Blue Marble - February 2008

Who's Really Paying for Cheap Shrimp?

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 9:03 PM EST

20051115135555.jpg Not you and me. That farmed tiger shrimp costs five times what we're paying. So who's getting charged the difference? Local poor people and the local environment. This according to Daniel A. Bergquist of Uppsala University. Despite what many international aid organizations claim (and fund), Bergquist says his studies in Sri Lanka and the Philippines prove that a major portion of the local population is excluded from aquaculture and continue to be as poor as ever. "The winners are the local elites," he says. What's more, aquaculture often entails cutting mangrove forests for shrimp and fish ponds, creating environmental problems that eventually impact aquaculture.

By using methods that factor in all costs, Bergquist was able to show, for instance, that the price of tiger shrimp would need to be more than five times higher than it is today for the environment and the local population to receive fair compensation for their input. "Aquaculture is a clear example of how the colonization of the southern hemisphere is still going on, finding new avenues via globalization and international trade," says Bergquist.

So maybe the good folks at Blue Ocean Institute will add tiger shrimp to their excellent sustainable seafood texting service, and keep a few more of us from eating it until the price gets real.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Whippets No Laughing Matter

| Mon Feb. 18, 2008 8:00 PM EST

480711693_309fab42a3_m.jpg It's called the forgotten greenhouse gas. You know, nitrous oxide (N2O), the magic behind whipped cream. You might not know it's 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and represents 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Its longevity in the atmosphere provides a potentially more damaging legacy than CO2, reports the University of East Anglia. Currently, agriculture and wastewater treatment industries account for 80% of global emissions (from bacteria that make N2O from nitrogen-rich fertilizers, and from bacteria in wastewater treatment). Now the Nitrous Oxide Focus Group is convening to examine sources and sinks of N2O in the environment, its role in climate change, and to develop techniques to mitigate its effect.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

The Great Tech Challenges Ahead

| Fri Feb. 15, 2008 4:13 PM EST

2083995467_3b20b1d4bf_m.jpg There's four of them, sort of. At least according to the National Academy of Engineering, which convened an international group of tech thinkers to identify the grand challenges facing us in the 21st century. The report was released at today's AAAS annual meeting in Boston. Robert Socolow, mechanical and aerospace engineer at Princeton, reports the list was too subjective to assemble in order. Instead they identified four broad categories of challenges:

(1). environmental wholeness: the need for humans to take care of our earthly home and to be good stewards of the environmental quality that we depend upon (2). our own wellness: the medical side of human life (3). vulnerability: recognition of the fact that we live on a planet that experiences earthquakes and tsunamis, and that we are a species that causes trouble for itself. (4). the joy of living: after you've got health and environmental soundness and you feel protected against the bad side of both human nature and Mother Nature, there is still something else to aspire to: self-knowledge and enlightenment.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Good News on the Border Fence?

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 5:24 PM EST

jaguar.jpg Maybe. The AP reports that 28 miles of virtual border fence was approved by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday. The virtual fence will include 98-foot unmanned towers equipped with radar, sensor devices and cameras capable of distinguishing people from cattle at a distance of about 10 miles. (MoJo reported on the controversy over this fence from an environmental perspective in Gone. Think: endangered wildlife can't cross a real fence either).

Kim Vacariu, of The Wildlands Project, tells me that if the virtual fence "becomes reliably functional, it would indicate that the recommendations generated through our Border Ecological Workshops, action requests to Congress, and other efforts are beginning to reach the officials who are making security infrastructure decisions—that they are seeing the importance of protecting borderland ecology from the effects of wall-building. However, it's important to note that construction of [the virtual fence] requires road-building and associated other infrastructure that continues to degrade borderlands ecology. So we need to wait and see just how this system will work. If it does, we're taking a step in the right direction."

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

World's Largest Sea Sanctuary Created in Pacific

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 4:27 PM EST

Kiribati%20Broken%20Bridge%20DSCN0004.JPG Couldn't come at a better time. Conservation International reports the tiny Pacific Island nation of Kiribati (pronounced: Kiribas) just established the world's largest marine protected area—a California-sized ocean wilderness of pristine coral reefs and rich fish populations threatened by over-fishing and climate change. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) conserves one of the Earth's last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems, consisting of eight coral atolls and two submerged reef systems in a nearly uninhabited region of abundant marine and bird life. The 410,500-square-kilometer (158,453-square-mile) protected area also includes underwater mountains and other deep-sea habitat… Agree this is excellent news? Thank them.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

More Than 40% of World Ocean "Heavily Impacted" by Humans

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 3:36 PM EST

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A new study in Science reports more than 40% of the world ocean is heavily impacted by human activities. Scientists from UCSB and NOAA combined 17 data sets of different human activities, examining overfishing, fertilizer run-off, commercial shipping, and pollution, and analyzed the effects on marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, continental shelves, and the deep ocean. The team also examined climate change by three measures: sea surface temperatures, UV radiation, and ocean acidification. These were found to be among the most important factors in global impact.

"This project allows us to finally start to see the big picture of how humans are affecting the oceans," said lead author Ben Halpern, at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UCSB. "Our results show that… the big picture looks much worse than I imagine most people expected. It was certainly a surprise to me." The most heavily affected waters include large areas of the North Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Caribbean Sea, the east coast of North America, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Bering Sea, and several regions in the western Pacific. The least affected areas are largely near the poles. "Unfortunately, as polar ice sheets disappear with warming global climate and human activities spread into these areas, there is a great risk of rapid degradation of these relatively pristine ecosystems," said Carrie Kappel, a principal investigator on the project at NCEAS.

The researchers note there's still time to preserve the more pristine areas. And we can all do our part. Know what you eat. Know what you buy. Buy less. Eat less.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Text Your Way to Sustainable Seafood

| Wed Feb. 13, 2008 1:52 PM EST

img_posters_114-Sustainable-Fish.jpg These days it's tricky enough navigating the terrain of seafood for health concerns, much less moral ones. Plenty of organizations have compiled comprehensive lists of good and not-so-good fish to eat, depending on whether the fish are imperiled, how they're caught, their overall health, and other factors.

But let's say you're out at a restaurant and there's fish on the menu (for example, the buttermilk fried calamari that was on the menu when I was dining out last weekend) but you forgot your geeky pocket-sized sustainable fish reference guide. Feel caught in a moral quagmire? Simply get out your cell phone and text "fish" and the name of the fish to 30644. You'll get a text informing you about the fish's sustainability.

I tried the service and within seconds got a text back telling me:

squid; (GREEN) few environmental concerns; squid grow quickly making them resistant to fishing pressure

So I forged ahead, and the squid didn't disappoint.

If your choice isn't "green," the text will provide you with alternatives. This nifty service is offered by the Blue Ocean Institute.

—Joyce Tang

Scary New CO2 Numbers on Shipping, Plus a Hopeful Breeze

| Wed Feb. 13, 2008 12:49 AM EST

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More bad news on the real costs of all the cheap goods that come our way from all over the world via the high seas. A leaked UN report says pollution from shipping is nearly three times higher than previously thought, and that annual emissions from the world's merchant fleet have already reached nearly 4.5% of all global emissions of CO2. The report warns that shipping emissions are destined to become one of the largest single sources of manmade CO2 after cars, housing, agriculture, and industry. By comparison, the aviation industry, under heavy pressure to clean up its act, emits only half as much CO2, reports the Guardian:

The figure is highly embarrassing for the four governments, including Britain, that paid for the report. Governments and the EU have consistently played down the climate impact of shipping, saying it is less than 2% of global emissions and failing to include shipping emissions in their national estimates for CO2 emissions. Previous attempts by the industry to calculate levels of carbon emissions were largely based on the quantity of low grade fuel bought by shipowners. The latest UN figures are considered more accurate because they are based on the known engine size of the world's ships, as well as the time they spend at sea and the amount of low grade fuel sold to shipowners. The UN report also reveals that other pollutants from shipping are rising even faster than CO2 emissions. Sulphur and soot emissions, which give rise to lung cancers, acid rain and respiratory problems are expected to rise more than 30% over the next 12 years.

Here's a partial solution, at least, as reported by the BBC. The world's first commercial cargo ship partially powered by a giant kite just sailed from Germany to Venezuela. The MS Beluga Skysails—seen in the photo above—carries a computer-controlled kite, measuring 160sq m (1,722sq ft), designed to cut fuel consumption by as much as 20%.

So, how about we accept cheap goods from abroad only if they come in under sail?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

All About Light

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 9:47 PM EST

13Cribsheet.jpg The latest addition to SEED's excellent Cribsheet series: Light. On one page, everything you wanted to know or remember about the electromagnetic spectrum, wave-particle duality, how light interacts with matter, how we use light to study the size, age, and composition of the universe, how light can help provide clean energy, faster computers, and efficient space travel. Check out other Cribsheets on everything from hybrid cars to nuclear power to extinction to genetics, to name a few.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Sea Level Rise Twice As High as Current Projections

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 9:25 PM EST

New research on Greenland glaciers suggests that sea level rise will be twice as high the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate of 18 to 58 cm (0.6 to 1.9 ft) by 2100. The study, published in the Journal of Glaciology (pdf), combines important data long missing from the ice sheet models. Researchers from the University at Buffalo, Ohio State University, the University of Kansas, and NASA, combined field mapping, remote sensing, satellite imaging, and digital enhancement techniques to glean "hidden" data from historic aerial photographs, some 60 years old.

The resulting two-dimensional pictures are of limited value. But the researchers digitized them, removed the boundaries between them, and turned several pictures into a single 'mosaic' producing one data set viewable in three-dimensions. "By reprocessing old data contained in these old photographs and records, we have been able to construct a long-term record of the behavior of the [Jakobshavn Isbrae] glacier," says lead author, Beata Csatho. "This was the first time that the data from the '40s could be reused in a coherent way."

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You can see in this 1946 image how the 4-mile-wide Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier is flowing from the ice through Greenland's rocky coast. Image courtesy of University at Buffalo.

Other glacier views and data here and here.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.