Blue Marble - January 2013

Explained in 90 Seconds: It's Cold. That Doesn't Mean Global Warming is Fake.

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

At Climate Desk, we like to call them—affectionately—our "pet trolls." (You know who you are. Hi!) They are regular readers that pepper us on Twitter and Facebook with one of several climate myths upon the publication of every article, sometimes with freakish speed. One of the most popular myths is this: Global warming isn't real because it's really cold outside; climate models are thus full of sh*t. So, here in 90 seconds, is our attempt to explain something we interact with every day, in all sorts of ways, from flying in a plane, to getting a loan, to betting on a horse: computer modeling.

Our video features Drew Purves, from Microsoft in Cambridge, UK, a statistics whiz specializing in modeling the climate and ecosystems. Think of him as the Nate Silver of carbon. You can read about his latest research project, a rallying cry to model the entire world's ecology—that's right, the entire world—in the latest edition of Nature.

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After Nebraska Setback, Greens Regroup on Keystone XL

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

Environmentalists waging an ongoing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt a major setback this week when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed off on the pipe's route through his state. Now all that stands between TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and broken ground is a signature from the State Department, the final decision about which is expected this spring.

Between now and then, the sprawling unofficial coalition of green individuals and groups that have bonded in the last two years over opposition to the pipeline is gearing up for a final push. It's certain to be an uphill battle: Yesterday a letter signed by 53 senators put renewed pressure on Obama to say yes, and other than the rare rhetorical nod to climate action there are few clues that he'll nix the project*. So the rhetoric of the next couple months could make or break the pipeline.

Opposition to the Keystone XL has tended to coalesce around two different arguments, the tools in the anti-Keystone toolbelt: The first is that the pipe could deal a deadly blow to the global climate by raising the floodgates for oil from Canada's tar sands, believed by scientists to be one of Earth's dirtiest fuel sources; the second is that the pipe could pose a slew of localized threats on its path from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from potential leaks contaminating groundwater to careless work crews plowing through fragile dinosaur fossil beds. Governor Heineman's decision seems to close the book on the state-level fight and steal some thunder from the localized argument, but leading Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb says local landowners aren't ready to cede their home turf quite yet.

"Oh yeah, it's far from over. We have landowners asking us to train them in civil disobedience," Kleeb said. "These folks are not joking around. They homesteaded this land. They don't trust this company. And they don't want [the pipeline]. So they're going to do everything they can to keep it from crossing their lines."

keystone route
Nebraska DEQ; Tim McDonnell

Can Two Dedicated Congressmen Make Their Colleagues Care About Climate?

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 11:37 AM EST

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) announced on Thursday that they are forming a joint House-Senate Climate Change Task Force. The effort will be "dedicated to focusing Congressional and public attention on climate change and developing effective policy responses." Any member of Congress interested in the issue can join.

The group intends to release reports, memoranda, and correspondence "to advance the group's goal of increasing awareness and developing policy responses to climate change."

The task force's first action is a letter sent today to President Obama asking him to outline specific steps that federal agencies will take to get the country to the administration's previously stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. They also asked him to scale up investment in clean technology and develop a strategy for dealing with climate impacts across the US. Obama gave climate change significant space in his inaugural address earlier this week, but hasn't yet outlined plans to deal with it in his second term. 

"The window to deal effectively with a warming planet and to mitigate long-term risks is quickly closing," they wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "Our best hope to change course is to forge together a national consensus that insists on addressing climate change. And our best hope for forging that consensus is the presidential leadership we know you can give to this issue."

The letter pretty much acknowledged that Congress isn't likely to do much in terms of meaningful action, which puts the onus on Obama to take executive action. "We in Congress need your leadership most of all. Virtually all Republicans in Congress opposed comprehensive climate legislation in the 111th Congress, and they voted to strip EPA of regulatory authority in the last one. Progress is Congress may be so difficult or protracted that you should not hesitate to act."

Fracking Wastewater Threatens to Drown Ohio

| Wed Jan. 23, 2013 1:55 PM EST

First, the good news: Using the process known as hydraulic fracturing to create natural gas wells produces less wastewater than wells created using more conventional methods, according to a new study in the journal Water Resources Research. Scientists from Duke and Kent State universities found that fracked wells create 35 percent as much wastewater per unit of gas when compared to conventional wells. The scientists note that this upsets the common idea that fracking creates more wastewater than other types of gas extraction.

But now the bad news. Because of fracking, gas extraction is up 570 percent since 2004 in the Marcellus shale region, which means that there's a whole lot more wastewater overall to deal with.

Because of fracking, gas extraction is up 570 percent since 2004 in the Marcellus shale region.

"On one hand, shale gas production generates less wastewater per unit," explained co-author Brian Lutz, an assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State. "On the other hand, because of the massive size of the Marcellus resource, the overall volume of water that now has to be transported and treated is immense. It threatens to overwhelm the region's wastewater-disposal infrastructure capacity."

And while most of that fracking is taking place in Pennsylvania right now, Ohio is taking a huge portion of the wastewater. As the Akron Beacon Journal points out, Pennsylvania's 6,400 active wells created 20 million barrels of wastewater in 2011, and about 35 percent of it—7 million barrels—was disposed of in injection wells in Ohio, accounting for more than half of the wastewater Ohio dealt with.

Ohio can't do much to stop Pennsylvania from shipping its wastewater over the border due to the interstate commerce clause in the Constitution, which stipulates that only Congress can regulate this type of interstate trade. The best the state can do is set tougher rules on disposing of that wastewater, which has been discussed but not acted upon. Citizens in Mansfield, Ohio, voted last year to block injection wells in their town, however.

A Quick, Awesome Must-Read on Climate Change

| Wed Jan. 23, 2013 6:01 AM EST
Kerry Emanuel

At this point, climate change is so politicized that it's difficult for the general public to sort out what scientists really know—and don't know—about it. Penned by Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this latest edition of What We Know About Climate Change is the most comprehensive, readable, BS-free rundown on the topic that you're likely to find. It's short enough to read in a day, apolitical enough to appeal to both your Fox-obsessed wingnut uncle and your dreadlocked freegan older sister in Brooklyn, and just detailed enough to provide a reload of fresh intellectual ammunition to help you engage others on the topic.

Is it Obama? Is it Gore? No! It's the Green Ninja!

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 6:01 AM EST

President Obama's high-profile statements about climate change in his inauguration speech—"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms"—will need to be backed by strong action if there's any hope of dimming recent attacks on science in America's classrooms.

The National Center for Science Education lists four new bills in the last week alone that have been introduced in state legislatures: two in Oklahoma, and one each for Missouri and Colorado. For example, House Bill 179, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 16, labels as controversial the teaching of "biological and chemical evolution;" Ditto for Colorado, which on the same day introduced House Bill 13-1089 (PDF) which also misrepresents global warming and evolution as questionable science.

No wonder Dr Eugene Cordero thinks climate change needs a superhero. Bam! Enter the Green Ninja, the not-very-talkative martial arts master who whips up all sorts mayhem to teach young minds about carbon footprints, energy-saving strategies and gas guzzling leaf blowers, a kind of climate-bent Captain Planet, for a younger generation.

Cordero—both the creator of Green Ninja and a climate scientist at San Jose State University—has already created a series of videos and lesson plans for teachers. And they are now looking to the crowd on the popular funding website Kickstarter for more cash to produce a 16-episode YouTube series, starting this Spring. At the time of writing, with just 10 days to go, the Green Ninja team has raised half of its stated $10,000 goal.

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Visit the Tiny Town Where Big Coal Will Meet Its Fate

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 6:01 AM EST
An estuary where the Columbia River meets the sea, just downriver from the planned terminal.

Last week Beijing saw its infamous smog thicken to unprecedented levels, driven largely by emissions from coal-fired power plants across China. In recent years coal from US mines has stoked more and more of these plants, in effect offshoring the health impacts of burning coal. This year, much of the US coal industry's focus will be on pushing an unfolding campaign that seeks to dramatically ramp up the amount of coal we ship overseas.

Morrow County, Oregon, is a quintessientially green pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It's capped by the Columbia River, which winds past the hipsters in Portland en route to the sea, often carrying schools of the salmon that have long been an economic staple for locals. But Morrow County could soon become a backdrop for the transformation of the US coal industry, if a planned loading zone for massive shipments of coal—harvested in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and packed into Asia-bound cargo ships—gets final approval.

Right now, local, state, and federal lawmakers are hammering out the details in what is unfolding as one of the biggest climate fights of 2013.

west coast coal exports
Chart by Tim McDonnell

The Port of Morrow, where coal would be transferred from inland trains onto outbound river barges in the small town of Boardman, is just one of five proposed new coal export terminals now under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If built, the terminals could more than double the amount of coal the US ships overseas, most of it bound for insatiable markets in China, India, South Korea, and a suite of other Asian nations.

Building the new West Coast terminals could be a matter of life or death for US coal.

It's the next giant leap forward for the US coal industry, which has in recent years turned increasingly to the East as domestic demand dwindles and Obama-era clean air regulations make it next to impossible to build new coal-burning facilities at home. But Big Coal's ability to sell its wares overseas is increasingly bottlenecked by maxed-out export facilities, most of which are on the Atlantic-facing East Coast, anyway, better situated for shipments to Hamburg than Hong Kong. So, says Brookings Institute energy analyst Charles Ebinger, building the new West Coast terminals could be a matter of life or death for US coal.

"There's a lot of coal in the domestic market that can't be utilized," Ebinger says. "The Asian market is the fastest-growing coal market in the world. If we wish to continue to export coal [these terminals] are very important... whatever volume of coal we could export would find a market."

With Warming, Soil Releases More CO2... Though Less Over Time as Microbes Adapt

| Sun Jan. 20, 2013 1:06 PM EST
Study plots at the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts where researchers have been warming two areas with underground cables to simulate a warmer climate. The photo shows a January thaw on a 50°F day. The heated plots melted before the unheated ones: Alix Contosa, postdoctoral researcher at University of New Hampshire

Warmer temperatures from a warming climate force the release of carbon dioxide from soils into the atmosphere, driving even more climate warming. That's the bad news. The good news is that the effect diminishes over time—over 18 years, and counting. This according to a new paper just published in Nature Climate Change.

We know that microorganisms in the soil release 10 times the CO2 that humans release on a yearly basis. These soil processes are normally kept in check by plants, which uptake C02 from the atmosphere. But a warming climate is driving changes in the carbon cycle.  

Model soil bacteria: pmecologic via Flickr

To examine how that might be unfolding on at least one patch of our planet—the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts—the researchers warmed two plots with underground cables, one plot for two years, the other for 18. They then measured the efficiency of soil organisms in utilizing food sources that come from plants. Here's some of what they found:

"When the soil was heated to simulate climate warming, we saw a change in the [soil] community to be more efficient in the longer term," says Frey.
  • In the two-year scenario, warming temperatures drastically reduced the efficiency of soils to utilize complex food sources (specifically phenol) from decomposing wood and leaves by 60 percent.
  • In the long-term scenario, where soils were warmed to 9°F (5°C) above ambient temperatures for 18 years, the soil microorganisms regained some efficiency—suggesting that warmed soils might eventually release less CO2 than otherwise predicted.

Why the change? The authors hypothesize that long-term warming may change the community of soil microorganisms to become more efficient. Perhaps the composition of the species changes, or the original species adapt, or the availability of various nutrients changes, or some or all of the above.

"While they're low on the charisma scale soil," says lead author Serita Frey, at the University of New Hampshire, "[soil] microorganisms are so critically important to the carbon balance of the atmosphere."

(Thanks microorganisms!)

These findings could lead to critical changes in the way the carbon cycle is predicted, since common ecosystem models don't factor in the temperature response of the microbial community. "There is clearly a need for new models that incorporate an efficiency parameter that is allowed to fluctuate in response to temperature and other environmental variables," says co-author Johan Six, at the University of California, Davis.

In the video, author Serita Frey describes her long-term work with soil.

The paper:

  • Serita D. Frey, Juhwan Lee, Jerry M. Melillo, and Johan Six. The temperature response of soil microbial efficiency and its feedback to climate. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1796

Friday Downer: BPA Substitute Is Still Bad For You

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 5:27 PM EST

Years of research have found evidence that Bisphenol A—also know as BPA—is making humans fat and anxious, screwing with our ovaries, and making us develop tumors in our breasts and brains. Those findings have prompted regulators in the US, Canada, and the European Union to ban BPA in baby bottles (though other products still contain it). But new research published this week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives indicates that a major chemical substitute isn't much better.

BPA creates problems when it leaches into foods and liquids, since inside the human body it mimics estrogen and screws with your endocrine system. Given the ever-growing body of evidence that it's bad for you, manufacturers have been looking for BPA substitutes. One of those newer substitutes is Bisphenol S. While it is less likely to leach from the plastic when it comes in contact with heat or sunlight, it can still leach into food and liquids under normal use. This most recent study, conducted with rat cells, found once it got into their bodies, Bisphenol S behaved much like BPA. Like BPA, BPS also disrupts the endocrine system, making cells signal, grow, and die in ways they shouldn't. 

Study co-author Cheryl Watson, a professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology department at the University of Texas, notes that both BPA and BPS can have a large impact even in small doses, much like hormones. "If hormones act that potently, it's not much of a surprise that componds that mimic hormones act very potently," Watson told Mother Jones.

Watson also suggested that there should be more testing of chemicals like BPS before they're put into consumer products. She's working with other biologists and chemists on an effort, called Tierd Protocol for Endocrine Disruption (or TiPED) to get the two branches of science to collaborate on this kind of testing. "Why not pretest chemical before someone does all the work and investment of putting them into a product, and then we spend the next 20 years fighting about it?" said Watson. "Think of all the money spent on lawsuits, human disease. There's an awful lot of societal expense in regulating these products after they are introduced."

 

TSA Dumps Porno Airport Scanners. Good Riddance!

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 4:37 PM EST

 

Image from a backscatter X-ray airport scanner, of the kind that will be gone from all US airports by June: US Dept of Homeland Security via Wikimedia Commons

By June those X-ray-emitting, full-frontal-and-full-backside-exposing airport scanners will be gone, the Transportation Security Administration announced today. The reason: Rapiscan, their maker, can't meet the software requirements to block the naked view of travelers for a more generic one.

David Kravets at Wired Blog writes of another potential (and potentially more ominous) reason for the ban—falsifying test data:

The announcement comes three months after Rapiscan came under suspicion for possibly manipulating tests on the privacy software designed to prevent the machines from producing graphic body images.

The European Union has already banned backscatter X-ray scanners over health concerns... worries that most X-rays are received by one of our more supersensitive organs: our skin. I wrote about that here and here.

TSA removed 76 of the X-ray scanners from busier airports last year and will dump the remaining 174 by June, reports Bloomberg. Although all those porno scanners are destined for government agencies across the country. Sorry, federal employees. 

Meanwhile in US airports TSA will continue to deploy the (presumably safer) millimeter wave technology scanners made by L-3 Communications, which has mastered generic-outline imaging. 

Personally, I'm just glad I won't have to get to the airport extra early anymore to make the extra long wait for an extra special pat down.