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.

Old DDT Migrating North

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 9:09 PM EST

Here's the trouble with emissions. They've got killer hangovers. Take DDT. Not only is it still with us, it's actually increasing in the western North Atlantic—despite 30 years of restrictions on its use.

A modelling study published in Geophysical Research Letters finds substantial quantities of the pesticide still being released from the World Ocean. And though most DDT use today occurs in the southern hemisphere, concentrations are growing in the northern hemisphere as the old stuff cycles between oceans and atmosphere.

In fact, this study's computer model, simulating DDT circulation between ocean and atmosphere from 1950 to 2002, suggests the regurgitation of old DDT from the ocean is now greater than from ongoing sources of DDT.

Plus the stuff's migrating north and has been since the 1960s. Says the paper:

"The sea region that has been representing the most significant (secondary) DDT source is the western N Atlantic (Gulf stream and N Atlantic Drift regions)."

More bad news for a heavily populated part of the world and all the marine life left in those once heavily populated waters.
 

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Antique Science Book Heaven

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 10:57 PM EST

The National Library of Medicine has just scanned six classic science and medicine books from the 15th and 16th centuries and posted them at Turning the Pages Online.

Check out Robert Hooke's Micrographia... or Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium... or the kinky dissections in Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

Each book is laden with gorgeous illustrations, many surprisingly accurate.

You can view each book as a book, turn the pages digitally, lean in and smell that heady perfume of vellum and binary code.

Plus there are audio files to listen to, and pop-up windows offering translations and interpretations. It's awesome.

Okay, I'll be back in a year or so. I've always wanted to read Johannes de Ketham's Fasiculo de Medicina in Latin.

Arctic Seabed Leaking Methane Fast

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 10:19 PM EST

A dramatic increase in methane gas is seeping from the Arctic seabed off Siberia. The BBC reports the evidence from measurements of carbon fluxes around the north of Russia.

Methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Worst of all, the latest research by Igor Semiletov (University of Alaska Fairbanks and head of the International Siberian Shelf Study) finds the shallow arctic shelves are shooting methane to the surface and the atmosphere without first getting sequestered in the ocean as dissolved CO2—as happens in deeper ocean waters.

Siberia's shallow seabed contains tons of frozen methane hydrates. But these waters are warming and the frozen methane is thawing. Last decade's highest-ever recorded temperature rise began to thaw some of the organic material frozen in underwater sediments, releasing methane into the sea, from there into air.

Higher concentrations of atmospheric methane are a global warming trigger, which in turn melts more permafrost (topside and underwater), creating a nasty, brutish, and potentially short positive feedback loop.

(I've blogged about the methane problem a bunch of times and wrote about it in depth in The Thirteenth Tipping Point, including the worst-case scenario of a tipping point being passed and suddenly dumping billions of tons of methane. We know this happened once before, resulting in the worst mass extinction in Earth's history.)

Combine this study with the National Snow and Ice Data Center report yesterday that December 2009 saw average air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean way higher than normal. Grim.
 

Twisted Science of 2009

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 10:32 PM EST

Those of us who love science particularly love its occasional embrace of weirdness. Conservation Maven has been kind enough to herd some of the oddest cats of last year into one pithy column commemorating perplexing moments in conservation science.

In keeping with the twisted spirit of the work, here's my remix of six of their top nine stories from the 2nd half of the year:

  1. The twisted duck penis: Male ducks have corkscrew-shaped penises. Females ducks have vaginas spiraling in the opposite direction. Proof that God doesn't exist? Or evidence that wily hens can physically control which males will actually fertilize their eggs?
  2. Robots evolve: According to some, God did not invent evolution. But Swiss scientists have. In the course of investigating the evolution of animal communication, researchers studied an arena of foraging robots. (First: weird context, right? Second: I did not know that the collective noun for robots was an arena of robots.) The robots emitted blue light and used floor sensors to locate food and avoid poison. Natural selection (tracked via artificial genomes) favored the robots who could suppress their blue light emissions to conceal information from competitors about food location. Wow. Proof that robots evolve into Republicans?
  3. Wrestling bighorns: Canadian scientists are tougher than others. Some decided to go mano-a-horno with bighorn sheep to determine individual personality types and see how that affected reproductive success. Do dominant sheep live longer? Researcher David Coltman described the dominantest sheep of them all: "We were filled with dread when one ram we nicknamed 'Psycho' turned up in a trap. Year in and year out Psycho's reaction was the same. He tried to kill us." Proof of sheep intelligence?
  4. AstroNewts: Austrian scientists describe a bizarre defense mechanism in the Spanish ribbed newt. Faced with predators, these little amphibs twist their body up to 65 degrees, popping their pointy ribs through their skin like retractable piercings, or built-in body armor. Turns out the Spanish ribbed newt has been studied in space on at least six missions. Proof of kinky astronauts?
  5. Fruit bats lick and suck more than mangoes: Short-nosed fruit bats indulge in oral sex. Both genders. Both ways. Whew. And I thought Eve invented that apple stuff.
  6. Bears dig minivans: Black bears know where to dig for the kind of junk food that keeps kids giddily sedated. Or else they know that minivan humans are seriously messy eaters. Either way, bears break into minivans more than any other vehicle in Yosemite National Park. So say wildlife biologists. But twist it a little further and... why not proof that minivan drivers can't read? Or that rugged conformists are deaf (to rangers)? Or they're hibernating at the wheel? Dumber than bears? Proof of a God Bear?
     

CO2 Graveyard Off New York

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 10:53 PM EST

Underground burial of globe-warming CO2 is of more interest than ever following Copenhagen's do-nothing outcome. And buried volcanic rocks along the heavily populated coasts of New York, New Jersey, New England, and points further south may prove the best reservoirs found so far in the US.

Sequestration is one of those scary gambles we may be led to by default in the absence of real leadership reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The problem of course is that any burp into the atmosphere of buried CO2  would prove enormously instantly lethal to people in the area. As happened naturally in Africa.

To be practicable, sequestration needs to happen near dense population centers and industrial emissions sites. Kind of a reverse NIMBY. More like, Only In My Back Yard.

Which means the eastern seaboard, for starters.

Prior east coast sequestration research focused on inland sites: shale under New York and sandstone under New Jersey. But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests basalt has significant advantages, and offshore basalt has even more advantages. Notably large areas off New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia, and South Carolina. Plus a small area under Sandy Hook Basin, opposite New York Harbor.

This is because CO2 injected into basalt undergoes natural chemical reactions that eventually transform it into a solid mineral like limestone. Plus basalts at sea are covered not only by water but by hundreds or even thousands of feet of sediment. CO2 pressurized into liquid would have to be placed at least 2,500 feet deep for natural pressure to keep it from reverting to a gas and potentially leaking back to the surface. And the sediments on top would form impermeable caps. In theory.

So if the process works on a large scale, the danger of leaks could be reduced. The scientists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory estimate the small Sandy Hook basin alone may be capable of containing close to a billion tons of CO2… the equivalent of 40-years worth of emissions from four 1-billion-watt coal-fired plants. The largest mass extends from inland to offshore of Georgia and South Carolina.

Sure hope these basalts prove graveyards only for CO2.
 

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