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.

Mom Eats For Two Forever

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 6:01 PM EDT

A series of reports from the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction reinforce the growing notion that our health is affected by the actions and choices of our forefathers—or foremothers.

It's all about epigenetic inheritance: the nongenetic variations acquired during the life of an organism that can be passed on to offspring.

We already know—and I've already written—that fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes down at least 13 generations. And that people malnourished in adolescence transmit higher rates of heart disease and diabetes to their children and even their grandchildren.

Now the following studies demonstrate how maternal nutrition, protein intake, and fat in the diet cause epigenetic changes in developing fetuses, with long-term health consequences. Some changes occur before pregnancy, some during—some don't manifest for a long time:

  • Mouse studies suggest that subtle differences in maternal metabolism have long-lasting effects. When embryos were transferred from a diabetic mouse to a nondiabetic mouse, all kinds of birth defects ensued (neural tube defects, heart defects, limb deformities, and growth defects in offspring)—suggesting we need to redirect ideas about maternal health to prior to pregnancy.
  • Maternal nutrition at the time of conception alters fetal development. Sheep and rodent studies reveal that offspring of mothers with vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies are fatter, become insulin resistant, and have higher blood pressure by the time they reach middle-age—proving that early molecular changes may not manifest for many years.
  • Low protein levels in female mice during the first few moments of conception caused abnormal growth, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and jumpy behavior in their offspring. They also grew bigger, extracting as many nutrients as they could to compensate for poor nutrition in the womb.
  • According to epigenetic theory, changes in the genome can happen at any time through the impact of environmental factors on the expression of genes over time. One of the most critical periods is early life when epigenetic memories are created that may impact a person's susceptibility to disease later in life. These "memories" may lie dormant until an environmental trigger brings them to the surface and modifies disease risk.

 

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US Energy Use Falls

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 6:54 PM EDT

Americans used more solar, nuclear, biomass, and wind energy, and less coal and petroleum in 2008 than in 2007. Natural gas consumption rose slightly and geothermal remained the same. This according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (The schematic is informative and you can see a bigger image in pdf.)

Estimated 2008 US energy use equaled 99.2 quadrillion British Thermal Units, or 99.2 quads, down from 101.5 quads in 2007. The bare bones of the resuls:

  • Energy use in the industrial and transportation sectors declined by 1.17 and 0.9 quads respectively and can be attributed to the spike in oil prices in summer 2008
  • Commercial and residential use climbed slightly (that could look different in 2009, I'm guessing)
  • Last year saw a significant increase in biomass with the recent push for the development of more biofuels including ethanol
  • Increases in wind energy can be attributed to large investments in wind turbine technologies over the last few years as well as better use of the existing turbines
  • 2008 saw a slight increase in nuclear energy from 8.41 quads in 2007 to 8.45 quads in 2008, mostly because existing plants had less down time


Of the total 99.2 quads consumed in 2008, less than half—only 42.15 quads—ended up as useful energy that does things like move your light your lamps. The rest is known as rejected energy and does useless and counterproductive things like make waste heat from power plants.

Clearly we have a long way to go on the rejected energy front and should move on that as fast as possible.
 

Climate Security Wins a Round

| Thu Jul. 16, 2009 11:59 PM EDT

I would never have believed it, but... just hours after the National Research Council requested that hundreds of classified images of the Arctic be released for scientific study of climate changeas I reported yesterdayVoila!—the Interior Department did just that.

Seven hundred images of sea ice from half a dozen sites around the Arctic, plus 500 images from 22 sites in the US can now be viewed online.

Oh, and they're seriously gorgeous. If you have enough bandwidth to open them.

Reuters reports the Arctic images have a resolution of 1 meter, a vast improvement on available pictures with resolutions of 15 to 30 meters.

The higher definition pictures reveal small features with big impacts on warming—like dark melt pools on top of the ice that absorb light and heat. These images will vastly improve the accuracy of forecast modelling.

Scientists were expecting the request for the Arctic images to be declassified to take months—at least.

But apparently someone in Washington digs science and actually understands something about climate security and the perils of thin ice.
 

Climate Security vs. National Security

| Wed Jul. 15, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

So here's an interesting value test in the modern age. What's of greater importance—keeping secret our secret observations of other Arctic nations, or making available our secret observations in order to transform our understanding of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice?

The National Research Council asks that hundreds of images derived from classified data be immediately released and disseminated to the scientific community. The images provide otherwise unavailable data of melting and freezing processes associated with climate change.

As things stand now, our ability to project future Arctic ice cover is severely hampered by a dearth of data. Readily available satellite images generally suck because the data are low-res. Data collected from drifting manned stations are unreliable since ice stations fall apart before data collection is complete. Data collected from aircraft flights are low-yield and expensive. 

But the classified images that already exist could illuminate a bunch of important stuff:


Moreover, the National Research Council says the 2007-2008 images would greatly enhance intensive ground-based observations carried out during the Fourth International Polar Year. The 2007 summer sea-ice minimum was a record low—more than 20 percent below 2005's previous low and nearly 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average minimum. The release of the high-res imagery would enable a lot more investigation into those banner bad years.

In the 21st century, climate security is national security.
 

Welcome! 15 Baby Chinese Alligators

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 8:01 PM EDT

Very good news today from a place you might least expect it—the mouth of the Yangtze River: third longest river in the world, most economically important waterway in China, home to massive industrial development and the world’s largest hydroelectric dam.

Despite these obstacles, 15 critically endangered Chinese alligators—the most endangered of all crocodilians—hatched at the mouth of the Yangtze. They are the offspring of the first captive-born parents to successfully breed in the wild.

The hatchlings represent 10 years of work by the Wildlife Conservation Society and China's Department of Wildlife Conservation and Management of the State Forestry Administration, among others.

The efforts began after a 1999 survey of the only remaining wild home for Chinese alligators found fewer than 130 animals in a shrinking population.

Subsequently recommendations were made to reintroduce a group of captive-bred animals into the wild. Three alligators bred in China were released in 2003. A dozen more followed from North America, including some from the Bronx Zoo.

By 2008, three of the North American alligators released into the wild in China had successfully hibernated, paired up, and laid eggs... fueling hope the Chinese alligator might outswim extinction longer than the Three Gorges Dam—that killer (in part) of the near-extinct Yangtze river dolphin and destroyer of habitat of the critically endangered Siberian Crane. Short may this dam live.

But, hey, good job alligators and all those who are helping them.

 

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