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A 700,000-gallon replica of the Sea of Cortez in the Arizona desert

Tay Wiles | Jun 24, 2014 09:25 AM

The coral reef that once lived in the 700,000-gallon tank of ocean water in the Arizona desert, hauled in from Belize after breaking off in a storm in the late 1980s, is now pretty much dead. It met the same fate as another Biosphere 2 experiment, which involved eight men and women living off their own crops inside a 3.1-acre glass sphere for 24 months in 1993: It was good while it lasted and was just a blip in the ever-evolving science wonderland that is Biosphere 2.

To replace the defunct coral sanctuary, scientists at the University-of-Arizona-owned research facility are madly drafting designs for a new desert ocean, this time to emulate the Sea of Cortez. Instead of pumping heat into the tank to keep its temperature in the mid-to-high 70-degree range for tropical reef, they’ll allow the new sea to fluctuate in temperature to replicate something more like the gulf. Cortez wildlife such as sea stars, small sharks and possibly sea turtles will populate the 6,000-square-foot tank (that’s a bit larger than two Olympic swimming pools).

An early sketch, by Dr. Raphael Sagarin, of the new ocean at Biosphere 2.
Dr. Raphael Sagarin, who is heading the new ocean project at Biosphere 2. Photograph by Paul Ingram.
A wider view of the research facility Biosphere 2, which is 35 miles north of Tucson.

So why build a living, breathing, semi-tidal, salty, cool ocean in the bone-dry desert? It makes perfect sense, says marine ecologist Raphael Sagarin, who’s leading the project. The Sonoran desert and Gulf of California share an intimate symbiotic relationship. Every July and August, southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico experience much-needed monsoons that provide nearly half of the region’s annual precipitation. That moist deposit, airlifted yearly from the Sea of Cortez and sucked several hundred miles north to summer low-pressure systems, makes the thriving desert ecosystem possible.

“These desert plants are really adapted to the large pulse of rain,” says Sagarin, who grew up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and hoofed it to the West Coast at his first chance, where he says the marine biology was much more fascinating. “It’s the crux of why the Sonoran desert has such rich plant and animal life.”

Seeing this direct connection between the ecosystems in the Gulf of California and the Tucson desert motivates Tucsonans to learn about conservation challenges facing the gulf, Sagarin says. A problem for the ocean is a problem for the desert. That’s the point of the new desert sea – to research and problem-solve issues like coastal pollution, climate change, over-fishing and new zoonotic diseases.

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BP energy review reveals lingering addiction to fossil fuels

Jonathan Thompson | Jun 23, 2014 05:10 AM

The 2014 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, released this month, is a rather dry document made up of spreadsheets and a few charts filled with stats on global energy production and consumption during 2013. But look behind the numbers, and what you'll find is anything but dull: A detailed accounting of how much energy the globe's 7.2 billion people are using and where they are getting it.

Not surprisingly, the earth's citizens are together burning through more energy than ever before. On the one hand, this is a good thing. It means that more people are getting access to more forms of energy, the primary driver of civilization. But in all these numbers we can also find the quantification of doom and helplessness: While they show that the United States and Europe have made incremental progress in their efforts to be more efficient and get energy from cleaner sources, those efforts are suffocated by the massive growth in fossil fuel energy consumption worldwide.

No matter how many times I pore over the numbers, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of our collective consumption. Our unit of measurement for oil is not the gallon, or even the barrel, but one million barrels, counted daily -- one can't help but wonder how long the Earth can stand our draining desire. Pumpjacks and draglines work tirelessly around the clock to suck rivers of oil and gouge mountains of coal out of the earth, gulping energy to do it. Then we expend more energy to move all the raw material of our energy-driven society around, via pipelines or tanker ships, by rail and truck, with an alarming nonchalance. As you might expect, the bp report doesn't say much about all the pollution or greenhouse gas emissions that result from our fossil fuel habit, but it's there, in the upward curving graphs of global oil and coal use -- a trend to which no end is in sight.

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Fuzzy math clouds carbon emission numbers

Jeremy Miller | Jun 20, 2014 05:00 AM

President Obama’s announcement earlier this month of new regulations requiring reductions in carbon emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants brought the predictable howls of doom from industry representatives, conservatives and lawmakers from coal-producing states. "The president’s plan would indeed cause a surge in electricity bills — costs stand to go up $17 billion every year,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a prepared statement. “But it would also shut down plants and potentially put an average of 224,000 more people out of work every year."

Yet, despite the pushback from conservatives and assertions that the proposed regulations are part of a concerted “War on Coal,” the new regulatory plan has also bred skepticism among several national environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and, who say the whole notion that we’ll be reducing our emissions by 30 percent by 2030 is based largely on a statistical sleight of hand.

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard, writing in Harper’s magazine, says the Obama Administration has largely relied on “accounting tricks” in its new rules to avoid making meaningful reductions. It has done so by using 2005 as a baseline for calculating carbon reductions rather than 1990, the year used by nations adhering to reductions targets under the Kyoto Protocol. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. coal plants emitted 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon into atmosphere in 1990; by 2005 that number had grown to almost 2.2 billion. So, while a 30 percent reduction from the higher 2005 figure seems larger nominally, it is less meaningful for reducing overall carbon concentration in the atmosphere. In other words, the proposed2030 targets turn into a 7.7 percent reduction when using the 1990 levels as a baseline.

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New Mexico is getting lucky so far this fire season

Cally Carswell | Jun 19, 2014 05:00 AM

Southern Californians are currently experiencing a phenomenon they call June Gloom, when the humid, hazy air that usually hangs out just above the ocean blows inland and lingers, trapped by a warm layer above it. Oh, what the good people of New Mexico would have given in recent years for that brand of gloom. Instead, they've been visited by what might more aptly be described as June Doom, characterized by a feeling of dread that the right spark on the wrong day would set drought-ridden forests spectacularly aflame.

In May and June, the skies of Southwest are muddied not by supple fog but by throat-tickling smoke. These are the region's big fire months because they're typically dry and warm, conditions that are relieved by the monsoon rains of July and August, when the West's northern states begin to dry out, heat up and burn. They've been especially nerve-wracking in the last few years, with the drought that set the stage for the huge and damaging Wallow and Las Conchas fires in Arizona and New Mexico in 2011 stubbornly persisting.

This winter in New Mexico, it looked like May and June would once again be fearsome. Snowpack was pitiful, which ironically, cast the deluge of rain that fell on the state the previous September in a potentially troubling new light. The moisture had stimulated the growth of grasses and other small herbaceous plants, which without being matted down by deep snow, could provide widespread fine fuels for fire. "New Mexico fire managers are facing a grim and potentially extreme situation," the National Weather Service warned in February. "Without significant spring moisture, or timely late spring, early summer wetting events, the 2014 New Mexico fire season has the potential to be extremely destructive."

And yet, the June 1 forecast put the potential for significant fires in much of the state at no greater than normal. Halfway through the month, it looks like it will be a relatively unremarkable fire season.Fire June 1

"All the antecedent conditions were such that we looked like we were going to have a bad year," explains Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center's Predictive Services Group. "But even with underlying severe drought, if you have cool temperatures, hits of moisture, cloud cover, lack of heat and general weather variability, you will not see huge fire outbreaks." And that's what's happened in New Mexico this spring and summer: The warm, dry periods fire weather have been punctuated by cool, wet periods. Without protracted fire-friendly weather, the opportunity to ignite blazes that burn big and long is significantly reduced.

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Reasons for massive starfish dieoff still unknown

Krista Langlois | Jun 18, 2014 05:00 AM

Here’s some shocking news: Since last fall, when I first wrote about Pacific sea stars falling victim to a mysterious disease, turning into goo and dying, the aptly-named “starfish wasting syndrome” has not – as scientists hoped – subsided on its own. It’s gotten much, much worse.

How much worse, you ask? Well, from the get-go, this iteration of starfish wasting was more widespread and severe than previous outbreaks, which have historically spiked during warm-water El Niño years and then quickly subsided. By the time it was identified late last summer, the disease had already caused localized die-offs of up to 95 percent of ochre sea stars in Santa Cruz, California, and was spotted as far north as Alaska. Tens of thousands of starfish simply wasted away and died, literally before researchers’ eyes.

Yet it seemed for a while that Washington and Oregon would be spared. This May, just over 1 percent of ochre sea stars in Oregon were affected. But now – a mere four weeks later – an estimated 30 to 50 percent are dying, and scientists predict a 100 percent mortality rate in some places. In parts of Washington’s San Juan Islands, mortality jumped from 10 to 40 percent over the course of a single week in June, and the disease has now been confirmed in more than a dozen species. “This is an unprecedented event,” says Bruce Menge, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. “We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before.”

starfish wasting 2
An ochre sea star with starfish wasting syndrome turns to mush. Courtesy Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman/Oregon State University

By now, you might well be wondering what’s behind this intertidal horror show. Funny you should ask. Though the outbreak has prompted a slew of research and emergency funding from the National Science Foundation, no one really knows. We’re 11 months into an epidemic that could wreak havoc on entire ecosystems from Mexico to Alaska, and we can’t pin down the cause. It’s like the bubonic plague is striking our oceans, and we’re stuck in the dark ages.

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Sons of Wichita: understanding the enigmatic Koch brothers

Tay Wiles | Jun 17, 2014 09:25 AM

The Koch brothers have become a household names in the past decade. Three out of four brothers are major players in energy development in the West and across the country. Two are powerbrokers for the conservative right and have been at the forefront of bringing libertarianism into the political mainstream. In the energy and political arenas, much is made of the men today, but the origins of the actual brothers Koch – Fredrick, Charles, David and Bill – remain little known to most Americans.

In a new book, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, author Daniel Schulman attempts to understand the lives of these four enigmatic men. Schulman, a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, explores how their childhoods in Kansas, their sibling rivalries and their early business ventures inform their political philosophies and other current endeavors, from their support of the Tea Party to their influence on the climate debate.

During their childhood, the brothers’ father would pit the younger twins against one another in impromptu boxing matches, and from the beginning of the book, Bill competes with his older brother Charles for their father’s approval – all of which sets the stage for endless legal battles and one-up-manship in their adult lives. At one point, in 1983, Bill seems to cut his losses when he creates his own energy company called Oxbow, “the term for a sharp, U-shaped bend in a river,” a “poetic nod to Bill’s own new direction.” Yet the family saga, Schulman writes, never truly ends.

Schulman recently spoke to High Country News about the book and the brothers both.

High Country News What inspired you to begin writing this book three years ago?

Daniel Schulman I heard Charles’ and David’s names coming up more and more in connection with their political involvement. I did cursory research and there were the outlines there of what seemed to be a really fascinating family story. You had a trifecta of a great business story, an interesting political story and a dramatic family saga.

The thing that helps you understand who these guys are – everything from their business philosophy to their political beliefs to the family feud that ripped the family apart begins with the patriarch, Fred Koch. He was this young upstart oil engineer in the 1920s whose firm at that time was selling an oil refining process. Their first major overseas contract was with the Soviet Union.

The result of it was to help to industrialize USSR and put it on the path to becoming a world superpower. But Fred Koch was horrified by what he saw there and returned to the United States vowing to do everything he could to stop the spread of communism. You can see it come full circle in the Obama age with the fear of socialism that is sort of coursing through the right in this country.

Bill, Charles, and David Koch in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1968, the year after their father's death. Charles was then running the family company. Bill was earning a Ph.D and overseeing a family venture capital fund, and David was working in New York City for the chemical company Halcon International. Photo credit: Mikki Ansin.

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EPA carbon regulations will not destroy the electrical grid

Jonathan Thompson | Jun 16, 2014 05:05 AM

Just days after the Obama administration announced it would implement rules to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ak., bemoaned the collateral damage the so-called war on coal would have on the electrical grid.

“I am greatly concerned EPA’s rules – particularly in combination with one another – will result in a grid that is less stable and less reliable,” said Murkowski in an address to Congress. “The cumulative effect of federal regulations on baseload capacity – resources such as coal and nuclear which provide electricity on demand – must be examined and appreciated, not discounted or ignored.”

Sure, she’s saying, your rules might clean up the air and mitigate climate change, but it’s going to come at a cost: The grid might just collapse in the middle of the big basketball game.

Four Corners Power Plant
Coal plants on tribal land, like the Four Corners power plant in northwestern New Mexico, do not fall under the EPA's emissions rules for existing power plants. Tribes will have the opportunity help craft their own rules. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Never mind that the relatively modest new rules won’t shut down coal altogether; that it’s still not clear how some of the biggest power plants in the West will be affected, because they are on tribal land; that climate change caused in part by coal burning is the biggest threat to grid stability; and that the general move away from coal in our energy mix has more to do with low natural gas prices than with regulations -- Murkowski has a point. When it comes to running a stable electrical grid, not much can beat coal. Fire up a 1,600 megawatt coal plant, and it puts out a steady stream of electricity that can keep the lights on and the iPhones charged in nearly one million homes, around the clock. If grid operators know that their customers will likely use more power the next day because it will be hot, for example, they can dispatch more coal power to compensate.

Wind or solar simply can’t replace coal. A wind farm puts out less than half the kilowatt hours of a coal plant of equal generating capacity, and the amount of power generated is determined not by grid operators, but by wind speed at any given time. Solar’s less manic than wind, but is still bipolar, blasting power into the grid in the middle of the day and going fully dormant at night. To smooth out the variability, utilities have to build fast-ramping natural gas plants, which are costly to build and operate. Hydropower has the potential to act as a baseload power source, but drought’s diminishing it in many places, and the amount of water put through the generators is often dictated by factors other than power demand.

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Is immigration reform an environmental issue?

Tay Wiles | Jun 14, 2014 05:05 AM

The question of whether humanity can expand indefinitely without running roughshod over the very environment it depends on once stood at the center of the American environmental movement. Public concern reached a fever pitch after the Sierra Club published Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb in 1968. Within that debate quietly lurked questions about how to address immigration control.

Those questions have slipped from public discourse, as immigration reform – a key player in future U.S. population – has become a flagship liberal issue and as both sides of the political spectrum focus on the social and economic dimensions to border control issues, rather than environmental. (Read Ray Ring’s feature story “Border out of control” from our latest print issue for more on environmental degradation at the U.S.-Mexico border, focusing on U.S. Border Patrol’s impact.)

But a few conservationists continue to beat the drum about the ecological perils of immigration-fueled population growth. One is Leon Kolankiewicz, who has taken on the task of answering the question: What will happen to the U.S. and its environment when the national population jumps from its current 306 million to close to 500 million by 2100? Kolankiewicz, a Virginia-based environmental consultant, has worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service and several other federal agencies and is creating an independent environmental impact statement on immigration.

Part of why population stabilization isn’t as mainstream as it used to be is because it has unsettling ties to xenophobia at the root of the American conservation movement. The early 20th century movement to save Redwood trees in California, for instance, was plagued with eugenicist sympathizers. A former head of the Sierra Club’s population committee, John Tanton, has fielded accusations of racism for decades. In 1988, the eco-rabble rouser Ed Abbey wrote that, “it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally morally-generically impoverished people.”

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The West's crucial 2014 U.S. Senate races

Cally Carswell | Jun 13, 2014 05:00 AM

The big question of the 2014 midterm elections -- other than, "Eric Cantor lost?!" --  is which party will emerge with control of the U.S. Senate. A number of Western states will host Senate races this year – Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska – but only three will be hotly contested, and only those will figure into the national partisan power struggle. Those races are for seats currently occupied by Democrats in Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Colorado's Mark Udall is the most likely to hold on, while in Montana and Alaska, incumbents John Walsh and Mark Begich are extremely vulnerable.

Republicans need to pick off six sitting Democrats to take a majority in the Senate. Only seven Democrats seem vulnerable, and to varying degrees, making races like those in Montana and Alaska – where Republicans have a good shot at victory – crucial to both parties.

Here's a closer look at the candidates facing off in these three states and some of the more intriguing aspects of their campaigns:


Udall wind turbine
Sen. Mark Udall, left, tours the Siemens Test Wind Turbine at the National Wind Technology Center. (Photo courtesy NREL.)

First-term Sen. Mark Udall is being challenged by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who both establishment and Tea Party conservatives in Colorado seem to be united behind. Climate change and energy look like they'll figure big in this race, and the obligatory attacks are already being lobbed at Udall from outside groups for his support of Obamacare. Gardner is going after Udall for not taking a position on attempts by towns across Colorado to ban fracking within their limits, which Gardner sees as economic drains. The issue is a thorny one for Udall, who risks being labeled a job-killing liberal if he supports the bans, and alienating lefty enclaves like Boulder if he opposes them.

Another sign that the politics of energy are less clearcut in Colorado than in fossil fuel meccas like Wyoming, is Udall's reaction to the carbon rules for existing power plants recently announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rules, announced just as campaigns were getting revved up, were widely expected to be a political burden for vulnerable Democrats. Udall, however, reacted to the announcement by touting his support for the EPA's plan. Colorado has already transitioned many of its big coal plants to natural gas, as required by a law that Gardner supported when he was in the state legislature. (Though Gardner has also expressed skepticism about manmade climate change.)

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Dispatch from Yosemite: Honoring national parks’ black heritage

James Mills | Jun 12, 2014 03:05 PM

In the fading light of a late spring evening, gospel singer Sista Monica Parker sat humming on a bench at the Yellow Pines Campground in Yosemite National Park. There she waited patiently for others to gather. Quiet at first, her melodic voice gained strength as she swayed to the rhythm of a hymn perhaps not heard in the Valley for more than a century. The sound slowly swelled into a powerful chorus that echoed off the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome. Even the birds fell silent.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” Monica sang. “Hallelu…Hallelu…Hallelujah!”

When they heard her voice, people making camp or talking stopped what they were doing and made their way to where she sat singing and clapping her hands. In the great tradition of the Negro spiritual, everyone sang together in community and fellowship, raising their voices to the heights of the tall trees all around them. It was the perfect way to begin a weekend celebration of African-American heritage in our national parks.

Yosemite was just one of the NPS sites throughout the country that witnessed an influx of minority visitors on June 7th and 8th, as part of the second annual African-American National Parks Event. The group at Yosemite had journeyed from San Francisco earlier that day. On  Saturday, June 7th, almost 200 black men, women and children had gathered at the Presidio. It was from this military headquarters that in 1899, 1903 and 1904 more than 400 African-American members of the United States Army made the long journey on horseback to patrol and defend the newly designated national parks at Yosemite and Sequoia. These “Buffalo Soldiers” were among the first park rangers.

Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson (left) greets African-American visitors. Photograph by James Mills.

To commemorate these early efforts to protect public lands for future generations, a large group of outdoor enthusiasts boarded buses, automobiles and motorcycles to follow the same route the Buffalo Soldiers traveled to Yosemite, now visited by millions of people every year from around the world.

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