Blue Marble - January 2010

Cute Endangered Animal: Red Wolf

| Tue Jan. 26, 2010 8:10 AM EST

While much has been published about the Department of Interior's dealings with the grey wolf, the red wolf has gotten much less attention. The red wolf (canis rufus) has been in North America since the end of the ice age, and is one of only two wolf species on the continent. For most of the last century, the red wolf lived in the southeastern part of the US, feeding on small mammals like mice and raccoons and taking down the occasional deer. Although red wolves are fearful of humans and generally only hunt at dawn and dusk, they did eat some livestock and by the 1960s, predator eradication programs and loss of habitat had reduced the red wolf populations significantly.

Despite being listed as endangered species in 1973, by 1980 there were only 17 known remaining red wolves and the species was declared extinct in the wild. However, captive breeding programs have been successful and there are now about 200 wolves in captivity and 100 individuals in the wild.  In 2008 the red wolf had a major victory as citizens and activists defeated the Navy's plan to construct an airstrip through its protected habitat inside a North Carolina wildlife refuge. Currently, there are about 20 packs of red wolves living in North Carolina, the only state known to have a wild population of the animals.

One of the key threats to the red wolf is interbreeding with coyotes, a problem which biologists have attacked in various ways, such as sterilizing coyote-wolf couples and their hybrid offspring. Another approach is to secure red wolf-only packs, allowing the wolves to defend their own territory (and thus their genetic diversity, the thought goes) from outside predators like coyotes. This program could be modeled after the example of grey wolves: after grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, they killed nearly half the park's coyote population in just a few years and will kill any coyotes that invade their pack's territory. If the example of the grey wolf is any indication, wolves are resilient and recovery is possible, but just cause you make it off the endangered species list, doesn't mean you're out of the woods.

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Big Waves Rising Faster than Sea Level

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:52 PM EST

The biggest waves in the Pacific Northwest are getting bigger. So are the smaller waves.

A new assessment of offshore data from Oregon and Washington finds the annual average heights of deep-water waves have increased since the mid-1970s—with both the low waves of summer and the highest storms waves of winter growing yearly.

Consequently the 100 year wave for this region just grew form a 33-foot wave to a 46-foot wave: a 40 percent rise. Furthermore, the really highest waves possible in the 100-year-event cycle are likely to rise above 55 feet, according to research published in Coastal Engineering.

Worse, the impacts of these storm waves will dwarf the impacts expected from sea level rise in coming decades.

I wrote about this phenomenon in MoJo's All the Disappearing Islands in regards to the people of the Pacific islands nation of Tuvalu. Long before they're actually drowned, low-lying islands and coastlines will become uninhabitable from periodic inundation by storm waves.

In the Pacific Northwest, increasing wave heights have already wrought three times more havoc from erosion, flooding, and coastal damage than is expected from sea level rise in the next few decades.

Add sea level rise to growing wave heights you get a seriously accelerated impact on coastlines.

The most likely cause? Global climate change, say the researchers—who note similarly rising wave heights in the North Atlantic, plus a rising in the total power generated by hurricanes yearly.

So for those who think a 1.5-degree F global temperature rise is inconsequential, here are a few of the deadly inconsequences.
 

The Government's Deadly Mustang Round-Ups

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:35 PM EST

Few charges have earned such unanimous support as America's wild horses. A grassroots movement was the catalyst for the 1971 law designating mustangs as "living symbols" of the West, protecting them from being hunted, captured, or otherwise harassed. Since then, government attempts to control the horses' lives have been hotly contested. Unfortunately for horse lovers, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) only sets aside so much land for wild horses to roam. So when horses multiply so that that their allotted land's resources are depleted (and their designated habitat has been decreased by 30% since 1971) the BLM rounds up the "excess" horses and puts them out in government pastures.

Given the horses reduced habitat, it's unsurprising that when the BLM started an aggressive round-up this year, equine advocates were hopping mad. Most recently, they allege that round-ups in Nevada have run nine horses to death. But as Michael Behar writes in the "The Mustang Redemption" from the current issue of Mother Jones (on newsstands now), these animals have few options. Unlike the 3 million cattle foraging public lands, the 33,000 wild mustangs on the range have no owners to pay the BLM for grazing rights. And there are nearly as many wild horses being kept in government pens as there are outside: feeding and caring for penned horses costs nearly $30 million a year, and is projected to more than double in two years.

What We Don't Know About Global Warming

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:45 PM EST

Climate skeptics like to say that there's still plenty of room for debate over the science of global warming. When it comes to the phenomenon itself, they're wrong: Scientific consensus solidly affirms the fact that the planet is warming, largely thanks to human activity. We know that the glaciers are still melting and that the last decade was warmest on record. But it's true that there are still some major holes in the science. The latest issue of Nature identifies four key areas where much more research is needed:

Regional climate forecasts: Most climate modeling is geared toward assessing global effects of rising temperatures, and aren't as well suited for looking at local and regional variability and impacts. Planning for climate adaptation requires better understanding of those local differences, making it crucial to develop better tools for assessing them.

Precipitation forecasts: Rising global temperatures are expected to increase evaporation and speed up the global hydrological cycle, which will increase droughts in subtropical areas and precipitation in areas of higher latitudes. But models are bad at predicting much more than that, and they don't do a very good job of even accounting for how much precipitation patterns have already changed.

Aerosols: Another major uncertainty in climate science are airborne liquid and solid particles–things like sulphates, black carbon, sea salt and dust. It's not clear how and to what extent they influence temperature and rainfall, in large part because there's not that much data about what exactly is floating around in our atmosphere. The general understanding is that the aerosols cool the climate by blocking sunlight, but some aerosols like black carbon actually absorb sunlight and increase warming. Thus, the net effect is unclear.

Palaeoclimate data: There aren't reliable thermometer records prior to 1850, so scientists must look to other sources of evidence on historical temperatures, like tree rings, sediment in lakes, stalagmites, and glacial movement. While the preponderance of the evidence across those data sources shows clear warming trends, there remains a lively debate about the appropriate use and interpretation of proxies.

The Nature paper notes that it is extremely difficult for scientists to discuss these areas when they don't yet have the right tools. The climate change denial machine—which takes any level of uncertainty as an excuse to dismiss climate change entirely—has made it nearly impossible for scientists to discuss uncertainties in what is already a complex and highly technical field. And that machine is actively undermining scientists' ability to address these holes in the research. "This climate of suspicion we're working in is insane," said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. "It's drowning our ability to soberly communicate gaps in our science."

Texas Spill: Oil and Water Still Don't Mix

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:07 PM EST

Up to 11,000 barrels of oil spilled into a Texas waterway over the weekend, the largest spill in the state in nearly two decades. The spill, from a hole in the side of the 807-foot tanker Eagle Otome, happened in Port Arthur, where the state's petroleum and shipping industries meet. The incident is expected to close the Sabine-Neches Waterway—which is used to transport oil to four Texas refineries—for at least five days. In a healthy dose of irony, the Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce's motto is, "Where oil and water mix, beautifully."

The spill comes as Congress ponders passing an energy/climate bill that's expected to include some expansion of offshore drilling in the United States. Indeed, it may be the inclusion of more drilling that gives that bill a fighting chance of passage this year. Republican supporter Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and a number of moderate Democrats have voiced desire for expanded drilling, and the White House has floated drilling as part of a "grand bargain" to get something passed. The Senate framework from Graham, John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) includes drilling provisions. Even many environmental groups have now accepted that additional drilling will likely be necessary as part of a compromise to get a cap on carbon dioxide.

Proponents of drilling often tout how environmentally friendly their practices are these days. But Saturday's spill is a healthy reminder that no matter what you do to oil, there's nothing very green about it.

Econundrum: 5 Handi-Wipes or Hot Shower?

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 6:50 AM EST

This question comes by way of Mother Jones board member Jon Pageler, who's currently helping with the relief effort in Haiti, where water is in short supply. But I've heard of folks taking waterless showers in non-emergency situations, too. Last year, for example, People reported that that Brad Pitt sometimes cleans up with baby wipes. Granted, Pitt does it to save time between scene changes on the set. But considering that showers comprise 17 percent of indoor residential water use in the US, could bathing with wipes be better for the planet, too?

Probably not, says Jonathan Kaledin, a water conservation expert at the Nature Conservancy. "You have to consider all the water it takes to make the handi-wipes," says Kaledin. "The wipes, the chemicals—it all adds up." The Water Footprint Network, a water conservation nonprofit based in the Netherlands, estimates that growing the wood to make a single sheet of paper requires 2.6 gallons of water. That's already 13.2 gallons for 5 sheets of paper—and that's just the wood. By the time you figure in the water costs associated with the manufacture of the paper, producing the solution the wipes are soaked in, and packaging and shipping the wipes, you're looking at significantly more water (and energy, for that matter) than a five-minute shower, which, if you're using a low-flow showerhead, requires only about 10 gallons of water.

Under extenuating circumstances—disasters that jeopardize water supply, or even regional droughts—wipes might still be a better choice, says Kaledin. But as a general rule, a short shower is a better bet than wipes. Especially if you bathe efficiently: Keep the heat down to save energy. Turn the water off while you soap up. And if you haven't already installed a low-flow shower head, do it now—it'll save as much as 15 gallons of water per shower, not to mention moola on your water bill.

Shopping tip: Showerheads bearing the EPA's WaterSense label are about 20 percent more efficient than their conventional counterparts.

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About Those Himalayan Glaciers ...

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 5:46 PM EST

Climate skeptics are frothing at the mouth over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's admission this week that it relied on inadequate source material when it claimed in its annual report that the Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035. But while this assessment may have been an exaggeration, it doesn't change the fact that the glaciers are melting—and fast. 

The IPCC's 2007 report stated that, "Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."

But it turns out this claim comes from a 2005 report from the World Wildlife Fund, which was in turn based on a quote from a glacier specialist in a 1999 article in The New Scientist. Even worse, the glacier specialist says he was misquoted. While he did say that the glaciers are on the decline, he says he never offered a firm date for their demise. He also said he was referring only to the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas, not the entire mountain range. 

It's bad enough that the IPCC bungled such a key fact wrong. But more problematic is the relevation that the IPCC's judgement on the glaciers was not based on peer-reviewed research and was not properly vetted. Instead, it apparently hinged on a report from an environmental group that rested on a single quote in a decade-old magazine article. The IPCC has acknowledged in a statement that the claim was "poorly substantiated" and that "well-established standards of evidence were not applied properly." Christopher Field, co-chairman of the panel subgroup responsible for the report, said that the IPCC "considers this a very serious issue and we’re working very hard to set the record straight as soon as we can."

Still, this episode doesn't change the fact that a) the majority of the world's glaciers are retreating b) in the foreseeable future, we will witness significant decline of glaciers around the world and c) man-made emissions are causing this to happen. The World Glacier Monitoring Service's 2005 global survey of 442 glaciers found that 398 of them were declining.

"Over the last 30 years I've watched many glaciers shrink in South America. But it's not just isolated to that continent—it's happening globally in Europe, North America, China, and the Himalayas. More than 90 percent of the world's glaciers are receding," said Lonnie Thompson, a research scientist and glaciologist at Ohio State University, in a statement this week. And according to a 2008 study co-authored by Thompson, the Himalayas appear to be warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

So while the IPCC's error is embarrassing, it doesn't change the fact that human activity threatens to melt most of the world's glaciers in the not-so-distant future—just not quite as soon as this particular report claimed.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 22

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Enough Already: Some are wishing both sides would just shut up and pass healthcare already.

I, Avatar: Kids these days spend nearly every waking moment on electronics.

Gassing Up: More senators, including Democrats, backing Murkowski's anti-EPA bill.

iCry: Don't know what your baby's cries mean? There's an app for that. [LiveScience]

Starting Over: Scott Brown's imminent win is no reason to start from scratch on healthcare.

Bad Odds: Even Rep. Pelosi doesn't think passing healthcare bill is likely anytime soon.

Little Tobacco: Tobacco plants evade caterpillars by switching to bird pollinators. [ScienceBlogs]

Plan B: If Murkowski's anti-EPA GHG regulation bill passes, businesses plan to sue.

Chilly Reception: Enviro groups are running ads in Alaska about Murkowski's fossil fuel buddies.

Fantasy World: A lobbyist is pushing coal use as "green" and a way to do the Lord's work.

Water World: Californians may not like rain, but it'll help their record drought. [PlanetArk]

Working Together: Republicans know the power of "no," but do Democrats?

Now or Never: Dems can either try to push healthcare through now, or piecemeal later.

Nose for Oil: Shell's new technology might be able to "sniff" out oil deposits. [Forbes]

One Man's Trash: Garbage-pickers in Cairo are losing their livelihoods to modern equipment.

 

 

Last Decade Warmest on Record

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 10:07 PM EST

The Noughties were hotter than anything ever measured. Plus, according to NASA's latest analysis of global surface temperatures, 2009 was tied for the second warmest since 1880. In the Southern Hemisphere, it was the warmest year on record.

Apparently 2008 confused a lot of people. It was the coolest year of the decade because a strong La Nina was cooling the tropical Pacific Ocean. Via NASA:

"There's always interest in the annual temperature numbers and a given year's ranking, but the ranking often misses the point," says James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "There's substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Nino-La Nina cycle. When we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find global warming is continuing unabated."

Modern monitoring began in 1880. A clear warming trend has been present ever since, although temps leveled off briefly between the 1940s and 1970s.

In the last three decades, the surface temps have increased ~0.36 degrees F (0.2 degrees C) per decade. In total, average global temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees F (0.8 degrees C) since 1880.

The year 2009 nearly busted the hottest-year-on-record record—despite an unusually cold December in much of North America. The conditions that made North America so cold however warmed the Arctic above normal. James Hansen explains via NASA:

"The contiguous 48 states cover only 1.5 percent of the world area, so the United States' temperature does not affect the global temperature much."

Too bad the United States' political temperature does affect global temperature so much. Between the Republican Senate win in Massachusetts, and today's Supreme Court ruling on corporate campaign funding, expect the Teens to get even hotter.
 

News From TreeHugger: Appalachian Coal's Decline, Easy Nuclear Winter, and Rising Utility Rates

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 9:00 AM EST

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

Appalachian Coal Set for Big Decline, Protests & High Profile Debates or Not

Regardless of the outcome of high profile public debate—viz Waterkeeper Bobby Kennedy Jr v. Dirty Coal Don Blankenship smackdown tomorrow night at the University of Charleston—or vehement protest from the likes of youth activists to seasoned scientists, Appalachian coal is set for big declines in the coming decades due to market and legislative forces. That's the word from Downstream Strategies' latest report. The solution? Diversify now.

Nuclear Winter: Now Easier to Trigger Than Ever (In Short: We'd Be F#%^ed)

Nuclear weapons are the gift that keeps on giving. We knew they were horrible from the very start, but over the following decades we kept discovering new reasons why they are bad: In the early 1980s, more and more studies showed that a nuclear winter was probable, and this probably helped cool down the cold war. More recently, a study showed that even a small regional nuclear war could create the mother of all ozone holes. But now we learn that even a small regional nuclear war could create our worst nightmare, a nuclear winter lasting about 10 years (!).

Let the Electric Bill Outrage Begin: As a Two-Month Cold Snap Overlaps Disappearing Utility Rate Cap

Electricity bills are rising steeply all over the USA. In some of the most coal-dependent states, increases are in the 7% to 100% range, and signs of consumer outrage are surfacing. This is before any Cap & Trade for climate protection. A major contributing factor is deregulation of the power industry, initiated by Congress in the free-market fervor of the mid-90's, which called for post-dated phase out of electricity 'rate caps' a.k.a. removal of price controls.

How 40 Endangered Sea Eagles Bring in $3 Million a Year to a Small Scottish Island

Endangered sea eagles have been making a slow but distinct recovery in recent years. The awe-inspiring bird has been successfully breeding in the wild after 25 years of aid from conservationists. While this is certainly good news for the imperiled species, it's also proved to be quite a boon to the Scottish island of Mull, which is home to nearly half of Scotland's sea eagle population--thanks to interest in the eagles and the birds' recovery, Mull is raking in over $3 million annually in a flourishing tourist industry. This is an encouraging figure, because it provides an ideal model of conservation and tourism coexisting happily, and one where there's a distinct monetary benefit for successful conservation.