Blue Marble - August 2007

How To Save Earth's Disappearing Topsoil & Store Carbon Too

| Wed Aug. 8, 2007 1:40 PM EDT

Ploughs and a rapidly growing world population are combining to deplete the Earth's soil supply. A new study from the University of Washington finds that long-established farm practices appear to increase soil erosion 10 to 100 more than the rate at which soil is created. The good news is there is a solution. No-till agriculture eliminates ploughing, instead mixing the crop stubble with the top layer of soil using a method called disking. Study author David Montgomery notes that as oil becomes more expensive and less available, preserving soil fertility through no-till farming becomes even more important, since it requires less fertilizer and many fewer passes with a tractor. No-till farming could also prove a major benefit in a warming climate by increasing organic matter in soil, and as much as tripling its carbon content in less than 15 years. More carbon in the ground means less in the air.

"If all farms on the planet were converted to no-till, the range of estimates for sequestered carbon runs from 10 percent of current carbon emissions to about half," says Montgomery. In his book, "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," Montgomery links the demise of history's major civilizations to how long it took them to deplete their soil supply. . . That's why that organic cheese and tomato sandwich on whole organic wheat bread you're munching is only good for you (in the short term) and not for the planet unless the components are also sustainably farmed. JULIA WHITTY

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Kids Say Food in McDonald's Wrappers Just Tastes Better

| Tue Aug. 7, 2007 5:23 PM EDT

mcdonalds_tokyo.jpgWhether it's milk, carrots, or apple juice, kids ages 3-5 think food just tastes better when wrapped in the golden arches of McDonald's, a recent study finds. The study was aimed at low-income children enrolled in San Mateo, CA's "head start" programs, but the author of the study, Tom Robinson of Stanford University, believes the results would be similar for higher-income children. Quite simply, Robinson states, a child's sense of taste has been "physically altered by the branding."

While the extensive marketing of fast food products to young children has been decried by health advocates and in movies like Supersize Me, the fact that children prefer a branded food is probably heavily influenced by the larger advertising industry, not just McDonald's. I would guess that children prefer a branded grape juice to any generic grape juice, just as I'd guess that most people would give higher ratings to a Prada purse or Calvin Klein underwear than to their generic counterparts. Much of this can be explained by the connotations of happiness, wealth, and enjoyment that the ads convey.

On the other hand, some ads don't seem to convey much of anything, like this recent McDonald's commercial discussed by Slate.

Cute Knut Under Pressure to Shed Lbs.

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 4:06 PM EDT

fatty_knut.jpgHey, remember Knut? He was the high-profile, environmental poster-bear who made an appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair with Leonardo diCaprio during "Knut-mania," a time when Europeans flocked by the millions to see him in his Berlin zoo. He was so hot that a neighboring animal died and no one noticed.

The appeal of "Cute Knut" was in his miniature size; he was a cute little white fuzzball who romped around with his keeper. But, times are changing. The paparazzi attention has subsided and the chubby cub has been asked to slim down. It's all summed up in a Der Spiegel headline: "Fatty Knut Put on Strict Diet."

Knut's caretakers claim he weighs 132 lbs, but they're not sure because their scale only goes up to 110 lbs. Apparently, they're keeping a vigilant watch on him to ensure Knut doesn't steal scraps from the kitchen table while his meals are being prepared.

Critiques of his appearance, tales of bad behavior—Lindsay Lohan could have told him such is the life of a media darling.

Weird Weather Watch: Biblical Flooding in South Asia

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 2:17 PM EDT

Flooding in India and Bangladesh has drowned out more than 12 million acres of farmland and killed almost 200 people in the last few days. The number of dead is expected to rise dramatically as news begins to flow from remote areas. In India's Uttar Pradesh, the army is attempting to evacuate 500 villages. The Red Cross and other groups are attempting to provide much-needed food, drinking water, and medical aid, but people on the ground report that their efforts are nowhere near adequate.

Several lessons here about our future with climate change: Developing nations are likely to be hardest hit. Military rule will likely be invoked regularly, diminishing civil liberties. Food and water supplies will be threatened as major disasters like this one become more commonplace.

Smells like apocalypse, huh? I'm only hoping that Bible thumpers will stop devoting their energy to denying marriage rights to gays and freedom of choice to women and start campaigning against greenhouse-gas pollution.

European Heat Waves Last Twice as Long As In 1880

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 2:12 PM EDT

Heat waves in Europe have doubled and the frequency of extremely hot days has nearly tripled in the past century. The new data show that many previous assessments of daily summer temperature change underestimated heat wave events by 30 percent. The results are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. "These findings provide observational support to climate modeling studies showing that European summer temperatures are particularly sensitive to global warming," said Paul Della-Marta of the University of Bern in Switzerland. "Due to complex reactions between the summer atmosphere and the land, the variability of summer temperatures is expected to increase substantially by 2100." JULIA WHITTY

Retrofitting Two-Stroke Engines Good For Everyone

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 9:47 PM EDT

An independent nonprofit out of Colorado has developed and disseminated a retrofit kit designed to reduce emissions from the ubiquitous two-stroke motorcycle taxis in the Philippines. A single motorcycle taxi with a traditional two-stroke engine emits as much pollution as 50 modern automobiles, and the Asian Development Bank estimates 100 million two-stroke vehicles ply the roads in Southeast Asia &mdash that's right, the equivalent of 5 billion cars. The Worldwatch Institute reports that Envirofit has won a World Clean Energy Award for developing and disseminating a retrofit kit, originally designed for snowmobiles. In the retrofit, the carburetor is eliminated and fuel is introduced directly into the engine cylinder, so less unburned fuel is wasted. The typical Filipino taxi driver makes only $3–5 per day, and the kits pay for themselves in fuel savings within 10 months. Envirofit hopes to expand its engine retrofit program to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, where demonstrations of the product will take place this year.

Now, can we just do away with jetskis, the most hateful of all the 2-stroke blights? According to the EPA, older jetskis (still prevalent around the world) cause more nonpoint source pollution (translation: runoff) in two hours than a car running for an entire year. Truly fun for the feeble-minded. JULIA WHITTY

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Judge Halts Logging For Spotted Owl

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 8:39 PM EDT

The Environmental News Network reports on a federal judge issuing a preliminary injunction against Weyerhaeuser's logging in Spotted Owl habitat on private land in Washington. That's good news for owls. But U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman declined to grant another Seattle Audubon Society request to keep the state of Washington from granting permits to log in Spotted Owl habitat. Even so, Kenan Block, a spokesman for the Washington Forest Law Center, said Pechman's decision "really shows the Endangered Species Act still has some teeth in it." . . . Well, not if Bush and Cheney get their way.

The owl was listed as threatened in 1990 primarily because of heavy logging in the old growth forests where it nests and feeds. Today, it also faces a new threat from a cousin, the Barred Owl &mdash once an inhabitant of the Great Plains, now expanding its range westward due to a variety of human factors, including fire suppression in boreal forests, and the planting of shelterbelts in the northern Great Plains. . . Does Judge Pechman take that bigger picture into consideration when she weighs the fate of a species? JULIA WHITTY

People Powered Farms?

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 8:04 PM EDT

Two grad students from MIT want to harvest the energy of human movement in urban settings. The so-called "Crowd Farm" would turn the mechanical energy of people walking or jumping into a source of electricity. James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning say a Crowd Farm in Boston's South Station railway terminal would work like this: A responsive sub-flooring system made up of blocks that depress slightly under the force of human steps would be installed beneath the station's main lobby. The slippage of the blocks against one another as people walked would generate power through the principle of the dynamo, which converts the energy of motion into an electric current. They point out that although a single human step can only power two 60W light bulbs for one flickering second, a crowd in motion, with 28,527 steps, for example, could make enough energy to power a moving train for one second. The pair tested a prototype stool at the Venice Biennale and in a train station in Torino, Italy, which exploited the passive act of sitting to generate power. The weight of a human body spun a flywheel, which powered a dynamo that lit four LEDs. "People tended to be delighted by sitting on the stool and would get up and down repeatedly," said Graham.

Glad to see innovation coming from new, even unexpected, fields. Just shows how many human brains are turning to solving these issues. Sometimes hope abounds. JULIA WHITTY

Birds on the Pill?

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 3:56 PM EDT

pigeon.bmp

To curb the out-of-control population growth of pigeons in Hollywood, and the excrement that comes along with them, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has suggested giving them birth control pills. OvoControl P will be placed in rooftop feeders in the next few months around the 5,000 pigeon-strong area in a "humane" attempt to control this poopy situation. The method is supposed to cut the population in half by 2012.

This plan brings about various questions. How much will the pills cost and who is going to pay for them? Are they truly safe for the birds? Are people upset? Is this ethical? Here are a few answers:

  • Cost: The pill costs $4.88 per pound. That means around $6 a day for 100 pigeons and $60,000 a year (including food, feeders, reports and worker compensation).
  • Who's paying: The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will pay $1,000 in September. The Hollywood Entertainment Business Improvement District pleged $5,000. The rest? Lobbying to business improvement districts.
  • Ethical quandry: This method is allegedly the most humane way to go about it. The pill interferes with egg development, and the plan was proposed by PETA after all.
  • The enraged: Well, we can probably bet the Bird Lady isn't too happy.

And all this because people like feeding birds. Well done, Mary Poppins.

—Anna Weggel