Christmas Bird Count by volunteers helps scientists gather rare post-fire data
A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess’s door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.
Photo by Matt Blois
“Shortly thereafter the lights went out,” he said. “Then the engine came around and on the loud speaker said you must evacuate.”
Burgess and his wife drove to a friend’s house in a different part of town. The first night, they just wanted to know that their home was safe, and thankfully it was. The Thomas Fire burned many of their neighbors’ homes that night, but their cul-de-sac was spared. Burgess spent the two weeks following the fire living at a friend’s house, organizing the northern sector of Ventura’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
The count in Ventura was originally scheduled for December 17, but the Thomas Fire — now the largest ever recorded in California — burned more than half of the survey area, and organizers had to postpone it until December 30 because they couldn’t get to many of the those areas.
For the first few weeks of December, smoke filled the Ojai Valley where Burgess leads a count, and fire crews had taken over the Lake Casitas Campground where groups normally search for birds by boat. Even weeks after the worst of the fire had passed, the city of Ventura wouldn’t let the birders into several parks damaged by the fire. While the fire made it difficult to organize the count, surveying birds immediately after the fire also presented a unique opportunity.
With nearly four decades of Christmas Bird Count data from Ventura, scientists will be able to compare this year’s observations with historical data to understand how birds respond to fire. While the fire was devastating for the people who lost their homes, many species of wildlife in Southern California are adapted to live with fire and in some cases take advantage of it. For scientists, it can be difficult to find …more
Record-breaking temperatures in Alaska, the US's canary in the climate coal mine, provide glimpse of a warmer future
There is an ongoing scientific debate as to how much influence our changing climate had on the extreme cold snap or what some call “bomb cycle” in the Northeastern US.
As usual, there is an active discussion. Last week, World Weather Attribution claimed that the US has always epxerience cold snaps, but that “cold waves like this have decreased in intensity and frequency over the last century.”
Photo by World Meteorological Organization
They add that their research shows “that the temperature of North American cold waves has increased substantially over the last century due to global warming.”
Other scientists disagree, though. Deepti Singh is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who studies the link between climate and extreme weather. She says: “It’s normal in that it’s winter time and we can have snaps of cold weather. It’s abnormal because it has covered such a wide part of the US. And it’s also abnormal because it persisted for a couple of weeks.”
She adds: “It is linked to climate change insofar as these contrasting temperatures [between the east and west US] have increased over the last 40 years. We’ve found that the increase in the frequency of concurrent warm conditions in the west and cool conditions in the east is more likely with human caused climate change than it would be in a world without climate change. Precisely how that happens is still an active area of research.”
As the academics argue the specifics of the science of the relationship between extreme weather and climate, we know one thing: As New York shivered — Alaska sweltered.
Alaska has just experienced its hottest December ever recorded. The temperatures in Alaska were 15.7°F above the twentieth century average at 19.4°F according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service said of the results to the Anchorage Daily News: “Alaska, of course, being the only Arctic part of the US … it’s often referred to as polar amplification, that climate is warming much more rapidly at high latitudes. We are the US’s canary in that coal mine.”
South American country's dangerous bet on large-scale mining threatens pristine Amazon region
News outlets InfoAmazonia and el Correo del Caroni are launching a new interactive website with a series of articles on mining conflicts in Venezuela. The project, “Digging Deeper into the Mining Arc,” is sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Conflict Reporting.
Venezuela is making a dangerous bet. The country where corruption is king seems to be going all-in on large-scale mining. The country’s 2016 “Mining Decree” opens up the Arco Minero region – a 43,183-square-mile swath of pristine wilderness in the upper reaches of the Amazon full of the world's most wanted minerals – to multinational mining interest.
Mining in Latin America is often tied to social problems and damage to the environment. This won’t be different in Venezuela, where mining operations already ravish fragile ecosystems, including in the Amazon rainforest, and contaminate rivers, such as the Orinoco. The Arco Minero overlaps with Indigenous territories as well. At least 198 Indigenous communities are located in the region that is targeted for the exploitation of coltan, diamonds, bauxite, and gold.
Investing in mining may be the worst move crisis-ridden Venezuela could make. Mismanagement of the country’s mainly oil-based economy led to the current economic freefall. Venezuela does not produce enough food for its own population and the drugstores are currently as good as empty.
In 2017, the country saw:
- An average of than 26.6 violent deaths per day (an average of 15 per day by police forces)
- Inflation of 2,700 percent
- Three-quarters of Venezuelans lost weight in the past year, an average of 20 pounds each
- More than 300,000 new cases of malaria
Officially, the Venezuelan government claims to be organizing a state-corporate mining sector in which many multinationals will participate. On paper, a new Ministry, named (take a breath) Ministry of the Popular Power of Ecological Mining Development of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, oversees the operations. In reality, mining in Venezuela is controlled …more
Economists say city’s status as financial and cultural giant means move will catalyze others around the world to follow
New York City’s decision to sever ties with its fossil fuel investments is set to prove a catalyst to other cities in the face of the Trump administration’s staunch support for coal, oil, and gas interests, according to several leading economists.
Photo by Roman Kruglov>
On Wednesday, city officials announced that New York was to divest its pension funds of about $5 billion in fossil fuel-linked money over the next five years. New York’s total pension fund for its teachers, firefighters, and other city workers is worth about $189 billion.
Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, also revealed the city is suing the world’s largest oil and gas companies over their role in knowingly creating dangerous global warming in a two-pronged assault that he said is aimed at “standing up for future generations.”
Economists said the status of New York as a financial and cultural giant would probably spur other cities in the US and worldwide to divest and, more significantly, build momentum in the global shift required to reduce emissions and stave off the worst consequences of climate change.
“This is a really big deal,” said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at New York’s Columbia University and special adviser to the UN secretary general. “Pension funds of other major US cities will follow, I think. New York is the neighborhood of the very big money managers. It’s a powerful, personal signal to them that they cannot keep funding the sorts of projects they have in the past.”
New York will be the first of the US’s largest cities to divest and has jostled to the forefront of a group of global metropolises that have committed to ridding themselves of fossil fuel stocks, including Paris, Berlin, Sydney, and Stockholm.
In November, the Norwegian central bank, which runs the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, proposed dumping shares in oil and gas companies. Dozens of other institutions, ranging from Oxford University to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, have also joined a movement that activists say is worth $6 trillion in divestments or avoided investments.
“The divestment movement is active and growing and by its nature, New York will play a big leadership role,” said Sachs. “New York hosts …more
State’s legalization of marijuana likely to spur more unpermitted cultivation, further exacerbating the problem
Pot users in California may be rejoicing at finally being able to smoke marijuana for recreation without fear of being arrested. But the state’s new law legalizing weed for fun — which officially took effect January 1 — may be bad news for the already beleaguered northern spotted owl and other wildlife in the state’s northwest regions.
Photo by J.Mark Higley: Hoopa Tribal Forestry / UC Davis
The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) — a rather retiring raptor that tends to be very territorial and intolerant of habitat disturbance — is already being exposed to high levels of rat poison from illegal marijuana farms, says a new study led by the University of California, Davis, with the California Academy of Sciences. And experts fear that legalization of recreational marijuana will spur an increase in unpermitted cultivation, further exacerbating the problem.
The study, released today in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, showed that seven of the ten northern spotted owl carcasses collected from the state’s major pot-growing counties — Humboldt, Mendocino, and Del Norte — tested positive for rat poison, while 40 percent of 84 barred owls collected also tested positive for the poison.
The research is the first published account of anticoagulant rodenticide in northern spotted owls, which are listed as a threatened species under federal and state endangered species acts, but it supports previous accounts that rat poison is contaminating the food web in this region.
“Spotted owls are inclined to feed along forest edges. Because grow sites break apart these forest landscapes, they are likely source points for exposure,” Mourad Gabriel, lead author of the study and a researcher with the UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, said in a statement. The owl and other raptors and carnivores that prey on mice and rats often die from eating animals that have consumed anti-coagulant rat …more
Apps enable users to track everything from local air quality, to personal carbon footprint, to daily food waste
The alarm buzzes. After a few false starts, I finally grab my phone and turn it off. Like many people the world over my immediate reaction is to jump online. Unlike others, however, it’s not Facebook, Instagram, or even e-mail I’m after. The first thing most people here in China check is our air quality app. With data available from tens of thousands of sites across 400 cities on the mainland, this app has become just as much a part of daily life in China as its social media platforms, WeChat and Taobao. It lets us know whether we need to pull out our face masks or can instead get ready for a relaxing bike ride to work. This little bit of technology is quite literally a lifesaver.
Photo by @Beryl_snw
This technological drive in China is coming from places most people have never heard of. To the uninitiated, Silicon Valley might seem like the center of the technological universe. Those of us in Asia, though, know the real heavy hitters are in places like Hangzhou and Shenzhen. These cities are where the world’s largest technology companies, like Alibaba and Tencent, are based. China is also home to more Internet users than any other country in the world. According to China Internet Watch, the country has 751 million current Internet users, more than the entire population of Europe. Technology has entirely changed the make-up of Chinese society, providing access to products, services, and ideas unimaginable only a decade ago. Today in China, if it’s not online it doesn’t exist. People buy clothes, food, cars, and even private islands, online. Physical cash is now obsolete in most places.
Cater Zhou, a social entrepreneur and founder of Hi-In, an online job search and counseling company based in Shanghai, notes technology’s centrality and evolving role in society. “It’s part of who we are as a people now. You don’t leave home without your phone.” Companies, products, campaigns, and ideas are starting to see diminishing returns as they try to compete in this increasingly saturated space. Technology is no longer a guarantee of success. Savvy products must address more than just the latest fad. “Being a cool tech company isn’t enough anymore,” Zhou says. “Now, you have to be cool and do good.”
Technology companies are responding to this demand through …more
Unexpected decision by Republican-controlled energy agency is a blow to the president’s promise to revive US coal industry
An independent energy agency on Monday rejected a Trump administration plan to bolster coal-fired and nuclear power plants with subsidies, dealing a blow to the president’s high-profile mission to revive the struggling coal industry.
Photo by Tammy Anthony Baker
The decision by the Republican-controlled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was unexpected and comes amid repeated promises by Trump to rejuvenate coal as the nation’s top power source. The industry has been besieged by multiple bankruptcies and a steady loss of market share as natural gas and renewable energy have flourished.
The energy secretary, Rick Perry, last year proposed fresh government support for coal-fired and nuclear power plants in an effort to slow the rate at which these units are being phased out, stating the output is needed to avoid power outages “in times of supply stress such as recent natural disasters.”
The plan would provide a lifeline to many aging coal and nuclear plants that would otherwise go out of business, primarily due to the abundance of cheap natural gas and the plummeting cost of renewables.
The Department of Energy has noted that 531 coal-generating units were retired between 2002 and 2016, while eight nuclear reactors have announced retirement plans in the past year.
Donald Trump has vowed to arrest this decline and end the “war” on mining communities by repealing various environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration.
But non-partisan expert analysis published last month calculated that the plan would cost US taxpayers about $10.6 billion a year. And the money would be used to prop up some of the oldest and dirtiest power plants in the country, according to the joint report by research groups Climate Policy Initiative and Energy Innovation.
And in rejecting the proposal on Monday afternoon, FERC declared that despite claims by the administration to the contrary, there is no evidence that any past or planned retirements of coal-fired power plants pose a threat to the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid.
The administration’s plan was opposed by an unusual coalition of business and environmental groups that frequently disagree with each other. Critics said the plan would distort energy markets and raise prices for customers, especially in the northeastern and midwestern US. One called it “ludicrous” and perverse.…more