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February 2007

Putting some order into gas detection (Someone has to)

For reasons not entirely clear, environmental product documentation—especially data sheets on environmental instrumentation—have deteriorated over the years.  Back in the day, it seemed as if the people who wrote the technical specs of instruments actually knew what they were talking about.

These days, though, it is to laugh or despair.  Take your pick.

Ironically, it matters not how large or prestigious the company might be that is promulgating this material.  Overall, the quality of the documentation, uh, stinks.

In one recent case, accuracy, linearity, and repeatability were conflated in a manner that beggars description.  I won't mention the name of the company, but it is very large and very well known.

Therefore, I highly recommend our Knowledge Base articles on

The articles can get a bit technical at times, but trust me, they're worth the effort.

More on units of measurement

Further to the Quantifying air quality posting, and based on an actual experience by one of our sales engineers, we take on obscure and confusing units of measurement in this Knowledge Base article.

We take on    ppmv      and        µg/Nm3

While ppmv can just be explained away as ppm by volume, and that's how parts-per-million of gases is ALWAYS expressed, µg/Nm3  opens up a number of cans of worms, and they are dealt with in the article.

Recommended for all you techies.

What happens to all those used tires?

Good question.  In fact, it's the topic of my Health News Digest column for this week.

It turns out that most used tires are put to good use, and that means that they are NOT being stockpiled in ugly fields along various Interstate highways.  Although burning tires in the open air is terrible, when done correctly, combusting tires works quite well due to their very high BTU content, and surprising NOx quenching ability.

In fact, the notion of dedicated tire-to-energy plants is a sound one, even if clueless "environmental" groups IN OPPOSITION to the hardly pro-business EPA do their best to block their construction.

All in all, there has been a tremendous improvement over the last decade in how we dispose of tires.

Quantifying air quality

It was Lord Kelvin who said:

"In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it."

"I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be."

And, who am I to disagree?  But, even the great Lord Kelvin could not have foreseen the dimensional mess that plagues environmental science.

It's important enough that I devoted a Knowledge Base article to it.

The issue involves metric-LOOKING units such as milligrams per cubic meter being used--usually by government agencies--instead of parts-per-million.  The problem, of course, is that the stupid mass per volume unit is a function of temperature (and barometric pressure), and even if the number is stated to be at, for example, 20 degrees C, it is still foolhardy.

Why?  It is foolish because air quality measurements must be done in the real world, not under controlled laboratory conditions.  While, we can generally assume the we are operating near the standard barometric pressure of 1 atmosphere (760 mmHg), in the real world, the temperature isn't always 20 deg C, is it?

More than that, many people are unaware of the temperature dependence, and use "simplified" formulas to convert between parts-per-million and milligrams per cubic meter.  The formulas are simplified in that they assume a particular temperature, usually 20 deg C, as well as a barometric pressure of 760 mmHg.

To help out the environmental community, we have posted spreadsheets to make these conversions ACCURATELY.

A separate Knowledge Base article is devoted to correction for atmospheric pressure differences.

The dark side of sun tanning

My Health News Digest article this week discusses the downside of tanning your hide. 

It might interest you to know that up until the 1920's, the pale look was considered in, mostly because the only people who got tanned were those who worked out in the fields.  As such, these were generally the lower classes.

After all "redneck" is not exactly an endearing term.

But, fashion changes, with Coco Chanel and others promoting the "healthy" tanned look.

However, as the American Academy of Dermatology stated some years ago--

"There is no safe way to tan."   

"In the United States, someone dies from skin cancer every hour. The overall incidence rate for melanoma is increasing faster than the rate of any other cancer. A tan does not prevent sun damage, it is sun damage."

The article generated e-mail from some important figures in the tanning industry, including Joe Schuster, Media Liaison of the Suntanning Association for Education.  I also heard from Valerie Guild, president of the Charlie Guild Melanoma Foundation, started in honor of her daughter, who died of melanoma at age 26.   Charlie was not a tanner.

Schuster seems like a good guy, trying to raise the bar in his industry.  After all, people will always want to tan, so the establishments they use might as well improve.

Still, when Schuster mentioned the "risks and benefits" of tanning, he would be hard-pressed to enumerate the benefits, since as an industry that uses FDA-regulated devices [tanning lamps], they cannot claim any therapeutic effects, since none have been clinically demonstrated.

At best, being tanned in a salon is generally safer than lying out in the sun all day in an uncontrolled manner, and it makes many people FEEL healthy.

Yet more on global warming

Here's one from the Times of London...

An experiment that hints we are wrong on climate change
Nigel Calder, former editor of New Scientist, says the orthodoxy must be challenged

When politicians and journalists declare that the science of global warming is settled, they show a regrettable ignorance about how science works. We were treated to another dose of it recently when the experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the Summary for Policymakers that puts the political spin on an unfinished scientific dossier on climate change due for publication in a few months’ time. They declared that most of the rise in temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to man-made greenhouse gases.

The small print explains “very likely” as meaning that the experts who made the judgment felt 90% sure about it. Older readers may recall a press conference at Harwell in 1958 when Sir John Cockcroft, Britain’s top nuclear physicist, said he was 90% certain that his lads had achieved controlled nuclear fusion. It turned out that he was wrong. More positively, a 10% uncertainty in any theory is a wide open breach for any latterday Galileo or Einstein to storm through with a better idea. That is how science really works.

Twenty years ago, climate research became politicised in favour of one particular hypothesis, which redefined the subject as the study of the effect of greenhouse gases. As a result, the rebellious spirits essential for innovative and trustworthy science are greeted with impediments to their research careers. And while the media usually find mavericks at least entertaining, in this case they often imagine that anyone who doubts the hypothesis of man-made global warming must be in the pay of the oil companies. As a result, some key discoveries in climate research go almost unreported.

Enthusiasm for the global-warming scare also ensures that heatwaves make headlines, while contrary symptoms, such as this winter’s billion-dollar loss of Californian crops to unusual frost, are relegated to the business pages. The early arrival of migrant birds in spring provides colourful evidence for a recent warming of the northern lands. But did anyone tell you that in east Antarctica the Adélie penguins and Cape petrels are turning up at their spring nesting sites around nine days later than they did 50 years ago? While sea-ice has diminished in the Arctic since 1978, it has grown by 8% in the Southern Ocean.

So one awkward question you can ask, when you’re forking out those extra taxes for climate change, is “Why is east Antarctica getting colder?” It makes no sense at all if carbon dioxide is driving global warming. While you’re at it, you might inquire whether Gordon Brown will give you a refund if it’s confirmed that global warming has stopped. The best measurements of global air temperatures come from American weather satellites, and they show wobbles but no overall change since 1999.

That levelling off is just what is expected by the chief rival hypothesis, which says that the sun drives climate changes more emphatically than greenhouse gases do. After becoming much more active during the 20th century, the sun now stands at a high but roughly level state of activity. Solar physicists warn of possible global cooling, should the sun revert to the lazier mood it was in during the Little Ice Age 300 years ago.

Climate history and related archeology give solid support to the solar hypothesis. The 20th-century episode, or Modern Warming, was just the latest in a long string of similar events produced by a hyperactive sun, of which the last was the Medieval Warming.

The Chinese population doubled then, while in Europe the Vikings and cathedral-builders prospered. Fascinating relics of earlier episodes come from the Swiss Alps, with the rediscovery in 2003 of a long-forgotten pass used intermittently whenever the world was warm.

What does the Intergovernmental Panel do with such emphatic evidence for an alternation of warm and cold periods, linked to solar activity and going on long before human industry was a possible factor? Less than nothing. The 2007 Summary for Policymakers boasts of cutting in half a very small contribution by the sun to climate change conceded in a 2001 report.

Disdain for the sun goes with a failure by the self-appointed greenhouse experts to keep up with inconvenient discoveries about how the solar variations control the climate. The sun’s brightness may change too little to account for the big swings in the climate. But more than 10 years have passed since Henrik Svensmark in Copenhagen first pointed out a much more powerful mechanism.

He saw from compilations of weather satellite data that cloudiness varies according to how many atomic particles are coming in from exploded stars. More cosmic rays, more clouds. The sun’s magnetic field bats away many of the cosmic rays, and its intensification during the 20th century meant fewer cosmic rays, fewer clouds, and a warmer world. On the other hand the Little Ice Age was chilly because the lazy sun let in more cosmic rays, leaving the world cloudier and gloomier.

The only trouble with Svensmark’s idea — apart from its being politically incorrect — was that meteorologists denied that cosmic rays could be involved in cloud formation. After long delays in scraping together the funds for an experiment, Svensmark and his small team at the Danish National Space Center hit the jackpot in the summer of 2005.

In a box of air in the basement, they were able to show that electrons set free by cosmic rays coming through the ceiling stitched together droplets of sulphuric acid and water. These are the building blocks for cloud condensation. But journal after journal declined to publish their report; the discovery finally appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society late last year.

Thanks to having written The Manic Sun, a book about Svensmark’s initial discovery published in 1997, I have been privileged to be on the inside track for reporting his struggles and successes since then. The outcome is a second book, The Chilling Stars, co-authored by the two of us and published next week by Icon books. We are not exaggerating, we believe, when we subtitle it “A new theory of climate change”.

Where does all that leave the impact of greenhouse gases? Their effects are likely to be a good deal less than advertised, but nobody can really say until the implications of the new theory of climate change are more fully worked out.

The reappraisal starts with Antarctica, where those contradictory temperature trends are directly predicted by Svensmark’s scenario, because the snow there is whiter than the cloud-tops. Meanwhile humility in face of Nature’s marvels seems more appropriate than arrogant assertions that we can forecast and even control a climate ruled by the sun and the stars.

More global warming follies

As the environmental columnist for Health News Digest, I get plenty of news releases for products that will save the world.

One of these involves a new process to create biodiesel.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that the people tout it as a "formidable weapon in the fight against Global Warming."

Even if you buy into the very flawed notion that human-produced carbon dioxide is a primary cause of global warming, diesel fuel is pretty much diesel fuel—regardless of its source.

The best they can do is claim that

Independent tests show a heating value of 128,000 BTU per gallon, on par with regular diesel. Biodiesel typically has a heating value of 118,000 BTU per gallon; premium gasoline has about 116,000 BTU per gallon.

In other words, their biodiesel has about the same heating value as regular diesel, giving no advantage in the global warming sweepstakes, except when compared to "conventional" biodiesel.

Hey, their product does sound good, especially since it can be mixed with regular gasoline on a 50/50 basis, but since it still has to be burned, it will have precious little impact on "reversing" global warming.  According to the zealots, any combustion process will add to the crisis.

Gee, then the zealots should all be supporting nuclear power, shouldn't they?

"Demand" water heaters

My Health News Digest article this week talks about alternative ways of getting hot water.

So-called "demand" water heaters are also called "instantaneous" or "endless" water heaters, and they have certain advantages, but caveat emptor, as the Romans supposedly said.  [Latin for "Let the buyer beware."]

Some good info, including the interesting finding that solar water heating is actually a neat idea, offering a much quicker payback than typical installations of demand systems.

Every winter it's the same thing...

An article by Chuck Green in the Boston Business Journal discusses some of the problems we now face since saving energy became—apparently—the quintessence of existence.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) issues have become commonplace in public buildings, some of which are almost hermetically sealed.  Back in the day, IAQ problems did not even exist, because then, the old adage—The solution to pollution is dilution—could work its simple magic.

The above linked article is specifically concerned with overly dry indoor air.  No doubt, dry air DOES cause problems, starting with a general uncomfortable feeling, and moving up to infections caused by dry (and thus ineffective) nasal membranes.

The references to mold are a bit overdone, though.  Typically, mold requires a much higher humidity than any building would be controlled to, and usually occurs because of water drips, not ambient humidity per se.

Still, any article that talks about IAQ and tight building syndrome is helping to get the word out.

Global Warming: Looking Under the Hood

It is worth noting that the modern environmental movement was founded on the 1962 book Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson.  Although Carson was a trained biologist, who had received some praise for her earlier works, it is sad but nonetheless quite true that the hideous distortions regarding pesticides and countless errors in fact that literally fill Silent Spring are the product of an embittered spinster dying of breast cancer.  It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that she needed something on which to blame her fate, and anointed environmental pollution—mainly pesticides—as the evil that would wipe out civilization.

Thus, Carson gave the nascent environmental movement its first apocalypse, and DDT became the prime agent of doom.  As it turned out, she was right about the doom, but it was the banning of DDT that brought it about, with tens of millions—mostly poor Africans—dying of malaria.

That she is still regarded as some sort of heroine today can only be understood, based on the kind of mentality that produces "lender liability" lawsuits.  Here, the plaintiff maintains that you shouldn't have loaned me the money because you should have known that I wouldn't pay it back, and you should have exercised better due diligence.  In other words, it wasn't my fault.  Applied in this case, it would have vilified the actual people who believed her pernicious nonsense and put her agenda into play.  Unfortunately, William Ruckelshaus and company have yet to pay the price.

Nevertheless, the stage was set.  Any big environmental issue must be framed as a terrible crisis; supporting science is vague, nonexistent, fudged, or distorted; and the cognitive dissonance whereby concern for human lives is always preached but never practiced hangs over the proceedings like the Emperor's New Clothes.

Earlier faux crises include...

  • Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb
  • Carl Sagan's "nuclear winter"
  • Ozone depletion

Ehrlich's true "bomb" was how reality displaced this sick poseur's posturing, although he did make lots of money.  Many are unaware that he supported a proposal to simply stop both private and government-sponsored food aid to countries that experienced chronic food shortages, unless they controlled their populations. Otherwise, he was quite willing to let them starve.  Ehrlich the humanitarian!

Sagan died before his theory was completely destroyed, but supposedly he was willing to take the credit for preventing nuclear war.  I guess you'd have to be a wee bit puffed-up, confused, and emotionally and spiritually tone-deaf to simultaneously be a dyed-in-the wool atheist and still say "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

If chlorofluorcarbons were really depleting the ozone layer, how come the so-called "hole" only appeared above Antarctica, with nothing at all over the northern hemisphere, home to infinitely more air conditioners?  I don't know, either.

As to Global Warming, we can probably acknowledge that it is occurring, if to a tiny extent—perhaps 0.6 degree Celsius (1.08 degree Fahrenheit) over the entire 20th century—assuming that we can trust "average global temperature" data.  However, blaming humans for the rise, or even holding that the rise is unique is nothing less than absurd.

Notwithstanding that infamous "hockey stick" curve that somehow left out both the so-called Little Ice Age (LIA) and Medieval Warm Period (MWP), these epochs are part of the historical record.

During the MWP (roughly 600 to 1400 AD), Greenland was actually green, wine was produced in England, and agriculture and exploration flourished.  During the LIA (roughly 1500-1850) northern Europe got colder, and culture and development shifted to the south.

More than that, evidence exists to show at least 600 moderate warming events in the last 1 million years.

As to human-generated carbon dioxide causing the warming, let's be rational.  Consider that carbon dioxide constitutes about 0.03 percent of the atmosphere, and, at best, less than 20 percent of this comes from fossil fuel combustion.  Actually, the doomsayers have this the wrong way round:  As the Earth warms up, more of the gas is released from the warming oceans.

Few would disagree that a warmer climate is preferable to a colder one, and human history bears this out.

As to the ridiculous doomsday scenarios of coastal cities being flooded into oblivion, even if we believe every worst case model, it is certainly not a matter of New York City suddenly being submerged, like some bad science fiction movie.  These changes, if they occurred at all, would take hundreds of years at least.

Moreover, we can't help pointing out that the Katrina disaster was caused in large part by "environmental" groups blocking proper levee construction, despite the existence of a a KNOWN hazard.  Remember that in the face of a visible, real, and actual crisis, all the king's horses and all the king's men still couldn't manage the simple task of extracting those in harm's way.

Keep that, and the global warming alarmist United Nations' continuous record of failure and corruption in mind, when you contemplate turning the future over to such authorities.

Beware also those prophets of impending doom, and judge them and their predecessors by their fruits.