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Philip Bump's Posts

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The pool of water under the Midwest is being sucked dry. The drought is making it worse

Even in good years, farmers in the Midwest supplement rainfall with irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer. The map below shows irrigated areas in blue; the darker the color, the heavier the irrigation. That big, dark patch in the middle, to the left of the little icon, is irrigated by both surface water and water from the Ogallala and other aquifers in the High Plains system.

Image courtesy of ESRI.

The Ogallala spreads across 174,000 square miles, providing drinking water and irrigation to a huge swath of the United States, replenished slowly by rainfall in the region. It's a critically important resource, which is why it's been a big part of the Keystone XL fight -- if it's polluted by tar-sands oil, the damage could be catastrophic.

The Ogallala and other aquifers around the globe are also threatened by overuse. According to research published this week in Nature, "about 1.7 billion people live in areas where groundwater resources and/or groundwater-dependent ecosystems are under threat." Researchers estimate that the amount of water being used is 3.5 times the size of the aquifers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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West Nile virus outbreak causes Dallas to declare emergency

Texas' county of Dallas (home to the city of the same name) yesterday declared a state of emergency because of the West Nile virus. Nine people have died of the virus [PDF] so far this year.

Having grown up in the Snow Belt, I recognize that my attitude toward winter is more hospitable than most. But regardless of your hostility to the season, there is an unquestionable benefit to cold weather: mosquitoes vanish. They don't all die, unfortunately, but those that live are in hibernation, nestled into nooks in the slightly warmer earth.

Which is why climate change means that we'll see more mosquite-borne diseases. With warmer winters (like the one the Northeast just saw), mosquitoes will remain more active, longer. And warmth also improves transmission:

Read more: Uncategorized

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Harry Reid slugs fossil fuels in the face

Apparently, Harry Reid no longer gives a fuck. At least, as much as an older, tie-wearing elected official can be said to not give a fuck.

Not that he's ever been a demure, quiet guy, but the senior senator from Nevada, the leading Democrat in the Senate, has been on a media tear of late. This is due largely to his willingness to accuse Mitt Romney of not having paid taxes for 10 years, knowledge he claims to have gotten from that classic shit-stirrer, Some Guy.

This is an actual photo of Harry Reid in the boxing ring. As far as I know, it was taken this morning.

But it goes further than that. Closer to home, Reid is also coming out swinging on green issues, as befits a former amateur boxer. During an annual clean energy summit he hosts, he called out climate change deniers. WHAM.

These people aren't just on the other side of this debate. They're on the other side of reality. It's time for us all -- whether we're leaders in Washington, members of the media, scientists, academics, environmentalists or utility industry executives -- to stop acting like those who ignore the crisis or deny it exists entirely have a valid point of view. They don't.

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Court to FDA: 35 years is too long to procrastinate on curbing antibiotics in meat

The easiest way to deal with a problem, as any little kid can tell you, is to ignore it. Wish it away. Mature? No. Effective? Temporarily.

The Food and Drug Association has a problem. It knows it has to set rules for the use of antibiotics in meat production, but it doesn't wanna. Like a petulant teen, kicking at stones and moaning under its breath, the FDA is dragging its feet.

An antibiotic junkie.

But a federal court in New York put its foot down yesterday, insisting once and for all that the FDA had to do its chores. ("Fine. I didn't want to be a federal agency anyway. See if I care.") The FDA now has roughly five years to get the job done, and it can't delay just because an appeal is pending.

Read more: Food

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Normal-looking trees might be actually be stuffed with methane

Next time you're walking through a forest, enjoying the calm, natural splendor of your surroundings, you should probably know this: The tree right next to you could explode at any moment.

Think I'm kidding? I'm not, just exaggerating. As proof: here's a fire, burning on the methane contained in a diseased -- but still living -- tree.

A flame fueled by methane shoots out of an oak tree being cored at Yale Myers Forest. (Photo courtesy of Yale University.)

Researchers from Yale describe what they found:

Sixty trees sampled at Yale Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut contained concentrations of methane that were as high as 80,000 times ambient levels. Normal air concentrations are less than 2 parts per million, but the Yale researchers found average levels of 15,000 parts per million inside trees. …

The estimated emission rate from an upland site at the Yale forest is roughly equivalent to burning 40 gallons of gasoline per hectare of forest per year. ...

“If we extrapolate these findings to forests globally, the methane produced in trees represents 10 percent of global emissions,” said Xuhui Lee, a co-author of the study and the Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of Meteorology at Yale. “We didn’t know this pathway existed.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Great news: The world is on the brink of a massive boom in oil production

Forget America’s fiscal cliff, Europe’s currency troubles or the emerging-markets slowdown. The most important story in the global economy today may well be some good news that isn’t yet making as many headlines -- the coming surge in oil production around the world.

Um, the what?

Oil boom.

Thanks in part to technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking, we are entering a new age of abundant oil. As the energy expert Leonardo Maugeri contends in a recent report published by the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, “contrary to what most people believe, oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption.”

What a nice way to celebrate the day after the hottest July in U.S. history!

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Global food prices spike as stockpiles fall — and rain doesn’t

Remember when we were suggesting that the drought would drive up food prices?

The drought is driving up food prices.

In July, food prices jumped 6%, after three months of declines, according to the United Nations' monthly Food Price Index released Thursday. The main drivers behind the increase? Grain prices. And more specifically, corn prices, which have hit record highs in recent weeks.

According to the U.N. report, global corn prices surged nearly 23% in July, exacerbated by "the severe deterioration of maize crop prospects in the United States, following drought conditions and excessive heat during critical stages of the crop development." …

Food prices have been creeping up throughout the United States, as hot temperatures across the Midwestern and Western parts of the nation have dried out crops and driven up the price of corn and grain.

The U.N. index of cereal prices soared 17% last month, creeping closer to its all-time high set in April 2008.

Increased prices and reduced supply also mean that global crop stockpiles will continue a three-year decline -- driven in part by increasing demand for meat, which is eroding grain supplies faster than usual.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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U.S. curbs nuke plants till it figures out how to clean up after them

The really great thing about nuclear power is that, once you've created it, you have a highly toxic waste product that is extremely difficult to get rid of. It's like having a dog but no plastic bags and no garbage bins and you live with it in a closet.

The Great Dane of energy creation. (Photo by Jeremy Farmer.)

While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) feels like its nuclear-poop-removal system is totally adequate for the job, a federal court disagreed, suggesting that the NRC didn't explain what would happen if it was wrong. Therefore:

The U.S. government said it will stop issuing permits for new nuclear power plants and license extensions for existing facilities until it resolves issues around storing radioactive waste. ...

"We are now considering all available options for resolving the waste issue," the five-member NRC said in a ruling earlier this week. "But, in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue [reactor] licenses until the court's remand is appropriately addressed."

Read more: Uncategorized

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As Obama runs toward the coal industry, it keeps running away

Here's a radio ad the Obama campaign ran recently in Ohio.

The ad is a quick ride down a rocky slope: a declaration of the president's commitment to "clean coal," a celebration of fracking, and one final ding on Romney for a (rational, politically smart) 2003 attack on coal. Vote Obama, Ohio. He loves coal.

Green versus coal. But which is Obama?

Three months from election day, we're witnessing another example of the 2012 presidential election's descent into Bizarro world. A Democratic president attacks his Republican opponent for being hostile to fossil fuel production days after the end of the hottest month in American history? How is this an accurate reflection of policy priorities?

The answer is: It isn't. Politics and policy are distinct. Candidates run on politics, govern on policy, and spend most of a political campaign trying to blend the two. The Obama ad above is trying to do exactly that: turn his policy moves (like allowing natural gas extraction) into a political asset in a state desperate for jobs.

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Meet Keystone XL’s worst enemy: The burying beetle

The Keystone XL pipeline could ultimately be stopped not by activists, not by lobbyists, not by politicians on Capitol Hill -- but by a beetle.

A Keystone protester. (Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Listed as an endangered species since 1989, American burying beetles survive now only in a few states, including Rhode Island, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Nebraska—in the Sandhills, right where TransCanada planned to route the tar-sands-oil–bearing Keystone XL pipeline.

These beetles, the type of endangered species few people would cry over, have earned the attention both of TransCanada and of environmental groups dedicated to protecting endangered species and interested as well in stopping the pipeline’s construction.

If you had to develop a scenario most likely to cause aneurysms among conservatives, it's hard to top "stopping a fossil-fuel pipeline because of an endangered beetle."

Read more: Politics