Blue Marble - June 2009

Cute Endangered Animal of the Week: Hawaiian Monk Seal

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 7:01 AM EDT

The cute, endangered animal for this week is the state mammal of Hawaii, the Hawaiian Monk Seal. According to forbidding signs posted on Hawaiian beaches, the monk seal is "one of the most endangered species in the world," with only 1,400 individuals. The Hawaiian Monk Seal lives in the quiet Northwestern islands of Hawaii like Kawa'i whose golden beaches and jungled peaks appear in movies from South Pacific to Jurassic Park. If you do happen to see a monk seal, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking they're dead since the animals always seem to be lying comatose on the sand while warm Hawaiian waves crash over their rotund bodies. Approaching the be-whiskered beasts is a federal crime, and a health risk: because these seals evolved without human contact, they have little fear of people and will bite. Hard.

When not lazing under a tropical sun, monk seals eat fish, squid, and even lobster when they can get it, reaching up to 600 lbs in weight and 7 feet in length. Continuing commercial development, disease, fishing nets, and global warming are current threats to the seal population, especially to new mothers who do not eat and lose hundreds of pounds while nursing their young for six months. As human development continues, Hawaiian Monk Seals are being seen on the more inhabited islands of Hawaii: the Center for Biological Diversity,  Ocean Conservancy, and (as of last week) NOAA are proposing the federal government expand the protected seal habitat to include the main islands, but no word yet on when, or if, the government will revise the seals' protected range. 

To learn more about the Hawaiian Monk Seal and see a gallery of pictures, you can visit the Kaua'i Monk Seal Watch Program's website here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Just Another Meatless Monday

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 6:07 PM EDT

 Just in case you needed yet another reason to go veggie, Sir Paul McCartney is lending his jowly, loveable face to Meatless Monday, a campaign to get everybody to give up meat, on Mondays. If you're still reeling from PETA's Sea Kittens campaign, rest easy—this one is about people, not animals. Tofu-pushers at The Monday Campain and Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health say that reducing America's meat consumption by just 15% would combat obesity (and its related ailments) and shrink our carbon footprint. All we have to do is skip the Mini Sirloin Burgers.

Right. As an apolitical vegetarian, I was skeptical. Then I read some of The Monday's statistics (you can follow the footnotes at the bottom of the page). Did you know, for example, that 16 oz of red meat (about 1.5 Big Macs) requires 2,000 gallons of water to raise? Maybe it ought to be a meatless Monday after all. 

 

Geoengineering's Day in the Sun?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 5:43 PM EDT

This weekend, the Washington Post reported on a simple step Americans can take to mitigate the effects of climate change: painting our roofs white.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu explained that white paint "changes the reflectivity...of the Earth, so the sunlight comes in, it's reflected back into space," pointing out that roof painting is "something very simple that we can do immediately." He's right. Small-scale bright, green ideas like painting our roofs white and keeping our tires inflated are not only easy, they're also pretty cheap. 

Matt Yglesias also supports the white-roof strategy, but worries that it could lead to more obstructive tactics like blocking out the sun and changing the structure of clouds which "could have extremely dangerous unintended consequences and pose all sorts of problems."

Yikes. I'm not convinced that roof painting is a slippery slope toward geoengineering. But Yglesias is right that these ideas have been gaining traction. John Holdren, one of President Obama's top science advisors, told the AP in April that we might consider sending pollution particles into the atmosphere to deflect the sun's rays before they reach earth. Even though this method could have dangerous side effects, Holdren said, "we might get desperate enough to want to use it." And the US responded to a 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a statement saying that "modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy" to battle climate change. 

Hasn't anyone else seen The Simpsons? Anyone?

Can Jet Stream Winds Power The World?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 5:27 PM EDT

There's enough power in high altitude winds to power all of modern civilization. A new study in Energies analyzes where the best winds flow.

Obviously, the jetstream powers along like a jet. At 30,000 feet, winds are far steadier and 10 times faster than winds near the ground.

A variety of tech schemes have been proposed to harvest this energy, including tethering kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream. Current designs could generate 40 megawatts of electricity and transmit it to the ground via the tether.

So where do the Earth's jet streams run most strongly and consistently? The researchers assessed wind power density from 28 years of data, taking into account wind speed and air density at different altitudes. The highest wind power densities appear in the polar jet streams:

  • over Japan and eastern China
  • over the eastern coast of the United States
  • over southern Australia
  • over north-eastern Africa


The median values in those places were greater than 10 kilowatts per square meter. Even the best winds on the ground generate less than 1 kilowatt per square meter.

Of five major citites assessed, Tokyo, Seoul, and New York have enormous potential. (New York claims the highest average high-altitude wind power density of any U.S. city, about 16 kilowatts per square meter.) Tropical Mexico City and Sao Paulo are rarely affected by the polar jet streams, and just occasionally by the weaker subtropical jets, so their wind power densities are lower.

However, even the powerhose citites get windless times about 5 percent of the time. Which means we'll need back-up power, or massive amounts of energy storage, or a continental or even global electricity grid to make it work. 

Worldwide infrastructure? Worldwide cooperation? Or War of the Winds?
 

PEER Lambastes Obama's Fish & Wildlife Nominee

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblity, the eco watchdog group, came out swinging against President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For the past dozen years, Sam Hamilton has overseen the 10-state FWS Southeastern Region, where numerous endangered species battles are being fought between environentalists and developers in fast growing states such as Florida. PEER is unimpressed with how Hamilton handled those fights, noting that he "did not protect science from political interference or scientists from retaliation."

As a case in point, PEER notes the decision of Hamilton's team to green-light suburban sprawl in shrinking Florida panther habitat. The decision falsely inflated the size and viability of the panther population, to the point that Hamilton's region was rebuked by none other than Steve Williams, the FWS director under George W. Bush. Even so, Hamilton took no disciplinary action against any of the managers involved and "several of the scientific deficiencies persist today," PEER says.

Apparently, this was not an isolated incident. In a 2005 survey of FWS scientists working in Hamilton's region, 49 percent cited cases where "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdraw of scientific conclusions," 46 percent said they'd been "directed for non-scientific reasons . . .to refrain from making findings that are protective of species," and 36 percent feared retailiation for raising concerns about species and habitats. Most damming, less than a quarter of respondents felt Hamilton would "stand up for scientific staff or supervisors who take controversial stands."

In short, Hamilton seems at best a pliable bureaucrat. Maybe that makes him a convienent pick for the Obama administration, but he doesn't seem likely to reverse Bush's environmental legacy any more than he's asked to.

Friday June 12 Eco-News Round-Up

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 7:01 AM EDT

Science, health, and environmental stories from our other blogs you might have missed from Friday and the weekend:

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

U.S. Senate Covers Our Butts

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 7:15 PM EDT

Almost by mistake, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that could greatly benefit the environment. By a margin of 79-17, Senators approved a bill that will allow the Food and Drug Administration to place substantial regulations on tobacco products. Most of the regulations are aimed at reducing the number of people who begin smoking at a young age by banning fruit-flavored cigarettes and cartoonish packaging and ads aimed at children. Such efforts would undoubtedly improve the nation’s collective health. But applying higher taxes and stricter rules to tobacco product sales could also clean up the stain cigarettes leave on the planet.

BUTTsOUT, an international organization dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of smoking, reports that 4.3 trillion cigarettes are disposed on the side of roads, in water sources, and in public parks every year. And cigarette butts, which take more than 25 years to decompose, account for more than 50 percent of all litter in most western countries. Growing tobacco contaminates water supplies, destroys soil, and consumes almost four miles of paper every hour during the factory rolling process.

This legislation is good news for the 440,000 smokers that cigarettes kill each year. And if it can clean up tobacco's environmental mess at the same time? We'll all breathe a little easier.

Life & Death Simulations

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 6:59 PM EDT

First, check out this vivid simulation of the ugly synergy between population growth and C02 emissions. It's called Breathing Earth and it simulates realtime births outpacing deaths as carbon dioxide emissions spew at ~1,000-tons a second.

Too bad we can't turn Breathing Earth into the default screensaver on all new computers. Maybe: from screensaver to worldsaver.

Another interesting simulation, this one published in an upcoming PNAS, describes how Earth's 1-billion-year lifespan can be more than doubled by adjusting atmospheric pressure.

[Simply put: the only reason we can't breath easily atop Mount Everest is not because there's less oxygen in the air. In fact there's the same amount of oxygen at 29,000 feet as there is as at sea level. What's different is a greatly reduced atmospheric pressure that causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed over a much greater volume of space.]

Well, about a billion years from now, believe it or not, greenhouse Earth will fail. Ever-increasing radiation from our aging sun will heat Earth to the point where atmospheric C02—the kickstarter for plants that turn inorganic sunlight into organic life—will have been pulled out of the air by weathering rocks. Oceans will evaporate. The atmosphere will burn away. All life will disappear.

But Caltech researchers propose a solution: Reduce the total pressure of the atmosphere itself by removing massive amounts of molecular nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the mostly nonreactive gas comprising 78 percent of the atmosphere. Removing a bunch of it would regulate surface temperatures and allow C02 to stay alive in the atmosphere and support life for an additional 1.3 billion years.

Strikingly, no external influence [read: intelligent life or intelligent design] is necessary to remove N. The biosphere will accomplish this task all by itself—since nitrogen is incorporated into the cells of living organisms and is sequestered with them when they die.

In fact this reduction may already be underway. Earth's atmospheric pressure may be lower now than it was earlier in the planet's history. To assess this, some researchers are examining gas bubbles formed in ancient lavas to determine past atmospheric pressure.

 

Composting vs Methane Capture: A Climate Smackdown

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 1:56 PM EDT

Across the pungent world of waste, a climate debate has been raging. Which is better: turning yard clippings and food scraps into compost, or landfilling them and capturing the methane that they release to produce energy?

Last month, I happened across this question while riding in a muddy pickup across the top of Altamont Landfill, a 30-story hill of garbage run by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collection outfit. "To me, I think it's good to have more organics in the garbage," operations manager Neil Wise told me. Organic matter in landfills generates methane, a potent and flamable greenhouse gas; Altamont currently captures enough methane to power 8,500 homes.

On the other side of this debate is the City of San Francisco, which this week voted to make composting lawn clippings and food scraps mandatory for every city resident. The nutrient-rich product fertilizes more than 200 Bay Area vineyards. Composting advocates worry that outfitting more landfills with "methane wells," possibly with the aid of carbon offsets created through a climate bill, will detract from those efforts. 

Here's my take: While capturing methane from landfills is certainly worthwhile, evidence suggests that composting is far better. A nine-year study by the Rodale Institute, to be published in the next issue of Compost Science and Utilization, a peer-reviewed journal, found that applying compost to cropland sequestered a staggering 10,802 pounds more carbon dioxide per hectare each year than farming with conventional manure fertilizer. That's more than the yearly emissions of a Chevy Impala. "That's a pretty big deal," says Rodale research director Paul Hepperly, the author of the study. "When you are composting, you are stablizing the carbon" in organic matter.

And though capturing methane at a landfill also reduces greenhouse gasses, it can't match composting's associated benefits. Compared to raw manure, Rodale also found that compost applied to farmland led to a 600 percent reduction in nitrate leaching, which can pollute steams and groundwater, and improved the soil's retention of water by a factor of three. "This relates to looking at things wholistically," Hepperly said, adding that the ultimate goal should be an "agricultural system that invests more in our environment and takes less out of our resources."

 

This Week In Frog: Name Results/Our Foreclosed Palace

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 6:59 AM EDT

In case you missed it, last week we interns started a Frog Blog to compete with Kevin Drum's catblogging. This week, we decided to overhaul our little fellow's tank. One side effect of the Great Recession is that people are realizing how expensive it is to be pet owners. Thus, we were able to find a ten gallon tank complete with filter, a castle, artificial plants, eight pounds of gravel, a piece of driftwood, large rocks, a net, cleaning solution, food, and six fish that needed adopting—all for $30 on Craigslist. 

frog-1.jpg (JPEG Image, 300x200 pixels)

Yesterday, we added six snails to the mix to keep the tank squeaky clean. Only after introducing the snails to their new frog neighbor did we realize that we'd accidentally acquired a stowaway fish as well in the water-filled pet store bag, bringing our grand tank total to seven.

frog-3.jpg (JPEG Image, 300x200 pixels)

As for the long-awaited naming results...After much consideration, we decided to stick with the traditional "Smart, Fearless Journalism" theme...With that, we introduce MUDRAKER.