Blue Marble - August 2008

Solar Superhighways

| Thu Aug. 14, 2008 9:16 PM PDT

800px-Indiana-rural-road.jpg Researchers are developing a solar collector to turn roads and parking lots into cheap sources of electricity and hot water. "Asphalt has a lot of advantages as a solar collector," says Rajib Mallick of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "For one, blacktop stays hot and could continue to generate energy after the sun goes down, unlike traditional solar-electric cells.

Plus there's already gynormous acreage of installed roads and parking lots. They're resurfaced every 10 to 12 years. The solar retrofit could be built into that cycle. No need to transform other landscapes into solar farms. Or maybe not as many.

Furthermore, extracting heat from asphalt would cool the urban heat-island effect, cooling the planet a wee bit. Finally, solar collectors in roads and parking lots would be invisible, unlike those on roofs. Cuz we all know how attractive roads are.

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Running From The Waves in Beijing

| Wed Aug. 13, 2008 9:00 PM PDT

800px-Tuvalu_Funafuti_atoll_beach.jpg Tuvalu's first Olympics may be it's last. The Pacific island-nation faces inundation from rising sea levels and no one knows if its nine coral atolls will still exist for future Olympics. Tuvalu's two track athletes and one weightlifter are gunning for more than gold, reports Planet Ark.

Neighbor island-nation Kiribati has sent three athletes to its second Olympics. But its atolls are also disappearing. Storm surges erode coastlines and contaminate fresh water supplies, and long before the islands go under they'll be uninhabitable.

Think of it as a sneak preview for all coastlines.

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

Solar Cell World Record

| Wed Aug. 13, 2008 8:35 PM PDT

275px-Photoelectric_effect.svg.png A new world record has been set by a solar cell that converts 40.8 percent of light into electricity. The proud parents are scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab.

The 40.8 percent efficiency was measured under concentrated light of 326 suns. One sun is the amount of light that hits Earth on a sunny day. The new cell will work well for space satellites. Also for land-based arrays that focus sunlight onto solar cells with lenses or mirrors.

You know, the kind we need to be building everywhere. Marshall Plan for Earth, and all that.

The new cell is grown on a gallium arsenide wafer. Then flipped over and the wafer removed. The result is an extremely thin and light solar cell with better performance and cost. Bring it on.

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

Bush's Last War

| Tue Aug. 12, 2008 6:41 PM PDT

deadBEagle3.th.jpg Bush is after the Endangered Species Act with a lame-duck vengeance bordering on the sociopathic. He's proposing a whole new way to gut the Endangered Species Act. By cutting scientific review by independent experts, reports the AP.

Normally federal agencies have to consult with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service before building roads, dams, mines, and whatnot. You know, in consideration of any one of the 1,353 animal and plant species in danger of extinction. But, no, says Bush. Who needs science when god whispers in your ear?

Not only that, the draft rules would also prohibit federal agencies from assessing greenhouse gas emissions from construction projects. This is Bush's way of getting back at the listing of the polar bear on climate change grounds.

Senator Barbara Boxer says the draft rules are illegal. Nevertheless the new rules are subject to a 30-day public comment period before they're law. That's all. Then Bush can launch his last war against eagles, owls, whales, ferrets, manatees, wolves…

Look for the casualties in court.

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

Can Playing Pac-Man Save the Forests?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2008 6:05 PM PDT

packman200.jpgIn another effort to attract attention to environmental issues through colorful, interactive cartoons (see The Meatrix), Dogwood Alliance—an organization dedicated to protecting US forests—has basically carbon-copied Pac-Man in a game to fight excessive packaging.

"Packaging Man" is basically Pac-Man with a few new graphics. Recycling symbols replace power pellets, Blinky and the gang are "corporate executives" intent on pilfering forests with phallic chainsaws, and the protagonist is not a yellow dot.

Though surely created with good intentions—US packaging waste weighs in at 80 million tons (.pdf) and is the largest source of municipal waste—the most creative part of the game is its intro, and who sits through those anyway?

Nonetheless, the "take action" link at the end is a little more rewarding than a perfect play, and it handily fills 20 minutes. Play here.

—Brittney Andres

Photo from dogwoodalliance.org

China's 'Great Shutdown' Is Scientific Gold

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 7:26 PM PDT

AsianBrownClouda.jpg What happens when you turn off the pollution? Well the Beijing Olympics are giving scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how the atmosphere responds when a heavily populated region seriously curbs everyday industrial emissions.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography is flying unmanned aerial vehicle to measure smog and its effects on weather during China's 'Great Shutdown.' The flights start at Cheju Island in South Korea, 725 miles southeast of Beijing, and directly in the path of Chinese pollution plumes.

Data from the flights, combined with satellite and ground observations, are tracking dust, soot and other aerosols leaking out of China in atmospheric brown clouds.

Chinese officials have reduced industrial activity by as much as 30 percent and mandated cuts in automobile use by half, to safeguard the health of competing athletes.

Too bad most of Beijing's air quality doesn't have much of anything to do with its own emissions but comes from its own heavily-polluted provinces to the south. Too bad China doesn't make the Great Shutdown permanent. Too bad the whole world doesn't follow. Too bad the athletes' health is more important than everyone else's.

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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Just Say No To Biofuels

| Thu Aug. 7, 2008 7:50 PM PDT

The Kenyan courts are considering doing just that. A judicial review is weighing whether or not to halt the first stage of a US$370 million biofuel project that aims to replace up to 50,000 acres of coastal grassland with irrigated fields of sugarcane.

The project is based at the Tana River Delta on the northern Kenyan coast. It's opposed by environmental groups Nature Kenya, the East Africa Wildlife Society, and nomadic pastoralists, reports ENN.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai doesn't like it either. "We cannot just start messing around with the wetland because we need biofuel and sugar."

Could this be the beginning of a new movement?

Fact Checking John Tierney

| Wed Aug. 6, 2008 11:31 AM PDT
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In June 1996, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by John Tierney titled "Recycling is Garbage." In the now-infamous piece, Tierney argued that recycling was environmentally unnecessary, fiscally burdensome, and ideologically laughable. "Recycling," he concluded, "may be the most wasteful activity in modern America." Having provided comfort to millions of non-recyclers—particularly New Yorkers—. Tierney has since migrated to the paper's Science Times section, where he writes a regular column, "Findings." Despite the whiff of empiricism, the column is often a platform for his libertarian-tinged environmental skepticism.

Last week, Tierney struck again with a column listing "10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List." The article displayed the typical Tierney M.O.: Take an environmental or health issue and dismiss it with a less-than-thorough glance at the research.

Here Be Arctic Dragons

| Tue Aug. 5, 2008 9:56 PM PDT

Arcticthumbnail2.jpg

One year ago Russia planted a flag of ownership on the seabed underneath the North Pole.

Now, with the ice melting before our eyes, the 21st century's first gold rush is on.

Want to know just who's after the Arctic's virgin oil, gas, and minerals? A new map shows the disputed territories that states might lay claim to in the future...

Bacteria Not Flu Killed Most In 1918

| Mon Aug. 4, 2008 10:39 PM PDT

1918_1.jpg A new study in Emerging Infectious Diseases concludes that bacteria not influenza killed most people in the 1918 flu epidemic. The lesson: stock up on antibiotics for the next flu pandemic—bird flu, horse flu, or otherwise.

New Scientist reports that researchers sifted through first-hand accounts, medical records, and infection patterns from 1918 and 1919.

They found that bacterial pneumonia piggybacked on surprisingly mild flu cases. And the victims didn't die fast. A supervirus would have likely killed them in three days.

Instead, most people lasted more than a week and some survived two weeks—classic hallmarks of pneumonia.

Most compelling: medical experts of the day identified pneumonia as the cause of most of the 100 million deaths—the most lethal natural event in recent human history.

Other research suggests the brutal mechanism. Influenza killed cells in the respiratory tract, which became food and home for invading bacteria that overwhelmed overstressed immune systems.

Ten years later, penicillin overpowered bacteria in subsequent influenza epidemics. But nowadays we're having those nagging antibiotic problems.

So health authorities are increasingly interested in the role bacteria will likely play in the next pandemic. Yet little action has been taken. "They are just starting to get to the recognition stage," says Jonathan McCullers, infectious disease expert. "There's this collective amnesia about 1918."

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