Blue Marble - April 2009

Good Methane Burps

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 3:51 PM EDT

We’ve been hearing for a while how warming temperatures might release huge burps from methane deposits on the seafloor and from permafrost—frozen reservoirs known as clathrates.

This is not something we want. Methane is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. In the last 150 years it’s more than doubled in the atmosphere until today it totals about half the greenhouse effect caused by carbon.

The good news is that the latest belch 11,600 years ago appears to have been caused by expanding wetlands not melting methane ice. This according to a Scripps Institution of Oceanography study measuring carbon-14 isotopes in methane from air bubbles trapped in glacial ice. They found the surge 11 millennia ago was more chemically consistent with an expansion of wetlands. The paper’s in Science.

Wetlands profusely produce methane as bacteria breakdown organic matter. Wetlands also tend to spread during warming periods.

Not this one though. We’re destroying coastal and inland wetlands faster than any other ecosystem on Earth, according to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

So we’re killing off the methane factories. But also the biodiversity factories, the water filtration factories, the storm-buffer factories. Wetlands provide ecosystem services estimated at $14 trillion a year.

Sigh. Burp.
 

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Ruppy, the Glowing Red Beagle Clone

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 1:48 PM EDT

So, scientists in South Korea went and cloned themselves a puppy. (Not for the first time, mind you—don't forget Snuppy in 2005.)

No, today's cloned dog, Ruppy the beagle, has the dubious honor of also glowing ruby red (thank you, sea anemones) under ultraviolet light. Hooray, science?

From the New Scientist:

A cloned beagle named Ruppy – short for Ruby Puppy – is the world's first transgenic dog. She and four other beagles all produce a fluorescent protein that glows red under ultraviolet light.
A team led by Byeong-Chun Lee of Seoul National University in South Korea created the dogs by cloning fibroblast cells that express a red fluorescent gene produced by sea anemones.

Don't miss the second photo of cute, creepy, glowing Ruppy. Here's a slow loris chaser if you need one. Via Digg, that teeming cesspool of fascination.

Happy Earth Day

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 4:19 PM EDT

Something Rare In The Air: Osmium

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 5:58 PM EDT

The rare element osmium is on the rise globally. Why? Because of the increased consumption of refined platinum, the primary ingredient in catalytic converters used in cars to reduce smog.

Ooops. Hate it when that happens. You know, unintended consequences.

A volatile form of osmium is generated during platinum refinement and also during the normal operation of cars and is now dispersed globally through the atmosphere. Osmium occurs naturally. But Dartmouth researchers were surprised to discover that most of the osmium in rain, snow, and in the surface waters of rivers and oceans is produced during the refining of platinum. Their paper is forthcoming in PNAS.

"It’s interesting, maybe ironic, that we stopped adding lead to gasoline in the 70s so that catalytic converters could be introduced to remove smog from car exhaust," says Dartmouth Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Mukul Sharma.

The research team measured osmium in precip in North America, Europe, Asia, and Antarctica, in surface water and deep water from the North Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans. Human-made osmium also comes from chromium smelters, hospital incinerators, and the normal operation of cars, but it’s primarily the industrial extraction and refining of platinum that produces the bulk of the osmium found in rain and snow.

Some 95 percent of the world’s platinum comes from South Africa and Russia where it's roasted at extremely high temperatures during extraction and refinement. The heat turns the sulfur in the ore into sulfur dioxide and releases osmium. Neither country has environmental regulations for the process.

"It’s surprising that we are seeing this measurable increase in osmium on a global scale," says Sharma. "And we can virtually blame it on one thing: our insatiable demand for platinum-based catalytic converters. Fortunately, unlike lead, the concentration of osmium in water is extremely small and may not adversely affect biology."

Well let's just hope that's true.
 

5 Questions for Penguin Scientist Ron Naveen

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 4:48 PM EDT

Guest-blogging scientist Ron Naveen is the president of Oceanites, Inc., and the principal investigator of the Antarctic Site Inventory project. In honor of Earth Day, Julia Whitty and I asked him to answer a few questions about his work. He wrote the following dispatch from last week's Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Baltimore, MD.

Mother Jones: What are you doing right now?

Here I am, The Penguin Guy, ensconced in the chrome-glass expanse of the Baltimore Convention Center for my second week of this year's Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. I've been going to The Ice for 25 years and to these meetings for 15, keeping an up-close and personal eye on the world's diplomatic community and whether it's truly conserving Antarctica for all future generations.

I count penguins. That's my life's work. The penguin population changes that my colleagues from The Fagan Lab at the University of Maryland and I detect—and our underlying analyses of how the warming Antarctic Peninsula affects these changes—will provide clues as to what's going to happen to those of us living in more temperate latitudes, decades down the line. My penguins, as the proverb goes, are "canaries in the cage"—or, more accurately, "canaries in The Ice"—sending us signals we shouldn't ignore.

So from my perspective, it's totally necessary to see how my work, and the work of so many other scientists, gets translated, used, and possibly abused in these meetings.

Nearly 400 diplomats, Antarctic program managers, logistics experts, and polar scientists from 47 countries attended this year, probably no more than a third of whom have ever visited Antarctica. All business is done in four official languages—English, Spanish, French, and Russian—with smatterings of Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Portuguese, and other languages filling the air during coffee breaks.

At the State Department in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially and formally opened the Meeting with the heads of Antarctic Treaty Delegations and a potpourri of foreign ministers.

Many of us streamed the Secretary's opening session on our laptops at the Treaty's Committee On Environmental Protection meeting here in Baltimore. Clinton created quite a splash with her pitch that, with respect to dealing with climate change, the "US is back!" That US representatives were essentially muzzled for eight years from pursuing climate-related matters in these meetings is astonishing, but hey, that was the last administration and, happily, a new era has dawned. See clips and quotes on The Oceanites Feed site I maintain.

Clean Coal's $45m Lobbying/PR Spree

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 10:09 AM EDT

The Center for Public Integrity analyzes the coal industry's strategy to keep coal-fired power plants burning long in to the future:

As Butch Cassidy might say, “Who are those guys?”

They’re the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a collection of 48 mining, rail, manufacturing, and power-generating companies with an annual budget of more than $45 million — almost three times larger than the coal industry’s old lobbying and public relations groups combined.

CPI reports ACCCE spent nearly a quarter of that budget last year lobbying the Senate. That's more than Citigroup spent lobbying altogether last year, and double what Bank of America spent. The rest went to advertising and political donations—all in the name of convincing the public clean coal exists.

The coal industry is actually lobbying to receive support for technology that captures carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. That technology doesn't make coal any cleaner, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu says carbon-capturing technology will take ten years to prove itself. But the coal industry's lobbying and PR efforts have already reaped one huge benefit: The new draft (PDF) of Henry Waxman and Ed Markey's climate change legislation—about which the House energy committee is holding hearings all week—includes a provision what would allow new coal-burning power plants as long as they capture a large part of their carbon output. This is a major shift on Waxman and Markey's part: Only a year ago they backed a moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants.

 

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Suriname's Green Nobel Winner

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 8:37 PM EDT

Want some Earth Day inspiration that has nothing to do with Susan Boyle? Check out the seven Goldman Environmental Prize winners this year. From Indonesia to Appalachia, shipping to logging, these "Green Nobel" winners all have great heart. The one I spoke with, Hugo Jabine, comes from the forests of Suriname, where the Maroon community founded by freed African slaves has lived for 300 years. Goldman award materials say Jabine and his co-recipient Wanze Eduards "successfully organized their communities against logging on their traditional lands, ultimately leading to a landmark ruling for indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the Americas to control resource exploitation in their territories."

Here's how he tells it:

Review: Poisoned Waters

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 1:10 PM EDT

More than 35 years ago, Congress enacted the legislation now known as the Clean Water Act. The law had been around since its first incarnation—the Federal Water Pollution Control Act—in the Truman era, but the bill Congress passed in 1972 was a sweeping overhaul of the original act. The Clean Water Act set limits on the amount of pollutants industries and cities could discharge and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to sue and penalize polluters that exceeded those limits.

But after Ronald Reagan came to Washington, his administration established a program of voluntary compliance with Clean Water Act standards. That program is the launching point for Frontline’s documentary Poisoned Waters (airing Tuesday at 9 pm on PBS), which examines widespread pollution in two US waterways—Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound—caused by 25 years of unregulated toxic industrial, agricultural and municipal runoff.

Narrator Hendrick Smith shows us the first striking snapshot of aquatic pollution when he joins one environmental activist on a flyover of a Purdue chicken farm in Maryland: Behind each shed of 40,000 chickens, we see huge brown splotches of phosphorus- and nitrogen-heavy chicken manure. Rainwater eventually causes the chicken waste to leach in to one of the streams that make up the Chesapeake’s massive aquatic footprint. As Smith shows, chicken waste dumped into a tributary in Richmond could eventually end up in your drinking water in Baltimore.

Poisoned Waters is filled with those types of images: Frogs with six legs, once-male bass in West Virginia rivers that have morphed into females, and an underwater waste pipe spewing a constant noxious cloud of brown goop into Puget Sound. Smith and his crew use those images as segues to the documentary’s crucial point: Any pollution that kills aquatic life can harm humans. Finding dead fish floating belly-up on the surface of a river is a bad omen for humans drinking its water.

While deregulation emerges as the main culprit for the nation's polluted waterways, Smith implicates another group of culpable offenders—us. We’ve spent years creating new chemicals for everything from pesticides to household cleaners, all without pushing for up-to-date technology to purify our water of these toxins. Smith talks to one team of scientists who test for toxins in the Potomac River, both before and after its water is run through a treatment plant just north of Washington, DC. The plant’s outdated filters only remove a third of the pollutants in the Potomac.

So what can we do about it? Poisoned Waters concludes the impetus to clean up aquatic pollution—and halt it in the future—carries the most force when it comes from the electorate. But a pure environmental argument doesn’t always resonate with the voters. As Chris Miller, an activist with the Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council, says, “Getting up in front of a crowd and saying, ‘The bay’s in tough shape, and the pollution’s getting worse, and we’ve gotta change our lifestyles to save it,’ really doesn’t get you anywhere.” And with three-quarters of the US population living near waterways, hundreds of millions of Americans are affected by unregulated pollution. The trick is getting us all to care.

Note: I wasn't aware PBS would be advertising this program on our site until after I watched and reviewed Poisoned Waters. —S.A.

 

Not Enough Fine Print in the Food Safety Bill

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 1:08 PM EDT

Recently Kiera Butler wrote that the Food Safety Modernization Act 2009, or HR 875, will not mean the end of organic farming if it passes. Well, the bill may not send the feds tromping through your backyard basil patch, but it's certainly worth questioning—along with the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act, or HR 759, also currently in the House. For local farmers whose produce doesn't reach the conventional food industry, how legislators construe 875 could have dire consequences.

Sure, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), 875's sponsor, likely doesn't intend to sap the livelihoods of small farmers. But as far as I can tell, neither 875 nor 759 take into account the need for separate regulations according to farm size and financial capacity. If we really do intend to bolster small farmers, rather than letting them struggle to keep up with legislation that, by default, favors corporate farms, the bills need to be more discerning. One example?

Come Talk Trash With Us

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 11:29 AM EDT

After last week's organic food online forum, we're ready for the next course. This week's topic: recycling and waste. The modern recycling movement got its start alongside the first Earth Day, nearly 40 years ago this week. Since then, recycling's gone mainstream: Americans now recycle and compost a third of their trash, up from just 6 percent in 1970. Yet, as detailed in the current issue of Mother Jones, we're generating more waste than ever before. In just 5 minutes, we use another 1,060,000 aluminum cans, 2 million plastic bottles, and 15 million sheets of paper. We're still drowning in plastic, New York recycles only a fifth of its garbage, and trash haulers still find landfill more profitable than recycling. Then consider that municipal solid waste—that's the stuff that fills our home garbage cans and office paper bins—is just 2.5 percent of our total "Gross National Trash" output. While we've been agonizing over whether our plastic yogurt lids can be recycled, have we been missing the big picture? Is recycling giving us a false sense that we're solving our waste problem?

We put that question to four experts: Elizabeth Royte, Eric Lombardi, Annie Leonard, and Susan Strasser. Check out some highlights from their answers below the jump. Or head on over to our recycling online forum, which kicks off today. For the rest of this week, our panelists will be checking in to respond to readers, discuss and debate the future of recycling and waste, and perhaps even solve the mystery of the yogurt lid.