Blue Marble

Tibetan Ice Cores Missing A-Bomb Markers

| Wed Dec. 12, 2007 7:04 PM EST

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Ice cores drilled last year from the summit of a Himalayan ice field lack the distinctive radioactive signals that mark virtually every other ice core retrieved worldwide. That radioactivity originated as fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests during the 1950s and 1960s. These markers routinely provide researchers with benchmarks to gauge new ice accumulation. Scientists with Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center believe the missing signal means the Naimona'nyi ice field has been shrinking at least since the A-bomb test half a century ago—foreshadowing serious water shortages in the future for more than 500 million people on the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to hamstring the Climate Change Conference in Bali, resisting emissions cuts. Doesn't this qualify as some sort of peace crime?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Arctic Waters Warm Alarmingly, Delaying Winter

| Wed Dec. 12, 2007 6:36 PM EST

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We're hearing about the record-breaking iceless summer of 2007 in the Arctic, worse even than it first seemed. Now we're learning that these ice-free waters have deprived the Arctic of much of its natural insulation, enabling sea surface temperatures to rise 5-degrees C above average in one place this year—a high never before observed, says Michael Steele, oceanographer with the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory.

Superwarming surface waters affect how thick ice grows back in the winter, as well as its ability to withstand melting the next summer. Already this year the winter freeze-up in some areas is two months later than usual, boding poorly for next summer. The ocean warming might also be contributing to changes on land, including novel plant growth in the coastal Arctic tundra.

Steele is lead author of "Arctic Ocean surface warming trends over the past 100 years," accepted for publication in the American Geophysical Union's Geophysical Research Letters.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

China's Bad Air Could Postpone Olympic Events

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 8:16 PM EST

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The International Olympic Committee is threatening to reschedule parts of the 2008 Beijing Games, set for next August, if China can't prove that its air is safe for athletes, reports the BBC. Affected would be competitions involving endurance, such as foot and bicycle races.

Chinese officials already have been working overtime to reduce air pollution in its capital, especially since the United Nations reported last October that levels were more than three times what's acceptable. The government has dismantled or relocated factories and removed high-polluting taxis and buses from roads. As a last ditch effort, China recently launched a campaign called "guard the blue sky" that involves cracking down on dusty construction sites and even outdoor kebab vendors.

For more on China's pollution disaster, and its efforts to tidy up before the Olympics, check out Jacques Leslie's cover story for our January/February issue, which has been posted here.


The Story of Stuff: Understanding Externalities

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 9:16 PM EST

Ever wondered about the real cost of that ridiculously cheap stuff we buy? I mean, how does it get it halfway around the world let alone designed, built, manufactured and then discarded for the pennies we pay? Well, the Story of Stuff tells us how, in a funny, fast, fact-filled film. Watch the YouTube teaser below, or check out the full 20-minute version.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Who's Most at Risk from Climate Change?

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 8:40 PM EST

The answer, by region: the eastern US in North America; China, Bangladesh and Myanmar in Asia; western Sahel and southwestern nations in Africa; Brazil in South America; Russia, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean nations, including France, Italy and Spain, in Europe. This according to a new study from Purdue University and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy that goes beyond the physical aspects of climate change—changes in temperature, sea-level, and precipitation—to examine socioeconomic side-effects worldwide. The study forecasts that the merger of climatic and socioeconomic variables will trigger lopsided responses.

"Patterns emerge that you wouldn't recognize from just looking at either climatic or socioeconomic conditions," [said Noah Diffenbaugh, lead author]. "For example, China has a relatively moderate expected climate change. However, when you combine that with the fact that it has the second largest economy in the world, a substantial poverty rate and a large population, it creates one of the largest combined exposures on the planet. We see similar effects in other parts of the world, including India and the United States, which also have relatively moderate expected climate change. So it's where the socioeconomic and climatic variables intersect that is the key."

The research will be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Green Energy the Next Frontier

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 10:40 PM EST

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Great piece by Declan Butler in Nature on the new venture capitalism in Silicon Valley. Green energy, folks. California gold. Butler reports how the venture-capital industry in the US spent $2.6 billion on clean-energy technologies in the first three-quarters of this year. Up from $1.8 billion in 2006, and $533 million in 2005. Google joined the game last week, committing millions more to solar, wind and geothermal, seeking a technology patch to make renewables cheaper than coal. A few weeks earlier, Al Gore's London-based Generation Investment Management partnered with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park—the green-energy investors that nurtured Amazon, Google and Genentech—to fund global climate solutions.

For the fast-moving entrepreneurs of the [Silicon] [V]alley… the next frontier is the roughly US$6-trillion energy market, where the dinosaurs of power-generation utilities have traditionally invested a pittance in research and development. "Venture capital is exactly what we need to try new things outside the bounds of what the traditional energy companies think is worth doing," says Vinod Khosla, a veteran entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Microsystems and now heads Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, one of the most prominent clean-energy venture-capital firms. "There is almost no technology risk-taking in any of the energy companies." Khosla predicts that within five years there will be a green form of electricity that is cheaper than coal, and cleaner fuels that are cheaper than oil.

Butler also notes that although the US lags far behind Europe's leaders, Denmark and Germany, in renewables, its venture-capital investments in clean tech now more than double those in Europe.

California scooped $726.2 million of this year's US clean-tech venture funding, followed by Massachusetts ($292.6 million) and Texas ($149.4 million). Almost $1 billion of US investment went abroad, including a $200-million investment in Brazil's Brazilian Renewable Energy, which produces ethanol, and a $118-million investment in China's Yingli Green Energy Holding Company, which makes photovoltaic solar systems.

This is the reason I refuse to surrender all hope.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Steve Irwin, Illegal Whaling Ship Hunter?

| Thu Dec. 6, 2007 8:47 PM EST
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The environmental buccaneers at Sea Shepherd just named a ship after "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. No doubt the good ship Irwin will bring renewed attention to skipper Paul Watson's high-seas exploits chasing whalers and other enemies of the ocean. But does this strike anyone else as weird? Whatever his credentials as a committed environmentalist might have been, Irwin's claim to fame was his skill at sneaking up on and molesting unsuspecting creatures. Sea Shepard's claim to fame is its skill at sneaking up on people who molest (or worse) unsuspecting creatures. OK, there's a big difference between manhandling a croc and harpooning a humpback, but still, doesn't the "look but don't touch" rule get to the heart of what protecting animals is all about?

(Image: Worth1000)

Science Speaks Up: 200 Scientists Issue Bali Declaration

| Thu Dec. 6, 2007 8:20 PM EST

cop13_logo_139_200.jpg Science is unified. And 200 international climate scientists are urging the governments of the world to take their unified advice. Agree on strong emissions targets, they said in a declaration issued at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali today. Reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. (The Kyoto Protocol aims for developed nations to decrease 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.) Nature reports:

They declare that the goal "must be to limit global warming to no more than 2 ºC above the pre-industrial temperature". Many countries [not the US] have already taken this limit as a benchmark figure for attempting to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, which would put millions of people around the world at risk from extreme-weather events.

And all kinds of other ills.

Meanwhile, there's a growing sense in science that setting firm emissions targets may be short-sighted. That we need to continually adjust our targets as time passes and the consequences of previous cuts become apparent. In other words, to act with the kind of intelligence we insist our species possesses.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Fighting Global Warming With Kangaroo Emissions?

| Thu Dec. 6, 2007 2:22 PM EST

I just learned three amazing things. Number one: Agence France-Presse is not afraid to use the word "fart" in a headline. Number two is described in the aforementioned AFP story:
 

Eco-friendly kangaroo farts could help global warming: scientists

Australian scientists are trying to give kangaroo-style stomachs to cattle and sheep in a bid to cut the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, researchers say.

Thanks to special bacteria in their stomachs, kangaroo flatulence contains no methane and scientists want to transfer that bacteria to cattle and sheep who emit large quantities of the harmful gas.

 
That's one for the wacky fixes for global warming file. And the third amazing thing? Aussies' love of 'roo meat:
 

Another group of scientists, meanwhile, has suggested Australians should farm fewer cattle and sheep and just eat more kangaroos.

The idea is controversial, but about 20 percent of health conscious Australians are believed to eat the national symbol already.

"It's low in fat, it's got high protein levels it's very clean in the sense that basically it's the ultimate free range animal," said Peter Ampt of the University of New South Wales's institute of environmental studies.

 

Deck the Halls with LEDs

| Wed Dec. 5, 2007 4:16 PM EST

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Tis' the season when Bill O'Reilly has been off and running since Thanksgiving, railing against all who dare to secularize Christmas. In the spirit of railing, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss Christmas waste, most notably energy waste. I like a sprightly Christmas tree just as much as O'Reilly (well, maybe not that much), but the energy it takes to light a Christmas tree each holiday season is enough to make you think twice about the tradition.

Robert Balzar at the public utility Seattle City Light estimates that a typical Christmas tree uses about 144 watts of incandescent lights. Let's say you light your tree for five hours a day for a month, that's 22 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy use. On the other hand if you light your tree with new LED lights, you will only use 2 kWhs of energy. Now, 22 kWhs is only 2 percent of the average household's per month electricity use, so admittedly, this doesn't seem like a big difference, but on a citywide scale things start to look more startling. The difference between using incandescent lights and LEDs for the estimated 300,000 Christmas trees in Seattle is as great as 6,540,000 kWhs and $400,000.

The word is already out to many large cities, including Washington D.C. and Boulder, CO, which have converted their city tree lights to LEDs. L.A.'s annual holiday light festival made the switch just this year, and yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg turned on the LED holiday lights at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

—Michelle Chandra