Blue Marble - September 2011

Solyndra vs. Military Boondoggles

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 3:12 PM PDT

I was offline most of last week, which means I missed a lot of the hubbub around the bankruptcy of the solar company Solyndra Inc. The Fremont, Calif.-based company went belly up last month despite the $535 million loan guarantee it received from the Department of Energy in 2009. This has sent Republican critics of renewable energy into a tizzy, who are using the company's failure to paint all renewable energy investment as a boondoggle.

Now, all of the hype fails to note that the company also got a lot of money from private investors, that it was the Bush administration that made the first moves to provide the company a loan guarantee, that the loan represents just 1.3 percent of the money that DOE has given out, and that all technology ventures come with some level of inherent risk. And some of the leading hype-sellers on the Solyndra subject haven't been as critical of other energy projects that also suck up a lot of funds with little pay off (see: nuclear loan guarantees, FutureGen).

Time's Michael Grunwald has a good take here on one of the biggest hypocrites on this front:

For example, Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana has filed a bill to increase scrutiny of taxpayer-financed renewable energy projects. It wouldn’t scrutinize taxpayer-financed non-renewable energy projects, like the nuclear reactors that Vitter so ardently supports. It wouldn't scrutinize why a certain Louisiana Senator has worked so hard to protect oil companies from liability for their spills. It would just crack down on Big Renewables.

Grunwald goes on to note that Vitter has sought loans for a clean-car start-up, a company that would turn animal fats and used cooking oils into renewable diesel, nuclear power, and so-called "clean-coal." The Associated Press also covered this issue today. So yeah, Vitter's criticism rings a little hollow.

See David Roberts, Kevin Drum, and Chris Hayes for other take-downs on the Solyndra hype.

It does appear that White House officials were well aware of the concerns about the firm before handing out the loan, which is problem enough. And now critics are raising questions about President Obama's relationship with a major investor in the company. But let's put the spending into perspective. For that, check out this graph from Green For All's Philip Bump, who took this data about some of the military's biggest boondoggles (think ballistic missile defense) and compared it to the amount of money lost on Solyndra. It looks like this (via Climate Progress):

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Will Climate Change Make National Parks More Dangerous?

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 2:30 AM PDT
Yosemite National Park's Vernal Falls, where three hikers died in July.

Earlier this summer, a few friends and I went on a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park. We had been told that the waterfalls were especially spectacular this year, on account of the spring melt of an unusually large snowpack. We were unprepared for just how impressive the rushing water would be. On our first day, we came to a bridge over the formidable Wapama Falls. White water poured over the railings, making the floor slick and dousing us as we scampered across. About a week after we got home, two hikers had died crossing the same bridge.

That was just the beginning of a very deadly summer in Yosemite. So far this season, 18 people have died in the park, way up from the 12 or so who die in a typical year. Thinking about the tragedies got me wondering: Could climate change be playing a role in making outdoor recreation more dangerous? And if it's not now, then might it in the future?

The scientists I talked to agreed that there's not enough evidence to lay the blame for this year's high Yosemite death toll squarely on climate change. "Eighteen is an unusually high number, but things do tend to happen in waves," says Theo Spencer, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Climate Center. "So it would be very hard to claim a causal relationship between climate change and this."

But he also believes that down the line, the connection between rising temperatures and hazardous conditions will become clearer. Scientists and National Park Service officials agree that climate change has already been altering our national parks. A 2006 report by the NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) found in western US wilderness areas, higher temperatures were linked to a range of potentially dangerous conditions in parks, from heat waves to insect infestations to increased storms and flooding. This year, the two organizations documented the effects of rising temperatures in parks around the Great Lakes: severe weather, decreased ice, and wildlife changes. Virginia's Colonial National Historical Park has experienced record sea-level rise. "They've had to move their facilities higher and higher," Spencer says. "They had to move their lighthouse twice."

Climate-change-related dangers also tend to draw a certain kind of swaggering, outdoor adventurer, whose antics only create further challenges for park officials. (You know the type: carries his lunch to the office in technical gear; carabiners galore; always bragging about the first whitewater descent he bagged; etc.) "People are attracted to extreme weather events," says RMCO president Stephen Saunders. "When there is a hurricane that makes big surf, that's very tempting to some people."

Bob Krumenaker is the superintendent of Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior. He believes that longer, milder summers could give visitors the impression that the lake, famous for its frigid waters, is safer than it actually is. "It almost creates a potential for disaster," Krumenaker says. "People don't typically come out to Lake Superior without proper equipment and skills, but we're already seeing slight changes in the nature of our visitors. People are coming up with less experience."

All of which creates a giant headache for the already cash-strapped National Park Service. "If we're going to have more extreme weather and storms, larger snowpacks and more extreme droughts, all of that is going to take a toll on the trail, the facilities, the built environment," says Fran Hunt, director of the Sierra Club's Campaign for Resilient Habitats. All that work will not make things easier for the Park Service, which, according to a report that the Center for Park Research released in June, already has a maintenance backlog of $11 billion.

In addition to cleaning up the mess that extreme weather leaves behind, the Park Service will also have to ramp up communication with visitors. The agency has already launched a campaign to educate people about how the landscape might change in the coming years. Parks will also have to deploy more rangers to prevent reckless behavior, another potentially costly endeavor. "Every time we put staff out where we didn't have staff before, that costs money," Krumenaker says.

Frustratingly, even if parks do invest more in visitor safety education, there's no guarantee that outdoor adventurers will heed rangers' warnings. Krumenaker recounted to me how just this summer, park rangers at Apostle Islands warned a kayaker about big waves on the lake, but the kayaker decided to go ahead anyway. He capsized died of hypothermia just a few hours later.

In the wake of the Yosemite deaths, the park has posted a series of more drastic-sounding signs, reports the Wall Street Journal. One reads: "If you lose your footing, powerful currents will carry you over the falls. There's no second chance."

Image of the Week: Ice Cores

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 11:41 AM PDT

Thin section of an ice core. Credit: Sepp Kipfstuhl/Alfred Wegener Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.Thin section of an ice core under polarized light. Credit: Sepp Kipfstuhl/Alfred Wegner Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.

Will Canada's invaluable collection of ice cores tens of thousands of years old survive a season of heated budget cuts? Nature News reports on an email appeal from a government glaciologist last week asking the Canadian research community to provide cold storage for the beleaguered collection in Canada's Ice Core Research Laboratory. The cores have been collected throughout the Canadian Arctic in the past 40 years, including from ice caps and ice fields not represented in collections elsewhere. They comprise more than half a mile/1,000 meters of ice documenting up to 80,000 years of climate history. They're rich with dust, gas bubbles, and chemical isotopes that reveal atmospheric and temperature conditions of past climates and past climate changes. No other lab in Canada is big enough to store them. Yet already researchers in the US—citing the collaborativeness of the Canadian researchers—are expressing their willingness to help.

Keystone XL Pipeline Path Mows Through Prime Triceratops Turf

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 2:17 PM PDT

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries, is already unpopular, possibly unsafe, and almost certainly unclean, but a closer look at the pipe's planned path reveals that it might also be stepping on some very old toes—65 million years old, in fact.

More than 100 miles of the proposed path cuts across one of the nation's richest fossil fields, InsideClimate News reports. The Hell Creek Formation, which covers a large swath of southeastern Montana, is famous for its prodigious supply of triceratops fossils. (Many other prehistoric creatures, including T-rex and the aquatic plesiosaur, have also been found nearby.) As the pipe is laid underground in the area, the excavation is practically guaranteed to unearth all kinds of old bones, according to George Stanley, a University of Montana paleontologist. Unless they are protected properly, he adds, most fossils will start decomposing shortly after being exposed to air.

Evangelicals Rally for Mercury Rules

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 2:16 PM PDT

If you think about it too hard, you might be bothered by the fact that many "pro-life" members of Congress are the same ones that want to gut environmental regulations that protect expectant mothers and their unborn children. Take, for example, the bill a House subcommittee passed on Wednesday that would block the EPA from implementing rules on mercury from cement plant smokestacks, as well as other toxic emissions. The legislators behind it claim to be pro-life, which has prompted the Evangelical Environmental Network to launch a new campaign taking those lawmakers to task.

"Pro-life members of Congress should be doing everything they can to protect the unborn from this threat," said Rev. Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, in a press release. "For the life of me, I can't understand why some are trying to block the EPA from regulating mercury levels when they know the unborn will pay the price."

Their radio ads target Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas). They feature Rev. Tracey Bianchi, a minister from Oak Brook, Ill. and mother of three. All three of the legislators rank high on the scorecards put out by anti-abortion groups; Whitfield has a 96 percent score on the National Right to Life scorecard, while Barton got an 88, and Upton has a 74 percent. (They haven't fared as well on environmental scorecards, as you might guess.)

Eight percent of women of child-bearing age have dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies, and up to 300,000 babies born each year may be at risk of developmental problems due to the levels of mercury they were exposed to in the womb, according to the EPA. As the American Pregnancy Association highlights, mercury exposure is a health concern for pregnant women, women trying to get pregnant, and small children. So if one is worried about the unborn, mercury pollution should theoretically be on the list of concerns. Babies exposed to it in the womb "can suffer severe damage to the nervous system and may die," notes the March of Dimes, or they "may have brain damage, learning disabilities and hearing loss." (These are just the sorts of birth defects that often prompt women to have abortions, incidentally.)

EEN and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have also started a letter-writing campaign, asking members of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus to support the mercury rules. They've also launched a website, Mercury and the Unborn, which states, "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to do all we can to protect unborn children from mercury poisoning."

Tea Partiers: Light Rail an Invitation to Al Qaeda

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 1:14 PM PDT

The citizens of Cobb County, Georgia, are currently mulling a proposal that would increase property taxes for 10 years in order to fund a new light-rail line between Atlanta to its suburbs. It's a fairly straightforward proposal, the kind of thing that pops up all the time in communities across the country. But if there's been one lesson of the past few years, it's that mundane policy debates have a tendency to become a lot less mundane once tea partiers get involved.

In this case, the Georgia Tea Party is arguing that the county should abandon its light-rail proposal because if the light-rail line were to be completed, it would become a magnet for terrorist attacks. Here's the group's chair, J.D. Van Brink:

If anyone doesn't believe me—England and Spain. Now, if we have a more decentralized mass-transit system using buses, if the terrorists blow up a single bus, we can work around that. When they blow up a rail, that just brings the system to a grinding halt. So how much security are we going to have on this rail system, and how much will it cost?

In other words, Van Brink is arguing that because terrorists fantasize about blowing up American infrastructure, we should avoid spending any money on infrastructure. Given tea partiers' opposition to most forms of government spending and their worries that light-rail and sustainable development plans are part of a United Nations conspiracy to force people to live in miniature, lightbulb-less "Hobbit homes," the terrorism concerns here almost seem like a dodge. But maybe Van Brink is on to something. Here's what Al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said in a video released in July: 

The al-Qaeda network is fully prepared to continue the jihad against the American infidels by launching deadly attacks, but your outdated and rusting transportation infrastructure needs to be completely overhauled for those strikes even to be noticed. We want to turn your bridges into rubble, but if we claimed credit for making them collapse, nobody would ever believe us.

Or maybe not. That quote was from the Onion.

(h/t Choire Sicha)

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The Incredible Shrinking Greenland

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 12:02 PM PDT

Credit: The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.Left: Greenland in 1999. Right: Greenland in 2011. Credit: The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.

 

UPDATE: I've updated this story in a new blog post here.

For the first time in its history the new edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World was forced to redraw its map of Greenland, reflecting the fact that 15 percent of the island's permanent ice cover—about 115,830 square miles/300,000 square kilometers, or an area the size of Ohio—has melted in the past 12 years. (So did they draw the North Atlantic a little bigger?)

Other anthropogenic changes reflected in the Times Atlas:

  • The breaking up of the Antarctica ice shelves: The atlas's new Antarctica image shows the breaking up of the Larsen B ice shelf and Wilkins ice shelf, along with the ice bridge that once joined it to Charcot Island.
  • The shrinking of seas and lakes: The level of the Dead Sea has dropped 40 feet/12 meters in the last 12 years, mainly due to draining water from the Sea of Galilee and diverting it to the Jordan River.
  • The Aral Sea, which has shrunk by 75 percent since 1967.
  • The drying of rivers. Most years the Colorado River never reaches the Gulf of California due to damming, irrigation, evaporation, and water diversion to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. In Mongolia, the Ongyin Gol river is diverted for gold mining. These and other rivers shown as 'intermittent' on the latest atlas could dry up entirely by the next edition in 2015.
     

Boehner's Funding From Coal up 2,400 Percent

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 3:15 AM PDT

The coal industry adores House Speaker John Boehner, now more than ever. From Tuesday's Wall Street Journal:

Donations from coal-industry interests account for more than 10% of the $12.5 million Mr. Boehner collected from Jan. 1 to June 30 for fundraising accounts he directly controls. Mr. Boehner's personal campaign account collected less than $200,000 from the coal industry during the entire 2009-10 election cycle.

That means the coal industry's now giving Boehner 24 times more the monthly contributions it gave him during 2009-10. Among Boehner's top current donors is one of the Koch brothers, William, who heads Oxbow Corporation—an energy conglomerate with coal, natural gas, steel, and petroleum operations worth $4 billion in annual sales. In general, the Journal reports, the coal industry has ramped up its political giving since Obama was elected president, more than doubling its 2008 contributions in the latest election cycle, with about 75 percent of donations going to Republicans.

A Boehner spokesman assured the Journal that coal-industry giving constitutes a small fraction of the $30 million or so the speaker has raised for the Republican Party this year. But even if Boehner doesn't find the coal industry's givings significant, the spike in coal-backed donations to the House leader hasn't gone unthanked, either, as the Journal points out, and as we've reported here before. Notably, since November 2010 the House has voted to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and approved a bill that would strip the EPA's authority to veto water permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.

All in all, under the current GOP-led House there've been some 125 votes to undermine environmental protection, from cutting funding for the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior, limiting agencies' authority to enforce the Clean Water Act and blocking the US from contributing to the international governing body on climate change. The legislative attack on environmental protection prompted a backlash from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who on Monday called the House "the most anti-environment" in history upon releasing a search-and-sortable database of the 125 votes. (MoJo reporter Kate Sheppard has more on this.)

The swell in coal contributions to Boehner secures his place as the industry's number-two favorite recipient, according data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Oxbow spokesman Brad Goldstein wrapped up the industry's sentiment for the speaker unabashedly:

We are a big supporter of John Boehner. We think he's good for business…He looks out for business interests, and he wants to create more jobs for America, while this administration has been rather harsh on the industry.

 

Battle of the Arctic Sea Ice

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 1:20 PM PDT

Ice ponds atop the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA photograph by Kathryn Hansen.Ice ponds atop the melting Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA photograph by Kathryn Hansen.As autumn approaches, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reports that Arctic sea ice is near or at its seasonal low.

So how did 2011 fare? Well, the data are still being collected. But according to the NSIDC algorithm, this year's minimum is unlikely to surpass 2007's record low:

On September 10, Arctic sea ice extent was 4.34 million square kilometers (1.68 million square miles). This was 110,000 square kilometers (42,500 square miles) above the 2007 value on the same date. The record minimum Arctic sea ice extent, recorded in 2007, was 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles). Ice extent in 2011, along with daily ice extents for the previous three lowest extent years. Credit: NSIDC.Ice extent in 2011, along with daily ice extents for the previous three lowest extent years. Credit: NSIDC.

However a different algorithm used by the University of Bremen concludes this year beat out 2007 for the lowest sea ice extent ever recorded. Here's what NSIDC has to say about the finer resolution of the Bremen calculations:

The University of Bremen employ an algorithm that uses high resolution information from the JAXA AMSR-E sensor on the NASA Aqua satellite. This resolution allows small ice and open water features to be detected that are not observed by other products. This year the ice cover is more dispersed than 2007 with many of these small open water areas within the ice pack. While the University of Bremen and other data may show slightly different numbers, all of the data agree that Arctic sea ice is continuing its long-term decline.

Sea ice concentration maps of the minimum on 17 Sept 2007 and of the first day of historic minimum on 8 Sept 2011. The 2011 sea ice minima could reduce further in the next days. Credit: University of Bremen.Sea ice concentration maps of the minimum on 17 Sept 2007 and of the first day of historic minimum on 8 Sept 2011. The 2011 sea ice minima could reduce further in the next days. Credit: University of Bremen.In the image from Bremen above you can see the nature of the lowest ice extent appears differently in the two years—with 2007 presenting as a consolidated pack, and 2001 as a scattered one. As Bremen (pdf) points out, this year's record low is likely the lowest extent since the end of the last Ice Age:

The extent of the Arctic sea ice shows a pronounced yearly cycle, with about 15 million km2 in March and five million km2 in September. In 2007 however, it was only 4.267 million km2, the previous smallest value since start of satellite observations in 1972, and most probably since the last climate optimum about 8000 years ago. The current value is 27,000 km2 or 0.6% lower and could even be undercut in the next weeks.

Sea ice extent of the years 2003 to 2011 with minima in September and maxima in March. Credit: University of Bremen.Sea ice extent of the years 2003 to 2011 with minima in September and maxima in March. Credit: University of Bremen.In the shipping news, retreating sea ice opened the Northwest and Northeast passages simultaneously in 2011—following the first ever dual openings in 2008 and 2009. Consequently this year the northern crossing was made in record time—only 8 days—by a tanker travelling from Houston to Thailand.

The Bremen report sums up the impacts of years of dwindling ice cover:

The retreat of the summer sea ice since 1972 amounts to 50%. For algae and small animals living at the lower side of the ice, less and less living environment remains since they need a certain time to settle there. They are at the beginning of the food chain for fishes, mammals and also man.

Credit: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Scientist Profiled in MoJo Ocean Articles Wins Heinz Award

| Tue Sep. 13, 2011 12:00 PM PDT
Nancy Rabalais.

I was pleased to learn this morning that Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Chauvin, Louisiana, is one of eight winners of the 17th annual Heinz Awards. Twice I've been drawn into Nancy's extraordinary orbit to cover stories—once in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to report on her dead zone work (The Fate of the Ocean), then again last year after 'Hurricane BP' to cover her work in the aftermath of a catastrophic oil spill (The BP Cover-Up).

Here's how I described Nancy after our first meeting in 2005, just before I sailed aboard the LUMCON research vessel, Pelican:

So far her tenure [at LUMCON] has been largely spent digging out of the mud, repairing the wind damage, and casting an eye to the weather. "This used to be a beautiful place," she says of the striking waterfront facility built on stilts. Now it’s boarded up with storm shutters and surrounded by bulldozers, piles of garbage, stacks of dismantled roofing, stripped palm trees, and muck... Rabalais is weary. It’s late. She still has a two-hour drive ahead of her to Baton Rouge, where she teaches at Louisiana State University—though I suspect she would rather board Pelican for a couple of days and leave her worries behind. Instead, she’s relying on her research associates and graduate students to conduct the scientific cruise she normally looks forward to each month. A Texan by birth and schooling, she has been diving these waters since it was a fun thing to do; nowadays, it requires a certain courage. A week earlier, while diving in zero visibility on a research station 26 miles offshore, Rabalais encountered an alligator at the surface blown out to sea by one or both of the hurricanes. Diving to the bottom, she "felt something bump against my ankle. But I figured a gator wasn’t diving 65 feet deep, so it must have been something else." 

The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Credit: ©Julia Whitty. The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.

Not quite five years later, I was back on Nancy's research station listening to her first-person encounter with BP's oil:

"We dove down in clear water but came up 30 minutes later through oil," says Nancy Rabalais... A few weeks after the spill, during her summer research surveys 10 miles offshore, Rabalais personally encountered BP's plumes, which will probably affect her research far into the future. "It was horrible," she says, grimacing. "We were covered. Our gear was covered. We were breathing fumes and tasting oil." Rabalais is worried about the species already under enormous stress from a host of other environmental problems in the Gulf: dead zones, overfishing, chronic oil pollution, seismic testing for oil and natural gas, coastal erosion. "Brown pelicans just came off the endangered species list," she says, "and now some of their most important breeding rookeries are getting hit with oil."

Oil near pelican breeding grounds in Louisiana marshes, May 2010. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.Oil near pelican breeding grounds in Louisiana marshes, May 2010. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.

The Heinz Awards (of Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation) honored each of today's recipients with an unrestricted cash prize of $100,000. They described Nancy's work as:

... on the forefront of efforts to develop and implement large-scale restoration plans for the beleaguered Gulf Coast waters. For decades, [Nancy Rabalais] has continued to be the driving force behind identifying and characterizing the dynamics of the Gulf's dead zone, which exhibits dangerously low oxygen levels to support vibrant marine life. By studying sediment cores extracted by her team from the Gulf, Dr. Rabalais discovered that the Gulf's oxygen depletion worsened dramatically since 1950, almost in direct proportion to the use of nitrogen fertilizer that flowed from farming areas into the Mississippi River. This, along with other factors, have led to the Gulf's dead zone totaling over 7,700 square miles in 2010, the largest in the United States and the second largest worldwide. Her findings were met with political opposition and skepticism from some in the scientific community. She is currently working to help the Gulf recover from the damage caused by the 2010 oil spill and testing whether bacteria that feed on the oil could be contributing to the Gulf’s low oxygen areas.

So, kudos, Nancy Rabalais! I can't think of another researcher working so courageously in combat conditions on the environmental and scientific frontlines of the 21st century.