Glacial Ice Tea

April 30, 2014

Dr. Marek Stibal, who was part of the Dark Snow Team last year, as well as today, talks about his line of research – the little discussed feedback effect of biological communities on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Dr. Marek Stibal at

What do glacial surfaces and tea have in common? The obvious answer to a glaciologist… ‘a glaciologist – standing on the surface of a glacier, drinking tea’. While this is, of course, correct, here’s another that is more interesting and of high relevance to the Dark Snow Project; the surface’s colour. Or – more precisely – its pigmentation.

The Dark Snow Project is interested in all things dark on the surface of glaciers and ice sheets. Joe Cook summarizes the ways microbes can contribute to the darkening of glacial surfaces. I’ll focus on a specific process that may be the key biotic factor for albedo reduction of the Greenland ice sheet.

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There are three species of algae that grow on glacier surfaces worldwide – Cylindrocystis brébissoniiMesotaenium berggrenii, and Ancylonema nordenskiöldii. I’ll call them ‘ice algae’. Each belongs in a single group of green algae called Zygnematophyceae, also calledconjugating algae due to their inventive and esthetic way of having sex. It is still a mystery why only these few species reside on ice, and from only one group, but we begin to understand how: it’s to do with tea!

Imagine the environment of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet… It’s of course cold, around freezing all the time, and it can be very bright, further amplified by ice crystals reflecting the incoming light in all directions and multiple bounces between clouds and the surface increases the glare. If you’re an alga, then you too are cold and you’re dazzled much of the time. You get most of your food from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but you still need some other nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and there is not much of that around. And you may even need to protect yourself from large predators that stalk these vast white planes. Ok, not large for humans. Microscopical predators. But still scary.

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Must watch video above.


In the future, auto companies won’t just build cars. They’ll build cars that are part of the energy infrastructure, providing back up storage for the solar panels on your roof, andreinforcing the wider electricity grid. They could even play a role in developing smart homes and technologies.

You can see as much from a prototype smart home recently opened by Honda in California. It features an enormous 9.5-kilowatt solar array, a 10-kilowatt-hour home battery unit to store excess power, Honda’s home energy management system to control the whole thing, and, of course, its electric vehicle in the garage. Designed to be energy-efficient anyway, the house produces more power than it consumes, which means its owner could actually make money from the power company.

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Really terrific coverage of the social costs of the extraction economy, that the Koch Brothers would like to bring to your town.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Tornado numbers are not good indicators of the effects of climate change, and probably won’t be for some decades.
Simple physics suggests that more energy into the system creates an environment that is, well, more energetic – see Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh’s interview above.

Because our means of detecting and measuring the strength of extreme storms has changed markedly, and more than once, over recent decades, trends for both the number of storms, which we are much better at detecting with new radar technology, and the strength of the storms, which have been measured by very subjective standards, are not consistent over a long enough period to give a good measure.


Scientific American:

“If I were a betting man I’d say tornadoes are getting stronger,” he noted on Tuesday during a lecture at the annual American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. But when asked directly at a press conference whether that is the case, he would not commit. “I’m not doing this [work] to establish the future intensity of tornadoes,” he explained, but to establish a method that someday could indeed determine if the storms are becoming more powerful.

Because the lecture was titled “Are tornadoes getting stronger?” the audience expected an answer. And their consternation rose when Elsner showed his final graph, adding up the kinetic energy of tornadoes each year from 1994 to 2012. The curve is flat from 1994 to about 2006 but then spikes upward through 2012. It was reminiscent of the now famous “hockey stick” graph produced by Michael Mann and colleagues a decade ago, indicating that Earth’s temperature had been flat for 1,000 years and began spiking upward in the mid-1800s. But Mann had 1,000 years of data; Elsner has 18. His data begin in 1994 because that’s when Doppler radar, the best at tracking tornadoes, began covering the entire U.S.

The point of the curve, however, is to show that measuring the length and width of a tornado’s damage path gives an accurate indication of its strength, which is driven by the storm’s peak wind speed. It is difficult if not impossible to measure that speed directly, as is done for hurricanes by ground instruments and planes that fly into the storms.

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The Tyee:

On first impression, Matt Patsky seems about as average as portfolio managers come: solidly middle-aged, glasses, crisp-collared shirt and the carefully measured speech of someone who deals with a lot of money. Yet when I met earlier this month with Patsky, who is the Boston-based CEO of Trillium Asset Management, I was struck by the framed Mahatma Gandhi quote hanging on his corner office wall. “The Earth has enough for everyone’s need,” it read, “but not for everyone’s greed.”

If that’s not typical office decor for a finance executive, then neither is Trillium’s approach to investing. Founded in 1982, Trillium is America’s oldest independent advisory firm “investing in businesses that are trying to have minimal impact on the environment,” Patsky said. It operates under the belief markets can and should do more good for society than simply line the pockets of investors, and that there’s an inherent financial advantage over time, he said, to not “causing anybody harm.”

The prospect of an unprofitable oil and gas sector would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when Patsky began working at Lehman Brothers in New York. Even then he stood out from his peers: an idealistic newcomer convinced ecological impacts should guide the investment process. “I remember the associate director of research saying, ‘It’s really nice that you care about these issues, but if you don’t stop it might destroy your career,'” Patsky recalled. “But I didn’t let that dissuade me.”

Instead he decided to leave Wall Street for “a smaller firm where they would really appreciate what I did,” he said. After a brief stint in San Francisco, Patsky ended up at such a firm in Boston. Due in part to the anti-apartheid divestment legacy of nearby Harvard, the city was in the late 1980s becoming the intellectual and financial hub for a new generation of socially conscious investors. “There was just much more of a general understanding here of why this made sense,” he said.

As decades passed, and the impacts of climate change came into clearer focus, such investors faced a dilemma: should they divest their portfolios of all fossil company stocks, or use their position as shareholders in those companies to force change from within? Trillium opted for the latter in 2008 when it filed the first ever oilsands shareholder resolution, asking ConocoPhillipsto disclose the “environmental damage” associated with its operations in northern Alberta.

Patsky became CEO of Trillum in 2009. Under his leadership, the firm’s fossil-free investingoption “has been one of our fastest-growing strategies,” he said. It contains a certain financial logic. If governments get serious about keeping global warming below a two-degree threshold, then firms like those in the oilsands may be left with vast reserves of unburnable oil — or “stranded assets.” Yet absent strong political action on the climate, Patsky said, investor risk remains “hypothetical.”

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But will it be fast enough?

Financial Times:

When it comes to difficult government jobs, few are as tricky as the one held by Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief negotiator on climate change.

On the day he agrees to meet the Financial Times, in a room the size of a basketball court near his office in the country’s economic planning ministry, the air outside is “unhealthy”. At least, that is what it says on the smartphone air quality apps people in Beijing check as obsessively as Londoners watch weather forecasts.

China wants to build on what Mr Xie describes as the “tremendous efforts” already made to replace coal power with cleaner energy sources as its economy matures and becomes less reliant on heavy industry. The question is whether China is willing, or even able, to make such changes in time to prevent global temperatures warming to potentially risky levels.

Mr Xie bristles at the question. “Sometimes the international community wonders whether China will take real action,” he says. “There should be no question on this issue. China will definitely take action, not only in terms of protecting people’s livelihoods and health but also making a contribution to global climate-change efforts.”
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The biggest lease holder in the Alberta Tar Sands is not Exxon or Shell, it’s the Koch Brothers.
Sons of John Birch Society founder Fred Koch, the two brothers are no longer just a hobbyhorse for  lefty blogs – their pursuit of personal profits over humanity, nature, and the planet itself is now the subject of examination by major news outlets.

Koch fingerprints are all over the right wing media frenzy over militant racist deadbeat Cliven Bundy and his camo-clad nutcase followers.  That’s not the only disappointment for the Kochs of late.


At long last, the Koch brothers and their conservative allies in state government have found a new tax they can support. Naturally it’s a tax on something the country needs: solar energy panels.

For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight incentives for renewable energy, which have been adopted by most states. They particularly dislike state laws that allow homeowners with solar panels to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities. So they’ve been pushing legislatures to impose a surtax on this increasingly popular practice, hoping to make installing solar panels on houses less attractive.

But the Big Carbon advocates aren’t giving up. The same group is trying to repeal or freeze Ohio’s requirement that 12.5 percent of the state’s electric power come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. Twenty-nine states have established similar standards that call for 10 percent or more in renewable power. These states can now anticipate well-financed campaigns to eliminate these targets or scale them back.

The coal producers’ motivation is clear: They see solar and wind energy as a long-term threat to their businesses. That might seem distant at the moment, when nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity is still generated by coal, and when less than 1 percent of power customers have solar arrays. (It is slightly higher in California and Hawaii.) But given new regulations on power-plant emissions of mercury and other pollutants, and the urgent need to reduce global warming emissions, the future clearly lies with renewable energy. In 2013, 29 percent of newly installed generation capacity came from solar, compared with 10 percent in 2012.

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