Monday, October 31, 2011

Eastern forests not adapting quickly to climate change

Many Eastern tree species aren't migrating northward as climate change models say they will, says a new study led by Duke University researchers. That could be bad news for the trees' long-term survival.

The ranges of 59 percent of the 92 species analyzed appear to be contracting on both their northern and southern ends, while 16 percent seemed to move to the south. More concerning to researchers was that only 21 percent are shifting northward.

That raises the prospect of climate change stranding some species in increasingly inhospitable surroundings. "It's kind of like pulling the climate out from from under it," said ecologist James Clark of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Models show that, as the climate warms, many tree species would lose ground on the southern end of their ranges as adults die and seeds fail to sprout. Their northern boundaries would expand as dispersed seeds find happier conditions. See some examples at this U.S. Forest Service site.

But that's not happening for many species, despite warm zones in parts of the East shifting up to 60 miles north. The researchers found no evidence that tree ranges are changing fastest where climate has changed the most. They don't believe differences in seed sizes or their ability to be dispersed account for their findings.

The study did find evidence that some species are migrating to higher elevations, as models also predict.

Clark and his colleagues, funded by the National Science Foundation, based their work on decades of data from the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Inventory and Analysis program. They compared tree distributions in more than 43,000 plots in 31 states.

Kai Zhu, a doctoral student of Clark, was lead author of the study with co-authors Christopher Woodall, a Forest Service researcher in St. Paul, Minn., and Clark. The article was published in the current issue of the journal Global Change Biology.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Huntersville teen petitions for solar White House

Thomas Greenough, 14, thinks it pretty neat that former President Jimmy Carter preached green energy decades ago, installing solar panels on the White House during the oil-embargo days of the 1970s. (Ronald Reagan later took them down.)

So when Thomas learned that President Obama's administration had failed its commitment to reinstall solar panels by last summer, he took to his computer.

"That time has come and gone," he says, "so I want to hold him to his promise."

Two weeks later, the petition Thomas posted on a White House site is slowly climbing in the online ranks. By late Tuesday afternoon, the petition had 772 signatures -- and a long hill to climb. The administration's new "We the People" initiative guarantees a written response to petitions that draw at least 25,000 signatures within 30 days.

The ninth grader at Mooresville's Pine Lake Preparatory says the exercise combines his love of science and politics. He's still hopeful the petition will earn a response.

"I'm optimistic," says Thomas, who's been featured in local news articles. "Word of mouth is very powerful."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Winter bills will be smaller, gas company says

Residential customers are likely to see smaller heating bills this winter, Charlotte-based Piedmont Natural Gas says.

Winter bills could fall up to 10 percent, compared to last year, in Piedmont's territory in the Carolinas and Tennessee. Piedmont serves about 1 million customers.

ypical residential customers are expected to pay about $4 to $10 less a month than they did last winter, reflecting falling wholesale gas prices. Since 2008, Piedmont's billing rates have dropped 20 percent to 30 percent, shaving $100 to $200 off a winter's worth of bills.

Piedmont's Share the Warmth program, which rounds up monthly bills to the nearest dollar, helps low-income residents in its territory.

Wholesale prices are dropping as U.S. shale-gas production, and supply estimates, go up. The gas is extracted through a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that blasts underground shale formations with high-pressure water and chemicals.

Fracking makes it possible to drill into gas deposits that were too expensive to tap before. It's also excited worries that the chemicals may contaminate groundwater, and that the process uses too much water.

The technique is illegal in North Carolina, which is believed to hold large deposits of shale gas southwest of Raleigh, but the N.C Department of Environment and Natural Resources is beginning a study of the issue.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Duke filed rate hearing notices late

Duke Energy was a month late in notifying customers of hearings, beginning in Charlotte on Tuesday night, on the 15 percent rate hike it's seeking.

Don Smith, a Duke customer who lives in Kannapolis, got his notice in the mail at 3 p.m. Tuesday -- four hours before the Charlotte hearing began before an overflow crowd. Smith said he and several friends would have attended if given earlier notice.

"If they had that many people show up, how many would they have had if they'd given more than two or three hours' notice?" he said later.

The rate case, filed July 1, was hardly a secret. The Observer published the list of six hearings on July 30 and ran a story on the Charlotte hearing Tuesday morning.

But the N.C. Utilities Commission told Duke to do more, publishing legal notices in local newspapers and mail notices to each customer 45 days before the hearings. That didn't happen.

Duke told the commission in late September that notices hadn't gone out as planned on Aug. 27. Mailings to customers would instead be sent out starting Sept. 28, Duke said. Ads about the hearings ran in the Observer on Sept. 22 and 26.

Staff mistakenly scheduled the notices to start 45 days before a Nov. 28 evidentiary hearing in Raleigh, not the Charlotte hearing on Tuesday, spokesman Jason Walls said this week. Walls said Duke tried to make up for the error by contacting local television stations before Tuesday's hearing. He noted that five more hearings are scheduled, none in the Charlotte area, and written comments may be sent to the commission.

Neither the commission nor its Public Staff, which represents customer interests, have filed a response to Duke's mea culpa.

"It's something that we don't like, but it does happen occasionally," said Tony Wike, the Public Staff's chief counsel. "We had no idea that the notices would arrive so late that a customer could not plan to be there. We would not like to see it happen again."