Blue Marble - September 2013

Is $7 Billion in Anti-Hunger Support Falling Through the Cracks?

| Mon Sep. 23, 2013 4:01 PM EDT
A rice farmer in Mali, one of 19 Feed the Future "focus countries" around the world.

Ending hunger for millions of people by boosting food production worldwide has long been a priority of the Obama administration, advanced through its $7 billion Feed the Future initiative. Yet according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it's not clear if Feed the Future is working as intended, or if its funds are falling through the cracks. 

The idea behind Feed the Future, a multi-agency initiative led by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is to link agribusiness with governments in poor countries to grow more food for local consumption and export. Currently, are 19 Feed the Future "focus countries," selected both for their high rates of starvation and for their potential for attracting agribusiness investment. These include Senegal and Tanzania (two stops on Obama's African tour this summer), Ethiopia (where USAID recently partnered with PepsiCo to train farmers to grow chickpeas for Sabra Hummus), Cambodia, Haiti, and Guatemala. 

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WATCH: What It's Like to Spend 55 Days in Space

| Fri Sep. 20, 2013 10:36 AM EDT
Marsha Ivins on Space Shuttle Columbia, 1997.

Climate Desk has launched a new science podcast, Inquiring Minds, cohosted by contributing writer Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To subscribe via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, and like us on Facebook.

There aren't many people on Earth who have spent more of their life in space than Marsha Ivins.

A veteran of five Space Shuttle missions—in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2001—Ivins has spent a total of 55 days in orbit, on missions devoted to such diverse tasks as deploying satellites, conducting scientific research, and docking with Mir and the International Space Station. Her jobs? Flight engineer, load master, robot arm operator, and photography manager, among other things.

In this interview (click above to stream audio or watch the video below) with Inquiring Minds cohost Indre Viskontas, Ivins relates what it's like to live in orbit—for instance, how your body and brain slowly adapt to the fact that no single direction is up or down. She also discusses some things you might not have known about space: why astronauts tend to be type-A personalities, for instance, and why Canada is so proud of the International Space Station's robotic arm.

Plus, for the benefit of geeks across the universe, Ivins explains why the Borg cube from Star Trek can maneuver just as well as any starfighter that Hollywood has ever dreamed up. "In space, they’re one and the same," says Ivins.

Marsha Ivins aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2001.
Marsha Ivins aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2001 NASA

In the interview, Ivins reflects broadly on where human space endeavors now stand. She discusses why publicly supported space missions are still vital, what it will take to get us to Mars and beyond, and why solving advanced space travel problems (problems involving energy and propulsion) might simultaneously help us solve many of our problems on Earth—perhaps including global warming.

The interview comes at a dismaying time for the US space program. Compared with the space race heyday of the 1960s, the percentage of the federal budget devoted to NASA has steadily dwindled. "We spent 4 and a half percent of the fiscal budget, and we went to the moon, from having never been to space, in nine years," says Ivins on the show. "That's astounding. And we did that, and the United States was the technological leader of the globe from that point on. Not so much any more." Today the NASA budget is about half a percent of total federal expenditures. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has noted, that means that if you held up a US taxpayer's dollar, and cut into it that much, "it doesn't even get you into the ink."

Moreover, it's not clear that private space initiatives are the answer to the problem. "Space exploration is not an immediate payback, fiscally or otherwise," Ivins says. "It is a generational kind of investment. And the only group that can afford to make that kind of an investment is a government."

photo from the international space station
Aurora Australis, from the International Space Station NASA

Ivins believes there would be dramatic payoffs from large-scale space exploration investments, of the sort that the United States made in the 1960s. That might include developing new sources of renewable energy that would not only be vital for long-range space travel, but could also help solve problems, like global warming, here at home. "When you develop something, in order to enable something like a space mission to Mars, it's got enormous payback on the Earth," says Ivins.

Marsha Ivins, with camera.
Marsha Ivins, smiling in space NASA

More generally, Ivins thinks our culture simply needs to fall back in love with space, and what it means that humanity can, if it chooses, go there. "You are off the planet. Think about those words. 'I am off the planet.' You don't get to say that [much].

"And I think 50 years from now, I would hope 20 years from now, it's not a big deal to be off the planet, any more than it is to be at 30,000 feet in an airplane."

The podcast interview with Marsha Ivins is available for audio livestream and also as video. The video is also embedded below.

This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion about new developments in science, including research suggesting that political biases are so pervasive that they can interfere with your ability to do math, and mounting evidence of the dangers of head injuries received from playing football.

To subscribe to the Inquiring Minds podcast via iTunes, click here. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

Fire and Rain, Colorado Edition

| Thu Sep. 19, 2013 2:27 PM EDT
Flames from the High Park Fire west of Ft. Collins in June 2012.

The severe flooding that barreled through the Colorado foothills last week and took at least 8 lives resulted from a freak tempest that's been deemed one of the worst in the state's history. In just a few days, Boulder received more than half its normal annual precipitation. It's quite a reversal from the persistent drought and destructive wildfires Coloradans have recently contended with; in 2010, the Fourmile Canyon fire outside of Boulder became the state's most destructive to date, until it was surpassed last summer by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires of 2012, which caused tens of thousands of evacuations along the Front Range. These extreme swings—from parched and burning to flooded—have led some to wonder if climate change is at play; Chris Mooney does a great roundup of the thinking on this in a piece yesterday.

Torrential rainfall, rather than past wildfires, was the biggest factor in Colorado's flooding.

There's also been speculation that effects from these recent wildfires could have worsened the flooding: A National Geographic post points to how a lack of vegetation causes denuded hillsides to fail to trap enough water, and Live Science notes that debris slides were spotted in recently burned regions like the High Park Fire area and Boulder's Fourmile Canyon. There's good reason to wonder if burn-scarred areas might've exacerbated the problem. Wildfires affect soil quality and can increase stream flows and erosion by 10 to 100 times compared to normal forests. Scorched hillsides can send more debris down canyons.

The experts I reached out to with this question agreed that flash floods are often a result of thunderstorms hitting burned areas with repellent soils and lack of vegetation. But most of Colorado's recent flooding doesn't exactly fall under this scenario: "Remember that the area that has been burned compared to the area where rain fell is relatively small," says Lee MacDonald, a hydrology expert at Colorado State University. Some of the rivers that were flooding and causing problems last week, such as in Big Thompson Canyon, weren't coming out of large burn areas, he says. Instead, the unusual rainfall—deemed "biblical" by the National Weather Service—was the biggest factor in all the runoff.

Wildfires have a large effect on small and medium flooding events, but when rainfall is off the charts, the effect of burned areas shrinks. "It's going to be difficult to separate out the part of the flooding that was increased because of fire because it was just so much water," says Kevin Hyde, a post-doc studying post-fire erosion at the University of Wyoming. Proximity could play a role: "the closer you are to the burned areas," Hyde adds, "the more impact the rainfall has."

Still, the compounded damages from the cycle of wildfire and flooding could very well be amplified on the Front Range in coming years. Climate models foretell larger regional storms, and scientists have also predicted bigger, more intense wildfires in Colorado's future. "What is that going to mean for the people living in the mouth of these areas?" wonders Hyde. If the 100-year flood that turned Boulder inside out last week is any indication, living at the base of the Rockies—while arguably worth it—isn't getting any less complicated.

Watch: Congressman Makes "Completely Wrong" Claim About Temperature

| Thu Sep. 19, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

At a congressional hearing Wednesday on the Obama administration's climate-change policy, most Republicans steered clear of global warming denial. But not David McKinley. The West Virginia Republican insisted that "over the last 40 years," there has been "almost no increase in temperature, very slight."

Scientists disagree. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, called McKinley's claim "completely wrong." Michael Mann, the Meteorology Director at Penn State's Earth System Science Center, called it a "flat-out falsehood." Mann explained that "global mean temperatures have warmed at an average rate of roughly 2 [degrees Fahrenheit] per century over that time frame."

Indeed, this NASA chart of annual global temperatures shows dramatic warming over the last 40 years:

McKinley's office didn't respond to multiple requests for the source of his temperature claims.

During the hearing, McKinley also argued that Arctic sea ice has "actually increased by 60 percent." That's a reference to the fact that less ice has disappeared this summer than during the record-setting 2012 melt. Skeptics have cited this in suggesting that the dangers of climate change are overstated, but the fact is that the current Arctic sea ice extent is well below the 30-year average.

Moments after McKinley spoke, Democrat Henry Waxman called McKinley's statements "incredibly inaccurate."

"I think this illustrates why we need a committee where we bring in the scientists," said Waxman. He added, "We need scientists to come in here and talk about science."

You Just Threw Out a Perfectly Good Gallon of Milk Because You Think the "Sell By" Date Means Something

| Wed Sep. 18, 2013 6:40 PM EDT

Admit it: When you see milk past the "sell by" date in your fridge you're apt to skip the smell test and throw that stuff out. What you might not know is that the date is actually meant for store stockers to keep track of product rotation. It offers little indication of when the milk may actually sour. You wouldn't be alone in tossing out perfectly good milk. Nine out of 10 Americans needlessly throw away edible, unspoiled food based on "use by," "sell by," and "best before" labels, according to a report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School.

The average US household tosses about $450 worth of food each year because we think it's past due.

The problem of wasted food is serious and multifaceted. As Kiera Butler reported earlier this week, a whopping one-third of the global food supply is wasted. Not only that, but this discarded food is responsible for 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the third worst carbon-emitting country on the planet after China and the United States, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Here in America, we're even worse: Roughly 40 percent of our food goes uneaten, amounting to an economic loss of $165 billion a year, the NRDC reported in 2012. The authors of this week's analysis found that much of that waste is due to "misinterpretation" of the date labels.

"The average household is losing up to $450 on food each year because they don't understand the labels," said co-author Dana Gunders, an NRDC food & agriculture staff scientist, during a press call Wednesday morning. It's a travesty, she added, especially when one in six Americans are "food insecure." It's also a terrific waste of human resources—think about all the time and energy that goes into harvesting, transporting, and processing those trashed foods. Eighty percent of our water, more than half of our land area, and 10 percent of our energy are consumed by agriculture.

The authors of the NRDC study, titled "The Dating Game," place the blame on inconsistent and irrational labeling laws, which tend to be nonbinding: "This convoluted system is not achieving what date labeling was historically designed to do—provide indicators of freshness. Rather, this creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food's microbial safety. This unduly downplays the importance of more pertinent food safety indicators."

The solution? A system of clear and consistent federally mandated labels for foods. Here are the authors' three major recommendations:

1. Sell by dates, only meant as business-to-business information, should be made invisible to consumers; only useful labels that indicate when the food will likely spoil should be stamped on packaging.

      Click here to view the NRDC infographic.

2. Government should mandate a clear set of labels for consumers, with unambiguous language that clearly distinguishes between dates for safety and dates for quality. For instance a ready-to-eat sandwich should indicate the date by which it should be eaten, with a label saying something like "unsafe to eat after." Date labels should be removed from non-perishable goods and replaced with quality-based dates with more general information about when the product peaks in taste.

3. Date labels should be come with more information about safe food handling, including time and temperature exposure indicators. Ted Labuza, a co-author and food safety expert at the University of Minnesota, has argued for labels that indicate temperature changes of the product during shipping and handling.

But the authors say consumers also have a responsibility to reduce the amount of wasted food. They offer a handy infographic for demystifying your fridge with tips such as never letting ice build up in the freezer, and keeping the fridge temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Labuza said he has kept milk fresh at that temperature for up to six weeks.

Learning some of the tips that our grandparents used could be helpful too. For instance, this rule of thumb for eggs: If it sinks in a bowl of water, it's good; if it floats, toss it out.*

Obviously, you want to toss anything that looks or smells rotten. In short, trust your senses, not the labels.

*Correction: An eagle-eyed reader noted that this adage was initially in the reverse order.

Pebble Mine Loses Its Major Funder

| Tue Sep. 17, 2013 7:09 PM EDT

Supporters of Alaska's proposed Pebble Mine—an open-pit copper and gold mine said to contain hundreds of billions of dollars in resources but also the potential to wipe out an entire region's way of life—took a major blow Monday when one of the main companies behind the project pulled out. Anglo American, one of the world's largest mining companies, said it would rather focus on other projects in its stable.

The Pebble Mine would be the largest of its kind in North America. Former Mother Jones staff writer Kate Sheppard put it into perspective in May: "[The mine] would be as much as two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep ... [sitting] at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which feed into the Bristol Bay, producing as much as 11 billion tons of toxic mine waste over a span of decades."

"Despite our belief that Pebble is a deposit of rare magnitude and quality, we have taken the decision to withdraw," said Mark Cutifani, Anglo's CEO. "Our focus has been to prioritise (sic) capital to projects with the highest value and lowest risks within our portfolio, and reduce the capital required to sustain such projects."

In other words, Anglo would rather focus on projects that might actually move forward. After sinking $541 million into the project, the company likely took a cold look at the significant regulatory hurdles and political opposition. Joel Reynolds, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection and Southern California Ecosystem projects, made the case in May 2012 that the Pebble Mine would have a hard time overcoming its negative baggage and was ultimately a bad investment in every way. "The Pebble Mine makes no sense environmentally, economically, culturally, or legally, and it ought to be abandoned," he wrote.

The mine's only remaining funder is Northern Dynasty, an organization created in 2001 to conceptualize and develop the massive project. Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen said that the company has the "expertise and resources necessary to advance" the project, but that advancement likely would only carry it to finding another deep-pocketed partner.

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OkCupid's Awkward Response to Boulder Floods

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 2:28 PM EDT

A friend of mine in Boulder received this message from OkCupid the other day:

1,000 people are still stranded due to the flash floods in Colorado. Maybe not the best time for this spam, OKCupid.

Watch: This Video Explains Almost Everything You Want to Know About Fracking

| Fri Sep. 13, 2013 3:29 PM EDT

Still trying to figure out what the big deal with fracking is? Hydraulic fracturing—fracking for short—is the controversial process that has fueled the new energy boom in the US, making it possible to tap reserves that had previously been too difficult and expensive to extract. It works by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized water, with sand and a cocktail of chemicals, into rock formations to create tiny cracks and release trapped oil and gas. It's been tied to earthquakes and has led to a number of lawsuits, including one that resulted in a settlement agreement that barred a seven-year-old from ever talking about it. At the same time, fracking has also created a glut of cheap energy and is helping to push coal, and coal-fired power plants, out of the market.

But for all the fighting about whether fracking is good or bad (and research has shown the more people know, the more polarized they become), many people don't understand what fracking actually is. The Munich-based design team Kurzgesagt has put together a video that explains why fracking—which has been around since the 1940s—just caught on in the last ten years, and why people are worried. The video, which was posted earlier this month, has gone viral, and racked up over one million views in less than 10 days.

The video gets a lot right, but critics have also taken issue with a few of its claims. For example, the video states that fracking companies "say nothing about the precise composition of the chemical mixture but it is known that there are about 700 chemical agents which can be used in the process." Energy in Depth, an industry group, has released a response noting that companies do disclose some information about chemicals used in fracking. What that group doesn't mention, however, is that companies don't have to disclose chemicals that are designated as "trade secrets," which is a pretty serious exception.

Energy in Depth also quotes former EPA chief Lisa Jackson's testimony (among others) that "in no case have we made a definitive determination that the [fracturing] process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater." The key word here is "definitive"—there is a growing body of evidence that fracking can be linked to increased levels of methane, propane, and ethane in groundwater near fracking sites (likely due to faulty wells), and there are plenty of reasons to question whether pumping billions of gallons of toxic fluid into disposal wells is a good idea. (ProPublica has a couple of great, long pieces on injection wells.)

Updated: Photos and Videos From Dramatic Flash Floods in Colorado

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 5:45 PM EDT

A geyser of floodwater shoots out of a sewer in Manitou Springs, Colorado, as storms dump rain over the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

Heavy rains falling in the Front Range of Colorado this week have left at least three people dead, authorities say. Up to six inches of rain fell in 12 hours overnight on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, augmenting what had already been a rainy month in the area and leading to dangerous flash floods that are expected to continue through the weekend. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper called it “the largest storm that I can imagine in the state’s history.”

A spokesman from the US Geological Survey says the this is a 100-year flood, meaning that flooding at this level in the area takes place once every 100 years, according to the Denver Post—though others say it could even be a "a 500- to 1000-year event."

The rain brought the water, but wildfires in Colorado from recent years have made the flooding worse than it would have been otherwise, experts say. "When you have a dense forest with undergrowth, you have plants and things to trap moisture and rain," Kari Bowen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Boulder, told LiveScience. "But when it's gone, you have nothing to catch it."

The rain continued Thursday, making it difficult (and in some cases impossible) for rescuers to reach flood-stricken towns. In the video below, from CBS4 in Denver, rescue crews pull a man from a car that has been overturned near Lafayette, Colorado, where rock slides and flash flooding collapsed homes, put dams at risk, and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.

 

The graph below shoes water flowing from Fourmile creek over the past week in Orodell, Colorado, west of Boulder:

Below is the gage height of the same river, which reflects the amount of water flowing through it:

graph

The University of Colorado-Boulder has evacuated more than 350 people from university housing and reports that 25 percent of the buildings on campus have sustained damage so far, according to the Weather Channel.

 

 

The flooding cut off almost all roads to Boulder, according to the Denver Post, and many roads in the city are impassable.

 

USA Today reports that officials expect more rain, and probably more flooding, over the weekend.

 

 

This story has been updated since publication.

Explained in 90 Seconds: Your Fridge Is Accelerating Climate Change—But It Doesn't Have To

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The outward statecraft of the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, was dominated by disagreements over Syria. But behind the scenes, leaders were busy agreeing on something they rarely find common ground on: climate change. Thirty-five nations and the European Union decided to curb hydrofluorocarbons, a set of powerful heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, air conditioning, heat pumps, and insulation. This follows a deal earlier this year between China and the United States, in which President Obama and President Xi agreed to limit these greenhouse gases.

​So, what are HFCs and why are they important to climate change?

Yes, carbon dioxide is the big culprit when it comes to climate change. HFCs represent only a small fraction of total greenhouse gasesand they are short-lived compared to CO2but they pack a real punch in terms of what scientists call "global warming potential," which they rate as many hundred times more powerful than that of carbon dioxide.

Bucking the general international trend in climate talks, there's actually a history of agreement about limiting these types of gases. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, the world came together to sign the Montreal Protocol, phasing out the use of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons; that treaty is now universally ratified, and the ozone layer is recovering. Their industrial replacements were HFCs, and while these gases didn't attack the ozone layer—Earth's precious protective shield—they still trap a lot of heat, adding to global warming. Scientists say that if HFCs aren't curbed in the same way as their CFC cousins, this whole family of gasescalled halocarbonscould accelerate the next century’s expected warming by about 20 years.