Blue Marble - March 2007

Melting Ice Reveals Riches: Canada and Denmark Duke it Out

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 8:10 PM EDT

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Canada and Denmark aren't known for being particularly rapacious, war-hungry nations. But neither country is backing down when it comes to the oil, fish, and shipping paths now available thanks to melting icecaps.

The Arctic contains an estimated 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas supply. Which is why both Canada and Denmark have planted their flags (literally) on the barren, 1/2 sq mile rock called Hans Island. Besides being near potential oceanic drill sites, Hans Island is conveniently located at the mouth to the Northwest Passage, an increasingly iceless Arctic channel that would make freight shipping from Europe to Alaska 60 percent faster than through the Panama Canal.

Americans are also getting in on the land rush: OmniTrax, a US shipping company, bought the northern Manitoba Port of Churchill, for $10 Canadian. It's already pushed 500,000 tons of grain through the tiny harbor.

This is all good and fine for capitalism, but environmentalists are not so happy. The more oil tankers use Arctic shipping lanes like the Northwest Passage, the greater the chance of oil spills. And as Arctic traffic increases, there are more chances of non-native species jumping ship and colonizing the newly warm waters and lands.

Plus there's the fact that, well, people already live there. These peoples, with their long-standing traditions and customs, might just have something to say about other nations rushing to drill their land for oil, or plunging cargo ships through their waters.

One is reminded of British and Dutch colonists ignoring native people's rights, territories, and resources in their rush to reap the booty of a "new" and "uncivilized" land. Will Americans, Danes, and Canadians do the same thing?

—Jen Phillips

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Moving Mountains Just Got Harder

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:36 PM EDT

Moving mountains may not sound so bad until, that is, you realize you have to put them somewhere. So say detractors of mountaintop removal, a commonly practiced technique for mining coal in the Appalachian Mountains.

Between 1985 and 2001, a federal study estimated that more than 1,200 miles of streams in the Appalachians were buried or severely impacted as a result of mountain top removal, and environmentalists have long decried the Army Corps of Engineers for okaying ditches that have been constructed to replace the waterways—an ecological tradeoff on par with ordering free-range Cornish game hen and getting chicken McNuggets.

On Friday, a District Court Judge in West Virginia agreed, rescinding permits at four state mines, and by ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental impact assessments fail to meet the requirements of Clean Water Act. The judge called [PDF] portions of the Corps' assessments "no more than lip service," pointing out that despite the Corps' claim that ditches could be connected and made to perform the same function as destroyed streams, the Corps' own witnesses did "not know of any successful stream creation projects in the Appalachian region."

Environmental attorney Steve Roady, with Earthjustice, sees the court's decision as a major victory.

"The federal government has been illegally issuing such permits...The Corps has had every opportunity to prove its claim that mountaintop removal mining can be done without destroying entire watersheds and landscapes."

And until it does, the court's ruling could impact as many as 60 new coal mines pending permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Monsters of the Deep Rise and Attack

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:14 PM EDT

squid.jpgJumbo squid live at depths of at least 650 feet, so humans have rarely had contact with them. We still know little about them, although the first specimen was landed 3 years ago, and a larger (colossal) specimen followed last month. Ignorance, it seems, has been bliss. These things are flesh-sucking monsters, as this account of a diver's life-and-death battle with several squid propelling themselves at him at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and grabbing at his exposed flesh with their "tooth-lined tentacles" and "raptor-like beaks" makes all too clear. Unfortunately, though, the squid are showing signs of making Northern California's waters their own. Once there, they will likely attack more divers and devour the catch of the day at many regional fisheries.

A result of human-caused climate change? We don't know enough about the animals to know, which just proves the point that nature is way too complicated to f-ck with.

Global Warming Bad For Allergy And Asthma Sufferers

| Sat Mar. 24, 2007 2:45 PM EDT

Global warming may be bad for asthma sufferers. Longer plant growing seasons are leading to weeds scattering vast amounts of pollen and conquering new territory, according to Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent for Reuters. By spring, pollen has been in the air for months in the northern hemisphere even in countries where snows normally bring a winter respite for allergics. In southern Sweden hazel trees have been flowering since December. "In the United States the incidence of asthma is up nearly four times since 1980," said Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "No one has really been looking at the aerobiology dimension (such as pollen). But I think it helps account for it," he said. Any further warming will make things worse.

Epstein ran a study showing that ragweed produced 60 percent more pollen when grown under twice normal concentration of carbon dioxide. At the same time, the stalks grew only 10 percent more. "Warming is touted as good for agriculture, but weeds may be reacting disproportionately fast," he said. "This is an issue with great importance for human health and agricultural yields."

Sneezing my way through this blog, I kid you not. Julia Whitty

Weird Weather Watch: Winter Sunbathing in Colorado

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 7:08 PM EDT

Temperatures in Grand Junction, Colorado, hit record highs for five days in a row last week. Sunday's balmy 75 degrees topped an 86 year-old high by nearly 20 degrees.

Global Warming Could Reverse Trend Toward Bigger Human Brains

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 6:02 PM EDT

Early humans developed larger brains as they adapted to colder climates. A warming climate might reverse that trend. Imagine that, while you still can.

This is the result of an analysis by University at Albany researchers to be published in the spring edition of Human Nature, according to a press release from the University of Albany. The research suggests that human cranial capacity as an indicator of brain size grew dramatically during our evolution. The authors suggest a key environmental trigger to the evolution of larger brains was the need to devise ways to keep warm and find food in cold climates.

In other species, problems of cold are solved by hibernating or migrating, and/or by growing fur and fat. During human evolution, however, the authors surmise that solutions to the problems of cold produced progressively "smarter" strategies, such as the development of cooperative hunting techniques and more sophisticated tools and weapons. Increased brain capacity also brought with it the use of fire as a means to keep warm and cook, adaptations in clothing and shelter, and the development of more refined social skills.

So, if our smarts have caused all the trouble with global warming in the first place, will getting dumber help?

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Passing the Urine-or-Tea Test

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 12:00 AM EDT

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Chinese hospitals thought they were testing urine samples, but they were really being tested. Reporters passed the lab warm tea in place of their urine samples. Out of ten hospitals, six diagnosed an infection, and five prescribed expensive medicine.

It's not the first health care scandal to piss everyone off. Ha. The health minister has come out calling hospitals greedy. The problem is, "In China, most village doctors make their income solely by selling drugs," reports Nicholas Zamiska in the Wall Street Journal.

The numbers: In rural areas, almost two thirds of prescriptions for the flu were unnecessary, according to the journal Health Policy and Planning. Prescription drugs markups are as high as 80%, according to the World Health Organization.

Unfortunately, such problems are not all so foreign. In the United States, fully a third of our medical spending goes to insurance overheads, which is why our health care costs exactly 50 percent more than any other industrialized country. And pharmaceutical lobbies keep drug prices how much higher than in Canada?

For more, read "Is it Prozac? Or Placebo?: New research suggests that the miracles promised by antidepressants may be largely due to the placebo effect. Too bad there's no money to be made in sugar pills."

Twenty of World's 162 Grouper Species Threatened With Extinction

| Thu Mar. 22, 2007 4:48 PM EDT

The first comprehensive assessment of the world's 162 species of grouper, vital predators in many marine ecosystems as well as important commercial fish, found that 20 are threatened with extinction. Previously, eight species were listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List. The new assessment proposes adding 12 more. From the Conservation International press release:

A panel of 20 experts from 10 nations determined the extinction threat facing groupers, which are the basis of the multimillion-dollar live reef food fish trade based in Hong Kong and comprise one of the most valuable groups of commercial fishes in chilled fish markets of the tropics and sub-tropics. Around the world, consumers pay up to $50 per kilogram for grouper.

"This shows that over-fishing could decimate another major food and economic resource for humans, similar to the loss of the cod stocks off New England and Canada that has put thousands of people out of work," said Roger McManus, a senior director of Conservation International's Marine Program.

The ground-breaking workshop at the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity of the University of Hong Kong was the first systematic assessment of the commercially important species, said Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, Chair of the IUCN Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group and Associate Professor at HKU.

"The results are worrying and highlight the urgent need for fishery management, more effective marine protected areas (MPAs), and more sustainable eating habits for consumers of these fishes," said Sadovy, who organized the workshop.

Groupers are among the oldest fish on coral reefs, with some species reaching more than 50 years old. Several species only reach reproductive maturity later in life, making them particularly vulnerable to fishing before they mature. In addition, commercial fishing that targets reproductive gatherings of adults further hinders replenishment of unmanaged populations.

The threatened groupers include two species of coral trout grouper, which are mainstays of the live reef food fish trade in Hong Kong. Both can be found in Hong Kong fish markets, but they face heavy and unmanaged fishing pressure that is rapidly reducing their populations.

In North and South America, heavy fishing of grouper for the chilled fish markets also poses a significant threat. The Nassau grouper, once one of the most commonly landed groupers in the islands of the Western Atlantic Ocean, now is listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and has virtually disappeared from most Caribbean reefs.

The troubles facing fish worldwide are chronicled in Mother Jones' oceans issue. Go here to find out what you can feel okay about eating from the sea.

Rio Grande One Of The Big Ten Rivers At Risk

| Thu Mar. 22, 2007 4:16 PM EDT

The Rio Grande--Rio Bravo in Mexico--is among the world's top ten rivers at risk, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund. The World's Top 10 Rivers at Risk names the waterways facing widespread degradation even as millions of people depend on them for survival. The Rio Grande, marking the U.S.-Mexico border, made the Top 10 because it's severely threatened by water diversions, widespread alteration of the floodplain, dams and pollution. From the WWF press release:

"The world's freshwater ecosystems are under siege, and the rivers in this report are the front lines," says Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund. "We don't have to look far to find examples of the freshwater crisis. The Rio Grande basin is in our own backyard and over-extraction and drought are draining it dry, endangering a unique desert river ecosystem and potentially undermining the economic growth of communities along the U.S./Mexico border."

Five of the ten rivers listed in the report are in Asia: Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges and Indus. Europe's Danube, South Americas' La Plata, Africa's Nile-Lake Victoria and Australia's Murray-Darling also make the list.

Although the Rio Grande and its tributaries run through the arid Chihuahuan Desert it is home to a spectacular array of freshwater species. The river is also the lifeblood of the region's economy, providing water to some of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country and thousands of farms and ranches. Irrigation accounts for more than 80 percent of all water diversions from the river.

"The Rio Grande is a treasure for all Americans and Mexicans as well as an economic resource of incalculable value," said Jennifer Montoya, U.S. director of WWF's Chihuahuan Desert Program. "This report shows how the U.S. is as vulnerable as anywhere else to the freshwater crisis that is affecting the entire world."

Global Warming Saps Halliburton Profits

| Wed Mar. 21, 2007 9:27 PM EDT

Halliburton reported yesterday that lower natural gas prices and less drilling in North America due to a late winter affected their first-quarter profits. In fact, Halliburton shares took their steepest dive in 8 months, dropping nearly 10%. The company is the "world's second-largest oilfield services company" and issues affecting them often herald industry-wide trends.

The slump in profits was caused, analyst James Halloran told Bloomberg, by a late winter (quite possibly global warming related). A late winter meant that the ground froze later, so heavy drilling rigs could not move across Canadian and northern US oilfields until later in the season. That translated into fewer completed drilling projects. Not to mention, with the warmest winter on record this year, people may be using less gas and oil to heat their homes.

"Last fall, there's no question there was a weather issue," Halloran said. "And prices have not been exactly booming for people. My guess is there's been some ongoing reluctance to get large drilling projects going again."

One of Halliburton's "large drilling projects" affected by the weather is in Alaska's North Slope, a place heralded by National Geographic as "largest remaining piece of US wilderness" Drilling in valuable wilderness areas is just one of the reasons Halliburton shareholder meetings are regularly protested. No wonder they moved their HQ to Dubai.

--Jen Phillips