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Sierra Daily: August 2012
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18 posts from August 2012

Aug 31, 2012

Goodbye, Beach?

Fire island dougschneiderphoto iStock_000019442069XSmallThis weekend, spread out the beach towel, pop open the umbrella, lather on the SPF 30...and read all about the Northeast’s disappearing coastline. According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council, climate change is already affecting the seven national seashores on the Atlantic coast and “threatens to submerge some of their land within a century."

While climate change is already causing increasing temperatures that affect wildlife and stronger coastal storms that erode beaches and damage park infrastructure, "the biggest threat ultimately to these seashores is that they will be largely, or even entirely, covered by the ocean," says Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. In five of the seven national seashores studied, more than half of the land is low enough to risk becoming submerged by 2100. Those five are Fire Island in New York, Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout in North Carolina, and Canaveral in Florida. Sections of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and Cumberland Island in Georgia would also be affected.

Image of Fire Island National Seashore, NY, by iStock/DougSchneiderPhoto.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Aug 30, 2012

Hantavirus Strikes Yosemite

MouseTen years ago my dentist, while probing the delicate reaches of my underflossed gums, used to regale me with tales of his wife. An epidemiologist for the state of California, she would occasionally lead teams of technicians to scour backcountry cabins for evidence of Hantavirus, a then-rare, life-threatening disease spread largely via the urine and feces of deer mice. On the way back from one such search, he recounted, her moon-suited team encountered a pair of hikers, who took one look at them and fled back down the trail.

Hantavirus is pretty scary stuff. Recently, two recent visitors to Yosemite National Park have died from it, after apparently contracting it in the famous tent cabins of Curry Village. Seventeen hundred others may have been exposed to it, and the park is now reaching out to those who stayed in the tent cabins from mid-June through August. Park goers are warned to be aware when flu-like symptoms--fever, headache, and muscle pains--turn into breathing difficulty. Of the 60 cases of Hantavirus reported in California since 1993, one third have been fatal.

Like West Nile Virus, Hantavirus is a disease we're all going to have to get acquainted with in our new, warmer world. Here's what I reported in "Heat Wave," one of Sierra's early articles on global warming back in 1997:

The weather extremes caused by global warming can also lead, indirectly, to outbreaks of deadly hantavirus, the acute, often fatal respiratory illness that broke out in the Four Corners region of New Mexico in 1993, eventually killing 76 people nationwide. Hantavirus is transmitted to humans by rodents, whose populations boom when plentiful rainfall follows an extended drought--both more frequent occurrences with global warming.

As with the year's record heat wave, searing drought, hellacious wildfires, and shrinking polar regions, the spread of Hantavirus is just another sign that climate change is already upon us. Our friends at the League of Conservation Voters are circulating a petition, trying to get the subject on the table at the upcoming presidential debates. You can find more information here.

Photo by GlobalP/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

Aug 27, 2012

As the Arctic Melts

Arctic ice mlenny iStock_000016060581XSmallArctic sea ice cover melted to its lowest extent on record yesterday, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado Boulder. That breaks the previous record low observed in 2007. According to a press release by the NSIDC, “while Arctic sea ice extent varies from year to year because of changeable weather conditions, ice extent has shown a dramatic overall decline over the past thirty years. The pronounced decline in summer Arctic sea ice over the last decade is considered a strong signal of long-term climate warming.”

Said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze: "The previous record, set in 2007, occurred because of near perfect summer weather for melting ice. Apart from one big storm in early August, weather patterns this year were unremarkable. The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow."

And it’s not over yet. There are two or three weeks left in the melt season, so scientists expect the minimum ice extent could be even lower.

Image by iStock/Mlenny.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Any Bike Will Do

DoctorBikeWhy don't more people ride bikes? One reason may be "choice paralysis"--the psychological stasis that comes of having too many choices to make. (See psychologist Barry Schwartz's famous TED talk on the subject here.) The dizzying array of bicycles available to the prospective buyer could easily trigger such paralysis. Road bike or fixie? Mountain bike or commuter? Traditional or electric? It's easy to see how the newbie cyclist might despair of choosing and stick with the car instead.

But as this charming story from Baton Rouge, Louisiana shows, when it comes down to getting where you need to go, any bike will do. Stuck in traffic on her way to surgery, Dr. Catherine Baucom stopped at a colleague's house and asked to borrow a bike. The only one available, however, was a 7-year-old's pink starter bike. It did the trick.

Southern Mississippi TV Station WLOX has the video. TypePad doesn't like it for some reason, but you can see it here.

Image: BRASS Surgery Center

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

Aug 24, 2012

Original Bluebloods

Horseshoe

It looks like a creature from an Alien movie, but the horseshoe crab has a terrestrial pedigree more than 440 million years long. It's the nearest living relation to the extinct trilobite. And it's not really a crab at all but is actually more closely related to the spider.

Horseshoe crabs' blood is blue: Instead of hemoglobin, they distribute oxygen using a copper-based molecule called hemocyanin. That system has a lot to recommend it, including the blood's ability to clot very quickly around bacterial contaminants. This has made it an extremely valuable commodity to the pharmaceutical and medical-supply industries, which pay up to $15,000 a quart for horseshoe crab clotting agent.

The horseshoe crabs get nothing, of course, but at least they usually survive the blood donation. Up until the 1970s, they were routinely gathered on East Coast beaches, where they come to spawn, and then ground into fertilizer or pig feed. More recently, these remnants of the ancient order of Xiphosura were harvested for eel bait. Now protected, horseshoe crabs are making a modest recovery--as are the small sandpipers known as red knots, which need to refuel on horseshoe eggs at Delaware Bay midway through their 18,000-mile spring migration from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic tundra.

Photo by iStock/ShaneKato

HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

 

 

 

Aug 22, 2012

New Life for Old Coffee

Coffee buttershug569 iStock_000001240211XSmallJust what the sustainably-living latte-lover wants to hear: ScienceDaily reports on successful testing of a “biorefinery” that turns coffee grounds and stale baked goods into key ingredients in everyday products like plastics and laundry detergent.

An effort co-sponsored by Starbucks in Hong Kong, the news about the waste-based process was unveiled at a meeting of the American Chemical Society this week in Philadelphia. According to a American Chemical Society press release, lead researcher Carol S. K. Lin, Ph.D Lin said the food biorefinery process “involves blending the baked goods with a mixture of fungi that excrete enzymes to break down carbohydrates in the food into simple sugars. The blend then goes into a fermenter, a vat where bacteria convert the sugars into succinic acid. Succinic acid topped a U.S. Department of Energy list of 12 key materials that could be produced from sugars and that could be used to make high-value products ― everything from laundry detergents to plastics to medicines.”

To help jump-start the research, Starbucks Hong Kong donated a portion of the proceeds from each purchase of its "Care for Our Planet Cookies" gift set.

"Our new process addresses the food waste problem by turning Starbucks' trash into treasure,” says Lin. And who knows? A garbage-fueled Mr. Fusion Hone Energy Reactor could be the next step.

Image by iStock/buttershug569.

 HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Yesterday's Fuel

This is what the demise of the coal era looks like. The chart below from the Energy Information Administration (always a source of superb graphics, BTW), looks at both the age of the U.S. "fleet" of electric power generators and how much energy they produce. (Click to enlarge.) Most notably, coal-fired power plants, big in the 1970s and '80s, petered out almost entirely in the '90s.

Vintage_cap_overview
As Brad Plumer notes,

Since the early 1990s, utilities have mostly stopped building coal and nuclear plants, thanks to a combination of costs, regulation and pressure from outside groups. The Sierra Club, in particular, has done a lot of work to prevent utilities from building new coal-fired plants. 

Yay for us! Meanwhile, starting around the turn of the millennium, nearly all new construction and power provision has come from natural gas and wind. Of course, as my colleague Reed McManus points out, generating all that energy from natural gas is not unalloyed good news. But coal is clearly a fuel whose time has passed.   

HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

Aug 21, 2012

Who's Burning Coal Now?

In the past 30 years, world coal consumption has changed dramatically but not evenly. North America burns modestly more, although U.S. use is now dropping rapidly. Europe and Russia burn far less these days. Asia, however, has nearly quintupled its coal burning--partly, it should be noted, in the service of producing consumer goods for the rest of the world. Even these figures may be optimistic: A study in Nature Climate Change says that China seems to underestimate its coal usage by as much as 20 percent, or as much as is burned annually by highly industrialized Japan. (Click graphic to enlarge.)

GR_graphic
Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey

--Paul Rauber

Aug 17, 2012

U.S. Becomes a Climate Champ?

Fracking drnadig iStock_000020668258XSmallAs natural gas has replaced coal for U.S. energy supplies, carbon dioxide emissions have plummeted to 20 year lows, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Notes Associated Press: “The drop-off is due mainly to low-priced natural gas, the agency said. A frenzy of shale gas drilling in the Northeast's Marcellus Shale and in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana has caused the wholesale price of natural gas to plummet from $7 or $8 per unit to about $3 over the past four years, making it cheaper to burn than coal for a given amount of energy produced. As a result, utilities are relying more than ever on gas-fired generating plants.” In 2005, half of U.S. electricity came from coal plants; today that’s down to 34 percent.

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, told AP it was "ironic" that the shift has brought the U.S. closer to meeting the greenhouse gas targets of the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming, which the United States never ratified.

Few environmentalists are popping corks over the news, however. That’s because of concerns that hydraulic fracturing of natural gas pollutes groundwater supplies and, without proper restrictions, releases methane, a gas whose global-warming potential is 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Read more about a fossil fuel that’s “dirty, dangerous, and run amok” at the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas site, and Sierra’s July/August feature story “Fractured Lives.” 

Image by iStock/drnadig

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Aug 15, 2012

Measuring Sea Sickness

Sierra leone lcoccia iStock_000004686524XSmallHow well do coastal countries protect their seas? That was the question explored by a team of researchers whose results were published today in the journal Nature. Looking at ten goals for “a healthy coupled human-ocean system,” the Ocean Health Index team concludes that the average score was 60 out of 100, with the lowest score (36) going to West Africa’s Sierra Leone and the highest (86) going to Jarvis island, halfway between Hawaii and the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Jarvis benefits from being uninhabited and isolated, so it’s a bit of a ringer. Not surprisingly, developed nations fared better than developing ones in criteria that included the amount of food provided from the ocean, coastal and water protection, tourism, and contribution to climate change. The U.S. scored 63, which put it in 29th place.

Ten of West Africa’s 11 ocean areas were judged the least healthy in the world. Sierra Leone, writes the Guardian, "which has suffered a decade of civil war, whose seas are ravaged by foreign industrial fishing fleets, and which has little protection of its coastline or waters and barely any tourism, scores the least, with 36 points out of 100 – just below Liberia, Ivory Coast and DR Congo.”

The researchers hope the Ocean Health Index “provides a powerful tool to raise public awareness, direct resource management, improve policy and prioritize scientific research.”

Image of fishing boat in Sierra Leone by iStock/lcoccia

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”


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