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.

Longest Odyssey

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 7:39 PM EDT

The Wildlife Conservation Society announced their researchers spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit in Alaska banded in Australia 8,000 miles away. We've known for a while these small birds make epic migrations (I wrote about godwits and what they have to teach us in Diet for a Warm Planet).

But it's still really rare to find a bird tagged on one end of its migration at the other end. They're usually spotted back where they were banded. The WCS researchers also found two other long-distance flyers, a Banded Dunlin and a Semipalmated Sandpiper, marked and released three years ago as part of a study testing whether birds overwintering in Asia carry H5N1 Avian Influenza to North America. The answer so far: No.

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Extinction Kills Whole Taxonomic Families

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 7:29 PM EDT

The BBC reports how whole "chunks of life" are lost in extinction events when related species vanish together. That's based on a new paper in Science analyzing the extinction rates of fossil marine bivalves (clams, oysters, mussels) from the past 200 million years.

Turns out that extinctions tend to cluster along evolutionary lineages, wiping out species with a common ancestor and eliminating entire branches of the evolutionary tree. One researcher called it a casino of extinctions with the odds rigged against certain groups. The same is happening to modern species. For instance, the same drivers—climatic change and habitat loss—are now threatening whole groups of seabirds. This new understanding could enable more effective conservation efforts faster.

DEET Is Neurotoxic

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 8:04 PM EDT

DEET, the stuff in insect repellants that actually works for more than 12 minutes, is toxic to the central nervous system.

DEET was thought to be just a behavior-modifying chemical. But it turns out it also inhibits a key central nervous system enzyme in both insects and mammals. The paper's in BMC Biology.

French researchers found that DEET inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme—the same mode of action used by organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. Translation: the really bad kind.

The researchers suggest more investigations are urgently needed to confirm or dismiss any potential neurotoxicity to humans—especially when DEET is used in combination with other neurotoxic insecticides. I think it often is.

DEET was created for the US Army in 1946 and is still the most common ingredient in bug juice preparations. Despite its widespread use, controversies remain concerning both the identification of its target sites at the molecular level and its mechanism of action in insects.

The official DEET site is not biting on this one.

Neither is the CDC. Yet. According to their fact sheet, 30 percent of Americans use DEET products yearly.

Personally, I've used gallons of this stuff over the years, working in malarial, mosquitoey places. Never felt good about it. The way it dissolves plastic is unnerving.
 

Greening a 1930s House

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 7:31 PM EDT

In modern day Nottingham, Robin Hood is robbing the future to pay for the past.

Last year a U of Nottingham crew of merry men and merry women built a 1930s house. Now they're going to retrofit it with three energy efficiency upgrades designed to convert it from unbelievable energy inefficiency into a zero carbon home meeting the UK's targets for all new housing by 2016.

The 1930s house is an icon of its age, complete with open fires, single glazed windows, inefficient gas or electric water heating, and no insulation. Three million were built in the UK and are still a major part of current housing stock.

The pimped out 1930s upgrade will bristle with more than 100 sensors to monitor energy use, temperature, and humidity, making it one of the most sophisticated research houses in the world.

During the next 2 weeks the old house will be enriched with modern tech: cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, draft proofing, double glazing, and energy-saving appliances and equipment.

In the end, the house will prove a test facility for measuring which of many energy efficiency upgrades are most cost effective.

In the meantime, U of Nottingham fellow Changhong Zhan and his family have been living in the old house, while researchers monitor their energy consumption and the building’s energy loss.


Apparently, it's been uncomfortable for the family without central heating. They've been dependant on inefficient electrical heaters. To save electricity and money, they've stayed in one room, normally the dining room, and subsequently shivered during sleep and showers. They've used hot-water bottles to keep warm and save electricity (hey, I like hot-water bottles). To stifle drafts, they've squeezed papers into gaps in windows and doors.

Sound familiar?

When the researchers tried to pressurize the house to find the areas of worst heat loss, they couldn't, because the house was too full of holes.

Millions of Britons live in similarly leaky homes, adding significantly to the third of CO2 emissions caused by housing in that country. 

Lots of American homes leak too. Where's our Robin Hood?
 

Online Happiness: Measure It, Get It

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 7:08 PM EDT

How happy are we? And how might we get happier?

First up: applied mathematicians Peter Dodds and Christopher Danforth of the U of Vermont Burlington are calculating how happy the Internet is by focusing on blog posts and song lyrics. They chose these two datasets because they're: 1) huge; and 2) more honest—or so they believe.

Dodds and Danforth analyzed sentences from 2.4 million blogs collected by wefeelfine.org, which searches blog worldwide for versions of the phrase "I feel," then records the whole sentence.

The researchers also downloaded more than a quarter million song lyrics from a searchable online database, then scanned for more than 1,000 emotionally charged words that a 1999 psychology study ranked on a scale from 1 (miserable) to 9 (ecstatic).

The good news: blogosphere happiness has increased some 4% since 2005, according to Dodds' and Danforth's upcoming paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The biggest recurring happy days are Christmas and Valentine's. The happiest day since 2005 was 4 November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president of the US.

The low points have been the 11 September anniversaries.

Second up: British psychologist Richard Wiseman is inviting the public to take part in an ambitious five-day online experiment (starting today) aimed at boosting happiness.

Participants rate their current mood before a random assignment to one of four groups—each of which watches a video describing one of four techniques commonly used to boost happiness. Particpants then follow the techniques and five days from now everyone reassesses their mood. The results will be announced 11 August.

Wiseman presents 10 techniques to help you get happier:

  • Meet up with a friend that you haven’t seen for a while
  • Watch a funny film or tv show
  • Exercise 30 minutes three times a week
  • Cut your tv viewing in half (but not the funny stuff?)
  • Buy experiences not goods: go to a concert, movie, unusual place, or strange restaurant.
  • Create novel challenges by starting a hobby, joining an organization, learning a skill
  • Go for a 20 minute walk in the sun
  • Spend 10 minutes listening to relaxing or uplifting music
  • Stroke a dog (cat?)
  • Stop watching and reading the news (even MoJo junkies?)
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