July 30, 2010

Warming reduces ocean life

The warmth of the ocean is the critical factor that determines how much productivity and biodiversity there is in the ocean, and where.
In two separate studies, researchers found that warming oceans have led to a massive decline in the amount of plant life in the sea over the last century, and that temperature is tightly linked to global patterns of marine biodiversity.
"Phytoplankton is the fuel on which marine ecosystems run," said lead author Daniel Boyce, a professor at Dalhousie University in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
"A decline affects everything up the food chain, including humans."

In one study that looks at historical records of algae abundance over the last hundred years, Worm and his co-authors found that warming ocean temperatures are correlated to a massive decline in the amount of marine algae, or phytoplankton. Marine algae are the base of the entire ocean food chain, and were also responsible for originally creating oxygen on the planet.
"Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary support system -- they produce half the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface carbon dioxide, and ultimately support all fisheries," said co-author Boris Worm.
The study estimates the decline in marine algae has been approximately 40 percent since 1950.

800,000 gallon oil spill in Michigan

The New York Times reported that crews were working Tuesday to contain and clean up more than 800,000 gallons of oil that poured into a creek and flowed into the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan, coating wildlife. Battle Creek and Emmett Township authorities warned residents about the strong odor from the oil, which leaked Monday from a pipeline that carries about eight million gallons of oil a day from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ontario. The pipeline company, Enbridge Energy Partners, said the oil spilled into Talmadge Creek. As of Tuesday afternoon, oil was reported in about 16 miles of the Kalamazoo River downstream of the spill. Representative Mark Schauer, Democrat of Michigan, called the spill a "public health crisis," and said he planned to hold hearings to examine the response. The spill's cause is under investigation.

July 26, 2010

Cargo shipping slows to clipper ship speeds

Container ships are taking longer to cross the oceans as owners adopt 'super-slow steaming' to cut back on fuel consumption

The world's largest cargo ships are travelling at lower speeds today than sailing clippers such as the Cutty Sark did more than 130 years ago.
A combination of the recession and growing awareness in the shipping industry about climate change emissions encouraged many ship owners to adopt "slow steaming" to save fuel two years ago. This lowered speeds from the standard 25 knots to 20 knots, but many major companies have now taken this a stage further by adopting "super-slow steaming" at speeds of 12 knots (about 14mph).
Maersk spokesman Bo Cerup-Simonsen said: "The cost benefits are clear. When speed is reduced by 20%, fuel consumption is reduced by 40% per nautical mile. Slow steaming is here to stay. Its introduction has been the most important factor in reducing our CO2 emissions in recent years, and we have not yet realised the full potential. Our goal is to reducing CO2 emissions by 25%."
Travel times between the US and China, or between Australia and Europe, are now comparable to those of the great age of sail in the 19th century. American clippers reached 14 to 17 knots in the 1850s, with the fastest recording speeds of 22 knots or more.
Maersk, the world's largest shipping line, with more than 600 ships, has adapted its giant marine diesel engines to travel at super-slow speeds without suffering damage. This reduces fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. It is believed that the company has saved more than £65m on fuel since it began its go-slow.
Ship engines are traditionally profligate and polluting. Designed to run at high speeds, they burn the cheapest "bunker" oil and are not subject to the same air quality rules as cars. In the boom before 2007, the Emma Maersk, one of the world's largest container ships, would burn around 300 tonnes of fuel a day, emitting as much as 1,000 tonnes of CO2 a day – roughly as much as the 30 lowest emitting countries in the world.
The Royal Navy and BP, meanwhile, are among those adopting different ways to reduce fuel use and cut carbon emissions. The Ark Royal light aircraft carrier, the new Queen Mary 2 cruise liner and 350 other large commercial ships have had their hulls coated with special anti-fouling paint. This has been shown to cut around 9% from CO2 emissions by keeping their bottoms free from barnacles and other sea life.
Some ships have been fitted with kite-like "skysails", or systems that force compressed air out of hulls to allow them to "ride" on a cushion of bubbles. These measures can cut fuel consumption by up to 20%.

Two out of three

July 23, 2010

How we wrecked the ocean

In this bracing talk, coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson lays out the shocking state of the ocean today: overfished, overheated, polluted, with indicators that things will get much worse. Astonishing photos and stats make the case.

A leader in the study of the ecology and evolution of marine organisms, Jeremy Jackson is known for his deep understanding of geological time. Full bio and more links

July 18, 2010

June record setting temperatures

The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for June 2010 was the warmest on record at 16.2°C (61.1°F), which is 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20thcentury average of 15.5°C (59.9°F). The previous record for June was set in 2005.

June 2010 was the fourth consecutive warmest month on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). This was the 304th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.

Links between hunger and climate change

The group Why Hunger has just released a new short film called “The Food and Climate Connection: From Heating the Planet to Healing It.” The film looks not only at how climate change has impacted food production but at at how food impacts climate change.

From farming to processing to packaging and shipping, our food system accounts for up to one third of our global greenhouse gas emissions. This file is aimed at empowering individuals to take control of their own food.

July 16, 2010

27,000 abandoned wells in Gulf an "environmental minefield"

The Associated Press reports that more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico, an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades. No one — not industry, not government — is checking to see if they are leaking, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The oldest of these wells were abandoned in the late 1940s, raising the prospect that many deteriorating sealing jobs are already failing.
The AP investigation uncovered particular concern with 3,500 of the neglected wells — those characterized in federal government records as "temporarily abandoned."
Regulations for temporarily abandoned wells require oil companies to present plans to reuse or permanently plug such wells within a year, but the AP found that the rule is routinely circumvented, and that more than 1,000 wells have lingered in that unfinished condition for more than a decade. About three-quarters of temporarily abandoned wells have been left in that status for more than a year, and many since the 1950s and 1960s — eveb though sealing procedures for temporary abandonment are not as stringent as those for permanent closures.
Regulations for temporarily abandoned wells require oil companies to present plans to reuse or permanently plug such wells within a year, but the AP found that the rule is routinely circumvented, and that more than 1,000 wells have lingered in that unfinished condition for more than a decade. 
There's ample reason for worry about all permanently and temporarily abandoned wells — history shows that at least on land, they often leak. Wells are sealed underwater much as they are on land. And wells on land and in water face similar risk of failure. Plus, records reviewed by the AP show that some offshore wells have failed.
Experts say such wells can repressurize, much like a dormant volcano can awaken. And years of exposure to sea water and underground pressure can cause cementing and piping to corrode and weaken.

BP - A history of risks and blunders

An excellent article by the NY Times reviews the history of BP, especially since 1995 when it started a strategy of taking on "the tough stuff that others cannot or choose not to do," as its chief executive, Tony Hayward, once put it."

The article reviews some of the past BP disasters at the Thunder Horse drilling platform, Prudhoe Bay pipeline, and the Texas City refinery. 

"They were very arrogant and proud and in denial," said Steve Arendt, a safety specialist who assisted the panel appointed by BP to investigate the company's refineries after a deadly 2005 explosion at its Texas City, Tex., facility.

"The way safety is measured is generally around worker injuries and days away from work, and that measure of safety is irrelevant when you are looking at the likelihood that a facility like an oil refinery could explode," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. "This is comparable to saying that an airline is safe because the pilots and mechanics haven't been injured."

BP was run "like a financial company, rotating managers into new jobs with tough profit targets and then moving them before they had to deal with the consequences. The troubled Texas City refinery, for example, had five managers in six years."

"In effect, it appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk," wrote Henry A. Waxman, the committee chairman, and Bart Stupak, chairman of its subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

"There is a complete contradiction between BP's words and deeds. You were brought in to make safety the top priority of BP. But under your leadership, BP has taken the most extreme risks."
"BP cut corner after corner to save a million dollars here and a few hours there," Mr. Waxman said. "And now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price."

Retreating Glaciers - Then and Now

In 1921, George Mallory, a British mountaineer, took a black-and-white photograph of Mount Everest. The photo, now legendary, shows the world’s highest peak in the distance and an S-shaped river of ice running toward the foreground: the Rongbuk glacier.

Three years ago, David Breashears, a mountaineer, photographer and filmmaker, returned to the very spot where Mr. Mallory stood to take the photograph and updated the vista. The change is sobering.

Rather than ancient snow pack, only an empty rock-strewn riverbed remains: the glacier has lost 320 vertical feet of ice mass in the intervening years in what researchers describe as a striking effect of global warming.

July 9, 2010

Germany sets zero carbon road map

Germany has become the latest country to signal that it could decarbonise its electricity network with the release of a major new report arguing that it could switch to an entirely renewable energy supply by 2050.
The study, from Germany's Federal Environment Agency, the Umweltbundesamt, says the country could phase out fossil fuel power plants and replace them with existing renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels.
"A complete conversion to renewable energy by 2050 is possible from a technical and ecological point of view," Jochen Flasbarth, president of the Federal Environment Agency, told reporters yesterday. "It's a very realistic target based on technology that already exists – it's not a pie-in-the-sky prediction."
He added that there was a strong economic case for making the switch, arguing that it would create jobs and boost exports of renewable energy technologies for German manufacturing firms.
Germany's transition towards renewable energy is already under way, with the country well established as the world's largest generator of solar energy and second-largest producer of wind energy after the US.
According to figures from the German government, the country already generates 16 per cent of its energy from renewable sources and further increases in renewable capacity are planned over the next decade as the government moves to make good on its pledge to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

EPA reducing power plant air pollution

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing regulations to cut air pollution that impairs air quality and harms the health of people living downwind. The regulation will target power plant pollution that drifts across the borders of 31 eastern states and the District of Columbia. Air pollution is linked to thousands of asthma cases and heart attacks, and almost 2 million lost school or work days. Along with local and state air pollution controls, the new proposal, called the transport rule, is designed to help areas in the eastern United States meet existing national air quality health standards. 

"This rule is designed to cut pollution that spreads hundreds of miles and has enormous negative impacts on millions of Americans," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "We're working to limit pollution at its source, rather than waiting for it to move across the country. The reductions we're proposing will save billions in health costs, help increase American educational and economic productivity, and -- most importantly -- save lives."
The transport rule would reduce power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) to meet state-by-state emission reductions. By 2014, the rule and other state and EPA actions would reduce SO2 emissions by 71 percent over 2005 levels. NOx emissions would drop by 52 percent. 

The EPA stated that this action would yield more than $120 billion in annual health benefits in 2014, including avoiding an estimated 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths, 23,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 21,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.9 million days when people miss school or work due to ozone- and particle pollution-related symptoms. These benefits would far outweigh the annual cost of compliance with the proposed rule, which EPA estimates at $2.8 billion in 2014. 

In a similar move the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of new legislation on Wednesday that aims to streamline and tighten existing rules governing power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulates.

Tar Sands Pipeline Debate

The debate is heating up over whether the Obama administration should approve a huge new pipeline called Keystone XL that would bring oil extracted from the earth in Alberta, Canada, all the way to Texas for refining. The State Department must grant approval for any transnational pipelines, based on the "national interest." 

The State Department's own Environmental Impact Statement noted that the locations of greatest concern for potential oil spills would be in environmentally sensitive areas, especially wetlands, flowing streams and rivers, and water intakes for drinking water or commercial and industrial users. The Keystone XL pipeline would pass over the deep end of the largest underground aquifer in the United States, which supplies water to 2 million people and is critical to the region's agricultural economy. Even a small spill in this part of the country could have disastrous consequences on the economy, the environment, and public health. TransCanada's pending request to use thinner pipeline for the Keystone XL project through areas it deems "low consequence" seems especially ill timed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Our risk tolerance should be extremely low, and our consideration should be complete.
A hurried approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would also undercut the administration's larger vision of finally, after decades of promises from our leaders, making the investments and the hard decisions to take advantage of clean, domestic energy sources that are waiting to be tapped.

July 8, 2010

Record Temperatures

Spurred by a warming climate, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last decade across the continental United States, new research shows. The ratio of record highs to lows is likely to increase dramatically in coming decades if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to climb.

In fact there were 808 record highs across the continental US during the month of June, compared to 157 record lows during the same period. The ratio of highs temperature records to low temperature records in June was greater than 5 to 1, based on data from theNOAA National Climatic Data Center.   

To give you an idea of how dramatic a shift this is, the ratio of record highs to record lows during the 40 year period from 1950 to 1989 was .95 to 1. 

Climate change is making itself felt in terms of day-to-day weather in the United States,” says Gerald Meehl, the lead author and a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “The ways these records are being broken show how our climate is already shifting.”

One example of how this is making itself felt in local weather can be seen this year in Washington, DC where the record setting temperatures in June smashed all previous records by a huge margin.

These graphs were prepared by Steve Scolnik of Capital Climate.