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By Charles Rhodes, P.Eng., Ph.D.


The science related to global warming and thermal runaway presented on this website does not rely on my personal observations. However, my personal observations motivated me to present the scientific material on this website for use by the engineering community.

I hope that this website will motivate others to seriously address the problems related to climate change caused by combustion of fossil carbon.

I was born in 1949 and grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Our family home was on the side of a mountain above the winter snow line. From 1955 to 1965 I skied every winter. Now, 50 years later, there is almost no skiing in North Vancouver. There is usually no snow.

On warm days towards the end of the summer we would go swimming in the sea off the coast of West Vancouver. The sea floor there is igneous gravel and rock with no limestone dust such as one finds almost everywhere in the Caribean.

One summer, about 1959, our family spent my father's annual vacation at Parksville, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. There is a large natural beach there covered with silica sand, with a very shallow gradient. Mixed with the silica sand were small igneous rocks. In August the water was sufficiently warm for recreational swimming in the sea. At high tide there were numerous black crabs each about one inch in diameter on the sea bottom near the shore. The water was relatively clear. There was no limestone sea floor dust such as I later observed everywhere in the Caribean.

One summer, about 1961, I visited Moraine Lake, near Banff, with my parents. At that time there was a glacier that came down the adjacent mountains to the lake. There were literally chunks of ice floating in the lake water near the foot of the glacier. There was a small stream of icy fluid flowing out from under the foot of the glacier. About 1991 I returned to Moraine Lake with my own children. During my 30 year absence the glacier at Moraine Lake completely disappeared.

In late 1962 I witnessed numerous news reports to the effect that the American spacecraft Mariner 2 had reported that the surface temperature on Venus was far higher than had previously been anticipated. The high surface temperature was later found to be due to a high partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere of Venus.

In 1965 I visited the Columbia ice fields in the Rocky Mountains with my parents. At that time the Athabasca glacier came down almost to the Banff to Jasper highway. At that time there was a small stream of icy fluid flowing out from under the bottom of the glacier. However, there were no obvious melt pools or other similar signs of melting on top of the glacier. About 1991 I returned to the Columbia Ice Fields. During my 26 year absence the glacier had receded about 1 km and had lost much of its volume. There was a substantial river of icy fluid flowing out from under the foot of the glacier. References: Columbia Icefield, Jasper National Park of Canada, Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier Data.

During the same 1965 summer vacation I visited the Peace River Dam (now known as the WAC Bennett Dam), which was then under construction. I observed the use of mechanical screening of crushed rock to sort dam material by particle size and I observed carefully controlled placement and compaction of material of different particle sizes in different zones of the dam. The full significance of this particle size control to storage of nuclear waste and the limitations of this water sealing methodology did not become fully apparent to me until nearly 50 years later.

In April 1966 I SCUBA dived in Indian Arm, near Simon Fraser University. The water was very cold but I had a "farmer-John" wet suit that had 0.5 inches thickness of foamed neoprene over my body trunk and 0.25 inches thickness of foamed neoprene every where else. Any exposed flesh was subject to damage by the cold water. I remember seeing big pink crabs about 10 inches diameter crawling amongst the bare igneous rocks on the sea floor. There was no limestone precipitate dust on the ocean floor such as I later observed everywhere in the Caribean. The beach consisted of mixed igneous rocks.

During the 1960s the Arctic ocean passage north of mainland Canada was permanently iced over and was impassible to commercial shipping. Only nuclear submarines and heavy duty ice breakers could get through. Now, 50 years later, the Arctic ocean passage north of mainland Canada is open to ordinary ocean freighters for much of the summer because there is almost no ice.

In February 1969 I moved to Toronto for graduate studies in engineering. At that time Toronto had over 40 outdoor natural ice rinks. During the 1970s I often ice skated outdoors as a social activity. Now, almost 50 years later, there is no natural outdoor ice skating in Toronto. The climate is no longer cold enough to sustain natural ice.

In 1986 my wife and I purchased our home outside Sharon, Ontario. We have a natural spring fed pond. Every year from about 1988 to 1995 we skated with our children on that pond. That is no longer possible. The ice, when it forms in the winter, is not thick enough for safe ice skating.

From 1990 to early 2004 my family frequently spent summer vacations in the Caribean during which SCUBA diving was a prominent activity. We dived multiple times in Jamaica, Barbados, Dominican Republic and Mexico. I observed that the entire shallow ocean floor of the Caribean area is covered with a fine dust, which I believe to be primarily CaCO3 precipitate left behind when ocean water evaporates. I concluded that the warm tropical ocean is saturated with (HCO3)- ions and the tropical ocean surface is a net emitter of CO2 whereas in near polar regions where the ocean temperature is lower the ocean is presently not saturated with (HCO3)- ions and hence the near polar ocean surface is a net absorber of CO2.

Every year from 1986 to 2005 we had a white Christmas at our home in Sharon, Ontario. However, in 2006 there was no snow at Christmas time.

During the 1980s I became aware of the increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth's atmosphere and the long term corrosive effects of the increased carbonic acid content of rain water on the reinforcing bars of concrete that is exposed to rain water. This issue is particularly important in the design of balconies of high rise buildings, overhead roadways and bridges. In 1992 I brought this issue to the attention of the Ontario Energy Board.

In 2006 I plotted graphs of average annual temperature and average summer temperature measured at the Toronto International Airport versus year and found that during the period 1965 to 2005 the average annual temperature had increased 2.44 degrees C and the average summer temperature had increased about 2.7 degrees C. The trend of these graphs is for a continuing increase in average temperature.

In 2008 I determined that the average temperature increase was due to a combination of a world wide increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, an increase in atmospheric water vapor concentration, an increase in local heat dissipation and a decrease in local albedo.

In 2012 I determined that the Earth's atmosphere has two locally stable states. In the normal "cool" state the Earth's emission temperature as viewed from outer space is about 270.0 degrees K which is less than the freezing point of water (273.15 degrees K). In the "warm" state the Earth's emission temperature as viewed from outer space is about 287.5 degrees K. In a simple mathematical model the transition temperature between the two locally stable states is at the freezing point of water. As non-equilibrium CO2 from combustion of fossil fuels raises the Earth's emission temperature above the freezing point of water Earth's atmosphere is transitioning from the normal "cool" state to the "warm" state. This transition is known as Thermal Runaway. At ground level the average temperature increase caused by Thermal Runaway will be sufficient to drive large land animals into extinction.

In late 2015, via more precise calculations, I determined that the Earth is already on the threshold of Thermal Runaway.

I have visited many places in North America where the agricultural output is constrained by the available supply of fresh water in the summer. Crops only grow well in a narrow internal temperature range. Plants control their internal temperature by evaporating water. Increasing the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration increases the required evaporation rate for crop internal temperature maintenance and hence increases the amount of irrigation water required to maintain agricultural output. In 2008 I developed a simple method of quantifying this increased irrigation water requirement.

In practice, because the irrigation water supply is limited, an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration reduces cultivated land area and hence reduces the overall agricultural output. This issue has huge consequences on the world supply of agricultural carbohydrates for food, clothing, construction materials and synthetic liquid fuels.

General Reference: Sea Level Rise
During the years 2006 and 2007 there were many news reports relating to rapid loss of floating ice from the Canadian Arctic. Melting of floating ice does not cause a change in sea level. However, the melting of floating ice is a warning of ongoing energy accumulation and future rapid melting of land borne polar ice caps that will cause a substantial rise in sea level.

World wide sea level measurements show that from 1910 to 1990 the average sea level rose about 1.9 mm /year. This sea level increase is attributed to a combination of melting of land borne mountain glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans. Satellite measurements since 1993 show acceleration in the rate of rise of sea level to about 3 mm / year.

The sea level is of particular concern to coastal cities such as London, UK and New York City, USA. The lower Thames River, which flows through London, UK is close to sea level and rises with the tide. To protect London from flooding there is a man-made movable structure known as the Thames Barrier. In late August 2006 I visited the Thames Barrier. I saw that the high water mark, inside the Thames Barrier, is already close to threatening the City of London.

From the perspective of coastal cities, the immediate major concern is loss of land borne ice from Greenland and Antarctica. The glacier discharge from the bottom edge of this land borne ice will raise the sea level. Volume measurements indicate that complete loss of the Greenland and South Polar ice caps would cause a 73 m increase in sea level. An increase in ocean temperature will cause ocean thermal expansion, which will cause a further increase in sea level. Even a 3 m rise in sea level will inundate many coastal cities, especially those built on islands and river deltas.

My observations of shrinking mountain glaciers indicate that the dominant mechanism by which land borne glaciers lose mass is via fluid flow out the bottom. This fluid contains suspended ice chips and super cooled water. The thickness of ice in a major glacier causes a high pressure near the bottom of the glacier. When ice is subject to a high pressure it becomes a low friction fluid. (That is why ice skates work. Ice skates cause sufficient localized pressure that the ice directly underneath them becomes a fluid allowing the skater almost frictionless movement.) If the fluid pressure near the bottom of a glacier is released due to melting of floating ice at the bottom edge of the glacier, the fluid escapes and the glacier rapidly shrinks. The glacier discharge fluid generally consists of a suspension of small ice crystals in supercooled water. When the land borne glacier discharge fluid contacts the ocean it either warms to become liquid water or forms new floating ice. In either case it raises the sea level.

Note that the volume of glacier ice melted is best indicated by the volume of fluid flowing out from under the glacier. This fluid is super cooled and contains ice chips, and continues heat acquisition after flowing out to sea. Hence the radiant energy directly absorbed by a glacier is not a reliable indicator of the rate of ice melting.

The maximum possible rate of glacier mass loss can be quantified via the available net heat flux incident on open water and the heat of fusion of water. This glacier mass loss will have immense practical consequences in terms of a future rapid increase in sea level as the glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica shrink. Up until now these major land borne glaciers have maintained their size due to the presence of a surrounding ring of floating ice that has prevented the high pressure fluid under these glaciers from escaping.

Sedimentary evidence shows that within the last 100,000 years on several occasions the sea level was about 3 m higher than its present level. Energy balance calculations show that another sea level rise in excess of 3 m will occur again in the very near future unless human beings immediately drastically reduce their fossil carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.

World wide geological evidence from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) period shows that about 56 million years ago there was a transient increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration to about 2000 ppm which caused thermal runaway, warm state trapping and complete melting of the polar ice caps. We have every reason to believe that the present ongoing consumption of fossil fuels by mankind, if unchecked, will lead to thermal runaway and warm state trapping.

Most climate models focus on the increase in Earth surface temperature attributable to an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration. However, in order to reach a simple solution these models usually incorrectly assume that the average received radiation from the sun exactly equals the average infrared radiation transmitted by the Earth. This simplistic assumption conceals the far more dangerous problem of net energy absorption and accumulation by the Earth that occurs because in reality the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration causes the average transmitted infrared radiation from the Earth to fall below the average received solar radiation from the sun. The consequent net energy absorption and accumulation melts polar ice, melts mountain glaciers, melts sea floor cathrate, dries out marginal agricultural land and increases ocean temperature.

An increase in ocean temperature also causes part of the dissolved Ca(HCO3)2 to convert to insoluble CaCO3. This conversion releases more CO2 to the atmosphere and explains the relatively high sustained atmospheric CO2 concentration that occurred during the PETM period 56 million years ago.

I have set out on this website quantitative physical explanations for the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and atmospheric temperature. I have quantified the effect of increased dry ground temperature on irrigation. I have provided historical data relating to the past increases in sea level and conservative calculations relating to an anticipated future increase in sea level. I have quantified the objectives that must be met by fuel producers, electricity utilities, engineers and taxation authorities to control the future atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. There is no room for compromise if the consequences of further increases in: atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, dry ground temperature, irrigation evaporation and heat absorption by the oceans are to be avoided. These consequences include but are not limited to massive human mortality from starvation, disease and war.

One of the biggest problems from the engineering perspective is the false perception that the atmospheric CO2 problem can be solved by conversion from coal to natural gas. That conversion is a very expensive way of purchasing only a few years of additional fossil fuel usage. From a return on investment perspective it is far better to apply the same monetary resources to nuclear power, renewable energy, electricity transmission and energy storage.

The engineering bodies need to be frank with politicians that if renewable generation is to be relied upon for energy production then energy storage is essential. Bulk energy storage entails construction of major hydroelectric dams, related storage lakes and related electricity transmission lines. Energy storage by consumers requires significant changes in the end user electricity rate structure. Of particular importance is establishing methanol production on almost every farm and at almost every forest product production location. Delaying any of these measures delays implementation of fossil fuel consumption reduction.

During the period 1985 to 2015 there was a lot of political talk but very little action in Canada on the issue of CO2 emission reduction. The blunt reality is that even in 2015 there are few elected politicians that are willing to tax fossil fuels sufficiently to prevent their use for primary energy generation. These same politicians are afraid to implement common sense electricity rate changes and land use policies required for energy storage and energy transmission.

However, the sleeper issues are thermal runaway, warm state trapping, global starvation and the ongoing rise in sea level. The economic costs of these problems dwarf the cost savings that can be achieved via continued combustion of fossil fuels. It is essential for elected politicians to address the long term consequences of their decisions, not just the next election which is typically only two years away.

I wish every reader success in meeting both the engineering and the political challenges identified on this website. The measured ongoing increases in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and the increases in sea level are an early warning of major problems yet to come.

In early 2012 I realized that the biggest threat to the continuing existence of mankind is a decrease in planetary albedo in combination with an increase in average ocean temperature. For the last 50 million years the average ocean temperature has been kept low by an atmospheric CO2 concentration usually less than 300 ppm. Addition of transient fossil CO2 to the atmosphere decreases the Earth's infrared emissivity. In time, due to net energy absorption and accumulatioon, the bulk ocean temperature will rise causing an increase in the steady state atmospheric CO2 concentration. The release of dissolved CO2 due to ocean warming is similar to the release of CO2 by a soda drink when it is warmed. The change of ocean temperature in combination with a prolonged CO2 injection into the atmosphere will eventually cause "warm" state trapping. The polar ice caps will melt and the sea level will rise about 80 m. Glaciers and snowpacks necessary for summer irrigation of agricultural crops will disappear. The average temperature will rise about 17.5 degrees C. The consequent loss of arable land will cause widespread human starvation and a global extinction of many plant and animal species.

The only way to prevent this sequence of events occurring is leave fossil fuels in the ground. Allowing continuing dependence on fossil fuels for prime energy production could provoke a world war within a few decades. At present a substantial fraction of the world population relies on fossil fuel energy for production and/or transportation of food. From the perspective of the rest of mankind, these fossil fuel dependent human populations will become expendable.

A complicating issue is that the transient CO2 concentration in the Earth's atmosphere presently has a decay time of about 16 years. This decay time will increase as the ocean temperature rises. Even if all fossil CO2 emissions were stopped tomorrow, due to this decay time the oceans would continue warming for many years. In order to avoid future thermal runaway and warm state trapping serious preventive action must be commenced now.

However, incompetence and corruption are ruling in politics. I have no confidence that present elected politicians are ready, willing and able to take effective remedial action, even when faced with certainty of world wide thermal runaway in the near future. Thus, I am increasingly convinced that modern human civilization as we know it will likely end this century.

There is one nuclear technology that could potentially provide sufficient non-fossil energy to sustain mankind at the present human population. This technology is Fast Neutron Reactors (FNRs). For renewable energy alone to sustain mankind the human population would have to be drastically reduced.

The present Canadian government policy of increasing Canadian fossil fuel production to meet foreign energy demand is making a bad problem worse. The policy should be to rapidly reduce Canadian fossil fuel production while increasing production of nuclear and renewable energy. Energy exports can be facilitated via high voltage DC transmission lines, hydrogen pipelines and via Canadian production of high energy density substances such as aluminum, sodium, lithium, chlorine, steel, cement, ammonia, fertilizers, synthetic hydrocarbon fuels and synthetic construction materials. In the near term the Canadian government should implement a rapidly increasing fossil carbon extraction tax. The proceeds of that tax should be dedicated to expansion of sustainable nuclear power capacity.


This web page last updated March 9, 2015.

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