Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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For Climate Scientists, Shutdown Casts Long Shadow

| Fri Oct. 18, 2013 11:00 AM EDT
Antarctic researcher Gretchen Hoffman, left, says consequences of the shutdown "could completely scuttle some projects."

The government shutdown might be over, but for some climate scientists the headache is just beginning. During the shutdown, National Science Foundation-funded research facilities in Antarctica—where some of the world's most important climate research takes place—were left with a skeleton staff at just the time of year they would normally be coming back to life after a long, dark winter.

On its first day back online, NSF released a statement saying it would salvage the research season "to the maximum extent possible," without giving a definite timeline. NSF warned that "certain research and operations activities may be deferred until next year's austral research season." For scientists studying everything from ocean acidification to earthquakes to seal pups, the 16 days of the shutdown were 16 missed opportunities to collect irreplaceable data.

One of those scientists was Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who published a column today in Nature about her frustration with the shutdown and its long-term impacts on basic research. As Hofmann and her peers stand by for word from NSF, we spoke to her about how some of the worst pain from the last two weeks could be felt by the next generation of up-and-coming scientists.

Climate Desk: What have the last couple weeks been like for you?

Gretchen Hofmann: We have a research project that's funded to study ocean conditions and ocean acidification in the Southern Ocean, the area around McMurdo Sound. That project was supposed to start October 10, and we were going to deploy one of our field team members down there to go retrieve sensors from under the sea ice. The government shut down and we just sat there and thought, 'Well, I guess she's not going,' and sure enough 24 hours before Lydia Kapsenberg, my grad student, was supposed to deploy, her travel was canceled. A week earlier, my post-doc Amanda Kelley, an NSF funded research fellow, was supposed to go down; she flew down there, landed on the sea ice, and literally was told that the station had gone into caretaker mode. So right away, right in my face, front row center, I had two junior scientists that were really heavily impacted by this. Not only because they stand to lose to data and progress in their careers; it was also really upsetting. I mean, they felt really threatened and jeopardized.

"The shutdown, with respect to Antarctic science, was as poorly timed as you could possibly manage."

CD: You make the point that while there are impacts for everyone working down there, it's especially a problem for young scientists, post-docs and grad students. Explain why. What's different about being in that position that makes a missed opportunity like this even more problematic?

GH: The reason that it's a sensitive life history stage is because, if we talk about Dr. Kelley, she's a post-doc, and that's kind of like being an apprentice electrician: You already have your license, in this case a PhD, and she now comes to work with me to really learn about how to be a scientist. During that time, these jobs are really competitive, and you need to be productive. By that I mean you need to do experiments, you need to publish papers, you need to go to science meetings and get out there. And with no data, with a canceled field season, she will not have that. And so that puts her back incredibly.

And grad students, well, forget about it. Many of them have planned to be at McMurdo to do a specific thing that will give them their PhD or their masters degree. And that's been completely canceled. It's even worse sometimes for grad students because if they know they're going to do something down there, they might spend the whole year training to do that; frankly, they're not doing anything else. They spent a whole bunch of time getting ready to be there, and when that gets canceled, then they've got nothin'. And so a year of their life could be delayed, they might have to stay in school for another year, their advisor might not have funding for them, so it throws them into a really difficult situation that can also involve financial problems. I worry about this every day. People send you their children, and our country depends on this new talent. And so it's kind of like we're eating our young in the Antarctic science community if we can't rescue the field season.

"We're eating our young in the Antarctic science community if we can't rescue the field season."

Amanda Kelley is an unfortunate example of this. She has a two-year fellowship from NSF that just started this summer. She was supposed to work at McMurdo for the field season this October/November, and October/November, 2014, and that's all the money she has for those two years. And so now, if she loses this field season, she'll run out of money before she can get a full set of research done. And everyone [at NSF] will do their utmost to rectify the situation, but whereas I stand to lose some data and an instrument and that's a drag and sets my research back, you know, I'm protected, I'm tenured. And these guys are not.

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Supreme Court to Take Up Greenhouse Gas Limits

| Tue Oct. 15, 2013 4:12 PM EDT

The Supreme Court announced today that it will take up the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency can include greenhouse gas emission limits in permits it issues for new or expanding large polluters like refineries and power plants.

But perhaps even more significant was what the court chose not to consider: a challenge to the EPA's broader authority to regulate greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and a challenge to its authority to issue emission limits for cars, both of which have been upheld by lower courts and remained untouched today.

For now, the justices chose to leave intact the legal basis for greenhouse gas emissions limits on new and existing power plants the EPA is expected to roll out over the next several years. Those limits could shutter many of the nation's coal plants and discourage others from opening. Today's announcement also preserves the Obama administration's plan to slash climate change-causing pollutants from cars.

The justices' decision "means that EPA's legal and scientific findings that greenhouse gases harm health and the climate remains the law of the land," said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney John Walke.

"The EPA's findings that greenhouse gases harm health and the climate remains the law of the land."

The question the court will consider is whether the EPA can use greenhouse gas emissions as a criteria, like it does with smog and soot limits, to determine whether large industrial polluters receive permits to build new facilities or expand existing ones. But even if the justices disallow such a permitting criteria, the EPA would still retain the authority to set greenhouse gas emissions limits for these polluters—just not written into the permits, per se.

The petition behind the permitting issue was brought by a coalition of industry groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, which in a statement today said "stringent permitting requirements" would "impact every aspect of our economy."

But Walke stressed that the permitting program "is not necessary to establish or enforce" greenhouse gas emission standards for power plants, like those proposed in September that are a signature product of new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.

WATCH: Drought-Hardy Barley Could Save Your Beer

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Raise a glass to these German scientists, who are working out a way to protect a key beer ingredient from climate change. As Oktoberfest rages on, geneticist Nils Stein is deciphering the genome of barley, looking for genes that could help the plant survive through droughts. The study's implications go beyond these beer tents. Barley is the fourth most produced cereal in the world; a recent drought in Russia that hurt barley production led to a global price spike. And a drought that devastated Syria's barley crop contributed to that country's civil war. Join Climate Desk on a trip from some of the world's most advanced greenhouses to the rowdy crowds of Munich.

Produced in part by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Blizzard Catastrophe Kills Tens of Thousands of Cows; Shutdown Leaves Ranchers on Ice

| Thu Oct. 10, 2013 4:06 PM EDT
A cow lies frozen to death following last weekend's "historic" blizzard in South Dakota.

Last Wednesday, the weather was sunny and warm at Bob Fortune's cattle ranch in Belvidere, S.D. On Thursday, it started raining. By Friday night, the rain had turned to snow. By the weekend, the snow turned to a blizzard with 60 mile an hour winds. By the weekend, Fortune says, "the cattle just couldn't stand the cold anymore, and they just started dying."

Only a year after sweeping drought left ranchers across South Dakota desperate for feed, this week they're just beginning to reckon with a freak early snowstorm, dubbed Winter Storm Atlas, that wiped out an estimated 10 percent of the cattle in the state's western region, up to 100,000 animals. In the coming weeks they will dig through the mess to try to tally the damage to an industry worth $5.2 billion statewide, that also killed an unknown number of horses, sheep, and wildlife. Fortune, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, says losses like this would be enough to cripple many ranchers even in the best of times, especially with the loss of future calves next spring whose would-be mothers were killed. But with the federal Department of Agriculture still shut down, ranchers are cut off from the livestock insurance that would normally keep them afloat following a disaster like this.

"We have no idea if there'll be federal aid for these ranchers," Fortune says.

"We have no idea if there'll be federal aid for these ranchers," Fortune says.

After catastrophes, livestock producers typically turn to the federal Farm Service Agency's livestock indemnity program, which offers compensation for lost cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other livestock. As long as the government stays shut, FSA offices nationwide will be shut too, leaving ranchers without support. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Agriculture said the most their office can do is offer advice on how to document and carry out a cleanup effort. Even before the shutdown, the insurance program was already threatened by delayed passage of a new federal farm bill, which allots money for a range of food and ag-related programs from food stamps to incentives to go organic. While the shutdown debate rages, the Senate and House are still hashing out the farm bill, leaving the livestock indemnity program in midair.

The weekend blizzard, which dumped up to five feet of snow in some places, was "very historic," according to meteorologist Darren Clabo at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology's Institute of Atmospheric Sciences. Rapid City, the largest city in the state's western half, received the most snowfall ever recorded in October, and the third-highest one-day snowfall for any time of year. While South Dakota residents and ranchers are accustomed to brutal winters, Clabo said, "we don't get these kinds of storms in the first week of October." That means that cattle were still covered in thin summer coats, and left out in exposed summer pastures.

historic frozen cow
A snow-covered steer in South Dakota after a blizzard in 1966. Ranchers are still reeling from this weekend's blizzard. NOAA

The storm, Clabo said, was the result of a strong high-altitude storm that pushed in quickly from the Pacific, gathered energy over the Rockies, and peaked just over Rapid City. While it's too early to say what role climate change might have played in this particular storm, higher levels of heat trapped in the atmosphere can result in more frequent and severe storms. Last month's IPCC report found it "very likely" that extreme precipitation events like blizzards will increase over this century.

For now, the South Dakota state Department of Agriculture is picking up the slack as best it can, urging ranchers to fully document their losses so they can get aid if and when it reappears, said spokesperson Jamie Crew. Meanwhile, Fortune and his peers will continue to dispose of dead livestock, which state law requires be cleaned up within 36 hours for public health reasons. 

"The more snow melts," he says, "the more dead cattle they're finding."

WATCH: The Real Story of the Global Warming "Hiatus"

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 5:14 PM EDT

The talk of the town at the IPCC conference today in Stockholm was all about the so-called global warming "hiatus." In the last 15 years, global surface temperatures have risen more slowly, which some skeptics took as a sign that climate change was kaput. So I asked a few scientists to explain...turns out, while the exact cause of the slowdown is still being worked out, it's definitely not curtains for climate change. For more information, check out Climate Desk's explanation of the possible causes of the slowdown.

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