Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The virtual map is not the territory

Back in 1967 Benoit Mandelbrot "The Father of Fractals" published a paper entitled "How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension" in which he argued that the measured length of a stretch of coastline depends on the scale of measurement.

Ccomputers, maps and the physical world (reality?) have been in an interesting dance ever since. (GW)

The First Google Maps War

By Frank Jacobs
New York Times
February 29, 2012

Borderlines explores the global map, one line at a time.

Did Google Maps almost cause a war in 2010? On Nov. 3 of that year, Edén Pastora, the Nicaraguan official tasked with dredging the Rio San Juan, justified his country’s incursion into neighboring Costa Rica’s territory by claiming that, contrary to the customary borderline, he wasn’t trespassing at all. For proof, he said, just look at Google Maps [1].

The digital atlas had indeed placed the eastern end of the border between the countries to the south of the generally accepted line, providing Nicaragua with a territorial gain of a few square miles. Costa Rica protested, to both Nicaragua and Google Maps. The latter relented: acceding to the demand of Carlos Roversi, Costa Rica’s deputy foreign minister, it adjusted the online border [2]. But the former persisted, maintaining 50 soldiers on the Isla Portillos [3], along the southern bank of the San Juan’s main channel. The Costa Ricans retaliated by dispatching about 70 police officers [4] into the area.

News headlines flashed around the world, announcing the arrival of a new type of border conflict: the Google Maps War.

Over the past decade, Google Earth and Google Maps have become the online cartographic resources of reference. But popularity does not bestow authority. The lines that Google draws on maps have no government’s imprimatur. Yet by virtue of its ubiquity, Google is often the arbiter of first recourse for borders and toponyms [5]. So where Google’s maps show borders or place names that deviate from official usage or stray into international disputes, they may cause confusion, offense or worse.

Imperfectly rendered borders on Google Maps have caused embarrassment elsewhere, for example on the Dutch-German border [6]. Hence Google’s mission statement, “to represent the ‘ground truth’ as accurately and neutrally” as it can, allowing users to come to their own geopolitical conclusions. “That can mean providing multiple claim lines (e.g. the Syrian and Israeli lines in the Golan Heights), multiple names (e.g. two names separated by a slash: ‘Londonderry/Derry’), or clickable political annotations with short descriptions of the issues” [7].

Yet no matter how seriously Google takes this task, the job of border demarcation is a lot murkier and more ambivalent than those neat lines on the map suggest. Take that First Google Maps War, for instance. Few commentators at the time took the effort to note that in his interview with the Costa Rican paper La Nacion, Mr. Pastora — a.k.a. Commander Zero [8] — referred not only to Google, but to the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858, the border arbitration by President Grover Cleveland in 1888 and the subsequent clarification thereof by E.P. Alexander in 1897 [9].

In other words, the border dispute between Nicas and Ticos [10] was not merely the result of a simple Google glitch [11]. Rather, and this is the dangerous part of the whole enterprise, Google Maps’ imprecision reignited a long-standing border dispute that, with a few miscalculations, could have led to a real war.

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

The Google Maps affair is only the latest expression of an old fraternal fracas between two parts of what was, for about 20 years in the 19th century, the unified Province of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. After independence from Spain was thrust upon the region in 1821, both Nicaragua and Costa Rica were part of the Federal Republic of Central America [12]. Back then, Nicaragua was much larger than it is today, stretching north into Honduras and south to the Nicoya peninsula in the west and the Matino River in the east.

In 1824, civil war in Nicaragua and the increasing local influence of Costa Rican coffee planters combined to convince the residents of the border towns of Nicoya and Santa Cruz to vote for secession from Nicaragua and annexation by Costa Rica. They were joined two years later by the inhabitants of Guacanaste (now the Costa Rican city of Liberia). All in all, Nicaragua lost about 11,000 square miles [13] to Costa Rica before gaining its full independence in 1841.

In the following decades, no less than seven treaties were drawn up to resolve the resultant border tensions — but none were ratified by both countries. Only in 1858 did the Nicaraguans, represented by Máximo Jerez, and the Costa Ricans, represented by José María Cañas, reach agreement on the border, along present-day lines: skirting the southern edge of Lake Nicaragua, then the San Juan for the last third of the stretch — following it north from where it forks from the Rio Colorado [14].

The backdrop of that treaty was the enticing prospect of a canal connecting the Atlantic to Pacific across Nicaragua — a fata morgana shimmering just beyond the reach of the local dignitaries ever since Hernando Cortes wrote to Spain’s King Charles V in 1524: “He who controls the passage between both oceans may consider himself the master of the world.” The Nicaragua Canal would benefit from the connection between Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan, draining into the Caribbean. Ships would have sailed up 110 miles of river, crossed 65 miles of lake and then would only need to pass through a 12-mile canal piercing the narrow Rivas isthmus between the lake and the ocean.

Even without that canal, the river-plus-lake route proved alluring enough for the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established the Accessory Transit Company to transport countless hopefuls to California’s gold fields along this way in the 1850s, using a stagecoach to cross the isthmus.

But political instability got the better of the company, and by extension of the Nicaragua Canal. Symptomatic was the filibuster [15] William Walker’s takeover of Nicaragua — and of the Accessory Transit Company — in 1855. Even though Walker was chased off by Costa Rican firepower (bankrolled by Vanderbilt), the company’s route would never run again.

Despite the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty, tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua on its validity eventually led to arbitration by President Cleveland, who in 1888 re-legitimized and clarified the treaty: the border between both countries is to run from the mouth of the San Juan at San Juan del Norte to a point three miles downstream from the so-called Castillo Viejo. Although the border is on the right bank of the river, Costa Rica has the right to navigate it for commercial purposes. The border follows the main canal of the river, here called San Juan de Nicaragua, which meanders to form a huge Costa Rican bulge into Nicaraguan territory; the barrier islands to the northwest of the Punta Castilla and the Laguna Los Portillos (also called Harbor Head) to its south are Nicaraguan.

Related More From Borderlines

Read previous contributions to this series.

That is how E.P. Alexander clarified the matter a decade later, and his sketch corresponds exactly to the internationally accepted “Nica-Tico” border. But that map masks muddier waters: it is a compromise between the border claims of both sides [16]. Nothing is as contestable as proclaiming the shifting delta of a slow-moving river to be an international border.

That’s why, a few years ago, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, accused Costa Rica of surreptitiously stealing Nicaraguan land as the river moved steadily north, justifying Mr. Pastora’s dredging a silted-up waterway as “restoring” the original channel, and the original border.

That border corresponds remarkably closely to the one erroneously indicated by Google. That’s good enough for some. Consider this statement by Nicaragua’s embassy in London [17], made prior to Google’s auto-correction: “The Government of Nicaragua has formally requested to Google not to accept the petition of Costa Rica to modify the border demarcation presented on Google Maps service.” The path, it said, “presented by Google corresponds to the various treaties that define the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border.”

Google Maps and Costa Rica may protest all they want: the mere fact that it once existed means that the faulty border will live on, at least on Nicaraguan maps. With the matter unresolved, and the status of the military buildup in the region unclear, that leaves open the very real possibility of a Second Google Maps War.

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.

[1] “Vea la foto satelital de Google y ahí se ve la frontera,” Mr. Pastora is quoted in an interview with the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion: “See Google’s satellite photo, and there you see the border.”

[2] The (re-)adjustment reflected the border as recognized until then by both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. But the maps on the Web site of the official Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales now reflect the “Google Maps border.”

[3] And not, as is generally (but mistakenly) reported, the much larger Isla Caleros, directly to the south.

[4] Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949 — a clever way to prevent military coups. A small police force, the Fuerza Pública (“Public Force”), is tasked with law enforcement, counter-narcotics and border patrols.

[5] Some Korean readers of the previous post in this series objected to the use of the term “Sea of Japan,” preferring “East Sea.” Google Earth uses both terms — and also uses both “Persian Gulf” and “Arabian Gulf.”

[6] See Strange Maps No. 504: Bordering on the Bizarre: Google Maps Fail in Dollart Bay.

[7] For more on Google’s quality control for the borders in Google Earth and Google Maps, read this statement by Charlie Hales, Geo Policy Analyst at Google, on the Lat Long Blog.

[8] A nickname acquired when Mr. Pastora and other Sandinista rebels stormed Managua’s Palacio Nacional in August 1978, a spectacular success for the insurgency against then-dictator Anastasio Somoza. Mr. Pastora later turned against the FSLN, Daniel Ortega’s mainstream Sandinistas, becoming an idiosyncratic Contra. In civilian life, he started a shark fishing business in San Juan del Norte, just north of the disputed border with Costa Rica. In 2008, he reconciled with Mr. Ortega and accepted a post in his government. He is now wanted in Costa Rica for ecological destruction (caused by the dredging that occurred during the Nicaraguan invasion).

[9] Before he was a surveyor sent out by president Cleveland, Edward Porter Alexander (1835-1910) was a Confederate officer in the Civil War. He was famous for commanding the artillery bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg and for pioneering the use of signal flags in combat.

[10] The respective nicknames for Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans.

[11] That glitch itself is based on the source of Google’s data for this particular stretch of border: the United States State Department. Which is weird. The United States itself, via the Cleveland Arbitration and the Alexander Clarification, affirmed the correct border. Why would the State Department provide false data that fits perfectly with Nicaraguan irredentism? Cui bono?

[12] The Federal Republic of Central America (1821-1841) was never more than a loose federation of five (later six) states: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Los Altos (eventually integrated into Guatemala), but its flag, based on the Argentine blue-white-blue triband, still forms the motif for the national flags of all former members.

[13] Conveniently equal to that conventional unit of size — Belgium.

[14] The area between the Colorado and San Juan rivers and the Caribbean Sea is the so-called Isla Calero, at almost 60 sq. mi Costa Rica’s largest.

[15] A term these days reserved for a parliamentary stalling tactic (“No Senator, I will not yield!” said Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), but once applied to fomenters of revolution in foreign countries.

[16] As shown on Alexander’s sketch, attached to the award he drew up in 1897.

[17] To the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Europe blog.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Across Atlantic Ice

History is still in the making. Goes to show how little we really know about our origins. (GW)

New evidence suggests Stone Age hunters from Europe discovered America

By David Keys
The Independent
February 28, 2012

New archaeological evidence suggests that America was first discovered by Stone Age people from Europe – 10,000 years before the Siberian-originating ancestors of the American Indians set foot in the New World.

A remarkable series of several dozen European-style stone tools, dating back between 19,000 and 26,000 years, have been discovered at six locations along the US east coast. Three of the sites are on the Delmarva Peninsular in Maryland, discovered by archaeologist Dr Darrin Lowery of the University of Delaware. One is in Pennsylvania and another in Virginia. A sixth was discovered by scallop-dredging fishermen on the seabed 60 miles from the Virginian coast on what, in prehistoric times, would have been dry land.

The new discoveries are among the most important archaeological breakthroughs for several decades - and are set to add substantially to our understanding of humanity's spread around the globe.

The similarity between other later east coast US and European Stone Age stone tool technologies has been noted before. But all the US European-style tools, unearthed before the discovery or dating of the recently found or dated US east coast sites, were from around 15,000 years ago - long after Stone Age Europeans (the Solutrean cultures of France and Iberia) had ceased making such artefacts. Most archaeologists had therefore rejected any possibility of a connection. But the newly-discovered and recently-dated early Maryland and other US east coast Stone Age tools are from between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago - and are therefore contemporary with the virtually identical western European material.

What’s more, chemical analysis carried out last year on a European-style stone knife found in Virginia back in 1971 revealed that it was made of French-originating flint.

Professor Dennis Stanford, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and Professor Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter, the two leading archaeologists who have analysed all the evidence, are proposing that Stone Age people from Western Europe migrated to North America at the height of the Ice Age by travelling (over the ice surface and/or by boat) along the edge of the frozen northern part of the Atlantic. They are presenting their detailed evidence in a new book - Across Atlantic Ice – published this month.

At the peak of the Ice Age, around three million square miles of the North Atlantic was covered in thick ice for all or part of the year.

However, the seasonally shifting zone where the ice ended and the open ocean began would have been extremely rich in food resources – migrating seals, sea birds, fish and the now-extinct northern hemisphere penguin-like species, the great auk.

Stanford and Bradley have long argued that Stone Age humans were quite capable of making the 1500 mile journey across the Atlantic ice - but till now there was comparatively little evidence to support their thinking.

But the new Maryland, Virginia and other US east coast material, and the chemical tests on the Virginian flint knife, have begun to transform the situation. Now archaeologists are starting to investigate half a dozen new sites in Tennessee, Maryland and even Texas – and these locations are expected to produce more evidence.

Another key argument for Stanford and Bradley’s proposal is the complete absence of any human activity in north-east Siberia and Alaska prior to around 15,500 years ago. If the Maryland and other east coast people of 26,000 to 19,000 years ago had come from Asia, not Europe, early material, dating from before 19,000 years ago, should have turned up in those two northern areas, but none have been found.

Although Solutrean Europeans may well have been the first Americans, they had a major disadvantage compared to the Asian-originating Indians who entered the New World via the Bering Straits or along the Aleutian Islands chain after 15,500 years ago.

Whereas the Solutreans had only had a 4500 year long ‘Ice Age’ window to carry out their migratory activity, the Asian-originating Indians had some 15,000 years to do it. What’s more, the latter two-thirds of that 15 millennia long period was climatologically much more favourable and substantially larger numbers of Asians were therefore able to migrate.

As a result of these factors the Solutrean (European originating) Native Americans were either partly absorbed by the newcomers or were substantially obliterated by them either physically or through competition for resources.

Some genetic markers for Stone Age western Europeans simply don’t exist in north- east Asia – but they do in tiny quantities among some north American Indian groups. Scientific tests on ancient DNA extracted from 8000 year old skeletons from Florida have revealed a high level of a key probable European-originating genetic marker. There are also a tiny number of isolated Native American groups whose languages appear not to be related in any way to Asian-originating American Indian peoples.

But the greatest amount of evidence is likely to come from under the ocean – for most of the areas where the Solutreans would have stepped off the Ice onto dry land are now up to 100 miles out to sea.

The one underwater site that has been identified - thanks to the scallop dredgers – is set to be examined in greater detail this summer – either by extreme-depth divers or by remotely operated mini submarines equipped with cameras and grab arms.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Trump's anti-wind stump

So Donald Trump has wants to "preserve nature". It would be much closer to the truth to say that he's "green". The color and smell of money are his only motivation. He is clearly a buffoon and his opinions with regard to Scotland's offshore wind turbine project wouldn't gain much attention were it not for the fact that he's got £10m to fill anti-wind farm activists' war chests. (GW)

U.S. billionaire Donald Trump funds £10m anti-wind farm war chest to 'preserve nature' (but no mention of the protected sand dunes he built on)

By Damien Gayle
Daily Mail
February 26, 2012

Donald Trump, the American property tycoon, is bankrolling a £10million fighting fund for British anti-windfarm campaigners.

The move follows proposals for 11 giant turbines off the Aberdeenshire coast, which Mr Trump says will spoil the view from his golfing resort on the Balmedie estate, near Menie.

The billionaire believes the structures, each as high as a 64-storey building, will besmirch the unspoilt landscape surrounding the £750million, 1,200 acre complex.

But with the resort being built over a site of special scientific interest, Mr Trump's sudden lust for preserving the environment may open him to accusations of hypocrisy.

Locals campaigned in vain to save the sand dunes - home to numerous species of wading birds and wildlife - but they were finally bulldozed to make way for the fairways.

George Sorial, vice-president of the Trump Organisation, told the Sunday Times hundreds of groups fighting plans for windfarms had approached them already.

Mr Sorial said the money would not just go to groups focusing on Scotland, but would help fight plans for windfarms across the country.

Meanwhile, construction on Trump International Golf Links resort has been halted, and the tycoon has threatened to sue Scottish ministers if the turbines get the go-ahead.

However, some of Mr Trump's critics have pointed out that when work was suspended last summer, he blamed the global downturn rather than the wind energy proposals.

Mr Trump earlier this month wrote an open letter to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond calling the wind plan 'disastrous and environmentally irresponsible.'

In a blistering attack on his policies on renewable energy, Trump accused Mr Salmond of being 'hell bent on destroying Scotland's coast line and therefore Scotland itself'.

The ill-tempered letter added: 'With the reckless installation of these monsters, you will single-handedly have done more damage to Scotland than any event in Scottish history!'

The bitter words were a far cry from the love-in the two men enjoyed four years ago when Mr Salmond boosted the resort plan by overruling local councillors who rejected it because of its environmental impact.

Other wind farm projects that have attracted Mr Trump's ire include proposals for up to 150 turbines overlooking Loch Ness.

Mr Sorial told the Sunday Times: 'If you stop 90 per cent of the people in the street in New York they would associate Scotland with Loch Ness.

'It is an iconic part of Scotland.'

Renewable campaigners were furious at Mr Trump's planned contributions to the anti-windfarm campaign, saying that the intervention risked damaging Britain's ability to become a world leader and exploit its 'world class' wind resource.

Gordon Edge, director of policy at RenewableUK, told the Sunday Times: 'It's astonishing that an American multi-billionaire feels he's entitled to circumvent the democratically decided policy of the Scottish and UK governments by supporting a shrill anti-wind minority, just because he might have to see a few wind turbines from his golf course.'

Britain currently has about 3,000 onshore wind turbines and several hundred offshore.

A further 6,000 to 10,000 turbines are needed onshore and up to 25,000 around the coasts if greenhouse gas emission cuts targets are to be met, the energy and climate change department estimates.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A "multi-decade history of organisational malfunction and short-sightedness"

I think it would be fair to say that BP and the U.S. federal justice system will both be on trial starting on Monday. (GW)

Deepwater Horizon victims ready for epic court battle with BP

Trial to establish cause and fault for the worst oil spill in US history is set to begin in New Orleans federal court on Monday

By Suzanne Goldenberg

24 February 2012 15.37 EST

After thousands of hours of legal deliberations, the accumulation of 72m pages of documents and the recorded testimony of 303 witnesses, it will fall to an engineering expert who blamed the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster on a "multi-decade history of organisational malfunction and short-sightedness" to frame the case against BP.

The civil trial, which opens before Judge Carl Barbier in a federal court in New Orleans on Monday, is expected to be epic by any definition, unmatched in scale or legal complexity.

But there will be a crucial role for Robert Bea, a professor from the University of California at Berkeley who has spent half a century investigating industrial accidents, to establish the case against BP.

Lawyers familiar with the case said Bea would be called as first witness, after opening statements. Documents filed with the court had initially indicated the first witnesses would be BP executives, and the oil company sought to restrict Bea's testimony in motions filed last month, a common manoeuvre.

Now it emerges Bea will be the first on the stand to establish the causes – and fault – for the worst oil spill in America's history.

His testimony will sound familiar to BP and its partners on the Macondo well. As a consult to the White House commission investigating the 20 April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Bea produced four reports faulting BP and its partners on the doomed well for having a cavalier attitude towards safety. The reports also said the 20 April 2010 disaster was preventable.

With Bea's testimony, lawyers for some 130,000 plaintiffs hope to make the case that BP and its partners were grossly negligent in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon.

Eleven men were killed outright, and by the time crew regained control of the well, 87 days later, 4.1m barrels of oil had spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Enterprises from shrimp boats to time-share condos were facing ruin. Clean-up crews reported mysterious coughs and rashes. The full extent of damage to the Gulf ecosystem, to the tuna, dolphins and oysters encountered hydrocarbons, and to the fragile wetlands where some of the oil washed up remains unclear.

The trial getting underway in a New Orleans courtroom on Monday morning could cost BP and its partners in the doomed well up to $40bn in damages and penalties. BP has already paid out nearly $7bn to thousands of spill victims. It has also settled with families of most of the 11 men who were killed on the rig.

There are a staggering array of actors: nearly 130,000 individuals who suffered losses in the spill, the federal government, and the governments of Louisiana and Alabama against BP and five other companies.

There are 340 lawyers from 90 different firms working on the plaintiffs' side alone.

Then there are the disputes between the companies. BP, which owned the well; Transocean, which owned the rig; and Halliburton, which cemented the well, are all fighting with one another over how to apportion blame.

And there is the action behind the scenes. As the court date approaches, there has been intense speculation BP would reach a deal with the justice department. BP could face penalties of about $17bn under the Clean Water Act, if it is found guilty of gross negligence.

The speculation increased after the federal government reached a deal with Moex Offshore LLC. The company, which had a 10% share in the BP well, agreed to pay $90m for penalties and clean-up costs.

BP might also want to avoid reliving the oil disaster through coverage of the trial. The oil company has been ramping up its television advertisements in the Gulf over the last few months.

But Ed Sherman, a law professor at Tulane University who has been following the case, said he thought it unlikely BP would reach a deal with all parties, and that he was confident the trial would start as scheduled. "I would be surprised if they do get a global settlement in time," he said.

"BP has not been willing to settle I guess because the price is too high. They would hope in the first weeks or maybe months of the hearing that the evidence would swing in their favour so that they can get a better deal on settling. Or if it goes to Judge Barbier that Judge Barbier will be more lenient with them."

Barbier has allotted nearly seven hours just to hear opening arguments, all on the opening day of trial. He has structured the trial as three distinct phases, and would like to wrap everything up by autumn.

After Bea's appearance, the next witnesses are expected to be Lamar McKay, the chairman and president of BP America, and Mark Bly, BP's executive vice-president for safety, according to court documents.

The first phase, which is expected to last through May, can be distilled into a couple of questions: what caused the blow-out, and who is to blame? Was there gross negligence?

The trial will then examine the efforts to cap the well. How much oil was released into the Gulf, and why did it take so long to stop it? Who is responsible? Was there gross negligence?

Finally, the trial will look at the environmental impacts: where did the oil end up, and what damage did it cause?

Some of the key figures in the tragedy will not appear in court after BP and others filed a series of motions to limit or entirely block testimony. The testimony to Congress by former BP chief executive Tony Hayward will be excluded from the trial.

Transocean's chief executive, Steven Newman, will also not be appearing.

Another key potential witness, Donald Vidrine, who was the BP site leader on the Deepwater Horizon, has refused to testify on medical grounds.

The results of government investigations into the fatal explosion at BP's Texas City refinery in 2005 have also been excluded as having the findings of the commission appointed by Barack Obama to study the oil spill.

But after half a dozen investigations into the oil disaster, the trial could still produce new information.

That could play a key role in determining America's future energy policy, in the Gulf as well as the Arctic – as well as BP's future. "It's in the public interest to have the trial go on and to get all the facts out," said David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The oil spill commission did not have subpoena power. I expect to see a lot more data to come out in trial than we have ever seen before."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"the sun; it belongs to all of us"

Cuba continues to mystify. In 2006 the World Wildlife Fund recognized Cuba as the world's only country practicing sustainable development. Cuba has been a pioneer in sustainable rural and urban agriculture for decades. Now there appears to be renewed interest in charting a clean energy path for the country. (GW)

Cuba on the Road to Clean Energy Development

By Patricia Grogg
IPS News
February 25, 2012

HAVANA, Feb 7 (IPS) - More than a decade ago, solar electricity changed the lives of several mountain communities in Cuba. Now this and other renewable power sources are emerging as the best options available to develop sustainable energy across the island.

"If the world's clean energy potential exceeds our consumption needs, why do we insist on using the polluting kind?" asked Luis Bérriz, head of the Cuban Society for the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Respect for the Environment (CUBASOLAR), a non- governmental organisation that promotes the use of alternative and environmentally-friendly power sources.

According to his calculations, the amount of solar radiation Cuba receives is equivalent to 50 million tonnes of oil a day.

"If we covered the 1,000-kilometre-long national highway with solar panels we would generate all the power currently used, without using fossil fuels or occupying a single square metre of agricultural land," Bérriz said to IPS in an interview.

Moreover, "nobody can block the sun; it belongs to all of us," he added.

Bérriz is a researcher and long-time advocate of renewable power sources who prefers to talk about "reversing" climate change - which he says is caused by "the destructive actions of today's societies" - instead of "adapting" to it.

In his opinion, adapting to what others destroy sounds more like "conformism". Industrialised countries are responsible for 75 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which cause global warming. The leading GHG is carbon dioxide (CO2).

For Bérriz, the best course of action is to move from oil to clean energy sources, which exceed power needs. The way to do this is to develop the knowledge, technology and industry necessary to tap into the various renewable energy sources most available in each area, he says.

Key components of this process, Bérriz argues, are the training of scientists, technicians and skilled workers to cover human resource needs, and the creation of an energy and environmental culture that will raise the awareness essential for the development of solar power based on "fairness and solidarity".

Cuba's greatest achievement in this sense is in the field of scientific development and education, which it shares with other countries of the region through cooperation efforts.

The contribution of wind power, hydroelectric and sugarcane biomass equipment to Cuba's National Electric Power System in 2010 was 178.1 gigawatt-hours, which is equivalent to four days worth of power generation and replaces almost 46,000 tonnes of oil.

According to the official statistics table published by CUBASOLAR's magazine Energía y Tú, Cuba has 9,624 solar panels, 8,677 windmills, 6,447 solar heaters, 554 biogas plants, 173 hydroelectric plants, four wind farms with 20 wind turbines, and 608 stoves for wood biomass pellet production.

In addition, the island has 57 turbo generators and 67 boilers in 61 sugar mills. The new boost to the sugar industry - managed by a business group since 2011 - includes increasing the potential for power generation based on bagasse and other sugarcane byproducts to supply the sector year round.

Experts see as a good sign the government's decision to tap into the range of renewable power sources, giving priority to those with the greatest economic impact, as established in an extensive programme aimed at modernising the economy and enhancing its efficiency, launched in April 2011.

"The country is improving in terms of organisation. Work and planning efforts for the next few years are under way in this and other renewable energy-related lines of work," Bérriz said, insisting that Cuba has all the conditions to move forward in the use of clean energy infrastructure.

Plans include reactivating windmill factories, revitalising the hydroelectric turbine industry, and further developing solar panel production, as much as possible, as these have been the best options in a rural electrification programme implemented over the past 10 years.

"We can't move at a faster pace (in the industry's development) due to the country's huge financial limitations. With more resources we could advance much faster on the path to renewable energy and share it with other nations," the expert says.

Other experts note that Cuba needs a specific support mechanism to speed up the introduction and use of alternative generators "towards a sustainable energy development" that does not overburden the state, is an attractive and reliable option for foreign investors, and encourages national industries to use these sources.

In this sense, Conrado Moreno, a researcher and member of CUBASOLAR's board, points to agricultural cooperatives as a "yet untapped niche" where, along with food production and sale, renewable energy sources emerge as "a promising solution in the economic model that is approaching."

According to Moreno, this form of production will receive incentives through legislation that is currently being discussed and will be passed shortly.

Several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, already have legal frameworks in place to provide policy and financial support for the development of environmentally-friendly power generators.

World Bank studies reveal that this region produces only six percent of the world's GHG emissions from the power industry, and only 13 percent if deforestation and agriculture are factored in. This relatively low proportion is due to a great extent to the widespread use of hydroelectric power.

However, as industry and transportation continue to expand the situation may change in the next 25 years, said Ede Ijjasz-Vásquez, World Bank director of sustainable development for Latin America and the Caribbean.

If the current trends continue, by 2030 CO2 emissions from energy use will have increased by 33 percent per capita in the region, as compared to a global average of 24 percent, he said. With such prospects ahead, power diversification is the best option.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"The cosmic haystack"

Perhaps there are a few viable presidential candidates out there. (GW)

Search for Aliens Is on Again, but Next Quest Is Finding Money

New York Times
January 29, 2012

HAT CREEK, Calif. — E.T. might be phoning, but do we care enough to take the call?

Operating on money and equipment scrounged from the public and from Silicon Valley millionaires, and on the stubborn strength of their own dreams, a band of astronomers recently restarted one of the iconic quests of modern science, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — SETI, for short — which had been interrupted last year by a lack of financing.

Early in December, a brace of 42 radio telescopes, known as the Allen Telescope Array, nestled here in the shadow of Lassen Peak, came to life and resumed hopping from star to star in the constellation Cygnus, listening for radio broadcasts from alien civilizations. The lines are now open, but with lingering financial problems, how long they will remain that way is anybody’s guess.

These should be boom times for those seeking out aliens, or at least their radio proxy.

Astronomers now know that the galaxy is teeming with at least as many planets — the presumed sites of life — as stars. Advanced life and technology might be rare in the cosmos, said Geoffrey W. Marcy, the Watson and Marilyn Alberts in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “but surely they are out there, because the number of Earthlike planets in the Milky Way galaxy is simply too great.”

A simple “howdy,” a squeal or squawk, or an incomprehensible stream of numbers captured by one of the antennas here at the University of California’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory would be enough to end our cosmic loneliness and change history, not to mention science. It would answer one of the most profound questions humans ask: Are we alone in the universe?

Despite decades of space probes and billions of NASA dollars looking for life out there, there is still only one example of life in the universe: the DNA-based web of biology on Earth. “In this field,” said Jill Tarter, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., the “number two is the all-important number. We count one, two, infinity. We’re all looking for number two.”

But the story of SETI is the story of a dream deferred by politics, a lack of money and the technological challenges of searching what astronomers call “the cosmic haystack”: 100 billion stars in the galaxy and 9 billion narrow-band radio channels on which aliens, if they exist, might be trying to hail us.

Politics and the recession have crimped astronomers’ budgets and left the institute’s scientists with a kind of siege mentality. Last spring, the University of California ran out of money to run the Hat Creek observatory, forcing the Allen telescopes into hibernation. In order to continue the search, astronomers are negotiating a deal to share the telescopes with the Air Force, which wants to use them to track satellites and space junk.

No federal funds have been spent searching for radio signals from extraterrestrials since 1993.

A recent visit to the SETI Institute’s Mountain View offices found many of the cubicles empty and the corridors eerily quiet. Last summer, as the Allen telescopes slumbered, weeds grew around them.

998,000 Stars to Go

The story begins with a young radio astronomer named Frank Drake, who pointed an antenna from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., at a pair of stars in 1960, wondering if he could make contact with anything or anyone.

All he got was static, but the hook was set.

In 1971, NASA held a workshop led by Barney Oliver, the research chief of Hewlett-Packard, that concluded the best way to find extraterrestrials was with a $10 billion array of giant radio telescopes called Cyclops. The price tag — as well as the subject — set off alarm bells that still reverberate.

In 1978, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, an outspoken critic of what he considered wasteful government spending, awarded one of his infamous “Golden Fleece” awards to the hunt for aliens, and in 1993, a NASA-sponsored survey for signals from 1,000 nearby stars was canceled by Congress. With the help of friends like Dr. Oliver in the Silicon Valley, Dr. Tarter and her colleagues took the search private.

As the director of SETI research at the institute, Dr. Tarter, 67, has become the public face of the cause, and she was consulted by the actress Jodie Foster about her portrayal of Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer who finds a signal, in the movie “Contact.”

Dr. Tarter was recruited in 1976, when, as a postdoctorate student at Berkeley, she read the Cyclops report, a rite of passage for most alien-oriented astronomers.

“You didn’t have to ask a priest or philosopher about life in the universe,” Dr. Tarter said. But she realized she was in the first generation who could conduct experiments about it. A half-century and roughly 2,000 stars later, humanity is still officially alone.

Dr. Drake is undaunted, noting that there are 100 billion suitable stars in the galaxy. His personal estimate, based on an equation he invented in 1961, is that there are 10,000 technological civilizations in the galaxy, one per million stars.

“I’ve known all along we have to look at a million stars,” he said. Now a cherubic 81, Dr. Drake is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former chairman of the SETI Institute.

The Allen Array, which was designed to find Dr. Drake his million stars, is named after Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, who put up $25 million to get the project going. Jointly owned and operated by the University of California, Berkeley, and the SETI Institute, it was to consist of 350 antennas, 20 feet in diameter, that were to be mass-produced like satellite dishes.

The full array would be able to map a swath of sky several full moons in diameter in only 10 minutes, or the whole sky in a night — of great interest to astronomers and, as it turned out, to the military.

But Mr. Allen’s contribution was only enough to build 42 antennas, which started operating in 2007. The astronomers say that another $55 million would complete the array, but there have been no volunteers yet.

The project got a lift in 2009 when Dr. Tarter won a $100,000 prize and “One Wish to Change the World” at the TED conference — short for Technology, Entertainment and Design — in Long Beach, Calif. Her talk there began, “The story of humans is the story of ideas.” It elicited a donation of valuable equipment from Dell and Intel.

The project got another lift — mainly psychological — last year when NASA, whose Kepler spacecraft is beaming back news about the patch of Cygnus that it surveys, published its first list of 1,235 exoplanet candidates.

As Dr. Tarter told a conference of exoplanet hunters recently: “We’re not just pointing at stars. We’re pointing where you have shown us there are planets, and perhaps technologists.”

But the recession and the cutbacks that followed wiped out the university’s funds to run the Hat Creek observatory just as it was getting started on a survey of Kepler’s planets. The Allen telescopes went quiet, and the astronomical staff left.

An appeal for financing went out on the institute’s Web site, which eventually brought in about $220,000 — roughly two months’ worth of operating expenses. Meanwhile, the Air Force was interested in using the radio telescopes.

The array, Dr. Tarter explained, turns out to be adept at tracking satellites and space junk, a possibility first identified as early as 2004 in a memo by her husband, William Welch, a radio astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is known as Jack. “There’s a long tradition of radio astronomy and the military scratching each other’s backs,” Dr. Tarter said.

Under terms of an agreement still being negotiated, the Air Force will pay for a share of the operations at Hat Creek, which costs about $1.5 million (plus another $1 million a year to pay the astronomers). The money raised so far will buy a few months at best.

Welcome All Species

The astronomers started bringing their equipment back to Hat Creek in September. The place looked neglected.

“Nobody had cut the weeds,” Dr. Tarter said. “It looked so sad.”

Early in December, when Dr. Tarter and Dr. Welch returned to Hat Creek in Dr. Welch’s Cessna with a reporter in tow, the weeds had been cut and the antennas were majestically turning to a music only they could hear. Scattered across a meadow, they resembled the forest of satellite dishes you see outside events like the Super Bowl.

Nearby in an unassuming ranch house, racks of electronics and computers hummed with life. The doormat read, “Welcome All Species.”

Inside, Dr. Tarter plopped down in front of a computer and watched with a suspicious eye as the display popped with a row of numbers indicating that a narrow-band signal — the signature of an artificial source — had been detected.

She takes great pride in the fact that she and her colleagues have never published a false alarm, and she nodded approvingly as the telescope and computers went through the process of eliminating the new signal from consideration. The Earth’s motion will cause the frequency of a signal from the sky to drift in frequency, for example. The checklist has grown over the years, she said.

Within a few minutes they were back scanning a new part of the spectrum. The computers will check a persistent signal five times, moving the telescope on and off it, before calling someone to discuss it — “whoever is on the desk,” Dr. Tarter said.

The next step would be to call the director of an observatory to the west (since that is the way the sky rotates) and ask for continued observation.

“We’ve gotten six hours into it four times,” Dr. Tarter said. One dramatic moment was in 1998, when Dr. Tarter and her colleagues were working at the observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., and had a signal they could just not eliminate.

Finally they figured out that they were actually receiving transmissions from the European SOHO satellite.

“We went to bed,” Dr. Tarter said.

“It was a real adrenaline pumping time,” she added. “I can’t imagine what the real deal will be.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Solar synergy

Here's a much-needed counterpoint to all the foolish hype around "clean coal" and "fracking". (GW)

Making Solar Power Competitive With Coal

A study identifies early-stage technologies that could be combined to cut the cost of solar panels in half.

By Kevin Bullis
Technology Review
February 2012

By the end of the decade, manufacturers in the United States could make solar panels that are less than half as expensive as the ones they make now. That would be cheap enough for solar power to compete with electricity from fossil fuels, according to a new study in Energy & Environmental Science. The cost reductions will come via technology that's already being demonstrated in research labs at startups, universities, and major solar manufacturers, and could involve silicon, the material most solar panels are made from today.

The report, from researchers at MIT led by Tonio Buonassisi, a professor of mechanical engineering and manufacturing, identifies early-stage technologies that, if employed together, could reduce the cost of making solar panels to 52 cents per watt. Currently, the cost is over a dollar per watt. At 52 cents per watt, assuming similar cost reductions for installation and equipment such as inverters, solar power would cost six cents per kilowatt-hour in sunny areas of the U.S.—less than the average cost of electricity in the U.S. today. Solar power in sunny areas now costs roughly 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, although the cost can be sharply higher in small installations or in cloudy areas where solar installations generate less electricity.

The best way to reduce the cost per watt is to make solar cells more efficient—as a result, more power can be produced with a given amount of material and factory equipment. Increasing efficiency also decreases installation costs, since fewer solar panels are needed. But efficiency improvements aren't enough to reach 52 cents a watt. Manufacturers will also need to make solar cells from thinner silicon wafers, make wafers in a way that wastes less silicon, and speed up manufacturing. If a high-efficiency solar cell design slows down manufacturing or requires thick wafers, it likely won't lead to the necessary cost reductions.

One major way to reduce costs involves technologies that offer an alternative to the wasteful process now used to make silicon wafers. Currently, half of the high-quality silicon needed to make wafers ends up as waste. One startup, 1366 Technologies, makes thin wafers directly from a pool of molten silicon. It plans to replace conventional crystallization furnaces, sawing stations, and ingot-handling equipment with a single machine that requires fewer workers to operate. Others startups are replacing sawing with processes that free thin wafers of silicon from a larger piece of silicon using chemical etching, or by peeling them off.

Once manufacturers have thin wafers, they also need equipment and processes that can handle them without breaking them. It's possible to make silicon solar cells as thin as 25 micrometers while maintaining their performance, but most manufacturers use 180-micrometer wafers that are more durable. One approach to handling thin wafers involves processing wafers on top of a sheet of glass. The glass acts as a support during manufacturing; when the solar panel is complete, it protects the cells from the elements. Magnetic levitation systems that would float the wafers along a production line could also help with the handling of thin wafers.

Some high-efficiency solar cell designs lend themselves to thin wafers. One involves sandwiching a wafer of crystalline silicon between two layers of amorphous silicon, as is done with a type of solar cell now produced by Sanyo. This symmetrical structure reduces stress on the wafer. Such cells can be processed at lower temperatures than conventional solar cells. Other cell designs could also work with thin wafers. One puts all of the electrical contacts on the back of a wafer—a process that could be well-suited to processing the cells on a sheet of glass. The U.S. company Sunpower uses a version of this cell design.

Much of the technology described in the report hasn't been demonstrated at full production scale. The techniques for making wafers without sawing, in particular, face a number of issues, such as producing high enough quality silicon, making wafers in the right shape and size, or producing them reliably and at a high rate.

To make solar power more competitive, installers will also need to reduce costs. Installation and the cost of inverters, wiring, land, and financing account for half—and sometimes as much as 80 percent—of the cost of solar installations. Much of this needed cost reduction could be achieved by improving efficiency, which would reduce the number of panels needed in a project.

Eventually, silicon solar panels could be even cheaper than 50 cents a watt, Buonassisi says. That will require finding ways to manufacture more challenging designs—for instance, including a nanostructured layer that improves light absorption, which would allow silicon cells that are only one micrometer thick to perform as well as conventional solar cells.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"National Sacrifice Zones"?

Bucky Fuller once observed that the the optimal distance between a nuclear power plant and living creatures is roughly 93,000,000 miles. You only need to consult Nature to confirm. (GW)

From Rocky Flats to Fukushima: this nuclear folly

There's no such thing as safe and accidents are always covered up. So why let Obama build a whole new generation of reactors?

By Naomi Wolf

In March 2011, novelist Kristen Iversen's memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, was waiting sedately among piles of other manuscripts at various publishing houses. Then, Japan was hit by a tsunami, and the cooling systems of the Fukushima nuclear reactor were overwhelmed, giving the world apocalyptic images of toxic floods and floating cars, of whole provinces made uninhabitable.

Immediately, Iversen's book was auctioned, and the timing of its publication, in June, could not be better – since, incredibly, in the shadow of the Fukushima disaster, and even as Japan and other nations see movements against the use of nuclear power ever again – President Obama is planning more investment in nuclear energy. The US is soon to start construction on several new reactors for the first time in three decades.

Iversen, a softspoken woman with a laid-back western vibe, wearing jeans and lavender scarf, seems an unlikely prophet of nuclear catastrophe. But her message is searing. She grew up in a small town near Rocky Flats, Colorado, where a secret nuclear weapons plant built over 70,000 plutonium "triggers" for nuclear bombs.

Iversen spoke with me this week about her research in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we were at a writer's conference. She explained that "triggers" was a euphemism: the plant, which, throughout her childhood, was so secret that her mother believed they made cleaning supplies, was actually producing plutonium "buttons". In other words, these were the nuclear bombs themselves; they needed only a casing of explosives to be activated.

"They made Nagasaki bombs in my backyard," she explains.

Unknown to the families living in the shadow of the classified facility, deadly plutonium particles were seeded among the stunning beauty of the mountain landscape. As Iversen grew up, she became aware of the growing incidence of bizarre cancers being diagnosed in local children. Iversen's reporting, extensive interviews, and review of FBI and EPA documents, shows how classifying a toxic nuclear site led to the ruin of hundreds of lives – and continues to pose ever-escalating threats as the legacy of what we know about such nuclear contamination is being swept under the rug by developers, energy lobbyists and government agencies colluding with them, at the risk of exposing more of us, more severely.

The nature of the cover-up is incredible: in 1989, the FBI joined forces with the EPA to raid on the plant. The plant, in turn, was owned by the Department of Energy.

"It's the only time in the history of our country that, to my knowledge, two government agencies have raided another," notes Iversen. A grand jury investigation followed the raid, and jurors called for indictments against Rockwell, the manufacturer, and Department of Energy officials. In spite of this, not one indictment was ever issued. The jurors, furious, actually wrote their own report on the contamination and the suppression of the facts – which, astoundingly, still remains under seal.

But cancer rates are telling the tale: they remain elevated in neighborhoods around Rocky Flats 30 years on (plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years). Recent tests confirm earlier findings: there is still contamination in the soil.

Although there is a scientific consensus that no exposure is safe, no matter how brief, Iversen reports:

"There's a big push in Denver right now to build a highway, the Jefferson Parkway, on the contaminated area. This is all prime real estate and many developers and city politicians are pushing to develop the area and pretend that Rocky Flats never existed."

So, profit motives are driving the push to develop lands that, according to scientists, can never be inhabited safely again. And profit motives are driving an even more demented plan on a state-by-state level, astoundingly, to ship American schoolchildren into these no-go areas.

Clean-up of nuclear contamination is expensive, and laws allow an area to remain as is, with high levels of contaminants in the soil, so long as they are designated "wildlife refuges". To save money and effort, the US government, as well as individual state governments around the country, are now pushing to turn former nuclear weapons sites around the nation into wildlife refuges, which schoolchildren would be taken to visit on class trips.

Nuclear scientists Iversen interviewed are horrified by these plans, arguing that these areas should be permanently closed off to the public and declared "National Sacrifice Zones". And as if enough damage had not been done, a new nuclear pit production facility is planned for Los Alamos, Texas, with the capability of producing up to 450 plutonium triggers per year.

Although the accident at Fukushima raised global awareness about the lasting, overwhelming dangers to human beings of radioactive contamination, the money that the energy lobby sees in building more nuclear facilities is just too good to rein in, catastrophe or no catastrophe. US energy policy, driven by industry lobbyists, remains committed to developing nuclear power, even as nations around the world are canceling their own nuclear plans: last month alone, Germany spent $2.15tn to abandon nuclear power, a decision taken after witnessing Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster.

"At a time when the world is supposed to be decreasing the nuclear arsenal, our government is talking about producing nuclear triggers again. We need to pay attention," warns Iversen.

While the rest of the world, especially countries whose legislatures are less dominated by special interests, do the sane thing regarding nuclear power and the threat of catastrophe, the US scampers merrily in the direction of madness. President Obama recently announced – as if this were a good thing – that the Department of Energy has given the green light to an $8bn loan guarantee program to build two, brand new nuclear power plants in Georgia. This, in spite of scientific warnings about dangers posed by those plants' risk to local residents by nuclear waste disposal issues.

There have been numerous nuclear disasters or near-disasters, besides Fukushima, in recent decades: they include the Mayak facility in Russia, as well as spills and contamination at other former nuclear weapons sites around the United States such as Hanford and Fernald.

Iversen, who has family members who've experienced tumors and other cancer scares, worries about her own health. For her, the time to sound the alarm about America's plans for a new generation of nuclear facilities is now.

"One fact is for sure: there is no safe level of exposure to plutonium. One millionth of a gram, particularly if it is inhaled into the lungs, can cause cancer.

"Rocky Flats happened in my backyard. [This will be] happening in everyone's backyard."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A climate for culture warfare

If yesterday's post wasn't enough to send a climate change chill up and down your spine, take time to read today's. (GW)

Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science

New York Times
February 15, 2012

Leaked documents suggest that an organization known for attacking climate science is planning a new push to undermine the teaching of global warming in public schools, the latest indication that climate change is becoming a part of the nation’s culture wars.

The documents, from a nonprofit organization in Chicago called the Heartland Institute, outline plans to promote a curriculum that would cast doubt on the scientific finding that fossil fuel emissions endanger the long-term welfare of the planet. “Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective,” one document said.

While the documents offer a rare glimpse of the internal thinking motivating the campaign against climate science, defenders of science education were preparing for battle even before the leak. Efforts to undermine climate-science instruction are beginning to spread across the country, they said, and they fear a long fight similar to that over the teaching of evolution in public schools.

In a statement, the Heartland Institute acknowledged that some of its internal documents had been stolen. But it said its president had not had time to read the versions being circulated on the Internet on Tuesday and Wednesday and was therefore not in a position to say whether they had been altered.

Heartland did declare one two-page document to be a forgery, although its tone and content closely matched that of other documents that the group did not dispute. In an apparent confirmation that much of the material, more than 100 pages, was authentic, the group apologized to donors whose names became public as a result of the leak.

The documents included many details of the group’s operations, including salaries, recent personnel actions and fund-raising plans and setbacks. They were sent by e-mail to leading climate activists this week by someone using the name “Heartland insider” and were quickly reposted to many climate-related Web sites.

Heartland said the documents were not from an insider but were obtained by a caller pretending to be a board member of the group who was switching to a new e-mail address. “We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes,” the organization said.

Although best-known nationally for its attacks on climate science, Heartland styles itself as a libertarian organization with interests in a wide range of public-policy issues. The documents say that it expects to raise $7.7 million this year.

The documents raise questions about whether the group has undertaken partisan political activities, a potential violation of federal tax law governing nonprofit groups. For instance, the documents outline “Operation Angry Badger,” a plan to spend $612,000 to influence the outcome of recall elections and related fights this year in Wisconsin over the role of public-sector unions.

Tax lawyers said Wednesday that tax-exempt groups were allowed to undertake some types of lobbying and political education, but that because they are subsidized by taxpayers, they are prohibited from direct involvement in political campaigns.

The documents also show that the group has received money from some of the nation’s largest corporations, including several that have long favored action to combat climate change.

The documents typically say that those donations were earmarked for projects unrelated to climate change, like publishing right-leaning newsletters on drug and technology policy. Nonetheless, several of the companies hastened on Wednesday to disassociate themselves from the organization’s climate stance.

“We absolutely do not endorse or support their views on the environment or climate change,” said Sarah Alspach, a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, a multinational drug company shown in the documents as contributing $50,000 in the past two years to support a medical newsletter.

A spokesman for Microsoft, another listed donor, said that the company believes that “climate change is a serious issue that demands immediate worldwide action.” The company is shown in the documents as having contributed $59,908 last year to a Heartland technology newsletter. But the Microsoft spokesman, Mark Murray, said the gift was not a cash contribution but rather the value of free software, which Microsoft gives to thousands of nonprofit groups.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Heartland documents was what they did not contain: evidence of contributions from the major publicly traded oil companies, long suspected by environmentalists of secretly financing efforts to undermine climate science.

But oil interests were nonetheless represented. The documents say that the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation contributed $25,000 last year and was expected to contribute $200,000 this year. Mr. Koch is one of two brothers who have been prominent supporters of libertarian causes as well as other charitable endeavors. They control Koch Industries, one of the country’s largest private companies and a major oil refiner.

The documents suggest that Heartland has spent several million dollars in the past five years in its efforts to undermine climate science, much of that coming from a person referred to repeatedly in the documents as “the Anonymous Donor.” A guessing game erupted Wednesday about who that might be.

The documents say that over four years ending in 2013, the group expects to have spent some $1.6 million on financing the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, an entity that publishes periodic reports attacking climate science and holds lavish annual conferences. (Environmental groups refer to the conferences as “Denialpalooza.”)

Heartland’s latest idea, the documents say, is a plan to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.”

It is in fact not a scientific controversy. The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk. Whether and how to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases has become a major political controversy in the United States, however.

The National Center for Science Education, a group that has had notable success in fighting for accurate teaching of evolution in the public schools, has recently added climate change to its agenda in response to pleas from teachers who say they feel pressure to water down the science.

Mark S. McCaffrey, programs and policy director for the group, which is in Oakland, Calif., said the Heartland documents revealed that “they continue to promote confusion, doubt and debate where there really is none.”

Steven Yaccino contributed reporting from Chicago.