Blue Marble - March 2007

Weird Weather Watch: WTF?

| Wed Mar. 28, 2007 11:38 AM EDT

Tuesday "dawned clear and breezy" in Southern California, but by the end of the day the area had experienced downpours, hail, snow, and 40-mph winds (that's powerful by most standards but outrageous for Los Angelenos). 185,000 homes lost power. The creepiest thing of all is that an Orange County Fire Authority building had its roof torn off, although erratic weather like this are increasing the area's vulnerability to fire.

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Common Fungicide Causes Changes in Mating Behavior Generations After Exposure

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 11:43 PM EDT

Female rats avoid males whose great-grandfathers were exposed to a common fruit crop fungicide. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin examined rats whose great-grandparents were exposed to the fungicide vinclozolin, which causes early onset of cancer and kidney disease in males.

Female rats can tell the difference between male descendants of rats that have or have not been exposed to vinclozolin, and strongly prefer males descended from unexposed rats. Proving for the first time that environmental contamination affects evolution through changes in mating behavior.

Vinclozolin causes changes in the male rats' germline cells, like sperm. It doesn't directly alter DNA, instead causing changes in elements that regulate DNA. This is known as an epigenetic change.

Early onset of disease caused by initial exposure to vinclozolin is passed down generation to generation through the germline of the males. The female rats can sense something is wrong, even though they can't see it. Since males move beyond their birth territory when they mature, they carry their unlovable and fatal defects with them.

Hmm. Is the biosphere cannily healing itself, one little rat at a time? Or are rats truly destined to inherit the Earth? --Julia Whitty

Disappearing Climate Zones Mean Disappearing Species

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 11:05 PM EDT

A new study forecasts the complete disappearance of existing climates in tropical highlands and regions near the poles. Meanwhile large swaths of the tropics and subtropics will likely develop new climates unlike any seen today, according to the National Science Foundation. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wyoming predict that existing climate zones will shift toward higher latitudes and higher elevations, squeezing out the climates at the extremes. In fact a lot of this is already underway, as species are already moving to higher latitudes and higher elevations to escape the heat.

The most severely affected parts of the world span heavily populated regions, including the southeastern U.S., southeastern Asia, parts of Africa. Known hotspots of biodiversity, including the Amazonian rainforest and African and South American mountain ranges will also experience radical change. Disappearing climates will affect biodiversity, increasing extinctions too.

The study's authors foresee the appearance of never-before-seen climate zones on up to 39 percent of the world's land surface area by 2100, and the global disappearance of up to 48 percent of current land climates, if current rates of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions continue. Julia Whitty

California: More Highways if You Want Them or Not

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 8:14 PM EDT

highways.jpgHumans have a really hard time planning for outcomes that feel abstract. Here we are 90 percent sure that we're destroying the planet and ourselves with it, and we're conducting business as usual.

One tough, but supremely logical, change we ought to be making is redirecting all money spent on road construction to mass transit systems and smart growth projects. (Even the greatest road warrior wouldn't complain about not being able to drive his SUV if there were a cheap, easy way to get where he was going.) The State of California, which touts itself as an environmental leader, is doing exactly the reverse. The state, whose efforts to build and expand highways have long been stymied by environmental lawsuits, has begun suing developers for money they say will mediate (i.e., accommodate on roads) the increased traffic their projects will generate. The state is using the lawsuits as a funding source—which might be fair if the suits weren't targeting smart growth projects designed to be accessible by mass transit.

Good news is, developers are irate and are lobbying Governor Schwarzenegger to stop his renegade agency. Looks like we'll get to see just how powerful developers are after all.

Cute Knut to Live, Knut-Mania Commences

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 7:57 PM EDT

knut327.jpgCutie polar bear cub Knut made his public debut last week, to the sounds of thousands of cooing fans and 300 shutter-clicking media members. The fuzzy animal, now the size of a Labrador Retriever puppy, delighted visitors as he frolicked through a stream, kissed his keeper, and rolled in the dirt.

Berlin Zoo
officials say the cub is not in danger of being killed, as a few animal activists have suggested. Instead, hand-raised Knut is the zoo's star attraction, especially after his neighbor, 22-year-old panda Yan Yan died Monday, of constipation.

The Berlin Zoo has seen attendance jump by 300% since Knut appeared to the public, and the Zoo gift store had to order 10,000 more stuffed Knut dolls after their original 2,400 sold out. The cub now has his own television show, podcast, and a blog written from his imagined perspective. Graffiti artists are even spraypainting his name on concrete pillars under the bear-shaped logo for the Berlin Film Festival.

But for all the Knut-mania, is Knut really doing anything to preserve his kind? Well, kind of. The German Environmental Minister took a media-attended walk with Knut inside his pen, and has said Knut's the property of all Berliners. "Knut is in safe hands here," said the minister, "but worldwide polar bears are in danger and if Knut can help the cause, then that is a good thing." He then tickled the cub under its furry chin.

Knut's media attention may lead to increased awareness of the polar bear plight (though their plight is hardly obscure at this point). German public television is making a documentary about the bear, whose mother abandoned him and whose brother died of neglect. Schools across Germany are organizing "Knut trips" to go see the now-tiny (but soon to be huge) bear and learn about nature. And then there's the mysterious conservation campaign for which Knut will be the star, photographs courtesy Annie Leibovitz. Seems young Knut will be kept quite busy, both as a goodwill ambassador and as Berlin's (and the world's) latest object of affection.

Forget DEET: Mutant Mosquitoes Offer "New Hope" to Malarial Regions

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 3:17 PM EDT

A team of US researchers has announced that it's developed a genetically modified malaria-resistant mosquito.

I know, everybody's mad at GMOs, but malaria kills up to 2.7 million people per year, most of them kids. And why spend a couple of bucks donating insecticide-treated mosquito nets to broke African babies when you can build a transnational army of super-bugs (which, as a creepy bonus, were also injected with a protein that causes their eyes to glow fluorescent green) to eradicate a disease?

The new creations are so effective because they are heartier than regular mosquitoes, which means they could take over the mosquito world, which means malaria could be wiped out. Despite the fact that nothing good ever happens when alien species are introduced into an ecosystem, researchers are hopeful that the extra-egg-laying, harder-to-kill mutants will be ready to be released into the wild in a decade or two.

 

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The Secret Plan to Gut the Endangered Species Act

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 1:12 PM EDT

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has posted a draft of a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act. The proposed changes would accomplish administratively much of what the Bush Administration may have hoped to push through Congress before the Republicans were ousted in November. The 117-page document is likely the brainchild of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who, Salon writes, "has been an outspoken critic of the act.

The proposed draft is littered with language lifted directly from both Kempthorne's 1998 legislation as well as from a contentious bill by former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. (which was also shot down by Congress). It's "a wish list of regulations that the administration and its industry allies have been talking about for years," says [Kieran] Suckling [of the Center for Biological Diversity]. . . .

One change would significantly limit the number of species eligible for endangered status. Currently, if a species is likely to become extinct in "the foreseeable future" -- a species-specific timeframe that can stretch up to 300 years -- it's a candidate for act protections. However, the new rules scale back that timeline to mean either 20 years or 10 generations (the agency can choose which timeline). For certain species with long life spans, such as killer whales, grizzly bears or wolves, two decades isn't even one generation. So even if they might be in danger of extinction, they would not make the endangered species list because they'd be unlikely to die out in two decades. . .

Perhaps the most significant proposed change gives state governors the opportunity and funding to take over virtually every aspect of the act from the federal government. This includes not only the right to create species-recovery plans and the power to veto the reintroduction of endangered species within state boundaries, but even the authority to determine what plants and animals get protection. For plants and animals in Western states, that's bad news: State politicians throughout the region howled in opposition to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into Arizona and the Northern Rockies wolf into Yellowstone National Park.

By last week, as MoJo blogger Jen Phillips wrote about here, Interior had already launched a salvo against the ESA, announcing a proposal to stop protecting species based on their historical range and use their current range instead. That would mean that if a species of salmon is extinct in nine of 10 streams, but doing fine in the 10th stream, then the Fish and Wildlife Service would see no problem.

When I met with the folks at Earthjustice last week, we discussed what attacking the ESA might do to Bush's already-weak political capital. It's an interesting question. The move would probably hurt Bush with the nation at large, but endear him to his base, or at least certain parts of his base, like ranchers and developers. But it could also exacerbate a split in other parts of his base, such as between conservative evangelicals and those who are now embracing "creation care." Looks like that's gamble Bush is willing to make.

The Scoop on the Future of America's Wetlands

| Tue Mar. 27, 2007 12:20 AM EDT

A staffer with the environmental public interest law firm, Earthjustice, has seen a draft of the Supreme Court's latest guidance on wetlands development and tells me "it will be confusing as hell." That's probably bad news for some 20 million acres of the nation's wetlands--20 percent of the total--which in 2003 were opened to development by the Bush Administration. The court's guidance might lead to more protections, but it could very likely open the floodgates even wider to developers. This is what we know:

One group of four judges led by Justice Antonin Scalia wants to protect--and I'm quoting Earthjustice's paraphrase here--"continuously flowing waterways and waters with a continuously flowing connection to navigable waters." That could rule out some 60 percent of America's wetlands, Earthjustice estimates. The other judges, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, are proposing a "significant nexus test," which would be broader, and would require that protected wetlands be connected to navigable waters in some way that might be chemical, physical or biological. But he hasn't specified how the nexus would be measured, which might leave the Bush EPA with a lot of leeway.

What all of this means, in short, is that saving America's wetlands will probably fall to Congress, where next month Democrats plan to introduce a bill called the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, which languished last year under the Republicans. It would restore wetland protections to the way they were before a 2001 Supreme Court gave Bush's Army Corps of Engineers an excuse to dramatically scale back protections. The question, of course, is whether Bush will veto it.

Back in 2003, you might recall, Bush planned to gut wetland protections in the Clean Water Act, but pulled back after meeting with the NRA, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Since then, the alliance between hunters and greens has only strengthened as sportsmen have seen their stomping grounds ravaged by oil drilling in the mountain west. So in my view a Bush veto is somewhat unlikely. Look at it this way: it pays to have people with guns on your side.

Grab Your Rifle: It's Open Season on Grizzlies in Yellowstone

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 9:53 PM EDT

griz.jpg
As I noted last week, the Department of the Interior just issued an opinion on how the Endangered Species Act should be interpreted. And already we're seeing the results: Yellowstone's grizzly bear population just got kicked off the endangered species list.

The grizzly will still continue to be classified as "endangered" in four other geographical areas. The Department of Interior declares that the delisting of Yellowstone's 500 grizzlies is a success. Hunters would agree: In February, Montana approved a bill that would allow grizzlies to be hunted (along with wolves) once they were delisted. Hunting permits are available by lottery and cost $19 for wolves, $50 for grizzlies.

Are 500 animals enough to ensure the genetic diversity and continued growth of an entire species? (Remember there were 100,000 of the creatures roaming the land when Lewis and Clark came through.) Nature thinks no, but apparently our government thinks yes. Happy hunting.

—Jen Phillips

France Opens UFO Files but Remains Skeptical of "the Lady Who Reported Seeing an Object that Looked like a Flying Roll of Toilet

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 9:41 PM EDT

UFO.jpg

This month has been big for UFO enthusiasts. France last week unveiled its own X Files, and so many people logged on that the server crashed. The site is back up now but so slow that it feels like traveling back in time to 1996.

You can comb through 1,600 UFO sightings over the past thirty years. Not every vision made the cut. "Cases such as the lady who reported seeing an object that looked like a flying roll of toilet paper" were not worth investigating, Jacques Patenet, head of the office for the study of "non-identified aerospatial phenomena," told New Scientist.

On the other hand, burn marks and radar trackings of flight patterns that defy the laws of physics are taken very seriously. For example, a man working in a field heard a strange whistling sound and saw a saucer-like object about eight feet in diameter land nearby. "It stayed for a few seconds then took off into the blue yonder without making a sound," says Patenet.

UFO buffs are pleased and UFO scoffs may be amused. But Patenet wants scientists to get involved: "We also want to send a message to more scientists, inviting them to help us analyse these phenomena, when otherwise they might feel uneasy about these issues."

How would science explain the sight of a flying roll of toilet paper?

—Rose Miller