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  • 03/17/09--11:51: The Top Ten Greenhouse Gases
  • Despite all the talk about carbon capture, carbon footprints and carbon trading, carbon dioxide only causes nine to 26 percent of the greenhouse effect. That means that the majority of warming results from gases with a much lower media profile than the paparazzi-trailed starlet of global warming, CO2. In honor of last weeks' report in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which identified a brand new greenhouse gas, PopSci.com counts down the gases that bring us bikini weather in Antarctica and beachfront property in Montana.


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    President Obama and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

    The Obama administration is expected to announce that California's strictest-in-the-nation gas mileage and emissions standards will now become a national standard. And surprisingly, U.S. automakers are actually happy.

    The auto companies have been begging for a nation-wide standard (along with a clear timetable for improvement) for years. Now that they have one, they can unify their production and save money by not having to manufacture more efficient cars for certain states.

    The plan will move quickly, ensuring that automakers' new-car offerings must hit 42 miles per gallon by 2016, with light trucks having to hit 26.2 miles per gallon.

    Firm details have not been revealed, but an official announcement is expected as soon as tomorrow.

    [NY Times]


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    Capitol Building

    Now that every scientist who isn't part of the lunatic fringe agrees that human greenhouse gas emissions significantly alter the world's climate, the debate on Capitol Hill has shifted from science to policy. And that debate has proved even more complex than Congressional fights over the stimulus package, car company bailouts, and the decision to invade Iraq.

    On Friday, the House of Representatives passed HR 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, by a margin of 219 to 212, with three abstentions. The bill is the first legislative attempt to regulate carbon emissions, and the first bill to directly finger humans as the cause of climate change.

    However, for all the revolution of the bill itself, its construction was politics as usual.

    The slim difference between the yeas and nays resulted from the complex politics of climate change. To assuage fears that the regulation would negatively impact American business, HR 2454 became loaded down with payouts and caveats. This led politicians on both sides to attack the bill; Republicans saying it went too far, and some Democrats saying that the concessions mean the bill doesn't go far enough. In fact, this may be first time that the Heritage Foundation and Greenpeace have agreed on anything.

    The bill institutes a cap-and-trade system in the form of pollution credits, requires that all utilities generate at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020, and requires companies to cut emissions by 17 percent below the 2005 level by 2020.

    However, the bill also gives away 85 percent of the pollution credits for free, to oil, gas, and coal companies, places the distribution of carbon pollution credits in the hands of the pro-farm Department of Agriculture, and redistributes 2 percent of the money from the permits sold at auction back to oil refiners to help them cope with the changes.

    The New York Times story covers the political horse-trading that both diluted the environmental effect of the bill and made it politically feasible. Meanwhile, The National Journal looks at the geography of the political divide, noting that the the Republicans who voted for the bill came from districts that voted for Obama last year, while the Democrats who voted against the bill came from districts that voted for McCain.

    In March, when the bill made it out of committee, the Washington Post and the Economist examined how concessions in the bill all but neuter its pro-environment goal. And that was before the rest of the House got a hold of the bill.

    All that, and the bill still needs to make its way through the Senate. In fact, considering how contentious the bill was in the House, HR 2454 may become the first test of the Democrats newly minted, filibuster-proof majority. That fight in the Senate will no doubt provide yet another chance for tree-hugging hippies and anthropogenic-global-warming-denying flat-earthers to duke it out over the future of energy.


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  • 11/16/09--12:01: So Much For "Hopenhagen"
  • It's Complicated

    President Obama tours an alternative energy research lab at MIT last month.

    Over the weekend President Obama and other world leaders broke the news: No legally binding international climate-change treaty this year.

    In the past few weeks it had become clear that sorting through the many unresolved issues (the level of greenhouse-gas cuts that each nation would commit to, the amount of aid that rich nations would give the developing world to ease their transition into a clean-energy economy) would take longer than a matter of weeks.

    Then there's the fact that the United States has yet to pass climate-change legislation of its own, which could be the biggest obstacle of all. The rest of the world is waiting to see what the US brings to the table before committing to cuts, and with health care and the financial crisis tying up Congress, there is now no chance of the Senate passing cap-and-trade legislation before the end of the year.

    The new plan is to use the Copenhagen meeting as a stepping-stone to serious treaty talks either in Mexico City or Germany in mid-2010, but what the delay means for the treaty's eventual chances is hard to say. Having attended the Climate Change Congress in Copenhagen last March—where we watched scientists from around the world gather to make formal recommendations for policymakers and listened to speeches from leading researchers that were by turns apocalyptic and cautiously optimistic that we can still turn this thing around—it's hard not to be disappointed by the news.

    But according to Joe Romm, one of the sharpest climate-politics observers around, this delay is "very good news" in that it actually increases the likelihood of an eventual deal. This could be full-on delusional wishful thinking. But it's the least depressing analysis we've seen so far, so we'll leave you with his take: "The new plan for Copenhagen makes the prospects for a successful international deal far more likely — and at the same time increases the chance for Senate passage of the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill that Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen Lieberman (I-CT) are negotiating with the White House."

    [[Climate Progress]


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    With the conference in Copenhagen swiftly approaching, and the Senate analog to the Waxman-Markey "American Clean Energy and Security Act" struggling towards the floor, little doubt remains that fossil fuel-burning power plants will soon face either fines for, or mandatory reduction of, carbon emissions. Luckily, a team at MIT has devised a power plant set up that generates power from fossil fuels, but does so with almost none of the carbon emissions.

    Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

    The power plant centers around the use of solid oxide fuel cells. These cells generate power from natural gas through the same oxidation reaction used in conventional power plants, but they achieve that oxidation through a chemical reaction, not by burning the gas. When combined with carbon-scrubbing smoke stacks, this method produces just as much energy as a regular natural gas plant, but with 90 percent fewer carbon emissions.

    The only drawback is the price, at least for now. If a pricing scheme similar to the cap-and-trade system in the Waxman-Markey bill enters into law, the cost of burning coal or natural gas for energy will exceed the cost per kilowatt hour of the MIT-designed solid oxide fuel plant.

    Obviously, none of these plants have been built yet, but a prototype plant will go online in 2012, and the MIT plan utilizes only technology that already exists on the market. Considering today was a 60 degree day in New York City, in December, maybe those MIT boys need to work a little faster.

    [MIT]


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    Hurricane Tomas

    NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

    This November 5 pic from the NASA Earth Observatory captures Hurricane Tomas weakening as it passes between Cuba and Haiti.

    It's still hard to know just how big an Atlantic hurricane is going to get or where it might make landfall until just days before it strikes, but meteorologists have long been able to predict with fair certainty how many hurricanes will be spawned in the next hurricane season. Now a team of English researchers may have just extended those predictions to include not just the upcoming season but the upcoming decade with better models that can foretell several years out how many hurricanes there will be each year.

    Climate modelers at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, England, are using decadal climate prediction to take into account both how climate systems vary internally and external factors like volcanic eruptions and greenhouse gases and blending that with what meteorologists know about the cyclical nature of hurricane behavior to create better models.

    Hurricane activity waxes and wanes over multi-decade cycles – we're currently in an active period, as you may have guessed – and as such the researchers can use historical data to look at probable activity levels, then further refine those predictions using data on external factors. The researchers have used their model to "hindcast," plugging historical data going back to 1960 into their models and seeing how it predicted activity over following decades.

    Averaging across nine different versions of their decadal prediction model, the team found that they could very accurately predict the number of hurricanes that would occur the following season. But moreover, they found that when they tried to predict the number of storms each year for a coming decade they also came in reasonably close, especially for the first few years following the date of prediction.

    The model fails to show exactly why some years spawn more hurricanes than others, but it can help countries and cities be well prepared for storms during years when increased activity is expected. And because the models take into account external factors like greenhouse gas levels, their use should help researchers zero in on specific causes driving hurricane formation and dangerous weather spikes.

    Now if we could only devise a means to slow or even stop them altogether.

    [Science News]


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    Research Station Alaska

    Research Station Alaska

    Jonathan Gero

    One of the stations in Alaska where instruments observed carbon dioxide affecting the global temperature

    Greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those from carbon dioxide, are on the rise. They have been for a while, to the alarm of governments, activist groups, and just about anyone vaguely concerned with environmental issues around the world. Greenhouse gases get their name because they have properties that make them act like glass in a greenhouse, keeping energy from the sun concentrated in our atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise. But until now, that particular effect hadn't been observed and documented in the scientific literature. Now, it has.

    Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a paper in Nature this week, examining 10 years of data taken between 2000 and 2010 at two locations, one on Alaska's North Slope (seen above) and one in Oklahoma. Instruments at each facility looked at both concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but also at the effect of 'radiative forcing,' which happens when more radiation from the sun is absorbed than is reflected into space.

    “Numerous studies show rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect,” one of the authors of the paper, Daniel Feldman, said in a press release.

    Both locations are equipped with spectrometers, instruments capable of identifying individual components of the atmosphere. With the spectrometers and other instruments, the scientists were able to directly look at the CO2 in the atmosphere and see how much infrared radiation was emitted from the carbon dioxide. Other, similar instruments looked at water vapor, which is another greenhouse gas. With measurements of different individual components of the atmosphere, the scientists were able to isolate the effects of carbon dioxide on trapping solar radiation.

    The increase in energy to the atmosphere is about 0.2 Watts per square meter per decade (0.0186 Watts per square foot per decade, an equally obtuse number.) That may not seem like much but given that the surface area of the earth is 196.9 million square miles, it adds up.

    Check out a short animation that the researchers put together of the graphs below.

    The researchers also noticed fluxes in the data: In the spring, when plants start blooming and growing, taking up more carbon dioxide, the amount of radiative forcing also dips. One more reason that plants are awesome.


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    Methane Warning Sign

    Methane Warning Sign

    Carbon dioxide emissions make the big headlines in climate change news, and with good reason--we've now seen the impact of carbon dioxide on global temperature. But carbon dioxide has a far more potent cousin lingering in her shadow. Methane comes in second to carbon dioxide in the amounts produced by human activity, and the amount of time it spends in the atmosphere, but compared to CO2, each molecule packs a much bigger punch. When compared pound for pound, the EPA found that methane's impact on climate change is 20 times greater than CO2. The gas' potency, combined with the fact that methane emissions are on the rise makes methane of great interest to scientists studying climate change.

    Methane is a byproduct of many different activities, from natural gas to cattle raising but until now, scientists haven't been able to tease out methane's various origin stories.

    "If we can partition how much is from cows, natural gas, and other sources, we can more reliably strategize what to do about global warming."

    "We are interested in the question, 'Where does methane come from?'" Shuhei Ono, a geochemist at MIT and an author of the paper, said in a press release. "If we can partition how much is from cows, natural gas, and other sources, we can more reliably strategize what to do about global warming."

    In a paper published in Science today, Ono and other researchers at MIT write that they have figured out a way to determine where methane comes from. The scientists collected methane from a variety of locations, including cows, lakes, swamps, and mines. By looking at the bonds between the various forms (isotopes) of carbon and hydrogen the scientists found that there were subtle differences between methane that formed in biological settings and methane that formed in the Earth's crust. Methane that formed quickly (like in cows' stomachs) had chemical bonds that were less 'clumpy' than bonds that formed in the ground.

    In particular, the scientists looked at the methane molecule 13CH3D, a combination of the carbon isotope carbon-13 and hydrogen isotope deuterium. Ono and his colleagues built a special detector to isolate these rare methane molecules. Unlike other methane detectors, this one is portable, and can be used in the field to find the methane-releasing culprit.


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    Sun and Smog

    Sun and Smog

    Los Angeles Skyline

    Less than a month ago California's Governor, Jerry Brown, announced mandatory water restrictions for his drought-plagued state. Now, he's set another environmental bar for the state to live up to, this time tackling emissions instead of water.

    A new executive order announces that the state's yearly greenhouse gas emissions should be brought down to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. That's a highly ambitious goal, especially compared to the emissions goals set by the United States, which only plans to reduce levels to 26 percent below what they were in 2005 by 2025.

    “With this order, California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached--for this generation and generations to come,” Brown said in a statement.

    Brown's plan is not without precedent. The European Union made the same pledge last fall.

    There are few details available about how California will cut emissions so dramatically, but Brown isn't one to stand idly by as a deadline approaches. Yesterday, he proposed an aggressive fine of $10,000 a day for people who waste water. There's no reason to think he won't deal with emissions evaders the same way.


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    The global average of carbon dioxide in the air just reached a new high of 400 parts per million (ppm), which is a new low for us humans.

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas that causes global warming, trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere. A warming planet means changes to weather patterns and sea levels, both of which are resulting in devastating consequences to life as we know it on earth. Cities on the coast are already working on flood plans and we're watching Antarctica's ice melt away.

    CO2 is a naturally occurring gas, but we are adding more of it to the atmosphere every year, a byproduct of modern life. CO2 emissions come from a variety of sources, including burning fossil fuels (to generate electricity and power cars and trucks) and industrial and agricultural sources.

    For years, scientists have encouraged policymakers to take steps to reduce the level of atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm, and many have, from countries to states. But those pledges (some of which only occurred this year) have yet to make a substantial impact on emissions.

    The 400 ppm record was first reached in 2013, at a research station located at Mauna Loa. Since then, the station recorded several other milestones, but globally, the average stayed below 400.

    NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt sums it up well: "We are a society that has inadvertently chosen the double-black diamond run without having learned to ski first. It will be a bumpy ride."


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    Marthane Plume

    Methane plumes

    Methane plumes off the Washington and Oregon coasts are worrying scientists. This plume is approximately 1099 feet (335 meters) tall.

    Brendan Philip/University of Washington

    We know that warming ocean temperatures pose a serious threat to coral reefs and Antarctic ice shelves, but now it looks like rising temperatures are already releasing large amounts of methane into the ocean.

    Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 25 times more powerful than Carbon Dioxide, but thankfully, nowhere near as abundant. Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat from the sun in the Earth's atmosphere, just like glass traps heat in a greenhouse. Here at sea level, methane is emitted as a byproduct of any number of industries, from landfills and agriculture, to oil and gas resources. The industrial sources of methane are worrying, but of even greater concern are natural sources of methane that have been locked deep under oceans and ice for a very long time. When methane interacts with water at very low temperatures it forms a solid called methane hydrate, a lattice-like structure that traps the methane. Now, at least some of these frozen prisons seem like they're starting to melt.

    In a study that will soon be published in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems researchers found that a strange number of methane leaks (a fairly normal occurrence on the seafloor) were coming from a worrying place.

    “We see an unusually high number of bubble plumes at the depth where methane hydrate would decompose if seawater has warmed,” lead author H. Paul Johnson said in a statement. “So it is not likely to be just emitted from the sediments; this appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years.”

    Just over 8 percent or 14 of the 168 plumes that Johnson and his co-authors looked at were located at the suspicious depth, but that was enough to make them look closer. A follow-up study to test the content of the plumes will be able to tell if the methane bubbles are more recent, or if they've been there for a while.

    Methane released from this deep in the ocean usually doesn't go straight into the atmosphere (though it is possible.) Instead, microbes feast on the methane, releasing carbon dioxide. While that might seem like a fine tradeoff, carbon dioxide isn't exactly benign in the water. It can make oceans more acidic, harming important fisheries in the process. Ocean acidification was probably responsible for the largest mass extinction in the world. Lets hope we aren't headed for another.


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    Methane Thruster

    Methane Thruster

    The blue color of the flame is due to the combustion of methane, which typically burns blue .

    NASA/MSFC/David Olive

    Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that we're all very worried about here on Earth. But up in space? That's a whole different ballgame.

    Unlike liquid hydrogen, which is the fuel of choice for today's rockets, methane is more stable, can be stored safely at higher temperatures, and is denser, so more of it can be stored in smaller containers.

    NASA has been developing engine components that can work with both liquid-hydrogen and methane-based fuels for the past decade, and some of the 3-D printed components are now going through the crucible of testing.

    The hope is that future space explorers will be able to manufacture methane from gases already in the atmosphere of different planets, including Mars. They hope that instead of having to bring fuel for the return trip to Mars, they could power a lander into Martian orbit using fuel manufactured on Mars.

    The method could also be beneficial for exploration beyond Mars. We already know that other bodies in our solar system have methane reserves.)

    Watch NASA put a methane-powered thruster through its paces here:


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    Aliso Canyon Infrared

    A bad blowout

    As greenhouse gases go, carbon dioxide might get all the attention, but methane is the quiet powerhouse, waiting in the wings.

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    Red fox

    It's not all bad news

    Turtles And Tigers And Teddy Bears, Oh My!

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    Food Waste

    Waste not, want not—and don't destroy the planet

    On this Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency is training its attention heavily to wasted food, in part to promote its initiative which aims to cut food waste…

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    Environmental Challenges

    Sometimes the news is bad

    Better get cracking.

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    Antarctica

    They are now at 400ppm, for the first time in human history

    A new announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released Wednesday reveals a new benchmark that should kick us in the seat of our pants.

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    But it won't save the ice caps

    Greenhouse gas gets all the attention. Most agree it is the main cause of our warming planet. But scientists say black carbon, or soot—which comes from diesel engines,…

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    We've got 99 problems and CO2 is number one

    A combination of more CO2 and a hotter sun means the Earth is in for unprecedented warming—and humans are along for the ride. Read on:…

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    Aliso Canyon Infrared

    A bad blowout

    As greenhouse gases go, carbon dioxide might get all the attention, but methane is the quiet powerhouse, waiting in the wings.
    As greenhouse gases go, carbon dioxide might get all the attention, but methane is the quiet powerhouse, waiting in the wings.

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