Blue Marble

This Is Seriously One Of the Most Incredible Weather Videos I Have Ever Seen

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 3:12 PM EST

This story originally appeared in Slate and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A couple of months ago I posted an amazing time-lapse video called Stormscapes, showing storms and mesocylcones, created by photographer Nicolaus Wegner. It's really worth watching; seeing those swirling, dark clouds forming vortices over the Midwest is terrifying and mesmerizing.

Wegner contacted me recently; after a year of storm chasing he put together another video, Stormscapes2, and it's way, way better than the first one. In fact, I'd say it's seriously one of the most incredible weather videos I have ever seen.

Make this hi-def, full screen, and crank the volume up, because holy yikes.

Wow.

From the opening sequence to the last frame, that's magnificent. I was also really impressed by how Wegner let the music inspire the editing, and it really adds to the look and feel of the video.

The creepy oncoming storm sets the mood immediately, but then the double rainbow and crepuscular rays (shadows of clouds leaving long, dark shadows in the sky) converging on the horizon provide a brief interlude. Very brief.

Mesocyclones! Lightning! Exploding cumulonimbus clouds! Devil's Tower! And then, at the end, one of my favorite kinds of clouds: bulbs of mammatus clouds hanging down. Those are really peculiar, and it's not at all clear why they form. Their shape gives rise to their name, because they look like mammary glands. Seriously.

I've seen mammatus clouds just once, and it was unearthly. They're harbingers of severe weather, and Wegner mentioned he got that sequence the day a series of tornadoes hit the town of Wessington Springs, South Dakota. The town was devastated, but due to the work of the National Weather Service, not a single person was killed. They predicted the conditions were ripe for tornadoes, issued a warning, and people were able to get to safety in time.

That's amazing, but that's science. We've learned so much about the weather that we can predict with pretty good accuracy where and when tornadoes can form, and get people to safety.

As I watch Stormscapes2, I'm in awe of the beauty of weather, but I'm also uplifted. We understand a lot of these phenomena very well, and the things we don't understand, we learn. And when we learn, we make things better. We save people's lives.

Science saves lives. That's a pretty good thing to learn, too.

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Watch NASA Launch Its Next-Gen Spacecraft Friday Morning

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 3:57 AM EST
The Orion capsule waiting on the launchpad the day before ignition.

Update: NASA had to postpone the launch, which was originally scheduled for Thursday morning, because of a problem with a valve. The next opportunity to test Orion will come early Friday morning. This post has been updated to reflect the change.

It's been 42 years since a human last traveled outside of low-earth orbit, the barely-out-of-the-atmosphere band of space that communications satellites and the International Space Station call home. But Friday morning, NASA will take a step closer towards once again sending humans to the Moon—and perhaps beyond. At 7:04 am, the agency will launch the first unmanned test run of its Orion spacecraft, sending it up from Cape Canaveral for a two-orbit spin around the planet—a trip that, if all goes well, will last for 4.5 hours before Orion lands in the Pacific Ocean. You can watch the launch live here or, at the appointed hour, in the video below:

No one will be aboard Orion for the test flight. But the spacecraft, which is designed to be used for future manned missions to asteroids and eventually the Moon and Mars, is the first NASA capsule since the Apollo program that's designed to send humans beyond low-earth orbit. It is slated to travel 3,600 miles above the planet's surface this week—about 16 times farther out than the International Space Station.

But it'll be a long time before NASA begins sending humans back out towards the stars. That's due, in part, to the state of rocket science. NASA is using a Delta IV rocket to launch Orion into the sky. But the Delta IV is an older technology that is supposed to be a placeholder until NASA finishes work on the Space Launch System, a larger rocket that will blast the Orion capsule off on long-distance missions. That new system won't be ready until at least 2018, which means a manned mission isn't likely until the 2020s, with a Mars mission not on the docket until the 2030s. (And given the recent frequent delays in long term NASA missions, these dates could easily get pushed back more).

The Orion was originally designed for President George W. Bush's Constellation program, which aimed to return Americans to the moon by 2020 at the latest—a step towards a mission to Mars shortly thereafter. President Obama scrapped the Constellation program, which had been underfunded and nowhere near meeting its deadlines, shortly after taking office—sparing only the Orion capsule. Space policy has been a low priority for the  administration ever since. Obama has left designing a replacement for the Space Shuttle's low-earth-orbit work to the private sector, and hasn't put up much of a fight against objections from congressional Republicans that his plan to send humans to visit an asteroid is expensive and unnecessary.

Orion's launch could be the first step toward a bold new space program—or a flashy whimper of a doomed vision. But either way, big rocket launches are always exciting to watch, so tune in here.

The Fracking Boom Could End Way Sooner Than Obama Thinks

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 1:00 PM EST
A natural gas rig outside Fort Worth, Texas.

President Obama is fond of touting America's vast trove of natural gas—and the energy (read: economic growth) it can provide—as a reason to support fracking. "Our 100-year supply of natural gas is a big factor in drawing jobs back to our shores," he told a gathering at Northwestern University in October.

You can hear that same optimism about US natural gas production from Democrats, Republicans, and of course, the industry itself. The conviction that America can fuel its economy by churning out massive amounts of natural gas for decades has become a core assumption of national energy policy. But what if it's wrong?

Those rosy predictions are based on official forecasts produced by the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that compiles data on America's energy supply and demand. This spring, EIA chief Adam Sieminski told a Senate hearing that he was confident natural gas production would grow 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. But the results of a series of studies at the University of Texas, reported today in an article in the journal Nature, cast serious doubt about the accuracy of EIA's forecasts.

The UT team conducted its own analysis of natural gas production at all four of the US's major shale gas formations (the Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville, and Barnett), which together account for two-thirds of America's natural gas output. Then, they extrapolated production into the future based on predicted market forces (the future price of gas relative to other fuels) and known geology. Their analysis suggests that gas production will peak in 2020, 20 years earlier than the EIA predicts. What's more, the UT researchers project that by 2030, gas production levels will be only half of EIA's prediction.

The difference in opinion stems from a difference in the scale of the analyses. The UT team's grid for each shale play studied was at least 20 times finer than EIA's, according to Nature:

Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones. The EIA's model so far has assumed that future wells will be at least as productive as past wells in the same county. But this approach, [UT-Austin petroleum engineer Ted] Patzek argues, "leads to results that are way too optimistic".

Why do these numbers matter? The federal government, states, and the private sector all base their energy investments—research and development, infrastructure construction, etc.—on forecasts of where our energy will come from in the future. If natural gas really is super-abundant, there may be less urgency to invest in renewables like solar and wind to replace coal plants as they age or are regulated out of existence. But if there's less recoverable natural gas than we think, we'll need to change our strategy to avoid coming up short on power 20 years down the line. At the same time, there are international repercussions: Many countries are taking cues from the United States on how to develop their own natural gas resources, so what happens here will shape those plans as well. And a series of massive natural gas export facilities are already being proposed across the US to ship our gas overseas; what will happen to global markets if those run dry prematurely?

Because they rely on informed guesses about future market conditions, these forecasts can never be bulletproof, and the UT study doesn't close the book on how much natural gas the US really has in store. But it's an important reminder that we should treat politicians' promises about fossil fuel wealth with skepticism.

We Fact Checked Aaron Sorkin's Climate Science on "The Newsroom"

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 12:29 PM EST

I watch too much TV drama, so I can say this with a degree of certainty: It's rare that climate change comes up. (Television news programs also contain "tepid" coverage, in general, according to watchdog group Media Matters). That's why it was so weird/exciting for this climate reporter when global warming received its very own subplot on Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom over the last two episodes.

First, a little context: Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is the show's once daffy news producer whose role this season seems exclusively designed to reverse earlier charges of sexism against Sorkin. She's now good at her job! During a convoluted scene on a train from Boston to New York, Maggie overhears and records a top EPA official talking shit on the phone about President Obama to another journalist, off-the-record. Even though that agreement of confidentiality doesn't extend to the other Amtrak passengers, she eventually tells the official she won't use his juicy Obama-dissing quotes. So impressed by her ethics, the official, Richard Westbrook (Paul Lieberstein), rewards her with a scoop: an embargoed EPA report. WHOA! WHAT A SCOOOOOP! (For the uninitiated, while a heads-up about a study is great to get a jump on your competition, reports are circulated and embargoed all the time). Anyway... Maggie also gets an exclusive interview with the official, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA (WHAT A GET!) and in the most recent episode, she produces a segment for host Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) about the report's dire warnings.

The scene is odd for a number of reasons. The Newsroom packages its drama based on last year's events, and at that time, the news that the world was approaching 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been publicly anticipated for weeks. So, not a scoop in any way, or anything that anyone following the science didn't already know.

But putting that aside, let's take a look at Sorkin's "facts", as presented in the episode. How do they measure up? Let's go line-by-line through the scene above.

 

In the weird parallel universe of The Newsroom, I'm not sure when these "latest measurements" were meant to have been taken. But he's right. We covered this at the time: The world passed that 400 ppm threshold for the first meaningful way in May 2013, when the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide was higher than at any time in human history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The measurements are indeed taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii; you can follow what's known as the "Keeling Curve"—a measurement of atmospheric concentration of CO2—on Twitter, naturally, thanks to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

 

Depends what you're defining as catastrophic failure, I suppose.  Say you were born last year, when I assume this episode was meant to be set. If we follow along current emissions trends, the planet will be 3.96°F-8.64°F (2.2°C–4.8°C) hotter than preindustrial times by your retirement. (You can type your birth year into this cool interactive, driven by data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to check how hot it will be when you're old). That's above temperatures recommended to be in the supposedly "safe" zone by the IPCC, and could definitely result in a variety of "catastrophes" and "failures". As deaths increase due to things like extreme weather, droughts and wildfires, this statement seems true enough when applied to individual episodes of calamity, which will surely increase. (The number of annual deaths in the UK due to heat, for example, is predicted to rise by 257 per cent by 2050.) The EPA official is right, in one sense. But it's also arguable that deaths are already and will continue to be linked to climate change events. The line in the script infers the failure of the planet as a whole, which I think is artful flourish to illustrate just how glum this fellow is feeling.

 

Yup. That's what the science says. The last time the atmosphere clocked 400 ppm it was 3 million years ago—the "Mid-Pliocene"—when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than today (see this 2007 research paper authored by a group led by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University.) I'd probably add an "around" or "about" before the "80 feet higher" in the above statement; the studies leave a margin of error. But this statement checks out.

 

His point is sound, but I'd like to see the writers' sourcing—these numbers seem to date to around the late 1990s. According to a more recent 2011 NOAA report, 55 percent of the world's population lives within 50 miles of the coast. The UN has a slightly different number: Over 40 percent of the world's population, or 3.1 billion, lives within 60 miles of the "ocean or sea in about 150 coastal and island nations." In the US, 39 percent of the nation's population lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010.

 

That seems right.

 

There's consensus amongst 97 percent of climate scientists that global warming is happening and that's it's a manmade disaster. And I've heard climate scientists use this analogy before. (For what it's worth, there are other things that can influence the boiling point of water, including altitude.)

 

He's talking about the "carbon budget", and again this is sound, despite Newsman Will's growing anguish at a pretty devastating interview. The 565 gigaton number was popularized by Bill McKibben in a 2012 Rolling Stone article that Newsroom writers seem to have read. The number is "derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades" (done by financial analysis firm Carbon Tracker) and is what we can add into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a reasonable chance of success of staying below that safe two degrees warming threshold. Our grumpy scientist is so despondent because, yes, 2,795 is the number of gigatons of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves in the hands of fossil-fuel companies and petrostates. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn, writes McKibben. Carbon Tracker says 80 percent of these assets need to remain unburned.

 

All of these things are predicted by the IPCC—I mean, not the permanent darkness thing, I don't think that's meant to be scientific. But yes, as we reported in May this year, Europe faces freshwater shortages; Asia can expect more severe flooding from extreme storms; North America will see increased heat waves and wildfires, which can cause death and damage to ecosystems and property. Especially in poor countries, diminished crop yields will likely lead to increased malnutrition, which already affects nearly 900 million people worldwide.

So, in all, well done Newsroom. Informative, accurate, if a little heavy-handed on the doom and gloom.

Video: A Drone Shoots Hauntingly Beautiful Footage of Buffalo's Snowstorm

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 5:02 PM EST
James Grimaldi/YouTube

Flying personal camera-equipped drones directly over big events like the Hong Kong protests and Independence Day fireworks is becoming commonplace. Now come these amazing aerial images of Buffalo, New York, besieged by snow for the third day in a row. The Buffalo area was coated with up to six feet of snow on Wednesday and there's been even more today. The eighth storm-related death was annouced this morning.

When the storm first set in, James Grimaldi of West Seneca, New York, sent his drone into the blizzard to film a bizarre world drained of color, and uploaded the stunning results to his YouTube channel. (Grimaldi has also posted his drone videos to his CNN's iReport page.)

Grimaldi's second-day video reveals the vast extent of the snow, the result of a massive "lake-effect snowfall event". The houses now look like giant mushrooms:

And finally, posted today, a new storm bearing down on Grimaldi's suburb:

This weekend's forecasted rain won't help recovery efforts. "We're going to have a lot of water running off quickly," the Weather Channel's Wayne Verno told NBC News. "We'll more than likely see some flooding."

We Just Had the Hottest October on Record

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 12:29 PM EST
october map
NOAA

It's cold outside, which means it'll soon be time for the annual rousing chorus of climate change denial from people who think snow means global warming is fake.

Good thing NOAA is here to help. Today the agency released two new maps illustrating that even if you're cold right now, the planet is still getting hotter. In fact, 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record.

The map above shows where global temperatures for the month of October stood relative to the 20th century average. Overall, this was the warmest October since record-keeping began in 1880.

And it's not just October that was remarkably warm. The entire year so far, since January, has also been the warmest on record—a good 1.22 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. If the trend persists, 2014 will beat out 2010 as the hottest year on record:

year map
NOAA

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Watch a Wall of Snow Consume Buffalo, N.Y.

| Wed Nov. 19, 2014 12:59 PM EST

Today it is literally freezing in every state in America. But no where has been hit harder than Buffalo, New York, which yesterday got buried under 70 inches of snow. Yeah, seven-zero, as in nearly six feet. At least six people there have died, and one hundred are still trapped.

The video below, from Buffalo-based producer Joseph DeBenedictis, shows yesterday's apocalyptic storm sweeping across the city. The insane snowfall was brought on by something called the "lake effect," which could grow more severe with global warming—our friend Eric Holthaus at Slate has the details on that.

BREAKING: The Senate Just Voted Not to Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 3:19 PM EST
President Obama walks between sections of pipeline destined for the southern stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline.

UPDATE (11/18/14, 6:17 pm ET): A controversial bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed in the US Senate Tuesday evening. It received 59 "aye" votes, just shy of the 60 needed to send the bill to President Obama's desk. The fight isn't over yet; Republicans have said they plan to prioritize approving the pipeline once they take control of the Senate next year.

Below the headlines last week about President Obama's major climate agreement with China, another environmental story was gaining steam: a vote in Congress to force approval of Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada down to refineries on the Gulf Coast. On Friday, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline, as it has done numerous times in the past. The Senate is expected to vote on an identical bill today. Previous Keystone legislation has always stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Democrats. But the vote Tuesday will likely have more Democratic support than ever before, making it the closest the pipeline has yet come to approval.

Here's what you need to know:

What's happening with Keystone this week?
As of Sunday, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill is still one vote shy of the 60 it would need to break a Senate filibuster, pass Congress, and land on the president's desk. If enacted, the legislation would green-light a construction permit for the pipeline, removing that authority from the State Department, which currently has the final say because the project crosses an international border. President Obama has said that his administration would only approve the project if it didn't increase total US carbon emissions; a State Department report in January suggested that the pipeline was unlikely to affect America's carbon footprint because the oil it would carry would get exported and burned one way or the other. But the final decision was postponed indefinitely in April and is awaiting the outcome of a court case in Nebraska that could alter the pipeline's route. Congressional Republicans have accused Obama of willfully kicking the decision down the road for as long as possible; on Thursday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week's vote was long overdue after years of the administration "dragging its feet."

Why is the vote happening now?
When Republicans take control of the Senate next year, with a host of new climate skeptics in tow, they could pass a new round of Keystone legislation—perhaps even with enough support to override a presidential veto. So why rush? The answer revolves around the Senate race in Louisiana, where incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu is locked in a runoff campaign with Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, who currently serves in the House. The special election is scheduled for December 6, and Landrieu appears to be trailing Cassidy. Landrieu represents a state with close ties to the oil industry, and she has long been one of the pipeline's most vocal advocates. Last week she introduced the Keystone bill in what many on Capitol Hill have described as a last-ditch political maneuver to score points with her constituents before the runoff. Cassidy introduced the House version of the bill shortly thereafter.

This morning, anti-pipeline activists set up shop in front of Landrieu's residence in Washington:

If the bill passes, will President Obama sign it into law?
Probably not. At a press conference in Burma last week, Obama said that his "position hasn't changed" and that the approval process should go through the proper State Department channels. It's hard to imagine that after all of Obama's statements on Keystone's carbon footprint, the approval process, and his series of climate promises last week, he would capitulate on the pipeline merely for the benefit of one Senate Democrat who appears unlikely to win anyway. It seems more likely that he would save Keystone approval as a bargaining chip to keep the GOP-run Congress from attacking his other hard-won climate initiatives. We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out over the next few days.

Update: I joined Huffington Post Live this morning to talk about today's Senate vote:

This post has been updated.

Two Charts That Show How the US Is Shortchanging the World

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 5:15 PM EST
pledges
Tim McDonnell

This morning, the New York Times reported that President Obama is poised to announce a pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-administered account to help poor countries deal with climate change. That's the biggest single pledge of any country so far (see chart above); it doubles the total size of the fund and is a major step toward the UN's target of raising $15 billion before next month's climate talks in Lima, Peru. Other notable carbon emitters, such as the UK, are expected to announce contributions by the end of next week.

But viewed in a different context, the US contribution looks much less impressive. The idea behind the fund is to reconcile one of the cruel ironies of climate change: Many of the nations that will be hit hardest by global warming—countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, for example—have done very little to cause the problem. Bangladesh was recently ranked as the country that is most vulnerable to climate change, but its per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are 44 times smaller than the US's per-capita emissions, according to the World Bank. So the fund is meant to bridge the gap between the rich countries whose carbon pollution causing climate change and the poor countries that are suffering from it.

As the chart below shows, the US's contribution to the Green Climate Fund looks a lot smaller when it's adjusted to take into account America's extremely high emissions:

relative
Tim McDonnell

Cumulatively since 1980—the earliest year for which consistent data from the Energy Information Administration is available—the US has emitted more carbon than any other country, including China. (In 2008, China overtook the US as the leading annual carbon polluter). So it's probably fair to say that the US is more to blame for global warming than any other single country. And yet Obama's pledge to the Green Climate Fund only translates to about $17,100 per million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from 1980 to 2012—placing it ninth among the 13 countries that have announced pledges. That's a bit like crashing a friend's car and only offering to pay to fix the steering wheel. By contrast, Sweden's pledge equates to $292,000 per million tons of CO2 emissions—17 times greater than the US pledge.

It's great and necessary that Obama is willing to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. But I think it's fair to say the US is getting away pretty cheap.

Obama Is About to Make the World's Biggest Pledge to Help Poor Countries Fight Climate Change

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 10:23 AM EST

What a week! First President Barack Obama announces a massive climate agreement with China designed to lower both countries' carbon emissions while doubling down on clean energy development. Now this morning, the New York Times is reporting that the president will soon announce a $3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund, a UN-administered account that will help developing countries clean their energy sectors and adapt to the impacts of global warming.

A $3 billion pledge from the United States would double the size of the fund; the biggest donations up to this point were $1 billion each from France and Germany. More countries are expected to make commitments at a UN meeting in Berlin next week. The fund's stated goal is to reach $15 billion before a key meeting next month in Lima, Peru.

Obama's pledge "is a strong and important signal to developing countries that the US is serious ahead of climate negotiations in 2015," said Alex Doukas, a sustainable finance analyst at the World Resources Institute.

From the Times:

It is not clear whether Mr. Obama's $3 billion pledge will come from existing sources of funding, or whether he will have to ask Congress to appropriate the money. Since 2010, the Obama administration has spent about $2.5 billion to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop new clean sources of energy, but Republicans are certain to target additional requests for money linked to climate change and foreign aid.

So there are still some details to work out. But like the US-China climate deal, the most immediate impact of this pledge announcement will be to encourage other countries to up the ante on their own commitments.