Briefly

Stuff that matters


Electric Roundup

You’re probably going to be driving an electric car soon.

Volkswagen Group, the company behind VW, Audi, and Porsche, pledged to commit $1.7 billion to electrify heavy-duty vehicles like trucks and buses at an event in Germany on Wednesday. (Yes, this is the same company that got tangled up in not one, but two emissions-cheating scandals in the span of about a year.)

The release is one of multiple similar announcements made by big automakers this month:

  • Jaguar Land Rover revealed a new plug-in hybrid option Range Rover on Monday, available for purchase in 2019.
  • Last week, General Motors, America’s largest automaker, announced plans to release 20 all-electric vehicles by 2023. Two of those models will be unveiled in the next 18 months.
  • Not to be outdone, Ford Motor announced plans to release 13 electric models by 2020, and the company will electrify 40 percent of its cars worldwide by the end of the decade.

All these announcements come as big countries lay plans to start phasing out gas and diesel powered cars: France and the U.K. will ban fossil-fueled vehicles by 2040, Sweden and Scotland plan to ban them by 2032, Norway is on track to stop sales by 2025, and India will go gas-free by 2030. Even China, the world’s largest market for automobiles, is working on a timeline for phasing out production of gas-powered cars.


No refuge for the weary

After decades of trying, petro-companies are one step closer to drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

This week, Senate Democrats failed to strip a line from the Republican’s budget that would encourage people to pump up and burn all of the hydrocarbon beneath the refuge.

Never mind that it’s also the largest block of undeveloped wilderness in the United States and an important home for many species, including a major caribou herd. The Gwich’in people, who depend on caribou, have opposed drilling, but the Inupiat on the coast have mostly supported it.

If this feels a bit like Groundhog Day, you’re not wrong. Back in 2005, we wrote, “Haven’t we heard this same alarm sounding before? — this time advocates on both sides of the issue agree: Congress is closer than ever before to green-lighting oil and gas drilling in one of the largest remaining undeveloped wild areas in the United States.”

The Department of Interior recommended opening the area to oil drillers in 1987, and it has been an intermittent battle royale for environmentalists ever since. Consider this the bell for the next round.


Hurricane Maria

One month later, most of Puerto Rico is still utterly destroyed.

Since Hurricane Maria made landfall, the humanitarian crisis has devolved into one of the worst in modern American history. While President Donald Trump rates his own response to the crisis as a “10 out of 10,” the latest numbers show the situation is stark:

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, who has been in Puerto Rico almost continuously since before Maria struck, called the situation on the ground “an endless emergency.” He told the Lafayette (Louisiana) Daily Advertiser, his hometown newspaper, “It has surpassed anything I’ve reported on before in terms of devastation.”

Citing an “unacceptable” government response, Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization, has mounted a rare effort to assist recovery from a disaster in a developed country. One month in, Oxfam says daily life in Puerto Rico is “untenable.” Furthermore, the organization noted: “The United States has the resources and experience to overcome these obstacles to save lives now and to build the long-term sustainability of Puerto Rico.”

We’re waiting.


"Of his bones are coral made"

Old reefs hold the tale of past sea-level rise, and … it’s dramatic.

Toward the end of the last ice age, about 19,000 years ago, the sea rose in several large spurts, according to a new study of coral reefs that grew during this period.

This contradicts assumptions that sea level rises gradually. Instead, coral fossils show sudden inundations followed by quieter periods. This offers new information that supports the theory that glaciers and ice sheets have “tipping points” that cause their sudden collapse along with a sudden increase in sea level.

Researchers at Rice University surveyed deep-sea coral fossils in the Gulf of Mexico, scanning their 3D structures to analyze them for growth patterns. Coral likes to live close to the surface, so it grows slowly when sea level is constant. But when sea level rises quickly, the coral grows vertically to try to stay near the surface, forming terraces.

“The coral reefs’ evolution and demise have been preserved,” lead author of the study, Pankaj Khanna, said in a press release. “Their history is written in their morphology — the shapes and forms in which they grew.”

Whether the future is written in these forms, too, remains to be seen.


float on

The first floating wind turbines just came online, which is very good news, indeed.

Five giant turbines bobbing in the North Sea, 15 miles off the Scottish coast, are now producing electricity — at peak, enough power for 20,000 homes.

Offshore wind turbines are a key technology for accessing the bulk of the wind energy available on Earth. Earlier this month, researchers calculated that wind could theoretically provide “civilization scale power,” if only we could figure out how to harness the wind whipping at high speed over the oceans.

The Norwegian energy company behind the project, Statoil, may have done that with its new turbines. Each tower rises nearly 600 feet above the water — like a floating Seattle Space Needle — and is chained to three massive upside-down buckets sunk into the sandy bottom, 350 feet below the surface.

The project was expensive, like all initial ventures: It cost $8.8 million per megawatt of generation capacity (versus the going rate of around $4.5 million for conventional offshore turbines). However, Statoil says that it plans to cut that cost in half by 2023, produce electricity as cheaply as onshore wind power by 2030.

Here’s Statoil’s video of the turbines, which, as self-promotions go, is pretty cool. Click for the endearingly earnest Norwegian engineers, and stick around for the jaw-dropping scale:


reverse course

New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

Last month, the state’s public education agency proposed science standards with a few substantial omissions: human-caused climate change, evolution, and the age of the Earth.

After backlash from state politicians, scientists, teachers, and others, New Mexico’s Public Education Department said it would reverse course and restore some of those references. The new language in the standards will better reflect science, replacing a mention of the “fluctuation” in global temperatures over the past century with the more accurate term “rise.”

The initial New Mexico proposal was based off the Next Generation Science Standards — a well-respected STEM education model — but officials either dropped language about global warming and evolution or replaced it with more evasive, misleading wording. One education department employee who helped develop the standards before quitting the agency told Mother Jones that those edits were made by people who were “really worried about creationists and the oil companies.”

New Mexico hasn’t yet agreed to adopt the language of the Next Generation Science Standards in full. Still, the revisions represent a small victory for science in the larger battle over climate change in American classrooms.


Hurricane Harvey

A town hit hard by Hurricane Harvey may never fully recover.

The mayor of the coastal town of Rockport, Texas, said on Tuesday that the community will likely suffer permanent damage from the Category 4 storm.

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas, leaving behind decimated buildings, torn-up infrastructure, and thousands of displaced people. While most national media attention focused on Houston, Rockport, population 10,645, suffered some of the hurricane’s worst wind and storm surge damage.

During a panel discussion in Victoria, Texas, Mayor Charles Wax said that approximately one-third of the town was destroyed in the hurricane, and a significant portion of that will be impossible to rebuild.

Only 300 of Rockport’s 1,300 businesses have reopened since the storm, 856 of Rockport’s 2,400 students have left the school district, and the town lost most of its trees in the storm. Disaster relief crews have cleared almost 800,000 cubic yards of vegetation felled by hurricane winds and rain. 

Wax, along with three other coastal Texas mayors coping with staggering devastation from the hurricane, said he has received more help from the state government than from FEMA. The agency is definitely spread a bit thin, it seems.