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Jim Meyer's Posts


How to make gasoline from tar sands, in six simple steps

fotohunter / Shutterstock

Ever wonder about the future of energy? Will it be wind? Solar? Geothermal? No wait, I got it, tar sands! (Let’s try that again -- tar sands!) They've got everything oil does, but they’re harder to get, crappier when you get them, and leave a much bigger mark on the climate. Sounds like a winner. Let's look a little closer, shall we?

First off, what are tar sands? Tar sands are deposits of about 90 percent sand or sandstone, water, and clay mixed with only about 10 percent high-sulfur bitumen, a viscous black petroleum sludge rich in hydrocarbons, also known as “natural asphalt.”

The Athabasca reserves, in Alberta, Canada, estimated to hold about 170 billion barrels, are the site of the only commercial tar-sands operation in the world. (Though, spoiler alert, that’s about to change.) It’s one of the largest industrial programs on the planet and could eventually cover an area larger than the state of Florida -- and it’s sprouting an enormous oily ganglion known as the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if completed, would pump 1.1 million barrels of bitumen sludge a day, crisscrossing much of the continent’s freshwater supply, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Sound like a complicated way to create oil, gasoline, and diesel? Naw. Ain’t no thing. Just follow these simple instructions:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Geoengineering: A mad scientist’s guide to fixing the planet

Illustration by Val B. Mina
Val B. Mina

Every morning, I wake up and dump three cups of Quaker brand instant oatmeal into my fish tank. It’s a lifestyle I’m comfortable with, but it turns out oatmeal does terrible things to water clarity and African cichlids positively hate it.

Now a sane person might decide, “You know, maybe I should stop dumping all this oatmeal into my fish tank.” But I am not a sane person. I am a geoengineer, and I can think of far better solutions.

So I’ve built a pump and a series of injectors to fire delicious cinnamon into my fish tank in the hopes that it will bond with the oatmeal molecules and make the whole concoction more appealing to ferrets. I’ve also purchased a skindiving ferret who I’ll introduce to the aquarium ecosystem. I’ve run the numbers on my Commodore VIC 20, and the models all point to a healthy, happy, largely oatmeal-free fish tank in under a fortnight!

I’ve solved everything. Geoengineering, HUZZAH!!!

Geoengineering, for the uninitiated, is “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.” (This, directly from the Royal Society). Thus far, it breaks down into two main categories, solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. It’s all highly sciumtifical, so let me explain.


Bad acid trip: A beach bum’s guide to ocean acidification

You've heard the term "ocean acidification," and I know what you've been thinking: "It can't be as bad as they say. I remember the ’90s. I made it to a few Phish shows. I've seen what goes on in the parking lots, and there's nothing wrong with a little 'acidification.' So the Ocean drops out of Brown for a semester and stares at its belly button. The Ocean's belly button has the Great Barrier Reef in it. The Ocean will enjoy that."

But there is a lot more at stake than the Ocean dropping out of school to make burritos and follow a jam band. Ocean acidification is known as "climate change's evil twin," and considering what a swell fella climate change is, this should give you an idea of just how dangerous ocean acidification may be.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Brave driver confronts Portland’s rabid cyclists

Photo by Shutterstock.

At last, someone is doing something about the horrifyingly dangerous traffic situation in this country! That’s right, there is finally a movement to make it more difficult to ride your bike on city streets.

I know, I know, Grist Reader, you have been clamoring for it for years. Sure, most of the nation’s multi-trillion-dollar freeway system already bans bicycles, and the vast expanse of the American landscape remains pleasantly bike-lane free, but still, U.S. roads are way too bike friendly, and more can be done to keep these pedal-powered menaces off the road.

Witness Portland, Ore.: A series of collisions between cyclists and cars has prompted the city to close a turn-lane section of N. Wheeler Ave. The resulting detour is estimated to add between 30 and 45 seconds to commuters’ daily trips. That’s as much as 15 minutes a month -- and it’s 14 minutes and 59 seconds too much for businessman and do-good(ish)er Bob Huckaby.

Huckaby has proposed a statewide ballot measure that would surely clear up the problem on N. Wheeler and many other streets as well: He wants to require all Oregon bicyclists to have a license, and to register their bicycles and outfit them with license plates.

Read more: Cities


Date with disaster: Adventurers sail through wave of tsunami debris

Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen

The Pacific Ocean is a pretty darned big place. The hull of the 72-foot former racing yacht Sea Dragon, not so much, especially when crammed full of research equipment and 14 full-sized human-type people not necessarily accustomed to the rigors of the open ocean. But that’s just what the intrepid team of oceanic avengers from the 5 Gyres Institute are up against as they race across the Pacific on a collision course with the great field of debris washed away from Japan by last year’s devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Imagine cramming into an RV and driving from Nome, Alaska, to Tierra Del Fuego with the cast of Road Rules Season 9. (That would be the Maximum Velocity Tour, but I’m sure you knew that, gentle reader.) Now try to imagine that the I-5 is heaving 30 to 40 feet into the air, is full of sharks, and generally wants you dead. Add to that, Theo won’t stop spraying you with the super soaker he brought for some reason, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the potential horror involved here.

Scientist, adventurer, and Gulf War veteran Marcus Eriksen previously floated the length of the Mississippi on a raft made of plastic bottles and sailed from California to Hawaii on a boat made of trash to raise awareness of the pollution problem facing us all. What he saw changed his life. “I couldn’t believe how much waste was littering our coastlines,” he says.

Read more: Pollution


Scientists to world leaders: You broke it, you own it

Happy Earth Day, 2012! Many of you have probably glanced at the Mayan Calendar and, upon seeing no 2013, assumed the end is nigh, and this is the last Earth Day. (Why else would John Cussack have agreed to this?) Of course others believe the Mayan calendar ending was a way for Mayans to ensure future calendar sales (I plan to buy one with a kitten) and so we will still need to make preparations for future Earth Days. Staunchly in the latter camp are the organizers of the Planet Under Pressure Conference, a convening of roughly 3,000 scientists from around the world whose State of the Planet Declaration [PDF] promises “new knowledge towards solutions.”

The conference met last month and was organized by The Global Environmental Change Programmes with the International Council for Science. Their goal was to provide some scientific underpinnings for the coming Earth Summit in Rio, to be attended by more than 100 world leaders, but maybe not our own. And while perusing their materials surely begs the question, “What can we learn from people who spell ‘Program’ with an extra ‘M’ and an ‘E’?” it turns out that the funny spelling means some of these people -- like Sir John Beddington, the U.K.’s chief scientific advisor, and Phil Bloomer, director of campaigns and policy for Oxfam -- are British, have corresponding accents, and are therefor very smart, so we should listen. (The conference, in fact, was in London.)


Get the lead out: Clean air tied to decline in violent crime

Leaded gasoline: The gift that kept on givingDon't believe the evening news: Violent crime and murder have been declining steadily for two decades in this country. Last year was statistically the safest year in almost four decades for Americans who weren't Corey Haim, Ronnie James Dio, or Captain Beefheart, and everyone's got a theory as to why. Some claim the decline of crack cocaine is the answer, or credit the rise of cell phones, while others point to improved policing techniques and the use of statistical crime modeling. I personally like the theory that the "three strikes and you're out" …