Highlights from the Week's News

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Could This Discovery Be a Climate Game Changer?

November 12, 2023

Climate Was a Winner in Last Week’s Elections

Last week’s elections showed that voters are concerned about the climate as well as reproductive rights. E & E News reports that some Republicans wanted to take the wind out of the sails of the Democrats’ advantage on abortion by attacking efforts to combat global warming.  But it didn’t work.

Credit:  Tom Arthur, Orange, CA/Creative Commons

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won re-election after promoting electric vehicle manufacturing, while his Republican challenger, Daniel Cameron, said he would do more to protect fossil fuels in what’s the fifth largest coal-producing state. As the state’s attorney general, Cameron sued the Biden administration over fuel economy rules, the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, and proposed power plant emission restrictions.

In New Jersey, Democrats picked up seats in the state House even in areas where offshore wind projects have drawn local opposition. Republicans in the state tried to convince voters that, contrary to any evidence, sonar used by wind developers kills whales and dolphins.

In Virginia, Republicans campaigned against vehicle mandates to help meet the state’s goal to have all electric cars by 2035, but Democrats flipped the House of Delegates to at least a two-seat advantage and held their majority in the Senate. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin wanted to reverse Democratic legislation that included requiring car emissions standards set by California. Now, they will stay in place.

However, voters in deeply red Mississippi bucked this year’s pro-environmental trend by reelecting Tate Reeves as governor.  He had criticized his opponent, Brandon Presley for supporting solar energy and taking money from renewable energy companies.

EPA Takes Action on Nitrates in Drinking Water

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency said that thousands of people in Minnesota could be drinking water contaminated with nitrates. The EPA urged state agencies to provide bottled water to those in danger and come up with a plan to rectify the situation.

Farmland in rural Minnesota  |  Credit: Tony Webster/Creative Commons


High levels of nitrates in humans can cause cancers, as well as harm to respiratory and reproductive systems, kidneys, spleens, and thyroid glands and is particularly harmful to infants. A safe limit has been established by the EPA for nitrate in drinking water based upon the link to “blue baby syndrome.” Nitrates can leach into water supplies from nitrogen fertilizers used on farms, and also from animal feedlots, septic systems, dairies, wastewater plants, and natural conditions.    

In a statement, Leigh Currie of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, was clear that the problem is agriculture and it’s time for the farm lobby and the state to reach real solutions to eliminate the threat to public health.

The problem is not unique to Minnesota. A new study, not yet published, from Iowa State University shows that about five percent of that state’s water systems have shown potentially harmful levels of nitrate. According to The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, disadvantaged Iowans, low-income residents, people of color, children below five, and adults over 65 are more exposed to them.

In Nebraska, Eleanor Rogan, a public health researcher, told public radio station KCUR  that the University of Nebraska Medical Center has looked at rural watersheds and found a correlation between pediatric cancers and higher rates of nitrates, which are coming from fertilizers as well as from a weed killer, Atrazine.

Another new study states there is growing evidence showing that nitrates increase the risk of colorectal cancer. The research from Denmark finds that $300 million could be saved just in that country by reducing nitrate concentrations in drinking water and would avoid almost 130 cases of colorectal cancer each year.

In Minnesota, the EPA’s action comes after numerous environmental organizations requested the exercise of emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA has recently restarted an assessment of nitrates and nitrites in drinking water that was suspended by the Trump administration and has not been updated for about 30 years.

The Denmark study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Could White Hydrogen Help Spare Us from Global Warming

Hydrogen has been in the news, following the Biden administration’s launching of seven energy hubs across the country last month. The element is seen as a source of clean energy and a hopeful climate solution because when it’s burned to power ships and planes or to make steel, only water vapor is left behind.

Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, harnessing it is involved because it’s usually part of another compound—think H2O where two hydrogen atoms hang out with one oxygen atom to make water, or methane, which is CH4.

There are different ways to produce hydrogen that are color coded, ranging from dirtier methods like “grey hydrogen” that uses coal or gas and emits CO2 to “green hydrogen,” which, although considered to be the best option because it’s produced using renewable energy such as wind and solar, is expensive.

So it was exciting news this summer when researchers from the University of Lorraine in France accidentally discovered a vast source of “white hydrogen”—which is hydrogen in its natural state—at a site in southern France, when they were looking for fossil fuels. Writing in The Conversation, the scientists say the underground reserve could contain up to 46 million tonnes of white hydrogen—more than half of the world’s current annual production of grey hydrogen. They say their discovery follows other potential reserves currently being explored in the Alps, New Caledonia, and the Pyrenees. They add that other untapped deposits could lie in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere in Europe.

Accessing pure hydrogen is a big deal because it wouldn’t require any processing to be used. And, unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form, white hydrogen is a renewable resource. That said, there are several obstacles before we can say it’s the silver bullet to get us to net zero. White hydrogen would require energy to extract and need a pipeline and distribution system to transport. Additionally, for anyone who remembers the crash of the hydrogen-powered Zeppelin Hindenburg that caught fire in 1937, leaks are a concern if the gas is not handled properly.

Letters to French Sailors Finally Opened After 265 Years

We’ve all been there. You text or email someone and it feels like an eternity before they reply. Well, imagine being the parent, spouse, or friend of a sailor at sea in the 1700s, when getting an answer to a letter would feel like a miracle. But they kept writing…and waiting. Such was the case for Marie Dubosc, who wrote to her husband aboard the French frigate Galatée, during the Seven Years' War, a global conflict in which France and Britain were the chief rivals.

Anne Le Cerf love letter to her husband Jean Topsent in which she says “I cannot wait to possess you” and signs “Your obedient wife Nanette”  |  Credit: The National Archives/Renaud Morieux

“I could spend the night writing to you … I am your forever faithful wife. Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest,” she wrote. Unfortunately for Mme. Dubocs, the Galatée was captured by the British before the letter arrived, the crew imprisoned, and they never saw each other again.

The French postal administration had tried to deliver letters to ships, sending them to multiple ports in France where they often arrived too late. When they had heard that the Galatée had been captured, they gave the missives to the British Admiralty, who, after deeming the correspondence of no military significance, left them to languish, unopened, in the National Archives—until now, 265 years later.

Simply out of curiosity, Professor Renaud Morieux from Cambridge University unearthed the over 100 letters in the archives and read them. He said although they were composed with misspellings, were without punctuation or capitalization, and filled every inch of the paper they were written on, they provide a rare first-person account of the lives of sailors and their families in the 18th century.

He adds that the letters also show how universal the human experience is and how they—and we—cope with life’s challenges. From pained love letters between spouses to a mother chastising her son for not writing, some things never change—”you never write, you never call.”

The findings were published in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales.