Blue Marble - September 2011

The Most Anti-Environment Congress Ever?

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 3:36 PM EDT

House Republicans have undertaken a war on environmental regulations since assuming the majority earlier this year, taking a total of 125 votes on measures that would take undermine environmental laws or take away the government's authority to set regulations. Together, the measures make this "the most anti-environment Congress in history," says Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democratic staffers on the Energy and Commerce Committee compiled the list, which includes stand-alone bills and amendments filed to other pieces of legislation. Fifty of the measures have targeted the Environmental Protection Agency, though the departments of Interior (25 measures) and Energy (24) have also been in the crosshairs. Twenty-eight have sought to undermine elements of the Clean Air Act, blocking the agency from issuing rules on particulate matter, ozone pollution, or mercury, for example.

Twenty of the measures have specifically targeted rules or programs that deal with climate change—like blocking the US from contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, defunding the EPA's program that tracks greenhouse gas emissions, and stopping the Department of Homeland Security from establishing a Climate Change Adaptation Task Force.

Of course, we've covered the House GOP's ambush on environmental rules here pretty extensively. But now those attacks have been compiled in a searchable format! And the full list is really something, considering Republicans have only held the House since January. Just think what they could do in the next 15 and a half months!

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Two Weeks, Three Feet of Rain

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 2:04 PM EDT

All rainfall between 26 Aug and 9 Sep 2011. Credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.All rainfall between 26 Aug and 9 Sep 2011. Measurements analyzed by the National Weather Service's River Forecast Centers, based on radar, rain gauges, and satellite rainfall estimates. Credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

If you've been wondering just how waterlogged it's been the past two weeks in the eastern US, here's an appropriately soggy-looking visual aid. Nearly three feet of rain fell in a broad north-south swath from Virginia through New England between 26 August and 6 September, thanks to Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and a few cold fronts from the north. Some locations weathered two month's worth of rain in a half week. More rain fell over the weekend, likely pushing rainfall totals past the three-foot mark in at least a few areas. Unfortunately, the weather pattern looks ready to set up another wet window in the East after the coming weekend. Plus some models are forecasting the development of a tropical depression or strong tropical disturbance off the coast of Africa later this week. Meanwhile, over in Texas, the situation is all about a different bleak extreme: with drought fueling 18,719 wildfires that have burned 3.5-plus million acres—more than half the total burned in the nation this year.

Explosion at Nuclear Plant in France Kills One, Injures Four

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 11:00 AM EDT
The Marcoule nuclear power complex, where an explosion killed a worker on Monday, is located near Avignon, France.

An explosion has occurred at a nuclear waste processing plant in France, killing one and inuring four. The plant is located in the south of France, near the Marcoule nuclear research center. It produces MOX—or mixed oxide—fuel, which is used to recycle plutonium from nuclear weapons. In a statement, the French Nuclear Safety Authority said that the explosion occurred in an oven used to melt metallic waste.

There's no evidence the blast was caused by a radiation leak, according to the ASN. Despite that, firefighters have established a security perimeter around the plant, ABC reports. ABC also reports the French interior ministry is saying that no one has been evacuated from the surrounding area, and that the explosion's victims "have not been contaminated."

"There are several detectors on the outside and none of them detected anything, the building is sound," an advisor at the ministry told AFP. But the cause of the blast is yet to be determined.

The Marcoule plant is one of the oldest in France, which gets 75 percent of its power from nuclear technology. In June, the country pledged to invest one billion euros in future nuclear power development and research in nuclear security.

A Legal Defense Fund for Climate Scientists

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

A pair of scientists is trying to rally public support—and funding—to help other scientists fend off attacks from climate deniers. They've launched a legal defense fund to help individual scientists like Pennsylvania State University's Michael Mann deal with the sizable legal fees that have resulted from attempts to gain access to their emails and other correspondence.

Blue Marble readers are well apprised of these efforts—climate deniers have used every trick in the book to get their hands on scientists' emails, from attempting to subpoena them to filing lawsuits to stealing them. In the latest edition, a group called the American Tradition Institute—a "think tank" that promotes climate change denial—has filed both a Freedom of Information Act request demanding Mann's emails, and now a lawsuit to expedite the process.

After the FOIA request, Mann's previous employer, the University of Virginia, agreed to turn over some documents. The school said it would use whatever exemptions possible to withhold documents if they felt the release threatended academic freedom or confidentiality. Under the current agreement, though, ATI would still be able to review even the documents that are withheld from public release. Now Mann has intervened on his own behalf, as well as that of 39 other scientists whose email correspondence the group is trying to obtain, to try to protect some of those documents.

Mann has been a target of climate deniers for years, with their attacks focusing largely on the iconic hockey stick graph he developed showing the uptick in global temperatures over the last century. Last month, he was cleared of yet another allegation of misconduct in his climate research, this time by the National Science Foundation. If you count all the different investigations into climate scientists stemming from the so-called "Climategate" scandal and those into Mann alone, he's now been cleared eight times. But climate deniers still haven't relented.

Mann's personal legal fees are expected to run $10,000, which led Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at New York's Suffolk Community College, and John Abraham, a professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas, to launch a webpage last week to raise money for a "Climate Scientists Defense Fund." This would help cover the costs beyond the pro-bono work that a law firm is already doing for Mann.

And that's precisely what makes a lot of people really nervous about the UVA case. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Association of University Professors, the American Geophysical Union and Climate Science Watch have all expressed concern about the disclosure of personal emails between scientists, arguing that it jeopardizes academic freedom. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has also decried this type of attack on scientists, arguing that they that have created a "hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings." We already know that climate deniers are really good at taking scientists' emails and grossly distorting them for political gain. Using laws like the Freedom of Information Act and the courts to gain access to that kind of information sets a terrible precedent.

Which is why some scientists are rallying now to create this fund. It's currently a DIY operation, using PayPal to raise the money, but Mandia says he and Abraham want to build a nonprofit to keep the fund in place for the future. "Michael Mann needs the money now, but others are going to need it," he said.

Mountain Gorillas: The Rules of Engagement

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth and the Deadly 60 Team. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Mountain gorillas are endangered, with only 786 of them left in the world. Visiting them can be an incredible experience, as Steve Backshall discovered when he travelled to the forests of Uganda.

Gorillas are one of our closest relatives. They may be powerful, but they are also intelligent and shy. If—like Steve—you visit mountain gorillas, respect is key. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Small groups: Gorillas are social primates living in complex groups. Only a few people at a time can visit them for short periods. Large groups of people would cause too much of a disturbance and risk stressing the animals.
  • Stay quiet: You'll also need to keep your voices low. Gorillas use vocalisations to communicate; loud noise and chatting might confuse the animals or make them anxious.
  • Gorillas and humans share 98 percent of their genes: This means they may be vulnerable to the same diseases as we are. If you're feeling ill or have a cold you'll risk passing on your infection.
  • Keep clean: To reduce contamination and spreading disease, the team also washed their hands before seeing the gorillas and weren't allowed to smoke, drink or eat.
  • Keep your distance: It's never a good idea to approach or touch a large wild animal. A gorilla might see this as a threat.
  • Listen to the guides: Our crew had a team of experienced guides with them at all times; they understand the gorilla's behavior and can advise you how to act around them.

For more great tips and moving moments, check out the Deadly Diaries, direct from Steve and the Deadly 60 Team.

Image-of-the-Week: Irene's Sediments

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 4:50 PM EDT

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 5 data from the U.S. Geological Survey Global Visualization Viewer. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image captured 2 September by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 5 data from the US Geological Survey Global Visualization Viewer. A week after Hurricane Irene blew through New England, dumping 6-10 inches/15-25 centimeters of rain into the 33 tributaries of the Connecticut River—in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—sediment still poured into Long Island Sound. Meanwhile, the Thames River to the east showed little or no sediment. The difference: the Connecticut flows across lands once submerged under, and still loaded with agriculturally-rich silts of, Glacial Lake Hitchcock; the Thames flows through glacier-stripped bedrocks. Much of the sediment flooding into the sea in this image comes from farmland—with some riverbank fields literally washed away. Consequently, one of the powerful side-effects of this year's extremely active hurricane season (14 named storms before the halfway mark, compared to 10-11 storms in the entirety of a normal season) will be the impact on local agriculture for years to come. Add to that the rebirth of La Niña, and we might expect more of the same in the coming months—including the possibility of another hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season and more lost farmlands next year.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Newborn La Niña: An Illustrated Guide

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 3:01 PM EDT

Blue area at center of Pacific Ocean shows cool sea surface temperatures along the equator during the 2007 La Niña. Credit: NASA/Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio.Blue area at center of Pacific Ocean shows cool sea surface temperatures along the equator during the 2007 La Niña. Credit: NASA/Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio.

The powerful Pacific Ocean climate pattern known as La Niña returned in August, after briefly dipping into neutral territory last May.

Yesterday's La Niña advisory from the Climate Prediction Center forecasts that the newborn La Niña—currently weak—will strengthen later this autumn and winter.

Historic winter storm of 1-2 February 2011 moving across eastern US. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.Historic winter storm of 1-2 February 2011 moving across eastern US. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

A return to La Niña raises the possibility of more of the wild weather of last winter and spring—extreme blizzards, extreme tornadoes, extreme cold, extreme heat, extreme drought, extreme rainfall—around the globe.

Panoramic view from the International Space Station of east-central Texas on 6 September 2011, with numerous wildfire smoke plumes. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory. Panoramic view from the International Space Station of East-Central Texas on September 6, with numerous wildfire smoke plumes. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

Jeff Masters at his Wunderblog reminds us of some specifics:

Drought conditions are common over the southern tier of states during a La Niña event, since the cooling of the equatorial Pacific waters usually pushes the jet stream such that rain-bearing low pressure systems pass through the Midwest and avoid the South. It is likely that the drought gripping Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico will continue well into 2012, due to the emergence of La Niña. La Niña events also typically cause wetter than normal winters in the Pacific Northwest and Ohio Valley, colder winters in the Pacific Northwest and northern Plains, and warmer temperatures in the southern states.

Hurricane Irene. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.Hurricane Irene. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.La Niña is also one of the variables contributing to this year's extremely active hurricane season, with 14 named storms formed before the halfway mark. An average year sees 10 to 11 named storms in the entirety of the season.

Elsewhere in the world, the last La Niña contributed to:

Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.

It's also good to remember that a rejuvenated La Niña provides real bennies to some locales.

Invigorated Pacific trade winds drive upwelling along the coast of South America, sending ocean productivity into overdrive and providing excellent conditions for plankton, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals—many of which will experience population booms.

El Niño conditions on top globe, La Niña conditions on bottom. Credit: NOAA.El Niño conditions on top globe, La Niña conditions on bottom. Credit: NOAA.

Technically, La Niña is one-third of the ENSO triad known as the El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation. The El Niño/La Niña phases are characterized by variations in the sea-surface temperatures of the tropical eastern Pacific:

  • El Niño with warmer waters

  • La Niña with cooler waters

  • Neutral with neutral waters

The power of this oscillation is staggering—rearranging trade winds, rearranging ocean depths, rearranging ocean temperatures, and rearranging ocean productivity. The three diagrams below describe how that works.

Neutral ENSO conditions. Credit: NOAA.Neutral ENSO conditions. Credit: NOAA.

Neutral conditions (above): Sea surface temperatures are higher in the Western Pacific than off South America. Trade winds blowing east to west along the equator allow the upwelling of cold nutrient-rich water from deep waters off the coast of South America. Trade winds push the ocean west, piling water up in the western Pacific, with average sea-level heights running about 1.5 feet/0.5 meters higher off Indonesia than off Peru. A deep 450 feet/150 meter warm layer, known as a thermocline, forms in the west, while the thermocline in the east rises to 90 feet/30 meters. The shallow eastern thermocline allows the winds to pull up cooler nutrient-rich from below.

La Niña conditions. Credit: NOAA.La Niña conditions. Credit: NOAA.

La Niña conditions (above): Trade winds blowing west across the tropical Pacific are stronger than normal, leading to an even shallower thermocline in the east off South America, along with increased upwelling and lower than normal sea surface temperatures. Prevailing rain patterns shift farther west than normal. Winds pile up warm surface water in the western Pacific.

El Niño conditions. Credit: NOAA.El Niño conditions. Credit: NOAA.

El Niño conditions (above): Air pressure at Darwin, Australia (Western South Pacific), is higher than at Tahiti (Central South Pacific). Trade winds decrease in strength and may reverse direction causing the normal flow of water away from South America to diminish and causing ocean water to pile up off South America, pushing the thermocline deeper, as upwelling dwindles. The flip in the thermocline and the decreased westward flow of water allow sea surface temperatures to rise higher than normal in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. The net result is a shift of the prevailing rain pattern, with the Central Pacific getting wetter as the Western Pacific gets drier.

Comparison of the 6 strongest La Niña events since 1950. Credit: Klaus Wolter, NOAA.Comparison of the six strongest La Niña events since 1950. Credit: Klaus Wolter, NOAA.

It's uncommon for one La Niña to follow on the heels of a prior La Niña—though it's less uncommon when the onset of the first La Niña is fast and really cold... which is how it went down last winter.

Klaus Wolter, research scientist at the Climate Diagnostics Center at the University of Colorado, recreated conditions back to 1870 and found 10 cases in which La Niña lasted at least two consecutive years. He also found signs of persistent drought in the US Southwest in 8 of 10 of the double-dip La Niñas.

Credit: Rmrfstar at Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Rmrfstar at Wikimedia Commons.

Bachmann Continues $2 Gas Farce

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 3:40 PM EDT

Politico aptly notes that Michele Bachmann was entirely alone at Wednesday night's GOP debate in her pledge that she'll return the US to $2-a-gallon gasoline. Even Ron "Silver Dime" Paul wouldn't entertain her conceit.

Bachmann's $2 gasoline plan might not be as wacky as the other things she's talked about, like the existential threats posed by efficient lighting, public schools, the gays, and the revenge of the USSR. But trust me, it's just as delusional.

I won't bother rehashing all the reasons it's a pipedream—you can see Bryan Walsh, Brian Merchant, or CNN Money for apt take-downs. The upshot is that Bachmann wants to do things that wouldn't have a big or immediate impact on oil prices (like increasing drilling offshore) but not things that could (like limiting oil speculation). The best she could hope for, if she wants to make good on this promise, is that the US slides back into a recession.

Wednesday's debate set Bachmann up as an also-ran this year, with Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and John Huntsman clearly dominating the conversation. I guess promising a pony in every gas tank was the best she could do to set herself apart from the pack.

Well, Rick Perry, Since You Brought Up Galileo...

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 11:52 AM EDT

Rick Perry was more than happy to embrace the anti-science title in Wednesday's GOP debate, repeating the claim that the "science isn't settled" on the question of whether human activity is causing the planet to heat up. Of course, this was nothing new: Perry has been pretty open about the fact that he thinks scientists invented climate change to keep those big research bucks rolling in.

When Perry couldn't name a single scientist he actually agrees with on climate change, he deferred, instead, to the ghost of Galileo Galilei. "Galileo got out-voted for a spell," said Perry, intending to demonstrate that just because the majority of scientists have reached a conclusion, that doesn't make it true.

The problem with that, of course, is that it wasn't a cabal of scientists who were out-voting Mr. Galilei. True, he did catch flack for breaking with the scientific establishment at the time. But it was the Catholic church that interrogated the Italian scientist, accused him of heresy, and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Sadly, I think the irony of the comment is lost on Perry and his fans.

So, really, it wasn't all that much different than what's going on with climate change, today. Establishment forces—the fossil fuel industry, anti-regulation conservatives, and religious fundamentalists—have waged a relentless campaign to malign, persecute, and marginalize climate scientists. And Rick Perry has been the favorite presidential candidate of climate deniers because he has been a zealous participant in those attacks.

Of course, we all know how the Galileo story ends. Turns out, he was right about that whole earth revolving around the sun thing. But it certainly wasn't the Rick Perrys of the world that ushered that into common acceptance.

Nobel Winners Call on Obama to Reject Keystone XL

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

Remember back two years ago when President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months after taking office? Most people—Obama included—were like "maybe he should earn it first." In his acceptance speech, Obama listed climate change as one of the things he would "confront," along with other world leaders. Now a bunch of other Nobel laureates want to make sure Obama follows through on that promise—and they are calling on the president to block the Keystone XL pipeline to demonstrate his seriousness about the issue.

Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners—including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama—wrote to Obama on Wednesday asking him to reject the pipeline, which has attracted a lot of attention of late. The proposed 1,661-mile pipeline would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in Texas. The State Department seems likely to approve the pipeline before the end of 2011, though Obama could still intercede and reject the proposal.

"Your rejection of the pipeline provides a tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal and gas and instead increase investments in renewable energies and energy efficiency," they wrote. The full letter is below the fold: