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Lisa Song's articles

250-500 Million MW of Extra Energy Now Roiling the Earth’s Climate System

As extreme weather events multiply, scientists are still in the early stages of understanding how more energy is influencing complex weather phenomena

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Jul 29, 2011

Despite America's intense political polarization over climate change, the scientific measurement of global warming is not in dispute. Since 1900, the earth as a whole has warmed by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, an empirical fact that has become an official U.S. government statistic of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It is a seemingly minuscule and barely perceptible increase of average temperature, but spread over the entire surface of the earth that extra energy accumulates into an enormous force. Just what the impacts are on the climate system is something that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

"Seemingly very small changes can have very big implications," said Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

The 1.4 degree rise in average temperature means the entire surface of earth's 500 million square kilometers has become home to between 250 and 500 million megawatts of energy that used to escape the planet's atmospheric shell into space. That's an extra 0.5 to 1 watts, or roughly one Christmas light bulb's worth of heat, falling on every square meter of land and sea.

"It might seem small, but it actually is very significant when you look at earth's history," said Pushker Kharecha, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and The Earth Institute at Columbia University. For the climate to be relatively stable, he said, the energy balance must remain "within a small fraction of a watt [per square meter]."

"No question about it, it's a lot of energy," said Warren Washington, a senior scientist at NCAR.

In a year's time, this energy imbalance is roughly equivalent to 15 to 30 times the global energy consumption of 2007, or to the amount of power generated by 250,000 to a half a million large coal-fired power plants.

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Predicting Climate 'Tipping Points' Within Reach, Study Suggests

New research finds that early warning of some impending global warming tipping points may already be possible

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Jul 15, 2011
Greenland ice sheet

After several years of identifying possible climatic "tipping points" such as the meltdown of the West Antarctic ice sheet and widespread tree deaths in the Canadian boreal forest, scientists are beginning to take on another formidable challenge: predicting these potential threats before they occur.

While the mathematical concepts for understanding tipping point signals have been around for decades, they are just beginning to be incorporated into global climate data and models, according to new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The paper's author, Timothy Lenton, said his study suggests that early warning of some impending tipping points may already be possible.

"[This is the] first time a synthesis of both the basic theory and the latest results on the early warning signals has been brought together," Lenton said in an interview with SolveClimate News.  "I think it's the first time anyone's made the link to how you might translate them to an early warning system."

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Warming, Overfishing, Plastic Pollution Destroying Ocean Life: Scientists

'If we don't do something quickly, the oceans in 50 years won't look like they do today,' scientist warns in an interview with SolveClimate News

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Jun 29, 2011
coral reef off the Florida coast

The state of the oceans can best be likened to a case of multiple organ failure in urgent need of intervention, suggests the most comprehensive analysis yet of the world's marine ecosystems.

Global warming, overfishing and plastic pollution are wreaking havoc at an unprecedented rate on marine life, reported scientists at a recent meeting of the International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

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Decommissioning a Nuclear Plant Can Cost $1 Billion and Take Decades

Spent fuel also creates new stockpiles of radioactive waste in need of disposal, with few options available

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Jun 13, 2011
Zion nuclear power station

When the Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois closed its doors in 1998, plant owner Commonwealth Edison, now part of Exelon, thought it would take more than two decades to clean up the site.

At the time, Zion needed repairs that exceeded the value of the 2,080-megawatt plant, and dismantling it was the better financial option, said Craig Nesbit, vice president of communications at Exelon. But when operations ceased, the flow of money from utility ratepayers also stopped, drying up the source of Zion's decommissioning funds.

The company opted to delay its cleanup plan. Aside from removing the main reactor components, Exelon would not begin the rest of the work until the 2020s, by which time the funds would have accumulated enough interest to cover the full decommissioning process.

Luckily for Exelon, though, another option presented itself when EnergySolutions, a nuclear waste managment company based in Salt Lake City, offered to take over the decommissioning plan. The company acquired the Zion plant in September 2010. According to EnergySolutions CEO Val Christensen, full decommissioning will cost about $1 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

EnergySolutions can expedite the cleanup because of its technical capacity, said Christensen. His company is currently decommissioning 18 reactors in England. They also own a low-level nuclear waste storage facility in Clive, Utah, which will speed up the waste disposal process.

The move has saved Exelon considerable headache and illuminates some of the unseen challenges of nuclear energy operation. Indeed, other plant operators haven't been as lucky when it came to decontaminating their nuclear reactor sites.

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Increase in Carcinogens Downstream of Oil Sands Linked to Mining

Scientific study shows that levels of PAHs increased 41 percent in the decade from 1999 to 2010, as oil sands mining began booming

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

May 17, 2011
The Suncor Millennium Mine near the Athabasca River

New scientific research has found increased levels of some carcinogenic chemicals linked to oil sands mining in the Athabasca River, refuting long-held industry and government claims that natural sources are responsible for the pollutants.

The chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals as well as other health problems.

PAH concentrations in Athabasca River sediments located downstream of oil sands projects increased 41 percent between 1999-2009, according to the study, published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Kevin Timoney, principal investigator at the consulting firm Treeline Ecological Research and lead author of the study, said the rise parallels the growth in oil sands production in the lower Athabasca region, which more than doubled between 1998 and 2009.

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Next-Generation Nuclear Energy Reactors: A Primer

Gen IV plants will be safer and less water intensive, but they won't be commercially viable until 2030 at the earliest. Will there still be market demand?

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

May 9, 2011
Boiling water nuclear reactor

The next generation of nuclear power reactors promises to be safer, more fuel efficient and less water intensive — but the world must wait at least 20 years to see them in action.

Known as Generation IV reactors, the models are "revolutionary" in design, said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ironically, though, the reactors' leading-edge features could end up being the greatest impediment to their initial adoption, he said.

Utilities are likely to be leery to shell out billions and billions without proof of operational success, Lochbaum told SolveClimate News, and that could "slow down the market" for the new designs.

The goal is to make the Gen IV fleet "competitive" on price with today's plants, said Robert Hill, a senior nuclear engineer at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, though it's too early to tell if that's possible. A large nuclear reactor today costs between $4 and $10 billion.

For the moment, at least, the point is immaterial. Gen IV reactors still need a great deal of research and development, and the U.S. Department of Energy estimates they won't be commercially viable until 2030 at the earliest.

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Heat Waves Putting Pressure on Nuclear Power's Outmoded Cooling Technologies

Power generated from coal, natural gas and nuclear withdraws more freshwater per year than the entire agricultural sector; nuclear uses the most

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

May 4, 2011
Catawba Nuclear Station in York County, South Carolina

The scramble to cool the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex with seawater in the aftermath of Japan's disastrous accident put a spotlight on just how much cold water an atomic reactor needs to function — and not just in a crisis.

All existing nuclear plants use vast amounts of water as a coolant. But in recent years — often far from the public eye — hot river and lake temperatures have forced power plants worldwide to decrease generating capacity.

Experts say the problem is only getting worse as climate change triggers prolonged heat waves, prompting calls for changes in siting processes.

"As a long-range strategy, [the industry] might change where we site new plants to have better use of water resources," Gary Vine, an independent consultant, told SolveClimate News. Vine has worked in the nuclear industry for decades and is a former employee of Electric Power Research Institute, a utility group.

There is also hope that new technologies will help mitigate the problem.

The U.S. Department of Energy is part of an international team working to design the next generation of nuclear plants — some of which will use less water than traditional plants. But the project faces numerous challenges such as cost and implementation barriers, and the DOE anticipates that the generation IV reactors will not be commercially available for at least two decades.

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MIT Web Tools Help Small Landowners Navigate Gas Leasing Frenzy

Online technologies developed at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media in 2008, in the midst of the Marcellus fracking boom, are gaining users

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

May 1, 2011

The sign at the end of Jill Wiener's driveway simply reads "No Frack." The declaration reflects her two-year effort to keep natural gas wells off her and her neighbors' property.

Wiener lives in Sullivan County, New York, 9 miles east of the scenic Delaware River near the Pennsylvania border. Tourism and agriculture drive the region's economy. "It's very mellow and beautiful," she says, the kind of place "where people sit outside to watch the fireflies at night."

Now the bucolic landscape may be under threat, Wiener muses, due to the "domino effect" of a new drilling method spreading eastward across the United States.

Sullivan County overlies the Marcellus Shale formation that stretches 150,000 square miles from New York across most of Pennsylvania, through parts of Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.

The formation contains enough natural gas to heat the nation for two decades or more. Improved recovery technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made the resource economical to extract in recent years, fueling a drilling frenzy as well as highly publicized environmental concerns.

Recent reports reveal that wastewater from the practice contains radioactive material and is being dumped in public waters. Gas companies say fracking is safe.

The heart of the action is in Pennsylvania for now. Wiener's state of New York has a fracking moratorium until July 3, though many upstate residents have already signed leases with gas companies. Wiener says she isn't taking any chances.

For two years  she has worked to educate her community about potential air and water pollution through a group called Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy. The volunteer organization confronts gas industry representatives at town meetings and set up screenings of the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland."

"We really feel the key to success in defeating fracking as an option for gas extraction is education," she says. "[I'm] all about pushing information forward, and being cautious."

The most powerful learning tool for advocates in areas unaccustomed to gas exploration may be the Web.

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GOP Begins New Push to Delay EPA Rules on Toxic Power Plant Emissions

Republicans say installing long-overdue pollution controls would harm economic recovery, while advocates claim the rules would create jobs and save lives

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Apr 20, 2011
A coal-fired power plant in Utah

Under pressure from industry, Congressional Republicans are urging the U.S. EPA to further delay long-overdue rules that would limit more than 80 air toxics emitted by coal-burning power plants, barely a month after the agency announced them.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Edward Whitfield of Kentucky — a state which gets more than 90 percent of its power from coal — has said he will soon introduce legislation to postpone implementation of the regulations.

The rules in question are EPA's air toxics standards to control mercury and other poisonous substances from power plants, as well as the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards that govern hazardous emissions from boilers and cement plants.

EPA released the nation's first regulations for toxic power plant emissions on March 16. The boiler rules were announced in February 2011 and the cement standards in August 2010. All of the policies are mandated by the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act and originally set to be finalized in 2000.

According to EPA, the mercury and air toxics standards alone would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks each year.

Utilities and business groups say the anti-pollution rules would be too costly to implement and would force early shutdowns of power plants, threatening jobs and economic recovery.

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California Group Plugs Climate Science Gap in America's Schools

The Alliance for Climate Education, founded in 2009 with an an advisory panel of IPCC scientists, has already reached 750,000 students nationwide

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Apr 11, 2011
ACE presentation

Climate change has become a household term in America, but that doesn't mean most people grasp the science behind it.

According to a recent survey from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, just 8 percent of American adults would score an A or B on their understanding of climate change science, while 52 percent would receive an F.

The younger generation generally isn't faring much better. Unlike physics or chemistry, there's no standard school curriculum for teaching the science of global warming. In Texas, the Board of Education has gone as far as to ask teachers to cast doubt on the human role in climate change.

The Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) hopes to plug the gap. Founded in 2009, the California nonprofit visits high schools across the country to give assembly presentations on climate change. Any teacher can request an appearance.

According to the ticker on ACE's website, the group has reached nearly 750,000 students in 1,300 schools.

(Listen to the SolveClimate News podcast episode: Plugging the Climate Science Gap in U.S. High Schools)

"[It's the] Superbowl experience of climate," Matt Stewart, ACE's head of marketing, told SolveClimate News. "We try to present something that stands out and energizes [students] around science, and to find creative ways to solve [climate change]."

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