Sierra Daily: February 2012

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15 posts from February 2012

Feb 29, 2012

Warming Up to Warming

The latest National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change finds that 62 percent of Americans think the planet is getting warmer. That number may frustrate anyone who was persuaded by the data on climate change a decade ago, but it’s actually hopeful news: It’s the highest proportion since 2009--up from 55 percent in 2009 and 58 percent in 2010.

Well, somewhat hopeful. It turns out that nearly half the people who say they believe in global warming do so based on their own “observations of temperature changes and weather." According to AP, “climate researchers say that's reaching the correct conclusion for reasons that aren't quite right.” As anyone frustrated at the inability to draw long-term climate conclusions from discrete weather events knows, a dramatic single flood, drought, or spilled beer can’t be laid directly at the feet of global warming (though climate change will cause such life-changing events to become more frequent). "I'm pleased that Americans believe in thermometers," said University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver. "People feel confident about what they personally experience. They mix up the difference between weather and climate. It's not unexpected. It's human nature."

Earlier versions of the survey showed that Americans' belief in global warming hit its peak in late 2008 at 72 percent.

-- Reed McManus

Every Breath You Take

Br1Wonderful news out of Chicago today for teacher Leila Cepeda and her students (at right), who lived and worked near the Fisk coal-fired power plant in the city's Pilsen neighborhood: After years of pressure from local residents and the Sierra Club, today Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Midwest Generation announced the closure of Fisk and its companion Crawford plant, two of the oldest and dirtiest in the nation. Along with Fisk and Crawford, six other coal plants announced their retirement today, pushing the number of plants closing since the beginning of 2010 past 100.

In 2006, Monika Bauerlein wrote from Chicago for Sierra about what it was like to live in the shadow of these polluting plants.

[Leila] Cepeda, a curly-haired, olive-skinned second-generation Chicagoan and near-lifelong Pilsen resident, meets me on the light-filled ground floor of her house a few blocks from Fisk. The house once belonged to the guy who drove the beer cart for the local brewery, she explains, and the first floor was where he kept the horses. She and her husband replaced the barn doors with a glass-brick wall, filled the space with dwarf-size furniture, and--voilà--transformed it into a Montessori children's house that draws kids from across the Chicago area. Today three preschoolers are busy making stars from Popsicle sticks and taking turns on the teeter-totter. One is Cepeda's niece, four-year-old Tirsa. When she finds out why I'm here, she asks, "The smoke from the plant, can you make it stop?"

Bauerlein's story is still well worth your time; you can find it here.

--Paul Rauber / Photo by Ralf Finn-Hestoft

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated the date since which 100+ coal plants have announced retirement. The correct date is 2010.

Feb 28, 2012

Virtual Flight Through The Crack in Antarctica

PIG_VisibleFor the last four months, researchers from NASA's Operation IceBridge have been conducting airborne measurements of the 18-mile-long, 240-foot broad rift in Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier. Should the crack continue through the rest of the ice shelf, it will release a 350-square-mile iceberg. If that isn't enough to grab your attention, they've also produced remarkable animations simulating a fly-through of the ice valley. Click here for the 15 MB version, here for the high-def 96 MB show. All it's missing are yetis throwing snowballs at you as you pass.

--Paul Rauber / image by NASA IceBridge

Feb 27, 2012

Shrinking Arctic Ice


Imagine if, in the years since Ronald Reagan launched his successful presidential campaign, 44 percent of the United States had disappeared—1.4 million square miles, an area equivalent to all the states east of Texas. That's how much sea ice has disappeared from the Arctic Ocean since satellites began taking reliable images of the region 32 years ago.

Arctic ice is most extensive in the sunless winter and shrinks to its annual minimum each September. Over the years, that minimum has become increasingly minimal, declining by 40 percent since 1979.

Says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, "We may be looking at an Arctic Ocean essentially free of summer ice only a few decades from now."

The images at right were taken in September 1979 and September 2011. The pink line indicates the median sea ice extent for Septembers from 1979 to 2000. New research by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University shows that severe ice loss can slow down the jet stream winds that control much of our weather, resulting in more persistent weather patterns: extended cold spells, droughts, and heat waves. Loss of summer ice is also leading to enormous releases of methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide) from the Arctic Ocean seabed, which are likely to hasten the rate of climate change.

—Paul Rauber / © 2011 Europa Technologies; © MapLink/Tele Atlas; © Google; U.S. Department of State Geographer (Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center, Sea Ice Index)

Feb 23, 2012

Worst Poem in the Universe?

MaskThanks to the Telegraph for alerting us to this remarkable confluence of bad taste, bad policy, and incredible wealth: a poem engraved on a plaque affixed to a 30-ton iron ore boulder outside the West Australia estate of multi-billionaire mining magnate and poetess Gina Rinehart.

The poem, which consists of eight rhyming couplets, proclaims the benefits of the resources industry and lampoons the government. But its aesthetic quality has come under question, with one critic describing it on Wikipedia as "the universe's worst poem, although many still dispute if it qualifies to be classified as poetry".

It's telling that the cheeky critique appears on Wikipedia and not in the Australian press--a substantial portion of which Rinehart recently purchased. Rinehart, a climate-change denier, was charged with shifting the public debate in Australia over a tax on carbon, which nevertheless cleared its final legislative hurdle last November. She helped fund, for example, an Australian tour by flamboyant climate denier Lord Monckton. Her influence can only grow in the future, given that Forbe's  sees her on track to become the richest woman in the world.

And the poem? You be the judge:

Our Future

The globe is sadly groaning with debt, poverty and strife

And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life

Their hope lies with resources buried deep within the earth

And the enterprise and capital which give each project worth

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks

Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax

The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore

This type of direction is harmful to our core

Some envious unthinking people have been conned

To think prosperity is created by waving a magic wand

Through such unfortunate ignorance, too much abuse is hurled

Against miners, workers and related industries who strive to build the world

Develop North Australia, embrace multiculturalism and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores

To benefit from the export of our minerals and ores

The world's poor need our resources: do not leave them to their fate

Our nation needs special economic zones and wiser government, before it is too late

--Paul Rauber

Feb 22, 2012

Cutest Li'l Invertebrate Ever


Ecologists refer to the large animals people go to zoos to see as "charismatic megafauna." The microscopic tardigrade—which is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence—surely qualifies as charismatic microfauna. It trundles about its moss, lichen, or leaf-litter habitat on stubby limbs like an eight-legged panda. The tardigrade (whose name means "slow walker") may be the only invertebrate universally regarded as "cute."

Tardigrades also may be the toughest creatures on the planet. When the habitat they favor dries up, so do they, through a process of cryptobiosis, into dustlike specks called tuns. In a desiccated state of suspended animation, they can be blown by the wind until they encounter a moist, hospitable location, whereupon they rehydrate and resume their active lives.

During their dehydrated period, tardigrades can tolerate nearly anything. They've been exposed to temperatures of minus 272.95 degrees Celsius (functional absolute zero) and 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit) and survived, none the worse for wear. They've even been exposed to solar heat and radiation in the vacuum of space and returned home to Earth to move, eat, grow, and reproduce. The latter isn't hard, since many are also parthenogenetic (i.e., they can give birth without the bother of sex).

--William R. Miller / image by Eye of Science/Photo Researchers Inc.

Feb 21, 2012

Garbage In, Garbage Out


Everyone thinks they know how much trash Americans throw away. The official EPA figure—used by environmentalists, businesses, and policymakers—maintains that the average American rolls just over 4.3 pounds to the curb every day. About a third of that gets recycled, with the rest going to landfills. The numbers are found in the agency's exhaustive annual compendium Municipal Solid Waste in the United States—the EPA's "Trash Bible."

The problem is that the gold standard of garbage is wildly wrong, leaving 140 million tons of refuse unaccounted for. Americans actually throw out more than 7 pounds a day, sending nearly twice as much waste to landfills as the EPA lets on. An obscure but far-more-accurate annual survey made jointly by Columbia University and the trade journal BioCycle does what the EPA hasn't: actually count our trash using real-world data from the nation's landfills.

The EPA relies largely on industry-provided data on product sales, estimating how quickly those products wear out and get thrown away. Its method was developed decades ago when there were eight times as many legal dumps, many more illegal ones, and little good data available. That picture has changed: There are now far fewer landfills, and most of them carefully weigh each incoming candy wrapper—their pay-by-the-ton business model depends on it.

The Columbia-BioCycle surveys also reveal that Americans recycle or compost proportionately far less than the official stats suggest: not the third of our total trash estimated by the EPA—a milestone we were supposed to have surpassed a decade ago—but less than a quarter.

Nickolas Themelis, director of Columbia's Earth Engineering Center, is one of the trash cognoscenti calling for reform of this "untenable situation." Among myriad problems created by the incorrect data, he frets, is the false impression that current waste-reduction strategies are working. He argues that the United States needs to follow Europe's lead: The Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden have all but eliminated landfills by combining strong recycling programs with a new generation of low-emission waste-to-energy plants.

Even the EPA recognizes the flaws in its Trash Bible. The agency department responsible for estimating greenhouse-gas emissions from U.S. trash, in fact, has for the past four years relied not on the EPA's official figures but on the Columbia-BioCycle surveys.

—Edward Humes / photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Stock

Feb 17, 2012

Something else to worry about: Hendra Virus

Flying fox

Take one flying fox, one horse, and one human. Mix well and add water. That seems to be the recipe for an often-fatal virus called Hendra, which some scientists fear has pandemic potential. "It's very scary," says Raina Plowright, a disease ecologist at Pennsylvania State University. "When it gets into a human, it goes full speed through every organ."

The flying foxes (a.k.a. fruit bats) that have long harbored Hendra aren't much affected by it. But in 1994, Hendra jumped the species line, infecting 20 horses in Queensland, Australia, which then infected their trainer and a stable hand. The trainer and 13 horses died.

Now the virus appears to be spreading. There were 18 outbreaks in Australia in 2011, 4 more than in the previous 17 years combined. Only horses were infected, but the potential for transmission to humans has Queensland veterinarians so spooked that a quarter of them refuse to treat horses at all. That's because Hendra has a 57 percent mortality rate.

And the virus has recently spread to dogs. Hendra's surge may be linked to climate change, Plowright says. Her research found that Hendra levels in flying foxes spike when the animals are stressed by a shortage of food, as may have happened after cataclysmic floods soaked Brisbane last year.

At present, humans can catch Hendra only from horses, not from bats or other people. But that could change. Hendra is related to Nipah, a virus that jumped from fruit bats to pigs to people in Southeast Asia and killed 105 in Malaysia in 1998-99. Nipah can now be transmitted between humans, and Hendra could develop similar abilities.

"Every time there's an infection," Plowright says, "there's an opportunity for mutation."

—Dashka Slater / image by iStockphoto/CraigRJD

Feb 16, 2012

This Is How You Do It

Kudos to Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman of the New York Times for showing how reporting on climate change ought to be done. In their article today, "Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science," they explore the explosive documents leaked from the Heartland Institute, which show the extent to which some of the nation's biggest corporations are funding the climate-change denial movement. In particular, they discuss

Heartland’s latest idea . . .to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.”

And follow it up with this breath of fresh air:

It is in fact not a scientific controversy. The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk.

See, friends in the media? It's not that hard. You don't have to let the Koch brothers buy your reporting too.

--Paul Rauber

Feb 15, 2012

Heartburn At Heartland


If documents leaked (or stolen, depending on one’s point of view) from the Heartland Institute prove to be authentic, they pinpoint the free market think tank as a chief organizer and paymaster for the climate-change denial movement. The eight documents obtained by DeSmogBlog and ThinkProgress seem to confirm what many environmentalists and climate scientists have long suspected: a large campaign, funded by some of the nation’s largest corporations and wealthiest individuals, to cast doubt on the reality of climate change and to slow action to address it.

Heartland, it should be noted refuses to confirm the authenticity of the documents, and maintains that one “is a total fake”:

The stolen documents were obtained by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to “re-send” board materials to a new email address. Identity theft and computer fraud are criminal offenses subject to imprisonment. We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes.

DeSmogBlog’s response to the Heartland denial is here.

Various news organizations have since confirmed important portions of the revelations in them, including payments to Heartland from Microsoft and GM. Other corporations revealed to have funded Heartland’s efforts allegedly include Koch Industries, Altria (the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris), Time Warner Cable, and Comcast.

The largest donor, however, is a well-heeled “Anonymous Donor” who gave just shy of $1 million last year and $4,610,000 in 2008. His generous funding went to pay for—among much else—a rightwing mirror to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, and $100,000 to fund an effort by climate-change denying meteorologist Anthony Watts to cast doubt on U.S. temperature monitoring stations.

Among the more explosive information in the documents is evidence of payments to “high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist message.” Among these are many of the best known names in the climate-denial world: $11,600 a month to Craig Idso, $5,000 a month (plus expenses!) to Fred Singer, and $1,667 a month to Robert Carter.

The release of the damning documents, and Heartland’s outrage, is ironic in light of the fact that the institute was among the major promoters of "Climategate," the 2009 hacking of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. As noted by The Guardian,

At the time, Heartland said the theft of those personal emails created "an opportunity for reporters, academics, politicians" to revise their belief in climate change.

The Heartland documents now provide the same opportunity to those who have bought into the tawdry world of climate-change denial.  

--Paul Rauber

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