Blue Marble

Why Soot Sucks

| Thu May 28, 2009 9:30 PM EDT

Here's a most excellent video to illuminate my last blog post on the link between black carbon soot and the melting Arctic. How springtime burning of farm fields may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date. The good news: It's an easy 30 percent to fix. The video, from Earthjustice, tells us how in slightly more than 2 minutes. I'm impressed. We need more relevant videos with super clean message lines and good looks.

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Better Bottle Deposits

| Thu May 28, 2009 12:24 PM EDT

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is (no joke!) apparently a water bottler in addition to being an environmental activist, has a good op-ed on bottle redemption laws in Thursday's New York Times. The piece focuses on New York's law, but Kennedy's criticisms apply to similar legislation everywhere:

A good new deposit bill could encourage recycling of new classes of beverage bottles and also provide financing for curbside programs that capture other kinds of recyclable waste, like juice cartons, ketchup bottles and mayonnaise jars. These are all made from the same plastic and glass as soda, beer and water bottles, yet fewer than one in five of them are being recycled. Since such containers are not subject to deposit laws, their recycling is driven only by moral imperative or local ordinances, and these incentives function best when supported by robust curbside recycling programs or other easy recycling options.

Indeed. So what did New York's lawmakers do instead of following Kennedy's suggestions? They applied a new bottle deposit to water alone, exempting water with any sugar added, and effectively incentivizing consumers to prefer sugary drinks like Vitamin Water to good, old-fashioned H2O. Horrible idea, New York legislature!

Sarkozy's Climate Change Skeptic

| Wed May 27, 2009 3:11 PM EDT

The Financial Times reports environmentalists and other politicos are up in arms over French President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to appoint geochemist Claude Allegre—a denier of man-made climate change who called Al Gore's Nobel Prize a "political gimmick"—to France's new "super-ministry" of industry and innovation:

Mr Sarkozy wants to bring Mr Allègre, 72, a freethinking, former socialist education minister, into the government in a reshuffle after next month's European parliamentary elections. The president appears to reckon that appointing someone from outside his own centre-right party will help to counter perceptions that he is a polarising, sectarian leader who decides everything himself. Several portfolios are already held by figures from the left and centre.

Alain Juppé, the former centre-right prime minister, said the appointment would send a "terribly bad signal" ahead of international negotiations to secure a successor to the Kyoto treaty on cuts to carbon emissions.

Emphasis mine. I can understand Sarkozy wanting to look like he doesn't eschew a range of viewpoints, but this is a bit like appointing Richard Dawkins to an office of faith-based initiatives. It also doesn't help that Juppé, a member of Sarkozy's own party, thinks it's a stupid way to present yourself as an open-minded leader.

Don't Burn the Crops

| Tue May 26, 2009 8:44 PM EDT

Want a quick recipe for reducing Arctic ice melt fast? Stop burning northern hemisphere farmlands and pasturelands.

New research finds that large-scale agricultural burning in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the US, Canada, and the Ukraine is melting Arctic ice.

The big contributor: Spring burning, when farmers torch crop residues and brush to clear new land for crops and livestock. The black carbon soot produced by these fires flows north, warms the surrounding air, and absorbs solar energy when it falls on ice and snow.

How bad is the problem? Springtime burning may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date.

The good news is there's an easy fix. Targeting these burns gets us a genuinely fast reduction in temperature over the Arctic. Plus we know how to control these pollutants right now. Just stop burning. Right now. Before the melting ice rewires the oceanic currents delivering us the climate we're used to.

The research is part of POLARCAT, an international effort to track the transport of pollutants into the Arctic from lower latitudes. Researchers were surprised to find 50 smoke plumes that analysis of satellite images revealed came from agricultural fires in Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia and from forest fires in Southern Siberia. The emissions from these fires far outweighed those from fossil fuels.

"These fires weren't part of our standard predictions, they weren't in our models," says Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard.

Although global warming is largely the result of excess accumulation of carbon dioxide, the Arctic is highly sensitive to short-lived pollutants like black carbon. Forest fires, agricultural burning, primitive cookstoves, and diesel fuel are the primary sources of black carbon.

Flu Fears

| Fri May 22, 2009 6:24 PM EDT

Even as the story fades, the A(H1N1) flu epidemic is getting more interesting. But the plotlines are scattered so far and wide and of such relatively low impact individually that they masquerade as unalarming. Compiled, however, this drama continues to escalate:

  • It's not a new flu at all. Probably been circulating undetected in the atrocities we call pig farms for years.

 

  • World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan calls A(H1N1) a "subtle, sneaky" swine flu virus and urges developing countries to be prepared for more severe cases.

 

 

  • Meanwhile, other WHO officials admit that most developing countries can't detect or track seasonal flu let alone monitor a pandemic strain.

 

  • With regards to kids: A study from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota disputes the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending annual flu vaccinations for all kids from 0.5 to 18 years old. The inactivated TIV flu vaccine is not effective in preventing influenza-related hospitalizations in children, especially asthmatic kids. In fact, kids who get the flu vaccine are more at risk for hospitalization than those who don't. These results aren't specific to A(H1N1) but they're worth noting in light of A(H1N1).

 

  • US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pledges $1 billion to develop key components for a swine flu vaccine and conduct clinical studies into its efficacy. Will they take into account the Mayo Clinic assessment of kids and vaccines?

 

  • And then we're about to spend all this money just as we learn that people 60 and older have greater immunity to A(H1N1). These are the people most likely to be targeted with a new $1-billion vaccine they may not need.

 

  • A(H1N1) is forcing health officials to rethink the way we classify epidemics and pandemics. It's acting pandemiclike—Japan's blossoming caseload, for example—yet it remains mild enough to avoid the designation. In other words, A(H1N1) is finding a clever and stealthy way to attack our preparedness.

 

So what are we going to do about those atrocious pig and chicken farms that are making our new diseases along with the bacon and buffalo wings? Farms isn't the right world, really. Can we call them concentration camps?

The Top 6 Ways to Convert Poop Into Electricity

| Fri May 22, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

More than half of the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is processed into sludge that gets spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. In theory, recycling poop is the perfect solution to the one truly unavoidable byproduct of human civilization. But sludge-based as fertilizer can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. That's why an increasing number of cities have begun to explore an alternative way to dispose of sludge: advanced poop-to-power plants. By one estimate, a single American's daily sludge output can generate enough electricity to light a 60-watt bulb for more than nine hours. Here are the six most innovative ways that human waste is being converted to watts:

Poop-Eating Bacteria
Digesters similar to brewery casks house anaerobic bacteria that eat sludge and belch out methane. This technology is the oldest, cheapest, and most proven poop-to-power method. Even so, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 6,000 public wastewater plants have the digesters; of those, just 20 percent burn the methane gas for energy (the rest simply flare it off). Flint, Michigan, and several other cities use the methane gas to fuel fleets of city buses. The problem with anaerobic digesters is that they only reduce sludge's volume by half and capture a portion of its embedded energy.

Turd Cell Smashers
Destroying the cell walls in sludge—by heating it under pressure, zapping it with ultrasonic waves, or pulsing it with electric fields—boosts its methane production by 50 percent or more in anaerobic digesters. On the downside, researchers have found that some of these processes can unleash nasty odors and even a "chemical attack" on sewage machinery.

Geological Toilets
Last summer, Los Angeles began injecting sludge into a mile-deep well, where pressure and heat are expected to release enough methane to power 1,000 homes. The well also dissolves and sequesters carbon dioxide that the sludge would normally release, removing the equivalent exhaust of about 1,000 cars per year. "This renewable energy project is absolutely electrifying," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the LA Times. "It will save money and make money."

Feces Ponds
As a cheaper green option, some 50 waste plants in 20 countries have installed versions of UC Berkeley professor William J. Oswald's Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems Technology--large open-air ponds that primarily rely on anaerobic digestion and photosynthesis to break down sludge and convert it into a fertilizer or animal feed of nitrogen-rich algae. The algae in turn can be used as a feedstock for biofuels. Rich Brown, an environmental scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sees an obstacle in the ponds' huge footprint: "For rural areas it’s great," he says. "For San Francisco it wouldn’t work so well."

Gassifiers
Sludge gasification plants are popular in Europe and especially Germany. A low-oxygen reaction transforms the solids in sludge into a carbon-rich "char" similar to BBQ briquettes. Next, the char is gasified in the presence of air to produce a syngas that can be burned for energy.

Poop Pyrotechnics
Last year, Atlanta-based EnerTech built the world's first commercial sludge "pyrolysis" plant in Southern California. Its patented SlurryCarb process converts sludge from a third of Los Angeles and Orange Counties into char pellets that replace coal at a nearby cement kiln; its ash is mixed into the cement.

One Small Poop for Man. . .
With billions in stimulus funds slated for wastewater improvements, is the time right for poop power? Such efforts, which reduce landfilling and emissions, have earned praise from some anti-sludge groups. Caroline Snyder, the founder of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, calls it a "win-win situation."

The EPA says sludge power holds promise, but it's not ready to quit pushing sludge as a wonder fertilizer. This hasn’t deterred the sewage industry, which sees a chance to get into the renewable energy business and put a stop to the stream of health complaints and costly lawsuits. "After almost 40 years of working in biosolids," a sewage industry official wrote in a recent newsletter. "I never thought I’d say this: it is an exciting time for sludge!"

H/T to the State of Science Report: Energy and Resource Recovery from Sludge, published by the Global Water Research Coalition. Photo from Flickr user gtmcknight used under creative commons license.

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Right Whales Found on Old Grounds

| Wed May 20, 2009 7:06 PM EDT

Another good day on the whale front. Scientists have documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area the species was believed extinct.

Using underwater hydrophones, a team from Oregon State University and NOAA recorded more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations off the southern tip of Greenland—on the Cape Farewell Ground, site of legendary 19th-century whaling operations.

Although only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, the hydrophones located right whales at three widely space sites on the same day. Even three whales is significant since the entire population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated at only 300 to 400 whales. Plus there are likely/hopefully more.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that—contrary to general belief—remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

The discovery is important not least because this is an area that could be opened to shipping if polar ice continues to melt. Slow-moving right whales are extremely vulnerable to collisions with ships.

The pattern of recorded calls suggests that the whales moved from the southwest portion of the region in a northeasterly direction in late July and then returned in September—putting them directly in the path of proposed shipping lanes.

"Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region," said Phillip Clapham, right whale expert with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, who participated in the study. "It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population."

Results of the study were presented this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.
 

Waxman's Climate Bill Speed Reader

| Wed May 20, 2009 11:11 AM EDT

To throw off Rep. Henry Waxman's ambitious plan to deliver a final climate change bill by Memorial Day, the House GOP suggested they might attempt a procedural stall tactic. If Waxman had the audacity to fast-track the controversial legislation through his energy and commerce committee, then committee Republicans said they might force the 900-plus page bill, along with several hundred pages of amendments, to be read aloud. But Waxman wasn't about to let some GOP obstructionism slow down the landmark legislation. Just in case his Republican colleagues attempted this ploy, Waxman hired a speed reader, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A committee spokeswoman said the speed reader—a young man who was on door duty at the hearing as he awaited a call to the microphone—was hired to help staffers. After years of practice, the panel's clerks can read at a good clip. But the speed reader is a lot faster, she said.

"Judging by the size of the amendments, I can read a page about every 34 seconds," said the newly hired staff assistant, who declined to give his name. Based on that estimate, it would take him about nine hours.

This doesn't mean Waxman will meet his self-imposed deadline. Committee Republicans, determined to hold the bill up as long as they can, have snowed the legislation under with hundreds of amendments—only a handful of which the committee was able to tackle after hours of debate on Tuesday. "We might as well plan on being here all next week,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the committee's ranking Republican member and a notorious climate change skeptic. “Bring your sleeping bags.”
 

A Roadmap for Canada's Tar Sands

| Mon May 18, 2009 8:54 PM EDT

With the price of oil in the bucket, environentalists have been acting as if Canada's speculative tar sands boom is all but dead. They shouldn't. A report released today by the energy consultancy IHS CERA predicts a nearly 80 percent increase in tar sands production by 2035, and that's assuming strong environmental regulation, weak growth, and low oil prices. Should things work out better for Big Oil, the tar sands will pump out five times the crude they do now and account for a staggering 37 percent of U.S. oil imports.

CERA suggests that this might not be such a bad thing. In an analysis of 11 previous studies, it found that "well-to-wheels" greenhouse gas production from the tar sands is only 5 to 15 percent higher than the average crude oil processed in the United States. Last year, I reported that a team of UC Berkeley researchers had calculated a 30 percent well-to-wheels difference. Either figure is significant when multiplied a potential tar sands output of 6.3 million barrels per day.

Factor in devastation to Canada's boreal forests, streams, and native communities, and the swap of climate security for energy security seems even more faustian. Once we exhaust the tar sands, we'll move on to liquefied coal, which emits 80 percent more greenhouse gasses than regular oil, and then oil shale, which spews twice as much. When will it all end? And more important, what will the weather look like?

New Evolution: 100 Proofs

| Mon May 18, 2009 5:02 PM EDT

Genes have long been considered the only way biological traits are passed down through generations of organisms. Now we know that non-genetic variations acquired during the lifespan of a plant or animal can be passed along to its offspring.

The phenomenon is known as epigenetic inheritance. We don't yet know how prolific this mechanism is. But a new study in The Quarterly Review of Biology lists more than 100 well-documented cases of epigenetic inheritance between generations of organisms.

In other words, non-DNA inheritance happens a lot more than we thought. For example:

  • Fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes—bristly outgrowths on their eyes—down at least 13 generations.
  • Exposing a pregnant rat to a chemical that alters reproductive hormones leads to generations of sick offspring.


In these and 97 other cases the changes in subsequent generations were not from changes in DNA but from epigenetics.

There are four known mechanisms for epigenetic inheritance. The best known involves on-off switches (sort of) that render genes active or inactive—without actually changing the DNA. The revelations of epigenetics are rewriting the study of evolution. And no, epigentics does not make creationism right.

The rewrite is a vindication of sorts for 18th-century naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, whose writings predated Charles Darwin's and who believed that evolution was driven in part by the inheritance of acquired traits.

His wonkiest supposition: Giraffe ancestors reached with their necks to munch leaves high in trees, stretching their necks to become slightly longer—a trait passed on to descendants.
 

More accurate: All the stuff we're synthesizing and creating from plastics to nanomaterials is going to live in our bodies and take its toll down the generations for a long, long time.