I am fortunate to live in a rural area adjacent to the Great Lakes here in Ontario,Canada and the show of stars is incredible. When I travel to the cities the stars are invisible due to light pollution.

Bringing back the night: the fight against light pollution

New initiatives seek to cut the light pollution that is increasingly linked to adverse effects on human health and wildlife

Earth hour from the International Space Station
Northern Coast and  Gulf of Mexico at Night from the International Space Station. Photograph: ISS/ESA/NASA

Last month, France — including the City of Light — grew darker late at night as one of the world’s most comprehensive lighting ordinances went into effect.

From 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., shop lights are being turned off, and lights inside office buildings must be extinguished within an hour of workers leaving the premises. The lighting on France’s building facades cannot be turned on before sunset. Over the next two years, regulations restricting lighting on billboards will go into effect. These rules are designed to eventually cut carbon dioxide emissions by 250,000 tons per year, save the equivalent of the annual energy consumption of 750,000 households, and slash the country’s overall energy bill by 200 million Euros ($266 million).

But no less a motivation, says France’s Environment Ministry, is to “reduce the print of artificial lighting on the nocturnal environment” — a powerful acknowledgement that excessive use of lighting in many parts of the world is endangering our health and the health of the ecosystems on which we rely. The good news, however, is that light pollution is readily within our grasp to control.

Until recently, efforts to restrain our use of light have been primarily in response to the astronomical light pollution erasing starry nights. But researchers are increasingly focusing on the impacts of so-called ecological light pollution, warning that disrupting these natural patterns of light and dark, and thus the structures and functions of ecosystems, is having profound impacts.

The problem is worsening as China, India, Brazil, and numerous other countries are becoming increasingly affluent and urbanized. Satellite views of Earth at night show vast areas of North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia glowing white, with only the world’s remotest regions — Siberia, the Tibetan plateau, the Sahara Desert, the Amazon, and the Australian outback — still cloaked in darkness. Some countries, such as Britain, and some U.S. states — including Connecticut and California — have enacted regulations to reduce light pollution, but most nations and cities still do little to dial down the excessive use of light.

Technological advances such as LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, can improve our ability to reduce and better regulate lighting, but these same new lights may actually make things worse because they contain heavy doses of a “blue-rich” white light that is especially disruptive to circadian rhythms.

Scientists are investigating new ways to provide society with the lighting it demands for security, commerce, and aesthetics, while greatly reducing the flood of light that is increasingly interfering with human health and the ability of many creatures to function. One research group funded by the German government — Verlust der Nacht, or Loss of Night — is coordinating numerous studies on light pollution, ranging from research into the socio-political challenges of cutting light pollution in the Berlin metropolitan area to the effects of light pollution on nocturnal mammals.

Some 30 percent of vertebrates and more than 60 percent of invertebrates are nocturnal, and many of the rest are crepuscular — active at dawn and dusk. All are potentially impacted by our burgeoning use of artificial light, scientists say. “We have levels of light hundreds and thousands of time higher than the natural level during the night,” explains Italian astronomer Fabio Falchi, a creator of the World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness, the computer-generated maps that dramatically depict the extent of light pollution across the globe. “What would happen if we modified the day and lowered the light a hundred or a thousand times?” That would be much worse, he concedes. But his point? “You cannot modify [light] half the time without consequences,” says Falchi.

Every flip of a light switch contributes to altering ancient patterns of mating, migration, feeding, and pollination, with no time for species to adapt. On the Caribbean island of Tobago, a 2012 study of leatherback turtles — a species that has been on Earth for 150 million years — found that “artificial lighting of the nesting beaches is the biggest threat to survival of hatchlings and a major factor in declining leatherback turtle populations.” Evolved to follow the reflected light of the stars and moon from the beach to the ocean, hatchlings now instead follow the light of hotels and streetlights, with the result that they die of dehydration, are devoured by predators, or run over by cars.

Many migrating birds, drawn off-course by artificial light, join the breathtaking number — between 100 million and 1 billion, we don’t really know — killed each year by collision with human-made structures. For moths, which help pollinate the world’s flora, our outdoor lights are irresistible flames, killing countless moths and other insects, with ripple effects throughout the food chain.

Other recent studies show that for bats — whose natural pest control benefits U.S. agriculture alone by billions of dollars annually, according to a 2011 study in Science — artificial light disrupts patterns of travel and feeding since many bat species avoid illuminated areas. Recent articles on a menagerie of species reflect a new awareness of artificial light’s effects on ecology. For example, research has shown that street lighting influences the migratory pattern of Atlantic salmon, and that bright lights also change the composition of entire communities of insects and other invertebrates.

Of course, “humans are animals as well,” explains Steven Lockley of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, “and so when light/dark cycles mess up seasonal patterns of trees or breeding cycles of amphibians, there’s no reason to think it’s not doing the same to us.”

As recently as 1980, humans were thought to be immune to the effects of artificial light at night. But continuing research has shown that nocturnal light disrupts our sleep, confuses our circadian rhythms — those 24-hour biological processes that regulate our body’s functions — and impedes the production of the hormone melatonin at much lower levels than previously thought possible.

More and more of the light we see at night — whether electronic gadgets or outdoor lighting — is rich with the blue wavelengths most disruptive to our body’s rhythms. (More than any other wavelength, blue wavelength light tells our brain that night is over, that morning’s blue sky has returned, and that the day has begun — the opposite signal that we want to be sending our brain in the middle of the night.) Studies continue to suggest that the consequences of excessive exposure to light at night include an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Last year, the American Medical Association issued a statementcalling for increased research into the “risks and benefits of occupational and environmental exposure to light-at-night,” and recommending “new lighting technologies at home and at work that minimize circadian disruption.”

”In fact, researchers are concerned about the impact of some new lighting technologies. While their capacity to be computer-controlled and directed could make LEDs a key tool in reducing light pollution, these lights may actually make things significantly worse. Touted as energy-efficient and clearer in color, most LEDs currently being installed are often brighter than the old lights they are replacing, further increasing light pollution. In fact, explain Falchi and others in a recent article from the Journal of Environmental Management, LEDs could “exacerbate known and possible unknown effects of light pollution on human health (and the) environment” by more than five times.

Researchers and dark-sky advocates are seeking to mitigate the harmful effects of new lighting technologies and devise solutions to the flood of light that erases the night in many parts of he world. The International Dark-Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America have together designed the Model Lighting Ordinance, which communities of any size can adopt. The MLO recommends limits for the amount of light in five different zones of lighting intensity. The ordinance also recommends banning unshielded lighting in all zones.

In the Journal of Applied Ecology, researchers have identified numerous practical steps to reduce light pollution: changing the spectral composition of lighting (especially LEDs), limiting the duration of lighting, reducing the “trespass” of lighting into areas not intended to be lit, altering the intensity of lighting, and preventing areas from being artificially lit in the first place.

The relatively simple act of shielding our lights — installing or retrofitting lamp fixtures that direct light downward to its intended target — represents our best chance to control light pollution. While we seldom leave our interior lights bare, most of our outdoor lighting remains unshielded, sending light straight into the sky, into our eyes, into our neighbors’ bedrooms. Until recently, consumers had few buying choices, but that is changing. Companies such as Lowe’s, the home-improvement chain, now offer lines of shielded lighting fixtures. Street lighting, stadium lighting, parking lot and gas station lighting — all can be now be shielded.

The objection will be that we need all this light for safety and security, with the justification that light equals safety, and darkness danger. This common belief goes far to explain why many gas stations and parking lots are lit more than ten times as brightly as they were just 20 years ago, andwhy light pollution continues to grow at up to 20 percent per year, depending on the region. In fact, the issue of light at night and safety is complex, with little compelling evidence to support common assumptions. For example, ever-brighter lights can actually diminish security by casting glare that impedes our vision and creates shadows where criminals can hide.

Experts say it is far more important to use light effectively than abundantly. Explaining France’s new lighting rules, Delphine Batho, until recently France’s environment minister, described the government’s desire to “change the culture” to include responsible use of light. This change is to be applauded, for what increasing numbers of studies — as well as our own eyes — tell us is that we are using far more light than we need, and at tremendous cost.


European forests near ‘carbon saturation point’

Saturday, August 24, 2013

European forests near ‘carbon saturation point’

European forests are showing signs of reaching a saturation point as carbon sinks, a study has suggested. Since 2005, the amount of atmospheric CO2 absorbed by the continent’s trees has been slowing, researchers reported. Writing in Nature Climate Change, they said this was a result of a declining volume of trees, deforestation and the impact of natural disturbances. Carbon sinks play a key role in the global carbon cycle and are promoted as a way to offset rising emissions. Writing in their paper, the scientists said the continent’s forests had been recovering in recent times after centuries of stock decline and deforestation. The growth had also provided a “persistent carbon sink”, which was projected to continue for decades. However, the team’s study observed three warnings that the carbon sink provided by Europe’s tree stands was nearing a saturation point. “First, the stem volume increment rate (of individual trees) is decreasing and thus the sink is curbing after decades of increase,” they wrote. “Second, land use is intensifying, thereby leading to deforestation and associated carbon losses. “Third, natural disturbances (eg wildfires) are increasing and, as a consequence, so are the emissions of CO2.” Co-author Gert-Jan Nabuurs from Wageningen University and Research Centre, Netherlands, said: “All of this together means that the increase in the size of the sink is stopping; it is even declining a little. “We see this as the first signs of a saturating sink,” he told BBC News.
The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon – essential for life on the planet – is transferred between land (geosphere and terrestrial biosphere), sea (hydrosphere) and the atmosphere. Carbon sinks refers to the capacity of key components in the cycle – such as the soil, oceans, rock and fossil fuels – to store carbon, preventing it from being recycled, eg between the land and the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has modified the cycle as a result of burning fossil fuels and land-use change. Burning fossil fuels has resulted in vast amounts of carbon previously locked in the geosphere being released into the atmosphere. Land-use change – such as urbanisation and deforestation – has reduced the size of the biosphere, which removes carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Dr Nabuurs explained that saturation referred to the point where the natural carbon sinks were unable to keep pace and absorb the additional atmospheric carbon being released by human activities. He said emissions had risen a lot over the past decade, primarily through the rise of emerging economies in countries such as China, India and Brazil.
The researcher’s conclusions appear to contradict the State of Europe’s Forests report in 2011 that showed forest cover in Europe had continued to increase. The report said trees covered almost half of Europe’s land area and absorbed about 10% of Europe’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. But Dr Nabuurs said that the rate of afforestation was slowing, adding that a sizeable proportion of forests were mature stands of trees, which were mainly planted in the early part of the 20th Century or in the post-World War II period. “These forests have now reached 70-80 years old and are starting a phase in the life of a tree where the growth rate starts to come down,” he explained. “So you have large areas of old forest and even if you add these relatively small areas of new forest, this does not compensate for the loss of growth rate in the old forests.” However, mature woodlands have been recognised as a key habitat for supporting and conserving biodiversity. Will this lead to policymakers making a choice between forests’ ecological value and their effectiveness at sequestering CO2? “That is indeed a large challenge,” said Dr Nabuurs. “Old forests in Europe are necessary and we certainly need those forests. “I think policymakers at a national level and within the EU have to be clear that in certain regions, within valuable habitats, that the focus is on old forests and biodiversity. “But in other regions, maybe it is time to concentrate more on continuous wood production again and rejuvenate forests again, so then you have growing forests and a continuous flow of wood products. “This seems to be the optimal way to address both the need for wood products and maintaining a carbon sink in growing forests.”
The study’s findings could have implications for EU and member state’s climate mitigation efforts to reduce emissions. “Most European nations, as part of their emissions reduction commitments, can also use forest carbon sinks,” Dr Nabuurs observed. “Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries were voluntarily choosing to take that sink into account. “But in the next commitment period, forest management will be an obligatory part of reaching the emissions reduction targets. “For some countries, the sink is a very large part of their emissions reduction commitment so the saturation is a real problem, requiring them to take additional measures, for example in the electricity generation or transport sectors.” As a sizeable proportion of Europe’s forest areas are owned by smallholders, the process of changing the age-profile of the continent’s tree cover could prove challenging with some owners resisting the idea of increasing wood production and tree harvesting. One potential solution is a pan-European, legally binding agreement on forest management that would look to balance the ecological value of forests against the trees’ commercial and climate mitigation value. Delegates from more than 40 nations have been working on such a framework since 2011. However, talks stalled in June when negotiators were unable to reach agreement on a number of technicalities. “This is a very important process where all the European states are working towards a legally binding agreement,” Dr Nabuurs commented. “It is a very important framework in which the member states can devise their own national policies. “It is obvious that within nations, forest policy is often quite weak. To strengthen this, this agreement is certainly necessary.” Talks are set to resume in the autumn, with the aim of having a draft agreement in place by mid-November for EU forestry ministers to consider – Article attributed to Mark Kinver (BBC News), August 18th 2013.
For more on the article please visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23712464
Posted by at7:04 PM

Average 250 Pipeline Accidents Each Year, Billions Spent on Property Damage

Fri, 2013-04-05 14:47Matthew Linnitt 

Matthew Linnitt's picture 

Average 250 Pipeline Accidents Each Year, Billions Spent on Property Damage


If only this were milk there would be no need to cry.

Cleanup efforts are currently underway in four separate oil spills that have occurred in the last ten days.

On March 27th, a train carrying Canadian tar sands dilbit jumped the rails in rural Minnesota spilling an estimated 30,000 gallons of black gold onto the countryside. 

Two days later a pipeline ruptured in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, sending a river of Albertan tar sands crude gurgling down residential streets. And news is just breaking about a Shell oil spill that occurred the same day in Texas that dumped an estimated 700 barrels, including at least 60 barrels of oil into a waterway that leads to the Gulf of Mexico (stay tuned for more on that).

This week a Canadian Pacific freight train loaded with oil derailed, spilling its cargo over the Northwest Ontario countryside. Originally reported as a leak of 600 liters, the CBC reported on Thursday that the estimated volume of the spill has increased to 63,000 liters.

The accelerating expansion of Alberta’s tar sands has North America’s current pipeline infrastructure maxed out and, as a result, oil companies have been searching for an alternative way to move their product to market. As lobbying efforts around the stymied Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines intensify, oil companies have been quietly loading their toxic cargo onto freight trains.

There has been a marked boost in the rail transport of crude in the last three years as new extraction techniques increase production in the tar sands. According to Reuters, “U.S. trains carried 233,800 carloads of crude oil in 2012, more than double the 65,800 carloads transported in 2011 and dwarfing the 29,600 in 2010, according to figures from the Association of American Railroads.”

Meanwhile the Canadian Pacific Railway’s crude oil volumes have skyrocketed from 2,800 carloads in 2010 to a staggering 53,000 last year. The company hopes to increase that number to over 70,000 this year.

Most, if not all, advocates of pipeline transportation will argue that the growing use of rail transport emphasizes the urgent need for pipelines. Pipelines are commonly touted as a more reliable mode of fuel transport than rail.

Pipelines, as the story goes, are safe.

Unfortunately for pipeline proponents, last week’s pipeline rupture in Arkansas is no anomaly in the history of US pipelines. In fact, pipelines have made a pretty consistent mess throughout the States for the last 20 years. One thing has changed, however: those messes are getting more expensive to clean up.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is responsible for reporting and recording all “significant pipeline incidents” which are all incidents exceeding the cost of $50,000 (in 1984 dollars).

In terms of property damage PHMSA records indicate that the 20-year average (1993-2012) cost of significant pipeline incidents is over 318 million dollars, the 10-year average (2003-2012) cost is over 494 million dollars the 5-year average (2008-2012) cost is over 545 million dollars and the 3-year average (2010-2012) cost is over 662 million dollars.

The cost of cleaning up after pipelines just keeps getting more expensive.

Over the last 20 years, pipeline incidents have caused over $6.3 billion in property damages. On average during this time period there were more than 250 pipeline incidents per year, without a single year where that number dropped below 220. During that time, more than 2.5 million barrels of hazardous liquids were spilled and little more than half of those spilled amounts were recovered in cleanup efforts.

One of the factors contributing to the cost of cleanup is the introduction of Alberta’s diluted bitumen to southern markets (The most expensive year on record is 2010 when Enbridge spilled 3.3 million liters or 877,000 gallons of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River).

Companies eager to move Canadian dilbit south to refineries and export facilities have been jimmying an aging pipeline infrastructure to handle the more corrosive substance and there is currently no federal oversight to monitor this process. 

Pipeline Network by Petroleum GeoGraphics Corp. on NRP.

Two decades of pipeline spills, mapped by the New York Times.

ExxonMobil’s sixty-five-year-old Pegasus pipeline that ruptured last week was one such retrofitted line. Built in the late 1940s, the old winged horse of a pipeline was reversed in 2006 in order to carry Canadian dilbit to the Gulf Coast via Illinois at a 50 percent increased capacity. The burst line sent a river of at least 84,000 gallons of dilbit running down residential streets in Mayflower and into nearby wetlands. 

The exact cause of the pipeline rupture is still unknown.

Many of the major pipeline operators – like Exxon, Enbridge and TransCanada – have been cited for lax inspections, shoddy emergency preparedness, and ineffective spill management and response. Both Exxon and Enbridge have been told their actions in the immediate hours after pipeline ruptures have made spills worse than necessary.

NPR reports “more than half of the nation’s pipelines were built before 1970. More than 2.5 million miles of pipelines run underground throughout the country.”

Debbie Hersman with the National Transportation Safety Board told NPR, “100 percent of the accidents that we’ve investigated were completely preventable.” In many cases companies performed inspections and discovered cracks and corrosion in the line but did not perform repairs before accidents occurred.

In an interview with Reuters, John Stephenson, vice president and portfolio manager at First Asset Investment Management in Toronto described these events as “not good for producers…not good for Canadian oil going south…not good for Keystone.”

But added, “the reality is this oil is going to make it south of the border, quite likely by rail or one of the other pipelines across the Canadian-US border, so I see it as a short-term hiccup at worst.”

Yet even a cursory glance at the history of pipeline accidents in the US shows what is happening in Arkansas is no ‘hiccup’ and will bear no ‘short-term’ consequences. At least, not for the residents of Mayflower.

Image Credit: Eilish Palmer, Lady with a Camera.

African Rock Pythons: Explaining Snake That Killed Boys


Giant constrictor known for ill temper, not a good pet, expert says.


An African rock python in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.                                                                            

An African rock python in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve.

Photograph by Michel Denis-Huot, Hemis/Corbis


Christine Dell’Amore

National Geographic

Published August 6, 2013

Two boys found strangled to death by an African rock python in New Brunswick, Canada, on Monday were victims of one of the world’s most vicious snakes.

There are 26 species of pythons, and even among that group, rock pythons have an especially nasty reputation, said Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Africa‘s largest snake, the 20-foot-long (6.1-meter-long) African rock python can’t be easily tamed like other snakes, such as the more commonly kept Burmese python, Krysko said.

They’re so ill-tempered that “they come out of the egg striking,” he said in a 2009 interview.

“I personally don’t see why people need to have these things as pets—they’re not good pets and look at what ends up happening,” Krysko said today. “I was shocked to hear about this.”

The snake escaped from its enclosure and through the ceiling of the apartment where the boys were visiting.

Dangerous Reptile

In its native habitat of sub-Saharan Africa, the African rock python eats small mammals, antelope, warthog, herons, and other animals.

On rare occasions, rock pythons are known to have attacked people, and there are at least two verified reports of people being killed by rock pythons in the wild.

In recent years the rock python has invaded parts of Miami, Florida, a state already being overrun by alien snakes.

Pet breeders unprepared for the pythons’ ferocity may have released them, Krysko said. (Watch a video of a rock python eating an antelope.)

Like the Burmese python, the African snake is a constrictor. Lacking venom, it kills animals by encircling and literally squeezing the life out of them. The African rock python also has long, curved teeth that can inflict deep wounds, according to the Jacksonville Zoo.

An African rock python can eat almost any warm-blooded animal that is small enough to get down their gullet. Pythons have flexible jaws and skin that allow them to consume large prey—for example, they can open their mouths wide because their lower jaws are loosely attached to their skulls. (See a picture of a Burmese python that exploded eating an American alligator in the Everglades.)

It’s unknown why the snakes attacked the boys, but Ian Recchio, the curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo, told National Geographic that “when [snakes] go through all the trouble and exert all the energy to bite something and constrict it, it’s because they’re hungry generally.”

Added Krysko: “Down here in Florida we’re focused on animals in the wild. Sometimes we just forget about what can happen when you actually have them in captivity—now you’re forcing them to be around people.

“It’s really horrible.”

Ecuador Scraps Plan to Block Rain Forest Oil Drilling


Idea had been hailed as a revolutionary way to combat climate change.


Morning mist above the Tiputini River in Yasuni National Park.                                                                            

Morning mist floats above the Tiputini River in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic


Scott Wallace

for National Geographic

Published August 19, 2013

The decision by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to abandon a plan to spare the species-rich Yasuní rain forest in eastern Ecuador from oil development has dashed hopes for what environmentalists had hailed as a historic approach to weaning industrial society from its dependence on fossil fuels.

(Read more about Yasuní National Park in National Geographic magazine.)

“Ecuador and the world have lost an opportunity to shape a revolutionary initiative,” said Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former minister of energy and mines, and one of the chief architects of the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which Correa unveiled to the international community in 2007. “It was a giant step on the road toward post-extractivism.”

The initiative had called for leaving an estimated 850 million barrels of untapped Amazon crude in the ground in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini oil fields—the ITT Block—located inside Yasuní National Park.

In return for preserving the wilderness and preventing an estimated 410 million tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere, Ecuador had sought from developed countries $3.6 billion in compensation, roughly half the revenues the country would have accrued from exploiting the resource.

The United Nations Development Program had set up a trust to administer the funds.

Scientists regard the Yasuní rain forest as one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth, teeming with an extraordinary abundance of birds, primates, reptiles, and amphibians. The park contains more tree and insect species in a single hectare (2.47 acres) than in all the U.S. and Canada combined.

Yasuní also harbors two groups of highly vulnerable, uncontacted indigenous people who wander the forests as hunter-gatherers in near-total isolation from the outside world. UNESCO designated Yasuní a World Biosphere Reserve in 1989.

The two isolated indigenous groups are factions of Waorani (Huaorani) that refused to accept contact with missionaries in the 1950s and ’60s. Waorani leaders fear that continuing oil development in Yasuní poses a grave threat to their uncontacted brethren.

(Read about Waorani indigenous leader Moi Enomenga, who received the 2011 National Geographic Society/Buffet Award for Leadership in Conservation for his efforts to conserve biodiversity in Yasuní.)


 Armed with spear, shotgun, and machete, hunters search for animals.

Hunters armed with a spear, shotgun and machete search for animals in Yasuní National Park. (See more photos of Yasuní)

Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky, National Geographic


Shared Responsibility Shirked

The initiative was considered one of the most popular programs of Correa’s left-leaning government.

Recent polls showed 90 percent of Ecuadorans in favor of leaving the oil in the ITT Block untouched, and supporters around the world saw the plan as a novel approach to reducing the cost of preserving Yasuní’s rich biological and cultural diversity while grappling with the vexing issue of climate change.

But support from prospective donor nations was far more restrained. By the time Correa called for the liquidation of the UNDP trust fund last Thursday, Ecuador had managed to collect only $13 million in donations and another $116 million in pledges.

Not nearly enough, he said, for a country that depends on oil production for nearly 50 percent of its export earnings.

“It was not charity that we sought [from the international community],” said a combative Correa in a nationally televised speech from the presidential palace in Quito. “It was shared responsibility in the fight against climate change.”

According to Correa, the amount Ecuador sought in compensation constituted “just payment” for environmental services and its proposed role in helping to preserve the “lungs of the world.”

“The proposal was meant to awaken the conscience of the world and to generate a new reality,” he said. “Sadly, we have to say that the world has failed us.”

In authorizing state oil company Petroamazonas to commence operations in the ITT Block, Correa said anticipated revenues from stepped-up production were urgently needed for social programs aimed at alleviating miserable living conditions among Ecuador’s most disadvantaged citizens.


 Men from the community of Rumipamba clean up the remnants of a 1976 oil spill.

Men from the community of Rumipamba clean up the remnants of a 1976 oil spill.

Photograph by Karla Gachet, National Geographic


History Not Made

The decision to scrap the Yasuní-ITT Initiative has stirred fierce opposition from environmentalists and indigenous rights groups.

“This is a decision of transcendental importance, not only for Ecuadorans, but for all of humanity,” said Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.

Scoffing at Correa’s assertion that the international community was to blame for the plan’s collapse, he added: “This is a failure of the government of President Rafael Correa.”

Critics charge Correa for appearing to hold Yasuní hostage, which they say undermined the confidence of potential donors.

Over the life of the initiative, Correa repeatedly threatened to drill in the ITT Block if wealthy nations failed to ante up.

“It came off as a kind of blackmail,” Acosta, the former energy minister, told the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo. “The government failed to transform this powerful initiative into a credible proposal.”

Despite Yasuní’s status as a national park, the oil frontier has steadily advanced within its boundaries over the past two decades, as economic imperatives have trumped calls for conservation. At least five active concessions already blanket the northern half of the park.

Last year while on assignment for National Geographic, I witnessed Petroamazonas workers laying a brand-new oil road into the park in Block 31, adjacent to the ITT Block.

At the time, detractors said the 45 million barrels of known reserves inside Block 31 were too small to justify the massive investment in the concession.

The real reason, they feared, was to lay the infrastructure for an eventual move into the ITT Block next door. Those suspicions seemed to be borne out by Correa’s announcement last week.

Correa and his advisers described the decision to abandon the initiative as one of the most difficult of his government.

“All of us, including the president, are very sad to have to make this decision,” wrote Ivonne Baki, who has been heading Correa’s development team for the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in an email to National Geographic News.

“The concept of net avoided carbon emissions was not accepted by the developed countries because of its avant-garde nature and because it was ahead of its time,” said Baki, who was entertained by the National Geographic Society on a visit to Washington last year.

Scott Wallace is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

Can an Ice Wall Stop Radioactive Water Leaks from Fukushima?

Can an Ice Wall Stop Radioactive Water Leaks from Fukushima?


Officials look at a monitoring well at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.                                                                            

Local officials and nuclear experts examine a monitoring well at the Fukushima Daiichi plant August 6. Japan is scrambling to contain ongoing leakage of radioactive water from the plant, and its latest plan is to create a barrier made of ice.

Photograph from Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images


Patrick J. Kiger

For National Geographic

Published August 19, 2013

As contaminated groundwater continues to flow from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant into the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese government has come up with a last-ditch solution that sounds like something out of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones: An underground wall of ice that would stop the radioactive leakage.

Multiple efforts by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company to halt the daily flow of 300 tons—nearly 72,000 gallons—of radioactive water from the plant into the ocean have failed. (See related story: “Fukushima Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know.”) At a Tokyo press conference, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made the frozen containment, whose cost could reach 50 billion yen (about $410 million), sound like an edgy, exotic final resort for stopping the leakage from the plant’s stricken reactor buildings, which were severely damaged by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that knocked out their cooling systems. “There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale,” Suga told reporters. “To build that, I think the state has to move a step further to support its realization.” (See related Pictures: The Nuclear Cleanup Struggle at Fukushima.”)

To many people, the concept of an ice wall might sound almost too bizarre to be believable. The plan, initially proposed by Japanese construction company Kajima Corporation. and approved by a government panel in late May, reportedly calls for engineers to sink an array of vertical pipes into the ground around the buildings housing reactors 1 through 4. According to experts in ground-freezing technology, several large refrigerator units—the sort used to cool hockey arenas—would chill coolant that would circulate through the pipes, gradually lowering the temperature of the wet soil around them to subzero temperatures. In about two months, the soil would solidify and form a frozen barrier that would block water from flowing into the plant, and prevent already contaminated water inside it from reaching the ocean. (See related photos: “A Rare Look Inside Fukushima Daiichi.”)

But fantastic as the ice wall seems, experts say the technology has been used extensively in the mining and construction industries for many years, and that it has been proven to be both durable and effective in stopping underground water movement. And while it hasn’t been used previously at a nuclear power plant, they’re confident that it will work—provided the project is designed and built properly. (See related photos: “Japan’s Reactors Before And After.”)


Ground freezing in use at the Gibson County Coal Mine, Princeton, New Jersey.

Ice walls such as this one at the Gibson County Coal Mine in New Jersey have been used for years in construction and mining.

Photograph courtesy Joseph Sopko, Moretrench

“If you want to create a barrier to water flow, this is an excellent technique to use,” explained Ed Yarmak, president of Arctic Foundations, an Anchorage, Alaska-based company that has been designing and building frozen soil containments since the early 1970s. If the bottom of the reactor buildings is sealed as well, “You’re pretty much making the plant into an island. The groundwater coming down from the mountains will just go around it.”

Dan Mageau, vice president and design engineer for SoilFreeze, a Seattle, Washington-based construction firm that specializes in creating ice walls, said that such barriers are far less permeable than clay containments or soil injected with chemical hardeners—other technologies that have been tried at Fukushima without success. He said that while a frozen soil barrier won’t completely stop the massive flow of groundwater into the plant, which has been estimated at 400 tons (nearly 96,000 gallons) per day, it will reduce it to a negligible amount that can be easily managed with other measures.

“Structurally, [ice walls] are very stable,” Mageau added. In mining and construction, he explained, frozen soil barriers have been used for many years to shore up mine shafts or foundations of structures while they are being erected.

But while ice walls are often designed to be used for only a few months or years, such frozen barriers also can be built to last a long time. Joe Sopko, director of ground freezing for Rockaway, New Jersey-based construction and engineering firm Moretrench, said that underground propane storage pits encased by ice walls have lasted for 30 to 40 years.


A diagram shows how ground-freezing technology could be used to keep radioactive water from leaking at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

A diagram shows how ground-freezing technology could be used to keep radioactive water from leaking at Fukushima.

Diagram by Reuters

Detailed plans for Fukushima’s ice wall haven’t yet been unveiled, but Yarmak estimates that it would probably be a little less than a mile in length and extend about 65 feet beneath the surface. While that would make it one of the biggest ice walls ever constructed, there is some precedent. In the 1990s, Sopko helped design and build a 2.5-mile-long frozen barrier around the Aquarius gold mine in Ontario, Canada. That system was completed, but after gold prices unexpectedly plummeted during construction, it was never deployed, Sopko said. (See related, “One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortages of Energy, Trust.”)

While Fukushima would be the first use of an ice wall around a nuclear plant, there is evidence that such a barrier would be effective in keeping radioactive contamination from spreading. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission successfully used naturally occurring frozen soil in Alaska to contain thousands of pounds of radioactive waste. In the late 1990s, Yarmak helped build a demonstration project for the U.S. Department of Energy at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, in which a frozen barrier was used to contain a pond of soil contaminated with radiation. The DOE noted in a report that the method was effective in isolating the pond, and Yarmak said the agency opted to continue using it after the experimental trial was over. Tennessee environmental regulators found that the level of radioactive material in a nearby creek dropped significantly after the barrier was built.  While that project was much smaller than Fukushima’s would be—it was about 300 feet long and extended 75 feet into the ground—Yarmak is confident that the idea would work on a larger scale.

The ground freezing experts say that Fukushima probably doesn’t present any unusual technical challenges. “I’ve had problems on jobs, usually related to groundwater velocity,” Sopko said. “But the water is only moving 10 centimeters per day at Fukushima, which is easy to manage. If it was 100 centimeters per day, that would make things more complicated.”

One potentially worrisome issue is the amount of electrical power that such a large ice wall would require to stay cold and solid. Bernd Braun, consultant on ground freezing projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, told Bloomberg Businessweek that Fukushima’s ice wall probably would require about 9.8 megawatts of power to maintain. That’s enough electricity to supply about 3,300 Japanese households, the publication calculated.

Experts offered another important caveat, one that will have special relevance in quake-prone Japan. While ice walls are a proven technology, they require careful design and construction. SoilFreeze’s Mageau said it would be crucial to include plenty of backup capability in the design, including additional refrigeration units.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Hurricane Sandy Report Warns of Rising Sea, More Storms


Storms will also be more intense, says Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force.


A home destroyed by the water and wind of Hurricane Sandy.                                                                            

A home on Union Beach in New Jersey destroyed by winds and water during Hurricane Sandy.

Photograph by Ken Cedeno, Corbis Images


Willie Drye

National Geographic

Published August 19, 2013

A federal task force convened by U.S. President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandydevastated much of the U.S. Atlantic Coast last fall released a report on Monday that included 69 recommendations for rebuilding storm-damaged areas and for reducing the impact of future severe storms.

Chaired by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, the task force stressed the need for a more resilient national infrastructure and for preparing for the possibility that climate change could worsen the effects of hurricanes. (Read “Rising Seas” in the current issue ofNational Geographic magazine.)


Key recommendations from the report:

·          Take climate change into account when planning for future storms, especially how rising sea levels will worsen the effects of storm-induced flooding. This could mean everything from elevating buildings near the ocean to protecting fuel supplies that will be needed for the recovery effort.

·          Make new construction in hurricane-prone areas stronger and more resistant to hurricanes.

·          “Harden” infrastructure such as power grids, and make cell phone service more resistant to damage so communications are available during and after a major storm.

·          Prevent short-term financial hardship that results from loss of income.

·          Streamline the recovery process for small businesses and make it easier for the owners of these businesses to quickly get small loans.

·          Improve local governments’ response to disasters such as Sandy by keeping the public better informed about financial assistance for their communities, allowing local planners and technology experts to tailor assistance programs for their communities’ needs, and making sure residents have recourse to hold government accountable for the recovery.

Building for Future Conditions

“In recent years, we have seen intense storms hit our neighborhoods with increasing frequency,” Donovan said in a statement accompanying the report. “More than ever, it is critical that when we build for the future, we do so in a way that makes communities more resilient to emerging challenges such as rising sea levels, extreme heat, and more frequent and intense storms.”

Scientists have calculated that the level of the world’s oceans has risen about eight inches in the past century due to a warming of the earth’s atmosphere, caused primarily by the use of fossil fuels.

That rise in sea level could greatly worsen the effects of hurricanes’ storm surges. A storm surge is a mound of water created by a hurricane’s winds and forward motion. As a hurricane makes landfall, the storm surge can cause devastating flooding far inland from the ocean.

Higher sea level would mean that storm surges would affect areas farther inland when a hurricane comes ashore. Extremely powerful hurricanes can have storm surges of 20 feet or more.

While there is consensus among scientists about the sea-level rise, there is still debate about whether hurricanes will be directly affected by climate change. Although hurricanes draw their energy from warm sea water, many scientists say warmer conditions caused by climate change won’t necessarily cause more hurricanes to form or increase the intensity of those that do form.