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.

Does it Matter if BP Sleeps With UC Berkeley and Californians Fund Their Hotel Room?

| Thu Feb. 15, 2007 7:48 PM EST

Nature.com, website of the British science journal Nature, reports on growing concerns about oil-giant BP's $50-million energy research partnership with the University of California Berkeley. On February 1, BP announced it will fund a decade of alternative-energy research by Berkeley and its partners, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign —fueling worries about the affair.

Some fear that the pact — for which final details are still being worked out — could be a repeat of a controversial $25-million contract that the university entered into in 1998 with the biotech giant Novartis. That deal expired in 2003, amid criticism that the academic freedom of some university researchers had been compromised.

It's not uncommon for industry to fund academic research. It is unusual for funders to shack up with researchers—a cozy arrangement California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes to promote by asking the state for $40 million in bonds to pay for the Energy Biosciences Institute, where BP-funded researchers would work.

The building would house university professors and students, along with perhaps 50 industry scientists. Industry funds a lot of research on public and private university campuses, and it's fairly common for companies to have labs located near institutes where industry and academic researchers work together — as Intel and Yahoo do at Berkeley, for example. But it's rare for industry to house its scientists in public buildings on state university property.

The ménage-a-trois between government, industry and academia disturbs Berkeley entomologist Miguel Altieri, who fears the deal is another step in the

"rapid, unchecked and unprecedented global corporate alignment of the world's largest agribusiness, biotech, petroleum and automotive industries". He fears that for "a relatively small investment", BP can benefit from public resources and cash in on inventions developed with taxpayers' money.

More controversial still is the bidding non-war that led to Berkeley's win, says Nature.

The BP competition occurred alongside a volatile political campaign in California to create a $4-billion public research programme into alternative energy sources, funded via a severance tax on oil firms. Energy companies spent $108 million on advertisements against the measure, Proposition 87, on last November's ballot. Schwarzenegger refused to back Proposition 87, and critics are upset that, instead, he is supporting a deal that they see as enabling one of those energy companies to benefit from public facilities. Schwarzenegger argues that the BP deal fits California's plans for developing cleaner energy in an economical manner.

The losing bidders were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, San Diego; Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, UK. Imperial's rector Richard Sykes notes that his university had costed its bid so no public funds would be used. He says BP told Imperial that its bid wasn't economical. "We thought that was interesting," he comments.

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Dutch Lead Rearguard Action Against Sea Level Rise

| Tue Feb. 13, 2007 9:20 PM EST

The Associated Press via the International Herald Tribune reports that Dutch engineers are considering creating "breaker islands" off the country's North Sea coast as a possible defense against rising sea levels caused by global warming. Should we be following their lead?

More than two-thirds of the Netherlands' 16 million population lives below sea level, and Dutch policy makers are counting on a rise in sea level of around 80 centimeters (30 inches) in the coming century regardless of the ongoing scientific debate on the causes and likely impact of global warming. Bakker cited a strategy increasingly being used to strengthen the dunes that protect the country's coast: pumping sand into strategic offshore locations where currents in the North Sea sweep them into place, bulking up the dunes.

"This strategy is successful and relatively cheap" in addressing immediate needs to strengthen the country's water defenses, Bakker said. "We could use a similar more natural approach in strengthening our coastal defenses in the longer term. For example, by creating a series of small islands off the coast ... instead of raising the current dunes or dams."

That would help protect against storm surges such as the one in 1953 that drove water near the Dutch coast more than 4 meters (13 feet) above normal levels, breaching defenses and killing more than 1,800 people. That set off a massive 40-year building project that made the country's water defenses among the strongest in the world. But the country's undersecretary of Transportation Melanie Schultz said the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina was a "wake up call" that more work remains.

"We can't delude ourselves that natural disasters occur only in developing countries," she said.

So while we misspend billions on the wrong war for homeland security, the Dutch are engineering really good defense systems designed for the watery battlefront of the 21st century.

The Dutch government approved a new euro14 billion (US$18.5 billion) increase in spending on water defenses and water quality improvements over the next 20 years in December. That's on top of euro3 billion (US$4 billion) in extra projects already in the works this decade against the threat from river floods, as Dutch climate models predict global warming will lead to more abrupt showers in the Rhine catchment area, whose water ultimately funnels through the Netherlands on its way out to the sea.

The recent IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) reports the seas will rise for at least 1,000 years. We'll need a whole civilization of Hans Brinkers with stout fingers and, well, not ice skates… maybe Jetskis.

Quiet Your Legs, Gamble Your Lifesavings, New Drugs Do All This and More

| Tue Feb. 13, 2007 8:05 PM EST

A study from the Mayo Clinic says that a class of drugs used to treat restless leg syndrome has the bizarre side effect of turning regular folks into compulsive gamblers. (… note to Karl Rove: GWB's excuse?...) The modern world is strange, but no stranger than this: peddling a new drug for a syndrome no one's ever heard of and then creating a solution far worse than the problem.

Compulsive gambling with extreme losses -- in two cases, greater than $100,000 -- by people without a prior history of gambling problems has been linked to a class of drugs commonly used to treat the neurological disorder restless legs syndrome (RLS). A new Mayo Clinic study is the first to describe this compulsive gambling in RLS patients who are being treated with medications that stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain.

One patient, a woman seen in the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, had a five-year history of regular nighttime creeping-crawling sensations in her legs, accompanied by the strong urge to move her legs. Two and a half years prior to her Mayo Clinic visit, she had been diagnosed with RLS and treatment with pramipexole was begun.

Her symptoms improved, however, a problematic behavior developed soon after she started taking the medication. She developed an uncontrollable urge to gamble when visiting the nearby casino. As the dose increased, her gambling compulsion grew stronger. The transition of her therapy to another dopamine agonist, ropinirole, further increased her compulsion to gamble. Prior to her treatment for RLS, she had no history of gambling and viewed gamblers as "unfortunate individuals," the authors report. The patient lost more than $140,000 from gambling.

War Comes Home as Children of Deployed Military Suffer Stress

| Tue Feb. 13, 2007 7:44 PM EST

A study from the Medical College of Georgia tells a predictable yet neglected story, that the children of parents in the military during wartime have significant physical and mental health issues. Stress not only, well, stresses them, it also effectively ages them beyond their years.

Researchers looked at 121 adolescents – including 48 with civilian parents, 20 with a parent deployed to Iraq and 53 with a parent in the military but not deployed – days after Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in March 2003 and nearly three months later when President Bush announced major hostilities had ceased.

At both points, adolescent offspring of military personnel self-reported higher levels of stress and measures of blood pressure and heart rates supported that.

"We expected stress levels would push up blood pressure and heart rates," says Dr. Vernon Barnes, physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and principal author of a paper published in the January issue of Military Medicine.

Dr. Barnes and his colleagues used a posttraumatic stress disorder questionnaire developed by the military for personnel and modified for adolescents, a survey to assess psychosocial concerns such as sense of well-being and faith in government as well as more objective heart rate and blood pressure measures.

Not surprisingly, they found that particularly adolescents with deployed parents had higher rates than their classmates. Studies were done at the Academy of Richmond County, a high school in Augusta, Ga., attended by many children whose parents are stationed at Fort Gordon.

Casualties without boundaries.

Update on Sea Shepherd Pursuit of Japanese Whaling Ship

| Fri Feb. 9, 2007 6:24 PM EST

Pirate excitement continues during the long days of the austral summer in the stormy Southern Ocean. Sea Shepherd crews aboard the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter continue in hot pursuit of the Japanese factory whaling ship the Nisshin Maru. For a while disaster loomed, as two crewmen went adrift in a Zodiak chase boat crippled after its confrontation with the Japanese whaler.

The Zodiac inflatable carrying 2nd Officer Karl Neilsen, 29, of Australia, and Engineer John Gravois, 24, of the United States, fell back from the other Sea Shepherd ships after its fiberglass hull cracked and filled with water. The damage was caused when the inflatable struck the steel hull of the whaling vessel Nisshin Maru in heavy seas. The two were quickly lost as heavy fog, snow, and sleet conditions suddenly occurred.

Captain Paul Watson immediately put the Farley Mowat into a search grid and then issued a maritime distress call and was joined by the Sea Shepherd ship Robert Hunter. Because it was an official distress, the Japanese factory vessel was obligated to participate and joined in the search. The search lasted eight hours.

The crewmembers were found by the Farley Mowat; both were unharmed and slightly cold. They were spotted by Farley Mowat Quartermaster Jaime Brown of New Zealand. They were both wearing wetsuits under survival suits. Karl and John were glad to be rescued and were not suffering any ill effects.

Captain Paul Watson called the Nisshin Maru to thank them for their assistance in the search and then said, "We're all back on schedule." At this point, the two Sea Shepherd ships resumed their pursuit of the Japanese whaling fleet as conditions continue to worsen, and winds and swells increase.

Yet fair maritime play was soon followed by foul, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society says, as the Nisshin Maru claimed injury of two crew from the butyric acid attack. Not possible, swabbies, says Captain Watson.

"My crew did not injure anyone," said Captain Watson. "This is just a spin designed to get public sympathy for men who are themselves vicious and ruthless killers of whales."

The Japanese claim that two whalers were injured when six liters of butyric acid were tossed onto the flensing deck of the Nisshin Maru.

According to Japan's Fisheries Agency spokesman, Hideki Moronuki, the two Japanese crewmen sustained injuries from the attack after one was hit by an empty container of acid and the other had acid squirted in his eye.

"Nice try, but a total fabrication," said Captain Watson. "The butyric acid is contained in one-liter glass bottles, all of which broke upon contact with the flensing deck of the Nisshin Maru. These bottles are sealed and the acid released after being broke, so it is impossible to be hit by an empty bottle. Secondly, no one squirted butyric acid into anyone's eye, and even if they did, this is a simple non-toxic butter acid, basically rancid butter. It will not cause eye injury. If we had tossed marshmallows on the deck of the Nisshin Maru, I'm sure the whalers would try to claim they were injured by them"

Every minute the whaling fleet runs from the Sea Shepherd ships is a minute less spent hunting whales. And, no, the whalers won't just hunt longer or raise prices dockside in response because there isn't any market in Japan for whale meat anymore. Greenpeace describes how that other pirate whaling nation, Iceland, can't figure out what to do with its tons of whale meat it hoped to sell to Japan.

In Iceland we have discovered an unprecedented amount of the whale meat from the recent hunt has not been used. Even whaling captain Sigurður Njálsson has said the meat is unfit for domestic consumption. 200 tonnes of the meat is in storage with a further 179 tonnes of entrails buried at a landfill site. But despite demand for whale meat plummeting, Japan and Iceland continue to hunt whales. An icy landfill site has been used to dump a vast proportion of the fin whale remains. Underneath the snowy floor around 179 tonnes of bones and entrails have been left to rot. Around 200 tonnes of meat and blubber - a vast proportion of the total yield - are sitting elsewhere in storage waiting to be tested for chemical contamination.

"Iceland claims their commercial whaling is sustainable – but how can they justify it when they are hunting endangered species, without domestic demand, and an over-supply of whale products in Japan?" said Greenpeace Nordic Oceans campaigner, Frode Pleym. "Both Iceland and Japan continue to whale in the face of domestic and international opposition, even though there is no scientific, economic or environmental justification for it," added Pleym.

The Icelandic meat and blubber in storage is intended for export to Japan, despite the fact that Japan already has 4962 tonnes of whale meat stockpiled (as of October 2006) according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Last year, 5500 tons of whale meat was supplied to the Japanese market. This includes whale meat which does not get eaten and is simply thrown away because it didn't sell. Even if we generously assume all of the meat was in fact eaten, that is only about 46g of whale meat per person , as opposed to 5.6kg of beef, 12.1kg of pork, and 10.5kg of chicken.

"It is no surprise that there are massive stockpiles of whale meat, when a recent survey shows that 95 percent of Japanese people never or have rarely eaten whale meat. It is time for all governments to make a commitment to the whales and not an outdated, unwanted and pointless industry," said Greenpeace Japan's campaign director, Junichi Sato.

Talk about outlaw nations, axes of evil. Add Norway to the list and you've got a Triumvirate of Terror that Ahab would be proud of.

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