TIME Environment

White House Looks to Cut Methane Emissions

The Obama administration has directed the EPA to study the key sources of the potent greenhouse gas and develop strategies for reducing emissions. It's part of the administration's effort to sidestep Congress to fight global warming

The Obama administration on Friday announced a new initiative to cut methane emissions, as part of its efforts to go around Congress to combat climate change.

Central to the administration’s methane emissions reduction strategy are new regulations on the oil and gas industry, believed to be a significant emitter of methane, which is the primary ingredient in natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency will study the matter this year to identify key sources of methane emissions, and later in the year will announce specific strategies for reducing those emissions, the White House said in a statement. The Bureau of Land Management later this year will also announce new standards to reduce methane emissions on BLM land.

Methane gas escapes from leaky pipes and wellheads, though exactly how much is not known. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere. Methane accounts for nearly nine percent of all greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity in the U.S.

“Reducing methane emissions is a powerful way to take action on climate change; and putting methane to use can support local economies with a source of clean energy that generates revenue, spurs investment and jobs, improves safety, and leads to cleaner air,” the White House said. “When fully implemented, the policies in the methane strategy will improve public health and safety while recovering otherwise wasted energy to power our communities, farms, factories, and power plants.”

The plan also includes new regulations on landfills, coal mines—which can release fugitive methane in mines—and the dairy industry. The new emission regulations are a part of the administration’s Climate Action Plan announced last June.

TIME Environment

Crazy Ants Are About to Invade Houston

Crazy Rasberry Ants
Crazy rasberry ants are shown Tuesday, May 13, 2008, in Deer Park, Texas. David J. Phillip—AP

One downside of spring

Houston’s KPRC and CBS Houston are warning residents that “crazy ants” are set to “invade” the area with renewed vigor this week.

Tawny Crazy Ants, nicknamed Rasberry Crazy Ants after a local exterminator Tom Rasberry who discovered them in 2002, live under rocks, lawns, and trees, tend to crawl into electrical equipment, damaging machines. Rasberry told KPRC that they are “much more powerful” than fire ants, one of the world’s worst invasive species.

“There is no way to contain them,” according to a December The New York Times magazine profile. “In the fall, when the temperature drops, the worker ants are subject to magnificent die-offs, but the queens survive, and a new, often larger crop of crazy ants pours back in the following spring.”

Originally believed to come from central South America, the crazy ants have spread throughout Texas to southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida because “they can take up residence in everything from a house plant, to an empty container left outside, to an RV, so they’re easily transported by us,” according to Ed LeBrun, an invasive species researcher at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences.

Pest specialists also told Houston news outlets that residents can help stop the spread of the crazy ants by removing mulch and extra wood in their yards.

MORE: Millipedes Blamed for Australian Train Crash

TIME Environment

This Edible Water Blob Could Replace Plastic Water Bottles

A winner of the 2014 Lexus Design Awards, it is cheap and biodegradable, the designers claim

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Fast Company recently profiled an edible, inexpensive packaging for water that is supposed to be a more environmentally friendly and biodegradable alternative to plastic bottles.

This blob-like container called Ooho! is made through a process called spherification, which shapes liquids into spheres. As Fast Company describes it: “A compound made from brown algae and calcium chloride creates a gel around the water…While the package is being formed, the water is frozen as ice, making it possible to create a bigger sphere and keeping the ingredients in the membrane and out of the water.” And it reportedly only costs two cents to make.

Ooho! was one of 12 winners at the second annual Lexus Design Awards 2014, developed by Skipping Rocks Lab designers Rodrigo García Gonzalez, Pierre Pasalier, and Guillaume Couche.

There are edible containers on the market. Wikipearl, sold in a few Whole Foods locations, contains yogurt and ice cream creations in packaging made from calcium ions and particles of nuts, chocolate, and seeds that is supposed to be part of the “culinary experience,” its developer and biomedical engineer David Edwards told Wired in August 2013.

TIME Environment

WHO Report: Air Pollution Killed 7 Million People in 2012

People wearing masks are seen on a hazy day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
People wearing masks are seen on a hazy day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing February 13, 2014. Kim Kyung Hoon—REUTERS

Heart disease, stroke brought on by air pollution led to about 80% of deaths

Air pollution killed 7 million people across the globe in 2012, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the World Health Organization.

Outdoor air pollution was linked to about 3.7 million deaths, with about 80 percent of those deaths the result of stroke and heart disease. The most air pollution-related deaths happened in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, per AFP. Meanwhile, the effects of indoor air pollution — caused by coal, wood, and open-air fires — killed an estimated 4.3 million people, NBC News reports.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” WHO’s Dr. Maria Neira said in a statement. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

For comparison’s sake, a 2008 WHO report estimated outdoor pollution led to about 1.3 million deaths, while about 1.9 million people were killed by indoor pollution. The jump in figures is due to a change in research methods, AFP reports.

[NBC News]

TIME Environment

Take a Tour of Alaska’s Stunning, Eerie Ice Caves With This Video Shot Using a Drone

So happy we're watching this while we're inside where there's heat

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One of the great things about drones is they can explore remote, inaccessible locations, like the gorgeous ice caves in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. This video, “Bigger Than Life,” bills itself as the “first documented drone flight through ice caves” and captures stunning views using a GoPro camera and a quadcopter drone. See? Drones are good for so much more than just delivering your Amazon purchases.

TIME Tourism

Forget the Alps: 100-Lift, 18,000-Acre Mega Ski Resort Planned in Utah

Denmark's Christoffer Faarup goes airborne during the downhill run of the men's alpine skiing super combined training session.
Denmark's Christoffer Faarup goes airborne during the downhill run of the men's alpine skiing super combined training session. Mike Segar—Reuters

Plans are in the works to create what would be by far North America’s biggest ski resort complex, with 100 lifts and more than 750 runs spread over some 18,000 acres—all accessible with a single lift pass.

This week, ski industry leaders in Utah unveiled plans for a project called One Wasatch. Essentially, it’s a Voltron-like mashup of seven existing ski resorts that neighbor and back up into each other in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City: Alta, Brighton, Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbird, and Solitude. The proposal calls for a few connecting lifts to be added that would make it possible to traverse from resort to resort. The result would be that a skier with one lift ticket has instant access to a staggering amount of terrain, the likes of which has never been seen in North America: a grand total of 762 runs over 18,316 skiable acres.

“With this concept coming to life, there’s not a ski area or community in this country that can beat us,” said Jenni Smith, general manager for Park City Mountain Resort, per the Salt Lake Tribune.

Among the biggest resorts in North America right now, Vail, in Colorado, features 5,289 acres of terrain, while Whistler-Blackcomb, in British Columbia, boasts a total of 8,171 acres. Skiers would have to go to Europe to experience anything on par with what’s being proposed in Utah. (France’s Les Trois Vallées is generally credited as the world’s largest lift-accessible ski area, with 183 lifts connecting eight separate resorts.)

(MORE: Why Ski Resorts Are Pushing Lift Tickets in August)

How much would such a pass in Utah cost? When might this plan become a reality? Will it actually happen? As of yet, there are no definite answers to any of these questions.

For now, One Wasatch is merely a concept. It’s an idea that’s been discussed for decades, actually, and that has picked up pace since the region was in the international spotlight while hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. This week, however, represents the strongest, most concerted push thus far to make the vision a reality. All seven resorts—which, remember, regularly battle it out in a fierce competition to attract snowboarders and skiers—are on board. The project calls for an infusion of $30 million for new lifts and other infrastructure, “100% privately funded,” One Wasatch organizers are quick to point out.

For the most part, the larger ski community embraces the idea as well, so long as it’s handled thoughtfully and carefully. “One Wasatch would catapult Utah into the category of a true international destination,” reads a statement from Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, on the One Watch testimonials page. “It will be one of those situations where the sum of the whole is far greater than the parts…a game changer.”

Critics say that One Wasatch will absolutely destroy much of the region’s pristine beauty, while also potentially ruining key watershed areas. “The Wasatch is too amazing of a place to be lost for a marketing ploy by the ski industry,” a group called Save Our Canyons announced in response to the One Wasatch proposal, redubbed as “One Horrible Plan for the Wasatch Mountains” by the organization.

(MORE: How to Ski Like an Olympic Medalist)

Another group opposing One Wasatch, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, released a statement reminding, “These mountains are an ecological and scenic treasure, the source of the water we drink, a place to find solitude and respite from the noise and stress of city life and to experience wild open spaces and wilderness on their own terms.” Speaking to the Salt Lake Tribune about One Wasatch, Jamie Kent, president of the group, added, “I have no confidence they can protect the backcountry.”

TIME climate change

The End of Spring in a Warming World

Climate change affects flowering
Climate change is altering the timing and duration of wildflower blooming Photo by Auscape/UIG via Getty Images

As the planet warms, wildflower blooming and other signs of spring are moving earlier and earlier—altering our idea of what the seasons mean, and creating an unpredictable ripple effect

The first day of spring is finally here, even if it doesn’t feel that way in much of the still frigid East. Of course, the official beginning of spring has less to do with the weather than it does with Earth’s orbit around the sun—the vernal equinox is the day when the tilt of the planet’s axis is inclined neither toward nor away from the sun. (This also happens during the autumnal equinox at the beginning of fall, and of course the dates are reversed for the Southern Hemisphere.) Wherever you are in the world on Mar. 20, it’s all equinox.

But while the calendar stays the same, the seasons seem to be changing. As the planet warms, spring has been springing earlier. A 2009 study in Nature estimated that spring now comes about 1.7 days earlier than it did during the first half of the 20th century. Decades of data collected around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Aldo Leopold’s plot of land in Wisconsin indicates that spring flowers have been blooming earlier and earlier in the year, responding to warmer temperatures. And a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that used 39 years of data concludes that wildflowers in the Colorado Rocky Mountains are blooming weeks earlier than they once did and producing their last blooms later. The bloom season, which used to run from late May to early September, now lasts from late April to late September, some 35 days longer.

An earlier spring, a longer blooming season—are these bad things? A lot of climate change skeptics don’t think so:

I can sympathize—after the winter we’ve had in the East, an earlier and longer spring sounds ideal. But the fact that warming seems to be changing the timing of the seasons should concern us, as any phenologist could tell you. Phenology is the study of periodic animal and plant lifecycles, and looks at how the regular variations in the climate that we call seasons affect life. It’s a rich subject area because nearly every form of life runs on recurring cycles governed by the external cues of the environment. This is how Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists in American history and a keen observer of the seasons, put it:

Many of the events of the annual cycle recur year after year in a regular order. A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows to and through living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their response to the sun, phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land’s inner workings.

Take that wildflower study I cite above. Paul CaraDonna, a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the lead author of the study, was drawn to the research in part because of his interest in the native bees and other pollinators in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, 9,500-ft. above sea level near Crested Butte, Colo. Bees depend on flowers for nutrition, so when the bloom season shifts, it’s going to affect the bees. Despite the longer blooming season, plants aren’t producing more flowers. With the same number of flowers blooming over a longer period of time, bees could face a situation where there are fewer in bloom at any given time. “The competition can go up between pollinators for these resources because there’s going to be lesser availability over a greater period of time,” says CaraDonna. And if bees experience repeated population loss, that can in turn impact the very plants that depend on the insects for pollination.

A earlier blooming season can also place wildflowers in danger if they’re hit by a late frost. The meadows the team studies can experience frosts as late as mid-June. “If the snow melts in mid-April, the flowers can have a month and a half before they get zapped by frost in a fragile state,” says CaraDonna. “If you rely on the flowers and they get hit that way, you’ll have no food.” That’s precisely what happened in 2012, when a frost in mid-May wiped out a huge number of flowers that had bloomed early in the season.

Change the timing of spring, and there’s no telling what can happen—although as Amy Iler, another co-author on the study, points out: “It would be very surprising if everything turns out perfectly fine.” Iler and her colleagues are only beginning to piece together how a shifting blooming season will change the environment of the Rocky Mountain meadows—and it will be even more difficult for ecologists to predict the response elsewhere, in places that lack 39 years of minutely recorded data. (The research was begun in 1974 by David Inoyue, a biologist now at the University of Maryland, and over the years Inoyue and his collaborators have counted more than 2 million separate flowers.) The land is still “an enigma,” as Leopold put it, but the X factor of climate change will only make the mystery of the natural world that much more complex. As we add more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re putting ourselves on the path towards an ever more uncertain future, one where even the seasons themselves become unmoored from the calendar.

But if nature’s response to the phenological changes of global warming still remain to be fully discovered, our emotional response is already being felt, as the novelist Zadie Smith wrote recently in the New York Review of Books:

There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

Smith isn’t quite right—as spring becomes a moving target, there is no normal any longer, new or old. March 20 will remain the equinox. The rest remains to be seen.

TIME Environment

Study Says Climate Change Accelerating Greenland’s Ice Loss

Greenland:  A Laboratory For The Symptoms Of Global Warming
Part of the glacial ice sheet that covers about 80 percent of the country is seen on July 17, 2013 on the Glacial Ice Sheet, Greenland. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

New research is upending scientists' long-held belief that Greenland's ice sheets are stable, showing instead that global climate change is melting the country's ice at a much faster rate than once believed, leading to an increase in the world's sea levels

Greenland’s ice sheet is rapidly melting in areas previously believed to be stable, leading to accelerated rises in global sea levels, according to a study published Sunday.

While scientists have been aware that climate change has caused Greenland’s ice sheet to thin for decades, melting in the sheet’s northeast region has been discovered for the first time, USA Today reports. Ice loss in the northeast region of Greenland has nearly tripled since 2003, with the ice sheet retreating 12.4 miles over the past decade and losing 10 billion tons of ice per year from April 2003 to April 2012, according to the new study

The rapid change in the northeast region “surprised everyone,” said study co-author Michael Bevis, a professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

The loss of Greenland’s ice sheet has been a major contributor to global sea level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for one-sixth of the annual rise. As humans emit increasing quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, the atmosphere more readily absorbs sunlight, warming the planet and causing sea levels to rise. Ice deflects most sunlight from the earth’s surface, but water absorbs heat from the sun. This causes a positive feedback loop: as temperatures rise, more ice becomes water, causing the temperature to rise further and ice sheets like the one in Greenland to melt at an increasing pace.

[USA Today]

TIME Environment

Paris Makes Public Transportation Free Amid Severe Smog

A general view shows the Eiffel tower and the Paris skyline through a small-particle haze March 13, 2014.
A general view shows the Eiffel tower and the Paris skyline through a small-particle haze March 13, 2014. Philippe Wojazer—Reuters

A number of French cities including Paris are making their public transportation systems free this weekend to combat extraordinarily high levels of smog caused by unusually balmy days, cold nights and little wind

A number of French cities including Paris have decided to make public transportation free this weekend in an effort to combat extraordinarily high levels of smog.

The emergency measure was announced by the French Minister for Ecology Philippe Martin on Thursday, AFP reports. The severe pollution is caused by unusually warm weather, a lack of wind, and a combination of cold nights and balmy days. Airparif, a non-profit organization accredited by the Ministry of Environment to monitor the air quality in Paris, reported that Thursday’s level of pollution hit the top of its index and that the agency will remain on alert over the next few days.

In October, the World Health Organization classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic.

[AFP]

TIME Environment

Sweep Our Dirty Rivers Clean

Polluted waters
Illustration by James Dyson for TIME

This concept for a barge that scoops up debris could keep pollution from reaching the oceans

The amount of plastic debris in the oceans has grown a hundredfold in the past 40 years. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but instead floats in giant, immeasurable patches for birds and sea life to ingest. Take the Eastern Garbage Patch, for instance, a large gyre of marine debris located near the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Albatrosses in the area give birth to 500,000 chicks every year, and nearly half of them die–many of them after consuming plastic fed to them by their parents, who think it’s food.

The concept I propose, the M.V. Recyclone, would combat this ever growing problem of plastic waste making its way to our oceans by filtering out debris from the rubbish-stricken rivers that feed into them. By focusing on the polluted rivers, the M.V. Recyclone could tackle a concentrated stream of plastic, catching it before it spreads.

Dyson is the founder and chief engineer of Dyson Ltd.

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