2011 - %3, August

The Fate of the Last Great Wilderness

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 6:10 PM EDT

A sea whip found deep on the slope of the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007.A sea whip found deep on the slope of the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007.

 

The next chapter in our thinking about the oceans is analyzed in a new paper in PLoS ONE. The deep sea—largest of Earth's ecosystems and its last great wilderness—has been spared much of what's befallen the rest of the ocean in the last century, thanks to its remoteness. But not any more.

Technology is rapidly undressing this veiled realm, allowing us to exploit its fisheries, hydrocarbons, and minerals at depths below 2,000 meters/6,562 feet. The authors write: 

[T]he challenges facing the deep sea are large and accelerating, providing a new imperative for the science community, industry and national and international organizations to work together to develop successful exploitation management and conservation of the deep-sea ecosystem.

 
Anemone attached to a carbonate boulder at 1,500 meters/4,921 feet depth in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.Anemone attached to a carbonate boulder at 1,500 meters/4,921 feet depth in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.

The paper represents the combined thinking of 11 researchers from around the world—Spain, UK, Norway, New Zealand, Mexico, US, and France—including some of the biggest names in deep-sea research. Coauthor Lisa Levin, recently made the Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was featured in my biodiversity article in MoJo, Gone.

Based on their own extensive experience, combined with published scientific papers, the authors provide a semi-quantitative analysis of the scale of of human activities past, present, and future.

Synergies among anthropogenic impacts on deep-sea habitats. The lines link impacts that, when found together, have a synergistic effect on habitats or faunal communities. Credit: Ramirez-Llodra E, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0022588Synergies among anthropogenic impacts on deep-sea habitats. The lines link impacts that, when found together, have a synergistic effect on habitats or faunal communities. Credit: Ramirez-Llodra E, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0022588

They assessed 28 major anthropogenic impacts (above), grouped into 3 main categories—disposal, exploitation, and climate change. They then examined those effects on 12 deep-sea habitats (below). I've added links to explanations of the terms:

  • Mid-ocean ridges, characterized by benthic sessile fauna and localised demersal and pelagic communities.

  • Sedimentary slope (excluding other specific communities found on slopes such as cold-water corals, seeps, oxygen minimum zones), characterized by demersal fauna as well as epifaunal and infaunal benthos

  • Canyons, with a high degree of habitat heterogeneity and diverse fauna varying with substratum: sessile benthos and demersal fauna characterize hard bottoms, while mobile epifauna, infauna and demersal fauna abound in association with soft sediments.

  • Seamounts, characterized by sessile benthos and abundant localised pelagic communities.

  • Cold-water coral habitats, including the frame building corals and associated species.

  • Active hydrothermal vents, characterized by benthic fauna with a high degree of endemicity.

  • Cold seeps, characterized by benthic fauna with a relatively high degree of endemicity

  • Oxygen minimum zones abutting margins, characterized by specialized benthic fauna.

  • Abyssal plains, characterized by mobile epifauna and infauna.

  • Manganese-nodule provinces, specific habitat on abyssal plains, characterized by sessile and mobile epifauna and infauna.

  • Trenches, characterized by demersal megafauna and infauna.

  • Bathypelagic water column, characterized by mid-water species.

 

Deepwater Horizon oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010. (Top) photo of the oil being discharged in the water column; (Bottom) a coral in the deep Gulf of Mexico, with attached ophiuroid, covered with oil. Credit: Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE.Deepwater Horizon oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010. (Top) photo of the oil being discharged in the water column; (Bottom) a coral in the deep Gulf of Mexico, with attached ophiuroid, covered with oil. Credit: Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE.

The authors conclude that a sea-change is underway:

Based on the current knowledge available in the scientific community and expert estimates, we suggest that the overall anthropogenic impact in the deep sea is increasing, and has evolved from mainly disposal and dumping in the late 20th century, to exploitation in the early 21st century... During the remainder of the current century, we predict that the major impact in the deep sea will be climate change, affecting the oceans globally through direct effects on the habitat and fauna as well as through synergies with other human activities.

 

Unexploded ordinance on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.Unexploded ordinance on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.

The deep-sea habitats most affected at present are:

  1. Sediment slopes, mainly affected by fishing—trawling, longlining, and ghost fishing caused by lost or discarded gear
  2. Cold-water corals, which are especially vulnerable to damage from fishing gear that can destroy whole communities
  3. Canyons, mainly affected by fishing 
  4. Oxygen-minimum zones, most threatened by by climate change and significant increases in hypoxia. 

 

Macro image of tiny octocorals at 1,500meters/4,921 feet in the Gulf of Mexico depth. Credit: Courtesy of Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.Macro image of tiny octocorals at 1,500meters/4,921 feet in the Gulf of Mexico depth. Credit: Courtesy of Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.

They paper provides a valuable summary of protected deep-sea habits worldwide. And it describes the biggest hurdle in the life-cycle of any protected ocean area—the ability of slow-funded science to keep up with the big money of industry and development. Add bureaucratic foot-dragging into the mix and the race to protect the real value of the deep becomes even more lopsided.  

They authors close with a call to arms, suggesting that human encroachment into the deep sea creates a new conservation imperative... and that effective stewardship will require continued exploration, basic scientific research, monitoring, and conservation measures—all at the same time.

Conservation in the deep sea offers challenges in the form of knowledge gaps, climate change uncertainties, shifting jurisdictions and significant enforcement difficulties. With time, technological advances can help address these challenges. It remains to be seen whether new approaches must be developed to conserve the biodiversity and ecosystem services we value in the deepest half of the planet.

 

Credit: wrobell at Wikimedia Commons.Credit: wrobell at Wikimedia Commons.

The paper:

  • Ramirez-Llodra E, Tyler PA, Baker MC, Bergstad OA, Clark MR, et al. (2011) Man and the Last Great Wilderness: Human Impact on the Deep Sea. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22588. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022588
 
 Cross-posted from Deep Blue Home.

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What the Markets are Really Worried About

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 5:54 PM EDT

When European leaders announced their latest deal to save Greece a couple of weeks ago, I was pretty unimpressed: "It demonstrates yet again," I said, "that European leaders simply aren't willing or able to deal with the eurozone's problems, and probably won't be until something genuinely catastrophic happens." But after I wrote that I read a few summaries of the deal that made it sound a little better than I had thought, so I calmed down a bit. Within a few days, though, Italian and Spanish interest rates started gapping out, suggesting that financial markets considered the plan almost completely worthless. And apparently they still do:

Spanish and Italian politicians rushed to formulate a fresh response to the debt crisis engulfing their two countries as their borrowing costs hit new euro-era highs on Tuesday....The flurry of activity came against the backdrop of another big sell-off in markets. Yields on benchmark 10-year Spanish and Italian bonds peaked at 6.45 per cent and 6.25 per cent, respectively. The premiums Madrid and Rome pay to borrow over Germany also reached new euro-era highs of 404 and 384 basis points.

....Analysts said it was difficult to see what could stop Spanish and Italian rates continuing to climb, particularly in light summer trading. “What can be announced to really break that? It is difficult to see,” said Laurent Fransolet, head of European fixed income research at Barclays Capital.

It's easy to say that Italy's problems are, objectively, not that bad. Sure, their total debt is high, but their current budget is under control and their debt has a pretty long average maturity. But that hardly matters. Not only are they in trouble, but they're in a vicious circle. Because they're in trouble their rates are going up, and as their rates go up they'll be in ever greater trouble. Rinse and repeat. Ditto for Spain. And both countries are far too large for financial markets to be bought off with anything less than a truly gargantuan intervention: Spain is four times the size of Greece and Italy is five times its size.

But what are the odds of a gargantuan intervention? Not very good. It's no wonder that stock markets around the world have been dropping for a week, and continued to drop even after the U.S. debt ceiling deal was announced. For reasons both good and bad, the markets were never all that worried about the debt ceiling. But they are worried about the eurozone, whose problems are far, far more complex and intractable than ours. Our problems, after all, are at least conceptually not too hard to address: cut discretionary spending a bit and let the Bush tax cuts expire in the medium term, and get serious about healthcare expenditures in the long term. And despite what tea party Republicans would like you to believe, we have plenty of taxing headroom to address healthcare funding in the future if we need it.

Nothing so easy is available to Europe. They need to commit to monster bailouts in the short term, something that's politically nearly impossible. And they need to either break up the eurozone or commit to much closer fiscal union in the medium term, something that's equally inconceivable. And yet, it's either that or disaster. No wonder the markets are worried.

Kyl: Debt Deal Equals "Knowing Destruction of US Military"

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 4:18 PM EDT

I had literally just hit "publish" on a post titled "Why the Debt Deal Won't Hurt the Pentagon" when conservative Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) said this of the bill on the Senate floor:

Can you imagine anything more irresponsible than for the commander in chief of the military to promote, not just promote, but insist on the knowing destruction of the U.S. military as a means to threaten Congress?...We will need to work very hard to restore spending necessary for our national security and commit to reject the threat of Armageddon inserted into this bill by the White House.

Funny thing is, Kyl voted for this Armageddon-arousing piece of hell-borne legislation. He's the second GOP defense hawk in as many days to predict the Obama administration will get us all killed...and then vote "aye" on said Obama administration's plan.

John Kyl: He was for Armageddon before he was against it.

Why the Public is OK With Spending Cuts

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 3:19 PM EDT

Greg Sargent points out today that most of the public is on the side of Republicans when it comes to the budget cuts in the debt ceiling deal:

Sixty five percent approve of deal’s spending cuts. But it gets worse. Of the 30 percent who disapprove, 13 percent think the cuts haven’t gotten far enough, and only 15 percent think the cuts go too far. One sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the deal.

Well, hell, I'm not sure I blame them. The debt ceiling deal doesn't specify where the cuts are going to come from, it just sets a cap on discretionary spending over the next decade. And although the cap does make cuts compared to our current spending levels — which have ballooned partly because of George Bush's first-term spending spree and partly because of the Great Recession — compared to 2000 spending levels, it's hardly draconian. Using the numbers in the text of the law for spending levels, and making some reasonable assumptions about future inflation (2% per year) and future population growth (1% growth per year), my back-of-the-envelope calculation puts real per-capita discretionary spending at the following very rough levels:

  • 2000: $2,350 per year
  • 2021: $2,650 per year

(These are in 2005 dollars because that's what BEA uses.) Given our fragile economy, I think it's crazy to be talking about any spending cuts in the next couple of years. Looking farther out, though, it's hard to get too outraged over discretionary caps that still leave spending at a substantially higher level than we had in 2000. Maybe that's why the public is OK with all this.

(The follow-on cuts, which are supposed to come from the Supercommittee in November, would reduce these numbers further. At that point you might start to see real per-capita cuts. But we'll have to wait and see how that all works out.)

Why the Debt Deal Won't Hurt the Pentagon

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 2:34 PM EDT

Will the just-passed debt-ceiling deal put the United States on a path to national security ruin? That's what defense hawks are saying. "Our senior military commanders have been unanimous in their concerns that deeper cuts could break the force," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said yesterday, predicting that the proposal would "turn a debt crisis into a national security crisis." Tom Donnelly, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, ominously told the USA Today that the Pentagon cuts embedded in the compromise wouldn't call for "long knives so much as chain saws." And Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday that President Obama had used the debt bill to "not just promote, but insist on the knowing destruction of the US military." He added, "We will need to work very hard to restore spending necessary for our national security and commit to reject the threat of Armageddon inserted into this bill by the White House." (McKeon and Kyl voted for the plan nonetheless.)

Yet the Department of Defense might make out surprisingly well in the deal. It's long been prepared for deep cuts and has already started focusing on doing more with less. But it may not even come to that: Its congressional allies will have plenty of time to water down any potential reductions. According an assessment by Winslow Wheeler, director of the Center for Defense Information, "The debt deal kicks the defense budget can down the road for this and future Congresses."

Gambling on Armageddon: Final Results

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 1:22 PM EDT

The Senate just approved the debt ceiling deal and President Obama will sign it later today. That means it's time to declare a winner from last month's pool. The three items you had to guess were:

  • When will an agreement be reached?
  • How much will the debt ceiling be increased?
  • Will there be any revenue increases in the deal? How much?

My guesses were August 7, $1.7 trillion, and $200 billion. Not too bad! The correct answer is slightly variable, but assuming that (a) Congress fails to approve a balanced budget amendment and (b) Obama asks for the maximum increase he's allowed to, the deal raises the debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion. So the winning combination is August 2, $2.1 trillion, and zero.

So who won? Here are the closest guesses:

  • shooter242: August 2, $1 trillion, zero.
  • Model62: August 2, $2 trillion, a little bit via COLA adjustments to tax brackets
  • cld: August 2, "a lot," zero.
  • Austin_Will: August 1, $1.5 trillion, zero.

In the original post, I defined "a lot" as "the full $2 trillion or so," so I think that makes cld the winner. Congratulations! And good work from the runners up too. Your non-prizes will not be mailed out to you shortly.

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Holy Scalpels, Foreskin Man!

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

A controversial San Francisco initiative to ban infant circumcision hit a dead end after a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled last week the bill must be removed from the November ballot. But this doesn't mean the contentious national debate about whether parents should have the right to remove their child's foreskin is over—not if "intactivist" and "Foreskin Man" comic creator Matthew Hess has anything to do with it. He and his activist group MGMbill.org plan to appeal the ruling, and his superhero Miles Hastwick (aka Foreskin Man) will continue to battle circumcisers in comic books. "We'll keep pushing to protect boys," Hess said.

Hess wrote the San Francisco circumcision ban, and he's an outspoken member of the intactivist movement, a cleverly named group of activists seeking to end all medical and religious circumcisions of infants. After realizing he "was never going to get through... to a certain number of people" using reason, Hess said he created "Foreskin Man" in 2010 to "get people talking about circumcision." In that regard, he's been successful. People have certainly been talking about Foreskin Man and his cause.

At first, the media and public weren't sure if Hess was serious about a comic meant to gather support for his ballot initiative. Some find humor in Hess's blonde, blue-eyed, muscular superhero, who defends the foreskins of young boys with the help of sidekicks like Vulva Girl. Others have been deeply offended by the comic's equation of male circumcision to female genital mutilation and its vilification of those who perform circumcisions—including doctors (Issue No. 1), Jews (Issue No. 2), and African tribes (Issue No. 3).

Vulva Girl: MGMbill.orgVulva Girl. MGMbill.org

The second issue of "Foreskin Man" was particularly controversial because it criticizes the Jewish circumcision tradition and features a villainous orthodox rabbi called Monster Mohel whom "nothing excites… more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy."

Monster Mohel: MGMbill.orgMonster Mohel. MGMbill.org

"There is such dripping anti-Semitism and anti-female rhetoric in this [comic]," Abby Porth, the associate director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, said. "It's outrageous." The Jewish Community Relations Council is one of the plaintiffs who sued MGMbill.org over the ban.

"It's not intended to be anti-Semitic: it's intended to be anti-genital mutilation," Hess said in his defense. "You can see that the common theme is all the villains are circumcisers. They're not all Jewish," he said.

But for Porth and other critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, the comics cross the line with their imagery. "Monster Mohel… appears to be lifted straight out of Nazi propaganda. [He's] a hook-nosed orthodox rabbi who's bloodthirsty for circumcision, which smacks of the centuries-old blood libel," Porth said.

Hess disagrees. "The first issue had a villain, Dr. Mutilator, who turned into an actual monster… I didn’t hear anyone complaining that that was anti-doctor or anti-medicine," he said. "So in the next issue, [when] we dealt with Jewish circumcision… naturally the villain was also drawn evil, and it was done intentionally—to make a point."

Religious tradition isn't the only reason some object to "Foreskin Man" and the MGM Bill. Based on studies showing circumcision lowers men's risk of urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is considering whether or not to recommend it as an HIV prevention method. But Hess criticized the accuracy of these studies, including one showing that in Africa, male circumcision reduces a man's chance of contracting HIV by 60 percent. "The data is very conflicting at a macro level," he said. "Even if it could be shown that circumcision provided 100 percent protection against AIDS, I would still be opposed to forcing that onto a child who can't consent."

When asked if he thought there was a way to better navigate the sensitivities of minority religious groups while criticizing their circumcision practices in "Foreskin Man," Hess replied, "I'm not concerned about that when it comes to this issue. I think it's far more important to fight for human rights for all people, rather than give any specific group a free pass."

Herman Cain: Muslim Brotherhood Sympathizer?

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

No.

Perhaps I should backtrack. Last month, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain publicly apologized for a number of anti-Islam statements he had made on the campaign trail. After calling on authorities to block the expansion of an Islamic community center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; warning that Muslims were attempting to force a radical strain of Islamic Sharia law on unsuspecting Americans; and pledging not to appoint any Muslims to his cabinet, the former pizza mogul's longshot run for the White House had hit a serious rut. So he met with Muslim leaders in Northern Virginia to smooth things out. It didn't change that fact that Cain was getting his ideas on Islam from debunked conspiracy theories, but he at least seemed to have reached the conclusion that Muslims don't bite.

But now the authors of those conspiracy theories are none too pleased. Frank Gaffney, a Washington Times columnist and anti-Sharia activist who once warned that President Obama was raised a Muslim and might still be one, told Think Progress that Cain might be in league with the Muslim Brotherhood:

The ADAMS Center is a prominent Muslim Brotherhood apparatus in Washington DC. It's one of the most aggressive proponents of its agenda in the city. Specifically, meeting with Mohamed Magid who is the president of the largest Muslim Brotherhood front in the United States, who happens also to be the Imam at the ADAMS Center. It's one of those things, it's a very problematic departure from what I think had been a generally sensible [position]."

Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association issues director who has called for a moratorium on mosque construction in the United States, is also frustrated with Cain's new dance. "Cain had said that any community which does not want a jihadist-spouting mosque in its community shouldn't be forced to have one," he wrote. "And of course, he was right about that, and it's unfortunate that he has retracted the statement. His bobbing and weaving on Islam is leaving his supporters a bit dazed and is hurting his candidacy."

This comes just one weeks after the anti-immigration group Numbers USA gave Cain a "C-" on its candidate report card—despite the fact that he had previously promised to build a giant moat along the entire US–Mexican border, filled with alligators.

New Details on Polar Bear Scientist Investigation

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 12:22 PM EDT

Some new details have emerged in the mysterious case of Charles Monnett, the government wildlife biologist under investigation by the Department of Interior's Inspector General. When Monnett, who works for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in Alaska, was placed on adminstrative leave last month pending an investigation into unspecified "integrity issues," there was speculation that the probe was linked to the biologist's 2006 paper on polar bear deaths in the Arctic. But a spokeswoman for BOEMRE insisted last week that the investigation has "nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged."

On Tuesday, Monnett's legal representatives at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a memorandum that the IG's office issued to the biologist last Friday indicating that its investigation centers on the procurement process for a research project on "Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears." The University of Alberta in Canada is the lead organization on the ongoing study, but BOEMRE provided a substantial portion of the funding. The agency ordered to the university to "cease and desist" all work on the study five days before Monnett was suspended in mid-July.

The IG's memo to Monnett requests an August 9 meeting to discuss "compliance with Federal Acquisition Regulations, disclosure of personal relationships, and preparation of the scope of work." The memo also states that the matter under investigation was referred to the Department of Justice, but that the agency "declined criminal prosecution."

In a release on Tuesday, PEER, which maintains there nothing untoward about his relationship with the contractors working on the project, argued that Monnett's suspension interferes with valuable work tracking polar bears. The current polar bear study "has been extraordinarily successful," the group writes, in gathering "invaluable data" about the movement of polar bears across the US-Canadian border. This is of particular importance, PEER notes, in looking at the increased distances that the bears are traveling due to sea ice decline.

A spokesman for BOEMRE declined to comment on the new details, which make it clear that there's much more to this story than was apparent last week.

The Coming Non-Fight Over the Gas Tax

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 12:15 PM EDT

I've been assuming that the next big fight in Washington will be over the 2012 budget, but apparently all the Beltway gossip is now focused on something else: a vote to reauthorize the federal gasoline tax next month. Doug Mataconis mulls this over:

You can already see how this issue could play itself out a month from now. As it is the issue of increased energy prices is an easy one to demagouge with simplistic slogans (“Drill Baby Drill”) and even more simplistic ideas (anyone remember when Hillary Clinton and John McCain came up with the idiotic idea of a Federal Gas Tax Holiday during the 2008 campaign?). It’s not at all hard to see the argument over the the gas tax being boiled down to the slogan Barack Obama wants to increase the price of gas.

....There are, in fact, some remarkable similarities between the just concluded debt ceiling showdown and the showdown that could result over increasing the gas tax. Like increasing the debt ceiling, the renewal of the Federal Gasoline Tax has been a fairly non-controversial action in the past. Ronald Reagan did it in 1982, George H.W. Bush did it in 1990, Bill Clinton did it in 1993, and George W. Bush and a Republican Congress did it in 2005. Additionally, attempts to roll back the tax in the past have generally failed.

I know it's dangerous to assume that something won't happen just because it makes no sense, but.....I don't think this fight will happen. This isn't because the anti-tax jihadists will suddenly have an outbreak of common sense, but because a gas tax fight won't fly with the public. It's easy to demagogue "taxes," since lots of people are convinced that "taxes" are merely ladled out to favored interest groups, wasteful boondoggles, foreign aid, and the layabout poor. But gasoline taxes are different: they're used to build highways. And everyone likes highways.

Generally speaking, people don't object to taxes if they see tangible results from them. And highways are about as tangible as you can get. The Republican leadership is smart enough to pick fights that have a certain amount of surface appeal, and this one doesn't, not even to the hardcore tea party crowd. They'll find something else to fight about.