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Sierra Daily: September 2012
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14 posts from September 2012

Sep 28, 2012

Well, You’re Not Watching the Road Anyway

Autonomous car L100288-cleanThis week California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow self-driving cars on the state’s roads. The Los Angeles Times notes that “Tech giant Google Inc., Caltech and other organizations have been working to develop such vehicles, which use radar, video cameras and lasers to navigate roads and stay safe in traffic without human assistance. Google has said computer-controlled cars should eventually drive more safely than humans.”

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that so-called autonomous cars could be ready for operation on public streets within a few years. As long as the on-board computer systems don’t get distracted by screaming kids in the back seat or try to shave or apply makeup while motoring, autonomous vehicles have the potential to make roads much safer, since human error causes most traffic accidents. “These vehicles have the potential to avoid accidents,” said Brin. “I expect that self-driving cars will be far safer than human driven cars.”

They also can reduce congestion, lower emissions, and increase fuel economy. Imagine your vehicle being able to accelerate and decelerate with NASA-like precision and anticipate traffic conditions near and far, all while you put your feet up and read the paper (that is, if papers still exist when autonomous vehicles hit the road). Transportation guru Tom Vanderbilt and Wired magazine put you behind the (hands free) wheel here

California’s bill establishes safety and performance standards for the operation of autonomous vehicles, among other things. The state’s move follows Nevada. Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma are considering similar legislation.

Image of hands-free Google execs by Google Inc.

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.”

Sep 27, 2012

Arctic Warmer Now Than In Viking Times

Gallery-Greenland-Erik-Th-010A study in the journal Geology concludes that the high Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is warmer now than in the Viking age--the great age of northern exploration that led to the European discovery and colonization of Iceland, Greenland, and (briefly) Nova Scotia. By studying sediments in the lake Kongressvatnet on West Spitsbergen, Svalbard, William D'Andrea of Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory et al. showed that summer temperatures are now 3.6 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they were even in the Medieval Warm Period, that balmy era from 950 to 1200 A.D. that was cut short by the Little Ice Age. (For an excellent historical novel on the era, see Jane Smiley's sadly under-appreciated The Greenlanders.)

While it cut short the Viking colony in Greenland, the Little Ice Age facilitated the spread of wildlife like the Arctic fox. Chalk them up on the list of species now threatened by a rapidly melting Arctic--where sea ice this year hit its lowest summer minimum in recorded history. Also shattering records this summer was the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Perhaps the corporations now flocking there to mine for rare earth and other minerals will stumble on the graves of ill-fated Vikings, early victims of climate change.

Illustration of Eric the Red by Carl Rasmussen

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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. 

Sep 25, 2012

Everything Is Hitched, the Vertical Edition

Vortex-graphic-imagePeriodic changes in winds in the stratosphere – 15 to 30 miles above us – influence mile-deep ocean circulation patterns, and with it, global climate.

According to OurAmazingPlanet, a team at the University of Utah and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Meteorology “used weather observations and 4,000 years' worth of supercomputer simulations of climate conditions to show that high-altitude Arctic winds affect the speed of the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that transports warm surface waters from lower latitudes into the North Atlantic, where they cool, sink and return south. This ‘conveyor belt’ affects the whole world's ocean circulation and climate. But the conveyor belt has a weak spot in the North Atlantic, south of Greenland, where sinking or ‘down-welling’ occurs. ... If the water is close to becoming heavy enough to sink, then even small additional amounts of heating or cooling from the atmosphere can speed or slow this process.” 

“We found evidence that what happens in the stratosphere matters for the ocean circulation and therefore for climate,” says Thomas Reichler, Associate Professor Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah and senior author of the study, which was published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience. “If we as humans modify the stratosphere, it may – through the chain of events we demonstrate in this study – also impact the ocean circulation,” Reichler says. “Good examples of how we modify the stratosphere are the ozone hole and also fossil-fuel burning that adds carbon dioxide to the stratosphere. These changes to the stratosphere can alter the ocean, and any change to the ocean is extremely important to global climate.”

What it means for climate research? More variables in the mix. “Our analyses identify a previously unknown source for decadal climate variability and suggest that simulations of deep layers of the atmosphere and the ocean are needed for realistic predictions of climate,” conclude the study’s authors.

Image by Thomas Reichler, University of Utah.

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.”

Sep 24, 2012

Funny [Eco-] Cat Video

NormanNo, really! At long last, environmentalists discover LOLCats. (Except, perhaps, those at the American Bird Conservancy.) Bringing the two mighty forces together is the issue of sustainable fisheries, something of great interest to humans and cats alike. The video below was produced by our friends at the Canadian branch of the World Wildlife Federation (informally known in the trade, ironically, as "Woof Woof"), who are working with local grocers to promote sustainable seafood. Brad Plumer at the Washington Post's excellent Wonkblog expressed the issue pithily just the other day:

Humans are severely over-exploiting the ocean for fish, and, if we’re not careful, stocks of key species like tuna will soon collapse. Then it’s lumpy jellyfish sandwiches for everyone.

The good news is that, thanks to good fisheries management, many U.S. stocks are successfully rebounding. At a weekend picnic, I got to experience that success in the form of a particularly succulent piece of California king salmon -- an experience my cats, sadly, did not get to share.

 

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.

 

Sep 21, 2012

Saving Nemo

RS9676_Amphiprion_percula_orange_clownfish_CoralCoE_Flickr_FPWC_commercial_use_ok g.r. allenLast week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the orange clownfish, best known as Nemo from Finding Nemo (which was conveniently recently released in 3D). Joining Nemo are seven equally spectacular species of damsel fish that don’t have box-office recognition. All, however, are dependent on coral reefs and threatened by climate change, ocean acidification, and the marine aquarium trade.

Writes Smithsonian: “Since the Industrial Revolution, ocean acidity has risen by 30 percent as a direct result of fossil-fuel burning and deforestation. And within the last 50 years, human industry has caused the world’s oceans to experience a sharp increase in acidity that rivals levels seen when ancient carbon cycles triggered mass extinctions, which took out more than 90 percent of the oceans’ species and more than 75 percent of terrestrial species.” According to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change, 70 percent of coral reefs are projected to suffer from long-term degradation by 2030 “even under an ambitious mitigation scenario.”

Image by G.R. Allen

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.”

Sep 20, 2012

Low Arctic

ArcticicemapSea ice in the Arctic shrank this summer to its smallest size ever since satellite records began in the 1970s. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, this year’s 2012 minimum ice coverage of 1.32 million square miles shattered the previous mark of 1.61 million square miles set in 2007 by a whopping 18 percent. “We are now in uncharted territory,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze in a press release. “While we’ve long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur.”

And another thing: All that oil drilling and shipping that a thawed Arctic will enable? It’ll further accelerate global warming, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Local pollutants such as soot, or "black carbon", darkens ice, which means it soaks up more of the sun's heat, quickening a melt – just as the dark surface of a melted Arctic Ocean absorbs more sunlight.

Image from NSIDC.

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.”

Sep 14, 2012

Looking For A Little Love

Sumatran rhino iStock_000017842068XSmallWhat does the Sumatran rhino need to do to get some love? The critically endangered ungulate, which numbers only 400, is not the only creature in this predicament. This week the International Union for Conservation of Nature released “Priceless or Worthless?”, a look at the world’s 100 most threatened animal, plant, and fungi species. The report concludes that all of them may be allowed to die out “because none of these species provide humans with obvious benefits.”

"The donor community and conservation movement are leaning increasingly towards a 'what can nature do for us' approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritized according to the services they provide for people," says Jonathan Baillie, conservation director at the Zoological Society of London and a co-author of the report. "We have an important moral and ethical decision to make: Do these species have a right to survive or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?"

Since it’s mainly human activity that has caused all these species to decline, we should cringe. Straightforward conservation efforts can go a long way to help the pygmy three-toed sloth of Panama, the Jamaican iguana, and the spoon-billed sandpiper, which breeds in Russia and winters in Southeast Asia, say the report’s authors. They point to conservation success stories like the humpback whale and central Asia’s Przewalski's horse to help people shift their perspective from “why bother?” to “why not?”

For a compelling look at what we’re missing, read the full report here. The Guardian offers a quick gallery here.

Image of Sumatran rhino (in Malaysia's Malacca Zoo) by iStock/Kelvinyam

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.”


Sep 13, 2012

Coal Exports Trapped in Ambre

Coal trainSo much for that fast-track plan to export coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia via Oregon's Port of Morrow. According to Scott Learn in the Oregonian,

Permitting complications have delayed the project by at least a year. . . . The projected startup date for the project is now mid-2014. 

Ambre Energy had hoped its Morrow Pacific Project would get underway next year, beating four similar coal-export schemes to the lucrative Asian market. But permitting delays--particularly from the Army Corps of Engineers--and the difficulties of timing facilities work in the Columbia River around migrations of federally protected salmon and steelhead have put the project on the slow boat.

The project was already imperiled after the accident this July in which 31 train cars full of coal overturned in eastern Washington, sparking fears about what would happen should a similar accident occur along the extensive stretch of track paralleling the salmon-rich Columbia. This led Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Senator John Merkley to request a "sweeping environmental review" of the coal export proposals. 

That leaves Ambre with the port at Longview, Washington, where its subsidiary, Millennium Bulk Logistics, had a permit to ship 5 million tons of coal a year. That permit was put in jeopardy, however, when internal documents emerged revealing that the company planned to ship up to 60 million tons out of the port, but hid its plans, fearing that its good relations with local officials “would be lost overnight” if it revealed its true intentions. Faced with the vast scope of Ambre’s true plans, those local officials said they were “exploring all of our options” regarding the company.

Photo by kurmis/iStock

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.

Sep 11, 2012

California Hits Solar Milestone

Solar use Cal-ISO_aug14-3On August 14, California utilities produced more than 1 gigawatt of solar power, setting a national record. And according to the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which runs the state’s grid, that milestone of 1003 megawatts has been surpassed several times since then. According to the blog EarthTechling, a gigawatt is enough juice to power more than 750,000 homes.

A gigawatt of solar power is worth celebrating, and worth keeping in perspective. That August day, solar power provided 8,843 megawatt-hours of electricity to California’s grid. That’s out of more than 869,260 megawatt-hours consumed that day, or just one percent of the total. (Wind supplied 3.7 percent of the state’s electricity demand that day.)

But see it as a solar glass 1/100th full: EarthTechling notes that two years ago, solar supplied only 60 percent of what it did this August, and that utility-scale solar plants continue to come on line in California. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, U.S. solar-panel installations more than doubled in the second quarter of 2012 from a year earlier. California led the demand, installing 217 megawatts of capacity.

And since the California ISO just looks at “wholesale” electricity, its figures don’t include the more than 1.2 gigawatts of customer-owned solar power being generated in the state.

Image from California ISO.

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.”

Sep 10, 2012

How Venture Capitalists are Funding a Clean-Tech Future

VCs mine universities for their next big clean-tech get.green technology, venture capitalists, clean-tech entrepreneurs

When venture capitalist Matthew Nordan steps onto the MIT campus, he's looking for the future all-stars of green energy. He knows he's got to find people with stamina, since investing in youngsters working on clean-tech solutions can take a decade or longer to pay off.

"It's like picking the NBA draft of 2020 by watching today's middle schoolers," says Nordan, the vice president of Venrock, a firm established in the 1930s as the Rockefellers' venture arm.

For investors in eco-power, there aren't quick flips like there are in, say, social media. "You don't have the Facebooks, the Instagrams," says William Aulet, director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship (and himself a former pro basketball player). Along with time, lots of money is needed to usher a green-energy investment from concept to market.

The average clean-tech company raises about $8 million in first-round financing (though a few flush start-ups skew that number high), says Nordan. Dot-coms, by comparison, launch for around $3 million, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

Investing in clean tech is risky too: The sector suffers a higher failure rate than other venture-backed industries, says Amy Francetic, director of the Clean Energy Trust, a Chicago nonprofit that finds seed money for start-ups.

Given all this, why would scouts spend time stalking colleges' environmental engineering clubs when they could be poaching from the computer-science department? 

"Over history," Aulet says, "the greatest fortunes have been made in the energy sector."

In their hunt for the cash-worthiest clean-tech minds, VCs fund college research labs, judge business-pitching contests, and haunt hubs like MIT's Energy Club. That's where Nordan met an MBA candidate named Vanessa Green. "She backed me into a corner and gave me the pitch," Nordan recalls. "I'd already spent time around her and felt she could change the world." The result: He steered $1.8 million into the company that Green now helms, OnChip Power, which develops technologies to make LEDs more efficient.

Green remembers that many of her MIT peers had what she calls "changing-the-world goals." But she's quick to add that very few entrepreneurs who come out of the academic world try to start companies with planet-saving as their main focus.

Green, 30, who also cofounded the nonprofit Community Water Solutions to help water-treatment start-ups in developing countries, says she's driven by the idea of starting something that could make a difference. Still, she admits that she's not a pure altruist and that neither are most successful clean-tech entrepreneurs: "By the time they get VC funding, it's too late for that. If you take money, you know you've got to meet a bottom line." 

Aulet agrees: "A VC's job is to return for their partners. They're not a church or a 501(c)(3). That's the government's job. That's other people's job."

At least one clean-tech investor, however, seems more interested in fixing the world than in cashing out, and his name dominates the field: Vinod Khosla. A cofounder of Sun Microsystems and a former partner at the prestigious VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Khosla shifted his investing focus from software, where he made his billions, to betting on green.

"Vinod has a vision of being able to make money on sustainability — but he's also idealistic and wants to make the world better," says Peter Meinhold, a founder of Gevo, which is developing ways to convert methane into methanol using biological methods. Meinhold attracted Khosla's attention — and millions of his dollars — while still a grad student at Caltech.

Meinhold, too, sees himself as a bit of an idealist. "When I started the company, I saw the chance to impact how the world moves forward in a positive way," he says. "Things don't just happen. Inventors shape the world."

--reported by Avital Andrews / illustration by Timothy J. Reynolds


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