Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas is coming, the Paris Agreement and Fracking

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat. Please to put your todger in this old lady's twat. The penguin is so 'superior'; I thought that I would lower the tone for my first interregnal post. I am sure that there are lonely, 'old' (what is old?)  people out there, who would welcome a little bit of kindness and possibly physical affection during this unlikely balmy month. But, I hasten to add, only if they truly desire it. I am not advocating wholesale rape of the retired community here! And so, f**king leads quite naturally to 'fracking', hydraulic fracturing. (Hell, if it was good enough for 'Battlestar Galactica' to use as a euphemism, it surely allows me to make the connection, however tenuous.)

The UK parliament has just made it lawful to frack 'under' National Parks and sites of outstanding beauty or worthy of major scientific scrutiny (159 licences have been issued so far); in truth, anywhere at all. But it is safe to do so? The US and Canada have been doing it for nigh on twenty years so it must be safe; no? Surely, if it gets the UK out of the hole that it has dug for itself with its reliance on Russian-supplied natural gas and the dwindling supplies in the North Sea then this must be a good thing? On the face of it, one cannot argue with the short-term motivations for generating large-scale fracking operations in the UK.


Despite signing up to the recent Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions by 2050 to no more than what is sufficient to increase global warming by less the two degrees, the UK government want to increase the carbon footprint of the nation by fracking shale gas and reduce the subsidies by over 50% to 'greener' technologies. I don't quite understand the logic here. Dissuade people from investing in technologies which might make a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions and, at the same time, make it worthwhile for people to invest in technologies which might increase carbon emissions.

So, is it all hypocrisy? Merely the pursuit of a fast buck?

I can certainly appreciate the short-term argument; what's the point of reducing our own carbon emissions when China and India (probably the largest producers) have no intention of doing so before at least 2030. Fracking might last for thirty or forty years before it becomes uneconomic in the UK, if that. And who cares about the 'Paris agreement' anyway. Almost certainly not the world's governments; it's not in their interests, after all. It's not binding; there is only a review every five years; you don't even have to meet the targets that you set for yourself and there are no penalties if you don't. The pursuit of profit will subsume all and we will be having the same lengthy discussion (read lengthy junket) in five years' time! Kyoto didn't work and, despite the mouthings of politicians keen to be seen to do something even if it is only talk, what's to say Paris will be any more successful. I personally won't be holding my breath.

So, fracking as a short term solution to the UK's 'energy crisis' might well seem attractive. Government can always play fast and loose with our children's future because they know that they will be not around to suffer the consequences.

However there is perhaps a more immediate problem outside of the potential damage to the water table and the blight on the landscapes from drilling platforms, pumping stations etc  in a ring around areas of outstanding natural beauty or value and that is: what are the consequences of pumping vast amounts of water into the shale rock and how do the oil companies propose to get rid of the excess water? One of the consequences of pumping water under pressure into the shale may over time fracture more than the shale and the effects of pumping waste water deep underground, according to more recent research, may be magnitudes greater.

There is growing evidence in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, at least, that some wells, or rather their waste, have been triggering earthquakes in far greater numbers and at more severe levels than at any time since the US was first colonised by the Europeans. Oklahoma, for example, had four or five +2.9 magnitude quakes until 2008. In 2009, it had 20 and in 2011,over 60; the largest being magnitude 5.7. Even the US Geological Survey has finally begun to sit up and take notice. So what do the UK Government do? Issue 159 licences to frack! On the face of it, it does seem rather silly to say the least.

Of course not all fracking wells and their attendant waste wells will cause a problem; in the US it seems confined to just a few at the moment but that may be a function of time not the volume of water pumped in. At the moment, there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty, especially among the USGS. Wouldn't it be better to wait until more research can be done? Of course, but there was no doubt a very singular reason why the announcement of the licences was made just before Parliament went on holiday.  I leave it for you to judge according to your own level of cynicism.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Atlantis, Plato and the desire for a better world

Last post before going back to the sea for the summer. I hand you over to MG, who I suspect will do the minimum required, a post a month, if that. I sometimes wonder whether I would not be better hanging around the coast and not relying on my friend but it gets a bit crowded around the coast in the summer when all of the other penguins breed and the seals are a constant worry. No, I will rely on the kindly nature of my e-pal and hope that he is up to maintaining my sparkling wit and depth of perception.  So, as a last post this year; how about some Plato?

Ever since Plato first recounted the story for the first time in writing, as far as we know,  probably sometime in the fourth century BCE, the story of a lost continent peopled by a 'superior' race beyond the pillars of Heracles and finally inundated by the sea has captured the imagination of humankind. Although the story was surely meant as just that, a story to illuminate how much more perfect fourth century Athens was than a preceding and apparently more advanced society, still people have sought for a possible reality behind this mythical land of Plato's imagining.

At first it was sought were Plato had placed it; somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Fanciful theories were built up to bolster the view that it somehow made a 'bridge' between the old world and the new; pyramids in Egypt and in Central America (despite their being markedly different in construction and in time) was only one of the more bizzare. However, the gradual acceptance of plate tectonics into mainstream science and the existence of the mid-Atlantic ridge, made the notion of a 'lost continent' buried north of the Azores ever more unlikely. Most were likely to think that Plato had simply made it all up. But did he?

With the growth of 'fantasy' literature after the Second World War, it became clear that whatever fantasy elements were woven into a story, still they had to have some grounding in humankind's experience to obtain relevance. Tolkien's Middle Earth, for example, bears a healthy resemblance, geographically, to North Western Europe (the 'drowning' of Numenor in the Second Age merely recapitulates the Atlantis myth and for the very same reasons) and the societies are heavily modelled upon, although idealised, previous human societies; Frank Herbert's Arrakis is modelled on Arab societies in the North African deserts.  Schliemann's discovery of Troy, pretty much where Homer placed it, lent weight to the idea that an oral tradition, a 'folk memory', only later preserved in writing, could provide the basis on which 'stories' were concocted; the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' is another such story garnering such attention.

As a result, I think, people started to look for some evidence closer to Plato's homeland, which might provide a historical basis or substratum for his subsequent tale. And, in the nineteen sixties and seventies, some were convinced that they had found it; the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (now Santorini). This eruption, in a known geologically active region, was massive; it was believed thirty cubic kilometres of rock, ash and magma were vented in very short order. Pumice and ash lie over the remains of the caldera to a depth of forty feet. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD was minor by comparision; a mere ten cubic kilometeres but still enough to swamp and bury Pompeii and Heraculanium. It actually gets worse; current estimates favour sixty cubic kilometres of debris for the Thera eruption!

Although some evidence had been found on Santorini in the sixties of a Bronze Age settlement (Akrotiri) around the time of of the eruption, c1650BCE, most who favoured the theory that the eruption on Thera was a possible source for Plato's tale, were led to the conclusion that it was the Minoan Crete civilisation which had been devastated by the resulting tsunami and led to the decline of that civilisation over the succeeding one hundred and fifty years. The 'drowning of Atlantis' was simply put down to Plato's imagination; an embellishment to add drame to the story.

However, excavations have continued at Akrotiri and, like Pompeii, have continued to yield startling finds, which point to a sophisticated Bronze Age community living in the shadow of the volcano. There is evidence of trade with Minoan Crete and elsewhere; the presence of a sea-going, possibly merchant, navy; sophisticated pottery; written language; art in the form of murals on some of the walls of the buildings, preserved as in Pompeii to a miraculous degree, by the layers of ash which buried them for two thousand years. Perhaps Thera was once a 'colony' of Minoan Crete which developed somewhat differently divorced from the main civilisation, although they used the same Minoan Linear A script as the Minoans; perhaps it was a totally independent culture, merely influenced by trade; perhaps we will never know.

However, this much we can say: whatever caldera was there before 1650BCE it is largely vanished. All that remains of Thera is sections of the outermost rim; the central area has vanished, swallowed by the sea.

So, could an oral tradition, or perhaps one in Linear A, perhaps translated into Linear B or some other lost written language, survive to Plato's time; even if it was in a garbled, idealised version? Possibly. We may never have absolute certainty about Plato's source, whether imagination or 'folk legend' or a combination of both, but one thing seems to be certain. Humans will continue to seek after any possible truth in the Atlantis 'legend' and not only because they have an insatiable appetite for their history but because Utopias are forever attractive and no-one believes in Poseiden anymore .