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Our Daily Planet: National Parks Hit Hard by Climate, Solar Arrays in NC Unaffected by Flo, and the Supreme Court and One Lucky Frog
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

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 Climate Change

The retreat of Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana.  The photo on the left is from 1938 and on the right is from 2009.  Image: Starship Asterisk
National Parks Are Warming Faster Than Most Places in the U.S.

A new study warns of a troubling future for America’s crown jewels — our national parks.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports that, according to the study, temperatures across 417 sites across the country from the Florida Everglades to Yellowstone to Alaska’s Mount Denali, have increased at twice the rate as the rest of the country, and have experienced greater declines in rainfall as well. “Up until our research, the severity of climate change across the national parks was unknown,” said Patrick Gonzalez, a climate change scientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. “Human-caused climate change exposes the national parks more severely than the rest of the United States.”

According to the study, these exacerbated impacts occur because extensive parts of the national park area are in the Arctic, at high elevations, or in the arid southwestern US.  Alaska’s parks are the hardest hit. In addition, the study found temperatures across the national park system have increased a little more than 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, between 1895 and 2010, about double the country’s average.  In addition, the Miami Herald reported that the study looks ahead and forecasts the that parks will become hotter and more drought-stricken by century’s end even if the best case scenarios of climate change occur.   

Why This Matters:  Don’t dismiss these small increases as NBD.  The study’s authors warn that warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius is a threshold that comes with grave risk for the landscapes and the animals of the parks.  And John Jarvis, who as the director of the Park Service during the Obama Administration implemented climate adaptation strategies in the parks, says that leadership in the Trump administration isn’t making climate change a parks priority.  

To Go Deeper: Watch this video about climate impacts on Montana’s rivers.  

Inside Climate News’ video on how climate change is impacting fly fishing in Montana.
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 Land

Petroglyph in Bears Ears National Monument   Photo: Josh Ewing, SNEWS

Monument Lawsuits To Remain In D.C. Federal Court

A federal judge in Washington D.C. yesterday denied the Trump Administration’s attempt to move the three legal challenges to the President’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monument reductions to a court in Utah.  The Administration argued that the cases should be heard in Utah because that is where the monuments are located.  Environmental and Native American groups argued, “National monuments belong to all Americans and not just individual states or the special interest groups that would exploit them for mining, drilling, and development,” in a statement released by the Wilderness Society.  

Most importantly, The Hill reported that the Judge also ordered the Trump administration to give the court and the other parties two days advanced notice of any “ground-disturbing” activities in the former monument areas, such as mining or exploration for minerals.  President Trump decided last December to shrink the size of Bears Ears by about 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante by about half, claiming that both monuments unnecessarily restricted activities of nearby residents.

Why This Matters:  If the cases had been moved to Utah, it would have been much more difficult for the environmental groups and the tribes to prevail. And it is more than just the shrinking of these monuments on the line in these cases —  it is the President’s power under the Antiquities Act to create monuments like these that will be determined by this litigation.  The Judge’s requirement of advance notice for any drilling or digging is also important for preserving the monuments’ special qualities.  
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 Energy

Photo: Duke Energy 
North Carolina’s Solar Panels Stand Up to Florence

According to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), North Carolina ranks only behind California for adding the most solar energy in 2017 and has added the bulk of it’s solar panels after Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016. This is noteworthy because Hurricane Florence was the first real test for these panels and the good news is that they were able to withstand the hurricane’s powerful winds and record rainfall. This certainly wasn’t the case for the state’s coal-fired power plants whose coal ash ponds were breached by the storm and spread toxic coal ash into nearby creeks, rivers, and lakes. You can read more about America’s coal ash problem via Christopher Mele’s piece in the Times but essentially coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal for energy and once the carbon in it is oxidized what’s left is a mix of toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, selenium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium that are very harmful to people. On the other hand, solar power has no toxic byproducts and panels are not as susceptible to natural disasters as coal and natural gas plants. 

Both utility solar panels and rooftop solar panels suffered minimal damage as Florence swept through the Carolinas. Chris Burgess, projects director for the Rocky Mountain Institute explained to Inside Climate News that most panels and racks are designed to withstand wind pressure up to the 140 mph range. Some systems have panels that move to track the sun, which can make them more vulnerable to wind, but that also allows them to be shifted to positions where wind will do the least damage. At one of Duke’s sites, the company locked the panels into a fixed position in anticipation of the storm, something it can done remotely from a control room. Additionally, North Carolina’s only wind farm was also left unscathed and though it’s not located in the most affected areas of the state, it never stopped operating during the hurricane. 

Why This Matters: This story is a great example of why a transition to renewable energy is so beneficial to our society: it’s better for human health, storm resiliency, and most of all doesn’t contribute to climate change which is making hurricanes more powerful. Another thing we can learn from this story is the benefit of a decentralized power grid. During Hurricane Florence, there were many areas where solar arrays were capable of working but their surrounding grid was put offline by the utility. A less centralized system would allow parts of the grid to keep functioning when some parts are damaged or turned off, which can keep power on for people during storms. 
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 Animals   

Photo: Joel Sartore, The Photo Ark, National Geographic

One Lucky Frog: Ony 8 Justices Likely to Hear ESA Case

The Supreme Court begins its new term on Monday and on the docket that day is a highly anticipated case interpreting the Endangered Species Act.  At issue is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to designate 1,600 privately owned acres in Louisiana as a “critical habitat” for the highly endangered dusky gopher frog, which currently only exists in one small pond in Mississippi (its population is estimated at 150 animals).  The timber company Weyerhauser has a lease on the land and challenged the Service’s decision because their land contains no frogs and cannot provide habitat for them unless the land is restored to a more natural state and a population of frogs is then transferred to it.  Industries like paper products manufacturers and oil and gas drillers have long sought a narrow interpretation of the Act that limits the government’s ability to protect habitat for critically endangered species like this frog.

According to the experts, our friends at SCOTUS Blog, the Supreme Court will look only at two issues:

  • whether the Service’s critical habitat designation of the Weyerhaeuser land violated the ESA, and  
  • whether the Service’s decision not to exclude this site which has none of the species on it now is reviewable by a court.
As to the first question, Weyerhaeuser argued that “habitat” must be currently habitable, and this tract of land fails this test because dusky gopher frogs do not live there now and would not survive if they did.  On the second question, Weyerhaeuser argued that the Service’s decision must be reviewable and the Service abused its discretion.  The Service claimed the statute requires it to designate critical habitat and to recover a species even if it means that the habitat needs to be restored in order to support the species.  Lower courts ruled in favor of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which made the critical habitat designation prior to the Trump Administration taking office.  

Why This Matters:  If Judge Brett Kavanaugh were a sitting Supreme Court Justice on Monday, there is little doubt that given his decisions in prior cases in which he narrowly interpreted environmental laws, he would vote in favor of Weyerhaeuser and his vote might have tipped the balance.  But with a divided court of four liberal justices and four conservative justices, the frogs just might stand a chance.  And so might an interpretation of the Endangered Species Act in which the Fish and Wildlife Service takes the actions necessary to actually recover a species.   
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 Sustainability

Photo: Inhabit
Put a Ring on It (& Clean the Air While You’re At It)

Diamond engagement rings aren’t a must for millennials like they were for previous generations. Many millennials are opting to spend the money they would on a ring (which on average costs more than $6,000) on travel and experiences instead. They’re even opting for other gemstones or lab-created diamonds and are leaving the diamond mining industry desperate to win back their patronage. Additionally, younger generations are more aware of the troublesome conditions that exist at diamond mines are consciously avoiding conflict (or “blood”) diamonds

For ultra environmentally and ethically-conscious couples, there’s now an engagement ring that literally sucks pollution out of the sky. As the New York Times explained, the ring is made of hundreds of thousands of gallons of pollution sucked from the air and compressed into a tiny box and covered by a shiny, protective case. (It’s essentially a black mass inside a clear cube.) The particles in the ring are considered so dangerous that if breathed in, they can shorten an adult’s life expectancy by six to eight years, according to the ring’s designer and creator, Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch artist and technologist. The smog for the rings is created by a the “world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner” which draws in 30,000 cubic meters (or nearly eight million gallons) of polluted air every hour. It collects the pollutants and returns the clean air back to the environment. 

The cost of the ring is ~€250 (or about $294) which is drastically cheaper than even a lab created diamond. 

Why This Matters: Not to be a total downer but since over half of all marriages result in divorce, maybe it’s time to rethink how much money we invest in diamond engagement rings. Of course, this is a personal choice, but it’s kind of cool to begin a marriage with a symbol of something that helps our planet. Mr. Roosegaarde explained that “In the beginning, we were joking, who is going to wear pollution? It’s a new meaning of beauty. It’s not beauty like Louis Vuitton or Ferrari or Rolex, but it’s clean air. That’s beautiful.”
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 Oceans

Photo: Jeff LaFrenz/Nat Geo
One Cool Thing: Octopuses on MDMA Turn Cuddly 

Octopuses are not social animals by nature. In fact, as Thrillist explained, in captivity they’re often housed individually to prevent cephalopod murder and are pretty much only social when mating. This is all true until an octopus takes MDMA (aka molly or ecstasy). We know this because scientists gave octopuses the drug in order to learn more about the similarities between our extremely dissimilar brains, which are “separated from humans by more than 500 million years of evolution.” They also wanted to see the effect that a social party drug has on a notoriously anti-social animal. The findings of the study were published in Current Biology and revealed octopuses being so social that “they were in a total cuddle puddle” after being exposed to the MDMA according to the researchers. Cuddle puddle is a really big leap from murder!*

*ODP does not promote drug use to help social anxiety, this was just a cool story about octopuses! #JustSayNo
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