Methane emissions from coalmines could stoke climate crisis

Methane emissions from coalmines could stoke climate crisis

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: November 15, 2019

SNIP: The methane emissions leaking from the world’s coalmines could be stoking the global climate crisis at the same rate as the shipping and aviation industries combined.

Coalmines are belching millions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere unchecked, because policymakers have overlooked the rising climate threat, according to new research.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the amount of methane seeping from new and disused coalmines may have reached just under 40m tonnes last year.

The potent greenhouse gas is a major concern among climate scientists because it has a far more powerful effect on global temperatures than carbon dioxide.

The global energy watchdog estimates that one tonne of methane is the climate equivalent of 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This would put annual coalmine emissions broadly in line with the international aviation and shipping sectors combined.

The IEA revealed its shock findings in the same report which found carbon emissions from the global energy industry had reached a new record in 2018.

Methane is also known to escape from oil and gas wells, which has prompted calls for tougher regulation of the industry to reduce the climate impact. To date, coalmines have managed to avoid similar scrutiny because of a lack of data.

The IEA said that methane leakage from coalmines would prove more difficult to tackle than the methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, and added it did not expect the situation to improve before 2040.

The U.S. Natural Gas Boom Is Fueling A Global Plastics Boom

The U.S. Natural Gas Boom Is Fueling A Global Plastics Boom


DATE: November 15, 2019

SNIP: Natural gas is mostly used for heating homes or fueling power plants. But when it comes out of the ground it contains another key ingredient — ethane, a building block of plastics — that is now fueling another booming industry.

America is producing so much ethane that more than 300 new petrochemical and plastics plants are either planned or are under construction around the U.S.

President Trump has touted the economic benefits of this, recently telling workers at a Shell ethane plant in Pennsylvania that “we are reclaiming our noble heritage as a nation of builders.”

But there’s more ethane than existing U.S. plants can use, so in short order the U.S. has also become the world’s leading exporter of ethane. That’s feeding growing plastics industries in India and China, as well as Europe and those exports are expected to keep growing.

Plastics and petrochemicals are increasingly important to the oil and gas industry. They’re expected to account for more than a third of growth in world oil demand by 2030, and half of all growth by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. This worries environmentalists, who point out that the plastics industry accounts for about 4% of all carbon emissions, and that number is expected to increase.

Much of the growth in plastics will be in Asia, where millions of people will be moving into the middle class in the next few decades.

Electric car future may depend on deep sea mining

Electric car future may depend on deep sea mining


DATE: November 13, 2019

SNIP: The future of electric cars may depend on mining critically important metals on the ocean floor.

That’s the view of the engineer leading a major European investigation into new sources of key elements.

Demand is soaring for the metal cobalt – an essential ingredient in batteries and abundant in rocks on the seabed.

Laurens de Jonge, who’s running the EU project, says the transition to electric cars means “we need those resources”.

What is ‘deep sea mining’? It’s hard to visualise, but imagine opencast mining taking place at the bottom of the ocean, where huge remote-controlled machines would excavate rocks from the seabed and pump them up to the surface.

The concept has been talked about for decades, but until now it’s been thought too difficult to operate in the high-pressure, pitch-black conditions as much as 5km deep.

Now the technology is advancing to the point where dozens of government and private ventures are weighing up the potential for mines on the ocean floor.

Why would anyone bother? The short answer: demand. The rocks of the seabed are far richer in valuable metals than those on land and there’s a growing clamour to get at them.

Billions of potato-sized rocks known as “nodules” litter the abyssal plains of the Pacific and other oceans and many are brimming with cobalt, suddenly highly sought after as the boom in the production of batteries gathers pace.

At the moment, most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where for years there’ve been allegations of child labour, environmental damage and widespread corruption.

Laurens de Jonge, who’s in charge of the EU project, known as Blue Nodules, … says society faces a choice: there may in future be alternative ways of making batteries for electric cars – and some manufacturers are exploring them – but current technology requires cobalt.

It’s widely accepted that whatever is in the path of the mining machines will be destroyed – there’s no argument about that. But what’s uncertain is how far the damage will reach, in particular the size of the plumes of silt and sand churned up and the distance they will travel, potentially endangering marine life far beyond the mining site.

The chief scientist on board, Henko de Stigter of the Dutch marine research institute NIOZ, points out that life in the deep Pacific – where mining is likely to start first – has adapted to the usually “crystal clear conditions”. So for any organisms feeding by filter, waters that are suddenly filled with stirred-up sediment would be threatening.

“Many species are unknown or not described, and let alone do we know how they will respond to this activity – we can only estimate.”

Dr de Stigter warned of the danger of doing to the oceans what humanity has done to the land.

“With every new human activity it’s often difficult to foresee all the consequences of that in the long term.

“What is new here is that we are entering an environment that is almost completely untouched.”

Scientists Discover Microplastics In Oregon Oysters And Razor Clams

Scientists Discover Microplastics In Oregon Oysters And Razor Clams


DATE: November 13, 2019

SNIP: Plastics are everywhere — including the stomachs of oysters and razor clams up and down the Oregon Coast.

Several studies have shown that microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic that make up other larger plastic items, can make their way into fish, crustaceans, clams, oysters and ultimately into us, the people that eat them.

The latest of these studies was published Tuesday in the journal Limnology and Oceanography Letters. It’s the first such scientific paper to look at microplastics in razor clams.

Britta Baechler, a doctoral candidate at Portland State University and the lead author on the study, wanted to know if where the shellfish lived and the time of year they were harvested had any impact on how much plastic would be in the animal.

Baechler and her colleagues sampled shellfish from 15 locations on the Oregon Coast. All told, they looked at 141 Pacific oysters and 142 Pacific razor clams. Samples were taken in both spring and summer.

But the mollusks couldn’t escape the abundant plastic particles: only two organisms out of the almost 300 found were free of plastics.

Earlier this year, an Oregon Public Broadcasting investigation, conducted with Elise Granek, a marine scientist at Portland State University and the principal investigator on Baechler’s paper, found microplastic in rivers and streams all around Oregon. Even remote and seemingly-pristine streams weren’t found to be microplastic-free.

And if it’s in the water (and the air and our food) then it’s probably inside of us, too.

Bacteria may contribute more to climate change as planet heats up

Bacteria may contribute more to climate change as planet heats up

SOURCE: Imperial College London

DATE: November 12, 2019

SNIP: As bacteria adapt to hotter temperatures, they speed up their respiration rate and release more carbon, potentially accelerating climate change.

By releasing more carbon as global temperatures rise, bacteria and related organisms called archaea could increase climate warming at a faster rate than current models suggest. The new research, published today in Nature Communications by scientists from Imperial College London, could help inform more accurate models of future climate warming.

Bacteria and archaea, collectively known as prokaryotes, are present on every continent and make up around half of global biomass – the total weight of all organisms on Earth.

Most prokaryotes perform respiration that uses energy and releases carbon dioxide – just like we do when we breathe out. The amount of carbon dioxide released during a given time period depends on the prokaryote’s respiration rate, which can change in response to temperature.

However, the exact relationship between temperature, respiration rate and carbon output has been uncertain. Now, by bringing together a database of respiration rate changes according to temperature from 482 prokaryotes, researchers have found the majority will increase their carbon output in response to higher temperatures to a greater degree than previously thought.

Lead researcher Dr Samraat Pawar, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: “Rising temperatures therefore cause a ‘double whammy’ effect on many prokaryote communities, allowing them to function more efficiently in both the short and long term, and creating an even larger contribution to global carbon and resulting temperatures.”

Lead author of the new research, PhD student Thomas Smith from the Department of Life Sciences, said: “Most climate models assume that all organisms’ respiration rates respond to temperature in the same way, but our study shows that bacteria and archaea are likely to depart from the ‘global average’.

Global Pollution Is Rising Again and Won’t Peak Before 2040

Global Pollution Is Rising Again and Won’t Peak Before 2040

SOURCE: Bloomberg

DATE: November 12, 2019

SNIP: Global greenhouse-gas pollution rose for a second year, ending a lull in emissions and putting the world on track for further increases through 2040 unless governments take radical action.

The findings in the International Energy Agency’s annual report on energy paint a grim outlook for efforts to rein in climate change and mark a setback for the increasingly vocal environmental movement.

It said emissions levels would have to start falling almost immediately to bring the world into line with ambitions in the Paris Agreement to limit temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution. Instead, the organization’s most likely scenario shows net emissions won’t reach zero until at least 2070, or 20 years past the deadline suggested by climate scientists.

Strong economic growth, surging demand for electricity and slower efficiency gains all contributed to a 1.9% increase in carbon dioxide emissions from energy in 2018, the IEA said in a report released on Wednesday.

It’s another indication that efforts to shift the world away from the most polluting fuels are moving too slowly to have a major impact on preserving the environment.

Developing nations have deployed more coal plants even as industrial countries work to phase out the fuel, a legacy that will be felt for years to come since power plants are built to run for decades.

Global coal demand rose for the second year in a row in 2018. Three quarters of that came in the Asia Pacific region. If global coal policies remain unchanged, then demand will keep expanding for two decades, the IEA said.

Climate Change Is Breaking Open America’s Nuclear Tomb

Climate Change Is Breaking Open America’s Nuclear Tomb

SOURCE: LA Times and Vice

DATE: November 10, 2019

SNIP: Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs on, in and above the Marshall Islands — vaporizing whole islands, carving craters into its shallow lagoons and exiling hundreds of people from their homes.

U.S. authorities later cleaned up contaminated soil on Enewetak Atoll, where the United States not only detonated the bulk of its weapons tests but, as The Times has learned, also conducted a dozen biological weapons tests and dumped 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site. It then deposited the atoll’s most lethal debris and soil into the dome.

Now the concrete coffin, which locals call “the Tomb,” is at risk of collapsing from rising seas and other effects of climate change. Tides are creeping up its sides, advancing higher every year as distant glaciers melt and ocean waters rise. The so-called Tomb now bobs with the tide, sucking in and flushing out radioactive water into nearby coral reefs, contaminating marine life.

Officials in the Marshall Islands have lobbied the U.S. government for help, but American officials have declined, saying the dome is on Marshallese land and therefore the responsibility of the Marshallese government.

“I’m like, how can it [the dome] be ours?” Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said in an interview in her presidential office in September. “We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.”

To many in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Runit Dome is the most visible manifestation of the United States’ nuclear legacy, a symbol of the sacrifices the Marshallese made for U.S. security, and the broken promises they received in return.

“More than any other place, the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity — nuclear weapons and climate change,” said Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University’s law school. “The United States is entirely responsible for the nuclear testing there, and its emissions have contributed more to climate change than those from any other country.”

A Times review of thousands of documents, and interviews with U.S. and Marshallese officials, found that the American government withheld key pieces of information about the dome’s contents and its weapons testing program before the two countries signed a compact in 1986 releasing the U.S. government from further liability. One example: The United States did not tell the Marshallese that in 1958, it shipped 130 tons of soil from its atomic testing grounds in Nevada to the Marshall Islands.

U.S. authorities also didn’t inform people in Enewetak, where the waste site is located, that they’d conducted a dozen biological weapons tests in the atoll, including experiments with an aerosolized bacteria designed to kill enemy troops.

U.S. Department of Energy experts are encouraging the Marshallese to move back to other parts of Enewetak, where 650 now live, after being relocated during the U.S. nuclear tests during the Cold War. But many Marshallese leaders no longer trust U.S. assurances of safety.

“We didn’t know the Runit Dome waste dump would crack and leak…. We didn’t know about climate change,” said Jack Ading, a Marshallese senator from Enewetak Atoll. “We weren’t nuclear scientists who could independently verify what the U.S. was telling us. We were just island people who desperately wanted to return home.”

Adding to the alarm is a study published this year by a team of Columbia University scientists showing levels of radiation in some spots in Enewetak and other parts of the Marshall Islands that rival those found near Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The Marshall Islands’ atolls are the remnants of ancient volcanoes that once protruded from these cerulean seas. They were settled 3,000 years ago by the ancestors of present-day Marshallese who crossed the ocean on boats from Asia and Polynesia. For American officials in the mid-1940s, this 750,000-square-mile expanse of ocean, nearly five times larger than the state of California, must have seemed like a near-perfect spot to test their growing atomic arsenal.

“The Marshall Islands were selected as ground zero for nuclear testing precisely because colonial narratives portrayed the islands as small, remote and unimportant,” said Autumn Bordner, a former researcher at Columbia University’s K=1 Project, which has focused on the legacy of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, and now a research fellow in ocean law and policy at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.

Nerje Joseph, 72, was a witness to the largest thermonuclear bomb tested by the United States: the Castle Bravo detonation. She was 7 years old at the time, living with her family in Rongelap Atoll, 100 miles east of Bikini Atoll — a tropical lagoon commandeered for nuclear testing.

On March 1, 1954, Joseph recalls waking up and seeing two suns rising over Rongelap. First there was the usual sun, topping the horizon in the east and bringing light and warmth to the tropical lagoon near her home. Then there was another sun, rising from the western sky. It lighted up the horizon, shining orange at first, then turning pink, then disappearing as if it had never been there at all.

Joseph and the 63 others on Rongelap had no idea what they had just witnessed. Hours later, the fallout from Castle Bravo rained down like snow on their homes, contaminating their skin, water and food.

According to Joseph and government documents, U.S. authorities came to evacuate the Rongelapese two days later. By that time, some islanders were beginning to suffer from acute radiation poisoning — their hair fell out in clumps, their skin was burned, and they were vomiting.

The Castle Bravo test and others in the Marshall Islands helped the U.S. establish the credibility of its nuclear arsenal as it raced against its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, to develop new atomic weapons. But the testing came at a horrible price; Joseph and other Marshallese ended up becoming human guinea pigs for U.S. radiation research.

Three years after Castle Bravo, U.S. authorities encouraged Joseph, her family and her neighbors to return to Rongelap.

U.S. government documents from the time show that officials weighed the potential hazards of radiation exposure against “the current low morale of the natives” and a “risk of an onset of indolence.” Ultimately they decided to go forward with the resettlement so researchers could study the effects of lingering radiation on human beings.

“Data of this type has never been available,” Merrill Eisenbud, a U.S official with the Atomic Energy Commission, said at a January 1956 meeting of the agency’s Biology and Medicine Committee. “While it is true that these people do not live the way that Westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”

The resettlement proved catastrophic for the people of Rongelap. Cancer cases, miscarriages and deformities multiplied. Ten years later, in 1967, 17 of the 19 children who were younger than 10 and on the island the day Bravo exploded had developed thyroid disorders and growths. One child died of leukemia.

Today, 40 years after it was constructed, the Tomb resembles an aged, neglected and slightly diminutive cousin of the Houston Astrodome.

Spiderweb cracks whipsaw across its cap and chunks of missing concrete pock its facade. Pools of brown, brackish water surround its base, and vines and foliage snake up its sides.

The Tomb, which was built atop an unlined crater created by a U.S. nuclear bomb, was designed to encapsulate the most radioactive and toxic land-based waste of the U.S. testing programs in Enewetak Atoll. This included irradiated military and construction equipment, contaminated soil and plutonium-laced chunks of metal pulverized by the 43 bombs detonated in this 2.26-square-mile lagoon, according to U.S. government documents.

It took 4,000 U.S. servicemen three years to scoop up 33 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of irradiated soil and two Olympic swimming pools’ worth of contaminated debris from islands across the atoll and dump it into the crater on Runit Island.

Much of it was mixed in a slurry of concrete and poured into the pit, which was eventually capped with a concrete dome. Six men died during the cleanup; hundreds of others developed radiation-induced cancers and maladies that the U.S. government has refused to acknowledge, according to news reports.

[Note: It is well worth reading the full story at the LA Times]

‘On life support:’ Research shows common pesticides starve, disorient birds

‘On life support:’ Research shows common pesticides starve, disorient birds


DATE: November 9, 2019

SNIP: Newly published research says two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose weight and their sense of direction.

“This is very good evidence that even a little dose — incidental, you might call it — in their feeding could be enough to have serious impacts,” said University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey, whose paper was published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Morrissey studied the effect of two widely used pesticide types — neonicotinoids and organochlorines. Both are used on more than 100 different crops, including wheat and canola, and are found in dozens of commercial products.

The so-called neonics are often applied to seeds before they’re planted in the ground. Organochlorines are applied in tiny granules.

Both are known to be lethal to birds in large doses, but Morrissey wanted to study the impact of smaller amounts.

She and her colleagues took three groups of white-crowned sparrows, a common migratory songbird found throughout North America, and exposed them to a small dose, a somewhat larger dose, or no dose at all.

All doses were kept deliberately small. The low neonic dose was the equivalent of four treated canola seeds per day for three days — about one per cent of the bird’s diet.

The results were dramatic.

After three days, the low-dose birds lost 17 per cent of their weight. The high-dose birds lost 25 per cent.

“That’s a lot,” said Morrissey. “At that point, those birds were on life support.”

The birds exposed to organochlorines kept their weight, but they lost something else — their ability to find north. Both the high-dose and low-dose group lost all orientation and didn’t get it back after the tests ended.

The neonics also disoriented the sparrows, but the effect faded when the exposure stopped.

A 2016 survey suggested that migratory songbird populations have fallen by 1.5 billion since 1970. Morrissey suggests that pesticides might be one reason why.

Mighty glacier finally succumbs to climate change

Mighty glacier finally succumbs to climate change

SOURCE: The Sydney Morning Herald

DATE: November 8, 2019

SNIP: One of the world’s thickest mountain glaciers is finally succumbing to global warming, a new analysis reports.

The Taku Glacier, located north of Juneau, Alaska, has started to retreat as temperatures rise, said Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College in Massachusetts.

Up until now, of the 250 glaciers that he has studied, all had retreated except one: Taku Glacier. But an analysis shows that Taku has lost mass and joined the rest of the retreating glaciers.

“This is a big deal for me because I had this one glacier I could hold on to,” Pelto told NASA’s Earth Observatory. “But not anymore. This makes the score climate change: 250, and alpine glaciers: 0.”

New photos released by NASA this week show that the melting of Taku has at last become visible.

Taku is an extremely thick glacier: in fact, it is one of the thickest known alpine glaciers in the world, measuring nearly 1500 metres from surface to bed.

A study about the glacier’s retreat was published last month in the journal Remote Sensing.

Overall, thanks to global warming, Earth’s glaciers continue to melt away, losing up to 390 billion tonnes of ice and snow per year, a study published earlier this year suggests.

The largest losses were glaciers in Alaska, followed by the melting ice fields in southern South America and glaciers in the Arctic.

At 3885 square kilometres, the Juneau ice field is a third larger than the US state of Rhode Island, stretching from the Pacific Ocean into Canada, according to the Anchorage Daily News. It has dozens of named glaciers – including Taku – and many more smaller, unnamed glaciers.

A 2016 scientific paper reported that the ice field was expected to lose more than half its ice by the end of the century and to disappear completely before 2200, the Daily News said.

Taku’s quick retreat was a surprise to Pelto: “We thought the mass balance at Taku was so positive that it was going to be able to advance for the rest of the century,” said Pelto.

Poorly planned Amazon dam project ‘poses serious threat to life’

Poorly planned Amazon dam project ‘poses serious threat to life’

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: November 8, 2019

SNIP: The biggest hydroelectric project in the Amazon rainforest has a design flaw that poses a “very serious” threat to human life and globally important ecosystems, according to documents and expert testimony received by the Guardian.

After decades of resistance and 40bn reais (£8bn) of investment, the world’s fourth biggest hydropower plant is due to have the last of its 18 turbines installed this month, but lower-than-forecast water levels in the dam’s reservoirs have created an unforeseen structural problem in addition to longstanding environmental, social and economic concerns.

The Guardian and El País have seen a recent report by Norte Energia which warned that the fall in water levels in recent weeks has exposed a vulnerable section of the Pimental dam wall, which is separate from the barrier housing most of the turbines, to waves that sometimes form during tropical storms or strong winds blowing across the reservoir.

The 11 October document – Urgent action to control the level of the Belo Monte HPP Xingu Reservoir – is signed by Norte Energia’s CEO and addressed to the head of the national water agency. It says that water levels fell the previous day to a critical 95.2 metres, which posed a risk that waves “will reach areas of the dam not protected by rock” reinforcements. It asks permission for more water from the intermediate reservoir, a move which would put more pressure on an already strained hydrology.

This is forcing the operators to choose between a structural weakening of the 14km-wide compacted-earth barrier and a reallocation of water in the reservoir or on the Xingu river, which is home to indigenous communities, fishing villages and some of the world’s most endangered species.

The report says the problem arose as a result of unusually low water flows into the reservoir, with several days in early October when it dropped to 750 cubic metres a second. This is substantially below the minimum of 1,000 cubic metres a second that planning documents say is needed to guarantee water quality in the reservoirs and sufficient downstream discharge to ensure a healthy ecosystem, including for a turtle refuge, and indigenous and riverine communities’ navigation.

Hernandez and Sawakuchi said planners had been over-optimistic because historical data showed the Xingu river was lower on at least four occasions during the 50 years before construction started. Climate change is projected to cut water flows by about 30% by 2050. “It’s very strange these problems weren’t foreseen,” Sawakuchi said.

The Belo Monte project has been beset with problems since its inception during the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Indigenous and riverine communities allied to oppose the dam system, which blocks one of the Amazon’s biggest tributaries with 2.1m tonnes of concrete and 79.2m cubic metres of earth.

Environmentalists and scientists warned this would devastate one of the world’s most unique biodiversity hotspots. Activists said environmental authorities had issued a license to the dam despite scientific warnings and the concerns of their own technical staff.

Thais Santi, the public prosecutor for Altamira, said. “This is a fault in the construction and the planning.”

She plans to send a formal request to the federal authorities in the coming days for immediate humanitarian assistance to affected residents and a suspension of the dam. She considers this a case of ecocide. “It is already apparent this project is a mistake,” she said. “As well as the death of a river, it will result in the death of people. There is already insufficient food in this area.”

The grim situation is apparent on a motor canoe ride along the volta grande, or great bend, of the Xingu river. Locals explain how the waterway is narrowing and becoming shallower. When we reach the Boca da Terra Preta waterfall, it is no longer navigable. On the exposed rocks are two dead acari fish that appear to have been trapped, desiccated and had their guts ripped out by vultures. On the river bank, sarao trees – which usually provide food for the abundant pacu fish are now so far back that their fruit no longer falls in the water. Fishing communities say their catches are down by between 50 and 80% since the river was dammed.

On a small island in the river, more than 50 locals arrived by boat last week to testify to the problems caused by the dam. As well as increasing hunger and lower incomes, several said they suffered depression as a result of the sudden collapse of the riverscape they had grown up with. “Everything is getting worse,” said Sarah Rodrigues de Lima. “I’ve been fishing here for 35 years but all the fish have fled. The river is drying up.”

Others described how they used to catch filhote, one of the most prized river species, weighing more than 100kg before the dam, but now rarely catch one of even 20kg. Next year is set to be even worse. This will be the start of a new water management system that will prioritise the dam and the ecosystem on alternate years. Even under its best scenario, the volta grande will get less peak rainy season water than during the severe drought of 2016, which killed so many fish that locals refer to it as the “year of the end of the world.”

The new system “will turn the river into a cemetery”, said Cristiane Costa, a biologist working in the office of the public prosecutor. “They are generating energy at the cost of the ecosystem and people.”