Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


We may soon lose our storm-tracking satellites

Wreckage from the 1900 Galveston hurricane floats offshore.

On Sept. 4, 1900, the U.S. Weather Bureau office in Galveston, Texas, learned of a major storm in Cuba. It was hard to predict where it might head next; they apparently thought it was likely to head northeast. It didn't. On the 8th, a hurricane leveled the city.

The Galveston Weather Bureau staff didn't have much choice but to guess. As we've seen with Sandy over the past few days, the path of a hurricane is hard to predict even with modern sensor technology and satellites. Without the data we now collect, almost as blind as Texans in 1900.

And now the bad news: Obsolescence and budget cuts may mean that we're about to lose some of those data-collecting satellites. From The New York Times:

The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the whole planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms around five days ahead.

All this week, forecasters have been relying on just such satellite observations for almost all of the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: explode against the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the massive snowfall that hit Washington in the 2010 blizzard nicknamed “Snowmageddon.”



Chevron drops $2.5 million in pocket change to elect House Republicans

The logo visible in the upper-left corner of the check.
Chevron, owners of a refinery that exploded over the summer resulting in possible criminal charges, decided to make a strategic investment that it clearly hopes will prevent future, similar headaches.

It gave $2.5 million to a pro-Republican super PAC.

Chevron’s donation accounts for the bulk of the $3.1 million the group raised between Oct. 1-17, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission released Thursday.

California-based Chevron, in a statement, said it “exercises its right to participate in the political process through various contributions” and emphasized that all of the company's political giving is fully disclosed. …

The Chevron donation appears to be the largest by a publicly traded company since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, according to Public Campaign Action Fund, a group that promotes the public financing of elections.

The lucky PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has spent $4.1 million against Democratic candidates so far this cycle. Here's one of the ads it funded, dinging a Democratic incumbent on cap-and-trade.

Read more: Uncategorized


The $41 million corporate ad blitz that is taking down California’s GMO labeling

California's Proposition 37 would require that all genetically modified foods be labeled for consumer awareness. It's pitched as a "Right to Know" campaign, and for a while things were looking bright for Nov. 6's Election Day. But now?

A USC Dornsife / Los Angeles Times poll released Thursday showed 44% of surveyed voters backing the initiative and 42% opposing it. A substantial slice of the electorate, 14%, remains undecided or unwilling to take a position.

That's compared to the last USC/LA Times poll done just over a month ago, which showed 61 percent in favor and 25 percent opposed. Basically: It is not looking good. From The Los Angeles Times:

Read more: Food, Politics


Drought continues to hammer the economy

If you were to go to Congress and say, "Hey, Congress. I know a way to stem significant drags on the nation's productivity," they'd probably say, "Great, let's hear it." And then you'd say, "Let's work to fight climate change and limit the number of droughts the country experiences," and they'd tune out as soon as you said "climate" and go back to tallying their checks from oil companies.

From the Bureau of Economic Analysis [PDF]:

Real [gross domestic product (GDP)] increased 2.0 percent (annual rate) in the third quarter of 2012, following an increase of 1.3 percent in the second quarter. …

BEA’s GDP estimates reflect the effects of this summer’s extreme hot weather and drought in the Midwest on farm production. For the most part, these effects are embedded in the regular source data that are used by BEA. When the source data do not completely reflect the effects of the drought, BEA attempts to supplement these data, applying methodologies similar to those used in the past. While the drought could indirectly affect many components of GDP, such as personal consumption expenditures and exports, it is only possible to separately identify its effects on a few components, such as the change in farm inventories.

Adjusting for inflation, the change in farm inventories subtracted 0.42 percentage point from the third-quarter change in real GDP after subtracting 0.17 percentage point from the second-quarter change.

Emphasis added. We noted the second-quarter GDP drag last month; the slowdown this quarter was even more significant.


Deathicane Sandy: Updates and resources

[sigh] Hello.

I know you're tired of hearing about Hurricane Sandy. Or maybe you're not. Who knows. If you are, I'm sorry. I can't help it. I live on the East Coast. This, this thing is bearing down on me. I bet it was just as hard for Damocles not to always be blogging about swords. And since I made the first Sandy-related GIF several days ago, by the laws of the internet, I own the story.

Here's where we are this morning.

Click to embiggen.

As you can see, the anticipated track continues to shift west and south. The storm should make landfall Monday night, probably somewhere near Delaware. But as it has over the past few days, that track could change.

Read more: Climate & Energy


The government finally figures out how much rooftop solar there is

Without question, residential rooftop solar is a boon: economically, environmentally, aesthetically (if you're into that sci-fi thing). But there's a drawback to democratizing power generation -- it's hard to count. A company building a new coal plant is easier to learn about than the Smiths putting a solar panel on their roof. Figuring out how many solar panels there are is tricky; it means coming up with new ways of generating approximations.

The Energy Information Association, a branch of the Department of Energy, thinks it's figured out how to add it up. On Wednesday, it released the first such accounting. How much rooftop solar is there? A lot.

This graph is confusing, so let's start with the toplines. There is about 3,500 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity in the United States. Of that, about 1,000 megawatts are utility-scale, massive, utility-owned facilities.

The rest of the capacity is on-site, either residential or commercial. Commercial installations, like those atop big-box stores, have about 1,500 megawatts in capacity. Residential has about 1,000 megawatts -- equivalent to about four coal-powered plants.


New urban migration patterns shaped by the youngs

It may not feel like it, but the economy is slowly recovering, and with it Americans are once again on the move.

You can tell D.C.'s getting younger because all the photos of it are getting Instagramy.

We already knew the suburbs were getting grayer as the olds stick around instead of packing up for retirement homes. Now, new Census data shows that young singles 25-29 make up the bulk of this new migratory class, leaving their homes for "urban, high-tech meccas" across the country where they will live in little boxes all stacked up on top of each other instead of on the hillside.

Out are the super-sized McMansions in far-flung suburbs and in the sprawling Southwest, which helped drive rapid metro area growth in the early to middle part of the last decade in places such as Phoenix; Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; and Atlanta. In are new, 300 square-foot "micro" apartments under consideration for wider development in dense cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle, which are seeking to attract young single adults who value affordable spaces in prime locations to call their own.

Read more: Cities, Living


Geoengineering: ‘Chemotherapy’ for the planet, only riskier

Man, geoengineering is trendddyyyyy these days!

(A quick review: The term "geoengineering" refers to attempts to fix the planet's environmental problems by mucking around with the planet. For example, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere somehow.)

A geoengineer.

Last week's goat was Russ George, who dumped a bunch of iron in the ocean. His goal was to create a massive algal bloom (which he did) which would absorb carbon dioxide. The main thing he did, though, was piss everyone off.

Now David Keith is the geoengineer of the hour, with an interview at Quartz and providing the quote-of-the-day to Foreign Policy:

There are two distinct approaches [to global warming] under consideration -- sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, or creating an artificial sun shield for the planet. The former, which involves reversing some of the very processes that are leading to the climate problem, is expensive. The latter just sounds scary. David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls it "chemotherapy" for the planet. "You are repulsed?" he says. "Good. No one should like it. It's a terrible option."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Pacific fish from Japan to Oregon still radioactive from Fukushima fallout

More than 18 months later, the full scope of the decidedly human-made Fukushima nuclear meltdown is still rippling through the natural world. Like the butterflies before them, Fukushima fish are showing dangerously elevated radioactivity and may still for a decade to come.

Exchange Place
Healthy Fukushima fish four years before the meltdown.

According to a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday, large and bottom-dwelling species carry most risk, which means cod, flounder, halibut, pollock, skate and sole from the waters in question could be off limits for years.

Sample fish caught in waters near the stricken reactors suggest there is still a source of caesium either on the seafloor or still being discharged into the sea, perhaps from what is left of the cooling waters. As the levels of radioactive isotopes in the fish are not declining as fast as they should have, the outlook for fishing in the area is likely to be poor for the next 10 years, the paper's author told the Guardian.

Read more: Food


Warmer seas may release frozen methane into the sky forever

Department of Energy
Methane hydrate, being held by a magician, I assume.

Energy companies got all excited last month when the Department of Energy started handing out investments to explore gas hydrates on the ocean floor off the East Coast. These hydrates are basically methane gas trapped in little pockets of ice (basically), so of course energy companies want to bring them up, thaw them out, and set them on fire.

There's just one little problem: The extremely warm water off the coast may already be melting the hydrates.

From NBC News:

Temperature changes in the Gulf Stream are "rapidly destabilizing methane hydrate along a broad swathe of the North American margin," the experts said in a study published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

Using seismic records and ocean models, the team estimated that 2.5 gigatonnes of frozen methane hydrate are being destabilized and could separate into methane gas and water.

It is not clear if that is happening yet, but that methane gas would have the potential to rise up through the ocean and into the atmosphere, where it would add to the greenhouse gases warming Earth. …

"It is unlikely that the western North Atlantic margin is the only area experiencing changing ocean currents," they noted. "Our estimate ... may therefore represent only a fraction of the methane hydrate currently destabilizing globally."