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.

Global Warming is Only One Symptom

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 2:31 PM EST

Finally the world is paying some attention to the IPCC reports. Finally there's a sort of awareness of global warming. May the global attention span stretch to meet the need.

But guess what? Climate change is only one symptom of a greater disease scientists call global environmental change (GEC). Global warming is the rash. GEC is the bubonic plague. The other symptoms are equally deadly and still barely recognized outside science. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) lists the following:

• Half of Earth's land surface is now domesticated for direct human use.

• 75 percent of the world's fisheries are fully or over-exploited .

• The composition of today's atmosphere is well outside the range of natural variability the Earth has maintained over the last 650,000 years.

• The Earth is now in the midst of its sixth great extinction event.

This blogger first interviewed James Hansen, the father of global climate change science, in 1985. That's right. Twenty-two years ago, Hansen was trotting out his climate graphics and talking about sea level rise and carbon dioxide. Well, we don't have another 22 years to address the rest of the list. Homo sapiens rip-van-winkleus needs an infusion of Red Bull and reality.

Kevin Noone, Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, notes that the IPCC work establishes a template for the other systemic problems:

The IPCC report, with its interdisciplinary approach to climate change, is a clear example of how the Earth needs to be considered as a coupled system in order to understand global environmental change… The study of the Earth as a system, looking not only at climate but also at changes in the oceans and on land, how those changes affect each other, and the role of humans as part of that system is a crucial approach to managing a sustainable planet.

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Terngate Results Suggest Criminal Charges Against Those Who Killed Seabirds in Southern California

| Wed Jan. 31, 2007 7:42 PM EST

Chased off California's beaches by hordes of Homo sapiens, terns—graceful seabirds with white bodies and flippety black crests—have resorted to nesting on barges. Last summer more than 500 baby terns, too young to fly, were massacred when someone washed them off the barges with high-pressure hoses. Two species, Caspian terns and elegant terns, lost their entire breeding season in the debacle. The Los Angeles Times reports:

State wildlife officials today said they have forwarded the results of a seven month investigation into the massacre of hundreds of young seabirds last summer to the Long Beach City attorney's office for criminal prosecution.

Only 23 birds survived in a case known as "terngate" among environmentalists who had grown frustrated with the length of the investigation and the failure of state and federal wildlife officials to preemptively prevent the loss of an entire breeding season of terns.

"This case required a lengthy investigation," California State Fish and Game Lt. Kent Smirl said. "But it's not going away. We've done an excellent investigation, one of the best this department has ever done in Long Beach."

Smirl, whose agency led the investigation that included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also said he expects charges to be filed by Long Beach city prosecutors. He declined to identify who could be charged.

"I'll be sitting in the courtroom when this case goes to trial," said Lisa Fimiani of the Audubon Society's Los Angeles chapter. "It's terrible to have to learn an important lesson in a lightning rod event like this. It tells us these birds were so desperate for nesting space they settled on barges."

The International Fund for Animal Welfare was offering a $10,000 reward for information on who was responsible for destroying the nesting colony of Caspian and Elegant terns.

This blogger once spent a 4-month breeding season living with elegant terns on an island off Mexico and I can tell you that no slacker with a high-pressure hose has ever worked as hard in a week as these birds work in a day raising their chicks. May they be sentenced in the afterlife to a hell of highwater without life jackets. Come to think of it, that's coming their way anyway with global warming.

New Cement Design May Someday Reduce Greenhouse Gasses by 5 to 10 Percent

| Wed Jan. 31, 2007 7:24 PM EST

A group of engineers at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on the nanostructure of concrete—the world's most widely used material. As they report In the January issue of the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids, the production of cement, the primary component of concrete, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions, and is an important contributor to global warming. An MIT press release sums up their work:

The team reports that the source of concrete's strength and durability lies in the organization of its nanoparticles. The discovery could one day lead to a major reduction in carbon dioxide emissions during manufacturing.

"If everything depends on the organizational structure of the nanoparticles that make up concrete, rather than on the material itself, we can conceivably replace it with a material that has concrete's other characteristics-strength, durability, mass availability and low cost-but does not release so much CO2 into the atmosphere during manufacture," said Franz-Josef Ulm, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Cement, the oldest engineered construction material, dating back to the Roman Empire, starts out as limestone and clay that are crushed to a powder and heated to a very high temperature (1500 degrees Celsius) in a kiln. At this high temperature, the mineral undergoes a transformation, storing energy in the powder. When the powder is mixed with water, the energy is released into chemical bonds to form the elementary building block of cement, calcium-silicate-hydrate (C-S-H). At the micro level, C-S-H acts as a glue to bind sand and gravel together to create concrete. Most of the carbon dioxide emissions in this manufacturing process result from heating the kiln to a temperature high enough to transfer energy into the powder.

The researchers hope to find or nanoengineer a different mineral to use in cement paste, one that doesn't require high temperatures during production, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by up to 10 percent. Now that would deserve a Nobel.

Princess Cruise Lines Pleads Guilty to Killing Humpback Whale

| Wed Jan. 31, 2007 6:45 PM EST

It's a first of its kind likely to get lost amid the current and overdue clamor on climate change, but it's important nonetheless. In the summer of 2001 a Princess Cruise Lines vessel, the Dawn Princess, ran into a pregnant female humpback whale in Glacier Bay, Alaska, killing the whale well-known to researchers as Whale #68, nicknamed Snow. Snow had summered in Glacier Bay for at least the past 25 years, enjoying the safety afforded her under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That is, until a skipper or mate on the bridge of the Dawn Princess broke the law. As The Morning Report, a compilation of daily incident reports from the National Park Service, describes:

On Monday, January 29th, Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision. The whale was identified from fluke markings as "Whale #68," which had been sighted many times in the past and was known to have frequented the area for at least 25 years. Pursuant to a plea agreement, Princess was sentenced to pay a $200,000 fine and to contribute $550,000 to the National Park Foundation as a form of community service. The funding will support marine mammal research in the park. In this first-of-its-kind prosecution, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice, along with special agents and investigators from the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, engaged in a thorough and detailed investigation, often with the assistance and cooperation of Princess. "As well as being a majestic and endangered species, the humpback whale is also a public symbol of Glacier Bay," said superintendent Tomie Lee. "Protection of these resources is of paramount importance to us. So when we began to hear witness reports of a cruise-ship colliding with a whale, then learned that this particular whale, whom researchers had first identified in 1975 and nicknamed 'Snow' because of her fluke markings, died of injuries consistent with a ship-strike, we began a dialogue with Princess and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and proceeded diligently with our investigation, so we could be sure to get things right. While these kinds of criminal convictions can result in a loss of federal contracts to service visitors in a national park, in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment. We are pleased that this incident is behind us and that they will continue to offer cruises in Glacier Bay." The unlawful taking (killing) of humpback whales is prohibited by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The "slow, safe speed" regulation, under which this case was charged, was implemented in 2001 to support the "anti-taking" provisions of the two laws. Thus, a knowing failure to maintain a "slow, safe speed" when near humpback whales constitutes a violation of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act and carries the identical penalties of the taking violation. Such conduct is a federal Class A misdemeanor violation of law, punishable (for a corporation) by a fine of up to $200,000, restitution in an amount to be determined by the court, and up to five years probation (a person who violates this law is also subject to imprisonment for up to one year).

Pharmaceutical Giant Novartis Challenges India's Patent Laws, Threatening Delivery of AIDS Drugs to Tens of Thousands

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 2:54 PM EST

The pharmaceutical industry once again stirs a witches' brew, reports New Scientist, challenging patent laws that have enabled India to supply AIDS drugs to poor patients worldwide.

India's generic drugs form the backbone of MSF's [Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders] AIDS programmes, in which 80,000 people in 30 countries receive treatment.

"We are reaching a quarter of the people who need antiretroviral treatment in sub-Saharan Africa," says Ivy Mwangi, an MSF doctor. "Rapid scale-up in treatment is only possible with the availability and affordability of generic drugs, most of which are produced in India."

But Swiss pharma-giant Novartis is whinging that financial hegemony is the only sure road to drug innovation, and that India should not be allowed to provide generics for people who can't pay $10,000 a year for its drugs.

"If Novartis gets through with its case our lives are at risk," Monique Wanjala, a woman who has been living with HIV for 13 years, told a news conference in Nairobi. "We want this case dropped," she said. "If we die because affordable generic drugs aren't available, where will they sell the drug? If profits are going to be put before peoples' lives then we have a serious problem."

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