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.

Scientists Say: Color Inside the Lines

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 5:31 PM EDT

Twenty-eight internationally renowned scientists propose setting global biophysical boundaries based on our scientific understanding of Earth's systems—defining a "safe planetary operating space" where we can thrive for generations to come.

Why? Because new approaches are needed to help us deal with climate change and other global environmental threats of the 21st century lest we fail more dismally than we already are.

The paper in Nature makes a first attempt to identify and quantify a set of nine planetary boundaries—including climate change, freshwater use, biological diversity, and aerosol loading.

Hat tip to Nature for making this article open access. Not to mention for consistently framing the big debates of our time and connecting the people to the science.

An important thread of this latest research is based in the global project known as IHOPE: the Integrated History and future Of People on Earth—a project designed to understand the interactions of environmental and human process over 10 to 100 millennia. That's because the rapid expansion of human activities since the industrial revolution has generated a global geophysical force equivalent to some of the great forces of nature.

"We are entering the Anthropocene, a new geological era in which our activities are threatening the earth's capacity to regulate itself," says coauthor Will Steffen of the Australian National University.

Fitting statement on a day when Sydney is smothering in a dust storm of Mad Maxian dimensions... I'd argue with the *entering* part of that statement—seeing this has been underway since the onset of agriculture.

Planetary boundaries is a way of thinking that will not replace politics, economics, or ethics, explains environmental historian Sverker Sörlin of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. "But it will help tell all of us where the dangerous limits are and therefore when it is ethically unfair to allow more emissions of dangerous substances, further reduction of biodiversity, or to continue the erosion of the resource base. It provides the ultimate guardrails that can help societies to take action politically, economically. Planetary boundaries should be seen both as signals of the need for caution and as an encouragement to innovation and new thinking of how to operate safely within these boundaries while at same time securing human well being for all."

Lead author Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, said: "The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical 'hard-wired' thresholds in Earth's environment, and respect the nature of the planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes. Transgressing planetary boundaries may be devastating for humanity, but if we respect them we have a bright future for centuries ahead."

In Swedish this means: Just color inside the lines, dammit.

The nine boundaries: climate change; ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone depletion; nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; global freshwater use; land system change; biodiversity loss; atmospheric aerosal loading; chemical pollution.

But what didn't even get an honorable mention? Human population growth. The toughest coloring book of all.

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Giddyup America: Hummer Drivers Claim Moral High Ground

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 8:02 PM EDT

Hummer drivers believe they're defending America's frontier lifestyle against anti-American critics.

You know, the suburban frontier.

We know that Hummers symbolize American greed and wastefulness to many. But to Hummer drivers they are the 4-wheeled Marlboro-Man galloping across the tarmac prairie, six-shooters drawn in defense of the distressed maiden, America.

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 20 (okay, small sample) American-born-and-raised Hummer owners and found they employ the ideology of American foundational myths like "rugged individual" and "boundless frontier." Shored up with these heady mythologies, Hummer owners construct themselves as moral protagonists: a bastion against anti-American criticism.

The study published in the Journal of Consumer Research is all part of broader research into anti-consumption sentiments expressed by people who oppose chains like Starbucks and shun consumerism. Hummers occupy the epicenter of this moral viewpoint, where rugged individualism is ruggedly expressed with the middle finger.

But in the course of researching the anti-Hummerites the team came upon the moral beliefs of the pro-Hummerites and found similar justifications coming from diametrically opposed viewpoints.

"Our analysis of the underlying American identity discourses revealed that being under siege by (moral) critics is an historically established feature of being an American," write the authors.

I too feel morally superior in my mass-produced moving vehicle with highish MPG driven by hundreds of thousands of likeminded rugged individualists.

Arctic Geese Skip Migration

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 6:38 PM EDT

Tens of thousands of geese known as brant aren't migrating south anymore. Seduced by warmer weather, they're choosing to overwinter in western Alaska instead.

Big change. Usually Brant stream south along the Pacific flyway each fall. They're a familiar site off the West Coast, long lines riding on tailwinds above the surfline at speeds over 60 mph.

Their destination is a series of shallow lagoons in Baja California, where California gray whales  breed, and where the birds feed on eelgrass.

But whereas once nearly the entire population of Pacific brant overwintered in Mexico and fewer than 3,000 were known to overwinter in Alaska, now 40,000 birds, or 30 percent of the population, are opting for Alaska instead.

The change coincides with a general warming of temperatures in the North Pacific and Bering Sea and its well-documented effect on the abundance and distribution of numerous marine species, including walleye pollock, Pacific cod, northern fur seals, and thick-billed murres.

The effects on species restricted to estuarine ecosystems had not been investigated. But David Ward of the USGS and lead author of the study appearing in Arctic has been investigating brants for 30 years.

The shift in migratory patterns appears related to changes in the availability and abundance of eelgrass. Coastal sea ice isn't forming or is less extensive, and so more nutrient-rich eelgrass is accessible to the geese year round. Ward and his coauthors suspect that Pacific brant numbers will continue to increase in Alaska during winter, given climate predictions.

But there's a big risk in this new scenario, and it was previewed in the winter of 1991-92, when mild temperatures were punctuated by an extended period of cold weather and the formation of extensive shoreline ice. This scenario could become more common as climatic variability increases. Nowadays, sudden, severe cold bouts would put more of the entire brant population at risk.

Changing winds are also affecting the migration of the geese. Traditionally the birds wait for a storm system to come down through the Aleutians so they can catch the tailwinds south. (I wrote about godwits doing the same thing in Diet For A Warm Planet.) But the storm track is changing and there are fewer days each fall with favorable tailwinds to assist the geese on their 3,000 mile-long migration to Mexico.

In other words, the brant may not be opting to stay so as much as they're grounded.

Ward and his colleagues found  the increase in the number of brant overwintering in Alaska was clearly linked to fewer number of days with favorable southward winds.

More Teen Births in Religious States

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 8:14 PM EDT

Whis is this not a surprise? The states with the strongest conservative religious beliefs also tend to have the highest rates of teen pregnancies and births. This according to a new paper forthcoming in Reproductive Health.

I posted a blog on a similar story a while back about religious teens having more abortions.

Live Science reports that this little piece of paradox is likely due to the fact that communities with high religiosity frown upon contraception as well as sex education. The combination is as good as a euphemism for pregnancy.

The top 10 states for conservative religious beliefs:

  1. Mississippi
  2. Alabama
  3. South Carolina
  4. Tennessee
  5. Louisiana
  6. Utah
  7. Arkansas
  8. North Carolina
  9. Kentucky
  10. Oklahoma

The top 10 states for teen births:

  1. Mississippi
  2. New Mexico
  3. Texas
  4. Arkansas
  5. Arizona
  6. Oklahoma
  7. Nevada
  8. Tennessee
  9. Kentucky
  10. Georgia

Researcher Joseph Strayhorn of Drexel University College of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh speculates: "We conjecture that religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself."

'Cause nobody can do that. Ask Bristol Palin.


Pinky the Cat Goes to Hawaii

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 7:34 PM EDT

I've been a fan of the Pinky Show since there's been a Pinky Show. The latest episode is one of my favorites at doing what Pinky does best: cute, subtle, and subversive. It's all about Pinky the cat's visit to Kaho'olawe, a tiny Hawaiian island once bombed to smithereens, now being lovingly restored to life.

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