s surface hardens more, runoff could rise dramatically. Under a worst-case scenario where carbon emissions continue to climb until the end of the century, the researchers calculated that ice slab proliferation could add up to 3 inches of sea level rise by 2100, boosting the ice sheet’s overall sea level rise contribution by nearly a third. In both a middle-of-the-road scenario where emissions peak by mid-century and the high emissions one, the amount of runoff from Greenland’s interior roughly doubles by century’s end.

But more runoff is only one potential consequence of the transformation taking place in Greenland’s ice. Kristin Poinar, a glaciologist at the University of Buffalo who wasn’t involved in the study, pointed out that slabs of solid ice aren’t nearly as reflective as bright white snowfall.

“And so, if we start getting these ice slabs forming near the ice sheet’s surface, it could potentially…cause the ice sheet to absorb more solar radiation and warm up,” she says. “And that would create more ice slabs.”

And runoff from ice slabs doesn’t have to flow into the ocean, said Indrani Das, a glaciologist at Columbia University who wasn’t involved in the study. She worries about how it could seep into the large crevasses that exist at lower elevations on the ice sheet. From there, the runoff could, potentially, flow all the way down to bedrock, lubricating the zone where the ice makes contact with it.

“That could make the ice sheet flow faster,” Das says, which could cause glaciers to spill their contents into the ocean more quickly, like ice cream sliding off a piece of cake.

To Poinar, the most significant contribution of the new study is that it will allow scientists to improve their projections of future sea level rise, giving coastal communities the information they need to prepare. At the same time, the study highlights the fact that the more carbon we spew into the atmosphere, the more we’re likely to transform Earth’s northern ice sheet in insidious and unexpected ways. And that could have consequences that are difficult to anticipate.

“We have never observed an ice sheet behaving this way before,” Poinar says. “It’s unprecedented in human scientific history.”

Chasing The Methane Dragon That Lurks In The Deep Sea

We went into the depths of the ocean with a scientist seeking to understand how frozen gas deposits might respond in a rapidly warming world., by Chris D’Angelo, 09/02/2019 07:53 am ET

THE BOTTOM OF THE ATLANTIC OCEAN — Forty miles off the coast of North Carolina, the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis paced a dark, empty swath of ocean in evenly spaced lines as the crew pinged sound waves into the deep. A quarter-mile below, plumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, rose from the seafloor.

The underwater site, named Pea Island after an area of the Outer Banks, is one of the hundreds of active methane seeps discovered off the Atlantic coast since 2012. No human had ever explored this particular underwater world. Samantha Joye, an oceanographer and microbiologist, was about to change that.

She strolled into the ship’s computer lab at 6 a.m., a thermos of tea in hand. She looked anxious as she checked in on what the sonar had turned up.

Jason Chaytor, a marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, had spent half the night mapping the ocean floor. He pointed to the columns of bubbles visible in the rainbow-colored images. The largest of the plumes extended some 250 meters from the bottom, about halfway to the surface.

“You’re going to visit this first,” Chaytor told her.

Joye leaned over his shoulder and squinted through purple-framed glasses. A mad scientist grin washed over her face.

The site is what’s known as a cold seep, an area where methane and other hydrocarbons naturally eject from the seafloor. Cold seeps are home to diverse communities of organisms, including Joye’s favorite: beggiatoa, a large, thread-like bacteria.

Along with their ability to capture energy from poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, beggiatoa form colonies, or “mats,” that are hot spots for hitchhiking microorganisms that feast on methane. Working together, these communities of microbes act as biological filters, blanketing active seeps and limiting the amount of gas that enters the water column and, more importantly, the atmosphere.

Oceanographer Samantha Joye and deep-sea ecologist Erik Cordes chat aboard the research vessel Atlantis in August 2018.
Oceanographer Samantha Joye and deep-sea ecologist Erik Cordes chat aboard the research vessel Atlantis in August 2018. DEEP SEARCH IVAN HURZELER/ERIN HENNING

The seeps along the Atlantic’s continental margin are not new, but recent advances in sonar imaging technology have given scientists the tools to spot them. (Hundreds more have been found in recent years off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.) The novelty of the technology means scientists lack the baseline data that would allow them to compare the amount of methane leaking today to, say, the amount leaking 20 or 200 years ago.

Methane is among the most potent greenhouse gases. And while the numerous sources of methane are well understood, what’s driving the recent surge in global emission levels remains a matter of scientific debate.

The two-week Atlantis expedition was part of project Deep Search, a five-year government-funded study to explore cold seep, canyon and coral ecosystems in this largely uncharted swath of the deep Atlantic. The team of more than 20 scientists set out from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in mid-August 2018 with plans for a dozen manned submersible dives off the southeast Atlantic coast ― most of them to uncharted sites.

Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia, hoped the mission would further scientists’ understanding of methane seeps, their potential for contributing to global warming and the complex microbial communities that inhabit these systems.

In 2006, while exploring in the Gulf of Mexico, Joye was part of a team that discovered a massive mound of methane hydrate, a solid, ice-like form of the gas that is widespread in deep marine sediments. The feature resembled a dragon’s head and was named “sleeping dragon.” For Joye, it’s an apt metaphor for the apocalyptic situation that would unfold if a giant burst of methane into Earth’s atmosphere ever occurred.

“We are waking up the methane dragon,” Joye said. “And that’s a dragon that we really want to keep in the box.”

Methane hydrate, a frozen form of methane gas, at one of the many cold seeps off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Hydrate is widespre
Methane hydrate, a frozen form of methane gas, at one of the many cold seeps off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Hydrate is widespread in the deep ocean and sequesters as much as 20% of all carbon on Earth. NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH

Methane, or CH4, is part of Earth’s natural carbon cycle, emitted from wetlands, soil, volcanoes, wildfires, rice paddies and even by termites. In the ocean, methane is produced when microorganisms or geologic processes deep in the earth’s crust break down organic matter that settles to the seafloor, including dead fish, krill and bacteria.

It is also a powerful super-pollutant, roughly 30 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a century in the atmosphere. Although far less prevalent in Earth’s protective shield than carbon dioxide, methane accounts for about one-fifth of human-caused planetary warming. Since 1750, methane concentrations have risen more than 150% ― a spike driven by fossil fuel production, agriculture and deforestation.

In both the deep sea and Arctic permafrost, a massive amount of methane is trapped in hydrate. This otherworldly substance, also called “methane ice” or “fire ice,” forms when methane combines with water at low temperatures and high pressure. It represents one of the largest carbon reservoirs on Earth, sequestering an estimated 16 to 20% of all carbon.

“Think about that,” Erik Cordes, the expedition’s chief scientist and a deep-sea ecologist at Temple University, said as Atlantis headed out to sea from Woods Hole. “All the forests on the planet, all the living organisms on the planet together, have less carbon in them than there is in methane hydrate.”

Hydrate remains stable under conditions like those found in the frigid deep sea. But if exposed to warmer temperatures or a drop in pressure, it can turn to gas, expanding by approximately 180 times its volume. The concern for some scientists is that as global climate change thaws Arctic permafrost and heats up the oceans, these hydrates will break down, setting off a potentially calamitous feedback loop.

We are waking up the methane dragon. And that’s a dragon that we really want to keep in the box.
– Samantha Joye, oceanographer and microbiologist

Enough methane in the ocean could deplete the water of oxygen and wreak havoc on marine life, while a sharp rise in atmospheric methane would trigger rapid and cataclysmic warming.

That scenario keeps Joye up at night. She’s been studying methane seeps and hydrothermal vents for two decades and says she’s seen enough to know that these systems are poised to respond to the rapid changes now unfolding in the oceans. Climate-driven hydrate collapse, she stressed, is not some hypothetical.

“I hate to say it’s a ticking time bomb because I don’t want to scare the shit out of people,” she said. “But it scares the shit out of me.”

Methane bubbles out of the seafloor off the coast of Virginia, north of Washington Canyon.
Methane bubbles out of the seafloor off the coast of Virginia, north of Washington Canyon. NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH

In 2016, a decade after first documenting the “sleeping dragon,” Joye returned to the site with a film crew from the BBC to find that the hydrate mound ― one of the largest ever documented ― had completely vanished. Similar deposits at other nearby locations were also gone, replaced by craters, or “pockmarks,” where the once-frozen methane exploded from the seabed, Joye said. The water temperature near the seafloor was several degrees above normal.

“We know it’s hydrate destabilization,” she said, adding that she and others had tried unsuccessfully to secure funding for long-term study. “We need to make people understand that we really need to be monitoring these things.”

Surges in atmospheric methane have been blamed for past planetary warming events. The most severe, the “The Great Dying,” occurred 250 million years ago and wiped out approximately 90% of all species. Among the controversial scientific theories about what may have caused it is hydrate degradation. Another is a massive bloom of methane-producing microbes, as a team of researchers at MIT detailed in a 2014 paper.

Scientists have also found signs of a large, sudden burp of methane gas from the Arctic seafloor during a period of extreme warming more than 100 million years ago, thought to be caused by hydrate destabilization. And hydrates have been implicated in a period of extreme warming 55 million years ago, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when global temperatures increased as much as 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

I hate to say it’s a ticking time bomb because I don’t want to scare the shit out of people. But it scares the shit out of me.  – Joye

Unlike in previous episodes of climate upheaval, the activities of a single species are what’s driving the current crisis, which has the potential to affect every corner of the planet. While carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the most immediate threat, the reality is that humans have little understanding of the many complex systems that could be disrupted in the process. The microbial communities found at methane seeps are just one of them.

At a depth of 500 meters, Pea Island sits at the upper limit of hydrate stability, what scientists call the “feather edge,” making it extremely susceptible to rising ocean temperatures. There are untold numbers of similar seeps around the globe.

“Pea Island is sort of the poster child of change in the oceans with respect to methane,” Joye said.

An octopus at Blake Ridge seep.
An octopus at Blake Ridge seep. IVAN HURZELER AND DEEP SEARCH 2019 – BOEM

Other scientists and methane experts are less concerned about a runaway CH4 scenario from hydrate ― at least anytime soon. Carolyn Ruppel, who leads the U.S. Geological Survey’s Gas Hydrates Project, is among those who have pushed back against fears of a looming “methane time bomb.” Her research shows that the vast majority of known methane hydrate ― more than 95% ― exists in the deep ocean, below 1,000 meters, and that a large-scale release would require hundreds or even thousands of years of warming.

Additionally, ocean physics greatly limits the amount of gas that can reach the atmosphere, Ruppel explained in a phone interview. The gas dissolves into seawater on its way up through the water column, where microbes convert it into CO2. A bubble released from a depth where hydrate can exist has very little chance of retaining methane all the way to the surface, she said.

In a monumental 2016 paper, Ruppel and John Kessler, an oceanographer at the University of Rochester in New York, wrote that “there is no conclusive proof that hydrate‐derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now.” Yet they acknowledged there are many locations where methane ice is vulnerable to warming, specifically in the Arctic and on upper continental slopes, which “could be a major source of atmospheric CH4 under certain catastrophic, but unlikely, circumstances.”

It’s obvious why methane hydrate has alarmed the public. But Ruppel says it is the shallow water seeps, those on upper continental shelves and not associated with hydrate, that have a greater capacity to inject methane into Earth’s atmosphere.

“What I tell young people now is, if you really want to make a career for yourself, don’t worry so much about the deeper water seeps,” she said. “Worry about what methane is coming out of the shelves.”

Further complicating this nascent field of science is the fact that many countries, including the United States, are eyeing hydrates as a potential future energy source ― production that risks releasing even more of the gas.

Samantha Joye inspects a core of marine sediment aboard Atlantis.
Samantha Joye inspects a core of marine sediment aboard Atlantis. DEEP SEARCH 2018 – BOEM, USGS, NOAA

Joye is not one to sugarcoat what she sees or what she makes of it. Her no-nonsense approach has earned her both praise and rebuke and has pitted her against powerful players.

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude, Joye had already been studying natural seeps and microbial life in the region for 15 years. Within weeks of the deadly catastrophe, she organized a research team to collect samples aboard the Pelican, the first scientific vessel sent to the blowout site.

It was during that first mission that the team discovered large plumes of oil and methane forming deep in the Gulf, a sign that the spill was far worse than BP had indicated. BP insisted the plumes didn’t exist: “The oil is on the surface,” Tony Hayward, the company’s chief executive, said at the time. Other researchers later validated Joye’s finding.

Joye also sparred with the Obama administration. In August 2010, the White House released a government report that estimated 76% of the oil had dissolved or been cleaned up. Less than two weeks later, Joye co-authored a report that found nearly 80% of the oil was still in the water and a threat to the Gulf ecosystem. Government scientists maintained that their numbers were accurate.

Joye emerged from the disaster ― the largest marine oil spill in history ― as something of a scientific superhero, the brainy introvert willing to share data that many felt that the government and BP were keeping under wraps.

And she’s kept at it. Five years later, Joye co-published a study that concluded the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants cleanup crews dumped into the Gulf likely made the situation worse. Rather than breaking the oil into smaller droplets that oil-eating bacteria could more easily consume, the chemicals slowed the microbes’ ability to degrade oil, she found.

“The dispersants did a great job in that they got the oil off the surface,” she told The Associated Press at the time.

Fellow scientists say she’s “a force of nature,” a researcher who has made “heroic efforts to communicate science to the general public.”

Cordes and Joye have been collaborating ever since their first cruise together in 2001. He said there are few people who can keep up with Joye’s level of energy.

“She’s one of the most creative scientists that I’ve known,” he said. “While she’s gathering data, she’s also interpreting it and throws ideas out there. And she has an amazing ability to be right more often than not.”

A little before 8 a.m., Joye and USGS microbiologist Chris Kellogg climbed to the top of a narrow staircase on Atlantis’ stern and kicked off their sneakers. Kellogg waved to fellow researchers watching from the deck. Joye flashed a modest smile. The two scooted down a small ladder into Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible most famous for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986. On its front end are two robotic arms, numerous cameras and a basket for stashing the samples it collects.

After the hatch on Alvin was sealed, a giant hydraulic crane plopped the sub into the sea, and the sub’s crew descended into the dark.

Atlantis, built in the mid-1990s and owned by the U.S. Navy, accommodates more than 50 people, has six onboard labs and was designed specifically to support Alvin. The ship stays in constant contact with the sub using an acoustic telephone. If you’re below deck during a dive, you can hear the radio chatter from the sub buzzing through the ship’s steel hull.

Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible, is launched from the research vessel Atlantis.&nbsp;
Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible, is launched from the research vessel Atlantis.  CHRIS D’ANGELO/HUFFPOST

Eight hours later, Alvin dropped a large set of weights and slowly rose back to the surface, the first samples of the cruise in tow. Once the sub and samples were onboard, an excited team of scientists scrambled to unload quill worms, a pair of starfish, carbonate rocks and samples of muddy sediment and beggiatoa. Dead squid dangled from Alvin’s exterior, victims of their own curiosity.

The dive went well; good visibility, a manageable current and lots of specimens. But Joye was frustrated. Not only was the team unable to glimpse the methane plume it had seen on the radar, but several mud samples, called cores, degassed on their way to the surface, making it harder to profile the sediment inside. Joye suspected they contained chunks of hydrate, judging from how violently they had erupted.

Fortunately, the samples weren’t ruined. After a day in the ship’s cold room, a walk-in refrigerator that simulates the frigid deep ocean, the beggiatoa had wriggled their way to the top of the mud in search of oxygen, forming beautiful white geometric structures. Still sporting an astronaut-like jumpsuit for working in the cold room, Joye placed a dish underneath a microscope and instructed me to have a peek. Up close, the beggiatoa looked like hollow strings of spaghetti. Inside a few, yellow molecules of sulfur popped against a backdrop of dark mud. A translucent worm burrowed under the bacteria, making it roll and turn.

“It’s like gold from the bottom of the ocean,” Joye said. “White gold.”

Mats of white beggiatoa bacteria carpet the seafloor at an active seep off the Atlantic coast.
Mats of white beggiatoa bacteria carpet the seafloor at an active seep off the Atlantic coast. NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH, WINDOWS TO THE DEEP 2019

The methane seeps that these bacteria inhabit are unforgiving environments. They are also diverse and vital ecosystems, part of the foundation of the ocean food web that hundreds of millions of people rely on for food and income.

Amanda Demopoulos, a deep-sea benthic ecologist at USGS, hopes to drive that human connection home.

On most evenings during the cruise, she could be found processing seafloor sediment samples in the ship’s wet lab. It’s tedious work that involves slicing cores of mud into precisely measured sections, then carefully funneling the sediment into small bottles for future analysis. A single core can contain hundreds of microorganisms, which the team identifies and documents. These tiny critters are important indicators of ecosystem health and break down organic matter that cycles to the seafloor. If they disappear, that material can create environments where nothing can live, Demopoulos said.

“We want healthy earthworms in our gardens,” she said. “We need healthy animals in the ocean, too.”

Scenes from the bottom of the Atlantic.

On Day 10 of the cruise, I got to join Joye on a “dragon hunt” to a gas seep more than 130 miles off North Carolina’s coast and nearly a mile and a half below the surface.

A submersible dive is like a slow-motion fall through a distant galaxy. Outside our 3-inch titanium shell of safety, a frenzy of glowing bioluminescent critters — shrimp, jellyfish and chains of egg-like animals called salps — flickered, scurried and burst as they collided with Alvin’s robotic arms. Joye described it as nature’s ultimate fireworks display.

“The Fourth of July can’t hold a candle to a submarine dive,” she said as we made our way to the bottom.

The descent into total darkness lasted 70 minutes. Your mind can’t help but run wild thinking about what creatures might be lurking just out of sight. On a murky canyon dive a few days earlier, a 20-foot sixgill shark had bumped into the front of the sub.

Pilot Jefferson Grau flipped on the sub’s exterior lights, giving us our first glimpse of the ocean floor. It was alien and beautiful, startling and mesmerizing ― made even more so by the spacey music playlist Grau had cued up. At this depth, Alvin actually shrinks slightly as the pressure outside reaches 3,200 pounds per square inch. The amount of force it would take to open the hatch is roughly equivalent to lifting a fully loaded 747 jet.

Alvin, a three-person manned submersible, has completed more than 5,000 dives since it started operating in 1964.
Alvin, a three-person manned submersible, has completed more than 5,000 dives since it started operating in 1964. WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION

This site we were visiting, Blake Ridge, is relatively well-studied and rich in methane hydrate, with numerous active seeps. Joye directed Grau, who not only drove the sub but steered a small arm that controlled the robotic arms out front. As the two worked, I did my best to film what was happening outside using a small joystick that controlled exterior cameras, jotting down times and depths.

Extensive beds of mussels, some big enough to hold a newborn child, and piles of ghost-white clamshells littered the seafloor. A bright red Spanish dancer, a type of sea slug, fluttered by. A brittle star tossed up sand as it scampered away. Our presence seemed to confuse purple octopuses, crabs and rattail fish — a bizarre creature with bulging eyes, a long tail and a sharklike fin on its back. It was almost certainly the first time any of these creatures had seen light.

Communities of bacteria that use chemosynthesis, a process similar to photosynthesis, to convert inorganic chemical compounds like methane and hydrogen sulfide into energy fuel life in the deep sea. The mussels and clams have a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria, providing them a safe place to live in return for food.

Joye and I kept our eyes peeled for bubbles, or if we were lucky, a chunk of hydrate ― the dragon itself ― which often forms under rock overhangs.

She let out a shriek when she spotted a large bed of mussels, often a telltale sign of the presence of hydrate. “I think we’re about to hit our nirvana!” Joye said as Grau brought the sub in for a closer look.

The mussels turned out to be dead, possibly because the supply of methane in that particular spot had shut off. Cold seeps are variable systems. As Ruppel explained, they have plumbing systems that resemble tree branches below the seafloor, and the amount of gas flowing through any one pathway can fluctuate.

Joye jotted “deathbed” in her dive log, noting our depth of 2,169 meters.

We never caught a glimpse of methane bubbles or hydrate that day, but returned to Atlantis with one of the largest hauls of mud samples from the two-week cruise ― enough to keep Joye’s and Demopoulos’s labs busy for months.

Samantha Joye and Erik Cordes hug after an Alvin dive to Pea Island seep.
Samantha Joye and Erik Cordes hug after an Alvin dive to Pea Island seep. DEEP SEARCH 2018 – BOEM, USGS, NOAA

While working late one evening in one of Atlantis’ cluttered labs, Joye made a startling discovery in seawater samples from Pea Island. Her students had been busy extracting gas from the water to study the content, which she then put through a gas chromatograph, a sophisticated device that separates a mixture of gases into individual components.

Her jaw dropped as the machine, which she’d nicknamed “Bucky,” kicked back the data.

One sample after another showed that the methane at and above Pea Island was off the charts. Joye wondered if her students were playing tricks on her. Or, even worse, that trusty old Bucky was broken.

She ran the samples again, but the numbers were solid. Methane concentrations at the Pea Island seep were among the highest she’d ever seen.

When she had more time back in her lab at the University of Georgia to crunch the numbers, what she found was even more alarming. Even though the microbes at Pea Island are gobbling up methane about 10 times faster than rates documented at natural seeps in the Gulf, the concentrations are so high that it would take them about 618 days to consume it all ― and that’s if the supply of methane suddenly stopped.

In other words, the microbes at Pea Island aren’t nearly keeping up. And the levels of methane were high in samples throughout the water column, all the way to the surface.

“That suggests that some of it’s going to get into the atmosphere,” Joye said. “That’s very scary.”

Over the last year, Joye has been trying to figure out what those findings mean. We know how methane in the deep ocean behaves under normal conditions, but current climate conditions are anything but normal. The global average temperature is already 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The world’s oceans have absorbed an estimated 93% of the excess heat. Meanwhile, Atlantic currents have slowed by an estimated 15% since the mid-20th century.

Joye’s preliminary conclusion is that an increase in hydrate breakdown from ocean warming and a weakening of ocean circulation could lead to a marked increase in methane emissions off the Atlantic coast. She plans to make that argument in an upcoming scientific paper.

Since the cruise, Joye and her students have been exposing the methane-eating microbes to different conditions, trying to better understand what makes them tick and how they might respond under future climate scenarios. This research could prove important for possible human intervention, just as scientists are now exploring cloud seeding and geoengineering to save coral reefs from deadly bleaching events. Maybe scientists can tweak bacteria to make them more efficient at consuming methane, or maybe they can introduce an existing nutrient to stimulate their growth and activity.

Joye’s hunch is that there is a naturally occurring organism out there that, with a little help from humans, could be a fighting force against a potential future methane surge. Her research in the Gulf of Mexico is one reason she thinks that’s possible, as methane-eating bacteria flourished in the initial wake of the oil spill, consuming gas at the highest rate ever recorded in the open ocean.

“Finding that magic organism that’s able to do all the wild metabolisms that we are dreaming of having the capability to do out there ― that’s motivation for doing this work,” she said.