Briefly

Stuff that matters


shorter shelf life

The Antarctic ice shelf continues to crack.

The new rift in Larsen C emerged days after a Delaware-sized iceberg broke off from the ice shelf.

Scientists aren’t totally sure of the implications, but it seems the ice shelf isn’t quite done breaking apart yet.

The same team of British scientists who announced last week’s birth of the humongous iceberg spotted the crack in high-resolution satellite data. The scientists noted the crack “may result in further ice shelf loss” in a blog post published Wednesday. The huge iceberg itself has already begun to break apart.

Ice shelves are floating extensions of glaciers, so their breakup has virtually no effect on global sea levels. The worry is the new rift is heading in the general direction of the Bawden Ice Rise, which is “a crucial point of stabilization for Larsen C Ice Shelf,” according to the British team. A destabilized Larsen C could speed up the flow of its parent glaciers to the ocean, which would have a slight effect on sea levels.

As I wrote last week, the amount of ice we’re talking about is relatively small, considering the vast amount of ice contained in the rest of Antarctica.


Industry-fiendly

Trump’s pick to head chemical safety at the EPA is no longer in the running.

Michael L. Dourson faced bipartisan opposition from senators because of his close ties to the chemical industry.

Emails obtained by the New York Times from Greenpeace show hundreds of pages of correspondence between Dourson and individual chemical companies whose products were up for review by the EPA. Plus, Dourson founded a consulting firm in 1995 that produced complimentary studies for chemical companies in exchange for payment.

Dourson also recently worked to defend a carcinogen called trichloroethylene that’s currently up for EPA review. As head of the chemical safety division, Dourson would have made the final call on the decision.

Two Republican senators from North Carolina, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, announced they would not support Dourson’s nomination in October. “With his record and our state’s history of contamination … I am not confident he is the best choice for our country,” Burr said in a statement.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, also said she was leaning against Dourson.

Dourson withdrew his name from consideration on Wednesday, but he was already working as a senior adviser to the agency while his confirmation was pending. It’s unclear whether he will continue to do so.


scorched earth

One-third of forests aren’t growing back after wildfires.

Forests in the American West are having a harder time recovering from wildfires because of (what else?) climate change, according to new research published in Ecology Letters.

Researchers measured the growth of seedlings in 1,500 wildfire-scorched areas in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Across the board, they found “significant decreases” in tree regeneration, a benchmark for forest resilience. In one-third of the sites, researchers found zero seedlings.

The warmest, driest forests were hit especially hard.

“Seedlings are more sensitive to warm, dry conditions than mature trees, so if the right conditions don’t exist within a few years following a wildfire, tree seedlings may not establish,” said Philip Higuera, a coauthor of the study.

Earlier this month, a separate study found that ponderosa pine and pinyon forests in the West are becoming less resilient due to droughts and warmer temperatures. Researchers told the New York Times that as trees disappear, some forests could shift to entirely different ecosystems, like grasslands or shrublands.

You’d think the rapid reconfiguration of entire ecosystems would really light a fire under us to deal with climate change, wouldn’t you?


de-newable energy

The Republican tax bill could lead to major job losses across the U.S. renewable industry.

Federal tax credits are essential to driving growth in the United States’ wind and solar energy industries. Those credits, which were first introduced in 1992 and only stabilized in 2015, are now on the chopping block.

The government has a long history of subsidizing major industries, from food to fossil fuels. The renewable energy tax credits were supposed to apply through the year 2020, but the GOP tax bill (both the House and the Senate versions) suggests modifying provisions that were key to driving growth in the industry. That could seriously undermine future investment in solar and wind projects, as well as jeopardize existing projects that rely on credits for energy they produce.

And reneging on the 2015 deal could result in significant job losses, too. The current House version of the tax bill would eliminate adjustments to inflation and accelerate the phase-down schedule of federal tax credits, putting 60,000 wind industry jobs at risk.

The House tax bill also would have terminated tax credits for electric vehicles and wind production, but the final compromise will keep those tax breaks, Bloomberg reports.

It’s still unclear what combination of the House and Senate bills will Frankenstein its way to President Trump’s desk, but it’s not looking good for the industry that has created jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy.


climate changed

2 independent studies say climate change worsened Hurricane Harvey’s rains.

A new report by the World Weather Attribution consortium finds that warming boosted downpours associated with the storm by 15 percent. Separate research out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that, thanks to climate change, the amount of precipitation caused by the hurricane could have been nearly 40 percent higher than expected.

Both studies were announced at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans. Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, dumping more than 50 inches of rain in less than a week — roughly the amount of precipitation Houston gets in an entire year.

Scientists have already linked global warming to an increase in extreme weather events, meaning systems like this hurricane season’s superstorms — Harvey, Maria, and Irma  — are going to get more severe and more frequent. Both studies released this week estimate that the likelihood of another devastating storm happening has at least tripled.

“Communities all along the Gulf Coast need to adapt to a world where the heaviest rains are more than we have ever seen,” David W. Titley, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University who was not connected to either report, told the New York Times.


There will be flood

Coastal cities are in serious jeopardy, new sea-level rise study shows.

As I wrote in a cover story last month, massive sheets of ice in Antarctica essentially hold humanity hostage, placing hundreds of millions of people at risk of inundation from rising seas.

A new study, which factors in the global implications of Antarctic tipping-point mechanisms for the first time, confirms the importance of these glaciers in predicting the odds of rapid sea-level rise.

The results, published in the journal Earth’s Future, point to two possible pathways: 1) a relatively steady but substantial rise in sea levels even if we sharply reduce global emissions, flooding 100 million people’s homes worldwide by the end of the century, and 2) a wild-card world that could jeopardize civilization itself if fossil fuels continue to dominate.

The study’s mid-range estimate under this second scenario predicts almost 5 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. That was essentially the worst-case scenario in a similar study by the same authors just three years ago. At the high end, the new study estimates there’s a 10 percent chance that seas will rise more than 8 feet this century — enough to flood nearly every coastal city on Earth.

That stunning revision upwards highlights the urgency of reducing emissions. “We can basically rule out 6 feet of rise if we get securely on a trajectory toward net zero emissions,” the study’s lead author, Bob Kopp, told Grist.


Shocking!

Here’s a $17 billion blueprint for how to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid.

Called “Build Back Better,” the plan focuses on providing immediate relief while also making the island’s energy infrastructure more resilient to future storms. That means fortifying the electric transmission system and bulking up defenses at power plants and substations.

The plan also envisions a Puerto Rico dotted with solar farms and wind turbines, linked by more than 150 microgrids. Of the 470,000 homes destroyed in Maria’s high winds, the report points out many could be built back with rooftop solar. New battery storage systems would allow hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, airports, and other critical facilities to keep the lights on without power from the grid.

Overall, $1.5 billion of the plan’s budget would go to these distributed renewable energy resources.

The plan was concocted by a bunch of industry and government groups working together, including the federal Department of Energy, Puerto Rico’s utility, several other state power authorities, and private utility companies like ConEd. If enacted, it would take the next 10 years to complete.

With a $94 billion Puerto Rico relief plan in Congress right now, it’s actually possible that $17 billion of that could go to building a renewable, resilient energy system for the future. It’d be a steal.