Sunday, July 31, 2011

The heat is on - and so is the wind

The best way to solve arguments concerning the performance of offshore wind turbines is with actual data. Opponents of Cape Wind - the nation's first fully permitted offshore wind farm have long argued that the turbines would be still during the hot summer months when demand for electricity is at its greatest.

Real-time data from a meteorological tower mounted at the site of the proposed project tells a very different story. (GW)

Offshore wind energy potential boosted during heat wave, data shows

Climate Central
July 30, 2011

When summer temperatures climb in New England, some people head to Cape Cod, where cool air blowing off the Atlantic Ocean often helps lower temperatures to more comfortable levels. But that characteristic sea breeze offers more than an escape during the hottest days; it also means offshore wind power can chip in when electricity demand is at its peak.

Last week, for example, when high temperatures roasted cities across the Northeast, winds were blowing hard and steady at the Cape Wind site in Nantucket Sound. If the proposed 130 wind turbines had already been installed, they would have been running nearly at full capacity, at the same time electricity demand was reaching record levels.

“Last week had the two highest electrical demand days of 2011,” says Mark Rodgers, Cape Wind’s Communications Director, “and we observed that the winds were very strong on Thursday and also above average on Friday.”

When a heat wave settles in, like it did last week across much of the country, it’s a given that people turn to their air conditioners for relief. Running so many air conditioners all day and through the night, however, requires a lot of electricity. In fact, electricity demand is usually highest during a heat wave, and often spikes in the late afternoon when the sun’s scorching heat is at its worst.

Last week was no different. In New England, the managers of the electrical grid, the Independent System Operator of New England (ISO-NE), reported two of its highest electricity demand days on record. On Thursday and Friday, July 21 and 22, when temperatures across Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, climbed well above 90°F and, in some cases, above 100°F, electricity demand was more than 25 percent greater than on a typical summer day.

According to Rodgers, information from a data tower built at the Cape Wind site showed the turbines would have been running at their full capacity on Thursday, collectively generating 420 megawatts of electricity, and also would have run well above average on Friday.

Climate science research shows that heat waves are becoming more likely in the Northeast and other parts of the country as the overall climate warms, which means that the electrical grid may see more sharp spikes in demand. In Boston, for example, the average number of days each year with temperatures above 90 degrees is expected to double by the middle of this century.

The Cape Wind project is the first offshore wind farm to receive both federal and state approval, but so far construction of the turbines has been stalled by opposition from local communities, who have protested the wind farm’s location. The ongoing debate over Cape Wind’s development continues to be thoroughly reported by WCAI’s Sean Corcoran as well as Climatide's Heather Goldstone.

Nantucket Sound isn’t the only patch of the Northeast coastline where the winds tend to pick up during a heat wave. According to recent research from Stony Brook University, there is a distinct trend of windy weather that develops in the summer between New Jersey and New York harbor, and extending northeastward up to Cape Cod.

According to meteorology professor Brian Colle, the wind can be enhanced by 20 to 30 percent along this stretch of coast during the warmest months.

“It’s more than just standing at the beach and having the wind blowing on your face; it’s more than a sea breeze,” says Colle. Even though the air over the land heats up quickly during the summer, he explains, the air over the water can stay as much as 20°F cooler. That temperature difference sets up a difference in air pressure, and sends the cooler ocean air blowing towards the land.

A data tower at the Cape Wind site in Nantucket Sound shows that the hottest days tend to be accompanied by higher winds. Credit: Cape Wind.

Colle says that this enhanced airflow tends to be most dramatic between six to 20 miles offshore. This distance coincides with the proposed sites for several offshore wind farms along the Northeast coast, including ones in Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.

The warm weather isn’t beneficial for all wind farms, however. On land, wind tends to be weaker than average during heat waves. In the past, this has been a point of criticism for wind energy projects, because the hottest weather also tends to be the time when electricity is needed most.

For example, during an intense July 2006 heat wave in California, wind farms were producing electricity at less than ten percent of their maximum capacity, and some days these dipped as low as four percent.

“People sometimes say that when you really need the power, during the hot 'dog days of July and August,' the wind isn’t there,” says Rodgers. For land-based wind turbines, he says there is some merit to the criticism.

On the other hand, he says, data that Cape Wind has collected from Nantucket Sound during the past eight years shows that the same conditions don’t apply to their site. The days of highest electricity demand in New England were days when Cape Wind would have been running above 70 percent of its maximum capacity. During regular wind conditions, Cape Wind claims it will run at about 48 percent capacity, and overall, its average capacity (including times with little to no wind) is expected to be around 21 percent of its maximum rating.

The wind may not be enhanced to that same degree at all of the potential locations for wind farms along the Northeast coastline, but according to Colle, other power companies have picked up on the trend and are now trying to find out where hot weather might influence offshore wind power the most.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


After reading today's post ask yourself: exactly whose integrity is being called into question here? (GW)

Arctic scientist suspended over 'integrity issues'

US environmental bureau denies claim that Charles Monnett's suspension is linked to his work with polar bears

By Suzanne Goldenberg,
29 July 2011

Monnett's findings into the threat to polar bears is under review. Photograph: Subhankar Banerjee/AP

The official overseeing offshore oil drilling in Alaska said that a top Arcticscientist was suspended for "integrity issues" outside his work on polar bears.

Charles Monnett, a US government wildlife biologist who first exposed the threat to polar bears posed by melting sea ice, was suspended on 18 July.

His defence team – which was not told of the specific allegations against Monnett – said his suspension may be linked to a months-old investigation into potential scientific misconduct in his work on polar bears.

But Michael Bromwich, who heads the government agency where Monnett works, told staff in an email that the suspension was due to entirely different issues of integrity that came to light during the course of the investigation.

Earlier, an official from Bromwich's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Enforcement and Regulation told The Guardian in an email: "The agency placed Mr Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity." The agency said Monnett's suspension had nothing to do with his work on polar bears.

It also denied suggestions that Monnett, who managed about $50m (£30.5m) in government research projects in the Arctic, was being sidelined to speed the way for offshore oil drilling.

Monnett's suspension has produced sharply different reactions. Commentators on Fox television cite the incident to try to discredit the science on climate change.

Monnett's defenders meanwhile say he is being subject to a smear campaign.

Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is serving as Monnett's legal team, suggested Monnett's work was being put under a microscope at the behest of oil companies pushing to drill in the Arctic.

"I think it's an excuse to shut down the science shop," Ruch said on Friday.

Documents suggest investigators are reviewing Monnett's research methods as well as the significance he attached to his discovery in 2004 of polar bear carcasses in the Arctic.

But investigators from the office of the inspector general at the US department of the interior told him, during a formal interview last February, that they were homing in on his methodology, a transcript of the session shows. "Basically wrong numbers, miscalculations," one of the investigators, Eric May, told Monnett during the formal interview.Monnett protested. "That's not scientific misconduct. If anything it's sloppy," the transcript quotes him as saying. "Scientific misconduct suggests that we did something deliberately to deceive or to change it. I sure don't see any indication of that in what you're asking me about."

Monnett was on a research flight tracking bowhead whales in 2004 when he and a colleague, Jeff Gleason, spotted four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. It was the first time government scientists had recorded drowning deaths of polar bears, Monnett told investigators.

He and Gleason published their observations in 2006 in the journal Polar Biology. The paper used the number of polar bear carcasses observed on the flight to suggest 25% of bears had drowned swimming between solid sheets of ice. They wrote: "Drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues."

Monnett told the investigators he was cautious in his framing of the polar bear event – given the prevailing views of the then George Bush administration.

"We work for an agency that is, especially then, extremely hostile to the concept of climate change, that's hostile to the idea that there was any effects of anything we do on anything," he is quoted as saying. Elsewhere in the interview transcripts, investigators ask Monnett how he was able to clearly identify dead polar bears from the air, how he conducted his calculations, and how he could be certain such deaths did not occur on a regular basis.

In their interview with Gleason, conducted in January, the investigators went over the methods for spotting and recording animals. They noted that the scientists took photos of only one of the dead polar bears. Monnett told the investigators he had spoken to a colleague who had overseen whale survey flights from 1987-2003. The colleague reportedly told Monnett he did not remember seeing dead polar bears on those trips. Gleason, in his interview, told investigators he had consulted a data base which showed no record of polar bear drowning going back 30 years.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Spent nuclear rods without a home

Remember back in 1987 when New York could not find a place to dispose of it's garbage? Here's an excerpt from a AP story on the fiasco:
The Government of Belize said today that it would not allow a barge filled with 3,100 tons of garbage from Islip, L.I., to enter its territorial waters. The decision prolongs the vessel's monthlong search for a dumping ground.
Flash forward to 2011. What is Japan to do with the spent fuel rods from the decommissioned Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant?

Need more examples of problems with nuclear energy?(GW)

Decommissioning Fukushima 1: The Rods Nobody Wants

By Paul French
Nuclear Energy Insider

25 July 2011

The decommissioning process of Fukushima's Reactor 1 is well underway and at great cost. But no nations are putting their hands up to store the reactors, which is a major concern for Japan as it is not in a safe storage zone. We review the possibilities to store the rods and highlight the ethical dilemma posed with nuclear storage going forward.

The decommissioning process at Fukushima 1 is already underway, where possible. It’s an expensive business – in May Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) posted a massive US$15.3bn loss for the fiscal that ended March 31st, due primarily to the Fukushima 1 crisis. Of Tepco’s losses, 80% is thought to be due to the one-time hit from the decommissioning of the reactors at Fukushima 1 and efforts to contain radiation from the site following the March 11th quake.

A major question for Japan, and indeed the global nuclear industry, is who will take the spent fuel rods from the decommissioned Fukushima 1? At the moment, this is a problem that is severely stalling the decommissioning process.

Clearly, following the problems of March 11th, many of the rods are extremely radioactive and partially melted, while some contain highly lethal plutonium. Over 7-tons of spent rods must be removed from Fukushima 1 to a permanent storage facility prior to the plant being buried under concrete. Removing the rods, and other fissile material, means sending it overseas; Japan’s unstable and earthquake prone nature renders it unsuitable for long-term storage without earthquake proof facilities. TWPCO is building Japan’s first storage facility, a 5,000-ton waste centre in Mutsu, 300 miles north of Fukushima. However, it is not scheduled to open until 2013.

Straightforward solution?

There should have been a straightforward solution to the problem – America. The US has a series of long-term underground storage sites (76 locations in 35 states) for high-level nuclear waste produced by America’s 104 nuclear reactors. Thousands of spent fuel rods (60,000 tons) are now stored at these plants in pools of water, encased in concrete and steel, to cool the spent fuel removed from reactors.

Under the NPT America stipulated that used nuclear fuel from Japanese reactors had to be transferred to the US for storage or reprocessing to prevent Japan developing atomic weapons capabilities. However, America’s storage sites are currently very contentious with legislators and the public and so Washington seems unwilling to take the Fukushima waste; effectively the US has backed down on demands it originally placed on Japan in 1970. So now the question is – where to send the rods?

Regional candidates

Three regional candidates have been suggested, and according to Japanese press reports, been contacted by TEPCO and their decommissioning partner, France’s Areva - Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. TEPCO was thought to favour China believing that facilities were most advanced there, safety procedures better and (in a rather uncomfortable way for a company operating from a democracy) that China could cover up the arrival of the Japanese spent fuel roads from the public.

However, this solution soon became impossible when the Chinese public showed signs of panic and, for the first time, concerns over nuclear policy were expressed. Additionally Japan’s history with China from World War Two and the still smouldering issue of chemical weapons dumps in northeast China mean this solution is now impracticable.

Mongolia is under some pressure to take not just Japan’s spent fuel rods, but others too. Japan’s Manichi Daily newspaper has reported that both Tokyo and Washington are keen to jointly build a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Mongolia. This has sparked some controversy in Mongolia where anti-nuclear waste activists argue that their country is not a dumping ground for the discarded nuclear detritus of other countries. Consequently, for the moment Ulan Bator, too, seems not to be a possibility.

Other alternatives

Other sparsely populated, but more developed, nations have also been suggested – notably Canada and Australia, both of whom have active uranium mining industries. Both Canada and Australia export uranium to Japan so, some argue, there is a logic to them dealing with their customers’ nuclear waste.

Yoichi Shimatsu, a former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, and now a Hong Kong-based environmental activist, has likened this process to the well-established practise of manufacturers of refrigerators taking them back when they are finished with – industrial recovery. However, perhaps unsurprisingly anti-nuclear activists in Canada and Australia are not so keen on the idea while the major uranium suppliers in those countries, such as Rio Tinto and CAMECO have shown little interest in taking on this extra cost.

As Yoichi Shimatsu points out, though both Australia and Canada have active and highly profitable uranium economies, the expected besieging of the Canberra and Ottawa parliaments by NIMBY protestors is ensuring that neither country is volunteering to take Japan’s spent fuel rods anytime soon.

Rods without a home

And so Fukushima 1’s spent fuel rods remain without a burial site – the unwanted and unloved by-products of the nuclear industry and natural disaster. Many analysts seem to believe that ultimately a country with space and a need for income, perhaps Mongolia at some point, will accept the waste. However, relying on more desperate developing economies to accept the toxic waste rejected by developed countries does not bode well for the future of responsible and ethical decommissioning.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Double Jeopardy

Now I'm really worried. Politicians looking for quick fixes may take take the results from the report noted in the post below to justify manufacturing an economic downturn to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and then feel compelled to manufacture a war to get us out of the recession. (GW)

Report: Recession helped clean Europe’s air

28 July 2011

Air pollution plunged across Europe in 2009 as reduced energy demand lowered emissions from public power plants in countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Spain, new research shows.


The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution aims to limit and, as far as possible, gradually reduce and prevent air pollution, including long-range transboundary air pollution.

The 51 Parties of the Convention, including the EU, are obliged to report emissions data for a large number of air pollutants. The main air pollutants can have serious negative effects on human health and the environment.

The European Environment Agency assists the EU by preparing the emissions inventory to be reported under the LRTAP Convention each year. It also provides an air pollutant emissions data viewer, showing emission trends and country comparisons for the main sectors and activities.

The drop was steepest for sulphur oxides (SOx), with emissions plummeting by 21% between 2008 and 2009.

But emissions of other key pollutants from the electricity generating sector also tailed off, with nitrogen oxides (NOx) and primary particulate matter (PM) emissions both falling by around 10%.

High concentrations of NOx can cause inflammation of the airways and reduced lung function. PM is also harmful to the respiratory system.

The report by the EU's air pollutant emission inventory, which is compiled by the European Environment Agency (EEA), cautions that despite the improvement in 2009, European air quality can still be quite low, particularly in cities.

But the figures in the inventory, prepared for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention, seem to confirm a long-term decline for most air pollutants.

Since 1990, SOx emissions in the EU have fallen by 80%, carbon monoxide (CO) emissions by 62%, non-methane volatile organic compounds by 55%, and NOx by 44%.

The introduction of three‑way catalytic converters in passenger cars and stricter regulation of emissions from heavy goods vehicles also contributed to a fall of 42% in road transport NOx emissions.

But the road sector remains the most potent source of NOx and CO, contributing 42% and 34% respectively to the EU totals for 2009.

A recent EEA report found that NOx emissions in the EU in 2010 were expected to exceed a limit set by the National Emission Ceilings Directive by 17% - with ten member states set to miss it altogether.

NOx emissions from domestic and international aviation have also soared by 79% since 1990, although between 2008 and 2009 these fell by 6%.

Large percentages of pollutants such as NOx from road transport come from 'diffuse' sources, and can be emitted over large areas by indistinct sources that are difficult to abate.

The report notes the difficulty of compiling and comparing emission estimates for EU member states when governments do not report complete data.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New York: an experiment in urban evolution

Should we be surprised that biological organisms that inhabit cities are adapting and evolving to changing urban environments? The bigger question for me is, if bottom-feeding fish in New York's Hudson River can develop an immunity to PCBs in response to the industrial dumping of this life-threatening chemical into their environment, what about humans? Should we be eating more junk food to build up a resistance? Just kidding...

Right after reading this, I watched a very interested TED talk by physicist Geoffrey West on the way that cities and companies mathematically mimic biological growth.

Both are worth considering as our world becomes increasingly urban. (GW)

Evolution Right Under Our Noses

By Carl Zimmer
New York Times
July 25, 2011

To study evolution, Jason Munshi-South has tracked elephants in central Africa and proboscis monkeys in the wilds of Borneo. But for his most recent expedition, he took the A train.

Dr. Munshi-South and two graduate students, Paolo Cocco and Stephen Harris, climbed out of the 168th Street station lugging backpacks and a plastic crate full of scales, Ziploc bags, clipboards, rulers and tarps. They walked east to the entrance of Highbridge Park, where they met Ellen Pehek, a senior ecologist in the New York City Parks and Recreation Department. The four researchers entered the park, made their way past a basketball game and turned off the paved path into a ravine.

They worked their way down the steep slope, past schist boulders, bent pieces of rebar, oaks and maples, hunks of concrete and freakish poison ivy plants with leaves the size of a man’s hands. The ravine flattened out at the edge of Harlem River Drive. The scientists walked north along a guardrail contorted by years of car crashes before plunging back into the forest to reach their field site.

“We get police called on us a lot,” said Dr. Munshi-South, an assistant professor at Baruch College. “Sometimes with guns drawn.”

Dr. Munshi-South has joined the ranks of a small but growing number of field biologists who study urban evolution — not the rise and fall of skyscrapers and neighborhoods, but the biological changes that cities bring to the wildlife that inhabits them. For these scientists, the New York metropolitan region is one great laboratory.

White-footed mice, stranded on isolated urban islands, are evolving to adapt to urban stress. Fish in the Hudson have evolved to cope with poisons in the water. Native ants find refuge in the median strips on Broadway. And more familiar urban organisms, like bedbugs, rats and bacteria, also mutate and change in response to the pressures of the metropolis. In short, the process of evolution is responding to New York and other cities the way it has responded to countless environmental changes over the past few billion years. Life adapts.

The mice are the object of Dr. Munshi-South’s attention. Since 2008, he and his colleagues have fanned out across the city to study how the rise of New York influenced the evolution of the deer mice.

On this day in Highbridge Park his students, Mr. Cocco and Mr. Harris, spread a blue tarp on the forest floor, while Dr. Munshi-South walked to an orange flag planted in the ground. He picked up an aluminum box sitting next to the flag and pushed in a door at one end. At the other end of the box crouched a white-footed mouse. It gazed back at Dr. Munshi-South with bulging black eyes.

The researchers inspected 50 traps laid the day before and found seven mice inside. They plopped each mouse out of its trap and into a Ziploc bag. They clipped a scale to each bag to weigh the mice. Dr. Munshi-South gently took hold of the animals so his students could measure them with a ruler along their backs.

Dr. Munshi-South and his colleagues have been analyzing the DNA of the mice. He’s been surprised to find that the populations of mice in each park are genetically distinct from the mice in others. “The amount of differences you see among populations of mice in the same borough is similar to what you’d see across the whole southeastern United States,” he said.

White-footed mice live today in forests from Canada to Mexico. They arrived in the New York City region after ice age glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago. In the past few centuries, as their forest home became a city, they survived in New York’s patches of woods. (House mice, which New Yorkers battle in their apartments, arrived with European settlers.) Research by Dr. Munshi-South and his colleagues suggests that New York’s white-footed mice, which occupy isolated patches, are adapting to life in the city.

When Dr. Munshi-South opened the final trap, the seventh mouse had run out of patience. It shot out of its box and raced off into the brush.

Mr. Cocco shrugged. “They are New Yorkers, after all,” he said.

Pollution Forces Change

Evolution is one of life’s constants. New species emerge; old ones become extinct. Environmental changes have often steered evolution in new directions. And modern cities like New York have brought particularly swift changes to the environment. European settlers cut down most of New York’s original forest; towns grew and then merged into a sprawling metropolitan region. The chemical environment changed as well, as factories dumped chemical pollution into the water and soil.

Pollution has driven some of the starkest examples of evolution around New York. Hudson River fish faced a dangerous threat from PCBs, which General Electric released from 1947 to 1977. PCBs cause deformities in fish larvae. “These are important changes,” said Isaac I. Wirgin of New York University Medical Center. “If you’re missing your jaw, you’re not going to be able to eat.”

Dr. Wirgin and his colleagues were intrigued to discover that the Hudson’s population of tomcod, a bottom-dwelling fish, turned out to be resistant to PCBs. “There was no effect on them at all,” Dr. Wirgin said, “and we wanted to know why.”

In March, he and his colleagues reported that almost all the tomcod in the Hudson share the same mutation in a gene called AHR2. PCBs must first bind to the protein encoded by AHR2 to cause damage. The Hudson River mutation makes it difficult for PCBs to grab onto the receptor, shielding the fish from the chemical’s harm.

The AHR2 mutation is entirely missing from tomcod that live in northern New England and Canada. A small percentage of tomcod in Long Island and Connecticut carry the mutation. Dr. Wirgin and his colleagues concluded that once PCBs entered the Hudson, the mutant gene spread quickly.

“When these chemicals first starting getting released, if you had the normal form of the gene, you probably weren’t going to make it,” Dr. Wirgin said.

Evolution has also run in the opposite direction as government agencies cleaned up some of the pollution around New York. In 1989, Jeffrey Levinton of Stony Brook University and his colleagues discovered that a population of mud-dwelling worms in the Hudson had evolved resistance to cadmium. They lived in a place called Foundry Cove near a battery factory near West Point. Dr. Levinton and his colleagues found that the worms produced huge amounts of a protein that binds cadmium and prevents it from doing harm.

In the early 1990s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency hauled away most of the cadmium-laced sediment from Foundry Cove. Over nine generations, the Foundry Cove worm populations became vulnerable again. This shift occurred, Dr. Levinton and his colleagues reported last year, as worms from less contaminated parts of the river moved in. They are interbreeding with the resident worms, and the resistant mutations are becoming rarer.

Bacteria Adapt, Too

Today, scientists can scan the entire genomes of New York’s animals and plants to look for evolutionary changes. Last month, Mr. Harris presented new data on white-footed mice at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution. Mr. Harris and his colleagues have identified mutations in more than 1,000 genes that are present in all New York City mice, but missing from mice in Harriman State Park, 45 miles north of the city.

The scientists are investigating whether these mutations have helped the mice adapt to life in New York City. Clues that some of them do are found in the functions of the mutated genes. Many of the genes are involved in fighting bacteria, while others are for reproduction and still others for coping with stress from exposure to chemicals. It’s possible that these new mutations are spreading independently in each of the parks in the city.

“The idea is that the urban pressures are the same everywhere, and they’re all adapting,” said Mr. Harris.

Cities attract only a small fraction of evolutionary biologists, who often work in lusher places like the Amazon. But urban evolution is attracting more research these days, because cities are fast-growing, and the urban environment is quickly taking over large areas of the Earth’s surface.

Evolution is not just taking place in New York’s rivers and parks. It’s also taking place inside its hospitals. In 1997, Dr. John Quale, an infectious diseases physician at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, discovered a newly evolved strain of bacteria in the city that is resistant to most antibiotics.

The bacteria, known as Klebsiella pneumoniae, is often found in hospitals, where it can cause pneumonia and other life-threatening infections. Doctors typically treat Klebsiella with an antibiotic called carbapenem. Dr. Quale and his colleagues discovered carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella in four hospitals in Brooklyn.

The new genetic recipe proved to be a winning solution. Dr. Quale’s surveys charted the strain as it spread from hospital to hospital throughout New York. “It’s one strain that’s adapted very well to the hospital environment, and it clearly has a survival advantage over other bacteria,” Dr. Quale said.

Once the new strain had established itself in New York, it began to spread out of the city. It’s now reached 33 other states, and has become a serious problem in other countries, including France, Greece and Israel.

Dr. Quale and his colleagues found that this new strain of Klebsiella is especially dangerous. About half of patients who get infected die. Doctors can cure some infections, but only by using toxic drugs that can cause nerve and kidney damage.

Fortunately, in recent years, New York has seen some modest success in fighting the bacteria. From 2006 to 2009, Brooklyn saw a decrease in the prevalence of the bacteria. But Dr. Quale doesn’t expect total eradication. “I think it’s always going to be with us — it’s so entrenched in our hospitals,” he said.

A Biological Melting Pot

While Dr. Quale studies evolution that happens out of sight, some scientists do their work in plain view. On a recent afternoon, James Danoff-Burg and Rob Dunn were clambering around in a narrow Broadway median on the Upper West Side. Dr. Danoff-Burg, a biologist at Columbia University, was digging up plastic cups from the ivy. Dr. Dunn, a biologist from North Carolina State University, was five feet in the air, crouched on a bough of a Japanese maple.

“New one! New one!” Dr. Dunn shouted over the traffic. He and Dr. Danoff-Burg were surveying the median for species of ants. Dr. Dunn had spotted Crematogaster lineolata, an ant species that he and Dr. Danoff-Burg had never found before in this particular urban habitat.

From his backpack, Dr. Dunn pulled out an aspirator, a rubber tube connected to a glass jar. Holding one end of the tube over the ant, he sucked it in. Instead of going into his mouth, the insect tumbled into the jar. (One hazard of urban evolutionary biology, said Dr. Dunn, is having your aspirator mistaken for a piece of drug paraphernalia.)

Dr. Danoff-Burg, Dr. Dunn and their colleagues chose to study the medians of Broadway to see how human activity alters biodiversity. In this artificial city, there is no environment more artificial than these medians, which sit on fill that was poured on top of subway tunnels. The scientists have found a blend of ant species, some that have been here since before the city existed, and others that have arrived more recently, hitching rides on ships, planes and trucks. The most common ant Dr. Danoff-Burg and Dr. Dunn encounter is the pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum), which came from somewhere in Europe.

Biologists find a mixture of native and non-native in all the life forms they study in New York, from the trees in Central Park to the birds of Jamaica Bay. The biodiversity of New York today is the result of extinctions, invasions and adaptations. Manhattan was once home to 21 native species of orchids; today they’re all gone. In the current issue of Global Ecology and Biogeography, a team of scientists surveyed plant biodiversity in New York and 10 other cities. They found that 401 native plant species have vanished from New York since 1624, while 1,159 remain. New York’s native flora is vulnerable to extinction today in part because it was well adapted to the closed forests that once stood where the city is now.

Newcomers and Natives

As native species became extinct, new ones came to the city. As a major point of entry to the United States, New York is where many of North America’s invasive species first arrived. Some introductions were intentional. Starlings were brought to Central Park in 1890, for instance, as part of a project to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to the United States. But most introduced species slipped in quietly.

Many non-native species quickly died out, but some fit comfortably into the city’s wildlife, and others wreaked havoc — first in New York and then beyond. New York was the port of entry for Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, Asian longhorned beetles and other threats to trees across the country.

As the invaders adapted to New York, they put extra pressure on native species, competing with them for space and food. In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, for instance, American bittersweet vines are dwindling away, outcompeted by Oriental bittersweet. At the same time, the two species are interbreeding, producing hybrids. “It’s a double-whammy,” said James D. Lewis, a plant ecologist at Fordham University.

Yet many native species still hold on. Dr. Danoff-Burg and Dr. Dunn were surprised to find that 9 out of the 13 ant species living in Broadway’s medians are native. Once the medians were built, the native species rushed in along with the invaders and created an ecosystem.

Dr. Danoff-Burg and Dr. Dunn are trying to figure out what controls the balance of native and new species in New York. They don’t understand why some medians have more biodiversity than others, for example. On natural islands, biodiversity tends to increase with the size of the islands. Dr. Danoff-Burg and Dr. Dunn find no such correlation in the medians on Broadway. They also have to determine how native species of ants are coexisting in such close quarters with invasive species.

New York, in other words, is an evolutionary experiment — one that some scientists find fascinating to observe. “It’s some new thing emerging around us,” Dr. Dunn said.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Brownfields redevelopment

The existence of Brownfields sites across the country are constant reminders of why we have to find the crossroads where the paths to economic development and environmental quality converge. (GW)

Brownfields Bloom in Seattle

Business Corridor Emerges as Old Industrial Sites Are Cleaned Up and Developed

Seattle has become a hotbed for cleaning up abandoned—and often contaminated—industrial sites known as brownfields and redeveloping them for office buildings, shopping centers and other uses.

Such large-scale cleanups could be replicated elsewhere as local governments seek ways to attract development and speed their communities' recovery from the recession. But these projects aren't easy, or cheap.

Seattle's brownfield boom is centered around the once-decaying South Lake Union district, where 6.4 million square feet of office, retail and residential space have been built on reclaimed properties since 2004, city officials estimate. Much of the work has been done by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., which says it has redeveloped 21 sites on about 60 acres in the district, including construction of a new headquarters for

Brian Surratt, Seattle's business-development director, said so much development went into the district that it helped cushion Seattle during the last recession. "This was one of the bright spots," he said.

Once used by paper mills, dry cleaners or other industries, brownfield sites are tainted by the real or potential presence of hazardous substances, such as spilled chemicals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Cleanups include removing contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil, as well as removal of building materials containing contaminated materials, such as asbestos.

The number of brownfield remediations completed, with all permits in place, by states, municipalities and tribal agencies rose about 10% to 12,864 in fiscal 2010, which ended June 30, 2010, from fiscal 2009. The figure, the latest available, marked the highest number of cleanups since the EPA began tracking the work five years ago. The trend appeared to continue in the fiscal year that ended this June 30. Of the nation's 450,000 brownfields, about 60,000 have been cleaned up.

One key selling point of brownfields: Many of the sites are near city centers, with good access to infrastructure such as roads and power, said Tad McGalliard, director of sustainable communities at the International City/County Management Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C.

However, the sites can require a lot more in up-front costs than a traditional development, expenses often shared by developers, local governments and the EPA's brownfield program.

First, testing for contamination has to be done, said Eric Williams, chief executive of Frontier Renewal LLC, an Englewood, Colo., redeveloper of brownfield sites. For example, his company has spent $2 million since last year in advance of cleaning up a former industrial dry cleaner at a site in Seattle, then will need to spend more than $10 million on the actual cleanup.

Developers often try to offset these costs by acquiring the properties at bargain-basement prices—a tactic that can be risky because the land can prove harder to clean up than expected, said Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator.

While the EPA's brownfield program has drawn bipartisan support since it was started in 1995, some critics of government spending question the agency's total $1.9 billion outlay to help fund cleanups. "We should continue to support quality programs like brownfields, but be mindful that we have to do more with less," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

He questioned whether the EPA program should continue to receive its periodic funding increases.

Mr. Stanislaus of the EPA said that for every dollar of federal money given to a brownfield project, $17 more is generated by private and other public investment.

Seattle is an especially attractive place for brownfield redevelopment for a number of reasons, including that the land-poor Northwestern port city needs to reclaim abandoned properties to grow, said Mr. Williams, whose firm is also redeveloping brownfields in Denver and Parchment, Mich. He said the city also has recovered faster from the recession than many other U.S. cities.

South Lake Union became a nexus of brownfield activity after Mr. Allen in the 1990s began acquiring parcels in the former auto and boat industrial district, said Ada Healey, Vulcan's vice president of real estate.

"Paul Allen did see that South Lake Union did have a lot of strategic advantages, including that it was centrally located, had good access to major highways and had a wonderful lake as an amenity," Ms. Healey said.

The city ended up as a partner with Mr. Allen, launching a series of improvements for the area in 2004 that included upgrading the utilities and adding in a new streetcar line, said the city's Mr. Surratt. City officials say 13,647 jobs had been created in South Lake Union as of 2010.

Write to Jim Carlton at

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Que Sera, Shiraz?

This development may lead to the creation of a whole new cadre of climate change activists. (GW)

Vineyards count days to change in flavours

By Nicky Phillips
Sydney Morning Herald
July 25, 2011

SOME of Australia's favourite vineyards will be forced to move or produce wines that taste markedly different because of climate change, a viticulture expert said.

Rising temperatures have already affected many grape growers, with fruits ripening earlier each year.

But the impact of a warmer climate will have benefits, says Snow Barlow from the University of Melbourne, who will discuss the impacts of a warming planet on the wine industry at a public forum in Melbourne tonight.

''It could lead to exciting new styles of wine,'' Professor Barlow said.

To assess the changes in Australian wine regions over the last three decades, Professor Barlow's team looked at the vintage records collected by winemakers from more than 40 vineyards. They found that grapes ripen, on average, two days earlier each year.

In Coonawarra, South Australia, a region famed for its cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, farmers are harvesting their grapes 3½ days earlier, while in the Barossa Valley, grapes sprout 1½ days early, Professor Barlow said.

Changes experienced by the grape industry were a sign of things to come for the rest of agriculture, he said. ''We see [wine grapes] as a canary in the coalmine. Because [they are] so sensitive to climate, you'll see changes in the grape industry before you'll see changes in other industries.''

As well as early ripening, a warming climate will also affect the characteristics associated with specific wines.

The molecules that make the grassy flavours of New Zealand's Marlborough sauvignon blanc are not expressed as much in warmer climates, Professor Barlow said. Wine growers, whose produce is vulnerable to climate change, will have two choices, he said. ''You can either change the style of wine you make, or move.''

Brown Brothers, a Victorian family-owned wine company, has said climate change was one of the main reasons it bought land in Tasmania.

Advances in wine science meant producers were closer to identifying more molecules that give wines their unique characteristic, and the climate conditions which favour their development. ''That gives us much more information about where to go if we want to produce wines with those qualities,'' Professor Barlow said.

As wine grapes had little genetic diversity, it was unlikely they would have much capacity to adapt to changes in their environment. ''But there is such an enormous diversity of places to grow grapes that, if people want the styles of wines they have now, the industry will probably produce them, but from different regions.''

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fuel cells to the rescue?

Fuel cell technology has been around for a long time. At the beginning of the last decade a number of companies -- established and start-ups -- were "just a a couple of years away" from commercializing a unit that would be capable of meeting a household's baseline electricity needs while running quietly in the corner of one's basement. None of them materialized. However, Japan may prove the old adage that necessity really is the mother of invention. (GW)

Japanese firm perfects fuel cell for homes of the future


July 22, 2011

A Japanese company has perfected the technology that will store green energy in the homes of the immediate future and control where and when that power is provided to the building.

Other firms are working on similar storage and control systems for individual homes, but Japanese companies have redoubled their efforts in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast of the country in March and destroyed the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

Shorn of the energy produced at the facility, there is growing concern that major urban areas - primarily Tokyo - will experience blackouts when demand surpasses the amount that can be provided by other plants.

And with daytime temperatures that will rise above 30 degrees C as the summer begins to kick in, demand for power for air-conditioning units is already rising.

NEC Corporation has made a breakthrough with the launch of its household energy storage system, which is equipped with lithium-ion batteries and can simultaneously control electrical power throughout the home.

The first 100 units of this industry first will be made available to home construction companies and businesses from July 18, NEC said.

The system automatically controls power to the building by connecting to the distribution panel and enabling interactive coordination with the power supplied by a commercial energy company and the home's electrical devices, its solar power systems and other equipment.

"This interactivity enables the system to store power during nighttime hours, when power consumption is low, then to use the stored power during afternoon hours, when power consumption reaches its peak," NEC said.

"This reduces both the demand on power companies as well as household electricity charges.

"Recently, in consideration of the supply and demand conditions for electricity during summer in Japan, initiatives to shift the peak afternoon power consumption time and reduce the overall volume of power consumption are steadily advancing.

"Furthermore, households have become increasingly aware of the importance of access to electricity for essential needs in the event of an emergency or blackout, in addition to the necessity of power conservation," it said.

Panasonic Corp. is working on similar technology and operates a model home of the future in Tokyo where it showcases cutting-edge technology that will make homes in the future greener and more energy efficient.

The model home incorporates solar panels, pipes that carry hot water beneath the floor in the winter and cool water in the summer and reduced-energy lighting.

Until now, however, the largest obstacle to such systems being introduced on a large scale to homes has been the lack of a reliable storage system for the energy that is generated, a problem that NEC appears to have overcome.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A "champion of improbable plants" brings trees to the desert

Trees are like the lungs of the planet. (GW)

Botanist Brings Trees to the Israeli Desert

Deep in the driest and hottest part of Israel, a California-born botanist is trying to remake the Negev Desert with productive trees that thrive on abuse.

By Judith D. Schwartz
July 21, 2011

The desert sky was an odd brooding gray as we pulled into McDonald’s, the arches looming bright and preternaturally yellow out of the dusty landscape. By the time we’d finished our McKebab sandwiches — much better than you might expect — it was raining: a steady, drumming, respectable rain.

It almost never rains in Israel’s Arava Valley, the driest, hottest and southernmost part of Israel. I was about to meet a desert botanist, Elaine Solowey, so I was anxious to hear what she’d say. I assumed she’d be excited about the rain and wax rhapsodic about making the desert bloom and all that.

But no, she seemed annoyed. She pointed out that a light rain just moves the surface salts down to the plant roots and that you then have to use more water to get rid of it. “What I wish is for rain in the north where it can do some good.”

I spent the afternoon with Solowey at Kibbutz Ketura, where she’s lived since its founding in the early 1970s. Ketura is also now home to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where Solowey runs the Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Solowey, who was raised in California’s Central Valley — another hot locale but one with considerably more water sources and more fertile — has a no-nonsense manner that can come off as brusque. Fair enough: When you’ve spent your career working some of the world’s least forgiving soil, you’re unlikely to suffer fools — gladly or otherwise.

Solowey made news in 2005 when she accomplished what was thought to be botanically impossible: germinating a 2,000-year-old date seed that had been found during an excavation at Masada. She showed me earlier this year the spot where Methuselah, as the sapling is known, was to be planted in the ground — noting that it will be on a security system.

Solowey is a champion of improbable plants. Her “experimental orchard,” a nursery for mostly forgotten and endangered desert species, includes 1,000 varieties of trees, cacti and grains. The orchard is a small Eden in the wilderness, lush with exotic fruit species — sapodilla, yellow pitaya, Yemenite pomegranate — and other productive plants that thrive in arid, saline soil.

Nearby, next to the rows of date palms that represent one of the kibbutz’s sources of income, is the broad acacia tree that started it all. The tree was about to be taken down to make room for the dates, but Solowey protested — she saw that this was not just a tree but an entire ecosystem. Birds nested there, jackals slept in its branches, grasses flourished under its canopy.

Such observations launched her quest to understand desert plants and explore their ecological and economic potential — a potential she believes remains largely untapped.

“More than 15,000 edible, medicinal or useful products come from perennial plants that have not been domesticated,” she wrote in her 2003 book, Small Steps Towards Abundance: Crops for a More Sustainable Agriculture. Her research focuses on identifying and nurturing trees and other perennials that yield food for people and livestock, as well as serve other functions like building soil and stopping erosion. A particular interest is cultivating medicinal plants; she works closely with the Natural Medicine Research Unit at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on domesticating wild medicinal plants and preserving endangered species with medicinal properties. She pointed out a row of neem trees, members of the mahogany family, which, she said, have so many medical uses in India they’re called the “pharmacy of the village.”

“They also act as a windbreak for the arganias,” she said. “We have 300 of them, and I’m glad.”

Many orchard specimens have been forgotten to the point of extinction. “There are plants here in the south that are going extinct, and no one is noticing,” she said. “As for most of those, we don’t know the duties they perform, the animals that live in them. Why in the world should we let them die when with so little effort we can keep them alive?”

She has a grove of 150 marula trees from Africa, a prolific producer whose fruit is useful for liqueurs and animal fodder. Another current favorite is the Argania spinosa, from Morocco, known for nuts that make high-quality oil — and which, significantly, survives on very little water.

“We’re hoping to find people new crops to make a living on,” she said. “Until we get a handle on these trees, get a sense of the life cycle, we can’t do it.”

She says she’s always on the lookout for plants that are “salt tolerant, heat tolerant, dry tolerant and pretty tough. Changing the desert for our plants is expensive and not sustainable. We should only be growing things here that are biologically appropriate.” This includes domesticating plants with high-value crops, like dates: “Dates need seven months of no rain. If you’ve got lemons, make lemonade. What we have is 350 days of full sunlight.”

Her efforts span borders. For example, in a joint program with the Jordan University of Science and Technology, her program exchanges seeds of now-rare native plants for research and looks for salt-tolerant, water-saving plants that might do well in the region. One of her projects involving medicinal species involves Tibetan plants, and as a result she gave the Dalai Lama a tour of her orchard.

Given the range of benefits from trees, and, compared to annual crops, how much less energy, water and labor they require, Solowey believes people should devote more effort to long-lived plants, and especially in a place like Israel. This she learned after years on the kibbutz. “Because of the Mediterranean climate, it’s easier to grow fruits than vegetables here,” she said. “Two-thirds of Israel is desert or semi-desert. Very few vegetables like that climate.”

Because, in its early years, the kibbutz banked on crops like lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes that take lots of work in that environment, everyone had to pitch in, she recalled. “We had to do vegetable work after we came home from our other jobs. And what did we get? One-shekel-20 a kilo.”

She’s since decided annual crops were a mistake. “Ecologically, the more fragile the ecosystem, the more easy it is to mess it up. The soil dries, blows away more easily, gets compacted by tractors, and the minerals get washed away. If you abuse it, it turns into a parking lot.”

One inspiration of hers is the work of J. Russell Smith, an American geographer and economist who observed how conventional agriculture ravaged the landscape around the world, leaving gullies and hills of sand where there had been plants. In his classic 1929 book Tree Crops, he portrayed trees as the answer.

“When you replant [with trees], you slow or stop the wind, you stop the loss of topsoil and erosion from rain,” says Solowey. “The only way you can stop desertification is with plants, rows of trees. In 10 years, the neem tree makes you several inches of topsoil, and it forms a microclimate that holds moisture. Acacias are nitrogen-fixing trees, and can be used for land restoration. It drops its leaves before the rainy season [which turns into] litter so rich other plants grow around it. A wonderful thing, an acacia tree.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years"

Climate change, greed, war and political indifference (make that cowardice) are an incredibly deadly combination. (GW)

Somalia Famine Threatens to Spread

By Joe Lauria
Wall Street Journal
JULY 21, 2011

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered an urgent appeal to donors Wednesday for $300 million within two months to stop the world's worst famine, afflicting millions in Somalia, from spreading farther into the country's south.

"We need donor support to address current needs and prevent a further deterioration of the crisis," Mr. Ban told reporters in New York. "If funding is not made available for humanitarian interventions now, the famine is likely to continue and spread."

The U.N. said it has so far raised only half of the $1.6 billion needed for its regional relief efforts in eastern Africa.

Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, also officially announced that the country was experiencing a famine.


Two-year-old, Aden Salaad looked up toward his mother as she bathed him in a tub at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, on July 11.

Famine is declared when acute child malnutrition exceeds 30% of the population and more than two people of every 10,000 die each day from hunger.

The malnutrition rates in Somalia are the highest in the world, reaching 50% in some areas, Mr. Bowden said.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly children, have already died and 3.7 million people, nearly half of the Somali population, are affected, Mr. Bowden said.

The drought could spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within eight weeks, Mr. Bowden said.

Consecutive droughts over the past few years and the continuing conflict against the al-Shabaab Islamic militant group have caused the famine. The U.N.'s aid effort has been complicated by insurgents' refusal to allow assistance to enter southern areas that are under their control.

"Relentless terrorism by al-Shabaab against its own people has turned an already severe situation into a dire one," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement released from Washington.

The U.S. said Wednesday it would donate $28 million. The U.S. has already provided about $431 million in emergency assistance to the eastern Horn of Africa this year, but Mrs. Clinton said it "is not enough."

The relatively well-paid insurgents have been able to buy food in the south, where prices of staple foods have skyrocketed, Mr. Bowden said.

However, U.N. officials are hopeful that the militants will honor a pledge made last week to lift their ban on U.N. aid.

Over the weekend, the U.N. made its first airlifts of food aid to insurgent-held areas.

The entire Horn of Africa region is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years, affecting 11 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.

Exhausted, rail-thin women are stumbling into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia with dead babies and bleeding feet, having left weaker family members behind along the way.

"Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years," said Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top official in charge of humanitarian aid in Somalia. "This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives....It's likely that conditions will deteriorate further in six months."

The crisis is the worst since 1991-92, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death, Mr. Bowden said. That famine prompted intervention by an international peacekeeping force that eventually pulled out after two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993.

The United Nations declares famine in parts of southern Somalia, signalling to donors the need for more aid and to insurgents that the population's suffering is taken seriously. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Since then, Western nations have mainly sought to contain the threat of terrorism from Somalia—an anarchic nation where the weak government battles Islamic militants on land and pirates hijack ships at sea.

Aid group Oxfam said $1 billion is needed for famine relief. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced an additional $28 million in emergency funding atop $431 million in assistance already given this year.

Most importantly, those new U.S. funds won't be placed under restrictions implemented in 2009 to keep food and money from being stolen by Islamic militants.

Aid groups have called for the restrictions to be lifted entirely and said the rules have severely limited their operations. U.S. humanitarian contributions in Somalia fell from $237 million in 2008 to $29 million last year.

"We've seen a very large shortfall over the past few years given the political restrictions attached to humanitarian funding," said Tanja Schumer of the Somalia NGO Consortium, which represents 78 aid agencies working on Somalia. "To get American money, we have to vouch for all our contractors and all our local partners, and that is tricky."

Oxfam said there is a $800 million shortfall in funds needed through January.

Britain has pledged $145 million in the past two weeks, and the European Union pledged around $8 million, with more expected in coming days. Spain has promised about $10 million and Germany around $8.5 million, but Oxfam said France hasn't pledged additional money and Denmark and Italy have said no significant new sums are available.

Somalia is the most dangerous country in the world to work in, according to the U.N.'s World Food Program, which has lost 14 relief workers in the past few years. Kidnappings, killings and attacks on aid convoys occur frequently. Two years ago, the program pulled out of Islamist-controlled southern Somalia after rebels demanded cash payments and other concessions.

U.S. military operations against terrorism suspects also have disrupted humanitarian operations, Mr. Bowden said. Insurgents vowed to target foreign aid workers after a U.S. missile strike killed the head of the Islamist al-Shabab militia and 24 other people in 2008. Aden Hashi Ayro was reputedly al Qaeda's commander in Somalia and linked to a string of attacks on foreign aid workers and journalists.

Most of Somalia has been wracked by civil war since its government collapsed in 1990, and the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government regularly comes last in the world in the annual corruption rating by watchdog Transparency International. Islamist rebels currently hold most of southern Somalia.

But World Food Program head Josette Sheeran said the agency is willing to return to southern Somalia if insurgents guarantee safe passage and free access to aid. Two regions of Somalia—Bakool and Lower Shabelle—are suffering from famine and eight more are at risk.

"We are absolutely fully committed to going where the hungry are," she said.

The Horn of Africa is suffering a devastating drought compounded by war, neglect, poor land policies and spiraling prices. Some areas in the region haven't had such a low rainfall in 60 years, Oxfam said. Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti have all been badly affected, and Eritrea is also believed to be suffering, although its government does not release figures.

Yet only Somalia is technically suffering from famine, defined as when two adults or four children per 10,000 people die of hunger each day and a third of children are acutely malnourished.

In some areas of Somalia, six people are dying a day and more than half of children are acutely malnourished, Mr. Bowden said. Prices of staple foods have increased 270 percent over the last year, compounding the misery.

Somalia's civil war is partly to blame, said Joakim Gundel, who heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi-based company often asked to evaluate international aid efforts in Somalia.

He said aid groups found fund-raising easier if they blamed natural disaster rather than saiding the emergency was partly caused by a 20-year civil war worsened by international apathy.

"There is no clear-cut answer," he said. "People are suffering and there is a need to respond. But drought is not the only cause. Conflict is a key reason and it is not being addressed properly."

Write to Joe Lauria at

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"It's a wonderful day in Colorado City"

A great example of how renewable energy can make a huge difference in the lives of people in small communities. (GW)

Grant to enable new plant in Colorado City to treat nonpotable water

The plant will be empowered in part by wind turbines

By Jeff Craig
July 19, 2011

Parched Colorado City residents soon will have a new source of water, after receiving a $2.8 million grant from the Texas Department of Rural Affairs to construct a plant to treat nonpotable groundwater, powered in part by wind turbines.

The plant will be among the first in the nation to use wind energy to desalinate brackish groundwater. The new plant initially will provide 750,000 gallons of clean drinking water per day, with the potential to provide up to 1.5 million gallons daily in the future.

"It's a wonderful day in Colorado City," said City Manager Pete Kampfer. "This is a home run. We desperately needed another source to develop potable drinking water. This is a big step forward."

Technology to treat brackish groundwater has existed for some time, according to Howard G. Baldwin Jr., TDRA's interim executive director. However, electricity costs to power such plants have proved to be too expensive for many small towns, Baldwin said in a news release.

He said, however, that Colorado City's "good wind resources" can make desalination affordable.

"We have lots of wind energy, so the component of wind turbines makes it reasonable for operations and maintenance," Kampfer said.

Three on-site 500-kilowatt wind turbines, produced by General Dynamics, will provide 40 percent of the plant's power. Power from the turbines will be donated to Mitchell County for this project. General Dynamics and the National Institute for Renewable Energy in Lubbock received federal funding to develop and test new mid-size wind turbines.

Kampfer said Colorado City's need for water is approaching the critical stage. He said without a solution like the plant, the city could have been out of water in three to five years or under severe water rationing.

"This county has about one-third drinkable water in its underground table and that's a declining resource used by agriculture," Kampfer said. "The majority of the county has brackish water, and no matter how you drill it, it's not drinkable without treatment."

After the $2.8 million grant, the donated turbines and use of existing facilities, the project will cost the city about $3 million, Kampfer said.

Travis Brown, renewable energy program manager with the Texas Department of Rural Affairs, said the innovative project will provide a new way to get drinkable water in a dry and desperate community.

"If towns like Colorado City don't come up with solutions, they are going to dry up and blow away," Brown said. "To clean up that much water for a whole town is really expensive, when you talk about electricity costs. The idea is if you can use wind to power them, it can be a solution."

Brown said the Colorado City plant and a similar project in Seminole are the first in the United States to use wind energy to power plants to desalinate brackish water. Brown said using wind energy could be a saving grace in communities across West Texas.

"Colorado City is not alone. All these small cities out in West Texas are facing a depletion of water," Brown said. "But even though you are facing a shortage of good drinking water, there is a lot of brackish water out there."

The new plant could be completed in two or three years. Seven new wells are being drilled to pump brackish groundwater to the plant.

Kampfer said the plant is a major source of good news for a community that has had a tough year with fires and the continuing search for middle school student Hailey Dunn, who was reported missing by her mother on Dec. 28.

"We've had drought, fires and a missing person. This is definitely good news," Kampfer said.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Keep on truckin'

The comprehensive design science approach to problem solving must take into consideration and anticipate the socioeconomic as well as the environmental impacts of its proposed solutions. Urban food trucks are a case in point.

Just for a point of reference: urban farmers' markets encountered similar concerns and resistance when they were first being established in Boston. Solutions were found and now the network of markets has blossomed throughout the city. (GW)

Should Cities Drive Food Trucks Off the Streets?

By Kim Severson
New York Times
July 16, 2011


URBAN food trends, as delicious as they are, can have a dark side.

Backyard chickens offer fresh eggs and give the citybound a way to touch the country. But with them can come all manner of tricky diseases and noisy roosters.

An edible schoolyard is a terrific idea, until budget cuts and waning volunteer interest turn the plot into a tangle of weeds, forcing someone to explain to second graders why their beloved tomato plants died.

Now comes the modern food truck, where innovative cooks on a budget drive their kitchens around searching for what appears to be an endless supply of diners with Twitter accounts willing to line up for Korean tacos and salted caramel cupcakes.

What could be wrong with that? For some, plenty. From Los Angeles to New York, and Portland, Ore., to Atlanta, cities are wrestling with a trend now writ large on their streets, trying to balance the cultural good that comes with a restaurant on wheels against all the bad.

Yes, the trucks offer entrepreneurs a way to get started in the restaurant business. Yes, they add jobs and money to a city. The food is often innovative, relatively inexpensive and convenient. For those willing to stand in line and eat from a paper plate, there is usually a warm personal exchange when the meal is passed from chef to diner.

But many restaurateurs are sick of seeing competition literally drive up outside their windows.

“It’s ignorant of people in the community to think that buying from food trucks instead of from local restaurants doesn’t hurt the community,” said Melissa Murphy , who runs two Sweet Melissa Patisseries in Brooklyn. “There’s just not enough to go around right now.”

Trucks present other problems. Streets clog. Parking disappears. The crowds and the diesel fumes that swirl around all those idling buses of gastronomy annoy the neighbors.

But civic leaders can’t ignore the trend, which is not going the way of raspberry vinegar. Like drive-throughs, which were the subject of many a city council meeting when national fast-food chains embraced them in the 1970s, food trucks are changing the way America eats.

“The growth of the mobile restaurant unit is a long-term trend,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association. “If you think about growth in the restaurant industry over the past decade, it’s basically a question of points of access.”

It is the rare restaurant chain that isn’t looking into the marketing potential of a truck. Taco Bell and Jack in the Box have them. Tasti D-Lite plans to roll out almost a dozen by next year. Even the Hilton hotel chain is in on the game, promoting its DoubleTree brand by sending a truck filled with free cookies around the country this summer.

So what’s a city leader to do? Legislate.

In New York, truck owners now face a ticket or a tow if they sell food from metered spaces. The Seattle City Council on Monday is expected to decide whether to unleash food trucks onto its streets with tight regulations on where they can park.

In Chicago, which appears on the verge of allowing something more than prepackaged food to be sold from mobile units, competition is the biggest issue. Although Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the trucks during his recent campaign, the alderman who heads the committee that will consider the proposal said it won’t pass without restrictions that would keep food trucks at least 200 feet away from restaurants.

In Raleigh, N.C., the planning commission approved new rules last week that would create similar restrictions, as well as prevent trucks from using amplified sound or dominating certain parking spaces.

Food vendors, surprised to find themselves civic parasites, are fighting back, pointing out that food trucks are a valuable urban amenity.

“Food trucks activate public space,” said David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association.

The value of food trucks as modern-day town squares — or at least hipper food courts — is not lost on city officials, many of whom are trying to lure them into other, perhaps less busy, areas.

In New York, officials are trying to entice food trucks onto park grounds, an option Doug Quint of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck turned down.

“It sounded kind of boring to us to be in a park,” said Mr. Quint, who works the streets around Union Square and, with his partner, Bryan Petroff, will soon open a traditional store.

For people gathered at a small collection of food trucks here in Atlanta last week, the downside was hard to see. Of course, this city, which requires trucks to be on private property, has yet to come close to the scrum that hits neighborhoods in New York or Los Angeles.

Still, the trucks add a sense of belonging to a city where people spend much of their time isolated in cars.

“It fosters a sense of community,” said Dr. Adam Klein, who was sharing arepas with some of his fellow doctors from Emory University Hospital. “Atlanta is a very private city in many ways, and this is a way to get out and see people you might not otherwise see.”

Kim Severson is the Atlanta bureau chief of The New York Times.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The slow and inexorable squeeze

Again...there is no way that we will be able to predict/adapt to Nature's response to our irresponsible management of our affairs and the planet's ecosystem integrity. The only thing I feel with certainty is that She will set things right and continue to maintain the conditions necessary for life to prevail without preference for any particular species.

Humans included. (GW)

Drought: A Creeping Disaster

By Alex Prud'Homme
New York Times | Opinion
July 16, 2011

FLOODS, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other extreme weather have left a trail of destruction during the first half of 2011. But this could be just the start to a remarkable year of bad weather. Next up: drought. In the South, 14 states are now baking in blast-furnace conditions — from Arizona, which is battling the largest wildfire in its history, to Florida, where fires have burned some 200,000 acres so far. Worse, drought, unlike earthquakes, hurricanes and other rapid-moving weather, could become a permanent condition in some regions.

Climatologists call drought a “creeping disaster” because its effects are not felt at once. Others compare drought to a python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death.

The great aridification of 2011 began last fall; now temperatures in many states have spiked to more than 100 degrees for days at a stretch. A high pressure system has stalled over the middle of the country, blocking cool air from the north. Texas and New Mexico are drier than in any year on record.

The deadly heat led to 138 deaths last year, more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods, and it turns brush to tinder that is vulnerable to lightning strikes and human carelessness. Already this year, some 40,000 wildfires have torched over 5.8 million acres nationwide — and the deep heat of August is likely to make conditions worse before they get better.

Climatologists disagree about what caused this remarkable dry-out. But there is little disagreement about the severity of the drought — or its long-term implications. When I asked Richard Seagar, who analyzed historical records and climate model projections for the Southwest for the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, if a perpetual drought was possible there, he replied: “You can’t really call it a drought because that implies a temporary change. The models show a progressive aridification. You don’t say, ‘The Sahara is in drought.’ It’s a desert. If the models are right, then the Southwest will face a permanent drying out.”

Growing population has increased the burden on our water supply. There are more people on earth than ever, and in many places we are using water at unsustainable rates. Cultural shifts contribute to subtle, far-reaching effects on water supplies. In 2008, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in rural communities worldwide, and water is becoming urbanized. Yet some of the world’s biggest cities — Melbourne, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; and Mexico City — have already suffered drought emergencies. Further drying could lead to new kinds of disasters. Consider Perth, Australia: its population has surpassed 1.7 million while precipitation has decreased. City planners worry that unless drastic action is taken, Perth could become the world’s first “ghost city” — a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.

Similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles.

Our traditional response to desiccation has been to build hydro-infrastructure — dams, pipelines, aqueducts, levees. Many advocate building even bigger dams and ambitious plumbing projects including one that calls for “flipping the Mississippi,” a scheme to capture Mississippi floodwater and pipe it to the parched West. But it is now widely believed that large water diversion projects are expensive, inefficient and environmentally destructive.

The Holy Grail of water managers is to find a drought-proof water source. Weather modification (“weather mod”), or cloud seeding, is a particularly appealing ideal. When American chemists discovered that dry ice dropped into clouds produced snow, and that clouds seeded with silver iodide produced rain, they rhapsodized about ending drought. Under perfect conditions, weather mod can increase precipitation by 10 to 15 percent. Ski areas, including Vail, Colo., hire companies to seed snow-producing clouds. And China claims that it produced 36 billion metric tons of rain a year between 1999 and 2006.

But critics, including the National Research Council, question weather mod and its efficacy. Bottom line: though evidence suggests weather mod works to a limited extent, it is unlikely to produce a major supply of water soon.

The ocean is a more promising water source. For centuries people have dreamed of converting saltwater into a limitless supply of fresh water. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy said that “if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from saltwater” it would “dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.” By 2008 over 13,000 desalination plants around the world produced billions of gallons of water a day. But “desal,” which is costly and environmentally controversial, has been slow to catch on the United States.

Recycled sewage offers an interesting, if aesthetically questionable, drinking source. (Supporters call recycled sewage “showers to flowers”; detractors condemn “toilet to tap” schemes.) Plans for sewage recycling, which involves extracting and purifying the water, are slowly gaining acceptance. Windhoek, Namibia — one of the driest places on earth — relies solely on treated wastewater for its drinking supply. In El Paso 40 percent of the tap water is recycled sewage. Fairfax, Va., gets 5 percent of its tap water from recycling effluent. But the “yuck factor” has led to a sharp debate about its merits.

MEANWHILE, global demand for water is expected to increase by two-thirds by 2025, and the United Nations fears a “looming water crisis.” To forestall a drought emergency, we must redefine how we think of water, value it, and use it.

Singapore provides a noteworthy model: no country uses water more sparingly. In the 1950s, it faced water rationing, but it began to build a world-class water system in the 1960s. Now 40 percent of its water comes from Malaysia, while a remarkable 25 to 30 percent is provided by desalination and the recycling of wastewater; the rest is drawn from sources that include large-scale rainwater collection. Demand is curbed by high water taxes and efficient technologies, and Singaporeans are constantly exhorted to conserve every drop. Most important, the nation’s water is managed by a sophisticated, well-financed, politically autonomous water authority. As a result, Singapore’s per-capita water use fell to 154 liters, about 41 gallons, a day in 2011, from 165 liters, about 44 gallons, in 2003.

America is a much larger and more complex nation. But Singapore’s example suggests we could do a far better job of educating our citizens about conservation. And we could take other basic steps: install smart meters to find out how much water we use, and identify leaks (which drain off more than 1 trillion gallons a year); use tiered water pricing to encourage efficiency; promote rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling on a large scale. And like Singapore, we could streamline our Byzantine water governance system and create a new federal water office — a water czar or an interagency national water board — to manage the nation’s supply in a holistic way.

No question this will be an expensive, politically cumbersome effort. But as reports from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida make plain, business as usual is not a real option. The python of drought is already wrapped tightly around us, and in weeks — and years — to come it will squeeze us dangerously dry.

Alex Prud'Homme is the author of “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century.”