TIME Environment

El Niño Arrival Too Late for California Drought

"Too little, too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California"

El Niño has finally arrived, but the precipitation brought by the weather event is unlikely to alleviate California’s severe drought, officials said Thursday.

“After many months of watching, El Niño has formed,” said Mike Halpert, an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. “Unfortunately, this El Niño is likely too little, too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California as California’s rainy season is winding down.”

El Niño, a cyclical phenomenon that lasts several years, begins with warming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and eventually affects weather around the world. In the United States, it can lead to storms along the West Coast and affect hurricanes and other tropical storms. Tropical storm activity could be reduced due to El Niño, but it’s too soon to know for certain, the NOAA said.

Forecasters have been waiting to declare the start of El Niño for nearly a year. The late arrival may make El Niño-related storms “weak in strength” with “fairly low influence on weather inclement,” Halpert said.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Human Waste on Mount Everest Creates an Environmental Issue

Nature's call maybe not be good for nature

Climbers are leaving more than just their footprints when they traverse Mount Everest, especially when they need to “use the bathroom.” People leave behind large amounts of fecal matter and urine every year.

Watch the Know Right Now above to find out more, and read more here.

TIME europe

Huge Numbers of Europeans Will Die From Air Pollution in the Next 20 Years

Eiffel Tower in a thick smog in Paris, France on January 6, 2015.
Apaydin Alain—Sipa USA/AP Eiffel Tower in a thick smog in Paris, France on January 6, 2015.

Europe is failing on a range of environmental indicators from air to water and biodiversity

Hundreds of thousands of people in the E.U. — perhaps millions, if present trends continue — will suffer premature death in the next two decades because of toxic air, a new report says.

Tuesday’s State of the Environment Report for 2015, from the European Environment Agency (EEA) blames governments for inaction and says that in 2011 alone — the most recent year for which there is a reliable tally — over 400,000 Europeans died prematurely from air pollution.

Europe’s environmental performance also lags behind in areas like urbanization, biodiversity loss, intensive farming and maintenance of inland freshwater systems, the Guardian reports.

“Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity,” EEA’s executive director Hans Bruyninckx told the Guardian.

[The Guardian]

TIME Environment

Can We Fix Climate Change With Technology?

ice-melting
Getty Images

Geoengineering could remain the only option to combat catastrophic effects of climate change

A report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that experiments in blotting out the sun in order to reduce the amount of the sun’s rays that hit the Earth would be too risky.

Spraying aerosols into the atmosphere – one leading approaching to “geoengineering” – would be a massive science experiment that would have unknown environmental side effects. The fallout on precipitation patterns, agricultural productivity, and the global climate cannot be fully known until it is unleashed. If the United States seeded the atmosphere with aerosols that produced more drought in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, that would potentially raise indefensible ethical questions.

Lowering global temperatures by reducing sun exposure – euphemistically known as “albedo modification” – would also merely treat the symptom of climate change, rather than the cause. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would remain unchanged. As such, sending aerosols up into the sky would be a process that would need to be maintained for many hundreds of years. It would also do nothing to address ocean acidification, another extraordinary problem facing humanity, which could lead to the collapse of fisheries around the world and alter global climate patterns.

Read more: The $17.6 Trillion Solution To Climate Change

“No reputable scientist I know thinks placing tiny reflecting particles in the stratosphere is a good idea, although some support studying it,” argues Philip Duffy, President the Woods Hole Research Center. Other geoengineering strategies include dumping iron into the oceans to suck up carbon.

The panel stated unequivocally that reducing carbon emissions was indeed the preferred method to address climate change. Transitioning to clean energy and replanting forests would offer much safer options, the latter of which is an age-old and well-understood method of carbon capture and storage.

Still, despite the National Academy concluding that albedo modification is unacceptably risky at this time, the panel called for more research into the subject.

What is disconcerting about such geoengineering schemes is that they could probably be attempted using today’s technology and not require significant breakthrough advances. They are likely to be significantly cheaper than carbon capture and sequestration, the other major approach to geoengineering explored by the National Academy report.

Moreover, unilateral “albedo modification” could spark geopolitical conflict, especially in the absence of international laws put in place. The Daily Mail reported that the CIA is possibly looking into how geoengineering might be used to “weaponize” the weather.

Read more: Strategic Thinking: How to Think About the Future

A separate study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that people who are ideologically attracted to individualism and free markets are much more likely to accept climate change on its face if it is presented in conjunction with a geoengineering solution. However, if the problem of climate change is broached along with a call for strict limits on emissions instead of geoengineering, people with an individualistic outlook are more likely to reject the science of climate change altogether.

Such findings could boost momentum for geoengineering research to the detriment of carbon mitigation (although that is perhaps up for debate). And for climate-skeptic politicians, for whom denying climate change science is becoming a growing liability, geoengineering could provide a way out of their predicament. It offers the option of “having our cake and eating it too,” as Clive Hamilton, an Australian public ethics professor, phrased it in an interview with The Guardian.

Even worse, the longer the world waits to reduce the rate at which it burns fossil fuels, the more likely that governments will view geoengineering as the only option remaining to combat catastrophic effects of climate change.

This article originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

More from Oilprice.com:

 

TIME Innovation

Watch How Dust Makes an Amazing Journey From Africa to South America

This NASA footage shows show dust from the Sahara winds up in the Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest might be a little less green if not for a massive plume of Saharan dust that drifts across the Atlantic Ocean each year, according to a new, multi-year study by NASA scientists.

NASA used light pulses from its CALIPSO satellite to measure the transatlantic dust cloud in three dimensions. They found that wind carries roughly 182 million tons of Saharan dust out to sea each year. The cloud sheds roughly 50 million en route to South America, but the remainder fans out over the Amazonian basin and the Caribbean Sea, dusting the soil with 22,000 tons of phosphorus, a nutrient commonly found in commercial grade fertilizer.

Amazingly, the special delivery of plant food almost perfectly matches the amount of phosphorous the Amazonian jungle loses through heavy rains and run-off water.

“This is a small world,” said study author Hongbin Yu, “and we’re all connected together.”

 

TIME

Inside the World’s Largest Solar Power Plant

Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes
Jamey Stillings for TIME Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a burst of energy in the Mojave Desert

At the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 80 miles (130 km) east of Palm Springs, Calif., millions of midnight blue solar panels stretch to the horizon, angled toward the sky like reclining sunbathers. Here, the sun has few enemies. It shines at least 300 days of the year, bathing the more than 8 million photovoltaic (PV) panels at the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in daylong streams of rays. All that free sunlight is converted into electricity that flows into California’s thirsty power grid, eventually helping charge iPhones in Los Angeles and switch on TVs in Sacramento.

The possibility of solar power on such a massive scale seemed remote just a decade ago. Solar was seen as a small solution to small problems, a novel way for your environmentally minded neighbor to show off his green credentials, yet too expensive to ever be economical. But that’s changed as a dramatic increase in solar-panel production–brought about by a global expansion in manufacturing capacity–has sent costs plummeting. Increasingly efficient second-generation solar technology can squeeze more energy from the sun’s rays at a lower cost, and the federal government has opened vast tracts of public land to massive for-profit ventures like Desert Sunlight.

As a result, solar power in America has officially grown up. The two largest solar power plants in the world—Desert Sunlight and Topaz Solar Farm, about 400 miles (640 km) to the west in central California—have come online in the past three months. While the first U.S. solar plant, built in 1982, generated 1 megawatt of electricity, Desert Sunlight generates 550 megawatts. Topaz produces the same amount. Together their impact on carbon emissions is equivalent to taking 130,000 cars off the road while providing 340,000 homes with clean energy. “These projects [are] the first utility-scale projects that are really on the scale of a conventional coal or nuclear power plant,” says Harry Atwater, a professor of applied physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Utility-scale solar plants were nowhere to be found on public lands just a few years ago, in part because it was too costly to build them. Desert Sunlight, which was officially dedicated Feb. 9 on 3,800 acres (1,540 hectares) of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, is now the sixth operational solar plant on federal property. Twenty-nine other solar projects have been approved for public lands, and eight are currently under construction in California and Nevada. And there’s room for more. The federal government administers almost 250 million acres (101 million hectares) of U.S. territory, roughly one-ninth of the country, most of it in the West and much of it desert with abundant sunlight—perfect for millions of photon-hungry solar panels.

“When the [Obama] Administration came on board, it was clear that clean energy was a priority,” says Ray Brady, manager of the National Renewable Energy Office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who notes that the Department of the Interior met its target of generating 10,000 megawatts of solar energy in 2012, three years ahead of schedule. (The department has approved more than 16,000 solar megawatts.) “Desert Sunlight was very important in meeting that goal.”

But getting the location right was critical. Utility-scale solar plants need to be somewhere with year-round sun, in a space large enough to hold hundreds of thousands of solar modules but close enough to civilization to easily connect to the energy grid. Desert Sunlight sits just outside Desert Center (pop. 204), a tiny town southeast of Joshua Tree National Park. Average high temperature in July: 104°F (40°C). In January: 65°F (18°C). Average annual rainfall: 4 in. (10 cm). “It’d be safe to say just about every day you’re going to get some sunlight,” says Steve Krum, a spokesman for First Solar, which built and operates the plant.

The site’s millions of 2-by-4-ft. (0.6 by 1.2 m) panels are each covered by a thin film of glass that absorbs sunlight and captures electrons, creating an electrical current that flows into wires in the back of each module. That energy is converted from DC power into usable AC power by inverters and is sent to the electrical grid via a nearby substation. Each panel generates approximately 90 to 100 watts.

Desert Sunlight originated at a time when engineers were just figuring out how to produce solar panels on a mass scale. In the past, panels were often made using silicon, which tended to yield more energy but were expensive and difficult to mass-produce. But First Solar, which is based in Tempe, Ariz., and bought the rights to Desert Sunlight in 2010, has shied away from silicon and instead produces “thin-film” panels made with cadmium telluride, which can be cheaper than silicon but less efficient in converting sunlight into energy.

The favorable economics of thin-film PV work only if silicon remains expensive. In 2011, the price of silicon began falling rapidly, as cheap, government-subsidized Chinese PV panels flooded the market. Solyndra, a solar-energy company championing what it believed were innovative and more efficient panels made of cylindrical tubes, became a punching bag for conservatives after cheap silicon forced the company to declare bankruptcy in 2011 despite a $500 million loan guarantee from the federal government. But First Solar, which makes its solar modules in the U.S. and Malaysia, is betting on its automated, in-house production and less-expensive components to insulate it from fluctuations in the market. The company also successfully increased its panels’ energy output, recording the highest efficiency standards so far for any thin-film technology.

A New Model

Judging by its scale and location on thousands of acres of public land, Desert Sunlight seems like other sprawling, ambitious government projects before it, a Hoover Dam for the age of climate change. But the development of the plant says a lot about the new way many public-works projects are built in the U.S. today.

Desert Sunlight was the brainchild of private firm OptiSolar (later acquired by First Solar), which saw a market opportunity in helping California’s utility companies meet tough state mandates to produce a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. (The state currently gets 20% of its energy from renewables.) Desert Sunlight was supported by a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy worth $1.5 billion, but the plant is owned by NextEra Energy Resources, GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of America, while the actual facility was built by First Solar. That means the world’s largest solar farm was conceived by private business that profited from tighter state environmental regulations, with their costs underwritten in part by a federal incentive program.

It’s a model that appears to be paying off. Solar is now a $15 billion business in the U.S., employing more people than coal mining, even as costs continue to decrease. Solar panels, for example, are twice as cheap as they were four years ago. In 2014, solar energy accounted for 36% of the country’s installed new energy capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. “It’s hard to convey how this industry has gone from being like a small jewelry business to a bricks-and-mortar paving business,” Atwater says. “And when Desert Sunlight was conceived, I think people thought it was this ambitious California thing to do and wasn’t very economical. But now it’s economical.”

The Future of Solar

The big question is whether projects this large are sustainable. As the price of oil and natural gas continues to drop, solar energy looks less desirable as other sources become more affordable in the short term. First Solar’s stock, for example, has dipped as oil prices have decreased. The BLM’s Brady says that while there are a number of solar projects in the works, applications for large projects on federal lands have fallen significantly.

Federal support is also drying up. A 30% federal investment tax credit will decrease to 10% by 2016. California, meanwhile, is on track to meet the state-mandated standards of 33% renewable energy by 2020. But once it does, that could reduce the incentive to continue producing solar in the state unless a tighter goal is mandated.

The energy business itself is also changing. As photovoltaic technology has gotten cheaper and energy meters have gotten smarter, it’s now possible to build a more distributed grid where electricity is generated on a smaller scale, house by house. SolarCity, for example, which designs and installs residential solar panels, has allowed individuals to drastically lower their electric bills through PV panels attached to their roofs–and often at prices that are next to nothing.

All of which means that solar power may succeed without more utility-scale projects like Desert Sunlight coming online. First Solar has plans to build a 750-megawatt plant in Riverside, Calif., even bigger than Desert Sunlight or Topaz. But so far, only 200 megawatts of energy have been purchased. First Solar’s Krum says that he doesn’t expect many more large solar stations to come online anytime soon. Future plants may end up being half the size of these new behemoths.

Desert Sunlight is undoubtedly a wonder, a glittering oasis in the desert that is the first of its kind. And as it turns out, it may also be the last.


This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Environment

Watch How NASA Monitors Sand Flying From the Sahara to the Amazon

Millions of tons of Saharan dust land in the Amazon each year

A NASA satellite has been monitoring the movement of sand from the Sahara Desert in Africa to the Amazon rainforest in South America.

The space agency’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) is tracking the massive plumes of dust particles that make the Atlantic crossing from the great African desert to the largest rainforest in the world, where the particles settle and aid plant growth. The phosphorus content of the African dust is an important nutrient in the Amazon.

On average, 182 million tons of dust leave Africa each year, of which 27 million tons is deposited in the Amazon basin, according to data collected since CALIPSO launched in 2006. The amount varies each year, however.

“Using satellites to get a clear picture of dust is important for understanding and eventually using computers to model where that dust will go now and in future climate scenarios,” NASA research scientist Hongbin Yu says.

Read next: This Is How Incredible (and Terrifying) Space Looks in Virtual Reality

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME White House

Obama Vetoes Keystone Pipeline, Only 3rd in Presidency

Keystone Pipeline
Andrew Cullen—Reuters A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, N.D. on Nov. 14, 2014.

President Obama issued his first veto since 2010, striking down a law that would authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, a major symbolic battle between environmental activists and the oil industry.

“Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest,” Obama said in a statement.

The pipeline would help link up to 830,000 barrels a day from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast oil refineries. Over the past six years, the project has become one of the highest-profile environmental debates in the country and could pose problems for some Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential cycle.

But with low oil prices, the 1,179-mile pipeline will likely have less of an effect on both the environment and economy by lowering the chance that it will be completely utilized. The State Department reported last year that the pipeline would indirectly and directly support around 42,000 jobs over two years, but would only employ around 50 people once the pipeline was functional.

The new Republican-led Congress decried the veto before the ink was dry. In a USA Today op-ed, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote that the Administration had blocked a job-creating project to heed the voices of special interests.

“The allure of appeasing environmental extremists may be too powerful for the president to ignore,” they wrote. “But the president is sadly mistaken if he thinks vetoing this bill will end this fight. Far from it. We are just getting started.”

“This shouldn’t be a difficult decision,” they added. “It shouldn’t be about politics, that’s for sure.”

Of course, the Keystone debate has drawn lobbyists on both sides of the aisle and a reason why Senate Republicans brought the bill up first was because it would pass and draw a favorable political contrast. Polls show that around 60% of Americans agree with the GOP’s position.

The Keystone veto was only the third in the Obama presidency.

TIME Environment

Natalie Portman Joins Calls for Harvard to Sell Off Stocks in Big Energy Firms

'As We Were Dreaming' Premiere - 65th Berlinale International Film Festival
Pascal Le Segretain—Getty Images Actress Natalie Portman attends the 'As We Were Dreaming' premiere during the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival at Berlinale Palace on February 9, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Pascal Le Segretain--Getty Images)

Praises campaign of civil disobedience to spur divestment of fossil fuel stocks

Notable Harvard alumni including Natalie Portman and RFK Jr released a letter Friday calling on their brethren to join current students in demanding that Harvard sell off stocks in companies that deal in fossil fuels.

Harvard students have been engaged in a long battle to get the university to divest its $35.9 billion endowment from coal, gas, and oil companies that students say contribute to global warming.

On Friday, lawyers for the university asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year by Harvard students demanding that the school has a duty to stop financially supporting companies that contribute to climate change.

Last week, more than 30 students staged a sit-in in the administrative building that houses the President’s office to demand divestment, and students are starting a competitor to Harvard’s endowment, the fossil-free fund, where concerned alumni can direct donations.

A letter to fellow alumni signed by Portman, Darren Aronofsky, Susan Faludi, Robert F. Kennedy Jr and others praised the civil disobedience of students demanding divestment, but noted that Harvard still needs more pressure to make a change.

“Those students have done a remarkable job in garnering overwhelming student support for divestment, and the faculty too have delivered a strong message,” the letter said. “But so far [Harvard] has not just refused to divest, they’ve doubled down by announcing the decision to buy stock in some of the dirtiest energy companies on the planet.”

The letter also points out the dangers of global warming, the fact that Harvard’s divestment has in the past been a powerful motivator for change, in South Africa during apartheid for example, and that investing those resources in renewable energy will be better for Harvard in the long-run.

The letter also referenced a concept originally stated by Drew Faust, Harvard’s first female president: “The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present.”

Alumni will be joining a teach-in on April 12, and a rally in Harvard Yard on April 13. Some of the alumni will join in a peaceful sit-in around the main administrative building. The letter encouraged all alumni to wear their Harvard gear, out of love for the school.

 

TIME animals

Why Hundreds of Starving Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Up in California

Starving Baby Sea Lions Washing Up On California Beaches
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A sick California sea lion pup sits in an enclosure at the Marine Mammal Center on Feb. 12, 2015 in Sausalito, California.

It's getting so bad that many rescue networks are at capacity

There are now so many young sea lions being stranded on the West Coast that federal officials say they can’t keep up. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued some brutal advice Wednesday: If you see a beached sea lion pup, call the authorities, but be prepared for them not to come—at least for a while.

Normally the marine mammal stranding network, a series of facilities dotted along the U.S. coastline, will send staff to take in any seal or sea lion pup found stranded and do their best to rehabilitate it. But many facilities in the network are nearing capacity as sea lions wash ashore at a much higher than average rate. Since Jan. 1, rescuers in California have taken in about 1,000 pups—nearly four times the typical total for the first four months of the year.

“The reality is that we can’t get to all of these animals,” says NOAA stranding coordinator Justin Viezbicke.

So what’s going on? Experts at NOAA say that the culprit is rising ocean temperatures. (On a call with reporters Wednesday, a NOAA climate expert said that they do not believe the stranding increase is tied to climate change.) The warm temperatures are somehow affecting the squid, sardines and other animals that are the core diet of sea lions, perhaps driving the prey deeper into the water or farther offshore. So when mothers swim off to forage from the Channel Islands, where pups are weaned every year, they are having to stay away longer before they can come back to nurse. With less frequent nursing, pups are losing weight at unprecedented rates, and experts suspect that these weak, under-grown animals are being driven to look for food on their own before they are ready.

“They’re not really capable of diving deep or traveling far,” says Sharon Melin, a NOAA wildlife biologist. “They’re not really capable of being out on their own.” And so the pups are washing up on shore, emaciated.

The root cause of the crisis, officials believe, is the odd wind patterns that aren’t cooling the ocean like they normally do. They aren’t certain of what’s behind the lack of cold winds, but they believe the patterns are creating a ripple effect through the food chain. The sea lions, at the top of that chain, are signaling that bigger things may be amiss among the larger marine food web. “There are a lot of puzzles here that we’re trying to put together,” says Nate Mantua, a NOAA climatologist. “We don’t understand it. It’s a mystery.”

This is the third bleak year in the past decade for sea lion pups. In 2013, up to 70% of all the sea lion pups born the previous year may have died due to environmental events, according to Melin, twice the amount that might not make it to maturity in a normal year. Officials say this year’s pups appear more under-nourished than any they’ve observed in the past 40 years.

And even when pups get to a rehabilitation facility, they might not make it back to sea. The Marine Mammal Center, the largest facility in California’s stranding network, saved about 60% of the animals who came to them in 2013. “The sea lion pups arriving at the Marine Mammal Center may look like barely more than skin and bones,” says Shawn Johnson, the facility’s director of veterinary science, “but these are the lucky ones.”

The mass strandings have not diminished the overall population of California sea lions, which has been thriving since becoming a protected species in the 1970s. Now around 300,000 in number, NOAA’s Melin says that another factor at work in the current crisis may be that the species is approaching its resource limit in the environment. “Based on what we’re seeing at the colonies,” she says, “we should be bracing for a lot more animals to be coming in.”

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