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.

John Kerry Updates His Climate Change Creds at the Arctic Council

| Tue May 14, 2013 4:13 PM EDT

Polar bear image by Patrick Kelley / US Coast Guard via US Geological Survey at Flickr. John Kerry photo courtesy the US Congress at Wikimedia Commons.

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to Kiruna, Sweden, tomorrow, 14 May, for a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, the only diplomatic forum focused exclusively on the Arctic region. Members represent the eight nations with territory north of the Arctic Circle (Canada, the US, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden), plus representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples. The Council's concerns include a broad swath of environmental issues stemming from a wildly changing global climate amplified in the Arctic.

The meeting comes 25 years after Kerry hosted climate change hearing with Al Gore in the Senate and nothing happened. This year's Arctic Council is focused on mitigating a future oil spill as drilling in the far north ramps up. Ministers will be signing of an historic Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Agreement. The State Department describes this as an agreement that will "forge strong partnerships in advance of an oil spill so that Arctic countries can quickly and cooperatively respond before it endangers lives and threatens fragile ecosystems."

Sounds great, except we can't contain offshore spills, no matter the level of cooperation. Still, Kerry's attendance will boost interest in an obscure Council and the problems—for most—of a faraway place. 

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10 Key Findings From a Rapidly Acidifying Arctic Ocean

| Tue May 7, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Polar bear on a remnant ice floe:

As predicted by chemistry, change in the Arctic Ocean is accelerating as temperatures warm faster than the global average, as the sea ice melts, as northern rivers run stronger and faster, delivering more fresh water farther into the northernmost ocean, and as we continue blasting an ever increasing quantity of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Arctic Ocean Acidification Assessment, a new report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), presents these 10 key findings: 

1. Arctic marine waters are experiencing widespread and rapid ocean acidification. In the Nordic Seas, acidification is taking place over a wide range of ocean depths, from surface waters (faster) to deep waters (more slowly). Seawater pH has declined ~0.02 per decade since the late 1960s in the Iceland and Barents Seas. Other ocean acidification signals have also been encountered in surface waters of the Bering Strait and the Canada Basin of the central Arctic Ocean.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

2. The primary driver of ocean acidification is uptake of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by human activities. The ocean has swallowed our atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions and slowed global warming during the past few critical decades while we dithered in disbelief. But the cost of temporarily delaying even more warming has been the increasing acidification of seawater. The average acidity of surface ocean waters worldwide is now ~30% higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

3. The Arctic Ocean is especially vulnerable to ocean acidification. Arctic rivers plus melting ice input huge (and increasing) amounts of freshwater into the Arctic Ocean, changing the chemistry and making it less effective at neutralizing CO2's acidifying effects. Add the fact that cold waters slurp up more CO2 from the air. Add the fact that dramatic decreases in Arctic summer sea-ice cover—real and projected—allow for greater transfer of CO2 from the atmosphere into the ocean. These combined influences make Arctic waters among the world's most easily acidified. 

US Geological Survey at Flickr

4. Acidification is not uniform across the Arctic Ocean. Other processes influence the pace and extent of ocean acidification. Rivers, sea-floor sediments, and coastal erosion all supply organic material that bacteria can convert to carbon dioxide, exacerbating ocean acidification, especially on shallow continental shelves. Sea-ice cover, freshwater inputs, and plant growth and decay also influence local ocean acidification. The contributions of these processes vary from place to place, season to season, and year to year. The result is a complex, unevenly distributed, ever-changing mosaic of Arctic acidification states.

5. Arctic marine ecosystems are highly likely to undergo significant change due to ocean acidification. Arctic marine ecosystems are generally characterized by short, simple food webs, where energy is channeled in just a few steps from small plants and animals to large predators like seabirds and seals. The integrity of such a simple structure depends greatly on keystone species. Pteropods (sea butterflies) and echinoderms (sea stars, urchins) are key food-web organisms that may be sensitive to ocean acidification. Too few data are presently available to assess the precise nature and extent of Arctic ecosystem vulnerability, as most biological studies have been undertaken in other ocean regions. Arctic-specific long-term studies are urgently needed.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

6. Ocean acidification will have direct and indirect effects on arctic marine life. Some marine organisms will respond positively to new conditions associated with ocean acidification. Others won't. Experiments show that a wide variety of animals grow more slowly under the acidification levels projected for coming centuries. While some seagrasses appear to thrive under such conditions. Birds and mammals are not likely to be directly affected by acidification but may be indirectly affected if their food sources decline, expand, relocate, or otherwise change in response to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification may alter the extent to which nutrients and essential trace elements in seawater are available to marine organisms. Shell-building Arctic mollusks are likely to be negatively affected by acidification, especially at early life stages. Juvenile and adult fishes are thought likely to cope with acidification levels projected for the next century, but fish eggs and early larval stages may be more sensitive. In general, early life stages are more susceptible to direct effects of ocean acidification than later life stages.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

7. Ocean acidification impacts must be assessed in the context of other changes happening in Arctic waters. Arctic marine organisms are experiencing not only acidification but also other large simultaneous changes: climate change, harvesting, habitat degradation, and pollution. Ecological interactions—e.g. between predators and prey, or among competitors—also play an important role in shaping ocean communities. As different marine life responds to environmental change in different ways, the mix of plants and animals in a community will change, as will their interactions with each other. We don't know much of anything about this yet.

8. Ocean acidification is one of several factors that may contribute to alteration of fish species' composition in the Arctic Ocean. Ocean acidification is likely to affect the abundance, productivity, and distribution of marine species. But the magnitude and direction of change are uncertain. Other processes driving Arctic change include rising temperatures, diminishing sea ice, and freshening surface waters.

9. Ocean acidification may affect Arctic fisheries. Few studies have estimated the socio-economic impacts of ocean acidification on fisheries, and most have focused largely on shellfish and on regions outside the Arctic. The quantity, quality, and predictability of commercially important Arctic fish stocks may be affected by ocean acidification, but the magnitude and direction of change are uncertain. Fish stocks may be more robust to ocean acidification if other stresses—for example, overfishing or habitat degradation—are minimized.

10. Ecosystem changes associated with ocean acidification may affect the livelihoods of Arctic peoples. Marine species harvested by northern coastal communities include species likely to be affected by acidification. Most indigenous groups harvest a range of organisms and may be able to shift to a greater reliance on unaffected species, but these changes would likely exert a cultural toll. Recreational fish catches may change to different species. While marine mammals—important to the culture, diets and livelihoods of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents—are unlikely to escape changes in the Arctic Ocean food web.

Canada Considers Shipping Tar Sands Oil Across Arctic Ocean

| Wed May 1, 2013 3:32 PM EDT
Canada's possible Arctic Ocean routes to deliver tar sands oil to Europe and Asia, bypassing the troubled Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico.

Canada is considering bypassing the beleaguered Keystone XL pipeline—which would carry oil from tar sands deposits in Alberta to the US and the Gulf of Mexico—by shipping across the Arctic Ocean instead. The proposal is in its infancy, reports the Alaska Dispatch, but is developing as Keystone XL and other proposed pipelines to British Columbia and Quebec remain in limbo.

The Arctic Ocean scenarios would also include a pipeline—north from Alberta's tar sands through (sparsely settled, presumably uncontested) regions along the Mackenzie River Valley and on to the Arctic coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk, from there to be shipped on tankers to Asia or Europe. From the Alaska Dispatch:

Alaska could find itself helplessly watching large tankers loaded with oil and gas pass by its shores. With little spill-response infrastructure in Alaska's Arctic—no deepwater port exists, for instance—the state is sitting vulnerable, [says Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead] Treadwell, a former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. "If somebody is seriously talking about building an oil pipeline that would put oil on the water to go through Alaska waters," he said, "I believe we would have the time through diplomatic negotiation to be able to meet the challenge."

Not to mention which does Canada really think they'll escape the wrath of Greenpeace—plus a major redirect of anti-Keystone energies—on an Arctic Ocean oil shipping plan?

5 Butterfly Species Just Vanished While No One Was Looking

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Some of Florida's butterflies go missing for years and then come back. The Meske's skipper was AWOL for a decade before returning.

An entomologist hired by the state of Florida to find any surviving members of five rare butterflies species spent six years on the search instead of the two without finding any. "I thought I was going to find some at some point so I just took a lot more time," Marc Minno told the Miami Herald. "They're just not there." He concluded that the Zestos skipper and the rockland Meske's skipper—which haven't been seen in more than a decade—should be declared extinct, that the Zarucco duskywing is likely extinct too, and that the nickerbean blue and the Bahamian swallowtail are now gone from their North American range: the coastal and inland forests of southern Florida. From the Miami Herald:

Considering that there have been only four previous presumed extinctions of North American butterflies—the last in California more than 50 years ago—Minno finds the government response to such an alarming wave frustrating. "There are three butterflies here that have just winked out and no one did a thing about it," Minno said. "I don't know what has happened with our agencies that are supposed to protect wildlife. They're just kind of sitting on their hands and watching them go extinct."

Worse, because these species were never listed as threatened or endangered they now fall into a limbo where the government won't declare them extinct either. "There is no requirement for us to do anything as far as a formal announcement that it's gone," Ken Warren, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida office, told the Miami Herald. Meanwhile Minno argues that something is badly awry when species vanish before the feds even begin the process of considering whether or not they're in trouble.

Alarmed over the backlog of 757 species awaiting listing, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service and won a settlement in 2011 "requiring the agency to make initial or final decisions on whether to add hundreds of imperiled plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018." Unfortunately that may already be too late for these five butterflies species.

The problems facing butterflies in Florida and elsewhere are complex and poorly understood, but include: climate change; urban sprawl; pesticides; hurricanes; invasive species; and all the perils associated with the genetic bottlenecks that accompany species in sharp decline. Last summer an effort was made to begin captive breeding of Florida's Schaus butterflies, but only a handful of individuals could be found in the wild and none was a female. 

Why Is the Toxic Dispersant Used After BP's Gulf Disaster Still the Cleanup Agent of Choice in the US?

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 2:37 PM EDT
The Deepwater Horizon debacle began three years ago tomorrow.

Great Britain, the home country of BP, has banned the stuff. So has Sweden. But BP says as long as the US allows it, they'll use Corexit dispersant on their next oil spill. "If this vision becomes reality, long-term destruction to our health and environment will expand exponentially." This according to a damning new report, Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf: Are Public Health and Environmental Tragedies the New Norm for Oil Spill Cleanups?, by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project (GAP).

The GAP report was issued today in advance of tomorrow's three-year anniversary of BP's monster debacle in Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in US history, that killed eleven people and injured sixteen others. BP managed to hide most of the 4.9 million barrels of oil erupting from its maimed well from human eyes by flooding it with 1.84 million gallons of Corexit dispersant, both at the wellhead on the deep sea floor (a first) and at the surface.

That had devastating affects on human health, says the GAP, based on data they collected from extensive Freedom of Information Act requests and from evidence collected over 20 months from more than two dozen employee and citizen whistleblowers who experienced the cleanup's effects firsthand.

BP oil spill clean-up worker near Grande Isle, LA, June 2010.
BP oil spill clean-up worker near Grande Isle, LA, June 2010. © Julia Whitty

The report cites four major areas of concern: 1) existing health problems; 2) failure to protect clean-up workers; 3) ecological problems and food safety issues; 4) and inadequate compensation. Ongoing health problems from the "BP Syndrome" include: blood in urine, heart palpitations, kidney and liver damage, migraines, multiple chemical sensitivity, memory loss, rapid weight loss, respiratory system and nervous system damage, seizures, skin irritation (burning and lesions), and temporary paralysis, plus long-term concerns about exposure to known carcinogens.

Failure to protect clean-up workers began with BP and the government misrepresenting known risks by asserting that Corexit was low in toxicity—this contrary to warnings in BP's own internal manual—says the GAP. They cite other problems:

  • Interviewed cleanup workers reported they either didn't receive any training or didn't receive the federally required training.
  • Worker resource manuals detailing Corexit health hazards were not delivered or were removed from BP worksites early in the cleanup, when health problems began.
  • Divers were allowed to enter the water after assurances it was safe and additional protective equipment was unnecessary, despite government agency regulations prohibited diving during the spill due to health risks.
  • BP and the federal government publicly denied any significant chemical exposure to humans was occurring, though of the workers the GAP interviewed, 87% reported contact with Corexit while on the job, and subsequent blood test results revealed high levels of chemical exposure.
  • BP and the federal government believed that allowing workers to wear respirators would not create a positive public image and the feds permitted BP's retaliation against workers who insisted on wearing this protection. Nearly half of the cleanup workers interviewed by GAP reported that they were threatened with termination when they tried to wear respirators or additional safety equipment on the job. Many received early termination notices after raising safety concerns on the job.
  • All workers interviewed reported that they were provided minimal or no personal protective equipment on the job.

As for compensation: "BP's Gulf Coast Claims Fund denied all health claims during its 18 months of existence."

Living mollusk trying to escape BP oil spill.
© Julia Whitty Living mollusk trying to escape BP oil spill:

Among the ecological damage in the report the GAP notes: "The FDA grossly misrepresented the results of its analysis of Gulf seafood safety. Of GAP's witnesses, a majority expressed concern over the quality of government seafood testing, and reported seeing new seafood deformities firsthand. A majority of fishermen reported that their catch has decreased significantly since the spill."  

I've written extensively about ongoing problems regarding Corexit emerging from the science: overview here; dispersant made spill 52 times more toxic here; dispersant allowed oil to penetrate beaches more deeply here; fish hammered by oil and dispersant here; the decline of microscopic life on oil-and-dispersal-tainted beaches here, and horrific and ongoing whale and dolphin deaths here and here.

The GAP report demands that both BP and the government take corrective action to mitigate ongoing suffering and to prevent the future use of this toxic substance, including: a federal ban on Corexit; Congressional hearings on the link between the current public health crisis in the Gulf and Corexit exposure; immediate reform of EPA dispersant policy, specifically to determine whether such products are safe for humans and the environment prior to granting approval; establishment of effective medical treatment programs run by medical experts specializing in chemical exposure for Gulf residents and workers; funding by the federal government of third-party independent assessments of both the spill's health impact on Gulf residents and workers, and such treatment programs when established. 

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