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Monday, August 20, 2012

Little Ice Age: The Approaching Disaster

By Tom Chatham

There are so many dangers lurking in the shadows today it is difficult to keep up and even harder for the average person to prepare for them all. One of the first things a person must do is to identify the threats and determine a course of action to remain safe. Even without the necessary preparations, knowing what the challenges are gives you an edge on the rest of society when things start to fall apart. Among other things to worry about is a danger from nature that can have catastrophic consequences. A global shift into another ice age. Imagine if you will, humanity attempting to recover from a global financial crisis after having lost their jobs and all of their wealth. If another global disaster suddenly appeared from the shadows at a time when people had no resources to prepare for their survival, what would they do?

Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of space research at Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia predicts that a little ice age could begin by 2014. His theory is that long term variations in the amount of solar energy reaching earth is the principal reason driving and defining the whole mechanism of climate change from global warming to glacial periods. He states that Total Solar Irradiance is the primary factor causing climate variations on Earth, not carbon dioxide. He believes we are headed for a long period of low solar activity that could reduce the energy received by Earth, causing a cooling effect much like the period between 1645 and 1850.

The Earth has spent much of its history moving from one ice age to another separated by short periods of warn weather. An ice age is the norm not the exception on this planet. These periods of warn weather are thought to be around 12,000 years. It seems that we may be nearing the end of one of those warm periods and a shift to a colder climate may be imminent. Some scientists speculate this cold period could last only 30 to 100 years and others think it may last as much as 100,000 years. It could take decades for the climate to cool but there are no guarantees that a small initial change could not happen in the near future that threatens our food production capability. Even if it took decades for the climate to become unbearable to us, our food production would have ceased long before then. Even if you can grow your own food, how will you do so if the weather is too cold?

It may seem crazy to consider this as a threat given the unusually hot weather we are experiencing but if solar irradiance is the cause of global weather, the solar maximum we are about to see peak could be the cause of this hot weather. If this is so, and it is followed by a solar minimum lasting decades, it could have immediate and serious consequences for our climate.

To prepare for possible disasters people have learned to produce their own food and have taken the personal responsibility to store supplies to last for a few years. If we slowly lose the ability to grow crops over several decades, how could anybody possibly store up that many supplies, especially if they have been financially ruined and don't have the money. Even if you stored 20 years worth of food, it would eventually run out, then what? This scenario could lead to the slow starvation of billions. The only way for humanity to survive indefinitely is to have the ability to produce food in a sustainable way.

As with a radiation hazard you have two choices. You can evacuate or shelter in place. The problem with a global disaster, that requires evacuation from some areas, is that if there are safe zones following the disaster, how many people can that safe zone realistically support? If everyone has the same idea of moving to that zone, what will be the outcome? The first people in the zone will see it as their zone and at some point will try to limit or stop others from entering to insure their own survival. This is human nature. If you are one of the first ones in, are you prepared to fight to maintain that zone and for how long? How long do you think you will be able to fight off the rest of the world? If there is a great deal of fighting, will the resources in the safe zone survive destruction? These are all valid questions that we need to answer before something like this becomes a reality.

In an environment where you have to do everything inside, at least for a large portion of the year, energy is the key to everything. With enough energy you can produce light to grow food, stay warm, provide ventilation, produce power and run machines. In some survival situations, energy may be the primary need in order to produce food and pump water.

Wood is a good energy source that humans are very accustomed to using and we have a plentiful supply. One of the problems with long term storage of wood is it's tendency to decay or rot. The fact that we have some homes in America with 200 year old timbers in them attests to the fact that wood under the right circumstances can be stored for a long time.
Coal is a good source of energy and we have an abundant supply of it in this country. We have used coal for over a hundred years and we know how to get the most from it. It can be dirty but will store indefinitely and is a compact source of energy.

In a long term survival situation where energy is a key to staying alive, a dependable source of power will be a necessary component to your plan. The storage of liquid fuels is possible to run a generator but could you afford a 20 year supply of fuel right now if you needed it? If so will it store for that long and how will you replace it when it is all gone? Also, generators running on liquid fuels will require periodic maintenance and replacement of components. Even with a supply of repair parts, your engine will eventually wear out requiring a replacement. You need a power system that is easy to maintain, is extremely durable and is simple enough that you can manufacture parts for if necessary.

A simple, tried and tested power system is steam power. With a boiler and a steam engine you can power just about anything and secondary steam can be used for heating. Machines and generators powered by a power take-off shaft can be run by a single engine. Boilers and steam engines are much simpler in design and function than petroleum based engines making repairs and maintenance long term more realistic. With a power take-off shaft you can run several items off of one engine such as a water pump, DC generator, AC generator, metal working machines and ventilation equipment.

With fuel in limited supply it would be necessary to store power for long periods. A battery system is the natural way to store power but lead acid batteries will only last 5 to 10 years before they lose the ability to hold a charge. A better battery for long term use is a nickel-iron battery. These batteries are very durable, to the extent that some in use today have been used for almost a century. They only require a change of electrolyte every 20 years or so and they are almost impossible to damage by overcharging. They do have draw backs such as not being as efficient as lead acid and needing to be topped of occasionally with distilled water but these things may be secondary considering the service life. The expense is also a consideration that may necessitate a group purchase of items in this type of scenario.

The graph of the Vostok ice core data indicate that Ice Age maximums and warm interglacials occur within a regular cyclic pattern. About every 100,000 years the cold glacial period is interrupted by a warn interglacial period lasting about 12,000 years.

We are now near the end of a warm interglacial period and the Earth is due to enter the next ice age. The Milankovich cycles each affect the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth and act together to produce the cycle of cold Ice Age maximums and warm interglacials.

The data from paleoclimatology, including ice cores, sea sediments, geology, paleobotany and zoology, indicate that we are on the verge of entering another Ice Age, and the data also shows that severe and lasting climate change can occur within only a few years.

In all likelihood, a return to a little ice age will entail cooler summers and colder winters with a growing season 1 to 2 months shorter in many places. This is something we can adapt to and is much less catastrophic than a full fledged ice age with glaciers covering large portions of the northern hemisphere. Even though we will be able to adapt, it will still cause problems with food production in a world that continues to grow at an ever increasing rate. It could still mean shortages and starvation for some around the world as the grain producing regions in the north are able to produce much less or nothing at all in some places. Even a small shift in climate still holds the potential for dire results if we do not plan for it ahead of time. Now is the time to take a serious look at our future and plan appropriately. Next week we will look at the subject of climate change in a little more detail.

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