Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Court dismisses attacks on climate science | NCSE

Court dismisses attacks on climate science | NCSE

Click on the link above to read about this landmark decision.  It's worth being aware of!

Frankly, the science has been in for a LONG time when it comes to confirming the effects of human-produced greenhouse gases and their role in climate change (i.e., global warming).  Recently the inaptly named "Coalition for Responsible Regulation" and associated industry groups challenged the EPA's plan to implement the Clean Air Act.  They contended that the science on climate change is not yet strong enough to warrant taking action (i.e., the EPA implementing Clean Air Act standards).  A 3-judge panel in a District Court of Appeals sided with the EPA and agreed that the science of anthropogenic climate change is both sound and compelling!

It's about time something like this happened!  Too many Americans happily live with a "head in the sand" mentality when it comes to climate change and our role in it.  

You can read more about this decision in a NY Times article:

This ruling reminds me of how long it took before a suit was brought to court about whether the WWII holocaust in which millions of Jew were murdered during WWII.  A judge ruled in, get this, 1981, yes you read that right, 1981 that the WWII Nazi holocaust actually happened.  You can read about that event in this link to a NY Times article:

Don't get me wrong.  I'm NOT equating climate change with the holocaust.  It's just amazing how long it takes for some people to recognize, accept, or be shown the obvious.  That is, just how long it took for these now obvious events to be legally recognized as having validity and being real.

It's about time!  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Arctic sea ice is melting nearly twice as fast as usual for June

I know it's only been a little while since my last Arctic sea ice update.  Am I obsessed?  Maybe...but that doesn't really matter...what matters is that things are currently happening FAST in the Arctic.

According to the good folks at NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (, Arctic Ocean sea ice cover changed dramatically over the past few weeks.

How far ahead of the historic baseline rate of sea ice melt are we?  The map below ( shows that ice melt near Alaska and eastern Russia is on track with the 1979-2000 averages, but sea ice melt is well ahead of schedule north of Scandinavia, around Svalbard, SW of Greenland, and in the Kara Sea (north of Russia).

The white area on the map shows the area of the Arctic Ocean that currently has at least 15% sea ice cover.  The orange lines show the 1979-2000 historical sea ice cover on June 20th.

The data on this graph (courtesy of the, and adapted buy me [lines and arrows]), though, was a real eye opener.

Figure description: The arrows #1 show the difference in sea ice cover between the 1979-2000 average and the 2012 cover at the beginning of June 2012.  Arrow #3 shows the area melted during the first three weeks of June for the 1979-2000 average.  Arrow #4 shows the area melted during the first three weeks of 2012, and arrow #2 shows the difference between the area of sea ice at the end of the three week period in 1979-2000 versus the ice cover area in 2012.

Historically, sea ice cover decreased from about 12.8 million km2 to 11.75 million km2 between 1 and 20 June, for a daily rate of sea ice melt of about 52,500 km2/day (see arrow #3 above).  During the current year, however, sea ice cover decreased from 12.45 million km2 to 10.5 million km2 in the same time period, for a daily rate of sea ice melt of 97,500 km2/day (see arrow #4 above).


See the Table below for more data...if that sort of thing floats your boat...

1979-2000 Avg.
1 June sea ice cover
12,800,000 km2
12,450,000 km2
350,000 km2
20 June sea ice cover
11,750,000 km2
10,500,000 km2
1,250,000 km2
Total Difference
1,050,000 km2
1,950,000 km2
855,000 km2
Rate of sea ice loss
52,500 km2/day
97,500 km2/day

Does this mean that we are likely to see a new record sea ice melt in the Arctic IN 2012?  It's hard to say, since weather conditions have the biggest effect on the rate of sea ice loss. We are, however, currently seeing record sea ice melt for June (so far), but not by much - see the graph below (  The sea ice extent for this time period in 2010 and 2011 is similar, thought slightly higher than are seeing this year.  If the 2012 ice melt stays on its current pace, there's a very good chance we could set a new record minimum sea ice extent (=sea ice melt) in the Arctic by September 2012.

It is important to note that sea ice can melt, reform, and get blown around, affecting the total area of the Arctic Ocean covered by sea ice.  Only the coming days and weeks will determine whether we will see a new sea ice melt record.

Don't get me wrong...I get the impression that some people think that I LIKE that Arctic sea ice is melting.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I don't like it, but I don't reject valid observations just because I may not like what they show, and because this is something that is happening that can affect the entire global climate, I feel compelled to share what I know about it.

What can we do about the situation in the Arctic?

While I believe that every little bit helps, and that individual choices can have an impact, and at the risk sounding a bit of gloom, it is possible that we may be past the point where individual action will make a significant difference.  I personally believe that we have reached a point where we must have governments pass stronger regulatory legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions in order to make any meaningful progress toward any large-scale mitigation of climate change.

Here's hoping that at least the US Congress can get its act together and get to work on some meaningful environmental legislation!  Please, oh please, oh please!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Simplot, Selenium, and Idaho's Two-Headed Fish - YIKES!

What's a little selenium between friends?

A troubling report has recently appeared.  It shows that some fishes in SE Idaho waters are showing signs of unprecedented developmental defects, like producing two heads.  Here's a light-hearted report on this pesky situation...

So what is selenium, anyway, and is it dangerous?

Selenium is an element in the same family as oxygen.  Doesn't sound too dangerous, does it!  Well, the truth be known, oxygen is actually a highly reactive, toxic element.  It readily accepts or gives away electrons, meaning it can and will react with just about anything.  So why doesn't oxygen kill us?  The short answer is that it is carefully chaperoned by an oxygen carrier (think hemoglobin) from the time it enters our bodies until it reaches its destination at the mitochondria of our cells.  OK, so what!?

If you think back to your HS biology class (yeah, that really boring one you never thought you'd need to ever remember anything from), well, today's the day to remember.

The mitochondria is where the cells of our bodies make a molecule called ATP (that's what our cells use for energy).  In order to make ATP though, we need an atom that is hungry enough for electrons and chemically reactive enough that it can steal electrons away from the mitochondria.  That's what oxygen does...not to worry, once it picks up the extra electrons it bonds with a couple of hydrogen ions (aka protons) and forms water.

Have you heard of oxygen free radicals?  They are bad, right?  That's because these are oxygen atoms that are not chaperoned, and they can and will react with just about anything.  All right, and so.....

...and so, Selenium is in the same chemical family as oxygen, but normally its so rare in the environment that our bodies have not developed self-defense mechanisms against high concentrations of the stuff, and in fact we need it in trace (very tiny) amounts in order to be healthy.  But, when selenium is present in the environment in high enough concentrations, it is toxic.  How does it get inside our bodies?  We drink or eat material that has high concentrations of it in it.  It can then can cause all kinds of problems, like GI-tract problems, hair loss, neurological damage, and even death.

By the way, if you look back at the table above, you'll see that selenium's neighbor to its left is Arsenic (ew!), and to it's right is Bromine (an element that can break down ozone in the stratosphere).

The JR Simplot Company runs the Smoky Canyon Phosphorus mine in SE Idaho.  It is in Caribou County, about 24 miles east of Soda Springs, ID, and 38 miles north of Bear Lake.

The image below (courtesy of Google Earth) shows the mining site.  It is an open pit strip mining operation.  The entire mining complex is about 5 miles long on a north-south axis.

The image below is a closer view of the north end of the mining complex, clearly showing the strip mining operation.

The link below will take you to a website developed by JR Simplot that gives a brief description of the mining operation, and contends that it is not a health risk to humans or other forms or life.

If you read through the information at the site you will see that even though this site has not (yet) been designated as a "Superfund" cleanup site by the Federal Government, the Simplot corporation itself has proactively taken steps to care for such a site.  So, my question is this.  If this mine is not hazardous, why is Simplot treating it like it is?  I mean, Simplot has posted multi-million dollar bonds to address possible issues of release of toxic materials, like selenium, and to take care of post-mining reclamation costs.  While I'm glad to see that they are planning to reclaim the land when they are done, it is clear that they recognize at least the potential for toxic material release.

I do take issue with one of the Q&A points at that web site.  This is a quote:

Q12 -- Is selenium a human health hazard?
No, not in the concentrations present at Smoky Canyon. In fact, selenium is an essential nutrient. The concentrations being measured during monitoring at Smoky Canyon indicates that while selenium is elevated, there is no human health risk. This was confirmed in a study conducted in 2002 by an inter-agency government review. The results of this study can be accessed at: 

I think JR Simplot and the Smoky Canyon Mine would have more credibility if they had answered the question like this:

"Yes, it can be.  The EPA acceptable level for selenium is...?..., and the levels in the water downstream of the mine are...?...'

Going on to say that it is an essential nutrient makes it sound like if a little selenium is good for you, then more must be better!  Yikes!

They do at least admit that selenium levels are elevated, so you have to give them that!


The two-headed fish story attained national news/parody status earlier this year, but there is some question about whether selenium actually caused the two-headed fish displayed.

Whether it did or it didn't, the fact remains that selenium levels in, around, and downstream of the mine are well in excess of all EPA clean water limits.  When JR Simplot became aware of this their alleged action was not to take steps to lower selenium levels, but instead they petitioned the EPA to raise the legal selenium limit, at least locally.  Sigh.

The two stories below demonstrate this apparent mix-up, but it's interesting that no one is really contending that selenium at high concentrations is not toxic.

I have to say that as an Idahoan, this makes me sad.

Care for a nice tall glass of clear Idaho mountain water?  Anyone?  Anyone?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Deals on EBay - I finally decided to let my 35mm film camera gear go

I finally decided to let my film camera equipment is all for sale right now on EBay (through Saturday evening 6/16).  

My basic, all-manual camera - Pentax K1000 (Starting bid = $49.99)

My more sophisticated manual/automatic camera - Canon AE1 (Starting bid = $49.99 or buy it now at $175)

A Vivitar Series 1 VMC 70-210mm f/3.5 macro zoom auto/manual lens with a Canon FD mount. Starting bid is $20.

A Vivitar 28mm f/2.8 wide angle auto/manual lens with a Canon FD mount.  Starting bid = $25.  

My primo macro lens already sold...sorry about your luck on that one!  Just so you know what you missed on that one, it was a Tokina AT-X 90mm macro lens with a macro extender.


Monday, June 11, 2012

"Canary in a Coal Mine" - Arctic Sea Ice

The spring Arctic Ocean sea ice melt is on!

Scientific predictions, observations, and climate models all lead to the conclusion that signs and effects of global warming will be most extreme near the north pole.  I saw some data this morning that made me sit up and take notice.

We are now in the middle of the most rapid sea ice melt of the year.  That's not the news.  The news is that the most recent data from NASA satellites and the National Snow and Ice Data Center ( show a notable drop in the percentage of the Arctic Ocean and nearby waters over the past few days.

Now a few days do not a trend make, but it is worth keeping an eye on!

This map (courtesy shows two things.  1) It shows orange lines that indicate the historical average limit of sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean between 1979 and 2000 for this date, and 2) the white area shows the actual sea ice cover for this date.

Just in case isn't one of your favorite web sites, and you don't routinely follow what's going on in the Arctic (I mean, what normal person does?), here's the scoop.  During the winter of 2011-12 there was a larger than average coverage of sea ice in the Bering Sea (west of Alaska and north of the Aleutian Islands) and it hung around longer than usual.  Today's map shows that the Bering Sea ice is breaking up - FAST!  Also, there is quite a bit of open water showing up north of central Canada and central Russia.  So, why the big news?

If you take a look at the graph below (also courtesy of, you will see the historical average amount of sea ice cover (1979-2000 - dark gray line), the area containing 95% of all historical observations (1979-2000), the current extent of sea ice cover for 2012 (blue line), and the extent of sea ice cover in 2007 - the year we observed the lowest sea ice extent ever (green dashed line).
OK, so what!?

The sea ice cover for 2012 fell easily within the normal range for historical sea ice cover all spring...until now.  During the past few days the sea ice extent has dropped out of the average range, and even below the 2007 extent.

Does this mean we will see record sea ice melt in the Arctic this year?  There's no way to tell at this point, because wind and weather conditions work together to determine the rate of ice melt and where the ice is blown.  But, these data show that we should keep an eye on the Arctic.  Why?  The overall sea ice cover has taken a short-term dip in total cover.  That may be temporary or it may be the beginning of a rapid melt.  Only time will tell on that one.

Why do I follow what's happening in the Arctic Ocean?  The Arctic is the Earth's climate "Canary in a Coal Mine".  Coal miners used to take canaries with them into the mines.  As long as the canaries sang and were healthy, they knew the air was OK.  But when a canary keeled over, passing out or dying, the miners knew it was time to get out.  This is because the canaries were more sensitive to air quality changes than humans.  Similarly, the Arctic is more sensitive to climate change than other areas of the globe, so when we see changes there - and we ARE seeing changes there, it's time to take notice and make changes to mitigate the problem.

What changes are we seeing?  For one, both winter and summer sea ice cover in the Arctic has been dropping significantly for the past 30+ years!

This graph (courtesy shows the average sea ice cover for the month of May between 1979 and 2012.  While there is quite a bit of noise (year to year up and down) in the data, the long-term trend clearly shows that there is on average less sea ice in the Arctic in the month of May in 2012 than there was 30 years ago.  The slope showing the overall trend is statistically significant.

By the way, if noise in the data concerns you, you need to realize that EVERY natural system contains noise in the data.  This includes everything from local and global average temperatures to your own heart rate.  But if you collect data long enough, and scientists have, trends, if they exist in the data, will become apparent.  The trend in the Arctic is that it is getting warmer up there, and as a result the sea ice cover is dropping year to year.

In other words, the canaries are having a hard time singing.  They may be having a hard time breathing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

North Carolina State Legislature makes it illegal for sea level to rise more than 12" by 2100 (!?)

In this installment of the Colbert Report "The WØRD" is "Sink or Swim", as Colbert's biting and engaging commentary turns to the pesky topic of global warming and sea level rise, specifically as viewed through the red-tinted glasses of the Republican-dominated state legislature of the state of North Carolina.

While hilariously funny in many ways, Colbert's comments expose a situation so pathetic that you have only two choices: laugh or cry.  Listen up...

I've said it before and I'll say it again, one of my favorite quotes is this: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Politician and Diplomat).

It's obvious that the North Carolina state legislature is using its own facts AND its own opinion in passing this silly legislation.  I mean, how can you do this!?  

Passing this kind of legislation is the same as legislating whether you will allow the sun to come up tomorrow or whether you will allow a full moon next month.  I guess, on the other hand, I suppose you can pass legislation on anything you want, including legislating the extent of sea level rise  - in this case no more than 8" of sea level rise by 2100.

My question to the NC state legislature is this, "When sea level rise does exceed 8", which it almost certainly will, who are you going to arrest or fine or take other legal action against?"

There's a real brain-scratcher!  You can't cite Nature.  You can't cite the Ocean.  You can't cite the Atmosphere.  But the way things are going right now it's easy to guess what the response will be.  They'll probably try to pin the blame on "that other" political party...

Like I said, it's enough to make you laugh or cry.

"THE WØRD"?  If NC takes only this action, they will eventually have only two options, Sink or Swim!

But seriously, is there such a bill?  And what does it say?

There is such a bill, and here's an excerpt from it:
Lines 11-14 state that the Division of Coastal Management is allowed to use only historical data from 1900 and apply only a linear rate of sea level rise in planning.  Huh!?

The reason this is incredibly wacky is because all climate change and sea level rise models (and these models are based on historical data and current observable trends) show that sea levels almost certainly will not increase at a linear rate, but sea level will rise at progressively increasing rates.

So much for science, I guess...who needs science when you can pass a law?