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John Upton's Posts


Obama admin to lease New England waters for offshore wind

offshore wind energy

Wind turbines, long a feature of the American landscape, are slowing advancing toward the American seascape.

The Interior Department announced Tuesday that it will auction off wind energy rights to 164,750 acres of federal waters off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts at the end of July -- the first such offshore lease sale. If the leased waters are all fully developed with wind energy farms, they could produce as much as 3,400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than a million homes.

Wind turbines can kill birds, and construction of turbines in the water can harm marine life, but a federal environmental review found that wind farms in the area up for lease would have no significant environmental impacts.


National weather forecasters won’t be furloughed after all

Without meteorologists, who would make maps like this?
Without meteorologists, who would make maps like this?

A swarm of tornadoes that killed three professional storm chasersone amateur storm chaser, and nine other people in Oklahoma on Friday night convinced NOAA to make sure its meteorologists and other staff members stay on the job. That, and some pressure from Congress.

NOAA Acting Administrator Kathryn Sullivan sent an email to all of her staff as midnight approached on Friday, telling them that the agency was canceling its furlough plans for employees, including those at the National Weather Service.

The furloughs had been intended to help the agency deal with the mind-numbing sequester cuts that are being imposed on all federal agencies. But the furlough plans had been sharply criticized by members of Congress, including Republicans, who feared that forcing the agency's weather forecasters to stay at home on certain days could cost American lives.


China’s plastic-bag ban turns five years old


What do you give a plastic-bag ban for its fifth birthday?

In the case of China, which over the weekend celebrated five years of restrictions on plastic shopping bags, officials are showering their ban with accolades and crediting it with keeping tens of billions of bags out of landfills and the environment.

The rules, which took effect on June 1, 2008, ban the manufacture or use of the thinnest types of plastic bags. They also prohibit supermarkets, department stores, and grocery stores from giving away thicker varieties, requiring them to charge customers for the bags.


Warming oceans are killing baby puffins

Atlantic puffin

Atlantic puffins -- sometimes called the clowns of the sea because of their squat bodies and odd waddles -- are finding themselves in a particularly unfunny predicament.

Scientists think warming ocean temperatures are driving the puffins' normal meals of herring away from the coastlines; they're being replaced with other fish that are too large for puffin fledglings to swallow.

We told you in May that record-breaking Atlantic coastal water temperatures were driving some fish away. And on Friday we quoted Oceana scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck warning that the warming of the oceans is “causing significant changes to marine ecosystems."

Well, what could be a more dramatic poster child for these impacts than the vision of adorable pufflings starving to death? From the Associated Press:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Vegetarians live longer, researchers find

Instead of bacon, try these. You'll live longer.
Instead of bacon, try these. You'll live longer.

If you want to live longer, you could dabble in cryonics, hire Dick Cheney's medical team, or, more realistically, pass on the meat and live the life of a vegetarian.

A recent study concluded that vegetarians were less likely to die from heart disease, diabetes, or kidney failure than were those who ate meat.

Researchers tracked more than 70,000 American members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which promotes clean living and vegetarianism, though not all followers shun meat. The scientists noted the subjects' diets and recorded the causes of 2,570 deaths during the six-year study.

Overall, the vegetarians were 12 percent less likely to die during the study. The results were published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Read more: Food, Living


Monsanto is currently testing GMO wheat in two states

Monsanto protest GMO wheat
John Novotny

Last week, when the USDA announced that an unauthorized strain of GMO wheat was recently discovered on an Oregon farm, it was widely reported (by us, among others) that Monsanto had stopped field-testing its genetically modified wheat in 2005.

Now Bloomberg reports that the biotech giant actually resumed field tests of GMO wheat in 2011:

The world’s largest seed company planted 150 acres of wheat in Hawaii last year that was genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate weedkiller, which the company sells under the brand name Roundup, according to a Virginia Tech database administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another 300 acres of wheat engineered with Roundup tolerance and other traits are being tested in North Dakota this year.

Were these recent field trials linked to the outbreak of unwanted GMO wheat in Oregon? We don’t know that yet. Monsanto, which you may or may not choose to trust, told Bloomberg in an email that the Roundup Ready wheat in the new trials is “an entirely different event” than the escaped crop discovered in Oregon.


Famous storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado

Tim Samaras
Penn State
Tim Samaras.

Three researchers including a father and son who starred on the TV reality show Storm Chasers died doing what they loved on Friday night: venturing treacherously close to killer tornadoes to help the rest of us understand how they work.

Tim Samaras, founder of the tornado research company Twistex, and his son Paul Samaras were killed after a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on Friday. Their partner, Carl Young, also died.

"They all unfortunately passed away doing what they LOVED," wrote Tim Samaras's brother, Jim, in a post on Facebook. "I look at it that he is in the 'big tornado' in the sky."

"As far as we know, these are the first documented storm intercept fatalities in a tornado," NOAA said in a statement. "Scientific storm intercept programs, though they occur with some known measure of risk, provide valuable research information that is difficult to acquire in other ways."

The tornado researchers were among 13 people killed when five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma on Friday night. Three more people drowned in floods triggered by the storms.

Read more: Climate & Energy


California, Illinois lawmakers welcome frackers

Lawmakers rolled out red carpets for frackers last week in California and Illinois.

red carpet

California's Assembly rejected, by a 37-24 vote, AB 1323, which would have imposed a moratorium on fracking until state regulators issue environmental and safety guidelines. Apparently the rush to cash in on oil and gas deposits just cannot wait for such trivial matters. "Let's unleash this magnificent potential for jobs," Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R) said, according to the AP.

A separate bill requiring scientific studies, water testing, and public notification of chemicals used by frackers -- but imposing no moratorium -- passed California's Senate and will now move on to the Assembly for a vote.

Fracking for gas and oil is well underway beneath private land in California, though there are no requirements for energy companies to tell anybody what they're up to, meaning it's difficult to know how widespread the practice is. (Fracking for oil on federal lands in the state, meanwhile, is on hold pending an environmental review ordered by a federal judge.)


British Columbia opposes big tar-sands pipeline

A rally held to oppose the proposed Northern Gateway in Prince Rupert, B.C.
Pipe Up Against Enbridge
Protesters in B.C. rally against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project.

The Canadian province of British Columbia has come out in formal opposition to a plan for a massive pipeline system that would carry bitumen from Alberta's tar-sands fields to a coastal port, pointing out the significant dangers of oil spills.

But we're not talking about the Keystone XL pipeline here.

We're talking about Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, a pair of pipelines proposed to carry tar-sands oil west across B.C. to a port in the town of Kitimat -- effectively a backup system in case America rejects Keystone XL. A new shipping terminal in Kitimat would feed oil onto ships headed for Asia.


Study: Climate change a death knell for most Californian fish

Lead researcher Peter Moyle studying native fish in the Sierra Nevada.
Jacob Katz, UC Davis
Lead researcher Peter Moyle studying native fish in the Sierra Nevada.

Cold-water-loving fish will find California's rivers and streams to be increasingly inhospitable -- and deadly.

A study published in the online journal PLOS ONE finds that rising water temperatures may drive many of the state's native species extinct, while helping invasive fish flourish. From the study:

Most native fishes will suffer population declines and become more restricted in their distributions; some will likely be driven to extinction. Fishes requiring cold water [less than 72 degrees] are particularly likely to go extinct. In contrast, most alien fishes will thrive, with some species increasing in abundance and range.

Read more: Climate & Energy