Blue Marble - January 2008

How High Gas Prices Are Making Us Safer. Seriously.

| Wed Jan. 23, 2008 3:37 PM EST

traffic-jam.jpgGas prices, thanks to the Global War on Terror and Hurricane Katrina, are now the highest in the nation's history. Gas easily tops $3 per gallon in San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, and other cities across the nation, making driving an expensive way to get around. For reference, gas prices have increased roughly 100% since 9/11.

What's the upside? That ridiculously expensive petroleum is prompting people to drive more slowly on highways, drive less often, buy more fuel-efficient cars, and take mass transit more often. A recent Congressional Budget Office report found that based on statistics from 2003 to 2006, a theoretical 15-year, 10% increase in gas prices would reduce consumption by 4% as consumers replaced their gas-guzzlers with more fuel-efficient cars.

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Prince Charles (in Hologram) Lauds UAE's Green Cities Investment

| Tue Jan. 22, 2008 6:18 PM EST

abu_dhabi.jpgWhich is more bizarre? Prince Charles' hologram walking and twiddling his way across a stage, or a proposal for a no-waste, carbon-neutral city in a desert where searing temperatures make air conditioning a must?

Both the hologram and the city plan made appearances at the World Future Energy Summit, in Abu Dhabi, which began yesterday and runs through tomorrow. It might seem strange to discuss energy efficiency and global warming in a country that sells oil for a living, but 2,500 delegates from around the world are doing just that. Some tidbits from the summit thus far:
-Prince Charles, OB Wan Kenobi-style, called for immediate climate change action.
-Abu Dhabi, partnering with MIT, will build an alternative energy university.
-A British architect announced an elaborate plan for a car-free, zero-emissions city for 50,000 to be powered by solar panels.
-Abu Dhabi will spend $15 billion on a green energy initiative and will build the world's largest hydrogen power plant.

Now, if only Las Vegas would follow in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi, that'd be something to hologram about.

Richard Branson's Friendly Skies of Pond Scum?

| Tue Jan. 22, 2008 4:05 PM EST

Next month, Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline plans to fly a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam, powered (in part) by an unspecified, but supposedly clean and sustainable biofuel. It will be the first bioful test flight of a commercial jet, and, if successful, could augur a new age of ecofriendly aviation. Among the fuels Branson might test, that green muck from your fish tank... Read more here.

30 Million Years to Recover From Extinction?

| Fri Jan. 18, 2008 4:02 PM EST

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Scientists have been saying for a while that by the end of this century, half of all species could be extinct. And a new study says that it could take an awfully long time for Earth to recover—30 million years, to be specific.

Back in the Permian era, Earth lost more than 90 percent of all life. Scientists once thought that species rebounded quickly from the hit, but it turns out they were sort of missing the fine print, according to researchers at Bristol University:

Sahney and Benton looked at the recovery of tetrapods – animals with a backbone and four legs, such as amphibians and reptiles – and found that although globally tetrapods appeared to recover quickly, the dramatic restructuring that occurred at the community level was not permanent and communities did not recover numerically or ecologically until about 30 million years later.

And when the species were struggling to rebound back then, they didn't even have to deal with us.

FDA Approves Cloned Animals for Store Shelves

| Tue Jan. 15, 2008 8:50 PM EST

cloned-pigs.jpgThe FDA announced today that cloned animals (and offspring and milk produced by said clones) are safe to consume. The agency said that cloned cows and pigs and other farmed animals "are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals." Which, as you may have read, isn't saying much.

But with cloned animals costing tens of thousands of dollars each, it's unlikely they will become a staple of our diet unless the technology that produces them is radically less expensive. Their offspring, instead, may be killed to provide consistent meat and milk products.

If you don't want to buy clones or cloned offspring, caveat emptor: the FDA "is not requiring labeling or any other additional measures for food from cattle, swine, and goat clones" or their offspring because the agency considers clones and non-clones identical. Food retailers and consumers, I think, will see the issue differently. I can just see the ads now: "the Carl's Jr. 100% ORIGINAL beef burger! No clones!"

To Eat or Not to Eat? That Ain't the Question.

| Tue Jan. 15, 2008 7:15 PM EST

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Yesterday the LA Times posed a question to its readers: Why do we eat? More specifically, why do we overeat? Their answer, supported by several scientists and studies, was that the sheer ubiquity of food triggers an almost Pavlovian eating reflex.

Several recent studies, papers and a popular weight-loss book argue that eating is an automatic behavior triggered by environmental cues that most people are unaware of—or simply can't ignore. Think of the buttery smell of movie theater popcorn, the sight of glazed donuts glistening in the office conference room or the simple habit of picking up a whipped-cream-laden latte on the way to work.

In short, Americans are so divorced from the idea of food as nutritious that we don't even react to our bodies' physical cues, instead responding to subliminal environmental messaging. The fact that our environment is saturated with unhealthy foods creates the illusion that we have no choice but to eat them. The only solution, sigh the scientists, might be government regulation of everything from vending machines to portion size.

But if it's true that people have no free will when it comes to food, the message hasn't yet reached marketers. Far from subtle, the motivations behind ad campaigns are often brutally clear.

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Dead Hearts Beat Again, Thanks to Science

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 7:52 PM EST

Heart500.jpg Scientists at the University of Minnesota have combined young cells with dead hearts to make...new hearts. Yes, that's right sci-fi fans: They grew a new, living, beating heart right there in their lab.

How they did it: Researchers used new heart cells from baby rats and combined them with the valves and "outer structure" of an adult rat's dead heart. In two weeks, "the cells formed a new beating heart that conducted electrical impulses and pumped a small amount of blood," reported the New York Times. As the scientists detailed in Nature Medicine yesterday, the newly created hearts were implanted in other rats, and were not rejected. The process, called "whole organ recellularization," could be done with virtually any organ, said researcher Doris Taylor.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in our country. Currently, there are about 3,000 people waiting for donor hearts and 550,000 people are diagnosed with heart disease each year. Even for those lucky enough to get a donor heart, the surgery provides no guarantee that their body won't reject the organ. The new process reduces risk of rejection and actually increases the chance that the body will grow new blood vessels and muscles on the implanted heart. So the discovery that we may be able to some day re-grow our own hearts for implantation is encouraging, to say the least. If this kind of procedure were to be used in humans (and scientists involved in the experiment emphasize that that's about 10 years away), stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow would be injected into a specially prepared heart-like structure made from cadaver parts.

But if we ever have the ready option of organ replacement, will we live our lives differently? Will we eat hamburgers and cheesecake in abandon, secure in the knowledge that heart #2 is waiting for us in a freezer somewhere? My biggest question, really: Would this therapy be affordable for all, or for like many other medical breakthroughs would only the rich be able to afford it? Which brings us back to reason number 2,360 to support universal healthcare.

Toyota Tops Consumer Reports' Greenest Cars

| Fri Jan. 11, 2008 3:50 PM EST

prius.jpgAlthough "eco-friendliness" ranks well behind "safety" and "value" among qualities consumers consider when buying cars, Consumer Reports did due diligence finding out which brands of cars are perceived as the most green. To be clear, they only tested for brand's perception as an eco-friendly car-maker, not how friendly the actual car is to Mother Earth.

It's probably no surprise that Toyota ranks the highest, with its seemingly ubiquitous Prius. Nearly half of the consumers surveyed say they associate Toyota with being green, twice as many as selected the runner-up brand, Honda. Ford (Escape Hybrid), Chevrolet (Tahoe Hybrid), and GMC (Yukon Hybrid) came in at third, fourth, and fifth places, respectively.

Although being "green" came in fifth among qualities consumers say they look for, it's encouraging that eco-friendliness was ranked higher than "design/style" and "technology/innovation." To me, that signifies that Americans may be more willing to put the environment above looks and style or unnecessary doo-dads when purchasing their next automobile. Of course, if we had better public transportation systems, we might not need all those cars on the road at all. But hey, a gal can dream.

Iditarod Race Feels Global Warming's Heat

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 7:30 PM EST

iditarod3.jpgCiting "less-than-winter conditions," and encroaching suburban development, Iditarod officials are moving the famous dog race's starting point 30 miles north from Wasilla to Willow. They're also shortening the first, ceremonial leg of the competition (the short, easier race that precedes the harsh, longer race to Nome) by seven miles.

This isn't the first time officials have had to change the traditional sled dog race's route. Just six years ago, a lack of snow forced them to move the 1122-mile-long race's start point 200 miles north, from Wasilla to Fairbanks. And even now, they have to truck in snow for the ceremonial start.

Warm weather isn't the only element threatening the Iditarod: Increasing suburban development has crunched in previously wide-open spaces. "No matter what the weather conditions would be, there's a lot of asphalt and other things that don't mix well with competitive racing," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee. "To be around that is stressful for the dogs."

You can see an interactive map of the trail for this year's race, which begins March 1, here. To see the NOAA satellite view of the land around the start point, go here.

Antarctic Sea Ice Increase: Fodder for Global Warming Skeptics?

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 3:37 PM EST

antarctic200.jpgHold onto your hats, kids, because climate change skeptics are sure to have a field day with this one: Researchers have found that for the past 20 years, while ice in the Arctic has been rapidly decreasing, Antarctic sea ice has actually been increasing. "See?" The skeptics will say. "If the world really were getting warmer, then it wouldn't be all cold and icy in the South Pole."

But like many global warming denialist arguments, this one doesn't leave a whole lot of room for scientific nuance. Not all that science is fully understood yet, but until it is, you can fire back at doubting Thomases with a few basic facts: For starters, South Pole ice is much thicker than North Pole ice (2 miles in the Antarctic vs. 6-10 feet in the Arctic). Also, the ice in the north sits on open ocean, so it gets warmed from beneath&8212;while in the south, much of the ice sits on a continent.

Sydney Indymedia e-mailed renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen, and he kindly put the Antarctic trends in some context:

All of the models, and the observations, have the central parts of Greenland and Antarctica growing faster because of global warming. This is a consequence of warmer air holding more moisture, thus increasing snowfall. But the net effect of warming on both continental ice sheets is mass loss, the increased melting being a larger effect than the increased snowfall.

And according to Hansen, not all of Antarctica's sea ice is increasing:

He also said "The fact that West Antarctica is shedding mass at a substantial rate, even though there is only small warming of surrounding sea surface temperatures, is a telling fact in my opinion, and a likely consequence of the warming ocean at depth, which affects the ice shelves that buttress West Antarctica, as discussed in our paper 'Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study.'"

So there you have it: As usual, climate change is much more complex than skeptics would have us believe.