Blue Marble - July 2011

"The Worst" Enviro Budget Cuts in 35 Years

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 3:42 PM EDT

In all the debate about debts and deficits, it's been easy to forget that Congress is making cuts that, if approved, will have an impact immediately. This week, the House is poised to pass the 2012 spending bills for the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency—with cuts that congressional Democrats are attacking as Draconian.

"This spending bill represents one of the most egregious assaults on the environment in the history of Congress," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) at a press conference Monday morning, via The Hill. Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) called it "the worst" Interior and Environment Appropriations bill he's seen in his 35 years on the committee in a statement. He also warned that it could get "even worse" as debate on the bill proceeds in the full House this week.

House Dems have a bit of a flair for the dramatic (note Markey holding up a copy of the bill covered in police tape earlier today, as an example). But the proposed cuts are dramatic. Among them:

  • a 7 percent cut to the Department of Interior overall, and a 21 percent cut to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in particular (which handles endangered species issues, among other things)
  • an 18 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency

Republicans on the committee also approved 38 riders targeting specific programs, such as:

  • defunding the EPA's rulemaking on coal ash as well as mercury and other toxic air pollutants
  • blocking EPA from moving forward on implementing greenhouse gas emission rules
  • preventing the EPA from issuing the next round of fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks

National Wildlife Federation and Earthjustice have more on the targeted cuts. It's a good reminder that while big-picture, long-term cuts are the getting all the news attention right now, there are immediate cuts making their way through Congress, too.

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Two Years in Prison for Tim DeChristopher (Updated)

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 3:39 PM EDT
Tim DeChristopher, center, stands by environmental authors Janisse Ray and Bill McKibben during an event in April.

UPDATE, Tuesday, July 26: A federal judge handed Tim DeChristopher a two-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine today in Salt Lake City.

ORIGINAL POST: In December 2008, during the waning hours of the Bush administration, climate activist Tim DeChristopher walked in on a Utah auction and bid nearly $2 million on federal land for sale. He never intended to pay for it, of course; he just didn't want Big Oil to either. The feds weren't amused: In March, DeChrisopher was convicted on two felony counts for disrupting the auction and tomorrow, barring any further delays, he will face a sentence of up to 10 years behind barseven though Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled the bids before DeChristopher was even charged.

The 29-year-old activist tells Mother Jones now that he would "definitely not" have it another way if he could wind back the clock. And his supporters have stood by him. Public Citizen, the non-profit consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, released a statement today contrasting DeChristopher's punishment with the slaps on the wrist that big energy companies have received after their involvement in large-scale environmental disasters.

VIDEO: Sumatran Tiger Killed in Pig Trap

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Sumatran tigers are having a tough time. Because of habitat loss in the Indonesian rainforest, this big Asian cat is among the most endangered species in the world: Only 400 of them are left in the wild. (There's some incredible footage of them here.) The major force driving the clear-cutting around their home is Asia Pulp & Paper, a vast paper company that wields a lot of power; its clients include Disney and several major toy manufacturers.

Earlier this month, in Riau, Indonesia, one of the 400 tigers stumbled into a snare set by villagers who wanted to catch pigs. When Indonesian conservationists learned of the situation a few days later, they sent in a rescue team to free the tiger, which by that point was badly wounded. Watch the video (footage courtesy of Greenpeace; edited by my MoJo colleague Jen Quraishi) to see what happens. Warning: The video is fairly graphic.

In Case You Haven't Noticed, It's Hot

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 3:09 PM EDT

Julia Whitty had a scary post earlier this week about the new climate normal. Basically, we should all get used to the fact that the horrendous heat wave across the Midwest, South, and Mid-Atlantic region is going to be business as usual from here on out. And that includes days like today, where the temperature feels like this outside:

But how "new" is this normal? As Miles Grant points out over on his blog today, using figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's State of the Climate report, we've been dealing with higher-than-average temperatures for decades:

June 2011 was the 316th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.

I was 8 months old at the time, so from my perspective at least, that's kind of a long time. It's a good reminder that while we are bracing for hotter times ahead, we've been on a consistent upward trend; our climate is warming, not just a few days here and there.

Oddly enough, I haven't seen Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his family out building an igloo for Al Gore on the Mall this week.

Thanks for the Cooling, Volcanoes

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 1:35 PM EDT
Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat.

Thanks to four less-than-monstrous volcanic eruptions, we've been spared 20% more greenhouse warming since 1998. This according to a new paper in early view at Science.

The authors note two past "colossal" eruptions that cooled the Earth: Tambora in 1815, which cause a year without a summer, and Pinatubo in 1991, which cooled our world by 1°C/1.8°F for more than a year.

What this team of climate researchers was investigating was whether or not smaller eruptions since then have also managed to inject enough gaseous sulfur directly into the tropical stratosphere to create an atmospheric parasol against our rising greenhouse gasses.

Tropical eruptions are thought to be especially important for climate change since the particulate can be transported into the stratospheres of both northern and southern hemispheres, affecting the entire globe for many months. Susan Solomon at the University of Colorado Boulder, and her colleagues, write:

The cooling effect of volcanic eruptions mainly arises not from the injected ash, but from SO2 [sulfur dioxide] injected by plumes that are able to reach beyond the tropical tropopause into the stratosphere, whereupon the SO2 oxidizes and temporarily increases the burden of stratospheric particles. Stratospheric aerosols are composed largely of dilute sulfuric acid droplets that effectively reflect some incoming solar energy back to space.
 

Soufrière Hills Volcano. Credit: NASA, the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and the Image Science & Analysis Group, Johnson Space Center.Soufrière Hills Volcano. Credit: NASA, the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and the Image Science & Analysis Group, Johnson Space Center. 

The team analyzed data from the CALIPSO (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations) satellite launched in 2006 and found that debris from two rather small tropical eruptions in 2006—Soufrière Hills and Tavurvur—spread around the world via the stratosphere. They also found that two northern-latitude eruptions in 2008 and 2009—Kasatochi and Sarychev—spread through much of the northern stratosphere.

 

 

The research suggests that—contrary to prior understanding—these smaller eruptions did manage to climb into the lower stratosphere and cool the planet by about 0.07°C/0.1°F since the late 1990s... thereby adding another variable to the cocktail already counteracting our greenhouse inputs, including:

  • "Colossal" Pinatubo-sized eruptions
  • Decreases in the brightness of the sun at the solar minimum
  • Short-lived pollutant hazes, aka the "brown clouds," from Asia
  • Natural climate variables, like the El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation

 Three explosive eruptions rocked the Kasatochi Volcano, emitting a dense cloud containing about 1.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide. NASA OMI image courtesy Simon Carn, Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology (JCET), University of Maryland.Three explosive eruptions in 2008 rocked the Kasatochi Volcano, emitting a dense cloud of about 1.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide. NASA OMI image courtesy Simon Carn, Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology (JCET), University of Maryland.

The paper:

  • S. SolomonJ. S. DanielR. R. Neely IIIJ. P. Vernier, E. G. Dutton, and L. W. Thomason. The Persistently Variable "Background" Stratospheric Aerosol Layer and Global Climate Change. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1206027.

 

Bloomberg, Sierra Club Align Against Coal

| Thu Jul. 21, 2011 11:38 AM EDT

Outside the GenOn power plant in Alexandria, Va. on Thursday, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new partnership to end coal-fired power. Bloomberg's philanthropy will donate $50 million to Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign—a sizable chunk of the proposed $150 million budget for the campaign.

Sierra Club is already touting its role in preventing the construction of more than 150 new coal-fired power plants. Their goal with the next phase of the campaign is to shut down a third of the country's older plants by 2020. The support of Bloomberg Philanthropies will have a "significant impact" on achieving that goal, said Sierra Club in a statement Thursday. With it, the group plans to increase its campaign from 15 states to 45 and double the number of full-time staff working to organize members.

Here's what Bloomberg had to say:

"If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal. Ending coal power production is the right thing to do, because while it may seem to be an inexpensive energy source the impact on our environment and the impact on public health is significant," said Bloomberg. "Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and the leading cause of climate disruption."

The move is an interesting one, on Bloomberg's part. I can't think of another example of a sitting politician making such a large investment in an interest group, particularly an environmental one. The blog Charity Navigator has some research on the giving habits of politicians, but nothing quite this size. You often hear about fossil fuel interests buying off politicians, but it's rare to hear about a political figure investing in the opposition.

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"Organic" Bottled Water? WTF!?

| Wed Jul. 20, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

Oh my sweet Sarah Palin with a pancake. Companies are now marketing their bottled water as organic. Via Ecopreneurist, I learned about Llanllyr Source bottled water in Wales. Llanllyr touts its water as historic and organic, because its water source has been used for centuries and comes from beneath organic fields. According to the Llanllyr site, the land above the water source:

has been accredited organic by the Soil Association for many years, but more than that it has never been farmed any other way. Our sources are entirely sustainable. We have Organic Farmers and Growers accreditation for both our line and processes...

As a former fact-checker, I doubt that the land has NEVER been farmed. But regardless of the land's history, just because the soil there has recently been classified as "organic" doesn't mean its organic-ness rubs off on the water below it. As both Ecopreneurist and others have pointed out, by definition anything "organic" must contain carbon. Water has two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule: no carbon. The USDA, in fact, specifically exempts water from organic certification. And although Llanllyr is smart enough not to actually put the word "organic" on their label, they're obviously trying to make that association, even going to far as to have servers call the water "organic" when offering it to reporters.

Despite the greenwash, "organic water" may be here to stay. There's Totally Organica flavored water, which boasts USDA-certified organic flavor essences. And then there's Highland Spring water, drawn from an "organic source" beneath organic hills in Scotland. Can an "organic" section of bottled water in your local Whole Foods be far behind? 

What's In the Water?

| Wed Jul. 20, 2011 12:18 PM EDT

We like to believe that most tap water is safe to drink and that our state and federal regulators are on the job when it comes to ensuring that's the case. But a new report from the General Accountability Office suggests that a lack of data from the states is causing problems for the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to monitor the quality of drinking water. The GAO found that states failed to report 26 percent of violations of water quality health rules and 84 percent of violations of water quality monitoring rules.

At the behest of Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the government watchdogs at the GAO examined the records of 14 states from 2009, looking for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1974 law aimed at protecting public health. The report dinged “inadequate training, staffing, and guidance, and inadequate funding to conduct those activities" for the lapses. The report also included this frightening example of why water quality monitoring is important:

For example, according to a 2006 study, an estimated 4.3 million to 11.7 million annual cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the United States are attributable to drinking water from community drinking water systems supplied by surface-water and ground-water sources.

It's also worth noting that the budget compromise passed in April included a $700 million cut to the safe drinking water program at EPA. Yum!

Get Used to New Weather Extremes

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 5:09 PM EDT

Smoke from the Wallow Fire as seen in Albuquerque. Credit: John Fowler via Wikimedia Commons.Smoke from the Wallow Fire, as seen in Albuquerque, N.M. John Fowler/Wikimedia

We're seeing records fall in all directions this year—wettest, driest, warmest, coldest, snowiest, stormiest, fieriest—across the globe. In the US alone, in the month of July alone, 1,079 total heat records have been broken or tied. That's 559 broken, 520 tied...so far. The map below, generated today at NOAA's US Records page, shows how records have fallen nationwide, including in Alaska and Hawaii.

Credit: NOAA US records.NOAA

In fact, every state except Delaware has broken heat records so far this month.

In Iowa yesterday, the heat index exceeded 130°F/54.4°C—an extremely rare occurrence in this part of the world. According to Jeff Masters, writing at his Wunderblog, the only place where a 130°F heat index is common is along the shores of the Red Sea in the Middle East.

Predicted heat index for Friday, 22 July, 2011. Credit: NOAA.Predicted heat index for July 22 (Friday). NOAA

However, Delaware won't dodge the heat bullet much longer. Its own records will likely tumble hard later this week.

The image above shows the predicted maximum heat index (combined heat and humidity) for July 22. Parts of all but 3 states—Idaho, Oregon, and Washington—are predicted to exceed 100°F/37.7°C. Delaware—in scary yellow—is predicted to rise above 115°F/46.1°C.

Ricky Rood points out in his Weather Underground blog that much of July's heat in the US is compounded by extremely high humidity. And much of the extreme humidity this year is fueled by the extreme floods and saturated soils still plaguing the Midwest. 

Missouri River basin. Top image acquired yesterday, 18 July 2011, shows flooding. Compare to bottom image acquired a year ago, showing no flooding. Credit: NASA courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center.Missouri River basin. The top image, acquired July 18, shows flooding. Compare this to the bottom image—acquired a year ago— which shows no flooding. MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA

Extreme humidity combined with extreme heat creates extreme consequences for human health. As Ricky Rood writes:

Now if I was a public health official, and I was trying to understand how a warming planet might impact my life, then here is how I would think about it. First, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific are going to be warmer, and hence, there will be more humid air. This will mean, with regard to human health for the central U.S., heat waves will become more dangerous, without necessarily becoming hotter. It is also reasonable to expect heat waves will become more frequent and last longer, because those persistent, stuck high pressure systems are, in part, forced by the higher sea surface temperatures. If I am a public health official here is my algorithm—heat waves are already important to my life, and they are likely to get more dangerous, more frequent, and of longer duration.


In other parts of the country this year, the extreme heat is compounded by extreme drought—with extreme outcomes, including the haboob that struck Phoenix on July 5. The time lapse video is amazing.

From Christopher Burt's weatherhistorian blog:

The drought in the south central and southeast of the United States reached epic proportions. Carlsbad, New Mexico, went 233 days with no measurable precipitation until a meager 0.01 inches fell on June 2nd and it has not rained again since (as of July 15th). Pecos, Texas, just received 0.02 inches of precipitation on July 14th, its first measurable amount since September 23, 2010 (293 consecutive dry days). Albuquerque, New Mexico, has only had 0.19 inches of precipitation since January 1st (as of July 15th). For the period of January through June, this year has so far been the driest on record (117 years) for the states of New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.

Predicted heat index for Friday, 22 July, 2011. Credit: NOAA.Predicted heat index for July 22 (Friday). NOAA

The above image shows the latest drought conditions in the US where "exceptional" drought is plaguing much of the south. The trend is worsening, as you can see in this 12-week animation.

Another way of looking at this map is to realize the dark red areas are places where crops are going to fail this year.

Fire map. Credit: Jacques Descloitres. Fire detection algorithm developed by Louis Giglio. Blue Marble background image created by Reto Stokli.Fire map. Jacques Descloitres/NASA. (Fire detection algorithm developed by Louis Giglio. Blue Marble background image created by Reto Stokli.)

Of course drought fuels wildfires too. Arizona and New Mexico both experienced their largest wildfires in history during June and July. In the image above, you can see the global fire situation between June 30 and July 9. As bad as the fires in the US, obviously, they're a whole lot worse elsewhere. 

Las Conchas Fire. Credit: John Fowler via Wikimedia Commons.Las Conchas Fire. John Fowler/Wikimedia

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of wildfires in the US as of the beginning of July this year is 36,424...and counting. These wild lands blazes have burned 4.8 million acres. That's an average of 132 acres per fire—which, by the way, is the largest burned acreage ever recorded in the US during this time period. 

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data provided by the AIRS science team at NASA/JPL.Jesse Allen/NASA (Using data provided by the AIRS science team at NASA/JPL.)

Where there's fire, there's carbon monoxide. The images above show high concentrations of carbon monoxide from Arizona's Wallow Fire drifting across the US from June 3 to June 6. Highest concentrations are in dark red. As described by the Earth Observatory:

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that damages human health by limiting the flow of oxygen through the body. It is also a key ingredient in the production of harmful ground-level ozone and urban haze.

Credit: NOAA's HMS analysis.NOAA's HMS analysis

Today's mega-smoke producers are found in eastern Manitoba and central Ontario. In the image above you can see the moderate-to-dense smoke plume crossing the border. 

Credit: The US Air Quality Smog Blog.The US Air Quality Smog Blog.

And where there's smoke, there's particulate. You can see above how Canada's wildfires are driving today's poor air quality (yellow dots) in the Great Lakes region. 

Thick smoke from drought- and heat-ravaged Canada streams south towards US. Wildfires outlined in red. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.Thick smoke from drought- and heat-ravaged Canada streams south towards US. Wildfires outlined in red. Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

Alone, heat, humidity, and smoke are lethal. Combined, they're a juggernaut. In Russia last year, a combination of extreme heat and extreme smoke from wildfires killed an estimated 56,000 people.

Why Your Sperm Hate Second-Hand Smoke

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 4:09 PM EDT

Over the past week, there's been a bunch of science stories about the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke to babies and teens. I don't think this represents a bona-fide trend, but it is interesting all these reports came out so close together.

This study, conducted by Stanford University researchers, found that even small exposure to second-hand smoke damages the DNA in sperm cells, which could lead to reproductive difficulties. Surprisingly, the effects of heavy second-hand smoke inhalation could be just as bad as smoking itself to men's sperm. One fertility expert has recommended men stop smoking in the three months before trying to conceive.

Pregnant women, on the other hand, have been cautioned for some years not to smoke because it leads to premature or underweight babies. University College London found an even more compelling rationale: a new study that links birth defects like missing limbs, clubfoot, and cleft palate to maternal smoking. Another report, this one from Peking University in China, tied severe and fatal fetal conditions like spina bifida and anencephaly to second-hand smoke inhalation. Approximately 20% of women smoke during pregnancy, especially if they are poor or are teenagers.

Even non-pregnant teens may want to steer clear of smokers if they can: New York University researchers found that exposure to second-hand smoke is tied to hearing loss in teenagers. Dr. Anil Lalwani, who worked on the report, says that this could explain some of the other problems tied to kids exposed to smoke. For example, if a child can't hear a teacher's questions or instructions, they could act in ways that would cause them to be diagnosed with ADHD or ADD. "We need to alter our public policies to protect the innocent bystanders who would otherwise be exposed to smoke," said Lalwani.