Category Archives: Environment

Map of the day: Precipitous precipitation decline

California, already parched by a four-year-long drought, was the most rain-deprived state in the country in June when compared to average precipitation rates for the month, according to the June National Overview from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:


German officials knew of VW emissions cheats

BLOG German exports

Motor vehicles accounted for 19 percent of German exports last year, the largest single category of goods and a literal driver of the national economy, according to the Deutsche Bundesbank.

In addition to providing a large share of the German economy, vehicle manufacturing accounts of one-seventh of all German jobs, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And of Germany’s vehicle manufacturers, Volkswagen is number one, as well as the world’s second-ranking carmaker.

Last week the German parliament announced it was launching an investigation to see if government officials may have been involved in covering up the biggest scandal ever to hit German carmakers, as Agence France Presse reported at the time:

German governments have traditionally had very close ties to the automobile industry which is one of the biggest employers in the country and one of its most important export sectors.

Given those links, critics have suggested that the government may have played a part in enabling carmakers to get around pollution regulations and skew the emissions data of their engines.

VW was forced to admit last September that it had installed sophisticated software into 11 million engines with the express purpose of duping emissions tests.

The global scandal triggered by the revelations has come to be known as “Dieselgate”.

And now, reports Spiegel Online, documents have revealed that the German government has known about the rigged emissions systems since at least 2010:

Since at least 2010, the European Commission has been in possession of concrete evidence that automobile manufacturers were cheating on emissions values of diesel vehicles, according to a number of internal documents that SPIEGEL ONLINE has obtained. The papers show that emissions cheating had been under discussion for years both within the Commission and the EU member state governments. The documents also show that the German government was informed of a 2012 meeting on the issue. The scandal first hit the headlines in 2015 when it became known that Volkswagen had manipulated the emissions of its diesel vehicles.


EU member state governments were also apparently aware of possible emissions manipulation well before the VW scandal hit the headlines. In May 2012, a Commission official sent an email to relevant ministries in several EU countries, including the British, French and German environment ministries, describing a meeting of the Real Driving Emissions of Light-Duty Vehicles (RDE-LDV) working group. Led by the European Commission, the body includes representatives from EU member states, the Joint Research Centre, the automotive industry and NGOs. It focuses on emissions testing procedures.

“Yesterday, we had a quite hot (in any sense) RDE-LVD (sic!) meeting,” the email begins. Automobile manufacturers, it notes, “strongly resist” the introduction of PeMS testing during the type approval stage. One possible reason, the email notes, is the desire for “leaving the door open” to avoiding emissions test cycles.

Shortly thereafter, the sensitive information made it all the way up to Antonio Tajani, who was European commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship at the time. In summer 2012, he was notified by the autoparts supplier Schrader Electronics — both by letter and in a personal meeting — about the software manipulations being undertaken by automobile manufacturers. But again, nothing happened.

The lack of action created friction within the Commission. While there are 28 commissioners — one for each EU member state — the commission is broken down into 33 departments, known as “directorates-general,” each led by a director general. In November 2014, Karl Falkenberg, director general of the environment department, sent a letter to his counterpart Daniel Calleja Crespo, who led the Enterprise and Industry department and answered to Commissioner Tajani. The letter bluntly demanded that Crespo do his job, requesting that he check to see if “certain current practices documented extensively by the JRC [the EU’s Joint Research Center]” are consistent with the law.

Corporations really are more powerful that nation-states, capable of bending agencies to their will by virtue of their vast economic power and accumulated wealth.

Biodiversity plunges, and human action is to blame

Two new major studies examine the alarming loss of species on Planet Earth directly attributable to human action, action, and the results are, as you may expect, alarming.

And with the acceleration of global climate change, the outlook for the future looks increasingly grim.

Percentages of original species still surviving after the introduction off modern agriculture.

Percentages of original species still surviving after the advent of Homo sapiens.

The first study takes a broad look at the impacts of all human action on biodiversity.

From University College London:

Levels of global biodiversity loss may negatively impact on ecosystem function and the sustainability of human societies, according to UCL-led research.

“This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL and previously at UNEP-WCMC.

“We know biodiversity loss affects ecosystem function but how it does this is not entirely clear. What we do know is that in many parts of the world, we are approaching a situation where human intervention might be needed to sustain ecosystem function.”

The team found that grasslands, savannas and shrublands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed closely by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. They say the ability of biodiversity in these areas to support key ecosystem functions such as growth of living organisms and nutrient cycling has become increasingly uncertain.

The study, published today in Science [$30 for one-day access to the article], led by researchers from UCL, the Natural History Museum and UNEP-WCMC, found that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could undermine efforts towards long-term sustainable development.

For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries – an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.

“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences – and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”

The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyse 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites where are captured in the database of the PREDICTS project. The analyses were then applied to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometre land has changed since before humans modified the habitat.

They found that biodiversity hotspots – those that have seen habitat loss in the past but have a lot of species only found in that area – are threatened, showing high levels of biodiversity decline. Other high biodiversity areas, such as Amazonia, which have seen no land use change have higher levels of biodiversity and more scope for proactive conservation.

“The greatest changes have happened in those places where most people live, which might affect physical and psychological wellbeing. To address this, we would have to preserve the remaining areas of natural vegetation and restore human-used lands,” added Dr Newbold.

The team hope the results will be used to inform conservation policy, nationally and internationally, and to facilitate this, have made the maps from this paper and all of the underlying data publicly available.

Animal species lost because of agricultural production

Species loss due to agricultural production.

Species loss due to agricultural production.

A second major study, this time conducted under the auspices of the European Commission: look at species loss specifically related to agricultural production.

The results are equally alarming.

From the European Commission:

In the past 500 years, over 300 vertebrate species have gone extinct, and many more are under threat of extinction — causing a lamentable decline in the variety of life on the planet. Biodiversity provides important benefits, from pollination to nutrient cycling, that are vital for human health and the economy. There is, therefore, an urgent need to address the causes of biodiversity loss.

Agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity decline. As the world’s economies are become more and more connected, international flows of crops and their products are increasing and it is important to understand the environmental effect of these changes.

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

Map of the day: Corrosive groundwater in the U.S.

BLOG Water

From the U.S. Geological Survey:

A new U.S. Geological Survey assessment of more than 20,000 wells nationwide shows that untreated groundwater in 25 states has a high prevalence of being potentially corrosive. The states with the largest percentage of wells with potentially corrosive groundwater are located primarily in the Northeast, the Southeast, and the Northwest.

This report is unrelated to the drinking water problems experienced in Flint, Michigan. The problems in Flint were related to treated surface-water from the Flint River, whereas this report focuses on untreated groundwater nationwide.

Two indicators of potential corrosivity were combined to determine that corrosive groundwater occurs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Corrosive groundwater, if untreated, can dissolve lead and other metals from pipes and plumbing fixtures.

“The corrosivity of untreated groundwater is only one of several factors that may affect the quality of household drinking water at the tap,” said Don Cline, USGS associate director for Water. “Nevertheless, it is an essential factor that should be carefully considered in testing for water quality in both public and private supplies nationwide.”

Public water supplies are regulated by the U.S. EPA, but maintenance, testing and treatment of private water supplies are the sole responsibility of the homeowner.  About 44 million people in the U.S. get their drinking water from private wells, yet surveys indicate many homeowners are unaware of some basic testing that should be done to help ensure safe drinking water in the home.

“Fortunately, in most areas of the country and with appropriate safeguards, the majority of homeowners can get good quality drinking water from private wells,” said Stephen Moulton II, chief, USGS National Water-Quality Program. “But this study is a good reminder that prudent, routine testing of the water, including its interaction with the water supply system, is an essential first step so homeowners and their families can confidently drink water from their faucets.”

Naturally corrosive water is not dangerous to consume by itself, however it can cause health-related problems by reacting with pipes and plumbing fixtures in homes. If plumbing materials contain lead or copper, these metals may be leached into the water supply by corrosive water. Signs of corrosive water causing leaching of metals may include bluish-green stains in sinks, metallic taste to water, and small leaks in plumbing fixtures.

Potential sources of lead in homes include:

  • lead pipes or fittings used in homes built prior to 1930
  • lead solder used in copper fittings in homes built prior to the late 1980s
  • “lead-free” brass components, which, in all states, except California, may have contained up to 8 percent lead, prior to 2014
  • galvanized steel that contained 0.5 to 1.4  percent lead, prior to 2014

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

DroughtWatch: Another week, and no change

California remains dry but despite the intense heat of June and early July, there’s no change in conditions from last week, with all parts of the state in one level or another of drought. From the United States Drought Monitor:

BLOG Drought

Map of the day: The hottest June on record


From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s

According to NOAA’s latest monthly climate report, June 2016 was the warmest June on record for the contiguous United States dating back to 1895. The June temperature for the contiguous United States. was 71.8°F, or 3.3°F above the twentieth-century average, surpassing the previous record of 71.6°F set in 1933. The year-to-date (January-June) temperature was 50.8°F, 3.2°F above the twentieth-century average, making it the third warmest on record.

This map shows June temperatures for all climate divisions in the Lower 48 states. Places where average temperatures were above 50°F are shown in shades of orange and red. In May, high-elevation climate divisions in the Northern Rockies were colored in shades of blue, indicating average temperatures below 50°, but by June, no hint of those cooler colors remained.

Additional highlights from the June 2016 monthly report include:

  • During June there were 5,768 record warm daily high (2,383) and low (3,385) temperature records, which is more than seven times the 819 record cold daily high (408) and low (411) temperature records.
  • Based on NOAA’s Residential Energy Demand Temperature Index (REDTI), the contiguous U.S. temperature-related energy demand during June was 79 percent above average and the ninth highest value on record.

Headline of the day: American image obsession

From the Guardian:

Half of all US food produce is thrown away, new research suggests

The demand for ‘perfect’ fruit and veg means much is discarded, damaging the climate and leaving people hungry