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John Upton's Posts


Indonesia to seed clouds, try to put out huge plantation fires

Record-breaking air pollution caused by peatland fires in Sumatra has Malaysians and Singaporeans locked indoors -- and Indonesia today plans to try an unconventional approach to tackling the flames.

The Indonesians will dump chemicals from aircraft high above smoldering palm plantations in hopes of changing the weather. The goal is to seed clouds and force them to rain their moisture out over the stubborn conflagrations, which were triggered by slash-and-burn forest-clearing by the palm oil industry.

Smoke from Sumatra fires
NASA Goddard
Smoke from fires on Indonesia's Sumatra island is polluting Singapore and Malaysia.

From the Straits Times:

Two Casa 212 aircraft will be flown to the province's capital, Pekanbaru, on Friday morning and a C-130 Hercules Air Force aircraft will also be readied for the effort.

Personnel, equipment and seed material to induce rain over clouds have already been sent to Pekanbaru on Thursday night, the agency in charge added.

Cloud seeding is an unusual approach to firefighting. But, then, this is no ordinary fire. From Agence France-Presse:

About 100 firefighters tackling the blazes were finding them difficult to extinguish as they were smouldering underground in carbon-rich peatland, mostly in oil palm plantations, he said.

“It is extremely difficult to extinguish the fires that are burning under the surface of the peatland,” [Indonesian Forestry Ministry official Raffles Panjaitan] said.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Rampaging pig virus may raise pork prices

Vulnerable little factory-reared piggies.

A stomach virus that kills most of the piglets it infects is tearing across America, reaching farms in at least 13 states just a month after it was first detected here.

The disease threatens to trim back the nation's pork supplies at a time when the price of the meat is already rising following last year's drought.

Scientists say a strain of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV), which shares 99.4 percent of its genes with a strain that recently killed more than 1 million piglets in China, is harmless to humans and other animals. But you wouldn't want to be a baby pig that contracted the disease.

From Reuters:

While the virus has not tended to kill older pigs, mortality among very young pigs infected in U.S. farms is commonly 50 percent, and can be as high [as] 100 percent, say veterinarians and scientists who are studying the outbreak. ...

Read more: Food


Study: Trees save at least a life a year in each of 10 major U.S. cities

Trees in Central Park
Keith Wagner
These trees in Central Park are doing their arboreal best to save the lives of New Yorkers.

Next time you hug a city-dwelling tree, be sure to whisper quiet thanks for the lives it is helping to save.

Researchers recently calculated that urban forests help save one or more people from dying every year in each of 10 major cities studied.

Trees growing in cities help clean the air of fine particulate air pollution -- soot, smoke, dust, dirt -- that can lodge in human lungs and cause health problems. Trees clear 71 tons of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from Atlanta's air annually. And they suck up enough pollution to save seven or eight lives every year in New York City.

These are the findings of researchers with the U.S. Forest Service and Davey Institute, published in the journal Environmental Pollution [PDF]. They calculated the health and economic benefits of air-cleansing urban forests in 10 U.S. cities and found that trees save lives, reduce hospital visits, and reduce the number of days taken off work. They do that mainly by sucking pollutants out of the air. Economic benefits, mostly from reduced mortality, ranged from $1.1 million a year in Syracuse, N.Y., to $60.1 million a year in New York City.

Read more: Cities


China warns it will execute serious polluters

A polluted river in China
Adam Cohn
Whoever polluted this river is in big trouble.

There are carrot and stick approaches to tackling pollution. China is reaching for the stick. The country announced Wednesday that it is willing to impose the harshest possible penalty on polluters. From Reuters:

Chinese authorities have given courts the powers to hand down the death penalty in serious pollution cases, state media said, as the government tries to assuage growing public anger at environmental desecration. ...

A new judicial interpretation which took effect on Wednesday would impose "harsher punishments" and tighten "lax and superficial" enforcement of the country's environmental protection laws, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"In the most serious cases the death penalty could be handed down," it said.


Buzzkill: Huge bee die-off in Oregon parking lot blamed on insecticide spraying

National Pollinator Week began grimly Sunday when tens of thousands of dead bumblebees, honeybees, ladybugs, and other insects were discovered blanketing a shopping plaza's parking lot just off Interstate 5 in Wilsonville, Ore.

Bumblebees were the species hardest hit, with an estimated 25,000 dead and 150 colonies lost outside a Target store. “They were literally falling out of the trees," said Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "To our knowledge this is one of the largest documented bumblebee deaths in the Western U.S. It was heartbreaking to watch.”

It turns out that landscapers had sprayed the lot's 65 European linden trees on Saturday with the insecticide Safari. The insecticide is marketed by manufacturer Valent as "a super-systemic insecticide with quick uptake and knockdown."

Dead bees in Oregon
Rich Hatfield / The Xerces Society
A carpet of dead bumblebees in a Target parking lot.

Xerces sampled the dead bees and concluded that the landscaping company that sprayed the insecticide was to blame. State investigators say they won't be ready to pin the blame on the landscapers until they have investigated other pesticide applications in the area. From Oregon Public Broadcasting:

"[The landscaping company] made a huge mistake, but unfortunately this is not that uncommon," said [Xerces Executive Director Scott Hoffman] Black. "Evidently they didn't follow the label instructions. This should not have been applied to the trees while they're in bloom."


Seattle adopts plan for going carbon neutral — but will pot growers get in the way?

Seattle's climate ambitions are thiiiis big.
Shutterstock / Holyhikaru
Seattle's climate ambitions are thiiiis big.

Seattle has set itself an 86-page to-do list to help it reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The city council on Monday voted unanimously to adopt the 2013 Seattle Climate Action Plan [PDF], which outlines a detailed process designed to achieve the heady goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in less than 40 years.

The council originally set its carbon-neutrality goal in 2011. Following work by consultants and staff, the city now has a plan laying out how that goal can be turned into reality. Next comes the hard part: actually doing all the climate-friendly stuff.

"While I'm pleased that Council adopted the Plan, we know the real work is just beginning," said Jill Simmons, director of the city's Office of Sustainability & Environment.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Coal foes suffer setback in fight against exports

Coal dust for everybody!
Kurt Haubrich
Coal dust for everybody!

Bad news for climate hawks, coal haters, and Northwesterners who don't like breathing coal dust: The Army Corps of Engineers says it won't consider climate change or other big-picture issues when it reviews the environmental impacts of proposed coal export terminals.

Plans are afoot to build or expand coal export facilities at three ports in the Pacific Northwest. The governors of Oregon and Washington, other elected leaders in the states, and enviros have all been calling for the Army Corps to do a comprehensive study considering the wide-ranging, cumulative impacts of a big coal export push through the region -- including coal dust, diesel exhaust, railroad and port congestion, road traffic, water pollution, and, yes, climate change.

But this week, the Army Corps said no. From the Associated Press:


Dead zone could break records in Gulf this year

Dead zone
The possible dead zone is shown in red.

Get ready for a swath of marine sterility the likes of which Gulf fishermen have never seen.

NOAA warned Tuesday that a dead zone the size of New Jersey could break records this summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy rainfalls are washing a stew of pollutants and nutrients into the Gulf, feeding outbreaks of algae that will rob the waters of oxygen as they die and decompose. In these oxygen-deprived waters, marine life either flee or die.

The Gulf dead zone is caused every summer by fertilizer and animal waste running off from farms, including those along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Sewage and other sources of nutrient-loaded pollution, such as lawn fertilizers, also play a role. From a NOAA press release:

Read more: Food


China begins carbon trading

Made in China

The latest knockoff to be produced in China is the carbon credit.

On Tuesday, the nation's first carbon-trading program was launched in Shenzhen. Under the small pilot project, 635 companies responsible for 38 percent of the city's carbon pollution began trading emission allowances. The program is scheduled to be expanded to six other areas by next year and then to the whole country before 2020. It will help China meet a national carbon cap that's expected to be imposed by 2016.

China's carbon-trading plans are modeled on similar programs underway in Europe, Australia, California, New England, and other large economies. In fact, carbon trading seems to be catching on with governments everywhere -- except the United States.

Though the Chinese program is starting off small, it's expected to have big ramifications. From Reuters:


Chinese science academy slaps down climate-denying Heartland Institute

Heartland Institute
Translated, yes. Endorsed, no.

Well, that was embarrassing.

The Heartland Institute -- the right-wing group best known for its Unabomber billboard -- recently boasted on a blog about successfully spreading its message of climate denial to the Chinese:

The trend toward skepticism and away from alarmism is now unmistakable ...

Publication of a Chinese translation of Climate Change Reconsidered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates the country's leaders believe their [failure to sign a global climate treaty] is justified by science and not just economics.

But really all that happened was that one of Heartland's climate-denial reports, "Climate Change Reconsidered," was translated into Chinese [PDF].

And translation does not mean endorsement. Even the translators' preface says the work was undertaken “to understand different opinions and positions in debates on climate change" and "does not reflect that [those involved in the translation] agree with the views" in the report.