Flourish dev blog #2: Global methane emissions

In the last post we wrote about carbon dioxide, the #1 cause of global warming.  But methane, the #2 contributor, is not exactly negligible.  It’s caused 20% of global warming so far.  Each molecule is much more important than CO2: around 30 times as much if considered on a 100 year timescale.

Methane concentrations (as measured in ice cores and direct measurement) have also skyrocketed since preindustrial times:

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Compare methane with carbon dioxide, which has risen by 45% since preindustrial times.  Methane reached a 45% larger level than its preindustrial concentration back in the 1920s!  There’s now over 2.5 times the methane in the air than in preindustrial times.  Methane has much smaller concentration than CO2 — 2 ppm vs 400 ppm.

There was some indication recently that concentrations were leveling off, but CH4 is back on the rise since 2006:

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Natural gas is mostly methane, and so is swamp gas, which is produced in wetlands by tiny microorganisms called methanogens.  Methanogens work well in warm, wet, low-oxygen environments, so wetlands or flooded rice patties are big sources.  So are the bellies of cows, sheep, and goats — and even termites!  Methane is a big reason why beef has such a high carbon footprint.

There’s a lot of methane locked up in permafrost and ice in the Arctic, and there’s also huge amounts of frozen organic material that’s ripe for decomposition by methanogens.  Certain Arctic lakes have methane bubbling to the top, where they can be lit on fire!  There’s concern about these sources releasing or creating more methane as the climate warms, leading to an amplifying feedback that causes even more warming.  Scientists are closely monitoring methane emissions in the Arctic, and worldwide, to identify potential surprises.

However, it’s quite difficult to estimate with precision how much methane comes from different sources.  Estimates from the individual sources on the ground don’t add up to the atmospheric increase/sinks.  Different groups provide their own estimates of the sources, three of which are shown below (GAINS-ECLIPSE5a and EDGARv4.2EXT from the Global Methane Project spreadsheet and CEDS).

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Why would methane concentrations have stabilized starting in 2000, and accelerated in 2006, if there were no matching trends in the anthropogenic emissions?  Scientists are still arguing about that one, but it could be that natural wetland sources have changed, that concentration of the hydroxyl radical (the main way methane breaks down) in the atmosphere has changed, or that we haven’t accounted all the sources well enough.

About those anthropogenic sources.  Leaking coal mines, natural gas wells, and pipelines contribute a tremendous amount to methane emissions, and have risen sharply since the early 2000s (data from CEDS):

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For example, the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles began spewing tons of methane (watch infrared video footage here) and other chemicals in October 2015.  Local residents began suffering from headaches, nose bleeds, and other illnesses, and eventually thousands of families were forced to evacuate.  The leak wasn’t capped until February 2016, by which time over 100,000 tons of methane had leaked.

There is little government oversight on these wells, and industry self-regulation is not exactly stellar.  Check out this article for descriptions of some of the utter failures of risk management in the industry.  SoCalGas recently agreed to a $119M settlement, which will go to offsetting methane emissions across the state, a long-term health study of affected residents, and environmental justice-related projects, among other projects.

Imagine 1500 Aliso Canyon blowouts each year.  That’s the best estimate of fugitive methane leakage from coal, oil, and natural gas facilities across the world.  Could we be doing a better job at detecting leaks?  The Environmental Defense Fund plans to launch their own satellite called MethaneSAT for much-needed oversight on fugitive fossil fuel emissions.

Waste
The waste category includes methane released from landfills and water treatment.  Note this source has more than doubled since 1970.  There are ways to mitigate these, e.g., capturing biogas from landfills or installing methane digesters to water treatment facilities.  And we shouldn’t forget (gasp!) creating less waste.

Rice
Rice is typically grown in flooded fields, which create anoxic conditions that methanogens love.  There are well-known methods to reduce these emissions and grow more efficiently at the same time.

Animals
Finally, animal agriculture is another major source of methane, specifically ruminants that have multiple stomachs for digestion.  Cows, goats, and sheep all burp out large amounts of methane in their digestive system.  There simply wouldn’t be nearly as many cattle on the planet if it wasn’t for our appetite for beef.  When combined with the inherent inefficiency of animals as a calorie source (it takes 30 pounds of feed to create 1 pound of beef, per the USDA), the meat industry has an extremely high carbon footprint.

Are we shifting towards less meat intensive diets?  Definitely not — as the world becomes more rich, more and more people are demanding more meat in their diet.  Projections suggest that satisfying the demand for more meat is the main challenge for feeding the world in future decades, not rising populations.

The future doesn’t have to be like these projections though.  That’s why we’re making Flourish.  If you want to support our efforts to build this game, you can donate to the EarthGames Support Fund.  Donations right now would go hiring a paid student research assistant.

Flourish dev blog #1: Global carbon emissions

Hi everyone,

We’ve moved development of Flourish temporarily into python, so I thought it might be a good time to summarize some of the equations and data sources that we’re using, as we code them into the new language.

First topic: data sources for historical carbon emissions, at a global scale.  All the code (Jupyter notebook) and data used to make these figures are available here.

If this is a game about the future, why do we need to know about the past?  First, the player starts from a realistic depiction of the world today.  We need to know the most recent pollution data as accurately as possible because that’s what the player will be setting out to reduce.  Second, trends in pollution can help us understand potential futures.  The direction a particular country or sector is heading is useful information for where it might end up.

Global Carbon Project has fantastic data about CO2 emissions in all countries of the world.  We used Global Carbon Budget 2018 data, which has emissions up until 2017.  Historical data goes back to 1751 for fossil fuels and industry, and 1850 for land use changes.

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Land use change was a bigger contributor to CO2 emissions than fossil fuels up until 1950.  Fossil fuels and industry carbon emissions have quintupled since then; land use emissions are similar.

Breakdown into individual fossil fuels, cement and flaring:

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2017 emissions were 3.98 GtC (coal), 3.45 GtC (oil), 1.97 GtC (gas), 0.4 GtC (cement) and 0.068 GtC (flaring).

There’s a plot on the GCP site that shows the full carbon cycle, along with reservoir sizes, including coal, oil and gas reserves:

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There are uncertainties in this data of course, but if you take the numbers at face value, they can be used to estimate the number of years left of each fossil fuel, if emissions were to stay the same as today.  This calculation suggests there is between 110-135 years of coal, 50-80 years of oil, and 195-575 years of gas.  Or calulating with the sum of the three fossil reserves, the minimum estimate of 1005 GtC could sustain 10 GtC/yr emissions for 100 more years, the maximum could sustain current emissions for 200 years.  Ugh…

Airborne fraction is defined as the amount of CO2 that sticks around in the air, instead of going into the ocean or land.  The atmospheric increase is noisy!  Any rate of change is noisy if estimated from imperfect time series data (the time derivative increases variability at short time scales).  Much of the variability is real though; during strong El Nino events, increases in forest fires lead to more carbon released into the atmosphere and a higher airborne fraction.

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The large variability of the land sink in particular can be seen in this GCP plot (note that it’s measured in GtCO2 instead of GtC)

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The game takes all the carbon emissions from across the world, and then uses a carbon cycle model to decide how much goes into the ocean (where it causes acidification…), into the land, or into the atmosphere.  Parameterizing the land sink is more difficult than the ocean component of the carbon cycle model; we’ll discuss both in a future post.

In the next post we’ll move on to methane, then other greenhouse gases including nitrous oxide and halocarbons, and other radiative forcings.  Then we’ll zoom into country- and regional-scale breakdowns.

Want to support the development of Flourish?  You can donate to the EarthGames Support Fund.  Donations right now would go to support a paid undergraduate research assistant.

Life of Pika is now available!

Download Life of Pika now on the App Store (iPhones and iPads) or Google Play (Android phones and tablets).  It’s free!

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Our mountain home is getting so hot! It’s becoming harder and harder to gather food and stay away from predators. You’ll need to be quick to help your little pikas make it through all the levels of Life of Pika!

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Life of Pika is a runner game by EarthGames in which players direct a pika (a real animal that is threatened by climate change) to collect food as they dodge predators and avoid overheating.

In addition to a full single-player campaign with a compelling story (illustrated by Ben Celsi), there is a split-screen two player mode. After you complete the story, perform challenges in infinite mode to collect all the unlockable content.

Teachers! If you are interested in using Life of Pika in your classroom, check out our useful teacher’s guide!


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EarthGames is an award-winning group of developers, students, and faculty at University of Washington. This is our 11th game and maybe our best yet! Thanks to all our crowdfunding campaign supporters who made this game a reality.

60 Second Sustainability!

 

Download now for iOS and Android!

Got a minute to save the planet? This fun, frantic minigame collection highlights the great work of student organizations at University of Washington that work on initiatives related to sustainability. Play 21 different minigames — each taking only seconds.

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In just one short playthrough, you’ll…
Bring clean electricity to an island community
Keep your friends from wasting paper
Attract butterflies to a green wall
Spot a sasquatch
Be a bee at the UW Farm
Maybe pop a bike tire
Harvest tomatoes and purple peppers
Bring clean water to a pig
Capture methane in a biogas bin

Once you’ve toured all the groups, play through each game at higher difficulty levels, and play high score mode for a randomly generated challenge that gets harder and harder!

The fun doesn’t stop there! These are all real campus groups that you can work with at UW!

This game made possible by the generous support of the UW Campus Sustainability Fund.

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Cascadia: Episode 1 now available!

Cascadia is a text-based choose-your-own-adventure story set in a post-apocalyptic, post-climate change America. Retrace the route of the Oregon Trail as you travel westward in search of Cascadia, a mythical nation that claims to have enough food, water, and security for everyone. Along the way, befriend raiders, dodge cultists, fall in love, and try and keep your group from falling apart, but beware, you’re unlikely to reach the end of the story unscathed.

The first episode of Cascadia is available for play. If you have not already played Cascadia, please consider filling out please consider filling out the pre-/post- experience survey at the following link. Your responses will be used to complete a climate capstone project and to improve further iterations of the game. Your responses will be kept anonymous. Complete the survey by September 26, 2018 to be entered to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card.

If you have already filled out the survey, first of all, thank you very much! Second, a link to the game without going through the survey can be found here: click me.

Cascadia was created on Twine with story by Elisa Bonnin and art by L. Isabel Bonnin. The game will be released in three parts. Episodes 2 and 3 have been drafted and will likely be available for play in 2019.

The Other World: A New Augmented Reality Experience!

NEW: Read the College of the Environment’s article on The Other World here!

You’ve been chosen to help save The Other World from environmental distress — but are you up to the task?

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EarthGames is excited to announce the release of The Other World, a new game by student Andrew McDonald!  The Other World is a location-based game that can be played only on the University of Washington Seattle campus.  It is an augmented reality scavenger hunt with a compelling story about climate justice.  Check it out now on iOS and Android.
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You’ll be able to:

  • Experience dramatic augmented-reality weather effects across UW
  • Communicate with your guide from the other world, Eliza (voiced by professional actor and Ph.D. candidate Monica Cortés Viharo)
  • Learn about environmental justice in The Other World and at home
  • See Red Square entirely under water
  • Solve location-based and AR puzzles to advance in the game
  • Wipe the frost off of your cell phone (really!)
  • Endure the merciless trash-talking of your robot companion XLR

Andrew was inspired to communicate about environmental justice in part based on his trip to Standing Rock.  The powerful, unique story he has written should not be missed!  He coded the entire project himself as well.

The Other World begins at Red Square on the UW campus, and will take you through buildings across campus.  The game takes about 1 hour to complete from start to finish, and involves a little more than a mile of walking.  Make sure to turn the sound up on your device to play!

New Game: Soot Out at the 0 C Corral!!

Now available for iOS and Android!

Soot on snow is a real problem in the Arctic.  When black soot falls into newly fallen snow, it absorbs a lot more sunlight.  Even a tiny bit of soot can make a huge difference, because the photons bounce around so many times within snow crystals.  In addition to the increased greenhouse effect from fossil fuels, soot is also a factor in making the snow melt faster in the Arctic.  IMG_2282.PNG

The Arctic is already experiencing the most global warming on the planet.  The human footprint up there gets larger practically every day.  Shipping, oil drilling, and forest fires are bringing lots more soot into the environment, in addition to other harmful pollutants.  Soot Out at the 0° C Corral is our attempt to raise awareness about the important issue of soot on snow, in a fun, arcade-style game.

This game was originally developed for the Arctic Climate Game Jam.  Contributors include Sam Dassler who was the primary developer, Rikki Parent who made the art, Ben MacMillan and Kat Wang who made the initial version at the game jam, and Sara Brostrom and Judy Twedt who worked on the science.  Please download and help spread the word today!

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Dark Side of the Earth: A New Interactive Visualization

Download for iOS

Now playable in your browser on itch.io here!

Ever wanted to float through space and watch the light of a new day dawn across planet Earth? Dark Side of the Earth, the newest release from EarthGames, gives you this opportunity. Visualize the Sun’s radiant warmth casting across our planet, bisecting the world into day and night.

Start by experiencing those perfect 24 hours of equinox, when the Earth’s tilt is aligned so that everywhere on the planet experiences exactly 12 hours of day and night. Or watch the solstice, when perpetual darkness bathes polar regions in one hemisphere, while the other experiences perpetual day. Zoom through time to watch the seasonal cycle of sunlight animate as the Earth orbits around the Sun.

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Everything in the app is based on real scientific data: complex geometric calculations are performed to give the correct diurnal and seasonal cycle of sunlight throughout the year. Elevation, land cover, and population data determine the colors of the Earth during day and night. Even real star charts are shown in the background!

You can use Dark Side of the Earth to:
**Understand why there are seasons on Earth
**Calculate out how much daylight there is at any location, at any date in the past or future
**See where deserts, forests, and ice are located on each of the continents
**Relax to the rhythm of the spheres
**Spin the planet backwards in time
**Show your friends that the Earth is not flat
**Meditate on the meaning of your favorite science fiction film or psychedelic rock album lyrics

Dark Side of the Earth was programmed and designed by a single student, Alexey Beall, as a part of the EarthGames team.

We’ll see you on the Dark Side of the Earth!

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