TIME Environment

A Bad Day for Climate Change Deniers … and the Planet

Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it
Roc Canals Photography; Getty Images/Flickr Select Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Three new studies offer new proof of how bad the earth's fever has gotten

It’s not often that the climate change deniers get clobbered three times in just two days. But that’s what happened with the release of a trio of new studies that ought to serve as solid body blows to the fading but persistent fiction that human-mediated warming is somehow a hoax. Good news for the forces of reason, however, is bad news for the planet—especially the oceans.

The most straightforward of the three studies was a report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirming what a lot of people who sweltered through 2014 already suspected: the year is entering the record books as the hottest ever since reliable records started being kept in 1880—and the results weren’t even close.

Average global surface temperature worldwide was 58.24ºF (14.58º C) — surpassing previous records set in 2005 and 2007 — and making 2014 a full 2ºF (1.1ºC) hotter than the average for the entire 20th century. And before you say 2ºF doesn’t seem like much, think about whether you’d prefer to run a fever of 99ºF or 101ºF. The planet is every bit as sensitive to small variations as you are.

“Today’s news is a clear and undeniable warning for all of us that we need to cut climate pollution and prepare for what’s coming,” said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

When it concerns the ocean, what’s coming may already be here. A sobering study in Nature looked at sea level rise in both the periods from 1901 to 1990 and from 1993 to 2010 in an attempt to sort out a seeming inconsistency: measurements from 622 tide gauges around the world showed that levels had risen 6 in. (15.24 cm) over the past century, but computer models and other tools put the figure at only 5 in. (12.7 cm). Here too, what seems like a little is actually a lot: a single inch of water spread around all of the planet’s oceans and seas represents two quadrillion gallons of water.

This could have meant good news, since it might have indicated that we’d overestimated the impact of melting glaciers and ice caps. But new computer modeling recalculated the degree of sea level rise over the last century and found that the tide gauges had it right all along, and the only thing that was wrong was that sea levels had risen more slowly than believed in the 90 years that followed 1900, and much faster in the 17 years from 1993 to 2010 — close to three times as fast per year. What does that mean in the long term? Perhaps 3 ft. (0.9 m) greater increase by the end of this century if we keep on the way we’re going.

Finally, according to the journal Science, at the same time sea levels are rising higher, marine life forms are growing sicker, with a “major extinction event” a very real possibility. All through the oceans, the signs of ecosystem breakdown are evident: the death of coral reefs, the collapse of fish stocks, the migration of species from waters that have grown too warm for them to the patches that remain cool enough.

What’s more, the increase in the number of massive container ships crossing the oceans has resulted in a growing number of collisions with whales — encounters in which the animals wind up the losers. Seafloor mining and bottom-trawling nets both plunder fish populations and further damage the environment in which deepwater species can live.

“Humans,” wrote the authors of the Science paper, “have already powerfully changed virtually all major marine ecosystems.”

No part of this bad-news trifecta is likely to change the minds of the rump faction of climate deniers — particularly in Washington. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is set to assume chairmanship of the committee that oversees science in general and NASA in particular had this to say to CNN about climate change: “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”

He’s wrong on the facts — as the new temperature readings demonstrate — and wrong on his interpretation of the science which shows that the rate of atmospheric warming has indeed slowed a bit in the past decade and a half. The reason for that seeming happy development is not that climate change isn’t real, but that the oceans, for now, are sopping up more heat than anticipated—see, for example, those migrating fish.

Meantime, Cruz’s Oklahoma colleague Senator James Inhofe is set to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is the same Inhofe who persists in his very vocal belief that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and that even if it is true, it might actually be good for the world.

Ultimately, reason will prevail; in the long arc of scientific history it usually does. How much ocean and atmosphere and wildlife we’ll have left when that happens, however, is another matter entirely.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Travel

Tourists’ Trash Caused the Oddly-Colored Geysers at Yellowstone, Study Finds

Morning glory
Yellowstone National Park Lodges Morning Glory Pool at Yellowstone National Park

Tourist damage is not new for the beloved national park

For anyone who’s visited visited Yellowstone, our nation’s first national park, and marveled at the the vibrant hues of its hot springs—indigos, vermillions, and chartreuses—there’s evidence to suggest that the park’s technicolor spectacle is actually the result of tourist trash—tossed pennies, trash, and random objects.

A recent study conducted by the University in Montana and Germany’s Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences has determined that the thermal springs used to be a deep blue, but vandalism, especially to the Morning Glory Pool, has resulted in a rainbow of colors. And there’s no telling yet the true toll this abuse.

Tourist damage is not new: After WWII in 1947, a park geologist removed 55 wheelbarrows of debris from Yellowstone’s geysers and springs.

With the study’s findings as hard evidence, the national park system can begin an education campaign for visitors to help preserve some of our most precious—and fragile—national treasures. So next time you’re at Yellowstone (or any other park) and want to make a wish by tossing a coin into its gorgeous geysers, save it and donate to the U.S. National Parks Service instead.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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TIME Environment

The Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard of

Palomares
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images The Jan. 17, 1966 catastrophe at Palomares was caused by an accident during the in-flight supplying of a US Air Force B-52 nuclear bomber by a KC-135 of the US Air Force above southern Spain

How the United States whitewashed (literally) a nuclear accident in Spain that still hasn’t been cleaned up

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

This month, with little fanfare, Palomares begins its 50th year as “the most radioactive town in Europe.” If you’ve heard of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island but are unfamiliar with Palomares, you might wonder why. All appear in Time’s top-ten list of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” Palomares moreover has been called the worst nuclear weapons accident in history. So why do so few people outside Spain know about it?

The cover-up and whitewash were figurative, also literal. Though four nuclear bombs were rained on Spain, many vaguely recall a lone “lost” bomb, fished out of the Mediterranean intact.

So what exactly happened? On 17 January 1966, a US Air Force B-52 collided with its refueling plane, killing seven airmen and dropping four hydrogen bombs. Conventional explosives in two detonated on impact with the earth, blowing them to bits and scattering radioactive plutonium—a mutagen and carcinogen—over the farming town of Palomares, population 2000.

English-language journalists, though late on the scene, rushed their books into print, replicating oversights of the rushed cleanup operation and circulating the myth of a single lost bomb. Pioneering female foreign correspondent Flora Lewis screamed One of Our H-Bombs is Missing, borrowing a title from 50s Red Scare pulp fiction. Likewise demonstrating their national allegiances, British reporter Christopher Morris lamented The Day They Lost the H-Bomb and American science writer Barbara Moran, four decades later, decried The Day We Lost the H-Bomb.

Only New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc pluralized the threat with The Bombs of Palomares. He further measured the relative importance of events. “Although the long spectacular search” for the harmless fourth bomb—at the bottom of the Med for eighty days—“was to overshadow the village’s radioactivity problem in [U.S.] public opinion, the contamination was in reality the most significant” calamity. Even so, Szulc’s book, like all the others, gave inordinate attention to the “heroic” sea search and its mesmerizing high-tech submersibles. From Pinewood to Hollywood, Finders Keepers to Men of Honor, moviemakers followed suit, literalizing a single lost bomb, duly found by singer Cliff Richard or actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. (A notable exception: Michael Cacoyannis’s landmark The Day the Fish Came Out.)

So what was of greatest significance in early 1966? In addition to the seven airmen, plus eight more killed in a Palomares supply plane crash, people in Palomares suffered—and still suffer—potentially fatal radioactive exposures. At the time, no was evacuated; no one was officially informed for six weeks. Even then, U.S. Ambassador Angier Duke told the international press corps an unconscionable lie: “This area has gone through no public health hazard of any kind, and no trace whatsoever of radioactivity has ever been found.” Why then were nearly 5000 barrels of hot soil and crops shipped away for burial in South Carolina? Why today is plutonium found throughout the food chain in Palomares? Why is radioactivity evident downwind, in neighboring Villaricos?

Spanish authors and activists have provided answers, along with Israeli feminist Dina Hecht. However, Hecht’s extraordinary documentary film Broken Arrow 29, broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 on the disaster’s 20th anniversary, has never been aired in the U.S. In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary, January 17, 2016, will Americans continue to cover their ears and avert their eyes?

What do Americans need to know? Of crucial concern, many Spanish injuries, fatalities, and miscarriages have been attributed to the disaster. But the United States government assumed limited liability, paying only property damages averaging $250 per person, accepting no responsibility for loss of life or loss of livelihood. To this day, U.S. authorities provide technical assistance, as they argue over “acceptable levels” of contamination. On her last official visit to Spain as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton repeated the usual platitudes and prevarications, even when informed of a secret U.S. dump discovered in Palomares in 2008.

Like this cover-up, the whitewash was not only figurative but also literal. The military’s 200-page Palomares Summary Report contains one solitary tossed-off sentence about radioactive contamination of local homes, not even referenced as such. Unspecified “buildings,” the report hedges, “were washed but in [some] cases this was not sufficient to lower the contamination level to the acceptable limit, and whitewashing had to be done.” In spineless bureaucratese, these passive verb constructions cloud procedures, obscure U.S. military agency, and naturalize what “had to be done.”

So who did what? Along with townspeople’s testimonies, Department of Defense footage first screened by Hecht helps piece it together, as it inadvertently exposes staggering environmental racism. Just as white officers ordered African American servicemen to shovel contaminants into barrels and launder contaminated uniforms, they likewise instructed a black enlistee with gloves but no mask to take radiation readings of buildings. When homes registered as radioactive, servicemen sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses over and over, damaging walls, roofs, and interiors, and exhausting local water supplies. When the homes still read as radioactive, troops whitewashed them, simply painting the plutonium into the surface of the house.

With a half-life of 24,000 years, the plutonium will long outlast the paint, insuring that children’s and animals’ inevitable scraping, licking, and eating of paint chips—so well-documented around lead-poisoning—will have alarming long-term carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. In years to come, periodic sanding for fresh painting will no doubt re-suspend plutonium particles and increase the probabilities of inhalation and lung cancer. Thus, as I summarized for colleagues at the American Historical Association’s 129th annual meeting, U.S. whitewashing has embedded contamination into the very structures of local communities, the very air of local environments.

What now? As the U.S. dickers over decontamination—not to mention reparations or reconciliation—organizers in Palomares promise openness and honesty, despite all the commercial advantages of keeping quiet. As former mayor Antonia Flores puts it, “Since no one cares a damn about us, we won’t forget.” Strategies of memorialization include street-naming, as with Bombards Street, 17 January 1966 Street, and 17 January 1966 Crossing, where I lived over the winter of 2011-12. I continue to conduct research there.

What do I see? Foremost: Resilience. After U.S. forces stole and depleted local water stocks, citrus groves dried up and died. After the flawed cleanup, six successive tomato harvests failed. After the agricultural economy collapsed, an exodus ensued, the population cut in half. But people bounce back.

As my forthcoming documentary photobook shows, whitewashing is resisted not only in annual protests and commemorations but in everyday practices of working, playing, talking and remembering. Farmers still till the land, children go to school, while on the outskirts of town, a rural sex industry has emerged, complicating liberationist calls to occupy liminal spaces. Low-budget tourists now frequent the Palomares environs, and where black servicemen once shifted toxic barrels, there are now naturist hostels and residential communities, a nudist beach with gay cruising ground, and a small strip of eateries, drag venues, gay bars, and heterosexual swingers clubs.

In the nuclear age, as the Palomares disaster semicentennial approaches, marginalized peoples adopt the most marginal lands.

John Howard, a professor of American studies at King’s College London, is the author of “Men Like That and Concentration Camps on the Home Front.”

TIME Environment

BP’s Oil Spill Fines Reduced by Billions

Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director Hahan holds a tri-colored heron after spotting the seriously oiled bird along Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle,
Sean Gardner—Reuters Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P. J. Hahan holds a tri-colored heron after spotting the seriously oiled bird along Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle, Louisiana July 17, 2010. The BP oil spill has been called one of the largest environmental disasters in American history.

The maximum penalty is down to $13.7 billion

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that BP’s maximum fine for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be $13.7 billion, far lower than the previous estimate of $17.6 billion.

Federal magistrate Carl Barbier found that only 3.19 million barrels had been spilled into the ocean, compared with the government’s estimate of 4.09 million.

The third phase of BP’s non-jury trial begins Tuesday, when lawyers will argue over the exact fine per barrel. After that point, the actual fine will be assigned.

[Reuters]

TIME Markets

This is Why Trees Come Down When the Gold Price Goes Up

141339701
Getty Images

A new study establishes a connection between demand for gold and deforestation

The steep rise in the price of gold is a factor in the heightened rate of deforestation in South America, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico, says small-scale miners now find it profitable to try and extract the metal from low-grade seams underneath the region’s rain forests.

With the price of gold rising five times between 2001 and 2013, satellite data shows an area of 1,680 sq km cleared across forests in Brazil, Peru and the Guianas. Much of this was in protected areas, the Guardian reports.

During the second half of the period, deforestation doubled in speed as financial crises around the world caused the price of gold to shoot up.

Agriculture and logging are responsible for clearing more forest, but, researchers say, miners are more harmful to the soil and to water sources because of their use of mercury, cyanide and arsenic.

TIME Environment

Ingested Drugs, Passed Through Sewers, May Threaten Lake Michigan Fish

Study finds exposure to a diabetic drug can throw a minnow's hormones off balance

Researchers warned that a cocktail of ingested medications has slipped past sewage treatment plants and gradually accumulated in Lake Michigan, threatening to alter the hormonal balance of local fish.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences have detected traces of coffee, birth control pills and antibiotics in Lake Michigan’s waters, the Detroit Free-Press reports. The most prevalent drug was Metformin, a medication commonly used to treat Type 2 diabetes.

Fathead minnows exposed to Metformin at the same concentrations found in the lake exhibited unusual hormonal imbalances four weeks later. Male minnows, for instance, began to produce a hormone typically associated with female egg production, though researchers say they have not yet ascertained the long-term effects of the hormonal changes.

“It’s enough to raise an alarm bell that this might be something that causes changes in reproduction of fish,” study author Rebecca Klaper said.

Read more at Detroit Free-Press.

TIME White House

White House Targets Methane to Slow Climate Change

Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North Dakota
Andrew Burton—Getty Images A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. Gas flares are created when excess flammable gases are released by pressure release valves during the drilling for oil and natural gas.

It's 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The White House announced Wednesday morning a new plan to cut methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45% in the next ten years.

The reductions will come in part from fixing leaky equipment and the intentional “flaring” of gas at oil and gas production sites, said Dan Utech, the president’s special assistant for energy and climate change, in a conference call with reporters.

By stopping such waste, the White House said it will save enough natural gas in 2025 to heat more than 2 million homes for a year. The reductions will also be good for industry and the economy, Utech added, since businesses will be able to sell that saved gas on the market.

The U.S. oil and gas industry has grown enormously in recent years, making the U.S. the world’s largest gas producer. U.S. oil production is at the highest level in nearly 30 years. Current emission from the oil and gas sector are down 16% since 1990, Utech said, but with expanding production, those levels are expected to rise by more than 25% in the next decade.

The White House’s initiative comes on the heels of several other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission in recent years, including stricter vehicle efficiency standards and proposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. President Obama has vowed to reduce overall emissions in the U.S. by 26% (from 2005 levels) by 2025.

Methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas, accounts for just 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, but the gas is an estimated 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Both Utech and Janet McCabe of the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, emphasized that the efforts to reduce methane emissions would be part of a larger economic and public health strategy. While Utech said that the administration is “not far enough down the track” to predict whether, and how much, new rulemakings would cost industry, he expressed confidence that costs would be minimal. If the administration’s proposal is realized, it would save 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2025.

McCabe said both her agency and the White House have been working closely with industry groups and other stakeholders. New rules, she said will build on existing initiatives and include new and modified sources that were not covered by the EPA’s 2012 rulemakings.

TIME cities

New York City Bans Single-Use Styrofoam Products

New York City Poised To Ban Styrofoam Food Containers
Spencer Platt—Getty Images A food cart worker filled a styrofoam take-out container for a customer in New York in 2013.

Ban will go into effect July 1

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg left office in 2013, but his plan to ban styrofoam is finally coming to fruition.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced Thursday that stores, food service establishments and manufacturers won’t be able to possess, sell or offer single-use styrofoam containers or cups — even “packing peanuts” — beginning July 1. The reason is purely environmental, as Expanded Polystyrene Foam cannot be recycled.

“These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less,” said de Blasio. “By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, today’s announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City.”

The containers are popular not only in restaurants that offer a takeout option but also among the hundreds of food carts and trucks that populate New York’s streets. Such vendors will have to seek out recyclable alternatives, though businesses with less than $500,ooo in annual revenue can apply for exemptions if using alternative containers would cause “undue financial hardship.”

Though New York is the largest city to ban this type of “dirty foam,” other cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have enacted similar measures.

TIME Environment

Study Links Ohio Earthquakes to Fracking

Ohio Oil Fracking
Ty Wright—Bloomberg/Getty Images A rig hand works the controls while changing out a drill pipe at a Knox Energy Inc. oil drilling site in Knox County, Ohio, U.S., on Dec. 8, 2014.

Fracking wells near fault lines induced the quakes

Fracking wells close to fault lines induced a series of earthquakes in Ohio, according to a new study that paints a clearer picture of the link between the controversial drilling practice and earth tremors.

The study, published this week in The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, found that fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, may have built up subterranean pressure and caused slippage in an existing fault that contributed to dozens of mild earthquakes in Poland Township, Ohio, in March. Two of the earthquakes were large enough to be felt, though they did not do any damage. The study was reported by the New York Times.

Wells further away from the fault line were not related to the tremors, according to the study.

“It appears you have to be quite close to the fault for fracking operations to trigger earthquakes,” Michael R. Brudzinski, a seismologist at Miami University in Ohio and the co-author of the study, told the Times. “Having that sort of information helps us to see that this stuff is pretty rare.”

The research adds to growing concern among geologists that fracking can cause or intensify earthquakes. In April, scientists said for the first time that the Ohio earthquakes were linked to the gas extraction process, prompting Ohio to issue strict permit conditions.

A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told the Times that existing fracking wells were still in production but further fracking has been banned. New York State banned the drilling technique last week, citing concerns over water and air contamination.

[NYT]

TIME Environment

2014 Was Officially the Hottest Year on Record

Statewide Drought Takes Toll On California's Lake Oroville Water Level
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images The Enterprise Bridge passes over a section of Lake Oroville that is nearly dry in Oroville, Calif., Aug. 2014.

And all 10 of the hottest years on record have come after 1998

Scientists have declared 2014 officially the hottest year on record.

The temperature data was released Monday by the Japan Meteorological Association (JMA), one of the four major global temperature record-keepers to do so. The other three are NASA and the NOAA in the U.S., and the Hadley Center in the U.K.

JMA’s preliminary data indicate that 2014’s global average surface temperature was the warmest since 1891, the start of the data. Specifically, it was 0.27°C (0.5°F) greater than that of the period from 1981 to 2010. With 2014 in the lead, the second hottest year on record is now 1998. Both 2013 and 2010 are tied for third, while 2005 is tied for fifth.

All 10 of the hottest years on record have come after 1998, which many scientists attribute to global warming, according to Scientific American.

In 2014, several regions in the world smashed their heat records. California hit record-high temperatures, inducing one of the worst drought’s in history. Australia also hit unprecedented high temperatures in January — and the continent’s so hot this year, too, that people are already frying eggs on sidewalks.

 

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