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Dispatches : Nature

Why Obama's New Regs Scare Big Coal

The Obama Administration just revealed its much-anticipated plan to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The collective goal of the regulations, which each state will set its own course toward meeting, is to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 30 percent below those levels by 2030.

In terms of Obama's Presidential legacy, it's a big, audacious goal. If the regulations withstand the lawsuits that are sure to come, this will also be a major win for clean air and environmental health—especially for communities surrounding presently coal-powered plants. Will it, alone, reverse or even stop climate change? Not a chance. Regardless, it is a crux move and it will have ripple effects.

Climate and Coal—Can They Get Along?

Topping the to-do list, in terms of avoiding catastrophe, is to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. Some studies show we are on track for a 4-degree rise. Carbon-based energy (across sectors) is the main driver of climate change (the negative effects of which we are already feeling) and so it would follow that reducing carbon emissions is the strongest tool for avoiding calamity.

Yet, as Ezra Klein wrote on Vox, political will today to fight climate change is actually weaker now than in 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain proposed an economic tool for reducing carbon emissions (cap-and-trade) that was "far more aggressive than the power-plant rules the Obama administration is announcing today."

Plus, China assumed America's long-held title of world's largest polluter back in 2007.

On the other hand, our move to cap carbon emissions—as well as China's efforts to do the same—should lend momentum toward making binding international treaty agreements, focused on global emissions reductions.

"Internationally, it's incredibly important that the U.S. take explicit steps to limit emissions," says K.C. Golden, senior policy advisor for Climate Solutions, a clean-energy advocacy group. "That is what the rest of the world needs to hear."

He also notes that some states, including those in the Pacific Northwest where Climate Solutions is based, will not only meet, but far exceed, the new emissions goals, to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Nowhere does this [new ruling] stretch the bounds of what is possible or economically feasible" in terms of cutting U.S. carbon emissions, he says, "but it's a big signal from the world's biggest historic carbon emitter."

The (Energy) Hunger Games

Despite China's efforts to cap carbon emissions, Asia's booming economies and population growth mean the region will remain a major consumer of fossil fuels in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the U.S. energy sector, which is already increasingly reliant on natural gas, is going to have to significantly reduce its use of coal to meet the EPA's carbon limits. All of this means coal companies are eager to find new customers in Asia.

More specifically, coal producers in the Powder River Basin, a massive, shallow coal seam that spans from eastern Wyoming to southern Montana, are interested in selling more coal to Asia. To do that, however, they need transport the coal to ships, via ports they're pushing to have built along the Pacific Northwest Coast.

This would mean an influx of port jobs, but also a significant spike in already-busy railroad traffic between the Powder River Basin and three proposed ports (two in Washington and one in Oregon). Fears of a major train derailment, especially as these massive coal-laden locomotives stream along the Columbia River, and concerns over spikes in particulate air pollution from coal dust, have led to a strong opposition movement against the ports.

Opponents argue that a coal spill along the Columbia River or in the coastal waters could create an ecological nightmare, erasing economic benefits from the ports through losses to fisheries and the region's recreation economy.

Protect Our Winters, which is working to advance clean energy policy in the U.S., just released a Kickstarter-backed documentary, called Momenta, about the proposed ports. Narrated by mountaineer Conrad Anker, the film includes interviews with activist Bill McKibben, public health experts, and community stakeholders along the rail's path.

But won't Obama's decision to limit power plant emissions, and thereby put the hurt on the domestic coal industry, only lead to greater pressure to get those ports built?

Eric de Place, policy director of the Sightline Institute, an energy think tank focused on the Pacific Northwest, says Obama's move is very likely to increase the pressure on those ports, which will need a green light from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and local regulatory bodies before they're built. But he does not think that pressure will lead to regulatory bodies being any more likely to green-light the ports.

In fact, he thinks that even if the ports pass environmental muster, the overall economic health of the coal industry could be a turn-off to regulators. "I think they will be less likely to allow them, because I think there is good reason to have existential concern about these [coal] company's longevity," he says. "If I am a regulator, and I look at the coal companies' [health], their ability to get financing has gotten tougher now. If you think of it in terms of that, they are less likely to get permits," he says.

Predictably, the coal industry is unhappy with the new regulation framework, and says it will only lead to higher energy bills for Americans.

I reached out to SSA Marine, the terminal operator that wants to build one of the three proposed ports, the Gateway Pacific Terminal on Washington's far-north coast (near Bellingham), to ask if the Administration's move to cut coal use in U.S. will impact the port's prospects. The company declined to comment.

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How Did Six Climbers Die on Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge?

What exactly happened to six climbers on Mount Rainier who were reported missing on May 30 and are presumed dead remains a mystery, but clues have emerged that strongly suggest an avalanche from above swept them away in the night.

The team, four clients and two guides from Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, set out on the 14,410-foot volcano’s challenging Liberty Ridge route on Monday, May 27. According to Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger Peter Ellis, this advanced route typically takes teams between three and five days to complete. Guided by Rainier veterans Matt Hegeman, 38, who’d climbed the mountain more than 50 times, and Eitan Green, 29, who started guiding the mountain shortly after graduating from Colby College in 2009, the group made their approach up the Carbon Glacier on Tuesday.

The route itself is a 5,000-vertical foot direttissima of Rainier’s heavily glaciated north face. To the looker’s left of the ridge is the Willis Wall. Hanging over most of the route is the Liberty Cap, a glacier that regularly sheds ice down the mountain. The Liberty Ridge itself, like a dormer on a pitched roof, tends to shed icefall away from the route, but it’s not immune.

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During the day on Wednesday, the six were spotted by a private party climbing behind them. Depending on the terrain and the strength of the group, the guided climbers may have been simulclimbing—moving together on the same rope—or belaying each other on each pitch, a technique that’s safer but much more time consuming.

“As you’re approaching, you can see up onto the route and see other climbers,” says NPS’s Peter Ellis. “So as this team was approaching Liberty Ridge they saw [the Alpine Ascents team] at Thumb Rock.”

Thumb Rock is formed by a prominent totem of hardened lava at around 10,700 feet and typically serves as high camp. The Alpine Ascents team had stayed there Tuesday night and headed toward the summit in clear weather on Wednesday morning, though conditions would deteriorate that day. Managers at Alpine Ascents believe the team continued on to an area around the Black Pyramid, where the steeper snow and ice pitches begin.

At 6:20 P.M. the guides made a satellite phone call back to the office, telling guide manager Melanie Hodgman that they were going to camp and see if the weather improved by morning. That was the last the Alpine Ascents office heard from the team. But two of the clients also sent out messages that were received by friends. At about 7 P.M. one climber texted a photo of the Wednesday-night camp to a friend, which was shown to Alpine Ascents co-owner Todd Burleson on Sunday.

“Out of nowhere I get a photograph of this camp and it’s very structured camp,” says Burleson, 54, Alpine Ascents founder. “I can’t see around it ‘cause it’s whiteout, but I see the ridge it’s on. It’s on a nice platform. They’ve got three tents set up.”

It appeared as if they’d already climbed to the top of the Black Pyramid, which would have meant most of the route’s difficulty and elevation was behind them.

Another member of the team also sent out a message from a SPOT tracking device at around 7:45 P.M, though there’s been no indication that it was a distress call. The standard SPOT device’s default message is an All-OK signal that includes a GPS locator pin. In this case that pin showed that the camp was somewhere between 12,400 feet and 12,800 feet, not a typical camping spot on the route but not necessarily a cause for concern. Based on the photo and the SPOT pin, Burleson and his office staff have been trying go figure out exactly where the camp might have been.

“You know, it kinda doesn’t make sense,” says Burleson. “I can’t quite figure this out because there’s no place that looks this good at the top of the Black Pyramid. It only makes sense if they were closer to 12,400 feet.”

What happened in the night requires some speculation. In the most likely scenario, rock or icefall from the Liberty Cap, or possibly a soft avalanche triggered by the isolated snowfall that day, swept down from above and carried the team—asleep in their tents—to the looker's right side of the Willis Wall. On Thursday, the private party (NPS hasn’t identified them) that had spotted Alpine Ascents climbed to the summit and saw no further sign of the team.

That same day, Ellis and rangers Dan Veenhuizen and Scotty Barrier happened to be on a routine patrol on Liberty Ridge. “Thursday we set off and then camped out on Curtis Ridge on Thursday night,” says Ellis. “Friday we moved up to Thumb Rock. And then Saturday morning we made a routine radio call to Camp Sherman to let them know that we were moving up the route. And at that point they informed us that this party had indeed not come back and they instructed us to carry on climbing the route, but to search as we climbed—to stop and take pictures, look for clues, and move slowly looking for any sign of an incident.”

The rangers didn’t find anything. It wasn’t until a helicopter made a low pass over a prominent avalanche debris field at the base of the Willis Wall that they were able to pick up signals from the avalanche beacons that all six climbers were wearing. Some gear and unfurled tents were also visible in the debris. Because that zone is in a funnel that receives ice and rockfall from several highly active avalanche chutes leading down from the summit, it was deemed too dangerous to put people on the ground to dig them out. While some reports have suggested that climate change might be to blame, Ellis thinks conditions are pretty normal.

“The summers on the Willis Wall are always active as far as rock fall and icefall, and as long as I’ve been here in this park that zone has always been notorious,” says Ellis. “So I don’t think that it’s any different from the past decade or so.”

The names of the four clients haven’t been released, but news outlets have reported, and the tech giant has confirmed, that one man was Intel vice president Uday Marty, 40, and a second was 26-year-old Mark Mahaney, from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Green and Hegeman were experienced guides for Alpine Ascents, which also has a prominent international guiding business best known for its Himalayan climbs. AAI lost five climbing Sherpas in the April 18 Everest avalanche—that mountain’s deadliest day.

According to NPS spokeswoman Fawn Bauer, rangers will continue to make overflights of the debris field as time allows. “What that means is as we have available aircraft in the air on other missions we will spend time checking out that area,” says Bauer. “The same is true for any kind of foot patrol.”

This is the worst accident on Rainier since ten guided climbers and one guide died on the Ingraham Glacier in June of 1981.

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Learning to Love the Sounds of the Amazon

“Whoah! Did you hear that?!” our 12-year-old son, Skyler, exclaimed.

“Yeah. Sounds like a 250-pound man doing a cannonball,” my husband, Peter, guessed.

We were taking a rest inside our floating cabin at the Uacari Lodge in the Brazilian Amazon. Connected by a boardwalk were five thatched bungalows, a two-story central house, and some outbuildings, each on their own raft, floating on a tributary of the Rio Solimoes. In front of the main house a square hole had been cut through the deck to create a pool. A netted pool. That was a good thing. We’d soon find out what we could have been swimming with. It was rapidly becoming clear that we were in territory where the wildlife ruled.

Great “ka-thunk” sounds were happening all around us. Hurrying out onto the porch, we saw a finned tail curl and whiplash the surface of the water. It belonged to a Pirarucu, a ten-foot-long fish that we’d seen in the market in Manaus, the one whose scales are sold for fingernail files. It was coming up to breathe. In addition to gills, Pirarucu have a swim bladder allowing them to extract oxygen from the air. This unusual adaptation to oxygen-poor water in the Amazonian floodplains would seem to be an advantage, but instead it required, every few minutes, what appeared to be a thrashingly desperate act of survival.

But the “ka-thunks” weren’t the only strange sound here in the Mamiraua Eco Reserve (the first of its kind in the state of Amazonas). There was that low otherworldly roar, like an icy wind howling through cavernous medieval halls; Red Howler Monkeys marking their territories, constantly it seemed.

{%{"image":"","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Dark skies above the Uacari Lodge in Mamiraua Eco Reserve."}%}

We didn’t see the Caimin until the next day, when they surrounded our shallow-sided canoe. The semi-submersion—revealing only two nostrils, followed a foot or more away by two glassy eyes and a strip of scaly back—is part of what gives them their stealthy quality, but really I think it’s their glide; that pulse-less swimming, the skimming silence of it.

We went out again in a motorboat that night. In the dark, Eduardo—one of two English-speaking, biology students from Southern Brazil who were our main guides—scanned the river with a powerful flashlight, looking for obstacles in the water. The eyes of the Caimin, those trench-coated undercover agents, glowed red.

“I counted 13 that time,” whispered Skyler.

Despite this, the reserve is a tranquil place. A place where there is a lot of hunting going on, quiet, focused hunting. A lot of stalking, a lot of stillness. It's surprising to see how fast the Caimin can cruise because more often they seem to be stopped, probably knowing it’s the motion that gives them away. But they're not the only ones on the prowl. The Anhinga, an underwater diving bird, paddles silently with webbed feet, then unexpectedly slides backwards under the water, to emerge somewhere else, neck first, actually only the neck, a pulsing, snake-like periscope. The elegant Egrets ride, tall and white, on electric- green floating meadows, still lives on a conveyor belt of tall grass, waiting, watching.

Between the hulking, carnivorous Pirarucu, the diving Anhinga, plummeting Kingfishers, strafing Large-billed Terns, and stealthily cruising Caimin, being a small fish in the Amazon must be risky business. I wondered where we fit in. I felt pleased our kids were seeing a world where we were, as humans, so clearly not in charge.

I yearned to sit in the hammocks on our porch and immerse myself in the quiet, but we had a schedule. Up at six, out by seven, back by twelve, lunch, out at three, back by seven, dinner, after-dinner activity.

{%{"image":"","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":"Skyler and Molly check out the Uacari Lodge pool."}%}

When Bianca, our other guide, said the purpose of the night walk was “to experience the night life” I laughed. Sounds like a party in Salvador. I love walking in woods at night, eyes wide, ears open, antennae alert. At least I had until here, when I heard the guide urgently hissing, “muito venenoso, venenoso.” It doesn’t take any language skill to figure out what that means when it’s attached to “Cobra!” I was in the front, behind the local guide, when he spotted the snake by the side of the path with his flashlight. I couldn’t really tell you what it looked like since I was mostly backing up, “rapidamente” as I’d been instructed to. He had that excited, tight sound in his voice that you don’t question. “Sirucucu, sirucucu!” Funny, that was the snake, the Fer-de-lance, also known as a Pit Viper, also known as the most venomous snake in the Amazon, that we’d just been talking about, our 16-year-old daughter, Molly, and I.

Paddling our canoe earlier that afternoon, Molly's and my Portuguese-speaking, local-village guide, Almir, said off-handedly that he’d been bitten by a Pit Viper twice that year. Then he went on to describe its behavior. Could it really swim? Jump into a canoe?! Climb trees, do double back flips….? We weren’t really sure we understood, but that's what we thought he'd said. Later, talking to Bianca, we sorted it out. It’s the Anaconda, another friendly local, that can climb trees and hop into your canoe. This one, the Sirucucu, just kills you. Almir had got the anti-venom in time, but was still unable to walk, for a month; its venom had paralyzed his legs. So that night, when we were invited to come forward for a look, I declined; unlike Molly, Skyler and Peter.

{%{"image":"","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Skyler exploring the Varzea forest."}%}

That morning, we’d visited a village down the river. A woman there had told us how she’d seen an Anaconda, at the edge of the water, already fully wrapped around a calf, starting to constrict it. She’d dashed into the river to free it. Now would that be your first instinct?! The Anaconda had bitten her (she showed us the marks) and then had been unable to extract its curved teeth from her arm. Her husband seeing that she was in trouble dashed into the water, too, and having no knife, bit the snake. I know, it’s starting to sound like a tall tale. The calf lived.

They all have stories like that. You start to believe them when you walk back to your bungalow after lunch and find a baby Caimin—a mere four-feet long—sunning itself on the flotation logs of your cabin.

Now, our night guide was shining his light into a tree trunk. I’d dropped back safely into the middle of the pack. Something like “Carangeira” was whispered along the line. “Tem muitos nomes.” “It has lots of names.” It turned out “Tarantula” was the one I recognized. By the time I got up to the tree, she had slid back into her white pocket of a house, only a few of her long, furry black legs still stuck out, yellow on the tips. She’d done her nails.

Given that I grew up with a father who had a phobia for snakes and a mother with a phobia for spiders, this was not shaping up to be my kind of a stroll. I can’t tell you much about the canopy at night, or the symphonic sounds of insects, as my eyes and ears were pretty solidly focused, okay glued, to the ground.

We did stop once, however, to listen. And the plethora of sounds were amazing. Like a percussion section, the cicadas played a steady blanket of 16th notes on high-pitched triangles; frogs, the washboard quarter notes, and toads, the low belching whole note. An occasional rapid-fire rattle skimmed the surface. Here was a little of Salvador after all. Soon afterward, we spotted the lights of the lodge through the trees. I was happy to return to our floating boardwalk. I’d take the “ka-thunks” in the night any day. My kids, however, had been unperturbed.

I was, nevertheless, pleased to have ventured into that other world; that Halloween night world of spiders and snakes, and to have had a small taste of what it might be like to live on a more even playing field with those creatures who are after all mostly just defending themselves against those out to get them—the likes of us. I felt glad that my kids could experience a world so unlike our Western one where we humans "monitor" and "control" the wildlife. I was grateful to be admitted as a guest in their house.

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