The Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System

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Global Sunlight Reduction, Crop Failure: Lights are the Way Out

Martin on Jan 30th 2014

Scientists, politicians and the general public have grown aware of the threat to the global human population caused by several different natural phenomena which interrupt the normal amount of sunshine reaching the surface of earth.  Many have drawn the conclusion that one day our civilisation will face such a crisis that we will descend into a cannibalistic, freezing apocalypse out of which only the strong, well-prepared or extremely lucky will survive. However, it is the panicking and abandoning of our technology and running for the hills that would indeed condemn most of humanity to a horrible death.

The list of threats that could cause an interruption to sunlight reaching the surface is long. Super volcanoes such as the one under Yellow Stone or Whakamaru in the North Island of New Zealand will one day erupt creating universal harvest failure. Nuclear winter can be caused by even a limited exchange such as between India and Pakistan.  A very similar effect is created by an impact from a large asteroid or comet. With the former we may get some warning. Our awareness of the threat asteroids pose and the availability of optics means that we are getting better at mapping our solar system and have even developed some convincing ways of dealing with a collision, given enough time. However, with the latter, the comets, we may not be so lucky. They come randomly and many have never been charted. They often cross our orbital path and so at some point in the future, without much more than a few months warning, we will face a catastrophe which obliterates most of the life on a continent and throws up fine aerosols into the upper atmosphere causing harvests to fail globally.   What is certain, is that these threats will eventually materialise.  It may take a thousand years or ten but the range and frequency of these catastrophes is well documented (all that except a nuclear war). Even in the mayfly-like existence of recorded human history, it has already happened.

Entire civilisations have been destroyed and others were brought to their knees by the failure of plants to grow and changed weather patterns.   For instance, the beginning of the dark ages, the final collapse of the western Roman Empire, was caused by a global dust veil, and in 1815 the summer failed to come due, probably, to a volcano eruption in Indonesia, after which in North America the price of grain tripled and meat halved because husbanders could not grow hay to feed their animals. If 1815 were to happen now the cost would be astronomic and to the many peoples of the world who rely on exported food, starvation would loom. However, these two great catastrophes are small scale compared with the effects of a comet strike or a super volcano eruption. In such cases, harvests would fail for five years or more – global temperatures would plummet and the rain would become acidic. 

The human race would survive such an event but the global population might be reduced by 90-99%. Also, the fallout from the collapse of the chemical and nuclear industries could leave a heavily polluted world in to which humanity would struggle to rebuild.

However, in the industrialised nations there is no need for such an apocalypse, the infrastructure exists to save the vast majority of the population. The hard part, living off a source of energy other than the sun, has already been accomplished. We have nuclear power, gas, oil, coal, tidal, wind and an electricity infrastructure that takes this power into our homes, municipal buildings and businesses. All that is required is for nations to stock pile lights designed for growing plants sufficient to feed everyone. This is much easier than it would initially seem. Stored in matrixes and in cold, anaerobic conditions the lights would remain in good working order for many decades, possibly centuries. Even medium sized industrialised nations such as Hungary could cope with the cost of this national insurance without much problem.

“Grow” lights are designed to target the specific wave lengths that chlorophyl responds to. There are several different types available, all of them produce the most important byproduct: heat. In the cold and dark of the dust shroud shutting out the sun, heat and light will be important psychological bulwarks against panic and despair.

The cheapest and longest lasting growing light is the LED (Light Emitting Diode), which combines red and blue light to produce a deep purple light. This is also LEDs biggest drawback – it is very difficult to monitor the health of a plant, and the effects on humans due to existing in a strong coloured light are likely to exacerbate the stress of the situation. One of the biggest advantages of LEDs is that they produce less heat than other types of lights, but in the event of a cold environment this is of no help because people must then find other methods to keep warm.

There are several other types of lights capable of growing plants which for the most part produce a light that seems normal enough to most people. Power consumption, heat emission and the effect of long term human exposure need to be studied along with detailed cost/benefit analysis of the economies of scale of production and storage. Finally, ease of use is extremely important. The average person will need to go from knowing nothing to being able to grow plants to maturity. It will be depressing for plants to die as they will be intimately symbolic of a hope for the future. Also, for every household that fails to make its own harvest, they will add to energy needed for growing food industrially and transporting it. Large scale harvest failure will cause social order breakdown and consume huge societal resources: it would be a blood bath.

Water supplied through the mains is central to the survival of any nation that attempts to make it through a global sunlight disruption. Depending on the mix of elements in the dust shroud, rain polluted with fallout will have an altered pH. Easily as acidic as lemon juice, any water originating from rain will need treatment to be safe for growing plants and for human consumption.

Without preparation in the form of detailed plans and stored equipment, the plan will fail. The eruption of a super volcano could happen with warning of six weeks or it could erupt with almost none. A rogue comet could give us six months warning or we might miss it and have six weeks warning.

In the case of an event which would create a global firestorm, there is a relatively short burst for a few hours of extreme heat which then sets combustable dry material alight. Exposed humans would experience broiler-like conditions but by being underground (even a basement) they could survive. The infrastructure would need reinforcing and the grid should be shut off but the hard problem of protecting buildings is relatively easy to solve. Large roll sheets of reflective mylar or even aluminium sheeting covering a building would prevent ignition due to the ratio of relatively small surface area to the large volume of the building. Luckily, these protective materials are fairly cheap to manufacture and easy to store. Not every building should be protected, and every nation and locality will need to make its hard choices. However, the bigger the building the more advantageous the ratio of surface area to internal volume is. The private citizen will also have a role to play and many will choose to protect their property beyond whatever state aid there is – and they should. Survival of the society from one of these events and the long term consequences will require total societal effort. No exceptions, no shirkers, everyone must help with everything they have.

There are many individuals and some groups who have prepared for societal breakdown and hope to emerge from such events with resources and capabilities into an empty world that is in some ways cleansed. Conspiracy theories abound of elites with bunkers. However, any such survivors would find their post-apocalyptic Libertarian dream revealed as a nightmare. The technological networks our civilisation have created, if left to fall apart, especially our nuclear power plants, will pollute the environment for thousands of years. Many nuclear power plants will go into meltdown if the diesel generators that run the pumps to cool the core stop for some reason. There are tens of thousands of people that go into the infrastructure that creates diesel fuel, assuming some sort of work around for this problem could be found. Each of the world’s 850 known nuclear reactors require advanced maintenance and support, part replacement with precision engineering and a direct work force in the dozens. The USA’s nuclear industry employs 120,000 people and might be capable of short term running on 25,000 but each of these people has a family. The psychological damage, the survivor’s guilt of the workforce, would necessitate the storing of resources for at least some of each workers’ dependents. These people are not military, they are not slaves and they are not survivalists. They are middle class, used to vacations and television. It takes decades to decommission a reactor and involves an army of workers. In essence, even if an oligarchy could store enough food and resources to maintain the world’s nuclear facilities through the failed harvests, that would only postpone the environmental catastrophe of hundreds of burning radioactive cores. After which, the surface of the earth might be uninhabitable by humans for thousands of years.

National security also should play a consideration when planning for harvest failure. Many nations will not have the electrical generation or other resources necessary to implement a domestic grow plan such as this. Some nations with the capability will be tempted to try and salvage only a percentage of the population. When the crisis is over, the eternal struggle between nations for resources and dominance will resume and population is to a large extent power.

To survive, a nation must think of domestic energy security as national security. France, for instance, is a good candidate to fully execute the plan. About 40% of France’s energy consumption comes from nuclear power. Almost all energy consumed in the industrial nations comes from fossil fuels, hydro or nuclear power. Tidal, wave and wind make up small percentages of all nations’ energy mix. Photovoltaics on their own represent a tiny fraction of any nations electricity production. Biomass, particularly wood for people’s homes and fodder for animals will be a problem. Tree ring data from Irish bogs helped date the Hekla explosion in Iceland which may have caused such significant harvest failure that social order broke down on the other side of the planet and caused the destruction of the Sheng empire. In Britain, things were very grim. The archeological evidence indicates populations withdrawing into small fortified areas and cannibalism. Nuclear power and hydro have, in the term these dust events last, no logistical lines to worry about and produces significant contributions. Fossil fuels have the potential for use but may become undependable due to social reasons or as a direct result if global harvest failure is produced by an impact with a celestial body. About seventy percent of the world is covered by ocean. After a large impact in an ocean, mega tsunamis radiate in all directions. These 100 foot tall movements of water will swamp every coastline adjacent to that ocean. Many reactors lie on the coasts of Europe, North America and Asia.  In addition, there are refineries, ships, ports and floating platforms for extracting natural gas and petroleum.  Any in the path of a mega tsunami should be considered a write off.  This also counts for any city. Coal still represents the back bone of some nations, like the United States, energy demand, but for a nation like France, coal, oil and natural gas is supplied by import.

It is difficult to estimate the amount of electricity needed to sustain an individual through artificial lighting. Much will depend on the nation and to what extent it is trying to distribute the food growing to the individual via their homes, and which lighting system is used. Offices and industrial spaces are better for this activity but the society is better served by the citizen engaged. The most energy-efficient way to capture energy in a form that humans can use is bacteria as detailed in the movie The Matrix. However, this would be difficult for most people to maintain and the consistency would be difficult to accept. Fruiting bodies such as tomatoes should be avoided in favour of plants like spinach, broccoli, carrots and some pulses for protein. Meat and animal products will be off the menu for the most part due to the huge energy requirements, the large amounts of unused matter and water consumption. The energy demands would be huge no matter how it is done. Indoor growth of marijuana generates one mature plant for about what it costs to run seven refrigerators (which would be about 500 kW/h per year). Marijuana is one of the fastest growing of all plants and indoor growers yield four to five foot tall plants that weigh about twenty pounds in ten weeks, but it is harvested upon maturation and only a small portion of the plant is used. Roots, stalk, stems, leaves and seeds are all useless. Plants like spinach should form the back bone of the plan, high in nutrition and it can be consumed without killing the plant through much of its life cycle: so spinach would have a higher yield, carrots and broccoli about the same and pulses would produce about a quarter. A rough calculation estimates that growing food would yield about 1 pound of food for 40 kW/h at a high efficiency.  However, given the expertise and human error 60 kW/h per pound seems reasonable . Energy should also be used to cook the food to increase its nutritional value. The average home in an industrialised nation consumes about 30,000 kW/h a month. Assuming that an average home has 2.3 people in it and each person eats a pound and half of food a day that is approximately 6,210 kW/h per month per household. These numbers frame the concept: even if they underestimate the energy consumption by 200%, growing a national harvest indoors is feasible. Luckily, a byproduct of the growing lights is heat which will be needed against the cold.

This will heavily tax the locally supplied energy resources of many nations but there is no alternative. Mitigating this is the fact that home energy consumption only accounts for about 25% of energy use in most western nations. This means that it is feasible for a nation like the United Kingdom to meet the energy demands of the scheme provided that supply chains remain in place. In this environment the ultimate currency will be food. Any nation that has food to trade will have a better chance of maintaining supply chains but much will depend on the nature of the catastrophe.

We, as a species, live at an interesting juncture in history. We are less dependent on direct solar radiation for the maintenance of our civilisation than at any time in the past. We are potentially well suited to emerge from one of these civilisation-smashing, possible extinction level events with the majority of the populations of the industrialised nations not directly affected by the event which created the dust shroud to begin with. Super volcanoes and comets will cause global harvest failures for five years or more. Not might, will. As a species it shouldn’t matter if there is a low chance in any one year of it happening, eventually it will. We either plan to survive or we are by default planning our end as a life form. Our industrial development is such that we cannot abandon our infrastructure without creating pollution and radioactivity that would leave our planet scarred and potentially uninhabitable for centuries. In the future, as we exhaust our fossil fuels and other non-renewables, there will be a temptation by nations to keep low stockpiles of biofuels and rely on photovoltaics. Planners must keep in mind that global dust veils will stop these two sources of energy. If fusion power proves to be beyond our technical capabilities, the challenge to future people to store enough energy will be extreme. The other solution is to plan for industry to be abandoned, to move nuclear power plants away from the coasts and to leave the planet to those elites that can survive in bunkers. Those elites must hope that no nation takes the precautions detailed here.