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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Climate change is melting open the North Pole

It's time once again for your regular update on the melting ice in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on earth!

By 2040, the melt will be so intense that some ships could be able to navigate straight across the North Pole during the summer months, according to new research out of UCLA, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's bad news for people who care about a livable climate, but good news for shipping companies that want to spread cheap goods far and wide.

Ponds on the surface of Arctic ice. (Photo by NASA.)
Ponds on the surface of Arctic ice.


Currently, the Northwest Passage is inaccessible for normal vessels, and has only been transited a handful of times by reinforced ice-breaking ships. Under both of the [climate] scenarios [the researchers studied], though, it becomes navigable to Polar Class 6 ships every summer. At times, it could even be open to unreinforced vessels as well—the study shows that, when multiple simulations were run in both medium-low and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, open sailing was possible for 50 to 60 percent of the years studied.


Check out these rad women cyclists gearing up to take the lane

There's a lot to feel terrible about lately. I mean, you saw that Keystone pipeline environmental impact report from the State Department, right? You forgot? Oh no, don't cry! Look, here's something to feel good about: The National Women's Bicycling Forum in Washington, D.C., today is championing ladies who ride.

Female bikers still make up a small minority of cyclists -- they accounted for less than one-quarter of all bike trips in 2009 -- and Women Bike is determined to change that. "As the energy and momentum around women cycling grows nationwide, we need to share our collective knowledge, build a network of female leaders and start working on targeted programs that put more women in the saddle and at the forefront of the movement," writes Women Bike. "Women Bike will empower more women to bicycle and become engaged in the diverse leadership opportunities of the bicycle movement -- as advocates, engineers, retailers, manufacturers and policy makers -- through networking, knowledge sharing, resources and inspiration."

Earlier last month, Women Bike released a report about the economic impact of ladies on two wheels. "Though underrepresented in many aspects of the bicycle movement, there's growing evidence that women hold the purse strings when it comes to the future success of the bike industry," they wrote.

Read more: Cities, Living


Amtrak is making a comeback, kinda

If you've been on an Amtrak train lately with crappy snacks, non-working power outlets, and faulty wifi, you might not agree with the claim that "American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance." But that's the word from the folks at the Brookings Institution, which has released a new report detailing how Amtrak is "well-positioned for the future" after seeing massive growth over the last 15 years. Growth in ridership, that is, not in service.

"Ridership grew by 55 percent since 1997 and is now at record levels, with over 31 million travelers annually," according to Brookings. "That's faster than other travel modes like aviation and far outpaces the growth in population and economic output during that time." The study also found that 100 of the country's biggest metro areas are responsible for almost 90 percent of Amtrak's ridership, with 10 of those making up almost two-thirds of it.

Brookings has a sweet interactive map with data about Amtrak routes nationwide, with a focus on some of those most train-crazy big cities, and a look at which are the cheapest and most expensive rides in terms of operating costs. Here's a static version:

Brookings Institution

Compare, though, Brookings' map to this map showing how much the U.S. passenger rail network has shrunk since 1962, and that "renaissance" looks a little less golden.


China keeps making new green pledges

Is China learning to love the environment?
Shanghai, along with the rest of China, might soon be getting a little cleaner.

The West has long turned a collective blind eye to China's human rights abuses, its disregard for democracy, its complicity in the mistreatment of its low-wage workers, its occupation of Tibet, and its environmental sins. By turning that blind eye, we've ensured a cheap and steady flow of everything from McDonald's Happy Meal toys to iPhones and other toxic consumer goods.

But something remarkable has been happening of late: China's despotic leaders seem to be working to clean up the country's environmental practices.


U.S. nuclear companies fight new safety measures

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in New York could use a couple radiation filters
Constellation Energy Group
Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in New York could use a couple radiation filters.

How much should a nuclear power plant operator spend to prevent radiation from spewing into the air during an accident, à la Fukushima and Chernobyl?

The answer, according to staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is $20 million per reactor. That's the price tag for a filter that could be fitted to a reactor's vent to capture radiation during an accident.


Enviros slam Keystone findings, threatened species stay silent

Whooping cranes could be killed by the Keystone XL Pipeline, yet they have remained silent on the threat
Kenneth Cole Schneider
Whooping cranes: just one of the species threatened by the Keystone XL pipeline.

Environmentalists lined up over the weekend to condemn a draft State Department report that found no compelling environmental reason not to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

The stretch of pipeline in question would bring tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. border and down through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The southern stretch of the pipeline, which will carry the oil to Gulf Coast refineries, is already more than halfway built.

The draft environmental impact statement concluded [PDF] that the proposed project would damage more than 100 acres of wetlands, increase temperatures in wildlife-rich streams, and threaten vulnerable species. If there are spills from the pipeline, they could dump oil into lakes, aquifers, and rivers.

The project would also lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but the department determined that if the pipeline is not built, that could trigger more global warming because the industry might then ship its oil via less efficient methods like rail and oil tanker. That claim drew widespread condemnation from activists and scientists.


Meet Obama’s energy secretary pick: Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz
Here's Ernest.

Today President Obama nominated Ernest Moniz to head the Department of Energy, as widely expected. If confirmed, he'll replace outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Moniz, like Chu, is a super-brainy physicist.

Here's what Philip Bump wrote about Moniz last month on the pages of Grist:

Who is Ernest Moniz?

Here's who he is, as articulated by Reuters:

Moniz, a former undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco for academic work on projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.


Meet Obama’s EPA pick: Gina McCarthy

Gina McCarthy
Here's Gina.

President Obama today nominated Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She currently serves as assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation under outgoing EPA chief Lisa Jackson.

Lauded and loathed for her climate work, McCarthy, a 58-year-old Bostonite, has had a big hand in recent critical rules such as new auto emissions standards. She used to work as the top state environmental official for Massachusetts under a Gov. Mitt Romney, and then in the same role in Connecticut under another Republican governor, Jodi Rell. But she's still mostly a public unknown, which explains why people are so delighted/disturbed by her strong Boston accent.

McCarthy is squarely on the side of fighting climate change through sometimes aggressive policy-making. Her work in Massachusetts helped lead to the landmark Supreme Court case in 2007 that gave the EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. From The Wall Street Journal:


Van Jones: Keystone XL would be ‘the Obama Pipeline’

Activist and former White House adviser Van Jones came out swinging against the Keystone XL pipeline Friday night on CNN, warning that if it's approved it would be a big black mark on President Obama's legacy. His comments came a few hours after the State Department released a draft environmental impact statement finding that the proposed pipeline wouldn't have excessive environmental or climate effects. Jones:

What happens if you've got the Obama Pipeline -- now it's the Obama Pipeline -- and it leaks? His legacy could be the worst oil disaster in American farmland history. ...

If after he gave that speech for his inauguration, the first thing he does is approve a pipeline bringing tar sands through America ... the first thing that pipeline runs over is the credibility of the president on his climate policy. ...

The Obama Tar-Sands Pipeline should not the legacy of the president that gave that speech.

Watch the whole segment:


New York Times kills its ‘Green’ blog

green_main-bLess than two months ago, The New York Times dissolved its environment desk, eliminating its two environment editor positions and reassigning those editors and seven reporters.

Now the paper is swinging the hatchet again, shutting down the Green blog that had been home to original environmental reporting every weekday. The news was announced in a brief post on the blog today:

The Times is discontinuing the Green blog, which was created to track environmental and energy news and to foster lively discussion of developments in both areas. This change will allow us to direct production resources to other online projects. But we will forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.

The paper says environmental policy news will move to the Caucus blog and energy technology news will move to the Bits blog.

But a Times insider tells Grist that the decision probably means an end to the significant amount of freelance reporting that appeared in the Green blog.