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.

Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 3:31 PM EST
The Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight on Tuesday. It now reads 11:55 p.m.

Two years ago, when it appeared that world leaders might actually address the global threats around us, the BAS ratcheted the clock backward by a minute, to 11:54pm.

Now that petite burst of optimism has dissolved.


It's mostly about the global failure deal with climate change.

Specifically, according to the BAS:

"The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected."  
  • We're near the point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophic atmospheric changes
  • Unless we build alternative technologies in the next five years, we're doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification
  • Fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy and emissions for 40 to 50 years 
  • Russia, China, India, and South Korea will likely continue to construct nuclear power plants, enrich fuel, and shape the global nuclear power industry 
  • Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and others, are still intent on acquiring civilian nuclear reactors for electricity despite the Fukushima disaster

Better news on this front:

  • Solar and photovoltaic technologies are getting cheaper
  • Wind turbines are being adopted commercially
  • Energy conservation and efficiency are becoming accepted as sources for industrial production and residential use
  • Many of these developments are taking place at municipal and local levels:
"The political processes in place seem wholly inadequate to meet the challenges to human existence that we confront."

The BAS scientists note:

As we see it, the major challenge at the heart of humanity's survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, without exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons.


Credit: Savantpol via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Savantpol via Wikimedia Commons.

Other issues worrying the BAS include nuclear disarmament:

  • The path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not clear and leadership is failing

  • It's still possible for radical groups to acquire and use highly enriched uranium and plutonium to wreak havoc in nuclear attacks

  • Disagreements between the US and Russia about missile defense, and insufficient cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states is creating distrust that is leading nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals

  • Ambiguity about Iran's nuclear power program continues to be the most prominent problem

  • The potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and particularly in South Asia is alarming, and ongoing efforts to ease tensions, deal with extremism and terrorist acts, and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international relations have had only halting success  

Credit: World Nuclear Association via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: World Nuclear Association via Wikimedia Commons.

And the BAS is also concerned about nuclear energy:

  • The Fukushima disaster raised significant questions needing to be addressed
  • Safer nuclear reactor designs need to be developed and built, and more stringent oversight, training, and attention are needed to prevent future disasters
  • A major question: How can complex systems like nuclear power stations be made less susceptible to accidents and errors in judgment?


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Totally Drug-Resistant TB Emerges in India

| Mon Jan. 9, 2012 3:19 PM EST
X-ray of a patient with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis.

At least 12 patients in Mumbai, India, have been infected with a totally drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. One has died.

The Times of India reported on Saturday:

Tuberculosis, which kills around 1,000 people a day in India, has acquired a deadlier edge. A new entity-ominously called Totally Drug-Resistant TB (TDR-TB )-has been isolated in the fluid samples of 12 TB patients in the past three months alone at Hinduja Hospital at Mahim [in Mumbai]. The hospital's laboratory has been certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) to test TB patients for drug resistance. While Iran first reported TDR-TB cases three years ago, India seems to be only the second country to report this deadly form of the disease. TDR-TB is the result of the latest mutation of the bacilli after Multi-Drug-Resistant TB (MDR-TB ) and Extremely Drug-Resistant TB (XDR-TB ) were diagnosed earlier.

The Hindustan Times reports the new strain as:

[A] condition in which patients do not respond to any TB medication... The mortality rate for this strain of the infectious disease is 100%... The patients, including a 13-year-old girl were diagnosed in October. A 31-year-old woman from Dharavi died in November... Doctors treating these patients say the absolute resistance is a result of the patients being prescribed wrong antibiotics by unspecialised doctors.

Maryn McKenna at Wired writes that the news from India was first was published in a little-noticed letter to Clinical Infectious Diseases (CID) last month, and notes:

TB is already one of the world’s worth killers, up there with malaria and HIV/AIDS, accounting for 9.4 million cases and 1.7 million deaths in 2009... At the best of times, TB treatment is difficult, requiring at least 6 months of pill combinations that have unpleasant side effects and must be taken long after the patient begins to feel well. Because of the mismatch between treatment and symptoms, people often don’t take their full course of drugs.

The CID letter reports inadequate care provided to four of the 12 Indian patients, who saw as many as four different doctors, and at least three received partial, multiple courses of the wrong antibiotics:

A study that we conducted in Mumbai showed that only 5 of 106 private practitioners practicing in a crowded area called Dharavi could prescribe a correct prescription for a hypothetical patient with MDR tuberculosis. The majority of prescriptions were inappropriate and would only have served to further amplify resistance, converting MDR tuberculosis to XDR tuberculosis and TDR tuberculosis.

Worryingly, the first emergence of totally drug-resistant TB seen in 15 patients in Iran in 2009 included Afghani, Azerbaijani, and Iraqi immigrants, writes McKenna. Many health workers at the time assumed the total number of cases was higher than diagnosed, since there was (and is) little in the way of even basic medical care in those border areas. 

Worldwide, only two-thirds of countries with resistant TB have the labs to diagnose those strains, with only 10 percent of multi-drug-resistant TB patients receiving treatment, at cure rates as low as 25 percent. There's no cure for totally drug-resistant TB. 

Few hospitals in India can test for resistant TB and cases there might be more prevalent as well. 

Image-of-the-Week: Sweden's Green Veneer

| Fri Jan. 6, 2012 6:04 AM EST

Virgin spruce forest in Fulufjället National Park, Sweden.: Credit: Vilseskogen via Flickr.Virgin spruce forest in Fulufjället National Park, Sweden. Credit: Vilseskogen via Flickr.

Sweden is renowned for its beautiful boreal forests of spruce and pine—and for its sustainable environmental policies. But an article by photojournalist Erik Hoffner in Yale Environment 360 sheds light on its dark forestry practices. Surprisingly lax Swedish forestry laws leave many logging decisions to the appetites of timber companies, with 37 percent of forestry operations now prioritizing production over conservation. As a result, Sweden's forest is rapidly "younging," with nearly half its woodlands too immature to harvest. The latest trend is to log old diversity-rich forests in the Arctic north, where regeneration is glacially slow. "[T]he country's supposedly sustainable forestry practices are little more than a green veneer," writes Hoffner. "Large areas of forest, particularly the oldest tracts in the north, are being felled with little regard for the biodiversity they harbor."

Winter Arctic Update

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 2:13 PM EST

Icebergs around Cape York,Greenland. : Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Icebergs around Cape York, Greenland. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.The National Snow and Ice Data Center's (NSIDC) latest polar ice report is in and the big news is that this winter might be a lot different from last, even though we're still in the middle of a La Niña.

The reason is the appearance of a mostly positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO), which tends to produce less snow and warmer-than-average temperatures over the wintertime North America and Eastern Europe.

Daily Arctic Oscillation Index values from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, Sept 2011 to Jan 2012, showing relative pressure anomalies between polar and mid-latitude regions. :  Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA NWS Climate Prediction Center.Daily Arctic Oscillation Index values from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, Sept 2011 to Jan 2012, showing relative pressure anomalies between polar and mid-latitude regions. : Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA NWS Climate Prediction Center.

Last winter saw the opposite: tons of snow and really cold temps over much of North America and Europe and warmer-than-normal conditions over much of the Arctic. That's because a negative Arctic Oscillation took hold. I wrote about that here.

Arctic Oscillation: positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in mid-latitudes than in Arctic, leading to milder winter for US; negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over Arctic, pushing frigid, wet air into US.: Credit: NASA.Arctic Oscillation: positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in mid-latitudes than in Arctic, leading to milder winter for US; negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over Arctic, pushing frigid, wet air into US.: Credit: NASA.Technically, the Arctic Oscillation is a measure of atmospheric pressure variations at sea level north of 20N latitude. Where an Arctic high develops affects weather thousands of miles away.

Last year the so-called "Arctic fence" that keeps cold air penned up in the north broke down, allowing frigid air to spill south. So far that's not happening this winter. Though the AO is a fickle—not seasonal—phenomenon and can switch up at any time.

Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.5% per decade.: Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.5% per decade. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The NSIDC report points out that during a positive Arctic Oscillation, like now, thick sea ice tends to migrate through Fram Strait between Greenland and Iceland, leaving much of the Arctic with thinner ice that melts out more easily the following summer.

In the graph above you can see the precipitous decline of December Arctic sea ice—averaging -3.5 percent per decade since 1979—a trend that's stronger than the AO alone.

Arctic sea ice extent on 9 September 2011, the 2nd lowest extent on record.: Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.Arctic sea ice extent on 9 September 2011, the 2nd lowest extent on record.: Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

After last year's warm Arctic winter, the 2011 summer sea ice extent was the second lowest on record. (FYI, August sea ice is declining by 9.3 percent per decade... HT @Sustainable2050 for that stat.)

Which means we started this winter with a major deficit. And even though sea ice grew slightly faster than normal in December 2011, and even though temperatures in much of the Arctic were lower than normal in December, overall sea ice cover was still below average. In fact, the third lowest on record.

The five lowest December sea ice extents have all occurred in the past six years. Polar bear.: Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Polar bear swimming. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.

The positive feedback loop between less ice, open sea water, and escalating temperatures can be seen in the Atlantic side of the Arctic, in the Kara and Barents seas. Higher-than-average December temperatures there were at least partially a result of of dwindling sea ice, allowing more heat to escape from open sea water and further warm the atmosphere.

The eastern coast of Hudson Bay didn't freeze entirely until late December. Normally, it's completely frozen over by the beginning of December. That's a bad start to the winter for Hudson Bay polar bears.

Coming Back to Earth

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 3:49 PM EST

Time Lapse From Space - Literally. The Journey Home. from Fragile Oasis on Vimeo.

For all those finding the gravity of work kinda debilitating after the rarified air of the holidays...

Thu Jun. 27, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Tue May. 21, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Tue Apr. 16, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Fri Apr. 12, 2013 5:10 AM EDT
Fri Apr. 5, 2013 5:15 AM EDT
Fri Mar. 8, 2013 6:20 AM EST
Mon Feb. 11, 2013 6:02 AM EST
Thu Jan. 31, 2013 6:21 AM EST
Fri Jan. 18, 2013 4:37 PM EST
Fri Dec. 14, 2012 6:18 AM EST
Tue Nov. 27, 2012 6:13 AM EST
Thu Nov. 15, 2012 6:18 AM EST
Fri Nov. 9, 2012 6:03 AM EST
Tue Nov. 6, 2012 6:13 AM EST
Mon Oct. 22, 2012 2:18 PM EDT