Thursday, December 31, 2009

Uranium, Kazakhstan, and Fiction

My novel, The Lion and the Sun, starts with a prologue that describes how my protagonist, Daniel Conte, undertakes a mission to Ost-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, in the spring of 1993 to corroborate reports that the Ulb Metallugical Plant there has over 600 kilos of highly enriched uranium (HEU) stored in an essentially unsecured warehouse. The episode is based on fact. The actual mission to recover the HEU was code named "Project Sapphire," and was completed in November of 1994.
Fast forward. Iran now appears poised to import Kazak uranium ostensibly for use in its "peaceful" nuclear energy program. US officials have said repeatedly than Iran is developing the capability to create nuclear weapons. What is Iran's real purpose, building nuclear power plants, or building nuclear armed missiles? Read The Lion and the Sun, and you come away with a pretty good idea of what the answer is, but is it fact or fiction?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

On the third day before Christmas in 2008, the people living along the Emory River in East Tennessee were listening to songs about a "white Christmas" like everybody else in the country, trying to look forward and not back. A new president had been elected--that's what people were thinking about--after eight long years of war and unprecedented corruption, as well as the increasing economic hardship that was squeezing the middle class like a juggernaut.

Instead of a white Christmas, though, people like Steve Scarborough of the Dagger Kayak and Canoe Company woke up to a black-gray mess of epic proportions, a river full of toxic coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-fired power plant at Kingston, Tennessee.

Read about what's happening at the site now, here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Jim Hansen speaks out on the East Anglia emails

The recent “success” of climate contrarians in using the pirated East Anglia e-mails to cast doubt on the reality of global warming seems to have energized other deniers. I am now inundated with broad FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests for my correspondence, with substantial impact on my time and on others in my office. I believe these to be fishing expeditions, aimed at finding some statement(s), likely to be taken out of context, which they would attempt to use to discredit climate science.

By “success” I refer to their successful character assassination and swift-boating. My interpretation of the e-mails is that some scientists probably became exasperated and frustrated by contrarians – which may have contributed to some questionable judgment. The way science works, we must make readily available the input data that we use, so that others can verify our analyses.

Also, in my opinion, it is a mistake to be too concerned about contrarian publications – some bad papers will slip through the peer-review process, but overall assessments by the National Academies, the IPCC, and scientific organizations sort the wheat from the chaff.  The important point is that nothing was found in the East Anglia e-mails altering the reality and magnitude of global warming in the instrumental record. The input data for global temperature analyses are widely available, on our web site and elsewhere. If those input data could be made to yield a significantly different global temperature change, contrarians would certainly have done that – but they have not.

Dr James Hansen is a physicist, and adjunct professor for Earth and Environmental Sciences, at Columbia University, and Director at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Science. Outside the scientific community, Dr. Hansen is probably best known for accusing the Bush administration of trying to silence him after he gave a lecture in December 2005, calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Read Jim Hansen's entire article on the East Anglia e-mail incident here

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Secretary Chu Announces $3 Billion Investment for Carbon Capture and Sequestration

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced on December 4, 2009, the selection of three new projects with a value of $3.18 billion to accelerate the development of advanced coal technologies with carbon capture and storage at commercial-scale. Secretary Chu made the announcement on a conference call with West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, Senator Jay Rockefeller, and President of American Electric Power Company, Inc., Mike Morris. These projects will help to enable commercial deployment to ensure the United States has clean, reliable, and affordable electricity and power. An investment of up to $979 million, including funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be leveraged by more than $2.2 billion in private capital cost share as part of the third round of the Department’s Clean Coal Power Initiative (CCPI).

"By harnessing the power of science and technology, we can reduce carbon emissions and create new clean energy jobs. This investment is part of our commitment to advancing carbon capture and storage technologies to the point that widespread, affordable deployment can begin in eight to ten years," said Secretary Chu.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Underwear at the Copenhagen Climate Conference

The 2009 Climate Conference in Copehagen is nearing the end of its first week. Outside the conference center delegates were treated to a large group of young people dancing in their underwear.

Delegates say that the UN climate conference has advanced on texts on green technology transfer to developing countries and on the mechanisms to promote the use of forests to assimilate emissions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Large Hadron Collider

The new Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile loop underneath the Swiss-French border, accelerated protons to energies of 1.2 trillion electron volts apiece and then crashed them together, eclipsing a record for collisions held by an American machine, the Tevatron, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

Officials at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, which built the collider, said that the collisions lasted just a few minutes as a byproduct of testing. In conjunction with other recent successes, CERN displaced America as the leader in the art of banging subatomic particles together to uncover Nature's secrets.

The Large Hadron Collider is located 300 feet below the French-Swiss border outside Geneva. It is the world's biggest and most expensive particle accelerator, and is designed to accelerate the subatomic particles known as protons to energies of 7 trillion electron volts apiece and then smash them together to create tiny fireballs, recreating conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old.

Until the Large Hadron Collider is fully operational, Fermilab’s Tevatron is still in the lead in the hunt for one of the collider’s main quarries, the Higgs boson, a particle that is thought to imbue other particles with mass.

Sarah Palin Snows the Public

Sarah Palin Snowing the Public
In his Wednesday, December 9, 2009 blog, Joel Achenbach, responding to Sarah Palin’s same-day op ed piece in the Washington Post slamming the Copenhagen Climate Conference, writes, “When I want an astute analysis of climate change, or of any complex scientific topic, including the search for the Higgs boson, the mystery of human consciousness, and the Protein Folding Problem, I turn to America's most trusted scientific expert, Sarah Palin.” Achenbach goes on in the same vein, “Ms. Palin lives in the Arctic. She can see the North Pole. She has field-dressed moose on Denali glaciers. What she knows is that there's still a lot of snow out there. There's ice all over the place. Frankly it's way too cold. Warm things up a bit and Alaska might actually be habitable!”
Like so many of her cohorts in the Republican Party, facts are no barrier to Ms. Palin's opinions. Atlantic's political blogger Marc Ambinder has written a point-by-point critique of Ms. Palin’s faulty logic, or to be less charitable, falsehoods, in his December 8, 2009, Politics blog. Responding to Palin’s claim that climate science has been highly politicized by “radical environmentalists,” and here she's referring to the IPCC climate scientists, which she refers to as “so-called experts,” (because they've only been working in climate science all their lives and they aren't dead yet, I guess), Ambinder says, “True -- although the politicization came about as a response to an extremely well-funded political campaign by those whose bottom lines would be most harmed by carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes and the like.”
This gets to my previous post on the matter. I wonder if Sarah wrote her piece herself, or if someone from WPP’s many companies wrote it for her. Whatever the case, like so many of Ms. Palin’s remarks, her opinions on climate are just a lot of hot air.
BTW, for those of you wondering what the hell the Higgs boson is, check it out here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who is WPP and what do they have to do with climate change?

'Postcard' from the WPP web site showing the myriad of companies under their umbrella

According to their web site, WPP is one of the world's largest communications services groups, employing 135,000 people working in over 2,000 offices in 107 countries. WPP is a huge conglomerate of marketing, advertising, public relations, and lobbying companies spread out across the world, with earnings of over $12 billion in 2008.

Sir Martin Sorrell runs the multi-billion dollar media giant. He started the company in 1986 by buying a majority stake in the manufacturer of wire baskets and, through a series of high stakes buyouts and hostile takeovers, used this company as a springboard to 'basket' a worldwide marketing services company. He was Knighted in 2000, and was awarded the Harvard Business School’s highest honor, the Alumni Achievement Award, in 2007. So what does Sir Sorrell and his media giant have to do with climate change?

One of Sir Sorrell’s many companies is Hill and Knowlton (H&K), a leading international public relations (PR) firm, providing services to local, multinational and global clients. The firm is headquartered in New York, with 80 offices in 43 countries, as well as an extensive associate network. According to David Michaels book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, it was H&K that designed the PR campaign to convince the public that smoking was not dangerous.

Hill and Knowlton encouraged the tobacco industry to set up their own research organization, the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), which produced ‘science’ favorable to the industry, emphasized doubt in all the science linking smoking to lung cancer, and questioned all independent research unfavorable to the tobacco industry. The PR campaign significantly delayed regulation of tobacco products. In his book, Michaels, now head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), writes, "The industry understood that the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad. Create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Throw mud at the anti-smoking research under the assumption that some of it is bound to stick. And buy time, lots of it, in the bargain." The title of Michaels' book comes from a telling statement in a 1969 tobacco company memo, "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists."

It was Hill and Knowlton that helped asbestos industry giant Johns-Manville set up the Asbestos Information Association (AIA). Manufacturers of lead, vinyl chloride, beryllium, and dioxin products also hired H&K to devise product defense strategies to combat the numerous scientific studies showing that their products were harmful to human health. And it was H&K that helped the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) industry cast doubt on the science showing that human-generated CFCs could cause serious harm to Earth's protective ozone layer.

The idea of industry created “think tanks” caught on and we see organizations like the George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, and Dr. Fred Singer's SEPP (Science and Environmental Policy Project), which have been active for decades in the Manufactured Doubt business, generating misleading science and false controversy to protect the profits of their clients who manufacture dangerous products. It is these organizations and their cohorts that have now organized an all out campaign of disinformation, defamation, and criminal activity to combat the body of facts that shows man’s activities contributing to accelerating global warming.

Oh, and guess who has been selected as official media sponsor for the December 7 - 18, 2009, UN Conference on Climate Change, in Copenhagen. Any ideas? I'll give you a hint. Its company initials are H and K.

For more on the Manufactured Doubt Industry and the global warming deniers disinformation campaign, see Jeff Masters' WunderBlog.

For specifics on the Climate Research Unit hacked emails, see Real Climate.

For the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) statement on the hacked emails, see Dot Earth.

To read the actual IPCC assessment report (AR4), go here (go ahead, it has a summary).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why we should worry about the hacked emails from CRU

As anyone who follows the global warming debate knows by now, hackers penetrated the computer network at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) in the United Kingdom and stole more than 3,000 emails and documents, including private correspondence between climate scientists. The emails -- some or all, it's impossible to know at this stage -- were posted on the web and have been widely distributed via conventional media. Some show the climate scientists at CRU in an unfavorable light. What do I mean by an unfavorable light? Did they falsify their reports, dry lab their data, blow torch Arctic sea ice???

What the scientists at CRU did in emails spanning a decade or more is disparage the work of other scientists who have continued to argue, ad nausem, on the basis of faulty reasoning and suspect science that, among other things, man has not influenced global warming, i.e., there is no anthropogenic global warming, sunspots are causing warming, the earth is simply going through a normal warming cycle (like your clothes dryer), and a whole host of other previously refuted arguments, including that the earth isn't warming at all; all arguments that go against the climate change assessment report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To be fair, some of the emails selectively published show that some CRU climate scientists and their correspondents took umbrage at criticisms of their work and used unfortunate language in referring to their critics. They were 'snotty,' insensitive even, and talked of boycotting a journal that published a study that they considered flawed (it turns out that their criticism of the journal and its peer review process were valid). In short, the email correspondence showed the CRU scientists to be human. Who would've thought?

As might be expected, global warming deniers are having a field day with the emails, once again claiming that global warming is a giant hoax perpetrated on the unsuspecting by greedy, unethical scientists simply seeking their next million dollar grant from gullible government bureaucrats. The denier community has selected a few emails to help make their case that climate science is a hoax and in doing so, has illustrated once again, just how little many of the most vociferous of these idiots know about any kind of science. For example, one of the emails most quoted is from Phil Jones in 1999 discussing paleo-data used to reconstruct past temperatures in which he says, "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

I've taken the following explanation for this statement from the blog, Skeptical Science.

"Mike's Nature trick" refers to the paper Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries (Mann 1998), published in Nature by lead author Michael Mann. The "trick" is the technique of plotting recent instrumental data along with the reconstructed data. This places recent global warming trends in the context of temperature changes over longer time scales.

The "decline" refers to the "divergence problem." This is where tree ring proxies diverge from modern instrumental temperature records after 1960. The divergence problem is discussed as early as 1998, suggesting a change in the sensitivity of tree growth to temperature in recent decades (Briffa 1998). It is also examined more recently in Wilmking 2008, which explores techniques in eliminating the divergence problem.

The Skeptical Science explanation ends by concluding, as I do, that when you look at Phil Jone's email in the context of the science discussed, it is not the schemings of a climate conspiracy, but rather perfectly legitimate data handling techniques that are covered in the peer reviewed literature.

So let me be clear, nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are the cause. This is one of the main conclusions of an editorial in the science magazine Nature concerning the hacked emails. And in a statement released Tuesday before last, three of the UK's leading science organizations—the Met Office, the Natural Environment Research Council, and the Royal Society—issued an unusually strong statement in advance of Copenhagen. They wrote: The scientific evidence which underpins calls for action at Copenhagen is very strong. Without co-ordinated international action on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on climate and civilization could be severe.

So, why worry about these hacked emails? Because they are but one example of an extremely well financed, well-coordinated, and concerted effort to cast doubt on global warming and its causes brought to you by the same people that launched a public relations (PR) campaign to convince the public that smoking was not dangerous, that questioned the link between asbestos and lung diseases, that launched a major PR campaign to cast doubt on and delay regulations on ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), and that even now battle the EPA and other regulatory agencies on behalf of the manufacturers of benzene, beryllium, chromium, MTBE, perchlorates, phthalates, and virtually every other toxic chemical in the news today.

April 14, 1994, Tobacco CEOs testify before Congress that nicotine is not addictive.

Industry CEOs and their marketing departments realize that the general public is in no position to make a distinction between valid science and junk science. They realize that they don't have to prove a point, just cast doubt on science that threatens their bottom line. Once they have the doubt game going, they hit the public broadside with their version of how any new regulations will plunge the economy into a tailspin and place onerous burdens on everyone the world over, including, god forbid, higher taxes on already overtaxed Americans.

You can read about industry’s Orwellian strategy in David Michaels’ book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. The attack on climate science per se is addressed in Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, by James Hoggan, with Richard Littlemore, in which the authors point out that starting in the early 1990s, three large American industry groups set to work on strategies to cast doubt on the science of climate change. Even though the oil industry’s own scientists had declared, as early as 1995, that human-induced climate change was undeniable, the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Fuels Association (a coal-fired electrical industry consortium) and a Philip Morris-sponsored anti-science group called TASSC (now defunct) all drafted and promoted campaigns of climate change disinformation.

The hacking of CRU's computers and selective publication of the stolen emails just prior to the Copenhagen climate conference by as yet unidentified forces represents another assault on science that if successful, could doom mankind to a future of deprivation, disaster, and ultimately, extinction. And that's why we should worry.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Managing Growth

Main St., Kennewick, Washington, 1905

In 1990, the Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act (GMA) and subsequently created three independent Growth Management Hearings Boards to resolve land use disputes and to reflect regional diversity.

With the passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA), RCW 36.70A, the Washington State Legislature sought to create a method for comprehensive land use planning involving citizens, communities, counties, cities, and the private sector that would prevent uncoordinated and unplanned growth.

The Legislature found this type of uncontrolled growth poses a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of Washington State. To address this threat, the GMA requires counties of a certain size and growth rate, and the cities within them, to adopt comprehensive plans and development regulations which are guided by 14 goals:
• Focus urban growth in urban areas
• Reduce sprawl
• Provide efficient transportation
• Encourage affordable housing
• Encourage sustainable economic development
• Protect property rights
• Process permits in a timely and fair manner
• Maintain and enhance natural resource-based industries
• Retain open space and habitat areas and develop recreation opportunities
• Protect the environment
• Encourage citizen participation and regional coordination
• Ensure adequate public facilities and services
• Preserve important historic resources
• Goals and Policies of the Shoreline Management Act

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's Driving Health Care Costs?

In 1973 in France, French tax inspectors barged into the offices of the 155 year-old Cruse et Fils Freres wine shippers and discovered that the shippers were passing off inferior wines from humble growing regions as superior wines from regions like the noble Bordeaux. One vat of exceptionally bad wine was labeled, "Salable to Americans as Beaujolais."

In testimony before the Senate Committee on the Budget in January 2008, the Congressional Budget Office stated that "future health care spending is the single most important factor determining the nation’s long-term fiscal condition." Given its importance, Americans would do well to understand what's driving burgeoning health care costs and what can reasonably be done about it -- we don't want to spend a lot of money buying bad wine.

The chart above shows where the health care dollar goes, but not necessarily where we can get the most bang for buck in slowing the rise in health care spending.

Some people argue that the rise in America's health care spending is due to an aging population. But it turns out that the bulk of the projected increase in spending on Medicare is not due to demographic changes (e.g., increases in the number of beneficiaries) but rather to on-going increases in costs per beneficiary. In other words, we're spending more on our seniors that we did in the past. Why?

The reason for this is the same reason we're spending more generally on health care -- we have more high technology and better medicine and we dispense it more readily. According to the CBO, “The most important factor driving the long-term growth of health care costs has been the emergence, adoption, and widespread diffusion of new medical technologies and services by the U.S. health care system.”

The problem is exacerbated (if you want to look at it that way) by the fact that Americans are better informed about available medical technology (god bless the Internet and TV) and more aggressive in requesting it from their doctor. If they aren't already asking for the latest drug to reduce their anxieties, they're told to do so by pharmaceutical company advertising, "Ask you doctor about Zofloat, today." Prescription drugs cost, on average, 30% to 50% more in the United States than in Europe. Under most of the health care bills under consideration in the House and Senate, the secretary of health and human services would be required to negotiate drug prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries, a proposal that is anathema to pharmaceutical companies.

Another major factor in rising health care costs -- perhaps the most significant -- is the nexus between how doctors are paid and the cost of high tech medical procedures, such as the myocardial perfusion nuclear stress test, a procedure I had recently. I don't have my bill yet, but tests like this can easily run over $1000.

In the United States, nearly all doctors are paid piecemeal, for each test or procedure they perform, rather than a flat salary. As a result, physicians have financial incentives to perform procedures that further drive up overall health care spending. Doctors in the United States earn two to three times as much as they do in other industrialized countries. Furthermore, doctors have become much more business savvy, and like other businesses are realizing the financial benefits of vertical integration. Why “outsource” lab work when you can open your own lab and supply it a ready source of customers – your patients?

Americans generally don't begrudge doctors their high financial returns. It takes intelligence and hard work to become a doctor, to say nothing of the cost of medical school and setting up business (in fact, most new doctors start their profession in considerable debt). I don't have an opinion on whether doctors make too much money or not, but I do believe that a system that is designed to provide financial incentives to doctors to perform procedures rather than care for patients' well-being is a poorly conceived system.

It should also be noted that doctors make more from doing expensive, complex procedures. These procedures require specialists. Thus, an unintended consequence of our health care system is the over abundance of medical specialists and the growing shortage of primary care physicians.

Finally, the spectre of multimillion-dollar malpractice suits is a further incentive for doctors to practice "defensive medicine" and order expensive and often unnecessary tests.

Is it time to convert doctor's pay to a salary system? Many people think so. Most doctors don't.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Developing Carbon Capture Technology

AEP's Conesville, Ohio, coal plant. Photo by Peter Essick, National Geographic.

Three organizations, the Asia Society, the Center for American Progress, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are putting out two separate reports this month that urge the US and China to put more money into projects in China that can better develop the technology of carbon capture and sequestration. The process captures carbon dioxide emissions from industrial and power plants before they enter the atmosphere and stores them underground, usually in geological formations.

An NRDC study starts by saying that "To avoid the worst consequences of global warming, the world must limit average temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius or less by reducing carbon emissions at least 50% below 1990 levels by the year 2050."

The Asia Society study points out that "it is increasingly evident that maintaining the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions poses wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic risks to natural systems and human welfare . it is also clear that an unprecedented level of global cooperation will be necessary to successfully confront the immense challenge of reversing the effects of climate change."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Antarctica Ice Shelves

The coast of Antarctica is fringed by ice shelves that are thousands of feet thick in places. Fed by glaciers, these massive slabs of ice float on the surface of the ocean. Their elevation rises and falls with the tides. (©2005 BrynJ.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Green Buildings

According to the Sustainable Development International Corporation (SDIC), The building industry increasingly relies on hi-tech, polluting materials and resource-intensive construction methods. As a result, most commercial and residential buildings that are constructed or renovated in the developed world are unhealthy and expensive to build, maintain, and operate. Individuals pay in high rent or mortgages, expensive maintenance, and increased health problems. Companies pay through decreased productivity, costly operations, and increased employee sick leave and medical expenses. Ecosystems pay in reduced biological diversity and diminished ecosystem and species integrity.

A November 5, 2009, presentation and discussion, Progress & Trends Toward Improving the Environmental Footprint of Commercial Buildings will include a discussion on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED provides a suite of standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

During this 60 minute webinar Robert Watson will present the findings of the soon to be released 2009 Green Building Market and Impact Report that was sponsored by JohnsonDiversey. This report is an integrated assessment of the land, water, energy, material and indoor environmental impacts of the LEED for New Construction (LEED NC), Core & Shell (LEED CS) and Existing Building (LEED EB) standards.

Register by clicking here Building a Sustainable Future and attend a web presentation.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Importance of Polar Ice -- It's Not Just for Polar Bears

One of the major TV news networks reported recently that fewer people these days believe in global warmer, perhaps because in these economic times they aren't willing to accept restrictions on green house gas emissions (mostly CO2) that might burden them with increased energy costs. That's too bad, because the evidence for a warming planet is growing, and there are dire consequences awaiting an unsuspecting public. I read a post on one of the blogs I follow, Bad Mom, Good Mom, that, while decrying the lack of awareness of global warming dynamics, provided a very nice example of the albedo effect and why polar ice melt is something to be concerned about. Read the post here.

You can get an idea of polar ice shinkage by playing with this widget on the NYT Science page.

The problem with sea ice melt is that it creates a positive feedback loop, like eating potato chips -- the more you eat the more you want. With sea ice, the more it melts, the more of the sun's heat the water absorbs, and the warmer the water, the more the sea ice melts, and so on. Basically, sea ice is like your house air conditioner, only for the planet. The dramatic downward trend in sea ice coverage portends dire consequences for efforts to halt global warming. Because of positive feedback, many scientists believe we may already have passed the tipping point. We'd better hope not.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reborn Hubble and Stellar Blast

The repaired and improved Hubble Space Telescope is sending back some spectacular images, including dazzling pictures of galaxies headed for a pile-up, a star throwing off its outer layers, dense clouds of gas and dust, and a new pin-sharp look at the planet Jupiter.

In another remarkable development, two teams of astronomers reported their observations of a gamma-ray burst from a star that died 13.1 billion light-years away. The massive star died about 630 million years after the Big Bang. UK astronomer Nial Tanvir described the observation as "a step back in cosmic time". Professor Tanvir led an international team studying the afterglow of the explosion, using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Aral Sea Disappears in a Cloud of Toxic Dust

The Aral Sea is located in the lowlands of Turan occupying land in the Republics of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. From ancient times it was known as an oasis. Traders, hunters, fishers, and merchants populated this fertile site littered with lagoons and shallow straits that characterised the Aral landscape. The word “aral” in Kazakh is translated “island”, over a thousand of which were scattered throughout this region which made up part of the Silk Road, the highway between Europe and Asia.

During the former Soviet Union's hay day of central planning a major project was undertaken to turn the Central Asian plain between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into the Soviet Union's own version of the Fertile Crescent by diverting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea. At the time, early 1960s, the Aral Sea was the World's fourth largest lake.

From a report on NASA's Earth Observatory web site:

Beginning in the 1960s, farmers and state offices in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asian states opened significant diversions from the rivers that supply water to the lake, thus siphoning off millions of gallons to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies. As recently as 1965, the Aral Sea received about 50 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year—a number that fell to zero by the early 1980s. Consequently, concentrations of salts and minerals began to rise in the shrinking body of water. That change in chemistry has led to staggering alterations in the lake's ecology, causing precipitous drops in the Aral Sea’s fish population.

The Aral Sea supported a thriving commercial fishing industry employing roughly 60,000 people in the early 1960s. By 1977, the fish harvest was reduced by 75 percent, and by the early 1980s the commercial fishing industry had been eliminated. The shrinking Aral Sea has also had a noticeable affect on the region's climate. The growing season there is now shorter, causing many farmers to switch from cotton to rice, which demands even more diverted water.

A secondary effect of the reduction in the Aral Sea’s overall size is the rapid exposure of the lake bed. Strong winds that blow across this part of Asia routinely pick up and deposit tens of thousands of tons of now exposed soil every year. This process has not only contributed to significant reduction in breathable air quality for nearby residents, but has also appreciably affected crop yields due to those heavily salt-laden particles falling on arable land.

It is no exaggeration to say that the case of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded. For more information, see Philip P. Mickin, 1988, and The Aral Sea Crisis, Thompson, 2008.

Spiritual Leader Calls for Action on the Environment

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called upon leaders of all faiths to involve themselves and their communities in efforts to rescue the global environment, pointing out that respect for the planet has a profoundly spiritual dimension.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Ecological Crisis: In Search of a Solution

Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness—both individual and collective—are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence. (Pope John Paul II, 1989)

There are those who argue that America would be foolhardy to suffer under a self-imposed cap and trade policy in an effort to limit green house gas emissions when China has been building new coal-fired plants at a rate of three per month and, it is estimated will, by 2020, generate roughly the same amount of electricity from coal as the United States does from all sources combined. Why should we saddle ourselves with what amounts to a tax on CO2 emissions when China, and for that matter India, and probably other developing countries will continue to use cheap coal?

The irony of the argument for doing nothing, although it recognizes the reality of an interconnected and therefore, interdependent world, is that it is promulgated by global warming deniers. These people, represented aggressively by the Heartland Institute, among others, with support from major players in US industry, have all along denied the human element in global warming, but in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary are now changing tactics. Basically, their argument boils down to, They're doing it. Why shouldn't we? To label this argument juvenile is to give it more credit than it is due. These people are not ignorant of the facts, they simply choose to distort or ignore them in order to further the ends of complicit industrial partners who can't imagine a future in which their bottom line isn't the promised land to which all humanity aspires.

Let's face the facts. The United States, a country just two hundred and thirty-three years old, has pumped more green house gases into the environment cumulatively since 1850 than any other country, including the combined countries of the European Union. America's cumulative contribution to GHG emissions is four times that of China, and fifteen times that of India. China did overtake the US in 2007 as the World's largest emitter of CO2 from fuel combustion, but the per capita CO2 emission in the US is five times that of China. In 2007, the United States alone generated 20% of world CO2 emissions, despite a population of less than 5% of the global total.

The United States has been an industrial powerhouse creating a standard of living for its citizens that is the envy of the world. America's scientific and technological achievements are second to none. Americans on the whole, are one of the World's most generous people. It is now time for America to translate its productivity, its science and technology, and its generosity into comprehensive, wide-ranging action to rescue our imperiled planet.

In his 1989 message, Pope John Paul II made the point that "the newly industrialized States cannot... be asked to apply restrictive environmental standards to their emerging industries unless the industrialized States first apply them within their own boundaries. At the same time, countries in the process of industrialization are not morally free to repeat the errors made in the past by others, and recklessly continue to damage the environment through industrial pollutants, radical deforestation, or unlimited exploitation of non-renewable resources."

The Pope points out that "The earth is ultimately A COMMON HERITAGE, THE FRUITS OF WHICH ARE FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL. God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples (Gaudium et Spes, 69). It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness—both individual and collective—are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.

The Pope goes on to say that "There is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS IS A MORAL ISSUE. Even men and women without any particular religious conviction, but with an acute sense of their responsibilities for the common good, recognize their obligation to contribute to the restoration of a healthy environment. All the more should men and women who believe in God the Creator, and who are thus convinced that there is a well-defined unity and order in the world, feel called to address the problem. Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith." Evangelical Christian leaders have published their own call to action on global warming.

Pope John Paul II conveys both the critical need for action to rescue the environment, but also the moral responsibility we all have for doing so. He makes it clear that countries and their leaders must work hand-in-hand to overcome the obstacles to effective action. Those obstacles include, among others, distrust, greed, selfishness, and apathy.

According to Pope John Paul II, modern society must take a serious look at its life style. This, I think, is particularly true of American society, where consumerism has been for so long now, the engine that drives the US economy. After former President George W. Bush signed into law an economic stimulus package that, among other things, provided $600 to individuals, there were some who voiced regret that people seemed to be saving the money rather than spending it. The fact that on average, the US tax payer was burdened with nine to ten thousand dollars of annual debt didn't seem to matter. Our commercial sector creates products that are designed to be thrown out, and packages them elaborately in plastic, and cardboard, and paper, and cellophane, and rubber, and we throw that out, too. If America continues to be a throw away society, we are likely to find ourselves throwing away our future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Therefore the land mourns

"Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away" (Hos 4:3).

On December 8, 1989, Pope John Paul II delivered a message for the celebration of World Peace Day, January 1, 1990. The message was titled, "The Ecological Crisis, A Common Responsibility." Pope John started by saying, "In our day there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a LACK OF DUE RESPECT FOR NATURE, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty."

In my view, the Pope's message was the most pointed, insightful, and forceful statement on man and his place in nature ever delivered by a leader of a major religious movement at any time anywhere in the world. It was a remarkable lesson in just what it means to be a Christian who believes that, "the Father has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery ... which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite ALL THINGS in him, all things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:9-10)."

The Pope used various biblical considerations to help the followers of Christ better understand the relationship between human activity and the whole of God's creation. But he also stated that, "The profound sense that the earth is suffering is also shared by those who do not profess our faith in God. Indeed, the increasing devastation of the world of nature is apparent to all."

The Pope's message states that the world's current ecological crisis is a MORAL problem and further, that "the most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological crisis is the lack of RESPECT FOR LIFE evident in many patterns of environmental pollution. Often, the interests of production prevail over concern for the dignity of workers, while economic interests take priority over the good of individuals and even entire peoples. In these cases, pollution or environmental destruction is the result of an unnatural and reductionist vision which at times leads to a genuine contempt for man."

The Pope's message points out forcefully that "WE CANNOT INTERFERE IN ONE AREA OF THE ECOSYSTEM WITHOUT PAYING DUE ATTENTION BOTH TO THE CONSEQUENCES OF SUCH INTERFERENCE IN OTHER AREAS AND TO THE WELL-BEING OF FUTURE GENERATIONS...delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well- being is ultimately to mankind's disadvantage."


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Severe drought grips East Africa

Kenya’s Ewaso Nyiro River Dries

The Ewaso Nyiro River flows down from Mount Kenya to water the dry plains that stretch east from the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. The sparsely populated plains are a haven for wildlife, which rely on the Ewaso Nyiro River as a source of water.

The portion of the river that borders on the Samburu National Reserve had been dry for at least six months by the end of September, reported BBC News. The impact on wildlife was tragic. Samburu National Reserve and other reserves in the region support large herds of elephants, Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, buffalo, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, gazelles, rhinos, and more. By the time this image was taken, at least 24 elephants had died in the region, reported BBC News. Zebras, buffalo, and carnivores were also dying, said Reuters. The impact was not limited to wildlife: many news reports describe decimated herds of goats, cattle, and other livestock among northern Kenya’s pastoralists. As of October 13, the World Food Program was providing food aid for 3.8 million people throughout Kenya.

Severe drought gripped much of East Africa when the rainy season in March through June produced very little rain. At the end of the first rainy season of 2009, satellite observations revealed that plant growth—both crops and natural vegetation—across Kenya was significantly lower than normal, a harbinger of the unfolding disaster. The next rainy period should settle over Kenya in October and last through November or December.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mysterious Ribbon Around Solar System

Whale's Eye Star and Cluster, Hubble Space Telescope

"We thought we knew everything about everything, and it turned out that there were unknown unknowns." Richard Fisher, Director of NASA's Heliophysics Division, upon discovery of a mysterious ribbon around our solar system —- a stripe made of hydrogen —- that defies all current expectations about what the edge of the solar system might look like.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Clean Coal

Much of America’s coal is mined by blowing the tops off of entire mountains and then dumping the rubble in streams and valleys. Not clean.

We know coal is dirty at the stack, and right now CCS technology is not being used to handle GHG emissions. Not clean.

The coal lifecycle doesn’t end at the smokestacks. Even after coal is burned, we’re left with billions of tons of coal ash and liquid coal slurry/sludge that must be stored and disposed of all across the country. The stuff is toxic, containing elevated levels of heavy metals like mercury and arsenic. Not clean.

Images are from Melange, at Wordpress.

For information on the threats that coal slurries pose, see this New York Times story from 2008. You can also read articles from major American newspapers on coal mining by mountain top removal here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mitigating Global Warming -- Too Costly?

There are no reasonable studies that say that a 350 ppm stabilization target will destroy the economy; there are no studies that claim that it is desirable to wait before taking action on climate protection. On the contrary, there is strong, widespread endorsement for policies to promote energy conservation, development of new energy technologies, and price incentives and other economic measures that will redirect the world economy onto a low-carbon path to sustainability.

That’s what the study “The Economics of 350,” concludes. The study was conducted by Economics for Equity and the Environment, a group of climate economists put together by Ecotrust. It puts a price tag on the goal of keeping global carbon-dioxide concentrations at 350 parts per million, an ambitious target.

Stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm may cost between 1% and 3% of WORLD gross domestic product. Is that a large or a small number? If you believe that global warming is real, as do the vast majority of climate scientists, if you believe the consequences will be dire, as do the vast majority of climate scientists, and that man-made green-house gas emissions are the cause, as do the vast majority of climate scientists, then the relative cost is really not relevant, is it?

"We’re making choices that future generations are going to have to live with and I don’t really think it’s our choice to destroy something that they are never going to get to see. Scott Doney, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Scientists have uncovered a strong link between an unusual virus and chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects more than 1 million people in the United States. Researchers found that two-thirds of people with chronic fatigue are infected with a retrovirus called XMRV, according to a new study in the journal Science Express. XMRV has also been found in the tumors of some prostate cancer patients. Scientists say it's too soon to say whether XMRV actually causes chronic fatigue. People with the syndrome feel tired even after a good night's sleep. Many also have debilitating pain in their muscles or joints, trouble concentrating and immune problems.

The story is on NPR here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is just what the phrase would indicate; capturing carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted say, by coal-fired power plants, and storing it in places where, theoretically, it will remain, if not forever, then for long enough to allow the world's green house gas emissions to be brought under control. Storage, also termed sequestration, may be in subsurface saline aquifers, reservoirs, ocean water, aging oil fields, or other carbon sinks. Interestingly, nature, if left alone to do its job, sequesters an enormous amount of CO2 (biological sequestration). Unfortunately, man seems hell bent on either overloading nature's "sinks," or destroying them.

The surface ocean currently absorbs about one-fourth of the CO2 emitted to the atmosphere by human activities from fossil fuel combustion, among other things. As this CO2 dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. Since industrialization began in the 18th century, surface ocean acidity has increased by 30%. High acidity is already causing serious damage to ocean ecosystems. It could ultimately severely and irreparably damage marine food webs and lead to drastic reductions in commercial fish stocks. The current increase in ocean acidity is a hundred times faster than any previous natural change that has occurred over the last many millions of years.

At the same time we're overloading the oceans with man-made CO2, we're destroying other natural CO2 sinks. Each day at least 80,000 acres of rainforest disappear from Earth. At least another 80,000 acres of forest are degraded. As these forests fall, more carbon is added to the atmosphere.

Research and development by government and industry (including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) has been aimed at developing CCS systems specifically designed to remove carbon dioxide from the flue gases and various process streams of large power plants and industrial facilities and safely deposit the carbon dioxide in secure storage sites deep underground – thus keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Vattenfall AB, a large Swedish energy company, has plans to store millions of tons of CO2 in saline aquifers under the rolling fields of eastern Germany, but local opposition may thwart these plans. People are frieghtened that the gas may escape and poison them, or blow up and send them prematurly to Valhalla. And the technology is expensive, in the billions of dollars. Without some way to artificially raise the cost of carbon, say through cap and trade, CSS is currently not economical.