Blue Marble - November 2009

Eco-News Roundup: Monday November 16

| Mon Nov. 16, 2009 7:13 AM EST

News on health and the environment from our other blogs and elsewhere.

Public v. Private: Public option would save money, but not for private insurance.

Off Season: Melting Bolivian glacier leaves famous ski resort out of the cold. [Environmental News Network]

Stewing on Stupak: Stupak could be even worse than initially thought.

Record Highs: New report shows there were twice as many record highs than lows in past decade. [LiveScience]

Top Dogs: Goldman Sachs and others are speculating on healthcare reform.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Econundrum: 5 Houseplants That Clean Your Air

| Mon Nov. 16, 2009 5:55 AM EST

Anyone who's tried to decorate an apartment on a budget knows that houseplants are great: They're cheap. You can buy 'em at the supermarket. And many are remarkably independent. Plop a philodendron down basically anywhere, and voila: instant hominess.

Another houseplant plus: They can clean your air. A team of horticulturists at the University of Georgia recently tested 28 common houseplants to see how well they removed volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—noxious chemicals found in paints, glues, cleaners, and other things around the home—from indoor air. They found that most of the plants tested filtered at least some of the chemicals. The plants themselves do some of the work through photosynthesis, but their soil helps, too, says Bodie Pennisi, a University of Georgia horticulture professor who was involved with the study. "During the day the plant does it; during the night‚ tiny soil organisms remove gases when the plant is not as active."

The five species listed below were the all-around top scorers; they excelled at removing all the chemicals tested.


1. English Ivy English Ivy (Hedera helix)
Great for: a-Pinene (found in wood cleaners)
2. Purple Heart Plant Purple Heart Plant (Tradescantia pallida)
Great for:
toluene (found in kerosene, heating oil, paints, and lacquers)
3. Asparagus Fern Asparagus Fern (Asparagus densiflorus)
Great for: a-Pinene (found in wood cleaners)
4. Wax Plant Wax Plant (Hoya carnosa)
Great for: octane (found in paint, adhesives, and building materials)
5. Purple Waffle Purple Waffle (Hemigraphis alternata)
Great for:
benzene (found in glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents, and cigarette smoke); trichloroethylene (also known as TCE; found in adhesives, paint removers, and spot removers)

El Nino Surfs Again

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 8:31 PM EST

Hold onto your surfboards, El Niño is experiencing a late-fall resurgence. A recent weakening of tradewinds in the western and central equatorial Pacific triggered a strong eastward wave of warm water known as a Kelvin wave. It's headed to South America.

You can see the wave in the red-and-white line marking an area of sealevel in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific standing 4 to 7 inches higher than normal. That's the result of heat expansion where sea surface temperatures have risen 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

In contrast, the western equatorial Pacific is experiencing lower than normal temperatures, with sealevels 3 to 6 inches below normal. You can see that in the blue and purple areas.

The image was created with data collected by a US/French Space Agency satellite (the Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason-2 oceanography satellite) during 10 days this month.

Forecast: Everything gets wilder.
 

What Are We Waiting For?

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 7:47 PM EST

Leader People, watch this. Listen. Try it.

Then do the right thing at Copenhagen. It's all a dance: diplomacy, negotiations, compromise, agreement.

But first you gotta get on the dance floor.

 

 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday November 13

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:32 PM EST

Blue Marble-ish news from our other blogs, and around the net.

Hold Everyone: Senate has a habit of placing "holds" on nominees whose views they oppose.

Media Fix: In the wake of Ft. Hood, the media is talking about PTSD, but how prevalent is it?

Preserving Relation: Sen. David Vitter loves formaldehyde, holds up Obama EPA nominee.

No Deal: Clinton says US won't make binding decision at Copenhagen. [Yahoo News]

Healthcare Battle: Thousands of veterans are dying because they can't access healthcare.

Climate Scare: Lawyer is raising money to avert Obama climate deal "disaster."

Super Rat: Scientists made a rat super-smart, but say it's dangerous for humans. [National Geographic]

Time Out: Sen. Lindsay Graham gets flack from Repubs for working with Dems on climate.

Market Cap: Sen. Maria Cantwell offers a cap-and-dividend alternative for climate bill.

Mis-Quote: Coal front group ACCCE in trouble for misrepresenting veterans's views.

Delisted: Brown pelican flies off the endangered species list. [Los Angeles Times]

Baby Snips: Maclaren strollers recalled for cutting off fingers, parents aren't freaked out.

 

 

Elephant Liberation: Step One

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 10:10 PM EST

The BBC reports the Central Zoo Authority in India has confirmed that zoos and circuses in the country will no longer be allowed to keep elephants.

That is good news. According to the BBC:

A spokesman for the authority said a binding directive had been issued by the authority for the animals to be sent to national parks and sanctuaries. It is estimated that there are about 140 elephants in zoos and circuses… The CZA says circus and zoo elephants can play an important eco-tourism role in national parks and animal sanctuaries, where they can be properly supervised by mahouts—or elephant handlers.

This doesn't free working elephants but it does promise to liberate those in cages or under the big top. I trust these transitions from captivity to pseudofreedom will be made as humanely and elephantely as possible.
 

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Greenland Melting Faster

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 9:32 PM EST

Just in time for Copenhagen, here's another shot of data to bust the policy clots preventing a meaningful agreement. According to a new study in Science, the Greenland ice sheet is loosing mass at an accelerating rate. The reason is twofold:

  • First, from increased iceberg production driven by acceleration of Greenland’s fast-flowing outlet glaciers. (I've blogged on the mechanisms of this several times.)
  • Second, from increased meltwater production on the ice sheet surface. (I've blogged on this mechanism too.)

The Greenland ice sheet contains enough water to cause a global sea level rise of 23 feet. Since 2000 it's added to a global sea level rise of ~0.02 inch a year, for 0.2 inch total.

Recent warm summers between 2006 and 2008 accelerated the loss, adding 0.03 inches to the global sea level rise a year.

Jonathan Bamber, an author on the paper, told the U of Bristol:

"It is clear from these results that mass loss from Greenland has been accelerating since the late 1990s and the underlying causes suggest this trend is likely to continue in the near future."

Now combine the Greenland meltwater with melting elsewhere in the Arctic and, increasingly, the Antarctic, plus thermal expansion of the warming ocean... combine with my blog from yesterday—about Europe freezing over in the span of a few months the last time the Northern Hemisphere saw a vast dump of freshwater into the Arctic and North Atlantic—and, well, it could get Biblical on us.
 

News From TreeHugger: White House Food Policy, Climate Fasting & Malaria-Proof Wallpaper

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 8:00 AM EST

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

7 Highlights (and a Few Lowlights) in Food Since President Obama Was Elected

Just about one year ago, Barack Obama was elected to be the 44th President of the United States. Proclaiming change across the board, Obama swept in to office on a wave of hope and optimism for millions of people, and his mandate for change created some pretty high expectations for fast, meaningful change. Those passionate about food, food safety, and the politics of safe and sustainable food production were certainly among those counting on the President to put his presidency where his promise had been. A year later, this is where we're at.

Will the Climate Bill Grant Obama the Powers of Dictator?

No, no, it won't. I wish this could be a one-word post, but unfortunately, I think I'll have to do some explaining. You see, in one of the odder charges against the now-bipartisan climate bill, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has taken to saying that it will arm Obama with the powers of a dictator. This, of course, is not the case, but that never stopped these bizarre mutterings from developing into full-fledged talking points.

IEA Whistleblowers Say World Oils Stats Deliberately Inflated to Avoid Financial Panic, Appease the US

World oil reserves are far lower than officially reported, the situation far more serious than publicly admitted, and we're already past peak oil. That's the word from two anonymous IEA whistleblowers. To add insult to industry, the figures were deliberately massaged, at least in part, to appease the United States. Somehow this all seems painfully expected.

Will "Green Religion" Save Us or Sink Us?

To me environmentalism is anything but a matter of faith, but rather a question of sound scientific understanding that material resources. And since the Earth's ability to support life is limited it's in our own self interest to live within our planetary means. But it proves how much attention I've been paying to headlines as a UK court has determined that belief in global warming is indeed akin to a religious or philosophical conviction. Depending on who you talk to, this could either be good for environmentalism, or very, very bad indeed.

Pesticide-Soaked 'Wallpaper' Cuts Malaria Exposure, Safer Than Spraying

To lower mosquito exposure in malaria-prone places there are two basic pesticide use strategies. The half-century old approach is to spray entire towns, as well as the surrounding countryside, with a pesticide such as DDT or pyrethrin. Now comes news of promising results from field trials of carbamate-impregnated polypropylene, non-woven fabric or "sheeting" as it is being called. We're not talking Ralph Lauren wallpaper over drywall...

Climate Justice Fast Begins - Hunger Strike Continues Through End of COP15 Conference

Calling it a "moral response to an immoral situation" and drawing inspiration from social justice luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the organizers of Climate Justice Fast, and a growing list of 150+ supporters from around the world, have begun a hunger strike to last through the end of the COP15 climate change conference on December 18th. Fasters will subsist on water alone for more than 40 days.

Ice Age Froze Europe In Months

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 8:58 PM EST

Freako-frakkin-nomics notwithstanding, climate change is a thing of violent swiftness. New research indicates it took only months for Europe to freeze solid 12,800 years ago.

The most precise analysis yet of the onset of the "Big Freeze" reveals that Europe froze not in a decade—as previously thought from analysis of Greenland ice cores—but in less than 12 months.

The Big Freeze was triggered by the slowdown of the Gulf Stream. It terminated the Clovis culture, the dominant culture in North America at the time. Once triggered, the cold persisted for 1,300 years.

New Scientist reports on the research of William Patterson of the U of Saskatchewan whose group studied a mud core from ancient Lough Monreagh in Ireland, slicing layers 0.5 to 1 millimeter thick to study three-month intervals. No prior measurements from this period have approached such fine detail.

Turns out, at the start of the Big Freeze temperatures plummeted and lake productivity ceased within months or a year at most. Patterson presented the findings at the BOREAS conference in Finland. According to him (via New Scientist):

"It would be like taking Ireland today and moving it up to Svalbard."

We know the Big Freeze was triggered when a glacial lake covering most of northwest Canada burst its banks and poured into the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, diluting oceanic salinity (I wrote of fears of this in MoJo's The Fate of the Ocean) and rerouting the oceanic currents that deliver climate to the Northern Hemisphere:

Two studies published in 2006 show that the same thing happened again 8,200 years ago, when the Northern hemisphere went through another cold spell. Some climate scientists have suggested that the Greenland ice sheet could have the same effect if it suddenly melts through climate change, but the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded this was unlikely to happen this century.

Well, that's out of date. We already know Greenland is turning to slush frighteningly fast.

Patterson's team have now set their sights on even more precise records of historical climate. They have built a robot able to shave 0.05 micrometer slivers along the growth lines of fossilized clam shells, giving a resolution of less than a day. "We can get you mid-July temperatures from 400 million years ago," he says.

Hey, Barack Obama, you know, The Day After Tomorrow could happen after all. On your watch. One season all balmy in the Northern Hemisphere. The next a frozen hell. Sure you don't want to go to Copenhagen before the glaciers block your route?
 

Your DNA = $$$

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 6:40 AM EST

It's been a great couple years for the personal genomics company 23andMe: an Oprah appearance, a Invention of the Year accolade from Time magazine. But despite all the good press, last month the news turned sour: it was confirmed that 23andMe had laid off employees due to the economic downturn. "This was a very difficult decision," a company statement read, "but one that we felt was necessary to achieve 23andMe's long-term business development goals and maintain our strength in the industry."

Which begs the question: What exactly are those "long-term business development goals" for 23andMe, and indeed for the nascent personal genomics industry as a whole?

The genomics companies claim their goal to help us live longer, better lives; to understand what diseases we're predisposed to; and to better prepare for the future. But as Shannon Brownlee, author of the award-winning book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, writes in the November/December print issue of Mother Jones, this selling point isn't what these companies are actually after. What they really want is your genetic data for large-scale research; in their hands, that data can be sold to researchers and Big Pharma to develop new medications—and for much more than peddling personal tests. "We are the broker," 23andMe cofounder Linda Avey tells Brownlee. "We make the connection between [the drug firms] and the individuals."

Consumers can plunk down as much as $68,500 on one of these tests. But as Brownlee points out, in many instances the data they get back isn't even all that useful—or accurate. The personal genomics field is still in its infancy; even 23andMe mentions in its genetic reports that its findings shouldn't be used by doctors for prescriptions. Actual, useful data is years, even decades away, she writes, though that won't stop these services from cashing in on your DNA in the meantime.