Trump's new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, a Republican Congress member from Oklahoma. He has no background in space science. Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call

By Brian Resnick
19 April 2018

(Vox) – The US Senate on Thursday confirmed Jim Bridenstine, a Republican Congress member from Oklahoma, to be the next administrator of NASA. The post has remained vacant since January 2017, when Charles Bolden, the space agency’s leader under President Barack Obama, stepped down.

Bridenstine, 42, brings some odd qualifications to the job, and some controversy.

Typically, NASA administrators are chosen from within NASA’s ranks, come up through the military, or have a background in science. Bridenstine has none of that. His qualifications: He’s former Navy pilot who once ran the Air and Space Museum in Tulsa. He also sits on the House Committee that oversees NASA. The third-term representative is now the first member of Congress to hold the administrator job.

Even members of Bridenstine’s own party have voiced concerns over what putting a politician in charge could mean for the future of the agency.

As a politician, Bridenstine has hedged on climate change, an issue NASA scientists study and track in many different ways. During his confirmation hearing in November, Bridenstine agreed that humans are the driving force behind climate change, but he would not agree with the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of it. It’s an odd position to hold as the leader of an agency that provides some of the most comprehensive data on climate change in the world.

NASA has a staff of 17,000 and a budget of nearly $19 billion (not to mention the numerous contractors it works with). Bridenstine’s experience of managing a museum in Tulsa pales in comparison to the enormous complexity of NASA. Plus, there are new questions, raised by reporting from the Daily Beast, about whether Bridenstein used funds from the Tulsa Air and Space Museum to prop up a private venture. He reportedly ran the museum into a financial loss.

Bridenstine will also be controversial because he’s been outspoken against LGBTQ rights. In 2013, he called the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage a “disappointment.” He has also spoken out on the House floor criticizing the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allowed LGBTQ members. In a speech, he charged that the left wing in the US wants to “reshape organizations like the Boy Scouts into instruments for social change.” […]

NASA is “the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics,” Rubio said in September, echoing the same concerns as his Florida colleague Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee. “I just think it could be devastating for the space program,” Rubio said.

Rubio ultimately voted Thursday in favor of Bridenstine’s nomination. The day before, he citied concerns that NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, is set to retire at the end of the month. “While I wish the president would have nominated a space professional to run NASA,” Rubio said in a statement, he wanted to avoid “a gaping leadership void.”  [more]

Trump’s next NASA administrator is a Republican congressman with no background in science

Before and after views of flooding in Kapaa Homesteads on the island of Kauai, 15 April 2018. Photo: Mark Hull / Twitter

By John Hopewell
17 April 2018

(The Washington Post) – A historic torrent of rain pounded the Hawaiian island of Kauai this weekend, with more than two feet of rain lashing the tropical paradise in 24 hours.

According to the National Weather Service in Honolulu, the rain gauge in the town of Hanalei collected 27.52 inches of rain from early Saturday morning into Sunday morning. That beats all previous one- and two-day rainfall maximums for that location.

Kauai is, of course, no stranger to rain. It is one of the rainiest places on Earth, with the 5,148-foot-tall Mount Waialeale receiving more than 400 inches of rain annually. Hanalei, where the 24-hour rainfall record was set, averages 78 inches per year.

Still, the Saturday-Sunday inundation was far too much for Kauai to handle. […]

“From all of what I’ve seen this has been the worst flood event I’ve ever seen my 49 years here on Hanalei,” Alex Diego told the Garden Island newspaper. “The house got water in it for the first time ever.” [more]

Historic rain inundates Kauai, cutting off Hawaii residents and tourists with floods and mudslides

A worker repaired a power line in San Juan, P.R., on Wednesday, 18 April 2018. A major failure had knocked out the electricity across Puerto Rico. Photo: Jose Jimenez Tirado / Getty Images

By Arelis R. Hernández
18 April 2018

(The Washington Post) – An island-wide blackout struck Puerto Rico on Wednesday, plunging the U.S. territory of more than 3 million citizens back into darkness more than seven months after Hurricane Maria demolished its fragile power grid.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said the blackout, which began about 11:30 a.m., could last from 24 to 36 hours. About 5 p.m., the local utility said more than 51,000 customers had power.

The local utility said it detected a failure on a prominent distribution line that connects a major generating station in the south of the island to substations in the north, where most of the population lives.

Maria “Mayita” Melendez of Ponce, a large city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, said PREPA told her that workers for Cobra Energy were moving a tower near Aguirre, one of the island’s major generating plants, when an excavator struck a major distribution line, causing a change in voltage that created a chain reaction.

In a video statement Wednesday afternoon, PREPA interim director Justo Gonzalez said that when the line failed, the central generating plant in the south stopped functioning and seven major plants along the southern coast collapsed one by one.

The agency said its priority is to restore service to critical structures such as hospitals, the airport, water pumps and banks. PREPA tweeted that several hospitals and medical centers had power by midafternoon.

The power outage comes two days after PREPA published an online video celebrating the restoration of electric service to 97 percent of its customers.

Wednesday’s blackout was the first island-wide power outage since the storm.[…]

In his city, Pérez Otero said a few businesses were operating only because their generators were still working. The backup power failed at a shopping center, but people continued to shop and use cash. Others rushed to gas pumps anticipating that they would close early and leave them without fuel.

But other parts of the city were “paralyzed,” he said.

The system’s fragility is especially concerning with the beginning of hurricane season only a couple of months away, giving federal and local officials little time to begin strengthening the decades-old and unkempt power grid in Puerto Rico.

“Sadly, this is the reality we will have to endure if another storm comes,” he said. “There’s no time to improve the system.” [more]

Puerto Rico back in darkness after island-wide blackout

By James Wagner and Frances Robles
18 April 2018

SAN JUAN, P.R. (The New York Times) – After seven months and close to $2.5 billion, almost everybody in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico had their lights back on — until a freak accident on Wednesday plunged the entire island once again into darkness.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority had boasted Wednesday morning that less than 3 percent of its customers remained without power, substantially concluding what some estimates called the biggest power failure in United States history. The island of 3.4 million residents was open for business again, government officials said.

It was only a few hours later that an excavator working near a fallen 140-foot transmission tower on the southern part of the island got too close to a high-voltage line. The resulting electrical fault knocked out power to nearly every home and business across the storm-battered American territory, authorities said, a catastrophic failure that could take up to 36 hours to restore.

It was the first time since Hurricane Maria left the island’s power grid in ruins on Sept. 20 that nearly all of the electric company’s 1.5 million customers found themselves in the dark, although another failure less than a week ago had cut power to 870,000 users. Only small pockets generated by microgrids were spared by the latest power loss.

“I’m angry. This is the second time in a row,” Justo González, the electric company’s chief operating officer, said in a telephone interview. “I give the people of Puerto Rico my word: we are going to restore power to every last house. […]

Leo Del Valle, 54, who lives and works in Caguas, said he went three months without power after Maria. He went home briefly after work on Wednesday and took an ice-cold shower. If the blackout lasts longer than a two days, he said, the food in his refrigerator will go to waste. “Your day-to-day changes completely,” he said. “This wears on you psychologically.”

During his power loss at his home after the hurricane, he said, he probably spent thousands on generators and fuel. His father-in-law spent over $5,000. Mr. Del Valle was more judicious and limited himself to only nine hours a day of generator use.

“If we get hit again, it’ll be a disaster,” he said. “Total chaos.”

Hurricane season starts June 1. [more]

Puerto Rico is Once Again Hit by an Islandwide Blackout

A baby believed to have contracted a drug-resistant strain of typhoid, hospitalized in Hyderabad, Pakistan in February 2018. Photo: Nadeem Khawer / European Pressphoto Agency

By Emily Baumgaertner
13 April 2018

(The New York Times) – The first known epidemic of extensively drug-resistant typhoid is spreading through Pakistan, infecting at least 850 people in 14 districts since 2016, according to the National Institute of Health Islamabad.

The typhoid strain, resistant to five types of antibiotics, is expected to disseminate globally, replacing weaker strains where they are endemic. Experts have identified only one remaining oral antibiotic — azithromycin — to combat it; one more genetic mutation could make typhoid untreatable in some areas.

Researchers consider the epidemic an international clarion call for comprehensive prevention efforts. If vaccination campaigns and modern sanitation systems don’t outpace the pathogen, they anticipate a return to the pre-antibiotic era when mortality rates soared.

“This isn’t just about typhoid,” said Dr. Rumina Hasan, a pathology professor at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan. “Antibiotic resistance is a threat to all of modern medicine — and the scary part is, we’re out of options.”

Typhoid fever, caused by the Salmonella Typhi bacteria, is a highly infectious disease transmitted by contaminated food or water. It causes high fevers, headaches and vomiting. About 21 million people suffer from typhoid each year, and about 161,000 die, according to the World Health Organization.

Typhoid is endemic to Pakistan, where poor infrastructure, low vaccination rates and overpopulated city dwellings persist. Doctors in the Sindh province were not surprised by an outbreak in November 2016 — until cases proved unresponsive to ceftriaxone, used to treat multidrug-resistant, or MDR, strains of typhoid.

Only four isolated cases of extensively drug-resistant, or XDR, typhoid had previously been reported worldwide, according to Dr. Elizabeth Klemm, an infectious disease geneticist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England.

The outbreak’s origins were clear: Early case mapping revealed large clusters of victims around sewage lines in the city of Hyderabad. Dr. Hasan’s colleagues visited the region and found water sources that could be contaminated by leaking sewage pipes. […]

“There are multiple worst-case scenarios,” said Dr. Klemm. “One is that this strain spreads to other regions through migration. But the other is that it pops up elsewhere on its own — plasmids with drug resistance are everywhere.” […]

“Once we aren’t able to treat this effectively, we’re going back to the pre-antibiotic era. That would mean a lot of fatalities in our future,” Dr. Klemm said. [more]

‘We’re Out of Options’: Doctors Battle Drug-Resistant Typhoid Outbreak

The narrow tendril from Hawaii to the U.S. West Coast shown here in GOES water vapor imagery at 9 am PDT Saturday, 7 April 2018, is actually a Pineapple Express atmospheric river that carried a record-setting amount of moisture into the western U.S. Photo: NWS / Spokane, WA

By Bob Henson 
9 April 2018

(Weather Underground) – If you love atmospheric extremes, but you hate to see people in harm’s way, you couldn’t ask for a more pleasing event than the phenomenal infusion of moisture into the western U.S. from Friday into Saturday. No deaths or serious injuries were reported from the weekend rains, although Yosemite National Park was closed over the weekend as valley roads were inundated by up to 4 feet of water. The storm brought rain to unusually high altitudes for early spring, which led to a slight net loss in snowpack across the Sierra, but the rains also helped push the major reservoirs of central and northern California even closer toward full capacity.

The most striking aspect of this storm is something that’s much less obvious: the amount of water vapor that streamed from the central tropical Pacific well into the western United States. Simply put, this storm brought more moisture into parts of the West—by far—than any other winter-type storm on record, going back to when radiosonde launches began measuring conditions through the depth of the atmosphere in the late 1940s.

This event was a weird mash-up of winter and summer elements. One way to see this is through precipitable water (PW), or the depth of water that could be squeezed out of an imaginary column of air directly above a point. The table below shows six stations that have just recorded their highest values of PW ever observed in the six-month period from November to April. Some of these records were broken by huge margins on multiple dates. [more]

What Gave the West Its Soggiest Winter-Type Atmosphere on Record?

(A) Vegetation cover, (B) species richness, and (C) Shannon-Wiener diversity index at 6 long-term green-roof sites over time. Graphic:  Ksiazek-Mikenas, et al., 2018 / Urban Naturalist

By Leslie Nemo
13 April 2018

(CityLab) – Every time Kelly Ksiazek-Mikenas scrambled onto a new green roof, it was hard to tell exactly where she was. The city below was definitely Berlin or Neubrandenburg, but the expanse of scraggly greens ahead of her looked a lot like the green roofs in Chicago, her home.

The only difference was that the German green roofs were much older than anything found in the United States: three to nine times older. Which is why the Northwestern University Ph.D. student in plant biology spent her summer there a few years ago.

The ability of plants to absorb and evaporate storm water, reduce a building’s energy use, and clean up some air pollution makes green roofs effective as a sustainable-building technique. They also just look nice. Germany began tinkering with green-roof technology back in the late 1800s, when owners of some buildings tried fireproofing with gravel, sand, and sod.

In 1975, German construction businesses got together to document the nitty-gritty construction standards. Their 2002 manual detailed everything from the ideal roof slope to the best soil depth and waterproof barriers. By the time Americans started experimenting with green roofs, their German counterparts were already professionals.

America’s green roofs were modeled after Germany’s. In both countries, the standard design is a thin layer of lightweight, low-moisture, and low-nutrient dirt blanketed by sedum, a hardy genus of succulent. Landscapers can easily install a roof of this type and check in on it once or twice a year.

“We ended up just copying what the Germans did,” said Ksiazek-Mikenas. By “we,” she meant the organization that defines American construction standards, which used the German protocol as a template in the early 2000s, as the green-building movement was taking off in the U.S.

The German model was dependable and low-maintenance. Why start from scratch, Americans figured, when someone else had done the stressful experimentation and developed the final product? Besides, even in cities that offered substantial financial incentives for green roofs, you got nothing extra for keeping them lush. Developers could follow the German method, stick hardy plants in a roof, and walk away, rewarded for their environmentally friendly choice.

Ksiazek-Mikenas wanted to know if green roofs ever come to host a wide range of species. American roofs were too young for her to tell. “As an ecologist, I realized a decade is such a tiny period of time as far as a succession of a plant community goes,” she said.

So she examined the diversity of 16 German installations that were between one and 93 years old. She collaborated with Manfred Köhler, a long-time researcher in the German green roof scene, who hadmonitored about a third of the plots at least once a year for between 12 and 27 years. The pair also closely studied 13 other roofs of different ages for one season. That way, they could measure how individual green roofs evolve, and approximate how one might look after nearly a century.

The results, published earlier this year in Urban Naturalist, make a case for breaking with tradition and investing more resources in green roofs. [more]

Can We Make Green Roofs More Biodiverse?

ABSTRACT:  Cities can support biodiversity and provide the ecosystem services upon which life depends. Green roofs are increasingly common in cities and could be designed to increase biodiversity, but community assembly and succession patterns on green roofs are poorly documented. We used long-term vegetation surveys at 6 extensive green roofs and sampled a 1–93-year chronosequence at 13 extensive green roofs in northeast Germany to determine if plant and arthropod diversity increased over time in a deterministic pattern. We also explored abiotic factors that may contribute to community diversity on green roofs. We found that vegetation cover increased over time, but beyond the first 2 years, vegetation richness and diversity did not. There is no evidence for broadly applicable patterns of succession of plant communities on green roofs. Although the abundance, richness, and diversity of arthropods increased slightly over time, this trend was not statistically significant for ants, bees, beetles, or spiders. The size of the vegetated area of the roof, the conditions of the growing substrate, species richness and diversity of the vegetation, and the proportion of ground-level green space surrounding the roof at 0.5-km and 1.0-km radii were associated with increased arthropod abundance, richness, and diversity. We conclude that community diversity on green roofs is highly variable and dependent on several biotic and abiotic factors that are not consistent among extensive green roofs. Community successional patterns are not conserved; thus, each green roof may support a novel community and contribute to urban biodiversity.

If You Build It, Will They Come? Plant and Arthropod Diversity on Urban Green Roofs Over Time

Carbon footprint of fishery-derived products for human consumption in 2011 compared to other sources of animal protein. Graphic: Parker, et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

4 April 2018 (University of Tasmania) – A new study by a team of Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and Canadian scientists has found that catching most types of fish produces far less carbon per kilo of protein than land-based alternatives such as beef or lamb.

The researchers undertaking the study found that fisheries for small pelagic species such as anchovies and sardines emit a fraction of the carbon generated by red meat production. 

On average, global fisheries have a low-carbon footprint similar to that of poultry.

The research published in the journal Nature Climate Change provides the first global breakdown of wild fishery emissions by country, and compares the carbon impact of each nation’s fishing industry with agriculture and livestock production.

Lead author Dr Robert Parker, formerly from IMAS and now at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, said producing, distributing and consuming food accounts for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, most of which is from animal production.

“Animal protein is an important source of nutrition but it is also one of the world’s largest contributors to global climate change, responsible for roughly half of all food production-related emissions,” Dr Parker said.

“But limited data has meant that official estimates have previously either overlooked the fishing industry’s carbon emissions or made generalisations based on small samples.

“By filling that information gap our study will inform food and climate policy and shed light on the role that fisheries play in the environmental cost of food production,” Dr Parker said.

IMAS co-author Professor Caleb Gardner said Australia’s fishing industry catches comparatively low volumes and contributes just 0.5 percent of overall global emissions from fishing.

Global marine fishery landings and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for 1990–2011 categorized by species groups. Graphic: Parker, et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

“However, Australian fishers target proportionately more high-value crustaceans such rock lobsters and prawns, which are among the world’s most carbon-intensive fisheries on a per kilo basis,” Professor Gardner said.

“As a result, on average the Australian fishing industry emits 5.2 kilos of carbon for each kilo of fish caught.

“This contrasts with the US, where each kilo of fish landed cost 1.6 kilos of carbon, and South America, where just one kilo of carbon is emitted for each kilo of fish due to high volumes of anchovies trawled off Peru.

“Globally, carbon emissions from marine fisheries are comparatively low compared with the environmental cost of red meat such as beef and lamb, which is estimated to range from 50 kilos to as much as 750 kilos of carbon per kilo of meat.

“The carbon cost of our food needs would be reduced if people consumed less red meat and more low-carbon alternatives such as fish, especially underutilised small pelagic species such as mackerel and sardines, which currently have low demand and are often used for animal feed instead of human consumption,” Professor Gardner said.

Beef, lamb, lobster or fish? Fisheries study shows impact of food choice on carbon emissions

Production and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by fisheries for each country. Graphic: Parker, et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

ABSTRACT: Food production is responsible for a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. Marine fisheries are typically excluded from global assessments of GHGs or are generalized based on a limited number of case studies. Here we quantify fuel inputs and GHG emissions for the global fishing fleet from 1990–2011 and compare emissions from fisheries to those from agriculture and livestock production. We estimate that fisheries consumed 40 billion litres of fuel in 2011 and generated a total of 179 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent GHGs (4% of global food production). Emissions from the global fishing industry grew by 28% between 1990 and 2011, with little coinciding increase in production (average emissions per tonne landed grew by 21%). Growth in emissions was driven primarily by increased harvests from fuel-intensive crustacean fisheries. The environmental benefit of low-carbon fisheries could be further realized if a greater proportion of landings were directed to human consumption rather than industrial uses.

Fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions of world fisheries

Trump's Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt. At least five EPA officials were reassigned or demoted after raising concerns about Scott Pruitt’s spending. Photo: Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

By Oliver Milman
7 April 2018

(The Guardian) – The week at the Environmental Protection Agency has been a brutal low point in what many staff members refer to as the most difficult year in its near half-century history. An avalanche of allegations of ethical misconduct by the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has heaped embarrassment upon a watchdog struggling to adapt to the industry obeisance demanded by the Trump administration.

“This sucks. It sucks big,” said a senior EPA official who asked not to be named. “People are so done with these folks. We wanted and waited for some adults to show up. But the relentless tide of bullshit from Pruitt and his cronies is tough to deal with.”

Pruitt was already attempting to swat away criticism over his penchant for luxury travel, having spent $105,000 on first-class flights in his first year in the job, and his unusual preoccupation with personal safety, having pulled a group of EPA staff from investigating environmental crimes to become his 24-hour security accompaniment. He had also spent more than $50,000 on sweeping his office for listening bugs, installing biometric locks and constructing a soundproof booth in which to take and receive calls.

A series of revelations over the past week have seemingly pushed Pruitt close to being fired. There was the Washington DC townhouse where he stayed last year, renting a room for just $50 a night from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Occasionally his daughter would join him, to help make eggs with avocado for breakfast.

This was followed by evidence that Pruitt had used an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to give two favoured aides, the counsel Sarah Greenwalt and the scheduling director Millan Hupp, raises of almost $57,000 and $28,000 respectively, after the White House refused them.

The pay issue is a “big sock in the gut” for EPA staff, according to an agency source, due to the departure of hundreds of employees and reduced bonuses for those who remain.

The alleged malfeasance then descended almost into farce: according to the New York Times, at least five EPA officials were reassigned or demoted after they raised concerns about Pruitt’s spending, including a request for a $100,000-a-month charter aircraft membership and $70,000 for two office desks, one of them bulletproof, as well as Pruitt’s desire to use sirens to sweep aside DC traffic so he could reach Le Diplomate, a French restaurant.

If the allegations are true then “this isn’t what taxpayer dollars are for”, said Janet McCabe, a former EPA assistant administrator.

“This isn’t the life I’m used to living as a government person,” McCabe said. “You have to be scrupulous about even any whiff of a financial relationship with anyone being regulated. How can you trust a regulatory system when people aren’t held to very strict standards of ethics?” [more]

EPA insiders bemoan low point in agency's history: 'People are so done'

Indigenous and environmental activist Saw O Moo was killed by soldiers with the Myanmar military on 5 April 2018. Photo: KESAN

12 April 2018 (Mongabay) – Indigenous and environmental activist Saw O Moo was reportedly killed in Myanmar’s Karen State on April 5.

According to the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Saw O Moo, who worked with KESAN as a “local community partner,” had attended a community meeting that day to help organize humanitarian aid for villagers displaced by renewed hostilities between Myanmar’s military and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an armed ethnic group. Despite a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed in October 2015, recent hostilities between the two sides are said to have displaced as many as 2,300 local people.

Saw O Moo was reportedly returning to his home in Ler Mu Plaw village by motorbike when he offered a ride to a soldier of the KNLA who was assigned to provide security for Karen civilians in the Ler Mu Plaw area. “At 5:20 PM, just as the two men were nearing Saw O Moo’s home in Ler Mu Plaw, they were ambushed and shot at by Burma Army soldiers at a place called Wah Klo Hta on the edge of the T’Ri Plaw plain,” KESAN reports.

According to The Irrawaddy, the Myanmar military has denied any wrongdoing in the killing of Saw O Moo and claimed he was in fact a rebel fighter and that he had grenades on his person. The Irrawaddy reports that, in a statement released early Wednesday, the military says its troops “shot at two fleeing plainclothes men who were suspected of being involved in sabotage attacks and planting mines,” and that the troops had “captured one of the men dead.”

The Irrawaddy also reports that Saw O Moo’s family has not been allowed to retrieve the community leader’s body, and that soldiers have fired upon anyone attempting to do so. [more]

Indigenous environmental activist killed in Myanmar


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