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Sierra Daily: August 2011
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36 posts from August 2011

Aug 22, 2011

Hot Enough For You?

SO11_100_DEGREE_DAYS_MAPS 
This spring's devastating wildfires in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico were fed by precisely the conditions that climate scientists predict for a warming Southwest: drought combined with extreme heat. In South Texas, searing temperatures arrived in June, creating a nightmare scenario in which the winter-spring fire season merged with the late-summer fire season. In Arizona, the Wallow fire burned 840 square miles, making it the largest in the state's history. The map below at left shows the number of days in which temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 1961-1979. The map at right shows the number of scorchers predicted for 2080-2099 in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's "high emissions" climate-change scenario (atmospheric CO2 at 850 parts per million by 2100)—a level we are on track to reach.

--Paul Rauber

Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey (Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2009)

Aug 19, 2011

Wildlife on the Move

Comma3
Many 2012 presidential candidates seem unmoved by climate change, but the world’s creatures are taking a different approach. According to a study published today in Science, “the distributions of species have recently shifted to higher elevations at a median rate of 11.0 meters per decade, and to higher latitudes at a median rate of 16.9 kilometers per decade. These rates are approximately two and three times faster than previously reported.”

"The climate is shifting everything toward the north and higher altitudes," Chris Thomas, senior author on the study and a professor of conservation biology at the U.K.’s University of York told USA Today. The paper notes: “For the most part, it's not that animals are walking, hopping or winging their way north, Thomas says. Rather, individuals at a species' southernmost range are breeding less successfully while individuals in that same species' northernmost range are breeding more successfully. The result is that the entire species moves north, or up, if they're in mountain country.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: Butterfly Conservation, Jim Asher. The U.K.’s comma butterfly has moved north 135 miles in just 21 years.

Extraterrestrials and Climate Change

ImagesCAUSEIU8

If the prospect of catastrophic climate change doesn't give you enough to worry about, Shawn Domagal-Goldman of Nasa's Planetary Science Division and his colleagues posit this: The fact that we're artificially altering our atmosphere may bring us to the attention of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), who "may seek to preemptively destroy our civilization in order to protect other civilzations from us."

A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilization may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilizational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere (e.g. via greenhouse gas
emissions), which therefore changes the spectral signature of Earth.

Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis (Acta Astronautica, 2011, 68(11-12): 2114-2129) is as entertaining and provocative a scientific paper as you are ever likely to find--and one that sheds a stark light on our current environmental predicament. The authors conduct what they call a "scenario analysis," gaming out the the various possible forms of human/ETI contact in terms of whether the consequences would be beneficial, neutral, or harmful to humanity. One of the biggest unknown variables they explore is the ethical nature of the extraterrestrials: Are they "selfish," seeking to maximize their alien self-interest like certain hominids we know? If so, then watch out. Here the authors quote Jared Diamond:

[E]xtraterrestrials might behave the way we intelligent beings have behaved whenever we have discovered other previously unknown intelligent beings on earth, like unfamiliar humans or chimpanzees and gorillas. Just as we did to those beings, the extraterrestrials might proceed to kill, infect, dissect, conquer, displace or enslave us, stuff us as specimens for their museums or pickle our skulls and use us for medical research.

However, it could well be that selfish beings such as ourselves are poor models for Conquerors of the Universe:

Perhaps rapid expansion is unsustainable at the galactic scale, just as rapid expansion is often unsustainable here on Earth. . . . [R]apidly expanding civilizations may face ecological collapse after colonizing the galaxy, analogous to the fate of Easter Island.

So if the ETIs are not selfish beings bent solely on their own inexorable advancement throughout the cosmos, they might be "universalists" who place equal intrinsic value on all life forms, even us. In the best case, "an advance ETI may be capable of solving a great many of humanity's problems, such as world hunger, poverty, or disease." Alternatively, however, universalist extraterrestrials might see humanity as a threat--either to themselves, to other civilizations that they seek to preserve, or even to the biota of our own Earth:

Human civilization affects ecosystems so strongly that some ecologists now often refer to this epoch of Earth’s history as the anthropocene. If one’s goal is to maximize ecosystem
flourishing, then perhaps it would be better if humanity did not exist, or at least if it existed in significantly reduced form. Indeed, there are some humans who have advanced precisely this argument. If it is possible for at least some humans to advocate harm to their own civilization by drawing upon universalist ethical principles, then it is at a minimum plausible that ETI could advocate harm to humanity following similar principles.

Happy weekend!

--Paul Rauber

Aug 18, 2011

Science That'll Make You Swoon

18green_ice-blog480
Its creators call it “a reference, comprehensive, high-resolution, digital mosaic of ice motion in Antarctica assembled from multiple satellite interferometric synthetic-aperture radar data acquired during the International Polar Year 2007-2009.” The rest of it can just call it “very cool.” As noted by the New York Times’ Green blog, a study and accompanying animation of the movement of Antarctic ice sheets “shows how fast the ice rivers are moving and where they are going.” According to the animation’s makers, “the observations provide a better understanding of the flow of Antarctica’s ice sheets, and how they might respond to climate change in the future and contribute to sea-level change.”

--Reed McManus

Image: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/University of California Irvine

Aug 17, 2011

Calculating the Cost of Weather

Noaa-n3 On the same day that the National Weather Service announced that the nine weather disasters so far this year have each caused more than $1 billion in damage – tying the record year of 2008 – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco reiterated the agency’s plea to Congress to not let funding lapse for weather satellites. As reported by the New York Times’ Green blog, Lubchenco told a group at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science that without the agency’s requested $1 billion for satellites, “there would be a gap of at least a year and a half, and possibly much longer, during which NOAA has no operational satellite orbiting the poles. The polar orbiting satellite enables scientists to predict severe storms five to 10 days before they hit.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: NOAA

Woe Is Us!

Grapple-woeHot and bothered about global warming? Your time to chill may come in the form of a cold snap that could bring summer frosts to Pennsylvania and icebergs to England.

Climate scientists are tracking a widening pool of freshwater in the Arctic Ocean that's already more than twice the size of Africa's Lake Victoria. Fed by melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, and Siberian downpours, the freshwater is expected to flush from the Arctic into the Atlantic.

When it gets there, it could slow or even stop the Gulf Stream, the great oceanic conveyor belt that brings tropical waters, and temperate weather, to northern latitudes. Normally, these waters—cooled by winds and made increasingly dense and salty by evaporation and ice formation—plunge below lighter, less-saline water near Greenland, powering the cycle.

But according to Laura de Steur of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, 1,800 cubic miles of meltwater pooling in the Arctic could throw the brakes on that system, rapidly ratcheting down temperatures in a way that we haven't experienced since the last ice age, 13,000 years ago.

Slowing of the Gulf Stream is expected to begin sometime this century. But with the Arctic melting far faster than predicted, the big chill could come sooner—and more suddenly—than anyone thought. If it does, stock up on earmuffs. The last time the Gulf Stream stalled, it took 1,300 years to start up again. —Dashka Slater

--Illustration by John Ueland

Aug 16, 2011

The Village View of Climate Change

Cwe2 For a compelling look at the effects of climate change on Native people around the globe, check out the ongoing Smithsonian exhibit Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change. If you can’t make it to the fabled institution’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall before the exhibit closes in January, the Web site is rich with photos, videos, and audio from communities from the Arctic to the Andes. And there’s a Facebook page, too.

-- Reed McManus

Aug 15, 2011

The Wind Blows in Texas

Cielo wind 2 This weekend, Texas Governor Rick Perry (finally) announced that he is running for President. “Governor Goodhair,” as he was known by Texas wit Molly Ivins, has an environmental record that’s as Neanderthal as that of most any GOP candidate -- it’s neatly summarized by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein here – but with one twist: Perry backs wind power. In 2005, he signed into law a tougher version of the state renewable energy standard that went into effect in 2000 under Governor George W. Bush. Under Perry’s watch, wind power in the Lone Star State has developed at a gallop. According to Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes, “The state generates far more wind power than any other -- nearly triple the output of Iowa, its closest rival. The state set a renewable energy standard before Perry took office in 2000, met it four years ahead of schedule, and set a more ambitious standard in 2005 -- which Perry signed. It reached that goal -- 5,880 megawatts of new renewable generation by 2015 -- ahead of schedule too, in 2009.”

Don't swoon too hard. ThinkProgress notes: "Since his 1998 candidacy to be George W. Bush’s lieutenant governor, Perry has raked in $117,091,642 in campaign contributions, with the oil and gas industry the top contributor. Big oil has fueled Rick Perry’s career, the top industry contributor at $11,189,103, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics."

-- Reed McManus

Image: Cielo Wind Power. West Texas Wind Farm.

Case Closed!

False

Today the Pulitzer-Prize winning truth-divining Web site PolitiFact finally focused its famous Truth-O-Meter on the issue of climate change, specifically the claim by former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty that:

  Evidence points toward climate change being primarily a natural, rather than man-made, phenomenon.

  The science about the causes of global climate change is in dispute.

Guess what? Pawlenty, ruled PolitiFact, was dead wrong:

Based upon the preponderance of evidence we conclude that Tim Pawlenty’s claims are both incorrect and misleading to the public, who may not be familiar with the science behind climate change.  It is not "fair to say the science is in dispute," as if there are good arguments on both sides. Rather, there is significant scientific consensus that human beings are contributing to global warming. We rate his statement False.

Was Pawlenty's shame at being caught out in lying about the most critical issue facing our planet a factor in his dropping out of the presidential race? We like to think so. It will also be fun to see the nation's press corps call out other politicians touting the same old canards, now that PolitiFact has settled the question once and for all.  
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Aug 12, 2011

Conflict-Free Canadians

What's the first word that comes to mind when you hear "Canadian"? "Nice," right? Our northern neighbors are making a good business out of their anodyne reputation. Consider, for example, the remarkable success of Canadian "conflict-free" diamonds (as opposed to the "conflict-diamonds" or "blood-diamonds" that have financed so much bloodshed in Africa). The Canadian diamond industry did not get going until the 1990s, but the country is already one of the largest diamond producers in the world.

Here's another product Canada has a lot of: tar-sands oil, "the most toxic fossil fuel on the planet." A report just out from Environment Canada, the country's leading environmental agency, says that development of Alberta's vast tar-sand fields would more than negate all other Canadian carbon reductions. How are you going to promote a product like that? Simple: Christen the product "ethical oil" (as opposed to the "conflict crude" of all those other oil producers like Saudi Arabia/Russia/Venezuela).

Countries that produce Ethical Oil protect the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians. Conflict Oil regimes, by contrast, oppress their citizens and operate in secret with no accountability to voters, the press or independent judiciaries. Some Conflict Oil regimes even support terrorism.

The result is a deluge of PR materials contrasting Nice Canadians with unsavory oil producers elsewhere. (Real example: "An Iranian SlutWalk? Don't hold your breath.") The UK Guardian has a great rundown on the campaign here.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon decide on the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipelin, which would pump Canada's "ethical oil" across the nation to refineries in Texas. Thus far she has been studiously silent on the subject. To find out what you can do, join the Sierra Club's Dirty Fuels campaign.

--Paul Rauber

UPDATE: Sierra Daily removed the photo that originally accompanied this post after learning that the Ethical Oil campaign was using many photographs without the permission of the photographers: http://bit.ly/pNzbX2.


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