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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Extreme weather and GMO crops devastate monarch butterfly migration

It's not so much the butterfly effect as the butterfly affected: We knew monarchs had it bad as of late, but there was some hope for their winter migration -- until scientists conducted a census.


In just two years, the annual migration of North American monarch butterflies has declined by 59 percent, and scientists are blaming extreme weather and "changed farming practices," according to the New York Times. In other words, monster storms and monster Monsanto.

The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas disclosed at a news conference in Zitácuaro, Mexico. ...

The latest decline was hastened by drought and record-breaking heat in North America when the monarchs arrived last spring to reproduce. Warmer than usual conditions led the insects to arrive early and to nest farther north than is typical, Chip Taylor, director of the conservation group Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, said in an interview. The early arrival disrupted the monarchs’ breeding cycle, he said, and the hot weather dried insect eggs and lowered the nectar content of the milkweed on which they feed.

That in turn weakened the butterflies and lowered the number of eggs laid.

But an equally alarming source of the decline, both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Vidal said, is the explosive increase in American farmland planted in soybean and corn genetically modified to tolerate herbicides.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Wind power is poised to kick nuclear’s ass

Blowing away the competition in California
Shutterstock / Tim Messick
Blowing away the competition in California.

In 2012, wind energy became the fastest-growing source of new electricity generation in the U.S., providing 42 percent of new generation capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind power is becoming so cheap and so commonplace that it appears poised to help blow up the country's nuclear power sector, according to a recent Bloomberg article (which you really should read in full). Other highlights from the piece:

  • $25 billion was spent on wind energy in the U.S. in 2012.
  • The $25 billion outlay increased nationwide wind generating capacity by 13,124 megawatts -- up 28 percent from 2011.
  • That spending spree was fueled in large part by a mad scramble to qualify for federal tax credits that were set to expire at the end of last year (but were ultimately renewed by Congress).
  • Wind-generated electricity met about 3.4 percent of of American demand in 2012, a figure that's expected to reach 4.2 percent next year.
  • $120 billion spent on wind turbines since 2003 has increased wind power supplies 1,000 percent and created as much new electricity generation as could be provided by 14 new nuclear power plants.

In addition to federal tax credits, state-level renewable energy requirements are helping to spur wind's growth, and the nuclear industry thinks that's unfair:


Minnesotan towns say ‘no’ to a fracking sand mine

The main strip in the city of St. Charles, Minn.
The main strip in the city of St. Charles, Minn.

The fracking industry can't seem to buy itself any love.

While lawmakers in New York, Vermont, Fort Collins, Colo., and elsewhere consider or implement bans on hydraulic fracturing, companies that mine the sand that's used by frackers are also finding themselves rejected. And dejected.

Minnesota Proppant is one such company. It wanted to open one of the world’s largest frac-sand processing and rail-loading facilities in St. Charles Township in rural southeastern Minnesota (population 629). Sand in that area is highly prized by the fracking industry: It is just the right size and strength to be pumped with water and chemicals at high pressure into gas-rich shale, where it wedges into cracks that are opened up and holds them open, allowing natural gas to escape.

Unfortunately for the company, townsfolk weren't too keen on the pollution it was expected to produce. Nor were they thrilled that well water would be liberally pumped out of the ground by the miners. Concerns were raised about lung diseases that could be caused by airborne silica. And they worried that the local tourism industry could take a hit.

Do you suppose company officials took a hint and moved on?

They did not.


New Pope Francis sure likes buses, but will he be a leader for climate action?

Catholic Church

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been named the new head of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, as he's now called, awaits his future wearing cute outfits and riding around Vatican City in the popemobile. But where does Bergoglio stand on climate change?

Ex-Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, used his papal platform to promote social and political action in response to global warming, and even added an electric car to the popemobile fleet. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was also a proponent of climate action. And other Catholic leaders have spoken out about the need for a response to the impending "serious and potentially irreversible" effects of a warmer planet. (But, shhh, don't say anything about birth control and population growth.)

Bergoglio is still a bit of a mystery, but his humble background is well-documented. A Jesuit, he claims to have quietly rebelled during a period of grisly military dictatorship in Argentina, hiding people in his church and giving out fake identity papers. He chose to live in a small apartment instead of the fancy cardinal's house in Buenos Aires, and he is best known "as a champion of the poor," says The Washington Post.

This is often reflected in his very humble lifestyle, despite his position. One much-cited example of his personal (and very Franciscan) commitment is that he takes the bus.

Read more: Living, Politics


New law aims to make eating lions illegal, because right now it’s totally not

When Mufasa gave Simba that speech about the circle of life, he maybe should have included an extra warning about becoming lion jerky for some hungry folks in the U.S. Because apparently that is a thing.

Illinois Rep. Luis Arroyo wants to make eating lions illegal in his state, and the proposal is a lot more controversial than you might think. If passed, the Lion Meat Act would make it ""unlawful for any person to slaughter a lion or for any person to possess, breed, import or export from this State, buy, or sell lions for the purpose of slaughter." Right now, eating lion is legal nationwide.

Burgers? Tacos? Snack sticks? Really?
Burgers? Tacos? Snack sticks? Really?

For a ban on eating a threatened species, Arroyo's proposal is garnering a lot of criticism -- and not just from the guy who runs the weird-meat store, though he's certainly the most annoyed. Richard Czimer of Czimer's Game & Seafood, Inc. (mm mm lion snack sticks and bear bacon!) told National Geographic that the ban is "trying to curtail a choice." Of Arroyo: "He's discriminating against all my customers and everybody who wants to try something new," said Czimer, who was only able to buy two lousy lions last year.

Czimer, who was jailed for six months in 2003 for buying and selling illegal tiger and leopard meat, is mostly but not entirely alone in his love for lion, which also enjoys a bit of market share in Arizona. Other critics of the Lion Meat Act seem to be bothered by the big-government overreach of preventing people from eating threatened species. From Take Part:

Read more: Food


Conservatives vs. liberals: Who wastes more electricity?

red and blue power plugs

Researchers at UCLA tested whether liberals were all talk when it comes to caring about the environment.

The findings: They are not, at least in the American West.

In a comparison of electricity bills and voter registration records of 280,000 households, left-leaning voters were found to be more likely to leave their lights and air conditioners switched off and conserve more energy -- especially in the summertime -- than were Republicans.


River full of dead, diseased pigs is just another food safety nightmare for China

The Chinese are pissed, and if I were them I would be too.

One week after local residents first spotted them by a water treatment center, Chinese officials are still fishing dead pigs out of the Huangpu river. To date, they've used a dozen barges to pull 5,916 pigs out of the water. The pigs are believed to have originated from upriver farms after a series of investigations revealed illegal trade of meat harvested from diseased pigs. But don't worry, the government says: The water's fine!

Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai
REUTERS / Stringer China

The Guardian reports:

While the cause of the incident is still under investigation, water quality tests along the river have identified traces of porcine circovirus, a virus that can affect pigs but not humans. ...

China's toxic smog, rubbish-strewn rivers and contaminated soil have emerged as a source of widespread anger over the past few weeks, as profit-minded officials jostle with aggrieved internet users over how to balance the country's economic development with its environmental concerns.

Experts say the groundwater in half of all Chinese cities is contaminated, most of it severely, and that soil pollution could be widespread in 15 of the country's 33 provinces.

If China's trying to go green and quell community anxiety and anger over environmental pollution, it best get all those pigs out of the drink right quick.

Read more: Food, Living


Perfect swarm: Giant mosquitos invade Florida

"Huge,” “giant,” “mega,” and “aggressive” are not the words you want to hear before "mosquito." But that's how experts describe Psorophora ciliata, or the “gallinipper” mosquito. Native to the eastern U.S. and immortalized in stories and folk songs for decades, these big biters are now expanding into Florida.


Up to 20 times the size of other mosquitos, the gallinippers aren't known for spreading disease, but their bites are likened to being stabbed with a knife -- and unlike Florida's other invasive species, they don't make for an even remotely good meal (we presume). From the Huffington Post:

Doug Carlson, mosquito control director for Indian River County, told WPTV that the insects are so big, "it can feel like a small bird has landed on you." Meanwhile, Gary Goode of Palm Beach County Mosquito Control told WPBF the mosquito "practically breaks your arm" when it feeds on you.

A warmer winter and stagnant waters left over from Tropical Storm Debby (some parts of the state got 75 inches of rain in 2012) have scientists and residents nervous about the bites to come. The Gainesville Sun reports:

Whatever the mosquito type, locals could be destined for "a very rough summer," said Paul Myers, administrator for the Alachua County Health Department.

Read more: Living


Flammable ice will help power the planet, then make it even hotter

Methane hydrate burning in a laboratory
USGS Gas Hydrates Lab
Methane hydrate burning in a laboratory.

It sounds like an addictive drug.

And that may become an accurate description for the frozen fossil-fuel deposits that go by the name "flammable ice."

On Tuesday, Japan announced that it had tapped into flammable ice beneath the deep-sea floor and burned the methane that it contained. The achievement was a milestone victory in long-running international efforts to extract and burn the world's richest source of untapped fossil fuels.


Oil barge crashes into gas pipeline in Louisiana, triggers big fire

An oil-laden barge crashed into a gas pipeline in Louisiana
Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office
An oil-laden barge crashed into a natural-gas pipeline off the Louisiana coast.

A grotesque collision of fossil-fuel-laden vessels happened in a bayou south of New Orleans on Tuesday evening, where tug-boat operators crashed a barge carrying crude oil into a submerged natural-gas pipeline.

The result was predictable: A spectacular conflagration erupted that injured two of the four members of the tug-boat crew, including the captain, who reportedly suffered burns covering more than three quarters of his body. Emergency crews on Wednesday were scrambling to contain spilled oil spreading south of the accident.

The crash occurred at about 6 p.m. local time 30 miles south of New Orleans on Bayou Perot, according to the Coast Guard.

Read more: Climate & Energy