An opportunity to review the serendipitous connections leading from Old World Tyrants to the fascinating world of climate science had blossomed from the turd of my failure! But, alas, I was waved off my presentation by the dreaded Spousal Hand of Boredom. Frustrated, I slunk over to the PC to share it with you. It was only then I came to realize that Mrs. DS is probably better off not knowing about our shattered skies, the gruesome history leading to them, and our possible bleak future. This will be a dark essay from the DarkSyde, beginning fittingly enough in the closing years of the dark ages.
The basic cannon. Despite the simplicity of the design, it took blacksmiths and designers several hundred years to develop large, reliable, one-piece barrels that could hold together under repeated use
One of the earliest workable designs from the 14th century. This 'hoop cannon' is so named because the three cylinders on the right are bound together by metal hoops to help keep the thing in one piece--it had a tendency to explode in the users face when fired. This device was small, 50-100 pounds, to make it 1) more portable, and 2) because the technology did not yet exist to cheaply produce larger metal cylinders that could take the relentless punishment
After playing around with various kinds of metals and techniques for turning them into big thick barrels that could take the firing stress, many of which undoubtedly malfunctioned in spectacularly gruesome ways, the emerging craft of metallurgy began producing massive, high-quality, one piece cylinders. And as if that terror weapon wasn't nasty enough, over the next couple of centuries a great deal of work was done perfecting a hand held miniature version so that individual combatants could shoot smaller holes in one another.
By four-hundred years ago, most of the legions of archers, the quaint battle-axes, and exquisite suits of armor slipped quietly into history. The new battlefields of land and sea now echoed with mighty cannon blasts punctuated by the melodic screams of their brutally maimed and dying victims.
The loosely confederated patchwork of rival medieval gangs gave way to larger, consolidated empires. The collectives, both large and small, were usually organized like a Mafia Crime Family. The "Boss" or "King" handed down power and title by heredity and assigned 'turf'. Specific territories were run by made-men called 'nobles' who ran local 'crews'. This era of savage consolidation using the new contraptions of war to spread powerful syndicates and their associated religious bullshit, was known as The Enlightenment: So named because armies equipped with the new weaponry fanned out far and wide to 'enlighten' their adversaries about what deity's chosen Boss was now running the show.
And it wasn't long before some of those enterprising Bosses and Capos figured out that if an explosion could push big iron balls out of the new one-piece cylinders at high speed over and over, maybe a variation on the device could do the same for a piston attached to a wheel or lever with a rod. That would be great because then they could use it to run all manner of clunky machines currently being powered by waterfalls, beasts of burden, and hordes of whiny slaves.
The slaves didn't cost all that much to acquire during the Enlightenment. Usually it was just a matter of knocking off an enemy village, ripping of their loot, killing any smart-ass locals who objected, taking the young ladies as sex slaves, and dragging the remaining inhabitants off in shackles. But slaves could be high maintenance. They couldn't work too many back-to-back 24 hour shifts without expiring, they got these crazy ideas about trying to escape from time to time, and they required rotten gruel and spoiled rat meat once or twice a day to operate effectively. So a machine might be cheaper than forced labor and certainly not as big of a headache to keep on task. Hell, you'd save serious money on whips, chains, and prison cells alone. Egads, they had to have it!
After fooling around with a gunpowder engine or two, it became clear that steam was the more practical propellant of choice. The race was on to invent an economical steam engine, culminating in James Watt's improved design around 1765. It was the birth of the industrial revolution--which incidentally is right about the time that so many Bosses and Capos suddenly began to find their ethical compass and concluded that slavery was an absolute moral wrong. So wrong it could not be tolerated even when practiced by distant crime families overseas or far to the south. What a coinkidink, huh?
Of course it paid, literally, to understand components like valves, pipes, gears, as well as phenomena such as temperature and pressure, if you wanted your steam engine to operate at peak efficiency and keep the factory/sweatshop going full tilt. If your engines were out of date or under maintained ... you might not be able to run the other Bosses out of business or make enough weapons to equip your Capos and their crews so as to 'whack' your troublesome competitors. So the miserly bosses and capos running the factories, now renamed "Captains of Industry", had to pretend the flaky nerds were part of the syndicate nobility and even give up a few shekels here and there to keep them happy. Although secretly the Haves hated the Have-Brains, because the bright-eyed engineers and scientists often arose from common blood. And they either spoke in an incomprehensible language of math and physics or were always jabbering on about how great their next technological trick was going to be. All these practices were extraordinarily irritating to the Industry Captains. A rift that carries right into our own time ... Anyway, it didn't escape the notice of the aforementioned nerds during this period of intense research, that if one compressed a gas in a cylinder with a tight fitting piston the gas would warm up, and if one expanded the gas by drawing the piston back it would cool off.
The Ideal Gas Law, shown above operating on cylinders with a movable piston, states in part that compression (Above left) heats a gas while expansion (Above right) cools it
So the eggheads figured ... if one expanded that gas and cooled it off to the point that it was really cold, and then circulated that cooler gas through a pipe to a closed, insulated container and let it sit inside for a bit, and then brought it back out, one would be pumping heat out of the container! Compress the gas again and keep repeating the cycle and you had a continual heat pump. And, eureka, we have a refrigerator in theory, shown below in a simple schematic.
Simple heat pump: A substance, called a refrigerant, is expanded causing it to cool. The coolant is then circulated inside the container where it absorbs surrounding heat. The warmer coolant is then pumped out, compressed into a warmer fluid and allowed to cool off in the outside ambient air. The process is repeated. The end result is the container is kept cool and Houston we have a fridge!
Problem was it wouldn't work very well using water as the actual refrigerant. Water has too high a boiling point for steam to be useful in cooling things or freezing them. It's fine to use a steam engine to run the compressor and pump the coolant around the system, but what was needed for the actual coolant itself was a substance that would go from gas to liquid at much lower temperatures. A new class of alchemists now held their grimy hands out for more shekels to find or invent those kinds of materials.
Although the cooling machine idea was kicked around by all kinds of scientists, from Galileo to Gabrial Fahrenheit, it wasn't until 1834 that the American inventor Jacob Perkins invented the first such machine that actually worked half-ass. His 'vapor cycle ice making machine', what today we would call a refrigerator, used ether as a coolant. Ether filled the bill boiling point wise: Of course ether is also lot of fun when inhaled and it sure made a hell of an explosion when lit. Plus it was expensive. So ether had a tendency to disappear faster than a brick of C-notes in Iraq entrusted to Halliburton, or cause rather devastating damage when it blew up. It wasn't practical for widespread use.
Refrigerants used in the early vapor compression machines then moved onto ammonia compounds, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, methyl chloride and various sundry hydrocarbons. They all worked OK but they all had their drawbacks; not the least of which was that most were corrosive to the pipes and some were toxic as hell. If your shiny new ice box sprung a leak in the year 1920, you might never wake up in your Victorian nightgown.
More shekels changed hands and industry saved the day! In the late 1920s chemical engineers working for a trust busting consortium made up of Frigidaire, GM, and Du Pont came up with several cheap substances with the exact set of thermal properties needed. Each designed for a specific temperature range of cooling needs. Better still they were so inert you could inhale the stuff by the bucketful and only run the risk of oxygen deprivation. All of these coolants were based around carbon, chlorine, and fluorine and were therefore called Chloroflurocarbons or CFC's. The most useful for common consumer needs was called Dichlorodifluoromethane known more commonly under the trademarked name as Freon-12 ©.
The new refrigerants and Freon-12 in particular were a smashing success to put it mildly. Soon they transformed every industry on earth and changed our very way of living. Because of refrigerated food storage and distribution systems and the availability of air conditioning, our standard of living rose dramatically. Life became more economical and more comfortable than ever, even in the muggy deep south and the baked hellish infernos of the desert southwest. Any industrial process which required precise temperature control, from drug production to nuclear power generation was revolutionized by the availability of cheap, reliable refrigerants. But there was an invisible danger unleashed, an unknown and unsuspected side effect. Out of sight, out of mind ...
I don't know how much you know about chemistry. But if you haven't brushed up lately on your periodic table, fluorine and chlorine are both members of the Halogens. These elements are some of the most corrosive, toxic, reactive substances in the universe, always looking to hook up chemically with other reactants. They're so reactive and so deadly that chlorine was put to work as one of the first chemical weapons in World War One: If chlorine was a person and sex was a chemical reaction, chlorine would be a whacked out nympho on rohypnol. Of course, the chlorine in Freon-12 was locked up tighter than a drum and was no threat. As long as it remained in that stable compound you could take a bath in it with no ill effects.
But some scientists let their imaginations soar high into the stratosphere, tempered with the knowledge that under high energy conditions the chlorine atom would cut loose from the coolant compound and go its separate way. If that happens down here on the surface the chlorine atom won't last long until a new molecular suitor shows up and takes it out. But high in the rarefied upper atmosphere there is a both a thin layer of ozone and high energy ultraviolet light and not much else: And it is the ozone that screens out the UV flux. Could the UV break down CFCs and the chlorine atom go on to break down the ozone? Why yes, it could! As it turns out, one chlorine atom can ruin hundreds or thousands of ozone molecules!
The important thing to understand is that chlorine acts as a Catalyst: One chlorine atom can wreck an unlimited number of ozone molecules, because the chlorine itself doesn't get used up in the process. Those chlorine atoms will keep on depleting the ozone until they finally meet up with some other reactant where they don't act as a catalyst. And as that layer of ozone wanes, more and more harsh, unfiltered UV will stream down to the surface of our planet. The result of that solar bombardment will include higher temperatures, a substantial increase in skin cancers and cataracts, and may lead to widespread crop failure and global famine. The impact of increased UV on the oceanic cyano-bacteria population which forms the basis of our modern terrestrial ecology is uncertain. But it could precipitate a crash in those essential oxygen producing bacteria. Which would be followed by a rapid wave of extinction on par with the Great Dying that knocked off 90% of all living things a quarter billion-years ago.
Throughout the 60s and much of the 70s the CFC-ozone depletion scenario was just a hypothesis. But then tentative high altitude data begin trickling in, hinting that something strange was going on over the South Pole ...
Our shattering skies: The area in purple over Antarctica represents a rift in the ozone layer. Compiled from Satellite imagery
Starting in the late 70s the first hard data that the ozonosphere might be in trouble exploded in the scientific community. From satellite imagery over the continent of Antarctica came pictures of a gaping, growing, hole. The data was unequivocal by the late 1980s; our life saving ozone was disappearing at an astonishing rate: It's visible from Space! Conservatives who dominated power in most of the CFC producing nations in the 1980s paid great lip service to the threat, and they at least recognized the data was 'real'. Some steps were taken to curb the release of the worst CFCs and invent less damaging ones. But their words and their deeds were often in conflict.
By the start of the 1990s those less damaging coolants had been developed and implemented. Strict new guidelines governing the removal and storage of the older CFCs were passed -- Much to benefit of humanity and to the dismay of industry lobbyists. But by the time George Bush assumed office in early 2001, corporatist political forces had joined hands with anti-science elements in the GOP to sell the idea that the entire process of ozone depletion and chlorine catalysis was a mythical construct of elite scientists and eco-terrorists.
Emboldened by political support on the heels of 9-11, building on the deceptive campaign to malign those legitimate concerns about CFCs and greenhouse gases, and under the cover of an ideological conservative pseudoscientific white wash provided by extremist think tanks, President Bush signed into Law the Clear Skies Act of 2003 (HR 999). This sweeping Law castrated the updated Clean Air Act enacted by Poppy Bush in 1990. The CSA of 2003 also weakened emission restrictions, delayed or canceled previously established deadlines for compliance, and whacked the funding to enforce what was left--while political shills and industry advocates babbled on about how it would reduce health risks and air pollution. This Bill is considered by many to be one of the most stunningly brazen examples of Orwellian doublespeak ever signed into Law. On top of that BushCo stacked the enfeebled oversight boards that were left with every kind of incompetent political/corporate loyalist they could squeeze in: They've been thoroughly FEMA'd.
(Note-For a better understanding of the relationship between the CSA and greenhouses gases, and to understand the CSA did not specifically screw up CFC emission standards, see this comment by tparson or check out Protecting the Ozone Layer and other climate science books by Edward Parson)
I try to end these science articles on an upbeat note with an obligatory reminder about the importance of placing science ahead of political ideology: Here I cannot in good conscience engage in such ungrounded wishful thinking. Those ozone depleting molecules and greenhouse gases, are out there in record numbers and more are being released everyday. The thin spots in our natural atmospheric sunblock grow larger year by year. It's just a matter of time, perhaps a few years at most, before skin cancers and cataracts are spiking, global warming an empirically rampant factum, crop failures and resultant global famine take over the planet. Our sky is being shattered thanks in part to the skillful political predatory manipulation of antiscience lunatics and sincere theists who are being lied to every morning, everyday, and every evening by the likes of drug-addled propagandists and Pravda disguised as News: All for short term corporate profits benefiting a tiny elite of megazillionaires; a summer home for the political mouthpieces bought with kickbacks; now openly nurtured by what many characterize as the worst leaders ever. The most inept, corrupt politicians of all time, most of whom hail from the modern day, mutant descendant, of the once noble party of Abraham Lincoln.
The worst of the CFCs have been relatively contained for now. But given the gloomy future of oil prices as patiently explained by our own Jerome Paris, the potential category five financial storm outlined by Stirling Newberry among others, and my modestly depressing reminders that we're being led by a pack of greedy liars beholden to hordes of anti-reality loons and corporate looters ... in retrospect Mrs. DarkSyde is better off not hearing my morbid tale of killers past and dark skies ahead. So for now, I'll just make sure that her soda glass is full and her addiction satiated and I'll share my dire prognostications only among those who choose for their own interests to be so informed.
It would be foolish to do nothing. Yes, we have to end the madness ASAP. But I have a bad feeling about the upcoming confluence of factors already in the mail. I worry, I truly fear, for the future. With clear judgment and the wise application of law, regulations, technology, science, and engineering, we can meet these challenges. Science and industry got ahead of the ozone problem and because of innovation and regulation in the 80s and 90s, there is hope that this issue is mitigated for now. There's no reason at all we can't do the same for other, more pressing problems. But the last people on earth we want in power when and if this shit all hits the fan at once are anti-science conservatives and ruthless corporate opportunists waiting for the Rapture.
So my fellow Kossacks I say to you, this no longer a mere political fight. Our struggle now transcends party politics or partisan advantage. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina I hope it is now crystal clear: This struggle against childish delusional maniacs and their political handlers has become, plain and simple, a matter of national survival.