Blue Marble - July 2011

Keystone XL Pipeline: Riskier Than TransCanada Claims?

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 4:06 PM EDT

TransCanada, the energy company that wants to build a 1,661-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada, down to Texas, keeps insisting that its project would be "among the safest pipelines in North America." But a new report from a University of Nebraska professor indicates that the worst-case spills could be a lot more devastating than the company has predicted, and there could be a lot more of them.

The Keystone XL has already drawn criticism for several reasons: It would bring some of the world's dirtiest oil into the US, it would cross a massive aquifer that provides water to much of the Great Plains, and it's up for consideration at a time when Americans have been hearing an awful lot about oil spills. There have already been numerous leaks on TransCanada's original Keystone pipeline, and this month's Yellowstone River spill certainly hasn't made the Keystone XL sound any better.

TransCanada cliams that we can expect 11 significant spills— or spills totaling more than 50 barrels of oil each—on the pipeline in the next 50 years. But John Stansbury, an associate professor of environmental and water resources engineering at the University of Nebraska, has caluculated that TransCanada's presumptions are probably way off. Stansbury figures that it's probably more like 91, given historical data, known information about this type of pipeline, and the type of oil it would transport.

Stansbury also found that the amount of time it would take to turn off the pipeline would probably be about two hours, though the company claims it can have it shut down in 11.5 minutes. By comparison, it took 12 hours to shut down the Enbridge pipeline in Michigan when it spilled last summer; the Yellowstone spill took nearly an hour.

The report also included some shocking figures about how bad a worst-case scenario spill could be: A spill in the sandhills above the Ogallala Aquifer could dump as much as 180,000 barrels, tainting the vast water supply in the region. A spill on the Yellowstone River, which this pipeline would also cross, could release 140,000 barrels—considerably more than the spill earlier this month.

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Hey Congress! Hot Enough for You?

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

If you've had that pleasure of spending time in our nation's capitol this week, you feel me: It's really gross out there. The local weather report on Monday said it hit 95 degrees, but that it felt like 105—though I really didn't need a meteorologist to tell me that. Today's forecast says it will be 103 degrees and feel like 110. So it wasn't a big surprise that the Weather Channel just named the Washington, DC one of the six hottest cities.

The story links to another from meteorologist Jonathan Erdman Sr. that I missed a few weeks ago; it highlights the fact that heat is the biggest cause of weather-related deaths in the US. Last month posted a chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that the US was on pace for record for the number and cost of extreme weather events. There have been 575 deaths from this year's weather events, most of them from the tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest. But heat still kills more people in the US in an average year—claiming more than 1,500 lives.

The big problem in DC, of course, is the humidity, thanks to the fact that our fair city was built on a swamp. This is what puts us up there with cities like Laredo, Texas and Yuma, Arizona that experience more days where the actual temperature hits or exceeds 100. But while DC usually averages 1.2 days over 100 degrees each year, as the Capitol Weather Gang reported Monday, if DC hits 100 on Tuesday, that will already be two for 2011, with plenty of summer left to endure.

We've had a pretty hot summer, to say the least. I'm supposed to include the obligatory line that any given day or weather event can't be directly attributed to climate change, that it's the long-term trends that matter, blah blah blah. But if you care to listen to climate scientists, we're in for a whole lot more days of skyrocketing heat in the future, not to mention heat-related deaths. So maybe this should serve as a good reminder that climate change has deadly consequences—even if the law-making residents of DC haven't been feeling particularly inspired to deal with that subject of late.

UPDATE: Justin Kenney, director of communications at NOAA, offers more insight into just how hot it is, via Twitter. According to the agency, July alone has seen 349 maximum heat records broken around the country, and 320 tied—and we're not even halfway through the month. You can check out the temperature records here.

Large Study Confirms BPA-Thyroid Function Link

| Mon Jul. 11, 2011 4:44 PM EDT

University of Michigan researchers conducted a large-scale, human study that's found exposure to chemicals found in household plastics—Bisephenol-A (BPA) and phthalates—reduces thyroid function, confirming the findings of many smaller studies. Lead researcher John Meeker found that the more BPA and phthalates that were in people's bodies, the more likely they were to show impaired thyroid function. People who who showed the highest 20% of exposure also showed up to 10% more thyroid function impairment than those with the 20% lowest exposure.

Researchers specifically looked into a few specific phthalates often found in PVC piping, hospital IV tubes, and milks and cheeses and found a "significant" relationship between them and the body's level of thyroxine, a metabolism-regulating hormone made in the thyroid. If someone's thyroid makes too much thyroxine, they can get hyperthyroidism: too little, hypothyroidism. The new study found that the more phthalates people had in their systems, the less thyroxine they were producing. The same relationship was true of BPA, which is of concern since BPA is impossible to avoid: it's in CDs, receipts, water bottles, even the food we eat and the water we drink. It's found in 93% of Americans, including newborns and nursing mothers.

Like nearly every scientist, those involved with this new report out of Michigan caution that more study is needed on the subject. But it seems like if the relationship between increased levels of BPA and phthalates and reduced thyroid function isn't causative, it is at very least correlative. And just because this is the first large-scale study to show that BPA and other chemicals are compromising our bodies' ability to regulate themselves, it certainly doesn't mean it'll be the last.

 

How Many Republicans Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

| Mon Jul. 11, 2011 4:44 PM EDT

Last fall, before they even won the majority in the House, Republican leaders were talking about one of their top priorities for 2011: preserving your right to inefficient lighting. Now, after letting the tyranny of the compact fluorescent bulbs continue for an entire seven months, the House is poised to vote on a measure repealing the part of a 2007 bill that called for a phase out of inefficient bulbs.

They might not have enough votes to pass it, however. As the New York Times reports:

The sponsor of the measure to repeal the bulb law, Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, argues that the new incandescent bulbs, as well as compact fluorescent bulbs and light-emitting diodes, will be far more expensive than traditional bulbs. “We don’t think the federal government should tell people what kind of lighting to use in their homes,” he said on Fox News last month.
The repeal measure will be brought up under a House rule that requires a two-thirds vote for passage, and it is far from clear that enough Democrats will join a near-unanimous Republican caucus to ensure its passage. But even if the House approves the measure, its prospects in the Democratic-run Senate are dim.

Barton dubbed the bill the "The Better Use of Light Bulbs Act"—or "BULB" for short—and says it "protects Americans' access to the light bulbs of their choice and guards against mandates that force Americans to use bulbs that contain mercury." Barton failed to mention that the 2007 bill didn't actually ban incandescent bulbs; it only required them to use less energy. But why let the truth get in the way of a catchy bill title and some angst about Big Government?

Barton and his cosponsors were sure to throw in a line about mercury to make it sound like this is a health concern, even though the amount of mercury is not that big of a problem, at least compared to the amount of mercury released into the environment by burning coal to power inefficient bulbs. Besides, if you're eating light bulbs, the mercury is probably the least of your worries.

Gem of the Week: Jail Time for Gardening?

| Fri Jul. 8, 2011 7:41 PM EDT

I couldn't believe the headline when I read it, but it's true: some health-conscious lady in Oak Park, Michigan, is facing a possible 93 days in jail for planting an organic garden in her front yard. FOX 2 TV out of Detroit talked to a city planner who said the woman, Julie Bass, was being cited for violating a city code that requires residents to have only "suitable, live, plant material" in their front yards. According to the planner, that means something "common" like a grassy lawn and maybe some trees or flowers. Bass contends that not only is her front-yard garden suitable, it's practical. "The price of organic food is kind of through the roof," Bass said, which is why she's started growing her own produce. Plus, neighborhood kids have taken an interest in her project and love to help out.

So far, it looks like both the city and Ms. Bass are sticking to their guns. The next pretrial hearing is at the end of July. Sadly, this is not the first nor last time cities have spent money paying prosecutors to go after would-be green thumbs. In Oakland, Mother Jones contributor Novella Carpenter got into some hot water after the city got wind that she was growing food and raising livestock in a commercially zoned lot. Originally the city wanted to charge her $2500 to grow swiss chard, plus $5000 for non-compliance with current guidelines. But after some wrangling, Carpenter paid $2,800 for a conditional uses permit. "Holy shit, that's a lot of money to grow a garden and keep a few ducks," she wrote in her blog.

It seems strange that cities would encourage people to keep water-guzzling, useless lawns, but discourage them from growing healthy foods. Encouraging people to be conscious of what they eat, plus the exercise provided by gardening, could do double-duty by slimming citizen's bottoms while bettering their bottom lines.

 

The Mother of All Melts

| Fri Jul. 8, 2011 6:06 PM EDT


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.

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Zero-Waste Catching on for Grocery Stores

| Fri Jul. 8, 2011 1:28 PM EDT

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.

Map: Cutting Air Pollution Saves Lives

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 4:11 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized new rules on Thursday that will limit emissions from power plants in the eastern half of the US, preventing up to 34,000 premature deaths each year due to air pollution by 2014.

The regulations, which were greeted by a good deal of fanfare from enviros and public health groups, will require power plants in 27 states and the District of Columbia to cut harmful pollution that travels across state lines. The EPA estimates that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will also prevent 858,000 other health problems, including non-fatal heart attacks, acute bronchitis, asthma attacks, and other upper and lower respiratory symptoms. In all, this would help prevent up to 1.8 million missed days at school or work due to health concerns every year, the agency found.

Environmental Defense Fund put together this map showing where the EPA expects this rule to save lives:

Scary Maps of the New Climate Normal

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 6:31 PM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just updated its Climate Normals for the United States. Per agreement of the World Meteorological Organization, "normals" are calculated per decade, rather than per year. NOAA's latest update is crunched from weather data compiled from 1981 to 2010. 

The new annual normal temperatures for the US strongly reflect a warming world. July Maximums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000. July Maximums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000.

January Minimums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000. January Minimums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000. Credit: NOAA.

In the two images above you can see the differences between the old normals (1971 to 2000) and the new normals. The top image shows changes in July maximum temperatures. The bottom shows changes in January minimum temperatures. Warmer temperature changes are orange and red. Cooler temperature changes are blue.

A few notables:

  • On average, the contiguous US experienced the lowest temperatures on January nights and the highest temperatures on July days.
  • Both January minimum temps and July maximum temps changed in the past three decades—though not equally.
  • Parts of the Great Plains, the Mississippi Valley, and the Northeast experienced slightly cooler July maximums from 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000 (top map).
  • Far more striking are the January minimums (bottom map). Nighttime January temps were higher everywhere except the Southeast. Warmer nights were most pronounced in the northern plains and northern Rocky Mountains.
  • In some places the new normal were several degrees warmer than the old normal.

 

On a state-by-state basis, the annual average minimum (left) and maximum (right) temperatures across the United States are warmer in the 1981-2010 Climate Normals than in the 1971-2000 version. Credit: NOAA.On a state-by-state basis, the annual average minimum (left) and maximum (right) temperatures across the United States are warmer in the 1981-2010 Climate Normals than in the 1971-2000 version. Credit: NOAA. 

As you can see in the maps above, based on average year-round temperatures, every state experienced warmer temperatures in 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000.

A few pros and cons of a warming US:

  • Fire season is now longer due to warmer nights.
  • Pollination patterns are changing, with flowering plants blooming an average of one day earlier each decade.
  • Warmer nights and later onset of freezing days also means plants are shifting farther north.
  • Warmer temperatures pose hazards to plants by enabling pests (pine bark beetle and wooly adelgid) to thrive in places where cold winters previously froze them.

 

Standing dead trees—pine beetle damage—in a patch of forest in the mountains near Granby, Colorado. Warmer winters are allowing the destructive insect to thrive. The pine beetle has infested 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado. Credit: NOAA.Standing dead trees from pine beetle damage, seen in a patch of forest in the Rocky Mountains. Warmer winters are allowing the destructive insects to thrive, infesting 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado. Credit: NOAA.

Eastern hemlocks killed by an infestation of woolly adelgids. Credit: William M. Ciesla, via NOAA.Eastern hemlocks killed by an infestation of woolly adelgids. Credit: William M. Ciesla, via NOAA.

Exxon's Pipeline Problem

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 2:41 PM EDT

As we noted Tuesday, Montana is dealing with an oil spill in the Yellowstone River. But it looks like ExxonMobil hasn't been exactly honest about its response to the spill. The Associated Press reports that the company took almost twice as long to respond to the spill in the river as it initially claimed:

Details about the company's response to the Montana pipeline burst emerged late Tuesday as the Department of Transportation ordered the company bury the duct deeper beneath the riverbed, where it is buried 5 to 8 feet underground to deliver 40,000 barrels of oil a day to a refinery in Billings.

The federal agency's records indicate the pipeline was not fully shut down for 56 minutes after the break occurred Friday near Laurel. That's longer than the 30 minutes that company officials claimed Tuesday in a briefing with federal officials and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

It also appears that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the division of the Department of Transportation that oversees pipelines—has found problems with the pipeline before, as Reuters reports:

After inspecting the pipeline in July 2009, PHMSA issued a warning letter to Exxon a year later about oil leaking from some of the valves on the pipeline.
The agency said the valves did not have a means for clearly indicating whether they were opened or closed. As a result "there was fresh crude oil on the soil immediately adjacent to the valves," PHMSA said in its warning letter.
It also faulted Exxon for not following up in a timely manner on atmospheric corrosion issues that were identified during three years of corrosion surveys on the pipeline.