Tag Archives: united states

Americans have big misperceptions on climate change, new survey shows

As the country gets ready to leave the Paris Agreement, there are still big misperceptions about climate change and the ecological crisis among United States citizens, according to a new survey that tested their understanding of the issue.

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The survey asked more than 1,000 people how many of the past 22 years have been among the hottest. Despite the correct answer being 20, the average answer was 14, with only 15% of those surveyed getting the correct answer. Democrats answered a bit better (23%) than Republicans (9%).

There are also doubts about the causes of global warming. Most of the people interviewed said 16% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from air travel when the actual figure is 2%. Airplanes do release quite a lot of CO2 during each flight, but air travel is less frequent than other means of transportation such as vehicles.

The fact that flying is rarer than using your car means it’s one of the most effective ways of reducing our individual carbon footprint, with a recent study ranking it as the third most effective action. Nevertheless, only 10% of those surveyed correctly guessed that fact.

Instead, almost 45% of the public believes recycling is a key component to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There were other misperceptions about recycling as well. People said half the plastic waste produced worldwide ended up in the environment when the figure is actually 79%.

The survey also showed that most people don’t realize the consequences of the ecological crisis on biodiversity. Just a quarter of those surveyed correctly answered that the population size of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles declined 60% since 1970. Democrats answered better (26%) than Republicans (16%).

Despite the high level of misperception, people said to be worried about the climate crisis. Up to 60% of the US public rejected the claim by President Donald Trump of climate change being an “expensive hoax.” Instead, 62% agreed the world is facing a climate emergency.

Nevertheless, there are strong differences between Republicans and Democrats. Seven out of ten democrats strongly disagree with global warming being an expensive hoax, compared with just 17% of the Republicans. Half of the Republicans disagree with the world facing a climate emergency, compared to 6% in the case of the Democrats.

“Our attitudes to big issues like climate change are tied up with our own identity, including our attachment to political parties. As this study shows, there are often not large differences between Republicans and Democrats in how they see the facts about climate change – but there are hugely different views on how real or serious the threat is, said professor Bobby Duffy.

The single parrot native to the US extinguished strictly because of humans

The Carolina parakeet was the single native parrot from the United States, up until 1918 when it disappeared abruptly. The colorful bird could be found from New England down to Florida and as far as Colorado. Its extinction surprised more than one, creating a mystery around it. Now, researchers seem to have found some answers.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

A group of researchers sequenced the genome of the parakeet and concluded that the rapid decline of the bird happened due to human interference. The finding is not only important to bring some light into the species demise but also to help mitigate the current threat to species.

“Many endangered species have been sequenced and what seems to be a pattern is that when populations are small and declining for a long period of time, this leaves some signals in their genomes that can be recognized,” co-author Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the University of Barcelona, said.

The parakeet measured about 13 inches (33cm) long and had a green plumage with a yellow head. It lived in forests along rivers and in swamps. Its populations were large until the expansion of European settlers. The last captive specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoo in February 1918.

Fox and his team had samples of the toe pads and femur of the Carolina parakeet, obtained from a private collection in Spain. But the DNA couldn’t be used on its own as it was too fragmented. Instead, they first sequenced the genome of the species closest living relative, the South American sun parakeet.

“It is typical in studying ancient DNA that you need the genome of a close relative to be used as a reference to map the ancient one,” said Fox. “For this reason, the Asian elephant genome is used as a reference for the mammoth genome,” he told National Geographic.

The researchers analyzed the DNA of the two species of parakeets and compared them with genomes of other bird species. This showed that the Carolina and the sun parakeets diverged about three million years ago on the evolutionary tree.

They looked for signs of inbreeding, which can help to know if a species went through a slow decline, but found none on the Carolina parakeet. The parrot is more genetically diverse than most birds alive today, which suggests an abrupt extinction that left no marks on the genome.

The possibility of diseases leading to the demise of the parakeet was also discarded by the researchers. The domestic fowl was one of the initially suspected contributors to the extinction of the species, but this was discarded by the genetic analysis, according to Fox.

Looking ahead, the birds could be the target for the practice known as de-extinction, which seeks to bring back species that are long gone. An approach would be to take the Sun parakeet and use its genome editing to modify its DNA code to look like the California parakeet.

Nevertheless, this could prove difficult. “It’s an enormous task. But even if we wanted to do that, as far as I know, nobody has been able to clone a bird… nobody knows how to modify something before it becomes an egg,” Fox said.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology

Despite Trump’s promises, coal power is fading away in the US

President Donald Trump’s promised to boost the coal sector, but there is little economic sense to that: coal plants in the United States are shutting down and laying off workers as they can’t match the lower costs from natural gas and renewable energy.

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The Navajo Generating Station and the Bruce Manfield power station are the latest in a long list of coal plants closing down this year. These two plants alone amount represent the entire emissions reductions from coal plants shut-downs in 2015 — a record year when 15GW of plants closed their doors in the US.

The two plants were important contributors to US greenhouse gas emissions. The Navajo station, located in Arizona, found no buyers after a two-year search, and was forced to shut down; the plant released 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which represents more than three million cars. Meanwhile, the Bruce Manfield station was the largest one in Pennsylvania and had operated for 40 years.

“You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” said John Larsen, who leads power-sector analysis at the Rhodium Group. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

The coal industry in the US has been affected by a lower electricity demand, a preference by customers for low-carbon energy and more competition from other sources of energy such solar and wind. The use of coal has been declining since 2000, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Power companies will finish this year having retired or converted to gas over 10.6 MW of coal plants, according to EIA. Coal will only provide 25% of the US energy mix by the end of the year, while natural gas is on the rise and will represent 40% of the energy mix, expected to keep on growing.

Trump has placed a lot of effort to avoid this trend. He replaced the Clean Power Plan with the new Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which gives states more flexibility to keep coal plants open. But this hasn’t changed things much, as economics is favoring other sources of energy.

The cost of coal power is between $60 and $143 per megawatt-hour, according to an analysis by the financial advisory firm Lazard. Meanwhile, natural gas is much cheaper thanks to new technologies, now at $41 to $74 per megawatt-hour. Wind is the cheapest, at $29 to $56.

Among all states, Wyoming has been the most affected one as the country’s main coal producer. Demand is under decline and two coal mining companies, Cloud Peak and Blackjewel, have already filed for bankruptcy protection, each one laying off over 600 workers.

The climate factor

In the past decade, coal has been the energy to grow the most across the globe. Between 2001 and 2010, coal consumption rose 45%. This has also meant the highest increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in human history.

Global warming is among coal’s most significant impacts. Chemically speaking, coal is formed mainly by carbon. When burned, it reacts with oxygen and produced carbon dioxide. CO2 represents 76% of the global human-caused emissions.

Despite its now lower role in the US, coal is still the most significant source for electricity in the plant. Most of the coal electricity generation today happens in Asia, where several plants have opened up in the last decade.

The temperature on the planet has increased about one Celsius degree since the pre-industrial era. Coal is responsible for 0.3 Celsius degrees of that increase, according to the International Energy Agency (EIA).

Trump begins process to exit Paris Agreement, ignoring climate emergency

Despite the climate emergency becoming every day more visible, United States President Donald Trump took the first step to formally exit the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC compared to pre-industrial levels. The move was widespread questioned by civil society.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move in a tweet Monday, the first day that countries could begin the one-year withdrawal process. “The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens,” he wrote.

Trump announced his intention to abandon the agreement, which was backed by the Obama administration, in a June 2017 speech. In the two years since, every nation on earth has pledged support for the accord, which went into effect on Nov. 4, 2016. No country was allowed to withdraw for three years.

The Trump administration was required to send a letter to the United Nations to begin the withdrawal process, which now they have done. The process will take a full year to be completed, finalizing on November 4, 2020, right after the US presidential elections on November 3.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said: “Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris agreement is irresponsible and shortsighted. All too many people are already experiencing the costly and harmful impacts of climate change in the form of rising seas, more intense hurricanes and wildfires, and record-breaking temperatures.”

The Paris Agreement was adopted at the COP21 United Nations climate change conference. It is the first-ever universal, (sort of) binding global climate deal, which sets out a global action plan to put the world on track for avoiding the worst effects of global warming.

In order to do that, countries agreed under the Paris Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while aiming at 1.5º if possible. This means global emissions will have to reach a peak as soon as possible.

Jean Su, energy director with the Center for Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Climate Law Institute, said in a statement: “Trump can run from the Paris agreement, but he can’t hide from the climate crisis. The silver lining is Trump’s Paris withdrawal will give the global community a break from his bullying support for fossil fuels.”

With the Trump administration’s withdrawal, “Donald Trump is sending a signal to the world that there will be no leadership from the U.S. federal government on the climate crisis—a catastrophic message in a moment of great urgency,” 350.org executive director May Boeve said.

California becomes the first US state to ban animal fur products

Starting in 2023, California will become the first US state to ban the sale and manufacture of new fur products and the third to ban most animals from circus performances, according to a set of bills recently signed by Governor Gavin Newsom.

The law will apply in 2013, as well as a ban to have animals in circus performances
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The bill applies to all new clothing, handbags, shoes and other items made with any type of fur. Those who violate the law will be subject to fines and civil penalties. Used fur and taxidermy products are exempt from the ban, along with leather, cowhide, and shearling. Fur products used for religious purposes or by Native American tribes are also exempt from the legislation.

“California is a leader when it comes to animal welfare, and today that leadership includes banning the sale of fur,” Newsom said. “But we are doing more than that. We are making a statement to the world that beautiful wild animals like bears and tigers have no place on trapeze wires or jumping through flames.”

The initiative could mark a significant blow to the fur industry that makes products from animals including mink, chinchillas, rabbits and other animals. The US retail fur industry brought in US$1.5bn in sales in 2014, the most recent data available from the Fur Information Council.

Under California law, there is a fine of up to US$1,000 for multiple violations. Fashion designers including Prada, Versace, Gucci and Giorgio Armani have stopped or have said they plan to stop using fur in the near future — but this will force them to act much sooner.

Animals in fur farms are often subject to gassing, electrocution and other inhumane actions to take their fur, according to animal rights groups. In comparison with other farm animals, species farmed for their fur have been subjected to very little attention. In addition, fur factories are also extremely harmful to soil since producing fur requires pumping waste and the toxic chemicals in to the surrounding environment.

Advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere said it was working with activists to pass similar bills in cities nationwide, including Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, and was optimistic California’s law would spur action.

“Ordinary people want to see animals protected, not abused,” said Cassie King, an organizer with the Berkeley-based group.

On the other hand, opponents of the legislation have said it could create a black market and be a slippery slope to bans on other products. The ban is part of a “radical vegan agenda using fur as the first step to other bans on what we wear and eat”, Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council said in a prior statement. He claimed fake fur was not a renewable or sustainable option.

Several fashion brands have already vowed to keep fur out of the catwalk all around the world, including Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Versace, Stella McCartney, Givenchy, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren.

With the new legislation, California also joins New Jersey and Hawaii in banning most animals from circus performances. The law exempts domesticated dogs, cats, and horses and does not apply to rodeos. Circuses have been declining in popularity for decades. The most well-known act, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, closed in 2017.

State officials said at least two circuses that include live animals were scheduled to perform in California this year. At least 18 circuses do not use animals, including Cirque du Soleil. The law includes penalties of up to $25,000 per day for each violation.

The Southwest California Legislative Council opposed the law, saying it would prevent people from being able “to experience the thrill of a circus performance featuring beautiful, well-cared-for animals”.

Green economy expands in the US, overtaking fossil fuel industry

The green economy has grown so much in the United States that it currently employs millions and generates over US$1.3 trillion in revenue per year, which represents 16.5% of the global green economy, according to a new study by UCL.

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Broadly defined as low carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive, the size of the green economy and employment has grown 20% between 2013 and 2016, currently employing 9.5 million people — 1.5 million jobs more than in 2013.

The study, published in Palgrave Communications, showed that while the green economy expanded fossil fuel industries have downscaled. From 2013 to 2016 the coal industry saw a decline of 37.000 jobs.

The trend is now being challenged by US President Donald Trump, who, as part of his plan “America First Energy Policy,” claimed that 400,000 jobs could be created in the fossil fuel sector over the next 30 years.

“The green economy is of huge importance to the US both in terms of economic growth and employment. Further investment in the fossil fuel industry is incompatible with economic trends and could end up damaging the US economy as other countries invest more heavily in their green economy,” said Mark Maslin, co-author of the study.

In order to carry out their study, the researchers used estimates of sales revenue and employment across 24 economic sub-sectors covering renewable energy, environmental protection, and low carbon goods and services.

The study suggests that revenue in the global green economy was at least $7.87 trillion in 2015/16. This is in line with previous findings, such as an FTSE Russell report that revealed that over the last five year, globally green companies generated higher returns than the stock market average.

When compared to China, OECD nations and the G20 countries, the US has an above-average share of the working-age population employed (4%) and higher per-capita revenue from the green economy.

The main growth in green employment in the US has been on renewables, particularly consultancy and wind energy which saw increases of 9.36% and 8.56% in economic value respectively in 2015/16.

The report also highlighted that while the US is currently the largest market in the global green economy with a 16.5% share, other major economies have the capacity to expand and compete with the US.

“Our analysis suggests that the case for driving economic growth and job creation through fossil fuels is weakening, based on the available data,” Dr Lucien Georgeson, lead author said. “In order to support the development of the green economy, the US needs to focus its attention on designing appropriate economic, environmental and education policies.”

Climate change drives California’s forest fires

The state of California has seen during the last two years a record number of seasonal wildfires, leading to a set of disastrous blazes. While there are many reasons behind them, climate change hasn’t been on the list – until now.

Helicopter drops fire retardant on the Happy Camp Complex Fire in the Klamath National Forest in California. Credit: US Department of Agriculture (Flickr)

 

Since the 1970s, California wildfires have increased in size eight-fold, with the annual burned area growing by nearly 500%, a study published in Earth’s Future journal said, linking the increase with climate change.

“Human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and North Coast and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades,” the authors of the paper wrote.

The study concluded that the summer forest fires that recently affected the North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions have a strong connection to arid ground conditions brought on by increasing heat. It suggested that wildfires could grow exponentially in the next 40 years, as temperatures continue to rise.

When air heats up even modestly, it causes more moisture to evaporate from soils and vegetation, researchers explained. This leads to fires starting easier and spreading faster and farther. Hotter temperatures cause drier land, which causes a parched atmosphere.

“It’s not a surprise to see that climate has this effect in forests, but California is so big and so variable, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for how climate might affect wildfires across the board,” said the study’s lead author, Park Williams.

Williams and colleagues noted that average summer temperatures in the state have risen 3.25 degrees Fahrenheit since 1896, with three-quarters of that increase occurring since the early 1970s. From 1972 to 2018, the area burned annually has increased fivefold mainly by a more than an eightfold spike in summer forest fires.

The study noted that the effects of climate are highly seasonal, and can vary depending on vegetation type, topography and human settlement patterns across California’s highly diverse landscape.

For example, summer fires did not increase in many non-forested areas dominated by grasses or shrubs. This, they say, was probably due to a combination of intense firefighting and prevention efforts, and reduced vegetation due to drought. In fall, destructive fires have grown, but the effects of a warming climate are not clear yet.

“Revisit this in 20 more years, and we’ll almost definitely be saying, ‘Yeah, fall fires have the global-warming fingerprint on them.’ But right now, we’re still emerging from the range of natural variability,” Williams said.

California goes electric on school buses

The state of California is seen by many as the model to follow when it comes to climate action and clean energy. Now, it’s taken this a step even further by announcing it will replace more than 200 diesel school buses with new, all-electric school buses.

Credit: Torbakhopper (Flickr)

 

The California Energy Commission has awarded nearly $70 million to state schools to replace their buses, which will eliminate nearly 57,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides and nearly 550 pounds of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions annually.

“School buses are by far the safest way for kids to get to school. But diesel-powered buses are not safe for kids’ developing lungs, which are particularly vulnerable to harmful air pollution,” says Patty Monahan, energy commissioner.

“Making the transition to electric school buses that don’t emit pollution provides children and their communities with cleaner air and numerous public health benefits,” she added.

Owing to a recent law, the state will have a zero-carbon electricity matrix by 2045 and Governor Brown issued an executive order to totally decarbonize economy by the same date. It’s a huge challenge considering that between 2006 and 2016 the economy grew 16%, the population expanded 9% and emissions were only reduced by 11%, according to a recent report.

California still has to face big challenges and one of the biggest is in the transportation sector, which accounts for 41% of the state’s emissions. According to official statistics, there are 32 million vehicles in operation for a population of 40 million, of which only 400,000 are electric.

Emissions from transportation have increased in the past four years, due to residents traveling further as a result of increasing property cost in the major cities. In addition, the number of public transport users has decreased in four out of five of the state’s biggest metropolitan areas.

Encouraging the use of electric vehicles instead of diesel-based ones could help point the state in a better direction. With that goal in mind, a California lawmaker, Phil Ting, recently introduced a bill that would increase state-funded electric car rebates up to as much as US$7,500, rising from today’s top rebate of US$2,500.

E-cars don’t emit climate-damaging greenhouse gases or health-harming nitrogen oxide and are quiet and easy to operate, leading governments to encourage the transition to them. But while they may seem like it, they are not the perfect solution to our environmental challenges.

If they are running on electricity produced by burning dirty fossil fuels, climate benefits are limited. Because of the complex batteries they use, it currently takes more energy to produce an electric car than a conventional one. And, disposing of those batteries creates an environmental hazard.

Under present conditions, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car “is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size.” That’s the conclusion of a 2011 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in Heidelberg.

According to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, it takes more than twice the amount of energy to produce an electric car than a conventional one, largely due to the production of the battery. However, in the long run, that can be easily compensated through clean energy, which makes up for the production costs and makes electric buses extremely attractive.

Extreme heat to become the new normal in the US

If there’s one clear sign of climate change, it’s extreme heat. And people all across the US know it as they have been facing it this summer with long heat waves. According to new research, this will likely be the new normal across the country.

A weather forecast in the US shows days with extreme heat. Credit: Flickr

 

Climate change will probably make extreme heat conditions and their health risks much more frequent in almost every part of the US, according to research published in the journal Environmental Research Communications.

“Our analysis shows a hotter future that’s hard to imagine today,” study co-author Kristina Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Nearly everywhere, people will experience more days of dangerous heat in the next few decades.”

By 2050, hundreds of US cities could see around 30 days each year with heat index temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius) if nothing is done to rein in global warming. The heat index is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature — so it’s a measure of how temperature actually feels.

This is the first study to take the heat index — instead of just temperature — into account when determining the impacts of global warming. The number of days per year when the heat index exceeds 100 degrees will more than double nationally, according to the study.

“We have little to no experience with ‘off-the-charts’ heat in the U.S.,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, lead climate analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists and report co-author. “These conditions occur at or above a heat index of 127 degrees. Exposure to conditions in that range makes it difficult for human bodies to cool themselves.”

The research suggests that there will be few areas of the country able to avoid these extreme heat events, except for some high-altitude mountainous regions. Currently, the only place that experiences these “off-the-charts” days is the Sonoran Desert on the border of southern California and Arizona.

The National Weather Service of the US typically issues a “heat advisory” when a maximum heat index is expected to hit at least 100°F for two or more days, and an “excessive heat warning” when it will hit at least 105°F for two or more days. These heat levels can lead to health risks such as dehydration and heatstroke.

The expected increase in heatwaves will require additional efforts to help people cope, especially those who aren’t used to it, the study concluded. This should be in line with a further reduction in global greenhouse emissions, now considered not sufficient to meet the 2ºC global warming limit established by the Paris Agreement.

Water.

Sea level change isn’t constant across the East Coast — because of long-past glaciers

A new study explains why different areas along the U.S. East Coast see significantly more sea level change than others.

Water.

Image credits Dimitris Vetsikas.

Seas and oceans across the globe are creeping ever so slowly upwards as climate change warms them up and melts glaciers big and small. However, local sea levels aren’t (surprisingly) the same everywhere — and this holds true for the U.S. East Coast as well. A new study published by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) comes to explain why.

Been under a lot of pressure lately

Over the last century, coastal communities near Cape Hatteras (North Carolina) and the Chesapeake Bay (Virginia) have seen about a foot and a half of sea level rise.  New York City and Miami, in contrast, have only seen roughly two-thirds of that rise (i.e. one foot) over the same period. Farther north in Portland, Maine, for example, sea levels only rose only about half a foot.

Which is weird, right? I mean, all the Earth’s oceans are linked together so, their water should be level, right? Not if you’re on a period of post-glacial rebound, says lead author Chris Piecuch.

Vast areas of land in the Northern Hemisphere, including Canada and parts of the Northeast U.S, were covered in massive glaciers during the last Ice Age, he explains. This effectively squashed the lands, pushing them down into the mantle (the crust is essentially a jigsaw puzzle of solid pieces floating on molten rock — see here). These ice sheets peaked in size and mass during the Last Glacial Maximum some 26,500 years ago, and then started melting to the state we see today. As they did so, the pressure they exerted on the ground also disappeared — and these areas started to rebound. Neighboring lands, meanwhile, started sinking, creating sort of a seesaw effect.

That effect continues to this day, Piecuch explains.

For the study, Piecuch and his team gathered tidal gauge measurements of sea levels in areas such as Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia and the Outer Banks in North Carolina. They also drew on GPS satellite data to see how much local landmasses had moved up and down over time, and looked to fossils recovered from salt marshes (which are a good indicator of past coastal sea levels). They combined all of this observational data with complex geophysical models to produce a more complete view of sea level changes since 1900 than ever before.

Post-glacial rebound, they found, accounted for most of the variation in sea level rise along the East Coast. Interestingly, however, when that factor was removed from the dataset, the team found that “sea level trends increased steadily from Maine all the way down to Florida.”

“The cause for that could involve more recent melting of glaciers and ice sheets, groundwater extraction and damming over the last century,” Piecuch says. “Those effects move ice and water mass around at Earth’s surface, and can impact the planet’s crust, gravity field and sea level.”

“Post-glacial rebound is definitely the most important process causing spatial differences in sea level rise on the U.S. East Coast over the last century. And since that process plays out over millennia, we’re confident projecting its influence centuries into the future. But regarding the mass redistribution piece of the puzzle, we’re less certain how that’s going to evolve into the future, which makes it much more difficult to predict sea level rise and its impact on coastal communities.”

The paper “Origin of spatial variation in US East Coast sea-level trends during 1900–2017” has been published in the journal Nature.

Refinery tanks.

The U.S. oil and gas industry is leaking a lot of methane — again

The U.S. oil and gas industry emits roughly 13 million metric tons of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) per year. The figure is 60% higher than that estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Refinery tanks.

Image via Pixabay.

Most of these emissions didn’t come from the industry’s main activity; rather, it oozed out from leaks, malfunctioning equipment, and other “abnormal” operating conditions. Still, irrespective of their source, these emissions do take a toll on the environment. In 2015, the paper notes, these emissions had roughly the same environmental impact as the carbon dioxide emissions resulted from all of the U.S’ coal-fired plants.

Leakie leaks

“This study provides the best estimate to date on the climate impact of oil and gas activity in the United States,” said co-author Jeff Peischl, a CIRES scientist working in NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colorado.

“It’s the culmination of 10 years of studies by scientists across the country, many of which were spearheaded by CIRES and NOAA.”

The paper drew on measurements performed at over 400 well pads in six oil and gas production basins and multiple midstream facilities. The measurements were focused around valves, tanks, and other equipment. In addition, the team also drew on aerial surveys covering large areas of the U.S. oil and gas infrastructure.

Methane was the main focus since it’s the principal component in what we commonly refer to as ‘natural gas’. It’s also a very powerful greenhouse gas, having over 80 times the warming impact of CO2 for the first 20 years after release (it breaks down in the atmosphere after that). The study estimates that methane emissions in the U.S. total about 2.3% of total production — which would negate any potential benefit of the U.S. switching from coal to natural gas in the energy sector over the next 20 years.

The total cost of these methane leakages is around $2 billion, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, “America’s most economically literate green campaigners.” That quantity, they add, would be enough to heat 10 million homes in the U.S.

On one hand, the findings raise concerns around our efforts to mitigate climate change — if the U.S. leaks so much methane under our collective noses, how much does the global oil and gas industry leak? On the other hand, it’s an easily fixable problem. Repairing the leaks and addressing other factors that contribute to the methane emissions would be a quick and cheap way to keep a lot of methane out of the atmosphere. However, this is not the first time the U.S. leaks methane — similar findings were reported on in 2016.

The paper “Assessment of methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain” has been published in the journal Science.

In the US, climate change will disproportionately hurt the poor

A new study from Berkeley researchers found that the lower class in the US will suffer the effects of global warming much more than the upper class. It’s somewhat ironic, since these are also traditionally the areas with the highest rate of climate change denial.

The map reflects the uneven distribution of economic impacts of unmitigated climate change based on county-level research. Image credits: Solomon Hsiang and co-authors of “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States” in the journal Science.

The poorest third of all US counties will lose up to 20 percent of their incomes, in an event that will bear similarities to the Great Recession. Meanwhile, regions such as the Pacific Northwest and New England will gain economically over the Gulf and Southern states. Basically, the gap between the rich and the poor will widen more than ever, and the country itself stands to lose 0.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product for temperatures rising even just one degree Fahrenheit. If you think that’s not much, it’s about $126 billion. These are the conclusions of a new study carried out by two researchers from UC Berkeley: Solomon Hsiang,  and James Rising.

“Climate change is going to be like a huge transfer of wealth from some people to others,” said Hsiang. “This is kind of analogous to a tech boom in one region of the country and industry collapsing in another region. It’s going to make the current economic cleavages in this country even bigger.”

 They analyzed 116 climate change forecasts and numerous economic analyses developed by researchers from all around the world, assessing the effects of climate change on crime, agriculture, energy, labor, coastal communities and mortality. Their main findings are:
  • rising sea levels will cause more frequent tropical cyclones, worsening problems for low-lying coastal cities. South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida will be the most affected.
  • rising temperatures will drastically reduce agricultural productivity in the Midwest.
  • annual national mortality rates will rise by roughly five deaths per 100,000 people for each degree Celsius increase in temperature.
  • electricity demands, especially related to air conditioning, will increase in all parts of the country except the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
  • the number of hours worked will “decline about 0.11 percent for each additional degree in rising global mean surface temperature for workers who are not generally exposed to outdoor temperatures, and by 0.53 percent for high-risk, outside workers”.
  • violent crime rates in the country will increase by about 0.9 percent per each additional degree Celsius in global mean surface temperature.

It’s important to once again highlight that these effects won’t be spread equally across the country. The south, which is already very hot, will generally experience the most problems. The Midwest, long considered the country’s breadbasket due to its intensive farming, will dry out and be unable to reach the usual quotas.

Research also considered that rising temperatures might convince some people to relocate, but they think this is unlikely to play a big part in the overall numbers.

Things are looking pretty grim in the US, and things are clearer than ever: global warming will affect you, whether or not you realize it, and whether or not you believe in it. Hopefully, serious action is taken before it’s too late — though we might have already burned an important bridge.

Now, researchers say they want to build a similar model at a global scale.

“There are thousands of people around the world working on this problem,” said Hsiang. “What we are trying to do is to build a system, stitching together all the different models and building ‘the machine in the middle’ to bring it all together. This is how we should be doing policy, as a society.”

 

World’s only second US Declaration of Independence found in small English city

It all started with a short entry in a catalog of a tiny records office in the town of Chichester, in the south of England: “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.”

The parchment the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America (pictured) was written on caught Emily Sneff’s attention, who observed some exciting peculiarities about this document: “it’s in a handwriting I hadn’t seen before.” Image credits: West Sussex Record Office Add Mss 8981.

Emily Sneff, a researcher with the Declaration Resources Project, found the entry in August 2015. She didn’t just stumble upon it by chance, she was developing a database of every known edition of the Declaration of Independence. She didn’t think much about it at first, not even suspecting that this was an original manuscript.

“I’d found vague descriptions of other copies of the Declaration that turned out to be 19th-century reproductions of the signed parchment in the National Archives, so that was what I was expecting,” Sneff said of her initial impression based on the catalog listing. “What struck me as significant was that it said manuscript on parchment.”

She contacted the West Sussex Record Office, a bit skeptical at first, but still curious. After all, the description was a bit vague, and the only thing which was known about the document was that it was received in 1956, from a man who worked at a local law firm — not very promising. Still, working with Harvard’s Danielle Allen, she contacted the record office, which sent her photographs of the document, and that’s when they really started to get excited. The reason? Errors.

“When I looked at it closely, I started to see details, like names that weren’t in the right order — John Hancock isn’t listed first, there’s a mark at the top that looks like an erasure, the text has very little punctuation in it — and it’s in a handwriting I hadn’t seen before,” she said. “As those details started adding up, I brought it to Danielle’s attention and we realized this was different from any other copy we had seen.”

Sneff started to understand that the mysterious document was much more important than it seemed at a first glance, and knew she had to answer three questions:

  • when was the document written?
  • who commissioned it, and why?
  • and how on Earth did it get in West Sussex?

In two published studies, they attempt to answer those questions. For starters, using a combination of handwriting and parchment analysis, they dated the manuscript to the 1780s — not immediately after the original declaration.

This makes the second question even more important, and Sneff believes this Declaration of Independence was commissioned by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who later helped draft the Constitution and was among the original justices of the Supreme Court. Wilson was one of six men to sign both the declaration and constitution and was an ardent supporter of separation of powers, playing a key role in the early history of the US.

The official portrait of Supreme Court Justice James Wilson — one of the most important and yet more overlooked figures of the early US history.

But not everything is clear. Right after the declaration was signed, there was a period of “breaking news” in which the declaration was printed in all sorts of newspapers and journals. spreading across the US as well as Europe and the rest of the world. But it wasn’t until a decade later that Wilson’s declaration was printed — a very turbulent period for the new nation.

“Victory was not sweet,” Allen said. “There was financial disaster, the Articles of Confederation were not working … so the 1780s were a period of great instability, despite victory. And this parchment belongs to that decade.”

There was also a strong, bitter debate during at decade: had the new state been established through the will of the people, or through the will of the founding states? This parchment subtly takes one side. Basically, according to the protocol at the time, when it came to signing a national document, members of each state would sign together in one place. For the Declaration of Independence, the name of the states were omitted, but signatures were still grouped by state… but not in here.

“But the Sussex Declaration scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state,” Allen said. “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,’ to quote James Wilson.”

So, we know who commissioned this paper and why… but how did it get to England? Well, that’s still a matter of research for now. Sneff is now working to gain access to other papers which would perhaps enable her to trace the voyage of this declaration. This is only the second known parchment manuscript of America’s formative text, so learning its story is quite intriguing.

The papers have not yet been peer reviewed. The first is currently in the final revision stage with the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, while the second has only been presented at a Yale University conference.

waterways chemicals

U.S. waterways pack a slew of chemical compounds, from pesticides to pharmaceuticals

The US Geological Survey (USGS) found a worrying amount of chemicals with a biological impact in water samples taken from major U.S. rivers and streams. They monitored only a couple hundred chemicals known to be sourced from human activity but even so they found 56 percent of them inside the fresh water. This suggests that the real number of man-made chemicals present in freshwater streams could be in the order of thousands, some of which can provoke a worrying biological response.

waterways chemicals

Credit: Pixabay.

The team sampled water from 35 waterways, three of which located far from human settlements and activity to serve as a control. Water close to both rural and urban environments was sampled, then screened for a select group of 719 chemical compounds. Of these, no fewer than 406 were detected which tells us man-made chemicals are diffusing in great numbers into the broader environment.

The most common chemicals were 8 pesticides and 2 pharmaceuticals, namely caffeine and metformin. The latter is a drug commonly used to treat type-2 diabetes.

After this first test established which chemicals were present, the researchers performed a new experiment that was meant to assess their effect on living organisms. Specifically, the researchers were interested what impact the chemicals found in the water samples had on estrogen, androgen, and glucocorticoid receptors. Unsurprisingly, all three receptors were affected in some way. At this point, it’s important to note that the biological effects of the contaminants were tested not an individual basis, but as a whole like a soup. But even considering this fact, the researchers still don’t know why the androgen (male sex hormones) and glucocorticoid receptors, which bind to anti-inflammatory compounds like steroids, reacted so strongly.

One possible explanation might be that only a fraction of the 85,000 known chemicals that we manufacture were tested. This seems more likely, although it’s possible that the combination of chemicals is collectively causing an integrated response that we’re not aware of yet. As for the source of these chemicals, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s not that these chemicals are dumped into the waterways by some malevolent person or company. Everything we ingest and consequently excrete gets mixed up and ends up in water supplies via sewers despite it may pass through a waste treatment plant. Case in point, the study found the closer to a wastewater treatment facility the sampled water was, the higher was the chemical concentration.

For now, the long-term environmental and health effects are not known but the biological tests clearly suggest that the contaminants have some sort of effect. All living beings need water, and as such, all the slew of chemicals we consume and dump in the water ends up in plants, fish, animals that eat all these plant and fish, and eventually back inside us.

The study which appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology doesn’t draw any conclusions beyond the reported facts. The findings, however, merit starting a discussion about it. Governmental agencies might want to work together on this one to figure out what’s the best course of action to minimize man-made chemicals leaching into the waterways. There are already some solutions discussed by the scientific community, none of which is cheap or easy. Waste could be treated closer to the source as opposed to collecting it and drugs could be designed to degrade faster.

Harvest in the US to suffer from climate change

As the newly elected president Trump starts his crusade of bashing environmentalism, a new study shows that climate change will affect US agriculture — whether we admit it or not.

California has suffered massive from drought in recent years. With the changing climate, things are expected to get even worse. Image credits: Skeeze / Pixabay

The thing I like most about science is that it just is. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you think, the Earth still revolves around the Sun, organisms do evolve, and climate change is happening. We know that climate change is already affecting crops around the world and the US is no exception but now, an international team of researchers may paint a better picture of how drastic the effects will be.

The team ran computer simulations on an unprecedentedly comprehensive dataset, analyzing wheat, maize, and soybean. First, the models were calibrated to satisfy existing data and then they were projected onto the future. Researchers showed that the effects will be severe and combating them (to an extent) will only be possible where enough water exists for extra irrigation.

“We know from observations that high temperatures can harm crops, but now we have a much better understanding of the processes,” says Bernhard Schauberger from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, lead author of the study.

For instance, they showed that for every day above 30°C (86F) maize and soybean plants can lose about 5 percent of their harvest. These losses don’t even consider temperatures over 36°C (97F), which have a much more severe impact. As such temperatures become more and more common, so too will crop losses.

It almost seems too pessimistic to be true, but there’s a strong biological reason why this happens. When temperatures rise, water becomes scarce. With water scarce, the small openings in the leaves gradually close to prevent water loss. They thereby preclude the diffusion of CO2 into the cells, which is an essential building material for the plants. Furthermore, plants respond to water stress by sacrificing biomass and extending their roots. This leads to smaller plants and lower yields. If the plant does receive some water (through irrigation), that doesn’t happen — or it happens to a much lesser extent — but many agricultural regions in the US already tackle water scarcity.

“The losses got substantially reduced when we increased irrigation of fields in the simulation, so water stress resulting from temperature increase seems to be a bigger factor than the heat itself,” says co-author Joshua Elliott from the University of Chicago.

Of course, any model has its limitations, but the line is drawn. You can discuss the details and finesse of the end figures but it’s clear that the effects of climate change are immediate, drastic, and far-reaching. While some countries are more vulnerable than others, no one is safe from global warming and we will all feel the effects together.

“The computer simulations that we do are based on robust knowledge from physics, chemistry, biology; on a lot of data and elaborate algorithms. But they of course cannot represent the entire complexity of the crop system, hence we call them models. In our study they have passed a critical test.”

Journal Reference: Bernhard Schauberger, Sotirios Archontoulis, Almut Arneth, Juraj Balkovic, Philippe Ciais, Delphine Deryng, Joshua Elliott, Christian Folberth, Nikolay Khabarov, Christoph Müller, Thomas A. M. Pugh, Susanne Rolinski, Sibyll Schaphoff, Erwin Schmid, Xuhui Wang, Wolfram Schlenker, Katja Frieler (2017): Consistent negative response of US crops to high temperatures in observations and crop models. Nature Communications [DOI:10.1038/NCOMMS13931]

Majority of people in the US favour renewables

A Pew Research Center survey finds that 65% of Americans give priority to developing renewable energy while only 27% want to focus on fossil fuels.

There were still large differences between people who leaned towards the Democrat and the Republican parties. Image credits: Pew Research Center.

Although Donald Trump was elected on a platform pushing for the development of fossil fuels and scraping environmental initiatives, most of the population seems to disagree with him. A Pew study which surveyed over 1,500 people found that even a divided country can still agree on some things — to an extent.

Interestingly, support for alternative sources of energy has risen since December 2014. Back then, 60% said renewables should be a priority, a significant change. However, although most people did agree that renewables are important, political differences were still significant.

Both Democrats and Republicans support renewables, but Democrats much more so than Republicans. Some 81% of Democrats and independents who lean towards the Democratic party favor implementing renewable energy in favor of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, in the Republican camp, things were much closer: 45% say we should focus on renewables, while 44% say expanding coal, oil, and natural gas should be favored.

It’s not just political, the difference is ideological as well: 88% of liberals believe climate change is a major threat to the wellbeing of the US, while only 12% of conservatives shared this opinion. Basically, the survey found that the “more Republican” and conservative you are, the less likely you are to support renewables. Age was also a factor — the youth favored renewables (73%) while older adults were more divided in their opinions.

It’s an interesting result which should not be taken lightly. Although such a survey certainly doesn’t paint the entire picture, the US seems like a nation slowly accepting the realities of climate change and willing to take the steps necessary to fight against it. At the very least, people are understanding the economic benefits renewables bring: it’s not that you have to lose money to fight climate change —  you can help the economy while building a sustainable future. All that’s needed is good leadership.

These findings are based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 4-9, 2017 with a nationally representative sample of 1,502 U.S. adults. The full methodology can be found here, and the questionnaire wording and topline are here (PDF).

mental health

The depressing state of American mental health: 20 percent of the population suffering from mental illness, but only half get treatment

mental health

Credit: Pixabay

Mental Health America, a non-profit,  ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia by various measures of mental illness. Their investigation confirms that a staggering number of Americans are afflicted by some kind of mental illness. Some 20 percent of Americans have a mental health problem — that’s nearly 45 million people. According to the same report only half receive treatment for their illness.

Overall, the top three states with the lowest prevalence of mental illness, but also the best access to care, were New England: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Oppositely, the authors of the report ranked the worst states as Oregon, Arizona, and Nevada.

Of the ten worst states to be mentally ill, six of them also rank high for having the highest incarceration rate.  In Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, 57,000 men and women who are behind bars suffer from some kind of mental illness.

“Once again, our report shows that too many Americans are suffering and far too many are not receiving the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives,” Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America, said in a statement. “We must improve access to care and treatments, and we need to put a premium on early identification and early intervention for everyone with mental health concerns.”

“It’s time to act,” Gionfriddo added. “We must invest in the overall physical and mental well-being of our citizens — every day.”

Most of these people who are classed with some mental health problem are insured but still do not receive treatment, either because they did no seek it or because they do not trust care in their region. Gionfriddo says that in light of these worrisome findings, every state should make facilitating mental health treatment a priority. Facilities need to be improved, staff trained, and the public needs to be made aware that they might be mentally ill and require assistance.

 

US lawmakers in charge of NASA and environmental funding don’t understand science

It’s a pretty sad day if you’re a US scientist. We just wrote that funding (especially for young researchers) has dwindled in the past decades, and now, there’s some more bad news. The people in charge of funding for NASA and environmental research, Republican senators Ted Cruz and James Inhofe, have a record of not understanding science and making pseudoscientific affirmations. While I won’t discuss the politics here (we never do), the fact that such important matters fall onto the shoulders of people known to be pretty much adversaries of science cannot be left unchecked.

Senator Ted Cruz was appointed to rule senate subcommittee that oversees NASA – he basically controls NASA in Congress. This is pretty ironic when you consider that he repeatedly tried to reduce NASA funding (and successfully shut it down for over two weeks). Talk about having a wolf guarding the sheep! But wait, it gets better – Cruz is a firm opponent of climate change (whatever that may mean), and has vocally refuted funding any climate change study. He says:

“They’ll [scientists] say, well, it’s changing so it proves our theory.” He maintains that the problem with climate change is there’s no data to support it and that “there has never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing.”

With just a Tweet long sentence, he managed to show that not only does he not understand climate change science – he doesn’t understand climate at all. But it gets even better. Here’s what Cruz had to say about observing global warming:

“The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”

It’s not even like you need advanced science to debunk that – all you need is to look at the thermometer. In case you’re not aware, 2014 was the 18th year straight warmer than the average in US! 2012 was the hottest year in the US (by far), California is experiencing the worst drought in over 1,000 years, and pretty much every serious science agency agrees that global warming is happening, and it’s man-made. Yet this man will decide (to an extent) the future of NASA, and how the space agency gets to spend its money. Quite a brilliant world we live, isn’t it?

James Inhofe on the other hand is not a climate change denier – he does believe that global warming is happening, but he thinks it’s a good thing.

“It’s also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence. Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”

He wants to cut funding from renewable energy research and invest more in the oil industry. So disregard what almost all the scientific community is saying – climate change is good for you, we should use even more oil!

But seriously now, the pair of lawmakers have shown, time and time again, that they don’t understand science, and furthermore, that they are against it. Now, these two are in positions of direct power over topics they don’t grasp and they have opposed to repeatedly. Science is true no matter whether you believe it or not, that’s the good thing. The bad thing is that science can’t write laws. Cruz and Inhofe can.

American_media_consumption_Growth

American media consumption to soar in 2015

American_media_consumption_Growth

(c) James E. Short.

The U.S. is not only the biggest energy consumer per capita in the lord, but also the leading media consumer. An estimated 6.9 zettabytes of media flows to individuals and households in a year or 6.9 million million gigabytes. That’s almost twice as much than in 2008 and according to the latest “How Much Media? 2013 Report on American Consumers,” produced by the Institute for Communications Technology Management (CTM America’s hunger for media is from becoming saturated. By 2015, 8.75 zettabytes worth of information will flow annually, or 74 gigabytes — 9 DVDs worth — of data sent to the average consumer on an average day.

To put things into perspective if were to print the information gobbled up as media by US consumers as books, keeping in mind that 1 byte is equivalent to one character of text, stacked those books as tightly as possible across the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, the pile would be almost 14 feet high. That’s quite a lot and it’s only set to increase.

media-consumption-america-2013

(c) James E. Short.

The report breaks down media into as many as 30 categories, like gaming, TV, social media etc. Interestingly enough, although some might say it’s safe to say computers are ubiquitous, traditional media still dominates how people consume information as two-third of viewing time is reserved to TV, radio and voice calls while digital platforms account for only one-third. Digital is worth half of total amount of information, however, and this will only grow in coming years. In time, the system will be shifted from measuring hours of media consumption to measuring bytes.

In 2008, Americans talked, viewed and listened to media for 1.3 trillion hours, an average of 11 hours per person per day. By 2012, total consumption had increased to 1.46 trillion hours, an average of 13.6 hours per person per day, representing a year over year growth rate of 5%. By 2015, the data indicate that Americans will consume media for more than 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15.5 hours per person per day.

growth_media_america_2013

Here are some more media consumption stats for 2015:

  • Mobile messaging hours, which in 2012 accounted for approximately 9% of voice call hours, will double to over 18% of voice hours, a year over year growth rate of more than 27%.
  • Viewing video on the Internet averaged less than 3 hours a month in 2008; by 2012, viewing time increased to almost 6 hours a month, a year over year growth rate of 21%. By 2015, the report projects that Americans will be watching video for almost 11 hours a month, a compound annual growth rate of 24% a year.
  • From 2008 to 2015, total annual hours for users of Facebook and YouTube will grow from 6.3 billion hours to 35.2 billion hours, a year over year growth rate of 28%.