Earthquake Experts: Yes, Fracking Earthquakes Are A Thing
When the Seismological Society of America says that fracking earthquakes are a real thing, then it’s a good bet that they are. The annual SSA meeting last Thursday featured a daylong session on “Induced Seismicity” that featured new research indicating that oil and gas fracking, and the practice of disposing wastewater underground, can alter the state of an existing fault. The result is to spread the range of seismic hazard farther out from the faultline than previously thought.
While we’re waiting for Fox News to find a seismic denialist to let the public know that this is all just a bunch of hooey, let’s take a closer look at that research.
Earthquake damage (cropped) by Martin Luft.
Fracking Earthquakes: Who’s Minding The Store?
It’s worth noting, first off, that given the thousands of fracking and disposal wells already in operation, and the thousands more that are drilled every year, the number of wells directly linked to seismic activity so far is miniscule.
Part of the reason for that involves a shortfall in research and monitoring resources, absence of a regulatory structure for self-monitoring, and the fact that induced seismic activity is a relatively new field of research.
More to the point, given the potential for significant damage and the fact that manmade earthquakes are virtually 100 percent avoidable, fracking earthquakes are a risk that needs to be defined and managed.
However, currently there is no platform for the US Geological Survey to include fracking earthquakes (or any other induced earthquake, for that matter), into its estimates of seismic hazards.
Seismologists have to come up with a new way to account for changes in seismic activity that covers all earthquakes regardless of whether they are manmade or not. That work is currently under way at USGS.
Let’s also note up front that while fracking (an oil and gas drilling method that requires pumping massive amounts of chemical brine underground) itself has not been directly linked to many seismic episodes so far, evidence is mounting that the disposal of fracking wastewater into wellbores is causing a significant number of manmade earthquakes.
The Latest Fracking Earthquake Research
Now for the meat of the matter. SSA cites significant increases in seismic activity linked to increased fracking and wastewater operations in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Ohio among other states.
To give you an idea of how significant, the average rate of earthquakes above 3.0 was 21 from 1967 to 2000 according to the US Geological Survey, but it was about 100 per year between 2010 and 2012.
Those numbers are already jumping up. As of last month, in Oklahoma alone more than 100 3.0-and-up earthquakes have been recorded.
The Induced Seismicity session at the SSA meeting featured case studies in the aforementioned US states as well as locations in Spain and Italy (abstracts are available here).
One new study under discussion at the SSA meeting was conducted by Canada’s Western University in Ontario. It details how fracking wastewater disposal and other new sources of seismicity can create new hazards that are not accounted for in existing building codes and infrastructure planning:
…the hazard from induced seismicity can overwhelm the hazard from pre-existing natural seismicity, increasing the risk to structures that were originally designed for regions of low to moderate seismic activity.
When we say infrastructure planning, that includes dams, nuclear power plants, underground pipelines, and other features of the built environment that become damage multipliers when affected by earthquakes.
A key issue that seismologists are identifying is that the seismic hazard caused by fracking or related activities can have an impact much farther away from the fault line than previously thought.
That’s the finding of a joint study by Cornell University and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, which covered the 2008 earthquake swarm near Oklahoma city. Researchers found that for some wells, seismic activity migrated up to 50 kilometers away.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the political spotlight, seismologists with the US Geological Survey are extremely hesitant to link increased seismic activity to a specific well. However, the agency does point out that the recent increase in seismic activity is not in dispute, and that poses an additional risk regardless of the source. As USGS geophysicist Justin Rubinstein puts it:
In some sense, from a hazard perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the earthquakes are natural or induced. An increase in earthquake rate implies that the probability of a larger earthquake has also risen.
Earthquakes In Your Backyard
Although some of the linkage identified so far involves quakes too small to be felt on the surface, a growing number of US communities are not waiting around to feel the earth move under their feet.
Seismic hazard featured in a recent decision, for example, by the City of Los Angeles to prohibit fracking and related activity within city limits (there are actually quite a few wells in LA, who knew?).
Other fracking issues, including the toxicity of the wastewater and significant health impacts related to air quality, are also coming into play for hundreds of other local bans on fracking.
Although local communities do not normally have the authority to regulate oil and gas activities specifically, they can deploy their zoning authority to prevent new industrial activity, including fracking. Communities in New York State have been taking the lead to ban fracking through local zoning, and Pennsylvania communities have just had their zoning rights reaffirmed by the state’s Supreme Court after challenging a new state law that would have overridden them.
MERS virus death toll in Saudi reaches 111
Riyadh (AFP) - Saudi health authorities announced Saturday two new deaths from the MERS coronavirus, raising to 111 the number of fatalities since the disease appeared in the kingdom in September 2012.
A 25-year-old man has died in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah and a woman of 69, who suffered from tuberculosis and anaemia, died in Mecca, also in western Saudi Arabia, the health ministry said.
It later said the death toll has now climbed to 111, revising its earlier figure of 109 deaths.
At the same time, 35 new cases of the severe respiratory disease have been recorded, raising the number infected in Saudi Arabia over the past two years to 396, the world's highest tally.
American health officials on Friday said the first case of MERS has been confirmed in the United States.
The person infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a health care provider who had travelled to Riyadh for work, they said.
Last week, Egypt recorded its first infection after a person who arrived from Saudi Arabia tested positive.
Public concern in Saudi Arabia over the spread of MERS has mounted after the resignation of at least four doctors at Jeddah's King Fahd Hospital who refused to treat patients for fear of infection.
MERS is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.
There are no vaccines or antiviral treatments for MERS, a disease with a mortality rate of more than 40 percent that experts are still struggling to understand.
Some research has suggested that camels are a likely source of the virus.
China’s coal solution has carbon downside across globe
Global carbon-dioxide emissions are climbing at rates that pose severe risks to the planet, and reversing that trend is heavily dependent on China making cuts in its emissions.
By Hal Bernton
This coal-to-gas plant built by Datang International is the first of its kind in Inner Mongolia. It creates methane that can be piped to Beijing, where it can be used as a cleaner burning fuel to reduce air pollution. But the plant itself can send out quite a stench.
All day long and through the night, it vents huge gray clouds of steam and emits an awful stench.
Though it may seem odd, this is part of China’s campaign to combat the nation’s notorious urban smog. The plant transforms low-grade coal into a cleaner-burning methane gas that can be piped to cities, replacing dirtier fuels that now are used to cook meals, heat homes and produce electricity.
The Chinese leadership has called for the accelerated development of these coal-to- gas plants, and more are under construction in areas distant from major urban centers.
But embracing this technology to fight air pollution involves a serious environmental trade off. The plants that produce this gas spew far more carbon emissions than those that burn coal to generate electricity.
A woman wearing a face mask makes her way along a street in Beijing in January, when the city was shrouded in thick smog. Even on clear, blue-sky days, many residents don face masks to protect against soot particles.
Buildings are shrouded in smog in Lianyungang, China. Dirty air in the cities is the front-burner environmental issue in China, where air pollution is reducing life expectancy of citizens. Chinese officials want gas made from coal to replace coal burning near cities.
“They’re going to lock in emissions. China — and the world — will bear the consequences for decades,” said Robert Jackson, professor of environment and energy at Stanford University.
A study published last year in Energy Policy found that producing, transporting and combusting this coal-generated gas results in up to 82 percent more carbon emissions than burning China’s coal directly to generate electricity
If all the plants with initial government approval are built, they could boost the nation’s annual carbon emissions by more than 7 percent over 2012 levels, according to an analysis prepared for The Seattle Times by a co-author of that study.
Such large-scale development would be a significant blow to global efforts to curb CO2 emissions, which already are changing the planet’s climate and causing the oceans to become more acidic.
Those emissions are climbing at rates that pose far more severe risks to the planet, and reversing that trend is heavily dependent on China making cuts in its carbon emissions.
The gas plants are part of a broader expansion of the Chinese coal industry in Inner Mongolia and other provinces in the north and west.
That development includes large electrical power plants, as well as refineries that turn coal into chemicals. These plants could help keep China’s total coal consumption steady — or edging higher — even as the government cracks down on coal use in 12 populous provinces and dramatically expands reliance on zero carbon fuels such as nuclear energy, hydroelectric, wind and solar.
Chinese government officials acknowledge that carbon emissions are a serious long-term threat to the nation. Rising sea levels later in the century would threaten coastal cities and water shortages would intensify, according to a Chinese government report.
But dirty air is the front-burner environmental issue in China.
Air pollution is cutting an average of more than five years from the life expectancy of some 500 million northern Chinese people, according to an analysis published last year in The Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
In Beijing, people are so edgy that even on clear, blue-sky days, many residents don face masks to protect against soot particles. The China Daily newspaper chronicles the plight of pollution refugees who flee Beijing in search of cleaner air.
“We will declare war against pollution and fight it with the same determination we battled poverty,” announced Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister in a speech this year to the National People’s Congress.
Behind on natural gas
Much of the urban smog comes from using coal to cook, heat homes, generate electricity and power industry. By contrast, methane — the prime component of natural gas — burns much cleaner then coal, helping to reduce smog and improve indoor-air quality fouled by coal-fired stoves.
But China’s petroleum companies can’t meet the demand for methane from traditional gas fields and lag far behind their U.S. counterparts in developing new reserves through fracking.
While China buys increasing amounts of gas from other nations, the government is wary of becoming too dependent on imports.
So China’ leaders have embraced coal-to-gas plants as part of the nation’s energy future.
This open-pit mine in eastern Inner Mongolia, operated by Shenhua Group, is nearly a mile long and has opened three separate seams of brown lignite coal.
In an open-pit mine near Xilinhot, a constant shuttle of trucks carries away the brown lignite coal used to produce power and generate gas.
Last September, facing a growing public outcry to ease smog, China’s State Council, announced development of the coal-to-gas industry would be speeded up over the next decade. At least 18 plants have obtained initial approval from Chinese officials for construction, according to the World Resources Institute.
Developers are seeking to build several dozen additional plants.
It is uncertain how many will come on line, given the growing concerns about the massive carbon load and water demands that would result from so many new plants.
“A lot of people in the (Chinese) policy community oppose this,” said William Chandler, research director of the U.S.-based Energy Transition Research Institute. “And they say that the decision (to expand the coal-to-gas industry) is not a done deal.”
Support for this project
This series was supported by a Perry and Alicia O'Brien Fellowship at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fellowship enabled reporter Hal Bernton to spend the academic year at Marquette reporting this project and working with students from the Diederich College of Communication. Graduate student Zhu Ye assisted in the China series.
But these plants have powerful support from the coal industry, which has been stung by China’s economic slowdown and plunging prices. The plants also are promoted by regional governments, which often are involved in lucrative land-development deals and are eager to develop new jobs.
“The pressure is a real thing. There are tremendous financial incentives at the regional levels to build these plants,” said Jackson, who last year co-wrote a commentary cautioning against the launch of the coal-to-gas industry.
A complicated process
Before the advent of electricity, there was a long history, both in China and the West, of turning coal into a crude “town gas” to light street lamps.
But turning coal into a more refined methane gas is a more complicated process and there have been some early stumbles in the development of this technology. To produce the methane at Hexigten Qi plant, the coal is fed into large pressurized vessels where it is combined with steam. The resulting gas then is sent through a series of purifying columns.
The Hexigten Qi plant is operated by Datang International, a state-owned power company that is investing more than $4 billion to bring it into full production. Datang’s plant is one of two such facilities that opened in the last year.
The first phase of the plant began operating in December. It quickly shut down in January and did not start up again until this spring because of corrosion problems, according to Chinese news reports.
Datang officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Trucks shuttle down to the bottom of the open-pit coal mine on the edge of the city of Xilinhot to carry away loads of lignite coal that are used for power generation and conversion to gas. Last year, the nearby Datang coal-to-gas plant began buying coal from the mine, which was struggling with the first downturn in sales in a decade.
The workers who operate the Datang coal-to-gas plant live in new dormitories on this campus built from scratch on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
At full capacity, the plant is supposed to produce some 4 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, according to Datang documents. That’s equal to more than 40 percent of all the natural gas consumed in Beijing in 2012.
During a December visit, dark, gray clouds of emissions often obscured much of the plant. Gas flared from the tops of several towers and, at night, served as an eerie light on a ramshackle trailer camp for construction workers that sprung up behind the plant.
Despite efforts to shut it down, the trailer camp hangs on, sometimes engulfed in foul odors from the nearby plant. Small shops tucked inside the trailers offer groceries, boots and mittens to construction workers. Long-haul truckers who ferry supplies to the plant can find lodging, a lamb dinner and Baijiu — a fierce, clear grain alcohol. But flush toilets are scarce and mounds of trash pile up around the camp.
By contrast, workers on the Datang payroll are housed in new dormitories on a campus just inside the front gate. Meals are served by white-hatted chefs, and a recreational center offers badminton and Ping-Pong.
The plant is forecast to eventually provide some 1,500 jobs.
Shang, a 49-year-old coal miner, found temporary work at the plant as a janitor. He pronounced his job “fabulous,” with wages and living conditions far better than anything he had ever experienced.
But these jobs carry risks. In case of toxic leaks, Datang has built an evacuation center for workers. In January, shortly after the plant opened, industrial “poisonings” killed two and hospitalized four others, according to Xinhua Inner Channel, a Chinese news service.
Construction workers walk down a dirt road that leads through a shantytown of trailers that sprung up behind the Datang coal-to-gas plant was built in a remote part of Inner Mongolia.
Prosperity and tension
During the past decade, energy development has turned Inner Mongolia into China’s largest coal-producing region, bringing new prosperity and stirring tension.
Xilinhot, a mining hub north of the Datang plant, has a huge sports center and six-lane boulevards framed by neon archways that light up at night like Las Vegas.
But some ethnic Mongolians have been pushed off grazing lands as mines, roads and industrial plants encroach on grasslands where herds of cattle, sheep and goats once roamed.
Mongolians are now a minority in a region of some 24 million people dominated by the Chinese Han. Yet, their heritage still defines the region, hearkening back to an earlier era when their armies conquered much of Asia. A statue of Genghis Khan, not Mao, rises in a downtown plaza of Xilinhot.
Among Mongolians, there is plenty of mistrust of the government and the coal boom it has encouraged.
Three years ago, a 35-year-old Mongolian herder named Mergen was killed by a coal truck as he joined with others to protest the impact of mining on their lands outside of Xilinhot. His death prompted thousands of herders, students and others ethnic Mongolians across the region to take to the streets in rare demonstrations that evolved from anger about Mergen’s death to broader frustrations with the toll of mining on traditional lands.
“It (the protests) really got huge,” said a man who was a high-school classmate of the trucker. “The protesters were so furious that they tried to drive to Beijing carrying the dead man’s body. But the government blocked the road.”
The trucker was eventually executed, as the Chinese government sought to calm the unrest.
Some grazing lands have been lost to coal development in Inner Mongolia. This herder has found forage for his goats in the patches of vegetation sandwiched between this coal plant and a nearby open-pit mine.
The regional government has reached out to herders, both Han and ethnic Mongolian, with programs to improve worn-out pasture lands and compensate them for the loss of grazing rights to development.
“It used to be when the government wanted something — it would just take it,” said one Inner Mongolian official. “But now there are payments. It is how the government shows its humanity.”
For some, the cash payments don’t make up for the potential risks of living near a coal-to-gas plant.
“Every time I smell it, my head just aches. And my mother — she pukes,” said Yanan Zhang, who raises cattle, horses and sheep on nearby lands. “We aren’t being compensated for that. Nobody really knows whether it might be harmful to us.”
Others herders appear to favor the development.
On a bitterly cold day during the startup trials at Datang plant, Li Liansheng grazed his cows on a patch of land near the front entrance. “They only take a little of our land, and this is good for the economy,” he said. “We used to have no electricity. Now we have electricity, and the transportation is much better.”
Commitment to coal
In the months ahead, Datang’s troubled start up will be monitored by Chinese government officials eager to learn more about the technology and economics of turning coal into gas.
China’s environmentalists still hope the government will back away from greenlighting an industry that emits so much carbon.
The coal industry, however, is eager for new markets. Last year, the Datang plant began buying coal from a mine at the edge of Xilinhot that was struggling with the first downturn in sales in a decade.
Despite pollution, carbon emissions and climate change, Cheng Xiaoliang, the mine’s vice general engineer, is confident about the future.
“I firmly believe that coal is going be the main generating source of energy at least for the next 50 years,’’ he said. “No matter what, China still needs coal.”
We all have a stake in China’s embrace of coal
By Hal Bernton
We are losing ground in the struggle to control carbon emissions.
Despite surging investments in solar and wind, carbon-rich coal has been the energy superstar around the globe during the early years of the 21st century as demand soared in Asia.
Carbon dioxide emissions from coal and other fossil fuels already are changing the climate and turning oceans more acidic.
Without a major course correction, scientists warn that later in this century we will enter a perilous new era that could include sea levels high enough to flood low-lying coastal cities, widespread loss of coral reefs and big decreases in winter snowpacks that store water.
In the Pacific Northwest, concerns over carbon dioxide are at the core of a fierce debate about proposals to build terminals to export American coal to Asia.
Yet those of us who live here already are helping stoke Asian carbon emissions. That’s because so much industry has been outsourced to China, where coal provides the energy to produce stainless steel for our refrigerators, the plastics in our toys and the computer chips in our iPhones.
Relying mainly on its own vast reserves, China consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. It has pulled past the United States to emerge as the world’s biggest emitter of CO2.
China’s coal has helped fuel an extraordinary economic boom that in recent decades has pulled some 500 million people out of poverty.
Facing growing international pressure to reduce carbon emissions and an internal backlash against air pollution, China is rapidly developing alternative power generated from solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy.
At the same time, its coal use continues to grow, although more slowly than in years past.
We all have a stake in what happens next.
How far — and how fast — China moves away from coal will help determine how high carbon levels climb in the 21st century.
China effort to store CO2 costly, but attempt must be made
Capturing and storing industrial carbon dioxide emissions is seen as a hopeful strategy for slowing down the pace of climate change. But development of the expensive technology is lagging.
By Hal Bernton
The struggle to reduce CO2
BEIJING — Finding a way to corral and store carbon dioxide emissions, rather than vent those into the atmosphere, is considered among the most important strategies for limiting coal’s contribution to climate change.
Yet that technology is expensive, and requires substantial amounts of additional energy to separate, compress and pump carbon to storage sites.
The United States and the European Union nations have been slow to move forward with large-scale carbon capture.
So has China, where development lags far behind the pace once proposed by the International Energy Agency.
China’s developers of demonstration projects have a deep understanding of the technology, said Lin Gao, a Chinese National Academy of Sciences researcher who is helping develop a carbon capture road-map for China. But some have concluded that, without scientific breakthroughs, the technology is unacceptable,
“Not only for the energy penalties but for the costs,” Gao said.
Still, carbon-capture proponents are hopeful Chinese leaders will shoulder such burdens to help limit climate change.
“We have to give this a shot,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, which is working to spread the technology in China. “Until we scale up carbon capture and storage, China’s coal trends will continue to be an unmitigated climate disaster.”
Carbon storage effort
China’s biggest effort to pump carbon dioxide into the ground for long-term storage is under way in Inner Mongolia.
The Shenhua Group, a state-owned coal company, is pumping up to 100,000 metric tons a year of carbon dioxide into geological formations. That’s less than 6 percent of the carbon emissions from the Shenhua complex that turns coal into liquid fuels and chemicals.
That storage effort got an early assist from the U.S. government, which made recommendations on design of the project. But this project is unlikely to be replicated on a large scale.
That’s because the Chinese government's first priority is to try to find a way to gain some value from the carbon dioxide, rather than just storing it underground.
In recent years, Chinese scientists have experimented with using carbon dioxide to produce fertilizers, plastics, biofuels and other products.
The oil industry offers the biggest potential market.
Pumping carbon dioxide into oil fields can boost production by reducing the viscosity of the crude so it can be pumped to the surface. There also can be a climate benefit because some carbon dioxide ends up trapped underground.
The oil industry will be taking the carbon dioxide emissions from GreenGen, China’s most ambitious effort to develop a coal plant that will not contribute to climate change.
This 400-megawattt power plant built near the port city of Tianjin is designed to separate the carbon dioxide before coal is combusted. By 2020, GreenGen is supposed to be piping most of its carbon emissions to offshore oil fields
So far, the power plant is struggling to operate profitably, and carbon dioxide still is vented into the air.
“The current technical situation at the plant is not so good,” Gao said. “The cost (of operating) is rather high. They have to solve this problem.”
China’s fossil-fuel based industries are another huge source of China’s carbon emissions.
In the process of producing chemicals, gas and other products, these industries often must isolate carbon dioxide in relatively pure form. This makes the carbon far easier to grab than the more-diluted streams spewed by power plants.
Carbon-capture proponents are hoping to match industrial plants that produce concentrated streams of CO2 with oil companies that can use them too boost production of aging fields.
There are successful models for such ventures.
In North Dakota, a coal plant separates out carbon dioxide in the process of producing methane gas. The Dakota Gasification Company has been piping about half of the captured carbon emissions to Canada, where it is injected into oil fields.
But there’s no carbon capture included in similar coal-to-gas plants now coming on line in China.
Gao, in a 2012 study he co-authored, suggested initial development focus on four large industrial plants in Shaanxi province that now capture carbon and release it into the atmosphere.
But none of these projects are under way.
“It is a pity,” Gao said.
Pakistan's failure to stop spread of polio sparks global emergency response
World Health Organisation says all residents must show proof of vaccination before they can leave the country
Reuters in Geneva
theguardian.com, Monday 5 May 2014 17.21 BST
Pakistan's failure to stem the spread of polio has triggered global emergency health measures , with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending all residents must show proof of vaccination before they can leave the country.
The emergency measures also apply to Syria and Cameroon, which along with Pakistan are seen as posing the greatest risk of exporting the crippling virus and undermining a UN plan to eradicate it by 2018.
Pakistan is in the spotlight as the only country with endemic polio that saw cases rise last year. Its caseload rose to 93 from 58 in 2012, accounting for more than a fifth of the 417 cases globally in 2013.
The virus has recently spread to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Syria, and has been found in sewage in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and greater Cairo, said WHO assistant director general Bruce Aylward. It also appeared in China two years ago.
"In the majority of these re-infected areas, the viruses circulating actually trace back to Pakistan within the last 12-18 months," Aylward told reporters on a conference call.
Pakistan has called an emergency meeting of senior provincial and federal health officials for Wednesday to finalise how to implement the new requirements.
"The best option would be vaccinating the passengers at the airport departure where polio vaccination cards would be issued to the passengers. Human resource and vaccines would have to be worked out for the purpose," state minister for health services Saira Afzal Tarar said in a televised broadcast.
"It would be most practical as people often have to fly in emergencies."
Aylward said Pakistan had done tremendous work to restore security in Peshawar after deadly attacks on health workers had impeded the fight against polio. The race to meet a target to eradicate polio by 2018 was still feasible, he said.
"In terms of the 2014 working target to try and stop transmission, from the data presented, clearly Pakistan would be the only country that would be considered 'off track' in terms of its ability to meet that deadline," he added.
The WHO chief, Margaret Chan, declared the resurgence of the disease to be a public health emergency of international concern, the first such designation since a 2009 flu pandemic.
The travel restrictions should stay in place until there is a whole year with no new exports of the disease, or six months if the countries can show they have carried out high-quality eradication activities in infected and high-risk areas.
The WHO's emergency committee, an independent group of experts that drew up the recommendations, will meet in three months to assess the countries' actions, or sooner if needed.
The steps published on Monday were the minimum actions that could be taken without unnecessarily disrupting travel or trade, but much stronger measures could have been recommended, Aylward said. Those include full vaccination programmes, restrictions on more countries and recommendations on countries of arrival.
The WHO says 10 million people are walking today thanks to efforts to wipe out the disease, which mainly affects children under five years old. It says economic models show eradicating polio would save at least $40bn to 50bn over the next 20 years.
Polio passes easily from person to person and can spread rapidly among children, especially in the kind of unsanitary conditions endured by displaced people in war-torn regions, refugee camps and areas where health care is limited.
The virus invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. The WHO has repeatedly warned that as long as any single child remains infected with polio, children everywhere are at risk.
There is no cure for the disease but it can be prevented by immunisation. The polio vaccine, administered multiple times, can protect a child for life.
Brazil's 'chainsaw queen' takes on environmentalists
Ambitious politician Kátia Abreu leads agricultural lobby in loosening controls on Amazon deforestation
Jonathan Watts in Brasilia
theguardian.com, Monday 5 May 2014 22.20 BST
Outside the political hothouse of Brasilia, there are probably few who can name the head of Brazil's powerful agricultural lobby, yet the woman in question, Kátia Abreu, is rapidly becoming the country's most interesting, important – and dangerous – politician.
The senator and rancher from Goiás was an influential force in the weakening of Brazil's forest code blamed by many for the recent rise in Amazon deforestation. Her support – in parliament and in an acerbic newspaper column – for more roads through the Amazon, congressional control over demarcation of indigenous reserves, more efficient monocultures and genetically modified "terminator seeds" has earned her the wrath of environmentalists who have called her "Miss Deforestation", "chainsaw queen" and the "face of evil".
Abreu, however, is defiant, saying she is preparing to run for president one day and wants to help Brazil overtake the US as the world's biggest food producer. "Running for president is not a plan – it is fate. I'm getting ready for that, preparing in case it is my destiny," she said in an interview at her office in Brasilia. "Criticism from radical environmentalists is the best form of endorsement. It gives me satisfaction. It shows I am on the right track and playing the right role."
A psychology graduate who took over a ranch after her husband died in 1987, Abreu has become the staunchest defender of agribusiness in Brazil. She heads the Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock and leads its political lobby, which claims more than 250 senators and members of congress.
Her primary objective is to boost agricultural output, which accounts for a big (23%) and growing share of Brazil's economy. Harvests of soy and other products have surged in recent years, putting the country – according to Abreu – on course to surpass the US even without further deforestation. "We have all the essential elements: abundant water, advanced technology and plenty of land for production. Based on this, we can become number one without cutting down trees."
Her bullish business message is underpinned by flag-waving nationalism and attacks on any group accused of trying to slow the growth of Brazilian agriculture. This include environmentalists, indigenous groups and landless peasants, all of whom she alleged – without evidence – were working for foreign interests. "I don't have concrete proof of this but I get a very strong impression that this is the case," she said.
Abreu's uncompromising rhetoric and style are reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher. When I mention the comparison, the congresswoman lights up.
"Thank you! Margaret Thatcher had one of the greatest liberal political minds. She built a set of principles that changed the world. I'm only sorry that I didn't have the opportunity to meet her."
Like Thatcher in the 1980s, Abreu is engaged in a potentially world-changing struggle. While the British prime minister's battle against the miners in the 1980s ushered in a period of social division and runaway capitalism, Abreu is taking on the environmental movement with enormous potential consequences for the global climate and food supply. She appears to be winning. As the economy has become more dependent on agribusiness, the influence of its lobby in parliament has increased to the point where it can almost make or break the government agenda.
Abreu said its success was partly a result of the lifestyle improvements the industry has given to Brazilian people. "Forty years ago, the average Brazilian spent 50% of his or her income on food. Now the proportion is about 18%."
The situation looked very different a decade ago, when former environment minister Marina Silva introduced a series of measures that slowed deforestation and promised more territory for indigenous groups and landless peasants.
Abreu said the tables had now turned. "For many years, environmentalism reached an extreme pitch and we in the agribusiness sector were treated like criminals," she said, but now "our agribusiness sector can influence the choice of kings and queens in Brazil. In the past, we only exercised economic influence. Now we also have political power."
In the presidential election in October, Abreu said she would back the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, whom she described as "more interested in agriculture" than her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Although they are ostensibly on opposite sides of the ideological divide, Abreu said she was willing to work with Rousseff for a price: "I just want her to be willing to understand our situation, to have a grasp of the problems that the agriculture sector faces, and to help solve those problems so we can keep growing and so that Brazil can be number one for food production."
That is likely to mean further erosion of indigenous rights, weaker environmental laws and loser restrictions on genetically modified terminator seeds – all of which are currently being pushed in congress by Abreu's lobby.
"We cannot rest on our laurels. There are many things holding back progress – the environmental issue, the Indian issue and more. But even with these problems we keep producing high levels of productivity. Imagine how high it might be without those obstacles," she said.
U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods
By JUSTIN GILLIS
MAY 6, 2014
The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported Tuesday, with water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse, and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects.
Such sweeping changes have been caused by an average warming of less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over most land areas of the country in the past century, the scientists found. If greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane continue to escalate at a rapid pace, they said, the warming could conceivably exceed 10 degrees by the end of this century.
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared in a major new report assessing the situation in the United States.
“Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” the report continued. “Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”
The report is the latest in a series of dire warnings about how the effects of global warming that had been long foreseen by climate scientists are already affecting the planet. Its region-by-region documentation of changes occurring in the United States, and of future risks, makes clear that few places will be unscathed — and some, like northerly areas, are feeling the effects at a swifter pace than had been expected.
Alaska in particular is hard hit. Glaciers and frozen ground in that state are melting, storms are eating away at fragile coastlines no longer protected by winter sea ice, and entire communities are having to flee inland — a precursor of the large-scale changes the report foresees for the rest of the United States.
The study, known as the National Climate Assessment, was prepared by a large scientific panel overseen by the government and received final approval at a meeting Tuesday.
The White House, which released the report, wants to maximize its impact to drum up a sense of urgency among Americans about climate change — and thus to build political support for a contentious new climate change regulation that President Obama plans to issue in June.
But instead of giving a Rose Garden speech, President Obama spent Tuesday giving interviews to local and national weather broadcasters on climate change and extreme weather. The goal was to help Americans connect the vast planetary problem of global warming caused by carbon emissions from cars and coal plants to the changing conditions in their own backyards. It was a strategic decision that senior White House staff members had been planning for months.
Speaking to Al Roker of NBC News, in an interview scheduled to be shown Wednesday morning on the “Today” show, Mr. Obama said “This is not some distant problem of the future. This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now. Whether it means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires — all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak.”
In the Northeast, the report found a big increase in torrential rains and risks from a rising sea that could lead to a repeat of the kind of flooding seen in Hurricane Sandy. In the Southwest, the water shortages seen to date are likely just a foretaste of the changes to come, the report found. In that region, the report warned, “severe and sustained drought will stress water sources, already overutilized in many areas, forcing increasing competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers and plant and animal life for the region’s most precious resource.”
The report did find some benefits from climate change in the short run, particularly for the Midwest, such as a longer growing season for crops and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But it warned that these were likely to be countered in the long run by escalating damages, particularly to agriculture.
“Yes, climate change is already here,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in writing the report. “But the costs so far are still on the low side compared to what will be coming under business as usual by late in this century.”
The report was supervised and approved by a large committee representing a cross section of American society, including representatives of two oil companies. It is the third national report in 14 years, and by far the most urgent in tone, leaving little doubt that the scientists consider climate change an incipient crisis. It is also the most slickly produced, with an elaborate package of interactive graphics on the Internet.
One of the report’s most striking findings concerned the rising frequency of torrential rains. Scientists have expected this effect for decades because more water is evaporating from a warming ocean surface, and the warmer atmosphere is able to hold the excess vapor, which then falls as rain or snow. But even the leading experts have been surprised by the scope of the change.
The report found that the eastern half of the country is receiving more precipitation in general. And over the past half-century, the proportion of precipitation that is falling in very heavy rain events has jumped by 71 percent in the Northeast, by 37 percent in the Midwest and by 27 percent in the South, the report found.
“It’s a big change,” said Radley M. Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University in New York who helped write the report. He added that scientists do not fully understand the regional variations.
In recent years, sudden intense rains have caused extensive damage.
For instance, large parts of Nashville were devastated by floods in 2010 after nearly 20 inches of rain fell in two days. Last year, parts of Colorado flooded after getting as much rain in a week as normally falls in a year. Just last week, widespread devastation occurred in the Florida Panhandle from rains that may have exceeded two feet in 24 hours.
The new report emphasized that people should not expect global warming to happen at a steady pace, nor at the same rate throughout the country. Bitterly cold winters will continue to occur, the report said, even as they become somewhat less likely. Warming, too, will vary. While most of the country has warmed sharply over the past century, the Southeast has barely warmed at all, and a section of southern Alabama has even cooled slightly.
The report cited the likely role of climate change in causing an outbreak of mountain pine beetles that has devastated millions of acres of pine forest across the American West and the Canadian province of British Columbia; warmer winters and longer summers have let more of the beetles survive and reproduce at an exponential rate. And the report warned of severe, long-lasting heat waves. For instance, it cited research saying the type of record-breaking heat that scorched Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 had become substantially more likely because of the human release of greenhouse gases.
On rising sea levels, the new report went beyond warnings issued in September by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said that by the end of the century, sea levels could rise by as much as three feet globally if emissions continue at a rapid pace. The American scientists said the rise could be anywhere from one to four feet, and added that six feet could not be ruled out. Along much of the East Coast, the situation will be worse than the global average because the land there is sinking, the scientists said.
Historically, the United States was responsible for more emissions than any other country. Lately, China has become the largest emitter over all, though its emissions per person are still far below those of the United States.
The report pointed out that while the country as a whole still had no comprehensive climate legislation, many states and cities had begun to take steps to limit emissions and to adapt to climatic changes that can no longer be avoided. But the report found that these efforts were inadequate.
“There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced,” the report warned.
Correction: May 6, 2014
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified a town where overflow from the South Platte River in Colorado submerged cars. It is Greeley, Colo., not Greenley.
India admits Delhi matches Beijing for air pollution threatening public health
World Health Organisation study finds Indian capital had dirtiest atmosphere of 1,600 cities around the world for PM2.5 particles
AFP in Delhi
theguardian.com, Thursday 8 May 2014 15.50 BST
India's state air monitoring centre has admitted that pollution in Delhi is comparable to that of Beijing, but disputed a World Health Organisation (WHO) finding that the Indian capital had the dirtiest atmosphere in the world.
A study of 1,600 cities across 91 countries released on Wednesday by the WHO showed Delhi had the world's highest annual average concentration of small airborne particles (known as PM2.5) of 153.
These extremely fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter are linked with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease as they penetrate deep into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream.
Indian officials in the past have bristled at research showing the capital as being worse than Beijing where thick smog has triggered public health warnings and public concern that are mostly absent in Delhi.
"If we compare yearly averages for each year from 2011-2014 then both cities [Delhi and Beijing] are almost comparable," Gufran Beig from India's state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) acknowledged in an email sent to AFP.
He disputed the figure cited by the WHO for PM2.5 in Delhi, however, saying it should have been in the range of 110-120 micrograms per cubic metre instead of 153.
Beijing's was underestimated at 56, he said, and should have been double this, according to an analysis of readings given out by the US embassy in the city.
"Delhi's air quality is better than Beijing in summer and much better in monsoon season," he added. "It is winter pollution in Delhi and sudden spikes – which is quite high as compared to Beijing – triggered by meteorology."
Beig maintained that the WHO figures contained in a searchable database released on Wednesday were biased and misleading.
But even with an annual average PM2.5 reading of 110-120, Delhi would still be among the world's most polluted cities, if not the outright worst.
Rivals would be the Pakistani city of Karachi with an annual reading of 117, while the regional Indian cities of Gwalior, Patna and Raipur reported 144, 149 and 134 respectively.
By comparison, London had an annual PM2.5 reading of 16.
"The latest urban air-quality database released by the World Health Organisation reconfirms that most Indian cities are becoming death traps because of very high air pollution levels," said an Indian campaign group, the Centre for Science and Environment.
The centre said that 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were in India.
The small particles blighting the air of Delhi and other leading developing cities around the world are often dust from construction sites, pollution from diesel engines or industrial emissions.
The Indian capital also suffers from atmospheric dust blown in from the deserts of the western state of Rajasthan, as well as pollution from open fires lit by the urban poor to keep warm in winter or to cook food.
While Delhi ranked as worst on the PM2.5 scale in the WTO data, measurements of larger PM10 particles showed others as far more polluted.
Peshawar and Rawalpindi in neighbouring Pakistan trumped all other cities with readings of 540 and 448 respectively. WHO says concentrations of PM10 particles should remain below 20 micrograms per cubic metre, averaged out over the year.
Delhi has had its air quality under scrutiny for some time now with research by Yale University scientists in January this year also suggesting that it was worse than Beijing.
A World Bank report last year that surveyed 132 countries ranked India 126th for environmental performance and worst for air pollution.
The WHO stressed that its new air pollution database, which relies mainly on data gathered by the cities themselves, did not aim to rank cities, pointing out that "some of the worst ones ... are not collecting data regularly."
Widespread antibiotic resistance found across 71 environments, including oceans, soil and human feces
By The Conversation
Saturday, May 10, 2014 14:10 EDT
By Pat Hutchens, The Conversation
Resistance to commonly used antibiotics are in the genes of bacteria everywhere, researchers at the University of Lyon in France have discovered.
A worldwide study of the gene sequences of bacteria, published in the journal Cell Biology today, has found resistance across 71 environments, including oceans, soil and human feces.
The researchers analysed gene samples from public repository websites.
Lead author of the study, Joseph Nesme, said while the finding that antibiotic resistance exists in the environment is not new, the results showed they were present in considerable abundance.
They found that 30 % of total known antibiotic drugs resistance genes could be found in a single soil sample.
“Such results reinforce models that consider the environment as a major reservoir of antibiotic resistance that can be transferred to pathogens,” he said.
Bacteria are known to borrow foreign DNA from their cell environment.
Professor of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at Australian National University Peter Collingnon said it showed we have to be very careful about where we dispose of antibiotics and resistant bacteria.
“The proper way is making sure we have drugs that have shorter half lives so that they disintegrate and don’t persist in the environment for long periods of time,” he said.
But many of the antibiotic resistant genes found in the microbial communities during this study pre-date the industrial use of medicines.
According to Nesme, this is because most natural antibiotics are derived from soil microorganisms.
“There are still many antibiotic molecules to be found inside this overall environmental diversity,” he said.
Professor Collingnon said this is likely to mean there are new antibiotics that we haven’t found.
“That’s actually how we have found most antibiotics, by looking at natural products and seeing how they inhibited bacteria,” he said.
Allen Cheng, Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases Epidemiology at Monash University, said it’s not really a surprise that there are antibiotic resistant genes in nature because that’s how other organisms defend themselves.
“This [study] really is a survey of all the weapons that are out there. It’s sort of like an inventory of bacterial weaponry and all the defences they might have. It gives us an idea of what bacteria might use to combat antibiotics in the future,” he said.
“I think what this paper doesn’t really tell us is which of these mechanisms is important. Most of them we’ve seen before in some form, but if you use an antibiotic it doesn’t say which of these mechanisms are likely to become the next dominant problem,” Professor Cheng said.
Professor Collingnon said the real problem was that there aren’t really financial rewards, particularly for pharmaceutical companies, to go looking for new antibiotics.
“This is because antibiotics are the one drug that actually cures something. What pharmaceutical companies want is to develop drugs that you, and preferably 20% to 30 % of the population, have to take forever,” he said.
Professor Collingnon said from a research point of view, there were more opportunities to look for new antibiotics using molecular techniques.
“We can also do some of the more basic things we did 30, 40 or 50 years ago. This is where we look at a whole lot of things, either in insects, jungles or soil, and see what products are there that are maybe the antibiotics that we don’t know about yet,“ he said.
As Population Surges, Harsh Climate Of Southwest Will Only Get Harsher
This is a re-post from Climate Progress by Ari Phillips
A new report from several hundred scientists underpins the impacts already being felt across the Southwest as a crippling drought grips California and states across the region struggle to allocate water to meet the demand of communities, industries and ecosystems.
“Just think of this year’s California drought — the type of hot, snowless, severe drought that we expect more of in the future,” Gregg Garfin, a lead author of the Southwest portion of the National Climate Assessment and assistant professor of climate, natural resources, and policy at the University of Arizona, told ThinkProgress in an email.
A harsh climate is nothing new for the Southwest, even before it was exacerbated by climate change. One hundred and fifty years ago, intrepid explorers like John Wesley Powell and fearless scouts like Kit Carson struggled to traverse the hot, dry, relentless terrain to get from the flat Midwestern plains to the bountiful Pacific coast.
Some seven generations later, the Southwest is as hot and dry as ever, but the traditional challenges are compounded by an abundance of urban dwellers flocking to the region for the year-round sun and outdoorsy lifestyle. The Congressionally-mandated assessment from over 300 climate scientists and experts shows how climate change could undercut this quintessentially American settling of the West — a trend that’s reached a boiling point after several hundred years of steady buildup.
The Powell survey on its second trip down the Colorado River, 1871.
The Southwest portion of the National Climate Assessment reads like a warning for future travelers to the region:
The Southwest is the hottest and driest region in the United States, where the availability of water has defined its landscapes, history of human settlement, and modern economy. Climate changes pose challenges for an already parched region that is expected to get hotter and, in its southern half, significantly drier.
The introduction actually notes that tourism and recreation will be significantly “affected by reduced streamflow and a shorter snow season, influencing everything from the ski industry to lake and river recreation.” All the while, the population of the area is expected to increase from 56 million people to 94 million people by mid-century, an increase of more than two-thirds.
“What they’re saying is what we’ve been seeing for several years now,” Jeremy Nichols, director of the Climate and Energy Program at WildEarth Guardians, told ThinkProgress. “Unprecedented weather, forests under stress, the writing on the wall just keep getting clearer.”
The rivers we float on face an uncertain existence, the forests we backpack in are already under stress from drought and fire.
Nichols, who is based in Golden, Colorado, said that the NCA’s findings reinforce that the great outdoors of the West, which he and his family love, are not guaranteed.
“The rivers we float on face an uncertain existence, the forests we backpack in are already under stress from drought and fire,” he said. “My colleagues who work with endangered species, rivers, and public lands are all seeing the same thing — climate change is already raising its ugly head.”
On top of the resultant emissions, the fossil fuel boom associated with fracking is also trammeling many of the remote wilderness areas across the Southwest, said Nichols. “And when it comes to water, the Rio Grande has diminished to the point where species that depend on it are facing extinction.”
Urban sprawl in Herriman Utah, overlooking Mount Timpanogos.
Whether Kit Carson was searching for an oasis to quench his thirst or John Powell was charting the unwieldy Colorado River, the lifeblood of the Southwest has always been water. This holds true in the 21st century. On top of providing water for nearly 100 million people to drink and wash with — and swim in if they have any say — agriculture is a major part of the Southwest’s economy. According to the NCA, the Southwest produces more than half the country’s high-value specialty crops. California alone produces about 95 percent of U.S. apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisins, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, persimmons, pistachios, olives, and walnuts. Excluding Colorado, more than 92 percent of the region’s cropland is irrigated, and agricultural uses account for 79 percent of all water withdrawals in the region.
For the Southwest, climate change is water change.
The mighty Colorado River has been dammed up and down since Powell first charted its course and it now provides water and power for millions of people. However, faced with a deepening water shortage this year on an already over-allocated system, federal authorities are for the first time decreasing the amount of water flowing into Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir.
“For the Southwest, climate change is water change,” said Garfin. “What affects the reliability of our water supplies, and the timing of rain and snow in our region affects everything. The snow-covered peaks of Colorado, Utah, and California are the water towers of the Southwest.”
Snow water equivalent refers to the amount of water held in a volume of snow, which depends on the density of the snow and other factors. Figure shows projected snow water equivalent for the Southwest, as a percentage of 1971-2000, assuming continued increases in global emissions A2 scenario (850 parts per million of CO2 in the air).
Snow water equivalent refers to the amount of water held in a volume of snow, which depends on the density of the snow and other factors. Figure shows projected snow water equivalent for the Southwest, as a percentage of 1971-2000, assuming continued increases in global emissions A2 scenario (850 parts per million of CO2 in the air).
The brutal drought in California has given way to an early and intense start to the wildfire season, further elicited by high temperatures and windy conditions. A recent study found that in the last 30 years in the western United States, both the number of fires and the area that they burned have increased.
Garfin is not only concerned about the water supply of urban areas throughout the Southwest, but also how the people who live there will confront intense heat waves amplified by asphalt-laden urban sprawls. He said that extreme heat is already the number one weather-related killer in the United States, with the highest rate of heat-related deaths happening in Arizona.
Despite the very real and pressing concerns, Garfin remains hopeful regarding efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change in the Southwest.
“Some recent developments give us hope for the region,” he said. “Such as the release of climate action plans in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles that feature innovations that city planners, in concert with local citizens, are developing and implementing to reduce climate change risks.”
These innovations include siting buildings further inland to avoid sea level rise impacts, increasing water conservation through rainwater harvesting, and creating park spaces lined with water-conserving native trees, according to Garfin.
The projected increase in heat waves in Southwest cities increases the chances that a chain of escalating effects could lead to serious increases in illness and death due to heat stress.
The Southwest is also home to some of the country’s best renewable energy sources — including wind, solar, and geothermal energy, along with the potential for wave and tidal power along California’s cost. States in the region are implementing measures to encourage renewable energy capacity growth, such as Renewable Portfolio Standards, but are facing push-back from right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential lobbying group composed of fossil fuel corporations and wealthy individuals protecting their best interests, like the Koch brothers.
“If I could add one more page to the Southwest section of the National Climate Assessment, I would highlight the important impacts of climate change on southwestern tribes and Native Nations, and the special vulnerabilities of Native peoples to climate change,” said Garfin. “Impacts include drying up of springs and other important sources of water, and losses of important ceremonial plant species from the same global change-type drought that has made ghost forests of millions of acres of pines across the West, including on reservation lands.”
Southwestern tribes, around long before Carson or Powell, know well the mercurial dangers of climate change-like impacts in the Southwest. Several of them are believed to have abandoned their homelands at least in part due to prolonged droughts of the past. Today those in the Southwest are again some of the most vulnerable in the U.S., this time due in no small part to human-caused climate change.
The Explosive Growth of California’s Drought in 1 Chart
Brian Kahn By Brian Kahn
It didn’t seem possible, but California's drought just got worse. On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released new data that show every single inch of the state is now experiencing some form of drought.
Since mid-March, a sliver of California on its southeastern border was the lone drought holdout for the state. Even then, that section of the state was still considered abnormally dry according to the Drought Monitor. The section finally tipped into drought this week, and for the first time in 15 year-history of the Drought Monitor, the entire state is now in drought.
Data source: U.S. Drought Monitor
The growth of the drought is clearly on display in the graphic above. While some form of drought covered much of the state through 2013, this winter led to an explosion of drought across the entire state. Extreme drought covered roughly a quarter of the state in early January 2014. But by mid-January, the percentage of the state in extreme drought jumped to nearly 65 percent as winter rains and snows failed to materialize and hot weather baked the state.
Exceptional drought, the most dire drought category, first appeared in the January 28 iteration of the monitor. Since then it has swallowed up nearly a quarter of the state including the Central Valley, a prime growing region in the state. Overall, nearly a quarter of the state is now experiencing exceptional drought, the most dire drought category.
A persistent blocking ridge of high pressure is what kept California hot and dry all winter, which is typically the state’s wet season. What little snow that fell in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which acts as a natural reservoir through spring, declined precipitously in the past 10 days and could create further drought woes for the state. Melting snow can also contribute to tumultuous wildfire seasons by drying out the ground and vegetation that can feed blazes. That’s a daunting prospect for Californian’s and visitors to Yosemite National Park with last year’s Rim Fire still fresh on their minds.
Though parts of the state are receiving rain and snow on Friday, it’s unlikely to dent the drought. And with the rainy season basically done until late fall, the prospects for relief are scarce. That means drought conditions are likely to persist or could even worsen through the summer.
Disaster Warning: The Area Under The Keystone XL Pipeline Is Likely To Experience Earthquakes
Saturday, May, 10th, 2014, 6:28 pm
It is always humorous to California residents to hear relatives and friends from out of state say they are never visiting California because they are terrified of earthquakes; particularly those living in the Southwestern region of the country that is regularly devastated by extreme weather events such as tornadoes, droughts, and floods. It is true that an earthquake can be a frightening event, but no more so than the annual round of tornadoes in the so-called “tornado alley” region in states such as Oklahoma. It is not uncommon for Americans living in the tornado alley region to say they would rather be terrified of tornadoes and flash floods than earthquakes in California, but now they should be more terrified of increasingly common Oklahoma earthquakes than the occasional California tremors to accompany their fear of extreme weather events.
Last week the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) issued an advisory warning of an increased likelihood of “damaging earthquakes” as a result of the increased number of small and moderate shocks in central and north-central Oklahoma. Both the USGS and OGS reported that there have been a stunning 183 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and greater in the Sooner state between October 2013 and April 2014. The two agencies issued the warning advisory because the increase in the rate of earthquakes above 3.0 on the Richter Scale since last October increases the possibility of a “damaging” quake of 5.0 magnitude or higher in central Oklahoma as a result of injecting chemical-laden water used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of tight rock formations to “fracture” rock deep underground to extract oil and gas.
To get an idea of the inordinate increase is seismic activity in Oklahoma due to fracking, the long-term average between 1978 and 2008 was about two 3.0 magnitude earthquakes per year. In the past 24 hours there were 5 significant (2.5 magnitude or greater) quakes that accounted for 13% of the quakes worldwide. Oklahoma experienced more earthquakes in 2014 than tremor-prone California that is also well over twice the size of Oklahoma. In the jointly-issued warning advisory, geologists identified the culprit as oil industry wastewater injected into deep geologic rock formations that increases underground pressure, lubricates faults, and causes earthquakes in a process geologists refer to as “injection-induced seismicity.” That is right; geologists have named the cause of the earthquakes that are the result of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Geologists have noted that the recent Oklahoma earthquake rate changes are unrelated to typical random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates. The area geologists warned is likely to experience damaging earthquakes is situated under the proposed path of the KeystoneXL pipeline set to carry bitumen-laden tar sand renowned for ruptures without earthquakes, but that is something Republicans beholden to the oil export industry are unlikely to ever admit. In fact, the oil industry will not admit fracking has any relationship to increased earthquake activity in any region much less Oklahoma.
The oil industry claims, like BP after pouring 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and along America’s Gulf Coast, it is unfair to blame the uncharacteristically large number of earthquakes on anything the industry is doing. According to the vice president of regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, Brian Woodward, “Granted, we’ve not seen this level of seismic activity in Oklahoma in the last 60 to 80 years and before that we don’t have a record. It causes us all concern, but the rush to correlate this activity with our industry is something we don’t believe is necessarily fair.” All that remains is for some oil industry-funded Republican to issue a heartfelt apology to the oil industry on the floor of the House or Senate for geologists and geophysicists blaming the uncharacteristically high number of earthquakes in Oklahoma on fracking. After the Republicans apologize, there will be a Koch Industry-funded campaign to discredit geologists and geophysicists as perpetrating a United Nations hoax to destroy the American fracking industry.
Researchers have long known that high-pressure fluid-injection operations (fracking) can trigger earthquakes, and in central Oklahoma a cluster of four high-volume wastewater injection wells triggered quakes up to 30 miles away, according to Katie Keranen a geophysicist at Cornell University in New York. Keranen said, “These are some of the biggest wells in the state, and the pressure is high enough from the injected fluids to trigger earthquakes that have since spread farther outward, as fluids migrate farther from the massive injection wells.” Fracking has already been linked to Oklahoma’s strongest recorded quake in 2011, as well as a spate of more than 180 smaller tremors in Texas between Oct. 30, 2008, and May 31, 2009.
In California, a state notorious for its labyrinth of serious seismic faults is heading into early days of an extreme drought unseen in well over 500 years, so Republicans and the oil industry are waging a ferocious battle to stop a moratorium on fracking. Besides increasing the risk of very substantial earthquakes from fracturing deep rock formations, the oil industry is taking what little precious water the state has for agriculture and drinking and mixing it with toxic chemicals and injecting it into the ground directly over fault lines up and down the state. The oil industry and Republicans are particularly anxious to increase fracking along California’s pristine coast and Central Valley that produces a large percentage of the nation’s food source. Both areas are two of the hardest hit by the epic drought that has officials considering rationing water for consumer use, not to mention the state’s agriculture industry that is already paying dearly for what precious little water the state’s reservoirs have left.
The practice of fracking is nearly free of regulatory oversight due in large part to Republicans protecting the oil industry despite the increased frequency of earthquakes in areas virtually unknown for seismic activity. Also related to fracking is a strong correlation between proximity to fracking wells and congenital heart defects in newborns. According to a study in Colorado, as the number and nearness of wells to a pregnant woman’s home went up, so did the likelihood her newborn would develop a heart problem. The study found that, “Births to mothers in the most exposed tertile [an exposure level equal to 125 wells within mile of the home] had a 30% greater prevalence of CHDs [congenital heart defects]…than births to mothers with no wells within a 10-mile radius of their residence.” Another study in Pennsylvania found that “proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent.” Naturally, pro-fracking advocates scoffed at both studies and told mothers “to ignore the reports and not to rely on these studies as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect.”
As it turns out, Oklahoma residents should not fear coming to California whatsoever. In fact, Oklahoma is much more terrifying because although the Golden State has the occasional earthquake, it does not have Oklahoma’s yearly tornadoes or the level of fracking and earthquakes that prompted a warning from the USGS that the “big one” is on the horizon. Sadly for Oklahoma residents, there is little chance the Republican-controlled legislature or governor will take steps to limit fracking and reduce the threat of damaging earthquakes. Even though the oil industry and Republicans oppose a moratorium on fracking in California, the people care about their health, the environment, and their limited supply of drinking water and with a large Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature and governor’s office, the state’s biggest challenge is not fracking-induced earthquakes; just a severe drought.
Scientists: Methane from 2010 BP oil spill lasted long after clean-up
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, May 11, 2014 17:30 EDT
Scientists on Sunday said that methane which leaked from the 2010 oil-rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico persisted in the sea for months beyond a presumed cleanup of the gas by marine microbes.
As much as half a million tonnes of natural gas, 80 percent of it methane, leaked into the deep sea as a result of the blowout on April 20, 2010, on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.
The leak triggered a surprising “bloom” of marine bacteria that feasted on the gassy hydrocarbon plume.
The bugs performed a valuable environmental service, helping to prevent gas from lingering in the sea — where it would contribute to ocean acidification — or from escaping to the air, where it would add to the greenhouse-gas problem.
The bloom was so dramatic that, by the end of August, tests suggested all the gas had been mopped out by these natural little helpers.
But in a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday, US marine scientists said the bloom abruptly declined at the end of June, even as methane concentrations remained about 5,000 times above background levels.
The bugs did indeed remove a significant amount of the gas, but their population crashed while the leak was still in progress, it said.
Engineers eventually capped the blowout on July 15, after 83 days. In addition to the gas, around four million barrels of oil escaped into the Gulf of Mexico.
Data from research expeditions that ran from May to December 2010 suggest that the residual plumes dispersed, according to the study.
Above-normal methane concentrations from the well, carrying a telltale carbon isotope signature, were found over a large area north and northeast of the wellhead, and this persisted until the end of the year at least, the study said.
The investigation, headed by Samantha Joye at the University of Georgia, did not estimate how much gas was not gobbled up by the microbes.
In addition, it was not designed to assess any environmental damage.
Why the microbial bloom crashed is unclear, but the fact that it happened underscores the many uncertainties in the complex marine environment when a gas leak occurs, it said.
Potential factors in these blooms include the availability of other nutrients for the bacteria, currents, other microscopic marine life and chemicals used to disperse oil slicks.
Southern Ocean winds strongest in 1,000 years due to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels: study
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, May 12, 2014 8:13 EDT
Winds in the wild Southern Ocean are blowing at their strongest in a millennia as climate change shifts weather patterns, leaving Antarctica colder and Australia facing more droughts, a study showed Monday.
Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were strengthening the winds, already dubbed the “Roaring Forties” for their ferocity, and pushing them further south towards Antarctica, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) said.
“The Southern Ocean winds are now stronger than at any other time in the past 1,000 years,” said the study’s lead researcher Nerilie Abram of an ocean notorious for having some of the fiercest winds and largest waves on the planet.
“The strengthening of these winds has been particularly prominent over the past 70 years, and by combining our observations with climate models we can clearly link this to rising greenhouse gas levels.”
The new research, which was published in the Nature Climate Change journal, explains why Antarctica is not warming as much as other continents.
The westerly winds, which do not touch the eastern parts of Antarctica but circle in the ocean around it, were trapping more of the cold air over the area as they strengthened, with the world’s southernmost continent “stealing more of Australia’s rainfall”, Abram said.
“This is why Antarctica has bucked the trend. Every other continent is warming, and the Arctic is warming fastest of anywhere on earth,” she said.
The study’s authors analysed ice cores from Antarctica, along with data from tree rings and lakes in South America, using the southern hemisphere’s most powerful supercomputer “Raijin”, which is based at the ANU.
The research helped to explain why the westerlies were further cooling already cold parts of the continent even as they were also driving “exceptionally quicker” warming in the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out into their path, Abram said.
The strengthening westerlies drive up the temperature at the peninsula — the only part of the Antarctica that is hit by the wind — through the warm, moist air they carry from the Southern Ocean.
This has made the peninsula the fastest-warming place in the southern hemisphere, with scientists concerned about the stability of the ice sheets and sea level rises in the region.
The shift in the westerlies — approximately 200 kilometres in the 20th century — was driven by human emissions of carbon dioxide, said research fellow Steven Phipps of the University of New South Wales, who worked on the climate modelling used in the study.
From the 1970s, the shift was exacerbated by the expanding ozone hole caused by human emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), Phipps added.
“Even for a mid-range climate scenario, the trend is going to continue in the 21st century,” Phipps said, adding that southern Australia was likely to experience more dry winters.
Agence France-Presse May 5, 2014 5:04 May 5, 2014 5:04
A future of thirst: Water crisis lies on the horizon
The next time your throat is as dry as a bone and the Sun is beating down, take a glass of clean, cool water.
Savour it. Sip by sip.
Vital and appreciated as that water is, it will be even more precious to those who will follow you.
By the end of this century, billions are likely to gripped by water stress and the stuff of life could be an unseen driver of conflict.
So say hydrologists who forecast that on present trends, freshwater faces a double crunch -- from a population explosion, which will drive up demand for food and energy, and the impact of climate change.
"Approximately 80 percent of the world's population already suffers serious threats to its water security, as measured by indicators including water availability, water demand and pollution," the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in a landmark report in March.
"Climate change can alter the availability of water and therefore threaten water security."
Already today, around 768 million people do not have access to a safe, reliable source of water and 2.5 billion do not have decent sanitation. Around a fifth of the world's aquifers are depleted.
Jump forward in your imagination to mid-century, when the world's population of about 7.2 billion is expected to swell to around 9.6 billion.
By then, global demand for water is likely to increase by a whopping 55 percent, according to the United Nations' newly published World Water Development Report.
More than 40 percent of the planet's population will be living in areas of "severe" water stress, many of them in the broad swathe of land that runs along north Africa, the Middle East and western South Asia.
Yet these scenarios do not take into account changes in rainfall or snowfall or glacier shrinkage caused by global warming.
- Wetter or drier -
As a very general rule, wet countries will get wetter and dry countries will get drier, accentuating risk of flood or drought, climate scientists warn.
But whether people will heed their alarm call is a good question.
"When seismologists talk about an area at risk from an earthquake, people generally accept what they say and refrain from building their home there," says French climatologist Herve Le Treut.
"But when it comes to drought or flood, people tend to pay less attention when the warning comes from meteorologists."
Water squabbles in the hot, arid sub-tropics have a long history. In recent years, the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile have all been the grounds for verbal sparring over who has the right to build dams, withhold or extract "blue gold" to the possible detriment of people downstream.
"There will clearly be less water available in sub-tropical countries, both as surface water and aquifer water, and this will sharpen competition for water resources," says Blanca Jimenez-Cisneros, who headed the chapter on water for the big IPCC report.
Citing a 2012 assessment by US intelligence agencies, the US State Department says: "Water is not just a human health issue, not just an economic development or environmental issue, but a peace and security issue."
Rows over water between nations tend to be resolved without bloodshed, often using international fora, says Richard Connor, who headed the UN water report.
However, "you can talk about conflict in which water is the root cause, albeit usually hidden," he told AFP.
"It can lead to fluctuations in energy and food prices, which can in turn lead to civil unrest. In such cases, the 'conflict' may be over energy or food prices, but these are themselves related to water availability and allocation."
Failing a slowdown in population growth or a swift solution to global warming, the main answers for addressing the water crunch lie in efficiency.
In some countries of the Middle East, between 15 and 60 percent of water disappears through leaks or evaporation even before the consumer turns the tap.
Building desalination plants on coasts in dry regions may sound tempting, "but their water can cost up to 30 times more than ordinary water," notes Jimenez-Cisneros.
Efficiency options include smarter irrigation, crops that are less thirsty or drought-resilient, power stations that do not extract vast amounts of water for cooling, and consumer participation, such as flushing toilets with "grey" water, meaning used bath or shower water.
Above all, the message will be: don't waste even a single drop.
Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans From Polar Melt
By JUSTIN GILLIS and KENNETH CHANG
MAY 12, 2014
A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on Monday. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries.
Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said.
The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.
“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, said in an interview. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. NASA called a telephone news conference Monday to highlight the urgency of the findings.
The West Antarctic ice sheet sits in a bowl-shaped depression in the earth, with the base of the ice below sea level. Warm ocean water is causing the ice sitting along the rim of the bowl to thin and retreat. As the front edge of the ice pulls away from the rim and enters deeper water, it can retreat much faster than before.
In one of the new papers, a team led by Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine, used satellite and air measurements to document an accelerating retreat over the past several decades of six glaciers draining into the Amundsen Sea region. And with updated mapping of the terrain beneath the ice sheet, the team was able to rule out the presence of any mountains or hills significant enough to slow the retreat.
“Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” Dr. Rignot said in the NASA news conference. “It has passed the point of no return.”
Those six glaciers alone could cause the ocean to rise four feet as they disappear, Dr. Rignot said, possibly within a couple of centuries. He added that their disappearance will most likely destabilize other sectors of the ice sheet, so the ultimate rise could be triple that.
A separate team led by Ian Joughin of the University of Washington studied one of the most important glaciers, Thwaites, using sophisticated computer modeling, coupled with recent measurements of the ice flow. That team also found that a slow-motion collapse had become inevitable. Even if the warm water now eating away at the ice were to dissipate, it would be “too little, too late to stabilize the ice sheet,” Dr. Joughin said. “There’s no stabilization mechanism.”
The two teams worked independently, preparing papers that were to be published within days of each other. After it was learned that their results were similar, the teams and their journals agreed to release the findings on the same day.
The new finding appears to be the fulfillment of a prediction made in 1978 by an eminent glaciologist, John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University. He outlined the vulnerable nature of the West Antarctic ice sheet and warned that the rapid human-driven release of greenhouse gases posed “a threat of disaster.” He was assailed at the time, but in recent years, scientists have been watching with growing concern as events have unfolded in much the way Dr. Mercer predicted. (He died in 1987.)
Scientists said the ice sheet was not melting because of warmer air temperatures, but rather because relatively warm water that occurs naturally in the depths of the ocean was being pulled to the surface by an intensification, over the past several decades, of the powerful winds that encircle Antarctica.
And while the cause of the stronger winds is somewhat unclear, many researchers consider human-induced global warming to be a significant factor. The winds help to isolate Antarctica and keep it cold at the surface, but as global warming proceeds, that means a sharper temperature difference between the Antarctic and the rest of the globe. That temperature difference provides further energy for the winds, which in turn stir up the ocean waters.
Some scientists believe the ozone hole over Antarctica — caused not by global warming but by an entirely different environmental problem, the human-caused release of ozone-destroying gases — may also be adding energy to the winds. And natural variability may be contributing as well, though scientists do not believe it is the primary factor.
The global sea level has been rising since the 19th century, but Antarctica so far has been only a small factor. The biggest factor to date is that seawater expands as it warms.
But the melting from both Greenland and Antarctica is expected to be far more important in the future. A United Nations scientific committee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has warned that the global sea level could rise as much as three feet by the end of this century if stronger efforts are not made to control greenhouse gases. The new findings suggest the situation is likely to get far worse in subsequent centuries.
The effects will depend in part on how much money future governments spend to protect shorelines from a rising sea. Research published in 2012 found that a rise of less than four feet would inundate land on which some 3.7 million Americans live today. Miami, New Orleans, New York and Boston are all highly vulnerable.
Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the new research but has studied the polar ice sheets for decades, said he found the new papers compelling. Though he had long feared the possibility of ice-sheet collapse, when he learned of the new findings, “it shook me a little bit,” Dr. Alley said.
He added that while a large rise of the sea may now be inevitable from West Antarctica, continued release of greenhouse gases will almost certainly make the situation worse. The heat-trapping gases could destabilize other parts of Antarctica as well as the Greenland ice sheet, potentially causing enough sea-level rise that many of the world’s coastal cities would eventually have to be abandoned.
“If we have indeed lit the fuse on West Antarctica, it’s very hard to imagine putting the fuse out,” Dr. Alley said. “But there’s a bunch more fuses, and there’s a bunch more matches, and we have a decision now: Do we light those?”
Correction: May 12, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of the lead author of a paper in Science about the accelerated flow of glaciers in West Antarctica. He is Ian Joughin, not Joaquin.