Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

21 Percent of Homes Emit 50 Percent of CO2

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 5:05 AM EDT

Not all homes pollute equally—even in the relatively homogeneous world of a mid-sized town in Switzerland. A study of a village of 3,000 finds that 21 percent of households belched half the town's greenhouse gases. The biggest factors running up the carbon tabs of the disproportionate polluters: the size of their houses and the length of their commutes. Airline travel wasn't factored into this research.

The energy people use to power their homes and drive their lives accounts for more than 70 percent of CO2 emissions, write the authors in  Environmental Science & Technology. But in addressing that problem policymakers and environmentalists mostly point their fingers at the supply side: power plants, heating and cooling systems, and the fuel efficiency of cars. The Swiss researchers chose to parse it differently and developed a lifecycle assessment model of how energy consumption for housing and car travel, per household and per capita, impacts greenhouse gas emissions.

Their conclusion: ​energy conservation in a small number of households could go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If the super polluting homes cut their emissions in half, the authors write, "the total emissions of the community would be reduced by 25 percent."

Be interesting to see the model these researchers developed used to compare the larger income and lifestyle gaps typical in US towns and cities.

I wrote more about the power of individual choices in combating emissions in Diet for a Warm Planet.

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Grazing Reindeer Take a Bite Out of Global Warming

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 5:05 AM EDT

Turns out where we let reindeer dine when has a big impact on the energy balance of the planet. That's because reindeer (aka caribou) prune dark-colored Arctic vegetation, minimizing solar heat absorption.

The study was done by Finnish researchers using satellite data to compare tundra in Norway, where reindeer aren't allowed to graze in summer, with similar tundra in Finland, where they are. As you might expect, vegetation is shorter and sparser on the Finnish side. In contrast, the taller trees and shrubs of the ungrazed Norwegian side absorb more sunlight—which promotes an earlier snowmelt, increases solar absorption, and accelerates warming.

The heat difference is significant, according to the team's calculations: on the Norwegian side, solar energy absorption of up to 6 W/m2 in the snowmelt season, or up to 0.5 W/m2 to the yearly energy balance. Put another way, compared to the Finnish tundra, Norwegian energy absorption during the months of March, April, and May is enough to melt a cubic kilometer of ice. "No small matter,” Lauri Oksanen, a co-author of the paper in Remote Sensing of Environment, tells Eye on the Arctic.

Reindeer lichen
Reindeer lichen: Travis at Flickr

The net result is that reindeer can delay seasonal warming and help de-couple one of the more potent positive feedback loops affecting climate in the far north. Although, Oksanen notes, that if the reindeer are allowed to overgraze their favorite food—the whitish-colored reindeer lichen—they can also remove one of the tundra's most reflective summer surfaces.

Photo credit: dration at Flickr

So, carefully managed, reindeer could be used to do what they do best: geoengineer the landscape. Selective summer grazing could be used to delay snowmelt, increase the surface albedo, and reduce ground heating. 

"If wetlands and poorly growing forests could be brought back so that the forests were left sparse and the wetlands returned to a natural state, it would significantly cool the atmosphere," says Oksanen.

Secret Sea Turtle Feeding Grounds Discovered in BP Oil Spill Waters

| Fri May 31, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
A Kemp's ridley turtle prepped for release into the Gulf of Mexico, October 2012.

Thirteen years of satellite of tagging, plus new statistical techniques (switching state-space modeling, or SSM, for you geeks), reveal that the favored feeding grounds of highly endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles coincide with the Gulf of Mexico waters most hammered by oil spills, commercial fishing (and overfishing), and the hypoxic zombie waters known as the dead zone. 

These rarest and smallest of sea turtles live in nearshore waters of the Gulf and nest exclusively on a few sandy beaches in Mexico and Texas. Previous tracking studies showed they migrate from their north to Texas and Louisiana, with a few outliers getting as far as peninsular Florida. But before this latest research, no one knew if turtles were migrating or feeding at any given location. Now statistical modeling has pinpointed where these turtles are likely stopping to feed—which is key to identifying marine habitats critical for saving them.  

Kemp's ridley trutle hatchling, Padre Island National Seashore:
Kemp's ridley turtle hatchling, Padre Island National Seashore: qnr / Terry Ross at Flickr

The feeding habitat discovery came when scientists differentiated between time spent in feeding or breeding mode from time spent migrating. Once they figured out when and where the turtles were feeding, they were also able to roughly profile what type of habitat offered the best feeding grounds for Kemp’s ridleys.

"We have a lot more to learn about how and why Kemp's ridleys use their foraging sites,” says Kristen Hart, a research ecologist for the USGS Southeast Ecological Science Center and co-author of the paper in Ecology and Evolution. "We don't know enough about individual turtles yet to draw conclusions about their behavioral responses to conditions at foraging grounds, and we are just beginning to understand differences among different sea turtles species. For example, Kemp’s ridleys appear to migrate, then feed, and then migrate to a final feeding destination. Loggerheads, in contrast, seem to head straight for feeding hotpots.”


Foraging habitat by Kemp's ridley turtles in the Gulf of Mexico:
Foraging habitat by Kemp's ridley turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. (A) Foraging habitat and environmental characteristics of foraging sites selected for N = 31 female Kemp's ridley turtles from 1998 to 2011. The grid is divided into 25 × 25 km (15.5 mile) cells, with 100-m (328-ft) isobaths as a bounding layer. (B) Bathymetry coverage; (C) Sea surface temperature (SST) coverage; (D) Net primary productivity (NPP) coverage. Donna J. Shaver, et al, Foraging area fidelity for Kemp's ridleys in the Gulf of Mexico. Ecology and Evolution (2013). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.594

As you can see in the map above, Kemp's ridleys follow follow a foraging corridor to a few foraging hotspots, mostly off the Louisiana coast. Which just happens to be smack in the middle of oil fields, the BP spill site, and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

Not much can survive in the waters of the dead zone when it forms up most summers (more on that here). Jellyfish might do okay. But unfortunately for Kemp's ridleys, they're not jellyfish-eating turtles, but crab-eating turtles. And lots of crabs die in the dead zone.

And obviously, if you're a sea turtle, oil spills suck pretty bad too.

Oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtle rescued from BP oil spill waters:
Oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtle rescued from oil spill: Louisiana GOHSEP at Flickr

The good news (in a roundabout kind of way) is that a court settlement was filed yesterday requiring the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Coast Guard ensure that toxic oil-dispersing chemicals—like the Corexit that BP used in the Gulf—must not harm sea turtles, whales, and other endangered species or their habitats. This in federal waters off California. The suit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Surfrider Foundation, and Pacific Environment Conservation to force the government to determine the safety of chemical dispersants before they're use on endangered species. Not afterward, as happened during 2010’s Deepwater Horizon debacle.

"We shouldn't add insult to injury after an oil spill by using dispersants that put wildlife and people at risk," says Deirdre McDonnell of the Center for Biological Diversity. "During the BP oil spill no one knew what the long-term effects of chemical dispersants would be, and we're still learning about their harm to fish and corals. People can avoid the ocean after an oil spill, but marine animals can't. They're forced to eat, breathe, and swim in the chemicals we put in the water, whether it's oil or dispersants."

Studies have found that oil dispersed by Corexit 9527 squanders the insulating properties of seabird feathers more than untreated oil, making the birds more susceptible to hypothermia and death. Other studies found dispersed oil is toxic to fish eggs, fish larvae, and adult fish, as well as to corals, and that it harms the ability of sea turtles to breathe and digest food. Check out my other posts on these studies in the If you liked this, you might also like... section below.

Farewell, Froggy: The Age of Ribbit Is Nearing an End

| Sat May 25, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Tree frog.

Amphibians are disappearing horrifyingly fast worldwide, with a third of species imperiled. But they're disappearing even faster than believed in the US—and probably worldwide (more on that below)—according to the first ever analysis of the rate of population losses among frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts. 

Eastern newt:

Even amphibians presumed to be relatively stable and widespread are declining. With species everywhere—from the swamps of Louisiana and Florida to the high mountains of the Sierras and Rockies—all disappearing with mind blowing speed. 

Toad mountain halrequin frog:
Toad mountain harlequin frog: Brian Gratwicke at Flickr

A team of researchers with the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative analyzed the rate of change in the probability of 48 amphibian species occupying ponds and other moist habitats in 34 sites over a period of nine years (see map/figures below). 

Gray tree frog:
Gray tree frog: Robert A. Coggeshall at Wikimedia Commons

What they found: overall occupancy by amphibians declined 3.7 percent a year from 2002 to 2011. That seemingly small number adds up to particularly virulent form of extinction hunting down these species within two decades if the rate of decline remains unchanged. 

California newt:
California newt: jkirkhart35 at Wikimedia Commons

Much worse, species Red-listed as threatened or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declined on average 11.6 percent a year. 

Yosemite toad:
Yosemite toad: Natalie McNear via Flickr

Surprisingly, declines occurred even in protected lands, like national parks and national wildlife refuges. "The declines of amphibians in these protected areas are particularly worrisome because they suggest that some stressors—such as diseases, contaminants and drought—transcend landscapes," says lead author Michael Adams. 

American bullfrog:
American bullfrog: Dave Menke at Wikimedia Commons

Amphibians seem to be experiencing the worst declines documented among vertebrates, but all major groups of animals associated with freshwater are having major problems.

Characteristics of monitoring data:
From the PLOS ONE paper: (A) Location of monitoring areas. (B) Distribution of species among IUCN categories. (C) Number of years monitored in each time series. (D) Mean annual estimates of probability of site occupancy and number of occupancy estimates (N). Credit: Michael J. Adams, et al. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064347.g001

While the PLOS ONE paper didn't address causes, another recent study found a multitude of natural and manmade stressors affecting amphibians, including human-induced habitat destruction, environmental contamination, invasive species, and climate change.

"An enormous rate of change has occurred in the last 100 years, and amphibians are not evolving fast enough to keep up with it," says Andrew Blaustein, author of the 2011 paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, and professor of zoology at Oregon State University. "With a permeable skin and exposure to both aquatic and terrestrial problems, amphibians face a double whammy. Because of this, mammals, fish and birds have not experienced population impacts as severely as amphibians—at least, not yet."​

Shenandoah salamander:
Shenandoah salamander: Brian Gratwicke at Wikimedia Commons

"Amphibians have been a constant presence in our planet's ponds, streams, lakes and rivers for 350 million years or so, surviving countless changes that caused many other groups of animals to go extinct," says USGS Director Suzette Kimball. "This is why the findings of this study are so noteworthy; they demonstrate that the pressures amphibians now face exceed the ability of many of these survivors to cope."

I've written more about climate-induced amphibian disappearances here, about problems with herbicides on farms here. And for a long read on the problems with the loss of biodiversity here

How Hitler's U-Boats Are Still Attacking Us

| Tue May 21, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has some fresh news from World War II: 13 Merchant Marine ships sunk by the German navy in the Battle of the Atlantic threaten to release oil from their watery graves.

The finding comes in an assessment presented to the Coast Guard that analyzed 20,000 shipwrecks in US waters, and identified 36 as posing a significant threat of oil pollution. Seventeen of those are recommended for further assessment, which could lead to missions to remove their fuel oil and oil cargo. Besides the Merchant Marine vessels, the worrisome ships include a barge lost in bad weather in 1936, two ships sunk in separate collisions in 1947 and 1952, and a tanker that exploded in 1984.

The locations of the 17 wrecks NOAA is recommending be considered for in water assessment and pollution recovery if necessary.
The 17 wrecks NOAA recommends for further investigation. NOAA

"This report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the potential oil pollution threats from shipwrecks in US waters," says Lisa Symons, resource protection coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "Now that we have analyzed this data, the Coast Guard will be able to evaluate NOAA's recommendations and determine the most appropriate response to potential threats."

An initial screening of the 20,000 shipwrecks found 573 that could pose substantial pollution risks based on the vessel's age, type, and size. Ships built of steel, made to be a tanker or to carry over 1,000 gross tons got on the list. Further investigation narrowed the number to 107 wrecks. Some were deemed navigational hazards and demolished, and others were salvaged. But most of the 107 have not yet been directly surveyed for pollution potential. In some cases little is known about their current condition.

Locations of some of the 20,000 shipwrecks in US waters.
Locations of some of the 20,000 shipwrecks. NOAA

The report is part of NOAA's Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project, which hunts down potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. Knowing where these ships lie helps oil response planning efforts, and may assist in tracking down mystery spills—sightings of oil where a source is not immediately known or suspected. 

The tanker Gulfstate before it was torpedoed in 1943.
The Gulfstate before it was torpedoed in 1943. NOAA/SSHSA Collection, University of Baltimore Library

The vessel ranked worst on the NOAA's risk assessment scale is the WWII tanker the Gulfstate, torpedoed and sunk off the Florida Keys in 1943. Here's a casualty narrative for the ship, as excerpted by NOAA, that tells the terrifying tale of how the vessel went down after an attack by a Kriegsmarine U-Boat:

At 09.03 hours on 3 Apr, 1943, the unescorted Gulfstate (Master James Frank Harrell, lost) was hit by two torpedoes from U-155 about 50 miles southeast of Marathon Key, Florida while steaming a nonevasive course at 10.5 knots. The first torpedo struck on the port side directly under the bridge and ripped a large hole in the hull at the waterline, causing immediate flooding and setting the cargo on fire. The second torpedo struck at the engine room. The fire leapt 100 feet in the air and spread from the bridge to the after part of the vessel. The master ordered the engines secured and the ship abandoned, but the vessel sank bow first within four minutes. None of the lifeboats could be launched and all rafts were lost in the fire. Only a single doughnut raft managed to break free of the tanker. The eight officers, 34 crewmen and 19 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 5in, four .50cal and two .30cal guns) had to jump in the water and swim through 600 feet of burning oil surrounding the tanker. The survivors clung to floats and the single raft for seven hours before being discovered by a U.S. Navy blimp, which dropped two rubber life rafts. An U.S. Coast Guard seaplane picked up three of the most seriously wounded two hours later and took them to Miami. One hour later the remaining 15 survivors (five of them wounded) were picked up by the American patrol craft USS YP-351. Three of the wounded were later transferred to USS Noa (DD 343) for medical treatment. All survivors were landed at Key West. Eight officers, 26 crewmen and nine armed guards were lost.

Gulfstate ranks as the No. 1 priority for the Coast Guard to assess and potentially to attempt to salvage or remove its oil, according to the NOAA rating system. That's in part because it might still be holding almost 84,000 barrels (about 3.5 million gallons) of oil, and in part because of its location near Florida's coral reefs. Unfortunately no one knows exactly where the Gulfstate went down, though it's thought to lie in more than 2,800 feet of water. So NOAA is recommending steps to find the vessel, including asking Florida's commercial and recreational fishermen to report oil spottings that could lead back to the ship.

Many of the 20,000 wrecks in US waters date to before 1891, when US shipping began switching to fuel oil. Most of these earlier wrecks from the age of coal and sail pose little or no environmental threat. You can find the full list of potentially polluting wrecks here.

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