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Featured Articles

Drink Beer? Take Showers? Better Worry About West’s Snowpack

Publication: NBC News   Date: December 20, 2014   View Article

The wet and windy storms that have slammed California with floods, mudslides and traffic snarls are bringing at least a momentary sigh of relief from water users across the western U.S. That’s because the storms also dumped several feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada — and mountain snowpack is a chief supplier of water for agricultural, industrial, and domestic uses throughout the region.

But according to a state measurement, that snowpack as of Thursday was only 50 percent of normal — and Washington and Oregon are even worse off.

The lack of snow fits with what some scientists see as a long-term slide in the amount that piles up each year, though the trend’s size and significance are debated. For some, the decline hints at a future with less water to irrigate crops, brew beer and take showers as well as keep wildfires and insect pests at bay.

Hungry Planet: Can Big Data Help Feed 9 Billion Humans?

Publication: NBC News   Date: November 17, 2014   View Article

With a population set to hit 9 billion human beings by 2050, the world needs to grow more food —without cutting down forests and jungles, which are the climate’s huge lungs.

The solution, according to one soil management scientist, is Big Data.

Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, recently unveiled a new interactive mapping tool that shows in fine-grain detail where higher crop yields are possible on current arable land.

“By some estimates, 20 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with agriculture and of that a large portion is due to conversion of natural systems like rainforests or grassland savannahs to crop production, agriculture,” Cassman told NBC News at a conference in suburban Seattle.

Who’s Driving That Tanker? New Polar Code For Sailing Emerges

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 23, 2014   View Article

A quarter-century after a drunk captain and his fatigued crew ran the Exxon Valdez onto a reef where it spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, new rules are taking shape to prevent a similar disaster in the rapidly opening Arctic Ocean.

There, melting sea ice is opening a new frontier for cruise and cargo ships as well as prospectors for oil, gas, and hard rock minerals.

A key goal of the new rules is to ensure people skilled in navigating ice-strewn seas are aboard every vessel in Arctic and Antarctic waters, according to Lawson Brigham, a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who has participated in the development of the so-called Polar Code for more than 20 years.

Collapse of Civilizations Seen Through Key Beer Ingredient: Study

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 11, 2014   View Article

Beer, scientists have long argued, helped give rise to civilization in an arc of land that sweeps from modern-day Egypt to the border between Iraq and Iran. Today, chemical analysis of barley grains, one of beer’s key ingredients, is bolstering research into climate change’s role in the collapse of ancient societies.

“There has been a longtime debate about the relationship between climate and its changes and the development and in some cases demise of cultures,” Frank Hole, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and a study co-author, explained to NBC News. “The research that we did is attempting to pinpoint this more directly.”

To do this, he and colleagues collected samples of modern and ancient barley grains throughout the Near East and analyzed them to tease out the impact on agriculture of so-called mega-droughts over the past 10,000 years. The existence of these droughts has been inferred from sources such as pollen and microscopic animals in cores of soil pulled from lake and ocean bottoms.

Home Solar Panels Make Gains in America, Even in Rainy Seattle

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 4, 2014   View Article

Going solar is expensive, but a confluence of plummeting equipment prices, rising utility bills, new financing schemes and a raft of federal, state, and local incentives are encouraging homeowners across America to take the plunge and put photovoltaic panels on their roofs, even in rainy Seattle.

In 2013, 792 megawatts of solar capacity was installed on homes. That figure is expected to increase 61 percent in 2014 and another 53 percent in 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group. A megawatt of solar capacity is typically enough to power 200 average U.S. homes, though the number varies depending on factors such as available sunlight and panel orientation.

On a recent drizzly July morning here, homeowner Brian Palmer gestured out the window to the falling rain. There, workers in slickers from a local solar energy company prepared to put photovoltaic panels on his roof, one of the hundreds of such installations that occur daily across the country.

That’s Nuts: Almond Boom Strains California Water Supply

Publication: NBC News   Date: June 22, 2014   View Article

Asia’s love of nuts is draining California dry.

Amid one of the worst droughts in the state’s history, farmers are scrambling to find enough water to irrigate lucrative almond trees they planted after abandoning other, less thirsty crops.

Why’s there such a market for California nuts? As incomes in countries such as China, South Korea, and India have risen, so has demand for nuts that formerly were out of reach for many Asians. Added to the mix are Wall Street firms who, smelling a quick buck, are paying top dollar for vegetable farms and converting them to orchards.

Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea Eyed as Fossil Fuel Gateway

Publication: National Geographic News   Date: May 9, 2014   View Article

Trains loaded with crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation rumble past the outfield bleachers of the Seattle Mariners’ baseball stadium several times a week. From there, the trains head north, their cargo destined for multiple refineries in Washington State.

The traffic is new: Just three years ago, no oil trains were coming to Washington. Bakken crude is filling a void created by dwindling shipments from aging oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope, and the petroleum industry wants to bring in more. But the push to build more rail and shipping capacity in the Pacific Northwest is spurring debate over how that oil flow will affect the region—and where it should ultimately go.

© 2008-2010 Collected Writings By John Roach