Blue Marble - January 2013

Why We Should Be Scared for Our Coastlines, in 55 Acronyms

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 4:59 PM EST

A beach house in North Carolina after Hurricane Sandy.

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

This week, a group of 78 representatives from American government agencies, universities, non-governmental organizations, and the insurance industry published a report on the threat climate change poses to U.S. coastlines. The document—formal title: "Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities: A Technical Input to the National Climate Assessment"—clocks in at nearly 200 pages, and functions as a lengthy addendum to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment.

The report's findings are unsurprising: Our coastlines are particularly vulnerable to climate change's impacts—a fact that we have had proven to us anecdotally so many sad times in the recent past. Still, though, the document is worth reading—or, perhaps, skimming—in its entirety.

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CHARTS: Renewables in Bed With Natural Gas?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 3:22 PM EST
generation
Coal use in the US is on the decline, and renewables and natural gas are both expanding to take its place. Courtesy BNEF

It's no secret that environmentalists are going through a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to natural gas. Celebrities including Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Yoko Ono have aligned themselves with green groups like the Sierra Club to come out steadfastly against gas because of fracking, the drilling technique that harvests most of it, citing concerns about water and air contamination. Meanwhile others, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Environmental Defense Fund, have boosted fracking as a "bridge" to wean the US off of coal, and usher in more renewables, a process that is already underway.

But a report released this morning makes it clear that the renewables industry sees itself in the latter camp, forming an unexpected alliance with the natural gas industry, since both groups are intent on giving coal the boot. The informal partnership should be a PR boon to the embattled gas industry, which has spent the last several years trying to allay concerns from the public and policymakers by shouting over the anti-fracking fracas.

Butterflies Booking It North as Climate Warms

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 6:21 AM EST
Giant swallowtail, normally a butterfly of the southern US, now increasingly appearing in the northeast: Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons
 

Butterflies from the southern US that used to be rare in the northeast are now appearing there on a regular basis. The trend correlates to a warming climate report the authors of a paper in Nature Climate Change.

Subtropical and warm-climate butterflies—including the giant swallowtail (photo above) and the zabulon skipper (photo below)—showed the sharpest population shift to the north. As recently as the late 1980s these species were rare or absent in Massachusetts.

At the same time southern butterflies are moving north, more than 75 percent of northern species—with a range centered north of Boston—are rapidly declining in Massachusetts now. Disappearing fastest are the species that overwinter as eggs or larvae. Which suggests that changes in the winter climate (like more drought or less snow cover) may be harming nonadult butterflies.

Southern species like the zabulon skipper are replacing northern species in Massachusetts: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson via Wikimedia Commons

"For most butterfly species, climate change seems to be a stronger change-agent than habitat loss," lead author Greg Breed tells the Harvard Gazette. "Protecting habitat remains a key management strategy, and that may help some butterfly species. However for many others habitat protection will not mitigate the impacts of warming."

Breed points to the frosted elfin (photo above), a species that receives formal habitat protection from Massachusetts, and has increased 1,000 percent there since 1992. Meanwhile common summer butterflies that have no protection in Massachusetts (atlantis and aphrodite fritillaries) have declined by nearly 90 percent. From the paper:

Conservation agencies should not use our results to infer that all southern species are safe nor that all northern species are doomed to extinction. However, understanding mechanisms of population decline could improve management practices and limit potentially costly efforts that will have little influence on species conservation.

 

The frosted elfin is one of the most rapidly increasing butterfly species in Massachusetts with an estimated 1,000 percent increase since 1992: Geoff Gallice via Wikimedia Commons

What's extra cool about this research is that the data come from citizen scientists at the Massachusetts Butterfly Club. Over the last 19 years members have logged butterfly species and numbers on some 20,000 expeditions through Massachusetts. Their records fill a crucial gap in the scientific record.

Butterflies are turning out to be the canaries in the coal mine of climate warming:

  • This study in Biology Letters found that Australia's common brown butterfly emerged from their pupae on average 1.6 days earlier each decade between 1941 and 2005, when average air temperature increased by 0.14°C per decade.
  • Butterflies and other species living in the mountains suffer from the "escalator effect"... i.e., when there's no higher "latitude" for them to shift to beyond the summit.
  • MoJo's Kiera Butler wrote here about the Karner blue butterfly and the problem of what to do when conditions force them northward but they can't make it past urban roadblocks.
  • I reported here about populations of Apollo butterflies in the Rocky Mountains so fragmented by the escalator effect that they could be wiped out by one particularly bad weather event.
  • Check out this Google Scholar search page for just how many papers are being published on butterflies feeling the heat.

The Nature Climate Change paper:

  • Greg A. Breed, Sharon Stichter & Elizabeth E. Crone. Climate-driven changes in northeastern US butterfly communities. Nature Climate Change (2013). DOI:10.1038/nclimate1663

Will Your Waiter Give You the Flu?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 6:06 AM EST

Fifteen minutes before Victoria Bruton's lunch shift at a busy Philadelphia dining joint, she began to feel dizzy and hot. "I had gone to my boss and asked if I could leave because I wasn't feeling well," Bruton, now 41, remembers of her first case of what she assumed to be the flu. "They asked that I finish the shift. And frankly, I couldn't afford not to." The sole source of income for her two daughters, Bruton powered through the shiftand spent the next two days confined to a sickbed. 

Like most of the country, Philadelphia doesn't require restaurants to pay sick leave for its food handlers, though longtime food workers like Bruton, advocacy organizations, and lawmakers are currently fighting for a law to do so in Pennsylvania. Councilmen in Portland, Oregon, are also debating a similar initiative. But these two proposals are the exception rather than the norm: According to a study from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, 79 percent of food workers in the United States don't have paid sick leave or don't know if they do. And it's not just flu that sick servers can spread—a study out this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the food industry's labor practices may be contributing to some of the nation's most common foodborne illness outbreaks, and even more than previously thought.

CHART: Which Kills More Birds, Cats or Turbines?

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 5:34 PM EST

Last month Fox News reported on the "grizzly deaths" of 500 songbirds in West Virginia. Behind the fell deed: a wind farm, caught red-turbined. "To date, the Obama administration... has not prosecuted a single case against the wind industry," the Fox reporter laments. Opponents of renewable energy love to trot out the risk wind turbines pose to birds, and some engineering work has gone into making them more avian-friendly. But a new study released today in Nature shows that if you really want to protect birds, forget about wind: You need to lock up Kitty.

Chart by Tim McDonnell

The study, conducted by scientists from US Fish & Wildlife and the Smithsonian, found that "free-ranging cats... are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals." No word yet on whether the Obama administration plans to prosecute these renegade felines.

"Three Months Is a Lifetime": Sandy Victims Slog On

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 2:18 PM EST
Tony Lazzara has forked out $20,000 of his own money for storm repairs.

When Hurricane Sandy struck Staten Island, it dumped three feet of seawater into Tony Lazzara's basement, just up the road from where two lives became some of the earliest fatalities of the storm. When Climate Desk first met Lazzara, he was dragging sopping furniture out onto the street. Three months later he's still drying out, juggling contractors and insurance agents, and trying to stanch the steady hemorrhaging of his checking account.

"I had a refrigerator, washer, an oven, beautiful cabinets, bedroom sets, couches, you name it," Lazzara says. His insurance didn't help nearly enough, he says: So far, he's had to fork out $20,000 from his own pocket. At least Lazarra still has his home; the same can't be said for the 3,500 families displaced by the storm in New York and New Jersey. Still, his challenges are by now all too familiar to countless Tri-State families for whom the last three months have been an uphill battle to get back on their feet and squeeze aid out of insurance companies and government programs.

"Three months is a lifetime for some people," Lazzara says. "Can you imagine being displaced for three months?"

firefighters
Firefighters rest after the devastating Breezy Point inferno. James West/Climate Desk

Lazzara and folks like him caught a much-needed break yesterday when Congress, after much hemming and hawing, finally passed a $50 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy—despite opposition from 31 GOP Senators who had previously supported emergency relief in their homes states. While much of the money will go to local governments (to repair infrastructure, reimburse emergency spending, and rebuilding the damaged coastline), some is destined for the pockets of people like Lazzara, whose homes were damaged or destroyed, and to business owners who suffered storm-related losses (the storm's total pricetag is estimated at $50 billion). But Lazzara says he's a long way from popping a bottle of champagne: Bad communication, neglect, and perceived mismanagement by government agencies like FEMA in the storm's wake left him and his neighbors suspicious and cynical about ever actually receiving a check.

"That money's going to sit in limbo forever," he says, "There's going to be a big fight about it again."

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Texas Public Schools: Still Teaching Creationism

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:01 AM EST

In Texas public schools, children learn that the Bible provides scientific proof that Earth is 6,000 years old, that the origins of racial diversity trace back to a curse placed on Noah's son, and that astronauts have discovered "a day missing in space" that corroborates biblical stories of the sun standing still.

These are some of the findings detailed in Reading, Writing & Religion II, a new report by the Texas Freedom Network that investigates how public schools in the Lone Star State promote religious fundamentalism under the guise of offering academic courses about the Bible. The report, written by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, found that more than half of the state's public-school Bible courses taught students to read the book from a specifically Christian theological perspective—a clear violation of rules governing the separation of church and state.

Many school districts pushed specific strains of fundamentalism in the classes:

  • "The Bible is the written word of God," proclaims a slide shown to students in suburban Houston's Klein Independent School District (ISD). Another slide adds: "The Bible is united in content because there is no contradictions [sic] in the writing. The reason for this is because the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration."
  • A PowerPoint slide in Brenham ISD in Central Texas claims that "Christ's resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space—that is was, in reality, historical and not mythological." (emphasis in original)
  • In North Texas, Prosper ISD promotes the Rapture, claiming in course materials that "the first time the Lord gathered his people back was after the Babylonian captivity. The second time the Lord will gather his people back will be at the end of the age."

Some Bible classes in Texas public school appear to double as "science" classes, circumventing limits placed on teaching creationism. Eastland ISD, a school district outside Fort Worth, shows videos produced by the Creation Evidence Museum, which claims to possess a fossil of a dinosaur footprint atop "a pristine human footprint."

Perhaps the wackiest Bible lesson was the one presented to students at Amarillo ISD titled: "Racial Origins Traced from Noah." A chart presented in the classroom claims that it's possible to identify which of Noah's three sons begat various racial and ethnic groups. Chancey explains:

According to the chart, "Western Europeans" and "Caucasians" descend from Japeth, "African races" and Canaanites from Ham, and "Jews, Semitic people, and Oriental races" from Shem. A test question shows that the chart was taken seriously: "Shem is the father of a) most Germanic races b) the Jewish people c) all African people."

In Texas, public schools have the legal right to offer these kinds of classes—up to a point. In 2007 the state legislature passed a law allowing school districts to offer "elective courses on the Bible's Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament." The Supreme Court long ago ruled that such classes pass constitutional muster, as long as they don't advocate for a specific religious view. As Chancey points out, the state of Texas obviously needs to do a much better job of educating its teachers about what that means.

Losing Nemo: Great Barrier Reef At Risk From Coal

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 1:10 PM EST
The Great Barrier Reef

Coral reefs already have a lot on their plate: ocean acidification and warming, damage by extreme storms, water pollution from industrial runoff, even crazy invasive starfish. Now, it seems, the big momma of all reefs, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is also under siege by fossil fuel development being pushed by the recently elected conservative Queensland state government. The risk is great enough that UNESCO has threatened to strip the reef of its World Heritage Site status this year, if not more is done to protect it.

"It would be an international shame for Australia and send a shocking message that even the wealthiest nations can't manage their reefs," Felicity Wishart, director of Fight for the Reef, said. The campaign is a newly-formed coaltion between the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Marine Conservation Society to pressure the state and federal governments to curb industrial development near the reef.

barrier reef
Comparative size of Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site. Courtesy Australian Government

Wishart said a suite of more than 60 proposed industrial facilities, mostly to facilitate coal exports, are being considered for the Queensland coast, off of which the reef is located. If built, she said, they would nearly double the amount of ship traffic over the reef, posing the risk of physical collisions and oil spills, and necessitate dredging the ocean floor nearby, adding to sediment contamination that can block the sunlight the corals need to thrive.

Last year UNESCO decided the threats were enough to warrant dispatching a team to investigate; it drafted a series of recommendations for the state and federal governments, which are due to issue a response by Feb. 1. If the World Heritage folks aren't sufficiently impressed, they could demote the reef to "World Heritage in Danger" status, along with another large reef in Belize where chunks were sold off for development, a historic Buddhist landmark in Afghanistan that was sacked by the Taliban, and a host of other brutalized spots. World Heritage listing doesn't confer any specific legal protection per se (in the way that, say, officially designating habitat for an endangered species in the US would); rather, UNESCO provides guidance for local governments to better manage the sites. Still, the demotion could deal an embarrassing blow to the $5 billion tourism industry the reef supports—designation is largely seen as a major tourist draw, and getting booted from the list could send the signal that the reef just ain't what it used to be.

NASA's Alarming Map of the Worst Australian Heat Wave on Record

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 3:14 PM EST

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

Although temperatures around the country have receded this week, many Australians no doubt are still having fever dreams of their country's recent skull-boiling weather. The past four months have been the hottest ever recorded on the continent, with a new countrywide high temperature on January 7 busting the mercury bulb at 104.6 Fahrenheit. (It wasn't much better that night, with A/C units struggling to compensate for 90.3-degree heat.)

But how far and wide did this steamy bulk of hotness spread? The folks over at NASA have revealed the answer in the form of a heat map, and it looks like this was truly a monster-sized "persistent and widespread heatwave event," as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has dubbed it. Here it is, the surface-temperature anomalies for January 1 through 8 as observed by satellite:

Sierra Club Turns to Civil Disobedience to Stop Keystone Pipeline

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

Earlier this week, the Sierra Club announced that it is lifting its long-standing institutional prohibition on civil disobedience so that it can protest the development of the tar sands. The club's board of directors approved the change, which executive director Michael Brune made public on Tuesday. While staff and board members have previously participated in acts of civil disobedience in a personal capacity, this is the first time that the organization will take part.

The group has been mum on exactly what sort of civil disobedience it is planning. It is cosponsoring an anti-Keystone XL rally on the National Mall on February 17 with 350.org and the Hip-Hop Caucus, but says that the civil disobedience will be a separate event.

I caught up with Brune on Thursday to talk about what this means for the 120-year-old environmental organization.

Mother Jones: So is this only allowing civil disobedience related to the tar sands, or does it open it up the possibility to use it for other issues as well?

Michael Brune: Right now the board has authorized us to do this singular action on tar sands and climate. It will have a broad frame of wanting the president to be as muscular in his approach to fighting climate change as he can, with a particular focus on the tar sands pipeline.

MJ: What was it about this issue in particular that forced the change?

MB: Look at what's happened in just the last year. Record-breaking wildfires, unusual heat waves in Chicago last February, a full degree warmer in the lower 48 than we've ever seen, droughts, Hurricane Sandy, the derecho, bizarre storms happening all across the country. It's clear that our climate is already destabilizing, and it's also clear that there's a lot that the president can do to solve the problem. So we need to provide as much urgency and focus to ensure that the president's commitment is an enduring one and that his ambition meets the scale of the challenge.

MJ: Has the Club ever officially done civil disobedience?

MB: The Club has never officially done civil disobedience in our 120-year-history. There was a standing rule, an explicit prohibition on civil disobedience that the board has lifted. I don't know exactly when it was put in place, but it's been in place for decades. When it's used rarely, in extraordinary conditions, American history shows that it has done a great deal in helping to address injustices. We think that given the time we're in right now, with the threats we face from climate change, and the opportunities we face from a clean energy transition, that we need the strongest possible leadership from the president. And civil disobedience can help to provide that.