Climate change, neutrinos and river otters

Climate change challenges U.S. security

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

–The New York Times

 Draw-down in India’s groundwater mapped

Farming is a thirsty business on the Indian subcontinent. But how thirsty, exactly? For the first time, satellite remote sensing of a 2000-kilometer swath running from eastern Pakistan across northern India and into Bangladesh has put a solid number on how quickly the region is depleting its groundwater. The number “is big,” says hydrologist James Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine–big as in 54 cubic kilometers of groundwater lost per year from the world’s most intensively irrigated region hosting 600 million people. “I don’t think anybody knew how quickly it was being depleted over that large an area.”

The big picture of Indian groundwater comes from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission, launched in March 2002 as a joint effort by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the German Aerospace Center. Actually two satellites orbiting in tandem 220 kilometers apart, GRACE measures subtle variations in the pull of Earth’s gravity by using microwaves to precisely gauge the changing distance between the two spacecraft.


MPCA offers ‘Eco Scale Challenge’ at State Fair

There are plenty of scales at the Minnesota State Fair: for weighing produce, livestock and even midway-goers.  An exciting new interactive exhibit at this year’s state fair, the Eco Scale Challenge, allows Eco Experience visitors to see the effect their choices at home and on the road have on emissions of carbon dioxide.

 The fair runs Aug. 27-Sept. 7. 

 Home energy use and transportation for the average household are responsible for approximately 21 tons of carbon emissions a year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Even small changes can add up to big reductions.  For instance, if visitors move the transportation slider on the Eco Scale to carpool or bus just twice a week, the scale points to a yearly carbon savings of half a ton.  Energy-saving actions at home, like turning off unneeded electronics, washing clothes in cold water, and lowering the temperature of the water heater, cuts another half ton of carbon.

 The Eco Scale Challenge not only allows visitors to see how their actions lighten their impact on the environment, but allows them to see how tradeoffs in their decisions work.  Other categories on the scale include reducing/recycling, renewable energy, sustainable yard, saving energy, and eating local foods.

More information and schedules are at

–MPCA news release

 GM drops support for mercury removal

The new General Motors is dropping out of a program designed to prevent mercury pollution from scrapped cars. This comes just as hundreds of thousands of cars are being junked through the Cash for Clunkers program.

 The End of Life Vehicle Solutions program encourages junk yards to remove mercury switches from vehicles before they’re sent to the shredder. The switches are collected and recycled and it’s all paid for with contributions from the major automakers. These switches were used in trunk lights and anti-lock breaks in the 80s and 90s. But if they’re not removed, when the cars are melted down, toxic mercury is released into the air.

 GM was a major contributor. But since filing for bankruptcy, the automaker hasn’t paid its dues. The reasoning — bankruptcy gave GM a clean slate. As in, the “new GM” never made cars with mercury switches. The program’s director told the Associated Press the timing with Cash for Clunkers now in full force, is a real problem.


 River otter returns to Mississippi in Minneapolis

Trapping and pollution almost drove the river otter out of Minnesota.

 But now, the otter is back, and there’s even a report of river otter living in a once badly polluted stretch of the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis.

 EPA’s get-tough policy yields guilty plea

A man who was extradited to San Diego from Malta on water-pollution charges pleaded guilty Thursday to dumping pollutants into San Diego Bay while repairing a boat in 2006.

 Robert Fred Smith, 45, admitted in federal court that tiling concrete, paint and rust were dumped into the bay. Smith was brought back to San Diego under a new extradition treaty between the U.S. and Malta and a new get-tough attitude by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Smith faces a possible five years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 26. A co-defendant, Joseph Anthony O’Connor, remains in Malta, awaiting extradition. The pair allegedly fled there while under investigation in the United States.

–The Los Angeles Times

 Neutrinos rocket between Illinois and Minnesota

Scientists are playing an exotic game of pitch and catch between Illinois and Minnesota. Their catcher’s mitt is solid iron, weighs 5,500 tons, and is parked in northern Minnesota in an abandoned iron mine. With millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package, construction crews are now building a second mitt near the Canadian border. It’s even heavier, some 15,000 tons, and is made of 385,000 liquid-filled cells of PVC plastic.

Five hundred miles to the south is the pitcher: Fermilab, a sprawling U.S. government laboratory west of Chicago where physicists do violent things with tiny particles.

The objects in flight are very strange particles called neutrinos. Fermilab scientists have figured out how to generate a beam of neutrinos and send it across Wisconsin to the big detectors in northern Minnesota.

–The Washington Post

 FTC attacks claims for bamboo clothing

 The textiles go by names such as “ecoKashmere,” “Bamboo Comfort,” and “Pure Bamboo.” Products made with them – baby clothes, women’s leggings, sweaters – tout a variety of environmental benefits, such as that they are nonpolluting, biodegradable, and retain some of bamboo’s natural antimicrobial properties.

 But the Federal Trade Commission said that at least four companies’ versions of bamboo clothing have been marketed with claims made out of, well, whole cloth. It said the material is nothing more than rayon – a fiber made from cellulose in a process that involves harsh chemicals and releases hazardous pollutants.

 The federal agency announced settlements with three of the companies, including Sami Designs L.L.C. of Wexford, Pa., near Pittsburgh. None acknowledged any wrongdoing, though all agreed to drop key marketing claims – including that their products are made of bamboo or bamboo fiber or are produced via environmentally friendly processes – unless they can substantiate them.

–The Philadelphia Inquirer

 Wisconsin pushes groundwater rules

Scores of Wisconsin communities that don’t disinfect their water supplies would have to install systems to screen out bacteria and viruses under rules proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

 The new regulations are being driven by Wisconsin’s new groundwater protection law, and by a growing body of research showing viruses from human waste seep into the ground and contaminate public water systems.

The Natural Resources Board, meeting in Hayward this week, voted 7-0 to hold public hearings this fall on the new controls.

–The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

 Army plans Mojave solar farm

The U.S. Army has selected two energy firms to build an industrial-sized solar farm in California’s high Mojave Desert.

The move capitalizes on two resources the military has in abundance. “Not only do we have the land … we also have the demand,” said Kevin Geiss, energy security program director at the Army’s installations and environment office.

 Both are necessities for building big, expensive renewable projects.

–The New York Times

 Kraft Foods claims 21% cut in water use

Kraft Foods Inc., the world’s second-largest foodmaker, said it cut water use worldwide by 21 percent, joining Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc. in efforts to minimize their impact on the environment.

 The company needed a total of 3 billion fewer gallons of water for manufacturing over the past three years, spokesman Richard Buino said in an Aug. 5 telephone interview. Plants are recycling water and fixing leaks, while water frozen in basement pools cools the Northfield, Illinois, headquarters.

 Kraft set environmental goals in 2005, including the elimination of 150 million pounds of packaging by 2011, said Buino. Wal-Mart has decreased the amount of trash it sends to landfills and is investing in solar and wind energy. Whole Foods composts food waste and is installing solar panels in stores.


Take Mom’s advice: Don’t eat the beach

By washing your hands after digging in beach sand, you could greatly reduce your risk of ingesting bacteria that could make you sick. In new research, scientists have determined that, although beach sand is a potential source of bacteria and viruses, hand rinsing may effectively reduce exposure to microbes that cause gastrointestinal illnesses. 

“Our mothers were right! Cleaning our hands before eating really works, especially after handling sand at the beach,” said Dr. Richard Whitman, the lead author of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study. “Simply rinsing hands may help reduce risk, but a good scrubbing is the best way to avoid illness.” 

For this study, scientists measured how many E. coli bacteria could be transferred to people’s hands when they dug in sand. They analyzed sand from the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Using past findings on illness rates, scientists found that if individuals were to ingest all of the sand and the associated biological community retained on their fingertip, 11 individuals in 1000 would develop symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.  Ingestion of all material on the entire hand would result in 33 of 1000 individuals developing gastrointestinal illness.

–USGS news release

 Tribe invests in algae-based bio-fuel

An unusual experiment featuring equal parts science, environmental optimism and Native American capitalist ambition is unfolding here on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in southwest Colorado.

 With the twin goals of making fuel from algae and reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases, a start-up company co-founded by a Colorado State University professor recently introduced a strain of algae that loves carbon dioxide into a water tank next to a natural gas processing plant. The water is already green-tinged with life.

 The Southern Utes, one of the nation’s wealthiest American Indian communities thanks to its energy and real-estate investments, is a major investor in the professor’s company. It hopes to gain a toehold in what tribal leaders believe could be the next billion-dollar energy boom.

–The New York Times

 World Water Week celebrated in Stockholm

This week, Aug. 16-22, is being observed as World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, by the Stockholm International Water Institute. A series of seminars and events held during the week brings together experts, practitioners, decision makers and leaders from around the globe to exchange ideas, foster new thinking and develop solutions. The  theme for 2009 is Responding to Global Changes: Accessing Water for the Common Good.

–World Water Week