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.

Farewell Mike deGruy

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 3:29 PM EST

I was saddened to learn of the death of cinematographer Mike deGruy in a helicopter crash off Australia Saturday. He worked wonders with underwater film and video on nature documentaries for Nat Geo, the BBC, James Cameron, and many others.

Now and then I'd run into Mike at great wild places around the world... places where manatees overwintered or whales migrated or corals spawned. We were always part of different film crews. Yet he was unfailingly generous in sharing what he knew of the place or of his latest cool equipment. He was a fun storyteller too. You can watch his TED talk on octopus here.

I admired his adventurousness in trying novel ways to get out his message about the ocean world he loved. Here's a great clip from a little known 1992 BBC series using an unsual documentary approach back then: underwater talking heads. Mike's the guy in the bubble suit.



In this TEDx talk you can hear Mike talk about his heartbreak over the 2010 BP oil debacle. He was from Mobile, Alabama, and felt the assault on the Gulf's people and wildlife keenly. (BTW, the scars on his arm visible in this clip are from an epic attack by a gray reef shark in the Marshall Islands in 1978.)

The ocean was helped immeasurably by Mike deGruy's work and life... Fair winds and following seas, Mike.

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Chemotherapy Tweaks DNA of Mouse Offspring Too

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 3:58 PM EST

A new paper in PNAS reports that three common chemotherapy drugs destabilize DNA in mice enough to trigger new mutations long after exposure to the drugs has ceased—mutations which are then passed down to their untreated offspring.

A similar phenomenon has been observed in mice exposed to radiation.

Nature News reports on the original radiation findings:

[Co-author and geneticist Yuri] Dubrova and his colleagues were studying the effects of radiation when, purely by chance, they decided to look at mutation rates in the offspring of exposed mice. 'What we found was the biggest surprise of my life,' he says. The children had several times more mutations in their eggs and sperm than their radiation-treated parents. 'The genomes were unstable, and we still don't know why.'

The researchers surmised that chemotherapy drugs might trigger even stronger genetic effects, since chemotherapy is given systemically and radiation therapy isn't. So they investigated three common drugs—cyclophosphamide, mitomycin C and procarbazine—at mouse doses comparable to people doses, in the offspring of treated male mice. From the PNAS paper

After paternal exposure to any one of these three drugs, expanded simple tandem repeat mutation frequencies were significantly elevated in the germ line (sperm) and bone marrow of their offspring. This... was attributed to elevated mutation rates at the alleles derived from both the exposed fathers and from the nonexposed mothers, thus implying a genome-wide destabilization.

DNA mutations tend to accumulate in the genomes of offspring mice more than in their parents.

The researchers caution:

Our data also raise important issues concerning delayed transgenerational effects in the children of survivors of anticancer therapy.

Although Nature News points out that mice only live two years and so pass on their damaged DNA before there's much time for internal repair, whereas most humans treated for cancer are post-reproductive adults or adults made sterile by treatment:

'So we're talking about one group only: childhood cancer survivors,' says Dubrova. One recent study found no significant impact of radiation or chemotherapy on the rate of birth defects in 4,699 children of childhood cancer survivors.


Image-of-the-Week: Chile's Antarctic Superbug

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 5:07 PM EST

Escherichia coli: Mattosaurus via Wikimedia Commons.

Escherichia coli: Mattosaurus via Wikimedia Commons. 

Escherichia coli bacteria are ubiquitous in the lower gut of warm-blooded critters, and because we're warm-blooded and more or less ubiquitous on planet Earth, so are E. coli. While many strains are harmless, others are deadly. A new paper in Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports that one-fourth of seawater samples collected off Antarctica now contain E. coli that  carry genes to make the enzyme ESBL. This enzyme is known to destroy antibiotics and is potentially more dangerous than the superbug MRSA. The contaminated seawater samples were found off three Chilean research stations, none of which deploy any form of sewage treatment. So far none of these superbug E. coli have been found in penguins. The researchers are beginning to investigate the local gulls. WTF, Chile? Clean your mierda.

Long Overdue Plant Hardiness Map is a Hothouse

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:53 PM EST

 2012 plant hardiness zone map: USDA and Oregon State University

2012 plant hardiness zone map. Click for interactive image: USDA and Oregon State University

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a long overdue new version of their Plant Hardiness Zone Map yesterday—the first update since 1990.

How out of date was the 1990 map? It was based on data from 1974 to 1986. That's 26 years ago. 

The new map is interactive, which is cool, and based on a much finer data scale than the old one, which is great. And guess what. It shows that things are getting warmer. The USDA managed to pretty much bury that fact in Bureaucratese in their press release (highlights are mine):

Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period; the new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.


1990 USDA plant hardiness: USDA1990 USDA plant hardiness: USDA

In the 1990 map above you can see the scale is less fine. But you can also tell at a glance where things have changed in a big way, compared to the 2012 map... in the southern Rockies, southern Appalachians, upper Michigan, swathes of the Canadian and Mexican borders, coastal California, etc.

The 2012 map comes with its own interesting climate-phobic history, as noted by Cornell University's gardening.cornell.edu

In 2003 the American Horticultural Society released a draft version of a new map based on data from 1986 to 2002, which showed dramatic northward movement of hardiness zones. USDA pulled this map from circulation and had said they would release an updated map in 2005. Instead, in 2006 the Arbor Day Foundation issued a map noting that indeed climate zones had shifted significantly from 1990 to 2006, implying that the climate was warming. The map released today by USDA confirms many of these trends.


2006 USDA plant hardiness map: USDA2006 Arbor Day plant hardiness map: Arbor Day Foundation


Here's the 2006 Arbor Day Foundation map, using the same scale as the 1990 map. You can see how things have warmed and how the planting zones are shifting north. If you parse this map against the finer-scale of the 2012 map, they look pretty much the same. 

Solar Storms Ramping Up

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 4:20 PM EST

 Solar flares minutes apart on 23 January: NASA images courtesy Solar Dynamics Observatory

Solar flares on 23 January 2012: NASA images courtesy Solar Dynamics Observatory.

After the quietest solar activity in a century, our star is flaring up towards a predicted solar maximum in February 2013.

The photos above, taken only minutes part yesterday, show a flare of superheated and magnetically supercharged gas. In the third image (right), taken 45 minutes after the first (left), you can see the coronal mass ejection of a stream of solar plasma flowing into space towards Earth.

From NASA's Earth Observatory page: 

The high-latitude solar flare was measured as M8.7 in intensity, just below the most intense “X class” of flares. The eruption sent a stream of fast-moving, highly energetic protons toward Earth, provoking the most intense solar energetic particle storm—an S3 on NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center’s scale—since 2005.

 Northern light over Lappland, Sweden: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern light over Lapland, Sweden: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer via Wikimedia Commons.

All that fiery activity on the Sun translates into the most Earth's most ethereal light show. In 1859 the largest solar superstorm in recorded history, the Carrington Super Flare, gave an unbelievable worldwide performance. From Wikipedia:

On September 1–2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, most notably over the Caribbean; also noteworthy were those over the Rocky Mountains;that were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. According to professor Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado' Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, "people in the northeastern US could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora."

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can disrupt radio signals and electronics and satellite transmissions.

But it gets weirder than that. Given exactly the right circumstances, they can facilitate enough geomagnetically induced current from the electromagnetic field to allow telegraph transmissions even when the power is switched off.

This conversation was between telegraph operators in Boston and Portland, Maine on the superstorm night of 2 September 1859. From Wikipedia:

Boston operator (to Portland operator): "Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes."
Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually."
Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."
Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"
Boston: "Yes. Go ahead."

This plot shows the current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from measurements taken during the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite: NOAA.Here's where you might see an aurora. Current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite: NOAA.

The current solar maximum is not expected to be anywhere near as strong as the Carrington Super Flare, a 1-in-500-year superstorm. However it's already causing disruptions. Delta Airlines announced today that it's rerouted polar flights between Detroit and Asia. From Reuters:

"We are undergoing a series of solar bursts in the sky that are impacting the northern side of the world," said Delta spokesman Anthony Black on Tuesday. "It can impact your ability to communicate... So, basically, the polar routes are being flown further south than normal."

For those not fortunate enough to live in the high latitudes to witness aurorae for themselves, there are now loads of great video timeplapses online. This one has some particularly cool looking ribbon aurorae. 

 AURORA ISLANDICA - a Northern Lights Timelapse from Agust Ingvarsson on Vimeo.

And here's a dry but informative video explainer, if you're wondering exactly how it works. 

 The Aurora Borealis from Per Byhring on Vimeo.


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