July 20 News: Climate Change is Killing Polar Bear Cubs; UN Considers Environmental Peacekeeping Force

A round-up of climate and energy news. Please post other stories below.

More polar bear cubs die as Arctic ice melts

Polar bear cubs forced to swim long distances with their mothers as their icy Arctic habitat melts appear to have a higher mortality rate than cubs that didn’t have to swim as far, a new study reports.

Polar bears hunt, feed and give birth on ice or on land, and are not naturally aquatic creatures. Previous reports have noted individual animals swimming hundreds of miles (kilometers) to reach ice platforms or land, but this is one of the first to show these swims pose a greater risk to polar bear young.

“Climate change is pulling the sea ice out from under polar bears’ feet, forcing some to swim longer distances to find food and habitat,” said Geoff York of World Wildlife Fund, a co-author of the study.

York said this was the first time these long swims had been quantitatively measured, filling a gap in the historical background on this iconic Arctic species.

To gather data, researchers used satellites and tracked 68 polar bear females equipped with GPS collars over six years, from 2004 through 2009, to find occasions when these bears swam more than 30 miles at a time.

There were 50 long-distance swims over those six years, involving 20 polar bears, ranging in distance up to 426 miles and in duration up to 12.7 days, according to a paper for presentation on Tuesday at the International Bear Association Conference in Ottawa, Canada.

Related Posts: “Bye-Polar Disorder: Judge Upholds ‘Threatened’ Listing for Polar Bear, Leaving It on Road to Extinction”

UN security council to consider climate change peacekeeping

A special meeting of the United Nations security council is due to consider whether to expand its mission to keep the peace in an era of climate change.

Small island states, which could disappear beneath rising seas, are pushing the security council to intervene to combat the threat to their existence.

There has been talk, meanwhile, of a new environmental peacekeeping force – green helmets – which could step into conflicts caused by shrinking resources.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, is expected to address the meeting on Wednesday.

But Germany, which called the meeting, has warned it is premature to expect the council to take the plunge into green peacemaking or even adopt climate change as one of its key areas of concern.

“It is too early to seriously think about council action on climate change. This is clearly not on the agenda,” Germany’s ambassador to the UN, Peter Wittig, wrote in the Huffington Post.

Boulder’s plan for 90% wind power called off over ballot row

Weeks of “intensive” talks over a new power deal including a major wind energy component have broken off between utility Xcel Energy and the Colorado city Boulder.

City staff had wanted to offer residents a vote in November on the Xcel energy deal including the wind package and an alternative option of setting up a new municipal utility.

However, Xcel insisted that a third option, a 20-year Xcel power deal without a wind energy component, be also offered to city voters in the fall.

City staff said they had advised Xcel multiple times that council support for a standalone franchise was unlikely, and that during each of these conversations, the utility’s representatives had indicated they wanted to keep negotiating and take that issue “under advisement” later.

Last week Xcel communicated a final determination that it would not agree to a wind deal at all if the standalone franchise was not a part of the proposal to council.

Xcel has been providing electricity to Boulder homes and businesses without a franchise agreement since last year, but the city council said another 20-year deal was too long to be dependent on coal power.

U.S. government to install fuel cells at 8 military posts

The Energy Department said on Tuesday it would install 18 fuel cell backup power systems at eight U.S. military posts, as part of a partnership with the Defense Department to bolster energy security.

“Projects like these fuel cell systems will help reduce fossil fuel use and improve energy reliability at military installations across the country,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the U.S. Army and Air Force Energy Forum.

Players from the Pentagon, industry, think tanks and Congress were discussing ways to help the military cut its appetitive for fuel at the forum, outside Washington.

The U.S. military used about $13.2 billion of petroleum in military operations in 2010, Chu said.

Fracking at Drinking Water Source for 80,000 Pennsylvanians Raises Alarms

Documents and interviews reveal that one Pa. water utility has already leased its watershed to gas drillers — and many others are being courted.

Cynthia Walter, an ecologist at St. Vincent College outside Pittsburgh, gets a lot of emails from local wildlife enthusiasts asking about “this bird” or “that amphibian.”

But one day last year she got an uncommon request to inspect the forest cover around the Beaver Run Reservoir via Google Earth. The 1,300-acre lake is the main source of drinking water for 80,000 residents in southwestern Pennsylvania. It also rests atop the enormous Marcellus Shale gas reserve.

“Are those natural gas wells on the peninsulas?” she recalls the email sender asking.

Immediately, Walter spotted a square of barren earth on the satellite map. Later she learned that a company called CNX Gas had drilled more than a dozen wells on that bald patch from two sprawling well pads, using a controversial technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, to release gas trapped in layers of shale rock deep underground.

“I was kind of shocked. I’ve been on Beaver Run for 27 years and had no idea,” Walter said. Nor was she aware that over the past decade or so about 100 shallow natural gas wells had been drilled throughout the reservoir.

Staff Tells N.R.C. That U.S. Rules Need Overhaul After Fukushima

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rules are a patchwork that needs to be reorganized and integrated into a new structure to improve safety, the agency’s staff told the five members of the commission on Tuesday at a meeting.

The session was called to consider reforms after a tsunami caused the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. But how speedily the commission will take up the recommendations is not clear.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, the nuclear industry agreed to bring in assorted extra equipment, including batteries and generators, to cope with circumstances beyond what the plants were designed for. Such preparations are among the reasons that the commission has suggested that American reactors are better protected than Fukushima was. But back then, because their focus was on a potential terrorist attack, much of that equipment was located in spots that were not protected against floods, staff officials said.

“The insight that we drew from that is that if you make these decisions in a more holistic way, and you are more cognizant of what kinds of protections you are trying to foster, perhaps you can do them in a more useful way,’’ Gary Holahan, a member of the staff task force that reported to the commission, said on Tuesday.

Another likely area of restructuring is to review the distinction that the commission makes between “design basis” and “beyond design basis” accidents. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the commission and a predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, issued construction permits for the 104 commercial reactors now running, they established requirements for hardware and training based on the safety factors arising from the characteristics of each site, including its vulnerability to flood or earthquake. Those are known as design-basis accidents.

Nano Scale Energy

Modern electronics as we know them, from televisions to computers, depend on conducting materials that can control electronic properties. As technology shrinks down to pocket sized communications devices and microchips that can fit on the head of a pin, nano-sized conducting materials are in big demand. Now, Prof. Eran Rabani of Tel Aviv University’s School of Chemistry at the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, in collaboration with Profs. Uri Banin and Oded Millo at the Hebrew University, has been able to demonstrate how semiconductor nanocrystals can be doped in order to change their electronic properties and be used as conductors. This opens a world of possibilities, says Prof. Rabani, in terms of applications of small electronic and electro-optical devices, such as diodes and photodiodes, electric components used in cellular phones, digital cameras, and solar panels.

Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to “nanotech”) is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally, nanotechnology deals with structures sized between 1 to 100 nanometer in at least one dimension, and involves developing materials or devices possessing at least one dimension within that size. Quantum mechanical effects are very important at this scale, which is in the quantum realm.

Solar panels are typically made from a pn junction. This is an interface between two regions in a semiconductor crystal which have been treated so that one is a p-type semiconductor and the other is an n-type semiconductor; it contains a permanent dipole charge layer.

When they absorb light, the junction separates the negatively charged electrons and the positively charged holes, producing an electrical current, explains Prof. Rabani. “With this new method for doping nanocrystals to make them both p and n type, we hope that solar panels can be made not only more efficient, but cheaper as well,” he says. This research has been published recently in the journal Science.


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