Blue Marble - May 2009

200-Plus New Frogs in Madagascar

| Tue May 5, 2009 8:18 PM EDT

Somewhere between 129 and 221 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar—nearly double the known amphibian fauna on the island. The new study suggests that biodiversity in this biodiversity hotspot has been significantly underestimated, even in well-known and well-studied national parks.

"People think we know which plant and animal species live on this planet," says Miguel Vences of the Technical University of Braunschweig, one of the authors. "But the century of discoveries has only just begun—the majority of life forms on Earth is still awaiting scientific recognition."

In the 15 years prior to these findings, researchers had discovered and described over 100 new frog species from Madagascar and believed their species inventory to be nearly complete.

But the new surveys show far more species than suspected. The results come from DNA sequencing of 2,850 specimens of amphibians at 170 sites. The data don't show suggest more individual amphibians living in Madagascar—only more species diversity. Which means the new species are likely fragile and less populous.

The new research also implies that total biodiversity of all species on Madagascar could be higher than previously thought. Therefore the continuing destruction of rainforest in Madagascar may be affecting more species than we know.

Although many reserves and national parks have been created in the past ten years, real protection on the ground is thin. Madagascar has already lost more than 80 percent of its historic rainforest.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that nearly one-quarter of the new species were discovered in unprotected areas.
 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Note to Self: Avoid Surgery in Georgia

| Mon May 4, 2009 8:32 PM EDT

Doesn't "wrong-site" surgery sound oh so much friendlier than "Oops, we removed the wrong breast?"

From the AJC:

A surgical team at Northside Hospital was supposed to remove one of the patient’s breasts — but performed a double mastectomy because of a mistake, state records show. At Atlanta Medical Center, a surgeon drilled into the wrong side of a patient’s head before discovering the error. At several Georgia hospitals, doctors circumcised the wrong babies, performing the procedure against their parents’ wishes in cases at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital and Cartersville Medical Center. At others, doctors mistakenly operated on the wrong hand, knee, hip, leg, hernia and other body parts.

In Georgia, wrong site surgeries apparently get reported once a month. And it's not just a problem in the South: Pennsylvania's even worse.

I wonder how many of these mistakes are related to sleep deprivation in doctors, don't you?

[H/T ProPublica.]

Asian Mercury Crossing the Ocean

| Mon May 4, 2009 6:18 PM EDT

A fascinating new study documents for the first time how mercury gets from smokestacks in Asia to tuna on dinner tables in America. Scientists sampled Pacific Ocean water from 16 sites between Honolulu and Alaska, then constructed a computer model linking atmospheric emissions, transport and deposition of mercury, and ocean circulation.

Their findings published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles show how mercury originating from fossil-fuel-burning plants and waste-burning plants in Asia falls into the Pacific Ocean near the Asian coastline. The mercury-enriched waters are then carried by large ocean currents east towards North America.

The study documents for the first time something of the mysterious process by which mercury becomes methylmercury in the ocean. The simple version: Mercury rained down from the atmosphere is taken up by phytoplankton living in sunlit waters. When these plankton die they rain down into the depths where they're decomposed by bacteria. The process of decomposition turns mercury into methylmercury.

Methylmercury is an environmental neurotoxicant that rapidly bioaccumulates in the foodweb, eventually concentrating in top-tier predators like tunas and humans. Some 40 percent of human exposure to mercury in the US comes from eating tuna hunted in the Pacific Ocean. Pregnant women who consume mercury-laden seafood can pass on life-long developmental effects to their children.

Since the Industrial Revolution anthropogenic mercury levels in the atmosphere have risen threefold, with corresponding increases in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This study found mercury levels in water samples rose an alarming 30 percent between the mid 1990s and 2006. That's hardly the end of it though. The authors predict another 50 percent increase in the Pacific by 2050 if emission rates continue as projected.

Yet another reason to we can't tread water on fossil fuels. Too bad Australia's Kevin Rudd just did a spineless jellyfish backflip on climate change. As if the economy is disconnected from the environment.
 

Shell Won't Have To Pay for Pesticide Mess

| Mon May 4, 2009 5:10 PM EDT

Taxpayers, get ready to spend more to clean up hazardous-waste sites. With a precedent-setting decision, the Supreme Court just made it a little easier for companies who are involved in environmental contamination to pass the buck to the government.

Here's what happened: Shell Oil sold millions of dollars worth of pesticides to an agricultural company called Brown & Bryant, which stored the chemicals improperly. Later, the company went out of business, and it was discovered that those cheicals had contaminated the nearby land, which was later designated a Superfund site.

Treehugger points out that this case raises some interesting (and potentially troubling) questions about corporate culpability:

...once a company sells hazardous chemicals, is it responsible for ensuring they're kept safe? Or is it out of their hands entirely? Should companies that lease land to businesses that have potentially dangerous environmental practices be responsible for the safeguarding of that land? Or should the government have to pick up the tab in unfortunate situations like this[?]

 

 

Friday Cocktail: Smart Wind, Sun for the Poor, Sinking TV

| Fri May 1, 2009 6:36 PM EDT

Round 1: Smart turbine blades improve wind power. That's the hope of researchers using sensors and computational software to constantly monitor forces on wind turbine blades and rapidly adjust to changing wind conditions. Engineers at Purdue U and Sandia National Laboratories believe a smarter turbine can also provide critical real-time information to prevent damage from high winds.

The sensor-embedded blades are now being tested at a USDA lab in Texas. The sensors will help develop future blades with control surfaces and simple flaps capable of changing the aerodynamics, something like an airplane wing. The US is now the largest harvester of wind energy in the world, surpassing Germany. But the question remains: How to make wind energy safer for birds and bats. We need smart tech on that too.

Round 2: Some 70 percent of rural households in India lacks electricity and more than 60 percent use kerosene lamps for lighting. Kerosene is expensive, inefficient, potentially dangerous, and a major source of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, India averages 250 to 300 sunny days a year. Solar could provide a greater equivalence of energy than the country’s total consumption.

The nonprofit Sadguru Foundation supplied 100 solar lanterns to socially and economically disadvantaged households in 25 Gujarati villages, 70 percent of which are connected to the power grid but don’t receive power in the morning or evening when energy is redirected to cities. The lanterns reduced villagers’ expenditures on kerosene and electricity between $150 and $250 a year. That particularly benefited schoolchildren and women who received six hours of clean dependable light during times at home they really need it. Seems like an idea worth growing.

Round 3: As I wrote some time back, the Pacific nation of Tuvalu—all nine coral atolls of it—is suffering from rising sea levels. Now boingboing via Wreck & Salvage reports that Internet domain registrar GoDaddy is advising against buying a .net domain name. Why? Because Tuvalu owns and leases all .tv names—its country code. Don't buy, says GoDaddy, "because it’s sinking." Which floats the question: What becomes of the meager resources of a tiny nation when and if that nation no longer has any landmass to call its own? Maybe if we allocate enough of Round 1 & 2 (above), when Tuvalu does inevitably disappear beneath the waves, there will be a clean new homeland thay can still call .tv.