Friday, September 13, 2013

Special Guest: Rick Lombardo

Today's special guest is San Jose Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Rick Lombardo. A prolific regional and off-Broadway director, Mr. Lombardo has received numerous awards for his work both at San Jose Rep and New Repertory Theatre in Boston.

Many artists are concerned with the current trends in climate change. Mr. Lombardo is no exception.  He writes,

I've been thinking about climate change a lot, and while this question doesn't directly correlate to a warming planet, it was inspired by the problem. If all the water molecules present in the atmosphere at any one moment fell to the surface of the earth, what would happen to average sea levels around the world?

If you've paid attention to science news, you know that melting glaciers are contributing to rising sea level with an average rise of 3.3±0.4 mm over the past twenty years. This doesn't seem like very much, but over several decades it can have a profound impact on coastal communities. How does it compare with the rise that would occur if all atmospheric water rained down at once?

Wikipedia's entry for "Atmosphere of Earth" states the following:
According to the American National Center for Atmospheric Research, "The total mean mass of the atmosphere is 5.1480×1018 kg with an annual range due to water vapor of 1.2 or 1.5×1015 kg depending on whether surface pressure or water vapor data are used; somewhat smaller than the previous estimate. The mean mass of water vapor is estimated as 1.27×1016 kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ±0.0003×1018 kg."
From these figures, we can see there are, on average, roughly ten trillion tons of water in the atmosphere. If it all fell to the Earth at once, would it produce floods of literally biblical proportions?

"Get your cubit stick ready!"

Liquid water has a density of one gram per cubic centimeter. If you simultaneously condensed all the water in the atmosphere into liquid form, you'd have about 10 billion cubic meters of water. The oceans cover about 400 million square kilometers of the Earth's surface. Spread out over this area, all the water from the atmosphere would cause the oceans to rise a grand total of 25 microns, roughly one-fortieth of a millimeter. Needless to say, things wouldn't change very much.
"OK, never mind...everybody off the boat."
Thanks for a great question, Rick!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Special Guest: George Goodfellow

To celebrate the start of a new school year, we have a question from a very special guest. In addition to being Rhode Island's 2008 teacher of the year, George Goodfellow was also my high school chemistry teacher and one of the main reasons I became a scientist.1  Mr. Goodfellow writes,

At what point in the equilibrium that is a balance of living plant organisms, living animal species and the total available energy on Earth will the ratio of Animal/Plant Species become so large as to create a collapse of the human population?

Leave it to Mr. G to start us off with a light topic. The question reminds me of Trantor, the fictional city-world in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. To support Trantor, tens of thousands of ships from twenty agricultural worlds had to be flown in just to supply enough food.

Trantor would look a lot like Star Wars's Coruscant if you got rid of all those pesky Jedi.
If we ignore help from other worlds, the collapse should happen much more quickly. At present, the world population sits around seven billion and is constantly growing. Given Earth's land area is roughly 150 million square kilometers, each person would own about 5.3 acres if the land were divided equally. How much land does one person need to survive? This homesteading infographic provides a good starting point:

How much land is enough to live off? (Click to expand) 
According to the infographic, you need at least 0.5 acres of land per person to survive. This would imply Earth could support, at the very most, about 70 billion people before collapse would occur. Note that we haven't accounted for the fact that not all land is farmable. Given the large swaths of land in desert, mountain, and other inhospitable regions, we're probably significantly closer to carrying capacity. If only half the land were farmable, we could support 35 billion people, meaning we'd already be at 20% of the maximum carrying capacity.

Are there any ways to expand this limit? I've written previously about skyscraper farms. While the maximum number of people that could be fed by one of these farms is greatly exaggerated by the farms' proponents, the farms may still significantly increase Earth's maximum carrying capacity. Furthermore, food scientists are constantly finding ways to feed the growing population... scientists like Norman Borlaug. Note: Never try to be as cool as Norman Borlaug. Unless you can save over a billion people from starvation, you're not going to come anywhere close. And to think, this probably the first time you've heard of the man.
Short of coming up with more efficient ways to develop food, our most realistic solution seems to be pumping NASA full of money so they can supply us with tens of thousands of ships that will travel back and forth between twenty terraformed agricultural worlds in order to supply Earth with its daily food needs. Or, you know, people could start using birth control and have fewer kids. Either way would work.

Thanks for a great question, Mr. G!

Aaron Santos is a physicist and author of the books How Many Licks? Or How to Estimate Damn Near Anything and Ballparking: Practical Math for Impractical Sports Questions. Follow him on Twitter at @aarontsantos.

[1] Admittedly, there were a few nights when I cursed him for bestowing this fate on me, but for the most part it's been pretty good.