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Claire Thompson's Posts

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Ice, ice, maybe: Snow and ice melting at record speed

Take a picture -- it'll last longer than the snow cover.
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Take a picture -- it'll last longer than the snow cover.

You may have noticed it’s been a hot summer so far. June temperatures were above average across the world, and both NASA and NOAA ranked the month among the top five warmest since record keeping began in the late 1800s.

Not surprisingly, snow extent in the Northern Hemisphere was at its third-lowest on record by June. But what makes the current paltry snow cover more significant is the fact that, just a few months ago, the Northern Hemisphere was unusually snowy -- April 2013 had the ninth-highest snow extent since 1967. A month later, half that snow had melted away. The Washington Post reports:

“This is likely one of the most rapid shifts in near opposite extremes on record, if not the largest from April to May,” said climatologist David Robinson, who runs Rutgers University Global Snow Lab.

The snow extent shrunk from 12.4 million square miles to 6.2 million square miles in a month’s time. By June, just 2.3 million square miles of snow remained in the Northern Hemisphere (a decline of 63 percent from May), third lowest on record.

“In recent years it hasn’t seemed that unusual to have average or even above average winter snow extent rapidly diminish to below average values come spring,” Robinson said.

It’s the same story for ice.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Crude on the tracks: Oil spills from trains skyrocket

As more oil is being shipped by train across North America, more oil is being spilled from trains. EnergyWire reports:

The number of spills and other accidents from railroad cars carrying crude oil has skyrocketed in recent years, up from one or two a year early in the previous decade to 88 last year.

rail-accidents-oil-chart

Most of the spills are relatively small -- nothing like the deadly disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, earlier this month -- but with oil shipments on the rise, there's cause to be concerned.

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Tour de farm: A cross-country bike quest for the female farming perspective

Caitrin and Lake horsing around with hay bales in Nebraska.
Caleb Northrop
Caitrin and Lake horsing around with hay bales in Nebraska.

Reports of women swelling the ranks of U.S. farmers apparently strike a chord. Readers greeted last month’s Grist article about this country’s nearly 1 million female farmers with cheers: Some saw the piece as good news, others as a delayed recognition of a long tradition of hard work. For fellow female farmers or foodies, it’s encouraging to know you’re not alone. And those of us sadly devoid of green thumbs but in awe of badass women in general can still find inspiration in these farmers’ stories and root for them to succeed.

Which is why I got a little jealous hearing about Lake Buckley’s and Caitrin Hall’s plans for the summer. The two fresh college graduates -- Buckley studied environmental science and studio art at Oberlin; Hall majored in cultural anthropology at Vassar -- have been friends since high school in Northern California, and are now in the middle of a cross-country bike quest to meet female farmers and hear their perspectives. I got in touch with them by phone as they rested at the Doyle Family Farm outside Riverton, Wyo. They told me about what they've learned from the women they've met on their journey so far.

Read more: Food

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Have fun, stay single — it’s sustainable

"Being alone -- there's a certain dignity to it."
Sem Cimsek
"Being alone -- there's a certain dignity to it."

Good news, single people: Living alone not only gives you the freedom to vacuum in your underwear and leave crusty dishes in the sink; it also has a societal benefit. As a so-called “singleton” or “solo” (barf), you’re helping make your city more sustainable.

That’s what Devajyoti Deka of Rutgers’ Alan M. Vorhees Transportation Center argues. In a study called “The Living, Moving and Travel Behaviour of the Growing American Solo,” Deka found that people who live alone -- about 28 percent of U.S. households, a threefold increase since 1950 -- also live more sustainably, dwelling in apartments instead of single-family homes, commuting shorter distances to work, and owning and using cars at lower rates than couples and families. And solo dwellers tend to prefer living in cities.

Which all makes practical sense, of course. One person needs less space, and the cost of owning and maintaining a car is much more of a burden when not shared. Urban areas present more job opportunities, and solos can pursue them without being held back by a partner’s career or family obligations. (Deka found that solos make at least $5,000 more per year when they live in the city.) Plus, discounting the few misanthropes out there, most people don’t live alone because they want to be alone, and living in a dense city neighborhood offers plenty of social outlets to ward off loneliness.

Catering to a growing solo population means cities also must cater to their more sustainable lifestyles.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Positive buzz: One bumblebee species makes a comeback

The Western bumblebee, or Bombus occidentalis.
USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory
The Western bumblebee, or Bombus occidentalis.

A once-common bumblebee species that all but disappeared over the past 20 years has been glimpsed in Washington state for the first time since the mid-90s, getting local bee fans as excited as if they’d spotted Sasquatch. Though it doesn’t quite make up for the 50,000 bumblebees that met their demise in an Oregon parking lot last month, positive bee news is rare enough these days that we’ll take any excuse to celebrate.

The Western bumblebee, or Bombus occidentalis, an accomplished pollinator of greenhouse tomatoes and cranberries, is distinguishable by its “white butt,” says Will Peterman, a self-described “bee nerd” who caught the elusive insect on camera in a park north of Seattle.

The Seattle Times reports:

The first sighting in more than a decade came from Brier resident Megan O’Donald, who spotted one of the bees in her mother’s garden last summer and reported it to the Xerces Society [for Invertebrate Conservation.]. The insects returned this year, and O’Donald said she saw one Sunday on a goldenrod plant.

When Peterman heard about the earlier sightings, he decided to launch a bee-hunting expedition. Using Google Earth, he identified several patches of likely habitat — mostly small parks or unmown lots. At the fourth site on his list, he got lucky.

The colony, which is located underground, may be shutting down for the season. In late summer, after the broods are raised, the bees that will develop into the next season’s queens start gorging on nectar in preparation for their winter hibernation.

“Probably all we can do now is let the bees continue their cycle and go back next spring,” said UW biology instructor Evan Sugden, who joined the hunt on Sunday.

Read more: Food

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Tea Partiers fight over solar power in Georgia, and the solar fans win

Victory!
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Victory!

In Georgia on Thursday, the Tea Party scored a victory against the Tea Party by helping push through a plan requiring the state’s largest electric utility to increase its capacity for solar power.

Never a dull day in Southern politics, is there? A proposal by Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald to more than double the amount of solar energy produced by Georgia Power pitted the Tea Party Patriots against the local chapter of Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity (of the notorious “No Climate Tax Pledge”). Virginia Galloway, director of AFP for the state, warned the group’s 50,000 Georgia members that the proposal could increase electricity rates by up to 40 percent, and that this “mandate” -- as she called it -- would “reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home.” But the Patriots see an increase in the availability of solar as an expansion of the free market and the ratepayers’ right to choose their energy sources.

Those on the left might have a hard time distinguishing between brands of Tea Party, but there are real differences. From the Athens Banner-Herald:

Disagreement between the two groups isn’t unusual. [Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Patriots,] says Galloway is using outdated figures since solar-panel prices have dropped by more than half in the last three years. She also accuses Galloway of being swayed by the fossil-fuel interests that contribute to AFP nationally.

And, to hear Dooley tell it, AFP’s opposition to solar may not reflect the will of the people (or at least the people comprising its target audience).

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Obama likes broccoli, and thanks to science, soon you will too

Brainwashed by broccoli.
Shutterstock
Brainwashed by broccoli.

I’ve figured it out, guys. Here is the crux of Obama’s socialist agenda: He’s going to take away our guns and replace them with biotech broccoli.

Obviously the liberal media is in on this plot. Why else would The New York Times have published this story about a scientific research project attempting to create the perfect broccoli on the same day Obama suddenly announced -- despite evidence to the contrary -- that broccoli is his favorite food? Come on, Obama. We didn’t take that shit from our parents when we were 5 years old, and we’re not falling for it now just because you’re the “president.”

In what is obviously a heretofore unrevealed component of Obamacare -- a broccoli mandate, if you will -- scientists at Cornell University are tinkering with broccoli through genetic breeding, trying to make it tastier and better-looking in an insidious ploy to get us to eat more of it. (I smell hints of Bloomberg’s nanny state.) The liberal rag of record explains:

Broccoli hates too much heat, which is why 90 percent of it sold in the United States comes from temperate California, which is often bathed by fog. …

But [plant scientist Thomas Bjorkman] and a team of fellow researchers are out to change all that. They’ve created a new version of the plant that can thrive in hot, steamy summers like those in New York, South Carolina or Iowa, and that is easy and inexpensive enough to grow in large volumes. …

“If you’ve had really fresh broccoli, you know it’s an entirely different thing,” [Bjorkman] said. “And if the health-policy goal is to vastly increase the consumption of broccoli, then we need a ready supply, at an attractive price.”

You catch that? If the health-policy goal is to vastly increase the consumption of broccoli. Yep, folks, pretty soon they’ll be shoving it down our throats, and sending anyone who objects straight to the death panels.

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As more urbanites shun cars, some cities shun parking-space requirements

expired parking meter
Shutterstock
Parking-space requirements have reached their expiration date.

In Washington, D.C., almost four in 10 households don’t own a car, making it one of the most car-free cities in the country (nationally, an average 9 percent of households lack car access). So why are new buildings along the city's Metro transit lines required to include parking spaces -- four for every 1,000 square feet of commercial space?

D.C. city planners, watching the town’s car-ownership rate fall year after year, are finally asking that question themselves. At the end of this month, they plan to propose to the city’s Zoning Commission that parking requirements for buildings near transit stops be eliminated, following the lead of other cities like Denver, Philadelphia, L.A., and Brooklyn that have reduced or eliminated mandatory parking quotas.

In addition to making urban parking scarcer and more expensive, thus encouraging alternative forms of transportation, getting rid of parking requirements can save a lot of money, as Jared Green explained in Grist last year:

To grasp the magnitude of the problem, consider that there are 500 million surface parking lots in the U.S. alone. In some cities, parking lots take up one-third of all land area …

All of those parking lots are not only expensive but represent an opportunity lost. The average parking lot cost is $4,000 per space, with a space in an above-grade structure costing $20,000, and a space in an underground garage $30,000-$40,000. To give us some sense of the opportunity lost, [author Elan Ben-Joseph] says 1,713 square miles (the estimated size of all surface parking lots in the U.S. put together) could instead be used for spaces that generate 1 billion kilowatt-hours of solar power. With just 50 percent of that space covered with trees, this space could handle 2 billion cubic meters of stormwater runoff, generate 822,264 tons of oxygen, and remove 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Mandatory parking spaces are costly not just for city governments and developers but for citizens and businesses, too. By driving up the cost of construction, they increase rents, discourage foot traffic that neighborhood businesses depend on, and make traffic worse. And, as this photo essay from Sightline shows, they make cityscapes uglier.

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Extreme heat reveals extreme infrastructure challenges

Last summer, high temperatures caused a “heat kink” in the D.C. metro tracks.
WMATA
Last summer, high temperatures caused a “heat kink” in the D.C. metro tracks.

Having trouble beating the heat this summer? Imagine how your infrastructure feels.

Last summer, we told you about extreme heat leading to buckling roads, melting runways, and kinky railroad tracks. Now we're also hearing about droopy power lines and grounded airplanes.

NPR’s Science Friday hosted a discussion last week with Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, about how cities can adapt to hotter temperatures and other climate impacts like floods and rising sea levels. Here’s Arroyo:

… the thing to keep in mind is that this infrastructure is built for the past conditions in our local area. So, it's not to say that we can't change our infrastructure with climate change in mind, whether it be climate change impacts along the coast, like storm surge or sea level rise, but it's obviously going to take time and it's going to take money.

Arroyo and host Ira Flatow talked about some of the solutions cities are considering or already implementing to make their systems more resilient.

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Nothing to sneeze at: Climate change is making your allergies worse

Get used to it.
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Get used to it.

As if the increased threat of catastrophic weather events weren’t enough, climate change also has to mess with us in ways less apocalyptic but arguably more frustrating on a daily basis. Like by making our allergies way worse.

More CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth and pollen production, and as a result, allergy doctors across the country are reporting increases in patient visits -- new ones who have never before experienced symptoms as well as longtime sufferers getting more miserable each year.

Quest Diagnostics, which tests for allergies, reported a 15 percent increase in ragweed allergies from 2005 to 2009, according to USA Today. Scientists are straightforward about the climate connection:

"The link between rising carbon dioxide and pollen is pretty clear," says Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a top researcher in the field.

His lab tests show that pollen production rises along with carbon dioxide. It doubled from 5 grams to 10 grams per plant when CO2 in the atmosphere rose from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 370 ppm in 2000. He expects it could double again, to 20 grams, by 2075 if carbon emissions continue to climb. The world's CO2 concentration is about 400 ppm.

Not only is pollen more prevalent, but longer growing seasons mean allergens stay around for more of the year. And some scientists see pollen counts doubling much sooner than 2075.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living