Blue Marble - May 2007

Hydrogen Breakthrough Could Open the Road to Carbon-Free Cars

| Wed May. 23, 2007 11:54 AM PDT

Here's good news on the hydrogen storage front. UK scientists have developed a compound of the element lithium that may make it practical for hydrogen fuel cell cars to drive more than 300 miles before refuelling. Fuel cells produce carbon-free electricity by harnessing electrochemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Today's prototype HFC cars have a range of only 200 miles, and a 300-mile range would require storage the size of a double-decker bus.

But the UK research has focused on a different approach enabling hydrogen to be stored at a much higher density within acceptable weight limits. The option involves a well-established process called 'chemisorption', in which atoms of a gas are absorbed into the crystal structure of a solid-state material and then released when needed. This could tip the balance in favor of a truly marketable technology.

Fuel-cell technology could assist the emergence of a hydrogen economy rather than a carbon economy. A 2004 report concluded that hydrogen vehicles alone would enable the UK to meet its Kyoto targets for CO2 reductions.

Let's hope this technology gets on the road fast. --JULIA WHITTY

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Predicting Catastrophe

| Wed May. 23, 2007 11:32 AM PDT

What makes a tipping point finally tip? New research reveals a fascinating mechanism. Complex systems, like the earth's climate, coral reefs, oceans, and social-economic systems, often react in a surprising way to change. When conditions change gradually, the system may respond little until a critical tipping point is reached, after which the system may collapse completely. After collapse, it's nearly impossible to restore the original state of the system. Yet managers have had difficulty predicting catastrophic transition without a deep knowledge of the underlying mechanisms.

But now, Egbert van Nes and Marten Scheffer have analyzed models concluded there's a simpler way to predict a catastrophic transition. Their work, in the June issue of The American Naturalist, shows that after small disturbances the system recovers much more slowly if a collapse is near. They argue that this slower recovery serves as an early warning signal for upcoming shifts. In practice, the recovery rate can be determined from small experiments, or by analyzing the natural variations in a time series.

So, will we do it? It's kind of like taking a DNA test to see if you're going to inherit a fatal disease or not. Few at risk do. --JULIA WHITTY

Finally, New York City Greens Its Taxicabs

| Tue May. 22, 2007 4:57 PM PDT

Guess how many miles per gallon those yellow Crown Victorias get? About 10 to 15 mpg. That's on par if not worse than an SUV. But things are changing. Bloomberg proposed this morning to require all new vehicles entering the fleet to get at least 25 mpg, then 30 mpg the year after. One complaint: it won't take effect for another year and a half, not until October 2008. Still, it's a great, long-awaited move.

CO2 Emissions Exceed "Worst-Case Scenario"

| Tue May. 22, 2007 3:40 PM PDT

Recent carbon dioxide emissions exceed the "worst-case scenario" scientists predicted in the IPCC report in 2001. Meanwhile, the Antarctic Ocean is absorbing less carbon dioxide. And the Antarctic is thawing.

Child Bipolar Diagnoses Have Quintupled in a Decade

| Mon May. 21, 2007 12:30 PM PDT

A four-year-old died of prescription overdose in December. Rebecca Riley in Massachusetts had been diagnosed with hyperactivity and bipolar disorder at age 2 and 3, and was on three prescription meds at the time of her death: clonidine, Depakote, and Seroquel. Her parents were charged with murder.

Who is nuts in this case? In my opinion, any doctor who diagnoses a toddler with ADD and bipolar disorder. Since they can hardly talk, crying is the only way for them to communicate that they're hungry, they need a diaper change, or they just want attention. And sometimes no one is listening anyway.

It's one thing for adults to seek out a drug prescription when their emotions overwhelm them. Ethically, it's a completely different thing for a psychiatrist to drug children who overwhelm mom and dad. This Masachussetts psychiatrist effectively recommended that Rebecca's parents to medicate her and her two older siblings for what--throwing too many tantrums? What a mixed message to send to an undereducated, overwhelmed mother.

But it happens all the time. Andy Coghlan of the UK's New Scientist points out that bipolar diagnoses in American children have grown fivefold in ten years.

In 1996, 13 out of every 100,000 children in the US were diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. In 2004, the figure was 73 in 100,000, a more than fivefold rise, they report in a paper to be published in Biological Psychiatry. Among children diagnosed with a psychiatric condition in 1996, 1 in 10 were deemed to have bipolar disorder. By 2004, 4 out of 10 children with a psychiatric condition were told they were bipolar.

That's more bipolar kids per capita than any other country. Drugging troublesome toddlers seems like the real national illness. Or at least a symptom of that peculiarly American combination of materialism and wishful thinking.

House Probes ExxonMobil's Ongoing Funding of Global Warming Denial

| Fri May. 18, 2007 4:16 PM PDT

As Antarctica thaws, ExxonMobil continues to fund global warming denial. Earlier this year ExxonMobil claimed to have stopped funneling grants to media groups that spread the myth (as Tom Tancredo did in Tuesday night's presidential debate) that scientists are evenly divided on whether humans are causing global warming or not. That lie was exposed in the company's "World Giving Report." Greenpeace found that ExxonMobil recently gave $2.1 million for global warming denial. That's more than half of what it gave in 2005.

There's a term for this genre of lies: pseudoskepticism. It's the same strategy that the tobacco industry used for decades to cast doubt over the dangers of smoking. And now the government is intervening, just as it finally did with tobacco in the mid-1990s.

Yesterday Brad Miller, the chairman of the House Science oversight committee, asked ExxonMobil to hand over a list of "global warming skeptics" it has funded. Predictably, the corporation's public response employs the same tactic these "thinktanks" use to undermine science: stirring up doubt over whether grant recipients like Steve Milloy and the Competitive Enterprise Institute deny global warming or not. ExxonMobil spokesman Dave Gardner said, "The groups Greenpeace cites are a widely varied group and to classify them as 'climate deniers' is wrong."

By the way, Mother Jones was the first to expose this scandal two years ago. Here's a chart of the grant recipients.

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Weird Weather Watch: This Year Is the Hottest on Record

| Fri May. 18, 2007 4:09 PM PDT

Spotted on ThinkProgress: Thus far, 2007 is the hottest year ever. That includes both land and sea temperatures. Check it out:

map_blended_mntp_04_2007_t1.gif


What's especially scary is all the dark red where permafrost used to be.

So have you dusted off your bike and unplugged your chargers yet?

Climate Change Could Displace One Billion People

| Wed May. 16, 2007 6:35 PM PDT

The world currently has about 153 million displaced people. But there will be one billion by 2050, due to global warming. That's the prediction of Christian Aid, an organization formed 60 years ago to help the tens of millions of people displaced by World War II.

Internally displaced people are much worse off than international refugees, who have legal status and protection. So in Uganda, for example, the DP camps are more like rural prisons. The worst displacement crisis triggered by climate change already is Darfur. The one-billion figure is based on the IPCC's figures, for example, that droughts will halve the agricultural yields of many countries.

Another shocking part of the report, Human Tide, is the damage done by cultivation of palm oil for biodiesel. Biofuels are a modern-day goldrush. The EU will require one tenth of fuel to be biofuels by 2020. But in Indonesia alone, 350 conflicts have come out of developers wresting land away from people to cultivate palm oil. Dozens of people have been murdered and about 500 tortured. When pushed off their land, these people have no choice but to work on the plantations.

Contingency Plans for Skiers, as the World Warms

| Wed May. 16, 2007 12:49 PM PDT

Skiers were very disappointed by a lack of snow last season. But within a few years, they may be able to ski just outside of Fort Worth in the summer, according to Jennifer S. Forsyth in today's Wall Street Journal (behind subscription wall). Some ambitious businessmen plan to develop a $695 million "Alpine Village" called Bearfire Resort, with chairlifts, ice rinks, a retail center and hotel, all on a flat prairie in Texas where temperatures reach 100 degrees. They'll use a polymer surface called Snowflex, like wet, white Astroturf with bristles. It's not my idea of a vacation. But at least it's not refrigerated, like a domed ski resort in Dubai, a city soon to import polar bears as amusement. Speaking of defying nature and ignoring global warming, did you know that the Cardinals play in an open-air stadium in Arizona, air-conditioned in 100-degree plus heat?

Weird Weather Watch: Wildfire in New Jersey, Started by the Military

| Wed May. 16, 2007 12:28 PM PDT

New Jersey officials called a wildfire begun yesterday afternoon by an F-16's flare "one of the larger fires we've had for quite a few years." That's saying something. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's website, which lists historically significant wildfires, shows an increasing frequency of major fires since the 1990s. As it turns out, flares dropped in military exercises have caused more than one. Careless smokers have been arrested for starting fires—will military pilots face the same punishment?

An additional note on the fires currently burning in Florida and Georgia: Not only is fire ravaging a historically huge swath of Georgia's landscape, but people with respiratory illnesses were told to stay inside today. Add their lost productivity and potential illnesses to the tally of the cost of global warming. On the Florida side of the border, flames have already destroyed more than half that state's yearly average of acres destroyed. (The current fire covers 120,000 acres; a representative from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told me the state loses about 200,000 acres a year.)