Pentagon video warns of unavoidable dystopian future for world’s biggest cities

[ I’ve found the military to be among the most climate-change peak-oil aware of any government institution (see my posts in experts/government/military here). Will be interesting to see how they use that awareness as decline unfolds (i.e. get the lion’s share of the Strategic Petroleum reserve, if they’ve planned to cope with the emergencies caused by energy shortages, and so on)

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Nick Turse. October 13 2016.

The year is 2030. Forget about the flying cars, robot maids, and moving sidewalks we were promised. They’re not happening. But that doesn’t mean the future is a total unknown.

According to a startling Pentagon video obtained by The Intercept, the future of global cities will be an amalgam of the settings of “Escape from New York” and “Robocop” — with dashes of the “Warriors” and “Divergent” thrown in. It will be a world of Robert Kaplan-esque urban hellscapes — brutal and anarchic supercities filled with gangs of youth-gone-wild, a restive underclass, criminal syndicates, and bands of malicious hackers.

At least that’s the scenario outlined in “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” a five-minute video that has been used at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations University. All that stands between the coming chaos and the good people of Lagos and Dhaka (or maybe even New York City) is the U.S. Army, according to the video, which The Intercept obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

“Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” a video created by the Army and used at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations University.

The video is nothing if not an instant dystopian classic: melancholy music, an ominous voiceover, and cascading images of sprawling slums and urban conflict. “Megacities are complex systems where people and structures are compressed together in ways that defy both our understanding of city planning and military doctrine,” says a disembodied voice. “These are the future breeding grounds, incubators, and launching pads for adversaries and hybrid threats.”

The video was used as part of an “Advanced Special Operations Combating Terrorism” course offered at JSOU earlier this year, for a lesson on “The Emerging Terrorism Threat.” JSOU is operated by U.S. Special Operations Command, the umbrella organization for America’s most elite troops. JSOU describes itself as geared toward preparing special operations forces “to shape the future strategic environment by providing specialized joint professional military education, developing SOF specific undergraduate and graduate level academic programs and by fostering special operations research.”

Megacities are, by definition, urban areas with a population of 10 million or more, and they have been a recent source of worry and research for the U.S. military. A 2014 Army report, titled “Megacities and the United States Army,” warned that “the Army is currently unprepared. Although the Army has a long history of urban fighting, it has never dealt with an environment so complex and beyond the scope of its resources.” A separate Army study published this year bemoans the fact that the “U.S. Army is incapable of operating within the megacity.”

These fears are reflected in the hyperbolic “Megacities” video.

As the film unfolds, we’re bombarded with an apocalyptic list of ills endemic to this new urban environment: “criminal networks,” “substandard infrastructure,” “religious and ethnic tensions,” “impoverishment, slums,” “open landfills, over-burdened sewers,” and a “growing mass of unemployed.” The list, as long as it is grim, accompanies photos of garbage-choked streets, masked rock throwers, and riot cops battling protesters in the developing world. “Growth will magnify the increasing separation between rich and poor,” the narrator warns as the scene shifts to New York City. Looking down from a high vantage point on Third Avenue, we’re left to ponder if the Army will one day find itself defending the lunchtime crowd dining on $57 “NY Cut Sirloin” steaks at (the plainly visible) Smith and Wollensky.

Lacking opening and closing credits, the provenance of “Megacities” was initially unclear, with SOCOM claiming the video was produced by JSOU, before indicating it was actually created by the Army. “It was made for an internal military audience to illuminate the challenges of operating in megacity environments,” Army spokesperson William Layer told The Intercept in an email. “The video was privately produced pro-bono in spring of 2014 based on ‘Megacities and the United States Army.’… The producer of the film wishes to remain anonymous.”

According to the video, tomorrow’s vast urban jungles will be replete with “subterranean labyrinths” governed by their “own social code and rule of law.” They’ll also enable a proliferation of “digital domains” that facilitate “sophisticated illicit economies and decentralized syndicates of crime to give adversaries global reach at an unprecedented level.” If the photo montage in the video is to be believed, hackers will use outdoor electrical outlets to do grave digital damage, such as donning Guy Fawkes masks and filming segments of “Anonymous News.” This, we’re told, will somehow “add to the complexities of human targeting as a proportionally smaller number of adversaries intermingle with the larger and increasing number of citizens.”

“Megacities” posits that despite the lessons learned from the ur-urban battle at Aachen, Germany, in 1944, and the city-busting in Hue, South Vietnam, in 1968, the U.S. military is fundamentally ill-equipped for future battles in Lagos or Dhaka.

“Even our counterinsurgency doctrine, honed in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, is inadequate to address the sheer scale of population in the future urban reality,” the film notes, as if the results of two futile forever wars might possibly hold the keys to future success. “We are facing environments that the masters of war never foresaw,” warns the narrator. “We are facing a threat that requires us to redefine doctrine and the force in radically new and different ways.”

Mike Davis, author of “Planet of Slums” and “Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb,” was not impressed by the video.

“This is a fantasy, the idea that there is a special military science of megacities,” he said. “It’s simply not the case. … They seem to envision large cities with slum peripheries governed by antagonistic gangs, militias, or guerrilla movements that you can somehow fight using special ops methods. In truth, that’s pretty far-fetched. … You only have to watch ‘Black Hawk Down’ and scale that up to the kind of problems you would have if you were in Karachi, for example. You can do special ops on a small-scale basis, but it’s absurd to imagine it being effective as any kind of strategy for control of a megacity.”

The U.S. military appears unlikely to heed Davis’s advice, however.

“This is the world of our future,” warns the narrator of “Megacities.” “It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable. The threat is clear. Our direction remains to be defined. The future is urban.”

Top photo: An officer from the CORE police special forces aims his weapon during an operation to search for fugitives in the Complexo do Alemao favela on May 13, 2014, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, one of the world’s megacities. A Pentagon video forecasting the future of the world’s urban populations suggests that the U.S. military is fundamentally ill-equipped for future battles in megacities.

Posted in Collapsing, Military | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Of course the reason the U.S. invades other countries for oil

Deaths from terrorism between 2000–2014. Deaths from terrorism have increased dramatically over the last 15 years. The number of people who have died from terrorist activity has increased nine-fold since the year 2000. Source : ABC News (Australia) based on Global Terrorism Index


This post contains information from Nafeez Ahmed’s 2017 book “Failing States, Collapsing Systems BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence“, Springer.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

It appears that military planning for the war-on-terror began long before 9/11. Compelling evidence can be found in official documents, high-level government testimony, industry sources and statistical analysis.

Major interventions most often occur in strategic areas near the remaining Middle East fossil fuel resources, whether by direct, covert, or via proxy forces (Stokes and Raphael 2010).

Lately scientific studies have shown that the main reasons motivating U.S. military invasions are access to fossil fuels, mainly petroleum (Bove et al. 2015), and to force countries to open their markets to US exports (Berger et al. 2013).

Bove and Sekeris say that their research on the role of oil as a source of conflict “motivates military interventions and assistance to promote the commercial interests of the invading country, adding a dark dimension to the implications of modern societies’ dependency on oil, while also raising questions about the ethical grounds of such military interventions” (Bove and Sekeris 2016).

Attempts to control the world’s oil resources is also done to be sure economic growth continues. For example, documents from one of the US military’s most important commands, Central Command (CENTCOM), show that US military interventions have been motivated to support the ‘free market’ for decades.  CENTCOM’s mission has become one of “keeping the global economy open” (Morrissey 2016).

Violence has become the main way fossil-fuel producing countries are forced and exploited by the global neoliberal capitalist order to be sure that global economic growth continues via increasing energy production.

As both EROI and social unrest destabilizes Middle Eastern countries, so have military interventions increased. A RAND report that looked at how often US military interventions occurred from 1949 to 2010 came to the startling conclusion that not only did the overall frequency of US interventions increase, but that an intervention increases the probability of an ensuing cluster of interventions, with each new intervention increasing “the likelihood of an additional intervention in the next by at least 20% and possibly as much as 50%.” The report further found that such “clustered deployments” have been “more likely since the fall of the Soviet Union than during the Cold War,” and further that the number of US interventions “increased dramatically over this period, especially between 1988 and 2004 (Fig 6.5).

Fig. 6.5 Timing of military interventions by year of onset. Source : Kavanagh ( 2013 )

Given the links between US military interventions, energy interests, and the global economy, this establishes a strong empirical case for the conclusion that escalating Western state-militarization is a direct response to the destabilization of the global system as declining EROI has weakened the foundations of the global neoliberal capitalist order, and undermined state-territorial integrity in key strategic regions, particularly across parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia which contain most of the world’s fossil fuel resources and energy transshipment routes.

Fig. 6.6 Global rise of number of Islamist militant groups. Source : Seth G. Jones (2014)


In turn, the escalation of Western military interventionism has provoked an increase in Islamist militancy, which has further fueled far-right extremism, and further military invasions.  Since the 1990s, the rise in Islamist militant groups has increased steadily, and the rate of increase has particularly accelerated in the period following the 2011 Arab Spring (Fig. 6.6 ).

There has been a parallel rise in the number of far-right extremist groups in the US, coupled with an alarming rise in terrorist attacks by far-right groups worldwide. In the US, by far the biggest threat to homeland security is from far-right extremists, and within Europe, there has been a corresponding rise in popular support for far-right political parties (Fig. 6.7).

Fig. 6.7 Rise in US far-right militant groups. Source : based on data via Southern
Poverty Law Center




Every single one of the far-right parties gaining popularity in Europe has strong neo-Nazi connections, and mobilizes largely on an anti-Muslim platform (Ahmed 2016).


Ahmed, N. 2016. At the Root of Egyptian Rage Is a Deepening Resource Crisis. Quartz. Accessed August 16.

Berger, Daniel, William Easterly, Nathan Nunn, and Shanker Satyanath. 2013. Commercial Imperialism? Political Influence and Trade during the Cold War. American Economic Review 103(2): 863–896. doi: 10.1257/aer.103.2.863

Bove, Vincenzo, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, and Petros G. Sekeris. 2015. ‘Oil above Water’ Economic Interdependence and Third-Party Intervention. Journal of Conflict Resolution, January 27: 0022002714567952. doi: 10.1177/0022002714567952 .

Bove, Vincenzo, and Petros G. Sekeris. 2016. Fueling Conflict: The Role of Oil in Foreign Interventions. IPI Global Observatory. Accessed July 19. https://theglobalobservatory. org/2015/03/civil-wars-oil-above-water-military-intervention/

Morrissey, John. 2016. US Central Command and Liberal Imperial Reach: Shaping the Central Region for the 21st Century. The Geographical Journal 182(1): 15–26.

Stokes, Doug, and Sam Raphael. 2010. Global Energy Security and American Hegemony. Baltimore: JHU Press. Stott, Peter. 2016. How Climate Change Affects Extreme Weather Events. Science 352(6293): 1517–1518.

Posted in Middle East, Over Oil, Social Disorder, Terrorism | 1 Comment

Bonds – a hidden risk to the economy

Condon, B. August 24, 2016. The hidden risk to the economy in corporate balance sheets. AP.

America has a debt problem, but it’s not what you think.

Yes, the federal government owes trillions of dollars more than it did a few years ago. Yes, Americans are still struggling to pay off mortgages and student loans. But it’s the buildup in debt elsewhere that is most worrying some experts, and the big borrower this time may come as a surprise: Corporate America.

You might think big U.S. companies, if anything, have been too conservative with their finances. They’ve collectively hoarded hundreds of billions of dollars in cash, instead of spending it to hire workers or expand their operations.

The reality is different, and more worrisome. Much of the cash is held by just a precious few companies, while debt is ballooning at other, weaker businesses as investors desperate for income rush to lend to them. These investors could face losses, perhaps steep, if economic growth falters. The broader economy is also vulnerable because companies with more debt have to cut back further and lay off more whenever downturns hit.

“There’s a misconception that companies are swimming in cash,” says Andrew Chang, a director at S&P Global Ratings. “They’re actually drowning in debt.”

It turns out there’s a wealth gap among companies, just like among people. Of the $1.8 trillion in cash that’s sitting in U.S. corporate accounts, half of it belongs to just 25 of the 2,000 companies tracked by S&P Global Ratings. Outside of Apple, Google and the rest of the corporate 1 percent, cash has been falling over the last two years even as debt has been rising. It now covers only $15 of every $100 they owe, less than it did even during the financial crisis in 2008 when finances were crumbling.

You don’t have to look hard to find other signs of trouble.

The number of companies that have defaulted so far this year has already passed the total for all of last year, which itself had the most since the financial crisis. Even among companies considered high-quality, or investment grade, credit-rating agencies say a record number are so stretched financially that they’re one bad quarter or so from being downgraded to “junk” status.

Companies whose debt is already deemed “junk” are in the worst shape in years. To pay back all they owe, they would have to set aside every dollar of their operating earnings over the next eight and a half years, more than twice as long as it would have taken during the 2008 crisis, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The problem with high debt is it leaves less wiggle room for even seemingly well-run companies if things go wrong.

In March, S&P cut its ratings on Macy’s to BBB, two notches above junk, as competition from internet retailers continues to dig into the department store chain’s sales. The company’s debt, net of cash, has risen over the past three years. Meanwhile, it has spent $5.2 billion buying its own stock, or $1.4 billion more than those shares are worth now, according to data provider FactSet. Companies often buy their shares and take them off the market to goose their earnings per share, a widely watched measure of success.

Oil company Hess was also recently downgraded, mostly because of a plunge in oil prices beyond its control. But its own moves hurt, too. Instead of whittling away at its debt with the cash it raised in recent years from selling parts of its business, it has spent billions buying its stock. Moody’s Investors Service cited Hess’ heavy debt burden when it downgraded the company.

Hess is what ratings agencies call a “fallen angel:” a formerly highly rated corporate borrower that was cut to junk and thus made too risky for many bond funds. Moody’s tallied 55 other fallen angels in the first six months this year.

Despite the warning signs, investors continue to lend to companies as if there is nothing to fear.

They put a net $22.8 billion into mutual funds specializing in corporate bonds in the 12 months through July, lifting total investments via such funds to $144 billion, according to Morningstar. The headlong rush reflects desperation for something a little more rewarding than the stingy interest paid by Treasurys and other traditionally safe bond offerings. The yield on the 10-year Treasury hit a record low last month.

Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist at Deutsche Bank, is worried about the risk posed beyond investment portfolios.

He says mounting debt has made companies vulnerable to outside shocks — a natural disaster, for instance, or a spike in inflation or a sharp slowdown in China. A little bad news could force companies to pull back from spending and slam the economy.

“It’s like someone’s immune system is weak,” LaVorgna says. “If you run yourself down, you get sick.”

Investors can get things horribly wrong. They didn’t catch the last debt bubble, pouring money into bonds containing mortgages despite signs that homeowners couldn’t afford them.

The similarities to the last debt crisis may not end there. Like folks who kept refinancing their mortgages instead of paying them off, companies have “rolled over” their old loans by taking out new ones. This makes sense at many companies because interest rates are so low.

But when things start falling apart, the high debt hurts.

The largest owner of radio stations in the U.S., iHeartMedia, has paid off parts of its $21 billion debt several times since the financial crisis, but elected to do so with money raised from new loans. Its debt is no lower than it was since the crisis.

Investors have been selling iHeartMedia’s stock as advertisers that used to go on the radio migrate to online competitors. Its bonds have dropped sharply, too. In the past two years, the ones due in 2019 have plunged 25 percent.

Posted in Bond Market | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Minerals and War from Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted”

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

“Clearly there wasn’t much of an incentive to move an army or a caravan across the mountains and deserts that separated Egypt from Mesopotamia. Most likely the Sumerians didn’t have much that the Egyptians couldn’t manufacture themselves, and vice versa. Besides, most of what could be bought or seized by such an expedition was perishable: grains, sheep, cattle, and even slaves would have been difficult to transport over long distances on land.

But with the diffusion of precious metals, there appeared a good reason for raiding neighbors, even at some distance. As a consequence, we see armies leaving their countries of origin and invading other areas.

The very first of these clashes to have been recorded in history was the battle of Megiddo, 9 at around 1460 BCE. It was fought by the Egyptians against the Canaanites who lived in what is today Syria. By our standards it was a minor battle, involving some 10,000 to 20,000 fighters on each side. However, it impressed our ancestors so much that, perhaps, the term Armageddon derives from it. It was the first step toward a kind of warfare that was to revolutionize the world forever. These ancient wars were the first symptoms of a deep change in the structure of human society. It was a transition from static agricultural civilizations to aggressive predatory empires, societies that lived mainly on conquest.

Soon precious metals became not just a currency for trade, but a major military weapon that generated a form of enhancing feedback. The more gold a king had, the more retainers he could hire; the more retainers he had, the more gold he could raid from his enemies.

Cheap coal also made steel cheap, allowing it to be used for a new generation of weapons, from cannons and muskets to “ironclad” battleships, which started being manufactured in the early 19th century.

The 20th century started with the buildup to an unprecedented confrontation between the industrial nations, in great measure to define access to resources in the rest of the world.

Empires are by their very nature unstable structures; they can exist only by either expanding or contracting.

With the defeat at Salamis, the Persian Empire entered an irreversible spiral of decline, perhaps also caused by the depletion of its gold mines.

The silver of Laurium pushed Athens to a brief imperial period in which it dominated the central Mediterranean region. Athens declined with the decline of the Laurium mines, while the rise of the Macedonian kingdom, with Philip II, seems to have been linked to the discovery of silver in Macedonia and to development of mining there. 29 It may have been because of these silver resources that Philip managed to conquer Greece, succeeding where the Persian king Xerxes had failed. Later, Philip’s son, Alexander “the Great,” went on to conquer Persia and to create a vast empire that reached up to India. The decline of Alexander’s empire may be related to the decline of the Macedonian silver mines that had produced it. In time the lead passed to the western Mediterranean region, which still had largely untouched mineral resources.

The abundance of gold and silver in Spain may have been the element that propelled Rome to domination over the whole Mediterranean region and most of western Europe. The last phase of the Roman expansion in Spain came in the first century BCE with the conquest of the northwestern regions that we call Asturias and León. Soon these regions would become the largest source of gold and silver in Europe for a few centuries. The control of these mines gave to the Romans a wealth that had never been seen before in Europe.

The Roman society was a structure dedicated to war, its main economic activity. In this sense the Romans used money largely as a military technology. With money, they paid a standing army, one of the first recorded in history. They also used money to pay auxiliary troops that augmented the Roman legions. Finally, they used money to bribe enemies. Especially during the last period of the empire, it was common for Romans to buy off enemies rather than fight them. The mechanism worked wonders, at least for as long as the Romans had gold and silver available to them.

The Roman approach to war was that of a commercial enterprise; it had to create a profit. So the Romans did very well against societies that were similar to their own but outmatched in terms of military resources. In conquering the Hellenistic states and Gaul, they could bring home booty in terms of precious metal and slaves that repaid their expenses for the campaign and allowed them to start new ones.

Apart from gold and silver, the Roman Empire never produced much more than two things: legions and grain, neither of which was a tradable commodity with the outside world. So the Romans imported all sorts of luxury products from Asia and the Middle East: silk, spices, ivory, pearls, slaves, and more. They paid in gold, and that gold never came back because the Romans had little that they could sell outside their borders. Gold and silver also disappeared from the empire as foreign mercenaries took their pay with them when they went back home. And in the last period of the empire, a perverse negative mechanism took place: deflation. With gold becoming rare, it became more and more valuable, so people tended to hoard it. Many buried it underground, removing it from circulation in the economic system.

While the Europeans were busy with their feuds, the Arabs put to good use the gold that they had gained in their trade with the Roman Empire. They embarked on a campaign of conquest that led them to create a new empire embracing North Africa, Spain, and most of the Middle East. With the dynasty of the Umayyads, the Arab caliphate reached its greatest extension during the seventh and eighth centuries.

Fossil Empires

Starting in the 18th century Britain became the first empire in the world to base its wealth on fossil fuels. With its abundant coal resources, Britain could produce plenty of iron for cannons. With her powerfully armed fleet, Britain could get timber from anywhere in the world without needing to over-exploit her forests. More timber meant more warships, and more warships meant more world domination and, therefore, even more timber. Weapons and warships also meant that powerful armies could be ferried overseas.

Everywhere in the world Britain conquered foreign kingdoms and transformed them into colonial plantations that produced food for their remote rulers. More food meant larger armies, and that, in turn, meant more plantations and even more food. It was this self-reinforcing mechanism that created the British empire, the first global empire in history.

At the height of national coal production, in the 1920s, the coal produced in England could have matched the heat produced by burning almost all of the world’s forests. 47

Crude oil was a critical resource that was soon to show depletion problems. In 1970 US crude oil production reached its peak and started declining. That posed a critical strategic problem for the US government. Without an abundant supply of oil, the American empire risked the same decline that the British empire had seen just a few decades before, when it had passed its coal peak. The solution to the problem was found in the control of the still abundant resources of the Middle East. The United States had relied on Middle East resources for a long time. In 1945 President Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and seeded an alliance that lasts to this day. As discussed by Michael Klare in his book Blood and Oil, 48 this strategic vision continued with the oil crisis of the 1970s and was stated most clearly in the so-called Carter Doctrine expressed in President Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address (and perhaps actually written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor at that time 49 ): Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

Much US foreign policy after the fall of the Soviet Union can be seen as a continuation of the Carter Doctrine. The first Gulf War (1991), the invasion of Iraq (2003), and other events in the Middle East have clearly been a manifestation of the need for the United States to keep a tight grip on the region and control its petroleum resources.

If we go back to the times of the Roman Empire, we see that the Romans didn’t take the depletion of their gold mines with philosophical resignation. They tried as hard as they could to keep them producing, and the result was “ruin of the mountains”, as described by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis. The mountains of the Spanish region of Asturias still show the destruction wreaked on them by Roman engineers.

But what the Romans could do to their mountains with picks and hydraulic fracturing is very little in comparison with what we can do to our mountains with explosives and diesel-powered machinery. We are already destroying one mountain after another in order to get at the coal seams they contain. It is a process that is not soon going to stop, as the world’s economy gears up to recover the last accessible ores on the planet. It is truly a war waged against the planet, a take-no-prisoners war. It also is a war that cannot be won. In the long run the planet will recover from the assault of human miners, and the only possible casualties will be us.

Posted in Peak Coal, Peak Oil, Ugo Bardi, War | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Minerals and War from Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted”

A Mega Storm in California might cost 3 to 7 times more than Katrina or Harvey and destroy a third of America’s food

[ Katrina cost somewhere between $109 and $250 billion (Amadero 2017) and estimates of what cost Harvey will have range from $100 to $190 billion (Kollewe 2017, Lanktree 2017).  A California’s ArkStorms  is likely to cost $627 (USC) to $725 billion dollars (NRA).

The USGS has studied how often a mega storm like the one in 1861-1862 might often, and dub such a storm “ArkStorm”. Several people have pointed out to me that this storm will create floods in 500-1000 flood year areas, but that is different from how often Arkstorms would occur, which scientists say is every 100 to 200 years, including Lucy Jones, chief scientist of the USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project and architect of ARkStorm says that “We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so” (SD 2011) and Sullivan (2011).

The 1861-62 series of storms were the largest and longest California storms in the historic record, but were probably not the worst California has experienced. Geological evidence indicates that floods that occurred before Europeans arrived were bigger.

Scientists have found that California Arkstorm mega floods occurred at some time in each of these timeframes (dating isn’t precise enough to pinpoint the exact year): 1235–1360, 1295–1410, 1555–1615, 1750–70 and 1810–20, or one mega- flood every 100 to 200 years (Dettinger 2013).  

This will affect everyone in the United States since California provides one-third of America’s food, and the flood will cover the prime level farmland of the central valley where nearly all the food is grown. If major dams are destroyed, that will affect future crops because dam irrigation allows 2 to 3 crops a year in California’s benign climate.

Climate change makes the odds of another Arkstorm even greater.  Today the west coast gets rain or snow from atmospheric rivers 25 to 40 days a year, by 2100 this may rise to between 35 and 55 days a year (Upton 2016).  The storm is estimated to produce precipitation that in many places exceeds levels only experienced on average once every 500 to 1,000 years. The event would be similar to exceptionally intense California storms which occurred 156 years ago between December 1861 and January 1862

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

USGS. 2011.  Overview of the ARkStrom Scenario. Open file report 2010-1312. 201 pages. United States Geological Survey and US Dept of the Interior.

Atmospheric Rivers: an Amazon river in the Air

Atmospheric rivers occur around the world and can dump as much rainfall as hurricanes, carrying as much water as the Amazon river (Mackenzie). At any given moment there are about half a dozen atmospheric rivers above the earth. many drop their rain over the ocean before reaching land.

Most aren’t harmful — California gets up to half its precipitation this way. The problem comes when other weather systems cause these airborne rivers to stall out.

Climate change means that the air warms it will hold even more moisture, and atmospheric rivers even wetter, likely to form more often, last longer, and lead to more devastating floods in California (Dettinger 2011).

ARkStorm: A $725 Billion Flood in California is expected

Super Storms occur every 100 to 200 years in California. The most recent super storm was in 1861-62 and lasted 45 days.  Massive floods resulted.  The Sacramento Valley became an inland sea.

These storms cause far more damage than earthquakes. The State of California estimates the next storm could cost $725 Billion dollars (NRA).

The effects would ripple out to the rest of the United States: California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables; and across the nation, U.S. consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.

The USGS (2011) has dubbed such a storm an “ARkStorm” and held a conference to present the findings of more 117 scientists, engineers, and other experts of how such a storm would affect California.  A super storm might produce 10 feet of rain, overwhelming flood-protection systems, and perhaps the Oroville dam (Cahill 2017), the United States tallest dam (Wikipedia).  Climate change will increase both the likelihood and severity of these storms.

Here are the likely effects of such a storm

  • 25% of all homes damaged in California from flooding and landslides
  • $300 billion property damage mostly from flooding
  • $400 billion damage to Agriculture and landslide damage
  • $325 billion in business interruption costs
  • A grand total of about $1 Trillion damage of which $20-30 billion would be recovered through insurance (public and commercial)
  • Most costly disaster in USA history
  • Hurricane force winds up to 125 miles per hour
  • Thousands of square miles of agricultural and urban land flooded up to depths of 20 feet.
  • Central Valley flood likely to be 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide
  • Hundreds of landslides would cover roads, highways, and homes
  • Power outages, water and sewer infrastructure could take months to repair
  • Unemployment rate would increase by 6%
  • The levee system is likely to be overwhelmed, flooding some of the best agricultural land in the world, poisoning the drinking water with pesticides, manure, and other chemicals of up to 22 million Californians.
  • 1.5 million people would need to be evacuated.  The most populous areas affected are parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties.

Effects of 1861-62 storm

  • California went bankrupt after a third of California’s taxable land was wiped out
  • Lakes formed in the Mojave Desert and Los Angeles Basin.
  • Even larger storms occurred in 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605.


Achenbach, J. 13 May 2011. The Century of Disasters. Meltdowns. Floods. Tornadoes. Oil spills. Grid crashes. Why more and more things seem to be going wrong, and what we can do about it.

Amadeo, K. Aug 31, 2017. Hurricane Katrina Facts: Damage and Costs. The Balance.

Bwarie, J. 2011. ARkStorm: California’s Other “Big One”. USGS.

Balassone, M. 25 Feb 2011. USC Economist: California Superstorm Would be Costliest U.S. Disaster. USC News.

Cahill, Scott. August 20, 2017. Collapse Risk At The Oroville Dam Is Still Unacceptably High. Bungled repairs and new concerns at the tallest US dam. Peak prosperity podcast.

Dettinger, M. June 1, 2011. Climate Change, Atmospheric Rivers, and Floods in California – A Multimodel Analysis of Storm Frequency and Magnitude Changes (pages 514–523).   Journal of the American Water Resources Association.

Dettinger, M., Ingram, B. L. 2013. The Coming Megafloods Huge flows of vapor in the atmosphere, dubbed “atmospheric rivers,” have unleashed massive floods every 200 years, and climate change could bring more of them. Scientific American.

Lankgree, G. September 1, 2017. Hurricane Harvey Could Cost $190 Billion, Topping Hurricane Katrina. Newsweek.

Kollewe, J. August 29, 2017. Total Harvey cost could be as high as $100 bn, says insurance expert. The Guardian.

Mackenzie, D. March 30, 3013. Skyfall. NewScientist.

NRA (Natural Resources Agency). 2013. Safeguarding California: reducing climate risk. An update to the 2009 California climate adaptation strategy. Public draft. State of California. 289 pp.

SD. January 18, 2011. ARkStorm: California’s other ‘Big One’. ScienceDaily.

Sullivan, C. Jan 20, 2011. 200-Year Flood in Calif. More Devastating Than Major Quake, USGS Says. New York Times.

USC. March 8 2011. California Superstorm Would Be Costliest US Disaster. (source: University of Southern California)

USGS. 2011.  Overview of the ARkStrom Scenario. Open file report 2010-1312. 201 pages. United States Geological Survey and US Dept of the Interior.

Upton, J. 2016. Climate Change Could Bring Bigger, Wetter Storms to California, Study Says. KQED news. Original paper: Hagos, S. M., et al. 6 Feb 2016. A projection of changes in landfalling atmospheric river frequency and extreme precipitation over western North America from the Large Ensemble CESM simulations. Geophysical research letters.

Appendix A. crop and livestock estimated damages by county.
USGS & US Dept of the Interior. 2011.  Overview of the ARkStrom Scenario. Open file report 2010-1312. 77 pages.

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Tackling mine wastes

Hudson-Edwards, K. April 15, 2016. Tackling mine wastes. Science (352):288-290  


Mine wastes are unwanted and uneconomic materials (including rock, sediment, tailings, metallurgical wastes, dusts, ash, and processing chemicals) that are found at or near mine sites in virtually every country in the world (2). They often contain elevated concentrations of elements such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, uranium, and zinc. As a result, mine wastes can be toxic, corrosive, or radioactive, or a combination and harm the health of organisms, plants, and humans if ingested from water, soil, or food grown on the wastes, or inhaled as dust (3, 4).

Mine drainage waters are classified as acid, circumneutral, or basic depending on their pH (5). Both acidic and basic mine wastes are corrosive and contain potentially toxic or radioactive elements. Globally, acid mine wastes, which arise mainly from the oxidation of iron-sulfide minerals such as pyrite, are the most common. Solid mine wastes often also have a physical as well as chemical impact on the environment. For example, they may cause excessive sedimentation of river systems, altering their natural geomorphological evolution and potentially suffocating aquatic life. Winds can spread these wastes in the form of dust, particularly in arid areas.

Globally, most high-grade ores have already been exploited.

Contemporary mining therefore tends to focus on the extraction of lower-grade ores. As a result, current mining operations are associated with higher volumes of waste than previously produced.

Historical mine wastes have been accumulating since prehistory and can pose hazards that are potentially just as serious as those resulting from recent mining since methods were less efficient, environmental protection did not exist, and toxic elements such as mercury were used extensively (as they are in some artisanal mining areas today) to extract ores such as silver and gold (6).

There are many examples of historical and contemporary mine wastes posing threats to the environment. For example, in August 2015, waste water and tailings from the Gold Creek Mine flooded into Cement Creek and the Animas River in Colorado, USA, turning them bright yellow. The spill was caused by the attempted remediation of historical mine wastes (7).

The global footprint of historical and contemporary mine wastes is clearly substantial:

  • 6% of English and Welsh rivers are affected by cadmium-, lead-, and zinc-contaminated discharges from historical mines and weathering of historical mining—contaminated sediments.
  • In Bolivia, 35 km2 of the Pilcomayo floodplain is covered with heavy metal—contaminated sediments that have been discharged as mining waste over the past 500 years (11).
  • Globally about 1 million km2 are covered with mine waste, amounting to several hundred thousand million tons of waste. Although this is a small percentage of Earth’s surface, much of it is in inhabited areas or areas of important biodiversity and natural beauty.

Overall the environmental impacts of mine wastes are negative. Around the globe, tailings dam accidents, physical weathering, and biogeochemical reactions lead to the remobilization of mine wastes from mine sites to the atmosphere, soils, water, and biosphere, posing risks to global ecosystem and human health.

We lack knowledge of many of these environmentally critical reactions. For example, we do not fully understand the biogeochemical behavior of many elements in mine wastes, including the elements bismuth, lithium, and tantalum, which are extensively mined today for use in modern technologies such as solar panels, batteries, and mobile phones. To predict future impacts, we also need to build knowledge of the influence of climate change on the rates of mine waste remobilization.

References and Notes

  1. WISE (World Information Service on Energy) Uranium Project, Chronology of Major Tailings Dam Failures;
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Emergency Response to August 2015 Release from Gold King Mine;
  3. Geological Survey of Ireland, Inventory of Mine Waste Sites;
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Peak soil: Industrial agriculture destroys ecosystems and civilizations. Biofuels make it worse.

Alice Friedemann. 2017. Peak Soil.   Last updated: June 4, 2017, first published 2007

[ Formerly titled: Why Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security.  Shorter versions appear in the following books: Jacqueline Langwith, ed. 2008.  “Opposing Viewpoints: Renewable Energy, vol. 2.” Greenhaven Press; Sheila Newman, ed. 2008. “The Final Energy Crisis”. Pluto Press.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”, President Franklin D. Roosevelt

There’s growing public attention from the people about biomass potential for energy.  There’s been a public discussion about many aspects and what the problems might be.  But there’s one aspect of all of this that is conspicuous by its absence – a national discussion about the soil science – the effect growing row crops like corn and soy have on land and water. There are also important issues about  whether there is enough biomass to scale up to replace oil, the net energy gain and the carbon balance. But the root of the matter is whether growing biomass for fuel can be made sustainable.

The lack of any kind of input on this by soil scientists about how we’re mining our soils is a voice that needs to be heard, because if you destroy the soil, you can’t grow biomass.

Part 1. Scale: There’s not enough biomass to fuel transportation

The amount of fossil fuels burned in 1997 is 400 times all the plant matter that grows in the world in a year, even including the microscopic plants in the ocean (Dukes 2003).

Since fossil fuels are finite, it certainly makes sense to turn to biomass to provide fuel to replace oil. After all, besides water, air, and dirt, plants are the most abundant and renewable resource that could possible scale up to replace fossil fuels.

But is there enough biomass?  Don’t forget that oil, natural gas, and coal are used for many other purposes:

  1. Fossils are the source of over 500,000 products (fertilizer, plastics, petrochemical industry)
  2. Fossils provide baseload power for electricity generation and balance intermittent wind and solar power
  3. Fossils provide the high-temperature heat needed to make cement, steel, ceramics, and glass
  4. The heat for homes and businesses

In addition, a great deal of biomass is already spoken for – it is used for food, grazing, and fertilizer as so-called “crop waste” is increasingly tilled-in by farmers.

The Department of Energy lists ways biomass is already being used that will compete with its use as a fuel and for electricity generation (Ruth 2013 Table 3.3):

  • Residential (including wood pellets for heat)
  • Commercial (uses agriculture byproducts/crops, sludge waste, and other biomass solids, liquids and gases; black liquor and wood/wood waste solids including wood pellets for heat and liquids; and corn)
  • Industrial, including:
    • Agriculture, forestry, and mining (consumes agricultural byproducts/crops)
    • Chemicals and allied products (consumes other biomass liquids, sludge waste, and wood/wood waste solids)
    • Apparel (consumes wood and derived fuels)
    • Petroleum refining (consumes wood and derived fuels)
    • Rubber and miscellaneous plastic products (consumes wood and derived fuels)
    • Transportation equipment (consumes wood and derived fuels)
    • Stone, clay, glass, and concrete products (consumes wood and derived fuels)
    • Furniture and fixtures (consumes wood and derived fuels)

Few studies look at how biomass would optimally be shared among all these competing uses. California found that due to limited irrigation water, at best biomass could provide 18 percent of transportation fuel, but recommended that a quarter of the biomass be allocated to utilities to generate electricity (Youngs and Somerville 2013).

Since trucks and rail are the basis of civilization as we know it, all, most of this biomass ought to be converted to #2 diesel to keep trucks and locomotives running. Instead, 40 percent of the corn crop is wasted on ethanol for non-essential cars. Diesel engines can’t burn ethanol or diesohol. Currently biodiesel is just 1 percent of total diesel production by volume, with soybeans making up 57 percent of that feedstock.

Oil is a biofuel, but nonrenewable since it took Mother Nature millions of years to brew with 196,000 pounds of plants per gallon, which is equivalent to cramming 40 acres of wheat into your gas tank every 20 miles (Dukes).

And therein lies the rub. It takes enormous amounts of biomass to make liquid fuels. Biomass doesn’t scale up enough to replace a small fraction of what we use. Only 1% of total U.S. energy is provided by 40% of the corn crop (NAS 2014).

Europe’s International Energy Agency has a target of 150 EJ/year from biomass. To do that would require 15 billion metric tons of plant biomass taking up 200 billion cubic meters (bcm). But only 2 billion metric tons of rice, wheat, soybeans, corn, and other grains and oil seeds with a volume of 2.75 bcm were produced in 2010, and only 6.2 bcm of coal and 5.7 bcm of oil were moved in 2008, orders of magnitude less than 200 bcm (Richard).

If you yanked every plant in America out of the ground, roots and all, and burned them to create energy, far more energy than converting plants to biofuels, you’d get 94 exajoules (EJ), less than the 105 EJ of fossil fuels Americans use per year (Patzek 2005), and we could all pretend we lived on Mars.

David Pimentel doubts that cellulosic biomass will ever be able to provide enough liquid fuel because “Green plants collect and convert less than 0.1% of the incident sunlight into plant matter [Pimentel and Patzek 2008, Pimentel et al 2006, Pimentel et al 2012]. In the United States all green plants collectively produce biomass equivalent to about 53 exajoules of energy per year from sunlight, only about half of our total fossil energy use. Hence even if we were able to use all agricultural, forest , grassland and aquatic plants, with no production of food or fiber, at an impossible 100% efficiency this would be barely enough energy to displace oil (Hall 2011).

To make B5 diesel fuel (5% biodiesel) would require 64% of the soybean crop and 71,875 square miles of land (Borgman 2007), so 20 times as many soybeans are needed to make B100 taking almost half of the land in the contiguous 48 states.

Giampietro (2009) calculates that we’d need 558 billion liters of ethanol, whichwould require 1500million tonnes of corn, which is six times the entire production of corn in the U.S. in 2003. This would generate 500 million tonnes of Dried Distillers Grain (DDG) byproduct, 10 times more than the entire consumption of high protein commercial feeds — 51 million tonnes in 2003. Pro-ethanol scientists add DDG as a positive net energy gain, when in fact it will take a huge amount of energy to dispose of most of this environmental pollution.

Over the past 2,000 years we’ve reduced the living biomass on the planet by 45% — from about 1,000 billion tons (35 zeta joules (ZJ) = joules × 1021) to 550 billion tons  (19.2 ZJ), with 11% of that just since 1900, and we’re continuing to burn it up at a rate of 1.5 billion tons per year (Smil, Houghton).

This ought to be enough to stop right here, but many readers will imagine that even a little biofuel will help, even if we can’t produce enough to live at the God-like level we do now.  But even a little won’t happen, because making biofuels is a loss of net energy, using more fossil fuel than the energy contained in the biofuel, as I explain in Part 3. Even those who have found a positive Energy Return on Invested (EROI) have come up with an average EROI of 1.2, and it takes an EROI of at least 7 (Weissbach et al. (2013), 11 (Murphy 2011), or 14 (Lambert et al. 2014) to maintain civilization as we know it.

But people argue endlessly about EROI because of the boundaries (do you include the energy to make the tractor that planted the corn or not?).

So if that doesn’t convince you, consider the loss of biodiversity, the destruction of fisheries, and how unsustainable growing crops is, from literally destroing the soil necessary to to grow crops in the first place, to the finite amount of phosphorous there is that can be mined for fertilizer.

Part 2.  The Dirt on Dirt.

Ethanol is an agribusiness get-rich-quick scheme that will bankrupt our topsoil.

Nineteenth century western farmers converted their corn into whiskey to make a profit (Rorabaugh 1979).  Archer Daniels Midland, a large grain processor, came up with the same scheme in the 20th century.  But ethanol was a product in search of a market, so ADM spent three decades relentlessly lobbying for ethanol to be used in gasoline. Today ADM makes record profits from ethanol sales and government subsidies (Barrionuevo 2006).

The Department of Energy hopes to have biomass supply 5% of the nation’s power, 20% of transportation fuels, and 25% of chemicals by 2030. These combined goals are 30% of the current petroleum consumption (DOE Biomass Plan, DOE Feedstock Roadmap).

Fuels made from biomass are a lot like the nuclear powered airplanes the Air Force tried to build from 1946 to 1961, for billions of dollars. They never got off the ground.  The idea was interesting – atomic jets could fly for months without refueling.  But the lead shielding to protect the crew and several months of food and water was too heavy for the plane to take off.  The weight problem, the ease of shooting this behemoth down, and the consequences of a crash landing were so obvious, it’s amazing the project was ever funded, let alone kept going for 15 years.

Biomass fuels have equally obvious and predictable reasons for failure. Odum says that time explains why renewable energy provides such low energy yields compared to non-renewable fossil fuels.  The more work left to nature, the higher the energy yield, but the longer the time required.  Although coal and oil took millions of years to form into dense, concentrated solar power, all we had to do was extract and transport them (Odum 1996)

With every step required to transform a fuel into energy, there is less and less energy yield.   For example, to make ethanol from corn grain, which is how all ethanol is made now, corn is first grown to develop hybrid seeds, which next season are planted, harvested, delivered, stored, and preprocessed to remove dirt.  Dry-mill ethanol is milled, liquefied, heated, saccharified, fermented, evaporated, centrifuged, distilled, scrubbed, dried, stored, and transported to customers (McAloon 2000).

Fertile soil will be destroyed if crops and other “wastes” are removed to make cellulosic ethanol. 

“We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends” (Sampson 1981).

Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less. Historically, it takes most civilizations 1500 years to exhaust their soils. Then they collapse (Montgomery 2007).

Loss of topsoil has been a major factor in the fall of civilizations (Sundquist 2005 Chapter 3, Lowdermilk 1953, Perlin 1991, Ponting 1993).  You end up with a country like Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, where 75% of the farm land is a salty desert.

Fuels from biomass are not sustainable, are ecologically destructive, have a net energy loss, and there isn’t enough biomass in America to make significant amounts of energy because essential inputs like water, land, fossil fuels, and phosphate ores are limited.

The real challenge with bioenergy, according to Timothy Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University, is that photosynthesis is extremely inefficient. “If you’re really lucky you get half a percent of the solar energy transformed into plant biomass. And eventually maybe a tenth or two-tenths of the original solar energy will end up  in delivered energy like electricity.” By contrast, a solar cell turns 10% of solar energy into electricity [50 to 100 times more than a plant does].

It takes a tremendous amount of land to make a small amount of bioenergy:

  • To provide 10% of the world’s transportation fuel by 2050 would require 36% of all of today’s crop production — less than 2% of the world’s delivered energy
  • To provide 20% of the world’s energy from biofuels would require all of the plants harvested today around the world for any purpose—all crops, all grasses eaten by livestock, all wood, and all crop residues.
  • Biofuels in use today—ethanol from corn, sugarcane, wheat, sugar beets, and other plants, and biodiesel from vegetable oils from such plants as soybeans and rapeseed are not very efficient in harvesting energy from the sun. Calculating efficiency in terms of how much energy is available from the biofuel versus how much energy was in the sunlight hitting the plants used to produce the biofuel, the efficiency of ethanol made from corn is only about 0.03 percent.
  • About 40% of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol, but that is a very small part of the nation’s overall energy use–about 1% of total U.S. energy and 4% by energy content—of the supply of transportation fuels.

Biofuels can release more carbon dioxide than gasoline and reduce soil carbon 

Biofuels made from corn stover — stalks, leaves and cobs that remain after harvest — emit more carbon dioxide over their life cycle than federal standards allow and 7% more than gasoline emmissions. The findings cast doubt on whether corn residue can be used to meet federal mandates to ramp up ethanol production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Liska 2014).

A human consumes about 2,000 kilocalories per day in food, he said, which is about 8,000 BTU. In 1800, that was what the average person had to work with. If they went to chop wood, they were using that 8,000 BTU as an investment to chop wood to get wood. Today people in North America use an average of 740,000 BTU per person each day. This staggering increase in energy consumption is what allows our modern lifestyle. About 60% of that daily energy usage is indirect—used to make the various items that people use in their lives, from smart phones and food to roads and buildings—and about half of individuals’ direct energy usages is for personal vehicles.

Soil Science 101 – There Is No “Waste” Biomass

Long before there was “Peak Oil”, there was “Peak Soil”. Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world.  In the past century, half of it’s been lost, from an average of 18 to 10 inches deep (Pate 2004, Klee 1991), or even more according to Needelman (2013) — in the 20th century, farming has caused soil to go from 14 to 18 inches down to 6 to 8 inches.

20 to 40 pounds of soil are eroded for every gallon of ethanol produced (Institute of Medicine 2014).

Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less, the average crop root zone depth (Sundquist 2005).

Crop productivity continually declines as topsoil is lost and residues are removed.  (Al-Kaisi May 2001, Ball 2005, Blanco-Canqui 2006, BOA 1986, Calviño 2003, Franzleubbers 2006, Grandy 2006, Johnson 2004, Johnson 2005, Miranowski 1984, Power 1998, Sadras 2001, Troeh 2005, Wilhelm 2004).

On over half of America’s best crop land, the erosion rate is 27 times the natural rate, 11,000 pounds per acre (NCRS 2006). The natural, geological erosion rate is about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005).  Some is due to farmers not being paid enough to conserve their land, but most is due to investors who farm for profit.  Erosion control cuts into profits.

Globally, Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney estimates that soil is being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it’s being geologically replenished, leaving around 60 years of topsoil left to be mined for food.  Already 40% of agricultural soil is classed as degraded or seriously degraded — 70% of the topsoil gone (WEC).

Farming methods have increased soil erosion to rates much greater than soil is formed — it can take up to 1,000 years to form 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) of soil (Wall and Six 2015).  Wall and Six go on to say that “Human activities have transformed soils,lands, and regions with long-lasting effects that include desertification, decreased organic matter in soils, altered biodiversity, and changed biogeochemical and hydrological cycles. As a result, the land available for food production is shrinking, irreversibly in some cases. Converting cropland to biofuel systems and urban centers is having the same effect.”

Iowa State scientists tracking soil erosion after storms believe that the true erosion rate is many times higher than estimates from the Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Department (EWG)
Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural processes (Pimentel 2006).  That might make the average person concerned.  But not the USDA — they’ve defined erosion as the average soil loss that could occur without causing a decline in long term productivity.

Troeh (2005) believes that the tolerable soil loss (T) value is set too high, because it’s based only on the upper layers — how long it takes subsoil to be converted into topsoil.  T ought to be based on deeper layers – the time for subsoil to develop from parent material or parent material from rock.  If he’s right, erosion is even worse than NCRS figures.

We’ve come a long way since the 1930’s in reducing erosion, but that only makes it more insidious.  Erosion is very hard to measure — very little soil might erode for years, and then tons per acre blown or washed away in an extreme storm just after harvest, before a cover crop has had a chance to protect the soil.  We need better ways of measuring and monitoring erosion, since estimates wildly differ (Trimble 2000).

Erosion removes the most fertile parts of the soil (USDA-ARS).  When you feed the soil with organic matter, you’re not feeding plants; you’re feeding the biota in the soil. Underground creatures and fungi break down fallen leaves and twigs into microscopic bits that plants can eat, and create tunnels air and water can infiltrate.  In nature there are no elves feeding (fertilizing) the wild lands.  When plants die, they’re recycled into basic elements and become a part of new plants.  It’s a closed cycle.  There is no bio-waste.

Soil creatures and fungi act as an immune system for plants against diseases, weeds, and insects – when this living community is harmed by agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, even more chemicals are needed in an increasing vicious cycle (Wolfe 2001).

There’s so much life in the soil, there can be 10 “biomass horses” underground for every horse grazing on an acre of pasture (Hemenway 2000). The June 2004 issue of Science calls soils “The Final Frontier”.  Just a tiny pinch of earth could have 10,000 different species (Wardle 2004) — millions of creatures, most of them unknown.  If you dove into the soil and swam around, you’d be surrounded by thousands of miles of thin strands of mycorrhizal fungi that help plant roots absorb more nutrients and water (Pennisi 2004).  As you swam along, plant roots would tower above you like trees as you wove through underground skyscrapers.

Plants and creatures underground need to drink, eat, and breathe just like we do.   An ideal soil is half rock, and a quarter each water and air.  When tractors plant and harvest, they crush the life out of the soil, as underground apartments collapse 9/11 style.   The tracks left by tractors in the soil are the erosion route for half of the soil that washes or blows away (Wilhelm 2004).

Corn Biofuel (i.e. butanol, ethanol, biodiesel) is especially harmful because:

  • Row crops like corn and soy cause 50 times more soil erosion than sod crops (Sullivan 2004) or more (Al-Kaisi 2000), because the soil between rows can wash or blow away. If corn is planted with last years corn stalks left on the ground (no-till), erosion is less of a problem, but only about 20% of corn is grown no-till.  Soy is usually grown no-till, but has insignificant residues to harvest for fuel.
  • Corn uses more water than most crops.  It takes about 118 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of corn, and 21 pounds of corn to make a gallon of ethanol.  So you’d need about 2.5 trillion gallons of water to make a billion gallons of ethanol, more than all the water southern California receives from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Sacramento Bee 2007).
  • In the life cycle of making corn ethanol, 99% of the water used grows the corn, only 1% is used in the industrial process.  From seed to fuel, this requires 1,500 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol.  In the industrial phase, cellulosic ethanol requires twice as much water.  California and other states that grow crops with irrigation rather than rain water would require displacing food crops with energy crops, and there already isn’t enough water for food, people, and fisheries (Fingerman 2008).
  • Corn uses more agrichemicals, and fertilizer than most crops (Padgitt 2000, Pimentel 2003). Due to high corn prices, continuous corn (corn crop after corn crop) is increasing, rather than rotation of nitrogen fixing (fertilizer) and erosion control sod crops with corn.
  • Corn plants are amazingly good at absorbing nitrogen from the soil and storing it in the grain itself. Thus, it takes a lot of fertilizer to replace that nitrogen, but if it rains after the application of fertilizer, down the Mississippi it goes. A large part of the problem with runoff of nitrogen (and soil) is because corn is known as a “leaky crop” because nutrients inevitably leak out because the land is bare half of each year (Institute of Medicine 2014).
  • The government has studied the effect of growing continuous corn, and found it increases eutrophication by 189%, global warming by 71%, and acidification by 6% (Powers 2005).  Production of ethanol results in 8 grams of nutrients  for every gallon of ethanol that ends up in the Gulf of Mexico (Institute of Medicine 2014).
  • Farmers want to plant corn on highly-erodible, water protecting, or wildlife sustaining Conservation Reserve Program land. Farmers are paid not to grow crops on this land. But with high corn prices, farmers are now asking the Agricultural Department to release them from these contracts so they can plant corn on these low-producing, environmentally sensitive lands (Tomson 2007).
  • Crop residues are essential for soil protection, nutrition, water retention, and soil carbon.  Making cellulosic ethanol from corn residues — the parts of the plant we don’t eat (stalk, roots, and leaves) – removes water, carbon, and nutrients (Nelson, 2002, McAloon 2000, Sheehan, 2003).

These practices lead to lower crop production and ultimately deserts. Growing plants for fuel will accelerate the already unacceptable levels of topsoil erosion, soil carbon and nutrient depletion, soil compaction, water retention, water depletion, water pollution, air pollution, eutrophication, destruction of fisheries, siltation of dams and waterways, salination, loss of biodiversity, and damage to human health  (Tegtmeier 2004).

Why are soil scientists absent from the biofuels debate?

I asked 35 soil scientists why topsoil wasn’t part of the biofuels debate.  These are just a few of the responses from the ten who replied to my off-the-record poll (no one wanted me to quote them, mostly due to fear of losing their jobs):

  • ”I have no idea why soil scientists aren’t questioning corn and cellulosic ethanol plans.  Quite frankly I’m not sure that our society has had any sort of reasonable debate about this with all the facts laid out.  When you see that even if all of the corn was converted to ethanol and that would not provide more than 20% of our current liquid fuel use, it certainly makes me wonder, even before considering the conversion efficiency, soil loss, water contamination, food price problems, etc.”
  • Biomass production is not sustainable. Only business men and women in the refinery business believe it is.
  • “Should we be using our best crop land to grow gasohol and contribute further to global warming?  What will our children grow their food on?”
  • “As agricultural scientists, we are programmed to make farmer’s profitable, and therefore profits are at the top of the list, and not soil, family, or environmental sustainability”.
  • “Government policy since WWII has been to encourage overproduction to keep food prices down (people with full bellies don’t revolt or object too much).  It’s hard to make a living farming commodities when the selling price is always at or below the break even point.  Farmers have had to get bigger and bigger to make ends meet since the margins keep getting thinner and thinner.  We have sacrificed our family farms in the name of cheap food.  When farmers stand to make few bucks (as with biofuels) agricultural scientists tend to look the other way”.
  • You are quite correct in your concern that soil science should be factored into decisions about biofuel production.  Unfortunately, we soil scientists have missed the boat on the importance of soil management to the sustainability of biomass production, and the long-term impact for soil productivity.

This is not a new debate.  Here’s what scientists had to say decades ago:

Removing “crop residues…would rob organic matter that is vital to the maintenance of soil fertility and tilth, leading to disastrous soil erosion levels.  Not considered is the importance of plant residues as a primary source of energy for soil microbial activity. The most prudent course, clearly, is to continue to recycle most crop residues back into the soil, where they are vital in keeping organic matter levels high enough to make the soil more open to air and water, more resistant to soil erosion, and more productive” (Sampson 1981).

“…Massive alcohol production from our farms is an immoral use of our soils since it rapidly promotes their wasting away.  We must save these soils for an oil-less future” (Jackson 1980).

Gasohol was made so poorly in the 80’s that the name was changed to ethanol.

What the USDA knew about continuous corn in 1911:

“When the rich, black, prairie corn lands of the Central West were first broken up, it was believed that these were … inexhaustible lands …  So crop after crop of corn was planted on the same fields.  There came a time, however, after 15 or 20 years, when the crop did not respond to cultivation; the yields fell off and the lands that once produced 60-70 bushels per acre annually dropped to 25 to 30 bushels.

…  With the passing years, the soil became more compact, droughts were more injurious, and the soil baked harder and was more difficult to handle. Continuous corn culture has no place in progressive farming…it is a shortsighted policy and is suicidal on lands that have been long under cultivation” (Smith 1911).

We’ve known for a long that biofuels can’t replace fossil fuels, because past civilizations with just millions, not billions of people fell when they cut their forests down to make warships, metals, bricks, ceramics, and other products, they fell (Perlin).

Worse yet, civilizations in the past could not grow with just their own agricultural production.  Growth depended on conquering other nations and enslaving their people, taking their surplus food, forests, gold, and other wealth. With these new resources, the army could be expanded further, and more nations conquered. When they could expand no more, they collapsed. This comes about partly because the government ignores the rural communities they depend on, and they resent not being part of the resource redistribution of conquered nations.  As they empire shrinks when conquests end, they are taxed more and more unbearably.  So when the barbarians invaded the Roman Empire, many rural areas welcomed this end of taxation — or they left to avoid being killed, which increased the empire’s economic foundation (Tainter 1988).

Sam Brody (1945) wrote: “It is said that we should use alcohol and vegetable oils after the petroleum energy has been exhausted.  This reminds one of Marie Antoinette’s advice to the Paris poor to eat cake when they had no bread”.

What Admiral Hyman G. Rickover knew in 1957 (Energy Resources & Our Future):

Farm wastes may be more urgently needed to fertilize the soil than to fuel machines. Wood fuel and farm wastes are dubious as substitutes because of growing food requirements to be anticipated. Land is more likely to be used for food production than for tree crops.

Deforestation not only lessens the energy base but has a further disastrous effect: lacking plant cover, soil washes away, and with soil erosion the nutritional base is reduced as well.

Another cause of declining civilization comes with pressure of population on available land. A point is reached where the land can no longer support both the people and their domestic animals.

There is absolute consensus among energy analysts that fossil fuels made modern civilization possible

According to Giampietro (2008): “In the community of energy analysts, there is absolute consensus that the major discontinuity in all major trends of human development — population, energy consumption per capita, technological progress associated with the Industrial Revolution was generated by the extremely high quality of fossil energy as a primary energy source, compared with biomass. The tremendousadvantage of fossil energy over alternative energy sources is easy to explain: when considering the energetic costs of the production of producing oil it’s almost nothing, the oil is already there” (unlike biofuels, which need to be produced).  Fossil fuels are a primary energy source, from which secondary energy gasoline and other products are produced.  Biofuels are not a primary source of energy, they need to be produced.  Therefore, the only energy carrier that could replace fossil fuels is a primary energy source of similar performance in terms of useful work per unit of primary energy consumed.  Anything less than that will cause a significant downturn.

Natural Gas in Agriculture

“Fertilizer energy” is 28% of the energy used in agriculture (Heller, 2000).  Fertilizer uses natural gas both as a feedstock and the source of energy to create the high temperatures and pressures necessary to coax inert nitrogen out of the air (nitrogen is often the limiting factor in crop production).

Fertilizers only replace nutrition.  They don’t provide the ecosystem services that organic matter does.  Organic matter is known as “waste” in the biofuels industry.

Organic matter slows erosion and fixes carbon in the soil.  Dead plants and the soil biota that feed on them create channels that let air and water get to plant roots, which breathe and drink just like we do.  The soil retains water, helping plants get through droughts.

Organic matter provides food for the soil biota, which provide an immune system for plants.  The mycorrhizal fungi in the soil provide plants extra nutrients and water in exchange for sugars.

Fertilizer not only provides no ecosystem services, it harms the ecosystem.  Fertilizer disables or kills some of the creatures in the soil web, which increases the need for agrichemicals in an increasingly vicious cycle.

Fertilizers increase global warming, acid rain, and eutrophication.

You can grow tomatoes on rocks if you dump enough fertilizer on them. But doing so depletes the soil, we mine it when we do this.

Fertilizer represents 28% of the energy used in agriculture.  So let me get this straight.  Fertilizers are made from and with natural gas which we’re dumping on crops to grow them for biofuel.  We’re going to take the biomass waste away, which means we’ll have to add even more fertilizer. How, exactly, does that lessen our dependence on fossil fuels?

OK, one good thing, sort of. Fertilizer is part of the green revolution that made it possible for the world’s population to grow from 1 billion to 7.1 billion people (Smil 2000, Fisher 2001).   Up to 6 billion are alive who otherwise wouldn’t be.  But natural gas is a finite resource on a finite planet, and is not easily imported, and despite all the hype about fracking in the United States, natural gas production is likely to peak 2015 to 2018 (Powers 2013). Discontinuities clearly lie ahead.

Our national security is at risk as we deplete our aquifers and become dependent on unstable foreign states to provide us with increasingly expensive fertilizer.  Between 1995 and 2005 we increased our fertilizer imports by more than 148% for Anhydrous Ammonia, 93% for Urea (solid), and 349 % of other nitrogen fertilizers (USDA ERS).  Removing crop residues will require large amounts of imported fertilizer from potential cartels, potentially so expensive farmers won’t sell crops and residues for biofuels.

Improve national security and topsoil by returning residues to the land as fertilizer. We are vulnerable to high-priced fertilizer imports or “food for oil”, which would greatly increase the cost of food for Americans.  Return crop residues to the soil to provide organic fertilizer, don’t increase the need for natural gas fertilizers by removing crop residues to make cellulosic biofuels.

Part 3. The Poop on Ethanol:

Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)

To understand the concept of EROEI, imagine a magician doing a variation on the rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick.  He strides onstage with a rabbit, puts it into a top hat, and then spends the next five minutes pulling 100 more rabbits out. That is a pretty good return on investment!

Oil was like that in the beginning: one barrel of oil energy was required to get 100 more out, an Energy Returned on Energy Invested of 100:1.

When the biofuel magician tries to do the same trick decades later, he puts the rabbit into the hat, and pulls out only one pooping rabbit.  The excrement is known as byproduct or coproduct in the ethanol industry.

Studies that show a positive energy gain for ethanol would have a negative return if the byproduct were left out (Farrell 2006).   Here’s where byproduct comes from: if you made ethanol from corn in your back yard, you’d dump a bushel of corn, two gallons of water, and yeast into your contraption.   Out would come 18 pounds of ethanol, 18 pounds of CO2, and 18 pounds of byproduct – the leftover corn solids.

Patzek and Pimentel believe you shouldn’t include the energy contained in the byproduct, because you need to return it to the soil to improve nutrition and soil structure (Patzek June 2006).  Giampetro believes the byproduct should be treated as a “serious waste disposal problem and … an energy cost”, because if we supplied 10% of our energy from biomass, we’d generate 37 times more livestock feed than is used (Giampetro 1997), “making it a serious environmental problem, a pollutant on the sink side, to which energy analysts need to associate an energetic and economic cost rather than a positive return.

Giampetro (2009) also says that if corn co-products are going to be included, and the huge land demand and ecological destruction ignored,  then the far more energetically valuable co-products of gasoline production and their very small land footprint need to be thrown into the balance, instead of just their CO2 emissions.  Scientists with a secret agenda of boosting the EROI of biofuels skew their results by “ignoring the co-products of gasoline production from oil, reducing the overall output/input ratio of gasoline).”

It’s even worse than he realized – Giampetro didn’t know most of this “livestock feed” can’t be fed to livestock because it’s too energy and monetarily expensive to deliver – especially heavy wet distillers byproduct, which is short-lived, succumbing to mold and fungi after 4 to 10 days. Also, byproduct is a subset of what animals eat.  Cattle are fed byproduct in 20% of their diet at most.  Iowa’s a big hog state, but commercial swine operations feed pigs a maximum of 5 to 10% byproduct (Trenkle 2006; Shurson 2003).

And above all, if the EROEI of biofuels was indeed positive enough to continue civilization to continue without fossil fuels, biofuels would be made out of biofuels as their energy source to plant, harvest, deliver to the biorefinery, and so on through delivery to the customer.  But all of this is done with fossil fuels!  Need I say more?

Antibiotic Resistance. You are probably aware that a crisis looms ahead as more and more microbes become antibiotic resistant.  A major way this is happening is from the healthy animals in factory farms, who consume 80% of all antibiotics to gain more weight and prevent disease.  They are also getting antibiotics from ethanol production. A byproduct is produced called Dried Distillers Grain (DDG), which is often contaminated with Lactobacilli which thrive in the ethanol mash it comes from. So ethanol producers add antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin to the fermentation tanks.  When factory farm animals eat DDG, they are also eating illegal antibiotics (Olmstead 2012, Laskawy 2012, McKenna 2012).

Worst of all, the EROEI of ethanol is 1.2:1 or 1.2 units of energy out for every unit of energy in, a gain of “.2”.  The “1” in “1.2” represents the liquid ethanol.  What is the “.2” then?  It’s the rabbit feces – the byproduct. So you have no ethanol for your car, because the liquid “1” needs to be used to make more ethanol.  That leaves you with just the “.2” — a bucket of byproduct to feed your horse – you do have a horse, don’t you?  If horses are like cattle, then you can only use your byproduct for one-fifth of his diet, so you’ll need four supplemental buckets of hay from your back yard to feed him.  No doubt the byproduct could be used to make other things, but that would take energy.

Byproduct could be burned, but it takes a significant amount of energy to dry it out, and requires additional handling and equipment.  More money can be made selling it wet to the cattle industry, which is hurting from the high price of corn.   Byproduct should be put back into the ground to improve soil nutrition and structure for future generations, not sold for short-term profit and fed to cattle who aren’t biologically adapted to eating corn.

The transportation fraction of the energy required to grow and deliver energy crops to a biorefinery is 7 to 26% for lignocellulosic crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus, and other forage or crop residues (Richard).

The boundaries of what is included in EROEI calculations are kept as narrow as possible to reach positive results.

Researchers who find a positive EROEI for ethanol have not accounted for all of the energy inputs.  For example, Shapouri admits the “energy used in the production of … farm machinery and equipment…, and cement, steel, and stainless steel used in the construction of ethanol plants, are not included”. (Shapouri 2002).  Or they assign overstated values of ethanol yield from corn (Patzek Dec 2006).  Many, many, other inputs are left out.

Patzek and Pimentel have compelling evidence showing that about 30 percent more fossil energy is required to produce a gallon of ethanol than you get from it.  Their papers are published in peer-reviewed journals where their data and methods are public, unlike many of the positive net energy results.

Infrastructure.  Current EROEI figures don’t take into account the delivery infrastructure that needs to be built.  There are 850 million combustion engines in the world today.  Just to replace half the 245 million cars and light trucks in the United States with E85 vehicles will take 12-15 years, It would take over $544 million dollars of delivery ethanol infrastructure (Reynolds 2002 case B1) and $5 to $34 billion to revamp 170,000 gas stations nationwide (Heinson 2007).

The EROEI of oil when we built most of the infrastructure in this country was about 100:1, and it’s about 25:1 worldwide now.  Even if you believe ethanol has a positive EROEI, you’d probably need at least an EROEI of at least 5 to maintain modern civilization (Hall 2003).  A civilization based on ethanol’s “.2” rabbit poop would only work for coprophagous rabbits.

Of the four articles that showed a positive net energy for ethanol in Farrells 2006 Science article, three were not peer-reviewed.   The only positive peer-reviewed article (Dias De Oliveira, 2005) states “The use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline proved to be neither a sustainable nor an environmentally friendly option” and the “environmental impacts outweigh its benefits”. Dias De Oliveria concluded there’d be a tremendous loss of biodiversity, and if all vehicles ran on E85 and their numbers grew by 4% per year, by 2048, the entire country, except for cities, would be covered with corn.

Part 4.  Do you want to eat, drive, or drink?

The energy to remediate environmental damage is left out of EROEI calculations.

Global Warming

Soils contain 3.3 times the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere, and 4.5 times more carbon than is stored in all the Earth’s vegetation (Lal 2004).

If we want to reduce global warming, storing carbon in the soil will be essential.  But that will be hard to pull off, because Climate change could increase soil loss by 33% to 274%, depending on the region (O’Neal 2005).

Worse yet, we keep building suburbia and shopping malls on top of crop land.

Population in the United States could reach over one billion people by 2100 (U.S. Census Bureau 2000), so what will happen is that we’ll need more crop land and have to cut down bottomland forests and fill in wetlands to grow food, which will reduce stored carbon and biodiversity even further.

Intensive agriculture has already removed 20 to 50% of the original soil carbon, and some areas have lost 70%. To maintain soil C levels, no crop residues at all could be harvested under many tillage systems or on highly erodible lands, and none to a small percent on no-till, depending on crop production levels (Johnson 2006).

Deforestation of temperate hardwood forests, and conversion of range and wetlands to grow energy and food crops increases global warming. An average of 2.6 million acres of crop land were paved over or developed every year between 1982 and 2002 in the USA (NCRS 2004). The only new crop land is forest, range, or wetland.

Rainforest destruction is increasing global warming.   Energy farming is playing a huge role in deforestion, reducing biodiversity, water and water quality, and increasing soil erosion. Fires to clear land for palm oil plantations are destroying one of the last great remaining rainforests in Borneo, spewing so much carbon that Indonesia is third behind the United States and China in releasing greenhouse gases.  Orangutans, rhinos, tigers and thousands of other species may be driven extinct (Monbiot 2005). Borneo palm oil plantation lands have grown 2,500% since 1984 (Barta 2006). Soybeans cause even more erosion than corn and suffer from all the same sustainability issues.  The Amazon is being destroyed by farmers growing soybeans for food (Wallace 2007) and fuel (Olmstead 2006).

Land Grabs.  Millions of acres of land are being stolen from local people by international corporations around the globe who bribe corrupt officials to grab land, decimate (rain)forests, and grow palm oil  after the land has been stripped bare.  This releases so much carbon dioxide from the loss of the trees and peat soils that crops are releasing far more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels (Pearce 2013, Institute of Medicine 2014). The effects are made worse by this land being converted to industrial agriculture practices which erode soil far faster than traditional organic farming, and pollute far more as well.

Biofuel from coal-burning biomass factories increases global warming (Farrell 2006).  Driving a mile on ethanol from a coal-using biorefinery releases more CO2 than a mile on gasoline (Ward 2007). Coal in ethanol production is seen as a way to displace petroleum (Farrell 2006, Yacobucci 2006) and it’s already happening (Clayton 2006).

Intensive nitrogen fertilizer use generates high amounts of emissions of nitrous oxide, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, worsening greenhouse gas emissions (Howarth).

Current and future quantities of biofuels are too minuscule to affect global warming  (ScienceDaily 2007).

Surface Albedo. “How much the sun warms our climate depends on how much sunlight the land reflects (cooling us), versus how much it absorbs (heating us). A plausible 2% increase in the absorbed sunlight on a switch grass plantation could negate the climatic cooling benefit of the ethanol produced on it. We need to figure out now, not later, the full range of climatic consequences of growing cellulose crops” (Harte 2007).

Soil Erosion  

There’s an ethanol gold rush going on.  More than half the best farmland in the United States is leased by investors. Two-thirds or more of the farmland in the corn and soy growing states of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana is rented (65, 74, 84, and 86% respectively).

Notice that these mostly investor-owned corn and soybean growing states, are mainly red in the map below.  Red represents the areas where farms have the highest erosion rates.

Corn and soy crops have higher erosion rates than most crops.  Storms and wind wash agrichemicals (sometimes highly toxic ones that haven’t had a chance to break down) and eroded soil into the air and water.  Sediment fills up reservoirs, shortening their life-span and the time dams can store water and generate electricity.  Yet the energy of the hydropower lost to siltation, energy to remediate flood damage, energy to dredge dams, agricultural drainage ditches, harbors, and navigation channels, aren’t considered in EROEI calculations.

Owners seeking short-term profits have far less incentive than farmers who work their land to preserve soil and water. They don’t adopt as long-term conservation measures as farm owner-operators do (ERS 1999).


The dark green areas of this map represent where the highest crop subsidy payments go and where the highest nitrogen runoff rates are. Notice that again, these areas correspond  with investor-owned farmland.  Commodity payments were meant to be a safety net, but the money ends up being used to buy and apply excess fertilizer, which gets into rivers, lakes, and oceans (Redlin 2007).

Farm runoff of nitrogen fertilizers has contributed to the pollution and hypoxia (low oxygen) of rivers and lakes across the country and the 8,000 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  Yet the cost of the lost shrimp and fisheries and increased cost of water treatment are not subtracted from the EROEI of ethanol.

Climate change also appears to be increasing runoff and erosion (SWCS 2003).

Excessive atmospheric nitrogen pollution from industrial farming practices threatens plant diversity. About a quarter of 15,000 sites across the United States are likely to lose species as a result of nitrogen pollution (Simkin 2016).

Water Pollution

Soil erosion is a serious source of water pollution, since it causes runoff of sediments, nutrients, salts, eutrophication, and chemicals that have had no chance to decompose into streams. This increases water treatment costs, increases health costs, kills fish with insecticides that work their way up the food chain (Troeh 2005).

Ethanol plants pollute water.  They generate 13 liters of wastewater for every liter of ethanol produced, yet more energy and a lowering of the overall EROEI (Pimentel March 2005)

Water depletion

Biofuel factories use a huge amount of water – four gallons for every gallon of ethanol produced.  Despite 30 inches of rain per year in Iowa, there may not be enough water for corn ethanol factories as well as people and industry. Drought years will make matters worse (Cruse 2006).

The facilities that produce ethanol require high-purity water, which is largely taken from confined aquifers, even in the rain-fed Midwest. Given the use of the water from the aquifers, there is clearly a certain amount of unsustainable pumping taking place, according to Jerald Schnoor.  In Iowa, for example, there are a large number of ethanol production plants, and the Cambrian- Ordovician aquifer, known as the Jordan aquifer, has been pumped down by 150 or 200 feet, so eventually future generations will not be able to use that aquifer (Institute of Medicine 2014).

Fifty percent of Americans rely on groundwater (Glennon 2002), and in many states, this groundwater is being depleted by agriculture faster than it is being recharged.  This is already threatening current food supplies (Giampetro 1997).  In some western irrigated corn acreage, groundwater is being mined at a rate 25% faster than the natural recharge of its aquifer (Pimentel 2003).

According to Vaclav Smil, “Corn irrigation is already the single largest user of underground water in the basin, and expansion of the corn-growing area into drier western fringes, or further intensification of corn production, would create additional demand for the mining of the already receding Ogallala aquifer”


To understand the earth’s overall capacity to produce bioenergy, it is useful to think in terms of its net primary productivity (NPP), which is “the amount of photosynthetic biomass available for exploitation by the biosphere.”  The earth’s NPP is staggeringly large—about 56 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year. It turns out that humans already use about 30% of NPP for food, fabrics, construction, and other uses. Any increase in the use of biofuels will require an increase in the amount of the earth’s NPP being appropriated for human use. And of course 100% of this NPP is already being used—if not by humans, then by various animals, fungi, bacteria, and other forms of life—so any increase in the human use of the NPP will take away from other ecosystem processes [and drive other species to extinction] (Institute of Medicine 2014).

Every acre of forest and wetland converted to crop land decreases soil biota, insect, bird, reptile, and mammal biodiversity.

Honeybees.  Springtime die-offs of honeybees from corn coated with insecticides was discovered in January 2012.  Bees are critical for pollinating food crops — these deaths are a part of the mysterious colony collapse disorder (Tapparo).

Part 5.   Biodiesel: Can we eat enough French Fries?

The idea we could run our economy on discarded fried food grease is very amusing.  For starters, you’d need to feed 7 million heavy diesel trucks getting less than 8 mpg. Seems like we’re all going to need to eat a lot more French Fries, but if anyone can pull it off, it would be Americans. Spin it as a patriotic duty and you’d see people out the door before the TV ad finished, the most popular government edict ever.

Scale. Where’s the Soy? Biodiesel is not ready for prime time.  In 2006, John Deere was working on fuel additives and technologies that would allow their equipment to burn more than 5% accredited biodiesel  (made to ASTM D6751 specifications – vegetable oil does not qualify). In 2016 John Deere allows up to B20:

“All John Deere engines can use biodiesel blends. B5 blends are preferred, but concentrations up to 20 percent (B20) can be used providing the biodiesel used in the fuel blend meets the standards set by the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) D6751 or European Standard (EN) 14214.

John Deere engines with exhaust filters should not use biodiesel blends above B20. Concentrations above B20 may harm the engine’s emissions control system. Specific risks include, but are not limited to, more frequent regeneration, soot accumulation, and increased intervals for ash removal. For these engines, John Deere-approved fuel conditioners containing detergent/dispersant additives are required when using B20, and recommended when using lower biodiesel blends.” 

52 billion gallons of diesel fuel are consumed a year in the United States, but only 75 million gallons of biodiesel were produced – two-tenths of one percent of what’s needed.  To get the country to the point where gasoline was mixed with 5 percent biodiesel would require 64 percent of the soybean crop and 71,875 square miles of land (Borgman 2007), an area the size of the state of Washington.  Soybeans cause even more erosion than corn.

But not to worry, a lot is being grown in Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest is being cut down to grow it.

Biodiesel shortens engine life. Currently, biodiesel concentrations higher than 5 percent can cause “water in the fuel due to storage problems, foreign material plugging filters…, fuel system seal and gasket failure, fuel gelling in cold weather, crankcase dilution, injection pump failure due to water ingestion, power loss, and, in some instances, can be detrimental to long engine life” (Borgman 2007).  Biodiesel also has a short shelf life and it’s hard to store – it easily absorbs moisture (water is a bane to combustion engines), oxidizes, and gets contaminated with microbes.  It increases engine NOx emissions (ozone) and has thermal degradation at high temperatures (John Deere 2006).

On the cusp of energy descent, we can’t even run the most vital aspect of our economy, agricultural machines, on “renewable” fuels.  John Deere tractors can run on no more than 5% accredited biodiesel (Borgman 2007).   Perhaps this is unintentionally wise – biofuels have yet to be proven viable, and mechanization may not be a great strategy in a world of declining energy.

Soybeans are the main source of biodiesel, but the food and soap/detergent industries also buy soybeans, driving the price up.  There is limited land to grow soybeans and other oily crops on, which limit production, according to DOE and USDA. As a result, experts believe that the total production capacity of biodiesel is ultimately limited compared with other alternative fuels (USGAO).

Part 6.  If we can’t drink and drive, then burn baby burn.

Energy Crop Combustion.

Wood is a crop, subject to the same issues as corn, and takes a lot longer to grow.  Burning wood in your stove at home delivers far more energy than the logs would if converted to biofuels (Pimentel 2005).  Wood was scarce in America when there were just 75 million people.  Electricity from biomass combustion is not economic or sustainable.

The immediate crisis is the need for a liquid fuel to substitute for oil or we can’t plant and harvest crops or transport goods, which would cause civilization to collapse.  The only liquid fuels possible are liquified coal, Natural Gas Liquids, or biofuels.  Burning biomass doesn’t do that — it only generates electricity.

Combustion pollution is expensive to control.  Some biomass has absorbed heavy metals and other pollutants from sources like coal power plants, industry, and treated wood. Combustion can release chlorinated dioxins, benzofurans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel, and zinc.

Combustion contributes to global warming by adding nitrogen oxides and the carbon stored in plants back into the atmosphere, as well as removes agriculturally essential nitrogen and phosphate (Reijnders 2006)

EROEI in doubt. Combustion plants need to produce, transport, prepare, dry, burn, and control toxic emissions.  Collection is energy intensive, requiring some combination of bunchers, skidders, whole-tree choppers, or tub grinders, and then hauling it to the biomass plant.   There, the feedstock is chopped into similar sizes and placed on a conveyor belt to be fed to the plant.  If biomass is co-fired with coal, it needs to be reduced to ¼ inch or less, and the resulting fly ash may not be marketable to the concrete industry (Bain 2003).  Any alkali or chlorine released in combustion gets deposited on the equipment, reducing overall plant efficiencies, as well as accelerating corrosion and erosion of plant components, requiring high replacement and maintenance energy.

Processing materials with different physical properties is energy intensive, requiring sorting, handling, drying, and chopping.  It’s hard to optimize the pyrolysis, gasification, and combustion processes if different combustible fuels are used. Urban waste requires a lot of sorting, since it often has material that must be removed, such as rocks, concrete and metal.  The material that can be burned must also be sorted, since it varies from yard trimmings with high moisture content to chemically treated wood.

Biomass combustion competes with other industries that want this material for construction, mulch, compost, paper, and other profitable ventures, often driving the price of wood higher than a wood-burning biomass plant can afford. Much of the forest wood that could be burned is inaccessible due to a lack of roads.

Efficiency is lowered if material with a high water content is burned, like fresh wood. Different physical and chemical characteristics in fuel can lead to control problems (Badger 2002).   When wet fuel is burned, so much energy goes into vaporizing the water that very little energy emerges as heat, and drying takes time and energy.

Material is limited and expensive. California couldn’t use crop residues due to low bulk density. In 2000, the viability of California biomass enterprise was in serious doubt because the energy to produce biomass was so high due to the small facilities and high cost of collecting and transporting material to the plants (Bain 2003).

Scale. The largest biomass plants burn wood and rarely reach even 50 MW in size. Coal plants are often 1,500 MW.  This is because of “the high cost of transporting low-energy-content biomass. A maximum 40-mile radius for the resource base is typical. And as a consequence of these sizes, biopower plants are typically less efficient than fossil fuel plants are; the cost of implementing high-efficiency technologies is not economically justified at small scales.” (NAS 2009)

Part 7. The problems with Cellulosic Ethanol could drive you to drink.

Many plants want animals to eat their seed and fruit to disperse them.  Some seeds only germinate after going through an animal gut and coming out in ready-made fertilizer.   Seeds and fruits are easy to digest compared to the rest of the plant, that’s why all of the commercial ethanol and biodiesel are made from the yummy parts of plants, the grain, rather than the stalks, leaves, and roots.

But plants don’t want to be entirely devoured.  They’ve spent hundreds of millions of years perfecting structures that can’t easily be eaten.  Be thankful plants figured this out, or everything would be mown down to bedrock.

If we ever did figure out how to break down cellulose in our back yard stills, it wouldn’t be long before the 6.5 billion people on the planet destroyed the grasslands and forests of the world to power generators and motorbikes (Huber 2006)

Don Augenstein and John Benemann, who’ve been researching biofuels for over 30 years, are skeptical as well. According to them, “…severe barriers remain to ethanol from lignocellulose. The barriers look as daunting as they did 30 years ago”.

Benemann says the EROEI can be easily determined to be about 5 times as much energy required to make cellulosic ethanol than the energy contained in the ethanol.

The success of cellulosic ethanol depends on finding or engineering organisms that can tolerate extremely high concentrations of ethanol. Augenstein argues that this creature would already exist if it were possible. Organisms have had a billion years of optimization through evolution to develop a tolerance to high ethanol levels (Benemann 2006).  Someone making beer, wine, or moonshine would have already discovered this creature if it could exist.

The range of chemical and physical properties in biomass, even just corn stover (Ruth 2003, Sluiter 2000), is a challenge.  It’s hard to make cellulosic ethanol plants optimally efficient, because processes can’t be tuned to such wide feedstock variation.

It’s May 2016, and there’s still no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol, yet 16 billion gallons were supposed to be produced by 2022 (Rapier 2016).

Perhaps this is why British Petroleum has backed out of their $350 million dollar partnership with the University of California Energy Biosciences Institute. BP’s decision targets one area of research in particular—lignocellulosic (LC) biofuel technology and announced a company-wide policy to shift away from research in LC fuels. Skepticism about commercial biofuels persists. A new report from the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, said that “Even assuming large increases in efficiency, the quest for bioenergy at a meaningful scale is both unrealistic and unsustainable.”  And that claims about the benefits of biofuels have been greatly exaggerated. Especially when it comes the impossibly enormous amount of plant-based materials needed to make biofuels, which would consume valuable agricultural land that would be put to better use growing crops to feed the planet’s surging population (Neumann 2015).

In 2015, Texas-based KiOR filed for bankruptcy. To help pay off the enormous debt of their failed Columbus, Mississippi biofuel plant which cost $230 million to construct, its equipment is being sold.  Taxpayers are unlikely to be reimbursed the $79 million that the state OF Mississippe lent and the $1.1 million owed in property taxes. The plant failed in turning wood chips into a crude oil substitute because of problems that plagued its production process. The state of Mississippi is also trying to recover its debt through KiOR’s bankruptcy case in Delaware, and through a lawsuit that claims KiOR investor Vinod Khosla and others knew KiOR had limited chances for success but defrauded Mississippi into loaning $75 million to the company anyway (AP 2015).

Green Fuel Nordic is trying to convert wood to pyrolysis fuels, which has proven difficult so far because wood has tar, which is a gummy residue of long-chain molecules that are hard to refine.  Another concern is oxygen, abundant in all biomass which causes problems when oxygen reacts with pyrolysis oil and forms organic acids that can corrode refinery equipment severely (Krieger 2014).

Where will the Billion Tons of Biomass for Cellulosic Fuels Come From?

Not from Algae, that’s for sure.  There are dozens of reasons why algae will never be a source of biofuel.

The government believes there is a billion tons of biomass “waste” to make cellulosic biofuels, chemicals, and generate electricity with.

The United States lost 59,334,800 million acres of cropland between 1982 and 2010 (NCRS 2013).  At that rate, all of the cropland will be gone in 170 years, and 900 years from now all remaining rural non-federal acres will be buried by development:

Non-federal Land USA Cropland Acres Prime Cropland acres (a) Developed Land CRP 1992 Acres Pasture Acres
1982 420,227,000 227,682,600 70,000,000 34,091,100 131,533,300
2010 360,892,200 201,864,200 113,000,000 26,610,100 120,449,900
acres lost 59,334,800 25,818,400 43,000,000 7,481,000 11,083,400
percent -14% -11% 61% -22% -8.40%
Non-federal Land USA Range Acres Water Erosion tons/ acre (b) Wind Erosion tons/ acre (c) Total Rural non-federal acres
1982 419,127,000 4.37 3.63 1,424,008,100
2010 409,092,700 3.08 2.34 1,377,424,600
acres lost 10,034,300 46,583,500
percent -2.40% -3.3

(a) page 111
(b) page 129 Table 13. Estimated average annual sheet and rill erosion on non-Federal rural land, by State and year Tons per acre per year
(c) page 147 Table 14. Estimated average annual wind erosion on non-Federal rural land, by State and year Tons per acre per year

There isn’t enough biomass to replace 30% of our petroleum use.  The potential biomass energy is miniscule compared to the fossil fuel energy we consume every year, about 105 exa joules (EJ) in the USA.  If you burned every living plant and its roots, you’d have 94 EJ of energy and we could all pretend we lived on Mars.  Most of this 94 EJ of biomass is already being used for food and feed crops, and wood for paper and homes. Sparse vegetation and the 30 EJ in root systems are economically unavailable – leaving only a small amount of biomass unspoken for (Patzek June 2006).

Over 25% of the “waste” biomass is expected to come from 280 million tons of corn stover. Stover is what’s left after the corn grain is harvested.  Another 120 million tons will come from soy and cereal straw (DOE Feedstock Roadmap, DOE Biomass Plan).

There isn’t enough no-till corn stover to harvest.  The success of biofuels depends on corn residues.  About 80% of farmers disk corn stover into the land after harvest. That renders it useless — the crop residue is buried in mud and decomposing rapidly.

Only the 20 percent of farmers who farm no-till will have stover to sell.  The DOE Billion Ton vision assumes all farmers are no-till, 75% of residues will be harvested, and fantasy corn and wheat yields 50% higher than now are reached (DOE Billion Ton Vision 2005).  But none of this corn stover should be harvested because corn loses more soil than any other crop grown (Pimentel 2007).

Many tons will never be available because farmers won’t sell any, or much of their residue (certainly not 75%). “Many predictions imagine that farmers will be willing to sell cellulosic biomass for the order of $40 or $50 a ton. Today, they can get $200 a ton for hay.” Given the difference, it is unlikely that many farmers will switch over from hay to cellulosic biomass (Institute of Medicine 2014)

Many more tons will be lost due to drought, rain, or loss in storage.

Only half a percent of a plant can be harvested sustainably every year.  Plants only fix a tiny part of solar energy into plant matter annually — about one-tenth to one-half of one percent new growth in temperate climates.

To prevent erosion, you could only harvest 51 million tons of corn and wheat residues, not 400 million tons (Nelson, 2002).  Other factors, like soil structure, soil compression, water depletion, and environmental damage weren’t considered. Fifty one million tons of residue could make about 3.8 billion gallons of ethanol, less than 1% of our energy needs.

Using corn stover is a  problem, because corn, soy, and other row crops cause 50 times more soil erosion than sod crops (Sullivan 2004) or more (Al-Kaisi 2000), and corn also uses more water, insecticides and fertilizers than most crops (Pimentel 2003)

The amount of soy and cereal straw (wheat, oats, etc) is insignificant.  It would be best to use cereal grain straw, because grains use far less water and cause far less erosion than row crops like corn and soybeans.  But that isn’t going to happen, because the green revolution fed billions more people by shortening grain height so that plant energy went into the edible seed, leaving little straw for biofuels.  Often 90% of soybean and cereal straw is grown no-till, but the amount of cereal straw is insignificant and the soybean residues must remain on the field to prevent erosion

Energy Crops

Energy crops are grown specifically for their fuel value.  Tall perennial grasses such as switchgrass and miscanthus are being proposed as potential energy crops.  Although grasses cause less erosion and need less fertilizer, they still suffer from the problems that all plants have:

  • Most non-food energy crops require as much water as corn, per unit weight (Pimentel 2007).  And they need a lot of water to be processed into a biofuel.  The Great Plains are the most likely place energy crops would be planted.  Yet the Ogallala aquifer is depleting fast and won’t replenish until after the next ice age.  Where’s the water to process tall grass prairies into biofuels going to come from?
  • Plants have low density compared to fossil fuels.  If you try to pelletize or compact them, that takes energy, and they’re still low density.   Hay bales are like mattresses – you can only get so many on a truck, and you can’t force them into a pipeline, which would be far less expensive.
  • The larger the biorefinery, the better the economies of scale.  Biofuels need to be created at a large scale for any hope of a positive energy balance and enough purity to be used in combustion engines, which are extremely fine-tuned for diesel or gasoline, fuel injection, etc.
  • Plants aren’t concentrated – they grow diffusely and require a great deal of energy to harvest and deliver to the refinery.
  • Plants are hard to store. They rot and turn into mulch or can catch on fire. Storing them wet adds weight, leading to higher transportation costs and high water use.
  • All plants succumb to pests and disease.  Miscanthus is from China, but eventually pests will evolve to dine upon it, especially if grown in monocrops.

Poor, erodible land. There aren’t enough acres of land to grow significant amounts of energy crops.  Potential energy crop land is usually poor quality or highly erodible land that shouldn’t be harvested.  Farmers are often paid not to farm this unproductive land.  Many acres in switchgrass are being used for wildlife and recreation.

Few suitable bio-factory sites. Biorefineries can’t be built just anywhere – very few sites could be found to build switchgrass plants in all of South Dakota (Wu 1998).  Much of the state didn’t have enough water or adequate drainage to build an ethanol factory.  The sites had to be on main roads, near railroad and natural gas lines, out of floodplains, on parcels of at least 40 acres to provide storage for the residues, have electric power, and enough biomass nearby to supply the plant year round.

No energy crop farmers or investors. Farmers won’t grow switchgrass until there’s a switchgrass plant. Machines to harvest and transport switchgrass efficiently don’t exist yet (Barrionuevo 2006). The capital to build switchgrass plants won’t materialize until there are switchgrass farmers.   Since “ethanol production using switchgrass required 50% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced” (Pimentel 2005), investors for these plants will be hard to find.

Energy crops are subject to Liebig’s law of the minimum too. Switchgrass may grow on marginal land, but it hasn’t escaped the need for minerals and water.  Studies have shown the more rainfall, the more switchgrass you get, and if you remove switchgrass, you’re going to need to fertilize the land to replace the lost biomass, or you’ll get continually lower yields of switchgrass every time you harvest the crop (Vogel 2002).

Bioinvasive Potential. These fast-growing disease-resistant plants are potentially bioinvasive, another kudzu.   Bioinvasion costs our country billions of dollars a year (Bright, 1998).  Johnson grass was introduced as a forage grass and it’s now an invasive weed in many states.  Another fast-growing grass, Miscanthus, from China, is now being proposed as a biofuel.  It’s been described as “Johnson grass on steroids” (Raghu 2006). These foreign grasses do quite well because they don’t have any pests, yet.

Sugar cane: too little to import.  Brazil uses oil for 90% of their energy, and 17 times less oil (Jordan 2006). Brazilian ethanol production in 2003 was 3.3 billion gallons, about the same as the USA in 2004, or 1% of our transportation energy.  Brazil uses 85% of their cane ethanol, leaving only 15% for export.

Sugar Cane: can’t grow it here. Although we grow some sugar cane despite tremendous environmental damage (WWF) in Florida thanks to the sugar lobby, we’re too far north to grow a significant amount of sugar cane or other fast growing C4 plants.

Sugar cane has been touted as an “all you need is sunshine” plant.  But according to the FAO, the nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium requirements of sugar cane are roughly similar to maize (FAO 2004).

Wood ethanol is an energy sink.  Ethanol production using wood biomass required 57% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced (Pimentel 2005).

Wood is a nonrenewable resource.  Old-growth forests had very dense wood, with a high energy content, but wood from fast-growing plantations is so low-density and low calorie it’s not even good to burn in a fireplace.  These plantations require energy to plant, fertilize, weed, thin, cut, and deliver.  The trees are finally available for use after 20 to 90 years – too long for them to be considered a renewable fuel (Odum 1996). Nor do secondary forests always come back with the vigor of the preceding forest due to soil erosion, soil nutrition depletion, and mycorrhizae destruction (Luoma 1999).

There’s not enough wood to fuel a civilization of 300 million people. Over half of North America was deforested by 1900, at a time when there were only 75 million people (Williams 2003). Most of this was from home use. In the 18th century the average Northeastern family used 10 to 20 cords per year. At least one acre of woods is required to sustainably harvest one cord of wood (Whitney 1994).

Energy crop limits. Energy crops may not be sustainable due to water, fertilizer, and harvesting impacts on the soil (DOE Biomass Roadmap 2005). Like all other monoculture crops, ultimately yields of energy crops will be reduced due to “pest problems, diseases, and soil degradation” (Giampetro, 1997).

Energy crop monoculture.   Thephysical and chemical characteristics of feedstocks vary by source, by year, and by season, increasing processing costs” (DOE Feedstock Roadmap).  That will encourage the development of genetically engineered biomass to minimize variation.  Harvesting economies of scale will mean these crops will be grown in monoculture, just as food crops are.  That’s the wrong direction – to farm with less energy there’ll need to be a return to rotation of diverse crops, and composted residues for soil nutrition, pest, and disease resistance.

A way around this would be to spend more on researching how cellulose digesting microbes tackle different herbaceous and woody biomass.  The ideal energy crop would be a perennial, tall-grass prairie / herbivore ecosystem (Tilman 2006).  Tilman recommends harvesting “all grassland in the U.S. for ethanol but neglects to report that 100 million cattle, 7 million sheep, and 4 million horses are currently grazing on this grass!” (Pimentel 2007)

Farmers aren’t Stupid: They won’t sell their residues

Farmers are some of the smartest people on earth or they’d soon go out of business.  They have to know everything from soil science to commodity futures.

Crop production is reduced when residues are removed from the soil.  Why would farmers want to sell their residues?    

Erosion, water, compression, nutrition. Harvesting of stover on the scale needed to fuel a cellulosic industry won’t happen because farmers aren’t stupid, especially the ones who work their own land.  Although there is a wide range of opinion about the amount of residue that can be harvested safely without causing erosion, loss of soil nutrition, and soil structure, many farmers will want to be on the safe side, and stick with the studies showing that 20% (Nelson, 2002) to 30% (McAloon et al., 2000; Sheehan, 2003) at most can be harvested, not the 75% agribusiness claims is possible.  Farmers also care about water quality (Lal 1998, Mann et al, 2002).  And farmers will decide that permanent soil compression is not worth any price (Wilhelm 2004).  As prices of fertilizer inexorably rise due to natural gas depletion, it will be cheaper to return residues to the soil than to buy fertilizer.

Residues are a headache.  The further the farmer is from the biorefinery or railroad, the slimmer the profit, and the less likely a farmer will want the extra headache and cost of hiring and scheduling many different harvesting, collection, baling, and transportation contractors for corn stover.

Residues are used by other industries. Farm managers working for distant owners are more likely to sell crop residues since they’re paid to generate profits, not preserve land.  But even they will sell to the highest bidder, which might be the livestock or dairy industries, furfural factories, hydromulching companies, biocomposite manufacturers, pulp mills, or city dwellers faced with skyrocketing utility bills, since the high heating value of residue has twice the energy of the converted ethanol.

Investors aren’t stupid either. If farmers can’t supply enough crop residues to fuel the large biorefinery in their region, who will put up the capital to build one?

Can the biomass be harvested, baled, stored, and transported economically?

Plants are closer to cotton candy than rocks. The oil to harvest, bale, deliver, clean, and store these straw pillows is likely to use more energy than the cellulosic fuels created.

Harvesting.  Sixteen ton tractors harvest corn and spit out stover.  Many of these harvesters are contracted and will continue to collect corn in the limited harvest time, not stover.  If tractors are still available, the land isn’t wet, snow doesn’t fall, and the stover is dry, three additional tractor runs will mow, rake, and bale the stover (Wilhelm 2004).  This will triple the compaction damage to the soil (Troeh 2005), create more erosion-prone tire tracks, increase CO2 emissions, add to labor costs, and put unwanted foreign matter into the bale (soil, rocks, baling wire, etc).

So biomass roadmaps call for a new type of tractor or attachment to harvest both corn and stover in one pass.  But then the tractor would need to be much larger and heavier, which could cause decades-long or even permanent soil compaction.  Farmers worry that mixing corn and stover might harm the quality of the grain.  And on the cusp of energy descent, is it a good idea to build an even larger and more complex machine?

If the stover is harvested, the soil is now vulnerable to erosion if it rains, because there’s no vegetation to protect the soil from the impact of falling raindrops.  Rain also compacts the surface of the soil so that less water can enter, forcing more to run off, increasing erosion. Water landing on dense vegetation soaks into the soil, increasing plant growth and recharging underground aquifers.  The more stover left on the land, the better.

Baling. The current technology to harvest residues is to put them into bales of hay. Hay is a dangerous commodity — it can spontaneously combust, and once on fire, can’t be extinguished, leading to fire loss and increased fire insurance costs.  Somehow the bales have to be kept from combusting during the several months it takes to dry them from 50 to 15 percent moisture.  A large, well drained, covered area is needed to vent fumes and dissipate heat. If the bales get wet they will compost (Atchison 2004).

Baling was developed for hay and has been adapted to corn stover with limited success.  Biorefineries need at least half a million tons of biomass on hand to smooth supply bumps, much greater than any bale system has been designed for.  Pelletization is not an option, it’s too expensive.  Other options need to be found. (DOE Feedstock Roadmap)

To get around the problems of exploding hay bales, wet stover could be collected. The moisture content needs to be around 60 percent, which means a lot of water will be transported, adding significantly to the delivery cost.

25% of switchgrass and corn stover are lost during the harvesting and baling as well as a great deal of energy in each step (Ruth 2013).

Step Equipment DM tons/ acre SW Energy used Mbtu/ DM ton SW DM tons/ acre CS Energy used Mbtu/ DM ton CS
1 180 HP tractor & 15-ft flail shredder w/Windrower NA NA 3 50.1
2 self-propelled Windrower with Disc Header 5 30.9 NA NA
3 275 HP tractor & large square baler 4 61.2 2.4 61.2
4 self-propelled Loader 4 13.7 2.4 13.7
5 self-propelled Stacker 4 25.4 2.4 25.4
6 Weather protection 4 0 2.4 0
7 self-propelled loader 3.8 12.4 2.28 12.4
Total 24% loss of switchgrass and corn stover -1.2 143.6 -0.72 162.8

Storage. Stover needs to be stored with a moisture content of 15% or less, but it’s typically 35-50%, and rain or snow during harvest will raise these levels even higher (DOE Feedstock Roadmap).  If it’s harvested wet anyhow, there’ll be high or complete losses of biomass in storage (Atchison 2004).

After catastrophic fires, the pulp industry learned to only use wet feedstock.  If residues are stored wet, as in ensilage, a great deal of R&D will be needed to see if there are disease, pest, emission, runoff, groundwater contamination, dust, mold, or odor control problems.  The amount of water required is unknown. The transit time must be short, or aerobic microbial activity will damage it.  At the storage site, the wet biomass must be immediately washed, shredded, and transported to a drainage pad under a roof for storage, instead of baled when drier and left at the farm.  The wet residues are heavy, making transportation costlier than for dry residues, perhaps uneconomical. It can freeze in the winter making it hard to handle.  If the moisture is too low, air gets in, making aerobic fermentation possible, resulting in molds and spoilage.

Delivery to the biorefinery and preprocessing 

Although a 6,000 dry ton per day biorefinery would have 33% lower costs than a 2,000 ton factory, it’s impossible to build biorefineries to optimal scale, because the price of gas and diesel limits the distance trucks can haul biomass to the biofuel refinery from farms, since the bales are large in volume but low in density.

So the “economy of scale” achieved by a very large refinery has to be reduced to a 2,000 dry ton per day biorefinery.   Even this smaller refinery would require 200 trucks per hour delivering biomass during harvest season (7 x 24), or 100 trucks per day if satellite sites for storage are used.  This plant would need 90% of the no-till crop residues from the surrounding 7,000 square miles with half the farmers participating.  Yet less than 20% of farmers practice no-till corn and not all of the farmland is planted in corn. When this biomass is delivered to the biorefinery, it will take up at least 100 acres of land stacked 25 feet high.

The average stover haul to the biorefinery would be 43 miles one way if these rosy assumptions all came true (Perlack 2002).   If less than 30% of the stover is available, the average one-way trip becomes 100 miles and the biorefinery is economically impossible.

Step Equipment Energy used Mbtu/ DM ton SW Energy used Mbtu/ DM ton CS
1 3-Axle daycab tractor with 53-ft flat bed trailer 12.6 12.6
2 Truck Scale (weighing) 0 0
3 Unloading 12.4 12.4
4 Loading (to grinder) 5.1 5.7
5 Grinder in-feed system (conveyer) 6.1 6.1
6 Horizontal Grinder 125 125
7 Wernerberg 1/4 Grinder 90.9 45.4
Dust collection system 76.5 76.5
Surge Bin and conveying system 6.2 6.1
Total 322.1 277.2

Source: (Ruth 2013).  Too many steps each using too much energy. You can see the EROI eroding.

Delivery to Customer (also see Biofuel distribution wastes valuable diesel fuel)

Ethanol can’t be delivered in the most efficient, least costly way: by pipeline, because of the presence of water in pipelines which ethanol would absorb, and ruin any combustion engine that tried to burn it, plus it’s corrosive and can damage seals, gaskets, and other equipment and induce stress-corrosion cracking in high-stress areas.  If ethanol were used at concentrations over 20%, a new infrastructure for ethanol’s transport and distribution plus many refueling stations would need to be built (NAC 2009).

It takes an enormous amount of energy to deliver mid western ethanol to the East and West coast by train, barge, and truck.  Although biobutanol could be put into pipelines, it does not provide the same octane enhancement of ethanol.  If you tried to work around all the difficulties of various biofuels by giving each one its own transportation infrastructures, that would become a constraint in and of itself.

That’s why biorefineries must exist in an area of dense roads. Railroad delivery is ideal, but 40% of train cars are carrying coal on many routes, and other just-in-time products, or produce that might spoil if the train stopped and started often enough to pick up biomass (it’s expensive energy-wide to stop and start trains). The outer distance for truck delivery can’t be too far or the oil used makes it uneconomic.

There is also a shortage of truck drivers, the rail system can’t handle any new capacity, and trains are designed to operate between hubs, not intermodally (truck to train to truck). The existing transportation system has not changed much in 30 years, yet this congested, inadequate infrastructure somehow has to be used to transport huge amounts of ethanol, biomass, and byproducts (Haney 2006).

In Summary: Plants are Hard to Make into Fuels

  • Not enough water for people, industry, and biofuel refineries now. By 2100, the U.S. Census projects potentially 1.1 billion people in the United States.
  • Plants have low density. They’re like big mattresses when you bunch them up into bales.  If you try to compact them further by turning them into pellets, it takes so much energy that you’re entering negative energy land.
  • Truck transportation is expensive compared to pipelines. You can’t stuff plant mattresses into a pipe – you have to load them onto oil-burning trucks, nor can you load them up with as many as you’d like, because they take up a lot of space.
  • Plants grow diffusely across the landscape — a biorefinery needs plants delivered from the surrounding 7,000 or more square miles for a 2,000 ton/day refinery.
  • Every processing step takes energy. Plants must be planted, harvested, delivered, stored, milled, liquefied, heated, saccharified, fermented, evaporated, centrifuged, distilled, scrubbed, dried, stored, and transported to customers.
  • Biorefineries need to be enormous for economies of scale –100 acres of hay stacked 25 feet high.
  • You can’t do this at home – biofuels need to be pure or combustion engine life may be shortened, and used within 3 months before microbes chew them up.   Some of the gasohol made in the 1980’s had so much water in it that gasohol got a bad name, that’s why it’s called ethanol in it’s new reincarnation.
  • Plants are hard to store. They rot and turn into mulch or can catch on fire.  If stored wet, that adds to transportation costs and water use at the storage site.

As a systems architect and engineer, I looked at projects from start to end, trying to identify the failure points.   The Department of Energy Biomass Roadmaps and the Energy Biosciences Institute Proposal have taken a similar approach and identified the barriers to cellulosic fuels.

All of the steps from A to Z must succeed or a project fails.  Just solving the cellulosic issues within the biorefinery won’t do any good if the other steps fail.  There are major challenges in harvesting, storing, transporting biomass, and delivering cellulosic fuels to customers.

In business you’re limited by money, in science, you’re limited by the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

When it comes to biofuels, you’re also limited by ecosystems.  To grow plants sustainably, the soil ecosystem and water supply need to be taken into account.

The government and business entities don’t appear to be looking at the entire process from start to end, or there’d be no government subsidies to the ethanol industry or investment in commercial-level ethanol plants. If prices are compared on the basis of energy content, ethanol has been consistently more expensive than gasoline because a gallon of ethanol has less energy than a gallon of petroleum-based gasoline. Thus, ethanol producers are making little money even though their biofuel is more expensive than gasoline in terms of energy supplied per gallon.

Other crazy schemes: Biomass Gas-to-Liquid (BGTL)

BGTL is a fuel produced from biomass by gasifying it into an intermediary product called syngas, and then converted into a diesel-like fuel. This fuel is not commercially produced, because many technological and economic challenges need to be overcome, such as identifying biomass feedstocks that are suitable for efficient conversion to a syngas and developing effective methods for preparing the biomass for conversion into a syngas. Furthermore, DOE researchers report that significant work remains to successfully gasify biomass feedstocks on a large enough scale to demonstrate commercial viability. DOE reported that the costs of producing biomass GTL will be very high (USGAO).

Cellulosic Biorefineries (see Appendix for more barriers)

Synthetic biologists are trying to make oil rather than ethanol for many reasons. There are billions of combustion engines that can only burn oil, which is free concentrated sunshine brewed by Mother Nature over hundreds of millions of years. Only uranium packs more punch per unit weight. The 98 tons of fossil plants per gallon is equal to 40 acres of wheat.

Oil is easily poured, stored, and transported, combusts without problems rather than exploding. Basically, if you were trying to create an ideal energy, you’d invent oil.

But with every step required to transform a substance into energy, there is less energy yield.  If a microbe can be created which digests cellulose and excretes oil, the number of steps can be reduced.

But plants have evolved for millions of years to prevent themselves from being eaten. It will be hard to pull off.  In termites, multiple microbe species are involved in breaking down lignocellulose, each consumes the wastes of others, which are toxic to the creature generating them.  Keeping predators out of the vats, getting rid of contaminants, replicating enzymes and too many other issues to list make it unlikely cellulosic fuels can be made in the near future with a positive net energy.

There are over 60 barriers to be overcome in making cellulosic ethanol in Section III of the DOE “Roadmap for Agriculture Biomass Feedstock Supply in the United States” (DOE Feedstock Roadmap 2003).  For example:

Jerald Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, said that “The enzymes [to create cellulosic ethanol cost] $1 per gallon, and we’re trying to produce the fuel for $1.50 per gallon, so we’re quite far away from a commercial cellulosic biofuel.” Furthermore, Schnoor noted, if the mandated production for cellulosic biofuels was to be met by 2015 and 2020 and 2022, the plants would have to be built now—and they are not. “So, it’s virtually assured that there’s no way we’re going to [produce] 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels [especially considering that] we’re only producing 25,000 gallons currently” (Institute of Medicine 2014).

Enzyme Biochemistry. Enzymes that exhibit high thermostability and substantial resistance to sugar end-product inhibition will be essential to fully realize enzyme-based sugar platform technology. The ability to develop such enzymes and consequently very low cost enzymatic hydrolysis technology requires increasing our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying the biochemistry of enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis, including the impact of biomass structure on enzymatic cellulose decrystallization. Additional efforts aimed at understanding the role of cellulases and their interaction not only with cellulose but also the process environment is needed to affect further reductions in cellulase cost through improved production”.

No wonder many of the issues with cellulosic biofuels aren’t discussed – there’s no way to express the problems in a sound bite.

It may not be possible to reduce the complex cellulose digesting strategies of bacteria and fungi into microorganisms or enzymes that can convert cellulose into fuel in giant steel vats, especially given the huge physical and chemical variations in feedstock. The field of metagenomics is trying to create a chimera from snips of genetic material of cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi.  That would be the ultimate Swiss Army-knife microbe, able to convert cellulose to sugar and then sugar to ethanol or oil (i.e. butanol).

There’s also research to replicate termite gut cellulose breakdown. Termites depend on fascinating creatures called protists in their guts to digest wood.  The protists in turn outsource the work to multiple kinds of bacteria living inside of them. This is done with energy (ATP) and architecture (membranes) in a system that evolved over millions of years.  If the termite could fire the protists and work directly with the bacteria, that probably would have happened 50 million years ago. This process involves many kinds of bacteria, waste products, and other complexities that may not be reducible to an enzyme or a bacteria.

Jay Keasling, Director of Physical Biosciences at LBNL, proposes to do the above in a synthetic biology factory.  You’d order up the biological bits you need to create a microbial machine the way electronics parts are obtained at Fry’s electronics stores. At U.C. Berkeley on April 21, 2007, he said this could also be used to get past the 15% concentration of ethanol that pickles micro-organisms, which results in a tremendous amount of energy being used to get the remaining 85% of water out.  Or you could use this technology to create a creature that could convert miscanthus and switchgrass to create biofuels that can be put in pipelines and burned in diesel engines (Singer 2007).

Biologists roll their eyes when reductionist physicists pat them on the head and tell little ol’ biology not to worry, living organisms can be reduced to atoms and enzymes, just  take a piece of algae here, a bit of fungi or bacteria there and voila – a new creature that produces vast volumes of biofuels quickly.   But biology is a messy wonderment. Creatures exist within food webs and don’t reproduce well if surrounded by their own toxic wastes.  The research is well worth doing, but public policy shouldn’t assume synthetic biology is a “slam dunk”.

But meanwhile we’re stuck with corn and ethanol, which in the end must be delivered to the customer. Since ethanol can’t be delivered cheaply through pipelines, but must be transported by truck, rail, or barge (Yacobucci 2003), this is very expensive for the coastal regions.  Alaska and Hawaii have managed to get out of having to add ethanol to gasoline, but California’s Senator Feinstein has not been able to do the same.

The whole cellulosic ethanol enterprise falls apart if the energy returned is less than the energy invested or even one of the major stumbling blocks can’t be overcome. If there isn’t enough biomass, if the residues can’t be stored without exploding or composting, if the oil to transport low-density residues to biorefineries or deliver the final product is too great, if no cheap enzymes or microbes are found to break down lignocellulose in wildly varying feedstocks, if the energy to clean up toxic byproducts is too expensive, or if organisms capable of tolerating high ethanol concentrations aren’t found, if the barriers in Appendix A can’t be overcome, then cellulosic fuels are not going to happen.

Indistrial processes depend on reliable inputs, but there are so many variations of structural carbohydrates in stover that the price could increase by as much as 25% from the difficulties of having to deal with that wide a range of material (Thomas).

If the obstacles can be overcome, but we lose topsoil, deplete aquifers, poison the land, air, and water, what kind of Pyrrhic victory is that?

Scientists have been trying to solve these issues for over thirty years now.

Nevertheless, this is worthy of research money, but not public funds for commercial refineries until the issues above have been solved.  This is the best hope we have for replacing the half million products made from and with fossil fuels, and for liquid transportation fuels when population falls to pre-coal levels.

Part 8.  Where do we go from here?

Giampietro and Mayumi (2009) write a book about how on earth, given all of the above, did we ever throw so much money at an obviously futile endeavor as the biofuel industry?  They call for a scientific framework that better evaluates an energy resource before spending so much money on a boondoggle.  In 2014, Stanford University tried to do this by starting a net energy department, since net energy analysis should be a standard policy tool, since it  takes energy to make energy, and net energy analysis can determine the sustainability of energy technologies  (Shwartz 2014).  Giampietro and Mayumi are also among the few scientists to discuss the enormous ecological damage: large-scale production of agro-biofuels requires an excessive amount of land,competing with food production, reduces biodiversity by destroying habitats, corn monoculture increases the vulnerability of crops to pests, as well as the use of only a few commercial seeds reducing corn’s genetic diversity, toxic amounts of fertilizers, salinization, depletion of aquifers.  Yet people support biofuels because they think they’re sustainable!

Subsidies and Politics: Now, and for the Foreseeable Future, Ethanol Will Only be Made from Corn

Biofuels from biodiverse, tall grass prairie are far preferable to ethanol from corn and soy, but there are no commercial level cellulosic biorefineries – and we are a long way from being able to deliver cellulosic fuels to customers.  Even if all of the barriers to cellulosic fuels could be achieved before oil shocks hit, they’d bankrupt our soils so quickly that there’d be no biomass to feed the maws of the biorefineries.

How come there are over 116 ethanol plants with 79 under construction and 200 more planned?  Government subsidies and tax breaks.

Federal and state ethanol subsidies add up to 79 cents per liter (McCain 2003), with most of that going to agribusiness, not farmers. There is also a tax break of 5.3 cents per gallon for ethanol (Wall Street Journal 2002). An additional 51 cents per gallon goes mainly to the oil industry to get them to blend ethanol with gasoline.

In addition to the $8.4 billion per year subsidies for corn and ethanol production, the consumer pays an additional amount for any product with corn in it (Pollan 20005), beef, milk, and eggs, because corn diverted to ethanol raises the price of corn for the livestock industry.

California Senator Feinstein calls ethanol a transfer of wealth to the Midwest, where 99% of ethanol is made. She points out it can’t be shipped through gasoline pipelines, only by truck, boat, or rail, which is extremely expensive to transport from the Midwest to California. She notes that any shortfall in supply or manipulation could drive prices even higher (Feinstein 2003, Washington Post 2002).

Coming to a theater near you:  Enron Part 2.

The subsidies may never end, because Iowa plays a leading role in who’s selected to be the next president. John McCain has backed off on his criticism of ethanol now that he’s running for president (Birger 2006).

“Once we have a corn-based technology up and running the political system will protect it,” said Lawrence J. Goldstein, a board member at the Energy Policy Research Foundation. “We cannot afford to have 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol in 2015, and that’s exactly where we are headed” (Barrionuevo 2007).

Let’s stop the ethanol subsidies and see if this elephant can fly on its own.


President Carter asked us to put our sweaters on, and had plans for a soft landing, but Americans chose Reagans’ “Morning in America” and having our military do whatever was necessary to maintain the “non-negotiable” American way of life.  Now we’re in for a much harder landing.

Soil is the bedrock of civilization (Perlin 1991, Ponting 1993).  Biofuels are not sustainable or renewable. Why would we destroy our topsoil, increase global warming, deplete and pollute groundwater, destroy fisheries, and use more energy than what’s gained to make ethanol?  Why would we do this to our children and grandchildren?

Perhaps it’s a combination of pork barrel politics, an uninformed public, short-sighted greedy agribusiness corporations, jobs for the Midwest, politicians getting too large a percent of their campaign money from agribusiness (Lavelle 2007), elected leaders without science degrees, and desperation to provide liquid transportation fuels (Bucknell 1981, Hirsch 2005).

But this madness puts our national security at risk.  Destruction of topsoil and collateral damage to water, fisheries, and food production will result in less food to eat or sell for petroleum and natural gas imports.   Diversion of precious dwindling energy and money to impossible solutions is a threat to our nations’ future.   In an oil-less future, prime farm land is a nation’s number one resource.

We are upset at mountain tops being blasted off to produce coal, and the damage done by mining for metal, yet mining footprints pale in comparison with the hundreds of millions of acres being mined to grow food.  Regardless of the energy crisis, agriculture needs reforming.

Let’s use the limited energy we have left to fix what’s wrong with agriculture.

Fix the unsustainable and destructive aspects of industrial agriculture. At least some good would come out of the ethanol fiasco if more attention were paid to how we grow our food.  The effects of soil erosion on crop production have been hidden by mechanization and intensive use of fossil fuel fertilizers and chemicals on crops bred to tolerate them.  As energy declines, crop yields will decline as well.

States can play an important role. California is putting the brakes on coal with Global Warming bill AB32.  This bill should also try to force needed agricultural reforms by buying only sustainable biofuels from biodiverse grassland crops to protect our soils and water, plus put more carbon into the ground.

Jobs.  Since part of what’s driving the ethanol insanity is job creation, divert the subsidies and pork barrel money to erosion control and sustainable agriculture.  Maybe Iowa will emerge from its makeover looking like Provence, France, and volunteers won’t be needed to hand out free coffee at rest areas along I-80.

Continue to fund cellulosic ethanol research, focusing on how to make 500,000 fossil-fuel-based products (i.e. medicine, chemicals, plastics, etc) and fuel for when population declines to pre-fossil fuel carrying capacity.  The feedstock should be from a perennial, tall-grass prairie herbivore ecosystem, not food crops. But don’t waste taxpayer money to build demonstration or commercial plants until most of the research and sustainability barriers have been solved.

Take away the E85 loophole that allows Detroit automakers to ignore CAFE standards and get away with selling even more gas guzzling vehicles (Consumer Reports 2006).   Raise the CAFE standards higher immediately.  Pass laws to favor low-emission vehicle sales and require all new cars to have energy efficient tires.

There are better, easier ways to stretch out petroleum than adding ethanol to it. Just keeping tires inflated properly would save more energy than all the ethanol produced today.  Reducing the maximum speed limit to 55, consumer driving tips, truck stop electrification, and many other measures can save far more fuel in a shorter time than biofuels ever will, far less destructively.  Better yet, Americans can bike or walk, which will save energy used in the health care system.

Reform our non-sustainable agricultural system

  • Give integrated pest management and organic agriculture research more funding
  • The National Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) and other conservation agencies have done a superb job of lowering the erosion rate since the dustbowl of the 1930’s.  Give these agencies a larger budget to further the effort.
  • We need to make sure that the budget given to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the 2007 Farm Bill isn’t diverted to corn and ethanol subsidies.  The farm bill should have a much larger budget for conservation of land and water.
  • To promote land stewardship, change taxes and zoning laws to favor small family farms.  This will make possible the “social, economic, and environmental diversity necessary for agricultural and ecosystem stability” (Opie 2000).
  • Make the land grant universities follow the directive of the Hatch Act of 1887 to improve the lives of family farmers. Stop funding agricultural mechanization and petrochemical research and start funding how to fight pests and disease with diverse crops, crop rotations, and so on (Hightower 1978).
  • Don’t allow construction of homes and businesses on crop land.
  • Integrate livestock into the crop rotation.
  • Teach family farmers and suburban homeowners how to maximize food production in limited space with Rodale and Biointensive techniques.
  • Since less than 1 percent of our elected leaders and their staff have scientific backgrounds, educate them in systems ecology, population ecology, soil, and climate science.  So many of the important issues that face us need scientific understanding and judgment.
  • Divert funding from new airports, roads, and other future senseless infrastructure towards research in solar, wind, and cellulosic products. We’re at the peak of scientific knowledge and our economic system hasn’t been knocked flat yet by energy shortages – if we don’t do the research now, it may never happen.
  •  And vote with your fork – buy local, organic food.
  • Above all, we need to elect leaders who understand the gravity of the situation and have planned for what to do when oil shocks hit.

There are many institutions and people who have been working on these issues for decades. What we need is a grass roots movement to enact reforms while we still have plentiful energy.

It’s not unreasonable to expect farmers to conserve the soil, since the fate of civilization lies in their hands.  But we need to pay farmers for far more than the cost of growing food so they can afford to conserve the land.  In an oil-less future, healthy topsoil will be our most important resource.

If we do nothing, dustbowls will return.   Erosion and other ecological damage is insidious, it doesn’t happen overnight. We should try to manage our soils to last at least two thousand years. There’s no excuse not to – we know how to do this.

A Science magazine article in 2013 (Scholes et al)  stated:

“In the past, great civilizations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded (Diamond). The modern world could suffer the same fate at a global scale. The inherent productivity of many lands has been dramatically reduced as a result of soil erosion, accumulation of salinity, and nutrient depletion. In Africa, where much of the future growth in agriculture must take place, erosion has reduced yields by 8% at continental scale (Lal), and nutrient depletion is widespread (Sanchez). Although improved technology—including the unsustainably high use of fertilizers, irrigation, and plowing—provides a false sense of security, about 1% of global land area is degraded every year (FAO). As Fierer et al. show, the diversity of soil biota in the prairie soils of the American Midwest has changed substantially since cultivation (Fierer). We have forgotten the lesson of the Dust Bowl: Even in advanced economies, human well-being depends on looking after the soil (Egan). An intact, self-restoring soil ecosystem is essential, especially in times of climate stress.

Soil fertility—the capacity to sustain abundant plant production—was a mystery to the ancients. Traditional farmers speak of soils becoming tired, sick, or cold; the solution was typically to move on until they recovered. Enlightenment science brought the insight that plant growth combined carbon dioxide from the air with water and nutrients from the soil. By the mid-20th century, soils and plants could be routinely tested to diagnose deficiencies, and a global agrochemical industry set out to fix them (Smil 2004). Soil came to be viewed as little more than an inert supportive matrix, to be flooded with a soup of nutrients.

This narrow approach led to an unprecedented increase in food production, but also contributed to global warming and pollution of aquifers, rivers, lakes, and coastal ecosystems. Activities associated with agriculture are currently responsible for just under one-third of greenhouse gas emissions; more than half of these originate from the soil (Smith 2013). The eroded sediments and excess nutrients drain into rivers. Diminishing freshwater quality is a constraint on human development in many places, and freshwater biodiversity is the most threatened on the planet (Bennett et al 2001). Replacing the fertility-sustaining processes in the soil with a dependence on external inputs has made the soil ecosystem, and humans, vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of those inputs, for instance due to price shocks.

Microbiological and genetic analysis has shown that there is more genetic variability in a healthy soil than in all of the plants and animals it supports. The variety of ways in which soil constituents can be processed and transformed by a diverse soil microbial community provides an energy-efficient, nonleaky, self-regulating system that can adapt to changing environments (Giller 1997).

Including biology in the concept of soil fertility has been an important advance, but a further conceptual broadening is needed to manage soils in a sustainable way. The challenge is to build and sustain high soil fertility in a world with rising direct and environmental costs of fossil energy and declining external supplies of critical nutrients, such as phosphates (Déry 2007). Ensuring that the biological system is resilient under an uncertain future requires that soil biological diversity be restored as well. Rebuilding soil organic matter is both an indicator of success in this endeavor and a way to reduce the carbon load in the atmosphere (Schmidt 2011).

Responsible politicians need to tell Americans why their love affair with the car can’t continue.  Leaders need to make the public understand that there are limits to growth, and an increasing population leads to the “Tragedy of the Commons”.  Even if it means they won’t be re-elected.  Arguing this amidst the church of development that prevails is like walking into a Bible-belt church and telling the congregation God doesn’t exist, but it must be done.

We are betting the farm on making cellulosic fuels work at a time when our energy and financial resources are diminishing.  No matter how desperately we want to believe that human ingenuity will invent liquid or combustible fuels despite the laws of thermodynamics and how ecological systems actually work, the possibility of failure needs to be contemplated.

Living in the moment might be enlightenment for individuals, but for a nation, it’s disastrous. Is there a Plan B if biofuels don’t work?  Coal is not an option.  CO2 levels over 1,000 ppm could lead to the extinction of 95% of life on the planet (Lynas 2007, Ward 2006, Benton 2003).

Here we are, on the cusp of energy descent, with mechanized petrochemical farms.  We import more farm products now than we sell abroad (Rohter 2004). Suburban sprawl destroys millions of acres of prime farm land as population grows every year.  We’ve gone from 7 million family farms to 2 million much larger farms and destroyed a deeply satisfying rural way of life.

More people will need to go back to the land during energy descent, so let’s start now, and encourage small family farms.

There need to be plans for de-mechanization of the farm economy if liquid fuels aren’t found.  There are less than four million horses, donkeys, and mules in America today.  According to Bucknell, if the farm economy were de-mechanized, you’d need at least 31 million farm workers and 61 million horses (Bucknell 1981).

We need to start on “Plan B” now in case biofuels aren’t invented before oil shocks strike.  We don’t want to experience the same discontinuities as Cuba (Oxfam 2001) and North Korea (Williams 2000) did.

The population of the United States has grown over 25 percent since Bucknell published Energy and the National Defense.  To de-mechanize now, we’d need 39 million farm workers and 76 million horses. The horsepower represented by just farm tractors alone is equal to 400 million horses.  It’s time to start increasing horse and oxen numbers, which will leave even less biomass for biorefineries.

If we wait, the consequences will be Stalinesque.  You can’t just do this overnight, and with the ownership of land concentrated in so few hands, you’re automatically heading towards feudalism rather than the Jeffersonian ideal our nation was founded on.

We need to transition from petroleum power to muscle power gracefully if we want to preserve democracy.   Paul Roberts wonders whether the coming change will be “peaceful and orderly or chaotic and violent because we waited too long to begin planning for it” (Roberts 2004).

We’re facing Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, Peak Coal, and climate change.  As we go down the energy ladder and go up the thermometer, what is the likely carrying capacity of the United States?   Is it 100 million (Pimentel 1991) or 250 million (Smil 2000)?  Whatever carrying capacity is decided upon, pass legislation to drastically lower immigration and encourage one child families until America reaches this number.  Or we can let resource wars, hunger, disease, extreme weather, rising oceans, and social chaos legislate the outcome.

Do you want to eat or drive? Even without growing food for biofuels, crop production per capita is going to go down as population keeps increasing, fossil fuel energy decreases, topsoil loss continues, and aquifers deplete, especially the Ogallala (Opie 2000).  Where will the money come from to buy imported oil and natural gas if we don’t have food to export?

There is no such thing as “waste” biomass.  As we go down the energy ladder, plants will increasingly be needed to stabilize climate, provide food, medicine, shelter, furniture, heat, light, cooking fuel, clothing, etc.

Biofuels are a threat to the long-term national security of our nation.  Is Dr. Strangelove in charge, with a plan to solve defense worries by creating a country that’s such a salty polluted desert, no one would want to invade us?  Why is Dr. Strangelove spending the last bits of energy in Uncle Sam’s pocket on moonshine?   Perhaps he’s thinking that we’re all going to need it, and the way things are going, he’s probably right.


Department of Energy Biofuel Roadmap Barriers

This is a partial summary of biofuel barriers from Department of Energy. Unless otherwise footnoted, the problems with biomass fuel production are from the Multi Year Program Plan DOE Biomass Plan or Roadmap for Agriculture Biomass Feedstock Supply in the United States. (DOE Biomass Plan, DOE Feedstock Roadmap).

Resource and Sustainability Barriers

1)      Biomass feedstock will ultimately be limited by finite amounts of land and water

2)      Biomass production may not be sustainable because of impacts on soil compaction, erosion, carbon, and nutrition.

3)      Nor is it clear that perennial energy crops are sustainable, since not enough is known about their water and fertilizer needs, harvesting impacts on the soil, etc.

4)      Farmers are concerned about the long-term effects on soil, crop productivity, and the return on investment when collecting residues.

5)      The effects of biomass feedstock production on water flows and water quality are unknown

6)      The risks of impact on biodiversity and public lands haven’t been assessed.


Economic Barriers (or Investors Aren’t Stupid)

1)      Biomass can’t compete economically with fossil fuels in transportation, chemicals, or electrical generation.

2)      There aren’t any credible data on price, location, quality and quantity of biomass.

3)      Genetically-modified energy crops worry investors because they may create risks to native populations of related species and affect the value of the grain.

4)      Biomass is inherently more expensive than fossil fuel refineries because

a)      Biomass is of such low density that it can’t be transported over large distances economically.  Yet analysis has shown that biorefineries need to be large to be economically attractive – it will be difficult to find enough biomass close to the refinery to be delivered economically.

b)      Biomass feedstock amounts are unpredictable since unknown quantities will be lost to extreme weather, sold to non-biofuel businesses, rot or combust in storage, or by used by farmers to improve their soil.

c)      Ethanol can’t be delivered in pipelines due to likely water contamination.  Delivery by truck, barge, and rail is more expensive.  Ethanol is a hazardous commodity which adds to its transportation cost and handling.

d)      Biomass varies so widely in physical and chemical composition, size, shape, moisture levels, and density that it’s difficult and expensive to supply, store, and process.

e)      The capital and operating costs are high to bale, stack, palletize, and transport residues

f)        Biomass is more geographically dispersed, and in much more ecologically sensitive areas than fossil resources.

g)      The synthesis gas produced has potentially higher levels of tars and particulates than fossil fuels.

h)      Biomass plants can’t benefit from the same large-scale cost savings of oil refineries because biomass is too dispersed and of low density.

5)      Consumers won’t buy ethanol because it costs more than gasoline and contains 34% less energy per gallon. Consumer reports wrote they got the lowest fuel mileage in recent years from ethanol due to its low energy content compared to gasoline, effectively making ethanol $3.99 per gallon.  Worse yet, automakers are getting fuel-economy credits for every E85 burning vehicle they sell, which lowers the overall mileage of auto fleets, which increases the amount of oil used and lessens energy independence.  (Consumer Reports)

Equipment and Storage Barriers

1)      There are no harvesting machines to harvest the wide range of residue from different crops, or to selectively harvest components of corn stover.

2)      Current biomass harvesting and collection methods can’t handle the many millions of tons of biomass that need to be collected.

3)      How to store huge amounts of dry biomass hasn’t been figured out.

4)      No one knows how to store and handle vast quantities of different kinds of wet biomass.  You can lose it all since it’s prone to spoiling, rotting, and spontaneous combustion

Preprocessing Barriers

1)      We don’t even know what the optimum properties of biomass to produce biofuels are, let alone have instruments to measure these unknown qualities.

2)      Incoming biomass has impurities that have to be gotten out before grinding, compacting, and blending, or you may damage equipment and foul chemical and biological processes downstream.

3)      Harvest season for crops can be so short that it will be difficult to find the time to harvest cellulosic biomass and pre-process and store a year of feedstock stably.

4)      Cellulosic biomass needs to be pretreated so that it’s easier for enzymes to break down.  Biomass has evolved for hundreds of millions of years to avoid chemical and biological degradation. How to overcome this reluctance isn’t well enough understood yet to design efficient and cost-effective pre-treatments.

5)      Pretreatment reactors are made of expensive materials to resist acid and alkalis at high temperatures for long periods.  Cheaper reactors or low acid/alkali biomass is needed.

6)      To create value added products, ways to biologically, chemically, and mechanically split components off (fractionate) need to be figured out.

7)      Corn mash needs to be thoroughly sterilized before microorganisms are added, or a bad batch may ensue. Bad batches pollute waterways if improperly disposed of. (Patzek Dec 2006).

Cellulosic Ethanol Showstoppers

1)      The enzymes used in cellulosic biomass production are too expensive.

2)      An enzyme that breaks down cellulose must be found that isn’t disabled by high heat or ethanol and other end-products, and other low cost enzymes for specific tasks in other processes are needed.

3)      If these enzymes are found, then cheap methods to remove the impurities generated are needed. Impurities like acids, phenols, alkalis, and salts inhibit fermentation and can poison chemical catalysts.

4)      Catalysts for hydrogenation, hydrgenolysis, dehydration, upgrading pyrolysis oils, and oxidation steps are essential to succeeding in producing chemicals, materials, and transportation fuels. These catalysts must be cheap, long-lasting, work well in fouled environments, and be 90% selective.

5)      Ethanol production needs major improvements in finding robust organisms that utilize all sugars efficiently in impure environments.

6)      Key to making the process economic are cheap, efficient fermentation organisms that can produce chemicals and materials. Wald writes that the bacteria scientists are trying to tame come from the guts of termites, and they’re much harder to domesticate than yeast was.  Nor have we yet convinced “them to multiply inside the unfamiliar confines of a 2,000-gallon stainless-steel tank” or “control their activity in the industrial-scale quantities needed” (Wald 2007).

7)      Efficient aerobic fermentation organisms to lower capital fermentation costs.

8)      Fermentation organisms that can make 95% pure fermentation products.

9)      Cheap ways of removing impurities generated in fermentation and other steps are essential since the costs now are far too high.

What could be done?

According to Catherine Kling, head of the Resource and Environmental Policy Division of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University, “A large part of the problem with runoff of nitrogen (and soil) is because corn is known as a “leaky crop” since nutrients inevitably leak out because the land is bare half of each year. “Farmers could plant cover crops so that the land is not bare for 6 months. They could change how they till. Or wetlands could be created carefully and strategically in a watershed so that they would capture the nutrients coming off the fields and process them before they move down to rivers and streams. “There are bioreactors. There are tile drains. There are a number of different things that can be done.” But none of these things is done, she noted. She suggested that nothing is done because it is costly and there is no reason for an individual producer to do it. The externality is not priced. There are few regulations or requirements, and hence there is the predictable situation where too many nutrients are coming off this land. Experts believe that a 40 to 50 percent reduction in nutrients will be needed to achieve reductions in the hypoxic zone, and this would require not just one or two changes being made, Kling said, but rather widespread adoption of multiple practices. “We’d need a major change in what that landscape looks like.” (Institute of Medicine 2014).

Don’t hold your breath.  Farmers have known what to do for decades — textbooks on soil conservation go back for 80 years — but the Free market and Capitalism are all about maximizing profits NOW, and screw the children, grandchildren, and 100 billion people that will be born in the future.

Biofuels are a scam

Bryce, R. February 16, 2016. The failed promise of biofuels.  Dallas News.

Fehrenbacher, K. December 15, 2015. A Biofuel dream gone bad. Legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla backed a startup called KiOR as part of his ambitious push for green energy. Now KiOR is bankrupt, he and company executives are being sued for fraud, and Khosla’s big biofuel bet is looking increasingly questionable.Fortune Magazine.

Stahl, Lesley, January 5, 2014. The Cleantech Crash. Despite billions invested by the U.S. government in so-called “Cleantech” energy, Washington and Silicon Valley have little to show for it. 60 minutes.

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Many thanks to David Pimentel, Walter Youngquist, and Tad Patzek for their editing and critiques.

Ethanol Statistics United States EIA

Ethanol Production USA Renewable Fuels Association

Biodiesel statistics United States EIA:

1. Biodiesel production capacity and production PDF XLS
2. Biodiesel production, sales, and stocks PDF XLS
3. Inputs to biodiesel production PDF XLS
4. Biodiesel producers and production capacity, by state PDF XLS
5. Biodiesel (B100) production by petroleum administration for defense district PDF XLS

 Biofuel production & global trade United Nations UNCTAD 2013


Posted in Alternative Energy, Biofuels, Biomass, Energy, Peak Biofuels, Soil, Soil | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book review of “1493 Uncovering the new world Columbus Created”

[ This book will be included in the “must read” category of my giant booklist when I get around to updating it.

This book isn’t just about the past, the implications reverberate into the postcarbon future.  Will slavery return without fossil slaves?  What will a lack of pesticides and natural gas fertilizer (there’s not enough poop to replace it) do to agricultural production?  Will the world’s population shift a lot more to those who have a natural immunity to malaria and yellow fever once these diseases come rip roaring back?  Mann argues that natural rubber is essential to civilization, artificial rubber can’t substitute for many needs.  It’s likely pests will make rubber trees scarce again, how will that affect future societies?

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Charles Mann. 2011. 1493 Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  Random House.

The main theme is that natives and newcomers in the Americas, Europe, and Asia interacted in unexpected ways, creating biological bedlam. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read plus interesting and well written. There are new perspectives on slavery, and reasons for why the West ended up dominating the rest of the world (beyond what was written in Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.)

There are 3 main parts

  1. The Atlantic, where the most important effects were caused by microscopic imports to the Americas (initially the diseases that depopulated Indian societies, then malaria and yellow fever, which encouraged plantation slavery
  2. The Pacific, where the major introductions were American food crops, which both helped sustain a population boom and led indirectly to massive environmental problems.
  3. How environmental historians have increasingly come to believe that the Columbian Exchange played a role in the agricultural revolution of the 18th century and the industrial revolution of the 19th. Both occurred first in Europe, and so this ecological phenomenon had large-scale political and economic implications—it fostered the rise of the West.

These are my kindle notes, a small fraction of the book, and it’s a bit disjointed since the paragraphs that segue from one topic to the next are left out. Since I copy only new information that interests me, I’ve left out quite a bit you might be interested in. I hope what’s below entices you to read the entire book.

The 300-year-long Little Ice Age was caused by tens of millions of natives killed by European diseases who were no longer torching of the landscape to farm it

In 2003, William F. Ruddiman, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Virginia, suggested a different cause for the Little Ice Age—an idea that initially seemed outlandish, but that is increasingly treated seriously. As human communities grow, they open more land for farms and cut down more trees for fuel and shelter. In Europe and Asia, forests were cut with the ax. In the Americas before Colón, the primary tool was fire—vast stretches of it. For weeks on end, smoke from Indian bonfires shrouded Florida, California, and the Great Plains. Today, many researchers believe that without regular burning, much of the Midwestern prairie would have been engulfed by an invading tide of trees. The same was true for the grasslands of the Argentine pampas, the hills of Mexico, the Florida dunes, and the high plains of the Andes. American forests, too, were shaped by flame. Indians’ “frequent fiering of the woods,” remarked English colonist Edward Johnson in 1654, made the forests east of the Mississippi so open and “thin of Timber” that they were “like our Parkes in England.” Annual fire seasons removed scratchy undergrowth, burned out noxious insects, and cleared land for farms. Rather than paving roads, Indians used fire to make what the ecological historian Stephen J. Pyne has called “corridors of travel. Well-used paths could be six feet wide, hundreds of miles long, and cleared completely of brush and stones.

Scientists have conducted fewer studies of burning in the tropics, but two California paleoecologists (scientists who study past ecosystems) surveyed the fire history of 31 sites in Central and South America in 2008 and found that in every one the amount of charcoal in the soil—an indicator of fire—had increased substantially for more than 2000 years.

Enter now the Columbian Exchange. Eurasian bacteria, viruses, and parasites sweep through the Americas, killing huge numbers of people—and unraveling the millennia-old network of human intervention. Flames subside to embers across the Western Hemisphere as Indian torches are stilled. In the forests, fire-hating trees like oak and hickory muscle aside fire-loving species like loblolly, longleaf, and slash pine, which are so dependent on regular burning that their cones will only open and release seed when exposed to flame.

The end of native burning and the massive reforestation drew so much carbon dioxide from the air that an increasing number of researchers believes it was a main driver of the three-century cold snap known as the Little Ice Age.

Indigenous pyromania had long pumped carbon dioxide into the air. At the beginning of the Homogenocene the pump suddenly grows feeble. Formerly open grasslands fill with forest—a frenzy of photosynthesis. In 1634, 14 years after the Pilgrims land in Plymouth, colonist William Wood complains that the once-open forests are now so choked with underbrush as to be “unuseful and troublesome to travel through.” Forests regenerate across swathes of North America, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Amazonia. Ruddiman’s idea was simple: the destruction of Indian societies by European epidemics both decreased native burning and increased tree growth. Each subtracted carbon dioxide from the air.

In 2010 a research team led by Robert A. Dull of the University of Texas estimated that reforesting former farmland in American tropical regions alone could have been responsible for as much as a quarter of the temperature drop—an analysis, the researchers noted, that did not include the cutback in accidental fires, the return to forest of unfarmed but cleared areas, and the entire temperate zone. In the form of lethal bacteria and viruses, in other words, the Columbian Exchange (to quote Dull’s team) “significantly influenced Earth’s carbon budget.

Colonists destroyed native food supplies  and ecology

Except for defensive palisades, Powhatan farmers had no fences around their fields. Why screen off land if no cattle or sheep had to be kept inside? The English, by contrast, regarded well-tended fences as hallmarks of civilization, according to Virginia D. Anderson, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Fenced fields kept animals in; fenced woodlots kept poachers out. The lack of physical property demarcation signified to the English that Indians didn’t truly occupy the land—it was, so to speak, unimproved. Equally unfamiliar was the Powhatan practice of scattering their farm plots within larger cleared areas. To the Indians, fallow lands were a kind of communal larder, a place for naturally occurring useful plants, including grains (little barley, sumpweed, goosefoot), edible greens (wild lettuce, wild plantains), and medicinals (sassafras, dogbane, smartweed). Because none of these species existed in Europe, the English didn’t know the groundcover was useful. Instead they saw “unused” land, something that bewildered them. How could Indians go to the trouble of clearing the land but then not use it?

English waterways ran swiftly in the spring, scouring away the soil from steep banks, then turned to dribbling trickles in July and August. Beyond the riverbanks the land was drier; one could hike for miles in summer without stepping into mud. Chesapeake Bay was, by contrast, a seemingly endless patchwork of bogs, marshes, grassy ponds, seasonally flooded meadows, and slow-moving streams. It seemed to be wet everywhere, no matter what the season. Credit for the watery environment belongs to the American beaver (Castor canadensis), which had no real English equivalent. Weighing as much as sixty pounds, these big rodents live in dome-shaped lodges made by blocking streams with mud, stones, leaves, and cut saplings—as many as 20 dams per mile of stream. The dams smear the water across the landscape, so to speak, transforming a rushing rivulet into a series of broad pools and mucky wetlands linked by shallow, multiply branched channels. Indians regarded this as a fine thing—easier to take a canoe through a set of ponds than a narrow, quick-flowing stream. English accounts, by contrast, are filled with descriptions of colonists unhappily stumbling through the sopped countryside.

The freshwater marshes favored the growth of tuckahoe (Peltandra virginica, arrow arum), a semi-aquatic plant found in stands throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Tuckahoe has a bulb-like, underground rhizome (enlarged stem area used for storage) that every spring sends out a thin stalk with a long leaf shaped like a child’s sketch of an arrowhead. It was a standing larder for the people of Tsenacomoco, always ready in the springtime if they exhausted the maize from the previous fall.

At first imported pigs, goats, cattle and horses didn’t fare well, not least because they were eaten by starving colonists. But during the peace after Pocahontas’s marriage, they multiplied. Colonists quickly lost control of them. Indians woke up to find free-range cows and horses romping through their fields, trampling the harvest. If they killed the beasts, gun-waving colonists demanded payment. Animal numbers boomed for decades. The worst may have been the pigs. By 1619, one colonist reported, there were “an infinite number of Swine, broken out into the woods.” Smart, strong, and constantly hungry, they ate nuts, fruits, and maize, turning up the marshy soil with their shovel-like noses in search of edible roots. One of these was tuckahoe, the tuber Indians relied upon when their maize harvests failed. Pigs turned out to like tuckahoe—a lot. Traveling through the area in the eighteenth century, the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm found that pigs were “very greedy” for the tubers, “and grow very fat by feeding on them.” In places “frequented by hogs,” he argued, tuckahoe “must have been extirpated.” The people of Tsenacomoco found themselves competing for their food supply with packs of feral pigs.

The English imported bees for honey, not to help their crops—pollination wasn’t discovered until the mid-eighteenth century—but feral honeybees pollinated farms and orchards anyway. Without them, many of the plants Europeans brought with them wouldn’t have proliferated.

So critical to European success was the honeybee that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion; the first sight of a bee in a new territory, the French-American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur noted in 1782, “spreads sadness and consternation in all minds.

Removing forest cover, blocking regrowth on fallow land, exhausting the soil, shutting down annual burning, unleashing big grazing and rooting animals, introducing earthworms, honeybees, and other alien invertebrates—the colonists so profoundly changed Tsenacomoco that it became harder and harder for its inhabitants to prosper there. Meanwhile, it was easier and easier for Europeans to thrive in an environment that their own actions were making increasingly familiar.


Causes of slavery in America

One of the mosquitoes that can grow in the cold is Anopheles quadrimaculatus, the overall name for a complex of five near-indistinguishable sibling species. Like other Anopheles mosquitoes, A. quadrimaculatus hosts the parasite that causes malaria—the insect’s common name is the North American malaria mosquito. Southeast England at this time is rampant with malaria. Precise documentation will never become available, but there is good reason to suspect that by 1642 malaria has already traveled in immigrant bodies from England to the Americas. A single bite into an infected person is enough to introduce the parasite to its mosquito host, which spreads the parasite far and wide. Virginia and points south have already proven so unhealthy for Europeans that plantation overseers are finding it difficult to persuade laborers to come from overseas to work in the tobacco fields. Some landowners already have resolved this problem by purchasing workers from Africa. Partly driven by the introduction of malaria, a slave market is beginning to quicken into existence, a profitable exchange that will entwine itself over time with the silver market.

As it does today, malaria played a huge role in the past—a role unlike that of other diseases, and arguably larger. When Europeans brought smallpox and influenza to the Americas, they set off epidemics: sudden outbursts that shot through Indian towns and villages, then faded. Malaria, by contrast, became endemic, an ever-present, debilitating presence in the landscape. Socially speaking, malaria—along with another mosquito-borne disease, yellow fever—turned the Americas upside down. Before these maladies arrived, the most thickly inhabited terrain north of Mexico was what is now the southeastern United States, and the wet forests of Mesoamerica and Amazonia held millions of people. After malaria and yellow fever, these previously salubrious areas became inhospitable. Their former inhabitants fled to safer lands; Europeans who moved into the emptied real estate often did not survive a year.

The malaria parasite, a superbly canny creature, can hide in the liver for as long as five years, periodically emerging to produce full-blown malarial relapses.  Falciparum is one of the most deadly forms of malaria, because falciparum alters red blood cells so much they  stick to the walls of the tiny capillaries inside the kidneys, lungs, brain, and other organs. This hides the infected cells from the immune system but slowly cuts off circulation as the cells build up on the capillary walls like layers of paint on an old building. Untreated, the circulation stoppage leads to organ failure, which kills as many as one out of ten falciparum sufferers. Vivax doesn’t destroy organs, and thus is less deadly. But during its attacks sufferers are weak, stuporous, and anemic: ready prey for other diseases.

Falciparum, the most deadly variety of malaria, is also the most temperature sensitive. Around 72°F it hits a threshold; the parasite needs three weeks at this temperature to reproduce, which approaches the life expectancy of its mosquito host; below about 66°F it effectively cannot survive. Vivax, less fussy, has a threshold of about 59°F.

Malaria’s precise date of arrival will always lie in the realm of speculation. What is clear is that malaria rapidly made itself at home in Virginia. It became as inescapable there as it was in the English marshes—a constant, sapping part of life. When London investors shipped people to Virginia, Governor George Yeardley warned in 1620, they “must be content to have little service done by new men the first year till they be seasoned”—seasoning being the term for the period in which newcomers were expected to battle disease.

Indentured servants are by far more satisfactory than slaves.  They speak the same language, conform to the same social norms, and know European farming methods.  Since their contracts are limited in time, there’s little reason to run away.

Slaves make unsatisfactory workers. Because they were usually from distant cultures, they often didn’t speak their owners’ language and could be so unfamiliar with their owners’ societies that they would have to be trained from scratch (Africans, for example, knew only tropical forms of agriculture). Worse, they had every incentive to escape, wreak sabotage, or kill their owners, the people who were depriving them of liberty.

Because willing hands are more likely to do their jobs well, Smith reasoned in The Wealth of Nations, “the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.

Of all the nations in western Europe, moreover, England would be the last that one would expect to take up this especially brutal form of bondage, because opposition to slavery was more common there than the rest of Europe. If the continent had an antislavery culture, in fact, it was England. This was less a tribute to the nation’s moral advancement than an enraged response to the constant targeting of her ships by Barbary pirates, who from the 16th to 18th century enslaved tens of thousands of English sailors, soldiers, and merchants.

Based in northwest Africa, these Muslim corsairs prowled as far north as the English Channel, ransacking seaside villages and seizing ships at anchor; in just ten days, the mayor of Plymouth complained in 1625, buccaneers lurking outside the harbor took 27 vessels.  Most English captives were sent to the galleys; many were forcibly converted to Islam; others disappeared into slave caravans bound across the deserts to Ottoman Egypt or sub-Saharan Africa.

Slavery had been widespread in England in medieval times, as it was in the rest of Europe.  In England, though, it became exceptional—not actually illegal, but rare—for political reasons, for the economic reasons described by Smith, and because slavery as an institution had little appeal in a nation with mobs of unemployed workers.

As a consequence, the English colonies initially turned to indentured servants and largely avoided slaves. Indentured servants comprised between a third and a half of the Europeans who arrived in English North America in the first century of colonization. Slaves were rare—only 300 lived in of Virginia in 1650.

Then, between 1680 and 1700, the number of slaves suddenly exploded. Virginia’s slave population rose in those years from three thousand to sixteen thousand—and kept soaring thereafter. In the same period the tally of indentured servants shrank dramatically.

What accounts for this about-face? Economists and historians have mulled it over for decades.  Adam Smith predicted in The Wealth of Nations that laborers would see the available land around them and leave their jobs, “in order to become landlords themselves.” They would hire other workers in turn, who would “soon leave them for the same reason they left their first master.

If employers constantly lost workers to the lure of cheap land, then they would want to restrict their freedom of movement. Bondage was the inevitable end result. Paradoxically enough, America’s wide-open frontier was, from this perspective, an incitement to slavery.

At the very time the supply of desperate Scots was increasing the colonists turned to captive Africans—people who couldn’t speak the language, had no wish to cooperate, and cost more to transport. Why?

Indian slaves. The female slaves of Indians provided sexual services to honored male visitors (a gesture frequently misunderstood by Europeans, who thought that the Indians were offering their wives).

Economically speaking, indigenous slavery was a good deal for both natives and newcomers. In the Charleston market Indians sometimes could sell a single slave for the same price as 160 deerskins. “One slave brings a Gun, ammunition, horse, hatchet, and a suit of Clothes, which would not be procured without much tedious toil a hunting,” a Carolina slave buyer noted, perhaps with some exaggeration, in 1708. “The good prices The English traders give them for slaves Encourages them to this trade Extremely.  “Good prices” from the Indian point of view, but cheap to the English. Indian captives cost £5–10, as little as half the price of indentured servants,

The annual cost of ownership of slaves was much lower than indentured servants, because slaves did not have to be released after a few years—the purchase price could be amortized over decades.

Colonists chose Indian slaves over European servants. A 1708 census, Carolina’s first, found 4,000 English colonists, almost 1,500 Indian slaves, and just 160 servants, the majority presumably indentured. But the Indian slave trade was immensely profitable—and very short-lived. By 1715 it had almost vanished.

Working in groups, Indian slaves proved to be unreliable, even dangerous employees who used their knowledge of the terrain against their owners. Rhode Island denounced the “conspiracies, insurrections, rapes, thefts and other execrable crimes” committed by captive Indian laborers, and banned their import. So did Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

Indians were just as prone to malaria as English indentured servants—and more vulnerable to other diseases. Native people died in ghastly numbers across the entire Southeast.

Naturally, the colonists looked for a different solution to their labor needs—one less vulnerable to disease than European servants or Indian slaves. Carolina grew famous as a slave importer, a place where the slave ships arrived from Africa and the captives, dazed and sick, were hustled to auction. But for its first four decades the colony was mainly a slave exporter—the place from where captive Indians were sent to the Caribbean, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts

Here notice a striking geographical coincidence. By 1700, English colonies were studded along the Atlantic shore from what would become Maine to what would become South Carolina. Northern colonies coexisted with Algonkian-speaking Indian societies that had few slaves and little interest in buying and selling captives; southern colonies coexisted with former Mississippian societies with many slaves and considerable experience in trading them. Roughly speaking, the boundary between these two types of society was Chesapeake Bay, not far from what would become the boundary between slave and non-slave states in the United States. Did the proximity of Indian societies with slaves to sell help grease the skids for what would become African slavery in the South? Was the terrible conflict of the U.S. Civil War a partial reflection of a centuries-old native cultural divide? The implication is speculative, but not, it seems to me, unreasonable.

The death rate of European indentured servants was simply too high.  Europeans are very susceptible as can be seen by what happened to British soldiers. 19th-century parliamentary reports on British soldiers in West Africa concluded that disease killed between 48 and 67% of them every year. The rate for African troops in the same place, by contrast, was about 3%, an order-of-magnitude difference. African diseases slew so many Europeans, Curtin discovered, that slave ships often lost proportionately more white crewmen than black slaves—this despite the horrendous conditions below decks, where slaves were chained in their own excrement. To forestall losses, European slavers hired African crews.

Bigger planters had higher costs but were better insulated. Over time, they gained an edge; smaller outfits, meanwhile, struggled. Accentuating the gap, wealthy Carolinian plantation owners could afford to move to resorts in the fever-free mountains or shore during the sickness season. Poor farmers and slaves had to stay in the Plasmodium zone. In this way disease nudged apart rich and poor. Malarial places, the Rutmans said, drift easily toward “exaggerated economic polarization.” Plasmodium not only prodded farmers toward slavery, it rewarded big plantations, which further lifted the demand for slaves.

The classic southern plantation. High on a nearly treeless hill, with tall windows to admit the breeze, it was ideally suited to avoid mosquitoes and the diseases that accompanied them.

Malaria did not cause slavery. Rather, it strengthened the economic case for it.  Regardless of whether they knew it, though, planters with slaves tended to have an economic edge over planters with indentured servants. If two Carolina rice growers brought in ten workers apiece and one ended up after a year with nine workers and the other ended up with five, the first would be more likely to flourish.

Slavery would have existed in the Americas without the parasite. In 1641 Massachusetts, which had little malaria, became the first English colony to legalize slavery explicitly. During the mid-18th century, the healthiest spot in English North America may have been western Massachusetts’s Connecticut River Valley, according to an analysis by Dobson and Fischer. Malaria there was almost nonexistent; infectious disease, by the standards of the day, extremely rare. Yet slavery was part of the furniture of daily life—at that time almost every minister, usually the most important man in town, had one or two. About 8% of the inhabitants of the main street of Deerfield were African slaves.

Sugar production is awful work that requires many hands. The cane is a tall, tough Asian grass, vaguely reminiscent of its distant cousin bamboo. Plantations burn the crop before harvest to prevent the knifelike leaves from slashing workers. Swinging machetes into the hard, soot-smeared cane under the tropical sun, field hands quickly splattered themselves head to foot with a sticky mixture of dust, ash, and cane juice.

Yellow fever virus kills about half of its victims—43 to 59% in six well-documented episodes McNeill compiled in Mosquito Empires. Survivors acquire lifelong immunity. In Africa yellow fever was a childhood disease that inflicted relatively little suffering. In the Caribbean it was a dire plague that passed over Africans while ravaging Europeans, Indians, and slaves born in the islands.

Slave states sought to prevent their education because would encourage them to aspire far above their station in life. Wrong ideas in the wrong people’s hands could put the elites’ political power at risk.

In malaria zones, the primary victims are children. Adults as a rule have already had the disease and become immune upon survival. The adults who have most to fear are recent arrivals—a lesson that was learned in the Americas again and again, perhaps most dramatically during the U.S. Civil War. Much of the war was fought in the South by troops from the North. Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Yankees broke an epidemiological barrier. The effects were enormous. In July 1861, three months after the conflict began, the Union’s Army of the Potomac marched from Washington to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. It was repulsed at what became known to Yankees as the Battle of Bull Run and to Confederates as the Battle of Manassas. After fleeing to Washington, the generals dragged their feet about further action. President Lincoln railed against their pusillanimity, but they may have had a point. In the year after Bull Run, at least a third of the Army of the Potomac suffered from what army statistics describe as remittent fever, malaria. Union troops in North Carolina fared still worse. An expeditionary force of fifteen thousand landed at Roanoke Island in early 1862, and spent much of the war enforcing a naval blockade from a fort on the coastline. The air at dusk shimmered with Anopheles quadrimaculatus. Between the summer of 1863 and the summer of 1864, the official annual infection rate for intermittent fevers was 233 percent—the average soldier was felled two times or more.

Incompetent generalship, valiant opponents, and long supply lines were partly to blame. But so was malaria—the price of entering the Plasmodium zone. During the war the annual case rate never dropped below 40 percent. In one year Plasmodium infected 361,968 troops. The parasite killed few directly, but it so badly weakened them that they succumbed readily to dysentery or measles or what military doctors then called “chronic rheumatism” (probably a strep infection). At least 600,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, the most deadly conflict in U.S. history. Most of those lives were not lost in battle.

Disease killed twice as many Union troops as Confederate bullets or shells.

Malaria also helped to stop the British army. Cornwallis estimated that only 3,800 of his 7,700 men were fit to fight, although historians like to credit victory to American leaders because of their bravery and skill.   But “revolutionary mosquitoes” played an equally critical role.  With Cornwallis’s troops falling to the Columbian Exchange in ever-greater numbers, the British army surrendered, effectively creating the United States, on October 17, 1781.

Today some fear that global warming will foster the spread of malaria. But if people continue destroying mosquito habitat by draining wetlands the hotter weather may have no impact on malaria rates.

How Potatoes changed history

Today the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, surpassed in harvest volume only by sugarcane, wheat, maize, and rice.

Compared to grains, tubers are inherently more productive. If the head of a wheat or rice plant grows too big, the plant will fall over, with fatal results. Modern plant breeders have developed wheat and rice varieties with shorter, stronger stalks that can bear heavier loads of grain. But even they could not support something as heavy as an Idaho potato.

Many scholars believe that the introduction of S. tuberosum to Europe was a key moment in history. This is because their widespread consumption largely coincided with the end of famine in northern Europe. (Maize, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) More than that, the celebrated historian William H. McNeill has argued, S. tuberosum led to empire: “[P]otatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.” Hunger’s end helped create the political stability that allowed European nations to take advantage of American silver. The potato fueled the rise of the West.

Potatoes would not seem obvious candidates for domestication. Wild tubers are laced with solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds thought to defend the plants against attacks from dangerous organisms like fungi, bacteria, and human beings. Cooking often breaks down a plant’s chemical defenses—many beans, for example, are safe to eat only after being soaked and heated—but solanine and tomatine are unaffected by the pot and oven. Andean peoples apparently neutralized them by eating dirt: clay, to be precise. In the altiplano, guanacos and vicuñas (wild relatives of the llama) lick clay before eating poisonous plants. The toxins in the foliage stick—more technically, “adsorb”—to the fine clay particles. Bound to dirt, the harmful substances pass through the animals’ digestive system without affecting it. Mimicking this process, Indians apparently dunked wild potatoes in a “gravy” made of clay and water. Eventually they bred less lethal varieties, though some of the old, poisonous tubers still remain, favored for their resistance to frost. Bags of clay dust are still sold in mountain markets to accompany them on the table.

The effects of this transformation were so striking that any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S. tuberosum should be ignored. Hunger was a familiar presence in the Europe of the Little Ice Age, where cold weather killed crops even as Spanish silver drove up prices. Cities were provisioned reasonably well in most years, their granaries monitored by armed guards, but country people teetered on a precipice. When harvests failed, food riots ensued; thousands occurred across Europe between 1400 and 1700, according to the great French historian Fernand Braudel. Over and over, rioters, often led by women, broke into bakeries, granaries, and flour mills and either stole food outright or forced merchants to accept a “just” price. Ravenous bandits swarmed the highways, seizing grain convoys to cities. Order was restored by violent action.

Braudel cited an eighteenth-century tally of famine in France: forty nationwide calamities between 1500 and 1778, more than one every decade. This appalling figure actually understates the level of scarcity, he wrote, “because it omits the hundreds and hundreds of local famines.” France was not exceptional; England had seventeen national and big regional famines between 1523 and 1623. Florence, hardly a poor city, “experienced 111 years when people were hungry, and only sixteen ‘very good’ harvests between 1371 and 1791”—seven bad years for every bumper year. The continent could not feed itself reliably. It was caught in the Malthusian trap.

As the sweet potato and maize did in China, the potato (and maize, to a lesser extent) helped Europe escape Malthus. When the agricultural economist Arthur Young toured eastern England in the 1760s he saw a farming world that was on the verge of a new era. A careful investigator, Young interviewed farmers, recording their methods and the size of their harvests. According to his figures, the average yearly harvest in eastern England from an acre of wheat, barley, and oats was between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds. By contrast, an acre of potatoes yielded more than 25,000 pounds

Potatoes didn’t replace grain but complemented it. Every year, farmers left fallow as much as half of their grain land, to replenish the land and fight weeds (they were plowed under in summer). Now smallholders could grow potatoes on the fallow land, controlling weeds by hoeing. Because potatoes were so productive, the effective result was, in terms of calories, to double Europe’s food supply. “For the first time in the history of western Europe, a definitive solution had been found to the food problem”.

Routine famine almost disappeared in potato country, a two-thousand-mile band that stretched from Ireland in the west to Russia’s Ural Mountains in the east. At long last, the continent could, with the arrival of the potato, produce its own dinner.

Although the potato raised farm production overall, its greater benefit was to make that production more reliable. Before S. tuberosum, summer was usually a hungry time, with stored grain supplies running low before the fall harvest. Potatoes, which mature in as little as three months, could be planted in April and dug up during the thin months of July and August. And because they were gathered early, they were unlikely to be affected by an unseasonable fall—the kind of weather that ruined wheat harvests.

In war-torn areas, potatoes could be left in the ground for months, making them harder to steal by foraging soldiers. (Armies in those days did not march with rations but took their food, usually by force, from local farmers.)

The economist Adam Smith, writing a few years after Young, was equally taken with the potato. He was impressed to see that the Irish remained exceptionally healthy despite eating little else: “The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution—the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions—are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root.” Today we know why: the potato can better sustain life than any other food when eaten as the sole item of diet. It has all essential nutrients except vitamins A and D, which can be supplied by milk;

At the same time that the sweet potato and maize were midwifing a population boom in China, the potato was helping to lift populations in Europe—the more potatoes, the more people.

The Irish, who ate more potatoes than anyone else, had the biggest boom; the nation grew from perhaps 1.5 million in the early 1600s to about 8.5 million two centuries later. (Some believed it reached 9 or even 10 million.) The increase occurred not because potato eaters had more children but because more of their children survived. Part of the impact was direct: potatoes prevented deaths from famine. The greater impact, though, was indirect: better-nourished people were less likely to die of infectious disease, the era’s main killer. Norway was an example. Cold climate had long made it vulnerable to famine, which struck nationwide in 1742, 1762, 1773, 1785, and 1809. Then came the potato. The average death rate changed relatively little, but the big spikes vanished. When they were smoothed out, Norwegian numbers soared.

Such stories were recorded all over the continent. Hard hit by the shorter growing seasons of the Little Ice Age, mountain hamlets in Switzerland were saved by the potato—indeed, they thrived.

The Irish, who ate more potatoes than anyone else, had the biggest boom; the nation grew from perhaps 1.5 million in the early 1600s to about 8.5 million two centuries later. (Some believed it reached 9 or even 10 million.) The increase occurred not because potato eaters had more children but because more of their children survived. Part of the impact was direct: potatoes prevented deaths from famine. The greater impact, though, was indirect: better-nourished people were less likely to die of infectious disease, the era’s main killer. Norway was an example. Cold climate had long made it vulnerable to famine, which struck nationwide in 1742, 1762, 1773, 1785, and 1809. Then came the potato. The average death rate changed relatively little, but the big spikes vanished. When they were smoothed out, Norwegian numbers soared.

The Irish, who ate more potatoes than anyone else, had the biggest boom; the nation grew from perhaps 1.5 million in the early 1600s to about 8.5 million two centuries later. (Some believed it reached 9 or even 10 million.) The increase occurred not because potato eaters had more children but because more of their children survived. Part of the impact was direct: potatoes prevented deaths from famine. The greater impact, though, was indirect: better-nourished people were less likely to die of infectious disease, the era’s main killer. Norway was an example. Cold climate had long made it vulnerable to famine, which struck nationwide in 1742, 1762, 1773, 1785, and 1809. Then came the potato. The average death rate changed relatively little, but the big spikes vanished. When they were smoothed out, Norwegian numbers soared.

Just as American crops were not the only cause of China’s population boom, they were not the only reason for Europe’s population boom. The potato arrived in the midst of changes in food production so sweeping that some historians have described them as an “agricultural revolution.” Improved transportation networks made it easier to ship food from prosperous areas to places with poor harvests.

Marshlands and upland pastures were reclaimed. Shared village land was awarded to individual families, dispossessing many smallholders but encouraging the growth of mechanized agriculture

Advances were not confined to agriculture. American silver let Europeans build ships to increase trade, raising living standards. Some improvements occurred in the continent’s governance and even in its abysmal hygiene standards

In 2010 two economists at Harvard and Yale attempted to account for such factors by comparing events in parts of Europe that were similar except for their suitability for potatoes; any systematic differences, they argued, would be due to the new crop. According to the two researchers’ “most conservative” estimate, S. tuberosum was responsible for about an eighth of Europe’s population increase.


Bird poop, potatoes, pesticides

The bacteria in the soil constantly digest nitrates and nitrites, turning the nitrogen back into unusable nitrogen gas.

Unlike mammalian urine, bird urine is a semisolid substance. Because of this difference, birds can build up reefs of urine in a way that mammals cannot (except, occasionally, for big colonies of bats in caves). Even among birds, though, Chincha-style guano deposits—heaps as big as a twelve-story building—are uncommon. To make them, the birds must be relatively large, form big flocks, and defecate where they live (gulls, for instance, release their droppings away from their breeding grounds). In addition, the area must be dry enough not to wash away the guano. The waters off the Peruvian coast receive less than an inch of rain a year. The Chinchas, the most important of Peru’s 147 guano islands, house hundreds of thousands of Peruvian cormorants, the most prolific guano producers. According to The Biogeochemistry of Vertebrate Excretion, a classic treatise by G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a cormorant’s annual output is about thirty-five pounds. Arithmetic suggests that the Chincha cormorants alone produce thousands of tons per year.

At the time, the best-known soil additive was bone meal, made by pulverizing bones from slaughterhouses. Bushels of bones went to grinding factories in Britain, France, and Germany. Demand ratcheted up, driven by fears of soil depletion. Bone dealers supplied the factories from increasingly untoward sources, including the recent battlefields of Waterloo and Austerlitz. “It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment upon an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce,” remarked the London Observer in 1822. The newspaper noted that there was no reason to believe that grave robbers were limiting themselves to battlefields. “For aught known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread.  From this perspective, avian feces began to seem like a reasonable item of commerce.

Peru had awarded a monopoly on shipping guano internationally to a company in Liverpool. With demand outstripping supply, Peru and its British consignees were able to charge high prices. Their customers reacted with fury to what they viewed as extortion. Decrying the “powerful monopoly” on guano, the British Farmer’s Magazine laid out its readers’ demands in 1854. “We do not get anything like the quantity we require; we want a great deal more; but at the same time, we want it at a lower price.” If Peru insisted on getting a lot of money for a valuable product, the only fair solution was invasion. Seize the guano islands! From today’s perspective, the outrage—threats of legal action, whispers of war, editorials about the Guano Question—is hard to understand. But agriculture was then “the central economic activity of every nation,” as the environmental historian Shawn William Miller has pointed out. “A nation’s fertility, which was set by the soil’s natural bounds, inevitably shaped national economic success.” In just a few years, agriculture in Europe and the United States had become dependent on high-intensity fertilizer—a dependency that has not been shaken since. Britain, first to adopt guano and by far the largest user, was both the most dependent and the most resentful. Much as oil buyers today begrudge the member nations of OPEC, Peru’s British customers ranted about the guano cartel. They were apoplectic as Peru’s guano barons sauntered around Lima in the latest Parisian fashions, bejeweled trollops on their arms.

Congress passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856, authorizing its citizens to seize any guano islands they saw. The biggest loads came from Navassa, an island fifty miles west of Haiti, which the United States took in 1857.

Under the aegis of the Guano Islands Act, merchants claimed title to ninety-four islands, cays, coral heads, and atolls between 1856 and 1903. The Department of State officially recognized sixty-six as U.S. possessions. Most proved to have little guano and were quickly abandoned. Nine remain under U.S. control today.

Recall that almost four out of ten Irish ate no solid food except potatoes, and that the rest were heavily dependent on them. Recall, too, that Ireland was one of the poorest nations in Europe. At a stroke, the blight removed the food supply from half the country—and there was no money to buy grain from outside. The consequences were horrific; Ireland was transformed into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Destitute men lined the roads in their rags, sleeping in crude shelters dug into roadside ditches. People ate dogs, rats, and tree bark. Reports of cannibalism were frequent and perhaps accurate. Entire families died in their homes and were eaten by feral pets. Disease picked at the survivors: dysentery, smallpox, typhus, measles, a host of ailments listed in death records as “fever.” Mobs of beggars—“homeless, half-naked, famishing creatures,” one observer called them—besieged the homes of the wealthy, calling for alms. So many died that in many western towns the bodies were interred in mass graves.

As resources vanished, life became a struggle of all against all. Starving men stole into fields to steal turnips from the ground. Farmers dug mantraps in their fields to stop them. Landlords evicted tenants in huge numbers, tore down their homes, then went bankrupt themselves. Neighbor fought neighbor for food and shelter. Crime levels exploded, the murder rate almost doubling in two years. Some hungry people stole to put food on the table, others to be fed while incarcerated. In one case two men released from prison were sent back the next day for trying “to break into jail.” The only violent crime to decline was rape, because potential perpetrators lacked the energy.

Britain mounted the biggest aid program in its history, but it was catastrophically insufficient—largely, Irish nationalists charge, because London treated the crisis as a chance to expand its efforts to transform Ireland’s “primitive” subsistence farming to export-oriented agriculture. Instead of simply providing food, the British pulled people off the farm, massed them in workhouses, and fed them from soup kitchens; meanwhile, the farms were consolidated into bigger, more export-friendly units. Other critics point to the export of food from Ireland during the famine: 430,000 tons of grain in 1846 and 1847, the two worst years. “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight,” nationalist leader John Mitchel thundered, “but the English created the famine.

At a million or more fatalities, it was one of the deadliest famines in history, in terms of the percentage of population lost. A similar famine in the United States today would kill almost forty million people. Only the famine of 1918–22 in the Soviet Union may have been worse.

Something about Ireland was uniquely vulnerable—but what? One part of the answer was the sheer number of potatoes, a fat target for the blight. Another part was the uniformity of the crop. According to Ó Gráda, the blight historian, about half of Ireland was dominated by a single, outstandingly productive variety: the Lumper.

Murphy had never seen the beetle before its hordes suddenly attacked his potatoes. Nor had his neighbors who also were visited by it, or the farmers in Iowa and Nebraska whom it invaded that summer. The insect marched steadily north and east, expanding its range by fifty to a hundred miles a year, shocking potato growers at every step. It reached Illinois and Wisconsin in 1864; Michigan, by 1870. Seven years later it was attacking potatoes from Maine to North Carolina. The little insects swarmed potato fields in such profusion, according to one widely repeated story, that they stopped nearby trains. Their bodies covered the tracks in a layer deep enough to make the wheels slip “as if oiled, so that the locomotive was powerless to draw the train of cars.” Strong winds blew the beetles into the sea, from which they washed ashore in a glittering, yellow-orange carpet that fouled beaches from New Jersey to New Hampshire. Farmers had no idea where the creature had come from or how to stop it from eating their potato fields to the ground.

Today it occupies a swath of Europe that reaches from Athens to Stockholm. In the Americas its realm extends from south-central Mexico to north-central Canada. Many biologists fear that it will spread into East and South Asia, completing a round-the-world journey.

A single genetic accident in a single individual was enough to generate a worldwide problem. The beetle is the potato’s most devastating pest to this day. “One of the worst features of the present visitation,” the newspaper continued, “is that the Colorado beetle is noted for its permanency, and rarely abandons localities until it has ravaged them for several seasons in succession.…

Farmers tried everything they could think of: picking off and crushing beetles with special pincers; trying to find less-attractive potato varieties; encouraging the insect’s natural predators (ladybirds, soldier beetles, certain species of tiger beetle); moving potato fields every season, thus avoiding beetles overwintering (an insect version of hibernation) in the soil; surrounding their plots with buffalo bur, “so as to concentrate the insects, and thus more readily destroy them”—

An Iowa man touted his horse-drawn beetle remover, which raked the insects into a box dragged behind. Potato growers doused plants with lime, sprinkled sulfur, spread ashes, sprayed with tobacco juice. They mixed coal tar with water and splashed that on the beetles. Some farmers reportedly tried wine. Others tried kerosene. Nothing worked.

Because growers planted just a few varieties of a single species, pests had a narrower range of natural defenses to overcome. If a species was able to adapt to the potatoes in one place, it would not have to adapt to those in others. It could simply jump from one identical food pool to the next—a task that was easier than ever, thanks to modern inventions like railroads, steamships, and refrigeration. Not only did industrial agriculture present insects with a series of rich, identical targets; these faster, denser transportation networks made it ever easier for faraway species to exploit them.

The late nineteenth century was, in consequence, a time of insect plagues. The boll weevil, slipping over the border from Mexico, wiped out so much cotton in the South that the governor of South Carolina proclaimed a day of public prayer and fasting to fight the bug. The cottony cushion scale, an Australian insect, swept through California’s citrus industry. A European import, the elm leaf beetle, ravaged elm trees in U.S. cities; Dutch elm disease, introduced from Asia despite the name, would arrive later and more or less wipe out all elms east of the Mississippi. Returning the favor, the United States exported phylloxera, an aphid that wrecked vineyards in most of France and Italy.

Paris Green’s insecticidal properties were supposedly discovered by a farmer who finished painting his shutters and in a fit of annoyance threw the remaining paint on his beetle-infested potato plants. The emerald pigment in the paint was Paris Green, made largely from arsenic and copper. Developed in the late eighteenth century, it was common in paints, fabrics, and wallpaper. Farmers diluted it heavily with flour and dusted it on their potatoes or mixed it with lots of water and sprayed. Paris Green was a simple, reliable solution: buy the pigment, mix in flour or water according to the manufacturer’s instructions, apply it with a sprinkler or dust box, and watch potato beetles die. To potato farmers, Paris Green was a godsend. To the nascent chemical industry, it was something that could be tinkered with and extended and improved. If arsenic killed potato beetles, why not try it on other pests? Why not spray Paris Green to combat cotton worm, apple cankerworm, apple codling moth, elm leaf beetle, juniper webworm, and that plague of blueberries, the northern walking stick? Arsenic killed them all. It was a godsend to cotton farmers reeling from the boll weevil.

Eager scientists and engineers invented foggers and pumpers, sprayers and dusters, pressure valves and adjustable brass nozzles. The dust changed to liquid; the copper-arsenic mix changed to a lead-arsenic mix and then a calcium-arsenic mix.

From the beginning, farmers knew that Paris Green and copper sulfate were toxic. Even before the discovery of its insecticidal properties, many people had got sick from living in homes with wallpaper printed with Paris Green. The thought of spraying food with this poison made farmers anxious. They dreaded the prospect of letting pesticides and fungicides build up in the soil. They worried about exposing themselves and their workers to dangerous chemicals. They were alarmed by the cost of all the technology. All of these fears came true, but all could be adjusted for, at least in part. For a long time, farmers didn’t know about the most worrisome issue of all: inevitably, the chemicals would stop working.

As early as 1912 a few beetles showed signs of immunity to Paris Green. Farmers didn’t notice, though, because the pesticide industry kept coming up with new arsenic compounds that kept killing potato beetles. By the 1940s growers on Long Island found themselves having to use ever-greater quantities of the newest arsenic variant, calcium arsenate, to maintain their fields.

Farmers bought DDT and exulted as insects vanished from their fields. The celebration lasted about seven years. The beetle adapted.

Potato growers demanded new chemicals. The industry provided dieldrin. It lasted about 3 years. By the mid-1980s, each new pesticide in the eastern United States was good for about a season.  In what critics call the “toxic treadmill,” potato farmers now treat their crops a dozen or more times a season with an ever-changing cavalcade of deadly substances. Many writers have decried this, perhaps none more elegantly than Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire. As Pollan observed, large-scale potato farmers now douse their land with so many fumigants, fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides that they create what are known, euphemistically, as “clean fields”—swept free of life, except for potato plants. (In addition, the crops are sprayed with artificial fertilizer, usually once a week during growing season.) If rain doesn’t fall for a few days, the powders and solutions can build up on the surface of the soil, creating a residue that resembles the aftermath of a chemical-warfare test.

Researchers believe that the chemical assault is counterproductive. Strong pesticides kill not only target species but their insect enemies as well. When the target species develop resistance, they often find their prospects better than before—everything that had previously kept them in check is gone. In this way, paradoxically, insecticides can end up increasing the number of harmful insects—unless farmers control them with yet more chemical weapons.

Blight, too, has returned. Swiss researchers were dismayed in 1981 to discover that the second type of P. infestans oomycete, previously known only in Mexico, had found its way to Europe. Because the blight was now capable of “sexual” reproduction, it had greater genetic diversity—more resources, that is, to adapt to chemical control. Similar introductions occurred in the United States. In both cases the new strains were more virulent, and more resistant to metalaxyl, the chief current anti-blight treatment. No good substitute has yet appeared. In 2009, as I was writing this book, potato blight wiped out most of the tomatoes and potatoes on the East Coast of the United States. Driven by an unusually wet summer, it turned gardens all around me into slime.

Compared to grains, potatoes have more water, which is nutritionally useless. In the past potatoes were about 22 percent dry matter; wheat, by contrast, was about 88 percent. Thus the 25,620 pounds/acre yield of potatoes found by Young was equivalent to 5,636 pounds/acre of dry matter. Similarly, wheat’s 1,440 pounds/acre yield would be 1,267 pounds/acre of dry matter. For this reason, it is fairer to say that potatoes were about four times more productive than wheat.

The historian Kenneth Pomeranz has argued that “some of the most intensely farmed soils of Europe (including in England) faced serious depletion by the early nineteenth century.” If guano had not arrived, Pomeranz believes, the consequences may not have been simply remaining at the same level but a full-scale disaster across much of the continent.

Why silver, tobacco, and sweet potatoes ultimately led to China’s downfall

There is little evidence, though, that Beijing anticipated the worst consequences. As in Europe, so much silver flooded into China that the price eventually dropped. By about 1640 silver was worth no more in China than it was in the rest of the world. At this point the Ming government was tripped up by an error it had committed decades in the past. When the court had ordered citizens to pay their taxes in silver, it had set up the tax rolls in terms of the weight of silver people had to pay, not its value. As with Spain, the taxes were not indexed for inflation. As with Spain, the same amount of tax was worth less money when the price of silver dropped. The Ming dynasty had a revenue shortfall. Not having paper currency, the government couldn’t print more money—deficit spending was impossible. Suddenly it couldn’t pay for national defense. It was a bad time to run out of money for the military: China was then under assault by the belligerent northern groups now called Manchus. According to William Atwell, a historian at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the Chinese government’s dependence on the silver trade helped push it over the edge. The takeover by the Manchus—they became the Qing dynasty—took decades and was bloody even by the tough standards of Chinese history. Nobody knows how many millions died.

There is little evidence, though, that Beijing anticipated the worst consequences. As in Europe, so much silver flooded into China that the price eventually dropped. By about 1640 silver was worth no more in China than it was in the rest of the world. At this point the Ming government was tripped up by an error it had committed decades in the past. When the court had ordered citizens to pay their taxes in silver, it had set up the tax rolls in terms of the weight of silver people had to pay, not its value. As with Spain, the taxes were not indexed for inflation. As with Spain, the same amount of tax was worth less money when the price of silver dropped. The Ming dynasty had a revenue shortfall. Not having paper currency, the government couldn’t print more money—deficit spending was impossible. Suddenly it couldn’t pay for national defense. It was a bad time to run out of money for the military: China was then under assault by the belligerent northern groups now called Manchus. According to William Atwell, a historian at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the Chinese government’s dependence on the silver trade helped push it over the edge. The takeover by the Manchus—they became the Qing dynasty—took decades and was bloody even by the tough standards of Chinese history. Nobody knows how many millions died.

Atwell’s contentions have been vigorously debated, yet there is little doubt that China’s entry into the galleon trade had consequences of a sort rarely discussed in freshman economics textbooks. Flynn and Giráldez point out that China devoted a big fraction of its productive base to acquiring the silver needed for commerce and government. For hundreds of years, China produced silk, porcelain, and tea to acquire a commodity, silver, which was needed to replace the paper notes that the government had made valueless. It was as if to buy a newspaper for a dollar one first had to make and sell something else to get the dollar banknote. Actually, it was worse: the silver stocks had to be constantly replenished, incurring further costs, because the metal was constantly worn away as it passed from hand to hand. (Paper money wears out, too, but costs next to nothing to replace.)

Atwell’s contentions have been vigorously debated, yet there is little doubt that China’s entry into the galleon trade had consequences of a sort rarely discussed in freshman economics textbooks. Flynn and Giráldez point out that China devoted a big fraction of its productive base to acquiring the silver needed for commerce and government. For hundreds of years, China produced silk, porcelain, and tea to acquire a commodity, silver, which was needed to replace the paper notes that the government had made valueless. It was as if to buy a newspaper for a dollar one first had to make and sell something else to get the dollar banknote. Actually, it was worse: the silver stocks had to be constantly replenished, incurring further costs, because the metal was constantly worn away as it passed from hand to hand. (Paper money wears out, too, but costs next to nothing to replace.)

Atwell’s contentions have been vigorously debated, yet there is little doubt that China’s entry into the galleon trade had consequences of a sort rarely discussed in freshman economics textbooks. Flynn and Giráldez point out that China devoted a big fraction of its productive base to acquiring the silver needed for commerce and government. For hundreds of years, China produced silk, porcelain, and tea to acquire a commodity, silver, which was needed to replace the paper notes that the government had made valueless. It was as if to buy a newspaper for a dollar one first had to make and sell something else to get the dollar banknote. Actually, it was worse: the silver stocks had to be constantly replenished, incurring further costs, because the metal was constantly worn away as it passed from hand to hand. (Paper money wears out, too, but costs next to nothing to replace.)

China’s tobacco addiction occurred in an entirely different context, and thus had an entirely different impact. N. tabacum was part of an unplanned ecological invasion that shaped, for better and worse, modern China. At the time, China had roughly a quarter of the world’s population, which had to provide for itself on roughly a twelfth of the world’s arable land. Both figures are imprecise at best, but there is little dispute that the nation has long had a lot of people and that it always has had relatively little land to grow crops to feed them. In practical terms, China had to harvest huge amounts of food—half or more of the national diet—from areas with enough water to grow rice and wheat. Unluckily, those areas are relatively small. The nation has many deserts, few big lakes, irregular rainfall, and just two major rivers, the Yangzi and the Huang He (Yellow). Both rivers run long, looping courses from the western mountains to the Pacific coast, emptying into the sea scarcely 150 miles from each other. The Yangzi carries mountain runoff into the rice-growing flats near the end of its course. The Huang He takes it into the North China Plain, then as now the center of Chinese wheat production. Both areas are vital to feeding the nation; there are no other places in China like them. And both are prone to catastrophic floods.

Song and Yuan, Ming and Qing—every dynasty understood both this vulnerability and the concomitant necessity of maintaining China’s agricultural base by controlling the Yangzi and Huang He. So important was water management that European savants like Karl Marx and Max Weber identified it as China’s most important institution. Creating and operating huge, complex irrigation systems, Weber claimed, required organizing masses of laborers, which inevitably created a powerful state bureaucracy and subjugated the individual.

“No large group of the human race in the Old World was quicker to adopt American food plants than the Chinese,” Alfred W. Crosby wrote in The Columbian Exchange. Sweet potatoes, maize, peanuts, tobacco, chili peppers, pineapple, cashew, manioc (cassava)—all poured into Fujian (via the galleon trade), Guangdong (the province southwest of Fujian, via Portuguese ships in Macao), and Korea (via Japan, which took them from the Dutch). All became part of the furniture of Chinese life—who can imagine Sichuan (Szechuan) food today without heaps of hot peppers? “While men who stormed Tenochtitlan with Cortés still lived,” Crosby said, “peanuts were swelling in the sandy loams near Shanghai; maize was turning fields green in south China; and the sweet potato was on its way to becoming the poor man’s staple in Fujian.

Sweet potatoes in China are often eaten raw, the skin whittled off in a fashion that makes them somewhat resemble ice cream cones.

The 1580s and 1590s, an intense point in the Little Ice Age, were two decades of hard cold rains that flooded Fujianese valleys, washing away rice paddies and drowning the crop. Famine shadowed the rains. Poor families were reduced to eating bark, grass, insects, and even the seeds found in wild-goose excrement.

To deny supplies to the Ming/wokou, the Qing army forced the coastal population from Guangdong to Shandong—the entire eastern “bulge” of China, a 2,500-mile stretch of coastline—to move en masse into the interior. Beginning in 1652, soldiers marched into seaside villages and burned houses, knocked down walls, and smashed ancestral shrines; families, often given only a few days’ warning, evacuated with nothing but their clothes. All privately owned ships were set afire or sunk. Anyone who stayed behind was slain. “We became vagrants, fleeing and scattering,” one Fujianese family history recalled. People “simply went in one direction until they halted,” another said. “Those who did not die scattered over distant and nearby localities.” For three decades the shoreline was emptied to a distance inland of as much as fifty miles. It was a scorched-earth policy, except that the Qing scorched the enemy’s earth, not their own.

For almost 2,000 years, China’s numbers had grown very slowly. That changed in the decades after the violent Qing takeover. From the arrival of American crops at the beginning of the new dynasty to the end of the eighteenth century, population soared. Historians debate the exact size of the increase; many believe the population roughly doubled, to as much as 300 million people. Whatever the precise figure, the jump in numbers had big consequences. It was the demographic surge that transformed the nation into a watchword for crowding.

About the time that the Spaniards arrived in Manila sweet potatoes were displacing native crops like yam, sago, and banana. As had the Chinese, islanders were using sweet potato’s high yields and tolerance of bad soil to move into highland areas that had been lightly settled before. New Guinea was so transformed that some archaeologists speak of an “Ipomoean revolution.” Still, the impact in China was bigger, if only because China is so big, and because the country had a centralized government that could enforce policies that spread sweet potato.

Were maize, potatoes, and sweet potatoes entirely responsible for China’s population boom? No. American plants arrived as the Qing were transforming China. Ambitious on many fronts, the dynasty fought disease and hunger, the nation’s two major killers, by enacting a program, the world’s first, of smallpox inoculation; expanding a nationwide network of granaries that bought surplus grain and sold it at low, state-controlled prices during shortages; and implementing what were, for the era, sophisticated disaster-relief programs (some were as simple as a halt in the collection of grain levies in famine-struck areas). At the same time, the Qing campaigned against the nation’s traditional population-control method: female infanticide. Many Chinese men had spent their days as bachelors, because infanticide removed women from the population. Now more could marry and have babies; now their babies were less likely to die from smallpox and starvation. Now, too, farm families were less likely to be driven into penury by the state: the Kangxi emperor promised in 1713 that the dynasty would never raise the basic tax on cropland, even though it was making massive investments in transportation networks so that farmers could sell their harvests, raising their incomes. Happily, those harvests were likely to grow; the Little Ice Age was waning.

Still, as noted by Lan, the Sichuan historian, most of the increase took place in the areas with American crops. The families that Qing policies encouraged to move west needed to eat, and what they ate, day in and day out, was maize, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Part of the reason China is the world’s most populous nation is the Columbian Exchange.

New roads built by the Chinese to help merchants ship rice and wheat from places with abundant harvests to places that needed supplies. Instead smallholders discovered they could make more money by switching from rice and wheat to sugarcane, peanuts, mulberry trees, and, most of all, tobacco. Initially the Qing court cracked down on this shift, insisting that peasant farmers practice “correct agriculture”—that is, grow rice and wheat. “Tobacco is not healthy for the people,” the Yongzheng emperor proclaimed in 1727. “Because cultivating tobacco requires using rich land, its cultivation is harmful for growing grain.” But as the court grew more insular and debased—seemingly the fate of all Chinese dynasties—it lost interest in enforcing agricultural correctness. Farmers seized their opportunity. Tobacco required four to six times more fertilizer and twice as much labor as rice, but was more profitable; China’s growing battalions of nicotine addicts were willing to pay more for their pipes than their food.

Tobacco appeared in almost every corner in China, according to Tao Weining, an agricultural historian in Guangdong. And it was a big presence in those places: in two typical hilly areas examined by Tao, “nearly half” of the total farmland was devoted to N. tabacum. In consequence, the local price of rice doubled, as did the price of most common vegetables and fruits. Farmers ended up spending their tobacco profits on food expensively imported from other parts of China. As in Virginia, tobacco drained the land. When farmers exhausted the soil from one former rice paddy, they went to the next. And when they ran out of rice paddies, they went into the hills. The same phenomenon is still occurring today.

At the edge of the village a sign proclaimed that China Tobacco, a state monopoly, had contracted with Yongding’s farmers to convert their paddies to tobacco. The company had built a new road to facilitate harvest. From atop the terraces we looked down on horizontal arcs of splayed, fleshy green arrows: N. tabacum.

In Yongding, the villagers had replaced some of the lost rice with maize, shoving plants into the ground everywhere they could find a scrap of plausible land: roadside ditches, backyard plots, the walls of the gullies below the houses. Somebody had stuck maize seedlings into a pickup-sized heap of dirt and gravel left by a recent landslide. During the eighteenth century, the same kind of thing took place all over China. Jamming maize and sweet potatoes into every nook and crevice, shack people and migrants almost tripled the nation’s cultivated area between 1700 and 1850. To create the necessary farmland, they knocked down centuries-old forests. Bereft of tree cover, the slopes no longer retained rainwater. Soil nutrients washed down the hills. Eventually the depleted land would not support even maize and sweet potatoes. Farmers would clear more forest, and the cycle would begin anew.* Some of the worst devastation was in the steep, crabbed hills of eastern central China, home of the shack people. Heavy, hammering rains, common in this area, constantly flush out minerals and organic matter. The weathered soil can’t hold water—“if it doesn’t rain for ten days,” one local writer said in 1607, “the soil becomes dry and scorched and cracks like the lines on a tortoise’s back.” The land was arable, in the sense that maize and sweet potatoes would grow in it.

But harvesting them for more than a season or two was next to impossible without shoveling in generous amounts of lime or ashes to reduce acidity, manure to boost organic matter, and fertilizer to increase nitrogen and phosphorus. This had to be done every year, because rain kept leaching nutrients.

Maize is planted in widely spaced rows, unlike wheat and millet, which is grown across solid blocks. Many farmers did not realize for a long time that maize therefore left more of the soil uncovered and hence exposed to rain. And some didn’t understand that planting the maize in rows straight up and down the hills, rather than across the slope, would channel that rain down the slope, increasing erosion.

Farmers used upstream dikes to hold back water until needed, controlling irrigation levels by adjusting gates. In a flood, the sudden gush of water could wipe out both the dikes and the paddies they fed, bringing down the whole system. Paradoxically, the deluges drowned the rice crop—and then, later, dried out the paddies because the dikes no longer held water for them. By cutting down the forests, the shack people were not only laying waste to the land around them, they were helping to devastate the agricultural infrastructure miles downstream. Because this was occurring in the lower Yangzi, the shack people were wrecking a chunk of the nation’s agricultural heartland.

Erosion from the heights drowned the rice paddies in the lower Yangzi valleys, further driving up the price of rice, which encouraged more maize production in the heights, which drowned more rice in the valleys.

The Qing (1644–1911) actively promoted moving peoples into mountain forests. As night follows day, the surge in migration led to a surge in deforestation; the flood rate more than tripled, to a little more than six major floods a year. Worse, the floods mostly targeted China’s agricultural centers.

Between 1841 and 1911, the Qing faced more than thirteen major floods a year—a Katrina every month, as one historian put it to me. “The government had constant disasters in the most populous parts of the realm,” he said. “The areas that were most important to feeding everyone.

Zhejiang censor Wang Yuanfang couldn’t understand it. In the past, he knew, landlords hadn’t understood that renting their unused upland property would have disastrous consequences. “Now [in 1850] the waterways are filled with mud, the fields are buried under sand, the mountains reveal their stones and the officials and people know of the great disaster, but they do nothing to stop it. Why?” (Emphasis in original.) In part, the failure was due to an inherent problem with mass illegal immigration. It is not easy to deport huge numbers of people—tearing them from homes and families built up over years—without mass suffering. Governments that seek popular support shrink from inflicting this kind of agony (unless the loss of support from one group is made up for by increased support from another). Logistically, there is also the problem of finding a destination for people who have left their original homes decades before. In the case of the shack people, Osborne argued, neither governmental queasiness nor confusion was the chief obstacle. The main problem was that the erosion represented a classic collective-action problem. A legal loophole ensured that rental income, unlike farm income, was tax free. Landowners with rentable property in the highlands thus had an easy source of untaxable income. The ensuing deforestation might ravage their own fields in the valleys, but the risks would be spread across an entire region, whereas the landowners’ profits were theirs alone. Absorbing all of the gain and only a fraction of the pain, local business interests beat back every effort to rein in shack people.

In an environmentalists’ nightmare, the shortsighted pursuit of small-scale profit steered a course for long-range, large-scale disaster. Constant floods led to constant famine and constant unrest; repairing the damage sapped the resources of the state. American silver may have pushed the Ming over the edge; American crops certainly helped kick out the underpinnings of the tottering Qing dynasty.

A series of weak emperors allowed the bureaucracy to wallow in inanition and corruption. The empire lost two wars with Great Britain, forcing it to cede control of its borders. British forces freely disseminated the opium that the government had gone to war to exclude. And so on—catastrophe, like success, has many progenitors.

Unknown to the rampaging European armies, though, their path had been smoothed by the Columbian Exchange.

The Huang He river rises one to three inches a year. Over time, it has lifted itself as much as 40 feet over the surrounding land. When farmers harvesting wheat fields want to see the river, they look up. Moving high in the air, the river wants (so to speak) to overflow its banks, spilling into the North China Plain and creating a ruinous flood. Such disasters have been a threat for millennia—“two breaks every three years and a channel change every century,” the Chinese used to say of the Huang He. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, erosion drove the breaks and channel changes to be more lethal. In an attempt to subdue the floods, the Qing established a corps of engineers who maintained a five-hundred-mile line of dikes, a network of spillways, locks, and dams, and an array of as many as sixteen secondary channels into which the river could be divided—a hydraulic infrastructure easily as impressive as the Great Wall, and one that was more important to the life of the nation. Not only did the system control a staggeringly complex irrigation network, it connected the river to the Grand Canal, a 1,103-mile passage between Beijing and Hangzhou (a port south of modern Shanghai) that is the longest artificial waterway in the world. Qing emperors may have spent 10 percent or more of the imperial budget on the Huang He.

Nonetheless the system was constantly overwhelmed. As the Chinese weather bureau maps show, excess silt made the Huang He spill over its banks a dozen times between 1780 and 1850—about once every six years. All of the floods were huge. One deluge in 1887 was among the deadliest ever recorded; estimates of the dead range up to a million.

The cause of the flooding—deforestation in the Loess Plateau—was well understood. But Beijing did little about it, even though much of the land clearance had its roots in Qing policies, and the floods were blows to imperial legitimacy. The court’s failure to act was not foreordained. Neither was the myopia of the landlords who rented to the shack people. Nobody will ever know whether decisive action could have resolved the nation’s ecological problems, because it wasn’t tried. Instead the floods continued until the dynasty fell, an event the floods had helped to bring about.

Which made it all the more incredible when Mao Zedong ordered more land clearing in the Loess Plateau. Most of the region was already deforested, but the steepest slopes—land too steep to farm—were still covered by low, scrubby growth that held back erosion. Exactly this land was targeted in the 1960s and 1970s for conversion, Dazhai style, into terraces. The terrace walls, made of nothing but packed earth, constantly fell apart; in one Loess Plateau village that I visited after a rainfall, half the population seemed to be shoring up crumbling terraces by pounding the walls flat with shovels. Even when the terraces didn’t crumble, rains sluiced away the nutrients and organic matter in the soil.

Because erosion removed nutrients, harvests in the newly planted land dropped quickly. To maintain yields, farmers cleared and terraced new land, which washed away in turn—a

Things look different on the ground. Provincial, county, and village officials are rewarded if they plant the number of trees envisioned in the plan, not whether they have chosen tree species suited to local conditions (or listened to scientists who say that trees are not appropriate for grasslands to begin with). Farmers who reap no direct benefit from their work—they are installing trees that do not produce fruit, cannot be cut for firewood, and supposedly stop erosion miles from their homes—have little incentive to take care of the trees they are forced to plant. The entirely predictable result is visible on the back roads of Shaanxi: fields of dead trees, each in its fish-scale pit, lining the roads for miles.

Agriculture was not the only cause of deforestation. China consumed huge quantities of timber as fuel and building material. To get the wood, platoons of workers went to distant places, where they wiped out entire forests. Alas, so much lumber was lost, damaged, and stolen during shipping, reported Yang Chang, a historian in Hubei Province’s Huazhong Normal University, that less than 2 percent of it was actually used by its intended recipients.


Natural rubber is essential to society

A few weeks after Goodyear announced his intent to produce temperature-stable rubber he was thrown into debtor’s prison. In his cell he began work, mashing bits of rubber with a rolling pin. He was untroubled by any knowledge of chemistry but boundlessly determined. For years Goodyear wandered about the northeastern United States in a cloud of penury, trailed by his hungry wife and children, dodging bailiffs and pawning heirlooms. All the while he was mixing toxic chemicals, more or less randomly, in the hope that they would make rubber more stable. The Goodyears lived in an abandoned rubber factory in Staten Island. They lived in an abandoned rubber factory in Massachusetts. They lived in a shack in a Connecticut neighborhood called Sodom Hill (the name indicated its wholesomeness). They lived in a second abandoned rubber factory in Massachusetts. Sometimes the houses had no heat or food. Two of Goodyear’s children died.

He borrowed $50,000 more to display an even more lavish rubber room at the second world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Parisians lost their urban hauteur and gawped like rubes at Goodyear’s rubber vanity table, complete with rubber-framed mirror; arranged on the top was a battalion of rubber combs and rubber-handled brushes. In the center of the rubber floor was a hard rubber desk with a rubber inkwell and rubber pens. Rubber umbrellas stood at attention in a rubber umbrella-stand in the corner of two rubber walls, each decorated with paintings on rubber canvases. For weapons fans, there was a stand of knives in rubber sheaths, swords in rubber scabbards, and rifles with rubber stocks. Except for the unpleasant rubber smell, Goodyear’s exhibit was a triumph.

Try to imagine a modern building without insulation on its wiring. Or imagine dishwashers, washing machines, and clothes dryers without the belts that transmit the motion of their engines to the appliance itself. Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil, gasoline, and exhaust vapor. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids or gases to vent dangerously from the joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, and O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust—a

The advent of synthetic rubber during the First World War failed to drive the Asians out of business. Despite the brilliance of industrial chemists, there is still no synthetic able to match natural rubber’s resistance to fatigue and vibration. Natural rubber still claims more than 40% of the market, a figure that has been slowly rising. Only natural rubber can be steam-cleaned in a medical sterilizer, then thrust into a freezer—and still adhere flexibly to glass and steel. Big airplane and truck tires are almost entirely natural rubber.

Xishuangbanna Prefecture is China’s most tropical place. Although it comprises just 0.2 percent of the nation’s land, it contains 25 percent of its higher plant species, 36 percent of its birds, and 22 percent of its mammals, as well as significant numbers of amphibians and freshwater fish.

After China decided to grow rubber here, workers were awakened every day at 3:00 a.m. and sent to clear the forest.  Sneering at botanists’ admonitions as counterrevolutionary, the government repeatedly planted rubber trees at altitudes where they were killed by storms and frost. Then it planted them again in the exact same place—socialism would master nature, it insisted. The frenzy laid waste to hillsides, exacerbated erosion, and destroyed streams. But it didn’t actually yield much rubber.

In the late 1970s the nation began its economic reforms. The educated young people fled back to their home cities, precipitating a labor shortage. Local Dai and Akha villagers were finally permitted to establish rubber farms. They were effective and efficient. Between 1976 and 2003 the area devoted to rubber expanded by a factor of ten, shrinking tropical montane forest in that time from 50.8 percent of the prefecture to 10.3 percent.

Almost every bit of Xishuangbanna that can support rubber trees has been cleared and planted (top), a change that is profoundly altering the environment—the region’s morning mists are vanishing, along with its water supply.

Surface runoff rises by a factor of three—which in turn jacks up soil erosion by a remarkable factor of forty-five. Worse, the new leaves’ most intense growth occurs in April, at the dry season’s hottest, driest point. To propel growth, the roots suck up water from three to six feet below the surface.

“A lot of smaller streams are drying up,” he said. “Villages have had to move because there’s no drinking water.” Now spread this impact across Laos and Thailand…

Even if Xishuangbanna farmers were to stop planting H. brasiliensis tomorrow, its area would keep rising—on their own, rubber trees are invading the remaining forest

As the area of rubber increases, it becomes an increasingly inviting target for pests. “That’s the lesson of biology,” Tang said. “Diseases always come in. Sooner or later, they find a way.

In April 2008 the governments of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand opened a brand-new highway that for the first time links all of these nations and connects them to Malaysia and Singapore. Trucks will be able to zoom in three days from Singapore to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. If and when M. ulei arrives from Brazil, this will provide transportation. “In ten or twenty years, Xishuangbanna’s trees could be wiped out,” Tang said. “So would everyone else’s trees, probably.

The industrial revolution, one recalls, depends on three raw materials: steel, fossil fuels, and rubber. Imagine transportation networks without tires, electric power plants without gaskets and seals, hospitals without sterile rubber hoses and gloves. Industrial civilization could face such disruption worldwide that organizations from the United Nations to the U.S. Department of Defense list Microcyclus ulei as a potential biological weapon. Synthetic rubber will be deployed to replace it, but only as an imperfect replacement. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be in a 747 about to land on synthetic tires,” the director of the U.S. National Defense Stockpile Center has said.


Many slaves escaped and formed independent communities

Resistance was a constant presence. It didn’t matter to slaves whether they were owned by Portuguese, Afro-Portuguese, or Africans; they escaped when they could. Runaways joined together to form armed bands in the forest. To guard against their attacks, landowners built wooden forts staffed by gun-toting slaves. Judging by the frequency of successful assaults, the guards were rarely diligent. In a revolt in 1595 as many as five thousand slaves destroyed thirty sugar mills. The destruction was as understandable as it was pointless; the mills were going silent anyway. In a violent stasis, guerrilla warfare between plantations and runaways continued for almost two hundred years. São Tomé’s plantations eventually did switch to other crops: cocoa (from Brazil) and coffee (from the other side of Africa). These became profitable enough to lure back several hundred Portuguese,

Slavery had long been abolished legally, but Portugal kept it going as a practical matter by instituting special taxes in its African colonies. People unable to pay the levies were shipped to São Tomé to work off their debts, de facto slaves locked at night into dilapidated barracks on the plantation. As other nations joined the chocolate industry and improved manufacturing methods, the island’s antique cocoa plantations became less and less viable. An independence movement sprang up in the 1950s, its primary goal to end the plantation system. When Portugal left in 1975, the country was one of the poorest on earth. The new government nationalized the plantations. It combined them into fifteen super-plantations, then ran them almost exactly as before.

The colonies were supposed to contribute to the glory of Spain, a task that could not be accomplished without acquiring a labor force. Spain, unlike England, did not have a well-developed system of indentured servitude. And unlike England it did not have mobs of unemployed to lure over the ocean. To profit from its colonies, the monarchs believed, Spain would have to rely on Indian labor. In 1503 the monarchs provided their answer to the dilemma: the encomienda system. Individual Spaniards became trustees of indigenous groups, promising to ensure their safety, freedom, and religious instruction. In fine protection-racket style, Indians paid for Spanish “security” with their labor. The encomienda can be thought of as an attempt to answer the objections to slavery raised by Adam Smith. By restricting the demands on Indians, the monarchs sought to reduce the incentive for revolt—a benefit to the Spaniards who employed them. It didn’t work.

When native workers didn’t feel like showing up—why would they, if they could avoid it?—they vanished into the countryside, where their whereabouts were concealed by relatives, friends, and sympathetic Indian leaders. For their part, the Taino came to view the system as little but a legal justification for slavery. Under the law, Indian Christians were entitled after baptism to be treated exactly like Spanish Christians, who could not be enslaved. But colonists argued the contrary; Indians were, in effect, less human than Europeans, and thus could be forced to work even after they converted.

Africans had been trickling into the Americas almost as long as Europeans. By 1501, seven years after La Isabela’s founding, so many Africans had come to Hispaniola that the alarmed Spanish king and queen instructed the island’s governor not to allow any more to land. The governor was fine with that. He wrote “They flee to the Indians, and they learn bad customs from them, and they cannot be captured.” But the colonists saw that Africans appeared immune to disease, didn’t have local social networks that would help them escape, and possessed useful skills—many African societies were well known for their ironworking and horsemanship. Slave ships bellied up to the docks of Santo Domingo in ever-greater numbers.

The slaves were not as easily controlled as the colonists had hoped. Exactly as Adam Smith would have predicted, they were dreadful employees. Faking sickness, working with deliberate lassitude, losing supplies, sabotaging equipment, pilfering valuables, maiming the animals that hauled the cane, purposefully ruining the finished sugar—all were part of the furniture of plantation slavery. “Weapons of the weak,” political scientist James Scott called them in a classic study of the same name. The slaves were not so weak when they escaped to the heights. Hidden by the forest from European eyes, they made it their business to wreck the industry that had enchained them. For more than a century, African irregulars ranged unhindered over most of Hispaniola, funding their activities by covertly exchanging gold panned from mountain rivers with Spanish merchants for clothing, liquor, and iron (ex-slave blacksmiths made arrow points and swords).

American history is often described in terms of Europeans entering a nearly empty wilderness. For centuries, though, most of the newcomers were African and the land was not empty, but filled with millions of indigenous people. Much of the great encounter between the two separate halves of the world thus was less a meeting of Europe and America than a meeting of Africans and Indians—a relationship forged both in the cage of slavery and in the uprisings against it. Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between red and black is a hidden history that researchers are only now beginning to unravel.

Even when schoolbooks do acknowledge the hemisphere’s majority populations, they are all too often portrayed solely as helpless victims of European expansion: Indians melting away before the colonists’ onslaught, Africans chained in plantations, working under the lash. In both roles, they have little volition of their own—no agency, as social scientists say.

More often than is commonly realized they won it. Slaves vanished from the ken of their masters by the tens or even hundreds of thousands in Brazil, Peru, and the Caribbean. Spain recognized autonomous maroon communities in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico and used them as buffers against its adversaries.

What is known is that thirty thousand or more Africans fled to the Serra da Barriga and the nearby hills in the 1620s and 1630s, taking advantage of the disorder caused when the Dutch attacked and occupied the Portuguese coastal sugar towns during that time. Free of European control, the escapees built up as many as twenty tightly knit settlements centered on the Serra da Barriga, a haven for African, native, and European runaways. At its height in the 1650s, according to the Boston University historian John K. Thornton, the maroon state of Palmares “ruled over a vast area in the coastal mountains of Brazil, constituting a rival power unlike any other group outside Europe.

It had close to as many inhabitants at the time as all of English North America. It was as if an African army had been scooped up and deposited in the Americas to control an area of more than ten thousand square miles.

One of the most persistent myths about the slave trade is also one of the most pernicious: that Africans’ role was wholly that of hapless pawns. Except for the trade’s last few decades—and arguably not even then—Africans themselves controlled the supply of African slaves, selling them to Europeans in the numbers they chose at prices they negotiated as equals.

Africans were not forced by Europeans to sell other Africans, so why did they do it?  Few Europeans or Africans at this time viewed slavery as an institution that needed to be explained, still less as an evil to be decried. Slavery was part of the furniture of everyday life; in both Europe and Africa, depriving others of their liberty wasn’t morally problematic, though it was bad to enslave the wrong person.

In western and central Europe, the most important form of property was land, and the aristocracy consisted mainly of large landowners who could buy or sell property with little legal restriction. In western and central Africa, by contrast, land was effectively owned by the government—sometimes personally by the king, sometimes by a kinship or religious group, most often by the state itself, with the sovereign exercising authority in the manner of a chief executive officer. No matter which arrangement held true in a given polity, though, the land could not be readily sold or taxed. What could be sold and taxed was labor. Kings and emperors who wanted to enrich themselves thus didn’t think in terms of occupying land but of controlling people. Napoleon sent his army to seize Egypt. An African Napoleon would have sent his army to seize Egyptians. As was the case in much of Europe, Africans could be sentenced to slavery if they forfeited their membership in society by committing a crime. People could be enslaved, too, to repay a debt, whether incurred by themselves, their families, or their lineages. In times of drought or flood they pawned family members to other members of their extended families or clans. Sometimes they pawned themselves.

But the most common way to acquire slaves was by sending troops across the border—that is, by war. Seventeenth-century West Africa was even more politically fragmented than Europe. A map prepared by Thornton shows more than sixty different states of wildly varying size. When leaders in one state wanted to aggrandize their status, a border was always nearby; it was easy to send out raiders. Captives would be taken by the king or given for sale to middlemen, who would take them to customers in North Africa or Europe.

In the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, when European ships first became a constant presence on African shores, the difference between the two systems, European and African, was more a matter of culture than economics. Europeans could buy and sell labor—that was the purpose, to cite one example, of indentured-service contracts. And Africans could effectively own land by controlling the labor from the people who used that land. In both cases the owners ended up profiting from the fruits of the land and labor, even if the route to those profits was different. In economic terms, Europeans could own one of the factors of production (land), whereas Africans could own another (labor). Both systems gave owners the right to claim part or all of the products of that labor. Still, they were far from identical. One big distinction is that labor can be taken from one place to another in a way that land cannot. Labor is portable—a key factor for the later development of the slave trade.

Because labor was the main form of property in West Africa, rich West Africans almost by definition owned a lot of slaves. Plantations were rare in that part of the world—coastal West Africa’s soil and climate typically won’t support them—so big groups of slaves rarely were found working in fields as was common in American sugar or tobacco plantations. Instead slaves were soldiers, servants, or construction workers, building roads and fences and barns. Often enough they did almost nothing; wealthy, powerful slave owners kept more slaves than they needed, in the way that wealthy, powerful landowners in Europe would pile up unused land. In addition, much slave labor consisted of occasional work performed as a tax or tribute.

When Europeans arrived, they easily tapped into the existing slave trade. African governments and merchants who were already shipping human beings could increase production to satisfy the foreigners’ demands. Sometimes political leaders would hike criminal penalties to obtain slaves. Scofflaws, tax cheats, political exiles, unwanted immigrants—all went in the hopper. Usually, though, armies were sent to raid other nations. Or soldiers could abduct an important person in a neighboring polity and demand a ransom of slaves. If demand increased still further, private traders might seize captives without approval, angering the state. If no other source was available, Africans bought slaves from Europeans. In the seventeenth century, the Yale historian Robert Harms has estimated, Europeans sold forty to eighty thousand slaves to Africans in what is now Ghana.

When the flintlock replaced the undependable matchlock at the end of the seventeenth century, Africans were as keen to acquire the new guns as the Indians in Georgia and Carolina. In April 1732, traders from the rapidly growing Asante empire appeared at the Dutch fort of Elmina, in Ghana. They had a convoy of captives which they demanded to exchange for guns.

Hovering in their vessels along the coast, Dutch, Portuguese, and English slavers thus had little knowledge about the origins of the unhappy men and women on their ships. The colonists who rushed to buy their cargo on the quays of Jamestown, Cartagena, and Salvador had even less. According to Thornton, “only a handful of American slave owners seem to have actually known … that many thousands of them were prisoners of war.

When captive soldiers organized escapes and rebellions, some owners learned the import of their military backgrounds. From the beginning, American slave owners were dogged by the problem that their army of slaves could be an enslaved army.

Africans outnumbered Europeans seven to one by 1565. Unsurprisingly, Europeans found it hard to control their human property. Runaways grouped hundreds strong into multiethnic villages that were joined by escaped Indian slaves from the Andes and Venezuela and the remnants of free Indian groups from the isthmus. United by their loathing of Spaniards, they liberated slaves, slew colonists, and stole mules and cattle. Sometimes they abducted women. Losses mounted. Spain had a dreadful maroon problem.

From the colonists’ point of view, it was bad enough when nude, grease-smeared ex-slaves and Indians swept into Panamá town with their “very big and strong bows” and iron-tipped arrows, as one colonial official wrote in 1575, stealing cattle, carrying off slaves, and “usually killing the [Europeans] they meet.” Worse, the maroons, out of spite, threw whole shipments of silver and gold into the river. But then the maroons joined forces with the man who would become Spain’s most hated enemy: Francis Drake, the English pirate/privateer.

Decades later, Philip Nichols, who had served as Drake’s chaplain and become a friend, compiled surviving sailors’ reminiscences of the expedition, passed the manuscript by Drake for editorial approval, and published the result—the authorized biography I have been quoting—under the curious title of Sir Francis Drake Revived. The book portrays Drake’s sojourn in the isthmus—a time when he failed three times to seize large quantities of silver and lost half his men to disease and battle, including two of his brothers—as a rousing success.

The pirates and maroons split into two groups, one led by Drake, the other by Mandinga, about fifty yards apart from each other on the road. Drake’s group would let the mule train pass until it could be ambushed by Mandinga’s group. Then Drake and his men would close in from the rear, trapping the convoy fore and aft. Late in the evening the attackers heard the bells on the harnesses of the approaching mules. As soon as they came into view, an English sailor in Drake’s group charged drunkenly out of hiding, waving his weapon. One of the maroons yanked him back into the grass, but the damage was done—a Spanish advance scout had spotted the sailor’s white shirt in the moonlight. The scout wheeled about his horse, galloped back to the mule train, and told the treasurer to turn back to Panamá.

Testu had been jailed for four years in France because of his Protestant faith. Freed after protests to the king, he had accepted a privateering commission, probably from Italian merchants. Now he hoped to join with Drake in swiping Spanish treasure.

Again maroons led Europeans in a silent march through the forest, arriving at the ambush site on April 1. Again they split into two groups fifty yards apart along the road. In midmorning the waiting pirates and maroons heard bells—120 mules, the biography said, “every [one] of which caryed 300. Pound weight of silver, which in all amounted to neere thirty Tun.” This time the scheme succeeded. The guards fled, leaving the convoy in the hands of the pirates. Giddy but too weary to lug all the silver through the hills, the Anglo-Franco-Afro-Indian force stripped the mules of their glittering burden and in true pirate fashion buried the booty at the bottom of a nearby stream. They carried away a few silver bars as trophies. Not until they were miles from the ambush did they realize that a Frenchman was missing. Later they learned that he had gotten drunk while burying silver and missed their departure. He was caught by Spanish troops and revealed, under torture, the location of the silver.

All the while, English, French, and Dutch pirates were coming to the isthmus, asking the maroons to help them as they had helped Drake. Most didn’t get any assistance—the maroons seem to have acquired a low opinion of European competence

Maroons were fewer in the United States than farther south, because slaves could escape bondage altogether if they traveled north of the Mason-Dixon line. In addition, they found it harder to survive on their own in unfamiliar temperate ecosystems.

Nonetheless, maroon encampments were common in places like the valley of the Savannah River, the Mississippi River delta, and, especially, the Great Dismal Swamp, a peat bog that then sprawled across more than two thousand square miles of Virginia and North Carolina. (It is now smaller, because much of the swamp was drained in the nineteenth century.)

To escape European incursions, Indians moved there in numbers after about 1630, living in scattered, small settlements of ten to fifty houses. Africans soon followed.

Farther south, the best hope for slaves who wished to rid themselves of their bonds was the Spanish colony of Florida.

Under Seminole law, most Africans in those towns had the legal status of slaves, but native bondage resembled European feudalism more than European slavery. Seminole slaves owed little work; instead they were supposed to provide native villages with tribute, usually in the form of crops. The burden, though of course unwelcome and resented, usually was not onerous. Many of the slaves were African soldiers, disciplined and organized as one would expect from prisoners of war in wartime. Determined to establish themselves, maroons opened up trade with the Spanish and as a group became more prosperous than their Indian owners. For the most part they lived adjacent to but carefully separate from the Seminole, unincorporated into the big kinship-linked clans that were a principal aspect of Indian social networks. Yet they willingly joined their owners in common fights, of which there were, alas, all too many.

The Seminole strategy was twofold: First, they destroyed the plantations that supplied U.S. troops, capturing their slaves to bolster the native army. Second, they waited for yellow fever and malaria to kill northern soldiers. If they got in a jam, they pretended to negotiate until the onset of the “sickly season” forced U.S. forces to withdraw.

Haiti A French possession with about eight thousand plantations rich with sugar, coffee, and yellow fever, eighteenth-century Haiti was a true extractive state: forty thousand fabulously rich European colonists atop half a million seething African slaves.

Wanting to deny sugar revenues to France, England seized Haiti’s main cities in 1793. Its troops proved welcome hosts to that malign participant in the Columbian Exchange, the yellow fever virus. According to J. R. McNeill, the Georgetown historian of mosquito-borne disease, the British army lost roughly 10 percent of its troops every month between June and November of 1794. Survivors of yellow fever were prostrated by malaria. The army hung on, helped by reinforcements, until the next summer, when the monthly death rate rose to as high as 22 percent. “The newly arrived died with astonishing quickness,” McNeill wrote, “seemingly disembarking from ships straight to their graves.” Again they were reinforced: 13,000 more troops arrived in February 1796. In weeks 6,000 were dead. The British abandoned Haiti in 1798.

Napoleon Bonaparte had staged a coup in France and determined to retain the immensely profitable sugar and coffee plantations of Haiti. A French force of perhaps 65,000 landed in February 1802. Toussaint had barely half as many men and so little equipment and weaponry that his army was, he said, “naked as earthworms.” He ordered his rebels to retreat to the hills and await the fever season. Toussaint was captured and imprisoned but his strategy prevailed. By September some 28,000 French were dead; another 4,400 were hospitalized. Two months later the French commander died. His army struggled on, but it was trying to conquer its own cemetery. The effort collapsed in November 1803, having lost 50,000 of its 65,000 troops. As McNeill noted, the same malaria and yellow fever that had done so much to promote African slavery here helped Africans to destroy it. Napoleon, his hopes for a Caribbean empire in ruins, sold the United States all of France’s North American territories: the Louisiana Purchase.

Much of the United States’ present territory is thus owed indirectly to maroons.

All of Europe and the United States put a punishing economic embargo on Haiti for decades. Deprived of the trade in sugar and coffee that had been its economic lifeblood, the nation’s economy collapsed, impoverishing what had been the wealthiest society in the Caribbean.

Suriname’s planters begged for help. More than a thousand soldiers came across the Atlantic in 1772, among them John Gabriel Stedman, born in the Netherlands to a father who had fled Scotland’s famines. Stedman kept a diary that is an encyclopedia of medico-military calamity. Soon after landing he “became so ill by a fever—that I was not expected more to recover.” None of the other soldiers helped him: “Sickness being so common in this Country, and every one having so much ado to mind themselves, that neglect takes place betwixt the nearest acquaintances.” Stedman was lucky enough to survive his seasoning and go upstream. The once carefully managed Indian landscape was now a nightmare of pests. Stedman’s diary fairly pulses with complaint about the “inconceivable numerous” mosquitoes—insects in such thick, buzzing clouds that they smothered candles and made it impossible to see or hear people a hundred feet away.

“Out of a number of near 1200 Able bodied men, now not one hundred did return to theyr Friends at home,” Stedman wrote sadly, “Amongst whom Perhaps not 20 were to be found in perfect health.” All the others, he said, were “sick; discharged, past all Remedy; Lost; killed; & murdered by the Climate, while no less than 10 or 12 were drowned & Snapped away by the Alligators.

Eventually the Dutch and the maroons reached a kind of accommodation. The Europeans kept shipping in Africans and growing cane, accepting that a certain number of slaves would escape each year.

Meanwhile, most of the Dutch colonists stayed as little as they could; in 1850, after two centuries of colonization, Suriname had perhaps eight thousand European residents, most of them agents for sugar planters who lived safely in the Netherlands. Not residing in the colony, the growers had little interest in creating the institutions that underlie a productive society.

Every scrap of profit went back to the home country; education, innovation, and investment in Suriname were almost entirely ignored. When Suriname became independent in 1975, it was one of the poorest countries in the world.

Naturally, the new nation sought development. Suriname has large deposits of bauxite, gold, diamond, and oil and more tropical forest per capita than any other nation. The cash-strapped government—both the military dictatorship that seized power in 1980 and its civilian successor, which began in 1992—awarded mining and timber rights to foreign companies. In the 1960s, the colonial government had let Alcoa, the big aluminum company, build a six-hundred-square-mile lake to feed a hydroelectric dam for aluminum refining. Now the independent government awarded China International Marine Containers, the world’s biggest container-manufacturing firm, the rights to log almost eight hundred square miles to make wooden shipping pallets. Other firms followed suit. By 2007 some 40 percent of the country’s surface area had been leased for logging.

Within a decade of arrival the colonists—malarial, famished, living in wretched huts they were too poor to repair—were begging the crown to relocate them. Ultimately, almost all of the surviving Europeans slipped away. The remainder soon died. Through no act of their own, the slaves found themselves at liberty. Vila Nova Mazagão had become a quilombo. They were free as long as they pretended they weren’t. The Portuguese administration wanted to be able to report to the king that his subjects were guarding Brazil’s northern flank. The slaves were willing to say they were doing it, if that meant they would be left alone. Everyone was happy: the maroons pretended they were Portuguese subjects in a Portuguese colony and the Portuguese pretended the maroons were guarding the frontier. As the decades went by, the descendants of the colony’s Africans spread out along the riverbanks, living much like their Indian neighbors. The river supplied fish and shrimp, the small-scale garden cultivation yielded manioc, the trees provided everything else. Two centuries of constant tending and harvesting structured the forest. Mixing together native and African techniques, maroons created landscapes lush enough to be mistaken for pristine wilderness.

Slaves continued to escape and to live in the forest. But they didn’t repeat the mistake of forming big, centralized communities like Palmares. Instead they created ten thousand or more small villages in a flexible, shifting network that spread across much of eastern Brazil and the lower Amazon. They mixed with extant native settlements, collected Indian slave escapees, threw open their doors to Portuguese misfits and criminals. Many Africans had lived in tropical environments before being shipped across the ocean. They were comfortable in hot, wet places where people farmed palms and kept trapfuls of shrimp in the stream. They were happy to learn when Indians showed them how to fish by scattering poison in a tributary or make protective “boots” by melting latex over their feet or squeeze the bitter compounds out of manioc with long, tubular baskets.

To inexpert eyes, the riverbank across from Maria do Rosario’s home looks like a typical tropical hodgepodge. But almost every plant in this image was sown and tended by Rosario and her family, creating an environment as ecologically rich as it is artificial. (chart credit cha1.3) Five hundred miles southwest, the quilombo struggle for freedom is revisited even more overtly at the rite of lambe-sujo (an insulting reference to the red African cloth used for turbans—the equivalent, perhaps, of “towelhead”).

But the end of slavery did not mean an end to discrimination, poverty, and anti-maroon violence. The nation’s maroon communities continued to conceal themselves, staying so far out of official sight that by the middle of last century most Brazilians believed that quilombos no longer existed. In the 1960s, the generals who then ruled Brazil looked on their maps and observed to their displeasure that about 60 percent of the country was blank (actually, it was filled with Indians, peasant farmers, and quilombos, but the government dismissed them).

To the generals’ way of thinking, filling the emptiness was a matter of national security. In a breathtakingly ambitious program, they linked the brand-new, ultramodernist capital, Brasília, the western frontier, and the ports of the Amazon by slashing a network of highways across the interior.

In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of thousands of migrants from central and southern Brazil thronged up the highways, believing the generals’ promises that they could begin new lives in new agricultural settlements. Instead, they encountered bad roads, poor land, and lawless violence: Deadwood with malaria. Many smallholders abandoned their farms soon after clearing them—few conventional annual crops would grow in Amazonia’s aluminum-saturated soil. In the long run, the big ranches didn’t do much better, even though many received subsidies from the military government.

In the short run, they deemed all people found on their property to be squatters and removed them, often at gunpoint. In this way countless quilombos were expunged, their inhabitants scattered—

Hundreds of exotic creatures have made the Philippines their home since Legazpi arrived in the 1560s. Introduced fish like tilapia and Thai catfish have wiped out almost all the local species of fish in Filipino lakes. South American shrubs have driven out local palms and bushes in Filipino parks. Water hyacinth from Brazil chokes the rivers in Manila; weeds from Africa grow over rice paddies. Seven of the immigrants are on a hit list of the one hundred worst invasive species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. A small minority of the newcomers were environmentally or economically damaging and only a very few harmed the ecosystem itself, impairing its ability to filter water or grow plant matter or process nutrients into the soil. But to the scientists in the room almost all the exotics were problematic, because they were helping, in ways large and small, to turn the Philippines from what it had been before Spain into something else—a homogenized, internationalized, airport-shopping-mall version of itself, a vest-pocket version of the Homogenocene. The island landscape, they said with some heat, was less and less what it had been before.


The effect of worms from Europe on America’s ecology

London tobacco houses were thrilled by the sudden appearance of an English alternative: Virginia leaf. They clamored for more. Ships from London tied up to the Jamestown dock and took in barrels of rolled-up tobacco leaves. Typically four feet tall and two and a half feet across at the end, each barrel held half a ton or more. To balance the weight, sailors dumped out ballast, mostly stones, gravel, and soil—that is, for Virginia tobacco they swapped English dirt.

That dirt very possibly contained the common nightcrawler and the red marsh worm. So, almost certainly, did the rootballs of plants the colonists imported. Until the nineteenth century, worms like these were viewed as agricultural pests. Charles Darwin was among the first to realize they were something more; his last book was a three-hundred-page celebration of earthworm power. Huge numbers of these beasts, he noted, live beneath our feet; indeed, the total mass of the earthworms in a cow pasture may be many times the mass of the animals grazing above them. Literally eating their way through the soil, earthworms create networks of tunnels that let in water and air. In temperate places like Virginia, earthworms can turn over the upper foot of soil every ten or twenty years; tiny

In worm-free woodlands, leaves pile up in drifts on the forest floor. When earthworms are introduced, they can do away with the leaf litter in a few months, packing the nutrients into the soil in the form of castings (worm excrement). As a result, according to Cindy Hale, a worm researcher at the University of Minnesota, “everything changes.” Trees and shrubs in wormless places depend on litter for food. If worms tuck nutrients into the soil, the plants can’t find them. Many species die off. The forest becomes more open and dry, losing its understory, including tree seedlings. Meanwhile, earthworms compete for food with small insects, driving down their numbers. Birds, lizards, and mammals that feed in the litter decline as well. Nobody knows what happens next. “Four centuries ago, we launched this gigantic, unplanned ecological experiment,” Hale told me. “We have no idea what the long-term consequences will be.


European farming and way of life sucked the life out of the soil

The colonists covered big areas with stands of N. tabacum. Neither natives nor newcomers understood the environmental impact of planting it on a massive scale. Tobacco is a sponge for nitrogen and potassium. Because the entire plant is removed from the soil, harvesting and exporting tobacco was like taking those nutrients from the earth and putting them on ships. “Tobacco has an almost unique ability to suck the life out of soil,” said Leanne DuBois, the agricultural extension agent in James City County, Jamestown’s county. “In this area, where the soils can be pretty fragile, it can ruin the land in a couple of years.” Constantly wearing out fields, the colonists had to keep moving to new land.

Subject to annual burning, native woodlands had been both open, in that people could freely move around, and closed, in that the canopy of big trees sheltered the land from the impact of rainfall. Taking down the forest exposed the soil. Colonists’ ploughs increased its vulnerability. Nutrients dissolved in spring rains and washed into the sea. The exposed soil dried out more quickly and hardened faster, losing its ability to absorb spring rains; the volume and speed of runoff increased, raising river volume. By the late seventeenth century disastrous floods were common. So much soil had washed into the rivers that they became difficult to navigate.


Scale insects arrive in the new world from Africa and decimate fruit orchards

When Spanish colonists imported African plantains in 1516, the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson has proposed, they also imported scale insects, small creatures with tough, waxy coats that suck the juices from plant roots and stems. About a dozen banana-infesting scale insects are known in Africa. In Hispaniola, Wilson argued, these insects had no natural enemies. In consequence, their numbers must have exploded—a phenomenon known to science as “ecological release.” The spread of scale insects would have dismayed the island’s European banana farmers but delighted one of its native species: the tropical fire ant Solenopsis geminata. S. geminata is fond of dining on scale insects’ sugary excrement; to ensure the flow, the ants will attack anything that disturbs them. A big increase in scale insects would have led to a big increase in fire ants. In 1518 and 1519, according to Bartolomé de Las Casas, a missionary priest who lived through the incident, Spanish orange, pomegranate, and cassia plantations were destroyed “from the root up.” Thousands of acres of orchards were “all scorched and dried out, as though flames had fallen from the sky and burned them.” The actual culprit, Wilson argued, was the sap-sucking scale insects. But what the Spaniards saw was S. geminata—“an infinite number of ants,” their stings causing “greater pains than wasps that bite and hurt men.” The hordes of ants swarmed through houses, blackening roofs “as if they had been sprayed with charcoal dust,” covering floors in such numbers that colonists could sleep only by placing the legs of their beds in bowls of water.  They “could not be stopped in any way nor by any human means.

Chinese population explosion, destruction of forests, erosion, and floods

With silver Spain finally had something China badly wanted when it became China’s money supply. But There was an unease about having the nation’s currency in the hands of foreigners. The court feared that the galleon trade—the first large-scale, uncontrolled international exchange in Chinese history—would usher in large-scale, uncontrolled change to Chinese life. The fears were entirely borne out. Although emperor after emperor refused entry to almost all human beings from Europe and the Americas, they could not keep out other species. Key players were American crops, especially sweet potatoes and maize; their unexpected arrival, the agricultural historian Song Junling wrote in 2007, was “one of the most revolutionary events” in imperial China’s history. The nation’s agriculture, based on rice, had long been concentrated in river valleys, especially those of the Yangzi and Huang He (Yellow) rivers. Sweet potatoes and maize could be grown in the dry uplands. Farmers moved in numbers to these areas, which had previously been lightly settled. The result was a wave of deforestation, followed by waves of erosion and floods, which caused many deaths. The regime, already straining under many problems, was further destabilized—to Europe’s benefit.


Too much debt led to starvation and uprisings in Europe

To pay for its foreign adventures, the court borrowed from foreign bankers; the king felt free to incur debts because he believed they would be covered by future shipments of American treasure, and bankers felt free to lend for the same reason. Alas, everything cost more than the monarch hoped. Debt piled up hugely—ten or even fifteen times annual revenues. Nonetheless the court continued to view its economic policy in the optative mood; few wanted to believe that the good times would end. The inevitable, repeated result: bankruptcy. Spain defaulted on its debts in 1557, 1576, 1596, 1607, and 1627. After each bankruptcy, the king borrowed more money. Lenders would provide it—after all, they could charge high interest rates (Spain paid up to 40 percent, compounded annually).

For obvious reasons the high interest rates made the next bankruptcy more likely. Still the process continued—everyone believed the silver would keep pouring into Seville. Now, in 1642, so much silver has been produced that its value is falling even as the mines slacken. The richest nation in the world is hurtling toward financial Armageddon. Europe is complexly interconnected; Spain’s economic collapse is dragging down its neighbors.

Economics 101 predicts what will happen in these circumstances. New money chases after the same old goods and services. Prices rise in a classic inflationary spiral. In what historians call a “price revolution,” the cost of living more than doubled across Europe in the last half of the sixteenth century, tripling in some places, and then rose some more. Because wages did not keep pace, the poor were immiserated; they could not afford their daily bread. Uprisings of the starving exploded across the continent, seemingly in every corner and all at once. (Researchers have called it the “general crisis” of the seventeenth century.)


  • Scholars had known for more than 1500 years that the world was large and round. Colón disputed both facts. The admiral’s disagreement with the second fact was minor. The earth, he argued, was not perfectly round but “in the shape of a pear, which would all be very round, except for where the stem is, where it is higher, or as if someone had a very round ball, and in one part of it a woman’s nipple would be put there.” At the very tip of the nipple, so to speak, was “the Earthly Paradise, where nobody can go, except by divine will.” (During a later voyage he thought he had found the nipple, in what is now Venezuela.)
  • The Virginia Company came into existence because English sovereigns—Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James I—wanted the benefits of trade and conquest but couldn’t pay for them. The state had been pushed so deeply into debt by war (in Elizabeth’s case) and profligacy (in James’s case) that it could not afford to send ships to the Americas. Nor could it borrow the necessary cash. From moneylenders’ point of view, the monarchy was a bad credit risk—it could, and all too often did, assert its prerogative to repudiate its debts. In consequence, they charged it ruinously high interest rates. True, kings and queens had the power to force loans from their subjects, a practice that for obvious reasons was deeply unpopular. But was the certainty of incurring discontent worth the gamble of an American colony? Elizabeth and James came to the same conclusion: no.
  • Settlers sent a ransom note to Powhatan: to get back his daughter, he would have to return all the swords, guns, and metal tools “he trecherously had stolne,” along with all the English prisoners of war. For three months Powhatan refused to negotiate with people he regarded as criminals. Finally he sent back a handful of English captives with an offer: 500 bushels of maize for the girl. The guns and swords could not be returned, he said, because they had been lost or stolen. Dale scoffed at this claim. Communications ceased for another eight months, during which time some of the freed English captives ran back to the Indians—they preferred Tsenacomoco with its foreign culture and language
  • Nicotine addiction became so rampant so quickly in Manchuria, according to the Oxford historian Timothy Brook, that in 1635 the khan Hongtaiji discovered that his soldiers “were selling their weapons to buy tobacco.” The khan angrily prohibited smoking.



Posted in 2) Collapse, Agriculture, Disease, Pesticides, Soil | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Book review of “1493 Uncovering the new world Columbus Created”

Transportation: How long can we adapt before we fall off the Net Energy Cliff?

[ I first published this in 2014. After re-reading it when damnthematrix republished it recently, I saw corrections and updates that needed to be made, so here is the improved version.

Keep in mind that  I am wildly speculating, there are too many factors to predict the future. I have guesses about when the crash will start and how fast it will take, but I don’t really know.  This is a unique crash – there has never been a fossil-fueled civilization in the past, and there never will be again.  It’s back to the eternal wood and muscle power of the past.

Let me know if you think I left any important factors out, correct any errors, or other feedback in a comment.  Perhaps you will agree with me that this is going to be a Fast Crash, and possibly faster than any previous fall of a nation in history. 

The idea that it took centuries for past civilizations to crash is a myth, see my book reviews of Peter Turchin, who studies the cycles of history.  It takes about 20 years.  What historians do is look for changes in society that led to the crash, often centuries before.  Historians of the future will probably be puzzled why societies did nothing to prepare for the time when finite fossils inevitably peaked and declined and write endless books about how that could have happened and the immense speed at which civilization hit the proverbial wall.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


The problem we face is a liquid fuel crisis.  Absolutely essential vehicles, such as agricultural tractors and combines, railroads, and trucks run on diesel fuel, ships on bunker fuel.  They can never be battery or fuel-cell operated or electrified, nor do we have the decades it would take to build a new fleet running on something other than diesel, or convert the existing fleet to run on coal (liquefied) or natural gas.

We KNOW relentless energy decline is going to start any day now because global peak oil production was reached in 2005  and instead of preparing 10-20 years ahead as Hirsch recommended in his 2005 Department of Energy Peak oil study, we’ve done absolutely nothing, so the situation has gotten worse.

Non-essential Transportation Fuel can be given to Trucks & Trains (see Table 1 below)

1) Today, 67% of transportation fuel is used by non-essential vehicles. Cars (28%) and light trucks (26%) use 55% of transportation fuel.  All of that 55% could be shifted to essential vehicles, as could the 7% jet fuel, 1% recreational water boats, 3% Construction and Mining, and 1% recreational vehicles.  Implication: That would force anyone who wasn’t 100% self-sufficient to move to a town or city because country gas stations will be closed (though rural federal and state freeway stations would remain open for essential long-distance trucks).  Refineries would attempt to refine a larger share of crude oil into diesel rather than gasoline like they do now to keep essential vehicles running.

2) 33% is being used by essential vehicles: 20% heavy-duty trucks, 3% Construction and Mining, 4% ships, 2% rail, 3% pipelines, 2% agricultural.  

As oil scarcity increased, a rational society would transfer much if not all of the non-essential vehicle oil to essential vehicles.  Except for those of the rich, powerful, connected, and those related to them no doubt…

It wouldn’t take long for oil decline to crash the financial system, which is based on credit lent out to debtors who will eventually pay it back, plus interest.  This can only happen in a growing economy, but oil decline will relentlessly shrink the economy.  Credit will dry up.  So will exploration and drilling for new oil and future projects. This is already happening, we’ve found less oil in 2015-2017 than since 1940, and not much is being spent on exploration and drilling because the price of oil is so low.

Optimistic scenario: 30 years before we hit the wall 

The likely decline rate is expected to accelerate. We’ve been on a plateau since 2005, but that will certainly end within the next decade.

This is because there are 500 giant oil fields, nearly all discovered 50 or more years ago, that provide two-thirds of all oil now and all the oil that has ever been produced.

The giant oil fields will set the pace of overall decline, since the contribute the largest share of oil.  Those that have entered the decline phase already are declining at a rate of 6% on average.

The other 47,500 smaller oil fields decline at much faster rates, for example, fracked oil declines 85% in just 3 years.  This means that overall decline will exponentially increase by 0.15% a year as they contribute greater and greater shares of oil production. That means that every 7 years the rate goes up by 1% (Hook 2009).

Hence the term “Net Energy Cliff”.

The good news as far as climate change goes, is that will also knock down emissions.  Oil is the master resource.  Without it you can’t find and produce more oil, or coal and natural gas for that matter.  Oil decline sets the rate of civilization’s decline.  Coal and natural gas can’t replace oil — read my book “Why trucks stop running” or more of the posts at energyskeptic to understand why.

In 2016 the U.S. burned 19.63 million barrels of oil a day (mbpd).  Today 6.5 mbpd goes to essential vehicles and equipment.  Let’s say that half of that is inessential goods being shipped. That would make the mininum about needed to maintain supply chains and other essential vehicles and equipment is 3.25 mbpd.

If oil began to decline from 19.63 mbpd tomorrow at a steady rate of 6% a year, in 30 years we’d be down to 3.25 barrels.  Using Hooks factor of exponential decline by 0.0015 per year, it would last only 23 years.

But we don’t have 23 to 30 years.  Things will not go perfectly.  First, we will have gone a lot below 19.63 mbpd before anything at all happens.  The financial system will have crashed again, harder than 2008. Oil demand will go down, just like it did after the 2008 crash.  Far more people will be thrown into poverty and drive less or almost never.

In a deflation, prices spiral downwards, but food and oil are essential to life, even though people are less and less able to afford to buy things.  Those prices will go up at some point.  If the prices go up enough, then an even worse depression will ensue.

The rich are fine with that, but once people get hungry, social unrest will get worse and worse.  To prevent total chaos, civil war, and disorder, the government will have to step in and ration oil and food, most importantly to agriculture, which needs 10 calories of fossil fuels for every food calorie we eat.

If this point isn’t reached until we’re down to 10 mbpd, then 3.25 mbpd is reached in 16.5 years.

But it’s probably less time than that.  The rich and powerful will manage to get more than their share of rations.

And Europe and most other non-producing oil nations will have already begun energy descent.  Supply chains for just about everything will have already broken since so many parts are made in Germany, South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere.  Not to mention rare earth minerals and much more that we import now. So even if the U.S. starts the decline later than other countries, and uses their military card to get Middle Eastern oil and somehow Russia, China, and so on don’t stop us, we’ll be missing the spare parts to fix military and all other equipment.

Meanwhile if fracked oil peaks in 2019-2020 as David Hughes has predicted in “Drilling Deeper”, we may not be able to get much after that, since the sweet spots will have already been drilled and the EROI of going after it might be too high. Tar sands production will decline as well because the EROI is only 3 (in-situ) to 5 (mined) and at best only 27% can be mined due to lack of natural gas. EROI needs to be somewhere between 10 and 14 probably to maintain civilization as we know it.

At some point of decline, it’s conceivable that Canada will be keeping their oil within Canada,  Texas within Texas, and California within California. Decline will likely be regional, with some areas declining faster and sooner than others.

Even if rationing is done wisely and fairly, and much of the remaining oil is going to agriculture, other factors will be lowering food production. Irrigated cropland will have to be abandoned after a dam has failed, because the energy to replace it isn’t there.  New pesticides won’t be developed at all or quickly enough.  There won’t have been an effort to shift to organic agriculture since every drop of oil will be thrown into keeping industrial agriculture going, and climate change will be further lowering crop yields via drought, flood, heat waves, hail, and more severe storms.

What else could go wrong?

  • Oil producing countries export less because they’re using more oil themselves (ELM model)
  • Nuclear war, nuclear EMP takes down the electric grid, nuclear power plant meltdown, or nuclear spent fuel pool disaster
  • Hurricanes take out Gulf Coast refineries or drown New York city.
  • Tsunamis or an Earthquake in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco.
  • ARKStorm in California where 1/3 of U.S. food is produced
  • Volcanic Eruptions in Japan, United States, and so on.
  • Nations go back to negotiating deals between producing and non-producing nations and bypass the international oil market, or compete with the U.S. in buying the remaining oil in the Middle East as there is less and less to export. That could lessen America’s oil imports further, on top of the exponential decline rate.
  • China, Russia, and Europe are much closer to the Middle East than we are.
  • Oil shocks make investors “Peak Oil Aware” and world-wide stock markets crash
  • Peak coal, peak natural gas, peak uranium, peak sand, peak water, peak topsoil, peak phosphorous, etc
  • See all of energyskeptic for more factors, the wiki of collapse

There are ways to use less oil that would extend it — and lessen climate change!

  • Maximum speed limit of 55 for cars, 40 for trucks.  Aerodynamic losses can lead to 50% energy inefficiencies, especially trucks.  I don’t understand why haven’t climate change activists haven’t already made this their main platform already.
  • Start rationing now.
  • Two-thirds of us can take pressure off of agricultural oil by eating a lot fewer calories and be much healthier in the bargain
  • Engage in a simpler way of life. Stop shopping so much.
  • Grow food locally
  • Limit immigration and encourage one or zero child families
  • Transfer cargo from energy inefficient trucks to far more energy efficient rail and ships,
  • Stop all the just-in-time deliveries, that’s been a huge factor in truck’s increasing use of fuel — they arrive half empty with just what’s needed and depart empty quite often
  • Package goods better. Walmart made a Ramen manufacturer shrink their containers and could load orders of magnitude more of the stuff on a truck.
  • To prevent panic, turn to Postcarbon and community and master gardeners to help people grow food, like the victory gardens of WWII (my Dad’s family were given a plot of land near the tennis courts at the University of Chicago). Look to  groups like Bay Localize or Transition Towns, and any group that has been working on alternative currencies like Argentina.

There are many people who have written about making the transition, such as Ted Trainer’s “the simpler way”, on an economic system based on a steady-state instead of endless growth, H.T. Odum’s “The prosperous way down”, and some of the groups mentioned above.

The good news is that after oil starts its relentless exponential decline, in 60 years, today’s 10 billion tons (GtC) of carbon emissions (multiply by 3.67 to get CO2 value) would decline to the emissions of 1800, which were 0.01 GtC per year – 1,000 times less than today’s.  [I will publish more about this later].


Hook, M., Hirsch, R., Aleklett, K. June 2009. Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy 37(6): 2262-2272


Posted in Cascading Failure, Electric Grid, Energy, Exponential Growth, Exports decline to ZERO, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Net Energy Cliff, Transportation, Transportation | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Responding to arctic oil spills

Arctic oil spill

[ It is insane to even contemplate putting oil rigs into an area with such vast amounts of ice on the move, and all the additional dangers listed below.  Before I read this 210 page NRC report, I thought the main problem was ice bergs, but there is a lot more to worry about.

No wonder there’s little to no drilling going now.  It’s too expensive to keep oil rigs and tankers from being punctured or tipped over. Shell gave up on it and has abandoned plans to develop the arctic in the near future. 

Even if an oil company wanted to drill, there’s just 1 to 3 months in the summer to drill one well.  If oil is found, dozens more need to be drilled to see if the extent of the field is worth going after. And to get it out, new infrastructure: roads, pipelines, ports, and so on. It would take decades to do that before the first drop of oil could be produced.   Yet the arctic is where a quarter of the remaining oil and gas are.  But even desperation may never make it possible to drill in the Arctic given all the barriers listed below, and will be an ecological disaster if it’s attempted.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

NRC. 2014. Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment. National Research Council, National Academies Press. 211 pages

Examples of Risks Associated with Oil Spill Response Due to Weather Conditions

Adverse weather conditions can have impacts on the feasibility of oil spill response, especially in relation to marine and airborne operations

Sustained wind speeds greater than 25 knots (~13 m/s) could

  1. Hinder crane operations and equipment use on response vessels, with a possibility of swinging or uncontrollable loads;
  2. Limit in situ burning, as a typical wind threshold for successful burn operations is 20 kt (~10 m/s) or less;
  3. Limit surface dispersant application from vessels and aircraft;
  4. Limit mechanical recovery operations, such as skimmer deployment and boom containment
  5. Hamper small boat operations due to the potential for severe sea states, breaking waves, and superstructure icing;
  6. Hinder helicopter approach and landing on offshore helidecks.

Sea states greater than 1-1.5 m could

  1. Limit boom effectiveness, as wave overtopping leads to loss of contained oil;
  2. Impede small boat operation, due to waves, wind, and icing potential;
  3. Contribute to seasickness and/or fatigue, impacting personal safety and effectiveness;
  4. Jeopardize safety on deck from slippery and icy surfaces.

Visibility that is less than visual flight rules or instrument flight rule minimums (due to weather or season) could

  1. Limit helicopter landings when cloud ceilings or visibility are below minimum standards set by the
  2. Federal Aviation Administration or company policy
  3. Curtail aerial dispersant spraying;
  4. Limit oil spill monitoring by preventing direct visual observations.

Extreme cold temperatures (less than −35°C) could

  1. Impact safety on deck, due to effects from wind chill;
  2. Impact responder safety because of potential for frostbite;
  3. Decrease worker efficiency from fatigue, leading to a need for frequent rest breaks;
  4. Contribute to equipment breakdown due to changes in oil viscosity, hydraulic leaks, or mechanical failure
  5. Limit helicopter operations, which have a lowest acceptable operating temperature set by operators and manufacturers

The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill. Communities are dependent on air and seasonal marine transport for the movement of people, goods, and services, and there are few equipment caches with boom, dispersants, and in situ burn materials available for the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Boroughs. It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel. Prepositioning a suite of response equipment throughout the Arctic, including aerial in situ burn and dispersant capability, would provide immediate access to a number of rapid response oil spill countermeasure options.

Frequent winter breakaway events can substantially alter the extent of fast ice along the Chukchi Sea coast in a matter of hours, as floes that can be several kilometers across fracture and drift out into open water stretches. In early winter, the fast ice remains unstable right into the coast until December and occupies a limited extent compared to the Beaufort Sea.

Other infrastructure

Commercial infrastructure is either limited or absent in the U.S. Arctic. Oilfields around Prudhoe Bay host support service contractors and their equipment. In the event of a SONS and the necessity for rapid deployment of large numbers of responders, passenger jet service (737-scale) is available at Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, and Deadhorse (Figure 4.3). Smaller aircraft service (19-passenger turboprop) can access nearly all of the approximately 30 coastal communities and other developments (e.g., Red Dog Mine, De Long Mountains Terminal) from Nome to the Canadian border. Almost all of the airstrips can be accessed by C-130 and smaller cargo aircraft if needed for rapid deployment of spill response equipment. Multiple heavy lift aircraft would be needed to bring in capping stack equipment.

Spill responders and other personnel would find a severe shortage of housing, fresh water, food and catering, sewage handling and garbage removal facilities, communications infrastructure, ability to handle heavy equipment, supplies, and hospitals and medical support. Large numbers of response workers also represent an increased risk of accidents and injuries. There are also limited bandwidth and communications capabilities. A single fiber optic cable connects the existing oil fields and there are currently no cables to northwestern Alaska, although a hybrid of fiber optic and microwave repeater towers are planned for the Northwest Arctic Borough. Increased bandwidth capacity is needed to share data and information in the event of an oil spill.

Moreover, recovered oil and oily debris must be collected and disposed of in predesignated locations, or the means to transport the material to some approved location outside of the local area is needed. Given the limited highway infrastructure, planners will inevitably look to aviation and seaborne support for all of these needs. There are no deepwater ports in the two boroughs. Nome has a shallow water port with docks, while other villages have shallow embayments (0-20 ft) without support facilities. The distance from Dutch Harbor, the closest full-service port, to the Shell drilling site in the Chukchi Sea, for example, is approximately 1,600 km. Sea-based support will be limited in its ability to work very close to the shore, due to shallow waters in much of the region, so a contingent of shallow water craft is needed for nearshore operations. Most of this can be contracted commercially, provided through government or military sources (if available), or provided on station by the operator and ready for immediate use. This latter approach was followed by Shell during its 2012 season. Absent this approach, the time delay in bringing adequate capabilities to the scene could be significant.

The absence of infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill. It limits the ability to conduct routine operations and maintenance, engage local communities, and develop meaningful area familiarity. There is presently no funding mechanism to provide for development, deployment, and maintenance of temporary and permanent infrastructure.

Effective oil spill response requires improved communication bandwidth and networks; transportation systems; environmental and traffic monitoring systems; energy and fuel systems; personnel, berthing, housing, waste and medical support facilities; as well as civil infrastructure development to provide improved port and air access to remote locations using extended supply chains and an increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, support, and personnel.


The Arctic system serves as an integrator for the Earth’s physical, biological, oceanic, and atmospheric processes, with impacts beyond the Arctic itself. The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic presents hazards for Arctic nations and their neighbors. The threat of a major Arctic oil spill and the potential impacts on the region’s marine ecosystems are of concern for a broad range of U.S. and international interests, including Alaskan natives and others who live in the region, citizens and organizations concerned about the health of the Arctic environment, agencies committed to protecting the environment and threatened species, agencies that regulate extractive activities or transportation, and industries that plan to develop oil and gas, shipping routes, fisheries, or tourism.

Rapid climate change is leading to retreat and thinning of Arctic sea ice, potentially increasing the accessibility of U.S. Arctic marine waters for commercial activities. With this projected rise in activity come additional concerns about the risk of oil spills. Recent interest in developing the rich oil and gas resources in federal waters offshore of Alaska has led to planning, environmental assessments, and preliminary drilling for oil and gas exploration. In addition, expanding maritime activity in the region includes the potential for greater seasonal use by tankers and bulk carriers, fishing fleets that follow the northward migration of fish stocks, and cruise ships interested in exploiting the public’s desire to interact with Arctic wilderness.

Arctic oil spill response is challenging because of extreme weather and environmental conditions; the lack of existing or sustained communications, logistical, and information infrastructure; significant geographic distances; and vulnerability of Arctic species, ecosystems, and cultures.

A fundamental understanding of the dynamic Arctic region is needed to help guide oil spill response and recovery efforts. Information on physical processes—including ocean circulation, ice cover, marine weather, and coastal processes—is important to frame the environmental context for the Arctic ecosystem and can help responders predict where oil will spread and how weathering might change its properties. Parameters such as air and water temperature, wind velocity, and hours of daylight are important considerations in choosing an effective and safe response strategy.

Knowledge of ice thickness, concentration, and extent is essential for anticipating the likely behavior of oil in, under, and on ice and determining applicable response strategies, while high-quality bathymetry, nautical charting, and shoreline mapping data are needed for marine traffic management and oil spill response. From a biological perspective, understanding population dynamics and interconnections within the Arctic food web will enable the determination of key species that are most important for monitoring in the instance of an oil spill.

Baseline data are critical to assess changes over time. In the Arctic, historical data do not provide reliable baselines to assess current environmental or ecosystem states, nor can they fully anticipate potential impacts due to factors such as seasonal and interannual variations or climate change. Instead, monitoring approaches will need to take advantage of benchmarks, or reference points over time, rather than static baselines.

Critical types of benchmark data for oil spill response in the Arctic include: • Spatial and temporal distributions and abundances for fishes, birds, and marine mammals; • Subsistence and cultural use of living marine resources; • Identification and monitoring of areas of biological significance; • Rates of change for key species; • Sensitivity of key Arctic species to hydrocarbons; • High-resolution coastal topography and shelf bathymetry; and • Measurements of ice cover, thickness, and distribution.

Additional research and development needs include meteorological-ocean-ice forecast model systems at high temporal and spatial resolutions and better assimilation of traditional knowledge of sea state and ice behavior into forecasting models. Releasing proprietary monitoring data from exploration activities would increase knowledge of Arctic benchmark conditions. When appropriate, Arctic communities could also release data that they hold regarding important sites for fishing, hunting, and cultural activities.

In many instances, frequent and regular long-term monitoring will be needed to determine trends. Because data are or will be collected by a number of local, state, and federal agencies, as well as industry and academia, a complete information system that integrates Arctic data in support of oil spill preparedness, response, and restoration and rehabilitation is needed. Achieving this goal requires the development of international standards for Arctic data collection, sharing, and integration. A long-term, community-based, multiuse Arctic observing system could provide critical data at a variety of scales.

Recommendation: A real-time Arctic oceanographic-ice-meteorological forecasting system is needed to account for variations in sea ice coverage and thickness and should include patterns of ice movement, ice type, sea state, ocean stratification and circulation, storm surge, and improved resolution in areas of potential risk. Such a system requires robust, sustainable, and effective acquisition of relevant observational data.

Recommendation: High-resolution satellite and airborne imagery needs to be coupled with up-to-date high-resolution digital elevation models and updated regularly to capture the dynamic, rapidly changing U.S. Arctic coastline. Nearshore bathymetry and topography should be collected at a scale appropriate for accurate modeling of coastline vulnerability and storm surge sensitivity. Short- and long-term Arctic nautical charting and shoreline mapping that have been identified in NOAA and U.S. Geological Survey plans should be adequately resourced, so that mapping efforts can be initiated, continued, and completed in timescales relevant to anticipated changes. To be effective, Arctic mapping priorities should continue to be developed in consultation with stakeholders and industry and should be implemented systematically rather than through surveys of opportunity.


A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program that integrates all knowledgeable sectors and focuses on oil behavior, response technologies, and controlled field releases is needed.

Laboratory experiments, field research, and practical experience gained from responding to past oil spills have built a strong body of knowledge on oil properties and oil spill response techniques. However, much of the work has been done for temperate regions, and there are areas where additional research is needed to make informed decisions about the most effective response strategies for different Arctic situations. In the presence of lower water temperatures or sea ice, the processes that control oil weathering—such as spreading, evaporation, photo-oxidation, emulsification, and natural dispersion—are slowed down or eliminated for extended periods of time. Because of encapsulation of oil by new ice growth, oil can also be separated from the environment for months at a time. Understanding how oil behaves or changes in the Arctic environment can help define the most effective oil spill response actions. In addition to ongoing research on oil properties and weathering in high latitudes, there is a need to validate current and emerging oil spill response technologies on operational scales under realistic environmental conditions. Carefully planned and controlled field releases of oil in the U.S. Arctic would improve the understanding of oil behavior in the Bering Strait and Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and allow for the evaluation of new response strategies specific to the region. Scientific field releases that have been conducted elsewhere in the Arctic demonstrate that such studies can be carried out without measureable harm to the environment.

Recommendation: A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program needs to be established. The program should focus on understanding oil spill behavior in the Arctic marine environment, including the relationship between oil and sea ice formation, transport, and fate. It should include assessment of oil spill response technologies and logistics, improvements to forecasting models and associated data needs, and controlled field releases under realistic conditions for research purposes. Industry, academic, government, non-governmental, grassroots, and international efforts should be integrated into the program, with a focus on peer review and transparency. An interagency permit approval process that will enable researchers to plan and execute deliberate releases in U.S. waters is also needed.

Oil spill countermeasures

Key response countermeasures and tools for oil removal in Arctic conditions include biodegradation (including oil treated with dispersants), in situ burning, chemical herders, mechanical containment and recovery, detection and tracking, and oil spill trajectory modeling. These are joined by the “no response” option of natural recovery, which is a viable alternative in some situations. No single technique will apply in all situations. The oil spill response toolbox requires flexibility to evaluate and apply multiple response options, if necessary. Well-defined and well-tested decision processes are critical to expedite review and approval of countermeasure options in emergency situations.

Recommendation: Dispersant pre-authorization in Alaska should be based on sound science, including research on fates and effects of chemically dispersed oil in the Arctic environment, experiments using oils that are representative of those in the Arctic, toxicity tests of chemically dispersed oil at realistic concentrations and exposures, and the use of representative microbial and lower-trophic benthic and pelagic Arctic species at appropriate temperatures and salinities.

In Situ Burning is a viable spill response countermeasure in the Arctic. Ice can often provide a natural barrier to maintain the necessary oil thicknesses for ignition, without the need for booms. With relatively fresh oil that is wind herded against an ice edge, or collects in melt pools in the spring, removal efficiencies in excess of 90% are achievable through in situ burning. However, in very open drift ice conditions, oil spills can rapidly spread too thinly to ignite. To improve the limits of in situ burning, further research is needed to evaluate improved ignition methods and to explore the use of aerially applied oil-herding chemicals at different spatial scales and with different oil types, including weathered states.

Mechanical containment and recovery removes oil from the marine environment, rather than adding chemicals or generating burn residue. However, when dealing with large offshore spills, the oil can quickly spread to a thin sheen, which makes it difficult to achieve a significant rate of recovery. Large quantities of containment boom and hundreds of vessels and skimmers are needed to concentrate thin, rapidly spreading oil slicks. The lack of approved disposal sites on land for contaminated water and waste, lack of port facilities to accept deep-draft vessels, and limited airlift capability to remote communities complicates the large-scale use of mechanical containment and recovery to respond to Arctic spills. Mechanical recovery can provide a viable option for small, contained spills in pack ice, or for larger spills under fast ice. Arctic-relevant mechanical recovery improvements include cold temperature operability and independent propulsion; however, response to a large offshore spill in the U.S. Arctic is unlikely to rely only upon mechanical containment and recovery because of its inefficiency.

Detection, Monitoring, and Modeling

To mount an effective response, it is critical to know where spilled oil is at any given time. Over the past decade, several large government and industry programs have evaluated the variety of rapidly developing remote sensing technologies used for detection, including sonar, synthetic aperture radar, infrared, and ground-penetrating radar. In addition, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles for oil detection and tracking has grown. However, there will always be a need for aerial observers to map oiled areas and transmit critical information to response crews. Detection methods work hand-in-hand with advanced oil spill trajectory modeling to understand where oil is moving. Promising advances in modeling have accounted for the incorporation of oil into brine channels as well as the bulk freezing of oil into ice, although better modeling of under-ice roughness is still needed. Investment in detection and response strategies for oil on, within, and trapped under ice will be necessary for contingency planning. In addition, robust operational meteorological-ocean-ice and oil spill trajectory forecasting models for the U.S. Arctic would further improve oil spill response efforts. Arctic oil spill research and development needs for improved decision support include: • Improving methods for in situ burning, dispersant application, and use of chemical herders; • Understanding limitations of mechanical recovery in both open water and ice; • Investing in under-ice oil detection and response strategies; • Integrating remote sensing and observational techniques for detecting and tracking ice and oil; • Determining and verifying biodegradation rates for hydrocarbons in offshore environments; • Evaluating the toxicity of dispersants and chemically dispersed oil on key Arctic marine species; and • Summarizing relevant ongoing and planned research worldwide to achieve synergy and avoid unnecessary duplication.


Marine activities in U.S. Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the logistics and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely.

As oil and gas, shipping, and tourism activities increase, the U.S. Coast Guard will need an enhanced presence and performance capacity in the Arctic. U.S. support for Arctic missions, including oil spill response, requires significant investment in infrastructure and capabilities.

Recommendation: As oil and gas, shipping, and tourism activities increase, the USCG will need an enhanced presence and performance capacity in the Arctic, including area-specific training, ice-breaking capability, improved availability of vessels for responding to oil spills or other emergency situations, and aircraft and helicopter support facilities for the open water season and eventually year round. Furthermore, Arctic assignments for trained and experienced personnel and tribal liaisons should be of longer duration, to take full advantage of their skills. Sustained funding will be needed to increase the USCG presence in the Arctic and to strengthen and expand its ongoing Arctic oil spill research programs. Vessel traffic is not actively managed in the Bering Strait or in the U.S. Arctic, nor is there a comprehensive system for real-time traffic monitoring. The lack of a U.S. vessel traffic monitoring system for the Arctic creates significant vulnerability for missions including oil spill response and creates undue reliance on private industry and foreign national systems. Private receivers are used to track vessels in the Bering Strait and along a large part of Alaskan coastal areas, but there are significant gaps in coverage. Consequently, there are numerous regional “blind spots” where an early indication of elevated risks may not be apparent to officials ashore. Recommendation: The USCG should expedite its evaluation of traffic through the Bering Strait to determine if vessel traffic monitoring systems, including an internationally recognized traffic separation scheme, are warranted. If so, this should be coordinated with Russia. The USCG should also consider obtaining broader satellite monitoring of Automatic Identification System signals in the Arctic through government means or from private providers.

Building U.S. capabilities to support oil spill response will require significant investment in physical infrastructure and human capabilities, from communications and personnel to transportation systems and traffic monitoring. Human and organizational infrastructure improvements are also required to improve international and tribal partnerships so as to leverage scientific and traditional knowledge and best practices. A truly capable end-to-end system for oil spill response would require integration of Arctic data in support of preparedness, response, and restoration and rehabilitation.

There is presently no funding mechanism to provide for development, deployment, and maintenance of temporary and permanent infrastructure.

For spills occurring within U.S. jurisdiction, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 provides the necessary legal framework for the responsible party—often the owners or operators of energy or shipping companies—to fund response operations and provide compensation for damages. The burden of cost can fall on the government, however, when the cost of oil spill response exceeds liability limits or when the responsible party cannot be found. The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a fund maintained by the federal government for these situations, may prove insufficient to cover the sociological and economic damages of affected communities. A “whole government” approach that includes the ability to deal with broad societal impacts of a spill may be necessary.

Local communities possess in-depth knowledge of ice conditions, ocean currents, and marine life in areas that could be affected by oil spills. Failure to include local knowledge during planning and response may increase the risk of missing significant environmental information, yet there appears to have been only modest efforts to integrate local knowledge into formal incident command-based responses. Developing and maintaining trained village response teams integrates local knowledge and utilizes existing human resources for effective oil spill response. The North Slope Borough has a well-developed local emergency response team, and the Northwest Arctic Borough is strengthening this capability in its region.

The potential impact of oil and countermeasures on wildlife is a major concern during an oil spill response. Controlling oil release and spread at the source of a spill, deterring animals from entering oiled areas, and capturing and rehabilitating oiled wildlife can help minimize the potential impact on wildlife, the broader ecosystem, and the food web. However, rehabilitation and release in the Arctic are complicated by remote locations, lack of response equipment, concerns over subsistence use of potentially oiled animals, and safety considerations when dealing with large animals such as polar bears and walruses. There is a general lack of scientific study, approved protocols, and consensus among decision makers regarding marine mammal deterrence. Wildlife response plans will need to include key indicators of environmental health, and prioritize response strategies. This includes a no-response strategy, which may be preferable for some species.

The Arctic acts as an integrating, regulating, and mediating component of the physical, atmospheric, and cryospheric systems that govern life on Earth. It is also undergoing rapid climate change, the rate of which is projected to accelerate in coming decades. Surface air temperature increases in the Arctic in recent decades are about two to four times larger than observed in the mid-latitudes, with evidence that the increase will continue. This “Arctic amplification” has been attributed to various complicated interactions between physical mechanisms (NRC, 2014), including albedo (solar reflectance) change due to sea ice and snowline retreat and latitudinal differences in surface energy radiation.

The most obvious evidence for Arctic change has been the well-documented retreat and thinning of Arctic sea ice cover. Between 1979 and 2013, the linear rate of decline of September ice extent was 13.7% per decade. The largest sea ice losses were documented in the Beaufort and Chukchi regions, particularly in the extremely low summer sea ice years of 2007 and 2012.  Recent increases in surface ocean temperatures in the Arctic, particularly in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, are related to this sea ice retreat. Mean surface ocean temperatures in the southern Beaufort Sea in August 2007 and 2012 were more than 2°C warmer than the August mean between 1982 and 2006.

Warming upper ocean temperatures may lead to increased thawing of offshore and coastal permafrost and coastal erosion, which is exacerbated by sea ice loss and increased sea state, as well as sea-level rise. Increased waves are already a feature of the Alaskan coastal zone. Other known climate change manifestations in the Arctic include changing atmospheric circulation patterns and increased cloud cover, related in part to the reduced sea ice extent .

The feedbacks and transitions occurring in this region will have significant implications for biodiversity, human benefits from the ecosystem, and other important processes within the Arctic and global system. As the Arctic changes, larger areas are becoming more accessible for shipping, exploration, and resource development, which come with increased concerns for oil spills and other types of potentially harmful incidents that could impact U.S. waters. There have been a number of recent efforts that highlight the importance of the Arctic to national interests .

These seas are home to ecosystems with a wide diversity of marine life. Many marine mammals and seabirds migrate seasonally to the Chukchi and Beaufort areas, with some permanent resident populations of polar bears and seals. Owing to the rapid warming of the Arctic and the associated decrease in sea ice, significant changes are occurring in the habitat, range, and behavior of the marine species that inhabit these waters.

The communities of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas have limited infrastructure and no deepwater ports.

None of the communities have permanent road infrastructure connected to the main highway systems or large communities in Alaska, although some communities are seasonally connected by ice roads. Instead, the communities are largely dependent on air and seasonal marine transport for the movement of people, goods, and services outside their regions. All coastal communities receive barge shipments during the summer and early autumn open water months. Industrial activities of the region include commercial fishing in Kotzebue, Port Clarence, and Norton Sound; the Red Dog lead and zinc mine north of Kotzebue; and oil and gas fields on the North Slope.

There are an estimated 30 billion barrels of technically recoverable undiscovered oil in the U.S. Arctic, which equals approximately one-third of the total resource found in the entire circum-Arctic region. The subsurface Chukchi Sea Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is estimated to contain 11 billion barrels of undiscovered economically recoverable oil and 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, while the subsurface Beaufort Sea OCS is estimated to contain 6 billion barrels of undiscovered economically recoverable oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (at $110/barrel and $7.83/ thousand cubic feet of gas; BOEM, 2011). It is estimated that 80 to 90% of petroleum hydrocarbon entering the Arctic marine environment is from natural seeps (AMAP, 2008). Becker and Manen (1988) reported the presence of oil seeps in the coastal regions of Alaska and estimated submarine seepage to be approximately 1,000 tons/yr.

As crude oil seepage has been estimated to be 600,000 metric tons/yr globally, natural seeps may be among the most important sources of oil entering the ocean.

In the Chukchi Sea, most of the exploration activity occurs relatively far offshore (greater than 80-120 km), roughly equidistant from the villages of Point Lay and Wainwright. For this region, most of the resupply and support vessel traffic is between the offshore and points of origin of the exploration vessels (e.g., Dutch Harbor, and/or Nome). Crew change-out and some resupply also take place through Wainwright and Barrow. In the Beaufort Sea, oil exploration is primarily located between Kaktovik and Cape Halkett, especially near Camden Bay, the Colville River Delta, and Harrison Bay. Beaufort Sea exploration is closer to shore (~15-30 km), between Kaktovik and Nuiqsut. As with the Chukchi exploration effort, vessels arrive in the Beaufort Sea by traversing the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea and rounding Point Barrow or, to a lesser degree, via Canadian waters to the east. Additional material resupply, crew change-out, and other vessel traffic are routed between the exploration areas and Prudhoe Bay.

Alaskan North Slope oil production infrastructure is located within a 120 × 40 km area between the Sagavanirktok and Colville Rivers along the central Beaufort Sea coastline. Pipelines extend approximately 30 km farther to the east, to BP’s Badami and ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson projects. Of the oil fields in this area, the Northstar, Oooguruk, and Nikaitchuq fields are produced from offshore facilities, with buried pipelines transmitting oil to facilities onshore. Other facilities are along the coast or in nearshore waters connected by a causeway (e.g., the Endicott Development, which was built on an artificial island). The location of these fields and pipelines influences the risk faced by communities and biological resources. Many villages are located along the coast, in large part because these areas are used by a variety of important subsistence species, especially marine mammals and birds.

Exploration drilling in the U.S. Beaufort and Chukchi Seas OCS began in the early 1980s, with 20 exploratory wells drilled between 1980 and 1989. The first discovery of oil in the Beaufort Sea OCS came in 1983 at the Tern (Liberty) field, and the largest discovery to date was made in 1993 at the Kuvlum field. Northstar was the first field to be developed in federal waters in the Beaufort Sea, beginning production in 2001. To date, 30 exploration wells have been drilled in the Beaufort Sea OCS; only three of those were drilled since the mid-1990s. In the Chukchi Sea OCS, five exploratory wells have been drilled. All were drilled between 1989 and 1991, and several discovered hydrocarbons.

Between 2008 and 2011, there were delays in additional exploration. In 2010, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar suspended proposed exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic.8 In 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) conditionally approved Shell’s 2012 Exploration Plans for both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) permitted Shell to begin drilling in 2012. Drilling was limited to two surface holes, due to issues with readiness of their dome containment device as well as the lack of a fully compliant spill response barge. Despite further hurdles, including the grounding of the Kulluk drilling unit, Shell continued to pursue drilling activity in early 2013, focusing their drilling activities at the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea and near the Kuvlum and Hammerhead fields in the Beaufort Sea. In February 2013, Shell announced that it was halting further exploration activities until 2014, at which point it planned to drill in the Chukchi Sea only. In its most recent announcement on January 30, 2014, Shell again postponed its drilling activities, citing as its reason a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals regarding a flawed environmental impact statement for lease sales in the Chukchi Sea.

Drilling operations in Arctic waters have been and continue to be highly controversial. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (2011) noted that “the stakes for drilling in the U.S. Arctic are raised by the richness of its ecosystems.” Many individuals and conservation organizations advocate a halt to drilling in the region. Their concerns are primarily centered around inadequate baseline and monitoring data, especially for sensitive and important ecological areas; limited infrastructure available to address oil spills; challenges presented by little daylight in winter, rough weather, sea ice, and remoteness; and a lack of effective methods for responding to oil spills (Oceana, 2008; WWF, 2010; Pew Charitable Trust, 2013). Some of these concerns are based on experiences and environmental impacts from previous oil spills in the region, notably the Exxon Valdez accident.

Large commercial vessel traffic through the Bering Strait to Alaska’s northern regions has typically been dedicated to servicing the nearshore and onshore oil production facilities on the North Slope, transporting zinc and lead from the Red Dog mine through its port on the Chukchi Sea, and delivering fuel, equipment, and supplies to coastal communities. However, the vessel traffic situation in the region has recently changed noticeably. There has been an increase in seasonal maritime traffic from increased oil and gas exploration, ship-based oceanographic research missions from a variety of nations (including some that are newer to Arctic research, such as South Korea and China), tourism vessels, and shipping of oil and other commodities from Russia through the Northern Sea Route. These trends are expected to continue, with additional traffic potential from the development of large-scale mineral deposits in the Canadian and Russian Arctic and the development of new oil fields in the Alaskan OCS. More than 300 vessels transited the Bering Strait in 2012, up from approximately 260 in 2009, according to Automatic Identification System data. Of these, bulk carriers, tugs and barges, and research vessels constitute the largest categories.

Select Oil Spills and Maritime Accidents of Interest

Exxon Valdez — On March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker headed for Long Beach, California, struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The collision with the reef punctured 8 of the tanker’s 11 cargo tanks. The damaged tanker spilled approximately 10.8 million gallons of North Slope crude oil. It was estimated to be carrying approximately 53 million gallons when it was wrecked. At the time, it was the largest single oil spill in U.S. coastal waters. Oil from the spill reached nearly 2,100 km of coastline, approximately 200 of which were considered heavily oiled. The other 1,750 km were either lightly or very lightly oiled. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates as many as 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales died as a result of the incident.

Deepwater Horizon — On April 20, 2010, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil platform as it drilled the Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico. The uncontrolled oil flow from the wellhead led to a release of about 205 million gallons at a depth of ~1,500 m. The DWH oil spill is, to date, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Although a final Natural Resource Damage Assessment has not yet been released, preliminary status updates provide some insight into the damage caused by the spill. Approximately 1,750 km of coastline were oiled, 220 of which were heavily oiled. As of April 2012, field teams had collected 8,567 live and dead birds, of which 1,423 were rehabilitated and released. They collected 536 live sea turtles, of which 469 were later released, and 613 dead sea turtles. An Unusual Mortality Event for cetaceans in the northern Gulf of Mexico was declared prior to the spill, in February 2010, and is still in effect.

Kulluk — On December 27, 2012, the Kulluk, Shell’s conical drilling unit, was being towed from Dutch Harbor after drilling in the Beaufort Sea to Seattle for maintenance when its tow connection to the Aiviq separated. Although an emergency tow line was established between the Kulluk and both the Aiviq and the Nanuq, the Kulluk’s connections with both ships ultimately separated again on December 30. On December 31, the Kulluk grounded off of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, due to strong winds and rough seas. On January 2, 2013, a salvage assessment team noted that the Kulluk had sustained some damage, but that it was stable and no sheen was visible. At the time that it grounded, the Kulluk was carrying approximately 139,000 gallons of ultra-low-sulfur diesel in addition to the 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid needed for onboard equipment. Approximately 316 gallons of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel were released from the Kulluk’s lifeboats. On January 6, the Kulluk was refloated and moved to nearby Kiliuda Bay. Multiple salmon-bearing streams are located near the grounding site and Kiliuda Bay. Sitkalidak Island and Kiliuda Bay are within the area designated as critical habitat for Steller sea lion and southwest sea otter populations. These areas also provide habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds (including the Endangered Species Act-listed Steller’s eider), as well as harbor seals. Fin and humpback whales may also have been in Kiliuda Bay. However, no specific impacts to wildlife have been reported.

Selendang Ayu — On November 28, 2004, the Malaysian-registered bulk freighter Selendang Ayu departed Seattle, Washington, and began its trip to Xiamen, China. The vessel was loaded with soybeans and 1,000 metric tons of fuel. On December 6, in the Bering Sea, the vessel experienced engine failure. Despite attempts to fix the engine, it would not restart. Efforts over the next 2 days to tow the vessel were compromised and ultimately failed, due largely to weather. After drifting significantly, the Seledang Ayu ran aground near Unalaska Island, spilling 336,000 gallons of fuel and diesel fuel. Resources that were reportedly damaged from the spill include birds, fish, and vegetation. Following the incident, shoreline cleanup assessment teams identified nearly 115 km worth of shoreline segments that would require additional treatment. Some of the most heavily oiled areas were beaches located at the mouths of streams, which serve as habitat for anadromous fish. The carcasses of approximately 1,700 birds were either recovered or documented.

Environmental Conditions and Natural Resources in the U.S. Arctic

The components of the Arctic system interact with each other in a complex, evolving pattern. This chapter provides an overview of the physical and biological ocean processes and environments of the Bering Strait and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This is important for understanding current conditions, but also for understanding trends, changes, and future data needs. This knowledge is essential to support safe operations in the Arctic marine environment; to guide oil spill prevention, response, and restoration; and to prioritize sampling and monitoring needs.

Of utmost importance to oil spill response is the rapid variability of the wind-forced surface ocean circulation. High-frequency radar systems in the Chukchi Sea, which map surface ocean currents, indicate complex flow patterns that can reverse direction in a matter of hours and can vary significantly in both magnitude (0-85 km/day) and direction over spatial scales of less than 10 km.

Ocean eddies are common in both the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. Eddies centered at depths ranging from a few tens to hundreds of meters (with horizontal scales from a few kilometers to tens of kilometers) can trap and transport packets of water, or (in the case of a spill) entrained oil, over hundreds of kilometers. Satellite measurements reveal that the surface distribution of oil in the Deepwater Horizon spill was influenced by eddies in the Gulf of Mexico, which can extend to 800 m depth.

In addition to larger-scale eddies, there is complicated smaller-scale flow structure (characterized by horizontal scales around 1 km or less) in the ocean mixed layer beneath sea ice in the Beaufort Sea and in the mixed layer in ice-free conditions in the Chukchi Sea. This small-scale flow field, which is characterized by strong convergence and divergence zones, has been shown to have an important influence on tracer distribution patterns in mid-latitude, ice-free regions.

Ocean storm surges related to persistent high winds are an important factor for consideration in coastal spill response. Loss of Arctic sea ice has been shown to increase storm surge frequency. Extreme coastal flooding from water forced onshore by winds has been documented along the Canadian Beaufort Sea coast (see, e.g., Harper et al., 1988, who show maximum storm surge elevations of 2.5 m above mean sea level recorded at Tuktoyuktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada). These storm surges move ocean water into low-lying coastal environments, bringing salt and contaminants (in the event of a spill) that can have negative impacts on nearshore and terrestrial ecosystems.


There are a number of key weather parameters in the Beaufort and Chukchi region that can affect oil spill response, including air and water temperature, winds, low visibility, and hours of daylight. These conditions were highlighted as challenges to oil and gas operations and scientific research in the Arctic by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (2011), among others.   Air temperatures are low through most of the year and exhibit little variability from year to year. Stegall and Zhang (2012) analyzed three-hourly North American Regional Reanalysis winds in an in-depth review of wind statistics in the Chukchi–Beaufort Seas and Alaska North Slope region for the period 1979-2009. They found a distinct seasonal cycle, with lowest wind speeds (~2-4 m/s) in May and largest (~9 m/s) in October, with extreme winds (up to 15 m/s) that are most often found in October. An increasing trend in the frequency and intensity of extreme wind events was identified over their study period; 95th percentile winds in October increased from 7 m/s in 1979 to 10.5 m/s in 2009. Wind fields over offshore areas are not always well-captured by coastal station data, which comprise the majority of source data for reanalysis winds. For example, along the North Slope, the significant influence of the Brooks Range in winter and the sea breeze effect from thermal gradients between land, ocean, and ice in summer can lead to stark differences between the coastal and offshore wind regimes. Wind measurements from Pelly Island in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, which may better represent the stronger and more variable Beaufort Sea marine winds than coastal stations to the west, recorded peak wind speeds of more than 20 m/s in most months in the period 1994-2008. Wind speed distribution can be used to assess how often a spill response technique such as in situ burning could be used. For example, a general upper wind limit for successful ignition and effective burning in booms or in situ burning is on the order of 10 m/s.

Limited daylight can be a major issue for oil spill response during freeze-up and over the winter. Off the Beaufort coast, the maximum of 21 hours of daylight during the breakup season in August reduces to an average of 11 hours in October.

From late November to January there is no daylight. Low-visibility conditions in the Beaufort Sea offshore occur most often during the breakup period in July and August.

The Beaufort Sea wave environment can present a significant challenge to oil spill response. Waves are predominantly generated during the open water season and generally propagate from the east and northeast, although recent analyses suggest sizeable waves now also come from the west . For much of the summer (July to August), the close proximity of sea ice is thought to prevent high sea states from forming. However, since 2001, upward-looking sonar measurements in the Beaufort Sea have shown a trend of large waves being present in summer and fall for longer durations, with significant interannual variability in wave heights. It has been hypothesized that because of larger fetches in summer, the summer wave field now contributes significantly to a marginal ice zone of broken-up floes along the Beaufort Sea ice edge. After the initial freeze-up in October, wave heights become limited.

Depending on the time of year, different sets of operating limits can cause interruptions to marine and air activities. From December to March, sea state is not an important factor. Operational downtime is dominated by darkness, snow, and low temperatures. Sea state and temperature are not critical factors from March to June or July; instead, downtime is related to wind and visibility such as fog and low clouds. From August to October, sea state is an important factor, while low air temperature and increasing darkness become critical from late October onward.

Sea ice is a critically important component of the Arctic marine environment, and understanding the ice environment is essential to anticipating the likely behavior of oil in, under, and on ice and determining applicable response strategies. At present, marine operations in the northern Chukchi and Beaufort Seas generally take place from late July to September, but future developments could lead to extended operating seasons or even year-round offshore oil production.

Even in the summer, ice can intrude on drilling locations and shipping routes. Furthermore, ice-free regions can transition to ice-covered conditions in a matter of days at the start of fall freeze-up.

Sea ice has a complicated seasonal evolution that is a function of seasonal temperature variations and mechanical forcing; its structure and evolution differ significantly from the coastal zone to offshore.

Land-fast ice refers to sea ice that is frozen along the shore, partially frozen to the seabed in shallow water (less than 2 m), and largely free-floating in deeper water (typically 15-30 m), where grounded ridges can act to anchor the sheet against drifting pack ice forces. Land-fast ice is most extensive along broad, shallow shelves. Although fast ice along the Beaufort Coast is generally stable near shore after December, severe storm events can cause winter shearing and movement and breakaway events, where large sections drift away from the fast ice edge in deeper water.  Beyond the bottom-grounded land-fast ice zone, floating fast ice extends seaward as the season progresses, until it reaches an outer limit within a shear zone; this zone of often significantly deformed ice can be highly variable in extent but typically occurs between the 15- and 25-m isobaths. The stable and relatively smooth nearshore areas of land-fast ice (out to approximately 12 m water depth) are used in the Beaufort Sea along the North Slope to construct winter ice roads that routinely carry heavy equipment in midwinter. Land-fast ice also serves as an important hunting and traveling platform for Arctic coastal communities.

Drift ice floats freely on the ocean surface without any stable connection to land.

Pack ice is drift ice whose concentrations exceed 6/10. The pack can open or close on the order of hours in response to winds and/or ocean currents. Typical midwinter pack ice drift rates in the Beaufort Sea are on the order of 5 km/day. Ice drift rates can exceed 50 km/day, based on 80th percentile exceedance values published by Melling et al. (2012) from moorings in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. Peak values measured in the same dataset over a 30-minute period reached 1.2 m/s. Even higher short-duration speeds (under 12 hours) are possible along the U.S. Beaufort Sea coast, where the mountain barrier effect of the Brooks Range amplifies offshore east-west winds. The net displacement of ice past a mid-shelf site north of Tuktoyaktuk between mid-October and mid-May was almost 2,000 km in 2007-2008. The actual distance along a drift path, including loops and backtracking, could be larger.

The distinction between fast ice and pack ice and the location of the ice edge at different times in the winter has important implications for oil fate and behavior. Ice features embedded in fast ice are generally static, so oil spilled into this stable ice regime is likely to remain very close to the discharge point (within hundreds of meters) for much of the year. In contrast, oil spilled into a pack ice environment north of the fast ice edge will drift with the ice over time.

Much of the ice cover encountered beyond the nearshore land-fast ice zone is deformed from crushing and shearing or from young ice rafting over itself in the first few months following freeze-up, forming ridges and ice rubble. These processes can create several-meters-thick patches of ice made up of multiple thin sheets. Ridges can extend well over 30 m below the surface and 5 m or more above the surrounding ice field. Monitoring ice thickness is a particularly serious technical question, as current satellite methods are deficient in this area; both CryoSat and ICES at satellite sea ice thickness data are subject to issues regarding validation.

Summer ice conditions are highly variable and largely dictated by wind patterns. In the Beaufort Sea, persistent easterly winds tend to move the pack away from shore, promoting extensive clearing along the coast, while westerly winds tend to keep the pack ice close to shore and limit the extent of summer clearing. In recent summers, ice drift in the Beaufort Sea has exhibited a stronger drift component toward the North Pole, moving ice away from the coast. Hutchings and Rigor (2012) found this to be an important factor leading to the low sea ice extent in summer 2007. The length of the melt season has increased by over 10 days per decade in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas over the past 30 years. Over a 12-year period, the duration of summer open water in the central Chukchi Sea ranged from 8 to 24 weeks. The average duration of open water in the Chukchi has lengthened significantly on average over the past 30 years. There is also a clear gradation in open water duration with latitude following the retreat of the pack ice edge, from a historical average of 20 weeks or more off Cape Lisburne, to less than 4 weeks north of 72°N. While sea ice extent is at a minimum in the Chukchi-Beaufort region in the latter half of September, ice incursions lasting up to several weeks can occur when the remaining offshore pack ice is driven into shore by sustained westerlies or when remaining thick grounded remnants of the shear (Stamukhi) zone can float free in summer and drift through the region.

The fall transition from the first appearance of new ice to almost complete ice cover (8/10 or more) nearshore occurs rapidly in the Beaufort Sea, often within a week or less. Initial ice growth along the coast can reach 30 cm within two weeks after the first occurrence of new ice (Dickins et al., 2000). Farther offshore, freeze-up is characterized by the presence of substantial amounts of grease ice (thin layers of clumped crystals on the ocean surface that can resemble an oil slick) or slush before the first consolidated new ice sheet appears.

It is important to understand how the different ice regimes develop through the winter in the event that oil remaining from an accidental release remains trapped in the ice after freeze-up. In the winter, the Beaufort Sea pack ice moves in an episodic, meandering fashion with a typical net westerly drift in response to wind and currents. Mean monthly ice speeds reach a maximum in November and December (typically 9-13 km/day) and gradually decrease as the ice pack thickens and becomes more consolidated through January and February. Mean monthly speeds reach a minimum in March and April, with typical values of 3-5 km/day, although there are long periods (weeks or more) when the offshore ice moves very little or meanders locally at low speeds with no persistent sense of direction (Melling and Riedel, 2004). Average winter ice drift speeds in the Chukchi tend to be significantly greater than in the Beaufort and can exceed 40 km/day for 24 hours or more.

Sea ice dominates the Chukchi Sea from November to early July on average, 4 to 6 weeks shorter than in the Beaufort Sea. Fast ice begins to break up in early June, a month ahead of the Beaufort Sea.

By late June, the Chukchi Sea is often close to ice free, while the Beaufort Sea typically remains over 90% ice covered. Using satellite imagery from 1996-2004, Eicken et al. (2006) determined a mean date of June 4 as the onset of coastal ice breakup, with total clearing being attained on average by June 18, several weeks ahead of the Beaufort coast. Based on long-term ice chart interpretations, multiyear ice floes in high concentrations (5/10 or more) are rarely found south of Wainwright and very rarely south of Point Lay. Occasionally, old floes have been observed in low concentrations south of Cape Lisburne, but the southern Chukchi Sea is essentially free of old ice throughout the year. Clusters of generally low concentrations of old ice (2/10-3/10 on average) can occur for short periods of time off the northern Chukchi coast from Wainwright to Barrow. Invasions of significant multiyear ice into this coastal area occur approximately two to three times per decade.

Detailed mapping of coastlines, including geometry and elevation profiles, and knowledge of sediment size, shoreline stability, exposure to wave energy, and vegetation type are critical to understand potential effects of an offshore oil spill and post-oiling recovery of the coastline and associated habitats or protected environments—tundra, barrier islands, beaches and spits, lagoons, lakes, and deltas. The northern Alaskan coast consists of four main classifications (Hartwell, 1973). Land erosion coasts and wave erosion coasts together comprise approximately 30% of the coastline. Land erosion coasts have bedrock-based, high-relief sea cliffs, while wave erosion coasts have less relief, with cliffs that expose perennially frozen bedrock and ice-rich sediments. The remaining 70% of the coastline is classified as marine or river deposition coasts. Marine deposition coasts resemble wave erosion coasts, except sedimentation processes along the coast have built beaches, barrier islands, and spits. River deposition coasts, by contrast, are built by fluvial processes. About 45% of the coastline is classified as moderate relief (~2-5 m), comprised of cliffs and scarps of wave erosion and marine deposition coasts. Low-relief features (less than ~2 m), such as beaches, river deltas, barrier islands, and spits, make up about 25% of the coastline. High-relief cliffs (~5-8 m) are found along land erosion coasts and wave erosion coasts, while only a few sea cliffs have very high relief features (greater than ~8 m). Together, these comprise about 25% of the coast. The remainder of the coast is open water, such as river mouths and lakes.

Fresh water and sediment influx

The annual breakup of Arctic rivers can have great impact on nearshore bathymetry. The rivers draining into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are frozen up to nine months of the year, such that almost all of the yearly sediment and freshwater discharge is restricted to short periods in the spring and summer, slightly before and during the spring breakup. In the three-week annual breakup period, the Colville River (the largest river on the North Slope) delivers 43% of its annual discharge and 73% of its total suspended load to the ocean (Arnborg et al., 1967), leading to large areas of flooded land-fast ice. Ice chunks and river runoff erode nearshore bluffs and tundra, and eventual drainage of the floodwaters through cracks in the ice can create significant seabed erosion. In contrast during the winter, no significant freshwater discharge occurs from the Colville River, and seawater encroaches at least 50 km upstream in the delta (Arnborg et al., 1966).

The great seasonality of freshwater and suspended sediment influx could affect oil movement and entrainment in nearshore and offshore environments. Significant amounts of suspended sediments can be deposited on top of nearshore sea ice during flood events. In the case of an oil spill, these sediments could become contaminated and incorporated into the ice, and later redeposited as the ice breaks up and moves. The introduction of freshwater can also affect ocean currents through changes in stratification. Cross-shore salinity fronts established by river runoff can become unstable, causing energetic cross-shelf flows capable of carrying pollutants far offshore (Weingartner et al., 2009).

Permafrost and coastal stability

Like many Arctic coastlines, the North Slope is characterized by a continuous layer of permafrost below an active layer, the top soil layer that freezes and thaws over an annual cycle. Permafrost, a perennially frozen layer of ground material that remains at or below 0°C (32°F) for at least two years, often includes ground ice (e.g, ice lenses, layers, and wedges) that forms when water freezes along edges or cracks (UNEP, 2012). Degradation of this ice-bonded permafrost contributes to the high erosion rates observed along Arctic coastlines.

As measured in deep boreholes, permafrost temperatures may have increased by as much as 2°C to 4°C in the early to mid-20th century (Osterkamp, 2007), and by up to an additional 3°C in the 1980s and 1990s alone ( Jorgenson et al., 2010). Some studies report relatively stable permafrost temperatures at the turn of the century, but warming trends resumed after 2007 (Romanovsky et al., 2012). Record high warming was measured at most Alaskan permafrost observatories in 2011 and/ or 2012.

These warmer permafrost temperatures increase summer thaw and cause the melting of shallow ice wedges, which decreases the mechanical strength of the coastline sediment and causes the ground surface to subside and form depressions. The result is a lower coastal elevation and a terrain referred to as thermokarst. These changes, combined with increased wave energy related to increased areas of seasonally ice-free coastal water, elevated sea surface temperatures, and rising sea levels, have resulted in high rates of coastal erosion and greater inundation of low-lying coastal areas by seawater. Coastal bluffs along Arctic shorelines are exposed to wave energy that carves out niches at the base of frozen bluffs and eventually causes large blocks of the bluff to collapse.

The U.S. Beaufort shoreline is underlain with continuous permafrost that is estimated to extend out to at least the 20-m isobath; it has also been subject to some of the most dramatic erosion in the Arctic. The ice-rich bluffs have been severely impacted by the cycle of thermal and mechanical erosion described above. Between 1984 and 2011, measurements from Deadhorse, Alaska, at a depth of 20 m document a temperature increase of 2.5°C. Average erosion rates vary from site to site, with higher erosion rates being more typical along western stretches of the Beaufort Sea and lower rates being reported farther east. Jones et al. (2008) found that a mean erosion rate of 5.6 m/yr between 1955 and 2002, although certain sites had erosion rates as high as 25.9 m/yr. According to a study by Mars and Houseknecht (2007), there are data to suggest that the rate of coastal land loss doubled between 1955 and 2005. Jones et al. (2009b) reported similar findings and stated that in a 60-km stretch of coastline along the Beaufort Sea, the mean erosion rate increased from approximately 6.8 m/yr (1955-1979) to 13.6 m/yr (2002-2007).

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey creates nautical charts for U.S. coastal waters. Arctic shoreline and hydrographic data are mostly obsolete, with limited tide, current, and water level data and very little ability to get accurate positioning and elevation. The nautical charts are of low quality; many were last updated in the 1950s and contain few soundings, little visual navigation, and small-scale, widely spaced surveys (NRC, 2011). Some were based on data last collected in the 1860s, such as the 1:700,000 chart for Kotzebue that was recently replaced by an April 2012 1:50,000 chart of Kotzebue Harbor (presentation by Doug Baird and Jeffrey Ferguson, NOAA, February 2013). There are also issues with tidal and current data (NRC, 2011). The need for more accurate charting in the Arctic was underscored by Presidential Executive Order 13547 ( July 19, 2010), which adopted the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, including the need to address “environmental stewardship needs in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent coastal areas in the face of climate-induced and other environmental changes.” Improving navigation and geospatial infrastructure are also goals of NOAA’s Arctic Vision and Strategy (NOAA, 2011). In Canada, 2013-2014 priorities for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other government departments include improving Canadian Hydrographic Services charting in the Canadian Arctic.5 As a first step, the Office of Coast Survey released an Arctic Nautical Charting Plan (NOAA, 2013).

Accurate bathymetric charts are part of the infrastructure required for effective oil spill response. The absence of modern charts represents a significant risk to navigation through uncharted obstructions. By extension, shortcomings in nautical charting increase the risk of a vessel-sourced oil spill. Poor charts could also complicate or impede other vessels’ abilities to respond to the accident or spill. If a spill was not entirely contained offshore, the ability of large vessels to come close to shore could be compromised. Given the necessity of marine transportation for oil spill response equipment, responders, vessels, and resources, charting infrastructure that provides for their safe and efficient transit is imperative. Poor charting could increase the cost of an oil spill response, as untrustworthy routes or transits require more comprehensive planning. Finally, poor nautical charts hinder preparedness, which could have negative impacts for oil spill response. Several recent reports have recommended that Arctic charting be prioritized (e.g., NRC, 2011).


Crude oil is composed of a complex mixture of paraffinic, naphthenic, and aromatic hydrocarbons. Oils can differ from each other in a variety of ways, including density and sulfur content. The physical and chemical properties of an oil are not static but can vary between regions, within wells at the same location, and even within a given well over time (EPA, 2011). Key oil properties in cold water environments include measures of the American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity3 (an indicator of relative density in comparison to water), pour point (the temperature at which a fluid ceases to readily flow), and viscosity. As temperature decreases, viscosity increases and the possibility of going below the pour point becomes more likely. These properties are often considered in early stages of an oil spill response because they usually help define the most effective response options.

There are four standard groupings of oil types (ITOPF, 2013/2014). Group I oils, which include diesel fuel, are nonpersistent—they dissipate rapidly through evaporation and natural dispersion within a few hours and are unlikely to form emulsions, in which water droplets become entrained in the oil through mixing. Group II and III oils will partially dissipate, losing up to 40% of their volume through evaporation. These oils are likely to increase in volume because of their tendency to form viscous water-in-oil emulsions. This also leads to a lack of natural dispersion, especially in Group III oils. Group IV oils have low volatility and are highly viscous. They are highly persistent and are unlikely to evaporate or disperse (ITOPF, 2013/2014). The properties of a fresh oil may change with time, as the petroleum reservoir changes during production. Because of this, a given set of measurements to characterize a fresh oil represents a snapshot in time that may need to be updated. Nevertheless, the classification of oils into specific groups allows broad understanding of how they will behave under different environmental circumstances.

API gravity is measured in degrees, and is calculated using the following equation: API gravity = (141.5/SG) – 131.5, where SG is the specific gravity of the petroleum liquid at 60°F.

The development of biofuels has somewhat complicated this scheme, as they represent a class of materials that does not readily fit into the categories developed for petroleum products. While the viscosity and relative density of biofuels may be similar to crude oils and petroleum-based fuels, other properties may be quite different, especially as they relate to effectiveness of oil spill response methods. Ethanol from plant sources such as corn, sugar beets, or sugar cane is quite different from crude oil-based fuels because of its infinite solubility in water. In the event of a spill, ethanol would be more akin to a chemical spill rather than an oil spill. Another common form of biofuel is biodiesel, which may be made from either plant- or animal-based materials—animal fats such as tallow and lard; plant oils such as corn, canola, sunflower, and rapeseed; and recycled grease and used cooking oils.

Biodiesel generally has higher viscosity, flash point, and pour point compared to petroleum-derived diesel, with similar specific gravity (NREL, 2009). Unlike conventional diesel, biodiesel may be suitable for mechanical collection in the event of a spill because of its higher flash point and pour point, especially in colder environments. However, its response to dispersants may be quite different from that of crude oil-derived products because the biodiesel’s range of molecular components is narrower.

Many types of ships have recently been utilizing the Arctic marine environment, including government vessels and icebreakers, container ships, general cargo ships, bulk carriers, tanker ships, passenger ships, tugs and barges, fishing vessels, and vessels related to oil and gas exploration (Arctic Council, 2009). A record of transits through the Northern Sea Route in 201310 indicates that some tanker ships carried over 800,000 bbl of oil as cargo, although smaller ships carried as little as 35,000 bbl of diesel fuel cargo. These numbers illustrate the broad range in volume of potential spills from cargo ships, which does not include the fuel oil they carry aboard. In the U.S. Arctic, doubled-hulled barges that provide fuel resupply for Alaskan villages can carry over 6,000 bbl of oil cargo.

The villages store oil, diesel, and gasoline supplies for home and business heating, aviation fuel, and industrial needs for mining and oil and gas production. Because there are long periods between resupply due to sea and river ice, significant volumes of fuel may be stored in relatively close proximity to the shoreline. Examples include large storage facilities at the Red Dog Mine’s Delong Mountain Terminal and tank farms in the community of Barrow.


Arctic response strategies can leverage the natural behavior of oil in, on, and under ice. For instance, ice can bar the spread of oil, reducing spreading rates and leading to smaller contaminated areas; due to encapsulation or a lack of weathering, oil remains fresher for a longer time; and ice-covered areas generally have less severe wind and sea conditions. Despite the documented effects of climate change leading to later freeze-ups, greater extent of northerly ice edge retreat, and longer summer open water seasons, the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea coastlines are still buffered from oil spilled offshore by a fringe of fast ice for eight to nine months of the year. However, Arctic conditions impose many challenges for oil spill response—low temperatures and extended periods of darkness in the winter, oil that is encapsulated under ice or trapped in ridges and leads, oil spreading due to sea ice drift and surface currents, reduced effectiveness of conventional containment and recovery systems in measurable ice concentrations, and issues of life and safety of responders.

Several types of commercial activities are increasing in the Arctic, leading to the prospect of rapid growth in shipping along several routes. For example, use of the Northern Sea Route, and to a lesser extent the Northwest Passage, as a transportation route (Figure 4.1) is now more possible than ever before (IPCC, 2014). While some commercial shippers do not believe it will be economically viable for shipping in the near future (presentation by Gene Brooks, Maersk, February 2013), increased seasonal use by tankers and tug barges seems likely (Arctic Council, 2009). Taken along with other forms of vessel traffic, such as the tanker traffic from the Northern Sea Route, bulk carriers and tug-barge traffic transporting minerals and other bulk commodities, the inevitable increase in fishing fleets as fish stocks migrate northward, and even cruise ships that offer a glimpse of the Arctic for tourists, the Arctic has become a much busier place, with all of the associated risks that increased traffic involves. For the United States, the implications for traffic management, and by association, environmental protection, are very real. Keeping oil out of the water will not be purely a function of sound drilling practices, but of sound vessel traffic management, which raises a host of concerns for protection of Arctic ecosystems and for preparedness to respond in the event of a marine accident. It is also a concern for all Arctic nations, as an oil spill that occurs in one part of the Arctic may cross geographic boundaries and impact other nations’ waters, food supplies, livelihoods, and cultural resources.

Spills from these anticipated activities are likely to be relatively small and involve lighter oils (e.g., diesel, heating oil). Less likely but more consequential spills would be associated with offshore oil exploration and production, as well as from large bulk carriers operating from Kotzebue.


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