Blue Marble - April 2007

Ethanol Vehicles A Threat To Human Health

| Wed Apr. 18, 2007 7:09 PM EDT

A new Stanford University study predicts that if every vehicle in the United States ran on fuel made primarily from ethanol the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations would increase. "Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution," says atmospheric scientist Mark Z Jacobson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "But our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage." Jacobson used a computer model to simulate air quality in 2020, when ethanol-fueled vehicles are expected to be widely available.

While E85 vehicles (those running on 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) reduced two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, they increased two others, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. In some parts of the country, E85 also significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from smog. Furthermore, the deleterious health effects of E85 will be the same, whether the ethanol is made from corn, switchgrass or other plant products.

"There are alternatives, such as battery-electric, plug-in-hybrid and hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles, whose energy can be derived from wind or solar power," Jacobson says. These vehicles produce virtually no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and cause very little disruption to the land--unlike ethanol made from corn or switchgrass, which require millions of acres of farmland to mass-produce. "It would seem prudent, therefore, to address climate, health and energy with technologies that have known benefits."

Foresight. Wow. What a notion.--Julia Whitty

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Boys Are on the Decline

| Wed Apr. 18, 2007 4:27 PM EDT

Seriously. This is scary. From William Saletan: Birth ratios have shifted so much since 1970 that the U.S. and Japan are "missing" about 260,000 men. Researchers say environmental toxins can prevent men from passing on the Y-chromosome. The full report here.

The scariest thing about "endocrine disrupters" are that they too tiny to research. Only in the past few years have we developed machines precise enough to test the presence of some of these chemicals in the body, in parts per million, billion, and even trillion. The machines cost a million dollars. So we can't run test thousands of people and aggregate the statistics.

The most shocking evidence of the effect of pesticides came out of comparing drawings by Mexican children in an agricultural valley to those by children in foothills nearby. Here's the story. And here are their drawings:

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Chimpanzees Are Like People Too

| Tue Apr. 17, 2007 8:24 PM EDT

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Knuckels has cerebral palsy. He's the chimp clowning around in this photo, the one on top. The disability makes him an easy target, but scientists have never seen any fellow apes taking advantage of him. That's pretty humane of them.

Some evolutionary psychologists have sought false connections between apes and human behavior. One psychologist, for example, found "evidence" that female monkeys have a fondness for pots and pans.(Chimps may use stones to crack open nuts, but do they have an innate grasp on the concept of stove-top cooking?) However, this New York Times story points out strikingly humane behavior that primatologists have noticed over the years of close observation:

•Chimps mourn. One chimp mom carried her her young daughter's corpse on her back for a few days.
•After fights between two chimps, scientists have seen other chimps consoling the loser and otherwise trying to restore peace.
•Chimps outperformed humans in some memory tasks.

For more on apes, check out the Great Ape Project, which seeks to extend basic human rights to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. That includes "the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture." In their eyes, it may be narrow-minded of me just to call chimpanzees "humane." However provocative, their concept makes more sense now than ever, with some great ape species on the verge of extinction, such as orangutans, known in Southeast Asia as "the people of the forest."

Weird Weather Watch: Massive, Record-Setting Nor'easter

| Tue Apr. 17, 2007 3:44 PM EDT

I'm a little late to the punch on this one, but in case you haven't heard, on Sunday and Monday, most of New England was hit with a powerful storm that dumped 8 inches of rain and battered towns with winds of up to 156 miles an hour.

New York Times has a two-page article on the fallout. But just to make the point that global warming may well be as expensive as a solution for it:

• More than 800 flights were cancelled. Others operated with hours-long delays.

• Power was out at 328,000 homes and businesses in 9 states.

• National Guard troops—as if they don't have enough to handle—were called in to help evacuate homes.

• Commuter rails and scores of major roads were closed.

• At least 9 people died as a result of the storm.

This is just one storm. Think about 3-4 of these every year, year after year. Doesn't looking for a real solution (read: not ethanol) start to sound like the logical thing to do?

Are Cellphones Decimating Bee Colonies?

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 5:40 PM EDT

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Cell phone radiation may be messing with bees' navigation systems, throwing them off track on their way back to the hive. Via New Scientist, this latest explanation for the decimation of American bee colonies comes from Jochen Khun's team at Landau University in Germany. Bees disoriented by cell phones signals? It makes more sense to me than than an earlier theory reported by the New York Times: "It could just be that the bees are stressed out."

Reptiles Mysteriously Declining Alongside Amphibians

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 5:36 PM EDT

The catastrophic declines in frog and salamander populations may be spreading to reptiles. New Scientist reports that scientists reviewed data on ground-dwelling reptiles and amphibians collected over the past 35 years at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, finding a 75-percent decline in both reptiles and amphibians in native forest since 1970. The numbers of both increased in abandoned cacao plantations, by 4% annually for amphibians, and 2.7% per year for reptiles. Fungal diseases or pesticide contamination, blamed for amphibians' decline elsewhere, are unlikely to be behind the declines at La Selva, since they would affect abandoned plantations as well as native forest. The researchers suggest the cause may be a warmer, wetter climate that stunts tree growth, and reduces the leaf litter, where reptiles and amphibians live. --Julia Whitty

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Plans To Restore Key Climate Sensor

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 5:13 PM EDT

You may not know that our ability to observe climate and atmospheric change has been declining in recent years. Just when we need it most. Another victim of too much money going to the wrong wars from the other NASA: the National Anti-Science Administration. Now NOAA and NASA (the real one) announce their plan to restore a key climate sensor designed to give researchers a more precise picture of the structure of the Earth's ozone layer. The NPOESS (National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project) will include the OMPS Limb sensor (Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite), set to launch in 2009. Restoring the OMPS Limb sensor addresses one of the recommendations of the recently released National Research Council's "Earth Science Applications from Space: National Imperative for the Next Decade and Beyond." In other words, it means we're stepping into the future with at least one eye squinting partially open. --Julia Whitty

Climate Change Brews An Extinction Paradox

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 4:38 PM EDT

Climate change could trigger boom-and-bust population cycles making animal species more vulnerable to extinction. Environmental conditions that produce abundant supplies of food and stimulate population booms set the stage for population crashes that occur when several good years in a row are followed by a bad year. "It's almost paradoxical, because you'd think a large population would be better off, but it turns out they're more vulnerable to a drop in resources," says Christopher C. Wilmers of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as reported by EurekAlert. Wilmers' powerful new mathematical model evaluates how climate and resources interact with populations, finding that dramatic population fluctuations make species more vulnerable to extinction due to disease, inbreeding, and other causes, with each crash reducing the genetic diversity of a species, lowering its ability to adapt and making it more prone to extinction. --Julia Whitty

Giant Storm Slams The East

| Sun Apr. 15, 2007 3:08 PM EDT

A friend from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts emails me Sunday morning to say the snow is piling up outside and it's sleeting sideways. I'm supposed to be en route to New York City but the biggest nor'easter in 20 years has cancelled 300 flights to the right coast. Guess I'm staying in California. I love big weather and it would be fun to be in this, but more than likely I'd be stuck in some airport for days. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg called a press conference Saturday to warn of the coming storm. Jesse Ferrell of AccuWeather points out this is a likely first for an "unnamed" storm except possibly major blizzards. Ferrell also points out that AccuWeather meteorologist Dale Mohler was quoted by Bloomberg.com as saying "The storm will really set in Sunday afternoon. By April 16, the system may be as strong as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds above 74 miles per hour and stretch from Maine to Florida and as far west as the Mississippi River." Wow. A new species of storm. Who says all we're doing is cause the sixth great extinction? We're breeding new meteorological monsters. --Julia Whitty

Today is National Day of Climate Action

| Sat Apr. 14, 2007 12:32 PM EDT

Many of you likely know that today is the National Day of Climate Action. There are lots and lots of cool events around the country, which you can search by zip code at the Step It Up 2007 website. Got some free time on a spring Saturday? Try saving the planet for a little bit.