Briefly

Stuff that matters


fake it 'til you make it

A Swiss town wants to save their local glacier with artificial snow.

Pontresina residents enlisted a retired glaciologist, Hans Oerlemans, to help them save a nearby glacier that had long been a draw for tourists. Once just a short walk from the train station, the tip of the glacier had retreated so far up the valley that it’s no longer visible from the road.

Oerlemans calculated that the glacier could be saved with the help of a couple thousand energy-efficient snow machines. By piling on fake snow in the spring and summer — half a square kilometer of the stuff — the most melt-prone sections of the ice could be protected. In time, Oerlemans says, the glacier’s retreat could be halted and even — after 10 or 15 years of this — reversed. The community is running a test this summer.

It would not be the first time a glacier has gotten some TLC from concerned individuals. In 2014, artists installed a giant fleece blanket on a Swedish mountain, reflecting sun and keeping the ice insulated during summer months.

Think of it as small-batch, local, artisanal geoengineering — not the most practical plan, but so crazy it just might work. As for the other 198,000 glaciers at risk from climate change, we might need to think a little bigger.


doesn't give a hoot

Trump is going easy on polluters.

According to a new study from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, the current presidential administration has collected fewer civil penalties and filed fewer environmental enforcement suits against polluting companies than the Obama, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations did at the same point in office.

The analysis assesses agreements made in the Environmental Protection Agency’s civil enforcement cases. For abuses under laws like the Clean Air Act, the Trump administration has collected just $12 million in civil penalties, a drop of 60 percent from the average of the other administrations. Trump’s EPA has lodged 26 environmental lawsuits compared to 31, 34, and 45 by Bush, Obama, and Clinton, respectively.

The marked decrease in enforcement likely has to do with the EPA’s deregulatory agenda. Since confirmed, administrator Scott Pruitt has systematically tried to knock out key environmental regulations, especially those created during Obama’s tenure.

The Project notes that its assessment is only of a six-month period, so future enforcement could catch Trump up to his predecessors. Or he’ll continue to look the other way.

“I’ve seen the pendulum swing,” said Bruce Buckheit, who worked in EPA enforcement under Clinton and then Bush, “but never as far as what appears to be going on today.”


If you build it, they will come

As transit ridership dips, people flock to L.A.’s new train lines.

The city of freeways is building light rail, and passengers are hopping on board.

We’ve seen a general decline in transit riders around the country as the economy has improved, gas prices have fallen, and public transport systems have aged. But Los Angeles is bucking that trend.

Take the Expo line, which opened in May 2016 and runs from downtown L.A. to the beach. It carried an average of 64,000 riders each weekday in June 2017 — an increase of almost 20,000 riders from a year earlier. Officials had predicted the line wouldn’t get that popular until 2030.

Nearly 70 percent of Expo line riders reported that they hadn’t used mass transit regularly before the line opened, and more than half of those new riders had switched from cars, according to the Washington Post.

That’s just one light-rail route. Here’s a peek at the L.A.’s plans to expand its lines by 2040:

For years, Angelenos thought that only the efforts of a hostile dictator would allow them to travel freely across their city. Now, they’ve found another way.


Do you sea the change?

It’s been flooding a lot lately and new research might explain why.

It turns out that sea level along North Carolina’s coast south of Cape Hatteras has been rising six times faster than the long-term global rate, according to scientists at the University of Florida.

While it’s easy to think that sea-level rise is a uniform phenomenon, it actually differs from place to place, making some places “hotspots” of rising waters. The researchers believe the North Carolina hotspot to be the result of two large-scale atmospheric patterns — the El Niño cycle and the North Atlantic Oscillation — which intersect offshore and push up water. These patterns could be behind sea level rises that have inundated coastal communities in recent years.

Silver lining: If the researchers are right, this might help them more accurately predict when and where tidal flooding will happen in the future, since these hotspots tend to move up and down the coast with shifting atmospheric pressure. This could be used to warn coastal communities of future flooding and give them a chance to prepare rather than be taken by surprise.


wait, what?

Trump actually wants to enforce an environmental rule. A court says he can’t.

On Tuesday, a D.C. appeals court struck down an Obama-era restriction on the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners that become greenhouse gases when released into the atmosphere.

Surprisingly, the Trump administration went to bat for the rule in February, opposing a challenge from HFC-producing chemical companies based in Mexico and France, which argued the rule oversteps the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists, as well as industry, supported the EPA’s case.

HFCs have warming potential that’s thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide, but they break down relatively quickly once released (in fewer than 15 years). Banning them could have swift climate implications. Last year, 170 countries — including the U.S. — signed onto a legally binding agreement to phase them out.

The court ruled the EPA erred by regulating HFCs under a part of the Clean Air Act meant for chemicals implicated in depleting the ozone layer. HFCs don’t, but they do intensify global warming.

“However much we might sympathize or agree with EPA’s policy objectives, EPA may act only within the boundaries of its statutory authority,” wrote judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Barring appeals, the EPA must find a different way to regulate HFCs.


the future is leak

The New York Times published a leaked governmental memo on climate change — eventually.

The congressionally mandated report compiles the recent work of tens of thousands of scientists from around the world. Among its major findings: America is warmer now than it has been in at least 1,500 years. And the quickly melting Arctic will have significant consequences for the U.S. mainland.

There’s a bit of debate over whether the draft obtained by the Times was a true “leak,” as it was portrayed in the initial front-page story. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, one of the report’s lead authors, said on Twitter that versions of the document identical to the one the Times first published had been publicly available for months. (In fact, outlets had already reported on previous drafts.) The Times’ Brad Plumer said the newspaper updated its story after its initial publication with a version of the report that Hayhoe confirmed was not publicly available prior to Tuesday.

The science in the report is well-known, but there are concerns that the Trump administration will attempt to suppress it. Several cabinet secretaries in charge of signing off on the report deny its findings. Those same people have already been hard at work burying climate science.

If the goal of the scientists who contacted the Times was to gain publicity for their report — Hayhoe says it wasn’t her — that’s definitely worked. “Leaking” climate science might be the only way to get it through government censors.


Irony isn't dead

An art installation about rising seas sank into a Philly river.

A floating houseboat meant to inspire conversation around climate change met a watery death on Sunday after a heavy storm drowned it.

OK, climate change. Point taken.

Images of homes flooded during Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy inspired the environmental artist Mary Mattingly to create WetLand in 2014. Docked on the banks of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, the floating sculpture looked like a half-submerged row house and served as a space for classes and public programs.

The plan is to remove the boat from the water and tow it away to assess damages, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Problem is, the process will cost thousands of dollars, and it’s not clear who would pay the bill.


coal story, bro

West Virginia’s governor wants a new subsidy for coal.

Jim Justice swapped parties in a highly publicized rally with President Trump. Now, he has a novel plan to prop up the dying coal industry: The federal government should pay power plants for every ton of Appalachian coal they buy, “in order to preserve our eastern coalfields.”

According to Justice, the country’s increasing reliance on natural gas and coal produced in Western states leaves the Eastern electricity grid vulnerable to security threats in the West. Justice says his proposed $15 per ton subsidy is an issue of national security (kind of like this other thing called climate change).

West Virginians elected Justice in NovemberWest Virginia’s Metro News reports that he has already met with Trump a couple times to boost his subsidy plan.

Government subsidies on energy have been around since 1789, and most have gone to fossil fuels. Federal support for renewables has increased, but with Trump’s promises to end the so-called “War on Coal” that could change.


weathering the storm

A ‘mini-Katrina’ flooded parts of New Orleans.

Nearly 10 inches of rain fell in one neighborhood on Saturday during a rainstorm so severe that it would occur less than once in 100 years, assuming a stable climate.

Eight of city’s major drainage pumps were not working during the event and the officials who originally claimed the canals and pumps had operated as expected are resigning*. Since much of New Orleans is below sea level, every inch of rainwater that falls has to be pumped to higher ground. A warming atmosphere can hold more water vapor, making deluges like this more common.

Throughout the city came stories of impromptu water rescues, traveling by canoe, and millions of dollars worth of damage. During the height of the flood, residents took refuge on porches and watched debris float by. Famous jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins floated beer by boat to help residents cope. It took more than 48 hours for the city to tow flooded cars in order to reopen access to Interstate 10. Recovery could take months in the hardest hit areas.

*This story was updated to reflect the news on city officials and broken pumps.