Blue Marble - January 2012

Defending Climate Scientists

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 3:44 PM EST

A few months ago, I wrote about a new effort to provide legal defense support for climate scientists who become the subject of attacks. Now the fund is officially off the ground, and it has raised $25,000.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund announced this week that it has found a non-profit sponsor in the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College, started the fund last September in response to the ongoing campaign that climate deniers have waged to obtain the emails and other correspondence of Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann. The ongoing fight has created a substantial amount of legal fees. Meanwhile, the American Tradition Institute, the group that has sued to access Mann's emails, has is linked to a number of wealthy fossil fuel interests.

"Academic salaries are not designed to support ongoing legal expenses in fights with corporate-funded law firms and institutes,” said Mandia in a statement announcing the fund's progress so far. "These legal battles also have taken many of our brightest scientific minds away from their research."

As we've reported rather extensively, many climate scientists are the subject of harassment. For more, see James West's piece on MIT's Kerry Emanuel, my piece on Texas Tech's Katharine Hayhoe, or my feature on Mann.

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Can a New Kind of Rice Revive Japan's Tsunami-Ravaged Paddies?

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EST

The March 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan was the fourth biggest earthquake ever measured, and hands down the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history. The stats are terrifying: 9.0 magnitude, 16,000 deaths, 1.5 million households left without water, and of course, ongoing reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Less obvious to Western observers were the agricultural repercussions of the ensuing tsunami, whose massive waves crashed up to six miles inland and left more than 58,000 acres of Japanese rice paddies (roughly four times the size of Manhattan) completely saturated with saltwater.

Study: Restored Wetlands Don't Measure Up

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 7:06 PM EST

You've probably heard of old-growth forests and their importance, but old-growth wetlands? A new study suggests that older wetlands, like ancient redwood groves, are more biodiverse and better at storing carbon than ones that have been restored. In a meta-analysis of 124 other studies examining 621 areas around the world, an international team of researchers found that restored wetlands contain about 23% less carbon than their predecessors and about 26% less variety in native plant life—even after 50 to 100 years of restoration. "Once you degrade a wetland, it doesn't recover its normal assemblage of plants or its rich stores of organic soil carbon," said study co-author Daniel Moreno-Mateos, a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Berkeley. This depletion, he added, will "affect natural cycles of water and nutrients, for many years."

Although an estimated (PDF) half of the wetlands present in North America at the time of European settlement have been destroyed, more recent trends suggested a reason for optimism: the pace of wetlands loss has seemingly slowed drastically in the United States, dropping from a rate of nearly 500,000 acres a year from the 1950s to the 1970s to around 60,000 acres per year from 1986 to 1997. Some data even suggests there’s been a net gain since the late '90s.

But this study could call cast a shadow on those strides: US policy is based on the principle of "no net loss," which allows for development that destroys existing wetlands as long as its restoration or substitution is sufficient to leave total acreage unchanged. While this principle theoretically takes quality as well as quantity into account, in practice, there's been little effort to track (PDF) wetlands function. 

This new research suggests that counting acres isn't enough, and that we'll have to look more seriously at wetlands' condition and function if we want to reap the many benefits they provide, including carbon storage, reduced flood risk, and improved water quality. Restoring already-degraded wetlands is still better than not restoring them, but not destroying the ecosystems in the first place looks like the best option of all. Says Moreno-Mateos, "preserve the wetland, don't degrade the wetland."

The Spinach Index: A Delicious Economic Indicator

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 3:19 PM EST

Here's a tasty indicator of the country's economic health: Are you buying spinach in a bunch or in a bag?

Last year, the USDA's research wing looked at how spending habits at the grocery store changed from 2004 to 2009, and noticed some predictable patterns during the recession. Shoppers ditched name-brand, designer-label products for store-brand knockoffs (think Kellogg's Lucky Charms vs. Ralph's Magic Stars) to the record-breaking tune of 810 new off-label products appearing on the shelves in 2009—7 times more than in 2001—with sales outpacing those of name-brand products. Warehouse clubs and supercenters, like Sam's Club and Aldi, jumped 2 percent in total share of food sales during the recession, while traditional stores continued a long-term decline. Overall, food spending declined 5% between 2006 and 2009 (inflation adjusted), according to the USDA. 

You might guess that shoppers also cut back on healthy, fresh foods in favor of cheaper packaged items, but the USDA looked closely at one nutritious item—leafy greens—and noticed an interesting consumer trend.

Whenever personal household incomes dropped by 1 percent from 2004 through 2009, the sales share of bagged leafy greens—the convenient pre-packed stuff that's washed, chopped, and dried for you—immediately dropped by 1 percent. But the overall sales of fresh spinach, lettuce, and and other leafy greens stayed flat during the recession, because each 1 percent decline in household income also saw a nearly immediate 1 percent jump in the sales share of loose, bunched greens, the kind you weigh and buy in bulk.

The USDA researchers were surprised to see how closely and quickly changes in the national economy impacted the way shoppers adjusted their spinach-shopping habits, and they re-ran the study after making sure they were measuring the edible portions of bagged greens and bulk greens equally, getting the same results. Shoppers were willing to forgo the convenience and time savings of pre-packed as times got tougher, but they wanted to keep the same amount of leafy greens in their diet. They did it by reaching for the colander and the cutting board instead of the plastic-wrapped stuff. The cost savings are enormous, after all: on average, convenience greens cost 300 percent more than the old-fashioned kind. 

Who Will Speak For the Trees?

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 12:35 PM EST

If you read this blog regularly, it's likely that you were a fan of The Lorax, Dr. Seuss' cherished 1971 classic. It's a story about a little orange guy devoted to protecting the Truffula trees, but it speaks more broadly to the threat that industry poses to the natural world. Now The Lorax has gone Hollywood, with a new film version from Universal Pictures due out on March 2. And it appears that fans of Seuss' environmental message aren't very excited about the release.

The trailer for the film prompted the students of Ted Wells' 4th grade class at the Park School in Brookline, Mass. to start a petition asking Universal to revive the tree-hugging themes of the book. Over at Change.org, they're requesting that the company at least add more educational materials to the film's website and promotional materials. Wells notes that his students thought the trailer made the movie look "more like an adventure and romance, like it had totally lost its message about helping the planet."

"Currently, the movie website, trailer, and story summary have no mention of helping our planet!" says the students' petition. "This is a missed opportunity. There are big problems in our natural world and we need more and more people helping out."

They have collected more than 50,000 signatures since they launched the petition in December. Here's the trailer, which makes me think the kids are right on:

While we're on the subject, The Onion was dead on about Hollywood's attempts to remake Seuss well before this latest misadventure.

What Obama Said About Energy in the State of the Union

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 10:43 AM EST

President Barack Obama had a lot to say about energy at Tuesday night's State of the Union address. The president mentioned the word 23 times in the course of the speech, but his emphasis was mostly on fossil-based energy. He focused the majority of his comments on expanding offshore and onshore oil and gas drilling.

Obama called for opening "more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources" to drilling. His only reference to the massive BP oil spill—which occurred just a few days after the last time he called for a major expansion of offshore drilling—was to argue that oil companies should be able to "contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago." There was no mention of preventing those spills in the first place, however.

The president also called for expanded development of on-shore natural gas, and said that those who extract gas on public lands will be required to disclose the types of chemicals they're using. And he called, once again, for a "clean energy standard"—a proposal that was included in last year's speech but didn't make much progress in Congress. "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change," Obama said. "But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted."

At least Obama supports recycling.

In the meantime, Obama said he is directing the Department of Interior to approve enough "clean energy" projects on public land to power 3 million homes. And he announced that the Navy plans to purchase enough clean energy to power a quarter of a million homes each year.

The energy portion of the speech is below the fold:

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Solar Storms Ramping Up

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 4:20 PM EST

 Solar flares minutes apart on 23 January: NASA images courtesy Solar Dynamics Observatory

Solar flares on 23 January 2012: NASA images courtesy Solar Dynamics Observatory.

After the quietest solar activity in a century, our star is flaring up towards a predicted solar maximum in February 2013.

The photos above, taken only minutes part yesterday, show a flare of superheated and magnetically supercharged gas. In the third image (right), taken 45 minutes after the first (left), you can see the coronal mass ejection of a stream of solar plasma flowing into space towards Earth.

From NASA's Earth Observatory page: 

The high-latitude solar flare was measured as M8.7 in intensity, just below the most intense “X class” of flares. The eruption sent a stream of fast-moving, highly energetic protons toward Earth, provoking the most intense solar energetic particle storm—an S3 on NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center’s scale—since 2005.

 Northern light over Lappland, Sweden: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern light over Lapland, Sweden: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer via Wikimedia Commons.

All that fiery activity on the Sun translates into the most Earth's most ethereal light show. In 1859 the largest solar superstorm in recorded history, the Carrington Super Flare, gave an unbelievable worldwide performance. From Wikipedia:

On September 1–2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, most notably over the Caribbean; also noteworthy were those over the Rocky Mountains;that were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. According to professor Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado' Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, "people in the northeastern US could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora."

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can disrupt radio signals and electronics and satellite transmissions.

But it gets weirder than that. Given exactly the right circumstances, they can facilitate enough geomagnetically induced current from the electromagnetic field to allow telegraph transmissions even when the power is switched off.

This conversation was between telegraph operators in Boston and Portland, Maine on the superstorm night of 2 September 1859. From Wikipedia:

Boston operator (to Portland operator): "Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes."
Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually."
Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."
Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"
Boston: "Yes. Go ahead."


This plot shows the current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from measurements taken during the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite: NOAA.Here's where you might see an aurora. Current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite: NOAA.

The current solar maximum is not expected to be anywhere near as strong as the Carrington Super Flare, a 1-in-500-year superstorm. However it's already causing disruptions. Delta Airlines announced today that it's rerouted polar flights between Detroit and Asia. From Reuters:

"We are undergoing a series of solar bursts in the sky that are impacting the northern side of the world," said Delta spokesman Anthony Black on Tuesday. "It can impact your ability to communicate... So, basically, the polar routes are being flown further south than normal."

For those not fortunate enough to live in the high latitudes to witness aurorae for themselves, there are now loads of great video timeplapses online. This one has some particularly cool looking ribbon aurorae. 

 AURORA ISLANDICA - a Northern Lights Timelapse from Agust Ingvarsson on Vimeo.

And here's a dry but informative video explainer, if you're wondering exactly how it works. 


 The Aurora Borealis from Per Byhring on Vimeo.

 

The Taller the Man, the Less Likely the Heart Failure?

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 3:22 PM EST
Which coffee cup do YOU think will outlive the other?

Tall men, it seems, tend to get everything in life. Heightened self-esteem, better returns in the dating world, fatter paychecks, racial-stereotype-defying careers in professional sports.

And according to some Boston medical researchers, vertically gifted gents may also have naturally superior odds at dodging heart disease than you short folk do.

Or maybe they don't.

Reuters reports on the decidedly wishy-washy study:

Tall men appear less likely than shorter ones to develop heart failure, according to a study covering thousands of U.S. doctors. Researchers in Boston said that while there is no proof that a few extra centimeters protect the heart, it was possible that short and tall people are different in other ways, including in their diets or diseases growing up, and that this too could affect heart risks.

"This study doesn't say anything definite about whether height, itself, is going to lead to anything," said lead researcher Luc Djousse, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical Center.

But the researchers...said it's also possible that something about the biology of taller people, such as the distance between their hearts and certain branches of arteries and blood vessels, could decrease stress on the heart. Data came from 22,000 male doctors who were followed as part of a large study of heart disease and cancer, starting when they were in their mid-50s, on average...The taller men were, the lower their chance of heart failure, the researchers found. The tallest men in the study, those over 1.8 meter (six feet), were 24 percent less likely to less likely to report a heart failure diagnosis during the study period than men who were 1.72 meters (5 ft 8 in) and shorter.

It's important to remember how this (just like countless other scientific studies out there) isn't in any way conclusive, which, to be fair, the researchers fully and openly acknowledge. The height-focused part of their study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Cardiology, sounds at least somewhat plausible: A taller frame could mean that it takes more time for blood to reach the heart, meaning less stress for the vital organ.

However, since that point is caveated to hell—infections, childhood nutrition, and other factors that can affect both heart health and height—there's no cause to believe that Jamie Cullum is destined to cardiovascularly buy the farm years before Bob Saget does. Also, it's worth mentioning that the medical journal The Lancet Oncology published a study in July 2011 showing a possible link between greater height and increased risk of ten common types of cancer, so there's really no point in inferring that taller individuals are biological X-Men.

But it's not like that is going to stop people from wondering whether being tall gets you elected President of the United States.

Report: White House Pressured Scientists to Underestimate BP Spill Size

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 1:28 PM EST
Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned.

Back at the height of the massive Gulf oil spill in 2010, there was quite a bit of controversy about just how much crude was blasting out of the well. According to new documents that a watchdog group released on Monday, there was heated debate among the scientists who evaluated the flow rate as well.

For the first few weeks after the spill began in April 2010, BP misled the public about how big it was, and the government repeated BP's estimate without question. And when the government released its own estimate in late May of up to 25,000 barrels per day, that too was controversial—and proved to be far lower than the actual size, which was more like 53,000 barrels of oil per day.

Now, an email released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) traces efforts to downplay the spill size in the initial weeks back to the White House. The group released a May 29, 2010 email from Dr. Marcia McNutt, the director of the US Geologic Survey and head of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG), that was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The email came after scientists on the flow-rate team complained to McNutt about how the spill figures were conveyed to the press, and in response she cited pressure from the White House as the reason the numbers were low-balled. Rather than reporting that the lower-end estimate of the spill was 25,000 barrels per day, officials cited that figure as the higher-end estimate:

I cannot tell you what a nightmare the past two days have been dealing with the communications people at the White House, DOI, and the NIC who seem incapable of understanding the concept of a lower bound. The press release that went out on our results was misleading and was not reviewed by a scientist for accuracy.

McNutt's email reportedly came in response to complaints from scientists on the team about how the flow rate had been handled. PEER also filed a complaint against Dr. William Lehr, a scientist at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who was the team lead for the FRTG's plume analysis team. PEER argues that Lehr "manipulated the scientific results" of the team's experts and understated the spill rate in what it communicated. From PEER's release on the complaint:

Lehr was leader of one of the most important FRTG teams, the “Plume Team” which analyzed videos of the oil leaks to produce the first estimates. Three of the 13 Plume Team experts used a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 bpd. But three other experts on the Plume Team reported that PIV was underestimating the size of the leak by more than 50%. Those three experts used a different technology to correctly peg the leak rate at 50,000 to 60,000 bpd.
Yet Lehr did not tell the public or key decision makers that there was a deep split on the Plume Team. In the Plume Team’s Final Report, the body of which Lehr wrote, he reported that "most of the Plume Team used PIV" which produced “consistent and accurate” estimates. These underestimates were repeated to the public and media.

The government was also criticized for its handling of an August 2010 report on where the oil went, for which Lehr also served as the lead scientist. (I've requested comment from NOAA and the White House, and will update this post to reflect that when I receive it.) UPDATE: Scott Smullen, a spokesman for NOAA, said it is "not appropriate to comment" on this matter because it is still in litigation.

It's not entirely clear from PEER's release, though, what was real reason for the inaccurate figures—a single scientist giving inaccurate information, the White House pressuring him to do so, or the White House screwing up the reporting of the figures. Whatever it was, it resulted in the public getting a dramatically inaccurate impression about the size of the spill.

Image-of-the-Week: Weather Change

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 1:50 PM EST

 Northern hemisphere jet stream over Canada: NASA

Northern hemisphere jet stream over Canada: NASA

The big weather shift that's dumped record snow on Seattle, record floods on Oregon, busted open the storm door in California, and is now barreling across the country with wintery weather was jump-started by a weakening in the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. A near-record-strong positive AO for December through mid-January, combined with a La Niña, kept the jet stream jammed up over Canada and Alaska. The AO's now at about normal... though the polar jet is entrained far enough north that no major snow storms are expected to hit the US for the rest of January—except for the beleaguered Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile this winter continues the alarming warming trend of the 21st century. Jeff Masters at WunderBlog writes: "It's likely the lack of storms will make January 2012 one of the top five driest January months on record. This month is also likely to be a top-ten warmest January, but won't be able to challenge January of 2006 for the top spot. That January was an incredible 8.5°F above average in the contiguous US, and so far, we are running about 4-5°F above average."