Blue Marble - April 2013

WATCH: A Conversation With Climate Scientist Michael Mann

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 10:03 AM PDT

One of the chief scientists behind the famous "hockey stick" graph, Michael Mann is among the most influential climate researchers in the United States.

He's also, perhaps, the most regularly attacked.

It started with swipes at the hockey stick—the graph seemed to show global warming so unequivocally that skeptics made it their number one target. The furor became even more intense when some of Mann's emails were exposed in the "ClimateGate" pseudo-scandal. Now, Mann receives regular threats and has found his personal emails pursued by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

And all of this has only made Michael Mann more outspoken.

At the next Climate Desk Live event, Mann and host Chris Mooney will discuss new research that reaffirms the validity of the hockey stick. They'll also talk about public opinion on climate change—and why Mann believes it's changing.

Please join us:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. To attend, please RSVP to cdl@climatedesk.org

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5 Butterfly Species Just Vanished While No One Was Looking

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 3:05 AM PDT
Some of Florida's butterflies go missing for years and then come back. The Meske's skipper was AWOL for a decade before returning.

An entomologist hired by the state of Florida to find any surviving members of five rare butterflies species spent six years on the search instead of the two without finding any. "I thought I was going to find some at some point so I just took a lot more time," Marc Minno told the Miami Herald. "They're just not there." He concluded that the Zestos skipper and the rockland Meske's skipper—which haven't been seen in more than a decade—should be declared extinct, that the Zarucco duskywing is likely extinct too, and that the nickerbean blue and the Bahamian swallowtail are now gone from their North American range: the coastal and inland forests of southern Florida. From the Miami Herald:

Considering that there have been only four previous presumed extinctions of North American butterflies—the last in California more than 50 years ago—Minno finds the government response to such an alarming wave frustrating. "There are three butterflies here that have just winked out and no one did a thing about it," Minno said. "I don't know what has happened with our agencies that are supposed to protect wildlife. They're just kind of sitting on their hands and watching them go extinct."

Worse, because these species were never listed as threatened or endangered they now fall into a limbo where the government won't declare them extinct either. "There is no requirement for us to do anything as far as a formal announcement that it's gone," Ken Warren, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida office, told the Miami Herald. Meanwhile Minno argues that something is badly awry when species vanish before the feds even begin the process of considering whether or not they're in trouble.

Alarmed over the backlog of 757 species awaiting listing, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service and won a settlement in 2011 "requiring the agency to make initial or final decisions on whether to add hundreds of imperiled plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018." Unfortunately that may already be too late for these five butterflies species.

The problems facing butterflies in Florida and elsewhere are complex and poorly understood, but include: climate change; urban sprawl; pesticides; hurricanes; invasive species; and all the perils associated with the genetic bottlenecks that accompany species in sharp decline. Last summer an effort was made to begin captive breeding of Florida's Schaus butterflies, but only a handful of individuals could be found in the wild and none was a female. 

Why Do Conservatives Like to Waste Energy?

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 12:34 PM PDT

Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient light bulbs, calling "sustainability" the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé's halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans' Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.

Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.

A study out today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.

The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to "buy" either an old-school light bulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL's packaging that says "Protect the Environment," and "we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option," said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.

Courtesy Gromet

How Somali Pirates Are Holding Climate Science Hostage

| Sat Apr. 27, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Paleoanthropologist and Berkeley professor Tim White has been waiting for years to drill into the Gulf of Aden near the Indian Ocean seabed for ancient ashes from African volcanoes. By comparing the different layers in the sea core to those found on land, he hopes to be able to estimate the age of certain fossils, thus advancing our understanding of both human evolution and climate change.

But there's a problem: Pirates have made it too dangerous to put a boat anywhere near the ash that White needs. Somali buccaneers claimed more than 3,740 crew members from 125 countries as victims between 2005 and 2012, according to the World Bank. Globally, the economic cost of piracy comes to $18 billion per year. And now, scientific research appears to be another casualty of the marauding bandits. 

"Piracy has stopped oceanographic work in the region," White  told National Geographic this week. "There's been no data coming out of this area for years. Zero."

White's research requires the use of the JOIDES Resolution, an oceanographic ship with a drilling rig. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), which controls the JOIDES Resolution, has docked three projects near Somalia (including White's) due to safety concerns. "To get the kind of climate records we're after, you need to sit on station for two days to a week," says Sarah Feakins, an assistant professor of Earth Science at USC whose research is also being stalled. "The ship is in one place, which makes it more dangerous."

According to National Geographic, White's and Feakin's frustrations are echoed by scientists worldwide:

"Scientists from around the globe, specializing in subjects as diverse as plate tectonics, plankton evolution, oceanography, and climate change, are decrying a growing void of research that has spread across hundreds of thousands of square miles of the Indian Ocean near the Horn of Africa-an immense, watery "data hole" swept clean of scientific research by the threat of Somali buccaneering."

Back in 2011, Australian researchers interested in studying international weather patterns asked the Australian and US navies to help them fend off threats from Somali pirates. In a joint military effort, the two countries' navies protected the researchers' instruments. 

But this kind of aid wouldn't help with White's sea core drilling. "You can do some science off military vessels, but for these operations you need sediment coring ships themselves," said Feakins. An armed escort for the research vessels could work, but Feakins told National Geographic that when she suggested this idea, "it caused a firestorm of anger from everybody from the US State Department to the IODP." Scientific groups say such efforts would hurt their insurance policies, and governments hesitate to foot the bill.

So far in 2013 there have been four pirate hijackings worldwide, down from 14 in 2012 and 31 in 2011. But despite the recent decline, scientists still don't know when—or if—their research will be able to move forward. 

"My sense is the window of opportunity may not open again for many, many years," says White. 

According to Feakins, the last time any science was done in the Gulf of Aden was in 2001. "The climate system is changing and it's a shame not to have any information on this region," she says. 

Meet Alvin, the Climate-Change-Fighting Puppet

| Sat Apr. 27, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Meet Alvin Sputnik, one of the few surviving humans in a world that's well beyond any scientific predictions for sea level rise. Equipped with a special diving suit, Alvin, a creation of Australian puppeteer Tim Watts, explores the depths, encounters whales, searches for missing loved one, and learns to find happiness in a post-climate-change world. Now in its fourth year of touring the world, Watts recently stopped at New York University to introduce Alvin to an audience of kids, students, and adults; upcoming shows include Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pinchincha, Ecuador.

Charts: The Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 3:08 PM PDT

Fossil fuel cheerleaders take note: Renewable energy ain't going nowhere—and it may prove to be the better bet in the long run.

By 2030, renewables will account for 70 percent of new power supply worldwide, according to projections released today from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Bloomberg analysts examined gas prices, carbon prices, the dwindling price of green energy technology, and overall energy demand (which, in the US at least, is on a massive decline), and found solar and wind beating fossil fuels like coal and natural gas by 2030.

The chart below shows annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts; over time, more and more of the new energy supply being built each year comes from renewable sources (like wind turbines and solar panels), by 2030 representing $630 billion worth of investment, while new fossil fuel sources (like coal- or gas-burning power plants) become increasingly rare.

BNEF new
Courtesy BNEF

The effect of this projected growth, BNEF CEO Michael Liebreich told Climate Desk at a gathering of clean energy investors today in New York, is that damage to the climate from the electricity sector is likely to taper off even as worldwide electricity use grows. "I believe we're in a phase of change where renewables are going to take the sting out of growth in energy demand," he said.

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Why Is the Toxic Dispersant Used After BP's Gulf Disaster Still the Cleanup Agent of Choice in the US?

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 12:37 PM PDT
The Deepwater Horizon debacle began three years ago tomorrow.

Great Britain, the home country of BP, has banned the stuff. So has Sweden. But BP says as long as the US allows it, they'll use Corexit dispersant on their next oil spill. "If this vision becomes reality, long-term destruction to our health and environment will expand exponentially." This according to a damning new report, Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf: Are Public Health and Environmental Tragedies the New Norm for Oil Spill Cleanups?, by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project (GAP).

The GAP report was issued today in advance of tomorrow's three-year anniversary of BP's monster debacle in Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in US history, that killed eleven people and injured sixteen others. BP managed to hide most of the 4.9 million barrels of oil erupting from its maimed well from human eyes by flooding it with 1.84 million gallons of Corexit dispersant, both at the wellhead on the deep sea floor (a first) and at the surface.

That had devastating affects on human health, says the GAP, based on data they collected from extensive Freedom of Information Act requests and from evidence collected over 20 months from more than two dozen employee and citizen whistleblowers who experienced the cleanup's effects firsthand.

BP oil spill clean-up worker near Grande Isle, LA, June 2010.
BP oil spill clean-up worker near Grande Isle, LA, June 2010. © Julia Whitty

The report cites four major areas of concern: 1) existing health problems; 2) failure to protect clean-up workers; 3) ecological problems and food safety issues; 4) and inadequate compensation. Ongoing health problems from the "BP Syndrome" include: blood in urine, heart palpitations, kidney and liver damage, migraines, multiple chemical sensitivity, memory loss, rapid weight loss, respiratory system and nervous system damage, seizures, skin irritation (burning and lesions), and temporary paralysis, plus long-term concerns about exposure to known carcinogens.

Failure to protect clean-up workers began with BP and the government misrepresenting known risks by asserting that Corexit was low in toxicity—this contrary to warnings in BP's own internal manual—says the GAP. They cite other problems:

  • Interviewed cleanup workers reported they either didn't receive any training or didn't receive the federally required training.
  • Worker resource manuals detailing Corexit health hazards were not delivered or were removed from BP worksites early in the cleanup, when health problems began.
  • Divers were allowed to enter the water after assurances it was safe and additional protective equipment was unnecessary, despite government agency regulations prohibited diving during the spill due to health risks.
  • BP and the federal government publicly denied any significant chemical exposure to humans was occurring, though of the workers the GAP interviewed, 87% reported contact with Corexit while on the job, and subsequent blood test results revealed high levels of chemical exposure.
  • BP and the federal government believed that allowing workers to wear respirators would not create a positive public image and the feds permitted BP's retaliation against workers who insisted on wearing this protection. Nearly half of the cleanup workers interviewed by GAP reported that they were threatened with termination when they tried to wear respirators or additional safety equipment on the job. Many received early termination notices after raising safety concerns on the job.
  • All workers interviewed reported that they were provided minimal or no personal protective equipment on the job.

As for compensation: "BP's Gulf Coast Claims Fund denied all health claims during its 18 months of existence."

Living mollusk trying to escape BP oil spill.
© Julia Whitty Living mollusk trying to escape BP oil spill:

Among the ecological damage in the report the GAP notes: "The FDA grossly misrepresented the results of its analysis of Gulf seafood safety. Of GAP's witnesses, a majority expressed concern over the quality of government seafood testing, and reported seeing new seafood deformities firsthand. A majority of fishermen reported that their catch has decreased significantly since the spill."  

I've written extensively about ongoing problems regarding Corexit emerging from the science: overview here; dispersant made spill 52 times more toxic here; dispersant allowed oil to penetrate beaches more deeply here; fish hammered by oil and dispersant here; the decline of microscopic life on oil-and-dispersal-tainted beaches here, and horrific and ongoing whale and dolphin deaths here and here.

The GAP report demands that both BP and the government take corrective action to mitigate ongoing suffering and to prevent the future use of this toxic substance, including: a federal ban on Corexit; Congressional hearings on the link between the current public health crisis in the Gulf and Corexit exposure; immediate reform of EPA dispersant policy, specifically to determine whether such products are safe for humans and the environment prior to granting approval; establishment of effective medical treatment programs run by medical experts specializing in chemical exposure for Gulf residents and workers; funding by the federal government of third-party independent assessments of both the spill's health impact on Gulf residents and workers, and such treatment programs when established. 

The First—And Last—Hearing on Keystone XL Environmental Impact

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 3:34 PM PDT
Jane Kleeb of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska

State Department officials trekked to Grand Island, Nebraska today to hear statements from ranchers, geologists, construction workers, oil executives, and a colorful cast of other characters in the only public hearing on the Department's latest Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Speakers for and against the pipeline began lining up at 7 a.m. amid frigid cold and snow for a chance to get three minutes on the soapbox at the Heartland Events Center. There was the blustering, hoarse representative of the local Cowboy-Indian Alliance who exhorted Transcanada to "ship your toxic crap to Asia and India" instead of the US; the moody, varsity jacket-wearing teenager who recited an angst-ridden poetic diatribe against the pipeline ("The earth shudders beneath our feet / we are tectonic"); the welder with Pipeliners Local 798 who argued that moving oil through a pipeline was "greener" than using trucks or trains; and the members of a local Sioux tribe who sang prayer songs into the record.

During the three-hour afternoon session, sixty speakers stood before a weary-looking State Dept. panel and lobbed by-now-familiar arguments: jobs and the inevitability of development on one side, and water contamination and climate change on the other. Anti-pipeliners, many dressed in matching red and white t-shirts, held the clear majority, and alternated between sitting stony-faced with upheld power fists, and guffawing and booing when suit-clad oil reps and fleece-jacketed blue collar union leaders voiced their support for the project. The usual suspects from both camps were on hand: Transcanada VP Corey Goulet, and activist Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, who described the mood in the room as relatively friendly considering the high, longstanding tensions between the two factions.

"Folks that have been dealing with this for four years now aren't holding back," Kleeb said, but "we had a lot of union guys say they agree with our concerns about the environment, but just want to get jobs for their guys."

"Every time citizens get an opportunity to address the government on the pipeline is good," Kleeb said. "It brings all of us together in one place."

Today's hearing was the first and last time for the public to comment in person on this EIS; written comments will still be accepted through April 22. President Obama is expected to make a final decision on the project by September.

States to Feds: Give Us Greenhouse Gas Rules, Or Else!

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 11:55 AM PDT

A coalition of 10 states, the District of Columbia, New York City, and three national environmental groups, announced Wednesday that they intend to sue if the Environmental Protect Agency does not issue final emissions rules for new power plants in the next two months.

The EPA announced draft rules in March 2012, but the agency still hasn't issued final rules, even though they were required to do so by April 13. And they don't seem to be in any rush: The Washington Post reported last month that the EPA is considering revising the proposed rules, which could further delay implementation.

"While the Obama administration has pledged to combat climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency has now missed the deadline for adopting New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new fossil fuel power plants," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a statement announcing the coalition's plans (via The Hill). "Addressing emissions from power plants is critically important. Today’s notice makes clear that if the EPA does not promptly issue these rules, we will take legal action to hold the agency to its commitment."

You can read the complaint here. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday afternoon that the EPA is in no hurry to finalize those rules:

In a reply, the EPA declined to set a deadline for releasing the final regulations on the plants. “We are working on the rule and no timetable has been set. We continue to review the more than 2.7 million comments we have received on the rule,” spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said.

Snowshoe Hares Can't Keep Up With Climate Change

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 3:05 AM PDT
Growing or shedding a white winter coat at the wrong time is a monster liability for snowshoe hares:

Snowshoe hares live or die by their coat color—turning brown in the growing season and white in the winter. But the timing of the snow is changing faster than some hares can keep up.

The authors of a new paper in PNAS report that natural populations of North American snowshoe hares (Lepus americanusexposed to three years of widely varying snowpack (2009, 2011, 2012) seemed able to adapt to some extent to changes in spring snow melt dates by changing how quickly they molted from white fur to brown, depending on the presence or absence of snow. But they couldn't change the speed of their autumn molt from brown to white. That's because the fall molt appears to be purely a response to the shortening days and unrelated to the appearance of actual snow. 

"On average, it takes about 40 days for a hare to completely change from brown to white," says lead author L. Scott Mills, at the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation. "The white-to-brown change takes a few days longer and shows some ability to speed up or slow down according to temperature or snow."

Beyond these findings, the researchers also used an ensemble of climate change projections to predict how changing snow dates might affect hares in the future. Their results suggest that by 2050 there'll be between 29 and 35 fewer days of snow cover, and by 2100 40 to 69 fewer days. That means hares might be hopping on a mismatched background for four to eight times as many days as they do now.

Projections of increasing seasonal color mismatch in the future. The black line for all panels shows average phenology of hare seasonal color molt across the 3 y of the field study. The blue line shows mean modeled snow duration for the recent past (1970–1999). The orange and red lines show the future (mid-century and late-century) mean modeled snow duration for different emissions scenarios. The gray highlighted regions represent coat color mismatch, where white hares (≥60%) would be expected on a snowless background. As the duration with snow on the ground decreases in the future, mismatch will increase by as much as fourfold in the mid-century and eightfold in the late-century.
In the top graph, the gray area shows dates from three recent years where hares' coats didn't match the season. The bottom two charts' gray areas project more and more color mismatch over the coming century. Credit: L. Scot Mills, et el. PNAS (2013). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222724110

The future of these hares may boil down to plasticity: the ability of a plant or animal to change its appearance in response to changes in the environment. The authors write:

For example, male rock ptarmigan exhibit behavioral plasticity to reduce conspicuousness by soiling their white plumage after their mates begin egg laying in spring, a phenomenon likely underlain by tradeoffs between sexual selection and predation risk. A more direct avenue for plasticity to reduce mismatch when confronted by reduced snow duration would arise from plasticity in the initiation date or the rate of the seasonal coat color molts. It is not known how much plasticity exists in these traits, nor how much seasonal color mismatch is expected in the future as snow cover lasts a shorter time in the fall and spring. 

Snowshoe hares are the main dinner course for the endangered Canadian lynx, which also inhabits the US. So the hares' ability to adapt or not could fatten lynx in the short term but, as their population declines, leave the cats starving in the future.

Canadian lynx
Canadian lynx: kdee64 at Flickr

At least nine other widely distributed mammals also undergo seasonal color changes: Arctic foxes, collared lemmings, long-tailed weasels, stoats, mountain hares, Arctic hares, white-tailed jackrabbits, and Siberian hamsters. Their ability to match coat color to coming changes in snow cover could determine their fates—and might serve as a lesson for us. As the authors conclude:

The compelling image of a white animal on a brown snowless background can be a poster child for both educational outreach and for profound scientific inquiry into fitness consequences, mechanisms of seasonal coat color change, and the potential for rapid local adaptation.