Blue Marble - June 2009

Weird Weather Watch: Siberian Heat Wave

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

If you know anything about Siberia, it is that Siberia is cold . You may also associate it with gulags, Stalin, or the USSR's forced relocation of various ethnic groups, but even if you don't, the cold you've heard about. In fact, Siberia is home to Oymyakon, a hamlet of 800, and the coldest continuously inhabited place on the planet.

This past winter, Oymyakon hosted droves of Russian reporters in huge fur jackets who had come to report on an especially cold winter. Twice, temperatures dropped to -60.2 C, or nearly -86 F, marking one of the coldest winters the village of once-nomadic reindeer herders has suffered in nearly a century.  It was so cold, Russia Today reported, that human life virtually ground to a halt. 

 

But not these days. Today (which is really tomorrow there) , and yesterday, and for the past two weeks, Oymyakon has been in the grips of an unprecedented heatwave. On Thursday, temperatures were recorded at just under 32 C, or nearly 90 degrees. (32.6 C is the highest ever recorded temperature), with weekend temperatues in the high 80s.

What does it mean? This past Tuesday, the White House released a report saying that global warming has already begun to affect Americans . Could climate change be altering Siberia's famous frigidity too?

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This Week in Frog: An Awesome Frogumentary

| Fri Jun. 19, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the California Academy of Sciences weekly nightlife gathering. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that at the event was a special screening of a documentary film titled Frogs: The Thin Green Line.

Whereas I thought that human development was the only major problem causing frogs' rapid worldwide decline, the film made me aware of the many other threats facing frogs, their critical importance in the food chain, and steps that humans are taking to prevent further extinction of frog populations.

Fortunately, even if you missed the documentary on the big screen, you can watch it in its entirety online (click here!).

Sidenote: Our Mother Jones office frog, Mudraker, is doing very well. He spends his days in and around his castle and he is most active in the evenings. Also, all 7 of our fish are still alive and the community is thriving.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, June 19

| Fri Jun. 19, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

Lots of Blue Marble-ish news afoot on this Friday. Here's a sampling:

Side deals! Side deals! Who wants a side deal?: Word has it that Waxman and Markey are desperately chasing after midwestern Dem support for their climate bill. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Kevin Drum.

Photo of the Day: We're still at war.

Most CO2 ever: Well, practically. Earth has reached its highest concentration in 2.1 million years. So that means people will probably pay attention to Times Square's new 70-foot greenhouse gas ticker, right? Not so much.

Excuse me, waiter, there's a cow in my KFC: Since when is beef a spice?

Times Square's Carbon Ticker

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 4:20 PM EDT

New Yorkers (actually, more like throngs of tourists) will be able to see exactly how many metric tons of greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere in real time, thanks to the new 70-foot-tall carbon ticker that Deutsche Bank unveiled in Times Square today. Deutsche Bank says the ticker itself is carbon neutral: It's made of LEDs, and is offset with carbon credits. (Wonder what kind...)

MoJo contributor Joel Makower, who runs the site GreenBiz. com, points out that the ticker could be overwhelming:

“It’s good to get this information constantly in front of them [people]," says Joel Makower executive editor of GreenBiz.com. At the same time, however, he says that such a huge number could be intimating to some people, who might question whether they could actually make a reduction in those numbers. "Big numbers are impressive, but they make us feel impotent," adds Makower.

The other problem: Metric tons can be hard to wrap your mind around. I guess the point of the ticker is to show how quickly we're dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but a more concrete measure (cars on the road? Power plants? How close we're getting to some kind of tipping point?) might make it all more fathomable, and hence more effective.

HT @makower.

Scientists Discover Super-Smarts in Tiny Fish

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 4:07 PM EDT

Note to humans: We've got some unusual competition in the battle for intellectual superiority, from an unlikely opponent: a 1.5" long fish called the nine-spined stickleback.

If you thought that animals could only learn by Pavlovian methods (just hearing the bell still makes me salivate, due to all of the psychology classes I slept through in college), think again. Earlier this year the stickleback proved itself to be a uniquely intelligent species, as researchers learned that these little fish are "much more willing to take risks in search of food in pairs than alone." But by golly, the little fellows aren't done yet.

DiscoveryNews reports that the nine-spined stickleback (try saying that 10 times fast), "possesses an unusually sophisticated capacity for learning not yet documented in any other animal, aside from humans." These creatures have learned to watch the mistakes of their peers so they don't repeat them, an achievement humans could learn from. This new knowledge was the result of a study done by University of St. Andrews research fellow Jeremy Kendal and his colleagues, who published their findings in Oxford University's Behavioral Ecology journal.

With this significant scientific breakthrough, who knows what else we will learn about our underestimation of animal intelligence in the near future?

There's the Beef! KFC's New Meaty Chicken

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 4:06 PM EDT

KFC's saucy new grilled chicken is made with a marinade of "secret herbs and spices," one of which is "beef powder." Hmm, is beef powder an herb, or a spice? This revelation apparently has people up in arms, and the chicken chain El Pollo Loco has even made commercials about what they are calling false advertising. KFC's response? "Small amounts of beef flavors are commonly used in seasonings for many food products, for both restaurant and retail use."

True.

Remember in 2002 when McDonald's settled a lawsuit (for $10 mil) brought by Hindus and vegetarians for the beef fat in their fries (after they promised they only used vegetable oil)? That companies beef up their products is not surprising: Beef makes things tastes good!

When I read the ingredients in KFC's "better-for-you option for health-conscious customers" grilled chicken I actually get stuck on the MSG (twice, in the marinade and in the seasoning) and the partially hydrogenated oil. Sure, other fast foods are just as bad if not worse. But there are all sorts of things in foods that aren't advertised well for consumers. For example, both Wendy's and Burger King, list "spices" as an ingredient in their chicken sandwiches. Which isn't all that descriptive, maybe they're slipping us the beef as well.

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CO2 Highest in 2 Million Years

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Quick hit: an article in the June 19 issue of Science reports that : CO2 in the atmosphere is now at its highest concentration in 2.1 millions years. Also, that more recent ice ages may have been caused by changes in the Earth's tilt toward the sun, not : CO2 levels. So even though carbon dioxide is higher, it doesn't mean it's going to plunge us back into a cooling trend.

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday, June 18

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Jeez, can't believe it's the middle of June already. Yikes. Well, here's the list of stories from yesterday's Riff, Kevin Drum, and MoJo blogs that touch on Blue Marble subjects: 

Honesty FAIL: Healthcare CEOs tell the House just what slimy stuff they're made of.

Ovation deflation: Obama gets booed by doctors.

What Not to Bear: Some say the gay pride flag needs a makeover. Calling Stacy and Clinton...

Protest bonus round: A few sad people still offended by Letterman's joke, reject nth apology.

Palin's instincts: Kevin Drum admires Palin's political opportunism.

Did Sewage Sludge Lace the White House Veggie Garden With Lead?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 11:25 PM EDT

In March, Michelle Obama delighted locavores when she planted an "organic" vegetable garden on the White House's South Lawn. For years, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other sustainable food activists had been pushing the idea as a way to reseed interest in do-it-yourself agriculture. Less than two months later, the National Park Service disclosed that the garden's soil was contaminated with toxic lead, and the plot's educational value took on a new flavor as the New York Times and other papers discussed how to make urban backyards that are laced with old lead-based paint safe for growing kale and cauliflower. But those stories might have fingered the wrong culprit. 

Starting in the late 1980s and continuing for at least a decade, the South Lawn was fertilized by ComPRO, a compost made from a nearby wastewater plant's solid effluent, a.ka. sewage sludge. Sludge is controversial because it can contain traces of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. Spreading sludge at the White House was a way for the EPA to reassure the public that using it as a fertilizer for crops and yards (instead of dumping it in the ocean, as had been common practice) would be safe. "The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998, "but it's very clean poo."

 

Rainless in Seattle

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 5:21 PM EDT

Spring is traditionally a pretty wet season in America's quintessential rainy city, Seattle. But this year, the Emerald City has become famous for its rare dry spell.

The Seattle Times reports, "If the rain holds off today, Seattle will match the May-June record of consecutive rainless spring days set in 1982. While there have been reports of some very light rain in and around Seattle, no precipitation has reached Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where the National Weather Service measures rain levels. The record for consecutive dry days for May-June is 29."

As observers, all we can do is hope (and perform rain dances). For the record, I'm pretty sure that this drought hasn't been manufactured by the government.

Look on the bright side, no rain is better than acid rain...or is it?