This summer could be dubbed the Great Melt. The belt of ice surrounding the Arctic has melted to its lowest level in history, a record seen by many scientists as evidence of long-term climate change. Adding to environmentalists' fears, Royal Dutch Shell sunk its first drill bit into the Arctic seabed, taking the first steps in American offshore oil exploration in these frigid waters.

Today, a new book by photographer James Balog, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, captures in vivid color just what's at stake as climate change erodes ice in some of the world's most extreme places. Balog shared six of his favorites with Climate Desk:

Aerial view, meltwater on Greenland ice sheet © James Balog

James Balog has spent the last 30 years donning crampons, paddling canoes, and hopping into dog sleds and helicopters to capture the world's ice on film. He's been everywhere from Bolivia and Nepal to Alaska and Montana to France and Switzerland, in an ongoing project that he says is "about getting in close to ice and experiencing all its colors and textures and shapes."

This summer's record melt in the Arctic, Balog told Climate Desk as he was en route to a glacier shoot in Iceland, is a reminder that "ice is the canary in the coal mine—you can touch and see and hear climate change."

Bubbles of ancient air rise from Greenland Ice Sheet as it melts, July 14, 2008. The black substance is cryoconite. © James Balog

Greenland Ice Sheet, Greenland, July 10, 2008. Silt and soot blown from afar turn into black "cryoconite," absorb solar heat and melt down into the ice. © James Balog

Stein Glacier, Switzerland, September 25, 2006. © James Balog

Stein Glacier, Switzerland, September 17, 2011. © James Balog

Columbia Glacier, Alaska, June 23, 2006. In mid-1980s, ice filled this valley up to lower edge of dark band of vegetation. Ice deflation since then has reached more than 1,200 vertical feet. © James Balog

Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers by James Balog, Rizzoli, New York, 2012.

Crazy climate events, August 2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterCrazy climate events, August 2012: NOAA | National Climate Data Center

The year so far—January to August—now ranks as the warmest on record in the US, says NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.

  • The national temperature of 58.7°F was an insane 4.0°F above the 20th century average, and 1.0°F above the previous record warm of 2006.
  • Thirty-three states were record warm Jan-Aug this year and an additional 12 states were top ten warm. Only Washington state had temperatures near average for the period.
  • January-August 2012 was also the 14th driest period on record for the lower 48 states with a precipitation total 1.90 inches below the average of 20.20 inches.
  • Drier-than-average conditions stretched across the country. Ten states had year-to-date precip totals among their ten driest.

The US Climate Extremes Index (USCEI) value for January-August was a record large 47 percent: more than twice the average value. Which beat the previous record of 46 percent set only last year. Extremes in warm daytime temperatures and warm nighttime temperatures contributed to the record high USCEI value.

As Wunderblog's Jeff Masters writes:

Temperatures this year in the US have been so far above the previous record... that even if the remainder of 2012 ranks historically in the coldest one-third of September-Decembers on record, 2012 will beat out 1998 for the warmest year in history. Reliable weather records for the US go back to 1895.

To put this in a global perspective, check out Kate Sheppard's posted video: The Warming World in Less Than 30 Seconds.

This story first appeared on the Scientific American website.

What does a two-month-old bison calf in the Bronx have to do with the future of its species? Quite a lot, it turns out.

After being slaughtered to near extinction in the 19th century, the American plains bison (Bison bison bison) has become a bit of a conservation success story, albeit with a few important caveats. Today as many as half a million bison live in the United States, but most of them are genetically impure due to a misguided attempt to crossbreed bison with domestic cattle in the early 20th century. The crossbred bison, which live exclusively in commercial herds, contain what are referred to as "ancestral cattle genes" representing up to 2 percent of their DNA—a not-so-insignificant amount that makes them essentially useless for conservation purposes. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of the 20,000 or so remaining pure bison living in Yellowstone National Park and a few other government-owned herds have, over the years, been exposed to diseases such as brucellosis, which can cause cattle to abort their pregnancies. Many ranchers and other people fear these diseases could leap into domestic cattle or other species. This concern has to date prevented efforts to expand purebred bison populations into new herds.

The bison calf in the Bronx, which is not only genetically pure but also free of disease, could be the first step in changing that. The calf's parents, which came from the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, were both purebred but carried paratuberculosis, also known as Johne's disease, which can cause diarrhea and wasting in cattle. Reproductive physiologist Jennifer Barfield and her team at Colorado State University removed fertilized embryos from these bison, "washed" them with a special technique to remove the risk of disease, and implanted them into the embryos of surrogate bison that were disease free but carried ancestral cattle genes. One of the implanted embryos took and the pregnant mother and the other 15 members of her herd were transplanted from Colorado to the Bronx Zoo, where the healthy male calf was born on June 20.

The embryo washing technique is a multistep process standardized by the International Embryo Transfer Society that had previously proved effective in cattle but had never been used on bison. "You take the embryo and you move it through a series of drops of fluid that contains a chemical that removes any pathogens from the surface of the embryo," Barfield says. "It's very quick. They're only in these drops of fluid for 10 seconds at a time." The amount of chemicals are reduced each step of the way until the embryo is free of pathogens.

Barfield says the same procedure could be used with mothers that have brucellosis. "We're trying to set this up and we will continue the research with animals that have brucellosis to see if we can get around this disease as well with embryo transfer."

The birth of pure, disease-free bison outside of Yellowstone will help efforts to establish new herds and conserve the species. "The animals in Yellowstone are genetically valuable," Barfield says. "But they can't easily be moved into other herds or used to start restoration herds until they've been cleared of the disease." That's a long process that requires frequent testing and extended quarantines. "[Embryo washing] will be another way to get around that disease," she says.

Barfield praises the collaboration between Colorado State University, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the American Prairie Reserve and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo. "A university, a government institution and a nonprofit came together with a common goal and made it work. I think it was a great accomplishment from that perspective."

Barfield and her team are now preparing for their next round of bison embryo transfers, which are currently scheduled for later this month.

Also readAlso read David Samuels on the forces shaping the future of the American Bison's great plains habitats.

This video, put together by NASA using temperature records from 1880 to 2011, shows you the warming world in just 26 terrifying seconds. Blue shows temperatures that are lower than the baseline average between 1951 and 1980, and reds show temperatures above the average. Hat tip to Climate Central for flagging the video.

The NASA video shows temperatures through 2011, which was the ninth warmest year on record at the time. But 2012 is certainly on pace to be just as out-of-the-ordinary. In the US, the summer months were the third hottest on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Monday. And between January and June 2012, the national temperature averaged 52.9°F –which is 4.5°F above the 20th-century average, as Julia Whitty reported in July.

The oil slick as seen from space by NASA's Terra satellite on May 24, 2010.

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

BP has agreed to sell some of its Gulf of Mexico oil fields for $5.6 billion as it builds up cash reserves ahead of potentially huge fines for 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The British oil giant is selling its interests in older, smaller fields in the gulf to Plains Exploration & Production of Houston. BP will remain a major operator in the area.

"While these assets no longer fit our business strategy, the Gulf of Mexico remains a key part of BP's global exploration and production portfolio, and we intend to continue investing at least $4 billion there annually over the next decade," chief executive Bob Dudley said in a statement.

"This sale, as with previous divestments, is consistent with our strategy of playing to our strengths as a company and positioning us for long-term growth. In the Gulf of Mexico, that means focusing future investments on our strong set of producing assets and promising exploration prospects."

On completion of the transaction, BP will continue to operate four large production platforms in the region—Thunder Horse, Atlantis, Mad Dog and Na Kika—and hold interests in three non-operated hubs—Mars, Ursa and Great White.

Analysts calculate that BP faces a fine of up to $20 billion under the Clean Water Act for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The blowout killed 11 workers and pumped about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

Transocean, the company that owned Deepwater Horizon, said Monday that it was in discussions with the justice department to pay $1.5 billion to resolve civil and criminal claims related to the US's worst offshore oil spill.

Last week the US Department of Justice launched a withering attack on BP over its handling of the disaster. In court papers government lawyers said BP had made "plainly misleading representations" in its settlement proposals.

"The behavior, words and actions of these BP executives would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall," wrote government lawyers.

The Gulf sale comes as BP looks to raise $38 billion from asset sales by the end of 2013. The company said the divestment was in line with its global strategy "of playing to its strengths, including the development of giant fields and deepwater exploration." BP intends to focus on "producing more high-margin barrels from fewer, larger assets," said the company.

The sale brings the value of BP's disposals since the 2010 spill to more than $32 billion. BP is also looking to sell its Texas City refinery—the site of fatal explosion in 2005 that left 15 dead and 170 injured.

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

In the end he didn't have to wear a beak. But Vladimir Putin did don white overalls and big black goggles as he took to the skies over northern Siberia in a motorized hang glider to help endangered cranes begin their migration to wintering grounds in Iran and India.

Unfortunately, no one had told the young birds, who only formed up behind Russia's stunt-loving head of state on his second time in the air. On his first flight Putin was accompanied by only one of the Siberian white cranes.

Putin blamed strong winds for the initial failure of the birds to fly with him. But he described the cranes as "pretty lads" when journalists asked what he thought of them after landing.

The motorized hang glider—in which he was accompanied by the seasoned pilot Igor Nikitin—proved a handful. Putin said it was harder to control than a jet fighter.

Putin, who is a few days short of his 60th birthday, has spent about a year and a half preparing for the trip with the cranes and received 17 hours of advance training on the motorized hang glider.

Wednesday's flight took place in Russia's far north, by the banks of the Siberian river Ob, at the site of a project that rears cranes in their traditional nesting grounds. The birds have almost been driven to extinction by hunters targeting them along their migration routes through central Asia.

After his flight Putin donated the hang glider, which his press spokesman said he had purchased with his own money, to the crane conservation project and shared fish soup and tea prepared over a campfire with the scientists working there, the state-owned paper Rossisskaya Gazeta reported.

Putin followed his close encounter with birds with a close encounter with sea life. On his arrival on Thursday at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which Russia is hosting, he visited a new aquarium in the city. Staff pulled an octopus out of its tank, which Putin proceeded to stroke, Interfax reported.

The cranes will now remain under the supervision of the presidential administration, which already cultivates Putin's nature-loving credentials by assisting schemes dedicated to preserving polar bears, tigers, leopards, and whales in Russia.

Shortly after the news of Putin's successful flight was reported by state media, the Kremlin-controlled English language television channel Russia Today broadcast the president's first interview since winning his third term in March.

Asked about the rock band Pussy Riot, Putin declined to comment on the severity of the two-year sentence handed down to Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for their "punk prayer" protest in Moscow's main cathedral, but chose to focus on the "moral" aspect of the case.

In particular, he reminded viewers of the orgy performed by members of the radical art group Voina in Moscow's Biological Museum in 2008 to protest against the election of Dmitry Medvedev, who replaced Putin in the Kremlin for four years, in which Tolokonnikova took part.

"Group sex is better than one-on-one because, as in any sort of collective work, you can shirk off," Putin said.

We at the Climate Desk plugged a few climate change keywords into word clouds for a side-by-side comparison of how frequently they appear in the two platforms. If a word appears in one and not the other, it's because it isn't used in the latter. For a reference on the sizes, "oil" appears ten times in the GOP platform; "climate change" appears twenty times in the Democratic platform:


Tim McDonnellTim McDonnell


Tim McDonnellTim McDonnell


To judge a candidate by counting how many times they throw out certain buzzwords is a dangerous strategy. As David Roberts points out, even if President Obama repeated the words "climate change" like a mantra from now until November 6 and won the election, it doesn't mean major cap-and-trade legislation would pass in his second term.

Still, how—and how much—Republicans and Democrats address climate change in their official party platforms can be a telling indication of where their priorities lie. Maybe even more telling is what they don't include: the GOP platform never uses the word "renewables"; the Dems never mention Keystone XL.

Coho salmon juveniles John McMillan | NOAA via FlickrCoho salmon juveniles: John McMillan | NOAA via Flickr

NOAA announced yesterday a plan to provide jobs and training for military vets to restore habitat and monitor fisheries in northern California. The program will be jointly run with the California Conservation Corps and and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Veterans will start the year-long job by taking courses in how to collect data. In October they'll begin monitoring river restoration sites designed to increase spawning and rearing habitat for populations of endangered coho salmon in Humboldt, Del Norte, and Mendocino counties. The restored streams should help Chinook and steelhead trout as well. Vets will also get training and experience in firefighting.

"This is a win-win for everyone," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries. "Military veterans have tremendous skills to offer, and by helping to restore fish habitats they will be supporting the important role of commercial and recreational fishing in the economy. Restoration jobs pay dividends twice, first because they put people to work immediately, and then because restoration benefits our fisheries, tourism, and coastal communities for years to come."

Sounds like a fun outdoor job. The program combines President Obama's Veterans Job Corps Initiative and America's Great Outdoors.

Interested veterans can call Tina Ratcliff at the California Conservation Corps at 916-341-3123, or email Training begins Monday 17 September. 

A Lebanese cedar.

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

King Solomon used them in the construction of the temple that would bear his name, the Phoenicians used them to build their merchant ships, and the ancient Egyptians used their resin in the mummification process. But now Lebanon's cedar trees (Cedrus libani), described in the Scriptures as "the glory of Lebanon" and by the 19th-century French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine as "the most famous natural monuments in the world", face a new threat in the form of climate change.

Emblazoned on the national flag, currency, and the country's national airline, the cedar is the one great unifying emblem of this small Mediterranean nation. Centuries of deforestation have already seen the tree's 500,000 hectares decimated to its current 2,000 hectares, and it has been added to the IUCN's red list of threatened species, albeit at the lowest level of threat.

The cedars, some up to 3,000 years old and almost all of which are now protected, need a minimum amount of snow and rain for natural regeneration. But global warming has meant that Lebanon's cedars are being subjected to shorter winters and less snow, and the Lebanese government estimates that snow cover could be cut by 40 percent by 2040.