National Geographic April 2014, Part 1

Can Coal Ever Be Clean? by Michelle Nijhuis, photographs by Robb Kendrick

Many places are dependent on coal for their power. Unfortunately, coal-fired power plants have a lot of drawbacks, chief among them the carbon dioxide that they produce. This carbon dioxide then goes into the atmosphere and helps with (I’m not sure if “helps” is the right word — “contributes to,” maybe?) global climate change.

This article primarily focuses on the experiments by coal-fired power plants in sequestering the carbon dioxide underground. In some places, they are pumping the carbon dioxide into caves, and in at least one, the Norwegian Sleipner oil field in the North Sea, they are pumping the carbon dioxide that is an impurity in the natural gas that they are harvesting into a brine-filled aquifer under the North Sea.

As an aside, I’ve been reading a lot about Norse mythology (including Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer) and so when I saw the word “Sleipner,” I’m, like, “the horse?” Then I looked again and realized that it was “SleipnEr,:” not “SleipnIr.”

The scientists and engineers who are doing this acknowledge that it is risky. If these caves and aquifers spring leaks, a natural disaster could result. So, they are monitoring these sequestering locations 24/7. But, as with what people tell me when I tell them about my photo-scanning project, the technology may not always be there. What happens in a thousand years, if our civilization collapses and we lapse into something of a Dark Age and *then* these things spring a leak? I can just see our many-generations-distant descendants declaring these spots off-limits because no one can breathe the air there. It seems like we’re just kicking the can further down the road here.

It’s a pity that it would be prohibitively expensive, from an energy-use standpoint, to break the bonds between the carbon and oxygen. We’d end up with a big pile of carbon (which, maybe, could be reused as pencil leads or something?) and a lot more oxygen. And the increased oxygen would make the climate cooler, as well, I think. I ran that past Alex, and he agreed that it sounds to him that it would be the net effect, so there’s that. Of course, since oxygen does make things cooler, you would have to release the oxygen pretty far from the plant, because the oxygen would either make the plant explode, or would make the plant cooler, which would defeat the purpose of the fire in the plant.

Personally, I would like to see all parking lots, at least in the area from, oh, about the 30th or 35th parallels north to the 30th or 35th parallels south (so that they won’t spend the winter covered in snow) should be covered with solar panels. This would be a win-win-win situation. The landowner would get at least some free electricity from the panels, there would be less demand for coal-fired power, and, in the summer, the air conditioning in the cars would take effect faster, using less gasoline.

I’m also a big fan of planting trees. I take Matthew 6:2 very seriously, which leads me to be reluctant to make a big deal out of charity donations that I have made, but I guess it’s safe to say that I have two favorites. One is the Plant a Billion Trees project of the Nature Conservancy (they have other projects, but I usually donate to their attempt to reforest the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil). The other is American Forests. My favorite of their projects is their Urban Forests project, which is, well, planting trees in cities, and making things better both ecologically and psychologically.

A Tale of Two Atolls, by Kennedy Warne, photographs by Thomas P. Peschak

The two atolls of the title are Île Europa and Bassas da India, two teritories of France (despite the Portuguese name of Bassas da India) that are in between Madagascar and Mozambique. The two atolls are very different — Île Europa is an actual island with trees everything, and Bassas da India is just a ring of rock, but together, they support a wide variety of wildlife, including birds, sea turtles and Galapagos sharks.