Blue Marble - May 2009

Right Whales Found on Old Grounds

| Wed May 20, 2009 7:06 PM EDT

Another good day on the whale front. Scientists have documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area the species was believed extinct.

Using underwater hydrophones, a team from Oregon State University and NOAA recorded more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations off the southern tip of Greenland—on the Cape Farewell Ground, site of legendary 19th-century whaling operations.

Although only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, the hydrophones located right whales at three widely space sites on the same day. Even three whales is significant since the entire population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated at only 300 to 400 whales. Plus there are likely/hopefully more.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that—contrary to general belief—remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

The discovery is important not least because this is an area that could be opened to shipping if polar ice continues to melt. Slow-moving right whales are extremely vulnerable to collisions with ships.

The pattern of recorded calls suggests that the whales moved from the southwest portion of the region in a northeasterly direction in late July and then returned in September—putting them directly in the path of proposed shipping lanes.

"Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region," said Phillip Clapham, right whale expert with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, who participated in the study. "It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population."

Results of the study were presented this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.
 

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Waxman's Climate Bill Speed Reader

| Wed May 20, 2009 11:11 AM EDT

To throw off Rep. Henry Waxman's ambitious plan to deliver a final climate change bill by Memorial Day, the House GOP suggested they might attempt a procedural stall tactic. If Waxman had the audacity to fast-track the controversial legislation through his energy and commerce committee, then committee Republicans said they might force the 900-plus page bill, along with several hundred pages of amendments, to be read aloud. But Waxman wasn't about to let some GOP obstructionism slow down the landmark legislation. Just in case his Republican colleagues attempted this ploy, Waxman hired a speed reader, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A committee spokeswoman said the speed reader—a young man who was on door duty at the hearing as he awaited a call to the microphone—was hired to help staffers. After years of practice, the panel's clerks can read at a good clip. But the speed reader is a lot faster, she said.

"Judging by the size of the amendments, I can read a page about every 34 seconds," said the newly hired staff assistant, who declined to give his name. Based on that estimate, it would take him about nine hours.

This doesn't mean Waxman will meet his self-imposed deadline. Committee Republicans, determined to hold the bill up as long as they can, have snowed the legislation under with hundreds of amendments—only a handful of which the committee was able to tackle after hours of debate on Tuesday. "We might as well plan on being here all next week,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the committee's ranking Republican member and a notorious climate change skeptic. “Bring your sleeping bags.”
 

A Roadmap for Canada's Tar Sands

| Mon May 18, 2009 8:54 PM EDT

With the price of oil in the bucket, environentalists have been acting as if Canada's speculative tar sands boom is all but dead. They shouldn't. A report released today by the energy consultancy IHS CERA predicts a nearly 80 percent increase in tar sands production by 2035, and that's assuming strong environmental regulation, weak growth, and low oil prices. Should things work out better for Big Oil, the tar sands will pump out five times the crude they do now and account for a staggering 37 percent of U.S. oil imports.

CERA suggests that this might not be such a bad thing. In an analysis of 11 previous studies, it found that "well-to-wheels" greenhouse gas production from the tar sands is only 5 to 15 percent higher than the average crude oil processed in the United States. Last year, I reported that a team of UC Berkeley researchers had calculated a 30 percent well-to-wheels difference. Either figure is significant when multiplied a potential tar sands output of 6.3 million barrels per day.

Factor in devastation to Canada's boreal forests, streams, and native communities, and the swap of climate security for energy security seems even more faustian. Once we exhaust the tar sands, we'll move on to liquefied coal, which emits 80 percent more greenhouse gasses than regular oil, and then oil shale, which spews twice as much. When will it all end? And more important, what will the weather look like?

New Evolution: 100 Proofs

| Mon May 18, 2009 5:02 PM EDT

Genes have long been considered the only way biological traits are passed down through generations of organisms. Now we know that non-genetic variations acquired during the lifespan of a plant or animal can be passed along to its offspring.

The phenomenon is known as epigenetic inheritance. We don't yet know how prolific this mechanism is. But a new study in The Quarterly Review of Biology lists more than 100 well-documented cases of epigenetic inheritance between generations of organisms.

In other words, non-DNA inheritance happens a lot more than we thought. For example:

  • Fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes—bristly outgrowths on their eyes—down at least 13 generations.
  • Exposing a pregnant rat to a chemical that alters reproductive hormones leads to generations of sick offspring.


In these and 97 other cases the changes in subsequent generations were not from changes in DNA but from epigenetics.

There are four known mechanisms for epigenetic inheritance. The best known involves on-off switches (sort of) that render genes active or inactive—without actually changing the DNA. The revelations of epigenetics are rewriting the study of evolution. And no, epigentics does not make creationism right.

The rewrite is a vindication of sorts for 18th-century naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, whose writings predated Charles Darwin's and who believed that evolution was driven in part by the inheritance of acquired traits.

His wonkiest supposition: Giraffe ancestors reached with their necks to munch leaves high in trees, stretching their necks to become slightly longer—a trait passed on to descendants.
 

More accurate: All the stuff we're synthesizing and creating from plastics to nanomaterials is going to live in our bodies and take its toll down the generations for a long, long time.

Health Enemy No.1: Climate Change

| Fri May 15, 2009 6:57 PM EDT

The authors of a UK climate report issued this week say that climate change is "the biggest global health problem of the 21st century" and is likely killing people right now. The report was created jointly by doctors and climatologists from The Lancet and University College London. The report's authors assert that climate change is inextricably linked to global health, and needs to be treated as an emergency by policy-makers because it has the potential to wipe out "all the gains that we've seen in global health... improvements in child mortality, improvements in maternal mortality... over the past 20 or 30 years."

As Dr. David McCoy from University College London puts it, the current situation is dire. "Even today there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are probably dying, most certainly living in an undernourished situation, as a result of climate change," says McCoy. "So it's really affecting the lives of people today."

Certainly that seems to be the case in Somalia where the fourth year of drought, the worst in a decade, is killing cattle and depleting food stores to the point that the nation is being pushed toward famine. There's no confirmation yet that this specific drought is climate-change related, but if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees centigrade as they're expected to, it will be just the first drought of many. (For the record, Africans produce far less greenhouse gas emissions per capita than North Americans.) As the UK report forecasts, water and food shortages and extreme weather patterns have the potential to kill far more people, especially in developing nations, than the increased spread of infectious diseases. Dr. McCoy says, "It was urgent 30 years ago. And I don't think it'd be alarmist to say it's reached emergency levels in terms of the kind of response we need today."

Friday Cocktail: Magnetic Fridges, Nuclear Soybeans, and The Amazing Invisible Endangered Species Day

| Fri May 15, 2009 6:23 PM EDT

Round 1: How about refrigerators and air conditioners using 30% less energy and producing no ozone-depleting chemicals or greenhouse gases? Well, scientists are a step closer to making magnetic systems that could reduce summer energy use in the US by 50%.

Here's the recipe: Apply a magnetic field to a magnetic material like a metallic alloy to heat it. Remove the excess heat by water and cool the material down to its original temperature. Remove the magnetic field to cool  the material further. Harness this cooling for stuff like fridges and air conditioners.

How close are we? The technology is possible in the lab. Researchers are looking for improved materials to provide highly efficient cooling at room temps that can be used over and over again. A new study in Advanced Materials suggests the pattern of crystals inside different alloys affects how well they perform as magnetic fridges.

Translation: It's all in the microstructure. Or: Don’t hold your breath—but expect cool stuff in the future.

Round 2: How have postnuclear plants survived in Chernobyl? The answer: Strangely but effectively, reports Science Now. Researchers planted soybeans inside the 19-mile restricted zone just 3 miles from the remains of the mangled power plant. They also planted soybeans 60 miles from the plant where cesium-137 levels are much lower—then harvested all the mature beans and analyzed their proteins.

The radiation-zone beans looked weird. They weighed half as much and took up water more slowly. On a molecular level they got even stranger—with three times more of a protein that protects plants by binding heavy metals and 32% more of a compound known to reduce chromosomal abnormalities in irradiated human blood. There were also either more or less seed-storage proteins to help germinate the contaminated seeds.

Timothy Mousseau, biologist at the U of South Carolina Columbia who studies Chernobyl-area wildlife, says the research is novel and addresses an important societal question, given the interest in developing nuclear energy worldwide. If we understand how plants respond to radiation we could engineer crops to withstand—or even sequester—nuclear contamination.

Lovely thought.

Round 3: Just in case you thought there was much of any interest in endangered species (that is, unless they're black-and-white and big and round and eat bamboo), think again. Today is Endangered Species Day. Woo-hoo.

What's on the menu? Mostly a ploy to get people to visit those mostly sad places known as zoos and marine parks. Or so it seems to me.

What would be better? How about a national holiday to commemorate the 1 in 4 mammal species, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 3 conifers… you get the idea… struggling to survive and—by the way—that provide the ecosystem services that keep us alive? How about a bank holiday for all of us to go outside and think about that?
 

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Ultrasound Kills Red Tides

| Thu May 14, 2009 5:57 PM EDT

Dangerous red tides that kill fish and marine mammals and are toxic, even carcinogenic, to humans, might be destroyed using bursts of ultrasound.

Researchers at the U of Hull in the UK experimented with ultrasound on a species of algae that can cause respiratory disease and liver cancer in humans, reports New Scientist.

The team tested three frequencies of ultrasound on Anabaena sphaerica. All worked, though the 1-megahertz band was most effective—probably by bursting the buoyancy cells filled with nitrogen that keep the algae afloat.

Of course, you've got to ask what else the sound might be killing.

In response: The researchers believe ultrasound could be targeted to individual species of algae and the resonant frequency of their buoyancy cells. In theory, this wouldn't damage regular plant cells, which are relatively impervious to pressure waves.

These high frequencies are also absorbed rapidly in water. At 1 megahertz the effective radius is less than 60 feet. That's good in that it limits the affected zone but bad in that it would be a lot of work to cover a big bloom.

The study also doesn't acknowledge—as far as I can tell—the fact that when a whole bunch of algae die and sink to the bottom they fuel a bloom of decomposers who suck up all the available oxygen in the water—turning a red tide into a dead zone.

Hmm.

Still, it might be a way to nip a bloom in the bud. Though we still need to tackle all those annoying onshore factors that grow red tides in the first place, like fertilizer and manure run-off from abusively unsustainable agricultural practices.

The paper's in Applied Acoustics.
 

Sewage Sows Superbugs

| Wed May 13, 2009 5:51 PM EDT

Wastewater treatment plants create a hedonistic mating ground for antibiotic-resistant superbugs that are eventually discharged into streams and lakes.

A new study sampled water near five sewage plants around Ann Arbor, Michigan, and found superbugs—bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics—up to 100 yards downstream from the discharge point in the Huron River. (Next: the researchers are going to look further than 100 yards away.)

While the total number of Acinetobacter bacteria left in the discharge effluent declined dramatically after treatment, the remaining bacteria were significantly more resistant to multiple antibiotics than upstream bacteria.

Ooops.

Some strains resisted as many as seven of eight antibiotics tested.

Twenty or 30 years ago, antibiotics would have killed most of these strains. But multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria have emerged as a serious global health issue thanks to the overuse and abuse of antibiotics.

The researchers conclude the problem isn't that treatment plants aren't cleaning the water. It's that they aren't equipped to remove antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals entering the treatment plants.

Therefore wastewater treatment becomes a fertile brew for the creation of superbugs. Good bacteria grow and replicate along with the bad and in the confined space they share resistant genetic materials, effectively selecting for multidrug resistance.

Wow. Unintelligent design in action.

Here's my favorite part of the press release about this paper in Science of The Total Environment: "While scientists learn more about so-called superbugs, patients can do their part by not insisting on antibiotics for ailments that antibiotics don't treat, such as a common cold or the flu."

Patient, heal thyself.

How Much Is That Baby in the Window?

| Tue May 12, 2009 2:50 PM EDT

Slate has an alarming piece on the sordid truth behind international adoption. As we've noted before, it often isn't so much adopting as kidnapping. From Slate:

Who wants to buy a baby? Certainly not most people who are trying to adopt internationally. And yet too often—without their knowledge—that's what happens with their dollars and euros.
Westerners have been sold a myth that poor countries have millions of healthy abandoned infants and toddlers who need homes. But it's not so. In poor countries, as in rich ones, healthy babies are rarely orphaned or given up except in China, where girls have been abandoned as a result of its draconian one-child policy.

The piece includes a haunting and very descriptive slide show of exactly how the families left behind, usually mothers, suffer. And how the brokers get very, very rich. Makes Malawi's dissing of Madonna make a lot more sense. [Read Meet the Parents: The Dark Side of Overseas Adoption for MoJo's special report on the same subject.]

Video: The Story of Stuff

| Mon May 11, 2009 10:56 PM EDT

The inconvenient truth about the Inconvenient Truth approach to green pedagogy is that by the time Gore moves past the gloom to What You Can Do, you're too depressed to do more than clutch the nearest stuffed penguin and click on Animal Planet. Not so Annie Leonard's 20-minute Story of Stuff viral kiddie video, an adorable, doomtastic, animated homage to How We're All Killing the Planet (with cuteness and plastic bottles, mainly).

Watch the video below, then pass it on to a teacher you know along with our Waste Not, Want Not special report on the full story of Stuff.

From NYT: