A prcis of environmental news and happenings over the holidays.

With the holiday season behind us and 2014 upon us, it’s time to get back into the work groove. And in that spirit, we will continue our practice of providing a rundown of some of the big environmental stories that broke while we were away. This season, climate change and energy appear to be common threads.

1. Cool United States, Warm Globe

In the wake of the storm known as Hercules, which mostly lived up to its name, Americans across the Midwest and the Northeast as well as inparts of the South are girding for plunging temperatures expected from a blast of Artic air sent our way courtesy of a polar vortex. TheArctic freeze is predicted to grip parts of the nationstarting tonight.

(Even in usually balmy North Carolina, temperatures are predicted to plunge to below zero, withDurham’s mercury expected to dip to just above zero but with a wind chill factor below zero.Brrrr…)

These frigid temps seem to be part of a pattern in the United States of late where we have been experiencing cooler-than-average temperatures for much of the winter.

But a U.S. trend does not a global trend make. And it turns out that rest of the globe has been on a hot streak.

The National Climatic Data Center concluded that November 2013 was the hottest November on record. A preliminary analysisof December 2013 just released by the University of Alabama at Huntsville finds that globally averaged temperatures for December were almost 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the 1981-2010 average. And 2013 is estimatedto rank globally as the fourth warmest year on record based on temps through November.Stay tuned for an update when the official numbers come out later this month. Meantime, see the map below;note the relatively mild temps over the United States, while Australia, the Central Asian Republics, and Micronesiawere scorched.

2. Crude Oil Ignited in Train Derailment

From ice to fire. On December 30 a freight train carrying crude oil from the Bakken field derailed, causing a huge explosion and fireball in Casselton, North Dakota. Fortunately no one was injured, but Robert Harms,the state’s Republican party chairand an energy consultant, is among those calling for a “moderated approach” to the state’s booming energy production, and the federal government has issued a safety alert warning of “the potential variability of material risks and hazards from crude oil extraction and production.”

The accident, the fourth of its kind since July 2013, reflects the enormous growth in the use of rail to transport the fuel from North America’s surging oil production.(Read about November’s accidenthere, October’shere,and July’shereandhere.)This latest accident will, no doubt, fuel the debate over the relative merits of pipelinesversus rail in oil transport, both of which have safety issues($ub req’ed). (See alsohere.)

Don’t be surprised as some use the accident to argue in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline while others use it to rail against oil extraction in general. I have sympathy for the latter but worry, is it hypocritical to take that position and drive a car?

3. Kerry, Climate, State, and Keystone

And while we’re on the subject of the Keystone pipeline, there was an interesting piecein Thursday’sNew York Timesabout Secretary of State John Kerry, who the president says will have the last word on whether the project goes forward or not. In it Coral Davenport reported that Secretary Kerry has been “quietly” prioritizing climate change:

“His goal is to become the lead broker of a global climate treaty in 2015 that will commit the United States and other nations to historic reductions on fossil fuel pollution.”

This all begs the question of how deep is Kerry’s commitment, how strong the priority? Does it go deep enough, is it strong enough to deny approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline?We’ll know sometime in 2014. We think. (See the “U.S. Climate Action Report 2014″ [pdf].)

4. Solar Variability Not a Major Player in Climate Change

Writing in Nature Geoscience, Andrew Schurer of the University of Edinburgh and co-authors report on the result of a new analysis on the Sun’s possible role in global warming. Using model simulations and an ensemble of surface temperature reconstructions over the past 1,000 years, the authors conclude that “solar forcing” — changes in the amount of energy from the Sun —”probably had a minor effect on Northern Hemisphere climate over the past 1000 years, while volcanic eruptions and changes in greenhouse gases seem to be the most important influence over this period.” These results include theMedieval Warm Period (from roughly 800 to 1200 AD)and the Little Ice Age (from roughly 1300 to 1850), two anomalies that many have attributed to solar forcing.

5. Dollars for Climate Denial

Environmental sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University in Pennsylvania had an interesting paper in the journal Climatic Change on the source of funding for the so-called climate change countermovement.Brulle’s thesis is that some 91 organizations have undertaken a “deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate change.” Brulle has found an intriguing, perhaps alarming, shift in the funding of these organizations from identifiable corporate donors, such as Koch Enterprises and ExxonMobil, to unknown sources backing conservative foundations.

Here’s an interesting statistic: the combined income of these 91 organizations is $900 million and the total contribution to these organizations from conservative foundations is about $560 million. If we assume all conservative foundation contributions fund the counter climate movement and compare that to the total federal funding for climate change research in the United States, which is about $2 billion [pdf],then for every dollar the federal government spends on helping the public and researchers better understand the science of climate change, these foundations are spending up to about 30 cents to counter those efforts. Read more here.

6. Droughts and Climate: Not More, Just More Intense

What’s going on with droughts as a result of climate change? Are they becoming more frequent? Yes, was the conclusion of a recent study by Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and colleagues published in the journal Nature. No, said Justin Sheffield of Princeton University and co-authors in another recent paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

What gives? Kevin Trenberth, also of NCAR, and co-authors took a look and reported on their assessmentin Nature Climate Change as well.The gist of their finding: it’s hard to say, given the state of the science at this time. The authors found that the discrepancies in the drought-trend assessments can be understood through several means:

Having demonstrated the difficulties in establishing drought trends, the authors make some recommendations for addressing these deficiencies, for example by expanding the spatial and temporal resolution of precipitation measurements as well as having countries “allow a lot more of their precipitation data to be publicly available.” They then weigh in on the subject in general by positing that global warming “may not cause droughts but it is expected that when droughts occur they are likely to set in quicker and be more intense.” Certainly seems reasonable, but as Trenberth et al. make clear in their assessment, we still have a ways to go to figure out what the global warming signal in drought is.

7. Homeless Japanese Recruited to Clean up Defunct Nuclear Plant

Finally, there’s this very disturbing newsbeing reported out of Japan: “Japan’s homeless recruited for murky Fukushima clean-up.” (Read morehere,here,hereandhere.) Not the cleanup crew most folks would envision and one the Japanese government is being urged to crack down on.

So there it is, the holiday in headlines and reports. Onward into 2014.