On any given weekday, dozens of news stories are piped into our crania by TVs, radios, and newspapers; by screens mounted unavoidably in elevators and taxis; and by the twisty paths unique to the internets: Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and mailing lists.
Even though all these different channels and companies are striving to out-compete one another for our eyeballs, ears, and ever-less-present attention, a comparatively small number of stories get the most play, while many important stories go under-reported. It's as if the better we make our tools for dissemenating information, the more we use them to fill up on the news equivalents of candy bars. And I'm talking waxy, crumbly chocolate coating wrapped around too-sweet nougat, like celebrity misbehavior, unchallenged political spin, and random house fires -- not glossy slabs of Fair Trade-certified, organic, single-origin 74% cacao.
Ask an environmental reporter, and she'll tell you that the beat oozes with important news that got left behind, particularly in a year when big, telegenic stories like the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the Massey mine explosion, commanded most of the minutes, screens, and column inches "allowed" for environmental news.
Those stories -- two of the most deadly energy-related disasters in U.S. history -- demanded and deserved attention. Others did, too.
Here are my four picks for top environmental stories under-reported by the U.S. media in 2010:
Devastating flooding displaces millions in Pakistan
No disaster in the U.S. this year, not even the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil gusher into the Gulf of Mexico, compared to the scale of human suffering caused by 2010's catastrophic floods in Pakistan. In July, near-unprededented monsoon rains (the worst in nearly a century) swelled waters in the Indus River Basin. Subsequent floods sank about one-fifth of the nation underwater over several days. Upwards of 2,000 Pakistanis died, and around 20 million have become displaced environmental refugees, including 6 million children, according to the government.
Reports suggest Pakistan -- politically volatile, nuclear-capable, terrorist haven -- was set back decades by the flood-driven destruction of infrastructure and will endure years of stunted agriculture and other long-term effects.
The enormous scope of the rains and flooding have been ascribed to a number of environmental factors both wholly natural and human-made, including the La Niña oscillation, deforestation, and climate change-driven destabilization of historical weather patterns.
Climate researchers found innocent of scientific misdeeds
Last year, still-unidentified hackers stole and leaked to the public scores of emails from the University of East Anglia's prominent Climatic Research Unit. Dubbing the story "Climategate" (natch), scores of news outlets reported on the leaked emails, often from the angle of accusations made by climate change deniers: that information in these once-private exchanges between climate scientists proved the researchers were improperly manipulating data, skewing the peer-review process to suppress information, and generally misleading the public about global warming.
The timing of the leak was interesting, as it came just weeks before last December's international climate treaty meeting in Copehagen, and influenced news coverage of the negotiations. During the Copenhagen talks, Associated Press reporters released an in-depth review of the messages that debunked the claims of scientific malpractice, but it failed to gain much traction amid the more lurid claims.
Similarly, few news outlets have reported with similar zeal that over the past year, three separate investigations in the U.K., as well as one in the U.S., exonerated the researchers of any scientific wrongdoing. Craig Silverman of RegretTheError.com selected the Sunday Times of London's retraction of its wholly inaccurate reporting as his news media "Correction of the Year" for 2010:
The Sunday Times led with one of the more damning reports about the emails. Headlined, "UN Climate Panel Shamed by Bogus Rainforest Claim," it was dubbed “Amazongate.” And it was a crock. The paper was eventually taken to the Press Complaints Commission by rainforest expert Dr. Simon Lewis, who said his quotes and comments were manipulated beyond recognition.
Related: "Climate scientists exonerated in 'climategate' but public trust damaged," Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2010.
Obama administration proposes to list two Arctic seal species under Endangered Species Act
On Friday, Dec. 3, at around 1 p.m., NOAA's Fisheries Service announced its proposal to list groups of two "ice seal" species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA): four subspecies of ringed seals found in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic, and two distinct populations of bearded seals in the Pacific Ocean.
It's unclear why the agency buried this story by releasing the news during lunch hour on a Friday afternoon. But listing these two seal species would be significant for reasons besides their survival. Both are declining due to climate change-induced warming in the Arctic, which is melting the frosty habitats they depend upon: sea ice and snow. So working to save them under the mandates of the ESA might open a pathway toward establishment of the federal carbon pollution caps and controls that eluded the White House and the Senate this past year.
Related: Judge upholds NOAA Fisheries decision not to list ribbon seals as threatened or endangered, as reported in the Anchorage Daily News on Dec. 23 and Courthouse News on Dec. 28.
Potential energy miracle substance wins Nobel Prize
To end on an up note, this story steps away from politics and extinction, to the often-hopeful realm of new materials research.
University of Manchester researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their experimental work with a form of carbon called graphene. The news failed to get much attention beyond the sci-tech press, but here's the environmental angle: Graphene, "a one-atom-thick film of carbon whose strength, flexibility and electrical conductivity have opened up new horizons for pure physics research as well as high-tech applications," as Wired put it, has the potential to transform high-capacity energy storage. It may also be significant in improving the sunlight-to-power efficiency of solar cells. These are two of the biggest challenges facing our shift from fossil to clean energy generation.
What's your choice for the top under-reported environmental story of 2010?
Images, top to bottom:
-Ringed seal in the Beaufort Sea, 2009. Credit: Daniel Guip, cc by-nc-nd
-On Sept. 19, Arctic sea ice reached its 2010 minimum of 1.78 million sq. miles, the third-lowest Arctic sea ice extent on satellite record. The record low of 1.59 million sq. miles was set in 2007. The mean maximum extent of Arctic sea ice 1979-2000 was about 2.7 million sq. miles. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory
- Two men help old woman walk a submerged path in Swat Valley, North-West Frontier, Pakistan, Aug. 2010. Credit: Quasim Berech/Oxfam, cc by-nc-nd
- Bearded seal off the coast of Svalbard Archipelago, Norway, 2007. Credit: Graham Canny, cc by-nc-nd;
- Graphene nanobubble. Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laborary