Category Archives: Environment

Map of the day: When it’s time to chill out


From the National Climatic Data Center:

BLOG Freeze

DroughtWatch: Unchanged form last week


After last week’s dramatic reductions, the United States Drought Monitor reports no further changes in the scope and depth of California drought conditions:

BLOG Drought

New studies reveal fracking environmental costs


Two new reports focus on the growing evidence of the dangers of fracking to environments both far and near.

First up, from NASA’s Earth Observatory, a report on the danger that fracking in the lower 48 and elsewhere poses to the Arctic:

BLOG Frack gas

Researchers have suspected for several years that the flaring of waste natural gas from industrial oil and gas fields in the Northern Hemisphere could be a significant source of nitrogen dioxide and black carbon pollution in the Arctic. Research from a NASA-sponsored study lends new weight to that hypothesis.

Nitrogen dioxide is a well-known air pollutant that is central to the production of ground-level smog and ozone. It is closely associated with black carbon (also known as soot), which is an agent of global warming, particularly in the Arctic. In addition to absorbing sunlight while aloft, black carbon darkens snow when it settles on the surface. Both processes lead to heating of the air and the land surface, accelerating the melting of snow and ice.

The amount of black carbon that reaches the Arctic is poorly estimated, but scientists know that any soot could have a significant impact. “The Arctic starts from a very clean state, as there are no significant local sources of dust or smoke pollution,” said Nickolay Krotkov, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of a team examining the origins of Arctic black carbon. “In this kind of pristine environment, even small anthropogenic sources make a big difference.”

Previous research has suggested that gas flares from oil and natural gas extraction near the Arctic could be a key source of black carbon. But since international inventories of industrial emissions have gaps in observations and in reporting, they often over- or underestimate the amount of pollutants.

Gas flares are an often-overlooked subset in that already messy data set. Regional estimates from Russia, for example, suggest that gas flaring may account for 30 percent of all black carbon emissions. But with few monitoring stations near flaring sites, the scientific community has had great difficulty getting accurate estimates of emissions.

Can Li and other researchers at NASA Goddard were recently asked by atmospheric modelers to see if they could provide flaring estimates based on satellite data. Black carbon levels in the atmosphere cannot be directly measured by satellites, but they can be derived indirectly. Black carbon is associated with nitrogen dioxide and with the total concentration of aerosol particles in the atmosphere. Nitrogen dioxide and black carbon particles are often produced at the same time when fossil fuels are burned.

The modelers were simulating the trajectories of pollution through the atmosphere based on existing, flawed emission inventories. And their results generally underestimated the amount of black carbon reaching the Arctic compared to what scientists in the field were measuring directly.

The first step for Li, Krotkov, and colleagues was to find gas flares. They compiled “night lights” data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the Suomi NPP satellite. They examined four known fossil fuel extraction sites: Bakken, North Dakota (shown above); Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada; the North Sea near Great Britain and Norway; and western Siberia, Russia. The researchers pinpointed gas flares by excluding electric light from nearby towns and roads.

For each study site, Li and Krotkov analyzed nitrogen dioxide data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument aboard the Aura spacecraft. A sample is shown at the top of this page. Fellow NASA researchers Andrew Sayer and Christina Hsu retrieved aerosol concentration data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite.

“We found a pretty good match-up between the gas flare signals from the night lights and the nitrogen dioxide retrievals for two regions—Bakken and the Canadian oil sands,” said Li. Every year from 2005 to 2015, the levels of atmospheric NO2 rose about 1.5 percent per year at Bakken and about 2 percent per year at Athabasca. This means the concentration of black carbon produced by those flares was also likely on the rise.

The team saw a smaller rise in nitrogen dioxide in western Siberia, and no discernable flaring signal from well-established oil rigs in the North Sea. According to Li, the North Sea signal was likely obscured by the abundance of nitrogen dioxide pollution in Europe.

Aerosol data were less conclusive. Aerosols tend to linger in the atmosphere longer than nitrogen dioxide, making it more difficult to establish whether there was an increase due to oil field activities, as opposed to general background levels, Sayer said.

The new observational results fit well with modeling done by Joshua Fu, an atmospheric modeler at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and a collaborator on the paper. When Fu and colleagues added the gas flare locations and estimated emissions into a model of chemical transport in the atmosphere, they were able to reproduce the amount of black carbon observed in the Arctic by ground stations and aircraft.

Fracking waste spills pollute soil, water

Next, from Duke University, a report revealing that far from being exceptional, soil- and water-polluting spills of contaminated fracking waste water, filled with chemicals fracking companies aren’t even required to report to the concenred public, are all-too-common occurrences:

Accidental wastewater spills from unconventional oil production in North Dakota have caused widespread water and soil contamination, a new Duke University study finds.

Researchers found high levels of ammonium, selenium, lead and other toxic contaminants as well as high salts in the brine-laden wastewater, which primarily comes from hydraulically fractured oil wells in the Bakken region of western North Dakota.

Streams polluted by the wastewater contained levels of contaminants that often exceeded federal guidelines for safe drinking water or aquatic health.

Soil at the spill sites was contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element found in brines, which chemically attached to the soil after the spill water was released.

At one site, the researchers were still able to detect high levels of contaminants in spill water four years after the spill occurred.

There’s a whole lot more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Headline of the day II: Words to help you sleep


Or not.

Probably the latter.

From the London Daily Mail:

Security alert at German nuclear power plant after computer systems are found to be infected with viruses

  • Technicians found two computer viruses at the Gundremmigen facility 
  • Officials claimed none of the infected systems were connected to the web
  • The computer systems were infected by a USB drive hiding the software 
  • The nuclear power plant is approximately 75 miles north west of Munich

Map of the day: Drought, a Syrian conflict driver


The Syrian civil war, while driven in part by the policies of the Obama White House, was made possible by a combination of economic sanctions driven to new heights coupled with an ongoing Middle Eastern drought with its heaviest impacts in Syria itself.

Just how bad has that drought been?

Consider this map from Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria, a July 2014 report from Peter H. Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland and published in Weather, Climate, and Society, a journal of the American Meteorological Society:

Millimeters of rain in the winter period from 1902 to 2010, showing a drop in rainfall in the 1971–2010 period (Hoerling et al. 2012). (b) Reds and oranges highlight the areas around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971–2010 than the comparison period of 1902–2010 (Hoerling et al. 2012).

Millimeters of rain in the winter period from 1902 to 2010, showing a drop in rainfall in the 1971–2010 period. (b) Reds and oranges highlight the areas around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971–2010 than the comparison period of 1902–2010.

France getting cold feet over that trade accord


You know, the TTIP [previously], the latest of the Obama-pushed, ocean-spanning international trade agreements designed to further ensrine corporate power over national sovereignty.

From Radio France Internationale:

The French government appeared to toughen its stance on the TTIP transatlantic trade partnership on Tuesday with Prime Minister Manuel Valls warning that the proposed deal being discussed by the European Union and the US will not go through if health and environment standards are not maintained and negotiator Matthias Feki saying it might not be signed at all.

“I want to be clear: it will not succeed if it does not guarantee that the standards we have in France for our citizens’ health and environment will be maintained,” Valls said at a government-organised environmental conference in Paris on Tuesday. “And today we are too far from that to envisage an agreement.”

US President Barack Obama this week visited Europe, in part to push the free-trade deal, which has been opposed by civil society groups who claim that negotiations have been hidden from public view and that it could harm agriculture and the environment.

Earlier on Tuesday French Foreign Trade Minister Matthias Fekl, who leads negotiations for France, predicted that the deal would not be signed before the end of Obama’s mandate at the end of the year and raised the possibility that agreement may never be reached.

Old growth forest buffer against climate change


To listen to corporate mouthpieces for Big Timber, a forest is a forest is a forest.

To them it doesn’t matter if the forest is an ancient and constantly evolving ecosystem or a tree farm planted by machines and harvested [also by machines] just like any other crop.

And those pesky tree-hugging environmentalists who say otherwise are just a bunch of airheads, right?

Well, no.

And, as it now it turns, those magnificent old growth forest are farm more than simply glorious sights for human eyes. They are also havens capable of protecting otherwise threatened species from some of the worst impacts of climate change

Differences in microclimate conditions across a gradient in forest structure. (A) Principal components analysis (PCA) showing how vegetation structure metrics differ between mature/old-growth forest sites and plantations. The ellipses represent 68% of the data assuming a normal distribution in each category (plantation and mature/old growth). (B) Three-dimensional LiDAR-generated images of plantation forests [(i) side view; (ii) overhead view] and old-growth forests [(iii) side view; (iv) overhead view] at the Andrews Forest. (C and D) Results from generalized linear mixed models show the modeled relationship between forest structure [PC1, the first component of a PCA on forest structure variables (A)] and the residuals from an elevation-only model of mean monthly maximum during April to June (C) and mean monthly minimum during April to June (D) after accounting for the effects of elevation. Closed circles represent 2012 and open circles represent 2013. Maximum monthly temperatures (C) decreased by 2.5°C (95% confidence interval, 1.7° to 3.2°C) and observed minimum temperatures (D) increased by 0.7°C (0.3° to 1.1°C) across the observed structure gradient from plantation to old-growth forest.

Differences in microclimate conditions across a gradient in forest structure.
(A) Principal components analysis (PCA) showing how vegetation structure metrics differ between mature/old-growth forest sites and plantations. The ellipses represent 68% of the data assuming a normal distribution in each category (plantation and mature/old growth). (B) Three-dimensional LiDAR-generated images of plantation forests [(i) side view; (ii) overhead view] and old-growth forests [(iii) side view; (iv) overhead view] at the Andrews Forest. (C and D) Results from generalized linear mixed models show the modeled relationship between forest structure [PC1, the first component of a PCA on forest structure variables (A)] and the residuals from an elevation-only model of mean monthly maximum during April to June (C) and mean monthly minimum during April to June (D) after accounting for the effects of elevation. Closed circles represent 2012 and open circles represent 2013. Maximum monthly temperatures (C) decreased by 2.5°C (95% confidence interval, 1.7° to 3.2°C) and observed minimum temperatures (D) increased by 0.7°C (0.3° to 1.1°C) across the observed structure gradient from plantation to old-growth forest.

From Oregon State University:

The soaring canopy and dense understory of an old-growth forest could provide a buffer for plants and animals in a warming world, according to a study from Oregon State University published  in Science Advances [open access].

Comparing temperature regimes under the canopy in old-growth and plantation forests in the Oregon Cascades, researchers found that the characteristics of old growth reduce maximum spring and summer air temperatures as much as 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to those recorded in younger second-growth forests.

Landowners who include biodiversity as a management goal, the scientists said, could advance their aims by fostering stands with closed canopies, high biomass and complex understory vegetation.

Management practices that create these types of “microclimates” for birds, amphibians, insects and even large mammals could promote conservation for temperature-sensitive species, the authors wrote, if temperatures rise as a result of global warming.

“Though it is well-known that closed-canopy forests tend to be cooler than open areas, little is known about more subtle temperature differences between mature forest types,” said Sarah Frey, postdoctoral scholar in the OSU College of Forestry and lead author on the study. “We found that the subtle but important gradient in structure from forest plantations to old growth can have a marked effect on temperatures in these forests.”

Temperature is also strongly affected by elevation and even small changes in topography, but the way forests are managed was a critical factor in explaining temperature differences. Researchers at Oregon State and Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service conducted the study at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest east of Eugene.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading