Skip to content Skip to site navigation

Tim McDonnell's Posts


Are fungus-farming ants the key to better biofuel?

David Dennis

"If you have ants in your house," the great Harvard ecologist EO Wilson once said, "be kind to them." Keep this in mind the next time you want to flick one off the kitchen table: The tiny critters, which collectively weigh about as much as all of humanity, could wield a big weapon in the fight against climate change.

In the U.S., corn-based ethanol is a big business, consuming 40 percent of the domestic corn crop and providing roughly 10 percent of the fuel supply, which would otherwise be dirty fossil fuels. But the practice of topping your tank off with corn is fraught with problems: Some argue that the crop should be used for food; it's sensitive to drought; and the ethanol-making process might be contributing to an E. coli epidemic, to name a few. That's why the Obama administration recently announced a plan to invest $2 billion in organic fuels that rely on things other than corn, including switchgrass and gas from cattle poo.

But this weekend, a group of scientists discovered a chemical key that could revitalize corn-based ethanol by allowing it to be made from stalks, leaves, and other bits beside the cob itself. This won't help much with the drought problem (less corn is still less corn), but it could alleviate the food-vs.-fuel debate and the E. coli problem as more kernels are saved to go straight to livestock. Turns out, the savior of ethanol could be the South American leafcutter ant.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Slicing open stalagmites to reveal climate secrets

Stacy Carolin collects samples in a Borneo cave last fall.
Syria Lejau
Stacy Carolin collects samples in a Borneo cave last fall.

If you’ve ever visited a cave, you know the rules: Stay on the path, and keep your greasy paws off the formations. So Stacy Carolin was a bit taken aback the first time she headed into a cave not as a tourist, but as a scientist, and took a step off the beaten path. “I was a city girl back then,” she recalls. “It was very muddy and slippery … and also completely pitch black.” Not exactly the setting you’d expect for cutting-edge climate change research.

A few years later, Carolin, a PhD student at Georgia Tech, is breaking ground in the field of paleoclimatology, the study of ancient climates, using an unconventional but increasingly prevalent tool: “speleothems,” a catchall term for cave formations that includes stalagmites (remember the mnemonic: those that “mite” reach the ceiling from the floor) and stalactites (those that hold “tite” to the ceiling).

In a study released Thursday in the journal Science, Carolin and her colleagues outline 100,000-year-old rainfall conditions in Borneo, mapped from chemical clues in cave formations there. Like most historic climate reconstructions, the goal is to compile real-life data against which to test predictive models; if scientists know how much rainfall there was in the tropics in the past, they can see how well their models are able to replicate those conditions, and tweak accordingly. But the most commonly used “proxies” for ancient climates, including tree rings and ice cores, are notoriously inadequate in the tropics, leaving holes in scientists’ geographic picture of the past and making it difficult to measure historic changes in tropical weather systems, like monsoons, which can themselves have major impacts on global climate.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Sequester guts wildfire prevention, sets up bigger blazes

In Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, wildfire crew boss Skyler Lofgren chops down a problematic pine.
In Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, wildfire crew boss Skyler Lofgren chops down a problematic pine.

“Tree coming down!”

Skyler Lofgren shouts above a din of buzzing chainsaws, leans into his own, and with a final heave topples another 40-foot Ponderosa pine. Lofgren, 27, a forest firefighting crew boss with the Flagstaff, Ariz., fire department, felled a dozen trees on Monday, overseeing an outdoor classroom for a new crop of seasonal recruits who will spend the summer patrolling the Coconino National Forest with three-foot chainsaws at the ready. The crew will fight wildfires when they come, but the vast majority of their time will be spent on prevention or, as Lofgren puts it, “working ourselves out of a job.”

In a stand of trees 10 minutes outside downtown Flagstaff -- a tight cluster of low-slung brick buildings peppered with Route 66 paraphernalia -- Lofgren and his fellow firefighters are hard at work on a new project that local officials say is the first of its kind in the nation. Funded by a $10 million bond that voters approved by a 3-to-1 margin in November, the program puts local tax dollars to work clearing trees and brush, and lighting carefully managed fires, in an effort to stave off the devastating, astronomically expensive megafires that have become increasingly common in the West. If successful, the project could also untether the community from a withering federal firefighting budget.

Last year saw the third-worst wildfire season in five decades; the Southern California fire that threatened thousands of homes earlier this month looks to be only the first flash of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week will be an above-average season for much of the Southwest. But the sequester took a 7.5 percent bite out of the Forest Service’s budget, nearly half of which is spent fighting wildfires. That means there will be 500 fewer pairs of boots on the ground and 200,000 fewer acres treated to prevent fires; the agency’s next proposed budget cuts preventative spending by a further 24 percent. It’s all part of what fire ecologists, environmentalists, and firefighters interviewed by Climate Desk describe as an increasingly distorted federal budget that has apparently forgotten the old adage about an ounce of prevention: It pours billions ($2 billion in 2012) into fighting fires but skimps on cheap, proven methods for stopping megafires before they start.


Feeding the trolls: Meeting with a climate denier, face to face

If you disagree with me, you are a total fucking idiot!

If you've ever read anything on the internet, chances are you've encountered a troll. No, not the kind that live under bridges, or the ones with a shock of neon hair. We’re talking about those annoying commenters who get their kicks by riling people up as much as possible. But have you ever wondered who these people really are? Well, we found out.

Internet researchers at George Mason University recently found that when it comes to online commenting, throwing bombs gets more attention than being nice, and makes readers double down on their preexisting beliefs. What’s more, trolls create a false sense that a topic is more controversial than it really is. Witness the overwhelming consensus on climate change amongst scientists -- 97 percent agreement that global warming is real, and caused by humans. But that doesn't settle the question for Twitter addict and Climate Desk perennial thorn-in-the-side Hoyt Connell.

"If you allow somebody to make a comment and there's no response, then they're controlling the definition of the statement," Hoyt says. "Then it can become a truth."

We first encountered Hoyt, or as we know him, @hoytc55, several months ago on our Twitter page, taking us to task for our climate coverage. And the screed hasn’t stopped since: In April alone, Hoyt mentioned us on Twitter some 126 times, almost as much as our top nine other followers combined. So we did the only thing we knew how to do: Track him down, meet him face to face … and ask a few questions of our own. Here's episode one of our three-part series, Trollus Maximus:

Read more: Climate & Energy


We just passed the climate’s ‘grim milestone’

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.

Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Thursday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, NOAA reported.

Don't worry: The earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.

"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Finally, some not-terrible climate news: Greenland not melting any faster

Dirk van As

Back in 2006, scientists in Greenland made an alarming observation: Glaciers were crumbling into the ocean twice as fast. And not in little cocktail-sized cubes, either: Glaciologist Jason Box accurately predicted the spot where a hunk four times the size of Manhattan would later shear off into the sea.

At the same time, the inland top of the ice sheet was thawing at record levels; last summer, for the first time in 150 years, its entire surface was melting. By summer’s end, this water alone raised sea levels all over the world by a millimeter.

As Box told our Climate Desk Live audience in January, rising air and water temperatures -- driven by greenhouse gas emissions -- are to blame. And with more warming on the way, he made a grim prediction: Melting from Greenland and the world’s other land-based glaciers could ultimately raise global sea levels by 69 feet, Box warns.

But don’t start building your flood-proof ark quite yet: Advanced imaging released in August suggested the ice sheet is capable of quickly reversing its melting habit.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Fracking boom in North Dakota is here to stay

Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.
James West/Climate Desk
Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.

At 7:00 a.m. local time this morning, Lonnie’s Roadhouse Cafe in Williston, N.D., was already bustling, packed to the gills with truckers and roughnecks tanking up on coffee and omelets for another day in that town’s ongoing fracking boom.

“It’s continuous, it doesn’t stop,” says manager Lonnie Iverson. “Busy, busy, busy.”

It’s become a typical scene here in the last several years, as new drilling technology has unleashed massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, in the process slashing unemployment to the lowest anywhere in the nation, minting a new class of oil wealth, and generally upending what was once a backwater prairie town -- turmoil Climate Desk witnessed firsthand last year (see video below). And it looks like that growth is here for the long haul: A new analysis out yesterday from the U.S. Geological Survey doubled previous estimates of how much oil is in reserve under North Dakota, up to 7.4 billion barrels, which would make it the largest oil field in the country.

“It’s good,” Lonnie says. “It’ll keep our people working.” And eating, presumably.

The new numbers come as no surprise to the fossil fuel titans behind the boom: Back in 2011, fracking kingpin Harold Hamm said he thought the Bakken will ultimately churn out 24 billion barrels. While the new federal analysis doesn’t go quite that far, it does confirm that places like Lonnie’s are likely to be jam-packed for the foreseeable future.


Why do conservatives like to waste energy?


Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient lightbulbs, calling “sustainability” the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé’s halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans’ Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.

Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.

study out Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.

The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to “buy” either an old-school lightbulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL’s packaging that says “Protect the Environment,” and “we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option,” said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.


The smart money is on renewable energy

Fossil fuel cheerleaders take note: Renewable energy ain't going nowhere -- and it may prove to be the better bet in the long run.

By 2030, renewables will account for 70 percent of new power supply worldwide, according to projections released Monday from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Bloomberg analysts examined gas prices, carbon prices, the dwindling price of green energy technology, and overall energy demand (which, in the U.S. at least, is on a massive decline), and found solar and wind beating fossil fuels like coal and natural gas by 2030.

The chart below shows annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts; over time, more and more of the new energy supply being built each year comes from renewable sources (like wind turbines and solar panels), by 2030 representing $630 billion worth of investment, while new fossil fuel sources (like coal- or gas-burning power plants) become increasingly rare.



GOP goes hunting for EPA emails about turducken

email keyboard

Earlier this month, when a burst pipe spilled thousands of gallons of heavy oil into an Arkansas suburb, the message from the White House went something like: “Everybody chill, the EPA has it under control.” But reporters on the scene found the cleanup orchestrated by the same company, ExxonMobil, that allowed the spill, and heard only crickets when they asked the EPA about its involvement.

Turns out, on some of the nation’s most pressing environmental health issues, the EPA’s transparency record isn’t exactly crystal-clear.

So with a vote on President Obama’s new pick to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, coming up as soon as next week, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that congressional scrutiny of her nomination has centered more on the agency’s secret-keeping habits than on its environmental enforcement goals. At a hearing last Thursday before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy got grilled on EPA’s transparency record by Republican members, led by Louisiana’s David Vitter. On Tuesday, the committee’s Republicans sent a memo demanding details on her plans to open up the agency’s inner workings.

But for all their zeal, Vitter and his GOP colleagues (including climate change denier-in-chief James Inhofe [R-Okla.]) might be barking up the wrong tree: A major thrust of their complaint against McCarthy, a feisty Bostonian currently overseeing EPA’s air quality division, hinges on the use of email aliases by top EPA officials and the possibility that they’ve used personal email accounts for official business, an issue currently under investigation by the EPA inspector general.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Bush-era EPA head Christie Whitman both created official email addresses under fake names (Jackson’s was “Richard Windsor,” after a pet dog), apparently to circumvent a chronic deluge of spam. McCarthy says she doesn’t have an alias email and told the Senate committee she found only one instance of using her personal email for work -- which didn’t stop Vitter, in the memo, from demanding a full audit of her personal emails.

And while the use of unofficial email addresses beyond the reach of federal public records laws clearly raises the specter of important information being kept in the dark, few in the transparency or environmental journalism communities think it should be the focus of complaints about the agency’s openness.

“The concerns over fake emails are totally bogus,” says Joe Davis, a veteran environmental journalist and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ freedom of information taskforce. “This wasn’t some made-up thing by Lisa Jackson to fool us all. They’re simply efforts to politically damage McCarthy and Lisa Jackson and EPA by people with an anti-regulatory agenda.”

Indeed, a review of a cache of “secret” emails from Jackson uncovered such pressing matters as whether “turducken” is a real thing (it is), and lyrics for a Santa-themed jingle about coal-ash regulation.