Blue Marble - August 2013

A Gorgeous Video of a Devastating Fire in Colorado

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 10:21 AM PDT

The 2013 West Fork Complex wildfire seen from Lake Alberta in Colorado.

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

Over and again, I am struck by the paradox of the beauty inherent in some terror. Usually, this comes in the form of weather. Hurricanes from space are stately and serene, completely belying the destruction below. A mesocyclone swirls, dark and foreboding and gorgeous, over a Texas plain. Rapidly-forming storm-cells create tornadoes which devastate Oklahoma, but are delicate and soft when seen from space.

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The US Government Paid $17 Billion for Weather-Withered Crops Last Year

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 10:01 AM PDT

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

Desiccated corn and sun-scorched soybeans have been in high supply lately—and we're paying through the nose for them.

The federal government forked out a record-breaking $17.3 billion last year to compensate farmers for weather-related crop losses—more than four times the annual average over the last decade.

The losses were mostly caused by droughts, high temperatures, and hot winds—the sizzling harbingers of a climate in rapid flux.

National Resources Defense Council

Could some of these costs have been avoided? The Natural Resources Defense Council says yes. In a new issue paper [PDF], NRDC analyst Claire O’Connor argues that these taxpayer-reimbursed, climate-related losses could have been largely avoided if farmers used tried-and-true conservation-oriented strategies. But she points out that the Federal Crop Insurance Program provides little incentive to farmers to employ techniques that save water and soil.

These States are Going to Become Green Energy Powerhouses

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 9:07 AM PDT

Renewable energy has gotten tantalizingly close to becoming competitive with conventional fossil fuels, and to help bridge the gap, more than 30 states have passed laws requiring energy companies to supply a minimum amount of power from green sources. But according to a new study, if renewable sources are built in the right places, they could compete against traditional power plants without subsidies, turning states like California, Wyoming, and New Mexico into green energy powerhouses. 

The new report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has identified the most likely candidates for large scale renewable energy projects in the west, theoretically pitting the costs against what energy would cost from a new natural gas-fired plant. “Renewable energy development, to date, has mostly been in response to state mandates,” said David Hurlbut, the report's lead researcher. “What this study does is look at where the most cost-effective yet untapped resources are likely to be when the last of these mandates culminates in 2025.”

So what can you expect? And where? Here's what the study says:

Wyoming and New Mexico are both primed to become major exporters of wind power, according to the study's authors. With "large amounts of untapped, developable, prime-quality wind potential" the two states have waiting markets in California, Arizona, and Utah. By 2025, New Mexico could be producing twice the amount of renewable energy as its required to, meaning it could start selling it to other states. 

Solar power is going to take over California, Arizona and Nevada. California has required that a third of all power in the state must come from renewable sources by 2020, meaning the state is planning on more than doubling the amount of renewable energy it produces. Arizona, which already exports 77 percent of its solar energy, is already building two more major solar projects, with more on the way. Solar accounts for about a quarter of the state's renewable production now, but when the new projects come online, that figure is expected to jump to account for more than half. Nevada's combined geothermal and solar resources could provide four times what the state needs to meet its renewable requirements. Its geothermal market is already established and provides about three quarters of the state's renewable energy. But two big new solar projects could shift the scales.

Idaho is one of a dwindling number of states that doesn't have renewable portfolio standards—13 percent of its power already comes from renewable sources, not including the 73 percent that comes from hydroelectric generators. But Idaho has readily accessible and yet untapped geothermal resources, and, according to the report, the state is primed to start exporting.

Watch: The Wild Weather of the Future

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

In this talk, meteorologist and America's "Science Idol" contest winner Tom DiLiberto gives a forecast of the weather of the future—the weather that will be produced by climate change.

While some of the details remain scientifically cloudy—according to DiLiberto, we don't yet understand what will happen to tornadoes in the future—much else is relatively clear. We're going to have more extreme heat, more intense downpours, worse droughts in some areas, more intense hurricanes overall. At the same time, we also have more infrastructure, and more people, in harm's way.

"Sure, maybe some things will be okay," DiLiberto explains. "But other extreme events will be worse. And that's just a forecast I don't want to make."

DiLiberto's talk is from a live August 15 event held by Climate Desk—in collaboration with thirstDC and the Science Online Climate conference—to showcase new and innovative communication about climate change.

Beer vs. Oil: Beer Wins

| Fri Aug. 23, 2013 12:56 PM PDT

Beer lovers of America, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Michigan's Bell's Brewery won a decision against Enbridge Oil Thursday night that nixed a proposal the brewery claims would have shut it down for what could have been months. After almost five hours of deliberation, Comstock Township Planning Commission rejected Enbridge Oil's plan to drop an oil cleanup dredge pad in the lot next to the brewery—and practically in the back yards of some 40 homeowners—and proved that there is still some lingering good in the world. 

Just how did the makers of Michigan's best known microbrews find themselves in a fight with one of the biggest oil companies in North America? The story starts in July 2010, when the Enbridge Oil pipeline near Marshall, Mich., ruptured, spilling more than 840,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River in the largest overland oil spill in US history. Three years later, the US EPA estimates there's still some 180,000 gallons of diluted bitumen clinging to the river bottom, and the agency has ordered the company to complete additional dredging. In July, when Enbridge plotted a holding site for the oil-contaminated muck, called a dredge pad, it stuck one next door to Bell's main brewery—and that was something that Larry Bell, the brewery's owner, wasn't going to stand for.

"We were going to be downwind," says Bell. "It was going to contaminate our ingredients. It was going to contaminate our employees—it would have put us out of production." He filed a lawsuit in late July after work had already begun on the site and says he's spent roughly $50,000 fighting for the site to be moved. According to a complaint filed by Township Supervisor Ann Nieuwenhuis in early July, "substantial work…occurred without Enbridge applying for and obtaining the necessary Township permits," squelching locals' chance to air their concerns. "Their M.O. is to set up next to people who can't fight 'em," says Bell. "They never bargained for setting up next to me."

In March, the US EPA set a December 31 deadline for Enbridge to complete the dredging, and the company claims that this setback will make it hard for it to complete the work in time—especially when the agency has already denied a request for extension. "Not getting site plan approval tonight for (Comstock Commerce Park) does make it more challenging to complete that initiative by the timeline in front of us," said Jason Manshum, senior advisor of community relations for Enbridge. "So now, we’ll go back and work with both federal and state regulators. Before any other action is done, we need to have those discussions at that level." Two other dredge pad sites were approved on Monday.

At the meeting Thursday night, the township's attorney Ken Sparks said that Enbridge had failed to provide the burden of proof that health and traffic concerns would be properly addressed. The nearby houses rely on well water, and residents were worried about possible contamination. "This is simply not appropriate at a site adjacent to 40 households," said township commissioner David Burgess.

The Bell's brewery is some 30 miles downstream from the original site of the spill, and according to Bell, "the spill was never supposed to get as far as us." Effects have been seen as far as 40 miles from where the pipeline ruptured. "We've made Frankensoup there in the river," says Bell. "I think we're going to be dealing with this for a long time."

Climate Change's Original Sin

| Fri Aug. 23, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

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

Over the years I've been asked many times about how to get into environmental journalism, or, alternately, how to save environmental journalism. The answer is always: I have no f'ing idea.

For one thing, as I mentioned the other day, my path into professional journalism was highly idiosyncratic and probably not replicable. I remain blissfully unaware of the career mechanics that other journalists are forced to deal with (bless their hearts).

For another thing: What is environmental journalism, anyway? For those concerned about the interlocking problems of our age—sustainability, energy poverty, peak everything—I'm not sure it matters.

The field has traditionally been represented by the Society of Environmental Journalists, composed of reporters assigned by newspapers and magazines to the environmental beat—pollution, deforestation, ecosystem stuff. For the most part, environmental journalism has been a subdivision of the science desk.

Now SEJ, like everyone else, is struggling to deal with two trends.

First, journalism is dying (and being reborn at the same time), and it's grinding up lots of traditional journalists in the gears. Environmental journalism, as traditionally practiced, has been particularly hard hit. Why? Well, people are going to yell at me for saying this, but: because it's a niche, and a relatively small one. And lots of it is, with apologies to the many wonderful environmental journos I've known, boring. "Creature/area threatened by pollutant/industry" is a story everyone's seen before a million times. They know what it says before they read it and so, with the exception of the small class of people who care intensely about nature/creatures as such, they don't read it.

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Is Al Jazeera America Going to Change the Way Networks Cover Climate Change?

| Thu Aug. 22, 2013 3:24 PM PDT

On its first day of broadcasting, Al Jazeera America devoted 30 minutes to climate change—more time than top shows on CNN and Fox News have given to this issue in the past four-and-a-half months, combined. In fact, the full half-hour (24 minutes, plus commercials) of broadcast of Inside Story was equal to about half of the coverage climate change received in 2012 from the nightly news on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, combined. For a network that promised to provide "unbiased, fact-based and in-depth, journalism," this seems like a promising start.

According to Media Matters, Al Jazeera's Inside Story had more coverage of climate change "than what was featured by CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront and Anderson Cooper 360 and Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity combined in the past four and a half months." It was just behind the 32 minutes that MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has devoted over the same time period, though a long way back from Chris Hayes, who has spent a whopping hour and 42 minutes of his show on the subject since April 1 (not including a two-part documentary).

Inside Story opened by explaining that "for more than 20 years, 97 percent of scientific research has said climate change is happening, and that it is indeed caused by people. But despite the scientific evidence, Americans remain divided on the issue." Which brings us to what might be the biggest difference in how Al Jazeera has decided to cover the issue.

As Media Matters writes: 

Perhaps most significantly, Inside Story explored public opinion on climate science, and even presented differing views on climate policy, without once offering marginal contrarian viewpoints as a "counterbalance." Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera America's acting chief executive, has cited PBS as a model, and it showed. Other cable news channels have sometimes run afoul of this standard…

Al Jazeera America focused on the impacts of climate change, with a complementary discussion of some possible ways of mitigating them through political action. Notably, no politicians were interviewed, as few politicians are credible sources of information on, say, sea level rise. Instead, the guests—Michael Mann, Heidi Cullen and Klaus Jacob—were all scientists familiar with the topic at hand. Television news outlets don't always do this well: in 2012, 89 percent and 12 percent of Sunday and nightly news coverage of climate change, respectively, was driven by politics.

To cut through the haze that has clouded the American debate on climate change, the show started by explaining how the waters have become so muddied. "Over the past ten years," said Michael Mann, the director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State, "[special interests] have literally spent hundred of millions of dollars in a major disinformation campaign—a campaign aimed at confusing the public. And that's why we see this gulf between where the scientists stand…and where the public is." It's easy to think that this will be written off as biased journalism—and more information can actually make people more polarized on climate change—but for a network that's trying to give people a reason to watch, it's a good start.

Watch: How Climate Change Is Melting the Ski Industry

| Thu Aug. 22, 2013 9:43 AM PDT

In certain industries, global warming is causing a lot of hurt. One business that will really, really be hit hard? Skiing.

To put it simply, the ski industry's business model is melting. A number of resorts have already closed due, in part, to lack of snow—and in the future, a much smaller total area of the northeastern US will be good for skiing.

In this talk, University of New Hampshire Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Burakowski outlines her research on global warming and how it is changing the face of skiing. In the process, she also tells her personal story of becoming fascinated with the study of "albedo," the reflectivity of surfaces (for instance, snow)—which ultimately helps us to understand the ski industry's struggles.

Plus: This video features a must-see interpretive dance of the jet stream.

Burakowski's talk is from a live August 15 event held by Climate Desk—in collaboration with thirstDC and the Science Online Climate conference—to showcase new and innovative communication about climate change.

Watch This Video of Louisiana's 24-Acre Sinkhole Swallowing a Grove of Trees

| Thu Aug. 22, 2013 7:51 AM PDT

For the current issue of the magazine (subscribe!) I wrote about the Bayou Corne sinkhole, a swampy, reeking, 24-acre hole in the earth that opened up near the site of an abandoned salt cavern in rural Assumption Parish, Louisiana. After the sinkhole first appeared (at about 1/24th of its current size) last August, Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered the 350 residents of Bayou Corne to evacuate. On August 2, Louisiana sued Texas Brine, the company that mined the salt cavern that experts have identified as the trigger for the sinkhole. Every few weeks the sinkhole burps—this is really the term the geologists use—and somewhere between 20 and 100 barrels of sweet crude bubble up to the surface. Really, it's best explained in the piece.

I saw a lot of strange things in Louisiana, but on Wednesday, Assumption Parish emergency response office, which continuously monitors the sinkhole for burps and seismic activity, released perhaps the strangest video I've seen yet. It's an entire grove of trees simply being swallowed up by the sinkhole—something that was known to happen but no one had managed to capture clearly on camera.

Watch:

How Extreme Will Future Heat Waves Be?

| Thu Aug. 22, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

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

Dim Coumou and Alexander Robinson from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have published a paper in Environmental Research Letters (open access, free to download) examining the frequency of extreme heat events in a warming world.

They compared a future in which humans continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels (an IPCC scenario called RCP8.5) to one in which we transition away from fossil fuels and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (called RCP2.6). In both cases, the global land area experiencing extreme summer heat will quadruple by 2040 due to the global warming that's already locked in from the greenhouse gases we've emitted thus far.

However, in the low-emissions scenario, extreme heat frequency stabilizes after 2040 (left frames in Figure 1), while it becomes the new norm for most of the world in the high-emissions, fossil-fuel-heavy scenario (right frames in Figure 1). (Click here for a larger version.)

Maps
Figure 1: Multi-model mean of the percentage of boreal summer months in the time period 2071-2099 with temperatures beyond 3-sigma (top) and 5-sigma (bottom) under low emissions scenario RCP2.6 (left) and high emissions RCP8.5 (right).

Coumou and Robinson looked at the frequency of rare and extreme (3-sigma, meaning 3 standard deviations hotter than the average) and very rare and extreme (5-sigma) temperature events. Three-sigma represents a 1-in-370 event, and 5-sigma is a 1-in-1.7-million event.

As shown in the video below from NASA, summer temperatures have already begun to shift significantly toward more frequent hot extremes over the past 50 years. What used to be a rare 3-sigma event has already become more commonplace.

Coumou and Robinson point out that these 3-sigma events have tended to have very damaging consequences:

[M]ost of the 3-sigma extremes that have occurred in recent years resulted in serious impacts to society, causing many heat-related deaths, massive forest fires or harvest losses.

Coumou pointed to the Moscow summer heat wave of 2010 as a good example of a damaging 3-sigma extreme heat event. Thousands died during that heat wave, and the associated drought cut Russia's wheat crop by 40 percent, cost the nation $15 billion, and led to a ban on grain exports, causing food prices to rise globally.

In the Moscow region the average temperature for the whole of July was around 7°C [13°F] warmer than normal—it was around 25°C [77°F]. In some parts, temperatures above 40°C [104°F] were measured.

As Figure 1 above shows, if we continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels (right frames), these extreme heat events will occur throughout the summer for most of the global land area by the late 21st century, especially in the tropics. Currently, around 5 percent of the world's land mass is experiencing a 3-sigma event at any one time during the summer months.

In the high greenhouse gas emissions scenario, most of Africa, Central America, and northern South America will experience 3-sigma extreme heat events for close to 100 percent of the summer. They will become the norm. Even extreme 5-sigma heat events, which are currently exceptionally rare, will become relatively commonplace, especially near the equator.

On the other hand, in the scenario where we take major steps to reduce human greenhouse gas emissions (left frames in Figure 1), 3-sigma events will still be relatively rare by the late 21st century, especially outside of the tropics. Extreme 5-sigma events will become somewhat more commonplace near the equator, but will remain fairly rare occurrences globally.

In short, damaging summer extreme heat events are going to become more commonplace, but just how much more commonplace is up to us. While it's difficult to determine how climate change will impact some types of extreme weather (tornadoes, for example), the link between global warming and heat waves is quite clear. Increasing global temperatures will make (and have already made) extreme heat events more commonplace.

The longer we continue to rely on fossil fuels and the higher our greenhouse gas emissions, the more extreme heat we'll lock in. If we manage to take serious action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we can limit global warming to a level where extreme heat events will become more commonplace, but to a level we can manage to adapt to.

If we continue our reliance on fossil fuels and associated greenhouse gas emissions growth, we'll commit ourselves to a world where today's most extreme heat waves become the norm, and future extreme heat makes today's heat waves look downright balmy.

It's in our hands which future scenario becomes reality. It's like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, but real. Which future will we choose?