Monday, April 21, 2014

Earth Day: New books on climate, energy

by Wendy Koch)

In Montana, Glacier National Park's majestic peaks once held 150 glaciers. Now, only 25 survive.

Steadily rising temperatures could mean the extinction of all its glaciers by 2020, according to climate scientist Dan Fagre whose research is chronicled in The Melting World: A Journey Across America's Vanishing Glaciers. (St. Martin's Press)

Author Christopher White recounts what he and Fagre find during four years of climbing its peaks -- runaway forest fires, declining trout streams and endangered lynx. They say Montana is hardly unique as mountain glaciers, which can provide more than 50% of freshwater needs, are also starting to disappear in the Alps, Andes, Cascades, Rockies and Himalayas.

Their tale is one of several new books that warn of the dire impacts of climate change -- a dominant theme among 10 environmental reads selected by USA TODAY to mark the nation's 44th Earth Day on Tuesday. Others look at revolutionary changes in the U.S. energy sector such as the fracking boom and the Texas wind rush, some of which may help curb global warming.

There's also the intriguing story of how humans first risked their lives to go skyward. A history of ballooning,Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air(Pantheon) tells how high-altitude flights -- as much as seven miles without oxygen -- helped establish the modern science of meteorology. It recounts how balloons were used by General George Custer to observe battle during the American Civil War and by American entrepreneur John Wise to make the first official airmail delivery run for the U.S. Post Office in 1859.

"They provide unexpected visions of the earth beneath," writes Richard Holmes, professor at the University of East Anglia and also author of the best-selling The Age of Wonder. "There is some haunting analogy between the silken skin of a balloon....and the thin atmospheric skin of our whole, beautiful planet as it floats in space."

Here's a round-up of other notablebooks published within the past year:

--The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters,(Portfolio/Penguin) by Gregory Zuckerman looks not only at how the shale boom has slashed U.S. dependence on energy imports but also at the virulent environmental opposition it has triggered.

-The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, (Simon & Shuster) covers similar ground. Author Russell Gold, energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal, says the 100 wells that are fracked each day in the U.S. have started to change geopolitics and global energy markets, posing both a threat and asset to the environment.

--Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy (St. Martin's Press) explores the most promising technologies for producing cleaner energy. Science journalist Jeremy Shere travels from coast to coast, stopping at a solar farm at Denver's airport, wind farms in Texas and a tidal energy project in Manhattan's East River.

--The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power (University of Texas Press) is the unlikely saga of the Lone Star State's rise as a U.S. wind power. Authors Kate Galbraith and Asher Price, both environmental journalists in Texas, explain how 300-foot-tall wind turbines have revitalized rundown towns.

--The Burning Question: We Can't Burn Half the World's Oil, Coal and Gas. So How Do We Quit? (Profile Books) looks at the policies, economics and technologies that will be needed to shift away from fossil fuels. Authors Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark explain that saving energy is like squeezing a balloon: Cuts in one place lead to increases elsewhere. They argue tackling global warming will require the world to abandon energy reserves worth many trillions of dollars.

--Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, (Times Books) is the story of how the author, Bill McKibben, went from writing best-selling books about nature to leading a grass-roots environmental movement against the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben's civil disobedience in front of the White House in summer 2011 landed him in handcuffs and behind bars.

--The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt and Company) describes how humans have so altered the planet that they're facing the most devastating extinction since asteroids wiped out the dinosaurs. From her travels to four continents, author Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer, introduces fascinating species -- some already gone -- including the Panamanian golden frog, the American mastodon, the great auk and the Sumatran rhino.

--Fevered: Why A Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health -- and How We Can Save Ourselves, (Rodale) says the effects will include higher rates of asthma, allergies, heat-stroke-related deaths and insect-carrying diseases such as dengue fever and West Nile virus. Author Linda Marsa, an investigative journalist, calls for a "medical Marshall Plan" to help us prepare for climate change.

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