May 19 News: NOAA warns of rapid, ‘unprecedented’ ocean changes; Your lawn’s planetary impact; Turning waste heat to electricity

NOAA chief warns of rapid onset of ‘unprecedented’ changes in oceans

A combination of climate change, overfishing, pollution and other threats is changing the world’s oceans at an “unprecedented” rate, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday.

“For the oceans as well as the rest of the planet, the rates and scales and kinds of changes that are under way now are absolutely unprecedented,” NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco said in remarks at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “And they are happening even faster than our ability to measure or track some of them, much less have institutions that are responding in a fashion that is appropriate.”

She touted the national ocean policy that President Obama implemented by executive order last year. The policy created a National Ocean Council to coordinate federal planning on a wide range of issues, including climate change, pollution, oil drilling and fisheries.


It also calls for regional bodies to use marine spatial and regional planning, a kind of ocean zoning, to balance competing uses of coastal waters and protect ecologically sensitive areas.

That kind of approach will be important as the climate changes, Lubchenco said.

“It’s pretty mind-boggling to think that we are changing the actual chemistry of the ocean, the physical structure of the ocean, the biological contents of the ocean,” she said. “The scale at which our activities play out is really beyond most people’s ability to comprehend.”

You Have No Idea What Mowing Your Lawn Is Doing To The Planet

Imagine a scenario where tens of millions of Americans are condemned by their own illusions to hours of hot, sweaty, grueling unpaid labor every week involving expensive and potentially dangerous chemicals, ear-shattering machines and fuels that pollute the air and water.

This isn’t some nightmarish dystopian science-fiction plot. It’s happening right now as this nation’s suburban homeowners renew their unending and damaging war against nature to preserve, protect and pamper the foreign organisms that make up the American lawn.

“It’s a constant battle to keep a lawn a lawn,” says Judy Prill, an analyst with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Pollution Prevention. “If you let it go, it will grow back into a forest. “¦ That’s what it wants to do here in New England.”

If you’re skeptical about the potential harm this lawn obsession can do, consider the following: Americans reportedly dump more than 80 million pounds of pesticides and other chemicals onto their lawns and gardens every year. Aside from the potential risks for people and animals coming into direct contact with this toxic crap, pesticides get washed into streams and rivers, ending up as marine pollution in vital places like Long Island Sound.

The EPA also estimates that 5 percent of all air pollution in the U.S. is caused by lawnmowers and leaf blowers, and that Americans spill something like 17 million gallons of gasoline every year while attempting to fill up their lawn machines. That’s more than the Exxon Valdez spilled up in Alaska.

Striking ecological impact on Canada’s Arctic coastline linked to global climate change

Scientists from Queen’s and Carleton universities head a national multidisciplinary research team that has uncovered startling new evidence of the destructive impact of global climate change on North America’s largest Arctic delta.

“One of the most ominous threats of global warming today is from rising sea levels, which can cause marine waters to inundate the land,” says the team’s co-leader, Queen’s graduate student Joshua Thienpont. “The threat is especially acute in polar regions, where shrinking sea ice increases the risk of storm surges.”

By studying growth rings from coastal shrubs and lake sediments in the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories — the scene of a widespread and ecologically destructive storm surge in 1999 — the researchers have discovered that the impact of these salt-water surges is unprecedented in the 1,000-year history of the lake.

“This had been predicted by all the models and now we have empirical evidence,” says team co-leader Michael Pisaric, a geography professor at Carleton. The Inuvialuit, who live in the northwest Arctic, identified that a major surge had occurred in 1999, and assisted with field work.

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Picking up the pieces

State of Play: This week’s failure of Senate GOP and Democratic bills on expanding offshore drilling and nixing oil industry tax breaks respectively highlighted very deep divisions on energy.

But several lawmakers aren’t giving up on finding openings for bipartisan deals — maybe modest ones — despite the strained environment.

On Thursday the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on legislation sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) aimed at boosting deployment of electric vehicles.

Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said several days ago that he hopes the plan can advance.

And next week Bingaman hopes to mark up several bills, including bipartisan measures aimed at speeding carbon capture and storage technologies toward commercialization.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Wednesday that he is planning to meet with Bingaman in the next two weeks to look for areas of common ground, including drilling safety, which is the subject of one bill that Bingaman may try and move next week.

Reid, green groups plot strategy on Clean Air Act defense

Top officials with major environmental groups met with Senate Democratic leadership Wednesday evening to discuss how to protect Clean Air Act programs from GOP attacks.

“I think we all agreed in the room what a high priority it is for public health. We think we have achieved quite a bit so far this year, but we know there will be further attacks from the House Republicans,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).

He spoke briefly with reporters after exiting a meeting in Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office that included senior officials with various environmental groups such as Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and John Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress.

The meeting comes as Republicans — and some centrist Democrats — in both chambers are hoping to block or delay EPA climate change rules, and scale-back some other air quality rules that industry groups allege are burdensome.

A bill to block EPA greenhouse gas rules passed the House in April, but the same measure — and Democratic alternatives to delay the rules or limit their reach — failed on the Senate floor.

More than half of U.S. energy goes to waste — but not for long

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimate that the U.S. loses more than half the energy it generates. That doesn’t include heating and cooling loss from buildings, just energy that vanishes into the atmosphere from machines, industrial processes and electronic equipment. In order to reclaim and recycle some of this energy, the researchers are developing a highly efficient thermal waste heat energy converter. The new device would do double duty. It would cool down electronic equipment including photovoltaic cells in order to keep them functioning efficiently, while capturing the waste heat to generate electricity.

ORNL’s new thermal energy converter The team is developing a device that is only about one millimeter square, and each one delivers only 10 milliwatts — at best. That sounds like a drop in the bucket but it’s nothing to sneeze at when you attach hundreds of these devices to, say, a tiny object such as a computer chip. The principle is based on pyroelectricity, which refers to the ability of some materials to produce a temporary charge when they are heated or cooled. The catch has been getting pyroelectric devices to operate at a high enough level of efficiency to make them cost-effective. The ORNL team came up with a relatively inexpensive cantilevered structure that promises to do just that (a cantilever, broadly speaking, is a structural beam supported only at one end).

Other ways to harvest waste energy from machines

ORNL has gone the high tech road, which is years away from commercial development. However, more conventional means are already available. One example is an a new energy harvesting system up at Thule Air Force Base in the Arctic Circle, which captures exhaust heat from the facility’s generators. You can also harvest kinetic energy from a machine’s vibrations, or from the braking systems in vehicles, cranes, trains and other stop-and-go equipment.