Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Drilling the Arctic comes with a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill

Imagine an oil spill off the coast of San Diego. Now imagine the nearest port from which to launch an emergency response is in Seattle, more than a thousand miles away, and that San Diego is suddenly bereft of grocery stores, leaving most residents dependent on the ocean for sustenance. Then take the Southern California ocean in your mind’s eye, increase the biomass, encase it in ice, bathe in darkness for a few months, and sprinkle with polar bears. That’s what an oil spill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea would look like.

Arctic sea ice.
NASA/Kathryn Hansen
Whether such a spill has a chance to happen is largely dependent on what the Interior Department does with a draft Environmental Impact Statement released this month by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The report examines Lease 193, a controversial sale that, in 2012, enabled Shell to drill the first exploratory wells in the Chukchi in decades. Since then, drilling has been held up by Shell’s own grave missteps and by a series of lawsuits, which prompted an appeals court this January to throw out the previous environmental impact statement because it cited an “arbitrary and capricious” amount of recoverable oil....
Read the rest here. 

Why are Hopi rangers impounding Navajo sheep?

Caroline Tohannie is an 84-year-old great-grandmother who raises sheep and weaves traditional Navajo textiles in northern Arizona. On Oct. 22, her sheep were confiscated. 
Tohannie has lived her entire life on Black Mesa, an arid, tawny chunk of land once veined with glittering coal and now studded with slag heaps and waste ponds. Both Hopi and Navajo claim it among their ancestral homelands; before Europeans showed up, the tribes’ relationship was “one largely of peaceful co-existence and intertribal cooperation,” writes historian and Navajo activist John Redhouse. The Hopi lived in agricultural villages atop the mesa, while the more transient Navajo grazed their livestock below.
When the U.S. government forced Navajo into internment in the 1860s, those who managed to escape fled to what’s now Hopi land at Black Mesa. Later, encroachment from white settlers forced more Navajo onto the Hopi reservation, and what eventually became an ongoing, century-long land dispute was birthed. It culminated in the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which drew an arbitrary line down the center of Black Mesa, splitting it between the two tribes. Navajos living on Hopi land were forced to relocate, as were Hopi living on Navajo land. 
Ultimately, more than 12,000 Navajos were forced from their homes, compared to just 100 or so Hopis. It was the largest forced relocation since the 1880s. 
But some Navajo families refused to leave....
Read the rest here. 

A bright spot for climate activists in an otherwise dismal election.

Matt Isenhower was sick of sitting in traffic. As the 34-year-old Navy veteran from Redmond, Washington, van-pooled 80 minutes to and from his job at Amazon in Seattle each day, he had plenty of time to lament the state Senate’s refusal to invest in mass transit. Roughly 58 percent of Washington’s carbon emissions come from the tailpipes of cars, trucks and other vehicles, and the Republican-controlled Senate had also stymied Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempts to forge a bipartisan agreement to limit greenhouse gasses.
Hoping to end the gridlock, Isenhower decided to run for state Senate. With his freshly shaven good looks, military background and Harvard MBA, Democrats thought Isenhower had a good shot at unseating Republican Andy Hill. And in this election year, that was a big deal: If liberals could take just two seats in Washington’s Senate, Inslee — a clean-energy champion and one of America’s greenest governors — would have a pro-environment majority in both chambers. There’s no doubt what he could do with that kind of opportunity: Next year, Inslee hopes to release a sweeping plan that could make Washington the second state in the nation (after California) to slash carbon emissions across the economy by putting a price on them....

Read the rest here. 

Virus implicated in sea star wasting disease

Last fall, after millions of West Coast starfish were found dead and dying, a team of 25 microbiologists, epidemiologists, marine biologists and other scientists from around the country set out to determine what was killing them. Now they have an answer — and even more questions. 
Here’s what they know: The culprit responsible for one of the most deadly marine diseases ever recorded is a type of densovirus, a microbe that usually attacks crickets and other insects. While scientists had never associated densovirus with marine invertebrates before, it’s been in the ocean for at least 72 years: The researchers found traces of the virus in ethanol-preserved starfish specimens from the 1940s and in healthy sea urchins alive today in Hawaii. 
But here’s what they don’t yet know: If the virus has been around for so long, why did it go from benign microbe to purveyor of an epidemic that, since June 2013, has caused up to 95 percent of local sea star populations from Baja California to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to dissolve into puddles of goo, altering the makeup of intertidal ecosystems for years to come? 
... Read the rest here

Monday, November 3, 2014

Blog dump, part the second

Guys! I am the worst at updating this. I'll do better, I swear.

A few High Country News blogs from the last month:

1. If you spent any time on the internet last week, you probably saw the photos: A giant, roiling mass of 35,000 walrus crowded onto a beach in northwest Alaska. The photos, captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were featured on the BBC, the Associated Press and more Twitter and Facebook feeds than anyone could count.

Most reports — with the exception of a few ultra-conservative sites — decisively linked the record numbers of on-shore walrus to record low sea ice offshore, and overnight, the walrus became an international symbol of climate change. The New York Times called the situation a “walrus crisis,” and NBC News reported that it was a “ very visual sign of what wildlife scientists know and worry about: From the Arctic to Antarctica, some species are having to adapt, or die, in the face of the long-term threat of a warming planet.”

But two walrus experts currently using a National Science Foundation grant to analyze recent, historic and prehistoric walrus samples to piece together the species’ 4,000-year history say that we don’t understand enough about “normal” walrus behavior to know whether the massive haul-out is, in fact, unusual....

2. For all the strides female firefighters have made in the last few decades, wildland firefighting is still, at it’s heart, a men’s club. Only 10 percent of wildland firefighters in the U.S. are women, and across the West, recruitment and retention are ongoing challenges. Yet nowhere is this more evident than in California, where a series of lawsuits meant to get more women onto the front lines have seemingly backfired, leaving women in what some argue are worse straits than before.....

3. If you live in a city, the U.S. Geological Survey has some bad news for you: There’s a good chance your water is contaminated. A USGS study released earlier this month monitored more than 200 streams from 1992 to 2011 and found that the number of urban waterways contaminated with pesticides increased from 53 percent in the 1990s to 90 percent the following decade. Most pollutants were found at levels only harmful to aquatic life like fish, frogs and insects, while the number of streams with contaminant levels that pose a risk to human health actually dropped. Yet new chemicals are still permeating the environment and our understanding of their negative effects is limited.

Still, the USGS study is the country’s most comprehensive assessment of water quality to date, and it does offer some good news — or at least, what passes for good news on the environmental beat.

4. It’s rare that a piece of legislation containing the word “wilderness” stands a chance in Congress these days, so when I was invited to fly over a proposed 37,000-acre parcel in southwest Colorado that could actually make it onto the president’s desk, I jumped at the chance. The fact that it was a crisp, clear autumn morning I would have otherwise spent in front of a computer really had nothing to do with it, I swear....

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Blog dump!

Between moving, traveling, getting engaged and becoming a dog owner, I've been terribly remiss in keeping this thing updated. Here are a few of my latest stories for High Country News:

1. Sweeping new rule for Alaska's predator control: Federal versus state wildlife politics get even hotter.

When Jim Stratton, deputy vice president for the National Parks Conservation Association, heard last week that the National Park Service had announced a sweeping new rule banning the manipulation of predators and prey in Alaska’s national preserves, his reaction was — to put it mildly — unfettered joy. “This is totally exciting news,” he says. “I’ve only been working this for ten years. Game on.”

The reaction of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation? A little more tepid. Director Doug Vincent-Lang sees any attempt by the feds to usurp Alaska’s wildlife management authority as overreach, and this new rule — which maintains hunting rights on Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves but bans certain controversial practices — is overreach at its worst: “unfounded and unjust,” he told Alaska Dispatch News.

The proposed rule is currently up for public comments, and will likely be implemented next year. It prohibits the baiting of brown bears, the killing of wolves and coyotes when pups are in tow, and the use of artificial light to kill black bears in their dens. It also pre-emptively prohibits any other practice “with the intent or potential to alter or manipulate natural predator-prey dynamics.” In other words, killing predators to boost ungulate populations will no longer be allowed in Alaska’s national preserves.

To understand just how big this is, it helps to backtrack to 2002, when former Republican governor Frank Murkowski took office...

As always, to read the entire story, just click here. 

Photo courtesy John Burch

2. The nice folks at the National Parks Conservation Association hooked me up with former Alaskan governor Tony Knowles for his take on Alaskan wildlife management and the new rule. Read my interview with him here.

3. Manmade quakes shake the Southwest: Tremors in Colorado and New Mexico linked to coalbed methane extraction.

Colorado, northern New Mexico and even western Kansas felt their beds shake. Historic buildings crumbled and chunks of mountainsides slid onto highways, but no injuries were reported in the 5.3 magnitude quake that the New York Times deemed “the largest natural earthquake in Colorado in more than a century.”

Except that it wasn’t natural at all. A study released Monday in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America confirms what scientists have suspected for years: That the 2011 quake — along with dozens of others in the Raton Basin of Colorado and New Mexico — were caused by a byproduct of coalbed methaneextraction. Other studies have made similar connections in Oklahoma and Ohio, but this is the first to conclusively link oil and gas development with increased earthquake frequency in the Southwest.

It also skews the popular notion that fracking alone is responsible for tremors in oil and gas country. U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist Bill Barnhart, who reviewed the study and has worked in the Raton Basin, emphasizes that the human-induced seismicity there is “completely unrelated” to fracking.

Instead, the culprit is coalbed methane extraction — or, more specifically, the wastewater it produces...

Again, to read the whole thing, click here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alaskan cruise ship passengers to get a dose of climate change education

Two big things have happened since John Neary arrived in Alaska's rainy capital city 33 years ago: Juneau's most famous attraction, the Mendenhall Glacier, has receded by more than a mile; and the number of visitors to the glacier has nearly tripled, to 450,000 a year. “On Monday afternoons, the busses are lined up 30 deep,” Neary says. “The place is not suited to the volume of traffic it's receiving.”

The surge can largely be explained by an increase in Alaskan tourism over the last few decades. But visitors have more than doubled in the past 16 years alone, and at least part of that can be attributed to “last chance tourism,” or the flow of people rushing to see at-risk places before they're destroyed by climate change....

Read the rest here:

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