Briefly

Stuff that matters


feat of concrete

Scientists figured out how to make concrete that grows in seawater.

The funny thing is that scientists actually discovered this millennia ago, under the Roman Empire, but that knowledge was lost to history even though Roman concrete seawalls remain. A group of researchers led by Marie Jackson at the University of Utah recently rediscovered the trick and published their results in the latest American Mineralogist.

Why could this be a big deal? Because rising seas are sure to lead to stratospheric costs as governments scramble to build new seawalls and marine infrastructure. And it’s not a one-time charge. Modern concrete starts deteriorating in saltwater within decades, so governments have to keep rebuilding year after year.

This ancient form of concrete, which grows crystals in saltwater and hardens over the centuries, could be a needed fix.

It can’t be the only solution, though. Seawalls will be necessary in some places, but they actually increase the rate of erosion when used as the first line of defense. Of course, the ultimate solution would be to stop climate change so we don’t have to sink tons of money into the rising ocean. Like the Romans said, vires acquirit eundo.


interiority complex

Hey — everyone can get into national parks for free on Monday.

The Department of Interior is doing something that isn’t the worst! Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Wait — the National Park Service had 16 free-entrance days in 2016. This year, there are just four. Plus, there are plans to nearly triple entrance fees at a bunch of the most popular national parks during peak season.

Let’s review what else the ol’ Interior Department has been up to lately.

A massive overhaul: On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed the biggest reorganization in the department’s history. It would shuffle tens of thousands of workers to new locations, and divide up the department’s current state boundaries into 13 new regions, affecting more than 500 million acres of land and water.

A monumental change: President Donald Trump recently downsized two national monuments in Utah, and Zinke has recommended shrinking a bunch more. Cool.

A Christmas story: On Dec. 22, the Interior quietly rescinded a bunch of climate change policies issued by the Obama administration, Elizabeth Shogren reported. Apparently, the rules were “potential burdens” to energy development.

So, uh, between the proposed fee hikes and the concern that climate change is slowly taking away our parks’ namesake glaciers and forests, you might want to take advantage of those free-entrance days and visit America’s beautiful landscapes ASAP.


Polled move

Most Ohio conservatives want to pay for renewables and stop propping up coal.

A new poll from Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies surveyed Republican and independent voters in Ohio and found something surprising: A full 60 percent say they would support rules requiring more renewable energy production in Ohio. And 56 percent said they’d be willing to pay $5 or more per month for renewable energy. 

That’s not all! The poll shows that those same voters “definitely” or “totally” (which kind of sounds like the same thing …?) don’t want their money going toward keeping old coal plants operational. Two-thirds of conservatives polled oppose new fees to keep coal and nuclear plants online. Don’t believe me? Look at this chart!

Public Opinion Strategies

In sum: A majority of Ohio conservatives don’t want to fund coal and overwhelmingly support expanding renewable energy — and would be willing to pay more for it. So, why have state GOP lawmakers been trying to kill renewable energy standards and shore up old coal and nuclear plants in Ohio?

Contrary to what we’ve seen from the White House, clean energy is pretty popular with conservatives. Most Republicans have supported renewable energy development for years.


be sill my heart

Could we retrofit Antarctica’s glaciers to keep them from collapsing?

Here’s the idea: Build underwater barriers in front of the glaciers most vulnerable to collapse, keeping warm ocean water from sloshing in to melt them.

Princeton glaciology postdoc Michael Wolovick presented this concept at the American Geophysical Union conference in December, as the Atlantic reports.

The Antarctic glaciers Wolovick studies are subject to disastrous feedback loops: The more they melt, the more they are exposed to melt-inducing seawater. Recent studies have suggested these massive stores of ice could collapse much faster than previously thought, potentially raising sea levels by 5 to 15 feet by the end of the century (that’s seriously bad news for coastal cities).

Wolovick has been researching the feasibility of slowing that collapse with ‘sills’ constructed out of sand and rock along the fronts of these vulnerable glaciers. Unlike a seawall, they would be entirely underwater, but would keep warm ocean water from reaching a glacier’s vulnerable base.

That could stall glacial retreat dramatically, and maybe even reverse it. In Wolovick’s virtual experiments, even the least successful version of the sills slowed a glacier’s collapse by 400 or 500 years.

It’s all still a huge if, Wolovick admits, that requires more research. But if it works, it could buy some crucial time against sea-level rise.


stranger things

Puerto Rico’s power outage keeps getting weirder and more infuriating.

It turns out that the territory’s utility has been withholding supplies needed to restore power after Hurricane Maria.

In a tense, armed standoff last weekend, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seized much-needed electrical equipment from a warehouse owned by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Kate Aronoff reported for the Intercept. Governor Ricardo Rosselló said the Department of Justice is investigating the power utility after the incident.

The feds quickly distributed the seized materials to contractors — who were apparently spending their time watching movies in their trucks because they didn’t have the supplies they needed.

Because the energy infrastructure in Puerto Rico is more than twice as old as the rest of the United States, many of the parts needed to repair the damaged grid aren’t readily available and need to be manufactured. The lack of materials has contributed to the epically slow recovery on the island.

Needless to say, people are really pissed off. “Hundreds of thousands of families have been in the dark for more than 125 days, people keep dying, and businesses continue to close due to the lack of energy while the necessary spare parts were in the possession of PREPA,” Eduardo Bhatia, minority leader of the Senate of Puerto Rico, told the Intercept.

This week’s drama is just the latest in a string of mismanagement that has plagued the recovery process, including the canceled contract with Whitefish Energy.


Enviro-detrimentalist

Trump admin lets Florida opt out of controversial offshore drilling plans.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Florida Governor Rick Scott met on Tuesday to discuss the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan, which would open up American-controlled areas for offshore drilling.

The plan was announced less than a week ago, but Zinke has already agreed to take Florida off the table.

Is Scott an environmental champion? The Florida EPA has eliminated 600 employees since the Republican took office in 2011, and a 2015 investigation found that EPA administrators in his state had been banned from using the term “climate change.” Scott even supported offshore drilling a few weeks after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the coast of Florida in 2010.

Scott’s newfound commitment to environmental protection could have something to do with the fact that he’s expected to run for Senate in 2018. His would-be opponent, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, is a longtime opponent of offshore drilling. A 2016 survey showed 47 percent of Floridians oppose offshore drilling, a nearly 10-point increase from 2014.

In his statement, Zinke accepted Scott’s argument that Florida is “unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” Governors of coastal states like New Jersey, Washington, and California also say Trump’s drilling plan poses a threat to their coasts. Where’s their opt-out button?


power play

New York City is taking BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell to court.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that the Big Apple is filing suit against the five major oil companies for climate change-related damages.

“We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies,” the mayor said in a statement. “As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

A report by Climate Central ranks New York the American city most vulnerable to major coastal flooding and sea-level rise, putting 245,000 of its residents at risk. Another study predicts that by 2030, storms as intense as Hurricane Sandy — which cost more than 40 lives and caused $19 billion in damages — are likely to hit every five years.

New York will also divest $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from its pension funds, a move the city’s Public Advocate, Letitia James, has been pushing for months.

“Given the fact that by 2100 or sooner, many areas of our five boroughs where a lot of low-income residents live will experience chronic flooding, it’s really critically important that we step up and put our money where our mouths are,” James told Grist last month.