Blue Marble - February 2013

Obama to Nominate REI CEO as Secretary of Interior

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 2:00 PM EST

According to numerous reports, President Obama will announce on Wednesday that he is nominating Recreational Equipment Incorporated CEO Sally Jewell to serve as the next Secretary of Interior. Jewell, as Washington State native, is certainly a nontraditional pick for a job typically given to Western politicos, and the selection is drawing interesting responses.

(Full disclosure—I'm an REI junkie. The flagship store in Seattle is basically my happy place. You can get many products that are made with recycled materials or made in the US, and you can return anything. OK, end of disclosure.)

Environmental groups issued excited press releases about the selection, noting that Jewell and REI have partnered with both Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation on programs to promote the outdoors. "Whether it's been through her work to get more kids outside or her accomplishments in building a business that recognizes the passion Americans have to explore the outdoors, Sally Jewell has demonstrated that she knows just how important our wild places are to our national legacy and our economy," Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a press release.

But members of Congress from states heavily involved in energy development were much more cautious. "The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). "I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department."

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Public Lands and Environmental Regulation subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee, said he has "reservations" about the Jewell appointment, including concerns that REI has "intimately supported several special interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas" (i.e., Sierra Club and NWF).

Before coming to REI, Jewell worked as an engineer for Mobil Oil and a banker. See Sarah van Schagen's Grist profile of Jewell from 2007 for more.

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The Ozone Hole: It's Still Up There, Changing Oceans, Maybe Climate

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 6:21 AM EST

The ozone hole—the thinning of ozone in the lower stratosphere above Antarctica—has changed the way that waters in the Southern Ocean mix. And that has the potential to change how much CO2 the ocean sequesters from the atmosphere. Hence the course of global climate change. This according to a new paper in Science.

"This may sound entirely academic, but believe me, it's not," said lead author Darryn Waugh at Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "This matters because the southern oceans play an important role in the uptake of heat and carbon dioxide, so any changes in southern ocean circulation have the potential to change the global climate."

Map of local rates of sea level rise due to ocean heating below 4000m (colors and black numbers) for deep ocean basins. Also included is the rate from 1000-4000m warming (magenta) for the Southern Ocean (south of magenta line): via NOAA PMEL

The Southern Ocean has warmed at roughly twice the rate of the global mean ocean over the past few decades (even in its deep waters, map above), with some 40 percent of the anthropogenic carbon in the oceans entering south of 40°S. The authors write:

Southern ocean ventilation is driven primarily by the [prevailing] westerly winds, which have strengthened and shifted poleward over recent decades, primarily as a consequence of Antarctic stratospheric ozone depletion. Modeling studies suggest that this has caused changes in the ocean's overturning circulation and carbon uptake.

Thermohaline circulation (aka the "ocean conveyer") showing overturning circulation (aka deep water formation): Avsa via Wikimedia Commons

The overturning circulation, as I've written before (here and here and here), plays a big part in global climate. The places where the overturning circulation (also known as deep water formation) occur—just a few spots in the high latitudes—are being closely monitored for changes.

For the research reported in this paper, the authors used water samples collected in the Southern Ocean in the early 1990s and resampled again in the the middle and late 2000s. They measured chlorofluorocarbon-12, or CFC-12. That's the ozone-killing stuff that was first produced commercially in the 1930s for use in aerosols, refrigerants, and air conditioners, and which grew rapidly in the atmosphere until the 1990s when it was phased out by the Montreal Protocol. It's been useful to oceanographers ever since as a tracer for measuring water movements over time.

Comparing CFCs in the 1990s versus 2000s samples, the researchers were able to infer changes in how rapidly surface waters have mixed into the depths. They knew that concentrations of CFCs at the ocean surface increased in tandem with those in the atmosphere. So they were able to surmise that the higher the concentration of CFC-12 deeper in the ocean, the more recently those waters were at the surface.

What they found was younger than expected waters in the subtropics and older than expected waters further south. These findings correlate to observed intensification of surface westerly winds driven primarily by the Antarctic ozone hole. Which suggests that dwindling  ozone in the stratosphere is the primary cause of the observed changes in ocean circulation.

As stratospheric ozone recovers, the circulation may recover too. But there are other factors at work here. The authors conclude: 

As stratospheric ozone recovers over the next 40 to 60 years, the recent trend of intensifying summer westerly winds may slow or reverse. However, continued increases in greenhouse gases will likely lead to strengthened westerlies during other seasons. The integrated impact of these trends in Southern Hemisphere westerlies on the ocean's ventilation and uptake of heat and anthropogenic carbon is an open question.

 

We don't hear so much about the ozone hole as we did in the 1990s. But that doesn't mean it's going away anytime soon. The video (above) by the American Museum of Natural History animates projections for a slow recovery.

The ozone layer if CFCs hadn't been banned, progression by decade. Dark blue indicates zero ozone: Goddard Space Flight Center Visualization Studio

And this series of images (above) show projections of what might have become of global stratospheric ozone if we hadn't curbed our emissions through the Montreal Protocol. Dark blue indicates zero ozone.

The paper:

  • Darryn W. Waugh, Francois Primeau, Tim DeVries, Mark Holzer. Recent Changes in the Ventilation of the Southern Oceans. Science (2013). DOI:10.1126/science.1225411

 

SLIDESHOW: Climate Science, Meet Art Gallery

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 6:06 AM EST

Marco Tedesco has spent his career conducting scientific research projects following time-honored steps: develop hypothesis, collect data, write paper, present at conference. But last summer, just before a trip to study Greenland's melting glaciers, he had a vision of presenting his findings not in a drab lecture hall, but within the cool confines of an art gallery. POLARSEEDS was born when Tedesco, an atmospheric sciences professor at the City College of New York, roped in colleagues from the music, graphic design, and video game design departments to help him communicate his findings to a wider, younger audience. The result is on display at CCNY through next week.

Coming soon: What does glacier melt data sound like? POLARSEEDS musicologist Jonathan Perl explains the mysterious musicology behind climate-science "sonifications."

How Industrial Pot Growers Ravage the Land: A Google Earth Tour

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 6:06 AM EST

No place in America is better known for marijuana growing than Northern California's Humboldt County. The same forgiving climate and rugged terrain that gave rise to ancient redwoods (and decades of frenzied clear cutting) has brought about a "green rush"—of pot growers looking to tend rows of Afghani Goo or Sour Diesel strains in remote canyons or ridge-lines far beyond the reach of the feds.

Erstwhile loggers can earn much more than they ever did splitting trees. By one recent estimate, cannabis accounts for more than a quarter of Humboldt County's $1.6 billion economy, a share that's likely to grow with the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in nearby Washington state. But the pot economy's need for land and water has sparked a whole new wave of environmental problems.

In this video, made with hi-res satellite images from Google Earth, Anthony Silvaggio, an environmental sociologist with Humboldt State University's new Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, exposes the extent of the devastation wrought on private forest land by industrial-scale grows:

CHARTS: The Top 5 Land-Grabbing Countries

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 6:06 AM EST
A farmer in Tanzania, where land and water grabs are frequent.

In 2010, a former Wall Street trader flew into war-torn Sudan to negotiate a deal with a thuggish general. He had his eye on a 1 million acre tract of fertile land fed by a tributary of the Nile in the southern section of the country, a region that later claimed its independence as South Sudan. The investor, who planned to profit by developing and exporting agricultural commodities, boasted about how the region's instability was a principal variable in his financial model: "This is Africa," he told reporter McKenzie Funk, who shadowed him for a riveting piece in Rolling Stone (PDF). "The whole place is like one big mafia. I'm like a mafia head."

Over the last decade (and especially during the last four years) wealthy nations have increasingly brokered deals for huge swathes of agricultural land at bargain prices in developing countries, installed industrial-scale farms, and exported the resulting bounty for profit. According to the anti-hunger group Oxfam International, more than 60 percent of these "land grabs" occur in regions with serious hunger problems. Two-thirds of the investors plan to ship all the commodities they produce out of the country to the global market. And droughts, spikes in food and oil prices, and a growing global population have only made the quest for arable land more urgent, and the investments that much more alluring.

In what a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) characterizes as a "new form of colonialism," investors from the US, UK, and China are gobbling up foreign farmland at "alarming rates" and often with little consultation and compensation of poor small-scale farmers and local populations.

According to the PNAS study, the land grabbing phenomenon has already claimed some 203 million acres, or about .7 to 1.75 percent of the world's total farmland, since 2002, with the majority of acquisitions after 2008. Out of 41 land grabbing speculators, the US ranks second, with 9.14 million acres grabbed, an area larger than the country of Qatar. And according to another report from the Oakland Institute, highlighted by my colleague Jaeah Lee, many of the purchases are carried out by private equity funds, university endowments, pension funds, and hedge funds looking to strengthen their portfolios by capitalizing on declining natural resources. And as Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott has noted, the grabbers have an average per capita GDP about five times the size of the grabbed.

Take a look at the top five land-grabbing countries below and their respective claims:  

Data source:"Global land and water grabbing."

Data within the PNAS report also indicate that the "mafia head" approach of targeting vulnerable countries for investments is not just the strategy of a lone land-grabbing cowboy, but standard practice. It's easier to wrest land and displace small-scale farmers in countries with a weak rule of law, according to Oxfam. In many cases, the land is developed to export crops or commodities for biofuels, and in other cases, left to sit idle so it can increase in value before it's sold.

Of the countries that lost the highest percentages of their cultivated land, nine out of 10 have malnourishment rates of 5 percent or more (see chart below). And according to Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace's Failed States Index, all the states in the graph below, with the exception of Uruguay, are categorized as unstable.

Data source:"Global land and water grabbing."

Given that 86 percent of the world's water resources flow into agricultural production, the grabs also hijack a good portion of rainwater and irrigation water. The graph below shows that the top five annual per capita water grabs exceed or come very close to the amount of water needed for a balanced diet for that country's citizens.

Data source:"Global land and water grabbing."

In October of 2012, Oxfam called on the World Bank to freeze its agricultural investments in land in order to review its policies and develop stronger guidelines on how to avoid land grabs. According to Oxfam, the World Bank's projects have been cited in 21 formal land rights complaints since 2008 by communities from Asia to Africa.

But the World Bank rejected the suggestion, saying that it would "do nothing to help reduce the instances of abusive practices and would likely deter responsible investors willing to apply our high standards." It acknowledged, however, that enforcing those standards "is challenging." It's a challenge that must be overcome, or land grabbing, as Oxfam says, could become "one of the great scandals of the 21st century."

Work Less, Save the Planet

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 5:12 PM EST

Here's a way to cut carbon emissions that is so easy, it actually makes you do less work: cutting back on your work hours. A new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research concludes that if we all worked fewer hours, we could cut future global warming by as much as 22 percent by 2100.

"The calculation is simple: fewer work hours means less carbon emissions, which means less global warming," says economist and paper author David Rosnick. His research found that dialing back the amount of time the average person works by 0.5 percent per year would mean a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. If you work 40 hours a week, that would mean shaving about 12 minutes off the average work week per year. Working one minute less per month seems pretty doable. Basically, we're using a whole lot more of everything when we're working–electricity, gasoline, heating, air conditioning, etc. Leisure is requires less greenhouse-gas-producing activity.

Rosnick notes that much of the anticipated future global warming is locked in by the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we've already put in the atmosphere. But cutting back on work time could eliminate a quarter to a half of the global warming anticipated from future emissions, he argues. But he acknowledges that this is a more difficult proposition in an economy like the United States that has major inequality between high- and low-income earners. He explains:

In the United States, for example, just under two-thirds of all income gains from 1973–2007 went to the top 1 percent of households. In this type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order to work less.

Europeans have already gone this route, expanding the amount of time workers get for vacation and holidays. The US, instead, has plugged forward with ever-longer work days. But as Rosnick argues, cutting back on the number of hours we work may increase our productivity in the time we are working. 

"Increased productivity need not fuel carbon emissions and climate change," said CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot in a statement accompanying the paper. "Increased productivity should allow workers to have more time off to spend with their families, friends, and communities. This is positive for society, and is quantifiably better for the planet as well."

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CHARTS: TV News Mentioned Donald Trump Nearly 20 Times More Than Fracking in 2011

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 6:06 AM EST

A paltry 1.2 percent of headlines in prominent media outlets focus on environment. That's the depressing finding from a study out today that surveyed headlines from 43 news and related organizations between January 2011 and May of 2012. Interestingly, Fox News devoted significantly more time to covering the environment, including healthy doses of climate change-denial, than did MSNBC and CNN:

 

A caveat: "Fox News is often criticized for having a blatant anti-environment bias," the study notes, adding that "quantity is not a proxy for quality of coverage on this issue." (The study used very similar methodology to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, and didn't discriminate between biased and unbiased or misleading environmental news.)

What did most news outlets focus on? Crime and celebrities, mostly:

Headlines by media type

Notably, local newspapers were the only category of outlet that spent more time covering the environment than entertainment. On major newscasts (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox), LeBron James and other entertainment figures got far more mentions than most environmental issues. Even Donald Trump, arguably the topic America is most sick of hearing about, snagged almost 20 times as many headlines as fracking:

Among online news outlets, Huffington Post had the highest overall percentage of stories about the environment—about 3 percent in all. (Mother Jones was not included in the study sample.)

Percentage of online news sources

The findings are especially frustrating when you consider the recent finding that nearly 80 percent of Americans would like to see more coverage of environmental issues.