Extreme heat, electrical load, and political instability: the connection and the solution

Canada and the U.S. suffered through record extreme weather in 2011. Severe heat was the hallmark of the year, both in direct and thermodynamic terms (I’ll explain in a second). Canada endured record heat waves, blizzards, hurricanes, and floods. Arctic ice melted to its second-lowest-ever level; its lowest-ever level was recorded only four years earlier. But bad as it was in Canada, it was even worse in the the U.S.

The U.S. was truly unique. There were twelve extreme weather episodes in the U.S. this year. Texas had the hottest year it has ever experienced. In all, six thousand heat records were broken around the country. In addition to lethal heat waves, other extreme events like blizzards, tornadoes, floods, and droughts—more than in any year since recordkeeping began—ended up costing the U.S. around $52 billion this year. Here’s a very interesting and alarming TV interview about that:

Watch How 2011 Became a ‘Mind-Boggling’ Year of Extreme Weather on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

It’s the thermodynamic effects of global warming that are the most alarming from a long-term perspective. As Jeff Masters of Weather Underground (not to be confused with THE Weather Underground) tells Hari Sreenivasan of PBS, the extra heat in the earth’s atmosphere gives extra energy to tornadoes and heat waves, in effect turning them into heat waves on steroids.

And what’s putting the heat into the air? More accurately, what’s keeping the heat in the air? Substances like man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), which comes out of car tailpipes and natural gas-fired electricity generators. Look in the upper right-hand side of this post, to the blue-bordered table entitled “Ontario power in the last hour,” and you’ll see the hourly CO2 output of Ontario’s fleet of 40 gas-fired generators.

At the time I was writing this post (early afternoon of December 29, 2011), Ontario’s gas-fired generators had dumped roughly 1,433 metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere. They do much more than that in the intermediate and peaking hours of normal weekdays (today, a Thursday between Christmas and New Year, is not a normal weekday). And they do that hour after hour, day after day, month after month, and year after year.

If Dr. Masters is right that the increased heat trapped in our atmosphere by, among other things, gas-plant CO2, will give extra oomph to heat waves and wind storms, then the swath of North America from Ontario down to Texas had better be ready for some pretty nasty heat waves in the coming years.

What do heat waves produce? They produce spikes in the demand for electricity, as everyone in the affected region turns up their air conditioner. That means as heat waves from Ontario to Texas get more intense, we will need more electricity generating capacity.

Should that capacity be in the form of gas-fired plants? Of course not—as you can see, gas-fired plants dump enormous amounts of heat-trapping CO2 into our air. Using natural gas to run air conditioners would be like putting out fire with gasoline.

Our only viable alternative is more nuclear plants. Nuclear plants do not dump any CO2 into the air. Nor do they require vast networks of earthquake-vulnerable piping to distribute the fuel, which in its raw form is a dangerous explosive.

Dr. Masters pointed up the effect of global warming on drought. The Russian drought of 2010 ruined that country’s wheat harvest, which jacked up the world price of wheat. Increases in the wheat price cause immediate crisis among the very poor: it only takes a few hours to feel hunger pangs, and if you can’t afford even the cheapest foodstuffs you are in crisis mode literally within hours.

The high price of wheat is recognized as one of the triggers of the so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia.

As Dr. Masters points out to Hari Sreenivasan, had the agricultural heartland of America—Ohio southwest to Missouri, and north through Iowa to Minnesota—experienced a general drought in 2011, political instability would have been much worse.

And that’s not even considering the immediate effects of a really extreme heat wave on the people in central North America.

How much more unstable will our climate become if we keep dumping CO2 into our atmosphere? I don’t want to find out the hard way.

We need more nuclear plants. Now.

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