Birds igniting: California solar power plant scorches birds in mid-air – One bird incinerated every two minutes in ‘mega-trap’ for wildlife2 comments Posted by Jim at Tuesday, October 28, 2014
By Ellen Knickmeyer and John Locher
18 August 2014
Ivanpah Dry Lake, California (Associated Press) – Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in the Mojave Desert have a name for birds that fly through the plant's concentrated sun rays — "streamers," for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair.
Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one "streamer" every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator's application to build a still-bigger version.
The investigators want the halt until the full extent of the deaths can be assessed. Estimates per year now range from a low of about a thousand by BrightSource to 28,000 by an expert for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.
The deaths are "alarming. It's hard to say whether that's the location or the technology," said Garry George, renewable-energy director for the California chapter of the Audubon Society. "There needs to be some caution."
The bird kills mark the latest instance in which the quest for clean energy sometimes has inadvertent environmental harm. Solar farms have been criticized for their impacts on desert tortoises, and wind farms have killed birds, including numerous raptors.
"We take this issue very seriously," said Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG Solar of Carlsbad, California, the second of the three companies behind the plant. The third, Google, deferred comment to its partners.
The $2.2 billion plant, which launched in February, is at Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border. The operator says it is the world's biggest plant to employ so-called power towers.
More than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three boiler towers each looming up to 40 stories high. The water inside is heated to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.
Sun rays sent up by the field of mirrors are bright enough to dazzle pilots flying in and out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Federal wildlife officials said Ivanpah might act as a "mega-trap" for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays.
Federal and state biologists call the number of deaths significant, based on sightings of birds getting singed and falling, and on retrieval of carcasses with feathers charred too severely for flight. [more]
Despite California climate law, carbon emissions may be a shell game – ‘California does not have the power to regulate what happens outside of the state’0 comments Posted by Jim at Tuesday, October 28, 2014
By Evan Halper and Ralph Vartabedian
25 October 2014
(Los Angeles Times) – California's pioneering climate-change law has a long reach, but that doesn't mean all its mandates will help stave off global warming.
To meet the requirement that it cut carbon emissions, for example, Southern California Edison recently sold its stake in one of the West's largest coal-fired power plants, located hundreds of miles out of state.
But the Four Corners Generating Station in New Mexico still burns coal — only the power that Edison once delivered to California now goes to a different utility's customers in Arizona.
Similar swaps are taking place at coal plants throughout the West, and they underscore the limitations California faces as it tries to confront climate change in the absence of a coherent federal plan.
The Obama administration has proposed a nationwide policy on power plant emissions, but it won't begin taking effect for at least two years. And even then it won't hold other states to the strict standards California imposes on itself.
In the meantime, greenhouse gas emissions that Californians are paying a lot of money to suppress are reemerging elsewhere.
"The California utilities are selling out their ownership in these plants, but the plants are still burning the coal," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy director at WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group. "The carbon is just on someone else's hands. It is not being reduced."
California regulators say they have taken steps to prevent utility company executives from outwitting them and insist state rules will lead to real reductions in carbon dioxide, the main gas scientists blame for global warming. But officials concede their efforts have run up against the limits of California's ability to control what takes place outside its borders, a point the utilities also emphasize.
"California does not have the power to regulate what happens outside of the state," said Gary Stern, director of regulatory policy at Edison. "When we sold Four Corners, we were no longer responsible for the emissions of that plant."
The conflict flows from California's reliance on out-of-state power plants for nearly a third of its electricity. [more]
By Laura Parker
15 July 2014
(National Geographic) – When marine ecologist Andres Cozar Cabañas and a team of researchers completed the first ever map of ocean trash, something didn't quite add up.
Their work, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did find millions of pieces of plastic debris floating in five large subtropical gyres in the world's oceans. But plastic production has quadrupled since the 1980s, and wind, waves, and sun break all that plastic into tiny bits the size of rice grains. So there should have been a lot more plastic floating on the surface than the scientists found.
"Our observations show that large loads of plastic fragments, with sizes from microns to some millimeters, are unaccounted for in the surface loads," says Cozar, who teaches at the University of Cadiz in Spain, by e-mail. "But we don't know what this plastic is doing. The plastic is somewhere—in the ocean life, in the depths, or broken down into fine particles undetectable by nets."
What effect those plastic fragments will have on the deep ocean—the largest and least explored ecosystem on Earth—is anyone's guess. "Sadly," Cozar says, "the accumulation of plastic in the deep ocean would be modifying this enigmatic ecosystem before we can really know it."
But where exactly is the unaccounted-for plastic? In what amounts? And how did it get there?
"We must learn more about the pathway and ultimate fate of the 'missing' plastic," Cozar says.
One reason so many questions remain unanswered is that the science of marine debris is so young. Plastic was invented in the mid-1800s and has been mass produced since the end of World War II. In contrast, ocean garbage has been studied for slightly more than a decade.
"This is new mainly because people always thought that the solution to pollution was dilution, meaning that we could turn our head, and once it is washed away—out of sight, out of mind," says Douglas Woodring, co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong-based charitable group working to reduce the flow of plastic into the oceans.
The North Pacific Garbage Patch, a loose collection of drifting debris that accumulates in the northern Pacific, first drew notice when it was discovered in 1997 by adventurer Charles Moore as he sailed back to California after competing in a yachting competition.
Research on marine debris is also complicated by the need to include a multidiscipline group of experts, ranging from oceanographers to solid-waste-management engineers.
"We are at the very early stages of understanding the accounting," says Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. "If we think ten or a hundred times more plastic is entering the ocean than we can account for, then where is it? We still haven't answered that question. […]
Cozar says that one answer to the missing-plastic mystery is that some of the tiniest bits of plastic are being consumed by small fish, which live in the murky mesopelagic zone, 600 feet to 3,300 feet (180 to 1,000 meters) below the surface. Little is known about these mesopelagic fish, Cozar says, other than that they're abundant. They hide in the darkness of the ocean to avoid predators and swim to the surface at night to feed.
"We found plastics in the stomachs of the fishes collected during Malaspina's circumnavigation," he says. "We are working on this now." [more]
The largest city in Brazil is running dangerously low on water – São Paulo reservoirs at less than 5 percent of capacity, 13 million people face water outages0 comments Posted by Jim at Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Jaguari Reservoir, 16 August 2013
Jaguari Reservoir, 3 August 2014
By Brad Plumer
23 October 2014
(Vox) – São Paulo, in southeast Brazil, is the largest city in South America and the 7th largest metropolitan region in the world, with more than 21 million people. It's the engine behind Brazil's richest state, which is responsible for one-third of the country's GDP.
And right now, the region is running dangerously low on water, thanks to the worst drought in eight decades.
São Paulo's reservoirs have dwindled to less than 5 percent of their original capacity, 13 million people are facing water outages, and officials are warning that the area could face "collapse" if it doesn't rain soon — with businesses and households struggling to find fresh water.
NASA's Earth Observatory recently posted satellite photos showing just how dire the situation has gotten. Water levels in the Jaguari Reservoir — one of five reservoirs that supplies water to some 10 million people — have plummeted between 2013 and 2014. […]
The water shortages are starting to cause severe disruptions. According to Bloomberg, 60 percent of São Paulo's residents have now reported that they've had their water cut at least once in the last 30 days — with many of the outages lasting more than 6 hours.
The region's economy is also taking a hit. The Wall Street Journal reports that coffee and sugarcane harvests are withering, while manufacturers are struggling to find cooling water and one major meat-packing plant has had to shut down temporarily. (Indeed, the drought in southeastern Brazil is one big reason why global coffee prices are expected to rise in the future.)
"If the drought continues, residents will face more dramatic water shortages in the short term," said Vicente Andreu, president of Brazil’s National Water Agency, according to Weather.com. "If it doesn’t rain, we run the risk that the region will have a collapse like we’ve never seen before."
If the drought continues, officials have warned, states across Brazil may have to resort to energy rationing — since there won't be enough water to feed the hydroelectric plants that provide most of the nation's electricity. [more]
By Mike Carlowicz
23 October 2014
(NASA) – Southeastern Brazil is suffering through one of its worst droughts in decades. The situation is worst near the city of São Paulo (home to about 20 million people) and in São Paulo state. Rainfall totals for the year are 300 to 400 millimeters (12 to 16 inches) below normal, and reservoirs have dwindled to 3 to 5 percent of storage capacity.
The Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite acquired these two natural-color views of the Jaguari Reservoir in Brazil. The bottom image shows the area on 3 August 2014 (the most recent cloud-free view of Jaguari); the top image shows the same area on 16 August 2013, before the recent drought began. Jaguari is one of five reservoirs in the Cantareira System, which supplies water to roughly half of the people in the São Paulo metropolitan area.
Turn on the image comparison tool to see the change in water levels, which is best indicated by the tan outline around the water’s edge. Even in 2013, the reservoir appeared to be surrounded by a low-water “bathtub ring.” The water is also a lighter blue-green in 2014 because it is shallower, with sediment and the lake bottom altering the color of the water surface. Note that in the two months since the 2014 Landsat image (top) was acquired, reservoirs continued shrinking from roughly 12 percent capacity to 4 percent.
The drought began last austral summer (December to February), when São Paulo state received about one-third to half of its usual amount of rain during what should have been its wettest season. In the seven months since, rainfall has been about 40 percent of normal. Across southeastern Brazil, production of key crops like coffee and sugar are in steep decline, and citizens are facing periodic outages in the water supply—even as news agencies report that local water authorities have not instituted conservation measures.
“The climate of the region is seasonal, with a rainy summer and a dry winter, and the drought has extended through the current dry season and the past rainy season,” noted Marcos Heil Costa, climate scientist at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa. “To make things worse, the onset of the rainy season—which usually happens in late September or early October—has not happened yet.”
“For the last rainy season, the pattern [of reduced rainfall] has been observed in the past, though the intensity was unprecedented this year,” Costa added. “For the dry season, coincidence or not, it looks exactly like what has been predicted by IPCC for a warmer climate. And it is now clear that our policies on management of water resources are unsustainable. No city in southeast Brazil seems prepared to handle a drought like this one. It is a mix of a lack of preparation for low levels of rain and a lack of environmental education in the population. Most people continue to use water as if we were in a normal year.”
References and Related Reading
- Accuweather (2014, October 22) Beneficial Rains for Brazil; Warmth Builds in Argentina. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- BBC (2014, October 10) Brazil drought crisis deepens in Sao Paulo. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- Climate News Network, via Climate Central (2014, September 28) Drought Takes Hold as Amazon’s “Flying Rivers” Dry Up. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- INPE (2014) Precipitation Deficit. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- International Business Times (2014, October 13) Brazil Drought Boosts Coffee Prices, Threatens Sugar Production. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- NASA (2013, May 3) NASA Study Projects Warming-Driven Changes in Global Rainfall. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- NASA Earth Observatory (2014, July 9) Growth of São Paulo, Brazil.
- The Wall Street Journal (2014, October 19) Drought Hits Sao Paulo, Stirring Debate Ahead of Brazil Elections. Accessed October 22, 2014.
- The Weather Channel (2014, October 22) Sao Paulo Drought Worsens, More Water Shortages Expected. Accessed October 22, 2014.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Mike Carlowicz, with image interpretation from Marcos Heil Costa, Universidade Federal de Viçosa, and Alice Grimm, Universidade Federal do Paraná.
By Melanie Fitzpatrick
17 October 2014
(UCSUSA) – What would it be like to live in a place that floods every full moon? We asked that question and others in our report, Encroaching Tides, which was released last week.
During that week, there was a perigean spring tide – an extra-high tide when the sun, moon, and Earth are aligned and the moon is closest to Earth in its monthly orbit. This alignment happens three or four times a year. In many locations along the U.S. east coast, these extra-high tides – colloquially known as “king tides” – brought flooding last week to places like the Florida Keys, Charleston, Annapolis, and Washington DC. These events give us a glimpse into the future, as I outlined in an earlier blog on king tides.
Our analysis shows that this kind of tidal flooding could become the new normal in many places in the next 15 years under a global sea level rise of about 5 inches by 2030 and 11 inches above today’s levels by 2045. (You can find the technical background study outlining the mid-range scenario we used here. For news coverage of our report, see articles here, here, and here.)
NOAA studies have shown that in several communities, nuisance flooding now happens four times more often than it did just 40 years ago. In the next 15 years, two-thirds of the communities we analyzed could see a tripling or more in the number of high tide flood events each year.
The case study of Jamaica Bay, New York
We know that many places are already on the front line of tidal flooding – places like Jamaica Bay, New York, which we profile in the report. Over the last century, the water level in Jamaica Bay (as measured at the nearby Battery tide gauge) has risen nearly a foot, owing to both global sea level rise and local changes. Minor flooding events in the Broad Channel area now occur once or twice a month, or more. And our analysis shows that continued sea level rise means that the frequency of flooding events in Jamaica Bay will triple by 2030, and increase nearly 10-fold by 2045, compared with today.
Dan Mundy, Sr., former president of the Broad Channel Civic Association and a retired captain in the New York City Fire Department, knows that flooding is becoming worse. “Every home in Broad Channel has a calendar with the lunar cycle and tide predictions clearly marked for each day of the year,” he says. “We live by the tidal cycles here: flooding is becoming more common, and much more of an inconvenience than ever before.” Volunteer firefighters at the Broad Channel Fire Department know which streets might need evacuation by inflatable boats. [more]
Afghan opium poppy cultivation hits all-time high – Deep-well technology turns 200,000 hectares of desert into arable land1 comments Posted by Jim at Sunday, October 26, 2014
Washington, 21 October 2014 (Reuters) – Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has hit an all-time high despite years of counter-narcotics efforts that have cost the US $7.6bn (£4.7bn), according to a US government watchdog.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime [pdf] reported that Afghan farmers grew an “unprecedented” 209,000 hectares (523,000 acres) of opium poppy in 2013, surpassing the previous high of 193,000 hectares in 2007, said John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the US government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” Sopko said in a letter to the secretary of state, John Kerry, the defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, and other top US officials.
“The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts,” he said on Tuesday.
Afghanistan produces more than 80% of the world’s illicit opium, and profits from the illegal trade help fund the Taliban insurgency. US government officials blame poppy production for fuelling corruption and instability, undermining good government and subverting the legal economy.
The US has spent $7.6bn on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since the start of the 2001 war, it said.
Sopko said the UN drug office estimated the value of poppy cultivation and opium products produced in Afghanistan in 2013 at about $3bn, up on the $2bn estimated in 2012.
“With deteriorating security in many parts of Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014,” Sopko said.
He said affordable deep-well technology brought to Afghanistan over the past decade had enabled Afghans to turn 200,000 hectares of desert in the south-west of the country into arable land, much of it devoted to poppy production.
In a letter responding to the findings, the US embassy in Kabul said the rise in poppy cultivation and decline in eradication efforts by provincial authorities was “disappointing news”. It said American officials were helping Afghans develop the ability to lead and manage a long-term counter-narcotics effort. [more]
Scottish otters dying early because of poisoned seas – ‘Our otters are not living long enough to significantly expand the population further’0 comments Posted by Jim at Thursday, October 23, 2014
By Mike Merritt and Tristan Stewart-Robertson
13 October 2014
(The Scotsman) – Scottish otters are only living a third of the lifespan of those on mainland Europe because of poisoned seas, a leading expert on the species has warned.
Zoologist Dr Paul Yoxon said chemicals in everyday products are accumulating in fish and shellfish on which the mammals feed, weakening their immune systems.
The zoologist, who runs the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) on Skye with his biologist wife Grace, said hormone-disrupting chemicals, commonly found in shampoos and plastics, are also believed to be behind shrinking genitals of the male otter, affecting reproduction rates.
Research has shown Scottish otters are living only about five or six years, compared to 15-16 years in Germany and the Czech Republic.
Dr Yoxon said: “The problem is that our otters are not living long enough to significantly expand the population further.
“If you consider that a female in Scotland does not become sexually mature until she is 18 months, and has on average two cubs – only one of whom will survive to adulthood – and she is with them for 13-14 months, she will only have two litters in her short lifetime.
‘‘That is much less than those on the Continent where they have cleaned up their industrial pollution much better. Because otters in Scotland are not living past 5-6 years on average, there is a serious problem. Toxicology tests have shown that they have accumulated high levels of cadmium and mercury in their bodies from the fish they eat.
‘‘Those fish mainly originate in the North Sea, which traditionally has had high levels of industrial pollution.”
There are about 7,000 otters in Scotland out of a UK-wide population of 10,000. The IOSF has rescued more than 180 otters. Dr Yoxon said otters now faced their “biggest crisis” since Scottish naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell helped save the species with his seminal book, Ring of Bright Water, which was made into a much-loved film, starring Virginia McKenna.
Dr Yoxon said that we don’t yet know the effects of new chemicals, or the cocktail effect of different ones in the environment.
‘‘Another group of chemicals have now appeared in the environment – polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used as flame retardants in carpets, car seats and furnishings. These also accumulate in the environment and become concentrated in fish taken by otters, and can cause problems with the immune system.’’
Another potential threat is from personal care products, industrial chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs, which can have a serious effect on breeding.
Dr Yoxon said: “They appear to be reducing the size of the male otter’s penis – by about five per cent over the last decade – which obviously affects reproduction as well.
“The disappearance of the otter in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s went largely unnoticed until, suddenly, everyone began to ask where all our otters had gone. ‘‘We cannot afford to make the same mistake again.”
True altruism: Can humans change to save other species? ‘What makes us so good at destroying such vast quantities of other creatures is simply the vast quantity of us’0 comments Posted by Jim at Wednesday, October 22, 2014
[Short answer: No.]
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
9 October 2014
(Yale Environment 360) – Ever since Darwin, biologists have been arguing about altruism — the concept that an individual may behave in a way that benefits its species, at a cost to itself. After all, the self-sacrifice implicit in altruistic behavior seems to run against the grain of evolutionary theory, which proposes that the well-being of a species depends on robust, individual self-interest. Many biologists argue that in the non-human world what looks like altruism — benefiting another at a cost to oneself — may be merely the final refinement of self-interest, self-interest operating not at the level of the organism or the species but at the level of the gene.
This is all very interesting. But the discussion nearly always concerns the behavior of individuals within a single species — the warning cries of vervet monkeys, which alert their fellow monkeys to predators while calling attention to themselves; the self-abnegation of a stinging bee. What I wonder is this: Is altruism possible across species boundaries? Can an individual from one species, at cost to itself, act in a way that benefits individuals from another species? And — the crucial question — can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species?
I ask because we need to know now. According to a new study from the World Wildlife Fund, the population of aquatic and terrestrial animals on this planet has dropped by half since 1970. Let me choose a better verb. Half the animals on this planet have been destroyed in the past 44 years. Let me put it another way. We’ve destroyed half the animals on this planet since 1970, even while our own numbers have doubled.
This is a little like biological altruism — intention isn’t important. In order to be altruistic, a creature doesn’t have to intend to be altruistic. To cull half the animals on this planet, we didn’t have to intend to. We did it with our eyes closed and our fingers crossed and our minds elsewhere.
Nor did we — whoever we are — choose to swell our own numbers from some 3.7 billion to roughly 7.2 billion. They’re both effects of a cause we don’t understand, which is our nature as a species. Here we all are — whoever we are — and nowhere to be found are all those vanished animals and their doubly vanished, unbred, unborn descendants.
You could argue, I suppose, that doubling the number of humans didn’t require halving the number of animals. Yet think of it this way: Could you cause the human population to double by halving the number of animals on earth? Of course not. But could doubling the number of humans have somehow done away with all those animals? The answer is obviously yes. Point to more immediate causes, like habitat destruction, if you like, but they are merely the effect of our numbers. What makes us so good at destroying such vast quantities of other creatures is simply the vast quantity of us — and who we happen to be.
Here’s who I think we are. We resemble every other species on this planet. None of them seems to be able to favor the well-being of any species but its own. If a species escapes its natural bounds — think Japanese knotweed or lionfish or even whitetail deer — it spreads until it reaches its natural or unnatural limit. [more]
Free legal help for embattled U.S. scientists who are under attack by antiscience forces – ‘We have public scientists at universities and in the government who are being hassled basically because of their research’0 comments Posted by Jim at Wednesday, October 22, 2014
By Rebecca Trager
22 October 2014
(Chemistry World) – A pro bono network that will provide legal protection for US scientists in government and academia has been launched by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), an environmental group based in Washington, DC. The new Alliance for Legal Protection of Science (Alps), will provide legal information, counselling and formal representation to embattled scientists at no cost to them.
“We have public scientists at universities and in the government who are being hassled basically because of their research,” says Kyla Bennett, the project’s director. “A lot of the work that these scientists are doing is of potentially great significance to regulation and even stock prices. There is both industry pressure and political pressure on these scientists to stifle or change their science.”
Bennett emphasises that these researchers need to pursue their work without fear of getting fired, losing their grants or being presented with intrusive public records requests that are designed to hamper their work. Because individual researchers are often ill-equipped to counter what Peer calls well-funded ‘harassment campaigns’, the intent is for Alps to help by organising legal and other resources to protect the targeted scientists and their work. […]
Charles Monnett, a wildlife researcher who was suspended from his job at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for six weeks in 2011 amid questions about his data and whether he had wrongfully released government records, is also very enthusiastic about the new programme. Monnett and others suggest that he was penalised over his observations of drowned polar bears that became an iconic illustration of climate change in action.
Monnett, whose scientific integrity came under attack, ultimately received $100,000 (£62,000) to settle a whistleblower complaint against the agency. He says he never resumed his former duties overseeing a $50 million portfolio of 20 to 30 studies, and retired from the agency last year due to health issues he says were brought on by stress. [more]