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On the ground at the BP Gulf oil spill trial

This week marked the start of the civil trial against BP over its role in the 2010 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 men and caused the worst spill in U.S. history. District judge Carl Barbier warned of a lengthy trial, one that could last up to three months if a deal isn't reached earlier, and if the first three days of the trial are anything to go by, BP is in for a battery of tough questions about its safety record and procedures. As much as $17.5 billion in damages is hinged on the legal question of whether the company was “grossly negligent” in causing the deaths and the subsequent spill. Climate Desk caught up with Dominic Rushe at partner publication, the Guardian, who has been covering the trial as it unfolds.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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After Sandy, scientists hunt for sewage in New York City’s harbors

For most people affected by superstorm Sandy, the damage was plain to see: devastated homes, impossible traffic, even lost lives. But for Bruce Brownawell, the storm’s biggest consequences are buried under several meters of seawater. Brownawell is a marine scientist at SUNY-Stony Brook who has spent the last several years becoming intimately acquainted with the chemical makeup of mud on the floor of various bays, harbors, and inlets in the New York City area.

When Sandy hit, several local scientists saw opportunity: For Bruce, it was a chance to return to these areas and investigate how strong storm tides shifted mud around -- particularly in areas close to several low-lying sewage treatment plants that were knocked out during the storm and dumped raw sewage into the water for days. To do that, he and colleague Jessica Dutton of Adelphi University strapped on mud-proof waders and headed out to Hempstead Bay off the south shore of Long Island. Climate Desk crammed onto the boat for the inside dirt.

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European mammals make like Gerard Depardieu, flee to Russia

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By 2080, Russia might witness a vast mammalian invasion, as sub-arctic European animals flee global warming and adapt to a thawing tundra. New textbooks may need to accommodate never-before-seen communities of species as climate change pits predator against predator beyond the Russian steppe. That’s what a group of Swedish researchers predict in a new climate change study published in the journal, PloS One.

“North Western Russia will be some kind of hotspot of species richness,” said Christer Nilsson, an ecology professor, via Skype from Umeå University in Sweden. “Species will be on the move and there will be new combinations of species.”

Red and fallow deer, wild boar, the Eurasian badger, rabbits, mice, and beavers will all be on the move as new tracts of habitable land open up.

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Top Australian climate scientist: Heat wave ‘encroaching on entirely new territory’

Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Jan. 8.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service
Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Jan. 8.

Australia's top government-appointed climate commissioner says this week's heat wave is occurring amid record-breaking weather around the world. "This has been a landmark event for me," professor Tim Flannery told Climate Desk from his home in Melbourne. "When you start breaking records, and you do it consistently, and you see it over and over again, that is a good indication there's a shift underway -- this is not just within the normal variation of things."

Flannery is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his 2005 book The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change; down under, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and appointed chief climate commissioner in 2011 by the current Labor government, which tasked him with communicating climate science to the Australian public (a government-funded job that may well sound unimaginable to American readers).

Tim Flannery.
University of Western Sydney Comm Arts Students
Tim Flannery.

Flannery says the harsh weather is a sign of things to come: "What we've seen is the bell curve shift to the hot end. The number of very hot days is increasing quite dramatically. But we're also encroaching on entirely new territory."

That new territory involves record-breaking temperatures. The number of consecutive days where the national average maximum temperature topped 102.2 degrees F (39 degrees C) was broken in the last week, almost doubling the previous record set in 1973. There are now new first- and third-place winners for highest temperatures on Australia's books, too. The number of record high temperatures has outstripped the number of record low temperatures at a 3-to-1 ratio over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

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Explained in 90 seconds: What the @#% is climate change doing to El Nino?

Imagine this is your office: a tropical island skirted by coral-packed azure waters, somewhere near the equator between Hawaii and Tahiti. Your job involves a lot of swimming. Tough, huh? “My field research is the best part of my job,” says Kim Cobb, associate professor of climate change at Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s probably the reason I have stuck with corals for the last 15 years.”

Stuck with, and collected and sampled. For the past seven years, Cobb and her lab team have been reconstructing the history of El Niño events across several millenia by taking core samples from corals in the Pacific. That process has uncovered reams of fresh climate data. And it’s within this new, longer baseline of temperatures from the tropical Pacific that Cobb spotted something surprising: “The 20th century is significantly, statistically stronger in its El Niño Southern Oscillation activity than this long, baseline average,” Cobb says. El Niño events have gotten worse.

That led Cobb to wonder: Is human-made climate change, and the level of carbon in the atmosphere, shifting in El Niño events along with it? Or should we chalk it up to coincidence? “We need a lot more data,” Cobb says. But Cobb’s 7,000-year baseline study should push researchers in the right direction to discover more connections between Earth’s complex climate systems, and the role human-made climate change is playing.

Cobb’s results have been published in the latest edition of Science.

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Drought, floods, and one giant storm: The year in climate insanity [VIDEO]

2012, the hottest year on record in the U.S., has been a wild year for Climate Desk. We’ve scoped out coal-guzzling data centers; traipsed across New York City’s solar-paneled rooftops; stepped through the ashes of Colorado’s record-breaking wildfire season; mingled with drought-striken cattle; been awed by the North Dakota fracking boom; cruised down the shrinking Mississippi River; strained to hear through the climate silence; seen communities pick through debris left by Superstorm Sandy, and more.

Along the way, we’ve depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can’t wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued …

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Sandy-battered neighborhood gives thanks for solar [VIDEO]

Since Hurricane Sandy, the historic Belle Harbor Yacht Club in the Rockaways -- one of New York City's hardest-hit neighborhoods -- has become an indispensable hub for supplies, volunteers, and a much-needed round of drinks. Three weeks after the storm, the oft-maligned Long Island Power Authority still hasn't reconnected this building, not to mention its neighbors, back to the grid, leaving locals to face the prospect of a cold, dark Thanksgiving.

But outside, the sun is shining, and three local solar power companies have seen an opportunity to bridge the gap left open by the electric utility. The yacht club, among several area buildings, is now plugged into a portable solar power generator, which frees volunteers from the endless gas lines that plague those dependent on traditional generators and leaves them ready to dish out hot plates of turkey and stuffing to the beleaguered community.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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Oil and gas workers fracked by on-the-job injuries

On a cloudy spring morning, Ethan Ritter sat behind the wheel of a dump truck, lost in the maze of oil rigs northeast of Williston, N.D. Ritter, then 21, was hauling a load of gravel for his brother, who was doing road construction. He made a full stop at the tracks; there were no boom gates, only a crossing sign. His CB radio was off and all was quiet. Ritter looked both ways, then eased on the gas and headed into the crossing.

Next thing he knew, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine was shoving his truck down the track sideways at more than 40 miles an hour. “It was crazier than any roller coaster you can find, I’ll tell you that!” he recalls. “All I know is I got hit by the train. And that I was still kicking.”

In the past four years, the intersection -- the only access point to a handful of oil wells -- has seen four train-truck accidents, one of them fatal. Nationwide, collisions of trains and motor vehicles have dropped by 32 percent since 2006, but in North Dakota they’re up 67 percent.

Fracking relies on trucks. In its lifetime, a single well requires some 1,500 trips by semis, tankers, and pickups -- oil out; water, sand, and chemicals in. This is especially true in places like the Bakken Shale, where pipelines are scarce. On Williston’s crumbling roads, mud-caked semis jostle for space like massive bumper cars. Rush-hour backups can stretch for miles.

Vehicle accidents are the top danger to oil and gas workers, who are killed on the job at a rate nearly eight times the national average, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. As the number of rigs increases, fatalities increase in tandem.

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Ken Burns: Before Sandy, there was the Dust Bowl

As the East Coast licks its wounds from superstorm Sandy, many in New York and New Jersey are still without power, wondering how on Earth it got this bad. Ken Burns, the great innovator of the American documentary, thinks this is the perfect time to seek some wisdom from generations past.

His new film, The Dust Bowl, tells the story of the the worst human-made ecological disaster in U.S. history. For it, Burns and his team tracked down the last remaining survivors of the catastrophic dust storms of the 1930s and matched their intimate stories (most were children at the time) with lush archival footage.

Wikimedia Commons
Buried machinery in a South Dakota barn lot, 1936.

When I caught up with Burns in New York City, he drew comparisons between what happened then and what is happening now -- and how we can prevent future Dust Bowls and Sandys.

The Dust Bowl airs Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS.

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Weary New Jersey residents face another ordeal: Voting [VIDEO]

Hurricane Sandy took away a lot of things: power, homes, even lives. For residents of Moonachie, N.J., a small town just across the Hudson River from New York City, the storm took a stab at their basic right to vote. After severe flooding here, much of the town remains without power, which led local election officials to decide over the weekend to close all the polling places and redirect residents to consolidated locations nearby.

It's the same story all across the state: Some 300 polling places shut down or moved, according to the governor's office, creating a logistical nightmare for election planners and a headache for voters (for what it's worth, Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced plans to allow votes to be emailed or faxed in). And while New Jersey, a solidly blue state, has never seen less than 70 percent turnout for a presidential election, residents here say until the lights come back on, casting a vote is the furthest thing from their minds.