Blue Marble - December 2011

It Ain't Easy Skiing Green

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 5:30 AM EST

As a skier, I'm constantly in search of empty fields of white far from the crowds. So the idea of my local ski area acquiring new mountainsides to plunge down sounds like a good way to disperse hoards of fellow snow bunnies into wider pastures. This year in California, skiers and boarders have been gushing over the merger between Tahoe's Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, a connection that now allows patrons to access the two resorts using one lift ticket. Even more exciting is the potential that we'll get to ski in the undeveloped wilderness behind each resort to get from one to the other through a backcountry access gate (an internal pilot program to test this traverse starts this winter). Eventually, says Squaw Valley spokesperson Amelia Richmond, there may even be a series of chairlifts connecting the two mountains. It's also rumored that JMA Ventures, Alpine's former owner that still owns nearby Homewood Mountain Ski Resort, has looked into connecting Homewood to Alpine–clearing prized backcountry wilderness in its path.

But the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition, which grades ski resorts on their green practices, sees this type of development as something else entirely: a devastating blow to untouched natural reserves. Transforming a mountainside into a ski hill makes it unavailable as habitat to most species, and denudes land, making erosion more likely. New ski runs also mean more energy-guzzling chair lifts, which add to the emissions you've already created by driving to the resort. And making new snow to cover these runs depletes streams in already drought-ridden areas, as well as uses energy and contributes to global warming. That's just the beginning, says SACC: Ski resort land development paves the way for a real estate creep from incoming hotel chains, condos, and outlets. At the core of SACC's research efforts lies the nagging question: Do we really need to ski more terrain?

The SACC grades Western ski resorts on 36 criteria, ranging from snow-making practices to investment in biodiesel, to educate winter sports nuts about which ski area to choose if they care about their environmental impact. Released in an annual report card, the grades reflect info culled from public records, development plans, and surveys filled out by each resort.

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Facebook Goes Green?

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 2:00 PM EST

Green-minded procrastinators everywhere rejoiced last week when Facebook agreed to move away from coal towards clean energy-powered data centers. The announcement came on the heels of a two-year Greenpeace campaign that mobilized a reported 700,000 supporters to exhort the company to "Unfriend Coal." 

On the surface, this seems like great news. As internet use has exploded in recent years, it's been accompanied by huge growth in energy consumption and carbon emissions (though it's not quite as bad as you might expect). But details on how exactly Facebook plans to shrink its environmental footprint are hard to come by. Tzeporah Berman, co-Director of Greenpeace's International Climate and Energy Program, told me that the coal-reduction strategy would focus on the areas where Facebook's data centers are located, in Prineville, Oregon and Rutherford County, North Carolina, where Facebook and Greenpeace will work with local utilities to improve the data centers' supply of clean energy. Michael Kirkland, a communications manager at Facebook, also said that a preference for clean energy sources would be a part of the company's policy in finding sites for new data centers going forward, but wouldn't say whether Facebook is willing to actually, you know, spend more money to achieve it, or how long it will take.

In its statement on the Greenpeace agreement Facebook also promised "ongoing research into energy efficiency," but it didn't go into much detail on that, either, though Kirkland did tell me that much of Facebook's research is aimed at finding and implementing more efficient practices within the company—not necessarily at reducing the company's overall energy consumption.

Until Facebook and Greenpeace hammer out some more specific plans, which Berman says they'll start to do early next year, it's hard to know how much impact Facebook's promises will have. And actually, we probably won't know the full story of Facebook's energy use until after the company's long-awaited IPO. (This lack of transparency is particularly frustrating considering how much information Facebook asks its users to pony up.) So while I'd like feel great about the time I spend staying up-to-date on the latest adventures of my high school friend's cat, I guess I won't rationalize away the hours I spend on Facebook as clean and green just yet.

GOP Plays Chicken With Obama on Keystone XL

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 4:18 PM EST

UPDATE: The Senate approved the payroll tax cut bill on Saturday morning, including the Keystone XL rider. It looks like President Obama will not follow through on the veto threat, but a White House official said that the GOP's insistence on fast-tracking the project is likely to lead to it being rejected.

ORIGINAL POST: Congressional Republicans are going all in for the Keystone XL pipeline—even if it means blocking an extension of the payroll tax cut. I was a bit checked out on this while in Durban covering the climate talks, but Republicans in the House and Senate have decided to demand approval of the pipeline as their fee.

The move would override the White House delay on deciding whether to approve the 1,600-mile pipeline. Instead, the "North American Energy Security Act" they've proposed would require that a decision be made within 60 days.

Senate co-sponsor Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) is also touting support for the pipeline that a handful of Senate Democrats have offered (none of which has ever been particularly strong on environmental concerns), though it's not clear how many of them would side with Republicans against the White House on this. Obama has made it pretty clear that he would veto a bill that included the pipeline directive. At the heart of the pro-pipeline argument is the (thoroughly debunked) claim that the Keystone XL would create tens of thousands of jobs.

So far, Republicans are insistent that there's no deal without Keystone. TPM's Brian Beutler reported Friday afternoon:

Regarding that legislation, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell emails me with the following statement: "The Leader will not support any bill without the Keystone XL language as part of the agreement."
House Speaker John Boehner is also insisting that he’ll amend any Senate-passed payroll tax cut bill to add the Keystone provision to it, if it’s not already in there. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama now have a choice: stick to their guns and object to the provision — at the risk of allowing the payroll tax cut (and unemployment insurance and the Medicare “doc fix”) to expire? Or give in to the GOP.

Now, the thing is, even if the Democrats in Congress and the White House do give in, that doesn’t mean Obama has to approve the pipeline. He just has to make a decision, one way or the other, which is something he's trying to postpone until after the election. Obama could just go ahead and reject it, which is what his supporters in the environmental community want to see. It's pretty amazing, however, that the GOP is willing to gum up the works on a totally unrelated bill over the pipeline, even though it could ultimately work against the pipeline.

Week's Image: Beautiful World

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 1:09 PM EST

First global image from VIIRS.: Credit: NASA’s NPP Land Product Evaluation and Testing Element.First global image from VIIRS. Credit: NASA’s NPP Land Product Evaluation and Testing Element.A couple of weeks ago I posted the first image from VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite). Now we see it with eyes wide open, providing the sharpest view yet of our world. VIIRS' eyes are based on radiometric imagery in visible and infrared wavelengths, capturing images of Earth's land, atmosphere, and oceans. Its eyes will profoundly deepen our understanding of global change—human and natural—including changes in ocean temperatures, cloud cover, and wildfires. Its vehicle is the NPP satellite flying a Sun-synchronous orbit on a unique path that takes it over the equator at the same time on the ground for every orbit. This keeps the satellite at the same angle between Earth and Sun so that all images are similarly lit. This first complete global view was compiled on 24 November 2011. Click here for higher resolution image. It's breathtaking.

 

 

Watch: How Life Thrives Without Sunlight

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 8:00 AM EST

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

Without sunlight, life on Earth would not exist. Every organism that has evolved on the surface of this planet has received energy either directly or indirectly from the sun.

Even creatures that lie at the depths of our oceans and have never felt the sun's rays can not only survive but also flourish thanks to solar energy. For example, 120 kilometers off California's coast and 1,250 meters under water thrives a diverse ecosystem in complete darkness. Rising up 2,280 meters from the seafloor, the Davidson Seamount, an underwater mountain, is an unlikely "oasis in the deep."

Corals and other marine invertebrates make up 95 percent of life in the oceans and are responsible for a tenth of the planet's land.Corals and other marine invertebrates make up 95 percent of life in the oceans and are responsible for a tenth of the planet's land.

Thought to have formed between 9 and 15 million years ago from volcanic eruptions, the ancient seamount is home to some of the slowest growing communities in the ocean. Here, the Paragorgia arborea (more commonly known as pink-bubblegum coral) grows to over three meters in height and is more than 100 years old.

How has the Davidson Seamount managed to sustain more biodiversity and a higher species count than that of its neighbouring seafloor?

Are Police About to Bust Climategate Perps?

| Thu Dec. 15, 2011 7:07 PM EST

Read also: the truth about Climategate.Read also: the truth about Climategate.

When an anonymous internet commenter posted another batch of pilfered emails from climate scientists last month, I wondered whether the move would renew interest in figuring out who was behind the heist. The initial incident in 2009 didn't seem to get the police too riled up, but it appears law enforcement is now taking it more seriously. The Guardian reported Thursday that UK police have seized computer equipment from the home of one climate skeptic blogger this week, seeking evidence in the case:

On Wednesday, detectives from Norfolk Constabulary entered the home of Roger Tattersall, who writes a climate sceptic blog under the pseudonym TallBloke, and took away two laptops and a broadband router. A police spokeswoman confirmed on Thursday that Norfolk Constabulary had "executed a search warrant in West Yorkshire and seized computers". She added: "No one was arrested. Investigations into the [UEA] data breach and publication [online of emails] continues. This is one line of enquiry in a Norfolk constabulary investigation which started in 2009."

Tattersall also posted an account of the search and seizure on his blog, which was one of several where, late last month, a commenter by the name of "FOIA" posted a link to another 5,000 emails that had been stolen from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in 2009.

Interestingly, the US Department of Justice also seems to be conducting an investigation; the department's Criminal Division has submitted a request to WordPress for information related to the latest round of emails to three skeptic blogs that use their platform: TallBloke, No Consensus, and Climate Audit. Blogger Jeff Id of No Consensus posted the request on his site, which seeks records, IP addresses, and log history specifically related to the commenter "FOIA."

I'm definitely interested to see what comes of this.

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Baby Seal Breaks Into Home

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 7:03 PM EST

Image courtesy of New Zealand Department of ConservationImage courtesy of New Zealand Department of Conservation

A baby fur seal crawled through the cat flap of a New Zealand home, hopped up on the sofa and fell asleep. From the Mail Online:

The stunned owner of the house, Annette Swoffer, thought she was hallucinating when she found the pup in her kitchen, hanging out with her cats.

It had made its way from the waterfront at Welcome Bay, New Zealand, through residential streets, across a busy road, and up some steps. 'I was in my office and I heard an awful racket down below,' Miss Swoffer told the Bay Of Plenty Times. 'I thought the cats have brought a rabbit or something in so I went down and had a look—and there's a seal in my kitchen. I thought "I'm hallucinating, this is just wrong". I'm looking and I'm definitely seeing flippers and not paws.'

Miss Swoffer called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—who struggled to believe her at first. 'They were giggling away and I'm saying "I'm not drunk, I'm not lying, there's a seal in my house",' said Miss Swoffer.

lowjumpingfrog/Flickrlowjumpingfrog/FlickrThis reminds me of a filming trip I made to to Mexico's San Ignacio Lagoon many moons ago when an immature sea lion crawled up the ladder onto our live-aboard boat, hopped into a cabin and onto a bunk, where he fell blissfully asleep.

For the next week, he came and went from the boat as he pleased, returning in true Goldilocks-fashion to one bunk or another.

In the end we had to forcibly (gently) evict him before sailing north to San Diego.

BP's New License to Drill

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:50 PM EST

On Wednesday, BP was awarded $27 million in new leases in the western Gulf of Mexico, the first since the company's Deepwater Horizon exploded and unleashed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the water.

The company has already applied for new permits to drill in other parts of the Gulf. But this is the first time it has won access to previously untapped tracts via a Department of Interior sale since the spill. BP won 11 tracts, out of 15 it bid on, according to the department. The sale brought in $337 million to the government, for 191 tracts of land.

The department press release noted last year's spill, citing the new sale as in line with the administration's commitment to making offshore drilling safe:

"Today’s lease sale, the first since the tragic events of Deepwater Horizon, continues the Obama administration’s commitment to a balanced and comprehensive energy plan," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who attended the sale and provided opening remarks. "Offshore drilling will never be risk free, but over the last 19 months we have moved quickly and aggressively with the most significant oil and gas reforms in U.S. history to make it safer and more environmentally responsible. Today's sale is another step in ensuring the safe and responsible development of the nation's offshore energy resources."

Some might wonder, however, if BP should even have access to new leases. When the House passed an oil spill response package last year, one of the provisions it included would have barred companies with a bad track record from getting new leases. That bill never went anywhere in the Senate, though, so there's no legal reason to preclude anyone from bidding on new leases, no matter how bad their record is.

Will Congress Vote to Restore the Gulf Coast?

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:45 PM EST

It's been more than a year and a half since the BP oil spill sent 4.9 million barrels of crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and many of the communities and ecosystems affected by the spill are still struggling to recover. But there's still a big wild card out there: Under the federal Clean Water Act, BP can be fined up to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled, meaning the grand total BP will have to pay for Clean Water Act violations could be in the range of $5 to 20 billion.

Communities along the Gulf have argued that it's only fair that the revenue from those penalties be used to help revitalize local economies and clean up what's left of the oil. In July, a bipartisan group of Gulf Senators, including Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), introduced the RESTORE Act (the Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act 2011), which would direct 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties to the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida for purposes of coastal recovery and restoration. (The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund would hold onto the remaining 20 percent to cover any future spills.)

The bill is good policy all around: a recently published Duke University study found that in addition to helping communities recover from the oil spill, coastal restoration projects would create jobs and start to address the loss of Gulf coastal wetlands, many of which are reaching a crisis point after decades of erosion and further damage from the spill. But despite support from legislators of both parties, the general public, and environmental groups, the act has been slow to move through Congress. Part of the reason is that Landrieu and her co-sponsors have struggled to find a way to offset the $1.2 billion the CBO estimates the bill is expected to cost over the next ten years. The reason it could cost the federal government upfront is that it will probably take years before BP's fines are assessed, settled, and paid in full. As Audobon legislative director Brian Moore points out, the government would probably have to cover those costs upfront, which isn't an easy sell in the face of economic worries, calls for budget cuts, and diminishing attention to the spill's aftermath.

In the past few days, though, supporters have made a big push for action on the bill, trying to get it included in the suite of appropriation bills Congress is considering before the holiday recess. People are worried that it's now or never for this bill.  "A lot of us who are in support of the RESTORE Act realize the window of opportunity is closing the longer it takes," said Michelle Erenberg of the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental organization based in New Orleans. "As we go into an election next year, it's going to be harder to get bipartisan support."

Indeed, already some Republicans in the House, including Florida Rep. John Mica, have argued that the Clean Water Act revenue should go into federal coffers to help balance the budget. And the more time that passes since the spill, the less Americans outside the Gulf Coast are paying attention. If the RESTORE Act were sidelined, it would be another big blow to still-struggling Gulf communities.

Photos of Smoggy 1970s America

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:19 PM EST

Beijing's dismal air quality is once again in the spotlight. The city has been shrouded in a thick cloud of smog on and off for the past month and is now in an "air quality crisis," according to an environmental official quoted in the Wall Street Journal.  

Beijing, near the CCTV Headquarters: 大杨/FlickrBeijing, near the CCTV Headquarters, December 4, 2011: 大杨/Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before wagging a finger at Beijing, perhaps now is a good time to recall when many US cities were also cloaked in haze. Back in the 1970s, when the Clean Air Act (signed by Nixon in 1970) was just getting on a roll, the nascent EPA commissioned a series of photographs for the Documerica project to record pollution in America. The project, which ran from 1971-1977, amassed 20,000 images of our environmental sins, many of which can be accessed through the National Archives Environmental Studies Gallery.

Manhattan Skyline enveloped in heavy smog in May 1973.: Chester Higgins/NARAManhattan skyline enveloped in heavy smog, May 1973: Chester Higgins/NARA

 

Los Angeles in Heavy Smog in September 1973: Gene Daniels/NARALos Angeles in heavy smog, September 1973: Gene Daniels/NARA

 

Smoke from the burning of discarded auto batteries from a factory near Houston Texas in April 1972: Marc St. Gil/NARASmoke from the burning of discarded auto batteries from a factory near Houston Texas, April 1972: Marc St. Gil/NARA

 

Day becomes night in North Birmingham, adjacent to U.S. pipe plant and the most heavily polluted part of the city, in July 1972: LeRoy Woodson/NARADay becomes night in North Birmingham, adjacent to US pipe plant and the most heavily polluted part of the city, July 1972: LeRoy Woodson/NARA

 

Clark Avenue Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, July 1973: Frank Aleksandrowicz/NARAClark Avenue Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, July 1973: Frank Aleksandrowicz/NARA

Precise comparisons between air quality in China and the US are difficult. Monitoring of PM 2.5–tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that pose the greatest health risk because they can enter deep into the lungs–wasn't widely implemented in the US until the late 1990s. China only recently announced plans to report PM 2.5 measurements, though the US embassy has maintained a very popular Twitter feed that posts PM 2.5 readings obtained from it's own EPA-approved air quality monitor since 2009.

Pollution in Beijing has returned to new highs since the government spent $3.6 billion on radical measures to cleanse the capital in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Will this latest attack of smog spur China to clean up it's act for good?