Blue Marble

Real Trouble In The Arctic

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 6:17 PM PDT

On the heels of yesterday's back-handed good news on the Amazon come this pair of troubling reports from NASA on Arctic ice. In the first, melting sea ice has now shrunk so far below the minimum set in 2005 that researchers, speaking between the lines, clearly fear we may have already passed a tipping point. From Waleed Abdalati, head of NASA Goddard's Cryospheric Sciences Branch:

This year, the amount of ice is so far below that of previous years that it really is cause for concern. The trend in decreasing ice cover seems to be getting stronger and stronger as time goes on. . . The longer this process continues, the less likely recovery becomes. The implications on global climate are not well known, but they have the potential to be quite large, since the Arctic ice cover exhibits a tremendous influence on our climate.

And from Josefino C. Comiso, senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland:

When there is less sea ice in the summer, the Arctic Ocean receives more heat. The warmer water makes it harder for the ice to recover in the winter, and, therefore, there is a higher likelihood that sea ice will retreat farther during the summer. This process repeats itself year after year.

The second study found that 2007 has seen an overall rise in melting over the entire Greenland ice sheet, with melting in high-altitude areas reaching the greatest extent ever observed, at 150 percent more than average. The amount of snow melted this year in Greenland would cover the surface size of the U.S. more than twice. Apparently melting icecaps are as bad as melting sea ice, only in a different way. This from Marco Tedesco at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology:

When snow melts at those high altitudes and then refreezes, it can absorb up to four times more energy than fresh, unthawed snow. This can affect Earth's energy budget by changing how much radiation from the sun is absorbed by the Earth versus that reflected back into the atmosphere. Refrozen snow can also alter the snow density, thickness and snow-water content. [Furthermore] increases in the overall melting trend over Greenland have an impact that stretches beyond its icy shores. Aside from contributing to direct sea level rise, melting especially along the coast can speed up glaciers since the meltwater acts like a lubricant between the frozen surface and the bedrock deep below. The faster glaciers flow, the more water enters the ocean and potentially impacts sea level rise.

So why is it exactly that Bush is asking for $195 billion more to fight the wrong war at exactly the time we need to be spending unprecedented amounts on the battle to save the only climate we know how to live with? JULIA WHITTY

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When the Gales of November Turn Balmy

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 12:28 PM PDT

Lake Superior, one of the world's largest bodies of fresh water, is not only at its shallowest point in 81 years, it's also warming at twice the rate of the air around it, according to an interesting story in the October issue of Minnesota Monthly. The piece quotes scientist Jay Austin, of the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, who says average water temperatures have increased 4.5 degrees since 1979. He relates the change to a significant decline in winter ice cover, which ordinarily reflects heat-making sunlight back toward the sky. The ice decline is, it seems, related to global warming.

With the lake's summer season lengthening from 130 to 160 days, some sections of water recently reached a balmy 75 degrees (barely breaking 60 is more the norm). A warmer Lake Superior could mean dramatic changes in aquatic-life, and could open the door to dread invaders like sea lampreys and Quagga mussels. On the brighter side, with a lessening of Superior's bone-chilling "lake effect," Duluth, perhaps, will no longer be known as "the air-conditioned city."

Austin explains that it's hard to anticipate exactly how Superior will change in the coming decades. Predicting the effects of global warming, he says, is "like turning all these knobs at the same time. It's anyone's guess whether Lake Superior will turn into a big bass-fishing lake or a big desert."

Good News From a Drier Amazon

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 5:23 PM PDT

Sometimes things unfold better than we imagine. Apparently drought-stricken regions of the Amazon forest grew particularly vigorously during the 2005 drought, according to new research from the University of Arizona. A prominent global climate model predicted the Amazon forest would "brown down" after just a month of drought and eventually collapse as the drought progressed—one of John Schellnhuber's scary tipping points.

Detailed, long-term observations from two NASA satellites (one mapping the greenness of vegetation, one measuring rainfall) gave the researchers seven to nine years of observations. They compared "normal" years to the 2005 drought, and found that intact areas of Amazonia that received below-normal rainfall in 2005 had above-average greenness.

Apparently the drought did not accelerate global warming, as feared. In fact, during the 2005 drought, Amazonia's trees flourished in the sunnier-than-average weather, most likely by tapping water deep in the forest soil. By continuing to grow, they consumed more carbon dioxide, drawing down atmospheric levels, and in theory, at least, producing a negative feedback loop that might have actually slowed global warming.

Lest Limbaugh Rush bolster his feeble argument against climate change, these new data do not undermine the science of global warming. Rather they caution that we can't afford to substitute opinion for observation. Our planetary systems are hugely complex, our grasp of them fragile, even as Earth struggles to maintain equilibrium. Unlike the naysayers out there, I still see nature as our ally. JULIA WHITTY

Bush Opts Out of U.N. Global Warming Talks

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 12:44 PM PDT

Guess who's coming to dinner?

In the case of today's U.N. climate talks, it's President Bush. Too bad he's skipping the rest of the day.

Yes, that's right, in yet another my-way-or-the-highway climate move, the president has declined to participate in a daylong U.N. meeting. The meeting's goal? To bring world leaders together to fight climate change. But instead of joining the party, President Bush is throwing his own, with a different theme: He wants each of the world's most powerful nations to set up its own carbon emissions standards. The embarrassing message: The U.S. doesn't want to cooperate, and neither should anyone else!

Does Eco-Tourism Encourage Child Labor?

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 11:39 AM PDT

There may be no way to travel guilt-free.

For a while, carbon offsets looked promising—we were told (and we told ourselves) that by paying a little extra, we could make it as if our long-haul flights never happened at all! Well, as it turns out, not quite.

The latest bad news about carbon offsets: In some cases, child laborers may be paying for our supposedly ethically sound vacations. Climate Care, a British company that finances sustainable projects in the developing world, is at the center of the scandal:

Climate Care uses the money to help persuade families...to give up labour-saving diesel pumps and buy human-powered treadles instead. It claims that by using the treadle, a family will save money on diesel and hire charges, earn more from increased crops and cut the carbon emissions that would have been produced by the pump.

And in many of these families, the human that powers the treadle is a child (the London Times found a family who, because of financial circumstances, had a six-year-old child working half-hour shifts on the treadle).

So much for guilt-free.


Park Your Greenery by the Curb

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 6:14 PM PDT
park-green

Folks today were "parking" themselves—and plants and flowers, wheel barrows and benches—in parking spaces throughout San Francisco, a dozen other U.S. cities, and a dozen more cities worldwide as part of PARK(ing) Day.

Some guys from a San Francisco architecture firm that had taken over a parking space near Mother Jones' offices told me that the whole idea is get people to think about the concrete jungle they inhabit and to consider new, greener urban planning ideas. So I pulled up a bench surrounded by temporarily-placed indigenous plants and shrubs—and carbon monoxide-spewing cars and trucks whizzing by— and chatted them up.

Didn't this concept conflict with the basic nature of architecture (you know, building things, which usually requires steel and concrete and fuel-burning machines)? They were quick to say no. Buildings in urban areas, they explained, can and should always include more green park space and, in some instances, roofs from which grass and plants can grow.

Of course, in a small, compact little city like San Francisco, it's pretty easy to live a car-less life where parking spaces can be used to make a political statement; in huge urban sprawls like Los Angeles where public transportation is lousy and everything is at least 20 minutes away (by car), not so much.

PARK(ing) Day folks say more than 70% of most cities' outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle while only a fraction of that land is allocated to open space for people. For citizens who want to take back the pavement, they offer advice on creating temporary street intervention tool kits and slightly less plausible ideas like the Parkcycle.

For another reporter's take on Park(ing) Day, see Josh Harkinson's post below.

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My Park(ing) Day

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 4:57 PM PDT

Lunch in a parking spot is never much fun, unless it's Park(ing) Day in San Francisco. Seizing the moment this afternoon, I packed a bowl of curry and headed two blocks down Sutter Street to a metered spot in front of the Charles Schwab building. I entered the space from the curb, ambled along an extremely short yet artfully snaking pathway lined with potted salt rush, blue squirrel tail and California lilac, and took a seat on a wooden park bench. Three park attendants watched eagerly. "Welcome to our park!" one of them said. They snapped photos as I stirred my rice. A bus blew by frighteningly close.

In 2005, Rebar, a San Francisco art collective, laid a parking space with sod, a bench and a large potted tree, creating the first of what would become many guerrilla parks. The event has grown into an international phenomenon, with participants this year in more than ten cities worldwide. The mission is "To rethink the way streets are used, call attention to the need for urban parks and improve the quality of urban human habitat. . .at least until the meter runs out!"

While I ate my chicken korma on the park bench, a park(ing) attendant handed a complimentary packet of poppy seeds to a businessman who'd stopped by. The businessman said, "Do they grow indoors? Or. . ."

"No, but you can try if you want, as long as you soak them first. . ."

My cell phone rang. It was a friend calling from Boston. "I'm at a guerrilla park," I told him.

"That sounds awesome," he said. "A very San Francisco day."

A bit too San Francisco, perhaps. It was 3:00, and the inevitable, frigid Pacific gale was nearly toppling the shrubbery. Then the meter ran out: I still hadn't finished my lunch when a woman arrived in a Volvo to haul the bench away. "I'm sorry, but we have got to take this," she said. A park(ing) attendant quickly added: "Thank you!" I probably would have fared better in the Presidio, but the fact that other people had actually been excited to see me take up a parking spot--instead of scowling or writing me a ticket--made the trip well worth it.

Wal-Mart, More of a Dirty Brown Color

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 3:08 PM PDT

Wal-Mart has begun selling its own brand of inexpensive compact fluorescent lightbulbs, according to a Reuters article, as part of its effort to be more environmentally responsible. Called "Great Value" bulbs, they are "a more accessible option for our shoppers as we strive to sell 100 million CFLs by the end of 2007," said Wal-Mart General Merchandise Manager Andy Barron.

But, while Wal-Mart pushes its customers to be more green, the company itself has a long way to go, according to the folks over at Wal-MartWatch. A comprehensive report released this month called "It's Not Easy Being Green: The Truth About Wal-Mart's Environmental Makeover" discusses the tremendous amount of electricity used by the company, as well as its impacts on green space and wildlife, and contributions to sprawl and water pollution due to parking lot runoff. It also notes that, contrary to the company's public relations efforts, Wal-Mart still throws most of its financial support to politicians with terrible environmental voting records.

The Price of Saving Homes from Forest Fires

| Thu Sep. 20, 2007 12:04 PM PDT

It takes money to fight fires, and the bigger the fire, the more expensive it is. With all the news of wildfires in the west, it's interesting to learn that it costs the Forest Service a billion dollars a year to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). High Country News has an interesting post today about a report on the cost of fighting fires in the WUI.

Some interesting tidbits from the report:

* Only 14% of forested western private land adjacent to public land is currently developed for residential use. Based on current growth trends, there is tremendous potential for future development on the remaining 86%.

* Given the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in recent years (on average $1.3 billion each year between 2000-2005), this potential development would create an unmanageable financial burden for taxpayers.

* If homes were built in 50% of the forested areas where private land borders public land, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion.

* One in five homes in the wildland urban interface is a second home or cabin, compared to one in twenty-five homes on other western private lands.

* Residential lots built near wildlands take up more than six times the space of homes built in other places. On average, 3.2 acres per person are consumed for housing in the wildland urban interface, compared to 0.5 acres on other western private lands.

Protecting the WUI from future development, it seems, would be a step in the right direction. But till that happens, there are some pretty interesting ethical questions to wrestle with. Here's one: Do second-home owners have as much of a right as first-home owners to build in the WUI, if firefighters must risk their lives—and spend taxpayer money—to save vacation cabins?

Global Warming Bolsters Bone Trade

| Wed Sep. 19, 2007 12:07 PM PDT

We keep hearing about the strange side effects of global warming. Certain species—from poison ivy to cats—seem to be thriving in the warmer weather.

The latest species to enjoy the short-term benefits of climate change? Bone collectors.

As the Arctic thaws, all kinds of prehistoric bones are becoming more accessible, and museums and private collectors are paying hefty sums to the people who know where to find them.

Luckily, at least one of the bone hunters has a sense of perspective:

Davydov acknowledges that rising temperatures in Siberia have been a boon for bone collectors. "As the permafrost thaws, we obtain yet more objects for study," he says.

But then he reflects: "From the point of view of humanity, it would have been better if this had never happened."