Blue Marble - June 2012

Heartland Institute and Scott Walker Join Forces

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 12:41 PM PDT

Now that he survived his recall election, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is lending his support to an upcoming fundraiser for the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying think-tank.

On August 9, Heartland will celebrate its 28th anniversary with a $150-a-head dinner in Chicago (or you can just buy a whole table for $2,500). Heartland has grabbed plenty of headlines this year. In February, a bunch of internal Heartland documents were published detailing the group's climate miseducation plans (along with one document that the group says was a fake). In May, the group put up controversial billboards comparing people who believe in climate change to the Unabomber. (Climate change isn't the only issue Heartland brings its "free-market solutions" to address, but it's the one the group has become most infamous for.)

The billboard incident has caused several funders to drop their support for the group, to the tune of $825,000 in lost donations. Enter Walker, who they described in an email to supporters as "the nation’s most influential and successful governor." The email promises that the dinner "will be the biggest celebration of freedom in Chicago in 2012."

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Updated: What's Happening With the Colorado Wildfires Explained

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
The National Guard drops water onto the High Park fire approximately 15 miles west of Fort Collins, June 18, 2012

This explainer is being continuously updated; click on a question below to read the answer. 


Update: Monday, July 2:  Firefighters continue to make progress on the Waldo Canyon fire, which is now 55 percent contained. The Denver Post has an interactive Google map that allows you to navigate the neighborhoods damaged by the fire. Here's a video shot by a resident returning to his scorched neighborhood:

Update: Sunday, July 1, 2:39 PM: Firefighters have contained 45 percent of the Waldo Canyon fire, and evacuations continue to be lifted. Officials slightly increased the count of houses destroyed to 350, and the death toll was raised from one to two. The Denver Post reports on residents confronting the damage here; the Boulder Daily Camera's take is here. The High Park fire is now 100 percent contained.

Here's a Colorado Springs resident describing the moment when she found out the moment her house was destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire:

Udpate: Saturday, June 30, 10:30 AM: The High Park Fire is almost completely contained, an most evacuees are returning to their homes. Meanwhile, the Waldo Canyon fire is now 30 percent contained, but since the weather has become hotter and drier, firefighters expect a challenging weekend. The Denver Post reports that burglaries occurred at several of the homes that were evacuated.

Here's a time-lapse video of the Waldo Canyon fire, taken from June 23-June 28. (I recommend muting the terrible soundtrack.)

What are the biggest fires that are currently burning?
Friday, June 29: There are currently ten active wildfires in Colorado.

The second most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, the High Park Fire started near Ft. Collins on June 9 and has burned more than 140 square miles and destroyed 257 homes, to the tune of $36.4 million in firefighting costs. It is now about 85 percent contained, and nearly 2,000 evacuees are just returning home. It's expected to be completely contained by July 1.

The other high-profile blaze is the Waldo Canyon Fire, which started on June 23 just outside Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city. At about 26 square miles, the Waldo Canyon Fire is smaller than the High Park Fire, but because of the population density in its path, it's already the most destructive in Colorado history. So far, it's only 15 percent contained and has killed one person and burned 346 homes on 35 streets, according to the Denver Post. Tens of thousands around Colorado Springs have been evacuated, and Army troops are working to protect the Air Force Academy there. So far, the Waldo Canyon Fire has cost $3.2 million. "Huge, ugly, black clouds of smoke," is how one evacuee described the fire to the Post. "When you step out of your front door and there's smoke, it's absolutely terrifying."

Here's a video of President Obama's visit to Colorado Springs:

 You can see before and after aerial views of the landscape around both the High Park Fire and the Waldo Canyon fires with this cool USGS tool.

This is a video taken from a home near the Waldo Canyon (Colorado Springs) fire:

 Here's one view of the High Park fire near Ft. Collins:

The National Guard/FlickrThe National Guard/Flickr

And here's smoke from the Flagstaff Fire as captured from a parking lot at the nearby University of Colorado-Boulder:*

Zach Dischner/FlickrZach Dischner/Flickr

How do these fires compare to others in history?

In late May, the Gila National Forest Fire became the biggest in New Mexico history, eating up more than 265 square miles. While neither of the big Colorado fires has yet to claim such a title for itself, the governor is already calling it the worst fire season in state history, with four dead statewide,  hundreds of structures destoyed, and nearly $40 million spent.

Are these fires caused by climate change?

In a conference call with reporters this morning, leading climate scientists Dr. Steven Running of University of Montana and Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton explained how more frequent and severe wildfires are a predictable by-product of global warming, as higher temperatures leave dried-out forests just a lightning-strike away from uncontrollable blazes.

"This is really a window into what global warming looks like," Oppenheimer said. "It looks like heat. It looks like dryness. It looks like this kind of disaster."

Scientists are reluctant to attribute these or any fires directly to man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the fires fit squarely into a pattern predicted by climate models that show emissions driving warmer winters that lead to longer, drier summers.

The Waldo Canyon fire invades the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs Tuesday, June 26.  Jerilee Bennett/Colorado Springs GazetteThe Waldo Canyon fire invades a Colorado Springs neighborhood on Tuesday, June 26. Jerilee Bennett/Colorado Springs Gazette

Is this the new normal?

If local temperature averages continue to rise, then yes. This March through May was the second warmest such period on record for Colorado, and as the chart below shows, it's been exceptionally dry:

Courtesy NOAACourtesy NOAAA 2009 federal study found that higher spring and summer temperatures are the principal cause of more and bigger fires in the Southwest. Movever, Running added, higher winter temperatures mean less snowpack to keep fallen wood moist; this year, Colorado's snowpack has been 80 percent below average. Warmer winters also benefit the invasive pine beetle: More beetles are surviving the winter and emerging hungry, leaving a wake of dead trees that make perfect kindling.

Smoke from the High Park fire seen from National Guard post near Ft. Collins.  The National Guard/FlickrSmoke from the High Park fire seen from National Guard post near Ft. Collins. The National Guard/Flickr

So if this is the new normal, what's the best way to fight fires?

The important thing, Running said, is to keep brush buildup low by using carefully controlled burns and collecting and reusing dead wood from the forest floor. Firefighters should also focus their efforts on areas near human development, and let fires out in the wildnerness burn more freely. This week, at least one Washington lawmaker railed on the Forest Service for not doing more to aggressively battle the flames. But Running cautioned that with high winds, the fires "are like a nuclear bomb going off," and that telling anyone to simply stop them is like telling NOAA to simply stop hurricanes before they reach land.

Both scientists agreed that if, as predicted, wildfires continue to become more frequent and severe, there will only be so much we can do to control them.

"There's always a shortfall between climate change and people's ability to engineer or adapt," Oppenheimer said. "Eventually, if we don't control emissions, we won't be able to adapt."

Two residents near the Waldo Canyon fire embrace as smoke rises over their neighborhood.  Mark Reis/Colorado Springs GazetteTwo residents near the Waldo Canyon fire embrace as smoke rises over their neighborhood. Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the photo taken from the UC-Boulder parking lot was of the High Park Fire. The sentence has since been fixed.

Exxon CEO Thinks You're All Overreacting to Climate Change

| Thu Jun. 28, 2012 2:01 PM PDT
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson

ExxonMobil has never been a big fan of climate science. The largest oil company in the world has been caught funding bad science on climate, and CEO Rex Tillerson has claimed previously that there are "too many complexities around climate science for anybody to fully understand all of the causes and effects." This week, Tillerson made news by acknowledging that climate change is real, it's just not that big of a deal.

The Guardian flags a speech Tillerson gave at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday in which he argued that the public is "illiterate," reporters are "lazy," and climate models "are not particularly good." But he did note that climate change is happening:

So I'm not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It'll have a warming impact. The -- how large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict. And depending on how large it is, then projects how dire the consequences are.

No worries though, Tillerson thinks the "consequences are manageable" because humans are good at adapting. This is what he told a questioner who expressed concern that burning all those fossil fuels means future generations will suffer:

What do you want to do if we think the future has sea level rising four inches, six inches? Where are the impacted areas, and what do you want to do to adapt to that? And as human beings as a -- as a -- as a species, that's why we're all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around -- we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don't -- the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.

I'm not really sure whether to interpret this as progress on Tillerson's part.

Study: Raising MPG Standards Creates Jobs

| Thu Jun. 28, 2012 1:31 PM PDT

Good for the environment, good for the economy—more fuel efficient cars will result in job growth according to a new study. In the analysis, the BlueGreen Alliance and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that 570,000 jobs will be created in the US by 2030 with Obama's proposed fuel efficiency increase.

Luke Tonachel, a vehicles analyst with the National Resource Defense Council, explained on his NRDC blog:

1) improving automobile efficiency requires the addition of new technologies, which are designed and manufactured by adding workers in the auto industry and (2) money saved on gasoline by drivers will be spent on other goods and services, increasing jobs across the economy.

Job creation isn't the only boost the US economy could receive from the fuel efficiency standards; the study determined a net increase in annual GDP of $75 billion by 2030. Also, the efficiency standards (if achieved) would close the gap between US standards and other countries manufacturing cars—including China, Japan and the European Union. With this gap closing, researchers noted the potential to strengthen presence of US auto-manufacturers in the international market.

So fuel efficiency is a win-win-win-win (and so on), with the Obama administration set to finalize the standards by August.

Feds Grant Approval for Southern Portion of Keystone XL

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 2:20 PM PDT

Not long after delaying the approval of the Keystone XL, President Obama announced that the administration is expediting consideration of permits for the pipeline's southern portion. And that's exactly what happened on Wednesday, according to the New York Times:

The Army Corps of Engineers on Monday told TransCanada, which wants to build a 1,700-mile pipeline to carry heavy crude from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, that it could begin construction on the portion of the proposed pipeline that would end at the gulf port of Nederland, Tex. The Corps of Engineers is still reviewing permits for a section of the pipeline beginning at a major oil depot in Cushing, Okla., and linking up with the final leg ending at the gulf.

Nebraska is still working out an alternative route around sensitive ecosystems in the state, and there's still quite a lot of opposition there to building it at all. But in the meantime, the other half of the pipeline is moving ahead full steam.

BPA Linked to Brain Tumors for the First Time

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

The news just keeps getting worse for bisphenol A. Lab and animal research has linked it to reproductive disorders, obesity, diabetes, and cancers sensitive to hormonal activity, like those of the breast and prostate. Studies show that more than the vast majority of Americans have measurable levels of BPA in their urine (though as Sydney Brownstone wrote on this blog yesterday, Old Order Mennonites seem to have less)—not surprising given that the chemical is used in thousands of consumer products, including cans and plastic packaging for food and beverages.

Now a new study from China has found an association, for the first time, between human exposure to BPA and brain tumors. The kind of  tumor, called meningioma, is usually benign and occurs more frequently in women than in men. Since female hormones appear to fuel the growth of meningioma tumors, it's not surprising that an endocrine-disrupting chemical like BPA, which mimics estrogen in the body, could play a similar role.

In the study, researchers compared BPA urine levels in about 250 Chinese adults diagnosed with meningioma to a similar number of healthy controls. Those with the highest levels were 60 percent more likely to have a meningioma tumor than those with the lowest, after adjusting for being overweight, having a history of hormone replacement therapy, and other factors that can influence the risk of the disease. 

The study is far from conclusive. For one thing, the researchers determined BPA exposure levels from a single urine sample. Since the body quickly excretes BPA, a sample taken after a tumor has already developed does not necessarily indicate that exposure to the chemical predated the illness.

Despite the limitations, the findings are another reminder that ubiquitous chemicals like BPA are likely to inflict significant damage before the weight of evidence finally convinces federal agencies to take greater steps to cut human exposures. As Sydney noted in her post yesterday, the FDA still thinks it's not a problem for us to ingest the chemical with our canned tomato soup.

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Study: Los Angeles Average Temps to Rise 4 to 5 Degrees by 2041

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 3:02 PM PDT
"Extreme Hot Days" to Rise for LA

A team of UCLA scientists recently fed about 20 global climate models into powerful supercomputers to calculate just how much Los Angeles-area temperatures might increase over the next few decades. After months of complex computing—about eight times as many individual calculations as there are grains of sand on the West Coast of the United States—the scientists' computers spit out some troubling projections

By 2041, the UCLA team found, temperatures in Los Angeles will rise by an average of 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The number of "extreme hot days"—days with temperatures above 95 degrees—will triple in the downtown area and will quadruple or more in inland valleys, deserts, and mountains.

Dramatic shifts will occur even if the world manages to successfully curtail greenhouse gas emissions. In the unlikely event that the world starts to get its emissions problems under control, Los Angeles temperatures will still reach 70 percent of the study's "business-as-usual" levels, the researchers found.

Court Upholds EPA's Right to Regulate CO2

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 2:10 PM PDT

Turns out the Obama Environmental Protection Agency didn't make up all that stuff about carbon dioxide being bad for you. On Tuesday, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the EPA's determination that greenhouse gases warm the planet are dangerous for humans, as well as the agency's ability to regulate those gases.

Several big polluters and friends of big polluters—groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Mining Association and states like Texas and Virginia—tried to sue the EPA to block new greenhouse gas rules. They were challenging both the EPA's 2009 finding that the gases are a threat—a finding that came in response to a Supreme Court's decision that the EPA could regulate those gases under the Clean Air Act, and a conclusion that the Bush administration itself reached but decided to sit on—and the agency's ability to write rules to deal with those emissions.

Part of the challenge contended that the EPA had not done enough of its own work to prove that climate change is a real threat, to which the Court had a rather cheeky response. "This is how science works," the judges wrote. "EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question."

Enviros, as you might expect, are cheering the unanimous 82-page decision that found that the EPA was "unambiguously correct" in its process to introduce new emission rules. Here's the Sierra Club's executive director Michael Brune:

Carbon pollution is dangerous to our planet and our health. The Environmental Protection Agency has the right and the duty to keep our communities healthy and now the path is clear for them to curb this dangerous pollution, which threatens our families and planet. We applaud the court’s decision and stand with the EPA as they continue to fight for the health of American families.

Meanwhile, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate's resident climate crank, has a say:

EPA's massive and complicated regulatory barrage will continue to punish job creators and further undermine our economy. This is the true agenda that President Obama is trying to hide under disingenuous reelection rhetoric about an 'all of the above' approach to energy.

The decision means that EPA can keep doing what it's been doing on climate change. Sorry, Inhofe.

What Can We Learn From Mennonites' Pee Samples?

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 12:15 AM PDT

For an industrial chemical released into the environment at more than 1 million pounds a year, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that bisphenol A also shows up in humans. Four years ago, researchers discovered that BPA, which is used in plastic manufacturing, was present in nearly 93 percent of the US population's urine.

So it's disturbing that a growing body of scientific literature suggests that BPA disrupts the body's hormones. Exposure to the chemical has been associated with risk for obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, infertility, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and neurological problems.

UPDATED: Extreme Weather Takes Over America

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 1:40 PM PDT

UPDATE June 29, 2012: Nature’s fury continues to wreak havoc across the US. The Colorado Waldo Canyon wildfire—officially the worst ever in state history—is leaving a wasteland in its wake, according to the Colorado Springs mayor. (Read all about the Colorado fires in our explainer here.)

 Meanwhile, it's hot as hell almost everywhere in the country, but historic torridity is creeping east. Sweltering temperatures have shattered Dust Bowl era records. At least two people may have died from excessive heat. Oh, and good luck breathing this weekend, Maryland. Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Debby, which pelted northern Florida with more than 20 inches of wet despair, has claimed seven lives. Perhaps June is the cruelest month.

June 28, 2012 - It was 103 degrees in Memphis, Tenn.  Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal/ZUMAPressJune 28, 2012 - It was 103 degrees in Memphis, Tenn. Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal/ZUMAPress

June 27, 2012 -  Port Richey, Fla. residents were evacuated from their mobile home park in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby. Brendan Fitterer/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPressJune 27, 2012 - Port Richey, Fla. residents were evacuated from their mobile home park in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby. Brendan Fitterer/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPress


June 22, 2009: The Supreme Court's upcoming health-care ruling, Sandusky's trial by jury, and this 68-year-old, bullied bus monitor aside, the big news everyone seems to be talking about this week is WTF is up with our nation's weather?

In northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, three days of torrential downpour forced nearly 300 people from their homes, drowned more than a dozen zoo animals, and caused $80 million in infrastructure damage. Fifteen large, uncontained fires are blazing in 10 states; in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, deadly conflagrations have scorched more than 400,000 acres of land. On the other side of the country, a giant heat wave is engulfing the Northeast and parts of the Great Plains.

The map below should give you some indication of the past week's crazy weather forecast. Click on the colored markers for more detailed information about record-breaking temperatures and precipitation and the status of current wildfire suppression efforts.

Sources: National Climate Data Center via Wunderground.com; USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program, June 22, 2012

Want a closer look at weather patterns and extremes in your area? Read Julia Whitty's post on Weather Underground, and make your own interactive map here.

Here are some photos from this week's weather weirdness.

June 20, 2012 - Flooding in Duluth, Minn. has torn up area roads.  Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPressJune 20, 2012 - Flooding in Duluth, Minn. has torn up area roads. Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPressJune 20, 2012 - A wildfire blazes behind St. Anthony Catholic Church in Sandia Pueblo, N. Mex.  Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMAPressJune 20, 2012 - A wildfire blazes behind St. Anthony Catholic Church in Sandia Pueblo, N. Mex. Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMAPress

June 21, 2012 - A mother and her son try to beat the heat while waiting for a bus in Baltimore, Md.  Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/ZUMAPressJune 21, 2012 - A mother and her son try to beat the heat while waiting for a bus in Baltimore, Md. Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/ZUMAPress

What was the weather like in your part of town? Let us know in the comments.