Blue Marble - November 2012

2012 Expected to Be 9th-Warmest Year on Record

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 2:56 PM EST

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

This year is likely to be the ninth warmest on record, with global temperatures in 2012 cooler than the average for the past decade owing to the effects of La Niña weather patterns early in the year.

The estimates come as governments wrangle over the form of a proposed new global agreement on climate change, that could eventually replace the Kyoto protocol. Nearly 200 countries are meeting in Doha, Qatar, but as yet there are few signs of unity.

So far this year, the current world average global temperature is 14.45° C, which is between one-tenth and a 0.5° C higher than the 1961 to 1990 average.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WHO) used information from three global temperature sets, running from January to October, to make its estimate. But the ranking could change under further analysis, and final data will not be ready until next March.

Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the UK's Met Office, whose data contributed to the WHO estimate, said: "Although the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record, warming has not been as rapid since 2000 as over the longer period since the 1970s. This variability in global temperatures is not unusual, with several periods lasting a decade or more with little or no warming since the instrumental record began."

Although climate change sceptics may seize on the data, it does not change the long-term warming trend. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001, according to the Met Office. As well as the La Niña variation, there may have been other weather effects at work.

Stott said: "We are investigating why the temperature rise at the surface has slowed in recent years, including how ocean heat content changes and the effects of aerosols from atmospheric pollution may have influenced global climate."

There have been multiple examples of unusual or extreme weather this year, including superstorm Sandy, which was one of the strongest storms on record to hit New York. Before that there was a serious drought over much of the US's grain-growing region, which has pushed up global food prices. There has been drought in parts of Russia, as well as disruptions to the Indian monsoon, and floods in parts of Europe, including a record wet spring and early summer in the UK.

The UK's Met Office was more cautious in its estimate of this year's temperatures than the WMO, using a dataset compiled jointly with the University of East Anglia to estimate that 2012 was likely to be between the 4th and 14th warmest year in a record dating back to 1850.

That dataset, known as HadCRUT4, includes data from land stations, higher-latitude stations with coverage of the Arctic, and sea surface temperature data.

The Doha talks are scheduled to carry on until next Friday. Governments are aiming to draw up a new global treaty on the climate, requiring emissions curbs from both developing and developed countries, that could be signed in 2015 and would come into force from 2020.

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EPA Blocks New Gov't Contracts for BP

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 2:04 PM EST

The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Wednesday that it has temporarily barred BP and all its affiliates from new government contracts. This is significant news, as it comes at the heels of BP's settlement with the Department of Justice over criminal charges related to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. One of the criticisms of the settlement was that it did not include penalties for the company beyond the $4.5 billion fine.

The EPA's announcement was a bit of a surprise. The agency said in a press release that the prohibition on new contracts is in response to BP's "lack of business integrity as demonstrated by the company's conduct with regard to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, explosion, oil spill, and response." That included neglect and misconduct that led to the death of 11 rig workers, and lying to Congress and shareholders about the extent of the damage from the spill.

The company will be barred from obtaining new contracts "until the company can provide sufficient evidence to EPA demonstrating that it meets Federal business standards." The company will, however, maintain its current contracts with the government. The Wall Street Journal reported during the 2010 spill that BP was "the single biggest supplier of fuel to the Department of Defense, with Pentagon contracts worth $2.2 billion a year."

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project On Government Oversight, called the announcement "surprising but welcome" in a statement. "This is exactly the strong step the government should take to protect federal agencies, safeguard taxpayers, and establish expectations for responsible contractor behavior," said Amey. "BP had years to improve its business ethics and is paying the price for its inaction."

Cost of Going Solar Takes a Nosedive

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 11:22 AM EST

A bit of good news for fans of renewable energy: Driven by a steady decline in the cost of manufacturing solar panels, the cost of going solar in your home or business is the lowest its ever been, according to a new analysis of project data by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Total installation prices fell 11-14 percent from 2010 to 2011, depending on size, continuing the downward trend of the last decade, which analysts predict will carry forward into 2012:

Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryCourtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The study looked at some 150,000 systems installed since 1998 in search of concrete proof to bolster the "quite a bit of anecdotal evidence along the way that prices were falling," said author Galen Barbose. Tech advances and exploding demand have pushed down the cost of the solar modules themselves, the main factor in the overall drop. But Barbose cautioned that that drop could level out if prices for the ancillary aspects of installing solar stay high relative to the cost of the physical panels. That includes permit fees, installation labor, power inverters, and marketing and overhead costs for installation companies.

"There are limits to how much further module prices can drop," he said, and pointed to Germany as an example of a place where hardware costs are comparable to the US, but easier and cheaper permitting practices cut the overall cost for household installations nearly in half. "'Soft' costs could come down significantly in the US, but to really make an impact on a national scale there will need to be efforts on the federal level to spur changes that aren't happening locally."

In other words, solar is in the same boat as wind: Big-time growth will be a pipe dream until the feds can chart a detailed course for renewables. 

Great: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria on Your Pork Chop

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 7:03 AM EST

It's no secret that chowing down on raw pork is probably not the best call, a point emphasized by the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study by Consumer Reports drives this lesson home with sickening clarity: After testing 198 samples of raw grocery store pork loins and ground pork, it found that a full 69 percent of the samples harbored Yersinia enterocolitica, bacteria that can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever for up to 3 weeks. Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, and listeria, all potentially sickness inducing, also appeared in 3 to 7 percent of the samples. These bacteria would hypothetically be killed off if the pork is thoroughly cooked, but there's still the potential of spreading the bacteria while slaughtering, processing, and handling the raw meat.

Though this is within the realm of what the USDA considers safe (and inspectors don't test for Yersinia because illness from it is rare, though cases of yersiniosis are thought to be under reported), Consumer Reports' more worrisome finding was that much of this bacteria was resistant to common antibiotics. Over 90 percent of the Yersinia-infected samples, when exposed to antibiotics normally effective against this bacteria, proved resistant to one or more antibiotic, and over 50 percent to two or three antibiotics. Of the 14 samples that revealed staph, 13 of them were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and of the 8 samples with salmonella, 3 were resistant to five antibiotics. The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that the low-dose antibiotics fed to farm animals for growth are breeding a class of resistant mutant bugs more slippery and dangerous than their progenitors.

Snails Are Dissolving in Acidic Ocean Waters

| Tue Nov. 27, 2012 7:13 AM EST

The marine snail Limacina helicina antarctica showing acute levels of shell dissolution in Southern Ocean where deep-water upwelling and ocean acidification combined to reduce aragonite saturation in surface waters. This specimen was Image provided by Nina Bednarsek and Bernard LézéThe marine snail Limacina helicina antarctica showing acute levels of shell dissolution in Southern Ocean where deep-water upwelling and ocean acidification combined to reduce aragonite saturation in surface waters. This specimen was alive at capture: Image provided by Nina Bednarsek and Bernard Lézé

A new paper in Nature Geoscience reports the first evidence of marine animals dissolving in acidified waters off Antarctica. The pteropods—also called marine snails or sea butterflies—were found in waters 656 feet (200 meters) deep, alive but suffering severe shell damage from a combination of natural upwelling and human-caused ocean acidification.

Natural upwelling is triggered by strong winds that drive deep cold water from the bottom to the surface. We know that many upwelled waters are corrosive to animals like sea butterflies which use aragonite to build shells. But the saturation horizon for aragonite in the Southern Ocean typically occurs at around 3,280 feet (1000 meters) deep—far below where Limacina helicina antarctica live. So what happened to hoist that horizon line 2,625 feet (800 meters) closer to the surface?

Live Limacina helicina antarctica with intact shell: Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks via NOAA Ocean ExplorerLive Limacina helicina antarctica with intact shell and its wing-like "butterfly" parapodium trailing behind: Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks via NOAA Ocean Explorer

"Current predictions are for the saturation horizon for aragonite to reach the upper surface layers of the Southern Ocean by 2050 in winter and by 2100 year round," says co-author Dorothee Bakker from the University of East Anglia.

The answer is ocean acidification (OA)—the result of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning leaching from the atmosphere into the ocean and changing its pH. (I wrote more about that here and here and here, and about how ocean chemistry is measured in my "Arctic Ocean Diaries" here.)

Numerous lab experiments have demonstrated that OA has the potential to damage marine organisms who make shells or skeletons. This paper reports the first evidence that OA is already damaging marine life in the Southern Ocean. 

And not just any marine life. Marine snails are a vital part of the food web of Antarctic waters, supporting zooplankton, fish, birds, marine mammals, and us. (Read Tom Philpott's piece on the correlation between OA and human food here.)

Marine snails are also important players in the Southern Ocean's carbon cycle—the shuttling of carbon between atmosphere and ocean. In that work they've mitigated a lot of our C02 emissions. Too many for their own good, apparently.

Co-author and science cruise leader, Geraint Tarling from the British Antarctic Survey, says:

Although the upwelling sites are natural phenomena that occur throughout the Southern Ocean, instances where they bring the 'saturation horizon' above 200m will become more frequent as ocean acidification intensifies in the coming years. The tiny snails do not necessarily die as a result of their shells dissolving, however it may increase their vulnerability to predation and infection consequently having an impact to other parts of the food web.


 The paper:

China's "Ultimate Goal Is a Huge Fracking Industry"

| Tue Nov. 27, 2012 7:08 AM EST
A Chinese construction worker walks past the headquarters of China National Offshore Oil Corporation in Beijing.

China is ratcheting up its fracking ambitions with virtually no regard for groundwater protection or other environmental safety measures, according to a new investigation by the independent publication Caixin. The report points to an October 24 white paper on energy development released by China's top cabinet which "calls for ramping up the industry and pumping 6.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from underground shale formations by 2015."

"The model for China's anticipated success is the US shale gas sector," the article states. "Geologists estimate the nation's recoverable reserves at about 25 trillion cubic meters, on par with the United States."

Fracking has particular appeal in China because it provides an alternative to burning coal, which currently supplies about 70 percent of the nation's consumed energy. Because natural gas can generate electricity at half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, some see it as a way to reduce China's carbon footprint.

But fracking isn't without environmental problems, as I and my colleagues at Mother Jones have reported before. And Caixin's review of government documents as well as interviews with industry sources, government officials, and environmental advocates reveal that fracking's risks have not come under public scrutiny the way they have in the US, "much less addressed by the [Chinese] government or controlled via environmental laws."

If fracking takes off in China as planned, it will likely exacerbate the nation's existing water crisis. "Most of the nation's shale gas lies in areas plagued by water shortages," the report says. With about 20 percent of the world's population and only 6 percent of the world's water resources, China is one of the least water-secure countries in the world. Its water shortages are made worse by pollution: According to the Ministry of Water Resources about 40 percent of China's rivers were so polluted they were deemed unfit for drinking, while about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water each year.

In order to reach the government's annual shale gas production goal of 6.5 billion cubic meters by 2015, as many as 1,380 wells will need to be drilled across the country, requiring up to 13.8 million cubic meters of water, an industry source told Caixin. China's industrial sector already consumes about 35 billion cubic meters of water a year. That amount of water would fill about 14 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

There's also serious risk of water contamination, as seen in the US fracking experience. Multiple studies in recent years including those by the EPA, Pennsylvania, and Duke University have concluded that shale gas drilling releases methane which can contaminate nearby water supplies. A 2009 ProPublica investigation found methane contamination from fracking was widespread in Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But as Caixin reports, "there would be no legal reason to limit methane emissions at a shale gas well because China's pollution standards do not cover methane." One Ministry of Environmental Protection source told the publication that writing a new standard into law would take three years, "which helps explain why the State Council's decision to fast-track the nation's fledgling shale gas industry is making a lot of people nervous."

China's main energy and economic planning agencies seem to view fracking's environmental risks as minimal or inflated.

Groundwater in 57 percent of China's 660 cities have already been significantly polluted, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

An unidentified source at China's Ministry of Land Resources told Caixin that as shale gas development accelerates the government will likely introduce specific environmental policies to address fracking, such as groundwater protection. But these are not likely to be legally binding, an industry source told the publication.

Perhaps a bigger concern is that China's main energy and economic planning agencies, including the Ministry of Land Resources, seem to view fracking's environmental risks as minimal or inflated:

The MLR geological department source said, for example, that China's shale gas is at least 3,000 meters and sometimes 4,000 meters underground—significantly deeper than aquifers, and separated from underground water by impermeable rock.

Other industry sources argue that fracking fluids, which are mainly comprised of water and sand, break down naturally over a short time. And chemical additives make up less than 0.5 percent of what's injected, they say.

Similarly upbeat arguments against environmental fretting can be found in the government's development plan for the period ending in 2015. It was jointly issued by four agencies including the National Development and Reform Commission and National Energy Bureau.

Meanwhile, Caixin reported that one test fracking operation in Shaanxi Province—a major coal region in China's dry North—recently "went awry, forcing local officials to temporarily cut a nearby city's water supply."

Commercial fracking operations in China have not yet started, according to Caixin's report, but some Chinese companies have drilled test wells, and the government has begun selling chunks of designated fracking territory. In its latest round of auctioning shale-gas exploration blocks, for example, the Ministry of Land Resources awarded two blocks to Sinopec and Henan Coal Seam Gas Development and Utilization Co, in deals worth an estimated $128.5 million.

Foreign companies including Royal Dutch Shell are also showing interest in China's fracking plans. Shell announced earlier this month that it had shale gas agreements with three major Chinese oil companies. Caixin also reported in September that Shell was in talks with one company about a shale gas joint venture. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and France-based Total are also working to form shale gas partnerships with Chinese oil and gas companies, according to an August National Geographic report

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VIDEO: A Solar Thanksgiving for Battered Rockaways

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 6:56 PM EST

Since Hurricane Sandy, the historic Belle Harbor Yacht Club in the Rockaways—one of New York City's hardest-hit neighborhoods—has become an indispensable hub for supplies, volunteers, and a much-needed round of drinks. Three weeks after the storm, the oft-maligned Long Island Power Authority still hasn't re-connected this building, not to mention its neighbors, back to the grid, leaving locals to face the prospect of a cold, dark Thanksgiving.

But outside, the sun is shining, and a trio of local solar power companies have seen an opportunity to bridge the gap left open by the electric utility. The yacht club, among several area buildings, is now plugged into a portable solar power generator, which frees volunteers from the endless gas lines that plague those dependent on traditional generators and leaves them ready to dish out hot plates of turkey and stuffing to the beleaguered community.

Is Your Clothing Toxic?

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 1:47 PM EST

Lots of people worry about their clothing. But they probably don't worry about whether it's toxic. Greenpeace International's newest research indicates that you probably should.

Greenpeace tested 141 items of clothing from 29 countries, and found that 89 contained nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which are toxic, bioaccumulative chemicals that have been identified as hormone disruptors. They also found high levels of phthalates in four pieces of clothing, and amines from azo dyes that have been identified as carcinogens. The clothing came from major international brands, including Armani, Levi's and Zara. This was a follow up to an August 2011 report that found similarly distressing chemicals in clothing.

I read the report yesterday while wearing a Zara shirt and Levi's jeans. So yeah, not very reassuring.

Other brands Greenpeace IDed as including harmful chemicals: Benetton, Diesel, Esprit, Gap, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Mango, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. See the full "Toxic Threads" report here.

SUNY Buffalo Shuts Down its Frack-Happy Shale Institute

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 7:13 AM EST

Remember that questionable study put out by the State University at Buffalo earlier this year, the one that claimed Pennsylvania was doing a good job at regulating the fracking industry? This week SUNY Buffalo's president announced his decision to shutter its publisher, the school's own Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI).

University president Satish Tripathi did not mince words when it came to explaining why. "Conflicts—both actual and perceived—can arise between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results," he wrote in a public letter released to the university community on Monday. "This, in turn, impacted the appearance of independence and integrity of the institute's research."

In May, the study released by the university's newly created institute claimed that the likelihood of natural gas industry violations in the Marcellus region had decreased between 2008 and 2011, a tribute to Pennsylvania's regulating efforts. In fact, the rate of major environmental accidents increased by 36 percent, as later pointed out by corporate and government watchdog, the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI).

The PAI's followup was also quick to highlight passages patently lifted from the authors' previous reports, the study's failure to disclose the authors' relationships to the natural gas industry, a fudged peer-review process, and blatant "industry spin." In the days following the PAI report, Timothy Considine, one of the study authors, told the Washington Times he stood by his interpretation of the numbers, while the university promised to "examine all relevant concerns." After an investigation requested by the school's Board of Trustees and a 10,000-plus signature petition led by faculty and students calling for the institute's closure, it now appears that SUNY Buffalo has taken down the institute's old online domain for good.

Tripathi's decision to close the SRSI came in the midst of increased scrutiny over industry-funded academic reports. Last month, the industry-backed Marcellus Shale Coalition canceled its funding of a Penn State hydraulic fracturing study after faculty members declined to take part. The project's earlier publications had been co-written by former Penn State professor Tim Considine, one of the co-authors of the SUNY report. The University of Texas at Austin has also launched a probe into its controversial research on groundwater contamination—though the chair of that investigation previously served almost two decades as a ConocoPhillips boardmember.

Is this a small victory for academic accountability? Sure, an "institute" did break under the weight of incisive coverage and public criticism. But maybe the SRSI's brief lifespan had more to do with industry deadlines than anything else. The SRSI met its end a week-and-a-half shy of New York state's due date for a decision about regulating hydraulic fracturing within its borders—and if the state fails to meet this deadline on November 29, it'll have to draft a new set of regulations and usher in another round of public comments. Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced that the deadline is likely to be extended (again), which could push the decision to end the state's fracking moratorium back several months. That, as Bloomberg points out, could mean it's already "too late" for New York to snag some of the Marcellus' fading winnings. In the end, the Shale Institute just might not have been worth the effort. At least they gave it a college try.

Thanksgiving and the Rise and Fall of the Bird Empire

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 7:13 AM EST

 Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

I was struck yesterday reading this report that the population of wild birds in the UK has dropped by 44 million since 1966. The calculation comes from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and others. Today's 166 million nesting birds numbered 210 million in 1966. Which means that for every five birds you might have seen while strolling the British Isles 46 years ago you'll see only four now. Our world grows quieter... Or does it? 

Numbers from The Economist:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from The Economist: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons 

Because at the same time that wild birds are declining worldwide the kingdom of poultry rises. In 1960 there was roughly one chicken for for every person on Earth. Today there are three chickens for every person alive. That's 19-plus billion chickens at any one time—a wildly dynamic number since in the US alone 23 million chickens are killed daily, 269 a second

Numbers from WATTAgNet.com: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from WATTAgNet.com: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Turkey photo: lynn.gardner via Flickr

To put it bluntly there are shiteloads of birds today. Just not as many in the air or on the waters or in the forests or grasslands or islands like there used to be. Many are in coops and worse. The lucky ones are free range. Globally we now eat almost as much poultry as pork, the number one meat consumed. Domestic birds thrive albeit mostly miserably. 

 Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Counts: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

And wild birds decline. The National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count reveals that North America's most common birds in decline are down 68 percent since 1967—from 17.6 million to 5.35 million. Some species have declined 80 percent in the past 4.5 decades.  

Numbers from the National Audubon Society:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia CommonsNumbers from the National Audubon Society: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons

What's hopeful for me is that many of these depressing data come from something new and refreshing: the rise of citizen science. The Christmas Bird Count is the largest and oldest citizen science effort underway, according to Wikipedia. It transformed a bloody 19th century ritual—an annual day-after-Christmas no-holds-barred bird hunt to kill whatever, wherever, the more the merrier—into a bird count. Courtesy of the unusual foresight of ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the newborn National Audubon Society. I'm thankful for that. And for where the next 100 years of that awakening might lead us.