• First code improvements based on NIST Joplin tornado study adopted

    Protecting schools and their associated high-occupancy buildings from the most violent tornadoes is the goal of the first approved building code changes based on recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) technical investigation into the impacts of the deadly tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, on 22 May 2011. The new changes, approved at a recent meeting of the International Code Council (ICC), apply to the nation’s most tornado-prone regions.

  • U.S. worsening droughts require alternative ways of protecting urban water supplies

    In the American West, unprecedented droughts have caused extreme water shortages. The current drought in California and across the West is entering its fourth year, with precipitation and water storage reaching record low levels. Droughts are ranked second in the United States in terms of national weather-related economic impacts, with annual losses just shy of $9 billion. With water scarcity likely to increase due to advancing climate change, the economic and environmental impacts of drought are also likely to get worse. Alternative models of watershed protection that balance recreational use and land conservation must no longer be ignored to preserve water supplies against the effects of climate change, experts argue.

  • Coal plant plans could make it impossible to hold warming below 2°C

    There are 2,440 planned coal plants around the world, totaling 1428GW, which could emit approximately 16-18 percent of the total allowed emissions in 2030 (under a 2°C-compatible scenario, medium range). If all coal plants in the pipeline were to be built, by 2030, emissions from coal power would be 400 percent higher than what is consistent with a 2°C pathway, according to a new analysis.

  • Chemical safety board may put new investigations on hold while it reboots

    Under new leadership, the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is hitting the reset button to put its embattled past behind it. The federal agency charged with investigating and issuing recommendations on chemical accidents wants to set an ambitious timeline for completing reports, but doing so will require a hold on new cases.

  • Rock salt serving to store nuclear waste may not be as impermeable as previously thought

    The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, stores low-level nuclear waste in salt beds beneath the ground. For decades there has been a proposal to build a permanent central repository under Nevada’s Yucca Mountains. This has renewed interest in rock salt as an alternative permanent storage solution for high-level nuclear waste. Researchers found that rock salt, used not only by the United States, but also by Germany, as a subsurface container for radioactive waste, might not be as impermeable as thought, or as capable of isolating nuclear waste from groundwater in the event that a capsule or storage vessel failed.

  • Storing renewable energy underground for a reliable, affordable national grid

    A common criticism of a total transition to renewable energy — wind, water, and solar power — is that the U.S. electrical grid cannot affordably store enough standby electricity to keep the system stable. Researchers propose an underground solution to that problem. The researchers use data from single-state calculations of the number of wind, water, and solar generators potentially needed in each state to show that these installations can theoretically result in a reliable, affordable national grid when the generators are combined with inexpensive storage and “demand response” — a program in which utilities give customers incentives to control times of peak demand.

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  • Equatorial regions’ power at risk from stormy space weather

    Stormy space weather sweeping across the equator is threatening vital power grids in regions long considered safe from such events, ground-breaking new research reveals. The researchers found that these equatorial electrical disruptions threaten power grids in Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and South America, where protecting electricity infrastructure from space shocks has not been a priority.

  • U.S. enhances national space-weather preparedness

    Space-weather events are naturally occurring phenomena in the space environment that have the potential to disrupt technologies and systems in space and on Earth. These phenomena can affect satellite and airline operations, communications networks, navigation systems, the electric power grid, and other technologies and infrastructures critical to the daily functioning, economic vitality, and security of the United States. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that that is why the administration the other day released a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan, and announced new commitments from the federal and non-federal sectors to enhance national preparedness for space-weather events.

  • How bad will this El Niño be? Worse than you may think

    Last week, Columbia University Earth Institute’s International Research Institute on Climate and Society convened a 2-day workshop reflecting on efforts over the past twenty years to improve responses to climate variability, especially risks associated with El Niño. Concerns that the current El Niño has the potential to exceed in severity the devastating El Niño of 1997-98 permeated the discussion. At the conference, Marc A. Levy of the Earth Institute presented a brief overview of the social, economic, and political changes that will have a large effect on human impacts from El Niño. He amplifies those remarks here.

  • At the nanoscale, concrete proves effective for nuclear containment

    One of the main challenges faced by the nuclear industry is the long-term confinement of nuclear waste. Concrete is one of the barrier materials commonly used to contain radionuclides, both in nuclear reactors and nuclear waste-storing facilities. New research shows concrete is a strong choice for the long-term confinement of nuclear waste.

  • “Iconic” El Niño may bring more than rain to California

    A few weeks ago in the hills north of Los Angeles, heavy rain set off widespread mudslides that blocked roads and covered highways, burying hundreds of vehicles and bringing much of Los Angeles’ infamous traffic to a standstill. For Californians, these mudslides are just one of many recent harbingers signaling the imminent arrival of a “monster” El Niño — an El Niño that started bubbling up from unusually warm temperatures in the tropical Pacific last summer. In Southern California, a strong El Niño usually signals rain, and given that California is now in the throes of a severe drought, it seems like that should be a good thing, even if it comes with risk of floods. But the reality of climate is more complex and counter-intuitive than it first appears, and Californians should be careful what they wish for.

  • Small landscape changes can yield big freshwater gains

    A typical bird’s-eye view of the Midwest offers a patchwork landscape covered mostly by agriculture but mottled with forest, wetland, grassland, buildings, and pavement. This pattern influences the quality and supply of the many natural benefits the landscape provides people, including freshwater. A new opportunity for improving the health and supply of Wisconsin’s lakes, waterways, and groundwater has emerged from a recent study showing that making small tweaks to how large some of those patches in the pattern are could mean big freshwater benefits, especially where making drastic changes to the landscape would be hard, as is the case throughout much of the state.

  • Discovery of “hidden earthquake” challenges tsunami early-warning systems

    Seismologists studying the 2011 Chile earthquake have discovered a previously undetected earthquake which took place seconds after the initial rupture. This newly discovered phenomena which they have called a “closely spaced doublet” presents a challenge to earthquake and tsunami early warning systems as it increases the risk of larger-than-expected tsunamis in the aftermath of a typical subduction earthquake.

  • New material enables more efficient desalination

    Engineers have found an energy-efficient material for removing salt from seawater. The material, a nanometer-thick sheet of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) riddled with tiny holes called nanopores, is specially designed to let high volumes of water through but keep salt and other contaminates out, a process called desalination.

  • Finnish company to construct final disposal facility of spent nuclear fuel

    The Finnish government has granted a license to Finnish company Posiva for the construction of a final disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel. The spent fuel assemblies will be encapsulated and placed in the bedrock at a depth of about 400 meters for permanent disposal. The waste will be stored for around 100,000 years before its level of radioactivity begins to dissipate. “This is the world’s first authorization for the final repository of used nuclear waste,” Finland’s Economy Minister Olli Rehn said.