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.

Last 12 Months Hottest in Recorded US History

| Thu May 17, 2012 2:53 PM EDT

 Average national temperature records May 2011 to April 2012: NOAA/NCDC

Record average national temperatures from May 2011 to April 2012: NOAA/NCDC

 

The last 12 months were the hottest 12 months in US history since record-keeping began in 1895. This according to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center's latest State of the Climate report.

This historic heat broke the prior record set from November 1999 to October 2000 by 0.1°F.

 

Ten warmest 12-month periods in contiguous US since 1895: NOAA/NCDC.Ten warmest 12-month periods in contiguous US since 1895: NOAA/NCDC.

 

But what's really interesting is if you put this new record in context of the current trend. As you can see in the chart above, all 10 of the hottest 12-year periods have occurred since 1999. 

In the US, the 12 months between May 2011 and April 2012 ranked as:

  • the 2nd warmest summer on record
  • the 4th warmest winter on record
  • the warmest March on record
  • during this time 22 states saw record warmth
  • during this time 19 states saw top 10 hottest

 

Contiguous US temperature January-April 1895-2012: NOAA/NCDCContiguous US temperature January-April 1895-2012: NOAA/NCDC

 

The average temperature in the contiguous US from January to April 2012 was of 45.4°F—that's 5.4°F above the 20th-century average for that period. It shattered the prior record set in 2006 by a huge margin of 1.6°F. 

The chart above shows the hot first quarter of 2012 charted against the long-term average since 1895. Specifically:

  • The warming trend of 1.9°F per century is shown by the red line
  • The long-term average can be seen in the gray line
  • Actual temperatures from January to April 2012 are shown in the blue points/line
  • The green line is a 9-point binomial filter, which shows decadal-scale variations.

 

United States Drought Monitor as of 1 May  2012.: climate.govUnited States Drought Monitor as of 1 May 2012.: climate.gov

 

The gnarly partner to all this heat is drought. The US Drought Monitor (USDM) map above shows the state of drought in the lower 48 as of 1 May 2012. That's a lot of dry territory.

Drought is assessed on the D-scale (D0 to D4)—similar to the scale used for hurricanes and tornadoes—and designed to reflect the unusualness of a drought episode. D1 conditions (pale yellow) are expected to occur only ~10 to 20 percent of the time. Much-rarer D4 conditions are expected no more than every 50 years (darkest orange).

 Heat anomalies central and eastern tropical Pacific: NWS/Climate Prediction Center

Heat anomalies central and eastern equatorial Pacific in past 12 months: NWS/Climate Prediction Center

One mastermind behind these temperature and drought anomalies in the US is the state of sea surface temperatures in the top ~1,000 feet (300 meters) of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These reflect our current position in the El Niño/La Niña/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The strong La Niña that held sway for most of the last couple of years dissipated in April. The Climate Prediction Center forecasts a return to ENSO neutral conditions this summer—with a strong caveat that at least half the climate models predict a swing to El Niño.

But the ENSO pattern has been changing in recent years too (I wrote more about that here). So we really don't know what's in store, other than the likelihood—based on the trends—of more extremes and, with them, more costly weather and agricultural disasters.

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Human Languages Decline as Species Disappear

| Mon May 14, 2012 2:23 PM EDT

Quechua woman and  child, Peru: quinet via Wikimedia Commons

Quechua woman and child, Peru: quinet via Wikimedia Commons 

Biologists estimate annual loss of species at 1,000 times (or greater) of historic rates. Linguists predict that 50–90% of the world's languages will disappear by the end of this century.

A new paper in PNAS finds that 70 percent of the world's languages are found within Earth's most biologically diverse regions.

Earlier studies suggested there was probably a lot of overlap between areas of high biological diversity and areas of high linguistic diversity. But data were limited.

In the new study, the authors used recently compiled global data showing the geographic locations of more than 6,900 languages compiled for geographic information system (GIS) applications by Global Mapping International. They used the locations of biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas compiled by Conservation International.

Their findings:

  • The languages in biodiverse hotspots are frequently unique to their particular regions
  • Many of these endemic languages also face extinction

 

Biodiversity hotspots map: L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

Biodiversity hotspots map: L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

Geographic distribution of indigenous and nonmigrant languages in 2009: L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109Geographic distribution of indigenous and nonmigrant languages in 2009. (Click map for larger version):  L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

The researchers examined 35 biodiversity hotspots—locations with an exceptionally high number of endemic species, which have lost 70 percent or more of their habitat (top map, above). These hotspots comprise only 2.3 percent of the Earth's surface, yet contain more than half the world's vascular plants and 43 percent of its terrestrial vertebrate species. They also contain people speaking 3,202 languages—nearly half of all languages spoken on Earth (bottom map, above). 

"In the past, it was hard to get biologists to look at people," says Gorenflo. "That's really changed dramatically in the past few years. One thing that a lot of biologists and ecologists are now seeing is that people are part of these ecosystems."

The team also examined linguistic diversity in five high biodiversity wilderness areas—places whose remaining habitat covers ~6.1 percent of Earth's surface and contains about 17 percent of the vascular plants and 6 percent of the terrestrial vertebrate species. These biodiversity wilderness areas  are also home to people speaking another 1,622 languages. 

"In many cases it appears that conditions that wipe out species wipe out languages," says lead author Larry Gorenflo at Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture, and affiliated with Penn's Institutes of Energy and Environment. "I think it argues for concerted conservation efforts that are integrated and try to maintain biodiversity and cultural diversity."

From the paper:

Given the capacity of humans to dominate, and in many cases eradicate, other species on our planet, the importance of the relationship between people and the natural environments they inhabit cannot be overstated for biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, the opportunity to enlist speakers of particular languages in biodiversity conservation is rapidly disappearing as languages are lost at an alarming rate. Although linguists have attempted to identify languages in danger of disappearance, no system of language ranking in terms of risk can claim the broad attention and authority enjoyed by the IUCN Red List, the main means of evaluating the conditions of species.

 

 Kutia Kondh woman, Odisha, India: PICQ via Wikimedia Commons

Kutia Kondh woman, Odisha, India: PICQ via Wikimedia Commons

As for why the coexistence between areas with high concentrations of endangered species and endangered languages, the researchers aren't sure. But possibly because indigenous cultures, supported by their languages, create conditions optimum to maintaining species and keeping ecosystems intact and working. 

The open-access paper:

  • L. J. Gorenflo, Suzanne Romaine, Russell A. Mittermeier, and Kristen Walker-Painemilla. Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

 

Arctic Ocean is a Potent Methane Source Too

| Wed May 9, 2012 4:19 PM EDT

Arctic sea ice: NOAA

Arctic sea ice: NOAA 

We've known for a while that a melting Arctic is likely to be a big methane producer, and that methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Until recently we thought the primary sources of Arctic methane were from:

  1. Melting tundra
  2. Melting marine sediments (like gas hydrates)

Now a new paper in Nature Geoscience reports the Arctic Ocean is itself a source of atmospheric methane. Here's how this scientific riddle got cracked. From NASA's Earth Observatory:

During five research flights in 2009–10, [researchers] measured increased methane levels while flying at low altitudes north of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas... The methane level detected during the flights was about one-half percent higher than normal background levels.
But where was the methane coming from? The team detected no carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, which would have been a signature of methane coming from the human combustion of fuels. And based on the time of year, the location, and the nature of the emissions, it was unlikely that the methane was coming from high-latitude wetlands or geologic reservoirs.

 Thawing on East Siberian Arctic Shelf: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

Thawing on East Siberian Arctic Shelf: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation 

The researchers eventually pinpointed the source: the Arctic Ocean. But not just any part of the Arctic Ocean. From the paper:

"While the methane levels we detected weren't particularly large," says lead author Eric Kort, "the potential source region, the Arctic Ocean, is vast. So our finding could represent a noticeable new global source of methane."

We further show that high methane concentrations are restricted to areas over open leads and regions with fractional sea-ice cover. Based on the observed gradients in methane concentration, we estimate that sea–air fluxes amount to around 2 mg d−1 m−2, comparable to emissions seen on the Siberian shelf. We suggest that the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean represent a potentially important source of methane, which could prove sensitive to changes in sea-ice cover.

To put that into perspective, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is leaking an amount of methane comparable to all the methane from the rest of the world's oceans put together. In the schematic above, you can how its permafrost is highly porous, allowing methane stored under to burst through cracks into the atmosphere. 

According to the new research, now we're talking about a rapidly de-icing Arctic, with methane bursting through its ice cracks, capable of contributing hella big methane to the atmosphere. Talk about a tipping point.

No one's yet sure how the methane is produced, but lead author Eric Kort suspects biological productivity in Arctic surface waters may be the culprit. "It's possible that as large areas of sea ice melt and expose more ocean water," he says, "methane production may increase, leading to larger methane emissions."

 

 

The video condenses the rapid changes underway in the Arctic into two minutes (though prior to the new evidence on methane production from the Arctic Ocean).

The paper: 

  • E. A. Kort, et al. Atmospheric observations of Arctic Ocean methane emissions up to 82° north. Nature Geoscience. DOI:10.1038/ngeo1452 

 

A Better Tsunami Warning System?

| Tue May 8, 2012 5:40 PM EDT

 Research vessel Kilo Moana: NOAA

Research vessel Kilo Moana: NOAA

A new paper in Geophysical Research Letters outlines a better and cheaper way to detect and track tsunamis based on equipping ships in the commercial fleet with real-time-streamed GPS (Global Positioning System). 

Current tsunami detection systems primarily consist of seismic stations and tide-gauges on land, the DART buoy sea-floor pressure sensor system in the deep ocean (now only partially deployed globally and frequently inoperative), and real-time, land-based GPS networks. But what's needed to really save lives is GPS deployed on deep ocean platforms. The authors write:

A... broadly applicable deep-water GPS-buoy system... like the existing DART network, would be extremely costly to build and maintain, limiting the number of units that could be deployed, and thus requiring careful site selection based on our best estimate of the hazard... We suggest that the commercial shipping fleet, in contrast, represents a vast existing infrastructure with excellent spatial coverage across most of the globe that could be exploited to construct an extremely cost-effective tsunami detection network in the deep oceans.

 

Position of R/V Kilo Moana during 2010 Chile tsunami: James H. Foster, et al. GRL. 2012. DOI:10.1029/2012GL051367Position of R/V Kilo Moana during 2010 Chile tsunami: James H. Foster, et al. GRL. 2012. DOI:10.1029/2012GL051367

The authors got a chance to test the feasability of this approach when the M8.8 earthquake struck Chile in February 2010. At the time the University of Hawaii research vessel Kilo Moana (photo above) was underway on a passage from Hawaii to Guam (map above), cruising at 11 knots of speed and logging data from its dual onboard GPS. These recorded a modest ~ 4-inch-high wave (~10 centimeters)—the first ever shipboard detection of a tsunami. 

As for how to scale up from one ship to a network of tsunami-sensing ships, the authors suggest a template already exists in the Voluntary Observing Ship (VOS) Scheme, which trains merchant sailors to take weather observations at sea. The authors write:

It is estimated that 11% of the commercial fleet is contributing to the VOS scheme... VOS reports indicate that the north Pacific shipping lanes between Asia and N. America have, on average, more than 350 VOS ships crossing the dateline on any given day. Assuming an average transit of ten days, if each of the currently cooperating ships could be upgraded to provide GPS data streams we could expect at least 3,500 new tsunami sensing systems just in the N. Pacific.

 

 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Tahiland: David Rydevik via Wikimedia Commons

2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand: David Rydevik via Wikimedia Commons

The authors also calculate that a ship-based detection system would have detected in less than an hour the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which, undetected, killed upwards of 230,000 people in 14 countries.

The paper:

  • Foster, J. H., B. A. Brooks, D. Wang, G. S. Carter, and M. A. Merrifield (2012), Improving tsunami warning using commercial ships, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L09603, doi:10.1029/2012GL051367.

 

WTF Is Going on With Peru's Dolphins and Pelicans?

| Mon May 7, 2012 3:14 PM EDT

 Hardy Jones (kneeling) and Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos (right) with a dead dolphin on Peru's northern coast: Courtesy BlueVoice.org

Hardy Jones (kneeling) and Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos (right) with a dead dolphin on Peru's northern coast Courtesy BlueVoice.org

Something awful is happening in the waters off Peru's northern coast, where some 3,000 dolphins have died and washed ashore since January. This rates as one of the worst, if not the worst, Unusual Mortality Event (UME) ever recorded. 

(I've been writing about the UME with marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico since BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster here and here and here.)

In recent weeks more than 1,200 dead seabirds, mostly pelicans, have washed up along the same Peruvian beaches. And Saturday the government declared a health alert along Peru's northern coastline, urging residents and tourists to stay away from the beach while it investigates the unexplained deaths. It also warned local officials to wear protective gear when handling dead birds and animals.

So what's going on?

Credit: monkey sidekick via FlickrCredit: monkey sidekick via Flickr

My friend Hardy Jones of Bluevoice.org visited Peru in late March, where he joined a crew mustered by veterinarian Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos, the Lima-based director of the marine mammal rescue organization ORCA Peru. In one day they counted 615 dolphin carcasses scattered over 84 miles of coast before the high tide swept them off the beach.

Two species were hit: common dolphins (both genders, all ages) and Burmeister's porpoises (only females and calves). As Jones wrote at his blog, BlueVoice Views:

At 11am we packed into a four wheel drive Toyota pickup with a back seat cab and drove through San Jose to the beach, cranked a right turn and headed north at low tide on a beach that was mostly firm…Within a few hundred yards we began to see dead dolphins. In ones and twos, then Carlos saw a Burmeister's Porpoise. Some were highly decomposed while others were in the surfline freshly stranded. All were dead.

  

 

Yaipen Llanos performed beach necropsies and summarized his findings

Macroscopic findings include: hemorrhagic lesions in the middle including the acoustic chamber, fractures in the periotic bones, bubbles in blood filling liver and kidneys (animals were diving, so the main organs were congested), lesion in the lungs compatible with pulmonary emphysema, sponge-like liver. So far we have 12 periotic samples from different animals, all with different degree of fractures and 80% of them with fracture in the right periotic bones, compatible with acoustic impact and decompression syndrome…

At this point, the evidence points towards acoustic impact and decompression syndrome. However, the large aggregation of dolphins is leading towards a potential epidemic outbreak of morbillivirus, brucella or both. We have recorded morbillivirus in South American sea-lions and the Peruvian population of common dolphins is a migratory part of that at Costa Rica, so chances are high. Also, evidence of previous mass stranding of this magnitude was associated to morbillivirus outbreak in Europe during the 90's also in common dolphins and porpoises.

 

Schematic of a marine seismic survey: Credit: Nwhit via Wikimedia CommonsSchematic of a marine seismic survey Credit: Nwhit via Wikimedia Commons

The worry about acoustic impact injuries and accompanying decompression syndrome is that offshore seismic testing by the oil and gas industry may be killing dolphins. Houston's BPZ Energy has exclusive license contracts over 2.2 million acres in four blocks in northwest Peru, including offshore. They issued this statement on April 11, in which they don't actually say much:

BPZ Energy, an independent oil and gas exploration and production company, today issued clarifying comments as a result of recent inquiries received regarding its offshore seismic activity and its possible relation to reported dolphin deaths in Peru. The Company also reaffirmed its commitment to good corporate citizenship in all matters, including social, community and environmental affairs. BPZ Energy operations in Tumbes are located 500 km north of Lambayeque where dolphin deaths have been reported. 

It's possible the dolphins and pelicans have been killed by different problems. Take your pick: In the case of dolphins, acoustic impact or disease outbreak (though officials have recently denied morbillivirus); in the case of the pelicans, some suggest starvation. 

That's because a massive pelican die-off occurred in the same area in 1997, due to a strong El Niño event in the Pacific, when anchovies migrated away from the coast and birds starved. Except there's no El Niño underway just now, only the end of a La Niña event and a return to neutral ocean conditions, according to the Climate Prediction Center.

As with so many mass die-offs in the ocean, we may never know.

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