Blue Marble - April 2007

Weird Weather Watch: April Showers Snowstorms

| Thu Apr. 5, 2007 1:26 PM PDT

A spring snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow on New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine last night, leaving more than 100,000 homes without power.

Meteorologist Butch Roberts of the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, said, "We had Easter on December 25th. People had crocuses coming out and blooms on bushes. And now we have Christmas, with all this snow. It's a little topsy-turvy."

Spring is notoriously unpredictable in New England, but National Weather Service data [PDF] suggests that major snowfalls are highly unusual.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Critical Mass Hysteria?

| Wed Apr. 4, 2007 5:43 PM PDT

When does activism go too far? That question was raised last Friday night when Critical Mass cyclists in San Francisco intentionally rammed their bikes into a kid-filled minivan, banged on the windshield and smashed the rear window wide open.

Critical Mass, for those who don't know, is a national, metropolitan-based movement where, on the first Friday of every month, hundreds of cyclists converge en masse and ride through city streets as a group. These routes are unannounced and often violate traffic signals and signs, immobilizing vehicular traffic and inspiring the ire of inconvenienced motorists. Critical Mass's message is not clear (due to the number of local groups) but centers around support for alternative, eco-friendly transportation.

Generally, Critical Mass events are peaceful. On this Friday ride, allegedly, the clueless, suburban driver had accidentally tapped the wheel of a cyclist (who, by his own admission, was not injured). The cyclists struck back for this slight, slamming into the minivan and eventually throwing a bike through the back window. The kids in the attacked minivan, out for a birthday dinner, were terrified, and the vehicle damage tops $5,000.

Thanks, Critical Mass, for literally making little girls cry, and for giving the conservatives another glob of mud to sling at the environmentally-conscious.

—Jen Phillips

Life After Cars

| Wed Apr. 4, 2007 5:00 PM PDT

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia, and The Long Emergency, an exploration of what life will be like after oil ceases to be plentiful and cheap, spoke at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club yesterday. Kunstler, unlike the rest of the chorus chanting that Americans should drive less, actually provides specifics. He argues that Americans are so reluctant to give up driving—despite the hassles of parking, long commutes, expensive insurance, and the fact that cars are killing us and the planet—because of the perverse human tendency to throw good money after bad. In this case, the bad money is 50 years of building suburbs.

Kunstler also has some relatively sane ideas about how we might start preparing for the time when we will have to drive less. We will have to rethink our industrial agricultural system, which has been accurately described as "The Oil We Eat." We should invest in rebuilding railroad and shipping infrastructures, to replace trucking.

The weird thing is, Kunstler's view is rather utopian. Giving up oil will cure what ails us about modernity: Locally owned small family farms will replace industrial agriculture, small businesses will replace Wal-Mart, and home schooling will replace public schools to which students are brought in a fleet of buses.

But alongside these heart-warming predictions, Kunstler also tells us to brace ourselves for serious battles over remaining resources, which, in the absence of mega-productive oil-fed agriculture and our most common forms of transportation, will need to be redistributed one way or the other. As to how to ensure that the redistribution will be equitable, not a peep.

So: Brace for a revolution, after which things will be surprisingly pleasant because they just will. Sounds kinda like Marxism, doesn't it? Even so, I think he's onto something with smart growth and railroads (to which I would add mass transit).

Catching Big Pharma's Little Lies, Teens Bust GlaxoSmithKline

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 10:04 PM PDT

A blackcurrant drink produced by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline was advertised as having way more Vitamin C than it actually does. What's cool is that the independent investigation was conducted by two 14-year-old girls for a science fair project. As Seed Magazine reports, New Zealanders Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo tested the Vitamin C content of eight juices, with most matching their advertised C content. But Ribena, which claimed to have four times as much Vitamin C as oranges, fell far short. The teens tried to contact the company directly, but failed to get a response. So they went to a consumer affairs TV show and then the Commerce Commission. After two years, GlaxoSmithKline finally admitted breaching the Fair Trading Act. They'll pay a fine and change the labeling on the drink. Tch tch. How about detention?--Julia Whitty

Race For A Green Car, X Prize To Offer Millions

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 8:33 PM PDT

The X Prize Foundation has announced a competition to build an environmentally friendly car. Nature reports that the winning vehicle will have to achieve at least 100 miles per gallon, regardless of the type of fuel it uses. Its carbon emissions have to be no more than 210 grams of carbon per mile. And it has to be cheap enough to expect sales of 10,000 a year.

That'll be a huge improvement on today's US average of about 21 miles per gallon. The prize's challenge lies more in manufacturing and economics than in developing radical new technologies. To achieve 100 miles per gallon can be done with existing technology, but requiring a radical redesign.

The rules are currently in draft form, and are open to public comment for 60 days beginning 2 April. The prize's value has not yet been announced, but will likely be more than $10 million. The previous two X Prizes, for spaceflight and genomics, each had a value of $10 million. --Julia Whitty

Scientists Turn Old Garbage Into New Homes

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 5:38 PM PDT

A British civil engineer has invented a building block made almost entirely of recycled glass, metal slag, sewage sludge and ash from power stations. John Forth of the University of Leeds said his "Bitublocks" might revolutionize the building industry by providing a sustainable, low-energy replacement for concrete blocks. This according to UPI via Science Daily.

The secret ingredient is asphalt, which binds the mixture of waste products together, before compacting them to form a solid block that is heat-cured until it hardens like concrete. Forth said it's possible to use a higher proportion of waste in the Bitublock than by using a cement or clay binder. He's now working on developing a "Vegeblock" using waste vegetable oil as the binder.

Another noble reincarnation for MacDonald's used french-fry grease?--Julia Whitty

Advertise on MotherJones.com

World Oil Production Close To Peak, Good Riddance

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 5:21 PM PDT

In a worst-case scenario, global oil production may reach its peak next year, before starting to decline. In a best-case scenario, this peak will be reached in 2018. This according to the doctoral thesis of Fredrik Robelius of Uppsala University in Sweden. He estimates future oil production on the basis of the largest oil fields.

A giant oil field contains at least 500 million barrels of recoverable oil. Only 507, or 1% of the total number of fields, are giants. Their contribution is striking: over 60% of 2005 production. However, giant fields are impending dinosaurs since a majority are over 50 years old--and fewer are being found, with less volume available within them.

Robelius' model forecasts future production from giant fields, combined with forecasts on other oil sources, to predict future oil production. In all scenarios, peak oil occurs at about the same time as the giant fields peak. The worst-case scenario sees a peak in 2008 and the best-case scenario, following a 1.4 % demand growth, peaks in 2018.--Julia Whitty

Weird Weather Watch: Fire Near L.A.

| Mon Apr. 2, 2007 2:51 PM PDT

As I blogged before, dry conditions and long-lasting Santa Ana winds are making Southern California especially prone to fire. This weekend, a fire in Hesperia burned 2,500 acres. It is now 50 percent contained, and, if winds remain calm, should be fully contained by this evening.

But every fire makes the area's weird weather prospects worse. Fires release carbon dioxide and methane, two key greenhouse gases. Firefighters use helicopters and trucks, which also release carbon dioxide. And lost acres mean fewer trees to absorb those gases.

Supreme Court Chastises Bush Administration For "Arbitrary, Capricious" Handling of Climate Change

| Mon Apr. 2, 2007 11:35 AM PDT

Even the Supreme Court justices appointed by Bush I and Bush II (Thomas, Roberts, and Alito) couldn't stop the Court from repudiating the current Administration's head-in-the–sand approach for dealing with climate change. Today's 5-4 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, called the administration's approach "arbitrary, capricious ... or otherwise not in accordance with law" and found that the EPA does in fact have the authority to regulate greenhouse-causing gases under the Clean Air Act.

The majority opinion contends that the "EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change." While the decision does not necessarily compel the EPA to regulate carbon emissions (and don't hold your breath), the ruling is significant since it frees the hand of the next President to regulate carbon and methane emissions without Congress passing additional legislation.

What the decision also does is clear the way for states to reduce greenhouse emissions with initiatives of their own. In the past, states like California that have asked the EPA for special permission to apply more stringent carbon emission limits on automobiles have been stymied by the Administration's claim that the Clean Air Act does not provide the authority to do so.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Canadian Baby Seal Hunt Likely Scrapped as Ice Melts, Pups Drown

| Mon Apr. 2, 2007 10:04 AM PDT

CNN running a story this morning from Reuters that Canada may be forced to halt the first stage of its annual hunt of baby fur seals. Because the Canadians' have seen reason? Frack no. They still want to kill at least the 325,000 they got last year. Because the ice has melted and it's likely all the baby seals have drowned. How's that for global warming for you? The melt took place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Stage two is set for the waters off Newfoundland later this month.