Thursday, November 22, 2012


Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory. Credit: NOAA.
From The Guardian:
The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record 390.9 parts per million (ppm) in 2011, according to a report released Tuesday by the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO). That's a 40 percent increase over levels in 1750, before humans began burning fossil fuels in earnest.
Although CO2 is still the most significant long-lived greenhouse gas, levels of other heat-trapping gases have also climbed to record levels, according to the report. Methane, for example hit 1813 parts per billion (ppb) in 2011, and nitrous oxide rose to 324.2 ppb. All told, the amount of excess heat prevented from escaping into outer space was 30 percent higher in 2011 than it was as recently as 1990.
The CO2 that remains in the atmosphere, meanwhile, takes centuries to dissipate, which is why the numbers continue to climb. As a result of all the extra CO2 pumped into the air, worldwide average temperatures have already risen by 1.8°F since 1900.
Yet despite all of this knowledge, the world has largely failed to act on reducing emissions. The best they could do at a UN-sponsored climate meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 was to agree to a non-binding target of limiting the world's greenhouse-gas-triggered temperature increase to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels to limit the potential damage. Just a year later, it was already clear that they wouldn't come close to making it.
Frustrated with this global inaction, the World Bank released a report on Sunday saying that without significant emissions reductions, the world's average temperature could climb by 4°C (7.2°F) by as early as 2060. The report highlighted the dire consequences for human health and safety — including dangerous sea level rise, heat waves, and other extreme weather events.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

News of the World

I've been following the Rupert Murdoch / News of the World scandal in the UK with some fascination. At its heart, it is the story of mutual corruption, where the politicians and Murdoch's paper needed each other . Each time Murdoch and the paper seemed to over-reach themselves they kept not just getting away with their actions, but were actively supported by the weak and venal politicians who were supposed to be guarding the public trust. It was a comparatively minor action, the hacking of Millie Dowler's cell phone that finally brought the empire low.
This was a minor act; NOTW reporters had been hacking the cell phones of celebs and politicians for years. But to hack the phone of a missing girl who, it turns out had been murdered, and by hacking given her parents false hope, that was the act that set off the waves of public revulsion and anger. Waves that finally cost Murdoch his flagship title.
Today the Beeb is reporting that:
Ex-Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson and ex-News International executive Rebekah Brooks are to be charged in connection with payments to police and public officials.
The Crown Prosecution Service said journalists Clive Goodman and John Kay and MoD employee Bettina Jordan Barber would also face action.
Mr Coulson has issued a statement saying he denies the allegations.
Operation Elveden is the Met Police investigation into corrupt payments.
The five are to be charged with conspiring to commit misconduct in public office.
Mr Goodman is the former royal correspondent of the now-defunct News of the World newspaper.
And Mr Kay is the former Sun chief reporter.
Mr Coulson and Mr Goodman are to be charged with two conspiracies relating to the request and authorisation of alleged payments to public officials in exchange for information, including a royal phone directory known as the "Green Book".
Its not over yet for Murdoch. The latest reports are that the FBI is investigating journalists at Fox for the same type of phone hacking. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fisheries, Oceans, and Northern Gateway

Leaked chart via The Vancouver Sun
The Vancouver Sun reports:
In what critics call an unprecedented step, the department has listed a “Northern Gateway Liaison” at a top level of its organizational chart, under a reorganization prompted by the 2012 budget’s sweeping Fisheries Act amendments.
The position will report directly to the executive director of the National Ecosystems Management Branch at the department’s headquarters.
“This suggests an unprecedented level of access and engagement for a specific project,” said Green party leader Elizabeth May, who in the 1980s was a senior adviser to a federal environment minister. “This is the reality of a government that has told the bureaucracy, ‘be prepared to make sure this project goes through.’”
B.C. NDP MP Fin Donnelly, his party’s deputy fisheries critic, said he’s never heard of a company getting such special treatment. “This clearly exposes the Harper Conservative oil pipeline agenda. They are putting the oil industry ahead of fishing, tourism and all other industries.”
But the press secretary for acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said the organizational chart included in the email, sent in late October to employees, and signed by deputy minister Claire Dansereau, “mischaracterized” the position.
Right. "Mischaracterized." Isn't that what this government says every friggin' time they get busted on something?

Its About Science Denial...

Alberta's Tar Sands   Photograph by: © Todd Korol / Reuters, Reuters
So nobody wants to believe anything bad about the tar sands in northern Alberta. Then David Schindler  does a little checking and figures out that mining the bitumen and running it through an upgrader dumps various PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) around the area. Now, this beiung northern Alberta, the area around the upgraders is covered with snow about nineteen months a year (okay, that might be a slight exageration) and the various bad things fall on the snow. Every once in a while (about once a year) all the snow melts and is carried away in the Athabasca River. The quick melting of the snow causes a pulse of pollutants to hit the river's ecosystem at a particularly vulnerable time of year.
Much denial and mocking ensues--except from the local First Nations people who have noticed a higher- than-statistically-normal number of rather nasty cancers in their (downstream) population. Under tremendous international pressure, the Oilberta government agrees that yes, maybe some research should be done in the area. The government has been pushing for development of the tar sands since the seventies, but has never thought to do a baseline pollution study--even though various people and groups have been suggesting, asking, and demanding one for forty years. They still haven't, but are allowing a few studies in the area to go ahead.
So the Edmonton Journal is reporting on one of these studies:
Federal scientists have uncovered evidence that contaminants wafting out Alberta’s oilsands operations are collecting on the bottom of remote lakes up to 100 kilometres away.
The chemical “legacy” in the lake sediments indicates that oilsands pollution is travelling further than expected and has been for decades.
“The footprint of the deposition is potentially larger than we might have anticipated,” says Derek Muir, a senior Environment Canada scientist, who will present the findings Wednesday at an international toxicology conference in the U.S. where the oilsands are a hot topic.
A team led by federal scientist Jane Kirk, also of Environment Canada, will report that snow within 50 kilometres of oilsands operations is contaminated with a long list of  “priority pollutants” including a neurotoxin that “bioaccumulates” in food webs.
Kirk’s colleague Joanne Parrott will report that melt water from snow collected near oilsand plants is toxic to newly hatched minnows in the lab.
But perhaps the most dramatic findings is that pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are building up in lake sediments up to 100 kilometres from the oilsands operations.
“That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found,” says David Schindler, an aquatic scientist at the University of Alberta. He and his colleague Erin Kelly made headlines in 2010 when they reported that airborne heavy metals and other pollutants from oilsands operations were contaminating the landscape up to 50 kilometres away.
So, as usual in Oilberta, the reality is radically different (and much worse) than the provincial government will ever acknowledge.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Poisoned Waters

Poisoned Waters is a report from PBS' Frontline that looks at just how our waters are being poisoned. The same problems discussed here in the context of the US are problems we face here in Canada as well; pollution from household products, drugs in our urine, and the like.
Chapter 1 of the program:

Watch Poisoned Waters on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

The programme's look at Puget Sound should have particular resonance to those of us living in BC--particularly here in Victoria.
Smith also investigates the state of Puget Sound's environment, where decades of pollution have endangered such species as orca whales, whose carcasses have shown high levels of cancer-causing PCBs.
"We thought all the way along that [Puget Sound] was like a toilet: What you put in, you flush out," says Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who notes that about 150,000 pounds of untreated toxins find their way into Puget Sound each day. "We [now] know that's not true. It's like a bathtub: What you put in stays there."
The entire programme is available for online viewing.

Worst Fears Being Realized?

There's an article at The Washington Post that talks about the accuracy of climate forecast models.
No supercomputer is powerful enough to predict cloud cover decades into the future, so Fasullo and colleague Kevin Trenberth struck on another method to test which of the many climate simulations most accurately predicted clouds: They looked at relative humidity. When humidity rises, clouds form; drier air produces fewer clouds. That makes humidity a good proxy for cloud cover.
Looking back at 10 years of atmospheric humidity data from NASA satellites, the pair examined two dozen of the world’s most sophisticated climate simulations. They found the simulations that most closely matched humidity measurements were also the ones that predicted the most extreme global warming.
In other words, by using real data, the scientists picked simulation winners and losers.
“The models at the higher end of temperature predictions uniformly did a better job,” Fasullo said. The simulations that fared worse — the ones predicting smaller temperature rises — “should be outright discounted,” he said.
 " “The models at the higher end of temperature predictions uniformly did a better job,” Fasullo said. The simulations that fared worse — the ones predicting smaller temperature rises — “should be outright discounted,” he said. " The models that predict less severe outcomes fared worse when tested against historical data. Just like Arctic ice cover is procceeding much more rapidly than expected.
The IPCC report that set off panic in the boasrdrooms of the world's biggest corporations was not a worst case scenario report. Everything in it had to be vetted and approved by the governments involved, not just the scientists who wrote it. This meant that the report was closer to a best case rather than a wost case. Turns out that the worst case is the one that seems more likely. And just a reminder: atmospheric carbon has to stay below 350 ppm for the world to maintain the climate we've grown to depend on. Current levels are watching 390 ppm disappearing behind them.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why the Census Matters

The US Census Bureau has a great chart of population growth which shows where people have chosen to settle in the US from 1790 to 2010. It is a great way to visualise the data, but it also indicates why the US is going to face significant problems with global warming. With so many people living on the coastline, sea level rise and increased storm surges--as we saw with Sandy in New York--is going to affect a huge population.Census data, collected as consistently as possible over a long period of time, was necessary to both create the chart and to understand where the effects will be felt.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tina Fey

Just a quick bit from the best comedian working; Tina Fey.