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.

Mapping Disease to Climate

| Tue Apr. 17, 2012 11:37 AM PDT

 Sea-Surface Temperate (SST) (oceans) and Normalized Dirrerence Vegetation Index (NDVI) (land) observed globally for January 2007: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Sea Surface Temperature (SST) Anomaly color scale.Sea Surface Temperature (SST) Anomaly color scale.

Vegetation Anomaly percent color scale.Vegetation Anomaly percent color scale.

This map from the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio shows a snapshot of the relationship between environmental extremes and a deadly disease outbreak in Africa in January 2007. (Click here for larger image.) Specifically:

  1. Unusually high sea surface in the equatorial waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans (red)
  2. Which fueled persistent, heavy rains over East Africa
  3. Which caused an anomalous burst of plant growth in East Africa (magenta)
  4. Which created a perfect storm of conditions for the emergence of mosquitoes that spread Rift Valley fever

Rift Valley Fever is passed by mosquitoes from viral reservoirs in bats to livestock and people. The 2006-2007 Rift Valley Fever outbreak spread through Kenya and Somalia, killing 148 people and infecting many more, causing costly closures of livestock markets and costing the Kenyan government $2.5 million for vaccine deployment.

Click for larger image: NOAA/NCDCClick for larger image: NOAA/NCDC 

The cascade of factors that ended in the death of many emerged from the record-breaking climate extremes of 2007. The map above from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center shows a few of them. Click it for a larger image.

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BP's Corexit Oil Tar Sponged Up by Human Skin

| Tue Apr. 17, 2012 3:04 AM PDT
Corexit® dispersed oil residue accelerates the absorption of toxins into the skin. The results aren't visible under normal light (top), but the contamination into the skin appear as fluorescent spots under UV light (bottom).

The Surfrider Foundation has released its preliminary "State of the Beach" study for the Gulf of Mexico from BP's ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Sadly, things aren't getting cleaner faster, according to their results. The Corexit that BP used to "disperse" the oil now appears to be making it tougher for microbes to digest the oil. I wrote about this problem in depth in "The BP Cover-Up."

The persistence of Corexit mixed with crude oil has now weathered to tar, yet is traceable to BP's Deepwater Horizon brew through its chemical fingerprint. The mix creates a fluorescent signature visible under UV light. From the report:

The program uses newly developed UV light equipment to detect tar product and reveal where it is buried in many beach areas and also where it still remains on the surface in the shoreline plunge step area. The tar product samples are then analyzed…to determine which toxins may be present and at what concentrations. By returning to locations several times over the past year and analyzing samples, we've been able to determine that PAH concentrations in most locations are not degrading as hoped for and expected.

The report states: "Toxicology studies to determine effects of Corexit® dispersant on dermal absorption rates of carcinogenic PAHs through wet skin are needed to assess risk to human health and safety."

Worse, the toxins in this unholy mix of Corexit and crude actually penetrate wet skin faster than dry skin (photos above)—the author describes it as the equivalent of a built-in accelerant—though you'd never know it unless you happened to look under fluorescent light in the 370nm spectrum. The stuff can't be wiped off. It's absorbed into the skin. 

And it isn't going away. Other findings from monitoring sites between Waveland, Mississippi, and Cape San Blas, Florida over the past two years:

  1. The use of Corexit is inhibiting the microbial degradation of hydrocarbons in the crude oil and has enabled concentrations of the organic pollutants known as PAH to stay above levels considered carcinogenic by the NIH and OSHA.
  2. 26 of 32 sampling sites in Florida and Alabama had PAH concentrations exceeding safe limits. 
  3. Only three locations were found free of PAH contamination.
  4. Carcinogenic PAH compounds from the toxic tar are concentrating in surface layers of the beach and from there leaching into lower layers of beach sediment. This could potentially lead to contamination of groundwater sources. 

The full Surfrider Foundation report by James H. "Rip" Kirby III, of the University of South Florida is open-access online here.

 

Creepy Chernobyl Birdsong

| Thu Apr. 12, 2012 1:20 PM PDT
Young male barn swallow.

A new study in PLoS ONE finds that three decades after Chernobyl's nuclear disaster, things just get stranger and stranger. 

Between 2006 and 2009 the authors* of this study used mist nets to capture birds in Chernobyl's nasty zone. They found that age ratios were skewed towards yearlings birds—meaning older birds were dying—especially in the most contaminated areas.

Which implied that bird populations were only being maintained by immigration of young birds from uncontaminated areas nearby.

Equally alarming:

  • Higher rates of mortality in female birds led to a sex ratio strongly skewed towards males in the most contaminated areas.
  • These males then sang disproportionately more frequently, presumably because they had difficulty finding and acquiring mates.
  • The results were not caused by permanent emigration by females from the most contaminated areas.
Male birds caught in Chernobyl's ecological trap sing more often because there's hardly a female to be found. 

The authors write that their findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the adult survival rate of female birds is particularly susceptible to the effects of low-dose radiation, resulting in male skewed sex ratios at high levels of radiation:

Such skewed age ratios towards yearlings in contaminated areas are consistent with the hypothesis that an area exceeding 30,000 km2 [11,500 square miles] in Chernobyl's surroundings constitutes an ecological trap that causes dramatic excess mortality.

How creepy is that? Vibrant bird song as a sign of death and destruction.

Background radiation (mSv/h) in the Chernobyl region and location of study sites. Adapted from European Union.: Credit: Anders Pape Møller et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:doi:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0035223.g001Background radiation (mSv/h) in the Chernobyl region and location of study sites. Adapted from European Union: Credit: Anders Pape Møller et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0035223.

*I wrote about an earlier paper from members of this team regarding Fukushima's birds here .

The open-access paper:

  • Møller AP , Bonisoli-Alquati A , Rudolfsen G , Mousseau TA (2012) Elevated Mortality among Birds in Chernobyl as Judged from Skewed Age and Sex Ratios. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35223. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035223

Cuba's Mysterious Ultra-Deep-Water Oil Rig Surfaces

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 1:41 PM PDT

 Possible location of the Scarabeo-9 ultra-deep-water oil rig off Cuba: Satellite background NASA.

Possible location identified by SkyTruth of the Scarabeo-9 ultra-deep-water oil rig off Cuba: Satellite background courtesy NASA.

In February Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF began drilling its first well in Cuba's offshore oilfields in the Florida Straits. Swift currents run through this deep body of water connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic Ocean.

The US Geological Survey has estimated the site of this well, the North Cuba Basin, contains 5.5 billion barrels of petroleum liquids and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, almost all in the deep water. From Reuters

The newly built, high-tech rig is operating in 5,600 feet of water, or what the oil industry calls "ultra-deep water," in the Straits of Florida, which separate Cuba from its longtime ideological foe, the United States. Sources close to the project said such wells generally take about 60 days to complete. Repsol, which is operating the rig in a consortium with Norway's Statoil and ONGC Videsh, a unit of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp, has said it will take several months to determine the results of the exploration.The well is the first of at least three that will be drilled in Cuban waters with the Scarabeo 9, which was built in China and is owned by Saipem, a unit of Italian oil company Eni. 

 

Detail idenitified by SkyTruth from the Envisat AASAR satellite radar image of Florida Straits, 30 March 2012. "We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig.": Image courtesy European Space Agency.Detail identified by SkyTruth from a satellite radar image of the Florida Straits. "We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig:" Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Now SkyTruth believes they've located the site of the well and the Scarabeo-9 drilling rig in this European satellite image (above):

This Envisat ASAR image, shot at 11:43 pm local time on March 30, shows a trio of very bright spots about 17 miles north-northwest of Havana.  We think the largest of these spots, with an interesting cross-shaped "ringing" pattern often seen on radar images of big, boxy metal objects, is the Scarabeo-9 rig.  The other two spots may be crew vessels or work boats. The location marked in orange is a report we just got through the SkyTruth Alerts that a small possible oil slick was sighted nearby during a US Coast Guard overflight yesterday morning. We don't think this is anything alarming; it's probably just some of the typical oily crud you'll get from an active drilling operation at sea.

 

Dolphins jumping through oily water from BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, Gulf of Mexico, July 2010.: NOAA.Dolphins jumping through oily water from BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, Gulf of Mexico, July 2010: NOAA.

It's unnerving to think of the downsides of drilling so deep there's no hope of managing a spill without disastrous side-effects. It's unnerving to think of the long-term effects of such spills.

I recently wrote of the fate of the Gulf of Mexico's dolphins—particularly the slow and painful demise of the Barataria Bay, Louisiana, population—in the aftermath of BP's epic fustercluck.

Now NRDC highlights what we know so far about the ongoing unusual mortality event underway with dolphins in the Gulf:

  • The die-off has persisted for 25 months.  
  • The longest die-off prior to this lasted 17 months and was directly linked to a red tide.
  • More than 600 bottlenose dolphins have been stranded in the BP spill region since the disaster.
  • Roughly 95 percent of those have been found dead.
  • Animals whose bodies are recovered in a die-off are the tip of an iceberg, since only 1-in-50 to 1-in-250 marine mammals that die at sea are recovered on Gulf shores. 

So 600 dead bottlenose dolphins could scale up to between 30,000 and 250,000 dead marine mammals since BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout.

MAPS: March Was an Epically Weird Weather Month

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 12:25 PM PDT

 March 2012 temperatures: departure from average: NOAA National Climatic Data Center

March 2012 temperatures—departure from average: 

March was a whole new breed of insane for the record books according to NOAA's State of the Climate report for the month.

First up, the mega tornado outbreak early in the month spawned 2012's first billion-dollar disaster, as warmer-than-average conditions created a juicy environment for severe weather. There were 223 preliminary tornado reports in March, a month that averages 80 tornadoes. The majority occurred during the 2-3 March outbreak across the Ohio Valley and the Southeast. Forty people died and damages exceeded $1.5 billion.

Other March *highlights:*

  • It was the warmest March on record for the contiguous United States, a record that dates back to 1895.
  • The average temperature of 51.1 degrees F was 8.6 degrees F above the 20th century average for March and 0.5 degrees F warmer than the previous warmest March in 1910.
  • Of the more than 1,400 months that have passed since the U.S. record began, only one month, January 2006, saw a larger departure from its average temperature than March 2012.


Surface wind flow for 21 March 2012. Click for animation: NOAA.

Surface wind flow for 21 March 2012. Click for animation: NOAA. 

The March craziness was due to a persistent weather pattern that put a kink in the jet stream and kept cold away from the eastern two-thirds of the Lower 48. In the wind map above (click for amazing animation), you can see how this pattern formed a cut-off low: an atmospheric eddy, like an oxbow in a river, visible in the swirl of winds around Dallas.

Here's how Martin Hoerling of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory describes the results of that kinky pattern:

Nature's exuberant smashing of daily high temperature records in recent weeks can only be described as "Meteorological March Madness". Conditions more fitting of June than March prevailed east of the Rocky Mountains since the start of the month. The numbers are stunning. Take, for example, the nine consecutive record high temperatures in Chicago from 14-22 March, eight of which saw the mercury eclipse 80°F. For those unfamiliar with the area's climatology, high temperatures do not normally begin exceeding 80°F until after commencement of the Summer solstice. NOAA's National Climate Data Center reported that over 7000 daily record high temperatures were broken over the U.S. from 1 March thru 27 March. With beachgoers flocking to the balmy shores of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire this week, one wonders if a new normal is emerging for the preferred destination of Spring-break revelers.

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

The same pattern brought cooler-than-average conditions to the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Nevertheless:

  • Every state in the nation experienced a record warm daily temperature during March.
  • Preliminary data show 15,272 warm temperature records broken (7,755 daytime records, 7,517 nighttime records).
  • Hundreds of locations across the country broke their all-time March records.
  • There were an unbelievable 21 instances of nighttime temperatures being as warm, or warmer, than the existing record daytime temperature for that date.

 March precipitation departures (%) from 1981-2010 average: NOAA

March precipitation departures from 1981-2010 average: NOAA

It wasn't only about temperature either. Precipitation was anomalous throughout much of the country too, as you can see in the map above... really wet or really dry compared to the 1981-2010 average, with not a whole lot in between. 

In fact the entirety of the so-called cold season that spanned October 2011 to March 2012 was whack. According to NOAA's US Climate Extremes Index (USCEI)—which tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought, and tropical cyclones across the contiguous US—38 percent of the contiguous US racked up the second highest USCEI rank on record:

  • A record 100 percent of the Northeast and Upper Midwest regions were walloped by extremes in both warm maximum and warm minimum temperatures.  
  • Between 90 and 100 percent of the Ohio Valley and the Southeast experience record extreme temperatures between October 2011 and March 2102.
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