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Are hurricanes getting stronger?

Click to embiggen.
Climate Desk
Click to embiggen.

For more than a decade, the question of how global warming is affecting the scariest storms on the planet -- hurricanes -- has been shot through with uncertainty. The chief reason is technological: In many parts of the world, storm strengths are estimated solely based on satellite images. Technologies and techniques for doing this have improved over time, meaning that there is always a problem with claiming that today's storms are stronger than yesterday's. After all, they might just be better observed.

That's why, despite expectations that global warming will make hurricanes stronger -- as well as massive societal consequences if more powerful storms are slamming coastlines -- scientific authorities like the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have demurred on the hurricane/climate question. Most recently, the IPCC earlier this year said it had "low confidence" that global warming is worsening hurricanes.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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China is using drones to spy on its yaks

yak
Martha de Jong-Lantink

China isn't exactly known for respecting its citizens' privacy. So it's reasonable to wonder what the country is doing with a fleet of drones. But don’t worry! According to BBC, they're using the drones to take photos of yaks:

Scientists use the unmanned aircraft to calculate the number of yaks in the mountain wilderness of Xinjiang province, and to collect data about their habitat, reports official news agency Xinhua. In November, a drone performed four flights, taking photos of the yaks, the areas where they live and also collecting meteorological information, the agency says.

Mmhm. Yes, we are looking at the "yaks."

Read more: Living

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40 percent of U.S. households could switch to a plug-in hybrid without changing their routine

gas opt
KQED Quest

One of the enduring myths about electric vehicles is that they're totally impractical for your average family. But the Union of Concerned Scientists did a little bit of figuring and found that, for a surprising number of households, that's just not true. A quarter of U.S. households would do just fine with a full-on battery-powered EV. And more than 40 percent could start driving a plug-in hybrid, like the Chevy Volt, without changing their routine at all.

UCS looked at three main criteria that could prevent people from using plug-in hybrids for practical reasons:

  • Does the household have access to charging?
  • Are there generally four or fewer passengers in the car?
  • Do they haul stuff?

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Only one day left to support Grist

scott-rosenberg
Chantal Andrea

Our winter fundraising drive is nearly over. With just one day and 1,239 donations left to go, your contribution is essential to reaching our goal of 2,500 donations by Dec. 17.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, Grist isn’t your typical nonprofit.

Our news, advice, and opinions provide info and lend strength to groups -- large and small -- that are tackling this big, nebulous problem called climate change. We’re helping people like you take action, too: Over 65 percent of readers say you’ve made a change for the greener because of something you read on Grist.

Our team raises the volume on issues the mainstream media misses. We’ve published nearly 4,000 stories in 2013 — and we need your help to keep ’em coming in the year ahead.

This fundraising drive ends tomorrow. Please support our talented pool of writers and editors with a gift today: Donate now.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Your holiday wreath could be made of stolen branches

wreath
Mr Ducke

Courtney Hammond is a forest ranger in Maine, and in winter, she's on the lookout for thieves with hefty hauls of tree branches. And she finds a lot of them, she told NPR:

"Over 1,400 pounds in one seizure," Hammond says. "Many of our seizures run from 400 to 600 to 700 pounds, but at 40 or 45 cents a pound, people can make very good money at it."

Why would people steal tree branches? Possibly just to stick it to the Christmas ideals of love, kindness, and goodwill towards fellow people, but mostly to sell to wreath makers. Thieves sneak onto land and chop off tree branches -- or whole trees -- in order to get at the supple tips that wreath makers prize.

Read more: Living

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GMO labeling becomes law in Connecticut

GMO tomato, anybody?
Shutterstock
Put a sticker on it.

Connecticut made food history last week when Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) signed the first state law in the nation mandating the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

But there's a catch that's bigger than the fry of an escaped GMO salmon: The new law might never actually lead to the labeling of GMO foods.

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Watch baby frogs freakishly pop out of their mom’s skin

surinam-toad
David Cannatella

The Surinam toad might be the weirdest animal ever. Picture “roadkill frog” and you’re on the right track. Not only is the toad unusually flat (to blend in with leaves on the pond floor), but it has crazy gymnast sex and then squirts its babies out of its back like teeny spaceships (if you’re over 14) or exploding zits (if you’re 14 and enjoy thinking about zits). Wanna see? Warning: This puts the “graphic” in National Geographic.

Read more: Living

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Solar panel dresses are hideous but keep your phone charged

Outdoor music festivals often mean frying in the hot sun and accidentally getting separated from your friends. Thankfully they’re only a text away, unless your phone is dead. (How'd people survive Woodstock?) But if you could just plug your phone into your shirt when it's out of juice, that would never be a problem!

That was the inspiration for Christiaan Holland, a Dutch professor who teamed up with fashion designer Pauline van Dongen and solar expert Gert Jan Jongerden to create Wearable Solar. The fashion line debuted in London at the Wearable Futures conference, and an hour of sunlight will apparently charge your phone halfway. Unfortunately, the clothes are -- how do we say this nicely? -- really ugly:

solar-dress-1
Wearable Solar

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Reddit’s science forum banned climate deniers. Why don’t all newspapers do the same?

ban with head buried in sand
Shutterstock/alphaspirit

In addition to my career as a PhD chemist, I am one of a select few who enjoy the privilege of moderating content on reddit.com’s science forum. The science forum is a small part of reddit, but it nonetheless enjoys over 4 million subscribers. By comparison, that’s roughly twice the circulation of The New York Times.

The forum, known as /r/science, provides a digital space for discussions about recent, peer-reviewed scientific publications. This puts us (along with /r/AskScience) on the front line of the science-public interface. On our little page, scientists and nonscientists can connect through discussions on everything from subatomic particles to interstellar astrophysics.

As a moderator of this discussion, I've observed scientific discourse across a wide variety of disciplines. I consider it a microcosm, representative of the vast range of views that can be supported by empirical evidence. Importantly, it provides the same window for those who are not scientists, who do not regularly talk with PhDs, and who may be unfamiliar with how science is discussed by scientists. In essence, it is a window into the Ivory Tower.

Given that our users are mainly academics (and all are nerds), the discussion generally resembles any scientific debate. That is, there are always numerous links to peer-reviewed science to support positions, people don't deliberately mislead or misrepresent content, and there is a basic level of respect shared regardless of position. When a user strays from such decorum, they are kindly warned and, if necessary, the comment is removed.

Some issues, however, are particularly contentious. While evolution and vaccines do have their detractors, no topic consistently evokes such rude, uninformed, and outspoken opinions as climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: Does antibacterial soap work better than the old-school variety?

dishwashing
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Send your question to Umbra!

Q. When I asked my new roommate if we could switch to regular dishwashing liquid from our pure castile soap, she said she would rather not because she was "bug friendly." I'm a fond lover of the flora and fauna myself, but I don't want to get a foodborne disease that would be avoided by using a stronger soap. I even wonder if the awful cold I caught from her was from not using disinfecting soap on our dishes. Why is my roommate insisting on using castile soap? Does it work?

Dishwashing Dilemma
San Francisco, CA

A. Dearest DD,

You’ve identified what I think is a common concern among the eco-conscious. Of course we want to choose nontoxic, non-polluting products … but do natural cleaning alternatives actually, you know, work? This is especially acute when health issues -- not to mention matters of domestic tranquility -- are on the line.

Get ready for a cooling of tensions in the kitchen, DD: Your pure castile soap is just fine for dish duty. To explain why, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the purpose of soaps, whether they’re meant for your hands, body, or the pot with the burned-on crud stuck to the bottom. It’s not to kill pathogens. Rather, soap chemically binds with grease and germs, then yanks the offending nasties down the drain in a swirl of hot water. (It does this so effectively, simple handwashing is the centerpiece of a global campaign from the World Health Organization.) And castile soap, a veggie-based and biodegradable concoction, stands right there with your “regular” varieties.

Read more: Living