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Climate change will ruin Christmas by threatening Christmas trees

sad christmas tree
Matt Heltsley

It will take six to 10 years, but Christmas is ruined -- and not for the reasons Sarah Palin thinks. Climate change is continuing its rampage through everything you love by threatening Christmas trees. (Actually, maybe this will finally get the GOP on board with fixing climate change.)

This year was so bad for Christmas tree growers, what with heat waves and flash floods and whatnot, that a bunch of them have decided that they're not going to plant new crops. Trees, being trees, take a while to mature, so there are still a few years of tree crops on these farms waiting to get chopping down and trucked to living rooms across America. But once they’re done, that’s it.

Think Progress reports:

Though the young trees -- some growing for a few years -- had been able to withstand the warmer temperatures in late winter, they were unable to hold up to the subsequent flooding in the summer, tree farmer Bob White told the station. “It probably took out as much as half the farm,” he said. “You get used to 20, 30 years of how everything works, and now you don’t know anymore.”

This is the first year that localized extreme flooding has been said to cause a decrease in Christmas tree crop, and scientists have repeatedly linked increased unexpected flooding events caused by a warmer, moister climate to man-made global warming.

So, soon enough, we’ll have fewer trees that are more expensive.

Read more: Living


2,000 mice parachute into Guam to kill snake invaders


Back in the 1950s, brown tree snakes arrived in Guam, and thought "Ah, paradise." They have thrived on the small island, which is now home to something like 2 million of them -- much to the chagrin of local birds and the U.S. military, which has to deal with regular snake-caused power failures at the Andersen Air Force Base. So the Air Force is sending in the mice. NBC News reports:

They floated down from the sky Sunday -- 2,000 mice, wafting on tiny cardboard parachutes … the rodent commandos didn't know they were on a mission: to help eradicate the brown tree snake, an invasive species that has caused millions of dollars in wildlife and commercial losses since it arrived a few decades ago.

That's because they were dead. And pumped full of painkillers.

Read more: Living


Another reason to worry about methane: It’s leaking out of the Arctic Ocean hella fast

Arctic Ocean
The Arctic Ocean: It's leakier than it looks.

We learned last week that Al Gore has become a vegan, and speculated that it might be because methane emissions from livestock are a surprisingly large driver of climate change. Meanwhile, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences argues that the U.S. EPA has vastly underestimated methane emissions because it calculates them from the bottom-up -- how much methane does a cow release times how many cows there are, for example -- rather than actually measuring the methane released into the atmosphere.

We often talk about greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide as if they are one and the same. CO2 is by far the most prevalent greenhouse gas, but while much less methane is released into the atmosphere, methane is about 21 times more potent over a 100-year period.

And now we’ve got another reason to worry about methane. New research published in the journal Nature Geoscience finds that “significant quantities of methane are escaping the East Siberian Shelf as a result of the degradation of submarine permafrost over thousands of years.”

Read more: Climate & Energy


Who needs Black Friday? Join Grist for #GivingTuesday

Chantal Andrea

We’ve suffered through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but more and more people are eschewing these frenzied traditions and participating in Giving Tuesday instead -- a day dedicated to charitable giving and volunteership. We love the idea of this holiday at Grist -- and what better way to celebrate than by hitting you up for cash?

I started Grist in 1999 to awaken more people to environmental concerns and spur them to take action. Over the years we’ve helped our readers find ways to de-stuff the holidays -- last year, we dedicated the entire month of December to “Shifting the Gift” -- and our surveys show that half of you have changed your consumption habits after reading Grist.

So, I invite you to join me in celebrating Giving Tuesday today. Drop off some groceries at your local food bank, teach your neighbors how to tune up their bikes, join the movement on Twitter, and maybe, just maybe, support your favorite nonprofit green news source.

Yes, Grist is a nonprofit -- and we’re aiming to raise 300 gifts today. We hope you’ll help us get off to a strong start toward our goal of 2,500 gifts by Dec. 17.

Each and every day, Grist brings you coverage of the latest climate politics, pipeline foibles, and other news; practical advice on green living, eating, and commuting; and quirky stories to keep your spirit light. Help us continue to lead this important conversation and inspire more positive traditions. Make a tax-deductible gift today.

Read more: Living


Talking trash: Baltimore students speak out against waste-burning power plant

Wheelabrator incinerator
Joe W.

It’s bad enough that someone thought it was a good idea to build a trash incinerator in one of the most air-polluted areas in Baltimore. But the New York-based company Energy Answers also wants to burn garbage near two schools, including an elementary -- and the state of Maryland seems poised to let it happen.

Here's the dirty truth: Despite landmark reports about the dangers of placing facilities that pollute the air near schools, most notably USA Today’s 2008 series, “The Smokestack Effect,” companies are still allowed to blast asthma- and cancer-causing agents where kids with developing lungs gather to develop their brains.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Rat retraction reaction: Journal pulls its GMOs-cause-rat-tumors study

A Sprague-Dawley rat.
Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier
A Sprague-Dawley rat.

When a 2012 study came out suggesting that a certain type of genetically modified corn caused cancer in rats, many were skeptical. Since then, one scientific group after another has said that the study doesn’t tell us anything new. So on one level it was no huge surprise when the journal that had published this paper, Food and Chemical Toxicology, retracted it on Thanksgiving Day. But it was surprising, or at least illuminating, on another level: Retractions are usually reserved for deliberate deception or major mistakes; in this case, the reason for retraction was simply insignificance.

In a statement the journal publishers wrote: “Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.”

What does it mean that a “not incorrect” but “inconclusive” paper fails to “reach the threshold”?


Promiscuous corn can be made to behave — as long as you don’t expect perfection

Field of corn.

Corn reproduction can be unruly, as I wrote here. It's hard to segregate different crop types. But if you are willing to accept a few illegitimate kernels, it is possible to maintain relatively isolated strains. It all depends on your tolerance for mixing: It's pretty easy to prevent 95 percent of crosses -- it's that last 5 percent that's tricky, and the last .01 percent is nearly impossible.

One of the people I’d wanted to talk to about the issue of intermingling genes was Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes of the University of Missouri. As an economist, Kalaitzandonakes is strictly concerned with the economic effect that errant pollen can have on a farmer. And what Kalaitzandonakes has seen in his experiments has made him optimistic for a future where many different types of corn -- genetically modified or no -- grow side by side without much mixing.

Most pollen falls near the stalk, and planting a barrier row of corn can help protect a field, he said. Furthermore, you can use time to isolate corn as well as space. The flowering times of the plants are fixed, so if you plant one corn a few weeks after another, they won’t crossbreed, even if they are side by side.

Of course, none of this matters if you want perfect purity: Sooner or later a grain of pollen will travel far enough to find a receptive tassel. But hardly anyone is asking for perfect purity. From those concerned that genetically modified seeds might have some unknown health risk, to those who want to make sure that their sweet corn doesn’t have blue kernels, most people allow a margin of tolerance.

Read more: Food


Brush with danger: The long battle over a spooky toothpaste additive

Daniela Hartmann

A few years ago, I worked at one of those scrappy neighborhood news websites that was supposed to be the future of journalism. (I don’t know if it was the future of journalism. It was certainly a future of journalism.) We rode our bikes to crime scenes and wrote stories about which local developer was having problems with the planning department, which local restaurant had rats. It was very 19th century in a lot of ways.

In one project, we collaborated with a local research university's investigation of the giant hairball of research that is multiple chemical exposure. They were trying to translate that research to a wider audience -- specifically, women who were about to have babies. The public health outreach workers would write what we hoped would be fun, informational articles. I would edit them.

Then the op-eds began to trickle in. In the same way that all fairytales share certain essentials, the op-eds all boiled down to a single narrative: That thing you think is OK? It’s bad for you.

Everything that smells good? Stay away! It’s full of fragrance-enhancing phthalates that mess with your endocrine system! That baby shampoo? The chemicals put in it to keep it fresh are mixing together in the bottle to create formaldehyde! Squishy plastic water bottle? Killing your sperm and giving you cancer! Airport bathroom hand soap? Mini tube of toothpaste just handed to you at the dentist? Don’t go ahead and just rub it all over yourself, because odds are it’s full of triclosan, an antimicrobial substance that is a proven endocrine disruptor in rats and mosquitofish, and which could be spreading allergies and the development of antimicrobial resistant bacteria (meaning more salmonella and E. coli for everyone, as if we didn't have enough already).

I came to dread the op-eds. My private name for them was “Fear of the Week.” I felt like our readers didn't really have time to be afraid of all these things. I often said to the public health people that if they were so serious about public health, they should be working on legislation, not just education. They responded that legislation was more complicated than I might suspect.

Perhaps, I suggested, they could tell our readers the story of some environmental successes in their field, to leaven the panic a bit. Did anything spring to mind?

"Lead," they said. I asked if they had anything more recent. "Lead," they replied, "lead was the big one."

Did anyone read Fear of the Week? Not by our site's stats, they didn't. As far as I know, I was the only person affected by them. While I still argue that life is too short to spend scrutinizing the world for things that might fractionally shorten it further, I still feel a flicker of unease every time I wash my hands with unfamiliar soap.

Which is why I find it so interesting that one of the old fears of the week -- triclosan -- has been showing up in the news recently. The reason? A lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council against the FDA, to force it to make a decision on whether triclosan is dangerous or not.


Ask Umbra: How much is my firewood polluting the air?

feet fire

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. How do I measure wood smoke from firewood?  We want to do a comparison of different firewoods and find the one that has the least smoke emissions, provides the most heat, and burns the longest. We would like to really measure the smoke. Any ideas?

Patricia S.
Scotts Valley, Calif.

A. Dearest Patricia,

If you listen carefully this time of year, you can almost hear it: the crackling of thousands of wood stoves firing up for a season of home heating. Unfortunately, the cozy glowing of all those stoves has a serious downside: a smoky, sooty smudge on local air quality.

Wood smoke emits all kinds of nasties [PDF], including benzene and formaldehyde, but the primary culprit is particulate matter (PM2.5), a mix of tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled and wreak all kinds of havoc. The stuff is linked to respiratory illness, chronic lung problems, cancer, and premature death -- so your desire to find the cleanest-burning logs possible is a vote for both air quality and personal health for you and your neighbors.

I admire the citizen-scientist pluck behind your wish to analyze and compare different types of wood smoke yourself, Patricia. Unfortunately, this is currently pretty tough to do unless you A) are an atmospheric scientist with access to sophisticated sampling tools, or B) have an extra $10,000 to $50,000 lying around to spend on said tools. I checked with Matthew Harper, air monitoring lead for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. He said you could use a handheld particle counter, the cheapest of which will run you a mere $300 to $500, but these devices probably aren’t accurate enough to distinguish the nuances between, say, hickory versus oak smoke.

But don’t hang up your lab coat just yet: There are still a few worthwhile experiments to be done.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Why climate skeptics and evolution deniers joined forces

Are religion and end times thinking now wrapped up with the denial of global warming?

All across the country — most recently, in the state of Texas — local battles over the teaching of evolution are taking on a new complexion. More and more, it isn't just evolution under attack, it's also the teaching of climate science. The National Center for Science Education, the leading group defending the teaching of evolution across the country, has even broadened its portfolio: Now, it protects climate education too.

How did these issues get wrapped up together? On its face, there isn't a clear reason — other than a marriage of convenience — why attacks on evolution and attacks on climate change ought to travel side by side. After all, we know why people deny evolution: Religion, especially the fundamentalist kind. And we know why people deny global warming: Free market ideology and libertarianism. These are not, last I checked, the same thing. (If anything, libertarians may be the most religiously skeptical group on the political right.)

And yet clearly there's a relationship between the two issue stances. If you're in doubt, watch this Climate Desk video of a number of members of Congress citing religion in the context of questioning global warming: