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Climate change VR games make you a better person by making you kill trees and coral

VR_bro
Shutterstock

Despite our best efforts to convince people of the dangers of climate change, fully half of Americans still choose to ignore the 97 percent of scientists who say it’s real. Well, stop tearing your hair out, and get a load of this mind boggling study out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which shows how virtual simulations might be the thing to do the trick.

Armed with an Oculus VR headset, one of the lab's games guides the participant on a walk through the forest. And then, things get a little weird:

From Smithsonian:

In a minute, she's handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she's asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the "real" world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.

Just imagine what she’d do if we made her go out and cut down a real live tree!

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Northwest wildfires: We broke the forests, now we need to fix them

washington-fire
Jason Kriess

The Northwest is ablaze. Both Washington and Oregon are in official states of emergency as dozens of fires burn on forests and rangelands. Rainy weather in some areas has helped firefighters in the past few days, but according to the federal government’s InciWeb website, there are still 22 large fires burning almost a million acres in the two states. The half-contained Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington alone has torched 150 homes and burned more than a quarter million acres, making it the largest in state history.

Welcome to the hot, flammable future, America. We’ve been setting ourselves up for these fires for a long, long time.

David Freedman has a strong piece on the past, present, and future of wildfire in America in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Here’s a snippet starring Dave Cleaves, an economist and former professor who now advises the chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. "Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires," says Cleaves. "We'd never seen fires like that."

Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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American idyll

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

amazing cowboy man
Tom Kelly

In the struggle over North America's energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect -- handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight -- a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

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Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

frackwell_marcellusshale
WCN 24/7

Whether or not you think that's alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good -- so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there's that.

According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. "You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Halliburton fracking spill mystery: What chemicals polluted an Ohio waterway?

Dead fish near the site of the spill.
Ohio Environmental Council

On the morning of June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died. Nevertheless, it took five days for the Environmental Protection Agency and its Ohio counterpart to get a full list of the chemicals polluting the waterway. "We knew there was something toxic in the water," says an environmental official who was on the scene. "But we had no way of assessing whether it was a threat to human health or how best to protect the public."

This episode highlights a glaring gap in fracking safety standards. In Ohio, as in most other states, fracking companies are allowed to withhold some information about the chemical stew they pump into the ground to break up rocks and release trapped natural gas. The oil and gas industry and its allies at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-business outfit that has played a major role in shaping fracking regulation, argue that the formulas are trade secrets that merit protection. But environmental groups say the lack of transparency makes it difficult to track fracking-related drinking water contamination and can hobble the government response to emergencies, such as the Halliburton spill in Ohio.

According to a preliminary EPA inquiry, more than 25,000 gallons of chemicals, diesel fuel, and other compounds were released during the accident, which began with a ruptured hydraulic line spraying flammable liquid on hot equipment. The flames later engulfed 20 trucks, triggering some 30 explosions that rained shrapnel over the site and hampered firefighting efforts.

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Kiss from a rose from a seal

Seals discover offshore wind farms are all-you-can-eat seafood buffets

seal_kissfromarose
Nikki Burch / Shutterstock

Looking to catch up with legendary British pop sensation and noted beach ball enthusiast Seal? The "Kiss from a Rose" singer has been soaking in the North Sea sun as he frolics amongst the offshore wind farms. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the four-time Grammy-award-winning, semiterrestrial mammal is drawn by the ample fish provided by these artificial reefs. [Editor’s note: Not Seal, Meyer, seals. Remind me again, how did you get this job?]

Well that makes a great deal more sense. Let’s let Eva Botkin-Kowacki at the Monitor explain:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Norwegian reindeer are enjoying the balmy weather, breeding like bunnies

reindeer herd
Shutterstock

When you’re planning your next incarnation, consider the majestic Norwegian reindeer. Sure you will have to deal with the draconian labor practices of one Mr. S. Clause and his union-busting elf goons, but on the flip side, job security. Also, it looks like Norwegian reindeer are doing OK with climate change. Nature World News has more on the story: [A] study ... conducted by researchers at the University of Manchester and the Norwegian Arctic University in Tromsø [has] found that contrary to popular belief, warm climate hasn't reduced populations of reindeers in the high arctic archipelago of Svalbard. According to researchers, the number of Svalbard reindeers …

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In Pennsylvania, Dr. Frack will see you now

fracking site
Daniel Foster

People who live near fracking sites have been complaining for years about headaches, nosebleeds, and birth defects. Now one such population, in Washington County, Penn., is getting some help in the form of free medical consultations -- but not from the usual suspects.

Washington County is a place known for its many picturesque bridges. It's also known for its "wet gas" -- an underground smorgasbord of methane, propane, butane, and ethane that hasn't seen daylight since the Devonian era. During the drilling process, most of this gas is captured, but a certain amount does leak into the atmosphere.

There has been some research into the risks of living in a natural gas drilling area, but not the kind of long-term, systematic study that would prove or disprove a connection between the gas and the health issues.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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New rules aim to stop rash of oil train spills and explosions

oil-train.jpg
John Wathen / Public Herald

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules for improving safety standards around transporting large quantities of flammable materials by rail. The chief concern here is the movement of crude oil and ethanol, which the federal government has been ramping up through recent decisions to expand the exploration and extraction of domestic oil and gas.

The new rules, summarized here, focus on upgrades for train tank cars, new speed limits for trains carrying flammable fuels, improved braking operations, and more rigorous testing for the movement of volatile liquids. A recent rash of train crashes and oil spills, notably in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Lynchburg, Va., prompted the new safety standards.

In a recent review of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Politico found that train wrecks have done more than $10 million in damage as of mid-May this year, which is nearly triple the damage for all of 2013.

In a press statement, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the proposal “our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Knockout

How a town in Maine is blocking an Exxon tar-sands pipeline

tar sands protestors in Maine
350.org

Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue “Clear Skies” shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.

“It’s been a long fight,” said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city’s port.

The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city’s waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.