Polar bears investigate the USS Honolulu 28 miles from the North Pole. Credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy.Polar bears investigate the USS Honolulu 28 miles from the North Pole. Credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy.

Arctic sea ice volume just reached its lowest on record ever for early July. This according to data and modelling from the University of Washington Polar Science Center.

Sea ice is an important climate indicator. It's composed mostly of frozen seawater and forms at lower temperatures than freshwater—at or below -1.8 °C/28.8 °F.

Typically in the Arctic, sea ice ages and thickens from winter to winter. Most scientists agree that perennial ice cover in the Arctic dates back at least 700,000 years. Some calculate 4 million years.

These days it's thinning and disappearing. I wrote in February about how bad the 2011 winter Arctic sea ice was looking—and how poorly this boded for our current summer ice conditions.


Narwhals tusking. Credit: Glenn Williams, NIST.Narwhals tusking. Credit: Glenn Williams, NIST.

In 2003 NASA predicted perennial ice could be gone by the end of the 21st century. Since then, the melting continues to accelerate faster than the models can keep up.

Here's what the Polar Science Center has to say about chasing after the superdynamic realities of sea ice in a warming world:

Sea ice volume... depends on both ice thickness and extent and therefore more directly tied to climate forcing than extent alone. However, Arctic sea ice volume cannot currently be observed continuously.  Observations from satellites, Navy submarines, moorings, and field measurements are all limited in space and time.  The assimilation of observations into numerical models currently provides one way of estimating sea ice volume changes on a continous basis. Volume estimates using age of sea ice as a proxy for ice thickness are another useful method (see here and here).  Comparisons of the model estimates of the ice thickness with observations help test our understanding of the processes represented in the model that are important for sea ice formation and melt.


Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The graph above shows the following sea ice data: 

  • The 1970-200 average (solid gray line)

  • The 2007 all time low (dotted line)

  • The 2011 data, so far (blue line)


You can see how this year's sea ice extent dipped below the record-low 2007 extent a few days ago.



Here you can see how last month—June 2011—sea ice extent was reduced by 47 percent, nearly half, compared to its maximum in 1979. That's when we first began examining these things via the eyes of satellites.  Arctic sea ice extent for June 2011 was 11.01 million square kilometers/4.25 million square miles. The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole.  

















Credit: Environment Canada.

As to which villains are driving this year's steroidal melt, Jeff Masters at WunderBlog explains masterfully (you can see what he's talking about in the weather map above):

The latest surface analysis from Environment Canada shows a 1039 mb high pressure system centered north of Alaska, which is bringing clear skies and plenty of ice-melting sunshine to the Arctic. The combined action of the clockwise flow of air around the high and counter-clockwise flow of air around a low pressure system near the western coast of Siberia is driving warm, southerly winds into the Arctic that is pushing ice away from the coast of Siberia, encouraging further melting. This pressure pattern, known as the Arctic Dipole, was dominant over the Arctic during June, leading to June having the 2nd lowest extent on record, and the record low extent observed at the beginning of July. The Arctic Dipole began emerging in the late 1990s, and was unknown before then; thus climate change is suspected as its primary cause. The Arctic Dipole has become increasingly common in the last six years, and has contributed significantly to the record retreat of Arctic sea ice.

Walrus in the Chukchi Sea. Credit: Sarah Sonsthagen, US Geological Survey.Walrus in the Chukchi Sea. Credit: Sarah Sonsthagen, US Geological Survey.


Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Via YouGov, here is all of modern American politics explained in a single handy chart. Enjoy.

Need a recharge, America? Take a break from Nancy Grace and Casey Anthony to consider the week that was in military madness. In this installment: Obama makes a big pro-gay military appointment, a soldier makes bad decisions with an inflatable girl, Al Qaeda is in stitches—literally—and Republicans want more money for Sousaphones.

The sitrep:

  • President Obama has appointed an openly gay West Point alumna to the military academy's board of visitors. Brenda Sue Fulton graduated with the first class to admit women and served honorably as an Army signal officer. She also cofounded Knights Out, an LGBT alumni group, and she's lent her support to gay and lesbian cadets. "West Point could implement repeal just fine without me," she told the New York Times. "But if my appointment helps West Point send the message to young men and women that—whether you are male or female, straight or gay—if you are qualified to serve, you are welcome; if it does that, then I'll be happy." (Army Times/NYT)
  • An Army officer named Justin Dale Little Jim is facing burglary and destruction of property charges after he was found in the closet of a Manassas, Virginia, adult video store at 2:45 a.m., "attempting to have sexual relations with" a blowup doll. Authorities say they sent a police dog into the store, who led his handlers to Little Jim. Good…dog? (Army Times)

It's finally time for Friday catblogging, and not a moment too soon. It's been pretty warm around here this past week, so the cats have been stretching out to cool themselves off. On the left, Inkblot is striking his beached-killer-whale pose. On the right, Domino is hiding. Can you find the cat in this picture?

Karl Smith, Matt Yglesias, Paul Krugman, and others have a bunch of good charts today showing that public sector employment has fallen pretty dramatically over the past three or four years. Karl estimates that compared to trend growth, government at all levels has shed about 2 million jobs. So as Paul Krugman says, "When you hear Republicans saying that what we need to do to create jobs is slash government spending and cut government payrolls, that’s exactly what has been happening for the past year, as the Obama stimulus has faded out."

But here's another chart. It's not as dramatic as the others because it covers a longer time period, but it shows something important: federal employment really isn't all that important. It's been relatively flat for the past four decades, while the real action in public sector employment has mostly been at the state and local level. So when conservative politicians rail against the explosion of the federal bureaucracy, they're wrong on multiple counts. It's mostly local government jobs that have grown over the past few decades, and it's mostly local government jobs that have been lost over the past few years — and this has acted as a huge drag on the economy. If stimulus money should be going anywhere, that's where it should be going.

As President Obama and the Republican leadership continue trying to hash out a deal on raising the debt ceiling in exchange for slashing spending and closing corporate tax loopholes, the House judiciary committee is wasting no time quietly creating new tax giveaways, which could potentially leave localities scrambling for ways to pay for education and health services.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act, or BATSA, would prevent states from taxing a sizable chunk of the profits of corporations that do business within their borders, but are based out-of-state. BATSA, which the committee marked up on Thursday, would also allow corporations to "wall off" some of their profits in subsidiaries that are located in states that don't exact an income tax.

Some context: local laws in the 44 states with a corporate income tax determine the types of activities that require a business to pay taxes. But federal law can trump state laws on tax matters, meaning that the federal government effectively enjoys veto power over state and local revenue-generating measures.

In essence, BATSA allows federal lawmakers to create corporate tax shelters that gut state and local finances. And since there's no federal revenue lost in the process, it's no skin off their backs.

In healthy economic times, such a law would be decidedly imprudent, as it could potentially force states and localities to choose between paying for health care services and keeping schools open. But during perilous economic times like these, it would be downright catastrophic, especially given the massive budget cuts many states are facing in 2012

In a report written when the bill was first introduced in April, CBPP found that BATSA granted corporations overly broad exemptions on their tax bills, and created a number of "safe harbors" from taxation. In real terms, who would be affected, and how?

  • A television network would not be taxable in a state even if it had affiliate stations and local cable systems there relaying its programming and regularly sent employees into the state to cover sporting events and to solicit advertising purchases from in-state corporations.
  • A bank would not be taxable within a state even if it hired independent contractors there to process mortgage loan applications and the loans were secured for homes located within the state.
  • A restaurant franchisor like Pizza Hut or Dunkin’ Donuts would not be taxable in a state no matter how many franchisees it had in the state and no matter how often its employees entered the state to solicit sales of supplies to the franchisees or to train the franchisees in company procedures.

Much to the delight of anti-tax, pro-loophole crusaders like Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the bill is lurching forward. After the bill's markup on Thursday, ATR rejoiced, praising the bill for rescuing businesses from taking on their fair share of the tax burden.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that an older, less restrictive version of BATSA would have cost states and local governments $3 billion in revenue annually within five years of its enactment. Which means that if this bill—which enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House—continues moving forward, states will be left to foot the bill at a time when they can least afford it. 

The Cost of Default

Here's an interesting factlet from Bruce Bartlett. He's addressing the question of whether a "technical" default — i.e., one in which the Treasury Department misses payments to bondholders for just a few days — would affect interest rates. It turns out that we actually have a case study on just this question:

Some may think that a rise in rates would be temporary. But there was a case back in 1979 when a combination of a failure to increase the debt limit in time and a breakdown of Treasury’s machines for printing checks caused a two-week default. A 1989 academic study found that it raised interest rates by six-tenths of a percentage point for years afterward.

Yikes! Six-tenths of a percentage point is a lot of money. My back-of-the-envelope chicken scratching suggests that if this happens again it would cost the government something like $50-100 billion per year. In other words, no matter what debt ceiling deal we reach, upwards of half of it could be wiped out by higher interest costs if it comes too late to prevent default on the debt.

That probably won't happen, since even in the worst case I assume that Treasury will prioritize debt payments ahead of everything else (and Treasury's check printers will continue to function). But that's still a mighty big chunk of money to be gambling with.

Austin, Texas, gave birth to Whole Foods, unleashing one of the nation's most eco-conscious grocery chains. Now, there's a new kid in town, one that plans to out-green even Whole Foods by being "package-free and zero-waste." Grocery store in.gredients (yes, all lowercase, like e.e. cummings or bell hooks) is opening later this year and says it will only carry organic or all-natural products that are package-free or "light packaging" AND that are locally grown or sourced. Whew, that's a lot of requirements! But, it would get rid of wasteful products like Trader Joe's pears, which come ensconced in their own plastic holder.

As part of its package-free claim, in.gredients will "encourage" shoppers to bring their own containers. But if they forget, the store will provide free compostable, reusable, or recycleable containers for them. One important limitation to remember: "We’ll limit your choices based on what’s in season." Also, toothpaste will be dispensed by a pump, so BYOT (bring your own tube).

The store sounds like a good idea in theory, but I wonder how expensive it will be in practice. And while locally sourcing a product does help stimulate the local economy, it doesn't necessarily mean it's better for the environment. Trucking a bushel of cucumbers across Texas could potentially emit more carbon per cuke than shipping a ton of them on a slow boat from Mexico.

Still, it feels like a sign of the times that in.gredient's buzz has gotten so many people excited. Even mainstream grocery stores are starting to look seriously at their environmental footprint. Although in.gredients says it will be "the first package-free and zero-waste grocery store in the United States," Albertson's has already been experimenting with the no-waste model: two stores in Santa Barbara have successfully gone zero-waste by doing things like recycling more kinds of plastics, sending their cardboard boxes to be turned into fireplace logs, and donating about-to-expire food to food banks. In a recent press release, Albertson's announced they'd be converting 40 stores to the no-waste model by February 2012. Of course, when you're talking about grocery stores, it's hard to find one that's truly zero-waste. With Albertson's criteria, stores must keep at least 90% of their waste from going into the landfills (the two Santa Barbara stores diverted about 95%). And besides making Albertson's look good, the zero-waste plan also saves the chain money. "At the same time, we are committed to these projects because we've also seen that they make a positive financial impact on our business, a true win-win," said Albertson's executive vice-president Andy Herring.

[UPDATE: The DSCC's call to Koch Industries turned out to be a "staff error." Read the committee's full response at the end of this post.]

Can a political money story get any weirder than this?

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recently called an official at Koch Industries, the industrial conglomerate owned by the infamous Koch brothers, to hit up the company for campaign donations. The DSCC exists to help elect Democratic candidates to the Senate, and it faces a pitched fight in 2012 to retain Democrats' slim majority there.

You can listen Murray's message, which sounds to me like a pre-recorded robo-call, here. Even if it is, the message suggests that Koch Industries' political action committee has in fact donated to the DSCC in the past, despite the strongly libertarian and Republican leanings of the Koch brothers themselves.

Here's what Murray said:

Hi, this is US Senator Patty Murray calling. I'm sorry I missed you today. I wanted to catch up with you.

As you know I chair the DSCC. You have been a past supporter of ours through your PAC and I wanted to catch up with you to see if you'd be willing to renew your membership. We've got a great retreat coming up this fall in Kiawah Island in South Carolina. We'd love to have you join us.

So I was hoping you could call me back, 202-[REDACTED]. Thank you.

In a blog post on the company's "KochFacts" site, Philip Ellender, who runs Koch Industries' lobbying and PR operations, responded with a spicy open letter to Murray's message:

Senator Patty Murray, Chair
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

Dear Senator Murray:

For many months now, your colleagues in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leadership have engaged in a series of disparagements and ad hominem attacks about us, apparently as part of a concerted political and fundraising strategy. Just recently, Senator Reid wrote in a DSCC fundraising letter that Republicans are trying to "force through their extreme agenda faster than you can say 'Koch Brothers.'"

So you can imagine my chagrin when I got a letter from you on June 17 asking us to make five-figure contributions to the DSCC. You followed that up with a voicemail indicating that, if we contributed heavily enough, we would garner an invitation to join you and other Democratic leaders at a retreat in Kiawah Island this September.

I’m hoping you can help me understand the intent of your request because it’s hard not to conclude that DSCC politics have become so cynical that you actually expect people whom you routinely denounce to give DSCC money.

It is troubling that private citizens taking part in the discourse have become the targets of White House and DSCC fundraising missives, and we would certainly encourage you to rethink that approach. Ultimately, I expect voters will see through that and will weigh the issues on the merits alone. But in the meantime, if you could provide me some insight on what exactly you are asking of us and why, I would be most grateful.

Philip Ellender

President, Government & Public Affairs
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC

Here's what the DSCC's executive director Guy Cecil wrote in reply to Ellender:

Dear Phil:

Thank you for your genuine, heartfelt concern about our recent solicitation and your request for clarification. Indeed, the form letter and follow-up solicitation you received was a staff error.

However, the bigger and more troubling mistake is the long political history of your employer, the Koch Brothers. As a (former?) Democrat, perhaps your time would be better spent looking into their efforts to privatize Social Security or their opposition to expanding the children's health insurance program. Or maybe, you can post a list of all of the anonymous contributions they have made to right-wing smear campaigns across the country. If you'd like to share voicemails from all the shady groups asking you for millions of dollars, we'd happily listen to those as well.

So, I write to make it clear that your invitation was an error and has been rescinded.


Guy Cecil
Executive Director
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

P.S.: I was impressed how quickly you responded, given how often you must be on the phone with Governor Walker of Wisconsin.

Oprah Winfrey can be a polarizing figure. But is she leading the United States toward the End Times and the rise of the Antichrist? That's the argument put forth by Mike Bickle, founder of the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer (IHOP), and official endorser of Texas Governor Rick Perry's prayer and fasting festival scheduled for early August in Houston's Reliant Stadium. As we've noted before, Perry's rally, which organizers say is intended in part to convert non-Christians to Christianity, has come under fire because of the controversial views of some of its sponsors. Now, via Right Wing Watch (which has been all over this story), here's footage of Bickle at IHOP explaining where Oprah fits in the Book of Revelation.

"I believe that one of the main pastors, as a forerunner to the Harlot movement, it's not the Harlot movement yet, is Oprah. She is winsome, she is kind, she is reasonable, she is utterly deceived, utterly deceived. A classy woman, a cool woman, a charming woman, but has a spirit of deception and she is one of the clear pastors, forerunners to the Harlot movement."

Watch it here:

So now that Oprah's no longer doing Oprah, does that mean we're in the clear? The public has a right to know.