Choking On Our Own Waste Heat

The Earth might continue warming due to heat released into the environment by ordinary human activities. According to Nick Cowern and Chihak Ahn of the School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering at Newcastle University, UK, waste heat could become a significant problem in the next century.

If global energy use increases by just one percent per year, then the dissipated heat from human activities could cancel out the benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Take a look at this visual example of the problem in a 1997 photo created by NASA. Using a special Lear Jet to collect thermal data, they demonstrated how hot cities can get. While some of the problem is due to solar heating of concrete and roads, vehicles and buildings also contribute.


(Thermal image of Atlanta, GA [NASA])

In his award-winning 1970 novel Ringworld, Larry Niven had to help an entire species, the Puppeteers, with their waste heat problem. They are sentient herd animals whose vast cities and works cover their entire planet.

"I had explained," said Nessus, "that our civilisation was dying in its own waste heat. Total conversion of energy had rid us of all waste products of civilisation, save that one. We had no choice but to move our world outward from its primary."

"Was that not dangerous?"

"Very... we found that a sun was a liability rather than an asset. We moved our world to a tenth of a light year's distance, keeping the primary only as an anchor...
(Read more about the Puppeteer Kemplerer Rosette)

Cowern and Ahn point out that not all power sources are alike; nuclear power has the most harmful effect because it releases energy in a very short time that is otherwise locked up. Solar power is better because it falls on the Earth anyway.

From Heat we emit could warm the Earth; thanks to Erik Nodacker for pointing out this story and the sf reference.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 12/1/2008)

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