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This velomobile is basically an electric car without the hassle

velomobile-elf-quest-solar-tricycle

If the words “recumbent trike” make your lip curl, we understand. Weird bikes often seem to perpetuate the myth that cyclists are fringey oddballs disconnected from reality. But the ELF deserves a second glance:

A team from Durham, N.C., designed the semi-enclosed, three-wheeled contraption to marry the best aspect of bikes and cars. The result is a low-impact EV that gives you some protection from the elements and plenty of room for groceries. Pedal when you can, but let the solar-powered battery kick in if you’re hauling bags of kitty litter uphill.

The ELF can go up to 30 mph and carry up to 350 pounds, but doesn’t need any of that pesky car stuff like a license plate, insurance, or actual gasoline. The battery’ll charge in 90 minutes when plugged in, carrying you up to 14 miles -- farther if you put your thighs to work.

The ELF’s main problem is its $5,495 price tag. Then again, if you’re basically getting 1,800 mpg, it could be worth it -- more than 300 ELF owners seem to think so. If, like moi, your wimpiness forever prevents you from turning cyclist, velomobiles like the ELF just might be the gateway drug.

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“Years of Living Dangerously” host on the climate change stories we need to tell

M. Sanjayan.

If you thought the title of Showtime’s new series, Years of Living Dangerously, was just a reference to the perils of climate change, think again: “I almost died on that show,” one of its hosts, M. Sanjayan, told us when he came into the Grist office earlier this month.

Sanjayan helps tell the story of climate change by journeying to exotic places like the Andes and Christmas Island. But when he's not swashbuckling around the world in the name of the environment and science, he’s still vouching for it: previously, as the head scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and now as the executive vice president of Conservation International. He also keeps the conversation going through media outlets like the Huffington Post and CBS News.

We talked with Sanjayan about his brush with death, finding the face of climate change (hint: It’s not a polar bear’s), and coming to grips with the fact that, at this point, we’re going to have to adapt to the hot new conditions we've created. And, in our lightning round video at the top of the post, we asked him what we really wanted to know: Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye?

Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom

revolution
Shutterstock

You might have heard that the latest installment of the big new U.N. climate report endorses fracking, urging a "dash for gas" as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future. These interpretations of the report are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. They appear to have been based on interviews and on a censored summary of the report, which was published two days before the full document became available.

The energy chapter from the full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says "near‐term GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced" by replacing coal-fired power plants with "highly efficient" natural gasburning alternatives -- a move that "may play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources." But that's only true, the report says, if fugitive emissions of climate-changing methane from drilling and distribution of the gas are "low" -- which is far from the case today. Scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that methane measurements taken near fracking sites in Pennsylvania suggest such operations leak 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the U.S. EPA has estimated. The IPCC's energy chapter also notes that fracking for gas has "created concerns about potential risks to local water quality and public health."

To protect the climate and save ourselves, the new IPCC report says we must quit fossil fuels. That doesn't mean switching from coal to natural gas. It means switching from coal and gas to solar and wind, plugging electric vehicles into those renewable sources, and then metaphorically blowing up the fossil-fueled power plants that pock the planet.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Power plants lose legal bid to douse you with mercury

coal power pollution
Shutterstock

When it proposed strict pollution rules in late 2011, the EPA paid no heed to the $9.6 billion worth of costs that coal-burning power plants would have to swallow. Its only concern in drafting the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards was keeping mercury and other poisons out of the environment  and away from Americans  by demanding that power plants use scrubbers and other clean-air technology.

And on Tuesday, over the legal whimpers of the coal industry, federal judges said that's just fine.

Coal power plants are responsible for half of the country's mercury pollution and two-thirds of its arsenic emissions. By cracking down on this health-harming, brain-damaging, ecosystem-ruining pollution, the EPA has estimated that the standards will prevent 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks -- every single year. Thousands of lives will be saved.

The power plant owners felt it was unfair that the government cared about public health but didn't care about their bottom lines. More mercury in your air means more money in their pockets. So they sued. And they were joined in their battle by the governments of conservative-led states like Alaska, Kansas, and Michigan.

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Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Why it matters that Democrat Mary Landrieu is bashing Obama over energy

Mary Landrieu
John Orrell

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is running against President Obama instead of her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy. Her first reelection ad of the year compiles clips of her standing up for her state’s oil and gas interests, attacking Obama for policies like the brief moratorium on offshore oil drilling imposed in 2010 after the disastrous BP oil rig explosion. "It's 300,000 people that go to work every day in this industry," Landrieu intones. "You can't just beat up on them." Implicitly working-class men -- they have beards and engineer hats, but they're too old to be hipsters -- look on in solemn assent.

Landrieu also recently brought together 10 other Democrats from red or swing states to push Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline by the end of May. "It has already taken much longer than anyone can reasonably justify," they argue in a letter sent to the president last week.

This is surely a good strategy in Louisiana, a state where Obama lost to Mitt Romney by more than 17 points -- and where the oil industry directly employs around 62,000 workers and pays $1.4 billion a year in state taxes.

And Obama knows it's in his interest to have Democrats hold onto the Senate. That’s why Paul Waldman of The American Prospect argues that there’s no harm done by Landrieu’s pro-fossil-fuel pandering in her new ad:

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Here’s a wind turbine you can toss in your purse

trinity-portable-wind-turbine2
© Skajaquoda

Hate it when a strong breeze musses your hair without generating any electricity? Same. So the Trinity portable wind turbine is a welcome invention, in addition of reminding us of The Matrix.

trinity-portable-wind-turbine
© Skajaquoda

Trinity will love he who is The One is only 12 inches tall when collapsed, so it can slip into your bag or backpack. Whip it out and it extends to 23 inches high, with three aluminum legs. Adds Treehugger:

The device has three wind blades (a Savonius design) that can be folded into the body of the device for transport, and open up when deployed, which spin a 15W generator and charge a 15,000 mAh battery when the wind is blowing.

It can charge your phone and other gadgets via a USB port, and at four pounds, the thing probably weighs less than your laptop. Donating $249 to the Kickstarter campaign will get you a Trinity of your very own come January, if Minnesota research firm Skajaquoda meets its $50,ooo goal:

It also has a little hole in each leg for stakes so Trinity won’t, you know, blow away. Speaking of which, does that mean we can make electricity just by blowing really hard? Someone get a Trinity so we can test this out. I, at least, am full of hot air.

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Scientists are using mushrooms to get gold out of your old phone

mushrooms-field-flickr-shandilee
Shandi-lee Cox

The chemicals and heavy metals in our phones are bad news -- both for the workers exposed to them during mining and manufacture, and for anyone who lives near the landfill where they offgas. (Although the iPhone’s gotten greener, there’s still a LOT of mercury and chlorine inside that shiny li’l puppy, making for unappetizing drinking water.)

Even worse, extracting precious metals from old phones is pretty toxic, requiring cyanide and sulfuric acid. Or rather, it was pretty toxic, until scientists figured out you could do it by using 'shrooms.

It turns out if you smash a phone into powder and pass it through fungi roots, a.k.a. mycelium, the chemically engineered mycelium will basically be a magnet for the gold. “Heh heh, totally!” explain the scientists. “Hey, is that a dragon eating a rainbow?”

Not only can ‘shrooms do the job, but they're about four times as efficient as the old toxic methods, according to Gizmodo:

Read more: Living

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Why it’s a big deal that half of the Great Lakes are still covered in ice

largest
NASA

Over the winter, as polar vortices plunged the U.S. Midwest into weeks of unceasing cold, the icy covers of the Great Lakes started to make headlines. With almost 96 percent of Lake Superior's 32,000 miles encased in ice at the season's peak, tens of thousands of tourists flocked to the ice caves along the Wisconsin shoreline, suddenly accessible after four years of relatively warmer wintery conditions.

The thing is, all of that ice takes a long time to melt. As of April 10, 48 percent of the five lakes' 90,000-plus square miles were still covered in ice, down from a high of 92.2 percent on March 6 (note that constituted the highest levels recorded since 1979, when ice covered 94.7 percent of the lakes). Last year, only 38.4 percent of the lakes froze over, while in 2012 just 12.9 percent did -- part of a four-year stint of below-average iciness.

And as the Great Lakes slowly lose their historically large ice covers over the next few months, the domino effects could include lingering cold water, delayed seasonal shifts, and huge jumps in water levels.

Already, the impact of this icy blockade can be felt. On March 25, five days after the official beginning of spring, the Soo Locks separating Lake Superior from the lower Great Lakes opened for the season. But after a long and harsh winter, Lake Superior's nearly 32,000 square miles were still nearly entirely covered in ice. It would be another 11 days before the first commercial vessel fought its way across Lake Superior -- with the aid of several dedicated ice breakers -- and down through the locks.

The trip across Lake Superior to the Soo Locks, which usually takes 28 hours, took these first ships of the season nine days. A third ship had to return to Duluth after being damaged by the ice.
Detroit District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Facebook
The trip across Lake Superior to the Soo Locks, which usually takes 28 hours, took these first ships of the season nine days. A third ship had to return to Duluth after being damaged by the ice.
Read more: Climate & Energy

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Smells like teen spirit

Fearless teenage fish don’t run from climate change, death

Watch out, these hooligans will win any game of chicken.
Geir Friestad
Watch out, these hooligans will win a game of chicken or literally die trying.

When we were teens, we rebelled by stealing printer paper from the school library and staying out 15 minutes past curfew. Damselfish, however, really take that burn-the-world attitude to the next level.

A new study out this week in Nature Climate Change suggests that instead of making the fish scared for their very lives, ocean acidification lulls the little buggers into a false sense of security. Rather than being frightened by the smell of predators, the juvenile damselfish subjects of the experiment were more likely to be attracted, leading researchers to say: Dang it, teenagers! Didn't we warn you about the lionfish in the cool leather jacket?

Researchers gathered fish from sites near seafloor CO2 vents off of Papua New Guinea, where the water is already more acidic than the rest of the ocean -- though the researchers predict that the rest of the ocean could hit similar levels by 2100. The four species studied, common varieties of reef-dwelling damselfish and cardinalfish, were placed in tanks that were filled with various streams of water, some straight seawater, others conditioned to smell like predators.

Instead of being damselfish in distress, the CO2-habituated fish spent up to 90 percent of their time in the predator-stinking stream. In contrast, the control fish pretty much only hung out in the undoctored water like little goody-two-shoes. Other experiments involved chasing the fish around with a pencil, then seeing how quickly they emerged from a safe hiding spot; again, most of the acid-head fish just rolled their eyes.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Sally Jewell’s frustrating first year in Washington

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has faced an uphill battle in Washington as she tries to implement her ambitious agenda. In February, she went snowshoeing on Mount Rainier to see firsthand the effects of climate change.
Kate Sheppard
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has faced an uphill battle in Washington as she tries to implement her ambitious agenda. In February, she went snowshoeing on Mount Rainier to see firsthand the effects of climate change.

On a brisk Monday afternoon in February, with the sun finally peeking out from behind the clouds after a passing snow squall, a group of researchers and park rangers strapped on snowshoes and hiked about half a mile to an overlook facing the Nisqually Glacier in Mount Rainier National Park. Scientists have been monitoring the surface elevation of the Nisqually since the 1930s, tracking the peaks and dips in the ice as the glacier moves down the valley. It is the longest record of this type of measurement for any glacier in the western hemisphere -- and, in recent years, a key piece of evidence of the devastating effects of climate change in this iconic park.

Dressed in a pale blue snow jacket and purple beanie, Sally Jewell listened intently as the scientists described the years of research dedicated to the park's glaciers. The secretary of the Interior eyed a graph charting changes in the Nisqually's elevation and noted the drop-off between 2002 and 2011. Yes, the scientists confirmed, that's one sign of how climate change is impacting the glaciers. As the climate has warmed, the Nisqually has also retreated. It once plunged down the valley, running just behind the Paradise Visitor Center. But now, even in the dead of winter, its tail end is barely visible, peeking out ever so slightly in the distance. The glacier's retreat has been dramatic: More than a mile since the early records. Scientists have documented more than 700 feet of retreat since 2003 alone.