Environmental reporter Josephine Marcotty writes about our place in nature through her coverage of the outdoors, wildlife, pollution and sustainability.

A Google's eye view of Antarctica

Posted by: Josephine Marcotty Updated: July 17, 2012 - 3:40 PM

Want a cool sightseeing tour on a hot day? How about  Antarctica? Now you can see it without ever leaving the comfort of your chair. The University of Minnesota's Polar Geospatial  Center has teamed up with Google map so anyone (with a computer) can take a virtual tour of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut, or Falcon Scott’s supply hut.

The Geospatial Center uses new, state-of-the-art techniques from the geospatial field to help researchers and solve problems on the top and bottom of the world --  "the least mapped places on Earth."

For this project, research fellow Brad Herried took more than a dozen images of the historical huts, research stations and other places on Antarctica  between October 2011 and January 2012. He used a lightweight tripod camera with a fisheye lens that could withstand the harsh conditions and took the photos manually.

Google used them to expand its 360-degree imagery of Antarctica so us arm-chair explorers can see in breathtaking detail (note the dead penguin in Scott's hut) the South Pole Telescope, Shackleton's hut, the Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery, the McMurdo Research Station and many other sites. All can be found at Google's World Wonders Project.


 Shackleton's Hut

 Scott's supply hut

Record fine for Michigan oil spill

Posted by: Josephine Marcotty Updated: July 5, 2012 - 4:40 PM

It's been a bad week for Enbridge, the Canadian company that operates oil and gas pipelines in Minnesota.

Tuesday  the U.S. Department of Transportation recommended a$3.7 million fine against the company for the 2010 oil spill that sent 800,000 gallons of sticky tar sands oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, and which has so far cost $700 million to clean up. In a letter to the company, the agency listed 24 violations of hazardous liquid pipeline regulations, including failure to fix corrosion problems in the damaged pipe joint discovered as far back as 2004.

According to the federal report, a disorganized control room and bullying of inexperienced staff are allegedly to blame for the spill. The evidence includes records showing that employees took about 17 hours to shutdown the pipeline despite repeated alarms. Enbridge says its improved its safety systems since the spill.

Why does Enbridge's safety record matter here? 




AP photo. July, 2010: A worker monitors water in Talmadge Creek in Marshall Township, Mich., near the Kalamazoo River, after an Enbridge oil pipe broke, sending at lest 800,000 gallons of sticky oil into the water.


Enbridge operates a huge pipeline system in Minnesota. The same year oil filled the Michigan creek, Enbridge  completed two new pipelines here. One, known as the Alberta Clipper, carries tar sands oil to Superior, Wis., where it links with another pipeline and refineries in Chicago. The second runs parallel to it, but carries a highly toxic petroleum product back to Alberta, where it is used as a thinner for the viscous crude.

And the company has had its share of accidents and fines, here, too. Two of its employees were killed in 2007 when a pipeline leak resulted in an inferno fire near Clearbrook, Minn. The company was fined $2.4 million for that.

It's worth reading some of the in-depth stories that some have done on what happened in the Michigan spill. The most recent was published last week by Inside Climate News.

The spill happened in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The U.S. investigation has gotten a lot of attention in Canada, much more than here. But then the company is a big operator there, too. Which put it under the spotlight  for an altogether different reason this week after it  forced The Province, the Vancouver newspaper, to pull a spoof of one of the company's ads.

Enbridge is running an advertising campaign to promote a controversial pipeline proposal to move oil from Alberta’s oil sands to ports in British Columbia for shipment to Asia. After an existing pipeline in Alberta sprung a leak, the cartoonist for the newspaper spattered the bucolic watercolor animations with oil, along with a spoof commentary by a company executive.

The company threatened to pull its advertising if the newspaper didn't pull it from its web site. The newspaper complied, and apologized to the company. But in the meantime, the video spoof  can be seen on the New York Times web site.



Cleaner air in Wisconsin and east

Posted by: Josephine Marcotty Updated: June 29, 2012 - 2:59 PM

2,900 fewer tons of air pollution -- sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide -- from one utility just north of La Crosse, Wis. will mean cleaner air  for people living east of Alma, Wis., thanks to a deal between Dairyland Cooperative, the EPA and the Sierra Club. 

Dairyland Cooperative provides electricity to 25 member distribution cooperatives and 15 municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. The agreement states that the company will put on $150 million in pollution control technologies at three of its coal fired plants in Alma and  Genoa.  The utility will also permanently retire three additional old coal-fired units at the Alma plant, which have been out of operation since last year, and it will pay a civil penalty of $950,000.





But the biggest piece of change, $5 million, will go to  a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency and public land improvement projects. Most will be spent on solar energy installations in Wisconsin.

Shahla M. Werner, executive director of the Wisconsin branch of the Sierra Club, said that the investment in alternative energy is the most significant part of the deal. Compared to Minnesota, Wisconsin has a much lower goal set for renewable energy sources, 10 percent compared to 25 percent, so utilities have no incentive to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, she said. Forcing that sort of investment through a settlement agreement is a critical tool in the current political climate in Wisconsin, she said.

The Sierra Club sued the utility in 2010 for exceeding emissions standards and other violations of the Clean Air Act. The EPA made similar allegations in 2012, though the cooperative was already implementing changes to cut emissions, it said in a release. In 2011, it decided to mothball the old generators, and even earlier it was installing pollution control equipment. But as part of the agreement it will do more, it said.

It denied wrong doing, and said it agreed to the settlement and the penalty in order to avoid expensive litigation.


Carbon exchanges in the burbs

Posted by: Josephine Marcotty Updated: June 28, 2012 - 4:37 PM

Do you want to slow climate change? Plant evergreens.

Plants, especially trees, play an enormously important role in the regulating climate change by capturing the carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels. Some have described them as the earth's lungs.

But not much is known about the role they play in the urban and suburban landscape, the one that most of us know and that is growing at a rapid rate around the world. It's one of the questions that must be answered for cities to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions and to set up carbon exchange systems. 

  Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota and University of California Santa Barbara, have gone to great heights to try to answer that.

 They found that suburban plantings do play a role -- depending on the season.



View in summer and winter of a suburban St. Paul landscape from the 500 ft tall KUOM tower where measurements for the study were made.



“We know cities and suburbs are net emitters of CO2 due to fossil fuel emissions, and vegetation cannot offset this completely," said Emily Peters, a postdoctoral fellow with the university’s Institute on the Environment "However, our study shows that vegetation is an important player in suburban CO2 exchange, and can even cause the suburban landscape to be a CO2 sink in summer.”

She and her co-researchers put sensors way up high on a tower above a St. Paul suburban neighborhood. It measured tiny changes in CO2, temperature, water vapor and wind. They found that for nine months of the year, the suburban landscape added  CO2 to the atmosphere from cars, engines and other sources. But during the summer, however, suburban greenery absorbed enough CO2 to balance out fossil fuel emissions within the neighborhood. Peak daily uptake was close to the low end of what hardwood forest would absorb.

Different kinds of plants were better at it than others. For lawns, peak carbon uptake was in the spring and fall because they were stressed by summer heat. But trees had higher CO2 uptake throughout the summer.  Evergreen trees maintained their CO2 uptake longer than deciduous trees did because they keep their leaves year-round, they found.

The study was published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Biogeosciences.








Isle Royale wolf mystery solved, sadly

Posted by: Josephine Marcotty Updated: June 15, 2012 - 9:44 AM


This past winter, Isle Royale wolf researchers reported a stunning decline in the number of wolves on the island -- the numbers dropped from 16 to 9 in one year, leaving only one that was known to be female. Now they know why.



Wolves in winter on Isle Royale, 2009 photo courtesy of Rolf Peterson, Michigan Technical University

The researchers reported today that they found the bodies of three adult wolves dead in an abandoned mine shaft.  One was a young female, a second one, who could have made the wolves survival possible. John Vucetich, one of the researchers and a biologist at  Michigan Technological University, said: 

"We found there had been a real catastrophe in early winter, before we arrived on the island in January,” said Vucetich. “There were three dead wolves from the Chippewa Harbor Pack in the shaft: a collared male that we had been unable to locate this winter, an older male—maybe the alpha male—and a female born in 2011.

“There is no way to know how the three wolves ended up falling into the pit, but very likely, accumulating snow and ice played a role in the accident.

 “We now understand a major reason for the decline in pack size of the Chippewa Harbor Pack in 2012, and perhaps why we saw such a desultory pattern of travel and low kill rate in this pack,” Vucetich said. The pack seemed to have no “game plan” following the large loss of so many individuals, he explained.


The collared wolf was nick-named Romeo, whom the researchers could not find during their  2012 winter study, although they picked up his collar signal briefly once or twice.  They named him that because of his eagerness to mate.

The female was lost at a critical juncture in the wolves history. The shortage of females means the wolves, which have been on the island since the 1950s, may well go extinct. There is one other known female on the island who is believed to have mated, but the scientists won't know that until get a glimpse of pups later this summer.

The National Park Service and wolf researchers across the country are now debating whether or not bring new wolves to the island, or let nature take its course, a critical turning point in the management of the the nation's wildest places.

 As for the mine shaft, it dates to the time of  the time of the Pittsburgh and Isle Royale Company, which operated in the Todd Harbor area between 1846 and 1853. Park Superintendent Phyllis Green said:

 “Random events often play a large role in isolated, island populations and although tragic, information from this event will serve to help us evaluate future management of this population.”



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