Blue Marble - August 2009

Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming

| Sat Aug. 8, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

You can read some kickass good tales in this new anthology, Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming. It's from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Penguin Classics and brings together established writers and fresh voices with personal reflections on global climate change. There's an interactive version of the book you can read free online. Or buy the hardcover. Great stories, some from friends of mine, on everything from climate change on coral reefs to the joys of bicycling.

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Knitting Meets Biology

| Sat Aug. 8, 2009 2:21 PM EDT

Two of my favorite subjects intersect on the blog Why Would You Knit That, complete with a subversive dissection: "Introducing Mr. Knitted Lab Rat and Mr. Knitted Frog:
(I call them "Mr." because I don't see obvious signs of knitted ovaries or a uterus, duh)"

Exxon Ignores 50,000 People and Threatens Rare Whales

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

WWF reports that ExxonMobil has ignored a petition from more than 50,000 people demanding they suspend activities harming the Western gray whale—one of the world’s most endangered whales (Red List: Critically Endangered, only 35 reproductive females left).

Thousands of signatures from around the world were delivered to the CEO of ExxonMobil in Texas and in Moscow just as the first whales arrived at their summer feeding grounds. Sadly, the whales' breeding grounds are ground zero for Exxon’s Sakhalin I oil and gas project.

The petition urges Exxon and other oil companies to suspend all oil and gas development near the whale’s habitat off Sakhalin Island and calls for the creation of the Sakhalin Marine Federal Wildlife Reserve. Despite requests for a response within a two week deadline—and despite ExxocnMobil's claims to "seek to eliminate incidents with environmental impact"—Exxon remains silent.

Longest Odyssey

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 7:39 PM EDT

The Wildlife Conservation Society announced their researchers spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit in Alaska banded in Australia 8,000 miles away. We've known for a while these small birds make epic migrations (I wrote about godwits and what they have to teach us in Diet for a Warm Planet).

But it's still really rare to find a bird tagged on one end of its migration at the other end. They're usually spotted back where they were banded. The WCS researchers also found two other long-distance flyers, a Banded Dunlin and a Semipalmated Sandpiper, marked and released three years ago as part of a study testing whether birds overwintering in Asia carry H5N1 Avian Influenza to North America. The answer so far: No.

Extinction Kills Whole Taxonomic Families

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 7:29 PM EDT

The BBC reports how whole "chunks of life" are lost in extinction events when related species vanish together. That's based on a new paper in Science analyzing the extinction rates of fossil marine bivalves (clams, oysters, mussels) from the past 200 million years.

Turns out that extinctions tend to cluster along evolutionary lineages, wiping out species with a common ancestor and eliminating entire branches of the evolutionary tree. One researcher called it a casino of extinctions with the odds rigged against certain groups. The same is happening to modern species. For instance, the same drivers—climatic change and habitat loss—are now threatening whole groups of seabirds. This new understanding could enable more effective conservation efforts faster.

Friday Frog Blog: News From Costa Rica to the UK

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 5:05 PM EDT

We'll keep it short and sweet:

  • In Costa Rica, a new species of frog was discovered. And their colors are extraordinary.
  • In Surrey, England, theives stole a painting of a frog sitting on a toilet from a gallery.

Clearly it's been a slow news week, which just may be a good thing. Oh, and we cleaned our frog/fish/snail tank out for the first time in a month. Everyone is alive and well. Cheers!

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Should Beef Be Used As Biofuel?

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Just when you thought biofuel couldn't get any more contentious, bam, it totally did. Are you ready for this? Tesco, a UK-based retailer, sells 5,000 tons of expired meat a year to biofuel companies, which turn it into energy. How many cows is that? About 80. Vegans and animal rights activists are up in arms. Here's why.

Five thousand tons of expired meat took 148,000,000 pounds of carbon to raise. Sure, doing something with all that expired meat is better than letting it rot in a landfill, but not growing it in the first place would mean a net savings in carbon, water, and energy, not to mention animal waste and pollution. This is one of the main arguments biofuel detractors make: Turn corn or soy into a biofuel, and more people will go hungry. Turn meat into a biofuel? Well, that's pretty much the worst idea ever.

Green College Guide

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 11:09 AM EDT

If you’re as skeptical of US News & World Report’s college lists as I am, you might want to take a look at a different way of ranking colleges: The College Sustainability Report Card. The 2009 edition was recently released, and the evaluators report some encouraging news: Two out of three schools improved their overall grade between 2008 and 2009. More than four in five schools improved from 2007 to 2009. CSRC evaluates schools on a host of criteria, including energy use, dining hall food sourcing, recycling, green building, endowment transparency, and investment priorities.

Like any college ranking system, the CSRC has its flaws. One that bugs me: Since only colleges with endowments of $160 million or more were considered, some smaller schools with excellent environmental programs (such as those in the Eco League) were left out. It’s a shame, since these schools are small and nimble, they often have the flexibility to implement new ideas more quickly than big colleges. (Some progress: When I blogged about this problem in 2007, the Report Card evaluated only the 200 best endowed schools in the US; now it considers the top 300.)

List of “overall sustainability leaders” (colleges that were graded A-, the highest grade the evaluators gave out) after the jump.




 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday August 6

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 5:41 AM EDT

Granny Conspiracy: Who's behind misinformation that the Dems' healthcare reform will kill olds? Kevin Drum and James Ridgeway explain.

Ants in the Pants Syndrome: Is Restless Leg Syndrome real, or a Big Pharma invention?

Chemical Switch: The EPA may be revising its position on perchlorates in water.

Polar Bear Soup: By 2070, the Arctic could be a polluted soup, scientists say. [New Scientist]

Obama's New Tactic: Obama's campaign organization gets fired up about healthcare.

Public Enemy: Insurance companies might like the likely-to-fail healthcare "co-ops" as alternatives to the public model.

Green Label: The USDA is proposing labels for products using renewable plant and animal sources. [Environmental News Network]

DEET Is Neurotoxic

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 8:04 PM EDT

DEET, the stuff in insect repellants that actually works for more than 12 minutes, is toxic to the central nervous system.

DEET was thought to be just a behavior-modifying chemical. But it turns out it also inhibits a key central nervous system enzyme in both insects and mammals. The paper's in BMC Biology.

French researchers found that DEET inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme—the same mode of action used by organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. Translation: the really bad kind.

The researchers suggest more investigations are urgently needed to confirm or dismiss any potential neurotoxicity to humans—especially when DEET is used in combination with other neurotoxic insecticides. I think it often is.

DEET was created for the US Army in 1946 and is still the most common ingredient in bug juice preparations. Despite its widespread use, controversies remain concerning both the identification of its target sites at the molecular level and its mechanism of action in insects.

The official DEET site is not biting on this one.

Neither is the CDC. Yet. According to their fact sheet, 30 percent of Americans use DEET products yearly.

Personally, I've used gallons of this stuff over the years, working in malarial, mosquitoey places. Never felt good about it. The way it dissolves plastic is unnerving.