Blue Marble - January 2013

Chart: What Exactly (Cough) Is Beijing (Hack) Breathing?

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

China's landlocked capital of 20 million people has experienced record-breaking pollution over the last few days. The South China Morning Post reported that visits to Beijing Children's Hospital hit a five-year high, with more than 7,000 patients a day. Bloomberg News found that heart attacks roughly doubled since Friday at Peking University People's Hospital. (H/t Shanghaiist).

Kids were forced to stay home from school as Beijing authorities enacted unprecedented measures to combat the thick, nostril-burning layer of grossness. They even banned the use of certain government vehicles. The "fog," as it is euphemistically known in China, is set to continue for a number of days and has prompted an unusual display of openness from the country's state-controlled press, calling for urgent action.

Climate Desk breaks down exactly what's in the air.

Beijing Air

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Debunking the Denial: '16 Years of No Global Warming'

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

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

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."
– Attributed to Mark Twain

The difficulties in debunking blatant antireality are legion. You can make up any old nonsense and state it in a few seconds, but it takes much longer to show why it's wrong and how things really are.

Greece's Latest Fiscal Solution: Create an Ecological Crisis!

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 4:31 PM EST

The green crowd used to feel pretty rosy about Greece. After former Prime Minister George Papandreou was elected in 2009, he set up a government ministry to study the environment, energy, and climate change, and he talked up initiatives on eco-tourism and renewable energy. But now, after six years of recession, the country has begun buying into several new environmentally damaging development schemes to generate liquidity, the New York Times reports.

New Federal Report: Climate Change Is Really, Really Scary

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 6:09 PM EST

Say what you want about the Obama administration's relative ignoring of climate issues: Many of his top scientists are paying rapt attention, and they think we're about to get our butts kicked—although dumping the news at 4 p.m. on a Friday gives some indication of where it sits in federal priorities.

The National Climate Assessment is produced by the US Global Change Research Program, which is tasked with collating climate research from a wide variety of federal agencies and, every few years, distilling it into one major report. The latest, a first draft, is the third such report (the last was in 2009), product of a 1990 law that requires the White House to produce semi-regular updates on climate science to Congress. Today's report echoes the themes of earlier editions, and paints a picture that is all the more grim for being an unsurprising confirmation of the dangers we've come to know all too well. Here's the top six things for you to worry about this weekend, according to the report:

  1. Climate change is definitely caused by human activities. Always nice to hear government officials acknowledge this essential fact. And the report concedes that our only hope of curbing warming is to kick our addiction to greenhouse-gas spewing fossil fuels.
  2. Extreme weather is increasing, and that's our fault, too.  In particular, searing temperatures, heavy rain, and prolonged drought.
  3. Weather isn't the only threat we have to worry about. The list sounds like the side-effect warnings at the end of a prescription drug commercial: decreased air quality, insect-borne diseases, and "threats to mental health" are all on the docket for the coming decades.
  4. Our infrastructure is getting hammered, and we're not spending enough to save it. Floods are destroying farmland; extreme heat is damaging roads, rail lines, and airports; and military installations are at risk.
  5. Food and water security will be up in the air. Especially in water-scarce regions like the Southwest, decreasing snowpack and shrinking groundwater supplies will spark competition for water between "agricultural, municipal, and environmental" uses. At the same time, heavy floods could put water quality at risk with sediment and chemical contaminates. And by mid-century, efforts to artificially protect agriculture (like expanded irrigation) could be over-ridden by temperature and precipitation extremes.
  6. Climate change is hitting plants and animals just as hard as us. Beaches, forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems could shrink or disappear, especially a problem when they play a role in mitigating the impact from extreme weather. And warming, acidifying seas could slam sea life.

The report is sure to get thoroughly dissected by reporters in the coming week; keep an eye out for more details to come.

Australia's Climate Inferno "Encroaching on Entirely New Territory"

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 4:38 PM EST
Cooma Fire
Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 New South Wales Rural Fire Service

Australia's top government-appointed climate commissioner says this week's heatwave is occurring amid record-breaking weather around the world. "This has been a landmark event for me," Professor Tim Flannery told Climate Desk from his home in Melbourne. "When you start breaking records, and you do it consistently, and you see it over and over again, that is a good indication there's a shift underway—this is not just within the normal variation of things."

Flannery is perhaps best known in the US for his 2005 book, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change; Downunder, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and appointed chief climate commissioner in 2011 by the current Labor government, which tasked him with communicating climate science to the Australian public (a government-funded job that may well sound unimaginable to American readers).

Flannery says the harsh weather is a sign of things to come: "What we've seen is the bell curve shift to the hot end. The number of very hot days is increasing quite dramatically. But we're also encroaching on entirely new territory."

That new territory involves record-breaking temperatures. The number of consecutive days where the national average maximum temperature topped 102.2°F (39°C) was broken in the last week, almost doubling the previous record set in 1973. There are now new first- and third-place winners for highest temperatures on Australia's books, too. The number of record high temperatures have outstripped the number of record low temperatures at a ratio 3-to-1 over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Meterology.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery Mark Coulson, 5th World Conference of Science Journalists.

Several fires are still burning in Tasmania, Australia's lush island state, where the crisis began last week. The cost of the destruction of 200 buildings there is pegged at $A50 million ($US52.7m), according to the Australian newspaper. Luckily—perhaps shockingly given the extent of damage—lives were spared.

Statewide total fire bans remain in force across the weekend in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), where at last count more than 95 fires are still burning, with 18 out of control. NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that new fires on Saturday might be "beyond the ability for fire services to suppress."

And don't think there's any rest from wild weather. Not content which just record-breaking heat, the skies are now hurling Narelle—a category 4 severe tropical storm comparable to a strong Category 3 hurricane—at the North West of the vast continent. Communities living along a coastline roughly as long as the stretch from New York to North Carolina are bracing for gale force winds and heavy rains.

Cyclone Narelle
Tropical Cyclone Narelle off the West Australian coast Australian Bureau of Meterology

"There is no doubt," Flannery said, "that climate change is playing a significant roll in this. If this was just one record-breaking event you might write it off as a statistical anomaly. But that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing records falling around the world."

Flannery told Climate Desk the Australian government has confirmed he will hold his seat for the next two years, but it might not play out that way. The conservative opposition party is likely to erode the Climate Commission if elected, something that will be decided by a deepy divided electorate towards the end of this year. The election promises to be fought over the government's carbon tax. Opposition leader Tony Abbott famously made a "blood pledge" to repeal the tax which will lead to a carbon trading scheme.

Beetlemania: Insects Are Gobbling Up 1,000-Year-Old Trees

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:21 AM EST
Whitebark pine trees dying from pine beetle infestation in Bridger-Teton National Forest

Mountain pine beetles have spent the last decade decimating more than 4 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountain West. Beetles are a natural part of the forest ecology, picking off old or unhealthy trees and keeping the healthy ones resilient. But a warming planet—2012 was the hottest year on record—means not enough beetles die off in cold snaps. Instead, they produce more quickly, boring under bark, laying eggs, and weakening trees until they die.

And now, the continuously warm weather has emboldened these creatures to flourish in forests of whitebark pines—stately old trees that survive at high elevations—as well. In a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers describe the beetles' deadly effect on whitebarks in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

                                         2002                                              2011

National forests impacted by bark beetles in the Rocky Mountain West USDA Forest Service

Photographer and activist David Gonzales has spent much of the last four years poking around that ecosystem, venturing into the high-altitude whitebark pine stands of Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest to attempt to defend these ancient trees from the explosive beetle epidemic, a practice he's deemed "treefighting." Along with volunteers and students, Gonzales spent three years tacking pouches of pheromones onto individual trees to try and trick beetles into thinking they were already inhabited, though he has mixed feelings about guiding beetles from one tree on to another. This past year, Gonzales' group planted 3,000 young whitebark saplings, which if they survive the planting process, can live for a millenium.

"Treefighter" and photographer David Gonzales
Taylor Rees/Instagram

Ecologists consider hearty whitebark pines to be a keystone species of the northern Rocky Mountains: The trees' nutrient-rich seed cones provide sustenance for grizzly and black bears, several bird species, and squirrels; their roots prevent erosion in thinly soiled peaks; their branches serve as wind barriers and shade snowpack at high elevations, meaning snow sticks around longer and less water evaporates before summer months. "They pick the places that other plants can't survive—bad soils, really dry," says GIS specialist Wally MacFarlane in Gonzales' 2011 documentary Seeing Red, about beetlekill in the Yellowstone area. "You kind of appreciate them for that—their ruggedness." Gonzales certainly does. "They live in the absolute worst conditions, yet they produce the best plant-based fat and protein in the ecosystem, and are paragons of energy efficiency," he says. "They are showing us that we can do a much better job of dealing with our own energy."

But unlike neighboring lodgepole pines, which co-evolved with the pine beetle and developed defenses against the bug, whitebark pines are very vulnerable to beetle attacks, since they haven't evolved to create enough of the compounds (like resin) that repel or kill bugs or disrupt their communication systems, according to the Wisconsin study.

Healthy whitebark pines USDA Forest Service/
Wikimedia Commons

The research did reveal one hopeful sign: When the beetles entered areas mixed with lodgepoles and whitebark pines, the critters were more likely to choose lodgepoles over whitebarks.

A mountain lover and avid skier, Gonzales has watched mountain pine beetles spread through 95 percent of the whitebark forests in greater Yellowstone, leaving many mountainsides a rusty grey color from dead trees. The hard part, he says, is that given that the trees already grow at the highest altitudes, "there's nowhere else for them to go; they can't find higher ground."

Gonzales says around 75 percent of the whitebarks he planted with his crew in June seemed to have survived when they checked back on the saplings in September, and he plans to try and plant even more in the summer of 2013. And treefighting seems to be catching on: Student groups from as far away as Brooklyn and Hanover, New Hampshire, came to plant trees and document changes in whitebark stands this past year. Gonzales celebrates the growing attention and involvement, but remains pessimistic about the forests' susceptibility to beetles and climate change: "I think we're going to see more tree species affected. Unfortunately, treefighting is going to become a growth industry in the coming years."

Trees dying from beetle infestation often turn a reddish color, like these in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. David Gonzales/TreeFight.org

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Explained in 90 Seconds: What the @#% Is Climate Change Doing to El Niño?

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Imagine this is your office: a tropical island skirted by coral-packed azure waters, somewhere near the equator between Hawaii and Tahiti. Your job involves a lot of swimming. Tough, huh? "My field research is the best part of my job," says Kim Cobb, Associate Professor of Climate Change at Georgia Institute of Technology. "It's probably the reason I have stuck with corals for the last 15 years."

Stuck with, and collected and sampled. For the past seven years, Cobb and her lab team have been recontructing the history of El Niño events across several millenia by taking core samples from corals in the Pacific. That process has uncovered reams of fresh climate data. And it's within this new, longer baseline of temperatures from the tropical Pacific that Cobb spotted something surprising: "The 20th century is significantly, statistically stronger in its El Niño Southern Oscillation activity than this long, baseline average," Cobb says. El Niño events have gotten worse.

That led Cobb to wonder: Is man-made climate change, and the level of carbon in the atmosphere, shifting in El Niño events along with it? Or should we chalk it up to coincidence? "We need a lot more data," Cobb says. But Cobb's 7000-year baseline study should push researchers in the right direction to discover more connections between Earth's complex climate systems, and the role man-made climate change is playing.

Cobb's results have been published in the latest edition of Science.

Bye-Bye Marshes, Hello Mud

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Arrowhead Marsh near Oakland could turn to mud by 2080.

By now, we're used to hearing about the threats sea level rise poses to human society: It can wash away urban areas, give a boost to storms, and swallow island nations. But new research from a team at the US Geological Survey shows that rising seas can also devastate fragile ecosystems.

mouse
So long, Mr. Mouse! Wikimedia Commons

Using a custom-built sea level modeling tool, USGS's Western Ecological Research Center forecast the future for a dozen salt marshes in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to several species of federally protected birds and other animals. The predictions are grim: 95 percent of the marsh area could become mudflats by 2100, the effect of four feet of sea level rise (a level projected by previous studies). That's a problem for marsh-loving endangered species like the salt marsh harvest mouse (left) and the California black rail bird, both found only in the Bay Area, and for other beach-dwelling birds that count on solid ground to lay their nests.

Take a look at the video below, which shows the projection for a marsh in San Pablo Bay; yellow is land, light blue is average sea level, and dark blue is high water level: 

By the end, no more marsh (have a favorite Bay Area marsh? You can see projections for it here). Here's that same story, told a different way, as the marsh goes from a healthy green to muddy brown:

san pablo marsh
Courtest USGS

Leaded Fuel Is a Thing of the Past—Unless You Fly a Private Plane

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 7:06 AM EST
A Cessna 172, which flies with leaded gasoline

If you read our magazine cover story on the long, awful legacy of lead in gasoline, you were probably relieved that toxic metal is now banned from all gasoline. The thing is, it's not.

Some 167,000 piston engine aircraft—about three-quarters of private planes in the United States—are still spewing lead into our air. That's because their fuel, known as avgas, uses the same tetraethyl lead addictive since banned in automobile gas, making it the No. 1 source of lead emissions in America. (The jet fuel used in big passenger planes does not contain lead.) Lead-free alternatives are available for most piston engine aircraft, but the phaseout of leaded fuel has been slow. Last June, the FAA finally created the Fuels Program Office to replace leaded avgas by 2018—24 years after it was banned in automobiles.

Leaded avgas emits only a small fraction of the lead once coughed out by cars, but it disproportionately affects people living near the 20,000 airports where it's used. The EPA estimates (PDF) there are 16 million people living within one kilometer of those airports, and 3 million children attend schools in the same radius. According to a 2011 study by Duke University researchers, kids who live near airports have elevated levels of lead in their blood. And as Kevin Drum wrote in his Mother Jones piece, even low blood lead levels have bad health and social consequences.

MAP: 2012 Was the Hottest Year on Record in the US

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:34 PM EST

Just saying.

This NOAA map shows a sampling of places where weather records were broken last year. You probably guessed that red indicates heat. Yellow represents dryness; orange is a double whammy record for heat and dryness.

Image courtesy of NOAA