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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism

N. Atlantic sea surface temperatures ran high in October

Posted on November 8th by Tom Yulsman. One Comment

Sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic during October were well above normal, as seen in this image from NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

Air temperatures in the Arctic region overall, although below freezing, were also high in October, as seen in the map to the left. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, temperatures were 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal.

“The warm conditions resulted partly from regions of open water releasing heat to the atmosphere, and in part from an atmospheric circulation pattern that brought warm air from lower latitudes to the Arctic,” the NSIDC’s latest report states.

The extent of Arctic sea ice in October was the third lowest for the month in satellite record, which extends back to 1979. Even at the end of the month, “extensive open water areas remained in the Beaufort, Chukchi, Kara and Barents seas,” according to the report. “This region had the warmest ocean surface temperatures at the end of the melt season.”

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Globally, sea surface temperatures ran high in regions beyond just the North Atlantic during October, as the image to the right from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center shows.

But there is one prominent exception. The long band of blue in the tropical Pacific indicates a pool of cool water associated with La Niña conditions, which alters weather patterns in several parts of the world, including North America. And by one measure, it’s particularly intense. Klaus Wolter of NOAA’s Earth System’s Research Laboratory is reporting that in September and October, the La Niña was the second strongest on record for that time of year.

For more information, please see my post about this from Nov. 5.

Lastly: as this image from Remote Sensing Systems shows, air temperatures during October were also warmer than the long-term average across much of the globe — with the exception of the tropical Pacific.

The image shows what’s known as the “brightness temperature” of the lower troposphere, as measured by instruments on orbiting NASA satellites. Brightness temperature provides a measure of the temperature of the atmosphere. For more information, see this page from RSS.

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Climate scientists planning to “aggressively engage the denialists”

Posted on November 7th by Tom Yulsman. 38 Comments

The new get-tough campaign from the American Geophysical Union will feature a “climate rapid response team”

Update 11/8/10 6:30 p.m.: Today, the American Geophysical Union issued a press release to make it clear that it has organized what it calls a “Climate Q&A Service,” but that it is not involved with the so-called “rapid response team” that some scientists are organizing. The service “aims simply to provide accurate scientific answers to questions from journalists about climate science,” the press release states. Meanwhile, the independent response team is being organized by scientists to counter what Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York, calls “the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists.” (See below.)

The AGU release says the L.A. Times simply got the story wrong. Here’s a quick excerpt:

“In contrast to what has been reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, there is no campaign by AGU against climate skeptics or congressional conservatives,” says Christine McEntee, Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union. “AGU will continue to provide accurate scientific information on Earth and space topics to inform the general public and to support sound public policy development.”

Update 11/7/10 5:30 p.m.: Some additional thoughts at the bottom, and a link to Andy Revkin’s post about this at DotEarth.

The original post begins here:

Check this out from today’s Los Angeles Times:

Faced with rising political attacks, hundreds of climate scientists are joining a broad campaign to push back against congressional conservatives who have threatened prominent researchers with investigations and vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The still-evolving efforts reveal a shift among climate scientists, many of whom have traditionally stayed out of politics and avoided the news media. Many now say they are willing to go toe-to-toe with their critics, some of whom gained new power after the Republicans won control of the House in last Tuesday’s election.

And this:

“This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists,” said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

Does anyone else think there’s a big risk of this ending badly?

A scientist surely has every right to respond vigorously when he or she has been unfairly attacked. But correcting the record and protecting your reputation is one thing; thinking that you’re going to successfully combat the likes of Marc Morano and James Inhofe and thereby help insure passage of legislation to rein in carbon emissions is another thing entirely.

Continue reading “Climate scientists planning to “aggressively engage the denialists”” →

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Climate change: We have nothing to fear but fear itself?

Posted on November 7th by Tom Yulsman. 8 Comments

A scholar traces the history of fear about global warming, leading to current conceptions of a “climate catastrophe.” Let the blogging Rorschach tests begin.

This image of the Cologne Cathedral submerged by rising sea level ran on the cover of Der Spiegel in 1986

A new paper on climate change is starting to make the rounds in the blogosphere, but this one isn’t about the latest report of rising sea level or increasing drought — it’s about fear of the consequences of climate change.

In the paper, “Climate Catastrophes and Fear” (sub rqd for full text), University of Strasbourg  historian Matthias Dörries traces the history of fear — in his words, “asking how our current society has come to conceive of climate change in terms of catastrophe and fear, in line with historians’ demands for a more subtle cultural and historical understanding of climate and fear in human society.”

If there is a single bottom line in the paper, it’s this (from the abstract):

The current discourses of fear over climate change reflect the attempts to come to grips with the long-term issue of anthropogenic climate change; they are appeals for action (or calls to inaction) and imply claims to power, while stressing that the issue is political and cultural, not merely a matter of science and reason alone.

If the conclusion is not exactly revolutionary stuff, the history Dörries traces is fascinating and in many instances illuminating. We are moving, he argues, from “the grand narrative of the Enlightenment interpretation of science as antidote to fear” to one in which historians examine how fear is framed within the realms of science, culture and politics, and how that framing can be both “constructive” and “destructive.”

The current framing of fear, in the context of climate change, began with the end of the Cold War. Referring to the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, Dörries writes:

Continue reading “Climate change: We have nothing to fear but fear itself?” →

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EarthArt: Chlorophyllic expressionism

Posted on November 5th by Tom Yulsman.

The image above was captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. (Click on the picture for a larger version with more features.)

Here’s an explanation, from NASA’s Ocean Color Image Gallery:

The above image of the ocean east of Tasmania in December, 2004 may not depict the ocean as we might expect to see it, but it does serve to highlight (in a completely unscientific fashion) subtle differences in water color that result from varying distributions of such scattering and absorbing agents in the water column as phytoplankton, colored dissolved organic matter, suspended sediment, bubbles, etc.

It may be unscientific. But it certainly is visually stunning.

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Near record La Niña conditions continue

Posted on November 5th by Tom Yulsman. One Comment

One of the strongest La Niña’s ever has contributed to wildfires in Colorado and is very likely to impact U.S. weather into the spring

Check out this outstanding time-lapse video of the Dome Fire shot by Mikey Pounds in Boulder, and posted on Vimeo. Whipped by high winds possibly related to La Niña, it forced evacuation of 1,800 people.

In September, I reported that by one of the measures used to monitor what scientists call the ENSO cycle, the tropical Pacific Ocean had plunged into La Niña conditions at a record pace. Now, Klaus Wolter of NOAA’s Earth System’s Research Laboratory is is reporting that in September and October, the La Niña was the second strongest on record for that time of year.

For an explantion of the ENSO cycle, please see my earlier post about the developing La Niña and its impacts. That article also includes an explanation of how Wolter’s method for tracking La Niña differs from NOAA’s official ENSO advisory.

According to Wolter, La Niña typically brings dry and windy conditions to the Northern Front Range of Colorado during late summer and fall, raising the risk of wildfires. And that’s what we’ve experienced during the last two months: dry, windy conditions — and three wildfires.

Continue reading “Near record La Niña conditions continue” →

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The planet votes last: Arctic waters acidifying faster than expected

Posted on November 4th by Tom Yulsman.

Phytoplankton, Barents Sea

Scientists have been warning that the world’s oceans are becoming steadily more acidic, posing a threat to the oceanic food chain.

It is happening as some of the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed into sea water, where chemical reactions lead to a drop in pH.

Today, Amanda Mascarelli (a former student here at the CEJ) reports from the Geologic Society of America in Denver that the process appears to be happening more quickly than scientists had expected. Writing in The Great Beyond, a blog of breaking news in the journal Nature, she has this to say:

Thanks to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, some Arctic waters are already experiencing pH dips that could be harmful to sea life. What’s more, this acidification seems to be happening more rapidly than models have predicted.

This sobering conclusion was reached by researchers who met on Wednesday to discuss ocean acidification at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver. “Models are probably underestimating at least by a few years the impact of ocean acidification in the Arctic,” says Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “We don’t know what the organisms’ responses are yet, but the conditions are already there to potentially be disruptive to the ecosystems.”

When CO2 causes the pH of seawater to drop, marine organisms such as corals, plankton and shellfish have less carbonate ions with which to build their shells. Over the long term (but mabe now not quite as long as predicted) this could significantly impact biological processes in the oceans.

Since the dawn of the industrial era, some 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide have absorbed into the oceans, according to NOAA. That’s about one third of all the carbon dioxide we humans have emitted into the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning and other activities.

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The human footprint

Posted on November 3rd by Tom Yulsman. 9 Comments

A beautiful image marks a milestone — and illuminates the astonishing extent of our species’ impact

Yesterday will mostly be remembered as a momentous day in American politics. But it also happened to be an important milestone in human spaceflight (and, arguably, our evolution as a spacefaring species): As of Nov. 2, 2010, astronauts have lived and worked in space continuously — aboard the International Space Station — for an entire decade.

To mark the occasion, NASA released this stunning picture taken through a window of the ISS as the station was passing over the Gulf coast of the United States. (Click on the image to go to the NASA image gallery, where you can see it blown up even larger.)

In the image, New Orleans is the bright splotch just above the solar panel of the Soyuz spacecraft, which is docked to the station. The dark spot to the left (north) of the city, is Lake Ponchartrain. And the Alabama coast extends beyond New Orleans, up and to the left a bit. (Note: NASA’s caption incorrectly identifies New Orleans as Mobile, Alabama, which is actually above The Crescent City on the Gulf Coast in this image.)

The glowing ribbon of light extending toward the upper right from New Orleans actually is Louisiana’s Route 23, which protrudes into the Delta along the Mississippi River. And Houston is the bright patch that’s partially obscured by an instrument sticking out from the Soyuz spacecraft. The coast extends behind the spacecraft, and then curves around into Mexico, where some city lights are visible at the limb of the Earth (bottom of the picture).

I’m really struck by three things in this image.

Continue reading “The human footprint” →

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The climate votes last: Ice sheets could lose mass more rapidly

Posted on November 3rd by Tom Yulsman. 4 Comments

A little over a week ago, I wrote about increasing mass loss from Greenland’s massive ice sheet. (See this post too.)

Today, researchers are reporting new findings (subscription rqd) showing how meltwater flowing into the ice sheets through a network of conduits (like those illustrated in the schematic at left) can actually warm the ice and cause even more rapid ice loss.

In a press release, lead author Thomas Phillips, a research scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, offered these observations:

We are finding that once such water flow is initiated through a new section of ice sheet, it can warm rather significantly and quickly, sometimes in just 10 years. We’ve termed this process cryo-hydrologic warming.”

The results, which are based on modeling, have been borne out by observations of ice sheet behavior in Greenland. Without the phenomenon of cryo-hydrologic warming, the researchers say measurements of the temperature profile within the Greenland ice sheet cannot be accounted for.

Konrad Steffen, the main source of my earlier articles on increasing ice loss in Greenland, was one of the co-authors of the new study. “The fact that the ice temperatures warm rather quickly is really the key piece that’s been overlooked in models currently being used to determine how Greenland responds to climate warming,” he said, quoted in the press release.

“However, this process is not the ‘death knell’ for the ice sheet. It’ll still take thousands of years, if not a multiple thereof, for the ice sheet to disappear.”

I’ll be following up with him to solicit more specifics on the impact that this heating process may have on ice flow.

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The climate votes last

Posted on November 3rd by Tom Yulsman. 4 Comments

For climate policy, the election was a mixed bag. For the climate itself, the observations remain unequivocal

Yesterday’s election results don’t bode well for bold action on climate and energy legislation, but they were still something of a mixed bag.

A good number of House democrats who voted for climate legislation lost their jobs last night, the HuffPo is reporting. Yet at the same time, we didn’t witness the end of environmentalism either — not even close.

Even as proponents of last spring’s climate legislation were voted out of office, so were some outspoken Democratic opponents of the climate bill. According to HuffPo, these included Chris Carney in Pennsylvania and Glenn Nye in Viginia. This makes it difficult to argue that ‘yea’ votes on the legislation played the decisive role in Democrats losing the House.

What did? These immortal words come to mind: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Moreover, the effort to repeal California’s strong climate law went down to a crushing defeat.

Nationally, it’s clear that we will not be seeing any bold climate or energy legislation any time soon. But of course, that’s been clear for while.

Incremental measures and compromise may now be the order of the day. For example, we could see legislation mandating that utilities derive a portion of their power from lower-pollution sources. These could include renewables such as wind and solar but also nuclear power and so-called “clean coal.”

Meanwhile, as voters were casting their ballots yesterday, the National Snow and Ice Data Center was publishing the latest measurements of the extent of Arctic sea ice in October. The verdict: Even though sea ice grew rapidly in October as freezing temperatures increasingly gripped the North, the extent still wound up being the third lowest on record for the month.

Shifting atmospheric circulation contributed, but so did temperatures running 7 to 10 degrees F higher than normal. And over the long term, according to NSIDC, the pace of sea ice decline seems to be increasing: “The linear trend for October steepened slightly from -5.9% per decade to -6.2% per decade.”

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Awesome viz tool connects to brain’s widest bandwidth channel!

Posted on October 31st by Tom Yulsman. One Comment

I just discovered “Many Eyes,” the coolest data visualization tool I’ve seen on the Net (although to be honest I can’t say I’ve explored very many!). Here’s a description of what you can do with Many Eyes:

You can explore data using your eyes! This site is set up to allow the entire internet community to upload data, visualize it, and talk about their discoveries with other people. To learn more, read the full description or just take a look at some recent comments.

Click on the image below for an example — a visualization of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide by G20 and non-G20 countries from 1751 through 2006. VERY COOL! And an awesome tool for journalists, bloggers and any one else who would like to communicate the significance of data visually.

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Learning to live in a ‘gas-soaked stadium’

Posted on October 31st by Tom Yulsman. 3 Comments

Part 2: How we can get out of the wildfire mess we’ve created in the “WUI”

By the end of the day on Oct. 22, 2007, the Grass Valley Fire in Lake Arrowhead, California had destroyed or damaged 199 homes. In most cases, the destroyed homes sit surrounded by trees that were merely singed, as seen in this picture. Only six were actually ignited by high-intensity fire.  (Photo source: The Wildland-Urban Interface Problem, by Jack Cohen)

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This is the second installment of a two-part series on fire in the Wildland-Urban Interface. For Part 1 (including an explanation of the “gas-soaked stadium reference in the headline), please click here.

Scary images of trees going up like Roman candles leave the impression that homes that burn in wildfires are destroyed by intense, rampaging wildfire. But if you look closely at the picture above, I think you have to conclude that this is not the case.

In the aftermath of most fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface, or “WUI,” time and again it’s evident that most destroyed homes sit amidst trees that have been singed but not torched.

Late last week, I drove into the foothills west of the City of Boulder, and up Sunshine Canyon Drive to see this effect first-hand. This is the area where the Fourmile Canyon Fire swept through in early September, destroying 169 homes — making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. That horrific tally might suggest forests utterly decimated by fire. But that’s not at all what I saw.

True, there were steep slopes and other areas where all the trees had been burned to a crisp. This was one vicious fire. But far more common were landscapes with blackened ground, singed but still intact trees — and homes sitting beneath them that had burned right down to their foundations.

Oh, and one other thing: Here and there, utterly pristine homes surrounded by burned ground. This too is a common occurrence in WUI fires: lone homes that seem to have miraculously escaped the devastation. Except often it is no miracle.

“It’s obvious that our houses are considerably more flammable than forests,” says Jack Cohen, a scientist in U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana.

This suggests some pretty simple ways of reducing fire risks to homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface. I’ll describe those in a bit. But regardless of those details, the Grass Valley and Fourmile fires, like so many in the West, suggest we still haven’t fully learned the lessons that fire science is providing. As a result, we keep pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into fire suppression in the forests, much of it going to efforts to save homes in the path of wildfire.

In the view of Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, the situation is analogous to the health impacts from obesity. As a response to the increased risk of heart disease, “should we have more defibrillators?,” he asks. “Sure. But that’s not the complete answer.”

Continue reading “Learning to live in a ‘gas-soaked stadium’” →

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Learning to live in a ‘gas-soaked stadium’

Posted on October 30th by Tom Yulsman. 2 Comments

Part 1: Insights on how we got into this mess from some of the West’s leading fire scientists

Smoke from the Fourmile Canyon Fire drifts over the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range near Boulder on Sept. 6, 2010. (Copyright: Tom Yulsman)
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We’ve now had two wildfires near Boulder in two months. The Domefire erupted yesterday about 2 miles west of town, and by the afternoon it had crept to within a few hundred yards of the city. By this morning, it had already consumed more than 140 acres, and forced the evacuation of 1,800 people. (As I’m about to post this article, it is now 70 percent contained, thank goodness.)

The second conflagration, the Fourmile Canyon Fire, was sparked on September 6 and went on to become the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, burning 169 homes to the ground.

“The choices we’ve made as a society have put us in this position,” says Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service. “You can’t put people in a football field, douse the stadium with gasoline, and then ask firefighters to insure their safety.”

Of course, that is essentially what we’ve done. By suppressing fires for decades, we’ve allowed the forests to fill with combustible biomass. And millions of people have migrated out of the cities to live in the Wildland-Urban interface, or “WUI.”

The state of Colorado is one of the prime examples of this phenomenon. Among the western states, we’ve got more than 90,000 residences (many second homes) in the WUI, which means we rank fourth in terms of the amount of forested land with homes built next to public lands, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group dedicated to improving community development and land management decisions in the West.

Here in Boulder County, “5,409 homes are spread across 57 square miles of wildland urban interface,” which means we’re ranked tenth in the West for wildfire risk, according to the analysis.

As the map here suggests (click on it for a zoomable version, as well as more information from Headwaters Economics), it is unlikely that we’re going to be taking the people out of the gasoline-soaked stadium. And while the “gasoline” — meaning overgrown, too-dense vegetation — might be mitigated somewhat by controlled burns, forest thinning and other activities, wildfire is never going away. Not even close.

So how can people protect themselves?

Continue reading “Learning to live in a ‘gas-soaked stadium’” →

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EarthArt: A geologic abstraction

Posted on October 28th by Tom Yulsman.

Astronauts on the International Space Station shot this picture of the southern part of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah on June 14, 2009. Over the years I’ve backpacked and hiked through portions of the park, and it is every bit as entrancing on the ground as it seems from space.

The image captures part the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic feature known as a “monocline.” The fold is a 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, in which flat lying layers bend upward in a steep fold.

Continue reading “EarthArt: A geologic abstraction” →

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What makes a storm “super” anyway?

Posted on October 28th by Tom Yulsman. One Comment

Given that new records are set all the time these days, what meaning does labeling a storm “super” actually have?

The powerful storm that swept through the Midwest Tuesday, dropping snow in the Dakotas, spawning dozens of tornadoes, and causing widespread damage, is seen in this image captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. (Source: Space Science & Engineering Center.)

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By now, you’re probably heard about the so-called “superstorm” that swept across much of the United States on Tuesday.  And maybe you’ve heard about some of the truly astonishing details — or maybe you even experienced them for yourself, since the effects of this storm stretched from the Dakotas all the way to the East Coast.

But what actually makes a storm “super”? It turns out that while the term is a headline writer’s dream, there is no scientific definition, according to Mickey Glantz, director of the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. In an interview this morning, he challenged the scientific community to come up with one — especially in light of the prediction that climate change will bring more frequent powerful storms in the future.

How powerful was this storm? Here’s how Jeff Masters at Wunderground.com put it in his posting:

Tornadoes, violent thunderstorms, and torrential rains swept through a large portion of the nation’s midsection yesterday, thanks to the strongest storm ever recorded in the Midwest. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center logged 24 tornado reports and 282 reports of damaging high winds from yesterday’s spectacular storm, and the storm continues to produce a wide variety of wild weather, with tornado watches posted for Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, a blizzard warning for North Dakota, high wind warnings for most of the upper Midwest, and near-hurricane force winds on Lake Superior.

The mega-storm reached peak intensity late yesterday afternoon over Minnesota, resulting in the lowest barometric pressure readings ever recorded in the continental United States, except for from hurricanes and nor’easters affecting the Atlantic seaboard.

In at least four places in Masters post, he uses the term “superstorm.” In two others, he called it a “mega-storm.”

This terminology has been picked up elsewhere as well. At Discovery News, for example, the headline read, “MIDWEST ‘SUPERSTORM’ REVEALS BULKED UP ATMOSPHERE,” a reference there to a possible connection described in the story between this storm and global warming.

As these “super” and “mega” references piled up in the blogosphere and news media, it occurred to me that I had heard about this concept of a “superstorm” before. And sure enough, I quickly discovered that Mickey Glantz has been writing about this idea for quite some time. So I called him to ask what he thought about it.

First, though, here’s what he wrote about subject way back in 2004, accompanied by this image of a storm rampaging across the Midwest — one that looks remarkably similar to the one we’ve just experienced!:

Continue reading “What makes a storm “super” anyway?” →

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The Homer Simpson-John Riggins plan for energy independence

Posted on October 26th by Tom Yulsman. 4 Comments

Just as the prospects for solar energy are looking up, could the new Congress wind up promoting a new vision of “renewable” energy that includes nuclear power and even coal? Read on . . .

Solar power costs are dropping, returns on investment for commercial rooftop solar systems are increasing, and the overall picture for the technology is improving, according to Bloomberg News, quoting a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

According to the report, solar power could generate more than 4 percent of electrical demand in the United States by 2020.  Today, it generates just 1,400 megawatts in the United States. With investments of $100 billion over the next ten years, that total could be boosted to 44,000 megawatts, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Politico is reporting that Republicans are gearing up to push for an “all of the above” energy policy in the new Congress. It would emphasize increased domestic production of oil, gas and coal, and tax breaks and other incentives for nuclear power, so-called “clean coal,” and renewable energy.

From Politico:

Continue reading “The Homer Simpson-John Riggins plan for energy independence” →

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