Blue Marble - June 2008

Perfect Storm of Perfect Plagues

| Thu Jun. 26, 2008 6:22 PM EDT

Doktorschnabel_430px.jpg Guess what else global climate change can do? Create a perfect epidemiological storm with enough power to take heretofore innocuous diseases and turn them into perfect plagues. A new study in Plos ONE reveals how extreme climatic conditions can alter normal host-pathogen relationships, causing a "perfect storm" of multiple infectious outbreaks to trigger epidemics with catastrophic mortality.

Outbreaks of canine distemper virus (CDV) in lions in 1994 and 2001 resulted in unusually high mortality of lions in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. In the past, CDV epidemics caused little or no harm to the lions. But the outbreaks of 1994 and 2001 were preceded by extreme droughts that caused Cape buffalo to become heavily infested with ticks. When the lions ate the buffalo, they consumed unusually high levels of tick-borne blood parasites.

In the drought years, the CDV suppressed the lions' immune systems and also combined with the heavy levels of blood parasites. The merger created a fatal synergy. In 1994 more than 35 percent of Serengeti lions died. About the same number perished in the Ngorongoro Crater in 2001.

Unspoken but implied: Our own little witch's brew of ticks and viruses is waiting for wetter or hotter or dryer or fierier years to come together and make us suffer too… The world is too complicated for the simpletons who've been running it and, alas, there is no bloodsucker that feeds on stupidity.

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

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Unable to Fire Entire EPA, White House Ignores Their Emails Instead

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 3:02 PM EDT

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When you're at work, you probably sometimes get emails that you don't want to deal with. Maybe you missed a deadline and have yet to 'fess up, or are supposed to meet with your boss and know it's going to be ugly. But eventually you deal with it, because you're responsible and know you can't avoid the situation forever.

Unless, of course, you're the Bush White House, in which case you stick your fingers in your ears and start singing loudly and shouting "I'm rubber and you're glue!" every time your co-workers try to bring up the issue. From the New York Times:

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week. The document...ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status.

Now, "e-mail limbo" is certainly a concept with which the White House is familiar, though it's not totally clear how they played this one. Did they open the email in order to reply to it, but leave the attached report untouched? Or did they just take one look at the subject line and start a second email thread about how they weren't going to open the first one? They must have looked at something, because for the past week they've been pressuring EPA officials to cut huge sections of the supposedly unseen report. The final version, due out as early as next Wednesday, will contain no conclusions, only a general discussion of the issue. What is the White House trying to hide? According to the Times article, a conclusion estimating that the government could save up to $2 trillion over the next three decades by strictly regulating greenhouse gas emissions. You'd think an administration $400 billion in debt would be shouting that number from the rooftops.

Everglades Wins Big

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 9:07 PM EDT

333px-Historic_Everglades_Regions.jpg The state of Florida has pledged to buy up sugarcane farms to help restore the flow of the Everglades. For a bargain $1.75 billion, US Sugar will relinquish 300 square miles of its holdings south of Lake Okeechobee over the next six years.

Great news for the people of Florida, as well as for birds, alligators, crocodiles, and manatees. The agreement comes between Republican Governor Charlie Crist and US Sugar, reports the Miami Herald. It's at least partially the result of the South Florida Water Management District board voting seven months ago against the practice of backpumping (pdf) dirty farm runoff into Lake Okeechobee, which then flows south into the Everglades.

That vote was the result of a 2007 court victory by Earthjustice, when a federal judge ruled that backpumping violated the Clean Water Act.

The buy-out of US Sugar will not end the Everglades' troubles. Another 500 square miles of sugarcane farms owned by other companies remain in production. Yet the deal marks a revival of the Everglades restoration effort, the largest of its kind in the world, aimed at undoing flood-control projects that have been killing the Everglades for decades.


Condors Rescued From Wildfire

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 3:43 PM EDT

400px-Condor_in_flight.JPG Eight endangered California Condors were evacuated by helicopter from their holding pens after the Gallery Fire (now part of the Basin Fire Complex) cut off the road into their facility. Seven of the rescued birds are less than a year old, and the eighth condor is their mentor.

The Herald of Monterey County reports that a three-person crew from the Ventana Wildlife Society was flown in by the Coast Guard, walked a mile from the drop point to the condors, and brought the birds back in carriers. After their helo flight, the condors were driven to Pinnacles National Monument.

Meanwhile, the National Interagency Fire Center reported yesterday that 1,080 new fires ignited in California over the weekend. You can see from their site how enormous the problem is. Some fires are actually complexes of 150-plus fires. Most are still zero percent contained.

Cooler weather is helping along the coast but let's face it, some of these fires are going to be burning for a long time. Maybe until snow falls.

The smoke blanketing northern California is moving east.

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

Scientist on Warming: "We're Toast"

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 1:03 PM EDT

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been warning the US government about global warming for 20 years. Now the CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gotten so high that "we're toast if we don't get on a very different path," he told Congress yesterday.

When Hansen first testified to Congress about global warming, it was 1988 and a heat wave was sweeping across the East Coast. That year was the hottest year on record for DC, but fourteen of the 20 subsequent years have been even hotter. By his estimations, the Arctic will be completely ice-free by the summer of 2018. "The Arctic is the first tipping point and it's occuring exactly the way we said it would," he told senators. "This is the last chance."

Recycled Biofuel

| Mon Jun. 23, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

57031182_68ca6da51a.jpg A better way to grow biofuel crops is to re-use abandoned agricultural lands. Or farmlands that are less productive. Both are better than current practises: clearing wilderness and converting food farms to energy farms.

There are 1.5 million square miles of abandoned cropland and pastureland available around the world. Energy crops raised on these could yield up to 27 exajoules of energy a year—equal to 172 million barrels of oil. Yet even this would still satisfy only about 5% of global primary energy consumption—483 exajoules in 2005, and rising.

Better than nothing, you say. But only if it doesn't further aggravate climate change. The study by Carnegie Institution and Stanford University scientists used historical data, satellite imagery, and productivity models to estimate how to maximize the benefits from biofuels while also mitigating global warming. Recycling old farms yields the best atmospheric returns.

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

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Pedal On, Brita Climate Ride

| Mon Jun. 23, 2008 9:15 PM EDT

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Talking about global warming is pretty depressing. If the fear of apocalyptic natural disasters doesn't get you, the big-eyed, fuzzy animals probably will—to say nothing of Al Gore's boiling frog. Given the gloomy subject matter, it's a nice shift to see a group highlight the positive possibilities for lifestyle change.

This fall, 100 cyclists will try to do just that by riding from New York City to Washington, DC via rural New Jersey and Amish country, with an entourage of scientists and green entrepreneurs in tow.

According to organizers, the ride is meant to be a "climate conference on wheels"—intentionally a bit more fun than your run-of-the-mill scientific gathering. Will the riders inspire others to cycle with their own joyful pedal-pushing? Climate-wise, bikes are awesome, so here's hoping.

Photo courtesy Climate Ride.

Why Miles Per Gallon Suck

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 10:04 PM EDT

Our calculations about car efficiency tend to be wildly off the mark. The Fuqua (I am not making that up) School of Business at Duke University studied it every which way and found that improving the most energy inefficient cars with ones that are even slightly more efficient saves WAY more fuel than trading in your not-so-bad Honda Civic for a hybrid. Most of us assume otherwise. The problem arises from the fact that we're talking miles per gallon when we should be talking gallons per mile. The video explains all.

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

If Cars Were Computers...

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 9:40 PM EDT

800px-SSEM_Replica.jpg If cars were computers then one liter of fuel would provide all the UK's needs for one year and oil reserves would last the expected lifetime of the solar system. That is, if efficiency in cars had improved at the rate computers have. This according to Steve Furber, a computer engineer at the University of Manchester, in a lecture marking the 60th anniversary of the 1948 computer known as The Baby (also known as the Small Scale Experimental Machine). Furber notes that computers are now 50 billion times more energy-efficient than The Baby, which weighed a ton, took up a whole room, and was the forerunner of all modern computers.

I'm not sure we can shrink cars & their carbon footprints fast enough. Howzabout we shrink ourselves instead? Genetic engineering trumps computer engineering and nine billion teensy weensy people 42 years from now doesn't look so bad. No worse than a swarm of locusts.

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

Who Needs Condoms When You Have Midwest Pesticides?

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 7:42 PM EDT

As if the Midwest weren't dealing with enough already, doctors now worry that the shockingly low sperm count of mid-Missouri men means there's something in the water, or worse.

Nothing's proven, yet, but all eyes were on pesticides after diazinon, an insecticide, and metolachlor, an herbicide, were found in a large number of the semen samples.

Local researchers have requested funding from the NIH to look further into the issue but have been turned down. The results of a CDC-conducted test will be released this summer.

Until then, if Missourians are looking to have kids, perhaps they should try on one of these. [H/T: Grist]

—Brittney Andres