Blue Marble

In Just 15 Years, Wind Could Provide A Fifth Of The World's Electricity

| Wed Oct. 22, 2014 10:36 AM EDT
The Scroby Sands Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, UK.

Up to one fifth of the world's electricity supply could come from wind turbines by 2030, according to a new report released this week by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). That would be an increase of 530 percent compared to the end of last year.

The report says the coming global boom in wind power will be driven largely by China's rebounding wind energy market—and a continued trend of high levels of Chinese green energy investment—as well as by steady growth in the United States and new large-scale projects in Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa.

The report, called the "Global Wind Energy Outlook," explains how wind energy could provide 2,000 gigawatts of electricity by 2030, which would account for 17 to 19 percent of global electricity. And by 2050, wind's share of the electricity market could reach 30 percent. That's a huge jump from the end of 2013, when wind provided around 3 percent of electricity worldwide.

The report is an annually produced industry digest co-authored by the GWEC, which represents 1,500 wind power producers. It examines three "energy scenarios" based on projections used by the International Energy Agency. The "New Policies" scenario attempts to capture the direction and intentions of international climate policy, even if some of these policies have yet to be fully implemented. From there, GWEC has fashioned two other scenarios—"moderate" and "advanced"—which reflect two different ways nations might cut carbon and keep their commitments to global climate change policies. In the most ambitious scenario, "advanced," wind could help slash more than 3 billion tons of climate-warning carbon dioxide emissions each year. The following chart has been adapted and simplified from the report:

In the best case scenario, China leads the way in 2020 and in 2030:

But as the report's authors note, there is still substantial uncertainty in the market. "There is much that we don't know about the future," they write, "and there will no doubt be unforeseen shifts and shocks in the global economy as well as political ups and downs." The more optimistic results contained in the report are dependent on whether the global community is going to respond "proactively to the threat of climate change, or try to do damage control after the fact," the report says.

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Drinking a "Medium" Soda Every Day Can Age You As Much As Smoking Does

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 2:28 PM EDT

Just as soda companies plunk down millions of dollars to defeat local soda-tax ballot measures, researchers have found a link between regular soda consumption and premature aging.

Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Health, a study of 5,300 adults compared the cells of people who drink soda every day to those of their non-soda-drinking counterparts. In the soda group, the ends of the chromosomes—known as telomeres—were shorter, a sign of their cells' diminished ability to regenerate. Our telomeres naturally shorten as we age, but scientists have discovered that a few behaviors—including smoking—can shorten them prematurely.

And here's the really interesting part: People who drank a 20-ounce soda every day experienced an additional 4.6 years of telomere aging—the same amount observed in smokers. "The extremely high dose of sugar that we can put into our body within seconds by drinking sugared beverages is uniquely toxic to metabolism," lead author Elissa Epel, a professor of psychiatry at University of California-San Francisco, told Time.

The researchers didn't find the same effect in those who drank diet sodas or 100 percent fruit juice.

Now Congressional Republicans Are Digging Through Scientists' Grant Proposals

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 5:22 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has led an unprecedented investigation into the scientific operations of the National Science Foundation.

When scientists across the country need money for research projects, one place they often turn is the National Science Foundation. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.

Of course, the agency doesn't just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.

Smith's committee is responsible for setting the NSF's budget. But in the last year, the Congressman has gone to unprecedented lengths to scrutinize the agency's scientific operations. His staffers are sifting through the archives of NSF grant proposal materials, which are normally kept strictly confidential to preserve scientific objectivity. They're looking for projects to highlight as evidence that NSF is wasting money on research that, from their view, aren't in the "national interest."

A great recent story in Science lays out Smith's strategy:

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade…

The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel's Republican members against [Rep. Eddie Bernice] Johnson [the committee's ranking Democrat] and the panel's Democrats, NSF's leadership, and the academic research community…

Smith, however, argues he is simply taking seriously Congress's oversight responsibility. And he promises to stay the course: "Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest," he wrote in a 2 October e-mail to ScienceInsider.

The tally of projects under scrutiny by Smith's team has now grown to 47 (a listing of them is linked to in the Science story above). On one hand, that's a lot. The confidentiality of the NSF review process is a long-established, sacred scientific practice that protects research from bias and makes sure only the cream rises to the top. So any cracks in that firewall, and certainly any whiff of political interference, are of great concern to the scientific community.

On the other hand, the 47 grants represent only a tiny fraction of the NSF's total operation; together, they amount to about $26 million, or 0.37 percent of NSF's budget. Which raises the questions of why Smith would (a) throw himself into an investigation of spending that, all things considered, is barely a drop in the federal bucket and (b) pick these specific projects to focus on. A spokesperson from Smith's committee—who provided a statement on behalf of Smith's office (the same statement quoted by Science above)—did not respond to these questions.

Many of the studies at issue involve social sciences (a study of caste systems in Ethiopia, for example, and one about rural sanitation in India) that fall outside the core areas of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology that Smith, in a press release this spring, singled out as "the primary drivers of our economic future."

But some of the biggest-ticket items up for public dissection focus on climate change. They include a $3 million grant awarded in 2008 to study how federal agencies can better communicate climate science to the public and a $5.6 million award to a Columbia University team to carry out public education work on the impacts of climate change at the poles. You know, totally frivolous questions that have nothing to do with the "national interest" on things like rising sea levels, epic releases of methane, US military engagement in the Arctic, new areas for offshore oil drilling, and 35,000 stranded walruses. Definitely not stuff you need to worry about, or have our top scientists investigate and explain.

The letters over the past few months between Smith and NSF director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican Congressmen.

"NSF's investment in meritorious research projects enables new and transformative discoveries within and among those fields and disciplines, resulting in the expansion of our scientific knowledge and understanding," she wrote to him on May 19.

In other words, basic science shouldn't be judged by how closely it hews to a predetermined, profitable advance. The Large Hadron Collider probably isn't ever going to do much for the US economy, but that doesn't mean it's not in the "national interest" for us to understand the basic physics of the universe. Sometimes, even research on the mechanics of corkscrew-shaped duck penises can be a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.

Hurricane Gonzalo Is Going to Slam Bermuda Today

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

The photo above was taken yesterday by an astronaut on the International Space Station. It shows Hurricane Gonzalo barreling across the Atlantic Ocean toward Bermuda.

Gonzalo, currently a Category 3 hurricane, is expected to make landfall in Bermuda this afternoon before veering back out to sea and away from the US East Coast. AccuWeather.com meteorologists are warning that the damage could be severe, with "a large and life-threatening storm surge [that] could exceed 10 feet and cause a major rise in water levels over coastal areas and causeways."

Stay safe, Bermudans.

People Are Trying to Sell Cinnamon Bark as an Ebola Cure

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 3:57 PM EDT

Marion Nestle reports that several supplement manufacturers are selling vitamins that promise to prevent or treat Ebola. The claims caught the attention of the FDA, which has issued warning letters to three of the manufacturers: Natural Solutions Foundation, Young Living, and DoTERRA International LLC. The agency lists specific claims it finds worrisome; for example, on a Young Living consultant's website, "Ebola Virus can not live in the presence of cinnamon bark."

Here's a screenshot from Natural Solutions Foundations' website:

An article on the Natural Solutions site talks about "the intentional introduction of Ebola into the United States by what will appear to be ISIS terrorists." It continues, "And it will happen soon, since we know from Dr. Rima's research that Ebola can become an airborne disease in temperate climates, such as North America's coming winter." It urges readers to prepare by stocking up on supplements that contain nanoparticles of silver: "The only protection we have against this new level of tyranny is making sure we do not get sick!!! The best way to do that is to make sure that EVERYONE you can reach has Nano Silver and knows how to use it."

Another supposed natural Ebola cure making the rounds: Vitamin C. Nestle found this gem on an alternative health information site called NaturalHealth365, which claims that a giant dose of vitamin C can cure Ebola (though it doesn't actually sell Vitamin C):

NaturalHealth365

It's not terribly surprising that supplement manufacturers have seized on Ebola. A new Harvard School of Public Health poll has found that 38 percent of Americans (up from 25 percent a few months ago) "are now concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola over the next year." That's quite a market.

Sorry, California. Winter Isn't Going to Fix Your Drought.

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 2:32 PM EDT
NOAA

California's crippling drought is not expected to improve over the winter, according to new forecast data released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Nearly 60 percent of the state is experiencing exceptional drought—the worst category—NOAA reported. The map above shows that the northern California coast could see some improvement. But in the Central Valley, a critical source of fruits, nuts, and vegetables for the whole country, conditions won't be getting better any time soon. A little rain is expected, NOAA forecaster Mike Halpert said in a statement, but not enough to reverse the trend.

"While we're predicting at least a 2 in 3 chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal throughout the state, with such widespread, extreme deficits, recovery will be slow,” he said.

The report adds that El Niño, which tends to brings wet weather for the West Coast, is expected to be weak this winter and thus won't provide much relief.

California's winter is also more than 50 percent likely to be warmer than average:

temp map
NOAA

And in case you're still wondering why you should care about California's drought, try this: The state is the country's number-two pumpkin producer. And with Halloween approaching, pumpkin prices have jumped 15 percent because of the drought. Scary!

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Nepal Just Had a Deadly Freak Avalanche. Is Climate Change To Blame?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 12:32 PM EDT
Rescue workers carry the body of an avalanche victim at the Thorong La Pass in Mustang, Nepal, on October 15.

Hikers on one of Nepal's most popular mountaineering routes may have had a deadly face-off with climate change this week, when a freak storm swept in and triggered an avalanche that killed at least 27 people.

Rescue work is underway for dozens of hikers who are still missing. October is typically a time for clear skies in Nepal, and already some scientists are pointing a finger of blame at global warming for the unseasonable storm. From the Toronto Star:

The current situation in Nepal — the incessant rain, blizzard and avalanche — appears to have been triggered by the tail of Cyclone Hudhud in neighboring India. The cyclone, reports suggest, was among the strongest storms recorded off the Indian coast.

“Storms in that region are getting stronger,” said John Stone, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It is not inconsistent with what scientists have been saying.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional agency based in Kathmandu that serves eight countries, said in a May report — just weeks after the April avalanche on Mt. Everest — that rising temperatures have shrunk Nepal’s glaciers by almost a quarter between 1977 and 2010, with an average of 38 square kilometers vanishing annually.

The report said that besides bringing more intense and frequent floods, avalanches and landslides affecting millions of people living in remote mountain areas, such changes could also hit adventure-seeking mountaineers.

As if summitting a giant Himalayan peak wasn't scary enough already.

Survey: Four Out of Five Nurses Have Gotten No Ebola Training At All

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:42 AM EDT
Nurses hold signs at NNU rally

Update, October 15, 1:50 p.m. EDT: A second hospital worker who treated the Dallas Ebola patient has tested positive for the disease. Health officials have confirmed that prior to her diagnosis she boarded a flight from Cleveland to Dallas/Fort Worth on Frontier Airlines. The CDC is monitoring potential risk of exposure to 132 passengers aboard.

A new survey conducted by the National Nurses Union shows US hospitals may not be adequately prepared to handle Ebola patients, should the virus continue to spread. Out of the 2,200 nurses who responded to the union's questionnaire, 85 percent reported that their hospitals had not provided education on Ebola. 76 percent said their institution had no policy for how to admit and handle patients potentially infected with the virus. More than a third claimed their hospitals didn't have enough safety supplies, including eye protection and fluid resistant gowns.

The survey results were announced on Sunday, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a health worker in Texas had tested positive for the virus. The CDC's director, Thomas Frieden cited a "breach of protocol" as the likely reason.

Now—as agency officials scramble to figure out just what that breach was—nurses are pushing back. On Monday, NNU nurses in red shirts rallied in Oakland, Calif. with signs reading, "Stop Blaming Nurses. Stop Ebola."

"We have been surveying nurses for almost two months about Ebola preparedness," Charles Idelson, an NNU spokesman, said Monday. "What these survey results clearly indicate is that hospitals are still not doing enough to be properly prepared to respond."

The CDC has announced plans to deploy an Ebola response team "within hours" at any hospital where an Ebola patient is admitted. At a press conference, Frieden said the agency is responding to calls from hospitals that are underprepared to handle the crisis.

On Monday, Frieden said the the CDC is also working with hospitals to better train health workers on Ebola precautions."We have to rethink the way we address Ebola infection control," he said. For example, he said, in some cases health workers may actually be wearing too much protective gear, making it harder to remove and dispose of the material.

The NNU survey showed that, even as the CDC called for more hands-on training, especially on how to properly put on and remove safety equipment, few hospitals have provided it for their employees. Ideslson says most are simply pointing nurses to information on their websites, or linking to CDC information. Staffing is another concern, with 63 percent of nurses reporting that hospital facilities won't adjust the number of assigned patients per nurse to reflect the additional time required to care for infectious patients.

"We are going to continue to protest the failure of so many of these hospitals to put adequate safety measures in place," Idelson said; he wouldn't rule out the potential for healthcare workers to walk out on strike, much as Liberian health care workers have.

The American Hospital Association, an organization that represents nearly 5,000 hospitals nationwide, is now calling on hospitals to bolster their training regimens, turned down my request for an interview, but sent a statement saying, "We strongly encourage all hospitals to conduct employee retraining on how to use personal protective equipment to protect themselves from Ebola and other potentially deadly communicable diseases."

Even if hospitals are prepared, however, it can be difficult to comply with both patient needs and the social blowback that comes with an Ebola diagnosis. The New York Times reported yesterday that  Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a center that had prepared for an outbreak long before the current crisis began, struggled with the county threatening to stop sewer service, couriers refusing to transport blood samples, and pizza delivery services refusing to come to any part of the hospital. And as my colleague Tim Murphy has reported, Louisiana's attorney general has said the state, which processes a wide variety of hazardous wastes from around the nation, may take legal action to stop the incinerated belongings of deceased Ebola patient Eric Duncan from coming to one of its landfills.

In his press conference, Frieden warned that such fears are unfounded and counterproductive. "The enemy here is a virus. It's not a person, it's not a country, it's not a place, it's not a hospital—it's a virus. It's a virus that's tough to fight, but together I'm confident that we will stop it."

A Place With the Population of West Virginia Just Powered A Work Day Entirely on Clean Energy

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 10:39 AM EDT
Wind energy is booming in South Australia.

Here's one for the naysayers who insist renewable energy can't keep the lights on and power our cities. An entire state in Australia with a population of  around 1.7 million people just used renewable energy to meet 100 percent of its electricity needs throughout an entire working day. According to industry news site Energy Business News:

Between 9.30 and 6pm on Tuesday, September 30, a day not unlike most Tuesdays, with business and homes using electricity as usual, the state received the favourable weather conditions allowing solar and wind infrastructure to work side by side to achieve the impressive achievement.

The analysis comes from Pitt & Sherry, an Australian energy consultancy. As the wind picked up, all but two of the state's coal-fired power generators, and one gas-powered unit, were shut down; the excess power was exported to other regions, according to the report. There were a few moments during the previous days—on September 27 and 28—when the state actually produced more wind power than the state's total energy demand. Normally, nearly a third of the state's energy comes from renewable sources, according to figures from 2012 to 2013.

South Australia, home to the city of Adelaide, has almost half of the country's wind capacity; 25 percent of its households have rooftop solar installations, according to the report. The state is aggressively pursuing green energy goals, upping its 2025 renewable energy commitment from 33 percent to 50 percent, having met its previous goal six years ahead of schedule.

This is despite the conservative federal government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatening to gut a national renewable energy target, having already defunded several government agencies responsible for the country's climate change policies. In July, Australia became the world's first developed nation to repeal a carbon tax.

All of that policy uncertainty is having an impact on the renewable energy sector in Australia. Investment has virtually frozen in a land famous for being bathed in sun. Recent data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows Australia is on track to record its lowest level of financing for big renewable projects since 2002, dropping the country from the 11th largest investor to 31st in Bloomberg's rankings. In the third quarter of this year, investment was down 78 percent from the same time last year.

Pentagon: We Could Soon Be Fighting Climate Wars

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:45 PM EDT
The submarine USS Annapolis breaks through three feet of ice in the Arctic Ocean during an exercise in 2009. A report today from the Pentagon calls for an increased US military presence in the Arctic.

In one of its strongest statements yet on the need to prepare for climate change, the Defense Department today released a report that says global warming "poses immediate risks to US national security" and will exacerbate national security-related threats ranging "from infectious disease to terrorism."

The report, embedded below, builds on climate readiness planning at the Pentagon that stretches back to the George W. Bush administration. But today's report is the first to frame climate change as a serious near-term challenge for strategic military operations; previous reports have tended to focus on long-term threats to bases and other infrastructure.

The report "is quite an evolution of the DoD's thinking on understanding and addressing climate threats," said Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security. "The Department is not looking out into the future, it's looking at what's happening now."