Blue Marble

Climate Change Already Hammering the US

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 1:31 PM EDT

No matter what George Will says—extreme weather, drought, heavy rainfall, and increasing temperatures are already fact of life in many parts of the US thanks to human-induced global warming. Changes like these will increase in intensity from here on.

That's according to Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, a 190-page report two years in the making, issued today, product of the US Global Change Research Program, including NOAA and 12 other US government science agencies, major universities, and research institutes. Some of the findings from the Midwest alone:

  • Average temperatures have risen in the Midwest in recent decades, especially in winter
  • The growing season is one week longer
  • Heavy downpours are twice as frequent as they were a century ago
  •  The Midwest has experienced two record-breaking floods in the past 15 years
  • Average annual temperatures are expected to increase two degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades—and as much as 7 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, with more warming projected for summer than winter
  • Precipitation is expected to increase in the winter and spring
  • Summer precipitation will likely decline
  • More of the precipitation is likely to occur during heavier events
  • As temperatures and humidity increases, heat waves, reduced air quality, insect-borne diseases, pollen production, and growth of fungi are more likely to occur
  • Heavy downpours will overload drainage systems and water treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases
  • Average water levels in the Great Lakes—reservoirs for 20 percent of the planet's fresh surface water—could drop as much as two feet this century, affecting beaches, coastal ecosystems, fish populations, dredging, and shipping


Some of the effects of the changing climate are already inevitable and will require human and animal populations to adapt. Other effects can be mitigated by limiting future emissions of C02 and other greenhouse gases... George Will won't but we have to.
 

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Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 16

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 10:00 AM EDT

Hello, and happy Tuesday. Here's what's new in health, environment, and science:

Healthcare mythology day: In critiquing Obama's plans for more healthcare spending, conservatives revive two favorite chestnuts of anti-nationalization rhetoric. Meanwhile, Obama trots out his own old wives' tale, suggesting that restricting medical malpractice lawsuits could help reduce healthcare costs.

Geek out on futuristic climate solutions: Should we tether kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream to harvest its massive wind power? Maybe. Block out the sun to keep earth from heating up? Probably not.

Salacious wildlife news: An environmental group says Obama's nominee for head of the US Fish & Wildlife Service whored out panther habitat to sprawl-mongering developers. 

And one last question: Did you celebrate Meatless Monday?

Cute Endangered Animal of the Week: Hawaiian Monk Seal

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 7:01 AM EDT

The cute, endangered animal for this week is the state mammal of Hawaii, the Hawaiian Monk Seal. According to forbidding signs posted on Hawaiian beaches, the monk seal is "one of the most endangered species in the world," with only 1,400 individuals. The Hawaiian Monk Seal lives in the quiet Northwestern islands of Hawaii like Kawa'i whose golden beaches and jungled peaks appear in movies from South Pacific to Jurassic Park. If you do happen to see a monk seal, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking they're dead since the animals always seem to be lying comatose on the sand while warm Hawaiian waves crash over their rotund bodies. Approaching the be-whiskered beasts is a federal crime, and a health risk: because these seals evolved without human contact, they have little fear of people and will bite. Hard.

When not lazing under a tropical sun, monk seals eat fish, squid, and even lobster when they can get it, reaching up to 600 lbs in weight and 7 feet in length. Continuing commercial development, disease, fishing nets, and global warming are current threats to the seal population, especially to new mothers who do not eat and lose hundreds of pounds while nursing their young for six months. As human development continues, Hawaiian Monk Seals are being seen on the more inhabited islands of Hawaii: the Center for Biological Diversity,  Ocean Conservancy, and (as of last week) NOAA are proposing the federal government expand the protected seal habitat to include the main islands, but no word yet on when, or if, the government will revise the seals' protected range. 

To learn more about the Hawaiian Monk Seal and see a gallery of pictures, you can visit the Kaua'i Monk Seal Watch Program's website here.

 

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Just Another Meatless Monday

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 6:07 PM EDT

 Just in case you needed yet another reason to go veggie, Sir Paul McCartney is lending his jowly, loveable face to Meatless Monday, a campaign to get everybody to give up meat, on Mondays. If you're still reeling from PETA's Sea Kittens campaign, rest easy—this one is about people, not animals. Tofu-pushers at The Monday Campain and Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health say that reducing America's meat consumption by just 15% would combat obesity (and its related ailments) and shrink our carbon footprint. All we have to do is skip the Mini Sirloin Burgers.

Right. As an apolitical vegetarian, I was skeptical. Then I read some of The Monday's statistics (you can follow the footnotes at the bottom of the page). Did you know, for example, that 16 oz of red meat (about 1.5 Big Macs) requires 2,000 gallons of water to raise? Maybe it ought to be a meatless Monday after all. 

 

Geoengineering's Day in the Sun?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 5:43 PM EDT

This weekend, the Washington Post reported on a simple step Americans can take to mitigate the effects of climate change: painting our roofs white.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu explained that white paint "changes the reflectivity...of the Earth, so the sunlight comes in, it's reflected back into space," pointing out that roof painting is "something very simple that we can do immediately." He's right. Small-scale bright, green ideas like painting our roofs white and keeping our tires inflated are not only easy, they're also pretty cheap. 

Matt Yglesias also supports the white-roof strategy, but worries that it could lead to more obstructive tactics like blocking out the sun and changing the structure of clouds which "could have extremely dangerous unintended consequences and pose all sorts of problems."

Yikes. I'm not convinced that roof painting is a slippery slope toward geoengineering. But Yglesias is right that these ideas have been gaining traction. John Holdren, one of President Obama's top science advisors, told the AP in April that we might consider sending pollution particles into the atmosphere to deflect the sun's rays before they reach earth. Even though this method could have dangerous side effects, Holdren said, "we might get desperate enough to want to use it." And the US responded to a 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a statement saying that "modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy" to battle climate change. 

Hasn't anyone else seen The Simpsons? Anyone?

Can Jet Stream Winds Power The World?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 5:27 PM EDT

There's enough power in high altitude winds to power all of modern civilization. A new study in Energies analyzes where the best winds flow.

Obviously, the jetstream powers along like a jet. At 30,000 feet, winds are far steadier and 10 times faster than winds near the ground.

A variety of tech schemes have been proposed to harvest this energy, including tethering kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream. Current designs could generate 40 megawatts of electricity and transmit it to the ground via the tether.

So where do the Earth's jet streams run most strongly and consistently? The researchers assessed wind power density from 28 years of data, taking into account wind speed and air density at different altitudes. The highest wind power densities appear in the polar jet streams:

  • over Japan and eastern China
  • over the eastern coast of the United States
  • over southern Australia
  • over north-eastern Africa


The median values in those places were greater than 10 kilowatts per square meter. Even the best winds on the ground generate less than 1 kilowatt per square meter.

Of five major citites assessed, Tokyo, Seoul, and New York have enormous potential. (New York claims the highest average high-altitude wind power density of any U.S. city, about 16 kilowatts per square meter.) Tropical Mexico City and Sao Paulo are rarely affected by the polar jet streams, and just occasionally by the weaker subtropical jets, so their wind power densities are lower.

However, even the powerhose citites get windless times about 5 percent of the time. Which means we'll need back-up power, or massive amounts of energy storage, or a continental or even global electricity grid to make it work. 

Worldwide infrastructure? Worldwide cooperation? Or War of the Winds?
 

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PEER Lambastes Obama's Fish & Wildlife Nominee

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblity, the eco watchdog group, came out swinging against President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For the past dozen years, Sam Hamilton has overseen the 10-state FWS Southeastern Region, where numerous endangered species battles are being fought between environentalists and developers in fast growing states such as Florida. PEER is unimpressed with how Hamilton handled those fights, noting that he "did not protect science from political interference or scientists from retaliation."

As a case in point, PEER notes the decision of Hamilton's team to green-light suburban sprawl in shrinking Florida panther habitat. The decision falsely inflated the size and viability of the panther population, to the point that Hamilton's region was rebuked by none other than Steve Williams, the FWS director under George W. Bush. Even so, Hamilton took no disciplinary action against any of the managers involved and "several of the scientific deficiencies persist today," PEER says.

Apparently, this was not an isolated incident. In a 2005 survey of FWS scientists working in Hamilton's region, 49 percent cited cases where "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdraw of scientific conclusions," 46 percent said they'd been "directed for non-scientific reasons . . .to refrain from making findings that are protective of species," and 36 percent feared retailiation for raising concerns about species and habitats. Most damming, less than a quarter of respondents felt Hamilton would "stand up for scientific staff or supervisors who take controversial stands."

In short, Hamilton seems at best a pliable bureaucrat. Maybe that makes him a convienent pick for the Obama administration, but he doesn't seem likely to reverse Bush's environmental legacy any more than he's asked to.

Friday June 12 Eco-News Round-Up

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 7:01 AM EDT

Science, health, and environmental stories from our other blogs you might have missed from Friday and the weekend:

 

U.S. Senate Covers Our Butts

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 7:15 PM EDT

Almost by mistake, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that could greatly benefit the environment. By a margin of 79-17, Senators approved a bill that will allow the Food and Drug Administration to place substantial regulations on tobacco products. Most of the regulations are aimed at reducing the number of people who begin smoking at a young age by banning fruit-flavored cigarettes and cartoonish packaging and ads aimed at children. Such efforts would undoubtedly improve the nation’s collective health. But applying higher taxes and stricter rules to tobacco product sales could also clean up the stain cigarettes leave on the planet.

BUTTsOUT, an international organization dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of smoking, reports that 4.3 trillion cigarettes are disposed on the side of roads, in water sources, and in public parks every year. And cigarette butts, which take more than 25 years to decompose, account for more than 50 percent of all litter in most western countries. Growing tobacco contaminates water supplies, destroys soil, and consumes almost four miles of paper every hour during the factory rolling process.

This legislation is good news for the 440,000 smokers that cigarettes kill each year. And if it can clean up tobacco's environmental mess at the same time? We'll all breathe a little easier.

Life & Death Simulations

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 6:59 PM EDT

First, check out this vivid simulation of the ugly synergy between population growth and C02 emissions. It's called Breathing Earth and it simulates realtime births outpacing deaths as carbon dioxide emissions spew at ~1,000-tons a second.

Too bad we can't turn Breathing Earth into the default screensaver on all new computers. Maybe: from screensaver to worldsaver.

Another interesting simulation, this one published in an upcoming PNAS, describes how Earth's 1-billion-year lifespan can be more than doubled by adjusting atmospheric pressure.

[Simply put: the only reason we can't breath easily atop Mount Everest is not because there's less oxygen in the air. In fact there's the same amount of oxygen at 29,000 feet as there is as at sea level. What's different is a greatly reduced atmospheric pressure that causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed over a much greater volume of space.]

Well, about a billion years from now, believe it or not, greenhouse Earth will fail. Ever-increasing radiation from our aging sun will heat Earth to the point where atmospheric C02—the kickstarter for plants that turn inorganic sunlight into organic life—will have been pulled out of the air by weathering rocks. Oceans will evaporate. The atmosphere will burn away. All life will disappear.

But Caltech researchers propose a solution: Reduce the total pressure of the atmosphere itself by removing massive amounts of molecular nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the mostly nonreactive gas comprising 78 percent of the atmosphere. Removing a bunch of it would regulate surface temperatures and allow C02 to stay alive in the atmosphere and support life for an additional 1.3 billion years.

Strikingly, no external influence [read: intelligent life or intelligent design] is necessary to remove N. The biosphere will accomplish this task all by itself—since nitrogen is incorporated into the cells of living organisms and is sequestered with them when they die.

In fact this reduction may already be underway. Earth's atmospheric pressure may be lower now than it was earlier in the planet's history. To assess this, some researchers are examining gas bubbles formed in ancient lavas to determine past atmospheric pressure.