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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Thousands of Minneapolis bees killed by pesticides

Bee on flower
Let's hope that flower hasn't been poisoned.

When thousands of Minneapolis bees died last month, "spilling out of the hive" like they were "drunk," as one apiarist put it, the University of Minnesota and the state's ag department were called in.

After weeks of lab tests, the scientists found the culprit: Fipronil, a widely used insecticide found in more than 50 pest-killing products. From Minnesota Daily:

The University Bee Lab, the Bee Squad and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture conducted tests to confirm that pesticide had caused the deaths.

Read more: Food


Abandoned Russian farmland soaks up 50 million tons of carbon every year

Abandoned grain processor
An abandoned grain processor that dates back to Soviet era.

When the USSR collapsed, the communal farming systems that helped feed the union's citizens collapsed with it. Farmers abandoned 110 million acres of farmland and headed into the cities in search of work.

New research by European scientists has revealed the staggering climate benefits of that sweeping change in land use. According to the study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, wild vegetation growing on former USSR farming lands has sucked up approximately 50 million tons of carbon every year since 1990.

New Scientist reports that's equivalent to 10 percent of Russia's yearly fossil fuel carbon emissions:

"Everything like this makes a difference," says Jonathan Sanderman, a soil chemist at CSIRO Land and Water in Australia. "Ten per cent is quite a bit considering most nations are only committed to 5 per cent reduction targets. So by doing absolutely nothing -- by having depressed their economy -- they've achieved quite a bit."

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Walleye move in to a warming Lake Superior

Aaron Kamphuis
He caught a walleye.

If you are a warm-water-loving fish looking for a Great Lake in which to swim, Lake Superior is traditionally not your best option. It's the northernmost of the five lakes, stretching far into Ontario, and it's especially deep and often covered with ice. Its frigid waters have traditionally been too cold for balmy swimmers like the walleye.

But, hey, it's a fast-changing world -- Lake Superior included.

The Daily Climate reports that water temperatures in the lake have risen by about 5 degrees F since the 1970s; ice cover has fallen by a half during the same period. And that's bringing the walleye within reach of the lake's anglers.


It continues: Two Pennsylvania coal plants will close for good next week

Hatfield's Ferry power plant
The Hatfield's Ferry power plant in Greene County. Goodbye and good riddance.

The coal sector is in its death throes, thanks to cheaper alternatives and a growing distaste for what is the worst of the global-warming fuels. The latest casualties: two coal-burning power plants in Pennsylvania that will pump their last energy into the grid, and cough their last pollution in to the air, this weekend.

Officials with FirstEnergy Generation told state lawmakers on Thursday that their 370-megawatt plant in Washington County and its monster, 1,710-megawatt facility in Greene County will shutter next week, with little to no hope of them being sold or reopened.

"Those plants are losing money today and will lose money in the future. Our plans are not to run those units again," said James Lash, FirstEnergy's president, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Lash painted a grim future for coal-fired power plants, saying electricity is priced too low in a market where demand for power has dropped and the capital investment needed to meet environmental regulations is too high. Electricity prices have dropped 10 percent from summer to fall, while the cost of natural gas -- which also is used as a fuel for power generation -- remains at historic low levels because of the abundance of gas from supplies such as the Marcellus shale reserves, Lash said.


New Yorkers exposed to more pesticides than rural residents

The Big Apple

New Yorkers can eat all the organics that they want -- but that won't be enough to protect them from the Big Apple's stubborn pesticide problem.

Despite living in a dense city with only tiny patches of agriculture (much of it organic, local, and ad-hoc), New York City residents have higher exposure levels than most Americans to two toxic classes of pesticide, according to a new study.

And the poisons are not just hitchhiking in on the produce.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Frackers are flushing radioactive waste into rivers

Blacklick Creek
Blacklick Creek in Pennsylvania.

Frackers often treat their wastewater a little bit like sewage, passing it through water treatment plants and then flushing it into streams and rivers. It may be an improvement on pumping the stuff back into the ground, which can trigger earthquakes, but new research reveals that this can be a dangerously shitty approach to managing frack water.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, entails injecting water and chemicals into the ground to break up underground rocks and release oil and gas. When that water burbles back to the surface, however, it comes back laced with traces of metals, isotopes, and other pollutants that normally sit harmlessly deep beneath the soil.

Duke University researchers studied a fracker's wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania and found it removed more than 90 percent of the radioactive radium from the wastewater. But that's not nearly enough: The researchers report in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that the radioisotopes that are slipping through the cracks in the treatment system are accumulating in alarming levels in Blacklick Creek, where the wastewater is dumped.


Say goodbye to Yosemite’s largest glacier

Lyell Glacier
Park visitors gaze at what remains of the Lyell Glacier.

Hasta la vista, glacier.

The world's glaciers are withering quickly -- researchers say they are contributing to nearly one-third of sea-level rise, despite holding just 1 percent of the planet's surface ice. And while the glaciers in California's Yosemite National Park aren't the largest, they are suffering the same alarming fate as their icy ilk in other parts of the world.

Yosemite's granite cliffs and valleys were carved during the Ice Age as glaciers expanded. Now these vestigial masses of ice are mostly retreating -- and fast. The park employs a full-time glaciologist, Greg Stock, who recently returned from a trek to Lyell Glacier, which is the park's largest. He told the L.A. Times that it had shrunk visibly since he made the same back-country hike last year:

Read more: Climate & Energy


American company sues Canada over fracking moratorium

The St. Lawrence River
The St. Lawrence River.

Quebec isn't entirely sure about this whole fracking thing. Amid reports from across the continent of groundwater pollution, air pollution, deforestation, and other environmental side effects of hydraulic fracturing, the Canadian province has placed a moratorium on the practice beneath the St. Lawrence River.

That doesn't sit well with Lone Pine Resources, a Delaware-based company that has long eyed the gas and oil that's locked up in the Utica shale beneath the grand waterway. The company claims it spent millions to get the appropriate permits to drill, and now that the fossil fuels seem out of reach, it says Canadians need to pony up more than $250 million in compensation.

The company last month submitted a claim [PDF] to an international arbitration system seeking damages because of "Quebec’s arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation" of its "valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River." The claim is based on Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows private companies to sue governments when laws hurt their expected profits.


Monsanto just dropped $1 billion on better weather forecasts

North Idaho wheat field
Gary Beck
Who's watching the weather for the farmers?

Congressional paralysis is freezing or slashing national spending on weather forecasting and monitoring. Plans to deploy a next-generation array of satellites known as COSMIC-2 could be cut by lawmakers as part of the sequester spending cuts -- if only they would pass a budget. And workers at NASA, which provide data used by climate researchers the world over, are being furloughed.

But Monsanto -- that profitable agro-corporation that wields ever-increasing power over the world's food supply -- is taking a smarter approach. As the effects of climate change devastate crops the world over, Monsanto has announced it is buying the Climate Corporation for $930 million. From the press release:

“Farmers around the world are challenged to make key decisions for their farms in the face of increasingly volatile weather, as well as a proliferation of information sources,” said David Friedberg, chief executive officer for The Climate Corporation. “Our team understands that the ability to turn data into actionable insight and farm management recommendations is vitally important for agriculture around the world and can greatly benefit farmers, regardless of farm size or their preferred farming methods. Monsanto shares this important vision for our business and we look forward to creating even greater experiences for our farmer customers.”

Modern Farmer explains the acquisition:

Climate Corporation underwrites weather insurance for farmers, basically in real time, using some of the most sophisticated data tools available to determine the risks posed by future weather conditions and events.


In Silicon Valley hub, new homes must be wired for electric cars

Tesla roadsters charging at the company's Palo Alto headquarters.
John Upton
Tesla roadsters charging at the company's Palo Alto headquarters.

If you build a new home in Tesla Motors' hometown, your electrician is going to need to wire it up for an electric vehicle charger.

The Palo Alto, Calif., City Council recently endorsed a building-code change that would require builders to include wiring in new homes that can easily be connected to a charger. The council also directed city staff to figure out how to make it easier and cheaper to obtain permits for new EV chargers.