Blue Marble - June 2012

Scientists: Climate Change Causing Green Life to Bloom Under Arctic Ice

| Thu Jun. 14, 2012 12:43 PM EDT
Scientists study Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea.

In sun-starved depths where plant life was thought to be impossible, scientists have found a massive phytoplankton bloom—and they think climate change may be allowing it to flourish. The researchers who discovered the 62 mile-long bloom under Artic Sea ice in July 2011 and wrote about in the journal Science last week believe the huge colony of tiny plants owes its existence to sea ice that is melting as a result of climate change.

Kevin Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University, and 30 co-authors concluded that during summer months melting ice forms pools of water that focus sunlight through the ice, allowing for growth of photosynthic organisms. Until now, scientists thought photosynthetic organisms could not develop under ice in the Arctic Ocean "because of insufficient light," according to the study.

The existence of phytoplankton under sea ice means there may be much more life in the Arctic than previously thought. In fact, the scientists note current estimates could be 10 times too low.

The discovery could have a negative impact on the food web, ScienceNOW reported:

Changes in bloom timing might not be good news for migratory animals, such as gray whales traveling from the Gulf of California to feed in the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic shelf. "The blooms are happening possibly weeks before the ice begins to retreat," Arrigo says. Timing, he notes, is a really important issue in the Arctic, with its short seasons. "We have no idea how this might be changing those [migratory] patterns."

"[I]t's really important for us to understand how this earth we live in is going to change in the face of ongoing changes in climate, and other things that are going on," Arriago told NPR. "Seeing something like this... is a real wake-up call."

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2012 Wildfire Forecast

| Wed Jun. 13, 2012 3:42 PM EDT

Whitewater-Baldy Complex wildfire, Gila National Forest, New Mexico: Kari Greer | USFS Gila National ForestWhitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, New Mexico: Kari Greer | USFS Gila National Forest

Wildfire season is well underway. Based on the number of acres burned in 2012 to date, this year is running below the 10-year average (1,012,419 acres compared to 1,546,333 acres). What's notable though is that although there have been fewer fires (24,062 this year-to-date versus 33,755 for the 10-year average), a few are giant beasts:

  • Honey Prairie Complex Fire in the Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, began burning in 2011 and was only officially declared extinguished a year later in April 2012 after burning 309,200 acres (483 square miles)
  • Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire (more below), largest in New Mexico history, currently burning 280,075 acres
  • High Park Fire in Colorado (great MoJo piece by Tim McDonnell and James West here) now burning 46,600 acres
  • Little Bear fire in New Mexico currently burning 37,520 acres
  • Easter Complex in Virginia (now inactive) burned 35,821 acres
  • County Line Fire in Florida now burning 34,936 acres
  • Duck Lake Fire in Michigan now burning 21,069 acres
  • Sunflower in Arizona now burning 17,618 acres
  • Gladiator in Arizona now burning 16,240 acres

All numbers courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center's (NIFC) latest incident management report. You can see the full list, updated frequently, here.

Whitewater-Baldy Complex burn severity map as of 9 June 2012 (click for larger version): Brian Park | USFSWhitewater-Baldy Complex burn severity map as of 9 June 2012 (click for larger version): Brian Park / USFS

The enormous and aggressive Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest began as two fires—the Baldy Fire ignited 9 May and the Whitewater Fire detected 16 May—both ignited by lightning. They merged on 24 May and are now burning in terrain the US Forest Service lists as extreme: so remote, steep, and rugged as to severely hamper firefighting efforts.

The good news on this fire is that a different kind of management may lessen its impacts compared to a similar megafire last year, the Las Conchas, also in New Mexico. That 2011 conflagration burned so hot in such dense vegetation that all life burned to the ground. Later, seasonal thunderstorms flooded the denuded slopes and clogged waterways with silt and ash. But things may be better for the Gila. Since the 1970s, Gila National Forest managers have let wildfires burn during favorable conditions in order to knock back the vegetation that fuels fire. Consequently, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire has burned with low-to-moderate intensity. Hopefully much will survive it.

High Park Fire, Colorado, burn map as of 6 June 2012 (click for larger version): USFSHigh Park Fire, Colorado, burn map as of 12 June 2012 (click for larger version): USFS

As for the rapidly growing High Park Fire, now the third largest in Colorado history, Jeff Masters at Wunderblog points out how it's abetted by a warming climate that fuels the spread of pine-killing beetles: 

According to the Denver Post, the High Park Fire is burning in an area where 70% of the trees that have been killed by mountain pine beetles; the insects have devastated forests in western North America in recent years. As our climate change blogger, Dr. Ricky Rood explains, the pine beetle is killed (controlled) by temperatures less than -40°F. This is at the edge of the coldest temperatures normally seen in the U.S., and these cold extremes have largely disappeared since 1990. In Colorado, the lack of -40°F temperatures in winter has allowed the beetles to produce two broods of young per year, instead of one. The beetles are also attacking the pine trees up to a month earlier than the historic norm.

National Interagency Fire CenterNational Interagency Fire CenterNational Interagency Fire Center

The maps above show the potential for significant fire for the month of June (top) and for the July-to-September season (bottom). "Potential" is defined as the likelihood that a wildland fire event will require mobilization of firefighting resources from outside the area where the fire originates. As you can see, things may get worse in the West, but better in the Upper Midwest. The full NIFC report is here.

Does This Pollution Make Me Look Fat?

| Wed Jun. 13, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The logic usually applied to "food deserts" seems straightforward: If you make fresh food available to low-income areas that lack access to it, consumption habits and obesity rates will change. As the Washington Post pointed out on Friday, the Obama administration's $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative is precisely this kind of plan, as is Philadelphia's new $900,000 program to retrofit its corner stores.

But there's a problem with this thinking. As the Washington Post and our own Kevin Drum have noted, a growing body of evidence suggests that bringing veggies to poor neighbors doesn't necessarily fix the obesity problem, nor does it change habits. Instead, the environmental factors of obesity appear to be myriad and manifold, and the causal relationships are baffling as hell.

Enter another fascinating conversation to the mix: Researchers at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health recently published findings that pregnant women exposed to higher levels of PAHs (chemicals released into the air from the burning of coal, diesel, oil, gas and tobacco) more than doubled their risk of bearing children who would be obese by the age of 7. The correlation was consistent with the findings from experiments in mice, in which researchers discovered that exposure to PAHs resulted in increased fat mass. Not only did mice feel the bulge, but cell culture studies also revealed that exposure to PAHs limited fat cells' ability to normally dispel lipids. The Columbia study is one of the first to show that obesity in humans isn't only affected by what you eat—it's also what you breathe in the air around you.

Rivers Will Generate a Quarter of GDP by 2050

| Tue Jun. 12, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Over 500 million people live in the Ganges river basin.

This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Water is the very stuff of life, yet billions of people do not have access to a clean, reliable source. Changing that takes investment—public and private—so winning the economic argument about the value of such investment is very valuable. And a new report commissioned by HSBC makes the argument in a striking way.

By mid-century, a full quarter of global GDP will be generated from within the world's 10 most populous river basins, predict researchers from Frontier Economics. In contrast, the current contribution from the people living on the banks of great rivers such as Ganges, Yangtze, Nile, and the Niger is just a tenth.

Who Drives Climate Change?

| Mon Jun. 11, 2012 5:23 PM EDT

People or consumption? Hamedog via Wikimedia CommonsPeople v. consumption: Hamedog via Wikimedia CommonsA new paper in the  journal Nature Climate Change assesses which human factors are the most important drivers of greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors note know that for every 1 percent increase in human population, greenhouse gas emissions go up by slightly more than 1 percent. But which aspects of human life contribute most—more people, more consumption, or both—and how might that play out in a world racing towards 10 billion people this century? (I wrote at length about this concern in Mother Jones' The Last Taboo.)

The biggest question is whether or not affluence will ever mitigate its own consumption. The authors write:

Ultimately, most releases of greenhouse gases are driven by consumption of goods and services by individuals, households and organizations, and the manufacturing, transport and waste disposal that underpins that consumption... It is possible that the composition of consumption might shift from current patterns to more benign ones, as might the technologies supporting manufacturing, transport and waste disposal. Indeed, many policies seek to encourage such changes.

 

Population by nation. WikipediaPopulation by nation: WikipediaFrom the paper, important factors affecting greenhouse gas emissions:

  • The number of households seems to be more important than numbers of people.
  • The age structure of a population may be more important than its overall size—particularly the fraction of the population in the age groups most generally considered economically active, typically ages 15 to 65.
  • Rapid population growth may be worse than overall population growth, since it's likely to strain the institutions that might make population growth more environmentally benign.

 

Hypothetical Kuznets curve.  Princess Tiswas via Wikimedia CommonsHypothetical Kuznets curve: Princess Tiswas via Wikimedia Commons

More in the numbers-versus-consumption debate:

  • Affluence can both increase and decease emissions—increase through overall consumption, decrease by policies that seek to mitigate environmental damage to the environment—though it's not clear if decreases ever outweighs increases.
  • The argument by some scholars that affluence beyond a certain threshold—known as the environmental Kuznets curve (above)—leads to declining stress on the environment does not appear to hold true for greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • Cities generate substantial demand for goods and services that induce emissions in distant places—a process called "metabolic rift"—which therefore may not truly reduce their emissions, as some studies suggest.
  • The effects of global trade on greenhouse-gas emissions are nuanced—some environmental policies may be imported alongside transnational business, yet emissions are transferred from the rich world to the poor too.
  • Forms of governance (democratic versus non-democratic) are not significant predictors of greenhouse-gas emissions.

 Prevailing world religions Wikimedia CommonsPrevailing world religions: Wikimedia Commons

Interesting assumptions that lack adequate data to either confirm or dispute, including:

  • Women's political empowerment leads to amelioration of greenhouse-gas emissions (not clear from data).
  • High levels of militarization are antithetical to environmental protection (some data suggest yes).
  • Different world religions differ in their regard for the environment, which influences greenhouse gas emissions (unsure).
  • Nations with strong environmental movements adopt public policies and private practices that actually reduce emissions (uncertain).

 The authors conclude:

Concern with the magnitude of population and economic growth has led to renewed calls to slow population growth as well as to questions about the relationship between affluence and societal health and well-being. However, in a time of global recession with intensified demands for economic growth, and with waxing concern about how elderly populations can be supported in low-fertility nations that have a high dependency ratio, such reconceptualizations of basic societal goals face a struggle. Nonetheless, it is clear that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the face of scale growth will not occur in the context of the institutional, political and cultural forces that have prevailed so far.

The paper:

  • Eugene A. Rosa & Thomas Dietz. Human drivers of national greenhouse-gas emissions. Nature Climate Change. doi:10.1038/nclimate1506

The Downfall of Uni-Solar and the Future of Solar Energy As We Know It

| Mon Jun. 11, 2012 3:10 PM EDT

These stories were produced by PBS and are reproduced here as part of The Climate Desk collaboration.

It seemed like a classic "feel-good" economic story. A Midwest factory town loses its biggest employer but reinvents itself as a pioneer in green energy. In 2006, Uni-Solar, a solar panel manufacturing company came to Greenville, Mich., to open up shop. It brought hope and excitement to a beleaguered city. But now, is its economic future—based on the power of the sun—thick with clouds?

 

So what does Uni-Solar’s bankruptcy mean for the promise of a future filled with solar energy? For answers, we turn to David Biello, an associate editor of Scientific American. He's been reporting on energy and the environment for more than a decade and has been following developments within the solar industry.

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Breaking: World Going to Hell in a Handbasket

| Fri Jun. 8, 2012 2:04 PM EDT

Now that the zombie apocalypse appears to have calmed down, we have a different end-of-the-world situation to deal with. A study published in the science journal Nature this week finds that human activity is pushing Earth toward a planetary shift wherein "widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result."

According to paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky and his 21 co-authors, the human population is ecologically influencial enough to transform the planet into a state heretofore unknown in human experience. The study draws from more than 100 scientific papers looking at environmental tipping points and biological forecasting. The paper concludes that the global ecosystem:

... is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale 'tipping point' highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.

This study adds to the ever-growing pile of scientific evidence that humans are on path to destroy life on Earth as we know it unless we change our ways. A Wired article on the study noted that human activity currently covers 43 percent of land around the world, and affects double that amount. Humans use one-third of all available fresh water and harvest 20 percent of the planet's net terrestrial production. As Wired points out, current extinction rates compare to that which occured during the demise of dinosaurs. The paper finds that we're about 15 years away from reaching "critical threshold" if we continue our current rate of land use:

Graph of land use as a quantification of a potential planetary state shift Anthony Barnosky, et al./NatureGraph of land use as a quantification of a potential planetary state shift Anthony Barnosky, et al./Nature

The study isn't all gloom and doom; the researchers offer these solutions in the study's conclusion:

Diminishing the range of biological surprises resulting from bottom-up (local-to-global) and top-down (global-to-local) forcings, postponing their effects and, in the optimal case, averting a planetary-scale critical transition demands global cooperation to stem current global-scale anthropogenic forcings. This will require reducing world population growth and per-capita resource use; rapidly increasing the proportion of the world’s energy budget that is supplied by sources other than fossil fuels while also becoming more efficient in using fossil fuels when they provide the only option; increasing the efficiency of existing means of food production and distribution instead of converting new areas or relying on wild species to feed people; and enhancing efforts to manage as reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services, both in the terrestrial and marine realms, the parts of Earth’s surface that are not already dominated by humans.

Rio Shutters Monster Landfill Ahead of Rio+20

| Fri Jun. 8, 2012 6:02 AM EDT

Weng Xinyang/Xinhua/Zuma Press

In anticipation of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Rio June 20-22, the glamorous host city is trying to further sexify itself by laying to rest its infamous Jardim Gramacho garbage dump.

At the megaconference, dubbed Rio+20, world leaders and international organizations will try to hash out a "roadmap" on how to move towards an enviro-friendly global economy. And the 60 million-ton mountain of trash rising from Rio's Guanabara Bay doesn't exactly inspire lofty green thoughts. Among the largest open-air landfills in the world, the Gramacho dump was a ghastly example of the shoddy waste disposal system that plagued Brazil until sweeping regulations were implemented just a couple of years ago. Designed to hold 3,000 tons of garbage a day for 20 years, as Inter Press Service reports, it ended up receiving around three times that amount daily and operating 14 years longer, with no lining beneath it to prevent toxic leakage into the bay, and very little oversight. 

Weng Xinyang/Xinhua/Zuma PressWeng Xinyang/Xinhua/Zuma Press

Are Recent Animal Disease Outbreaks Linked?

| Thu Jun. 7, 2012 10:08 AM EDT

A number of backyard creatures are finding survival a bit more difficult these days. White-nose syndrome has already been linked to more than 5.5 million bat deaths in North America, in what the US Fish & Wildlife Service has called the "worst wildlife health crisis in memory." Frog populations have seen an increased number of deaths due to a fungal disease. And honeybee populations have also been in decline in recent years due to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon whose cause scientists are still trying to figure out.   

A recent article in Discovery News reports that some experts have come to suspect that the diseases spurring these population declines may be linked. Researchers list a number of potential factors that might be causing these species to be more susceptible to disease, like habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use:

"It appears that many species are under an immense amount of stress, allowing opportunistic diseases to take hold," Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, told Discovery News. "Life is far more complex, so a single cause is likely not the only explanation for the bat, bee and frog deaths. There could be five, six or more factors involved." 

The Discovery article notes the importance of these species to the nation's agriculture industry:

Both bees and bats are critical to agriculture. Bats, like bees, can help to pollinate. They are also a primary predator of agricultural and other insect pests, such as mosquitoes. Frogs additionally consume insect pests.

Even if you don't care about bats, bees, or frogs, you probably do care about food. Which makes these deaths—and their cause—a big concern.

Dramatic Decline in Microscopic Life on BP's Oiled Beaches

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 5:00 PM EDT

Oile beach, Lousiana, 2010: © Julia WhittyOiled beach, Grand Isle, Louisiana, 2010: © Julia Whitty The damage may be invisible to the naked eye but researchers report dramatic changes to the community of microbes living in the sands along shorelines oiled by BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

These communities of the very small—comprised of microscopic worms, fungi, protists, algae, and the larval stages of larger species less than a millimeter in size—underpin vital ecosystem functions in the ocean. They provide food and nutrients for other species, churn the sediments, and contribute to the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur within marine ecosystems. From the paper in PLoS ONE:

Microbial eukaryotes inherently underpin all higher trophic levels, and thus, understanding the biological impact and subsequent recovery of these communities is critical for interpreting the long-term effects of the D[eepwater] H[orizon] oil spill.
 

Micorbial communities in different beach communities pre and post BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe: Holly M. Bik, et al. PLoS ONE. doi:Microbial communities in Gulf beach communities before and after BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe: Holly M. Bik, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:

"In addition to the inherent toxicity of hydrocarbon compounds, the unprecedented spill response effort likely had significant implications for microbial eukaryote communities. At the time of sample collection the (closed) beach at Grand Isle, Louisiana, was undergoing persistent, heavy oiling and a large-scale mechanical cleanup response."

Before oil ravaged the coast, Gulf beaches teemed with a diverse mix of microbes living in the sand.

Four months later the population was radically changed: no longer diverse, instead largely dominated by only a few species of fungi and nematode worms.

"It went from a very diverse mix of species to being dominated by a few predators and opportunists," says lead author Holly Bik, a postdoc at the University of California Davis.

In the graphs above you can see the proportions of taxa and how they changed at five beaches around Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay, Alabama, with an additional post-spill site along a persistently oiled beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

The researchers determined the makeup of these invisible communities by extracting DNA and sequencing millions of genetic "barcodes."

By September 2010, four months after the wellhead blowout, the deceptively clean appearance of Gulf beaches barely hinted at the true biological story underway.

"What struck me," says Bik, "was that you wouldn't have known there was an oil spill—most of our sample sites looked like normal beaches. But when we analyzed the genomic data, there seemed to be all these biological repercussions going on."

The team continues to collect and analyze samples from these same beaches. Expect more publications.

Oil cleaning equipment, Grand Isle, Louisiana, May 2010: © Julia WhittyOil cleaning equipment on scoured beach, Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 2010: © Julia Whitty

From the paper:

[W]hile pre-spill samples exhibit high richness and evenness of genera, post-spill communities contain mainly predatory and scavenger taxa alongside an abundance of juveniles. Based on this community analysis, our data suggest considerable (hidden) initial impacts across Gulf beaches may be ongoing, despite the disappearance of visible surface oil in the region.

As I've reported before (here, here, and here), we're just now beginning to get a sense of the deadly aftereffects of BP's disaster on dolphins, fish, seabirds, and other wildlife of the Gulf and beyond. Oh, and it's not that great for human life either.

The paper:

  • Holly M. Bik, Kenneth M. Halanych, Jyotsna Sharma, and W. Kelley Thomas. Dramatic shifts in benthic microbial eukaryote communities following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. PLoS ONE. doi: