Jan 20 2012

Twitter Link Round-Up: Obama Proposes Moving NOAA to DOI and a Cap and Trade Proposal for Whaling

Published by under News

Photo by Kelci Block

Afraid you missed something interesting in the world of environmental law?  Read on for a (non-comprehensive) list of articles posted on our Twitter feed @WMELSBlog.

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Oct 17 2011

CERN Study Raises Possibility that Cosmic Rays are Responsible for Fluctuations in the Earth’s Temperature, Emphasis on Possibility

Published by under Air,Climate Change

Glaciers and Icebergs at Cape York, via wikimedia

 

A recent paper from the Europe-based CERN laboratory has suggested a potential link between variations in solar activity and Earth’s climate. CERN, best known for smashing atoms, is currently running an experiment to better understand the effect of galactic cosmic rays on cloud formation in the atmosphere. The first findings from this experiment, termed CLOUD (Cosmics Leaving Outdoor Droplets), were published in August in the journal Nature (full article behind a paywall- sorry to all the non-students that likely won’t be able to access it).

The experiment consisted of filling a 26.1 m3 stainless steel tube with various gases found in the atmosphere and bombarding the mixture with cosmic rays. The CLOUD team found that the cosmic rays ionized sulfuric acid particles, yielding nucleated sulfur aerosols. These aerosols are akin (but not quite identical) to particles that act as cloud condensation nuclei– particles that atmospheric water vapor typically must coalesce around in order to form clouds.

The study suggests that cosmic rays striking earth may produce cloud condensation nuclei and, therefore, more clouds. Clouds reflect incoming solar radiation, which could potentially cool the planet. It is important to note that clouds also reflect infrared radiation from the earth’s surface back down to it, warming it. The net effect of cloud cover on global temperature is not well established.

Additionally, the sun plays a role in regulating the relative amount of cosmic rays that reach earth’s atmosphere. In times of heavy solar activity, the sun’s energy is so strong that it essentially forms a bubble or barrier around the solar system, which tends to stop galactic cosmic rays (cosmic rays that originate in other parts of the Milky Way Galaxy). In times of weak solar activity, this barrier is less effective, allowing more galactic cosmic rays into the solar system.

Climate skeptics have seized upon this study to assert that fluctuations in global climate are controlled by cyclical variations in solar activity. The main claim is that recent increased solar activity has led to fewer cosmic rays and diminished cloud cover. Thus, more solar radiation is striking the earth’s surface, yielding higher global temperatures. This runs contrary to the more mainstream belief that anthropogenically-induced increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases are causing global warming.

Does this result mean that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have nothing to do with increases in global temperature? Not quite. The authors from CERN are careful to point out the limitations of the study and never make an assertion that solar activity is directly responsible for fluctuations in global temperatures (the skeptics might have noticed this if they actually read the paper). The paper does not attempt to compare historical solar activity to global temperatures either.

The study merely found that cosmic rays are capable of ionizing certain atmospheric particles to produce nucleated aerosols inside a chamber in a laboratory. The aerosols that the CLOUD team found are similar in structure to cloud condensation nuclei, but were too small to actually act as condensation nuclei. They did not directly determine that cosmic rays influence cloud formation and are not sure about these processes on an atmospheric scale.

The most reasonable thing to take away from this study is that cosmic rays may exert a noteworthy influence on particles in the atmosphere. Additional research will have to determine whether or not these rays impact the formation of cloud condensation nuclei and clouds. Any future knowledge of atmosphere-cosmic ray interactions, whether or not they render the traditional theory of anthropogenic global warming incorrect, are likely to be useful in helping produce more reliable climate and weather models, so further research into this matter is valuable.

This finding serves as a reminder that the processes controlling the Earth’s atmosphere and climate are very complex but it falls short of disproving anthropogenic global warming entirely. For now, the notions of climate change that I grew up with still pass muster.

The Central dogma of Anthropogenic Global Warming:

Central principles of the greenhouse gas effect, via wikimedia

 

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Oct 03 2011

Inspector General Criticizes EPA’s GHG Endangerment Finding, Climate Deniers Celebrate

Published by under Climate Change

Projected thickness of Arctic Ice over 100 year timespan.

 

Last week, the Inspector General for the EPA published its investigation into the procedure that the EPA used in evaluating climate science.  The IG’s report first addressed whether the “Technical Support Document” underpinning the greenhouse gas endangerment finding was a “scientific assessment” according to their definition of the term and if so, whether the EPA followed the proper steps for such an assessment.  It found that the TSD did involve a scientific assessment and that the EPA should have engaged in another round of peer review to assess the underlying science and also should have relied on a wider selection of scientific studies.  The TSD mostly focuses on the findings of the IPCC and the NRC.

Many environmental groups (such as the NRDC) argue that the IPCC and NRC documents themselves are scientific assessments and therefore what the EPA did was not.  It was therefore not necessary to conduct another, deeper peer review as that review had already been conducted within the documents themselves.  The Office of Management and Budget, which sets procedures for such documents, also agreed that this TSD was not governed by the scientific assessment criteria since it was just a compilation of outside science.

Nevertheless, climate skeptics and deniers are claiming that this report not only casts doubt on the procedure, but also on the reliability of climate change science itself.  The IG’s review was requested by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), an outspoken climate skeptic who is now touting the results as a condemnation of climate science in general.

The endangerment finding, which was completed in December 2009, provides the basis for the agency’s new and forthcoming regulations for greenhouse gas emissions, regulations which have been incredibly controversial.  Several states are involved in an ongoing court challenge to the endangerment finding, claiming that the climate science used is not reliable enough for the conclusion reached in the finding and its unclear what effect this report might have on that lawsuit. Continue Reading »

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Sep 30 2011

Twitter Link Round-Up: Keystone XL Hearings and Environmental Hero Wangari Maathai Dies

Published by under News

Photo by Kelci Block

Afraid you missed something interesting in the world of environmental law?  Read on for a (non-comprehensive) list of articles posted on our Twitter feed @WMELSBlog.

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Jul 08 2011

Twitter Link Round-Up: ExxonMobil Spill in Yellowstone River and EPA’s New CO2 Rules

Published by under News

Photo by Kelci Block

Afraid you missed something interesting in the world of environmental law?  Read on for a (non-comprehensive) list of articles posted on our Twitter feed @WMELSBlog.

– NYT: @nytimes Debris and Heavy Flow of Water Hamper Cleanup of Oil in Yellowstone River http://j.mp/nVNT1k

– SA: @sciam A Carbon Tax to Fly to Paris? U.S.-Europe Showdown on Airline Emissions Begins http://j.mp/mR5fZE

– TH: @treehugger Yellowstone River Oil Spill Now Extends 150 Miles Downstream http://j.mp/rjWnKv

– NYT: @nytimes Green: Bahamas Bans Shark Fishing http://j.mp/nmZVqW

– TH: @Treehugger Vietnam Era Weapon Being Used to Clear the Amazon : TreeHugger http://j.mp/q0ykMA

Continue Reading »

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Apr 25 2011

Fracking Problem: Shale Gas may be Worse for Climate than Coal

Published by under Energy

Natural Gas Processing Plant, via wikimedia

Natural gas has recently been touted as a major up and coming energy source for getting us off of dirtier sources such as coal and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.  However, many communities have complained about one of the main methods of harvesting this resource: hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.  The process involves pumping large amounts of water and proprietary chemicals into the shale rock in order to allow the gas to come up faster and easier.  It has already been banned from Pittsburgh, PA and Buffalo, NY and is the subject of a proposed study from the EPA as well.  Now, a new study from Cornell argues that during the fracking process so much methane is released that, from production to burning, natural gas from shale may contribute more than 20% more to climate change than coal does.  This is in part because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the main GHG from coal.  Shale natural gas also about 30% worse for the climate than natural gas gotten by more conventional means.  This study adds another weapon for opponents of fracking to use in trying to get the industry to move away from the practice.  On the other hand, Andrew Revkin in his Dot Earth column points out that the science is still in its beginning stages.  Furthermore, there may be profitable ways to capture the greenhouse gases and make fracking cleaner.  See his article and more linked below. Continue Reading »

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