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Sierra Daily: October 2012
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19 posts from October 2012

Oct 30, 2012

Cassandra on the Hudson

BatteryLast night, my head full of the graphic images of Manhattan being inundated by Sandy, I suddenly realized why it seemed so familiar: Because Sierra had foretold nearly ten years ago. In "Bobbing in the Big Apple," Manhattan writer Ingrid Eisenstadter wrote a prescient story about New York's vulnerability to rising sea levels:

For all the noise it makes in the world, New York City is just four little islands and a bit of mainland laced together by 80 bridges and tunnels–the entries to many of which are barely above sea level, if at all. Their inundation would reinforce our famous insularity in a hurry. . . . Flooding would quickly knock out transportation, threaten drinking-water and sewage systems, airports, food delivery, power–everything. If the precipitation were intense enough, water would back up through street drains and cause flooding deep inside the city, even on high ground. If we remain as unprepared as we are now, New York, New York, really will be a hell of a town. 

Eisenstadter goes on to assess the steps New York might take against flooding--elevating bulkheads, raising low-lying highways, increasing pumping capacity in the subways--but against a disaster like Sandy there is only so much preparation can do. Now we're left to mourn the dead (33 at last count), clean up the mess, pay the bills--and do something about the underlying cause.

Graphic of increasing sea levels at Battery Park from NOAA.

Update: Matthew Yglesias at Slate looks at what kind of infrastructure it would take to protect New York against storm surges. Short version: It means going Dutch.

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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 He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.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.

Oct 29, 2012

Climate AND Weather

Hurricane sign iStock_000003649812XSmall choicegraphxAs Hurricane Sandy unleashes its fury on the Eastern Seaboard, the question over a changing climate’s role in specific weather events rises with it, as noted by my colleague Paul Rauber on Friday. Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told LiveScience, "The climate influences…are what we might call the 'new normal,' the changed environment this storm is operating in."

Trenberth goes on in more detail at the university and research comment site, The Conversation:

“The sea surface temperatures along the Atlantic coast have been running at over 3C above normal for a region extending 800km off shore all the way from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes 0.6C to this. With every degree C, the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7%, and the moisture provides fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared with normal conditions.

Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and ocean temperatures, and a warmer and moister atmosphere, and its effects are in the range of 5 to 10%. Natural variability and weather has provided the perhaps optimal conditions of a hurricane running into extra-tropical conditions to make for a huge intense storm, enhanced by global warming influences.”

If you’re wondering why the U.S. sits on the climate-change sidelines, you can’t get a better primer than by watching Frontline’s Climate of Doubt, a compelling look at how climate skeptics have stalled progress on global warming policy despite overwhelming scientific consensus

Image by iStock/choicegraphx.

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.”

Oct 26, 2012

Welcome to the Big Bubble?

Carbon NYC_stills_04_960px-480How lovely would New York City look if its streets were full of giant blue bubbles? Kinda like the Thanksgiving Day Parade, maybe? But what if those bubbles represented the city's carbon dioxide emissions? Yuck.

Check out this compelling video from UK-based CarbonVisuals, which animates in real time the total emissions and rate of emissions for the Big Apple in 2010 (the latest year for which data is available). 

Each sphere, 33 feet across, represents a metric ton of carbon dioxide. According to CarbonVisuals, "If this is how New York's emissions actually emerged we would see one of these spheres emerge every 0.58 seconds." (To its credit, New York City's carbon emissions were 12 percent less in 2010 than in 2005, and it is on track to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2017.)

Image by CarbonVisuals

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.”

Storm Warnings

Hurricane sandy

The Eastern Seaboard is bracing for an unprecedented weather event: the possibility that Hurricane Sandy might combine with a strong winter trough of low pressure to create a "Frankenstorm." Jeff Masters at WunderBlog warns that the storm--which may coincide with a full moon and high tides--could result in an exceptionally large storm surge of 3 to 6 feet.

If Sandy hits Long Island, as the GFS model predicts, the storm surge will be capable of over-topping the flood walls in Manhattan and flooding portions of the New York City subway system. Fresh water flooding from heavy rains is also a huge concern. Rainfall amounts of 5 - 10 inches will occur over several hundred mile-long swath of coast, with isolated amounts of 15 inches possible.  

The storm has already resulted in at least 21 deaths in Jamaica and Cuba, and our thoughts are with all our friends and colleagues on the East Coast. Because this is Sierra Daily, however, we are obliged to point out that, according to ClimateProgress, of 94 stories mentioning the storm in major newspapers in the past week, not one included the words "climate change," "global warming," or "extreme weather." It is worth noting here that the American Meteorological Society, whose members are now dispensing invaluable predictions regarding Sandy, issued a statement in August warning that climate change could be expected to increase the number of such severe storms.

Weather patterns will continue to vary from day to day and from season to season, but the
frequency of particular patterns and extreme weather and climate events may change as a result of global warming. Model simulations project an increased proportion of global hurricanes that are in the strongest categories, namely 4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, although the total counts of hurricanes may not change or may even decrease.

Climate deniers come in various sorts. Some, like Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, get lots of press for being colorful and extreme. But the more dangerous deniers are those in the press who refuse to identify the cause of the increasingly extreme events affecting their readers' lives--and thereby delaying the day when our country will address it.

Satellite image: NASA GOES Project, taken Friday at 10:15 EDT

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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.

Oct 23, 2012

Out of Thin Air

Blue sky iStock_000019945400XSmall iLexxA British firm is making headlines with its plan to make transportation-fuel-ready methanol without the use of dead dinosaurs. Just mix air and sodium hydroxide (lye) and, um, lots of energy. 

Green Car Reports provides a nice summary: “The process starts by blowing atmospheric air into a tower containing the sodium hydroxide, which binds to the carbon dioxide to form sodium carbonate. Adding energy to that substance splits out the carbon dioxide specifically, which is then stored for later use. Next, a dehumidifier removes water vapor from the air, and more energy is added to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Mix the hydrogen with the carbon dioxide in the right proportions and you produce a synthetic gaseous hydrocarbon. That, in turn, can be processed into methanol--which can be further turned into synthetic gasoline.”

The appeal: carbon-neutral gasoline. The process reuses carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere rather than burning new hydrocarbons. The problem: A huge amount of energy goes into the process, and unless that energy comes from renewable sources, it’s all far from carbon-neutral. And, as New Scientist points out, “The energy efficiency of the process has yet to be demonstrated. This matters because the technique uses electricity for key stages. It should not require more energy input than is gleaned from burning the fuel it produces.”

So far, Air Fuel Synthesis in Stockton-on-Tees in northern England has a “demonstration facility” that operates from the national utility grid. But Peter Harrison, the company’s chief executive, told the Independent that “we can be producing petrol using renewable energy and doing it on a commercial basis” by 2014. The company told Reuters that it is “confident that the technology could be scaled up to refinery size in the future. Each of the processes that go into making the fuel already take place separately on an industrial scale.” For now, the company hopes to build a commercial plant that will make specialist fuels for the motorsports sector.

Image by iStock/iLexx.

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.”

The Next Big Thing: Urban Farms

Clipboard01Concerned about the carbon footprint or "food miles" involved in getting your rutabagas from farm to market? You'll want to check out David Ferris's story in the new issue of Sierra, "Up On the Farm." Because what could be better than buying produce that was grown on the roof of the supermarket itself? In the article, Ferris contrasts two approaches to urban agriculture in New York City: the earthy rooftop farms of the Brooklyn Grange, and Gotham Greens' sleek hydroponic model. But other forms of urban farms are happening in metropolitan areas all over the world, from Chicago to Singapore.  

This morning, Ferris joined me in Sierra's inaugural Google+ "hangout" on the subject. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a hangout is an interactive live webcast where attendees can post questions or comments in real time. It can also be recorded and stored on YouTube, as you can see below. We'll definitely be doing more of them in the future. To get advance notice, subscribe to our Twitter feeds (@Sierra_Magazine or @paulrauber) or add the Sierra Club to your Google+ circles.

  

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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. 

Oct 19, 2012

Wind Energy Worries on Both Sides of the Pond

Wind turbine uk iStock_000012300365XSmall sheena woodheadThe inability of the U.S. Congress to extend renewable-energy production tax credits that are set to expire at the end of the year has caused the U.S. wind business to stall. Today GE announced that its energy infrastructure revenues dropped 5 percent in the third quarter as wind turbine sales fell. That’s after a booming 2012, in which the U.S. wind industry for the first time surpassed 50,000 megawatts of generation capacity -- enough to power 13 million homes -- according to the American Wind Energy Association. The Guardian notes that prospects for 2013 are grim, with estimates of U.S. wind energy installations from half to a tenth of this year’s numbers. 

According to The Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is “very confident” that a one-year extension for the renewable energy credit will pass the Senate, but “the House has yet to seriously consider the credit. … For the most part, resistance to extending the credit rests with Republicans. They have called the credit unwise, saying it permits government intervention in energy markets.”

Meanwhile in Britain, the world’s biggest offshore-wind energy market in terms of capacity, seven multinational companies warned the British government that its support for green energy must continue or they could halt their investments. As Reuters notes: “Recent disputes within the coalition government over support for the sector has caused them concern about the risk of a political U-turn against green energy.” In a letter to the UK Secretary of State for Energy, with copies to Prime Minister David Cameron and finance minister George Osborne, the companies wrote: "Historically the UK has benefited from being known as a country with low political risk for energy sector investments. Undermining that reputation would have damaging consequences for the scale of future investments in the UK energy sector."

Reuters notes that "Britain has one of Europe's most ambitious wind power development targets, with a projected annual capacity growth rate of 13 percent until 2020, requiring huge investment for new plants.”

Image of Royd Moor Wind Farm in South Yorkshire, England, by iStock/SheenaWoodhead

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.”

The Next Big Thing: Compostization

UntitledOne of the recurring features in Sierra is called "The Next Big Thing"--our way of gently lampooning the breathless enthusiasm that accompanies the environmental innovation du jour. (Our latest: "In the future, will eating bugs solve all our problems?")

Now the funny folks at The Onion have seized the concept in the first of their "Onion Talks"--a spoof on the popular "Ted Talks." And, as Little Richard once said of Prince, "He took my thang and ran with it!" Watch below for the introduction of The Onion's next big thing: A car that runs on compost.

 

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. 

Oct 18, 2012

Up Close and Personal

AKShellKullukDrillRigOffAlaskaOct121568BraaschJust how close is Shell’s new offshore rig in the Arctic to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Photojournalist Gary Braasch shows us at his compelling website World View of Global Warming: The Photographic Documentation of Climate Change.

As Braasch writes: “The drill rig is only 12 miles offshore of the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which can be seen in the photograph. The Refuge has been protected from land oil drilling through many years of Congressional battles. The 160 foot high Kulluk rig is anchored above a Federal oil prospect explored in the 1980s and 90s by other oil companies -- but there has been no oil prospecting or drilling in these waters since then.”

The Sierra Club has been working to protect the Arctic Refuge and Arctic coast for decades. (In 2006, the organization awarded Braasch its Ansel Adams Award for his online photography project.) As for Shell, the New York Times noted in September that company “expected to receive all the necessary permits to drill up to five wells this summer and fall, but equipment problems and persistent sea ice forced the company to cut back its program repeatedly.” Shell expects to be back drilling in the Arctic next summer.

Image by Gary Braasch/WorldViewOfGlobalWarming.org

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.”

Ruler of the Roost

GR_Critter_grouse

Behold the most powerful creature in the West: the greater sage grouse. Its clout stems not from the majestic ruff males puff up to impress the ladies, nor from the intricate courtship dances they perform. Rather, grouse power comes from the broad restrictions on ranching, mining, and oil and gas development that would follow were it to be listed as an endangered species.

Sage grouse are widely–but thinly–spread across 186 million acres in 11 western states. Since they depend on intact sagebrush landscapes unfragmented by roads, drilling rigs, or overgrazing, their numbers are falling sharply. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a listing decision in 2015, and that sword of Damocles has prodded federal and state agencies to take grouse conservation very seriously indeed. The Bureau of Land Management is amending 80 land-use plans to benefit the grouse, and the Forest Service is revising 20 of its own.

Forty percent of sage grouse habitat, however, is on private land. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is working with farmers and ranchers to improve grazing practices, stop the spread of conifers that encroach on sagebrush rangeland, and increase cover for nesting grouse to hide in. In return, landowners would be preemptively declared to be in full compliance with the Endangered Species Act, should the grouse be listed. Tim Griffiths leads the NRCS's grouse campaign: "What began as a fear-based effort," he says, "has succeeded in marrying range health to what the sage grouse need."

Photo by Bob Smith/National Geographic Stock

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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. 


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