Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Is there any real chance of averting the climate crisis?"

by James Hansen From the Guardian:

Absolutely. It is possible – if we give politicians a cold, hard slap in the face. The fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach – "goals" for emission reductions, "offsets" that render ironclad goals almost meaningless, the ineffectual "cap-and-trade" mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics as usual.

Science reveals that climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating climate conditions out of their control.

Science also reveals what is needed to stabilise atmospheric composition and climate. Geophysical data on the carbon amounts in oil, gas and coal show that the problem is solvable, if we phase out global coal emissions within 20 years and prohibit emissions from unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands and oil shale.

Such constraints on fossil fuels would cause carbon dioxide emissions to decline 60% by mid-century or even more if policies make it uneconomic to go after every last drop of oil.

Improved forestry and agricultural practices could then bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm (parts per million) or less, as required for a stable climate.

Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have such goals for 2050, which they will achieve with the "cap-and-trade" mechanism. They are lying through their teeth.

Unless they order Russia to leave its gas in the ground and Saudi Arabia to leave its oil in the ground (which nobody has proposed), they must phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels.

Instead, the United States signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry oil squeezed from tar sands. Australia is building port facilities for large increases in coal export. Coal-to-oil factories are being built. Coal-fired power plants are being constructed worldwide. Governments are stating emission goals that they know are lies – or, if we want to be generous, they do not understand the geophysics and are kidding themselves.

Is it feasible to phase out coal and avoid use of unconventional fossil fuels? Yes, but only if governments face up to the truth: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, their use will continue and even increase on a global basis.

Fossil fuels are cheapest because they are not made to pay for their effects on human health, the environment and future climate.

Governments must place a uniform rising price on carbon, collected at the fossil fuel source – the mine or port of entry. The fee should be given to the public in toto, as a uniform dividend, payroll tax deduction or both. Such a tax is progressive – the dividend exceeds added energy costs for 60% of the public.

Fee and dividend stimulates the economy, providing the public with the means to adjust lifestyles and energy infrastructure.

Fee and dividend can begin with the countries now considering cap and trade. Other countries will either agree to a carbon fee or have duties placed on their products that are made with fossil fuels.

As the carbon price rises, most coal, tar sands and oil shale will be left in the ground. The marketplace will determine the roles of energy efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear power in our clean energy future.

Cap and trade with offsets, in contrast, is astoundingly ineffective. Global emissions rose rapidly in response to Kyoto, as expected, because fossil fuels remained the cheapest energy.

Cap and trade is an inefficient compromise, paying off numerous special interests. It must be replaced with an honest approach, raising the price of carbon emissions and leaving the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground.

---- at the link others answer the question as well....

Permafrost Problems

Warming To Hit "Roads, Pipelines" In Canada North

Reuters - OTTAWA - Roads, buildings and pipelines in Canada's north are at risk from global warming and the government must do more to protect infrastructure in the remote frozen region, an official panel said Thursday.

Temperatures in the north -- which includes the Arctic -- are rising much faster than elsewhere in the world, and this comes at a time of increasing interest in the area's vast mineral and energy reserves.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) said the permafrost layer had begun to melt, a development that can have disastrous consequences.

"Melting permafrost is undermining building foundations and threatens roads, pipelines and communications infrastructure,' it said in a report, also citing the potential danger to energy systems, waste disposal sites and ponds containing toxic tailings from mines.

"The risk to infrastructure systems will only intensify as the climate continues to warm."

The panel called for better building codes to help protect against the effects of climate change, better disaster planning and a change in insurance policies to encourage modifications to take into account the risks of warming.

The NRTEE -- which Ottawa set up in 1988 to provide it with information and advice on environmental issues -- also cited the risks posed by coastal erosion, storm surges, wildfires, blizzards and changing wind and snowstorm patterns.

The faster rate of warming is shortening the life of ice roads that supply massive mines like the diamond operation at Diavik in the Northwest Territories. Diavik is 60 percent owned by mining company Rio Tinto.

The NRTEE cited a 2009 report from Canada's federal environment ministry which said more than C$5 trillion ($4.8 trillion) of aging infrastructure could be threatened by the changing climate.

The risk of damage is particularly dangerous because in many remote communities, there are no back-up electricity generating systems or roads or secondary hospitals.

In particular, the report said, communications and energy transmission towers were becoming increasingly susceptible to the risk of failure.

The changes in permafrost, which include sudden shifts in the ground, will make pipeline construction more complicated.

This could have implications for the planned C$16.2 billion 1,220 km (760 mile) Mackenzie Valley pipeline to ship gas from the Arctic to the western province of Alberta.

The main partners in the project include Imperial Oil Ltd, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp.

The report also said containment structures, which hold in toxic mine tailings and other materials, often rely on the integrity of permafrost. A release of toxins "could be environmentally and socially disastrous," it added.

Permafrost thaw threatens Russia oil and gas complex: study

AFP - MOSCOW — Thawing permafrost caused by global warming is costing Russian energy firms billions of dollars annually in damage control and shrinking Russia's territory, Greenpeace warned in a new study Friday.

According to the report by the environmental watchdog, up to 55 billion roubles (1.9 billion dollars) a year is spent on repairs to infrastructure and pipelines damaged by changes in the permafrost in western Siberia.

"For Russia, the biggest threat of the permafrost melt is to oil and gas company infrastructure," said Vladimir Chuprov, who heads Greenpeace's energy programme in Russia.

He said that the group had consulted with experts at gas giant Gazprom in writing its report, which detailed the destruction to infrastructure such as pipelines caused by rising temperatures and resulting melt water.

"These are people who see what is happening and are already feeling the economic consequences of it," he told reporters in Moscow.

Russia's main raw export industries are spread across the Siberian permafrost, which makes up over 60 percent of its territory and includes 20 cities and several hundred thousand people.

The permafrost thaw has accelerated in recent years and Russia is now shrinking by 30 square kilometres (12 square miles) per year as icey territory disappears from the coastline, one of the authors of the report, Oleg Anisimov, warned.

"It's not only an economic and infrastructure problem but a geopolitical one. It means the loss of Russian territory," said Anisimov, a senior researcher at the State Hydrological Institute in Saint Petersburg.

"It's a simple observable fact that in the last decade the coastline retreat has sped up by five or six times."

...Another Greenpeace study author Sergei Kirpotin said that the greatest threat of the permafrost melt may be that it powerfully accelerates global warming by unlocking billions of tonnes of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Methane is some 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping solar heat, experts say.

"Before we saw marshlands just as wasteland but in recent years scientists have realized that the Siberian swamplands have a large climate-regulating role," said Kirpotin, from the Tomsk State University in Siberia.

"It is like a methane bomb threat in our north.... There is the feeling that this bomb figuratively speaking could explode."

In a complex cycle, permafrost melts at the edges of lakes that previously were iced over year-round, he explained.
Organic material -- the remains of rotted plants and long-dead animals -- then melt into the lake from the soil and decompose to form methane. With the thaw, the methane bubbles to the surface and is released into the atmosphere.

"Climate change Pushing Bangladeshis into India"

From The Indian:

Dhaka, Nov 29 (IANS) Many people from coastal areas of Bangladesh forced out of their homes by the effects of climate change have started migrating towards already over-populated and infrastructure-crippled cities - and to India for their survival.

“The climate refugees are moving towards cities. After Cyclone Aila in May 2009 many from Khulna (one of Bangladesh’s coastal districts) have moved to Dhaka and India,” Ainun Nishat, senior climate change adviser and one of those who drafted the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy And Action Plan 2009, told IANS in an interview.

“Another impact of climate change would be in the form of increase in river bank erosion. This will also push people out of their original settlements. For a densely populated country like Bangladesh, any further concentration of population in safe areas will not be desirable. Thus migration, first within the country, then to areas far beyond, is not to be ruled out,” he said.

Bangladesh is the world’s seventh most populous country with 112 million people, most of them poor. It is bordered by India on all sides except for a small border with Myanmar to the southeast and by the Bay of Bengal to the south.

Its major cities include Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, Sylhet, Barisal, Bogra, Comilla, Mymensingh and Rangpur. It is feared that up to 50 percent of the land could be flooded if the sea level were to rise by a metre as a result of climate change.

In that case more people will move to the already infrastructure crippled cities and also to India, which is already facing a huge problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants who are a burden on its economy.

Peter Kim Streatfield of an international health research institution in Dhaka said slums in the city are already growing at the rate of seven percent every year while the city itself is growing at the rate of 1.1 percent.

“It will add more burden on the resources,” he added...

"'Permanent' Arctic ice vanishing"

From the Toronto Star:

WINNIPEG–One of Canada's top northern researchers says the permanent Arctic sea ice that is home to the world's polar bears and usually survives the summer has all but disappeared.

Experts around the world believed the ice was recovering because satellite images showed it expanding. But David Barber says the thick, multi-year frozen sheets crucial to the northern ecosystem have been replaced by thin "rotten" ice that can't support weight of the bears. "It caught us all by surprise because we were expecting there to be multi-year sea ice. The whole world thought it was multi-year sea ice," said Barber, who just returned from an expedition to the Beaufort Sea.

"Unfortunately, what we found was that the multi-year (ice) has all but disappeared. What's left is this remnant, rotten ice."

Permanent ice, which is normally up to 10 metres thick, was easily pierced by the research ship, said Barber, who holds the Canada research chair in Arctic science at the University of Manitoba.

The team finally reached what it thought was stable ice, only to watch a crack appear just as researchers were preparing to descend onto the floe.

"As I watched, over the course of five minutes, the entire multi-year ice floe broke up into pieces," Barber said. "This floe was 16 km across. Something that's twice the size of Winnipeg, it just broke up right in front of our eyes."

The ice is unable to withstand battering waves and storms because global warming is rapidly melting it at a rate of 70,000 square kilometres each year, he said.

Multi-year sea ice used to cover 90 per cent of the Arctic basin, Barber said. It now covers 19 per cent. Where it used to be up to 10 metres thick, it's now 2 metres at most.

The findings, soon to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, come as a shock to experts worldwide.

Although northern sea ice hit a record low in 2007, researchers believed it was recovering because of what they were seeing on satellite images.

But the images the experts relied on were misleading because the rotten ice looks sturdy on the surface and has a similar superficial temperature, Barber explained.

"The satellites give us only part of the story. The multi-year ice is disappearing and it's almost all gone now from the northern hemisphere."

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Obama's Secret Climate Pact"

From the Daily Beast - by Richard Wolffe:

It's no coincidence that one day after the White House announced new emissions targets, China followed suit with its own target. The Daily Beast's Richard Wolffe on the behind-the-scenes negotiations during Obama's Asia trip that could help break the climate stalemate in Copenhagen.

After the Olympic-sized disappointment of his last trip to Copenhagen, why on earth would President Obama want to travel once again to the Danish capital for next month’s UN climate talks?

The answer, according to White House officials, lies in several weeks of intensive behind-the-scenes diplomacy that the press corps entirely overlooked during Obama’s recent trip to China, and during the recent state visit by India’s prime minister.
"Obama is at the point where he feels on the verge of a breakthrough, based on the kind of talks that don’t get covered by reporters obsessing about state dinners."

Beyond the photo ops and press statements, Obama was pushing President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the kind of climate deals that eluded him at the G8 summit in Italy in the summer – and have eluded international negotiators for the last decade. China and India have played central roles in blocking past agreements, alongside the US, in a seemingly intractable dispute between fast-developing economies and the older, wealthier polluters.

Now Obama is at the point where he feels on the verge of a breakthrough, based on the kind of talks that don’t get covered by reporters obsessing about state dinners. “He had extensive conversations with President Hu specifically on climate and conversations with the prime minister of India,” said one senior White House aide. “So he has been building momentum for a political agreement to be brokered at Copenhagen.”

That was the backdrop for Wednesday’s White House announcement of specific targets to reduce emissions “in the range of 17% below 2005 levels in 2020.” The next day, on Thanksgiving, China announced its own bargaining position to slow the growth of carbon emissions by 2020. Using a different standard from the US – measuring carbon intensity (relative to its own economic growth), China is offering a 40 to 45% cut below 2005 levels.

Environmental groups have criticized both the American and Chinese targets as too low. But the criticism was much sharper when it looked like President Obama might not attend Copenhagen. Now the White House says Obama believes he can be a decisive factor in turning the talks into a success. “He feels he can be a catalyst for getting a political agreement in place,” says one senior aide.

Obama’s decision to attend Copenhagen only crystallized over the last two weeks as the Chinese and Indian talks progressed, out of public view. However Obama will not stay for the conclusion of the week-long talks, and he arrives at the start of the conference before traveling on to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel peace prize the following day. Instead, he will leave behind several White House and Cabinet officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House climate change czar Carol Browner...

This week the White House was eager to point out that the President’s Copenhagen targets were in line with legislation currently before Congress. It also quoted favorably from a range of unlikely supporters, including Senator Joe Lieberman and several energy company CEOs, such as Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Lew Hay of Florida Power & Light.

Whether those statements will satisfy the international negotiators, or add to any momentum inside Congress, is unclear. At least Obama will return from Europe with something golden and tangible in his hands: the medal dedicated to his Nobel prize.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Copenhagen Diagnosis"

Global ice-sheets are melting at an increased rate; Arctic sea-ice is disappearing much faster than recently projected, and future sea-level rise is now expected to be much higher than previously forecast, according to a new global scientific synthesis prepared by some of the world’s top climate scientists.

In a special report called ‘The Copenhagen Diagnosis’, the 26 researchers, most of whom are authors of published IPCC reports, conclude that several important aspects of climate change are occurring at the high end or even beyond the expectations of only a few years ago.

The report also notes that global warming continues to track early IPCC projections based on greenhouse gas increases. Without significant mitigation, the report says global mean warming could reach as high as 7 degrees Celsius by 2100.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis, which was a year in the making, documents the key findings in climate change science since the publication of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

The new evidence to have emerged includes:

• Satellite and direct measurements now demonstrate that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets are losing mass and contributing to sea level rise at an increasing rate.

• Arctic sea-ice has melted far beyond the expectations of climate models. For example, the area of summer sea-ice melt during 2007-2009 was about 40% greater than the average projection from the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

• Sea level has risen more than 5 centimeters over the past 15 years, about 80% higher than IPCC projections from 2001.

• Accounting for ice-sheets and glaciers, global sea-level rise may exceed 1 meter by 2100, with a rise of up to 2 meters considered an upper limit by this time. This is much higher than previously projected by the IPCC. Furthermore, beyond 2100, sea level rise of several meters must be expected over the next few centuries.

• In 2008 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were ~40% higher than those in 1990. Even if emissions do not grow beyond today’s levels, within just 20 years the world will have used up the allowable emissions to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

The report concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change.

To stabilize climate, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases need to reach near-zero well within this century, the report states.

The full report is available at

"Obama to vow greenhouse emissions cuts in Denmark"


Putting his prestige on the line, President Barack Obama will personally commit the U.S. to a goal of substantially cutting greenhouse gases at next month's Copenhagen climate summit. He will insist America is ready to tackle global warming despite resistance in Congress over higher costs for businesses and homeowners.

Obama will attend the start of the conference Dec. 9 before heading to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. He will "put on the table" a U.S. commitment to cut emissions by 17 percent over the next decade, on the way to reducing heat-trapping pollution by 80 percent by mid-century, the White House said.

Cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by one-sixth in just a decade would increase the cost of energy as electric utilities pay for capturing carbon dioxide at coal burning power plants or switch to more expensive alternatives. The price of gasoline likely would increase, and more fuel efficient automobiles — or hybrids that run on gasoline and electricity — likely would be more expensive.
Still, there is widespread disagreement over the cost to consumers.

Obama's promise of greenhouse emissions cuts will require Congress to pass complex climate legislation that the administration says will include an array of measures to ease the price impact. The bills before Congress, for example, would have the government provide polluters free emissions allowances in the early years of the transition from fossil fuels, as well as direct payments to many consumers facing high costs...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Greenland ice loss behind a sixth of sea-level rise"

From New Scientist:

GREENLAND lost 1500 cubic kilometres of ice between 2000 and 2008, making it responsible for one-sixth of global sea-level rise. Even worse, there are signs that the rate of ice loss is increasing.

Michiel van den Broeke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and colleagues began by modelling the difference in annual snowfall and snowmelt in Greenland between 2003 and 2008 to reveal the net ice loss for each year. They then compared each year's loss with that calculated from readings by the GRACE satellite, which "weighs" the ice sheet by measuring its gravity.

The team found that results from the two methods roughly matched and showed that Greenland is losing enough ice to contribute on average 0.46 millimetres per year to global sea-level rise. The loss may be accelerating: since 2006, warm summers have caused levels to rise by 0.75 millimetres per year, though van den Broeke says we can't be sure whether this trend will continue (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1178176). Sea levels are rising globally by 3 millimetres on average.

Half the ice was lost through melting and half through glaciers sliding faster into the oceans, the team says. "The study gives us a really good handle on how to approximate how much ice Greenland is going to lose in the coming century," says Ted Scambos of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious"

From the New York Times:

Researchers at Princeton University recently made a remarkable discovery about the brains of rats that exercise. Some of their neurons respond differently to stress than the neurons of slothful rats. Scientists have known for some time that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells (neurons) but not how, precisely, these neurons might be functionally different from other brain cells.

In the experiment, preliminary results of which were presented last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, scientists allowed one group of rats to run. Another set of rodents was not allowed to exercise. Then all of the rats swam in cold water, which they don’t like to do. Afterward, the scientists examined the animals’ brains. They found that the stress of the swimming activated neurons in all of the brains. (The researchers could tell which neurons were activated because the cells expressed specific genes in response to the stress.) But the youngest brain cells in the running rats, the cells that the scientists assumed were created by running, were less likely to express the genes. They generally remained quiet. The “cells born from running,” the researchers concluded, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.” The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.

For years, both in popular imagination and in scientific circles, it has been a given that exercise enhances mood. But how exercise, a physiological activity, might directly affect mood and anxiety — psychological states — was unclear. Now, thanks in no small part to improved research techniques and a growing understanding of the biochemistry and the genetics of thought itself, scientists are beginning to tease out how exercise remodels the brain, making it more resistant to stress. In work undertaken at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for instance, scientists have examined the role of serotonin, a neurotransmitter often considered to be the “happy” brain chemical. That simplistic view of serotonin has been undermined by other researchers, and the University of Colorado work further dilutes the idea. In those experiments, rats taught to feel helpless and anxious, by being exposed to a laboratory stressor, showed increased serotonin activity in their brains. But rats that had run for several weeks before being stressed showed less serotonin activity and were less anxious and helpless despite the stress.

Other researchers have looked at how exercise alters the activity of dopamine, another neurotransmitter in the brain, while still others have concentrated on the antioxidant powers of moderate exercise. Anxiety in rodents and people has been linked with excessive oxidative stress, which can lead to cell death, including in the brain. Moderate exercise, though, appears to dampen the effects of oxidative stress. In an experiment led by researchers at the University of Houston and reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, rats whose oxidative-stress levels had been artificially increased with injections of certain chemicals were extremely anxious when faced with unfamiliar terrain during laboratory testing. But rats that had exercised, even if they had received the oxidizing chemical, were relatively nonchalant under stress. When placed in the unfamiliar space, they didn’t run for dark corners and hide, like the unexercised rats. They insouciantly explored.

“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”

The stress-reducing changes wrought by exercise on the brain don’t happen overnight, however, as virtually every researcher agrees. In the University of Colorado experiments, for instance, rats that ran for only three weeks did not show much reduction in stress-induced anxiety, but those that ran for at least six weeks did. “Something happened between three and six weeks,” says Benjamin Greenwood, a research associate in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, who helped conduct the experiments. Dr. Greenwood added that it was “not clear how that translates” into an exercise prescription for humans. We may require more weeks of working out, or maybe less. And no one has yet studied how intense the exercise needs to be. But the lesson, Dr. Greenwood says, is “don’t quit.” Keep running or cycling or swimming. (Animal experiments have focused exclusively on aerobic, endurance-type activities.) You may not feel a magical reduction of stress after your first jog, if you haven’t been exercising. But the molecular biochemical changes will begin, Dr. Greenwood says. And eventually, he says, they become “profound.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Fossil-fuel emissions... tracking worst trends"

From Agence France-Presse:

Carbon emissions from fossil fuels rose two percent last year to an all-time high, leaving Earth on a worst-scenario track for global warming, scientists reported on Tuesday.

They also voiced concern for the world's oceans and forests, saying the capacity of these fabled "sinks" to soak up dangerous greenhouse gases was fading.

And they placed the spotlight on surging emissions by China and developing countries, explaining that a huge chunk of this carbon comes from exporting goods that are consumed in rich nations.

The paper, published by the peer-reviewed journal Nature Geoscience, comes in the runup to December 7-18 UN talks in Copenhagen aimed at crafting a pact to combat climate change from 2013.

Global emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 amounted to 8.7 billion tonnes of carbon, an increase of two percent over 2007, the Global Carbon Project (GCP), gathering more than 30 climate specialists, reported.

The 2008 tally amounts to a decline over the average annual increase of 3.6 percent since the start of the decade, and can be pinned to the start of the world financial crisis, which triggered a fall in economic activity, it said.

Emissions last year were 29 percent higher than in 2000, reflecting a sprint in economic growth this decade, and a massive 41 percent greater than in 1990, the reference year for the UN's Kyoto Protocol.

Army Corps of Engineers Responsible for Katrina Flood Damage


In a groundbreaking decision, a federal judge ruled late Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers' mismanagement of maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet was directly responsible for flood damage of homes in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. could result in the federal government paying $700,000 in damages to three people and a business in those areas, but also sets the stage for judgments against the govenment for damages by as many as 100,000 other residents, businesses and local governments in those areas who filed claims with the corps after Katrina.

If successful, the damage claims could total billions of dollars.

Duval ruled, however, that WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson and his wife were not entitled to damages because the corps' dredging of the MR-GO did not affect the levee system that protects eastern New Orleans from hurricane storm surge. That probably means eastern New Orleans residents also would not be able to collect on claims they've filed against the corps, said attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case.

"The people of this city have been vindicated," said attorney Joseph Bruno, a leader of the large team of lawyers who represented the plaintiffs. "They didn't do anything wrong and it's time they be compensated."

"Judge Duval exposed 40 years of the Army Corps of Engineers' gross malfeasance with regard to the operation and maintenance of the MR-GO," said Pierce O'Donnell, a Los Angeles-based attorney and co-leader of the plaintiff's legal team. "His decision is an extreme condemnationof the lack of concern for the safety of New Orleans and St. Bernard residents."

A Justice Department spokesman was not immediately available late Wednesday to respond to the ruling, but the government is expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

The corps has estimated that it received more than 490,000 claims forms in the aftermath of Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005, but those forms include many from areas not covered by this decision.

"Until such time as the litigation is completed, including the appellate process up to and through the U.S Supreme Court, no activity is expected to be taken on any of these claims," corps spokesman Ken Holder said.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Hawaii's famed white sandy beaches are shrinking"

This article refers to a geologist saying the causes include "a steady historical climb in sea levels that likely dates back to the 19th century" (and not global warming). Maybe he doesn't know that global warming started accelerating with the industrial age - that easily goes back to the 19th century.


KAILUA, Hawaii – Jenn Boneza remembers when the white sandy beach near the boat ramp in her hometown was wide enough for people to build sand castles.

"It really used to be a beautiful beach," said the 35-year-old mother of two. "And now when you look at it, it's gone."

What's happening to portions of the beach in Kailua — a sunny coastal suburb of Honolulu where President Barack Obama spent his last two family vacations in the islands — is being repeated around the Hawaiian Islands.

Geologists say more than 70 percent of Kauai's beaches are eroding while Oahu has lost a quarter of its sandy shoreline. They warn the problem is only likely to get significantly worse in coming decades as global warming causes sea levels to rise more rapidly.

"It will probably have occurred to a scale that we will have only been able to save a few places and maintain beaches, and the rest are kind of a write-off," said Dolan Eversole, a coastal geologist with the University of Hawaii's Sea Grant program.
The loss of so many beaches is an alarming prospect for Hawaii on many levels. Many tourists come to Hawaii precisely because they want to lounge on and walk along its soft sandy shoreline. These visitors spend some $11.4 billion each year, making tourism the state's largest employer.

Disappearing sands would also wreak havoc on the environment as many animals and plants would lose important habitats. The Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered species, gives birth and nurses pups on beaches. The green sea turtle, a threatened species, lays eggs in the sand.

Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii geology professor, says scientists in Hawaii haven't yet observed an accelerated rate of sea level rise due to global warming.

Instead, the erosion the islands are experiencing now is caused by several factors including a steady historical climb in sea levels that likely dates back to the 19th century.

Other causes include storms and human actions like the construction of seawalls, jetties, and the dredging of stream mouths. Each of these human actions disrupts the natural flow of sand.

But a more rapid rise in sea levels, caused by global warming, is expected to contribute to erosion in Hawaii within decades. In 100 years, sea levels are likely to be at least 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, higher than they are now, pushing the ocean inland along coastal areas.

Fletcher says between 60 to 80 percent of the nation's shoreline is chronically eroding. But the problem is felt particularly acutely in Hawaii because the economy and lifestyle are so dependent on healthy beaches.

The state is doing everything it can to keep the sand in Waikiki, for example, joining with hotels in the state's tourist hub on a plan to spend between $2 million and $3 million pumping in sand from offshore...

For undeveloped shoreline, the state wants to make sure these areas stay pristine. This happened recently when a Florida-based developer announced plans to build luxury homes on sand dunes in Kahuku on Oahu's North Shore.

"We just kind of went nuts, pulled out all the guns on that one, basically got them to back off," Lemmo said. "We're working pretty hard to keep any new development away from these areas."

The University of Hawaii's Sea Grant program is working with a consultant to develop a beach management plan for Kailua that would address how to deal with a 1 meter rise in sea level. The state hopes this will be the first of many site-specific management plans for Hawaii's beaches...

Ultimately the beach will disappear. Or we could have an alternative to that, to identify now some portions of Kailua shoreline where we want the beach to live."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Turtles Are Casualties of Warming in Costa Rica"

From the New York TImes:

PLAYA GRANDE, Costa Rica — This resort town was long known for Leatherback Sea Turtle National Park, nightly turtle beach tours and even a sea turtle museum. So Kaja Michelson, a Swedish tourist, arrived with high expectations. “Of course we’re hoping to see turtles — that is part of the appeal,” she said.

But haphazard development, in tandem with warmer temperatures and rising seas that many scientists link to global warming, have vastly diminished the Pacific turtle population.

On a beach where dozens of turtles used to nest on a given night, scientists spied only 32 leatherbacks all of last year. With leatherbacks threatened with extinction, Playa Grande’s expansive turtle museum was abandoned three years ago and now sits amid a sea of weeds. And the beachside ticket booth for turtle tours was washed away by a high tide in September.

“We do not promote this as a turtle tourism destination anymore because we realize there are far too few turtles to please,” said Álvaro Fonseca, a park ranger.

Even before scientists found temperatures creeping upward over the past decade, sea turtles were threatened by beach development, drift net fishing and Costa Ricans’ penchant for eating turtle eggs, considered a delicacy here. But climate change may deal the fatal blow to an animal that has dwelled in the Pacific for 150 million years.

Sea turtles are sensitive to numerous effects of warming. They feed on reefs, which are dying in hotter, more acidic seas. They lay eggs on beaches that are being inundated by rising seas and more violent storm surges.

More uniquely, their gender is determined not by genes but by the egg’s temperature during development. Small rises in beach temperatures can result in all-female populations, obviously problematic for survival.

“The turtles are very good storytellers about the effect of climate change on coastal habitats,” said Carlos Drews, the regional marine species coordinator for the conservation group W.W.F. “The climate is changing so much faster than before, and these animals depend on so much for temperature.”

If the sand around the eggs hits 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), the gender balance shifts to females, Mr. Drews said, and at about 32 degrees (89.6 Fahrenheit) they are all female. Above 34 (93), “you get boiled eggs,” he said.

On some nesting beaches, scientists are artificially cooling nests with shade or irrigation and trying to protect broader areas of coastal property from development to ensure that turtles have a place to nest as the seas rise.

In places like Playa Junquillal, an hour south of here, local youths are paid $2 a night to scoop up newly laid eggs and move them to a hatchery where they are shaded and irrigated to maintain a nest temperature of 29.7 degrees Celsius (85.4), which will yield both genders.

On a recent night, Dennis Gómez Jiménez, a 22-year-old in a red baseball cap and jeans, deftly excavated the nest of a three-foot-wide Olive Ridley, one of the smaller sea turtle species. The turtle had just finished the hourlong task of burying 100-plus eggs and then lumbered back into the water.

One by one, Mr. Jiménez placed what looked like table tennis balls into a plastic bag and transferred them to an ersatz nest he had dug in a shaded, fenced-off portion of sand that serves as a hatchery. Sandbags are positioned to protect against tides that could rip nests apart.

When the turtles hatch, in 40 to 60 days depending on the species, they are carried in wicker baskets to the ocean’s edge and make a beeline for the water. Gabriel Francia, a biologist who oversees the youths, known locally as the “baula” or leatherback boys, likens their work to delivering an endangered infant by Caesarean section.

“In some ways we’re playing God — this is a big experiment,” he said. The long-term hope, he said, is to build a robust turtle population that will slowly adapt by shifting to cooler, more northern beaches or laying eggs at cooler times of the year.

Worldwide, there are seven sea turtle species, and all are considered threatened. (Turtle populations in the Atlantic have increased over the last 20 years because of measures like bans on trapping turtles and selling their parts.)

The leatherback is considered critically endangered on a global level. Populations are especially depleted in the Pacific, where only 2,000 to 3,000 are estimated to survive today, down from around 90,000 two decades ago. Cooler sands alone will not save them, given the scope of the threats they face. At Playa Junquillal, markers placed a decade ago to mark a point 55 yards above the high tide line are now frequently underwater....

In a country where turtle eggs are traditionally slurped in bars from a shot glass, uncooked and mixed with salsa and lemon, biologists are also promoting cultural change.

“Of course 25 years ago, you went out with your friends or family and dug up the eggs,” said Héctor García, 42, shopping at the Junquillal market. “It was a tradition. They are delicious, cooked or raw.”

Today egg collecting is illegal in Costa Rica, but poaching is still common in many towns. It is frowned on at Playa Junquillal, where the five baula boys, with their piercings and baseball caps, patrol for poachers and are idolized by many younger children. Dr. Francia, the biologist, has also invited local families to watch the babies being released. “There were a lot of people who had eaten eggs but never seen a turtle,” he said.

"...the factory farm-swine flu link"

From Grist:

“Since last spring and the onset of the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza outbreak in humans, USDA has consistently asked that the media stop calling this “novel” pandemic virus “swine flu.” By continuing to mislabel the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus that is affecting human populations around the world, the media is causing undue and undeserved harm to America’s agriculture industry, especially to pork producers.”
—From the USDA Website

Novelist-turned-anti-meat-pamphleteer Jonathan Safran Foer made a stark claim about swine flu on The Ellen DeGeneres Show recenly:

This swine flu that’s now an epidemic, they’ve been able to trace it back to a farm in North Carolina… A hog farm. Nobody knows this. Nobody talks about it. We’ve been told this lie that it came from Mexico.

Well, the situation is even worse than Foer suggests. Authorities aren’t actually saying the novel strain of swine flu “came from Mexico.” That would be uncomfortable, because it first cropped up there a few miles from vast hog operations run by U.S. pork giant Smithfield.

But they are insisting that “pork is safe”—and doing little or nothing to monitor hog confinements for evidence of infection.

For years before the current outbreak, scientists openly worried that CAFOs (concentrated animal feedlot operations) provided excellent arenas for the generation and spread of dangerous new flu varieties.

Yet another bit of evidence on this score crossed my desk this week: a “News Focus” piece that ran in Science back in 2003 called “Chasing the Fickle Swine Flu.” (PDF) It’s jumping-off point is the very incident Foer pointed to on Ellen—the outbreak of a novel strain of flu, genetically related to the current strain, on a North Carolina farm in 1998. The opening is worth quoting at length:

One of the first signs of trouble was a barking cough that resounded through a North Carolina farm in August 1998. Every pig in an operation of 2400 animals
sickened, with symptoms similar to those caused by the human flu: high fever, poor appetite, and lethargy. Pregnant sows were hit hardest, and almost 10% aborted
their litters, says veterinary virologist Gene Erickson of the Rollins Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Raleigh. Many piglets that survived in utero were later born small and weak, and some 50 sows died.

The culprit, a new strain of swine influenza to which the animals had little immunity, left veterinarians and virologists alike puzzled. Although related flu strains in birds, humans, and pigs outside North America constantly evolve, only one influenza subtype had sickened North American pigs since 1930. That spell was suddenly broken about 4 years ago, and a quick succession of new flu viruses has been sweeping through North America’s 100 million pigs ever since. This winter, for example, up to 15% of the 4- to 7-week-old piglets on a large Minnesota farm died, even though their mothers had been vaccinated against swine flu, says veterinary pathologist Kurt Rossow of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Here we have a phenomenon I’ve written about before: the flu strains circulating through the U.S. swine herd didn’t mutate much after 1930—until 1998. The novel strain that emerged in a North Carolina CAFO then was devastating for pigs, whose immune systems did not recognize it; but luckily, it didn’t have the genetic chops to jump to humans.

By 2003, scientists were actively worried that would soon change, the Science article reveals.

“Within the swine population, we now have a mammalian-adapted virus that is extremely promiscuous,” one researcher told the magazine. “We could end up with a dangerous virus,” i.e., a mutation that jumps to humans.

And researchers were looking to the CAFO as the site where such a thing could rear up. In the 1990s, hog farming underwent an unprecedented process of intensification and consolidation. As Science put it:

In the past decade, big swine producers have gotten bigger, and many small producers have gone out of business. The percentage of farms with 5000 or more animals surged from 18% in 1993 to 53% in 2002, according to Rodger Ott, an agricultural statistician at the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Washington, D.C.

Back in 2003, there was no taboo about stating the obvious:

“With a group of 5000 animals, if a novel virus shows up, it will have more opportunity to replicate and potentially spread than in a group of 100 pigs on a small farm,” [University of Minnesota veterinary pathologist Kurt] Rossow says.

...Even a veterinary expert for Schering-Plough, the pharmaceutical giant (now owned by Merck) with a large position in the swine-vaccine market, seemed a little concerned about the situation—not just the vaccine treadmill, but the whole game of factory hog farming.

Schering-Plough veterinarian Terri Wasmoen acknowledges that vaccines “may be pressuring change.” But she also notes that larger hog confinement operations and more shipping from state to state may play a role. “We need epidemiological work to understand these issues, and there is no funding now,” she says.

That last bit is jaw-dropping for several reasons. Here are two: 1) With a known and obvious public-health threat brewing, public-health authorities had zero political will to even muster funding to study it; and 2) a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical company was minting profits from a growing market it knew contained a serious public-health risk, yet could itself find “no funding” to research it.

Well, here we are, six years later. The scenario that scientists feared and predicted would unfold has unfolded: a novel strain of H1N1 has jumped to humans, and is now spreading rapidly. Scientists are now hoping the strain won’t mutate into one that’s more difficult to shake off. But as we know now, hope doesn’t do much to stop the evolution of flu strains. There remains no large-scale effort to investigate CAFOs as engines of new swine flu strains—or even monitor them for infections....

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greenland Ice Cap Melting Faster Than Ever

From ScienceDaily:

Satellite observations and a state-of-the art regional atmospheric model have independently confirmed that the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass at an accelerating rate, reports a new study in Science.

This mass loss is equally distributed between increased iceberg production, driven by acceleration of Greenland's fast-flowing outlet glaciers, and increased meltwater production at the ice sheet surface. Recent warm summers further accelerated the mass loss to 273 Gt per year (1 Gt is the mass of 1 cubic kilometre of water), in the period 2006-2008, which represents 0.75 mm of global sea level rise per year.

Professor Jonathan Bamber from the University of Bristol and an author on the paper said: "It is clear from these results that mass loss from Greenland has been accelerating since the late 1990s and the underlying causes suggest this trend is likely to continue in the near future. We have produced agreement between two totally independent estimates, giving us a lot of confidence in the numbers and our inferences about the processes".

The Greenland ice sheet contains enough water to cause a global sea level rise of seven metres. Since 2000, the ice sheet has lost about 1500 Gt in total, representing on average a global sea level rise of about half a millimetre per year, or 5 mm since 2000.

At the same time that surface melting started to increase around 1996, snowfall on the ice sheet also increased at approximately the same rate, masking surface mass losses for nearly a decade. Moreover, a significant part of the additional meltwater refroze in the cold snowpack that covers the ice sheet. Without these moderating effects, post-1996 Greenland mass loss would have been double the amount of mass loss observed now.

Huge rise in birth defects in Falluja

From the Guardian:

Iraqi former battle zone sees abnormal clusters of infant tumours and deformities

Doctors in Iraq's war-ravaged enclave of Falluja are dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants and a spike in early life cancers that may be linked to toxic materials left over from the fighting.

The extraordinary rise in birth defects has crystallised over recent months as specialists working in Falluja's over-stretched health system have started compiling detailed clinical records of all babies born.

Neurologists and obstetricians in the city interviewed by the Guardian say the rise in birth defects – which include a baby born with two heads, babies with multiple tumours, and others with nervous system problems - are unprecedented and at present unexplainable.

A group of Iraqi and British officials, including the former Iraqi minister for women's affairs, Dr Nawal Majeed a-Sammarai, and the British doctors David Halpin and Chris Burns-Cox, have petitioned the UN general assembly to ask that an independent committee fully investigate the defects and help clean up toxic materials left over decades of war – including the six years since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

"We are seeing a very significant increase in central nervous system anomalies," said Falluja general hospital's director and senior specialist, Dr Ayman Qais. "Before 2003 [the start of the war] I was seeing sporadic numbers of deformities in babies. Now the frequency of deformities has increased dramatically."

The rise in frequency is stark – from two admissions a fortnight a year ago to two a day now. "Most are in the head and spinal cord, but there are also many deficiencies in lower limbs," he said. "There is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of less than two years [old] with brain tumours. This is now a focus area of multiple tumours."

After several years of speculation and anecdotal evidence, a picture of a highly disturbing phenomenon in one of Iraq's most battered areas has now taken shape. Previously all miscarried babies, including those with birth defects or infants who were not given ongoing care, were not listed as abnormal cases.

The Guardian asked a paediatrician, Samira Abdul Ghani, to keep precise records over a three-week period. Her records reveal that 37 babies with anomalies, many of them neural tube defects, were born during that period at Falluja general hospital alone.

Dr Bassam Allah, the head of the hospital's children's ward, this week urged international experts to take soil samples across Falluja and for scientists to mount an investigation into the causes of so many ailments, most of which he said had been "acquired" by mothers before or during pregnancy.

Other health officials are also starting to focus on possible reasons, chief among them potential chemical or radiation poisonings. Abnormal clusters of infant tumours have also been repeatedly cited in Basra and Najaf – areas that have in the past also been intense battle zones where modern munitions have been heavily used...

The anomalies are evident all through Falluja's newly opened general hospital and in centres for disabled people across the city. On 2 November alone, there were four cases of neuro-tube defects in the neo-natal ward and several more were in the intensive care ward and an outpatient clinic.

Falluja was the scene of the only two setpiece battles that followed the US-led invasion. Twice in 2004, US marines and infantry units were engaged in heavy fighting with Sunni militia groups who had aligned with former Ba'athists and Iraqi army elements.

The first battle was fought to find those responsible for the deaths of four Blackwater private security contractors working for the US. The city was bombarded heavily by American artillery and fighter jets. Controversial weaponry was used, including white phosphorus, which the US government admitted deploying.

Statistics on infant tumours are not considered as reliable as new data about nervous system anomalies, which are usually evident immediately after birth. Dr Abdul Wahid Salah, a neurosurgeon, said: "With neuro-tube defects, their heads are often larger than normal, they can have deficiencies in hearts and eyes and their lower limbs are often listless. There has been no orderly registration here in the period after the war and we have suffered from that. But [in relation to the rise in tumours] I can say with certainty that we have noticed a sharp rise in malignancy of the blood and this is not a congenital anomaly – it is an acquired disease."

Despite fully funding the construction of the new hospital, a well-equipped facility that opened in August, Iraq's health ministry remains largely disfunctional and unable to co-ordinate a response to the city's pressing needs.

The government's lack of capacity has led Falluja officials, who have historically been wary of foreign intervention, to ask for help from the international community. "Even in the scientific field, there has been a reluctance to reach out to the exterior countries," said Dr Salah. "But we have passed that point now. I am doing multiple surgeries every day. I have one assistant and I am obliged to do everything myself."

Brown Pelican No Longer Endangered: U.S.


The brown pelican, listed as an endangered species even before the 1973 U.S. Endangered Species Act existed, is officially back from the brink of extinction, the Interior Department said on Wednesday.

There are now more than 650,000 brown pelicans in Florida, the U.S. Gulf states and along the Pacific coast, as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America, up from as few as 10,000, Interior officials said.

"It has taken 36 years, the banning of (pesticide) DDT and a lot of work ... but today we can say that the brown pelican is back," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a telephone briefing.

The brown pelican was first declared endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to the current law.

Once hunted for their feathers for use in women's hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, brown pelicans faced further pressure from the general use of the pesticide DDT, which caused pelican eggshells to become so thin that it interfered with reproduction.

The United States banned general use of DDT in 1972. This decision also hastened the recovery of other formerly endangered species including the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.

The widespread loss of coastal habitat also played a role in the brown pelican's decline, and sea level rise resulting from climate change could have an impact on its continued recovery, the officials said...