19 September, 2018


The Water Bomb

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

There has long been a suspicion that there is a force other than Carbon Dioxide that is pushing climate change. In fact, the changes predicted are coming faster than expected, the forgotten agent that is exasperating the changing climate is ‘new water’. Burning fossil fuels does not only produce new carbon dioxide it also produces new water vapor. But it seems that we were lulled into a sense of false complacency by considering the water vapor produced as harmless. The water vapor that is produced, much like the carbon dioxide is emitted as gases that are completely new to the atmosphere. The Carbon and the hydrogen was fossil and had not entered the biosphere for over 20 million years. By burning fossil fuel, the gasses produced are new to the atmosphere and they disrupt the normal climate functions.

The urgent need to address these differences was given in the Statement issued by the Presidential delegation to the COP:

“We are aware of the great difference in carbon dioxide that is emitted from biological sources and carbon dioxide emitted from fossil sources. One has sequestered rates measured in thousands of years while the other in millions of years. Yet the cost is still the same. We would request the IPCC to address the relative costs of each. (Sri Lanka Country Statement COP21)

The statement above, underscores the importance of differentiating between biotic compounds and non-biotic compounds that we add to the atmosphere. We know that the consequence of burning fossil fuels will mean temperatures will rise, but the speed of that rise may be much more than the IPCC has computed, because they have not considered new water vapour from fossil fuel combustion as significant contributor to pushing the climate disruption. On the average water vapour accounts for about 60% of the warming effect on the atmosphere and is the largest contributor to the Greenhouse effect. It is the natural blanket that has kept the atmosphere warm enough to sustain life. But the IPCC ignores water vapour as a contributory cause of the warming trends by assuming humans don’t change it measurably. They wrote, “Water vapour is the most abundant and important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. However, human activities have only a small direct influence on the amount of atmospheric water vapour”. This stand is dangerous and must be questioned. They have focused on the Carbon from fossil and biological fuels and in doing so, might have done the planet a great disfavour.

First, Water vapour is most important because it regulates and is maintained by the atmospheric temperature which limits the amount of water vapour in the air; but if something else that causes the temperature to go up is added, the increased temperature causes more water to evaporate. Because the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere limits the maximum amount of water vapour the atmosphere can contain, the water vapour cycle has helped maintain an equilibrium of temperatures in the past. 

In the natural world, water vapour is a by-product of respiration in plants and animals and evaporation from water bodies. Its contribution to atmospheric pressure increases as its concentration increases. Because the total air pressure at any given elevation must remain constant. The presence of water vapour in the air naturally dilutes or displaces the other components of air. Thus the output of Water Vapor can have a direct effect on the Oxygen concentration in a local area. This feature might be a contributory factor to low Oxygen concentration levels, recorded in highly industrialized fossil burning cities.

Life on Earth learnt how to maintain gas and material flows, optimum for the evolution of biodiversity. Carbon Dioxide, although essential to the process of life, was being introduced into the atmosphere by volcanic processes at disruptive levels, throughout geologic history. But the gas has not concentrated in the atmosphere, because it was sequestered by living things and put away out of circulation from the biosphere of living carbon. This store of carbon and hydrogen was fossilized and has been slowly accumulating over the last few 2 hundred million years.

Burning fossil fuels releases that fossil store as new Carbon Dioxide and new water vapor. But unlike the other gasses in the atmosphere water vapor gas, will convert to liquid water at some point, leaving only a constant level of water in the form of gas. It is in this process of condensation that the hidden danger emerges.

Although the amount of vapor you can add before conversion to liquid water increases with the temperature and as atmospheric temperatures increases the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere can hold, any excess has to condense as water. When water vapour condenses as water  it releases heat at the rate of 2442 Joules per gram.

Considering that currently 35 billion barrels of oil and a similar volume of coal and gas is burnt per annum, a release of about 16,800 billion liters of water is added to the atmosphere. Thus the energy released by the condensation of the new water generated by  the combustion of fossil fuels adds up to a staggering 410,256,000,000,000,000 joules of energy,  about half the energy released by the volcano Krakatoa or a as much as  large nuclear bomb.

The energy equivalent of a large nuclear bomb released each year into the atmosphere by the condensation of the water vapor created by burning fossil fuels, will make dramatic changes to the climate. Perhaps modelers should take in this aspect of fossil fuel combustion too.

The massive threat to life posed by the burning of fossil fuels has been amplified by the ‘Water Bomb’ created by the condensation of ‘new’ water that this action produces, puts another nail in the coffin of humanity.

There is no defense of equating the consumption of fossil fuels with development. Yes, it may profit a few for a short while, but will always compromise the future. Development should be the ability to wean ourselves away from fossil dependency. Tragically, the current political imperative seems to mindlessly propel us into a fossil dependent future.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Man made disaster is one of main causes of water shortage today …
    It is sad we have mega development projects in Sri Lanka without considering nature and ecology ..
    Our wildlife ; forest; nature is destroyed with Chinese projects ..
    How many elephants being killed now ..
    Believe me in 20 years time; our wild life will be destroyed by 10% or more with rate development ..
    Yes we need development..
    But sustainable one ..
    Who on earth needed an air port in that part of forest in South to kill wild life ..
    We could have developed old air port of Palali or Trico or Bati or Anuradapura …
    Now; there’s no good cooperation between poltiicans and academics to decides all this ..
    MR AND CO did damage the country more than we could image with introduction of China to Sri Lanka ..
    Water ..
    Drought .
    Poverty .foodshotage; and disease all we can expect soon.
    So beautiful country run by monkey like people ..

    • 0

      It is said that present weather pattern of Drought, Floods, Cold etc are due to our style of living. When some sudden change of weather happens it is said the particular weather happens after 50 year 100 years interval. What made a similar weather happen 50/100 years ago e.g Kerala floods after 100 years, Japan hurricane after 25 years and so forth. Can somebody explain please?

  • 2

    One gallon of gasoline – petrol – when completely combusted produces an equal volume of water – emitted as vapour (steam) from the billions of automobiles and heaters etc. daily.
    That this water vapour is a ‘greenhouse gas’, none had realised until now!!
    Thank you, RS.

    • 0

      Do not get you ‘justice’. Water vapour greenhouse gas?
      It is the other products of combustion that is worrying.

  • 0

    Ranil Senanayake’s “The Water Bomb” is a double edged sword.
    It explodes and releases water in torrents when not needed.
    It is a moist cracker when we are in desperate need of water.
    This is a comparatively new game played by Gods(?).

  • 0

    How do you say this when 3/4th of the surface of the earth is Water. Reivers are flowing always. There was some uprorar that Cattles produce MEthane when reaches the upper atmosphere and damges the OZone layer and destroys the heat cover. Secondly, methane releasing from the OCeans also causes the same thing.

    • 1

      Great Thinkng: Thank you Dr. R. S. This is the sort of lateral thinking we need from experts like you.

      Not only is it the amount of water released in combustion but the state of it. (i.e.) It is in the vapour form. Being a power engineer, I know that there are two kinds of Calorific Values concerning a fossil fuel. The HCV (Higher calorific value) which includes the latent heat of water and the LCV ((Higher calorific value) which does not.
      Latent heat is released when the water in vapour form condenses in to water finally. Not only is the vapour a green gas but the latent heat released amplifies the heating effect of combustion.

      • 1

        Correction: The HCV (Higher calorific value) which includes the latent heat of water and the LCV ((Lower calorific value) which does not.

  • 0

    I should thank Ranil for being the 1st Sri Lankan Scientist to endorse in public what I had been writing about to the papers for the last eight years or so. Almost all my writings to the papers on Climate Change dealt with this. It was on 15th July, 2015, I first substantiated in an article that H2O vapour from oil and gas combustion is more dangerous than CO2 with a comparison table containing six characteristics. On 17th December, 2016, I wrote that in Donald Trump’s USA, H2O vapour has already trumped CO2 using data given in USA EIA’s Energy Outlook Document. On 03rd October, 2017. I wrote about the effect of this water vapour – this is when I used the term “Newly Formed Water (NFW)” vapour for the 1st time – on hurricanes and went on to show using Prof. Kerry Emanuel’s equation that this water vapour from combustion of oil in vehicles could attract hurricanes and increase the velocity of the same. This relationship was explained in a TV show which is available in Youtube.
    We also showed that this effect of NFW is an important missing component in both the climate change models IGSM2 from MIT and CMIP5 with details in newspaper articles.
    When we wrote to the papers on how we applied Six Sigma methodology to solve climate change, we quantified NFW in USA according to data in USA EIA’s Energy Outlook. Even when we wrote on 20th August, 2018 on climate scientists cheating us on climate change we quantified this NFW generated in Sri Lanka in 2017.
    Most of these articles have been shared with Professors at US universities like Cornel, Washington and Caltech.
    So, we are very happy this issue is been substantiated by another scientist from a different discipline.

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