Blue Marble - April 2009

Swine Flu Survey: How Scared Are You?

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 2:22 PM PDT

Never mind how unlikely your imminent swine flu case actually is, how freaked out are you by the possibility you'll catch the disease? Researchers at Stanford are tracking answers to this (paraphrased) question through an anonymous online swine flu survey, which you can take here.

Via Marcel Salathé at Miller-McCune:

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The Good Flu Still Needs Stopping

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 12:37 PM PDT

It’s been interesting to watch the media ramp-up to hysteria over the new influenza strain and now drop it like spoiled news because it’s not deadly enough for the headlines. Too bad that's wrong twice.

First off, during the initial discovery of influenza A(H1N1)—no, it’s not swine flu anymore—many outlets were far too quick to diagnose and prognosticate, when all anyone could reasonably do was take a breath and wait a second for the science to sort through the fiction. That didn’t happen. Instead, imaginary death tolls mounted.

Now it’s clear this new flu is more gentle than ordinary flu. Yet this is just the moment when it’s potential for lethal harm blossoms.

Why? Because the farther the virus spreads, the more chance it will mix or reassort with other flus and turn into something more lethal. Already the unusual A(H1N1) flu combines strains from three species—swine, avian, human—from three continents—North America, Europe, and Asia. That’s new.

The mix provides an order of complexity we don't yet understand, says Kennedy Shortridge of the University of Hong Kong. AAAS’s ScienceNow reports that Shortridge led investigations into the initial emergence of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997.

Shortridge is concerned this newly-hacked virus might prove unstable and ready to reassort with other viruses encountered in a human or animal host. It’s already arrived in Asia where the H5N1 virus is circulating and where strains of Tamiflu-resistant human H1N1 are circulating. He speculates that swapping genes between these viruses could result in one that is more pathogenic or more easily passed from person to person or both. The prospects for change in the virus are considerable and truly worrying.

But this is just the moment when the media is sheepishly casting around for a bigger news story. They’ve already cried Wolf and infected everyone with boredom. Now, when we drop our vigilance, is just the moment when a good flu can go bad.

And, btw, I can’t help in the midst of all this to picture a world where for the sake of atmospheric health we all become vegetarian. You know, just to reduce our carbon footprint by a whopping 33 percent. I know, it’s a fantasy. But imagine it anway. Without the brutal disease-making factories of pig and fowl farms, we’d all be healthier—people and planet.
 

Creation Museum Science Fair 2010

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 2:40 PM PDT

Let there be a science fair!

Next February, Cincinnati's Creation Museum will hold a science fair for budding creationists. All students in grades 7-12 are encouraged to apply, provided they agree with Answers in Genesis' Statement of Faith, which includes the following items:

2. The account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life, mankind, the Earth and the universe.

3. The various original life-forms (kinds), including mankind, were made by direct creative acts of God. The living descendants of any of the original kinds (apart from man) may represent more than one species today, reflecting the genetic potential within the original kind. Only limited biological changes (including mutational deterioration) have occurred naturally within each kind since Creation.

4. The great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect.

Thanks J-Walk Blog. After the jump: a sampling of other upcoming events at the Creation Museum, including a screening of a DVD about "the rampant misinformation propagated by ecological alarmists" and a lecture called, intriguingly, "God Didn't Make Any Apemen:"

Wind Power Gets Stimulus Windfall

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 1:09 PM PDT

The Department of Energy will devote $93 million of stimulus money to wind power technology. Not terribly surprising, considering that wind is all the rage at the moment. To wit: The wind industry now employs more people than the coal industry.

Most of the money will be spent on turbine-related projects (allocation breakdown after the jump). But Cleantech Blog points out that the biggest obstacle facing wind power is actually pipeline problems:

Look at the study “20% Wind Energy by 2030” released in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Energy to envision the implications of supplying 20% of the nation’s electricity needs by 2030 from wind. Oh, there’s plenty of wind to actually supply the electricity, no problem. It’s just that tons of new transmission capacity would be needed.


And there’s the rub. It’s only marginally easier to site and build a new transmission line than a new nuclear powerplant. Transmission lines take many years and sometimes even decades to get done, due to a variety of NIMBY forces and overlapping regulatory regimes at the local, state and federal levels. And, they cost a fortune, easily a million dollars a mile, often considerably more.

So, that “pipeline” from Dakota to Chicago is on the order of a billion dollars of merely enabling infrastructure – and since there are many pinchpoints in the national power grid, that wind power probably couldn’t go much further than the terminating point anyway.

And that NIMBY thing? Still a problem—and one that stimulus money probably won't solve.

According to the DOE, here's where the money will go:

Tray-Free Campus Dining Halls?

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 11:40 AM PDT

Bad news for those dudes you remember from your college dining hall who drank eight glasses of milk with every meal: Some college cafeterias are getting rid of trays.

Why abandon this collegiate tradition? According to the NY Times, reasons to hate on trays abound: Washing them requires a lot of water (Williams college has saved 14,000 gallons of water ever year since they shelved trays); they encourage food waste (Rochester Institute of Technology spent 10 percent less on food without trays); and they're ugly.

Some have also speculated that sans trays, students might be too lazy to make multiple trips to the pasta bar (Penne Station, anyone?). But that's really giving college kids the short shrift:

“I like not having to carry a tray around,” said Peter McInerney, a freshman here at Skidmore College, as he grabbed a midafternoon snack of an egg sandwich, pancakes and apple juice.

Glad to see the freshman fifteen thriving in these trayless times.

Swine Flu's Boosters

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 12:36 PM PDT

James Ridgeway has some great reporting on swine flu over on MoJo Blog. Here's a snippet:

You can't blame everything bad that happens on right-wing policymaking—but you can usually count on it to make a bad situation worse. Conservatives didn't bring on the swine flu outbreak, any more than they caused Hurricane Katrina. But in both cases, they've made the federal government less equipped to respond to these disasters with possibly life-saving emergency services.

Read the rest of Ridgeway's swine flu post, plus more on swine flu profiteers.

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Top Climate Scientist Fired For Talking To Media

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 11:40 AM PDT

Nobel-Prize winning scientist Jim Salinger was sacked from his job of 27 years for talking to the media about the weather. Salinger was the lead author of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment report that dealt with climate change in Australia and New Zealand. He had been a principle scientist with New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), reports the New Zealand Herald.

Despite his excellent credentials and scientific reputation, Salinger was given 3.5 hours to clear his desk late last week. His offense? Talking to the media about a flood he was witnessing firsthand while on vacation in New Zealand.

Here’s where it gets really strange. NIWA has a contract with New Zealand's state broadcaster to provide climate-related updates and Salinger has spoken regularly to reporters in the past. He was always praised for doing so, reports NatureNews. But word leaked down from on high a few months ago for him to back off and take a lower profile. He was told to get permission before talking to the media again.

Three times he didn’t. The first was on a day of record-high temperatures in Auckland. It was late and there was no one around so he gave a live radio interview and was later verbally reprimanded. The second time, last month, he took a television reporter and camera operator on a flight to monitor summer snowlines after receiving an okay from the NIWA’s communications manager—but was later told he should have gained permission from a higher-up. The third time, this month, Salinger called a television weather reporter with the news that rivers were flooding around him while he was on vacation in New Zealand.

Last Thursday Salinger received a letter telling him his contract was terminated. The sacking comes as NIWA's CEO, John Morgan, focuses on rebranding the institution, according to NatureNews. Morgan has overseen the institute's move into high-profile new premises in central Auckland in February, along with implementing a major website overhaul.

So overhaul is a euphemism for censorship?

BTW, Salinger’s postgrad studies in 1975 produced what’s today regarded as a watershed paper on climate change at a time when the idea was resisted by most scientists.
 

Friday Cocktail: The Firewall: Afghan’s 1st Line of Defense; New Orleans Indefensible; Urgent Threats Fund Powers Up

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 10:12 AM PDT

As Frank Zappa said: You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Round 1: Best Earth Day event of the week? Afghanistan announced the establishment of its first national park. Band-e-Amir—Afghanistan's Grand Canyon—protects 230 square miles of arid landscape punctuated by deep blue lakes. It’s in the heart of a relatively stable part of the country that’s been eyed for protection since the 1960s.

Phil McKenna of New Scientist’s Short Sharp Science blog wondered how you go about getting a park put together in the middle of a war. He asked Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who’s long been at work in Afghanistan trying to protect snow leopards. WCS helped plan the US government-backed park and will work locally to train park rangers and help villagers benefit from an increase in tourism to the region. Someday. Locals around Band-e-Amir currently farm and graze in unsustainable ways. A local economy tied to protecting the region's natural resources will be better. 

For the skeptics: Arguably the most significant single piece of international environmental lawmaking of the 20th century—the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916—was signed in the bloody midst of World War I. So, cheers, Band-e-Amir. Here’s to the visionaries.

Round 2: No matter how large or sturdy, levees and floodwalls surrounding New Orleans can’t provide absolute protection from extreme hurricanes or storm surges. This according to a new report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.  So what should be done? The report suggests voluntary relocation of people and neighborhoods from vulnerable areas. If that fails, raise the first floors of buildings to at least the 100-year flood level. 

The investigators point out that levees and floodwalls only reduce risk from hurricanes and storm surges, they don’t eliminate it. The hurricane defense system in place in New Orleans promoted a false sense of security that people were absolutely safe. Seems metaphorical to me. We're in a world of weak levees.

Round 3: Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant helped eradicate smallpox through his work as head of Google.org. Now he’s leaving that job to lead the Urgent Threats Fund created by Jeffrey Skoll, founder of eBay. Declan Butler of Nature News interviewed Brilliant who described how he and Skoll brainstormed about the five threats facing humanity and the planet: climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East.

Skoll said these problems need fresh money, the community of social entrepreneurs and organizations already working on them, media campaigns “the likes of which nobody has ever seen,” and the expertise of Hollywood. (Huh?) The Urgent Threats Funds is planning to combat, mitigate, and prevent those five threats. They’re starting with $100 million. Maybe an Urgent Threats beer brand—all proceeds go to the fund?