Environment

Volcanoes May Be Slowing Down Climate Change

Small volcanic eruptions might be part of the reason why the pace of global warming hasn’t kept up with previous predictions, a new study published in Nature Nature Geoscience suggests. Eruptions of at least 17 volcanoes since 2000, including Kasatochi in Alaska and Merapi in Indonesia, seem to have had a cooling influence on the temperature of the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere. In the past, researchers observed increases in levels of greenhouse gases and in global warming, but for the past 15 years the Earth’s surface temperatures have shown relatively little warming. This so-called ‘hiatus’ puzzled researchers around the globe have been working to understand this phenomenon. ”The hiatus is a fascinating detective story,” says Benjamin Santer, the lead author of the study and an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. ”What we show is that even without any computer model calculations there is a clear signal of these early volcanic activity having effects on temperatures and on the reflected sunlight of the atmosphere,” says Santer. Research shows that large volcanic eruptions inject sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere.  The gas forms tiny droplets of sulfuric acid, also known as “volcanic aerosols,” that can block sunlight. That cooling effect has been largely ignored by climate scientists until now, but it seems to partly offset the warming from human-caused changes in greenhouse gases. But volcanoes are just one of the different factors that contributed to hiatus. Other causes include an unusually dormant solar cycle and an increase in Chinese emissions of sulfur dioxide, which seem to have the same cooling effect. Scientists also believe that some of the extra heat generated by the rise in greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans. ”The next scientific challenge is to figure out the degree of culpability of these factors,” says Santer. But unfortunately for us, the cooling effect is expected to be temporary—if we keep emitting greenhouse gases, the climate will keep warming. (MORE: Iceland – Living with Volcanoes)  

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Japan Mulls Nuclear Revival Not Even 3 Years After Fukushima

If there was one thing that seemed certain in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011—the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl—it was that nuclear power in Japan and the rest of the world was in major trouble. Japan, which before Fukushima had generated 30% of its electricity from nuclear, eventually took all of its 50 commercial reactors offline to pass new safety tests. Japanese citizens took to the streets against the nuclear industry in rare shows of public protest, and then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced a commitment to end nuclear power in Japan by 2040. Other countries took note, too. In the wake of Fukushima, Germany began closing nuclear plants out of safety concerns, with a plan to denuclearize the country completely by 2022. But nearly three years after Fukushima, the impact of the meltdown seems smaller than ever, even in the country that was ground zero for the accident. Today Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a new Basic Energy Plan that states Japan will push to restart the dozens of reactors closed after the disaster, and potentially even build new ones in the future. And beyond outliers like Germany—where denuclearization is still proceeding—nuclear power is still expanding in much of the world, as Joshua Keating points out in Slate: A World Energy Council report released in 2012 showed that 558 reactors were in some state of development around the world, up from 547 at the time of the disaster. Major nuclear expansions in China (which lifted a post-Fukushima nuclear moratorium in 2012) and India, along with smaller emerging markets like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Poland, and Bangladesh, are driving most of the growth. The developing world is driving the growth in nuclear—unsurprising, since the need for new electric capacity is greatest there—but in the U.S. new nuclear plants are being built for the first time in decades, while the conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed for new nukes in the U.K. (MORE: Nuclear Fusion Just Got a Little Closer to Becoming a Reality) In Japan, the nuclear reversal boils down to

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California Is Finally Set to Get Rain, But It Won’t Quench the Drought

How extreme is the drought in California? Right now the federal government says that every square mile of California is in some state of drought—and 14.62% of the state, concentrated in central California’s agricultural heartland, is in the most extreme state of exceptional drought. Rainfall in some of the most populated parts of the state have been all but nonexistent—since July 1, San Francisco has experienced just 5.85 inches of rain, about 35% of what’s normal, and Los Angeles has received just 1.2 inches of rain, less than 10% of the average over the same period of time. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada basin—the water bank for much of California—is less than half below average. By every count, California is in the grip of a truly historic drought that will cost the state and the country billions of dollars. But there’s no better signal of how severe this year’s drought is than the fact that even a heavy rainstorm will barely make a dent in the big dry. The National Weather Service (NWS) projects that this week a pair of Pacific storms are expected to bring as much as 2 in. of rain to the coast, and several feet of snow to the Sierra Nevadas. The second state in particular is expected drench virtually all of California for 24 hours, as Jim Bagnall, a meteorologist with the NWS, told the Associated Press: We’re not calling it a drought-buster, but it definitely will make a difference. With these few storms, we could see about an inch total in the valley. So this could obviously have some significant impact. Still, despite the fact that Los Angeles could receive more rain this week than it has in nearly eight months cumulatively, the drought will be far from over. Even with the storm, much of California will still be below average for precipitation this month. Since February tends to be the wettest month for California, that means that the state still has a larger and larger rainfall deficit to make up if this drought is

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Watch the Great Lakes Freeze Over

You can measure a winter in many ways: temperature records, snow cover, even travel delays. But to truly see how frigid this winter has been—at least for the eastern half of the U.S.—you need to go way up. Satellite imagery shows that an incredible 88% of the Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie—are now frozen over. That’s the largest ice cover the Great Lakes have experienced since 1994, and it means that there is an astounding 82,940 sq. miles (214,814 sq. km) of ice covering the biggest collection of fresh water in the world. How unusual is this? Since 1973, the average maximum ice cover extent for the Great Lakes has been just 50%, and in those four decades, the ice extent has surpassed 80% just five times. (In 2002, just 9.5% of the Great Lakes froze over during the winter, the lowest extent on record, while the greatest extent was 94.7% in 1979.) And no lake is as iced over as Superior, where the extent is 95.3%. (MORE: Window on Infinity: Winter Pictures from Icy Space The unusually large extent of ice is due to a logical factor: it’s been really, really cold around the Great Lakes. In the Midwest this January, temperatures averaged 5 to 10 F (3 to 6 C) below the 20th century average. But the endless snowfall around the Great Lakes region—Chicago, which borders Lake Michigan, experienced its third-snowiest January on record, and Detroit had its snowiest month ever—played a role as well, insulating the ice cover when temperatures would rise. If you’re wondering why Lake Ontario has such a smaller amount of its surface covered in ice, that’s because the lake is unusually deep, which gives it a tremendous heat storage capacity. But numbers can only tell you so much. TIME editor Jonathan Woods has stitched together imagery provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab and taken from NASA’s TERRA and AQUA satellites, using data gathered by the MODIS system (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer). The time lapse imagery shows a truly

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Oklahoma Shakes—Is Fracking to Blame?

It’s been a shaky week in Oklahoma. The Sooner State has experienced more than 150 earthquakes over the past week, far more than the Okies usually get. And while the vast majority of the quakes were fairly minor, one, on Feb. 16 measured 3.8 on the Richter scale, followed by a number of aftershocks. There’s been little damage reported, but the quakes jolted folks in a part of the country who aren’t accustomed to the Earth moving under their feet. “[It] felt like bombs going off,” central Oklahoma resident Nancy York told ABC News affiliate KOCO-TV. “It’s just a huge noise and then it’s like a reverb from that boom that just shakes the entire house.” Something is clearly going on in Okalahoma—and has been for a while now. Residents have experienced more than 200 quakes with a magnitude of at least 3.0 since the beginning of 2009, and more than 2,600 tremors altogether during 2013. (A 3.0 magnitude quake is considered the threshold at which most people can feel shaking.) According to a recent analysis by EnergyWire, Oklahoma is now the second most seismically active state in the continental U.S., after California. So what’s happened? Suspicion has turned to the energy sector. Oklahoma is the center of the country’s hydrocarbon industry, with tens of thousands of oil and gas wells dotting the state. Some of those wells have been drilled with the use of hydrofracking, in which explosives are used to generate cracks in a layer of shale rock thousands of feet below the surface. Millions of gallons of fracking fluid—most of which is water—are then pumped underground to keep the cracks open, allowing oil and natural gas that had been trapped in the shale rock to flow back to the surface. Surely it’s not too difficult to think that a process meant to break up the ground could end up triggering an earthquake. (MORE: Your City Might Not Be Ready for the Next Big Quake) But while a few studies have linked the act of fracking to minor earthquakes, there’s

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