Blue Marble - May 2008

Q&A: Meet the Teen Science Whiz with the Plastic Bag Breakthrough

| Fri May 30, 2008 1:25 PM EDT

plastic%20bag%20in%20water.jpg

It may surprise you to learn that Daniel Burd does not consider himself an environmentalist. The Canadian teenager has become bit of an environmental hero over the past few days, as word of his potentially revolutionary science fair project has spread. In case you missed it, Burd managed to isolate the naturally occurring microbes that degrade plastic bags in landfills, cutting degradation time from lifetimes to mere months.

Maybe anyone could have done it, but no one else has. And that, says Burd, is part of what inspired him to pursue the project, which he started researching at the end of 2006. "As I began to research more and more, I found out we're not doing too much," he told me in a phone call from his home in Ontario. He is, in his words, "just a scientist trying to solve a huge problem."

"In the end, all problems come back to us," he says. "The plastic bags in the water, they don't dissolve, and they attract hydrophobic chemicals. Fish or other organisms may eat polluted plastic bags, and then we have millions of marine animals dying. If they don't die, then we may eat these fish, and then we have a statistical increase in healthcare problems directly attributable to that pollution. That's why everybody should be concerned."

"I would hope that through my project I'm able to, first of all, show a viable solution, economical and doable, and then get people more aware of it," he says. "Then we can fix it."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Vacant Green Votes of John McCain

| Thu May 29, 2008 6:23 PM EDT

Tin_woodman_cover.jpg John McCain supports the Climate Security Act. He just isn't going to vote on it. Grist calls him the Cowardly Lion for missing the vote for the act he professes to fervently desire. "I hope it will pass, and I hope the entire Congress will join in supporting it and the President of the United States would sign it." The entire Congress except him, that is. He's not going to vote because that would blemish his spotlessly voteless record—you know, the one the League of Conservation Voters gave him a resounding, deafening 0% score on for his total absence of votes on environmental issues. Grist reports his confession and justification: "I have not been there for a number of votes. The same thing happened in the campaign of 2000. The people of Arizona understand I'm running for president."

Okay, let's get this straight. In order to practise for being president, apparently you must also learn to hone your skills at hiding out inside your plane on the runway while important legislation about the future of life on Earth is decided without you… Is McCain Cowardly Lion or Tin Man? Has anyone checked his empty chest for a heartbeat lately?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Albatrosses Create Two-Mommy Families

| Thu May 29, 2008 5:27 PM EDT

laal.jpg Males in short supply? Or unreliable? Well, two mommies will do just fine. Laysan albatrosses in Hawaii employ a strategy called reciprocity, whereby unrelated females pair together and take turns raising offspring. On the island of Oahu, where 59% of the albatross population is female, fully 31% of the nests are female-female pairs. And though they raise fewer chicks than male-female pairs, given the shortage of males, fewer chicks are better than none. Plus, because albatross can raise only one chick a year, the females stay together in monogamous couples for years, allowing both females the opportunity to reproduce.

The findings, by University of Hawaii at Manoa zoology doctoral candidate Lindsay Young and coauthors BJ Zaun and EA VanderWerf, are published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, in the paper "Successful same-sex pairing in Laysan albatross."

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Climate Change Hammering Land, Water, Farms, Biodiversity

| Wed May 28, 2008 5:50 PM EDT

395742119_89e6d6a97f.jpg Climate change is already affecting US agriculture, water resources, land resources, and biodiversity, and will continue to do so. This based on a new report—the synthesis of 13 federal research agencies and 38 authors from a variety of universities, national laboratories, non-governmental organizations, and federal services. That fact that so many government agencies are involved in this study—released by the US Department of Agriculture—is as much the news as the study itself. New Scientist quotes ecologist and author Anthony Janetos of the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland: "The fact is, we're seeing lots of effects and impacts right now. These effects appear to be happening faster than expected, and the magnitude is bigger than expected. That's a surprise."

For example, climate change has already brought forward the start of spring growing seasons by as much as two weeks, and similar changes have occurred in the timing of bird migrations. Warmer conditions have also resulted in many plants and animals extending their geographic range further northward and higher up mountains. As climate change alters precipitation patterns, much of the eastern US has already become moister, while the west has become more arid. This means less winter snowpack in western mountains, and thus less snowmelt to keep rivers running cold and full in summertime. The higher stream temperatures are likely to put added stress on aquatic ecosystems.

You can access the final report in its entirety here. The highlights:

• Grain and oilseed crops will mature more rapidly, but increasing temperatures will increase the risk of crop failures, particularly if precipitation decreases or becomes more variable.

Angry Votes Suck

| Tue May 27, 2008 6:49 PM EDT

800px-Prozac_pills.jpg The more anxious or angry you are about the political landscape the less likely you are to actually pay attention to the facts. This according to a new study in Political Psychology. While angry and anxious voters tune into the news more than more relaxed voters, they actually concentrate less effectively on the available information. Researchers from the Universities of Michigan and Texas conducted two experiments in the 2004 presidential campaigns in which people answered questions on a computer that either induced a specific emotional state or a control condition to reduce all emotional arousal. The first experiment found that anxious, angry and enthusiastic people claimed they were more interested than people in a controlled, relaxed setting, and that they would pay closer attention to the debates. However, all three emotional states led people to take less time looking for information that was available to them, with anxiety impacting attention the most. The second experiment suggested that typical campaign coverage can trigger powerful emotions which lead to hasty, uninformed decisions.

So, let's get this straight… the news runs on emotion, which leads to bad judgment, which leads to bad leaders, which pisses us off, which fuels bad news…

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Correction: Republicans Who Know Still Care Less About Climate

| Fri May 23, 2008 9:11 PM EDT

320316230_84852ae329.jpg You might remember the perplexing study out of Texas A&M that found the more Americans know about global warming the more apathetic and less individually responsible they feel. Stranger even than normal middle-America strange. Well Jon Krosnick of Stanford University suspected the story might be more complicated than that and re-analyzed the polling data. He and colleague Ariel Malka found some intriguing differences, as reported in New Scientist. Concern about global warming was greater among people who said they knew more about the subject, and was most marked among those who identified themselves as Democrats, as well as among those who said they trusted scientists to provide reliable information on environmental issues. Republicans, as well as those who had little trust in scientists—yet still claimed to be knowledgeable—did not have any great concern:

This may reflect the different ways people get information about global warming. If your sources are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, Krosnick suggests, the relationship between knowledge and concern is likely to be different than if your main sources are skeptical advocacy groups such as the Heartland Institute, and the conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

In other words, all knowledge is not equal, particularly the ignorance-based kind.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Pacific Waters Turning Acid

| Fri May 23, 2008 7:42 PM EDT

FeelyetalFig6.gif

The Pacific Ocean from Canada to Mexico within 20 miles of shore is showing sharp changes in pH levels for the first time. Scientists have feared this possibility as yet another side effect of our growing carbon dioxide emissions. Excessive CO2 in the air is absorbed by the ocean, forming carbonic acid that corrodes the shells of many marine creatures, including those that form the backbone of marine foodwebs. Worse, the acidified water upwelled from the deeper ocean is likely 50 years old. This suggests that acidification will increase in a delayed response to atmospheric CO2, which has grown from 310 parts per million 50 years ago to 380 parts per million today—the highest on Earth in more than a million years. "The coastal ocean acidification train has left the station," says Burke Hales of Oregon State University and an author of the Science study, "and there's not much we can do to derail it."

There is also a strong correlation between acidification and the dead zones forming off the Oregon and California coasts in recent summers. The dead zones are caused by upwelling waters that fuel an over-abundance of the tiny marine plants known as phytoplankton. Normally, the upwelling winds subside for a day or two every couple of weeks in a 'relaxation event' that allows the buildup of decomposing organic matter to be washed out to the deep ocean. But in recent years, especially in 2002 and 2006, there were few if any relaxation breaks and the phytoplankton blooms were enormous. "When the material produced by these blooms decomposes," Hales says, "it puts more CO2 into the system and increases the acidification."

It's too early to predict the biological ramifications. Shell-building plants and animals may be adapting, or they may already be suffering consequences that scientists have not yet determined. "We may have to assume that CO2 levels will gradually increase through the next half century as the water that originally was exposed to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is cycled through the system. Whether those elevated levels of carbon dioxide tip the scale for aragonites [shell-builders] remains to be seen," says Hale.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Teenager's Science Fair Project May Deliver Us From Plastic

| Fri May 23, 2008 2:55 PM EDT

plastic%20bags.jpg

I bought groceries at Trader Joe's the other day. As anyone who has ever shopped there knows, Trader Joe's is full of incredibly attractive, cheap food, which, if you manage to make it through all the plastic packaging it comes in, you can actually eat. Unfortunately, by the time I started cooking I had more or less lost my appetite, since every time I discarded one of those packages I felt like I dropped another circle in hell.

So I pretty much love Daniel Burd right now. The 16-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, as part of a science fair project, figured out a way to break down the polymers in plastic bags—compounds that can last for over 1,000 years—in about three months. Essentially, Burd hypothesized that since the bags eventually do degrade, it must be possible to isolate and augment the degrading agents.

Turns out that it's not only possible, it's kind of easy. Burd combined ground polyethylene plastic bags, sodium chloride, dirt from a landfill (which theoretically contains the microorganisms that ultimately degrade the plastic) and a yeast mixture in shakers for four weeks at a consistent temperature of about 86 degrees. At the end of the month, he took a sample of that mixture and combined it with a new one, with the goal of increasing the overall concentration of microbes. After one more repetition, he put fresh plastic bags in his solution for six weeks. In the end, the plastic degraded nearly 20%. A little more filtering to figure out exactly which microbes were the most effective, and he upped the degradation rate to 32%. He concludes, "The process of polyethylene degradation developed in this project can be used on an industrial scale for biodegradation of plastic bags. As a result, this would save the lives of millions of wildlife species and save space in landfills."

So, will this really work? Has a teenager really found a way to rid us of one of our most persistent environmental problems? Who knows, but judges at the Canada-Wide Science Fair apparently agree that it's worth pursuing. They sent Burd home with $30,000 in awards and scholarships. You can read his final report (all six pages of it) here (.pdf).

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Arbel Egger.

—Casey Miner

Downstream of the Tar Sands, Canada Launches a Comprehensive Review of Cancer Rates

| Thu May 22, 2008 3:45 PM EDT

Canadian health authorities announced today that they would launch a "comprehensive" review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a small town 70 miles downstream of Canada's massive tar sands mines. In 2006, local doctor John O'Connor reported unusually high rates of cancer and other diseases in the town, where many locals subsist on fish and wild game. A few months later, when authorities filed a complaint against O'Connor for "raising undue alarm," they kicked off an epic dispute between the government and industry on one side and O'Connor, locals, and environmentalists on the other.

At the heart of the debate is whether Canada can continue to mine the tar sands, which now serve as the single largest source of U.S. foreign oil, without destroying its environment and poisoning its citizens. The impact of the tar sands on global warming is clear, but the health concerns of Native American groups may ultimately do more to curtail the sands--the world's largest strip mines. In the weeks since Mother Jones published a comprehensive story on O'Connor's fight, environmental pressure on the government has mounted. In late April hundreds of ducks were poisoned in a tar sands tailings pond, prompting renewed protests and a government pledge to investigate. The latest move by health authorities shows that the environmental health threats of the Canadian tar sands remain, to say the least, a sticky issue.

Bizarre Public Opinion Numbers on Global Warming

| Thu May 15, 2008 3:30 PM EDT

Roughly 70 percent of Americans believe there is "solid evidence" the earth is warming, according to new Pew poll numbers. Just under half think that warming is caused by human activity. That's disappointing — we've got more work to do, Mother Jones! — but not that surprising. On the other hand, try explaining this:

Over the last year and a half, the number of Americans who believe the Earth is warming has dropped. The decline is especially precipitous among Republicans: in January 2007, 62 percent accepted global warming, compared to just 49 percent now.

Or this!

...among college-educated poll respondents, 19 percent of Republicans believe that human activities are causing global warming, compared to 75 percent of Democrats. But take that college education away and Republican believers rise to 31 percent while Democrats drop to 52 percent.

Consider me stumped.