Blue Marble - January 2007

Terngate Results Suggest Criminal Charges Against Those Who Killed Seabirds in Southern California

| Wed Jan. 31, 2007 8:42 PM EST

Chased off California's beaches by hordes of Homo sapiens, terns—graceful seabirds with white bodies and flippety black crests—have resorted to nesting on barges. Last summer more than 500 baby terns, too young to fly, were massacred when someone washed them off the barges with high-pressure hoses. Two species, Caspian terns and elegant terns, lost their entire breeding season in the debacle. The Los Angeles Times reports:

State wildlife officials today said they have forwarded the results of a seven month investigation into the massacre of hundreds of young seabirds last summer to the Long Beach City attorney's office for criminal prosecution.

Only 23 birds survived in a case known as "terngate" among environmentalists who had grown frustrated with the length of the investigation and the failure of state and federal wildlife officials to preemptively prevent the loss of an entire breeding season of terns.

"This case required a lengthy investigation," California State Fish and Game Lt. Kent Smirl said. "But it's not going away. We've done an excellent investigation, one of the best this department has ever done in Long Beach."

Smirl, whose agency led the investigation that included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also said he expects charges to be filed by Long Beach city prosecutors. He declined to identify who could be charged.

"I'll be sitting in the courtroom when this case goes to trial," said Lisa Fimiani of the Audubon Society's Los Angeles chapter. "It's terrible to have to learn an important lesson in a lightning rod event like this. It tells us these birds were so desperate for nesting space they settled on barges."

The International Fund for Animal Welfare was offering a $10,000 reward for information on who was responsible for destroying the nesting colony of Caspian and Elegant terns.

This blogger once spent a 4-month breeding season living with elegant terns on an island off Mexico and I can tell you that no slacker with a high-pressure hose has ever worked as hard in a week as these birds work in a day raising their chicks. May they be sentenced in the afterlife to a hell of highwater without life jackets. Come to think of it, that's coming their way anyway with global warming.

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New Cement Design May Someday Reduce Greenhouse Gasses by 5 to 10 Percent

| Wed Jan. 31, 2007 8:24 PM EST

A group of engineers at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on the nanostructure of concrete—the world's most widely used material. As they report In the January issue of the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids, the production of cement, the primary component of concrete, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions, and is an important contributor to global warming. An MIT press release sums up their work:

The team reports that the source of concrete's strength and durability lies in the organization of its nanoparticles. The discovery could one day lead to a major reduction in carbon dioxide emissions during manufacturing.

"If everything depends on the organizational structure of the nanoparticles that make up concrete, rather than on the material itself, we can conceivably replace it with a material that has concrete's other characteristics-strength, durability, mass availability and low cost-but does not release so much CO2 into the atmosphere during manufacture," said Franz-Josef Ulm, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Cement, the oldest engineered construction material, dating back to the Roman Empire, starts out as limestone and clay that are crushed to a powder and heated to a very high temperature (1500 degrees Celsius) in a kiln. At this high temperature, the mineral undergoes a transformation, storing energy in the powder. When the powder is mixed with water, the energy is released into chemical bonds to form the elementary building block of cement, calcium-silicate-hydrate (C-S-H). At the micro level, C-S-H acts as a glue to bind sand and gravel together to create concrete. Most of the carbon dioxide emissions in this manufacturing process result from heating the kiln to a temperature high enough to transfer energy into the powder.

The researchers hope to find or nanoengineer a different mineral to use in cement paste, one that doesn't require high temperatures during production, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by up to 10 percent. Now that would deserve a Nobel.

Princess Cruise Lines Pleads Guilty to Killing Humpback Whale

| Wed Jan. 31, 2007 7:45 PM EST

It's a first of its kind likely to get lost amid the current and overdue clamor on climate change, but it's important nonetheless. In the summer of 2001 a Princess Cruise Lines vessel, the Dawn Princess, ran into a pregnant female humpback whale in Glacier Bay, Alaska, killing the whale well-known to researchers as Whale #68, nicknamed Snow. Snow had summered in Glacier Bay for at least the past 25 years, enjoying the safety afforded her under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That is, until a skipper or mate on the bridge of the Dawn Princess broke the law. As The Morning Report, a compilation of daily incident reports from the National Park Service, describes:

On Monday, January 29th, Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision. The whale was identified from fluke markings as "Whale #68," which had been sighted many times in the past and was known to have frequented the area for at least 25 years. Pursuant to a plea agreement, Princess was sentenced to pay a $200,000 fine and to contribute $550,000 to the National Park Foundation as a form of community service. The funding will support marine mammal research in the park. In this first-of-its-kind prosecution, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice, along with special agents and investigators from the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, engaged in a thorough and detailed investigation, often with the assistance and cooperation of Princess. "As well as being a majestic and endangered species, the humpback whale is also a public symbol of Glacier Bay," said superintendent Tomie Lee. "Protection of these resources is of paramount importance to us. So when we began to hear witness reports of a cruise-ship colliding with a whale, then learned that this particular whale, whom researchers had first identified in 1975 and nicknamed 'Snow' because of her fluke markings, died of injuries consistent with a ship-strike, we began a dialogue with Princess and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and proceeded diligently with our investigation, so we could be sure to get things right. While these kinds of criminal convictions can result in a loss of federal contracts to service visitors in a national park, in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment. We are pleased that this incident is behind us and that they will continue to offer cruises in Glacier Bay." The unlawful taking (killing) of humpback whales is prohibited by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The "slow, safe speed" regulation, under which this case was charged, was implemented in 2001 to support the "anti-taking" provisions of the two laws. Thus, a knowing failure to maintain a "slow, safe speed" when near humpback whales constitutes a violation of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act and carries the identical penalties of the taking violation. Such conduct is a federal Class A misdemeanor violation of law, punishable (for a corporation) by a fine of up to $200,000, restitution in an amount to be determined by the court, and up to five years probation (a person who violates this law is also subject to imprisonment for up to one year).

More on Bush Administration's Anti-Global Warming Pressure on Scientists

| Tue Jan. 30, 2007 8:07 PM EST

James Ridgeway wrote earlier today about Henry Waxman's ongoing oversight hearings that are looking into the government's role in distorting climate research. In his post, Jim mentioned the new Union of Concerned Scientists report that found the Bush Administration pressured scientists in a number of agencies to suppress evidence of global warming. ThinkProgress has culled some details. Synergy!

46 percent of government scientists "personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words 'climate change,' 'global warming,' or other similar terms from a variety of communications."
46 percent "perceived or personally experienced new or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work."
25 percent "perceived or personally experienced situations in which scientists have actively objected to, resigned from, or removed themselves from a project because of pressure to change scientific findings."

-- Jonathan Stein

Waxman's Attack on Bush Global Warming Distortions

| Tue Jan. 30, 2007 1:56 PM EST

Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opened oversight hearings this morning with a sharp attack on Phil Cooney, the former oil lobbyist who headed the Council of Environmental Quality, for tampering with scientific reports on global warming in order downplay its importance. (You can watch the hearings live online here.) Cooney resigned in 2005 after he was publicly criticized for playing politics with global warming. One New York Times report discussing government climate change reports written in 2002 and 2003 said, "In a section on the need for research into how warming might change water availability and flooding, [Cooney] crossed out a paragraph describing the projected reduction of mountain glaciers and snowpack. His note in the margins explained that this was 'straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings.'"

Waxman says the committee knows the White House is hiding documents that show the Bush administration sought to weaken government reports by emphasizing the "beneficial effects," of global warming, and downplaying its effects on human health.

Witnesses at the hearing are to include Dr. Drew Shindell, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Rick Piltz, the former senior associate of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, both of whom have protested at the White House meddling.

Mother Jones reporters at the hearing will be reporting as they go on.

Update: A new report from Union of Concerned Scientists uncovers new evidence of the Bush Administration tampering with global warming science.

An investigative report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has uncovered new evidence of widespread political interference in federal climate science. The report, which includes a survey of hundreds of federal scientists at seven federal agencies and dozens of in-depth interviews, documents a high regard for climate change research but broad interference in communicating scientific results.
"The new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic," said Dr. Francesca Grifo, Director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. "Tailoring scientific fact for political purposes has become a problem across many federal science agencies."

Read more about the report here.

-- James Ridgeway

Cross-posted from MoJoBlog.

Why is this Blog Called "The Blue Marble"?

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 4:40 PM EST

In 1972, the astronauts of Apollo 17 took a photo of earth that became known as the Blue Marble. It wasn't the first picture of the earth, but (to quote wikipedia) "released during a surge in environmental activism during the 1970s, the image was seen by many as a depiction of Earth's frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the expanse of space."

And that seems pretty apt today.

NASA has quite a collection of earth photography including Blue Marble: The Next Generation (Trekkies, we are everywhere), which "offers a year's worth of monthly composites at a spatial resolution of 500 meters. These monthly images reveal seasonal changes to the land surface: the green-up and dying-back of vegetation in temperate regions such as North America and Europe, dry and wet seasons in the tropics, and advancing and retreating Northern Hemisphere snow cover." (Retreating now more than ever.)

Over at the Google Earth Blog (with the lovely abbreviation of "gearth", prepare to be assimilated) some techies have taken NASA's work and turned it into an animation. (Warning: Serious processor speed needed.)

But bookmark the wicked cool Google Earth blog, people are having all kinds of fun and games (like: actual treasure hunts) using GEarth.

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Pharmaceutical Giant Novartis Challenges India's Patent Laws, Threatening Delivery of AIDS Drugs to Tens of Thousands

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 3:54 PM EST

The pharmaceutical industry once again stirs a witches' brew, reports New Scientist, challenging patent laws that have enabled India to supply AIDS drugs to poor patients worldwide.

India's generic drugs form the backbone of MSF's [Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders] AIDS programmes, in which 80,000 people in 30 countries receive treatment.

"We are reaching a quarter of the people who need antiretroviral treatment in sub-Saharan Africa," says Ivy Mwangi, an MSF doctor. "Rapid scale-up in treatment is only possible with the availability and affordability of generic drugs, most of which are produced in India."

But Swiss pharma-giant Novartis is whinging that financial hegemony is the only sure road to drug innovation, and that India should not be allowed to provide generics for people who can't pay $10,000 a year for its drugs.

"If Novartis gets through with its case our lives are at risk," Monique Wanjala, a woman who has been living with HIV for 13 years, told a news conference in Nairobi. "We want this case dropped," she said. "If we die because affordable generic drugs aren't available, where will they sell the drug? If profits are going to be put before peoples' lives then we have a serious problem."

How Bad Will Global Warming Get? Indonesia Could Lose 2,000 Islands to Rising Seas

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 3:29 PM EST

Two thousand of Indonesia's 17,000-plus islands may be lost to rising sea levels by 2030, Indonesia's environment minister told Reuters Monday.

Rachmat Witoelar said studies by U.N. experts showed that sea levels were expected to rise about 89 centimetres in 2030 which meant that about 2,000 mostly uninhabited small islets would be submerged.

"We are optimistic it can be prevented. Switching to bio-fuels is not only good for the environment but also will benefit us economically considering the volatile state of oil prices," he said.

Lower lying islands like the Bahamas, the Maldives, and Tuvalu will suffer more, likely submerging altogether, as reported in "All the Disappearing Islands" in Mother Jones in 2003.

Scary Impacts of Temperature Increases from Global Warming

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 3:08 PM EST

Ever wonder just what is coming our way from global warming? How bad can it get? Check it out. Reuters reports on estimates of the global implications of different temperature rises from Nicholas Stern, chief British government economist:

Temp. rise/ Impacts 1 DEGREE

* Shrinking glaciers threaten water for 50 million people

* Modest increases in cereal yields in temperate regions

* At least 300,000 people each year die from malaria, malnutrition and other climate-related diseases

* Reduction in winter mortality in higher latitudes

* 80 percent bleaching of coral reefs, e.g. Great Barrier Reef


2 DEGREES

* 5 - 10 percent decline in crop yield in tropical Africa

* 40 - 60 million more people exposed to malaria in Africa

* Up to 10 million more people affected by coastal flooding

* 15 - 40 percent of species face extinction (one estimate)

* High risk of extinction of Arctic species, e.g. polar bear

* Potential for Greenland ice sheet to start to melt irreversibly, committing world to 7 metre sea level rise


3 DEGREES

* In Southern Europe, serious droughts once every 10 years

* 1 - 4 billion more people suffer water shortages

* Some 150 - 550 additional millions at risk of hunger

* 1 - 3 million more people die from malnutrition

* Onset of Amazon forest collapse (some models only)

* Rising risk of collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet

* Rising risk of collapse of Atlantic Conveyor of warm water

* Rising risk of abrupt changes to the monsoon


4 DEGREES

* Agricultural yields decline by 15 - 35 percent in Africa

* Up to 80 million more people exposed to malaria in Africa

* Loss of around half Arctic tundra


5 DEGREES

* Possible disappearance of large glaciers in Himalayas, affecting one-quarter of China's population, many in India

* Continued increase in ocean acidity seriously disrupting marine ecosystems and possibly fish stocks

* Sea level rise threatens small islands, coastal areas such as Florida and major cities such as New York, London, and Tokyo

BBC Reports GlaxoSmithKline Paid Academics to Fudge Data on Child Paxil/Suicide Link

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 2:55 PM EST

The BBC is broadcasting a report later today alleging GSK tried basically tried to make up for studies that showed that Paxil did not help depressed children (and put some at risk of suicide) by issuing other studies, studies that just so happened to be conducted by scientists on their payroll, that found guess what? Just the opposite :

GSK's biggest clinical trial of Seroxat on children was held in the US in the 1990s and called Study 329. Child psychiatrist Dr Neal Ryan of the University of Pittsburgh was paid by GSK as a co-author of Study 329. In 2002 he also gave a talk on childhood depression at a medical conference sponsored by GSK. He said that Seroxat could be a suitable treatment for children and later told [BBC program] Panorama reporter Shelley Jofre that it probably lowered rather than raised suicide rates.
In amongst the archive of emails in Malibu, Shelley Jofre was surprised to find that her own emails to Dr Ryan from 2002 asking questions about the safety of Seroxat had been forwarded to GSK asking for advice on how to respond to her. She also found an email from a public relations executive working for GSK which said: "Originally we had planned to do extensive media relations surrounding this study until we actually viewed the results".

Don't you hate when science gets in the way of good PR?

Mother Jones has been reporting on big pharma's disturbing pattern of pushing dangerous psychotropic drugs on kids with little (or counterveiling) evidence of their safety for many years. Try these on for size:

Doping Kids: As pharmaceutical companies push their products, more and more kids are being treated with powerful -- and untested -- adult drugs.

Disorders Made to Order: Pharmaceutical companies have come up with a new strategy to market their drugs: First go out and find a new mental illness, then push the pills to cure it.

Prosecuting for Pharma: Antidepressant manufacturers team up with district attorneys to make sure the Zoloft defense doesn't fly.

And if you want to be truly terrified of Pharma's lack of oversight and how it puts our kids at risk, read:

Medicating Aliah: When state mental health officials fall under the influence of Big Pharma, the burden falls on captive patients. Like this 13-year-old girl.

For an archive of our Big Pharma stories, check out our new Environment and Health page.