Blue Marble - June 2012

Greens Sue NJ Gov. Chris Christie for Dropping Climate Pact

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 10:20 AM PDT

A little over a year ago, New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced that the state was dropping out of the northeast climate pact known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Christie declared RGGI, which began in January 2009, a "gimmicky program" and deemed it a failure, touching off outrage among enviros who saw it as the testing ground for larger policies to cut planet-warming emissions. Now greens are suing Christie.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environment New Jersey filed the suit on Wednesday. Over on its blog, NRDC argues that Christie circumvented public process when he made his decision to rescind New Jersey's involvement in the pact:

The suit maintains that the Christie administration effectively dissolved the program in the state without following proper legal procedure. That procedure requires the administration to seek public input before making big decisions like this one. For example, by providing notice of its intent to repeal regulations and by giving the public a reasonable opportunity to comment.

Christie is seen a potential running mate for Mitt Romney, who also famously pulled out of RGGI right before it launched after previously supporting it. (Massachusetts eventually signed on after he left office.)

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Was a Spacecraft to Blame for the Third Annual Antelope Die-Off in Kazakhstan?

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 8:29 AM PDT
Saiga antelopes

This post was originally published at Scientific American.

This is getting a bit weird. In May 2010 at least 12,000 critically endangered saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) were found dead in Kazakhstan. Exactly one year later a second mass die-off occurred, killing 450 of the rare animals. Now, once again almost exactly a year later, yet another round of deaths has struck Kazakhstan’s saiga population. Nearly 1,000 dead antelopes have been found over the past two weeks.

The previous deaths were blamed on pasteurellosis, an infection that afflicts the lungs. Healthy animals aren’t usually affected by the bacterium that causes this disease but it can prove fatal in creatures whose immune systems have been compromised. This week Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture blamed the most recent spate of deaths on pasteurellosis, although they provided no details.

But some ecologists in Kazakhstan and Russia are instead blaming the fatalities on the April landing of a Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station. At least 120 dead saigas were found near the village of Sorsha, where the Soyuz landed last month. Others see a possible link to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in central Kazakhstan. “It could be from chemical elements left from space rockets that fly over this place,” ecologist Musagali Duambekov, leader of the For a Green Planet political movement, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He also suggested the “extensive use of fertilizers” in the region could be harming the antelopes’ immune systems.

Others suggest a more natural cause. Eleanor Milner-Gulland, chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, told RFE/RL the animals may have consumed too much wet or “rich” vegetation tainted by bacteria during the breeding season. Most of the dead saigas were females who had just given birth, which may have left them in a weakened state and unable to feed their young, which also died.

Once numbering in the millions, saigas were extensively poached after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today just 85,000 or so animals remain in five isolated populations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Other than these mysterious die-offs, the main threats to saigas remain poaching for their meat and traditional Asian medicine, in which the animals’ translucent horns are used to “cure” headaches, fevers, sore throats and other ailments.

Only 13.5 Percent of Food Workers Earn a Living Wage

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Americans love to talk about food—how asparagus is best prepared, which preservatives to avoid, which types of fish are in peril, where to find the best tacos or most delectable peach pies. Most of us spend far less time contemplating the people that pick, slaughter, sort, process, and deliver the products of this 1.8 trillion dollar industry—a group of workers that makes up one-sixth of the country's workforce.

Unfortunately, the majority of these workers take home crummy wages and few benefits, according to a new report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Perhaps most strikingly, among workers surveyed by the FCWA, only 13.5 percent made a liveable wage (an amount FCWA defines as higher than 150 percent of the regional poverty level). And not a single agricultural worker of around the 90 surveyed said they earned enough to live on.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance survey results echo sobering realities about jobs across what the FCWA calls "the food chain": a vast network of laborers in the production, processing, and distribution of food. In 2011, the lowest-paying jobs nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were combined food preparers and servers and fast food cooks; restaurant servers and hosts, farmworkers, baristas, and food preparers didn't trail far behind (and all made it in the bottom twenty).

"Jobs in the food system aren't seen as high skilled," says Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "It's hard work; you need to know the right way to cut a chicken in a poultry plant. But the general perception is that they are low skilled and don't deserve good wages." Overall, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, food workers earn less than workers in other industries:

Courtesy Food Chain Workers AllianceSource: "The Hands That Feed Us," Food Chain Workers Alliance

As the report points out, fair market Rent (PDF) for a two bedroom place (think: small family) is $949 a month. An employee would need to make $18.25 an hour to afford it; instead, the median wage in the industry is $9.28 for high school grads, and only slightly more for those with some college under their belts. 

Sometimes these low wages had to do with employees being paid piece rate rather than hourly, making earnings more dependent on a worker's physical health and on supply fluctuations. In her intimate account of the working conditions of some food workers across the food chain, The American Way of Eating, journalist Tracie McMillan went undercover at a garlic farm to do piece-rate work. She writes of her coworker:

Even though Rosalinda's tarjeta will show that she came in at 5:30 a.m. and left at 2:30 p.m., a nine-hour day, her check will say she was there for two hours—exactly the number of hours she would have had to work at minimum wage ($8) to earn what she made via piece rate ($16). Later, I ask advocates if this is unusual, and everyone shrugs: Not every contractor does it, but they see it regularly. Earning minimum wage at our piece rate would require a speed that seems impossible: five buckets an hour. (In my month in garlic, I do not meet anyone who can average that for an entire day.)

Aside from crappy pay, most food workers surveyed by the Alliance have few or any benefits such as health care and paid sick days. More than three quarters reported having no access to health coverage through work, and over half had no health care at all. A glaring 79 percent either had no paid sick time at their jobs or did not know if they had this benefit.

MAP: The Best Spots to See Venus Crossing the Sun

| Tue Jun. 5, 2012 12:38 PM PDT

 2004 Transit of Venus de:Benutzer:Klingon via Wikimedia Commons2004 Transit of Venus: de:Benutzer:Klingon via Wikimedia Commons

The transit of Venus begins today, June 5. The next one is not for 105 years, in 2117. You can check where and when today's transit will be visible in the map below. Plus a live webcast of the transit at NASA tv.

There's a nifty citizen science effort underway via Astronomers Without Borders if you care to download the free app and contribute the data from your own sighting. Here's what they say about the history of the event:

Only six Venus transits have occurred since the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century. There were no observers of the first one in 1631 that we know of, and only two who we know saw the transit in 1639. In the 18th century, Sir Edmond Halley described a method for measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun through observations of Venus transits from widely separated sites. The same had been attempted with transits of Mercury but Venus transits allow for much more precise measurements.Halley's publication led to expeditions sent around the world by many nations to view the pair of Venus transits later in the 17th century. The same took place with the 19th century pair of Venus transits. No Venus transits occurred in the 20th century. While 20th century methods eventually supplanted the Venus transit method in measuring distances in the solar system, the history of the event is an important link to our past. 

Fred Espenak, NASAFred Espenak, NASA

 As for what scientists are looking to learn from the 2012 transit, LiveScience notes a few interesting research questions, including:

  • Those bizarre blue stripes in Venus' upper clouds called "blue absorbers" or "UV absorbers" that absorb nearly half the total solar energy hitting the planet, keeping it superhot with surface temperatures greater than 860° F (460° C). What are they made of? Maybe elemental sulfur?
  • What's making the Venusian lightning, since we don't think there's any rainfall there?
  • What's behind Venus' super-rotating atmosphere driven by storms circling the planet at speeds greater than 220 mph (360 kph), 60 times faster than the planet itself rotates.
  • Most of all, what happened to Venus' oceans, were they destroyed by a runaway greenhouse effect? If so, how long did it take?

 

Venus in true color: NASA/Ricardo NunesVenus in true color: NASA/Ricardo Nunes

 

The video below summarizes our modern understanding of the transit, including a brief history of its science and what we hope to learn today.

 

 ScienceCasts: The 2012 Transit of Venus from Science@NASA on Vimeo.

 

The next video recreates a high-tech presentation of the transit from 1769. The tools have changed but not the fascination.

 

Artificial Transit of Venus Model from Transit of Venus on Vimeo.

 

GOP Ally of Big Coal Smears Environmental Activist With Kiddie Porn Accusation

| Tue Jun. 5, 2012 7:50 AM PDT
A mountaintop-removal coal mining site in West Virginia.

When award-winning West Virginia anti-coal activist Maria Gunnoe went to Washington, DC, last week, she was prepared for obstructionist tactics. She was prepared to face icy stares and hard questions from Republican lawmakers. She was not prepared to be branded a pedophile.

On Friday, Gunnoe testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources in a hearing on the Obama administration's contentious relationship with the coal mining industry. She had prepared a slideshow presentation that included a photograph by the photojournalist Katie Falkenberg depicting a nude young girl sitting in a bathtub filled with murky brown water. The photo was meant as a salient statement to legislators on the impact of coal mining on society's most vulnerable. "We are forced to bathe our children in polluted water," she said. "Or not bathe them."

Such water is common in taps near mountaintop-removal sites, Gunnoe told me yesterday by phone, and often contains high levels of arsenic, which can seep into groundwater via underground cracks caused by mining explosions.

It was a point she never got to make: Shortly before she testified, Gunnoe was approached by committee staffers at the direction of Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and told she had to remove the photo from her presentation.* She complied, but after testifying was escorted into an empty side room by Capitol Police Special Agent Randall Hayden and questioned for nearly an hour about the photo, which she had gotten the approval of the photographer, the child's parents, and Democratic committee members to use. Gunnoe said Hayden, whom she described as kind and professional, told her the committee believed the photo to be suggestive of child pornography, and that he would be following up on the possibility of her being involved in such illegal activity.

"I had to pull my chin off the table," Gunnoe, a mother of two, said. "It gives you a very sick feeling when you're actually a protector of children." In 2009, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending rural West Virginia communities against the health and ecological impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The smear tactic against Gunnoe has nothing to do with coal mining issues, of course—but while the tactic may seem shocking, it's not difficult to see why Lamborn and his allies would react with such hostility. Lamborn, the Chairman on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, has long kept close ties to coal—a billion-dollar industry in his home state—last year blasting what he called Obama's "war on coal" in a keynote address to the American Coal Council. 

Maria Gunnoe Rainforest Action Network/FlickrMaria Gunnoe Rainforest Action Network/FlickrFalkenberg, who captured the original image, said it was taken in the presence of the girl's parents, and with their express consent, for a series she was working on about the human effects of mountaintop-removal mining. 

Late Monday, a Capitol Police spokesperson said the investigation had so far "discovered no criminal activity"; in a separate phone interview with Mother Jones, Hayden said the case was still open and declined to detail any specifics. "We look at everything, and then the US Attorney makes a decision about whether or not to prosecute," he said.

Committee spokesman Spencer Pederson said that after Lamborn decided the photo was "inappropriate for committee use," committee staffers, with the blessing of committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), contacted police to "apprise them of the situation." Lamborn's office, and the child's parents, did not return calls from Mother Jones for comment.

Joan Mulhern, an Earthjustice staff attorney and friend of Gunnoe who was present at the hearing, said the committee's tactic wasn't fooling anybody. "Committee Republicans are in denial and want to stay that way about the human health effects of mountaintop removal," she said, adding that the suggestion of Gunnoe being involved with child porn was "despicable."

* Clarification: Gunnoe was not approached by Rep. Lamborn's staff, as the story originally stated, according to his spokesperson Catherine Mortensen. After unsuccessful attempts to get comment from Lamborn's office on Monday, Mother Jones was contacted by Mortensen on Tuesday afternoon; she confirmed Lamborn decided that the photo should be barred from the presentation—but did so without looking at it himself, instead relying on the recommendation of Natural Resources Committee staff, who also contacted the police.

* Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story published on June 5, Mother Jones included the photo at issue, crediting and linking it to the website of the photographer, Katie Falkenberg. Later that day Falkenberg contacted us to request that we remove the photo, in accordance with the family's desire that it not appear in the media, at which time we removed it.

BP Sends a Chill Through the Scientific Community

| Mon Jun. 4, 2012 11:49 AM PDT

Two years after the Deepwater Horizon dumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, some of the scientists who tried to figure out how much oil escaped are facing legal scrutiny. BP has subpoenaed the emails of Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who conducted research on the oil spill flow rate back in 2010.

During the spill, both BP and the Coast Guard requested Reddy and Camilli's help in determining the flow rate, which was crucial to understanding how much oil was pouring into the Gulf. The two scientists—and other researchers brought on to come up with an estimate—determined that the rate was about 57,000 barrels of oil per day. Now the federal government has brought a lawsuit against BP for the disaster, and the scientists are caught in the middle. The suit could cost BP billions in fines, and the company has requested access to the scientists' records. Reddy and Camilli have already turned over 50,000 pages of documents, data, and algorithms they used in their research, but BP wants more—it also wants all their emails, and the court has consented.

The two coauthored an op-ed in the Boston Globe on Sunday criticizing this development and expressing concern that their email conversations would be used to undermine their scientific conclusions:

Our concern is not simply invasion of privacy, but the erosion of the scientific deliberative process.
Deliberation is an integral part of the scientific method that has existed for more than 2,000 years; e-mail is the 21st century medium by which these deliberations now often occur. During this process, researchers challenge each other and hone ideas. In reviewing our private documents, BP will probably find e-mail correspondence showing that during the course of our analysis, we hit dead-ends; that we remained skeptical and pushed one another to analyze data from various perspectives; that we discovered weaknesses in our methods (if only to find ways to make them stronger); or that we modified our course, especially when we received new information that provided additional insight and caused us to re-examine hypotheses and methods.
In these candid discussions among researchers, constructive criticism and devil’s advocacy are welcomed. Such interchange does not cast doubt on the strengths of our conclusions; rather, it constitutes the typically unvarnished, yet rigorous, deliberative process by which scientists test and refine their conclusions to reduce uncertainty and increase accuracy. To ensure the research's quality, scientific peers conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the work before it is published.

This is a deeply concerning development, as this would not be the first time that private correspondence was used to undermine scientific findings. Anyone remember Climategate, in which debates between researchers was used to undermine the science behind global warming? In this case, a private company would have access to scientists' personal emails, which could then be taken out of context and used to undermine their work. It's damaging not just for their research on the BP spill, but for science on any number of other subjects.

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Electricity Supply Vulnerable to Climate Change

| Mon Jun. 4, 2012 11:45 AM PDT

Nucleay power plant, France: Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia CommonsNuclear power plant, France: Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons

A new paper* in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change assesses the vulnerability of electrical supplies in the US and Europe to climate-change. Specifically to rising water temperatures and reduced river flows needed to cool thermoelectric plants—coal, gas, and nuclear powered.

Both the US and Europe rely heavily on thermoelectricity. Currently:

  • 91 percent of total electricity in the US is produced by thermoelectric plants
  • 78 percent of total electricity in Europe is thermoelectric
  • Together these plants represent ~86 percent of total thermoelectric water withdrawals globally

Annual temperature departures for the years 2006 NOAA Earth System Research LaboratoryAnnual temperature departures for the year 2006: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory The problem is that during recent warm dry summers (2003, 2006, 2009) some thermoelectric power plants in Europe and the southeastern US were forced to produce less electricity when water temperatures rose too high to keep the plants adequately cooled or to meet environmental requirements. From the paper:

In both Europe and the US, power plants are highly regulated (European Fish Directive, Water Framework Directive and US Clean Water Act) with restrictions on the amount of water withdrawn and temperatures of the water discharged. It is especially during warm periods with low river flows that conflicts arise between environmental standards of receiving waters and economic consequences of reduced electricity production.

Increases in river water temperatures (click for larger version) Michelle TH van Vliet, et al, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1546Increases in river water temperatures (click for larger version) for the 2040s (2031-2060) and the 2080s (2071-2100) relative to the control period (1971-2000): Michelle TH van Vliet, et al, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1546

The authors combined water flow and temperature models with electricity production models. The results suggest big changes in the summers ahead. Specifically, in the years between 2031 and 2060:

"In the US, the largest water temperature increases are projected for the southern part of the Mississippi Basin and along the east coast. In Europe, projected water temperature increases are highest in the southwestern and southeastern parts."
  • An average decrease in capacity of power plants of between 6.3 and 19 percent (depending on cooling system type) in Europe
  • An average decrease in capacity of between 4.4 and 16 percent in the US 
  • Probabilities of extreme (>90 percent) reductions in thermoelectric power production will increase on average by a factor of three

The paper* concludes:

[C]limate change will impact thermoelectric power production in Europe and the US through a combination of increased water temperatures and reduced river flow, especially during summer... Dry cooling systems or non-freshwater sources for cooling are possible alternatives but may be limited by locally available resources and have costs and performance disadvantages. A switch to new gas-fired power plants with higher efficiencies (~ 58%) could also reduce the vulnerability because of smaller water demands when compared with coal- and nuclear-fuelled stations (with mean efficiencies of ~ 46% and ~ 34%). Considering the projected decreases in cooling-water availability during summer in combination with the long design life of power plant infrastructure, adaptation options should be included in today's planning and strategies to meet the growing electricity demand in the twenty-first century. In this respect, the electricity sector is on the receiving (impacts) as well as producing (emissions) side of the climate change equation.

 

*The paper:

  • Michelle T. H. van Vliet, John R. Yearsley, Fulco Ludwig, Stefan Vögele, Dennis P. Lettenmaier, and Pavel Kabat. Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change. Nature Climate Change. doi:10.1038/nclimate1546

Is Your Supermarket Chucking Foods Before They Expire?

| Mon Jun. 4, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

I am a recovering food-expiration-date zealot. Until very recently, I poured milk down the drain if it was even 24 hours past the date printed on the carton. Then, when I was trying to kick my restaurant habit and reduce my food waste and spending, I learned that the very expiration dates that I had so faithfully adhered to were mere suggestions. Even the FDA admits this: "'Use-by' dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates," the agency says in its expiration-date FAQ. "But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below." The only product that the FDA requires expiration dates for is infant formula.

Given all this, I've been looking for foods nearing their expiration dates at supermarkets: If I can save a yogurt from an early death, I reason, I'll be cutting down on food waste at the supermarket. But I've noticed at my local stores that it's close to impossible to find food that's less than a week away from expiring.

So I reached out to the corporate HQ of several major supermarket chains. Of the five chains I contacted, only Whole Foods responded, assuring me, vaguely, that team members "are consistently reviewing products on our shelves, and removing anything that that has reached its expiration date."

Frustrated, I decided to call the stores I shop at directly, using yogurt as a test case. How long before a container of yogurt expires, I asked, would it remain on the shelf? As a whole, employees seemed fairly foggy on store policy. "I think we keep it out up until the day it expires?" said a guy at Whole Foods. "Wait, no, that sounds kind of sketchy. I'd like to think we do better than that." He connected me with an employee in the dairy department. "For the little ones we leave them on the shelf up until about three days before the expiration dates," he said. "For the big ones usually we take it out of the shelf like five days before." Some of the usable product gets donated to charity. A manager at Lucky told me he thought that employees left yogurt out until two or three days before its expiration date, then threw it away. Trader Joe's did the same, though the employee I talked do said she thought that some items were donated.

Lastly, I had this conversation with a manager at my local Safeway:

Me: What happens to yogurt that doesn't get sold before its expiration date?
Manager: It gets distressed.
Me: Distressed? What does that mean?
Manager: It gets distressed, company policy. We scan it and then throw it away.

Oof. Of course, the employees I talked to were only speaking about practices at their individual stores, not chainwide policies. But grocery store food waste is a well-documented problem. A 2006 study (PDF) found that the average supermarket sends close to 5,000 pounds of food per employee to the landfill every year.

So what's a waste-hating consumer to do? For starters, find out if your supermarket donates near-expired goods to charity. You can also hunt for bargains. Some major supermarket chains have discount shelves and bins, and discount chains like Grocery Outlet sell food that's nearing or just slightly past its prime. Once you get your goods home, treat expiration dates as guidelines. In most cases, you can use your eyes and nose: If something looks off-color or smells unappetizing, that's a good sign that you shouldn't eat it. You can also refer to this handy FDA chart.

Indonesia's Ambitious Rainforest Plan Not Going So Well

| Fri Jun. 1, 2012 2:03 PM PDT

A little more than a year ago, Indonesia enacted a moratorium on deforestation, and got major finanial backing from the US and Norway to make it happen. But now halfway into its two-year moratorium, it is still a long way from meeting its goal of cutting carbon emissions by saving the rainforest, according to a recent article from the journal Nature.

The Norway-US partnership provided $1 billion to Indonesia to protect its forested lands, with the goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 26 percent by 2020. The moratorium was meant to be a temporary time-out on chopping down the rainforest, and during the two years, the Indonesian government was supposed to develop a sustainable forestry plan that it would implement when the moratorium lifted. Indonesia's goal is more ambitous than what we've seen from other major emerging economies. However, improved forest maps and data gathering have found that, so far, the moratorium is not having the effect many had hoped for:

Progress is slow in part because the clearance-permit ban is not as radical as it at first seemed. An analysis from CIFOR [the Center for International Forestry Research], published last October, found that 42.5 million hectares of forest covered by the moratorium are already protected under Indonesian law, with only 22.5 million hectares receiving extra protection.
An updated version of Indonesia’s forest map, published last week, shows that the government has included a further 862,000 hectares of forest under the ban, but it has also excluded another 482,000 hectares, so the net additional protected forest is 380,000 hectares. It is not yet clear what kinds of forest are covered by the changes.

Beyond this miscalculation, there have also been reports of illegal activity despite the moratorium, due to a number of loopholes. The government has been repeatedly criticized for not addressing the continued deforestation despite the moratorium.

The combination of strong corporate interests and rampant political corruption in Indonesia made observers more than a bit nervous when the $1 billion partnership was announced back in 2010. But this type of partnership is a major component of plans to cut emissions worldwide, and the world is watching the success or failure of Indonesia's effort.

Indonesia's ability to actually enact this ban is extremely important for protecting rainforests. The nearly 18,000 islands that make up the country are home to the largest expanse of rainforest in Asia and the third-largest tropical rainforest in the world. The Rainforest Action Network reports that 80 percent of Indonesia was foreststed as recently as the 1960s. However, demand for commodities like pulp, paper and palm oil has caused an infiltration into the rainforests of Southeat Asia. Indonesia now has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, according to RAN, with more than 2.4 million acres lost each year. 

With one year left on the ban, stronger enforcement and better analysis of forested areas for conservation-value and carbon storage potential are necessary for Indonesia to continue progress towards emissions reduction.

A Bigger Hurricane Year for the East Coast?

| Fri Jun. 1, 2012 12:51 PM PDT

Tropical Storm Beryl, 27 May 2012. NASATropical Storm Beryl, 27 May 2012: NASA

Tropical Storms Alberto and Beryl have been born, lived, and died well before today's official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. Only twice before (1887 and 1908) since reliable record-keeping began in 1850 have two named storms form so early in the year. So why was this season an exception, and what might that bode for the upcoming season? According to Jeff Masters at Wunderblog:

Between the subtropical jet [stream] to the south and the polar jet to the north, a "hole" in the wind shear pattern formed during May off the Southeast US coast, and this is where both Alberto and Beryl were able to form. Their formation was aided by the fact ocean temperatures off the U.S. East coast are quite warm—about 1-2°C [1.8-3.6°F] above average. A wind shear "hole" is predicted to periodically open up during the next two weeks off the Southeast US coast, making that region the most likely area of formation for any first-half-of-June tropical storms.

Many Atlantic storms are fueled by sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Atlantic between Africa and Central America, between 10-20°N latitude. So far this year that region has seen SSTs only 0.35°C [0.7°F] above average in May—roughly the third coolest since the hurricane period got active again in 1995. This may mean a later start to the formation of storms in that region.

But there's a hotspot in SSTs off the East Coast. Jeff Masters writes:

An interesting feature of this month's SST departure from average image is the large area of record-warm ocean temperatures off the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Ocean temperatures are 3-5°C (5-9°F) above average in this region. This makes waters of much above-average warmth likely to be present during the peak part of hurricane season, increasing the chances for a strong hurricane to affect the mid-Atlantic and New England coast.

 

Sea surface temperatures on 1 June 2012, in degrees C. NOAASea surface temperatures on 1 June 2012, in degrees C: NOAA Here's what various forecast models are predicting for the 2012 Atlantic season (you can read more about the differences in these models at Wunderblog):

  • Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project just revised their forecast upward to 13 named storms, 5 hurricanes, and 2 intense hurricanes, a slightly-below-average season.
  • Florida State University's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies predicts 10 to 16 named storms and 5 to 9 hurricanes, with a mid-range forecast of 13 named storms and 7 hurricanes (they've been the most accurate forecasters in the past three years).
  • Penn State forecasts a near-average hurricane season of 11 named storms, plus or minus 3.3 storms.
  • The UK Met Office forecasts a slightly below-average hurricane season with 10 named storms.
  • The British forecasting firm Tropical Storm Risk calls for 12.7 named storms, 5.7 hurricanes, and 2.7 intense hurricanes.
  • NOAA predicts an average hurricane season of 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes.