Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

New Satellite Photos Show Climate Change Is Sweeping Europe

Repost from Bloomberg
[Editor: Spectacular photos – click to enlarge.  – R.S.]

Swedish forest fires, retreating glaciers and arid cropland attest to a new reality.

By Jonathan Tirone, April 9, 2019, 5:05 AM PDT
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Dust, sand and smoke hang over Portugal and Spain as seen from the International Space Station on 6 August 2018. Source: ESA

Climate change is picking up pace in Europe, thrusting farmers and power generators onto the front lines of a battle with nature that threatens to upend the lives of the half billion people who occupy the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Last year was the third hottest on record and underlines “the clear warming trend” experienced in the last four decades, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, which operates a network of satellites for the European Union that collects weather, soil, air and water data.

Copernicus lenses captured dozens of images illustrating how climate change is unfolding on Europe’s landscape. The images were made available to coincide with a gathering of 15,000 scientists in Vienna at an annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union, which assesses the issue each year.

The convention in the Austrian capital is a locus of discovery, where scientists present research and compare notes. The European Space Agency, which operates the Copernicus network, is boosting its 2019 presence after it developing a series of open-source data tools designed to help economies adapt to the hotter and drier seasons already impacting crop yields, power generation and river transport.

Fires in Sweden
Heatwaves and little rain led to rarely seen forest fires in Sweden in July 2018. Source: ESA

Rainfall across central and northern Europe was 80 percent below average levels, resulting in agricultural losses and wildfires. Satellite photos showed dozens of Swedish forests burning in July that destroyed more than $100 million worth of woodland.

“As temperatures rose during the year, so did the duration of sunshine,” Copernicus said in a statement. “Parts of central and northern Europe experienced up to 40 percent more sunshine hours than average with Germany being the sunniest on record.”

Alpine Snowfall
Cloudless days let Copernicus snap this shot across the 1,200-km Alps.  Source: ESA

Not all of the impacts are negative. The preponderance of cloudless days in northern Europe helped Germans generate a record amount of solar power last year. Their 45 gigawatts of installed capacity provided Europe’s biggest economy with some 9 percent of its electricity while forcing utilities to integrate more variable flows of power from renewables onto their grids.

 

But that sunshine took a toll on another source of European power—hydroelectricity. Alpine glaciers, whose melting waters help top off hydro power plants across Austria and Switzerland, are disappearing at a faster pace.

“Glacier retreat would have a large impact on the Alps since glaciers are an important part of the region’s ecosystem, landscape and economy,” said Harry Zekollari, a climate scientist in Switzerland. “They attract tourists to the mountain ranges and act as natural fresh water reservoirs. Glaciers provide a source of water for hydroelectricity, which is especially important in warm and dry periods.”

relates to New Satellite Photos Show Climate Change Is Sweeping Europe
Copernicus data show aridity is likely to deepen and spread through mid century. Source: Copernicus Climate Change Service operated by ECMWF

It’s because of those long-term weather trends that that the EU is trying to get more policy makers and businesses to use satellite data and imagery to help planning. Its data feeds Barcelona’s Vortex SL, which aids renewable energy developers to find places with the best wind currents and weather patterns before installing turbines and panels. Marex Spectron Group Ltd.use Copernicus data in forecasting coffee, sugar and cocoa yields. The EU project said it even helped Heineken NV brew a better beer by lowering the amount of water it needs in the process.

 

relates to New Satellite Photos Show Climate Change Is Sweeping Europe
Lush Belgian fields in July 2017 were scorched by heat a year later. Source: ESA

The pain felt by European farmers was evident from space, according to Copernicus, which published images showing how the normally lush cropland of central and northern Europe were burnt crisp by heat and lack of rain.

 

“Dry conditions were especially persistent in Germany, where the April-September period was the second-driest on record, leading to heavy agricultural production losses,” the scientists wrote.

In order to avoid the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change—rising seas, super-storms, famine and war—the world needs to invest some $2.4 trillion a year through 2035 in order to cut fossil fuel emissions. Even a rise of 1.5 degrees would have massive consequences, including a “multi-meter rise in sea levels” over hundreds to thousands of years and a mass extinction of plants and animals.

relates to New Satellite Photos Show Climate Change Is Sweeping Europe
Different crop types around Emmelrod in the Netherlands. Green shows summer crops, red is potatoes, orange is market crops, yellow is cereals and blue depicts grassland. Source: ESA

To avoid the worst outcomes posed by living on a hotter and drier planet, Copernicus is trying to help farmers by giving them access to satellite images overlaid with data, which could help agriculture identify crop strains that can keep up with the changing climate.

Countries need to “develop and consolidate innovative approaches, tools and methods for characterizing high-impact events and quantify loss and damage,” according to the World Meteorological Organization’s state of the climate report.

Silted Bay
Farm runoff silting up the bay by Mont-Saint-Michel during planting season. Source: ESA

 

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    ‘Are You Serious?’ John Kerry Interrupts GOP Climate Denial Logic in Disbelief

    Repost from DESMOG

    By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, April 10, 2019 – 13:27

    John Kerry

    Congressional discussions over climate change have reached such a low point that during this week’s House hearing on the national security risks of climate change, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was testifying, broke down and just asked his Republican questioner, “Are you serious?”

    Kerry’s incredulous question was in response to Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, the GOP star of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, which also featured testimony from former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Kerry’s and Hagel’s testimonies were followed by several hours of, at times, excrutiating questioning from committee members.

    Republicans made a big show of the fact that Massie has an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The conflict with Kerry arose when Massie tried to undermine Kerry’s testimony on climate change because he has a political science degree from Yale.

    Massie said, “I think it’s somewhat appropriate that somebody with a pseudoscience degree is here pushing pseudoscience in front of our committee today.”

    If science degrees are important to Massie, he must have somehow missed the thousands of climate scientists around the world who have studiedpublishedtweetedmarched, and repeated that climate change is real, caused by humans, and having major impacts now.

    During this hearing, Massie wasn’t alone in displaying bizarre logic to attack science and the reality of climate change. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) apparently thought holding up a fossil disproved that humans are causing climate change.

    Climate change has been changing all through the life of this planet. I’ve got a fossil right here from Western Wyoming — a desert — but that once was under an ocean,” he said.

    That was the sum total of his argument.

    Not to be outdone, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) took issue with Kerry’s statement about global warming making existing weather events more extreme by noting: “I remember growing up and having hurricanes in Florida.”

    It all led to Secretary Kerry at one point expressing his frustration to committee chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), saying, “Mr. Chairman, this is just not a serious conversation.”

    And it was not when Republicans were part of it. However, when Hagel and Kerry both spoke, they made clear the point that climate change is a real national security threat and requires action. Meanwhile, the Republicans on the committee indicated they intend to do nothing but continue a long history of delay and denial on climate change.

    Hagel and Kerry Agree: Climate Change Threatens National Security

    Hagel and Kerry spent their time delivering a sober analysis of the risks climate change poses to national security — a position which they repeatedly stressed during the hearing. “Climate change is already affecting national security,” said Kerry.

    Kerry also noted in his opening statement that this has been the position of every federal administration for the last 28 years. He pointed to the first Bush administration, which said in 1992, that climate change was “already contributing to political conflict.”

    We don’t need to wait for more sophisticated climate models to project the security consequences of climate change,” Hagel said in his opening statement. “The impacts of climate change are clearly evident today.”

    Both Hagel and Kerry spoke extensively about the current and future threats posed by a changing climate and had plenty of examples to make the case.

    Among the many threats, Hagel discussed rising sea levels, extreme weather, and the lack of military readiness. Kerry raised the issues of climate migration, global pandemics, water scarcity, and extreme weather’s current contribution to radicalism, which he said would continue to create instability that would be “manna from heaven for extremists.”

    Perhaps the best single example of how climate change is impacting security in the U.S. can be found at Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. This base — the largest American military base — already is dealing with flooding and sea level rise. At one point in the hearing, former defense secretary Hagel mentioned the need to potentially relocate the base in the future due to sea level rise.

    And yet when Republicans in the hearing had a chance to respond to this rather alarming fact, they spent that time mostly ridiculing the idea that any of this should even be discussed.

    Gas Is a ‘Bridge Fuel,’ Secretary Kerry?

    John Kerry was a strong advocate for dealing with climate change throughout the hearing and acknowledged the significant strides freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has already taken to advance the issue in her short congressional tenure.

    However, Kerry also proceeded to repeatedly champion a supposed climate change solution espoused by the fossil fuel industry and did so using industry talking points, referring to natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to climate-friendly energy sources.

    While saying that natural gas would be “a component of our energy mix for some time to come,” Kerry justified this position with a flawed argument for gas.

    Gas gives us a 50 percent gain over the other fossil fuels in the reduction of emissions, so it’s a step forward,” he said.

    Kerry’s take, which compares how “clean” natural gas is compared to other fossil fuels, is true when simply comparing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power to the newest gas power plants. However, that limited comparison excludes the ways natural gas production, and its potent methane contributions, are adding to climate change.

    The concept of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable sources has been debunked repeatedly. And as methane flaring, leaking, and venting in the fracked oil and gas supply chain continue to increase rapidly, the climate impacts of fracked gas can be similar or worse than other fossil fuels.

    Kerry and Hagel adeptly explained the serious national security threats posed by climate change. However, calling natural gas part of a long-term solution to preventing catastrophic climate change isn’t a serious conversation either.

    Main image: Former Secretary of State John Kerry addressing congress. Credit: Screenshot from Congressional testimony. 

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      Tar Sands Crude Shipments Quietly Increased In Oregon, With Regulators In the Dark

      Repost from Oregon Public Broadcasting

      Tar Sands Crude Shipments Quietly Increased In Oregon, With Regulators In the Dark

      By Tony Schick, April 4, 2019 4:48 p.m. | Portland, Ore.

      If oil is moving through Oregon, it’s Michael Zollitsch’s job to know about it. He oversees the state’s emergency responses to oil spills and other environmental disasters.

      But last March, when Bloomberg News reported oil from Canada’s tar sands was rolling through Zenith Energy’s storage facility in Northwest Portland on its way to Asia, it caught him by surprise.

      “News to me!!” he wrote to his staff at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, and to Richard Franklin, a regional spill coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

      “Me, too!” Franklin wrote back.

      It wasn’t the first time oil spill regulators were in the dark about oil shipments through Oregon, and it wouldn’t be the last.

      Documents obtained by OPB under Oregon’s public records law show regulators struggled for months to get straight answers about what kind of oil was moving on trains — dubbed “rolling pipelines” by their critics — through Portland and when.

      Tank cars on the train tracks outside of the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland also contain a placard warning of toxic inhalation.
      Tank cars on the train tracks outside of the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland also contain a placard warning of toxic inhalation. Tony Schick/OPB

      State officials resorted to tracking ships along the Columbia River and guessing how much oil they might be loading based on the amount of ballast water on board — a far cry from the 24-hour notice Washington facilities send regulators for all oil-by-rail shipments.

      When DEQ did learn the chemical makeup of that oil, according to the documents, they discovered a potential risk of toxic inhalation for workers and neighbors of the facility: The oil contains enough hydrogen sulfide that the safety data sheets for the product call for spill responders to wear not just masks but fully supplied air, similar to a scuba tank.

      Megan Mastal, a public relations representative for Zenith, which operates 24 facilities in the U.S. and internationally, said in an emailed statement that the company has been up front with regulators and that the oil it handles does not pose any additional hazards.

      “Our customers trust us with safe and efficient storage of their critical product,” Mastal said. “Zenith provides services to some of the largest companies in the world and has passed their vigorous inspection and vetting requirements. We are proud of our employees and their dedication to our safety-first culture.”

      Oregon Lags

      For six years oil trains have been rolling through Oregon — including one in 2016 that derailed and exploded in the Columbia River Gorge. And yet, the government workers charged with preventing and cleaning up oil spills in Oregon remain as in the dark as ever about many of these shipments. That’s largely because of successful industry lobbying efforts and the reluctance of Oregon’s legislature to pass rules already enacted in neighboring states.

      While lawmakers have passed bans on offshore oil drilling and fracking — both unlikely prospects in Oregon — they have done relatively little to regulate the real and present danger that oil could spill from trains rumbling through the state.

      For the fourth session in a row, the Oregon Legislature is now considering new rules for oil trains. House Bill 2209 would require DEQ oversight of railroad oil spill planning and assesses fees on railroads to help pay for the state’s work.

      Already this session, lawmakers have introduced two bills that would match the stronger requirements in Washington — and let them die without so much as a public hearing. Now, with the session in its 12th week, lawmakers are advancing a less restrictive proposal, House Bill 2209, which was developed in collaboration with Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway, among others.

      This comes as oil-by-rail shipments out of Canada’s oil sands have been on the rise. Existing businesses in Oregon have quietly shifted operations to handle more of it, even as plans for brand new fossil fuel projects have been rejected up and down the Northwest.

      With the loosest rules on the West Coast, environmentalists fear Oregon has become the path of least resistance for an oil that sinks in water and, they say, could devastate iconic fisheries and waterways.

      On the Columbia River, a company known as Global Partners LP successfully changed its port lease to allow for heavy crude at its Clatskanie, Oregon, facility. That facility was originally built as a bio-refinery in 2009 with $36 million in green energy loans and tax tax credits from the state.

      And on the Willamette River, an oil terminal owned by Zenith Energy in Northwest Portland is under construction to nearly quadruple railcar loading capacity at what used to be an asphalt plant.

      “This is really troubling, to see that Oregon’s environmental laws aren’t standing up to oil trains in the way most people would expect. Particularly in the wake of the Mosier oil train disaster. It’s really alarming,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the Columbia Riverkeeper.

      DEQ’s attempts to regulate the Zenith terminal show how ill-informed and ill-prepared the state’s oil spill responders can be under the state’s current regulations for oil by rail.

      Regulators In The Dark

      At various points throughout 2018, Zenith’s terminal manager informed DEQ that the company was switching away from Canadian crude to a lighter oil, and that it was moving away from crude entirely, according to agency emails.

      The company also switched its planned oil spill drill to prepare for diesel instead of tar sands crude — an entirely different type of response.

      “He claims that over the next 3 years the facility will primarily be handling diesel and he does not expect any more shipments of the heavy crude oil for some time,” Scott Smith, who regulates the Zenith facility for DEQ, wrote in an email to colleagues.

      That didn’t happen.

      Zenith continued to handle heavy crude from Canada. Its current construction indicates it is increasing that business.

      In an emailed statement, Mastal said Zenith never told DEQ it was shifting operations away from crude oil, only that it was switching the type of crude oil. She also said a large part of the company’s Portland business plan is now attracting renewable fuels.

      “There appears to be a misunderstanding of industry terminology as it relates to various grades and types of oil,” Mastal said in the statement.

      Records show it took Smith weeks to obtain the chemical data sheets telling him exactly what the terminal was handling, something he usually gets before a new product is being shipped.

      “One of the most important things we look at it is, ‘What is the oil or chemical that spilled and its physical and chemical properties?’” Smith later told OPB. “They determine how we respond.”

      Those sheets contained another surprise: There’s hydrogen sulfide in the dilbit crude, as the industry refers to diluted bitumen crude from the tar sands.

      “I was alarmed to see that the Tar Sands they are working with now require full face air supplied respirators or SCBA’s [self-contained breathing apparatuses],” Smith wrote in an email obtained by OPB. He told fellow regulators at DEQ and the Department of Labor that the tar sands oils had other properties that call for extra precaution.

      According to DEQ, the risk of toxic inhalation from hydrogen sulfide significantly reduces the number of potential responders in the event of a spill, because not all of them or trained or equipped for it. That also limits the speed of response, if people need to be evacuated and work in shifts because of limited air supply.

      Depending on weather, spilled oil containing hydrogen sulfide could pose an air quality risk to neighbors, according to DEQ.

      “Zenith disagrees with the implication there are additional hazards brought on by Dilbit Crude,” wrote Mastal, the Zenith public relations representative in her emailed response to questions.

      Mastal said the concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in the crude handled on site are below federal exposure limits for workers. She said the company has emergency equipment and procedures in place, and that Zenith has extensive experience handling heavy crude, including drills in four of the past five years.

      After questions from DEQ, the company hired an industrial hygienist to assess the risks from the crude oil it is stores. Zenith has since updated its official spill response plan to account for toxic inhalation risks.

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