- "We have had a remarkable amount of open water -- good for mapping, sad for the Arctic."
- "A little bit of global warming and a little bit of adventurism and now we are really starting to explore the Arctic."
Friday, August 31, 2007
Quotes from scientists aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, which is engaged in mapping the Arctic seafloor:
Bite the Big Apple
Picking up on the theme of meat as murder, has anyone else read Adam Gopnik's story in the latest New Yorker about his experience as a locavore? It's called "New York Local; Eating the fruits of the five boroughs." I highly recommend it. Here's a taste:
The point of localism is to encourage sustainable agriculture by eating things that nearby friends and farmers grow or raise and that don’t have to be shipped halfway around the world, guzzling fossil fuel, to get to your table. The rules generally involve eating within a radius of a hundred or sometimes three hundred miles, and are undertaken in places, like Berkeley and the Pacific Northwest, that have a lot of nice produce and plump animals within their circles.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride
It's been a long time since Hunter Thompson ran for mayor of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket. Today, the ski town's freak factor is much subdued and the power comes mostly from renewables (70 percent, the city claims). Sadly, a great deal of that power is wasted on vacation-home indulgences: heated roofs and driveways, hot tubs, towel warmers, fans whirring away in wine cellars--you know, that sort of thing-- not to mention the sheer amount of square footage. According to this article in the Denver Post, Aspen now has 150 homes that are 10,000 square feet or larger. The zillion-dollar abodes are unoccupied 277 days per year on average, but still manage to pump out more than 60 percent of the city's total CO2 emissions. Decadent and depraved.
DDT: Good and Bad
I really appreciated this article by Naomi Lubick on the World Health Organization's qualified embrace of DDT as a tool in the fight against malaria. Facing up to the compounds shortcomings and ill-effects as well as its efficacy, it strikes me as a model of balanced reporting. Here's an excerpt:
Despite a growing body of evidence on [the deleterious effects of] human exposures [to DDT], the data are not definitive—nor, most agree, are they enough to outweigh the specter of millions of children dying without adequate malaria vector control efforts. "I think the truth is somewhere in the middle," [Janet] Hemingway [director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine] says, in the arguments for and against banning the pesticide. "DDT is generally effective in killing and repelling mosquitoes and, used sensibly, has saved many lives. That's why it's still there on our books."
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Meat Is Murder on Climate
Claim: "You just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist." -- Mark Prescott, manager vegan campaigns, PETA
Discuss amongst yourselves.
Air pollution levels in Beijing are five times higher than the World Health Organization's recommended safety levels, according to the AP. Great place to hold the Olympics, no? The city is trying to clean up its act, but it's an (ahem) olympian task. Athletes headed for games in 2008 are now left wondering whether they'd be smarter to go early and 'acclimate' or wait til the last minute to show up. Of course, the residents of Beijing are just stuck with it.
The widespread environmental calamity in China, as portrayed in the New York Times series "China: Choking on Growth," is a stunningly depressing thing to behold. But the world's most populous country did not become a global juggernaut overnight. Lester Brown and others have been warning about the looming catastrophe for decades. While the country's authoritarian controls put the clampdown on runaway population growth, most other environmental ills run rampant. Most troubling, from a climate perspective, is the fact that China, Inc. runs primarily on coal. It's not just the coal-fired power plants, which are coming online at the mind-boggling rate of roughly one per week, but also the steel mills, the cement plants and other factories that power the mightily expanding economy.
As Orville Schell explains in the Times, when it comes to actually doing something about reining in emissions, "the US hides behind China," and "China hides behind the US"; that is, each country points to the other's inaction as a reason for its own do-nothing stance. If that stalemate is to end, Schell says, it will have to be through US leadership. "It will not do to blame China."
Perhaps the Olympics are the very thing needed to call the world's attention to the horrendous situation. Attention isn't enough of course, but attention must be paid all the same. The motto of the modern Olympics is citius, altius, fortius, ("faster, higher, stronger"). It seems we need to muster similar aspirations for the world's future. Perhaps "Smarter, Cleaner, Better."
What's that in Latin?
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The Alliance for Climate Protection, of which the Sierra Club is a part, has just released its first ad. I'd be curious to hear what folks think.
If you think you can do better or just have your own idea, you're invited to submit your 15-, 30-, or 60-second ad to the Ecospot contest at Current TV.
The Fabled Northwest Passage
Fabled no more. You still need an icebreaker however to make the trip safely.
Watch Out! You Might Get What You're After
Burning down the Man -- a little earlier than planned at this year's (green-themed, no less) orgy of self-expression in Black Rock City. You can read the organizers' environmental statement here and find out more about Cooling Man, which seeks to offset the carbon emissions from the great bonfire in the desert. According to the site, "If 70 percent of burners reduced or offset one ton [of carbon dioxide emissions], Black Rock City could be the first carbon-negative city in the world." Just imagine what could be accomplished if 70 percent of burners stayed home.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Nothing calls attention to a problem like nudity, as we saw with Spencer Tunick's mass strip-down in the Alps. Now, another artist is at it, compelling models to bare their flesh in order to raise awareness of environmental refugees. Sure enough, if you click through, you can read some factoids about the problem, which is real and pressing and tragic. You can also click through a gallery of images showing lovely women tastefully posed in their altogether. Now, personally, I'm all for this sort of thing -- you know, any excuse to get naked. I just don't see the connection between that and refugees. Come to think of it, I can't recall a single factoid.
If you'll excuse me, I think I'll have another look.
Cold Rush? Not So Fast.
The Economist has the best piece I've seen so far on the Arctic El Dorado, as it calls it -- and which I referred to in my previous post. The magazine not only puts the 'unseemly' geopolitical jockeying in the context of international law but also questions some of the claims being thrown around regarding the region's riches. To wit:
An oft-quoted figure—that the region contains 25% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas—is generally attributed to America's Geological Survey. Don Gautier, who works for that agency, retorts that it has never done a systematic study of the Arctic, or put a figure on its energy riches. But the United States and other Arctic nations are doing a survey now, and a clearer picture may soon emerge.In any case, says the magazine, nations are cooperating in the Arctic (Exhibit A) and will continue to do so. It's just too big and intractable for any one country to make a grab for it.
Friday, August 24, 2007
The Big Melt
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reports that the Arctic ice cap is fully one-third smaller than usual for this time of year, and there are still some weeks of melting ahead. We don't need to worry that this will lead to sea level rise as the Arctic ice was already floating (think ice in a glass of water), but meteorologist Jeff Masters thinks it could profoundly affect weather this fall and winter.
Another noteworthy trend: The long-coveted Northwest Passage, which appears to be dawning as an important sea lane, is much clearer than usual. That development, along with the opening up of the mineral and fossil fuel potential of the region explains all the recent posturing by Arctic nations over who owns the continental shelf, (most notably those wily Russian aquanauts planting flags on the north polar seafloor). No actual sabers rattling yet, but that could be next. See Mackenzie Funk's piece in Harper's, entitled, Cold rush: The coming fight for the melting north" to learn more about that. (Sorry: online version only available to subscribers.)
Over at Gristmill, David Roberts chokes on the irony.
Tanks and Tofu
I mentioned the spike in corn prices related to ethanol the other day. Same thing is happening with soy prices, thanks to increased biodiesel production. The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek. Higher soya prices are more likely to impact meat consumers than tofu consumers; the vast majority of US soy production is fed to livestock.
Sympathy for the Devil
I know I shouldn't, but my inclination is to sympathize with Robert Murray, the beleaguered and outspokenly defiant owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah that collapsed in early August, claiming the lives of six miners and, later, three would-be rescuers. I'm finding it difficult, however. After all, the New York Times pretty much calls Murray out as a bald-faced liar today. (See: "Mine Owner Has History of Run-Ins on Work Issues") Yet, while the story makes it clear that Mr. Murray is responsible for putting miners at unusual risk, his plans were approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which has oversight of the industry and, therefore, ultimate responsibility. There's your Coal Rush for you.
Still, if American mining has become more dangerous with the times, it's nothing next to what is happening in China. As the Washington Post reports, 47 coal miners died on the job in the US in 2006. In China the number was more than 4,700 -- greater by two full orders of magnitude, but still down from the particularly bloody year of 2002, when nearly 7,000 Chinese miners met their ends in accidents. In fact, fatality statistics for Chinese coal mines over the last seven years shows that 2006 was the least deadly, by far. Forget what I said earlier. There is your Coal Rush.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
In what critics are calling a parting gift to the mining industry, the Bush Administration is about to issue a new rule that will, in the words of New York Times reporter, John Broder, "enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal." The rule in question concerns buffer zones which are meant to keep mine wastes out of stream beds. Thing is, say the mine bosses, you can't do mountaintop removal without dumping the resulting rubble in the river drainages, so it's a little silly to talk about buffer zones. An official from the Office of Surface Mining explained as much to Broder: “There’s really no place to put the material except in the upper reaches of hollows. If you can’t put anything in a stream, there’s really no way to even underground mine.”
Already, more than 1,000 river miles in Appalachia have been buried, to say nothing of the many thousands of acres of forest that have been lost to mountaintop removal. The new rule will ease restrictions on miners so that the practice, and the corresponding destruction, may continue apace.
The architect of the new rule, by the by, was recently sentenced to jail. Stephen Griles, the former mining lobbyist whom Bush made his Assistant Secretary of the Interior will serve 10 months, plus 3 years parole, for lying to Congress about his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff (who is also incarcerated). So, if the rule seems criminal, well, maybe it's because we had criminals writing the rules.
Greetings from Nowhere
Here's one of those Digital Age pursuits that manages to be at once fascinating and meaningless. I'm talking about the Degree Confluence Project, where people all over the world travel, armed with GPS and camera, to any one of the thousands of places on earth where latitude and longitude lines cross (no minutes, no seconds, mind you -- only degrees) and snap shots of what they see there. (No matter where you are, by the way, there's such a confluence within 49 miles of you.) The picture above was snapped from the imaginary geographical crosshairs at 18 degrees N, 16 degrees W, which puts you about 6 miles outside of Nouakchott, Mauritania, in the Sahara Desert.
What a strange species we are.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
The Environment? Who Cares?
Judging by polling figures from American Environics, the Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias concludes that, "basically, people have the right views on environmental issues, but they don't really care." One of the things that jumps out at Yglesias is a graph showing that people are far more likely to NOT vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on gay marriage or abortion than one who disagrees with them on "the environment."
Now, as many of the commenters to Yglesias's post point out, it's not really a valid comparison, is it, since gay marriage and abortion are pretty much either/or propositions. "The environment" by contrast, is large, nebulous, abstract. It's not an issue you can be for or against. It's everything. So, the way the poll is phrased, it's a little like asking people whether they would or wouldn't vote for a candidate who disagreed with them about, say, "the universe." Ask them which is more important, gay marriage or the availability of potable water, and I'm sure you'll get a different result.
I don't blame the pollsters entirely, since we have made a habit of framing things this way, as either pro- or anti-environment. That may work fine as shorthand but it doesn't do much for intelligent debate. On the other hand, try discussing the environment without using the word. I'm not sure it can be done. As Gil Scott-Heron put it: Semantics is always a bitch.
Tanks and Tortillas
The chief financial officer of Cargill, the giant agribusiness conglomerate, says there needs to be "an escape mechanism" built into the Bush administration mandate on renewable fuels, so that the food market is not "distorted." According to the Financial Times,
The US is reviewing its federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which calls for the production of 7.5 billion gallons a year of alternative fuels by 2012. This is expected to be reached well ahead of target, and the Bush administration has called for a benchmark of 35 billion gallons by 2017, about half of it from ethanol.Food prices have already been distorted here and abroad. The inflation has been dearly felt by Mexican consumers, who saw the cost of tortillas jump 50 percent near the start of the year, as corn futures in Chicago soared. The Mexican government has since implemented a price cap and more acres in the country have been planted to corn. Sadly, the increased production has done little to help Mexico's small-scale farmers, who now worry about two opposing scenarios for the global corn market. As Víctor Suárez, spokesman for Anec, an activist group of corn farmers, explains it to reporters for the Guardian:
In the first, ... American corn farmers will not be able to keep up with the corn demand and the big Sinaloa producers will step in to the fill the void, leaving Mexicans without tortillas. In the second, the ethanol craze burns itself out, prompting US corn producers to dump their harvests on the Mexican market devastating the small producers.Ay, ay, ay is right.
Life's a Beach
Or rather, life's a beach house. A beach house on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. And then you get wiped out by a hurricane. USA Today files an excellent report from one such locale -- Alabama's Dauphin Island, which got hit hard by both Ivan and Katrina. Some 350 homes were destroyed by Katrina. Thanks to government insurance subsidies and taxpayer-funded infrastructure repairs, however, the beachfront is being developed once again, mostly with vacation homes for well-to-do beachcombers. Those will get wiped out too, of course. And folks will keep rebuilding as long as the government helps them pay for it.
Hollywood shutterbug, Sebastian Copeland has published a stunning book of photographs called Antarctica, The Global Warning. No doubt the film industry background explains the 'trailer' for the book, which is definitely worth watching. The imagery truly is wonderful. But I have to confess, I'm always a little conflicted over the whole ecorazzi thing, where the rich and famous tell us all how easy it is to change the world. On the one hand, you know, I'm glad they're on board given the influence they have. On the other hand, aren't these the very same folks whose lavish lifestyles and whose 'art' have helped fuel our ultra-consumerist culture? Yeah, I know: I should just get over it, but while I'm at it, I can't resist comparing / contrasting these two images of the photographer -- one from the about the author page on the book site, the other from his personal site.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Off the Road
With everyone everywhere seeming to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, I thought it fitting to highlight this article ("Rolling Towards the Moon") from the Sierra archives, about the summer Kerouac spent working as a fire spotter in Washington's North Cascades. The year was 1956, just prior to his spectacular rise to fame and subsequent descent into alcoholism. The solitary experience provided much of the material for two subsequent autobiographical novels, Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums. The lookout ("a funny little peaked almost Chinese cabin" is how Kerouac described it) is still there atop Desolation Peak. You reach it via a steep, dry 7-mile hike (one-way) from Ross Lake in what is now North Cascades National Park. To see more photos, click the image above, by Pete Hoffman.
Chris Mooney, SEED correspondent and author, most recently, of Storm World, struggles to put Hurricane Dean in context. The cyclone struck the Yucatan Peninsula at Category 5 strength today, then quickly weakened to a (still-fierce) Category 3 storm. Writing in the Daily Green, Mooney observes:
No one storm says anything about climate change; but nevertheless, climate change may affect weather in the aggregate. So as we wait for news about just how destructive Dean has been, let’s consider the storm from a climate perspective, bearing in mind the scientific expectation that global warming ought to intensify the average hurricane (by how much remains hotly disputed). How does Dean fit into that ongoing scientific argument?Now, that's about as honest and careful an assessment as you can get, I think. Some might argue that, when you go looking for a pattern, you run the risk of imposing one on the data. But I think it's greater folly to ignore apparent patterns in the face of what are, after all, reasonable expectations.
If that makes any sense.
Waves by ~Nijsh on deviantART
Monday, August 20, 2007
The Majority Condition
I was talking to a friend over the weekend about the earthquake in Peru and the hurricane about to thrash Jamaica, and I said something stupid. Yeah, I know, hard to believe, but there it is. Anyway, what I said was, Why do these things always seem to hit the poor? And my friend says, Uh, maybe because most people in the world are poor.
Put Out More Flags
Jeremy Rifkin comments on the news last week that Russian explorers planted a flag not on, but under the North Pole (that is, on the seafloor), in what was seen as an old-fashioned bid to lay claim to the Arctic's potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
A global tragedy of monumental proportions is unfolding at the top of the world, and the human race is all but oblivious to what's happening.
Blogging in the Buff
Photographer Spencer Tunick and Greenpeace convinced a bunch of folks to hike up the fast-receding Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland and take off all their clothes. Why? Same reason I'm blogging in the nude today: To raise your awareness of global warming.
Is it working?
A genetic mutation in horseweed (aka fleabane and marestail) has made it resistant to the exceedingly popular herbicide glyphosate (better known by the brand name, Roundup), which is widely used to control weeds in plantings of so-called 'Roudup-ready' crops, including soybeans, corn and canola. The spraying allows farmers not to plow fields, thereby conserving topsoil and keeping carbon in the ground. With the advent of resistant weeds, however, farmers are starting to plow again and/or turn to more toxic chemicals. NPR reports.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
The Future is Nuts!
Or at least the future is "woody agriculture."
Salon's Andrew Leonard explains how pecans and filberts could one day become the perfect industrial food ingredient.
Chillin' in Dubai
It's tempting to compare Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to Las Vegas. Like Vegas, it's a desert city, and one that specializes in a kind of let-the-devil-eat-his-liver extravagance. In truth, the Persian Gulf port is in a league of its own. I mean Vegas may have the Luxor pyramid and le faux Paris, but that's bush league stuff (not to mention bushwa) next to Dubai's latest offerings: The city boasts the tallest skyscraper, an indoor ski resort (plus another in the works), an artificial archipelago and an underwater hotel. What could it possibly lack? Oo, oo, I know: A cocktail lounge made entirely of ice! So cool!! And soooo wrong! As the International Herald Tribune reports,
The average person in the Emirates puts more demand on the global ecosystem than any other in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In a report issued in October, the WWF said the Emirates' ecological footprint measured 11.9 global hectares per person, compared to 9.6 hectares per person for the United States and a global average of 2.2 hectares a person. The scale measures the amount of land needed to generate resources for one person.Now, it's hard to blame someone living in 111 degree heat for wanting to cool off, but below-zero temps seem a little, well, lunatic, no? In their defense, the Emiratis (who are, fortunately, given their enormous footprint, relatively few in number) say the ice lounge is no worse than the typical cold storage facility anywhere else in the Torrid Zone. They might also argue that what they're doing is little different than the traditional winter sauna in Scandinavia. Whatever the arguments, let's just hope it doesn't become a trend and that what happens in Dubai stays in Dubai.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Getting It Wrong
Last Friday, in a New York Times blog called the Opinionator, Tobin Harshaw, dropped a bomb on readers, citing another blogger, Daily Tech's Michael Asher, who told the story of yet another blogger (!!!) who found a Y2K bug in NASA's climate data. The upshot of all this blogging: Contrary to previous claims, 1998 was not the hottest year. No, no. 1934 was. 1998 is runner-up. Writes Asher:
NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as record-breaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II [emphasis his]. Anthony Watts has put the new data in chart form, along with a more detailed summary of the events.Well, just in case the New York Times isn't mainstream enough for you, you'll be happy to know that Fox News had a field day with the story.
Thankfully, we have Real Climate -- yep, another blog, this one by climate scientists -- to shed some light on the whole thing. According to Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA, it's all much ado about nothing. He writes:
Sum total of this change? A couple of hundredths of degrees in the US rankings and no change in anything that could be considered climatically important (specifically long term trends).What about the Arctic? Well, as chance would have it, on the same day that the Opinionator was spinning falsehoods, Times' science correspondent Andrew Revkin reported a disturbing fact about the annual Arctic ice melt. The lede:
The area of floating ice in the Arctic has shrunk more this summer than in any other summer since satellite tracking began in 1979, and it has reached that record point a month before the annual ice pullback typically peaks.I don't know about you, but when I read news like that, my wish that global warming be 'reduced to a statistical quirk' is hardly latent. If only playing with numbers could make it go away.
In the Times today, Janet Maslin reviews Alan Weisman's new work, The World Without Us, a book-length meditation on the post-human world, in which the author imagines, among other things, a reversion of Manhattan to wilderness. The idea may well resonate with New Yorkers, who, after all, have recently seen coyotes in Central Park, beavers in the Bronx River and red-tailed hawks roosting on prime uptown real estate. And then there's the general collapse of what some folks like to call the "built environment." As Ms. Maslin writes:
When Mr. Weisman wonders what would happen to New York City, he foresees rewilding (the return of wolves and bears), plants forcing their ways through the sidewalk and water damage to the underground infrastructure. "Before long, streets start to crater," he writes, with scarily apt foresight. "As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river." Lexington Avenue has lately shown us what he means.It is, Ms. Maslin notes, a "punishingly bleak picture." Which is why I want to direct you now to a far funnier take on the same idea. Ladies and gentleman, the Kiwi folk-parody duo, Flight of the Conchords, with "The Humans Are Dead."
Friday, August 10, 2007
This just arrived in my in-box from my colleague -- and our assistant webmaster -- Adam Kapp. He wrote to say that:
The annual Perseid meteor shower is this weekend! (FYI) This year should be particularly good as there's a new moon, so the sky will be totally dark. At the peak you may see as many as a few per minute.And here are some details from Adam's astronomer friend:
Meteor showers are best observed between the hours of Midnight and Sunrise, with 3-4 AM tending to be the peak. The best date will probably be Sunday, very early in the morning. You may see a few meteors before midnight, but if you really want to observe the shower, you'll have to go to a dark site and be awake during the wee hours.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) has been making a lot of news this week as a group of 38 independent scientists sounded the alarm concerning health risks posed by the chemical, which is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins and is commonly found in such things as (ee gads!) baby bottles and sippy cups -- not to mention canned goods and water bottles. Meanwhile, a panel assembled by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that these concerns are largely overblown and the health risks to the general population minimal, it did register "some concern" over BPA exposure in infants and fetuses. Critics say the NIH report was skewed in favor of the chemical industry. While this gets sorted out (if it ever does), US News takes the sensible step of advising folks who want to 'play it safe' how to avoid the prevalent and controversial chemical.
National Geographic's Green Guide has more on what to look for and what to avoid. Oh, and I should also note that Sierra magazine was on the case four years ago.
Update: For concerned parents of toddlers, you might also check out the Sippy Cup Showdown on the kid-gear blog called Z Recommends. They follow up with a baby bottle version of the showdown here.
No one has offered a satisfactory explanation for the 'plague of voles' that has led farmers in Central Spain to burn their fields though some are pointing to a mild winter as the culprit. As with most population explosions, however, it's a good bet that something is seriously out of whack.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
The cover story of the latest Newsweek looks at the well-funded campaign to deny global warming and cast doubt on the consensus view. If you've read Ross Gelbspan's Boiling Point or, for that matter, kept up on your Sierra subscription, there's nothing much new here. Still, it's good to see the topic covered at length in a mainstream magazine. And, as the article points out,
If you think those who have long challenged the mainstream scientific findings about global warming recognize that the game is over, think again. Yes, 19 million people watched the "Live Earth" concerts last month, titans of corporate America are calling for laws mandating greenhouse cuts, "green" magazines fill newsstands, and the film based on Al Gore's best-selling book, "An Inconvenient Truth," won an Oscar. But outside Hollywood, Manhattan and other habitats of the chattering classes, the denial machine is running at full throttle—and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion.Also in the magazine: Alaskans ponder a future without the Pork King: Senator Ted Stevens in trouble.
Friday, August 03, 2007
North South East West Nile
The first cases of West Nile virus were not reported in North American until 1999. Now it has spread across the entire United States and into Canada. Today, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in three California counties after four deaths and three times as many cases of infection as were reported last year. Scientists have long warned that global warming would contribute to the spread of mosquito-borne tropical diseases to both higher latitudes and higher elevations as rising temperatures made the areas more hospitable to the insects. But the rate of spreading has surprised even the experts. As Harvard Medical School's Dr. Paul Epstein told the Washington Post last year:
"Things we projected to occur in 2080 are happening in 2006. What we didn't get is how fast and how big it is, and the degree to which the biological systems would respond. Our mistake was in underestimation."
Light as Air
Gabrielle Walker, science writer and author, previously, of the work Snowball Earth, has taken the title of her latest work from a letter written by one Evangelista Torricelli, "We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air." Torricelli, inventor of the barometer, was a contemporary of Galileo -- the man who weighed air and found it to be quite heavy. How heavy? Carnegie Hall holds 70,000 pounds of the stuff, which is, after all, the stuff of life and, as Walker notes, death as well. For more on the fascinating subject, Read William Grimes' enthusiastic review of Ms. Walker's An Ocean of Air in today's New York Times.
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Changing With the Times
Shot of Lovins
Whenever you're gettin' down on the world and the prospects for humanity, here's what you do: Listen to Amory Lovins, the prophet of negawatts and the author of Winning the Oil Endgame. The man is positively unshakable in his conviction that the solutions to our energy predicaments are near-at-hand and, indeed, that success in surmounting them is just around the corner. On the ocassion of the 25th anniversary of his Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins is interviewed by Grist's David Roberts and Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. The Grist interview is more brass-tacks, under-the-hood type stuff, while the Newsweek one more general and glancing. When Zakaria, stating the obvious, says "You're an optimist," Lovins responds:
I think we will look back in a few decades and wonder what all the oil fuss was about because, just like whale oil, we will have made this product obsolete. Oil is going to become, and has already become, uncompetitive, even at low prices, before it becomes unavailable even at high prices. So we will leave it in the ground. It's very good for holding up the ground, but it won't be worth extracting.Hmmm. Bowing to Mr. Lovins' superior intelligence, I'm not so sure about that. At the same time, to borrow a line from Mr. Hemingway, Isn't it pretty to think so?
Race to the Bottom
Russian explorers in submersibles planted their nation's flag on the seafloor beneath the North Pole, in a move that signals the competition between Arctic nations to claim the oil and mineral wealth believed to exist under the rapidly disappearing polar ice cap. While Russians heralded the expedition's heroic success, the Canadian Foreign Minister peevishly responded, "This isn't the 15th Century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory.'" You tell 'em.
Yesterday, I mentioned that flooding in China had displaced some 4 to 5 million people. Broadening horizons to include Southeast Asia, the devastation from the rains is even more staggering. The BBC reports that 12 million people have been displaced or marooned by flooding in India. In Bangladesh, the figure is between 5 and 6 million. And in Nepal, another 750,000 have been affected. Relief agencies are expecting severe water and food shortages. Flooding, it should be noted, leads all other natural disasters in the loss of human life.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
The Amazon region, once touted as the 'lungs of the Earth' (in truth, the rainforest consumes about as much oxygen as it creates), is now a leading contributor to global warming, due to deforestation and fires. In 2005, a large part of the Amazon Basin was gripped by rare drought and fires swept large areas of rainforest. The NASA satellite image above was taken on September 30, 2005. It shows high levels of harmful carbon monoxide resulting from those fires.
The Amazon drought, which dried up rivers and dessicated forest soils, was cited in a New York Times story yesterday indicating that Brazil, now the world's fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, may be reconsidering its position on global warming. Seventy percent of Brazil's emissions are tied to deforestation, but the country has long been leery of international efforts to save the Amazon through compensation. Such efforts are often viewed suspiciously by Brazilians, and seen as a threat to the country's sovereignty.
Now, however, with the stability of the country's regional climate and the future of its powerful agricultural sector at stake, Brazil may be more willing to look at ways to incentivize "avoided deforestation." Let's hope so. And before it's too late.
Seafood to Avoid: Pilot Whale
Short-finned pilot whale is on the lunch menu at some rural Japanese kindergartens. Now tests conducted on the whale meat show that it contains alarmingly high levels of accumulated methylmercury, a neurotoxin that nursing mothers and young children in particular are strongly advised to avoid. With demand for whale meat already running low in Japan, concerns over mercury contamination could further weaken the country's resolve to bolster its whaling tradition. At the very least, it would seem to call into question programs within Japan to encourage more kids to eat whale.
In the latest New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert (author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe), investigates colony collapse disorder, or CCD, becoming a small-time beekeeper in the process. Kolbert's hives suffer repeated collapse, not due to any mysterious epidemic, but rather the brash intrusions of honey-obsessed black bears.
Meanwhile, her research into CCD arrives at the tentative conclusion that the disorder is likely caused by a virus. Moreover, she learns that CCD is, in the words of one entomologist, a "crisis on top of a crisis." She is referring to the decline of wild pollinators likely due to a range of factors, including habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and disease. She quotes a report by the National Research Council on the status of North American pollinators, which states: "Pollinator decline is one form of global change that actually does have credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world."
You can read Kolbert's report in the August 6 issue of the New Yorker or listen to an audio report from her here.
The death toll from recent flooding in China is relatively low, with the figure now placed at 500, but the torrential rains have displaced an incredible 4 to 5 million people, according to latest news reports. That's double the number displaced by the conflicts in the Sudan, and about the same number of refugees created by the war in Iraq.
At the same time the country struggles to cope with floods, the southern provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi are facing searing temperatures and drought. China, which is fast overtaking the US as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, sees global warming as at least partly responsible for the weather extremes, which it says will become more frequent. Beijing points to far lower per capita emissions, however, and insists it will not consider a cap on carbon emissions until Washington does the same.
As it happens, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose concern over the seriousness of global warming differentiates him from most of President Bush's cabinet, is currently in China, visiting the northern Tibetan Plateau, which Chinese officials say is warming faster than anyplace on earth. Fast receding glaciers in the region threaten the water supplies for millions of Chinese.
Kobayashi of the Deep
More on the takeover of Monterey Bay by voracious Jumbo (aka Humboldt or 'Red Devil') Squid in today's New York Times. Researchers think the spread of the fearsome eating machines, which threaten to deplete commercially valuable fisheries such as hake, may be due to a combination of factors (sound familiar?). These include: overfishing, which has resulted in a reduction of competitors with, and predators of, the squid -- such as billfish; and climate change, which scientists think may be extending a band of a low-oxygen water in the Pacific in which the jumbo squid and many of their prey tend to thrive. One researcher hypothesized that the Red Devils, which are also spreading south into Chilean waters, could be following this hypoxic stratum "like a highway" into new territories, adding that the jumbos are the perfect organism to capitalize on change."