Blue Marble - June 2007

Weird Weather Watch: Killer Algae Bloom

| Wed Jun. 6, 2007 3:15 PM EDT

sea_lion.jpgSea lions (pictured) and elephant seals are sick and dying off the coast of California due to a record algae bloom. Algae produces domoic acid, which is toxic to sea mammals in large doses. "In over 22 years of marine mammal rescues, I've never seen such distress of marine mammals," said Peter Wallerstein of the Whale Rescue Team, a private marine mammal rescue group. Researchers aren't sure what caused the massive bloom, but their suspects include climate change, pollution, and shifting nutrients in the water.

For Mother Jones' coverage of the effects of climate change and pollution on the ocean, click here.

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Noah's Ark Of 5,000 Rare Animals Floating Off China

| Tue Jun. 5, 2007 4:18 PM EDT

Five thousand of the world's rarest animals have been found drifting in a deserted boat near the coast of China. The Guardian reports the cargo included 31 pangolins, 44 leatherback turtles, 2,720 monitor lizards, and 1,130 Brazilian turtles, as well as 21 bear paws wrapped in newspaper. Photographs showed other animals, including an Asian giant turtle. They were found crushed inside crates on a rickety wooden vessel that had lost engine power. Most were still alive. The haul came from one of the world's most lucrative and destructive smuggling routes between the threatened jungles of southeast Asia and the restaurants of southern China. The animals were found when local fishermen noticed a strange smell emanating from the vessel, which did not have any registration plates. Coastguard officials boarded the deserted craft and found more than 200 crates of animals, many so dehydrated in the tropical sun they were close to death. The 13 tons of animals were taken to port, doused with water, and sent to an animal welfare center. "We have received some animals," said an office worker at the Guangdong Wild Animal Protection Centre. "We are waiting to hear from the authorities what we should do with them"...What to do with them? Another seriously bad day for any faith in human nature. --JULIA WHITTY

Noise Pollution: The Next Frontier

| Tue Jun. 5, 2007 3:13 PM EDT

It turns out that fossil fuel is interfering even more actively with our happiness than Bill McKibben wrote in a recent issue of Mother Jones. The daily noise created by fossil-fueled machines—traffic, and my two pet peeves, leaf blowers and jet skis—are making humans cranky and chronically stressed out. A growing body of studies has shown that noise—even noise we think we are "used to"—triggers the body's fight-or-flight instinct, depressing the immune system and taxing the heart.

The EPA has reported that "The idea that people get used to noise is a myth." True, people are especially bothered by noises they neither accept nor control. But while your attitude about your neighbor's leaf blower might affect your mood, you and the live-and-let-live neighbor across the street are likely to have the same elevated levels of stress hormones.

I've been hypothesizing since my stint teaching college some years ago that "the youth today" have a lower attention span than youth in my day. (I'm embarrassed to admit this because wondering what's wrong with "the youth today" officially makes one old, but hell, I'm getting closer and closer to 40.) The ever-increasing noise threshold of modern life (along with the temptations of portable video games and TV) may be to blame:

Another insidious effect of noise is its cultivation of what scientists call "learned helplessness." Children given puzzles in moderately noisy classrooms are not only more likely to fail to solve them but are also more likely to surrender early.

What's more, people were less willing to stop and help one another when the noise of a lawnmower was present. There's a sweeping critique of suburbia for you!

Of course, one person's noise is another's music. There's no word in these studies about how to address that difference, but it is interesting that the noises most often cited as irritating were cars, traffic, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, car alarms, and sirens. Humans weren't designed to deal with the noise engines make any more than the planet was prepared to accept huge discharges of the gases they pour out while they make them.

Antarctic Glaciers Sprinting Seaward

| Tue Jun. 5, 2007 2:07 PM EDT

Hundreds of glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are flowing faster, further adding to sea-level rise. This according to new research from the British Antarctic Survey. Satellite radar images reveal the flow rate of over 300 previously unstudied glaciers increased 12% in speed from 1993 to 2003. The observations echo recent findings from coastal Greenland. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in February they could not provide an upper limit on the rate of sea-level rise from Antarctica in coming centuries because of a lack of understanding of the behavior of the large ice sheets. These new results give scientists a clearer picture about the way that climate warming can affect glaciers both in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Lead author Hamish Pritchard says "The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced some of the fastest warming on Earth, nearly 3°C over the last half-century. Eighty-seven percent of its glaciers have been retreating during this period and now we see these glaciers are also speeding up. It's important that we use tools such as satellite technology that allow us to monitor changes in remote and inaccessible glaciers on a regional scale. Understanding what's happening now gives us our best chance of predicting what's likely to happen in the future." --JULIA WHITTY

Texas' Dirty Coal

| Tue Jun. 5, 2007 10:16 AM EDT

The latest carbon dioxide emissions numbers from the Energy Department, listed by state, are out.

Not surprisingly, Texas topped the list of biggest polluters in 2003, the most recent year with available data. It holds steady as 7th in carbon dioxide emissions behind whole nations: the entire United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and Germany.

The co-star of the report was coal, Texas' major power source, because although carbon dioxide emissions from car exhaust account for 25% of America's greenhouse gasses, coal produces 50% of America's electricity and burning coal creates more carbon dioxide than any other common fuel source.

Texas seems to be a house divided regarding its own place in the global emissions hierarchy. In 2005 the state's Governor Rick Perry fast-tracked plans for 11 new TXU Corp. coal power plants after the company lined the war chest for Perry's re-election campaign. But Robert Cervenka, a Republican rancher of Riesel, Texas, managed to organize 1,000 people to fight the governor and TXU Corp. in their effort to double the state's already grossly high emissions. To Cervenka, clean air was not a political or partisan issue: It was just plain good sense. "We might not be out huggin' trees," he said, "but we're real concerned about our land, our water, and our air. It's our land, our lives." Hotshot Houston attorney Steve Susman represented Cervenka's group, pro bono, as they sued Governor Perry. An Austin judge did eventually rule that Perry had no authority to hop into bed with TXU Corp. so quickly, and the company actually ended up dropping most of its construction plans. It wasn't Texas' already high emissions ranking that fueled citizens to act; it was that no one wanted to live next to the plants, breathing the pollution.

Similarly, Texas' own environmental monitoring agency refuses to track the state's carbon dioxide emissions, instead claiming carbon dioxide is "not a regulated pollutant." The Supreme Court ruled in April, however, that the EPA could no longer get away with failing to regulate greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide in general, and the emissions of automobiles in particular. Of course, Texas was one of the nine states sitting with the EPA during this case – right alongside other parties like the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The same day, the Court ruled 9-0 that coal power plants must meet current, cost-effective pollution control standards when renovated. So even if Texas' own agency refuses to monitor carbon dioxide emissions, the EPA will be held accountable for doing so.

But by whom? Recently, in an effort to "green" the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi vowed to replace the incandescent bulbs in the Capitol's 17,000 lamps with more energy-efficient corkscrew fluorescent bulbs and to begin buying from eco-friendly vendors; but Pelosi, whose effort is supposedly to make the Capitol, which already puts out over 340,000 tons of greenhouse emissions, carbon neutral, stopped her effort just short of calling for an end to burning coal in the Capitol Power Plant. Evidently Pelosi did not want to go any rounds with her Senate colleagues from coal states like Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who have both previously blocked plans to eliminate coal from the Capitol Power Plant.

President Bush surely won't be forcing the EPA's hand in getting that agency to follow the Supreme Court's ruling by tracking carbon dioxide emissions. One has to wonder, though, when the rest of America -- and even the world -- will also stand up as those Texans did. For even though it's hard for most people to conceptualize the affect melting ice caps will have on each of our lives, few of us want to live next door to a coal-burning power plant.

Need more convincing? Check out this carbon footprint calculator to see what kind of air you're creating for the rest of us.

-- Jessica Savage

Ocean Life Navigates by Sound, Not Light

| Fri Jun. 1, 2007 7:34 PM EDT

Just spotted this passage in my fellow blogger Julia Whitty's book, The Fragile Edge:

Humans live by light, which travels fantastically well in air and in the trillions of miles of the blackest vacuum of space, yet barely penetrates three hundred feet into the water. As a result, we know more bout the surface of the moon than about the deep oceans; and precisely because the seas are largely dark, we mistake them for mysterious, when in fact they are as full of information as they are of water -- much of which we cannot register let alone understand. We may not be well-equipped to listen in, but the underwater world is an ideal conduit for sound, with the oceans divided into layers that speed or hamper sound's travels depending on temperature, salinity, chemistry, and pressure.

Wow.

Did you know that NASA's budget is around $16.8 billion, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget is less than $3.8 billion?

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Strange Science: Viagra-Fed Oysters

| Fri Jun. 1, 2007 5:50 PM EDT

An Australian oyster farmer is growing his mollusks in Viagra-laced waters. The Sydney Daily Telegraph reports that George May began dosing his oysters with the anti-impotence drug in a bid to sell them to overseas customers, calling them the ultimate aphrodisiac. May hopes to tap into what he calls a AU$300 million Asian market… Call me silly but couldn't you just, like, take a pill & then eat an oyster without polluting an entire water supply? --JULIA WHITTY