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.
A group of Emperor penguin adults make their way across sea ice in Terre Adélie in East Antarctica. The seabirds rely on sea ice for breeding and raising their young, but declines in sea ice from warmer temperature may be affecting all colony by the end of the century.
Move over, polar bears: It's time for Emperor penguins to become the new poster children of climate change.
Recently, polar biologists at the University of Minnesota used satellite images of poop stains (scientists are nothing if not resourceful) to show that some colonies of Emperor penguins in Antarctica are uprooting historic nesting sites, possibly to escape warming temperatures.
Courtesy Stephanie Jenouvrier
Today, a new study in Nature makes an even more grim prognostication about the future of the species: Thanks to declining concentrations of sea ice, two-thirds of Antarctica's Emperor penguin colonies could lose more than half their population by 2100. Across the entire species, that translates to a 19 percent drop. Some colonies are larger than others, so a 50 percent decline in one group might be only a few individuals, while the same change in a larger group could be hundreds.
Less sea ice makes it more difficult to access krill, the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that are the penguins' primary food source, said study coauthor Julienne Stroeve, a researcher at the National Snow & Ice Data Center. "Then, there are these large mortality rates for the penguins."
So just how many penguins are we talking about here? A satellite survey in 2012 pegged the total head count at 595,000 across 45 colonies. A 19 percent decline would reduce the population to 481,950, or a loss of 113,050 adorable birds.
Scientists have long known that animals at the poles are especially vulnerable to global warming, which is happening in the Arctic and Antarctica faster than the rest of the world. In the Arctic, disappearing ice and rising temperatures are pushing species of whales, seals, and bears to hybridize, jeopardizing their genetic health. In Antarctica, earlier research has found that ocean warming could reduce the habitat available for krill by 20 percent, compounding the sea ice problem.
Today's study is just the latest reminder of the vital role ice plays in the Antarctic ecosystem. And there's little doubt that Antarctica's ice is in serious trouble: Earlier this year a trove of research emerged indicating that one of the continent's major ice sheets is already in irreversible decline.
The map below, from the study, shows which penguin populations are most at risk. The purple-to-white color gradient shows changes in mean sea ice concentration between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (it's a bit counter-intuitive; purple is the least decline and white is the most). Each colored dot is a penguin colony, with the color indicating the colonies' projected conservation status (see key below) by 2100. You can see that the most-threatened populations (red dots) are those nearest to the white space where sea ice has declined the most.
One of the main difficulties in getting people to care about climate change is that it can be hard to notice on a daily basis. But the prospect of sweating profusely through your golden years? That's more arresting.
If you're aged 4 to 33 right now, the map above shows you how many very hot days—those with temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit—you're likely to experience by the time you're elderly. It comes from a new report by the economics research firm Rhodium Group, which was commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Henry Paulson, the Republican Treasury secretary under George W. Bush; and Tom Steyer, the billionaire Bay Area entrepreneur and environmentalist.
Oil covers the ground after a 2010 well blowout near Cheyenne, Wyoming. The state leads the nation for uninspected wells on federal land. (The inspection status of this particular well is unknown.)
Johnson County, Wyoming, is the kind of remote, quiet Western community where life revolves around cattle—it was the site of an infamous 19th-century armed battle between cowboys and suspected cattle rustlers. The county ranks only 11th statewide for oil production, but it holds the No. 1 ranking nationwide for a more ignominious distinction: It has 249 new, high-risk oil and gas wells that the federal government has failed to inspect for compliance with safety and environmental standards.
Johnson County may have the most uninspected wells, but it's far from the only place where the problem exists. In fact, of all 3,486 oil and gas wells drilled on federal and Native American land from 2009 to 2012 that were identified by the Bureau of Land Management as high risk for pollution, 40 percent were not inspected at the most important stage of their development, according to records the BLM provided to Climate Desk.
"In a perfect world, we'd love to get to all those wells," said Steven Wells, chief of the BLM's Fluid Minerals Division. "Unfortunately we've been fighting an uphill battle. We hope that at some point we'll be able to catch up."
The map and chart below identify where these wells are located, by county:
Fire crews burn out an area at the Shirley Fire near Lake Isabella, California, on Sunday.
The central California wildfire that yesterday destroyed three homes and forced hundreds of evacuations is just the latest blaze to strain the nation's overburdened federal firefighting system. By Monday evening the Shirley Fire had consumed 2,600 acres near Sequoia National Forest and cost more than $4 million, as some 1,000 firefighters scrambled to contain it. (It's now 75 percent contained.) Meanwhile, families on an Arizona Navajo reservation are being evacuated today in the face of an 11,000-acre blaze that as of Tuesday morning was zero percent contained.
This year, in the midst of severe drought across the West, top wildfire managers in Washington knew they were going to break the bank, even before the fire season had really begun. In early May, officials at the US Department of Agriculture (which oversees the Forest Service) and the Department of Interior announced that wildfire-fighting costs this summer are projected to run roughly $400 million over budget. Since then, wildfires on federal land have burned at least a half-million acres, and the Forest Service has made plans to beef up its force of over 100 aircraft and 10,000 firefighters in preparation for what it said in a statement "is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season."
But the real catastrophe has been years in the making: Federal fire records and budget data show that the US wildfire response system is chronically and severely underfunded, even as fires—especially the biggest "megafires"—grow larger and more expensive. In other words, the federal government is not keeping pace with America's rapidly evolving wildfire landscape. This year's projected budget shortfall is actually par for the course; in fact, since 2002, the United States has overspent its wildfire fighting budget every year except one—in three of those years by nearly a billion dollars.
Solar power can help Arizona make big mandated cuts to its carbon intensity.
Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out the centerpiece of President Obama's climate strategy—a plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's power plants. The main takeaway was that by 2030 the regulations will cut these emissions, the biggest single driver of global warming, by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels. But under the hood, things get a little more complex.
Rather than a consistent national standard, the proposed rule sets a different standard for every state, based on the EPA's assessment of what each state can realistically achieve using existing technology at a reasonable cost. The goal applies to a state's carbon intensity, the measure of how much carbon pollution comes from each unit of electricity produced in that state, rather than total carbon emissions. States like Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, rely heavily on coal power and have a higher carbon intensity than states like California that are more energy-efficient and have more renewable energy. By 2030, each state will be required to meet a carbon intensity target lower than where it is today; how much lower, exactly, depends on what the EPA thinks the state can pull off.
States will have broad leeway to devise individual plans to meet their targets, which could include installing air-scrubbing technology on plants themselves, adopting more robust energy efficiency standards, or switching from coal to cleaner sources like natural gas or renewables.
Here's a ranking of which states will have to shrink their carbon footprint the most: