Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
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.
Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Thursday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported Friday.
Don't worry: Earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.
"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group 350.org Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."
We could find out soon enough: With the East Coast still recovering from superstorm Sandy and the West gearing up for what promises to be a nasty fire season, University of California-Berkeley ecologist Max Moritz says milestones like these are "an excuse for us to take a good hard look at where we are," especially as the carbon concentration shows no signs of reversing course.
Scientists first saw the carbon scale tip past 400 ppm last summer, but only briefly; the record reported today by NOAA is the first time a daily average has surpassed that point. For the last several years concentrations have hovered in the 390s, and we're still not to the point where the carbon concentration will stay above the 400 ppm threshold permanently. But that's just around the corner, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society.
"It's clear that sometime next year we'll see 400 consistently," he said. "Avoiding the future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in greenhouse gases."
Most scientists, environmentalists, and climate-conscious policymakers agree this will require, at a minimum, slashing the use of fossil fuels, and in the meantime, taking steps to adapt for a world with higher temperatures, higher seas, and more extreme weather. For example, according to Hansen, the world will need to completely stop burning coal by 2030 if returning to 350 ppm is to remain possible. What's the holdup? Texas Tech University climatologist Katherine Hayhoe blames "the inertia of our economic system, and the inertia of our political system." But she, like most of her peers, believe it can—and must—be done: "We have to change how we get our energy and how we use our energy."
Some progress is being made on that front: Thanks to energy efficiency gains, increased use of renewable power, and policies to cut emissions from cars and power plants, carbon emissions in the United States have fallen 13 percent in the last seven years. But they're expected to begin climbing again soon, and worldwide, 2012 saw the most carbon emissions ever. Today's milestone underscores the reality that if we're serious about addressing climate change, there's still a long road ahead.
"So far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem," NOAA scientist Pieter Tans, who oversees the monitoring program, told the Times.
For McKibben, the real date to mark in the history books has yet to arrive: "I don't think this will be the turning point. The turning point will be when we do something about it."