Blue Marble - August 2013

2012: A Year of Broken Climate Records

| Tue Aug. 6, 2013 2:49 PM EDT

2012 was the eighth or ninth warmest year on record, depending on which dataset you look at, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual State of the Climate report, released today. That is just one of many extreme statistics identified in the survey, which pulls together the most recent information from hundreds of researchers worldwide on everything from temperature to sea level to Arctic ice. Taken together, the report's authors say, the data paint an unmistakable picture of a warming planet.

"In 2012, certainly not every variable we looked at broke a record," Thomas Karl, the director of NOAA's climate data center, said. "I think what we've learned is one has to take a broad look at the climate system."

The heat map above, from the report, shows how 2012 temperatures compare to the average baseline of 1981-2010. While Alaska, parts of Asia, and elsewhere saw a cooler-than-average year, it was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States (and, relatedly, an insanely expensive year for natural disasters), and temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the world. In June, Arctic sea ice minimums reached record lows, and over a two-day period in July more of the Greenland ice sheet was melting at once—97 percent—than ever seen before.

Another landmark was sea level rise: 2012 saw the highest global sea levels ever recorded, the peak of a trend that has seen seas rising just above a tenth of an inch per year over the last two decades. Interestingly, in the last couple years, melting ice (the black line in the graph at right) accounts for twice as much sea level rise as does  thermal expansion of warming water (red line). And the sea wasn't just high, it was hot, too: Heat trapped in the top half-mile of the ocean remained near record highs. At the ocean surface, temperatures were among the 11 warmest on record, despite mostly flatlining since 2000 partly as a result of La Niña conditions that cool the sea.

Carbon emissions for the year were also their highest ever: In 2012, the world released roughly 9.7 quadrillion grams of carbon into the atmosphere, about one-tenth the weight of every living thing on Earth, pushing the atmospheric concentration higher, at least in some places, than at any time in human history. Other key greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, also climbed from the previous year. 

Sadly, all these shocking numbers weren't much of a shocker to the report's 384 authors from around the globe, NOAA's Karl said; they merely offer the latest bundle of proof that climate change is happening: "We see ongoing trends continuing."

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Study: Watching Fox News Makes You Distrust Climate Scientists

| Tue Aug. 6, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Fox News raises doubt about global warming.

In the past several years, a number of polls have documented the huge gap between liberals and conservatives when it comes to their acceptance of the science of climate change. Naturally, then, researchers have increasingly turned their attention to trying to explain this dramatic divide over what is factually true. And it wasn't long before they homed in on the role of conservative media in particular—thus, a number of studies (e.g., here) show that watching Fox News increases your risk of holding incorrect beliefs about the science of climate change.

Now, a new paper just out in the journal Public Understanding of Science takes this line of inquiry further, beginning to unpack precisely how conservative media work to undermine the public's acceptance of science. The paper shows that a distrust of climate scientists is a significant factor underlying the modern denial of global warming, and moreover, that watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh both increase one's level of distrust of these scientific experts. Or as the paper puts it, "[C]onservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening."

The study, conducted by Jay Hmielowski of the University of Arizona and colleagues at several other universities, relied on a large polling sample of Americans in two phases: 2,497 individuals were interviewed in 2008, and then a smaller sample of 1,036 were reinterviewed in 2011. The respondents were asked about what kind of media they consumed—conservative choices included Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show; "non-conservative" media outlets included CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and network news—as well as about how much they trusted or distrusted climate scientists. They were also asked about their belief that global warming is happening. (The study controlled for variables like political ideology, religiosity, and other demographic factors.)

The results showed that conservative media consumption led to less trust in climate scientists, even as consuming nonconservative media had the opposite effect (leading to an increased trust in climate scientists). Between people who said they don't consume any conservative media and people who said they consume a large amount, "we see a 13 percent difference in the amount of trust in scientists," according to study coauthor Lauren Feldman of American University.

The authors then proposed that distrust of scientists is a key link in the chain between watching Fox (or listening to Rush) and coming to doubt climate science. The idea is that because most people don't know a great deal about the science of global warming, they rely on "heuristics"—or mental shortcuts—to make up their minds about what to believe. "Trust" (or the lack thereof) is a classic shortcut, allowing one to quickly determine who's right and who's wrong in a seemingly complex and data-laden debate. Or as the paper put it: "The public's low level of knowledge and the media's conflicting, often value-laden messages about global warming lead people to use heuristics to make sense of this complex issue."

Evidence of Fox and Rush Limbaugh raising doubts about climate scientists—in a way that could generate distrust—isn't hard to come by. Limbaugh includes scientists in his "four corners of deceit…government, academia, science, and the media." As for Fox, there are myriad examples of coverage that could be said to cast doubt on climate science. For instance, there's the 2009 memo, exposed by Media Matters, in which Fox Washington editor Bill Sammon instructed staff to cast doubt on climate research in their coverage.

It seems unlikely, however, that conservative media alone can account for the distrust of science on the right. In a major 2012 study, the sociologist Gordon Gauchat showed that conservatives have lost trust in scientists across the board over a period of many decades, dating all the way back to 1974. Fox News only launched in 1996, however; Rush Limbaugh started national broadcasts in 1988.

Clearly, then, other factors must be involved in sowing distrust as well—including a long history of left-right policy fights in which scientists seemed to be on the "liberal" side, with a canonical example being the battle over Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program in the 1980s.

As a result of these conflicts, politically attuned conservatives today are well aware that scientists and academics rarely seem to come out on their side. Perhaps Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show are, in the end, simply the media reflection of that long-standing conservative perception.

Melting Sea Ice Is Stranding Baby Seals

| Mon Aug. 5, 2013 5:14 PM EDT

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

Shrinking sea ice is bad news for the baby harp seal, according to Duke University researchers. Pagophilus groenlandicus relies on stable winter sea ice to provide a safe platform to give birth and nurse its young until the pups can swim, hunt, and fend off predators.

But the Duke team reports in PLOS ONE, the Public Library of Science journal, that in four harp seal breeding regions of the North Atlantic, the winter ice had declined by 6 percent a decade since 1979.

The researchers based the conclusion on satellite images of ice cover, yearly reports of seal strandings along the United States' northeast coast, and DNA studies of the stranded population. They say that although adult seals seemed to survive the decline in sea ice cover, the young were increasingly at risk.

It wasn't the weaker or the genetically inferior seals in the population that were most at risk: The hazard for the seal babies seemed to be across the board.

If they couldn't be protected on a large raft of ice, they were more likely to perish and be washed ashore. In the years when ice cover was most reduced, the stranding rates for young seals rose most sharply.

Harp seals are literally pagophilic or ice-loving. They tend to be born in February and March, and are usually weaned after a fortnight. But the pups stay on the ice until they molt their white fur, and then take to the sea to journey northward to the summer feeding grounds.

If it were the weakest pups that perished, then the DNA samples taken from the beach strandings would differ significantly from those of seals caught accidentally by fishermen. There was no difference. So the decline in sea ice remains the best explanation for the rise in strandings.

"Our findings demonstrate that sea ice cover and demographic factors have a greater influence on harp seal stranding rates than genetic diversity," said Brianne Soulen, one of the leaders of the study.

This 7-Year-Old Is Banned From Talking About Fracking—Ever

| Fri Aug. 2, 2013 11:50 AM EDT
No, not this kid. This is a stock-photo child.

When a property owner reaches a settlement with an oil or gas driller, it's not unusual for the company to demand that the plaintiffs in the case agree to a gag order that bars them from talking about the agreement. But a recent case in Pennsylvania is unusual. That's because the gag order prohibited the 7- and 10-year-old children of a couple that sued several gas companies not only from talking about their specific settlement, but from mentioning fracking at all. Ever.

Chris and Stephanie Hallowich reached a $750,000 settlement with Range Resources Corporation, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream, and Markwest Energy related to health and environmental impacts they say they suffered due to natural gas development operations near their farm in Mount Pleasant, Pa. The family used the money to relocate. But in exchange, they had to agree that they could not comment "in any fashion whatsoever about Marcellus Shale/fracking activities."

The transcript of an August 2011 court hearing indicates that the agreement is also meant to apply to the couple's two children. In the transcript, the couple's lawyer, Peter Villari, asked the couple, repeatedly, if they are clear on this fact:

Mr. Villari: You both understand and accept that as written the settlement agreement may apply to your children's First Amendment rights as well?

Mrs. Hallowish: Yes.

[…]

Mr. Villari: And you accept that because you, as adults and as legal guardians and parents of these children, are accepting these terms and conditions because you believe it is in the bet interests of not only them but your family?

Mr. Hallowich: Yes, and health reasons. We needed to do this in order to get them out of this situation.

Later in the transcript, a lawyer for one of the gas companies affirmed this interpretation of the settlement. "I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family," said James Swetz, the lawyer representing Range Resources in the hearing. "We would certainly enforce it."

Chris Hallowich noted in the transcript that it would be difficult to make sure that their kids don't "say one of the illegal words" when they're on the playground, for example. Which makes you wonder what exactly is on this list of "illegal words" that Hallowich and his kids are no longer allowed to utter.

A Range Resources spokesperson, however, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week that they don't actually think that:

Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said Wednesday that the comments by Mr. Swetz are "not something we agree with" and added "we don't believe the [Hallowich] settlement applies to children." He also said that Range has entered into no other nondisclosure agreements that bar children from speaking.

It was the Post-Gazette that finally got the court to release the transcript in the first place. The paper's reporters were barred from the settlement hearing and had to go to court to get the records unsealed. The paper just now got the transcript, but it still hasn't obtained a copy of the actual settlement agreement, even though it was supposed to be contained in the court record.

Check Out this Natural Gas-Powered Airplane

| Thu Aug. 1, 2013 5:25 PM EDT

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

Aviat Aircraft has introduced the first airplane able to run on both standard aviation fuel and compressed natural gas. The airplane is the first to fly on CNG, opening the door to use a cheaper and cleaner alternative to gasoline.

Alternative fuels have been a pressing issue in general aviation, with many small airplanes still burning low-lead fuel, something the car industry phased out decades ago. But aside from the environmental benefits, the reduced cost of CNG can also help make flying small aircraft less expensive, and the test airplane that debuted in Oshkosh is the first step in realizing its potential.

“One aspect we’re particularly excited about is the opportunity to dramatically reduce the cost of learning to fly,” said Greg Herrick, an aircraft owner who spearheaded the idea to convert an airplane to operate on CNG. “If a flight school installs a simple CNG refueling station they can cut the cost for the student’s fuel, perhaps by thousands of dollars.” That’s not an insignificant sum when you consider the cost of getting a pilot’s license can run near five figures.

Herrick owns an Aviat Husky, a popular small aircraft aimed at pilots who like to fly in and out of grass runways and other atypical airports. While the cost savings is an added benefit, CNG will dramatically reduce the pollutants emitted by smaller airplanes that are now burning the typical aviation gasoline known as 100 low lead.