Bacteria Surviving at High Altitudes Could Play a Role in Global Climate

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that even as high as 30,000 feet in the sky, fungi and bacteria are present in the air. These living microorganisms could very well affect global climate.

“The million-dollar question in the field [right now] is how much living things can impact clouds, the hydrological cycle and the climate overall,” said Anthanasios Nenes, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and study co-author.

The study showed that viable bacterial cells represented, on average, around 20 percent of the total particles detected in the size range of 0.25 to 1 micron in diameter. By at least one order of magnitude, bacteria outnumbered fungi in the samples, and the researchers detected 17 different types of bacteria— including some that are capable of metabolizing the carbon compounds in the atmosphere—such as oxalic acid. The work may shed new light on how clouds will change in composition and abundance as the world warms, which Climate Central reports is a source of uncertainty in climate projections.

China Coal Consumption Rising

Domestic coal, which has suffered in recent years due to the abundance of natural gas and tighter regulations, just may get a boost from China. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China is using nearly as much coal to support its economic and population growth as the rest of the world combined. With its demand already accounting for 47 percent of global consumption, the country is expected to dominate the coal market in 2013 as it continues to rely on the fossil fuel for 70 percent of its energy generation.

“[There are] enhanced opportunities for exports of American coal to China to feed some of that demand,” said Heath Knakmuhs, senior director of policy at the U.S. Chamber’s Energy Institute. “While China does have significant internal coal resources, they’re often far away from load centers. It does provide an opportunity for American coal suppliers—especially those located in the western U.S. to export enhanced amounts to China.”

Indeed, U.S. coal shipments to China have increased significantly in recent years—showing a 107 percent jump from 2011 to 2012. Proposed coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon—through which coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana would be shipped to China—are shaping up to be “one of the biggest climate fights of 2013,” according to Mother Jones. Opponents of the terminals cite local concerns such as the congestion and coal dust associated with the mile-long trains as well as higher coal consumption—and increased greenhouse gas emissions—in Asia. But some argue that China will burn coal whether or not they get it from the U.S., and that higher coal prices will reduce coal consumption in the U.S. and Europe. “Perhaps counterintuitively, the United States selling coal to China, and Asia generally, likely will reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally,” said Stanford University’s Frank Wolak.

EPA Challenged in Court

Two rules developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were challenged in court, and ultimately thrown out in recent weeks. These include:

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR)—The EPA lost a bid for a federal appeals court review of a rule designed to force cuts to soot and smog emissions from coal-fired power plants. CSAPR was originally issued in July 2011 and aimed to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in 28 states that cross state lines. The Clean Air Interstate Rule, which also aims to address pollution across state lines, remains in effect as the EPA reviews the decision.

Cellulosic Ethanol Target—A federal appeals court struck down future rules for blending cellulosic biofuels, made from sources such as grasses, agricultural waste and wood chips, because supplies are not available to meet forward-thinking requirements. The biofuels mandate—part of the renewable fuel standard—required refiners to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuel into traditional transportation fuels by 2022.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.