Blue Marble - May 2009

Blue Whales Reconnect Ancient Paths

| Mon May 11, 2009 7:37 PM EDT

The planet’s largest animal may be returning to prewhaling feeding grounds. This according to a new paper in Marine Mammal Science documenting the first known migration of blue whales from California to British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska since the end of commercial whaling (sort of) in 1965.
 
Researchers have seen blues whales off British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska 15 times since 1997. Four of the whales have been previously identified off the coast of California—proving at least some whales are pioneering a return to historical migration patterns.

Blue whales were severely overhunted during commercial whaling in the early 1900’s. The International Whaling Commission enacted a worldwide moratorium (sort of) on commercial whaling in 1966. Since then, blue whales off southern California have recovered slightly. Those farther north never have.  
 
No one knows why the whales seem to be spreading northward now. But the ocean is changing and krill—the primary food of blue whales—might be shifting north too.
 
Blue whales are the largest animal ever to live on Earth, reaching 100 feet and perhaps 100 tons—far larger than any of the dinosaurs. They were hunted nearly to extinction globally and are still listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act and the IUCN Red List. The global population is estimated at only 5,000 to 12,000 animals today. Perhaps 2,000 of these live off the west coast of the US and Canada.

Too bad Japan, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Greenland, the US, Russia, the Faroe Islands, a few Caribbean island nations, and Indonesia still hunt whales in one way or another: bloodlust watered down with euphemism and anachronism gussied up as science.


 

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17-Year Cicadas Arrive Early

| Fri May 8, 2009 9:33 PM EDT

Periodical cicadas best known for their 17-year-long life cycle are emerging four years early in several Atlantic states, including North Caroline and Maryland.

The timing of the emergence is determined during the first five years of the underground development of the juvenile cicadas. Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph and his students have been digging up the insects each year to monitor their growth. They found many cicadas growing faster than expected and predicted their early emergence back in 2000.

The year's emergence is the fifth 17-year cicada brood arriving early. Kritsky described the early appearance of Brood I in 1995 in eastern Ohio, predicted the early appearance of Brood X. Brood XIII appeared early in Chicago in 2003 and Brood XIV accelerated in parts of Indiana and Ohio in 2004. This year's acceleration is overlapping with the distribution of Brood II.

Kritsky's paper to be published in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science suggests that mild winters affect trees that young cicadas feed upon, messing with the insects' timekeeping.

In other words, this phenomenon might be another biological response to warming global temperatures.

Anyone witnessing cicadas this year is asked to report the sighting on this mapping website.
 

TX Women Paying for Own Rape Kits?

| Fri May 8, 2009 10:28 AM EDT

Consider this the Friday edition of the "You Gotta Be Kidding Me" beat: Women in Houston are being forced to pay for processing their own rape kits. So I guess that means that people claiming burglary will have to pay for fingerprint analysis, right? From Click2Houston.com:

Bioelectricity Beats Ethanol

| Thu May 7, 2009 3:33 PM EDT

A new study in Science shows the best way to maximize "miles per acre" from biomass is to convert it to electricity, not ethanol.

Compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also doubling the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

"It's a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before," says study co-author Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.

The researchers performed a life-cycle analysis of bioelectricity versus ethanol technologies, taking into account the energy produced and also the energy consumed in each.

Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass.

A small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass. A comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel 9,000 miles on the highway.

"The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles," says lead author Elliott Campbell of the U of California Merced. "Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren't enough to overcome this.

While the results of the study clearly favor bioelectricity over ethanol, the researchers caution the issues facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex.

"We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate," says David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. "But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs."
 

Freeze-Dried "Typical Diet:" Yours for $800

| Thu May 7, 2009 2:14 PM EDT

Ever wonder whether the nutritional labels on your food are telling the truth? Wonder no more: For just $800, you can order "Typical Diet," two six-ounce bottles of a freeze-dried blend of four days' worth of all your daily recommended fat, protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals, prepared by the US government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

Nutritious and delicious? Maybe not. I'm not sure anyone has ever tasted this concoction (and in fact NIST warns it's not for human consumption"). It's used as a standard against which food manufacturers test the nutritional content of their products. The Guardian points out that fans of Typical Diet might want to check out NIST's other fine food products, which include baby food composite, meat, and a standard issue fish from Lake Superior, methylmercury and all. But the fun doesn't stop there:

Nist offers many kinds of useful and, to the connoisseur, delightful Standard Reference Materials. Its catalogue runs to 145 pages.

Prospective purchasers can peruse page after page of bodily fluids and glops, among them bilirubin, cholesterol and ascorbic acid in frozen human serum. There are other speciality products in dizzying variety: toxic metals in bovine blood, naval brass, domestic sludge and plutonium-242 solution, to name four.

Prices are mostly in the $300-$500 range. There are bargains to be had, including an item called "multi drugs of abuse in urine", on offer at three bottles for $372.

Good news for all you 2012ers out there: Typical Diet doesn't expire till 2016, so you can start stocking up now.  

 

What Color Is the Sky in GOP-land?

| Thu May 7, 2009 8:56 AM EDT

How excruciating it is to be a GOP conservative with any minute strand of integrity or intellectual ability? If you want to see Mike Pence (R-Ind) eviscerated by Chris Matthews for refusing to answer a simple question, watch this.

It's painfully obvious that Pence believes in evolution but has been so Limbaugh-ized, he prefers to babble incoherently rather than say "Yes, I believe in evolution." And global warming, and the need for conservation. By the time it was over, poor Pence was blithering on about belonging to the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who started the national park system and hugged pandas daily. Near as I can tell.

Here's a snippet from HuffPo:

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Today's Science Word: Epizootic

| Wed May 6, 2009 7:24 PM EDT

Sobering news today from ABC Science Online, via Discovery.com:

An epizootic—the wildlife equivalent of a human epidemic—of black band disease has appeared in the Great Barrier Reef, say Australian researchers.
Scientists, who have been monitoring the progress of the disease, say this the first time an epizootic of this type has been documented in Australian waters.

Read Julia Whitty's excellent Fate of the Oceans piece for some sorely needed context on today's news about our seas.

British Columbia Votes on Carbon Tax

| Wed May 6, 2009 4:32 PM EDT

North America's first carbon tax faces a critical test in upcoming elections in British Columbia. The results are likely to ripple across the continent.

Nature News points out that Canadian provincial elections don't normally garner international attention. But economists and environmentalists are viewing the election on May 12th as a test of several climate change policies. 

The incumbent Liberal Party government imposed a carbon tax in British Columbia in July 2008. It's been unpopular with many from the start because it boosted fuel costs during a time of record-high oil prices.

The opposition BC New Democratic Party (NDP) has vowed to "axe the tax," claiming it's ineffective and unfair to populations living in remote locations. Traditionally the NDP has been a greener party than the Liberals—leading some to accuse it now of attacking the carbon tax simply to chase votes in a tight election.

According to Nature News, economist Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the non-profit Carbon Tax Centre in New York, says: "We are keenly interested in watching this unfold. If [the tax] persists, it will give a big boost to the cause in the United States."

During Canada's 2008 federal election, the Liberal party campaigned for a green shift, hoping to put more tax burden onto polluters. They lost a bunch of seats for taking that stance and consequently the idea of a national carbon tax was scrapped.

A battle is also being fought in BC over independent power production. The Liberals have allowed private companies to apply for licenses for small hydroelectric projects that don't require building dams, claiming this is the most efficient way to boost renewable power production. Others claim company profits are incompatible with environmental stewardship and the NDP is campaigning to scrap this scheme too.

Tzeporah Berman of the climate-change advocacy group PowerUp Canada in Vancouver says British Columbia is going through are some of the world's first growing pains in adapting to  real climate policy. "The debate had been all abstract until now," says Berman. "It had been entirely possible to support a phase-out of fossil fuels and build-out in clean energy without having to face what those things mean in practice."

Developments in Canada are interesting to note in terms of a new political science study predicting the Obama presidency will likely break through a structural bias in American politics favoring the status quo and bring about significant changes in policy. The study predicts a shift in policy being twice as large as produced by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, 40 percent larger than Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and twice as large as FDR's election in 1932.

The prediction is based on a "pivotal politics" theory and employs the concept of the "gridlock interval" to assess the likelihood of policy change in Obama administration. You can download the paper [pdf] from PS: Political Science & Politics for free.
 

Weird Bird Smuggling News

| Wed May 6, 2009 4:13 PM EDT

Liquids? Nope. Gels? Nah. Aerosols? Uh-uh. Birds? Ah-ha!

Yesterday, a man attempting to smuggle songbirds into the US from Vietnam was betrayed by his flamboyant leggings:

Sony Dong, 46, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in March after an inspector spotted bird feathers and droppings on his socks and tail feathers peeking out from under his pants, prosecutors said.

"He had fashioned these special cloth devices to hold the birds," said U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek. "They were secured by cloth wrappings and attached to his calves with buttons."

The reason? American collectors shell out $400 per bird. They cost less than $30 each in Vietnam.

In other bird smuggling news, over at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, customs officers discovered that a Nigerian passenger was carrying a souvenir pigeon head concealed in some homemade soap. (HT @noahwilliamgray.)

More bird smuggling stories? Post 'em in the comments.

Cute Animal vs. Global Warming

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:30 PM EDT

The Fish and Wildlife Service said today that it will launch a year-long review to see if the American Pika is endangered by global warming. The American Pika is a small, furry, rabbit-related mammal whose habitat and range, conservationists say, has been severely restricted by global warming. The pika, not to be confused with the jerboa or Pikachu, lives in cold, mountainous regions of the Western US. As those foothills and mountains have warmed, the pika has been forced to make its home in higher elevations. Problem is, there's a limit to how high they can go: the higher the elevation, the smaller the habitat.

If the pika receives endangered status next year, it will be the first mammal in the lower 48 states to receive protection due to global warming. The pika might make a great mascot against global warming. It's small, furry, cute, has big ears and shiny eyes... to further the cuteness factor, the pika communicates with "whistles" and actually gathers wildflowers to nibble on. Take that, polar bears.