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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Photos: Despite Record Melt, Signs of Hope for Greenland Ice

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

To view photo descriptions, click full screen, then "Show info."

One of the primary forces behind climate-change-driven sea level rise is the Greenland Ice Sheet. Covering 80 percent of Greenland, it's the world's second-largest chunk of ice (after the Antarctic Ice Sheet) and dumps 240 billion tons of fresh water into the oceans every year, accounting for a full fifth of annual sea level rise. And in recent years it's been melting faster than ever, enough to make it a primary target of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has tapped teams of scientists to see what the full effect of the increased melting could be. Some reports say the rise worldwide from a disappearing Greenland Ice Sheet could be as much as a meter, enough to wreak havoc on places like New York City and low-lying Palau.

But a study out yesterday in Science paints a more optimistic picture: Even with global warming, the ice sheet may be able to slow its melting rate much faster than previously thought. A team of Danish researchers used archived aerial photos (shown in the slideshow above) of the ice sheet, dating back to the early '80s, to compare other episodes of rapid melting in the last few decades. What they show, lead author Kurt Kjær of the University of Copenhagen said in a statement, is that the ice sheet is dynamic, able to shift quickly from melting to holding firm; the record melt we've seen recently could be over in as soon as eight years. For that reason, he said, it's wrong to use the current melting rate to make predictions about sea level rise in the coming century, as some studies have done.

"It's too early to proclaim the 'ice sheet's future doom' and subsequent contribution to serious water problems for the world," he said. "It turns out that the ice sheet is able to more quickly stabilize itself in comparison to what many other models and computer calculations predict."

Photos courtesy of Niels J. Korsgaard and Anders A. Bjørk, Natural History Museum of Denmark

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Highlight Reel: Senate Climate Change Smackdown

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In summer 2009, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) butted heads in what was to be the last Senate hearing on climate change for three years. Then, the debate was over pending climate change legislation, with both sides firing off the usual arguments: obstructionism by the right and overspending by the left. The two powerhouse legislators locked horns again yesterday on climate change for the first time since then, but this time the argument amongst members of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee was back to climate kindergarten: Is it actually happening?

Fortunately, there were actually a few climate scientists on hand, including IPCC lead author Christopher Field and Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy, along with John Christy, an Alabama climatologist tapped by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to lead the denial side. Later, the panel heard from a trio of business and civic planning officials, who testified on the public health risks posed by climate change and on ways private enterprise can adapt (or not).

Maps: The Secrets Drillers Can Hide About the Fracking in Your Backyard

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Are frackers in your state allowed to keep secrets?

A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that most states where fracking occurs have no disclosure laws at all, and that those that do are woefully behind when it comes to revealing behind-the-scenes details of their operations. While the Obama administration has put some new rules in place, many decisions about what drillers are allowed to hide are left to the states; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar complained to Reuters that state-level regulation is "not good enough for me, because states are at very different levels, some have zero, some have decent rules."

That's a problem, study author Amy Mall said, because unlike coal plants and other large-scale energy operations, fracked natural gas wells are often in close proximity to houses, schools, or other high-traffic areas.

At stake is a trove of information: exact ingredients of the chemical cocktail used to frack a particular site, when and where drillers plan to frack, how toxic wastewater is to be dealt with, and many more basic details, all of which could be useful to local politicians and residents concerned about health impacts, groundwater and air pollution, and seismic activity associated with fracking.

"The state laws on the books aren't anywhere near where they need to be for the public to have information to protect their communities," Mall said.

The maps below highlight just a few areas covered by the report. Click on states for info on their laws, and for more detail check out the full version here.

Are drillers required to disclose chemical mixes before fracking?

Are drillers required to notify nearby stakeholders of their intent to frack?

Are drillers required to disclose details about their wastewater?

Are drillers required to disclose trade secrets to health care providers?

Folk Singer Chris Smither's "Basic Simplicity"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Chris Smither performs at New York's Highline Ballroom on Thursday, July 12.

Inside New York City's Highline Ballroom, a gaggle of musicians and techies throng around a folding table stacked with cold beer and sandwiches. Most wear loose-fitting traveling clothes; they've just gotten off the road from home base in Boston, finishing the first leg of a tour that will stretch well into next year. A tall figure in black pushes back his mane of hair, more grey than the room's average, and cuts a path through the crowd to a side room. 

"Usually I play solo, so I'm not used to taking care of everybody," he says, closing the door behind us.

Chris Smither has been in and out of rooms like this for nearly half a century, but he's still getting used to bringing a band this size along with him. A singer-songwriter who points to the stripped-down styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt as major influences, Smither says it's taken until recently to feel comfortable touring with a full backing band like the one on his twelfth studio album, last month's Hundred Dollar Valentine.

Smither, now 68, rose to prominence in the early '70s as a solo artist with an ear for a unique interweaving of Cambridge folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique, thumping bass lines on the low strings while plucking melodies on the high strings, tapping time with his foot, and singing in a voice with a low end that cuts like the edge of a broken whiskey bottle. He was never one to shun a little good sonic company, forging lifelong partnerships with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, but the arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are thicker than usual, with a full complement of electric guitar, backing vocals, harmonica, bass, and drums on nearly every tune.

"I've found sympathetic ears" in this band, he says. "People who like my music for the right reasons, by which I mean my reasons." He laughs, as he does between nearly every sentence, and the creases in his face seem to make his eyes sink even farther back in his head. He's relaxed and comfortable, and still is an hour later in the spotlight. On stage he seems hardly to notice the musicians behind him. There's no conducting; they can keep up with the train or fall off. Smither's foot will still be tapping either way.

Is the Natural Gas Industry Buying Academics?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Last week the University of Texas provost announced he would reexamine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It's the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.

Texans aren't the only ones having their fracking conversations shaped by industry-funded research. Ohioans got their first taste last week of the latest public-relations campaign by the energy policy wing of the US Chamber of Commerce. It's called "Shale Works for US," and it aims to spend millions on advertising and public events to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking is a surefire way to yank the state out of recession.

The campaign is loaded with rosy employment statistics, which can be traced to an April report authored by professors at three major Ohio universities and funded by, you guessed it, the natural gas industry. The report paints a bright future for fracking in Ohio as a job creator.

One coauthor of the study, Robert Chase, is prominent enough within the state's natural gas universe that his case was recently taken up by the Ohio Ethics Commission, whose chairman called Chase "more than a passing participant in the operations of the Ohio oil and gas industry" and questioned his potential conflicts of interest. As landowners in natural-gas-rich states like Texas and Ohio struggle to decipher conflicting reports about the safety of fracking, Chase is a piece in what environmental and academic watchdogs call a growing puzzle of industry-funded fracking research with poor disclosure and dubious objectivity.

"It's hard to find someone who's truly independent and doesn't have at least one iron in the fire," said Ohio oil and gas lease attorney Mark F. Okey. "It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own." 

"It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own."

Chase got his petroleum engineering Ph.D. from Penn State University. In 2009, long after Chase left the university, it came under fire for a fracking report, widely cited by state politicians as evidence for opening up the fracking market, which an in-house investigator said "crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy." Early in his career, Chase worked as a consultant for many of the nation's biggest oil and gas developers, including Halliburton, Cabot, and EQT. In 1978 he began teaching petroleum engineering at Marietta College, the small Ohio liberal arts school where he remains on faculty today. In 2008, Ohio's then-Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him to the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission, an independent judiciary board that hears complaints from landowners and developers against the state's Division of Mineral Resources Management. And last year, he founded his own consultancy, Chaseland LLC, that helps connect landowners with gas companies seeking drilling rights, for which Chase collects a commission.

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