Blue Marble

Sea Level Rise Twice As High as Current Projections

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 9:25 PM EST

New research on Greenland glaciers suggests that sea level rise will be twice as high the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate of 18 to 58 cm (0.6 to 1.9 ft) by 2100. The study, published in the Journal of Glaciology (pdf), combines important data long missing from the ice sheet models. Researchers from the University at Buffalo, Ohio State University, the University of Kansas, and NASA, combined field mapping, remote sensing, satellite imaging, and digital enhancement techniques to glean "hidden" data from historic aerial photographs, some 60 years old.

The resulting two-dimensional pictures are of limited value. But the researchers digitized them, removed the boundaries between them, and turned several pictures into a single 'mosaic' producing one data set viewable in three-dimensions. "By reprocessing old data contained in these old photographs and records, we have been able to construct a long-term record of the behavior of the [Jakobshavn Isbrae] glacier," says lead author, Beata Csatho. "This was the first time that the data from the '40s could be reused in a coherent way."

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You can see in this 1946 image how the 4-mile-wide Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier is flowing from the ice through Greenland's rocky coast. Image courtesy of University at Buffalo.

Other glacier views and data here and here.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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More Arctic for the U.S.

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 5:35 PM EST

noaa-map.jpgA new map of the Arctic sea floor may help the United States should it decide to join in on the international land grab going on up north. While the U.S. clearly owns all the above-water land in Alaska, the land beneath the Arctic Ocean is trickier. It is literally uncharted territory, mostly unclaimed, and butts up against Russia, Greenland, the U.S., and other countries who are now trying to extend their borders northward.

The map, made with NOAA data, shows that Alaska's continental shelf extends more than 115 miles further than believed. An international sea treaty gives countries the rights to govern their continental shelf beyond 230 miles if the country can prove the shelf extends that far. So the further the shelf, the more seabed the United States potentially has to drill for oil. There are estimates that as much as 25% of the world's undiscovered oil reserves lie beneath the Arctic sea floor, making it a possible future fuel source, though most likely a deadly one for the strange, new species scientists have only recently discovered there. Not only would it disturb their habitat, if there was an oil spill in the Arctic, it would be harder than usual to clean up because it's so far from land, so cold, has moving ice, and lack of natural light during some times of the year. However, as the U.S. has yet to even officially claim the land, the legality of oil drilling by American companies is still undetermined.

NOAA plans a second research expedition for fall this year.

Whales (and Dugongs) Hear Good News

| Mon Feb. 11, 2008 6:41 PM EST

061019192417.jpg In the last week federal courts have twice slapped the Navy for sonar testing in the ocean. The first, by a federal court in San Francisco, is a preliminary injunction against the use of Low-Frequency Active (LFA) sonar, which relies on extremely loud, low-frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's own studies, LFA generates enough noise to significantly disrupt whale behavior more than 300 miles away, and under certain conditions can cross an entire ocean basin. Yet the Navy wants to deploy LFA in more than 75 percent of the world-ocean, reports ENN. "This order protects marine life around the world from a technology that can affect species on a staggering geographic scale," said Joel Reynolds of the National Resources Defense Council, lead group in the coalition asserting that an LFA permit issued last year by the National Marine Fisheries Service violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The second injunction was for Mid-Frequency Active (MFA) sonar in exercises off southern California. MFA sonar, also used in submarine detection, has been linked to mass deaths of whales in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, and elsewhere, reports the Los Angeles Times. A federal judge in Los Angeles already ruled against the Navy on this. The Bush administration was attempting to reverse that ruling, pleading that "emergency circumstances" prevented normal compliance with the law. No go, said U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, calling Bush's effort to maneuver around the original court order "constitutionally suspect."

The Dark Side of Biofuels

| Mon Feb. 11, 2008 3:54 PM EST

biofuel.jpg Yet another study deepening our understanding of just why converting native ecosystems to biofuel farms is increasing not mitigating climate change. This according to a study by the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy published online today in Science, finding that turning rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands into biofuel-yielding croplands emits large amounts of carbon that add to the atmosphere's already heavy burden of greenhouse gases.

In Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the US, land is being planted with corn or sugarcane to produce ethanol, or with palm trees or soybeans to produce biodiesel. The land conversions pump out 17 to 423 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels with the biofuels. This carbon debt must pay off before they biofuels begin to have the effect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In the worst scenario, peatland conversions to palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up a carbon debt requiring 423 years to pay off. In the Amazon, soybeans will take 319 years. The conversion of U.S. grasslands for corn ethanol and Indonesian rainforests for palm biodiesel also ran up big carbon debts.

There is a solution. The researchers suggest that biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained greenhouse gas advantages. In the US, Conservation Reserve Program lands, idle lands, and others once in agriculture can be used to grow biofuels and provide energy sources much better than fossil fuels.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

A Natural Ocean "Thermostat" Protecting Coral Reefs?

| Thu Feb. 7, 2008 4:36 PM EST

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A Gaialike mechanism may be protecting some coral reefs by preventing sea surface temperatures (SSTs) from rising past a certain threshold. The study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science finds evidence of an ocean thermostat regulating SSTs in an extremely biologically diverse region of the western Pacific.

Warming sea temperatures in much of the tropical world have led to ocean-wide epidemics of fatal or near-fatal coral bleaching. Bleaching has become increasingly widespread in recent decades, with SSTs in tropical, coral-rich waters increasing 0.3-0.4 degrees C (0.5-0.7 degrees F) over the past two to three decades, and spiking higher.

But between 1980 and 2005, only four episodes of bleaching occurred on reefs in the Western Pacific Warm Pool—a lower rate than any other reef region. SSTs in the warm pool naturally average 29 degrees C (84 degrees F), close to the proposed thermostat limit, and have warmed up only half as much cooler areas of the oceans.

Hidden Costs of Solar Power

| Wed Feb. 6, 2008 4:10 PM EST

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Wondering which solar technology has the smallest environmental footprint? In recent years new photovoltaic technologies have nearly doubled the efficiency of solar cells. Yet production methods, whether from silicon, metal, or other material, raise doubts about their environmental friendliness. For example, purifying and producing silicon uses a lot of water and energy, whereas refining zinc and copper ores to get cadmium, telluride, and other elements creates metal emissions and an energy sink.

Now Environmental Science & Technology calculates the impact. They've released a life-cycle assessment of some of the leading photovoltaic technologies. Some appear better than others. You can read the pdf here.

The study notes that, even with the costs, the benefits of replacing gas- and coal-fired grids with photovoltaics cut greenhouse & particulate emissions 89–98%. Rooftop panels reduce emissions even more due to the resulting decrease in transmission lines and other infrastructure.

The winner? Thin-film cadmium–telluride (CdTe) photovoltaics—with more efficient energy conversion and lowest costs.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Changing Climate Requires Change in Water Planning

| Tue Feb. 5, 2008 9:11 PM EST

flood.jpg Guess what? The past is no longer a reliable base on which to plan the future of water management. So says a prominent group of hydrologists and climatologists writing in Science. The group calls for fundamental changes to the science behind water planning and policy.

Managers currently operate on the premise that historical patterns can be counted on to continue. But human-induced changes to Earth's climate are shifting the averages and extremes for rainfall, snowfall, evaporation, and stream flows. These are crucial factors in planning for floods or droughts, in choosing the size of water reservoirs, and in deciding how much water to allocate for residential, industrial and agricultural uses. Even with an aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, warming will persist and global water patterns will continue to show never-before-seen behavior.

"Our best current estimates are that water availability will increase substantially in northern Eurasia, Alaska, Canada and some tropical regions, and decrease substantially in southern Europe, the Middle East, southern Africa and southwestern North America," said lead author Christopher Milly, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Drying regions will likely also experience more frequent droughts.

What's in Bush's $3 Trillion Budget for the Environment?

| Tue Feb. 5, 2008 12:50 PM EST

bush-signing2.jpgBush's FY2009 budget, much criticized for its $3.1 trillion price-tag, has some surprising plans for the nation's environment like the Birds Forever Initiative, and some not-so-surprising endeavors, like the proposal for drilling in the Arctic that Congress previously blocked. Here's a summary of the environmental highlights.

The Good
—The new Birds Forever Initiative" grants an $8 million increase to Fish and Wildlife Service for monitoring, assessment, and conservation of migratory bird species. Would continue 2008 budget increase of $35.9 million for conservation of 200,000 acres of vital stopover habitat.
—$103 million to NASA and $74 million to NOAA for new equipment to continue climate research. NASA would also receive $910 million through 2013 to fund new missions.
—$49.2 million for "clean diesel" grants.
—Increased enforcement budget for the EPA, including additional $2.4 million for criminal enforcements.

The Bad
—Projects to improve sewer systems and clean up waterways reduced by $134 million from 2008, putting more costs on state governments.
—Funding for low-income residents to "weatherize" their homes (better windows, more insulation) cut from $280 million to $60 million.
—$110 million cut from Land and Clean Water Conservation Fund.
—Proposals to drill for oil and natural gas in the Outer Continental Shelf and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
—$3.7 million cut from endangered species program.

The 2009 budget also included a request from the Department of Energy for $648 million for "clean coal" research and technology, the largest request from the department in more than two decades.

Top Hospitals Have 27% Lower Mortality Rate

| Mon Feb. 4, 2008 4:29 PM EST

793567365_fb45589496_m.jpg This according to HealthGrades, in the largest annual study of hospital quality in America, analyzing more than 40 million hospitalization records over the most recent three years. The results indicate that patients treated at top-rated hospitals nationwide are nearly one-third less likely to die, on average. Patients who undergo surgery at these high-performing hospitals also have an average five percent lower risk of complications during their stay. Overall, 171,424 lives may have been saved and 9,671 major complications avoided during the three years studied, had the quality of care at all hospitals matched the level of those in the top five percent. "This disparity in the quality of care at U.S. hospitals is disappointing," says Samantha Collier, MD, HealthGrades chief medical officer.

You can check the ratings of your local hospitals for free here.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

China to Stop Rain for Olympics

| Fri Feb. 1, 2008 6:43 PM EST

beijing-rain.JPGAn article in the Los Angeles Times notes that the Chinese are planning to keep rain away from the roof-less Olympic stadium—by force if necessary.

The Chinese are planning on using "cloud seeding" to ensure good weather. To do this, they have farmers sitting not too far from Beijing with anti-aircraft guns. When the farmers see a cloud that looks like it might rain, they fire silver iodide into it. The particles of iodide makes the cloud's moisture condense around them, creating rain.

That's not all China has up its sleeve. In the Mother Jones January/February 2008 issue we noted Chinese plans for "rainmakers" and a new, low-emissions, public transit system for the Olympic village.

For more on Beijing's attempt to make 2008 Olympics go off without a hitch (or a CO2 emission), check out Beijing Goes Green.