Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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New Photos: See Pluto's Surface in Incredibly Rich Detail

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 4:44 PM EDT

We love Pluto. We love that we know so much more about it now—after the spacecraft New Horizons hurtled 3 billion miles to get there and send back the amazing Pluto pictures that arrived in July. Today, NASA released a new set of images that bring us right up close to the planet's weird, chaotic surface in unprecedented detail.

Here's NASA's take

"This is what we came for—these images, spectra and other data types that are going to help us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "And what's coming is not just the remaining 95 percent of the data that's still aboard the spacecraft—it's the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more. It's a treasure trove."

Our friend Phil Plait at Slate has some more detail about what these images tell us. But for now, just check them out for yourself. Kickass!

NASA: "This synthetic perspective view of Pluto shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles above Pluto's equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles across." NASA
NASA: "This image features a tremendous variety of other landscapes surrounding Sputnik. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles in size, and the mosaic covers a region roughly 1,000 miles wide." The white squares outline close-ups in the following two images. NASA
A close-up from the image above, this is called the "chaos region" because of the diversity of surface geology. NASA
NASA: "This 220-mile wide view illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate." NASA
NASA: "Two different versions of an image of Pluto's haze layers, from a distance of 480,000 miles. Pluto's north is at the top, and the sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right. The left version has had only minor processing, while the right version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere. In the left version, faint surface details on the narrow sunlit crescent are seen through the haze in the upper right of Pluto's disk, and subtle parallel streaks in the haze may be crepuscular rays—shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth." NASA
The moon, Charon. NASA

Breaking: The US Will Accept 10,000 Syrian Refugees

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 2:53 PM EDT
A boy sits on a bus on Wednesday after his family arrives in Athens from the Greek island of Lesbos.

After weeks of mounting pressure, the Obama administration has finally agreed to raise the quota of Syrian refugees allowed into the US to 10,000 in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1.

The US has so far played a pretty small role in the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and Syrians are fleeing war in their home countries in search of a better life elsewhere—prompting dramatic scenes as migrants use any means possible to get to countries across Western Europe.

So far, only about 1,500 Syrians have been allowed into the US—out of roughly four million that have poured out of the country to escape attacks by ISIS and their own government since the start of the civil war. Meanwhile, European countries are accepting many more, as they open their borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants: Germany alone approved 42,680 Syrian asylum applications in 2014, according to the Guardian.

Germany expects to receive 800,000 refugees in total this year, according to CNN.

Today, President Barack Obama opened the door a crack more, announcing the US will be prepared to handle 10,000 Syrian migrants, according to Reuters:

The number reflects a "significant scaling up" of the US commitment to accept refugees from the war-torn country and to provide for their basic needs, White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

That influx of Syrians, in addition to refugees from other parts of the world, would push the total number of refugees taken in by the US to around 100,000, according to the New York Times.

California Democrats Wanted to Save the World. They Just Caved to Big Oil.

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 10:58 AM EDT

Update, Monday Sept. 14, 12:00pm ET: During the closing minutes of their session Friday afternoon, California legislators passed SB 350. Although stripped of the provision to reduce the state's gasoline consumption, the bill still includes new standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency. It now heads to Gov. Brown's desk; he is expected to sign it this month.

It appears I was a bit too bullish on the prospects for historic new climate legislation in California. Yesterday, Democrats in the state legislature caved to pressure from the powerful oil industry and dropped a critical piece of the bill.

SB 350, which had passed the state Senate but faced an uphill climb through the Assembly, was intended to enshrine in law a series of ambitious climate targets unveiled earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). One of the most important was a proposal to slash the state's gasoline consumption in half by 2030. Here's a bit of background from my story last week:

SB 350 would bring the state's gasoline consumption down to about where Florida's is now, while setting new targets for clean energy and energy efficiency projects…The gas consumption target would likely require some combination of new fuel efficiency standards for cars, incentives for alternative fuels and biofuels, cooperation with local planning agencies to improve public transit and make communities less car-reliant, and a push to get people to buy more electric vehicles. (California is already home to half of the roughly 174,000 electric vehicles on the road in the United States.)

"If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball," said Tim O'Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. "This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate."

Other parts of the bill are intact, including the goal to get half the state's power from renewable energy sources and double the efficiency of state buildings by 2030. But the gas reduction proposal faced intense opposition from the oil industry, the most powerful special interest in Sacramento. Now, that provision is up in smoke, apparently as a compromise measure to ensure passage of the other provisions, according to the New York Times:

Henry T. Perea, a moderate Democrat who was a leader of the opposition to the petroleum measure, said he would support the measure—Senate Bill 350—in this form, which he called a compromise…

The measure was the subject of an intense campaign directed by the Western States Petroleum Association, which labeled the bill "the California Gas Restriction Act of 2015" in television advertisements and mailings. The president of the organization, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, applauded the decision to drop this proposal and said that oil companies "remain committed to working with Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators on climate change and energy policy."

Mr. Brown told reporters in Sacramento that he would use his executive powers to continue to force the kinds of reductions in global emissions that have been a central goal of his governorship. "Oil has won the skirmish, but they've lost the bigger battle," he said.


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