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Satellites confirm: Industrial-scale agrofuels are not viable

The proper mass balance of carbon fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, described in Appendix B of my OECD paper (2007), confirms the compelling thermodynamic argument that sustainability of any ecosystem requires all mass to be conserved on the average. The larger the spatial scale of an ecosystem and the longer the time-averaging scale are, the stricter adherence to this rule must be. Such are the laws of nature. Physics, chemistry and biology say clearly that there can be no sustained net mass removal from any large ecosystem for more than a few decades.

A young forest in a temperate climate, shown in the previous blog, grows fast in a clear-cut area and transfers nutrients from soil to the young trees. The young trees grow very fast (there is a positive net primary productivity or NPP), but the amount of mass accumulated in the forest is small. When a tree burns or dies some or most of its nutrients go back to the soil. When this tree is logged and hauled away, almost no nutrients are returned. After logging young trees a couple of times the forest soil becomes depleted, while the populations of insects and pathogens are well-established, and the forest productivity rapidly declines. When the forest is allowed to grow long enough, its net ecosystem productivity becomes zero on the average.

Paraphrasing Henry Paulson's famously surprised comments about the 2008 financial meltdown, who would think that there wasn't an infinite supply of these 2000-year  old redwoods? Yes, who would ever anticipate that?

Therefore, in order to export biomass (mostly water, but also carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and a plethora of nutrients) an ecosystem must import equivalent quantities of the chemical elements it lost, or decline irreversibly. Carbon comes from the atmospheric carbon dioxide and water flows in as rain, rivers and irrigation from mined aquifers and lakes. The other nutrients, however, must be rapidly produced from ancient plant matter transformed into methane, coal, petroleum, phosphates, as well as from earth minerals (muriate of potash, dolomites, etc.), - all irreversibly mined by humans.

Phosphates are just another form of fossil resource. Over millions of years, the annual cycles of life and death in ocean upwelling zones have propelled sedimentation of organic matter. Critters expire or are eaten, and their shredded carcasses accumulate in sediments as fecal pellets and as gelatinous flocculation termed marine snow. Decay of some of this deposited organic matter consumes virtually all of the dissolved oxygen near the seafloor, a natural process that permits formation of finely-layered, organic-rich muds. These muds are a biogeochemical "strange brew," where calcium -- derived directly from seawater or from the shells of calcareous plankton - and phosphorus - generally derived from bacterial decay of organic matter and dissolution of fish bones and scales - combine over geological time to form pencil-thin laminae and discrete sand to pebble-sized grains of phosphate minerals. Without phosphates there are no living plants or animals.  For more information, see Grimm, 1998.

Therefore, to the extent that humans are no longer integrated with the ecosystems in which they live, they are doomed to extinction by exhausting all accessible planetary stocks of minerals, soil and clean water. The question is not if, but how fast? For ancient agriculture the answer seems to be a few thousands of years, with a possible exception of China.  For modern agriculture, I would be surprised if it lasts for another century without a major systemic crash.

In the last two blogs, I gave you an abstract proof of no trash production in Earth's Kingdom, except for its dirty human slums. Are there any other, more direct proofs, perhaps based on measurements? It turns out that there are two approaches that complement each other and lead to the same conclusions. The first approach is based on a top-down view of the Earth from a satellite and a mapping of the reflected infrared spectra into biomass growth. I will summarize this proof here. The second approach, also described in my OECD paper, involves a direct counting of all crops, grass, and trees, and translating the weighed or otherwise measured biomass into net primary productivity of ecosystems. Both approaches yield very similar results.
Net Primary Productivities (NPP's = what's left for plants to grow and everyone else on the planet to eat) of Asia-Pacific, South America, and Europe - relative to North  America.  Now you understand why we plunder the tropics.  There, plants grow faster, and there is more money to be made with impunity by destroying the environment.  The phenomenal net ecosystem productivity of Asia Pacific is 4.2 larger than that of North America.  The South American ecosystems deliver 2.7 times more than their North American counterparts, and Europe just 0.85. These NPP's were calculated  from the NASA MOD17A2/A3 model.

Global ecosystem productivity can be estimated by combining remote sensing with a carbon cycle analysis. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Observing System (EOS) currently "produces a regular global estimate of gross primary productivity (GPP) and annual net primary productivity (NPP) of the entire terrestrial earth surface at 1-km spatial resolution, 150 million cells, each having GPP and NPP computed individually."  The MOD17A2/A3 User's Guide (2003) provides a description of the Gross and Net Primary Productivity estimation algorithms designed for the MODIS instrument aboard of the Aqua and Terra satellites.

NASA's Aqua satellite carries six state-of-the-art instruments in a near-polar low-Earth orbit. The six instruments are the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU-A), the Humidity Sounder for Brazil (HSB), the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS (AMSR-E), the Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), and Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES).

MODIS, or the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, is a key instrument that provides high radiometric sensitivity (12-bit) in 36 spectral bands ranging in wavelength from 0.4 to 14.4 microns, which is the range of infrared radiation emitted by tree canopies, grasses, and the Earth surface. Most of this radiation leaves the Earth and warms up the cold universe.  This is the main reason why life can persist on the Earth.

MODIS provides global maps of several land surface characteristics, including surface reflectance, albedo (the percent of total solar energy that is reflected back from the surface), land surface temperature, and vegetation indices. Vegetation indices tell scientists how densely or sparsely vegetated a region is and help them to determine how much of the sunlight that could be used for photosynthesis is being absorbed by the vegetation. MODIS is also very good at detecting deforestation and degeneration of ecosystems.

The bottom line is this:

Over the last 13 years, the measured Gross Primary Productivity of terrestrial plants on the planet Earth has been about 100 gigatons of carbon per year.  It changed by plus or minus a few gigatons of carbon from one year to another, because of the changing weather patterns each year. (Remember, the Earth is cyclic.) This is all the carbon sequestered by all of the photosynthesizing terrestrial plants on the Earth.  About  1/2 of this mass, 50 gigatons/year, has been maintenance food for these plants.  The remaining 50 gigatons of carbon per year have been used up by the same plants to grow and be eaten by all of the Earth's living creatures, some of which then ate other creatures.  Almost nothing is left after each orbit.  The Net Ecosystem Productivity (NEP, defined in the previous blog) has been about zero for the Earth.

So, when someone says that 50 gigatons/year (1800 EJ/year) of biomass carbon are potentially available for our cars, tanks, and jets to burn as fuel, that person should be declared insane, and become a top adviser to the green nonprofits, think tanks, and world governments.  This person should also be a media star, simply because we live in an insane world in which money and mass are reported to be created from nothing.

In the next installment, I'll explain to you why modern industrial agriculture must be a long-term failure, and some of its global impacts.


  1. Thank you, I always read your posts with great interest - depressing as it may be.

  2. Matt,

    Science is neither optimistic nor depressing. Science makes models. Models are neither good nor bad, but some are useful. Models are tested. If a test shows that a model is wrong and/or inadequate, this model is discarded and another one is created.

    Now on a more personal note. I never cease to be awed and amazed by the beauty and texture of nature. I have to fight to preserve this beauty for as long as I live.

    Most people do not really see nature and life. Recently, I met a young, bright economist. She was so remarkably dead for her age and beauty. And so it goes...

  3. The sustainability of this sort of project is of no concern to the financiers. Vandana Shiva has documented the extent of the planning and legal maneuvering in books such as "Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge." There is some short term profit and those in charge are in denial of the environmental cost.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. There is only one sustainability and it was defined in the previous blog. The rest of the thousands of popular definitions are either incomplete (mostly wrong) or illusions, put forth by the deceivers to confuse others, including their own children.

      It always amazes me that so many people can be damaging and polluting the planet 9-to-5, and then at 7 pm cry over a brain cancer of their dying child (a real case).

      I used to think that "nomenklatura," the inner elite in the old communist countries, is gone now. I also called them "the anointed ones."

      The nomenklatura kept real power to their own members, no matter what managerial positions they would take and how incompetent they would be. They would go to the same schools, routinely intermarry, and frequent the same clubs and resorts.

      Little did I know that a disturbingly similar nomenklatura in the U.S. is equally ill-educated and arrogant, intermarries even more, and calls themselves mostly the Harvard and Yale alumni.

  4. Tad, thanks for this blog, just found it. I have been convinced since 2008 that all species of trees are dying prematurely, pretty much everywhere. Other vegetation is dying back too. Most foresters blame insects, disease, fungus, drought, and invasive species for forest decline, but I (and a very few others) disagree.

    I disagree because even plants that are being watered exhibit the same symptoms of damaged foliage as do trees in the ground - and there have been so many controlled fumigation experiments with ozone indicating it predisposes plants to biotic attack, I do not think is it a global coincidence that fungus etc has suddenly run amock. I also think the invasive species is baloney because people have been trafficking plant specimens around the world since they figured out how to sail across the ocean.

    Anyway I have been writing about this for a while - the most recent summary is a guest post here:

    if you are interested.

    I would be very grateful if you could help me out with MODIS. Since I am not a scientist it's hard for me to understand the raw data. It seems to me that it should be showing some pretty dramatic losses in trees if it's really that accurate. I have found only one analysis using their data, which I wrote about in this post:

    which did indeed show a decrease in productivity in the Eastern US, which of course the researchers blamed on drought from climate change even though much of the east has become wetter.

    Anyway please let me know if you are aware of other studies - that one only used data to 2010 and I'm sure it's gotten worse since then.

    Thanks and I look forward to following your posts.

    witsendnj at yahoo

  5. Gail, Thank you for your interesting comment. The MODIS instrument and models of vegetation have accrued a large body of literature.

    Here is the link to a publication that is most directly related to your question about changes and decline of NPP:

    The MODIS website is here, and I am pointing you at their publications:

    There are many other studies scattered through scientific journals, mostly the Journal of Remote Sensing.

    I gave you enough information to keep you occupied for a good while.

    The only other remark I will make is that the biomes on the Earth are amazingly resilient and try to maintain their biomass production for as long as they can. Then they simplify and crash. Parts of the Amazon forest and its captive cloud system may be close to crashing, and humans may split the forest area into an east and west part.

    There will come a time when the Amazon may not be able to continue to function and keep its cloud system to evaporate giant amounts of water and get that water back as rain.
    For comparison, outside of the oceans, the Amazon forest is the largest cooler of the planet.

    When that giant cooler disappears, there may be a massive climate change in the Western Hemisphere. Colorado, New Mexico, and parts of Texas may become parched, sandy deserts.

    Many Americans think that they are insulated from the global climate change and climate pattern changes, but they are tragically wrong.


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