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


Comments

Antarctica’s permafrost is melting

Antarctic landscape
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
Antarctica.

Things are getting ugly on Earth's underside.

Antarctic permafrost, which had been weathering global warming far better than areas around the North Pole, is starting to give way. Scientists have recorded some of it melting at rates that are nearly comparable to those in the Arctic.

Scientists used time-lapse photography and LiDAR to track the retreat of an Antarctic ice cliff over a little more than a decade. They reported Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports that the cliff was "backwasting rapidly." The permafrost that made up the cliff was found to be disappearing nearly 10 times more quickly than was the case during recent geological history. And the rate of melting is picking up pace. From the Los Angeles Times:

Cliff-face measurements of the buried ice in the four-mile-long Garwood Valley revealed melt rates that shifted from a creeping annual rate of about 40,000 cubic feet per year over six milleniums, to more than 402,000 cubic feet last year alone. ... (That’s a leap from the capacity of about eight standard railroad boxcars to 77.)

The scientists also monitored the weather at the cliff and found that rising air temperatures were not to blame for the melt. Rather, they think it was caused by growing amounts of dark debris on the surface of the ice and snow that absorbed the sun's rays.

Read more: Climate & Energy

Comments

Court tells Transocean to stop obstructing Deepwater Horizon investigation

Deepwater Horizon aflame
Sky Truth
Transocean doesn't want federal investigators getting to the bottom of this.

Yes, owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, you do have to cooperate with the federal government's investigation into the 2010 explosion and oil spill. The rest of us would like to see how such disasters could be avoided in the future.

That was the message sent by a U.S. Court of Appeals to Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling company, ordering it to finally turn over long-sought documents to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).

Transocean has been appealing some of CSB's subpoenas, arguing that the board lacks the authority to probe the disaster. CSB investigates industrial accidents, but Transocean says the rig explosion is outside the board's purview partly because the rig was not a "stationary source."

But the company was sharply rebuked by a three-judge panel for that reckless intransigence. From The Louisiana Record:

Comments

China to spend big to clean up its air

China plans a five-year, $277 billion spending spree to clean up the country's killer air.

The government of the heavily polluted nation pledged to clean up its skies after air-pollution levels reached dizzying new heights early this year. The announcement coincides with other nascent environmental initiatives, such as a carbon-trading system to tackle climate change and, bizarrely, legal changes that could see serious polluters executed.

Beijing
Chris Aston
Filthy air in Beijing.

Many wondered whether the pledge to tackle air pollution was mere rhetoric, but this week's announcement suggests that China is taking the problem seriously. From Reuters:

The money is to be spent primarily in regions that have heavy air pollution and high levels of PM 2.5, the state-run China Daily newspaper quoted Wang Jinnan, vice-president of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning as saying. Wang helped draft the plan. ...

The new plan specifically targets northern China, particularly Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province, where air pollution is especially serious, the newspaper said.

Comments

Palm oil: Bad for workers as well as orangutans

Palm oil has stirred concern among treehuggers and animal lovers for years now. Following its explosion in popularity as a trans-fat-free alternative, we started finding out about the dark side of its production -- namely, the destruction of Southeast Asian rainforest, habitat to lovable orangutans. Ecological outrage conflicted with our fondness for favorite snack foods, like Girl Scout cookies, challenging our morals as conscious consumers.

Open burning in a newly cleared rainforest at Duta Palma's PT Ledo Lestari palm oil plantation.
David Gilbert/Rainforest Action Network
Open burning in newly cleared rainforest at Duta Palma's PT Ledo Lestari palm oil plantation.

But while the environmental sins of the palm oil industry have been well documented, its human-rights abuses have been overlooked -- until now. Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the findings of a nine-month investigation:

Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials.

Comments

Arctic methane escape could cost $60 trillion

ice and sea
Shutterstock
Beware of melting.

An almighty belch is building up deep in the belly of the Arctic, and it’s going to cost the world a pretty penny when it rips.

As the Arctic continues to melt, a 50-gigatonne reservoir of methane trapped in permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea will be released -- perhaps steadily over five decades or perhaps during one sudden grandfatherly burp -- and that will cause an estimated $37 trillion to $60 trillion worth of damage. So say researchers in a commentary published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. "Higher methane concentrations in the atmosphere will accelerate global warming and hasten local changes in the Arctic, speeding up sea-ice retreat, reducing the reflection of solar energy and accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet," the researchers write. "The ramifications will be felt far from the poles."

Read more: Climate & Energy

Comments

Big Oil sued for destroying wetlands around Gulf of Mexico

Louisiana wetlands
Alicia Lee
Natural flood control in Louisiana.

Coastal Louisiana would like its wetlands back. It needs them to protect itself from rising seas and raging storms.

The agency charged with protecting New Orleans-area residents from floods is suing Big Oil, claiming it should repair damages that it caused to wetlands that once buffered the region from tidal surges.

The oil companies have recklessly torn out the marshes and plants that ringed the Gulf of Mexico as they laid pipelines and other infrastructure to serve their decades-long oil- and gas-drilling bonanza. From The New York Times:

The lawsuit, to be filed in civil district court in New Orleans by the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, argues that the energy companies, including BP and Exxon Mobil, should be held responsible for fixing damage caused by cutting a network of thousands of miles of oil and gas access and pipeline canals through the wetlands. The suit alleges that the network functioned “as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction,” killing vegetation, eroding soil and allowing salt water to intrude into freshwater areas.

Comments

Forget solar panels, here come building-integrated photovoltaics

solar shingles
Ben West
This roof doesn't have solar panels -- it has solar shingles.

Solar panels are becoming passé. Why put solar panels on top of building construction materials when you could just tap the power of the sun directly through the construction materials themselves?

Bloomberg reports on the rapid growth in building-integrated photovoltaics, or BIPV. These are solar powerharvesting cells that are incorporated into the walls, roofs, and windows of buildings -- integrated seamlessly instead of being bolted onto a finished building as an apparent afterthought:

From stadiums in Brazil to a bank headquarters in Britain, architects led by Norman Foster are integrating solar cells into the skin of buildings, helping the market for the technology triple within two years. ...

Comments

Another drilling blowout in the Gulf, another explosion

Natural gas surrounding a drilling rig Tuesday before it exploded.
On Wings of Care
Natural gas billowing around a drilling rig Tuesday before it exploded.

An offshore natural-gas platform burned through the night off the coast of Louisiana following a blowout and explosion on Tuesday.

A drilling company was completing a sidetrack well 115 miles south of New Orleans on Tuesday morning, which likely means it was boring a new hole into an existing well, when gas began spewing uncontrollably from the seafloor. The rig's crew of 44 workers was evacuated as natural gas formed a sheen in the waters around it and billowed dangerously into the air.

Hours later, while everybody was at a safe distance, the gas ignited, triggering a conflagration that still had not been extinguished as of this writing.

From the AP:

No injuries were reported as a result of the fire, Eileen Angelico, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told The Associated Press.

She said it wasn't known what caused the gas to ignite. It also wasn't clear early Wednesday how and when crews would attempt to extinguish the blaze. BSEE said earlier Tuesday that a firefighting vessel with water and foam capabilities had been dispatched to the scene.

Comments

Mink will be trapped to right the wrongs of Exxon Valdez

Pigeon guillemots
Jerry Kirkhart
Pigeon guillemots, a kind of puffin.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the Exxon Valdez crashed and spewed 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound, one species of seabird still has not recovered from the disaster. To help it recover, the federal government is proposing to get rid of lots of American minks. Allow us to explain.

Thousands of pigeon guillemots were killed by the Valdez disaster — some coated with oil, others poisoned by it for a decade afterward. The guillemots are the only marine bird still listed as “not recovering” from the accident; the local population is less than half what it was before the spill.

The birds used to flourish on the Naked Island group in the middle of the sound, but fewer than 100 remain there now. To boost that number back up to the pre-spill level of 1,000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to trap most of the islands’ American minks — aquatic ferret-like creatures that feast on the birds’ chicks and eggs. If trapping doesn’t work, shooting the minks is the backup plan.

Read more: Climate & Energy

Comments

Alaska’s latest climate worries: Massive wildfires and gushing glaciers

The Mendenhall Glacier's sudden surges of icy water threaten people and property in nearby Juneau.
Random Michelle
The Mendenhall Glacier's sudden surges of icy water threaten people and property in nearby Juneau.

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Alaska, by the looks of it, is on track for a double apocalypse.

The home of Sarah “global warming my gluteus maximus” Palin faces a daunting confluence of climate-related challenges, from rising seas to gushing glaciers to massive wildfires. Even Mayor Stubbs (who we’d expect to be cool about this kind of thing) won’t answer questions about the state’s fate.

Raging blazes in Arizona and Colorado have dominated wildfire news in recent years, but the biggest fires of the past decade burned in Alaska, which is warming twice as fast as the lower 48 states. There, flames have swallowed more than a half-million acres at a time (that’s 781 square miles) of boreal forest, the landscape of spruce and fir trees dominant below the Arctic Circle. And a new study says that this fiery phase is here to stay. From the L.A. Times:

A warming climate could promote so much wildfire in the boreal zone that the forests may convert to deciduous woodlands of aspen and birch, researchers said.

“In the last few decades we have seen this extreme combination of high severity and high frequency” wildfire in the study area of interior Alaska’s Yukon Flats, said University of Illinois plant biology Prof. Feng Sheng Hu. …

Accelerated wildfire could also unlock vast amounts of forest carbon, contributing to greenhouse gases. “The more important implication there is [that] you’re probably going to release a substantial fraction of the carbon that has been stored in the soil,” Hu said.

In contrast, Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier, outside Juneau, threatens to wreak chilly destruction, reports The New York Times:

Read more: Climate & Energy