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.
"If you have ants in your house," the great Harvard ecologist EO Wilson once said, "be kind to them." Keep this in mind the next time you want to flick one off the kitchen table: The tiny critters, which collectively weigh about as much as all of humanity, could wield a big weapon in the fight against climate change.
In the United States, corn-based ethanol is a big business, consuming 40 percent of the domestic corn crop and providing roughly 10 percent of the fuel supply, which would otherwise be dirty fossil fuels. But the practice of topping your tank off with corn is fraught with problems: Some argue that the crop should be used for food; it's sensitive to drought; and the ethanol-making process might be contributing to an E. coli epidemic, to name a few. That's why the Obama administration recently announced a plan to invest $2 billion in organic fuels that rely on things other than corn, including switchgrass and gas from cattle poo.
But this weekend, a group of scientists discovered a chemical key that could revitalize corn-based ethanol by allowing it to be made from stalks, leaves, and other bits beside the cob itself. This won't help much with the drought problem (less corn is still less corn), but it could alleviate the food vs. fuel debate and the E. coli problem when more kernels are saved to go straight to livestock. Turns out, the savior of ethanol could be the South American leafcutter ant.
Leafcutter ants make some of the largest underground colonies in the world, some with as many as 7 million residents. And, as the name suggests, many of them spend their days combing the rainforest for bits of leaves, gathering half the weight of a cow per colony every year. They carry this mass back into their tunnels and use it as fertilizer for a crop of fungus, which they then eat. Ant experts ("myrmecologists," if you care to know) have long believed that the fungus acts as a kind of external stomach for the ants, breaking down sugars in the leaves that the ants aren't equipped to handle themselves. In fact, it's not the fungus itself that breaks down the leaves, but chemical enzymes within it, and Frank Aylward, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says those same enzymes could be used to help break down corn byproducts to make fuel.
In a new study, Aylward sequenced the genome of the leafcutter ant's symbiotic fungus, and identified for the first time the exact enzymes that have evolved over millennia to efficiently break down plant material stored in the ant's underground tunnels.
Stacy Carolin collects samples in a Borneo cave last fall.
If you've ever visited a cave, you know the rules: Stay on the path, and keep your greasy paws off the formations. So Stacy Carolin was a bit taken aback the first time she headed into a cave not as a tourist, but as a scientist, and took a step off the beaten path. "I was a city girl back then," she recalls. "It was very muddy and slippery…and also completely pitch black." Not exactly the setting you'd expect for cutting-edge climate change research.
A few years later, Carolin, a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech, is breaking ground in the field of paleoclimatology, the study of ancient climates, using an unconventional but increasingly prevalent tool: speleothems, a catch-all term for cave formations that includes stalagmites (remember the mnemonic: those that "mite" reach the ceiling from the floor) and stalactites (those that hold "tite" to the ceiling).
In a study released today in the journal Science, Carolin and her colleagues outline 100,000-year-old rainfall conditions in Borneo, mapped from chemical clues in cave formations there. Like most historic climate reconstructions, the goal is to compile real-life data against which to test predictive models; if scientists know how much rainfall there was in the tropics in the past, they can see how well their models are able to replicate those conditions, and tweak accordingly. But the most commonly-used "proxies" for ancient climates, including tree rings and ice cores, are notoriously inadequate in the tropics, leaving holes in scientists' geographic picture of the past and making it difficult to measure historic changes in tropical weather systems, like monsoons, which can themselves have major impacts on global climate.
Deep inside caves in Mexico, Southeast Asia, China, and other limestone-rich locales worldwide, scientists have found rich troves of data in speleothems. Researchers look for formations that have already fallen over or broken off, so as not to damage the cave, haul these back to the lab, slice them open ("like a hot dog," Carolin says), and study the ancient atoms within to discover how old they are and how much rainfall there was at different points in their past (speleothems form when rainwater drips through the limestone, picking up acid and minerals that pile up in the cave).
In Arizona's Coconino National Forest, wildfire crew boss Skyler Lofgren chops down a problematic pine.
"Tree coming down!"
Skyler Lofgren shouts above a din of buzzing chainsaws, leans into his own, and with a final heave topples another 40-foot Ponderosa pine. Lofgren, 27, a forest firefighting crew boss with Flagstaff, Arizona's fire department, felled a dozen trees on Monday, overseeing an outdoor classroom for a new crop of seasonal recruits who will spend the summer patrolling the Coconino National Forest with three-foot chainsaws at the ready. The crew will fight wildfires when they come, but the vast majority of their time will be spent on prevention or, as Lofgren puts it, "working ourselves out of a job."
In a stand of trees 10 minutes outside downtown Flagstaff—a tight cluster of low-slung brick buildings peppered with Route 66 paraphernalia—Lofgren and his fellow firefighters are hard at work on a new project that local officials say is the first of its kind in the nation. Funded by a $10 million bond that voters approved by a 3-1 margin in November, the program puts local tax dollars to work clearing trees and brush, and lighting carefully-managed fires, in an effort to stave off the devastating, astronomically expensive megafires that have become increasingly common in the West. If successful, the project could also untether the community from a withering federal firefighting budget.
Last year saw the third-worst wildfire season in five decades; the Southern California fire that threatened thousands of homes earlier this month looks to be only the first flash of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week will be an above-average season for much of the Southwest. But the sequester took a 7.5 percent bite out of the Forest Service's budget, nearly half of which is spent fighting wildfires. That means there will be 500 fewer pairs of boots on the ground and 200,000 fewer acres treated to prevent fires; the agency's next proposed budget cuts preventative spending by a further 24 percent. It's all part of what fire ecologists, environmentalists, and firefighters interviewed by Climate Desk describe as an increasingly distorted federal budget that has apparently forgotten the old adage about an ounce of prevention: It pours billions ($2 billion in 2012) into fighting fires but skimps on cheap, proven methods for stopping megafires before they start.
Firefighting greenhorn Jake Hess, 23, practices his chainsaw control on a fallen tree. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
If you've ever read anything on the internet, chances are you've encountered a troll. No, not the kind that live under bridges, or the ones with a shock of neon hair. We're talking about those annoying commenters who get their kicks by riling people up as much as possible. But have you ever wondered who these people really are? Well, we found out.
Internet researchers at George Mason University recently found that when it comes to online commenting, throwing bombs gets more attention than being nice, and makes readers double down on their preexisting beliefs. What's more, trolls create a false sense that a topic is more controversial than it really is. Witness the overwhelming consensus on climate change amongst scientists—97 percent agreement that global warming is real, and caused by humans. But that doesn’t settle the question for Twitter addict and Climate Desk perennial thorn in the side Hoyt Connell:
"If you allow somebody to make a comment and there's no response, then they're controlling the definition of the statement," Hoyt says. "Then it can become a truth."
We first encountered Hoyt, or as we know him, @hoytc55, several months ago on our Twitter page, taking us to task for our climate coverage. And the screed hasn't stopped since: In April alone, Hoyt mentioned us on Twitter some 126 times, almost as much as our top nine other followers combined. So we did the only thing we knew how to do: track him down, meet him face to face…and ask a few questions of our own. So we did, in Episode One: Trollus Maximus (above).
Episode Two: The Troll Slayer: Some online commenters are silent, watching from the wings, what internet researchers call "lurkers." Not Rosi Reed, a 34-year-old nuclear physicist at the Large Hadron Collider and long-time internet truth crusader, who goes by the nom de guerre PhysicsGirl.
Finally, we launched an experiment: Episode Three: The Showdown. What if the trolls and the troll slayers met face to face and talked it out, analog-style (or as close as we can get with Google Hangout)? For all their differences, Hoyt and Rosi have one thing in common: They aren't cowards. They agreed to square off in a debate about online commenting, climate change, and what defines truth in the digital age.
Florida and Texas might be leading the nation's rollout of solar and wind power, respectively, but Washington, where hydroelectric dams provide over 60 percent of the state's energy, was the country's biggest user of renewable power in 2011, according to new statistics released last week by the federal Energy Information Administration.
Hydro continued to be the overwhelmingly dominant source of renewable power consumed nationwide, accounting for 67 percent of the total, followed by wind with 25 percent, geothermal with 4.5 percent, and solar with 3.5 percent. The new EIA data is the latest official snapshot of how states nationwide make use of renewable power, from industrial-scale generation to rooftop solar panels, and reveals an incredible gulf between leaders like Washington, California, and Oregon, and states like Rhode Island and Mississippi that use hardly any.
The gap is partly explained by the relative size of states' energy markets, but not entirely: Washington uses less power overall than New York, for example, but far outstrips it on renewables (the exact proportions won't be available until EIA releases total state consumption figures later this month). Still, the actual availability of resources—how much sun shines or wind blows—is far less important than the marching orders passed down from statehouses to electric utilities, says Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
"Without some carrot or stick, there's little reason to pick [renewables] up" in many states, he says; even given the quickly falling price of clean-energy technology, natural gas made cheap by fracking is still an attractive option for many utilities.