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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.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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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 …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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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.

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Breezy Point, Queens, reels from hurricane-caused inferno [VIDEO]

"I think we all can agree we're seeing complete and utter devastation," Brendan Gallagher says, standing in front of the charred remains of his childhood home.

Just a short drive from New York City's famous Rockaway beaches, Breezy Point, Queens, is a quaint seaside hamlet where many cops and firefighters come to retire. It's a place known for charming historic bungalows and sweeping ocean views, but on Monday night, it quickly became the setting for some of Hurricane Sandy's most terrifying damage.

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What’s inside your iPhone 5? [VIDEO]

The iPhone has become one of the developed world’s most ubiquitous consumer products; the new iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first week. But the vast majority of iPhone users have no clue what goes into the guts of their coveted toy. That’s no accident, since the phone’s internal design and chemical content are closely guarded trade secrets and Apple deliberately makes it difficult for consumers to open up the device.

Enter Kyle Wiens, whose company, iFixit, aims to help users penetrate their gadgets’ dark secrets, from how much toxic mercury they contain to how to change the damn battery. Last week, Climate Desk found shelter from a torrential rainstorm near one of New York City’s Apple stores and watched Wiens go to work (see video above). Today, iFixit released the results of its chemical analysis of the iPhone 5 and a suite of other popular cellphones, conducted by the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center.

First the good news: The iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of its more toxic predecessors -- especially the 2G.

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Jill Stein wants to #Occupy the White House

Here's one thing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have in common: They don't have to battle for attention with a squad of dancing jellyfish puppets. Jill Stein did, and won. The Green Party presidential candidate spent yesterday morning in Manhattan's Financial District with the environmental contingent of Occupy Wall Street, dodging cops, patiently waiting out street theater performances, and shouting hoarsely into the People's Mic.

"Wall Street has put our climate in crisis," Stein yelled, to an ample wiggling of spirit fingers. "It's up to us to lead the way on the economy and the climate."

Occupy Wall Street has long eschewed party politics, which makes the appearance of this long-shot presidential contender slightly discordant. But to see Stein, for whom environmental issues are a campaign centerpiece, marks an apex in what Occupy's environmental organizers call a yearlong struggle to bring climate change to the forefront of the movement.

Stein, 62, is a Harvard-educated physician who first entered politics 10 years ago as a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for Massachusetts governor, after years of public health activism. Despite her greatest electoral success being a seat on the Lexington, Mass., Town Meeting in 2005 and 2008, Stein will go head to head with Obama and Romney in at least 38 states this November, making her a contender for the votes of environmentally conscious Occupiers nationwide who are dissatisfied with both mainstream parties' mollifying of the fossil fuel industry.

Stein isn't naïve about her chances for the White House. But she's running anyway, because in her mind both parties are tarred by the same brush.

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Photos: See ya later, lovely glaciers

This summer could be dubbed The Great Melt. The belt of ice surrounding the Arctic has melted to its lowest level in history, a record seen by many scientists as evidence of long-term climate change. Adding to environmentalists’ fears, Royal Dutch Shell sunk its first drill bit into the Arctic seabed, taking the first steps in American offshore oil exploration in these frigid waters.

A new book by photographer James Balog, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, captures in vivid color just what’s at stake as climate change erodes ice in some of the world’s most extreme places. Balog shared six of his favorites with Climate Desk:

Aerial view, meltwater on Greenland ice sheet. Click to embiggen. (Photo by © James Balog.)

James Balog has spent the last 30 years donning crampons, paddling canoes, and hopping into dog sleds and helicopters to capture the world’s ice on film. He’s been everywhere from Bolivia and Nepal to Alaska and Montana to France and Switzerland, in an ongoing project that he says is “about getting in close to ice and experiencing all its colors and textures and shapes.”

This summer’s record melt in the Arctic, Balog told Climate Desk as he was en route to a glacier shoot in Iceland, is a reminder that “ice is the canary in the coal mine; you can touch and see and hear climate change.”

Read more: Climate & Energy