Category: Environment

Infant deaths near oil drilling sites raise questions


Donna Young, midwifeRJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The smartphone-sized grave marker is nearly hidden in the grass at Rock Point Cemetery. The name printed on plastic-coated paper — Beau Murphy — has been worn away. Only the span of his life remains.

“June 18, 2013 – June 18, 2013″

For some reason, one that is not known and may never be, Beau and a dozen other infants died in this oil-booming basin last year. Was this spike a fluke? Bad luck? Or were these babies victims of air pollution fed by the nearly 12,000 oil and gas wells in one of the most energy-rich areas in the country..?

But just raising that possibility raises the ire of many who live in and around Vernal. Drilling has been an economic driver and part of the fabric of life here since the 1940s. And if all that energy development means the Uintah Basin has a particularly nasty problem with pollution, so be it, many residents say. Don’t blame drilling for baby deaths that obituaries indicate were six times higher than the national average last year…

“Suffice it to say that air pollution from drilling is a part of it,” Dr. Brian Moench said of the Vernal-area deaths.

Moench, a Salt Lake City-based anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, admits that establishing a scientifically solid link between dead babies and drilling pads is complicated…

Moench took it seriously this year when Vernal midwife Donna Young told him that she had researched obituaries and was alarmed by the high numbers of dead babies.

Young and Moench were able to convince the TriCounty Health Department in Vernal to work with the state on a study to determine if Young’s trend figures are correct.

Moench said that people who aren’t looking at the possibility of a connection “have blinders on…”

Part of the reluctance of residents around Vernal to ascribe any ill effects to energy-field pollution could be tied to the average $3,963 average monthly nonfarm wage in Uintah County — the highest in Utah…

The Utah Department of Health is now working on a study. Epidemiologists initially are using birth and death certificates to determine if there truly was a spike in infant deaths, as Young’s numbers show.

Her numbers show an upward four-year trend in infant deaths: One in every 95.5 burials in Uintah County in 2010 was a baby, according to Young. In 2011 it was one in every 53. In 2012, one in every 39.7. And in 2013 the number jumped to one in every 15…

Besides oil-and-gas-stoked pollution, there could be many other causes…Twice as many residents here smoke than in the rest of Utah. More residents, in an area rife with new fast-food chains, are overweight. More residents admit to drinking heavily. There are more teen mothers and more mothers on average who don’t get good prenatal care.

For now, infant deaths have dropped back to average. Residents are reluctant to talk about the infant-death issue. Many are focusing on a future that is filled with expanded fossil-fuel prospects. Nearly 85 percent of Vernal residents indicated in a recent survey that they welcome oil shale development.

Give me a chance for a voice and a vote – I’d vote for a wind farm or a solar farm on the mesa across our valley. We haven’t wind speeds averaging as high as downstate; but, we sure have sunlight.

Anyone want to drill for oil in my neck of the prairie, I’ll be the first to set this old butt down in the middle of the highway to stop them.

Thanks, Mike

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Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport launches fleet of electric taxis

Traveling by jet airplane may not be the greenest mode of transportation, but if you’re landing at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, at least you’ll be able to get into town under pure electric power.

The Dutch airport has inaugurated a new fleet of 167 Tesla Model S taxis, giving it the largest fleet of all-electric taxis of any airport in the world. The cabs will be operated by two taxi companies – BBF Schipholtaxi and BIOS-groep – who will shuttle passengers to and from the airport with zero emissions.

“This represents a crucial step in our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and become one of the world’s three most sustainable airports,” said Schiphol Group CEO Jos Nijhuis. Last year, the airport authority brokered a deal to buy Europe’s largest fleet of electric buses to shuttle passengers to, from and between terminals as well. So whatever you may be planning to burn while in Amsterdam, at least it doesn’t have to be fossil fuels.

Just don’t smoke the seeds!

Oh – and by the way, what kind of taxis are at your local airport? In my neck of the prairie, they look like leftover Ford Crown Vics bought secondhand from the State Police.

The Western US is in trouble — we’re running out of water!

domestic water use
Click to enlarge

The American West has been wrestling with drought for the past 15 years. California is now facing its worst dry spell in at least a century. So, not surprisingly, the question of how best to manage America’s scarce freshwater supplies is coming up more frequently.

To that end, the Hamilton Project recently published a helpful primer, “Nine Economic Facts about Water in the United States.” The whole thing’s worth reading, but four maps and charts in particular stuck out. For starters, some of the driest states in the West actually have some of the highest rates of household water use:

1) Household water use is higher in the driest states — thanks to lawn watering

Why do households in arid Utah use so much more water than in, say, Maine? The main factor, the authors note, is outdoor watering for lawns and gardens. “Whereas residents in wetter states in the East can often rely on rainwater for their landscaping, the inhabitants of Western states must rely on sprinklers…”

2) Agriculture remains the biggest water user by far

It’s worth noting, however, that homes typically aren’t the biggest water consumers in the West. In California, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of state water withdrawals. (The state is responsible for roughly one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.)…

3) The driest states are now growing the quickest

The states with the biggest projected increase in population between 2010 and 2040 are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. One thing they all have in common? Low rainfall and relatively scarce water supplies.

4) And water prices vary wildly from region to region

“The price that households pay for water is highly variable across cities,” the report notes, “even when controlling for the volume of water that different households use.”

In most parts of the United States, the price of water doesn’t reflect the infrastructure costs of delivering that water or the environmental damage that excessive water withdrawals can cause. As long as that’s the case, there are few market incentives to change any of that.

Being a democratic Republic we elect folks to take on the responsibility of planning and leading our nation, the states, municipalities. That stopped working well quite a while ago. I’d suggest with the Reagan Administration. You may agree or disagree; but, if you wander through the history of our politics you’ll note that’s a pretty good starting point for serious gerrymandering of electoral districts, the truly dynamic growth of income equality, a qualitative rejection of industrial and economic planning based on sound ecology.

Regardless, RTFA for more details about these four of the nine points covered in the Hamilton Project Report. And, yes, I suggest reading the complete version over here [.pdf].

Additional reading:

1934 Drought was Driest, Most Widespread in Past Millennium, Scientists Find

Scarcity of water in U.S. driving moves to impose price, “market solutions

Thanks, Mike

Importance of tiny creatures in grassland ecology

A newly published study reveals the importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

When asked to describe a forest or a meadow, most people would probably begin with the plants, the species diversity, or the color of the foliage. They probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the animals living in the soil.

But a new Yale-led study shows the critical importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

During a 3-year study, researchers found that removing these small animals from the soil of a replicated Scottish sheep meadow altered the plant species that grew in the ecosystem, reduced overall productivity, and produced plants that were less responsive to common agricultural management, such as fertilization.

The results reflect the long-term ecological impacts of land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to agricultural land…

“We know these soil animals are important controls on processes which cause nutrients and carbon to cycle in ecosystems, but there was little evidence that human-induced loss of these animals has effects at the level of the whole ecosystem, on services such as agricultural yield,” said Mark Bradford…lead author of the study…

“Yet that’s exactly what we found.”

RTFA for the details of approach, method, discovery. The Yale School of Forestry has been around a couple thousand years – it feels like, sometimes. They never stop pressing for more and better understanding of the environment.

Thanks, Mike

A breakthrough in fusion energy


Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.

The Pentagon plans to deal with climate change — even if Congress won’t

In case the Pentagon didn’t make it clear enough that climate change is a real and dangerous thing in its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) earlier this year, perhaps the new Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (PDF) will drive the point home. Some of the content is roughly the same, but that title sure makes it sound more desperate.

The gist is that the Pentagon’s futurists foresee a world where our changing climate has tremendous real-world effects, and they want to be ready. Lots of people know the climate is changing, but given the Pentagon’s budget, it’s nice to know they are preparing to protect us from things that might actually harm us …In the 2014 CCAR, the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, writes that the Department of Defense will focus on just those sorts of threats:

A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. The military could be called upon more often to support civil authorities, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the face of more frequent and more intense natural disasters. Our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding, while droughts, wildfires, and more extreme temperatures could threaten many of our training activities. Our supply chains could be impacted, and we will need to ensure our critical equipment works under more extreme weather conditions. Weather has always affected military operations, and as the climate changes, the way we execute operations may be altered or constrained.

While scientists are converging toward consensus on future climate projections, uncertainty remains. But this cannot be an excuse for delaying action.

Unless, of course, you’re a numbnut Republican or one of the remaining cowardly lions known as Blue Dog Democrats. No action is preferable to delayed action as far as they are concerned. Not that Hagel is much of an advocate when he prates about scientists “converging” towards consensus. Almost as stupid as saying we’re fairly certain astronomers are nearing the day when they can confirm the Earth ain’t flat. Since they’re afraid of offending folks worrying about falling off the edge.

The plan is laid out in some detail in the 20-page PDF that talks about how recurrent flooding is already affecting the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, “which houses the largest concentration of US military sites in the world” (page 2) and how “climate change will have serious implications for the Department’s ability to maintain both its built and natural infrastructure, and to ensure military readiness in the future” (page 8).

The Pentagon is also aware that it will likely need to conduct more humanitarian missions after natural disasters and it will need to have its weapons work no matter what the weather is like out there. We’ll see if the message is heard this time.

Thanks, Mike, great minds and etc.

NOAA’s newest highest-resolution weather forecast


Click to enlarge

This image, made with NOAA’s newest weather model, shows ground temperature readings at a 2 mile resolution. Each pixel is shaded according to the temperature, ranging from 113 degrees F (the brightest yellow) to freezing (white).

This colorful map of ground temperature shows the tapestry of American weather on September 30. Undeniably beautiful, it owes its rich color gradient to a powerful new scientific tool for modeling the weather for incredibly small chunks of both time and space.

After five years of work, NOAA unveiled the new model, called High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR), on September 30. Like its predecessor, HRRR will update every hour. But, HRRR fine tunes the forecast every 15 minutes by constantly digesting radar reports, so that the hourly update is as accurate as possible. Each forecast starts with a 3-D radar snapshot of the atmosphere that it modifies with data from NOAA’s vast network of weather stations, balloons, and satellites…

The graphic below shows the same weather system in HRRR (right) and its predecessor (left). In the old model, the front appears to be one, big, splotchy storm. HRRR shows that the front is actually a patchy group of storm cells, a picture that is much closer to reality.

resolution comparison

I am a weather geek in an extended family of weather geeks. Pretty much everyone including my wife has been a pilot one time or another – but me. We compare weather apps on our assorted cpus. And I can’t wait till one is available with this resolution.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Pig farms are recovering from virus — meat prices may drop — so they say


What a clean pig farm can look like

A virus that killed millions of baby pigs in the last year and led to higher pork prices has waned thanks to warmer weather and farmers’ efforts to sterilize their operations. And as pigs’ numbers increase, sticker shock on things like bacon should ease.

Already, hog supplies are on the rise, with 5.46 million baby pigs born between June and August in Iowa, the nation’s leading producer — the highest quarterly total in 20 years and a record 10.7 surviving pigs per litter, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

It’s a significant turnaround from a year ago when the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus was wiping out entire litters. Since the virus first showed up, the federal government rushed to give conditional approval for a vaccine and those in the industry began taking precautions, such as disinfecting trucks, equipment and clothing…

It’s clear the industry is managing the virus, but it’s far from eradicated. Two new cases were confirmed by South Dakota veterinary officials in the past week, bringing the state’s total to 38 farms. And there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic, Lear said, as the virus thrives in colder, wetter environments like those found in fall and winter…

Also – too bad it took the death of 10% of the young hogs in the United States to nudge a bit of activity by farmers and the USDA alike to invoke more sanitary conditions for the pigs they raise for food. Anyone wonder why so many nations keep a weather eye out for meat from the United States – how it may endanger their own consumers?

It takes about six months to raise a pig to market weight, so the increased supply could mean a slight drop in consumer prices this winter and a more noticeable decline in the spring…Many in the industry are optimistic that the worst of the PED virus is behind them, but there is still concern among producers.

Dale Norton — a livestock farmer in Bronson, Michigan, and president of the National Pork Board — lost 1,500 piglets over 2½ weeks in March, but said his barns are now free of the virus.

There may be additional outbreaks, Norton said, but he doubts they’ll be as severe, since hog farmers have learned more about the virus and how it spreads and have taken precautions.

This clown show – producers and regulators alike – are still astounded that cleaner living conditions make a difference. Scary as ever.

Thanks, Mike

IBM “sunflowers” designed to supply off-grid energy, water, and cooling

Looking rather like a 10-meter tall sunflower, IBM’s High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system concentrates the sun’s radiation over 2,000 times on a single point and then transforms 80 percent of that into usable energy. Using a number of liquid-cooled microchannel receivers, each equipped with an array of multi-junction photovoltaic chips, each HCPVT can produce enough power, water, and cooling to supply several homes.

Swiss-based supplier of solar power technology, Airlight Energy, has partnered with IBM Research to utilize IBM’s direct warm-water cooling design (adapted from use in IBM’s SuperMUC supercomputer), water adsorption technologies, and leverage IBM’s past work with multi-chip solar receivers developed in a collaboration between IBM and the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center, to develop and produce the system…

“The direct cooling technology with very small pumping power used to cool the photovoltaic chips with water is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body,” said Dr. Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.

The HCPVT system can also be adapted to use the cooling system to provide drinkable water and air conditioning from the hot water output produced. Salt water is passed through the heating conduits before being run through a permeable membrane distillation system, where it is then evaporated and desalinated. To produce cool air for the home, the waste heat can be run through an adsorption chiller, which is an evaporator/condenser heat exchanger that uses water, rather than other chemicals, as the refrigerant medium.

The creators claim that this system adaptation could provide up to 40 liters (10 gallons) of drinkable water per square meter of receiver area per day, with a large, multi-dish installation theoretically able to provide enough water for an entire small town.

All of these factors, – waste energy used for distillation and air-conditioning combined with a 25 percent yield on solar power – along with the setup’s sun tracking system that continuously positions the dish at the best angle throughout the day, combine to produce the claimed 80 percent energy efficiency

Estimations on the operating lifetime for the HCPVT system are around 60 years with adequate maintenance, including replacing the shielding foil and the elliptic mirrors every 10 to 15 years (contingent on environmental conditions) and the PV cells, which will require replacement at the end of their operational life of approximately 25 years…

Everyone is so cautious about operational life of photovoltaic systems. It cracks me up. There are homes here in New Mexico with 20 to 30-year-old PV solar panels still running at 90-95% efficiency.

OTOH, the photo-tracker design is one long-accepted by those who can afford the original cost. The National Guard Armory just outside Santa Fe is a site with such an installation.

I look forward to checking out costs and payback when the critters are in production.