Blog Archive

Sunday, May 22, 2016

rjs's environmental, climate science, and other news of May 22, 2016

America’s Most Common Drug Ingredient Could Be Making You Less Empathetic -- Every week, a quarter of Americans take a painkiller that could be dampening our collective feelings of empathy. In a paper published online this week, scientists claim that acetaminophen, Tylenol’s main ingredient, makes people more likely to think that other people’s pain isn’t a big deal.  Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University published their findings in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience after studying the effects of the drug on between 80 and about 120 college students across three different experiments.  One group of students drank a liquid with 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, while another took a placebo. An hour later, everyone read short stories about situations such as feeling emotional pain from the death of a parent, or physical pain from a knife that had cut through to the bone. The students who drank the acetaminophen assigned lower ratings for perceived pain and distress than the students who didn’t. In the second experiment, participants socialized with other people and then, while alone, watched a game supposedly involving three of the people they had just met. The game showed two people excluding the third from an activity, and asked students to rate how hurt the excluded member was. Again, students who took the painkiller assigned lower pain ratings. Given how common acetaminophen is (it’s present in more than 600 products) it’s worth looking into what the researchers have called its “broader social side effects” and whether other painkillers could have similar results.

Zika Virus May Spread To Europe In Coming Months, WHO Warns: The Zika virus, an infectious disease linked to severe birth defects in babies, may spread into Europe as the weather gets warmer, although the risk is low, health officials said on Wednesday. In its first assessment of the threat Zika poses to the region, the World Health Organization's European office said the overall risk was small to moderate. It is highest in areas where Aedes mosquitoes thrive, in particular on the island of Madeira and the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea. "There is a risk of spread of Zika virus disease in the European Region and ... this risk varies from country to country, said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe. "We call particularly on countries at higher risk to strengthen their national capacities and prioritize the activities that will prevent a large Zika outbreak." The WHO's European region covers 53 countries and a population of nearly 900 million. It stretches from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south and from the Atlantic in the west to the Pacific in the east. A large and spreading outbreak of Zika that began in Brazil has caused global alarm. The virus has been linked to thousands of cases of a birth defect known as microcephaly in babies of women who become infected with Zika while pregnant. The WHO has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults. The WHO's Geneva headquarters in February declared the Zika outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), warning it was spreading "explosively" in the Americas.

Antibiotics will stop working at a 'terrible human cost', major report warns -- Urgent action is needed to control the use of antibiotics before they cease to work, leaving a number of major conditions untreatable and causing “terrible human and economic cost”, a major study has warned.Resistance to antibiotics is growing at such an alarming rate that they risk losing effectiveness entirely meaning medical procedures such as caesarean sections, joint replacements and chemotherapy could soon become too dangerous to perform. Unless urgent action is taken, drug resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050, more than cancer kills currently, the report’s authors warn.  Drug resistant infections are thought to be growing due to over-use of medicine such as antibiotics and anti-fungus treatments to treat minor conditions such as the common cold. With over-use, resistance to the drugs builds up meaning some conditions become incurable and so-called ‘superbugs’ such as MRSA develop.Research has also suggested that antibiotic use in pig farming is common as poor living conditions mean such treatment is necessary to prevent infections spreading between livestock and that this passes down to humans through pork consumption, increasing resistance levels further. In the UK, 45 per cent of all antibiotics are given to livestock. It calls for urgent action to halt the growing use of antibiotics: “to avoid the terrible human and economic costs of resistance that the world would otherwise face.” Among his recommendations, Lord O’Neill calls for a public awareness campaign on the harms of antibiotic use, for restrictions to be placed on the use of some critical antibiotics and a tax on the drugs to be introduced for livestock use.

The Plan to Avert Our Post-Antibiotic Apocalypse -- Under instructions from U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, economist Jim O’Neill has spent the last two years looking into the problem of drug-resistant infections—bacteria and other microbes that have become impervious to antibiotics. In that time, he estimates that a million people have died from such infections. By 2050, he thinks that ten million will die every year.  A former chairman of Goldman Sachs with no scientific training, he was an unorthodox choice to lead an international commission on drug-resistant infections. He was also an inspired one. The problem of drug-resistant microbes isn’t just about biology and chemistry; it’s an economic problem at heart, a catastrophic and long-bubbling mismatch between supply and demand. It’s the result of the many incentives for misusing our drugs, and the dearth of incentives for developing new ones.  The scope of that problem is clear in O’Neill’s final report, which launches today on the back of eight earlier interim publications. It is as thorough a review of the problem of drug-resistant infections as currently exists. “They’ve been extremely open-minded, and have sought opinion extensively across the world,” The report’s language is sober but its numbers are apocalyptic. If antibiotics continue to lose their sting, resistant infections will sap $100 trillion from the world economy between now and 2050, equivalent to $10,000 for every person alive today. Ten million people will die every year, roughly one every three seconds, and more than currently die from cancer.  And yet, resistance is not futile. O’Neill’s report includes ten steps to avert the crisis. Notably, only two address the problem of supply—the lack of new antibiotics.   Indeed, seven of his recommendations focus on reducing the wanton and wasteful use of our existing arsenal. It’s inevitable that microbes will evolve resistance, but we can delay that process by using drugs more sparingly.

World Bank launches $500 million insurance fund to fight pandemics | Reuters: The World Bank on Saturday said it was launching a $500 million, fast-disbursing insurance fund to combat deadly pandemics in poor countries, creating the world's first insurance market for pandemic risk. Japan has committed the first $50 million towards the facility, which will combine funding from reinsurance markets with the proceeds of a new type of World Bank-issued high-yield pandemic “catastrophe” bond, the bank said. In the event of a pandemic outbreak, the facility will release funds quickly to affected poor countries and qualified international first-responder agencies. The genesis of the new facility was the slow international response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when it took months to muster meaningful funds for affected countries as death tolls mounted. "The recent Ebola crisis in West Africa was a tragedy that we were simply not prepared for. It was a wake-up call to the world,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told a media conference call. “We can’t change the speed of a hurricane or the magnitude of an earthquake, but we can change the trajectory of an outbreak. With enough money sent to the right place at the right time, we can save lives and protect economies,” Kim added. The so-called Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility will initially provide up to $500 million that can be disbursed quickly to fight a pandemic, with funds released once parametric triggers are met, based on the size, severity and spread of an outbreak. The facility was developed in conjunction with the World Health Organization and reinsurers Swiss Re and Munich Re, which are acting as insurance providers. It will include catastrophe, or cat bonds, in which purchasers would lose principal if fund flows are triggered by a pandemic outbreak, the World Bank said.

The ‘Sell By’ Dates On Our Groceries Are Causing Tons Of Food Waste  -- The food labeling system in the United States is a complete mess. Foods can be labeled “healthy” regardless of how much sugar they contain. Foods can be labeled “Non-GMO” even when they don’t have genes, making the existence of a genetically-modified version impossible. But beyond encouraging misinformation in our food system and potentially leading consumers to make ill-informed nutritional decisions, labels can also be terrible for the environment and food security.  Take, for instance, the existence of omnipresent expiration labels. Most consumers assume that these labels are guidelines for the date after which it’s unwise, or potentially unsafe, to eat that particular food product. But expiration labels basically mean nothing. There are no federal standards for expiration dates, except for baby formula, and best-by or sell-by date have no basis in science — instead, they’re a manufacturer’s best guess for when the food is likely to be freshest, or at peak quality. Some food products could easily last a year or a year and a half past their “sell by” date. A lot of American consumers don’t know that, however, which leads to confusion over expiration labels and, in turn, causes Americans to throw out a lot of perfectly good food. A recent study from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and the National Consumers League, which surveyed over 1,000 American consumers, found that a third of consumers believe that expiration labels are federally regulated. The study also found that more than than a third of consumers consistently throw away food that is close to or past its labeled expiration date, and 84 percent do it at least occasionally.

Should Parents Be Worried About Nanoparticles in Baby Formula? -- There’s a lot of stuff you’d expect to find in baby formula: proteins, carbs, vitamins, essential minerals. But parents probably wouldn’t anticipate finding extremely small, needle-like particles. Yet this is exactly what a team of scientists here at Arizona State University (ASU) recently discovered. The research, commissioned and published by Friends of the Earth—an environmental advocacy group—analyzed six commonly available off-the-shelf baby formulas (liquid and powder) and found nanometer-scale needle-like particles in three of them. The particles were made of hydroxyapatite—a poorly soluble calcium-rich mineral. Manufacturers use it to regulate acidity in some foods, and it’s also available as a dietary supplement. Looking at these particles at super-high magnification, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious about feeding them to a baby. They appear sharp and dangerous—not the sort of thing that has any place around infants. And they are “nanoparticles”—a family of ultra-small particles that have been raising safety concerns within the scientific community and elsewhere for some years. For all these reasons, questions like “should infants be ingesting them?” make a lot of sense. However, as is so often the case, the answers are not quite so straightforward.

Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome - The New York Times: Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.But such an attempt would raise numerous ethical issues. Could scientists create humans with certain kinds of traits, perhaps people born and bred to be soldiers? Or might it be possible to make copies of specific people?

Austin, Indiana: the HIV capital of small-town America - Darren was 13 when he started taking pills, which he claims were given to him by an adult relative. “He used to feed them to me,” Darren said. On fishing trips, they’d get high together. Jessica and Darren have never known a life of family dinners, board games and summer vacations. “This right here is normal to us,” Darren told me. He sat in a burgundy recliner, scratching at his arms and pulling the leg rest up and down. Their house was in better shape than many others I’d seen, but nothing in it was theirs. Their bedrooms were bare. The kind of multigenerational drug use he was describing was not uncommon in their town, Austin, in southern Indiana. It’s a tiny place, covering just two and a half square miles of the sliver of land that comprises Scott County. An incredible proportion of its 4,100 population – up to an estimated 500 people – are shooting up. It was here, starting in December 2014, that the single largest HIV outbreak in US history took place. Austin went from having no more than three cases per year to 180 in 2015, a prevalence rate close to that seen in sub-Saharan Africa.  Exactly how this appalling human crisis happened here, in this particular town, has not been fully explained. I’d arrived in Scott County a week previously to find Austin not exactly desolate. Main Street had a few open businesses, including two pharmacies and a used-goods store, owned by a local police sergeant.  In the streets either side of it, though, modest ranch houses were interspersed among shacks and mobile homes. Some lawns were well-tended, but many more were not. On some streets, every other house had a warning sign: ‘No Trespassing’, ‘Private Property’, ‘Keep Out’. Sheets served as window curtains. . Others had porches filled with junk – washing machines, furniture, toys, stacks of old magazines. There were no sidewalks. Teenage and twenty-something girls walked the streets selling sex. I watched a young girl in a puffy silver coat get into a car with a grey-haired man.  Driving around for days, knocking on doors looking for drug users who would speak with me was intimidating. I’ve never felt more scared than I did in Austin.

Nebraska Farmers Sue Monsanto Alleging Roundup Gave Them Cancer -- Four Nebraskan agricultural workers have filed a lawsuit against Monsanto Co. alleging that the agribusiness giant’s cancer-linked product, Roundup, gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma after many years of exposure. The plaintiffs have also accused Monsanto of purposely misleading consumers about the safety of its blockbuster product, which contains glyphosate as its controversial main ingredient. The plaintiffs allege that Monsanto mislabeled the product in defiance of the “body of recognized scientific evidence linking the disease to exposure to Roundup.” Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the world was infamously classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in March 2015. “Case-control studies of occupational exposure in the USA, Canada, and Sweden reported increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides,” the IARC said about the herbicide, adding that there is also “convincing evidence” that it can cause cancer in laboratory animals. “Roundup is used by Nebraskans raising everything from grain to grass and tulips to trees. Nothing on the label alerts users to health risks,” their attorney David Domina told Courthouse News. He said that Nebraskans deserve the benefit of the WHO’s research and protection against unknown exposure.

New Evidence About the Dangers of Monsanto's Roundup - John Sanders worked in the orange and grapefruit groves in Redlands, California, for more than 30 years. First as a ranch hand, then as a farm worker, he was responsible for keeping the weeds around the citrus trees in check. Roundup, the Monsanto weed killer, was his weapon of choice, and he sprayed it on the plants from a hand-held atomizer year-round. Frank Tanner, who owned a landscaping business, is also a Californian and former Roundup user. Tanner relied on the herbicide starting in 1974, and between 2000 and 2006 sprayed between 50 and 70 gallons of it a year, sometimes from a backpack, other times from a 200-gallon drum that he rolled on a cart next to him. The two men have other things in common, too: After being regularly exposed to Roundup, both developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer that starts in the lymph cells. And, as of April, both are plaintiffs in a suit filed against Monsanto that marks a turning point in the pitched battle over the most widely used agricultural chemical in history. Until recently, the fight over Roundup has mostly focused on its active ingredient, glyphosate. But mounting evidence, including one study published in February, shows it’s not only glyphosate that’s dangerous, but also chemicals listed as “inert ingredients” in some formulations of Roundup and other glyphosate-based weed killers. Though they have been in herbicides — and our environment — for decades, these chemicals have evaded scientific scrutiny and regulation in large part because the companies that make and use them have concealed their identity as trade secrets. Now, as environmental scientists have begun to puzzle out the mysterious chemicals sold along with glyphosate, evidence that these so-called inert ingredients are harmful has begun to hit U.S. courts. In addition to Sanders and Tanner, at least four people who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup have sued Monsanto in recent months, citing the dangers of both glyphosate and the co-formulants sold with it.

UN Says Glyphosate ‘Unlikely’ to Cause Cancer, Industry Ties to Report Called Into Question --Does glyphosate cause cancer or not? A new joint report from experts at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) has concluded that the controversial chemical is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.” The new review appears to contradict the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which concluded in March 2015 that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer in humans. So is there a mixup between the two bodies? In a Q&A issued alongside the new report, the WHO acknowledged that the conclusions arrived at by the IARC and the FAO/JMPR were “different, yet complementary.” The IARC assessed glyphosate as a “hazard” while the joint group looked at “risk.” The WHO said that while the “IARC reviews published studies to identify potential cancer hazards, it does not estimate the level of risk to the population associated with exposure to the hazard.” On the other hand, the JMPR “conducts an evaluation or a re-evaluation of the safety of that chemical as it is used in agriculture and occurs in food.” Wired further explained the differences between the two assessments: The IARC studies whether chemicals can cause cancer under any possible situation—realistic or not—while the joint meeting’s report looks at whether glyphosate can cause cancer in real-life conditions, like if you eat cereal every morning made from corn treated with glyphosate. One of these reports is, by design, much more relevant to your life than the other. The IARC is also, by design, not supposed to make recommendations to the public. It assesses “hazard,” which in scientific jargon, means something very different than “risk.”

EU Delays Approval of Glyphosate, Again -- A decision on whether or not to re-approve the controversial toxic substance glyphosate for use in Europe was postponed Thursday for the second time, following disagreement among representatives of EU governments. A revised proposal by the European Commission to re-approve glyphosate for use in Europe for nine more years, with almost no restrictions, failed to secure the required majority among EU governments. The decision was due to be taken by representatives of EU governments in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed. The proposal by the European Commission to approve glyphosate for 9 more years, with no restrictions on its use, would have to have been approved by a qualified majority of member states. It is not yet clear when the next meeting of the committee will take place, but the commission can now either present a new proposal or propose a technical extension for a shorter timeframe (e.g. 2 years).  Bart Staes, Green environment and food safety spokesperson, had this to say about the decision: “This latest postponement is a sign that the significant opposition to re-approving glyphosate is being taken seriously by key EU governments. It is clear that the EU Commission and the agro-chemical industry were hell-bent on bulldozing through the approval of glyphosate for unrestricted use for a long timeframe but thankfully this push has been headed off for now. We hope this postponement will convince more EU governments to join in opposing the approval of this controversial substance and, at the very least, to proactively propose comprehensive restrictions on its use.“

Poison Sector Concentration: Monsanto May Get Bought -- In my January piece on agrochemical sector concentration I mentioned that Monsanto’s last chance for a merger may be with BASF. Now the business press is percolating with talk of either BASF or Bayer buying Monsanto outright. Both companies have herbicide portfolios not dependent on glyphosate. Bayer also has extensive seed company holdings, while BASF has little in that way.  All the talk reinforces the perception that Monsanto’s Roundup business is seen as having a highly questionable future and that the only thing which might really interest anyone is the company’s potential to develop GM traits other than those based on glyphosate, along with the germplasm holdings among the seed companies Monsanto owns. The specter of “monopoly” always touted in these connections by the corporate media and government is a misdirection ploy. The sector already has monopolies on pesticides and GM seeds, and the handful of companies in an oligopoly sector almost never compete on price, product quality, or anything else which might benefit customers or the public. Rather, they compete for market share through advertising and government lobbying. So a BASF/Monsanto or Dow/DuPont merger is unlikely to make any difference for industrial farmers. Anyone who actually cared about the evils of monopoly would target the sector as the monolithic whole it is, not fret over cosmetic mergers within the sector. We can expect that any reconfigured entity will try to make the Monsanto name go away in the same way that Monsanto’s former contractor Blackwater changed its name to “Xe”. Whatever cosmetic changes are made including in the name, we must still keep calling it Monsanto.

Genetically modified salmon approved for consumption in Canada - Health Canada has approved genetically modified salmon as safe for consumption, allowing for the first time genetically altered animals on Canadian grocery store shelves. The federal agency’s decision Thursday follows a decades-long fight by AquaBounty Technologies, a company with roots in Canada, to sell its product in North America. The decision was met with fierce opposition by environmental groups who question the safety of the product and who say the approval opens the door to other genetically engineered animals. Health Canada said Thursday its scientists conducted “a thorough analysis” of AquAdvantage, AquaBounty’s brand of genetically modified salmon. By introducing a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon, the company is able to grow Atlantic salmon to market size in half the amount of time – from about 40 months down to 20. “In every other way, the AquAdvantage salmon is identical to other farmed salmon,” the agency said in a statement. “Following this assessment, it was determined that the changes made to the salmon did not pose a greater risk to human health than salmon currently available on the Canadian market.” The fish will not need to be labelled as genetically modified. In Canada, such labels are required only in cases where the food poses a health risk, or if nutritional qualities have been significantly changed. The United States Food and Drug Administration made a similar decision to allow the sale of AquAdvantage last year.

National Research Council GMO Study Compromised by Industry Ties -- One day before the National Research Council (NRC) is scheduled to release a multi-year research report about genetically engineered (GMO) crops and food, Food & Water Watch has released an issue brief detailing the far-reaching conflicts of interest at the NRC and its parent organization, the National Academy of Sciences. Under the Influence: The National Research Council and GMOs charts the millions of dollars in donations the NRC receives from biotech companies like Monsanto, documents the one-sided panels of scientists the NRC enlists to carry out its GMO studies and describes the revolving door of NRC staff directors who shuffle in and out of agriculture and biotech industry groups. The new issue brief also shows how NRC routinely arrives at watered-down scientific conclusions on agricultural issues based on industry science. While companies like Monsanto and its academic partners are heavily involved in the NRC’s work on GMOs, critics have long been marginalized. Many groups have called on the NRC many times to reduce industry influence, noting how conflicts of interest clearly diminish its independence and scientific integrity.  More than half of the invited authors of the new NRC study are involved in GMO development or promotion or have ties to the biotechnology industry—some have consulted for or have received research funding from, biotech companies. NRC has not publicly disclosed these conflicts.

Big Ag Fights to the Bitter End to Keep Pesticide From Being Banned - After years of debate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally poised to revoke all uses of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which first came online as a pest control technology in 1965. That action, which could come this year, follows years of accumulating evidence that the organophosphate pesticide poses significant risks to people’s health and the environment. But Big Ag isn’t giving up on chlorpyrifos yet. Marketed by Dow Agrosciences under the names Lorsban and Dursban, chlorpyrifos was once widely used to battle insects in homes, gardens and lawns as well as in agriculture. In June 2000, however, the company agreed to stop selling it for household uses because of the health risks it posed to children. But its agreement with the EPA did not extend to conventional agriculture, where chlorpyrifos is still widely used today. Research has linked the pesticide to nervous system damage, behavioral problems and lower IQ in young children whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy. In adults, low-level exposure to chlorpyrifos can cause nausea, headaches and dizziness and farmworkers or others who experienced severe exposures have suffered vomiting, muscle cramps, diarrhea, blurred vision, loss of consciousness and even paralysis. In its latest round of pesticide residue tests on fruits and veggies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture detected residues of chlorpyrifos on some samples of fruits and veggies children often eat, including peaches and nectarines. The EPA’s final ruling to revoke all uses of chlorpyrifos in agriculture, which has been years in the making, still has Big Ag in a twist, which was on display last month at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research.

Farms Are A Major Global Source Of Air Pollution  -- At the beginning of the 20th century, two German chemists — Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch — figured out a way to produce ammonia cheaply, and on an industrial scale.  Without their process, it’s estimated that about 40 percent of the human population would not be alive today. But the use of widely-available fertilizer has also come with some considerable downsides. Fertilizer runoff making its way into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans has contributed to algal blooms and oxygen-free “dead zones” across the United States, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. In Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works utility filed a federal lawsuit against three farm counties, claiming that the filtration technology required to strip the drinking water of nitrates from excess fertilizer runoff costs the utility between $4,000 and $7,000 a day.  And it’s not just the water that is being polluted by fertilizer use. A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters found that fertilizer use — as well as animal agriculture — is a significant contributor to air pollution worldwide. Susanne Bauer, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told ThinkProgress that she was interested in looking at agricultural air pollution because, unlike car pollution or pollution from combustion engines, it’s a sector that has not been looked at closely, especially on a global scale. Yet with a growing global population, agricultural air pollution — in the form of ammonia from fertilizer and livestock waste — is expected to increase, as farmers race to keep up with the growing demand for food. “In this study, we wanted to shine a light on a sector that is not talked about a lot,” she said. “Nobody wants to criticize food production, but we need to think about how we produce food.”

A Chemical Reaction Revolutionized Farming 100 Years Ago. Now It Needs to Go --OF ALL THE elements that make up Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen is by far the most abundant. It is also one of the most inert. Nothing happens when you breathe it in, swallow it, or let it suffuse your skin. Nitrogen gas likes to stay nitrogen gas. But in the early 20th century, two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, figured out how to pluck fertilizer from thin air by making ammonia (NH3) out of nitrogen gas (N2). You need energy, lots of it. The Haber-Bosch process relied and still relies on high temperature, high pressure, and hydrogen atoms ripped from fossil fuels. Ammonia from this process fertilizes crops, which in turn nourish you. On average, half the nitrogen in your cells might come from Haber-Bosch. “The Haber-Bosch process is one of the most important for humanity,” says Mercouri Kanatzidis, a chemist at Northwestern University. But what seemed ingenious a hundred years ago is running into problems in 2016. The Haber-Bosch process burns natural gas (3 percent of the world’s production) and releases loads of carbon (3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions). If relying on fossil fuels to give the world electricity and heat is unsustainable, so is relying on fossil fuels to grow its food. So interest in a Haber-Bosch alternative is heating up. Last month, the Department of Energy issued a funding opportunity announcement for a sustainable way to make ammonia. The challenge isn’t just making ammonia without fossil fuels—scientists can already do that—but to do it at a scale and price that can compete with an industrial process perfected over a hundred years. And that ultimately might take more than just a technological breakthrough.

How to Reclaim Nitrogen Back as a Life-giving Nutrient -- Coastal dead zones, global warming, excess algae blooms, acid rain, ocean acidification, smog, impaired drinking water quality, an expanding ozone hole and biodiversity loss. Seemingly diverse problems, but a common thread connects them: human disruption of how a single chemical element, nitrogen, interacts with the environment. Nitrogen is absolutely crucial to life — an indispensable ingredient of DNA, proteins and essentially all living tissue — yet it also can choke the life out of aquatic ecosystems, destroy trees and sicken people when it shows up in excess at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong form. And over the past century, people have released so much of this type of nitrogen — known as reactive nitrogen — that scientists say we’ve passed the limit of what the planet can safely handle. The result of releasing so much nitrogen to the environment — through excessive and inefficient fertilizer use, agriculture-related nitrogen emissions and nutrient-laden wastewater, along with fossil fuel and biomass burning — is this slew of adverse environmental impacts. These impacts are occurring worldwide and are exacerbated by warming temperatures. Though the nitrogen problem gets far less press, we’ve now upset the naturally occurring balance of nitrogen even more than that of carbon. While many things contribute to the problem — including energy use, urban runoff and sewage — agriculture is the largest source of environmentally damaging nitrogen. According to scientists studying this problem, approximately 80 percent of the nitrogen currently used in agriculture (primarily synthetic and other fertilizers, like manure) is lost to the environment at some point in the food supply chain. These losses occur on farms and in food production, sales, distribution, preparation and consumption.

World Farmers Need to Do More to Stop Catastrophic Climate Change -- The world’s farmers and food producers must do more—perhaps five times as much—to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that threaten catastrophic global climate change, according to new research. Right now, scientists calculate that the options available to meet the recent Paris agreement to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 C above historic levels would deliver at most 40 percent and at the lowest estimate 21 percent, of the mitigation necessary. That means that cattlemen, rice farmers, shepherds, growers and livestock managers of all kinds must somehow achieve reductions in methane and oxides of nitrogen equivalent to a billion tons of carbon dioxide each year by 2030. Carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas, but although the others are released in much lower quantities and linger in the atmosphere for a much shorter span, they are also many times more potent in terms of the greenhouse effect. This new look at the challenge ahead for the world’s food producers, published in Global Change Biology journal, is the outcome of a co-operation between scientists from 22 institutes or laboratories of global distinction.  These include the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Rice Research Institute and many other agencies and universities.

For The American Farmer "It's Death By A 1,000 Knives”- US Farmland Values Plunge Most In 30 Years -- Not so long ago, US farmland - whose prices were until recently rising exponentially - was considered by many to be the next asset bubble. Then, exactly one year ago, the fairytale officially ended, and as reported in February, US farmland saw its first price drop since 1986. It was also about a year ago when looking ahead, very few bankers expected price appreciation and more than a quarter of survey respondents expect cropland values to continue declining. They were right. According to several regional Fed reports released last Thursday, real farmland values in parts of the Midwest fell at their fastest clip in almost 30 years during the first quarter.  This is how the Chicago Fed described the increasingly dire situation: Agricultural land values in the Seventh Federal Reserve District fell 4 percent from a year ago in the first quarter of 2016—their largest year-over-year decline since the third quarter of 2009. Cash rental rates for District farmland experienced a significant drop of 10 percent for 2016 compared with 2015—even larger than the decrease of last year relative to 2014. Demand to purchase agricultural land was markedly lower in the three- to six-month period ending with March 2016 compared with the same period ending with March 2015. Moreover, the amount of farmland for sale, the number of farms sold, and the amount of acreage sold were all down during the winter and early spring of 2016 compared with a year ago. Nearly two-thirds of the responding bankers expected farmland values to decrease during the second quarter of 2016, with the rest expecting farmland values to remain stable.

The American West Is Losing A Football Field Worth Of Land Every Two And A Half Minutes --A new study released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Conservation Science Partners (CSP) found that every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development. This project, called the Disappearing West, is the first comprehensive analysis of how much land in the West is disappearing to development, how quickly this transformation is taking place, and the driving factors behind this loss. .   The data further disproves statements made by the BundysKen Ivory, and other land seizure proponents that land in the West is already “locked up”. According to the analysis, as of 2011, development in the West covered around 165,000 square miles of land — an area about the size of six million superstore parking lots.  Advocates for seizing and selling off public lands often argue that private landowners will be better stewards of the land. Yet the data from the analysis shows that development on private lands accounted for nearly three-fourths of all natural areas in the West that disappeared between 2001 and 2011, while public lands like national parks and wilderness areas had some of the lowest rates of development.

Something disturbing is happening to honey bee colonies and scientists can't explain why - Honey bees are nearly as essential to our food system as crops themselves. Depending on how the research is conducted, pollinators are needed to produce approximately one-third of the food we eat (more, according to some estimates). Bees also contribute about $17 billion to the US agricultural industry each year. And it'd be extremely hard and expensive to get your hands on coffee without them, making them a key part of the global economy. So it's unfortunate to note that, according to newly released survey data, honey bees are in serious trouble.Bees have struggled in general for years, facing problems that wreak havoc on populations like colony collapse disorder.But a new report from the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), a group of leading researchers funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is particularly disturbing.Below is what the researchers have found since they first started tracking bee colony losses in 2007.The total losses of colonies (yellow) are trending upward year-over-year:"When we started the survey, we focused on winter losses as winter is generally seen as the most stressful time of the year for bees," Nathalie Steinhauer, the survey coordinator and a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at the University of Maryland, tells Tech Insider in an email. "High levels of summer losses came as a surprise for us," Steinhauer writes.These trends are a big deal for several reasons.  For one, summer losses are now as bad as winter losses, but summer is when bees are supposed to thrive, flying from flower to flower with abundant food and beautiful weather. But the data also show that, despite recent efforts to cut back on the use of certain pesticides — and a White House-inspired push to cut winter colony losses to 15% over the next ten years — overall losses seem to be just as bad as they've been, if not worse (the 2015-2016 data set is not yet complete).

Invasive insects are ravaging U.S. forests, and it’s costing us billions -- Last week, a group of researchers published saddening news about “sudden oak death,” spread by an invasive water mold, that has killed over a million trees in coastal California. The pathogen, they found, simply cannot be stopped — though it can still be contained, and the harm mitigated. But it is too extensively established now in California to eradicate.  Unfortunately, it’s a familiar story. The U.S. is subject to the introduction of 2.5 new invasive insects into its forests ever year, according to a comprehensive new analysis of this problem, in the journal Ecological Applications. And that number is just for insects — it doesn’t count diseases, like sudden oak death.  The study finds that the rate of these invasions is increasing, because it is fundamentally related to global trade, which keeps on growing — and that already, their “likely” toll is in the billions of dollars every year.  Indeed, the study calls these invasive pests the “most serious and urgent near-term ecological threat” to U.S. forests — which we rely on not only for cultural and recreational reasons but also to store carbon, filter water, host diverse biological life and much more. It also notes that species invasions are the only known threat “that has proved capable of nearly eliminating entire tree species, or in some cases entire genera, within a matter of decades.”  The case study of this is the American chestnut, which was felled in enormous quantities by the chestnut blight during the 1900s. “The American chestnut tree reigned over 200 million acres of eastern woodlands from Maine to Florida, and from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley, until succumbing to a lethal fungus infestation” notes the American Chestnut Foundation.   “The government responds to crises, like a forest fire, for sure,” Lovett says. “This is more of a slow-motion crisis. It’s probably the biggest threat to forest health in the country, but it unfolds very slowly, so it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.”

Over A Third Of North America’s Bird Species Need ‘Urgent Conservation Action’ -- Thanks to a multitude of threats, over a third of the bird species in North America are “of major conservation concern,” according to a comprehensive study released Wednesday. The report, released by the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, is the first to look at the threats facing all 1,154 migratory bird species native to North America. Taking into account population sizes and trends, extent of habitats, and severity of threats, the report found that 37 percent of migratory birds in North America qualify for the conservation watch list, “indicating species of highest conservation concern based on high vulnerability scores across multiple factors.” Some are doing worse than others: More than half of seabirds and species that make their homes in tropical forests are on the watch list, the report found. These species face threats like deforestation, which is stripping birds and other animals of their habitats, and overfishing, which is eliminating food sources for seabirds. Meanwhile, bird species that depend on coastal, arid, and grassland habitat are “declining steeply,” while generalists — those birds who can adapt easily to a range of different environments — are doing well.  “This report is telling us what many of us have feared for years: Migratory birds face challenges that dwarf any that they have faced in the era of human dominance of planet,” Dan Ashe, director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said at a launch event in Ottawa Wednesday. Climate change is disrupting migration, he said, while habitat is being fragmented and destroyed. “This 2016 State of North America’s Birds report documents alarming trends,” he said.

Climate Change Is Shrinking Earth’s Far-Flying Birds - Every year, flocks of red knots criss-cross the globe. In the summer, these shorebirds breed in the Arctic circle, making the most of the exposed vegetation and constant daylight. Then, anticipating the returning ice and continuous night, they fly to the opposite end of the world. Different populations have their own itineraries, but all are epically long: Alaska to Venezuela; Canada to Patagonia; Siberia to Australia.    These migratory marathons mean that the red knot’s fate in one continent can be decided by conditions half a world away. And that makes it a global indicator, a sentinel for a changing world. It is the proverbial canary in the coalmine, except the mine is the planet.  And the canary is shrinking.  For the last 33 years, European scientists have been measuring a population of red knots that stop at Poland’s Gdansk Bay on their migrations between northern Russia and western Africa. When Jan van Gils from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research analyzed these measurements, he noticed that the knots have been gradually getting smaller. They’re not alone. Israeli sparrows, Danish hawks, Alaskan polar bears, North Sea fish, and many other animal populations are getting smaller as the world warms. Some scientists suggest that the trend is adaptive: compact bodies are useful in hotter conditions because smaller individuals have a larger surface area for their size, and so lose heat more quickly. Others say it’s maladaptive: the shrunken species are simply undernourished.  Red knot chicks mainly feed on the insects that emerge from defrosting Arctic soil. If the snow melts too early, the hatchlings miss out on Peak Insect and can’t eat enough to pack on weight. They end up small and stunted.

Chile’s ‘Worst Ever’ Red Tide Kills 20 Million Fish, Prompts Investigation of Salmon Farms  - The unprecedented red tide in Chile’s coastal waters—which has killed more than 20 million fish—has triggered protests and a public health crisis in the South American country. The virulent algal bloom, which turns waters red and seafood poisonous, is “the worst case” of red tide in the country’s history and has devastated its fishing industry. Reuters reported in March that the deadly bloom has decimated 15 percent of Chile’s salmon production putting the total economic blow from lost production at around $800 million. The government has declared an emergency zone in the south of Chile as it deals with the red tide. The Guardian reported that the algal bloom has been rapidly spreading along the coast of Patagonia for hundreds of miles, poisoning dozens of people and spurring angry protests from fishermen. Questions are being raised on whether human activity may have worsened the red tide, asNational Geographic explained: From February to March this year, one of these blooms killed 25 million salmon in 45 farming centers in Chile. What happened next would prove to be controversial.  About thirty percent of the dead fish were taken to landfills. But the rest were thrown into the sea, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Chiloé island. That operation was authorized by the Chilean Navy and the fisheries managers. A few weeks later, a wave of more dead sealife washed up on Chiloé. While the government has blamed El Niño, many on the island suspect the dumping of the dead salmon might have had something to do with it. It’s one more example of the lax regulations of the country’s aquaculture industry, they say, which has exploded since the 1970s, making Chile the world’s second largest exporter of salmon. Environmentalists have complained for years that Chile’s aquaculture industry has polluted the water through feces and unfinished food, which may build up on the seafloor. Following accusations from local fishermen and communities, Chilean authorities and a scientific workforce are currently investigating the country’s salmon industry, the world’s second largest, for potentially exacerbating the algal bloom by dumping rotten or contaminated fish into the sea.

Navy Allowed to Kill or Injure Nearly 12 Million Whales, Dolphins, Other Marine Mammals in Pacific - What if you were told the US Navy is legally permitted to harass, injure or kill nearly 12 million whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and seals across the North Pacific Ocean over a five-year period? It is true, and over one-quarter of every tax dollar you pay is helping to fund it. A multistate, international citizen watchdog group called the West Coast Action Alliance (WCAA), tabulated numbers that came straight from the Navy's Northwest Training and Testing EIS (environmental impact statement) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Letters of Authorization for incidental "takes" of marine mammals issued by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. A "take" is a form of harm to an animal that ranges from harassment, to injury, and sometimes to death. Many wildlife conservationists see even "takes" that only cause behavior changes as injurious, because chronic harassment of animals that are feeding or breeding can end up harming, or even contributing to their deaths if they are driven out of habitats critical to their survival. Karen Sullivan, a spokesperson for the WCAA, is a former endangered species biologist and assistant regional director at the US Fish and Wildlife Service; she is now retired. "The numbers are staggering," she told Truthout, speaking about the number of marine mammals the Navy is permitted to take. "When you realize the same individual animals can be harassed over and over again as they migrate to different areas, there is no mitigation that can make up for these losses except limiting the use of sonar and explosives where these animals are trying to live."

Yellowstone Park bison euthanized after bonehead tourists thought they were saving it. The story making the rounds last week about the tourists trying to “rescue” a bison calf in Yellowstone National Park came to an unfortunate conclusion Monday when the park service announced they euthanized the calf. A week ago, a pair of presumably well-meaning, but utterly misguided, tourists saw the calf in the middle of the road and worried the animal was cold and dying. That led them to believe it was a good idea to pile the animal in the back of their SUV and seek help at a ranger station. That was, obviously, not the right move. But general human ridiculousness (and ignorance) is something the park service appears to be dealing with more and more these days. From the National Park Service: Last week in Yellowstone National Park, visitors were cited for placing a newborn bison calf in their vehicle and transporting it to a park facility because of their misplaced concern for the animal's welfare. In terms of human safety, this was a dangerous activity because adult animals are very protective of their young and will act aggressively to defend them. In addition, interference by people can cause mothers to reject their offspring. In this case, park rangers tried repeatedly to reunite the newborn bison calf with the herd. These efforts failed. The bison calf was later euthanized because it was abandoned and causing a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway. “In Yellowstone, it’s not a zoo,” a park spokeswoman told the Washington Post. “We don’t manage for individuals; we manage for ecosystems.” The tourists were issued a $110 fine and may face further charges.

WHO: Global air pollution is worsening, and poor countries are being hit the hardest -- Air pollution is growing worse in urban areas across much of the globe, hitting the poorest city dwellers hardest and contributing to a wide range of potentially life-shortening health problems, from heart disease to severe asthma, according to the World Health Organization. New data released by the organization on Thursday detailed how 4 of every 5 residents of cities with reliable measurements face levels of particulate air pollution that exceed what the WHO recommends. While the problem is playing out in cities around the world, poorer countries are suffering most.The WHO said 98 percent of urban areas in “low- and middle-income countries” with populations of more than 100,000 fall shy of the group’s air quality standards.“Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health,” Maria Neira, director of WHO’s department of public health, environment, and social determinants of health, said in a statement.[Air pollution in India is so bad that it kills half a million people every year]The figures released Thursday were part of an updated WHO global database of air pollution for cities and smaller human settlements across the world. The database now covers 3,000 cities, towns and villages in 103 countries, listing average annual levels of particulate matter in the air. This includes tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in size, known as PM2.5, which are thought to be the most deadly because they can find their way deep into a person’s lungs.The alarming result: 80 percent of people in cities and towns whose air quality is actually monitored are breathing air containing these particulates at concentrations higher than the WHO’s recommended level. Air pollution in urban areas as a whole was 8 percent worse in 2013 than it was in 2008.  

Earth just recorded its warmest April on record, and it wasn't even close: April was the warmest such month on record for the globe, and yet again, we saw a near-record large margin compared to average, according to NASA data released Saturday. The record all but assures that 2016 will set another milestone for the warmest calendar year in NASA's database, regardless of whether the rest of this year sees comparatively cooler global temperatures. During each of the past seven months, global average surface temperatures have exceeded the 20th century average by more than 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Until October, that 1-degree threshold had not been crossed since NASA's global temperature records began in 1880.According to NASA, April had a temperature anomaly of 1.11 degrees Celsius, or 1.99 degrees Fahrenheit, above the 20th century average, which means the month tied with January for the third-most unusually mild month ever recorded. The top two spots on that list are occupied by February and March, respectively. The second-warmest April on record was in 2010, when the temperature anomaly was a comparatively paltry 0.87 degrees Celsius, or 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The unusual April warmth was most pronounced across the Arctic, from Siberia to Greenland and Alaska. Southeast Asia experienced deadly heat waves occurring in Thailand and India, among other nations. Other climate monitoring tools have shown that Arctic sea ice is precariously sparse and thin for this time of year, potentially setting the stage for another record melt season by the end of the summer.

Earth Sees Record Warming for 12 Straight Months -- According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), April 2016 was the 12th consecutive month to break previous heat records, breaking the 1901-2000 long-term average by a record amount.  There is now a 99 percent likelihood that 2016 will become the hottest year on record. NOAA also said the global average carbon dioxide concentration reached 399 parts per million in 2015. “We’re dialing up Earth’s thermostat in a way that will lock more heat into the ocean and atmosphere for thousands of years,” Jim Butler, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division, said in a statement. For a deeper dive: APWashington PostBloombergUSA TodayClimate CentralMashable

A Song of Fire And No Ice: 2016 On Pace For Hottest Year Ever -- How big a jump was April 2016 compared to the historical record? In an email, Stefan Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, notes that “The margin by which April beats the previous record April is three times larger (0.24 °C) than the margin of any previous record April (biggest was 0.08 °C).”Also, this has easily been the hottest January-April on record, which isn’t a surprise given that last month’s record was hot on the heels of the hottest March on record by far, which followed the hottest February on record by far, and hottest January on record by far.Dr. Gavin Schmidt, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, points out on twitter that there is a pattern between how hot Jan-April is and how hot the full year is. He notes that if this pattern holds, then there is a greater than 99% chance that 2016 will be the hottest year on record.Scorching temperatures have extended over many months in the Arctic, and that means we have the perfect conditions for both wildfires and melting ice. Last year, which set the record for hottest year ever, also set the record for the worst U.S. wildfire year with more than 11 million acres burned. Siberia, Mongolia and China also saw massive blazes. This year, Alberta Canada has been so hot and so dry so early in the year that it has already fallen victim to a devastating firestorm: “It’s not just Alberta: Fires fuelled by warming climate are increasing,” as a CBC headline read last week. Arizona University climatologist Jonathan Overpeck expained, “The Alberta wildfires are an excellent example of what we’re seeing more and more of: warming means snow melts earlier, soils and vegetation dries out earlier, and the fire season starts earlier. It’s a train wreck.” Tragically, the warming-driven wildfires themselves cause more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, an amplifying feedback that speeds up the very climate change that causes more wildfires.

NASA: Last Month Was Warmest April Ever Recorded, Marking Seven Months of New Highs -- Last month was 1.11 C above the 1951-1980 average, making it the warmest April on record, according to new data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It was also the seventh consecutive month to have broken global temperature records. Scientists are now nearly certain that 2016 will become the hottest year on record. Meanwhile, CO2 levels in the southern hemisphere exceeded the symbolic 400 parts per million for the first time, as confirmed by measuring stations in Tasmania and Cape Grim, which climate scientists say “highlights the problem of rising emissions.” For a deeper dive: MashableThinkProgressGuardianCNNIB TimesHuffington PostSydney Morning Herald

Super Hot! India Records Its Highest Temperature Ever - A city in India has recorded the highest temperature in the country's history — 51 degrees Celsius, or 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit.  The city in western Rajasthan state broke the record Thursday; India's previous hottest day on record was 50.6 degrees Celsius in Alwar in 1956, according to The Times of India.  The scorching heat in Phalodi comes amid a heat wave across much of the country, as residents eagerly await the arrival of the monsoon season. As The Associated Press reports:"The monsoon normally hits southern India in the first week of June and covers the rest of the nation within a month. It is especially eagerly awaited this year because several parts of the country are reeling under a drought brought on by two years of weak rains. "Clare Nullis, a spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization, told reporters in Geneva on Friday during a briefing on record global temperatures that meteorologists expect this year's Indian monsoon will bring more rain than normal, which would be good news for the drought-stricken regions."

India's Plan to Divert Ganges & Brahmaputra Rivers Alarms Bangladesh - New Delhi is starting massive series of new projects to divert water from major rivers in the north and the east of the country to India's drought-stricken western and southern regions. This news has sounded alarm bells in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper. The $400 billion project involves rerouting water from major rivers including the Ganga and Brahmaputra and creating canals to link the Ken and Batwa rivers in central India and Damanganga-Pinjal in the west. Its target is to help drought-hit India farmers who are killing themselves at a rate on one every 30 minutes for at least two decades. The Indo-Gangetic Plain, also known as Indus-Ganga and the North Indian River Plain, is a 255 million hectare (630 million acre) fertile plain encompassing most of northern and eastern India, the eastern parts of Pakistan, and virtually all of Bangladesh, according to a Wikipedia entry. India and Pakistan have a formal internationally-brokered and monitored treaty called Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed in 1960 between Indian Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan President Ayub Khan in Karachi. The IWT allocated water from three eastern rivers of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej for exclusive use by India before they enter Pakistan, while the water from three western rivers of Jhelum, Chenab and Indus was allocated for exclusive use of Pakistan. The treaty essentially partitioned the rivers rather than sharing of their waters. The treaty also permits India to build run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects on the western rivers but it can not divert any water from them for its own use. At least 100 million Bangladeshis living downstream in Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and Padma (Ganga) river basins will be hit hard if India carries out the project as planned. Alarmed by this development, Bangladesh’s minister of water, Nazrul Islam, has pleaded with the Indian government to take Bangladesh’s water needs into consideration, noting that 54 of 56 Indian rivers flowed through his country.

Leaking Las Vegas: Lake Mead Plunges To Lowest Level Ever As "The Problem Is Not Going Away" -- The hopes of an El Nino-driven refill from last summer's plunging levels of the nation's largest reservoir have been dashed as AP reports Lake Mead water levels drop to new record lows (since it was filled in the 1930s) leaving Las Vegas facing existential threats unless something is done. Las Vegas and its 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year get almost all their drinking water from the Lake and at levels below 1075ft, the Interior Department will be forced to declare a "shortage," which will lead to significant cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada. As one water research scientist warned, "this problem is not going away and it is likely to get worse, perhaps far worse, as climate change unfolds."  As USA Today reports, the nation’s largest reservoir has broken a record, declining to the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s. Lake Mead reached the new all-time low on Wednesday night, slipping below a previous record set in June 2015. The downward march of the reservoir near Las Vegas reflects enormous strains on the over-allocated Colorado River. Its flows have decreased during 16 years of drought, and climate change is adding to the stresses on the river. As the levels of Lake Mead continue to fall, the odds are increasing for the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018, a step that would trigger cutbacks in the amounts flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada. With that threshold looming, political pressures are building for California, Arizona and Nevada to reach an agreement to share in the cutbacks in order to avert an even more severe shortage.

As California’s Largest Lake Evaporates, A County Struggles For Help — The lake is drying up, uncounted dead fish line the shore, and the desert town is losing people. It could be the plot of a post-apocalyptic movie set in the future, but this is actually happening here and it has been going on for years. It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time when this town was booming. There was a time when the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, was the “French Riviera” of the state, and the pride and joy of Imperial County. But that was decades ago, during the Sea’s heydays of the 1950s and 1960s. Back when this area had luxury resorts, piers, yachts, and thousands of visitors, including stars like Frank Sinatra — who owned a house in nearby Palm Springs and would come down to see Guy Lombardo sail his speedboat.  “You couldn’t put a towel on the beach,” “When it was the heydays we had five bars here,” “The fishing was the best of the world,” Located some 150 miles south of Los Angeles, the Salton Sea has been receding since the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in the nation went into effect in 2004. Experts reached for this story said the Salton Sea’s demise will have dire ramifications for fish, hundreds of migratory bird species, and the air of at least 1.5 million people in Southern California and Northern Mexico, unless mitigation projects happen soon. With less water going in, the Sea is evaporating fast and losing a half-foot of elevation each year. That rate will accelerate starting in 2018 as mitigation waters now flowing into the Sea will end. Moreover, experts said a warmer climate makes evaporation a larger foe.

May 2016 El Niño/La Niña update: Switcheroo! - (NOAA) - There’s a 75% chance that La Niña will be in place by the fall, meaning sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific at the equator will be more than 0.5°C below average. It’s possible the transition from El Niño to La Niña will be quick, with forecasters slightly favoring La Niña developing this summer. What’s behind this reasonably confident forecast? Sea surface temperatures in the Nino3.4 region, our primary index for ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation), have been cooling steadily since they peaked at 2.4°C (4.3°F) above average back in November. Recently, cooling has accelerated, and April was 1.2°C above average using ERSSTv4, our most historically consistent sea surface temperature dataset from NOAA NCEI. However, this is still well above the El Niño threshold of 0.5°C above average, and the atmosphere is still responding to those warmer surface temperatures. Both the Equatorial Southern Oscillation Index and the traditional Southern Oscillation Index were still negative in April, meaning the surface pressure in the western Pacific is still higher than average, while the surface pressure in the eastern Pacific is lower than average—evidence of a weakened Walker Circulation. (For a refresher on why we have so many different indexes for tracking ENSO, see Tony’s previous post.) Despite these lingering signs of El Niño, the trend toward neutral conditions (Nino3.4 SST within 0.5°C of average) is very likely to continue. Most computer models are predicting El Niño conditions will come to an end in the early summer, and that sea surface temperatures will continue to drop, potentially passing the La Niña threshold (0.5°C below average) sometime in the summer.  Some areas of near- or below-average sea surface temperatures have already appeared in the eastern Pacific.

Climate change could cause more concentrated storms -- Rising temperatures are causing heavy rain storms to become concentrated over smaller areas, a scenario that could potentially cause extreme flooding in urban locations, according to new research. A new study examining large, intense storms across Australia found that as temperatures increased, the same amount of rain from these storms was falling over smaller areas. The study’s authors found this to be consistent across all of the country’s climate zones, from temperate grasslands to tropical forests. These span nearly all of Earth’s climate zones and can be seen as a proxy for what is happening worldwide, according to the new research. “Regardless of the total amount of rainfall, it is concentrated over smaller areas,” The study’s authors attribute the change in storm area to a shift in the mix of cold and warm storms that has occurred as temperatures have increased. In general, cold storm events are more widespread over a geographic area, such as winter rainstorms that span a whole city. In contrast, warm storm events are more localized, such as summer rainstorms that might only pass through a few neighborhoods. As temperatures rise, there are more warm storm events concentrated in space and fewer cold storm events that are more widespread, Sharma said. The study’s authors expect an increase in warm, concentrated storm events as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change. This could cause an increase in extreme flooding, especially in urban areas where current storm drainage infrastructure might not be able to cope with the heavy deluge of rain from these concentrated storms, Sharma said.

Ocean Oxygen – another climate shoe dropping: Ocean anoxia – widespread oxygen-starved dead zones in oceans - did the killing of ocean life in several mass extinctions of Earth’s past. Anoxia went hand-in-hand with CO2 emissions, rising global temperatures, and (often) ocean acidification, a situation which today’s climate change is recreating with uncanny likeness.  Even in normal, healthy oceans, dissolved oxygen levels in middle-depth waters (between about 500 to 1,500 meters) are low enough to discourage most higher animals. This makes those depths an important refuge for krill and other prey species to hang out during the day, safe from visual predators. In the dark of night, these creatures venture nearer the surface to graze on plankton, an impressive commute given their small size. There are places around the world where these oxygen minimum zones are much shallower than elsewhere, and there are also coasts where polluted river water delivers excess nutrients into the sea, causing coastal dead zones, for example in the Gulf of Mexico. But these pale in comparison to times in Earth’s past when ocean anoxia became so intense and widespread that it contributed to the permanent annihilation of many marine species. But if we look at the conditions that led to past “Ocean Anoxic Events” (OAEs), and compare them to our altered climate in the coming decades, the parallels are sobering. There is a complex interplay between a warming climate, its effects on land, delivery of nutrients to the ocean, life’s response to the changes, and chemical results. It works mainly by affecting 2 complementary parts of the ocean carbon cycle: the biological carbon pump, and the remineralization depth. 

A CO2 Milestone in Earth's History  Earth’s atmosphere is crossing a major threshold, as high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the leading driver of recent climate change—are beginning to extend even to the globe's most remote region. Scientists flying near Antarctica this winter captured the moment with airborne CO2 sensors during a field project to better understand the Southern Ocean's role in global climate. The field project, led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and known as ORCAS, found that there is still air present in the Southern Hemisphere that has less than 400 ppm of CO2—but just barely. In the north, the atmosphere had first crossed that threshold in 2013, as shown by observations taken at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Most fossil fuels are burned in the Northern Hemisphere, and these emissions take about a year to spread across the equator. As CO2 increases globally, the concentrations in the Southern Hemisphere lag slightly those further north. "Throughout humanity, we have lived in an era with CO2 levels below 400 ppm," said Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a principal investigator on ORCAS. "With these data, we see that era drawing to a close, as the curtain of higher CO2 spreads into the Southern hemisphere from the north. There is no sharp climate threshold at 400 ppm, but this milestone is symbolically and psychologically important."

Fractures seen in rapidly melting Arctic sea ice, and it's only May -- Even accounting for the accelerating pace of Arctic climate change, sea ice loss in the Far North is running well ahead of schedule. This may signal a near record or record low sea ice extent to come in September. Fractures in the ice cover are evident north of Greenland, which Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, told Mashable are "quite unusual" for this time of year. In general, the Arctic has warmed at about twice the rate of the rest of the world, due largely to feedbacks between melting sea ice and the ability of newly-open ocean waters to absorb more heat, and then melt more ice. During this winter, and now continuing into spring, prevailing weather patterns have brought temperature anomalies as high — and occasionally higher than — 30 degrees Fahrenheit above average at times in the Arctic, with repeated waves of extreme warmth flooding into the Arctic Ocean from all directions.  The fracturing of sea ice is especially pronounced in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, where satellite images show the ice rapidly breaking up during the past two weeks. "....This is important because what it's doing is isolating the multiyear ice floes and having them surrounded by open water that can enhance melt of those thicker floes. So that is something to watch this summer, whether or not those floes survive will be important to the September minima," Stroeve said. Computer models show such patterns continuing for the next 10 days, as shown in the animation below. (The orange colors indicate milder than average temperatures):

‘Fundamentally unstable’: Scientists confirm their fears about East Antarctica’s biggest glacier -- Scientists ringing alarm bells about the melting of Antarctica have focused most of their attention, so far, on the smaller West Antarctic ice sheet, which is grounded deep below sea level and highly exposed to the influence of warming seas. But new research published in the journal Nature Wednesday reaffirms that there’s a possibly even bigger — if slower moving — threat in the much larger ice mass of East Antarctica.The Totten Glacier holds back more ice than any other in East Antarctica, which is itself the biggest ice mass in the world by far. Totten, which lies due south of Western Australia, currently reaches the ocean in the form of a floating shelf of ice that’s 90 miles by 22 miles in area. But the entire region, or what scientists call a “catchment,” that could someday flow into the sea in this area is over 200,000 square miles in size — bigger than California. Moreover, in some areas that ice is close to 2.5 miles thick, with over a mile of that vertical extent reaching below the surface of the ocean. It’s the very definition of vast. Warmer waters in this area could, therefore, ultimately be even more damaging than what’s happening in West Antarctica — and the total amount of ice that could someday be lost would raise sea levels by as much as 13 feet.“This is not the first part of East Antarctica that’s likely to show a multi-meter response to climate change,” said Alan Aitken, the new study’s lead author and a researcher with the University of Western Australia in Perth. “But it might be the biggest in the end, because it’s continually unstable as you go towards the interior of the continent.”The research — which found that Totten Glacier, and the ice system of which it is part, has retreated many times in the past and contains several key zones of instability — was conducted in collaboration with a team of international scientists from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. A press statement about the study from the U.S. group, based at the University of Texas at Austin, described the study as showing that “vast regions of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica are fundamentally unstable.”

Scientists Confirm Fears About East Antarctica’s Biggest Glacier -- The Totten Glacier in East Antarctica could cross the point of no return within the next century if global warming continues at the current pace.Because the glacier acts as a stopper for a large catchment area in the massive East Antarctic ice sheet, its disintegration could result in raising the global sea level by 2.9 meters according to a recent study. “Totten Glacier is only one outlet for the ice of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, but it could have a huge impact. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is by far the largest mass of ice on Earth, so any small changes have a big influence globally,” co-author Martin Siegert from the Imperial College London told the Independent. For a deeper dive: IndependentWashington PostPhys.orgTimeIB Times

NASA maps show New Orleans is dropping up to two inches a YEAR - Daily Mail Online: Using NASA airborne radar, Scientists have generated maps that reveal New Orleans and its surrounding areas are sinking at 'highly variable rates.' The highest rates were found upriver along the Mississippi near industrial areas and in Michoud - both experienced annual drops of up to two inches.Although the study names multiple contributing, researchers found the major culprits behind the drop in elevation were groundwater pumping and dewatering. Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UCLA and the Center for GeoInformatics at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, collaborated on the study, which covered the period from June 2009 to July 2012. Other notable sinking was found in New Orleans' Upper and Lower Ninth Ward in Metairie, where the measured ground movement could be related to water levels in the Mississippi. And an annual 1.6 inch drop was observed at Bonnet Carré Spillway east of Norco, which is the area's last line of protection against springtime river floods blowing over the levees. Experts call this drop in evaluation 'subsidence', as it is when the Earth sinks as a response to geological or man-induced causes. In the case of New Orleans, it is mostly caused by groundwater pumping and dewatering – surface water pumping to lower the water table, which eliminates standing water and soggy ground. Other contributing factors include withdrawal of water, oil and gas, compaction of shallow sediments, faulting, sinking of Earth's crust from the weight of deposited sediments and ongoing vertical movement of land covered by glaciers during the last ice age.

Trade Deals and the Environmental Crisis --With the release of leaked documents from the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) ‘trade’ deal Greenpeace framed its conclusions more diplomatically than I will: the actions of the U.S. political leadership undertaken at the behest of American corporate ‘leaders’ and their masters in the capitalist class make it among the most profoundly destructive forces in human history. At a time when environmental milestones pointing to irreversible global warming are being reached on a daily basis, the U.S. political leadership’s response is to pronounce publicly that it favors environmental resolution while using ‘trade’ negotiations to assure that effective resolution never takes place. Those representing the U.S. in these negotiations are mainly business lobbyists who have been given the frame of state power to promote policies that benefit the businesses they represent. The thrust of the agreements is to enhance corporate power through legal mechanisms including patents, intellectual property rights and ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) provisions that create supranational judiciaries run by corporate lawyers for the benefit of corporations. Shifting the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to the corporations producing them precludes effective regulation in the public interest. The position that environmental harms must be proven before regulations are implemented leaves a dead planet as the admissible evidence. U.S. President Barack Obama is both the most articulate American politician urging action on climate change and the central Liberal proponent of the trade agreements. The apparent paradox isn’t difficult to understand— the trade agreements will be legally binding on signatory states while Mr. Obama’s statement of the problem won’t be. As evidence of global warming mounts the Republican tactic of denial is looking more and more delusional. By articulating the problem Mr. Obama poses Democrats as the solution while handing the power to curtail greenhouse gas emissions to business lobbyists and corporate lawyers.

TTIP vs Europeans: A wake-up call for the Commission – The massive opposition to TTIP in Europe should convince the EU to listen to its citizens, as the issue has the potential, in conjunction with other factors like Brexit, to bring the whole idea of the Union into question, writes Nomi Byström. Nomi Byström is a postdoctoral researcher in computer sciences at Aalto University, Finland. In all corners of Europe, opposition to TTIP has swept like wildfire since the deal was announced in 2013. Huge demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Helsinki, Vienna, Warsaw, Ljubljana and Prague show no sign of ending. In its first year alone, 3,263,920 people signed a petition against TTIP by a London-based charity. Not only do Dutch voters seek a referendum on TTIP, opinion polls make sobering reading on where most Europeans stand. Only a few days ago, it was revealed that some 70% of Germans see TTIP as bringing “mostly disadvantages”. There is something deeply disturbing already in the way the draft text has been sought to be kept hidden both from democratically elected representatives of their countries and, of course, from ordinary Europeans. This cannot be acceptable. All the more so because, if the treaty does come into force, it will have a profound impact on all member countries’ residents. While private companies stand to benefit the most, it is the people of the EU who will bear the brunt of the deal, as well as democracy and the environment.To give only a few examples, TTIP could prevent compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement – something that the EU itself worked hard for – and hold a member state hostage to remain with fossil energy sources, despite its aspiration to move to renewables. Moreover, especially to smaller countries, the TTIP mechanism for Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), even in the guise of the Investment Court System, can become nothing short of an economic and environmental disaster. Not to mention the fact that TTIP may turn out to reduce rather than increase jobs in Europe.

Why Are We So Bad At Solving Problems? -- I am not very optimistic about the fate of mankind as it is, and that has a lot to do with what I cite here, that while our problems tend to evolve in exponential ways, our attempts at solving them move in linear fashion. That is true as much for the problems we ourselves create as it is for those that – seem to – ‘simply happen’. I think it would be very beneficial for us if we were to admit to our limits when it comes to solving large scale issues, because that might change the behavior we exhibit when creating these issues. In that sense, the distinction made by Dennis Meadows below between ‘universal problems’ and ‘global problems’ may be very useful. The former concerns issues we all face, but can try to – solve at a more local level, the latter deals with those issues that need planet-wide responses – and hardly ever get solved if at all. The human capacity for denial and deceit plays a formidable role in this. I know that this is not a generally accepted paradigm, but that I put down to the same denial and deceit. We like to see ourselves as mighty smart demi-gods capable of solving any problem. But that is precisely, I think, the no. 1 factor in preventing us from solving them. And I don’t see that changing: we’re simple not smart enough to acknowledge our own limitations. Therefore, as Meadows says: “we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.” And here it is in its context: ‘Limits to Growth’ Author Dennis Meadows ‘Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself’

Naomi Klein: Radical Solutions Only Proper Response to 'Unyielding Science-Based Deadline' -- In a public lecture delivered last week and published online Tuesday, award-winning Canadian author and social justice activist Naomi Klein argues the dire situation of climate change, coupled with failing political and economic systems, is creating a world where nobody will be left unaffected. "It is not about things getting hotter and wetter but things getting meaner and uglier, unless we change the corrosive values that are pitting people against each other," Klein said last Wednesday. In its review of the lecture, noted how Klein took "inspiration from Said’s famous observation that vast swathes of humanity have been classed as 'the other' – or less than human – she warned the climate crisis is entrenching inequality across the globe."In her construction, the many neglected populations — either left behind or exploited by global capitalism's rapacious appetite for growth and profit—reside in what she refers to as 'sacrifice zones' in which pollution, extreme weather events, endemic poverty, and political disempowerment have all become commonplace. But it won't just be the poor and disenfranchised who pay the price. "Wealthy people think that they are going to be OK, that they will be taken care of. But we all will be affected," Klein said.

Civil disobedience is the only way left to fight climate change - Right now, thousands of people are taking direct action as part of a global wave of protests against the biggest fossil fuel infrastructure projects across the world. We kicked off earlier this month by shutting down the UK’s largest opencast coal mine in south Wales. Last Sunday, around 1,000 people closed the world’s largest coal-exporting port in Newcastle, Australia and other bold actions are happening at power stations, oil refineries, pipelines and mines everywhere from the Philippines, Brazil and the US, to Nigeria, Germany and India. This is just the start of the promised escalation after the Paris agreement, and the largest ever act of civil disobedience in the history of the environmental movement. World governments may have agreed to keep warming to 1.5C, but it’s up to us to keep fossil fuels in the ground.  With so many governments still dependent on a fossil fuel economy, they can’t be relied upon to make the radical change required in the time we need to make it. In the 21 years it took them to agree a (non-binding, inadequate) climate agreement, emissions soared. It’s now up to us to now hold them to account, turn words into action and challenge the power and legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry with mass disobedience. It is unjust that corporations and governments can commit crimes against the planet and society without retribution, while those fighting to prevent such crimes are punished, murdered and incarcerated. But the number of people willing to challenge this is growing. And if we really want climate justice, ;protest in the pursuit of this must be normalised; we must support rather than denounce those willing to put themselves on the line, since we all benefit from their actions. Not everyone is in a position to take civil disobedience, but we can all get behind it.

Energy Department Suspends Funding for Texas Carbon Capture Project, Igniting Debate -- The Obama administration has suspended funding for a large, troubled carbon capture and storage project, a decision being challenged by politicians from both parties and environmental advocates alike. While the Texas Clean Energy Projectis not officially dead, continued refusal by the Department of Energy to extend any more money would effectively kill it, according to its builder. That would make it the fifth CCS project the DOE has backed away from. The agency took a tough stand in February when it denied a request by the project's developer, Summit Texas Clean Energy, for an $11 million advance from its pot of promised federal money. In its budget request for the fiscal year 2017, which begins October 1, the DOE asked Congress to strip the $240 million pledged to the project from the agency's Clean Coal Initiative and use it for other research and development efforts instead. A final vote on the budget will come late this year. In a world that continues to burn fossil fuels, CCS is seen as critical to avoid the most calamitous consequences of global warming. The Clean Coal Initiative had already been under audit by the DOE's inspector general's office, which grew alarmed by how the agency had allowed the Texas project to drag on. The IG, an independent auditing office, issued a special report on it in April.

Sierra Club Statement on the U.S. International Trade Commission’s TPP Study --  Today the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) released a study on the potential impacts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as required by law. The report projects that the controversial trade deal would result in a decline in U.S. manufacturing due in part to an increase in manufactured imports in some sectors from Vietnam and Malaysia, where production spurs far more climate pollution than in the U.S. It also notes the controversy surrounding the TPP’s conservation provisions, which are too weak to actually curb environmental abuses in TPP countries. The report further acknowledges broad concern that the TPP would empower polluters to sue the U.S. government in private tribunals over climate and environmental protections. In response, Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program, released the following statement: “Today’s U.S. International Trade Commission report offers further evidence that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be a disaster for working families, communities, and our climate. ITC reports have a record of projecting economic benefits of trade agreements that have failed to materialize, so it is noteworthy that even the overly-positive ITC acknowledges that the TPP would have real costs and estimates economic benefits that are slim. “One of the costs of the TPP indicated by today’s report is that, by shifting U.S. manufacturing to countries with carbon-intensive production, the deal not only would cost U.S. manufacturing jobs, but also would spur increased climate-disrupting emissions. “Today’s report is right to note the broad controversy over TPP rules that would empower major polluters to sue the U.S. government in private tribunals over climate and environmental protections. The report gives members of Congress further reason to reject the polluter-friendly TPP so that we can build a new model of trade that protects communities and the climate.”

Public Lands, National Parks Under Threat of Privatization: Get Ready for the Grand Canyon Theme Park and Convention Center!     Since the public lands of the United States belong to all of us, what say we see what the various greedy gombeens of our political and economic elites have been up to on our land?  Oh, let's start here, where the Bozeman Daily Chronicle has alerted us to the fact that there are members of the House of Representatives who are anxious to give us the General Goods Glacier National Park. Or something. Over the past several years, anti-conservation voices in Congress, led by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, have sought to gut the Antiquities Act and prevent presidents from protecting our public lands and heritage. This is almost unbelievable considering that Americans of all stripes support protecting these places. In addition, our public lands support a $650 billion outdoor recreation industry that includes fishing on our nation's rivers, streams, lakes and oceans. In addition to attacks on the Antiquities Act, public lands critics in Congress are also pushing to privatize, sell off and transfer to states our shared national lands. This is an antithesis to our democracy. Proponents of transferring our shared public lands to the states often argue that these lands will still be protected. However, the reality is different as states often do not have the administrative capacity or budget to manage these lands at the same level of protection offered by the federal government. Keep an eye on Bishop. He just tried a neat trick with the help of Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from the state of Wisconsin and first runner-up in our most recent vice-presidential pageant. The Congress managed to reach a "bipartisan deal"—grab your wallets, immediately—regarding the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. Bishop was behind a proposal to turn federal lands on the island of Vieques over to Puerto Rico, which is exactly what he wants to do in Utah with, say, Zion National Park. The Democrats working on the bill spotted this, however, and stripped that provision from the relief package Bishop was pitching. If you're wondering what Bishop's true feelings are, here's a little video for your edification.

China’s latest idea for cleaning up air pollution could be horrible for climate change -- China's biggest cities are choking on smog and air pollution emitted by nearby coal plants, and residents are fed up. One way to fix this is to switch over to cleaner energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear, or even natural gas), which has the added benefit of cutting carbon-dioxide output from the world's largest emitter. But not always! In fact, one of China's big proposals for cleaning up air pollution could, paradoxically, make climate change even worse.  Reuters reports that China has just approved three new plants in its western provinces that would turn coal into synthetic natural gas. The idea is that this gas would then be shipped to population centers in the east, where it would burn much more cleanly in power plants and detoxify the air in cities like Beijing. Except there's a huge catch: The coal-to-gas (CTG) plants themselves are highly energy-intensive and can create far more CO2 overall than coal alone. It's basically swapping less smog for more climate change. China currently has three CTG plants operating, four under construction, three newly approved, and plans for another 17 in preparation. If even a fraction are built — a big "if" — that could have a sizeable impact on global warming.

James Lovelock's One Last Chance to Save Humanity From Climate Change: Burying Large Amounts of Charcoal in the Ground -- For those that don't know who James Lovelock is here's the one sentence bio: Originator of the Gaia hypothesis, chemist, did work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons which eventually led them from being banned, advocate of nuclear power. Which is to say, that when James Lovelock says humanity only has one chance left not to get annihilated by the effects of climate change in the 21st century, it's worth shutting up and listening to what the man says.After saying that there's "not a hope in hell" that we'll be able to work out some global system to deal with climate change similar the global CFC ban in time to save ourselves from climate change, Lovleock called most of the "green" efforts to deal with climate change verge on being gigantic scams, Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It's not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it'll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning. I am not against renewable energy, but to spoil the decent countryside in the UK with wind farms is driving me mad. Lovelock went on to say that plans to sequester carbon were a waste of time, crazy and dangerous. They would take too much time and too much energy. On nuclear energy he said that is was a way to solve energy problems, but it "is not a global cure for climate change. It is too late for emissions reductions measures." Except this one thing...Bury Massive Amounts of Charcoal to Sequester Carbon

Meet Brazil’s new cabinet: the science minister is a creationist, agriculture minister deforested the Amazon: The new Brazilian president’s first pick for science minister was a creationist. He chose a soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest to be his agriculture minister. And he is the first leader in decades to have no women in his Cabinet. The new government of President Michel Temer — the 75-year-old lawyer who took the helm of Brazil on Thursday after his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was suspended by the Senate to face an impeachment trial — could cause a significant shift to the political right in Latin America’s largest country. “Temer’s government is starting out well,” Silas Malafaia, a television evangelist and author of best-selling books like “How to Defeat Satan’s Strategies,” wrote on Twitter. Then there is the issue of race. After a long stretch in which Brazil pressed ahead with affirmative action policies, Temer’s critics point out the lack of Afro-Brazilians in his Cabinet, especially when nearly 51 per cent of Brazilians define themselves as black or mixed race, according to the 2010 census. “It’s embarrassing that most of Temer’s Cabinet choices are old, white men,” said Sérgio Praça, a political scientist at Fundação Getulio Vargas, an elite Brazilian university. He drew a contrast with Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who formed a Cabinet in which half of the 30 ministers are women.

An Ill Wind: Open Season on Bald Eagles - WSJ -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protecting bald and golden eagles, is once again trying to make it easier for the wind industry to kill those birds. Two weeks ago the agency opened public comment on “proposed improvements” to its eagle conservation program. It wants to extend the length of permits for accidental eagle kills from the current five years to 30 years. The changes would allow wind-energy producers to kill or injure as many as 4,200 bald eagles every year. That’s a lot. The agency estimates there are now about 72,434 bald eagles in the continental U.S. Let’s hope Judge Lucy H. Koh is keeping an eye out. Last August, Ms. Koh, a federal judge in California, shot down the Fish and Wildlife Service’s previous “improvements.” In a lawsuit brought by the American Bird Conservancy, Judge Koh ruled that the agency had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by declaring that it could issue 30-year permits without first doing an environmental assessment. Now the agency has drafted an environmental review and is still pushing for the 30-year permits. Yet as Judge Koh noted in her ruling, one of the agency’s own eagle program managers warned that 30-year permits are “inherently less protective” and “real, significant, and cumulative biological impacts will result.”  A 2013 study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimated that wind turbines killed about 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds (including 83,000 raptors) in 2012 alone. But wind capacity has since increased by about 24%, and it could triple by 2030 under the White House’s Clean Power Plan. “We don’t really know how many birds are being killed now by wind turbines because the wind industry doesn’t have to report the data,” says Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy. “It’s considered a trade secret.”

Fire in The Hole!  - The Bridgeton Landfill, about 20 miles northwest of St. Louis, is in many ways a typical pile of trash. Like all modern sanitary landfills, Bridgeton is a layer cake of garbage and dirt sitting on a base of clay, sand and plastic lining, all of it covered with a frosting of clay, plastic liner, soil and grass. But for the last six years, there’s been something wrong at the core of Bridgeton — a wrongness that has led to lawsuits, angry neighborhood activists and national media attention. It’s confusing and scientifically strange — and all those problems are exacerbated by the nearby presence of a big old pile of nuclear waste.Down beneath the layers of trash bags, banana peels, Chinese takeout cartons, diapers and dirt, the Bridgeton Landfill has become very hot. Normally you’d expect the process of decomposition to heat the interior of a landfill to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Parts of the Bridgeton landfill, in contrast, have reached temperatures as high as 260. That 120 degrees is the difference between a healthy landfill, decomposing merrily along, and one in which the systems of safe waste management are falling apart. And then there’s the bit about the radioactive waste. Bridgeton is not the only landfill with a hot spot, but it is the only one with a hot spot that’s around 1,200 feet away from about 8,700 tons of radioactive barium sulfate — a byproduct of uranium processing. It came from a factory in St. Louis that produced uranium for the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. That material, mixed with dirt, is part of the layers that make up the nearby West Lake Landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency, which manages West Lake as a Superfund site, believes that if the radioactive waste becomes hot, it could release cancer-causing radon gas into surrounding neighborhoods. Suffice it to say there are many reasons people want Bridgeton Landfill to cool down. Unfortunately that’s not going to be easy. Bridgeton may be a typical pile of trash, but this is no typical trash fire. The heat exists 40 to 140 feet below the surface, in places where Republic Services believes no oxygen is present. It exists in places that are wet, soaked with leachate. Those are not conditions where fire should exist, by most common-sense standards.

Watchdog group files lawsuit over cleanup at federal nuclear lab: (AP) — A watchdog group is suing the federal government and managers of one of the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratories over missed deadlines for cleaning up hazardous waste left behind by decades of research. Nuclear Watch New Mexico filed its lawsuit in federal court, naming the U.S. Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Security LLC as defendants. The lawsuit points to a dozen violations. It says the defendants are liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties for failing to comply with a 2005 cleanup agreement with state officials. The Department of Energy did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment. The agency typically doesn’t address pending litigation. The state recently proposed changes to the cleanup plan. The public has through the end of May to comment.

Showdown over federal coal leasing reform at Casper hearing (AP) — Emotions ran high in a showdown Tuesday between environmentalists and the mining industry over coal-leasing reform and whether the federal government should increase how much it charges corporations to mine federal reserves. On one side, landowner advocates and environmentalists told a U.S. Bureau of Land Management public hearing that change is overdue — up to and including halting coal mining to limit climate change. Others in this coal-friendly city rejected any change to the leases amid a three-year federal leasing moratorium Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced in January that has added uncertainty amid coal bankruptcies, layoffs and mine closures. No justification exists for higher federal royalties, Cloud Peak Energy Vice President Richard Reavey said at a pro-coal rally held by the Wyoming Mining Association before the hearing. “Here we are at another one of the secretary’s Soviet-style show trials, where the verdict has already has been decided and the sentence already issued. The verdict is that coal will be found to have been guilty of delivering reliable, affordable electricity. Guilty of providing well-paying jobs in flyover states that don’t support the Obama regime. Guilty of trying to make the American economy stronger,” Reavey said. “And the sentence? The sentence is keep it in the ground,” he said. Miners and others at the rally held signs that read “No New Electricity Tax!” and “Coal supports my family.”  The Bureau of Land Management’s hearing was the first of six planned at the outset of the moratorium. Any changes that result — likely hinging on who is elected president this fall — will have a big effect on whether the U.S. coal industry continues to coalesce around the huge surface mines of northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

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