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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Mexico's Happy, Russia's Sad: Using Twitter to Gauge the World's Mood

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 2:00 PM PDT

Twitter is great for staying up-to-date on, well, pretty much everything: the news, celebrity gossip, your roommate's best-friend's breakfast. But a new paper out today in the journal Science suggests that Twitter can also be used to track peoples' moods. The researchers found that, across the globe, tweets are predictably upbeat or cranky based on the local time of day.

Cornell University sociologists Scott Golder and Michael Macy spent two years collecting 509 million tweets from 2.4 million users in 84 different countries (albeit with a notable dearth of representation from Africa). Using a well-established text analysis tool, they scored tweets based on their use of hundreds of positive words (like "happy" or "enthusiastic") or negative words (like "sad" or "anxious"). When Macy and Golder plotted these scores against the tweet's time stamp, they found what should come as no surprise to anyone who works a nine-to-five: peoples' moods are best early in the morning, slowly deteriorate as the day wears on, then finally pick up in the evening (read: after happy hour). And, cultural differences be damned, the same was true worldwide, suggesting mood is hard-wired in the human psyche.

"Twitter is a goldmine for being able to observe human behavior," Macy said. "We all have basically the same biology, and the pattern we found was very robust."

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Keystone XL Pipeline Path Mows Through Prime Triceratops Turf

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 2:17 PM PDT

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries, is already unpopular, possibly unsafe, and almost certainly unclean, but a closer look at the pipe's planned path reveals that it might also be stepping on some very old toes—65 million years old, in fact.

More than 100 miles of the proposed path cuts across one of the nation's richest fossil fields, InsideClimate News reports. The Hell Creek Formation, which covers a large swath of southeastern Montana, is famous for its prodigious supply of triceratops fossils. (Many other prehistoric creatures, including T-rex and the aquatic plesiosaur, have also been found nearby.) As the pipe is laid underground in the area, the excavation is practically guaranteed to unearth all kinds of old bones, according to George Stanley, a University of Montana paleontologist. Unless they are protected properly, he adds, most fossils will start decomposing shortly after being exposed to air.

Tinariwen: Music to Cross Deserts By

| Sun Aug. 28, 2011 12:38 PM PDT

Tinariwen sound-checks like any other band: Musicians filter onstage one at a time, adjust knobs, tune up, play little melodies. It's a scene of subdued chaos, like the pleasant cacophony that precedes a classical orchestra performance. But the last musician to step into the soft blue stage lights of Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco isn't noodling. A faded old Fender Telecaster hangs from frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's shoulder, but for now it's silent. His dark eyes stare absently out at the empty hall from under a shaggy Jimi Hendrix mane. The look says, "I'm here, but I'm a million miles away."

Really, it's more like 6,000 miles: Tinariwen hails from the harsh, windswept deserts of northern Mali, and despite a decade touring the world the band is still fixed—musically, spiritually, politically—to that spot. Watching the group perform early this month was like experiencing a hallucinatory mirage; intellectually I knew I was in San Francisco, but all my senses told me I had landed somewhere deep in the Sahara. This is the central irony of Tinariwen: that a band that so keenly communicates a sense of place could be formed by members of the nomadic Tuareg people, who have for centuries (and still today) wandered restlessly through the desert with nothing but a few belongings and a fierce disdain for anything remotely static—including the Malian government.

The Great East Coast Earthquake of 2011 Explained

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 6:31 PM PDT
FYI: This is not Washington, DC, circa 2011.

The East Coast got a little taste of West Coast-style geology on Tuesday afternoon with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook buildings—or at least rattled nerves—from North Carolina to Canada. The quake's epicenter was about 3.5 miles beneath tiny Mineral, Virginia, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. While the quake certainly created some anxious moments, it was still about a thousand times less powerful than the Fukushima quake in March. So what happened, exactly, and what does it all mean?

What was the damage? Structural damage from the quake appears to have been limited, but cell phone service was disrupted up and down the seaboard. Yep, cell phone disruption…and that's about it. The absence of mass destruction prompted some Twitter users to make funny jokes about the quake. But then we found out that the National Cathedral and possibly the Washington Monument were both damaged, which isn't funny.

Okay, so why should we even care? One reason is that nearby nuclear power plants are only designed to withstand a magnitude 5.9-to-6.1 quake, leading the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down at least two Virginia plants even though an NRC spokesman said that "as far as we know, everything is safe." One plant lost power just after the quake and turned to diesel generators for backup. Still, the event raises questions about the safety of nuclear power plants and what the impact of a really big quake could be.

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