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For climate scientists, shutdown casts long shadow

Antarctic researcher Gretchen Hoffman, left, says consequences of the shutdown "could completely scuttle some projects."
Gretchen Hofmann
Antarctic researcher Gretchen Hoffman, left, says consequences of the shutdown "could completely scuttle some projects."

The government shutdown might be over, but for some climate scientists the headache is just beginning. During the shutdown, National Science Foundation-funded research facilities in Antarctica -- where some of the world's most important climate research takes place -- were left with a skeleton staff at just the time of year they would normally be coming back to life after a long, dark winter.

On its first day back online, NSF released a statement saying it would salvage the research season "to the maximum extent possible," without giving a definite timeline. NSF warned that "certain research and operations activities may be deferred until next year's austral research season." For scientists studying everything from ocean acidification to earthquakes to seal pups, the 16 days of the shutdown were 16 missed opportunities to collect irreplaceable data.

One of those scientists was Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who published a column Friday in Nature about her frustration with the shutdown and its long-term impacts on basic research. As Hofmann and her peers stand by for word from NSF, we spoke to her about how some of the worst pain from the last two weeks could be felt by the next generation of up-and-coming scientists.

Q. What have the last couple weeks been like for you?

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Watch: Drought-hardy barley could save your beer

Raise a glass to these German scientists, who are working out a way to protect a key beer ingredient from climate change. As Oktoberfest rages on, geneticist Nils Stein is deciphering the genome of barley, looking for genes that could help the plant survive through droughts. The study's implications go beyond these beer tents. Barley is the fourth most-produced cereal in the world; a recent drought in Russia that hurt barley production led to a global price spike. And a drought that devastated Syria's barley crop contributed to that country's civil war. Join Climate Desk on a trip from some of the world's most advanced greenhouses to the rowdy crowds of Munich.

Produced in part by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Video: Fly along with NASA’s cloud hunters

One of the biggest question marks hanging over climate studies right now is about the role of clouds and the aerosols, tiny airborne particles, that shape them. The problem is clouds move fast, making them hard to model, and depending on their concentration at different altitudes, clouds can cool or heat the planet. Scientists agree that before they can build the best models to predict climate change, they first have to understand clouds.

This summer, NASA has been working to crack this problem, at 30,000 feet, aboard a custom-equipped flying laboratory. Climate Desk was invited on board for an eight-hour mission to suck the secrets out of clouds.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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7 adorable animals imperiled by the Keystone XL pipeline

In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And Monday, ThinkProgress uncovered a letter [PDF] from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc on plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route.

The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment [PDF] that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."

"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance, Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure ... impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."

Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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2012: A year of broken climate records

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2012 was the eighth or ninth warmest year on record, depending on which data set you look at, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual State of the Climate report, released Tuesday. That is just one of many extreme statistics identified in the survey, which pulls together the most recent information from hundreds of researchers worldwide on everything from temperature to sea level to Arctic ice. Taken together, the report's authors say, the data paint an unmistakable picture of a warming planet.

"In 2012, certainly not every variable we looked at broke a record," Thomas Karl, the director of NOAA's climate data center, said. "I think what we've learned is one has to take a broad look at the climate system."

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Global warming could cause 50 percent increase in violent conflict

View of plane bombing in Serekaniye, March 22, 2013.
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Aftermath of a plane bombing in Serekaniye, Syria.

This week, the exiled head of the Syrian opposition movement said he would meet representatives of President Bashar al-Assad in Geneva, a promising turn for a conflict that has left 100,000 dead, including many civilians, since spring 2011. It has been a long, bitter battle, but for many Syrians one root of the violence stretches back to several years before al-Assad's troops began picking off anti-government protesters. Beginning in 2006, a prolonged, severe drought decimated farmland, spiked food prices, and forced millions of Syrians into poverty -- helping to spark the unrest that eventually exploded into civil war.

The Syrian conflict is just one recent example of the connection between climate and conflict, a field that is increasingly piquing the interest of criminologists, economists, historians, and political scientists. Studies have begun to crop up in leading journals examining this connection in everything from the collapse of the Mayan civilization to modern police training in the Netherlands. A survey published today in Science takes a first-ever 30,000-foot view of this research, looking for trends that tie these examples together through fresh analysis of raw data from 60 quantitative studies. It offers evidence that unusually high temperatures could lead to tens of thousands more cases of "interpersonal" violence -- murder, rape, assault, etc. -- and more than a 50 percent increase in "intergroup" violence, i.e. war, in some places.

"This is what keeps me awake at night," lead author Solomon Hsiang, an environmental policy post-doc at Princeton, said. "The linkage between human conflict and climate changes was really pervasive."

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Could greenhouse gases turn Earth into Venus?

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J.Gabás Esteban

How will the world end? A giant meteor? Zombie apocalypse? Death Star target practice!? One scientist thinks our planet's death knell is going to be climate change, on an epic, terrifying scale ... but, fortunately, not the kind we need to worry about.

The "runaway greenhouse" — which is thought to have happened on Venus in the past -- is basically a climate change worst-case scenario: We reach a critical point where the atmosphere is so thick with greenhouse gases that no sunlight can escape back into space, the planet heats uncontrollably, the oceans evaporate completely, and things get, well, pretty uncomfortable, to put it mildly.

"Everything is really quite dead at that point," Colin Goldblatt, a planetary scientist at Canada's University of Victoria, says in a chipper English accent. Goldblatt has been working to understand whether a runaway greenhouse could ever happen on Earth. Scientists have long believed that even with extreme greenhouse gas concentrations, our sun simply doesn't heat the planet enough to trigger this effect. But using a series of custom computer programs that model incoming sunlight, greenhouse gas concentration, radiation absorbed by water vapor, and a host of other physical factors, Goldblatt has revised that threshold down, and in a paper published Sunday in Nature Geoscience says that a runaway greenhouse could kick off with the amount of sunlight we get today.

"What we're seeing now is that if you pump the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, you could make the planet so hot it would never be habitable again," he says. Taken to its conclusion, he explains, the runaway greenhouse would produce a new atmosphere with global temperatures around 2,420 degrees F, which would make even the Northeast heat wave of the last couple weeks feel like a vacation into a meat freezer.

So is it time to forget about rising sea levels and start to look for a new planet to inhabit before ours boils into the next Venus? Not quite.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Claws and effect: Climate change turns lobsters into cannibals

Noah Oppenheim's plan was simple: Rig a young lobster underneath a waterproof, infrared camera; drop the contraption overboard off the coast of Maine; and see who comes along for a bite to eat. The takers, he expected, would be fish: Cod, herring, and other "groundfish" found in these waters that are known to love a good lobster dinner. Similar experiments conducted in the 1990s showed that apart from being snatched up in one of the thousands of traps that sprinkle the sea floor here -- tools of this region's signature trade -- fish predation was the principle cause of lobster death. Instead, Oppenheim, a marine biology graduate student at the University of Maine, captured footage that looks like it comes straight from the reel of a 1950s B-grade horror movie: rampant lobster cannibalism.

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Tim McDonnell

Warming waters can cause lobsters to grow larger and produce more offspring, and the last decade has been the warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine. That, combined with overfishing of lobster predators and an excess of bait left in lobster traps (see info box below), has driven the Maine lobster harvest to thoroughly smash records that stretch back to 1880. One of the side effects of this boom, Oppenheim says, is cannibalism: There are countless lobsters down there with nothing much to eat them and not much for them to eat, besides each other.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Oysters, reefs, and swamps protect billions worth of real estate — for free

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Phil's 1stPix

Among the hundreds of recommendations listed in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion plan to protect New York from climate change is a call to stock up on oysters. Not the kind you’d want to knock back with a nice pilsner on a Friday afternoon: The idea is to build large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor that could prevent coastal erosion and absorb storm surges. “Soft” infrastructure like this -- reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other “natural” systems -- is gaining in popularity over “hard” levees and sea walls as an effective way to insulate cities from sea-level rise.

Turns out, some of the best of these defenses might already be in place: Yesterday the journal Nature published the first-ever nationwide maps that reveal just how much existing coastal habitats are going to save our butts from rising seas and wild storms. Remove reefs, coastal forests, marshes, kelp beds, and other coastal habitats, the study finds, and twice as much coastline and 1.4 million more people will be highly exposed to climate risks.

Stanford marine ecologist Katie Arkema and her colleagues pulled a vast trove of data -- Census Bureau population stats; property values from real estate site Zillow; wave and wind exposure data from NOAA; published climate models; and maps of coastal ecosystems from scientific literature -- and mixed them together to visualize where these natural systems offer the most, or least, protection.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Live chat: Obama’s new climate plan

Climate Desk hosted a Google Hangout with Grist's own David Roberts and Kate Sheppard from Mother Jones to debrief Obama's climate speech. The chat has ended, but you can still watch it below:

Roberts also appeared on Seattle's NPR affiliate KUOW. Listen here.

Check out Climate Desk's live blogging of the day's events: