Blue Marble

Watch Harrison Ford Fight Climate Change In a Fighter Jet

| Thu Apr. 10, 2014 2:17 PM EDT

Any film that opens with Harrison Ford buckling into a fighter jet for the sake of science can't be all bad. Especially when that's followed by Don Cheadle tromping through Texas cow country, followed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman strapping on a flak jacket and pushing into the heart of Syria's civil war. It's almost enough to make you forget you're watching a show about climate change.

But in fact, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously is about just that, traversing the warming globe alongside an A-List cast that, as the season progresses, will include Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The show premieres Sunday (but the first episode, above, is already online), and counts Hollywood kingmakers Jerry Weintraub and James Cameron as executive producers, and Climate Progress founding editor Joe Romm and Climate Central scientist Heidi Cullen as science advisors.

If you already follow climate change, many of the stories here won't be new—deforestation in Indonesia, drought in Texas, conflict in Syria. But Years is a rare, big-budget effort to put the issue squarely in front of an audience more accustomed to Dexter and Homeland, and it does so with spectacular cinematography and compelling, interwoven plot lines that help to propel you through the basics of climate science to arrive at... aw, don't listen to me, just watch the thing.

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Residents Displaced by Massive Sinkhole Reach $48 Million Settlement With Mining Company

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 12:22 PM EDT
The 30-acre Bayou Corne sinkhole.

Twenty months after a 30-acre sinkhole opened up in the swamp behind their community, Bayou Corne, Louisiana, residents reached a $48 million settlement with the salt-mining company Texas Brine. Geologists say the company's collapsed storage caverns likely triggered the environmental catastrophe and the series of small earthquakes that accompanied it. The class-action lawsuit, filed by the 90 homeowners who hadn't taken buyout offers from the company, was scheduled to go to trial next week. Residents of the community of 300 have been under a mandatory evacuation order since August of 2012 over fears that explosive-level gases might collect under their homes—although some residents have installed air monitors in an effort to wait it out.

Per the Baton Rouge Advocate:

"We firmly believe the $48 million is a really good settlement number," said Larry Centola, one of the attorney’s representing the owners and residents of about 90 homes and camps in the Bayou Corne area.

...

The settlement comes a few weeks after Texas Brine closed on the last of the 66 direct, out-of-court property buyouts and appears to provide a path toward conclusion for another wave of Bayou Corne residents displaced by the sinkhole disaster now more than 20 months old.

As I reported in a story for the magazine last year, the sinkhole has confounded geologists and state regulators, who previously believed that it was impossible for an underground salt cavern like the one underneath Bayou Corne—and used for natural gas storage by energy companies all over the Gulf Coast—to collapse from the side. But that's what happened. In the meantime, residents have been left to wonder if their community will meet the same fate as the town next door, Grand Bayou, which was evacuated and reduced to empty slabs after a natural gas leak a decade earlier.

Here's Why the World Is Spending Less on Renewable Energy

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 4:58 PM EDT
A worker checks solar panels at a factory in China, the world's biggest renewable energy investor.

The United Nations climate folks think global investment in renewable energy needs to hit $1 trillion a year by 2030 to keep global warming to an acceptable level. So it might seem disconcerting that in 2013, investment dropped for the second year in a row, down 14 percent from 2012 to $214 billion, according to new data released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) at its annual confab in New York this week.

As investment fell, so too did the total amount of renewable energy being installed worldwide. That's down nearly 7 percent from 2012 to 2013.

But don't worry—at least not too much. Even though fewer renewable power systems (excluding large hydroelectric projects, which BNEF doesn't count in this analysis) were installed last year, we were using more of it: Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of all the power generated worldwide in 2013, up from 7.8 percent in 2012. BNEF estimated that renewables saved 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to keeping 252.6 million cars off the road.

In 2013, renewables saved 252.6 million cars worth of carbon emissions.

There are two forces at work behind the dropping investment figures, one a good news story and the other not so much. The good news is that 80 percent of the investment decline came thanks to the falling cost of renewable energy technology, primarily solar panels, according to BNEF Advisory Board Chairman Michael Liebreich. The cost of a rooftop solar system in California, for example, which is a good barometer of national trends, has fallen by a third just since 2010. The remaining 20 percent was due to a drop in actual construction activity, thanks to the uncertain fate of government subsidies and general economic sluggishness, especially in Europe. 

Still, Liebreich told the clean-energy CEOs and investors gathered here this morning that Bloomberg's proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015. Even last year, renewables accounted for more than 40 percent of all the new power installations (including coal plants, nuke plants, etc.) built in 2013. In other words, any time a new power system gets built, it's increasingly likely to be renewable and not something dirtier.

"This is about a future that's structured differently than the past," Liebreich said.

The global trends weren't spread evenly across countries. Even though China's overall investment dropped, it still managed to surpass, for the first time ever, the sum spent by all of Europe, where a stagnant economy led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to cut spending on clean-energy subsidies. China is the world's top renewables investor, spending $56 billion on it in 2013 (the United States is at $35.8 billion).

In the US, the dip in investment hid a couple other important milestones: Last month California, the nation's biggest solar market, broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days. And in January, the United States got an all-time record 4.8 percent of its power from wind turbines, according to BNEF.

…But Does a Fire Tornado in Australia Spin the Other Way?

| Fri Apr. 4, 2014 3:22 PM EDT

This story was originally published by Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last weekend I posted a video taken not too far from where I live showing a "fire tornado"—really a spinning vortex of rising air drawing its power from fire on the ground. It was pretty dramatic, mostly due to hundreds of tumbleweeds swirling around it, drawn in by the rotating column of wind.

After posting it, I got a note from Chris Tangey, who specializes in photography in Australia’s Outback. He took some footage of a fire tornado in 2012 (watch above) that he claimed was better than what I posted…and he's right.

fire_tornado

Yegads. The speed and power of such a vortex depends on how quickly the air in the middle can rise, which in turn draws in air from farther out; as that air spins and falls in the rotation speeds up, tightening the vortex and magnifying it. As you can see in the fire, spurts of flame leap up the inside of the vortex, clearly giving it more strength. The sound and speed of it are enthralling.

I had never heard of this phenomenon until a year or so ago. But now there are cameras everywhere…and, sadly, with global warming likely increasing both the number and severity of wildfires, we’re bound to see lots more footage like this.

Note: The title of this post is a joke; in general the Coriolis force only acts on far larger scales, so I would think a vortex like this (such as a dust devil) is just as likely to spin clockwise as counterclockwise. It would be interesting to see some statistic on this, though!

How Do San Franciscans Really Feel About Google Buses?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A tech shuttle protest in San Francisco, December 9, 2013.

Earlier this month, the Bay Area Council, a coalition of Bay Area businesses, commissioned EMC Research to ask 500 likely voters in San Francisco how they felt about the much discussed commuter shuttles that take people from The City, Oakland, and Berkeley to tech-company campuses in Silicon Valley. The EMC researchers wrote in the ensuing report (PDF), released this week, "Despite what it might look like from recent media coverage, a majority of voters have a positive opinion of the shuttle buses and support allowing buses to use MUNI stops." (MUNI is San Francisco's municipal transportation agency.)

The survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll.

But I'm not so sure that rosy conclusion is warranted. For starters, Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, which contracts with several tech companies to provide bus service, is a member of the Bay Area Council. So are Google, Facebook, and Apple. There's also the fact that the survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll. Six percent of respondents said that they rode one of the shuttle buses. Now, estimates of shuttle bus ridership vary wildly, but San Francisco's total population is only about 836,000—six percent of which is about 50,000. A spokeswoman from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency recently told me that an estimated 4,125 San Franciscans ride the tech buses. That's closer to 0.5 percent of city residents. The San Francisco Examiner points out that the survey excluded Spanish speakers.

And then there's the delicate phrasing of the survey questions. Last week, Pacific Standard had a great little post explaining why surveys are not always accurate measures of public opinion. The post looks at a recent survey conducted about the movie Noah. The group Faith Driven Consumer asked respondents: "As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie—designed to appeal to you—which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood?" Unsurprisingly, 98 percent said they were not satisfied. Variety reported the survey's findings in a story titled "Faith-Driven Consumers Dissatisfied With Noah, Hollywood Religious Pics."

I thought of the Noah survey as I read the the tech-shuttle survey's script. Here are two examples of the questions, plus the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with the given statements.

Please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

Image courtesy of Bay Area Council

Now, thinking specifically about employee shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with each of the following statements:

To be fair, the survey did include a few questions that allowed respondents to express negative opinions about the buses. But those questions tended to include loaded language. For example:

Now, thinking specifically about shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

I'm guessing that if the word "causing" had been replaced with "contributing to," more people would have agreed with the statement. Same if the word "ruining" had been replaced with "changing."

Rufus Jeffris, the vice president for communications and major events at the Bay Area Council, wrote to me in an email that the Council stands by the survey. "The poll was intended to provide some broader context and perspective on some of the wrenching and painful issues we're dealing with," he wrote. "We feel strongly that scapegoating a single type of worker and single industry is not productive and does not move us forward to solutions."

Like Meat and Beer? Hate Cancer?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
This guy.

Spring is coming. Before long, beer-drinking men and women will be coaxing fiery embers to life and tossing dead animals onto charred metal grates above them. Ahh, the sizzle and snap of fat as it hits red hot coals. Oh no! What's that you say? Carcinogens are caused by the "contact of dripping fat with hot embers"?

Fear not, eager human. And keep a couple of your dark winter beers handy, because researchers from Portugal and Spain have found that marinating your pork chops in dark beer dramatically reduces carcinogenic contamination. Rejoice!

Smoke, pyrolysis (organic matter decomposing in intense heat), and dripping fat can all cause the accumulation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on charcoal-grilled meats. According to the EPA, PAHs have caused tumors, birth defects, and "reproductive problems" in lab animals—though the Agency clarifies that these effects have not yet been observed in humans. You can also find PAHs in cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

The researchers tested the effect of marinating meat with Pilsner, nonalcohol Pilsner, and Black beer, against a control sampling of raw meat. Black beer show the strongest "inhibitory effect," reducing the formation of carcinogenic PAHs by 53 percent. Pilsner beer and nonalcholic Pilsner, showed less significant results: 13 percent and 25 percent respectively. The scientists aren't entirely sure why a beer marinade has this effect; they speculate that it might be the antioxidant compounds in beer, especially darker varieties, which inhibit the movement of free radicals necessary for the formation of PAHs.

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, and sponsored by the University of Porto and the American Chemical Society, confirms what we always knew in our hearts: Guinness is good for you.

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GOP Lawmakers Scramble to Court Tesla

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A brand-new Tesla Model S comes off the line in 2012.

Electric vehicle sales in New Jersey ran out of batteries earlier this month, when the Chris Christie administration voted to ban car manufacturers from selling directly to drivers. The companies must now use third-party dealers. The ban applies to all car manufacturers, but seemed particularly aimed at Tesla, which had been in negotiations with the administration for months to sell electric cars straight from its own storefronts in the state.

The move was a win for the state's surprisingly powerful auto dealer lobby and a loss for one of the country's biggest electric car makers. But it also cemented New Jersey's place as a non-contender for the real prize: a $5 billion battery "gigafactory" that Tesla plans to begin construction on later this year. With an estimated 6,500 employees, the factory will likely become a keystone of the United State's clean energy industry and an economic boon for its host state. Now, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada are scrambling to get picked, and last week Republican legislators in Arizona began to try pushing their state to the top of the pile.

Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated."

It's the latest sign that, at least at the state level, the clean energy industry's best friend might be the GOP. Newt Gingrich quickly pounced on Christie after the direct sales ban for "artificially" insulating car dealers, just weeks after calling for John Kerry to resign after Kerry named climate change as a principle challenge of the generation. On Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated" nearly a year after a Democrat-backed bill to change the policy was killed.

New Jersey and Texas aren't the only states where you can't buy a Tesla car directly from the company: Arizona and Maryland also have direct sales bans. But a bill passed out of committee in Arizona's GOP-controlled Senate last week would reverse the state's position and allow electric vehicle companies to sell directly out of their showrooms. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Peterson (R-Gilbert) said he was spurred by the New Jersey situation to amend what he sees as a creeping assault on free market principles.

"For me, it's not about Tesla or electric cars," he said. "For me, a big concern I have now is we are limiting someone's choice."

But despite backing from some prominent Arizona Republicans (Sen. John McComish told the Arizona Daily Star he didn't see why the state should "prevent someone else who has a better idea from making an effort to enter that industry"), Warren said he's faced opposition from others who see the bill as damaging to the state's traditional car market or a handout to Tesla, arguments that swayed the decision in New Jersey.

"I have a tough time understanding why Republicans are opposed to it, because free markets are such a big part of the platform," he said. "States that moved away from this have made a big mistake."

This Is the Massive Storm That Is Happening Off the Coast of New England

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 6:41 PM EDT

There is a "hurricane strength" storm happening off the East Coast right now. Wind speeds have reportedly reached 80 mph in New England and 119 mph in the Gulf of Maine. Judging by its wind field—the three-dimensional pattern of winds—the storm could be as much as four times as powerful as Superstorm Sandy. Fortunately, this week's storm only grazed the East Coast (though Cape Cod and Nantucket did see damage).

Using Cameron Beccario's interactive weather visualization map, you can get a sense of what wind like that actually looks like.

Source: earth; GIF: Brett Brownell

According to the Weather Channel, it looks like the storm is going to calm and slow tonight. So, everybody for the most part lucked out.

 

Viewers are Furious With Animal Planet for Mistreating Animals on "Reality TV"

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 6:36 PM EDT

Upset viewers of Animal Planet are venting on social media after Mother Jones uncovered photographic evidence of animal mistreatment behind the scenes of the TV network's hit show, Call of the Wildman.

Every garden-variety item that the network has posted on its Facebook page since our investigation published on Monday—the rescue of a baby moose, the birth of an endangered kakapo, photos of "15 puppies so precious you'll forget your own name"—has been flooded with comments about the much sadder coyote photo included in our report, which reveals the animal confined to a cramped trap three days before a film shoot in which the animal handler and Wildman star known as Turtleman planned to "capture" it by hand.

Under the baby moose post—which asks Animal Planet followers, "Who doesn't love a happy ending, especially when it involves an animal as cute as this one?"—D'Shannon Llewellyn writes: "We all love happy endings but more so when they aren't staged and involve abuse and stress that is intentionally inflicted on the animal for the financial profit of your tv station. #CalloftheWildman Staged, Abusive, and certainly not animal loving."

Rona Seltzer posted a message echoed by other commenters, writing that she has now "stopped watching/supporting animal planet due to so many stories about abuse on some of their shows."

"The images and investigation coming out of that show are absolutely disgusting," wrote Ryan M Simmons. "It's 2014, not 1814. The short lived days of glamorizing white trash who have no regards for the well being of animals have passed."

More from Animal Planet's Facebook page on Tuesday:

Amid a lengthy thread on the Facebook page of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farmed animals in California, Barb Ruguone summarizes a theme pointed out by multiple commenters: "You'd think that a channel named Animal Planet would be working for the humane treatment of animals and education and not contribute to their abuse. I was so sad to learn of their part in abuse."

There has been a similar outpouring on Twitter. Michael McIntyre ‏(@FeverCityStudio) summed up the mood this way:

Meanwhile, on Turtleman's own Facebook page, fans either seem unaware of the revelations or they are sticking by their guy: 

Climate Change May Make Terrible Mudslides Like the One in Washington State More Common

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 8:14 PM EDT
An aerial view of the deadly mudslide in Washington.

This story originally appeared on the Slate website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The death toll from this weekend's mudslide through Oso, Wash., is still climbing, with more than 100 still listed as missing.

The stories emerging are the definition of heart-rending. Here's one, from the Seattle Times:

One volunteer firefighter who had stopped working around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night said many tragic stories have yet to be told. He watched one rescuer find his own front door, but nothing else—not his home, his wife or his child.

They're in the "missing" category along with many it is feared will eventually be listed as dead.

"It's much worse than everyone's been saying," said the firefighter, who did not want to be named. "The slide is about a mile wide. Entire neighborhoods are just gone. When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami."

The most immediate cause of the mudslide is a near-record pace of rainfall for the area so far in the month of March.

Rainfall so far during the winter month of March has been 200-300 percent above normal across parts of western Washington State, site of this weekend's tragic mudslide. National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

The Pacific Northwest has had an exceptionally wet finish to its rainy season, as storms that historically would have hit California were re-routed northward by a semi-permanent dome of high pressure that's been mostly responsible for the intensifying drought there.

This particular mudslide wasn't just a freak event brought about by heavy rain, although this month's deluge surely speeded the process. Another mudslide happened on this very same hillside just eight years ago.

In fact, the State of Washington recently completed a project aimed at preventing future mudslides, just short distance away from the site of this weekend's deadly tragedy. Only problem is? It was on the other side of the river. Again, from the Seattle Times:

Sixteen months ago, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) completed a $13.3 million project, called the Skaglund Hill Permanent Slide Repair, to secure an area just west of Saturday's slide, on the opposite side of the Stillaguamish River.

That project covered about a half-mile stretch of Highway 530, from mile marker 36.25 to 36.67. It secured a hill south of the river. Saturday's slide collapsed a hill north of the river and sent mud crashing into the Stillaguamish and across Highway 530 between mile markers 37 and 38, according to WSDOT.

This weekend's tragedy reminds me of a similar pair of mudslides that occurred in 1995 and 2005 along the coast of California, in the tiny town of La Conchita. In 2005, heavy rains caused groundwater levels to rise, re-mobilizing the previous debris flow and creating a repeat tragedy.

Like in La Conchita, this weekend's disaster occurred in an area known for its landslides. There are surely other, more remote areas where this process happens with less tragic results.

One of the most well-forecast and consequential components of human-caused climate change is the tendency for rainstorms to become more intense as the planet warms. As the effect becomes more pronounced, that will make follow-on events like flooding and landslides more common.

But we don't have to wait for the future. This is already happening. Here's an explainer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

As average global temperatures rise, the warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, about 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit temperature increase. Thus, when storms occur there is more water vapor available in the atmosphere to fall as rain, snow or hail. Worldwide, water vapor over oceans has increased by about 4 percent since 1970 according to the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, its most recent.

It only takes a small change in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere to have a major effect. That's because storms can draw upon water vapor from regions 10 to 25 times larger than the specific area where the rain or snow actually falls.

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's (USGCRP) most recent report, scientists have observed less rain falling in light precipitation events and more rain falling in the heaviest precipitation events across the United States. From 1958 to 2007, the amount of rainfall in the heaviest 1 percent of storms increased 31 percent, on average, in the Midwest and 20 percent in the Southeast.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a database and monitoring program dedicated to identifying other places like La Conchita and Oso that may be at risk of future mudslides.