Blue Marble - May 2012

Nuclear Regulator Resigns Under Industry Pressure

| Mon May. 21, 2012 12:33 PM PDT

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko resigned on Monday, ending what had been months of fighting both over and within the panel charged with regulating the US nuclear industry.

"After an incredibly productive three years as Chairman, I have decided this is the appropriate time to continue my efforts to ensure public safety in a different forum," he said in a statement. "This is the right time to pass along the public safety torch to a new chairman who will keep a strong focus on carrying out the vital mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Jaczko had served on the commission for nearly 8 years, and Obama tapped him to serve as its chairman in May 2009. He'd been under fire from the nuclear industry, as well as its allies in Congress and on commission. In the past years, battles over building a waste repository at Yucca Mountain and safety changes in response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan had put pressure on Jaczko, a reform-minded regulator who had worked for Rep. Ed Markey and Sen. Harry Reid before joining the NRC, to resign.

Jaczko's main opponent on the panel was William Magwood, an Obama appointee and nuclear industry insider who had waged a campaign to push the chairman out. Magwood had previously worked for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, a major provider of nuclear fuel, technology, plant design, and equipment, and had a record of championing expansion of the industry. He and the three other more industry-sympathetic commissioners accused Jaczko of mismanaging the commission. They expressed "grave concerns" about his leadership in a letter to the White House, and said he "intimidated and bullied" NRC staff.

But critics of the nuclear industry were fans of the chairman. "Jaczko did all he could to stand up to the political and economic influence of the nuclear industry and set commonsense reforms to make the industry safer post-Fukushima," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program in a statement. "But it wasn't enough. The other commissioners didn't want to be so tough on industry."

The White House will need to appoint a new chairman to replace Jaczko.

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Unplugging These 6 Gadgets Will Cut Your Electricity Bill

| Mon May. 21, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

We all know we're supposed to unplug our technological gadgets when we're not using them, and back in the days when we only had a few home electronics—a TV here, a stereo there—that wasn't so hard to do. But as our devices proliferate (see chart below), this formerly simple task has become increasingly annoying. Who wants to spend an extra 10 minutes every morning stalking around the house and finding phone chargers and cable boxes to unplug like we're on some kind of weird easter egg hunt? And furthermore, would the energy savings from unplugging really be enough to make it worth the effort? I asked a few experts to weigh in.

2007: The Good Old Days

| Fri May. 18, 2012 1:19 PM PDT

While doing some research today, I came across this 2007 blog post from US News & World Reports discussing a Mitt Romney television appearance before he formally announced his intent to run for office:

Romney gave some vague answers regarding his views on dealing with climate change, other than to emphasize that he wanted market-oriented solutions. But Romney, a guy who is trying to portray himself as a follower of Reaganomics, never really contested the underlying science. And probably no major 2008 candidate will either, for fear of being labeled a scientifically illiterate know-nothing.

Oh, 2007. You were so quaint!

Gas Company Goes After Fire-Breathing-Hose Blogger

| Fri May. 18, 2012 1:09 PM PDT

Natural gas company Range Resources Corp. is suing a Texas landowner and environmental consultant for $3 million in damages, and may be coming after a blogger as well for damaging its reputation.

In 2010, Texas landowner Steven Lipsky made a video (see below) that showed a garden hose shooting out fire, which he blamed on nearby natural gas extraction. He sent the video to Texas blogger Sharon Wilson, who posted it online, and he hired environmental consultant Alisa Rich to come test the water and send the results to the EPA.

Bloomberg reports that Range is accusing Lipsky and Rich of a "conspiracy to harm its reputation" in the suit, and demanding information from Wilson to prove it:

Range won one round in its fight this week, when a judge ruled that Wilson had to turn over e-mails she exchanged with the EPA and Lipsky, as she is a "central and recurring character in the conspiracy lawsuit."
“This has everything to do with Range trying to shut me up, and further intimidate opponents,” Wilson said in an interview. Wilson, who said she didn’t even receive the video of Lipsky’s flaming hose until after the EPA acted, said she fears she may be added to the suit against Lipsky and Rich.

Lipsky says he sought Rich's help, along with the EPA's, after state regulators didn't respond to his concerns. EPA staff then came out and did its own tests, finding alarming levels of methan that they believe posed an "imminent and substantial risk of explosion or fire." The agency ordered Range to take immediate action to correct the situation. But then state regulators in Texas decided that the Range wasn't responsible. So Lipsky sued Range, and the company countersued the pair for defamation, accusing Lipsky and Rich of conspiring to get the EPA involved.

It's a fairly complicated back story, but it raises some concerns. For one, should a company be able to sue individuals for raising concerns to the EPA? And second, should the company be able to obtain correspondence between those individuals and an outside blogger? To make things more complicated, Wilson now works for the Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project, which the judge used to argue that she should not be afforded any protections as a journalist and thus needs to hand over the emails.

It's certainly a case worth watching. Here's the video that got the whole thing started:

The Endangered Species Act Really Works

| Fri May. 18, 2012 10:36 AM PDT

 Gray wolves were hunted to near extinction in the western US. By 1973 none remained in the wild. Listed as endangered in 1967, they recolonized the Rocky Mountains from Canada. Protected, they grew to 1,679 wolves by 2009, delisted in 2011: Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia CommonsGray wolves were hunted to near extinction in the western US. By 1973 none remained in the wild. Listed as endangered in 1967, they recolonized the Rocky Mountains from Canada. Protected, they grew to 1,679 wolves by 2009, delisted in 2011: Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for Endangered Species Day the Center for Biological Diversity analyzed 110 species protected under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) and found that 90 percent are on track to meet recovery goals set by federal scientists, with some far exceeding expectations. From the report:

On average, species recovered in 25 years, while their recovery plan predicted 23 years — a 91 percent timeliness accomplishment.

Critics of the Endangered Species Act contend it is a failure because only 1 percent of the species under its protection have recovered and been delisted... To objectively test whether the Endangered Species Act is recovering species at a sufficient rate, we compared the actual recovery rate of 110 species with the projected recovery rate in their federal recovery plans. The species range over all 50 states, include all major taxonomic groups, and have a diversity of listing lengths.We found that the Endangered Species Act has a remarkably successful recovery rate: 90 percent of species are recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan.

We confirmed the conclusion of scientists and auditors who assert that the great majority of species have not been listed long enough to warrant an expectation of recovery: 80 percent of species have not yet reached their expected recovery year. On average, these species have been listed for just 32 years, while their recovery plans required 46 years of listing.

Meet a few of the success stories:

Bighorn sheep: Philipp Haupt via Wikimedia CommonsBighorn sheep: Philipp Haupt via Wikimedia CommonsThe Peninsular bighorn sheep declined to near extinction because of housing developments, agriculture, collisions with cars, predation by mountain lions and diseases contracted from domestic sheep. Sheep populations plummeted from 971 in 1971, to 276 in 1996, but since being listed as endangered in 1998, the number of bighorns has increased to 981 as of 2010.

 

Green sea turtle: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia CommonsGreen sea turtle: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia CommonsGreen sea turtles in the Pacific are threatened by habitat loss, egg collection, hunting, beach development, bycatch mortality in commercial fisheries, and sea level rise due to global warming. In Hawaii, more than 90 percent of nesting occurs at French Frigate Shoals. Since being listed as endangered in 1978, the number females nesting there increased from 105 to 808 in 2011.

 

 

Piping plover: Mdf via Wikimedia CommonsPiping plover: Mdf via Wikimedia Commons

Atlantic piping plover populations declined due to 19th-century hunting and the millinery trade. After these threats were eliminated, its numbers increased, but began declining after 1950 due to beach development and predation by native and introduced predators. It was listed on the ESA in 1985, and gained habitat protection, control of recreationists on beaches, and predators, which allowed its population in the US to increase from 550 pairs in 1986 to 1,550 in 2011. The US population reached its overall recovery goal in three of the past five years, but some of its subpopulations haven't reached recovery yet. Its associated Canadian population has grown little.

From the report:

The corollary to claiming the Endangered Species Act is 1 percent successful because only 1 percent of species has been delisted is that the other 99 percent are failures. In fact, many still endangered species have increased dramatically since being placed on the list. Among them are the California least tern (2,819 percent increase in nesting pairs), San Miguel island fox (3,830 percent increase in wild foxes), black-footed ferret (8,280 percent increase in the fall population), Atlantic green sea turtle (2,206 percent increase in nesting females on Florida beaches) and El Segundo blue butterfly (22,312 percent increase in butterflies).

"Saving species from the brink of extinction—and bringing them back to a point where they're going to survive into the future—can't happen overnight," says lead author Kieran Suckling. "Calling the Act at failure at this point is like throwing away a 10-day prescription of antibiotics on the third day and saying they don't work. It just makes no sense."

You can read the entire report and meet some of the other species being aided by the ESA here.

Rapid Retreat of Columbia Glacier

| Thu May. 17, 2012 2:05 PM PDT

 

Columbia Glacier in 1986 (top) and 2011 (bottom): NASAColumbia Glacier, Alaska, in 1986 (top) and 2011 (bottom): NASA

Alaska's Columbia Glacier is one of the fastest evolving ice rivers on Earth. It flows from its headwaters 10,000 feet up in the Chugach Mountains towards Prince William Sound. In 1980 it began a rapid retreat that continues today. From NASA Earth Observatory:

These two false-color images, both captured by the Thematic Mapper (TM) instrument on Landsat 5, show the glacier and the surrounding landscape in 1986 and 2011. Snow and ice appears bright cyan, vegetation is green, clouds are white or light orange, and the open ocean is dark blue. Exposed bedrock is brown, while rocky debris on the glacier’s surface is gray. The 2011 image has more snow because it was captured in May, while the 1986 image was captured in July... As the glacier has retreated, it has also thinned substantially, as shown by the expansion of brown bedrock areas. Rings of freshly exposed rock, known as trimlines, are prominent in the later image. Since the 1980s, the glacier has lost about half of its total thickness and volume.

The retreat has also changed the flow dynamics of the glacier. The medial moraine—a line of debris deposited when separate channels of ice merge (seen as a line down the center of the 1986 glacier)—divided the Main Branch from West Branch in 1986. Now the retreating terminus has effectively split the Columbia into two glaciers, with calving occurring on both fronts.

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Last 12 Months Hottest in Recorded US History

| Thu May. 17, 2012 11:53 AM PDT

 Average national temperature records May 2011 to April 2012: NOAA/NCDC

Record average national temperatures from May 2011 to April 2012: NOAA/NCDC

 

The last 12 months were the hottest 12 months in US history since record-keeping began in 1895. This according to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center's latest State of the Climate report.

This historic heat broke the prior record set from November 1999 to October 2000 by 0.1°F.

 

Ten warmest 12-month periods in contiguous US since 1895: NOAA/NCDC.Ten warmest 12-month periods in contiguous US since 1895: NOAA/NCDC.

 

But what's really interesting is if you put this new record in context of the current trend. As you can see in the chart above, all 10 of the hottest 12-year periods have occurred since 1999. 

In the US, the 12 months between May 2011 and April 2012 ranked as:

  • the 2nd warmest summer on record
  • the 4th warmest winter on record
  • the warmest March on record
  • during this time 22 states saw record warmth
  • during this time 19 states saw top 10 hottest

 

Contiguous US temperature January-April 1895-2012: NOAA/NCDCContiguous US temperature January-April 1895-2012: NOAA/NCDC

 

The average temperature in the contiguous US from January to April 2012 was of 45.4°F—that's 5.4°F above the 20th-century average for that period. It shattered the prior record set in 2006 by a huge margin of 1.6°F. 

The chart above shows the hot first quarter of 2012 charted against the long-term average since 1895. Specifically:

  • The warming trend of 1.9°F per century is shown by the red line
  • The long-term average can be seen in the gray line
  • Actual temperatures from January to April 2012 are shown in the blue points/line
  • The green line is a 9-point binomial filter, which shows decadal-scale variations.

 

United States Drought Monitor as of 1 May  2012.: climate.govUnited States Drought Monitor as of 1 May 2012.: climate.gov

 

The gnarly partner to all this heat is drought. The US Drought Monitor (USDM) map above shows the state of drought in the lower 48 as of 1 May 2012. That's a lot of dry territory.

Drought is assessed on the D-scale (D0 to D4)—similar to the scale used for hurricanes and tornadoes—and designed to reflect the unusualness of a drought episode. D1 conditions (pale yellow) are expected to occur only ~10 to 20 percent of the time. Much-rarer D4 conditions are expected no more than every 50 years (darkest orange).

 Heat anomalies central and eastern tropical Pacific: NWS/Climate Prediction Center

Heat anomalies central and eastern equatorial Pacific in past 12 months: NWS/Climate Prediction Center

One mastermind behind these temperature and drought anomalies in the US is the state of sea surface temperatures in the top ~1,000 feet (300 meters) of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These reflect our current position in the El Niño/La Niña/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The strong La Niña that held sway for most of the last couple of years dissipated in April. The Climate Prediction Center forecasts a return to ENSO neutral conditions this summer—with a strong caveat that at least half the climate models predict a swing to El Niño.

But the ENSO pattern has been changing in recent years too (I wrote more about that here). So we really don't know what's in store, other than the likelihood—based on the trends—of more extremes and, with them, more costly weather and agricultural disasters.

Info About Fracking Concerns Limited in Pennsylvania

| Thu May. 17, 2012 11:18 AM PDT

Pennsylvanians say that the state is ignoring their health complaints that they believed could be related to natural gas extraction. Residents say they have a hard time reaching state offices when they are seeking information or trying to register concerns, and the state hasn't done a good job of tracking health issues, according to the Associated Press:

"Everybody kind of just passed the buck," said Sheri Makepeace, a northwestern Pennsylvania resident who said that starting last year she tried calling the Department of Health and other agencies over fears that nearby drilling created health problems. "I've talked to so many different people and have gotten so many different stories."

This story follows up on one from last month in which the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported that it had received just 30 health complaints related to natural gas extraction in the state. After that article came out, residents pointed out that it's actually really difficult to report things to the health department. The recorded message at the phone number listed for health information and referral in the department doesn't list gas-related issues as one of the menu options, or anything remotely close.

As one researcher working on this topic told me, she called that number numerous times and "never reached a human." She either got a busy signal, she said, or was asked to leave a message. It made one wonder how many complaints the department is actually recording and addressing.

This latest story also comes after doctors and environmental activists in the state have raised concerns about a new law that they argue limits what doctors can do with information related to natural gas extraction. The law, passed in February, allows doctors to access information about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing in order to treat patients who may have been exposed. But the law also puts limits on how the doctors can use and share that information, requiring them to sign a non-disclousre agreement about whatever information they obtain. Opponents argue that this hampers doctors' ability to study how many people are seeking treatment and to what they might have been exposed, closing down yet another avenue for information. 

Today's Sign of the Apocalypse: The Butt-Steered "Personal Mobility Device"

| Thu May. 17, 2012 9:19 AM PDT

Honda is introducing a new "personal mobility device" that saves people not only from the horror of walking, but also from using their hands to steer. The latest marvel of human innovation, the Uni-Cub is designed to be steered with your butt:

Designed to mimic the speed and height of walking, the Uni-Cub's lithium batteries power a trick wheel that can move any direction. Using sensors on the seats, riders simply shift their weight in the direction they wish to travel -- there's also a smartphone control app -- and the unit rides high so that the riders have eye contact with people not cool enough to glide around the office up to 3.7 miles on a charge.

If this were intended for people with disabilities that make them unable to walk, that might be one thing. But the ad features perfectly mobile people using these futuristic unicycles to move around their office building. Sometimes, real life gets a little too much like Wall-E.

Brooklynites: Don't Frack Our Beer!

| Thu May. 17, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Does worrying about fracking make you thirst for a drink? Before you raise that pint of ale to your lips, consider the source.

The brewmeister of Brooklyn Brewery says toxic fracking chemicals like methanol, benzene, and ethylene glycol (found in anti-freeze) could contaminate his beer by leaking into New York's water supply. Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania, New York state has promised to ban high-volume fracking from the city's watershed. But environmentalists say the draft fracking regulations are weak and leave the largest unfiltered water supply in the United States—not to mention the beer that is made from it—vulnerable.

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