AmeriScan: December 4, 2002

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UN Hosted Talks Link Energy, Climate Change

NEW YORK, New York, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - The link between energy and climate change was the focus of a discussion Tuesday by experts at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York.

In his introductory remarks, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that there is no time to lose "if we are to learn both to use energy differently, and to use different energy sources - and if we are to ensure that that knowledge comes to benefit the billions of people who today lack any access to modern energy at all."

"Not only does this issue affect our lives," Annan added. "More than anything, it will affect the lives of our children and grandchildren. That is why we cannot remain indifferent about it."

Tuesday's speakers included Professors Rajendra Pachauri, Director-General of Tata Energy Research Institute and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Professor Nebojsa Nakicenovic, project leader at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and professor at the Technical University of Vienna.

Pachauri discussed how carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere have increased in recent decades, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. While concentrations of CO2 had remained stable over the past 1,100 to 1,200 years, "there's been a sudden increase" since the late 19th century, he said, "which clearly has had a major impact on the climate of this Earth."

The rising CO2 levels have led to rising global temperatures, Pachauri said, noting the problem will continue to worsen unless steps are taken to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Today's concentration [of atmospheric CO2] has not been exceeded during the past 420,000 years, and likely not in the past 20 million years," Pachauri noted. "This is the extent to which we are interfering with the Earth's stability and systems."

Among the current and future effects of global warming are sea level rise from melting glaciers and ice caps, changing weather patterns that will lead to severe drought in some areas and flooding elsewhere, and the spread of tropical diseases throughout the human population.

Carbon emissions have increased by about 1.7 percent per year since the Industrial Revolution, said Nakicenovic. "Today from energy, we emit about six billion tons of carbon" per year.

Changing that pattern will require a major investment in new technologies that reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by energy consumption. But it may take 20 to 70 years to disseminate such technology, once it is developed, to about 80 percent of the energy sector, Nakicenovic warned.

The UN talks stood in contrast to another set of talks being held in Washington DC, sponsored by the U.S government. At those talks, several Bush administration officials have pointed to ongoing uncertainty about the causes and results of climate change as support for their plans to spend the next decade studying the issue, rather than taking immediate action.

Among the criticisms leveled by the U.S. and other developed nations against the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing emissions of six greenhouse gases, is that developing nations are asked to shoulder little of the burden of reducing emissions.

But Nakicenovic noted that while 80 percent of the world's population lives in the Southern Hemisphere, in developing nations, those nations are responsible for just 20 percent of the world's economic activity - and a comparably small proportion of the world's energy use.

The talks were the third in a series by Secretary-General Annan on issues outside the normal range of UN topics and on matters at the forefront of both the humanities and natural sciences.

"My hope with the series is to give us a chance to come together and learn more about issues that affect us all - not only in our work, but in our lives," said Annan.

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Global Warming Could Hamper Ocean Sequestration

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Proposed projects to store carbon dioxide (CO2) deep in the ocean could be undermined by climate change, new research suggests.

The direct injection of unwanted CO2 deep into the ocean is one suggested strategy to help control rising atmospheric CO2 levels and mitigate the effects of global warming. But, like the problems associated with the long term storage of nuclear waste, finding a safe place to sequester the carbon may be more difficult than scientists first anticipated.

Because the atmosphere interacts with the oceans, the net uptake of carbon dioxide and the oceans' sequestration capacity would be affected by a change in climate. Just how effective carbon sequestration would be, in light of projected climate change, has not been studied before.

"Through various feedback mechanisms, the ocean circulation could change and affect the retention time of carbon dioxide injected into the deep ocean, thereby indirectly altering oceanic carbon storage and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration," said Atul Jain, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Where you inject the carbon dioxide turns out to be a very important issue."

Estimating the impact of carbon injection is complicated because of a limited understanding of climate and oceanic carbon cycle feedback mechanisms.

To investigate the possible effects of feedbacks between global climate change, the ocean carbon cycle and oceanic carbon sequestration, Jain and graduate student Long Cao developed an atmosphere-ocean, climate-carbon cycle model of intermediate complexity. The researchers then used the model to study the effectiveness of oceanic carbon sequestration by the direct injection of carbon dioxide at different locations and ocean depths.

Jain and Cao found that climate change has a big impact on the oceans' ability to store carbon dioxide. The effect was most pronounced in the Atlantic Ocean.

"When we ran the model without the climate feedback mechanisms, the Pacific Ocean held more carbon dioxide for a longer period of time," Cao said. "But when we added the feedback mechanisms, the retention time in the Atlantic Ocean proved far superior. Based on our initial results, injecting carbon dioxide into the Atlantic Ocean would be more effective than injecting it at the same depth in either the Pacific Ocean or the Indian Ocean."

Future climate change could affect both the uptake of carbon dioxide in the ocean basins and the ocean circulation patterns themselves, Jain said.

"As sea surface temperatures increase, the density of the water decreases and thus slows down the ocean thermohaline circulation, so the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide also decreases," Jain explained. "This leaves more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, exacerbating the problem. At the same time, the reduced ocean circulation will decrease the ocean mixing, which decreases the ventilation to the atmosphere of carbon injected into the deep ocean. Our model results show that this effect is more dominating in the Atlantic Ocean."

"Sequestering carbon in the deep ocean is, at best, a technique to buy time," Jain concluded. "Carbon dioxide dumped in the oceans won't stay there forever. Eventually it will percolate to the surface and into the atmosphere."

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1.2 Million Acres Proposed as Owl Critical Habitat

TUCSON, Arizona, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed designating 1.2 million acres of critical habitat for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl in southern Arizona.

The designation would require federal agencies to evaluate their projects and the permits they issue to ensure that they leave intact an interconnected system of verified nesting and suitable dispersal habitat extending north from the Mexican border to north of Ajo, Arizona and to southern Pinal County. The mix of dense Sonoran desert scrub and semi-desert grasslands in the proposed area is considered essential to the endangered population's survival - serving as breeding and sheltering habitat and stepping stones for dispersal and required movement between groups.

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A cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. (Photo courtesy USFWS/Arizona Ecological Services Field Office)
If adopted as proposed, the designation would replace the 730,000 acre critical habitat established in 1999, which was overturned by the Arizona District Court in September 2001. Most of the acreage increase results from inclusion of federal land, including National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Refuge System, and Bureau of Land Management.

Last year, a coalition of plaintiffs filed suit challenging the validity of the USFWS listing the Arizona population of the pygmy owl as endangered and the 1999 designation of critical habitat. The pygmy owl's endangered status in Arizona was upheld in federal court, but the USFWS suspended its critical habitat designation pending completion of a more rigorous economic analysis.

"Today's proposal identifies areas where we should focus conservation activities to help conserve the pygmy owl and assure that the Federal government does not contribute to habitat loss that would impede the owl's recovery," said Dale Hall, USFWS Southwest regional director. "Our proposal identifies those areas that are essential to the conservation of the pygmy owl. It incorporates many of the recognized tenets of conservation biology that are also emphasized in the recommended recovery strategy for the pygmy owl."

A draft economic analysis of the proposed critical habitat designation projects that over the next 10 years, the pygmy owl's listing and critical habitat designation will cost between $70 to $108 million, with $33 to $52 million of those costs resulting from critical habitat designation alone.

The bulk of projected costs would be borne by the housing development and mining industries when they seek federal dollars or permits to modify washes and streams and/or discharge pollutants. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) activities, Bureau of Land Management grazing, federal highway projects, and park, monument and refuge management are projected to incur some costs protecting individual pygmy owls, but of those entities, only the INS is expected to have expenses associated with critical habitat for the tiny owl.

The USFWS is required to consider economics when establishing critical habitat, but is not permitted to consider economic impacts when evaluating whether a species needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"We have some leeway when weighing economic costs verses conservation benefits when designating critical habitat, as long as those considerations don't result in extinction of the population," said Hall. "We are earnestly seeking public input in our decision making process."

A public hearing to receive information and suggestions will be held from 6:30 - 9 pm on January 23, 2003, at the Tucson Convention Center in Tucson.

The proposal, the draft economic analysis, maps, and other pygmy owl information are available at: http://arizonaes.fws.gov

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UV Radiation May Not Be Linked to Frog Declines

SAN DIEGO, California, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Two new reports cast doubt on the importance of ultraviolet-b radiation (UV-B) as a factor driving amphibian population declines.

Because UV-B has been shown in field and laboratory experiments to cause deformities and increased mortality in amphibian embryos, some scientists have contended that increases in UV-B from thinning of atmospheric ozone have contributed to declines of frog populations worldwide. However, one of the shortcomings of this earlier research has been a lack of knowledge about the actual exposure of amphibians to UV-B in their natural habitats.

New field studies presented in the journal "Ecology" suggests that UV-B may play little or no role in amphibian declines. The research was performed by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Washington, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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A boreal chorus frog, Pseudacris maculata (Photo courtesy USGS)
"This is only the second study to look at how the distribution of amphibians relates to potential UV-B exposure," said USGS research ecologist Michael Adams. "Most previous studies only addressed physiological effects of UV-B but did not provide evidence that any negative effects translated into population losses."

Research by Adams and his colleagues showed that dissolved organic matter in the water absorbs UV-B in amphibian habitats and protected 85 percent of the amphibian habitats the researchers sampled.

This study sampled 136 potential amphibian breeding sites in the Olympic Mountains of Washington and the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and measured how well UV-B could penetrate the water. The levels of dissolved organic matter found in this study were high enough to protect the majority of amphibian populations from the levels of UV-B that are known to be harmful to amphibians.

The second study, which began in 1986, discussed the breeding behavior of boreal chorus frogs at a pond in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains west of Fort Collins, Colorado. USGS researcher Stephen Corn and his colleagues observed that the timing of breeding depended on snow.

In years with below average snow frogs bred in mid-May because the snow melted earlier, and in years with heavy snow accumulation breeding was delayed until mid to late June. These observations were combined with satellite based estimates of UV-B.

The scientists found that frogs breeding in May are exposed to less UV-B than frogs that breed in June.

Another study by scientists at Oregon State University had shown that boreal toad eggs developed in shallower water in years with low snow accumulation. Because penetration of UV-B in water diminishes with increased water depth, scientists in that study had suggested that toad embryos received greater UV-B exposure in low water years and that the UV-B exposure could be a factor in the species' decline.

"The results of our study suggest that the timing of breeding must also be taken into account, and that the earlier breeding after dry winters may alleviate some of the UV-B exposure resulting from shallower water," Corn said.

The research is part of an international effort to learn why amphibians are disappearing in the United States and across the globe. Among the suggested causes are weakened immune systems caused by pollution, exposure to UV radiation and other problems, leaving amphibians vulnerable to viral and fungal infections.

This week, scientists and collaborators are meeting at the San Diego Zoo to exchange information on the latest studies and plan research activities for 2003.

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Lawsuit Seeks Protection for Idaho Ground Squirrels

BOISE, Idaho, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Three environmental groups have filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failing to determine whether the southern Idaho ground squirrel warrants listing as an endangered species.

On January 26, 2001, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a petition with the USFWS seeking protecting for the squirrels under the Endangered Species Act. Under the Act, the USFWS had until January 26, 2002 to decide whether the ground squirrel warrants listing, but the agency has so far failed to make that determination.

"Failure to protect the highly imperiled southern Idaho ground squirrel is typical of the Bush administration's abysmal record on protecting species and ecosystems," said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with CBD, which filed the suit along with the Committee for the High Desert (CHD) and the Western Watersheds Project (WWP).

To date, the Bush administration has listed 22 species under the Act, all of them in the wake of lawsuits or petitions by citizens. By contrast, the Clinton administration listed 199 species after two years in office.

"Secretary of Interior Gale Norton promised Congress she would uphold the Endangered Species Act, but the record shows otherwise," said Greenwald.

The southern Idaho ground squirrel once occurred in sagebrush steppe communities, but these areas have been decimated by livestock grazing, urban development and non-native species such as medusa head and cheatgrass. A survey conducted in the late 1990s found that ground squirrels were present in just 30 percent of the sites where they were found in the 1980s.

"The decline of the squirrel mirrors the decline of its sagebrush habitat," said Katie Fite, conservation director of the CHD. "If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't take action, the squirrel will become extinct."

The squirrel now has one of the smallest ranges of any squirrel, and it is still losing habitat. Today, the largest population of the southern Idaho ground squirrel is now found on a golf course, where irrigation provides nutrient rich forage.

"Listing under the Endangered Species Act is necessary to provide the southern Idaho ground squirrel with immediate protection from poisoning, shooting and further habitat degradation," said Jon Marvel, executive director of the WWP.

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Jeffords Finds Little to Be Thankful For This Year

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - In a response to President George W. Bush's Thanksgiving radio address, Senator Jim Jeffords blasted the administration for "moving us backward instead of leading us forward."

While Bush's address focused on the blessings enjoyed by many Americans, Jeffords said many of those blessings, including clean water, clean air and unspoiled natural places, are being eroded by Bush administration policies.

"As the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, I feel we have an obligation not only to maintain and enforce the environmental laws we already have on the books, but also to strengthen them," Jeffords said. "We all want to leave our environment in better shape for our children. This should be an area where we can all agree on the need for progress."

In January, when the 108th Congress convenes, Jeffords will be replaced as the committee's chair by Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Republican with a dismal record on environmental issues.

Jeffords pointed to Bush administration actions that have weakened crucial environmental laws aimed at protecting air and water quality, public lands and other areas.

"Last week, the Bush Administration announced devastating new regulations that will gut clean air laws - allowing power plants to avoid installing simple anti-pollution equipment when they modernize," he noted. "This departure from the Clean Air Act will prolong the life of out of date power plants belching out pollution, not only contributing to growing rates of childhood asthma, but also to the unsightly haze that taints the beauty of our magnificent parks and scenic vistas.

The administration has also delayed implementation of a rule to reduce sewage in waterways, Jeffords noted, despite that fact that some 300,000 miles of rivers and shorelines and five million acres of lakes remain polluted.

"Over 40 percent of our lakes, rivers, and streams are too dirty for fishing or swimming," Jeffords said. "These problems need to be addressed, not ignored or made worse."

Jeffords also noted the slowing, under Bush's administration, of cleanups at toxic sites, and proposals to open public lands to more oil and gas drilling.

"And at the same time the Administration is rolling back environmental protection laws, it is ensuring that the public knows little about what is happening in their own communities," Jeffords added, noting that the new Homeland Security law includes a provision that will make it more difficult for the public to get information about dangerous chemicals that may exist near their homes.

"When Congress convenes next year, I fear the attacks on our environment will accelerate," Jeffords concluded. "Hopefully, moderates in both parties can do what we've done before: stand up to block these anti-environmental initiatives, and instead pursue policies that protect and respect our environment."

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Soil Resistance Shows Chemical Contamination

KINGSTON, Rhode Island, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Measuring the resistance of soil to an electric current could help environmental managers determine whether the ground is contaminated by organic chemical pollutants.

When a property is suspected of having contaminated soil or groundwater, it is often a lengthy and expensive process to confirm the presence of pollutants and to delineate the extent of the contamination. But soon that process may be simplified .

University of Rhode Island geophysicist Reinhard Frohlich, an associate professor of geosciences, has devised a cost effective method for finding underground contaminants that could reduce drilling and digging beneath the surface. By inserting two metal spikes in the ground at various distances and connecting them to an electric current, Frohlich can measure the voltage between the spikes and determine the resistivity of the soil, which tells him if the soil is polluted.

"My initial objective was to do an experiment at the surface that would explain what was going on beneath the surface," said Frohlich, whose research was funded by a $55,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Resistivity measurements, which calculate a material's opposition to the flow of electric current, are also used to track contaminated salts dissolved in groundwater because they are good conductors of electricity. But Frohlich's experiments focused on finding organic compounds like toluene, benzene, xylene, ethylbenzene, phenol and other cancer causing substances that do not conduct electricity.

"Our system seems to work very well on all organic compounds. Resistivity increases significantly in areas where the aquifer is polluted compared to clean areas," said Frohlich. "We should be able to use this as the first step in the remediation process because it's quicker and allows us to drill fewer borings into the aquifer."

Frohlich tested his system at the Picillo Pig Farm in West Coventry, a Superfund site where illegal dumping of chemical waste was discovered following an explosion in 1978. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the EPA have been monitoring and cleaning the site for more than 20 years.

"The Picillo Farm is a suitable site for our experiments because the results can be compared with the many monitoring wells and other analyses that have been conducted there over the years," Frohlich said. In addition to field tests at the Picillo Farm, Frohlich conducted controlled laboratory tests comparing clean soil with contaminated soil of known composition.

His study will next attempt to quantify the amount of contaminants at a given location.

"It's one thing to identify a clean or contaminated site, but we want to also get a quantitative value for the contaminants," said Frohlich. "That's something that the EPA would really like to be able to do."

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Loud Sounds May Help Chill Ice Cream

STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Sound waves could replace chemical refrigerants as a means of keeping ice cream frozen, say researchers from Penn State.

Working under a grant from Ben & Jerry's and its parent company, Unilever, Penn State acousticians have achieved proof of concept for a compact ice cream freezer case based on green technology that substitutes sound waves for environmentally damaging chemical refrigerants.

"In our proof of concept test system, there is no test freezer - we simply cool an electrically heated piece of window screen," said Dr. Steven Garrett, the United Technologies Corporation professor of acoustics at Penn State who leads the research team conducting the project. "The coldest temperature we have achieved with this test rig is eight degrees below zero - well below the freezing point of water."

The team's progress is detailed in a paper, "Performance of a Small Low-Lift Regenerator-based Thermoacoustic Refrigerator," released today at the First Pan-American/Iberian Acoustics Meeting in Cancun, Mexico.

The group's thermoacoustic chiller uses a souped up loudspeaker to generate high amplitude sound energy in an environmentally safe gas - the test model uses ordinary air - that is converted into useful cooling. The high amplitude sound levels are hundreds of thousands of times beyond the levels reached at rock concerts.

None of the sound energy escapes the system, however; the high sound levels can only be generated by the resonance conditions maintained by the pressurized gas.

The Penn State group has developed loudspeakers that operate near their natural resonance frequencies, and replace loudspeaker cones with metal bellows that compress the gas used for chilling.

"We have been operating loudspeakers at resonance and using bellows in thermoacoustic devices for 20 years," Garrett added. "Now, by putting the entire refrigeration core inside the bellows, we've substantially reduced the size."

Many current freezers and ice cream sales cabinets use chemical refrigerants that have been linked to the depletion of stratospheric ozone. In the U.S., most of these chemicals have been replaced by other gases that, when they escape into the atmosphere, contribute to global warming.

Gary Epright, Ben & Jerry's lead process engineer, called the research "a tremendous opportunity to participate in an innovative technology that could revolutionize the way we understand and use refrigeration. With refrigeration based on sound, using environmentally safe gases, we could go a long way toward restoring atmospheric balances."

The meeting abstract can be found at: http://asa.aip.org/web2/asa/abstracts/search.dec02/asa443.asp