The Daily Grist: Feb 27

Burn Me Up, Scotty
Super-Hot Trash Zapper May Yield Hydrogen

This just in: The future is now. "Plasma torch technology" is gaining acceptance among corporations and governments, and may soon show up at a waste facility near you. Here's how it works: Trash -- anything from municipal garbage to toxic waste to PCBs -- is zapped (at least we think that's the technical term) with a plasma torch that burns three times hotter than the sun. The resulting products are obsidian-like stone, heavy metals that can be recovered for industrial use, and hydrogen-rich gases that can serve as fuel. One company has already developed a filter that will extract pure hydrogen from the gas, which means plasma torch technology (we love saying that) may one day play a role in the much-ballyhooed, possibly-just-around-the-corner "hydrogen economy." The consensus among scientists, enviros, and sci-fi devotees is that the new technology is "rad."

I've Seen Fire and I've Seen Rain
Amazonian Fires May Screw Up Entire South American Climate

Massive fires in Amazonian forests, set by impoverished local residents trying to create revenue-generating pastures and cropland, have the potential to disrupt the climate and generate fierce storms across South America, says research published in today's issue of the journal Science. The fires send particles into clouds, which attract water molecules and prevent them from joining together into raindrops. This could extend dry spells and reduce clouds' ability to shade the earth from solar radiation, increasing global warming. And here's the cruel irony, say researchers: As the droplet-encrusted particles rise, they freeze, falling and rising again repeatedly until they become big chunks of hail; thus, when storms do come, they can come in the form of massive, fierce hailstorms that have the potential to flatten crops and villages. Though tentative -- like all science relating to enormously complex meteorological issues -- the results present a strong de facto case linking forest loss and climate change.

Soothe the Salvage Beast
Ecologists Warn Against Salvage Logging

Salvage logging -- harvesting burnt trees from the site of a fire -- is not, contrary to public perception and federal practice, an environmentally benign method of gathering timber, write a group of forest ecologists in an article in the journal Science. Dead wood, they say, plays an important ecological role, providing shade for seedlings, niches for nesting birds, and organic material that helps soil hold water. "To many ecologists, natural disturbances are key ecosystem processes rather than ecological disasters that require human repair," says the article, which is sure to add fuel to the raging debate over a proposed U.S. Forest Service salvage-logging operation on the site of 2002's Biscuit wildfire in Oregon. The problem, says lead author David Lindenmayer, is that large wildfires tend to yield an atmosphere of strong emotion, and decisions about salvage logging are "often made in a crisis mode, yet the effects can last for several hundred years."

Shareholding Industry Responsible
Shareholders Call on Companies to Address Global Warming

A group of pension-fund managers representing public employees announced yesterday that they had filed shareholder resolutions with 10 North American oil and gas companies, calling on them to report to investors how they plan to deal with the problem of global warming and, more to the point, restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions that many expect to come into force within a few years. The resolutions -- coordinated by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility -- are part of a growing trend by shareholder activists to force companies to forthrightly and publicly address environmental issues from nuclear waste to toxic emissions. Fifty-one such resolutions have been filed thus far this year. The latest round targeted not only big names like ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, but smaller companies that do oil and gas exploration and are likely to be hardest hit by new regulations. By and large, the companies are loath to comply: "We feel we have already been responsive to these queries in a number of forums," said a spokesperson for ExxonMobil.

Look for the GM Label
Battle Over Genetically Modified Foods Rages On

It's been an action-packed couple of weeks in the ongoing global dispute over genetically engineered foods. Just today, a conference of 80 nations agreed on a strict set of labeling rules for international commodity shipments of GM foods -- rules which will form the basis of the biodiversity-protecting U.N. Cartagena Protocol -- over strenuous objections from the U.S., the world's largest source of GM foods and a fierce opponent of labeling. Meanwhile, Mexico announced that it will ban the import of GM corn designed for non-agricultural (generally chemical or pharmaceutical) purposes, in an attempt to protect its domestic corn industry and public health. Over in the Philippines, scientists investigating a mysterious outbreak of illnesses issued preliminary findings blaming GM corn for introducing new viruses. The findings were immediately challenged by Monsanto, the world's leading GM company, and the Philippine government. The battle rages on ...

For more environmental news and humor visit Grist Magazine

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